Christie stopped. Her hands locked on the steering wheel, like they had been for the past few hours.
Though she felt so achy, a fatigue deeper than anything she had even felt before, her eyes were open wide, her breathing fast.
She kept staring at the gate ahead, linked to the twelve-foot fence that cut off the Northway from the rural mountainous Adirondacks it cut through.
She thought: Where is he?
The goddamn guard. To let us in, open the goddamn—
Kate. Her voice quiet, hollow. Because she didn’t want to awaken her brother? Or because that was the only voice she had now, could possibly ever have after the night they had been through?
After everything that happened.
Christie struggled to push that thought away. With all its images of the events of the past day.
What had happened. What had been lost. What was now changed for them forever.
“Mom. What’s wrong?”
Christie wanted to turn back to her, turn to her daughter and answer.
But she didn’t trust herself to do that. Not to look into those eyes now. Not when eventually there’d be so many questions, and such terrible answers.
Christie told herself … I can’t look at her right now.
Can’t risk that I’ll start crying again.
Not for the first time this night … she ordered herself to hold it together.
As if by merely thinking the words would have some effect.
“Kate, I don’t know. There should be someone here. To let us in.”
Christie nodded as she said this. A perfectly sensible sentence. Said in a steady, rational voice. A reassuring voice, she hoped, even though something seemed wrong here.
And if there was something she knew now … when something seemed wrong, it most certainly could be wrong in ways that defied human imagination.
“Then…” Kate started, a hesitation, maybe thinking she shouldn’t ask any questions. Not now. Not yet.
“Where’s the guard? Why is there no one here?” Kate’s voice had lost some of the sleepy hollowness, raising just a notch in volume, tone. Concern. After what they’d been through, Kate had every reason to be worried at every moment, at everything.
After all …
After all …
It wasn’t too long ago that both kids had been screaming, that there was so much gunfire, and blood, when even Kate had to shoot a gun.
Her sweet girl, her firstborn, forced to shoot, to actually kill one of them and then watch it fall dead at her feet.
She can never be the same, Christie thought.
“Maybe he’s asleep. Maybe—I dunno, Kate … maybe I should blow the horn.”
“No,” Kate said. Then: “Don’t make noise. It’s still dark.”
Christie nodded, suddenly aware of the stupidity of her idea and of the newfound wisdom of her daughter.
A wisdom born of terror and loss.
She looked in the rearview mirror. She couldn’t see Kate in it, but she did see the shadow of Simon’s face, no pools of reflected light coming from his eyes still—thankfully—shut tight.
Then, with the car horn removed from the options, Kate said: “What are we going to do?”
That’s it now, isn’t it? We. Because we’re in this together.
“Maybe—just wait a bit.”
But again, as the words escaped, Christie immediately knew that that was a bad idea. To sit here, like bait. Waiting until something noticed and came to investigate.
No—sooner or later—she’d have to do something.
Please, she begged something, somewhere.
For what seemed like eternal moments, she sat there, hands feebly locked on the steering wheel, both she and Kate silent, with only the sound of the car’s motor, this car that wasn’t theirs, the hum unfamiliar.
A car the belonged to a family now dead.
Another thought to be pushed away.
And then—from within the white light of the booth of the gate, a head popped up, slowly, eyes easily as wide as Christie’s, the head rising like a human periscope.
As if it might have to duck a bullet. Or a rock.
Until the man inside was fully standing.
The man who controlled the fence.
Standing there, looking at Christie, the car.
C’mon, she thought.
Open the gate.
For the moment, the man did nothing.
* * *
The man kept staring at Christie as if he could stare at her long enough and make her drive away.
Christie looked down to the headlight controls, and gave it a pull, flashing the light. Then again and again, and now the man looked away. She watched him look around. The sky beginning to brighten to the east, still a deep purple darkness to the west.
A thought came to Christie, one she wished she hadn’t had.
Something happened. Something happened here; the man saw something and now—God—now he’s scared.
Maybe I should ram the gate. Just floor the goddamn accelerator and blow right through the gate.
But was that even possible?
Then finally the man turned to the door of the small booth beside the gate. He walked out, his head still looking around. Christie had the car heater on, but she could see from the condensation on the front and back windows that it was chilly out. Fall comes early to the mountains.
The man’s expression didn’t change as he walked up to the car window. Christie hit a button and the driver’s side window slid all the way down. The cool air rushed into the car as if eager to escape the outside.
It seemed as though the gatekeeper, wearing his Highway Authority shirt and faded jeans, was waiting for her to begin the conversation.
“Can you … open the gate?”
She resisted the temptation to say goddamned, or fucking, or some other word that would put emphasis on her desire to get the hell off this country road and onto the safe highway.
Another thought … safe highway?
Safer maybe. But safe?
The man licked his lips. Another darting glance left and right.
“I need to see your papers.” His voice cracked as though he hadn’t said any words for a long time. He cleared his throat, and squinted.
Bundle of nerves.
Christie opened her mouth.
She hadn’t thought about the papers. They were in their car. With Jack. Forgotten.
Jack, who always thinks of everything. Somehow, in his plan to get them out of Paterville Camp, he forgot.
And he thinks of everything. How could—
He thought of everything …
When he was alive.
The papers permitting them to use the highway, with their approval to travel the protected highway from their home in Staten Island to the mountain resort of Paterville, were—were—
And Christie immediately felt a jab of fear.
Not having those papers … it could be a bad thing.
“I’m sorry. But we seem to have lost them. I can show—”
The man had already started shaking his head. In a moment, she was sure, he would start back for the booth, and Christie would be stuck there, waiting.
He allowed a few more words to escape his mouth.
“You need to have the papers. Can’t let you on the highway without—”
“Listen,” Christie said, cutting him off but also attempting to reach his wrist, for a pat, or perhaps to hold him there so he didn’t scurry back to the booth.
“I told you—we did have them. You can check. You still have computers, don’t you? You can—”
More head shakes. “They’ve been down. Hours. Something wrong. Downstate.”
“Right. But if you could check, I mean—”
Christie fumbled in her small blue rucksack that served as a purse for the paperwork for this trip, this supposed vacation.
She dug out her crimson wallet, now filled with mostly useless cards from companies that didn’t exist or banks that had vanished.
Gotta prune it, she told herself so many times but never did.
Like that world would never come back.
She went to the side pocket and pulled out her driver’s license. She quickly extended it to the man.
“Look. You can see. We—”
Christie nodded her head in the direction of her two kids in the back.
On cue, Kate said, “Mom? Mom, what’s wrong?”
Such good timing, Christie thought. Kate to the rescue.
We’re in this together. She knows that. The two of us. Can’t expect Simon to understand, to do anything. We’ll have to watch out for him, protect him.
The man hadn’t taken the license.
“Go on. Please. Take a look.” Still no snatch of the ID. Only the man’s turkey neck, turning left and right and left again.
Guy’s so damn scared standing out here.
Another lick of the lips. The man took the license.
He looked at it, too quickly, Christie thought, to take in the address … the location … Staten Island.
He handed the ID back, taking care not to get too close to the open window.
Is he afraid I’m going to grab him, pull him into the car?
Is that the world we live in now?
“You see. Staten Island, says it right there. And, and—” She fought to stay in control. So many times driving here she was so close to losing it. To begin sobbing, howling, the tears erupting.
And she had to tell herself—order herself—to hold it together. For Kate, for Simon, for sanity, for survival.
Finally—because it’s what Jack would have wanted.
It’s why he did … what he did.
In those moments after she knew Jack was gone, she had sobbed quietly at first, while the kids slept, then letting the grief come in waves, feeling as if her mourning would never end.
Now this first barrier, this first test …
To hold it together.
She looked up at the man as she took her license. “We’ve been through a lot. It’s been a bad night, back there.”
“I heard things happened,” the man said.
Was it just hell in the Paterville Camp tonight, or—like the trees turning a fiery orange, back when there used to be so many more deciduous trees—was the madness they faced in the camp spreading?
“We were nearly killed. And I have to get my … babies … home. You can understand that, can’t you?”
The man appeared unmoved. Jack had always said how important it was to have the right papers.
Then: “Okay. Since I can’t check. Since you have that there license.” He took a breath. “You look scared, lady.”
So do you, Christie thought.
Another turret head look around.
“I have to open the gate by hand. Got power in my booth but not the fence, not the gate.”
Now it was Christie’s turn to take a breath.
“That means the electric fence…”
The man nodded.
Christie felt her stomach drop.
“How far? I mean, how far down is the fence off?”
The man shook his head. “Dunno. So—be careful.”
He walked back to the booth, passing through it to a back door that led to the other side of the fence. He attached an iron bar to something that, in the scant light, looked like a kind of gear mechanism.
He began cranking, and the gate sluggishly began sliding to the right.
The cranks and car engine the only sounds in the chilly near-dawn.
Until Christie hit a button and the window rolled up.
And when just enough space had opened for her to get through, she hit the accelerator and flew past the man, still hunched over the crank, but already turning it in the other direction.
And she thought:
We’re that much closer to home.
Copyright © 2012 by Mathew Costello