It was early afternoon and the sun was just burning off the cool of the morning. They were three: an older boy with hair cropped short except for a dark tail at the nape of his neck, a younger boy with a red cap covering his sandy curls, and a girl who walked backward, laughing at them. They were all laughing at some private joke, at or about the world. Their clothes were timeless shabby-chic, faded cotton knits in sun-bright colors. They walked casually, bumping shoulders like billiards. Every once in a while one of them would glance over a shoulder at the oncoming traffic.
At a place where the road thinned down to two lanes with a soft red clay shoulder, the taller boy broke into a jog, glancing jovially back at his companions. A pickup truck came barreling down the lane. The driver had his elbow up on the window. The boy whistled a quick, sharp note and dashed across the road. The driver slammed on the brakes and turned first one way to dodge the boy, and then the other, fishtailing so badly the truck nearly left the road. An expletive carried back to them on the draft. The boy and girl on the shoulder laughed, and the boy in the road jogged backwards in the opposite lane for a few paces before joining them again.
The next car was a VW bus. The three of them joined hands and skipped across the road. The van clipped the younger boy, knocking his hat off and flinging him to the asphalt. The other two ran on, still laughing, as the next car aimed blindly at the boy in the road.
The afternoon wore on. The sun was now beginning to burn on their shoulders. The girl’s white shorts drifted up over the swell of her flanks, her hair stuck to her bare shoulder in sticky fans. Circles of sweat formed at the boy’s pits and at his chest. They held hands and walked on either side of a series of fence posts, finally parting around a telephone pole.
There came a sudden school of cars down the way. Together they sprinted from one side to the other, finding and losing each other’s hands, still laughing, always laughing. They lasted through three onslaughts of honking and swerving until the boy tripped on a break in the pavement and sprawled out in the path of a beat-up sedan. The girl made it to the shoulder and clutched herself, laughing breathlessly. Her hips beat like a white pendulum through the afternoon heat, occasionally breaking out of the rhythm to dash over both lanes, dodging past bugs and semis and trucks while her hair flew like a flag behind her.
The sun was sinking red beneath the horizon as she paced beside the road. The air was still and hot, the pavement let off a sulfurous stink that was part tar and part oil. She looked over her shoulder and leaned one hip against a fence post. Her throat pulsed with breath, the only part of her that moved. One lone coup idled down the road, the only thing visible for a long way off. The girl’s body went taut like a bow and she dropped down to a crouch. The car grew closer. She could make out the license plate now. It had Minnesota plates. She blew out her breath in one excited gasp and ground the ball of her foot into the soil.
The car’s windshield flashed across her face. She pushed off with one leg, with her second step hitting the pavement. The car caught her hip and sent her spinning to the ground. She landed on her side, her ribcage taking the brunt of the force as her legs splayed out at awkward angles. The car did not stop.
The girl rose to her elbows, then heaved herself up from there. Her clothes weren’t even dirty.
“I win,” she whispered, “I win.”
She continued walking by the side of the road. After a time, the two boys joined her. They were three in the red of the setting sun. They were all laughing at the world, or some private joke.