The car radio was on. Del Shannon was singing.
Run run run runaway.
If you were to stop him (and that was unlikely, given the fact he only stopped for food and gas and bathroom breaks) and ask him where he was headed, he'd blink, maybe smile, chew harder on the ever present toothpick sticking from his mouth and shrug his shoulders.
Fact was, Terence didn't know where he was going. Hadn't known at any point in his life where he was headed. Not through grade school, high school, college, a loveless, childless, miserably failed marriage had he at any point known where he was going, or where he'd end up.
Funny that the realization took so long to sink in.
And now, here he was in the twilight of his life, driving a straight, lonely prairie highway in a six-year old Buick, the windows down, the wind whipping what little hair he had left, the sun shining as he rocketed past field after field of golden grass swaying in the summer breeze. Grass that waved and whispered hypnotically.
And still Terence had no destination in mind. It was enough that he was driving, going forward, moving along the prairies as if -- like the sun and the clouds, the wind and the grass, the dark ribbon of highway -- he was part of the land's fabric. Inexorable, like the changing seasons.
When he was young his dad often took him on long Sunday drives in the country. He hadn't especially liked it, but it made his father happy. His father would smile, look over at him, point out odd clouds or interesting trees, comment on the weather or the Red Sox, his hand tapping on the steering wheel as Del Shannon and Roy Orbison crooned from the radio.
"Isn't this fun?" his father would ask.
He'd feign a smile, shrug his shoulders. "Yep."
"Damn right, son." And he'd open the glove box, carefully steering with one hand, reach in and pull out a small wax envelope. He'd thumb open the envelope, hold it out for him. "Go ahead, boy. Take one."
So he would grab one of the cinnamon-flavored toothpicks and stick it in his mouth. He didn't really like the things -- too hot -- but it humored his old man. And sometimes they would pull over, jump out of the car and run, laughing, through the high grass of a meadow. Later they would stop for a couple of bottles of cold Lime Rickey. That, to Terence, was the best part of the best day of the week. Because come Monday he had school and homework and chores. Responsibilities. Responsibilities were for grown ups. Why was everyone in such a hurry to grow up? Even as a child, one who'd at that point never experienced the bitter tang of love, he'd promised himself that if he should ever have children he'd let them live and laugh and play as long as they liked. Let them love. Why should he hurry them to grow up and be all serious?
But Terence never had children.
He smiled, rolling the toothpick around his mouth. It was a plain old toothpick. You couldn't find the flavored ones around anymore. He wondered if you could still buy Lime Rickey. Probably not, he mused. Some things, unfortunately, do change.
The times they are a-changing.
Dylan. One of his dad's favorites.
His dad was long dead.
It was mid-morning and hot. The lemon-yellow sun blazed in a high bright blue sky. Terence pressed down on the accelerator. The road was wide and clear and stretched for as far as his eyes could see. It seemed to go on forever. He hadn't passed any gas stations or rest stops all day. The smooth black asphalt rolled under his car like some unending roll of carpet. He drove on, past field after field of tall straw grass waving languidly in the slight breeze. It reminded him of those nature and adventure shows he'd watch as a kid, where they'd dive into some dark part of the ocean to investigate its mysteries, and bright antenna and feelers would wave and flutter on screen like strange spindly fingers beckoning. Is that what the grass was telling him? Was it waving to him? Beckoning?
Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.
That was one of the shows he and his father would watch together. They always timed their Sunday drives to get home in time for Marlin Perkins. And they would sit silently on the couch together, watching events unfold on the Serengeti or the Great Plains.
Terence looked up into the bright glare of the sun, blinked. He pulled at the collar of his sweat-stained shirt. How he wished for a convertible. An old Ford, the size of a boat, one you could really settle into. A cruising car. Or a Mustang. Damn! He'd always wanted a Mustang. He smiled. A young man's car. Now he had a Buick. An old man's car. The smile faltered on his lips. He didn't know how or when it happened, but suddenly he was an old man. An old man and his Buick. Nothing too romantic about that. Not like a boy and his dog.
His dog. Rex. Long dead.
Just about everyone and everything he once cherished was long dead.
Everybody dies. We die a little every day, Terence thought. All of us are dying.
There was something up ahead. It was a small wooden stand by the side of the road, the kind you'd see in the country, selling corn and fruit and pies. Terence slowed, turned off the radio, brought the big Buick to a halt several yards from the stand. He stepped out of the car, spit out the toothpick, rubbed a tired hand on the back of his tired neck, and sauntered over to the stand.
"Howdy," Terence said to the man behind the makeshift counter.
The man was big, barrel-shaped, with thick fingers drumming the wooden counter top. His eyes were bright. There was something vaguely familiar about the man but Terence couldn't quite place it. The man smiled, revealing broken yellow teeth.
"Howdy, yourself," the man said, beaming.
Terence glanced about. There were no pies, no peaches, no husked corn or apples. No produce of any kind.
"Who are you?" Terence asked.
"A friend," said the smiling man. "Everyone needs a friend. Especially out here."
A small folded booklet lay on the counter. The man picked up the booklet, shoved it at Terence.
"There you go," the man said, idly scratching the side of his nose. "Lucky you. That's the last one."
"The last one?" Terence said.
The man shrugged. "Yep. Been a busy day."
Terence looked up and down the desolate highway, back to the man. "A busy day?"
The man nodded.
Terence studied the booklet, unfolded it. It was a map. He wagged it at the man. "What's this for?"
"Well, in case you get lost, of course."
"Yes, of course," Terence said, turning the map over in his hands. "How silly of me."
The man looked skyward, frowned, turned to Terence. "Best get going, there's a storm a-coming."
Terence scrutinized the sky. It was clear and cloudless. "I see. But I don't know where I'm going. I don't know where the road leads."
The man winked. "I think you do. It runs straight and true. Now run along."
"But. . . ."
"Hurry," the man said. "And promise me you'll not look back."
"Not look back?" Terence said.
"Right. There's no going back."
The man waved an impatient hand.
So Terence trudged back and climbed into the car. He placed the map on the passenger seat, idly noting the long continuous road marked in red that cut straight through the land. He steered the car onto the road and eased it past the roadside stand.
Terence glanced to the side. The man was still smiling. He waved at Terence. A slight breeze whooshed through the air. The high grass swished. "Good luck, son," said the man or the grass or the wind.
Terence turned, half-smiling, and stared at the road ahead. Clouds rolled in, clotting the graying sky.
There's a storm a-coming.
Terence hoped there wasn't a storm coming. He'd weathered enough of them in his life so far. But life was a sad sequence of storms and tranquility, shadow and light. The key was to keep moving, stay the course, and never look back.
Stay the course. That's something his father would have said. Was he in danger of becoming his father? A metastasis? Or was it too late for that?
Fat drops of rain fell, plinked off the hood. Terence rolled up the window.
The times they are a-changing.
Terence liked the rain. It was steady, unchanging, comforting.
He switched on the windshield wipers. They flapped intermittently, phulap, phulap, like leathery crow wings. He leaned forward to peer through the blurry windshield. Movement up ahead caught his eye and Terence slowed, brought the car to a halt in the middle of the slick road. A yellow raincoat shape approached, opened the side door and stuck a hooded head into the car.
"Are you going to invite me in?" she asked. "It's getting cold you know. There's a storm coming."
Terence frowned. "I know. Get in."
"Thanks." She climbed in, sat on the map, removed her hood, shook her hair. Terence was reminded of a dog shaking water from its coat.
Rex. His boyhood dog.
Terence pulled away, stared straight ahead. "How far you going?" he asked, eyes on the black road.
She chuckled. He could feel her gaze on him. Silence, then, "Not as far as you. Not yet."
They rode a while in silence, Terence watching the road and the grass in the steady drizzle. She fidgeted, her hands twisting in her lap.
The road ran on, straight, unwavering. The tires hissed wetly on the smooth, slippery pavement. The rain fell. Plink. Plink. The wipers wiped. Phulap. Phulap. His heart beat. Boom. Boom.
She coughed, reached a hand over and placed it gently on his arm. "What did he say?"
Terence chanced a look, saw the wide liquid eyes and his heart hurt, bled a little more. "Who?" he asked.
She turned, looked back down the receding road. "Him."
"Oh." He snorted, gripped the wheel tightly, knuckles whitening. "Is that what this is about?"
"N-no, I just thought. . . ." She pulled her hand away. "Never mind."
"He wished me luck."
Good luck, son.
"Oh," she said.
"What about you?" Terence asked. "Did you see him too? Did he give you a map?"
"No. No map for me." She looked away. "I think I'll get out here. This is far enough."
"If you're sure."
"It's raining. You'll be cold and wet."
She pulled the hood up over her head. "Someone else will come by."
Yes, Terence thought, someone else. Of course. She'd found someone else.
Terence pulled over. She scrambled out of the car, stood with the door open, staring in, rain dripping from her slicker.
That's when he noticed the swell in her belly. "You're pregnant," Terence said.
She touched her stomach. "I always wanted children. It was no secret."
Terence tried a smile, but failed. "I understand."
"I'm sorry," she said, then closed the door.
Terence drove off. "Me too," he whispered, not looking back. "Me too."
Back on the road, the raining sky above, the wet champagne-colored grass on the sides, the ground beneath his feet. It was like some long unending tunnel, and Terence felt a little claustrophobic, as if they were all pressing in on him, closing in on him, and there was no where to go, no where to escape.
He reached over, plucked the map from where she'd sat on it. It was damp and soft. The red-marked road bled east to west. Metastasis.
Terence was heading west. Bleeding west. Go west young man.
BOOM! Just thunder. Not his bleeding, broken heart. In the distance lightning slashed across the slate sky. Terence twisted the knob for the radio. Del Shannon was singing about a little runaway, walking along, wondering what went wrong with a love so strong. He grinned. Funny how he even liked the old man's music now.
The miles passed. The rain continued. The sky went from slate to shiny soot. He tapped his hand on the steering wheel in time with the music.
There was something in the road. A small dark shape. Terence slammed the brakes and the car screeched to a sideways halt several feet in front of the dim form. He stepped out of the car, stuttered forward then stopped, staring.
It was a dog. It stood in the rain, tail wagging.
Terence bent, held out a hand, ignoring the pelting rain. "Here, boy, here," he beckoned. The dog yelped, its tail whipping.
"Come, boy, come."
The dog yelped once more then bounded off into the high border grass, disappearing.
Terence scratched his head, thought momentarily about going after the creature. It wanted to play, he knew. Dogs loved to play. Rex had loved to play. But Terence thought he should keep moving, keep going forward, so he shuffled back into the car and continued on his way, down the dark prairie highway, the radio singing run run run runaway.
Terence blinked. He imagined he saw two small children, a boy and a girl, at the side of the road. The girl clutched a teddy bear and a pink umbrella. The boy had a Red Sox cap and a ball glove. Moisture filled Terence's eyes. He blinked again and the children were gone. Well, not exactly gone, Terence mused, they never existed. Not in his real life.
He sighed, pressed on in the deepening gloom, letting the road take him to its end. It wouldn't be long now, he thought.
And he was right. The road ended. Terence brought the Buick to an abrupt stop. He left the engine running, got out of the car, and ambled to the road's end. High yellow grass fluttered and danced in the wind and rain. Terence gazed around. The grass was to his left, his right, and in front of him, waving hypnotically. He didn't turn around because he'd promised himself he wasn't looking back.
What was he to do?
But he knew, of course. It was the only logical thing for him to do. He'd continue on his journey. There was no looking back.
So he stepped into the grass.
He was young again, a child, happy and carefree, racing through the tall grass, chasing his father in the golden meadow maze. Nearby, a dog barked. A small joyous yelp, as if it had just gotten a bone. Rex? And Terence pushed on, in the twilight, through the unending fields that stretched all around him, from horizon to horizon, unending. Unchanging.
Terence ran, searching through the grassland. "Rex? Dad?"
He ran, searched, pushed through deep wet grass that slapped his face.
Cool peppermint rain fell from the sky. The honey grass swayed and sang, and to Terence it was Del Shannon singing about a little runaway walking in the rain.
It grew dark. Terence began to cry. The grass sighed and moaned. The wind sang.
I'm walking in the rain, tears are falling and I feel the pain.
He hurried forward, lost.
Michael Kelly is a fiction editor at The Chiaroscuro.
Recent and upcoming fiction can be found in Beyond
the Dust, Flesh & Blood, Fusing Horizons, Nemonymous, and All Hallows.In 2002 he edited a book of ghost stories, Songs From Dead