THE NIGHT ROAD by CM Barnes
What is Hell but a hall of mirrors? That’s the question I can’t get out of my head, not after the night I saw my brother burn. Then again, maybe it would be more accurate to say, what is Hell but a hall of memories? I’m not sure if there’s a difference, and I’m not even sure if it matters. Regardless, here I am writing this down, and Frankie is gone—at least from this world. There have been no disappearances in three years, an impossibly long stretch for him should he still be what the police like to call “active”. The fact that they never found whatever’s left of his body doesn’t bother me much. Bodies often go unfound, and he was pretty good at hiding them himself. I’ve heard people are even hitchhiking the Night Road again. Hard to believe, but people are always quick to forget the worst things. That’s how we keep moving through this life, just plunging ahead and forgetting as necessary. Probably, most of them are young. Maybe they’re not from around here. Far be it from me to start pointing fingers. I knew what was happening out there a long time before anyone else did, and it still took me forever to do something about it. Of course, he was my brother. Blood has to count for something.
But I’m getting ahead of myself if I want to tell this story right. It begins much earlier, all the way back to when we were kids. Back then, I didn’t know what kind of person my twin was because I didn’t know anything about people in general. When I caught him torturing that squirrel in the woods behind the playground, I didn’t know what it meant. Poor thing was nothing but fur and gore by the time he was done with it, but that’s the kind of boy Frankie was, and it only got worse as we got older. By middle school, he was lighting fires in the field out back of the house, just burning up whatever he could find. Usually, it was trash, but sometimes it was some unlucky kid’s hat or even his shoes if he wasn’t fast enough. Frankie got real fond of explaining how anything would burn if you put enough lighter fluid on it, and I remember the stink that would come drifting in through our bedroom window, the same window he’d be thrashing around under every night while I tried to sleep.
He dropped out of high school when we were seventeen. No shame in that in and of itself, but it wasn’t because he couldn’t hack algebra or because the family needed money. Dad was a bank manager, and I think it about killed him when Frankie came home and announced he wouldn’t be going back. Not that it was a big surprise. He’d had enough disciplinary run-ins to be on a first name basis with the principal and a couple of the town deputies. Keep in mind, this was back in the day when you had to really do something to get the cops involved. Certainly, no one was coming around the house trying to lure him back, and I think the only person outside of our home who cared at all was that recruiting officer. Army’s got to make its quota, and, like I said, Frankie was smart enough. He passed whatever test they needed him to pass, and they shipped him off to South Korea. Hard to say what he was up to during those years. I was keeping my nose to the stone. One of us had to make Dad proud.
I was a little surprised when he took the long hauler job after he got back. I was still off at college, and I’d assumed Frankie was permanently lost to our hometown for the world at large. We definitely weren’t exchanging letters. But then he called me up to say that he’d rented a place back in town and would be earning his living hauling timber loads up and down Highway 6—the Night Road as we’d always called it as kids. There wasn’t a single streetlight on it anywhere beyond the city limits all the way up to Canada, just mile upon mile of dark pavement winding through even darker woods. Eventually, it reached some resort towns, and it was a popular drive for tourists and out-of-town kids working their summers away in the guest lodges, but we locals tended to avoid it. It didn’t go anywhere we needed to be.
No. That’s not true. This is another place where I have to be honest. There was something about the Night Road that just didn’t feel good. It’s hard to imagine how a road could feel bad, exactly, but even peddling your bike along it in broad daylight had that effect. There was something about all those looming trees, all that twisting black pavement, that said, And just where do you think you’re going? that could make your neck hairs prick. I wasn’t alone in thinking that way either. None of the kids I went to school with liked to be on that road, not even in high school when it would have been a great place to slip away to drink beer or make-out, especially in winter when there was no one out there but hitchhikers and truckers. In that way, Frankie’s choosing to become the latter wasn’t all that surprising. He’d always been anti-social, and a job cruising the Night Road was about as far from society as you could get where we grew up. Still, I can’t help but think that the road must have played some part in what happened next. I’m not saying a road can cause you to do bad things, not all by itself, but every hall of mirrors needs a path, even the darkest ones.
The first girl disappeared the night I moved back to town. She was an out-of-towner—most of them were—and was only passing through on her way up north to work at one of the lodges for the summer. They put up a lot of flyers for her, and I remember she had a sweet face and a smile that suggested a willingness to give someone the benefit of the doubt. That’s to say, the kind of face that had no business hitchhiking, especially on the Night Road. It’s funny, isn’t it, how quick we can be to blame the victim? I remember thinking that if she’d just been smart enough to ask someone at her school to give her a ride, she would have been fine. There was a regular stream of kids like her flowing north that time of year. But no. She’d had to be independent, and now she was missing—missing and probably dead. They never say that on the flyers, but you always know it’s true.
The second girl went missing a couple months later. This was at the height of summer, tourist season, and she’d been driving up to rendezvous with her family at one of the parks. She’d last been seen driving through town where she’d stopped to buy a sandwich at the gas station. I had a job in town myself by then at the county clerk’s office across the street, and I probably saw her go by out my window. I might even have seen her little red VW Bug filling up at the pump. It’s hard to remember for sure. They put up some flyers for her too, but not as many, almost like the town was already trying to forget what was going on, or at least look past it. I suppose I was as guilty as anyone. I hardly gave her a second thought.
The third girl was a local, and that made her disappearance a little harder for everyone to ignore. I even remember talking to Frankie about it, which was something, because we didn’t talk much. He’d called me up late one night after getting off the road, and I was surprised to hear from him because usually he kept to himself as fall came on. It had always been an introspective season for him, even when we were kids. But there was his deep voice, so different from my own, coming through the line.
“Do you ever think about what comes after this life?” he said. “Do you think we get judged—you know, like someone who’s got to pay for his crimes?”
“I don’t know, Frank,” I told him. “But I’m guessing that, if we do, we don’t have to pay forever.”
“And that makes you feel better?”
“Sure. Wouldn’t it you?”
“I don’t know, brother. I just don’t know.”
It was a pretty introspective conversation, especially for Frankie and me, and I figured that he must have some heavy stuff on his mind, hauling those timber loads up and down the Night Road through the dark. The trucker’s life is a solitary one. Anyone will tell you that. All those hours alone in the cab with nothing for company but the radio and maybe the rain hissing like soft static on your windshield. At night, you pull over somewhere and flop down on the bunk in the back. In the morning, you take a piss in the weeds behind the rig. It’s the kind of life where it’s hard to even know if you’re alive—not unless you pick someone up and they can confirm it for you. But, even then, you’re not in the clear. Because what if you’re not all-the-way sure that they are alive? What if you’re just imagining them? What if all the stories of pain and hope and hurt they pour out are really just yours reflecting back to you off the nothingness riding by your side?
These are the kind of thoughts Frankie must have been working through at the time. It’s the only way I can begin to understand what he was doing.
They found the fourth girl’s body in a ditch along the Night Road in October. Unlike the others, she hadn’t disappeared completely, and this drove home the fact that something awful was happening out there in a way that no one in town could ignore. That didn’t mean people couldn’t make excuses. Probably it was a drifter, they said, or maybe some big city criminals trafficking in drugs. The fact that very few drifters, let alone big city criminals, ever passed through town didn’t stop this kind of speculation. Nor did the fact that the second girl’s purse full of cash and credit cards had been left behind in her Bug. Of course, not everyone knew about the purse. The police weren’t spreading that information around.
This fourth girl, her name was Rosaline Lund—Rosy to her friends—and she’d been in me and Frankie’s graduating class. Neither of us were close with her, but Frankie had been a fan from a distance, if you know what I mean. I don’t blame him. She was pretty. She was also married to a great big idiot named Donnie Haskins, and I think it bothered everyone, Frankie included, to think about her going home to him every night. I know I thought about it from time to time myself while I was pushing papers at the clerk’s office. She had this coal black hair that belied her name. It was fine and shimmering in the sunlight and even better in the moonlight. I can attest to that even now.
I only brought her up with Frank once, and, when I did, he was more than a little odd on the subject.
“Do you remember that hair?” I said. “My God, that hair was fine—not that I want to dwell on it, not anymore.”
He nodded once like I was looking into a mirror of my own thoughts.
“Sure,” he said. “With hair like that, you wouldn’t want to be out walking the Night Road after dark. A pair of headlights might catch it like the moon.”
“Why on earth would Rosy have been out walking the Night Road, Frank?”
“Can’t say. Maybe Big Donnie drove her to it? Stranger things have happened, brother.”
And I suppose he was right, but when I think back on that conversation, I wonder now if he was trying to tell me something, maybe even warn me about what he was up to. But I don’t know for sure. I probably never will, but I like to think this was the moment he was trying to clue me in. There has to have been a moment, right? Someone can’t hold that much evil inside them without a little bit of it spilling out. Otherwise, what kind of world are we living in? How could you ever trust anyone, let alone believe a word they say?
The fifth girl was a drifter, and no one reported her missing until the dead of January, even though she’d likely been gone a long time before that. It’s probably hard to bury a body in January. The ground’s deep frozen, and it knocks the shovel away like a bear shaking off a wasp. They only found part of her, suggesting that she’d been broken up into pieces, and what they did find had been burned. One can only imagine that kind of stink—except I didn’t have to. I already had plenty of experience with what enough lighter fluid and determination can accomplish. It also wasn’t very hard to imagine how that smell could cling to your clothes, especially if you happened to be cooped up in a truck cab for hours on end. Of course, that would be nothing compared to what you’d confront in the trailer if some of the original source was still back there. I’m not saying I know for sure that he hauled some of her around for a while. It’s just a strong suspicion I chose not to share with the authorities.
Did I mention they came to talk with me? I guess they were coming to suspect someone like Frankie by then, if not Frankie himself. He was probably still on their radar from his wild high school days, and by then at least a few people knew he was driving the Night Road regularly. In fact, he was one of the only people doing so at that point, as everyone who knew anything was avoiding it even more than usual. With the tourist trade gone dormant for the winter, there was hardly anyone out there but him, and the sheriff pointed this out to me in no uncertain terms. What could I say? That I suspected my twin brother of committing a handful of murders out of the back of his logging truck? Like I said, blood has to count for something. Memories do too, and not all of mine of Frankie were bad. Despite his tendencies, we shared quite a few things as well—more than I would like to admit, if I’m being totally honest (which is what I’m trying to do here).
Of course, I denied everything for him. And even though I couldn’t place him at any of the times when the murders were thought to be committed, the sheriff had to take my word, as he couldn’t place him either. The fact that I couldn’t even place myself never came up. I guess making Dad proud with that college degree counted for something. However, I couldn’t just let things go anymore, not after the law had come knocking on my door. I had to talk to Frankie, and I had to talk to him very directly. Unfortunately, he happened to be out of town on one of his long runs up north. It was impossible to even say where he was, let alone get him on the phone. He didn’t carry a cell, and he didn’t like to take messages.
So, I did the next best thing, which was to start driving the Night Road myself. Why, I still can’t say. I don’t think it was as simple as thinking I could catch him before he did it again. That seems as stupid as it does unlikely. Instead, I think I was trying to atone for him in some way, like maybe having a sympathetic set of wheels out there would somehow make up for his murderous ones. I know that doesn’t make sense. The universe doesn’t work that way. You don’t get to balance out the bad actions of another with good ones of your own. But it’s tempting to think that way, isn’t it? If it were true, then you could break that hall of mirrors, burn that hall of memories, just by being a better person. In other words, you could escape whatever judgment’s coming. Pull your own ass out of the flames.
I finally caught up with him on a snowy night in mid-February. His rig was pulled over by the side of the road only a few miles north of town. I knew it was him right away because I know my rigs, and that was Frankie’s Mack sure as I was driving my own... (What was I driving? I don’t remember now.) In any case, there it was, its big diesel idling away but with no running lights on, almost like Frankie wanted to disappear into the foggy darkness surrounding the Night Road. He couldn’t disappear from me though, and I got out with my flashlight and lighter fluid bottle in hand. I don’t know for certain if I already knew what I was up to. It was like my own mind had already driven off by that point. No, not driven off, but split off—split itself into pieces so part of it could deal with what I found, and the rest could handle whatever came next.
I do remember I went around the side of the rig to talk. I figured Frankie had to be sleeping in the cab—sleeping or doing something worse—but he wasn’t in there, and that left only one other place he could be. It’s not easy to get trailer doors open on a cold night, but I managed to before my hands went numb against the icy latch. I swung them open, and there he was, plain as the bare, white bulb going over his head. He was stooped over something dark in between the bales of timber lashed to the walls. He had a hatchet in hand, an arc of cold steel that glittered in my flashlight beam, and, when he looked up at me, I saw the red on his face. I’ll never forget that colour for as long as I live. I still see it sometimes in the mirror. It was streaked under his eyes, and now, somehow, it’s streaked under mine.
“Brother,” he said, “What are you doing out here?”
I don’t know how he knew it was me. I must have just looked like a dark shape behind a burning light.
“Frank,” I said to him. “This has to stop.”
He set the hatchet down next to whatever was lying in front of him and stared at me. “All right,” he said, “Then stop it.”
“I’m not. This is the way it’s got to be. I got to pay, and we both know it.”
“I’ll make it quick.”
“You make it however you got to. Just make sure you won’t be seeing me again.”
I closed the trailer doors and hooked the latch. (There’s no way out from inside a semi-trailer once you hook the latch.) Then I went back around to the cab, opened the door, and started pouring out the lighter fluid. I had plenty of it, and the cab was already hot from the heater. I remember the driver’s seat was damp, probably from his having to get in and out to warm up after cold stints in the back. (I bet it takes a long time to cut up a body with a hatchet.) By the time I tossed my lighter inside, the whole cabin was saturated, and the rising flames made a smoky stink even against the frosty night. I’ll always remember that smell too. It will always be a part of me.
The engine took a while to get going, and the trailer took even longer. It must have warmed up very slowly in there, like a pot of water gradually coming to boil. Eventually, the timber caught, and that speeded things up a little. Not much. I watched the flames take while standing a little way up the road. I wasn’t even feeling the cold anymore. When the engine blew, I took a couple steps back, and that was it.
It’s strange, but a fire that big can start to look like other things if you watch it long enough. You can start to see shapes, even figures, twisting in and out of the flames. You start to notice that there are dark spaces in a fire too, little black caves that might be hiding something, or even be a doorway to somewhere else—some other existence that’s a lot darker and hotter than this one. But then they close just as fast as they opened, and you can’t see them anymore. It gets easy to forget that they were even there—easy until you remember them again. Until you see them in a mirror burning like black coals in the spaces where your eyes should be.
I waited until that truck was nothing but a shell of cinders. Then I walked very slowly back to town.
Somewhere along the way, I threw the hatchet off into the dark, and I’ve been trying my best not to think about it ever since.