End of the Road

April 2024 — Aden Albert
End of the Road

Pash sits in the corner banquette next to the coffee shop’s huge cold window, smoothing her dress for the thirtieth time. She looks at her watch. She wears it with the face on the inside of her wrist, like her dad did. She loosens the stretchy blue band, but overshoots, and tightens it again, but too much.

Ten more minutes before he’s supposed to meet her.

She checks her phone. Again.

Txt me when ur done Yulia had sent, when she got here.

No sign she texts back.

Yulia doesn’t respond, but she’s at work, so.

She wakes up her computer. Again.

The steam wand screams and she jerks in her seat. The forty-something with chunky glasses and patchy beard two tables over makes a big display of reaching up to his earbuds and adjusting them. He studiously doesn’t look, but he doesn’t have to. She knows she blushes, but she knows no one else knows, but still, it’s not like she really stopped that guy from not writing his screenplay, or listening to a podcast, or whatever.

She checks her watch, and that’s when it happens.

He walks in the door.

Pash doesn’t know what she’s supposed to feel, now they’re in the same place together. She’s seen him before, through binoculars and camera lenses, on social media and open-source intelligence. Through glass. Now, though

“Pash?” he says, because he’s already at her table.

“Yes,” she says, scrambling to get out from the banquette. Her bag’s in the way, her purse, the laptop cord, all her shit piled around her, she’s trapped now

“Walker,” he says. He holds out a hand.

“No, don’t get up,” he says. He pulls the chair out and sits down slow. “We’re going to talk, right?”

She stops trying to get out and reaches for his hand. She misses the palm and gets his fingers instead. Before she can rearrange he closes around, shakes anyway, and it’s the worst handshake she’s ever given. She knows he thinks she’s some idiot youngster, shaking hands like a cat, but his grip is strong, like weirdly strong for someone his age, and her fingers light up. He lets go a moment before she makes a face.

She tries to slow her breathing. Tries to slow everything.

“Are you okay?” he says.

“Y—yes,” Pash says. “Yeah, sorry, too much coffee.” She points to the cup. “You know, college, and all.”

He barely nods.

“Sorry, sorry,” she mutters. Her face heats more. “Thank you for meeting me, for answering my emails. It’ll be a big help for my project.”

He barely nods again, this time with a twist at the corners of his mouth. She can’t read it. Does it mean no big deal, does it mean no problem, does it mean happy to help? All of it seems like a dismissal.

“Anyway, like I said, I’m doing a project—writing a paper, on, uh, people who spent most of their careers in high-stress environments. So your time as an EMT seemed like it would be relevant to my research.”

He chews the inside of his cheek for a moment. His hair’s white, what little’s left on the top of his head. His frame’s lean. Not the kind of old that’s got nothing left. More the kind of old that’s stripped away anything he couldn’t afford to keep. There’s deep lines in his cheeks. Deeper lines at the corners of his mouth, deepest by his eyes. The veins in his hands are ridge lines and all the scars printing errors in the topographic maps of his skin.

“Do you mind if I record this?” she asks. “It’s easier for me if I can listen to it again, and that way I can transcribe stuff, for my notes, and uh, text-to-speech, or speech-to-text, that kind of thing.”

His eyebrows come down for half a second. “Fancy,” he says.

She waits.

Forty-something adjusts his earbuds again, this time opening and closing the case with a snap, so they know he’s doing it for their benefit.

Walker turns to look at him. He does it slow, and when Walker catches the guy’s eyes, there’s something that passes between them. Pash can’t see what Walker sends, but she sees what forty-something receives, because he gathers up his stuff and leaves the coffee shop entirely. Forty-something goes to the parking lot and climbs in his gray SUV and drives off before Walker turns back to her.

Now the corners of his mouth are turned toward the sky, but it’s not a smile. “Huh,” he says. “Left his drink.”

“So let’s start,” Pash says. The words tumble out the way they always do when she’s nervous.

Not nervous.


“How we do that,” Walker says.

“Let’s, uh,” she swallows. She looks at her notebook and pretends to scan it for questions. “Let’s start with your name, and, uh, where you were born.”

“Walker Tilley, Thunder Bay, Ontario.”


“Canada.” He says it flat, but flat still has four edges.

“And your current age?”



“Mostly,” he says.

She glances.

“Your—research,” he murmurs. “You’ve talked to other men?”

“I’ve talked to other people,” Pash says.

He puts his hands up. “Then surely the other people have said the kinds of things they saw don’t let them retire. Not all the way.”

“Uh, no,” she says. She starts to scribble in her notebook. The cap’s on. She reaches to take it off but it doesn’t pull, it’s a screw-off. She goes the wrong way and the whole thing falls apart. Walker stares at her the whole time. She throws the notebook into the seat next to her and types. Pretends to type. “Yes, I mean, they’ve said that.” Tap-tap-tap, this is what typing sounds like.

Why is there no one else at this place, she thinks. This is why I wanted to do it at the coffee shop, it’s supposed to be public, but the baristas are all the way over there.

He’s still watching her and it’s been too long since she’s asked a question.

“And your profession?”


Okay. Back on track.

“For how long?”

He looks up. The skin of his neck’s thin. His arteries thump in slow, steady rhythm. “Started in 1973,” he says, “year they stopped the draft. Had to retire from the paramedics when I was… forty-nine… from a broken back. That would put it 2000. It was the month before my birthday.”

“A—broken back?”

He lets his head come back down. His eyes are clear and liquid and hard, dark brown. The hard, dark brown of disturbed earth in the forest. “Some folk feel like they should get where they’re going, no matter what,” he says. “Even if an ambulance’s coming through.”

She’s not sure what to say to that. She pretends to type some more.

From the bar, one of the baristas yells, “Oatmilk lavender latte!”

Walker stands up. There’s a hitch to it. “Be right back,” he says. “That one’s me.”

Pash grabs her phone. i dont know if i can do this she texts Yulia.

The typing indicator.

Then nothing.

Then typing indicator.

“Everything all right?” Walker says, levering back into his chair.

“Yeah,” Pash says. Turns the phone screen-down.

Walker takes a small sip from his drink. He closes his eyes, and when he does, it’s like he’s someone else entirely. Like watching a photograph of a brick become manga, all the edges and details softening and rounding and disappearing into someone’s sweet memory of it.

You’re being weird, she thinks. You’re scared and you’re being weird and this is not what you’re here to do.

“So,” she says.

Walker’s eyes snap open.

“The main point of my research is about stressful incidents and how they shape your life.” She reaches down to her bag.

The manga’s long gone, and it’s not just a photograph, it’s an HDR pic, hyperdetailed and intense saturated supercolor.

She pulls her hand out slow. A manila envelope comes with it. “I just have some files,” she says.

He swallows. “Yeah,” he whispers. “Sorry.” He reaches for his latte, then stops. “You say this is your research. You can’t be surprised if this is how someone reacts.”

Pash pulls the envelope out of her bag. She doesn’t have anything to say to that. Again. So she doesn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry to hear about your car accident,” she says.

“‘Accident,’” Walker spits. “You’re recording, so you can do the bleep thing, right? But calling them ‘accidents’ is bullshit.”

She snorts.

He narrows his eyes. “Eh?”

“That’s something we agree on, one-hundred percent,” she says.

He leans back in his chair.

Pash opens the envelope and empties it onto the table between them.

“Do you remember where you were, on May 10, 1983?”

At first, he doesn’t pick up the photographs. He looks at each one, and his hands hover over the table, like they’re snakes, or like they’re made of thumbtacks, no safe way to grab them.

Walker says, “What are these?”

Her mouth suddenly dry, she says, “These are pictures of a car crash—not a bullshit accident—on May 10, 1983. A blue Ford truck going the wrong way hit a yellow 1974 Toyota Corolla. Do you remember?”

His hands draw back as if burned. “Why would I remember?”

“The crash,” and she steps on the word hard, “happened at two twenty-seven in the afternoon.”

His chair moves back. The squeal rips through the entire coffee shop, but no one else is there.

“A man had picked up his daughter from school in the yellow Toyota Corolla. The driver of the blue Ford had most of a bottle of whiskey in his office at work. It took four minutes for the ambulance to get there.” She points to one photograph, under the corners of two others. “This is the house of Marilee Judd, who lived on that corner. She called right away.”

She picks up the photo. She holds it in front of Walker. “Take it,” she says.

His fingers close around it. “Wait,” he says. He brings the photograph close. “Wait,” he says again. “I’ve never—I’ve neverdriven drunk my whole life. I was thirty-one in 1983. I don’t—I don’t understand what this is.”

She picks up another photograph. “This is the driver of the yellow Corolla. “He went to the hospital. He had to have several surgeries, but he survived, and he’s still alive today. They said if it had been any longer, he’d have been gone.” She holds the photograph up for him to take it.

“I don’t understand,” Walker says again.

“This is the little girl in the back seat,” Pash says. She picks up the last photograph she’ll show him. “She was four years old when it happened. Old enough to remember it, forever. She told me, over and over, about the man in the ambulance who sang her songs while her dad was on the stretcher and she thought he was going to die.”

“I don’t understand,” Walker says, one last time.

“Do you remember?” Pash asks.

“I’m sorry,” Walker says. “I don’t—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s okay,” Pash says. She reaches out to touch his hand.

“I,” she says.

“I have a hard time with people, a lot of the time.”

She wishes she had something to drink.

“I’ve wanted to find you my whole life. Because—because I wouldn’t have a whole life, if you hadn’t done what you did.”

“Wait,” Walker says. “You think I’m the one who answered this call?”

“I have a hard time with people,” Pash says, “but I’m good with research. You answered the call. And—it was, it is, it was hard for me to just walk up to you and say thank you, for saving my granddad’s and mom’s life. For doing your job. It will seem—disordered—that I did this instead. But…”

Walker nods. “My nephew,” he says. “They’re a lot the same.”

Pash nods. “You don’t remember?”

“I’m sorry,” Walker says. “I don’t mean to sound callous. That crash, it may have been the worst thing ever happened to either of them. I hope it was the worst thing.

“But it was my job. For me?”

He sighs.

“The worst thing ever happened to anyone, was every two hours of every workday.”

She squeezes his hand.

“It’s okay,” Pash says. “I didn’t really expect you to remember. But—but I wanted you to know my mom does, and my granddad does. And my mom—my mom still sings ‘Country Roads’ all these years later, but only when she thinks of you.”

She lets go.

“Well,” he says, leaning back in his chair. His eyes sparkle, a little wetter. “I may not remember that day.”

He coughs into his fist.

And then again, blinking, several times.

“But I don’t think I’ll forget this one.”

the end.

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