The car rolls smoothly on the empty road, heat stuffing the car despite the attempts of the whining air conditioning. My crayon makes quiet scratches on the tan-colored paper, watching the hours fly by. Asher’s driving, quietly humming music to himself and tapping his wedding band on the steering wheel as we pass the rainy landscape.
“Whatcha drawin?” asks Zach, leaning towards me from the backseat. Smiling, I twist away so he can’t see.
“You’ll see in a little while. What about you, bud?” I ask. He holds up his work with a gap-toothed grin.
“It’s a brachiosaurus! His name is Ralph,” he says, hugging the notepad. Zach’s my little brother, twenty whole years younger than me. My parents adopted him soon after they became empty nesters, claiming there was something about him, something they couldn’t leave behind. Watching him and his crayons, I can’t disagree. He’s a special kid.
Now, the clouds part and the sun enters the sky. It shines its shades of bumblebee, embracing us in light. Mom stirs from the seat to the far right, glaring into the sun.
“Are we there yet?” she yawns, stretching. Her fingers comb through her jet black hair, strands peppered with grey.
“Not quite, Mom. We’re in Garden City,” I reply. Her face lights up, expression changing from sleepy to joyful in an instant.
“Ooh! Ooh! There’s a donut shop here!” she exclaims, jumping up and down. Normally, it would be a strange look for a fifty-five-year-old woman, but Mom isn’t the average middle-aged person. Violet Hawkins, the fifty-year-old with the soul of a child, Dad always jokes. Still, I’m not sure why she’d be so excited about this particular donut shop.
She sees my confusion and moves to explain, straightening out the ‘I LOVE IDAHO’ shirt she bought ages ago.
“That place that I told you about all those years ago, remember? It sells the best donuts in the country,” she says, face taking on a dreamy look. Dad chuckles, watching the whole scene with interest.
“It’s where your Mom and I first met. I might have grown out of my sweet tooth, but your mother, she-”
“Never did!” she finishes joyfully. “We have to stop.”
I relay the story to Asher and he agrees to stop, giving me a meaningful look.
“Alright, alright, I’ll drive the next stretch,” I say, kissing him on the cheek. I hate driving, but he’s driven for the last twelve hours.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind, you know,” he says quietly. I elbow him.
“Why the somber mood? We’re getting donuts!” I exclaim. He eyes me worriedly, corners of his lips turning into a frown.
“I have to fill the car with gas. We should get back on the road if we want to be on time,” he responds, trying to hide his concern.
“Okay,” I tell him, not bothering to conceal my hurt that he doesn’t want to come. Pausing to look back, I run to catch up to my family. Mom notices my expression immediately.
“What’s wrong, sweetie? Is it Asher?” she asks worriedly. I don’t respond, and her expression turns to outrage. “I knew he wasn’t good enough for you!” she exclaims, spinning around and marching in his direction.
“No! Mom,” I say, laughing. My distress fades like a wisp of smoke on a windy day. “He’s just worried we won’t get there in time.”
“Time, shmime,” she says, turning back to the path and waving a finger. “This Boot Hill better be great.” I sigh.
“It will be. I promise,” I say quietly.
The donuts are truly great. We pick up two boxes, filled to the brim with rainbows of fried dough and frosting, and sit down at a table outside. In only minutes Zach’s eaten at least three, chocolate coating his face and jelly stuck in the blond wisps of his hair. Mom’s consumed five, her face just as messy. She drips vanilla filling on the crimson heart printed on her graphic tee.
“Just as good as I remember!” she declares, trying to wipe off the cream with a paper napkin.
“Mom! You’re going to get a stomach ache,” I groan, still finishing my second donut.
“Ah, so grown up and worried about healthy eating. You’re going to be a great mother one day,” she says, bumping me with her elbow.
“Ewww,” says Zach, wrinkling his frosting-covered nose. “I don’t want Melinda to be a mom. Then I have to be an uncle, and uncles are stinky and old,” he complains.
“Zach!” Dad exclaims, gently smacking him in the back of the head. “Don’t call your uncles old and stinky. It’s rude.”
“Fine,” he sighs, digging into another donut. We all chuckle.
After Mom and Zach have finished the first box of donuts and proclaimed they can’t eat another bite, we start to head back to the car. But, before we can get back, I spy a florist.
“Dad! It’s a florist! We haven’t been to one in so long, we should buy a bouquet,” I say excitedly, gesturing at the entrance. Our family loves flowers, and buys them for all special occasions. This certainly qualifies. Dad smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkling. He started the tradition. He has a soft spot for flowers.
We go inside, the hot summer air combated by a whirring green fan. There’s flowers of all kinds everywhere. I can almost see Dad’s excitement.
“Pick whichever ones you like! They’re on me,” I declare, smiling at the florist behind the counter. Dad takes his time, fingers sifting delicately through petals and nose sniffing perfumes. Finally, after ten minutes of examining, he picks a beautiful, flourishing bouquet. The four of us smile at each other knowingly. It’s perfect.
Ash is waiting for me inside the car, road-trip garbage cleared from the seats and car smelling fresh.
“Did you clean the car?” I ask, hopping into the driver's side.
“Yeah, you were gone for a while. Almost an hour, actually. But it’s okay. Lyn, listen, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m just worried about you,” he says, taking my hand gently. My family loads the donuts into the back, oblivious to the conversation.
“And I’m thankful to be married to someone who cares about me so much. But this isn’t the time. We can talk later,” I say gently, pulling back my hand. He doesn’t look convinced, but drops the subject anyway.
My family gets into the car after lots of ungraceful shuffling, grumbling, and bumping. Jokingly, I rev the car’s engine.
“Let’s get this show on the road! I cry, hitting the gas. My family whoops and hollers, pounding the roof and car dancing. I smile, relaxing. We’ll get there on time. I can feel it.
After a few hours of driving, we pull into the forest. Almost to Boot Hill. The forest winds, mahogany roots twisting and intertwining with the dirt path. Nervously, my left hand starts tapping, making gentle pitter-patter noises on the door handle. The gentle taps turn to full-fledged butterflies, the invisible multicolored wings slicing sharp patterns in my stomach. Suddenly, I’m hyperventilating, quietly choking on the stuffy car air. Asher watches, concern turning to distress.
“Lyn, love, you should pull over. I can drive,” he says, rubbing my back soothingly. Numbly, I nod, stopping the car. No one else is here, so I don’t even bother to pull over. My family watches in dull silence. I shuffle quietly to the passenger’s side and sit heavily, ignoring the click of the car door closing. The drive to the parking lot is quiet, the whole car sitting in weighty silence. Ash pulls into a spot.
“Are we here?” asks Zach quietly, hands clutching his dinosaur drawing. Tears well in my eyes, and I choke back a sob. Ash leans over the dashboard, embracing me awkwardly. I melt into his form, strangled cries turning to bawling.
“We don’t have to do this, if you can’t… we don’t have to,” he mutters. I shake my head fiercely. I owe it to them to do this.
“I’ll be with you the whole time,” he says.
“We’ll be with you too,” says Dad, dark chocolate eyes watching me somberly.
Ash walks out of the car, comes around, and opens my door. I try in vain to wipe at the streams running down my face, grabbing the bag laying at my feet. He holds me gently, guiding me out of the car. We walk a few plots down, stopping at three marble tombstones. I rummage through the bag, pulling out the first memento. A chocolate donut with vanilla cream. I take a deep, heaving breath, and start my short procession.
“I miss you, Mama. I miss you every day, every waking moment,” I say, putting the dessert onto the patch of dirt before her grave. I watch as her figure, now only a part of my imagination, fades to black.
“I miss you, Zach. I miss your smile, your laugh, and your dinosaur drawings. Those especially,” I attempt a laugh, snot joining the mess on my face. I take a Crayola dinosaur drawing, specially made by me, and place it on his grave. His figure fades too, giving me his bright smile one last time.
“I miss you too much, Dad. I miss the quiet car rides, random bouts of wisdom, even the cringy Dad jokes,” I say, taking out the bouquet of flowers. Violets. The flowers he had when he proposed, the flowers he had on his wedding day, the flowers he had when I was born. His soft spot for flowers was no match for his love for Mom, I think sadly, watching him disappear.
There’s no funeral. No guests. We scatter their ashes in numb silence, watching the beautiful forest around us. Even after we finish, we stand there for a while, watching. Then, just on time, the sun sets, beautiful hues of pink, orange, and yellow emanating around the pineapple-colored sun.
“On time,” Asher whispers.
I'm too tired to speak, watching the sunset with awe. My family might not be truly with me any longer, but they'll always be by my side. With the power of memory.