Two sounds, like loud knocks, echo in the night, first one then a few seconds later the other one. Silence followed.
The sun rose on a lonely house, set apart from the rest of the world by fields as far as the eye could see in two directions, trees in a third and a large pond behind it. A red dirt road split one field, leading from the house to a crumbling blacktop few people traveled. A slight breeze blew through tall grass; leaves shivered on trees; ripples swam along the surface of the pond.
June sat in her usual chair, an ancient faded yellow seat with a hardback and worn cushion. It had been crushed velvet at one time but was now mostly matted. A glass of warm tea sat on a small end table next to her. A book sat open in her lap, her hand on one page. Her glasses lay on the floor. Without them she couldn’t read.
John sat across from her in a brown recliner that was more comfortable than the seat June preferred. Like June, a glass of tea sat on a small table next to him. A cigarette burned to the filter but barely smoked sat on a saucer next to the glass. A gun sat in his lap.
He stared at his wife of sixty-three years. She stared back. Neither of them spoke.
John smacked his dry lips, sniffled. His head hurt and his world was a fog. His right eye was blurry.
“Is your eye bothering you?”
John blinked. It would do no good, but he still did it. Habit, he guessed.
“Weren’t we supposed to go somewhere today?”
“Yes. To Miller’s house.”
She blinked. A frown crossed her face. “Who is Miller?”
It was John’s turn to frown. The years hadn’t been kind to her mind. It was bad enough age took away her ability to do most things, but now it ate at her brain and more times than not, June was in her own world.
“Miller is our son, June. We told him we would visit today. “
She nodded. “When are we going?”
“Now is as good a time as any.”
For a few minutes longer, John stared at June. She had been beautiful in his eyes from the day he met her at a roller rink when they were in their teens. Even now, with age, life, and a horrible wound having deformed her face, she still held him captive. Her night dress was stained, and her slippers were old. What was left of her hair was a white/red tint. Still, she was his June, even if everything he loved about her was mostly gone.
He stood slowly, his old bones not what they used to be. He went to June and held out one knobby, arthritic hand.
“Let’s go, June.”
She looked at his hand. Her brow creased. “Where are we going?”
He smiled as sweetly as he could. “A walk.”
She looked down. She tugged on her night clothes. “In this? I can’t go out in this.”
“You look beautiful. “
“I look like a hag.”
“No, June. You’re beautiful. Don’t you want to get some air?”
She blinked. He saw the sudden transition. He saw her mind flip as it did so frequently now. The clothes and how she looked was a distant memory for her, but his question, his hand out in front of her, was still there. She reached up and took it. With a little effort, he pulled her to her feet.
“Where are we going?”
“Outside for some air.”
Their feet slid across the floor almost silently. When they reached the door, John opened it. With one hand on June’s elbow, he led her onto the porch. They walked to the steps and stopped.
“Don’t forget to close the door, John. “
John turned back to see the door already shut.
“It’s closed, dear. “
He thought the steps would be tricky, but they took all five of them with ease, him still holding her elbow and them taking each step one at a time.
“Where are we going?”
He looked at his wife, at the confusion in her dull eyes. Her memory was shot, and it didn’t matter what he said, she would ask some variation of the same question again and again and again.
“For a walk, dear. “
Up the dirt driveway they went, longtime lovers at the tail end of their lives. John blinked several times. The blurry eye was worse, as if something was in it. The fog in his head grew thicker.
They reached the road and stopped. June was lost again, her eyes vacant, her jaw slack.
“Come on, June,” he said and took her hand. He pulled her gently into the road.
“Where are we?”
He looked back to the house, blinked several times, and shook his head. The house was faded, as was the tall grass on either side of the driveway. The sky was a pastel blue. Though the breeze still made the grass sway, he didn’t feel it on his skin or in his silver hair. The sun hung directly overhead but he didn’t feel the warmth of it. He looked down. Where shadows should have been, there were none.
John rubbed his eye. His fingers came away sticky and red. He took a deep breath, something he no longer needed to do. He looked at his wife with tears in his eyes. June’s ruined head bled where the bullet went into her temple and out the other side just below the ear.
“I don’t know, ” he said and rubbed the side of his head. “I guess we’re … gone”
He took her hand again and they started up the road.
“Where are we going?”
“Wherever you want.”
While at a show by one of our favorite local artists who was flying solo that night, Jeff Pitts played a cover of The Way by Fastball. I always liked the song, but for some reason, it hit me differently that night.
In my mind, I saw an elderly couple walking down a road that was crumbling blacktop. They held hands like old lovers. It was a sweet image, but it was also sad. You see, in the image there were no shadows cast by their bodies. They were ghosts, which meant neither of them were alive.
My mind started adding little details to the image. The woman had a vacant stare, the man was terribly sad. It dawned on me then that he had killed his wife, then killed himself. However, this wasn’t a crime of anger or hate or even just being tired of being married. It was a moment of mercy for the woman and an instant of sad resolve for the man.
I made a couple of notes on my phone about the song, some of the lyrics and the story I thought of. Then I looked up the song to find out what it was really about. Turns out, it’s based on the true events of an elderly couple who took a drive and never came home. She had Alzheimer’s and he recently had brian surgery. They were later found 400 or so miles from home in their car where they wrecked. Neither had survived the accident.
I debated writing the story after learning the inspiration for the song. In the end, the day after hearing The Way played by Jeff Pitts, I sat at my kitchen table, phone in my hand, typing the story into a notes program as Fastball’s version played on a loop in my earbuds.