Somewhere in Connecticut, two brothers speed down a darkened nighttime highway on a personal mission. A story by Kevin Fanning.
My brother, in the passenger seat, stared blankly ahead. He stopped drumming his fingers on the arm rest long enough to pull the black backpack up off the floor behind us. I watched him for just a second before my eyes shot back to the road.
‘Jason,’ I said. ‘Please. I’ve packed and arranged the bag very carefully and it’d be better if you didn’t–’
‘Relax,’ he said. ‘I’m just getting acquainted with the contents. You want me to be well-versed, don’t you?’
‘I’m well-versed enough for the both of us,’ I said.
‘That’s what you think. What if you said ‘Jason, quick! Grab the flashlight!’ and I was like ‘What flashlight, where?’’
He pulled a long black metal flashlight out of the bag.
‘I feel more prepared already,’ he said.
I saw light reflecting off something up ahead, at the side of the road, and slowed the car. As we got closer I saw that it was just the light from the distant window of a house, set back in the trees. I watched the speedometer climb back up to its original speed.
‘What else,’ my brother said, fishing around in the bag, throwing its contents into disarray. ‘Map, very good. Scissors of course. Extra batteries, that’s what I like to see. Binoculars. And what’s this, underwear?’
‘Face mask,’ I said. ‘To cover your face.’
‘So, not underwear. I see. And a thermos full of ’
‘Don’t unscrew that,’ I said.
He unscrewed the top of the thermos, sniffed its contents, and took a small sip. I sighed loudly.
‘Thermos full of warm water,’ he announced. ‘For in case of extreme thirst.’
‘Wrong. Please don’t drink that. It’s for the flowers.’
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Makes sense.’ He returned the thermos, zipped the bag closed, and dropped it onto the back seat.
We continued in silence.
‘I’m thirsty now,’ my brother said.
‘We’re not stopping.’
My brother was 38, three years younger than me, but he might as well have been 12.
I looked at the clock in the dashboard. We were on schedule.
‘Change the subject,’ Jason said.
‘To what?’ I asked. ‘I’m kind of focused on the goal here.’
‘Change the subject or we’re stopping for sodas.’
‘Fine. How’s I’m sorry, I forget her name. The one I met, with the boots. I want to say Kitten.’
‘Kat. Eh. Don’t see her much anymore. She got kind of clingy towards the end there.’
‘I’ve heard strippers are like that,’ I said.
‘Hilarious. She was a dancer, not a stripper.’
I remained silent, not knowing or wanting to know the difference. I tried to remember the names of his other girlfriends.
‘What about the European one?’ I asked.
‘Genevieve.’ He said, giving a slight shrug. ‘I see her once in a while. When we’re both otherwise unoccupied.
‘And she’s a stewardess, right?’
Jason turned to stare at me for a moment.
‘She’s a litigator,’ he said. ‘Where do you get this stuff?’
‘Look, you wanted to make conversation. I don’t see you offering much.’
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘What about you, have you talked to Rebecca much?’
‘Man. She got everything, huh?’
‘Everything that matters,’ I said.
‘House?’ he asked.
‘Yes. She got the house.’
‘Ouch. So where are you living?’
‘I’m renting an apartment,’ I said. ‘It’s near campus, so I can walk to my office, but I’m surrounded by students. Parties every night. It’s awful, but it’s what was available.’
‘Parties, though. That could be fun.’
‘Well I’m sure you’d fit right in,’ I said. ‘It’s not really my style.’
‘Come on, man,’ Jason said. ‘You’ve got to get back out there. Find some naughty little college girls looking for extra credit from Professor McKenzie. Totally.’
‘Sorry,’ he said, and began drumming his fingers on the armrest again.
I felt flashing lights on my face: a police car in the rear view mirror. I inhaled sharply and saw that it was just a trick of the road. A pair of headlights moved up behind us as a car signaled and switched to the left lane, then sped on ahead of us. I pushed the speedometer up a few miles per hour, then thought better of it, and eased back down to 70.
The road curved and a reflective green sign appeared on the side of the road. It indicated that we were coming up on Exit 33. I remembered family car trips, my brother and I in the back seat, fighting over whose turn it was to lean on the armrest. Every time we visited our grandparents, our father would pull off at that exit. The town it led to was nowhere, but there was a diner that he insisted served the best coconut cream pie on the east coast. Jason and I would eat quickly, then rush outside to run around the parking lot and throw stones at each other, while our parents sat inside, sipping coffee.
I drove past the exit.
‘So,’ Jason said after a few silent minutes had passed. I wondered if he’d been having the same memories as we passed that exit. ‘Should we talk about the plan at all?’
‘The plan? You know the plan. We go, we get the flowers, we come back.’
‘You’re saying we both jump out of the car and cut the flowers? Or should one of us stay in the car, idling, in order to promote a hasty retreat.’
‘I’m glad you mention that,’ I said, glancing down at his shoes. ‘I noticed that you chose to go with white socks this evening.’
‘I don’t own a pair of black socks,’ he said. ‘Besides it can’t matter. It’s two-thirty in the morning.’
‘It matters, and I don’t want to get caught.’
‘We won’t get caught.’
‘I appreciate your certainty, but what we’re doing is illegal, and unlike you, I haven’t spent time in the big house.’
Jason turned at stared at me.
‘I’m sorry, did you just say ‘big house?’’
‘You know what I mean,’ I said.
‘I got arrested once. In college. For forgetting to pay the fine for a noise violation. I was in a holding cell for two hours. I wouldn’t quite call it the big house. I didn’t even have time to make a shiv.’
‘Well I’m sorry. But still–’
‘–Still nothing,’ he said. ‘What’s your problem? This is not that big a deal. I don’t see what you’re so worried about.’
‘I’m sorry it’s not clear, Jason. I thought it would be obvious why I’m worried, which is the same reason we’re doing this. On top of which, I’m worried about seeing my kids, which will never happen again if Rebecca finds out I’ve been arrested.’
In the silence I tried to slow my breathing, relax my grip on the steering wheel, concentrate on the road.
‘How often do you get to see them?’ Jason asked, finally.
‘When she lets me,’ I said. ‘One weekend a month. A few minor holidays.’
‘Jesus. I don’t understand how she cheated on you and ended up with the house and the kids.’
‘I just I don’t know,’ I said, raising my hands and smacking them back down on the steering wheel. ‘I didn’t think a drawn-out court battle was good for them. Rebecca disagreed, but at least by letting her have most of what she wanted, I took that away from her.’
Jason stared out of his window. I could see his reflection by the lights in the dashboard. I wondered if he was looking out at the woods, or at me.
‘Anyway,’ I said. ‘When we get to Bridgeport we’ll pull over somewhere, switch places, and then I’ll be the one who jumps out and grabs the flowers.’
‘You get the fun job. You planned that,’ he said, smiling.
‘I didn’t plan it, you wore white socks,’ I said. ‘Besides that means you’ll get to drive home. Won’t that be fun?’ I raised my eyebrows and faked a big smile to the highway in front of us.
‘I welcome the opportunity to drive,’ he said.
‘Oh, but wait,’ I said. ‘Do you know how to get from Grandma’s to the highway?’
‘I don’t, but it can’t be too complicated.’
‘You’re right, it’s not. It’s actually easier to get from her house to the highway than it is to get from the highway to her house. You just follow her street to the end, right on Elm, two intersections, left on North Main, and then follow the signs to 15.’
‘End, Elm, two, Main, signs, 15. Gotcha.’ Jason looked out the window, nodding his head. ‘Now I have to ask an important question.’
‘Ask,’ I said.
‘Say we get there, and the hyacinths aren’t there.’
‘Hydrangeas. See, it’s good that I’ll be doing the cutting. All I need is for you to bring back the wrong kind of flowers.’
‘Are you going to answer my question?’ he asked.
‘They’ll be there.’
‘But I’m saying on the remote possibility, do we want to talk about a back-up plan. Like if they’re not there, we’ll just pick up some hydrangeas on the way back, or something.’
It took me a moment to decide where I should even begin attacking Jason’s suggestion.
‘First of all,’ I said, ‘look around. We are in the dark netherworld of Connecticut at 2 o’clock in the morning. There are no 24-hour all-night hydrangea depots, anywhere around here, ever. Secondly, you would do that to your mother? Just lie like that?’
‘Okay, granted, but just on the off-chance I think we should consider it. Mom wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s a lie, but it’s a white lie. She wouldn’t know.’
‘We would know. You and I. We would know.’
I noticed that the road in front of the car was becoming obscured by raindrops collecting on the windshield. I hadn’t even noticed that it had started raining. I flicked on the wipers and they metronomed awkwardly with the noise from the tires against the highway.
‘Besides,’ I said, ‘they’ll be there.’
‘Well, I envy your blind faith,’ Jason said.
‘It’s not. They’re there. I drove by the other day just to make sure.’
‘You ’ Jason looked at me, then out at the road, then back at me. ‘Then why didn’t you just grab the flowers then? Cripes.’
‘Because it was the middle of the afternoon, there were people everywhere, I hadn’t mapped out the quickest way to the highway, and 400 other reasons.’
‘I would’ve just grabbed them. Jump out, boom, flowers, home. Easy.’
‘You wouldn’t have,’ I said. ‘You would have lied, gone to the flower store, and brought back hyacinths. That’s the difference between you and me.’
‘It’s not the only one.’
Jason began tapping his fingers on the armrest again. I checked the clock. We were getting close.
‘Did you at least think about going up to the house, knocking on the door, explaining the situation and asking politely if you could take some of the flowers?’
‘I did, actually.’
‘It wouldn’t have worked. They wouldn’t have agreed. Would you let some stranger onto your property so they could remove part of your garden? They would’ve said no, so we would have had to go ahead and do exactly what we’re doing anyway. We would’ve snuck down and grabbed the flowers in the middle of the night, only this time, the next day, when they noticed half their hydrangea bush missing, they would know exactly who to send the cops after.’
Jason turned away from me to stare out at the highway.
‘Our mother is dying,’ he said. ‘She had a stroke, and suffers from Alzheimer’s. Even in her lucid moments, when she knows who we are, she has trouble finding the right words to communicate anything of real meaning to us. She is giving up. She doesn’t even try anymore. Her sisters and husband all died years ago. She doesn’t understand why she is still alive. She grew up here, in Bridgeport, in this house. When she was 15 her father planted a hydrangea bush in the backyard. You can see it from the road. Every June it exploded into blue flowers that lasted all summer long. When our grandfather died of cancer the family sold the house. It has passed through many different owners since then, but the hydrangea bush is still there. Some years it was tended to lovingly. Some years it was ignored. It has been growing in the backyard, blooming every summer, all these years. Our mother always hoped to come here and explain to you who she is, and tell you about the summer her father came home from work carrying a hydrangea bush. She always wondered if by any chance the owners of the house would let her clip a few branches off the bush, so that she could take them with her and root them and plant them underneath the front window of her house in Manchester. She can’t travel anymore, so my brother and I would like to do this for her. We would be very grateful if you would allow us to take a few branches from your hydrangea bush, and bring them to our mother in the nursing home, and explain to her what we’ve done, and tell her how we will plant the branches in her yard.’
I saw the arrow pointing towards our exit. It had stopped raining, and the wipers were grating and stumbling across the windshield. I turned them off as I guided the car down the offramp.
‘You just need to sell it,’ Jason said.
There was a stop light at the end of the ramp. We sat, waiting for the light to change.
‘You give people too much credit,’ I said. ‘They wouldn’t care.’
‘They might, if they understood the situation.’
‘They wouldn’t. Even if we explained. People don’t do nice things anymore. Family doesn’t mean what it used to. They wouldn’t care.’
The light changed and I drove until we came to an apartment complex. I pulled into the parking lot and got out, leaving the car running. As Jason came around from his side, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and opened it to see if I was still getting a signal. I was, but I hadn’t received any calls. I switched it to vibrate and put it back in my pocket.
‘Alright baby,’ Jason said as he backed out of the space. He put the car in drive, nosed up to the road, then stopped. He looked left and right and left again.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘So I go ’
‘Turn right,’ I said. ‘Just go slow and I’ll tell you the direction as they come up. Keep going straight for a while.’
‘Right, I had a feeling. Just wanted to make sure.’
‘Are you sure you’re up for this? You remember how we get back to the highway?’
He thought for a moment.
‘End of the street, right on Elm, left on Main, follow the signs to 15. Ta da.’
‘Close enough,’ I said.
‘How did you figure out the address to Grandma’s house, by the way. I assume Mom didn’t tell you, and we haven’t been here in however many decades.’
‘Left here,’ I said. ‘And then left again at Kirby. It was on an old letter I found, digging around in her files.’
‘Mom has files?’
‘She has files. She has bank statements, retirement accounts, medical records, stock certificates, a will–’
‘–You’ve seen the will?’
‘It’s fifty-fifty, relax. Okay, slow down. Take a right, that’s the street.’
Jason turned onto Baker Street without signaling, and slowed the car almost to a crawl.
‘What do you think,’ he said. ‘Pull up next to their yard, or should I stop a few houses early and have you walk up.’
‘Stop early,’ I said, noticing that we were both whispering. ‘An idling car might draw attention. But then turn the headlights off and cruise up to the house to pick me up when I’m done.’
I looked out the window as the car crept quietly down the street. My memories of this neighborhood from when I was young were of immense houses with immaculate lawns, children playing in the street while their parents sat and watched from their porch swings. It had hit me like a hammer the other day to see the state of the neighborhood now. The houses all seemed to be slowly sinking back down into the ground, uncared for. And while there might still be children playing in the street, I hoped for their sake that they were playing somewhere else, somewhere safer.
I reached into the backseat and pulled out the bag. I unzipped it and removed the scissors.
‘I guess you won’t need the flashlight,’ Jason said, nodding to the streetlamps that illuminated the neighborhood. I hadn’t even noticed them the other day.
‘I guess not.’
‘Are you going to wear the face mask?’
‘I guess not,’ I said, as Jason pulled the car to a stop and turned off the headlights.
I inhaled deeply, then opened the car door and jumped out. I was sprinting down the street, across the lawns, past the dark houses, over the hedge, into the backyard, into the garden, raising the scissors, the hydrangea bush right where my mother always remembered it being, its flowers blooming, even now, in the moonlight.