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Marlon stopped his brother’s convertible Camaro in the middle of the highway, staring at the apparition in his headlights. He switched to high beam to illuminate the muggy Northwestern Ontario night, the banks of fog rolling off the rivers, creeks, marshes, and lakes along the Trans-Canada Highway. Surprised at the figure, he sucked in a big gasp of air and took a gulp of cold takeout coffee, which he bought at the convenience story in Northcliff, coughing as the liquid went down the wrong passage.
A young woman sat cross-legged, her feet resting on her opposing thighs, on the middle of the highway, in the lotus position. Dressed for the heat, wearing a tank top, shorts, and sandals, her straight thin hair long and fashioned into a bun with an elastic band, the small woman sat in the middle of the eastbound traffic lane. He flicked on the emergency lights, switched his headlights to low beam and then, fearing an accident, thinking better illumination might reduce the probability of an accident, back to high beam.
He strode to where January sat on the highway in front of the black sports car. Now at the end of the month of June, January was sitting in front of the Camaro he drove. He had given January a few rides home from work and admitted to her he still didn’t consider the convertible, in mint condition, which he considered a classic and treated like a collectable, as his own since it was formerly owned by his brother Clint, fourteen years older than him. The sports car was left abandoned at the entrance to the nearby provincial park on the Trans-Canada highway, close to the footpath and pedestrian bridge that spanned the river and rapids, flowing into Wabigoon Lake. Thirteen years ago—that was the last time anybody saw his older brother alive.
He recognized January immediately, even through the darkness of the warm summer night. She was a petite brown-haired woman, who once had longer hair, which flowed down her back to her shapely hips. She often served him coffee at the Roundhouse café, which had stayed twenty-four hours daily, but the hours were scaled back, for lack of business, after the sawmill closed during the recession. After the sawmill shuttered forever, the equipment was dismantled and shipped away, Marlon was laid off from the forest products company permanently, alongside three hundred others workers. He start taking evening walks to the Roundhouse, since there was no twenty-four hour coffee shop on the north side of the railroad tracks, where he lived. He was still following the nocturnal rhythms of his graveyard shifts, which he preferred because hardly anyone liked to work those hours and they paid more.
During these nighttime hikes to the other side of town, he met January, as she walked home late. He tried to mind his own business in the small town, even if it was his hometown, and usually avoided speaking with anyone, but he had long impromptu talks with her. She was his idea of the perfect server. She brewed the best espresso and cappuccinos, kept his regular coffee cup filled, and, even though he preferred to be left alone and didn’t like to leave tips, he found her so attractive he tipped her heavily.
He didn’t mind when she sometimes sat down and chatted with him. Still, he didn’t feel comfortable, having her doting on him, and, when she spoke with him, he was a bit suspicious because the attention of an attractive young woman wasn’t something he often received. Sometimes they chatted late into the night, when he visited the café before midnight, but she knew when he wanted his peace, and let him read his news magazines. He admired how, when a group home worker took a group of mentally challenged clients to the Roundhouse cafe and restaurant she was always kind, patient, and tolerant. He understood she was keen on Buddhism and guessed that was a reason she wore a silver necklace with a dharmachakra.
She told him she was from a farm, just outside of Northcliff.
“Northcliff isn’t exactly prime farming territory. That must be a tough life.”
“That’s putting it mildly. My parents insist on trying to keep their organic farm alive, even when they’re in danger of going bankrupt. They’re Mennonites—not Orthodox Mennonites but reformed—highly principled and very moral, but stubborn.”
“I never knew anyone could earn a living from farming on the Canadian Shield. Even tree farmers are having difficulty surviving.”
“My parents won’t survive. They refuse to accept they’ll probably lose everything, eventually.”
“Still, farming—that sounds admirable.”
“No, it’s stubbornness, and I fight with my parents and we don’t get along. That’s why I moved to Beaverbrook.”
Sometimes she even pressed books on Buddhism on him, but he politely told her he wasn’t keen on eastern religions and mysticism—a point at which she would frown. Then he explained: He started reading the philosopher Bertrand Russell when he was a teenager and began to consider himself an agnostic, or even atheist, even though he was raised in the Roman Catholic church and separate school and was forced to attend Mass every Sunday. As he matured, though, he moved from an agnostic or atheist position to a place where he realized he had returned to the Catholic faith; he respected the pope, his moral staunchness and stubbornness. When the time for his own death arrived, he decided he wished to be buried a Catholic.
“Why are you worried about when you die?”
“I’m not. But I know I will die, and it’s probably healthy to think about death.”
Marlon remembered this exchange as he asked her what she was doing in the middle of the road. She said she lived nearby and merely stopped for a break, to meditate. Unable to accept that explanation, he pleaded with her. He remembered they were actually not far from the place where his brother disappeared and his car was recovered, outside the outskirts of the town in which he was last seen alive, at the same bar, which Marlon visited, which featured exotic dancers.
Remembering rumors of growing problems and differences she had with her parents, Marlon insisted she, smelling of beer and spiced rum, get into the car. He invited her for a coffee at the Husky truck stop, a short drive west along the Trans-Canada highway to Northcliff. They wound up arguing on the eastbound lane of the Trans-Canada Highway near Wabigoon. Finally, she simply pulled away from him. She started walking towards the hamlet, east of Northcliff, on the Trans-Canada highway.
He got into his car, his emergency lights blinking, the two enveloped in an eerie darkness and a bank of fog rolling off the nearby lake, in a northern Ontario night, unilluminated by street lighting. Slowly driving his car, which he turned around onto the westbound lane, he trailed alongside her.
"You're going to get killed," Marlon said.
"Mind your own business," January snapped.
Not a single motor vehicle passed them on the westbound lane, towards Winnipeg, but several huge trucks and tractor-trailers passed on the eastbound lane on the Trans-Canada highway, speeding towards Thunder Bay after midnight. He continued to escort her with his brake and emergency lights blinking, driving alongside her at a few miles per hour. Then he decided what his desire to assist was foolish. She was stubborn, and he couldn’t help her. He turned the car back around onto the eastbound lane and headed home. As he continued to drive along the highway, guilt plagued him. He remembered the physical attraction and affection he felt for this pretty, petite, sweet young woman. He reached the turn off on the TransCanada highway at Dinorwic, but he remembered how sometimes as she walked from the Roundhouse restaurant, she wanted him to take her home at night. He did a U-turn with the Camaro.
He turned around and drove back west in silence towards Northcliff to the place on the Trans-Canada highway where she sat on the asphalt in the lotus position. Beyond the boarded up general store, where they bought firecrackers and sparklers when they were kids, there she was again, sitting on the middle of the eastbound traffic lane this time, in her lotus position. This time he told her enough was enough. He wasn't in the mood for any fun and games or fights, and they argued. He said he was going to take her home, but she refused to cooperate, and again they debated, quarrelled, and struggled physically. In the middle of their argument, as he tried to get her into the car, her blouse tore, revealing the top of her breasts. This wardrobe malfunction, he thought, was a fine development. Now his intervention might be considered sexual assault. Once more, as she started to scream and sob, he decided to leave her at the roadside, even if she decided to resume her position in the middle of the highway; he had enough and decided it was simpler and safer not to become involved. He apologized for tearing her halter top; it was an accident and he was only trying to help. He turned around and left her, sobbing but stoic, at the edge of the highway. He understood her desire for privacy and her right to self-determination, but she appeared headed on a path to self-destruction.
When Marlon reached a road stop, he pulled into the parking lot at the shuttered gas station and general store, and stepped into the pay phone, illuminated by a single street lamp. His hands started to tremble, and he could feel himself starting to shake. He actually couldn’t remember the last time he spoke on the telephone; after all, he felt as if he was retired. As he explained to January, he hadn’t been able to find a job since he was laid off from his job as a machine operator at the sawmill. Other times, Marlon admitted he resented the fact he couldn’t find a job in his hometown, despite the fact he was a few credits short of a degree in economics at Lakehead University. Instead of taking a proactive approach and moving, though, he withdrew from the local social scene. When she asked him why he didn’t work at the restaurant where she served, he said it didn’t matter because he invested virtually every penny he earned since he started work in his teenage years at the sawmill during in the stock market. Having learned the fundamentals of stock markets, he invested conservatively and cautiously, but earned steady and progressively higher returns through capital appreciation and dividends. His stock portfolio grew until he literally earned enough in dividends to survive. Anyway, he couldn’t envision himself serving or cooking meals in a restaurant or café.
“You should invest my money for me.”
“Most people don’t have the stomach, nerves, or disposition for stocks. They think the market will earn them quick money or make them wealthy overnight. If they possess that mentality, it’s almost as likely to do the opposite.”
Meanwhile, his mother made living in his hometown easier, after his brother mysteriously disappeared during a road trip to Northcliff. After receiving reports of an abandoned motor vehicle, the police found the Camaro at the roadside near the entrance to the provincial park, but Clint was never heard from or seen again. He was last seen at the motel bar that featured exotic dancers, which he visited regularly during the summers, driving the sixty miles from Beaverbrook for a nighttime soiree. Then, Marlon’s mother made every effort to have him stay at home, including cooking his meals and not charging him room and board, long after he graduated from high school. Marlon ended up inheriting the convertible Camaro, which, like his brother, he babied and treated a precious collectible doll.
In the telephone booth, he looked up the number of the Northcliff Hospital and its ambulance service. He couldn't find a quarter or a looney coin. Forget it, he thought, but he couldn’t forget the image of her in that lotus position on the highway at night, and he decided to call the emergency number, 911.
"I'd like to report a person on the road."
"So what do you want us to do?"
He figured this call was in all likelihood being recorded, although the operator at the other end wasn’t behaving as if the line was monitored. In fact, he thought she was rather unprofessional, but that was his opinion, one that didn’t matter, either way, but still he tried to choose his words carefully.
"I think she's trying to harm herself."
"So how can we help you?" the dispatcher asked impatiently.
"You can get her off the road, so she won't get killed."
"OK, where is she located?"
He gave the dispatcher the location on the edge of the Highway 17 where he left her beside the boarded up store outside of Wabigoon.
"I thought you told me she was trying to harm herself by sitting on the middle of the road."
"Yes, but I managed to get her off the road, until, I suppose, she decides to sit in the middle again."
"Have you had anything to drink tonight?"
Marlon focused and concentrated his anger into silence.
“Have you had anything to drink tonight?"
Since he was driving and normally didn’t drink alcoholic beverages, he had been drinking sugar free colas, with crushed ice, at the bar, but then a friend from Beaverbrook spotted him and insisted on buying him beer after beer while they watched nubile nude women bumping, grinding, and tabletop and lap dancing at the Mill Inn tavern.
"That's none of your business."
"OK. Your name and number."
"I'd prefer not to give that."
"And where are you calling from?"
"My location doesn’t matter; she’s on Highway 17 between Wabigoon and Northcliff, a kilometer past the windmill.”
“And you are?”
“Annoyed. Look, I would just prefer to remain—"
"Anonymous," she said.
"OK, sir, we'll have a car sent out . . . sometime . . . when, if, we have the time.”
"What the hell?" Marlon gasped. "This girl is trying—"
“We’re short of officers tonight, though. Most first responders are around Sioux Lookout helping with the evacuation of the reservation from the forest fire.”
After the 911 operator disconnected the phone line, Marlon slammed the receiver of the pay telephone in frustration. He turned on the car radio as he drove east on the highway to the turn off to Beaverbrook. Then his worries and conscience started to haunt and nag him, before he decided to turn back westwards along the Trans-Canada highway again.
Later in the morning, Marlon parked the car near the beach in a provincial park and slept in the front seat. When he woke with a hangover, he took a quick swim in his underwear to refresh himself. He drove the car to the coin-operated car wash on the busy thorough skirting town. Relieved there was no deep scratches or dents in the Camaro, he waxed and buffed the car like a trophy.
A teenager, in short shorts and a tight t-shirt, cycled past the open carwash garage door. “Oh, la, la, summer cruising,” she said.
“You think you could give me a ride?”
He pretended he didn’t hear her.
“You don’t drive that cool car often,” she said flatly.
She appeared to know him, but he didn’t recognize her. “Rarely,” he said. He considered telling her he inherited the car and only drove the convertible during perfect summer weather, which allowed him to put the top down, usually to cruise the highway and see the exotic dancers perform at the Northcliff bar, but she was a teenager and his grim mood didn’t permit conversation.
Towards noon of another hot summer day, after the longest night in personal memory, Marlon parked his Camaro convertible in the home driveway. In the house, he tried to slip by his mother in the kitchen on the way to his bedroom. A platter with a thick layer cake of uneaten blueberry pancakes she cooked at the break of dawn, as he slept in the car parked at the beach, for breakfast were lying accusingly on the kitchen table. She relentlessly chopped carrots, celery, and onions, which caused his eyes to water, as she cooked a fresh garden vegetable broth and soup for lunch.
"Where have you been?"
"At a barbecue party on Pine Island."
With a big holiday weekend bash on the island, he thought that party would provide a reasonable alibi, even though his mother knew he wasn’t social enough to hang out with hip locals on an island, accessible only by boat, canoe, or athletic swim. He didn't want to tell her the truth: that he drove a hundred kilometers to Northcliff in Clint’s car. He shut and locked the door to his bedroom and closed the curtains above his bed.
As he struggled to sleep, he thought about the young woman he left on the highway and felt as if he was living a nightmare, although he was so tired that eventually he did sleep. After he woke up, he tuned into the local radio station and heard that the provincial police were investigating a hit-and-run accident on the TransCanada Highway outside of Wabigoon. They were asking any motorists who had been on the highway in that vicinity between midnight and sunrise to contact the nearest provincial police detachment. Plagued by images from the previous evening, he needed to refresh himself and changed and brushed his teeth and showered.
He went into the kitchen and, while he toasted whole grain bread slices over which he spread peanut butter and sprinkled cinnamon, his mother told him a girl, the daughter of his brother’s friend (and she spoke as if his brother was still alive, not missing for the past thirteen years and presumed dead) had been killed in an accident.
“She was the daughter of Clint’s prospective business partner. They wanted to start a peat moss and wood pellet business.”
“Prospective business partner? I don’t remember.”
“You were in high school, preoccupied with science fiction novels, obsessed with Star Wars movies.”
“I still don’t remember.”
“A young woman like that would have made a great wife for you,” Anna said.
In a miserable and surly mood, Marlon replied she would only say that now, after the young woman was dead, at no risk of taking the man servant who mowed her lawn, shoveled her snow, painted her walls and ceilings, dug her garden, drove her to church. She glared at him coldly, slapped him across the face once, and then backhanded him, leaving a red welt across his cheek, all the while scolding him.
“Then move out of my home!” she shrieked. “Get out of my house!”
“All right. All right! I will!”
His mother threw the soup ladle at him and waved a bread knife menacingly in his direction. “How dare you talk to your mother like that!”
Marlon poured the rest of his coffee down the drain, wiped his face and corners of his mouth with paper towel, and grunted and nodded in assent, before stepping out the back door. He walked restlessly downtown, checked for mail at the family letterbox in the post office—there was no home delivery in town since Beaverbrook was considered a rural route—and picked up a dividend check. Then he then strolled across town to the coffee shop where January had worked.
Calm, Marlon listened, as he sipped his coffee, and continued to monitor the chatter in the coffee shop, as the regulars café habitues chatted and gossiped. January’s body was in pieces, dismembered, after she was struck by several vehicles, including transport trucks and tractor-trailers, which failed to stop. Suspecting foul play, a hit-and-run, the police were investigating. The story continued to come out in bits and pieces in the café. Over the next several days the gossip and rumours was transmitted, relayed, and amplified in the local post office, stores, and bars. January died not far from her parent's home, farm acreage a few hundred meters down the highway, where she argued and bickered with her mother and father, while she visited for several days during a summer vacation. Locals speculated whether it was an accident or suicide, but police reports reiterated they were still investigating.
The local weekly newspaper did little to enlighten the situation. A cook at a Roundhouse restaurant who knew her was quoted as saying she had psychological problems, but he tried to counsel her. Against his advice, she returned to her parent’s home, which he thought would stress her. An alcoholic was how another server who worked with her described her.
Marlon thought she didn’t deserve to be remembered this way. They were unfair in judging her life, her reputation, her end. Neither he nor these co-workers or her so-called friends any business judging her life in his opinion.
He remembered the previous night: he turned around when he reached Dinorwic again, thinking he couldn’t leave her sitting in a lotus position in the middle of the highway, particularly when he observed no sign of a police cruiser travelling in either direction. Skeptical the police or paramedics would arrive in time to rescue her, he sped down the beneath the perfect blackness of the summer night, a tunnel of light in the wilderness. He even thought he might bind her wrists and ankles with duct tape or rope he had in his fishing tacklebox and toolbox in the trunk, hustle her in the back seat, and then speed immediately to the hospital emergency room.
At that moment Marlon was thinking, rationalizing whatever potential action he might take, justifying any intentional use of force and restraints because she was at risk of harming herself. Just as he thought of the danger she posed to herself, he heard a thump. As he sped westbound on the Trans-Canada highway the aura of the thump, which sounded as if he hit a large chunk of ice or snow, triggered a premonition, particularly when he realized it was the middle of an unseasonably hot summer. He remembered the time a subway train he rode through downtown Toronto struck a commuter and the time a Winnipeg transit bus struck a pedestrian. He thought he passed the spot along the highway where he left her. He turned around and drove back and pulled the car over to the side of the road, close to a farm with a windmill and horses out to pasture, as huge trucks, hauling freight and wood for the pulp mill roared past. A silver necklace with a dharmachakra was clinging to the bumper along with clumps of hair and what he dreaded to think was brain tissue. While a virtual convoy of transport trucks sped and roared past in a western direction, he clung to the blood stained silver necklace before he absently shoved the dharmachakra and necklace in the glove compartment. He walked along the highway to the spot near the windmill and the pasture of horses where he believed he left her, but he feared the worst and soon his fear grew and panic and breathlessness gripped him.
As he cruised slowly along the highway, he saw scattered across meters of asphalt, a bloodied, mangled arm and pulverized foot and sneaker. He stopped the car, leaving the engine running, as he contemplated the human carnage, and realized several transport trucks and tractors trailers had driven over her. He vomited several times amidst the grass and bulrushes at the roadside, as even more transport trucks, loaded with logs and wood chips, rich in pine scent, sped along the highway towards Northcliff and the pulp mill and sawmill. A stray dog gazed at him and then scurried along the side of the highway, sniffing at the bloodstains and remains on the ground. He was overwhelmed with nausea and vomited again.
Whenever his eyes caught sight of the blood and remains, he vomited. He retreated into his car and drove the car slowly along the highway back to Northcliff. He drove the car to self-service car wash and washed the convertible in the service bay, smelling of fumes, motor oil, strong detergent, and car wax, spraying the pressurized hose along the blood stained grill and tires. He drove to the gas station at the intersection of the main town thoroughfare and the highway and bought some caffeine tablets and motion sickness pills at the convenience store to try to calm his nerves and keep him alert for the drive home, and then went for black coffee at the Husky gas station and diner.
He looked around at the crowd, young men and woman, an after party and lively stragglers from the bar, in the diner for an after party. Once again he felt out of his element, with the beautiful, happy people, white, shiny, their skin glowing with health and vitality, their faces smiling with exuberance and happiness. It seemed only January made him feel a member of the group, a part of the social scene, and she was gone. He paid for his coffee and made his inauspicious retreat north, cruising back to his hometown, slithering along the highway that snaked its way through the rock forests and lakes, mindful not to fall prey to sleep and highway hypnosis, as he swallowed several caffeine tablets he kept in a bottle in the glove compartment, with the necklace and dharmacharka.