The pavement was still hot, even in the dark of night. Kim walked along the shoulder of the two-lane highway and breathed the fumes of hot tar and exhaust. The aroma was almost pleasant.
Kim was tired, bone-weary, but the warm night air was invigorating. She walked a little faster, her left thumb ready at the first sign of headlights. But she wasn’t desperate for a ride, not this time. After the feverish heat of the day, she felt she could walk in the cooling dark all night.
The road was still hot, though, and Kim could feel the leftover sun waving up through her shoes and her clothes. If she touched the pavement, she would find it still soft. Her shoes felt sticky on the hot tar. The sun had gone down hours ago, but it had been an unbearably hot day. Kim remembered being almost blinded by the heat, and her throat had been so dry and chalky. She lifted her face to the stars, imagining that they sent down coolness as the day’s star had sent down heat.
Kim looked around as she walked. Thick trees and bushes rustled on either side of the road. It wasn’t a forest—not quite—but it reminded her of the forest preserves she had rambled in as a kid. There was usually a pond nearby, unsuitable for swimming but excellent for wading through in search of crayfish and other critters.
Where, exactly, was she?
There were street lights but no signs, and no landmarks as far as Kim could see. She looked up at the sky again, at the brilliant stars that dotted the cold sky. She had never learned how to navigate by the stars. An ancient skill lost forever to the modern conveniences of compass, map, and GPS.
I haven’t seen stars like that since I was a kid and we used to go camping, she thought. We’d take the telescope into a field and try to count the stars. Mom would say that the Goddess had spilled her diamonds everywhere. This sky looks just like that one.
Kim decided not to worry about it and just walk. She’d get to an intersection eventually, or a car would stop and help her out. Sooner or later she’d end up somewhere.
God, but it felt good to be out of the sun! She didn’t remember very much about the day, just that she’d been hot and dizzy through most of it. The sunless relief of the night felt wonderful. Even the hot asphalt wasn’t too bad. A cool breeze tickled her hair and swept the heat away.
A distant rumble caught Kim’s attention. A car was approaching from behind. Kim stepped off into the gravel and raised her thumb.
The car whizzed past, then Kim saw the brake lights. She broke into a jog and caught up with the car just as it stopped. She walked around to the passenger side and peered in.
A youngish, bespectacled man peered back. He wore a light-colored turtleneck, and he smiled at her cautious expression. “Hi there!” he said. “How far you headed?”
“I’m not sure,” Kim said. “Do you know what road I’m on?”
The man’s grin widened, and Kim felt exasperated. He had her pegged for a drunk party girl, thought she’d tried to walk home completely sloshed and now she was lost.
Well, maybe that’s what happened, she thought. It would explain why I don’t remember much about today.
The man said, “This here’s Highway 19. It’s a main thoroughfare, take you just about anywhere you want to go. Where you headed?”
“Home, I guess,” Kim said. “Morris, Illinois.”
The man whistled. “Morris is a long ways from here.”
“Well where am I?” Kim said. She felt frustrated.
“Well, if you want to hop in, I can get you to a bus depot. You’ll surely find your way home from there.”
“Thank you so much,” Kim said. She opened the heavy passenger side door and almost fell into the deep bucket seat. She settled in, and the velvety-soft seat seemed to hug her round the shoulders.
The man threw the transmission into gear—a stick-shift, Kim thought, when was the last time I saw one of those?—and they peeled off down Highway 19. Kim had been walking for so long that it felt as though she were flying.
“I’m Kim Hensley,” she said, remembering her manners.
“Carl,” the man said, keeping his eyes on the road. “Carl Sticks.”
“Good to meet you,” Kim said.
“Back atcha.” Carl was still friendly, but his tone was distant, as though he was thinking of something important. He kept both hands on the wheel and eyes forward.
They drove on through the night in silence. Carl stared at the road, and he never coughed or shifted in his seat. His control of the vehicle was flawless.
“So what did you do for a living?” Carl asked, after they’d been driving in silence for a while.
Kim jumped. She’d gotten used to the silence, and Carl’s voice had startled her. “I’m a college student,” she said. “Going for my Master’s in psychology and social work.”
“Double major.” Carl nodded. “You were an ambitious woman.”
“Why do you keep using the past tense?” Kim asked. “It’s freaking me out. You’re not a serial killer, are you?”
Carl laughed. “Nope, just the messenger. It’s just my way of breaking the truth to you gently. Doesn’t always work.”
Kim stared. “What?”
“We’ll be at that bus depot in about half an hour,” he said. “Where did you say you lived?”
“Morris, Illinois,” Kim said. She didn’t want to continue the creepy conversation, so she allowed herself to be distracted. “I go to Bradley University in Peoria, but I go home to Morris on the weekends.”
“You must really like corn.”
Kim laughed. “My sister calls Peoria the college town in a cornfield. She thinks I should have tried for a school in California or Vegas instead.”
“So does that make you a corn-fed beauty?”
Kim blushed and sidestepped the compliment. “We did eat a lot of it at home.” Now she was using the goddamn past tense.
It must be the road. It was so long and dark, it felt like she’d been on it forever. Home and school were far away behind her.
“So what do you do?” she asked.
Carl paused before answering. “I drive a taxi.”
“No wonder you stopped for me. It must have been force of habit.”
Carl shrugged with one shoulder. “Something like that.”
“Do you want me to pay you?” Kim asked. She had a couple of bucks for an emergency, but not enough to cover a huge fare like this one was looking to be.
“Nah, keep your cash. I usually charge a pretty penny, but I’ve worked a full shift, so I can afford a freebie.”
There was another long silence, more comfortable than the first.
The road barely curved, and there were no merges or intersections. Kim watched the trees and shrubs rush by and wondered where the hell they were. They weren’t in Illinois, she’d bet her life on it. They hadn’t passed a single cornfield since she’d gotten in the car. Wisconsin, maybe? Or Missouri. She thought Missouri was closer, but it was usually hillier than this down that way.
But how had she gotten to Wisconsin? Kim remembered being at school, and she remembered having a terrible headache on the last day of finals. She’d packed to go home for the summer, hoping that the headache would go away before her mom’s traditional summer kick-off party. They weather that day had been unseasonably hot, and her head had pounded like a jackhammer all day.
And then she was walking on an empty highway at night, savoring the cool and the breeze and the stars. Nothing in between.
Maybe the pain from her headache had confused her, and she’d gotten on the wrong bus. Maybe the bus had overturned, and she’d wandered away from the wreck. But nothing on her hurt; in fact she felt better than she had in days.
“Was I in an accident?” she asked Carl. He probably wouldn’t know, but maybe he’d heard it on the radio or something.
“Nope, it was meningitis.”
“Oh.” Carl glanced at her. “I thought you’d worked it out on your own already.”
“You’re trying to tell me that I’m dead,” Kim said blankly. She was in the car with a lunatic.
“Actually, I’m trying to let you figure out for yourself that you’re dead,” Carl said. “Just flat-out telling a person never goes well. They freak out, try to jump ship, and end up lost in the woods. You don’t want to get most in those woods, Kim. There’s stuff that’s got teeth in there.
“So it’s better when a person thinks it over and figures it out. I drop a few hints here and there, but I gotta keep my mouth shut.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Of course you don’t. But the important thing is, you haven’t tried to jump out of the car and run from me into the woods. You don’t want to get those in those woods, miss. The road is safe, but those trees ain’t.”
Kim turned away from him and stared out the window. The trees were dark and shapeless, and now they looked less like the trees she’d played among as a child and more like the tree that had grown outside her bedroom window and made frightening shadows on the walls during lightning storms. Kim felt a trickle of fear. Carl was playing games with her. Had to be.
But then why didn’t she remember anything? Why didn’t she know where she was?
“I don’t remember getting on the bus,” she said softly.
“You didn’t. You collapsed in your dorm, and your roommate found you. You had a fever of a hundred and five when the paramedics arrived.”
She looked at Carl. His face was serene. He wasn’t looking at her or gauging her reaction at all. He was just driving.
“Did my mother and sister get to tell me good-bye?”
“You were unconscious but still alive when they got there. You died about an hour later. Your sister held your hand and read you her poems the whole time.”
Kim thought she remembered. Cool pressure on her hand. Two voices, speaking softly, one calm and rhythmic, the other choked with tears.
And over it all, a heavy blanket of heat and dizziness, swarming her brain, drowning her thoughts in burning pain.
The fading heat had been such a relief.
“Where are we going now?” Kim asked.
“I told you. The bus depot. Take you wherever you want to go. Or wherever you believe you deserve to go, which ain’t usually the same thing.”
“Will the bus take me to heaven?”
“Heaven, hell, purgatory, Nirvana, even back to earth to start over if that’s what you feel. Anywhere at all.”
Kim settled back into the deep, soft seat that carried her through the darkness of eternity. She leaned back and closed her eyes, once again enjoying the cool relief, the end of pain.
As she dozed off, Charon of Styx tapped the steering wheel and hummed a Blue Oyster Cult tune. For him, it was just another night on the job.
Reality Is Thin
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