The little brass bell tied to the door tinkled as she entered, and a bleary-eyed attendant looked up from his coffee. “Out for an early morning ride, huh?”
The woman smiled at him. “I’d like a gallon of gas, please. And a newspaper.” She pointed to the stack still tied with string next to him. He cut the string off and handed one to her.
“Where’re you headed?” he asked as he rang up the purchases.
“Mmm.” She pulled out a wallet, fat with bills but with card slots curiously empty: no credit cards, no pictures, not even a driver’s license. Not the attendant’s problem: she wasn’t buying beer. She handed over a five and leafed through the paper, looking at the help-wanted ads. “What’s the next town east on Highway 50? Winston?”
“No, Winston’s north of here. East is Renwood. Well, Kersville is east, technically. If you count a bunch of farms and a wilderness preserve as a town, which I don’t. Renwood’s twenty miles off but they’ve got, y’know. Shops and stuff.
The woman smiled again. “I know. Renwood sounds nice.” She folded the paper beneath one arm and headed for the door.
“Have a nice ride. Oh, if you’re going up 50, there’s a monster in the preserve, so you know. She’s harmless, though.”
“Uh huh.” He gestured with one hand high over his head. “Right by the road, rooted by remorse. Hasn’t hurt anyone in decades. Worst thing she’ll do is mope at you and ask you a question if you stop. Figured I’d warn you so’s you wouldn’t freak when you saw her.”
“She asks a question?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry, it’s not a riddle. She asks ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’ Doesn’t matter what you answer, she always says, ‘What I’ve done is worse.’ And then she goes back to moping.”
“Oh. Thanks for the tip.” She waved and went back to her bike.
Riding took more concentration than driving a car. The motorcycle had fat knobbly hybrid tires designed for both street and cross-country use, and they didn’t work quite perfectly for either. The bike had a tendency to drift down the slope of the road’s camber if the rider didn’t pay attention. So the woman was staying alert anyway, and the monster was hard to miss.
She was rooted by the side of the road, a crow-headed woman twelve feet high with legs like tree trunks, bark-covered. Molting black wings were thick with shedding grey down at her back. One eye, grey and listless as a lump of ash, tracked the rider’s approach.
The woman slowed as she neared the monster. When she was closer, she could see that the woman wasn’t actually growing out of the ground; rather, brambles and tendrils of wood were growing out of the earth to cover taloned feet and humanoid legs. She rode past slowly. She was the only one on the road, and nothing in else was sight but miles of thick vegetation on untended lands. A hundred yards later, she turned the bike around and came back, stopping a dozen feet away. She took off her helmet. “Good morning.”
The monster had her profile to her, watching with one eye. “No.”
The woman looked up at the clear sky, sunlight streaming down the highway and streaking the road with the long shadows of trees. “It’s morning, anyway. Seems like a good one to me.”
The monster didn’t respond. The woman put the kickstand of her bike down and swung one leg over to lean sideways against the seat. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” the monster asked.
“I don’t know.”
The grey eye blinked slowly. “You don’t know?”
The woman shrugged. “The first thing I remember happened last night. I don’t remember anything from before that. I haven’t done anything very bad since then, so I figure the worst thing I’ve ever done was probably before that.” When the monster didn’t say anything else, the woman asked, “What’s the best thing you could ever do?”
The crow-head turned away from her, one eye to the wilderness and one to the road. The beak clacked. “I never thought about that. It doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t be enough to make up for what I’ve done.”
“Is standing here enough?”
“Then maybe you should think about it.”
The monster didn’t respond. After a few minutes, the woman put her helmet back on. “Hope you have a good morning, ma’am.” She snapped the visor down, turned the bike around, and rode into the rising sun.
This one has a bunch of meanings, most of which come from the same basic idea
cam·ber: noun: 1. A slightly arched surface verb: 2. To arch or cause to arch slightly. Source: www.thefreedictionary.com
Modern roads are cambered to help with drainage.