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Now in its fifth year, Summer Stories is our annual short fiction series. This year’s theme: The Road Trip. We’ll feature stories from some of the region’s best writers about road trips that are memorable, strange and sometimes a bit of both. Visit Summer Stories to read this year’s entries and revisit previous editions. Buckle up!

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Summer Stories: Queen of the Road

It was Sheila, 10 years younger than I was, 60 pounds lighter, and nimble as a goat, who first had the idea, and watching her get a good grip on the lowest rail, take a little leap, and begin climbing up the stacks of that car-hauler, I remembered what she told me when we first met at the soup kitchen in Fargo: that she had once worked at a fancy Seattle supper club, doing solo trapeze acts while swinging from ropes above the heads of diners. Now, she was dangling from the trailer’s framework, silhouetted by the truck stop’s glare, testing each door in turn until she reached the red Ford Fiesta perched atop the cab like a baby turtle, gave a silent fist pump, and waved for me to follow.

I was stiff in the hips from sleeping on the floor of the Billings mission, but I didn’t want the truckers thinking I was a lot lizard, so I did a few stretches before finding a foothold and hoisting myself up. It’s not that I wasn’t afraid because I was – of the climb, of the driver who had disappeared into the Flying J, of the state troopers who might spy us – but as long as I kept moving, I would be OK. It was one of the things I had learned from Sheila: what made me drink myself nearly dead wasn’t the fear of going forward with my life but of staying in one place. The demons couldn’t find me, she said, if I didn’t stop moving because they needed a slow body to settle into, which is why they liked to keep me on my back and helped me tip the bottle when I got too weak to do it myself. I was three months sober when I stood at the bottom of that hauler, and I’d found what Sheila said to be true: walking, hitchhiking, jumping a freight, slipping inside the belly of a Greyhound – I didn’t have time to be sad. I had to stay fleet, Sheila said, which is why she rationed my food and why, once I started, I knew I couldn’t stop climbing that cage of shiny new cars. By the time I reached the top, I felt lighter, safer, like no one would ever find me up there, not even my demons. Sheila was already in the driver’s seat.

“Why not the Explorer or Escape?” I said. “At least the Escort.”

“Locked,” she said. “You want to drive?”

“Funny,” I said. She knew I didn’t know how. “Which way?”

“Guess we’ll find out,” she said. She levered back her seat, crossed her arms, and fell asleep. No matter where we were, Sheila could conk out like a cat, but I had to stay awake to see where we were going. I watched the doors of the Flying J open and close, open and close, watched each driver veer off to a different rig until a pudgy fellow wearing slippers and carrying a burger bag made for our Peterbilt and pulled himself in.

“We’re moving,” I said, but Sheila didn’t stir.

The lake of lights disappeared behind us as we took the entrance ramp onto I-90 headed west. It was nearing midnight, and I had no idea how far we had to go. All I could see was the road in front of me and the other cars passing by. Part of me wished I could climb down into the cab with Slippers, have a bite of a burger, and talk through the night, but I’d given up talking to men about the time I got sober and nothing they said made sense anymore.

Another hour, and the traffic thinned. I kept my eyes on the glow we cast, imagining that I was the captain of a ship sailing a dark ocean, or maybe I was inside the lighthouse, warning the ship from shore. I thought it was seasickness setting in until I recognized the pain I felt was my stomach chewing on itself.

“Sheila,” I said, and shook her. “Where’s that Rice Krispy Treat?” I’d seen her pocket it before leaving the mission, where taking extra rations was forbidden because there wasn’t enough food to go around. Our last night there, she had glared at the other women in their bunks, said she’d cut anyone she caught thieving her food, then nodded at me. “Big Mary’s got my back,” she said. A minute later, she was asleep. I had waited until the last light was out before sliding my hand beneath her mattress and finding the package of teriyaki jerky. The surprise inside was a shiv she had made of a spoon, its handle honed against concrete. I pulled the thin blanket over my head, slid the blade into the sheath of my bra, and ate every piece of the jerky. If Sheila smelled it on me the next morning, she never said. Maybe she was biding her time.

It was almost dawn by the time we took Exit 286 into Spokane and the Flying J, which was beginning to feel like home. Slippers left the diesel running while he went inside.

Sheila opened her door. “Better pee while we can.”

“I’m good,” I said. The thought of lowering myself down the stacks and pulling myself back up again made my shoulders ache.

She came back with a pocketful of condiments. I stripped a packet of ketchup between my teeth and saw Slippers come out with a bottle of Gatorade. We ducked until we were rolling again, headed west.

“Seattle,” I said.

“Blood money,” Sheila said. Not her blood, but mine. No one wanted her junkie plasma. “I need some real shut-eye,” she said, and weaseled into the backseat.

I waited a few minutes before sliding across the console to the driver’s side. I adjusted the rearview and side mirrors and pretended I was steering, slowing into the corners, speeding out. I shook my fist at imaginary drivers, laid on the horn without touching it, veered right then left. “Get off the road!” I hissed. “Who taught you to drive? Helen Keller?” I was sure that no one could see me, although maybe I wished that they could. Up there like a queen on her throne, I was as high as I’d ever been. I might have stayed there longer, but my bladder began to ache. I moved back into the passenger seat, afraid what Sheila might do if she saw I had taken her place.

“Sheila,” I said. “I got to pee.”

She groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. If I had been in the cab with Slippers, I might have convinced him to pull over, but he was long-haul, and I knew he was going to drink his Gatorade, fill the bottle back up again, and toss it out the window.

I was beginning to sweat. The car’s windows, the AC, the fan – all useless without a key.

“Sheila,” I said. “I can’t wait.”

“You’re a pain in the ass, Big Mary.” She sat up, stretched then pulled herself into the driver’s seat. “You’re going to have to hang it out.”

What choice did I have? I could wet myself – something I hadn’t done since getting sober – or I could take my chances with the wind.

“I’m going for it,” I said.

“Atta girl,” Sheila said.

I pulled down my pants and wedged open the door just enough to clear.

“I got you,” Sheila said. She grasped each of my wrists, and I grasped hers. I felt twice her size, the difference between us impossible to balance. The overhead illuminated the scar that arced her chin like a quarter moon.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Let fly.”

But I couldn’t. All my organs had seized up. I felt like a water balloon about to burst.

“Come on, Big Mary,” she said. “You know you can trust me.” I felt her fingers loosen. “Just like I trusted you.”

I gripped harder and tried to pull myself in, but she gave me slack.

“Please,” I said, my eyes watering. “I didn’t do it.”

“Do what?” Sheila asked. “What didn’t you do?”

She let go of one wrist, and I clawed at the air.

“How much longer are you going to hang on,” she said, “before you let it go?” She smiled, and I saw the corners of her mouth stained with mustard.

“You can have it back,” I said, and reached in my bra for the shiv.

“What about the jerky?” she said.

“I swear I’ll buy you more,” I said. “Blood money, remember?”

She looked at my white-knuckled fingers digging into her arm, took the shiv, and made a quick slash across my wrist. I didn’t let go, but that’s when my bladder released. She hauled me back in before I could faint, cut a strip from my shirt, and bandaged me up.

“You should have known better, Big Mary,” she said. “After all that I’ve taught you.”

That night, just coming into Ellensburg, I left Sheila asleep at the wheel, shimmied down the hauler as it slowed at the Flying J, and reported her to the state trooper I saw eating his patty melt. Over the next several months, I learned when to climb up and when to climb down. I started swabbing truck stop toilets in exchange for PJ Fresh salads and fruit cups. By Thanksgiving, I had lost the pounds booze had packed on and was as muscled as an acrobat. Every now and then, a trucker would invite me to share his bunk, but the only offer I accepted was from the auto-haulers. It started with a nod my way, and, pretty soon, they were pointing me to the top stacks, the highest rungs, the most luxurious SUVs with fully reclining seats, doors they’d left unlocked. When they started giving me the keys, I could turn on the heat, AC, operate the windows, listen to Sirius, as long as I didn’t kill the battery. Just after New Year’s, they began to hire me to drive the autos on and off the ramps, and I could pay for my food, take a double shower. They offered me training, said I could lease my own big rig, but why would I? My place was at the top, where I could chart my course by the stars, nothing on earth to bother me.

Sometimes, I like to imagine Sheila waking alone in that little red Fiesta to the sound of hydraulics and a knock at her window. I knew they’d lock her up for a night or two – trespassing, maybe vagrancy – long enough for me to put distance between us, remembering what she had taught me.

You’ve got to keep moving, leave your demons behind.