By Torrey Bonington
“If you could vacation anywhere, where would it be?”
“No, I’m being serious.”
“So am I.”
“Alaska? You’re telling me you want to go to the Arctic Circle to relax? You can’t even sight see. And wouldn’t you want to go somewhere warm?”
“Well it’s about as cold here as it is in the Arctic,” the man reasoned. ‘And and I don’t mind the cold. And of course you can sight see. You can hike around and look at stuff like glaciers and wildlife. That doesn’t sound appealing to you?”
“Okay, how about you?”
“It’s not cliché! I took a couple art history courses in college and it would be nice to see the real thing compared to the slides I saw in class.”
“Alright, going to see Michelangelo and Raphael…that’s legit.”
“Thank you. And you’re right, now that I think about it Alaska does sound kind of nice. If you’re into the whole outdoorsy thing.”
The conversation lapsed for a moment, at which point a dull thud reverberated from the back of the car as they drove over a patch in the road. Neither of them flinched. The woman pulled down the mirror from above the windshield, rummaged in her purse to retrieve a tube of lip gloss and applied another coat. She noticed she had a small twig in her hair and gently removed it before taking a moment to study her reflection in the dim light. She pursed her lips. The color was called ‘Summer Daze.’ One side of her glassy-lipped mouth turned up in a smile when she recalled this. The idea of wearing it in the dead of winter suddenly struck her as ironic.
“You hungry?” The man ventured.
“I was just about to ask you the same thing. What are you in the mood for?”
“Sounds good to me.” The man dimmed the headlights as another car came into view. He was a very good driver. Whenever he drove with the woman he said he would be especially careful, that when she was in the car he was transporting precious cargo. When the vehicle passed, he turned the brights back on. The road was frosted with a leftover dusting of snow. The rock salt laid down during the blizzard several days before had given the pavement a raw, striated look.
They took a seat at the booth facing the highway. The waitress handed them a couple menus and said she would be right back before she left them to peruse their choices.
“Ohhh, pancakes,” the woman mused. “That sounds delicious.”
“I’ve never seen you eat pancakes before. I didn’t know you were the ‘breakfast for dinner’ type.”
“Really? But we’ve gone out for something after we finish a job like this before. I’ve never ordered them?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Hm. Well I guess tonight is just full of surprises!” They chuckled knowingly. “What looks good to you?”
“I think I’m going to get a hamburger.”
“So, are you a plain pancakes kind of girl, or do you like them with something?”
“Depends on how I’m feeling,” she said, her index finger tracing the vertical indentations on the sugar shaker. “Sometimes plain. Sometimes I like blueberry. Then again, I could really go for chocolate chip right now.”
“Go ahead. Treat yourself.”
“Okay.” She lifted her gaze from the chipped Formica table and looked at him. He smiled at her. She always liked the way the skin crinkled around his eyes when he grinned.
They drank hot coffee. It was late—going on ten thirty, but they needed to be alert. There was still work to be done. “You folks on your way to somewhere special?” the waitress asked when she came by to deliver their food and refill their cups.
“We’re spending the weekend with his brother and sister-in-law in the Poconos,” the woman replied, playfully taking the man’s hand.
“Well that’s nice. You two certainly make a cute couple.”
“Well thanks,” the man said, blushing just a bit.
“You enjoy your food. Let me know if I can get you anything else.” She turned and made her way to another table, taking the pencil out of her French twist to scribble down another order. The man took a moment to study her before turning back to the woman with an amused look in his face.
“The Poconos. Nice touch,” he said quietly so as not to be overheard. His cell phone rang. He took it out of his pocket to see who it was. “Oh, do you mind if I take this? It’s him,’ he said apologetically.
“Of course not. Go ahead.”
“Hello? Yes…it’s in the car and she’s sitting beside me right now.” He looked up from the counter and gave the woman a rushed smile. We needed to grab a quick bite and get warm and then we’ll be done. Thanks. And it’s the same drill right, nothing different? Sure thing. Talk to you then. Have a good night.”
“All’s well?” She asked. Wiping a spot of syrup from her hand with her napkin.
“Yup, just checking in. He was impressed we got things done so quickly. Now, what were talking about?”
“Ah yes, the Poconos.”
“It was the first place I could think of. Just wanted to make things exciting.”
“Sure, sure. And by the way, I bet we would make a cute couple.”
“You may be onto something,” the woman said, eyebrows raised. The man glanced outside the plate glass window to check the car. It sat unmoving, just as they had left it. He turned back to her.
“How’re the pancakes?” She took a moment to chew and swallow.
“Tasty. Want a bite?”
“Okay.” She cut off a piece with her fork and was about to put it onto his plate, but before she could he opened his mouth expectantly. After hesitating for a moment, she fed him the forkful. The waitress caught sight of them and cast them a friendly look. They looked back at one another and laughed again.
This was a fun game.
After they paid the check, the man and woman ambled out of the diner into the icy, Siberian night. It was so frigid it felt as though the air might shatter at any moment—so brittle and bitter was the cold.
“You’re shivering already. Here, take my gloves.”
“No, you’ll need them.”
“That’s alright. I would’ve taken them off anyway once I got the heat going.”
“Thanks.” The man pulled them out of the pocket of his jacket and handed them to her. She yanked them on. They got into the car, the man stuck the key into the ignition and the heating system roared to life.
“Brrrrr,’ the woman breathed through chattering teeth.
They drove for another hour. The woman turned on the radio for a bit, searching for a late night talk show or a jazz station, but after sifting through mostly static she shut it off. She wasn’t surprised that they weren’t picking up a lot of frequencies. They were in the middle of nowhere now. The man and the woman sat in silence for a few minutes. The sliver of moon shone down, but somehow the darkness and stillness of the night enveloped them. Swallowing them whole as they made their way down the deserted highway. Snow had buried the shrubs by the side of the road, even the immense evergreen trees that flanked them on both sides of the car were weighted down with heavy snow. It was past midnight. It felt as though they were the last ones left.
“It’s eerily beautiful.” The woman sighed finally.
“Isn’t it?” The man took a moment to turn his head from the road to regard his partner for a moment.
“Is your family well?”
“They are. Thanks for asking. And yours?”
“They’re doing just fine.” Then the man hunched down to get a better view of the sky through the windshield.
“There’s Orion,” he murmured, jerking his head in the direction of the constellation. The woman lowered her head to gaze upward.
“That’s the three bright stars, right?”
“Yup. That’s his belt. And then over there is Taurus, who he’s about to do battle with.”
“What? I thought the only thing special about Taurus is that he’s a zodiac sign.”
“He is. But the myth goes that he captured the Seven Sisters—“
“Wait, how do you know all this?”
“I like to read. Sorry, am I rambling?”
“No, it’s nice. Please, continue. The Seven Sisters…”
“Right, so, Taurus captured the Seven Sisters and Orion is about to fight the bull to get them back.”
“Are the Sisters a constellation?”
“Yes. They’re called Pleiades. It’s pretty clear tonight so you might be able to see them. It’s a cluster of stars to the right of Orion.” The woman crouched down to get a better look.
“I think I see them!” The man smiled at the delighted tone in her voice.
“I still have the book about all this. I should lend it to you.”
“Thanks, I’d like that.” There was a warm silence between them.
“I guess we should stop.”
“I’d say we’re pretty safe now. Let’s pull over here,” she pointed to a poorly plowed dirt road looming ahead.
Once they had driven several hundred yards into the dense forest, the man brought the car to a halt and shut it off.
“Okay, you know what to do.” They put on fresh pairs of rubber gloves and exited the car. They usually stopped talking at around this time unless it was absolutely necessary. It made things simpler if they dropped the chatter and got down to business to finish things as quickly as possible.
The man opened the back door on the passenger side and grabbed a pair of pliers and a hunting knife. The woman popped the trunk and pulled out the two shovels that lay next to the body. It had started to turn blue with cold.
“How about you dig and I take care of him. You did the messy part last time.” The man said, stepping over to peer inside.
“Thanks.” She set to digging out a patch of snow while he got to work. Once he had taken the pliers and extracted all the man’s teeth and put them into a plastic bag, the woman had cleared an area and started to heave her weight onto the shovel to break into the earth. They were lucky, the snow had insulated the ground and the dirt was soft and soggy. The man moved on to cutting off the fingertips and toes which he also collected in the plastic bag. The blade of the hunting knife slicing evenly through skin and bone. The popping and snapping of tendons pierced the night air. Steam rose from the wounds.
Once the body was finished with, the man grabbed the other shovel and helped dig out the rest of the hole. The woman had stripped off her outer jacket and was in her fleece, sweating slightly despite the cold. After another few minutes they stopped, picked up the dead weight, dropped it inside the grave and began filling it back up. It wasn’t long before they had finished packing snow on top of the freshly dug dirt.
The woman took the shovels and placed them into the trunk. The man did the same with the plastic bag and also disposed of their plastic gloves before shutting the hood of the trunk with a metallic clang. It was over. They climbed back into the car once again and drove back onto the main road. The clock on the dashboard read two thirty in the morning.
“Are you alright to drive? Not too tired?”
“I can make it. You can take a nap if you like.”
“Thanks.” The woman smiled appreciatively at him. She patted him on the shoulder before crossing her arms around herself for warmth and closing her eyes. It wasn’t long before she started to drift off. The road was still deserted. He glanced over at her. She looked so peaceful while she slept. He took his hand from the steering wheel and gently tucked a lock of hair that had fallen in her face behind her ear. She stirred but didn’t wake. She was beautiful.