Though he had been walking along the highway for most of the night, John’s feet were not tired.
In fact, he felt very little of anything.
He really could not remember when he started to walk, but he thought it must have been quite some time ago, he did not recognize anything around him. The stretch of highway was much like any other, with deep trees lining each side and the familiar yellow lines down the center.
A bright moon gave the road a slight glow near his feet, but otherwise did little to bring details of where he was into focus.
When did he start walking? He wondered about it for a while as he put one foot in front of the other, but no answer came to his consciousness. He received a similar answer when he probed for where he was or what he had been doing since he started to walk.
Was it something at the party? He remembered going to it, but it seemed ages ago. Had, perhaps, something been slipped into a drink and left him bereft of reason or memory?
He had no answer for that, either.
He did remember meeting the girl, however. There was no way he could forget her.
She was a special creature, one of those rare, once-in-a-lifetime girls. When John saw her, he was struck instantly by her eyes.
The party had been going strong for a long evening, with dozens of people surrounding him. He was a wallflower for most of it, though. John was never one for big crowds, but he felt he had to go when his friend, Peter, pressed him into it.
“Come out with me, bro,” he said earlier in the day. “It’s been ages, and you need to get out with people for once.”
John knew he was right. It had been months since he had gone anywhere aside from an endless cycle of school – work – home, all to get up the next day and start it all over again.
It had been that way since he had to break things off with Julia. That relationship had been a dead-end form the start, but, he knew, he ended up in it because he did not want to be alone.
Sometimes, in life, he knew, you had to make the bad choices in order to keep from being alone.
It ended spectacularly, of course, as he knew it would from the start, but the fire he felt while being with her was worth the risk.
Still, when it was done, he simply could not bring himself to get out and start things again.
It had been a time of rest, he supposed, needed to recover from it all. He still felt as if he should sequester himself away, to keep himself socially locked behind a door and leave the world to its own devices.
Sure, he knew it was really no good for him to do it, would probably do more harm than good, but it still felt like the right thing to do.
Then dang Peter came along and pushed him to get out. John knew he was right, knew he needed to get out of the rut he was in, but he still felt a little resentful of him for doing it.
That is, until he saw the girl.
Her eyes were the most striking part of her, and what John noticed first. They almost glowed in the dim light of the club and, though he was still some distance away from her, he could not help but be caught in them.
John seemed to be caught up for a long time, just staring at her, before he realized she, too, was looking back at him.
She gave him a small smile, which encouraged him to move forward, to press his feet one after the other, across the floor and within just a few feet of her.
“I couldn’t help but come over here,” he said, by way of introduction and, when her smile grew bigger, he knew he was in.
A scrabble of stones shifting under his feet distracted his thoughts, and he wondered, again, how long he had been walking. He was in the same clothes he put on before going to the party, but, beyond that, he could not discern how long his feet were following the trail they were on.
He saw a light ahead, though it was not bright. It was a glow on the road, in the distance and seemed to be around a bend ahead. No traffic had passed him by, at least none he could remember and the night, though deep, was not cold, despite the fact it was early fall.
He pushed himself to step faster, wondering what the glow was.
As he wandered around the bend, he saw the glow was from a large set of lights attached to a truck. The lamps shone toward the trees along the side of the road he was walking on, igniting the forest there with a white luminosity that, John was surprised to find, did not hurt his eyes, even though he had been walking in darkness for what could have been hours.
As he got closer, he saw the truck was a fire engine, but he saw no one about. Everything was quiet and calm, with not even a breeze stirring the leaves of the trees around him. The lights on the truck were only from the spotlights along the side of the machine, while the flashing siren lights, normally flashing their strobing beacons whenever a road-stop occurred, were dead.
John grew curious as to what was going on, so, as he reached the side of the truck, he touched it. It felt cool under his hand, but not cold. The engine was quiet, switched off while the engine sat on the edge of the road.
He walked to the front of the truck and touched the hood, just above the engine. It felt warm, though not dramatically so. The last time it ran must have been some time ago.
The warmth of it brought a flash of memory to his mind, as John felt the touch of the girl’s hand on his own. He walked to toward the dance floor, feeling embarrassed and knowing it was probably a mistake to let her see his gangling, jilting dance, but she was smiling and seemed well-pleased to be there with him. The music had been a soft up-tempo kind of song, meant to dance to, but was not something he was normally into.
Still, it made him happy and surprised that she did not run away from him and was, instead, seeming to enjoy herself as much as he was.
When they left the floor, he remembered sitting at the table with her, as the waitress came over to take their drink orders. He smiled at the girl, and knew the waitress was going to get a great tip, if things kept going as well as they were.
John stepped toward the edge of the road, looking into the tree line ahead. There were no figures moving, nothing to indicate anyone had stepped away from the truck and wandered that way, but why would that be?
Why would the firemen just leave the truck sitting here for no reason?
No tracks were in the grass that he could see, but much of the ground was shadowed by the bright light above, shining toward the forest. John bent forward, nonetheless, to try to see.
He was surprised to find, though he remembered having a good amount to drink, he was not dizzied from bending over, and thought it must have been a while since his last one. Maybe the long walk he had taken pushed the booze from his system.
His curiosity was getting the best of him and he took a few steps toward the woods, wondering where everyone was or what was going on. A few steps into the grass, John found himself starting to feel a little afraid.
The situation was strange, the darkness was deep and it all had a surreal quality to it that disturbed him more than he wanted to admit to himself. He had no idea where he was or what happened to him that night. Where was the girl? The last he could remember of her, they were drinking together and having a nice conversation about her family and his. Comparing notes on Christmases past and how their families were a lot alike.
After that, nothing. He did not know where his car was, where Peter was, or where his feet had led him.
No movement was in the woods as he stepped closer. No sound of animals or birds cooing in the night, no people from the fire engine walking around doing whatever it was they were doing in this desolate place this late at night.
Nothing to suggest there was anything in the world aside from himself and his long walk.
The light from the truck extended into the trees some, and he was able to see the brambles as they grew thicker. There was, however, a small trail of some kind, allowing him to pass through without catching his jeans or shirt on them. While he appreciated it, it did seem strange to John. Was it some kind of path made for utility workers or something? Was there a set of power lines or a transformer somewhere in these woods?
Whatever the case, it was wide enough for a car to pass through, so he knew he would have no trouble navigating it, as long as it held out.
It was not a road, though, more just a section of the forest that had been mowed through, maybe by some type of machinery.
He was able to get about five hundred paces into the thick woods before he was stopped by the outline of something ahead.
The light from the road was far enough behind that it shed no light in this place, but when he looked back, John could just make out where it would be. A white aural glow made it apparent.
Whatever was ahead of him was low to the ground, slightly reflecting the moonlight from above, as it broke through in bits from the overhanging branches. John’s nervousness grew when he saw it, though he was not sure why. Maybe it was the anticipation of something different.
He took a few more steps, and the object became slightly clearer. In the moonlight, he could now see it was a car of some kind, parked at an odd angle to the path.
His fear and nervousness grew exponentially when he was it was a Sable, the same type of car he drove, himself.
It looked like it had been there for a long time, though. Weeds grew around it, pushing their way up the sides of the car and into the windows. Long streamers of ivy wrapped around the back of it, trying to break their way through the metal exterior and into whatever lay within. A few branches from the tree the front end looked to be resting against had broken away and landed on the hood, leaving themselves there as a testimony to the impact that had happened.
John could see in the dim glow a crack in the back window, and saw the crumple of the front end where it had impacted the large tree. A subtle hint of shapes inside made him walk around the side of the car to the driver window and, where the moonlight streamed inside, he could see a figure in the seat. Another was beyond that one, in the passenger side of the car.
His horror at what he was seeing hit him beyond measure, and he wanted to do nothing more than to run back the other way, back toward the light and away from whatever had happened in this pace. He knew something terrible, something tragic, had occurred, and, though he could surmise the story, it was still all too much for him to bear.
But John could not help himself; he felt compelled to reach out to the handle and pull.
The door refused to open, however, and he did not know if he should feel relieved or if he should let the fear take control and allow him to get away.
He shook his head slightly, biting his lip, as he leaned forward and stared inside.
The driver was in a pair of jeans, with a bright white tee, while the passenger, a girl, was wearing a dress which looked to be red with small flowers on it.
It was the same dress, in fact, that he saw the girl in, remembered twirling around her as they danced to the up-tempo song before sitting down to talk.
He looked down at his own clothing and saw the white tee he had put on that night before heading out. The same one Peter commented and laughed at, saying he could have dressed up for the occasion.
John wanted to retch, wanted to scream in outrage at what he saw, but neither came to him. Only the abject terror at what he knew must have happened.
How long had he really been walking along that road? How long had it been since he danced with the girl that night at the party?
How long had he been lost along this road, walking to who knows where?
How long had he been lost?
He turned away, the truth of it all hanging on him with a great weight. As he started back toward the highway, he remembered the waitress, remembered the drinks that flowed like water.
He had been so nervous with the girl, just wanting to relax himself a bit, to let himself feel free for the first time in a very long number of days.
The light ahead was brighter and grew more so as he walked. The glow of it surrounded him, grasping him in its whiteness, and he knew he must be getting close to the road again.
It had all seemed so simple that night. He just wanted to be himself once again. To be the happy, confident John he knew he used to be, before his life took a turn. Something as simple as giving a smile to a random girl, even if she happened to be the most beautiful one he could remember ever meeting, to allow himself to spend some time with her and feel like the world really wasn’t against him.
Had that really been too much to ask for?
The glow was much brighter now and he found himself not entirely surprised to see the fire truck was gone and only light remained.
Not even the road behind it was there any longer, simply that light, endlessly bright and yet comforting to see, remained to him.
As he stepped forward, he hoped the long walk he found himself on could finally be done.