Redemption in Pine Grove

Submitted into Contest #164 in response to: Write a story in which someone returns to their hometown.... view prompt


Romance Contemporary Inspirational

There hadn’t been many long drives in the life of Marcus Bourne. In fact, prior to this day, he’d driven over an hour just once in his life. That one time had been to steal away in the middle of the night from his home. Then, there was no destination. Away was the operative word in his head. He’d stayed at four motels, witnessed a dozen drug deals at truck stops, and eaten over twenty meals and roadside fast food shops before feeling as though he had covered enough distance, five days and thousands of miles later. Now, Marcus was driving back to the very place he’d spent hundreds of dollars in gas money trying to escape, and if his fingers rapping the steering wheel didn’t say enough about his mental state, his darting eyes and nervous glances to the vacant passenger seat completed the picture. 

“Turn back,” he muttered. “Just do it. Why are you even going?” 

He remembered, but the thought drove an icicle into his heart, and for a moment he felt the call of the void veering his car into oncoming traffic on I-90. Fortunately, he swerved back into his lane. However, the uncertainty did not abandon him. 

Contrary to his trepidation was the scenery zipping by him. He had driven through vast open plains, where the blue sky met green grass neatly on a distant horizon, and through imposing mountains covered in thick snow, and now he drove amongst the hills of New England, the fall colors reflecting their orange and red hues over every landscape. Some dark evergreens provided contrast, while the sun peeked through sturdy white clouds moving fast from a northern wind. There were people who crossed oceans to see New England in autumnal glory, yet he found no comfort in these sights.

A call jarred him from his manic muttering. It was his mother. 

“Hello?” he said, answering his car phone. 

“Oh, hello Marcus,” said a thin voice on the other side. 

He squeezed the steering wheel tight. “Hi mom. Listen, I’m driving-” 

“I just think it’s so nice that you’re coming back home.” 

“Yeah, uh…” 

“Your father would have loved to have seen you one more time before he passed, you know,” said his mom, her voice now sickeningly sweet. 

“Mom, I need-” 

“I told Jane that you’re coming back to town.” 

Marcus’ skin went from clammy gray to ghostly white. “You did what?” 

“What?” said his mom, innocent as could be. “Was I not supposed to? You two were quite close back when you-” 

“Mom, I need to go. I’ll stay at the Inn on Harvey Lane. I’ll see you at the funeral tomorrow, okay?” Marcus pinched the bridge of his nose and hoped that was the end of it. 

His wish was granted. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll see you then.” 

After he ended the call, the name Jane played over and over in his mind, memories which had been simmering on a dangerous stove now leaping out uncontrolled. He tried to force them down, but then the horrific sign came into focus: Now entering New Hampshire. 

It was a small town, but he was only there for two days, right? He felt the nagging doubt lingering; the secret yearning burgeoning with every mile he put on the odometer. 

The tumult of feelings did not get any quieter as he reached the city limits of Pine Grove, a small town coming to focus, nestled in the namesake pine forests which stretched as far as the eye could see. The town had grown little in his ten year absence; a new street looked like it had been built off of Rose Drive and Stars Lane. Ten houses. That’s how much the town had grown; precisely ten houses. He sighed, feeling his foot depress the accelerator with an inevitability sinking in. There was no turning back. 

He got gas at the same little station he went to after getting his first car. The attendant there was named Jimmy Wang, and his family was about as old as any in the town. He took a drive around the place to see if anything else had changed. Main Street was still one road with about a dozen total businesses on it, with one local bank and one big Wall Street bank, and outside of a CVS opening up at the end, looking quite lonely with its lighted sign amongst the simple brick and wood front shops in its cohort, there was nothing new about downtown. 

He went by School Street. The elementary and middle schools were combined into one rectangular brick prism which looked more like a prison than a place of fun learning. The high school was a little more interesting, as that building was low and long, like an old ranch house. The majority of kids in Pine Grove stopped attending school before reaching that building. 

Subconsciously, his foot pressed on the brake as he came in front of the high school. The memory of a scruffy blond boy waiting for the school bus popped into his head, his eye still black from recess, with only a brunette girl there to keep him company. 

Marcus looked in the rearview mirror. His blue eyes were tired from his travels but still carried a hint of that genuine coldness which lingered in the eyes of all those who weathered the winters in northern New England. Coldness which was tempered by the warmth of home and hearth, perhaps, but in Marcus that was a tainted warmth. He drove on. 

Most of the streets looked the same; the names on the mailboxes hadn’t even changed much. The Wilcox’s moved out, replaced by some family with the surname Jefferson. The Srinivasan’s still lived on Elm, though they’d traded in their Toyota for a Hyundai, and of course the derelict basketball hoop was still up at the Shih’s house, where none of their kids had played basketball before. His car forcibly stopped at 8 Jameson Way. There was his house - a two story white paneled home with windows neatly placed in symmetry over an inviting peach colored door. The driveway was somewhat torn up from the roots of various trees punching through the concrete, and the walk clearly hadn’t been weeded in some time. How many days had he spent in that house? How many years of the seasons changing, his parents slowly driving him insane… He rarely told people what his father was like because it sounded cliche. Of course, Thomas Bourne was a controlling, rage-filled father who’d never wanted his son to be anything other than what his vision dictated, and the moment Marcus stepped out from those lines… 

In a moment of inspiration, or insanity, he pulled into the drive and parked his car. The walk to the house was supplemented by a blustery gale. He knocked on the door, drawing in a deep breath. After exactly ten seconds, a small elderly woman with a wrinkled face frozen over by a frigid gaze opened the door. Her many layers were topped by a gray cardigan. 

“Marcus?” said Emily Bourne. “What a surprise.” 

“Mom, you knew I was coming,” said Marcus, his gravelly voice disintegrating before this woman. 

She smiled. “Oh, of course. It’s nice of you to show up for your father’s funeral.” 

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

“You missed his last ten birthdays though,” said Emily. “And his heart surgery. Almost feels like you’re…” 

“Like I’m what?” 

Emily waved a hand. “Oh, never mind.” 

He took a step forward. “Like I’m what, mom?” 

Her dentures shone through a plastered grin. “Like you’re here to celebrate.” 

“What? How can you-” 

“Oh you forgot about us for ten years, missing all the big moments in our lives, and now you come back for your father’s funeral. Are you here for the inheritance?” 

Marcus’ heart plunged into his icy stomach. “How can you even think that?” 

“Well, your father hasn’t left you anything, just know that.” 

“Do you know what dad did to me, mom? Do you know that whenever I disappointed him-” 

“Which you were always ready to do, even when it wasn’t necessary.” Emily savored the stunned look on her son’s face before adding, “Your father did what he did because he wanted to make you a better man. That you could not see what a blessing that was is not his fault.” 

Blessing? Better man?” Marcus wanted to raise his voice, but it died within him. 

“You know, Jane works at the Creaky Floorboard on Main Street. If you’re looking for another pity party like the ones you kids used to throw. I’d suggest you go over there.” Emily sniffed and turned back to her house. “I’d invite you in, but we have company. There’s some members of the Bourne family who didn’t abandon us and I must attend to them. I will see you at the funeral tomorrow.” 

Before Marcus could recover his wits, the door was shut and another gust of wind came from the north to freeze the tears outlining his stern cheekbones. He wiped his face with an angry swipe and cursed under his breath. He stalked back to his car and shut the door, taking a shuddering breath as he looked up at the windows of the house. She’d slipped that line about Jane in there as a slap in the face. Emily knew Jane was probably the last person he’d want to see in Pine Grove… but then why was he putting his car in reverse and driving twenty over the limit to get to Main Street? 

The Creaky Floorboard was the only bar in Pine Grove. Its light brick facade was complete with a wooden sign with letters burned into it. Large grated windows displayed neon lights within, and as Marcus stepped inside, he felt the humidity of the place hit him. There was a cool breeze provided by an industrial fan in the corner, but it seemed like every one of the cracked barstools, wooden tables, and even the polished oak countertop had a film of dew over it. There was no one but Jeremy Davis in the bar now, and Marcus smiled in spite of himself at the familiar sight of the old man at the end of the counter, slumped against the wall with a beer clutched in spidery fingers. 

He sat down, wondering if Jane was indeed there, and sure enough she came out of the back and froze, taking all the breath out of his lungs as she did so. 

Her brown hair flowed like a river of chocolate down her back, and warm hazelnut-green eyes brightened her olive complexion, jewels set in her face which caught brilliantly in the light. Her cheekbones were high, and her face a little fuller than when last Marcus had seen her, but beneath her black top and apron, the strong hints of promiscuous curves drew his gaze ever downward. She smiled, displaying teeth which shone the brighter for their slight unevenness. 

“Marcus?” she said, her voice sultry and comforting. 

He cleared his throat and locked his gaze on hers. “Yeah, it’s me.” 

“‘Yeah, it’s me?’” said Jane with a lopsided grin. “Is that all you’ve got to say for yourself?” 

“I-I’m sorry?” Marcus shook his head. “No, that sounded like a question… I am sorry.” 

She walked over until they were right across from one another. “Well, apology not accepted.” 

His careful smile melted. “What?” 

The genuine surprise at seeing him had faded, and now there was a deep wound present in her eyes. “You think you can just fix ten years of… of nothing with an ‘I’m sorry?’” 

“No, that was stupid.” He took a deep breath. “God, why’d I come back?” 

“Your father died.” 

“Oh,” said Marcus. “You knew about that?” 

“Whole town knows,” said Jane, pouring a beer. 

“I-I don’t want to drink right now.” 

She grimaced. “It’s for me.” 

Jeremy grunted from seven barstools down. Marcus took the cue to say, “Look, my mom said you were here, and I thought I’d… I don’t know, try to talk?” 

“Then talk.” 

There was care in her face, and Marcus saw it. She was hiding it, denying its existence, but she failed just as much as he did. After a few seconds of drinking in each other’s corporeal presence, Marcus said, “After high school, I knew I couldn’t stay here. I just knew it. I’d just told my dad what I wanted to do for a living, and…”

“He didn’t take it too well?” 

“That’s an understatement,” muttered Marcus. “He yelled and screamed like I’ve never seen before.” 

“I know what he used to do to you when you were young,” said Jane, “but that doesn’t explain why you had to leave in the middle of the night.” 

“Doesn’t it?” 

She took a long draft and whispered, “It doesn’t explain why you had to leave without telling me. After everything we went through together… You couldn’t at least tell me you were going?” 

“I know, and that’s… that’s what I’m the most sorry about.” 

“Oh? Not the lack of communication for all those years?” Jane raised an eyebrow. “Not one letter, post card, email… phone call?” 

“I was scared, y’know,” said Marcus. 

That seemed to hurt Jane more than anything else. “Scared of me?”

“Scared that you’d think I’d abandoned you.” 

“You did abandon me!” 

He raised a hand. “I know, but…”

“I know you’re not a coward, Marcus.” 

“I am,” he said, closing his eyes. “If I’m being completely honest… I think I didn’t call you any of those lonely nights down west because I knew… I knew the moment I heard your voice I’d be on the first flight up here.” 

Despite her somber expression, some red rushed into Jane’s cheeks. “C’mon, seriously?” 

“Seriously.” There was a long pause in which Jane finished her beer and poured another glass, this time adding one for Marcus, who now gladly accepted. “Look, I really am sorry for leaving all those years ago. I can’t explain all of it because it was so… sudden. I’d had that conversation, if you want to call it that, with my dad, and I was hurting… bad. I remember driving along and seeing the Creasel brothers shooting up in their backyard. I thought, if I stay here, that’s what I’ll become. That’s what my dad’s going to bring me to. He wanted me to work in his shop, you know-” 

“I know.” 

Marcus nodded. “School was about the only refuge I had from that man, and he wanted me to spend even more time with him.” He took a long, long draft, draining almost half the pint. After he wiped his mouth, he continued, “I drove right back home and packed my stuff. My dad always had a water glass full of bourbon after our fights, and so he was knocked out, and my mom… she was sleeping in the guest room, so she didn’t hear a thing. I hauled all my stuff in my car, emptied out every stash of money I’d hidden from my parents and started driving again… I did stop in front of your house, by the way.” 

“You did?” Jane’s eyes lit up. 

“I even got out of my car and picked up a rock to throw it at your window, just like I’d done all those times before.” He smiled from the memories. “I cocked back to throw, but then… I stopped. I wish I could say why.” Marcus put his hand on top of hers as it rested on the counter, and the moment their skin touched he felt such a piercing pain in his chest he thought he’d pass out, but he gathered his strength and pressed on, their fingers interlaced. “The part of me which wants to think the best of myself says that I didn’t want to ruin your life. I knew you had a good thing going here, that your parents were nice, and I didn’t want to steal you away from them. But I think… I think the reality is that I was scared. I mean, I had no plan. Any sane person would’ve rejected me outright then, and actually I could take if any person did that, but not you… I thought if you rejected me then, if I asked you, then that’d be worse than anything.” 

“I would’ve gone with you,” said Jane quietly. 

He hung his head, feeling fresh tears splash the countertop below.

She lifted his chin up with a few delicate fingers. “You don’t owe your family anything, Marcus. This funeral tomorrow… don’t go if it’s gonna be painful.” 

“It’s gonna be painful.” He leaned forward and in one breath they met for a kiss which made up for ten years of lost time, breaking apart yet staying within a hair’s width of one another for several seconds. He kissed her again, feeling the passion and longing in her embrace and letting his vulnerability speak to his own. 

“Marcus,” she whispered as they broke apart a second time reeling in each other’s eyes. 

“I know why I drove back,” said Marcus quietly, “and it wasn’t for my dad. I came back because I wanted to see you, and… take you with me.” A stillness followed his words. “I love you,” he finished. 

“I love you too,” she said. 

Without another word, she took off her apron and he pushed out from the stool. They embraced once more as she met him on his side of the counter, this time feeling one another’s warmth as they hadn’t in over a decade. They ran out to his car, and he drove off immediately, not looking once in the rear view mirror as they left Pine Grove, and if his gaze drifted, it was towards the passenger seat, where Jane’s smile gave him the strength he needed to keep driving.

September 19, 2022 10:56

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