Time Capsule

After the wake, I crawled through town and opened it up on I-84. Free and clear to Harlequin. I was coming off a handful of pills my doctor prescribed. Little tabs designed to help me live through the service. “We see it more and more,” she said. “Male hearts do explode.” So of course I panicked when my pulse went haywire outside the chapel. I fisted the whole eight-day supply and choked it down with a bottle of Squirt. An hour later it occurred to me: Either the pills had performed as described or the gouged-out feeling inside me was real.
            The Harlequin exit is different to others outside Portland. Others lead through ersatz towns that circle you straight back into the city. In Harlequin, the air smells of livestock. There are fields and orchards. Trees your eldest relatives planted. For a brief moment every evening, the sun is pinned to the edge of the world, and you feel a desperate longing to chase it.
            It began to rain as the off-ramp shrank in my rearview mirror. The wipers groaned. With the sunlight failing through the raindrops, the fields took on an empty glow. I puckered my cheeks. My tongue tasted like copper wire. I thought of the mouthwash I kept in the glovebox. Freshmint flavor. Used before drop-ins and roundtable meetings to mask the smell of cigarette smoke. I thought of the cigarettes I kept in the glovebox, right there beside the mouthwash.
            I was reaching for the glovebox latch when a veer in the road caught me off guard. I jerked the wheel, causing the car to slide. My tires rumbled over the strip. The asphalt ended. Gravel shlacked and spit at the axel. Then the car went into a ditch.
            Both airbags deployed and deflated. In the dashboard, an array of beautiful lights turned on. I tried the ignition, but a clicking sound came out of the column. The car was starting to stink of hot rubber. I reached for the latch on the glovebox again, but the impact had jammed it shut.
            Outside the car, the damage was obvious. The front wheel—the one that hit first—was bent at a forty-five-degree-angle. Part of the siding had come detached. I peered upward into the rain, dreading the call I had to make. My cellphone was hidden under a pile of clothes in the trunk. I had stashed it there before the service, anticipating a quick getaway, knowing I’d answer if I kept it in reach.
            I had seven missed calls. My Aunt Clara made three of them, then a series of unknown numbers she’d clearly tried to call me from. At this moment, the cellphone was quiet. It gave me a twinge of satisfaction to know I’d outlasted her.
            The feeling subsided as I locked her name beneath my thumb.
            “Hi, Clara.”
            “Where have you been? I tried to call you. Your Mom’s going crazy about it.”
            “I’m stranded like twenty miles outside Harlequin. I crashed the car.”
            “Everyone’s still up here at St. Catherine’s. We’re helping Father Frank clean up. You’d think a mud bomb went off in the aisle.”
            “Can someone there come pick me up?”
            “What a mess. You should see it, Thomas—”
            “Put Uncle Jack on.”
            “This is what happens—I was just telling Father Frank—this is what happens when you cross wet shoes with dust.”
            “Please let me talk to Jack.”
            A muffled scraping followed this, then the sound of the phone being passed, then my uncle’s voice on the line:
            “Hey, kid. Crash the car, did you?”
            “One of the wheels is all bent up.”
            “We’re here at St. Catherine’s.”
            “I know. I need someone to give me a ride.”
            “Ah, well. Can’t right now, kid. We’re cleaning up.”
            “No one there can pick me up? I can’t afford a tow-truck this far.”
            “One sec,” he said. “I’ll put your mother on.”
            I disconnected frantically and leaned in through the driver-side window. The lights on the dash were still going crazy. They flickered and died as I pulled out the key.
            I searched my contacts for possible rides. Nothing and no one. My real life lay buried a thousand miles to the east. I took stock of my surroundings. Fields thrashing and flooded and muddy, stretching out to more of the same. I glanced at the road, then opened the trunk and dug out a raincoat.
            I had been walking for nearly an hour when a vehicle finally pulled alongside me. An old Dodge Caravan, dingy in the rain. I kept walking. The van crept along at my pace. The passenger rolled his window down.
            “Nice weather,” he said.
            “Are you going into Harlequin?” I asked.
            “Further than that, honey,” the driver announced. She was roughly my age, with gray, flowing hair.
            “Can you give me a ride?”
            The passenger stared at me. “You look zonked, man.”
            Inside the van, the heat was on and the seats stunk of lavender incense. The radio was tuned to an AM station. As we came up to speed, the rain on the windows ran horizontal.
            “Guess that was you back there,” the guy said, turning around in the passenger seat. “Real shitter, man.”
            “It’s not ideal,” I said.
            “You live ‘round here?” the driver asked. She glanced at the mirror. The whites of her eyes were cloudy and bloodshot.
            “Used to,” I said. “Before I moved away for school.”
            “Me and Rainey didn’t go to college, did we, babe?”
            “High school sweethearts,” the driver said proudly.
            “Feels like a real long time ago, now.”
            “That’s my favorite thing about love,” she said. “If it’s real enough, time can’t do a damn thing to change it.”
            I looked out at the rainstruck fields, past them, to the clumps of old-growth wood in the distance. I could still envision the sick fall light trickling through those tangled branches. Could smell the rotting bear intestines my father and I had quadruple bagged and dumped at the base of an ancient pine. I remembered sprinting through dew-studded fields. Remembered the tin I’d fished from the creek, how I filled it with tiny pieces of him and stashed it away like everything else.
            “Your family still live out here, then?” the woman asked.
            “Not anymore.”
            The guy turned to face me again. “You look zonked,” he said.
            They let me out at the Harlequin sign, about a mile from the center of town. It was getting dark. By the time I reached Main, the only place still lit was Ralph’s. I went inside and ordered a glass of water.
            The bartender eyed me up and down, then placed the glass in front of me. “What else?” he said.
            I asked him what he had on tap.
            “Beer,” he said.
            I found a table in the far back corner. The pills had worn off altogether, but the hollow feeling persisted inside me. My whole body felt like a yawn. I took another gulp of the beer and slouched in my seat, absorbing the sounds of the lotto machines.
            Around eleven, the bartender came by and said that if I wanted to stay, he’d need an extra twenty bucks to cover the cost of electricity.
            “Bars out east stay open ’til four,” I said.
            “Look around,” he said. “Ain’t no one left in here but you.”
            He switched off the lights as soon as the door swung shut behind me. Except for a single yellow streetlamp, Main Drive was all the way dark. The rain had subsided. Moonlight gleamed through a crack in the clouds. I wandered down to the end of the block and glanced at the sign, searching a mental map of the town. Then I started out at a jog.
            Ten minutes later, smashed and exhausted, I stood before my childhood home. Not much had changed. The path was refurbished, and the sapling out front had grown tall and mature.
            Through what was once my living-room window, I caught sight of the current owners. A mother and father and daughter and son, sitting cross-legged in front of the fire. They were playing some sort of card-based game that involved a lot of silent laughter. I could tell they were laughing, the way their heads went back in unison whenever a new card came into play. After a time, the father stood and drew the curtains. I continued to stare, willing my vision to refocus and bore a hole through the translucent fabric. I heard the sounds of bedtime approaching. Heard the mother corral the children. Heard the loose floorboard next to the bathroom creak as someone stepped across it.
            I felt a sudden wave of longing, the same longing that kept me awake after my neighbors’ lights went out. A greatest hits of mistakes and embarrassments, playing on shuffle in front of my eyes.
            I moved right up close to the window and pressed my ear against the glass. A cupboard opened, then the delicate thunk of a cork. My parents were in there, talking and drinking wine together. My mother laughed her strange little laugh. My father’s voice sounded healthy and clear.
            The backyard was still accessible via the side-yard. Everything was still in place. The old deck and the stepping-stone pathway into the grass. I hunkered down in the shrubbery that lined the far fence. The soil sucked at my dress shoes. Through gaps in the twigs, I studied the darkness of the yard and deck, whispering into my palms. Stupid lies we tell ourselves, stupid things we fabricate to feed the ravenous beasts inside. Before the wake, Mom had pulled me into a hug, her gown smelling of stress and perfume. She told me he was up there somewhere, watching us gather to set him free.
            I felt around in the wormy soil, telling myself it had to be here, filled with tiny pieces of him, buried somewhere three feet down. I looked the house over one more time, then fell to my knees and started to dig.
Andrew Valentine’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Badlands, Able Muse, Literary Orphans, Chagrin River Review, Pioneertown, and The Shrug, among others. He lives and writes in Eugene, OR.
Photography by Adam Stanzak