Side Roads

by Lisa A. Koosis

“And Jesus wept!” she said, huffing out a breath. “Benjamin, you aren’t serious.”

Loose gravel crunched beneath the tires as Ben pulled the car to a stop beside the weather-worn sign. The sign looked hand-painted, like it had once been quite colorful before being sand-blasted, and faded by the desert’s merciless sunlight.

Layers of air over the road shimmered and rippled in the midday heat. Even the blast of the air conditioning couldn’t quite keep the heat at bay.

Beside him, Annie crossed her arms over her chest, her lips a thin line. Frown lines spider-webbed out from the corners of her mouth, something he hadn’t noticed before. Had they always been there, or were they a product of too many recent disappointments? He sighed. Was there just a time in every marriage when you just stopped looking at each other and really seeing?

“Ah, come on, Annie,” he said. “It’ll be a lark.”

“A lark?” She raised her eyebrows. “I just want to reach the hotel before dark, take a cool shower, and maybe have a glass of chardonnay. Bouncing down unpaved roads to find some woman charging tourists to see a coffee can filled with rocks? Not my idea of a lark, Benjamin.”

Ben shrugged. He felt deflated, like a plant too long in the sun. “I need a break, okay? My eyes are fried.”

“Fine. I’ll wait here.”

He approached the sorry-looking little building. The shack stood alone, dusty windows lining its paintless exterior. Even the roof seemed to sag.

What are you looking for here, he wondered.

An overhead bell jangled when he opened the front door. Behind a tall, splintery wooden desk, a girl looked up from a worn paperback and removed a wad of gum from her mouth. She wore a thin, slim-fitting red tank top, her long chestnut hair pulled back into a ponytail. Behind her, a fan oscillated, stirring the stale air and pulling strands of her hair from the tieback.

“Five dollars admission.” She offered him a small smile. “Souvenirs extra.”

He removed a five dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to her. Taking it, she wadded it into a metal box and emerged from behind the desk. Ragged denim shorts and flip-flops completed her outfit. Her legs were tan. Ben guessed she was fifteen. Maybe sixteen–tops.

Well, at least it was an interesting summer job, he thought. Better than bagging groceries and collecting stray shopping carts as he’d done at her age. At least she got to sit and read a book between customers.

She gestured toward the center of the room where a square wooden table stood. Walking over, he pulled out a chair and sat down to wait. The girl disappeared into a door in the back. He heard drawers slamming. Then she surprised him by reemerging and taking a seat across from him.

“You?” he asked.

She grinned. “Were you expecting a circus freak?”

“No. I…”

“Someone older? A wrinkled old woman dressed in black lace maybe?” She nodded. “Yeah, I get that a lot. But you know, even the older freaks were young once. So, do you want to see or not?”

Ben nodded, aware for the first time of her red-rimmed eyes and the threadbare cotton handkerchief clutched in her slender fingers. She looked somehow older, too, not by a few years but by lifetimes.

Her face softened into sorrow, her full lips parted slightly. Flecks of gold brightened the green of her irises. Though she gazed out the window, Ben felt naked, less the voyeur and more the subject. He shifted in the chair and cringed when old wood groaned.

She turned then to him, eyes shining. Her face scrunched up for just a second, pain evident in the creases around her brows. Then, like dew on leaves, two crystals slid from her eyes, catching on her lashes. Pale hairs on his arms prickled and stood up. He marveled that she didn’t get cut.

Her tears hovered there like a promise, or like sorrow frozen, and he found himself holding his breath. Then she blinked and the tears fell. She caught both in the handkerchief.

The girl laid the square of fabric open between them, the two teardrops glittering in its center.

“It can’t…” He stared at the crystal tears. “Wow.”

“It’s not a parlor trick, Mister.” Sorrow vanished from her countenance and she laughed. “I promise you that.”

“But how do you…” He shook his head.

“Who knows.” She shrugged. “I’ve had MRIs, CAT scans, blood work. You name it; they did it.”

He frowned, turning his hands palms-up on the table. “That’s not what I meant. I meant, well, how… Why do you…?”

He shook his head and she reached out and touched one of his hands. Her eyes met his.

“Cry? Because of people like you who take the side roads looking for magic.” She pulled her eyes away from his, looking past him, and he followed her gaze out toward the car where Annie sat, likely still fuming. “Because of people like her who don’t believe in magic, who don’t even want to look. Because somehow I can purge each individual sadness and seal it inside something beautiful.”

She lifted a single tear between two fingers and placed it in his palm. “If you look hard enough, you’ll see the object of sadness in its center.”

He reached to put it back. He couldn’t look. But she held up a hand to stop him.

“Take it. Please. Normally I sell these, you know? Two bucks a pop.”

Squeezing it, Ben stood.

“You’re wise beyond your years,” he said. “Thank you.”

Wistfulness softened her face. “Life is hard, Mister. I know.”

He wondered suddenly if sometimes, she cried all alone. He wondered what she saw at the center of those tears cried for herself. His throat felt tight and dry.

Ben hesitated, a question tingling on his lips. Then he nodded. Slipping the crystal into his shirt pocket, he waved goodbye, setting a twenty dollar bill onto the front counter on his way out.

“I hope you found what you were looking for,” she said, and then the door closed behind him.

Opening the car door, the blast of air conditioning chilled him. He shivered and got inside. Annie cast him a single glance as if to say, “Satisfied?” and then continued staring out the window.

He reached into his pocket to take the tear out and show it to her, to tell her that it was real, that there really was magic on the side roads. But he paused with his fingers on the crystal as the engine idled and the air conditioning hummed, and he couldn’t do it.

She wouldn’t believe, he thought. So what’s the point?

Neither of them spoke. He put the car into gear, and crunched back over the gravel onto the dusty road. It was time to return to the highway. They’d still hit the hotel before dark.

“Well,” Annie said as miles slipped past. Her voice had softened as it always did eventually. “Was it everything you expected?”

He shook his head. Maybe she wouldn’t believe.

Or maybe I want to protect her from the sorrow frozen at its heart, he thought.

“You were right.” He touched his pocket. “Just a girl with a can of rocks.”

He reached over and squeezed her hand. Against his chest, the teardrop felt like hope.

9 Responses to “Side Roads”

  1. Jim Quiggle says:

    I’ve been a long-time fan of this writer, and this story is an incredible display of her style. Mysterious. Charged with authentic emotion. unpredictable. Powerful.

    Good stuff.

  2. Mark says:

    Very good – my favourite of this issue.

  3. Ken says:

    Awesome story. Imaginative and expertly written. It actually gave me goosebumps!

  4. Milo says:

    Beautifully done

  5. Kim M. says:

    Love this, Lisa!

  6. D. Du Bois says:

    Moving. Thank you.

  7. P. Scofield says:

    This story pulled me in and delivered its magic . . thank you. A modern fable with a mix of real-life details, brief but deep characterization and haunting questions for the reader to answer.
    So economical – and true to long term relationships. Bravo . . .

  8. Melodie says:

    Beautiful story, elegant and understated.

  9. Don Bagley says:

    I really liked it. Just the right length and sensitive.

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