He wanted to put on In an Aeroplane Over the Sea, but he felt guilty about doing it. He knew it made no sense to still feel that way, now, but he did.
“Music?” he asked his stepdaughter. In his mind he’d said it brightly, casually.
She had her legs folded beneath her, arms crossed over her stomach. She was wearing a hoodie and fiddling with a Rubix cube without even looking at it, instead staring out the window at the foggy woods. She didn’t respond, and she wasn’t going to. He left the stereo off.
Ray would have liked to have music on (if not Neutral Milk Hotel then The Pixies or Animal Collective) all the time in the house, in the car, but his wife said that kind of music put her on edge, so he didn’t listen to much. He had an old record player in the basement and he would sometimes listen to music in the workshop and that hadn’t bothered her, because you couldn’t hear it upstairs.
“I don’t see why we’re doing this,” the stepdaughter, Lauren, said.
Ray adjusted his fingers on the wheel. “Good to get out of the house.”
“It’s a two hour drive.”
“Takes a little time to get somewhere, if it’s somewhere worth going.” This was something his father had said, and he thought it sounded fatherly, so it was something he liked to say now too. The somewhere worth going was a cabin, his brother’s, that after the funeral he’d offered for their use whenever. Anytime, he’d said. Seriously, anytime. Ray told Lauren about the elk Eric sometimes said he saw from the deck thinking, somehow, that this would interest her.
“We have deer at home,” she said flatly.
“Well, these are elk. They’re different, they…”
“Seriously. Elk are a lot bigger. Like a moose, almost. Maybe, I don’t know. Probably smaller than a moose. And their antlers are kind of—” he tried to indicate their shape with his hands, but he couldn’t. She wasn’t watching anyway. “You’ll see,” he said.
“Well, yeah. Or not. They’re just out in the wild up here. But it’s cool. They were all but extinct here and now there’s too many of them.”
“Fine, okay. Holy shit.”
“Hey, watch your…you know,” he started to say, not because he cared, but because it seemed like something that was his responsibility to say now.
Lauren turned back to the window.
“You know, Ann would have—”
“Ray, I really, really do not want to talk about Mom right now.”
Ray nodded. But he did want to talk about her. Lately, he found he wanted to talk about her all the time. “Okay,” he said.
He watched the road. In the space of maybe five minutes, only one car came the opposite way.
“Hey, do you want to drive? Get some practice?”
It was so quiet out here, so foggy. Yet another thing, it felt like, that once you were in, you could never really get out of.
As he drove his arms felt very weak.
Ann had been his waitress, that was how they met. She’d been wearing black pants and a pink tie. As he ate his steak and read his paperback he didn’t think much of it, but when she brought him the check her phone number was in it, and then on the way home he couldn’t move past it. A woman in a tie.
She and her kid rented a decent place on Washington and he moved in with them pretty quickly, figuring it wouldn’t be a big deal. The kid was Ann’s kid and Ann would be the one to raise her. You fall in love with a woman who has a kid, that’s how it goes.
She had bad spells. Dark periods he didn’t really know how to navigate. He’d come home from work and she’d be asleep in front of the TV. Lauren would be in her room, or out. Ray would drink a glass of water at the sink and do a few of the dishes and then cover Ann up with a blanket and kiss her on the check. His beard bothered her and sometimes she’d wake up enough to make a face, but he did it every night anyway. It was important to him.
There were not many houses out here, and the few they saw were back in the trees, covered up. It was nice. You could get alone out here, find some quiet.
“They reintroduced elk here when I was a kid,” Ray told her. “Brought them in from Montana. They used to be all over on the east coast but the settlers hunted them down to nothing, so they brought them in from Montana for breeding. My dad came up a few times then, to see. Just by himself.”
Lauren raised her eyebrows sarcastically. She took the Rubix cube from her sweatshirt pocket and fiddled with it. She was a whiz with those things, even now, after only a minute or two, he could see the squares were already close to aligned. When she was done she wouldn’t even stop to admire it, instead pausing only long enough to flip the cube around to check each side before she’d scramble it and start over.
He shook his head, made a tsk sound like he was going to laugh. “I have no idea how you…where’d you learn to do that?”
She shrugged, flipped the panels around a few more times and then put it away, unsolved.
“Are you and Lexy getting together this week?”
“Yeah, I don’t really talk to her anymore.”
“I don’t want to get into it.”
“When did that happen?”
“Like, last year. Look…let’s just get Deer World over with.”
Maybe it was an adolescent thing. Or a stepchild thing. There was no way of telling—he only had the one, and whenever they’d been around each other it had been with Ann as a buffer. But now—he tried to remember times it had been just the two of them, and he couldn’t.
“I’ve been thinking, maybe we should start going to church,” he said. “Ann—”
“I don’t want to go to church.”
There was nothing to say. He should have been talking with Lauren years ago, but he didn’t. Maybe it was too late for that now. It was too late for a lot of things. He should have gotten Ann help. He should have gotten himself help, more of it, and earlier. He shouldn’t have told her. He should have told her sooner.
He’d been sober when they met, but after a little while he started drinking secretly, in the kitchen, or after she was asleep. She was drifting away from him, from both of them, and he worried that a freight train was coming to take her place. He needed something. The whole time he didn’t play his music, as if that were what she really wanted. Then he started going back to the heavier stuff, and decided to get help. He told Ann about it, but she only shrugged. She said it didn’t matter anyway.
Thinking to himself that, alone among everything else, it felt good to not be afraid anymore, he was nauseous with guilt. He was glad they weren’t playing music.
They came into a town with no stoplights and he pulled them into a diner with two cars and a motorcycle in the lot. Ray and Lauren took a booth by the window. There were laminated menus wedged in the condiment caddy.
“Sausage and eggs,” Ray ordered. “Over easy. And a coffee.”
“You dear?” the waitress said to Lauren
“Two pieces of toast. And juice, please.”
“Any kind. I’ll have coffee too.”
They handed the waitress their menus and she reached across them both and returned them to their clip on the rack. A minute later she came back with the coffee and their mugs and left the pot on the table.
“I didn’t know you drank coffee,” Ray said.
Lauren lifted her eyebrows and took a small sip. Ray reached for the creamers.
“You have Mr…who’s your science teacher?”
“And that’s biology, right?”
“I have Honors Biology.”
“Oh, okay. Right. And how is that going?”
“It’s going awesome.”
Ray looked to see if the waitress was coming with their food. Lauren was just staring into her cup.
She touched her sleeve to her eyes and shook her head. He said her name again. She pressed her lips together and glared out the window, where the fog had still not begun to lift. The waitress came with their food and didn’t say anything.
“This is the first time we’ve gone out to eat together, just us. Did you know that?” Lauren asked.
“I didn’t…I don’t know.”
“In like five years.” She forced a sound that was supposed to be but was clearly not a laugh. She shook her head. “I wanted you to say something.”
“What do you mean?”
Neither of them had touched their food but when the waitress came back and asked how everything was Ray said it was great.
“I called you after I…when I found her. You hung up on me. I wanted you to say something and you hung up.”
“I had to call the ambulance.”
That wasn’t strictly true though, was it? By the time he got home the ambulance was still there, and when they left with Ann they drove the speed limit, lights off.
Lauren took a piece of her toast and pushed jelly over it with the back of her spoon. A kind of frustrated clumsiness in her hands. She licked her spoon and ate. Ray, hesitantly, did the same. Neither of them spoke. The waitress came back and he asked for more coffee.
They walked out to the parking lot. It was mid-morning now but still the fog hung thick around them. Ray was standing at the driver’s door waiting for Lauren but then he changed his mind and climbed in the passenger’s side instead.
“You drive,” he said.
Lauren just looked at him for a moment, but then she got in. She checked the mirrors and scooched the seat forward and pulled them onto 289. She chewed her lower lip as she drove. There was still another hour to the cabin.
Once the three of them had gone to pick apples up this way. Over in Canton. He doubted Lauren remembered—it wasn’t anything special, but Anna had climbed on his back as they were leaving, and it was a memory that felt light.
Ray coughed into his hand. He nodded at the diner behind them. “We should do that more,” he said quietly. “I wish we had. It was nice.”
Lauren glanced at him, then returned her attention to the road. After a while she nodded. “Okay,” she whispered.
Lauren was the one to turn Aeroplane on. The opening chords chunked awkwardly. Two steps forward, one step back, it sounded like. The car shushed around the curves, headlights blunt in the fog. Ray was slumped in his seat, watching Lauren as she drove. She didn’t really look like Ann. Not that he could see anyway. But maybe.
“What?” she asked.
Here they were—they were listening to music and it felt, not good exactly, but his arms didn’t feel as heavy as they had, which was something. He was still watching her, thinking maybe this could be a start, even now, when her breath caught, and she swerved onto the wrong shoulder, slamming them to a stop.
But she just shushed him. Her hand snapped up and turned the song off.
Up ahead, in the road, was a shadow, just stepping out from between the trees into the road. Ray touched the dash. The antlers were so large they seemed impossible.
“Holy shit,” Lauren whispered, as it emerged, step by step, from the mist.
Tyler James Russell is a writer and educator from Central Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife Cat and their children. His first poetry chapbook, To Drown a Man, is due August 4th from Unsolicited Press. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of British Columbia, his other work has appeared in Apiary and Riddle Fence, among others, and was a nominee for the 2011 Rhysling Award. You can find him at Tylerjamesrussell.com.
© 2020, Tyler James Russell