The family car raced along a dusty Mexican highway. My mother always drove like she was auditioning for Death Race 2000. I stared at the bug-splattered windshield, while my younger sister and brother sat immobile in the back seat. We’d driven for many kilometers, searching for Veracruz, an idyllic beach town on the Gulf of Mexico. I wasn’t certain how far we’d traveled, since I was accustomed to measuring road trips in miles. The highway unwound in front of us like an endless black intestine.
“How long before we get to the Gulf?” my sister Ericka asked timidly from the back seat. “How would I know?” my mother responded. She glared at the road from her perch behind the wheel. The slick asphalt offered no clues. “We should have been there hours ago” she muttered. “Every goddamned thing on this road looks like every other thing. I can’t remember the last time I saw a sign.”
I squinted at the map. As a child, I’d envisioned Mexico as an enormous boot. This struck me as fitting, since their national sport was soccer. Right now, our family was somewhere near the heel. I had no other geographical clues to offer, however.
I peered out the window, but saw nothing except rocks and tree shadows. “Sooner or later we’ll arrive somewhere” I muttered. “I mean, we can’t drive forever, right?”
A pockmarked sign loomed in front of us. Its faded lettering read, “Salina Cruz, 8 kilometers.” We stared at the apparition, befuddled. “I don’t have a clue where we are” my mother said. Her voice trembled, and I realized that she was dangerously close to a breakdown.
“That will never stop the Mueller family” my brother replied. He sounded like a radio announcer, and Mom erupted into laughter. Josh’s comedic timing was always perfect. The boy had a definite gift. My mother pulled the car to the side of the road and guffawed loudly for several minutes. “Check the map” she demanded, turning to me. She mopped a few tears from her eyes. My eyes traveled the length of the boot. Salina Cruz rested at the base of the heel, looking as though it was about to be crushed out of existence. “We’re at the Pacific Ocean” I said. “We’ve been going in the wrong direction this entire time.”
“That’s impossible” Mom said. “I made a left turn after I stopped for gas this morning. Or was it a right turn? I really don’t remember.” She pulled the car onto the road and barreled towards Salina Cruz, looking sullen. “At least we’re at the ocean” I said reassuringly. “We can find a hotel, and then go for a swim.”
We drove into town and immediately checked into a hotel. This amazed me, since my mother always sent Ericka or Josh into potential establishments to haggle with the proprietors. Our light-filled room contained soft mattresses and cushioned chairs. I felt happy for the first time in days.
We climbed into our bathing suits and wandered outside. I heard the intoxicating sound of waves in the distance. Gulls wheeled and screeched overhead. As we drew near the beach, my mother smiled. “I’m really looking forward to this swim” she said.
White, powdery sand stretched in all directions, and water twinkled in the distance. Something was amiss, however. The heaving waves had a dark sheen, and they emitted an acrid chemical scent. A wooden sign protruded from the sand. “Beach closed due to oil spill” it read. At the bottom was a crude drawing of a hapless swimmer, fleeing in terror while oil droplets cascaded from his body.
We wandered down the beach and found a restaurant. I ordered shrimp, and stared out the window at the brackish water. The view would have been breathtaking if we weren’t dining next to a scene of environmental disaster. My mother thrashed angrily in her chair. “That goddamned oil ruined our vacation” she complained. I started to argue, but changed my mind. Instead, I rapidly shoveled food into my mouth, and my siblings followed suit. This was ridiculous, since we weren’t in a hurry. None of us had the faintest idea how to get home.
Leah Mueller is an independent writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of one chapbook, “Queen of Dorksville” (Crisis Chronicles Press, 2012), and two full-length books, “Allergic to Everything” (Writing Knights Press, 2015) and “The Underside of the Snake” (Red Ferret Press, 2015). Her work has either been published or is forthcoming in Blunderbuss, 2 Leaf Press, Origins Journal, Talking Soup, Silver Birch Press, Semaphore, MaDCap, Cultured Vultures, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Quail Bell magazine, and was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival.