By Heather Killough-Walden
It was day three of driving ten hours a day.
Time to fill up with gas and hit the head just in case.
At one end of the truck stop, construction was taking place, and a jackhammer wood-pecked noisily at the ground, the sound managing to jackhammer my head instead. I cringed and looked away, but of course that did nothing to stop the noise. People bustled in and out of the store, going in quickly with full bladders and wallets, coming out having emptied them both but holding bags of soft drinks, chips, and candy bars or cigarettes.
There were people gathered around the dumpster, drinking. It was 7:00 a.m. I found myself hoping they were from the night shift and just getting off, maybe an hour from hitting the sack.
We moved to the other end of the truck stop to the gas stations built for regular sized cars and not the behemoths the roads had been created for in the first place. My husband parked. We took turns going to the bathroom.
And when it was his turn and I was again seated in the front passenger seat, I glanced at the clock once more. 7:21. That was when it hit me. I realized the van had become a prison transport vehicle, and my seat nothing more than a long bench. The seatbelt was a set of cuffs complete with ball and chain.
I popped the door open and jumped back out of the van.
When my boots touched down on the pavement, a wave of heat washed over me. The wind kissed my cheek, much too warm for this time of year. But before I’d gone one step, I already felt as if I’d broken my bonds, a new fugitive at the start of her long run from the law of… go back to your shit-dust town where nothing fun ever happens and all you can eat is steak and the temperature never dips below eighty-five degrees and the red air is filled with arsenic traces and dung.
I turned away from the interior of the van, which was now filled to the brim with gas station stop soda bottles, empty fountain drink cups, bags of pretzels, unopened packages of candy, seventeen bags from suitcases to backpacks to make-shift dirty laundry containers and convention goodie holders, one dog, and one daughter. I slammed the door shut behind me and looked to the distance, where the gas station’s parking lot tarmac came to an abrupt end, giving way to dunes of dirt and dried grass. Just beyond them were the railroad tracks.
I walked. I walked with weirdly numb legs as the wind picked up around me, hot and dry. My hair whipped at my face, and the sun burned my right arm. When I reached the end of the lot, I stopped and stared at the metal of the tracks thirty yards away.
The wind proceeded to pick up pieces of trash and send them tumbling around my feet like dancing children. They rolled end over end, some crossing over the toes of my shoes before they traipsed noisily into the dunes and were either caught in the cacti or sent soaring over them. The tracks gleamed in the sunlight, part iron, part rust, all dreams.
I didn’t look back. My feet moved automatically, my thick boots protecting my feet from the cactus spines and debris as I skidded down the ditch and climbed the other side, crossing dunes until I found myself stepping up onto the tracks.
I could go left or right. The wind was blowing from the right. I faced it, allowing my hair to leave my face and trail behind me like a kite. I began walking.
Somewhere behind me, a horn was honking. But no phone was ringing. I’d left it behind. I’d left everything. I kept walking.
The gas station disappeared. The dumpsters, the parking lot, the cars.
The buildings vanished, the houses, what was left of a once booming but now rusting and crumbling town… all of it faded away as if burned from a photograph left in the sun.
Eventually, there was nothing but desert to either side of me, a long strip of metal trailing straight and unchanging into the unseen distance. I realized that I’d gone crazy. This was insane. I was nuts. I’d just left my family, my vehicle, my belongings behind and had no idea where I was or where I was going. But the realization was fleeting, and if it hadn’t been I would have bullied it into a dark and forgotten corner of my mind anyway. I no longer cared.
My boots continued to pace out the yards between my past and my uncertain immediate future. Inches of metal railing passed beneath me, piling up in my wake in the form of miles. I was burning all over; I could tell. My sunscreen had worn off and I hadn’t reapplied it.
My hair line was thin enough that the sun was even baking the top of my scalp. If I ever found a shower again, it would probably peel off under the percussion of hard water stream and the scraping of my fingernails.
But my mind was wandering as much as my legs now. I was thirsty.
I heard a train whistle. It was an unmistakable and unequalled sound. There was none other on the planet like it. I looked up ahead, for some reason knowing the rail-bound metal dragon would be coming from that direction and not from behind. Far in the distance, a tiny puff of gray-black blotted a bit of the waving mirage of heat that rose from the horizon. It was smoke from the burning of coal. The train was a steam train. Was that even possible? Did anyone use steam trains out here any longer? In the desert? In the middle of nowhere?
I waited a bit, some part of me wanting to test the limits of my fear. Face down an oncoming train. Nothing quite like it to make you feel alive again. The blot of smoke vanished, then came back a second later, stronger and closer. Darker and bigger. On and on, it vanished and was reborn, closing the distance between the beast it was belched from – and me.
The rails beneath my boots began to vibrate. I could now hear the “chugga-chugga” of the train’s metal rods moving forward and back, forward and back, quickly and efficiently. It was a constant and pleasant sound that I had always admired. But right now, it signaled the approach of a beast, hungry to eat the space in front of it.
And I was in the way.
It bore down on me. A hundred yards away. Fifty.
I leapt from the tracks as the whistle screamed, hit the dirt, and rolled. Dust clouded around me, the world shook furiously, and I continued to turn over and over.
I came to a stop several long feet from the vibrating tracks and lay there with my eyes closed as the wheels ate up the ground and the monster roared continuously by. Until, finally, a hot blast of wind and dust and the Doppler effect signaled that the train was now fully past and heading the way I had come.
I smiled to myself – and opened my eyes.
Flat, brown landscape blurred past the van window.
I shifted in my passenger seat, sending blood back into my numb left leg. I glanced over my shoulder to the backseat. My daughter’s fingers button-mashed the “A” button on her Nintendo. Her ears were covered by headphones, so she couldn’t hear the song my husband had just chosen from his steering wheel controls: Dio, “The Last In Line.”
I glanced at the dashboard clock. 7:29. The daydream had taken eight minutes.
Only five hundred and sixty-nine minutes to go.
– Heather Killough-Walden is the New York Times bestselling author of The Kings series, the Big Bad Wolf series, the Lost Angels series, the Neverland series, and the October Trilogy.
This is how she survives long drives.