Those Who Are Invited In - First Five Pages
Night Zero: Make Smooth in the Forest a Highway to Grandma’s House
Part One: Dinner and a Death Wish
“Where the hell are we, Hell?” Sofia Wren mumbled to her partner Bernard Yates as she wiped sleep away from her dark-brown eyes and dusk’s lingering light disappeared into her long, black hair through the car window. Bernard’s green, four-door sedan’s engine came to an inaudible hum as they idled at a four-way stop on the edge of nowhere en route to her grandparents’ farm on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“Sof, are you going to ask me that every time you wake up?” he inquired, his irritated tone undercut by a joking glance at her in the passenger seat.
She removed her multicolored quilt and leaned forward to adjust her white slip-ons before musing, “Hmm, yes, most likely.”
They shared a laugh as Sofia shifted upright in her seat.
“It’s called Wisconsin,” he replied while gesturing at the derelict farmland and chain restaurants flanking them at the interchange, his black and silver Cornerstone College long sleeve T-shirt clinging tightly to his lean arm and wrist.
She checked the GPS and relayed, “Still four hours until we get to their place.”
He yawned back and observed, “Closer than when you last woke up,” before facetiously adding in his full voice, “plus, we’ll change time zones so it’ll feel even longer.”
“How about some dinner, Bern? Let’s get some gas and stretch our legs a bit too. I’ll let them know we’ll arrive around ten instead of nine. What do you say?” She knew he would have foregone dinner if that meant spending more time with her grandparents. She loved that about him, but not to the extent he made himself suffer.
Perhaps he’s just overly excited about meeting them for the first time, she thought.
He didn’t have to say it either, but she knew they hadn’t stopped since she fell asleep outside of Chicago.
“That sounds a treat. Keep an eye out for me,” he agreed, prompting her to shoot up and gesture like a ship’s watch searching for dry land.
Unsatisfied with using her own, she pointed out a gas station and family-style diner coming up on their right in her best robotic navigation voice. “Three hundred feet. Starboard. Recalculating. Recalculating. Recalculating.”
Bernard stifled his laughter and complimented her poor impression. He signaled over, pulled into the gas station and parked at a vacant pump, opening his door almost immediately after.
“Not coming in then, hey?” he inquired as she was awkwardly arching her back and smoothing out her jeans to retrieve her phone from her pocket.
She shook her head ‘no’ before responding, “I’ll get the gas if you get the goods. I want to give them an update, make sure they’re not sitting around waiting for us.”
“Deal. Couldn’t you message them, though?” he wondered as he reacquainted his legs with the sensation of standing upright, shaking out his ankles and rotating his neck and torso side to side.
“They don’t do texts, as they say. They video message me so they can show off their matching outfits,” she explained through a smile.
“They sound adorable,” he started before adding on, “tell them I said hi. Sour candy and a tea-and-lemonade, right?”
Sofia leaned in his direction and eagerly smiled in reply as Bernard ran his fingers through his tuft of faded, chestnut hair, shut the door and made his way inside the station.
She swiftly exited the car, fueled the tank and was brushing errant hair from her face and forehead as they answered her video call.
“Hi, Queenie. Are you there?” Xavier Wren asked his granddaughter as he pulled a piece of hay out of his painstakingly crafted white beard. Shoulder-length, white hair adorned his head, reminding Sofia just how much he resembled a towering, yet gaunt, Father Winter.
Sofia smiled, waving back at him and her grandmother, Ember.
With curlers in her salt-and-peppered hair and wide-rimmed glasses, she wasted no time interjecting, “Look at those freckles. A little pale though, and big bags under your eyes. You weren’t sleeping in the car, were you?”
The wrinkles around her own eyes gave her a deep and inviting smile.
Sofia frowned and replied, “Good to see you too. I see you two went with purple today, very dashing.”
“We know,” Xavier remarked half-jokingly as he straightened out his denim overalls that partially covered his purple and black checked flannel.
“We’re stopping to fuel up and get a quick bite to eat. We should be there around ten, not nine. How are Levin and Ghost?” she asked, searching the background for her two Border Collies as she got back in the car.
Ember turned to check for them but swiveled back shortly after. “They must be outside, Queenie. They can’t wait for you to come back. Everyone is looking forward to your arrival, especially the neighbor, but even more especially your grandfather and I. Should we tell the parade to stand down?”
“I can’t wait to see you two and everyone else, of course. I hope the dogs are still awake when we get there. I’m even more excited for you to meet Bernard,” she expressed, hoping for reassurance.
“Are you sure you want to bring him home to meet us?” Xavier probed to gauge her confidence in him as Ember gave her a hopeful smile.
“Definitely. He’ll fit right in. Though, I do suspect he has a secret he’s keeping from me about this trip. I’m not sure what it is, but perhaps I’m just being paranoid,” she admitted.
Ember and Xavier scanned their granddaughter’s face as her eyes wandered away, knowing what they’d say to her.
“Well, that makes two of us, doesn’t it?” Ember replied in a more commanding tone.
“I know. I just want everything to go well. I think he can handle it, but it will take all of us,” she mused as she watched Bernard exit the gas station.
“We’ll find out soon enough, Queenie. We just wished your parents could be here to see you two together on the farm and in town,” Xavier lamented as he held his wife close.
“I know. They’re looking down on us though, I can feel it,” Sofia conjectured after clearing a lump in her throat.
“If Bernard is all you said he was, perhaps he’ll feel it too,” Ember expressed lovingly.
“He’s coming back. I love you both and we’ll see you in about four hours or so,” Sofia hurriedly observed.
“We love you too, Queenie. Drive safely and try to stay awake,” Xavier suggested, despite knowing she would fall asleep as soon as the engine started up again.
“I’ll try. Bye now,” she insisted before letting out a fake yawn.
They disconnected just before Bernard swung open the driver’s side door and handed Sofia her snacks.
“Was that them?” he asked, though he knew it was.
Sofia was not prone to divulging information about her family, especially the whereabouts of her unaccounted-for parents. Bernard was curious about them at first, but soon learned probing her about their vanishing or her childhood with them only dredged up bad feelings and worse memories. It weighed on him heavily that he was not yet welcomed into her family as she was with his, but he felt relieved nonetheless to finally get his opportunity to meet her grandparents.
“They’re just checking in on us. They said they’re excited to meet you,” she relayed, knowing it was partially true and that it was also what Bernard needed to hear to keep his spirits lifted.
She relied on him more than he knew and so wanted to ease him into his crucial weekend with her grandparents and in her hometown.
“I can’t wait to meet them. Though, I’m pretty nervous. The few things you told me about them, well, they sound very impressive,” Bernard admitted as he pulled out of the gas station and into the diner’s adjacent parking lot.
“Aww, don’t worry. They don’t bite. Though, Ghost and Levin do,” Sofia replied softly through a wide smile as she slunk out of the car, waiting for her feet to hit the pavement.
“That’s comforting,” he remarked out of earshot while grabbing her jean jacket and meeting her behind the car.
She thanked him with a kiss before putting it on and explained, “They’re sheepdogs. They’re trained to intimidate but they’re just being protective. They’re harmless, really.”
She took his hand and he retorted to ease his tension, “So long as your grandparents don’t bite me I’ll be fine then, I suppose.”
“That’s the spirit,” she joyfully confirmed before stepping behind him and side-eyeing a speeding car passing by them in the parking lot.