The ride back to Aspen was bitter and miserable. Mikey lived next door to his shop and let us crash in the living room. Thomas would not even look at me, let alone talk to me. I spent most of the night after the club staring up at the ceiling from a recliner. I did feel guilty for being rude to Thomas’ friends, and I really lamented the fact that I was screwing things up with him, especially after the fun we’d had together. The lack of snoring from Thomas on the couch to my left and perhaps the absence of ocean noises told me that he had been awake, too. A couple of times I leaned over to say something, but rolled back over when the words failed to come out.
Randy had been asleep in Mikey’s guest room, and first thing in the morning took us out to get breakfast from McDonald’s. He knew something had happened between us and so just let us keep our silence. After we’d eaten, we both thanked Mikey, individually, and then climbed into the cab of the truck. Randy started Ol’ Bessie up, and then eased her along the circular driveway that took us out onto the road.
The sky clouded over and light snow drifted down not long before we pulled onto the Interstate. I kept my fingers crossed that it would not get too heavy. As the rest of my life spiraled out of control, the only thing I was sure of was our need to board the plane.
Thomas had closed his eyes and his head drooped forward and swayed with the road. I didn’t know if he was really sleeping or just wanted to be left alone, but I decided a few extra hours of sleep wouldn’t hurt. I leaned against the truck door and closed my eyes.
“Hey wake up, boys!” Randy shook us with his mammoth hands. I sat up and strained my eyes open. The truck was parked on the side of the road next to a rest area. “We have about another hour to go before Aspen. Thought you might appreciate going to the bathroom or getting some food.”
I yawned and nodded. “Thanks, Randy.” I opened the door and followed him into a small shopping centre. The snow had stopped, but the countryside was still covered in the remaining snow that had fallen over the last few days. Many people dressed in thick scarves and hats, some sipping hot drinks, were heading in and out through the automated doors.
The foyer was large and the floor was covered in white tile with the occasional rubbish bin and bench to sit on. There were three fastfood restaurants in a row to the left and a small dining area surrounded by a low black fence with a gate. To the right was a small grocery store. I saw the sign for the toilet and recognized my most immediate need.
I walked to the furthest urinal, unzipped my fly, and aimed at the blue urinal cake sitting by the drain guard. Thomas stepped to the urinal beside me and began to pee. I stared over at the side of his head and could take it no longer. “I’m sorry, Thomas,” I said. “I was insensitive and I was wrong.”
Thomas’ ears reddened and he turned to me, awkward and sheepish. His eyes flicked from me and then back down to the urinal. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m still mad. But I’m not as angry as I was last night.”
“What are you angry about?”
He sighed. “I don’t like how you behaved in the club yesterday. I thought you were a jackass.”
I swayed my hips to see if I could push the urinal cake over to the side. “That’s a fair comment,” I agreed.
“And I just feel so confused,” he continued. “But it’s like my brain is too tired to deal with it, which just frustrates me even more.”
“I can empathize with that completely,” I said. “So much has happened. It’s like I’ve been tossed into a raging ocean, and every time I take a breath another wave crashes on top of me.”
He chuckled. “I feel like I’ve been catapulted into space in the Thomas 3000, looking for the edge of the universe. Will I find it? Or will space turnout to be spherical, just like Earth?”
The difference in metaphor told me everything I needed to know about Thomas’ perception of events.
“I can’t believe Christmas is next week,” I said, thinking of all the gifts I had yet to buy.
Thomas’ voice dropped. “I know.”
I stood still at the urinal, happy to have broken the silence with Thomas. For some strange reason I didn’t want to move, just in case there was anything else to say. There wasn’t. “We’d better go.”
“Yeah, I finished about a minute ago.”
After washing our hands we both got in line for a burger and fries. I realized that that’s all we’d really eaten since we’d arrived, but the Americans had mastered the art of making a good burger.
We took our food to the truck and Randy cranked up the engine and edged us back out onto I-70. I was going to miss riding up in the truck, it had been a novelty. When we neared Aspen it was getting dark and we soon had to slow down because of the traffic. The roads were jammed solid and nobody seemed to be moving anywhere.
“Ah, shit,” said Randy after five minutes of remaining static. “There’s been an accident.”
I stared out over the streams of cars, looking for the source of the traffic jam. “How can you tell?”
“I just can,” he grumbled. “This feels like an accident.”
A few minutes later, the flashing lights of an ambulance and police cars shot passed us on the shoulder, although I still could not make out what had happened. The traffic didn’t move for another three hours, and when it did it was at a snail’s pace and we were being bottlenecked into one lane. I felt myself dozing off in the comfort of knowing we were close to Aspen.
Randy suddenly shouted. “Holy Shit!” Thomas and I sat up, awoken from our semi-daze. “Can you see that?” he continued. “Two log trailers. That must’ve made a mess.”
To our left we could see two mangled trailers, blue and silver, and the remainder of at least two cars. The boot of one of the cars was open and the front half was wedged under the blue trailer. Tree logs were strewn over the other lanes, and some were still half tethered to the trailer with one end dangling over the edge or standing up on the road.
Three police officers stood waving on the traffic. One stood in front of a single car door lying discarded on the road. The ambulances were no longer present. Given the devastation, I knew somebody must have died. We had just passed a site where at least one person had been brutally maimed or crushed alive in their car. I broke out in a cold sweat and had to remind myself to take deep breaths. Behind my eyelids, a vivid flash bought back the memory of being trapped in the back of the car.
Thomas’ hand slid over my knee. He whispered. “You alright?”
I nodded. “I will be.”
“If you find yourself drifting off,” he continued, “keep talking to me, okay?”
Randy pulled his gaze from the driver’s door window. “It just goes to show,” he said. “The good Lord provideth, and the good Lord taketh away.” He then slid the tobacco tin out of his pocket and helped himself to another pinch.
“Randy,” I said. “Do you mind if I have some tobacco?” I felt like I need something to keep me grounded in reality.
“Oh, sure,” he said, and handed the tin over to me. “Just remember not to swallow it.”
My heart leapt into my throat when we passed the Aspen airport. It had not even been a week, but the sight of the small building with its small white passenger planes had been lost deep in the abyss of my memory. The immediacy of our return flight felt overwhelming, and joy swept through my veins like hot spring water through cold and barren land.
I watched the airport shrink away in the wing mirror, and a sense of longing pulled violently on my heartstrings. If we hadn’t had to pick up our belongings and check-out of the hotel, I would’ve camped outside the airport in the snow and ice until the next day.
Randy slowed the truck into a single line of traffic, in between the taxis on their way downtown. “Well, here we are, boys,” he said. “I’ll take you a little way down Main Street to the Shell station, but you’ll have to make your own way to your hotel. I don’t want to get stuck for too long on those small roads in city traffic.”
“I appreciate it, Randy,” I said. “Thank you for giving us a lift all the way to Salt Lake City and back to Aspen.”
“It’s no problem,” he replied. “I mean, this is my route anyway. But it’s been great having some company.”
Randy maneuvered the truck around a small roundabout. “Are you going back to your family now for a few days?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’ll probably be on the road for another day, but then I’ll be home.”
The lights of the small city burst forth once we were passed a small residential area, and Randy turned onto Main Street with the many shops and bars. I saw two cars carrying ski equipment in their roof wracks, and for some reason a sense of normalcy returned, like we were back on vacation. After taking a horrific detour, my consciousness had looped all the way around and brought me back to the beginning.
The red brick Shell station approached on our right. There were six pumps, but the area wasn’t well lit. “The light’s about to turn red,” said Randy. “So that’ll give you time to jump out. Don’t forget your bags. And have a safe journey home.”
Thomas and I grabbed our shopping bags, which were now a mix of worn and new clothes, and jumped out onto the pavement once the truck stopped. We waved goodbye to Randy and watched the truck drive on over the intersection. “Let’s just grab a taxi to the Alpine Lodge,” I said to Thomas. “I can’t be bothered to fish the address out of my wallet. It can’t be more than a few blocks from here.” Thomas had his eyes fixed on a small blue car in the far back corner of the petrol station. “Thomas?”
“Look who it is.” An all too familiar blonde lady, wearing a blue denim jacket, black jeans, and cowboy boots was busy rummaging around in the boot. The black petrol pipe swayed and clicked as the pump sat idle in the car on automatic fill. The lady finished in the boot and hurried to take hold of the pump to manually ease in the rest.
Thomas had her fixed in his sights and a sense of purpose had frozen in his jaw line. “Oh my God. It is her,” I said, turning away. “What do we do?”
Thomas rolled up his sleeves. “Leave this to me, Matthew. I need some closure. Take these bags.”
He handed me his two white plastic bags. I tried to think fast. I didn’t need any more of these negative encounters. I didn’t think my mind could take it. “Let’s play a game, Thomas. It’s called ‘Let’s go back to the hotel and get some sleep.’”
Thomas hadn’t blinked. “This isn’t a time for games, Matthew,” he said in a deeper voice than usual. “I’m getting a collect call from justice, and I’m going to accept the charges.”
“What?” I whispered, alarmed. “No, where you are you going?”
I held my breath and watched Thomas hop over a low lying wall and stroll straight over to her from behind. Julie returned the pump to its holster and screwed on the petrol cap. “Excuse me, Julie,” I heard Thomas say. “I think we’ve got some unfinished business.”
Julie immediately recognized him and her hands darted forth like snakes to attack his face and neck. Thomas deflected them with ease, locked one of her arms, and then with a hand behind her head spun her all the way around and slammed it down on the roof of the car. Dazed and disoriented, Thomas then flung her into the car boot and slammed the door down.
My mouth was agape. It all happened in the blink of an eye. Thomas brushed his hands together. “Now she knows what it’s like,” he called. “Come on, Matthew. Let’s go.”
I inched towards the car with our shopping bags, looking every which way to see if anybody else had witnessed the fight. Miraculously, nobody seemed to have paid us any attention for that split second. “Where are we going?” I squeaked.
Thomas sat down in the driver’s seat. “To the hospital.”
I ran around to the passenger door. A part of me wanted to let Julie out and ask her if she was okay, but the other part knew that she might try to hurt me. Thomas seemed to have a plan, and I was willing to cede to his ideas, if for any reason just to take myself through the rest of the evening on autopilot.
I opened the door and jumped in. “Do you know where the hospital is?”
“I have an idea,” Thomas said, and backed the car out of the parking space. “I think I saw a sign when we rolled into town.”
I nodded, terrified. A vacuum of raw emotion opened in my throat and sucked in everything I wanted to say. I was also reminded of the fact that Thomas had trouble driving from time to time, and had already been in two minor scrapes.
He eased out of the petrol station into the light traffic and hastily drove the car back down Main Street, taking us out of town. “If my calculations are correct,” he said, “we can take her into the Emergency Room, say we found her outside a bit confused, and then escape back to our hotel. Lay low and fly out in the morning.”
“What if,” I stammered. “What if they don’t recognize her?”
“Good point, Matthew. Let’s leave a note on her.”
“A note?” I nodded, lacking any conception of what he was talking about. “Good idea.” I glanced over at the empty backseats and pictured Julie in the trunk. “Do you think she’s okay? How hard did you slam her head?”
“It was controlled,” Thomas explained, self-assured. “Just enough to befuddle her mind a bit.”
“Befuddle her mind?”
Thomas turned his head. “What are you, my echo?”
I had grown used to the different Thomas over the last few days, but now there was a hint of aggression in his voice. He could sense I was uneasy.
“I love you, Matthew,” he said all of sudden.
In spite of the madness, I found myself saying it back, like he had found the words within me, took hold of them, and pulled them out. “I love you, too, Thomas.”
“Here we go,” he grinned. I saw the sign for the Emergency Room approach by the side of the roundabout. Thomas sped around the small grassy circle and then darted off down Castle Creek Road.
An ambulance flew passed us in the other direction and I saw the hospital approach on the right with bright lights showing the way to the E.R. drop off.
Thomas pulled into the small car park and found a space. “Look through the glove box and see if there’s a pen and paper.”
I opened it and found a packet of Kleenex. “Paper, I guess. But no pen.”
Thomas slipped a pen out from his inside pocket. “Hand me a tissue,” he said. I did and watched him scribble I’m a naughty girl and wanted by the police.
Under any other conditions, I would’ve found Thomas’ note hilarious.
Thomas finished writing. “Okay, give it one minute, and then exit the car and start walking back to the roundabout. I’m going to take Julie inside.”
Thomas opened the car, and then to my surprise opened the rear passenger door, lowered the back seat, and heaved Julie outside to her feet. In response to my confused look, Thomas laughed. “Be a bit weird to be caught on camera taking a body out of the boot, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, that would be weird,” I replied. I had the odd sensation that my words no longer belonged to me.
I watched as Thomas pulled Julie’s arm over his shoulders and walked with her through the automatic doors into the Emergency Room. I didn’t trust myself to count to a minute. In fact, I didn’t think I could’ve been trusted to say my own name if somebody had asked. The logical and rational part of my brain and gone into shut down, and I just wanted to walk. To walk away from everything.
I got out of the car and stood outside. It was a clear, beautiful starry night, but there was a threatening sharp chill in the air. My body didn’t seem to mind. If it did, my brain was clearly preoccupied with other things. I backed away towards the road, for some reason mesmerized by the car. My brain re-opened for a couple of seconds to let me know we’d just stolen it, and then re-closed to leave me in a fit of wordless gut laughter.
I shifted on my heels and crossed the road with awkward robot steps, strangely proud that I could put one foot in front of the other. With each step I had the fervent wish that my body would melt out of existence.