“Kim, help Denise into the front seat,” Laurie directed as she opened the passenger’s door of her SUV then flung her silk turquoise scarf over her shoulder.
“I’m not an invalid,” Denise insisted but Laurie was already hurrying toward a tall, dark woman walking toward the driver’s side. “Maureen, you drive around to the front of my condo. I’m going back to get our snacks.”
Maureen straightened the collar on her polo shirt. “Aren’t we going to stop for lunch? That’s part of the fun on a road trip.”
Laurie pivoted on her heel. Brushing aside a stray blonde curl she called over her shoulder, “I stayed up late making cheese rolls and veggie bites.” Then she bustled through a side door, blurring into a mirage of corral-pink and peacock-blue.
Maureen adjusted her short, curly wig as she settled behind the wheel and assessed the SUV’s dashboard. “It’s always her way or the highway.”
“Don’t worry, with my pea-size bladder we’ll be making lots of pit stops,” Denise joked as Kim helped position her crippled legs in a comfortable position.
After handing Denise her pink metal cane decorated with butterflies Kim crawled into the backseat and curled by the window. Her pale, heart-shaped face dominated by huge, sunken eyes seemed skeletal in the intense morning light.
Maureen checked her eye make-up in the rear view mirror—just a touch of mascara and shadow to highlight her olive skin. Then she rummaged through the glove compartment. “I don’t know why Laurie had to buy an automated car. Does this look like a key?” She held up a small, oval device.
Denise’s pixie face creased into a frown. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never driven this kind of car.”
Maureen exhaled a long sigh. “Neither have I.”
Denise stretched a thin hand toward the steering column. “See if it fits in the ignition.”
Maureen grimaced. “It doesn’t. Now what do we do?”
Kim’s voice rasped as she leaned against the headrest. “Try turning it the other way.”
This time the car started. A moment later Laurie reappeared, her squash blossom necklace jangling against the small pyramid of Tupperware containers in her arms. She cast a frown as she climbed in. “Was it too much to ask that you drive around the building?”
Maureen reddened. “I couldn’t get your car started.”
Laurie huffed, “Well if you’d rather not drive—”
Maureen’s voice grew small. “No, I said I would.”
Kim contracted against the door as Laurie sprawled her containers on the backseat.
“Let’s do this.” Laurie exuded chameleon charm as she guided Maureen to the Interstate. “Isn’t this fun?” She preened when Maureen and Denise readily agreed. Kim said nothing as she scrunched into a tight, spidery ball.
“This is just like old times,” Denise chirped.
“Except that we’re fifty years old now, not twenty-one,” Kim murmured.
“The last time we took this trip I was driving a VW mini-van,” Maureen recalled.
Denise smiled. “You painted it with psychedelic daisies.”
“I wish I had it now. It would be a collector’s item— it was easier to drive too.”
“You’re doing fine,” Laurie insisted. As they cruised down a boulevard she passed out her Tupperware.
“No, thanks,” Kim waved hers aside and stared out the window.
“Can you turn down the air conditioning?” Denise asked as they approached an intersection. Maureen fiddled with the controls.
“Look out!” Laurie screamed.
Slamming on the brakes Maureen screeched to a halt inches away from a compact car stopped at a red light. Tupperware flew everywhere.
“Don’t ever distract the driver like that,” Laurie chided.
“Sorry …” Denise hung her head.
“No harm done,” Maureen said as she pulled onto the freeway then dived into traffic barreling down four lanes.
Laurie wouldn’t let it drop. “We could have been killed!”
Maureen gripped the steering wheel tighter. “Chill out. Let’s enjoy this weekend.”
“You’re right.” The tension finally slipped from Laurie’s Barbie Doll face and she leaned back against her headrest.
Denise relaxed her lean, hunched shoulders. “All’s well that ends well, as the Bard said.”
Kim spoke up. “Bertolt Brecht topped that: all’s well that ends.”
Laurie rolled her baby-blue eyes. “Don’t be on such a downer. We’re taking this trip for your sake.”
Kim twisted the garnet ring on her finger. “I don’t know why we have to reenact our college vacation.”
“We had so much fun that weekend,” Denise recalled.
Maureen interrupted. “I won’t get us killed, I promise.”
Laurie reached across the seat and patted Kim’s hand. “This will be good for you.” When Kim smiled wanly she added, “You know me—I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Maureen raised a sculpted eyebrow. “Is that how you got Butch to agree to a divorce?”
“He didn’t have a choice after I caught him red-handed with that floozy.” Laurie flushed beet red beneath her exquisite make-up.
“Let’s not dwell on the past,” Denise pleaded. “This is our day.”
Maureen glanced over her shoulder. “Lord knows we all need a break from stress at work —and Kim needs to heal.”
“You can’t heal a broken heart,” Kim whispered and stared at the dry prairie whirling past them as they rocketed down the Interstate.
Maureen hunched over the wheel. “We’re making really good time.”
Denise sounded wistful. “Maybe we could turn off the highway and take the scenic route through the mountains.”
Checking the rearview mirror Maureen said, “I’m good if everyone else is.”
Laurie struggled to activate the GPS on her smart phone. “I’m getting a map but there’s no voice direction.”
“It must be disconnected. You need to talk to your provider,” Denise said.
Laurie rolled her eyes. “One more thing for my ‘to do’ list.”
Maureen glanced over her shoulder. “As long as you can navigate, let’s do it.” She veered onto an exit and followed a two-lane country road that wound into low hills carpeted with dusty verdure.
“Watch out for deer!” Laurie read the sign then leaned anxiously forward, peering on either side of the road. “I just bought this car—I don’t want it totaled.”
“We’re watching.” Denise twisted her head from side to side.
Laurie squinted at the thinly penciled map on her phone. “It looks like there’s another highway—” She gripped the edge of her seat as the road twisted sharply around a heavily foliated ridge.
Denise heaved a sigh. “It’s too bad the aspen haven’t turned color. We should have waited another week.”
Laurie’s voice was crisp. “We couldn’t take this trip next week. I have a conference to attend.”
Maureen’s eyes flicked to the rear view mirror. “I suppose you can’t ask for time off when you’ve just started a new job.”
Denise looked over her shoulder. “You’re lucky to have landed that position at the university.”
Laurie smoothed back her waving blonde hair. “Well, I do have degrees in sociology and business.”
“And virtually no work experience,” Maureen said under her breath.
Kim spoke up. “What highway are we looking for?”
Maureen slowed down. “Did you see a sign?”
“We passed something but I couldn’t read it.”
Maureen’s voice soured. “I’ll turn around.” After retracing their route to a crossroads she slowed to study a battered sign half-hidden by bushes. “Do we want to go right or left?”
Laurie studied her smart phone. “Looks like the road goes south, then curves.”
“So I turn left?”
Laurie nodded but sounded hesitant. “We need to find a road that will take us back to the main highway.”
When she careened the car around Maureen nearly skidded off the narrow shoulder. She clenched the steering wheel with tight fists as she sped down a two-lane road that plunged into a forest then emerged at a small, rustic-looking town. Laurie craned her neck to read a road sign. “I think we went the wrong way.”
Denise pointed to a wayside bar. “Pull over. I’ll jump out and ask.”
Laurie rolled her eyes. “You can’t jump.”
“I mean I’ll walk.” Denise reddened as she tapped her cane.
“I’ll go.” Kim popped out of the car the moment Maureen parked.
Fifteen minutes later they were still waiting for her to return.
“You think she met a cute cowboy?” Maureen asked.
“I’ll find out.” Laurie stormed out of the car. Pushing through the bar’s heavy wooden door she stepped into a pool of shadow. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light she spotted Kim at the bar guzzling a drink.
Laurie’s voice stiffened. “Did you get instructions?”
Kim waved her shot glass. “Jus’ keep goin’ down th’ road an’ turn right.” She downed her drink and ordered another.
“You’ve had enough.” Laurie laced her arm through Kim’s and pulled her away.
Kim resisted. “You guys g’on withouf me.”
Gently but firmly Laurie eased Kim away from the bar and guided her back to the car. “Drinking won’t help,” she hissed in Kim’s ear.
“What d’ you know? You never lost anyone.”
“I lost a husband.”
“Not th’ same. Y’ can get yerself another one … dime a dozen.” Kim curled into her seat and closed her eyes as Laurie directed Maureen back to the main highway.
Denise sat up straighter and pointed to a road sign. “Santa Fe, 35 miles. We’re almost there!”
Laurie put her phone away when they reached their destination. “Let’s check into our motel, then visit the plaza.”
“I’m famished. Can’t we find a restaurant first?” Maureen pleaded but she dutifully pulled up to the motel office.
Denise sounded giddy with excitement. “I’m dying to eat at La Fonda.”
Maureen frowned. “I hear it’s pretty pricey. You forget that I’m just a poor yoga instructor.”
“There are other restaurants on the plaza … maybe we can go to La Fonda for drinks,” Laurie said as she got out and headed for the office.
Denise turned to Maureen as soon as Laurie was out of earshot. “Do you think she got a good divorce settlement?”
Maureen shook her head. “I heard Butch was dead broke.”
Denise stretched gingerly. “Good thing the chancellor hired her.”
“Yeah, I bet she slept with him.”
Denise lowered her voice. “Don’t say that!”
Maureen glanced in the rear view mirror. Kim’s eyes were closed.
“Well how else did she get that sweetheart position at her age?” Maureen asked.
Denise’s lips tightened.
A few minutes later Laurie came back with their room keys. “Anything wrong?” she asked.
“No.” Denise shook her head quickly as if to clear it.
“It’s just so hot in here.” Maureen fanned herself with her hand.
“Our suite’s ready, let’s offload our stuff.” Laurie popped open the back of the SUV. “I’ll get your bag, Denise.”
“I can manage.” Leaning on her cane, Denise grappled the handle of her pull-along suitcase. When she started up the uneven flagstone path she teetered precariously but caught herself before she fell.
“Don’t be so stubborn. Let me help you.” Maureen swooped down and snatched Denise’s suitcase as Laurie led the way through a courtyard to their suite. “Oh my, this is posh.” A smile creased her ruby lips. “I just love Southwest decor.”
Maureen set the suitcases on a bench built into the wall. “Let’s decide who sleeps where.”
Laurie plumped herself down on the immense, four poster bed fashioned from pine logs. “This is big enough for two of us. The couch makes into a bed too, but someone will have to take the cot.”
“I’ll do that,” Kim volunteered.
Laurie looked at her closely. “You sure? It won’t be as comfortable as the bed.”
“We could draw straws.” Denise suggested.
Kim shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t sleep well anyway.”
Maureen explored the kitchenette. “Good, there’s coffee. I can’t start my day without a cup of Joe.”
Denise quipped, “I like my coffee like I like my men—strong and black.”
Maureen raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t know you were dating.”
“I’m not, but if I were …” Denise smiled sheepishly and shrugged.
Kim rummaged through the kitchenette. “Is there any tea?”
“We can pick some up,” Laurie said then turned to Maureen. “You want the couch or the bed?”
“I’ll take the couch,” Denise offered.
“It’s too low. You need the bed so you can get in and out easier,” Laurie insisted as she arranged her suitcase on a coffee table near the adobe fireplace.
Denise leaned her cane against the wall. “You don’t have to give me preferential treatment.”
“I’ll take the couch. I’m a restless sleeper,” Maureen said but she eyed it without enthusiasm.
Laurie paused by a huge mirror in a filigree tin frame to adjust her scarf. “It’s settled then. Denise and I will share the bed.”
Maureen unpacked a striped sweater. “We better take wraps if we’re staying out late. It gets cold at night.”
Laurie flung an embroidered cape over her shoulders. “I bought this in Breckenridge on a ski vacation. It’s what you call Breck casual.”
“I’m into casual.” Kim pulled on a shapeless jacket the color of mulch.
“You mean grunge,” Laurie teased.
Kim stepped to the door. “I want to take a look around the courtyard. I’ll meet you at the car.”
Denise fumbled through her suitcase. “I wasn’t thinking about it getting cold at night. I just packed light clothes …” Maureen loaned her a windbreaker.
They met up with Kim at the car and drove to the plaza.
Laurie waved frantically at a parking place. “There! Park over there,” she shouted.
Maureen gritted her teeth. “That’s a loading zone.”
“Read the sign. It’s only a loading zone Monday through Friday. Today’s Saturday.”
Denise shot her a smile. “Good thing you can read the fine print.”
Maureen deftly backed the car into the tight space. “That Lasix surgery you had really paid off,” she complimented Laurie.
Laurie fell in step with Denise as they exited the car. “Take my hand if you need it.”
Denise stood up straighter. “My home health worker says I’m doing so well, I could probably go dancing in a few more months.” But after stumbling on the uneven brick sidewalk she accepted Laurie’s offer. As they entered the square they strolled under a portico past street vendors hawking turquoise jewelry spread on colorful blankets. Laurie stopped to buy dangling earrings that matched her necklace while Maureen scanned the plaza for a restaurant.
“I can’t eat spicy food because of my esophagus,” Denise reminded her.
Maureen led the way to a corner café. “Don’t order chile or if you do—get it on the side.”
A waitress brought chips and salsa then took their drink orders. “You shouldn’t have alcohol on an empty stomach,” Laurie cautioned Kim when she asked for scotch on the rocks.
“What the hell, we’re on vacation,” Maureen called the waitress back to request a margarita. Laurie relented and had a whiskey sour. Denise lamented that her medications precluded her from having anything stronger than lemonade.
After lunch Laurie announced, “I’m going to browse through the shops, who wants to join me?” She looked directly at Kim. “How about it?”
“No thanks.” Kim broke eye contact.
Maureen stood up. “I don’t mind browsing.”
“I’d just like to sit in the plaza,” Denise said. She and Kim crossed the grassy central square that surrounded a Civil War monument. All the park benches were taken but Denise limped to a longer one occupied by two teenage girls and asked, “Mind if we join you?” The girls scrunched together to make room.
Kim perched on the very edge of the bench but Denise leaned back and chatted with the girls. “We took a road trip to Santa Fe years ago when we were your age. Now we’re doing a reprise of that vacation.”
The raven-haired girl flashed a pleasant smile. “We’re bicycling across country. Our goal is to recycle or compost all our trash along the way just to prove it can be done.”
“Isn’t that admirable?” Denise turned briefly to Kim but didn’t wait for an answer. As she engaged the young bicyclists in a discussion about ecology Kim studied a group of musicians setting up amplifiers on a stage at the edge of the plaza.
After the girls left Denise looked over her shoulder and surveyed the exclusive shops ringing the square. “Laurie and Maureen have been gone for quite a while now.”
“You know Laurie. She lives to shop.”
Denise fixated on the Civil War monument. “Laurie’s so generous. I told her I couldn’t afford this trip—that the copays for my physical therapy are just too high. She’s paying my share of the motel room and gas.” Denise met Kim’s eyes. “I should be the one sleeping on the cot, not you.”
Kim shrugged. “I’m good with it.”
“Are you just saying that because you feel sorry for me?”
Kim toyed with a strand of hair that had escaped her broad-brimmed hat. “I’m not into pity parties. I’m only taking this trip because Laurie bullied me into it.”
They sat in silence watching the passersby for several minutes. Denise folded her hands on her lap. “We’re all so sorry about Donnie, Kim.”
Kim exhaled slowly. “It feels like I’ve been hollowed out inside … it’s all I can do to get up in the morning and force myself through the day.”
Denise touched her arm. “You still have your girls. They love you and need you.”
“I love them too but they have their own lives now, they don’t need me.” Kim dabbed at her eyes. “Donnie was my heart child. We shared the same soul.”
Denise’s voice grew soft and pensive. “I can’t imagine what that must be like … I was never my mother’s favorite.”
Kim stood up. “I need another drink.” She texted Maureen and Laurie. “They’ll meet us on the rooftop at La Fonda.” Extending her hand, she helped Denise to her feet. Denise planted her cane solidly between the cracks as they crossed the uneven pavement.
Maureen and Laurie caught up with them on the rooftop patio as Kim was finishing her second drink. When Laurie frowned at the empty glasses Kim got to her feet. “I need to use the little girls’ room.” She stepped away from the table before Laurie could comment.
Denise pulled herself up. “Wait for me, I’ll join you.” She slipped her hand into Kim’s, holding it tightly as they shuffled to the door.
“Lesbians,” a voice muttered from a table behind them.
Maureen’s voice dripped with ice. “Denise can barely walk. Can’t they see that?”
Laurie sighed. “Does she really think she can go dancing again?”
Maureen shielded her eyes against the sun sinking into a bank of cotton candy clouds. “Her health care worker was probably joking.”
“All the same, we shouldn’t discourage her. She’s so upbeat, so hopeful.”
Maureen toyed with her coaster. “I suppose hope is all she has.”
Shortly after Kim and Denise returned to the table the wind began to blow colder. Slipping on their wraps they retreated downstairs. Kim and Denise took the elevator while Maureen and Laurie descended the staircase, ogling the paintings displayed on each floor. After they returned to their car Laurie navigated them through twisting, narrow streets to a French restaurant she had discovered on a previous trip.
Parking was tight in the tiny lot behind the restaurant but Maureen managed to sandwich the SUV between a convertible and a BMW. Then she had to back out again so Denise could open her door wide enough to maneuver her stiff legs. As Maureen re-parked Denise inched her way across the loose gravel clinging to her cane as well as Kim’s hand.
When they reached the restaurant Denise admired its patio strung with colored lights then asked the hostess if they could be seated outdoors. “We have it all to ourselves,” she crowed.
Kim buttoned her jacket. “That’s because it’s cold out here.” She stopped a waiter. “We’d like hot tea and I’d also like to see your wine list.”
When Laurie and Maureen joined them Laurie waved the menu aside. “Let’s have fondue,” she suggested.
Maureen mumbled, “Good idea. We can warm our hands on the chafing dish.”
“Isn’t fondue a ballet term?” Laurie asked Kim.
Denise beamed. “As soon as I get a little more mobility in my legs I’m taking up ballroom dancing. Do you still have your class on Thursday nights, Kim?”
Kim took a sip of wine. “No. I don’t teach anymore.”
Denise looked downcast. “I was hoping to get back on track with everything I was doing before my accident.”
“There are lots of other teachers,” Kim said as she refilled her glass.
Denise spread her delicate hands on the table. “I don’t understand why you aren’t teaching—you’ve been a dancer all your life. You were magnificent as the Sugarplum fairy in the Nutcracker—”
“That was a lifetime ago.” Holding up the empty wine bottle Kim flagged down a waitress and ordered another.
Laurie started to say something but was interrupted by their waiter as he brought plates and fondue forks. As soon as he left she told Kim, “Donnie wouldn’t want you to be like this.”
Denise gushed, “He’s in heaven, looking down at you—”
Kim set her glass down hard. “What part of ‘dead’ don’t you understand?”
Sighing, Laurie shook her head. “Such a heartbreaking, totally avoidable—”
“Avalanches aren’t avoidable,” Maureen said quietly.
Kim fidgetted with her glass. “Donnie wasn’t a risk-taker. He wouldn’t have been skiing on that slope if there had been any warning …” She bit her lower lip.
Denise reached across the table and took her hand. “If things could have been different, they would have been.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Kim brushed her hand away.
Denise looked as if Kim had slapped her. Lowering her head she mumbled, “You have to believe he’s in a better place.”
“Well I don’t … I can’t.” Kim started to get up but collapsed in tears.
Laurie wrapped her arm around Kim’s shoulder. “You have to go on. What else can you do?”
They fell silent as the waiter brought their fondue along with bowls of bread cubes, vegetables and apple slices.
Maureen speared a broccoli floret and nibbled at it. “This is really good … you can taste all three cheeses.”
Denise passed a bowl around. “Try these green apples.”
“I want dessert,” Laurie announced after they finished their meal. She smiled at Kim. “Why don’t I order a slice of cheesecake and we share it?”
After Kim acquiesced Maureen decided on cherry pie while Denise had flan and decaf coffee.
On the return trip to their motel they crossed a wide intersection that twisted sharply. Maureen started to turn right. “Stop!” Laurie shrilled. Maureen threw the SUV into reverse and backed up seconds before an onslaught of incoming traffic zoomed past them, racing to the next stoplight.
“That was close,” Denise gasped.
“Cross over, then turn onto the frontage road,” Kim directed from the backseat.
Laurie muttered, “I’m glad someone paid attention.”
“They ought to have more street lights,” Maureen grumbled as she negotiated her way up the shadow-laced street to their motel’s parking lot.
“Did everybody bring their bathing suits? There’s a hot tub,” Laurie reminded her friends as they trooped to their room.
Denise yawned. “You go ahead. It’s been a long day and I’m going to bed.”
Laurie raised a painted eyebrow. “This early?”
“What do you mean ‘early?’ It’s ten o’clock.”
Maureen sat on the couch and curled her legs into a yoga position. “I’m tired too, but I’d like to watch the news before I turn in.”
Denise beamed her pixie smile. “Not a problem. I can sleep through anything.”
Laurie rifled through her suitcase for her swim suit. “You coming, Kim?”
Kim wrapped her jacket tighter around her shoulders. “No, I think I’ll just sit outside for a while and watch the stars.”
“You can do that in the hot tub.”
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit.”
“Just wear shorts and a tee shirt.”
“I really want to be alone for a while.” Kim left for the veranda and snuggled onto a corner bench overlooking the darkened garden while Laurie changed into her two piece swimsuit then headed for the hot tub at the other end of the courtyard.
Leaning back, Kim surveyed a drift of clouds separating the smear of dark gray sky nearest the horizon from the pitch-black gulf of galactic night. For a few minutes she searched for a moon but the abyss was empty, devoid even of stars.
A prowling wind snaked around her, trembling her shoulders as if loosening her bones. It seemed to beckon her into the night arching above her. Prodding her gently, the wind tangled in her hair, easing through the pores in her skin. Terrified by the strangeness of the sensation Kim stood up and walked briskly down the street. Her pace quickened as she tried to outrun her desperation. Directly ahead a street light glistened like a brilliant jewel blinking green-yellow-red as she reached the intersection.
The wind threw her up when she stepped off the curb. For a moment she felt entirely attenuate as she floated through the darkness…
Laurie was lolling in the hot tub when the sudden wail of sirens shocked her out of her reverie. Sitting up she peered at a row of stabbing red lights headed her way. Curiosity goaded her out of the tub when they stopped just below the motel. Pulling on a printed kaftan and slipping into sandals she hurried to the street corner.
A cluster of police cars blocked the intersection, their lights pulsing in the darkness.
“What happened?” Laurie asked an officer who was directing traffic.
“Hit and run accident.”
Hearing footsteps, Laurie turned then waited as Maureen caught up with her. “Have you seen Kim?” she gasped as she caught her breath.
“No …” An inexplicable dread gripped Laurie like a steel claw. The hypnotizing lights of police cars drew her closer … closer … to a covered body lying on the asphalt. A hand protruded from beneath the tarp. She recognized the garnet ring—the last gift Donnie had given his mother.
Maureen stopped Laurie from breaking through the barrier of yellow tape. She spoke briefly to a policeman then returned to Laurie and threw her arms around her. After a full minute she whispered, “We better tell Denise.”
Laurie wilted into a sigh. “Let her have a few minutes of peace. She’ll know soon enough.” Supporting each other they stumbled back to the motel’s courtyard and sat in silence on the same stone bench where Kim had contemplated the starless night.
Maureen spoke first. “Think it was suicide?”
Laurie bowed her head. “I don’t know.”
Burying her face in her hands Maureen began to weep. “We should have stopped her.”
“How? We had no idea …”
“We should have known.” Maureen continued to cry.
Laurie squeezed her hand. “We took this road trip thinking it would help.”
Maureen straightened, wiping her eyes. “At least she’s with Donnie now. She’s probably happy—”
Laurie slapped her, pouring all her grief, anger and helplessness into the strength of her hand.
Maureen jumped up. “What’s the matter with you?” she screamed.
“I’m sorry … sorry …” Laurie mumbled as Maureen fled back to their room. When she looked up at the sky it seemed to open into a bottomless pit.
Squinting into the chasm Laurie whispered, “Kim?” She expected no answer, but sat mesmerized when a single star appeared, glinting faintly. For several minutes she stared at its fragile glimmer. Then she rose slowly and trudged back to her room, readying herself to apologize to Maureen and to listen to Denise’s platitudes.
Published in Stories