Six minutes before it was totaled, the yellow headlights of the silver sedan bearing Marion and Bernie through the woods glided over the frost heaves in the uneven road. The tree branches were high, and a heavy darkness had settled over the ever greenery of the forest. A low mist rolled over the macadam, silvery and ghostlike off a nearby, unseen lake.
In her opinion, he was driving too fast. He must’ve wanted to get there and get it over with, she thought. They drove toward her sister’s new house, well, rather, her sister and her new fiancee’s house, tucked far up into the woods. The blue screen of the GPS reflected in the black windshield. Earlier they had quibbled about the directions after the navigation unit had led them in a circle of right-hand turns off the highway.
She jangled the bangle bracelets on her wrist as she looked at her watch. They were making up for lost time. She smiled as she touched the flesh-warmed metal. Their daughter, Becky, had given them to her years ago to apologize for a fight they’d had. They were all the rage then, Becky had said. Now long out of style, Marion still wore them many years later.
“Shouldn’t be much further,” he said looking down at the screen. His thick, hairy, fingers poked at the display. At fifty-seven, Bernie was still handsome, Marion thought. Despite his baldness and his recent stomach paunch, his bright blue eyes shone from under his bristly eyebrows. She remembered how youthful and vital he was when they met back in college. What would Bernie of the past think of himself now?
“Another three point two miles, and it’ll be on the left,” he said, his tone bored.
“I can’t wait to stretch my legs,” Marion said squeezing her thighs under her black slacks. She flipped the visor mirror down and adjusted her blouse, her pearls, touched the corners of her tired eyes and tucked her chin-length gray hair behind her ears.
“This is a hell of a drive for just a party.” He reached out his right arm over the steering wheel, beyond the dash and flexed his fingers. She rolled her eyes.
“It’s my sister’s engagement party; it’ll be fun.”
“Third. It’s her third engagement party,” he corrected.
“You didn’t have to go, you know. I could have come by myself.”
“…and what would she say? Lola would’ve gone to town on it. Actually, I probably could have stayed, it would’ve given the best wedding present she’d ever get— more ammunition to use on me,” Bernie extolled.
“Oh knock it off. She loves you,” Marion lied.
“Like hell she does, she’s still all pent up with thirty years of resentment that you didn’t marry that carpenter. What was his name?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. Of course she remembered, Peter Lockwood, the dreamy carpenter from high school.
“Oh please, I know you remember,” he said, eyes on the road, wagging a sausage-like finger in her direction.
Marion sighed loudly. “We have a long night ahead of us Bern, you better slap on a happy face.”
“I’m fine,” he said quickly. “I just don’t understand why for the life of me, why after two divorces, Lola would make such a big to-do about the third. You would think she’d want a quiet ceremony, or they’d elope or something. She’s forty-nine for chrissakes.”
Secretly, Marion agreed with him. If she ever remarried, a thought she regularly had after thirty-five years of sleeping beside a snoring Bernie, she’d run away and get married in Europe, change her last name and get Italian citizenship. She’d erase the old Marion, and become someone else.
“In our day people didn’t even have engagement parties. We never had one,” he went on. “…the wedding culture of this society has gotten completely out of hand. How many parties now are associated with this one event? Four? Five?” He began counting with his right hand. “…An engagement party, a shower, a bachelor party, a bachelorette party…”
She looked away, out the window to the passing forestry. It was dark, thick tall pine trees, evergreens that blocked any light from the road. Listening closely to the whirring of the wheels, Marion wondered what it would sound like without the intrusion of the car. There was probably a croaking from the woodland animals, though she couldn’t hear it, a creaking from frogs in some nearby lake, their trilling echoing against the stars.
She wished she could deal with his attitude better, like the way Becky always could. She found her father’s grumpiness encouraging because Becky was grumpy too. They understood each other. She leaned against the cold window and closed her eyes. She went to where she always did when he was like this.
It was one of those blisteringly hot days. Those days when the ice melts instantly, when the grass is so dry it crinkled under her feet. Marion sat in a wrought-iron chair by the pool in their backyard, the long blue rectangle, with ripples reverberating off the walls. From the water, the quick little screams came as Liam and Sophie splashed in the pool with their mother. The kids were just perfect, wide blue eyes like Bernie and little, upturned noses like Becky.
“Throw me again Momma!” Liam shouted as Becky taking wide steps across the pool floor, creating a wake behind her picked him up, water wings, goggles, and all. Sophie giggled from the splash and swam over to the edge of the pool, and started to climb out, but fell back in, her little feet slipping against the rubbery walls of the liner.
“Gramma, help!” she giggled before splashing back in again
Marion stood and crossed to the edge of the pool and lifted her out, her pink bathing suit with the little ruffles of a tutu. Marion set her down on her dripping little feet on the cement pool deck and fetched the orange towel, wrapping her and drying her arms and torso.
“You’re like a slippery seal little one!” She said as Sophie giggled. The sliding door opened, and Bernie stood there, his stomach hanging over his blue hibiscus swimsuit, his skin white from the winter.
“Grandpa! Do a cannonball!” Liam cried from the water. Bernie dropped his towel on a chair beside Marion and crouched down to the little girl.
“What’d ya think Soph? Should I do it?”
“Do it! Do it!” Liam yelled from the pool. Sophie nodded.
Bernie yelled ‘cowabunga!’ and ran flat-footed towards the pool, his bare feet slapping the concrete pool deck. He leaped into the air, tucking his arms and legs in and hit the water with a crash. Sophie shrieked from the splash and grabbed her grandmother’s shoulders and held her tight. Marion embraced the hug and smelled her neck, it smelled like chlorine and sunblock, like summer.
“Mom, can you put a little lotion on her when she’s dry?” Becky called from the water as she pulled Liam back and forth. Marion nodded and reached for the plastic tube on the end table. Becky, with her cute upturned nose, her long blonde hair in a high ponytail above her shoulders, called a ‘thanks,’ and retied her bikini top behind her tan back.
Marion left her reverie and came back to the car. They rolled on. Becky would hate this function. She hated pretension, presumption, any of it. She would hate Preston, Marion’s new brother in law, with his faux-contemporary house in the woods. She’d hate his pretentious collection of fine wines, his collection of abstract art, his wood-paneled walls and faux vintage lamps. She’d hate his deliberately sunken living room, a stylistic choice when the house was built in 2006.
“… A concept that harkens back to the world of the late sixties,” he’d say.
The act of “trying” to appear as anything other than your identity was detestable to Becky. All her life she fought it. As a teenager and young adult, Becky had resisted all of the social norms of her friends. She never asked for more than standard ear piercings or wanted a tattoo. This fact baffled Marion’s friends with teenage daughters.
Becky would poke fun at Marion’s dyed hair, claiming she was trying to push the age away, just squeezing her natural blonde for a little while longer, denying who she really was. Now, she wouldn’t try to pull off dyed hair anymore. She embraced her full head of silvery gray.
Once, when Becky was eighteen, the summer before college, Marion met her downtown at a diner for lunch. They sat and ate fries and thick, dry hamburgers. Things were awkward then, the two strong personalities clashing at home in the final weeks before she moved out to undergrad. The lunch was an unspoken peace conference. They said little as they tore open ketchup packets. They drank bubbly soda from dishwasher scratched glasses, the white cursive Coca-Cola logo faded and battered on the glass. Midway through the silent meal, the door chime tinkled and in came a young man in too-tight jeans and a beanie. His glasses were oversized, thick black frames. When Becky caught sight of him, she rolled her eyes.
“What?” Marion asked.
“That kid is trying too hard.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Why’s he wearing those super-tight pants? I’d even bet his glasses don’t have a prescription.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because, nobody picks those frames anymore, at least nobody in our age group. No, he’s trying to be ironic.” She said that last word like it was trying too hard to be something it wasn’t.
Marion returned from her memory right before the impact.
The deer leaped out in front of the curvy sedan, its hooves shiny in the headlights, it’s eyes gleaming in its last seconds of life before the sickening crunch. Bernie tried to swerve away, tried to miss it, tried to slam on his brakes, but there was a massive thump, and the brown body rolled onto the hood shattering the windshield. The airbags deployed with a noise like a parachute flapping, and her vision filled with sheets blowing in the wind, hanging on the clothesline. The air was stale and harsh, though, there was a pungent burning smell in these flapping sheets, no clean detergent here. Marion swung at hers with her red nails, and Bernie’s hairy knuckles closed around her wrist and pulled. She was still strapped in. She unclipped her seatbelt as he pulled her from the car and onto her feet outside on the pavement.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Bernie said, his hands on his knees, then as he stood, his hand on his forehead. She reached into the car, around the deflated airbags and retrieved their cell phones from the center console. His phone’s screen was cracked, and hers wasn’t responding. She smelled gas and stepped away from the vehicle.
“Our phones aren’t working,” she called back and took in the wreckage.
The front end of the car was destroyed, the silver hood dented and crumpled up, the body of the deer torn open, insides exposed, blood running onto the silver paint. Bernie covered his mouth, bent over away from the road and was sick. Marion felt dazed like she needed to sit down. She was having a hard time standing and wondered if she’d been hurt; one leg seemed shorter than the other. She looked down. She was only wearing one high heel. Her bare foot rested on the chilly pavement. In an instant, she was returned to her physical body, her foot cold. Her hands shook slightly, and she felt her torso, her ribs, extended her arms. She was okay.
“Bern, you okay?” She turned and rubbed her husband’s back. He heaved, panted, and stood up slowly, wiping his mouth with his shirtsleeve.
“Jesus Christ, it just, it just came out of nowhere.” His eyes were glazed over. Suddenly he came to and put his hands on her arms. “Are you okay?” He said with a panic, his eyes scanning her up and down. It looked like he’d just realized she was standing there.
“I think so, I don’t think anything’s broken. What happened?”
“The deer, it just, it just appeared, leaped in front of the car,” he panted. He looked at the car; the side mirror smashed, the head of the deer hanging limply beside the open driver’s side door. It’s eyes were wide and glassy in the moonlight, and its tongue hung loosely from its mouth.
“It totaled the car, Jesus it’s huge,” he said pointing at the massive mound of brown and white carcass spread over the windshield and hood. His voice went soft for a moment. His eyes looked like he was looking beyond the car, beyond the woods, to oblivion.
“Bern, look!” Marion cried, pointing into the dark trees.
Near the edge of the tree line, there was a crunching of leaves. Quickly, darting across the lone remaining headlight, like reindeer, three fawns ran, their swift shadows cast over Bernie and Marion.
“Thank God they didn’t run out into the road, they’re babies,” she said as they ran.
“…where are its antlers?” He said quietly.
“What? What are you talking about?” Marion said, rubbing her thin blouse-sleeves in the chill. She looked too. The deer splayed on the hood and windshield had no antlers. “…it doesn’t. It must be a doe.”
“…a doe, like a female?” he said, slowly still. Suddenly he covered his mouth, his eyes wide. He staggered for a moment and looked like he was going to fall over.
“Whoa, whoa, Bern!” she said hobbling over to him and taking his arm as he crumpled to the ground. She guided him down to a sitting position, his face white in the one remaining silver headlight. She sat down beside him. He took his head in his hands. He sucked in breaths.
“Jesus Christ,” he gasped. His breaths were sharp, she could almost feel them cleaving between her own lungs. “Bern, Bern, it’s okay. It’s just a car.” He shook his head. He must be in shock, she thought. “We’ll get it fixed in no time,” she said quietly, patting his arm.
“It’s not about the fucking car,” he said to the trees, measured, slowly, steadily. It echoed off into the distance. The sounds of the woods started to creep in, croaking and a low breeze through the pine trees. In a moment, she was transported elsewhere, to the past, nine years ago.
It was snowing then, and Marion stood at the window of their house. She pulled the curtains aside and looked out. Becky was long overdue on coming home. She had run out some hours earlier to get a pair of birthday cards for Bernie. She was home from college on winter break, the week before Christmas. Marion looked out the window every few minutes, waiting for the golden headlights of her car to come up the road, slowly in the snow, and turn in the driveway. No such luck. The sun was setting, a blue glow over the frosted trees, and she closed the curtains and returned to the living room. Bernie napped in his easy chair, the paper open on his stomach, his readers on the end of his nose. He had hair then, graying around the temples, and Marion caught sight of her own, dyed blonde in the reflection of the TV screen. The colored lights on their Christmas tree sparkled and twinkled in a random pattern.
She heard a car in the drive and shook her head with a small smile. Something must’ve distracted her. It didn’t matter. She’d made it home without Bernie knowing. That was the last thought she had before it all changed.
There was a knock at the door. Why the hell was she knocking? She’d wake him up! She thought harshly as she straightened her dress and hustled to the door, her lips pursed, ready to shush her daughter. She flung it open, her eyes glaring.
On the step were two police officers: a young man and an older man. The older man addressed her, asking if they could come in. She was puzzled and stepped aside. Once inside, the two men removed their snowy hats.
She shook Bernie awake, and he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and shook the officer’s hands. As the words came out, Marion felt like she was going to be sick. Her vision twisted and warped away from her. It became tunnel vision, the lights on the Christmas tree sparkling as the words from the police officer blurred incomprehensibly. Daughter Rebecca. Struck on a crosswalk. Driver slipped on the snow. Killed on impact.
To this day, Marion couldn’t remember what the exact words were. She tuned it out. She didn’t remember any of it. She remembered Bernie howling and collapsing onto the couch. She remembered doubting it, asking how they knew it was her. She felt numb all over; her fingers didn’t work right. She tried to close the door on the officers after they left, but she couldn’t get the doorknob to close, she couldn’t click the deadbolt, her fingers felt numb, disconnected from her hands. She threw her shoulder against it and pushed the deadbolt over with the palm of her hand.
Back in the forest, as the steaming hulk of their car sat there, the harsh smell of gas, rubber, and burned flesh, Marion suddenly knew.
“It was my birthday. She went out for a card for me,” he gasped.
A low chilly wind whistled through the woods.
“You didn’t kill her Bern,” she said quietly.
“…and this fucking engagement party,” he howled. “Lola’s had three of them, and Becky never had one. She never got the chance. She never got to fall in love or get married or have children.”
“It’s been a long time,” Marion said softly.
“But it hasn’t! I still remember it. I still remember her! I can’t stop thinking about her! I can’t just put it behind me! I constantly think about what might have been!”
“I do that too.”
“Not like I do. I relive everything. I pictured what her husband would be like. What her house would be like.”
“Liam and Sophie,” Marion said, her voice cracking, her eyes feeling hot.
She had never told anyone this before.
“Our grandkids. Her kids. Or the kids she would have had. Could have had. Liam has your ears, and Sophie has Becky’s nose.”
He stopped quaking for a moment and put his hand on hers.
“I didn’t know you thought…”
“They’re beautiful,” she said, and found a sharp gasp on the end of her sentence. “…and so precocious, so bossy,” she said with a laugh that accompanied a loud sniff.
“…just like their mother,” he said with a breathless chuckle. She nodded. Makeup ran down her cheeks, and she wiped it with her hand, and then on her pants. He wiped his eyes and kissed her hand.
The nighttime air in the forest hissed around them. Marion stood up and reached out for Bernie. He took her hand, and she pulled him into a standing position. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. She took his hand, his weathered hand with his hairy knuckles, and they began to walk up the road towards her sister Lola’s third engagement party.
Nick Mancuso earned his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. Despite being a Connecticut native, he presently lives in and is learning to love Boston, Massachusetts, USA. His work has appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Quail Bell Literary Journal, Spry Literary Journal, and the Garbanzo Literary Journal among others. To learn more, visit www.nickmancuso.net or you can find him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Nick_Mancuso