This story is by Tim Horne and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A blast of cold air greeted him when he unzipped the flap and stepped into the early dawn. Yesterday’s hike had taken him far from the clamour of civilisation into a secluded area in the Rocky Mountains near Revelstoke. Stirring the glowing embers from last night’s campfire, he added some dry twigs and poured cold water from his thermos into a pot. Then, while waiting for it to boil, he leaned against a tree, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. The aroma of the burning wood blending with the fresh morning scent of pine filled his grateful lungs.
Minutes later, and armed with a steaming cup of coffee, he walked from the tent clearing towards the pebbly stream running beside it. From that vantage point, the mountain that the night before had seemed like a black menacing presence came into view. While the sky brightened with the promise of day, he could only now appreciate its size and the varied shades of green that clothed it. Only the summit was uncovered and grey with stone. Sitting on a boulder beside the bubbling water, his soul was bathed in peace.
As the morning rays caressed the peak, their brightness made the stones shimmer and dance. Then, with the sun’s ascent, the darkness that enveloped the mountain fell away and revealed more of its terrible beauty. At the same time, it seemed to open his eyes to the depth of the pain and anger that crippled him. He stood up, and as he did, the weight of the past drained from his body. He knew he was not alone in that sacred place. In fact, he knew he would never be alone again.
Carrying loneliness was something Dan had done for many years. It started when the fun-loving 9-year-old boy lost both his parents to a drunk driver. It happened on their yearly summer vacation road trip. They lived on the outskirts of a small town in Ontario and having gone east the year before, decided to head west and go hiking in the Canadian Rockies. It sounded exciting to Dan, but he wasn’t aware that between his house and the craggy peaks lay the seemingly interminable expanse of the prairies. After a long day on the road, with the red sun disappearing beyond the undulating sea of wheat, Dan fell asleep in the back seat. Behind the wheel, his father was dozing off too. A shout from his mother startled her husband, but he didn’t have enough time to react to the car coming towards them in their lane. The sharp screech of the tires and crunch of the folding metal shattered Dan’s sleep. The impact caused their car to fly off the road, that moment of weightlessness ending when it hit the ground, twisted and began rolling deeper into the field. Dan’s little body was violently slammed from side to side. His mother and father didn’t survive the collision, crushed by the collapsing roof. After the car settled, a heavy silence fell like a curtain over the scene. Dan didn’t remember how he escaped the twisted wreckage, but when the police got there around 20 minutes later, they found him running around and around the car, his forehead dripping with blood from a jagged gash that ended where his tawny eyebrows began. Paramedics grabbed the boy, wrapped him in a blanket, and laid him down before the ambulance took him to a nearby hospital for stitches and a more general checkup. It was there he learned he was on his own.
Moving from foster home to foster home for the next seven years, Dan dropped out of school at age sixteen. Some foster families were better than others, but none kept him long enough to make him feel he belonged. With each new place came the need to adapt to a new “family” with its different rules, new schools and the pressure of always being “the new kid.” It was enough to make him forget what happiness was. Dan’s way of coping was to retreat into himself and over the years was transformed into a serious, shy young man. Whether or not it was intentional, even his appearance, the long hair covering his dark eyes and pimply cheeks, as well as the baggy clothes he wore, all contributed to his invisibility. After leaving school, Dan got a job packing groceries, and moved out of foster care and into an unfurnished apartment. Alcohol was his only comfort.
Dan slid into a gradual decline. The more he drank the worse things got. The manager of the store moved him from packing groceries into the stockroom. Some loyal customers complained about his gloominess and sloppiness. His addiction cost him that job and then his apartment. He didn’t care enough about himself to even want to do something about his problem. Now twenty-three, and nothing holding him there, he set off with his rucksack full and his thumb the ticket to get to BC.
It was slow going, but at Thunder Bay he picked up a ride with a grizzled old trucker looking for some company on the long haul to Calgary. By now, Dan knew his role as the captive audience and became adept at throwing in a well-timed “uh-huh” or “really?” to make it seem he was listening. That was the price to pay for the free ride. One thing Dan believed was that everything came with a cost.
As they approached Summerberry, Saskatchewan, his driver started telling him a story. “Yeah, like I said, I’ve been driving this road for over 20 years now, but I’ll never forget this stretch right here because of what happened one night,” he started. “I have seen a lot of fender-benders, but once, almost twenty years ago now, I watched as one car wandered into the lane in front of me and sideswiped a nice family whose car shot off into that field, and right there,” he pointed, “is where it stopped.” “Saddest thing you ever saw-little kid had a big cut on his head, but his parents were dead.” Enthralled by what he was saying, Dan needed to know more and started asking the driver questions. “Where was it?” ‘ “What happened to the other driver?” According to the trucker, the other driver didn’t stop after forcing the car off the road and there was no one else around. He told of how he pulled the rig over to the side of the highway and ran into the field to help anyone that might have survived the horrendous crash. “When I got there, I could see the parents didn’t have a chance. The little guy in the back seat was hurt, so I pulled him out, and then he just started running around the car, yelling ‘Yucky! Yucky.’’ He continued: “I chased him, but the little fella was fast, so I left him and went back to my truck to call it in.” Walter added: “I couldn’t stick around on account o’ my wife calling me to tell me she was sick and heading to the hospital. When I heard the sirens coming, I knew the boy would be ok and drove off.” “I wonder what happened to that kid and every time I come by this spot, say a little prayer for him.” He went quiet and Dan stole a quick glance to see his lips moving soundlessly.
The surprise Dan experienced at finding himself sitting beside a man who witnessed the last moments of his parent’s life was enough to make him pull the greasy hair back from his forehead and say: “Look at this scar sir. I think I am that little boy you rescued.”
For the next 8 hours, Walter talked. He shared his wife had a heart attack and died that day. His life went into a spiral of loneliness and dark thoughts of suicide. He also talked about his struggle with alcohol and the AA group that saved his life. Walter had questions for Dan, too. Dan surprised himself by opening up and talking about his life. Walter told Dan he had never stopped thinking about him and often asked his higher power to help them meet one day. “And here you are,” he said with a huge grin. This stranger had carried his memory for almost fifteen years! When Walter invited him to get a fresh start and live at his place, Dan couldn’t say “No,” – who can argue with fate? Months later, Dan called Calgary home, joined Walter’s AA group, and was three months sober. For the first time in many years, he felt hopeful about the future. There was one job he needed to do, and that is why he asked Walter to drop him off near Revelstoke for an overnight hike. It was time to say “goodbye.”