Happy Trails ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
“It’s so hot!” Johnnie said, lifting up her hair to let the wind blow on her neck.
“No fooling,” I said.
She had been complaining all the way across the desert and, believe me, we had had more than our share of trouble. The day before, we had spent six hours at a dusty roadside filling station while a greasy mechanic with tattoos repaired our carburetor. The problems with the car were fixed for now, though, and we were on what was the last leg of our trip. Soon we would be resting in comfort and all our troubles would be behind us.
“Why don’t you try to take a nap,” I said. “It’ll make the time go by quicker.”
“I’m worried about things at home,” she said. “I don’t like being away this long.”
“You were the one that wanted to come,” I said. I reached over and gave her a playful little pinch on the leg. She gave me a dark look and moved farther away.
“Don’t touch me,” she said, but without much conviction.
“Crabby, crabby,” I said. “You know what happened to the crab, don’t you? She got herself boiled in a pot!”
“I thought it was.”
“The only way you can stand this heat is to keep moving and create your own wind,” she said. “I think hell must be a desert like this.”
“Oh, no, this is nothing compared to hell!” I said. “This is a cakewalk compared to hell.”
“You would know, of course!”
“Well, so I’ve been told.”
One of those giant bugs came in through the window and landed on her leg. She screamed and nearly climbed up the seat back to get away from it. It fell to the floor and she mashed it with her foot.
We called them giant bugs but the biggest one was only about two inches long. To us they were giant because they were so much bigger than any bugs we had ever seen before. I’m not sure what they were, but I believe they were some kind of desert locusts.
“Why do those things always have to land on me?” she screamed.
“They seem to like you,” I said.
“Well, I don’t like them!”
“That’s the pioneering spirit that made this country great!” I said.
“You can always make a joke out of anything, can’t you?” she said. “I’m getting awfully tired of you.”
“Do you know how mutual it is?” I said. “To find out if you really like somebody or not, you have to travel with them.”
“I’m surprised there aren’t a lot more murders,” she said.
We hadn’t passed another car for at least a half-hour. I pulled off the road so we could take a rest and get a drink of water. Johnnie said she needed a couple of minutes of privacy, so she went off about fifty yards away from the road.
“Don’t go too far!” I yelled but I didn’t think she heard me because she just kept going and didn’t look back.
Johnnie and I got along swell. We had been married for five years. We talked all the time about how we were sick of each other and were going to kill each, but it was just our way of bantering. We never really fought, not the way my parents did when I was growing up.
I was standing by the car smoking a cigarette and trying to get the kinks out of my legs when I heard Johnnie scream. I figured she must have stumbled across a rattlesnake or a scorpion. I went running toward the sound of her voice.
When I found her, she was standing in a hole about three feet deep. She was screaming and waving her arms like a crazy person.
“What happened?” I yelled.
It appeared the ground had given way under her feet and she had fallen into a hive of those big bugs. They were swarming all around her, angry and confused.
“What did you do?” I said.
I grabbed onto her arms and pulled her out of the hole. Some of the bugs were clinging to her face and arms, not because they wanted to but because they had no other choice.
“Oh, my god!” I said. “There must be a million of them!”
When I had dragged her a few feet away from the hole, I let go of her and began pulling the bugs off her face and head.
“You just had to find out where they live, didn’t you?” I said.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I was just walking back to the car.”
She had some little welts on her face, scalp, and hands. I wasn’t sure if the bugs had bitten her or if it was something else. I got her back to the car and into the back seat. She was shivering, in spite of the heat, so I covered her up with an old blanket.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I’m going to have nightmares for a long time,” she said.
“I’m going to get you to a doctor.”
“I’ve been waiting for something terrible to happen ever since we left home,” she said.
“Don’t talk,” I said. “Just rest.”
I wasn’t sure how far it was to the next town, but I would keep driving until I came to it. If I saw a gas station or a roadside café, I’d stop and call for help. Anybody would have a phone, even way out here.
I kept turning around in the seat looking at Johnnie. She was lying on her back, wrapped in the blanket. Her eyes were closed and she was apparently asleep. It was starting to get dark so I pulled off the road to get her a drink of water and to see if there was anything I could do for her.
I went around the other side of the car and opened the back door where her head was. I didn’t like what I saw. She was breathing heavily and her skin was turning a brown-green color.
“Johnnie!” I said. “How are you doing?”
“I feel a little funny,” she said. “Where are we?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I think we might be lost.”
“Oh, no!” She started to cry.
“Don’t worry, Johnnie,” I said. “Everything is going to be all right. I’m taking you to see a doctor right now.”
“Just let me rest.”
“You just go to sleep now and I’ll wake you when we get to the doctor. Don’t worry about a thing.”
It was all the way dark now. My headlights were the only light anywhere on the desert. I felt like I was alone in an enormous empty bowl with the sky as the lid. When I looked at the gas gauge, I saw that I only had about an eighth of a tank. I didn’t know how much farther that was going to take us.
Finally up ahead two or three miles—it’s difficult to gauge distance on the desert—I saw lights over to the left. I held my breath until I was close enough to see what it was: a gas station and motel called Happy Trails Auto Court.
“We’re all right now!” I said to Johnnie, even though I wasn’t sure if she would hear me.
As I pulled up to the gas pump, my brakes squealed. An attendant came running out.
“Do you have a phone?” I asked.
“Pay phone,” he said, pointing with his thumb back inside the building.
As he filled my tank, I was digging in my pockets for change.
“Wait a minute,” Johnnie said. “Don’t call anybody. I’ll be all right. I don’t need a doctor.”
I turned and looked at her. “Are you sure?” I said. “You look like you could use a doctor.” I didn’t want to tell her how bad she really looked.
“Just get a room,” she said. “I need to be someplace other than this car. I want to sleep. In the morning I’ll be fine.”
After I paid the attendant for the gas, I engaged a room for the night and then I helped Johnnie out of the car and into the room. She was barely able to walk; her legs didn’t seem to work right. When we were in the room with the door closed, I helped her to the bed. She lay down heavily and took a few deep breaths.
“I’m going to get a doctor,” I said.
“No!” she said. “There isn’t anything a doctor could do.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
She didn’t answer but turned her face away and groaned. That’s when I noticed that her head was elongating and her features flattening as if she were made of wax and melting.
“There’s something terribly wrong,” I said.
“Just leave me alone or I’m going to kill you,” she said, but she could barely form the words. Her lips had flattened out and her mouth was a straight line.
She was resting comfortably so I went into the bathroom and took a much-needed bath. When I was finished, I was feeling sick from not having eaten all day, so I went to the café next door and had a huge steak.
When I got back to the room after eating, I saw right away that Johnnie had changed even further in the short time I was away. She was covered all over with a brown-and-green hide that felt like dried corn stalks to the touch. Her arms were turning into wings, and they weren’t an angel’s wings, either. When I let my eyes travel down the length of the bed, I saw that her human legs had been absorbed by the lower part of her body and she had, instead, three pairs of bug legs evenly spaced along her underside. And her face…it almost defied description. She had no nose to speak of and her mouth was a wide slit that went from one side of her head to the other.
“Oh, my God!” I said. “You’re turning into one of those big bugs!”
“Oh, hello, honey,” she said, opening her eyes, which were as big as saucers and domed.
She had never called me honey in her life. “Are you feeling better now?” I asked.
“I must look a fright,” she said. “Will you get me my mirror out of my vanity case?”
I realized then that she didn’t know what was happening and it was probably better that she didn’t. “You look fine,” I said. “Don’t worry about that now.”
“Did you have dinner?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Would you like something?”
“Did you see those weeds growing in the ditch along the highway?”
“I guess I did,” I said. “Why?”
“Ever since I woke up I can smell them and I can’t think about anything else. Will you go out and grab a couple of handfuls and bring them in to me? Get mostly leaves but some stalks, too!”
I did as she asked and when I brought them to her I placed them on the bed near her head. By manipulating her wings and her six tiny legs she turned herself over and began eating them.
She made little nyum-nyum-nyum sounds as she ate. “They are just every bit as delicious as I knew they would be!” she said. “And so economical!”
When she was finished eating, she wanted a drink of water. I filled a glass for her and held it to her mouth. She didn’t seem to have a tongue but she had a way of drawing the water from the glass up into her mouth.
“I feel so much better now,” she said.
“I’m glad,” I said.
“Will you bring me the mirror now? I want to brush my hair.”
“That can wait,” I said. “You just need to rest now.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her she no longer had hair.
For the next couple of hours she sat on the bed and groomed herself. She had a way of bending herself double and sticking her legs, one at a time, in her mouth, and pulling on them. (I wasn’t sure if she was washing them or trying to straighten them out.) Every now and then she would flutter her wings as if exercising them or trying them out. She kept looking toward the door and the window, but I didn’t know why. She must have heard something that I didn’t hear.
I was exhausted from all that had happened and went to sleep in the chair. When I woke up at first daylight she was lying on her back again. All her legs were sticking up in the air. I thought at first she was dead but then I noticed a slight breathing movement, so I knew she was alive.
“Good morning, Johnnie!” I said cheerily.
She opened her eyes and looked at me and I knew then that the transformation was complete and she would no longer be able to talk to me.
“What are we to do now, Johnnie?” I said, even though I knew there would be no answer. “Do we just go back home and pretend that none of this ever happened?”
She looked at me and waved all her legs in the air. I knew she was trying to tell me something but I didn’t know what it was.
“I’m going to bring the car around,” I said. “I’ll help you in to the back seat. Before we go, I’ll bring you a lot of those nice weeds for you to eat on the way.”
She became agitated, waving all her legs frantically in the air.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll help to turn you over.”
She began opening and closing her eyes in time to the movement of her legs, moving her body from side to side. A faint sound came from inside her, almost like a whimper.
“What is it, Johnnie?” I said.
I leaned my ear down to her mouth, feeling her antennae touch the side of my head. I heard the little chomping sound that she made with her mouth, but still I didn’t know what she wanted me to do.
It came to me after a while that she was communicating with me in the only way she had left, by gesturing toward the door with all her legs. She wanted me to open it.
After I had turned her right-side-up on the bed, I lifted her gently to the floor and set her down on her tiny legs, a hundred-and-thirty-pound, human-sized bug. I had never seen anything like it before.
I opened the door and stepped back. She took a few tentative bug steps toward it and stopped and looked at me with those bug eyes I knew I would never forget. My Johnnie. I could tell she didn’t really want to leave me but she had to. We belonged to separate worlds now.
As soon as she had crawled out the door, she elevated the front part of her body, opened up her wings, and took flight. I hoped that there were other bug people waiting for her so she wouldn’t have to be alone, and I imagined that I saw some of them across the highway crouched down waiting for her to join them.
“Good-bye, Johnnie!” I called out as she flew away, but I wasn’t sure if she heard me.
I closed the door then and began contemplating my life without her.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp