It’s Not Like I Tried To Hurt Anyone
In late May, Carla decided to build a house right smack-dab on the highway median — right in the middle of the road, about 60 miles south of Haskell. She picked a spot that was relatively level and wide enough for a narrow, modest home — where the grass seemed relatively healthy enough for a yard and a garden.
This wasn’t legal, of course, but she knew a highway patrol officer named Jesup who said he’d look the other way and encourage his fellow officers to do the same. He said he’d also discourage passersby from getting too nosy. She and Jesup had gone to prom together both junior and senior years, way back in the day, before there were even smartphones.
Not that she necessarily wouldn’t have decided to build a house on the median if this hadn’t had happened, but what had happened was Carla’s husband of fourteen years had been in a car accident and taken a pretty bad blow to the head. And she spent months helping him recover — which was not pretty, by the way — and then as soon as he was well enough he decided to leave Carla and go live on a dharma compound in Iowa. Seriously. After all that. So now Carla’s house was too big and she needed something smaller and the median house occurred to her one day in late May, out of the blue, when she was driving to the Costco in Haskell.
Jesup had tried feebly to talk her out of it.
“Putting a house right there in the middle of the highway doesn’t make sense, logistically.”
“It’ll be loud with all the traffic.”
“I’ll get used to it.”
“You’ll be boxed in on either side. Trapped.”
“I have nowhere I need to be, honestly.”
“What about work?”
“Everything I do I can do on the computer with the internet and Google Docs and spreadsheets and whatnot.”
“What will you do for food?”
“I’ll grow whatever I can myself and have the rest delivered. Or I’ll eat roadkill. I’m just kidding about the last part.”
“You’ll get awfully lonely.”
“Being lonely is not the end of the world. People need to be more comfortable being alone, as far as I’m concerned.”
“What if Paul comes back from Iowa.”
“I’m afraid that ship has sailed.”
Jesup was right about the noise, though she would never have admitted it to him. Being completely surrounded by the sound of cars and trucks speeding by at 60, 70, 80 miles per hour at all hours took some getting used to. But after a few months the commotion blended in with everything else, and she did get used to it. And ear plugs helped her sleep at night.
The garden and spreadsheets kept her busy. She kept a big first aid kit in the kitchen for the occasional car accident, but luckily she didn’t witness anything too serious nearby. A couple years into living in her little median house, an injured cat limped to her doorstep. She nursed it back to health — not unlike how she’d done with Paul — and named him Gregory. He kept mice out of the garden. Speaking of Paul, she heard through the grapevine that he’d given up on the dharma compound and moved into a one bedroom apartment in Lincoln. Good for him.
Carla saw less and less of Jesup over the years but each time it seemed to her he was aging horribly. One day he brought by some leftover cake from his retirement party and came right out and said it. “How is it I’m so old and you’re so young when we’re supposed to be the same age?”
Carla laughed. “I guess I just eat less sugar and fatty foods. You also used to smoke for a long time, which did not help.”
“No seriously, I’m turning 68 next month and you don’t look a day past 40.”
Carla shrugged and filled a bowl with milk for Gregory.
A few days later she got a text from Jesup:
I talked to a friend of mine who’s friends with an engineer. He says it’s because you live on the median. The traffic speeding by in one direction counters the traffic speeding by in the other direction which creates a constant friction in the air and keeps the space between them static. So you just kind of stay in place, in time. Isn’t that wild?
Huh, Carla texted back. I wish I’d discovered this twenty years ago.
In time they repainted the entire stretch of highway with some new nano-technology something-or-other that kept the paint illuminated yellow and white all night long. Carla spent most evenings looking out at the glowing paint sprawled out as far as she could see in either direction. It was kind of pretty, but she didn’t like the light pollution.
Then Gregory passed away. She buried him on the border of her garden and spoke a few kind words, cursing a semi that interrupted her with a blaring horn as it sped by. Jesup died too a few years later. She was not able to attend the funeral but sent a lovely and long email to his widow, which she said she appreciated.
One afternoon Carla’s boss — her ninth since she began living on the median — sent her a private message: With the reinstatement of the draft and everything going on, we’re suspending all operations for now.
They’re reinstating the draft?
Yeah, big time. Haven’t you been following the news?
No, not really. It depresses me most of the time.
Ok, well feel free to keep working on your spreadsheets and I’ll update you when I know more.
Carla never heard from her boss again.
Over the next few years the traffic started to thin out more and more until it was just a steady trickle, punctuated with more and more camouflaged jeeps and humvees and the occasional tank barreling down the highway. She checked in on the news occasionally but it was always bleak and eventually her internet quit working altogether. It was just as well.
As the traffic died down, Carla became more sensitive to noise. So much so that one night she awoke with a start, sensing someone was poking around in her garden. She grabbed her flashlight and a knife and kicked open the screen door to confront a young man in a police uniform filling a burlap sack with tomatoes and squash.
“Listen,” he calmly explained, setting the sack down. “I need food for me and my girlfriend.”
“Then get it somewhere else!”
“There’s nowhere else. Everything’s picked through and I don’t know how to grow my own.”
“Then figure it out.”
“I took over for Jesup. Actually I took over for Jake Sampson who took over for Jesup. I’ve helped guard your weird little house here on the median. A congressman wanted to make you move out and tear it down, you know. Few years ago. Can’t I just have a few tomatoes?”
“You most certainly cannot.”
“Things are really rough right now, lady. They’re gonna make me go to war. In Australia of all places. Australia.”
“Who are we at war with now?”
“I don’t know. Everybody. Over oil. Or water. I can’t keep track.”
“Ok look, take what you’ve already picked and don’t come back. Find seeds and bury them in the ground and water them. Jesus Christ. It’s not rocket science.”
Traffic continued to thin on the highway more and more, until sometimes Carla could go days without seeing a single car or truck pass by. She could feel herself growing older finally and, in a strange way, getting lonelier with the absence of vehicles. In desperation one hot August day she tried to wave down the first car she’d seen in weeks, but it zoomed around her and continued speeding until it vanished on the horizon. She screamed after it, to no avail.
In most ways Carla had been alone for decades but she was really alone now. So she packed some clothes and toiletries, some canned food and as much produce from her garden as she could carry, a tent and sleeping bag, and Carla started walking down the highway. She walked for days and saw nobody. She watched vultures pick apart scrawny deer carcasses and wondered if she was the last person on Earth. She left the highway and walked along dirt roads and slept in fields and valleys.
Finally, after a few weeks of walking, she saw in the distance a camp full of odd, angular tipi-style houses, glimmering silver, white, and blue under the sun. The camp was cased by a tall gate from which a man jumped down from his perch.
“Help you?” the man asked.
“I’m looking for a place to stay, just for a little bit.”
The man squinted at her inquisitively. “For a little…bit?” he echoed.
“What year is it?”
“Really. Alright. Really. 2193.”
Carla didn’t understand the “really”s preceding the year. But she figured in the nearly two centuries since she’d built her house on the median people spoke a little differently.
The man put both palms in the air for some reason. “Are you in CTT? AO? CUR?”
Carla shook her head. “I… don’t know what any of that means. I’m sorry.”
“Ok. Month? Good?”
“I can… stay in your camp for a month? If that’s what you’re saying, that’d be great. Thank you so much.” Carla extended her hand to shake his but he immediately recoiled and shook his head and laughed. “No. No. No. Wow.” She laughed too, for some reason, like she’d just told a joke she didn’t understand. For a little while they both just laughed together. Then he opened the gate and waved her through.
Trying to communicate with the other people in the camp was an absurd misadventure, but eventually she was directed to a shiny blue tipi she surmised was to be her own. For the next month anyway. She dropped her backpack and food and clothes off there. Then, as the sun was setting, she joined the others in the camp for something they kept referring to as a “view.”
There was a shallow crater in the middle of the camp, covered in freshly cut grass in a circle surrounding it. At the bottom of the crater were large, probably 15 feet tall panels of screens leaning together to form a pyramid. Carla looked out at the other people watching the screens, their corneas gently illuminated with some sort of technology that enabled them to make sense of whatever was unfolding on the screens before them. To Carla’s eyes it all looked like a slightly psychedelic hodgepodge of flashing bright colors and shapes vaguely resembling objects she couldn’t quite identify.
A woman sat down in the grass next to Carla. A breeze passed through them. Carla turned to see the woman studying the screens, her eyes glowing a gentle green in the night.
“What are we watching?” Carla asked the woman, just above a whisper. There was no sound emanating from the screens. No speakers anywhere to be seen. Everything around her was perfectly still and silent except for the lights in the crater.
The woman nodded to acknowledge Carla’s question but didn’t answer her. A few minutes passed and Carla realized the woman was silently crying. Carla scrutinized the screen closely, trying to see what the woman was seeing. She thought she saw palm trees, maybe. Plates piled high with food. A raft in the middle of a body of water. A young boy playing with a yo-yo. People standing on a cliff, holding hands. Every time Carla thought she almost had it, the image would turn into something else.
“I just wanted to be alone for awhile,” Carla was fighting back tears now herself, but she didn’t understand why. “I didn’t realize how much time had passed.”
The woman reached over and patted Carla’s knee. Carla continued, “It’s not a crime or anything, living on a highway median. I mean, I guess technically it’s illegal. But it’s not like I ever tried to hurt anyone. I’m not petty. I don’t go around seeking conflict with everybody. I mean a war broke out for God’s sake. You know? I didn’t have anything to do with that.”
The screen burst with blue, orange, purple, and grey light. It swirled and shook, changing back and forth, turning into something else. Then something else.
“And, listen, some asshole? Some stupid asshole just up and ran a red light out of nowhere and knocked my husband’s brain clear into Buddhism land or some other next level spiritual plane of something or other I don’t understand. I did the best I could with what I had, is what I’m saying. That should mean something.”
The woman took Carla’s hand into hers and gestured at the screen and whispered, “Do you see it?” Carla shook her head. “I can’t — I don’t have the same eyes. Yours are more advanced. I’m…” Carla’s voice cracked and there were tears now running gently down her face. “2193. Jesus. I didn’t realize how much time had passed. I wasn’t trying to prove anything or anything like that.”
The woman leaned in even closer to Carla and put her arm around her, resting her head tenderly on her shoulder. “Do you see it yet?” she asked. “Stop asking me that,” Carla whispered through her tears. She felt everything all at once. “Please just stop.”
Maybe a hundred faces were illuminated by the pyramid screen. Carla wiped the tears from her cheeks and looked up at every pair of eyes surrounding her, each glowing a different color, watching the screen before them, blinking open and shut like fireflies in the night.
On the screen Carla saw an operating table. She saw a human heart and lungs, bloody and raw. Carla inhaled deeply and held her breath. On the screen she saw herself, standing in her garden, tall and gigantic. Towering above her house there on the median. Towering above everything. Invincible. She kept growing bigger and bigger, walking off into the horizon, stepping over state lines and deserts and whole mountain ranges. She was on an operating table now. It was her. It was all happening simultaneously. Her heart. Her lungs. Her blood. She was surrounded by others. Smiling, familiar faces. She was so tall she could reach up and touch the moon and spin it on her finger. Her veins were as wide as highways.
Carla exhaled eventually. “Ok. Ok, I see it now.”