A smell of raw smoke and the crackling of growing flames, as I woke bolt upright in bed. I turned and touched, but no one was there. I was alone.
...... "Melynnda." My voice was hoarse.
...... The door was outlined in red, fire light through the cracks against the jamb. The smell of smoke was growing stronger by the moment. I scooped up the quilt on the run, threw it around my shoulders, yanked open the door, and plunged into the hallway. The heat was intense, but the hall remained clear of visible smoke, as flames engulfed the wood paneling.
...... "Melynnda!" The words were buried beneath the rumble and crackling of the wood timbers, as the flames ate through. A choking sensation curdled the back of my throat, as I called again: "Melynnda! Melynnda!"
...... Then it was gone -- completely.
...... Her hand tightly clasped my arm, her body tense against mine. The rumpled quilt lay halfway down the bed.
...... "You were dreaming," she softly whispered in that crystalline mezzosoprano voice which seemed to ring like fine glassware.
...... "Melynnda," I answered as a sigh, relaxing back against the pillows.
...... "Shhhhhh," she teased, snuggling closer. "You'll wake up Mother."
...... "I have this feeling that she already knows." Wrapping my arms around her, I stroked the sleekness of her back.
...... "True. She does," Melynnda acknowledged. "But we've agreed not to discuss it now." The springs squeaked as she moved.
...... I readjusted my hold, as she climbed half on top of me -- warmth and a very muscular suppleness pushing me deeper into the mattress. "I love you," I said, speaking into the tousled cascade of her silken black hair.
...... A tinkling laugh answered. "You've said that several times before," she lightly admonished. "We met only a week ago today. You hardly know me."
...... "I've known you all my life," I tossed back. "I merely never knew where I'd find you."
...... Her answer was to burrow more tightly into my arms.
...... "Come with me to Irvingtown," I requested, as I'd done before. "It's the county seat. There must be a Justice of the Peace in residence."
...... An unseen finger tapped my nose.
...... "Like I said before, you go file your report, and whatever else you have to do. When you come back here, we'll decide what to do then." She paused to laugh softly once more. "If you come back!"
...... "If the stars fall down. If the creek dries up and blows away. If the oaks all crumble to dust." I stroked her satin skin, the sweetness of her hair enveloping my face. "If the world ends."
Breakfast, the next morning, was several fresh-baked sweet rolls from the stack on the parlor table. It was so early that the kerosene lamp had been lit. A coffee percolator chugged on the fire in the kitchen. Three sandwiches waited there also, thick slices of country-smoked ham on homemade bread -- a traveler's lunch.
...... The sun was coloring the horizon, as I loaded the carton of samples into the cargo area of my little blue Jeep. The faded Oak Country Inn sign was swinging from its rusted chains in the morning breeze. I requisitioned a last kiss from Melynnda.
...... "It's not that far away," I offered, holding her hand. "With any luck at all, I'll be back tomorrow midmorning at the latest." The driver's side door stood open, white courtesy light on. "Go do your job," she commanded, waving toward the driveway. "Take whatever time you need. Whenever you come back, I'll be waiting here for you." She pushed at a strand of her long hair. "I'm not going to forget you in thirty hours or so."
...... The last I saw of her was a slim silhouette, hand raised in farewell, slowly dwindling in the side mirror, as I drove down the gravel roadway.
The rural road gave way to an asphalt city street at Libertyville, just north of where State Route 411 came in. It wasn't much of a town, but it did have a florist's shop, and on a whim I pulled to the curb directly under the Historic District sign.
...... Flower selection was easy in the small store, and the manager did accept credit cards, but delivery seemed to present a problem.
...... "Oak Country Inn?" Her laugh was nervous. "You must have the wrong address. There's no such place around here. Perhaps you could call and check?"
...... "No telephone there," I replied, as I picked up my copy of the charge slip. "Don't try to deliver. I'm coming back through here tomorrow, and I can take them with me. When do you open"?
...... Out on the sidewalk, the sign of a real estate agent caught my attention, and I walked upstairs to the small office. I described the roads I'd just traversed.
...... "Sure. I know that area." The man gestured vaguely in the correct direction. "The property's most likely for sale, but I'd have to inquire. There isn't too much doing out there."
...... "What would it appraise at?" I requested to fill out the conversation. "Property and buildings total."
...... "The property would be fairly cheap." He offered a business card. "There's no structures left to add to the value."
...... "No buildings?" I accepted the card, turning it over in my hand. "What about the inn itself?"
...... "There's nothing left of that but the stone foundations." The man gestured, palms upward. "It burned down fifty years ago, and the weather took care of the rest. It really was something in its day." He gestured again, outward. "Go across the street to the museum. There's not much there, but there is a picture of what the inn looked like, before the collapse of the old Liberty mine changed the watercourse, and the oaks died out." He paused for a moment. "I'm pretty sure the land is available, if you're interested in an investment out that way."
...... Five minutes and one lecture later, I was back in the driver's seat, rubbing the leather covering of the steering wheel with a forefinger. It was tempting to turn around and go back out there immediately, but the blinking digits on the dash clock were counting out what little time I had left. I just didn't have the time -- my own fault. I'd put off this trip for as long as I dared, reluctant to leave my bit of new-found paradise even for a couple days.
...... Three sandwiches, each wrapped in waxpaper, sitting in a row on the passenger seat beside me, decided the issue. If I went on, I still could be back there in less than twenty-four hours. The engine caught instantly.
Tires monotonously whining against the road, the sound of a chime caught my attention -- an amber light on the dash, low fuel. I checked the gauge and saw the red needle only a fraction above the empty mark. In my distraction I'd forgotten to fill up in Libertyville. Still, if gasoline consumption was normal, I'd make Irvingtown with a gallon to spare. It was far too late to turn back. I'd either make it or have a long walk -- kismet.
...... The fuel gauge showed a visible gap between the needle and the E mark -- visible on the wrong side -- when I spotted that ramshackle garage in the distance. Only thirty-three more miles to Irvingtown now, straight down Route 411.
...... To my surprise, a big OPEN sign was perched at the edge of the gravel apron. Hitting the brakes, I looked again. Out behind the building was a model-T pickup with historic license plates. I pulled in and stopped to look dubiously at the old-fashioned glass bowl gasoline pump. A couple gallons couldn't hurt anything too badly -- I hoped.
...... The proprietor, grizzled and gray, bounced down the rickety wooden steps and slid to a stop beside my open window. "Eighty-seven octane, unleaded, high detergent," he chuckled. "Just like the big companies. Don't take no mind of the pump. Can I check the oil? Last year's Jeep, aint it? Hardly tell one of them things from another."
...... I pulled the hood release, then opened the door and stepped out. "Fill it to the top. I'll look under the hood myself, thanks."
...... He pumped gasoline into the glass bowl, pushed in the nozzle, and squeezed the handle. " State Weights and Measures don't like this old thing, but I do. Got it put on the Historical Listing, so they can't do nothin' about it now. Kinda miss having all those citations and warnings though. They made real good kindlin' for my stove."
...... I pulled up the hood and checked the fluids: Radiator full, windshield wash good enough, oil and power steering fluid right at the top.
...... "Just can't get used to those new fuel-injected engines," he remarked from behind my shoulder. "Had enough trouble learnin' not to oil those paper air filters. Every time I open a hood, I expect to see a metal mushroom. Not some big casting where the carburetor ought to be. Think it'll take another ten gallons?"
...... "A little under, I think." I let the hood lock with a thump and gestured toward the 10-2-4 sign nailed to the station wall. "Got anything cold to drink?"
...... He looked over with a big grin. "You like my pump, son, you'll love the pop machine inside. Coin thing don't work, but the compressor's good as new now. Bring me a Dr. Pepper while you're at it, if you would, please."
...... The machine was in the back corner, a big cooler with a spring-loaded top. Inside, bottles hanging from metal tracks moved gently in the swirling cold water. I maneuvered two bottles into the dispenser trap and pulled them out, half expecting to see old-style refillable bottles. Outside, I handed him one and twisted the cap on mine to break the seal.
...... "Eighteen gallons." He hung up the nozzle. "Cuttin' it a might fine."
...... "I forgot to fill up at Libertyville," I admitted between swallows.
...... "Wouldn't have mattered no how. Ghost towns don't carry high test." He paused to drink. "Been a waste of time and gas, and you didn't have much left of that last."
...... I strangled a choking sensation and lowered my drink. "Libertyville? Just off the State route?"
...... "Yup. A mile at the turnoff. Nothin's over there but souvenir hunters looking for coins and arty-facts. Nobody's lived there since the old Liberty mine closed down for good." He gestured with his bottle. "If'en you'd gone there, you'd have found nothin' but old boards and broken glass."
...... Paying him a little more than the bill, I climbed back into my vehicle. The charge slip copy was under the visor, flicking its corner in the breeze from the window. I pulled it down for another look. Liberty Flowers, design number eleven, price, sales tax, total, to be picked up scrawled at the bottom. And three thick ham sandwiches sitting in a row on the passenger seat.
...... Only thirty or forty minutes more to Irvingtown, where I could drop off my samples, talk to the E.P.A. office chief there, and be on my way again. It all could wait one more hour.
"An hour and a half to spare," he laughed. "That still makes you early."
...... "Yes. I should have been here day before yesterday," I agreed, hoisting the box up on the counter. "I was detained."
...... "What's her name?" he kidded, stepping over to look at the plastic bags, each containing a soil sample. "I couldn't care less, but the Controller's Office would fuss and fume. Everything here kosher?"
...... "Each taken from exactly the spot marked on the map, sampled exactly according to the specifications," I stated. "Be glad they're here now. I almost had to walk them into town. Fortunately, that little garage out on Route 411 had unleaded."
...... "So pull my leg some more," he remarked, as he unloaded samples and peered at the labels. "That place hasn't been open since fifteen years ago. If it had any gas, it'd be evaporated by now." He studied the color and consistency of each sample, spreading the bags along the counter. "Everything looks all right. You want a receipt?"
...... I simply stared at the worn scratches in the counter top. Dark lines of grime embedded in the polish bespoke decades of people leaning here. "Fifteen years?"
...... "At least that," he allowed in an absent tone as he organized the samples. "It was built out there for when Route 411 was completed. But it never was. Who needs a road to nowhere? Nothing out there now but that old shack and the usual Highway Department traffic barriers. You ought to know!" He ambled back to his desk. "I suppose I'd better make out a formal receipt. Copy to the Controller's Office for their fiddling."
...... While he wrote, I studied the map on the wall next to the door. Last year's copyright and distributed by the Highway Department. The line showing State 411 ended exactly where Daniels claimed it did. Not even the dashes of a proposed line beyond it. I had made very good traveling time -- considering I'd used a highway which wasn't there.
...... "Here's your copy," he called, breaking into my concentration. "Now you can go back to your lady friend. Have a good weekend."
...... Outside in my vehicle, the needle of the fuel gauge was above F. A charge receipt was tucked under the visor strap, and three sandwiches awaited dinnertime.
...... Making a U-turn at the town's only traffic light, I pulled in at the service service station, shoved the nozzle into the filler pipe, and locked the handle. Just past two dollars, the backpressure clicked it off. I squeezed the lever slightly -- two-thirty, two-forty, two-fifty and overflow. The tiny faction held by siphon in the nozzle poured down the side panel when I yanked the nozzle out.
Fifty minutes later, I was stopped in front of the end-of-the-road barriers, watching the amber blinking of the warning lights. The engine idled impatiently. On the right the old garage still stood, door open and roof partly caved in. Behind it, the rusted remains of an old model-T pickup sat on cinder-block supports, wheels long gone.
...... Shoving the transmission into Drive and yanking up the 4x4 handle, I made a sharp turn across what once was a gravel apron and drove into the scrubby brush. The compass flickered and lined up, as I straightened and pushed down the throttle. I didn't need the compass -- every low hill, stunted bush, and rain-carved ditch had been my job for the past four weeks. Shaking and bouncing at twenty miles an hour, I followed what should have been the State route, without even a rut to mark its location.
...... Old foundations and weathered planks lying in the dirt, old beer cans and broken glass bottles, a vacant lot where a nice looking, middle-aged blonde had scrawled to be picked up at the bottom of a charge slip. The sun was going down, while I leaned against the warm hood and munched a ham sandwich. Nothing stirred in the twilight except the wind. Even the churchmice had left the ruins of the historic district.
The hills looked the same but the oaks were gone. The bubbling creek was a gouge in the dirt. Headlights on full beam shone out over the stone foundation and a few blackened timbers not yet hidden away by the packrat wind. I stood on the highest tread of the stonework staircase which now stepped off into nothing.
...... Not so much as an echo to mock my cry.
...... Turning to go back down the ancient stairs, I stopped perfectly still, blinking my eyes against the glare of the Jeep's headlights. The open driver's side door had let the courtesy lights remain on. Against their dim illumination was a silhouette -- of slim shoulders and long hair swaying in the wind.
...... Leaving the stairs behind in eight long strides, I skidded to a halt a few feet away, boots grooving the dry earth. The wind picked up the dust and carried it away in a tiny cloud.
...... "I told you I'd wait. I did." A crystal laugh like glass windchimes. "You said you'd return. And you did!"
...... Green and tan shawl over her shoulders, the long hem of her emerald-green dress teased by the wind, she looked at me with a playful twinkle in her dark eyes.
...... "What?" I gestured behind me.
...... She shrugged delicately. "Other places have . . . other rules. It doesn't matter now. We can talk later. We have an entire lifetime together. Now." She held out a small leather suitcase with both hands, grinning like a street urchin. "With all my worldly goods, thee, I endow."
...... I accepted the tiny bit of luggage. "Then we'll put all your worldly goods on the backseat of all my worldly goods." I opened the front passenger door. "Your carriage waits, my lovely lady."
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)