She had a painful past, one that made her put up barriers against everyone. When she is alone, she feels an odd connection to nature, as if there was something she is missing out in the wild. She brushes it off, but it never leaves. But when a mysterious man who knows more about her than he should wanders into her town and offers her a better life, she decides she has nothing to lose. As her life starts to look up however, she begins to have strange dreams. Suddenly, she is faced with questions about her life. What do the dreams mean? Who is this man? Could she really open up to someone, or would she get hurt again? As her past begins to haunt her, she must decide who she’s willing to trust. Will she shut out another person to protect herself? Or will she finally let her guard down and learn to love again? Only time will tell.


15. An Old Friend And A New One

Highway Chapter 15

            I woke up to the sun, as usual. I looked over to Veronica, who sat beside me on the hill. She looked so tired, and I understood why. After two night of lost sleep, along with getting up so early for her, it all added up. I decided that we could wait an hour before heading out. It was only an hour, but she could benefit greatly from even that. Sleeping in meant a little more walking, but we would still make it to town before the sun went down the next day.

I watched the sun rise, it vibrant and flaring rays stretching out, dying the sky in various reds and pinks. Feeling mildly guilty, I woke Veronica up. She asked me why we had to wake up so early, drawing out the last word in a whine. The sleepy undertone made me laugh.

We set off after she had gotten ready, singing and dancing as we had the day before. She threatened me, saying I better not tell anyone about this or about her love of stuffed animals. We stopped at a fork in the road, and she filled her water bottle from the nearby stream. As I was looking at the routes, I heard a crackling come from my backpack. I didn’t understand until Veronica’s voice came through, emitting noises from the side pocket.

Pulling out the walkie talkie she had given me, I looked across the stream to her. I asked her what she was doing, raising my voice to be heard over the distance. She told me to just trust her. I gave her a look as if she had gone a little bit loopy, but shrugged anyway. I was up for whatever little game she had planned.

She said there was a problem, using the code name Houston. I looked at her again before deciding to play along. I asked what the problem was, using the nickname command. She snickered, and then asked me what I said. I didn’t understand what the problem was. Had I not spoke clearly enough? She teased me with humor that I had to say over at the end of every transmission, over. I put my hand on my hip in a gesture of mock offense, and repeated my line, emphasizing my over. She told me she couldn’t find the tablets and that her bottle wasn’t functioning, making sure to include the ending word. I rolled my eyes, and headed back to help her.

Why didn’t she know where the tablets were though? She had been using them for days. When I walked up, she was acting strangely. She wouldn’t look at me, and she had a completely straight face, attempting to look casual. I knew she was up to something now, but I didn’t know what. I turned to gather the tablets from beside a few things, and was surprised when icy water landed on me, soaking my clothes.

Startled and shocked, I saw Veronica standing there shouting in victory. I was stunned, and I couldn’t even gather words. Then a laugh bubbled up inside me, and I chuckled rambunctiously. I couldn’t stop laughing.

I didn’t think she would do that! She was spunky, that was a fact. I told her she was a sly one, and quite the devious teenager. I looked down at my sopping clothes, and attempted to shake free some of the liquid. I supposed I should have been more thoughtful of her revenge for splashing her. She apologized sarcastically and told me I should have kept my guard up.

She bent down to fill her bottle, this time for drinking use. Seeking some fun and laughs, I snuck up behind her quietly. When she turned, she saw me missing from my previous location.

Reaching out quickly but gently, I pushed her into the bank. She exclaimed in indignation, and told me I was a jerk and a snot. Smirking to myself, I repeated her words back to her. She told me I was mean, and lay against the side of the bank. Giving me the most pathetic look she could muster, she asked me to pull her out. She was shivering slightly, and I felt a little bit bad. I knelt down to help her up, and was caught off my guard again when she pulled on my hand, forcing me into the river.

She crowed in victory, offering a villainous laugh to accompany here exclamations. She was full of surprises, and I couldn’t believe I had fallen for two tricks in a row. I splashed her with water, and she shrieked. She splashed me back, and we ended up laughing at each other as we had a water war. I had to lean on the wall to support myself I was laughing so hard. After my breathing calmed down, I pulled myself out of the water, leaning my hands on my knees, trying to breathe after laughing.

I saw Veronica struggling to get out, and she told me she was stuck. Did she think I was that stupid? I had fallen for her tricks twice, but I wouldn’t fall for the same one. She told me she was serious. After a few moments of her attempts at getting out, I cautiously moved to help her. I warned her I would tackle her if she pulled me in again, but she informed me with a snappy voice she wouldn’t. I braced my foot against a rock for support, and pulled her out.

I told her maybe she shouldn’t have pulled me in, offhandedly and playful. She told me that she wouldn’t have if he hadn’t pushed her first. I scoffed, but smiled at her.

We gathered our stuff, and still dripping, went down our path. She bemoaned the fate of her hair, telling me it looked awful. I wondered why it mattered, for we weren’t going to see anyone special on the road. She exclaimed that it was easy for me not to care, for my hair went back to normal if I ran a hand through it. Proving her point, she reached up and tousled my hair before I could doge her attempts. She grumbled that my hair was fine. Thinking I could make her something to tie it back with, I looked around. Ha! I thought to myself as I spotted a plant called Dogbane. The stems were very flexible and could be used to make rope. Weaving the stems together swiftly, I created a little loop to hold back Veronica’s hair. When I offered it to her, she seemed confused until I explained it was a hair tie for her. I told her nature could provide so many things you needed, if you knew what to look for.

We made it to our camp for the night, a nice little glade with a pond below and a small lookout hill, surrounded by trees. I supervised Veronica as she started the fire, watching her eyes light up with joy when she saw the burning flames. She was acting a bit strange, pacing back and forth, until she came to rest on the hill. Wondering what was the matter, I wondered up to the hill, stopping next to her.

“You coming?” I asked, hoping I would be able to understand.

“Not right now,” she said, forced, “I’m not very tired.”

It was a lie, and a bad one too. She wasn’t expecting me to ask, and was obviously uncomfortable with the real answer. I looked at her with the shadows under her eyes, fidgeting in small jerky movements. Then it dawned on me.

She was scared to go to sleep. She would never admit she was scared to anyone, and it made perfect sense considering her behavior. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to sleep either. Her nightmares were horrifying and unnerving, if last night had been any indication. Delivering my own not so wonderful lie, I told her I wasn’t either.

I resolved to stay with her as long as she needed me to, even if that meant all night. It was highly probable she would just pretend to go to bed, but I was still going to calm her and help her as long as I could without pressing her. I finally felt like she was close to me now, if only a little. She had admitted she had a bad dream, and even that was a feat for her. She had grown up in such an environment that she had to be tough, where nothing could bother her or she wouldn’t be mentally sound. Every little insignificant weakness was material for exploitation, and so she just stopped having those. That she was showing me one at all was already a testament to her trust. If I played my cards right and continued to show her the truth about the world, she would have a happy soul before awakening. I told her about my friend Julian, because I knew she loved stories.

“Like I said, he is a drifter, but he isn’t out on the road a lot. He is a quirky guy to put it nicely, but deep down he is very caring. You just have to get used to his ways of showing affection. One time, I visited him for his birthday and he tugged me around town, shouting that I was his best friend.”

She laughed, having a hard time envisioning me being pulled across town.

I said, “When I first met him, it was before I awakened. I was feeling sorry for myself for some reason that I can’t remember, and he grew fed up. He thought it a good idea to throw me into the river. He said that the water would cool off my head.”

I remember how mad I was when that happened. I almost tried to beat him up. I would’ve if I thought I could have taken him. Veronica told me a story from her younger years.

“This girl, Ariana I think,” she said, “she was making fun of me for my hair when I was sitting in the sandbox, near the trees. This little lizard came along, stopping in the sandbox. She freaked out when she saw it. Apparently she wasn’t too fond of lizards, and they scared her. I picked him up, because I wasn’t scared of him, and I told her he wasn’t so bad. Just as she came close, he hissed at her, doing that little side flaring thing lizards do when they're scared. She backed into a tree, where a family of them were chilling. And one of them landed right on her nose. She flailed, and ran away when he fell off. It was like the lizards were on my side.”

I was happy that at least some things in her childhood weren’t all bad.

She faked a yawn, saying she was tired. I knew it to be untrue, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. She would either stay awake all night or try and fall asleep in a few hours. I would try to monitor her throughout the night, and attempt to make sure that if she had nightmares I would be there to wake her and calm her down. I wanted to let her know that I was here, but I wasn’t sure if I could say anything without her backing away from sudden concern and care.

I called to her, and said,  “I just wanted to say that you can tell me pretty much anything. It’s your choice, of course, but know that I’m always here. Okay?”

She paused, as if unsure what to say.

“You’re so weird,” she told me, but then her voice softened, “But thanks, I guess. I understand.”

I was relieved that I had chosen correctly. Only someone who had seen her thought processes could understand when she was being gruff and when she was being protective.

We scrunched down into our sleeping bags for the night. I waited, and as I had expected, she wasn’t falling asleep. She was turned away, so I couldn’t see her face, but she shuffled far too often to be sleeping. Her breaths were not even, her body not relaxed, and she squirmed in discomfort. I fell asleep, but awoke several times, checking on her quickly. She wasn’t sleeping any of the times I looked at her, but she wasn’t thrashing around like yesterday.

As the night turned transformed into morning, I awoke with the sun. Sighing quietly, I could tell Veronica had gotten very little to no sleep last night. Her position was uncomfortable, and she was hunched over like she was miserable.

I got up and stretched, gathering supplies. I “woke” her up, and she got ready. She was trudging along, slower than usual. I wasn’t sure the poor girl could be any more tired. I wondered if I could get her to drink some coffee when we got to town. I wasn’t a person who drank coffee a lot, but with sleepless nights it was a go-to in the morning. She wasn’t going to be happy to walk for the next two hours to get to town. She walked next to me, but behind a little bit. She seemed to stagger along, and I wondered if she was just going to drop to the ground. When she didn’t notice I had taken a turn, she almost smacked right into a cliff wall, only stopping because I called her name.

Okay, I thought to myself. There was no way this is going to work. I wanted to get to town to meet up with Julian and get some supplies, but Veronica really needed sleep, or at least to not be on her feet anymore. One of us was going to get hurt by accident, most likely her. Clearing my throat, I stopped. She looked up at me with weary and drained eyes, and I felt my resolve grow.

“Come here, Veronica.”

She did, giving me a sleepy suspicious look.

“I’m going to carry you to town, okay? You need to be off of your feet.”

She looked at me, stupefied, still half asleep.  Then the look was replaced with one more incredulous and surprised.

“What the hell are you talking about, Matt? You are not carrying me anywhere. I’m perfectly fine.”

She declared with defiance, forcing herself to be a little bit more awake.

“Veronica, you are too sleep deprived for this right now. When we get to town you can have some coffee or sleep in the hotel. But as of this moment, I am not going to let you walk. You are not fine.” I tried, hoping to reason with her.

This girl was so adamant about anything and everything, this conversation included. She was more stubborn than a mule. She told me she was completely fine, snapping at me with a glare. Here was another point in time where I had to be careful. I wasn’t one of the scolding adults she had come to know, and I knew the stigma would be hard to break.

“You almost just ran into the wall! There is nothing about you that’s fine.” I said, the more authoritive tone in place. Before she could interrupt angrily, I bent down so I was face to face with her.

“Please, Veronica” I continued gently, “just let me carry you. Feel sorry for this old coot. I worry too much, but please humor me.”

Her jaw worked, trying to form words. With her arms crossed and an indignant sigh, she looked away.

“Fine, you crazy weirdo. Do whatever you want, but don’t expect me to be happy about it. You’re impossible, you know that?”

I smiled at her, and shrugged innocently. Rolling her eyes, she came up behind me. I crouched, making my arms into loops for her to step into.

“Hold on first, I wouldn’t want you to fall backwards,” I warned.

“No, really?” she said, voice full of sarcasm.

She held onto my neck with one arm while she stepped into mine. Making sure she was ready, I hoisted her up in a piggy back ride. She made a small noise when she lifted off of the ground, but remained still.

“Just so you know, I’m only doing this because I feel bad for you. You are getting pretty old.”

I made a noise that indicated I was hurt.

“Hey now,” I said, “ I’m only 25!”

She snickered, commenting I was almost thirty. I pretended to be offended, but I knew she was only joking, trying to take on a subject that wasn’t our position. I carried her along the road, listening to her absentminded chatter. She was surprisingly light. I didn’t expect her to be heavy, but she was tall, and she had strong muscles considering she hadn’t been out doing a lot of physical activity.

She yawned, and I could feel her grip lessen somewhat. She was tired, and now that she wasn’t engaging in activity, she was feeling the effects of her insomnia. She jolted every now and then, waking from momentary lapses in consciousness. Without seeming to notice she was doing it, she nestled her head into my shoulder. Soon she was mostly limp, slumbering peacefully. I smiled as she murmured something in her sleep about bunnies and octopi.

The two hours it took to get to town were hardly enough time to sleep, but it was amazing how a nap would leave you more refreshed. As she dreamed what seemed to be harmless dreams, I walked on. I didn’t mind carrying her, even with the sun beating down, because she was as light as she was.

In a few hours, we reached the town borders. Veronica, still dozing on my shoulder, stirred because we had stopped. The rhythmic movement of my walking had in part lulled her to sleep, like when parents take their children for rides in the car before bed.

“Veronica,” I called softly, “Veronica, we’re here.”

She raised her head, taking an arm away from my neck to rub her eyes.

“Wha?” she said, still stuck in her dreams, “Oh. Okay.”

I let her down carefully.

“That’s what you get for making me listen to you. I hope I drooled on you.”She said playfully.

I informed her that she had not, fortunately. She stretched leisurely, and yawned. She seemed much better, despite still looking exhausted. A power nap was exactly what she had needed. We strolled through town, Veronica with a new spring in her step.

I sensed Julian before we even got into town, and I could feel he was in the local tavern. Thicksville was a large town, more like a city than anything else. So many different people came here, it was the perfect place for a drifter to get in and out without anyone even batting an eye. Unless you stayed there. For a long time. And you are the strangest, loudest, most irritating but lovable person on the planet. Like Julian.

Veronica was looking around at the new and tall building with wonder, probably never having seen and actual city before. Cars crowded the city streets, the sounds of honking and revving engines a creating a cacophony. The sidewalks were filled with people strolling about. A mom, soothing her crying kids. A street performer, playing a rendition of a song I didn’t know. A lady with 8 dogs being pulled along by their leashes. We were not the most interesting people in this city, that was for sure. I couldn’t decide whether to wait for Julian to come find us, for I knew he sense me outside of the town. But he didn’t seem to be moving, and I wondered if he was too lazy to come greet an old friend.

Sighing, I decided to seek him out. Veronica stayed close as I weaved in and of the crowds, and managed to keep up so I didn’t have to slow down. I was glad to have a street smart companion with me, for this city would have been a disaster with someone who didn’t know how to navigate. As we approached the bar, I told Veronica that Julian was inside. She hesitated strangely, drawing closer to me. I suppose her caution was understandable, as she had never met another drifter before, and Julian was an odd one indeed.

We pushed open the door to the tavern, proceeding to take seats near the bar.

I spotted Julian sitting there, and I said, “Not even going to say anything, you crazy coot? Have you gotten so lazy, old man, you can’t greet a friend?”

He rose from his seat, an indignant look on his face.

“If I remember something about you, kid, it’s that you never put your effort into anything! You couldn’t even finish lighting your fire! And yet you call me lazy.”

He crossed his arms, looking surly, and murmuring, “Old man! I’m only 15 years older than you! Have someone tell you you’re old at 40 and let me know how it feels.”

I smiled, and opened my arms for a hug.

“Come here, you.” I said affectionately.

We embraced, patting each other on the back. He ruffled my hair like I was a child, and I brushed away his hand. Veronica was sitting in the booth, watching the exchange with awkward interest. I gestured for her to come over, and she hesitantly did so.

“This is Veronica,” I said, introducing her, “she’s traveling with me. She wants to find The Way.”

He studied her, and then started laughing. Veronica looked to me, confused. I put up my hands in a helpless gesture. I didn’t understand the man anymore than I did when we first met.

“Look at you!” he exclaimed loudly, pulling me into another hug, “Teaching people things. Now you’re just like me!”

I untangled myself from his bear hug, playfully saying, “I will never be like you, Julian. Nobody is like you.”

He chuckled. He turned to Veronica, suddenly enveloping her into a hug as well. She made a startled squeak, and pushed herself away from Julian, surprised by his behavior. He was quite the interesting person.

“Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to scare you, silly girl. Victoria, was it?”

I sighed, correcting him.

“Veronica,” I stressed, “Say it with me. Ver-ron-ick-cuh.”

He gave me a wry look, and told me I was a smartass. Veronica stifled a laugh. This was going to be a long day. I told Julian we needed to check into a hotel first, and then we could chat. He insisted on staying at his house, but I talked him out of it.

“Sorry, Julian. I already promised Veronica she could take a real shower. Not whatever that thing that spouts freezing water of yours is called.”

He looked offended, saying real showers were for sissies.

“Julian lives on the very edge of town , in a secluded little cabin.” I explained to Veronica, “And he’s very defensive about it.”

We checked into the nearest hotel, Julian scoffing the whole way and saying something about “no appreciation for the wild. I call my shower and shower.”

I smirked. He was exactly as he had been a few years ago. Veronica was trailing off to the side, obviously confused. She was on my side, but was far enough Julian couldn’t reach her. I think she was worried he was going to hug her again. I remember I thought him a raving lunatic the first time I met him.

Veronica seemed at a loss, unsure of what to be doing right now. I wanted her to learn a few things from him, but she would have plenty of time to do that tomorrow. For now, I thought I would release her from the nightmare that was Julian.

“Hey Veronica,” I called.

She looked up, not sure if she should be relived she was in the conversation or concerned because she was.

“Do you want to do some sight-seeing?”

She nodded, elated to have a reason to be gone.

“Here’s a map of the city. Now remember-“

She cut me off quickly.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Don’t draw attention, be safe, be nice to people. Use the walkie talkie if someone is late or something happens.”

I raised an eyebrow at her, and she suddenly looked even more awkward.

“Uh, I mean, I understand. Thank you for teaching me the rules?” she asked innocently, trying to make me smile.

I gave her a little one, and sighed playfully.

“Okay, well I’m off!” she said, ready to bolt.

“Not quite.” I called, forcing her to come back. “I think there’s something you’re forgetting about?”

She looked at me oddly, bewildered.

She thought a moment and said, “We are meeting back…”

“At the tavern we came to when we got here.”

I pointed it out on the map.

“And when?” she asked.

“How about six?”

She agreed, and ran off hastily. I couldn’t tell if she was excited to see the city, or if she was just glad to get away. Probably a bit of both.  I turned back to Julian, who was observing me with a questioning look.

“What?” I asked.

“Since when do you have that voice?” he asked me back.

I gave him a dubious look, not understanding. He sighed.

“The voice you just used. Since when do you have the ‘listen to me’ voice?”

I shrugged, telling him I didn’t know what he was talking about. He sighed in exasperation, throwing his hands up in the air. We snuggled into a booth, and caught up on lost time. He asked me of my travels, and I asked him of his life here. We laughed for a long time.

“I’ve missed you, my old friend. “I said, wiping the tears of laughter away from my eyes.

He agreed, then looked at me seriously for a moment.

“Tell me how you met your companion.”

I did, and he listened intently. I didn’t want to intrude on Veronica’s privacy though, so I only told him the basics. When I was finished, he leaned back.

“She seems attached to you, especially considering she’s only been with you for five days.”

I shrugged off the comment, saying simply, “I’m just the first person she has met who is relatively kind. As you can imagine, like many she wasn’t very accepted in her town.”

He nodded, but looked as if had had more to say.

“Hey, Julian,” I said, “How would you like to hang out with Veronica and I tomorrow? She thinks you are strange, but I think she can learn something from you. Preferably it something about life, not about how to  drink 4 shots under a minute or how to pick a lock with only a bobby pin.”

I gave him a look pointedly, and  he laughed.

“Actually, I’m feeling like I need to stretch my legs a little bit. What would you say about me traveling with you until you reach Townston. Its only about two days travel.”

I paused, worried about how Veronica would feel. I also didn’t think she wanted it shared with anyone else she had nightmares, which would be pretty hard to conceal. Still, Julian was a sensitive guy, and I was sure that the two would be able to coexist.

“Sounds great.” I replied.

We exchanged more stories, and then Julian had to leave for some errands. We parted ways, where I was heading for the tavern to wait for Veronica. It was about 5:45, so she still had time.

Julian’s statement had bothered me. Was she attached to me? I never really noticed. I noticed that she liked me more than others, sure, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I told myself I was thinking too hard.

I sat in the crowded tavern, and waited. I wasn’t kept there for long though, for Veronica showed up about 5 minutes early.

“Did you have fun?” I asked.

She told me she did, and then proceeded to tell me about all the things she saw. We ate dinner, and walked back to the hotel.

Veronica took a shower first, and I had to listen to make sure she didn’t pass out from fatigue. Fortunately there were no loud noises of anything falling, and she came out unscathed. I took mine and got dressed, settling in for the night. Veronica knocked on my door.

“It’s open,” I called.

She complained of the heat, and went to stand on the balcony just outside of our rooms.

“Hey,” I said, “I told Julian he could go with us when we travel, so he’ll be with us for about two days until we reach the next town."

She poked her head back in, a look of dismay upon her face.

“Do we have to? He’s just so weird.” She complained.

“Be nice,” I gently admonished, “He’s a really great guy. He’s helped me in more ways than I can count. Sure, he’s a little eccentric, but that’s just how it is.”

She looked at me doubtfully, thinking herself tortured.

“You have to learn to be open-minded with people. If you start disliking him just because he’s different, you become the same as everyone who shunned you because you were different.”

She looked at the ground, suddenly finding her slippers the most interesting thing in the world.

“I’m not like them.” She whispered, angry but sad.

I sighed and sat up, closing the book in my lap.

“I know you’re not, Veronica,” I commented softly, “And that’s why I’m telling you this. I don’t want anyone to think you are like that, because you aren’t.”

She went back out to the balcony without another word. After about half an hour, she came back inside, shutting the door.

“He isn’t going to hug me again, right?” she asked, partially serious but also part frivolous.

I laughed, saying, “I don’t know. Probably not. Just bear with him if he does. He is quite strange, but it grows on you after a while.”

She rolled her eyes, but accepted the statement. She yawned, and I thought of her sleeping tonight. The nightmares couldn’t have gone, but she napped soundly this morning. She didn’t seem too worried about it, and I wondered if something had changed. After discussing her favorite attractions of the city, she bid me goodnight.

“Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite. Literally," i joked.

She looked at me in horror, before realizing I was just kiddimg. She told me I was a snot. She seemed content today, if a little bit off. Sleep deprivation does things to people.

I felt myself falling asleep, so I turned off my light and burrowed under the covers. Thinking of my old friend and Veronica, it reminded me of my situation. I reacted the same way when I first met him, except I was more angry. Hoping they didn’t get into as much trouble as we did. I smiled at the thought.

This was going to be an adventure, one I might regret arranging. Still, it was peaceful tonight, and I was grateful. I hoped the calm and tranquility would last.

I had no idea what was about to happen.

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