By: Michael Summerleigh
No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.
Both of them were running, though neither could say exactly what it was they were running from, only that the lives they were leading had stopped being important, and there had been a night when all caution and pretense had been swept aside, and thereafter no explanations had seemed appropriate. Both of them had simply walked away; now they were stopped in the middle of nowhere, lost along the way to wherever it was they were going. A road atlas would have been helpful, certainly better than a smartphone with no smarts… but looking at each other they each realised it didn’t really matter where they were…lost was the way it was going to be for a while.
Shawna brushed strands of hair from her face, the cloud cover making the air thick and humid she could feel her blouse and jeans growing damp with sweat, felt crushed beneath a sudden deeply oppressive sense of weight as the chainsaw sputtered and died in the distance. Silence rose up to swallow them standing beside the car…
Rick hadn’t made a sound since they had turned onto something that in spite of tar and chip really didn’t even qualify as a tertiary backroad. No signs. Nothing to tell them where they were going. Shawna had not spoken, but watched him hunch over the steering wheel a bit more with every passing mile, watching for another ribbon of dirt or asphalt to return them to civilisation… refusing to back-track…wild-eyed… like some poor soul in a Stephen King novel driving deeper into something dark and dangerous but refusing to give an inch to dismay or common sense.
Fair to Shawna’s dark and exotic he had pale blue eyes that had been sharp and stubborn in the Caddy’s air conditioning, but now he seemed to be drowning in the heat, his white dress shirt starting to darken with perspiration, the lines of his face losing some of their strong angularity…softening into something Shawna realised was terror; that the passion, the sheer desperation and need of their flight, that had fuelled him over half a continent, had somehow been sucked out of his soul and had left him adrift in something utterly beyond his comprehension, without a map or a compass…a reference point of any sort…in exile from all the comfortable things in the world he had given up in order to be at this crossroad on this day out in the middle of nowhere with her.
She felt a sudden sadness for him, and then a surprising sense of almost bitter disappointment; that all the strength that had attracted her to him in the beginning seemed to have gone in the first wave of a minor crisis. Instinctively she wanted to walk around the front of the car and put her arms around him…offer him some sort of refuge from what was making him so crazy scared…then realised it was that very same thing in her other life that had driven her away; that she had given all she had to give to it and now was looking for something in return. She stayed on her side of the car, ready for the wave of guilt she knew was coming…
The silence around them started to shred with the hum of cicadas in the tall grass lining the roadside, growing louder and louder until it was almost deafening she could see Rick’s lips moving but still couldn’t hear what he was saying. He didn’t even seem to be talking to her and the look in his eyes kept getting more and more distant, as if he was retreating into himself, away from whatever was upsetting him, not made any better when the humming just stopped dead and both of them were startled by the raucous jeers of two crows arrowing overhead, black shadows against the gun-metal sky. Now she could hear him cursing, the deep rumble of his take-charge voice drowning in anger growing sharper edging towards hysteria. The pair of crows disappeared into the trees, a last chorus of derision echoing in the stillness.
She called his name once…then again…louder this time and he seemed to wake up from the nightmare, recognition replacing the glassy stare into nothingness. He shook himself loose from where the collar of his shirt clung to his neck, ran both hands through his hair and when he found her looking at him closely flushed even darker in the suffocating heat.
* * *
He was embarrassed, dimly aware that for a while he’d totally lost it…something new and alien in his life he’d always been the one to pay the bills and make sure everything was where it was supposed to be when it was supposed to be there. His kids were in college and it was all paid for and he was so fucking tired of always being the one in charge and then she had come along… given him these strangely wonderful moments of reprieve…a deep brainless world of fucking where there weren’t any consequences and he could sleep again…without the worry… buried in the sweat and perfume between her breasts when the night had driven them to the edge of exhaustion…
He had never seen it coming. Just a morning when he woke up and consciously recognised he didn’t want to get out of bed or go to the office or ever touch his dearly-beloved-until-death-do-us-part ever again. Not that she had done anything except perhaps fall into the same traps that had snared him, set him racing after the common definition of the American Dream. Just thatit suddenly all seemed like utter bullshit and he was tired of it
He had forced himself out of bed, stumbled intro the bathroom. In the middle of shaving he realised he had no idea who was staring back at him from the bevelled glass mirror over his side of the twin sinks. Two nights later staying in town for a drink with a client…staying for one more before heading back to La-La Land… he’d met Shawna. Her voice had been so low and so comfortable in the half-light…her casual office-acceptable clothing nowhere near enough casual to hide the honey hiding inside.
And he had started working late every night that week. Two of them staying in town with phone calls back to the ‘burbs that were full of lies, and everything after that full of Shawna…no words… just a blessed relief in not having to talk or think…
He watched her watching him over the roof of the El Dorado and he was embarrassed…ashamed for having given in to fear…for having gotten lost in it. It had never happened to him before and her eyes were like mirrors…dark, but without the judgment he had made that morning when he was shaving, yet he could see that somehow he had slipped in her regard…less than a few weeks old and already he somehow had managed to fall short of her expectations.
* * *
For the space of a dozen heartbeats she saw that same hangdog expression she had left behind…the look that had become so frustrating…so goddamn infuriating she dealt with the same everyday shit he did why was she the one who always had to be the safe harbour? Who was gonna hold her and say There there it’s okay I’m lookin’ after you baby you don’t have t’sweat a thing I got you safe and warm now…
She watched him come back to where they were…answer the unspoken clarion call in her voice she didn’t want to have to tell him…to admit that even now every minute was a test he needed to pass. She didn’t care about the sex. He wasn’t the best lover she’d ever had, but he was gentle…maybe too cautious because they were new…but he was considerate and it wasn’t just about him getting off and then rolling over to go to sleep…
She mustered a commiserative smile, something that would let him know she didn’t give a damn if they had no idea where they were because that part of it was true. In the martini-charged moment when she had made the decision to walk away she also had sloughed off all need for any kind of certainty except for the one where she took up with someone who would be willing to dare the Unknown with her. Step over the edge. Take a chance take a chance ollie-oxin-free.
* * *
He told her stuff she already knew. Maybe another 30 miles in the tank and the phone didn’t work but they’d turned off the interstate to find a gas station that had been out business for at least a year… and then just followed another road off into where they were now.
She nodded I know and he wished they were somewhere for the night he just wanted to see her naked again…be inside her if she fucked back hard enough he could stop being terrified he put his head down and waited until his breathing slowed enough for him to speak again, through the awful sense of failure…
Finally he looked up, afraid of what he would see…but whatever was in her eyes wasn’t condemnation or disdain he spoke slowly said they might as well pick one way or the other and eventually they’d have to end up somewhere. She grinned at him, sharing the joke…already comfortable with the complete silliness of what he had only just discovered…and if by chance she could figure out where she’d stashed the charger cable for the phone…
They climbed back into the Caddy and he started the engine, turned left, up into the trees thinking What the hell maybe the crows know where the fuck they’re going and that they couldn’t get more lost than what they were.
* * *
At the top of the hill the roadbed became an underwater ocean of dull greens and shadows, but as they started coasting down the other side somehow the world managed to transform itself, as if the hilltop had been a border between the worlds of darkness and light. From nowhere the sun struck tentative fingers through the cloud cover and then exploded…joyous…roiling like a furnace…flooding the next valley with gold and promise….and a filling station Shawna whispered Holy shit! and they laughed… together…sharing a vast unspoken sense of relief Salvation had been just around the corner after all.
* * *
They got the Caddy tanked up and the teenager in his bib-overalls shared some laughter when they told him they thought they were never going to find their way back to the interstate. He pointed down the road…four-five miles make a left…then past the fairgrounds another couple-three more…
That simple. They bought Nestea in ice-cold cans, and a suspicious something-or-other that looked like it might be a ham sandwich but could have been bad cheesecake…just to dull the rumble in their stomachs. One was plenty in case it turned out to be fatal there had to be someone to warn the next unwary lunch-hungry victims…and then on down the line in blazing afternoon sunshine. Left turning and the fairgrounds, where the kid in the overalls had neglected to mention there was a county fair in full swing Rick asked if she wanted to stop and she smiled.
He swung the car into a vast dirt parking lot, found a spot in the shade of a huge elm tree at the far end, where the fairgrounds met the primeval forest Shawna reached down for her purse and stepped out of the Caddy…turned to him with a triumphant grin and the snaky black charge cord for the phone that had been hiding under her seat.
She plugged it into the cigarette lighter and the phone made wake-up noises. She shrugged as if to say Not so bad after all and saw another weight come away from his shoulders, and then they could smell hot dogs and hamburgers sizzling on open fires…see the broad arc of the ferris wheel against the afternoon sky, hear the shrill delight of children being whirled around on the Cyclone.. the ching-ching-ching of a pinball arcade and animal sounds from the petting zoo she ran on ahead came back to grab his arm and drag him along faster…suddenly excited with old childhood memories.
* * *
This was new for him. Or at least the memory of some similar experience was so old as to be forgotten. With the imminence of net contact re-established he felt better in the same breath he took to feel stupid at how much his peace of mind was dependent on the technology.
Her face was laughing and her eyes sparkling with an almost childish excitement. He couldn’t figure out why how he could be at all reluctant to simply join in…let some of the sameness from his old life just slip away. She grabbed one hand and drew him along in her wake, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes…and now a sense of relief crowding into his thoughts it would be okay this was why they were where they were…cutting loose…trying to break free. She urged him into a dog-trot and she paid their admission tickets to the midway, with a triple handful of the ones they would need to get on some of the rides.
* * *
She could see him struggling with his old sense of malaise, the tiredness that had made him an observer on the sidelines of his own life. She knew that feeling very well, after years of not wanting to start a day because there was nothing to look forward to at the end of it. When she felt him hanging back she turned to him…kissed him hard and fast…challenged him…breathed an inner sigh of relief when he rose to the challenge and let himself be drawn back into the land of the living. They sauntered back into the world, hand in hand.
* * *
The noise was immense after the great silences that had shrouded their thoughts, and the uncomfortable ones between bursts of conversation that were really just there to ward off the silence.
The carousel blared calliope music; the ferris wheel on the edge of the fair moved to its own soundtrack, moving in slow arcs against the blue almost-white-with-heat sky and the pale cotton candy clouds. The air filled with the shrieks of children and young girls on the roller coaster; the boys put up a brave front and tried not to grip the safety bars too hard.
The dry summer earth of the fairgrounds rose up to cover boots and denim overalls with a thin skin of dust…crept between painted toes in leather sandals…the feet and calves and thighs that belonged to them Shawna kept turning to him, urging him on, coaxing him with her eyes and the sense of freedom she felt growing in her heart.
The air filled with the sweet thick stench of manure and farm animal…the sound of cows lowing in their stalls, the goats baa-ing in the petting zoo. A clown walked by juggling five apples without missing a beat he winked at her and she could feel Rick smiling beside her…slowly growing into the adventure his hand around hers easing away from tense…edging towards softness.
They tried a couple of the less extreme rides…a monorail that wound around and through the grounds twenty feet over the heads of the locals. Tried getting close to each other…perspiration and the meeting of flesh outside of lust or passion, simply gone dazed and dozy in the heat…together…he would lean forward every now and again his attention caught by something below. She closed her eyes and let the slow movement lull her almost into sleep… contentment…
It went on long enough that getting back on the old terra firma was funny…a bit of a stagger…another reason to be close, knees and elbows bumping trying to match strides in two directions at once she started laughing again and couldn’t explain why so hard until he started laughing with her and she caught a glimpse of him she’d not seen before…the silly part that had been buried by being in charge for so long… the Responsibility she herself felt no reluctance in sloughing off…
They bought hot dogs and French fries, the suspicious supposedly-ham sandwich long gone and gratefully forgotten…and jumbo Cokes with crushed ice. Felt their lives becoming something that approached the realm of Normal. Rick saw a pair of crows perched on the roof-tree of the hot-dog stand, doing that herky-jerky-hop dance-step thing crows did before descending on a discarded bun…democratically each taking one half before taking off again they watched them lazily soar away over top of the funhouse…which was enough of an invitation for both of them…
They walked gratefully into the half-dark and the coolth…let the
outdoor clamour fade away behind them replaced by spooky Halloween-type music and the entertaining funhouse groans of souls in torment. She could feel his ultra-pragmatism kick in…recognising the sheer foolishness of funhouse-as-entertainment… yet it was only for an instant and as long as it took them to almost bump into the mirrors…heartbeats of ohmygosh! before they recognised themselves in the distorted images
They’d not gone more than a few dozen steps further, still laughing at their cartoon reflections, when they heard voices raised behind them and someone shouting No no no that’s not me I didn’t do it please I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to do it and then a crash…splintering glass…a woman screaming they stopped… turning to each other…one glance and then Shawna just went instinctively, broke into a run back the way they had come. Rick reached for her, thought to tell her Don’t get involved but she was already gone.
He caught up to her seconds later, hugging the walls as a family raced past him terrified he stopped dead in his tracks behind her.
Over her shoulder there was a broad shadow shambling towards them in a kaleidoscope nightmare…sobbing…making sounds that seemed to be filtered through running water as it came closer… moved into the blood-red glow of the passage and collapsed at Shawna’s feet.
His face and arms and upper torso glinted and shone with splinters of light reflecting off the splinters and shards of the shattered funhouse mirrors embedded in his flesh…rising and falling to the laboured breath…the words choking to find their way through the bubbling pools of blood pouring out of severed arteries and shredded veins.
Shawna dropped to her knees beside him desperately trying to find and stanch them. She knew better than try to pull the broken glass from his wounds…already knew he was beyond her help calling for someone to call 911 anyway….wishing this once that she was back in the city with her ER people.
Rick stood over her for a moment, stunned, before he stripped off his shirt and started tearing it into something she might use to stop the blood growing into a thick black river across the floor between them. He watched her…amazed…realised she knew exactly what she was doing and he’d had no idea…known almost nothing about her at all there was chaos exploding all around them yet he could swear he heard her voice talking softly to the dying man in front of her…cool and calm and comforting making promises no one could keep…until the pretense became too much for her.
She leaned back on her heels and let her hands fall away from him…helplessly…there was nothing more she could do he’d be gone long before anyone would arrive who could save him. She could feel her fingertips teased by the slow tide of life pooling on the floor beneath them. The knees of her jeans grew black with it and in the sudden stillness she couldn’t hear him breathing anymore, only the slow pounding of her own heart coming down off the frantic adrenaline high, now counting time to the last sluggish beats of a heart gone empty…
The sound of an ambulance siren filtered its way into the labyrinth, and after a while there were footsteps…voices calling out to someone…anyone…they shouted together…until they were found and paramedics asked questions and did whatever they needed to do…protocol and procedure and then just stating the obvious.
Rick helped Shawna to her feet, followed along behind as they staggered back out into the light and the carousel…Joni Mitchell’s painted ponies…went round and round and up and down as if nothing at all had happened. State troopers were already all over the place interviewing witnesses; they each got one of their own… told their stories…learned what had drawn them into it.
He was twenty-two years old. His name was Todd McCreary and after being away for the better part of a year he’d come home three weeks earlier…clean and sober…the only wedding gift his fiancee had wanted…the only girl he’d ever dated…all the way through high school and his long-weekend visits when she was away at state college she had graduated that spring and the wedding was supposed to have been tomorrow…
Except Todd had fucked up. Disappeared for three days the word gone round was that he’d gone back to the alcohol and the drugs and there had been a woman he’d met at the rehab facility…and that perhaps, more than anything else, had done for the wedding bells… and for Todd, when he got his ring back in a special delivery parcel that everyone in town knew about.
Shawna was exhausted, realised her clothing was soaked in his blood…going black and stiff in the dying of light creeping into the shadows between the midway tents and stalls. Rick looked down at her and she looked up at him and somewhere in all the strangeness of a day gone so very horribly strange they both seemed to come to the same sort of revelation…
He went back to the car to get clean clothing for them, let themselves be led off to somewhere they could change and she could wash away the last of Todd McCreary. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t begin a process of rationalisation or interpretation to give meaning to what had happened. Tragedy was tragedy. Shit happened. She wanted to cry.
He reached for her hand, brushed a few flakes of dried blood from her wrist with a tenderness that was thoroughly new to her experience with him…rose to her feet and felt a deep sense of gratitude he was there, not because she was incapable of going on alone, or unwilling to do it out of necessity. It was as if they had found something between them that was more than the desperation of two strangers running away together; that the sexual attraction, the attractiveness of personality now had less to do with what they had been, and more to do with what they had become…in one moment…having shared something that had belonged to neither of them before, now free to share everything else if they chose to do so.
He put an arm around her shoulders. She put hers around his waist. Together they moved slowly back out into the glare and the glitter of the midway, past the cotton candy vendours and the arcades, the barkers and the jugglers, parents trailing in the wake of excited children, young lovers kissing and old lovers holding hands.
They passed a clothing concession and he saw a cotton dress in pale tangerine patterned with slate-blue lotus-flowers, that tied with a bow in the back he said it belonged to her, wanted to buy it for her if that was okay it would go so well with her hair and her skin and the lotus-flowers were the same colour as her eyes in the first hours of evening drawing down around them.
They made their way through the crowd, and back to the car. As they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched them disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and a full battery.