I had never walked on a highway before. Sure, I'd driven on it plenty of times, but walking on it was like entering a gateway into some foreign realm, an alternate reality in which I was an alien with questionable intentions. Whereas a tenth of a mile is but a footstep while driving, it becomes the length of a marathon on foot. The lowly on-ramp alone seemed to forever extend into nothingness.
Once I had traversed up its slope and tiptoed gingerly onto the vast stretch of pavement, I stopped and surveyed the scene. It was inky black out, so much so that the asphalt blended with the horizon in a perfect harmonious sphere, starting beneath my feet and winding its way upward until it was interrupted by a smattering of crystal starlight shards. I was fascinated by these stars, probably the same way a baby is fascinated by that ridiculous turning mobile that hangs overhead in its crib. Anytime I stared up at them, they stared right back down at me and I was stuck in that double-edged stare until good sensibility kicked in and I could rip my eyes away from them.
Tonight the gallant Perseus watched while I roamed, and her highness Cassiopeia sat throned merely a stone's throw from Pegasus and his great square. For a moment I pretended I was Perseus, confronting that vile Gorgon, Medusa. In one sweeping stroke I jumped across the vacant road, lopped the head off her shoulders and picked it up, held high for all to see. The frantically writhing snakes of her hair didn't alarm me, even as they leapt about, attempting to strike, and the dissonance created by their combined hissing nearly deafened me. With a mixture of heroics and disgust, I sheathed my sword and heaved the head as far as I could manage, far over the roadside sagebrush and into the invisible rolling hills I knew existed somewhere in the distance. I dusted off my hands. Good riddance.
My father had taught me about the stars when I was younger, when we would stand outside in a treeless field together, he holding me on his shoulders while signaling to the constellations and stars and identifying each by name. But he had died five years back.
It was the river that took him, in a malevolent act of its always fickle, ever-heartless temperament. That cursed, vengeful river! I remember it well; it was early springtime then. My father had tried to save a friend who'd slipped while crossing a fallen tree that connected the banks above a particularly wild section of the untamed waters. As his friend was swept downstream, my father courageously hurled himself into the river's laughing mouth, only to be likewise taken away by its unpredictable current. They both disappeared, their cries drowned out by the rushing roar. A massive search and rescue attempt ensued. Well, it was massive for my town. But fate was against us in those days, and their lifeless bodies were found two days later, washed up in separate eddies within one mile of each other.
It was so strange and disheartening to me. My father had always been a strong swimmer, a brave man. He and my brothers and sister and I would frequent swimming holes and take turns leaping off of the steeped granite cliffs. We would stay for hours, absorbing the sun with our browned bodies while taking temporary relief in the biting cold of the water.
"Let's see a swan dive!" He'd shout as one of us stood at the edge. We would wait just long enough, until the ability to reason drained out of our bodies and from the tips of our hair to the base of our feet we were carefree and one with the wind, and then we'd blithely jump into the open water. He brought books and we'd all lie on the heated rocks while he read to us from Robinson Crusoe or Of Mice and Men or even A Tale of Two Cities. His voice was gruff but soft, like a shepherd raised by wolves, and he would often stop to see if we understood what had just happened in the story. We would always nod our heads in comprehension, and though much of it was over our heads, we desperately wanted to enjoy the same stories that our father loved so dearly. We would take turns wrestling with him before marching back to our truck to drive home and tell Mother of our daredevil acrobatics and the transpirations of our books.
But like a snake that river took him away, away from me and my brothers and sister and mother and all those whom he loved and loved him back. Our Zeus was stolen by a crooked, heartless Titan of a thief. His granite gravestone in the local cemetery was the last clinging remnant of him that I had. Sometimes I ran my finger along its engraved figures of oak trees and read its etched words aloud. "Here lies Nathaniel Jedidiah Hughes. A loving husband, devoted father, and undying friend. Through his good works, the world has been blessed." I visited him there often; he alone I could speak candidly to – I could open up and flood him with my worries and hopes, my dreams and desires, and all my hatreds, passions, pains and fears.
And I hadn't gone for a swim since he died. I avoided that river as if its waters were polluted with venom.