“We’re on a tight schedule, Miss.” The crew member waved her off with the same hand that guided the cars out of the hold. “Your belongings, your problem. Haven’t you seen the signs?” He scoffed. “Go to the police and file a complaint.”
Leigh’s shoulders slumped as the man returned to his obligations. It made her wonder, Had I been biologically hard-wired for it, would I be crying my heart out right now?
On her way out, her gaze stumbled up to him. Her quaint seatmate. Her hands rolled into fists alongside her legs. About her age, the tall man bluffed a laid-back waiting-for-the-boat-to-empty attitude against the door of a familiar pickup truck.
When the crew member asked her to leave for the last time, he waved at her. She dragged her feet toward him.
“Karma’s a bitch, huh?”
Her heels drilled into the metal floor. “Pardon me?”
“The crew won’t be so eager to help you if you don’t even have a ticket to show them.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Especially if you have the cash to pay for your own ticket.” He slapped his hand on his lips. “Oops. Had. I forgot. My bad.”
Her jaw dropped. Yes, she might have hidden in the rear of his car to get aboard incognito. She’d hopped off and skipped up the stairs like a thief alright, but only because she’d called dibs on the one perfect seat. The one against the emergency exit window. In a corner.
Given the choice, she would have left at the first note of rudeness in his tone, but since he was her only chance to lay a hand on her missing envelope, she bit her tongue, decided not to elaborate more than absolute necessary.
“You sat next to me. Did you see anything...weird?”
“Yes, I did, actually.” For a second, hope budded in her heart, only to be plucked out and burned. “You.”
He cut the jokes the moment he realized he was laughing alone.
His lower lip twitched. “I would have if I’d stayed in.”
And she would have believed him in another life. “You’re lying. You stole my money.”
“Wow. You’re making all the wrong assumptions, I see.”
“First impressions never lie.”
“That’s one thing we can agree on, though I’m not sure you got the right impression about me.”
“How’s that for a first impression? You sat across from me, waited for me to fall asleep and then stole my money.”
“How would you know that?”
“You stared at me for ten whole minutes!” She raised her pointer finger at him. “And I counted.”
“From how quickly those pills knocked you out, I don’t know what you counted, but...” He hesitated, then sighed. “You’re right. I hacked into the surveillance system so the cameras would record me sitting out on deck with my bear pet, only so I could have an alibi. I really wanted the five hundred you kept in that envelope.” Somewhat amused, he narrowed his eyes at her, amassing heaps of her most scornful eye-rolling.
“Fifty grand,” she mumbled.
Leigh couldn’t believe it either. As the stranger’s face turned livid, he opened the rear door wide, and shot his palms into the air. “I’ve got nothing to hide. See for yourself.”
Oddly enough, the more Leigh approached the truck, the less she believed him to have stolen from her. She had a feel about him. A sense of familiarity. Fighting her intuition, she kept her gaze on him, but a simple glance inside validated her hypothesis. An enormous creature woofed at her through droopy, low-hanging chops.
Against her will, a laugh bubbled up her throat. It was nowhere near a bear. A smelly chocolate-furred Newfoundland laid across the entire backseat, tail whacking into the opposite door.
“Hello, there.” Her high-pitched puppy voice took over her. She ran a hand about his head. “You look sooooooo tired.” The lazy beast sniffed her lemon Save The Whales T-Shirt and adorned it with thick streaks of warm slobber.
“Sorry,” he said. “Boatswain’s on a constant smelling spree, he’s...ultrasensitive...to...smells.”
She smirked at the dog. “You’re named after Lord Byron’s Newfoundland.” Her hand traveled across his belly while she inspected his muzzle. “It suits you well.”
At last, she launched into a thorough inspection of the interior—and Boatswain. A thief would definitely use the fur of his woolly dog to hide money. She knew she would. Alas, the hold around her was empty when she rose from the car. Nothing. Rien. She was officially flat broke.
“I apologize.” She stepped back in her umpteenth fight against the cramps in her legs. “You were right. Goodbye.”
A little stumped and a lot embarrassed, she followed the queue of walking passengers to the exit, her head tucked as low as it could go. She was halfway out the hold when she heard his gravelly voice again.
She spun around to find him jogging up to her. “I can’t find fifty kay for you, but I can give you a ride somewhere, if that’ll help.”
“Time to clear, lover boy!” the crew member shouted above the rumbling of the ferry.
“So, what do you say?”
Leigh’s gaze took his face in with all the wariness she could garner. This whole situation was definitely untimely, and perhaps bordered a little on crazy. She knew she’d had a target on her back ever since the night she hit the road.
An hour of hitchhiking on highway one had sufficed to figure her backpack sent all the wrong signals to all the wrong drivers. The kind who demanded a special treat in exchange for the ride, because she had the long, graceful fingers of a flautist, and it was a shame not to delight them with some of her music. If she still doubted the man in front of her deserved her trust, she’d well registered that the outcome of her journey now solely depended on the charity of her fellow countrymen.
So she dropped her heavy backpack at her feet. “Are you going West by any chance?”
A grin curved in the corner of his lips. “Guess it’s your lucky day after all.”
Head against the window, Leigh spent long minutes mulling over what had just happened to her, bricking herself up in a bleak silence that her driver was quick to notice. Robbed of her entire life savings. Gone. Gone! Her grand plans of a fresh start slipped between her fingers. And it was all her fault.
“So do you have a name?” he asked as he drove them out of Nanaimo harbor.
She feigned not to have heard him.
“Okay…” He took the left downtown. “I’m Stan Buoyd. Nice to meet you.”
Leigh’s heart raced up. “Where are you going?”
“To the police station. You heard the man.”
“No, no, no.” Her head shook on its own. “I don’t need to.”
“Chill. I won’t say anything, but they’re the only ones who can get the footage from the surveillance cameras and—”
“No,” she shouted. Just as they drove past a police car, she stooped under the window.
Jaws welded together, Stan crashed his foot into the brake pedal and wedged his elbow in his wheel to face her. The honk bawled al around them.
“Are you a fugitive? Let me get my facts right. You have no money, no name, no ferry ticket, and you hide from the police. In my world, it's called daily life of—”
“I'm not a criminal!”
Intense, his dark-blue gaze searched her face for a breach. She rammed both knees into her door, as far from him as the laws of Physics would allow, and poked her glasses up the bridge of her nose. She soon got the assurance he’d found none. With a smug smile, he started the truck back on the road and out of Nanaimo.
“Where are you from?” he asked once he’d seemingly gained back his calm. “Given that’s information you want to share. I mean, that’s what people do when they make small talk, you know. Share information.”
She considered lying for a second. “New Brunswick.”
“Did you walk all the way from there?”
Stan flashed a shiny toothpaste-ad smile. “You’re not much of a talker, then. Or am I intimidating?”
“No,” she said. It was the last word she voiced out for the next fifty miles.
The further up the mountains they wove, the lower Stan’s eyes traveled about her T-shirt, making her sigh. She should have known this little road trip was bound to come to an end sooner than later. Plus, the idea of making yet another scene appeared less than tempting on her last day trip—unless he could keep his lewd comments to himself.
“Are you an activist or something?”
“Something like that.”
“What’d you do to earn it?” he asked, a pinch of mockery in the tone. “Broke into some aquarium to free the last beluga whales from their cement jail cells?”
She chortled. “They died long before we could plan a break-in.”
His brows dipped, failing to read through her sarcasm. To her, transporting captivity-bred mammals out at sea was a risk no reasonable mind would take, activists included.
“Funny enough.” Stan’s fingers drummed on the wheel. “I’m a whale watcher.”
Her face scrunched at that. They’d reached a plateau. From his straight posture to the black baseball cap he wore backwards—not to mention the soothing notes of citrus in his cologne—Stan seemed like a good guy. Yet, his right hand kept fidgeting around the shift stick, way too close to her knee. Just in case, she shoved her hand into the pocket of her shorts. The little voice inside her head had already petitioned the rest of her cells for her to get out of here.
“If you need a place to stay for a while, I’m sure we can find you something.”
Her body stiffened in her seat. “No, I’m fine, but thanks.”
“What are you going to do then?”
“I’m meeting someone.”
“Oh, nice. Actually, I was wondering if...Would you like to…” He shifted down to third gear, and his hand brushed her leg. “Have a drink later or something?”
Or something? He had to be kidding. Once she saw the flicker of a fire in his eyes, Leigh lost what remained of her composure. “Stop the car.”
“What? We’re in—”
“I said, stop the car.”
“—Wally Creek. You’re forty miles away from the coast.”
“Pull over the freaking car!”
“It’ll take you the whole day by foot!”
As a last resort, she pulled the Swiss knife out of her pocket and pointed its small blade at his face.
“Stop. Right now. And don’t make me repeat it.”
He bounced away from her and the wheel steered in all directions. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Me?” She burst out laughing. “That’s the best joke I’ve ever heard!”
The truck pulled out of the highway in a thick cloud of dust. Stan hadn’t fully stopped that she’d already jumped off with her backpack and slammed the door behind her to block his useless attempts at calming her down.
“This is ridiculous, come on! I didn’t mean—”
“Pervert!” she yelled. Stan deadpanned for so long a moment she thought he’d get out of the car to duke that one out, but ultimately proving her wrong, he drove away.
Only when the truck was out of sight did she exhale the breath she’d been keeping.
“For the love of Migaloo.”
She shoved her knife back into her backpack.
The sun was at its highest in the placid blue above her head. Alone and in the middle of nowhere, she had to set off on her way if she wanted to find the west coast of the island before nightfall, and every muscle of every limb begged her for rest.
As the dust settled around her, Leigh stood agape at the sight, and even though she preferred to walk off the beaten tracks, she made an exception for a modest fence.
Colorful locks—shoes—and flags from all over the world clamped the rusty metal. Her hand grazed alongside it to play the chorus of a thousand materials, a thousand loves. Some maybe heavy with emotion, others hollow and meaningless. They were all standing snippets of people’s souls, nonetheless ; proof that nothing that dies really goes away.
From Paris to Ottawa, she’d seen many bridges and fences over the years of her transient childhood, each of them special in their own way. This one carried the soul of the landscape it overlooked. The powerful, pristine waters of the Kennedy River chipped their way around powerful boulders, enough inspiration for road-trippers to stop and seal their love here forever.
“To the next chapters of our lives, Harp’.”
The end was near, and if the day had started on a false note, she could feel her new beginning call for her from the depths of her being. With a giddy heart, she bolted a small blue lock in a corner and proceeded to walking the very last forty miles of her journey.
In the afternoon, feet painfully turned to miles, and Leigh regretted her fuse-blowing when she found herself walking alone in total darkness on the desert highway, the clear moonlight as only guide. Her water bottle was empty and all sorts of unworldly waterfalls appeared in the distance as quick as they faded into the nothingness at her feet.
That was it. She was more than done with walking. Her back and waist were singed from months of chafing with her backpack. She remembered it fitting perfectly when she left. Never could she have anticipated the toll that the three-thousand-mile walk took on her body. She’d even had to fold the not-so-adjustable straps with large hair clips she’d found in a Saskatchewan prairie. It was time to face the facts: Much like anything in her life, DIY never lasts.
In an attempt to override her mind, Leigh settled on happy thoughts. In her playbook, these only meant humpback whales. These colossi had taught her many lessons about being human through the years, and she didn’t have to think much to find something to boost her jaded heart.
For one, if female humpbacks could calf in warm waters in the winter, migrate more than three thousand miles North all the while nursing a calf with fifty gallons of milk per day and solely depend on their blubber before feasting on fish and krill for the first time, then so could she walk forty stupid miles without a drop of water, waterfall mirages and all. She picked up the pace.
Unfortunately, her newfound motivation got the best of her. She stumbled on her own feet and fell over the security fence, heart pounding in her cage, only to barrel down a ditch.
Her backpack took the rougher hits of rocks and branches, to the benefit of sneaky brambles which scratched and whipped her legs. She was so tired that her screams refused to come out. When she thought it was over, she smashed, shoulder first onto a rock and into a muddy stream. This time her vocal cords ousted an entire flock of crows from the surrounding trees.
Checking in for any wounds, she wiggled her toes and fingers. A whole colony of ants crept up and down her left arm.
“Get up, Leigh. Get up.”
She contracted her abs. Her body was as stark as a corpse.
“What in the world…”
Teeth slicing through her tongue, she managed to free her right arm from her backpack. The second went through the strap, and as her wrist folded inside the loop, she screamed her guts out. A searing shot of electricity spread from her shoulder all the way down into her leg.
Once she gained back control of her nerves, she brushed the strap off her arm, and the tips of her fingers briefly hovered over her shoulder cap. It was abnormally high and swollen, perhaps dislocated. Or worse, broken. Nothing her emergency kit—Dammit.
She’d been bidding on her luck every morning, happy to avoid every small-town drug store. Was it for the thrill of walking on a thin line or for the sake of good old procrastination? Maybe a bit of both, she decided. The answer wouldn’t earn her a magic wand anyway.
Soon enough, the rest of her senses powered up and her instincts stroke back at a faint growl in the woods or a rustle in the trees.
“I'm going to be dinner if I stay.”
Expediting the task, she reached out to the top of her backpack for her green cardigan and tied it firmly around her forearm with the help of her teeth.
The wall of dirt she’d just hurtled was a sixty-degree slope at least, so she rolled out of the mud to a stand and hauled her backpack along the stream, hopeful that it would lead somewhere. It had to. She paused for a moment to shake off a light dizziness in her head. Then, she heard a loud whirring, and two headlights pierced past her through the trees.
“The highway! Wait! Stop!”
She watched her only hope zoom by, just as a surge of adrenaline gushed through her veins, shutting off her interior commands. She trudged around the slope and back onto the lifeless road, gaze fixed on the contours of her eleventh pair of filthy worn-out sneakers.
You’re not going to die.
Her thoughts a broken record stuck on repeat.
Pain is only physical.
One foot in front of the other.
Eventually, she found the end of her torture in the blinding, artificial lights of an empty parking lot, sandwiched between the gloomy forest and a T-junction.
Through labored breaths, Leigh looked up at the two signs before her, pointed in different directions.
“For blue whales’ sake,” she spat.
Ucluelet; eight miles South. Tofino; thirty-three miles North. It was as far as Wally Creek laid behind her at this point. She rubbed her eyes while Harper’s parting words played in her ears once more.
“Go West,” Harper had commanded. “Always West.”
Leigh snorted at the moon. “I can’t go West, Harp.”
She had no idea which town was her destination, or how to contact Harper anyway. They’d agreed it was wiser not to carry a cell phone.
“West where?” Leigh had asked.
“As far West as you can. Whatever you do, don’t ever lose this.” Harper slightly tugged on the orca pendant around Leigh’s neck, which hung by the fluke of its tail. “I’ll find you there.”
Without further ado, she pulled the black cord out the collar of her T-shirt and over her head for the wind to do its trick.
If it was one of those inexplicable things that racked her brain on a daily basis—such as men—she’d sensibly given up on questioning months ago, unwilling to drift to cuckoo-land. Around lakes and mountains, across lakes and prairies, through heat waves and snow storms, the wind had never ceased to blow over it, showing her the way West.
The hopeful grin on her lips disappeared just as soon as she saw her hand-carved, whale-bone orca vane float to the West. West. And again.
“I am West!” She yelled all around her. “Where the kraken are you?”
Failure biting at her lips, she shoved the necklace back into her shorts’ pocket, and started down the road to Ucluelet. It sucked every last bit of energy she had, to the point where the dizziness became a migraine and stopped her in her tracks.
She let go of the bag handle and bent over her knees, her one good hand flat against the steel-board welcome-to-Ucluelet sign. The ground went spinning under her feet. Her stomach writhed up her throat at the sight of waves at its top. She gagged. A metallic taste enveloped her raspy tongue, beads of sweat rolled down her forehead, and her vision tunneled one last time around the damn words, plastered against the cement base of the structure.
Explore life on the edge.
In a split second, her flabby legs matted, and everything went dark before she crashed, body limp into the gravel. Mere seconds later, two headlights beamed up North.