The office had almost completely left my mind, replaced with memories of sightseeing and relaxing on the beach. My kids and I got to see the Blue Jays beat the Yankees while my wife, who didn’t care about baseball, spent some time with her sister. Things had gone perfectly.
What had started as a leisurely conclusion to the late July odyssey now took the family through the loneliness of Northern Vermont. No traffic to contend with. The road was all ours.
Today had brought a change in the weather, pleasant at first, but now the sky was as deserted as the road. Not a cloud to temper the oppressive sun that stuck everyone to their seats as the family stewed together. And now this.
A tollbooth. Unmanned. No rational being to forgive our ignorance. An unthinking, unfeeling bucket attached to an arm that stretched just beyond the gravel lining the road. Undoubtedly equipped with a camera to identify those who would avoid paying the toll.
“25 Cents. Exact Change Only.”
As luck would have it, we had spent our remaining American coins before returning to Canada. Ice cream wrappers and an almost-full tank of cheap gas remained as evidence of what had seemed like a wise idea. Even the Milky Way bar in my hand, always a highlight of each trip south of the border, lost its flavor.
Shaking these thoughts out of my mind, I returned to the dilemma. The arm wouldn’t move.
“Just drive underneath it,” suggested my daughter.
“It’s too low,” I responded.
My son moaned. “It’s been hours.”
“It hasn’t even been two yet. Just be patient.”
“You said that hours ago.”
“And it looks like I was right. Here comes a car!”
I got out and waved the driver down. “I don’t suppose you’ve got an extra quarter?” I inquired.
He checked his cupholder. “Sorry, pal—just got the one.”
“No problem. I’ll just wait for the next car.”
He shook his head. “You’ll might be here a while, then. Mine is just about the only family that lives out this way, and all the tourists take the highway.”
I gave a weary smile. “We thought this way would be more scenic.”
“Well, you were right about that. Not many people willing to take the extra time, though.”
I started back toward my car. “Anyhow, thanks for your time. I’m sure someone else will come by soon.”
“I hope you’re right about that. Good luck.”
Sticking my head back inside the car, I shrugged to my wife. “Nothing.”
Her face fell. “This is ridiculous. Let’s just turn around.”
“It’s over an hour to get back to the highway. It’s quicker to wait.”
From the back seat, my son muttered, “I just want to go home.”
“Do you think I don’t? This isn’t exactly fun for any of us,” I snapped.
My wife yelled back, “Hey, it was your idea to come this way. Don’t take it out on them.”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” my daughter whined.
“Just hold it a little longer,” I told her.
“I have, but we’ve been here forever.”
“Then go in the bushes.”
My wife’s eyes narrowed. “That’s enough. Take us back to the highway.”
Wordlessly, I sat on the hood of the car. Even through my jeans, the black paint was painful. Visions of the trip flashed through my mind. Why can’t there ever be a perfect end to a family vacation?
I stole a quick glance behind me. All three of them were in tears. I pretended not to notice.
By the time the crying stopped, I had lost track of time. Inside the car, the floor was covered with tissues, and my wife was wiping her eyes with her shirt.
I sat down inside. Nobody made a sound.
Staring straight ahead, my wife asked, “Have you checked on the ground? Somebody might have dropped some change.”
“Good thought.” I took a couple of steps. “Hey, I love you.”
As I bent down, my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the engine starting. I turned around in time to see splinters fly as the car smashed through the outstretched arm.
I watched my family disappear down the lonely road, then shed a tear of my own as I glanced at the sun-baked quarter in my hand.
Kevin Hogg is a high school Special Education teacher with a Master of Arts degree in English Literature. He was a winner int he 2005 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, and he has published short stories and poetry. He is also a husband, father, and Chicago Cubs fan. Outside of writing, he enjoys pistachio ice cream, Saved by the Bell reruns, and poplar trees. His website is http://kevinhogg.ca, and he can be found on Twitter at @kevinhogg23.