In the space between one heartbeat and the next, I’m standing. I’m standing before I’m awake, the dry leaves that made my bed tumbling away in the pre-dawn breeze, barely seen in darkness, but speaking of their journey downward in a whisper of death on death. They flow around me and my pack as I swing it up onto my shoulder, pressing the chill of the morning dew and night sweat through my clothing, into the small of my back and the space between my shoulder blades.
I shiver, every hair on my body is stands up, and I realize it has nothing to do with sweat, dew, the breeze, or the ambient temperature of the pre-morning chill. I could be on fire, and I’d still be shivering. My instinct is to pause and take stock of the situation. Figure out why I want to run, then what to do about. Some deeper instinct seems to be thinking for my feet, which have informed me I can think on the move, thank you very much.
It’s not just before dawn, when the horizon begins to pale and glow, but a full hour before that first blush, when inky blackness still clings to everything. There is no moonlight, because there is no moon. Some low cloud is racing forward, it’s leading edge swallowing the stars.
Soon, there will be no stars, but there is the amber of a solitary light not far behind, and another somewhere well and far ahead.
As soon as my feet hit blacktop I turn to meet the sunrise halfway, the sooner the better. My feet, my back, and the long muscles of my legs are sore. Movement loosens my legs and back, but doesn’t do a damned thing for my feet.
I break into a loping pace, half again my walking pace. If I’m going to hurt anyway, I might as well hurt while moving faster. I set my eyes on the distant flickering street lamp as my goal.
In the corner of my eyes, I see the shadows flicker and move. I think everyone who walks late at night has seen them; the bits of inkier darkness that move here and there, the shadows of the starlight and other sources so dim you only notice them in the more light-sensitive rods clustered around the edges of your eyes, outside the focus.
It’s just late at night it’s hard to shake the sense that there’s life in them—or, no, not life, but purpose.
After a while spent jogging I begin to get that tunnel vision brought on by long exertion, and the darkness seems to grow, even though it should be lessening. There’s a low wind in my face, a breeze, just enough to feel like it’s pushing me back, sapping my strength. Just enough to make fill my ears with the sound of its passing and merge with the sound of my heartbeat.
For several long moments I have no heartbeat at all. I hadn’t heard the minivan coming up behind me, but there it is, idling quietly.
It’s an older model, soccer mom standard, it doesn’t look quite white, but it will be some pale off-white shade. Grey, pink, gold, sage, I don’t know. I wave my apology and step to the side. The minivan pulls up, and I hear the sound of the window rolling down. It doesn’t come to a complete stop, and keeps rolling forward at a walking pace.
A woman’s voice comes through the open window, not very animated, but with an edge of humor to it.
“I could have run you right down, young man.”
I glance through the window, but her face is cloaked in shadow.
“Maybe you should consider turning your lights on then?”
“Oh,” she says. I hear her fumbling at the dash, and a moment later the headlights flick on. “I forget sometimes.”
I don’t know what to say about that, so I wait.
“It ruins your night vision, you know,” she tells me, after moment.
“It helps you see the road,” I counter.
“I’m not looking for the road,” she says, waits a beat, and adds, “Lucky for you.”
I still can’t see much beyond a profile, but she looks behind us, and asks, “It’s a strange time to be running down a road. You running from something?”
I don’t know what to say about that, either.
“What are you running towards?” she asks.
“In my experience, if you don’t what you’re running to, you’re probably just running away from something. Need a lift?”
I hesitate. On the one hand, I’ve heard a lot of bad stories about hitching. On the other, she doesn’t seem dangerous. Of course, she might not be alone. I fish around in my left pants pockets, fumbling through a pair of earbuds (one of which works), a little bit of parachute cord, and a lot of loose change, then take one of those single-LED keychain lights out. Leaning carefully in through the window, I shine the light in and around the back of the minivan.
The vans still rolling, so it’s not as easy as it sounds.
There’s no one there, and nowhere for them to hide. Instead of seats, there’s a foam mattress, a small plastic chest of drawers, a camp stove, and one of those refrigerator coolers that plugs into the cigarette lighter jacks. I shine the light towards the woman, and she blocks her face with one long-fingered and elegant hand.
She’s frumpy, late-middle-age, fairly average looking.
As soon as I take my thumb off the button and the light goes dark, she glances back again.
“If you’re running from something, I’d suggest hurrying on up about it.”
That’s nonsense, since I’m running from a vague worry, an undefined discomfort, and you can’t outrun your own imagination . . . but somewhere a bit deeper down I suddenly find I vehemently agree.
“Okay,” I tell her. “As long as the headlights stay on.”
She laughs and I jump a little as the door lock jerks upwards. She laughs a little more, and I open the door, make a weird hop-skip to get in without throwing my bag in first—in case she wants to drive off with it—kneeling awkwardly on the front seat, sling my bag into the back, and settle in.
“Not to be ungrateful, but you could have stopped the van for half a second.”
White teeth flash in lip-stick frames. “What is it you kids say, hmm? Can’t stop, won’t stop.”
The woman puts the minivan into gear and squeals off in a cloud of rubber. I find myself looking behind us, staring out into the tail-light red darkness behind us.
“Relax,” she says. “Nothing’s chasing you that can catch up with us.”
I listen to the grumbling labors of the little engine slowly accelerating us towards a running pace. “In your super-fast dragster minivan?”
I believe her, I guess. I let my eyes rove around the back. The van has that indescribable quality marks a place as a home, not just somewhere someone’s crashing for a bit, with a possible literal exception for headlightless night driving.
Her hair is dark, black, I think. The dashboard lights cast a pallid glow across her features, pale, muted, just enough to show that better lighting wouldn’t make her pretty.
“I used to be very pretty, you know,” she says, as if she’s plucked the thought from my mind—or as she has the basic common sense to notice my gaze and puzzle out the obvious line of thinking behind it. “But thirty years sitting on your butt in front of a computer screen in an office messes you up like a wax sculpture under a heat lamp.”
“That’s some vivid imagery.”
“Life’s vivid.” She snorts. “Well, it should be, anyway. Mine was sort of a long dull slideshow of a cubicle.”
“Three decades of a steady paycheck must have been rough.”
She doesn’t take her eyes from the road but they wrinkle at the corners.
“Young man, are you sassing me?”
“If I say yes, will you pull over and kick me out?”
“There’s a difference between a job as a means to an end and a job as an end. It kept me comfortable, and then some, but I never did anything with it. Never traveled much, never had kids, my marriage just sort of withered and died—poof!”
“Plenty of people don’t have kids, get divorced.”
“And more power to them! You don’t need kids to have a life full of meaning, you don’t need to travel, you don’t need an amazing job, you don’t need a cause you fight for, you don’t need to donate to the needy, you don’t need a faith, you don’t to be married, or popular, or even loved to live a life . . . but let me tell you something, young man, you need something.”
“Stranger,” I say.
She glances my way, dark eyes little more than pits in the darkness, shining like she might be crying a bit, catching the orange glow of the dash. I could never own a car with orange dash lights. Which may be a bit too choosy for someone who options are walking and hitching, but everyone’s got a right to their standards, no matter how pointless.
“Stranger. Most people call me Stranger.”
That earns me a look.
“You’re no stranger to me, young man.”
“We don’t know each other,” I say, and I mean it.
She shrugs. “I’m sure our paths have nearly crossed at some point, but at this point you’re riding in my car, and I’m telling you how my life got screwed up so bad, so I don’t think we can be strangers to one another.”
“Fair enough,” I tell her, staring at my hands. “So it doesn’t sound all that bad, so far, just kind of . . . blah.”
“Blah? Yeah, blah is a good description. Sometimes I think of that atomic bomb quote, you know, ‘I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,’ or however it goes.”
“That seems melodramatic. You led a boring life, you didn’t destroy any worlds.”
“I destroyed a lot of worlds.”
“I destroyed a world where I have kids, and I’m still with my husband, and he’s not off starting a family with a twenty-nine-year-old. I destroyed a world where I took out a loan, went to school, and climbed the corporate ladder. A world where I joined the Peace Corps instead of just thinking about it a thousand times. A world where I ran for office. A thousand worlds where I looked back over my life and wasn’t filled with regret.” Her voice is mixed bitterness and exhaustion. “You don’t have to live for anything in particular, but living for nothing’s just suicide with a heartbeat. One day I look in the mirror and I realize I’m a skeleton driving a minivan from home, to the office, to the store, to home, and on weekends I watch NCIS reruns.”
I let the silence drag on for a moment.
“So you got up one day, and you left it all to live in a minivan.”
She smiles, tight-lipped, and tells me, “Sort of. I had a lot of money, and I left it all to this and that, spread it around so that my name would show up on a lot of plaques on benches. Then I took the minivan and here I am.”
“Why not take the money and travel the world?”
“I don’t want to travel, I want to do something,” she says, and there’s heat in her words for the first time.
“Okay, so what are you doing?”
Then more silence.
The only sound the tires pounding over the uneven cracks in the old blacktop, and off-cadence rhythmic buduhbump buduhbump like a galloping horse. She looks at me several times, though, opens her mouth as if on the cusp of speaking, and, finally, shakes her head.
“Something that needs to be done. Good work. Important work.” She nods to herself, then gestures at me, “And occasionally stretching the rules a little bit to pick up temporary passengers.”
“Uh,” I say. “Okay. Well I’m glad you did. There wasn’t anything I could put my finger on, but I felt like something . . . I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense; it was just a feeling.”
She nods. “When in doubt, trust yourself, young man. Trust me when I tell you it’s a dangerous world.”
“It doesn’t have to be, and I wish it wasn’t,” I tell her, and I’m surprised by the intensity of my own voice. “I don’t really get it.”
“Everything wants to be alive,” she tells me then, with a significant glance behind us. “Especially things that aren’t quite. They don’t understand the value of what they don’t have, so they steal it without guilt.”
“People?” I ask, “Or the shadows that move?”
Her drawn-in eyebrows raise a fraction of an inch, and then she smiles.
“How much sleep did you get?”
“Not enough. It’s never enough when it’s damp and cold, but less than usual.”
“I’ll turn the heater on, you get some sleep.”
I start to tell her that I can’t sleep while driving, and I’ve never been able to, but I realize just how exhausted I am. Too little sleep, too much shivering, and the after-effects of the adrenaline jolt that woke me all hit me in the same moment, and I slide the seatbelt to the side, curl my head into the crook of my arm against the window, and drift off.
Just before sleep, I mumble, “Ma’am?”
“Yes, young man?”
“Leave the headlights on.”
She laughs, and it’s a warm, happy, living thing.
I wake as the brakes pitch me forward. We’re at a T-intersection, and the top of the sun is just rising, shining through the driver’s side window.
“Go south a few miles and you’ll find a bridge over the river headed East.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Somewhere else,” she tells me, with a smile in her voice that takes the potential sting off the words. I can’t see anything of her, as she’s wrapped in a halo of blinding sunlight which prevents me from looking directly at her.
I take my bag and get out of the car. I stumble, since it’s still rolling a little.
“Can’t stop, won’t stop?” I ask.
There’s a snort from inside the van, and then something compact and heavy smacks me in the forehead.
“Don’t sass me, young man,” she yells. “And don’t lose that flashlight!”
I bend down as she drives away, massaging my forehead, and pocket the flashlight. And turn South. By the time the minivan is fading in the distance, the heat’s already beginning to shimmer off the asphalt.