Eyes on the Rearview Mirror

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

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Drama Sad

The engine of my corvette purrs as I zip past the sign welcoming me to Lakeview—population 1932. There wasn’t a lake in the entire town or any body of water larger than a stream. The rationale for naming the desolate town died off dozens of years ago, about the time the coal veins stopped producing the black lifeblood of the area.  

I glance at my silent passenger. Her blank expression hasn’t changed since we started this trip. She peers forward like she’s concentrating on a bug splattered on the windshield while her crossed arms rest in her lap. Considering her demeanor, she wants to be here as much as I want my skin removed with a cheese grater.

“We’re here, Aniela,” I say.

Her face stays fixed as she replies. “Are you ready then?”

“Come on. We just got here.” I grin. “Let me show you around.”

I point out the window. “To the right is our wonderful town park. It may be small, but at least it’s underfunded.” I wiggle my eyebrows. “Plus, it’s ground zero for my earliest fond memory. My mom brought me here during the week while my dad worked. Picture a chubby little version of me running and jumping.”

***

I ran from the slide to the monkey bars, calling for my mother. But her nose didn’t budge from her book as she sat on a bench, attempting to finish the chapter before surrendering to my interruption. I tripped on a rock and belly-flopped on the sand, getting a mouthful of gritty pebbles.

As I attempted to clear my mouth by spitting, a tiny hand reached down, wiggling to emphasize its desire to help me up.

              “Are you okay?” The soft voice said. “My name is Sarah. What’s yours?”

              I noticed my mom peeking over the top of her paperback. Her lips hid, but I recognized the smile in her eyes. A demonstration of her approval of my new friend. “I’m Re… Reggie”

***

              As I pull over, Aniela finally looks at me. She doesn’t emote, but her eyes lock with mine. “Sarah?”

              “That was the first time we met.” I tap the steering wheel. Even at five, I knew she was special. “I wasn’t one of those kids that thought girls had cooties.” I shrug, “but you don’t want to hear about this.”

I ease on the gas and watch the park shrink in my rearview mirror. “Do you prefer to see my elementary school?”

              “Sure.” Her mono-tone voice matches her expressionless face.

              “It’s close.” The town is a mile and half long and a third as wide. Nothing is far away. As we cruise, I pass people strolling down the uneven sidewalks and sitting on their porches, both popular pastimes in the dull burg.

After swinging left at the only traffic light, I zip down Second Street, passing rows of townhouses with faded siding and peeling paint, before parking next to a desolate brick building, which stretches across an entire block. Water-warped plywood hides most of the broken windows, but the shards of glass sprinkled between the grass jutting from sidewalk cracks tell the tale. On the right, a rusted fence bordering a narrow playground leans over, with holes and gaps every few feet. But the chain links only guard a twisted pole, barely holding up a bent netless rim and the meager remains of a wooden backboard.

              “I went here from kindergarten to fourth grade. They closed it down a couple of years after I advanced to middle school. There weren’t enough students, so we merged with surrounding towns.”

              “It’s charming.”

              “Back then, it was bigger than a castle and nicer than a mansion. My little house was a shack compared to this building.” My cheeks warm up, making me wonder how red they are. “I saw Sarah again on that first day of kindergarten.” A smile spreads across my face, despite my attempt to suppress it. “I can still picture that yellow dress. She was so proud of it.”

***

              While a gray-haired man stood behind an oak desk and scanned the room, I searched for a seat in a crowd of scrambling kids. The brightness of Sarah’s garment drew my attention. I lifted my hand to wave but was unsure she’d remember me. Afraid of appearing foolish, I dropped it and diverted my gaze. As I turned away, I heard her tiny voice whisper. “Reggie.”

              Turning towards her, I tried to look confident. “Hi Sarah,” I said, fumbling with the handle of my lunchbox with both hands.

              “Will you sit next to me?” She looked around. “I don’t know anyone else.”

              As I plopped into a chair, she pointed at her dress. “The ducks are so cute, aren’t they? My mom said it’s too loud, but I think ducks don’t make much noise.” She shrugs. “Do you like it?”

***

              Now, mimicking Aniela, I’m staring through the windshield, trying to recreate the feelings from that moment. “Until today, I never considered how nervous she was. In my mind, she was always brave and outgoing. But the first-day jitters found her too.”            

“Sarah again.” Aniela turns her head to the passenger window. “You had a little crush, did you?”

              “That was a long time ago. Things became complicated as we grew older.” I pat her on the shoulder. “You’re not getting jealous, are you?”

              “Are we done, or do you want to show me where you first tied your shoes?”

              “Actually, we need to see my initial taste of freedom. My middle school hangout spot. Triple D’s Pizza.”

              “A restaurant must love having a bunch of kids loitering inside.”

              I smile. “They had some arcade games sectioned off from the dining area. And we often shoved more money in those slots than they sold pizzas. Well, my friends played mostly.”

              By the time I finish talking, we pull into the empty lot across from my old stomping ground. “My parents would drop me off and return hours later. At nine, they allowed me to be there without supervision. By now, I’m a little less chubby.”

***

              I entered with both hands in my pockets. My friends are going to ask me to play games, and I considered telling them I lost my money on the way here instead of again admitting to not having any. Getting pity looks in a town this poor was a kick in the gut.

              Before anyone invited me to join them, Sarah walked through the door with three girls. They giggled while entering. One of them shushed the others as they approached. I wondered if they were talking about me and my stammering admittance to liking Sarah more than a friend. Her face turned red as she reached me. The awkwardness made the air thick and my throat small.

              “Hi Reggie,” Sarah said. Her eyes angled towards the floor as she spoke.

              “Is that a new dress? I like it.”

              She smiled. “Thank you. Can we sit and talk?”

              Her friends giggled behind her, putting their hands over their mouths to suppress their giddiness.

              “Yes.” A tingle danced up my back. “Just us in the dining room?”

              “It’s a date.” She said, “will you buy me a slice and a coke?”

              A bead of sweat formed on my forehead. The entire place grew silent, except for the beating of my heart, which could only be noisier if the principal played it over the loudspeaker. I leaned in towards her and whispered, “I don’t have any money.”

***

I avoid seeing Aniela’s face, focusing far ahead instead. “My dad worked at a local factory, and my mom was a full-time mother. When I asked for cash, they would say we can skip eating for the week if playing games is important to me.” I feel my jaw clench and fight to relax it.

“Your crush didn’t like your lack of wealth?”

“She never looked down on me because of my parents’ financial state. But we were too young for a genuine relationship, and our friendship faded over the years.” I turn my head to the window, attempting to hide the tears rolling down my cheeks, but my crackling voice betrays me. “We reconnected after my mom passed.”  

“Do you need a minute?”

“No.” I wipe the wetness from my face and put the car in drive. Moving two blocks and parking at the town square. A large clock towered over one corner, with a park bench nestled below it. I point to the area, picturing a scrawny teenage version of myself sitting on the uncomfortable wood. “I was a sophomore in high school. Mom’s aneurysm was sudden. We didn’t have time to prepare mentally.” Another tear forms in my eye. I take a deep breath to steady my voice. “The rain was horrendous, but I just sat there, letting it slosh over me, hoping it would wash away the pain.”

***

As water streamed over my face, I stared at the grass in front of me. Sarah scampered over, holding an umbrella, which wasn’t effective with the heavy downpour and blowing wind. “Let’s get a slice and talk.” She said, barely audible over the rain.

But the drops camouflaged my tears, and I didn’t want her to see me cry. “I’ll be fine, Sarah. I just need some time to think.”

She sat next to me and put her hand on mine. The gusts were too strong to hold the umbrella one-handed, so it whipped from her grasp and blew away. “Nobody should go through this alone. I know we aren’t as close anymore, but I will always care for you.” She kissed me on the forehead.

I shut my eyes. The guilt of my thoughts seized me. How could my mind think about this girl minutes after finding out…

She put her arm around me, and I laid my head on her shoulder. We both sat silently in the storm for an hour.

***

“We started dating again three months later.” I grin, “and we were great together.”

“You loved her?”

“I still do.”

She doesn’t turn her head to face me, and her facial expression stays the same.

“I know you’re ready to leave, but let’s check out the home we almost lived in.”

“Lucky me.”

My hands shake as I pull next to the curb and point towards a two-story brick house surrounded by a wraparound porch with a stained wood railing. The property even has the cliché white picket fence. Then I nod at a truck three spots ahead. “We were in her car up there when I told her my plans. We just graduated high school, and she enrolled in community college. She expected me to do the same.”

***

We sat in the rusty light-green geo metro, both with our arms crossed and avoiding eye contact.

She says, “what happened to accounting? You liked the class and aced it. I thought you were planning to get your degree?” She shook her head. “We can pick another house.” 

“I like this one. It’s not the issue.”

“You don’t want my parents to give us the down payment?”

“They’re very nice for offering, and I’m not suggesting we turn it away. Let’s buy the property, and I’ll send you money to help pay the mortgage.”

“And I live here alone, waiting for four years?”

“I’ll pick a base close enough to visit on the weekends, and I’ll come home when I’m on leave.”

“Until you get sent overseas.” She uncrossed her arms and placed her hand on my leg, finally locking her baby blues with my hazel peepers. “There’s a war. They will assign you.” Tears flowed out of her red, puffy eyes. “Anything can happen.”

I put my hand on hers. “You watch the news. We’re winning and have very few casualties on our side. Plus, by the time I finish basic, it’ll probably be over.” I frowned. “Every man should protect those he loves.” I rubbed her stomach. “And one day, after we marry, we’ll have kids. I’d rather fight now, so they don’t have to?”

“There will always be wars.”

“As a benefit, I’ll have the salary to pay the bills and help with college expenses.”

“I just have a bad feeling.” She shook her head. “Please don’t.”

“I’m sorry.” Running my hand through her hair, I said, “I signed up yesterday. There’s no going back.”

***

“She stood in the middle of the road and waved as I drove away. I remember watching her in the rearview mirror. Her hand kept waving as she got smaller. Until she disappeared.” I stare at Aniela’s face. “In retrospect, I should have told her before enlisting.”

“Discussing a life-changing decision with your partner is normally the correct choice. Are you finished?”

“Just one more stop.” I tear into the desolate road and towards the diner across town. She works there to earn extra money. As we pull into the parking lot, I see the restaurant door swing open. Sarah emerges, wearing a slender black dress and matching gloves. I jump out of the car and rush to her.

“Wait,” Aniela says, getting out of the corvette and following me.

I stop feet from Sarah, trying to see her face through the dark lace veil. “I love you.” As she approaches me, I say, “I’m sorry.” She passes through me as Aniela reaches my side.

“You shouldn’t try to interact.” She grabs my hand. “This trip is an opportunity to say goodbye to your past, not spy on their present lives.”

I attempt to push her away, tears rolling down my cheeks. “Please, Aniela. They shipped me out right after Bootcamp. We only had one night together. Two weeks in a green zone and my convoy runs into an IED.” I spin, watching Sarah leave.

“Why do you keep calling me Aniela?”

“It’s Polish for Angel. Sarah’s grandmother used to call Sarah’s mom….” I shake my head. “Why does that even matter? How can I talk to her? Just for a minute. I need to tell her she was right. She needs to know she was the most important thing in my life.”

“I’m sorry, Reggie. But it’s time to move on.”   

September 21, 2022 22:56

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