We were driving. It felt like we were always driving. Dee was sucking down cigarettes in the backseat of Dad’s old Volkswagen. She cranked the window down and pursed her lips into the frigid outside air. Exhale. The smoke billowed behind us, an ethereal paper trail. She cranked the window back up. Took a breath. Took another drag. That was the process for the duration of New Brunswick. That had always been the rule.
I squinted into the sunset. I could have driven this road with my eyes closed, if it weren’t for all the fresh potholes.
“How many times have we taken this highway, Dee?”
“Too many.” Exhale. A burst of January bit my nose.
“I wish ya wouldn’t smoke ya know?”
“Yeah well I wish ya wouldn’t fucking cry so much.”
The road started to wind. We crested a feeble hill and I took the exit for Nova Scotia.
“Time’s up,” I said.
Dee rolled the window fully down, and hurled her lit cigarette as far as she could out the window.
“You and your fucking rules,” she mumbled from the back, the wind streaming in, blowing hair in my face. I merged onto the 104, temporarily blinded. A transfer truck bleated loudly as it accommodated my abrupt entrance.
“We could have died ya know.” I spat the hair out of my face.
“Fuck you.” She cranked up the window.
An hour later and we were almost to Truro. Dee was dozing in the backseat. An unlit cigarette pressed between her lips. I don’t remember when she started smoking. Dee was older. Dee was unstable. Dee was never around much. Dee didn’t deal well with other people.
When I was eleven she got pregnant, but nobody told me. I never met my niece. She was born in June. Died in August. At least she got to have one beautiful island summer. The funeral was discreet. There was no obituary.
I was expecting Dee to do something after that. Something irrational or crazy. Something that might warrant another trip to the psych ward. Something that might illicit hushed conversations that ended abruptly when I entered a room. Something to talk about.
Dee was never quite capable of complying with the expected, though. She got a job at a bank. From nepotism or pity it was never clear, but it certainly wasn’t from her qualifications. The bank was good, as far as I can tell. Good benefits, good pay. She bought a new quilt, took the Volkswagen to a mechanic. By all accounts she was managing fine. Dad even let me see her every once in a while. We would take road trips to Nova Scotia for the weekend and I would sleep on a futon in the basement of one of her friend’s apartments. I don’t know where Dee slept, but I have a guess. She smoked a lot on those trips, and it made me nauseous. One time I actually did throw up in the backseat. That’s why we have the rule now. You’re only allowed to smoke in New Brunswick. We never liked New Brunswick. The views were shit. The highways were shit. The gas stations were shit. The weather was shit. One trip we were driving through around Christmas. It had long gotten dark even though it was barely supper time. Dee was driving. This was back when Dee liked to drive. I was counting stars somewhere above the Big Dipper, when the tires caught some ice and we careened into a ditch. It was nothing, the airbags didn’t even go off, but it gave Dee a real scare. A red Toyota passed us before we pulled back out onto the highway. We had barely gotten the car back up to 80 when Dee had to slow down and pull over. We couldn’t tell right away, but some bastard moose had wandered out into the road.
If you’ve ever seen a moose, you don’t need me to explain this next part. But if you’ve never driven through New Brunswick after dark before, then you might not understand what it looks like to see a car frame crumpled underneath an enormous heap of muscle and fur. This was no noble Canadian mascot. It was a gruesome and lethal corpse, smearing dark blood across the pavement. Dee told me to call 911. I don’t remember what I said to them, but we waited there for the ambulance. A police officer asked Dee some questions. He told us we were lucky to have been going so slowly, otherwise the situation could have been much worse. Dee looked frozen and not just from the cold. The ambulance left quietly, bumping gently along the cracking and icy pavement. The moose had been dragged to the side of the road, her tongue lolling awkwardly out of her mouth. Her eyes unnervingly open. The red frame of the crumpled Toyota was dragged away. I could see where they’d bent the metal to retrieve the body. It was obvious why there were no need for sirens.
Dee didn’t drive any more after that, so our Nova Scotia trips were on hiatus until I got my license.
Of all the things that had happened in Dee’s life, I was always surprised that the incident with the moose is what stuck. I would have expected her lost daughter to be the most traumatizing, or her later miscarriage. I expected that the ghost-fathers of these children would have damaged her in psychologically irreparable ways, but nothing ever seemed as painful to her as the moose.
Years after, I started to understand that what Dee hates and fears more than anything is culpability. What scares her most is being in control and making the wrong choice, making the wrong mistake.
One year, Dee had taken the bus to Halifax without me. I was seventeen at the time, so I decided to go up to meet her. I texted her to tell her I was coming and she responded with an address. By the time I got to her friend’s apartment, it was dark and cold, the kind of cold that gets right into your bones. Dee didn’t answer when I knocked. An ugly man in his underwear came to the door instead. His penis was a hard curve under his black briefs. He stank of cigarettes and something I would later recognize as alcohol. I told him I was there to see my sister. He introduced himself as Mark and brought me downstairs. Dee was lying naked on the couch, a blanket partially covering her hips and pelvis. Her breasts were fully exposed. There was something on the coffee table too. I still don’t know what it was. Some kind of drug, I guess. We’ve never spoken about it. I remember hearing men laughing upstairs. We’ve never talked about that either. I have my own ideas about what happened. I prefer not to think too much about it.
Dee didn’t get off the couch until the next morning. She woke me up early, before sunrise, and said we were going. I was used to Dee riding shotgun by this point, but this time she crawled into the backseat. Her body looked harsh and sharp. She was thinner than I remembered her. She laid down in the back, her seatbelt tucked under her arm but not fastened into place. She took a cigarette out to chew on and told me she needed Joni Mitchell, hurling her iPod to the front. Dee wasn’t quite the same after that either, now that I think about it. But when she miscarried three months later, her relief helped clear some of that disaster away.
When we finally arrived, Dee woke with a start.
“Fuck,” she mumbled.
“Fuck.” I nodded back.
“Fuck’s sake, have ya been crying this whole time?”
“Yer a real piece a shit sometimes, ya know.”
“Let’s get this over with then, eh.”
“Shut up.” She pulled a fresh cigarette from her back pocket. “I know ya can’t stand it when I smoke, so I’ll hold off lighting this one til I see the tail-lights.” She offered me the pack. “One for the road?”
I shook my head but took one anyway. Camels.
“Cheers to whatever’s next.” She yanked a backpack from the backseat and blew me a kiss, her cigarette tucked elegantly between her middle and ring finger. She slung the bag over her shoulder and started walking. I had no idea where she was going. She wouldn’t tell me.
She turned back towards me, cigarette dangling lazily from her lips.
“Nope. I’ve got to go. But for the love of god you gotta stop crying.” She was backing away from me slowly, trapesing backward into the fresh night. “If you cry over every fucking thing, every time somebody leaves, then you’ll be crying an awfully long time.”
I kept staring as she walked into the darkness. There were houses on one side, highway on the other, a sidewalk disappearing into the horizon. She was going somewhere she didn’t want to be found.
“I was never good to ya. Not like ya needed.” She was shouting this now, the wind cutting in and out of her phrases. “When mom died–I couldn’t cope. I–”
She said more, but I couldn’t hear her over the wind. I put the cigarette awkwardly against my lips, breathing in the disgusting smell of those hours driving through New Brunswick, the cold air clamouring into my empty lungs, the taste of loneliness already bitter on my tongue. I turned the car around and sped back out onto the highway. Tears burned in my eyes and throat but I bit them back, focusing on the highway in front of me, on the sound of the engine, on the whistling winter road beneath the tires.
Originally from PEI, Emily is an English Master’s student at the University of Guelph. She lived in Nova Scotia during her undergrad at Acadia, and is abundantly familiar with the highways on which her story is based. Like the characters in her story, Emily also hates New Brunswick, but in an affectionate way.