It's on the news for weeks when the head of a major corporation is exposed by a whistleblower in his own company for tax and accounting fraud, followed by a house fire at his primary address. Little wonder his wife left in the conflagration of that life. Little wonder workers were jumping ship at every opportunity.
Walter didn't jump ship. He didn't find himself out of a job after thirteen years of loyal service because he was trying to escape the undertow pulling him under.
He was one of three who lit the match, who set it to the house, and watched it burn.
The desert is dust and turmoil, hot sand, grit in your teeth. It burns when you dare to expose your skin; it swelters when you don't. The truck door closes behind you and it's off to another town on the same long road leading anywhere but the shambles and ashes of your life.
You do not wonder why you can never go home, but you wonder why all the mistakes you ever made are following you.
Thirteen years ago, Carrie leaned against his side, smiling up in that buttercup and sunshine yellow dress she always used to wear. She looked at him like he meant something, and her laughter followed him out onto the road the first time he left town.
North Carolina had nothing left to offer him, nothing but Carrie.
He stared off to the horizon on the prettiest summer days as they lazed on the grass and her fingers tightened on his arm. One small town after another for miles, and nothing here but Carrie.
"I want to make something of myself," he told her. "Just watch. We'll have a big house with a wider porch than you've ever seen and a car that doesn't threaten to die every time you head to the grocery store."
Carrie's fingers squeezed then relaxed as she laughed. The old car they rode around in wasn't anything to speak of. It'd been her grandfather's and should have died permanently ages ago. "I don't need any of that, Walter. I have you."
He went. After two letters, she stopped writing. There had never been anything in that little North Carolina town for him but Carrie, so he didn't bother to come back.
The desert is dust and serenity, endless sand and brush and scrub, pain and sweat on your brow. It's a long, rocky ride. You stop at the rest stops and trucker stops, pull into diners and motels for the night and out onto the road come morning.
You see the shadow of who Carrie might have been in the eyes and weary smile of the Arizona waitress reminiscing about North Carolina. You wonder why home always seems to haunt you.
Ten years ago, Walter had made his way up the ladder into a trusted position at a household name company, working numbers with a knack others called the magic touch. He caught the attention of the CEO and met the CEO's young wife.
Samantha. Her eyes were dark and weary in a way that bothered Walter. She was as young as Carrie but without the freshness and innocence. Carrie had radiated contentment for a little while at least, but Samantha lowered her eyes beneath her husband's gaze, smiled when she was expected to, hosted company gatherings, tucked her hand in her husband's arm, and every so often lifted her eyes to Walter's. There was fire banked under the weariness.
Walter knew then that he liked her—and that she deserved better.
Home follows you down the strips of highway as you wander like the ancient Jew. You want to live, you want your life to mean something, and you always have. It took so long to realize it was Carrie who'd had the right of it.
Somewhere down the road is North Carolina. You can't go home, but you think that you don’t have to.
Working for the CEO wasn't about ambition. At first it was about doing good work and taking pride in it; then it became an understanding of the under the table deals, the money siphoned off quietly, and the bad work his boss did. It became about documenting everything until he had proof. It became about making things right.
He wanted his life to mean something, so he lit the match, and he burned the metaphorical house down to the ground.
You find yourself in North Carolina, the home you cannot return to. You've been dragging home along behind you all the way. You saw Carrie in the eyes of your boss's wife and knew your own mistakes would never let you be.
But you found peace on the road. You found peace on the highway. You found peace in making things right.
He's here to make things right.
Walter hasn't been back to North Carolina in so many years (thirteen years), and he hasn't heard from Carrie since two months after he left this little town on the backside of nowhere (he didn't try too hard to find out why), and he knows there's a good chance she will not want to see him now. But he's found some peace in living in the scene of the crime and making things right, and there's one more person he didn't see (like Samantha wasn't seen) and didn't love the way she deserved.
He walks the old streets and passes under the old trees. He waves when he's waved at by a stranger he used to know. He makes his way to the rambling house with a wide porch where Carrie used to live.
She's still living there. She's sitting on the front porch, rocking gently in the swing, and humming to herself as she shells peas. No one else has that smile or that buttercup and sunshine yellow dress.
Walter stops and watches her for a long moment, apologies dying on his lips.
Carrie looks up and sees him. The song she was humming dies on hers.
"Do you remember me, Carrie?" he asks, and it eases the tension inside him a little when she smiles.
Carrie comes down off the porch, down the whitewashed steps to stand before him. "There's someone you should meet," she says. "You can come inside and have a drink."
He follows her inside. He follows her home.
You meet a girl named Anna. She has her mother's smile. You see her, like you didn't see Carrie, like he didn't see Samantha.