Chapter 6: The Inn
Est. Reading Time: 13 mins
Though Almondine enjoyed the evenings she slept outside, able to listen to the whispers of the trees and the quiet conversations of nocturnal animals, she found she missed the downy comfort of a bed. After her longest stretch of walking thus far, when she found a small town, she decided she would find a place to stay. After passing shops and restaurants sitting shoulder to shoulder down a long road, the sidewalk gave way to a wide green lawn full of shady trees and a white sign with gold lettering for The Lady Marigold Inn. Almondine hitched the straps of her backpack tightly to her shoulders and walked with a purposeful stride toward the building in the distance.
As she approached the inn, she saw a man standing and staring at the building. He looked at moonlight- white siding peppered with windows, a wrap around porch housing white rocking chairs, and planters of yellow and orange marigolds. He had his hands shoved in the pockets of his navy shorts, and his face looked pained, as though he expected answers from the building and found none.
Almondine walked over, stood next to him, and peered up at the building as well in case there was something she was missing. The guy glanced down and over at her, and raised an eyebrow.
"Can I help you?"
"I don't know. I don't think I need help," Almondine said. She paused and added, "Can I help you?"
He gave a grim chuckle and ran his knuckles along the edge of his jaw in thought for a moment.
"I was just walking and thinking, sort of about this place and I found myself standing here."
"Walking and thinking does lead one to all sorts of places," Almondine said, "Why here?"
"Well, that's kind of complicated I guess. Or maybe it's not that complicated and I'm just an idiot," he said as he walked over to the steps up to the porch and plopped down with a sigh. Almondine sat down next to him and sensing an interesting story said, "Why don't you tell me about it? The complication?"
He looked at her sideways for a moment, then leaned back to prop himself up on porch floor boards while his feet rested on the stairs. He stared out at the green lawn and the swaying shadows of the trees, and started talking, telling his story to the space ahead of him, to the memories he seemed to see there.
"I had a paper route in high school. For two years I was out every morning, slinging papers with a rotation of other kids who usually did a month or two before they got tired of getting up so early. Just before the start of my senior year I got partnered with a girl named Sage. We would ride together side by side down the middle of the street, matching brown bags slung across our torsos. She would shoot papers onto the yards of the houses on the left and I'd chuck them out to the houses on the right. We'd start at about six in the morning so it wasn't such a big deal riding down the middle of the street like, not a lot of cars. And if one came along, we'd part to our respective sides of the street as the car came through and then join up again after it passed," he made a motion with his hands facing palm to palm, parallel and matching then swooping away and dovetailing back together again. He continued with a little more speed, finding himself eager to find the words for an ache that needed to be examined out loud.
"While we rode together I would tell her about the dreams I dreamt the night before. I told her about dreaming my mother baked so many pies that they covered every inch of the counters, table, the floors of the kitchen, and she stood in the middle of this sea of pies and told me I was late for school." He turned and looked at Almondine perched next to him, a grin of remembrance across his face.
"Sage laughed and said it sounded like heaven, and her laugh made me laugh too even though the dream had left me unsettled. I've always lived with vivid dreams, full of people from my life mixing with strangers, with unlikely challenges like rooms full of pies. It would be the rubber shushing sound of our tires on the road, the mechanical sound of my old bike chain, and me talking in great detail about my dreams, interrupted only by the occasional thwock of a paper as it landed on asphalt instead of grass. We didn't talk much at school, but she had her group of girlfriends and I had my friends, and I always felt like I would see her the next morning so what did it matter." He sighed and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "I think I was also a little embarrassed to need a job so badly that I would wake before all my classmates and pedal through a town of kids still asleep in their beds. I didn't really want Sage to come up and talk to me about it in school, remind me about what connected us. I'm not proud of that now."
He leaned back again, his arms straight behind him, palms flat against the porch floor.
"When high school finished we still had our jobs, and we carried on the same way every morning . She had an interesting way of picking out some narrative to the dream I hadn't been able to. She made me feel like the crazy vivid dreams made me special somehow, especially since she said she remembered a dream maybe once a week, if that."
He paused, looking back out over the lawn again, as though to look through the greenery and back in time.
"To me it was just conversation."
He shook his head and looked down at his shoes, swiping at a blade of grass sticking to the side of one white sole.
"Granted, it was conversation I shared only with her, and should have realized that meant something. One morning about two weeks before we would both be heading to our respective colleges, which weren't all that far from each other, we were out making our paper deliveries, side by side as always. Before I could tell her about a dream or make some comment about the day she said, 'How come you never asked me out?' She spoke firmly, clearly wanting a serious answer, but she didn't look at me, she kept her one hand on the handle bar and the other whipping out papers. I was stunned. The answer was because it never crossed my mind. I know people like to think that as soon as a guy sees a girl, much less spends a lot of time with her that he must think about what it would be like to kiss her or whatever, but that never crossed my mind with Sage. Without meaning to she became my best friend even if I couldn't recognize it, too stupid to recognize it, and I let her become part of a routine. I don't know what she thought during my few minutes of stunned silence. I do know I threw some wonky papers, ending up in flower beds and closer to the gutters than to the houses. I finally said, 'I never thought about it.' Which was the truth but not likely to be a welcome answer. We rode on in silence a while longer after, and I wished I could think of something to say. And I wished my damned bike chain didn't sound so loud in the new silence. She spoke into the silence as we came to the last stretch of our route. 'I thought dreams were something pretty intimate. They're the stuff from inside only your mind and your soul and every day you share them with me. I doubt you share this way with anyone else, and I started asking myself why you would do something like that. And I thought it was because you liked me. Liked me, liked me.' I could see a little pink creep up her neck when she said this. 'I'm sorry for the mistake, it won't happen again.' Then threw her last paper. I thought it would be her last paper for the day but it was her last paper for good. The next day I covered the whole route on my own, the boss calling the night before to say Sage wasn't feeling well. Day after that this short kid, a few years younger than me shows up, cards in the spokes of his bike snapping the whole ride. I made sure to pedal faster and get through my side of the street ahead of him, to escape the noise and to forget about what it might have been otherwise."
He pulled his knees up to the top step, the tops of his thighs meeting his chest as he continued.
"That night I thought about calling her house. I looked up her number, but for all my pacing and thinking, I never called to ask her if she was going to come back. The summer went on, I ignored the kid and got my work done and part of me assumed I would see her at the grocery or getting ice cream some hot night, and I'd find a way to say something that made sense of the jumble of knots she'd left in me. I missed her. She was right, it was intimate to share those things I didn't realize it until she told me, and I took it for granted until I didn't have it anymore." He sighed and rubbed his face, then smiled a weak smile.
"I didn't see her again before we left for school and then school was new and it was enough and though I never forgot about her entirely I forgot about what it had felt like to miss her. I somehow went through my first three years of college without ever running into her during break. I was actually surprised by how little I ran into anyone from high school. Last summer, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the hardware store about to go in and pick up more nails for this little shed my dad need help building, and there she was. She looked exactly the same and a hundred times more beautiful than I had ever known her to be at the exact same time. Sage stood a few squares of sidewalk away from me talking to a woman standing in the doorway of the flower shop. As she left, shaking hands with the woman and backing up toward the street and I just stood there, frozen. When she turned all the way to leave she saw me, paused, then smiled and offered a little wave. She said hey and walked over to give me a hug. I smelled lilacs and it was the first time I realized she would smell like anything. I hugged her back, and then she stood back and asked, 'How have you been?' I told her things were good, that I was looking forward to senior year and asked her how she was. She blushed a little and looked down and when she looked back up at me she was beaming. She stuck out her left hand and there was a spark of light in the movement. A round diamond sat on her ring finger. She told me she started dating a sophomore boy named Jackson during her second month of freshmen year. There were so many details held up for me to behold, like how she and her parents joined him and his parents for a joint Thanksgiving ski trip last November, and how much she liked his mother. She said he proposed on the night of his graduation while all his family and friends were out together celebrating the day. She said yes, of course, and they were planning on getting married the following June after she was done with her senior year. I smiled and nodded and stuttered a few words I hoped indicated joy for these plans, but I can't really remember. I remember feeling like a door that I had always left a little bit open slammed shut in my face. She hugged me goodbye and told me to enjoy the rest of my summer, I wished her the same. I mooned about for a week or so but eventually got carried away of the tides of summer activities. I went back to school and finished my year, got my degree. And now, here I am. I have a job back near my school that starts in two weeks but I wanted to squeak in one last summer vacation."
He sat back again and then swung an arm back gesturing toward the building behind them.
"She invited me to the wedding. I'm not sure why, though I guess why not. The reception is here, next weekend in the restaurant and the garden behind the inn. The RSVP's were due a month ago, when I was sitting in my half-packed dorm room. I wrote that I would attend and checked a box for salmon. Now, I'm sitting here thinking I need to call her mother tomorrow, before any more time passes, and tell her I won't be attending. I don't love her, I don't know if there's ever been a time I've been in love with her, but all the same I don't feel like I can go. So now I'm waiting until it's time to head back to a familiar city and start a new life."
He stopped talking and stared down at his hands now resting in his lap. Almondine set her chin upon her hand and sat next to him silently. She wasn't sure what to say. There was no obvious solution for this heart that hadn't set properly, and his story gave light to aspects of a life some unfamiliar from her own. In a strange way she wished for her own heartaches, to know what it felt like to carry that inside you. He finally turned to her and offered a weary smile.
"Thanks for listening to me. I haven't told anybody about this." He thought for a moment and said, "You know, I'm embarrassed, I don't even know your name and here I am, talking your ear off."
"I'm Almondine," she said with a smile, holding out her hand.
When their hands touched he heard the whir of his old bike chain and Sage's laugh, he smelled lilacs and the cool air of early mornings. He pulled away and shook his head.
He stood up and brushed imaginary dirt off the backs of his pants.
"You probably want to get into the inn," he said, shaking his head again, as he hopped down the steps.
"Enjoy your stay," he called as he started walking back into town, shoulders curved and hands back in his pockets. Almondine watched him go, not entirely sure what just transpired, stood, and went inside.
That night Almondine wanted to give a gift to the young man whose name she had never learned, to give him a little slice of happiness with Sage. She sent thin tendrils of rose colored light out her window and into the night. In his bed less than a mile away, he turned over in his sleep. He dreamed he was riding bikes with Sage again except they were their current ages, not the kids they had been before. Sage was laughing at something he said, and she reached over to take his hand as they pedaled side by side.
When the dream was over he awoke and found he was already crying. It's unfair for the mind to produce such impossible things, he thought. And Almondine fell asleep, certain she had done something kind.