by Bess Winter
The Trans-Canada highway is red here: iron-rich, rusty earth that can grow a mean potato must've been mixed right into the tar when they laid it over these hundreds of miles. The girl's boots are soft red suede, and dirt-dappled, like the road. Set against it, they almost disappear.
"Here comes a van," says the boy beside her. He is lanky and unintimidating, a friend from her dorm who's done this three times before. When he asked her if she wanted to hitchhike to Halifax with him, the voice inside her said, "Absolutely not!" But this weekend was the Pop Explosion, she didn't have the fifty bucks for the bus, and her friend insisted he'd protect her on the journey.
Her parents had always said: never. They had paired the word "hitchhiking" with "foolish" and "dangerous", sometimes, "back in the sixties" as, back home three provinces away, they barreled past lone long-haired teens who shrugged against the highway wind. The girl had always felt a pang of guilt, leaned forward to watch the grey face, crumpled like yesterday's newspaper, recede in the rear-view mirror as her parents rattled off exclamations from behind the wheel. That summer they had also said: when you get to university, don't take drinks from anyone. Later: I hope you're studying there at school; we're investing in that brain. Just this morning, over long-distance telephone: you need a warmer jacket.
At meal hall, the other girls sitting at her table all turned down the boy's invitation. Too busy, they said, otherwise they'd do it, of course. Of course. They exchanged looks, reassuring themselves, then stared down at their trays. The girl rolled her eyes up to view her friend's boyish, bespectacled face and nodded her assent. He would protect her; everything would be fine. Mom and Dad didn't need to know.
"Are you really going to do it?" One girl asked as the boy walked away.
"Why not?" She said, smiling with forced nonchalance.
The van is coming closer now; its silver bumper glints in the October sun.
"Stick out your boobs," says the boy. "I'll stick mine out, too," he jokes and thrusts his torso forward.
The girl brushes the pouf of hair out of her face and props one hand on her hip as she offers the other to the road. The van, like every car for the last hour, passes them by.
"Next one," says the boy. He plunks himself down on the gravel shoulder and rummages through his backpack.
"Want a sandwich?" He offers the girl something squished inside a clear bag, dangling it like bait. She takes it and sits cross-legged, plays with the buckle on her boot. All around them the Fundy flats stretch out to the horizon, a mass of red mud and long yellowed grass, dotted with balding trees. The trees are gnarled and hunched like crones from years of bending under the weight of the unrelenting marsh wind, a wind that whistles through every crevice it finds: the striations in the road, close-set branches, the small hoops in the girl's ears. It lacerates her face, draws tears. In the distance, a hawk hovers on it, on the lookout for prey.
The only landmark in view for miles is the old pro-life billboard that juts like an ancient rock out of the middle of the flats. Vandals or weather have knocked the wooden panel that says "Abortion" off into the mud. Now the sign reads, "Kills Children" in grotesque, dripping letters.
The girl's stomach is tying itself in knots. It might be the sandwich. The only sounds on the highway are the whistling of the wind and the honks of migrating geese as they vee their way southward. There is nothing to be afraid of here, she tells herself. But the shrill voice inside her keeps repeating, "Go home, go home."
The boy scrambles onto his feet.
"There's a truck coming over the hill," he says.
The girl shades her eyes, but can only hear the low growl of a distant motor, the rumbling acceleration and brief pauses to shift gears, like some creature drawing breath. While she waits for its body to peak over the horizon, her friend kicks up toefuls of gravel, surrounds himself in a cloud of red dust, hums a tune she can't recognize. Startled by the clatter, crows loose themselves from a naked branch. They caw and scream at the boy as they flap away.
Now the girl can make out a black mass looming on the horizon, too far away to distinguish: a ripple, a chimera glimpsed through her welling tears. She wipes the tears from her eyes with the rough sleeve of her sweater, bringing into view the truck's hardened outline, the bright chrome of its diesel exhaust, the flashing teeth of its grille. Now its unfamiliar license plate draws closer into view, now the plastic trinkets hung from its rearview mirror slam against each other in a jarring rhythm. Now she feels its rumble beneath her as it bears down on her and the boy. The boy shuffles a few steps back. She draws her knees up to her chest and clasps her arms around them.
"Not this one," she says. But her voice is drowned out by the growl and exhale of the truck.
A look of doubt plays across the boy's face. The girl watches him trying to weigh risk against his own calculation, but the truck is coming fast. From where she sits she sees him hesitate, glance quickly down at his feet, and extend his thumb. The helplessness of the gesture extinguishes everything. For the first time, she notices how young the boy looks.
Now she hears the hiss of air brakes as the truck crunches to a halt on the gravel shoulder.
"Come on," calls the boy, one foot resting on the chrome step up to the passenger side.
The girl rises to her feet, watches her friend vanish into the cab.
"Go home!" Cries the shrill voice. "Turn around now!"
Now she can make out the boy's pale face through the windshield, hovering beside a darker form. He mouths, "come on", slower this time. His eyes are wide and impatient.
She takes a deep breath and picks up her backpack. For a brief moment, she squeezes her eyes shut. She is suffocating all the instincts in her body: compacting them into an inkling smaller than the tiniest pebble on the gravel shoulder, willing the shrill voice into a murmur.
Her red boots disappear against the red of the highway. They are almost not there as she makes the short walk to the truck.
About the author:
Bess Winter writes and works in radio production. She is a graduate of Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, and will soon be an MFA-fiction student at Bowling Green State University. She attended the 2008 Sewanee Writers' Conference, where she studied with Randall Kenan and Margot Livesey. Her work has appeared in Adbusters, Kiss Machine, Forget Magazine, Cumulus Press's Tendril Anthology Series, and onstage.