4. Drop by drop
The next day dawned overcast, with a sky so leaden that the rain shouldn’t be late in coming. Lightning slowly opened his eyes, noticing how a mixture of pain, hangover, and anguish gripped every circuit in his body. Lazily, he yawned and resisted leaving the resting area for a few seconds. At least, until he caught a distant murmur of water that forced him to sharpen his ear, curious―it seemed to come from the other end of the room, hidden from view by a closed door. Only then did the racer realize that he was alone.
He sighed―Sally must have been washing up. So, trying to get his wits about her, he chose to wait patiently by the window―watching the sleeping city beyond the glass. When he heard the bathroom door open behind him, he turned slowly. His girl’s spectacular suit had disappeared under the water and the soap. It was a painting specially designed for such occasional occasions as that, to Ramon’s credit―so her body now showed a dull hue, with no trace even of wax or glitter; it matched her green eyes. Lightning’s heart shrank when their eyes met, but he didn’t know what to say.
“Hi,” he greeted cautiously.
Sally made a rather apathetic gesture towards him with her nose without coming closer.
Her voice was low; her tone, monochord.
“How are you?” he said, not knowing if he wanted to know the answer.
Sally, for her part, sighed deeply and looked away.
“I wish I knew,” she acknowledged before turning around and heading for the living room next to the bedroom.
A balcony opened on the other side, from which the whole city of Los Angeles could be seen. Lightning washed up quickly before following his girlfriend, with his two halves fighting to the death―one opted for the, ‘leave her, she’ll get over it. You have more important things to do’; and the other, also stubborn, argued: ‘talk to her, ask her what’s wrong, insist. Let her know that you will be by her side whenever she needs it.’
When she arrived in front of the railing, Sally stared at the horizon. Lightning stood beside her, watching her with some apprehension.
“Sally–Please talk to me,” he pleaded, giving the final triumph to the responsible and loving half of his being.
She turned her green irises towards him but said nothing.
“I–”, Lightning hesitated, not finding the words at first. “I wanna help you. But–I can’t if you don’t tell me what’s wrong,” he despaired, almost unaware of it. “What do I have to do for you to trust me?”
For his peace of mind, Sally showed the first half-sweet smile of the morning.
“I’m sorry, love,” she muttered sincerely before turning her eyes back to the Pacific Ocean on the horizon. “This wasn’t meant to happen.”
That statement set off all the alarms in Lightning’s brain, which still managed to gather the courage to ask:
“What do you mean?”
Sally shook her nose and pressed her lips together.
“This city is where my demons live,” she said, almost to herself. “And–I should never have let them get to us.”
Lightning swallowed oil hard.
“Sally,” he called her, forcing her to look at him. “Look, I’d be lying if I said I never wondered what happened to you before you came to Radiator Springs, you know I’ve always respected that you don’t wanna talk about it,” he shrugged. “But in this case, I’ve also realized that perhaps–I should ask you more often what you want and what’s wrong,” he inhaled deeply. “So I’ll respect any decision you make. I mean it.”
Now it was Sally’s turn to be surprised.
“What are you talking about?”
Lightning inhaled deeply.
“That if you think that–You know, your life’s somewhere else–or with another car–Well–”.
Sally snorted, incredulously, which caused the young car to interrupt himself and watch her anxiously.
“Lightning, please,” she pleaded in a tone that made clear what she thought of it. “All I want is to be with you,” she whispered immediately, on the verge of tears. “I just want to go home. Let everything go back to normal,” she added before repeating. “With you.”
The racer slammed out all the air he had been holding back without realizing it.
“Then let’s go,” he whispered, very close to her hood, eager to see her smile again, if only for a tenth of a second, and to be able to wipe away her tears only with the force of words. “Let us leave this hellish city behind and live our lives as we wish to live them. No more–Mustang. No more crazy parties. Just you and me, alone.”
Sally looked at him, touched.
“But you have commitments here,” she reminded him with sudden concern, taking up ‘Practical Sally’ almost as if it were an impulse she could not suppress, whatever the circumstances. “You can’t just leave.”
To which Lightning got serious and replied:
“They’d have to tie me up with a million chains to keep me from going with you to the only place we belong. And that’s that.”
An indiscreet tear fell down the edge of Sally’s hood as she kissed her boyfriend with infinite love. For a moment, while he was unreservedly reciprocating, the young Porsche forgot Alex, Naya, the city around them, and even the hotel room. There were only metal and their tongues recognizing each other. At least, until the first drops of rain fell on their roofs; forcing them to part at once and seek shelter inside the bedroom. As one, they pushed the balcony doors with the rear bumper, and, after bolting the door, Sally smiled honestly for the first time all morning.
“C’mon, let’s go warn the team,” said Lightning, who was encouraged to see that Sally’s internal ‘storm’ had subsided for the time being. “Besides, I’m starving.”
Sally giggled and rolled her eyes as if to say: ‘You’re incorrigible’. But she agreed and headed for the door without leaving his side. However, when she was barely half a meter from the door, both of them braked hard because someone had passed an envelope under the lintel.
Strangely, the couple exchanged glances of incomprehension. After getting a little closer, they noticed that the neat black letter was addressed to ‘Sally Carrera’, with no return address. The paper looked good and had no stamp on it. Sally feared who it might be from, and backed off for an uncomfortable moment. But Lightning urged her to open it.
“Don’t you want to know whose it is?” He asked, knocked out by curiosity.
But Sally looked at the paper as if it were a killer thistle ready to blow out her tires at the first shift if she was careless. However, at Lightning’s mute insistence she gave in and approached slowly. Trying to keep the wheels from shaking, she tore up the envelope and took out a nuclear white piece of paper with a few letters on it. But it was enough to make Sally’s windshield open wide and let out an anguished groan.
“Hey. What’s going on?” said Lightning, when curiosity gave way again to anxiety about the state of his girl. “Whose is it?”
It took Sally a few seconds to recover her voice to respond. But, when she did, her tone put all the spark plugs on the racer.
For a moment, they both fell deadly silent. Sally’s brain seethed as she contemplated the calligraphy before her while cursing herself for not recognizing it earlier―had it been that long?
Five years and three months, as Naya reminded her.
“What do you mean, ‘your parents’?”
That was the only thing that Lightning was able to vocalize after he got over the surprise. Sally tried to calm herself down, without quite succeeding, before facing him gently.
“It’s been five years and three months since I’ve last spoken to them,” she explained with some ill-concealed bitterness. “But I guess they’ve heard that I’m here. I’m not exactly anonymous right now, am I?” She said without a hint of malice.
On the other hand, for Lightning that was something like a thorn of guilt, already stuck in his soul for some time. Now it only went deeper, twisting his insides with pain. Since their first bad experience with the paparazzi, Lightning had feared the moment when Sally would tire of the notoriety and abandon him for a simpler and anonymous life―in part, he could not and would not reproach her. But, on the other hand–
“And, what are you gonna do?” he wanted to know without pressing her.
Sally bit her lip, pondering the answer, her eyes fixed on the letter.
“I think that–” ―She snorted― “Choo. Anyway, maybe it’s crazy” ―She looked at Lightning again, as if seeking his support―. “But something tells me I should go.”
Lightning stood up, proud of her. Her decision and her ability to face any situation, no matter how hard it was, was what had made him fall in love with her so long ago and what never stopped surprising him in his daily life.
“Then I’m going with you,” he said, convinced.
Sally turned around, gaping.
“Really? I mean–I know this is going to sound bad, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea–”
That statement was like a stab in Lightning’s soul, but he preferred to play the matter out.
“What’s that? Are you so ashamed of me?” He joked, with a half-smile.
For his peace of mind, Sally pouted in a way that showed she had caught the joke.
“Don’t be silly, of course not” She kissed him on the side in a conciliatory manner. “It’s just that–” she sighed, looking at the letter for the umpteenth time. “They’re very–“, she seemed to look for the right word. “‘ Particular ones’.” She sighed as she put the envelope aside and started again towards the bedroom door. “Believe me, when we get there, you’ll understand.”
Lightning nodded, agreeing, as he followed her down the corridor and then into the elevator. The pieces that made up the puzzle that was his girlfriend were beginning to take shape, with their lights and shadows. Nevertheless, as so often in the past Lightning still did not feel able to judge her for what she had done. True, he hadn’t had an easy childhood either―but–he was sure Sally exaggerated about her parents–Right?