Here’s the fifth installment in my Winter Short Story Series telling the story of a long road trip across Canada. Scroll down to catch the earlier installments. Enjoy and feel free to share…
Dawn beat through the curtains. Red and lilac pierced a flame into the ceiling. The Doppler sound of transfer trucks shifting gears as they left the Big Stop next door hit the walls too, and the orange-faced clock flashed five a.m. My father was gone.
The hotel hummed from some imperceptible core: water heaters, air ducts, maybe the sound of vacuums but it seemed too early for the cleaners. The blade of morning light cut quickly through the ceiling to the wall as somewhere far off the sun launched over the horizon. I reached my hand upwards to intercept it. It burned a red line into my palm.
I imagined my father had slipped out while I slept like a child (as I still did then), sped off in the Jeep heading south or west or anywhere away from me and the home we were headed for, so full of stories and memories of loss and mistakes. But when I reached the window, holding a blanket around me like a cape, more for fear of the forceful sun than the morning cool, I found the Jeep still parked where we left it the night before, a little crooked in the third space from the last.
I dressed quickly. I would have to leave before he came back. Incase he came back. I wasn’t gonna be left. I could leave too. Anytime I wanted to. I’d make for the highway and throw out my thumb. Or maybe hop the median to the Big Stop, hang out by the coffee machines and talk to the truckers. Anyway, I had forty dollars and a tin of almonds in my backpack.
The hallway carpet tumbled down the stairs and died in a rubber strip below the door. Outside, the sidewalk pulled me toward the edge of the four-lane road where I teetered for a moment then jumped. The trucks were moving, all toward the highway, but I couldn’t see anyone around. Inside the gas station, the fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered but nobody was standing at the coffee machine. I ducked into the bathroom.
I read a story once about a kid who lived for six years in a mall bathroom. No one discovered him until they installed cameras after some guy shot nine people in the food court. I thought hard about that kid as I stood in the last stall hoping nobody had seen me go in. I knew then how much easier it is to be alone alone than just alone. If it’s just you and the trees, like it was the night I stood in that dark forest and wanted so badly to be alone with it, you don’t feel it so much. But when there’s all the evidence of other people – rows of toilets, stacks of coffee cups, hallways of hotel rooms – you know for sure there are a million other people, and not one of them knows you. And you feel it.
I didn’t stay there long. I ran back across the road and pushed through the front doors of the hotel. The hunter green carpet pulled me back up the stairs and down the hallway. I guess I knew I’d come back: I fished the plastic key card from my jeans’ pocket and slid it into the lock.
My father stood at the window, one arm raised to prop the curtain open, the other pressed against the glass.
“Where have you been?” he said, leaving the window as I entered the room.
“Nowhere. Just out.”
“Just out? It’s six in the morning.”
“Yeah. I’m ready to go,” I said.
He paused, tilting his head a little like he needed a better look at me. “You alright?
“Your mother won’t like it when I tell her you’re out gallivanting on your own in the middle of the highway.
I shrugged. Where were you? I almost said it… but didn’t.
“Don’t forget anything,” my father said. “I don’t want to have to come back here.”
“I found ten dollars in the Big Stop bathroom,” I blurted out.
“It was just on the floor in there so I took it.”
My father squinted. I wondered if the mauve morning light had painted me up beyond recognition.
“Nothing’s free,” he said after a while. Then we both left the room and never spoke again of that morning we spent apart.