Friday, March 7, 2014

Fiction Friday: The Walker

Mirage created by a hot blacktop road;
image by Brent Danley licensed under Creative Commons.
It was one of those stinking hot days when you could see illusions of water on the roadway ahead. The trees and hills in the distance shimmered in the heat waves.

I pushed a cassette tape into the player and felt my mood rise as Joni Mitchell strung a thousand syllables into a single note.

I was heading to Toronto from Ottawa, taking the scenic route, via the Trans-Canada Highway.

I loved driving through the blasted cutaways of the Canadian shield - granite forcing its strength through brush and swamp. And after years of living in the arid American southwest, my eyes relished the lush greenery.

Life! it declared irrepressibly.

Every quarter mile or so another body of water sculpted the geography - a lake, a river, a creek, a pond, a swamp. This was wet country and if I'd opened the window I would have been assailed by a blast of thickly humid air. I had the air conditioner in the car cranked up, and I directed one of the vents directly at my face.

Outcrops | Source
Despite the lethal heat wave, there was a lone jogger running in the gravel at the verge. Jesus! I thought, does he have some kind of death wish? If heat stroke doesn't kill him, a distracted driver will!

Not that there was much traffic. This area had once been thriving, but had dwindled under the recession. Former restaurants and gas stations were boarded up and in disrepair at the side of the highway. A motel, quaintly named "By the B'y," was authentically vintage with steel garden chairs at each door and peeling turquoise trim. There was, not surprisingly, a vacancy.

As I approached Sharbot Lake I decided it would be a good time to stop for lunch, not because I was hungry (I'd only been on the road a little over an hour), but because there was a little place on the county road heading south toward Kingston that served the most amazing deep-dish apple pie. A little detour, but absolutely worth it.

I must have accidentally passed the restaurant (day dreaming about that pie!) and was about to turn around when I saw them walking at the side of the road in the opposite direction.

In one hand she was carrying a small, old-fashioned suitcase, the kind with no wheels. In her other, she held the hand of a small boy. They were at least a mile from any building, either commercial or residential. She was wearing a pretty dress and a pair of heels. Heels! On the gravel shoulder. Her curly black hair was loose around her shoulders, even in this heat.

The boy was in shorts and T-shirt and wore a tiny backpack and a bucket hat.

Since I had to turn around anyway, I waited until I had passed them, then did a three-point turn at a level stretch on the deserted road.

I pulled over and rolled down my window.

"Hi!" I called out in my most non-threatening voice. "Crazy day to be out in this heat. Can I offer you guys a lift?"

She hesitated, checking my face for signs of ill will, then glancing at the boy (presumably her son) who was sweaty and red-faced.

"I wouldn't usually . . . but thanks. I'm Bettany. This is Michael."

"Hi, Bettany. Michael. I'm Carla."

I unlocked the doors and turned the music down a little. She put her suitcase in the back seat and buckled in the little boy.

As she slipped in beside me and felt the blast of refrigerated air, she sighed, "Oh, this feels better than I could have imagined. I swear to god, I've never been so hot in my life! And my feet! I should have worn my sneakers." She lifted her hair off her neck and I glimpsed green and blue marks. I looked away quickly, so she wouldn't know I'd seen.

"Where are you headed? I'm going to Toronto," I volunteered, keeping my focus strictly on the road.

"If you could drop us at the Sears catalogue depot in town, that would be great," she said, evading my question. Why would she bring a suitcase to the catalogue store? Unless she had goods to return. But surely she would have waited for more suitable weather.

"You sure picked a hot one for a long walk," I offered.

"Yah. We're catching the Greyhound milk run, and my damned car wouldn't start. Piece-of-shit K-car. Pardon my French. My sister's expecting us at the far end," she added.

"I'm stopping at that restaurant that makes the great pies. What's it called?"

"Patty's? That's in the same building as the catalogue store," she announced happily. In small towns like this, one building often performed several functions. I'm guessing this one also housed the post office, the OPP dispatcher, and the snowmobile dealership.

The place was more visible from this direction - there was a small outcropping and brush shielding the view of it from the other direction - so I found it easily and pulled in.

"What time's your bus?"

"Doesn't leave till three - I didn't expect to get a lift, so we're early."

"Why don't you join me for pie?"

I ordered a tuna sandwich with fries, diet Coke, and a slice of that apple pie. She ordered a slice of peach pie (which she said was even better than the apple), a glass of water for her, and a glass of milk for Michael. I changed my pie order to peach.

Kitchen Connaisseur

Michael, it turned out, was her three-year-old son. She was 20. She could tell I was doing the math and making judgments: teen mother, living in the sticks, probably broke if not actually living in poverty, god only knows what kind of relationship with the man in her life. By the marks on her neck, I would say not a good one. She wore a skinny gold band on her left hand.

She pulled a couple of Hot Wheels cars from Michael's backpack and he started driving recklessly on the plastic-covered table, crashing them with wicked abandon, while Bettany and I talked.

"So are you two just running away from home?" I joked, but Bettany gave me a look before she laughed.

"Yah, we get a little cabin fever here, even in the summer. Michael hasn't seen his aunt in -- how long, honey?" Michael looked at her with incomprehension. "Oh, well. Of course you wouldn't remember. It's been too long."

When my lunch came, I asked the server to bring me an extra plate and slid most of the fries onto it for Michael who began to wolf them down like he was a human sinkhole.

"I'm not going to be able to eat this whole sandwich," I realized. It was huge - made with thick hand-cut slices of fresh bread. "Can you take half?"

"Are you sure?" Bettany demurred widening her blood-shot eyes. I slid half onto the plate with the fries.

As we ate, she told me about life in Sharbot Lake and I told her about life in the capital. Two completely different worlds. All the while I wondered, how do I help her get out of here?

For previous entries, visit my Fiction Friday page.

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