Highway Chapter 24
It was good to be out on the road again.
I poked and prodded at Matt endlessly, making sure he was fit to travel. I didn’t want another incident.
We said goodbye to Julian on the way out, and I gave him an almost tearful hug. I was going to miss the idiot that was my friend, and he had done so much for me. He told me not to worry about it too much, for I would always know where he was if I wanted to visit.
Matt and I had singing contests, but we also had duets. We laughed the entire way to camp, and I could feel the glow of happiness enshrouding us. When we reached our destination for the night, I made the fire.
I told Matt he couldn’t help me, because he could end up hurt. He rolled his eyes, but sat down nonetheless.
We chased the fireflies through the night as we waited for our water to boil to make dinner; ramen. I landed in the middle of a patch of them, and they all flew upwards, bathing me in light.
After a while, Matt went to get firewood. I gave him an anxious glance, but he assured me he would be careful. Sighing, I reached down into my bag to retrieve Ozzie. He had been squished to the bottom, and as I reached for him my fingers brushed against something sharp. What was that?
I extracted it carefully; worrying a shard of something had made its way into my bag. Oh! It was my memory box. I had forgotten I’d even had it, but I remembered when I grabbed it last minute before sprinting out the door to chase after Matt.
I smiled, wondering why I had wanted to bring it. I suppose I still wanted to hang onto just a little part of my past. Matt came back, asking me what I was holding. I told him, sitting next to him as I opened.
The first thing inside was the photo of my family and I when we went to a tropical island. It was our only big family trip, but it was a special one indeed. When I saw Matt’s quizzical face however, I remembered the top of the picture was damaged.
I told him about the time I threw it into the river by my house. I had been so angry, and I wasn’t thinking straight. After I chucked it in, I realized that it was the only thing I had left, and so I dove in after it. Unfortunately, the space my mother occupied had been water damaged, and so I went home sopping wet for no reason. I still kept it because it had my brother in it, but she was still gone. I hadn’t opened this box in forever, and I wondered how everything was in such good condition.
I had wondered why I knew that it was my brother in my dreams, but it was because I had this photo. I never understood what happened to them, until now, but I still kept it because it reminded me that I had a family once.
I told Matt that I couldn’t remember my mother’s face anymore, even after the memories started rushing in. How come I could remember my father and brother, but not my mother? I must have looked sad, for Matt put his arm around me. I leaned my head on his shoulder, trying to absorb his warmth. The rest of the things in the box only made me smile.
There was a friendship bracelet that my brother wove in one of his art classes. I remember making one of my own for him, even though he already had one. He took it happily, exchanging his for mine. It had been too big for me, but I had kept it safe.
There was a penny that had been run through one of those machines for tourists that we had gotten when we went to an amusement park. I always loved it there, for my brother would buy me ice cream and we would go on the Ferris wheel. At the bottom was a square of paper. Curious, I unfolded it carefully.
It was a birthday card from my brother. This had been for my 7th birthday, and he had made it himself. The front had a picture of stick figures. My brother hadn’t been the best artist ever, but it hadn’t mattered to me. The figures were holding hands, standing in front of a birthday cake. The inside had a scrawled message, the handwriting pretty but disorganized. As I looked over it, I read the message.
“Happy 7th birthday to my favorite girl in the world!” it said, “I hope you have a good day! Wow, seven years old. Pretty soon you’ll need a cane just like old man smithy next door! Did you know you’re almost half my age now? That’s awesome, isn’t it? I just wanted to give you a card to document this important occasion in your life. After all, you only turn seven once. So, here it is. I love you very much vee-bee! Happy birthday my dearest Veronica, and here’s to many more. With lots of love, your (hopefully) favorite boy in the world. P.S. if not, it’s just your brother.”
As I read, it brought a smile to my face. I waited to be sad about his loss, but his card only made my heart swell up with affection. He had always been silly, but really only with those he cared about. Despite being a bit of a solemn teen, understandably, he always had a smile for me. I looked at Matt, who was searching my face in trepidation.
He expected me to cry, and his concern made me feel affection again, this time for him. Hoping to ease his worries, I closed the box and changed the subject.
I asked him if he knew how to hijack a car, thinking of how much I could have used it the other day. He looked stunned at my question, but didn’t say anything. His lack of reaction told me that he did indeed know how to, but didn’t want to admit it. He must have picked it up in his not so noble days. I exclaimed in joy, asking him if he would teach me. He looked upset, and I was worried he was going to have an aneurysm. He quickly told me he wouldn’t, and I asked him why not.
What was the big deal? It’s not like I needed to steal cars a lot. I said that I needed to learn certain things to make it in the world. He told me that he would teach me things, but not if they were illegal. Pssh, what was up with him? He’s the one who knows how to do it in the first place. When he still refused, I turned away.
“You’re such a killjoy. It wouldn’t have hurt.” I mumbled to myself.
He looked legitimately concerned, as if I were a troubled youth. I told him to chill out. It’s not like I was looking for a new pastime. He playfully gave me a doubtful look, so I shoved him. We settled in for the night,
Matt telling me a story about three sisters who found a way to fly up to the sky, only to be enamored by them which made them want to stay. The crickets and cicadas sang peacefully, and I relaxed as I heard their familiar tune.
It’s funny, because I used to hate them together. They sounded so different to me back then, and I didn’t understand how nature could put them together. But now they were in perfect harmony. They lulled me to sleep, humming out a melody. But my sleep was restless, and I woke several times, an odd feeling in my stomach.
Each time I awoke, it had grown, a mass sunken to the bottom. Why did I feel so weird? Had I eaten something that distressed my stomach? But I ate normal food from the town today, and none of it could have given me food poisoning easily. Besides, I didn’t feel sick, just very off.
I suddenly became hot, sweat breaking out on my forehead. The warmth was unbearable, and I felt almost as if I was feverish. Deciding a walk in the cool night air would help, I wriggled out of my sleeping bag. After a small walk I thought I should return to camp. But something was urging me to stay out, to keep going.
Why did I feel this way? Maybe I should tell Matt. Perhaps I’m sick from something. Maybe I had an infection in one of my wounds, but it was in my system. But again, that didn’t seem to be the case.
I kept walking, coming to the top of a flat boulder. The crickets sounded funny, and I wondered why. Each sound seemed to be distorted. My vision was off too, just a little bit fuzzy. My legs almost collapsed as I lowered myself onto the boulder, thinking I should sit down. What was happening? I didn’t seem to have much control over my body anymore, and it was frightening.
Matt, I thought, I should call him. Something here is not normal. But just as I raised my head from the boulder, I felt myself go weak. What if I was dying? I tried to move, but my limbs just didn’t respond. I could see and hear still, but my body didn’t move. I didn’t understand.
The noise of the crickets was getting louder now, an almost painful roar. They rose above the sound of the river below, the owl hooting. But even with their noise, I could suddenly hear everything. The hopping of the little rabbit down below, the squeak of the field mouse, even the fluttering of the butterflies across the valley’s wings. How was that possible?
To my relief, Matt suddenly popped into my view. Did he know what was wrong with me? He called to me, his voice nearly drowned out in the other noise. A look of understanding crossed his face, and he sat down. He pulled my head onto his leg, relieving me of the discomfort from the hard rock. Why wasn’t he doing anything? He looked as if this was normal. Didn’t he worry I couldn’t move? Suddenly, my brain burst out in pain.
The excruciating agony spread across my head, blooming outward like a flower. I was still frozen. I expected my body to be writhing around, not locked and rigid. The roar of the world around me increased, filling my ears. But as I was lost in the sound, individual ones began to call. Softly, at first, but then louder each time. Their unique noise expanded over the other sounds, until they were all I could hear.
First it was the owl, his various hoots. But then he was drowned out, covered by the crickets again. Over and over, the sounds made themselves known. Every species in the area created a connection between us using their sound. Then, they repeated the process, creating something else. I felt my brain connect with theirs, and I heard their thoughts. Some didn’t think about much, only focusing on their current task. But some had complex thought patterns, figuring out how to approach problems they were facing. Miraculously, I almost became them.
With the sparrow, I could feel the air swooshing against my face as I beat my wings. I moved in time with the ant, steadily carrying my load. I could feel the water rushing against my sides as I swam with the fish. I was feeling each animal, being each animal. Every second was another second of something else. It flashed by my eyes, waiting only long enough for me to understand their feelings. It was as if every molecule in my being belonged to something, to someone, even down to the pieces of algae.
I felt them all scatter, only to come back with more information. But just as I thought my brain would reach a range of area, it would expand. Each expansion caused waves of pain to flood my senses, and I wondered how I wasn’t screaming when it happened. But the pain would be quickly replaced with the soothing experiences. I could feel the plants sway in the breeze, the old willow tree sigh as it stretched its old muscles. The underwater plants relished the cool liquid around them, little bubbles sticking to their sides and making them laugh. Everything alive had a conscious, no matter how small.
I was nearing the last creature in the valley, and as I lived with it, my world stopped. I couldn’t see anything, for the world had gone black. But I was not unconscious, as I still had my vision and hearing. I couldn’t even see Matt anymore. I could see the blackness, but there was no connections happening around me. Suddenly, an orb of light flitted into my sights, lighting up the area around me.
The orb expanded, stretching out in front of me. It encompassed the entire area, engulfing me along with it. It was startlingly bright, and I had to shield my eyes to avoid being blinded. The light dimmed, being replaced with the soft glow of sunset. I looked around, surprised to see the little glade outside of my childhood house.
What was I doing here? There was no way I could be dreaming again. Right? But as I looked around, I saw myself sitting on a tree branch. Next to me was my brother, nestled in between two large branches. I wasn’t asleep, how could I be dreaming? I was standing next to the base of the tree, but the two figures didn’t react to me anyway.
This is a memory. Nothing else makes sense. Suddenly, my smaller self spoke.
“Jacob is in a better place now, right?” she asked, tears in her eyes.
I looked down to see a small pile of dirt, a tiny piece of cardboard with the name Jacob scrawled on it. Jacob was my hamster, I remembered. My father let him out while we were at school, and he got hit by a car.
“Yes, vee-bee,” he replied softly, taking her hand, “He’s running around on wheels made of gold, eating whatever he likes.”
My younger self smiled, squeezing his hand. She was quiet for a moment.
Then she said, “I’ll miss him. He was my only best friend besides you. Now he’s gone. He didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
He sighed, watching the sunset turn into twilight. He jumped down from the tree, holding out his arms for my younger self to jump into. She did, giggling as he swung her around. He set her down, crouching in front of her. He brushed away a tear, and held her close for a moment.
Then he faced her, saying, “I know it’s hard to understand, Veronica. But the truth is that everything and everyone has to leave eventually. I’m sorry Jacob didn’t get to say bye to you, but it’s alright. Do you know why?”
She shook her head, looking away.
He gently turned her face to him saying, “It’s because it’s never truly goodbye. You are always going to see them again, and so it isn’t a forever farewell. It’s just a time period where you do different things. But even when you’re apart, you still are connected. They are watching over you, as long as you still think of them. Jacob is probably looking at you right now. Even when you’re mad they left, they still care about you. Does that make sense?”
She smiled, giving him another hug.
“Does that mean grandma is watching over us? I think about her lots.”
She said, looking up to him. He nodded, swooping down to pick her up. He put her on his shoulders, making airplane noises.
“Hey,” she called, a look of uncertainty on her face, “Does that mean you’ll have to go away to someday?”
He stopped, pausing. Suddenly, he laughed.
“Yes, my silly vee-bee. I will have to go someday too, but it will be okay when I do. You’ll think about me, and I’ll think about you. I’ll always be there in some way.”
She gave him an awkward hug, wrapping her arms across the top of his head. He laughed, turning away from her hands.
“Yeah, I’ll love you forever!” she said, “And you’ll love me, right? Because it’s never forever!”
He smiled. As they walked away, the vision began to fade. But before it went black, I heard my brother’s reply.
“I like the way you say it, vee-bee,” he responded, “It’s never forever.”
Suddenly I was back on the boulder. The connections came rushing back, and I noticed something different. I could feel my brother in everything. He had been right. I could feel his essence in the soil, the plants, and the animals. He had helped make up all of this, and would continue to. It was never truly goodbye, huh? Didn’t Matt say something similar when he was hurt? Everyone but me had known. This was when I started to feel Matt next to me.
My body twitched on command. Could I move again? Not exactly. I closed my eyes, wondering what was about to happen.
The more I thought about Matt, the more I began to feel his connection. But there was nothing instant, and I wondered what was happening. The cacophonous roar had ceased, and now I could only hear Matt’s gentle breathing. His eyes looked beautiful in the moonlight, watching over me. Suddenly my brain, quiet and calm a few seconds ago, burst into suffering again.
But this was on a new level, and it was all directed towards Matt. It was as if the pieces of me bounced off, unable to connect. A new wave of fresh agony washed across my body. It hurt my head at first, but then my heart, my stomach, and my entire being. Thousands of little sections of me ached painfully, all consumed with the fire that was the attempt at contact. Then, all was inert.
My pain subsided for a moment, and the world was still. Then, like a volcano erupting, my consciousness spilled into Matt’s. I felt everything, down to the smallest molecule. I felt his loss for Johnny, his sadness about his parents, his past life. But then I also felt his love of Julian, his wonderful years on the road, his joy at awakening. I could sense his fears, his sorrows, and his joys. I became him.
I saw myself through his eyes, stirring from what looked like sleep. And then, I felt his love for me. As his heart beat with mine, I could feel the affection there. He thought me to be an amazing person, one that made him happy. It was as if I had possession of a piece of his heart. It was in everything he did. His fond memories, many with me in them. His pride when I lit my first fire, his happiness when I liked Ozzie, his joy when I told him I loved him too.
I could also sense his sad memories. Many were of his past life, but they also had me in them. His sorrow when I cried that night, his sadness at the thought of me leaving, his agony at the thought of me kidnapped. I felt almost invasive, for I wasn’t supposed to be Matt. Then, as suddenly as it came, it went away.
I felt my paralysis lift, and I twitched again. Slowly, I opened my eyes. Matt was still sitting there, now looking at me. I flexed my hand, testing my regained mobility. Finding everything as it should be, I sat up, leaning away from Matt’s knee.
“Veron-” he started to call, but I twirled around.
Launching myself into his arms, I hugged him fiercely.
“Matt, Matt, Matt,” I called, saying his name, “I love you so much. I love you. I love you.”
I kept repeating it, hoping to engrain it in his brain. He held me close, stroking my hair.
“I know. You showed me the same time I showed you. I love you too, baby girl. I love you so much.”
I leaned back, looking up at his face. I laughed, wiping away my tears. Why was I crying? I realized that they were tears of joy.
“I know,” I said back, repeating his words.
So the connection had been mutual. I held onto him for a moment more, rejoicing in the feeling of being alive. I could still feel the animals around me, but not quite as strongly. They were all normal now. If I tried really hard, I could reach out and connect to one of them at a time.
“Wow,” I exclaimed to Matt, not sure what I should say about this moment.
He laughed, slinging an arm around my shoulder.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” he asked with a mirthful grin, “Did it hurt? Sorry if it did. But wasn’t it worth it? You are finally a full fledged drifter!”
I sat, my mouth slightly agape. That was what had happened? I had finally awakened? The thought only added to my elation. I could only agree that it had been worth it.
“My head still hurts, though,” I complained, rubbing my temples, “Not nearly as bad as before, mind you. Just a headache.”
He smiled, patting me on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” He replied sympathetically, “That’ll be there a day or two. You’re brain just went through quite a lot.”
He gave me a kiss on the forehead, smoothing back my hair. He picked me up bridal style, swinging me around.
“Het, Matt! Watch it!” I scolded him, “If you get hurt again I’m going to hit you!”
He only laughed at my admonishment, saying, “Well I’m glad your sassy persona is still there.”
Was I supposed to have changed? I certainly did feel different. There was a sense of inner peace inside, a calm and tranquil feeling washing over me. Wait! I didn’t feel any pain. Not physical discomfort, but emotional.
Ever since I remembered my brother, a piece of my soul had been shattered, always hurting. It was gone now. It was smooth like the surface of a mirror, no cracks in sight. The awakening had healed me. It only left me with the love I carried, and not the pain. I felt the very fabric of my being become healed, an expert seamstress sewing up all the holes and weaving new threads into the blanket that was my soul.
He set me down next to my sleeping, settling next to me. We talked about the event for a while, and I asked him more questions.
“What happened with you won’t happen to every drifter I meet, right?” I asked, anxious.
I didn’t enjoy the pain that it took to create the connection. He shook his head.
“You’ll be able to understand the emotions of every drifter, but you won’t have any pain during the connection, nor will you go as in depth,” he replied, “We had our depth happen because I was the first drifter to connect to you. The same thing happened with Julian and I.”
How come he gets it twice? No fair! I shoved him, and he exclaimed that I was mean.
“What was that for?” he asked, giving me sad puppy eyes.
“That’s for having it happen to you twice. No fair.”
He laughed, pulling me into a hug again, ruffling my hair. I tried to dodge, but it was too late. When he let go, we sat down again. Suddenly thinking of his anxiety of me leaving and his statement at the hotel, I decided to point out the obvious.
“Hey, Matt,” I called, smirking when he looked to me, “Guess what?”
He looked bewildered, and so I leaned in close.
“Well, I just awakened, and I’m done now,” I said, laughing at his confused face, “And I’m still here! Haha! In your face! You were so wrong!”
He smiled, leaning back while I made fun of him. He was laughing so hard he couldn’t even sit up. Deciding upon causing some mischief, I thought to prank him.
“Actually,” I said slyly, “I think I don’t feel like it anymore. Maybe I should go. See ya, Matt!”
I hopped up, skirting away. I hoped he wouldn’t think I was serious, or there would be a problem. Fortunately, he could tell I was kidding, and I sensed he wasn’t upset.
“Oh no you didn’t, you sly little fox!” He exclaimed loudly, “Nobody can escape me! I’m the super hero, Mighty Matt!”
He chased after me, catching up to me in a few minutes. He roped his arms around my waist, lifting me. I squealed in delight, laughing at his silliness.
“I don’t see a cape. What kind of super hero are you?” I asked playfully, laughing at his sudden self proclaimed title.
He scoffed, saying, “Pssh. Capes are for amateurs. Only real super heroes are always in disguise. Either way, I’m the kind of super hero who saves damsels in distress. Don’t worry, milady, I have it all under control!”
He carried me back to our fire, setting me on my sleeping bag. I gave him another shove, telling him he was an idiot. But I said with only the utmost affection, of course.
After we calmed down, we decided we were both tired and needed to sleep. But as sleep washed over me gently, I thought one last thing.
I was a drifter now, and I would leave part of my old life behind now. But still, I would always remember the people I loved, the place I came from, and the things I learned from. Because if I didn’t forget those things, they would always be there, waiting for me. I would say farewell to them, but it would be okay.
Because after all, it’s never forever.