This story came to me in one chunk yesterday and I wrote it in a single sitting. Hope you enjoy it.
You Can Never Go Back
Henry’s car was reliable, the new smell of its manufacture still lingering inside and there was simply no reason that it should be sputtering the way it was.
No reason at all.
He’d gotten the car at a dealer in a town a hundred miles south of where he was now almost six months ago. He’d bought it the day after his wife told him their baby had become a miscarriage and that part of her was glad because she didn’t love him anymore. Henry had thought it strange that it took the end of the life inside her to tell him about the end of their life together. But after the shock had worn off he saw the symmetry in it. Life was full of endings.
The car was an impulse buy. He’d kept his truck for years, not out of necessity, but out of familiarity and lack of gumption to commit to something new. Money wasn’t the problem either. He’d done well at the investment company he worked at, and when several of the stocks he had taken a gamble on in his spare time soared to almost embarrassing heights, he’d resigned and come home to work in the modest office off the dining room in their house. A room he’d known would someday be a different color than the drab beige he’d painted it. Perhaps a subtle pink or yellow. Maybe a gentle blue with a farmyard wallpaper border near the ceiling.
But of course it was still just his office. Some things didn’t change.
The car hitched again, jerking him back into his seat as if he was riding an irritated horse instead of a leather seat climate cooled by vents built into its back and bottom. He glanced at the gas gauge, which read a thread over half a tank. Were there any liquids drooling from beneath the vehicle when he’d filled up that morning at the gas station? He couldn’t recall. Partially because it wasn’t the sort of thing he ever looked for, but mostly because it was one of his funny days.
That’s what Mariam, his wife (ex-wife) had called them. She would find him standing underneath their old oak tree that grew in the backyard, the one he envisioned would support some kind of swing someday, staring blankly into the dancing summer leaves overhead. Her hand would come out and touch him on the shoulder and she’d say, You’re having one of your funny days, aren’t you honey. And in that split second between the contact of her hand and her voice, he would nearly scream.
It wasn’t always beneath the tree that he’d lose himself for a time. It could be any number of things that threw him off into a gray state like a hamster tossed from a wheel. A plume of dust on a dirt road, the blinding ray of sun flashing off a lake, the smell of a room long closed off from the rest of a house.
But the element all his funny days shared was summer. The height of heat and cloudless days would nearly always cause him to fade away into somewhere else that he never remembered when he came back. And deep in the lowest, shadowed eaves of his attic-mind, he knew why the season would take him away for a bit, and he was relieved whenever he returned that he couldn’t recall the blank spaces.
So when he found himself in his almost new car driving north along the swamp-patched road that clacked with every widening crack in the pavement, he wasn’t overly surprised. He had simply accepted the strangeness of it the way a person who misplaces their glasses only to find them atop of their head after searching everywhere else first accepts their lapse in attention. The obvious response would’ve been to stop at the next driveway and turn around, but the thought of his empty house on a Saturday when many of the neighborhood families would be out walking their dogs or watching their kids cool off in sprinklers with a cold drink in their hands kept him heading north.
Henry hadn’t meant to take the turnoff when it arrived; he simply did it like someone catching a vase that’s tipping off a table. The miles had fallen away, faster than he would’ve liked to tell the truth, and by mid-afternoon the sign had appeared on the right side of the road.
Had the census ever actually come through here? If his memory served him the population had always been 643. But of course that wasn’t correct. At the very least the number should have dropped by one. He knew this for a fact.
The car jerked once more and he checked the rearview mirror, noting that the town sign hadn’t fully disappeared behind him. With a last hitch the engine died and along with it the power steering. Henry guided the car over to the shoulder of the road and coasted to a stop. He keyed the car off and then on, but only a short clicking sound came from somewhere behind the dash. Without the constant rush of chilled air from the vents, heat began to invade the car almost at once. It pressed in on the sides of his head like a hot vise trying to clamp out reasonable thoughts.
Why had he come here? His funny days were one thing. The fugues or whatever you’d call them were disturbing in a half-remembered nightmare sense. But driving over a hundred miles on whim to the town you grew up in without any plan or notion about what you would do when you got there? That was a whole new breed of strangeness he wasn’t prepared to contemplate.
Henry tried the key again but this time he wasn’t even rewarded with the quiet clicking. The blacktop shimmered ahead, wraiths of heat dancing into and out of reality, and beyond the mirages was a structure in the distance he wasn’t sure was real either. He gave the rearview another glance. In the distance thunderheads were forming like rotting cotton candy, gray and black spun up thousands of feet into the sky which could only mean a hard pounding, r-
-ain in her open eyes that stared up at the sky that had been clouded for nearly two days and-
He shook his head, sweat running down the sides of his face in rivulets that felt like fingernails dragging on his skin. The key was still on and the clock glared at him, numbers accusing and obviously wrong.
An hour had passed.
Thunder mumbled a threat somewhere to the west and Henry opened the car door, a whoosh of fresh oxygen washing over him, invigorating even though the humidity was so high he thought he could see the moisture hanging in the air before him. A lark called off in the high grass beside the road, the sound like an unoiled hinge, and he felt the sudden pull of forgetting all over again. To ward it off he started walking.
Despite the encroaching clouds the sun still shone bright enough to make him squint. A gentle breeze made the trees to either side of the highway shush with their million-leaf mouths. Henry walked and the land glided past as if it were on a conveyer belt around him. He wasn’t used to the lull. In the suburb where he lived there were always people, always movement of some kind. Even the birds and squirrels seemed in a hurry. Going where and to do what, he didn’t know.
The building he’d seen from the car grew and grew until he was even with it. He stopped, turning back toward the storm, sure he was mistaken, but no, he was in the right place.
McMillan’s General store was a single story building cut into the woods, it’s front painted a garish red and green that was meant to catch attention along with its signs advertising the wares sold within, but really would scorch the eyes if looked at for too long. At least it had when he was a boy. And that’s what disturbed him now.
Because McMillan’s had been closed for the better part of twenty years.
He remembered when the graying Adam McMillan had broke the news of the closure at the local diner in Miller Creek. He’d been eating breakfast with his father and mother, something they’d taken to doing on Sunday mornings before church. He supposed he knew why they’d insisted on the tradition but with his mother’s blank stare and his father’s stilted sentences it became a weekly chore for Henry.
But now McMillan’s was open again, the paint fresh and bright in the July sunshine.
Henry glanced down the highway, the beginnings of town visible perhaps another half mile away, before walking to the store and stepping inside.
The interior of the building smelled of dried feed, corn, oats, barley, just as he remembered it from childhood. The mustiness of the place was enough to bring him back to eating one of the dime candies from the bins located along one wall, and sometimes he would use half his allowance to buy extra root beer barrels because they were Anne’s favorites, and he would place them in her ha-
-nds were purple they said from where they’d been tied at the wrists-
Henry blinked, looking at the man behind the counter who was so much like Adam McMillan he nearly staggered backward under the weight of memory.
“Uh, yes. I…I’m sorry. You look like someone who used to own this place,” Henry said, somehow finding the correct words in the correct order to anchor himself to the present.
The gray-haired man behind the counter got a thoughtful look on his face before saying, “Hmm, you must be mistaken. I built it myself. No prior owners.”
Henry looked past the man’s shoulder to where pictures hung above the window looking out on the highway. They were of various townspeople holding fish they’d caught or deer they’d shot, all polaroids with the people’s names and the game’s weight written in Adam’s own hand. And the dates. Why were they so old?
“Is there something I can do for you, sir?”
Henry glanced around the impossible store with the impossible man standing behind the counter and tried to swallow through the pinhole his throat had become.
“My car. It broke down on the road. I-”
“Say no more,” the man said, picking up a rotary phone. “I’ll call the garage in town. Dave’ll be happy to come out and have a look. Might be a wait though with it being Saturday and all. Get’s kinda busy at the shop.”
“I see. Okay. That would be very kind of you.” Henry looked out the windows lining the front of the store, gazing in the direction of Miller Creek. “I believe I’ll walk into town,” he heard himself say in a slow, dreamlike voice. Because he was sure that’s what this was, a dream. One of his funny days gone off the rails. He was probably still sitting in his car, sweating and maybe getting heat stroke in the burning air. Any second he would come to and his car would start and he’d turn around and drive away from this place. He would go back to his empty house that was no longer a home, and the silence would wrap its arms around him and hold him tight.
“Would you still like me to call Dave then?” the man who wasn’t Adam McMillan said.
“No. That’s all right. I’ll find the garage myself. I have my cell phone too if I need anything.”
Not Adam’s eyebrows knitted together. “Cell phone?”
“Thank you,” Henry said, turning to leave.
“Say, sir? You look awful familiar. What did you say your name was?”
The other man smiled and snapped his fingers, the gesture so familiar it was like knowing which stair creaked in your house. “That explains it, you must be a relative to Steve Dobson.”
Henry tried to say yes. He tried to say that Steve Dobson was his father. Was being the key word because he is fifteen years dead by his own hand. He tried to say this but instead shoved through the screen door out into the heat and began walking fast up to the road. When he looked back he expected the store to be gone but it was there in all its bright glory.
The road beneath his feet traveled by, each crack looking like a chasm that could swallow him if he misstepped. His mind whirred like the cicadas off to his right, thoughts churning and trying to grab hold like a man on the edge of a sinkhole.
Henry stopped and slapped himself hard across the face, preparing for the leap back to consciousness. What he got was the sharp sting of his own hand and the burn on his cheek where it struck.
“I’m awake,” he said to himself. “Not a funny day at all.” He glanced back the way he’d come, not looking at the disturbing presence of McMillan’s store, but past it to where his car is. Or where it should be.
But it was gone.
The road was empty and barren beneath the steadily blackening sky. The surprise he felt wasn’t unlike the slap he’d given himself. He stood wavering in the thick air, sure he would topple over any moment, but his balance slowly returned to him and he continued walking, unable to think of anything else to do.
Miller Creek took shape with a gathering of homes on its outskirts before expanding into exactly four intersecting streets, the most prominent businesses on the corners facing the main road. He was crossing the first intersection, mind still trying to explain why he hadn’t been able to see his car on the straight stretch when he spotted Bernard Swegger’s old mongrel dog, Jake, lying on the front stairs of the post office.
Of course it was just a dog that looked like Jake because Jake was old when Henry had been young. As if simply waiting for this moment, the rumbles of Bernard Swegger’s voice emanated from decades ago when Henry had reached out to pet the sleeping pooch one morning.
Don’t touch ‘im, Henry. ‘Is eyesight’s gone and he’ll be’s liable to bite as wag ‘is tail.
The dog raised its head off the stoop as he passed and Henry looked away as if her were seeing something obscene.
Thunder boomed again, much closer now as if it were arguing with the sunshine about which would rule the afternoon. Henry’s pace picked up to almost a half jog as he passed the police station, officer Remble’s lone car out fro-
-nt of the house, light bar still and ominous as his father walked past his sobbing mother to meet the stone-faced lawman holding his hat who climbed the stairs-
Henry started to run.
He ran past the last few businesses that had no right being there because this part of town was remodeled when his mother was committed ten years ago, when he’d come home the last time before meeting Miriam, before they’d made the baby that became the ugly word, miscarriage. He ran as hard as he could until he saw the lone sign beside the bar on the edge of town that always advertised its entertainment for that night, especially on Saturdays when there was really nothing else to do in a town the size of Miller Creek. Gradually his steps slowed and he stopped, heart pounding out a jack-hammer rhythm in his ears as he read the sign.
Greg Paulson and The Squeaky Wheels
All you can eat SHRIMP!
“No.” He stared at the words that he remembered even after the twenty-two years that have passed. The numbers of the date are just numbers, but they’re also the reason he’s never been able to stop at any of the gas station chains that boast the same numerals. And despite the fact that he never actually went to the SHRIMP feed that night so long ago, he’s never been able to stomach the smell or taste ever again.
Through the haze that threatened to eclipse his vision he scrambled to free his phone from his pocket. Its face was blank when he looked at it, but all at once that made sense and he turned, dropping the useless phone on the blacktop to look at the large face of the bank’s clock. It was several blocks back the way he’d come, but he could still make out the hands that told him it was ten to four.
Everything within the bizarre afternoon came into sharp focus as he looked at the time. It all compiled, one piece stacking upon the other until he was crushed under the undeniability of it all.
He began to run again.
The bar with its sign passed by in a blur, the strangely capitalized SHRIMP standing out only because his father used to call her that. He used to call her shrimp because she was sm-
-all enough to grab with one hand and haul into the pickup truck. Small enough that they never should have been able to find her out in that vast swamp-
He came to still running and now he saw the abandoned truck stop on the right. And the truck was there, sitting beside the decrepit building with its parking lot overrun with weeds and bramble. The truck was there as it must have been the day they tried to beat the storm. The day he left her behind.
Henry ran down into the parking lot and skidded to a stop beside the truck. Where was he? Where was the Faceless, as he had come to think of the man who had taken Anne? Because he had never been found, never a lead or a hint as to who he could have been or where he went after the unforgivable thing he did.
All Henry knew was that he wasn't here now. Not in this parking lot beside the old truck stop with its broken windows reflecting the coming storm. Not in the deep woods surrounding the building that he can see. He stood motionless amidst the rising wind that brought the clouds closer.
And he knew then what he must do.
Henry climbed into the man’s truck, hands finding the keys dangling from the ignition. He expected a rancid odor inside the cab, for the owner must reek of guilt and sin and hateful wishes. But he smelled nothing, only a faint hint of new car scent, but that might have come from his own clothes.
The truck started with a soft growl and he put it in gear, hammering the pedal to the floor. The vehicle tore through the parking lot and Henry swung it right, accelerating down the open road, past landmarks that become bolder and more familiar to him with each passing mile. Somewhere in the back of his mind Henry wondered what he would have found if he went into the truck stop. Would the man have been there, a grinning shadow in the corner, waiting for the rain to come? Waiting for the in-between-light of the storm dampening the July sunshine. Because that was his hour, Henry knows, the transition between light and the dark. But he realized with an utter clarity that the building would have been empty with only dust and spiders to meet his challenges. He had taken the truck as he was meant to.
No the fight was still ahead. He had to race the storm.
After what seemed like forever the pavement ended, slewing the truck in the grip of loose gravel. Henry steered the vehicle straight again, looking in the mirror several times. Miller Creek was getting wet now. He was sure of it. It was coming down in vast swaths of ra-
-in, but don’t stay out too long, his mother had said. If you want to ride your bikes you have to be fast. Supper will be ready soon-
Henry swerved back onto the road, the ditch coming up to swallow him as the light began to change. The dust plume he left behind in his wake wasn’t as high as before, the moisture settling it quickly.
Two more turns and he’d see the house.
Now only one.
There it was, on the right, a flash down the driveway that showed him the front end of his mother’s station wagon. Where it had been parked twenty-two years ago today.
And up ahead was Anne.
He could see her pedaling in the distance, her training wheels still on the little bike that their father had been threatening to take off for months. Because she was old enough now even though she was a SHRIMP. He could see her yellow shirt and how hard she was trying to keep up. Keep up with the dot of blue color far ahead that was her big brother. He could see himself. He could s-
-ee Anne behind him, trying her hardest to catch up. But he was faster and mom said to be fast. Plus the storm was coming and they would never make it down to the pond and back before the rain hit if they weren’t fast. But the next time he looked back there was a truck in the road. It was brown, a dirty nasty brown the color of shit, and it was stopped beside Anne and she was talking to whoever was driving. Even as he felt the first tinglings of fear, the first mental shouts to turn back, the door of the truck came open and swallowed Anne whole. She was there one second and gone the next, and oh God why had he left her so far behind? Why had he done that? That wasn’t what a big brother was supposed to do. Why had he left her?
Henry pressed his foot against the brake and pulled to the side of the dirt road. He leaned over, and with a trembling hand, opened the passenger door.
Anne sat on her bicycle looking up at him, exactly the way he remembered her from that day, and it split his heart in two to see her again.
“Hello,” she said, looking him up and down.
He swallowed the lump threatening to choke him. “Hi Annie-Bo-Bannie.”
A hint of a smile curled at her mouth. “That’s what my brother calls me.”
Henry laughed. “I know. I remember. Now I remember everything.”
“He’s right up there,” she said, pointing to the dirt road that wound out of sight through the trees. She frowned. “Well, he was there. He’s always leaving me behind.”
Henry felt the first tears slip free as he glanced through the windshield. She was right. He was nowhere in sight. “I’m so sorry, Anne,” he said, his voice thick. “I didn’t mean to. I never meant to leave you.”
She stared up at him, so small and fragile astride the tiny bike with the rusted training wheels. “You don’t have to cry. It’s okay.”
The light began to change. It became the strange, sickly hue that he’d felt coloring his life from this day hence. He glanced into the mirror and saw how close the storm was now. It bored down on them like a thousand trains, drawing darkness behind it.
“Would you like to ride with me, Anne?” he asked.
She cocked her head at him and finally nodded. “I’m really tired now that I think about it.” She climbed from her bike, giving it a last look before hoisting herself into the seat beside him and took two tries to slam the door shut.
Behind them the sound of falling rain rose to a deafening roar and in the mirror he could see the road becoming a black river with its approach.
“We have to be fast, Anne. Have to outrun the storm,” he said, putting the truck into gear again, and drove away from the rain with his sister humming a familiar song in the seat beside him.