Maureen Lougen wrote her first story when she was eight years old, sitting in the back row of Miss McGovern’s fourth grade class at Nardin...read more Academy in Buffalo, NY. Writing instead of paying attention in class became a habit in her life from that point on. As well as writing instead of doing homework, instead of making conversation, instead of making friends, instead of just about anything else that she could get away with not doing.
Since that first story scribbled down in a notebook so many many years ago, Maureen has become a published author, won a Writers Digest Honorable Mention for best short story, and early in 2012 was quite briefly #1 on Amazon’s list for Bestselling Westerns for Kindle.
It's pouring rain by the time I get there. That little cut-off of road that skirts the big intersection out in the middle of nowhere. Tim's standing back, away from his car and its front passenger wheel sunk into the shallow ditch, away from the tow truck and tow truck driver getting ready to pull it out, away from the Sheriff and the Sheriff’s car, standing there being drenched by the buckets of rain pouring down on top of him.
He’s not facing my direction as I drive up, but he turns when he hears the engine and hurries over to me while I park out of the way and get out of my car. God, the look on his face. My kid brother might be twenty-three, he might be fourteen feet tall and seven feet wide, he might’ve survived Afghanistan, if only just barely, but right now the look on his face is pure little kid, freaked out and guilty as hell.
I pull the hood of my jacket over my head and wish I’d taken three minutes more to put my boots on instead of my sneakers, but the phone call, ‘This is the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department. Is this Mary Sullivan? Your brother Tim’s been in an accident…’ had me running out of the house almost before I hung up the phone.
Tim’s not wearing a jacket - it’s probably in his car or maybe he even left it somewhere – and the yellow of the tow truck’s beacon and the red of the Sheriff’s light bar strobe a weird lightshow on his plaid shirt as he takes long steps to get to me. He’s swiping his sopping bangs back out of his eyes with one hand and holding out his other hand like he’s offering me something, and when he’s close enough I see that it’s his cell phone, all but swallowed up in his huge grip.
“I couldn’t get a signal,” he says, and he says it desperate, like it’s his first and only defense against anything I might be going to yell at him. He knows the Sheriff’s Department called me to let me know where he was and what was going on and he thinks I’m going to be Level 10 Pissed. And I am, until I’m close enough to tell that he hasn’t been drinking.
He scrapes rain from his face which does no good because more rain falls and keeps falling and he holds the phone out like he’s waiting for me to take it and find out for myself that he couldn’t get a signal.
“Honest, Mare, I tried but I couldn’t get a signal.”
“Are you okay?” I ask instead of yelling and Tim looks at his phone like he’s not sure what to do with it if I’m not going to take it from him. He finally shoves it into his jeans pocket.
“Went into the ditch.” He mumbles at me without looking at me. He shrugs a shoulder back toward the tow truck. “Sheriff came by and got the wrecker to come here. And - you know – called you.”
“Are you okay?” I ask again because he hasn’t answered that question yet.
He only scrapes the rain off his face again and doesn’t say. It’s not quite six, but the sun is almost set and the flashing lights bouncing off the vehicles and off the shiny black pavement make it look like a dozen vehicles are here, like a horrible accident happened.
But no, it’s just my kid brother having a crisis.
“What happened? Did you hit something?”
No answer. The ground catches his interest instead. I’m this close to wanting to yell again. I didn’t scuttle my plans for a nice, quiet evening to drive twenty miles in a wild rainstorm and get no answers.
But then another possibility presents itself.
“Tim? Do you think you hit something?”
It’s a hard question to ask because it’s probably a hard question to answer. Even without drinking, or maybe because he’s not drinking - one hundred fourteen days and counting - gremlins have taken a time share in my brother’s reality.
He turns his head down and away until he’s practically talking into his shirt collar.
“I thought – I thought it was going to explode.”
That takes me a minute to figure out.
“You thought what was going to explode? Your car?”
He shrugs his shoulder towards his car again. But all I keep seeing is car and Sheriff and tow truck and tow truck driver.
Nothing to do but walk over and find out what he’s talking about.
I move off that way and Tim makes a fast turn to keep up with me.
“Go wait in the car.” I tell him. “You’re already soaked through. Where’s your jacket?”
But he doesn’t go to my car, of course. He doesn’t say where his jacket is. He keeps in step with me and comes with to make sure I see what he saw.
The Sheriff is watching the tow truck driver, but he turns as we get closer. He’s wearing a yellow slicker and plastic cover on his Stetson to protect him from the deluge. He looks late twenties, not any older than me.
“Thanks for getting word to me.” I tell him.
“Yeah, it’s a dead spot here. No service in or out.” He says, raising his voice over the din of rain.
He sounds fine, like standing in the pouring rain watching a car getting winched out of a muddy ditch is no big deal and all just part of the job. He jerks his chin at the tow truck driver who’s in his own slicker that maybe was big enough twenty years ago, and a hood that’s too big and isn’t attached to anything. He’s already got the car hooked up and he’s at the back of his truck checking his levers.
“He’ll have you out of there in a jiffy.” The Sheriff says then cuts me a look. Like he knows something or doesn’t want to know something. “You’ll be on your way.”
Okay, so that answers my unasked but constant worry that Tim will be in some kind of trouble.
“Thanks.” I tell him and he nods and I look up at Tim practically attached to my side. “C’mon and show me what you’re talking about.”
“It’s over there.” He mumbles, hands shoved in his pockets, shrugging that shoulder to point me across the road from where his car is about to be hauled back onto solid ground. I swear I’m glad he hasn’t been drinking, but the shrugs and mumbles and half-answers are dragging spikes over my nerves.
“All right, come on.”
I move off in that direction, trying to tell as I’m walking over if the black blob I finally see on that side of the road is a dead raccoon or a dead dog or a dead bag of trash. Tim follows me but as we get closer, he walks slower, until he’s dead stopped in the middle of the road.
“Did you hit it?” I ask and Tim mumbles something and I’m wet and cold and stressed. “Tim – did you hit it?”
“I thought it was going to explode.”
He says that right out and loud and the Sheriff turns to look back but doesn’t move towards us.
I scrape the rain off of my face and walk over to the lump. It’s just a black plastic bag, split open and spilling garbage. Tim stays nailed to the yellow line.
“Tim, get out of the road before some fool comes barreling around that corner and -.”
God help me, I almost say, ‘and splatters you’, and Timmy knows I almost say it and he squints and nods and starts to scuff over to me because he thinks I’m finally angry, and I move back to meet him halfway because I’m not. Not really.
“Hey,” I say because even though I’m right in front of him, he’s trying hard to not have to look at me. “I don’t want you to get hit, okay? Come on out of the road.”
“I thought it was going to explode,” he says again.
“I know. But it’s not going to explode. You know it’s not going to explode.”
Please God, I think, after eight months of being home, Timmy has to know that roadside garbage isn’t going to explode.
“Yeah. Yeah, I know that.” He finally says, sounding like he’s asking me a question instead of answering one, and it’d have more weight behind it if he said it to my face and not down to his boots.
“C’mon over and look at it.” I tell him. He’s got to face his fear, right? “C’mon over and see that it’s not going to blow up. It’s just garbage.”
He closes his eyes and keeps them closed, like he’s praying, or marshaling his courage, or hoping the garbage will be gone when he opens his eyes again.
Like our luck would change like that.
“Tim? C’mon. Just look at it.”
He doesn’t move out of the road and the rain doesn’t stop pouring buckets down on us. His hair is streaming, my sneakers are soaked through, we’re both shivering, and I think - maybe it's not true anymore. Maybe there's just as good a chance that garbage in Sanborn, NY will explode and blow a hole as big as a tank into the ground like it might have back in Afghanistan.
Like it had exploded in Afghanistan. Too many times.
Too many explosions.
Too many splatters.
“All right. It’s okay." I put my hand on Tim's arm, around his elbow and then down to his hand, cold and hanging loose by his side. Ice cold. I move my hand back up to his elbow and give a tug. "C’mon this way. Let’s get off the road and wait for your car.”
He doesn’t budge for a second. His eyes are on the ruptured garbage bag. Slabs of rain run down his face but he doesn’t scrape it off. Then he starts moving, walking, scuffing alongside of me to the side of the road crisscrossed by the strobing lights.
We stand there, listening to the rain slapping the pavement, listening to the whining gears as the truck hauls his front wheel out of the ditch. Tim’s staring somewhere off the toe of his boots and I’m wondering if it’s worth trying to get him into my car for three minutes of dry and not-as-cold.
Then I wonder what happens after his car is back on solid ground. I can’t just say, ‘drive safe, stay dry’ and leave him to it. I’m going to have to follow him home. It’s fifteen miles to his apartment and then seventeen miles back to my house from there, in the wet and cold and dark, but it’s better than getting another phone call from another Sheriff another hour on.
“I’ll follow you home, make sure you get there.” I tell him. I stop myself before I say ‘in one piece’. There’s already too many pieces of too many people careening through his memory.
“I’m sorry.” He says, but it doesn’t sound like he’s talking to me. He’s staring at nothing, talking to nobody, to the gremlins, reliving a hundred horrors he’s never been able to talk about with me.
“Okay, Tim? I’ll follow you home. Just to be sure.”
He looks at me then. His mouth moves, like maybe he’s saying my name, only I don’t hear him, and I don’t think it’s because of how loud the rain is on the hood of my jacket.
“You can’t follow me everywhere.”
Sure I can, I want to say, I can do anything I want.
But I can’t follow him everywhere. As much as I want to follow him home and to work and to school and to the grocery store and anywhere else he might ever have to go, I can’t. Even if we aligned our days so that he never drove anywhere unless I was there to drive with him, it would never work. It would never be enough.
“Maybe you should move back in with Uncle Bob.” I offer instead. “He wants you to, Ellen wants you to. It’s close enough that you can walk to work. You wouldn’t have to worry about cooking or laundry or – or - ”
I’m desperate, and I sound desperate. Tim’s exasperated and he looks exasperated. He rolls his eyes and shakes his head and huffs out a breath that drops his shoulders an inch or two. He doesn’t say anything though. Now that the initial shock is over, he’s closing up on me.
A few yards down the pavement from us, his car is finally all four wheels on solid ground and if I can’t reach him now, I’m going to lose my chance. But he’s already walking to his car and I hurry to catch up to his long steps.
“I want you to be okay, Timmy. I want to be sure you’re okay.”
“Not your responsibility,” he tells me, and I’m just about to shout back, like hell it’s not, I didn’t get you back from war just to lose you in a ditch on my doorstep, but I’m not sure what the point would be. He’s past his panic at going in the ditch, past caring if I’m pissed at him for whatever reason. The fear is gone, the guilt is gone. And in another minute, my little brother is going to be gone, reliving nightmares, dodging gremlins, driving down a dark, slick, rainy road.
“I just want you to be safe.”
He looks back at the garbage. “There is nowhere safe,” he says. He thanks the tow truck driver, nods to the Sheriff and starts to get into his car.
He stops though. With the door open and the rain still pouring down, he stops and scrapes the rain from his face and pushes his bangs out of his eyes.
“Call me when you get home, okay?” He says. Asks. Offers. “Just – call me, okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll call you.” I tell him.
He nods, and almost smiles. Then he gets into his car and finishes his drive to the end of the short road. He turns onto the big road and drives off into the dark and rain.