(Note: this is quite a departure for me – a work of pure fiction. I honestly don’t know what to make of it, I suspect it is quite mediocre. Any comments would be welcome)
He was walking down County Highway Q, just west of where it intersects with State Highway 15 and bends sharply to the south, where it catches the shoreline of the river and runs west, following the river’s north bank. He walked along the grassy edge of the road, pleasantly surprised at how warm it was for early November. He unzipped his light spring jacket and filled his lungs with the brisk fresh air, content to be outside on such a day, enjoying the rolling, picaresque scenery. Looking up river, he could see a bridge, wide and flat, crossing the river and dominating the landscape. A half hour later, he came to the point where the highway curved and crossed the bridge. Leaves curled at his feet, as the midday breeze blew crisp and cool. The bridge was wide, with a lane for walkers and bicyclists, and slightly longer than a football field. The river flowed beneath it, slow and blue, reflecting the cloudless late autumn sky. About halfway down the bridge, he could make out the shape of a woman, sitting in the pedestrian lane with something in her hands. He started walking across.
As he got closer, he could make out a sketch pad on the woman’s lap, and he could begin to make out her features. She had long, flowing dark hair and pale skin and dark eyes. The blue, quilted flannel jacket she wore was loose fitting yet somehow revealed that she was thin and shapely underneath. The closer he got the more perfect she appeared. As he approached her, she looked up from her sketch pad and smiled broadly at him. He looked over the bridge, to the west, to see what she was drawing. Ahead the river curved to the left, the south, and the trees that lined the shore had already lost most of their leaves. The few that remained defiantly burned bright and vivid shades of orange and yellow, their colors reflected in the slow water below.
“Hi,“ he said.
“Hi,” she replied, subconsciously covering her open sketchbook with her right arm, while her left hand brushed her hair back out of her face. He looked out over the side of the bridge to the western horizon.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said
“It sure is”, she agreed, closing the sketchbook.
“You picked a beautiful scene to draw.”
“Thanks”, she said. “It’s one of my favorite places. I like to come here at different times of the day and draw the shadows.”
“Mind if I have a look?” he asked, gesturing to the sketchbook.
“Oh, no, no, I couldn’t”, she said, blushing. “I’m really not very good.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s not that bad. Just a quick glance?”
“No, no, seriously, I couldn’t.” He realized she was genuinely embarrassed and he didn’t push the issue. He put her to be in her early to mid 20s, and he was in his early 40s. There was just enough age difference for him to make her feel uncomfortable, to come across as creepy if he pushed things. He didn’t want that, he just wanted to drink her in, to appreciate her, because she was stunning.
“Okay, that’s okay, I understand”, he smiled. “I won’t press the issue.”
“Do you live around here?”, he asked.
“Not anymore”, she replied. She was looking at the other side of the river, squinting, toward the southern shore, watching intently. The wind was stronger in the middle of bridge and it blew her hair back. He zipped his jacket up and turned to see what she was looking at. He could see a man walking down the road, approaching the bridge.
“Who’s that?”, he asked
“That’s my boyfriend”, she answered. “He’s bringing me some lunch.”
“Oh, how nice”, he replied, his heart silently collapsing. “I suppose I’d better get going, then. It was very nice meeting you.”
“Nice meeting you, too”, she smiled.
He stared intently for only a split second, trying to mentally photograph her face and file it away in his brain. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
He said goodbye and then he continued crossing the bridge. He was almost to its end when he passed the boyfriend, short, stocky and muscular, with thick brown hair and dull eyes. As they passed, they wordlessly nodded in acknowledgement, neither one breaking his stride.
Then he was on the other side, the south side, walking west parallel to the river, down Highway Q. The wind picked up out of the north and blew colder. Ahead the trees thickened and formed a canopy of leafless branches that covered the highway. He walked for about two miles down the road. The afternoon sky darkened as clouds blew in out of the west, until it was steely shades of November grey. Dusk was approaching when he came to the driveway leading to a clearing to the left.
He stopped and looked down the gravel driveway and saw that it quickly faded into a lawn that had been cut out of the surrounding trees, long grass that was covered by fallen leaves. Back a few hundred yards from the road there was a large and plain two storied farm house. Its white paint had faded and lost its luster, and was peeling in places. In the dimming light of the late afternoon, its windows were black. No lights were turned on. He couldn’t tell if anyone was home or not. He felt a tightening ache in his thighs and his feet were uncomfortable. He had been walking for the better part of four hours. He walked up the driveway to see if there was anybody home.
As he approached the house, the sand and gravel under his feet fading and giving way to weedy grass, an older woman, probably in her early sixties, stepped out of the front door on to the raised porch to greet him.
“May I help you?”, she asked.
“Yes, I was wondering if I could use your phone.”, he said.
“Sure, no problem. Something the matter?”
“No, no”, he replied. He suddenly felt disoriented. “I just had some car trouble up the road a bit.”
“Well, come on in”, she offered. He walked up the steps, and she held the door open for him and waited for him to enter. “Getting dark earlier and earlier”, she said, as she flicked on the switch that powered the overhead light in the living room. The room was neat and clean, the furniture traditional farm house furniture, just what one would expect from an elderly woman living in the country. The floors were dark hardwood, with a braided rug under the coffee table that separated a couch from a love seat and a recliner and an end table. The tables had lace doilies and country themed craft candles, the end table had a lamp with a yellow shade over it. The walls were decorated with water color farm landscapes and small framed black and white photos of family members. On the far wall, there was a fireplace and a mantle, above hung a larger framed oil portrait. He hadn’t processed the image yet when the woman said, “Here’s the phone”, and pointed him to a wall mount. It was a rotary phone, the kind you dialed by putting your fingers in the holes for the numbers. He hadn’t seen one like it for as long as he could remember. He didn’t think, more than a decade into the 21st century, they existed anymore.
She handed him the receiver, and, just before he began dialing, he looked again at the portrait hanging over the fireplace. He immediately recognized the subject of the painting as the woman on the bridge, the same long black hair and pale skin, the same lovely dark eyes, the same amazing smile.
“Excuse me”, he asked.
“Yes?” the lady answered.
“Who is that painting of?”
“Why, that’s my daughter, Emily”, she replied.
“I just met her”, he said. “On the bridge”
“Oh, she must be drawing again. She loves the view from there.”
“That’s what she said.” Then he remembered that she said she doesn’t live around here anymore. “So she must be visiting.”
“Yes, she must be visiting home.”
“I don’t know what you mean. She lives here.”
He thought, I must have really creeped her out, if she didn’t want to tell me where she lived. “Well, it’s a lovely painting. You have a beautiful daughter, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. We’re used to it. She was always the pretty one. But I’m sorry to tell you – she’s taken.”
“Yes, she’s engaged to be married.”
“Oh, yes, I think I met her fiancé. He was bringing her lunch”
“That would be Paul”, she nodded. “Paul Hansen.” He detected a sour expression on her face, however slight, and suspected that the woman did not approve of her daughter’s fiancé. “You were going to make a phone call?”
“Yes, that’s right.” He had been standing with the receiver in his hand, absent minded while discussing the girl who he now knew was named Emily. He turned his attention to the phone, and again he felt confused and disoriented. He tried to remember the number he was going to dial, but he was drawing a blank. For some reason, none of the digits were coming to him. As he tried to clear his mind, he noticed there was no dial tone coming from the phone. He tapped the on hook button, trying to reset the dial tone, but to no avail.
“It’s dead”, he told the lady.
“The phone. It appears to be dead.”
“Let me see.” He handed her the phone, and she tried tapping it on-hook and resetting it, but with no luck. “That’s odd.”
“Do you have any neighbors that I could try?”
“Only the Johnson’s, the next farm over, but I’m afraid they’ve already left for Florida. They’re retired, snowbirds, you know how it is. There is a bar, Schmidt’s, about a mile and a half down the road. I’m sure they have a phone.”
“That would work.” He noticed that it had gotten dark outside.
“I’d give you a ride, but I’m afraid my husband has the car.”
“No problem, I can walk”
She offered him something to eat, but he politely declined. He wanted to get someone out to look at his car before it got too late. He certainly wasn’t a mechanic, especially on these new Hybrid cars. He just hoped he could find a Toyota dealership somewhere in the area that might have some expertise on his 2009 Prius.
On the porch, on his way out, he thanked the woman, and stepped out into the night. It was cold and pitch black out as he found his way back to the road, County Highway Q. Through the darkness he couldn’t see, he could only sense the river that flowed to his right. Clouds filled the sky, so there was no moon, and no stars. He couldn’t even see the canopy of branches that covered the road. There was only thick and heavy darkness pressing down on him.
Finally, in the distance ahead, he could make out a faint white light. As he walked on, it slowly got brighter, till he could see it was a solitary street light, and he could make out the silhouettes of parked cars beneath it, then the neon glow of a Budweiser sign, and he knew he was approaching Schmidt’s tavern.
As he got closer, the light grew brighter, and things took shape. He could make out three or four pickup trucks and an SUV in the parking lot. Schmidt’s was a typical small northwoods tavern; its lights shone through the windows and radiated welcoming warmth. As he walked up the steps to the bar’s entrance, he could hear the warm and familiar sounds of country western music and men laughing. Just as he was about to grab it’s handle, the front door swung open, and two heavy set men walked out. He stepped aside and let them pass before he stepped in.
Surveying the horseshoe shaped bar, he saw on the right side, four men, sitting together with the bartender, who was leaning into them from behind the bar. They were in the middle of an animated discussion about something, and none of them looked up as he walked in. On the left side, at the far end of the bar, sitting and brooding by himself, he recognized the girl’s boyfriend, Paul Hansen. He looked miserable, like he was already drunk. Recognizing a familiar face, he took a seat a couple of stools down, just as the jukebox stopped playing.
“Hi, Paul”, he offered.
Hansen looked up, surprised to see the man he had passed on the bridge.
“You!”, he grunted. “How do you know my name?”
“I talked to Emily’s Mom”
“How do you know her?”, he demanded, loudly.
“I, I just met her.”
“Emily said she’d never seen you before” There was accusation in his voice.
“She hadn’t”. He looked across the bar to see if he could get the bartender’s attention. The bartender was still absorbed in the conversation with the other guys.
“Bartender?” He tried to get his attention.
“You tell me how you know Emily”, Paul was demanding. Paul was beginning to piss him off. “Tell me”, Paul loudly insisted.
“Go fuck yourself”, he told Paul, then, turning his attention back across the bar, he asked even louder, “Bartender?”
He didn’t notice Paul getting off of his stool, he was more interested in what the fuck was so interesting that the bartender couldn’t even acknowledge him.
“He went right off the road, at that big curve on Highway Q, right after you get off of 15”, one of the guys was saying. “Little shit hybrid Prius”
He felt his heart accelerate and then he felt Paul’s hands, one on each of his shoulder, turn him around and pull him off his stool. He didn’t fall, he stood there clumsily, face to face with Paul.
“You tell me how you know Emily”, he was screaming. He pushed one of Paul’s hands off of him, but faster than he could comprehend; Paul had grabbed him again, and now was pulling him to the wall, where in a display case a yellowing newspaper clipping hung. “Look! Look!” Paul demanded.
The newspaper clipping was a front page, from March 21, 1977. “Hansen Convicted of Murder”, the headline read, and he could see the head shot photos of Emily and Paul, side by side. He quickly read the story about how, on November 8, 1976, Paul had thrown Emily over the County Highway Q Bridge. Hansen had pleaded the insanity defense, claiming he had seen Emily talking to an unidentified stranger, and lost his mind in a jealous rage. No one else was able to corroborate the existence of the stranger. The article went on to say that the prosecutor was going to seek the death penalty.
Everything was spinning now, Hansen, the newspaper article, the bartender and the other four guys, one of whom was saying, “We got there within 10 minutes. He was already dead when we found him. They had to call his wife from down state to identify the body. She should be up at the morgue by now.” The spinning accelerated, he was dizzy, and then everything went black.
Sobbing, his wife nodded yes, it was him, and the coroner put the sheet back over his face.
One thought on “Highway Q”
This story is by no means mediocre. I thought it was very good. I think you need to explore this genre of writing. It reminded me of the Owl Creek story that I remembered from my teens. Keep on writing.