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art by Liz Clarke

The Way

Frank drives long distances on America's (and sometimes Canada's) highways. He writes to pass the time, to help him deal with his homesickness, and for the sheer love of it. He has 16 short story sales to his credit but this story makes his first professional sale. Frank is also a busy-body, often venting his opinions in the form of reviews for an ezine called Diabolical Plots. Frank has two lovely daughters at his home in Michigan, and an equally-as-lovely wife.

They made up their minds and started packing.
"Should we bring our medicine?" Helen asked.
John smiled at her. For the first time in a month his wife managed to maintain a coherent conversation. She used to fade in and out, often stopping in mid sentence--her train of thought derailing from its tracks. Moments of clarity became rare jewels that he treasured. Equally as rare, his shaking had stopped. It was as if their decision had cured them.
"Let's leave it behind," he said. "It hasn't been working all that well anyway."
They put their single suitcase in the backseat of their 15-year-old Buick and left before the sun came up. John drove south, sticking to the coastal highway, off the freeway. He saw Helen looking up at the mountains. The glow of the rising sun silhouetted their outline. He had forgotten how beautiful the dawning of the day in southern California could be.
"The kids will be worried," he said.
"We have kids?"
She grinned at John's double-take. She never used to miss a cue. It was what he loved most about her.
"The kids have kids who are having kids of their own. They have their own lives and we are becoming a burden to them, John." She squeezed his hand. "We never wanted to be a burden."
They drove to a diner they used to eat at when they dated. It was boarded up so John pulled into a fast food restaurant across the street.
"You have pancakes?" Helen asked the pimply-faced girl across the counter.
The girl sighed and rolled her eyes. "No, Ma'am. Would you like French toast sticks?"
John slid a hand under Helen's arm and led her out.
"I really wanted pancakes," she said.
"I know."
They continued south. Midafternoon he watched Helen fade, sitting silently and staring straight ahead, submerging deeper into her fog. He contemplated turning back. A few minutes later his shaking started up. Helen set a hand on his arm. His shaking quieted.
"We're going to see this through together," she said. "Just as we promised each other long ago."
They stopped at an old beachside hotel just as the sun turned orange, its edge touching the waves of the sea. John became worried when Helen stood in the center of the room and stared at the thirty-year-old decor.
"You okay?"
"This is the place, John. The very room."
Dementia. "It is very nice."
"You don't know what I'm talking about, do you, you old coot."
He followed her into the bathroom. She got on her hands and knees and peered under the sink. She grabbed his hand and pulled.
"Get down here and see for yourself."
"Okay, but I don't know if I'll be able to get back up."
She pointed at a heart-shaped engraving on the wall behind the drainpipe. Helen n John 4ever was chiseled inside the heart.
"I did that with your pocketknife while you were sleeping. This was the place where we first did it. This is where we conceived our first child."
"Well, I'll be damned. All the stuff you forgot and you remembered this?"
She grinned wide. For a moment she appeared as youthful and eager as that seventeen-year-old girl he bedded six decades before.
"It's a sign, John."
He groaned as he rose to his feet. "Quite a coincidence."
"Our whole life has been a coincidence. How we met, how we fell in love, our children, jobs, this place--all coincidences. This is a sign. You'll see."
They held each other like they used to as they slept, her back nestled into him as his chin rested above her head. They rose in time to see the sun rise over the mountains.
"Where should we go today?" she asked.
"The desert. We always drove into the mountains like we were going to go but never made it. I don't think we ever did, did we?"
"You expect me to remember?"
They drove to a roadside restaurant they ate at when they were kids. The menu hadn't changed, nor had the waitress's long skirts and checkered uniforms. The waitress thanked them as if he left a hundred-dollar bill when he told her to keep the change for the ten he left on the table. They headed into the mountains east of San Diego. He found a gas station with old-style pumps. A man in a crisp white uniform came out, washed his windows and pumped their gas.
"Haven't seen service like this in decades," he said to the man as he handed him a twenty. The man made change and thanked him.
John stared at the ten and five. "Can't remember the last time I filled the tank on five bucks," he said to Helen.
He turned out of the station and onto US 90. The sun was beginning to set. He drove east. The road was dark and winding, just as he remembered. He could feel the wind in his hair. It felt full and alive like it hadn't in years. Helen snuggled in next to him and set her hand onto his. He glanced at her slender finger, wrinkle free with nails painted red. He gripped the wheel with hands that were full and strong and looked down at his girl. She smiled up at him in her tanned, teenaged face--her long blond hair, whipping in the breeze. The Buick had become a convertible, the night had given way to a noonday sky, and the road was paved in gold.
Jim gripped the rope and scaled down the cliff. The CEMP rescuer pounded a safety stake into the rock wall and peered into the Buick. The car was lodged between two boulders and obscured from view under the I-8 westbound freeway.
"I think we found the missing grandparents," he said into his radio.
"Damn shame," said his partner from two hundred feet above. "Road's been closed for years. Poor folks drove right off the edge. I wonder where they were going?"
Jim edged his way to the driver's side and dusted off the windshield. He tilted his head and leaned in, not believing what he saw.
"I don't know where they were going but judging by the expressions on their faces, I hope I get there one day."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 5th, 2012

Author Comments

The idea for this story came to me while listening to a NPR mini documentary of Lela and Raymond Howard. The elderly couple left their home in 1997 and never returned. Their disappearance sparked a series of newspaper articles, led to a nationwide search, and became the inspiration for a popular rock song.
Lela suffered from Alzheimer's and Raymond was recovering from a brain injury at the time of their disappearance. As the NPR piece reported, the couple packed their bags as if going on a long trip but left things like lights and a TV on. I found it appealing that they could just leave it all behind, perhaps to recapture what they lost in their youth. Although the real story ended tragically, I oftened wondered what it would be like if they could achieve that "…exit to eternal summer slacking…" as Fastball so eloquently put it, even if it were only for a brief moment in time.

- Frank Dutkiewicz
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