I had been on the road for the last three weeks. My publishers had assigned a PA to me while I was on my “journey of inspiration”. That’s what they called it. Probably they also wanted to protect their investment. Their advance had been substantial.
The PA’s name was Katlyn. An uptight matriarch who wanted everything to “run to schedule”. I was of course allowed to do the driving but that was about it. Everywhere we went was booked in advance, beautiful and not at all like the America I’d wanted to explore. I don’t think Katelyn, nor my publishers really understood that.
One night we just happened to arrive, purely by coincidence of course, at a hotel someplace outside of Chicago holding a convention. Mostly Sci-fi but other writers were there too.
I was so angry when I found out that I was on not one or two but three bloody panels.
After the first night I ran into a fellow writer Phil Rice. He wrote mainly horror and crime. Most of the time I couldn’t tell the difference, but I’d never let him know of course.
We were in the hotel bar, trying to get away from the adoring fans. Luckily most of them weren’t old enough to be in the bar so it was a calm seclusion from all the madness.
After a couple of pissweak American beers I told him what I was doing. Trying to write an American novel. He pointed out that I was British and asked what it was really going to do for me. I wanted to try and find the heart of what it was to be an American but from an outsider’s perspective. How our perceptions matched the reality of what was really going on here. Of course, it was being frustrated by the overly organised and managed PA currently on the phone with my publishers and giving them an update.
Phil pointed out it was her job and that keeping me in line was worth her job. I nodded in some semblance of agreement. However, her being there was not helping with my research.
“why not just hit the road on your own?” he asked. I couldn’t give him an appropriate answer.
About thirty minutes later I was in the car with a packed suitcase and driving away from the hotel. I’d taken out cash for fuel and essentials.
Somewhere down the road I’d checked into a motel. Just being away from things and in a space without the pressure helped.
I was woken by the sound of my phone vibrating in my jeans, just where I had left it. Slowly getting up, shuffling across the floor I took it out and saw fifteen missed calls from Katelyn.
She was frantic. She though I might have been abducted, murdered or something much worse. I felt bad as she was doing her job attempting to keep me safe in this foreign country.
I apologised and assured her that I was fine, no harm had come to me but that I needed space. In that moment I decided that when I got back from my trip, I’d ask for her to be my PA while I wrote. That was assuming my visa didn’t expire first.
Later that morning I hit the road and joined a highway; I have no idea which one. I couldn’t understand the roads here to be honest, but picked a direction and put my foot down.
After what was about ten exits, I came off the highway and started to explore side roads. I would take lefts and rights at random and keep moving until I came to a town.
This was a spectacular place. Seas of trees, mountains and beauty. I could understand why as a nation they were so proud of the place.
I ate in diners, slept in motels. Tried to use cash as much as I could and talk with people whenever possible.
The further into the heartland I went though, the less people talked. Everyone was friendly, especially once they heard my accent. There was an edge too and that’s what was uncomfortable. Nobody talked, not about anything that was important. Oh, the weather, the road, nearby fishing and trivial things but nothing of substance.
I was outside and that’s where I would remain.
One night travelling along something that I think was a road I realised that if I didn’t stop, I’d crash.
Pulling off the road flopping into the back seat, I threw a blanket over myself and was unconscious before I knew it.
In the grey morning twilight I heard something on the car. thinking it was rain or squirrels I sat up and looked out over the bonnet.
There it was. Large and pale, too many long spindly limbs, it had a face and it was in some type of grin. It clambered over the roof and disappeared into the trees.
Adrenalin was hitting me with full force, and I jumped back into the driver’s seat, put the car into drive and headed away from that thing. A few miles down the road there was a small town. I was shaking visibly when I arrived. Somebody took my hand and brought me into a store, handed me glass of water and made me sit down until the shaking had stopped.
Looking around I saw I was in a general store type place with a small diner in the back. Two old men were sitting planning checkers at one of the tables. It was an old rundown place but clean and smelled of coffee.
People had gathered nearby and were talking in hushed tones. When they noticed that I’d recovered they brought me to the diner and breakfast was placed in front of me.
Everyone knew what I had seen. It was common in the woods around the town they said. It wasn’t malicious more curious. There was an abundance of stories about what it could be but nothing conclusive. Just it had been here for as long at the people.
This was the type of town where there were rarely visitors but when there was it came to see who they were, and they always exhibited the same response and I had when they arrived. The locals were used to it or it just didn’t affect them the same way but no matter. They didn’t make a big deal because the more people who came the more it would show up and that wouldn’t be good for anyone.
Right then I decided to finish my trip and head back home. They wouldn’t let me pay for my food or even the fuel that I needed to get back to the highway. The store owner slid an old battered paperback across the counter and asked if “I wouldn’t mind?”.
Inside the cover was my own face ten years younger, full of ideas and hope. I signed the book for her, and she handed me a map with a highlighted route I needed.
What seemed like the whole town waved me off.
Three days later I touched down in Heathrow and was waiting for my onward flight home when a call came through from the publishers.
Katelyn had been tracking my steps since I’d left the hotel near Chicago. They hadn’t heard from her for a few days and were asking if I’d see her. I confirmed that I hadn’t but that icy understanding and that grin kept swirling in my mind.
My gate was called, I moved forward.