While I still think there’s hope for Excision, I’ve been rereading On Hallowed Lanes in the hopes that maybe I can see a way of salvaging it. Honestly, it’s not in the cards, and that disappoints me. There are snippets, however, I don’t want to just let slide into nothingness, especially this one. It’s really only one of two scenes I think mattered in that whole novel.
Spoilers ahead for Band of Fallen Princes – in order to set this up, I need to talk about certain events that cap that novel off. If you haven’t read it and intend to, turn back now. Otherwise, here’s a quick catch-me-up.
This takes place during the late afternoon/early evening of the first day of Garrett and Brianna’s honeymoon. They were waylaid by bad weather, and have sought shelter for the night. Enjoy!
* * *
It only took them three minutes to find the key. Around the side of the house was a set of old wooden benches topped by a variety of withered potted plants. Under the third pot was a key duct taped to the bottom. She ripped it off and carefully made her way back through the puddles to Garrett.
After a quick high-five, she tested the key in the lock, but hesitated before she opened the door. “You’re sure no one’s around?”
Garrett nodded. “Took a look in the windows. Mail’s stacked on a table, and there’s a cobweb in a door frame. There’s an antique clock that’s stopped too, but that’s not a sure bet.”
She grinned. “Even without your better half, you’re still pretty good at this.”
“Thanks, I try.”
Inside, they checked beside the front and back entrances to make sure there wasn’t a home security system. The walls were bare but Garrett warned Brianna that if the cops came, they should just tell them the truth – they needed to get out of the weather and fully intended on leaving behind some money for the trouble.
“Should we be careful about fingerprints?”
Garrett shook his head. “We’re protecting ourselves against Mother Nature. At most, we’d get slapped with a misdemeanor.”
The interior had last been redone perhaps in the seventies, with wood paneling in the living room and a plush carpet struggling to identify itself as either orange or brown. Two well-worn couches covered in crocheted blankets and more modern throws faced a small flat-screen TV, ringed with a selection of mostly comedy and romance DVDs. A large wood stove squatted in one corner, its ugly black exterior contrasted somewhat by a pair of beautiful antique brass lamps beside it.
In the master bedroom was a queen-sized bed covered in a light blue comforter and a quilt that looked to be handcrafted. A picture on the singular nightstand was of an older couple, her with a tangled swirl of frizzy white hair and a twinkle in her eye, him with a half-formed smile that seemed to speak volumes about his hesitance about the rollercoasters in the background. Reflexively, Brianna lifted it up and blew a minute layer of dust off the picture. There, she thought. That’s how it should be.
If the living room’s general décor spoke of the seventies, another bedroom seemed taken straight from a photograph of the era. A rainbow-colored denim-lined armchair sat underneath a bronze reading lamp, flanked by an end table loaded with books – Bernard Malamud, Stephen King, thin volumes of Vonnegut, and Judith Rossner. Some of the volumes looked as though they’d fall apart if they touched them. A short coffee table loaded with textbooks on biology and math sat at the foot of the bed. Decoupaged Christmas ornaments hung from the ceiling at random intervals. Though kind of ugly, it was obvious some care had gone into their creation. Several pictures on the walls showed a young woman with a pair of kids and the older couple from the master bedroom.
A third bedroom looked to be a much younger woman’s room. A faded E.T. poster on the wall and a pair of well-worn Care Bears on a shelf jarred with the rest of the room, which seemed much more modern than the other two bedrooms. A computer maybe ten years out of date was pushed against one wall on a rickety old drafting desk, and stacks of high fantasy and romance novels bulged out of bookshelves and on stacks on every conceivable surface.
In the kitchen, a calendar on the wall showed a number of dates throughout the last half of June and the earliest parts of July circled off, with a big X on the sixth. There was only one note in the circles – “VACAY!” Garrett grinned and tapped it. “We’re good.”
In the split-level basement was a wall covered in dress hats – fedoras, pork pies, Stetsons, bowlers, even a large sombrero. Much of the furniture down there was stacked to one side and covered in sheets, save for a pool table and a tan loveseat. Brianna plucked a flat-brimmed boater hat off the wall and tried it on before she spun and winked at Garrett. “Whaddya think?”
“Hmm. I like it. Needs less clothes, though.”
She took off the hat and they returned upstairs. Garrett checked the windows to see if the storm was abating and jumped back a foot when a blade of lightning seemed to strike the moment he glanced out. “I think we’re stuck here for the night,” he grumbled.
Brianna glanced around at the worn furniture and the pictures on the wall, at the evidence of a family through the generations. Even as she vaguely understood that they would never grow old together, not with the work he did, she wished for nothing else but to be this couple, to live to see their grandchildren together. “Could be worse,” she said, reaching for his arm. “I kind of like it.”
* * *
Brianna started a fire in the old stove in the living room while Garrett brought in their luggage. “Freaking Montana,” she muttered as she lit the balled-up newspaper under the kindling. “Have to start a fire in June.”
As Garrett set about scrubbing the carpets where they’d tracked in mud – an eternal neat freak, he felt guilty about it and wouldn’t let it go – Brianna wandered through the house a second time, looking at all the photos.
The earliest ones, most of which were hung in the master bedroom, depicted the older couple as fresh-faced and were in black-and-white. He was round-faced, earnest-looking, and in every picture with his wife, he looked a little pleasantly confused, as though he couldn’t figure out why the woman on his arm was with him. She was almost always smiling or laughing, and in several they were giving each other smooches while glancing askance at the camera.
In later pictures, a little squirt of a baby joined them, chubby and either squalling or smiling. She grew up rapidly in the photos, first as a teeny toddler in a dress that hung down to her feet, then later as a determined child atop a rusty bike on the dirt road leading to the home. In her teenage years, the pictures depicted her as more serious and almost always with a book nearby. In one, the photographer caught the teenager without makeup, her nose almost pressed to a window, her breath fogging the pane, a mug in one hand and a pair of glasses in her other.
Then the woman was older, her hair longer, her frame filling out rapidly. Pregnant, but there was never a man in the photographs. Just the young woman, either alone, with female friends, or with the parents. In a hospital bed, looking exhausted but happy, holding a squalling baby in a white cap. Then, without much of a break, another shot of her late into another pregnancy, then holding another baby, somehow even happier than the first shot.
The two children, a boy and a girl, started to grow up in the pictures. Brianna guessed the young mom had taken over the role as photographer in the family. She showed up in the shots infrequently, looking a bit wearier but no less happy. The children, a chubby long-haired boy and a wire-thin girl with her grandmother’s mischievous smile, were often at play or posing goofily for the cameras. There was one last shot of them with the young woman, perhaps at a Christmas pageant or something. The woman was wide-mouthed, caught forever in the midst of saying something, and the girl was laughing while the boy posed like a body-builder, growling at the camera while he flexed.
The mother was in no more photos after that.
Brianna wandered around, sure she’d missed something, but no. In later photos, the children grew up, the boy into a serious-looking man rarely without a sport coat, the girl into a plump woman almost always with her grandmother in tow, the both of them laughing. The grandfather disappeared from the photographs too, and that was sad, but that was the natural order of things. The mother, though, was just… gone. No more laughter. No more wonderment. No more of anything. Just the grandmother and her daughter’s children.
Brianna began to weep silently, unsure as to why. As Garrett called for her, she returned to that last photograph, pressed her fingers to her lips, and brought them to the glass.
Garrett came to her, and she wrapped her arms around him, unable to explain to him why she was crying. “Make love to me,” she whispered to him, taking Garrett by the hand and leading him towards the grandchild’s bedroom. Not the woman’s. That place was sacred, and belonged to this family alone.