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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail. scene thirty eight

Evening crept in slowly, then in the span of thirty minutes the orange and red sunset turned dead gray, and then pitch black. Once again the temperature dipped, and the cold came on faster than normal as the van crawled up through the Cascade mountains. They laid inside their bedding and stared up at the strip of starry black night sky framed by tall, pointed, dark trees on each side of the road. They were exhausted from the subconscious effort of fighting the wind and sun, and swaying of the truck. Somewhere along the way they both drifted off, and it wasn’t until they felt the truck rock to a stop with a great squealing of brakes, that they sat up, initially confused about their circumstances, until the realization of their situation set in again. The kid came around the side of the truck, bright, bluish, overhead fluorescent lights flooding him and the bed of the truck, and everything in sight. The door squawked metal on metal as he opened the lever. “You boys alive in there?” The kid asked with a yellowish smile. They nodded and crawled out of their beds. “Making good time, gonna be in Crescent City in an hour and a half or so. You guys wanna get you something to eat and hit the john, now’s the time. Last stop.”

Once again Tom paid. This time for fried burritos, candy bars and coffee. They stood at the back of the truck stretching and rotating their torsos in an effort to loosen up and get blood flowing before the kid came back from the bathroom. A flurry of moths flew haphazardly into and around the overhead lights, and Tom put his hand over his coffee to keep dust from their wings out of it. The kid walked across the lot, gangly, trying hard to be manly inside his teenage looking body. “Welp, this is the last shot. Got about 2 hours…I’ll stop when we get close and you guys can jump out.”

They ate in the dark of the box, the tires whining on the road. The moon crept up over the far eastern horizon, huge, and yellow from some far away fire, maybe the one in Montana. The food was good, and Tom thought about how his perception and value for food had changed since he’d been on the road. The value of a hot meal, a full belly,,,satiation, was something he’d always taken for granted, and something that would forever be altered, when and if he went back to normal life. As they moved southwest, humidity rose, cold and clinging to the skin. The smell of the air changed from fresh pine and earth to one of water…the ocean. It was as if some great God blew across the surface of the pacific and that breath carried inland far enough for the salty smell of kelp and ocean fish to reach their nostrils. Cat sat cross legged with his blankets draped around his shoulders, then wrapped around in front of him to cover his legs and lap. One hand poked up and out by his neck, and it held a burning cigarette. He looked like an old time Indian chief, his long hair slicked straight back into a tight ponytail. “I love the ocean,” he said, “but it can make 80 degrees feel like a winter day.” Tom nodded his agreement, “You spent much time on the coast?” He asked. Cat shrugged under the blankets, “I have, I have. The problem is that it draws lots of guys like you and I to it. So you’re always looking over your shoulder so that your shit doesn’t get jacked. I make a point to never get south of Frisco, it turns into a shit show if you do.” Tom thought about it for a minute, “You’ve had bad experiences down there huh?” Tom could see moonlight catching the flat smoothness of where Cat’s hair was slicked tight as he nodded, yes. “I guess I’m just not made to be in the middle of people.” He ashed the cigarette by rolling it back and forth on the bed of the truck. “See, I do this for different reasons than most of them. I didn’t get forced here, I chose here. I can only take so much of the whining and sniveling about how they got shoved out onto the road before I go nuts. I’ll take shittier weather and less bitching any day.” He spit a little glob onto the bed of the truck and put the cigarette out in it with a hiss, then pushed it out the side of the truck. He laid back on his side facing Tom. “I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll be glad to get out of this son of a bitch. I’m not sure I’ve ever been on a straight trip this long before, that kid has the endurance of a marathon runner, holy shit.” Tom laid down too, and looked up at the night sky, its darkness muted somewhat by moonlight. “I went to Florida once when I was 9 years old, but I have never been to the Pacific. This will be new to me.” Cat didn’t say anything, but Tom could see that he was awake because he was staring at the moon, and its light reflected from his eyes. What is he thinking about?

They drifted in and out of sleep, the hot food they’d eaten acting as a sedative. Tom had fragments of dreams during the short periods he was out. Dreams of obscure things, a pair of fancy red cowboy boots he’d had as a child, standing in the lunch line with Randa Campbell, a long ago crush, wading in the ocean, seaweed trying to pull him out to sea.

The brakes squealed and they both sat up. The door to the truck opened and they could hear country music playing on the radio, if tomorrow never comes, will she know how much I loved her… The kid unlatched the box. “End of the line boys.” They gathered their things and climbed out, the clammy cold of coastal air chilling them and bringing shivers. The kid latched the doors, “Welp, been good not knowing ya” he laughed, climbed back into the truck, and pulled out from the gravel side of the road, the exhaust rumbling and leaving a little cloud of exhaust to mute the red of the tail lights, and then he was gone. They stood on the side of the road, half disoriented from the suddenness of their ride ending, teeth chattering, and wondering what way to walk in the night. Cat looked at the spot where they’d last seen the taillights before they disappeared. “Well fuck, not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the little bastard might have at least dropped us where there was a fucking street light.” Instinctively they started walking in the same direction they’d seen him go. A hundred yards up the road Cat said, “Wham-Bam, thank you ma’am.” They both laughed for a long time.

The countryside was quiet, the crickets and insects that had accompanied virtually every night on the road were absent. The scuffing of their shoes and their breath reverberated off of the thick forest that bordered the road. Even though there hadn’t been rain that they were aware of, the road was dark, and the low spots held water, the moon making a perfect yellow impression of itself in each puddle. “I’m tired, but those woods seem wet, I’m not sure I want to chance getting soaked, I’m already cold,” said Tom. Cat agreed, “Let’s get up this little rise, and maybe we can see humanity somewhere. They walked onward down the narrow road, searching for civilization. Man always seeks his same kind, or at least signs that others were once there. They walked for nearly an hour through the dark. There were no cars passing by, no streetlights, no sign of civilization at all, just the moon and the dark forest. Someone has to live out here in all this dark, thought Tom.

They walked up a steep little hill, and as they crested the top they could feel a little breeze on their faces. In the hollow below them a few dozen white yard lights were scattered like single glowing eyes in the dark. An unspoken sense of relief washed over them.

They watched sharply into the dark countryside for a break in the dense forest for any kind of shelter where they could find a spot to sleep, but they walked for nearly a mile before coming to a large open field on a gradual hillside. The field was cut squarely from the forest, and where it butted up against each edge the trees were square and clean against the edge. Moonlight washed over the field causing the knee deep grass to appear a monochromatic silver. At the back edge on top of the rise, was a long and narrow pole barn, its metal roof gently reflecting moonlight. They stopped in the road and examined the area. There were no homes close, and not even a yard light for a half mile. “Might get a decent night's sleep under it.” said Tom, “probably be up and gone before anyone is even awake.” Cat snuffed and rubbed his nose a little. “I’m tired, I’m ready to chance getting tossed if you are…” Without another word they climbed down a little brushy borrow pit, then up the other side to a barbed wire fence. They took turns helping one another through by holding the wires stretched wide apart with a loud squeal. Once through they stood and listened for the sound of a vehicle starting somewhere, or anything else that might signal they’d been discovered. When they felt sure that they hadn’t been discovered, they walked up the hill through the dew-covered grass, soaking their pant legs and feet. The pole barn had a tractor, a boat, a half dozen odds and ends of farm equipment, and on the far end was a pickup camper shell resting on saw horses. They made their beds side by side under the shell, shed their wet pants, socks and shoes, and got into bed. Somewhere out in the woods they could hear frogs calling their rapid marble throated sound to one another. The air was damp, and even their bedding felt heavy, cold, and almost sodden. In seconds Tom could hear quiet snoring and knew that Cat was out. He closed his eyes and thought about the last few weeks. He wondered if Larry and Viv made it to Oregon, if the kids from Missoula had been swimming in the river since the last time he’d seen them. He pictured Jerry, and his ramshackle place, and the stone wall he and Cat had constructed, and he thought about Gina, and he wondered if she would even remember him…and then he was sleeping.

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