It’s nighttime, and he’s driving. The rural darkness is oppressive. He feels like the whole world is shrinking into nothing around them, the headlights valiantly glaring out into a dark vacuum.
Maybe we’re not even moving anymore, He thinks. Maybe the whole planet has shrunk into a quarter mile ball of road and it’s just revolving under the car.
He strains his ears for the sound of the tin cans on the road, the subtle whisper as the wind plays over the “Just Married” sign duct-taped to the rear bumper. Marley sighs in her sleep, shaking him out of his morbid fantasies. He looks over at her and smiles. She’s curled in a ball in the passenger seat, seat-belt discarded, skirt wadded up between her face and the window. He loves how comforting she is, even asleep. For the millionth time that day, he is swept by a feeling of self-satisfaction. Her eyelids flutter, and she yawns widely.
“Hey, Bird Bones.”
She smiles sleepily and stretches her tiny arms. “How long have I been out?”
“Not long.” He smiles. “Don’t worry, you can make it up to me once we get there.”
She sits up straighter, adjusting the billowing clouds of taffeta with a laugh that’s half yawn. “Aren’t we there yet?”
“How should I know? You were supposed to be navigating.”
“I was navigating. I have a better sense of direction asleep than you do awake.” She rummages in the folds of her dress for the hand-drawn map her father gave them as they left. “Are we still on 46?”
“I think so.”
“We should be there by now.” She’s chewing on her lip, a sure sign of stress, and glares out the window, as if forcing the bed and breakfast to materialize through sheer willpower. “Ugh, I told you we should’ve gone straight to the airport.”
“And spend our wedding night on a plane? I don’t want to join the mile-high club that badly.” He grins and squeezes her elbow. “Anyway, this is your neck of woods, don’t you know where we are?”
She looks at him incredulously, “Are you kidding? I haven’t driven here since I was seventeen. I would’ve been all for eloping if they hadn’t been so insistent on hosting the wedding.”
He takes her hand, “They were just being supportive. And I thought it was cool seeing where you grew up. I’d never been to a farm before.”
“Let’s just not go back anytime soon. And let’s not ever ask my dad for directions again.” She says, squinting hard at the map. “Do you have a cell signal?”
He glances at his phone, “No. You?”
“Should I turn around?”
“No, if you think we’re still on 46, we should run in to it. You’re sure you didn’t pass it?”
“Positive. I haven’t seen anything since we left your parents’ place.”
They drive on for a while in silence. He glances over occasionally to see if she’s fallen back asleep, but every time he looks she’s intently scanning the darkness. It was a nice wedding, he thinks, and I actually kinda like being out here. It’s nice to be out of the city for a change. Don’t know why I was so freaked out before.
Finally, they see lights in the distance.
“If that’s not it, we’re asking for directions.”
“I’m sure if we keep going we’ll see it.”
Marley rounds on him, “Ian, I refuse to be married to one of those doofuses who won’t ask directions when they’re obviously lost. Besides,” She pats his thigh, “the sooner we get there, the sooner we get to have sex.”
A cloud of dust heralds their arrival as they pull from gravel onto soft spring grass. The trees are strung with naked light bulbs, beyond which they can see a few square houses squatting comfortingly in the darkness. There are gingham-draped tables laden with punch bowls and baked goods. Men in straw hats and suspenders and women with ribbons in their curls turn towards the sound of the car doors slamming. Somewhere, a fiddle’s playing.
Ian helps Marley out of the car and is again struck by how small she seems in her tent of a dress. He thinks of butterflies escaping from their cocoons as her skirt trails out behind her. Her shoes, he notices, remain inside, and she bustles over to the watching crowd barefoot.
A ruddy-faced man in a plaid shirt swaggers forward, tipping his hat back. “You kids lost?”
Marley nods emphatically. “We’re looking for a bed and breakfast that’s supposed to be around here?”
The stranger looks at her skeptically. “I don’t know about any bed and breakfast. We generally don’t get many people out on these back roads; even if somewhere does open up, it never stays open long.”
Marley shuts her eyes; Ian’s sure she’s fighting back a torrent of profanity. “Could I use your phone?” She finally manages.
The stranger grins and motions over an apple-cheeked woman, “Tell you what,” he says, eying Marley’s dress, “you kids are obviously celebrating, and we’re having a bit of a party ourselves. Ruth here’ll show you the phone, but we’d love it if you’d join us for a bit before you go.”
Ian nods, glad to be out of the car, and Marley has no choice but to let the smiling Ruth lead her towards the buildings. Ian follows the stranger to a table.
“Name’s Henry, by the way,” the man says, offering Ian a cup of punch. “I take it you kids aren’t from around here?”
Ian shakes his head and smiles. “I’m not, but my fian – wife, sorry, that’s the first time I’ve called her that,” Henry smiles indulgently, “grew up here. We just came from her parents’ place, that’s where the wedding was.”
Henry chuckles. “Must not have much of a head for directions.”
Ian took a drink and laughs, “No, she’s usually great, but she hasn’t been back here in years. She’s more of a city slicker at heart.” The punch is sweet and strong, but there’s a flavor Ian can’t quite place.
Henry’s smile flickers, “Now that’s a pity, when young kids forget their roots. How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from?” He tops off Ian’s cup, “Just a damn pity.”
Ian shifts uncomfortably in his seat and takes another drink. He notices dimly that more people seem to be crowding around them.
“Families are like trees, Ian, they can’t grow without roots.”
There’s definitely something off about the punch. Ian’s vision swims in and out of focus as he tries to remember whether or not he told Henry his name.
“Kids go off to the city and they forget everything. Forget their parents, forget their values.”
Ian knows he’s waiting for someone, but he can’t quite remember who.
“And y’know what, Ian? That forgetting? It stinks. Doesn’t it stink?” He roars to the crowd, who murmur their assent. “And we can smell it, Ian. Even all the way out here, we can still smell it.”
Ian tries to speak, but his tongue is too heavy and he slurs out, “Where…smarley?”
“Just coming back to her roots, son.” Henry’s voice says from somewhere above him. He feels the cool grass on his face before everything goes dark.
When he wakes up, his head is pounding. It’s still dark and he wonders how he got so drunk. Then he remembers the party, and how he kept sneaking sips out of Jeb’s flask to work up the courage to ask Ruth for a dance. But now he’s on top of the big wood pile, and he certainly doesn’t remember climbing up here. Jeb and Tom must have put me up here for a joke. He looks down at his clothes, and wonders if they put him in this scratchy tuxedo, too. Then someone coughs, and for the first time, he feels eyes on him. From his perch on top of the wood pile he can see the whole town staring up at him, their eyes silent and terrible. There’s no noise, save for the scrape of a match, the crackle of dry twigs under his feet. He smells smoke. Someone’s dinner is burning, he thinks. The last thing he sees before the smoke obscures his vision is a tiny girl in a long white dress, laughing as she runs towards the crowd. And she’s so delicate, so bird-like, that he half expects her to take flight.
Posted June 29th, 2010