Mike Hampton grew up in eastern Kentucky and earned his MFA in Writing from Spalding University. His work has previously appeared in The Southeast Review, The Pacific Review and McSweeney’s, among others. Mike currently lives in Cincinnati with his wife Allison and children Ella and Luke, and works as an English faculty member at Northern Kentucky University and The University of Cincinnati Clermont College.
The lovers sat on the lawn where they were allowed to be together. A man’s shadow parted the curtains in the bay window, and the idea that they were being watched again left them wordless. Hazel trailed her nails across the grass stains on her jeans, her mind full of torn valentines. Felix twisted the stems of dandelions together and wished he could move toward her as her the scent caught him in the breeze. The heaviness of time moving away like a river grew between them as the day came to an end with the colors of fire.
“My Papaw has a saying for times like this,” Felix said falling flat of his back.
“Days like what?”
“I don’t know. Days that seem like every minute sinks you further down. He’d say ‘Son, we’re stuck in a mine and all the canaries are dead’.”
“You’re Papaw sounds like a real ray of light.”
“I just want you to know this isn’t the end.”
Crickets chirped from the creek bed at the end of the property line where a single lane road ran along the ridgeline, their song adding a rhythm to time running out. Rising to sit, Felix took her hands in his and together they tried to imagine they were alone in the world.
“This is your life line,” Felix said as his finger moved slowly across her palm. “It’s long. You won’t die young.”
Hazel arched her palm back to expose every wrinkle she had earned in her young life as her lips disappeared to white.
Felix moved onto the soft pad beneath her thumb. “This is your love line. You see how it curves to me. Everything is like I said.”
The curtains parted wide as the porch light switched on.
There was no chance that they could kiss and that fact burned in both their mouths before Hazel’s mother’s voice broke them apart. “It’s been half an hour now,” she said. “It’s time for your boy to go. Dill wants you back inside.”
Felix lifted himself off the lawn with a groan, and pulled Hazel to her bare feet. Though it hadn’t been nearly a half hour, he had no ground to stand on when it came to arguing. They loved under laws neither understood and it would be days before that changed. His only comfort came in knowing that things would change. Love doves had filled the trees for days. There were whispers of promise everywhere he looked.
“Remember what you have to do,” he said as his hands fell empty to his sides. “It’s only a few days now.”
“I won’t forget.”
Hazel walked inside with dropped shoulders as her mother closed the door. “All the canaries are dead.”
Abandoned, he drove home to plan their escape with cinders searing him inside. Things written in the sky couldn’t be denied. The world was marked with signs, and he knew the secret prayers hidden it trees tops and stars. A person just had to have the right eyes for them.
After two days Hazel was legal and they were ready to take the big step. Felix read the future in every bird’s flight above them, in the pattern of leaves reaching ground. The time had come.
In the morning she waited for the school bus like they had planned. Her mother had left home early to transcribe court depositions in a musty office underneath the town’s attorney’s office, while her father, dulled by liquor, remained asleep on the couch in the living room which had been his bed for over a year. As she walked down the gravel road alone she breathed in the scent of dogwood blossoms from a growing world.
Felix woke up wearing the clothes he had slept in. His Papaw had left the house for breathing therapy so there were no questions to be answered. He packed his bag in a hurry before going through his Papaw’s dresser. Then he drove to the football field next to the high school, and let his truck idle while he waited for a vision to find him.
Once off the bus, Hazel sprayed lavender perfume along her neckline before she wandered up toward the football field with her friend Misty. She wound a borrowed ribbon through her hair as her friend begged questions she couldn’t answer. The world ahead was a mystery, but she promised to call as soon as it happened. She couldn’t say where she would be tomorrow. “Felix will know. He was born magic.”
When the girls hugged one another Misty begged to join them, but Hazel said she had to do this alone, that she couldn’t go through with it if there were any witnesses. Her friend walked back late for class as she was stolen away.
Stoplights slowed their escape as they pulled out from their mountain town. Felix’s hands tightened on the wheel with every pause. Post office. Stop. Highway Department. Stop. Veterans of Foreign Wars. Stop. When the traffic lights glared red, Hazel ducked down into the cab for fear of church members or family friends who might pull up beside them. They felt like criminals and didn’t dare to speak until only the highway lay ahead of them. Then they laughed.
Hills with wet faces passed by in a broken limestone fencerow dividing tobacco fields and cow pastures from the highway until thirty miles were between them and the only home they had ever known. At the last tollbooth they reached Loudon, a former coal town where neither of them had family. Suddenly the world seemed ten times bigger than it had ever been before.
Hazel took her shoes off and pressed her head into Felix’s lap so her legs could dangle out the window in the breeze while she played with his shirttails. Neither knew what they would do when the time came, but they were happy to be going anywhere on their own terms.
Once in town, the truck turned right and passed the cotton processing plant where Hazel’s father had worked before his accident. He had operated a forklift carrying pallets of pressed fiber until the day he slipped four discs in his back. Looking out the window at that plant, Felix remembered the time he had gone to talk to him about Hazel. The whole time her father lay on the couch watching bass fishing tournaments with the sound off like the room around him was as empty as his stare. His eyes reminded Felix of his Papaw’s when he couldn’t hold his wind, the way they hollowed out, and at that moment he understood that to him he was only a sweat bee— a buzzing thing worth nothing. He decided then and there to take her.
On days when her father had been clearer, it was obvious that he hated him. Jealous to control what he could from his couch, he kept them on the lawn and waited for their spirits to die.
Now at the wheel, Felix thought about him lying on the couch at home with his Icy Hot patches and game shows, and how he believed his little girl was at school. A whiff of lavender found him and he stroked Hazel’s hair filled with pride.
They moved on past the cotton plant and stockyards, until they came to the entrance to Loudon Memorial Gardens up on a hill. Two marble angels watched from the gates as they passed through, and inside the tombstones shined like river rocks.
Flowers covered the field of stone. Little white primroses peaked out from a gravel path and by a reflecting pond day lilies bowed their heads. The drainage ditches held the bodies of wreaths washed from the monuments, and the culvert was clogged with bent roses and calla lilies meant for lost loved ones. Before they left, he promised himself that he would steal enough flowers to make things right.
At the very top of the hill the grounds were cluttered with stone markers no bigger than bricks. The truck eased to a stop as Hazel righted herself. While Felix consulted the notes he had written down, she straightened her hair in the rearview mirror and gave him a butterfly kiss on the cheek before sliding out. Felix watched her dance barefoot across the graves from inside the truck. This was something she needed to do for herself before the time came, not him, and if they lost their chance because of her he’d never let her forget it.
As she wandered around the weeds with her eyes focused on the ground the sunlight settled on the crown of her head and made her an angel until she found what she had come for and knelt down with her hands in prayer.
“Poor little thing,” Felix said to himself.
She had made Felix promise to take her to see her grandma’s grave before they did anything. She insisted it was a big step. They had argued about it as he hated losing the time, but when she cried he softened. They had been fighting more and it seemed a small sacrifice to keep the peace. The way he figured it her Grandma Jo was dead so even if she could get a message across from that distant shore she had never met him and was in no position to judge.
While he waited for her return he moved the radio dial past country stations, to gospel stations, then back to country. There wasn’t much variety in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. If you were lucky enough to pick up a rock and roll station coming up out of who knows where it was inevitably playing Journey or Van Halen; music that had been popular when the DJ was in high school. Every day he was sure that there was nothing left for them there. Hazel was just too young to see it yet. He started the engine when she finished her last goodbye.
“Well,” he said with his arm propped up along the back of the bench seat, “What’s the verdict?”
Hazel sat in the cab with a look as if she was taking a test. “She said she doesn’t approve, but she says I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
“She said all that?” he said as he watched the clock stealing minutes from them. She could feel an argument brewing so she just played with her hair, tossing her curls up so they could catch the light.
“And what’s your decision?” He had been cheated enough by living family, canceled dates and disconnected calls, and was ready to raise hell if she gave the dead a say-so.
“You know,” she said, turning quickly to kiss him. “I am here aren’t I?”
“Yes you are,” he said, whistling to clear the air. “Today will be the way I told you. This is your dream girl so you better start living it.”
A vision had come to Felix weeks before. One that, once shared, neither of them could let go of. The future was rushing towards them and he had read a lifetime of happy years ahead from the lines in her palm. She believed all that he told her about the love line that curved in her right hand, the one which met his perfectly. Since he was a child his Papaw had taught him to watch for signs: black wooly worms bringing bad winters, dead crows signally your maker. Hazel’s hand was a sign from Heaven above.
Back on the road, he regretted not stealing flowers from the graves. He wanted everything to be as romantic as the picture she had in her head. He wanted there to be flowers by the fistful for her and candles propped up on stands. The way he had promised.
It was close to noon and the sun was beating down through the windshield turning the truck’s cab into a greenhouse. Felix had been driving in circles waiting for a sign: redbirds on a wire, a star wandering lost in the day, any glimpse of deliverance. Hazel flipped through a magazine and didn’t bother with details. She left it up to him, a young girl used to being told what would happen next.
Since neither of the two had eaten, Felix pulled his truck into the Dairy Dart out on the old road and ordered lunch. With the tailgate down on the truck, they made a nice picnic of it, eating cheeseburgers and watching the delivery trucks go by smoking and loud. Hazel swung her feet back and forth to catch air between her toes. She hadn’t had many adventures in her life. Her father had seen to that. She had once told Felix that her mother had to call home just to get permission to go to the grocery store. Other things she kept to herself and would never say to another soul.
“Misty might be getting a new car for her birthday,” Hazel said as she watched dust settle on the road before them. “I don’t even have a license.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Felix said, as he worked his greasy hand into hers. “In a little while I’ll be able to sign for you. You won’t need his permission.”
“He won’t leave that easy.”
“You will be free. Just me and you.” Her lips left a mess of milkshake and lipstick on his cheek. He had never seen her happier.
After lunch the two drove to a state park on the other side of town and pulled off past the party sheds and playgrounds to a row of campsites down by the stream. No one camped there in the afternoon so they were free to walk around holding hands and talking. By themselves words came easy.
They played kid games with one another. If he turned his back on her, she would throw a pinecone at his head then run away giggling to be chased. When she wasn’t looking, he would run up behind her and twirl her around under the pines. If they could have stayed in that moment forever they would have.
The heat grew heavy above, so they made it down to the shade trees by the stream where the old saw mill stood empty. Hazel pulled her jeans off and waded into the water in just her panties. She looked like a high wire act the way she held her arms out to make her way across the mossy rocks. Felix watched her balance on legs that were pale as a talcum powder and thought for sure they would break with every step she took.
“Come on in!” she yelled over to him on the bank. “Let’s skinny dip!”
“It’s not deep enough!” he yelled back, skipping rocks to spray her.
“Who cares?” she yelled, starting to pull her shirt up only to jerk it down again in a tease. “Don’t you want to have any fun?”
“Later,” he said. Time was against them, but she acted like she was on a field trip.
“When? When are we going to do it?” she asked.
“Before they close at five. I know that much.”
“Come on get wet!”
“Stop acting like a kid!” He thought of the stolen checks he had taken from his Papaw’s room and knew if they got soaked there would be no chance of passing them.
“You think I’m a kid?” she asked. Her hand found a rock and began winding it up like a fastball.
“I think you’re perfect.”
“All right then.” The rock fell back into the water as she made her way over to where he sat on her jeans.
“I’ve been thinking about him,” she said as she pulled up grass on the bank.
“What do you think he’ll do when he finds out?” She threw pebbles into the creek, one by one, to watch them disappear. “He thinks you’re crazy. You talk crazy you know?”
“I don’t know what he’ll think and it doesn’t matter.”
She started to say something then thought better of it. “It’s just,” was all she could manage.
“He won’t even let me in your house to visit. When I come over I have to stay in your yard like a neighbor kid.”
“You don’t make sense when you talk to people.”
Felix held her pinesap covered hand tight so she knew that he meant what he said. “Wrong is wrong and after today it won’t matter any way. I told you I’ve had visions. Everything will be fine.”
“We can go anywhere in the world now. Tomorrow we’ll be gone away.”
“No we won’t,” she said.
“Yes we will if you believe. Now clean yourself up.”
The lovers drove back to town with silence filling the gap between them. Felix thought about what he would say about the checks. He thought about all the things he would have to do, and about leaving everything before this day behind.
At Waller’s Drug Store he left his girl inside the truck and bought a disposable camera and cologne. The drug store had roses wrapped up in plastic in the refrigerator by the milk so he grabbed one up to make her feel special. Half a dream come true would do.
Short order restaurants sat by the city bank, and next to the abandoned body shop the courthouse waited. He pulled into the courthouse and let the truck idle while she rummaged through her bag for a hairbrush and make-up. The idea of getting out the bottle of bootlegged blackberry wine he had brought for the occasion came to mind, but he decided against it. He didn’t want to look as if he needed to get his nerves up and was afraid to walk her in red faced from crying if she started in on him. This was their day.
“What do you think it will be like?” she asked, smearing on the make-up she was barred from wearing at home in the rearview mirror, one eyelid turning blue as the bruises on her thighs, then the other.
“You mean doing it for once?”
“No! Being married I mean.”
“Like anything else only no one can tell us what to do. That is the way it has to be. I’ve seen it.”
“You think it will be that way?”
“No one has any say so after this.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well you graduated last year, and I’m just a sophomore,” she said as she painted her nails against the dashboard. “Don’t you want to go to college?”
“I got you. I can still go to college. I’ll just work for awhile until you’re through. I can do a lot of things.”
“We have to stay here then.” She blew on her fingers until they were all pink as sugar-free gum.
“No we don’t! After today we can go anywhere. There’s a whole world out there you know. There’s high school everywhere and GED class too.”
“What about tonight?”
“I heard about this town across the Tennessee line where we can get a room for cheap. It’s right next to this big fireworks store with these huge hundred-foot tall concrete dinosaurs. We will watch the dawn break over those big green T-Rexes and start from there.”
“You have it all figured out,” she said.
“I’ve seen it all.” He tossed his notebook out onto the seat to cement his point. “See.” Pencil marks lined out a map for their escape.
He pulled his backpack from behind the bench seat and began to change into his Sunday clothes. As he buttoned up his shirt up he tried to slap out all the wrinkles as best he could while she played lookout. Police cruisers sat across the street from the courthouse to threaten their love. While she made sure they were clear he slid the checks into his back pocket.
After he pulled on his dress socks, he inched over as far as he could so that she could change. In the cab she slumped down over her bag lying in the floorboard at her feet. Her jeans came off as he helped place her dress on the seat. Although he was supposed to be watching for the police he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. She was his, perfect the way only a first love can be.
Hazel tugged her shirt up over her shoulders until her breasts popped out one by one. If he could have touched her then and there, he would have. She didn’t dress in a hurry, but shimmied her dress down slow like she was in a movie.
Their new clothes invited a strange sense of permanence into the cab so she pulled one of her mama’s cigarettes out of her purse to ease the mood and pushed the lighter into the dash.
“Put that out” Felix said, but she just dragged on it harder. He was invisible. She was her father. He jerked the cigarette out of her lips and flung it out the window.
“What did you do that for?”
“It’s time,” he said, raising his watch up so that she could see it. Inside he hoped that Misty had kept quiet. If she had ran her mouth he knew Dill would be out hunting them down crippled or not. He was that kind of man.
“Did you get me a ring?” She asked when tempers cooled.
“No. I didn’t know what you wanted so I thought we would wait.”
“How are we supposed to get married without a ring?”
“I’ll get you a ring. A big one with lots of diamonds. Gold and everything.”
“How do we get married without a ring or a preacher?”
“All we have to do is sign some papers,” He said, and knew immediately how sad and ordinary it sounded.
“Don’t you have to have a birth certificate or something? A driver’s license?”
“Not as far as I know. It wasn’t in the dream. I have a driver’s license anyway.” He thought this might come up so he had brought his driver’s license and his old V-school ID card. He only hoped that the clerk didn’t try to match his license to the check before they filed.
“I don’t have a license though,” she said drop-jawed. “I told you he wouldn’t let me get it since he knew I’d be with you.”
“Don’t you have any papers?”
“He said no license. What else am I supposed to have?”
“I have a license and you’re with me right? They can’t stop someone from marrying over a driver’s license.”
“You’re right,” she said. “Not over a license.”
The traffic on the main street slowed while Felix kept an eye on the stoplights for Dill. If he had made it this far, they could wheel away from him if they caught him at the light. Green followed red as he looked upwards to search the sky for a glimmer of blessings.
“You want to get married right? You want to be with me?” He pulled the plastic off the drugstore rose and pressed it to her heart.
“Of course I do.” She kissed him with a wet tobacco kiss that was half tears. “Always and forever.” She believed the way a girl can only believe once.
They made their way past the parking meters which lined the sidewalk by the courthouse steps. Hazel squeezed his hand tight and stood the drugstore rose up straight against her body the way she practiced alone in her room at night. They took one step at a time in sync, as if they walked down the center aisle of a cathedral. The people they passed paused to offer a smile.
“You think he knows by now?” she asked under her breath.
“He has to know one way or another. You would be home by now.” Their arms tightened against one another until their elbows turned purple.
“And after this?”
“After this everything will be like Christmas morning. I told you the future is ours.”
The lovers stopped at the doors of the courthouse, neither wanting to be the first to step inside. Their palms pressed into one another as their love lines formed a heart. Felix looked at their shadows on bronze doors and had a revelation of an eternity of perfect tomorrows beginning with a giant dinosaur and a Tennessee sunrise. Hazel buried her nose into her drug store rose, believing love and happily-ever-after were as simple as a signature; things that can only be believed once.