Pioneers and Pomegranates (To come in installments)

The road met the tires of Paige’s Conestoga-looking car without much sound.  Not like the night before we left.  I’ve never been any good at distinguishing makes and models based on body shape alone, but maybe it was an Explorer.  A Pioneer?  There is such a thing as a Pioneer?  I’ll have to ask when we talk next.  I remember the color resembled eroded copper.  Its metallic skin chipped and scared by years of beatings from hot salty gusts of air; the same air responsible for the windowless backseats. The hurricane drove us out.  Our ocean village fell off its supports into the water.

                We left behind people.  Those who’d decided to stay tried to rebuild what was lost, mostly old folks from church.  My parents made me attend until the day I graduated high school.  I can’t call those folks stubborn though.  I mean, I convinced Paige to stay.  I told her, “a million times that weatherman tells stories.  He’s just as good predicting the temperature as a penny on heads.  Chances are, even if he’s right, two’s not a scary number.  You remember a few years back?  A category three.  My dad took me up to his cousins.  Nothing more than a few snapped branches—

“What’s wrong?”  She wasn’t listening.  Her face revealed only a profile.  Her neck exposed and pink, met her collar bone draped in beads and shells.  Her nose, a bit pointed, flared.  Her hair looked wrapped in coils, a solid brown, covering the freckles on her cherried cheeks.  She wouldn’t let me see those yellow eyes flecked in grey that so often swallowed a room whole.

A few seconds of silence, still is all I can bear.  Paige’s silence controlled my movements.  “What’s wrong?” Again, no sound.  I lifted my weight from the chair’s forest green cushion, and heaved my torso over the edge of the table shoved against the windowed wall.  My body extended across the table, fingertips reaching toward the bent elbows of cross arms.  My face must have looked pathetic.  My ligaments contorted for attention; a faint smile managed its way out of the corner of her mouth.  “And plus, babe, Mr. Keepins scheduled me to work that night.”  Mr. Keepins, the owner of the hotel, hated employees who’d call out.

“I’ve got a gut feeling, Reed.  We need to get out of here,” Paige said.

I twisted off my stomach and onto my back.  She looked down on me.  There’s not much arguing over a person’s intuition.

“We’ve always wanted to get out,” she continued.  “Why not now?”

“One day, I promise.”

“One day’s promise makes every other a disappointment.  It’s April.  We’ve been out of school almost a year.  I thought by now we’d have some sort of an idea for a future.  Instead we’re stuck here on the edge of this ugly grey ocean.”  She flipped around to stare out the window.

“Let’s leave next month.  When everything is in bloom.”

“You said that the day after graduation,” Paige said.

That was also the day I moved in with Paige.  We’ve known each other since the first day of Sunday school, even got baptized together.  But after nearly two decades of being preached at, the two of us decided to rent a room in a hotel offering a monthly discounted rate.  The room overlooked the beach.

The day of the hurricane, the ocean looked frozen in place.  Stagnant heat overcast by clouds green as apples, met sand white as crystals.  The wind began to purge sand, sifting itself through a colander shaped sky.

“I want to get a shot, Reed.”  Paige picked up the camera I bought on our anniversary.  A clunky thing she picked out.

“There’s no chance.  We probably need to head down to the cellar before too long,” I said.

“It’ll take five minutes.  Stay here.”

She slid past me before I could get another word out.

The room smelled like coconuts smashed into ashtrays.  The walls were a wooden maple tint.  I remember feeling the walls shrink, absorbing into me as I waited for her to return.  I told myself I should have followed her.  My hands gripped the edge of our bed.  My feet rubbed against the yellow carpet splattered with stains colored suspiciously red.  Had it been over five minutes?  Electricity slapped water.  The storm was done warning us.  A few feet away in the kitchenette, the coffee pot blinked 12:06.  12:06.  The power must have blacked out unnoticed.  It had to be at least 3:00 in the afternoon.  I knew because the spiraled clouds hadn’t begun to drain into the empty horizon until 1:30 or so.

A scream.  Or the wind?  Another electric flash.  Paige hated when I worried.  She’d say, “It makes me think you see me as a child.  Incapable.”

I didn’t think so.  But what did that matter?  12:09. I stood up, went for the door.  The brass handle shocked my fingertips.  Blond hair just beginning to grow on my knuckles shot vertical.  Through the window I saw flickers resembling a strobe light covered in artificial fog.  12:11. I couldn’t stand a minute longer.  The door flung open.  A sign.  I had to save her.

The world outside looked like something biblical.  Just, more colorful.  Rainbows pierced out every angle in the sky.  We lived on the second floor of the walk-up style hotel.  Our door opened to the staircase leading to a small cluster of trees, giving the hotel its name: The Pomegranate Palace.  I started to shout “Paige!” when the wind whipped up.  Its violent sound drowned out my voice like deafened whispers in an opera house, coming from an audience half-watching the middle of some easily forgotten castrato tragedy.  Tears of hurricane water dribbled over my chapped lips.  I began to lose sight of the tree garden just as gusty hands clawed out leaves like lions scraping antelope bones.  Another flash.  This time not as bright.  A figure appeared through the balding trees.  Paige and her camera.  Her camera should have been ruined.  The rain became so dense; a picture would have made people question why there was no scuba gear.  Literally, an ocean sky.  Crack.  A brighter light lashed across the atmosphere.  Paige’s figure unmoved.  She wasn’t hearing me.  My arms crossed and uncrossed over my head.  She wasn’t seeing me.  Red umbrellas torpedoed through the drenched air.  Stubborn girl.  She wasn’t afraid.  I was.  Adrenaline masked as courage pumped, or rather forced my body to the stairs.  I was halfway down before Paige finally noticed.  The figure in the trees seemed to wave.  A fleeting sense of relief loosened my grip from the slippery railing in an attempt to return her salutation.  And that’s when it hit me.  The second to last step smacked the living daylights out of me.  My shoeless feet suspended in space: the last thing I saw before it all went black.

***

                “Thought you could walk on water?”  Mr. Keepins laughed, holding a bucket in his hand.

The ceiling looked pixilated as I came to.  Black orbs spotted my vision, but I could still make out the stucco ceiling dressed in silver spider webs.  I was in the cellar.  A single light bulb dangled from a chain hypnotically.  Whatever spells it cast broke fast as my head followed its pendulum pattern.  Quickly a pain comparable to a lobotomy swirled out through the lump growing on the far side of my scalp, down every vessel in my body.  I clutched my chest, and released an insufferable groan when the soaking realization—evident by the condition of my saturated clothes, hit harder than a middle-aged man belly-flopping into a pool.  I never rescued Paige.

“Where is she?” I asked in a gargling voice as I sat up.  “Paige!  Where is she?”

“Simmer down, son.  Paige is out inspecting the damage.”

“What do you mean?  The storm’s over?”

“You’ve been out for a while, you know,” he said in a tone suggesting I should.

“Then why am I still wet?  Why are we down here in this god awful basement if it’s over?”

“Don’t you use the Lord’s name in vain.  You know better.”  Mr. Keepins’ stumpy fingers wagged over me.  “You’re still wet because water seems to be the only thing that catches your attention.  I’ve done filled this bucket up seven times trying to wake you.”

“Don’t you think one of the many beds here would be a more hospitable place to bring me back into consciousness?”  I could only ask questions.  Mr. Keepins face dimmed at this one in particular.  His face never looked so hallow.  “Well?”

“Reed…”  He paused.  The silence dragged.  “Reed,” he repeated.  “Reed.”  A third time.

“Yes!  Mr. Keepins, what’s going on?”  The ridged iron door up the stairs to the left crept open.  Light brighter than any florescent seeped into my dungeon infirmary.  A band of sunlight stretched across my eyes.  The figure opening the door could only be Paige.  “Is that you, babe?”

“You’re up.  I thought you’d sleep forever,” Paige said.

“Good thing I—“

Mr. Keepins interrupted me.  “How bad is it?”  He asked.

Paige started down the steps.  Her nose pointed toward her shoes.

“Paige?”  Mr. Keepins was desperate for a response.

She reached the bottom of the steps, and stared hard into Mr. Keepins.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Keepins.  There’s nothing left up there besides jagged slabs of concrete.”

He slammed the plastic bucket onto the cemented floor, shattering it to pieces.  He shoved by me and Paige, accidently kneeing the welt swollen on my head.  The intense shock of pain put me out again.  Instantly.

I woke without help.  No one greeted me the second time.  The cellar door was propped open, and tidal sounds sloshed together with the caws of seagulls.  The sun was up.  Everything appeared filthier when lit up.  Broken furniture, ruined fabrics, and split picture frames smothered in dirt had surrounded me.  I slid my fingers through my dishwater blond hair.  Dry.  At least I was dry.  I had enough of the damp odor.  It didn’t take too long to realize I was alone.  I’d been left behind.  It wasn’t much longer before I noticed the reason I was dry.  My clothes were gone.  Completely naked, and not even a towel to wrap around my bare waist.  I called out, “Paige!”  No reply.  Maybe the adrenaline from the storm boosted my confidence despite the fact it knocked me down a tier, but my stripped body didn’t seem to have a problem being exposed in broad daylight.  The real problem showed itself the moment I crossed the cellar door.

Nothing.  Almost nothing to be seen.  The hotel, our home, gone.  A trail of splintered concrete and warped iron littered into the sea.  Good thing there had been no reservations the previous evening.  Otherwise a guest or two—at least, surely would have died in the storm.  The sky though, never even hinted at its capabilities.  Besides the rubble, the only physical evidence other than the goose egg pulsating against my brain, there was no way to tell if so much as a midday shower passed over.

In that instant I felt empty.  Everything we had, taken by the ocean.  It sank slowly.  I was homeless.  On this rare occasion I accepted silence.

A whistle, much prettier than any bird, interrupted the quiet mourning of disaster.  Paige and her camera.

“Wait for it.  I’ll flash you if you flash me,” she said like she was blind.  Could she not see The Pomegranate Palace had been flattened?

“Stop.  What’s wrong with you?  Our lives are ruined.”

“How so?  No one’s hurt…” she paused while my hand rubbed my wound.  “Badly.”

I didn’t recognize how lucky we actually were then.  A part of me knew she was right though.  “I mean—never mind.  Where are my clothes?” She pointed toward the pomegranate trees.  My clothes hung limp over one of the few remaining branches.  I walked over to where she had gone when she left me.  She followed, photographing my unadorned skin.  Both the shirt and pants were blood stained.  I slipped them on nonetheless.  No other choice really.  How in the world did she survive this?  Some of the trees torn out from their roots, and potholes collecting sludge replaced the newly vacant spaces.  The trees left standing didn’t go untouched.  Impressions of fruit marked the trunks strong enough to still stand.  Paige clicked out a few more pictures before she bent down to pick up a pomegranate.

“You know you can’t just bite into that,” I said.

“I know, but we can save it for later.”

“What’s later?”

“You mean: when’s later,” she said.

I stared directly at her, still confused by her rapport.  I almost wanted to hate her for the lack of emotion, but then again, I felt like nothing at all.  “What’s the difference, Paige?”

“Plenty.  I say later today is better than any other.”

“What’s later today?”  Still nothing but questions.

“When we should leave,” she said.

“To go where?  We have nothing to bring.”

“Not true.  We have each other,” she replied.

She knew me too well.  Any hint of romance, and I’m yours for the manipulating.  “OK.  But we still have no place to go.  What about our parents?”

“They’re fine.  We’re the idiots who stayed in town.  And before you say anything about Mr. Keepins, he’s decided to let us go.  So don’t worry about the job anymore.”

“The missing hotel was the first tipoff in that department, darling.”  Our voices began to resemble the banter we were accustomed to.  “But really, where can we go?”

“Anywhere.”  Before I could say another thing more, she grabbed my hand, and led me to her Conestoga car.  “And hey, you’re already packed.”

The concussion on my head pounded too hard for me to want to relive its origins by asking what happened after I slipped.  So I let the conversation end there without any further explanation.

She parked across the street in a gravel lot.  Obviously she’d seen it since the storm, because when we reached it not even a gasp escaped her lungs.  The back windows were missing.  Shattered by debris.  I stood static.  She hopped in the driver’s seat.  Glass must have lined the inside of the car.  No way did the windows burst from the inside out.  Nothing large enough or close enough explained the damage.  A honk.  She tilted her head with an impatient sarcasm telling me to get in; it’s already been taken care of.  I let the mental investigation rest, jumped in the passenger seat, and beat my palm against the outside of the door.  We drove out of town without any sense of direction.

“I just want a few good stories.  We can go anywhere as long as we can find that,” Paige said as we crossed over the town limits.

***

                “I’m hungry.  Can we stop soon?”  I asked Paige.

“Reed, I won’t tell you again.  We only have a little over a hundred bucks left.  We’re gonna have to ration.”

“But I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.  It’s almost dinner time.”  I wouldn’t look at her when I complained.

“Next time I tell you to stay, then you better stay.  If you hadn’t tried to come after me, maybe you’d have grabbed your wallet instead of almost killing the two of us.”  Paige kept her eyes focused on the one-lane road paved ahead.  Somewhere in the middle of Florida a detour led to a place almost identical to our little beach village.  Except instead of pomegranate trees, acres of banana farms lined both sides of the street.

“Dammit, Paige.  I apologized.  Can’t you appreciate that if nothing else at all?”

Her vision quickly shot over to the passenger seat, sizing me up and down.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”  Her glance locked on me.

“I’m sorry.  Don’t worry about it.”  In front of me, the light grey asphalt faded into mustard brown.  A dirt road just like home.

“All you know how to do is apologize.”

“Keep your eyes on the road.”

“Excuse me?”  Her face scrunched up like a Nottingham Catchfly as she divided her attention between me and the disappearing pavement.  “Answer me,” in a sharpened voice.  The pavement had dissolved into dust by this point.

“If you don’t, it’ll be you that kills the both of us,” I said, looking any direction but hers.

“I know exactly what I’m doing, Reed.  Just like I knew what I was doing before I dragged you off those stairs so we both didn’t get sucked up and crushed like some sort of accordion.”  The sun slipped between the banana peels, making every one look ripe.

“Really, Paige?  Then tell me.  Oh, please tell me what exactly it is that you’re doing.  Because, I don’t have a clue.  There’s always something else on the horizon for you, isn’t there?  Never one to be satisfied.  Especially if you can push blame on someone else.  And why not?  It works every time.  I’ll tell you what: it can forever be my fault.  I’ll be responsible for the both of us.  No way in hell should anyone expect any different.  I owe it to us because of how fucking lucky I am to have someone so sure of themself and the direction they’re heading!”  The wheels locked, and skidded across the dirt, kicking back smoke suffocated in dust.  The car stopped, and the tarp used to cover the shattered windows had come loose.  She had my full attention.  Her breath, shallow from being blindsided.  I never spoke to her in such a tone before.  Instinctively an apology bubbled up my throat, “I’m so—“

“Reed,” she interrupted.  Silence.  The smell of rotten bananas squished in through the missing glass.  My fingertips viscously snapped—a nervous habit that developed after a decade of untreated anxiety; they’d sometimes go raw from the stress of repetition—and my knees slapped together hard enough to feel the bone bruise.  Anticipating the worst, I relieved one hand so it could rest on the door handle.  “Reed,” another pause followed.  “I don’t think we should be—“ Bang.

Metal lacerated metal, squeezing the hood of a pickup truck through the empty rearview window; the two bodies collapsed together horizontally.  Mere inches separated us from another life.  I know, first a hurricane and then surviving the wreckage of a collision like that.  You’d think god really did exist.  Too bad it takes a tragedy to make one wonder.

Surprisingly enough, we all walked from the smoking rubbish unscathed, including the man who drove himself into us.  Though before walking, figuring out how to exit the deformed body of mutilated cars became top priority.  The accident pinched us into immovable positions.  The Conestoga’s rearview mirror caught the man in the truck, already ahead of us.  He kicked out his back window.  The man ducked through the opening he created.  Unable to keep a sense of balance, he landed face first on the ground.  Dust burst up around him like a hallowed mushroom cloud.  He wasn’t down but for a second before he shifted weight from his head to his knees.  Dirt and dust matted to a shirt, covered in a greasy substance I imagine looks a lot like the skin of a dinosaur half-evolved into chicken.  I couldn’t help but to feel sorry for the poor guy, at first.  A bit of a klutz, sure, but a smiley one who grinned at the sight of his followed reflection.  I couldn’t help but to show my teeth in return, and really his mannerisms have been the only recollection I have of the ordeal. He finally stabilized his footing with the support of the vehicle.  He slid inch by inch along the transformed metallic body until finally reaching Paige, and by some lucky chance, the driver’s side window had been rolled down before the crash.

“Hello madam, my name is Thos.”  he hiccuped. “Short for Thomas.” Hiccup.  “How can I help you young people this evening?” Hiccup.

“Are you drunk, sir?”  Paige asked.

“I sure hope not, madam.  I don’t think there’s a glass large enough to fit me inside,” Thos. slapped his beer gut like a gong.  Hiccup.

“Oh my god, Reed.  This man is drunk.”

“Sir, have you been drinking?” I asked.

Hiccup. “What’re you folks doing all the way out here any who?”  Hiccup.

“I don’t really have an answer for you, sir,” I replied.

“Paige fanned her face, not because of the heat.  “You stink, sir.  This explains a lot.  You know we’ll have to call the police,” Paige wasn’t asking Thos.

Hiccup. Hiccup.  “I don’t think you’ll have to do that ma’am.  I don’t even believe we have cell phone reception out here.  So you’d have to use our phone anyway.”

“Well, then I guess that’s what we’ll have to do.  Right, Reed?”

Thos. stuck his head through the window, passed the steering wheel, practically laying on Paige.  “Reed is it?”  He asked quicker than I could answer Paige.

“Yes, sir.”

Hiccup.  “All right, Reed, I like you guys.  Well half you guys.”  Paige shoved her body as far back into the seat as she could manage, lifting her arms like she was being mugged.  Hiccup.  “And since I like you guys so much, I’m gonna do you a favor.” Hiccup.

“Oh, god.  What could you possibly do for us the police couldn’t?”

“Not arrest you for trespassing.  This entire farm belongs to my wife and me.  Now I don’t remember inviting you over.”

Paige had no reply.  No excuse.

“I’m so sorry.  If we’d have known—“ doing what I do best, but got interrupted.

Hiccup.  “Now, now, now.  I’m not mad at ya.  Honest mistakes.  We all make honest mistakes.  Don’t we…  Uh, I don’t believe I ever caught your name.”  Thos. extended his hand.

“Paige.  It’s Paige.”

“Paige.  That’s a pretty name, Paige.  Have you ever made a mistake before, Paige?”  Thos.’s bent waist swayed side to side.

“Plenty.”  Her eyes wrinkled, she twisted her neck so to face me.  Thos. didn’t catch it.

“See!”  Hiccup.  “Everybody does it.  Man, I’m thirsty.”  Thos. pulled his head back and craned toward the sky.  The sun set.  “Whew, it’s getting close to dinner time.  This is what I’m gonna do for ya,” Hiccup.  “I can fix your car.”

“Sir, I think you’ve totaled it.  I’d really rather just let insurance take care of it.  And it’s OK, we don’t have to call the police, I guess.”

Hiccup.  “Hear me out now.  Boy, does that one have an attitude?”  He pointed at her with his thumb.

“Well, sir, you did just total her car.  I mean really, we all could be dead right now.”  I said.  Even if Paige continued to get harder inside as the days past, Thos. caused us to be stranded.  Though, a thousand miles away from home with no destination in mind sort of feels the same.

“Now, hush.”  Hiccup!  “Let me finish.  I’m a mechanic.  I got spare paint, parts, and even a few cars.  I’ll get your car fixed.  It was my mistake.”  Hiccup.  “I won’t be able to do a thing about it tonight, you know?”  I nodded to him.  “So here at the banana farm, this’ll come as a surprise I’m sure; we have a hostel for employees, the occasional vacationer, and even let people hide out here if they like.  Long as they help.”  Hiccup.  “Do you see these bananas?  It’s like we live in our own little country.”

“That sounds fantastic,” I was almost happy he rammed into us.  “Honey, don’t you think?”

“What other choice is there?”

Whatever.  I let her pout this time.  “You could always walk back if you wanted,” I said.  I knew she wouldn’t laugh.  Instead, a punch in the shoulder.  An improvement, at least.

“All right, folks.  You have a good evening,”  Hiccup.  “See ya at dinner.”  Definitely drunk.  The whole time, trying to convince us to stay on the farm, and then Paige had to shout four times before he realized what was going on.  And then, another twenty minutes to yank us out of our second demolished home.