Un Comienzo by V.T. Dorchester
Weather and night are closing in together on Interstate 84, between Baker City and La Grande, Oregon. Oregon State Police Patrol Trooper Cole Johnson accelerates out of the McDonald’s parking lot and onto the highway.
Most vehicles have their headlights on, and Cole sees several more drivers suddenly remember theirs as his car nears. The snow fall is starting slow and fitful, but it worries Cole.
His mother once sold a sheet cake she decorated with a molded chocolate and fondant diorama of the Wallowa mountains. He remembers watching her carefully place a molded “peak” in the left edge of the cake. Where was Kevin? Was he there in the kitchen too?
The last of the natural light is leaving the sky.
Cole’s thoughts, as they often do this time of year, jump about. He drives on.
The U.S. Naval Observatory based observations of the 1918 solar eclipse in Baker City. Next summer, after 99 years, Baker City will again lay in the path of totality.
Luca has already written a speech, wants to hold a small barbeque party.
Luca left two mornings ago, for a search and rescue conference on the coast.
“Are you sure you’re all right with me going? This time of year…”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Maybe you could come?”
“I have a job to do.”
“I’ll call you every night.”
“Text is fine.”
“Do you need your prescrip…”
“I’m fine! GO!”
“Te quiero. I love you.”
Unwrapping his Egg McMuffin, Cole bites into it, and then spits out the mouthful in disgust.
The patrol car radio crackles to life.
After a few moments, Shirley, their ancient dispatcher, who has no patience for codes, call signals, or privacy, says, “You doing all right?”
“I’m fine, Shirley, thank you.”
“Good of you to pick up the shift.”
“We might have a weather situation developing.”
“Forecast calls for a few light flurries.”
“That the forecast from Boise?”
“That’s what it says.”
Cole fills his weekly pill organizer at the kitchen counter, saying, “I’m becoming an old geezer.”
Luca looks up from injecting insulin into his abdomen, responding, “Ain’t you lucky.”
Cole knows these 45 miles or so of interstate between Baker City and La Grande. He has traveled them for years, seen them in all moods. In the summer, they travel through tan rangeland, with center pivot-irrigation allowing a few green fields to grow. The Union Pacific Railroad tracks toward the Columbia River to the north. The Nez Perce lived here. Before the Nez Perce, others, perhaps. There is gold in the hills. Of course, Nez Perce people remain. As do the hunters, the miners, the pioneers. Joined by teachers, doctors, and university lecturers. Highway cops. The mountains overlook all.
Cole squints up at the sky as he drives. The snow is starting to come heavier. He switches on his windshield wipers. The tenseness of winter driving tightens across his belly.
This road crosses the forty-fifth parallel. The parallel is just a line on a map. Just a line. It has to pass through someone’s backyard. Passes through many. It signifies nothing real. Yet a tiny bit of Cole is always expecting… something, every time he crosses it. He passes the sign marking the parallel now. Lets out a tiny gust of held breath.
Dad motions for quiet as they glide through a curve in the ski trail, coming to a stop on the edge of a frozen pond. Interstate traffic in the distance is too far away to hear. Dad silently points. Cole is eight, nine years old. The only sounds their breathing, the squeak of snowsuits as they shift, his own heartbeat in Cole’s ears, as he tries to see. The anticipation, the certainty there is something there if he can only align.
At last he sees the badger, across the other side of the pond, watching them.
The snow squalls. He can’t see to the end of his headlights.
“I think we should close the highway,” Cole says into his mike.
“Close the highway?”
“That’s what I just said.”
“We can’t just close down the highway. We’ve got tourists on the roads and trucks re-starting deliveries for the new year.”
“We’re not ‘just closing it down,’ we’re closing it down due to dangerous weather conditions.”
“The radar shows the storm passing soon.”
“I don’t care what some da— I don’t care what the radar says. There is very little visibility.”
“Look, Cole, I know you can get a bit… sensitive about road conditions this time of year…”
“I’m not being paranoid.”
“Have you got ice and poor traction?”
Cole glares at the swirling snow as his car moves through it.
“Conditions are unsafe.”
“Is the highway icy?”
Cole opens the mike, hesitates. “No.”
“If it gets icy, call in again.”
Cole hits the steering wheel with one hand.
The man on the tape said, “I don’t know what happened. Maybe they hit a patch of ice. It seemed like that car just turned right straight into me.”
“Jackass,” Cole mutters at the car coming up behind him, keeping its high beams on. “Can’t you see I’m a cop?” He pulls over the offending car. He is disappointed to find everything in order, lets the driver go on.
Three years ago, this time of year. Of course, this time of year. Walking cautiously into the house.
Luca waiting. “Cinco noches. ¡Dime! ¿Novio, where, where have you been?”
Cole still scrubbing the Portland motel off his skin, the two strangers he hopes never to see again.
Luca stays anyway.
Shirley returns to the air, “Report of a vehicle stopped near the parallel sign. Can you check it out?”
“I was just by, didn’t see anything.”
“Call just came in.”
“How is the weather now?”
“Terrible,” Cole says.
He’s not far from a turn-around, can turn around soon, go back.
Luca stays, anyway, but not any way—
“You have to talk to someone. A professional. About what goes on in your head. Or what doesn’t.”
Cole reaches cautiously for his Egg McMuffin, eyes glued to the road ahead of him. The sandwich is cold now. He takes another bite, then another and another, wolfing the rest down. Delicious.
Even though he’s watching for it, even though he knows just about where it will be, he comes close to missing the turn space.
Dad says, “Come on Cole, let’s go to the store.”
Not even looking up from his comic, Cole says, “Don’t want to.”
Kevin says, “I’ll come!”
And Dad says, “Well, all right then, let’s go.”
Kevin says, “Max, you coming?”
No, Cole thinks, and rattles through the turn-around, across the highway’s median strip. He turns back down the interstate, going back the way he came.
With his feet in the tracks left a hundred years ago by the wagon trains, Cole listens. He hears a little wind, and other people walking and chatting in the distance. He listens harder, and he can just make out, at a great distance, clanking and the sounds of heavy beasts plodding. The tread of tired feet. Then his Dad puts his hand on his shoulder.
Cole asks, “Did you hear them? The settlers?”
“Only some of us can hear the ghosts,” his Dad says, and he must have thought Cole wouldn’t notice his wink to Kevin.
Cole nears the 45th parallel again and considers turning on his flashers. He reaches for his radio, glancing down a second as his hand brushes against greasy sandwich wrapping instead.
There is a flicker of movement out of the corner of an eye.
Instinctively, his foot presses the brake.
Screaming at Luca, “I’m alive! Should I want to be dead? Would that be better?”
Cole’s head jerks back up. Eyes straining to see into the swirling darkness, he twitches the car over to the shoulder.
Something there. There was something there. A deer? Let it be a deer.
The car comes to a hard stop.
I didn’t. I didn’t hit whatever it was.
The headlights show nothing but falling snow in blackness. The car motor rumbles.
Luca says, “I love you. But I’m getting tired.”
It is their sixth winter, and Cole does not want to be touched.
Cole turns on his flashers, fumbles, adrenaline causing him to momentarily forget he needs to unbuckle his seat belt before he can get out.
Dad and Mom argue, voices too low to understand. The pillow and sheets fold up on the sofa the next morning.
Cole stands on the shoulder of the highway, listening.
He turns on his spotlight. The bright light catches the big green sign perhaps sixty feet ahead, its uppercase letters reflecting back at him. It reads: “Halfway between the equator and the north pole.” There are people standing below it, hard to make out through the snow. Cole’s right foot sinks into the incline toward the ditch as he starts toward them. His stomach hurts now.
Mom grabs his arm and pulls him out of the patrol car; his arm is bruised the next day.
“Where did you find him?”
Sergeant Walker says, “Ma’am…”
“Where did you find him!”
“Near the highway, ma’am.”
“Again? What is the matter with you?”
Cole whispers, “I’m looking for Max.”
“No one’s looking for Max.”
“The dog? Jesus H. Christ, Cole!”
“He could be out there, hurt, Mom.”
“The dog is dead.”
“Maybe he isn’t. No one has found him. That means he could still be…”
“He’s in pieces in a goddamn ditch somewhere. He’s been eaten by the filthy fuckin’ coyotes by now.”
“You keep your god-damn nose out of our business! And you go to your room and stay there! Not one tear at your father’s funeral, and all this for a dog!”
Cole blinks hard and keeps walking. The people up ahead don’t move. Where is their vehicle? How did they get here if they don’t have a car? Why stand in front of a highway sign in the middle of a storm?
“Hello,” Cole calls out, at about twenty-five feet from the group. “What’s the trouble?”
“Fear not,” says the man, “we bring no trouble here.”
A man, a woman, a girl and a boy. No obvious weapons. They look back at him through the spotlight.
“We are waiting, Officer Cole Johnson,” the woman says. “We will not be long.”
Cole does not think he’s ever seen these people before.
“What are you waiting for?” he asks.
They are not squinting or shielding their eyes from the spotlight on their faces.
“Our… ride,” says the boy.
“It is past eleven now,” says the man.
“You’re being picked up here?”
Snow is gathering in the folds of Cole’s jacket. None of these people have jackets on. No winter outerwear at all. Only jeans and dress shirts. He shivers.
“Aren’t you cold? I have some emergency blankets.” Even strangers shouldn’t be out in weather like this without warmth.
“It is all right,” the girl says.
The people smile, all at once, and they have many teeth. Cole takes a step backward. He sees they are not wearing shoes. And that the ground where these people stand seems clear of snow.
He isn’t exactly afraid. He thinks he may be finally going really crazy, because what he’s seeing seems impossible. He can see no snow on their clothes or hair. But it falls all around them.
Kevin, when Cole can’t sleep: “Do you want to watch TV with me?” Sitting on the couch, 2 a.m., eating potato chips, watching infomercials, Mom out with “a friend.”
And there is a humming, like that from a high voltage wire on a humid day, or the sound of many hummingbird wings, beating.
Kevin calls him up, asking for “loans,” slurring his words.
“It’s your fault I’m like this. You were supposed to be the other one in the car. You were the one meant to be crippled.”
“Go now,” these people say to him, bowing. He is not afraid; these people are not frightening him. They have done nothing but speak and smile. Cole has pulled over and arrested suspected drug dealers. He has been bitten and hit and scratched and headbutted by intoxicated men and women. He has responded to calls of heart attacks behind the wheel and rollovers, and chased 300 pound boars off roads, and these people are not frightening him.
He is terrified. He feels a terrible anticipation, a certainty there is something he should see, if he could only find the right focus. There is something terribly wrong with their faces… they are flickering… or his mind is flickering…
His stomach squeezes. He will be sick.
Cole turns and runs.
A distant, detached professional voice from a homeless shelter in San Francisco, “Kevin Johnson died early this morning.” Cole thanks the lady for the information, ends the call.
Cole wrenches his car door open, lunging into the safety, the normalcy, inside.
He is not sick.
He thinks he hears one of the people shout. But it is Walker he hears, who, the last Cole knew, was living with his wife in a retirement community in Arizona. Walker says, “You’ll be all right.”
Mom turned to the church. Said graces over their silent table. Said, “I’m trying to do better.”
Cole blindly peels his patrol car away from the shoulder, muscle memory alone bringing and keeping him to his lane.
Walker hands him Max’s dog collar. Cleaner than it ever was before. The smell of Dawn soap. How long had Walker searched? How long had he scrubbed? Walker’s bones are like iron as Cole hugs that old police sergeant as hard as he can.
Minutes pass, until Walker, extracting himself, says “You’ll be all right, son.”
Tires smoothly roll on the black top. Cole notes, without feeling one way or the other about it, that he has pressed the patrol car up to ninety miles per hour. He cannot see where he is going.
A glare grows, reflecting off his rear-view mirror.
“Unbelievable,” he croaks. A thin thought, another high-beam cowboy. Speeding. The thought’s common sourness settles him a little, back into himself.
The glare flares bright all around for a moment, incredibly bright. Too bright. Then it is gone.
Cole glances in his mirrors and looks over his shoulder. Black spots dance in front of his eyes. He sees nothing. He looks forward again. No car has passed him. He realizes his flashers are still on. He turns them off.
He is alone on the interstate. He is all right. He eases his foot off the gas pedal. The fist clenching around his stomach unlocks its fingers.
Cole was taking out the garbage, and catches Dad sneaking a cigarette, looking up at the stars. Dad says, “There are more things in this world then we can understand, isn’t it wonderful?” And then, “Don’t tell your mom.”
Those people, waiting at the parallel, just after eleven at night. Cole will believe for the rest of his life they were visitors from quite a different state.
Shirley is back on the radio, saying “We’re going to close the highway.” Cole hears her but does not hear her.
Instead, hears Luca.
“You won’t say it back, will you.”
“I love you.”
“No, say it properly. You’ve never said it.”
“No, I’ve never said it.”
“Not since I was thirteen.”
Cole’s hands tremble on the steering wheel.
It is Saint Stephen’s Day, December 26th, 1992. A man with a Chevrolet pick-up truck decides it’s surely all right for him to drive. It’s been several hours since he last had a drink.
A storm winds its way through the valley.
A father and his oldest son drive home from the hardware store, new handles for the kitchen cupboards rattling on the dashboard. A fat lab named Max sprawls across the back seat.
A wife and mother, keeping the turkey omelettes warm, frowns at the kitchen clock. Her younger boy, having set the table, reads a Green Lantern adventure.
There is a knock at the door.
On the outskirts of Baker City, white lights are strung along a ranch house fence next to the interstate, shining. They are the only sign there is anything beyond the road at all. Wide eyed, Cole pulls over and stops his patrol car again.
“Oh, Hell,” he says quietly.
On their first anniversary, Luca reads him a love letter—“Te quiero. No te dejare mi amor. Mi amor siempre estará aquí para ti. Siempre. Eres mi cariño y mi país frito pollo… I love you with all my soul. My love will always be here for you. Forever.”
Cole takes out his phone. Mashes jumbled letters together, tries again. Sends a text.
Te quiero te amo I love you i Love you love
He wipes at his eyes with a sleeve, once more turns and drives into the storm.
V.T. Dorchester is the buckskin-wearing alter ego of a millennial, plains-city raised writer. They now live in a small valley town in British Columbia, Canada. Their work has been published in Running Wild Anthology of Stories—Volume 3; and Havik. Follow their digital trail on Twitter.