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Needle Through the World

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If you asked Worth Todd, he would say his wife Ophelia had fallen in love with the little Mercedes two-seater the very moment she'd seen it - which just went to tell you that Worth Todd had always underestimated what it took for his wife to fall all the way in love.

Oh, she'd liked it, to be sure; it had looked like a car made for fast, with a little bit of room left to be practical without going all the way out into sensible. But she hadn't fallen in love until she'd first sat behind the wheel and seen that special odometer - the one that you could reset to zero just as often as you liked to see how far you'd come since you set out. Fast was just the material, like buying the best quality fabric to sew yourself a dress. Sure, it helped with the result, but wasn't a lick of use to you if you didn't have the underlying pattern right.

Shave a little, save a little, her daddy had always said. Save enough miles and sooner or later you'd save time as well. That had been his Bible just as much and more as the worn little pamphlet he'd carried from the company outlining every selling point of the kitchenware that he drove from town to town to hawk.

A map, he'd told her, was just like that pamphlet. You couldn't hope to sell much of anything by reading off those basic points just as plain as you pleased. The art of the sale was in knowing how to extemporise, and move yourself from one point to the next in the most effective way even though you hadn't had a practice run to figure out the lay of the land before you got started.

"Find me a road, 'Phelia," he'd told her, when she was in the navigator's seat. He'd always called it that; she was never the passenger when she was with him, always the navigator. "What does the map say, and what do the roads say different?"

The maps, she'd learned on those trips, never told the whole story. They were smoothed and simplified, like that list of selling points. They showed you the basic lines, but not the subtle curves that slowed you up, the long hill with a clear view where you could safely floor the gas, the little backwoods tracks that there was no need to include on a map that was already crowded enough with bigger, more important routes that were going the same way.

Every time they went anywhere, they took a different route, crossing off the longer stretches as no good, drawing on the shortcuts that weren't marked. Sometimes she picked a new path that was longer than the one they'd gone before, but her daddy only laughed and had her mark it on the map.

"Even going the long way saves you time, if you only do it once," he said. "I could drive the same route fast a hundred times and never get any faster, but if it's distance that you mind, then every time you go you'll learn a better way to travel."

Of course, that had been many years ago, and long before she'd owned the little champagne Mercedes that Homer Buckland called the go-devil.

Homer was the first one to have started calling her 'Phelia since her dad had passed. Oh, not to her face, mind - he'd always called her "missus", treating her with a touch of respect but not too much of it. Just like the go-devil was fast, but not so mad on being fast it was no good for anything else; like 'Phelia was the middle point between the stuffy and formal Ophelia up on her pedestal and the blandness of a single syllable like Lee that stole all of her uniqueness away.

Like the way Homer's wife was a good woman, but saw her as threat, while Worth treated Homer right in his own way but wouldn't ever have seen a man of his station as being one - and both of them were shooting a little to either side of the truth, travelling down those simplified map-roads without even seeing that there could be an in-between. That middle way where there was still some room to breathe and be something more than forgettable and less than a plaster saint.

Homer was the only one that she thought would really listen if she told him about the roads. About how short mattered more than fast, about how the maps were too simple in more than one way.

Because it was in hunting her own shortcuts that she'd really started to learn. Her daddy had driven routes all over the country, shaving miles every time, but never staying in one place for long. But 'Phelia... well, she was at the house on Castle Lake every summer, driving that same stretch to Bangor and back time after time. Shaving miles and more miles, and miles after that.

And she'd learned that there were roads and there were roads.

First you had the big main routes like the turnpike, the ones that travelling strangers saw drawn in bold lines on the map and scribbled down as simple set of straightforward directions. Then you had the other major roads, the ones that locals came to recognise cut across at a better angle here or avoided an unnecessary detour there. After those came the farm tracks and the residential roads, the ones that most people never once thought to turn down unless they lived there themselves or were visiting someone who did. And then, once you ran out of those to try, you started to spot the overgrown and rutted roads that no one drove at all: forgotten tracks connecting up abandoned farms, old country lanes that were now too narrow, too steep, too uneven to be an easy way through for the vehicles of today.

She'd tried them all, and scratched them off of her maps one by one, and kept looking... and that was how she'd found out that there were other roads. Roads that didn't like to be looked at head-on, between spaces that you could only sneak up on by eliminating all the clearer possibilities around them. Roads that went through, like pushing a needle through doubled-up cloth to come out somewhere miles further on than the actual distance you'd travelled.

The first time she'd found one, she hadn't known what kind of road she was driving down - which of course, was the only reason she'd found it at all. She'd been heading down Route 3 toward Derry Hospital, not looking for any place in particular, but rather watching the ground ahead of her wheels to count off each turning as she passed it. There were tracks running through the woods that weren't marked on any map but for a hand-drawn one from an old water-damaged book Derry Public Library had thrown out, and she'd been trying each of them in turn.

The one she took today was such a tight squeeze even for the little go-devil - she did so love that name, far more than Worth's flatly unimaginative term for it, the Merc - that the trees to either side reached out to tap the hood like barroom boys slapping a pal's shoulder. Anyone looking at the road ahead could see it looked like impossible going and it would be better to reverse out.

But she wasn't looking at the road ahead: she was already looking beyond it to every place this road might come out and watching that odometer click around.

A quarter of a mile. The steep hill took a sudden plunge down into boggy ground, the logs laid down over it skewed apart at wider angles where spreading roots had nudged them out of line. Dark mud sprayed up from in between as the car bumped over the track, and 'Phelia let out a whoop, a girl again splashing through rain puddles. If Worth was here, he'd curse and caution her to slow, muttering sourly about needing to wash the car - but Worth wasn't here, and she could just be perfectly herself.

Half a mile. The throaty voice of the engine ripped through the woods, empty of a single sound of any other vehicle though the rattling croak of some creature in the distance seemed to carry for miles. The road here was no road, but more like a hiking trail, the left side of the car riding higher than the right, then dropping down with a crash that bounced her in her seat. Prehistoric-looking ferns grew to either side of the track, curling down as if to retreat from the car.

Three-quarters of a mile. The trees had receded, and she was driving a thin bridge of logs over a broad pool of water, the surface of it thick with floating weeds. The air had a briny smell like seawater that she breathed deep. It felt like her lungs were bigger, like she was bigger, fiercer, faster. As the trees closed in again at the end of the bridge something surfaced with a glop to watch her go, but she didn't look back for it. The go-devil ate up the road and purred for more.

A mile. Big old trees here, with gnarled and twisted trunks. The road was edged with cut-off logs, and it seemed as though there might be some kind of pictures carved into them, but she was going by too fast to look. Great yellow puffballs, some as big as basketballs, sprouted from the sides of the trees, and as she drove past one, it exploded, spattering the right side of the windshield with strangely perfumed spores. She swerved the car to avoid one of the big ones on the other side, laughing as it blew.

A mile and a quarter, and the trees were thinning again. Then the road took a sharp curve and without further warning it spat her back out onto the Old Derry Road - closer to three miles distance by the route she'd driven going the other way into Bangor. Laughing again in triumph, she swung on back towards home.

The second variation that she tried on that drive back didn't work out quite so well, losing her two tenths of a mile compared to going down Bear Road and scraping the car's underside in the bargain, but she got out of that without needing to wait for a tow and arrived home with a smile on her face. The smile grew when she saw Homer Buckland by the gates, fixing that lean to the mailbox that she'd always thought had a certain charm but Worth had been complaining about for weeks.

"You're back early, missus," Homer said as she coasted to a stop. "You been out hunting those shortcuts of yours again?"

It was the same question Worth would have asked if he'd been there to meet her, but Worth had a different way of saying it - with a touch of a laugh, not a mean one, but as if it was some odd little flight of fancy that he found more amusing than annoying, like refusing to step on cracks or having a pair of lucky socks. A little bit of harmless girlish silliness.

Homer always asked as if he was interested to know, and she lit up in response. "Oh, I found a real humdinger of a route this time, Homer," she told him. "If I can shave just a fraction more off between Etna and Derry I'll have cut out a whole two miles. Let me just get my notebook to mark it down before I forget." She'd been so high on the wild excitement of the drive that the details of it were already like a dream. She opened up the glovebox to dig through all the maps, while Homer left off his work to come over to the car.

"What's all these yellow marks over the windshield here, missus?" he asked, drawing a rag from his pocket to have a go at polishing one away.

"Oh, I don't know," she said lightly, barely glancing up from rummaging through the go-devil's glovebox. "Some kind of pollen, I suppose." You came across all sorts in the woods.

"Funny time of year for it," he said.

'Phelia made a mild noise of agreement, then a louder one of triumph as she dug out her notebook. She grabbed that and the rough map of the woods around Derry, already annotated with extra roads and distances.

"I'm chipping more off every time," she told him as she got out of the car. "Someday soon, you wait, I'll get it down under three hours, and then I'll get it under that."

"That sure would be something," he said.

"Save enough miles, and soon enough you'll save time," she said. "Maybe when I get it down that far I'll take you for a drive."

Homer smiled and adjusted his cap. "Might just hold you to that, missus," he warned.

She smiled back. "Under three hours. Just you wait and see," she said.