The signs and their portents whip by, smears of colour. They say things like “Come Back Baby, Population: Zero” and “I Promise Not To Do It Again, Next Exit” and “I Love You So Much I Can’t Help Myself, Next 4 Miles.” They can’t tell me where I’m going. Not anymore. And so they shake with the fury of my passing.
At the side of the road are the women on the edge of tomorrow’s forecast. The first one is well out of town, a long way from anywhere. It’s hard to miss a unicorn thumbing a ride, all white glow and candy twirl horn.
That’s my danger pay on this road to anywhere, anyhow. We have each other to look after now.
I slow down and they trot up to the passenger side.
“How far you going?” says she with a toss of her rainbow mane, other cars pinging by, stinging us with their looks.
“How far you want to go?” asks I back. And that’s it, she’s in.
Without baggage, the unicorn squeezes up front. There’s plenty of space to dangle from the broken trinket chain hanging off the rearview mirror. She’s comfortable so there’s plenty of space for us both.
I’m not afraid of her razor hooves or horn, but I am afraid to talk for the first few miles, in case she’s as unreal as my running away. No, I can’t run on these feet.
I need a presence to validate my speed limit, even if it is a pretty key chain, a rabbit’s foot.
But she’s very much not roadkill or taxidermy.
The unicorn finally introduces herself as Bruce, and asks if it’s okay to smoke. Considering the age of our relationship and the thickness of the rollie she’s holding, I tell her that maybe now is not the time. She accepts this with good grace and stashes the blunt behind her ear, tucked like one of the many bobbles in her mane.
Bruce says she likes my shoes with a lick of her lips. Despite their ache, I curl my toes deep into the purple leather. They’re that shade that changes colour when the light strikes them in a certain way. Purple. Black. Bruise. Night. My pony hooves, shod with nails of delight and deceit.
I’m in like with Bruce because she takes one look at the single limp plastic bag of clothes in the back seat and only asks where, nothing else. She even gives me a bit of gas money when I stop for a fill up and hard mints (they don’t melt in the glove box). The counter guy glances out the window more than once at Bruce, but he says nothing about the unicorn popping gum and playing Angry Birds on her phone in my front seat. Bless him.
Bruce saves me from awkward talk after I run out of as much truth as I can handle by pretending to sleep for a couple hours. Coulda gone by her stop and I wouldn’t know. When she snortles awake, the horizon is halfway to peeling a blood orange and sucking the juice dry from the husk of day.
That last too much? I never was one for words, even ones that could save a life, save a face.
I can’t tell one building from the other, but Bruce decides she knows this place, and someone who could put us up for the night. I protest: I’m not that kind of gal.
I’m not that kind of gal for road trips and abandoning things, but here I am.
Bruce brushes off my concern with a flip of her mane and an elvish curse, so I let her navigate me through unfamiliar territory where I would never have found an appropriate hotel. And it would have been a hotel, just not that five star type, mind. Just enough service, not too much.
We roll to a stop in an achingly green street, paved with the skin of leprechauns and backwash of five o’clock cocktails until one sees the trees for the leaves. Bruce slams the car door and trit-trots up the front door, hoof on the doorbell for longer than necessary.
A jet-black glossy mare with a pink mane, sparkle hooves, and a twisty horn that matches her smile answers and embraces her cousin. Bruce does the introductions and Barry lets me in without hesitation, telling me rides for hitching unicorns with stones in their hoofs are like spun gold. I compliment my passenger; Bruce didn’t shit once on the upholstery.
Barry gives my garb a once over with a lick of her lips. Dear lord, she likes the shoes too. She frowns at their colour, makes a comment about redying them.
No thank you.
We’re offered icy cold beers. I’ve never drunk beer before but I try not to show it. Bruce tells me I’m lucky; Barry doesn’t break out her homebrews for just anyone.
The beer numbs the pain in the ever-stiff ankles, evens things out for a while.
I know it can’t last. I’m a wuss for anything much stronger.
Bruce and Barry take me to one of those underground strip clubs I’ve never been able to find. Bruce informs me that it’s all about knowing the right people, and I don’t argue.
The guys up on stage are mostly elves but I don’t know that until Bruce points it out. I stuff their thongs with twenty dollar bills I don’t really have.
But what else am I going to spend my money on, other than gas, food, and lodging?
King of the road. Wait, no . . . Queen. Follow the yellow etc.
* * *
Bruce and Barry wave me off the next morning with warnings about the vampires. When I look at the sun, they just laugh.
Sure enough, there are vampires hitching rides, waiting in the shade of motorway signs. A few werewolves too.
I stop for one of the werewolves. She sinks into the passenger seat with a sigh, toothy jaw clenched tight as I shower dust on the petulant pack farewelling us with rude gestures.
“Thanks,” says she. “That was getting tense.”
’Twas nothing, I shrug it off.
Her name is Princess. Not Princess This or That, just Princess. “You can call me Prin,” she finishes, tonguing her eyeteeth. It’s hard not to look, and her smile gets bigger. Thank god she doesn’t grin. I’ve never liked or trusted grinners.
Prin assures me she’s not hungry, though she’s taken a liking to my shoes. The red raw of my heel starts to weep, the blood pooling under the instep where she can’t see.
Prin scowls, red tongue poking out a little bit like a cat caught in the act of licking its butt. She asks what I’m doing On The Road in a polyester suit with shoes like that. They’re not my best shoes, I admit, but they go with everything.
“I don’t know,” replies I.
“That’s an answer as good as any,” replies she.
She proceeds to instruct me on how to talk on the road, eliminating qualifiers and softening filters from my language, or I’ll be gobbled up, snap, just like that. I do my best to scowl and swivel my ears like her. She tells me not to believe everything I’m told on the road, and I believe that too.
“Should I be afraid of you?” asks I over plastic bowls of salad later in the day, her shout. “Being a wolf and all.”
“Only if it suits,” replies she, mesclun like green blood speared on her incisors.
“That’s as good an answer as any,” replies I. “I’ll keep you informed.”
We stop at viewpoints, bicker over the radio, count roadkill. Even when we skip over a town in favour of the next one well after sundown, I tell her I’m having a great time.
And the funny thing is I believe this too.
Her grandmother in that next town over is just as much a riot, and welcomes me with open paws. Grandma is badass. She teaches me how to knit and bake the best red current shortcake, tweak an electric fence, load a shotgun, and troll internet forums.
I sleep like a baby that night, once we’re done with a bottle of the good Scotch whisky.
Grandma has to teach me how to drink that, too.
* * *
And so it goes. I pick up a veritable cryptozoology along the way, my way, the high way. There’s always a story, none better than the rest, other than mine.
We never spend more than a day and night together eating tarmac, these women and I. Some of them aren’t women, but none of them are men either. They always clean up the car after themselves, a hitcher’s code of conduct.
There’s the rude griffon, who drags it out of me that there’s nothing left behind, but not exactly what that nothing is. I bear the griffon with the patience I’ve had drummed into me, but she doesn’t last. At a pit stop she disappears into the toilets and never comes out. When I go looking for her the ladies’ room is empty. I leave quickly, not wanting to test my luck.
The snapping tortoise doesn’t live up to her name, and gives me tips on how to pick my passengers carefully. She tells me mermaids are the best for luck, but I laugh, an ugly sound, and tell her I don’t believe in luck.
The tortoise, Shelby, eyes my plastic bag of worldly things and nods as if she wants to believe what I’m saying. Leaving doesn’t work like they do it in the stories, those road trips, she says. No one talks about money.
Gravity doesn’t work like that, I reply. It’ll be a slow crash. I’ll see it coming, brake with both feet slammed to the floor, by instinct.
A wendigo, whose name I could never get straight because they never said it or gave it the same way twice, taught me how to steal. I didn’t intend to follow their lead, but before I knew it we would have left a gas station or diner without having paid.
I wasn’t happy with these sorts of lessons, but the wendigo was right about one thing: I had to be prepared in case I didn’t reach the end of my journey before I was ready. “Roadblocks have a habit of happening,” said she.
The wendigo respected my hooves enough that they made no attempt at taking my shoes. Nevertheless, I slept in them. I’m used to that, the throbbing pressure around my twisted little toes.
And then there was the rain frog, who did little but bring precipitation upon our flight, obscuring the windows of my little car so that the rest of the world could not look or listen in. We spoke of bodies that betrayed, and I let her do all the crying. A crying frog makes it rain harder.
* * *
My favourite passenger is a dragon, waiting beneath a billboard advertising moisturizer.
She out of all of them says nothing about my shoes. She’s more interested in what’s behind my eyes.
Her name is Boh, which is short for something that would take too much candlelight and guttural spit to fully recite. And to know a dragon’s full name is to know all their secrets, and no one should know all the secrets of our lizard queens.
She is the only one to truthfully ask my name. All my other passengers had a passing interest, but she of the green-gold scales and black-black eyes does not take my answer for an answer.
I pick her up on the morning side of a gaudy bauble city where I had no choice but to rest amongst the ash and glitter of five shooting stars. A zombie named Renn has just finished showing me the ugly night delights and pretty gore, and at her insistence I have stolen the hotel towels. I’m wrestling with this indigestion when Boh looms out of the shimmer already hinting at a fruitful day of leading the thirsty awry.
The dragon sits with her head askew against the roof, which lends her conversation a quizzical touch.
Boh chews my name between her golden teeth as I suck a hard mint to dispel the previous night’s rank pleasures. She takes it out twice to lick it over with her oily tongue and test it like precious mettle against her back molars.
“What do you do with such a thing?” asks she, running a thin rivulet of flame over the name in a last-ditch effort to make it well meant. When it refuses to give up secrets I hadn’t even imagined it possesses, Boh rescinds with a shrug and a sulphurous belch, swallowing it whole.
“Whatever is necessary,” replies I, eyes on the painted road, stripes gaze back, eye after eye, I and I.
“I’ve heard of creatures like you, but until now I’ve never seen one.” Boh isn’t as delighted as one would expect. “Even the unicorns have nothing on you.”
My eyebrows knit together like one of Grandma Wolf’s toothed wounds. “I’ve always thought I was quite human.”
Boh weaves a half-smile out of rapiers and wit. “Oh, there’s human in you. But you’re part Shadow too. Maybe on the edge of turning full Shadow. But that’s the trick with them; you can never really know until the end. And even then when it’s full dark, even the merest hint of light can banish the illusions. You’re the proverbial cat in the box, my dear, a true Schrödinger.”
It mostly sounds like nonsense to me, and I tell her so.
Boh’s mouth makes a deplorable creaking sound as her smile—no, not grin, thank the saints—fleshes itself out. “Haven’t you ever wondered where your shadow goes when it’s not in use?” She pokes one of her tines into the fleshy part of my upper left breast, ever so gently. “It’s in there somewhere.”
I’ve never thought about it quite like that. I’ve never thought about it at all. I tell her that too.
“See?” says she. “But don’t worry. I won’t say ‘I told you so.’ That’s just mean.”
A pressure sits at about breast height, where she poked me. Good god, is that what a laugh feels like? “What will be helpful?”
Boh looks me over, squinting until I’m out of focus. All the better to see your Shadow, my dear?
Finally, says she: “Let me know when you’re hungry.”
It’s not a threat, at least one I’ve ever heard.
Hey, I thought I was in control of this car.
But nothing is ever neat on the road. Boh is staring at me as I play with all these decanted words heavy in my head. She nods slowly, like I’m saying something. Anything.
She waits. Her patience almost brings a tear to my eye. I look away, but the road shimmer is empty of distraction, empty of anything but the thin line leading ahead, ever ahead, don’t stop. She’s all I’ve got.
“I’m hungry now,” says I.
One moment we’re on a silky blacktop, the flat dry on either side, stretching empty and waiting in all directions, including up. The next, the tyres clitter and fumble into a shoulder attached to a head rattling full of trucks, a diner its single ear. I don’t bother asking Boh for the story of how it lost the other. We don’t have that sort of time. A neon sign sputters a tune only the insects can dance to.
Mine is the only car in a sea of eighteen-wheelers, but my sedan bears the insult well. The trucks make space, just enough and no more. There is enough shadow to worry even Boh, but she makes no mention of it, holding her scaled body straight and true. If she had been wearing a belt, she would have hooked her thumbs in it, so much did she saunter through those diner doors.
No one looks at the dragon, but certainly many creased and heavy stones turn on me. Ants scuttle out from under all those rocks and set my skin to itching, and I can’t help fixing the collar of my shirt, doing up another button. I should have changed. Boh should have told me to change, but this isn’t her story to tell.
I decide counter stools are the safest bet, though I’ve never been able to negotiate bar stools very well. I need my feet on the ground and back against the wall. The red vinyl is slippery with decades of backsides, and I squirm against their leering memory. The countertop is stabbed with pockmarks.
There are vampires in the darkest corner, but they know better than to stare. They leave Boh well enough alone, and I have Prin’s scent on me still.
The lights are an aching level of lux. It bars the night from the doors. It’s always night in these places, isn’t it?
The waitress snaps gum and skates menus across the counter at us like a theme park animatronic, all big lips and cheeks rouged underneath.
“What’ll it be, fellas?” says she.
I adjust my skirt, but it’s already sitting too tight against my buttocks and not tight enough around my knees. “Tea, please,” says I.
The waitress raises an eyebrow that only exists on the end of a blunt pencil, and someone mutters at the other end of the counter.
Boh wants coffee.
I want more of Boh’s road stories but the light quashes the sound around us. Cutlery crashes, mucus rattles, and an old jukebox wheezes unsafe tunes, but we’re allowed none of it. We must sit and wait quietly for our food to come once we’ve whispered our order to the waitress, whose nametag declares her as ‘Lil.’
Rock eyes picking up no moss rest upon our shoulders. Boh says nothing. Or maybe she does, and I just can’t hear her above the silence.
The diner fare is decent, the tea thick and hot. I look from the old TV screen chained to the wall, to the dusty blackboard specials, to the gouged lino, to the restroom doors near our end of the counter that swing far too often for my liking. It’s so familiar, I could be anywhere.
I never eat in diners. They know this.
And then, eyes on the TV set to a news channel—a cacophony of faces—a wave of déjà vu washes me cold. My shoes almost fall off as they teeter on the scuffed heel plate of the stool, revealing the matching purple stain on the skin. I know, cheap leather.
“Didn’t something happen here?” says I, just loud enough. Lil scowls and the grey rag, her sword, she’s been swirling in the direction of the counter stills beneath her red-red nails.
“You kids always ask that,” says she, wringing the neck of the rag.
I want to tell her I’m no kid, but the noise outside of us tightens our bubble more. I guess any woman would look like a kid to her, if it suited.
I’m about to apologize, then remember Prin.
Lil flaps her grey flag of truce. “Apparently we’re world famous for something. I say it’s the food. But we get the creeps in often enough, looking for ghosts.” She snorts, flinching an upnod at the vampires in the corner. “Like those guys.”
Her concrete sweetness sets like burned sugar in the cracks of the counter. She knows nothing of creeps and ghosts and vampires, not really. At least, not here.
Boh nudges me, and I fork up another taste of my blackberry apple pie. “Yeah, how many went missing around here?”
Lil stares, smiling, everywoman mask stiff. “What do you mean, honey?”
I don’t like being called honey, but I don’t say that either. “How many people went missing.”
Lil shakes her head, still smiling.
“The girls,” mutters Boh, not loud enough, and I have to repeat it.
“The girls. Who . . . went missing.” I can’t say it even now. “The hitchhikers. Six or seven of them perhaps. They were found in the creek down the back of this place.”
Lil looks from table to table, but no one cares for her attention. The vampires are watching the TV, bored now.
Lil picks up the coffeepot, her shield, and prepares to make an unnecessary round. “I don’t know who you mean, honey.”
A trucker leers and slaps her bottom when she passes. I want to glare at him, but I don’t dare. I let Boh do it instead.
I can’t finish my pie. The ice cream sits too cold behind my eyes. I pay, pretending my funds aren’t running low, leaving a far too generous tip for Lil. I hope she can hide it quickly, that the avalanche eyes around here are slowed by their satiation.
The vampires want to leave first, must. I step aside quickly. They don’t even have time to sneer at a girl holding open a door. They slither through and ooze away in their beat up Combi. Strange choice of transport for vampires, but whatever gets them away from here.
My feet and Boh’s claws are too loud on the gravel outside the diner, but thankfully the noise is all our own. Boh mutters something about “shut down,” but when I look back her eyes have lost their glint, and I can’t ascertain the direction of their stare. I do my best to ignore it, as I have done well to ignore all breathy imprecations since . . . forever.
We find my sedan cowering in the shadows. Ten ghosts sit on the hood and roof, waiting for us, wanting a lift.
Ten. They all frown at my feet, and I shrink a little further into my baggy clothes.
Somehow we fit them all in. It helps that a few of them are missing limbs. One crouches in the back window, her head as loose as one of those nodding dogs.
Boh puts us back on the blacktop, and it is daytime again. We share the comfort of the white noise for a long time after that.
* * *
The last hitcher I pick up is a mermaid.
I’m only a couple hundred kilometres from the coast. I pretend I can smell it, a great wet suffocating magnet stuffing itself down my throat. Not even the hard mints can dispel the promise of mud upon my tongue.
The mermaid sits on a stack of tyres which gleam like liquorice in the heat. She flicks her copper pot tail in an obscene gesture for every car that speeds by. She’s gorgeously fat, brown skin like warm canvas over her rolls, moonlight Rubenesque.
I’m next in line. She sticks out her thumb, two-inch nails curving suggestively against her wrists, and flicks ropes of hair so long and black I can’t tell where they end and the tyres begin.
I pull up, buzz down the window and ask the inevitable question. Her hint of pearl teeth and droop of fly-wing lashes are reply enough.
“I’m LaFel,” says she without preamble once she’s ensconced in the front passenger seat. “Just aim straight and true and you’ll get me there.”
I offer her my name, still moist from Boh’s belly, upon request. She accepts it with good grace. I tell her it does in a pinch, and I know pinches well.
“Be grateful you don’t have mine,” says she, rearranging her carpet of hair, braiding here and there as the car reaches white noise. She launches into the tatty story with a practised lilt.
She patiently waits for me to laugh and I do so to humour the flow of her story, though I’m more sad than tickled. She doesn’t need or want my pity, so we leave the burst of laughter on the side of the road some ways back, staring after the dissipating cloud from the arse of the car.
Her father, LaFel explains, named her when her mother, the fish, gallantly passed on the naming duties. Mother had wheezed out her favourite joke: ‘Call her anything,’ said Mother, ‘just not late for lunch.’
Father, being of the coyote persuasion, had done just that, and forever Late For Lunch she was.
“You’re part coyote?” observe I.
“Not if I can help it.”
I try on humour for size, but my laughter gets left on the side of the road, staring after the car, perplexed.
She knows an awful lot about seafood restaurants, and I allow her to regale me with stories about lobster liberation and cosmetic shark fin restoration. She makes me promise not to eat salmon ever again; seeing no bear in me, she is satisfied by my answer.
It is only a few short hours until we reach the ocean. We sit in a beach car park, eating fish and chips from steamy newspaper, fingers greasy, the roofs of our mouths whipped to shreds by the heat and salt.
We pick at our teeth with the bones, and I tongue the strips of skin off my gums and cheek.
“So here we are,” says LaFel, rubbing fat into her skin until she smells just as delicious as dinner.
“So here we are,” repeats I.
I follow LaFel out onto the sand, locking up the car carefully. She sits at the edge of the water for a while, playing with the tide until it’s happy, nipping at her tail fins.
I look out over the grey water, eyes shaded because that’s what you do by the water even when the sun is indisposed. Then I look back at the road. I can only see the last few metres I have come.
I take off my purple-black shoes and wiggle my toes into the sand. It’s a lot colder than I expect. It soothes the blisters and burns. The bruises are fading to yellow by now, a jaundiced sunset.
Before LaFel has the chance to clear her throat, the ocean churns a ways off the beach; far enough we don’t feel its invective, but close enough that the tentacles can’t be missed. LaFel waves back at the green-black beast dusted with seaweed and precious jewels, and a mournful groan shivers the salt and sand.
LaFel looks from the shoes in my hand to the beast.
She smiles. She waits.
Waiting for what? The sun to show itself perhaps, or a shout? But no sign offers itself.
One more glance at my slowly healing feet.
I sacrifice my leather shoes to the Kraken. The beast catches them, one two, slurping them whole, one two, into its circular toothy maw.
Gone. So easily, so hard.
With a wave much like a salute, the Kraken sinks beneath the waves.
LaFel also slips into the water. “Why don’t you come with me? Mermaid populations are slipping. Something about sailor’s calls, so I hear. We can always do with fresh blood.”
She says nothing about luck, and I am grateful for that.
And then she’s gone, without waiting for my reply.
Keys jangle loose in my hand as I put the car between me and the road. I pull my comfortable sneakers onto my still very much dual feet. I stare at the water long enough that the windows steam up.
The car starts again, and the windows defog.
Unicorn, werewolf, dragon. I may have made friends, but I can’t rightly tell. Friends; the word is empty of air until I blow gently across the top of it.
The tyres make an altogether different crunch on sand. Once I hit the wetter sand I take it slow, driving up and down the beach, avoiding hematoma sand castles, and the teeth and fingernails of broken bottles and shells.
I check I have enough gas.
All signs point to Yes.
The car hits the water, slowly at first. The bow wave is ugly, but once I’m up to speed, there’s little splash at all.
A graduate of Clarion 2014, AJ Fitzwater has been published in venues like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lethe Press’s Heiresses of Russ 2014, Wily Writers, and previously in the January 2014 edition of Betwixt. They are the human-suit-wearing dragon of a solar-powered cat, existing in between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Random pontifications can be found on Twitter at @AJFitzwater.