On the drive back to the Old Home Place, Dr. Watkins sat in the back seat filling the car with talk while Cheryl stayed up front with Frank, her face angled into the stream of cool air pouring out of the air-conditioning vent. Whenever a fresh wave of nausea welled in her stomach, she held the cut lemon over her nose and mouth and felt a tiny bit better.
When they pulled up at the Old Home Place, the bellman hustled out to the gravel driveway to help Dr. Watkins from the car. As Frank led his grandfather inside, Cheryl sat half in and half out of the front seat, willing her roiling stomach to settle. The bellman stood a few awkward feet from the car, his eyes focused on nothing in particular. She didn’t understand what he was waiting for until she saw the car keys dangling from his hand.
“Sorry,” she said, swinging her feet onto the gravel driveway. “Guess I’m moving a little slow this morning.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, with a bob of his head. Still, he hung back, tracing a wide circle around the front end of the car to the driver’s side. He was a good-looking guy, she saw that now. Just her type, too. Clean-cut. Athletic. Even in that clownish bellman’s outfit, he moved with a miler’s long-legged grace, nothing wasted or imprecise. One of those guys who won races before he even stepped into the starter’s blocks, just by the way he carried himself.
“Excuse me,” she said, as he turned the key in the ignition. “What school do you go to?”
“You look like you’re in college,” she said. “I was just wondering which one.”
He squinted at her, unsure where she was going with this. “VCU,” he said. “In Richmond.”
“Right, Virginia Commonwealth, I know it. Do you run track there?”
“Run track?” He laughed, genuinely mystified. “No, ma’am. I used to play football, but that was high school. I’m in the engineering program now. Computer science.”
“I’m sorry,” Cheryl stammered, trying, and failing, not to sound as mortified as she felt. “I thought you might be a miler. That was my event, the 1500 meters.” She was only making things worse, she realized, and she changed tack. “What kind of work do you do with computers? Are you one of those guys I call when my PowerBook freezes up?”
“That’s hardware, ma’am,” he said. “I work with apps, mostly. You ever heard of Winamp?”
“Is that like an email thing?” Cheryl asked.
“No, a file-sharing app. For music. Any song you want, any album, you can download it off the Web and play it on your computer for free.”
“I can play music on my computer? For free?”
He laughed at the unfeigned surprise in her voice. “Yes, ma’am.” He hooked a thumb toward the hotel behind him. “I tried to hook up these folks here with some music, for this party they was having. Didn’t want nothing to do with it. Figured all Reggie’s good for is toting bags, you know?”
Anything she said now, Cheryl knew, would sound patronizing. And hypocritical. Just a minute ago, she herself had figured all Reggie was good for was toting bags. Or running track. But then she realized she didn’t have to say anything. She could just be pleased for him.
“You should go into business with that,” she said.
“Already have,” he said. “Been burning CDs for folks all summer long. Matter of fact, I make more money doing that than I do toting folks’ bags.”
She laughed, seeing what she’d missed before, the kid in him, the computer geek noodling around in the innards of Macs and PCs, teaching himself how they worked. With any luck, she thought as he shifted the Cadillac into gear and tore off, spitting gravel from the tires, he’d skip the fancy car and find a job at an Internet startup in California.
“What was that all about?” Frank asked, coming up behind her.
“I just found out the next Bill Gates is parking your granddad’s car,” she said.
Frank watched the gleaming silver Caddy pull around the side of the mansion, trying to make sense of what Cheryl had just said. Finally, he shook his head and gave up.
“Look, we don’t have to stay,” he said. “There’s an airport in Roanoke, about an hour from here. We can be in DC in time for dinner.”
Half an hour ago, in the cramped kitchen of the farmhouse on Watkins Ridge, Cheryl would have given anything to be on a plane out of Virginia, but now the thought of racing off to the airport and catching the first flight back to civilization felt cowardly, a cop-out.
“I thought we were driving your granddad back to Lathrop,” she said.
“My uncle can take him,” Frank said. “Shelby says we can stay at his place in Georgetown tonight. We’ll have plenty of time to make our flight to Madrid.”
“We’re not going to Spain, Frank.”
“Can you see us laying out on the beach with Camilla and that Eurotrash crowd after this?” she said. “Anyway, before I get on any more planes, I need to see a doctor. And you and I need to talk.”
He nodded. “Yes, we do.”
She studied him a moment. “Have you ever been to Asheville, North Carolina?”
He took this in, his head cocked slightly to one side, as if he wanted to examine it from all angles. “Don’t you want to go back to New York first?” he asked.
“It’d just be a couple days,” she said. “Siler City’s not much more than a wide place in the road, but I grew up hearing all these stories about it. I’d like to see it at least once in my life.”
“You’ve got your phone, right?” he said. “In case anything goes wrong.”
“Nothing’s going to go wrong, Frank,” she said. “We’ll take a few pictures, spend the night in a crappy motel, and go home.”
He looked out at the tree-lined road that led to the highway, then took her hand.
“They’re serving lunch in there,” he said. “You hungry?”
The roiling in her gut, Cheryl realized, had stopped.
“Starving,” she said.
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.