Furnace Creek. Spring 1972.
During the day the Death Valley sun had stripped the hides off them but now in the dark of night the temperature had dropped below sane.
‘What are we doing out here?’ Rosalie asked. Her jaws were locked as tight as she could manage to stop her teeth from chattering.
It had been Twain’s idea to come and see the sun rise over the desert, then Byrne’s idea to make a night of it. Laden with hotel blankets and enough whiskey to knock out the Galway hurling team, they had driven out into the emptiness to sit between earth and dark sky.
But it was freezing cold. Twain and Byrne could drink to keep warm but all Rosalie had were blankets. Her friends were stretched out on the hood of the car musing on the meaning of life while she huddled in the backseat of the rented convertible Thunderbird.
‘But what’s it all mean, really?’ Byrne asked, not for the first time. ‘We live, we die, we don’t know why-’
‘We live so we can die,’ Twain replied.
‘Pseudo-philosophy has no place in this car, man.’
‘I know but…’ Twain slugged the whiskey. ‘We’ve been here awhile and got no closer to an answer.’
‘There is no answer.’
‘Now who’s pseudo-philosophising?’
‘Is there more than this? Does there need to be?’ Liam asked. ‘I’m… is this enough, man? Are we just a series of moments experienced in sequence? What’s it for? What’s it all about?’
Rosalie’s answer was a swiftly muttered ‘Alfie.’
‘What was that?’ JD asked. ‘What are you doing back there anyway?’
‘Trying not to die from exposure.’
‘We’re all wearing pants, it’s fine.’
‘Come up here with us. I’ll keep you warm.’
‘I bet.’ In spite of her sarcasm, Rosalie, swaddled in blankets, climbed up and over the windshield to join them. The car lurched forward with the extra weight but settled after a moment.
Wedged between Byrne and Twain, Rosalie lay on the icy metal hood and stared up at the sky.
‘It’s…’ She took a deep breath. ‘Actually very beautiful.’
‘Yeah.’ Liam sighed. ‘I never saw a sky like that in London. Never dark enough.’
‘Is that a planet?’ Twain waved a drunkenly vague hand up at the sky. ‘I guess it must be because it’s not twinkling.’
‘What do you mean?’ Rosalie asked.
‘Stars twinkle, planets don’t.’
‘Stars twinkle? They actually do?’
‘Yeah.’ Twain chuckled. ‘Didn’t you know that?’
‘I thought… it was just the song.’
‘You London folks just don’t get nature, do you?’
‘I get it, I just don’t trust it,’ she replied.
They lay together in contemplative silence for awhile, staring up at the blackness of space and the twinkling stars.
A red-eye flight streaked across the sky on its way to LAX.
The whiskey bottle passed across Rosalie between Liam and JD a few more times.
‘I think I’m hungry,’ Liam said.
‘You’re not sure?’
‘Do we have any food?’
‘Only the peanuts you were scoffing earlier.’ Rosalie slid off the car and retrieved the bag of dry-roast peanuts from where Twain had stuffed it in the glove compartment earlier.
‘I don’t want peanuts.’
‘What do you want? Because there’s no grocery store out here.’
‘I don’t know…’ JD portioned out a few nuts and threw them into his mouth anyway.
‘I bet…’ Liam began, challenge in his tone. ‘I bet you a hundred dollars you can’t toss a peanut from here into a cup on the back of the car.’
This was a challenge laid down by Sam to Pete some weeks earlier during a beach party. Pete had managed it while Sam had not, but he had been far more alcoholically impaired.
‘Yeah I can,’ JD scoffed. ‘But we don’t have a cup.’
‘We do though,’ Rosalie replied.
Several plastic beakers were stored in the hamper and so one was placed with great ceremony on the edge of the car’s trunk, measured carefully by eye to sit exactly halfway along the rim.
JD and Liam both drank from the whiskey bottle, then lined up at the front of the car.
‘Take your peanuts,’ Rosalie said as she doled out three peanuts each. ‘Best of three. Winner takes…’
Twain smirked. ‘The blankets.’
Liam shivered. ‘Done.’
‘I’ll go first,’ said JD.
‘You go first,’ added Liam.
JD arranged himself in what he believed was the best stance: feet slightly wider than hip width and swaying from inebriation more than he thought, but less than the amount of whiskey deserved. He took one small peanut between the index finger and thumb of his right hand and closed one eye to take aim.
‘Watch and learn, Byrne.’ He let loose the peanut, which immediately disappeared into the dark night.
For the sake of argument, Rosalie inspected the cup. ‘Empty. Your turn, Liam.’
Liam mimicked JD’s posture and technique and also missed.
‘Two more,’ JD mumbled, mostly to himself. He arranged himself side on this time and tried a delicate wrist-flick of a toss.
Rosalie bit back a smile. ‘Nope.’
Liam tried and missed again.
‘Last chance, Twain. Can you do it?’ Liam mocked.
‘You’ve missed both times too, idiot!’
‘Just throw the bloody peanut!’ Rosalie interrupted, loathe to let Shadowlands to break up on the basis of a peanut tossing contest.
JD took aim again. The peanut hit the rim of the cup, rolled around and then knocked the cup off the car with the momentum. He clutched his hair despairingly. ‘So close!’
The cup was reset and Liam took his shot. The nut hit the hood itself and rolled meekly off.
Twain sighed. ‘We both lose.’
Rosalie took a nut from the bag and tossed it casually towards the cup. The arc through the air was neat and exact. Her nut landed in the cup with a surprised, light “clonk”.
‘How’d you do that?’ Twain’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
‘Witchcraft,’ Liam added.
Rosalie just scoffed at them and picked up the blankets. ‘It’s much simpler than that.’
‘I haven’t necked half a distillery.’ She settled down in the backseat to sleep awhile. ‘Idiots. Wake me up for sunrise.’
‘Rosa-’ Twain whined. ‘It’s cold.’
‘You don’t want us to die do you?’
‘That would be really bad for record sales.’
‘It would be really good for record sales,’ she retorted, even as she chucked two blankets at them as they reinstated themselves on the hood. ‘Don’t drink yourselves into a coma, there’s no doctors for miles.’
‘Sweet dreams, Rosalie.’
‘I never knew the desert would be this cold.’
‘Or strewn with peanuts.’