BY DAVE CUSHING
Copyright is held by the author.
THE HEADLIGHTS of the battered Ford F-150 picked out a lonely shape trudging along the shoulder of the highway. The person’s head hung low so the only detail Frank made out as he passed was the olive-drab army surplus jacket flapping in the rising wind.
Thunder rumbled and rolled overhead and the occasional lightning flash foretold a storm blowing in. He was at least 10 miles from town.
Frank had a strict “no riders” policy since that punk-ass kid had pulled a knife on him and taken his wallet back in ’97. When he told the story, he always added that the kid’s eyes were “redder than an injun’s ass” and that “he musta been high on them oxy-condoms.”
Still, the stranger had a shambling gait and lowered head that told the world he’d had a bad day and didn’t expect it to get better anytime soon. Perhaps it was the way his boots kicked up dust or maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t bothered to turn around. Hell, he hadn’t even stuck his thumb out in a half-hearted attempt to hitch a ride.
A slash of lightning lit the sky and a few fat raindrops smacked into the windshield. Frank looked at the faded picture of his wife, Abby, tucked into the sun visor. If she weren’t off visiting her sister in Timmins, she would chide him about “doing the Christian thing.” They’ll have been together for 40 years next month, and he still loved her as much as the first time he saw her at the Blueberry Festival. She was wearing a yellow sun dress and smile that could light up most of Bell Park. Frank shook his head and flipped the blinker on. “You’re a god-damned idiot, Frank.”
He pulled over to the gravel shoulder, crunching to a halt. The stranger was about a quarter mile back, invisible in the dark. Frank got out, stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and lit it with a practiced gesture of his Zippo.
He heard the tell-tale crunch of footsteps before he saw the kid jogging out of the darkness and into the red glow of the truck’s tail-lights. He was wire thin and looked about 20.
Frank reached over the side of the pickup and felt the familiar shape of his framing hammer in the bed.
“Thanks, mister.” The boy offered a hesitant grin. “I thought I was going to have to walk my tired ass all the way back to town.”
“Yup.” Frank spit into the dirt. “And you might still.” He cocked an appraising eye over the young man. “You ain’t no dope-fiend are ya? Wouldn’t rob an old man who’s trying to do you a good turn?”
“No, sir.” The boy fumbled in his pockets. “I can even pay you for your trouble, if that’s what you want. I haven’t got much money on me…”
Frank waved his hand. “Put your money away, son. I just want to make sure you ain’t gonna cut my throat when we get a ways down the highway.” He pulled his hand out of the bed of the pickup and stuck it out. “Name’s Frank.”
This time the boy’s face lit when he smiled. He grasped Frank’s hand. “Jody.”
Frank nodded at him. “Well, Jody, let’s get going before we both get soaked and you can tell me how in the hell you ended up stranded in the middle of nowhere.”
Jody moved to the passenger side of the pickup and pulled open the door. Frank glanced at him when the overhead light came on.
“You okay, son? Looks like you been rode hard and put away wet.” Frank noted the mud spattered on the army surplus jacket and jeans. There was a large tear in the arm of the jacket. Blood oozed from scraped palms.
“Had a problem with my Kawasaki. Blew a tire on my way to see my girl in Hagar and ended up off the road.” Jody winced and shifted his position.
Frank pulled out onto the highway. “Damn lucky you walked away from that.” He nodded at the landscape through the windshield. “Ain’t nothing but rock cuts and trees to hit out here. Damn Jap motorcycle ain’t no match for that.”
Jody rapped the side of his head. “But I got a rock-hard, Northern Ontario head.” He grinned and Frank laughed, coughing smoke. “Twenty miles to Hagar or 10 miles back to town.” He sighed. “Would’ve been walking all night, again.”
“I didn’t see no bike. Where’d you have the blowout?”
“Not real sure. It was too dark for me to tell. I was past the place that sells moccasins in the summer.” He looked out the passenger side window. “Haven’t seen anyone in a long while, and the few I did see just kept going like I wasn’t even there.”
“Can’t say I blame them.” Frank gestured to the side of the road. “Ain’t many would pick someone up anymore. Damn world is going to hell in a hand-basket, what with all them dope-fiends and bikers.” Frank paused. “No offense.”
“None taken. I’m no druggie or biker.” Jody laughed. “I drive a Kawasaki for God’s sake.”
“Time was, folks could trust each other. Sure, we had some bad eggs, but nowadays I swear most people are bat-shit crazy. Watching the news makes me lose my faith in humanity on a nightly basis.”
“There’s some of us that are pretty normal.”
“Yeah, and you seem to be nice enough. Polite even.” Frank lit another cigarette and let out a long plume of smoke. ”What say we get you back home so you can call your girl.”
Rain began to spatter the windshield in earnest. Frank flipped the wipers on and Jody shifted uneasily in his seat as another low rumble came in from the east.
“So, what’s your girl do in Hagar?”
“Barb’s a waitress at Evil Eye Jack’s.”
Frank cocked an eyebrow. “The biker bar on the highway?”
“It isn’t that bad, really. Half are pot-bellied, middle-aged guys with ponytails acting like teenagers. They have a few beers and brag about stuff they haven’t done with girls they’ve never met.”
Frank laughed. “Don’t sound that much different than the boys down at the Legion. Still, I wouldn’t want my Abby to work in a place like that.” Frank tapped the photo on the visor. “She used to be a nurse before she retired.”
Jody glanced at the photo. “Nice looking lady. Been married long?”
“Forty years next month.” Frank smiled. “I’m surprising her with a trip to New York. Been promising since forever that I’d take her to one of them Broadway shows.”
“Really? A Broadway show? You don’t seem to be the bright lights and big city type.” Jody smirked. “No offense.”
Frank laughed. “No, you’re right. I’d rather stick my arm in a thresher than sit through one of them damn shows or, God forbid, get dragged to an antique show.”
“I hear you. At least Abby doesn’t drag you to craft shows. I swear to god my balls shrivel every time I see a folk art painting or a tea cozy.”
“Ain’t it amazing what we’ll do for our women?” Frank laughed.
“Yeah, it’s impossible to explain what you’ll do for someone you’re in love with.” Jody peered up the road through the worsening storm. “I wish I’d gotten to see her.” A powerful gust of wind tore across the road and torrents of rain whipped against the windshield. The wipers thwacked back and forth in a vain attempt to keep up with the sheets of rain.
Frank slowed as he passed a road sign indicating a curve ahead. “Damn. It sure is coming down out there.” He squinted at the blur of road through the windshield.
Jody shuddered. “It isn’t your fault, Frank.”
“What? What do you mean?” Frank glanced over to the passenger seat.
It was empty.
Frank looked up from the empty seat to see a motorcycle in the road ahead. Its rear tire was shredded and the rider was attempting to push it to the side of the road. Frank slewed left, attempting to swerve around the bike, but the rain slick road transformed his swerve into a sidelong skid.
Just before the impact that sent the rider 20 yards into a rock abutment, Frank had a flash of mud spattered jeans and an olive-drab coat with a rip in it. Jody looked up at the last moment, his eyes filled with tired resignation.
The truck rolled off the side of the highway and crashed headlong into an old maple tree. Rain pattered down. The steady tick of the cooling engine marked the passage of time. The radio was stuck on an all-night gospel music station; Johnny Cash booming out of the speakers.
Frank fell out of the truck and collapsed on the wet grass. He pushed himself to his hands and knees and vomited. He crawled painfully toward the embankment. He paused, took a deep breath and pushed himself to his feet. He cried out when he stood, but his need to get to the top outweighed his pain. He had to help the boy. He began to pull himself up the hill, panic rising in his chest.
A lone figure in olive-drab stood at the top, waiting for him.
“Jesus, boy. Are you okay? I thought for sure….” He reconsidered the rest of the sentence and clambered out of the ditch. He just stood and stared, breathing heavily.
“Good to see you, Frank.”
“Good to see anything. Thought we was both goners.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Frank shook his head. “Damn rain. Road was as slick as ice. I should’ve replaced them damn tires last year.” Frank looked around. “Where’s your bike?”
“It’s been gone a while. Think about it. Haven’t you noticed it’s daytime now?”
Frank’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean? A while? How long was I out?”
Jody took Frank by the shoulders and gently turned him toward the ditch. The truck was gone and a cross had taken its place. Withered flowers and faded pictures attested to the age of the monument. A woman stood by the cross, placing fresh flowers at its base.
Frank’s knees unhinged and he sank to the ground. “It’s Abby.” He tried to stand but couldn’t. “Abby! I’m here!”
“She can’t hear you. But she can sense you. That’s why she comes back.” Jody grabbed Frank’s hand and helped him to his feet.
“What in the blue blazes are you talking about?”
“This is the first time you’ve gotten out of the truck. Usually, you just start the trip over again.”
Frank looked up in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“It’s been three years since the accident. We’ve been out here every night. We haven’t left.”
“Three years? No. I was just….”
Jody leaned back on his heels and cocked his head. “You were just, what? Where were you before you passed me on the highway?”
Frank searched his memory. “I don’t know.” His brow furrowed. “Hell’s bells boy, what’s going on here? Is this some sort of trick?” Frank rose, looked at the cross and then at Abby. She was standing in silent vigil at the cross, gently stroking the faded picture of Frank.
Jody followed. “It’s no trick. We’ve been here for three years, doing the same thing, over and over.”
“You’re stuck here too?” Frank looked Jody in the eye. Jody’s face was calm and unworried.
“No, I’m not stuck. I’m waiting for you. You need to let go of the past. Let go of your life and move on.”
Frank grabbed Jody by the shoulders. “Let go? What about your girl?” His voice rose with panic. “What about Abby?”
“They’ll be fine.” Jody smiled. “We need to let them go. They can’t move on with their lives while we pull them back here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is that when I accepted what happened, Barb stopped coming every day to visit. She was able to move on.” Jody glanced in Abby’s direction. “Abby hasn’t.”
“I’m hurting her?”
“I don’t think that’s it. I think that the bond between you is very strong — 40 years strong. And with a bond that strong, it doesn’t break unless something purposeful breaks it.”
“I don’t want to break it.”
Jody winced. “Break may be the wrong word. I don’t think you’ll break it, but I do think you can leave go so that she can move on with her life.” Jody looked at Frank. “You don’t want her to be hurting every day, do you?”
Frank’s shoulders slumped. “Of course not. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her.”
Jody threw his arm across Frank’s shoulders. “Well, then. Let’s move on down the road then.”
Frank stepped onto the road and started walking towards town. “What’s down the road, son?”
“I’m not really sure. Pretty sure there aren’t any craft shows or broadway productions though.”
Frank laughed. “Suits me fine.”