This story is by Kristen Cochran and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
She always wanted to get to the other side of ordinary. Now, she supposed, she was there. As she looked up the tree-lined drive to the old cabin on the hill, her silhouette swayed and found a subtle center. As she began her ascent, she lets the black and whiteness of the situation roll around on her tongue; it tasted like the very gravel beneath her feet.
Tendrils of new growth were attempting to barricade the ranch gate. She pushes through. Beyond, she sees the repair needed from the years of neglect. She peers deeper still and sees the split rail fence surrendering to the weight of overgrowth. In the distance, the mountain range parts the mist, the vapor drifting decidedly just below the summit. She listens for a moment to the birds serenading her, inviting a warmth she so desperately needs.
She continues on, feeling like a renegade, her heartbeat drumming in her ears. Finally she will confront the charade that has been going on for decades. As much as she wants to turn and walk away, she steadies herself on the flagstone steps leading to the front door. She gazes into the face of the rusted lion’s head door knocker. She lives here; no need to knock. She tries the handle, and the door opens.
She doesn’t call out; she knows where to find him. As she gingerly makes her way through the foyer, she hears the record player in the distance. Same album, same song, same busted groove. With his money, he could buy a new copy of that album for every time he wants to hear that song. She steps carefully, as if avoiding imaginary shards of glass strewn about the floor. She thinks of how many shattered dreams lay scattered there in that house. She wishes she could erase parts of the story just as easily as she might highlight a phrase in blue and then hit the backspace button on her computer. Or develop a character that she could piece together more readily, cutting here, pasting there. A woman who could flow more seamlessly through the chapters of her life.
Ray used to sing to her with that crooked smile, inviting her thoughts about the new lyrics he just paired with chords. Now he didn’t care. Or maybe she was the one who had become indifferent. The words didn’t come, and the songs were left unsung, suppressed by the weight of an incipient numbing over time. Who can say when the transformation of herself began. Was she trying to get back to who she already was, a woman buried under a lifetime of events – or was it some version of who she wished to be that might transcend her out of the monotony?
Sue sang so beautifully as a little girl. Her mother believed she came to inhabit this earth by riding on a resonant frequency, her voice a gift from the angels to guide her on her journey. Growing up singing in the choir only served to connect her more deeply with that gift. As she grew, the red cassock and white surplice would serve as a reminder that peace would always triumph over the strife and struggles.
She only wanted to be free of this town, where the girls were all the same. She felt there wasn’t a single one of them who knew how to connect to their soul. At times, she too felt she was no different; she wanted the designer jeans like every other girl. She thought maybe if she could just have one pair, then she would fit in. Sassoon jeans with navy blue suede clogs; talk about ooh la la. Surely she would fit in and connect right down to her very soul. Those shoes would keep the beat with her voice, while she flaunted how she had learned to use the curling iron to make Farrah Fawcett waves. She had learned how to apply makeup from reading Seventeen magazine. She believed the magazine writers when they said she had dark circles under her eyes and started using teabag compresses to alleviate them. Little did she know what that actually meant or what they really looked like or how, indeed, one acquired them at such a tender young age.
Sue wasn’t sure she would have survived high school If not for the fateful moment when she was paired with Ellie as a lab partner in Biology. They were a funny pair – Ellie a tall blond and she, a short brunette. Ellie had the jeans and the clogs but it wasn’t that that caught her attention. It was Ellie’s wit and seemingly nonchalant attitude about what anyone thought that kept her wanting to know more. They started riding their bicycles all over town on weekends. Soon, they began venturing out of town by learning how to catch the bus to the mall for 75 cents. She would stop at the window of the The Lodge and dream of owning pink moccasins with the patterned beading and fringe. In time, the two friends each bought a pair of brown suede ankle high moccasins. Fringe. No beads. These would carry them through many a day. She quickly discovered that no amount of anything she could put on the outside of her body would change the way she felt on the inside. She began to look for experiences to create a shift.
In time, the bus she wanted to be on cost more than a few quarters and took her to far greater places than the shopping mall. She just didn’t know where or how or when she was going to catch it. Until one fateful night she saw it parked behind the local performing arts center, gleaming under the streetlights. She had heard him play the piano and the way he played sounded like the song of her soul.
Sue knew it was his bus she needed to catch. She hung around with a few others who were waiting for him to emerge from the back door. By the time he did, the others had left. She had the audacity to approach him for a ride to the next town. He agreed, but only if she would help him break through on a song he was working on; he was stuck. She couldn’t believe she had circumvented her tedium in one small moment of brevity. She was on her way. Towards what she did not know. It was out of here, which was all that mattered to her now at her ripe age of 22.
They rode that bus as far as they could. She never wanted to get off, she never wanted to look back, he never wanted her to leave. They followed the sun, letting the earth orbit it’s light twenty three times. The drinking had never bothered her; until the alcohol led him to betray her. She began to resent the drinking, which only served as a reminder of what could happen when the spirit took control of his soul. He would forget how their hearts could entrain themselves to one another like two metronomes set in motion that would eventually sync up in a relatively short span of time.
As the song skipped down the hall, Sue paused to listen, waiting for it to correct itself. She stopped at the washstand where they kept the liquor and poured herself a glass of bourbon. It burned as she tossed it back to help loosen the soil for fertile conversation to grow, even though she knew it was fruitless. He was drowning in his own pool of creativity. She was tired from bailing out the water from all the tears she dispensed over time. She grabbed the bottle and the glass and walked towards the den. At the doorframe, she took a long, slow, deep inhale as she stared at the back of his head. She entered the room. He never even heard her. He was asleep in the chair, again.
“Ray,” she said. He groaned and the leather creaked as he stirred and sank a little deeper. “The bus broke down. I left it at Hank’s and walked the twenty miles from town.” With no answer, she took another deep inhale and with a quick strong exhale, she hurled the bottle at the window. The sun streamed in amidst the broken glass as she sobbed. At least now there was evidence. He woke up and stared in astonishment at her. “What did you do that for?” he said. “I will ask the same of you,” she retorted, after all these years. He rose without a word and went to the kitchen to retrieve the dustpan and broom and started sweeping up the glass. She wept, holding the empty glass of bourbon in her hand, while the ice began to melt.