Cross Country

Cross Country

Thumbs out, they stand on the shoulder of the highway. Actually, Adam is standing. Sarah is sitting on the grassy embankment, knees up, supporting her head on her arms. There, on the outskirts of Valemount, where they have been trying to hitch a ride for what seems an eternity, she has given up. They are hitching across Canada. A month earlier, discussed over a pint of Moosehead Lager at Seamus David’s Pub in Dartmouth, the trip from Nova Scotia to British Columbia seemed like a great idea. But by the time they had crossed into B.C. from Alberta, the adventure was gone.

By the second week of September, most tourists have returned home and packed away their trailers and camping gear for the season. Only a few cars have driven by in the past couple of hours, one or two slowing just enough to size them up. Adam is trying to maintain his game face, but Sarah just sits, discouraged and dejected. Even finally reaching the Rockies doesn’t excite them. After weeks on the road, they are nearing their destination. But at that moment, tired, cold and hungry as they are, Vancouver seems a million miles away.

Their luck hasn’t gotten any better as this cool, cloudy Tuesday afternoon wears on. When they find themselves exposed to a cold drizzle in the diminishing light of evening, Adam suggests they call it a day and pitch their tent under a nearby highway overpass. Sarah doesn’t much care as long as they get out of the rain. They barely get the tent pitched and are working at getting settled for the night when a truck bearing a City of Valemount decal pulls up. The driver informs them that camping on land owned by the Ministry of Transportation is illegal and they have to pack up and move on. Sarah asks him to give them a ride to a nearby campground, but he refuses. His shift was over and he claims he is low on gas.

‘Please, please, please,’ begs Sarah. ‘Can’t you spare just a few minutes to help us out? And I’m sure you’d never let yourself get that short of gas.’

Giving in, the city worker waits in the cab while the pair pack up their stuff and toss their packs in the back of the pickup. Minutes later, the pick-up turns down an old little-used road parallel to the park and pulls over along the thick tree line. The two hitchhikers jump out.

They walk along a fence until they reach the Park entrance only to find themselves standing in the cold rain in front of a locked gate. The sign on the kiosk reads ‘Campground Full.’ They can’t even plead their case, ask that an exception be made, because the kiosk is unattended. Patience gone, Adam is at a loss. He turns to find Sarah sitting in the gravel, leaning against the gatepost.

‘You okay?’

‘No! I’m not okay! I’m done, Adam. You hear me? I’m soaking wet, and I’m so cold, I can’t feel my fingers. I’m hungry and tired, and my feet ache. I’m just going to sit right here in the rain; with luck, I’ll catch pneumonia and die by morning.’

‘Aw, c’mon. Things are bad enough without you going all Drama Queen on me. Gimme a minute.’

Adam slides his soggy pack from his back and sets it beside his girlfriend. He turns to survey their surroundings. Crossing the highway, he descends into the ditch on the far side and for a second he disappears into the increasing rain. A moment later he is back, hurrying to Sarah.

‘C’mon, get up. There’s a great stand of trees on the other side of the road. Hardly any underbrush, a perfect place to pitch the tent.’ They decide to move up the highway a bit and set up their tent a short distance off the road among the trees.

Adam helps Sarah to her feet, and shouldering both packs, he leads her across the vacant highway. Stepping up to the fence, he throws the packs over the barb wire.

‘We’ll find a spot to set up a short distance into the trees.’

‘Suits me. Anything. Just make it quick. And what about that?’ Sarah points at the large NO TRESPASSING sign attached to the fence line about twenty feet away.

‘Probably meant for keeping hunters out. Besides, what harm is there in setting up a tent in the trees overnight? We’ll be gone in the morning before anyone even notices we were here.’

Inside the hastily erected pop-up tent, the pair shrug out of their wet outer clothing and towel most of the moisture from their faces and hair. Adam pulls a Mickey of vodka from his backpack, while Sarah unrolls the sleeping bag. He takes a long swig and passes the bottle to Sarah. The vodka is cheap, purchased at the General Store on their way through town, but the burn on the way down drives off a little of the chill.

They slide into the sleeping bag fully clothed and spend the next hour taking turns until the bottle is empty. Adam entertains Sarah by telling her a horrifying story of a schizophrenic passenger on a CN Rail passenger train who stabbed a young man sitting next to him. Terrified, the passengers scrambled to escape as the man paraded up and down the aisle brandishing the bloody knife. The killer ate pieces of the victim’s body and licked blood from his fingers. Police arrived some time later and tasered the culprit as he tried to escape through a window.

Laughing, Sarah kisses Adam. ‘You sure know how to warm up a girl, don’t you? You psycho!’

‘Ha! That makes two of us,’ replies Adam.

As the vodka does its work, they unwind and forget about the cold, wet, discouraging day and the harsh words exchanged. Eventually Adam needs to pee. He crawls out of the tent to relieve his full bladder in the trees. When he returns, Sarah says she now has to go. With a nervous laugh, she admits that Adam’s Big Foot tales have her a bit spooked, so she will hold it till morning. A minute later she swears at Adam. She can’t hold it, dammit, and she is going to pee herself. Laughing, Adam offers her the flashlight. Taking it, and a roll of toilet paper from the backpack, she goes into the night.

Adam pulls the sleeping bag tight around himself and reflects on the weeks he has shared with Sarah on this adventure. He realizes how lucky he is to be in love with his best friend and soul mate. They’ve had arguments and spats along the way, sure, but nevertheless they’ve always maintained respect towards one another. And laughter is never far from their lips, easing the tension. He has never felt as free, happy and in love as this last month sharing the road across the country with Sarah. His secret plan, once they arrive in Vancouver, is to propose to her at their destination, the English Bay beach in Stanley Park.

‘Sarah! Are you okay? Hurry up! You’ll get wet and catch cold,’ calls Adam.

After several more minutes and no sign of his girlfriend, Adam unzips the tent flap and looks out into the darkness. The flashlight is lying in the bushes ten feet away, but Sarah is nowhere to be seen. Retrieving the flashlight, he scans the perimeter of the campsite. Adam’s calls for Sarah intensify as worry turns to panic. His heart is racing as he walks into the forest, desperately searching for Sarah. Horrific thoughts run through his mind; visions of Sarah pinned in the brush, a bear tearing at her body, ripping flesh from bone; a deranged passerby who stopped to give her a hand and is now driving away with her in his trunk.

The flashlight goes out; he slaps the bottom of it to no avail. Cursing, he throws it into the darkness. Stumbling over stumps and branches, he tries to find his way back to the tent. Completely disoriented now, he trips in the underbrush and tumbles head over heels down a small rocky slope.

Adam wakes to a throbbing headache. He tries to focus, but his sight is blurred and the light is blinding. He sits up. Softness of the cushion under him and the warmth of the air tell him he is definitely not outside. Confused, he again tries to open his eyes. The headache makes him squint. Slowly his vision gets less blurry. A man sitting on the arm of the couch slowly comes into focus.

‘Where is Sarah? Is she okay? Where am I? Who are you?’ asks Adam.

‘Easy there, buddy. My name is Terrell and this here is my house. I found you this morning, face-down and unconscious over by the river. Carried you back here and bandaged up your head. You got yourself quite the gash and pro’bly a concussion. I reckon you went over on your ankle, tumbled down the bank and cracked your head on a rock. Your ankle is swollen, but it ain’t broke, near as I can tell. You’re damn lucky I decided to go picking mushrooms this morning. If I hadn’t spotted your sorry ass, you’d likely be bear bait or dead by now-maybe both.’

‘I must’ve fell looking for Sarah in the dark. Did you see her”‘

‘Fraid not, but how was I to know there was two of you, huh?’

‘We need to go find her,’ exclaims Adam, swinging his legs off the couch. Nausea consumes him; he feels he is going to vomit. To make matters worse, the pain in his head has multiplied ten-fold. Moaning, he closes his eyes, clutching his head.

‘You’re not going anywhere with a wonky ankle and that gash on your noggin, buddy. Besides, you’ve been out all day; it will be dark in a couple hours. Rest here and I’ll go have a look for your sweetie.’

‘We pitched our tent just up the road from the campground, across the fence by the highway. She went out to go to the bathroom and just disappeared.’

‘Private Property! Can’t you kids read?’

‘We were cold and wet, and it was raining. We had no choice but to… ‘

‘Spare me the excuses, kid. Stay put. I’ll go out for a look and be back right quick. She couldn’t have got very far. If she’s anywhere nearby, I’ll track her down.’

Grabbing a rifle from the gun rack by the closet, Terrel heads out the door. Adam lays down and rests his aching head.
____________________________

‘Hello, sugar. Miss me?’

Sarah is sitting in an old wooden chair, hands tied behind the chair back and ankles lashed to the legs. She tugs against her bonds and the weathered leather squeezes tight, cutting into her skin. Sweat seeps into the open sores and stings like burning needles. She tries to scream, but a muted grunt is all that escapes the soiled handkerchief stuffed into her mouth.

‘Is that any way to greet me, sweetheart? ‘Specially seein’ as you been gone so long. And you know how much I miss you when you a’re gone. How come you spend so much time at the General Store, anyway? You know, I been to town a few times myself to get groceries. You know, bread, butter, flour, a few brewskis an’ such, but it ain’t never taken me so long to get back as it do you. Now, were I a bettin’ man, I’d bet that mebbe you’ve taken a shine to that young stock boy. Mebbe you got a thing for pretty boys? That it? Mebbe he likes to bring you into the back storage room to take inventory.

Sarah stares at the stranger. She has never been so scared. She wants to scream; she wants to run, but all she can manage is a weak and futile struggle against her bonds.

She has no idea who he is. She can’t believe this is happening. She’s heard stories of the dangers of hitchhiking, terrible stories of rape and assault, but she never thought it could happen to her. This sort of thing always happens to other people. The worst of it-she doesn’t even know how this happened. She’d just gone out to take a piss in the bush after having a little too much to drink and finds herself bound and gagged at the mercy of this mad man.

What is this guy babbling about? And what’s he going to do to me?

Don’t I make you happy, sweetie? Don’t I fulfill your wants and needs? Well, don’t I?’

Sarah mumbles through the gag in her mouth.

‘Oh, sorry, sweetie. Let me help you with that,’ says the man as he bends to remove the gag from Sarah’s mouth.

‘Untie me! Let me go! My boyfriend is looking for me and he’s going to kick your ass when he gets here.’

‘Oh, I don’t think so, but it’s okay, sweetheart. I get it. I’m gettin’ older and I know how a strong young buck could be attractive to a healthy young woman. That’s why I figured to help you stay faithful by eliminatin’ the problem. You won’t be so fussy once I take care of your boyfriend.’

Sarah sees she has to change tactics if she hopes to outwit this deranged hillbilly.

‘I’m sorry, honey. Really. What am I thinking? I couldn’t breath with that handkerchief in my mouth and I guess I got a little lightheaded. You know I love only you. Sure, that stock boy is young and handsome, but who cares where I get my appetite, long as I eat at home.’

‘Sounds like you’re tryin’ to feed lie to me. Give me one good reason why I should believe you.’

‘Well, for one, I came home to be with you. If I really was interested in that boy, I wouldn’t be back here. Would I? Come on. Think about it. Why would I leave a big strong man like you to be with a boy?’

‘Well, first of all, you didn’t come home. I found you in the bush an’ brought you back myself.’

‘Yeah, but I was on my way back, to be with you, sweetie. I don’t know what happened; I must have gotten lost; I don’t remember very much. Maybe it was that kid. He must have followed me from the store. I hope you taught him a lesson.’

‘Not yet, but I’m ’bout to go an’ give him an ass-wuppin’. Teach him to mess with another man’s wife.’

“Good. But you gotta have something to eat first, keep up your strength. Untie me so I can cook you up some supper.’

‘Yeah, I’m starving, matter of fact. Been eating nothin’ but berries and wild mushrooms since you up and disappeared on me.’

‘You poor man. I’m so sorry. Now please untie me. My hands and feet are going numb.’

‘I reckon, but you understand a man has to keep his wife in line. It’s the right thing to do.’

‘I learned my lesson. It won’t happen again. I swear.’

‘That’s that, then. ‘nough said.’

Walking around the chair, he stoops to untie Sarah’s hands. Coming back around, he kneels in front of Sarah to untie the straps around her ankles.

The instant one foot is free, Sarah kicks him in the face with as much force as she can. The man’s nose snaps and blood sprays several feet, including across her shirt. He swears in agony as he goes over on his back, grasping his gushing nose. Sarah quickly frees her other ankle and races for the door.
_________________

Excruciating pain! A bloody splinter of bone protrudes from the pale clammy skin of Adam’s throbbing ankle. He bites down hard on his jacket sleeve to keep from screaming. Both his and Sarah’s lives depend on his silence. From his hiding place under the cabin deck, Adam sees the bushman through the cracks of the old plank floor. A large logger’s axe over his shoulder, the bushman moves slowly, stealthily through the cabin, stocking prey that couldn’t have gotten very far on a broken ankle. The pain is too much! A short grunt escapes Adam’s lips. The bushman’s head spins round and down toward the sound. Peering between the planks, he sees the agonized Adam trembling below. In one motion, he swings the axe from his shoulder and drives the sharp blade through the floor and into the boy’s skull.

Adam jerks from his nightmare, leaping erect in panic. He screams in pain as the foot with the injured ankle contacts the floor. Falling back onto the couch, he tries to collect himself. The pain slowly subsides over several minutes. Despite a splitting headache, he manages to drag himself off the old couch and hobble around the cabin. The log house has one large open area consisting mainly of a kitchen with a table and two chairs, a couch and a stone fireplace on the back wall. The fireplace is bracketed by doors on either side. Adam opens the door on the left to discover a bedroom. In pain, he shuffles past the fireplace to the second door-access to a second bedroom. This one is small and dimly lit, containing a double bed against the far wall. A crib stands next to it. A black woman, obviously dead, lies on the bed, and the crib holds an equally dead white new-born. Both have been decapitated, heads lying at odd angles to the necks.

Before Adam can digest the gruesome scene before him, he hears a noise outside. He hurries to the front door to find Sarah running up the trail towards him. A burly middle-aged man curses as he chases after her. Light-footed and fit, Sarah reaches the cabin steps with the man not twenty meters behind.

‘Quick, get in here,’ shouts Adam.

Slamming the door behind her, Sarah reaches for the lock.

‘No. Leave it!’ says Adam.

‘Really?’ Sarah’s eyes wide as saucers with disbelief.

‘Really,’ answers Adam with a smile, turning to the gun rack

The red and blue lights flashing from the RCMP suburban units illuminate the pine trees surrounding the woodsman’s cabin. Stepping out of the cabin, the detective approaches the Police Chief and Deputy who are leaning against the fourbyfour. The detective glances around the property, shaking his head. He sighs.

‘I swear the isolation in these woods could drive most men crazy.’

‘Damnedest thing,’ replies the Police Chief, ‘Twenty-five years on the force and I’ve never seen anything like this.’

‘Sliced their heads off like he was butchering a deer,’ says the detective.

‘When his wife delivered that white child, he must have lost his mind. That poor woman probably just needed some proper love and affection. God knows Terrel was not known for a caring nature nor sensitivity. He always beat her and treated her like trash. She would show up in town with bruises on her arms and face. When I questioned her about them, she blamed it on a fall she took while checking the trap line or gathering berries along the river.’

‘All things considered, justice is served, I guess. Appears like the remorse for his actions was too much for him and he decided to stick that shotgun in his mouth and end it.’

‘The damnedest thing. That poor woman and child.’

A pick-up truck pulls off the highway and slides to a stop on the gravel shoulder.

‘Thanks for picking us up,’ says Sarah to the driver. ‘We’re heading to Vancouver.’

‘Hop in. I’m heading there myself. It’s your lucky day. I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers.’

‘I can understand that,’ says Adam. ‘These days, you never know what kind of crackpot murdering psychopaths you might run into.’

‘Yeah, a couple of psychos-that’s us,’ repeats Sarah, as she winks at the driver and breaks out laughing.

‘Exactly!’ laughs the driver.

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