John and Panu Depart for Herlup Province


John T. Anderson
42 Foliage Lane
Hapdorn 5A03F

8 Eleventhmonth 459A

Dear Ken,

The clock on the dashboard informs me that it is nearly five o’clock in the morning. That means that I have been driving for an hour and a half; it’s almost time for me to pull over to the side of the road and wake Panu. It’s almost his time to drive.

Panu was right. It is much quicker driving by night, and its even more pleasant, besides. Once we got out of the metropolitan Hapdorn area where the light from the city dims the sky, the stars became very bright. Over there, on my left is the constellation of the falling scepter, falling below the celestial equator where it will become visible only to people who live in the Northern Hemisphere. I rolled down my window for some fresh air, reached my right hand out the window, and waved symbolically at it. I was waving good-bye to you and everyone else on Earth, who will not be visible from here until Spring, when the Falling Scepter returns.

I rolled my window up again. The air is much colder than in Hapdorn city. I turned up the car heater. The interprovincial highway snaked its way gracefully through the mountains and valleys of Hapdorn province as we sped through the night towards the southeast. It’s a divided highway, two lanes on each side. Now and then a Hapdorn-bound car or a truck whizzes by in the right lanes.

I glanced back into the back seat where Panu lay. Impossible as it seems for someone so tall, he’s managed to make himself comfortable in my back seat!

I am not quite sure how Panu persuaded me to do this. Despite the exhilarating night air, I still have massive misgivings about it even now. Panu is going to visit his parents and his sister, who all still live in the tiny mountain village where he grew up, and I’m going along.

A pleasantly rhythmic thup, thup, thup, thup came from the right front tire. I suddenly became aware that I was driving on the blue reflectors that mark the boundary between the two lanes on our side. In a little while, I’d be driving in the passing lane! I wrenched the car back into the left lane. Well, I sighed, at least it isn’t much further.

There was a stirring in the back. “What was that?” came Panu’s voice.

“Nothing,” I said, “I was driving on the markers, that’s all.”

“Are you sleepy? Do you want me to drive?” he asked.

“No, that’s okay. It’s not much further to the border,” I reassured him. “You go back to sleep.”

“Okay,” he agreed. He changed positions and fell right back to sleep.

I really was sleepy, but what can you expect at this hour of the day? It isn’t anything serious. We drove on and on in the night. We didn’t see any other cars for quite some time; just trucks. Before long, I found myself compulsively yawning, but my ability to drive wasn’t impaired.

Finally, the sign. “Welcome to Herlup Province,” it proudly announced. There was a small visitor welcome station just beyond the provincial border, but it was closed. It didn’t matter. We didn’t need any tourist brochures; we just needed a place to stretch our legs and change drivers!

I pulled onto the off-ramp and slowed down as I entered the parking lot. The headlights played over the welcome center as I maneuvered the car into a parking spot and turned the engine off.

“Panu!” I called, “Time to wake up! We’re in Herlup Province now!”

“So soon?” he asked sleepily, rising to a sitting position. “Where are the rest rooms?” Then, finally achieving full wakefulness, he said, “Now that’s a dumb question! You’ve never been here, and I have!”

We got out of the car, strolled around for a few moments admiring the nighttime sky. After we had attended to all the necessities, we got back into the car: this time, Panu was at the wheel, and I curled up with a blanket in the back seat.

Panu slowly backed up the car and headed towards the interprovincial highway. “Try and get some sleep John!” Panu advised me, glancing back in the rear-view mirror.

“I don’t think I can actually sleep back here,” I remarked.

“Well then, just relax your eyes while I drive,” he said.

“Okay,” I agreed with a yawn, “I’ll try that.”

I stared at the ceiling of the car. I haven’t done this since I was a child, and my father drove us all to Cleveland to visit Aunt Sally, I thought. The lights and shadows on the ceiling moved in circles for every street light we passed. The air was cool, and the vibration was hypnotic.

I remembered a conversation class I gave last week. We were practicing answering the door, and we had a door set up in the classroom. I stood with Borla, and another student knocked on the door.

“I think that a unknown person petitions ingress,” Borla announced. There were politely suppressed snickers from some of the other students.

“No, Borla,” I said as gently as I could, “You mean to say, ‘I think someone is at the door’.”

Borla was confused. Then he turned into Melissa, lecturing me: “You should go with Panu, John. This is a very kind thing he is doing for you. He knows you have no family in Thorgelfayne, or on the whole planet of Homeland, for that matter.”

I told Melissa she was right. Harshan gave me a hug and told me that someone was petitioning ingress at the door.

I could hear the engine and feel the vibration as we drove along. I thought of a bus in Pittsburgh, long ago. Bad luck made me have an automobile accident, so I had to ride this bus. That bad luck was better than the best good luck I’ve ever had! I saw the little black man who talking to the teddy bear. He reaches out and shakes my hand, “My name is Bobo!” he says.

“I am really an alien,” he says, standing vulnerably in front of the UFO club, “I am from Homeland, fifth planet of Tau Ceti.” Emily covered her mouth as she giggled again, and I glared at her as strongly as I could, in the hopes that she would somehow feel my disapproval.

There they are! How exciting! The Snodgrass University Men’s Choir in concert, singing the national anthem. I could hardly breath through the lump in my throat, and tears streamed down my cheeks.

Oh, Thorgelfayne! My native land,
with lovely mountain vistas grand;
I love the Lakeshore’s glistning strand
For all your people are my friends

Suddenly, the sun was in my eyes. The car had turned several times. We were going very slow! When I awoke, it was dawn. The air seemed thinner and sharper.

“Wake up, John!” Panu shook my shoulder to ensure my wakefulness.

“Are we there already?” I asked with my pasty mouth. “We were supposed to change drivers again.” I sat up and began to fold the blanket and look for my shoes.

“Yes,” he affirmed, “But you were relaxing your eyes so effectively that I didn’t want to disturb you.”

I heard a muffled giggle. It was then that I became aware of five black faces looking in at me through the car windows!