For You When You Need to Remember
Written By: Sarah Kuntz Jones
My eyes burned—whether from exhaustion or the smoky dark licking at the headlights, I couldn’t say. You dozed in the passenger seat with The Notebook on your lap, your finger holding a place—though you hadn’t been able to read since the sun’s light faded behind us, back when it was still yesterday.
“Should we stop soon?” I asked.
I didn’t need permission to pull over, but this trip was yours. You’d wanted me to come with. Maybe you’d wanted sister-bonding time. Yet we hadn’t talked of anything, really, since leaving St. Louis. Maybe you weren’t sure if you could make the drive yourself, even though you’d always wanted to. Whether tying your shoes, bleaching your hair, or getting your heart broken, you never wanted my help. Perhaps there was a bit of both needs in your request—making up for lost time, and letting me show you I could help.
This pilgrimage to the coasts of North Carolina was something you had dreamed of since college, when you discovered Nicholas Sparks’s novels. I never got your obsession with melodrama. We both knew what that kind of selfishness could do. But I liked road trips, and I owed you, the way sisters do.
I wasn’t sure if I should pull over, because there had been an urgent edge to your asking me along. Then again, we had spent our whole lives trying to beat the clock. First, to grow up and leave behind the farms of southern Illinois. And now, a race against something more certain and perilous than the onslaught of adulthood.
So, we drove through the night. The stars came with us—a quiet reminder of all the wishes made and unfulfilled from our childhood bedroom window—until they were swallowed by what we took at first for clouds, then fog, then, undeniably, smoke. We pushed through it, and through the hills that stretched into mountains, until we were on the other side in North Carolina.
You stirred in the passenger seat when I pulled into the Cracker Barrel parking lot, but I let you sleep and sat with my eyes closed in the stillness of dawn, listening to your breath. At that moment, although we grew up in the same house, you were a stranger, a Nicholas Sparks-loving stranger. In the smoke and murk of this place, nothing was familiar except a sense of loss.
When I opened my eyes, the darkness hung with the weight of a damp woolen blanket, the asphalt weeping flames from its fractures. You stretched, blinking into the haze. I wanted to hug you the way I did when you were a soft peach of a baby. I wanted to say I love you, but you looked out the window, and the moment passed. You rubbed your face, opened the door, and said we’d better watch our step.
I followed, wondering if we would be able to get back to the car when breakfast was over, as new gashes split the blacktop like seams. We walked into the country store, full of precious, needless things. We were so early, there was no one else in the place.
We sat near the fireplace. It seemed absurd to have a fire going inside with flames everywhere outside. I could still see the glow from the parking lot. Inside, at least, the atmosphere was cozy. You weren’t bothered by any of this. You just said, I hope the coffee is fresh.
I was with you on that. I was starving. We went to town. Cheesy hash browns, eggs, bacon, and toast, all washed down with coffee—the best we’d ever tasted, we agreed. When we finished, you looked up and said, Good morning, as though everything else had been a dream.
In the half hour we spent filling our bellies, the sky hadn’t lightened any more.
We settled up. It was still quiet enough to raise goosebumps on our arms. In the bathroom, a Dwight Yoakam song thinned out as it played against the room’s smooth surfaces.
From your stall—yoga pants pooling around your ratty Chucks—you told me you didn’t want to make any more stops.
“Not if we can help it,” I said from mine, thinking of the gas gauge and tapping my sneakers against the tiled floor.
Ready once more for the road, we stood on the wraparound porch and stared out at the parking lot. The blacktop was a nervous system of glowing, throbbing, branching flames.
You pointed in one direction, suggested we take that route.
“No,” I said. “How about there?”
It was like some game we might have played in grade school. We picked our paths and hopped, skipped, and jumped our way toward the car. The air was thick and smelled dangerous, like brimstone and campfire, but when we reached the car, sweaty and a little sooty, we laughed the rest of our breath away.
Back on the highway, I turned on the radio. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar swelled—we’d been listening to him before you fell asleep. When the song ended, you backed it up and hit the repeat button on the CD player’s controls. Fall with me for a million days, you sang.
As we drove, tears cleared paths down your grayed cheeks. When you tried to speak, you belched smoke. Your hair smoldered, your expression like a dead-eyed housewife in an ad from the atomic age, smiling as she vacuums the living room. I reached for your hand, but you dispersed into a cloud so thin, I wondered if you had ever been there at all.
The car blazed down the highway deeper into the heart of North Carolina, but I could only make out the pavement right in front of the headlights. In one unending anthem, I drove until the air was, at last, clear of smoke, and the gray-green ocean stretched beyond the reach of the road. With the Rodanthe pier in sight, I opened the door. The last tendrils of smoke floated out on Jimi’s riffs, a sustained note carrying you where I couldn’t take you, wherever you still needed to go.
About the Author
Sarah Kuntz Jones lives among the red brick wonders of south St. Louis with her daughter and two black cats. She is at work on a novel. And, when she’s not doing that, she is painting, cooking, baking, or thinking about riding her bike. Her fiction has appeared in The Summerset Review, The MacGuffin, and Iron Horse Literary Review, among other places. She occasionally tweets things about readings, the writing community, and rejections: @sarahkuntzjones.