“Forget Me Not” (Short Story as published in The Upper Mississippi Harvest)

Forget Me Not
by Stephanie Dixon
Published April 2017, Upper Mississippi Harvest Literary & Arts Magazine


The hard rain pattered on the car window and bounced off the hood of the rusted 1988 Jeep Cherokee. Mason felt small droplets land on his arm as he listlessly held his cigarette near the barely open window. He leaned back in the driver’s seat as it creaked under him. The damp smell of rain mixed with the musty dust that lingered in the old SUV. Dark brown eyes peered out of the windshield as Mason took a puff of the same cigarette that rested between his rough fingers. While frustration was apparent in his expression, he used his free hand to brush back his wet hair from his face.

He was parked on the side of an overlook. This time of year, it would often be busy because of the seasonal visitors, but the storms had chased off any sightseers. It was a solitude that Mason enjoyed. He watched as untamable waves crashed against the rocky cliffs that lined the shore of Lake Superior. The pine trees on the opposite side of the Superior Scenic Byway swayed and bent helplessly in the raging winds. Late spring on the Northshore of Minnesota came with a vengeance of nature. An attitude Mason shared since he was young.

Listening to the weather howling, he finally tossed his spent cigarette out the cracked open window. He closed his eyes and put his hands on the steering wheel. His knuckles were still smudged with grease from repairing a log splitter earlier in the day, but he had forgotten to wash them off. He peered into the rearview mirror and saw his own tired eyes staring back at him. The dark circles seemed to mock him. He turned his gaze to the passenger seat where a worn leather journal and his pack of Marlboro Red’s sat. Part of him wished he could sit there forever, but deep down he knew he couldn’t stay. His mother was waiting for him to pick up his dog, Gunner. For however long he could manage, all he wanted was to drink in the isolation.

“God damnit anyway,” he sighed. He turned the key in the ignition and pulled back onto the winding road.

“Ma, I’m here,” Mason shouted through the entryway of the beaten down house. It was falling apart, and he knew he should have spent more time working on it for his mom, but he preferred to spend his time in the shop. He was greeted first by his dog, who exuberantly ran to him. Gunner jumped on him, his paws wet and dirty from playing out in the rain.

“Oh Mason,” his mother cried from the kitchen, “we lost another tree! These damn storms… I don’t know why I bother.”

“They’re just trees, ma,” Mason said, stepping into the kitchen. “I’ll bring the saw by tomorrow. If it dries up, anyway.”

“I know, I know,” said his mother. She sat at the table, stirring her coffee that was barely warm. She didn’t like the taste, but she loved the idea of drinking it. There was a silence, a tension between the two. Gunner sat on the cold linoleum floor, wagging his damp tail and panting.

“Well,” Mason said before his mother cut him off.

“How’s treatment, Mason?” She asked, biting her bottom lip.

“It’s fine,” he replied.

“Oh,” his mother said, “that’s good… Are you still going to AA?”

“You know I have to,” said Mason, shaking his head. “Can I go now?”

His mother fell silent but nodded. She finally managed to find her words, saying, “you really should go visit Maggie. It would be good for you, honey.”

“I know,” Mason said, as he turned to leave. Of course, he wanted to call Maggie, but he didn’t want to face her. A sense of guilt and fear washed over him each time he saw her phone number on that worn out piece of paper his mom kept on her fridge, but he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t want to put her through more than she had to be while involved with him.

Gunner ran to the car, anxious to jump in. Mason opened the back hatch, though, the hydraulics were worn out so it didn’t stay up. The dog sprang up into the Jeep and shook, water dowsing the interior.

“Great, wet dog smell is just what this thing needed,” Mason said as he teased his dog.

Mason would wake up at night, usually more than once, sweating and gasping for air. The nightmare was always the same. He was haunted by shattered glass, screaming, blood, the crunch of metal and car parts colliding, and ultimately the smell of whiskey. Sometimes, he’d instinctively reach for the bottle that was once kept on his nightstand, but he knew it wasn’t there. Other times, he’d reach over to hold Maggie, who had kept him company in his darkest moments and consoled him when he needed it most. She was more than his best friend, but they were never officially together. The two of them hated the idea of labeling their relationship. Just like his bottle of whiskey, Mason knew she wasn’t there anymore, either.

He wanted to scroll through his phone and call her. He wanted to hear her voice and awkward laugh. He wanted to see her pretty green eyes and her soft lips curl into her quirky smile. Though, he couldn’t let himself. Instead, he started at the open letter from his lawyer on the desk adjacent to his bed. He had one more week until he had to face the judge, a nightmare of its own.

In the morning, he had to go to the grocery store. Gunner was out of dog food. There was a fog hanging in the air coming off of the lake. With a sigh, Mason pulled up his hood and shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his Carhartt jacket. He used his sleeve to wipe the mist off of the inside of his windshield, it was common for him to forget to roll his windows up. The Jeep started with a raspy roar, the battery was going out, but he figured he had no use in fixing it. His court date was approaching and fixing his car was the last thing on his mind.

The grocery store was relatively empty for a Friday morning, but Mason didn’t mind. He preferred not to be recognized in public after the accident. Too many questions and too much attention were exactly what he wanted to avoid. As he stepped through the automatic doors, he saw a face he used to know. That face belonged to Maggie.

She was checking out, coffee in one hand, her phone in the other. Mason wondered who she had been talking to lately, besides her little sister. Her hair was darker than the last time he saw her and even though it was hidden underneath a beanie, the curls hugged her rosy cheeks. Mason had almost forgotten the little details like that. He noticed he was staring, so he turned to the bags of dog food that lined the storefront, hoping Maggie wouldn’t recognize him. He looked over his shoulder, but she was already gone. It bothered him that she didn’t say hi, let alone notice he was there, even though he had been avoiding her. Mason looked out the store front window, looking for her car, but his eyes couldn’t find her. It was as though she too had been avoiding him.

After he paid for the dog food, he walked out of the store in a frustrated demeanor. With the bag slung over his right shoulder, he opened the hatch of his Jeep and heaved the bag into the back of the car. A frustrated groan escaped him.

“Hey, Mason,” said a man from behind him. It was an old friend, Darren.

“Oh, hey man,” Mason said. “Sorry, didn’t see ya there.”

“God, I haven’t seen you since-” Darren said, his voice trailed off.

Mason knew he meant since before the accident, but offered a courteous smile, and said “yeah, I know.”

“So… How have you been holding up?” Darren asked.

“Just making the best of everything, I guess,” said Mason. He was curious about Maggie, and he knew she hung out with Darren’s girlfriend. Girls talked, and Mason wanted to know if his name had been coming up at all. “Do you know how Maggie’s been since everything? I haven’t seen her since, you know.”

“Oh, err, yeah. I guess,” Darren said. His face lost its color and his eyes showed a certain apprehension. “Look, man, I gotta go. Emily is looking for me, nice seeing you.”

Mason stood there, speechless. Something made his stomach turn, as though someone reached in and was kneading it like a piece of dough. First, he assumed that Maggie was in some sort of trouble, maybe with a guy, or even hard drugs. It also crossed his mind that she was falling into other old habits of self-destruction, alcohol, cutting, anorexia. The guilt hit him as if he had been sucked into an undertow. He couldn’t breathe.

Another panic attack, he thought. With each attempt to take a breath, he felt his chest tighten and his arms shake, something that had been happening more frequently than he would have preferred since the accident.

It was 9:30 at night when Mason parked outside of Maggie’s house, where she lived alone since her parents had moved to the cities. He wondered if she had rearranged the furniture, or left it how it always had been. Did she ever replace that broken coffee table? Or paint the walls in her bedroom that turquoise blue she liked so much? The curiosity made a small smile escape from his lips. Mason hoped that Maggie was doing as well as he wanted to imagine, but how Darren acted made him worry.

He puffed a cigarette, in an attempt to calm his nerves. All he could think about was what he’s say to her when she opened the door. It had hardly crossed his mind that she might not answer, or want to talk to him at all. Shifting his weight in the driver’s seat, he looked at his face in the rearview mirror. The way his eyes looked restless and his hair messily pushed back from his face made him realize he hardly looked recognizable. He put out his half-smoked Marlboro and made his way out of the car.

“Here goes nothing,” he said to himself. He approached the door, adjusting his jacket and letting out a deep breath. As he raised a hand to knock, he paused. What if someone else answered the door? Mason knocked anyway, three quick taps of his knuckles. The door opened and he held his breath.

“Yeah, can I help you?” a man said. He was unfamiliar to Mason, but looked to be around his age. Late twenties, muscular arms, facial hair, strong cologne? That was Maggie’s type, which made Mason’s heart sink and his blood pump with jealousy.

“Is Maggie here? I need to talk to her,” he said, trying to hold his composure the best he could.

“I think you’ve got the wrong house, buddy,” the man said.

“What are you talking about?” Mason asked.

“I’ve lived here by myself for 8 months, don’t know anyone named Maggie, sorry,” the man said before closing the door. Mason felt a flush of insult come over him. It was unclear to him whether it was the way the man said her name as though she was just any other girl, or if it was the way Maggie had moved without even mentioning it to him.

As he returned to his car, he lit another cigarette. Agitatedly, he reached for his phone from the passenger seat. He typed her name in and pressed the call button. The only answer he received was from a dial tone telling him that the number he was calling had ben disconnected.

“GOD DAMNIT,” he shouted, as he threw his phone out the open window. It smashed against the pavement. The cigarette he had lit fell into his lap and burned through his jeans, causing him to yelp in surprise. He flicked it off and extinguished it before laying his head on the steering wheel. Maggie was gone, and he knew he was too late.

The next morning, he had to bring Gunner back to his mom’s house so he could drive down to Duluth to replace his phone. The sun was shining, and the rain seemed to finally have subsided, but Mason wasn’t enthused. The rainy weather was more preferable to him because it meant fewer people would be out and about.

When he reached his mother’s house he let Gunner out. The dog ran straight to the lake to jump in, which made Mason laugh to some extent. Damn dog. 

“Oh, honey!” his mother exclaimed, walking out of her house. “I have been trying to call you!”

“Sorry, phone broke. I’m running down to get a new one and was hoping you’d watch Gunner,” Mason said, crossing his arms.

“Of course,” she said.

“Ma, did you know Maggie moved?”

“What are you talking about?” she asked, her eyebrows raised.

“I went to her place and some guy has been living there for eight months, tried calling her and no answer either,” he explained. His mother put her hands on her hips and looked down. Mason noted the disappointment in her eyes, or was it sadness?

“Right, yeah, I think I have an address or something, somewhere,” she said, “wait here.”

When she returned, she didn’t look Mason in the eyes, she just stared at the paper in her hands as she held it out to Mason. It was a messily written address, not Maggie’s handwriting or his mothers. It was just a street name, 3rd Ave. Two Harbors, MN. Site #213 

“I’ll watch Gunner, but you should go see her before you head to town, it’ll be good,” his mother said, giving him an unwarranted embrace.

He didn’t have the luxury of a GPS app, so Mason used a tattered old map that was buried in the bottom of his glove compartment. The radio hummed an old Rod Stewart song that was uncannily called Maggie May. Mason caught himself humming along, though he noticed a lump building in his throat as he finally began to realize where his destination was.  He pulled into the Holy Spirit Catholic Cemetery, the entirety of his body trembled. There was an overwhelming sense of pain pitted in his core as he finally started to realize the truth. The last thing he wanted to remember was right in front of him and all he wanted to do was continue to deny his unrelenting reality.

After exiting his vehicle, he noticed his footsteps grow slower as they approached the grave site. A black granite headstone decorated with turquoise forget-me-not flowers sent shivers to each one of his nerve endings. Through blurred eyes, he read the name and date:

Margaret Annabelle Claybourne April 27, 1990 – February 18, 2016

Mason fell to his knees, shaking as he began to sob. It finally made sense. Everything made sense. February 18th had been the date of the accident, and that was enough for him to remember. Maggie was with him the night of the accident, insisting that she should be the one to drive. Mason, as stubborn as he was, wouldn’t let her even though he knew he had had too much to drink. He was the reason she was gone, and he never had the chance to tell him how he felt. Every repressed moment from that night engulfed him, and all he could do was sit there and accept what he had done.

He stared at the headstone, silently searching for anything he could say, until finally he whispered, “I’m sorry.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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