Chris Angotti, over at National Novel Writing Month, issued a challenge … go to Wikipedia, hit “Random” and take what you’re given. Write a scene or a story. It sounded like a good idea at the time, so I did it. I got “New York State Route 9J.” Well, the state highway, re-numbered with that designation in 1930, runs from Stockport, New York all the way to Rensselaer. It got me thinking. At first it got me thinking, “Sheesh … thanks…” But, at 11:30 last night, it got me thinking more. And by 12:30am, I had posted this on his challenge blog at http://www.nanowrimo.org. I liked it. So, I’m sharing it here.
It’s just a ribbon of road,” she said, swinging her feet aimlessly back and forth beneath the back bumper of my father’s Ford pickup on which we sat. I didn’t look at her, but simply trained my eyes down that ribbon of road—looking north out of Stuyvesant, New York, and into the beyond.
“It’s not the road,” I said simply, and I felt my lip curl as I finally looked at her, “it’s what’s at the end of it.”
Holly shrugged. “Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,” she said, her voice still light. She turned to look at me and I felt those thousands of things I’d always felt when she looked
at me. Her eyes were clear blue, her hair the color of straw ripened in the summer sunlight. Her smile was her dagger, though she didn’t know it. August. 1937. My
time to leave.
“Rensselaer,” I agreed, trying to smile, but something inside stopped me.
I looked away from her, back up the state highway, 9J, they’d called
it. “You could come with –“
Her laugh stopped me mid-sentence. “Elias Boedeker,” she
laughed with a shake of her head, “you must think I believe you hung the moon
to talk like that.” She shook her head again and looked down at her feet, still swinging. I watched her smile fade. I watched her hand, her fingers wrapped against the tailgate, move closer to mine. “No one really leaves Stuy…”
“Someday you will,” I tried to joke as I inched my fingers closer to hers. Ten thousand more thoughts coursed through my brain as my hand brushed hers.
“We’re nearly ready,” Jim Benson said beside me. I looked down as his hand came toward me—a thick pair of goggles intertwined in his fingers. “You’ll want to make sure you’re wearing these,” he continued. I took the goggles and muttered my thanks as I put them on—watching as he slid his own goggles over his eyes.
“What if it doesn’t stop?” I tried to make my voice light and conversational, but the hesitation on Jim’s face told me I had failed.
“Theoretical physics,” he chuckled nervously.
I drew a breath and tried to smile. “Math doesn’t lie,” I started.
“Daddy wouldn’t like it if we held hands,” she said simply, not withdrawing her hand.
“No,” I agreed, “he wouldn’t.”
Holly Minsen smiled as I wrapped my pinkie around hers. “What’s out there for you, Eli?” she continued softly, cocking her head to look at me.
“The future,” I replied evasively.
“I wish your future was here.” There was a note of regret in her voice. Perhaps I only dreamed it. I could still feel the warmth of her little finger wrapped around mine.
“I’ll light up the sky for you,” I whispered.
“What?” Jim chuckled.
“Oh,” I said, startled. I could feel the heat rush into my cheeks. “Nothing.”
“Never can tell about you New York RPI boys,” Jim laughed as he moved closer to the thick-paned window at thefront of the bunker. I watched Jim turn over his wrist. “Two minutes, boys,” he continued. “Get into position.”
I willed my legs to move forward—the stark sunlight burning the sand beyond the bunker, a lone tower visible beyond, caught in the lenses of my binoculars.
“I think your math’s off, by the way,” Jim said softly before he drew back.
“I hope you’re right,” I muttered.
“I’m always right,” Holly Minsen smiled as she swung herself down from the tailgate and turned to face me. The sun was behind her. God help me, I could see her legs through her dress. “If you run off, what will your folks do? Your daddy can’t run the farm alone.”
Dear, God, she’s speaking, but I can’t hear a word. She’s moving in the sunlight and all I want to do is hold her – her – not her hand. Kiss her – her – not her hand….
“Elias,” her voice is softer now—I imagine like a prayer. “Elias…”
All is sunlight; brilliant, bright sunlight all around her—the warmth of it teases me, tempts me, tricks me…
I look down and feel Jim Benson’s fingers pressing bruises into my arm. Beyond the glass, the whitest light—like angels, like Heaven—boiling the atmosphere…rises up….
“Jim!” I yell. “Don’t look at it!” I can feel my hands grabbing at him, turning him.
“My eyes!” He screams, his voice pure agony.
We stagger as the concussion wave slams the bunker, driving desert sand before it—blasting us with bits of rock and glass. I pull Jim toward the floor.
“It won’t stop….”
“You’ll do us proud, son.” I hear my father’s voice as we ride in his pickup down that ribbon of road—leaving Stuyvesant for real—skirting the Hudson River, trees and farmland, the languid movement of the river sleepy in August.; the sun still warm.
“The farm,” I mutter.
My father chuckles. “You’re made for different things, Eli. You’ll make a larger mark.”
I don’t answer. I sail my hand out the window as the truck moves easily toward Rensselaer—waving my fingers up and down on currents of air.
I glance up in time to see the new historical marker the state has erected along 9J; something about the Stockport-Stuyvesant Line in 1833. It’s forgotten now…like so much history. My dad catches me looking.
“History,” I chuckle with a lopsided grin
My dad returns the smile as we turn around the next bend. “It won’t stop–”
“Boedeker.” His voice is so soft I scarcely hear it. I can hear Jim sobbing. I feel a hand against my shoulder. I look up, willing my eyes to adjust in the shifting light.
“Sir,” I start, my voice unsteady.
The man beside me has shed his goggles. His thin face is drawn with worry, his black hair wild and unkempt. “We need to make a report,” he continues, his voice still soft.
“Yes, sir,” I agree. My arms wrap more tightly around Jim’s trembling form. “Benson, sir,” I falter.
I watch as he removes Jim’s goggles and nods grimly. “He’ll survive it,” he whispers. He shoots me an enigmatic smile. “Your math was off,” he says simply.
“Thank God, sir,” I reply, my voice breathless.
I watch his expression darken suddenly, worryingly.
My hand closes around the worn leather Bible my father presses into my hand. “You should keep this,” he says simply.
My hand plays at the book for a moment. “Yes, sir.”
The large, black sedan speeds down a ribbon of road—mesquite and sand dunes flanking the asphalt. I see no trees, no softly flowing river. This ribbon does not tie me to home.
We file in. There is a woman at a radio. The room is darkened, deadened with a sense
of foreboding. There are no smiles. No congratulatory laughter. The scene reeks of failure.
“Your message, sir?” she asks, her voice light.
He pulls a paper from his pocket. “Only this,” he replies.
I watch as she takes the paper and stares down at it for a moment. Her
brow furrows. “Sir?” she inquires, her voice nervous.
He leans closer. “Death, Miss Linn,” he replies, his voice steeped in despair, “a destroyer of worlds.”
“My world,” I whisper, my hand tight around the handle of my suitcase before I set it down before the gate of home.
The ribbon of road has brought me back to Stuyvesant, and not. Because no one ever really leaves….