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The Attraction of Asphalt
by Stefani Nellen

Mother and daughter drive up the switchbacks to the Heiligenberg to get spring water, because black tea tastes best with spring water. Plastic canisters tumble over on the backseat as the car takes the curves. The daughter, Martina, fingers her seatbelt. She imagines the canisters are alive, thirsty comic book monsters yearning for moisture.

The mother says, "If I told you to jump out of the car because we're going to have an accident, how fast could you do it?" She stares ahead, wrestles the steering wheel, muscles working under her tan skin.

"Come on," she says, "I want to know. If I said, jump out now, what would you do?"

Martina's hands grow hot. The heat travels up her arms, into her chest and tummy. "I donít know."

The mother pushes the accelerator. The switchbacks become narrower and steeper, like arrowheads pointing in a new direction each moment. One of the canisters falls to the floor. The mother's palms slap against the leather of the steering wheel. She blows a strand of hair from the corner of her mouth and accelerates more.

Martina says, "I'd open the door and jump out and protect my head."

The mother nods. "And don't forget the seat belt. Take it off first."

"I will."

"And jump away from the car. The door could hit you and push you under the car. You donít want that."

"No." Martina sweats. Sunrays flicker dangerous messages through the leaves. She imagines opening the door. Branches snap past. The air pulls the handle out of her hand. She jumps out. Asphalt and gravel tear at her skin. Tires screech. She can't imagine the sound of a car crashing into a tree. Do trees feel pain? Only if their roots are hurt. Otherwise, they grow new branches.

The mother says, "Ready?"

The seat belt buckle burns the girl's palm. The strap bites into the side of her neck. She tightens her grip on the buckle, puts her thumb on the release. "Ready."

"Good." The mother nods at the road, at the ghosts she sees. "Good. You need to be prepared."

The girl clutches the seatbelt, waits for her mother to yell, "Jump!" She waits curve after curve, all the way up the mountain, until mother pulls up next to the mountain spring and stops the engine and thuds her fists against the steering wheel once, twice.

After a while, the daughter lets go of the seatbelt. A red welt crosses her palm. She opens the door. The scent of moss and fresh buds seeps into the car. Birds chirp, and the nearby spring tinkles its quiet silver laughter. The hot engine settles with pings.

Mother and daughter fill the canisters. It hasnít rained for a long time, and the flow of the spring is weak. The mother carries four canisters at a time back to car. The water sloshes behind milky plastic. When they are done, she opens the door of their car and, one hand atop the door, the other on her hip, says, "Come!" Her cheekbones reflect the sun.

Martina pulls her fingertips out of the cool stream and walks around the car. She puts on her seat belt. The sound of the engine starting blocks out the birds and the mountain stream. Her mother's knuckles rest on the steering wheel, solid, symmetrical. As they zigzag their way down, the girl waits for the yell "Jump!" to erupt from her mother. She waits for the wheels to lose traction. She imagines the switchbacks leading back and forth, back and forth, and wonders whether, over the many days of water fetching, a direction will emerge from this, a road forward, an escape. She cups the seat belt buckle with her hand. She's prepared.

All content in SmokeLong Quarterly copyright 2003-2015 by its authors.

Stefani Nellen is a psychologist-turned-writer living in Pittsburgh and the Netherlands with her husband. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in VerbSap, Bound Off, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Cezanne's Carrot, FRiGG, and Apex Digest, among other places. She co-edits the Steel City Review.

Read the interview.
Issue Seventeen (June 15, 2007): Renoir Responds to Aline Charigotís Charges of Painting Her Ugly by Daniel Bailey «» Cymothoa Exigua by Christopher Battle «» Oblivious by Gary Cadwallader «» The Wedge in Between by Debbie Ann Eis «» One Purple Finch by Kathy Fish «» Clouds by James Hanley «» Mousafa's Woman by Kyle Hemmings «» First Night by Ric Jahna «» My Great-Aunt Meets Jesus at the Mobil Station in Montana by Stephanie Johnson «» Old Leningrad by Sandra Maddux-Creech «» Selective Memory by Mary McCluskey «» The Attraction of Asphalt by Stefani Nellen «» Of Potential by Jim Nelson «» Portrait of a Mother, Beforehand J.M. Patrick «» Midnight in Albuquerque by Tiffany Poremba «» Flatlining in the Edward G. Bellacosta Memorial Park by Jake Ruiter «» Prow by Claudia Smith «» I Know This Man; He is My Father. by Tavia Stewart «» In the Last Frame by Beth Thomas «» My First Two-Headed Boy by Veronica Thorn «» Interviews: Bob Arter «» Daniel Bailey «» Christopher Battle «» Gary Cadwallader «» Debbie Ann Eis «» Kathy Fish «» James Hanley «» Kyle Hemmings «» Ric Jahna «» Stephanie Johnson «» Sandra Maddux-Creech «» Mary McCluskey «» Stefani Nellen «» Jim Nelson «» J.M. Patrick «» Tiffany Poremba «» Jake Ruiter «» Claudia Smith «» Tavia Stewart «» Beth Thomas «» Veronica Thorn «» Cover Art "Peace in a Time of Monsters" by Marty D. Ison «» Letter From the Editor
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