Above the Hot Springs

by: T.E. Cowell

Three friends, yearning to postpone the inevitable, the boredom and tragedy that they view as adulthood, seek out a pacifying oasis that is anything but…

Hot Springs

There were two parking lots above the hot springs. The first one required driving on an extremely bumpy road, a road so bumpy that at times one of the tires of the rental car that Jim, Kate, and Marie traveled in rose a foot or two off the ground and the passengers—Jim at least—felt as if the car was going to topple over onto its side. The road to the second parking lot was much smoother than the first, a fact that Jim would soon discover, but an old man who lived in a ramshackle house along the way to the other parking lot charged people a fee to access the lot. Kate, who’d once been a local in these parts, who’d lived in the closest town to the hot springs until she’d graduated high school, braved the immensely bumpy road that led to the first parking lot because she refused to pay to park in the other lot. She had never paid to park above the hot springs and never planned to—that was what the tourists did if they didn’t have four-wheel drive vehicles, not the locals. Never the locals. Though she wasn’t technically still a local, Kate still thought of herself as one. She would never be a tourist in these parts. She had too many memories belonging to this place.

The road to the first parking lot may well have been the bumpiest road Jim had ever experienced in his life. The road was so uneven and rough that it would’ve been comical if it weren’t so frightening. On one side of the road rose a hill of sun-scorched earth too high to see the top of from inside the car, while on the other side there was nothing but a terrifying drop into the abyss below. Jim couldn’t tell just how deep the drop was, but from what he could gather it looked life-threatening. The road was narrow enough that it would’ve been a tight squeeze if another car happened to be coming the other way. It didn’t take much imagination for Jim to imagine the car he was in sliding over the cliffside and all three of them meeting their maker.

Jim was a little surprised and quite relieved, when they made it to the parking lot in one piece. There were a handful of other cars there, all of them four-wheel drive by the looks of it, and all of them sporting big knobby tires. There was the only sedan. Most likely a rental car as well.

Jim, Kate and Marie spent close to twenty-four hours in the hot springs. Jim had met Kate and Marie at a hostel in Southern California, in Inglewood. He was hosteling the west coast, just traveling and living on the cheap, trying to see as much of the area a he could before settling down somewhere and living as a bona-fide adult. He had a college degree but he wasn’t eager to use it. Kate and Marie were doing pretty much the same thing as he was—postponing the inevitable, the boredom and tragedy that they saw as adulthood.

The Inglewood hostel had an outdoor pool lined with palm trees, an outdoor bar beside the pool, and a few pool tables beside the bar. It was a little oasis surrounded by ugliness, by crime and by despair. Outside the hostel, particularly at night, sirens could be heard regularly racing down the streets. People seemed to be perpetually dying or getting arrested.

When Kate and Marie invited Jim to go on a road trip with them to some hot springs east of Los Angeles., he jumped at the idea. Going on a road trip with two attractive young women was a win-win scenario in his book. It was just the type of thing he’d been waiting for his entire life without even knowing it.

Before leaving the hot springs and hiking back up to the parking lot, two scruffy, lanky, soft-spoken guys in their late thirties joined their group after Kate had, for some reason, promised them a ride back to their car, which they said was in the other parking lot. Jim didn’t know why the guys were coming with them instead of hiking the trail that led to the other parking lot, but he didn’t think to ask. Maybe they simply wanted to be in the company of two attractive females. If so, he couldn’t blame them for that.

After again making it safely off the treacherously uneven road, Kate turned onto the wider, much smoother road and stepped on the gas. In effect the tires skidded, then gripped the road as plumes of dust shot up into the air. Kate grinned and Jim saw her grin in the rearview mirror. After hitting the road with these girls from Inglewood, Jim quickly discerned that Kate liked to drive, and fast at that.

When she came nearer to the old man’s house who charged the fee Kate didn’t slow down. She sped by the house at high speed and Jim heard an alarm sound, loud and continuous, reminiscent of a school bell. 

“Jesus, Kate!” Marie said, but Kate didn’t say anything in return, nor did she slow down. Jim looked in the rearview and saw nothing but dust, a great wall of it behind them. In no time at all, they were at the parking lot and Kate slammed her foot on the brake. There were more cars than at the other parking lot, and most were two-wheel drive sedans. Kate stopped and they all piled out of the car to say their farewells. Before everyone could say their goodbyes a truck came barreling down the road and grabbed their attention. The truck rushed into the parking lot and stopped mere inches behind their rental car. The driver of the truck, an old man, stepped out and immediately began yelling obscenities before producing a gun and pointing it at everyone individually, one after the other. The old man spat awful obscenities like “stupid bitch” and “you fucking assholes” and the like before one of the lanky, soft-spoken guys said, “Chill out, man. They were just dropping us off.”

The old man’s eyes bulged tremendously at this response. “Chill out? Chill out? You people drive like that past my house and you’re telling me to chill out? You chill out, goddamn-it!”

The old man kept aiming the gun at everyone, lingering the gun longer on the men, who he clearly felt threatened by, than the women. The gun glinted silver under the hit, summer sun. It looked real to Jim, not that he knew anything about guns but the level of anger the old man exhibited led Jim to believe that the gun was real. The old man was seriously pissed. The strange thing was, Jim wasn’t scared. It was the first time anyone had ever pointed a gun at him and he wasn’t scared at all.

“Jesus!” Kate said. “Put the gun down already!”

“Seriously!” said Marie.

Instead of lowering his weapon the old man continued to point it at the group. It was when Jim noticed the old man’s hand shaking that he felt it was in his and everyone else’s best interest to speak.

“Sir, please put the gun down. You don’t want to do something you’ll later regret. Just put the gun down and let us be on our way. We won’t trouble you again, we promise.”

The old man aimed the gun at Jim and Jim alone as Jim spoke, and still Jim didn’t feel afraid. He stared at the old man and the old man stared back at him. Then, finally, the gun went down in the old man’s hand, though not all the way down; he aimed at one of the rental car’s tires, pulled the trigger, and the loud sound that followed made it clear to Jim and everyone else that the gun was not only real, but loaded. The tire hissed as the air violently expelled itself and continued hissing as the old man stepped back into his truck and drove off. Jim watched the truck get smaller and smaller before it disappeared around a bend. Then he walked up to Kate and Marie and gave them each a hug.

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