Tree Tunnel

tree tunnel

 

The old Volvo bounces along the dirt roads. To anyone other than Kat it would seem like Stephen is simply careening wildly into the brush. Lush pine trees and bare oak trees whip by. Kat lies across the back, her boots propped up in the window of the door behind the driver. She chain smokes, flicking the butt over the fold out tray behind the armrest. Her long wool cap flutters in the wind. Her purple cardigan is open. Some ash is sprinkled over her black Ziggy Stardust tee shirt. Alice Cooper is playing on the stereo.

Stephen scratches at his pointed beard and squints through his thick glasses until he spots a break in the brush along the road. He brakes, slowing so a dip in the dirt won’t bounce the car too violently, and comes nearly to a stop before turning. The branches of the brush scratch at the doors. Kat feels them whip against the soles of her boots. She snuffs out her smoke and tries to shake off the sleepiness of the drive.

“So, did you, like,” Kat bobs her head side to side as she chooses her words, “did you, like, do stuff with her?”

“Yeah. We, uh…we did some stuff.”

“Like, what kind of stuff?”

Stephen shrugs. “The usual stuff, I guess.”

“Like…” Kat chuckles, “like, what kind of stuff is a middle-aged Greek woman into?”

He snatches the cap off his head and throws it at her without looking. She reaches up to catch it but it smacks her in the face anyway. She laughs, her tongue ring clicking against her teeth.

“She seemed to like saying Greek stuff when she came,” he calls back. He’s driving on bare ground, parallel to a splashing creek. The Volvo bounces a little, and Kat lurches to catapult herself into the passenger seat, her ass smacking the side of Stephen’s face as she whirls around. She nearly kicks him as she pivots in place, but she’s just barely able to pull her legs in close enough to avoid clocking him.

“Ohhhh,” Alice Cooper groans, “Burning inside this…”

Kat grabs Stephen’s fingers, and they squeeze hands.

“HELL IS LIVING WITHOUT YOUR”

They scream-sing in unison.

“AIN’T NOTHIN’ WITHOUT YOUR!”

They turn to face each other, leaning in so close their noses touch.

“TOUCH ME!”

They turn away now, still holding hands, rocking their fists and their bodies to the force of the words.

“HEAVEN WOULD BE LIKE HELL!”

Facing each other again now, leaning so close they’re a lost equilibrium away from falling into a kiss.

“IS LIVING WITHOUT YOUUUUUUUUUU!”

Stephen keeps driving, the Volvo shoving aside a bush that’s grown so thick it hangs over the water. The leaves rustle over the steel frame as the car slithers past. Another bush. Another. And then a path opens up, and they are gliding beneath a tunnel of tree branches. Ahead the space widens, not much but enough to park and turn around in the morning. He sets the brake and kills the engine. Kat squeezes his hand again at the refrain.

“HELL IS LIVING WITHOUT YOUUUUUUUUUU!!!”

The song plays out while Stephen reaches into the cooler behind his seat. He brings out a six-pack and drops it into the floorboard in front of Kat, then opens a bottle of Woodland Reserve and takes a drink. “To Kat,” Stephen says, tipping the bottle her way. She grabs it and drinks as he talks: “Single woman today. Married woman tomorrow.”

“Aw, Christ, don’t remind me,” she mutters, but she’s grinning and drinks again, then hands the bottle back. “Dude, we turned into fuckin’ grownups.”

“I know. Why didn’t anyone stop us?”

Kat laughs, then leans over and shouts out the window. “I thought you assholes had our back!” She drops back into her seat, giggling, and takes out another smoke. She looks over at Stephen as she lights up. “Goddammit, you even grew a beard to make it official!”

He scratches at his chin. “The Van Dyke: the official beard of dead childhood.”

“The dyke part is right. Your face is hairier than my snatch.” She reaches over and tugs on the end of it. “They don’t give you any grief for it at work?”

“No one cares how a librarian looks.” He drinks again. “Besides, I’m the youth program director. I think the grownups think it helps me connect to” and here he forms air quotes, still holding the bottle, “the kids today.

“Fuck man, I thought we were supposed to be the kids today.” She grabs for the bottle. “Jesus shit-eating Christ. I’m gonna be married tomorrow and graduated next Friday. I start my job in a month.” She grabs Stephen’s arm and shakes it. “A month, Stephen! How could you let this happen to meeeeee?

She throws her head back in mock despair, or maybe a small degree of genuine despair. He looks at her pale neck, and without meaning to he remembers how much he enjoyed kissing it when they were both teenagers.

He takes the bottle back and drinks. He offers it back, but she shakes her head and he corks it. He reaches back behind the seat, fumbles in the cooler, and brings up a gram and a ceramic pipe.

“Hot damn,” she murmurs. “The library ain’t gonna find out when they piss test you?”

“No one ever actually gets piss tested except when they start workin’,” he says, packing the bowl. “So with that in mind, you might as well smoke up now, before the piss fetishists at your own gig get a hold of ya.”

He gives her the pipe and lighter, and she takes a long, slow hit. The glass is a swirling pink and sea-green. The waves match the contour of her lips so well it almost seems like an extension of her.

She hands the pipe back. He’s feeling the bourbon, and when he grabs for the weed his fingers run over hers. His fingers have always been kind of rough. He’s always doing something with his hands in his free time, always making something or taking something apart. When he used to run his hands down her sides she’d gasp at the roughness.

It’s only four but it’s already getting dark. When they burn through the bowl she turns in her seat and leans against him, moving the armrest back and resting her head on his thigh. She props her feet up in the window and squirms until she’s able to kick off her boots. It’s gotten so cold that a little steam puffs from her blue and orange striped socks.

“That’s very generous of you,” he tells her. “Donating your shoes to homeless woodland critters an’ all.”

She stays still for a moment, then mutters “dammit” and sits up. She opens the car door and drags her shoes inside. “You got me fuckin’ paranoid now,” she tells him, throwing her boots in back and slamming the door shut. She throws her cap back with her boots, and her dark blond hair shakes out loose and long before she lies back down. She sniffs against the chill and rubs her thumb against her nose stud. She smells like berry shampoo.

Her smokes are tucked into the breast pocket of her cardigan, and he opens the box and works a cigarette free.

“Thief,” she mutters, then grabs the lighter tucked beside the pack and hands it up to him. In the flash of the lighter he looks both old and newborn, grizzled but impossibly baby-faced. His hair is nearly shaven along his temples, but it is long and slicked back at the top. He makes her think of a baby, with it’s only tuft of hair sticking wild from the crown of its scalp. She reaches up and runs her fingers through his whiskers.

He has a scar beneath one eye that looks deep and dark in the firelight. He got it when they were sixteen, shortly after they found this spot. She’d just got her license then. They’d had sex, then he’d chased her when she wouldn’t give him back his cigarettes. They’d run naked on a hot summer day, and when he caught her they wrestled each other to the ground until they were kissing and her hips were pinning his. After he came he held her close and kissed her body, listening intently to every murmur she made at the touch of his lips. Then an hour later she still refused to give him his cigarettes. On the chase back to her car he slipped and hit his cheek on a root. She’d laughed at him, amused but also sympathetic, and when they wiped the blood off she kissed his sore face and lit his smoke for him.

She takes back her lighter. “I wonder how fast your beard would go up if I lit it on fire.”

He shrugs. “It’s sparse but the hair is coarse. It might just melt. Like when people burn their dredlocks in place.”

“Duuuude! You could have beardlocks!”

“You wave that lighter anywhere near my face, and I’ll dump your body in the river.”

“You would kill for your beard?”

He flicks his smoke. “Well, you know. I’m a man on the edge, Kat.”

She laughs, stretches, and lays a hand against his face. I’m going to miss this with you.

He lays an arm across her and rubs his thumb along her shoulder.

“I know they’re mailing your diploma and all, but you think you’ll come back?” Stephen blows a stream of smoke out the window. “To walk the stage in the spring, I mean.”

She sits up, turns in her seat, and lets the back down, twisting her hips so her legs stick out the window. Her knees hook against the door. “I dunno. Maybe. I guess we could smoke it up a little if I do. I’ll already be piss tested and all.”

“You’re gonna be working in a recording studio.” He grabs the Woodland Reserve and uncorks it to drink. “Isn’t everyone gonna be high?”

“I think you have to be stone sober right before you work, ya see. Trial by fire an’ all.”

“Oh, yeah. That sounds completely legitimate. Now I feel stupid.”

She reaches over and thumps his ciggie, so a clump of ash drops into his lap. “Aw, goddammit!” he groans, then laughs as he swipes at his crotch. In his efforts he splashes whiskey onto his jeans.

“Oh, no!” she yells in mock alarm, and wipes at the liquor before too much of it can soak into the denim. “Dammit, Stephen! How are you failing this hard?!”

“I’m not failing, I was sabotaged!” And then he splashes the whiskey, not much, but she still feels it spatter in her face. A few wet hairs are now stuck to her neck.

“Hey!” She snatches the bottle back and drinks, then holds it out of reach and corks it. “No!” she scolds, slapping at his hands. “You clearly cannot be entrusted with custody of the booze.”

He leans against her and they reach through the window. He can’t quite get to the bottle. They’re laughing and his whiskey breath makes her think of brown sugar and molasses. She thinks of kissing the scar on his cheekbone but ignores the impulse.

“Alright, fine!” He falls back into his seat and grabs a beer instead.

“You splash that on me,” she tells him, “and I will kick you right in the face.”

He yawns. “Alright, truce.” He sips his PBR. “You and him oughtta get married out here.”

“Nooo!” She’s honestly almost horrified at the suggestion. She smacks him and he almost drops his tallboy. “This is our place! There’s even trees overhead! Even spy satellites don’t know we come out here!”

She loves him, more than she can say but not more than he’s aware of. He loves her too, and she knows it. They were the only two people they had sex with from ages thirteen to nineteen. They could’ve probably been called a couple when they were kids but they never felt like they were. It just all came down to trust. Against the rabid animal that is puberty, who else would you want with you but your best friend?

They keep drinking but they slow down as the night gets colder. They both hate and appreciate the fact that such foresight requires years behind it. The bottle empties, the cans disappear. The moon is a bright white eye. Hawks screech at each other in the trees.

Eventually Stephen stumbles to the trunk and takes out two sleeping bags. He unzips each all the way, lying one down as a pad, and using the other as a blanket while he and Kat watch the stars. Squirrels leap through pine needles and bare branches overhead.

“You make damn sure he doesn’t give you any shit,” he tells her.

“Aw, shit, what’s he gonna do? He’s even smaller than you are.”

“Still.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Neither of them will remember when they fell asleep. The night gets colder as the hours pass. There is splashing from the creek behind the trees. At one point, without waking, she turns to him and drapes her arm across his chest. An hour later he’s wrapped both arms around her. Neither are aware of holding the other. They keep each other warm until dawn.

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