I am thrilled to have had one of my stories accepted to be performed on the podcast, Stories Less Spoken. The performer, Megan Greenwood did an amazing job bringing “Pennask Summit” to life.
If you’d rather just read it, please feel free.
Content note: Suicide, self-harm.
The logging truck in the right lane chugs up the hill with hazards on. I wonder if the driver is relaxed or terrified. Does his face look like mine—haggard, pale, tight with tension?
Herman shifts in the passenger seat. “You should have stayed behind him. You’re driving too fast.”
The transport truck’s lights have disappeared already and I’m alone in a blanket of blinding snow. Alone except for Herm. I try to pick out his features from the side of my eye. He seems, as always, impossibly large. One leg splays across the center console, long and muscled, the other is crushed against the side of the door. His arms are thick, so big I’ve often wondered how he didn’t burst from his flannel shirts like the Hulk or Popeye.
Eyes line the side of the road. Pinpoints of glaring light watching my slow progress through the snow. I can feel the weight of them staring at me, sizing me up. Wolves, maybe. Coyotes.
A squalling gust of wind knocks into the side of the vehicle, blowing me slightly off course. My fingers grip the steering wheel so hard the knuckles are white. I blink into the blowing snow. The guard rails have almost disappeared. The road curves around another bend. If I lose the road here, I won’t be visible from the side of the road, even if I should somehow survive the fall. I grip the wheel tighter, fighting against the almost constant desire to let go.
Herman shifts in his seat, peering through the windshield. The seatbelt strains against his broad shoulders. I bought the CRV specifically for the legroom and it still couldn’t contain this man. He touches my arm. “You look good, Scout.”
His voice, as always, thrills through my body. It’s gruff, not like a lifelong smoker, but like someone who feels too much emotion to contain it. I remember taking him to the university once so he could speak to my students on mental health and wellness. For weeks after, students would tell me, “It wasn’t what he said. It was the way he said it.”
I focus on the road again, peering ahead of me, keeping a steady foot on the gas. Slow and steady. The wind has picked up, and the blowing snow makes it impossible to see. If I come across another transport truck, I’m going to stay behind it and hope it can lead me over the pass.
“You were amazing tonight,” he says, so softly I can barely hear him over the howling wind.
The eyes are everywhere now, lining the side of the road. In the dark and the snow, they’re the only thing I can see now. Black shadows and stars of light. Guiderails, maybe. The SUV fishtails just a bit and I take my foot off the gas.
Herman taps on the side window as if saying hello to the animals watching us in the dark. At least he sees them, too. Or maybe they came with him. “Scout.” My name sounds bigger on his mouth, more real. I want to look at him, touch him. A yearning to abandon the wheel and wrap my arms around him shudders through me.
He reaches over and strokes my arm, running his fingers over the web of scars crisscrossing the canvas of my skin. I want to point out how old the scars are, how faded some of them have gotten since he saw them last, but the words die on my mouth.
The eyes outside never disappear. What kind of animal never blinks?
“You’re still mad at me,” Herman says.
“You had an affair,” I finally snap and instantly regret it. Why were those my first words? I could have said hello. I could have told him he looks exactly the same as he did the last time I saw him. I could have explained how desperately I wanted to crank the wheel and take us both over the cliff just to see if dying hurts as much as losing him. The affair is tangible. It’s easy to be angry about something that doesn’t really matter.
He laughs. “An affair? Thirty years ago. Is that where we’re starting the accounting?”
Thirty years of life, heartache, bliss, lovemaking, meals, cats, dogs, and houses between then and now and the affair is the safest thing we can talk about. “Would you rather start with last November?”
He doesn’t respond, staring instead at the eyes. The unblinking eyes. There are more now, shining so brightly I can see the highway lines through the snow. I can’t help but sneak peeks at him as I drive. He looks more alive than I’ve ever seen him.
Letting go of the wheel with one hand, I fumble in my purse, looking, I realize after a moment, for the pack of cigarettes that hasn’t been there for sixteen years. Herman presses his hand over my fumbling fingers. It’s warm and solid. He feels alive, for god’s sake. There’s a pulse throbbing between our hands. My long, thick fingers disappear into the warmth. As a child and into my teens, I felt like a giant. Tall, cumbersome, prone to knocking things over. Outsized, loud, too talkative. When I met Herman, I was dwarfed, protected. He loved the sound of my voice, loved the way I told stories. His depression mirrored mine, but he was stronger, safer, bigger. He was a fireplace in a snowstorm.
I glance away from the road for a moment to take in his face. He’s so vibrant and real. The eyes on the side of the road distract me from Herman. I’m compelled to turn to them. The car drifts toward the side of the road.
“Watch your lane,” Herman says.
I snap back to attention and let the car come back to the middle of the road. My foot eases off the gas and the car steadies. The eyes blink shut all at once for just a moment before coming to life again.
Herman’s voice pulls my attention. “You lied to the audience tonight,” he says, squeezing my hand gently.
“Suicide affects everyone,” I snap. “I told them that.”
“You said it wasn’t my fault, but you don’t believe it. You said my depression lied to me, stole my ability to choose. You said it didn’t change the love I had for you.”
“You were supposed to be my safe space.”
“You need to be your own safe space,” he replies.
Ignoring him and the eyes, I reach for the radio and press a button. Air Supply. Herman laughs. It’s one of his favorite bands. Was one of his favorite bands. He knows I could never stand them. I press the button and another Air Supply song comes on. “God dammit, Herman.”
He chuckles softly, that deep, rumbling laugh that could turn me on and piss me off all at once.
“You left me.” Tears choke my voice and I blink furiously against them. “You swore you wouldn’t, and you did.”
“I’m here now, Scout.” His hand is so warm, so real wrapped around mine. “Keep driving and I’ll stay with you.”
The eyes outside are brighter. They’re calling me. You’ll be warm again, they say. Safe again. Small again.
I yank my hand from Herman and let go of the wheel. “They want me. They want to keep me safe.”
His warmth is next to me somehow, pressing against me. His hands wrap around mine, positioning them back onto the steering wheel. The car straightens out. “I’ll keep you safe, Scout.”
I glance at him. “I don’t know if I want you to.”
“You do. Whatever you’re feeling now will pass.”
I hate him. I love him and I hate him, and I am still so fucking angry at him. He has no right to want to keep me alive when he didn’t bother to do the same for himself. The last big curve before home is approaching. It’s now or never. My hands shake on the wheel as the eyes on the side of the road get brighter and brighter. The road curves but my tires don’t. Herman’s voice booms. “No, Scout. Not now.”
His breath on my face is hot and real.
“God damn it, Herman,” I yell before turning the wheel to hug the curve of the road. My tires slip for a moment before finding safe purchase. Before I can change my mind, I’m on the last straight stretch of my journey. The road dips and I’m nestled between the pine trees, safe in a tunnel of woods from here until home.
Herman is gone. The thought of a long, empty life without him is exhausting. I make a promise to myself to call someone, anyone tomorrow. Glancing into the rearview mirror, I see the eyes turning to watch me go. They stare for just a moment before blinking into darkness.