Karen switched off the radio, cutting short the dire forecast. A low growl filled the cabin's pregnant quiet, echoing the distant thunder. Mark tossed the car around the twisting curves of the backwoods road, flicking the shifter up and back down as the coupe dutifully flitted through the apex of each turn.
With each squealing creaking protest, she shivered, the image of the decimated Ford pickup they had passed a few hours earlier prominent in her mind. A fog crawled out of the trees and fat raindrops splatted against the windshield, first one, then two and three and a dozen, then too many for the frantically swiping wipers to beat back.
She wasn't sure why she fell asleep. It might have been the rhythmic syncopation of the wipers, the raindrops, and the thunder, or the dim gray-green late afternoon light. Perhaps the sheer exhaustion of riding for hours had made her prone to the cool air and the car's swaying. She imagined it was a combination, with the possibility of something more not completely ruled out.
She didn't remember drifting off, or how long she slept, but at 7:08 she jerked awake. A fwumping was coming from ahead. Mark was slowing, and it was only as he pulled to the side of the road that she realized they were the source of the noise.
He pulled the parking brake and killed the ignition, then opened the door and stepped into the rain, not quite cursing. Karen caught a glimpse of his face, which betrayed his feelings as much as a good "shit" or "fuck" would have. She stepped out after him, irritated at his lack of an explanation as to what was going on.
"Mark, what happened? I thought you said your car would be better for the trip, more reliable." Her voice was melodious and soft, but turned scalding with irritation and tension released. "It's not the car proper.
Car's fine," Mark murmured as he swung the hood forward and up, "better than yours anyways: fewer miles effectively, every system gone over, better maintenance. So what if it's older and the paint's faded." "Fewer miles," she scoffed, "your odometer reads over three hundred thousand, but whatever.
What happened then?" "Look down." She did, and noticed the funny angle the car set at, and the decimated tire at her feet. "I suppose you are going to pull a new tire out of the air and mount it right here." "Nope, you are going to do that.
Find us a place near here where we can stay for the night and get a new tire in the morning." He didn't wait for her reply. Between the heavy clouds and the thick foliage, twilight was settling in early, and he wanted to be out of this god-forsaken hillbilly country before night truly settle in.
With the speed that comes only from an intimate familiarity with a system, he extracted the spare, the emergency jack, and the tire iron from the diminished storage compartment in the front of the car.
Karen thought she heard him mutter something about golf-club bags. She waited for him to come around the front of the car. When he stopped, waiting for her to move, she nabbed the jack out of his hands. She knelt down and slide it under the car, just aft of the tire. As she started to crank the jack up she heard Mark drop the spare, which rolled a few feet away before falling to its side in the muddy ditch.
"Stop!" He commanded, grabbing her by the shoulder. "I can change a flat." She kept cranking, "Obviously not." He pulled her back from the jack. "You haven't loosened the lug nuts, and you can't do that with the wheel spinning in the air.
That's not a big deal, I try that too sometimes when I forget that I'm not using an impact. But if you kept cranking, you would have really stranded us. You have to put it back where the notch is, or you crush the return coolant line. And the motor back there gets awful hot real fast.
Just let me do it, OK?" She turned to face him, a spiral lock of hair falling in front of her face. "I can help, you know." Mark's face twisted against his barely controlled temper. "Oh, I'm sure you can. Of course, I would have preferred if the offer had come two hours ago. You agreed that you would drive for some of the trip since you didn't want to stop before Florida." "How was I supposed to know you wanted me to take over?
You didn't say shit." "I shouldn't have to. I've been driving since eight this morning. Eleven hours. If you paid a bit of attention and thought about it, you would have realized." "Well," she said, "you could have said something." "I did: "I'm tired.
I could really use a break. This highway driving is getting rather numbing. I'm going to have to take some back roads because I can't take much more of this". Sorry if I didn't come right out and say, 'Your turn to drive.' Besides," he quizzed, "it's not like you listen to me anyways. That much hasn't changed in five years." Karen's face went blank. When she spoke, her voice trembled, but was otherwise carefully neutral. "Really Mark?
You are bringing that up?" Oblivious, Mark carried on his tirade. "You trampled me. You used me. I bared myself to you heart and soul, and you strung me along and then ran off with that idiot anyways. I'll be damned if I make that mistake again. Hell, maybe this whole vacation was a mistake." "I don't suppose it matters that you were right." The words caught in her throat. "You were right then, dammit.
You said it would end in chaos and sorrow and despair. It did. You said he would leave, and he did.
You were right. Are you happy? Does it matter now?" Mark dropped the tire iron and sunk to his knees in front of her. Her body racked with the sobs, her hands clenched at her sides, and her face twisted with anguish. Slowly, he reached up to her face with one hand, and with a finger pushed back back the escaped lock of hair. Drops of water fell from its end, landing on her shoulder and disappearing in the cotton of her hoodie. Her trembles lessened with his touch, and she stared directly at him, defying her emotion's influence as best she could.
"No," he said, "it doesn't matter now, and I'm not happy. I'm sorry Karen." He wanted to tell her how it still hurt him, but he couldn't. Instead, he helped her up. He began turning away, but she placed a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. She pulled herself flat against him, her head turned sideways against his chest. "You were right. I'm sorry I didn't listen then, and I am sorry I didn't pay attention today.
Do you forgive me?" "I wasn't right to be cruel, and you were right, I should have made it clear that I wanted you to take over. I can't not forgive you. Do you forgive me?" She held him tighter and whispered, "Yes." They continued to stand there, holding one another, the flat tire temporarily forgotten. She felt so small in his arms, but at the same time, he found her weight against him fulfilling.
"Karen, we're getting soaked." She hummed consent. He loosened his hold on her and gently pushed her back, holding her at arm's length. "Get back in the car and try not to wiggle too much while I get this tire changed." "I still want to help." Alright," he handed her the tire iron, "get those lug nuts loosened while I place the jack." Sliding the jack under the car with practiced expertise, Mark watched Karen out of the corner of his eye.
A few more dripping locks hung in front of her face, adding emphasis to the momentary strain before each lug nut gave off, accompanied by a soft groan of exertion. By the time she had loosened the last lug nut, the scissor jack started lifting the wheel off the ground.
As he continued cranking, she slid off her light blue hoodie, tossing it onto the roof of the car, where it landed heavily. Underneath, she wore an embroidered peachy baby-doll tee perfectly matched to her white tapered jeans. Mark tried not to stare at the way the tee clung to her skin.
Now, free of the heavy soaked garment, she walked over to where the spare rested, and hefted it so that it rested against her hip as she walked back up to the car. "Got this thing airborne yet," she asked, "or have you been to busy staring at my boobs?" She flashed a sultry smile that feigned innocence.
Mark stumbled, caught off guard, "I. I wasn't, I would never. You're doing it again." "Doing what?" "You're teasing me. You are leading me on. You know what it does to me when you do that." "Sorry, you know it's an old habit." "They have a name for people like you." "I'm sure they have lots.
What would you call me?" Mark wrestled the wheel off the lugs and lifted it into the vacant space left by the spare, brushing past Karen's shoulder.
"They might call you a coquette or a tease, but I would also call you a friend, if a rather difficult one." "Would a difficult friend help you change your tire in the middle of the rain?" She asked as she wiggled the spare into place and started threading the nuts on.
Bending down beside her to start lowering the jack, he whispered in her ear, "The one I keep trying not to fall for would most certainly help me. She wouldn't even realize what she was doing to me half the time, just like I don't realize what I do to her until afterwards." "Now who's leading who on, mister? Get this thing back on four wheels; I'm all wet." "OK then." He twisted the jack's crank faster, and the wheel settled down onto the pavement.
She reached for the tire iron in front of her, but he snatched it from her, and handed her the jack instead. "Now what?" she sighed. "Nothing, I'm just fussy is all. I'll tighten things up, and you take care of that." "OK then." She rolled her eyes and muttered something about boys and their cars, then stopped. Something wasn't right. She couldn't figure out how the jack fit back in the small compartment.
She tried rotating and twisting the jack, but she couldn't get it to secure itself anywhere. As she finished her vain survey, Mark gave a grunt, and then appeared above the side of the car. He tossed the iron on top of the tire and turned to her. "Something the matter?" "It won't go in." "Did you think I was going to give you the easy job after all the complaining you did?" He took the jack and carefully latched it into the stamped steel crevice with vertical twist, then released the latch holding the hood open.
It fell shut with a bang that made Karen jump. "Get in, and don't forget your sweat-shirt." They settled back into the car, and Karen went to work on the GPS. He drove slower now, relaxed, paying less attention to the road and more to the surrounding country. The Tennessee Hills were verdant, vibrant even in the storm-light. She placed the GPS back so they could both see it, saying nothing.
As they drove on, he pointed out a redbud that passed under the headlight's gaze. Slowly the rain eased, fading to nothing more than the dripping of the wet leaves overhead. Karen reached between his lazy shifts and turned the radio on.
Static. She switched to the CD player. A softly strumming guitar hummed out of the speakers accompanied by Garfunkel singing of juniper and lamplight. The last time she had heard this song was when he had driven her home all those years ago, back when they were still kids.
Surely it was coincidence. But no, the next song was from then too, and the third. She began to suspect it was one of his mix discs of which he was so fond. In her head, she began listing the tracks, looking for a narrative that would give away the disc's identity.
She thought of asking, but that felt awkward. Besides, if she could find the subtle clues, she would have an answer. First there was the growing hope, then euphoria followed by collapse, and finally an anthem.
She gasped: It was the disc he had made for her, or perhaps more accurately, about her. She had to ask, but she couldn't. She kept saying to herself, "On the next song." The next song would come, and she would listen intently. Hindsight bade it clear, allowed it to tug at her, pulling her back. The back road gave way to urban grid, and buildings replaced the trees, but she hardly noticed until they pulled up to one of those chain hotels with the small pool, included continental breakfast, and always an empty room.
He coasted into a parking place and pulled the e-brake to his left, which fell back to the floor as if broken, and killed the engine. He grabbed his coat from behind his seat as he got out, and walked around to meet Karen. "Here," he said, proffering his jacket, "It's cold, your shirt is still soaked, and I don't want you giving whoever is manning the front desk a reason to be distracted." "You mean you don't want to be distracted." She said, draping the coat about her.
He didn't respond, but instead grabbed their suitcases from the trunk. Once in their room, he dropped his suitcase on the first bed and hers on the second. He kicked off his shoes, and switched on a number of the small lamps around the austere room, giving it an almost warm glow. "I figured you would like a hot shower to warm up," Mark said, "so go ahead. I'll wait." "You go first. I don't think I can stand any more water falling on me, no matter the temperature." He raised his eyebrows, but started pulling pajamas out of his suitcase slowly.
"Besides," she said as she turned away from him, "I'll be fine once." As he watched, stunned, she pulled off her tee shirt and unhooked her bra, letting both fall to a pile on the floor. As his eyes traced the immaculate contours of her pale skin, he heard the rustle of a button coming undone, and the rip of a zipper falling, preceded by her pants in a fraction of a second. She stood there a moment, hidden only behind the dark blue lace of her thong and the rumpled jeans around her ankles.
As she stepped out of the discarded pants, she heard the shower running. Frowning, she turned around, and then laughed.
He had left his pajamas at the foot of the bed. Out of the corner of her suitcase she pulled out one of those books with a lanky woman in Victorian dress pressed firmly to a nearly naked and ridiculously muscled man adorning the cover.
She lay down on her side, with her feet playing with the pillows, and opened to her bookmark. Almost immediately, she closed it, too distracted to read.
She rolled to her back and looked absently at the ceiling, waiting for Mark to finish his shower. What did she think she was going to do?
Fuck him? Maybe that was why she had suggested the trip in the first place. Still fuck was to crude, and he wouldn't go for that: she meant to much to him, and if that was all she had wanted, she was adapt enough at getting it without all the pretenses. No, she wanted to fall for him again, to give in to her heart this time instead of her fears. Would he fall for her too? She prayed so.
This time things would be right. There wouldn't be anyone else, and she wouldn't be afraid. But what was she going to do? He wouldn't move first, not after the way she had hurt him so long ago. Having listened to that CD, she knew he hadn't, and never would forget. He was tough, such was evident.
But he was also compassionate, thoughtful, resourceful. How had she missed out on five years of him?
She sat up and put the book back in it's corner, and dug out her own pajamas. The shower died, and a moment later he walked out, his towel around his waist. Without a word, she walked by him, head held high, conscious of her unsupported breasts jiggling with each step.
He gave her one smooth glance, and despite the blood rising to his cheeks, held her gaze. She dropped hers, only to notice his abs. She had never thought of him with abs. The sight further agitated the something stirring deep within her, and she hurried to the bathroom, hoping the shower would settle her mind. It had no such effect.
The running water only excited her, reminding her of her own body.
She quickly scrubbed her body, chasing suds along its length. Stepping out of the shower, she pulled on her pajamas. As she dried her hair, she modeled them in the mirror, thinking of how he would see them. The bottoms were made of a thick white flannel imprinted with hearts. They sat respectably high, but were irresponsibly short, barely covering her ass. The top would have been more respectable, had its hot pink fabric not clung so tight. Risqué, she thought, and smiled to herself.
Walking back to the room, Karen noticed Mark had turned off all but one light. She found him curled on his side towards the aisle between the beds, apparently already asleep.
She wasn't surprised; it had been a long day. Carefully, she pulled back the covers on the other side of his bed and slipped in. Guiltily, she slid her arm over his side. She laid her fingers across his stomach, and sighed. She was starting to drift off when he rolled to face her, his eyes fluttering.
For a moment, he just looked at her, eyes half-focused and mouth smiling. Then he sat bolt upright, his breathing coming faster. She followed slower. "Mark," she intoned, her voice soft and low, almost husky, "it's okay. I shouldn't be here, and I'll leave. Sorry." He laid a hand on her thigh as she started to twist away.
"No," he muttered, shaking his head, "that won't be necessary, at lest not yet. Tell me, what are you doing here?" She didn't answer right away, but instead just massaged his shoulder absentmindedly. When she answered, her voice was more distant.
"I've been thinking Mark: Do you love me?" "Karen, I don't quite follow. Do I really have to answer that question?" "Yes." "I can't," "Why not?" He leaned back and sighed, "Please." She only continued to look at him, her face set with just the right mix of determination and puppy-dog eyes.
"Because I can't live through that twice. I have been so long forgetting." "Forgetting what?" Mark turned his head away, avoiding her glance, and sighed again before answering with obvious apprehension, "Forgetting you. There was so much to forget: the way our conversations weighed inside my memory, the excitement of seeing you for the first time each day followed by the ache of the smile left on my face after we went our separate ways at the end of the day.
There was the pride of giving you a ride home and the thrill of finding new music together. I had grown accustomed to all this, not to mention the way you could comfort me, or the way you took my hand or kissed my cheek as rain fell in the dark outside my truck.
When you left I had to forget all this." "I had to forget it all, because when you left me, the memories began to override my mind. As if a personal devil was setting to ruin me, my every idle moment filled with reminisces of me and you. I lay awake at night for hours, and when I finally did fall asleep, I slept curled against a coldness which radiated from a hole in my chest. My simple wishes had permuted into dangerous desires, and I had no other way to combat them." "At first, I still saw you every day, and it amplified your unavailability.
You still went to hug me, and wanted to talk, but you had laid that line that for you meant no more than that, and for me meant not even that. If you and I were to be friends, I had to forget what had almost been.
Even later, as I dated other women, ever time things started to get serious, I would remember you, and know that what I had wasn't love, it wasn't what I had in my heart for you.
It took me so long to move on, too long." She didn't immediately resume the conversation as he slipped into silence. Sitting beside him, she felt the same sorrow in him she blindly created all those years ago. Slowly, she rested her hand on his shoulder, comforting him in the only way she knew how. Out of the corner of his eye, Mark caught her rising a few inches and leaning closer to him. Involuntarily, he turned his head the few degrees necessary for her kiss to fall on his cheek.
Despite his open eyes, he saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing but the warm, moist outline of her lips lighting on his skin and, after an incalculable time, pulling away. As he turned to her, she smiled sheepishly and whispered, "I love you. How could I not?" He laid his hand along her jaw, stroking her cheek with a rough thumb.
"I love you too, but I know how you used to profess your love, and how it often differs from how I say it." His eyes bore into her, searching her soul. Finally he said, "But I trust you." She returned his gaze, feeling a little of the apprehension he had felt earlier. "Kiss me." He nodded, and then his lips brushed across hers like ether, sending shivers down her spine. Her lips tingled, and she froze, caught between the foreignness of his lips and her desire: the desire to yield to temptation, to give in to pleasure, her desire for him.
He pulled back, and she saw in his eyes the same desire that threatened to overwhelm her. It was more than she could resist, and truth be told, she didn't want to anymore. Her fingers curled into the fabric of his shirt, pressing against the underlying flesh. Almost of one mind, they fell back onto one another. He cradled her head in his hands, his fingers woven into her hair, whispering something sweet before resuming his kiss.
Now his lips explored hers, taking in their succulent curves and tender pliancy. Her lips parted as his touches crumbled the fading boundary between them, starting with the placement of the tip of his tongue on hers.
The touch differed in shade from anything she had experienced before, and she reveled in its distinctness, thrilled as he initiated the improvised dancing which carried the sweet taste of his mouth to hers, and in reciprocation hers to him. With the fading of inhibitions, a hand fell from her hair, lazily tracing a switch-backed path down, resting momentarily cupped against the outer curve of her breast. A moan of satisfaction caught between them, and she relaxed against his support.
After resting a moment, his hand resumed its downward trek, sliding across the clinging tee's fabric like a delicate instrument reading calmly across a sculpted surface. Karen gasped, the engine inside her feeding on the energy, roaring for more.
She climbed on top of him, straddling his hips, and pulled off his shirt, casting it aside. Seconds later, her own landed beside his. She leaned over him, dragging her supple breasts along his bare chest. He grabbed them, guiding her up until one dark nipple was bathed in his warm breath.
A moan, low and primitive, rose from somewhere deep inside her as Mark pressed his lips to and over the unblooming bud. His teeth gently pressed against the taught flesh, and his tongue danced circles over the captured nipple. Finishing with the first, he moved over, repeating his actions with the second. She pressed tight against him, and he felt her heat coursing into him, multiplying with his own. The rolled over and mark started working his way down her pale flesh, following the tight curve of her belly to its lowest point, and then dropping lower.
Stopping briefly, he tore off the impeding shorts, which landed on the other bed. Karen spread her legs and slid a hand under the sheer fabric of her panties, her eyes beckoning and wild, her lips parted. He resumed his work pushing her hand to one side. Her scent, salty and savory, filled his nostrils as his light kisses fell down over her dark trimmed hair. Then her hands where on him, pulling him back up to kiss her lips again. Now her hands fled down him, over his chest and down, and he felt her tug at the pajama pants' drawstring.
Her fingers wrapped around his manhood as she guided it out of its trapped position, and began to work the loose skin up and down the nearly rigid core. With each passing stoke, Mark felt himself losing his freewill, only able to concentrate on her work. A guttural rumble escaped him, and she smiled. "Are you ready?" She asked. Mark nodded, and she pulled off the last of his clothing. She giggled when she saw he had trimmed his hair into a downward dagger, and then bent to kiss his tip.
She licked around his ridge once, bottom to top to bottom, and then straight up over the slit. Pre-cum, thin in her mouth, tasted sweet. Feeling her nectar spreading along her inner thighs, she reached down and brought a sample to her mouth, puckering her lips around her finger as she juxtaposed their fluids.
"I hope your ready." Licking her lips, she purred, "Are you?" She lay on her back, legs spread, begging his entrance, and he slowly lowered himself over her.
He felt her breath hot and heavy on his cheek as he slipped into her enveloping warmness. His kisses landed in counterpoint to his thrusts, and she played accompaniment with her nails across the skin of his back. In the near silence, it was as if an opera was playing out between them. Karen crested and fell, moving ever higher, closer to completion.
He was good, she thought, better than expected, but he didn't have quite the touch she need to surmount the rising pleasure. Not yet anyways. She smiled at the thought as they rolled over, imagining already a second and a third and a fiftieth time. Now on top, he settled deep within her. Slowly, she began to work herself along the length of his shaft, tilting and rocking her hips in time to the crashing waves building in her.
Her face grew drawn as her eyes shut and her mouth turned down in gasping ecstasy. Distantly she heard his moans and felt his shuddering release. Then she collapse against him, unable to experience any more. For a few moments, they simply held one another, letting the fire that had consumed extinguish in the ebbing peace that inundated them.
Their limbs slowly re-entangled as they felt each felt each other in the post-coital glow. His hands ran over her sweaty flesh, known to him now, but somehow still mysterious and alien. How beautiful, to be able to make the closest study, and still find more with every subsequent pass!
His hand rested a moment over the top of her hips, and then caressed her buttocks and her smooth thighs. In their ever-newness, he found eternity. Her faint, catching breaths broke the silence. Mark didn't need to ask what it was, or why she had to fight to control her emotions. Instead, he placed one finger over her luscious lips and whispered to her, "It's alright." He pulled her close, only half feeling the heave of her breast against him.
She kissed his cheek and hugged herself closer, as if hanging on to a lifesaver in rough seas. "Karen?" He spoke softly. "Yes?" "Thank-you. You were, you are, wonderful." A simple smile crossed her face, and she gave a meek laugh, "Thank-you sir. You weren't half-bad either." Mark lay with his arms wrapped around Karen until her breathing slipped into the deep cycle that comes with sleep.
Then, making sure not disturb her, he carefully extracted himself and sat up. He stood and walked around the bed, retrieving his boxers from where they lay discarded on the floor.
Sliding them on, he switched the last lamp off, leaving the room in shades of night blue. He started toward the high-backed chair which sat angled in one corner of the room, but halted as he passed a small mirror on the wall.
He turned to face the mirror, unsure what he expected to see, half expecting his face to be changed by the night's events. Perhaps he expected so see a subtle change of simple satisfaction, or perhaps he imagined a conspiratorial smile winking at the world. Maybe it would simply be him, staring back with five o'clock shadow. Instead, a wide-eyed gaze peered back out, focused somewhere far behind him. The cheeks were drained of all color, and the mouth frowned. He stood there, staring at the person staring out of the glass.
A tear escaped, leaving a glistening track in its wake as it ran over the sallow cheek and across the corner of the flat mouth. It dripped away, falling out of sight, and another followed. Mark tasted salt. He shuffled to the chair, settling in it absently. He cried.