Crossroads by Penny Freeman
Rob understood his brother’s love for the road, especially, as then, in the dead of night. Like himself, Nate had never been one for large crowds. On the road, one was utterly alone. The growling four-fifty-four V8 of Nate’s cherry 1977 El Camino Classic and the steel-belted radials humming on the blacktop lulled to silence all the demands that sucked the life out of Rob. They slipped away like the endless blur of the dotted, white line that streamed beyond the windshield. The highway soothed. Mesmerized. It held life at a safe distance where Rob could nibble off bits at a time, or ignore it altogether as the mood suited.
Except, there he was, returning with his brother’s ashes, hurtling at 75 mph toward the madness: the boss, the job, the mounting bills and overdrawn bank account. The labyrinth of life with no easy way out. Toward Annabelle—his own Nan—and that look of dread in her eyes: anguish that assaulted him and reticence that held him at arm’s length.
Rob jerked awake, jolted from a deep, dreamless slumber by something—the baby? He couldn’t remember. Nan had argued with him, and he put off going to bed until she slept to avoid a demand to hash it out. He turned in very late, and the fog of somnolence melded to his brain like his kids’ sticky hands to his skin. Scarcely lucid, he ignored his transient bob to the surface of consciousness, and surrendered again to the depths of sleep.
Her voice prevented it, however . . . a low murmur . . . hesitant . . . wary—scraps of sound distorted by the cobwebs of his sleep-deprived brain. He rolled over, pried open his eyes, and forced the numerals of the digital clock into focus. 04:00. Good grief. He had to be up in two hours. Couldn’t she cut him some slack?
He turned toward the wall and fended her off with the silence of feigned sleep. He was tired of bending over backward to make her happy, and for what? No matter how he tried, he couldn’t figure out what the devil she wanted.
He recoiled from her touch as she reached out to him. “Rob.” She spoke gently, a catch of tears in her voice. Blast. He couldn’t do this tonight. This morning. She could sleep all day if she wanted, but he had to go to work. He moaned incoherently and pulled the quilt up around his shoulders, blocking her out. The light on her nightstand shattered the darkness. He swore beneath his breath and dug in. Not tonight. He’d get his own way for once.
“Rob,” she insisted, jiggling him. “Baby. Wake up.” She prodded him in the back with something hard. Pushed beyond his patience, he hurled a glare over his shoulder at her. She flinched with the force of it but fought to appear unaffected. “Honey, you need to take this.” Was that pity in her eyes? Pity?
Rob looked from her face to the phone receiver in her outstretched hand and back to her face. He felt his stomach drop through the floor. Good news never called at 4 AM. She blinked back her welling tears, but she could not hide the fear and heartbreak. That look he knew only too well.
“This is Rob.”
“Mr. Daniels?” the tinny voice on the other end of the line broke in. “I’m sorry about the hour.”
Rob flung his legs over the side of the bed, turned on his lamp, pushed the mop of unruly hair back from his face, and hunched over the receiver. He knew Nan couldn’t help reaching out. It was who she was. He felt her drawn to him, then hesitate, repelled by the palpable shield of animosity pulsating around him. Blazes! He needed some space. He couldn’t breathe.
“Excuse me. Who is this?”
“The sheriff of La Plata County, Mr. Daniels—Durango. Durango, Colorado.”
“How can I help you, Sheriff . . . ?”
“—Gutierrez. Tim Gutierrez. The reason I’m calling you is . . . well . . . your wife tells me you have a brother by the name of Nathan Daniels?”
“The thing is, yours is the only phone number in the wallet we found.”
“What kind of help does Nate need, Sheriff? I’ll do anything I can.”
“That’s just it, Mr. Daniels. If what we found is your brother, he’s beyond anyone’s help now.”
Rob pulled off the highway onto an isolated ranch road, braked to a stop, and killed the engine. His Nikes crunched as they hit the gravel. The heavy slam of the car door cracked the silence. Out there in the middle of the desert, the Milky Way blazed across the inky dome of the night sky, the earth nothing but a lightless void. Out there, Rob understood the word ‘peace’.
Rob zipped and buttoned his fly, then returned from the sagebrush to the road. He stood by the car, unwilling to resume his journey. He wasn’t ready. He needed clarity. His cell phone vibrated in his pocket, triggering a reflexive response of annoyance.
“Calling it a day. . . . I love you. Y”
Why was it when she said that, it always sounded like a plea? Even in a text message, he could hear her tone. Aggravated at the intrusion, he tapped off the screen and pocketed the demonic device. It was too expensive to hurl out to the scorpions and rattlesnakes where it belonged.
Rob found himself on the hood of the El Camino, reclining on the windshield and staring up into the vastness of space. Nate taught him the constellations and so much more. Movies never came close to duplicating the might and majesty wheeling above him, but he understood their compulsion to try.
Nate filled his pad above the garage with the cool stuff Mom banned; a treasure trove for a ten-year-old. Fearing detection, Bobby pressed himself against the wall beside the door, hesitating before he sprinted down the steps and away from the fluttering white curtains of the kitchen windows. However, if he didn’t show up with the contraband he promised, he’d be branded a chicken and a liar. With one final glance toward the house, he shoved the stuff up his shirt, took a deep breath, slipped outside, and scurried down the stairs.
Nate always lit up behind the workshop—Gere too, that one time they made a rancid sweet sort of smoke from the tiny cigarette, when Gere was home from the Army. When they caught him watching, Nate snapped at Bobby to get lost, but Gere laughed and sent him to raid the pantry for munchies. Nate got angry. He said Bobby was the smart one. Gere quit laughing.
With a gush of relief, Bobby ducked around the workshop to where Todd was waiting for him. He never expected to find Jack there, but Jack was Jack. Like grabbing a can of beer just as if he’d been invited, then spraying the rotten-smelling foam all over them when he popped the top. That was Jack. Swigging a mouthful like he had Pabst Blue Ribbon over his Cheerios every morning—that was Jack. Choking on his own swagger was Jack, too.
Jack tapped the Marlboro on its end like they did on TV, put it in his lips, flicked the lighter, and took a long drag. He looked about to hurl, but Bobby knew the bully enjoyed watching them squirm. If Bobby or Todd chickened out, Jack would never let them live it down.
All of the sudden, a jet of water knocked the cigarette from Jack’s lips. He jumped to his feet yelling dirty words Bobby had never heard before. From his place sitting on the ground, Bobby forced himself to look up in small increments: first the scuffed leather boots, then the faded Levi’s, the choke chain clipped onto a belt loop and tucked into the back pocket that bulged with a wallet, to the garden hose in the grease-stained hands and the pressure nozzle shooting water past him. He looked beyond the frayed denim jacket and dirty work shirt, into Nate’s stern face. Those fierce eyes peered from beneath a thick hank of black hair and pretended to see nothing but Jack.
“Cut it out,” Jack hollered. “I’ll tell—” Bobby wished he could raise one eyebrow like Nate. It shut Jack up.
Silently, Nate turned off the spigot as Jack and Todd scampered out the back gate. He smashed the pack of sodden cigarettes in his fist and dumped both cans of beer out onto the ground before crushing them and tossing them into Old Lady Mitchell’s collection over the fence. He turned back toward the house and cuffed Bobby upside the head. “You’re the smart one, dimwit.”
Bobby thought how Nate’s eyes looked like Dad’s whenever Bobby disappointed him. Bobby scuffed at the dirt and Nate ruffled his hair. They walked through the garden to the house. Nate paused at the bottom of the garage stairs. “Hey, kid,” he shrugged. “Wanna jam on my guitar?”
“You’re sitting on my car.”
Rob eyed his dead brother who lounged next to him on the hood. Of course he showed. Where else would he be? “So sue me.”
“You’ll ruin the paint. You better treat her right.”
Rob shrugged. “I have to sell her, you know—to pay for that.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the urn of ashes nestled in the passenger’s seat.
“You should have thought of that before you up and died.”
Nate grunted. “I want you to have the Stratocaster.”
“That guitar and this car are the only things of value you own.”
“Muscle cars are a hot commodity. Keep the Fender.”
“Funerals are expensive. Cremation or not, the folks want you in the plot next to theirs.” Nate didn’t answer and Rob turned his back on the thought of his parents’ grief. Rather than start down that treacherous path, he let his mind seep out into the infinite.
Rob stared at the linoleum with its pattern worn bare in distinct pathways, the antiseptic steel tables and sinks, the hospital-green walls. Cold. Soulless. Rob examined everything—anything—to divert his eyes away from the black body bag in the morgue drawer pulled out from the wall, and the eight-by-ten glossies the sheriff had scattered on the steel table. Rob could only manage a single glimpse, but it was enough. He had known from the first it was Nate.
Rob scarcely heard as the coroner droned on about the results of the autopsy. Rather, he fingered the large, chained wallet Nate always used. His thumbs explored the worn leather as his mind wandered through fond memories until, scalded by the jagged feel of deep canine tooth marks, he dropped it back into the box of his brother’s belongings. “Did you get all of it?” he asked abruptly.
“That’s everything we found on his person, Mr. Daniels,” the coroner answered.
Rob wagged his head. “No. I mean, did you get all of him?” He didn’t want to think about the answer. “I would like to see where it happened,” he added before the man could respond.
“Murdock thought you might,” Sheriff Gutierrez answered; “—the rancher who found the truck. He has to drive out there today and will wait for you over at the diner ‘til ten.”
From beside him on the hood, Nate refused to allow Rob’s silent contemplation of the stars. “You still haven’t figured it out, have you?” Rob forced his attention back to Nate’s accusation. “Twenty months since that day, and you still haven’t got a clue. I thought you were the smart one.”
“Says the corpse.”
“And you’re not the walking dead?”
Rob had no reply. There were times when he yearned for oblivion. Nothing matched the blackness that crippled him after Annabelle broke their engagement, before he figured out what he wanted to do with his life (fat lot of good that did him), but the occasional bout still festered in his soul.
“Piss or get off the pot, Bobby. Quit doing this to her.”
Rob slid off the car and fled his brother’s censure. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you think she knows?” Nate accused. “You claim she doesn’t have to say a thing, but you hear her loud and clear. What makes you think she doesn’t understand you just as well? What do you think those nightmares are all about? The ones she disturbs your precious sleep with?” Rob wheeled on his brother, opened his mouth to repulse that acerbic tone, then clamped it shut and turned away. “Stop living with one foot out the door. If you’re going to leave, do you both a favor and get it over with.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Because she’s my wife! I love her. . . I need her.”
“To wash your shorts and put dinner on the table. To scratch an itch.”
Incensed, Rob pushed past Nate to return to the car. He plopped into the bucket seat and leaned his elbows on his knees, his Nikes still planted in the gravel. “We were in art,” he said at last. “She played some trick on me—you know. Girls. High school. We were laughing. She was close—in my space. At that moment, I saw her. I knew she would be the mother of my children.”
Nate chortled deep in his chest. “I bet you did.”
“It wasn’t like that . . . well, there was plenty of that. But, this was more. My soul knew—like a shaft of light shining down on her, I knew.”
“Mock all you like, but I knew. She was barely sixteen, and I knew.”
Nate amended his tone. “I understand, little brother. Maybe it’s the jealousy talking.”
“Scared me spitless.” Nate grunted in agreement. Rob scrubbed at his eyes and growled his frustration. “I can’t live without her,” he moaned between his hands, “but I’m suffocating. I need air.”
Nate crouched down and tussled his brother’s hair. “Hey. Knucklehead. Maybe if you pulled your head out of the sand, you’d breathe better.”
Rob knew where to find Nate: out behind the workshop, stealing a smoke, sitting in a folding chair. Nate glanced up when Rob shoved a steaming mug of mulled cider into his line of sight.
“Kind of crazy in there,” he observed dryly as he took the welcome warmth.
“Yeah. Sorry. I couldn’t stop it.”
“Why would you want to?”
Rob snorted and crouched down to his haunches beside his brother. “Just getting our family together for Thanksgiving is bad enough, but Nan’s, too? That’s totally insane.”
“It makes your wife happy.” Rob sighed. “She’s allowed once in a while, you know.”
Rob flicked at the dirt with a stick. “Yeah. Right.”
Rob felt Nate’s eyes on him. “What’s eating you?” Rob refused to answer. Nate stood and ground out his cigarette butt with his boot. “Nan seems kind of . . . down.”
Rob shrugged. “Pregnancy will do that. She’s close.”
“You have it all, Bobby,” Nate said softly after a moment. Rob snorted at the comment. “You do. You have what every guy really wants.”
“Easy for you to say.”
Nate kicked his brother’s shoe. “It is easy for me to say because it’s true. You have a home. You have a life. Why is it so hard for you to see?”
“I’m twenty-six years old, Nate—twenty-six and living with the folks because of this ‘career change’ forced on me, and I can’t both feed my family and pay the rent working the night shift at 7-11. And then she goes and gets pregnant. Again! I have no life. I never have. Who the devil gets married at nineteen?”
“Then why did you?”
“Because I had to!”
Nate’s single brow rose as he eyed his brother. “I never thought of Annabelle as that kind of girl.”
Rob jumped to his feet, provoked at the insinuation. “She’s not! I had to ask her. I had to get free.”
“You were free. She was seventeen and her mom called off the wedding. Why did you ask her again?”
Rob began to pace. “She wasn’t supposed to say yes.”
“Closure,” Nate accused, his voice dripping with contempt. “You wanted closure but meant to make Nan the bad guy. It backfired on you.” Rob huffed and pushed back his hair with both fists. Nate wouldn’t back off. “And here you are, shackled to a girl you don’t love and kids you don’t want, trapped by those pesky marriage vows and hating her for it.”
“I don’t see you running to the altar.”
“Because Sal refused, little brother. Twelve years we were together, ten living under the same roof—long enough to be common-law married. But she never loved me enough to make it official. Hell. She couldn’t even commit for that long according to several of my ‘friends’. I would have married her in a heartbeat when I was nineteen, but God saved me from my own stupidity.”
“That’s more than I can say.”
Nate huffed in exasperation. “That’s exactly what God did for you, knot-head. You’re just too busy feeling sorry for yourself to see it.”
Rob emerged from behind his hands sniffling and blinking. Nate handed him a Kleenex from a box in the back. “What a baby,” he taunted. “Blow your nose.” Rob sputtered a little laugh and complied. Then, squaring his shoulders, he drew his feet into the truck and shut the door. The revving engine splintered the stillness.
Nate again crouched down and leaned his arms on the sill of the open car window. “You’re the smart one, Bobby,” he counseled. “Figure it out. You know and I know that without Annabelle, you’d be me.”
Rob nodded his head, then pulled a knob on the dash. The headlights flared on, the instruments lit, and Nate receded with the darkness.
The hot desert sun battering his head and singeing the back of his neck, Rob stood on the dirt road, surrounded by sagebrush. He stared at the cigarette butts scattered on the ground around the tire tracks of a large vehicle, accentuated by boot prints pacing a path in the dirt.
Rob’s mind filled with images of a broken-down truck parked on an isolated ranch road, miles from the highway or anywhere else, Nate weak and dehydrated, pacing back and forth and burning smoke after smoke as he tried to figure out what to do.
Nate bottomed out six months before but went to live with Gere while he got back on his feet. If anyone understood Nate, Gere did. He was his twelve-step sponsor. Nate got clean. He got dry, free of the hard liquor that ultimately destroyed him. But it took him too long to get that way. Still smoking a pack a day, getting sober wasn’t enough to save him. Because of the rot-gut, no one knew he bled to death in this godforsaken desert, at the mercy of the buzzards, the coyotes, and the sun.
The coroner had it all worked out. Nate had probably been bleeding from his ulcer for weeks, if not months, before it burst into a severe hemorrhage and he vomited his life out on the driver’s seat of his El Camino and the ground outside the car door.
“He was a trucker.” Hopelessness and futility echoed through the emptiness of Rob’s soul and hollowed his voice. “He was headed to Chicago and a new job.”
Murdock nodded. “A lot of big rigs come through here,” he observed. “The 160 gets pretty busy at night. A man would have to get off the road a fair piece to escape the noise.”
“He just wanted some peace and quiet.”
The weathered, old rancher kicked at the blood-clotted dirt, unhappy evidence of one man’s last hours. “Your brother—he was a fighter, son. His battery was dead, he was sick as a dog, but he cleaned up the mess he made in his truck as best he could. He found something to put water in, then went looking for it. He didn’t quit. Not by a long shot.” Rob looked up and met the man’s gaze. “Come with me.”
Rob allowed Murdock to take him by the shoulder and steer him back the way they came. Together, they followed Nate’s distinctive boot prints a mile down the road, until they veered off into the desert toward an abandoned cabin a hundred yards out into the sage. “He must have seen that old place on the drive in and came looking for a well.”
They walked until they reached a barbed-wire fence that had stood between them and the shack. Sharp, new cuts in the rusty metal opened up a span between two weatherworn posts tipped helter-skelter in the loose sand.
The area had been trampled by human and animal, but the deep impressions of his brother’s fall remained in the dirt. Rob reached down to free a snag of denim from the barbed wire, then stared at the frayed, sun-bleached fabric and tried to make sense of the whole nightmare.
“He was all tangled, son. His boots—the wire—we found him laying just as he fell. There just wasn’t enough of him left to get up. Every time I think of it, I could kick myself. Had I looked into it the first day I saw the truck, maybe—”
Rob looked up, startled. The man pointed to caves halfway up the butte rising beyond the cabin. “When I saw that El Camino a week ago, I thought it belonged to folks hunting arrowheads. We get a lot of them—day-trippers, mostly.” He sighed and again pushed at his hat. “I only come out this way every three or four days or so. I didn’t call the sheriff until the other night when I saw it hadn’t moved.”
Rob nodded but stared at the scene so vivid in his head. “He was so alone.”
Murdock again grasped Rob by the shoulder. “Come on, son. I’ll buy you lunch. Rita at the diner makes a mean pecan pie.”
The breeze chased billowing clouds across the sky and rustled through the trees surrounding the splash pad. Rainbows shimmered with each gust of mist as the brilliant summer sun glimmered on the dancing jets of water. Children’s laughter glittered as brightly as the sunshine.
Rob watched Annabelle play with Charlie in the spray, smiling reassurance as he sputtered and gasped when droplets hit his face. Jake splashed in circles around her, and Luke chased some squealing little girl in and out of the fountains. Rob knew then and there that when he thought of joy, he would always recall that moment. Certainty came like the rays of light lancing through the clouds, gleaming through her dark hair and setting it afire.
“Without Annabelle, you’d be me.” Adrift. Apart. Alone.
So alone, no one knew he had gone.
The sound of her laughter banished Rob’s brooding. She had never appeared more beautiful than at that moment, loving his sons. He said a silent prayer of gratitude: for the future, for the past. For the rescue from his own stupidity.
Annabelle looked up, startled by Luke’s call. As she met Rob’s eye, her relaxed, easy manner stiffened into apprehension, muted beneath the compelling solicitousness that he at last recognized as unconditional love. Knowing himself the cause of the anguish in her eyes stabbed at his heart. It drove away the calm of his own countenance and replaced it with the tension of guilt and regret. Pushing past it, he smiled and walked toward her. Luke ran up and tugged his hand.
“Dad! Dad! Come and play!”
“Luke, Daddy’s tired,” she answered for him as she came. “He’s come a long way.”
Rob crouched down, doffed his shoes and socks, and cuffed his jeans. “Yeah,” he agreed, glancing up at his wife. “I’m hot and tired and have been driving all day. That splash pad is exactly what I need.”
He rose and took Charlie from her. She searched his face for signs of treacherous undercurrents beneath his calm façade. The fear that he had lost her trust struck deep. Words of hope and despair, desire and regret surged to the surface, but, she laid her hand upon his chest and met his gaze. Her looks bespoke such faith in him—in them, his tongue failed him.
Rob grazed his fingers down the tenderness of Annabelle’s inner arm as they sought, then, entwined her own. He raised them to his lips. Her eyes shimmered with tears of relief and hope.