Ok, I know I've been gone for the past week or so, but I'm jumping back in on the next part of the Sunday Stories. This is part six, the second to last section. Hopefully you enjoy it. If you'd like to catch up with the other sections, I've posted the links below or you can go to the stories tab at the top of the page. Have a great Sunday everyone.
The green GMC pulled into an aggregate stone driveway at 4:45. She raised her arms over her head and let out a soft, involuntary sigh as she stretched the long drive from her muscles. Helen was waiting for them on the porch. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees since they left Salina, and goosebumps prickled up on her arms and legs. She rubbed her forearms as she watched Jim walk hurriedly over to the porch and hug his wife. Elizabeth thought she looked pretty. Maybe pretty wasn’t the right word, but she definitely looked happy, and since she left home, Elizabeth was beginning to think that the two words were becoming more and more similar.
“Elizabeth, this is my wife, Helen.”
“Nice to meet you, Elizabeth,” Helen’s voice was sweet, and Elizabeth could almost taste the words as they billowed from her mouth.
“Nice to meet you, too.”
“Come on in and sit, I bet you are exhausted after that drive. Dinner’s almost ready, so I’ll bring it in a moment.” Elizabeth followed her to kitchen and washed her hands before sitting at the table and waiting for them to join. After three or four minutes, Jim helped Helen carry the plates in from the kitchen and set them down in the middle of the wooden table.
“I don’t know if you say grace where you’re from, Elizabeth, but if you want to say it you can, or I can, or we can skip it all together.”
“I can say it. We used to say it at home, we just didn’t say it out loud.” Jim kept his eyes open as he bowed his head, watching the muscles twitch in her face as she began to speak. “Dear, God, pleased be with Mom and Will. They need you more than anyone. Thank you for Jim and Helen, too. Please make sure they’re always happy. Keep everybody happy and watch over everyone who isn’t. Amen.”
“That was nice of you,” Helen said once they had all lifted their heads.
“Thank you,” Jim reiterated.
“So where are you from, dear? Jim hasn’t told me much about you.”
“That’s in Georgia, right? And you made it all the way out to Denver? That’s quite a long trip.”
“I didn’t come straight here.”
“Where’d you say you picked her up again?” Helen asked, turning to Jim.
“Right outside of Memphis.”
“How’d you get to Memphis, dear?” Despite Helen’s inquisition, her gentle tone conveyed the love with which she asked each word.
“I wasn’t trying to go there,” Elizabeth paused. Jim and Helen watched a shadow dance across her eyes and waited for her to continue.
“Did you run away?” Jim mustered the nerve to ask in hesitant desperation.
Elizabeth blinked four times in quick succession to clear some newly forming tears from her eyes. The blue that seemed to have been slowly returning to her eyes had all but faded, leaving them a coarse gray. “We crashed. Outside of Nashville. He picked me up in Atlanta. Brandon,” she labored over the words, having to draw an extra breath before repeating his name. “He was going to take me to California. He told me I could go to sleep because I was tired. I woke up when he slammed on the brakes. There was a tree right in front of us. I can still see it sometimes when I close my eyes. Like it’s burned on the inside of my eyelids.” She brought the back of her hand to her cheek. “I didn’t know what to do. I just walked.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Helen offered, her voice gentle, but no longer as tangible as it seemed earlier.
“It wasn’t his,” Elizabeth’s response cut through the air like razorblades.
“It doesn’t have to be anybody’s,” Helen’s words lingered in the air like a fog that had set in around the table. Nobody spoke until it dissipated.
“Why didn’t you go back home?” Jim asked. “Your family probably misses you.”
“No,” her voice fell back into its hushed discordance.
Unsure of which sentence prompted her concise denial, Jim changed the subject. “Where are you going, then?”
“What’s in California?”
“I don’t know. Stanford,” she said, but the word was more of a question than a statement. “I got in, but I could never pay. I thought I’d see what it’s like anyway.”
“You can’t go hitchhiking through the mountains, dear. You’ll freeze to death. And the desert’s just on the other side.”
“I made it this far.”
“Well you won’t be able to get anywhere without a good night of sleep,” Jim added. “Why don’t you finish up and we can talk about it in the morning. We’ve had a long day. Some rest will help us decide.”
Helen rose from her seat and gathered the plates from the table.
“Do you need any help?” Elizabeth offered.
“No, sweetie, but thank you. Jim will show you where you can sleep tonight and you can rest up.”
“Catherine’s room is right down the hall on the left. You can stay here as long as you want,” Jim said, more of a suggestion than an offer. “The bathroom is right across the hall. If it’s cold, there are blankets in the closet and sweats in the drawers.”
“Thanks,” Elizabeth replied. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
The bedroom was cold and smelled of potpourri and nostalgia. Elizabeth found an oversized, gray hooded sweatshirt and a pair of black sweatpants whose legs dragged the ground under her heel when she walked.
As she examined the room, Elizabeth noticed three pictures on the bedside table. One had Jim and Helen with a baby, only a few months old. Their smiles seemed to have dulled since the picture. Maybe not dulled but definitely heavier. Catharine was older in the second picture, closer to ten, but Elizabeth was surprised how similarly they looked. Catharine had her eyes, her cheekbones, even the small hitch in the side of her smile. Her hair was a bit darker, but otherwise the image felt more mirror than picture. The biggest picture was behind the other two, but appeared much more recent. Catharine was her age, her height, her unique blend of turbulence and placidity. And in the same sweatshirt, the two girls looked all but identical. She stopped to glance in the mirror before deciding to see if Jim and Helen were still awake.
Opening the door, Elizabeth saw the couple sitting at the kitchen table. Their eyes fixated on her when she emerged and didn’t move until she spoke.
“I know. They’re too big,” Elizabeth pulled the bottom of the sweatshirt out to show the extra fabric, then crossed her arms and hugged them close to her chest.
“You look very pretty,” Helen felt simultaneously connected to and detached from the girl in her daughter’s clothes.
“Thank you again. For everything.”
“You’re welcome, dear.”
“Jim? Helen?” Elizabeth poked her head out the door when she woke up.
“We’re in the kitchen,” she heard Jim’s voice come from around the corner. “Breakfast is on the table when you’re ready.” When she walked into the room, Elizabeth’s hood was pulled over her head and her hands were each in the other arm’s sleeve. “How’d you sleep?”
“Eat up. You’ll never make it to California on an empty stomach.”
“Speaking of which,” Helen chimed in as she set a plate of breakfast potatoes and eggs in front of Elizabeth, “Jim and I were talking last night. We want to drive you.
“But--” Elizabeth began a quick retort.
“No buts, it’s not up for debate,” Helen smiled at her. “It’s only a two day drive, and we are more than happy to do it.”
When she finally comprehended the validity of the offer, Elizabeth accepted with blushed appreciation, “Thank you.”
“You’re more than welcome, dear,” Helen replied. “Finish eating and we can leave whenever you want.”
The food on Elizabeth’s plate disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and after a quick shower, Elizabeth felt as if Jim and Helen had nearly sanded her ragged edges smooth. She found a bag on the floor packed with several pair of Catherine’s clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a couple of snacks and pillow on the floor next to the bag. Changing into a clean outfit, Elizabeth picked up the bag and pillow, crawled into the car with Jim and Helen and the green truck rolled out of the driveway and toward the mountains.