by Steven Benjamin
Short fiction Genre: Drama
"The Route of '81"
I had to be somewhere, but I forget where. What I remember is standing on a stone or marble walkway looking out at the mountain vista thinking to myself ‘I mustn’t forget the scarf’ – why that scarf… because I bought it for her. She only wore it once, but she liked it. She liked it so much, enough to leave it behind on her seat at the restaurant that same evening. She only remembered it when we got back to the room. I went back for it. That’s what I did. What bothered me as I stood there on the walkway thinking back, was why I hadn’t noticed it was missing earlier. If not for that damn scarf, things might’ve turned out very differently… loose ends I suppose.
And then, as if on cue, a stiffly breeze wafted across me, even raising the lapel of my coat.
As I was looking down at the offending lapel I felt a tap on my right shoulder but when I looked, no one was there, so I looked left, and there she was, smiling at me, shaking her head that I fell for that silly trick again.
‘You ready to go?’
I checked the view again and shook my head, but my feet started walking. Her smile widened.
As we strolled down the path, glancing back a silent goodbye at the mountain retreat, I said ‘This is where I ask you where we’re going? But I know you won’t answer me, not properly anyway.’
‘Then don’t ask.’
‘Okay, I haven’t. So now that you know that I haven’t asked what I wanted to ask, what would your response to my non question be.’
“Didn’t I just give it?”
‘No. You gave the response you would’ve given if I had asked. Or you responded to what my question would’ve been, not to what it is.”
She thought for a moment, narrowed eyes, then shook her head at me being silly. “That, I’m proud of you,” she said as I opened the car door for her. And as she tucked her dress in and reached for the door handle she continued, “and concerned. You’re gonna drive yourself crazy thinking so much about what we don’t say… or say about what we haven’t said.”
I closed the door and walked round to the driver side, stealing a last deep look at where we were, and the winding road through the narrow valley into which we were about to descend.
I got behind the wheel beside her. “Drive myself crazy? You’re the one driving me crazy.”
She was smiling broadly at that, clenching her thumb nail between her teeth, though her gaze was taken by the view out of her window.
I took a deep breath as I watched her a moment, before starting the car…
We drove in silence for a few minutes, punctuated only by the sounds of the old car, a faint creek from the rear suspension, the tires struggling to hold the road on the twisty hairpin bends.
‘That place is nice,’ I said, ‘but it needs an update. Still feels like its stuck in the 50’s.’
‘That’s why I like it’ she said. ‘I hope it stays that way. I know it won’t, but I hope they keep a fair bit of it. It’ll never be like it used to.’
I stole a glance at her for as long as I could manage before the road tore back my attention. ‘That’s why I rented this car. I just pray it makes it down the mountain. She’s a beauty, but she needs a little love and affection to restore some of her tired parts.’
Silence again, as we negotiated a few more grand bends in the road, the joy of the drive made rather perilous by the sheer drops down into the valley below. A chill crept up my arm from my hand which was clutching the gear lever as I felt her cold hand upon mine. I glanced at her briefly. She was staring at our hands and then her gaze lifted to the road ahead.
‘We’re going to a friend. That’s all I can say. You don’t know her. I haven’t seen her in years, and if I’m honest, I don’t even know if she’s even there. She’s from before I met you.’ Her voice had changed, and I could sense there was more to come.
‘I’ll ask some things of you that will be difficult to understand, as I have done till now. Hopefully in time I’ll be able to explain it all.’
We drove, chatting about life, like most couples. Stopping at the rest stops, taking pictures with the windup Kodak camera I bought before the trip. My favourite photo was almost a throwaway shot, one taken in between all the smiles and posing, among all the spanning shots of the way we’d come, and the shadows that the clouds made upon the mountain slopes. No, my favourite was one where I’d just pulled the camera out as I scanned the landscape before me at the last lookout spot, before we’d merge with the valley below… but I didn’t take the shot. I peeked through the viewfinder and felt nothing for it, so I lowered the camera to my chest and turned to look back. She was leaning against the front end of the silver Sebring, holding her elbows, looking down as she leaned back on her heels so her toes were off the ground. I couldn’t tell if she was looking at her toes in her sandals or at the ground between her feet, thinking of something else.
That’s when I took the shot.
She didn’t hear the click as a slight breeze blew by the lookout, ruffling her hair a little.
Her expression in that photo would forever remain as she was, elusive.