It is very late at night, or very early in the morning, depending on how you look at it. The canyon buzzes with dark anticipation. White noise of crickets. Brakes squealing around a blind curve in the distance. The brush hums dryly. The blue car looks like a toy. It hugs the curves. Lola drives expertly but a little too fast. She’s showing off a bit, as she does. Windows rolled down. Chilled summer air spilling in. We are seventeen.
Lola always drives. She likes to be in control. I let her have this. She lights a cigarette, sucks the smoke in, blows a messy stream out into the night. I shiver a little. I like the smell of cigarette smoke when it’s just far away enough and mingled with cool air. Something about it reminds me of the boy I know I’ll be in love with one day. The dented metal of his chest. The way he’ll always smell faintly of cigarettes and clean laundry.
The wind rushing in through the windows blows our long hair into our faces. It’ll be tangled when we get home but we feel too good to care. We’ve been out dancing at a club in Hollywood. Used our fake IDs to get in. Mine says I’m from Florida. The bouncer knows they’re fake but he lets us in anyway.
Lola—hooded eyes, a little bump on her nose from when she kneed herself in the face doing the high jump at a track tournament, teeth crooked from her thumb-sucking days. Her lips are always chapped and they stay red without lipstick. We’ve known each other forever. She was a tomboy; I liked dolls and pretty dresses. I’ve always been the delicate one and she teases me for this. She prides herself on being technical, mechanical—knowing how things work and how to fix them.
As for me—I’m always fifteen minutes late to everything. I take my time driving and parallel parking terrifies me. I do not smoke. Boys like me better. We both know this.
We see the orange blaze as we barrel around a hairpin turn. The blue car slips in and out of control. Lola skids to a halt. We jump out. It’s a car on fire. The flames are too high to see inside the car. They shoot and pop around its blackened frame. That acrid marshmallow scent. I can feel the heat from several feet away. I close my eyes. It doesn’t seem real. We are standing in the middle of the road in the middle of the canyon in the middle of the night.
Lola’s in full rescue mode. She’s coming up with a game plan. Snapping into action in an emergency. All I can think about is whether there’s someone in the car still, and how good the warmth feels on my face. And how beautiful the burning car looks. Like something out of a David Lynch film. I want to photograph it.
When I was four years old, a wildfire swept through our canyon. My father saved our house on his motorcycle.
I want to lay my hands on the car, to climb inside of it. I want to know its story, to know who set it on fire.
My dad once told me a ghost story about a house on our hill—the house with the two palm trees. It involved a bride being killed in a car accident on her way to her own wedding. I remember he used the word “ravine” when he described where she fell. It was the first time I’d heard that word. Ravine. The bride tumbled to her death in the ravine. For this reason I was afraid of ravines—I thought they were places that people fell into and died.
I start to wonder if the person who owned the car is now wandering, bloodied and disoriented, through the ravine. Like Rita in Mulholland Drive. Maybe this person didn’t know where they were, or who they were. Maybe this was a failed hit job.
Lola grabs me.
Come on, get back in the car, she says. We’ve got to get to the fire station.
Another car pulls up behind us. It’s full of twentysomething boys. They pile out to observe the burning car. They sway a little and I can tell they’re drunk.
Hey, what happened here, says one. Was there anybody in there?
We peer again into the charred interior. Blistered leather seats. Seatbelts twisted into scrawny ropes. Melted plastic.
I notice the boy’s eyes traveling up and down me. His face changes slowly in the light of the fire.
Lola says if there was someone in there, they’re long gone by now. She thinks someone torched the car for insurance money and left it there to burn.
The twentysomethings climb back into their car. Lola tells them to call the police but we know they won’t.
We drive to the fire station at the top of the hill. Lola hops out, pounds on the door, exchanges words with a fireman. It’s a dark orange moon, the largest one I’ve ever seen, and the sight of it catches my breath in my throat and makes me think again about the house with the two palm trees. Daddy said that sometimes, very late at night, or very early in the morning, if you pass by the house with the two palm trees you can hear the ghost bride playing piano.
Curled up in Lola’s bed, the dusty familiar smell of her bedroom, the sound of her heavy breathing and the air conditioning rattling through the vent. I cannot sleep. I wonder if the burned man will come crawling out of the ravine. I go to the window, press my face against the cold glass. Without my glasses, the night is a blur of faded blues and grays. Yellow headlights roll gently across the walls of Lola’s bedroom. I imagine we are underwater. I imagine the blue car lifting up from the driveway, swirling and disappearing like smoke. If I squint I can see the pale smudge of a face in the driveway. I imagine it’s the twentysomething boy looking up at me. I can make his face and body out of the shadows, can pull pieces of him together from the bushes, the asphalt, the sky; can feel the way his heart beats inside his chest, the way his head pounds with liquor.
The next morning all that’s left of the burning car are a few marks scorched into the pavement.
Hawks circle above the ravine.