Highway Chapter 13
Smack! Was all I heard in the middle of the night. What the…? I thought to myself. I had gotten up to get a glass of water, when I heard the noise from next door. I wondered if Veronica was okay.
I pressed my ear against the door, for I didn’t want to barge in and suffer her wrath. The rooms were connected, and the walls let through almost all noise.
She was cursing quietly, and I raised my eyebrow at her colorful language. Where did she even learn those words? She was seventeen, of course, but I had met teenagers before and none of them knew as many curses as she did. It occurred to me, through her string of obscenities, that she had hit her head against the backboard on her bed. That would explain what that noise was.
Reassured, I almost pulled back before I heard her voice again. She had started singing softly. Why would she be singing so early in the morning? It looked to be about 4:30 outside, which wouldn’t have been the time I chose to sing.
The words were gentle and soft, a lullaby. The more I listened, the more I heard the lyrics. They were rather haunting, appearing to be about a woman who had to watch over another child as her own baby cried for her. She sang, a voice surprisingly beautiful, and the lyrics came streaming through the wall.
Don't you cry
Go to sleep my little baby
Go to sleep my little baby
When you wake
You shall have
All the pretty little horsies
All the pretty little horsies
Dapples and grays
Pintos and bays
All the pretty little horsies
Way down yonder
In the meadow
Lies a poor little baby
Birds and the butterflies
Flitting round his eyes
Poor little baby crying
I wondered who had taught her the lullaby. She had no parents to speak of in that town, and I could tell that nobody had befriended her. I figured that someone in her family taught it to her when she was young. I didn’t know what happened to them, but I didn’t ask. If she had wanted me to know, she would have told me.
Her voice was shaken, and I became concerned about her. Perhaps she had a nightmare? She would never admit that to me, so I decided not to ask her. As I said, if she wanted to tell me, I would be all ears, but until then I would respect her privacy. I was just starting to get her to open up to the world, and I couldn’t jeopardize her trust. Everything we did here was crucial to her awakening.
Returning to my bed, I went back to sleep.
I woke again a few hours later, rising with the sun as I always did. I dressed in a purple shirt and beige but light pants. I got ready and begrudgingly knocked on Veronica’s door, preparing myself for another battle of wills like yesterday. She didn’t respond.
I called her name, asking if she was awake. She groaned, and I sighed, thinking another morning of issues was about to arise.
“Let’s not have a repeat of yesterday, okay?” I said, hoping to avoid catastrophe, “I don’t want our mornings to be like that.”
I heard her roll out of bed, and she opened the door.
Her appearance gave me a bit of a shock, for she looked terrible. Her hair a mess from sleeping, she was hunched over and tired. Her eyes were red and bloodshot, with dark circles shadowing them.
Rubbing her eyes, she gave me a sleepy “What?”
I told her we needed to get ready, and then added “is that okay?” concerned she was unwell. I was ready for her to argue with me again, but she only mumbled. I was even more concerned now, but before I could ask if she was okay she closed the door to get ready.
Deciding to be thankful we didn’t have a situation, I finished packing the rest of our supplies.
She strolled out of her door irritably saying, “Are you going?”
Reassured that she had her usual attitude back, I nodded. We resumed our journey out on the road.
Veronica waited while I checked the map to see our destination route. She asked me where we were going, and I told her the next town was just a stop before we went into a town called Thicksville. I wanted her to meet an old friend of mine, one I had met just before my awakening. I felt like Veronica would learn something from him, as I most certainly had. Plus, we were already relatively close to the area. It was only about two days travel. I laughed to myself, thinking Veronica would strongly disagree with me that two days travel was relatively close.
She said that she sounded kind of like him when I described him to her, and I laughed. I told her I could agree with that, because he was just as crazy. I snickered, to show her I was joking, and she pushed me, telling me I was a jerk. She asked me more questions about our surroundings, and then asked me if owls really ate lollipops.
Surprised by such a silly question, I snorted, chuckling at the thought. I said, “I can’t say I’ve ever seen one doing such a thing, but I also can’t be sure it doesn’t happen.” We stopped by a stream to fill up our bottles, and Veronica sat down with a resounding thunk!
I glanced at her, not originally planning to stop, but took a long time filling up my bottle and looking at the map. She must have not fallen back asleep after waking up this morning, and I could tell the fatigue was affecting her.
She got up after a few minutes, and we continued walking. We entered the small town of Smithington.
While Veronica went into a nearby convenience store, I attempted to get a local to help me either find a new map, or update mine. As usual, the guy had taken up an attitude with me, but I didn’t let myself get frustrated. Forcing on the charm, polite and nonthreatening. I knew that they felt as if they were missing something when I was around them, but I was used to it. Unlike Veronica, I had been subjected to this in many cities and understood what was going on. I had learned the social way to react to these people’s frustrating behavior.
Finally getting help from the man, I thanked him, and proceeded to head out of the town. Veronica called me, and I flipped around so that I faced her while walking backwards.
“Sup?” I said.
She asked me how I could maintain my composure when talking to others who spoke down to me. I explained that I had been rude to them at first, but then later realized it didn’t get me anywhere in the end. Explaining the stance and voice to her, she attempted to try it herself. We worked on it, and I tried to encourage the voice she used when she was just generally happy about things. Soon she was speaking in perfect tone, a stance open and friendly.
We walked on, making good time. If we walked like this the whole time, we could make it to camp just before nightfall. Suddenly, from behind, came Veronica’s voice.
She complained that we had been walking for too long, snapping out a question of a break. I looked at the sun, judging the time. We didn’t really have time for the kind of break she was talking about. What could I do to improve her experiences? She needed to do something fun to gain some energy and to bring her out of her bad mood. Thinking of her wonder when we entered the town, it made me believe her childhood was the happiest time in her life, despite its drawbacks. A song from when I was a child came into my head, and I started singing.
Swaying back and forth in a silly jig, I bent down simultaneously to get as close to Veronica as possible. She looked at me as if I had gone mad, thinking I had snapped. I gestured for her to join me in my frivolous dance and song. She told me there was no way in hell. I got closer as she tried to move away, until she sighed, exasperated. After understanding I wasn’t going to leave her alone, she agreed.
I sang the first line for her. Purposely looking as if I was making her commit murder, she sang the next one. Soon, as I had anticipated, she sang with more gusto and energy. She was smiling now, and we had already danced across the street a ways. She seemed surprised we had moved with so little effort, and voiced her thoughts. When asked how I knew how to do such a thing, I told her a magician never tells his secrets, attempting to sound mysterious. She rolled her eyes, but was still smiling.
We sang the whole rest of the way, reciting the most ridiculous songs we could think of. Veronica wasn’t a very good dancer, but neither was I. We got to where we were going to camp, and I got the materials to make a fire while Veronica and I exchanged puns.
She suddenly asked me if I could teach her to make a fire. I agreed, happy she wanted to learn to do things like this. It was good to teach her, as she loved to learn.
I demonstrated how to strike them together to make sparks. She took the flint and steel from me, and tried to light them several times. She was going too fast, and at too sharp an angle, so the sparks weren’t well placed and they went out too quickly. I told her to go slower. She tried again, but didn’t understand what I meant. She exclaimed in frustration that she was going slow, and threw the tools down, turning away from the fire. I sighed.
She seemed to have this habit of giving up on something if it didn’t work right away for her. I needed her to see that the best things in life take some effort. It isn’t always easy.
“Veronica,” I called.
She turned to me, an irate expression on her face.
“What?” she asked, annoyed.
“Come back. Let’s try it one more time.”
She looked at me in defiance, and I knew I would need to make her do this.
“Come here.” I said, with more authority.
She seemed to listen to what I said if I used that tone, as a child might to their parents. She looked aggravated, but came back anyway. I shushed her as she started to protest, telling her I would help her. I came up behind her, looping my arms around hers to be able to reach her hands. If she felt how to do it, I knew that she could.
As I leaned in, I noticed that she smelled like strawberries. I wondered why, for she hadn’t eaten any as far as I had seen, and she hadn’t packed any scents.
After I showed her how to create sparks that stayed, she gave me a doubtful look as I told her to do it again. I encouraged her, for I knew she could do it and just needed some inspiration. She struck the flint with perfect technique, and smoke rose from the small pile of tinder. Telling her to blow softly, she picked it up like a baby and kindled the burning embers. The fire spread to the wood, and she rejoiced. I cheered her on, giving her a high five. She was proud of herself, and I was proud she had kept going, even if she needed a little help.
We settled in for the night, watching the stars and getting comfortable. Veronica reached into her backpack and took out Ozzie, the octopus I had given her, quickly stuffing him in her sleeping bag. I smiled to myself, delighted she liked her present enough that she slept with it. But I knew that any outward sign would cause a fight, and she would be too embarrassed to sleep with Ozzie again. She appeared to think I hadn’t seen, for she snuggled into her sleeping bag like usual.
She fell asleep, and I pondered her odd actions last night. She seemed troubled by something, and it was giving her sleep problems. The night before, she had sprung up from her sleeping bag, drawing in ragged breaths. I woke up, but was still half asleep. By the time I turned around to ask if she was alright, she had gone back to sleep. I thought to myself that I would stay up tonight, and see if she had any troubles. I was used to not sleeping when necessary, so one night of vigilance wouldn’t kill me.
Stepping around her as stealthily as possible, I relocated to the top of the hill right across from us. It was a small, grassy knoll, and I made sure she could see me if she were to wake up. She would talk to me if she wanted, and I always found lying on a hill, looking up at the stars the most soothing environment.
I waited for trouble, listening to the crickets chirp at each other, mingling with the cicadas down by the stream below. The world was vibrant with life, and I could feel the connection I had with every creature. I could feel Veronica too, although not as much.
Humans in general were harder to feel, for they were so complex in their emotions and souls.
Drifters could be felt from miles away, for they were like vibrant auras in the sea of life. I had noticed that I could sense Veronica from about 20 feet now, instead of 10 like before. She was beginning to connect to nature more, now that we had been on the road. She was coming closer to finding the truth. I knew I would be happy for her when she awakened, but I would be sad that she was going to drift away.
I had never met someone like her before, not exactly. Sure, I had met plenty of angry people who had painful pasts, more than I could count. I would say that most of the people who became drifters were like this. But I had met far fewer people who had up so many barriers, and who seemed like they had so much pain. And still, even fewer who were secretly people who liked stuffed animals and were overcome with joy when completing such a small task as lighting a fire. She was fierce, but she was also gentle when need be. She sang on the streets with me, stole my bed and television, and cuddled stuffed octopi at night. Veronica was truly a special person, and I was grateful to have had the chance to know her.
I sat on that hill for hours, watching the night creatures come to life.
Around what I guessed to be about 2 am, Veronica began to stir. She was twisting and turning in her sleeping bag, mumbling something incoherently. I managed to catch a few phrases, many of which consisted of the words “don’t” and “please.” She was sweating profusely, the moonlight glistening off of the drops on her forehead. Her hair was plastered to her forehead, and her shirt was sticking to her skin. Her face was twisted into an expression of fear, something I had never truly seen. She kept mumbling, her tone getting more and more desperate.
Wondering if I should wake her up, I paused hesitantly. I had never comforted someone with nightmares before, and these were unordinary. These nightmares weren’t about zombies, or monsters, or something like being bullied or being left alone. Her face showed that she was genuinely scared. What was she dreaming? Her presence was too faint to read entirely, but I could feel the distress coming from her. Just as I was about to stand to wake her, she lurched out of her sleeping bag.
She whimpered so quietly I almost couldn’t hear. She paused a moment, breathing raggedly. I kept my eyes ahead, to give the allusion I hadn’t seen her wake up. Through the peripheral, however, I could see her look at my empty sleeping bag with confusion. With a voice mixed with vulnerability and concern, she called out shakily.
“Matt?” she asked.
I called to her from near the top of the hill, a few feet away.
“I’m up here. I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to do some stargazing. Don’t worry, I’ll go back to bed soon.”
I worded this so that she would know she hadn’t awoken me, and that I couldn’t sleep. I also put in the last sentence for I also wanted to leave her alone if she wanted the privacy, and to give her the sense she didn’t have to feel compelled to speak to me. If she was going to tell me what was going on, she would have to do it on her own terms and be completely in control.
She sat in her bag for several minutes, and I thought she might have fallen asleep again. Then I heard the shuffling of material, and the crunching of grass. She padded up the knoll, stopping to rest beside me.
She lay next to me, staring up at the stars. I could see her shivering, although it wasn’t because of the night breeze. She didn’t look at me, and I didn’t look at her, trying to figure out what she wanted from the situation. Deciding to stay silent, I waited.
Her breaths began to even out, her body began to still, and her clothes began to dry. Her skin wasn’t sweaty anymore, the cool breeze drying it up. We sat like this for about 10 minutes, and then she turned to me.
“Matt?” she called, soft and uncertain.
“Yeah?” I replied, keeping my voice calm and peaceful, hoping to transfer my energy.
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. She seemed unsure what to tell me, and so I started the conversation.
“What’s up? I see that you couldn’t sleep. Got something on your mind?”
She nodded, and then lay silent, refraining from telling me. Just as I was about to engage a conversation gently, she spoke.
“Just a bad dream,” she said, “It’s no big deal.”
I nodded, knowing it wasn’t true but keeping the dialogue light.
“Well,” I said gently, “that’s too bad. But we all have them.”
She agreed. We lay quiet again.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked tentatively, walking on eggshells, “I often find that talking about dreams helps me understand them. You don’t have to, it’s just an idea.”
She bit her lip in a sign of indecisiveness, and thought about it.
“Well,” she began, surprising me with her sudden speech, “I am always running. I don’t know from what, but I am. And I fall.”
She paused, before continuing on.
“It’s just me, and I can’t see what I’m running from. It’s too dark to see anything.”
Her voice betrayed her, for I could tell this was not a true statement. She knew what she was running from, and didn’t want to tell me. I wouldn’t have been able to tell if I hadn’t been dealing with people up close for years, before I had even been awakened.
Still, it was something, and that was definitely more than I thought I would get. Planning my next words carefully, I turned to her.
“Interesting. It’s too dark to see what’s chasing you?” I asked, and she averted her eyes, another sign of her lie.
“Well I can’t help you there,” I said, “but generally when people have dreams of running and falling, it’s that they feel there is something they can’t win against, but trip because they feel hopeless about that something.”
She made a small noise, and then became silent again. I sighed inwardly, wishing she would tell me what was really bothering her. The silence was thick and heavy now, almost palpable.
Deciding to break the quiet, I said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Sometimes we have dreams we just don’t understand, and we never will. Dreams are very odd things most of the time, and they seem to have a mind of their own.”
She looked at me for the first time, and I saw a flicker there. One so small it was barely noticeable, but one that spoke of relief in my words.
“You’re right,” she said, forcing a laugh out of her mouth, “It’s all just a dream. There isn’t much use worrying about It.”
Her tone of voice wasn’t certain at all, but I let it drop. Being around this girl was excruciating, having to be careful of everything. She had just started opening up to me, and I couldn’t afford to have her shut me out now. I was trying everything I could to help her through, but it was like walking on thin ice.
She was staring at the stars now, lost in her thoughts and the infinite number of specks in the sky.
“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” I questioned, returning my eyes to the ceiling of light.
“They’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” she replied, mesmerized by them.
They had a tendency to make you feel insignificant and small, but also part of a universe bigger than anyone knows. Feeling as if some stories would make her feel better, I asked her if she had heard the stories behind the stars. She shook her head.
We settled into the grassy earth, and I began to tell her the tales of the night sky.
“There is Aquarius, the water bearer,” I said, pointing out her location “and that’s Aquila, a mighty eagle who carried messages for the gods.”
I continued, story after story. I had studied the stars at great length, reading anything I could get my hands on. I knew every major myth that existed, and many of the minor ones. I told her of myths and gods, of heroes and villains.
She was sucked into the legends, adoring the fables. When I was done with a story, she would point to another group of stars, asking about those. There were more than enough stars in the sky to keep speaking of sagas, and Veronica took advantage of this.
We sat on that hill for hours, me reciting narratives, and her listening with intense focus. She had rolled over from her spot to see the stars more clearly when I pointed at them, and she was now shoulder to shoulder. She asked questions about the stories, laughed and felt sad, and protested when I spoke of the villainous scoundrels.
We were a part of the stars for nearly 3 hours, at which point Veronica began to fall asleep. I didn’t want to wake her by directing he back to her sleeping bag, and so I let her be. Looking at the sky, I thought I could squeeze in about an hour long nap. I didn’t know if Veronica would be startled if she woke up next to me, but I figured she would be even more confused if she woke up, alone and on a hill, and so I stayed where I was. I also didn’t want to cause a break in her slumber by accidently bumping her shoulder.
The grass was soft and springy, and the night breeze blew gently. It was soft like silk, caressing our faces, and running through our hair like a mother might do to a child’s messy hair. Veronica was still and peaceful now, only shifting to bury her face in the grass. I smiled at her appearance, childlike and soft now that she was asleep.
Her hair blew around playfully, wisping through the air. She was scrunched up, her legs touching each other, and she had one hand on the side of her face, the other at her side, the fingers half curled. She had arranged her arm in a way that it formed a circle, which I assumed was to keep certain stuffed octopus cuddled up against her. She was actually very sweet looking, her face alight in the pale glow of the moon. Her long eyelashes gleamed, and her eyelids softly flickered as she dreamed. I thought to myself that she felt better, hearing stories from me after a nightmare. I hadn’t solved the problem, but I had provided temporary relief.I only wished I could help her cure the nightmares, so they would leave her be.
But right now, she was lying beside me, breaths even and soft, and seemed content. I hoped she was dreaming of heroes and myths, where good always trumps evil.