Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 5...
When had they last fought?
Of all the things to consume her as she sat on the front steps of the youth center, that was what occupied her mind. When had they last fought?
Beth wasn’t sure how long she’d been out there, her mind and emotions numbed to the point where she felt absolutely nothing. The sun hadn’t been up for long and was just now glancing over the top of the trees, warming her tear-soaked face. Her arms were still coated in Dad’s sick, now tacky and viscid. As the sun hit them they began to itch, drawing only a passing glance before she returned to zoning out across the lawn. There her gaze was captured by their shopping carts and was held. The carriages leaned against one another, slumped down in the rut that ran between the road and the stone wall. Beyond the pavement the wind soughed through the trees. The gentle patter of leaves was a chorus of sorrow and loneliness, reinforcing the reality that Beth’s entire world had just been reduced by half.
And all she could think about, of all the memories she was capable of conjuring, she could only sit there and stew over an event her mind could not place. Guilt, dark and withering, seeped through her as if Dad’s death was somehow her fault. When had she ever been anything more than a user, a freeloader… a dependent who hadn’t pulled her fair share of the weight?
Had she been irate with him over Ryan Windham, her would-be boyfriend in the weeks leading up to that last Christmas? Had she tossed Dad shade over having her phone time restricted? Had she thrown some irrational fit over not being granted an extra hour beyond curfew? All of these things were trivial now and felt like parts of a story, a work of fiction, un-tethered from the real world as it existed now. None of them mattered. Yet she couldn’t stop obsessing, struggling to the point where she was making herself sick to determine what, exactly, had been her final transgression against the most perfect man left in the world. The man who’d given up everything for her, and to whom she’d never once offered a worthy showing of gratitude.
When had they last fought?
- - -
Some time later, maybe an hour, perhaps longer, she hunched forward, opening her hands and studying the black valleys of dirt that now ran through them. Her Love- and Lifelines converged in a crossroads of filth. She considered her existence and what it had been reduced to now. This was a life she had never been meant to know. A life now so devoid of meaning that it was almost artificial. Was there even a point in going on?
She grunted to her feet, her malnourished and overused muscles screaming at her, but it felt good to move after sitting for so long. It was nice to discover something that felt good, regardless of how feebly it tried to etch away at her hopelessness.
Well, you can’t kill yourself, she thought as she began to pace the lawn, feet swishing through the grass. Like so many others before her, she had been doused with Catholic guilt for every possible contingency. Leave it to religion to make you feel bad for thoughts you had yet to act upon. If she had any hope of ever being with her parents again, it couldn’t come through the taking of her own life. That was a sure ticket to Hell, though the prospects of living alone in this New World we’re much more appealing.
Then followed the next logical question: after everything that had happened, how could there really be a God? Was the Earth just a terrarium maintained for the amusement of some ghost in the sky? Had God simply grown bored of humanity and doused the globe in bleach as a change of pace just to watch its inhabitants writhe in agony and die meaningless deaths?
Regardless, Beth wasn’t capable of suicide no matter how pointless her existence had become. So what would she do now? Stay in Claremont? Move into the Hannaford and eat Twix until she blew up like a diabetic balloon? This reminded her of the previous day, tossing candy bars to her father and stuffing her face as a thin spread of normalcy had returned to her. She smiled, thinking now that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Dad eat chocolate prior to that moment, but the imagery didn’t linger long before it was replaced with the visual of her father’s lifeless body still curled up on the floor of the auditorium, now draped with blankets and throws from the gathering room.
All at once she collapsed in the grass, sobbing uncontrollably.
- - -
Still later, Beth stood facing the steps leading up to the youth center entrance. The sun was now high in the sky. Her shadow pooled at her feet. The scents of renewal that filled the unbroken span of grass outside the youth center were pervasive and heavy. Lilacs too early to be in bloom. Leaves too early to have fanned. Mud too early to have thawed.
Beth swallowed hard, her throat dry as a desert from an obsessive pacing broken only by periods of crushing emotional collapse. To her left and right there were now choppy paths pressed into the grass. The white rubber soles of her shoes were stained green. There was water still inside, but she struggled to find the willpower to go back in there. The place was a tomb. Even the understanding that she would have to venture back inside to collect the bag of antibiotics couldn’t set her feet climbing those brochure-littered steps. Behind her, hidden behind the stone wall at the edge of the property were four cases of fresh water arranged on the lower rungs of the grocery carts, but she didn’t want to venture down there either. In her own way she was resentful of the water itself and for the placement of that stupid spring just off of the Hannaford parking lot. If Dad hadn’t tried that water, if they’d just bypassed it entirely…
Again she fell to the ground, washing her filthy hands with an bottomless reservoir of tears.
- - -
Her shadow stretched long and slender behind her as she returned from the carriage, no longer able to refuse her body the water it needed. She’d passed the hours fighting against the ever-pressing needs of her body, jumping from train after speeding train of thought. When she reached the steps, the sun glaring down at her from the peak of the youth center’s rampart-like roofline, she hesitated before sitting down upon the bottom stoop and arranging the bottles she’d clutched to her chest neatly beside her. The guilt that consumed her hadn’t waned in the slightest, and only grew worse as she paused with the last bottle in-hand and began to study its off-brand, minimalist label which arched over a snow-capped mountain somewhere far away from Claremont. How precious a thing this was. A bottle of water produced by a corporation concerned only with its own profitability, yet inadvertently playing the role of savior for a teenage ginger named Elizabeth.
Tears formed again in her eyes. A part of her wondered if they would ever fully dry.
Beth blinked lethargically, watching as the blurred world quickly reformed and the bottle before her once more took shape. In this moment she came close to laughing at how pitiful she must have looked sitting there, head slumped, studying something that had been so common place in her previous life that nobody spared a passing thought for how miraculous it actually was. She thought of God and His so called Master Plan, but this only led to more frustration and a deepening of her sorrow. If she was to believe that God had everything lined up like dominos ready to fall in a certain order, then she would also have to believe that it was part of His plan to take away both of her parents. It was best, she thought, to just avoid thoughts of God going forward… wherever forward happened to be.
With a long breath, she twisted the cap off of the bottle and tossed it into the grass. She drank greedily, sucking at the mouth of the bottle until only droplets remained. Without another thought she dropped the bottle, feeling it bounce off her foot, and grabbed another.
- - -
Clouds gathered above, swelling purple against the setting sun. Beth reasoned she still had a good couple of hours before it was dark again, but she knew she wasn’t going to make it back to the youth center before nightfall. Not that this was her plan. It had taken her most of the day to realize that even the most thoroughly fleshed out courses of action, especially those of an existential nature, almost always began with a first step. Be it a physical first step or a logical one, it was often the simplest of actions, and Beth found hers after reigning in her scattered thoughts with three bottles of water and half a box of Waffle Crisp.
She would bury her father.
There was a hardware store not far from the youth center, maybe half a mile away via a couple neighborhood side streets. It was the one Dad always insisted upon visiting even though the Home Depot wasn’t much farther from their home and the prices were mom-and-pop steep.
It’s the principle of it, Dad had reminded her as she sat beside him in the cab of his truck, running their Saturday morning errands. They may be pricier, but at least I know that my money is going into Chet Rooney’s bank account and not lining the pockets of some corporate fat cat.
Beth smiled at this speech, one that she had heard countless times, and like so many others it was something from her father that she’d kept without even realizing it. It was a part of him she would carry for the rest of her days, however long they may be.
As she walked through the corridors of maple and oak branches meeting overhead and passed between the quiet front yards of lonely Cape Cod and Victorian houses, she sifted through a number of her father’s often off-color and tragically misinformed monologues. Some made her laugh, others brought her to the verge of weeping, but she had apparently cried all the tears she had in her for that day. The only ones that remained were just enough to wet the edges of her vision.
Eventually, and she had no idea how long it had been since she was in no real hurry, she rounded a corner strung with unlit traffic lights and set her eyes on Rooney’s Hardware. It was an old building, one of the oldest in town as far as she knew, and it showed. The siding was cracked and hanging in places, the floorboards bowed upward at the edge of the farmer’s style porch (lined with winter shovels and a couple snowblowers of obscure brands she didn’t recognize), and the d in Hardware hung slanted, threatening to change the word to Harpware. Where usually a gaggle of the same good ole boys would sit shooting the breeze in camo folding chairs to the right of the porch, there was now just an empty space for which Beth felt certain pity. It was in this moment that she realized for the first time in her life what it meant for a location itself to be truly lonely. Like the larger situation with the town of Claremont, the lifeblood of this place, it’s people, had left it behind and rendered it an inert husk.
The floorboards of the porch creaked and gave just a little underfoot as Beth cautiously approached the front door. At first she reached for the gold-colored handle, worn a dull silver in places where it had frequently been pressed with flesh, but she stopped herself. These were Dad’s people. If anyone else had stayed behind and weathered the winter it would be Mr. Rooney. So instead of testing the door she decided to knock on the fogged glass that ran most of its length, still hung with a duct-taped sign that had survived the winter and read:
DEC 24TH AND 25TH
KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS
She smiled at this. These were definitely Dad’s people, though Dad hadn’t been inclined to keep the Christ in anything since Mom’s funeral. Again Beth reminded herself not to let her thoughts go to God. She curled her fingers and knocked as loudly as she could on the glass and stepped aside, fearing that she’d be met with a hail of gunfire.
She counted silently upward, miming Mississippi between each number as she had since first grade. When she reached 100, listening carefully for any sounds of voices or shuffling around inside but catching nothing, she stepped reluctantly back up to the glass and balled her hand into a fist. This time she pounded so loudly that the glass splintered against her hand, making her gasp out loud and sending her stumbling a few steps backward to where she nearly fell off the porch. Collecting herself, she sidestepped again and walked back up next to the door, repeating her counting and listening.
Still nothing. This was as good as she was going to get for confirmation. At least if she was gunned down as an intruder at this point she could die knowing that it wasn’t a fate she’d knowingly pursued. Turning to the snow shovels that lined the porch, she took one with a heavy metal bucket in-hand. She set her footing so that she wouldn’t lose her balance, brought the shovel around as far as her body would swivel, and swung it as hard as she could into the glass. It only took one try, much like the window at the youth center, though Beth overestimated how much force it would take to shatter and tottered forward a bit as the shovel flew out of her hands and thudded to the floor inside the doorway.
Once more Beth cringed away from a response that would not come, though she didn’t count to 100 this time, instead stepping cautiously up to the shattered window and peering inside the hardware store. Shadows fell in all shapes and patterns across the floor though the sun had already fallen behind the trees in the West. Rows of shelves spaced with lengths of pegboard held an eclectic assortment of wares that Beth imagined belonged together to someone with a handyman’s eye. To her it was merely an assortment of tools (most of which she had no idea how to use) and various parts and components (nearly all of which fit into machines and buildings she couldn’t visualize). There was no sign of movement, nothing had disturbed the immaculate condition Mr. Rooney had left his store in before setting off to wherever he and his family would celebrate Christmas. All that remained was the dusty smell of old floorboards and the earthy aroma of potting soil. Like the Hannaford, this hardware store had waited four long months for December 26th to arrive.
She reached through the broken window frame and unlocked the door. As she opened the door and stepped inside she was struck by that same irrational fear that had joined her in the darkness of the youth center. Perhaps it was the receding daylight that triggered some leftover, primordial instinct to run and hide from predators. Perhaps it was that old buildings like this were relics of a period she had no understanding of and struggled to grasp. Regardless, this would be her bunkhouse for the night.
The floorboards groaned beneath her feet as she walked in and past the checkout counter. The counter itself was an L-shaped lip that came off the wall as an arm would a human body. It was as old as the building as far as she could tell. Various colorful displays bordered the four foot space where purchases had once been arranged for tally. The majority of the displays were geared toward kids who had the misfortune of accompanying their parents to such a boring store. Beth found herself smiling as her gaze fell upon an assortment of wind-up toys that could have been pulled right out of the '50s. Blocky, transparent robots with colorful gears inside their plastic bodies stood in a row, their feet fitted into custom-molded plastic. She took hold of one, twisting the key that stuck out from the right side of its body before placing it at her feet and watching it march slowly across knots and dips in the pine floor. For a moment she was blissfully removed from the harshness of her own reality, but it didn’t last long as the crank wound down and the robot went still.
Turning her attention away from the counter, she shot a quick look across the tightly arranged aisles before starting forward and walking between rows of hoses and PVC piping of various lengths. She remembered from her many trips here with Dad that the heavy duty shovels – spades, she supposed they were called – the ones designed for breaking through the less than agreeable layers of the earth were arranged at the back. As she came to the end of the aisle, the stink of peat and mulch confirmed her memories were on the money. From the end of the aisle she took an instinctive right turn and set her eyes upon the gardening section, which was more of a gardening corner than anything. Tilling and weeding equipment hung from thick beams that opened upon an alcove set into the back of the store. Stacked to the ceiling and arranged in groups along the walls were heavy plastic bags of what Beth perceived to be various flavors of dirt. The only wall not occupied in this manner was the one to her immediate left. This one was hung with coils of green garden hose, pistol-like nozzles, planters and pots, and every size of rake and shovel imaginable.
Her apprehension at spending the night in this place fled for a moment as she was filled with a muted sense of accomplishment. Even so basic a task as marching a mile or two through deserted neighborhoods and breaking into a hardware store for a shovel felt like an award-worthy achievement. Even more so now that she was…
On her own.
The tears welled up again, and that biting sorrow returned to steal away what little joy she’d found. She was, after all, now staring at one of the shovels that would be used to dig her father’s grave. How great an accomplishment was that?
Every journey begins with that one first step, she thought, blinking a fresh line of tears down cheeks that had only just dried out. Her jaw trembled, and she drew in a stuttering breath. Someone had once said to her, or perhaps she’d heard it on TV or in a podcast, this too shall pass. The saying had remained with her, but the gravity of it hadn’t hit until that moment. Even then, she thought there was still a lot of space between where she stood in that hardware store and the place she would be when its meaning would truly hit home.
She’d found what she came for. After a long day of mourning and deep introspection, a part of her knew that she could at least attempt to rest. And so Beth made herself a bed out of bagged soil and prayed not to God, but to her mother, to help her find sleep.