This is one such story. The woman asks the man if it is too soon to say I love you, and the man answers, oh yes, it is way too soon for that. But this is not what he means. He means it is way too late, that the story has already ended, that it never really began.
Charlie sat in the front of the pick-up looking out into the yellow light of a full prairie moon. The sky was mottled gray from the torn cloud cover, like a large sheet of gauze stretched apart, a ripped bandage seeking to mend something impossible to heal. Cindy sat back in her seat, folded her arms across her stomach, held on to herself nervously. Charlie shrugged, turned the key in the ignition and pulled away.
Krotz had really scared her. She felt certain he would come back looking for her if she didn’t leave with Charlie. She watched the vehicles in the other lanes anxiously. Krotz’s face to appear alongside suddenly. Charlie to swerve, the screech of tires and the scrape of metal. Her breath caught in her chest was difficult to release. They drove through the outskirts of the city, past strip malls, gas stations, home and garden centres, supermarkets, lumber yards, fast food outlets, clothes marts, liquidation stores, past the streetlights, the suburban homes, right out into the dark. Stars streaked across the sky, but the moon hung still.
– Do you think they are following us? Cindy looked around the small cab of the pickup, felt trapped. I want you to get us away from them, she said.
A spray of headlights in the opposite direction. Charlie read the sign for their exit ahead.
– I’ll do what I can.
Krotz was dangerous, but Charlie did not feel afraid of him. He could pay him back his money, tell him it had all been a stupid mistake, and most probably put it all behind them. Unfortunately he was not prepared to do that right now.
He saw the overpass ahead, the slip road to the side. He quickly changed lanes and exited. In the mirror the steady beam of a vehicle behind. Cindy noticed it too. Her body once again sliding outside of her control, the tremor in her hands, the fleeting intake and outtake of air. Charlie calmly steered around the curve of the road and pulled out onto the highway. He watched the vehicle behind pull out in turn, move into the outer lane and overtake him. Forwards into someone else’s future. Cindy shifted in her seat, took a deep breath of relief and held it. The tequila was wearing off and she felt a headache coming on. Ahead of them then, the bounding flight of a deer in a fruitless nighttime dash. Charlie pumped the brakes. The departing flash of its white tail.
Cindy allowed her eyes to close over, shut out the night. Charlie tuned in the radio, country and western, turned it down low. He set the truck to cruise, took his foot off the accelerator, turned off the air conditioner and lowered the window. The shaded outlines of factories and warehousing, railway tracks, empty lots. Tall pylons in the distance, their red beacons flashing. Disappearing taillights. He wiped his brow, examined the grimy sweat left on his fingers. He held the wheel and felt the passage of air through the open window.
While Cindy slept Charlie drove alongside immense fields of wheat, flax, mustard, barley, and sunflowers. All around him farm machinery, tractors, combines, balers stood stationary dwarfed by the vast Manitoba prairie. He should not have brought her along. No good could come of it.
He kept to the back roads. He had been lax in Brandon. Booking the hotel room in his own name had been downright foolish. But Charlie had not expected Krotz to give chase like this. Did not think he was worth the effort. He should phone Lydia later, make sure she was still okay. He hoped she had left his apartment, as he had suggested. He heard the rattle of a freight train cutting through the countryside to his left, carriage after carriage slowly passing in the night. Cindy jumped in her sleep. The loud metallic clanking of the tracks carried through the air, a flash of yellow eyes reflected in headlights at the side of the road, a smell of dust dry and sweet. He wiped some flickering specks of dust off the lapels of his jacket and listened to the disappearing train. Charlie Tallulah, it said, Charlie Tallulah.
Cindy woke briefly just outside of Carberry. The dark night, the small cab and Charlie. She was in the wrong place she knew. The hard bone of his shoulder, the stale aroma of his clothing. Her head ached. She ought to halt whatever was occurring right now, get out and go back. The world was black, without light, unsubstantial. Cindy and Charlie were stars in the sky. Pricks of light with no connection until someone else observed them, joined them together, made up a tale.
Cindy dozed on and off. The hiss of tires pressing against the highway, her own breathing. She slipped in and out of dreams. Drowsy moments of near reality. Back home in her farmhouse with her mother. Charlie in an armchair by the wood stove. Krotz banging at the door telling her she had to leave. Cindy wanted to run but was unable to move. Her mother again, coming in from the kitchen telling her, Lucinda, to open the door. The illumination of the dashboard, the headlights out in front. Cindy struggled to stay awake, to keep out of Krotz’s reach. She tried to talk to Charlie but her words would not come. Krotz somehow sitting on the sofa next to her mother. She forced her eyes open once more. Her head dropped suddenly. Her hands reached forward, gripped the dashboard. Cindy wondered what time it was. She saw Charlie in profile steering them clear, long since out of time.
Cindy woke again at a gas station. She looked out her window at the lights from the small convenience store and beer vendor. Charlie outside holding the gas nozzle like a gun. The locked cages of propane tanks, the sinister shadows of the pumps themselves. Fuel-filled human incarnations. A cough, stones grating against the forecourt. Cindy yawned. She could have been back in her apartment settling into sleep. The warm blankets, the soft give of the mattress, the stifling despair that there was nothing more.
Charlie screwed on the cap of the fuel tank, closed the cover and hung up the nozzle. His back to Cindy as he went in to pay. The door to the station closed behind him. She could open the door, get out of his truck and out of his life. She had no idea who he was. Transactions occurring inside at the cash desk and here too in the cab of the pickup. Cindy unable to count the cost. She reached for the handle and held it, but before she had time to decide, the door to the gas station opened, and Charlie reappeared. His black mohair suit, his white shirt, his bolo, a case of beer in hand, the gas station light glinting off the metal tips of his black leather cowboy boots.
He walked back to the pickup, sat in and put the case on the floor between them. He tore back the cardboard top, pulled out a bottle and twisted off the lid, drank down some beer and wiped his mouth with his jacket sleeve. He pulled out another bottle and threw it into Cindy’s lap. It pressed down like an uninvited hand. She opened the bottle and took a drink, felt the tension ease within her. She leaned in against Charlie’s shoulder. She was still with him, still leaving on his arm.
Charlie drove through Austin and Mac Gregor. He was a fool to have thought that Krotz would not follow him. It wasn’t just the money Krotz was after, it was him. He felt tired. They could keep driving through the night or they could find somewhere to stop and rest. If they kept on the way they were going, they would soon be in Portage La Prairie. He decided to head north into the marshlands instead. It would be a good place for Cindy to awaken in. As though she had entered another more hospitable world. In some ways this was all Charlie had ever really wanted, for someone to wake up and be grateful to him for changing their world.