The car pulls over onto the side of the road next to me, gravel crunching and shifting under the wheels, and the passenger window lowers. The driver leans over the centre console.
“Looking for some company?” he smiles and pats the passenger seat. “Hop in. You can toss your stuff in the trunk.” The door to the cramped trunk open when he pushes a button.
I circle to the back of the vehicle and stuff my backpack in beside a spare tire and a small bag of tools and the slide into the passenger seat, ducking my head low.
“Where are you headed?” the man asks, shifting the tiny Honda into drive.
“Montana,” I lie. “Family there.”
“Well I’m not going that far, but I’ll take you as far as I’m going.”
The car crawls along the gravel road. The man keeps it in the centre, his wrinkled and spotted hands at the ten and two positions. It’s stuffy inside with the heat turned up all the way. I face the window, watching the trees and ditches go by but not focusing on them, letting them become a blur, streaks of light and dark green with patches of blue peeking through. The white noise of the air vents and low hum of the engine fills my ears.
“I’m Arthur, but everyone calls me Art. I’m on my way to Oregon. There’s a cabin there that I stayed in during my honeymoon, but right now I’m visiting family for a few days.” His smile widens. “My great-niece just turned six,” he says, glancing my way. “Who are you visiting in Montana?”
“Fam—” I start to repeat, but break off mid word and plant my hands on the dash to keep my forehead from cracking against it as Art slams on the brakes and swerves to the right. The car halts with its nose on the line where the grass from the ditch meets the road. I see a ball of white fur skitter across the gravel and tumble down into the ditch on the opposite side like a bowling pin before I remember to exhale.
Art is clutching at the wheel, his shaking knuckles white with the tension. “I’m so sorry.” His voice quivers like the leaves outside in the light breeze. “Did I hit it?”
I swallow and shake my head. He doesn’t respond; it seems as if he didn’t see me. He shifts the car into park and exits, not bothering to shut his door. When he turns to look at the front of the vehicle he places one hand on his chest and one on his knee, releasing a long breath.
“We’re okay,” he says, raising his voice enough to carry over the sound of the engine.
“Are you okay?” a woman walks through the ditch and approaches us, holding the fluffy bowling pin. “I’m so sorry if he scared you, we just got him a few days ago and he got away from me.”
“Oh, no, not at all!” Art beams, all signs of shock and worry disappearing, arms reaching out towards the furball.
The woman says something I don’t hear and shuffles the puppy into Art’s arms. It squirms up onto his shoulder and starts licking his face, moving around so much that several times Art has to quickly readjust his hold so as not to drop it. He looks so happy, like he’s forgotten everything else in the world, including the strange teenager in his car that hasn’t stumbled upon a shower in the past week.
I look down at my lap and pick at the dirt under my fingernails until Art gets back in the car, chuckling and covered in short strands of white dog-love.
The streaks of trees gradually become the smeared pastels of small-town buildings. Small splotches of yellow and red are fire hydrants and stop signs popping up and sliding by.
Art pats me on the shoulder. “Are you hungry? You must be hungry.”
“I’m fine.” I haven’t eaten in the last few days except for some gas-station pepperoni sticks and a warm bottle of water. “We should just keep going.”
I don’t look at him directly, but in my peripheral vision I see him gazing at me with his head cocked slightly to the side. “Okay, then.” He shrugs and signals a left turn, an A&W filling the frame of the windshield.
“I thought we weren’t stopping.”
Art pulls into the drive through, lowers the window and proceeds to order himself a Papa burger and some onion rings with a chocolate milkshake. “What would you like?”
I just stare at him.
“And a Teenburger combo with fries and another chocolate milkshake,” he finishes and pulls forward to the window to pay and collect the food.
“You don’t need to feed me.”
The woman in the window smiles as she hands Art some napkins. “You and your grandson have a good day.”
Art smiles back. “We will. You too.”
Our small pocket of air is soon heavy with silence and the smell of fast food. Art nestles his bag of onion rings in one of the cupholders. Crumbs of deep-fried deliciousness fall from his lips as he eats and onto the napkin he laid across his lap.
“You didn’t have to do that,” I say.
“I don’t have to drive you anywhere. I don’t have to go visit my great-niece or my old honeymoon spot. I don’t have to spend my days revisiting old memories and trying to make new ones that will last. I don’t have to do anything, but I do the things I want to do. You don’t have to do what you’re doing.” He pauses. “Teenagers like Teenburgers, right?”
“I suppose so.”
I pull the burger out of the paper bag. It’s more beautiful than the sunrise I saw this morning. Juice from the tomatoes runs down my chin when I take a bite and a sesame seed gets stuck between two of my front teeth.
We slow to thirty by a park. It’s all primary colours, a jigsaw puzzle of yellow and red and blue, children of various sizes clambering on everything they are and aren’t supposed to. A Frisbee slices a line across the image in front of our windshield and Art stops to get out and pick it up. He holds it for a moment with both hands, standing in front of the car, watching the anthill of activity, smiling. He must always be smiling. I don’t know how he manages to find so many things to smile at, so many reasons to give everyone a little bit of his time. Or any reason to pick up a dirty hitchhiker and buy him a hamburger and a milkshake.
A boy in a striped shirt waves his tiny arms at Art. “Over here, mister!”
I open my door slowly and stand up, keeping one hand on the top of the car. Art steps back with left foot and let’s go of the Frisbee with his left hand, touching its beat-up plastic to his chest before flinging his right arm out and letting it soar. I follow it with my gaze, over a fence and a foot above the kid’s head. He jumps for it but misses, and chases it over to the monkey bars.
Another little boy is playing with a little girl and her dolls. I watch as his mother goes up to him and yanks him to his feet. She slaps his hand until he drops the doll he’s holding. His face screws up and his mouth twists, about to cry, but he stops when she shakes her finger in his face and screams something about how many times she’s told him not to play with girl toys and then drags him off by the arm, his little feet in race car shoes stumbling to keep up. I stare at the spot where they were. My throat feels swollen and the sky feels grey with disappointment.
Art claps his hand on my shoulder and I start.
“Your onion rings are getting cold,” I say.
Art talks to me as he drives. He tells me happy stories about his partner, Terry, and about his nieces and nephews and their kids and all of their graduations from college, high school, and kindergarten. He tells me about the cabin by the beach in Oregon.
I don’t tell him anything. I look at him occasionally, but mostly I watch the landscape out my window whizz by. Sometimes I let my eyes relax enough that the colours actually mix and blue and green become teal, only one continuous stroke of oil paint. I doze off a couple times with my forehead leaving spots of oil on the cool glass.
Art wakes me up by shaking my shoulder. “I just had to stop to use the restroom. I’ll just be a couple minutes. I’ll leave the car running to keep you warm.”
I scrub at my eyes with my knuckles. It’s almost dark outside and we are parked in front of a diminutive and lonely gas station. The lighted sign on the storefront is dingy and flickers slightly. I sit up quickly. We have gone farther than I thought Arthur would take me. How much farther does he plan on taking me? All the way to Montana?
A knock on the window makes me jump. It’s a pump attendant.
“Would you like me to clean the windows?” His voice is muffled by the glass.
I shake my head and sink back in my seat, ignoring him as he leaves. Then I lean forward, peering through the windshield, scanning the inside of the gas station through its windows. I don’t see Arthur anywhere; he must still be in the bathroom.
I climb over the center console, hitting my head on the roof and cursing. I hit the horn briefly when I plop into the driver’s seat but the attendant, now inside the gas station behind the counter, glances up for only a moment. I click the seatbelt into place, put my foot on the brake and shift into reverse. I back up more quickly than I mean to and knock over a garbage can I couldn’t see in the dim light. Glancing around to make sure no one noticed, I throw the Honda into drive and pull out of the miniscule parking lot and onto the empty highway, swerving across both lanes. From behind a large billboard, red and blue lights start to flash and a siren echoes across the blank night landscape.
“Shit.” I pound the steering wheel with my palms and pull over to the right, wondering why in hell I thought this was a good idea.
The police car parks behind me, siren off again but lights still illuminating the trees like old 3D glasses, the type you get in a cereal box. In my side-view mirror the reflection of the cop steps out of the vehicle and saunters toward the Honda. I press the button to lower my window, staring at the air vent to the left of the steering wheel.
“License and registration, please.” The cop is cleanly shaven, of average height and build.
I try not to show my panic while I reach for the glove compartment. The vehicle registration may be in there, but the only license I have, which does not permit me to drive without a licensed driver in the passenger seat, is in my backpack in the trunk. My heartbeat is the tick of a stopwatch, counting down the seconds, the chances I have left to escape, to keep running.
“Hello, officer.” Art has caught up, out of breath from jogging, but he still has a smile on his face.
“Is this your vehicle, sir?”
“Yes, it is. I apologize, I’ve been teaching my grandson how to drive. He’s hoping to take his driving test in a few weeks.”
The officer looks skeptical. “It seems to me he’ll need more than a few weeks to practice.”
“I uh…just mixed up the gas and the brake. I have my learners’.” I watch Art’s face. He’s acting calm and polite. “I’m…still learning.”
The cop raises his eyebrow. “I’m going to have to see that learners’ license of yours.”
“It’s in the trunk.”
He backs up so I can step out of the vehicle and retrieve the plastic card from my backpack.
“Well, it’s a valid license. But you should really have it with you in the cab, and you can’t be driving without a properly licensed supervisor.” He glances between Art and me. “Look, I don’t really feel like writing up any paperwork. You’re sure this was all just a simple mistake?”
Art puts his arm around my shoulders and shakes me playfully. “Yes, I swear. Maybe we should have started by practicing on the back roads.”
Art and the officer bid a somewhat awkward goodbye and Art gets back into the driver’s seat of the Honda. I get in beside him and shut my door and clasp my hands in my lap, staring at a hole in my jeans that I’d been picking at for months. I wait for him to kick me out and leave me stranded in the ditch.
“Terry died a few years ago, as you probably figured out,” Art says. “We got married a few years earlier. Those were the happiest years of my life, even though we had many happy years together before that. We never ended up having kids.” I look up at him to see a tear roll down his cheek, slowed by the crevice of each wrinkle. “He would have made such a great father.” He was still smiling.
“I don’t have any family in Montana,” I say.
He gazes past me out my window, at a manmade pond in the middle of a field. I imagine he’s seeing the beaches of Oregon.
Bethany Barthel, a student at GPRC, has been published in The Waggle once before. Currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Psychology, she doesn’t write as often as she would like to, but she actively pursues the improvement of her work. She spends way too much of her free time browsing the internet and overthinking things.