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Historical Fiction Fantasy Drama

You call this run The King’s Trek. It’s not as if it’s ever been visited by a King, nor is it because it’s particularly scenic or grandiose. It’s just a name, a name you remember from a story you read when you were young about a man, trekking in the mountains and slowly discovering suppressed and disturbing memories. The name of the story was The King’s Trek. The first time you drove through these mountains, they reminded you of things you thought you had forgotten. They reminded you of someone you loved.

You are a courier. You drive hundreds of kilometers each day, from town to town, fetching or delivering important things for important people. Sometimes it is just an envelope, sometimes your car is full of boxes. You’ve been on this job for many years now, and you’re good at it; you’ve never failed. You’ve been forced off the road by a sleeping lorry driver, you’ve had your car break down in the middle of nowhere, and once you were chased by people who knew what you were carrying and wanted to stop you from delivering it. But you never failed.

Today is just like any other day. It’s The Kings Trek, starting here, in this desolate ocean of open plains, like a lunar landscape covered in yellow grass, going through it and up the mountains and ending in the desert on the other side. This road is always empty. There are no cars, no trucks, no busses. Never. There is a better way to get to where you are going, a busy highway twenty kilometers to the south. But you always avoid the obvious route. It is part of your job. Keep your distance, be alert, have control.

It is cold and it is going to rain. When the clouds hang that low, darkening the world and hiding the mountains, you know it is going to be a long and slow drive. The visibility will be bad and it could even begin to snow up there. It doesn't matter. You are prepared. You are a professional.

When the first drop hits the windscreen, you see a woman standing by the side of the road. She has her thumb up and she is looking at you. She is dressed as if she’s just left a cocktail party in town; long, black dress, a fur-lined jacket, a handbag. She is barefoot but she is holding a pair of shoes in her hands. There is nothing else around her; no bushes, no trees, nothing for several kilometers in either direction. Except for the ruins of a small hut thirty meters from the road, a hut with a caved in roof and a broken window. 

You have never picked up a hitchhiker. That’s forbidden. Unwritten rules and whatnot, but of course it is forbidden. This time though, something urges you to stop. You cannot leave this woman here; she’ll be dead before another car comes by. Dead of old age. It's way too far to the nearest settlement. And rain is coming; heavy rain, by the looks of it. If this is a trap, if she’s with the bad guys and if she’s going for the padded envelope, hidden in a secret compartment under your driver's seat, you will be ready. You have a gun, you know your moves inside a car.

You pass her and stop ten meters ahead of her.

“Hi”, she says when you open the passenger door for her. “Thank you for stopping”.

“I can take you over the mountains”, you say as she climbs in. “To Bandan. From there you can take a train or bus to wherever you wanna go. Or continue hiking. Should be easy to get a lift from Bandan”. 

She puts on her seat-belt, opens her handbag and reaches into it. You are ready with the gun, but when her hand comes up again, it is holding a lip balm - or is it lipstick?

“I’m Catherine”, she says. “Drove all night yesterday. Early this morning I almost fell asleep behind the wheel. Saw that shack and thought I could doze off for a couple of hours. Didn't bother to lock the car or anything. Well, they say shit happens, don't they. Woke up an hour ago and the car was gone”.

“Shit happens”, you say, although it usually doesn't.

“Are you going to Cassiar?”

“Yeah. But you can't come. I’m not allowed to pick up hikers”.

“And yet, you pick me up”. She laughs in a quiet, friendly way. “It doesn't matter. I’m not going to Cassiar. It's very kind of you, though, breaking the rules for me. Heaven knows how long I’d be out there waiting for another car”.

“Probably very long”.

The rain is now pouring down and your windshield wipers are struggling. You switch on your full beam headlights and decrease your speed. You are in no hurry. You are never in a hurry. The woman beside you, Catherine, is quiet and still. She looks tired. The silence could have been awkward, but isn't. Your climb up the mountains has begun.

“Too bad we can't see much. I heard this is a beautiful road”, she says, peering out into the rain. “I love mountains”.

You don't love the mountains; you hate them. They are cold and deadly and dead. But you don't say that because you don't want to be negative. Instead, you tell her that you used to climb, that you’ve been to many places around the world and climbed many famous mountains.

“So why did you stop? You’re not exactly old. I once knew a guy who climbed Everest when he was almost sixty”.

“Yeah. Some people just don't know when to stop”. And you mean it.

“Nobody climbed when I was young. But I was born not far from Mont Ventoux. It is a mountain that is famous because Petrarca climbed it in 1336. We had to learn that stuff when I was a kid”. She goes quiet for a few seconds, thinking perhaps of a childhood memory. “Nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. That’s what he said. Up there. On the top, 700 years ago”.

“Maybe I’m not getting what he meant”, you say, “but it sounds like the opposite of what I felt at the top of a mountain”. For a second you think about telling her of your own feelings on top of Chima Grande or Mont Blanc. The grandness of the world. Or lying on your back at night, looking at the Milky Way. Your soul is nothing. But you really don't want to have that discussion.

“I guess that’s what 700 years of human evolution does to you”, she says and ends the conversation for you.

Even if you really don't want to talk at all, you find Catherine's presence unexpectedly comforting. Someone else in your car; that’s a rare occurrence. Her smell of metal and soap, the sound of her clothes when she moves. The feeling that someone is aware of your existence and is ready to acknowledge you whenever you feel the need. You got the impression, when you first saw her on the road, when she talked, when she stepped into your car, that she was about your age, or even older. But when you look at her now, you find that she is much younger. Not more than twenty, twenty-five. It’s like opening a comic book and finding some hard-hat German philosopher inside.

“So. You were born in France, then?” you say to try and trick her into revealing her age.

“Yes”.

“But your English is… impeccable”.

“Well, I’ve lived in England for thirty years. English is more than just a second language to me”.

Aha, you think. I knew it. She is much older than she looks. You adjust your guesses ten, fifteen years upwards. 

The sun is setting. It is something you know more than you see. The black clouds you are ascending towards have made darkness come early. But you have always loved night, loved darkness, loved to hide. Nighttime is the best time to drive. It is also the best time to be with others. You are not a loner, not always. You can talk to people. You can enjoy their company. And people are usually more open, more forgiving when night has fallen and it is dark outside. That's why it feels good that the sun is setting when you have a passenger in your car.

“When I was young”, she suddenly says, and her voice and the words that she uses unnerves you, like a jigsaw puzzle missing a piece or an equation with a misplaced decimal point. “When I was in my lower teens, the soul was what it was all about. The soul that God had given you - and wanted back without blemishes. How to take care of that soul, how to nourish it and keep it clean, that was the issue. And there were two different ways to do that, two different factions that thought that God was on their side when they killed each other. Poor bastards”.

You have no idea what she is talking about and you get the feeling she isn’t talking to you but rather to herself.

“I was taught one way”, she continues. “Then I got a… what do you say?.. a reboot. I got to see it from the other side. Funny. It looked the same. God still hated us, because of a single, shitty apple. Then I died, and when I was born again, I hated God''.

She doesn't sound crazy. She sounds like she is talking to someone who knows her a lot better than you do. What you understand, though, is that she has had a spiritual crisis and she just needs to get it out somehow. You are ready to listen and let her talk. But she goes quiet and nothing is said for a long time. When she starts talking again, it is about you. She asks questions about your job and you tell her half-truths. She asks where you’re from, where you live and if you are married and have kids; general stuff like that. Not for a moment do you think that she is interested, but it doesn't matter; it's okay to pretend. You tell her about the place you never see but still call your home. You tell her about your travels and about the time you were almost killed by a sleeping truck driver. She asks you where you bought your jeans and you tell her that they were a gift from a friend, and you compliment her dress and her shoes that she is still holding in her lap.

Then you ask her how old she is. She doesn't seem to be affronted. She pouts her lips and smiles.

“I’m nineteen”, she says and looks at you to see how you react to this nonsensical claim.

You laugh. “I could believe that”, you say and meet her eyes. “You sure look like you could be nineteen. But it doesn't add up, does it? You told me you spent thirty years in England”.

She is quiet long enough to make up a lie, but when she finally speaks, it is with sincerity, and you somehow believe every word she says: “On my nineteenth birthday my brother was killed defending La Rochelle, a huguenot city under siege by catholic forces. I did not know where my parents were, and I still don't know what happened to them. I was alone and trapped among sick and starving people in an overcrowded city, waiting to be killed. I could do nothing but participate in their collective resignation. On good days I helped with the distribution of food from our diminishing supplies, and on bad days I sat on a stool looking at wounded soldiers dying. I remember a priest who came by, talking about the resurrection and the love of Christ. A nice man with yellow spots on his hands and a few missing teeth. His eyelids were heavy as led from lack of sleep. I remember when he got his leg shot off by a cannonball when he was up on the wall taking care of the wounded. He bled to death in a couple of minutes. 

But luckily I got away, my social standings gave me a way out; a trip across the channel to London on a diplomatic mission to ask the Queen for support. 

On a beautiful, calm day, in a beautifully calm park in front of the royal palace, something happened that made me decide never to go back to France and never to celebrate a birthday again. I’ve broken the first of those resolutions but never the second”.

“What happened?”

“I met a man”, she says, and it is obvious to you that this part is tricky to talk about.

“You fell in love?”

“No. No, I certainly didn't. Quite the opposite. I met a man I since then always wanted to kill. He is a man without compassion, without feelings. He wouldn't hesitate to kill you and use your body if he needed something solid to walk on to cross a puddle in the street. He doesn't know it yet, maybe he suspects it, but he doesn't know it. How much I have grown, how strong I am today. What a dangerous machine he created that day. But, as soon as he looks me in the eyes, he will know. And he will be afraid”.

“I see”, you say, meaning; you don't see. “So I’m giving you a lift so that you can kill someone? I should drop you off right here”:

“You would drive me to his front door and hand me the knife if you knew him. But no, you are not driving me to his execution. He’s not even in this country. And I have things to do before I meet him, so you can take it easy; you are not an accomplice”.

“I don't understand. What did this man do to you?”

“He stole my soul and made me immortal”.

You lean forward in your seat and look up. As you suspected, the passenger seat looks empty through the rear-view mirror. There is no reflection from the ancient creature beside you.

She is observing you with a smile on her lips. “Don't be afraid”, she says. “It won't hurt”.

February 11, 2021 06:12

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