A flock of somber black birds perched like tiny statues, lining the telephone wire following the car endlessly down the long, desolate highway. The elms in the tree-rows were motionless, testifying to the stillness of the afternoon. An oversized shadow stretched out from the base of each one as the sun sank at a snail's pace into the distant horizon.
Daphne pressed the button to open her window. The air conditioned interior had grown stale, and she was thirsty for a breath of fresh air. To her regret, the temperature had not dropped at all, despite the latening hour. Still, she breathed deeply and closed her eyes to savor the scents of life. Somewhere out there, jasmine was blooming, grass was being cut, and farm animals were making their presence known by their distinct aroma. A fragrant breeze in her face (even if it WAS hot), was one of the few things that brought her joy anymore. She laid her head back and sighed in pleasure, basking in God’s glory.
“Heat wave!” The familiar call brought her back to her reality.
Daphne sighed again, but this time with resignation, as she closed the window. “Could we at least open the sunroof? Please?” She made an effort not to whine, but she was pretty sure she wasn't successful.
Zach’s answer was evident even before he spoke a word. His expression and his own sigh were all she needed to know what the reply would be. After 21 years together, words were seldom necessary.
'He’s going to say, "Honey, the sun is just too hot on my head." '
“Honey, the sun is just too hot on my head.”
“Ok,” she said with a false cheeriness. “I understand.” 'I love him. I’d do anything for him. Be happy so he is happy. Don’t bring him down with you.' She repeated the familiar mantra, her self-prescribed “mental health exercise.” Those mantras, and her near-constant breath prayers, worked as well as, if not better than, the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills she had to swallow daily just to act semi-normal.
Zach knowingly gave her that little smile and, as always, it made her smile for real. “We can crack it a little.” He reached down and the sunroof motor whirred for a second, giving Daphne at least a glimmer of outside air. Her back was beginning to ache, and she shifted in the seat. Daphne was used to being on the move all day. Being an office manager was anything BUT a desk job like most people thought. She was used to aching feet, tired legs, and being exhausted by the end of the day, but three hours in the car was truly painful. She turned her face to the window and watched the quilt of wildflowers fly by in the ditch.
Daphne bolted upright. “STOP!”
“Huh? What’s wrong?”
“Stop the car! I saw…” Suddenly she didn’t trust herself; and she was afraid of being wrong and looking like a fool.
Zach slowed the car. “What? What did you see, babe?” Concern crept into his voice.
“Can you back up? I think .. there might have been an accident.”
As Zach reversed up the narrow shoulder, Daphne craned her head around, desperate, yet terrified, to see again what she thought she had glimpsed: a green car, its side peeking out of a patch of weeds. Her imagination took over, and she pictured mayhem, bloodied bodies, death. She began to tremble, and her breaths became wheezes. 'Children in the backseat, probably not buckled in; bones jutting from soft, pink skin.' As tears formed in her eyes, she felt Zach’s comforting hand fall lightly on her thigh. Caressing her gently, Zach said softly, “Take it easy, hon. Deep breaths.”
Daphne closed her eyes and struggled to draw in deep cleansing breaths. 'In through the nose, out through the mouth. In with the good, out with the bad.'
“Where was it, hon? I don’t see anything.” The tenderness in Zach’s voice helped to calm her.
“It was .. I think .. there!” When they came to a stop, what she saw was not a car, but a disintegrating pile of green trash bags; not chrome, but fading tin cans peeping through the gaps.
“Sorry, so sorry.” Weeping now with embarrassment and utter disgust at her bone-headed blunder, Daphne couldn’t even look at him.
“As long as we're stopped, wanna get out and stretch a little? It’s going to be another hour or so before we get there.” Zach seemed to know that she needed a break. Grateful for a diversion from her self-loathing, and for Zach’s non-judgmental love, Daphne wiped her face, nodded and climbed out. Zach joined her behind the car and surprised her by wrapping his arms around her and holding her tenderly. “I love you. And I’ll always love you,” he whispered in her ear.
“And I love you. And I’m really sorry.” Her eyes began to fill again.
Zach chuckled. “I know, sweetie. But, hey, you know what? I’m glad you were wrong. If we had to help anyone now, it would make us really late.”
She giggled through her tears. Zach knew her inside and out; he had a knack for turning her weeping into laughter. It was only one of the million of little reasons that she loved him.
Catrina Bradley grew up in Iowa, but now calls Georgia home. She is happily married to her much better half, has a wonderful 23 year-old daughter, and a precious, long-haired dachshund named Lady.