“You’re sure your parents are cool with me coming?” Sarah asks. Her usual relaxed self completely on edge thanks to the storm. He can’t help but smile at how cute she is. For all the tough and rough vibes she sends out, Sarah is terrified of weather. Thunderstorms, rainstorms, snowstorms—they all freak her out. That’s fine, Hayden doesn’t mind driving for her.
“Are you kidding,” Hayden laughs, shaking his head. “They want you there more than they want me.”
“But they’re cool with you and I sharing a room?” Sarah asks, lifting her eyebrow. It was never hard to sell people that Hayden’s dad was a cop. What’s been hard with his girlfriends is explaining how he came out of the Ashmore family such a wreck. Usually, his girlfriends come from two camps: those trying to reform him and those who are like him. Sarah’s a bit of both.
“My parents gave up on Saint Hayden a long time ago,” he assures her, watching the road attentively. Papa Ashmore didn’t raise any fools, outside of Hayden. “My Dad might not like it, but my Mom probably talked him down. We’ll just have to be extra quiet.”
Sarah grins and shakes her head. “How in the hell do you get away with it?” She asks him. “They probably think that you live in Canada or something.”
Hayden doesn’t think so. In fact, he’s fairly certain that his Dad has known since the moment Hayden left home, fiery as the sun and as angry as a bull, that his son only migrated a few miles up the road. “It’s sort of a don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” Hayden reminds her, even though they’ve gone over it a million times. “They have my phone number and when they call, I answer. Besides, if my Mom knew I lived five miles up the road and worked seven miles away, I wouldn’t be able to shake her.”
“So weird,” Sarah says. “Why’d you settle on River Pointe? You could have really gotten wild and headed up to White Ox.”
“I had a friend who lived in River Pointe,” Hayden says with a shrug. “Offered me a job cleaning at the River Rat and I’ve been there ever since.”
“Really moving up in the world,” Sarah teases him. It’s only funny because she’s there with him working the bar in the mornings and afternoon while he works it at night. Being a bartender is not the most glorious job, but it’s a job that Hayden is good at and that he loves. After all, if he hadn’t been working at the River Rat, he would never have met Sarah.
“I lived in Portland for a month or two,” Hayden defends himself. “Spent a summer out in Chicago working for a friend, so I’ve been around.”
Sarah laughs at that, completely unimpressed. She hitchhiked all the way from Louisiana to California, then walked up the coast to Seattle before she made her way to Idaho in search of white water and an easier life. Kicking a habit of heroin and cocaine while moving across America isn’t an easy task. Since then she’s been in River Pointe, Sarah has been a inspiration to those like Hayden, stuck in the downward spiral of life and seeking an out. Since his time with Sarah, Hayden was faced with the brutal truth that if he wanted her in his life, then he was going to have to kick some habits. He did so gladly.
The flickering, red glow on the road draws his attention, making him slowly press the brake pedal, nursing it as the car comes to a stop. Another pulsing flare appears in the veil of white and black. As he stares at the lights, knowing exactly what it means. There’s been an accident, probably a bad one. He counts four flares on the road by the time the Jeep stops. He can see the tipped, enormous tank, the side undamaged, the casing intact. That was lucky. It looks like it just tipped over, whatever was inside of it.
“Looks bad,” Sarah says with a wince.
“I don’t see a way around,” Hayden says, checking the rearview mirror. There’s no one coming north or south. It’s sort of a lucky night for other travelers, the snow has kept them from being deterred. Hayden looks at the wreckage, wondering if there’s a way around that he’s not seeing. “I’m going to go have a look,” Hayden says to Sarah. “Someone must have popped the flares.”
“Be careful,” Sarah adds, checking her phone for a signal.
Hayden feels the cold swoosh of air wrapping around him as he pulls his motorcycle jacket tightly around him, feeling the frigid kiss of the snow on his cheeks. Taking his steps cautiously on the road, he walks toward the fallen trailer of the semi truck, the lights of the Jeep guiding his path. The crimson light of the flare crawls up him the closer he gets to them, turning and placing his hand on the edge of the rounded container. The whole thing is frozen like an ice cube.
On the other side of the trailer, Hayden looks at a scene unlike anything he was expecting. The lights of a police cruise flash from the side of the road where it’s slammed into a gully, dented all along the side. An ambulance sits in the middle of the road, lights flashing while the workers finish up putting someone in the back, screaming in agony. There’s a cluster of people around someone seated on a bucket. As Hayden walks, he recognizes one of the figures standing around the man seated on the bucket. The whole scene is silent, quieted by the storm. The sight of his father standing next to the man on the bucket hits him with a multitude of emotions. It’s been over a year since he’s seen his father and last time, they said nothing to each other.
One of the ambulance workers turns and spots him, stepping away from the man on the bucket. “Sorry for the mess,” he shouts over the snow and the drone of his ambulance’s engine. “There should be enough room to get around, just be careful. We’ve already had two accidents.”
Hayden barely hears the man, recognizing the truck that’s flipped over, slammed against the trees. It’s a truck that he’s looked at thousands of times through his childhood, the vehicle of a miser and a recluse. “Is Jeb okay?” Hayden asks, looking at the wreckage and wondering if he died in the roll. He must have hit the police cruiser too. It’s completely battered and smashed across the side.
“He’s banged up,” the driver says, pointing to the man on the bucket. Hayden brushes past him and approaches the bucket.
“Dad,” Hayden says, clamping his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
His father looks at him, even now; those brown eyes of his are distant. No surprise, no happiness, just a maelstrom of conflicting emotions swirling behind his eyes. Hayden doubts that there will ever be a day that his father and him reconcile, but it’s not new or startling. This is life. This is how these things work. “He’s taken a beating,” his father says, looking at Jeb who is sitting on the bucket with his hands wrapped and a brutal swelling across most of his left side of his face. There’s a painful gash across his forehead. “He refuses to go to the hospital. Says he won’t let some doctor touch him.”
“Sounds like Jeb,” Hayden smiles. “What was he doing out here?” Hayden had seen Jeb once or twice at the River Rat, but mostly on holidays, nursing the old memories. He lost his wife to another man and never forgave himself. A lot of people don’t come back from that kind of a fall.
“Won’t say,” his father says bluntly. “You on your way back home?”
“Yeah,” Hayden looks at the totaled truck that had survived so many years, only to end this violently. He looks into the forest, illuminated only in flashes of blue—flashes of red. The alternating flicker of light switches, changing over and over again. He sees something, tucked away, half covered in snow. It looks like a tarp. “What was in the back of his truck?” Hayden asks, looking at the truck. It looks like it was flung out of the back of his truck and landed in the forest. His Father looks over his shoulder toward the forest finding it a worthy question too.
Together, the two of them look at Jeb, who is staring at the ground, his eyes fixed on the snow. “Jeb, what were you carrying in the back of your truck?” His Father asks.
Jeb’s eyes dart back and forth for a moment, blinking with his right eye and his left eye just twitching. He looks up at Hayden’s Father for a moment, staring at him for a second. “Was going to throw it in the river,” he says ominously, the blood in his beard already drying.
“Throw what in the river?” Hayden presses.
“What’s left of Mike Collins,” Jeb answers.
Hayden looks into the forest where the tarp is laying and before he can say a word, he feels his feet moving in sync with his Father’s as they rush past the beaten cruiser to the shadowy dominion of the forest, rushing past the trees as Jeb struggles with the ambulance driver, shouting that they won’t understand. Hayden can’t help but notice his father’s hand on his pistol as he wades into the snow, struggling for the tarp.
He approaches it, the snow up to his knees; Hayden can see that the tarp is empty. Whatever Jeb was talking about, there’s nothing in the tarp. He looks at the spent bungee cords, snapped and abandoned around the tarp. It’s torn, shredded and empty. Hayden swallows as he looks at it. Whatever Jeb wrapped up in the tarp, it’s gone now. It’s empty now, deflated and vacant.
“What the hell was he talking about?” Hayden asks, looking to his Father.
“I don’t know,” his Father shakes his head, looking over his shoulder at the toppled semi truck. Whoever was in the tarp, they escaped and they’re footprints were drowned by the falling snow. “The truck driver said that he saw someone naked running across the road.” He pauses for a moment and looks back down at the tarp. He can’t deny or ignore the slick of blood on the inside of the tarp. “People are doing strange things.”