Down the Country Road

by Cathy Bown

Uncle's old red pickup

There in the passenger seat of my uncle’s old red Ford pickup was where the truth finally hit me. As I gazed out the dirty window at the golden country around me, I could see tall oak trees bursting with autumn foliage just waiting to return to the earth. Old wooden stakes held a decrepit barbed wire fence loosely in place along the edge of the road, tucked just behind the towering oak trees. The warmth of a country sunset engulfed me, filling me with sadness and hope, fear, and anticipation. Behind me was a loss so profound my life would never be the same, the loss of my parents to a drunk driver on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

My uncle thought taking me in and moving me to his country home would help me find peace and emotional recovery. I did not hold out much hope. I believed it was just a delay for the inevitable. I had no reason to continue to live when everything that mattered was gone. Here in this peaceful and beautiful countryside, I would join my parents when I could. As I confirmed this in my mind, I felt the warm wet tears burn my eyes as they trickled down my face.

The truth is, when my parents died, I wanted to die with them. I shouldn’t have survived the accident, but I did, almost entirely uninjured. I’ve spent my life, all fifteen years, traveling remote and exotic places with my parents. They were traveling writers. Aside from a few very brief visits to my grandparents’ home, I don’t know much of my extended family. So, I was surprised when my Uncle Ryan offered to take me in. I’ve only met him once when our family came to a Christmas celebration when I was four years old. He has always sent pictures and cards for every holiday, though. His wife and three children were in his house, waiting to meet me for the first time.

Honestly, I am terrified of this new path. My whole world has been turned completely over, and I don’t think I can handle it. My mom was always my best friend, my playmate, and my teacher. My father was my protector, my hero, and my friend. Without them, my heart is empty. I am so alone and afraid. I have never felt so lost in my whole life. It feels as though I do not belong in this world without them, but instead, I belong where they are.

I do not know how long I can hang on. I once thought I was strong and independent. Now I can see that I was wrong. As I ride to my new future, I cannot stop the voice in my head from reminding me that this isn’t permanent, but only until I can find my way out. Of course, another voice, less insistent and quieter, is wondering what my cousins will be like. I have not spent much time with other children during my life. I am curious, I admit to myself, about what life could be like constantly living in the American countryside. Could I ever find a way to live without my parents, and would the pain ever go away?

When we arrive at the house, I am astounded. My uncle built this house, but I guess I expected something a little more modern. Instead, a beautiful log cabin is glowing against a forest setting. Piles of chopped wood form a natural fence along the back of the house, and various bikes and toys are scattered throughout the yard. It’s getting late; however, the house is lit up from the inside like a beacon in a storm. It reminds me so much of the cabin we lived in last winter that I can’t help but cry again. I can almost see my father bringing in wood for the fireplace and my mother baking through the window. It feels so real, and I fool myself into thinking I can smell cookies baking from the house. The smell is so comforting and inviting, I forget for a moment it isn’t real and rush to the house.

I stop short at the door, peeking in to see a woman I don’t know pulling a tray out of the oven. I drop my arms and sob while my uncle catches up with me. He wraps me in an enormous bear hug, whispering how sorry he is while I cry hysterically into his shoulder. I wonder if he smells like my father on purpose or just a sad coincidence. The question makes me cry new tears, and I can’t help but lose it all over again.

“Why…do…you…smell…like…my…dad?” I sniffle the question out as I sob between each word.

“Oh, sweetie,” He chuckles as he pulls me away just enough to see a smile cross his face. “I think you mean, why did your dad smell like me! I have been buying the two of us matching cologne since we were teenagers in college. It’s been a running Christmas joke forever.” His smile fades when he says this, and I watch a tear trickle from the corner of his eye. I guess he is going to miss my dad too. I hadn’t thought too much about how everyone else felt about it.  I throw myself into a bigger hug with him, crying and giggling.

After the tears have stopped and my uncle stops shaking with emotion, we finally go inside. The house is like a scene from a painting. Three adorable children are sitting on the couch watching tv, the woman is transferring cookies to a cooling rack, and a beautiful fireplace is directly in front of us. The house is so warm and inviting with candles burning and a fire in the fireplace. The kids appear to buzz with excitement; however, they patiently wait for permission to move. I can’t help but watch this little dance with extreme curiosity and wonder what they are waiting for.

Then I realize it’s me. They don’t know me. I am the stranger in their home tonight, red and puffy-faced from crying on their father’s shoulder. I look at their faces for a moment, seeing the curiosity and inquisition. I wonder if they will like me. I wonder if they will hate me. What if they don’t want me here? For a moment, I am buried so deeply in my own worry that I forget everything.

I come back to reality to find the oldest staring up at me. She is perhaps ten years old. She is holding the hands of the two younger children. I realize as I look at them that Uncle Ryan has moved into the kitchen. Funny, I didn’t even notice him move. I think I might be losing my grip on sanity.

“I’m Annabelle. This is Tyler; he is 6. And this is Maggie; she is 3.” She indicates each of the younger children as she introduces them. She has a cute southern accent and a soft feminine voice. I like her already. Tyler pulls on my pant leg, indicating I should lean in very close.

“Mommy said we have to be very quiet because you are very sad,” Tyler whispers to me. “When I am sad, I sleep with my teddy. I put teddy on your bed, so you won’t be sad anymore.” He looks so genuine and adorable that I can’t help but smile. Somehow, I already love this strange small creature more than I had imagined possible. I lean in and give him a big hug, whispering, thank you while I ruffle his hair.

This seems to break the tension in the room, and everyone loosens up. Maggie sneaks into the hug, crawling into the smallest space and wiggling her way between Tyler and me. I laugh, and so does Tyler. Annabelle reaches down to get her, but I wave her off and embrace the tiny creature. She is so small, and I have never been so close to such a warm and excited person before.

After that, I met my Aunt Alisson. She offers me cookies, then tells me she baked them, especially for me from a recipe my mother gave her when Annabelle was born. She said it was a trick to calming down anxious children around the holidays, baking cookies, and spending time together. When I think about this, I smile at the memories of mom and I baking every year, even when we didn’t have our own oven! My memories took me to three years ago when we were on some remote island during Christmas. I was so upset that our hut didn’t have an oven to bake cookies, but mom got a recipe from nearby locals for cookies that we could make without baking. She got her hands on some cookie scented candles that we burned while we made and ate no-bake cookies in 80-degree weather while singing Christmas carols! It is one of my favorite holiday memories now that I think about it.

The rest of the evening was a blur of stories, cookies, and hugs. When bedtime arrived, I was petrified that I would be sharing a bed with someone. I was anxious about how I would get away with someone next to me. I didn’t need to worry, though, since my aunt had a bedroom all ready for me. It turns out they moved Maggie into Annabelle’s room so that I could have my own bedroom. I felt bad for Maggie, but she seemed to be as happy as she could be sharing a room with her big sister. Even Annabelle seemed happy with the arrangement, saying she wanted me to be happy here.

These are the things I would take with me, I told myself a few hours later, when everyone else was sleeping. I was sitting on my bedroom floor with a journal and a bottle of sleeping pills I had been given to “get through this.” The pills were supposed to be taken once each night until I could sleep on my own again. I had intentionally forgotten to give my uncle the bottle or tell him about them because I already had them worked into my plan. I know the doctor was trying to be helpful at the hospital, and I am sure he never thought I would plan to take all of them at once. I felt terrible for a minute knowing that he was just trying to help a lost little girl, and the nurse didn’t mean to help this sinister plot by warning me not to take more than one at a time because of what could happen. Honestly, I didn’t know these things existed until they told me what the pills could do. I have never been one to take medicines unless I had to. My parents got me inoculated against the bad stuff, and occasionally I had taken pain medication. I had no idea until the nurse told me that if I took the entire bottle of pills, it would kill me. She said it wouldn’t even have to be the whole bottle. Possibly even half a bottle at once could end my life! I needed to be very careful.

I realized I didn’t have a drink, so I wandered into the kitchen, not worrying about bumping into things because there seemed to be nightlights everywhere. I guess small children get scared and lost quickly. I got a glass of water and another cookie and went back to my room. As I headed back to my spot, my eyes caught the teddy bear on my pillow. It was just a raggedy bear, obviously well-loved. I wondered how many nights Tyler had snuggled with him, how many nightmares the bear had chased away. I picked up the bear and went to my bag by the window. I hadn’t bothered to unpack, not really believing I would be here long. I dug around, spilling the contents everywhere but not finding what I am searching for. I turn the bag upside down and watch as a light brown teddy bear with a Santa hat falls onto the pile.

When I picked up the bear, I noticed a piece of paper underneath him, so I picked it up too. I took the bears, the paper, and my water to the spot I have chosen on the floor. I put the bears facing me, sitting together holding hands. They can keep each other from being sad when I am gone. I open the paper, and a picture falls into my lap. I look at it, and the tears cannot be stopped. This picture was taken with my father’s Polaroid camera days before the accident. Mom, dad, and I were helping a family rebuild their home after a landslide had taken everything from them. We were standing in front of the new hut, not nearly as big as their old house, but they loved it anyway, with the family and everyone is smiling. My parents documented the entire experience; it was to be in their next book.

I wonder what is left for me here? I have been wondering this for days, trying to put the pieces together for myself. I have been trying to find a place where I could belong. But looking at the picture, I realize I cannot do this alone. I need help to get through this. But I am beginning to believe I can see a path forming. And just like that, I realize it’s not the end. I know what I am going to do with the gift of life that I was given.

I snatch the bottle of pills from the floor and rush to my uncle’s room. They are not sleeping, as I had thought. Instead, they have photo albums spread out on their bed, and my uncle is crying. They both look up when I barge in, but they are not upset. Uncle Ryan sees the bottle in my hands, and he smiles a sad crooked smile. I instantly know that he already knew I had them. I think at that moment that he understood the whole time what I planned to do. I can see in his eyes he understands my pain more than I can ever know. I move to stand next to the bed and hand him the bottle.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about these. Living without mom and dad is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I honestly don’t know how I am going to do it. But, if you could help me, I know what I want to do to help get through this. They were writing a book when the accident happened. Can you help me finish it?”

Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Student