Short Story, 2500 Words
Driving the southern coastline of the St. Lawrence River towards Gaspé is driving a sea-lined highway of magnificent views and endless skyline. Land-locked eyes are instantly drawn outward to the endless horizon; staring, in the semi-hope of spotting the hump of a whale’s back protruding from the hazy blue vista. More likely, and if they’re lucky, they might be able to spot the head of a seal slipping delicately through the chilly waters before submerging again in search of supper.
Somewhere along Route 132, just past the Gaz-o-bar—by country standards, the nearest landmark—there is a sign that reads Gaspé, 138 km ahead. And on that same sign, with an arrow pointing away from the water—toward another highway, referred to colloquially as the Murdochville Road—it reads, Gaspé, 131 km.
Whether you’re a local, knowing these roads like the back of your hand, or a modern traveller well versed in the language of GPS, you know that these seven kilometres are the difference between arriving at your destination, or arriving there an hour sooner. At that moment, every driver is left with a choice to continue on with the majestic views and peaceful coastline, or turn right into the dead space of the Appalachian mountains for the sake of a shortcut. For those who have driven from Montreal or Ontario, who have already spent at least ten hours in their car, it becomes a choice between their heart—which craves scenery and open roads—and their mind, a mind whose complaints over the aches, pains and fatigue of a lengthy road trip will eventually win out. The driver always turns right.
Len and Sara did. Sara couldn’t wait to get out of the car.
The two-lane highway pulled them inland, past the foreboding bottomless lake known locally as Dead Man’s Lake for that very reason—its official name is Lac de l’Anse Pleureuse, or, Weeping Cove Lake, which, although more poetic, is pretty much the same thing—and up into the tree-lined roads, twisting and curving with the mountainous landscape.
“We’ve lost cell reception,” Sara was quick to note with a frown.
“Hmm,” Len replied with typical slowness. “Let’s just hope we don’t run into car trouble.”
Sara was still pondering this possibility when they arrived in Murdochville proper shortly after. Driving through town, she was overcome with an eerie sensation. There were no cars at the gas pumps, no children at the playground and the information centre’s doors were locked. At the edge of town Sara could see what looked to be abandoned shafts from a mine or plant, she wasn’t sure, but she had a sense that whatever industry this town once boasted, it was long since dead. Coming from the city her only thought was, Who would live out here?
“We don’t need gas?” Sara asked rhetorically; hopefully.
“No, we’re okay,” Len replied confidently, but glanced at the gas gauge for reassurance.
The pair rolled out of town as quickly and quietly as they’d rolled in, at once grateful to be on their way, and hesitant as the expanse of bush and hills continued before them. Thirty kilometres out of town they found their bodies settling into the monotony of the drive, each kilometre looking identical to the one before it. For her own amusement, and just to annoy Len, Sara began calling Moooooooose every time they passed a moose yield sign, which was every few kilometres.
The car continued up and down the winding hills. Len pulled the wheel gently around a bend and again heard Sara call, although this time several octaves higher, “Moose!” just as they found themselves confronted by an enormous antlered animal. It was standing perpendicular with the road, staring down at them in all its majestic glory.
This sudden intrusion gave Len a jolt. “Damn!” He jerked hard at the wheel, then again in the opposite direction, swerving the car’s back wheels off the gravel shoulder and well into an entanglement of branches, vines and ditch.
“Damn,” Len said again, slowly, as he watched the moose saunter off into the deep darkness of the forest.
“Told you,” Sara huffed.
Len hopped out of the car and walked behind to assess their situation. She could hear a low whistle escape from between his lips. Getting back into the car he said simply, “It isn’t good.”
After a minute of thought he continued. “Here are our options. We can wait for another car to pass and flag them down—hope, at least, that they’ll stop in town and send help our way. We can try to walk back to town, but it’ll be the dead of night by the time we get there. We can sleep in the car and start walking at first light. Or, we can try to push it out.”
Sara considered his words for a split second and then countered in her traditionally arrogant way, “Well obviously we should do all of the above.”
Len gave a brief nod. Attempting to make light of their glum situation he offered, “Might be kind of cozy, snuggling up in the car together, surrounded by nothing but trees—like we’re camping.” He winked and added, “Maybe we can keep each other warm?”
Sara retorted with a look of disgust.
Len laughed. “Alright, let me see if I can find a few strong branches to wedge under the wheels.” Getting out of the car once more, Len looked back at Sara with a twinkle and a grin. “You sure? Last chance.”
Sara knew that he was trying his best to make light of their situation, but her heightened anxiety won out, making it impossible for her to hide the look of agitation on her face.
With a sigh Len said, “Wait here pretty lady. I’ll be back in a few,” then shut the door.
Sara watched Len disappear into the thick brush, his orange and gray designer fleece—purchased just for this trip, a country boy’s attempt to pass off as a city-dweller—was visible for only a moment before being swallowed by the green foliage. She looked at her watch. 5:08 p.m. They had hoped to be checking into their rented love nest by the end of the hour, or seating themselves at a pub with glasses of beer and bordeaux. She lost herself in imagination, dreaming about the hotel bed, the luxury of pillows and sheets, and the feeling of a hot meal deep in her belly. Her stomach growled in response and she was brought out of her reverie and into the discomfort of her present predicament.
How long had Len been gone? She looked at the time. Fifteen minutes. She settled in to wait.
After another ten minutes, however, she could feel her body getting antsy. The endless woods were beginning to spook her and she was impatient, wanting to do something more than simply sitting in the car. Stepping out, she called to Len. No response. “Len? Len! How far did you go?” She was met only with silence. She could not go into the brush after him, she would never find him, but she assumed, too, that he wouldn’t go so far as to lose his way back to the car. Or would he? “Len! Len! Len, where are you?” She continued calling out to him until her throat began to feel raw. In her mind, she envisioned Len surrounded by trees and disoriented. She imagined that the sound of her voice carrying itself through the trees was his only link to survival. Yet even then, after several minutes of calling out with no sign of Len in return, she stopped calling. He was worse than lost, she thought, he was in grave danger. He must have fallen, or encountered an animal. He must be in serious trouble to not even be able to respond. She moved inland about five feet, as far away from the safety of the car as she was willing to go, and strained her eyes in search of orange. “Len?” Nothing.
On reflex she pulled her cell phone from her pocket. Hoping for a signal but finding none she looked again at the time. It had been fifty minutes since Len left. She paused to consider her options, but finding none she returned to the car.
Time passed slowly, measured by gusts of wind, the rattle of leaves, and caws from birds circling overhead.
When a full hour had passed, Sara understood deep in her gut that there was something actually, undeniably wrong. Even if he needed to cut an entire tree down, Len wouldn’t have taken this long, she thought. Moreover, he would never leave her alone in these woods for any length of time, not without a legitimate reason. He knew that she needed him. And now, he needed her. He needed her help. She couldn’t let him down.
Filled with a sudden sense of purpose Sara riffled through her luggage, pulling out her warmest clothing, and stuffed several pieces into a backpack she’d found in the trunk. There was one bottle of water left in the car. She thought of Len, then packed it for herself. Lastly, she tore a page out of a notebook she had packed—a journal that she envisioned writing in over several days of sitting on a beach with the great Atlantic before her, just as in the advertisements—and jotted down a quick note: Len, in case you get out and find the car empty, I got so worried, I went for help. Walking back to Murdochville. Be brave! Leaving it on the dash along with the car keys, she set out. Calculating in her mind, she assumed she could make the trek in four, maybe five hours. Hopefully, she thought, before the whole town goes to sleep. “Ha,” she snorted, remembering the almost ghost-like conditions of Murdochville from earlier. She just hoped she could find someone, anyone, with a working telephone.
Len was normally the brave one in their relationship. She appreciated that Len took care of her, that she didn’t have to. Len was good to her, she knew it. And she took advantage of his goodness, she knew that, too. He wanted kids and she held off. Kids would be a game changer, she would need to give a lot more than she currently did. Her imagination turned to Len, crushed under the trunk of a tree, or fallen into a riverbed on the verge of drowning, and she knew—he deserved kids. She would give him a baby, if only they could get out of this godforsaken forest. She could do that for Len. She could be brave for him, once. Determined, she set out on foot, filled with all the verve she could muster.
It took almost forty-five minutes to reach the crest of the first hill. Sara was immediately disheartened as, reaching the top, she looked out into more of the same nothingness that came before. More road. More hills. More trees. More darkness. She continued walking, downward toward a valley, and with each step felt her determination recede. She looked at her phone. 7:02 p.m. “This is nuts. Len’s probably back at the car by now.”
Pausing at the edge of the road, one foot on pavement, one foot on gravel, Sara tried to reach a decision. Keep going? It was only getting darker, soon she wouldn’t be able to see her own hand in front of her face. Return back? She’d be safe in the car but… Len?
She continued on, but this time her footsteps were hesitant. Rather than filled with determination it was as though, with each step, her feet wanted to betray their ultimate mission. Sara longed for the car.
As she reached the valley and stood before a new rise in the road, her mind was beginning to win out—just as it had when they turned off Route 132. What if they had stayed on that coastal road? she wondered. What if they had not chosen the shortcut? Where would they be right now? What if she’d had sex with Len in the car? Would he have gotten lost in the woods? What if he was already dead, and all her trouble and effort was in vain?
As though to illuminate this thought, Sara’s body was suddenly covered in light. She saw her own shadow form on the pavement before her and turned to spot its source. She saw, immediately, that it was not their own car. This was not Len coming back for her, this was not Len coming back to take care of her. Still, her heart skipped at the sight of a pick-up truck, souped up with lights and oversize tires, heading toward her. She grabbed her cell phone and turned on the flashlight. Waving frantically she began to yell, “Help! Help! Please for the love of God, stop the car!”
She needn’t have wasted her energy, the driver knew she was there. The truck slowed to a crawl as Sara ran to the passenger door. The driver, a well-built man wearing full hunting gear, leaned over and gently pushed the door ajar. “Come on in.”
His accent sounded foreign to her ears, uncommon, but not unpleasant. He wasn’t a local, that fact was somehow obvious. But he was handsome and clean-shaven and had the means to rescue her. As she hopped up into the cab she turned to her saviour and cried, “Help, please. There’s been an accident.”
As Sara closed the truck door behind her, the driver gave her a brief, toothy grin—charming, calming. Pulling the car into drive, he responded, as the doors locked,“I think there’s been a murder.”
Back at the car, Len sat nursing a banged-up ankle while grasping Sara’s note. He had indeed taken a spectacular fall while out in the bush, and had been gone too long as a result. Thank goodness that hunter had found him—so friendly, especially once he’d learned of Len’s predicament, and of Sara all alone in the car. Knowing that he would find Sara and bring her back safely assuaged Len’s guilt. She couldn’t have gotten far, they would return soon. Then, altogether, they would pull the car from the ditch. And then they would finally make it to Gaspé. He had been thinking of proposing—he wasn’t sure—but, he decided, he just might go ahead and do it. If she wanted. And this night would become nothing but a trivial memory. Thirsty, he rifled around for water while he waited.
In Murdochville, a gas station attendant was locking the door for the evening. It had been a calm night and he was looking forward to a bowl of soup and his evening shows. As headlights approached he paused, seeing the vague shapes of a man and woman in the cab of a truck, but the vehicle kept on driving toward the sunsetting coast. “C’est fini.” He took a deep breath of the crisp country air, then, with a sigh of contentment, he went home.