Chapter 2: The Broken Road
As the clock approached three Nate realized he had a problem. He’d been on the road for nearly two hours and was beginning to understand he could not simply drive forever. He knew where he was: the open road, putting more and more asphalt between himself and the constraints of his life. What he did not know was where he wanted that open road to take him.
Molly sat next to him in the front seat, intently watching the miles as they passed. “You hungry, girl?” he asked, reaching over to scratch the top of the retriever’s head. She turned to face him and licked her chops. “I’ll take that as a yes.” She turned back to the windshield.
A few miles farther a sign promised fast food and gas at the next exit. Nate pulled off the expressway and down towards an empty country road. A sign by the off ramp directed him to take a left at the stoplight. Nate dutifully followed direction and upon crossing under the expressway was rewarded with the familiar vista of a Midwestern highway town. On either side of the four lane road cornfields stretched out to the horizon. A quarter mile down the road a half dozen signs reached for the sky, telling passing motorists of the gas and food offered in the buildings below. Somewhere beyond those signs sat a small town occupied by what Nate naturally assumed were simple, hardworking folk. His disillusionment took over and Nate decided the people in the town were living almost impossibly fulfilling lives. For a moment he hated the imaginary people and their imaginary joy. Still, on some deep level he wanted to join them.
He shook off the thought and pulled into the parking lot of a Burger King. He knew he would have to leave Chicago much further behind if he was to be free. Illinois would provide him with no respite from his past. There was no sense ending his journey a scant two hours from where it began.
Nate grabbed Molly’s leash and let her out of the car. After letting her stretch her legs for a few minutes he put the dog back into the car and headed into the restaurant to get some cheeseburgers.
He returned to the car and filled her dish with water. As he was pulling one of the patties off of its bun his cell phone rang. Without thinking, he picked it up and put it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Nate?” came the question from the familiar voice at the other end. “Where are you?”
“Well, Julia,” he said, hesitantly. “It’s kind of hard to explain…”
“I called your office and Margaret said you went home early yesterday and hadn’t come in today. She said you didn’t tell her where you were going or when you were coming back,” her confusion was evident. “What’s going on? Is there something wrong?”
For the first time since leaving Nate realized the gravity of what he had done. He had somehow decided that quitting his job was only about him, his life and what he wanted to do. A lump rose into his throat. He swallowed and felt the lump settling into his stomach and turn to stone. “Yes, Julia. There is something wrong…something I can’t explain.”
“Tell me, Nate. We’ll work it out. I’ll come home tonight and we’ll deal with it.”
“Don’t bother coming home. I won’t be there.”
“Where are you?”
“I-88, pretty close to the Iowa border. And I can’t tell you where I’m going, because I don’t know either.”
“Come home,” she pleaded. “I’ll come home tonight. We’ll figure this out, together…please?” her voice wavered. “Nate? Please?”
“I can’t, Julia. I’m sorry.” he hit the end button and slowly lowered the phone from his ear. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to handle another conversation, he turned the phone off and put it in the glove box.
The cold lump stayed anchored in the bottom of his stomach and turned his burger to a tasteless, unhappy mush. Sensing her master’s mood Molly got into the car’s back seat and laid down as soon as she finished her meal.
Nate filled the car up at the gas station next door and bought a road atlas. By the time he got back on the road he was convinced the lump would be his constant companion. He headed west, knowing that Chicago was now closed to him. He wondered if the happiness he desired was also somewhere in the past, locked away by his carelessness.
The highway stretched on to the horizon, neither seeing nor caring about the struggles of the lonely wanderer.
It had all made sense the night before. He had gotten home, packed enough clothing for a couple weeks then just sat back and watched a baseball game. For the first time since college he had slept in the next morning. After loading his car he had left in the early afternoon, intending to never look back.
* * *
By four o’clock that afternoon the Acura and its occupants had come within sight of the Quad Cities. Somewhere over the next hill the mighty Mississippi stretched across their path. Nate remembered crossing the river as a boy traveling west with his parents on vacations. His dad would always tell him to pay attention. “Look, Nate,” he would say, his voice taking on a reverent tone. “We’re at Mississippi River.” Then he’d spend the next ten minutes talking about Lewis and Clark and the endless frontiers of the west.
One year Nate had informed his father that he was too old to care about some dumb old river. His father still talked about the barrier and the adventure and then said, “One day you’ll understand, son.”
Several years later on a road trip with friends Nate had crossed the river for the first time as an adult. It was on that trip he understood the power the river had held over his father. The group was on their way to a week of skiing in Colorado and when Nate hit the river he suddenly realized he was on his own, crossing the great river on his own adventure.
On the return trip the world somehow seemed smaller. They’d gone, they’d seen, they’d had fun, they’d been adults. Now it was time to go back to studies and preparation for a life of cubicles and reports and marking time until retirement.
The river had once again become a great barrier. He imagined the vast country beyond its waters and realized for the first time that he might be taking a step he could never take back. Crossing the river suddenly seemed terrifying.
He passed a sign that said I-80 was coming up in a mile. There was still one last chance to stop, to turn back. All he had to do was take I-80 east and head back for Chicago. Julia would still be there. His job would still be there. He could tell everyone that he’d had a brief moment of insanity, that he’d contemplated the unthinkable, but that he’d come to his senses and he was back. He could live out another thirty, forty, or fifty years on this side of the river. All he had to do was give in.
He wasn’t ready to face that demon. Nate guided the sedan to the ramp that would take his destiny westward. “Want to see Iowa, girl?” he asked Molly. He turned to look and saw the dog was fast asleep on the back seat, her right leg twitching as she dreamed of wide open spaces.
Several minutes later he turned to the dog again. “See that, Molly?” he asked, pointing out the window. “That’s the Mississippi River.” The dog didn’t bother to wake up.
Leaving the Mississippi behind, the roadway resumed its westward course, racing through the plains toward the glimmering expanse of the frontier.
* * *
The signs for Des Moines brought the promise of a room and a good night’s sleep. They arrived in town right around dinner time, road weary and needing time away from the car. Nate picked an off ramp and left the highway. He had to stretch his legs and find some food. Once he got off I-80 he decided he wouldn’t really feel like continuing on after eating. A Best Western on the north side of town promised vacancies and a pet-friendly environment so he decided to check in.
Entering the room, Nate dropped his suitcase on the floor and stretched out on the bed. Molly jumped up onto the bed and rested her head on her owner’s chest. She stared at him, her deep eyes full of questions. “You like being out on the road Molly?” he asked, receiving a blink in return. “I’ll bet you do.” he answered, hoping that at least his dog was still on his side. “If you decide I messed up your life, too, I won’t have anywhere to turn,” he confided. She did not turn away. After a minute she closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh. He took that as a good sign.
Absentmindedly scratching her head, Nate reached over to the night stand and picked up the television remote. A short trip through the channels brought him to the second game of the White Sox/Royals series taking place two hundred miles south in Kansas City at that very moment. He had fallen asleep and missed the end of the first game the night before. At the time he hadn’t expected he’d be watching game two from a hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa. The thought was a little too overwhelming, so he turned toward the more mundane question of what to do about food.
He had settled on getting some pizza when the announcer began a rundown of ballpark promotions for the rest of the Royals’ homestand. “Did you hear that, Molly?” he asked the dog. “Tomorrow is Dog Day at the ballpark. Want to go see a Sox game?” She raised her head at the sound of his voice and cocked it to the left. “I’ll take that as a yes,” he told the dog, excited about having the chance to go see his favorite team in a different town. For just a moment his doubts disappeared, replaced with a knowledge that all things work out somehow. He just had to know where to look to find the results.
As he ate and watched the rest of the game the doubts started to creep back in. A baseball game wasn’t a good enough sign that he had made the right choice. He’d gone too far to turn back. Eventually he figured that he’d just turn the lights off. He’d feel better in the morning. Daylight and adventure always made everything better.
Morning didn’t come fast enough. He tossed and turned all that night in the loneliness of the strange bed in the strange town. He awoke several times in the night but could never seem to remember what, exactly, caused him to sit up in alarm.
* * *
He checked out of the hotel at nine the next morning. The silver Acura joined into the line of eighteen wheelers, campers and cars on I-35 heading south. By lunch time Kansas City was in sight. The game was not scheduled to start for another six hours, so even though they went directly to Kauffman Stadium it was only to visit the box office and get a ticket for that night’s game. After hunting around Nate secured a hotel room for the night and a ham sandwich at a deli. Molly was pretty squirrelly by that point, so he found a park and took her out to play.
His cheerful mood from the day before began to creep back in. He laughed and ran with Molly and they played Frisbee until his arm hurt from trying to out throw the speedy retriever.
Eventually Molly slowed down and became more interested in lying down in the shade and chewing on her Frisbee than chasing it around. Nate sad down on a nearby park bench and pulled out his cell phone. He turned it on and saw there were nine voice mails waiting for him.
The first message was from Julia, although it was hard to tell through the sobs. She apologized over and over again for whatever it was she’d done to drive him away and begged him to come back so she could make it better. Nate apologized, fighting back his own tears. The message continued uninterrupted, deaf to his arguments.
An angry message from Julia’s mother came next, threatening all the fury of hell upon Nate’s head if he did not return to Chicago that very instant. He shrugged and moved to the next voice mail. She wouldn’t have been his first choice for a mother-in-law, anyway.
His own mother’s voice entered his ear next. She sounded confused and worried. She asked if he needed any help and blamed herself for what he had done, saying she “must not have done a good enough job of bringing you up, if you’re just going to run away like that.” Nate sighed heavily and shook his head at her self-incrimination. He knew he needed to call home. Someone ought to hear his side, after all.
Two nearly incoherent calls from Julia followed, both made in the middle of the night. He forced himself to listen to both, fighting back his own tears all the while.
The next one helped a little. “Hey, buddy,” Vince’s deep voice boomed into his ear, “I know you wanted to do something crazy, but this might be a little too crazy. Call me. We’ll talk.”
His father, Margaret and his boss had also left messages. All seemed concerned with his safety and sanity. Nate made a mental note to call all three and tell them he was doing fine, but decided to wait until he could convince himself of that fact.
He did dial Vince’s office number. He knew that of all the people who had called, his best friend would be the most likely to let him talk. Vince’s voice mail answered his call. Nate usually didn’t leave voice mails, as listening to them was always more bother than it was worth. Leaving one seemed like the right thing to do, so he decided to make his message as light-hearted as possible. “Hey, Vince, it’s Nate,” he said after the tone, “Turns out it’s dog day at Kauffman Stadium. Molly and I just decided we wanted to catch a ball game. Figured this would be the only way I’d be able to catch an entire game without worrying about work.” He paused, took a deep breath, and then decided to drop the charade. “I really am in Kansas City. I’m staying the night and I think I’ll be headed farther west tomorrow. If you talk to Julia, tell her I…” his voice faltered and he ended the call, unable to finish.
He also had over two dozen text messages and several emails. He didn’t think he could handle anything else for a while, so he shut the screen off and put the phone down on the bench. There would always be time for text messages later.
He looked up and saw Molly sitting quietly, staring at him with her big, soft eyes. He got up off the bench and kneeled down in the grass in front of her. Finally unable to contain himself, Nate wrapped his arms around the dog’s neck and wept. She rested her head on his shoulder as he buried his face in her coat. Still and silent, she soaked up his pain and tears.
* * *
The sound of the cell phone ringing cut through the moment and jolted Nate from his rush of emotion. He recognized the number on the display immediately and answered the call. “Hey, Vince,” he said to his friend, surprised at how empty his voice sounded.
“Got your message,” the other man unnecessarily informed him. “How are you, man?”
“Well, to hear Julia’s mom tell it, I’m in deep trouble,” Nate responded, hoping he sounded more alive than he felt. “I’m not too worried about that, though. I think she would have hated me no matter what.”
“Drop the act, man,” his friend admonished him. “I know you’re not in a joking mood, so you can stop trying. Now, how are you?”
“I’ve been better.”
“No doubt. You really not coming home?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Not now, at least. I need to figure things out.”
“Listen, Nate,” Vince’s voice dropped slightly, “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you yesterday-”
“It’s not your fault,” Nate interjected.
“No, listen to me,” the determination to make his point was evident even over the phone, “You needed a lot more help than I gave you yesterday but I didn’t bother to listen to what you were trying to tell me.”
“You did fine,” Nate paused, searching for the right words, “I just did something no one would expect me to do. Ever.”
“Well, either way, I’ll try to do a better job of this,” Vince informed him. “I’m guessing you have enough people calling you and telling you you’re insane and need to come back to Chicago.”
“Yeah, I’ve gotten some of that.”
“I won’t tell you that, then,” his friend responded. “Besides, I know you well enough to know you won’t listen. Instead I’ll say this. Get it figured out. Call me so I know you’re okay. If you want to come back I’ll still be here for you. If you don’t, I’ll be there for you, too.” There was a pause. “And if you need me to pass anything along to your parents or Julia or whatever, let me know. I know they’ll want to hear from you, but I imagine it’s going to be tough for you.”
“Hey, it’s what best friends are for, right?”
“I guess I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to have any friends. Thanks for proving me wrong.”
“I do my best.” both men did manage a small laugh.
“Thanks for calling me back, Vince.” Nate said, genuinely grateful to learn that Vince was there for him. “But it’s about time for Molly and me to head over to the ballpark. It’s been a while since I’ve seen batting practice.”
“So you really are in Kansas City?”
“Are you going to stay there?”
“No,” Nate reflexively shook his head, “I think I’ll get on westbound I-70 tomorrow, see where it takes me.”
“Good luck, Nate. Keep in touch.”
“I will. And…thanks again.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Nate hit the end button and turned to Molly. “Ready to go to the game, girl?” She stood up and wagged her tail. “All right, let’s go get in the car.” She turned and ran for the car, her master chasing close behind.
* * *
Nate and Molly returned to the hotel late that night. The unfamiliar streets of Kansas City had confused him in the dark and even with the GPS he’d missed his turns a few times. Tired from the day’s activities and in a bad mood following the Royals’ victory, Nate crawled into the cold, lumpy bed, not noticing or caring about its deficiencies. Molly jumped up next to him and fell asleep almost immediately.
His night’s sleep was anything but restful. Nate thrashed about in his bed, tossing and turning and knotting his sheets. In his dreams he was always on the run, trying to escape from some faceless, shapeless horror of the night. Through the night his mind ran, always away from the thing. Through the night it pursued, every step, every heartbeat drawing closer. Still, he ran on.
Then he could run no more. Exhausted, despairing, he stopped running and turned to face the demon that pursued him.
As it stepped from the shadows, Nate began to feel something warm and comforting behind him. Soft, persistent light began to glow from somewhere over his shoulder. Sensing an escape, he turned from his terror to face the mysterious light.
Suddenly he was back in the hotel room. The light and warmth of the rising sun filled the space through drawn curtains. Breathing a sigh of relief, Nate got out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. He gripped the sink to steady himself, frightened of what would be looking back when he looked into the mirror. Finally able to summon the courage to look, he raised his head. A pair of sunken, bleary eyes stared lifelessly back at him.
“This can’t go on for long,” he told them.
* * *
The pair checked out of the hotel by eight AM. It was nearly five hours, however, before the Acura was back on the open road. In the absence of an actual plan he’d had a leisurely breakfast and taken a second trip to the park. Then Nate had run a few errands, picking up several things he had forgotten to pack or had not realized he would need. He’d finally stopped in a little coffee shop with wi-fi to download some new music. At long last satisfied he was ready to cross the endless plains of Kansas, Nate guided his car onto westbound I-70.
The terrain surprised the Chicagoan for a while. He had expected that upon leaving Kansas City he would find himself on a vast, waving sea of wheat stretching as far as the eye could see, broken only by the occasional lonely tree or farmhouse. He’d also expected everything to be completely flat. Hills, rivers and small towns dotted the landscape, saving Nate from the monotony he had expected. It still wasn’t particularly exciting, but it wasn’t completely boring, either.
Molly simply sat on the front seat, tracking the miles as they fell behind the speeding pair. She’d always been a quiet, thoughtful dog and she seemed content to let the world pass her by. Nate occasionally reached over and scratched her head, but mostly left the dog to watch and wait.
Gradually the scenery changed, giving way to the rolling plains he had expected to see. Nate started to get bored and began looking for an excuse to get off the road. It also occurred to him that Molly probably needed to take walk and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find some dinner. There were few good options, which made picking something and living with the decision imperative.