Traveling Light

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

After the passing of his girlfriend, a man returns to her hometown to lay her to rest, and meets her family for the first time. He must come to grips with losing her as well as the alienation he feels at a time when he needs to grieve with those who knew her as well.

 

I

 

During the flight he sits quietly. Voices are buried under the groan of the engines. Many hours have passed, but he lingers in limbo. He is eager for the plane to land, but that is a beginning of a new end. The seat next to him is vacant, a gesture from karma he takes as a personal last jab. She would have been sitting there.

His nerves are wrecked. A dread panic sits at the edge of his mind, right behind his eyes. If it jumps it will leap out of his mouth and he will scream. In previous years he would have taken to the bottle, but it has been more than five years since he has had any of the good stuff. No Dutch courage today. No easing the tension, the fear, the drowning in despair.

Sleep has been scarce even before the flight. He never can sleep on planes. It isn't the noise that bothers him. The discomfort in the seats. The horde of people crammed into a metal tube shot across the sky. This does not seem to be a situation he should be asleep for. A low paranoia hangs itself over his thoughts like a whispering shadow. They might come for him. Ask him questions. He sits in wait. Forces beyond his control are drawing him up to be quartered.

At the baggage claim he waits for his luggage to arrive. A single blue suitcase keeps passing him by on the carousel. Round and round it goes, but his own black suitcase is nowhere to be seen. He hasn't packed much for himself. Most of the things in the suitcase is hers. He's been wearing the same suit for three days straight. That's how long he's been ready and waiting for to get this all over with. He'll probably be wearing it for a few more days. The stubble on his face has grown erratic and wiry. The insomnia has left a gaunt impression sinking in around his eyes. After forty minutes he complains and leaves a forwarding address, which he has to fish out of his pocket to write down. He leaves with nothing but the clothes on his back and a small suitcase in hand.

Someone is supposed to fetch him. He waits outside by the pick-up area, but no one appears. None of the cars he sees fits the description he was given of a 2006 Ford Focus. No one calls his name, either. The weather is cold and he is in dire need of a thicker coat than the one he is wearing. The night's sky is especially black, its stars blotted out by the bright lights glowing over the city. He gives up on waiting for anyone and looks for a taxi. The address he gives the driver is far away and he is told that it won't be cheap. He merely nods in agreement. Ordinary words sit awkwardly in his mouth, like he's spending forged currency.

The drive is long, but their timing with the traffic lights is on point. The driver knows these streets and due to the lack of traffic after eleven he only has to maintain a steady speed to hit green after green. He wants to make idle chatter with his passenger, but he can tell that he is removed from this world. Lost in his thoughts, the man stares out at the snowy streets. He has seen these buildings before, or rather, their kind. They are reflections of a perfect world he has seen in movies and films. Lingeringly familiar, but each one different, like there is a defect in them that gives them away as impostors of the true form. He feels the emptiness next to him. She's ahead of him. Waiting but not waiting.

The city slowly gives way to the suburbs. The darkness between streetlights grows in length. Lawns stretch out from houses to the sidewalks. A few living room or bedroom lights stare at him. He fidgets with his fingers. His heart has doubled its beat. The taxi comes to a halt in front of a two storied house. The man asks the driver to wait for a bit after he pays him.

Each step he takes up the cobbled path to the door weighs more than the one before. In his hand he carries only the small suitcase he took onto the plane with him. Outside, a thin layer of snow sitting on top of its roof, is the Ford Focus he was told to wait for. He pauses by the door. The urge to flee itches in his legs, but his feet won't move. The small suitcase in his hand tugs at his arm. He sighs, places it down on the front step next to his feet and rings the doorbell.

A loud silence passes. He rings it again and looks behind him towards the taxi to see whether it is still there. With no answer he tries knocking. Lights start to go on from upstairs as someone moves down to open the door. It swings open and a sour faced woman stands in front of him. She is wearing a green bathrobe. One of her eyes struggles to stay open under the burden of sleep.

-What? she groans, but a second later she recognizes him. -Oh! You must be, she pulls him into a hug. A strong odor of wine climbs up into his nostrils. -When did you get here? she releases him. -I thought I was picking you up at the airport?

-Not too long ago. Can I come in? he hears the taxi drive away.

-Oh, I . . . her head flutters around. -I don't think I have the space. You see, we've got family over and . . . I don't know where you would sleep.

He stares at her. It's not so much anger as disbelief that makes him snap. -But we talked about this. You told me I could stay here. I just got off a plane and I haven't slept for, for, for eighteen hours if not more. I had to take a cab here, an expensive ride, and you're telling me that you don't have a place for me to sleep?

She smiles defensively. -You're upset, I get it, but I'm not going to kick out family, I'm sorry.

-Well, what the hell am I supposed to do now?

A neighbor's voice yells out of a window to keep quiet. The woman gestures with her flattened hands for him to tone it down.

-Get a room at the motel? she suggests. -There is one nearby, and it is close to the, uhm . . .

She can't say it either. A wave of sympathy drags the anger in him away back to the depths.

-I'm sorry, he says. -Look, my cab just rode off, is there any way you can or someone can drive me to the motel?

-I'll ask Dean.

-Thanks. It was nice meeting you, by the way, he pushes it in as an awkward afterthought.

-Yes, she smiles. -Sadly it's been left a little late. She pulls him in for another hug. This one is longer than the first, but it still feels cold and detached. -Dean will be out in a second.

A few minutes later, his hands turning a faint blue, a scruffy looking doughy man emerges from behind the door. He is dressed in pajamas and a thick jacket. The dimness in his eyes don't seem to be from having been woken up.

-Evening, the man says to Dean.

He nods.

They walk over to the car and Dean opens up the trunk. The man is standing by the passenger door.

-You can put your luggage in here.

He looks at what he has in his hand.

-All I have is this. The rest was lost.

-What?

-The plane lost it.

-That's all you got?

-Yeah.

Dean slams the trunk shut, visibly annoyed by having had to go through the effort of opening it for nothing. -Get in.

They drive for about a mile in deafening silence until Dean spots a gas station and makes a stop there. He gets out of the car without saying a word and comes back with a packet of cigarettes, a bag of potato chips and a Hustler magazine. Before driving off he lights a cigarette and opens the window a crack.

-Mom doesn't allow me to smoke in her car, he says. -You want one?

-No, thanks.

-That's right, you don't smoke or drink? Right?

-Yeah.

-I heard about that. What do they call you? Tietotal?

-Teetotal.

-Shit way to live your life, isn't it? What do you do to get fucked up then?

-Cynicism.

-Must be good shit.

-I'm tired, can we just . . . fucking go, please? I want to try and get some sleep before tomorrow morning.

-Okay, okay, no need to get so fucking testy.

The motel is sprawled out in blocks arranged in a rigid U-shape. Dean doesn't wait around to see if he has found a room or not. As soon as the door closes behind him Dean speeds off. Several rooms are available and he chooses the cheapest one. The man behind the counter is old with a courageous comb over. He speaks in a loud whisper. A cat rests on his chair next to a small electric heater.

-Write your name here, please.

In a crooked script he writes Gallagher Black.

-How many nights will you be staying?

-Three. My flight leaves on Tuesday.

-Oh? Where are you going?

-What once was home.

The room is on the second floor. He puts his bag down in a chair by the window and sits down on the bed. Picking up the telephone he calls a number written on the piece of paper that holds the address. The phone rings four times before it's answered.

-Hello, Mrs. Gawtkin?

-Who is this? Her voice is hostile.

-It's Gallagher.

-Oh, did you find the motel alright? Did Dean drop you off?

-Yes, he did. Uhm, we didn't get a chance to talk about how I will be getting to the, the word turns to ash in his mouth before he can even speak it, -you know, tomorrow?

-Shit, yes. I'll send someone to pick you up in the morning. Can you be ready by eight?

-Yeah, I think so. I'm in room 201.

-201.

-Yes, that's it.

An unsettling silence falls between them. He can hear breathing on the other side.

-Is that it? she asks.

-I think so.

-Goodnight.

-Goodnight. He begins to lower the phone when he remembers something. -Oh, wait, one more thing.

-Yes? more hostility.

-I, well, not me, but the airline lost my luggage. Most of what's in there is for you and the family. I gave them your address, so keep an eye out for it.

-Alright. Will do.

The phone goes dead. One goodnight is all he's going to get. He undresses reluctantly. The crumbled suit slides onto hangers he hooks on a brass pole in the closet. He turns the television on for background noise and takes a shower. The warm water flows over him as he sits on the floor exhausted. The sadness he has suppressed while on route wells up in him and spills over. Tears are washed away one by one. He holds his head in one hand, gripping his hair. Despair strangles him. The walls of tomorrow are inching closer, creating a straight tunnel out of a labyrinth he has been lost in for more than two weeks. It's not the end, but rather an irrefutable admittance of what no longer is. He stops crying slowly and climbs out of the shower to dry himself.

The television is on an old movie channel. Climbing into bed he sees it's nearly two. A black and white movie is blaring out at him from the TV screen, but he turns the volume down. He doesn't want to hear, only see.

 

II

 

Harsh raps on his door wake him up. When he opens it he is met by a young woman dressed in a black jacket and skirt tightly hugging a thick coat. A fresh cast is wrapped around her right hand. Her hair is mousy brown and short.

-You're not ready yet?

-No, not, I, he scrambles for the words and catches a glimpse of the clock beside his bed. It's quarter past eight. - Sorry, I overslept.

-Well, come on, get dressed. I'll meet you downstairs. Blue pickup.

He nods. Back into the crumbled suit he spills. He puts on his thin black coat. It takes him a few tries to get his tie around his neck, which he has never had any difficulty with until recently. His fingers fumble as he realizes what day it is. He stares at himself in the mirror for a whole minute. Red eyes gaze back at him, peering inward. There is an amalgamated fist of hatred and anger and sadness strangling his chest. It has a hold on his lungs, his heart, his throat, and his stomach. He feels winded, but at the same time like he can't empty his lungs of excessive air. Relenting, he leaves and locks the door behind him.

The parking lot is nearly empty and he locates the blue pickup quickly. When he climbs in he apologizes immediately.

-You're Gallagher then, she says.

-Yes. And you're Katherine?

-Kath, please.

-Sorry. Rebecca told me that you hated your full name.

-Hated? What's this past tense bullshit? I still do. Anyway, no need to stand here idly waiting for the parade to pass. Let's go.

The traffic isn't dense, but they hit red lights. Katherine's driving is erratic. She makes sudden turns and changes lanes without checking her mirrors. He had been told by Rebecca that seven accidents and three cars totaled has never deterred Katherine's confidence in her driving ability.

-Mom's pissed at you, by the way, she says.

-Because I called her last night to ask for a ride?

-What? No. For smoking in her car.

-Excuse me?

-She got in her car this morning and it reeked of smoke. Dean said you asked him to drive you to a gas station and you lit up as soon as you got back in the car. Didn't even bother to roll the window down or anything.

-What the? That son of a bitch. Sorry, he adds quickly – didn't mean that.

-Don't worry. I've called him worse on many an occasion. I suspected the moron was lying. You don't even smoke, do you?

-Never have.

-Thought so. Rebecca would never date a smoker.

-You know I haven't said her name since . . , he pauses.

-Since she died? Yeah, I get that. Sort of sits in your mouth like a hot coal when you say it, doesn't it? So you try to avoid it at all costs.

-I guess so. You don't seem too phased by it, though.

-Oh, I'm devastated. I drank for three days straight. Went looking for trouble. Found some. Got into a fight. Broke this hand while doing so. Bad behavior, you know, anything to feel something other than grief. Which didn't work by the way, none of it did. You've got to move through the misery of it all to get to a place where you can remember the love and the joy you had felt, right?

-I don't know. I think I'm still at the grieving stage.

-Uh, well, you'll get it eventually. For now, I dunno, lean into it, I suppose. It's what I didn't do and now I've got a hand as useless as a fork in soup.

Gallagher smiles, the first time he has done so in a while. They stop in the parking lot of the graveyard. He looks out the windows to see where the people are gathering. Katherine sits still, waiting for something.

-Shall we go? he asks her.

She turns to him. -Do you think seeing her, here, makes it . . . real? Acknowledges that it happened?

He nods. He plays with the tip of his tie between his fingers. -I've been wearing this suit for a few days now. I don't know why, but, she always liked this damn thing. I never wore it that often before. She maybe only saw me in it twice, or three times? I hated it. I still do. I kind of feel guilty for not wearing it more. Isn't that wrong?

Katherine looks at him. They have similar eyes, the two sisters. There is a slight difference, though. Not like something is missing, but rather that a sardonic glint has been replaced with a carefree glimmer.

-No, it's not wrong. It's not right either, but it won't do any harm.

-You know, I haven't been sleeping well. Every time I close my eyes I see her smile and it just . . . it makes me so damn miserable all over again. Making her laugh used to be one of the best things I did during my day and now . . . I won't ever see it again and the image, the memory, it's all changed.

Katherine quietly smiles and puts her hand on his. -Let's go say goodbye.

A large group of people have gathered together. A few faces he recognizes from photos. He stands apart from the family as they receive all the condolences. The earth is still unfrozen enough. Winter has yet to come properly and the grave has been dug out of the dark soil.

He stares at the other people. Over the course of three years he had heard their names. Rebecca had told him stories about these people, of cousins and uncles, school friends and a former lover or two. He knows of them, but to them he is a stranger attending a funeral. A few steal glances at him, some with an accusation in their glare. Hadn't he taken her away she would still be alive, he suspects them of thinking. But he took her nowhere. He found her already gone. Lost forever exactly as she wanted to be. The guilt he has felt over the past few days and that he still feels now is from a deep anger directed at himself. He feels he has betrayed her. If it were not for him she would not have been returned to this life she had fled. He had promised her to never let her get stuck in this dead-end city, and here he is helping to pour earth over her body to keep her trapped until the worms have had their fill.

Mourners whimper and cry, but most are blank faced. They're attending out of an obligation. As the sermon is being carried out already a few of them are gossiping in whispers about who did not show up, and even about who did. Gallagher catches a vile glare from Mrs. Gawtkin. The pastor provides the opportunity for people to say a few words. No one asks him to share anything, but he is fine with that. He listens to their words. They speak of someone they did not know. The memories they share are true, but they are beset with melancholic twists, weaving themselves into a tapestry depicting a happier time that never was. Mourning is not about the departed, but rather about those who remain. They speak of the dead to remind themselves that they were good to her. It's a tangled mess of regret and apologies that can't be spoken except through hidden and subtle stories. He doesn't recognize the Rebecca he knew in their memories, but would they recognize her in his?

The sermon ends and people dwindle away. Gallagher remains standing around until the soil has been returned to the earth. Katherine walks up next to him.

-Ready to go?

-In a minute. I probably won't be back here anytime soon.

-Not even before you leave?

-What is time on a trip like this? These next few days are going to melt together and I won't be able to distinguish one from the other. Of course I'll come back before I leave, but, once I do, she becomes inaccessible.

Katherine lights a cigarette. -You've got to loosen that knot before you go anywhere. What's got you all tied up?

He smiles meekly, a subtle surrender. -I've brought her back to remain in the one place she never wanted to return to.

-That's not on you, though.

-It isn't, but still . . . we weren't married so what right do I have to say what happens to her?

-Yeah, unfortunately that fell to my mother. Mommy dearest doesn't know best, especially since she was thinking mostly about herself. Hell, they hardly ever spoke and with good reason. Bit of a ploy to throw up a smokescreen that she's a good mother.

-What am I going to do now? he looks at Katherine, a knitted mess of emotions clenching his brow. -I have to go back there knowing that I left her here.

Katherine smiles lightly. -Come with me.

-Where to?

-Shut up and get in the car. I'm going to show you this place ain't so bad.

She takes him across the city, showing him where Rebecca had gone to school, worked and lived. The stories that come with these places make them laugh, and tears sneak into the corners of their eyes. They go for a late lunch in a restaurant in which Rebecca had worked for a year or so, ordering her favorite foods. A plate of fries, greasy burgers, and spicy chicken wings. Waffles topped with blueberries and ice cream, and apple pie. Banana milkshakes and root beer. They take their time, ordering plate after plate, not finishing them all, but laughing all the way through. He tells Katherine of the chilly mornings Rebecca would dance half naked around the apartment on her tip toes as she was getting dressed, of the silly inside jokes they shared, how she always kept talking to him in bed while he was trying to fall asleep. Slowly he stops missing her as he finds he could share his memories of her with someone.

-Are we far from the river? he asks Katherine, a mountain of plates piling up at the edge of the table.

-Not by much, why? You wanna go there?

-I do.

It's a short drive through a narrow strip of woods to the river. They pass several popular summer spots where park benches and tables sit close to a flat river bank. The road follows the river. The trees have shed their leaves and the forest floor still remains littered by them. Through the thin trees Gallagher looks out at the river, its murky waters darkly gray under the cloudy sky.

They arrive at a secluded area with a winding foot path heading down a steep incline down to the river. Katherine changes her formal footwear for a pair of sneakers she keeps in the pickup.

The beach is rough and gravelly. The water flows past with a steady drift. Gallagher stands at the edge and looks out to the small island in the middle of the river. A stone flies past him and plods into the water.

-Looks close, doesn't it? Katherine has picked up a few rocks and is throwing them one by one as far as she can.

-Yeah. How long does it take to swim there?

-Fifteen minutes? Twenty if you're out of shape.

-And if you can't swim?

-Then not at all, I imagine.

They stand in silence for a minute or two, allowing for the moment to pass along with the drift of the river.

-So, this is where you came with your grandfather, he says.

-She told you about him, did she then?

-A lot. She mentioned that this place was particularly important to her.

-Yeah, she'd come out here later on after he passed to read or simply to be alone.

-I can see why.

Gallagher walks closer to the water and stares at it for a moment. Without a word he strides up the bank a few yards, turns around and runs back down. At the river's edge he launches himself into the air and plunges head first into the gray, cold waters.

-What're you doing! yells Katherine laughing. But he can't hear her. He swims all the way across to the island. Out of breath, weighed down by his sopping wet suit, and still wearing his shoes, he reaches its shores and stands up and yells out to Katherine. She laughs and waves, but doesn't follow in his venture.

Gallagher spends a few minutes walking from one side of the island to the other. A few short strides is all that it takes. A big boulder peaks out of the soil. He sits down on it and stares upstream to where the river disappears behind a bend. Soon he begins to feel cold and reasons that he should swim back.

-I hope it was worth the pneumonia, says Katherine to him.

-Definitely.

-Come on, let's get you out of those wet rags. She starts walking up the beach to the footpath.

-Hey, Kath.

She stops and turns around. -Yes?

-Rebecca said you're a hairdresser.

-She wasn't lying.

-Could I bother you for a haircut?

She raises her right hand. -This might be a problem.

-I'm willing to risk it. She always told me, change your hair, change your life. I'd like it if you were the one to send me on my way to a new one.

She looks at him skeptically. -Alright, but I don't do it for free.

While she takes a while to get started, once the first lock of hair falls to the ground it is soon joined by others. They remain silent. She has to concentrate and he's not one for talking in these situations. He's also a recipient of a much needed shave. He's changed into t-shirt and jeans. While he's still lacking a proper coat, Katherine is lending him a hoodie she kept from an ex.

-There you go, she says. -Now I can kind of see what my sister meant when she said you were handsome, although we were never inclined to agree on anything one hundred percent. More like forty.

-Thanks, he runs his fingers through his hair, feeling the lightness bestowed on his head. -I let it all get away from me for a while.

-We all do.

She packs her things up. Someone passing by on the street knocks on the salon's door looking for a cut, thinking it's open. Katherine points to the CLOSED sign, but the woman keeps knocking and trying to open the door. Walking over to ward her off Katherine complains about the illiteracy problem the country faces.

-We're closed, she says to the woman and closes the door in her face before she could answer. -Some people, I swear. They are the rudest.

She slowly walks over to Gallagher and rests on the arm of one of the salon chair.

-Say, can I ask you something? She looks up at him for the first time with unguarded sadness.

-Sure, anything.

-Was she happy? I mean, not everyday could've been a good day, but was she at least satisfied with her decision?

He thinks for a moment before he answers her. -Yeah, I think so. She was rather restless, though. Boredom was what tortured her. She did her damnedest to avoid that. Honestly, I couldn't always keep up with her.

-This place certainly couldn't either. She sighs, -I'm glad she got out.

-Not just from here. I think she wanted to get out of her own way, and maybe here, just maybe, there was too much of herself to hold her back.

Katherine nods her head, -that's a good way of putting it. I wish that she came back for more visits, though. And, I don't blame you for that. She rarely visited even before she met you. I am jealous of you. Quite a bit, actually.

-Why? You kind of had more time to spend with her than I ever did.

-Growing up doesn't count. We fought. We didn't want to be around each other. Most of the time the only thing we agreed on was that we hated Dean more than we did each other. It wasn't until she was nearly on her way out that we started getting along. Funny how that works. We talked a lot after that. Emails, calls. We were closest when we lived the farthest apart. No, I'm jealous of you because you got to spend a lot of time with her when she became who she was. I got to see her form, but you knew her. I don't hold it against you. In fact, I'm kind of glad she's here. I can visit her now ever so often.

She stands up and goes to put the tray of scissors and combs away. Afterwards they leave and she locks up. They stop in the street. Night surrounds them and they try to see through the lights and the clouds for stars dotting the heavens.

-We spent today talking about everything she did here, says Katherine. -Before you go, could you tell me more about what she was like? The Rebecca you knew. I only got a glimpse during lunch.

-I can do that.

-Come on, I know a bar.

-One with trouble?

-Why not? she laughs. -You're not gonna drink so I'm only having you come along for your unbroken hand.


Submitted: January 05, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Alexander Byrne. All rights reserved.

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HJFURL

I loved your story, tremendous writing.

Tue, January 5th, 2021 8:59pm

Author
Reply

Thank you!

Tue, January 5th, 2021 1:14pm

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