“When is this rain going to let up?” the young man said to the empty car. The old tape deck had been repurposed to playing CDs with an adapter, but the batteries had long since died in his scratched and battered walkman. The rain was pouring down and the thud of giant raindrops hitting the hood of his 91 Camry sounds like rocks. The lightning flashed as the road was briefly lit up and he saw to his immense disappointment nothing at all.
This trip had been a mistake from the beginning, he thought as he flipped the high beams on and off, hoping to get some response in the dark. He was driving across the country to impress a woman who, if he was being honest, barely seemed to notice he existed. Grand romantic gestures mattered a lot more when you were good looking. When guys like him did it, they always came off as pathetic. The road twisted and turned, his weak headlights barely illuminating the many curves. His hands sweated as they wrapped around the drivers wheel.
He had bought this car for $400 from an auction and loved it intensely. It was his first car and he came to delight in its quirks. The gas gauge didn’t work, so he had a little notebook where he carefully wrote down his mileage every time he parked. It became a delightful little record of his many adventures in the cars, going with friends to concerts and the park. But then he had left his hometown and gone off to school far away. Things were harder then. He felt invisible a lot of the time.
As he leaned forward and tried not to kill himself, he realized the trip had been a mistake since the very beginning. He had lied to his mother, telling a story of how friends had invited him to go to Florida to stay at a beach house. He told a story about friends he wished he had and a girl who was interested in him. Watching her face light up as he told this lie filled him with a deep, desperate shame he knew he would take to his grave.
Instead of the bright airy beach house he had a couch waiting for him miles from the beach. He had barely enough money saved up to get down there and back and was worried about what he would eat. Instead of the big group of friends, he had been told about the trip by the woman. She had casually mentioned if he were around he should stop by. He lied again and said he had already made plans to be in the area.
Lies were tricky things. They were shortcuts to the life you wanted to have and he had always been the kind of person who took shortcuts. Never worked hard enough, just enough to get by. Always letting people down and not meeting his potential. His whole life could be surmised by his mothers look of disappointment, an expression he knew well enough to draw it from memory. He was never the best and never the worst. Just disappointingly average despite all these people being convinced he could be more.
He saw a flash of something and slammed on the brakes. The old car skittered and slid, ending up sideways in the road. He had stopped just in time. In front of him was a tree, blown down in the storm. His hands were shaking from the adrenaline and he took a second to just calm himself down. The fast breaths quickly fogged the windows of the car and he thought about how if someone came along right now they might think he was getting lucky. He laughed a bit at the thought.
He tried to start the Camry again, listening as the engine turned over. It didn’t start and he sighed and leaned back in his chair. He felt around in the backseat for some sort of rain gear but came back with a black garbage bag. He had spent all his money on a pair of fashionable jeans to wear once he got to the beach after he had lied again to the woman, telling her he owned several pairs of the fancy brand. Now he had to rip holes in a garbage bag to provide some cover from the rain.
There was a road back aways that looked like a rural residential street. He had grown up in a farming town in the Midwest and knew what they looked like, the well-maintained dirt roads that said “houses this way”. He turned the hazards on for the car, tapped its roof as if to say goodbye and took off down the road.
Outside the rain was even worse and within a few minutes his feet were soaked. The slapping sound of wet sneakers competed with the driving sound of the rain and he was reminded of a childrens book he had loved when he was small, of the duckling playing in the rain. The ducks webbed feet were illustrated to make big smacking sounds when they came down as he danced in the mud.
The forests to his left were deep and dark, moonlight not reaching the floor. He remembered the hunting safety course he had taken in the breakroom of a Wal-Mart. It was taught by a woman who had shot one of her own eyes out with a .22 as a kid. She didn’t wear an eyepatch, but instead let you just see the ruined eyeball staring off into nothingness. She had warned them about forests like this at night. “You go a few feet and you won’t be able to make your way back out. Even experts get turned around and you all aren’t experts.” He made sure to keep the road to his right as he walked, leaving enough room as he walked in case a car suddenly appeared.
This wasn’t new to him. He had spent hundreds of hours making late night walks in his hometown. It started as a way to lose weight, tired of the constant mocking by his peers. They still made fun of him for it, people throwing things at him from their cars as he walked, his battered and well-worn walkman pumping music into his ears. The only thing worse than being a fat kid in your house is making everyone look at you, it seemed. He ignored it and kept going.
After a few months everybody stopped talking about it and he became simply a fixture of the small town, walking around late at night after everybody had retired. He loved it, listening to music. Everybody seemed to be worried something would happen to him out there alone but he never encountered anybody. The streets were always empty, his hiking boots that he loved to wear pounding against sidewalks so rarely used that weeds sprouted as high as his ankle between the cracks.
Without his music he couldn’t tell how much time had passed, instead focusing just on putting one foot in front of another. The rain seemed relentless, unlike the soft rains of his home. There he expected brief downpours followed by a gentle drizzle. Here were drops that hit hard enough to hurt a little bit and now his whole body tingled a little bit with the slaps of the water. He couldn’t smell anything but the slightly acidy stink of rainwater and he felt the water go through his scant cover to start to chill his legs.
Eventually he came across the road and his heart sank. Instead of the pristine dirt road he remembered, this was filled with potholes, only a light layer of gravel remaining. He knew this meant this wasn’t a well-used road and the chance that someone lived down here wasn’t great. But it was also the best option he had for right now, unless he wanted to go back and sleep in his car. He pressed on, resolving that if nobody lived down here he could still head back easily, sleep in his car and then figure out where he was in the morning.
The trees lining the road were oaks and they looked old, branches towering over him seeming to reach for each other. The deep roots would had torn up a normal paved road but this gravel covered path seemed fine. However he had to watch himself, for the deep ditches dug on either side were now rapids, carrying water away. He was forced to walk in the middle of the road and needed to alternate between keeping an eye open for headlights and not stepping in one of the many potholes. Last thing he needed right now was a twisted ankle.
The late night walks had changed once he got to school. He had overheard some of his roommates remarking on how odd it was and he chastised himself. This was his opportunity to remake himself from the loser he had been back home to someone cool and interesting. He found he couldn’t sleep if he didn’t walk, so he would ride the bus across town and walk around there. The child that hadn’t stopped when people threw trash at him would have been disappointed in the adult sulking in the back of a bus in order to stretch his legs, but then again the child would be in good company with its disappointment.
As he went down the patch his mood got worse and worse. He hadn’t seen any power lines and it was unlikely a place like this would have gotten underground lines run. So if there were any buildings down here they were either going to be hunting lodges without power or, more likely, abandoned farms. Still he walked and looked, hoping he could find some help.
After a time he heard a noise. It sounded like a song he had heard before, but something about it was off. At first it was hard to even figure out where it was coming from, almost sounding like it was coming from every direction at once. However then in the darkness he saw a single, dancing light. He tried to jump across the ditch to start to walk towards it but fell into the water instead. He scratched his hands on some rocks in the dirt and cursed loudly.
He had fallen a lot lately. He had been drinking too much, spending time with people who used alcohol as an alternative for something interesting to say. Many of them had grown up in rich families and had been drinking with friends for years, stealing from their parents who also drank nightly. He hadn’t been raised like that. Hard alcohol was viewed with suspicion among the families in town, a vice that had consumed many before them. The occasional beer was fine, but he had stumbled home falling down drunk too often lately. He would sometimes think of how disappointed his mother would be, her working late and often to support him here. He knew she wouldn’t say anything, just stare at him with that look of concern and sadness. He always pushed it out of his head, but the image stayed with him. Still he continued to go to the parties and did the things he thought he was supposed to.
The light got brighter and he pulled himself up and started to walk. The dirt was mostly mud at this point but that wasn’t unusual to him. The former swamps of his home quickly looked like this after a rain. He walked on and eventually the sound started to get louder and louder. He had heard the song before but again, something about it was wrong. He couldn’t quite tell how it was wrong, but the fiddle rang out over and over with the same tune.
Finally he saw the house and he got a bit excited. It was dilapidated and run down but there was a man sitting on the porch playing the fiddle. The roof was full of dark spots he suspected were holes and there didn’t seem to be a car in the driveway. Still they might have a phone or food or something. He hadn’t eaten for almost 12 hours.
“Hello there sir, I’m sorry to bother you”. The man put down his fiddle and squinted into the darkness, then frowned. He moved closer so the man could see him and they finally locked eyes. “Might I trouble you for a phone so I can call a tow truck”? The man replied “Ain’t got a thing in the house.” The boy felt his face fall and tried to hide it. “Do you have any food you might be willing to part with?” Again the man replied “Ain’t got a thing in the house”.
The boy paused and then asked where he might find a neighbor of the mans. He responded with “Dunno. I ain’t never been there.” Frustration creeped into the boys voice and he asked if he might be able to spend the night at least, so he didn’t need to walk back to his car a few miles back. The man replied “House leaks. My wife and me sleep on the only dry spot” and gestured up to the sagging roof.
This was ridiculous, he thought. He wasn’t even convinced this guy owned this land. He seemed more like a squatter. “Why don’t you at least fix the roof?” and the man picked the fiddle back up and continued to play, stopping only for a moment to respond with “can’t mend the roof on a rainy day”. He was playing the same damn tune over and over but messing it up at the end and starting again. After a few minutes it started to grate on the boys nerves.
He had always loved music, had spent thousands of hours listening to it on his walkman. He had never had much skill for it, taking classes for years but never getting much from them. However he did know this song and knew the ending. It was a simple tune, something he had heard when listening to a record of classic American folk songs. It had dark lyrics that went along with it, something about a woman escaping a man. They all had lyrics like that though.
Finally the boy snapped. “Why don’t you just finish that tune”? The man looked at him and stopped playing. “Can’t get the turn of the tune” he said to the boy, almost sheepishly. For the first time the man seemed embarrassed. This was too much, he thought. He walked onto the porch and took the fiddle, playing the whole tune.
When he was done he went to put the fiddle down but the man grabbed his elbow and stopped him. “Stranger, grab yerself a chair and set down. I’ll get you a hunk of that deer and some of the good whiskey from the shed. You jest play away stranger and we’ll let you sleep on the dry spot tonight.” The boy took a sip of the offered whiskey and felt at home, sitting on that porch. He started to play the tune again, the old man tapping his foot on the worn wooden planks and the sound of another person in the house moving things around as the rain continued to fall.
The tow truck lifted the Camry up and quickly drove off. The sheriff wrote down the license plate and would remind himself to file the license plate in the system when he got back to the station. It wasn’t unusual to find abandoned cars like this out here, but it was odd how all the stuff was still in it. Still, unlikely there had been foul play. Nobody had lived out here for years. Just empty houses that people visiting in the summer sometimes toured to see how people used to live. He saw the bag of a fancy clothing department and took a look. Seemed like nice jeans but the driver was on the chunkier side. Thankfully, so was the sheriff. He quietly took the bag and put it in his passenger seat before loading the rest of the personal effects into the trunk. No need for those to go to waste, he smiled to himself as he drove off.