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Into the Dark
Author's note: I like music A LOT. When I listen to songs, I mainly enjoy listening to their lyrics, trying to figure out the story behind the music. Recently, the songs I have been listening to have inspired me to write a story about them, explaining my own interpretation of the lyrics. Also, I had to write a creative writing piece for class. But as I wrote more and more about Bixby and Cath, I began to fall in love with characters and get really into my story. If you have actually managed to read this inspiration part, I just want to let you know that I wrote this to Death Cab for Cutie songs. Please listen to their music while you read this story! Not necessary, but it adds to the plot.
The streets are swarming with people and the smell of sewage. Rancid smoke fills the streets, all the way up to the second floor of the nearby buildings. The air is foggy, so no one is quite sure where anyone else is. People grasp at each other’s clothing, trying to pull their beloved friends and family nearer to them, but the lack of sight makes this endeavor near impossible. They cry out names, thousands of names, which all evaporate in the mist like drops of water. The overwhelming music helps to drown out the names as the instruments pour their sounds over the city like hot coffee on a bacteria-filled floor. However, one name can be heard above them all, and it’s repeated constantly, outdoing all the other voices. The people attempt to escape the noises, the music, the name, abandoning their beloved friends and family for a hint of sanity and safety. Yet, this is pointless, for the sounds of soft electric guitar and a throbbing drum are everywhere and cannot be escaped.
Suddenly the people and the music stop as the large clock chimes. All faces turn to the large one hovering above them. They all grab onto a nearby hand, not caring whose fingers were threaded through their own. A recording continues spouting out the name not many recognize but immediately feel a connection too. And if one looks deep into the crowd, in the very densest part, one will be able to see a couple. Their lips are pressed together, waiting for the end together, holding onto each other until the very last moment. The others are too preoccupied with the clock, counting down to the final minute of humanity. The recording moans on, the smoke retreats from the people’s vision, and the acidic smell intensifies. Boom, boom, boom. The little hand on the giant clock shakes as it meets its larger counterpart, pointing North, and all the people join in a single gasp. The recording moans, “Cath…”
The people wait, but it is irrelevant. Nothing happens, which some realize is exactly what they expected. Others are thankful for another chance at life, though deep in their hearts they know their habits are not going to change. All of these different beings disperse, enjoying the fact they survived but are not surprised by it. The world did not explode, the end did not come, and life demanded they all move on. As people walk away to their various homes to put their various families to sleep, the young twenty-something remains in the middle of the square, facing the girl with dark blonde hair. The recording of the girl’s name has stopped, the smell of drugs has faded, and the city is silent for the first time in twenty-four hours. The girl smiles grimly at the boy, shrugging. “So what now, Bixby?” Her voice picks at the back of his mind. He stares at her arms that are covered by his corduroy jacket. She pops her mint gum. “Jason, focus. What now?” He doesn’t respond, his eyes drooping with disappointment. He puts his hand on Cath’s cheek, and she leans into him.
“You don’t have to go back, Cath,” he sighs, brushing her dark blonde hair out of her face. He can feel her strength drain, and she falls deeper into his arms. He steps back, still holding the skeletal figure, and stares at the pale eyes watching him with remorse. He strokes her smooth, branching fingers. “I love you,” he whispers. The little color that she gained from that day fades. She looks almost transparent now. Today has been too much for her.
She holds his hand tighter, and kisses him so softly he barely feels it. The taste of mint lingers in his mouth. She begins to quietly sob. His stomach twists as he wipes the tears running down her fragile face with one of his thick fingers that contrast so much with hers. “You can’t kill yourself,” she murmurs through her sobs. He takes in a deep breath, trying to absorb every bit of her that he can.
“I promised you I would. I want to.” She shakes her head, her large eyes that didn’t seem to fit in her sharp face fill with regret. “I can’t live without you, butterfly.”
She cries out, her sobs cracking. She tries to step back, but can’t seem to move on her own anymore. “Promise me you won’t, Bix.” He nods, and with his agreement she falls heavily to the ground. He holds her, but he doesn’t follow her into the dark.
Chris Barsuk paces through the off white room, rubbing his jeans. He wonders how many hours it took for the doctors to choose that awful eggshell color over a normal snow white. He crinkles his nose at the smell, a mixture of piss and pool water. He presses his fingers together, stretching them outward and lifting his arms above his head. He rubs his hands up his face and into his blonde hair, leaving a trail of sweat.
Another scream vibrates through the room, bouncing off the walls straight into Chris’s large ears. He clutches his hands, bites his lips, and pushes his way through the cold, metal doors. He ponders why the doctors would spend so much time on the hideous walls and not provide wooden doors. He stalls momentarily in the hallway. Shouting emanates from each of the rooms barely hidden by the curtains covering the glass doors. Again, he questions the doctors’ choices. After a moment of pondering, he curses himself; he has forgotten what room she is in.
A doctor emerges from one of the glass doors, immediately spotting him. “Who are you looking for, son?”
“Is she in this ward?” Chris’s face visibly flushes. He wraps his arms around his chest and breathes out deeply, expelling the chlorine from his lungs. The doctor nods his head and smiles reassuringly. Chris can see the wrinkles lining his eyes. He can’t see the rest of the doctor’s face, for a lilac purple mask covers it. The doctor motions with his hand and walks down the hall. At each door he pulls away the curtain and looks inside. Chris thinks how if the doctors wanted to hide their patients, they should not have bought glass doors.
Finally, the doctor pauses at one—the only room lacking a supportive man. “I’m guessing this is your…wife?”
“Girlfriend.” As soon as the word leaves his mouth, the doctor’s eyes grow softer. Chris lets out an involuntary sigh, which the doctor interprets as recognition that he made a mistake. Chris almost hits the doctor for such ignorance, but refrains, for the doctor is kind.
“Don’t worry, son, everything will work out. Have you considered other options?”
“The doctor’s face flushes and his lips press together. Saying nothing, he walks around the furious young man and back to his patient. “Wait, I’m sorry.” The doctor pauses. “It was a mistake. But I haven’t regretted it for a moment.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” A silence falls between them. “Well,” the doctor’s voice falters, “Good luck.” He walks down the hallway and disappears behind a glass door. Chris’s heart is banging, his lips taste like blood, and his palms are sweating profusely. He sucks in some air, and pushes open the glass door labeled, “Gibbard, A.”
“Chris!” A melodic voice calls to him, a sound that has always twisted his stomach up and made his nose fill up with peaches. He almost runs to the bed where his girlfriend is laying, tripping over several wires. She laughs and reaches for him. He presses her hand to his chest and kisses her forehead multiple times. Every kiss intensifies until she giggles and tells him to back the hell off. He pets her dark hair, and she announces that she is, in fact, not a dog. “Don’t you want to know his gender?”
“Think about it, stupid.”
“What?” He asks as realization seeps into his dark eyes. “His? We have a boy?” He squeals, his voice raising an octave. She traces the lines on his hands.
“You’re so young,” she whispers. He shrugs, his smile dominating his face. She touches his crooked teeth with her finger. “You can leave if you want to.”
“Never. I’ll leave when you agree to marry me,” he declares and laughs heartily. “Now where is our son?”
“They’re just checking him over. What do you want his name to be?” They stare into each other’s eyes. “Can we…?”
“Of course.” He lightly brushes his lips across her forehead.
She smiles. “Jason,” she murmurs. “Jason Gibbard Barsuk.” She reaches up and kisses Chris lightly, and for a moment, and many moments after, they are both happy.
Laughing, Bob and Becca Hale kiss harshly outside of the restaurant. He squeezes her butt, she giggles loudly, and they clasp each other’s hands. Their breath bellows out in puffs from their wrinkled mouths, and Bob strokes Becca’s stark white hair. She places her hand on Bob’s wrinkled cheek, and kisses the other one. Half of his face is nonresponsive from a stroke he had when he was seventy-five, so she makes sure to peck the one that can feel. They suck in their mutual smell of old spices and laundry, missing momentarily their sense of taste. Bob wraps his arms around his wife of sixty years, and they depart from the parking lot.
Inside the restaurant, a young man is watching the older couple show this magnificent affection, then faces his own wife of a year. They are not speaking or touching. She threads a piece of string that came off her costume through her fingers, in such deep concentration he almost feels guilty for interrupting. Then, he doesn’t feel bad anymore. “I can’t believe you.” He declares quietly. She remains silent. She scrapes her finger on the table, trying desperately to remove a splash of petrified tomato sauce. “How long?”
“A while,” she says, her voice meek. He leans over the table and puts his hand on both of hers, trying to stop the incessant movement. She refuses to stop, continuing under his hands. He cries in exasperation and slaps her fingers. She moans and leans into her seat, tilting her chin up so he can’t see her eyes. The smell of fresh banana pancakes wafts from the kitchen. “Can I have some of those?” She whispers to the ceiling. The waitress looks worriedly at them. His hands are covering his face. The waitress returns, places the banana pancakes in front of Cath, and scurries back into the kitchen. She bends back over and shovels pancakes into her gaping mouth. She looks up and hits his arm. Startled, he glances up, his cheeks wet. “Stop being such a buzz kill.” She winces, immediately regretting it.
“Are you f*ing kidding me?” he shouts, his voice shaking. He won’t even wipe his eyes, which she knows should cause her pain, but it doesn’t. She shrugs, continuing to eat. He stands up, rubbing his face with his jacket, and goes up to the bar. He orders a bacon vanilla milkshake. When the waitress brings it back to him, he takes a long sip, enjoying the complicated explosion of sweet ice cream and salty bacon. He wraps his hand around the glass and carries it back to the table. His palm is damp and cold by the time he sits down, and he rubs the frozen hand on his red pants. “You should try this, Cath.”
“I don’t really want to,” she says after a moment, pushing her syrupy plate away from her. Her face looks pale and skeletal, like she is truly just bone. Jason shrugs and bends down to take another sip. He weaves his fingers through his hair and supports his head, drinking in the sweet, salty combination in a single sip. Cath stares at the ring glowing on her finger, twisting it around and pausing whenever the gleaming little triangle of obsidian would come around. “You think we could have been like them?” she inquires, still watching her ring turn and turn and turn. He lifts his head from his drink, his brow crinkled.
“That old couple you were staring at.”
“You noticed that?”
“I notice everything you do.”
He pauses at that, and then groans. He stands up, throws a twenty on the table, and trudges out of the restaurant. They walk back to their apartment building in silence, the cold freezing their noses.
She feels Bixby’s hand on her back, but somehow receives no warmth from it. She is stiff, not giving but also not taking. Not anymore. Bixby moves his hand to her neck, steering her into the creaking elevator. Her skin does not even react to his cold fingers. “This elevator smells like s***,” she murmurs. Bixby does not say a word as he presses their floor number: 24. “Or maybe roses.”
After a moment, he says, “Those are a little different.”
“Not much,” Cath retorts, popping a mint into her thins, red lips. The chill spreads through her mouth and electrifies her tongue. Now, every part of her body is cold. “Can I have your jacket?”
“We’re almost in our apartment.” After she doesn’t respond, Bixby pulls off the navy blue sweatshirt and passes it to her. She holds it in her hands, staring at it. He puts his arm around her shoulders, and she feels him shiver against her much colder body.
“You can have it back.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Well, I don’t either.”
“What do you want?”
She doesn’t know how to answer.
The elevator door squeals out a sound like gears churning, and the doors slowly creak open. “This building is broken,” she states as she walks out.
“So are we,” Bixby murmurs. Cath freezes, her back to him. He does not get out of the elevator. She moves like a glacier, turning her frail body back to him. Tears are filling up in her eyes, threatening to spill over down her cheeks. The elevator doors begin to shut, but she puts her hand out and stops them. Her fragile fingers can barely hold back the much stronger metal doors. “We’re leaving tomorrow.”
Her hand falls feebly to her side. “You don’t call me butterfly anymore,” she whispers. “Why?” He shrugs, quickly wiping his face. But he knew why. He steps out of the elevator slowly. It closes firmly behind them. He breathes through his nose, which makes Cath think of that bull they saw in Spain for their honeymoon. She hated the bulls, and hates him for leaving her. He walks past her, towards their door. She holds his jacket, and brings it to her face. She screams into it, absorbing the smell of bacon, s***, and roses.
Knuckles pierce his face, breaking his cheekbone into bloody pieces. The pain is outstanding, almost healing, though he realizes that the man beating the crap out of him would be insulted if Bixby said this out loud. He tastes, smells, and is the iron of blood as he pushes his palms outward into the man’s chest. He can hear laughs and people talking near him, and a single voice out of the many cheering him on, the one that sounds like bells. He swings his shoulder outward, hitting the man’s stomach and taking his breath away. Bixby feels something wet hit his neck and slide down his back at the same time he feels his wrist break. He cries out, the pain suddenly no longer a friend, and shouts, “I’m done!” The man stands up and drags Bixby up next to him, putting his arm around his shoulder and shaking him. Bixby’s hand wiggles uselessly next to him body.
“Good fight?” Cath asks when the man releases Bixby to her, and Bixby nods, thinking back on when he almost fought that man in college. And moments after his brawl, he asked Cath out for the millionth time, and she said actually yes. He does not remind Cath of this, for they stopped talking of their past long ago. He puts his arm around her shoulder and wipes the blood off his face.
“I hoo pwobly ee a ocer,” he gurgles, his tongue swollen and face destroyed. She cackles and shakes her head.
“Sit down, Bixby.” She pushes him onto a bench and takes off her corduroy jacket then her plaid, collared shirt. Still wearing her hospital gown, she tears a piece of cloth off the collared shirt. Soaking it in a nearby fountain, she softly cleans his face of any blood. He suddenly notices the rain splashing off her pale face and turning her hair golden. She examines his cheekbone, takes a medical kit out of his bag, and begins to reconstruct his face.
“Did you steal that from the hospital?” he inquires after an hour of her silently putting his cheek back together. She nods. “You still remember everything?”
“Of course I do,” she jokes, “Not even the drugs could steal that from me.” He falls silent as she chuckles. He remains motionless as she wipes the new blood from his cheek. She slowly stitches his skin together, unbothered by scent of blood mixed with city mud and the sight of his ghastly face. He bites his lip, containing his discomfort, until she resets his nose. He shouts in pain as tears roll down his bloody cheeks, the salt stinging his new wound. He curls up on the bench and moans, watching the rain make ripples in the puddle.
The smell of cinnamon and freshly baked bread wakes him up. Cath sits down and hands him a churro, proceeding to ignore hers. He bites into his, the taste of grease and sugar filling his unworthy taste buds. He chews, moaning with delight at the sensation. He nods approvingly at her, who is silently watching him eat. “Do you still love me?” She blurts out. The churro suddenly tastes bland. Bixby shakes his head and puts his hands on his face.
“Could we just not?”
But Cath is persistent. “Well, if you do, don’t take me back there.”
He stands up and throws the churro on the ground. His face reddens behind his raggy beard. The sun is setting behind him in flashes of pink, purple, and orange, and Cath thinks how this broken man looks extremely holy, like God taking his vengeance on mankind. “Well, let me tell you something, Cath,” he snarls, and her face pales. “You might not love yourself, but I do, so you have to go back.” Her shocked face looks like he just slapped her. Suddenly, her eyes flash and she stands up, nose to nose with him.
“I don’t want to die in that place!” She screams, spit flying on his face. They both freeze, tears pouring down Bixby’s face. He falls down heavily onto the bench, half expecting it not to be there. Cath sits down next to him and wraps her arms around him. She kisses his forehead, letting his tears run down her neck.
“I found you. Don’t do it to me again.” She doesn’t say anything, unpromising.
After a couple of hours, Bixby wakes up wrapped around Cath. Her breath still smells like mint, as it had for many years. She turns over and grins; her face lights up. Her hair is a mess, sticking up in a thousand directions. She grabs his wrist and checks his watch. “It’s almost time,” she shouts, sitting up and twirling back to face him. She sticks another square of mint gum into her mouth and chews excitedly. “Let’s go hack Time’s Square!”
She rolls over, stretching her long, scarred arms into the air. A tattoo gleams on her shoulder blade; it’s a lion roaring, its sharp teeth suggesting it will tear its way to freedom. Bixby strokes the lion’s mane, tracing its fur down her spotless skin. She bends her arm back awkwardly, and touches his rough cheek. She turns back to him, curling into his furry chest. She twirls a short, dark chest hair around her index finger, her green nail polish rubbing off onto his skin. He pulls her closer, and breathes in her smell. Today, she emanates pomegranate. “What are you thinking about?” She asks seductively, her pink lips curling up into her pale cheeks. He brushes back her hair, and runs his hand down her back. He loves the way her skin feels against his calloused hands, like he is dunking his hands in warm water.
“Want to guess?” He presses his lips to her shining forehead. She shrugs into him, and her moist breath disturbing the hairs on his neck. “What are you thinking?” He asks, though not really caring. All he can care about is the smell of pomegranate.
“I love you,” she whispers, her face tilting up towards his. Her eyes shine with something, though he has an unnerving sense that it is not love. More like she is hiding something from him. He shakes his head, banishing his thoughts.
“I love you too, butterfly,” he answers, his brow crinkling with worry as it has done a hundred times before.
I’ve never witnessed a love story before, Mrs. Girji thinks as she watches the two college students flirt. Mrs. Girji smiles to herself, hoping for the best, and takes off her wool sweater. She knows it reeks of mothballs and old age, but her husband insists that she needs to stay warm. “Why? The world has more dangers than getting cold,” Mrs. Girji always asks him. “At least I can control one aspect of the world, so do as I say,” he always responds sternly, but with a twinkle in his eye. Mrs. Girji tells herself that twinkle is exactly what she sees in that boy’s eyes as he talks to that frail young woman, but she knows that they will most likely never speak again. She twirls her graying hair between her wrinkled fingers, and sneaks one last glance at the couple before returning to her romance novel.
Suddenly she hears a loud outburst. Her eyes fly to the young couple, but they are no longer flirting. She spots the cause of the shouting laughter: a dark haired boy with drooping, icy eyes staring amusedly at the pretty, giggling girl like she is his next prey. The boy with the twinkling glares at the frightening couple and then storms off. Feeling dread, she stands up and waddles over to them. Her back pounds. “Thomas, would you please keep it down?” She whispers, bringing her crooked finger to her lips. “We are in a library, for God’s sake.” The boy’s eyes wander down her wrecked body, and laughs.
“Whatever, Mrs. Girji,” Thomas sneers, his eyes freezing over. The girl’s face is alight in nervous gaiety, and she whips her blonde hair behind her neck with her dark red manicured fingers. Mrs. Girji catches a scent of perfume, something bitter, like the darkest chocolate and roses. She is immediately thankful that the girl is no longer talking to the boy studying in the corner of the library. The two students continue conferring in low voices, as if Mrs. Girji is not even present. She sighs softly and walks in her usual duck-like gait back to her small, wooden desk. The smell of rotting flowers is quickly replaced by mothballs and old paper, which she revels in.
She picks up a stack of heavy schoolbooks sitting under her computer. A sharp pain shoots through her spine, but as she places a chemistry text in its rightful place. Suddenly, hands dig into her throbbing back. Surprised, she falls forward into the shelf. She hears gasps, a girl shouting, and footsteps hurrying towards her. Her fingers clasp around the metal railings of the shelf; the entire science section teeters forward, threatening to crush her. “Mrs. Girji!” She hears a soft, deep voice shout. Mrs. Girji presses her hands to her eyes, and waits to feel what she has always depended on destroy her.
But Mrs. Girji’s pain doesn’t come. Two girls are struggling to hold the bookshelf up and the boy who was studying in the corner has grabbed Thomas and shoved him onto the floor. The boy is staring concernedly at Mrs. Girji, who realizes her luck and scuttles out of the way. The girls holding the bookshelf let go and jump backwards, and there is a crash that makes everyone, even the struggling Thomas, freeze in recognition of its loudness—everyone except for Mrs. Girji. “What is wrong with you? You think because I am an old woman that you can push me around? Well, you can’t. Security!” Her screeching voice emanates through the library, and several of the students badly suppress giggles. Now that the danger is gone, people see the comedy in the situation. The security guards drag the cursing boy out of the library and everyone bursts into applause.
The studying boy walks over the blonde girl, “Hey, are you OK?” he asks, hesitant to be kind.
“Your boyfriend’s a d***.”
“I know.” She begins to sob. The other girls snicker and walk away; he glares at their backs. She doesn’t reach out to him for comfort or anything, just silently crying, stick straight and alone.
“Go out with me.”
“Why?” She ponders this for a moment, wipes her eyes with her thin hands, and doesn’t move. She shouldn’t…yet, she still nods. He smiles brightly. “Great! I’ll pick you at seven tonight.”
She laughs, and he notices her breath smells like mint. He is slightly repulsed, flashing back to one summer in Kentucky, but decides he can get used to the scent. “What’s your name?” She asks before he can walk away to his next class.
“Jason, but call me Bixby. What’s yours?”
“Catherine, but you can call me Cath.”
“Pretty name,” he says, grinning even wider. He doesn’t admit, nor will he ever to anyone, that he likes the name Catherine better. “See you tonight, Catherine.”
“See you tonight, Jason.”
Cath swirls the milkshake around her mouth, considering the combination of salty bacon and vanilla ice cream. Bixby watches this process bemused that she finally tasted the drink. At last, Cath swallows; she declares, “That tasted like a pig died from eating too much ice cream.”
“So good?” Bixby counters. Cath laughs, and nods. He knows she is only agreeing for his sake.
“Alright, Bixby, what do you want to do now?”
He considers this for a moment, but Cath quickly loses interest braiding the plastic straws together into a rope. He knows that is what the drugs have done to her, but he still panics, a part of him wanting to impress her and the other part not wanting to care so much. “I want to do something illegal,” he finally whispers. Cath’s eyes light up, and she places her hand on his. He doesn’t bother moving it. “But not drugs.”
“I would never…” she begins, then stops. She downs the rest of her bacon milkshake, and stands up. Bixby can’t help but chuckle to himself as Cath throws some Canadian dollars on the table. She drags him towards the exit as the waitress shouts, “Whadda hell, ya b****! Dis ain’t real money!” Cath laughs maniacally, the chiming sound dimming all others. Bixby’s palms start sweating.
They wander down the street a little father when Cath pushes him onto a bench. Surprised, he lands hard on his hand. He shouts as a sharp pain shoots through his arm. She settles onto his lap. “Now, you will have done two illegal things in about,” Cath checks her clock, “a half hour.” Bixby feels his insides getting warmer as he murmurs,
“Well, first you dined and dashed,” she says as she leans backwards and licks her lips. “Now, you’re going to—” She smiles, brushing her hand through his brown hair. She leans down to kiss him, but he dodges her. Hurt, she jumps off and shouts, “Steal a motorcycle.” She points to their left. “That is a Triumph T110, and I’ve always wanted one.”
“You crashed your car, why wouldn’t you crash a motorcycle,” he murmurs. She ignores him on the outside, but he knows she heard him.
“So you,” she presses her finger into his chest, “are going to steal it for me.” She places a piece of mint gum in her mouth, and begins to chew with force. He is repulsed by the smell as much as he was twenty years before.
“I’d rather not,” Bixby groans. He stands up, embarrassed and furious. Cath looks down sullenly, sweeping back her blonde hair. Out of nowhere, he shouts, “You know what, I’ll do it.” His throat tightens.
“Yeah, Bixby, I love you!” Cath shouts, and kisses him hard on the lips. Her breath is vanilla and mint. He feels his stomach tighten. She pushes him away, and slinks away behind the bench to walk. He slumps his shoulders, puts his hood on, and steps toward the motorcycle. He starts to lose his nerve when he feels metal in his palm. He looks down, and sees Cath putting a flat Swiss army knife in his hand. She urges him on, “Go Bixby!” and her eyes reflect the stars. He gulps.
He creeps forward, reaching the bike after what seems like hours. He feels Cath’s eyes watching him expectantly. “F***,” he whispers. He bends down, summoning his engineering masters degree to lead him in this endeavor. His mind remains blank. Giving up, he shoves the knife tool into the key socket and turns it violently. The motorcycle roars to life, and Bixby lunges backwards. He hears shouting, but not Cath’s ringing voice. It’s an angry, gruff voice that’s getting closer. He feels hands on his shoulders; Cath cries out and laughs in glee. “Holy s***!” He shouts, grabbing at her. She pushes him off. The voice is getting closer, and both of them can see a round figure struggling through the window of the apartment in front of them.
“We have to go. Get on.” She swings her leg over the seat and tests out the engine. He follows her lead, but just as he is about to sit, a heavy man bursts from huge, towering doors. She shouts, and slams her foot on the gas. The motorcycle accelerates so fast Bixby almost topples off the back, but he manages to hold on. The man runs into the street, and Bixby can see him throwing his fist in the air. “That was f*ing awesome,” Cath shouts over the roar of the engine.
Frozen. Speechless. That is what he would call himself at this awful moment, standing before his friends and family without a word to say. What could he say? I’m too young for this bullshit, she is too young for this bullshit, this is a stupid agreement, and she’s not going to change. We might love each other, but can I trust her? His mind mists up and his armpits begin to perspire. He can hear the blood rushing past his ears, his breath leaving his gaping mouth, and all his doubts erupting at once like a smoldering volcano. He glances at her and sees the fear of rejection that is constantly tainting her eyes. He takes a deep breath, and speaks.
“Catherine is everything to me. I have loved her for a year, hard and true. All my doubts are gone, and in their place is that smile that Cath gives me every morning without fail. So, Cath, butterfly,” he says, taking her hands. “I want you to know that I have loved you since about,” he looks at his old watch and contemplates for a moment, “7,626 hours ago.” She giggles and clasps her hand to her mouth. He does even hear their closest friends chuckle. Tears are dripping down her cheeks, leaving wet spots on the collar of her eggshell white dress. “We might have a lot to figure out about each other, but I am sure of one thing. I will love you even after the world ends.” The priest protests as Cath leaps forward and plants a rough kiss on Bixby’s lips, but the priest doesn’t stop her. Everyone in the small, colorful church that reeks of jasmine stands up and claps. The holy man shouts his final statement, but it is lost in the noise. Bixby’s parents later joke to Cath’s that they probably aren’t legally married, considering no one truly witnesses the union.
At the reception, Cath holds onto Bixby’s hand and won’t let go. He doesn’t lighten his grasp either. When given seconds alone, they kiss each other lightly, him tasting her bitter lipstick, and her tasting peaches. As she whispers in his ear that they should sneak off to their apartment and just have the honeymoon there, the wedding band singer calls them to the floor. “Let’s have the happy couple begin the last dance!” Cath snickers, and drags Bixby to the floor.
She places his hands on her hips, and wraps her arms around his neck. The drummer begins a quick pace drum, and the singer murmurs the lyrics quietly under the slow guitar. She leans her head on his shoulder, and breathes in his musky, sweet smell. It’s her favorite one in the entire world. He brings his hand to her back and strokes it, holding her more than moving with her. She doesn’t complain. “You have to get better now, butterfly,” he whispers into her ear. “You promised me.” She nods, and suddenly the scars on her arms sting incessantly, like she can feel the thousands of needles she has stabbed into her skin all at once.
Autumn blabbers on about how wonderful it will be to visit Granny and Poppy Barsuk. Chris does not say a word, and his son squeals, “Daddy no?” Autumn doesn’t know how to answer, so she doesn’t. The question hangs in the air, unsolved and uncomfortable. The air conditioning is on full blast, freezing the boy’s toes and fingers. He places his hand over the vent, letting the air numb his palm until it is unbearable. After a few minutes of this, he leans over his mother’s seat and places his ice-cold hand on her bare, sweating neck. She shouts in surprise. “Puppy,” her son declares. Chris laughs, and rubs Autumn’s shoulder. “Daddy, hungry,” Jason cries, really meaning that he is bored. “Green, black spots, white, green!” The boy recites of the scenery. Autumn assumes her son means the grass, cows, and more grass, but with him, she is never sure.
“I know, sweetie,” Autumn says sweetly, patting Jason’s dark hair. “We’re going to be at Granny and Poppy’s soon.” This did not silence the boy even for a moment, and the rest of the trip is spent listening to Jason brokenly sing happy birthday.
By the time the family arrives at the enormous farm in the back hills of Kentucky, the parents’ faces are pale from annoyance and nerves. Jason struggles in his car seat, screaming to be set free. Autumn leans over her seat to unbuckle the squiggling boy, who immediately begins banging on the door. Autumn opens her own and is blasted by a wave of horrible heat. Manure and dry earth invade her nose, and she suddenly appreciates the smell of the decaying leaves and blooming flowers of New England. Chris grabs the car door handle and Jason bursts from the car. He breaks into a run and sprints around the yard, exhilarated by the space of the place. “My boy!” A male voice cries from the door, and both adults burst into a cold sweat.
Mr. and Mrs. Barsuk’s house is homey, large, and completely the opposite of the people living within. “We’re so glad you could come,” Nancy Barsuk says coldly and Autumn has a feeling she is not happy at all. Autumn nervously rubs her hands and keeps Jason close. Chris, on the other hand, looks constantly stormy and keeps, in turn, Autumn nearby. By the next day, the smell of hot grass has embedded itself into the adults’ noses and they fear they will never be able to get the dust out of their joints. The boy, however, is having the most exciting time of his life.
“Can we never leave?” Jason squeals constantly, breaking off to play with the household dog, Bixby. The purebred Catahoula Cur chases the boy around like he would a boar, but instead of attacking, the dog pounces on Jason and licks his face. They continue this activity for three days straight, defeating the overwhelming heat by jumping in the nearby lake, the cool water extinguishing the fire erupting under their skins.
Autumn and Chris go for a long walk the evening of the fourth day, debating their departure and getting more and more concerned about their son’s obvious attachment to the Catahoula. When they return, Autumn runs to the car quickly to get Jason’s jacket, for the night has suddenly turned cool. Chris is enjoying scent of manure that reminds him of his childhood when he hears his mother’s voice. Bemused, he creeps around the house to find Nancy on her knees, talking to his son. “Do you like your parents, Jason?” Chris feels his stomach twist in fury, but continues listening. “No, sweetheart, your parents aren’t normal. You should come and live with us and Bixby.”
“Don’t you fucking dare, mother!” Chris screams, peeling out of the shadows and pushing his mother away from his son. “You may be angry I picked Autumn over you, but how can you even wonder why?” He picks up Jason, who has begun to whimper, and carries him to the car. Autumn stares, her eyes wide open in disbelief. He realizes she must have heard his outburst and he wants to punch himself in the stomach. His mother comes running up, popping her mint gum and screaming about how he cannot take her grandchild away from her. Bixby is whining, licking Jason’s hands. Chris ignores his mother, tells Autumn to get in the car, and grabs his son. He shoves the boy into his seat, and the family swerves out of the driveway. Chris’s ears ring.
An hour passes, and Autumn whispers over Jason’s snivels, “You told me they abandoned us. You told me they stopped talking to you after…after Jason.”
“Drop it, please.” Chris rubs his eyes, wary of the drive ahead. Autumn opens her mouth to speak again, but thinks better of it. She turns the air conditioning on, and leans back. Jason is still whining in the back, so Chris says over his shoulder, “How about we find you a dog on the ride home, Jay?” The boy’s eyes are dim.
“Me Bixby now?” The parents make eye contact, wary.
“Well, the world’s ending,” Bixby says, squirming in the plastic chair next to Cath’s bed. She presses the thick remote incessantly, the bed creaking up and down.
She smiles, touching his heavy beard. “We should break out.”
“I thought you could use some company. That’s the only reason I came.”
“Well, I don’t need company,” she snarls. “I need to get out of this place.
His face pales. “We shouldn’t.” Her eyes, so large in that pale face, begin to break his heart.
“Do you love me at all anymore?” She asks, and his stomach twists. Silently he nods, and takes another sip of the rancid hospital coffee. They say nothing as she picks at her blanket. “Can we please leave?” she begs. He notices a pack of mint gum at her side.
“You still chew that crap? It smells awful.”
“I know you don’t owe me anything.” She grins. “But I don’t want to like, die in here,” she jokes, but knowing her, he watches for the telling flash of fear in those eyes. Once he sees it, his face flushes and he looks at the floor. The slump in his shoulders announces that he is going to give in. He swallows the rest of the rancid coffee, gives her a half-hearted sneering look, and then drags himself into an upright position. Her grin overtakes her face as he reaches down and pulls her to her feet. He supports her as she dresses in some extra clothes he brought to sleep over. He gives her his corduroy jacket, and pulls on his own ripped red sweatshirt. “You couldn’t have made more of an effort?” Cath asks, allowing a chuckle to emerge from her pink lips as she shoves her arm through the jacket’s sleeve.
They push their way to freedom, their warm hands making outlines on the glass door. “So, what are you going to do after I die?” She questions as they walk away from the hospital building, her voice muffled by the jacket she has just pulled up to her nose. He feels his head grow warm, furious at the fact she keeps joking. Suddenly, her voice becomes serious. “I’m really scared, Bixby.”
“I know,” Bixby murmurs, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. They walk for a couple moments in silence, her enjoying the smell of the oily city, and he reveling in her minty scent. She nervously giggles, the sound like popcorn bouncing off the surrounding buildings. She picks at a spot on her face and shoves a stick of mint gum into her mouth, then offers him one. He refuses as usual.
“Will you come with me?” She asks, like it’s a retirement plan or something less important than his life. He bites his lips. “I don’t want to be alone.” She glances at him, watching for a change in his expression, but finding none. An awkward silence falls between them. She coughs, her breath causing the air in front of her to fog.
“Cath…” he says after a moment. She gulps, nodding but he can see the rejection piercing her eyes.
“I know, Bixby, it is so ridiculous, but I’m just—”
“I always planned to follow you,” he whispers, stroking her hair. “I’ll follow you anywhere.” She grins, harshly pressing her lips against his. He notices that her kiss is strong, stronger than she has been since they first met. He taps his fingers on his jeans. Cath pulls his large gloves on, and takes his hand in hers.
“OK, Bixby, come with me,” she whispers, excitement lacing her strengthened voice. He can’t help but follow her, even if it’s into the dark.