The Dead Roads by D.W. Wilson
They youngest winner (So far) of the BBC Short story prize.. it was hard to find but I thought I’d share:
Read the winner of the BBC National Short Story award
One time we roadtripped across the country with Animal Brooks, and he almost got run over by a pickup truck partway through Alberta. It was me and my twenty-year-old girlfriend Vic and him, him in his cadpat jumpsuit, Vic in her flannel logger coat and her neon hair that glowed like a bush-lamp. We’d known Animal since grade school: the north-born shitkicker, like Mick Dundee. A lone ranger, or something. Then in 2002 the three of us crammed into his ’67 Camaro to tear-ass down the Trans-Canada at eighty miles an hour. Vic and me had a couple hundred bucks and time to kill before she went back to university. That’d make it August, or just so. Animal had a way of not caring too much and a way of hitting on Vic. He was twenty-six and hunted looking, with engine-grease stubble and red eyes sunk past his cheekbones. In his commie hat and Converses he had that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag, dragging foot after foot with his knees loose and his shoulders slumped. He’d drink a garden hose under the table if it looked at him wrong. He once boned a girl in some poison ivy bushes, but was a gentleman about it. An ugly dent caved his forehead and rumours around Invermere said he’d been booted by a cow and then survived.
Vic stole shotgun right from the get-go and Animal preferred a girl beside him anyway, so I’d squished in the back among our gear. We had a ton of liquor but only a two-man tent because Animal didn’t care one way. He’d packed nothing but his wallet and a bottle-rimmed copy of The Once and Future King, and he threatened to beat me to death with the Camaro’s dipstick if he caught me touching his book. His brother used to read it to him before bed, and that made it an item of certain value, a real point of civic pride.
The Camaro’s vinyl seats smelled like citrus cleaner. First time I ever got a girl pregnant was in Animal’s backseat, but I didn’t want to mention it since Vic would’ve ditched out then and there. Vic’ll crack you with a highball glass if you say the wrong thing, she can do that. We weren’t really dating, either. She just came home in the summers to visit her old man and score a few bucks slopping mortar, and we’d hook up. I don’t know anyone prettier than Vic. She’s got a heart-shaped face and sun freckles on her chin and a lazy eye when she drinks and these wineglass-sized breasts I get to look at sometimes. On the West Coast she bops around with a university kid who wears a sweater and carries a man purse. Her dad showed me a picture of the guy, all milk-jug ears and a pinched nose that’d bust easy in a fight. Upper-middle-class, horizon-in-his-irons, that type. Not that I can really complain, I guess. Vic never mentioned him and I never mentioned him and we went about our business like we used to, like when we were sixteen and bent together in the old fur-trading fort up the beach on Caribou Road.
Vic planned our journey with a 1980s road atlas she snagged from her dad’s material shed. Animal kept his hand on the stick shift so he could zag around semis hauling B.C. timber to the tar sands. Whenever he geared to fifth his palm plopped onto Vic’s thigh. Each time, she’d swat him and give him the eyebrow and he’d wink at me in the rearview. —Dun worry, Duncan, I wouldn’t do that to ya, he’d say, but I know Animal.
For the first day we plowed east through the national park. Cops don’t patrol there so Animal went batshit. His Camaro handled like a motorbike and it packed enough horse to climb a hill in fifth, and I don’t know if he let off the gun the whole way. He held a Kokanee between his legs and gulped it whenever the road straightened. Animal was a top-notch driver. As a job, he manned a cargo truck for this organic potato delivery service. One time he spun an e-brake slide at forty miles per hour, so me and him could chase down these highschoolers who’d hucked a butternut squash through his windshield.
To kill time, Animal bought a Playboy and handed it to Vic. He suggested she do a dramatic read if possible. At first she gave him the eye, but he threatened to have me do it if not her. He also handed her all the receipts for gas and food and booze to keep track of, on account of her higher education, but I’m not even sure Vic did much math. At university she studied biology and swamplands, and I like to think I got her into it, since there’s a great wide marsh behind this place we used to get shitfaced at. It’s a panelboard bungalow on the outskirts of town, built, Vic figures, on floodland from the Sevenhead River. Vic and me used to stash our weed in the water, pinned under the vegetation band. One time we stole election signs and ditched them in the marsh, and the Valley Echo printed a headline that said the cops didn’t know to call it vandalism or a political statement. Neither did I really, since Vic planned the whole thing. Then last summer I asked her to muck around the marsh with me but she said we really shouldn’t, because it’s drying up. She had a bunch of science to prove it. —Something has to change, Dunc, she said, pawing at me. —Or there’ll be nothing left.
Eventually Animal bored of the Trans-Canada, so he veered onto some single-lane switchback that traced the Rocky Mountains north. I thought Vic’d be distressed but turned out she expected it. She shoved the road atlas under the seat and dug a baggie of weed from her pack. Later, we played punch buggy, but I couldn’t see much from the back and Vic walloped me on the charley horse so goddamn hard I got gooseskins straight down to my toes.
The sign said, Tent Camping – $15, and Animal said, —Fuck that shit, and then he booted the sign pole, for good measure. He plunked himself on the Camaro’s cobalt hood and rubbed his eyes. We’d been on the road for a while, and I don’t remember if he ever slept much. The air smelled like forest fire and it also reeked of cow shit, but Alberta usually reeks of cow shit. Vic leaned into the door frame, hip cocked to one side like a teenager. Her flannel sleeves hung too low and she bunched the extra fabric in each fist. She chewed a piece of her hair. When we used to date I would tug those strands out of her mouth and she’d ruck her eyebrows to a scowl and I’d scramble away before she belted me one. It was starting to turn to evening. In the low Albertan dusk her bright hair shone the colour of whiskey. She caught me staring, winked.
Vic slid her hands in her jean pockets. —I got fifteen bucks.
—Yeah I bet ya do, Animal said.
—What the hell does that mean?
—Et’s Duncan’s cash, enn’it?
—Just some, Vic said.
—I got more money ‘en Duncan, ya know.
—Shut your mouth, Animal, I told him.
—Jus sayin, he said, and ducked into the driver seat.
We reached someplace called Shellyoak and Animal called all eyes on the lookout for a campsite. He drove through the town’s main haul, where the Camaro’s wide nose spanned the lane past centre. A ways out, the Rockies marked the border home. This far north their surfaces were dotted with pine husks – grey, chewed-out shells left over from the pine beetle plague. Not a living tree in sight. Shellyoak’s buildings were slate brick with round chimneys and tiny windows high as a man’s chin. A group of kids smoked dope on a street bench and Vic hollered for directions and one waved up the lane with an arm so skinny it flailed like an elastic. —Near the amusement park, he called.
Big rocks broke the landscape on Shellyoak’s outskirts, and Vic figured it used to be under a glacier. Animal was dead silent the whole way. I guess the bony trees irked him, that carcass forest. The stink of woodsmoke blasted from the fan and it reminded me of the chimneys that burned when I used to scrape frost off Vic’s windshield, all those mornings after I stayed the night at her place. One time her dad was in the kitchen as I tried to sneak out, and he handed me a coffee and some ice shears and told me to keep in his good books. Then he said Vic and me made a good pair, us two, but if I got her pregnant he’d probably beat me to death with an extension cord. He grinned like a boy, I remember. Then he said, —Seriously though, ya make a good pair. A few minutes later Vic tiptoed downstairs and her old man clapped me on the shoulder like a son, and Vic smiled as if she could be happier than ever.
Animal yawed us around a bend and all at once the horizon lit up with a neon clown head big as an RV. From our angle, it looked as if the clown also had rabbit ears, flopped down like two bendy fluorescent scoops. The highway’d gone gravel and the Camaro’s tires pinged pebbles on the undercarriage. In the distance I saw a Ferris wheel rocking like a treetop, but not much else in the park to speak of. Animal geared down and this time when he laid his palm on Vic’s knee he didn’t take it off, and she didn’t smack him. He still winked at me in the rearview, though. A second later Vic shook his hand away.
—Christ, it’s a gas station too, Vic said, pointing at the pumps hidden in the clown’s shadow. Animal steered toward them, tapped the fuel gauge with its needle at quarter-tank.
—You’ve got enough, I said, but he didn’t so much as grunt.
He parked at the first pump and unfolded from the vehicle. Vic popped her seat forward so I could climb out. Figures milled inside the gas station and their outlines peered through the glass. A painted sign that said Tickets, 5 bucks hung above the door. On it, somebody’d drawn a moose. Animal started pumping gas. He tweaked his eyebrows at me. —Well?
—The hell do you want now, I said.
—Go enside and ask where we ken camp, he said. He winked over my shoulder, at Vic. —Giddyup now.
—They’ll tell us to go to the pay grounds.
—Kid said we ken camp near the amusement park.
—That kid was on dope, I said.
—Yer on dope, he shot, and thrumped his fingers on the Camaro’s hood. He flashed his gums. —Go on, Skinny.
—What the fuck, Animal.
—Yer in muh way, Skinny, he said, and cocked his head to indicate Vic. —I seen better windows ‘en you.
Then the station’s stormdoor clattered and Vic yelped and I turned and saw the biggest goddamn Native man ever. He wore Carhartts and steeltoes and no shirt beneath the straps. The buckles dimpled his collar. His hair gummied to his cheeks and his head tilted at an angle. This gruesome, spider-like scar spanned his chest and the whole left nipple was sliced off, snubbed like a button nose. He leaned an arm-length calliper on his neck. Then his face jerked into a smile, but not a friendly kind. —I never seen a Camaro can run on diesel, he said, stressing his e’s.
For a second he stood there in the doorway as if he might say gotcha! Vic bunched excess sleeve in her fists and I sniffed the air to see if the place reeked like diesel engines. And there it was: the smell of carbide and tar and dirty steel. Animal stared straight at the Native guy, as if in a game of chicken instead of wrecking his engine with the wrong fuel, as if he just needed to overcome something besides the way things actually were, as if he could just be stubborn enough. Then he killed the pump and yanked the nozzle from his tank. —Where the fuck’s et say?
The guy did a shrug-a-lug. —It’s a trucker stop.
—Yeah well I’m notta trucker.
—Me neither, the guy said, and moved between Vic and me, toward the car, and the air that wafted after him stunk of B.O. His neck muscles strained to hold his head straight, like he was used to keeping it down. A scrapper’s stance, almost. I caught Vic’s attention and her forehead scrunched up and the skin at her eyes tightened like old leather. I’d never known her to be the worrying type.
—Nice car though, the guy said. He dragged a wide hand over the Camaro’s cobalt finish.
—Yeah et is.
—I’m Walla, he said, and swung his head to Vic. —This your girlfriend?
Animal banged his commie hat against his knuckles. —Ya got a pump er sompthen?
—Nup, Walla said, and stressed the p.
—Or sompthen else?
—Buddy has a siphon.
—Ken we get et?
—Nup, getting too late, he said, and pointed with one sausage finger at the darkening sky. —Tomorrow, I bet.
Animal’s mouth jawed in circles and I could all but hear his brain trying to find a way to make it all go right. —There a campsite nearby? I said, to buy time.
Walla twitched his head behind him. —The summit. Not like she’s a real mountain, though. You owe me twelve thirty-seven for the diesel.
—The hells I do, Animal said, and crossed his arms.
Walla set the callipers on the Camaro’s hood and their measurement end tinked. He swung his gaze from me to Animal to Vic, then to Animal and then at the shop. He stood nearest Vic of all, a full two and a half heads taller than her, and I swear to God he had hands big as mudflaps. —No, he said, very slowly, —you do.
Vic dug cash from her wallet, fifteen bucks. She handed it over and Walla tugged the bills one at a time. —I’ll get your change, he said, and stepped toward the station. Then, over his shoulder: —You can’t leave your car there. He grinned at Vic and his teeth were white as gold. —Well, maybe you can. Push her outta the way of the pump.
I got behind the Camaro. Animal hung at the gas tank like one of those old guys who hope somebody’ll come talk to them. —Put her in neutral, idiot, I snapped, and dug my toes into the ground and heaved and the Camaro rocked. Vic pressed her back to the bumper. —What’s happening? she whispered to me, but I grunted and got the car rolling and hoped I didn’t have to scrap with Walla.
We pushed the Camaro outside the clown face’s shadow and I put myself between Vic and the station. Walla reappeared, horselike in his gait. He dumped the coins in my palm and ran his tongue over his teeth. He touched a notch under his jaw. —The summit’d be a helluva climb, he said. —Especially if you’re taking your booze. I got a pickup.
—We can hike it, I said.
—Trade you a lift.
—Fer what, Animal barked.
—What ya got? Walla said, and rubbed his triceps. The scar tissue on his chest looked sun-dried, pinker than it ought to, and in the sticky neon light it shone raw and oily like a beating. —Aw hell, he said, —I’ll help you out. Get yer stuff.
We grabbed our beer cooler and Vic took the sleeping bag and Animal pocketed The Once and Future King. Walla disappeared around the gas station and a few minutes later he came chewing up gravel in a green three-seater Dodge. He was sardined in driver with his shoulders hunched and his knees against his armpits. The truck had a bust-out rear window and poly duct-taped in the gap. Horse quilts blanketed the box, warm with the smell of dog.
—One of you needs to sit in the bed, Walla said, then dangled his keys, —and one of you needs to drive, cause I’m shittered and the fucking pigs have it out for me.
Animal lunged for the keys and me and him shared this moment between us, his mouth twisted like a grin, and I wanted to hit him so bad. But if I whaled on him I’d look bad to Vic, so I climbed into the mess of bedding while Animal drove the switchback. The truck whipped around bends and I imagined Walla’s skunky B.O. sneaking through the patched-up window, how bad it must’ve been in the cab with him. Animal was goddamn lucky he’d pocketed his book. The whole way, Vic shifted uncomfortably, and I could hear her thighs brushing Walla on one side and Animal on the other.
We got to the summit when the sun tucked under the Rockies and everything went grey and dead-looking as the forest. Walla showed us a firepit ringed by skeleton trees where he’d piled some chopped wood. Animal collapsed near the pit to work a blaze. He waved Vic off when she offered to help, so she dug a mickey of Canadian Club from the cooler. Fifty feet off, a cliff dropped to the highway below, where the Ferris wheel keeled and the goddamn clown face smirked.
—Thanks for helping us, Vic said. She sat down on an upturned log, whiskey on her knee.
—My dad tells me if you’re cooking stew, and you don’t put meat in it, you can’t bitch when yer eating it, Walla said, and he grinned to show his pearly teeth, and Vic laughed and so did I, though I didn’t know what the hell he meant. Then he said: —Now I need a lift down to the station.
Vic froze in the middle of sipping her whiskey and Animal looked up from his smouldering fire. —What’dya mean.
—I told you, I’m shittered, and the pigs have it out for me.
—I’m buildin the fire, Animal said, but Walla had his eyes on Vic, anyway. Vic glanced from Walla to me and I knew she wouldn’t ask me to step in, because she won’t do that, ever. One time she figured out how to fix a circuit fault on her Ranger all her own, because she didn’t want to ask her old man how.
—I’ll do it, I said to Walla, and then I dumped my half-empty beer over Animal’s wimpy fire and he threatened to beat me to death with the kindling.
Walla flicked me his keys and I palmed them from the air and got in the driver seat, and he swung into passenger like a buddy. Not thirty seconds into the drive his stench soured up the cab, but at least he smelled like a working man, like he just forgot to shower, and not like some hobo. On the way down, the poly over the rear panel smacked about and more than once he leaned sideways to inspect the tape. He spread one leg across the seat, draped his arm clear out the window, and I wondered if his knuckles bobbed along the gravel. In the distance, the horizon glowed from the park lights and the treetops resembled hundreds of heated needles. I kept the highbeams on and scanned for marble eyes, since twilight is the worst time for hitting deer, but Walla told me that all the deer fled north with the beetles. —Nothin here but us and the flies, he said. —A thousand dead acres.
—The dead roads, or something.
—I don’t mind that, Walla said. Then: —They’re an odd couple, eh?
—The girl and him, Animal.
—They’re not a couple.
—The way he looks at her? Sure they are. Or gonna be, he said, and punched me on the arm like we were friends.
—He looks at all girls like that.
Walla smiled like a Mason jar. He had fillings in his teeth. —Her, too. She was lookin at him too.
The station and the clown face swept into view, and as I geared down my fist touched Walla’s knee. Vic had about zero reason to go for a guy like Animal, so I don’t know. But then I imagined the two of them bent together at that shitty fire, red marks scraped over Vic’s neck and collarbones from Animal’s barbed-wire stubble.
—You got a thing for her, eh, Walla said.
—Might be you need to take him down a notch.
—We’re buds, I said, and parked the truck.
Walla extracted himself from the passenger seat. —Nah man, he said across the hood. —We’re buds.
Whatever the hell he meant I’ll never know, since I ditched him and started back along the road, toward the summit. The whole way I thought about Animal and Vic and I tried not think about them at the same time. I’d known them so long – my two best friends, really. The outside smelled more like driftwood than a forest. Wind kicked dirt at my face and though it breezed around the treetops they just creaked like power poles. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a goddamn wolfman came pounding out of the dark. A few times headlights tear-assed up the road and a few times I almost barrelled sideways and I just got madder even thinking of it.
Then the slope evened out, which meant I neared the summit, and then the trees flickered campfire-orange. The road looped our campsite so I cut through the forest. Never been so scared in my life, those last steps. Animal atop Vic, grinding away, probably still in his stupid commie hat and his Converses – no sight in the world could be worse. I’d rather get shot. Walla was right – Animal’d been gunning for her the whole trip. Right from the start when he kicked me to the backseat, some big plan – some big, selfish plan.
I got close enough to see the flames. Vic sat under her sleeping bag, off near the cliff edge, but I could only make out her outline in the orange light. Animal was MIA. They might have already finished, how could I know. I crept along the tree line, scanned for him. Not sure what I hoped to accomplish. It’s not like he kept a dark secret.
I found him outside the campsite with his back to the slope and his cock in his hand and a stream of piss splattering on a tree. It was dark enough that I didn’t get the whole picture, thank God for that. He’d crossed the road to make use of a big pine that might have been a little bit alive – for some reason Animal really didn’t like those dead trees. I had some things to say to him. Vic’s old man once told me a guy needs to know when to pick his battles, and as I watched Animal, pissing as if nothing mattered, I figured it out: a guy needs to know what he cares about most, and Animal, well, he didn’t care about stuff. But he had to know I did. Christ, everybody in the valley knew I did. It’d be like if I tried to steal his car for a joyride. I’m his friend, for fucker’s sake.
Then a truck hauled ass up the road, kicking gravel in a spray. It had a good clip and its rear end fishtailed, out of control or so the passengers could get a laugh. Its headlamps swung around, but on that switchback the dead trees scattered the light – no way the driver would see Animal, not before clobbering him. Animal turned as if to check what the commotion was about. Either he couldn’t see or he was too stupid to dive for cover or he figured no truck would dare to run him down. I saw the trajectory, though, loud and clear: the pickup’s rear end would swing into him, knock him ass-over-teakettle into the woods, and that’d be that for Animal Brooks. But I didn’t yell out. I didn’t make a sound. Because all I could think of was his hand on Vic’s thigh, over and over the whole trip, his wild grin in the rearview and all the stuff he’d pulled to be alone with her. So nope, I didn’t yell out, and the truck fishtailed right toward him and he yowled like a dog and I lost track of where he went.
Vic bolted from the tree line, almost right into me, and I scrambled after her. She gave me a look, as if surprised, but I just nodded like I ought to be there. Animal had already clambered to his feet. Moss and dead twigs stuck to his face, and his commie hat had been biffed away and the forest floor was beat up where he’d rolled across it. He pulled a pinecone from his hair and stared at it in wonder.
—Animal, Vic barked. —You okay?
He flicked the pinecone aside, seemed to notice us. —Why the hell didn’t ya say sompthen, he said, staring at me.
—Yuh were across the road. Why didn’t ya yell out or sompthen. Fucken truck nearly killed me.
—I just got here, I told him.
—Ya just got here, eh.
—Yeah, got back right now.
Animal swiped his commie hat from the ground. He banged it against his thigh to dust it off. —Just en time to see my kung fu reflexes, he said, and grinned.
—So you’re okay? Vic said.
—Shaken up, yeah.
Vic grabbed Animal’s chin and turned his head sideways. His cheek was scraped and dirty and Vic licked her thumb to rub it clean. —Mighta pulled a groin muscle, too, he said when she stepped back, and Vic lasted a full two seconds of his leer before she punched him in the chest hard enough to make him wheeze.
Afterward, by the fire, Animal shook out his adrenalin. —Woulda sucked to run that truck over, he said, and laughed, a deep, throaty laugh like a guy does when he’s survived an event that should have killed him. Then he dug into the cooler and started skulling beers to drown his jitters.
Vic and me shared the mickey of Canadian Club, away from the campfire so we could look over the cliffside at this bizarre piece of land. She took a big chug from the bottle and handed it over. Vic can drink like a tradesman when times come. The moonlight made her cheeks silver and that lazy eye of hers acted out. She spread her sleeping bag across her legs and I inched my way under it and the nylon clung to my shins. Vic smelled like a campfire. Vic smelled like citrus shampoo or something. Vic smelled like Vic.
—This an alright place to sleep, she said and wiggled in the dirt and the dried bloodweed and made a little nest.
—I’m not picky, I said.
—You smell like a dog.
She belted me on the shoulder and I leaned into her. Below us a couple semis zoomed north and the Ferris wheel spun and I thought I could hear Walla chopping lumber. Christ, a weirder place. By the fire, Animal sounded out words from his book, finger under each sentence. Then Vic unbuttoned her flannel coat. She always wore it or if not the coat then a flannel shirt. Sexiest thing, swear to God. I remember how she took it off, first time we ever boned, all awkward and struggling so I had to help her with the sleeves. A different kind of time back then. A different way of going about things, even. Sometimes I wish I was smarter so I could’ve gone to university with Vic.
Vic put her hand under my chin and jacked my head to eye level. I guess I was looking at her breasts. She leaned in and kissed me and she tasted like dope, and softness, and her smooth chin ground on my middle-of-the-night stubble. But I couldn’t kiss her right then. I don’t know why. She slicked her tongue over my lips and I couldn’t get my head around the whole thing, the Ferris wheel and what Walla said and how I almost got Animal killed, and Vic, you know, and the whole goddamn thing.
—Don’t fuck around, she said, but the words were all breath.
—Just thinkin is all.
She bit down on my lip. —Well, stop it.
—I like you a lot, Vic.
For a second she stopped and turned her head and her neon hair grazed my nose and I’d have given anything to know what was going on in her head right then. She had her lips squished shut and her forehead a little scrunched as if figuring something out – same look as the day she left for university. That’d have been in ’99, and her and her old man and me stayed at a hotel in Calgary so she could catch her West Coast flight in the wee hours, and while she showered, her old man told me not to let her get away. —It’ll happen, Duncan, he said, his face drawn in and lined around his eyes, as if he knew what the hell he was talking about. —I swear to God you’ll lose her if you don’t take action soon. And I nodded and tried not to grin, because I understood exactly what he meant.
On the mountaintop, Vic hooked hair behind her ear. —You’re my guy, Dunc, she said as though it were true.
—I know, Vic. But sometimes I don’t know. You know?
Then she cuffed me, all playful, and pulled me into her.
But that’s Vic for you. Afterward, when we were done and Animal’s moans were snores and the fire glowed down to embers, Vic sat up and stretched. Her ribs made bumps under her skin and the muscles along her spine tensed and eased and it felt alright right then. That’s Vic for you, that’s how she can make you feel, that easy. Never liked a girl so much. Nothing else to it. I just cared about her more than the university guy did or Animal did or maybe her old man did. I should’ve told her so, or how I wished she didn’t have to go west, or how I’d had a ring for her for years but lacked the balls to do anything with it. Even then, the mountaintop seemed like a last chance or something.
She sucked the rest of the whiskey and pointed at the sky where a trail of turquoise streaked across the horizon – the northern lights, earlier than I’d ever known them. She just stood there for a second with her back to me and those lights around her. Christ, she was so pretty. Then she whipped the empty bottle off the summit, and I stared at her and thought about her and waited for the sound of the bottle breaking way, way below us.