WEDNESDAY: Passing Through

BY BRANDON CRILLY

Copyright is held by the author.

ROB LOOKED down at the gas gauge again and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “We should have filled up sooner.”

“I didn’t think to check the gauge,” Miranda said beside him.

“It’s not your fault. I should’ve been paying attention.” He realized his tone was still harsh, so he took a deep breath and offered his wife the best smile he could muster, to show he wasn’t angry with her.

“We could just pass through. Find a station on the highway.”

“And risk running out before we do?” Rob shook his head.

They rode in silence as they turned off the highway. Too quickly for Rob, the scenic view of farmland transformed into densely-packed suburban sprawl. With each building he saw, Rob’s anxiety grew.

“I didn’t even want to pass through,” he said finally.

“It’s the most direct route,” Miranda reminded him. “I didn’t think we’d have to stop. But if we risk it and run out, my sister will kill us.”

Rob smirked. “Can’t have a rehearsal dinner without the maid of honour, right?” He took another deep breath. “I’m sorry this is bothering me so much.”

“I understand.” He glanced at her quickly, but the comforting expression she wore only made him feel worse. “Coming back here isn’t easy for me, either. We just have to get some gas. We probably won’t even see anyone.”

“Here’s hoping.”

The first two gas stations they passed were packed with weekend traffic; Rob recalled the town’s summer jazz festival was this weekend in July. While he scanned for a station that wasn’t as busy, he couldn’t decide whether it was a better idea to keep a wary eye on the faces they passed or ignore them completely.

“There’s one!”

Rob saw the Shell station where Miranda was pointing had at least a couple free pumps. He peeled inside and screeched to a halt.

“Be right back,” he said to Miranda, and then practically jumped out of his seat.

The message flashing on the screen could have been from a nightmare: INTERAC OFFLINE, PLEASE PAY INSIDE. The last thing he wanted was to have to wait in line to pay.

While he filled up, he kept his eyes rooted to the pavement beneath his feet, terrified to look up and catch a glimpse of someone he used to know. He wished he had brought his sunglasses or his old Tilly hat, as ludicrous as the hat would’ve looked with his dress shirt and pants. At that moment, though, he would’ve worn a black hoodie and a fake beard. The motion of the pumping fuel sounded agonizingly slow, no matter how much Rob willed it to hurry. He cursed himself for buying an SUV.

He glanced up at the pump and figured the car was about three-quarters full.

At precisely that instant, he heard someone cry out, “Hey, Robbie! Hey!”

Shit shit shit shit shit. Rob visibly winced, contemplated jumping into the car and driving away without paying. Resigned, he tried to put on the most neutral face possible while he turned to the voice’s source.

Cameron Betts had barely changed in the five years since Rob last saw him. He was still pudgy, with the same stringy, strawberry-blonde hair and perpetual flush to his cheeks. When they were in high school together, he had rarely shown up in something other than a wife beater, and today was no exception; this one was navy blue with a Toronto Maple Leafs logo on the chest. The worst thing was the grin on his face. It was the same grin he had worn when he picked on Rob almost every day for eight years, and the same smile he wore after he “rediscovered himself” and started treating Rob like a crippled sparrow that needed protection.

“Robbie! Long time no see!” His grip was rough and oily as he shook Rob’s hand.

“Hey, Cameron.” Rob tried to sound pleasant and avoid gritting his teeth. He looked at the pump again. Please, God, hurry.

“What brings you back? You here for the festival?”

“No, we’re just passing through.”

“We?” Cameron looked startled for a second. He leaned down to peer into the car, and his grin widened. He waved and cried out, even louder, “Hey, Miranda!”

She waved back and smiled politely, but didn’t get out of the car. She had had the same relationship with Cameron as her husband.

“So you two made it. That’s great! Hope you didn’t knock her up to keep her around.”

He guffawed, while Rob marveled at how his humour hadn’t improved any more than his appearance.

The fuel pump mercifully clicked off. “No kids yet, Cameron. Anyway, we really have to get going, so –”

“Places to be, eh? No worries,” Cameron said. Rob was grateful that Cameron was still oblivious and simple. He gestured at the gas station and added, “Hey, guess who I saw go in there a minute ago?”

“Who?” The thought of running into someone else he knew made Rob a little nauseous.

“Sarah Garner. Tell her I said hi, eh!”

The mild nausea turned into violent convulsions in Rob’s stomach. He barely heard Cameron saying goodbye, barely felt the hard slap on his back before the wife-beater-wearing dope plodded away.

Jumping in the car and driving away seemed like an even more appealing idea. His blood started pounding in his ears and he worried he was going to pass out. He briefly considered that as an escape route, but making a scene would probably bring a whole slew of former friends and acquaintances, like an old episode of This is Your Life.

It took a significant exertion to force his legs into motion. He didn’t even glance at Miranda as he walked toward the station, so she wouldn’t see the absolute terror on his face.

The gas station’s interior would have been refreshingly cool if not for Rob’s nerves. He walked past the shelves of potato chips, candy and magazines, praying he could pay and get out of there without being seen by Sarah. He kept his head down while he walked to the counter, barely said anything to the cashier while he paid, tried to understand how processing his credit card could be even slower than the pump, and spun away as soon as he had signed the receipt.

He stopped in his tracks when he saw the tall, willowy figure standing directly in his path.

Like Cameron, Sarah Garner had barely changed, but in her case that was a good thing. Her chestnut hair was cut a little shorter than Rob remembered, but it still didn’t fail to accent her striking green eyes or the elegant curve of her chin. She was wearing a red blouse and a gray pencil skirt that showed off just enough and not enough leg. She was holding a leather binder in the crook of one arm.

“Hi, Rob.” She smiled at him, sweet and genuine, just like he remembered.

“Hi,” he said, softer than he intended. He felt tense again, though for an entirely different reason.

There was a pause while they both looked away from each other. Rob’s eyes snapped back to Sarah’s when she asked, “What brings you into town?”

“Just passing through … on our way to a wedding.”

Sarah arched an eyebrow. “You and Miranda?”

Rob nodded. Somehow a simple “Yeah” was beyond his ability.

“I’m glad you two made it,” Sarah said, and Rob knew she meant it. She always wanted the best for people, no matter what.

He stuck both hands in his pockets and rocked slightly on the spot, while he fumbled for something to say that would get him the hell out of there. He noticed the leather binder again.

“Are you…” He worked around a sudden lump in his throat. “Did you end up going to business school?”

“Oh. Yeah, I did.” She smiled sheepishly and clasped her hands together over her waist, in the way she always did when she talked about herself. Both quirks were still adorable.

“I graduated from Schulich, actually,” she continued, “and then I, uh, took an entrepreneur course. I’ve had my own business for about a year now.”

“Wow. Doing what?”

“It’s an edible arrangements shop. You know, like fruit cut up so it looks like a bouquet of flowers? We’re getting popular around here. Kinda silly, I suppose.”

“Not in the slightest.”

He tried to ignore it, but he could remember the way Sarah had loved playing with food in high school. Laying out vegetables in crazy patterns, arranging crackers and cheeses. She had even stacked beer cans at parties so they formed little structures, just for fun.

He also remembered the breakfast platter she’d made him, where the slices of pineapple and melon made wavy lines across the plate like intertwining rivers of fruit, and the blueberries were interspersed like droplets of rain. She’d only ever done that for him once, because neither of them wanted to let go of the night before.

I can’t think about that.

“Well … do what you love, right?” He chuckled with about as much mirth as someone trying to brush off open-heart surgery.

“That’s always been my philosophy,” Sarah said, with a casual shrug.

I have to get the hell out of here.

“Well, I should … Miranda’s still in the car, and…”

“Right, absolutely.” Sarah nodded quickly, her smile unchanging, frozen in place. “Give Miranda my best.”

“Yeah, of course.” The lie didn’t bother him. “Um, take care of yourself.”

“You too.”

Rob made to walk past her. A gentle hand on his arm stopped him.

“Rob?”

He swallowed. “Yeah?”

His eyes widened when she wrapped her arms around him. Part of him wanted to pull away, to start running, maybe run all the way to the rehearsal dinner. Instead he stayed where he was and returned the embrace, gently entwining her midriff, feeling the curve of her back through the thin fabric of her blouse.

There was a familiar urge deep inside him not to let her go. He had felt that way the last time he held her. For the rest of that night and most of the following morning, neither of them had let go of the other.

That night. August 29, before the start of twelfth grade.

It wasn’t quite the same this time, though. Her perfume was different, her shoulders tenser. He was wearing actual dress clothes, not the striped polo shirt he’d chosen then to look more mature. And this time his wife was waiting for him in the car.

Rob broke away abruptly. Sarah didn’t meet his eyes right away; when she did, the slightly glassy look in her eyes made it obvious why she hesitated. He wondered if he looked the same.

“Maybe I’ll see you next time you pass through, then,” she said.

“Yeah. Next time.” Another lie. “Take care of yourself, Sarah.”

“You too, Rob.”

He hurried out of the gas station without looking back, afraid to check if she was watching. He just wanted to leave, to try to forget he had ever been there, and force down the memories he thought he’d already left behind.

When he climbed back into the car, Miranda was flipping through her day planner. Rob figured she hadn’t even noticed the time passing while he was in the station.

“Ready to go?” he asked, trying to sound natural.

Miranda nodded. “I think I know what weekend we should book the bed and breakfast. Is it all right if we celebrate a little late this year?”

“That’s fine.”

Miranda smiled and jotted down a reminder. A line above, she had already circled one day with a giant heart.

He could remember that night, too. Our first date. June 14th, before the start of twelfth grade. Together ever since.

When Miranda finished writing and looked up, she must have noticed something on his face, because her eyes narrowed in concern and she asked, “Are you okay, honey?”

He cleared his throat softly, hoping that some words would come up. Finally, he said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”

“Honest?”

“Yeah, honest.” He let out a deep breath, expelling his tension and the lingering feeling of old memories that wouldn’t quite disappear. Then he turned to his wife and said, “Let’s just get out of here.”

8 comments

  1. Frank Sikora

    Brandon: I enjoyed your story. More, I checked out your blog. It really is well-done. You keep a good sense of humor regarding the writer’s life. I also decided to purchase a copy of the latest Spec magazine, the one with YOUR story. I am always looking out for new and interesting SF magazines.

  2. Aileen Santos

    Hi Brandon
    I really enjoyed this story. I felt for him when he saw her — it was very relatable, those moments of bumping into people from the past. I also checked out your blog and you’ve got me thinking of starting my own. I’m relatively new to all of it, so it’s great to see that you have been well supported in your writing endeavours as a new emerging writer. Cheers and good luck!

  3. JAZZ

    Harsh criticism perhaps, but this story brought to mind Truman Capote’s famous retort……’….it’s typing, not writing’
    The internal conflict of the main character is described in detail but falls considerably short of the external forces revealed at the end. One is lead to suspect that he had ran from his home town after a disaster of major proportion: murder, mayhem, mafia and by returning he is in great danger. His worse nightmare came true: he ran into the school bully and a nice ex-girlfriend.

  4. Bev Bachmann

    Brandon, This is one of the smoothest, most engaging stories I have read in a long time. I identified with the protagonist’s anxieties as he unwittingly traveled through the past and came face to face with the man he once had been. People see us the way we were, not the way we are today — and it’s almost impossible to correct their false impressions. Over the years we grow, we develop, and yet the demons are still there — just waiting for us around blind corners. Thank you for a very vibrant story of what it means to be human. Tom Wolfe was right. We can’t go home again.

  5. Charles Pinch

    I agree with our esteemed Jazz. There’s something wrong here. Maybe it’s just me but the story failed to live up to its promise — or maybe premise — take your pick. I get the feeling that the author was ‘trying too hard’ and perhaps this is because he usually writes ‘spec’ fiction (from what I gathered from his website). There’s an assumption floating out there that ‘literary fiction’ has to be ‘serious’, ‘deep’ and ‘affecting’ in a way that impacts profoundly upon our thinking and if you really want to push it — our lives. And I think this is where he got stuck. The theme of the ‘past returning to haunt’ is a noble one but here the stakes just aren’t high enough, dude: Rob’s anxiety rings false because neither of the two characters he encounters are in any way threatening. If they were — we need to be shown this. There is a tendency here to hint or imply at darker meanings below the surface and to see the action as only an outward manifestation of something malevolently sublime — Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory’. But such actions can only resonate in the reader’s mind if there is a strong underbody of tension and conflict. Think Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ or Tobias Wolff’s ‘Bullet in the Brain’.

  6. Frank Sikora

    Interesting observation Jazz. You are correct. The build-up/internal conflict demands a greater denounement/pay-off. I still enjoyed the journey. If a writer (including me) spends a great deal of time looking down the rabbit hole, there better be an awfully mean bunny down there.

  7. Pingback: New Story in CommuterLit | Brandon Crilly - Writer, Teacher, Human

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