It's been nearly three years since I packed that black duffel bag in the late hours of the night a week after my grandmother's funeral. Within a week, cousins and uncles came out of the woodworks pulling her will apart and tearing her beloved hundred acres and home into scraps for the dogs. I'd thrown that bag into the trunk of the trusty, gun metal gray Dart and rode out of town like a common thief, but I was no thief.
I was not running off to be with a boy who was waiting in a Mustang. After my grandmother's funeral, there was no happy ever after for me. I'd left and never looked back until now as I rode down Highway 16 in my hometown of Pace Springs, Mississippi. It was a letter picked up from a post office in Little Rock, Arkansas dated six months previous that simply said "Come home, you're needed." And here I was back in the dead of night like a common thief again in the same Dart a little worse for wear but still alive.
The streetlights of the small town passed behind me as I went over the bridge that led into the beginnings of the Mississippi Delta, the home of cotton and churches. I took the right turn past the bridge and went straight by the old liquor store my mother used to frequent. It was now boarded up and its sign hanging crooked from the loose screws. The small town was slowly dying with all the bigger town businesses and factories moving down south.
Heart's "Crazy on You" played prominently on low volume through the old speakers of the car as I took the turns I needed to get to my destination. The once bustling town square was still the same, but was quiet in the night air. I took the old loop around. At the stop sign exiting the town square I looked at my watch reading 11:14 pm. She would hopefully still be up. Before pulling through the stop sign, I pulled my hair into a low ponytail at the base of my neck. It was long, well past my waist and now back to its natural sandy blonde.
I got to Highway 345, looking at the industrial complex with most of the factories being empty. A lot had changed in three years. What was once a bustling place with 18-wheelers and delivery trucks was now a barren area of mostly empty warehouses. I went underneath interstate 85 and past the highway patrol office on the hill. The road curved around past that point and over by the county jail and the airport. The blue search light at the far end of the runway still shined like a beacon sweeping over the road and the airport as it made its rounds. I never could understand why they would build a jail near the airport.
I rolled down the window feeling the brisk autumn air pull small pieces of hair from my ponytail and blowing them into my face. I pulled them behind my left ear and took a quick breath taking in the scents of manure and fallow fields. The air was damp meaning rain was not far away. I slowed down at the bridge and hit the blinker by the old store beside her parents' trailer. I parked the car in the circular driveway underneath the limbs of the one still living willow tree in her front yard. The trees were the only thing that ever changed in her yard.
I walked up the wheelchair ramp that was there for her mother. The old electric wheelchair still sat on the front porch to the far right side in front of a dilapidated white beach chair. I opened up the storm door and knocked on the etched glass of the inside door. I heard the television playing softly from the living room.
The door opened slowly and I saw the wrinkled and lined face of her stepfather. He was still tall, but stooped at the shoulders. The three years I had been gone had not been kind to him. His hair was not brown anymore, but gray. The acrid smell of mold and cigarette smoke flowed out from the open door.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
I clasped my hands together in front of me. His eyes squinted in the dull, yellow light from the light fixture overhead trying to take a good look at me. I knew I had changed a lot in previous years. I was no longer a chunky awkward girl of twenty two. I was woman now twenty five. I no longer wore glasses, but had opted for green contacts two years previous.
"Mr. McDonald, it's me. Lillian Henderson," I answered.
"Lily?" he asked looking at me perplexed still eyeing me in the washed out light.
"Yeah, it's me."
His mouth moved up and down silently. He was at a loss for words. I could understand why considering that no one in Pace Springs had seen or heard from me in three years. Mr. McDonald was always a quiet man. I remembered he had a bit of a mean streak him in sometimes when the mood hit.
"Is Michelle home?" I asked breaking the awkward silence.
He sniffled, rubbing his nose and stepped to the side to let me in. I stepped in through the door and heard the click of a switch behind me. Muted light flooded through the room. The brand new couches were now old and worn. The foam mattress still lay in the middle of the living room floor.
"How is Mrs. McDonald doing?" I broached gently.
He came around me and sat down on the couch that ran a long wall pulling his Doral cigarette pack and lighter off the table. He lit one and took a drag before answering me.
"She passed away last year. Her other aneurism busted," he said gruffly.
He pointed to the chaise lounge behind me to take a seat.
"Where is Michelle? Does she still live here?" I asked.
"Michelle moved out two years ago and married some asshole. Ain't talked to 'er since," he said puffing smoke out through his nose, "Didn't even come to her own mama's funeral."
"Who did she marry?"
"Gabriel O'Donnell, everyone called 'im Gabe. Some hooligan from up around Memphis way."
He punched his spent cigarette butt into the glass ashtray on the coffee table and sniffed once not speaking again. I sat there for a minute listening to the off second ticking of the stand up clock near the couch he sat on. I cleared my throat and grabbed my keys that sat beside me on the chaise I was sitting on.
"I'm gonna go. I'll come by and talk to you another time," I said standing up.
He got up from where he was sitting and opened the door walking outside with me.
"If you stay around long enough, you can find 'er and talk some sense into the girl," he offered.
I walked down the raised pathway back to my car and waved to him getting into my car. I headed out of his driveway heading left on Highway 345. "Tuesday's Gone" played on the radio. I chuckled lightly as my watch beeped midnight signaling it was now Wednesday. Tuesday was really gone now. The certified letter sat tucked into my blue jean messenger bag further down on the seat on the passenger side. I saw the sign that signaled where the highway forked. A road veered to the right and up the hill and turned to go around Syracuse Dam. The other curved sharply and went around the spillway to go into the sleepy town that shared the name of the dam. I opted to go towards Syracuse and pick up a cheap motel room to stay in for the night.
I drove along the curves in the road thinking of the times that Michelle, Nadia and me had ridden them when everything was simpler and we were but three girls on the cusp of womanhood. We rode along the bumpy highway singing any song on the radio at the top of our lungs. At sixteen, "Love is a Battlefield" was our anthem. At seventeen and eighteen, it was Ben Benassi's version of "Sweet Dreams." I looked towards the next right and saw that the old skate rink was still standing. It was closed now. I remembered receiving my first kiss after falling off my skates under the disco ball while "Kiss From a Rose" played. That was a special moment at fifteen. Every part of my life had a song that fit it. At that moment, the radio was quiet. The only music to me at that moment was the sound of the wind through the window and the crickets chirping in the cool midnight air.
I hummed the notes to one of a personal favorite song of mine, going around the curves at fifty five miles per hour. One word slipped out and then another.
"You're making deals with minutes that will slip away, just slip away," I sang softly.
I saw the lights start to become numerous going into Syracuse. I had one hotel in mind where I knew I could get a decent, but cheap room.
"So starve the garden, stop the rain. Winter settles on my petals anyways, anyways," I finished singing.
The Super 8 Motel on the left now sat bare and empty, showing signs that it had been that way for a long time. I went underneath the double overpass of Interstate 85 and flipped my blinker on. The Best Western hotel was still open.