Institute History


A young black American couple find themselves stranded in a remote desert outpost on their way out West.

Against her better judgment, Nina has permitted Byron to drive her to California where she is to begin college—all the way from their neighborhood in Chicago, in his second-hand car. They've been together since 7th grade and it's not easy to separate. Afterward, he'll be returning to the neighborhood, and she'll be starting a new life. Byron knows he may be losing her.

Byron is ill-tempered and tense, but at Nina's urging, Byron takes a turn off the main freeway, the "scenic route," and they find themselves on an empty highway in the August heat. Out of nowhere, a snarling dog charges the car, too late for Byron to avoid it. Horrified and shaken, they leave the dog on the road. Further down the road their car breaks down completely.

Mooney, an unpromising white teenager, shows up and tows them to the area's only garage, run by Jack, an alcoholic mechanic. Byron upsets Nina by his openly suspicious and hostile behavior toward the locals, who she regards as harmless. She is used to Byron's volatile temperament, but her patience is wearing thin. A whole new world is opening up for her, and she wants it to be that way for Byron too. In the extreme heat, surrounded by strangers, and faced with a bill he can't afford, Byron freaks out and winds up in the back of the Sheriff's car. Only Nina's pleading and her credit card saves him from arrest.

Back on the empty road the car breaks down again, and they are forced to spend the night on the highway. Byron is convinced his paranoia is justified. Nina just wants to get to California. She is relieved when Mooney shows up again to tow them back to the garage. They take a room in a nearby rundown motel, resigned for a longer stay until the car is repaired. Nina seems to withdraw from Byron further, yet Nina and Byron make love.

Mooney makes an effort to befriend the couple, revealing the recent death of his mother. Even Byron lets his guard down a little. His biggest fear is now the separation from Nina. Fearful she will not be able to get on with her life the longer she stays with Byron, Nina makes an attempt to leave on the morning bus. In private, Mooney informs Byron that Jack will keep the car longer and charge him more money than they have. He proposes stealing the car from Jack that night, and desperate, Byron agrees, persuaded they will have enough time to get away before discovery.

Byron assures Nina he'll be back with the car and joins Mooney at the garage. While in the act, Jack shows up and Mooney shoots him, revealing his true motive, to kill Jack, his father, whom he blames for his mother's death. It is clear he plans to blame Byron, who runs for his life.

The story climaxes in an abandoned shack where Byron takes refuge. Nina, devastated and frantic to save Byron if she can, convinces Byron to turn himself in, telling him: "Where will you go? there's nowhere to go." Before they can leave, Mooney finds them and mortally wounds Byron. With his last strength, Mooney who once told them "he'd rather burn" than be loveless in the world, sets himself aflame. Nina drags Byron out of the shack. Heartbroken, she holds his lifeless body in her arms as the sheriff shows up too late to prevent the loss.

Nina makes it to the West Coast in the end. Sitting on a crowded beach alone, she imagines Byron emerging from the ocean, glistening, alive; only to watch his image plummet again, and disappear behind the waves.


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