Jen bought a 1982 Plymouth Horizon for four hundred dollars just before they graduated high school, so if she and Petra wanted to get into town for the Bino’s—open twenty-four hours—to eat fries and pale, oily gravy, or drink the bitter black coffee of three a.m., it was Jen who drove. Petra rode shotgun, watching the highway unfold, and refold, and unfold again as it wound through clear-cuts. Sometimes they had a place to be, a pit party, or a dozen people meeting up at a doughnut shop on the highway. A lot of the time, though, it was just the two of them, driving four hours to an empty beach on the Pacific coast of the island, arriving in darkness so absolute they couldn’t see the waves, only hear their roar at low tide, sitting under the starless, overcast sky until the sun rose.
Mostly they took Highway 18 into town, running from the island’s coastal valley to its interior mountains. Everyone else did, too, as though at one end or the other something might happen, and if you missed it you would miss the only thing that had ever happened or would ever happen on the island.
Anyway, after Jen bought the Plymouth they often found themselves in town, driving through well-lit and desolate streets to the 7-Eleven, where they would buy Orange Crush and gummy sours. Their only company a few kids squatting in the parking lot under lights that turned their acne scars purple and glazed the concrete a brassy gold, all these kids with blue freezie-stained mouths.
Petra often thought about Highway 18, and about how it spilled from the empty stretches, unlit, into the parking lot, the kids, the Bino’s. While Jen chatted with another long-haired boy, Petra walked through the cars to the highway and watched the trucks full of logs so enormous it was hard to believe they grew that way as they barreled through town like it wasn’t a place, just an interruption on the long peregrinations lumber takes from hillsides to sawmills and freighters and then out across the Pacific.
The kids in the 7-Eleven parking lot knew everything that happened from one end of the highway to the other. They knew, for example, about the last girl who’d been found—the one in the ditch beside the Petro-Can.
“Be careful, man,” he said, a kid Petra had known in tenth grade, “you know how ghosts like highways. Watch out for hitchhikers.”
“Ghostly hitchhikers?” she asked, watching Jen and her Jesus-haired boy.
“Yeah, man! They’re all over. I talked to a truck driver and he told me about this girl he picked up north of Port Alice, and she told him shit. I won’t even fucking repeat it. She told him what’s going to go down in like the year 2000. And when they got to the bus station in Nanaimo, he pulled over and she was gone. Like bam. Gone.”
“Have you ever seen her?”
“Maybe? Like. I thought I did once, but I didn’t pick her up. But if I get a chance again, I’ll pick her up and ask her all sorts of shit about what’s coming.”
After she talked to the kid in the parking lot, Petra began to watch for hitchhikers. She knew the types: northbound tree-planters; a man and his toddler Petra saw on Monday mornings; guys on their way in to work or back home again. There were kids from the university headed for the beaches on the west coast.
It wasn’t until a few weeks after the 7-Eleven parking lot that she began to see—or think she saw—the other sort of hitchhiker. The first time, it was just a thin girl in ten o’clock summer twilight or the very early morning. This kind might only appear as a silhouette, a girl who disappeared as one glanced down to adjust the radio.
But then Petra saw her on a long straight, when they were driving behind a truck. She knew that in the cab of the truck, a man—she was sure, always, that it was a man—had seen the girl as well.
The truck stopped. As they passed, the girl had reached the passenger door and was illuminated by the interior light, and though Petra looked back to see her face, she saw only her dark hair and the driver’s silhouette in the cab. The sight was so familiar, Petra wondered if it happened every time they drove that road, every time they saw a girl stick out her thumb to get a little further down the highway.
Her mouth was dry when she finally asked Jen, “Does it feel weird, to you?”
“That girl back there.”
“It’s not weird, it’s stupid. Remember what happened to Nicki?”
And then the thin whine of stretched magnetic tape interrupted Jen as she was about to mention, say, the girl they found in the ditch by the Petro-Can, and talk about how they should all know better.
Of course Petra hitchhiked, too, everyone did even if they never talked about it. The bus only ran twice daily. You didn’t have a car. It was different on an island anyway, you all knew each other, though she was rarely picked up by anyone she knew, which meant her parents didn’t have to hear about it. Things happen, of course, but when don’t they? Girls are lost, then they’re found again, and that’s often worse than thinking they’ve disappeared somewhere, into the city maybe.
The last time she hitchhiked was at the end of a long day on the river in the July before she left town for university. She was supposed to get a ride with someone’s cousin, but they wanted to stay so Petra started walking back to town. She still had fifteen km to go—and was at least ten from a payphone—when she decided to push her ratty, river-tangled hair behind her ears and stick her thumb out into the empty road.
A huge beige car emerged from one of the driveways in the subdivision past which she walked, just right there, like he’d been watching for her.
He unlocked the door and she asked, “Where are you headed?”
“Just returning some tapes to the video place on Festubert, that good enough?”
They chatted about one of the tapes he’d rented. The Thing. There was one part with a defibrillato, where the man’s chest opening up and the doctor shoving his hands right up inside the body. But that monster—it bit his hands off and swallowed them and then turned into something new and then something else new. He laughed. He said it again, about the doctor’s hands plunged inside the man up to his wrists and bitten right off.
Then, halfway into town he asked, “Are you working?” And Petra said no, she was going away to school in September, so she wasn’t even sure if it was worth looking, though last summer she’d got a job at an ice cream place. That had been okay.
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed. “I was looking for a girl.”
“Yeah,” Petra said. “Ha-ha.”
Ten minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot of the Video Pantry. She picked up his three VHS tapes and reached for the door. It locked under her hand.
She pulled on the handle.
“You want to go have coffee?”
“No, no thanks. Ha-ha,” she said.
She pulled on the handle again.
“I have to get home. Ha-ha. My dad—”
She pulled on the handle. She didn’t see him move, but this time the door opened. She returned The Thing and the other tapes, then waved over her shoulder and fled along the sidewalk of the strip mall hoping she would not look up to see the beige Reliant and the man watching her. As she walked the rest of the way home, she thought not of the instant the door clicked shut, even though it was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and even though she was in a parking lot full of minivans and children.
She fixed him in her mind: the man with the scaly red skin along his white hairline, the heavy ring on his left pinky, the tuft of white hair poking through the placket of his golf shirt. His khaki slacks. The pine-scented beige-velvet interior of his car. The doors that lock and unlock and lock again.
Not that it was the first time someone had asked if she worked. It starts early. Fourteen on the sidewalk after the movie let out, waiting for Petra’s mom. A car pulled up close and the driver—some guy with a scrubby moustache and the ubiquitous baseball cap.
“You girls want to party?”
Jen giggled, and Petra said something like, Um. I don’t know? Her voice weak-sounding, the way it rose at the end. The guy pulled away without saying anything else.
“He was kind of cute,” Jen said.
This was how it used to be. You are both sixteen. You will be an actress. You will be a world traveler. You will direct great films, or write epic novels. You will fuck a million beautiful men. Just for now, though, you’re lying together on an air mattress in a backyard and listening to a mix-tape you have listened to a thousand times already and which has been distorted by all those listenings and by the cheap cassette deck in the car, and by the heat of summer. For twenty years afterward you will keep the tape, and when you listen to it, and hear the familiar distortions that time and repetition make, it will break your heart a tiny little bit.
When you’re sixteen, though, that doesn’t matter, because you’ll be out of here pretty soon, and mix tapes are easy to make and easy to lose.
Jen says, “This is the start of a montage. Like. The opening part.”
And yes, Petra thinks. Because these are the sharp, poignant scenes that spark the story, and what begins with two sixteen-year-old girls pledging their eternal ambition and their absolute affection will, in fact, end somewhere else entirely.
This is true.
But this was how it ended up happening. In July there are parties in someone’s woodlot or in a gravel pit where even on a hot night the air is cool and clammy. Some girl was playing Bon Jovi and someone else insisted, noisily, on Guns N’ Roses. There are two guys. Chris with the startling dark eyes and the buffalo plaid, his chin angry with pimples, drinking Kokanee or Carling High Test. He’s brought a friend, Eric, whose eyes are not so startling but who is otherwise identical, down to the High Test. Eric was obviously instructed to entertain Petra while Chris chats with Jen, and Petra is aware of this.
For these reasons she shotguns the gin she stole from her parents, and is surly, and thinks, This is just so stupid, but Eric sticks with her. Jen and Chris move farther away, and a little closer to one another, then farther again from where Petra sits on the hood with her attendant Eric talking about Guns N’ Roses, who suck.
Jen says something Petra can’t hear, but she knows what’s happening because she’s seen it before, when Jen was faced with any number of men, gas station attendants, and waiters, with the boys in their Consumer Education class, with Petra’s own younger brother. His looks were always plaintive when Jen came to dinner, with her very blue eyes, and her very dark hair, and her translucent skin, the fine, long bones of her fingers, her narrow ankles, the pale stem of her wrist.
“So, what’s going on with you?” Eric tries again.
“Just. Stuff. Summer stuff.”
“Cool. Cool,” he says, then, “Yeah.” Then, “So you hear about that girl?”
“At the Petro-Can?”
“No. She was off the trail at Skutz Falls. Don’t know how long she’d been there, but someone saw her on the highway a few days before. It’s pretty stupid, you know, it’s pretty stupid to go out there alone.”
“I guess,” she says.
“I heard her neck was—”
Petra listens for a few minutes longer than she can stand about what happened to the girl.
Abruptly she has to pee, so she explains to Eric, who is like, Um, okay, and she knows he’s happy to interrupt their conversation. Petra walks through the long, spindly shadows the bonfire casts among the trees, and though the night is very dark around her, she keeps her back to the light and pushes through the bush. She can feel around her the night that engulfs them, the deep reaches of the island’s interior, its valleys and mountain ranges. And she thinks, as she often does—because this scene is not singular, but often repeated that summer—about how far she would have to walk to reach the dark places of the island. How long, she wonders, would it take to become lost?
She’d walked the trail to Skutz Falls a dozen times. She’d gone on field trips there and camped with Jen, hanging out on beach towels by the river.
For a moment she hears—as though she was still in the beige-velvet Reliant—the sound of a door locking and unlocking, locking and unlocking.
When she got back, Petra was happy she couldn’t find Eric anywhere. She crawled into the backseat of Jen’s car and put her head down on a bunched-up sweatshirt that smelled of Cool Coconut Teen Spirit. She sank into the uncomfortable, paralyzed state that is necessary when one tries to sleep in the damp backseat of a Plymouth Horizon, but she did not sleep. Time passed quickly and slowly and quickly again, so when she closed her eyes, “Patience” was still playing on the tinny speakers of a car somewhere nearby, and when she opened them it was “Stairway to Heaven.” Between closing and opening her eyes she had lived only a few, fretful moments.
The night was short, though, and when the sky lightened she got out of the car and walked past sleeping-bagged bodies in the beds of pickup trucks or curled as she had been in the backseats of cars—though not alone.
Jen must be somewhere among them, in the back of Chris’s truck, or lying on a tarp on the other side of the fire. Petra decided, That’s enough, fuck it, and wrote a note to leave on the dashboard. Going home. I hope you had a really really really great time with Chris. She followed the rutted driveway from the pit to the road where, under the first yellow stain of dawn, she saw a girl. It was Jen.
“Hey!” Petra shouted. “Jen! Wait for me!”
The girl didn’t move, so she shouted again, and then a car left the pit, gravel popping like gunshots. Petra glanced upward without thinking to see the stars wink out as the sky turned from black to blue. When she looked down again, Jen was gone. The car stopped and someone’s older brother asked if she wanted a ride back into town.
Petra tried to explain about the note, but by August Jen didn’t have any time. She moved in with the Parkinsons to look after their three kids when Mr. Parkinson headed to Yellowknife for three weeks a month. After the kids came Chris, and after Chris there was Jen’s mother, and after that it might be Petra, if she was lucky.
It didn’t matter, she told herself, because sometime soon Jen would call. They’d escape together in the car, and if they saw a girl hitchhiking, Petra promised herself, they’d pick her up. She would make Jen do it, before it was too late.
Jen never called. Petra finally caved on the last weekend before she left for university, and Jen agreed, if reluctantly, because she had to work six days that week, and it was going to be Chris’s birthday soon.
They drove for two hours to an empty beach with a spiral slide and a tire swing. They ate jelly worms and drank Orange Crush and drove home just before sunrise.
Petra saw the girl first. She was a slightly darker shade of gray than the predawn highway.
“Let’s pick her up.”
“What? No. Do you know her?”
“Just once? Okay?”
They reached her, their headlights sliding across her pale face—the dark hair, the skinny limbs in denim—and Jen, still bristling, pulled over onto the shoulder.
Petra opened the door and got out.
“Hey!” she called back. “You need a ride?”
So quiet on the shoulder that when she heard a crow overhead she glanced up. When she looked back, the girl was gone.
Inside the car, Jen rested her head on the steering wheel. “I need to sleep,” she said. “Hurry up.”
“She’s not there.”
They drove on in silence, Jen’s knuckles white, her eyes fixed. When they reached Petra’s house, Petra said, “You don’t want to go for breakfast?” her voice plaintive in a way that surprised her.
“I have to work in, like, two hours.”
“Do you think she looked like you?”
“I thought I saw you before, once, that night at the gravel pit. You were hitchhiking”
“Why do you keep—”
The last word cut short in a sob. Petra got out of the car. The last thing she said to Jen was, “Will you come visit me, maybe?”
“I don’t know,” Jen said.
“You could come visit,” Petra said again, and even she could hear how plaintive her voice was and knew—without Jen saying anything—that the answer was no because who would pay for the ferry?
Petra didn’t call and Jen didn’t call and by the end of the week whatever had happened between them, it felt final. Petra was going to say something, but she’d wait and find a cool postcard from some bookstore on the mainland. She’d write a real letter. Or maybe next time she was home she’d phone, or they’d run into one another downtown. It was stupid not to call, but the longer she waited, the harder it was to break the silence.
When her parents drove her to the early ferry on her last day as an islander, it seemed to Petra that girl after girl stood on Highway 18. The fading moon cast long, uncertain shadows occupied by girls who reached out into the darkness to flag down a car that might take them away.
“Could we stop for her?” Petra asked, pointing at a distant figure.
“I don’t see anyone,” her mother said, and when Petra looked again the highway was empty.
In the end, this was how it happened.
Petra spent the summer after university lying on the bleached grass of her parents’ yard with a yellow-paged paperback falling open on her stomach. When the silence got to her, she drove into town. She talked to the kids at the 7-Eleven, and shared a freezie that glowed an atomic pink. She was invited to a pit party, and saw the logs still leaving the clear-cut valleys. A girl had been found out behind the garbage dump.
At twilight on an empty stretch of highway, headed home, she saw the girl. As she pulled over, the evening felt so familiar it might be the reenactment of something that had already happened, or maybe a meeting she had arranged and forgotten. She glanced back into the darkened east, away from the fringe of green sunset—maybe to give the girl her opportunity for escape—but the girl was still there, making her way toward the car. Petra opened the door and said—as though they had rehearsed it—“Do you need a ride? Where are you going?”
She was careful not to take her eyes off Jen. In the twilight she looked no older than she had four years before, or five, or however long it had been.
Jennifer did not speak. The sunset fading, and the stars emerging, and Petra remembered again how dark night could be.
“I’m on Ypres,” she said, “right on the corner near the school.”
They drove in a musty kind of silence, Petra’s eyes fixed on the empty road, darker and darker until the world outside her headlights vanished.
“What happened to the Plymouth?”
“It broke down after a year or two. The Parkinsons let me go, and Chris had a car, so you know. He drove me around.”
Petra wanted to say how sad she was about the Plymouth. She wanted to talk about how she was really considering going back to school for library science or something. Or how she could get an internship or teach English overseas. There was something confessional about the night, something in the smooth passage of concrete beneath their lights and the sky overhead darkening.
It was full dark, proper dark, by the time Petra pulled into the little gravel drive off Ypres and finally said something true.
“I miss you.”
The voice that responded was drowsy and flat, not much like Jen’s at all, but what it said had the quality of a prophecy: “That is true, as far as it goes. One thing you need to remember: for you it was always going to be different. You will teach English in Korea. You will cry in front of a pho stand in Hanoi. On a beach in Crete you will fuck a boy whose name you can’t pronounce. You will come back here the autumn you turn thirty and, when you are cleaning up your old room in your parents’ house, before they sell, you will find a box that contains your old report cards, and the star-shaped notes we used to exchange in tenth grade, a card I gave you for your sixteenth birthday, and you will wonder where I am, and you’ll go into town and ask around, but no one will know. They’ll remember the last time they saw me, and think maybe I headed for the mainland after I broke up with Chris. My mother will have moved, and when you call her number—which was my number, and which you will remember to the last day of your life—a stranger will answer.”
Somewhere, Petra heard the sound of a door locking.
“You won’t know what to do, exactly, and people disappear all the time, and I seemed pretty smart. Not like those other girls, you’ll think, though that won’t be true, either. I am exactly like those other girls. All of them.”
But Jen was gone. At first it felt so silly that Petra looked in the footwell, and the backseat, and through the window.
She got out of the car and walked across the gravel to the cottage with its unpainted trim, and the asbestos shingles a dull green, moss. Somewhere, the incessant barking of a dog.
As she was hesitating, the front door opened, and there was Jennifer. The dog barking inside the house, louder now.
Somewhere a man shouted, “Who is it?”
“It’s—” Jen began.
Petra cut her off. “Let’s go somewhere. Let’s go to the Bino’s. I’ll buy you all the fries and gravy you can eat. I’ll buy you the big order.” She knew it was stupid to say out loud, but she went on, “We’ll listen to mix tapes and we’ll go to the beach in the middle of the night. We’ll go now. I’ll buy gummy worms. I’ll buy freezies.”
“What are you even doing here?”
“Please,” she said, “just come out for a drive.”
That was the last she saw of Jen, as the dog started barking again, and the door closed, and the light inside the cottage went out.
Originally published in F&SF, September/October 2017.