by Kate Chandler

"Oh, I love this song!"

“That’s about the tenth time you’ve said that in an hour.”

"Well I love good music. And you have great taste in it."

Tom smiled bashfully. In truth he had compiled the playlist solely to please Chloe, but she didn’t need to know that. He took a long glance over at her as she sang along to the song, and thought—not for the first time that day—about how one person can totally change the colour of your world, and about how lucky he was to have that person accompanying him this time on the semi-regular drive from Vancouver up to Whistler that he’d been doing since he left university the summer before.

As he was thinking these thoughts, he noticed a car parked in a layover off to the left, and a man standing next to it facing the road. On closer inspection, Tom saw that the man was holding a camera up to his eye, and he grinned to himself at the thought of his car driving into frame and photobombing the man’s picture. He set to wondering whether that picture would make it into any photo collection and, if so, whether anyone he knew—either now or in the past or future—would ever see it, never realising that it was him in the car, and what a special moment in his life the photographer had just captured. The photographer himself certainly wouldn’t have, and so would probably delete it. 

Tom often got caught up wondering about stuff like this, about the vast web of chance and happenstance that surrounds and connects us all unawares. He knew from long experience that it didn’t do to let yourself go too far down the rabbit holes of connections and potentialities, though, lest you never return from them in order to take notice of the surface of things, which was where the real enjoyment was at. Especially in moments like these.

"You want to stop off at Shannon Falls?" he asked.

"Why not," Chloe said. "Do the whole tourist thing. Haven’t been there for years. Have you?"

"I went for a hike up there not long ago, actually, to the top of the falls."

"I didn’t even realise that there was a trail that went up there."

"Sure there is. Stunning views. Maybe we could go together one day."

"Maybe we could," she smiled, giving him a look that made his heart leap.

He parked the car in the lot of the Provincial Park and, chatting idly, they strolled along the small trail beside the river to the viewpoint. When they got there a man had a camera set up on a tripod to take a photograph of the falls. They stood to one side of him, waiting for him to finish, but he shook his head and gestured for them to go ahead, so they walked right up to the barrier and gazed up at the waterfall. It thundered down at full flow from the Spring snow melt and recent rain, and Chloe commented on how it was really quite exhilarating to be able to get so close to the power of nature and how she didn’t seem to do it enough these days. Tom took the chance to further push the idea of a hike together in the future so she could see how great it felt to look down upon the falls from the top. By the time they got back to the car, they had agreed on a weekend to do so and Tom was feeling the most positive he had in months.

Further up the highway, he decided to take her to a little shack of a bar he knew for some appies and a beer. It was right on the river front near where it emptied out into Howe Sound, and was one of his favourite spots in the whole Sea-to-Sky area. Though he had kept it a secret getaway for himself for years, something told him that Chloe was going to be a special enough part of his life to make an exception for her. She seemed to love the place as much as he did, and they spent a happy hour there shooting the breeze and gazing out over the swollen Squamish river to the prettily frosted Tantalus mountains on the other side. 

Chloe went to stand on the bank of the river to scan the sky for eagles while he stayed at their table finishing up his beer. As he looked on at her appreciatively, taking a snapshot in his head of her figure against the backdrop, he could have sworn he heard a camera shutter click. He quickly turned around and caught the eye of the man sat at the table behind him just as he was lowering his camera. He couldn’t be completely sure but he looked like the man with the tripod and camera that they had seen at Shannon Falls. Tom smiled wanly, just in case, but the man stared back at him with a blank expression and, feeling awkward, Tom quickly broke eye-contact. When he glanced back moments later, the man had his head in his phone, busily texting or playing a game, and by the time Tom had looked at his watch to see how they were doing for time, flagged down a waitress and ordered two coffees, the man had gone.

After their coffees, Tom and Chloe took a walk down the path alongside the river and watched as some paddle boarders navigated the strong current. Chloe laughed as Tom had a little rant about what a ridiculous sport it was and how people should just figure out if they wanted to kayak or windsurf, and as she did so she caught his eye and held it and he knew that this was the moment he should kiss her. He smiled, tilted his head ever so slightly and moved towards her, but seeing a loon touch down on the river over her shoulder he instead found himself babbling “Oh look! A loon! What’s he doing on the river?” 

Chloe turned to look, and the moment broke. She spoke about how she loved loons, especially the sound of them calling to each other in the ocean at dawn throughout winter, but Tom barely heard her so thoroughly was he immersed in mentally enacting a series of violent attacks on his idiotic self. On coming out of this fog of self-recrimination, he happened to look up to the path above them, and saw the man from the bar pointing his camera in their direction and, feeling that something was a little out of sorts with this guy and needing to vent the frustration he’d been feeling at himself, Tom decided to confront him.

He left Chloe where she was and quickly scrambled up the steep bank to where the man had been, but when he got there he had vanished from sight. Rattled, but secretly quite relieved that a confrontation hadn’t occurred, Tom went to collect Chloe from the side of the river and they hopped back into the car and continued their drive up the highway in companionable silence, content to listen to the music and take in the scenery and the feeling of freedom that the open road instilled in them both. 

The deer came out of nowhere, chased onto the highway by some hidden predator. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d swerved the car over to the southbound lane and hit a semi-trailer head-on. It felt as if each bone in his body were being crushed simultaneously by individual vices, but through the pain he managed to open his eyes and look over to Chloe’s seat. She wasn’t in it. He looked through the smashed and mangled windscreen and saw nothing in that direction but pieces of her clothes and a lot of blood. The last thing he saw before passing out was the camera guy standing in the road, with the same blank expression, taking photos of the wreck and the scene of chaos beginning to unfold around him.

The church was packed out for the funeral. Even though he got there early, Tom found himself sitting towards the back with a bunch of Chloe’s colleagues rather than further to the front where he felt he deserved to be. He held several unwelcome pangs of envy back as he heard old friend after close friend after family member eulogising the girl who he had loved but only been allowed to have in his life so briefly. Towards the end of the service, they played Portishead’s Roads—one of Chloe’s favourite songs—and a lump arose in Tom’s throat as he realised that it was one of the last songs that he had put on his playlist for their little road trip, in the hope of eliciting conversation about their favourite sad songs. His eyes began to burn. His whole head seemed too hot. He needed some air. He looked behind him to see how clear a path there was to the exit, and saw the man with the camera taking pictures of the shrine at the altar and the congregation. Then he pointed the camera right at Tom.

Tom looked wildly about him, muttered his excuses and got up, tripping over and accidentally stabbing people’s legs with his crutches in his urgency to get to the back of the church. The camera guy had already gone by the time he got there, but as Tom pushed open the door to the outside he saw the man standing in the section of the graveyard reserved for crematory ashes. Tom went over to him, and saw that they were standing at the plaque where Chloe’s ashes were to be interred. The man’s face was leathery up close, and his expression was still blank, but Tom now saw something very familiar about him. He took a good look into the man’s eyes, and saw that they were his own. The man pressed something into Tom’s hand then disappeared. 

Tom opened his hand, and saw that he was holding a memory card.

Suddenly, Tom was sitting in a pub in Vancouver, drinking with some colleagues, when an old friend approached his table, one arm held out to shake Tom’s hand, the other around Chloe, pushing her forward slightly as he introduced her. Realising he was back at the beginning, Tom exited out of the photo slideshow and ejected the memory card from his computer. With a small sigh, he twiddled the memory card between his fingers for a moment then tossed it into the side drawer in his desk, locking it with the tiny key he kept stashed in the cover of a cushion on his sofa. There was a knock at his study door and Shannon walked in with his afternoon cup of coffee, full of teenaged angst about the new girl at school and how the boy Shannon loved had already taken a liking to her. 

Tom drank his coffee and listened politely, interjecting occasional fatherly platitudes about the nature of love and how things happen for good reason, never once believing a word he uttered, but all too aware that it wasn’t he who needed to continue to believe in the power of hope.

Spark by Michael Marshall Smith

ROADS copyright © Kate Chandler 2015