Highway Chapter 10
He was an extraordinary person, that was to be sure. He had helped me up, grabbing my forearm instead of my hands because of the scrapes. He had even held on until he had been sure I wouldn’t take another nose dive.
I wanted to nail that stupid pretty boy jerk in his face. He had always been an idiot, and he made snarky comments, but this was the first time in a while he had physically attacked me. When we were little, I beat him up for making fun of my hair. He went crying to his mother, of course, and I got to spend several hours in the mayor’s office listening to a lecture.
The town just expected him to take care of the nuisance I had become, despite him not wanting to a single bit, so when I got in trouble it was where I went. Everyone in the office knew me, for it had become my second home. When I was bored, it had become my hobby to cause trouble on purpose. Eventually, he just got tired of it. I was too young to be kicked out without seeming morally wrong, and I hadn’t broken any laws. I pushed the limits of everything, but stayed within the boundaries. He started to essentially bribe me, with my house and the money I had saved up.
As I stared at the jock now, though, he seemed really boring compared to the man walking away. I realized he was getting my bag, retrieving it from where it had gone awry. He made his way back to me, but stopped in front of that stupid boy. And then, he became the best person in the world.
He told the boy not to trip people at first, but when he didn’t reply, he made a joke at his expense. The man speaking to him like the stupid boy he was, his face grew red with anger and embarrassment. The people around us started to laugh, for they knew it to be true. Seeing that expression on his face after he tripped me was priceless. I hadn’t known this man had such a sense of humor and wit.
As he had when I beat him up, he backed down. It was wise he didn’t try to get in a fight with the man, for he was taller and had a more powerful build. I also had the feeling he knew how to fight. He turned to me, and asked if I was ready to go. Feeling I was as ready as I was ever going to be, I nodded. But as we turned, I realized that I couldn’t leave without saying something to these people. They may have ruined my life, but it had made me change into something better. I would always resent them, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t thank them. Catching the man’s sleeve, I asked him to wait.He gave me a curious look, but followed the instruction.
Positioning myself in the middle of the circle of people, I took a long, hard look at every single one of them. I felt the memories come rushing back to me, and they made me so angry, but I could tell how they had all changed me. Whether this was change for the good or the bad, I would never know. All I knew is that I was about to embark on the biggest journey of my life, and I might have missed the opportunity if it hadn’t been for them. The man behind me had seen me as different, and that might have been from these people. They would never have such a journey, and suddenly I felt only pity for their lives of monotone and banal activities. I spoke, loud and clear,
“Ever since I was little, you guys have made my life a living hell. But now I know, that every one of you are the people that I need to feel sorry for. You can’t see anything but this town and your ‘perfect’ little lives. But your lives will mean nothing in a few years, and I will be happy. I bid you all farewell.”
And with that, and my head held high, I pivoted on my heels until I was turned the other way. I walked past the man, strutting with confidence and power. Even as I heard the murmurs, I didn’t look back. When the man caught up to me, his long strides outpacing my medium ones, I didn’t look back. And even when we were out of sight, I didn’t look back. I wouldn’t, for that would mean I cared something for the place and the people in it, and I was done with that. I would not look at the past, for I only cared for the future.
The man interrupted my thoughts, saying I should wash my hands for fear of infection. I had forgotten they were scraped in the first place, but now that I had turned my attention to them, they protested with a fiery and sharp stinging sensation. They scrapes had stopped bleeding, but the skin was still torn.
We stopped at the old pit stop in the back of the town. I went in to wash my hands while the man stayed outside. I ran my hands under the warm water and yelped at the pain. Still, it needed to be done to I pushed through the pain. While I washed, I reflected upon the events of the day.
How could my life change so much in a matter of a few hours? Here I was, in this tiny bathroom, with a man I didn’t even really know waiting outside for me, about to leave on a journey to who knows where, to achieve an “inner peace.” Fate sure had a sense of humor.
Oh, the soap stung so much. Keep going, I told myself, talking both about the soap and about what I was doing. Finishing up, I reached for the paper towels and gingerly patted my skin dry. My palms looked a lot better, but they were still pretty torn up. I would’ve liked to have seen the man punch him, but you can’t always get what you want.
I sighed, looking at my reflection in the mirror. My hair was a mess, my eyes still puffy, my makeup smudged into practical inexistence expect for the ring around my eyes that made me look like a raccoon. I did my best to get it off, but there was still some of it there. I look so stupid, I told myself. But the truth was, I was probably the happiest id ever been in my life. It was like I was on an emotional rollercoaster, anguished and sorrowful one minute, and then happy-go-lucky and joyful the other. “Get it together, girl,” I thought to myself.
I found him outside, where he said he needed to talk to me. Suddenly nervous, I joined him on the bench. Before that though, he gave me a little tube of something that looked like Neosporin.
“It will help it heal faster,” he offered.
I took it from him, with quiet thanks. This gesture of kindness, though insignificantly small, was one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for me. I suddenly felt bad now, because I remembered flashbacks to the bar. I yelled at him, I insulted him, I did everything nasty I could think of short of physically assaulting him. I might’ve even done that had I thought myself capable of putting up a fight.
Yet here he was, handing me ointment for my little scrapes. He had also looked at me with a genuine smile of happiness when I had crash landed in front of him, like I was exactly what he had wanted to see. The only things he had ever done were nice, and all the things I had done were mean. I resolved to apologize to him later, even though it wasn’t generally my thing.
He started to talk about me being sure about this choice. When I tried to interrupt my displeasure, he silenced me with a hand and kept talking. He should know by now that I don’t do things and give up on them.
But was that true? I gave up piano, soccer, and every kind of sewing project I had ever done. Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t really gone through with anything. But this was different, I told myself. This would be my thing.
I had folded up one leg on the bench, making a little bowl, while my other leg almost touched the ground. It was the position I sat in I was planning on listening to something. Music, nature, and now the man.
He spoke of believing in me, and again this caused my heart to stutter. It seemed no matter how trifling or trivial the action, his kindness was something so foreign and yet so wonderful. He asked me if I was going to stick with this, and not expecting the question, I stuttered out my answer, glancing back and forth between him and the ground.
“I originally thought to go because you were so different than everyone, just like me. Then I thought, why not, I have nothing here for me anyway. While I am still mostly there, I want to be like you in a way as well. You just seem so content with the world right now. I still think you are a little bit crazy, but I think so am I. The crazy people need to stick together right?”
He smiled for a second, and I was proud of my achievement.
“I think I am ready for it all,” I said quiety.
He raised his eyebrows at me, and I thought a bit too late that I had sounded out an insecurity. I glanced at him again, and steeled myself for a second try. You have nothing to lose, I told myself. You are readier than you ever will be again.
I took a deep breath and said, “I mean I AM ready. Not I think. I know I am ready. One hundred percent into this.”
I was glad to find that this time, my resolve and confidence rang true.
“All right then!” He said with a deep breath, sounding satisfied with my answer. “Let's get going! We got at least a few miles ahead of us, maybe more until we hit a good spot to camp!”
What? Is he kidding?
“Five miles or more? Why the hell is he so perky about it?” I mumbled under my breath.
He practically sprang out of his seat like a young deer. He was speed walking now, leaving me scrambling for my stuff. I yelled at him,
“Wait up! Don’t be a jerk! Come on!”
Now he was walking faster, and I could tell it was just for his own amusement. Great, I have a wonderful traveling partner. I caught up to him after a short run, grumbling something about idiots and certain blond haired men being in that category and giving him the nastiest glare I could muster. Thus we began our trek across the stretch of highway ahead of us.
The sun was beating down now, for it was about 4 in the afternoon, the hottest time of the day here. I could swear I was losing pounds of weight because it all came out as sweat. I had also begun to feel light-headed, and I didn’t understand why. I started to lag a bit behind the man, only a step, but always one behind.
I heard the man clear his throat, only to look over and see him take a large swig of the water in his bottle. Feeling stupid and moronic, I tried to convince myself he hadn’t cleared his throat to draw attention to the fact I wasn’t drinking water. But no matter how hard I tried, I knew that was what had happened. At least he didn’t bother me about it.
I retrieved my bottle from my pack, still feeling embarrassed, and downed about half of it. Probably not the best idea, but I didn’t really care at the moment.
Feeling much better, I resumed the pace he was keeping, staying alongside him this time. The road was quiet, and I had started to feel unnerved. The man was completely at ease, but I had never had such silence before. So to fill it, I began to talk to the man. How long was I going to keep calling him the man? It sounded like a bad eighties band name. Now introducing Katy Larson and The Man! Here to perform their new hit, “You Don’t Know My Name.”
“So,” I started awkwardly.
I waited for him to say something.
“So” he replied.
I guess I would be doing the talking.
“Um,” I stammered for time, “I didn’t quite catch your name back there. I’m Veronica, as you know, and you are?”
He seemed surprised at my question and then shrugged.
“I don’t really have one. I used to, but I don’t remember it.”
Nonplussed, I couldn’t even speak. Who the hell doesn’t have a name? Maybe no middle name, sure, but everyone has a name.
“What am I supposed to call you then. Hey, you? You there? Hey guy that I’m traveling with?”
He again shrugged noncommittally, no doubt thinking it strange I cared.
“You can call me whatever you want I guess.”
This was just ridiculous.
“I’m going to go insane if I can’t use a name to talk to you. If you don’t care what it is, I’m just going to give you a name.”
He looked at me peculiarly, but seemed okay with the suggestion. Another few minutes passed by in silence as I thought of a name for him. Studying him from top to bottom, many names came into my head. Casey? Nah, that’s not it. Jason? He wasn’t that kind of guy. Brian or Charles? Wrong hair. Finally a name popped into my head, and with nothing better, I decided that was what he was going to be called.
“I got it!” I exclaimed, almost making him jump. “Your new name is Matthew! But I don’t really like the full name for you so I’m just going to call you Matt. Okay?”
He pondered the name for a moment.
“Matt? Why Matt? I mean, it’s a fine name, but I never thought of myself as a Matt.”
I gave him a glare, saying tartly, “Because I think of you as a matt and you ‘didn’t care’ as you said so I gave it to you and now it’s your name. You can’t do anything about it.”
I was offended at his mockery of my name. I crossed my arms and turned my head away.
“Matt huh?” I heard him say.
He said it a few more times.
“I kind of like it actually,” he said to me.
I turned away from him, my arms still crossed, and gave him a harsh toned, “whatever.”
Even if he was lying, he was still trying it. Another minute passed.
“Do you really kind of like it or are you just lying? If you were, don’t do it now.”I asked quietly.
He looked at me with a slight smile and replied, “Yeah I do. It’s as good a name as any other. I think I could be a Matt in real life. I have the Matt hair too.”
I hid my smile at the hair comment. I didn’t want him to think he had won.
“Well good, cause it’s what I’m going to call you, Matt.” I said, putting special emphasis on his name.
He smiled once more and we talked to each other on and off again for the rest of our walk.
It was surprisingly easy to carry on a conversation with him, and I found myself gabbing on and on while he answered my questions. Despite the constant stream of my voice, he didn’t seem to mind it at all. We talked about many things. The Way, at first for it was a common topic with him. But then it turned into thing like his favorite color, purple. Cats or dogs? Dogs. Right handed or left handed? Right. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what would you want with you? A toolbox. Why? So he could build a boat. He asked me back all my questions, and by the end of the night, we knew all the little things about each other.
When we weren’t talking, I was admiring the scenery. We were always on the side of the highway, but that didn’t mean we missed any nature. There were omnipresent mountains to the west, amethyst and sapphire. They loomed over the rest of the natural world, but they were kind. Wild flowers of all kinds grew in patches around the street. Bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes sprouted from the sides, joining Daisies and brown-eyed Susans. I didn’t know the names of the flowers, but Matt did, and he answered all of my questions with amazing accuracy. Of course, I wouldn’t know if he was wrong, but he seemed sure enough about his answers that I had to believe he knew. He seemed to be enchanted with everything wild, just like I was. We passed a gurgling brook, and a trickling stream.
At the latter, we stopped to refill our water bottles, or rather just mine mostly, for I had drank it all at an unwise pace. He dropped little purifying tablets in the bottles, and I watched as the tablets fizzed away. With trepidation I tried the water, and it turned out to be absolutely delicious.
We saw anthills as big as my leg, which I steered away from, for I did not want to provide them with an afternoon snack. Matt laughed at me, but shut up when I glared at him. We passed countless lakes, baby ducklings trotting after their mother.
Maybe I was like the cygnet, mixed in with baby ducklings when I was meant to be with the swans. Perhaps Matt was a swan? I burst out laughing, but wouldn’t tell him what I was laughing about. Swan Matt, the new ballet.
We also got to see a turtle crossing the road, a painted turtle I was informed. I was worried he would get hit by a car, for he was crossing the street, but Matt said cars hardly ever used this highway and to not interfere with his crossing. The birds chirped overhead, singing in harmony like a well practiced choir.
I was getting really tired at this point, but I pushed onward. One, because Matt wasn’t going to stop, and two, because of all of the wonderful things I was seeing. By the time we reached “base camp” where we were setting up for the night, I didn’t ever want to move again.
I dropped my bag, and then promptly collapsed to the ground.
"Oh sweet grass,” I moaned, “I will never leave you again.”
Matt snickered at my affection towards the ground.
“Oh, and there’s one of those anthills about a foot away from you.”
I jolted up to look, but I only saw Matt smirking at me.
“You jerk!” I admonished him, “I thought you were serious! One day I’m actually going to get attacked by ants because I won’t believe you!”
He faked an apologetic look, and I reminded myself to smack him in the arm later. I lay back down again, because I didn’t want to move.
“Even if that had been true, I wouldn’t have cared. I’m so tired I would have let them eat me alive if it meant I didn’t have to move.”
Matt rolled his eyes, mumbling something about being overly dramatic. Yes, I would definitely have to smack him. I stared at the sky, streaked with fiery rays of red and soft glows of a pleasant pink. As the sun went down and the evenings gave to twilight I decided to get up.
After I had regained feeling in my feet, I limped over to where he had built a fire. I pulled out my sleeping bag like he did, and laid it out away from the fire, just enough to stop myself from being hot but not far away enough I was cold.
We had discussed my supplies easier, and it was decided I had pretty much everything I needed except maybe a few more pairs of clothes and some “basic” things I needed, like water tablets, and a first aid kit, and flint and steel. All things we could get in the next town, only about 4 miles away from here.
“My feet are killing me!” I exclaimed, “Why did we walk so much?”
I sank down to the ground again.
“You said five miles” I commented accusingly, “we walked, like 25!”
I shot him another glare when he scoffed.
“Please!,” he said with an attitude, “try 10.”
I didn’t have the strength to argue, but I mumbled in rebellion, “You still said 5.”
He threw me a MREA, and I hastily wolfed it down. It was pretty decent in many senses. Matt took pity on me and suggested I go down to the stream a few meters away. I hobbled over there, and sat down taking off my shoes and stuffing my socks in them.
As I submerged my feet, the water was freezing. But after the initial shock, I got used to it. It was an amazing feeling, the muscles relaxing after a hard day, the water lapping gently against my ankles.
This was a world that was so magical and awe filled, one could live in it every day for the rest of their life, and they would still see something new each and every single day. I sighed in content.
Twilight was fading away, and it was getting dark. Deciding it didn’t want to fumble around for my shoes in the dark, I ruefully extracted my feet from the river.
Leaving the shoes off but putting on the socks, I limped up the hill again, although this time with a much less noticeable disability.
“Have fun?” Matt asked as I appeared again.
“Actually, I did yes. No thanks to you though.”
I reached over and gave him a light punch in the arm.
“What was that for?” he asked, mildly victimized. “That’s for making fun of me earlier!”
We settled in our sleeping bags, and I watched the stars. After several minutes of star gazing, I rolled on my side to face Matt. His face was turned upward, still looking at the specks in the sky.
“Hey,” I called softly to him.
He didn’t roll to his side, but he twisted his body so he was leaning on his arm, his eyes directed towards me.
“What’s up?” he asked with attentiveness.
“Look, I , uh,” I stuttered, unsure how to put it, “I don’t do this very often, so don’t expect it okay?”
He nodded his agreement, although he looked quite confused.
“I just, I just wanted to apologize okay?” I said, my voice speeding up with embarrassment.
Matt sat up a little more, giving me a clear view of his bewildered face.
For what?” he asked.
“Today, at the bar, I said some really not nice things to you. And, I just don’t think you deserved that because all you are is nice to me and I am just mean but anyway it doesn’t matter cause I wanted to apologize and I did. Sorry, that’s the end of it.” I started to ramble.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Calm down, okay?” He soothed, his hands up in a placating manner. “It’s very nice that you apologized, and I really do thank you for something so heartfelt. But really, you don’t need to apologize. You were upset, and we all do things we regret when we are upset. New things are scary, especially things like this and how fast it happened. All that matters is that you chose to come anyway. But still, that’s a very nice gesture. Thank you.”
I looked at his face, for some sign of insincerity, but it was not there. He was looking at me softly, now, so I turned away slightly.
“Do you want a hug?” he asked playfully.
“No.” I replied a little forcefully.
“I’m going to come over there, I’ll do it, I’m going to give you a hug.”
He was messing around and I knew it. I turned to him and said in mock anger,
“If you hug me I’m going to hit you again.”
He chuckled and I couldn’t help but let out one of my own. Our laughter filled the air, mixing with the sounds of other nature, out of place, yet somehow completely cordant with the other sounds.
After we had calmed down, we lay in silence again. At first, I thought Matt had fallen asleep, for he was turned away, and very silent. I wished I could have asked him something.
“Matt. Are you awake?” I asked in a whisper so soft, he might not have heard it even if he had been awake.
I didn’t think we was, so it startled me when his figure replied with a sleepy “mmhm.” Now I felt bad, interrupting his sleep. I was quiet for a moment.
“Is everything okay?” he asked with sleepy concern.
“Is it worth it, Matt?”
He turned over, so I could see him.
With bleary eyes, he asked me, confused, “Is what worth it?”
I gestured to our little camp and the surrounding area.
“All of this. Is it worth it?”
Understanding dawned on his face. He yawned, and then gave me a brilliant smile.
“Oh yeah. It’s worth every second.”
With that I turned the other way, pretending I was falling asleep. I heard him shuffle in his sleeping bag.
And then, with a gentle voice similar to mine, he softly said, “Goodnight Veronica.”
I lay for a while, still, and calm.
Then, with that same softness, I said, “Goodnight Matt.”
With the owls hooting, the fire crackling, and the river gently gurgling, it created a nature-made lullaby. I looked one more time at the stars before my eyes closed. And then, I let sleep overcome me and welcomed the land of dreams.