The Highway of Regrets.

by Nick Engelfried.

Angelica O’Neil is in a car, steering wheel clenched tight in her fists, driving away from the only life she has known for the last ten years. She feels as if her life has ended. It is 1991, and Angelica is twenty-eight years old.

Her nine-year-old son, Jeremy, sits in the passenger’s seat. He is strangely silent. No doubt he realizes it is because of him they are leaving. Probably he will carry this knowledge with him always. It will haunt him forever, just as Angelica’s own regrets always stay with her.

Angelica curses herself silently, for she should have saved Jeremy from this. No matter how many times she tells him this was not his fault, he will never quite believe it. The irony here is that it really isn’t his fault—it is Angelica’s, all hers. She should have gotten them out of that place much sooner.

The bruise on Jeremy’s perfect face will heal in a few days. But the other, invisible scars will never leave him.

Angelica looks through the rainy fog obscuring the highway. It is thick, cloying, the kind of fog she has gotten used to after years of living on the Washington Coast. There was fog around the mountains where Angelica grew up, too. But surely not like this—at least, Angelica doesn’t think the fog at home got this thick and heavy.

She winces as she realizes what she has just thought. Despite what she has told herself, even after all this time, she still thinks of the small town where she grew up, in the North Cascades’ shadow, as her real home. Well, now she is going back.

The smallest finger on her right hand throbs with dull pain. She wonders, almost idly, if it is broken again. No matter—it is a relatively small injury compared to others she has sustained. Angelica has grown so used to having parts of her crushed, displaced, and broken, one small finger hardly seems worth mentioning.

Angelica bites her lip. She is used to being broken. But she’d told herself she could keep Jeremy from having to experience that pain.

“We’re going to Uncle Duane and Aunt Mable’s house, aren’t we?” Jeremy asks. It’s the first thing he has said in almost an hour.

“Yes,” Angelica says. She had not told him where they were going. But Jeremy is an intelligent child, almost uncannily perceptive, and of course they have driven this way before. It doesn’t surprise her that he has guessed their destination.

“We won’t ever go back home, will we?” Jeremy asks, his voice solemn.

“No, we won’t,” Angelica says. There is no point in lying. Then her voice chokes. “It’s my fault, Jeremy. You have to believe that. My fault and no one else’s.”

Jeremy doesn’t say anything.

The fog, at last, is starting to clear. To one side of the highway young Douglas-firs push skyward, straight as telephone poles. Angelica smiles, for the first time in what feels like forever. They are in real Doug fir country now, a land of fast-growing and aggressive trees. The gentler coastal forests of soft-blue Sitka spruce have vanished in the distance behind them.

Then Angelica’s eyes flicker to the other side of the highway, to the clear-cuts. They stretch into the distance, too. The entire landscape has been cut into squares, green tree farm squares interspersed with brown squares of clear-cut. Angelica comes from a logging family, and she is used to clear-cutting. She is certainly no tree hugger. She doesn’t know, then, why the sight of these ghostly, barren clearings suddenly makes her shiver.

Perhaps she’s just seen too much of broken things. Angelica can still see the look on Jeremy’s face as he reeled backwards earlier that day, looking more surprised than hurt from the impact of the huge hand he’d thought he could trust. Angelica can hear the sickening impact of Jeremy hitting the ground, see the shock in his eyes as he moved his tongue around his mouth and tasted blood. She can still hear her own frantic screams.

Just once, Angelica would like to drive down this highway and see nothing but unbroken green. She would like to see a whole forest. She has known enough of broken things.

“Do you think Uncle Duane will let me hold his saw this time?” Jeremy asks.

Angelica smiles again. For a moment, she allows herself to think Jeremy might be distracted—that he might be permanently tempted into forgetting. “I don’t think so,” she says. Of course, the child is much too young to hold a chain saw. “But he might let you watch him cutting logs again, if you ask.”

For the last two hours, Angelica has survived by looking only a few minutes ahead. Now, at last, she begins to seriously consider the future. She pictures her nine-year-old son standing in the sawdust in the old wood shed behind her older brother’s house, grinning at the whirring chain saw blades that for some reason seem to fascinate him. She sees the gentleness in Duane’s eyes as he shows the child around.

Angelica’s fingers clench the steering wheel a little less tightly. Perhaps her life hasn’t ended after all.

The car rounds a bend in the highway, and another recently-cut mountainside looms in front of them. Angelica shivers again, her smile vanishing. She can’t escape the feeling that it’s all connected somehow—these scars on the landscape, the broken bone in her hand, the bruise on Jeremy’s face. But of course she is being silly.

Angelica drives on with her damaged child beside her, into the green and brown mountains.

 

 

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