by Harrison Kim
I stood at the intersection of two highways. My last ride, a semi truck driver, paid me cash to help him unload.
“You seem like a nice young guy,” he told me, “best of luck with your direction in life.”
“I’ll take Highway 55,” I said to myself, stepping to the side of the road, and facing towards the sun. I stuck out my thumb.
My friend Round lived at The Pas, two hundred twenty kilometres down 55, across a land of ancient rock and wilderness lakes. I needed to visit Round. We’d played “Dungeons and Dragons” years ago. He always took the part of The Dragon Master, and gave excellent guidance.
After only a few minutes, an oval faced girl driving a huge Buick slowed and stopped. A toddler wriggled in the kid seat beside her.
I opened the door and looked in. “I’m headed for The Pas,” I said. “I can help pay for gas.”
“Could you drive?” she asked, “I’m exhausted. We’re going all the way to Thompson.”
“Sure,” I said, “these straight roads can hypnotize a person.”
She nodded, shut off the engine and stepped out of the car, no makeup, hair tied back with a red elastic, her body skinny in jeans and T-shirt, pink flowers in a tattoo bracelet around her wrists.
She took her kid out of the passenger side and threw the child seat in the back. The toddler wandered around the front of the car.
“Stop right there, kid” I said. “Never walk into traffic, not that there is any.”
“That’s Alyssa,” said the girl. “I’m Kylie.”
She grabbed Alyssa and sat back in the Buick with the kid nestled on her lap. I set myself in the driver’s side and shoved the car in drive. The kid grabbed my shoulder, her mother prised its fingers away.
“That’s no problem,” I said. “Kids are kids.”
The car bumped.
“Be careful of the potholes,” Kylie told me.
I drove down the middle of the road.
“It’s always smoother in the centre,” I said.
Kylie reached around, took a pair of binoculars from the glove compartment and scanned out the back window. She wore a hand woven, green beaded bracelet wrapped round up near her right elbow. She held Alyssa with that arm.
“Good scenery around here,” I said.
“I don’t like scenery much,” Kylie replied.
I glanced in the rear-view mirror. The road lined back straight. A vehicle glinted, coming from far behind. Ahead, the gravel ribbon parted through identical stands of black spruce. This was the boreal wilderness. I saw no human habitation, no side roads off.
“Checking something out?” I asked.
She turned round, pushed the binoculars between us, and held Alyssa in both arms. She motioned her head towards the back window.
“Could be my ex-boyfriend,” she said. “Alyssa’s Dad. He owns a truck like that.”
I checked the rear-view again. The black vehicle appeared to be advancing at a high speed.
“Well,” I said, “we could pull to the side and have a chat.”
“No,” she replied, “you’d have to pretend you were my cousin”
“Do I look like your cousin?,” I asked.
“Maybe,” she gave me a closer look. “My ex is the jealous type.”
Through the rear-view the sun shone off the truck hood, and the driver in his sunglasses and baseball cap. It was one of those trucks sitting high off the ground, with big thick wheels.
“I’m gonna slow down,” I told her.
If I braked and moved to the side, I could let the vehicle go by, without taking up too much road space. The truck roared in behind us, then passed, giving plenty of room. I saw the face in the passenger side, a grey-grizzled, big shouldered man, he turned to me, grinned, and lifted a bottle.
“I guess it wasn’t him,” Kylie said.
I slowed to let the plume of dust recede.
The road stretched beyond the truck until it seemed to bend and disappear under horizon. This view looked good, it promised no ending.
“When I drive into the distance,” I told Kylie, “there’s more distance, and I like that.”
“I took a tranquilizer,” she said. “That’s why I wanted you to drive.”
idea” I said, “those pills can zonk you out.”
I looked at the kid. “How about Alyssa here?” I asked. “She seems pretty quiet.”
The little girl half lay on Kylie’s lap, head on her mother’s chest.
“She’s a soft one,” she said. “Let’s put her in the car seat. Then we can ride easier.”
I pulled in to the side, by a row of spindly trees, turned off the engine and went round to help.
“So many mosquitoes,” Kylie remarked. “We need to get across this wilderness.”
She lifted Alyssa into the back.
“My ex-boyfriend’s supposed to have visiting time with Alyssa right now,” she said.
I nodded. I didn’t want to talk about boyfriends.
Kylie got back in the passenger side. We started up again.
“What brings you out this way?” Kylie asked.
“I’m going to see my friend Round,” I told her.
The full story was that I’d walked away from the Saskatoon hospital, psychiatric wing, with a diagnosis of “severe depression with delusions.” The doctors gave me a thirty day custody order, but I needed more than medication and being shut in a locked ward. When I earned enough privileges for an hour out, I felt the sun and moved along the highway towards it. Then the trucker picked me up and after our unloading work, drove me to the number 55 junction.
“How long since you’ve seen this Round dude?” Kylie asked.
“Maybe ten years,” I told her, “he is a very wise person, and I need his advice.”
“What sort of advice?” she asked. “Ten years is quite a while.”
“On what to do” I told her. “What to do next.”
“I never have that problem” said Kylie, “because I always do what I feel.”
Alyssa kept reaching through the gap between the seats. Kylie passed her the squished bear toy, then the binoculars.
“I felt like giving you a ride, so I did,” Kylie said.
I thought we could be a family, travelling together. I didn’t see the breakup in the road until I couldn’t slow down.
“There’s a mighty big mudhole ahead!” I yelled.
I sped up because it’s better to grind through muck than to get mired. The car slid through deep ruts. Smoke billowed out behind us from the spinning tires as I stepped on the gas. Alyssa’s seat lunged forward, then back. My head hit the roof and the car jumped back on solid ground. I pulled in to the edge of the gravel embankment.
“That was a real test!” I said, “of my driving abilities.”
Kylie snapped her seat belt off, she turned round and lifted Alyssa out of her chair. The kid looked okay. I stepped outside and checked the tires. They looked fine, too.
“Last night’s storm must’ve taken the culvert out,” I told Kylie.
She ran her hands over Alyssa. “I said I’d take care of you,” She spoke like she repeated an incantation. “I said I’d keep you from harm.”
Alyssa inhaled, the kind of toddler inhale that lets you know there’s a big scream arriving. Her face turned red. I gave a smile.
“We’re all in this together,” I told her, and handed over a jujube I found on the car floor.
Alyssa let out one long wail, then put the candy in her mouth. I walked to the side of the road, examined the exposed culvert.
Alyssa stared, then teetered from her mothers arms towards me.
“Stop right there again,” I said, and squatted down to meet her. “She seems okay,”
“Wow” Kylie said. “Alyssa’s doesn’t usually like guys. You’ve got a very different vibe.”
“Animals and kids have always liked me,” I said.
“Fellows like you act nice,” she said. “They don’t show that hard edge.”
“Are you okay for me to continue with you?” I asked, “And be part of your drive?”
“You saved us from getting stuck,”,” said Kylie, “and I might need another trank.”
We strapped Alyssa in the baby seat, then I drove again, between the spruce trees.
“Twinkle Twinkle little star,” sang Alyssa.
“The sun’s the only star out now,” I told her.
“I was going to return Alyssa to her Dad,” Kylie said, “and now I’m here.”
I didn’t say anything, but nodded.
“I thought people were after me too,” I said.
“Not the people I thought.”
“My ex-boyfriend really is after me,” Kylie said.
“You know,” I said, “I could go with you all the way to Thompson. Just to make sure you’re safe.”
“What about your friend?”
“He doesn’t know I’m coming. It was a bit of a spontaneous thing.”
We sat in silence for a short time.
“People who see us will think we’re a family,” I said.
Kylie nodded. She took a photo out of her purse.
“This is my sister,” she said, “she’s always been an achiever.”
I saw a pasty white girl with purple highlights in her white-blonde hair.
Kylie held the photo above the steering wheel. “Do you think she’s prettier than me?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Everyone’s got their own definition of good-looking.”
“Everyone says she’s prettier.”
I grinned. “People used to say I was ugly,” I said, “that I looked like a rat.”
“I don’t think you look like a rat,” said Kylie.
I laughed. “What do you think I look like?”
“Maybe a deer,” she said.
“A deer’s not so bad,” I replied.
“How about me?” Kylie asked. “What sort of animal…?”
“Maybe a deer, also,” I said.
“I don’t think so,” she said, “I’m more of a tigress.” She smiled, and continued “but you’d never know that.”
After an hour of driving, we arrived at the outskirts of The Pas, and pulled in to a brightly lit gas station.
“I’ll pay,” I told her, “It’s the least I can do.”
Kylie nodded. “Thanks. I don’t have much cash. I’ve got to change Alyssa.”
She lifted the toddler and headed for the washroom.
“Can you buy us some snacks?” she asked over her shoulder. “We’ll be a few minutes.”
I went inside the station, and poked around a bit, looking for a particular brand of jujube that Alyssa might like. A T. V. on the wall behind the plump, slow-moving cashier broadcast an “amber alert.” This particular alert regarded a young mother who failed to return her kid after a custody visit.
“This woman is unpredictable,” said the announcer, “call police if you see her, and do not approach.”
The photo didn’t look too much like Kylie. It showed a blonde, not a brunette, with an unsmiling, angry look. The hair flopped around the front of the face, and the eyes were puffy slits with mascara smeared all round.
“Last seen in Saskatoon,” said the announcer.
Kylie was from Thompson. I guess she could have dyed her hair.
I paid for two coffees and a couple of items for Alyssa.
“You got a nice family,” said the cashier. “I’d like to have a family like that.”
She motioned towards Alyssa, toddling by the gas pumps.
Her voice sounded slow, I wondered if she’d had a few drinks.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said. “I guess we’re lucky.”
“Luck has a lot to do with it,” she smiled. “Do you want to buy a lottery ticket?”
“No thanks,” I said.
I headed back to the car as a police van pulled into the parking lot.
“Another Friday night in The Pas,” I thought, and gave the officer a quick nod. He nodded back. Kylie and Alyssa sat on the lawn. The police van parked across from them, facing the highway, and stayed there, idling.
“We should go now,” I walked over and told Kylie, motioned my chin towards the police van, “the deer must run.”
She’d put on bright pink lipstick, and let down her hair. She didn’t smile, or appear to notice my gesture.
“This is your destination,” she said, “this is The Pas.”
She grabbed Alyssa’s hand. For the first time, the kid seemed irritated, and hit her mother’s fingers away.
“No, Alyssa, you’re coming with me,” Kylie told her.
“Like I mentioned before,” I said, “I can keep you safe all the way to Thompson.”
Kylie looked at me.
“I was worried about the bad road,” she said. “You drove us through. The highway to Thompson’s paved, so we’ll be fine.”
She began dragging Alyssa along towards the car, with me walking beside her. The kid protested “No! No! No!”
Kylie picked her up, grasped the wriggling child, then plonked her in the front seat.
“I need some direction Kylie,” I stated, “you gave me that today.”
Alyssa began to wail.
“Listen,” Kylie said , “I’ve got a lot to deal with. I need to be alone.”
I smelled rose perfume, very strong.
“Did you talk to someone on your phone?” I asked, “did that change your mind?”
Her face turned red.
“You seem like a nice guy,” she said, “but I’ve never been into suck-ups.” She motioned. “There’s a police car right over there. Don’t make me talk to him.”
I handed her the coffee and snacks.
“I liked you very much,” I stated.
“Thanks for the gas,” Kylie told me, “and for the coffee.”
Alyssa seemed quieter now as Kylie strapped her into the seat
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“She’s fine,” Kylie answered.
“Tell me,” I demanded, “who are you meeting?”
I stared down, at those pink flower tattoos tattooed around her wrists.
She looked away, jumped in the driver’s side and started the engine, gunned it out of the parking lot.
I saw the side of her face as she watched for cross-traffic. I waved. She didn’t wave back. I punched the gas pump with my fist, then kicked the trash bin. It fell over with a bang, and I reached over and pulled it back up.
The police car sat there. The officer appeared to be checking his phone. Should I tell the cop about Kylie and Alyssa? He’d ask me questions about who I was. They always did. If I told the truth, they’d send me back to the psych. ward. I needed to see my old friend. He’d tell me what to do, but I didn’t have his number or his address. I walked back into the gas station.
“Do you know a fellow from here called Douglas Round?” I asked the slow-talking cashier. “He’d be about twenty-five, medium height, square jaw, got a very strong voice.”
She looked at me a moment, then peered outside. “Where’d your family go?
“We split up,” I said, “she was worried her boyfriend was after her.”
The cashier shook her head. “Now that sounds like a wild story.
could tell you the whole adventure,” I replied. “When do you get off work?”
She laughed. “I’m married,” she laughed, “to a cop. He’s out there waiting for my shift to end.”
I laughed along, took a sip of my coffee and turned around. “Watch the television alerts,” I said, and stepped out the door.
I recalled Kylie saying “I only do what I feel.”
I remembered the way she drove off without a wave back, leaving me once again with no direction, and no family. I walked towards the idling police car. Street lights came on along the road in front of it. They gave off an orange glow that lit the distance as far as the next curve. I passed the police car and moved in the direction of the lights. I stood directly below the halo of the first burning bulb, turned and stuck out my thumb to find out if the cashier, the cop, or anyone else would stop for me.
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