All kinds of warning lights are flashing on the dashboard, and the front bumper is mostly held together with duct tape. Chelsey and I are driving my cousin’s car through the Catskills, searching for a trail that leads to an abandoned hotel at the top of a mountain. It’s supposed to be crumbling and overgrown, a long-ago meeting place for communists.
It’s getting late, but we figure we have time to hike out, see this thing, and get back to the car by sundown.
The GPS has us turn up a narrow, dirt path that circles the mountain in a steady ascent. We tell ourselves all the private property signs are probably just more abandoned relics from a bygone age. Soon, there’s a sheer drop to our right and jagged walls of rock to our left. The car trembles as we gain altitude. It feels like there’s an earthquake under our asses.
“Didn’t your friend come here once?” I ask. “She mention anything about this?”
“Not that I remember.” Chelsey’s chin juts forward with determination, and her red hair is filled with dying sunlight.
Last week, while we ate dinner on the floor in front of the TV, the demons above us in 3B got into another scuffle. Flakes rained from the ceiling as they tumbled around up there, screaming at each other, “I’ll kill you this time. I’ll kill you!” We don’t have the money to move, and they’ve already declared war on some of the other tenants in our building who’ve complained, so our tactic is to huddle down and turn up the volume. “This city has been closing in around us for a long time now,” Chelsey had said. “It’s starting to feel like I can’t even stand up anymore. What the hell is left here for us anyway?”
“We are,” I’d replied.
This afternoon, when the hot water turned off unexpectedly for the fifth time this year, we came up with our last-minute Catskill Mountains escape plan.
We go round and round, creeping up the exposed path at a crawl. Big houses appear now and then on our left, each with chunky-tired, tough-looking vehicles parked on long, rugged driveways. This is no place for a borrowed, beat-up Nissan Versa hatchback.
“This must be a mistake,” I say.
“You think everything is a mistake. Relax for once.”
I turn on the radio. The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music” is playing.
The path bends to the right and then slopes upwards at what seems like a seventy-degree angle.
“No way,” I yell over the Doobie Brothers.
“No way are we making it up this thing.”
“We’ll be fine,” Chelsey says.
And for a short while, we are.
But then the car comes to a rumbling standstill about twenty feet before the path levels out. Up ahead, there’s another one of those long driveways leading to a house that’s all wood and windows with a big balcony overlooking the green treetops and thin, wormy roads below. A man in a silk robe watches us from that balcony. We’re churning up explosions of dust and rocks, not making any progress. Chelsey hits the brakes, but instead of stopping, we start rolling backwards. The gritty sound of dirt against wheels pierces through the music.
Chelsey’s eyes widen. “I don’t like this, I don’t like this,” she says.
I tell her to give it some gas, which she does, but we’re still losing momentum. And the curve in the path below is too sharp to navigate backwards without any traction.
I notice a small, snowflake-like chip near the top right corner of the windshield, and beyond that, the blood-bright leaves of a distant red oak waving in the breeze as if to say, “Bye-bye, dummies!”
I’m struck with the possible reality of us leaping from the car seconds before it plummets down the rock face. This is not an option. The speed of life returns as I realize that no one is going to save us except us.
I jump out, slide down into the cloud of debris, and throw everything I have at the rear bumper. Pebbles ricochet off my skull. With the bitter taste of dirt and dust in my mouth, I yell, “Floor it.”
The man in the robe is gone so I figure he’s on his way over to help. I’m thinking, If this thing goes over with Chelsey inside, I’m jumping after it. Then I realize I’d probably be crushed before I even got the chance to jump.
I attack the car with everything I’ve got as The Brothers continue to belt it out. Even on the verge of physical and financial disaster, some part of my mind is still cognizant of how good this song is.
I give one more big push. Blood surges through my small frame. My temples throb. “Come on you son of a bitch,” I yell. Then the engine roars and the car blasts off like a Roman candle. Chelsey cuts to the left just in time, skidding to a halt at a strange angle across the man’s driveway. I scurry up after it.
Chelsey stares straight ahead, still gripping the wheel. I reach through the window and turn off the music. The man is back on his balcony, but now he’s got a mug.
“You OK?” I ask Chelsey.
“Yeah,” she says. “You?” She places her clean hand over my filthy one.
The man sips whatever’s in his mug.
“Fuckin’ guy would have just casually watched us fly off the mountain,” I say. “Not this time, buddy.” I pat our car’s scalding hood. “Not this time.”
“Now what?” Chelsey asks. “GPS says the trailhead is only ten minutes up that way.”
“The only thing up that way is certain death.”
“That’s it then? After all this?” she says, but I can tell she agrees. We’re done here.
“Want me to drive?”
She climbs across the center console to the passenger seat.
“Hope you enjoyed the show,” I say to the man before getting in.
He makes no indication that he hears me, but as I buckle up and shift to reverse, he raises his mug to us and nods.
I pull out of the driveway, and we begin our sliding descent down the path, past the boulders and out of the woods, back to our world of nightmare neighbors and crumbling ceilings and shitty jobs. But we still have rolling wheels and a working engine and oxygen in our lungs and bones that aren’t crushed. Things could be worse. Duct tape can work wonders, and we’re not finished yet.
Windows down, we watch the sun cut into the horizon and the sky burn orange.