Before Amber entered the club, the sun was somewhere behind the overcast blanket of clouds. After she left the building, the sky was much darker. With winter rushing to the fore, Amber felt surprised every evening at how early the days grew dark, but now it seemed so impossibly dark she could hardly believe it. It must have been the city, she thought. It was just darker in the city.
She was told to deliver her stepmother’s parcel to G.G. before it got late. Was it late now? she wondered. And how much longer was the trip? Her stepmother said that going from her hometown south of the city to G.G.’s hometown north of the city should only take four hours, so long as Amber stayed on the highway. If she hurried, Amber thought, she could still get to G.G.’s house before bedtime. Maybe she could spend the night there, to sleep off whatever alcohol-induced spell she had been put under. G.G. would insist upon it, she was sure. For now, though, she had no time to worry about how tipsy she felt. She fired up the red coop and resigned the club to her rear-view mirror.
When she backed out of the parking lot and turned onto the road, she hesitated for a brief moment. Was this the entrance she took? It must have been: she could see the billboard for the club, that luminescent blue neon sign that caught her eye while she drove along the highway. That point of light in the fading darkness of the city that piqued her curiosity and made her stray from the path to investigate.
It wasn’t until a half hour later that she considered that the billboard might have looked the same on both sides.
She was no longer on the highway. This new road led her away from all the stores and bars and into a maze of tall buildings, reaching so high that Amber could not see their tops. Down among the roots, she was a lost creature scurrying about on round rubber feet.
She tried to turn and find her way to a major road, but she had no map, and the street signs made no sense. That morning, her stepmother told her to take her stepsister’s cell phone, but Amber stubbornly refused. Why would she need a phone? So her stepmother could check up on her? So her stepsister could call and accuse her of stealing the shirt she was wearing? It was pointless.
With every turn she took, the buildings grew taller, and the city grew darker. The buildings, with lights in the high windows, peering down on her, waiting for her to stop, to catch her breath, and then…
Taller and taller and darker and darker. The buildings loomed above her, their tops enveloping the black sky. Her head still pounded with the rhythm of the club she left behind, and she could feel that glowing blue elixir swimming through her head like a minnow. She knew she shouldn’t be driving, but she couldn’t stop now.
There were others on the road. Large trucks and vans and SUVs, all bigger than her little coop, and faster, too. They would stop rushing past her soon, and start going straight through her–she was so small she would barely get in the way. The other vehicles growled in anger as they dashed around her slow, hesitant pace. All but one. One huge, brown truck that followed behind her at whatever speed she crept along. She could see its grille shining off her rear-view mirror. With every turn she made, the brown truck turned with her. When she changed lanes, it tucked in behind her.
Her knuckles white on the steering wheel, Amber looked back and forth from the road to the mirror, nervously attempting to identify the truck’s driver. The glare of the vehicle’s headlights made it difficult to see through the windshield, and the truck was large enough–and close enough–that Amber could barely see anything above the flashing silver bars of the grille.
She pressed harder on the gas, abandoning all hope of guessing her whereabouts, and tried to put distance between her and her pursuer. The truck shrank back, and for the space of several thrashing heartbeats, Amber thought she was getting away. Then it snarled and lurched forward, rapidly filling her rear-view mirror, but her returning horror froze for the briefest moment when she thought she could see the driver.
She recognized those hard eyes, that tight bun of black hair streaked with grey. How could she have followed her here, to the city? No, it couldn’t be her. She would never stray from the highway, as Amber did–as her father did so many years ago. Yet she could almost hear her shouting, “See? See? Do you see what happens when you leave?”
Then the wave of recognition melted and transformed. It was no longer her stepmother in the truck. It was the bartender. Her hair wasn’t grey, but cow piss blonde, and her lips shone like the grille of the truck. No. It was the bouncer, huge in the driver’s seat, the image of a blonde woman printed on his t-shirt. And no, it was her sister, her other sister, it was a truck full of twisting bodies flashing with the beat, with every passing streetlight, flashing silver, blinking high-beams in her mirror, one and two and red and blue.
Blue, like the club. Red, too, like the dance floor. And the noise, the screaming, coming blazing out of an intersection like a springing deer. Amber squinted, trying to avoid the blinding glare of the truck’s lights in her mirror, the red and blue screams growing closer. Something in the blue made her turn to follow. The brown truck slowed to turn with her. Then it stopped. Amber watched her side view mirror, the moonlit truck shrinking and shrinking, but closer than it may appear. At last, it drove forward, vanishing from sight behind the roots of an apartment complex.
Amber didn’t dare get too close to the police car–she knew the drink she had would get her in trouble–but she felt grateful the driver of the brown truck knew not to pursue. All the neon billboards and flashing grilles and blinding headlights were reflected off the impenetrable armour of the police car, and Amber bathed in the glow of refracted light. Paying no more heed to the looming, monolithic buildings or the oppressive traffic that surrounded her, Amber’s eyes followed street signs instead.
There was an order to the city that she never before understood, but which was now becoming clear. The city–which Amber once thought of as a wilderness between small-town beacons of civilization–was laid out like a grid, with easily-recognizable patterns.
Filled with newfound confidence, Amber turned away from the police car she had been distantly following, and found signs for the highway. She felt sure she could find her way back, yet something unnerved her. Something in the corner of her eye. For an instant, she thought she saw a brown figure in her rear-view mirror, but when she looked behind her, there were no vehicles on the road. Even so, she felt urged on, chased back to the path, rather than seeking it of her own free will.
Long ago, her father left for the city and never returned. Perhaps he got lost among the lights and the cars and the concrete giants. Or perhaps it was his only escape from that small town south of the city. Not lost, but changed. Amber wanted to hate him for it, but she could feel the same freedom. It smoothly crunched under the wheels of her car, dark and boundless as the night sky. Roads here crisscrossed and looped and bent. Some ended and some reached for the horizon. There were so many, all lain out before her eyes, just waiting for her to choose.
Ignoring the highway turnoff, Amber drove on, following a new path.
Day 228’s three random writing prompt categories were, “Outsider,” “Stay on the path,” and, “The city as a dark forest.”
See? I can do happy endings. Sometimes.