“Okay, so we are definitely lost.”
The trees that we now passed as we drove were like the trees we passed an hour ago. Everything looked the same, and nothing gave any indication that we would find anything different ahead of us. Now and again, we would catch the movement of large animals roaming just behind the tree line, supporting the fact that we were experiencing nature at its finest and giving me a slight chill down my spine It was all around us, encompassing us, nearly choking us with all its splendor.
“Nah, we cannot be lost. We have GPS!” With a cheeky grin, he shot me a glance before turning his attention back to the road once more.
Raising my eyebrows, I turned in my seat as much as my seatbelt would allow me and tapped a finger on the car’s digital screen. “Yeah, about that. What does it mean when the map shows nothing but green?”
His amused chuckle filled the car. It was so good to hear him laugh. “No doubt it means that we should have updated your GPS before we took this trip.” We both laughed as I put my hand on his arm and nudged him slightly. “Maybe it should have been a clue when the pavement turned to dust?”
“You think?” I smirked.
Other than our voices, only soft snores occasionally interrupted the silence in the car. Our boys were sleeping peacefully in the back seat, each with their heads propped on the other’s in a glorious mass of blonde and brown locks spilling over into their angelic faces. It was definitely time to get them haircuts, but it was not a priority on this road trip. One day, once we were home again, I would make the necessary appointments to get their hair cut, but for now, I just wanted to enjoy being here with them all. They were my world, and I didn’t want to think about what I would do when my husband could no longer fight his illness.
“It’s beautiful here.” His face had a plastered smile over it, but there was something he was hiding beneath the smile.
“Mark, are you okay?” How had I not seen the signs before now? His face looked slightly pinched and fatigued, and more pale than normal.
When he flinched at the question, it was as good as any verbal confirmation. “Yeah,” he replied as he flicked his eyes over to me. When he saw my expression, he grimaced.
I raised a brow as I crossed my arms across my chest. The frown I wore could rival any formidable grouch. It was a look he was familiar with by now, and one that told him that I was not buying what he was telling me.
He was always trying to protect me. His life’s mission seemed to be to make me and the children happy, and I knew he would go without so that we could have. That was my husband, the man that I have been devoted to for the last ten years of my life.
Attempting to change the subject, he asked, “You think those guys might be able to give us directions?” Mark had already started to slow the car down and I snapped my head around. People? Out here? In the middle of nowhere?
Men clad in dark blue uniforms were standing on the road ahead of us. Each man was armed, though looking at them, weapons were not required to intimidate most trespassers. It simply added to the feeling of intimidation.
My husband stood taller than me by a couple of inches, but these men stood taller than him. Not to mention that they were in far better shape than either of us that sat staring at them through the windshield. It was not that I live at the gym bulky physique, but more like the way they lived made their slender, muscular physique a necessity. A necessity? That set an alarm off in my head that I struggled to put aside.
Rolling down his window, we rolled to a stop before the more than ample sized wooden building that would provide shelter for the guards on duty, and then waited for them to approach. A man with blonde hair and smiling hazel eyes gave a curt nod in our direction as he approached the car. “Good evening.” Two other guards stood back a few feet, and they looked to the horizon as if waiting for something to blink into existence.
“Hi, I think we might be a little lost.” My husband grinned and shrugged, but the movement made him wince. After reaching into his pocket, he pulled out what looked like his license and registration. Maybe he figured that these people were a type of law enforcement, or maybe he wanted them to realize we were no threat.
The man frowned at Mark after looking over the items that he had been given, paying close attention to one of them for longer than it seemed he would need to. “I suppose you are to have ventured this far out. The only people that wind up here mean to be here.” He gave Mark a strange look before letting it slide to me.
Mark shook his head, then gave me a quick smile. “Being adventurous is not really one of my strong suits. Not sure why I chose today to do so.”
One of the other men leaned forward, his eyes quickly scanning the car of all of its passengers. When he stood, he returned his stare to the horizon and sucked in a deep breath of the warm evening air that had started to settle in around us. It seemed a bit odd, but maybe the fatigue that had been settling in had made it seem more so.
Returning my focus to the man at our window, I asked, “How far off the track have we come?” Mark’s smile was sheepish, but his face had become even paler than before.
The three men smiled broadly and looked at one another as if they shared some secret between them before the man answered. “That would depend on where you were heading.”
“Uh, well, we were just touring, you know. Being adventurous,” Mark reminded the man. He tried to chuckle, but it came out sounding more like he was choking. “Not really headed to any one place, just out to sightsee.” He grabbed my hand and squeezed it ever so gently.
The man at the window held Mark’s gaze, a frown deepening on his features. My husband was struggling, and my concern for him was growing exponentially. Those telltale signs of him needing rest were all too clear now: the gaunt look in his face, the pale color of his skin, the pinched mouth and eyes, and I could almost make out the small pants of air as his breathing became more ragged by the second.
From here, a large building was evident just over the tree line. A few miles away, tops. A place where they would hopefully allow us through so that we could all rest for a few minutes before we were sent on our way once more. A place that Mark could take a few moments to eat something, and take the medication that he dreaded so much. Someplace a little more relaxing and a little less intimidating than this building on the side of the road.
Leaning forward once again, I plastered a smile on my face. “I apologize, I imagine that this is a huge inconvenience for you all, but I really need to use the ladies’ room.” Shifting in my seat, I drew my thighs tighter together to accentuate the statement. “Would it be possible to relieve myself before we head back the way we came? I have not seen anything that resembles civilization for hours until now.”
This gave them cause to snicker. “That would be accurate. You all are about eight hours from any town that could accommodate you for the night.”
That made my face pucker. “Oh, I see.” It was spoken softly as my mind was already trying to sort out another avenue.
Already, the sun was drifting to the horizon, and it would only be visible for a couple of hours. At the moment, Mark just needed a break. He needed somewhere to sit, somewhere to breathe, somewhere to calm himself, and I needed to figure out a way to give him that.
Part of me wanted to grumble at him for insisting that we head in this dead-end direction. If only we had known. Though right now, I had other concerns, like preventing his symptoms from becoming even more unbearable.
A long pause followed before the man spoke again. “You’ve been granted clearance.” Those words struck me as funny. How is it we were granted clearance? None of them had any type of radio device. And from whom were we granted clearance? “If you will just follow the road until you get to the house you can see from here, there will be people there that can assist you further.” That was a house? The man frowned at Mark once more before adding, “It looks like you all could use a bit of a break.” It was almost as if he knew that Mark was not well.
Placing my hand on Mark’s shoulder, I smiled at the men. “Thank you so much. I cannot tell you how much we appreciate this.” Mark grimaced as I spoke, but tried to turn it into something that might pass for a smile.
The men waved us through, and as promised, others in the same dress guided us to the massive building in front of us. It was a beautiful log home that was large enough to constitute being called a mansion if a log home could be referred to as such. Some windows graced a large portion of the building that emitted a soft, golden glow of the lights from within as dusk became more prevalent.
I turned around to look in the back seat and was greeted with two pairs of young eyes that were still hazed from sleep as they looked on curiously. No doubt they could use a break as much as we could. What worried me more was that look of curiosity in my youngest’s eyes. It never led to any good, though his heart was always in the right place.
Pulling up to the spot the men indicated, we all started unfastening our seatbelts. Before the car was even in park, I flung my door open in anticipation of stretching my legs out and finding the items that Mark needed. The boys were not too far behind me as they barrelled out and started giving each other chase around the vehicle.
I vaguely remember tossing a warning over my shoulder, before digging through the trunk once more. “Watch where you’re going!”
When they nearly ran into one of the guards, they both stopped short. The man leaned down and gave them a frown, and my oldest grabbed the younger’s hand. “Oh. Excuse us, sir.”
The man ruffled his hair and gave them both a grin. “Good manners, son.” Aaron was on cloud nine as he grinned up at the man, a look of understanding passed between them that was a bit odd to me. But, then again, Aaron loved when others praised him. Wish I could say the same thing about my youngest son, Hayden.
Shuffling the items in the trunk around, I scanned for Mark’s emergency bag. Inside were snacks for him to put something on his stomach, and medication he needed to eat with food. The dosage was strong, and he needed food to line his stomach to prevent it from eating through the protective lining. Finding what I was looking for, I snatched the bag and slammed the trunk closed.
Mark was already out of the car and refused to lean against me when I went to stand next to him. Taking the bag from me, he gave me a small push forward. “Go on ahead. I will catch up.”
He smiled briefly before taking a step towards a small bench that overlooked a large, well-kept garden at the side of the building. It was filled with blossoms of every color imaginable, and the air was filled with their exotic fragrances. It would do him good to simply enjoy the view and relax for a few minutes before he was forced to take his medication.
The medicine made him groggy and made his stomach cramp. Not to mention that he claimed it put him in a barely functional state that he hated. He knew what needed to be done. My biggest worry was would he do it if I was not standing over him, but he had gotten better about it these last few months. Since we have been on the road, he has managed his own medication and doses. All I could be sure of these days was that the pills were disappearing, but that had to mean something.
Quality of life versus quantity. It was the same old argument, wasn’t it? Loved ones wanted as much as they could get, but individuals wanted to make the most of what they had. Who could blame me for wanting my husband by my side as long as I could as we watched our children grow up?
Realizing that my potty ploy was becoming a reality, I moved towards the building after making sure that Mark had made himself comfortable. The glass doors ahead showed more than a few people wandering around in the building ahead. A house, according to the guard. Several people stood around in small groups in idle conversation as though they were waiting for something, while a small group descended a flight of stairs.
The number of people lingering gave me pause before I dared to open the door. Maybe there was another facility here that would not be so busy at this time.
Numerous other buildings sprung up just a short walk from here and made their way across the landscape, making it appear as if this were an actual small city that had sprung up and survived in the middle of nowhere. Shops, stores, and other buildings littered the area that all surrounded this one, and yet it looked like this little city rolled the sidewalks up in the early evening. Just my luck!
If you looked past the local businesses, you could see small neighborhoods that fell away from here as they crept up slowly over the hillside. Nearing the top of one of the hills where one would expect the views to be spectacular, you could see much larger homes that spoke of wealth and prominence. And if you stare long enough, you could make out a more massive building at the crest of the mountain that I imagine could rival this one. For a moment, I tried to remember the small town we had driven away from this morning, and imagine what it must look like from up there.
Inhaling deep, I ended my procrastination and pushed the heavy wooden door open. As it swung open, the people that littered the area grew quiet. Men and women alike turned towards me as they gazed upon the one who intruded into their sanctum. The hairs on the back of my neck started to prickle, and my fight or flight instincts were imploring me towards the latter.
Squaring my shoulders, I scrunch my face as I gave them all a look that said I really, really hate to ask this, but...but I really didn’t. Now I knew that I would not make it far if I did not use their facilities. It must be that whole concept that, if you think hard enough about something, it will come true.
“I hate to interrupt, but the gentlemen outside said that there was a restroom here that I might be able to use?” My gaze slid across those present, each in their own thoughts. I looked for a face that was friendly enough that I might be able to hold their gaze and convey the necessity of my request.
Women seemed to be sizing me up, each deciding what kind of threat I was to them. Though, looking at their elegant forms and beautiful features, they would have to dismiss the fact that I was any threat whatsoever. Yet, their expressions did not waver.
The men were a different story. Each one held a different expression. Some wary, some approving, and one nearly knocked the breath from my lungs. From the moment I met Mark, there was never a time that any man has stolen my breath…until now.