The road was just an ordinary thing. Made of black asphalt with dashes of yellow running the length of it and dividing it in half. The hot sun baked down on me and I sweat. I sweat and damp patches clung to the underarms and the back of my shirt. The sweat dripped from my hair and my eye brows and ran down my cheeks and my chin. As I walked along this ordinary road, the sun baked down on the asphalt too, and that was some consolation. Not that the road deserved to suffer, but the sweat and heat were irritating and I needed someone or something to share my burden.
Every ten minutes or so a car would speed past. Most were headed the way I’d come, but every so often a car would rush past me headed to where I was going. When they did, I’d turn towards the car and stick my thumb out, hoping beyond hope that someone would pull off and let me ride. But car after car would only blast past, sometimes sounding their horns to warn me out of the way. A heavy-set man in a silver Buick, a cigarette sticking from his puffy lips. A blond girl in a red Honda, the music so loud I could hear the beats as she flew past. A boy in a Mustang convertible, giving me the finger; that dirty, dirty finger. I showed him mine too, but I doubt he noticed at all. Each passed me, rushing on to their destinations. Whether they were too nervous to let me in, or just didn’t care, I’d never know. It was unnerving to realize the few people who happened to share the road with me, who happened to be headed the same way, cared so little for just another guy living in the same crazy world they lived in too.
I had wanderlust. You might know the feeling, the one where you just have to get away from everything you know because you feel you’ll burst if you don’t. And you finally get away, and you realize this is all you wanted all along, even if you’ll have to face reality and let it all come to an end and live the life society has planned out for you. That summer I’d decided to pack a bag as full as I could, put on a new pair of denims and a tee-shirt, and meet the unknown on my own two feet.
So there I was, walking a road I’d never known, being blown aside by cars rushing past to fill in the pieces of their drivers’ busy lives. And the sun was baking me like a cookie on a cooking tray. I thought about how those cars were like portable worlds with their own environments so different from that outside the metal and rubber and glass. Inside of them it was safe and cool, but outside was cruel and hellish. They were bubbles of comfort floating in a den of pins and needles.
A black truck appeared on the horizon behind me and I turned and my thumb jerked out pleading, begging for the driver to slow and let me ride. The truck didn’t only slow, it stopped. The driver, a woman with sun glasses and a straw cowboy hat, looked nervously behind her before gesturing for me to come towards her car. The heat made her offer impossible to resist and I hurried to the passenger side of the car as she unlocked the door. As the door swung out, smells from the interior wafted to my nose and I climbed into the open seat. The truck, a Toyota Four-Runner, smelled like cigarettes and sweat and alfalfa-hay. She let off the clutch and brought the truck up to speed. A cassette player in the console played decade-old Bob Dylan songs and a rubber chicken swung from the rearview mirror. A paperback novel lay on the floor of the truck, the cover crumpled and bent. A Bradbury book.
“Hi,” I said, trying to break the ice and sounding nervous all at the same time.
She looked at me and smiled, my face reflecting in her sunglasses. “Hi,” she said too. “Sorry, this thing’s a piece of crap! The A-C doesn’t work in half the vents and a couple of the windows are stuck.” Then she shrugged and grinned. “But it runs, you know?”
I smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” was all I could manage to say in reply.
We rode in silence for a couple seconds, each one feeling like an awkward minute, until she spoke again. “So, where you headed?” Her face was thin and splotched consistently from daily sun exposure. Her blondish-brownish hair tumbled from the straw hat and disappeared between her back and the backrest to her seat in the car.
“Nearest town. It doesn’t really matter. I just needed to get off my feet and out of that heat.” I wiped a hand across my sweaty brow and ran it down my jeans. “Thanks for the ride. I really appreciate it.”
“So you’re running, huh?”
“No, not running. Kind of just wandering, you know? Seeing what I can before the opportunity’s gone.”
“I’ve been there,” she said as if she were talking past me and looking through me. The music from the stereo played on, a soundtrack to the sudden silence.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, sticking a cigarette between her lips and flicking a lighter two, three times. The flame caught and licked at the end of the cigarette. She blew a trail of smoke out the window and turned to smile at me again. “I assumed you don’t want one, unhealthy habit you know.”
I grinned and shook my head. She was funny. “So, you traveled a bit?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied, pulling on the cigarette. “You could say that. Same as you too, just thumbing rides when I could. There’s a lot to see out there, and you kind of just have to get up and see it.”
I nodded. “Did you have a favorite place you visited?”
“Oh, all of Europe is so pretty, you know. It’d be impossible for me to choose just one place!” She said, smiling and placing a hand over her heart. “Some places here in the states are breathtaking too.”
“You saw Europe!” I exclaimed, my interest aroused. I’d expected her to have seen a bit of the US, but she hardly looked like a world traveler.
She nodded while her eyes remained ahead of her, on the road, on the distance; I couldn’t tell. “I loved every bit of it. I’m going back. I just am. I was cursed with a wanderlust feeling, and I just have to keep moving if I want to be happy. There are other places I need to visit too. And I will. Anyway, what about you? Is this your first time out and about?”
“Yeah,” I replied, feeling a little overshadowed. “I’d so love to travel to other countries, but for now I’m just taking it easy.”
“You want to do something, you just have to do it, man. That’s how the world works. The earth spins on madly, never stopping. It never stopped for me, and it sure won’t stop for you. And all the while as it spins so endlessly, you just have to follow your dreams. Sometimes someday just has to be today.
I smiled as she said it, like it was true and she was reading what had been written on my heart. But I smiled and looked at her, and looked out the window and denied it.
“It’s not like that,” I said, laughing.
She looked at me, still smiling, and nodded. “Sure,” She said, blowing another puff of cigarette smoke from the car. “You can’t try to do things; you simply must do them. Ray Bradbury said that.”
“Bradbury? The author?” I asked, pointing to the crinkled paperback on the floor.
“Yeah.” She nodded. He also said ‘Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.’
I stared out the window; watching the vast, dry, sunburnt ground swoosh past to be left far behind. I thought about what she said. What the author Bradbury had said. I decided they were both right. I needed to make things happen if I wanted them.
“Well,” she said, “We’re here. The nearest town. It’s a small, trashy little place. Quite frankly, it’s a dump. But there’s a bus-stop here, and busses pass through all the time. You should be able to take a ride just about anywhere.”
The Toyota pulled past small, discolored, mismatched buildings. She drove the truck up to a gas station and parked beside one of the pumps.
I opened the door and stepped out onto the pavement. She hopped out as well and walked over to the pump. I turned to her and stuck out a hand. “Thanks again for stopping.” I said. “I’m Ben, by the way.”
“Candace.” She replied. “No trouble, it’s my pleasure.”
“Thanks all the same. I really appreciate it.” I said before I turned and headed towards the gas-station. I asked the guy at the counter if I could use their restroom and he pointed me towards a grimy room with a sink and a toilet. I dropped my backpack in a relatively clean spot beside the sink and relieved myself. When I washed my hands, I caught my own eyes in the mirror and they looked at me, so hungry for adventure, and so resolute for once. It was like they weren’t my own eyes after all. But they were.
I grabbed my bag and hurried back out to the pump, but Candace and the black Toyota were gone. In that moment, I wondered if I’d only imagined the whole thing. Like a desert mirage, or the hallucinations of a fatigued mind. A bus pulled into the small town; stopping beside a long bench. The doors swung open and passengers piled out before the few people waiting climbed on. The bus continued to idle as I watched. Then I heard someone calling, so I turned. It was the guy from the gas station.
“Dude. She came in while you were in the john.” He said, holding out something towards me. “She left this for you, though. Told me to make sure you got it.”
I took what he was holding out to me. It was the crumpled Bradbury paperback. I turned it over in my hands and found it was solid and real. I turned back the crinkled front cover and found writing scrawled in the inside flap. It read: Hope you follow you dreams. Make “someday” today.
I looked up from the book. The gas-station guy had walked back to his counter. The passengers from the bus had all dispersed. I shoved the book into my back pocket and sprinted for the bus; arriving just as the doors closed and the driver revved the engine. I rapped my knuckles on the door and caught the driver’s attention just as he was about to pull off. He rolled his eyes at me and scowled before throwing the lever and opening the door. I paid my fare and took my seat; pulling off my backpack.
As I settled into my seat, I peered out the tall window to my left. Thinking, dreaming about what the road before me held. Because that’s where I was headed. Candace had helped me make up my mind. Candace, in her black Four-Runner with its windows stuck and the vents that wouldn’t blow air. And her paperback of Bradbury; now my paperback of Bradbury. The both of them had ganged up on me, outnumbering and overpowering me. And now I knew that long, long road ahead of me would only be the beginning.
(Written in response to prompt “Road”)