Mrs. Stanton’s Question
by Alisha Lusk
The fog descended without warning, rapidly and efficiently encasing the entire town in its disorienting embrace.
One moment the horizon was visible from all angles, the next, it was a struggle to see beyond your own headlights. Such was winter in the valley. Mary Stanton drove with nearly excessive caution, as she had been taught. Following the lines as best she could, avoiding the almost irresistable urge to rely on the car in front of her to lead the way. Despite the fact that the speed limit was 50 down this particular stretch of road, she was being careful not to so much as nudge the speedometer past 35. So far as the fog lights were concerned, Mary had reminded herself to turn them on the second they had emerged from the restaurant to discover that the world had been transformed into a “fresh white canvas of moisture” as her husband Nelson had so animatedly put it. Now though, driving along and nervously searching for the divider line, Mary found the metaphor to be tiresomely upbeat. Canvas? It was more like a milky cataract had descended, blinding everyone in its path.
Mary was in a foul mood this evening, as she so often was lately. Not that you’d know it to look at her, if anyone who had made her acquaintance were asked, they would all answer the same: Mary Stanton practically oozed happiness and good will. And why wouldn’t she? There was nothing particularly bad about her life. She was happily married, far from rich but financially getting by, and she was successful in all of her endeavors. It is a well known fact that things are usually not what they appear to be, especially when considering human beings. But in Mary’s case, her friends and neighbors assumptions were almost all true. She was happily married. In fact, the longer she and her husband were together, the more she loved him. And while it’s true the money had always been a struggle for them, they had been doing much better lately. Besides, given their interests and dreams career wise, they had never intended to be rich. They had gone the route of all great fools before them and chosen what they loved over what they stood to gain, and they had never for a second regretted it. It was also true that Mary had an uncanny ability to achieve whatever she set her mind to, and as of yet that ability had never failed her. So how then could she find herself steadily drowning in a pit of sorrow while she was surrounded by her hearts desires? This was the question that was driving Mary Stanton insane. Because she had absolutely no idea.
It was this question that had been plaguing Mary all evening. As she sat across the table from her wonderful husband eating her exceptional pasta at one of her favorite restaurants. As she laughed along to their charming waitresses jokes and talked amiably with her spouse; all the while, she felt her unease lying just beneath the surface. And the more she attempted to ignore it, the more the feeling grew, burrowing into her mind like a hungry insect, devouring her cheer. By the end of the meal she was so confused and unhappy she was glad to be leaving, to be able to simply go home and sleep away the question. Even though she felt certain it would be lingering when she woke. She and Nelson had finished dessert and paid, and she had headed toward the exit with the sense that she would feel fine once she was out in the fresh night air. But there was no relief awaiting her outside. Only this fog, this damn cataract. The weather itself seeming to mirror her own dense sense of loss. And now she was driving home in it, wanting only to be able to run inside and slam the door on the entire mist choked world. But before she could do that, there was the drive to deal with, and the question.
Nelson rolled down the window, smiling the way that only he could. Nelson always seemed to smile with his entire being, his happiness seeming almost palpable.
“Is something wrong?” He asked. “Is the fog making you nervous?”
“A little,” she replied honestly “but I’ll be fine. I’ve driven in worse.”
“Dinner really was great, wasn’t it?” He asked “did you like your pasta?”
Nelson was always a man of many questions, Mary thought to herself, pleased at him for his well timed distraction.
“I loved it” she said, also honestly “and the cake was amazing, I swear I think it was even better than last time.”
“I know!” He replied, his face lighting up with an almost childish joy, “I had to stop myself from ordering another slice! I’m really glad you enjoyed yourself, you’ve seemed a little down lately.”
“Me?” she asked, feigning surprise, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’ve felt fine.”
“Well, either way, it was nice to get out of the house.” He leaned forward and switched the radio on, then proceeded to switch channels until he found some upbeat bit of rock that Mary couldn’t identify, but that seemed vaguely familiar.
The conversation died as the music proceeded toward a catchy chorus and Nelson hummed along, all the while starring pleasantly out the window despite the fact that there was nothing to see but fog. Grudgingly, Mary turned her thoughts back to the troublesome question. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this relentless feeling was no small matter. She was not going through a phase or approaching “that time of the month” and at 30 she was still years away from her mid-life crisis. No, this was no tiny issue that would disappear with time. Even now, she could feel it growing within her, and she knew with absolute certainty that somewhere along the line she had overlooked something vital in her life. Somewhere between meeting Nelson and falling in love with him, between beginning her entry level career at the environmental protection agency and helping Nelson to pursue his dreams of writing, amidst the daily struggle of survival and the demands of responsibility, she had missed some crucial element of life.
She was startled from her thoughts at the sound of an approaching engine. She glanced to the side in time to see a motorcycle careen past her. Two passengers, a man and a woman, both predictably wearing black leather and black helmets. They were accelerating dangerously, going well over the speed limit despite the fog. Mary watched as they passed her (illegally of course) and was surprised when she felt a pang of envy race through her. The woman held tightly to the man who, also predictably, was driving. And though both of their helmets had the visors down she thought she saw just a glimmer of an ecstatic smile playing on the woman’s lips. Just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone. Speeding ahead into the dense fog and disappearing, the small glow of a single red tail light lasting just a moment before it too, vanished. She glanced over at her husband, who sat singing another nameless song. He looked back at her and grinned. Despite herself she felt a smile crease her face and recognized that it was genuine. This man she loved. Once, before the brave and unadvisable careers, before the marriage, before the responsibility, they had planned to travel the world. Backpack across Europe, join the Peace Corpse, risk their lives to help and possibly even save other people. Once, they had felt brave. Now she drove 35 in fog, she had a mental check list of safety precautions; she never forgot to buckle her seatbelt. When exactly had she allowed fear to take up residence within her? At some point the desire to run off to Africa and dig wells for children who desperately needed them had become overwhelmed by the fear of what dangers may lurk in unknown places. Neither she nor Nelson had ever come right out and said that they were too afraid, but they both knew. Out of shame they had never voiced the real reason for abandoning their dreams. Instead they claimed school, work, and family. All reasonable answers. All lies. That was all years ago now. These days they never spoke of Africa, or Europe. Not even to restate their lies. Those dreams had gone the way of Nelsons legendary parties and her reckless driving habits. Vanished. As if into a thick fog.
They were approaching Cady Loop, a particularly sharp turn that Mary despised even in the clearest of weather. Though she felt she was approaching an answer to the dreaded question that had been plaguing her, she was still ill at ease. Was that it? Was it that fear had overwhelmed her dreams, her desires, her lust for life? It sounded simple, but the sound of the words filling her head resonated with truth. So that was it then. Mary knew that she should be relieved to have finally found the answer, but she only felt more uncertain. So she had identified the problem, but how in the world was she supposed to stop it? Fear did not seem like a force that was easily reckoned with. Especially not the sort that had been dwelling in the deep dark recesses of her mind for years, unperturbed, allowed to grow and expand at will.
So deep was she in her own thoughts that she nearly ran the car directly into it. Right around the bend of the dreaded Cady loop laid a large black mass, obstructing the road. Though she had clearly identified fear and over caution as the enemy, she was immensely grateful for the safety checklist that she had accumulated in her mind. Without it, she could never have evaded the collision so well. The screech of tires on asphalt and the smell of burnt rubber filled the air as the car ground to a jolting halt.
“What the hell was that?” Nelson screamed already beginning to rub his neck where the seatbelt had grabbed him only a moment before.
“I have no idea, I almost hit it!” Mary screamed back, trying her best to take stock of the situation.
“I’m gonna go check it out” Nelson said, slightly more calm now “you stay here.
“Like hell!” Mary said, her hand already on the door handle.
She was out of the car before Nelson could so much as utter a syllable and he had to jog to catch up as she approached the dark object that had so nearly caused them to crash.
“I hope it’s not an animal” Nelson nearly whimpered, “I would feel awful if- oomph!”
His breath rushed out of him for the second time that evening as he slammed into his wife’s back. Mary had abruptly stopped walking mere feet from the object, a look of terror spreading slowly across her face. He knew what it would be even before he glanced at it, but he was still far from prepared.
Mary took in the scene, willing herself to speak. But no matter how much she tried she seemed unable to control her body. The motorcycle, that’s what she had almost hit. It lay nearly unrecognizable in the middle of the street, badly beaten and dented. There was fluid of some sort leaking from its shattered body. The liquid dripped down into a stinking puddle that trickled through the cracks in the asphalt, mixing with the blood. Never in her life had Mary seen so much blood. It looked as if a mad painter had chosen this spot as his grisly canvas. Or it would, if it weren’t for the coppery rich smell that made Mary’s stomach turn dangerously. The man, if he could still be called such after being so badly mangled, had clearly been thrown from the bike. He lay in a shattered heap of ripped flesh and foul smelling fluid, barely recognizable as human. It was clear that the woman had not died so quickly. Chunks of flesh were ground into the asphalt approaching where the bike now lay. Clearly she had still been on when it tipped. She had been dragged quite a distance, her leg grinding away between her once cherished vehicle and the ground. Mary could see that the spot where she had ended up, but the girl was not there. Instead, she lay beside the man, what was left of her leg had perfectly outlined the path which she had chosen to drag herself. Her head was oddly dented and the entire right side of her body had been reduced to a wound, but somehow she had managed to claw her way to the man. Her hand was raised near his face, and it was clear that she had died caressing him, likely speaking her last words to him, words he would not hear. Mary felt numb.
She looked at Nelson; an expression of stunned dismay had transformed his face in a way she had never known possible. In any other circumstances it would have been funny, as things were; it only made the situation worse. She starred at her husbands disbelieving face and knew that she too wore a similar expression on her own. She tried to speak, to call out to him, but no words came. She looked back toward the accident.
People like to pretend that death is beautiful. That it is liberating and that our corpses are near to art. Mary had never agreed, but she understood the reasoning behind this lie. In movies, they often show some beautiful woman in a white nightgown, pale yet somehow still with rosy lips, she floats in water, more beautiful in death than she ever was in life. That’s what people like to think of when it comes to death. It is a much better image than the reality. This, right here, was real death, and Mary wished desperately that it were more like a scene from a movie. There was a smell starting to fill the air even more than the smell of blood, and Mary understood even through her shock that the mans bowels had been ripped open in the crash. Neither of them were pale, instead they were the sick brown of drying blood. No, death was not beautiful. And yet…
The way that the woman had died, one hand raised, caressing the brow of the man that she loved. Mary took a step closer, then another, and another. From where she stood before she had missed it, but up close she could see that one of the mans arms was wrapped around the woman’s back, holding her. So he had lived long enough to hear whatever this woman had had to say. His face was nearly pulverized, but the woman’s was only half so and the half that still resembled her prior beauty seemed at ease, peaceful even. Death was atrocious, ugly, and humiliating. Love, on the other hand, was always beautiful. And at this distance what Mary could see more even than the gore, was love. The way the man had used his last bit of strength and time to hold the woman, the way she had died, touching him so gently. Yes, love was what the scene before her truly held. Love and risk.
Mary began to feel her body returning to her control, her vocal cords loosening from the grip that shock had held over them. She thought: say something! Do something! Call 911!
But what she said was:
“Nelson. I think we should get a motorcycle.”
Alisha Lusk is 22 years old and currently in her second year at Fresno City College in California where she has been majoring in English with plans to transfer to State. She has long dreamed of becoming a writer and intends to continue pursuing that dream in the hopes of building a career out of it.