The Highway -- 00

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Janet Renfield hated talking on the phone.

With the cellphone in her left hand, she pushed the cup of coffee away from her. On the other side of the bar, a man with a white towel in his hand took the mug, emptied its cold contents into a nearby sink, and then disappeared into the back of the diner. She didn’t watch him go. Instead, she covered her eyes with her free hand, and sighed loudly.
On the other end of the phone, somewhere in Colorado, her ex-husband was going on about the snow, the cold, and how great it was to be out of the hospital.

Great for you, she thought, while at the same time she considered just hanging up on him.

She had been on the phone for more than twenty minutes already, and she didn’t see any sign of the guy giving up. He had always been one to talk, especially when he got nervous, but this was getting out of hand. Janet almost felt bad for him. She hadn’t heard from him in more than a year, but she knew that wasn’t his fault. Not directly, anyway. He hadn’t been allowed to make calls where he had been, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to call him.
Not after the crap he put her through.

In hindsight, it had been stupid of her not to change her phone number, and she felt ridiculous for letting the obvious detail slip by. She had instantly regretted it when she saw his name pop up on the phone’s display.

She should have just ignored it, but instead she’d answered it with a false smugness, and here she was now unable to get him to hang up.

That’ll show you.

“Hold on one sec,” he said through the phone, three states away. Janet heard him mess around with some keys, a car door open and close, and then heavy breathing. As she waited, her mind raced. Again, she considered hanging up on him. She had no reason to be talking to him. There was no way she was going to let him back into her life. He hadn’t just screwed that up for everyone, but he’d completely destroyed any chance of it coming back. He’d been a mess, and he had taken it out on her. She knew that it wasn’t all his fault, because the doctors had told her as such, but it didn’t matter.

She had fallen out of love with him. And, contrary to popular belief, distance didn’t make the heart grow fonder.
“Okay, sorry. So, guess where I’m at?”

Janet couldn’t believe how damned happy he sounded. Chipper, even. Honestly, it was the same sound, the same tone, she remembered from before. Her old life. Their old life. Before he had gone over there and everything got screwed up.

She shook her head. “Where are you?”

“Ou—,” His words disappeared as a loud horn swallowed them up.

“What the hell was that?” she said. She was surprised at the level of genuine worry in her own voice.
Stop it, you crazy bitch. Just stop it right there.

“Sorry about that. Just a semi. Actually, it’s pretty funny,” He laughed, as he reminisced on his own end. “Me an’ this trucker’ve been going back and forth on the roads all day. I pass him, stop to get some gas somewhere, and sure enough I’ll pass him again on the road. Almost makes me wish I had’a walkie talkie or whatever, you know?”

“At least you’d have someone else to talk to.”

“What was that? You cut out.”

“Nothing, don’t worry about it. Well, that’s cool. Sounds like you’ve got company.”

Janet could always tell when he was smiling while they spoke on the phone, and even all these years later she still could. It made her stomach churn. “I’m hoping to get some more company in a few days.”

“What does that mean?”

Again, he laughed. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had heard him laugh like that. There had been other kinds of laughter, the type that she never wanted to hear again for as long as she lived, but this was different. This reminded her of better times with him. The memories began to ebb and flow in her head, resurfacing from pits she had long since forgotten about, and there was nothing she could do to stop them from doing so.

The car door closed from three states away, an engine started. In Janet’s mind, she pictured him bundled up in a large coat, with his only belongings shoved into the backseat, and his backpack in the passenger’s chair. He’d have his phone connected to the car’s audio, and he’d be blaring his loud music to try and stay awake. The road trips were something she missed, perhaps more than anything else. She hadn’t gone on one in so long.

Janet shook her head and pulled the phone away from her ear. She set it down on the counter and stared at it. She knew he was talking again, but she couldn’t do it. She needed a break. Even if she had had a break for more than a year, she needed one now more than ever before. Hearing his voice again. Hearing him laugh. She had never considered it would have this kind of effect on her.

She caught her breath and rallied her nerves. She took the phone in her hand and placed it against her ear, just as he was asking her a question.

“What? I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“Oh, I just asked if that was okay. I . . . I know I screwed up. But I’m okay now.”

The sincerity in his voice was like a punch to the gut. Her breath caught in her throat, and her fingers tightened around the phone. There was a part of her, a part that she had thought she’d gotten rid of so long ago, that wanted to say yes. She didn’t even know the question, but she wanted to say yes. She wanted to tell him to come home, and that everything would be okay. That she was here for him.

But she couldn’t mean any of it. Even if the sound of his voice had brought back the memories she had thought she lost, and his laughter brought a spark of joy unlike any she had experienced in years, none of it mattered. It couldn’t matter. She wouldn’t put herself through that again. She wouldn’t survive it this time.

Of that, she was absolutely sure.

The guy on the other side of the counter returned with another cup of coffee, and he set it down in front of Janet without a word. When she looked up, he had already turned away and disappeared into the depths of the diner.
“I don’t know,” she finally said. “I need time, Eric. I need to figure this out.”

“I get that, babe. I do. I . . . I just want to come home. Can I do that?”

Janet shook her head. Without warning, she felt tears trace down her cheeks.

Stop it.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Not yet.”

“So, you’re saying there’s a chance?”

She could sense the smile again. It made her stomach flop, but she knew it wasn’t in an entirely bad way this time. He was joking with her. Everything he was doing reminded her of better times. The times she had been happy. Happy with him, and their life.

It hadn’t been that long ago, had it? Was it possible he really was fixed? Finally better?

Was he finally himself again?

That glimmer of hope was all she had ever wanted, back when everything was coming apart. The love she felt for him, had felt for him, had been so perfect. It had encompassed everything about her. But, she’d been without it for so long, and had it stripped from her so violently and unexpectedly, that she had never thought she’d get it back.

The emotions that Janet had tried to bury so long ago suddenly broke free and crashed down upon her like a tidal wave. As she started to cry, she nodded at the same time, and kept repeating the same word.


“Oh shi—!”

A silence filled the earpiece on Janet’s phone. It wasn’t simply a lack of sound, but more like the essence of sound had simply been absorbed and dismantled. It lasted for only a heartbeat’s stretch, but it felt like forever.

When it all came crashing back, Janet could hear screeching tires, a string of expletives that sounded further away than just three states, and then something heavy colliding with something heavier.

The silence returned, even as Janet repeated Eric’s name, through the tears that fell into her mouth.

Created: Feb 22, 2014

Tags: story, fiction

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