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The plane landed at the Alfred Merton Private Airport at ten p.m. Looking out the window at the small town below me, a familiar sense of dread clogged my throat. Suddenly, I felt like throwing up.
Merton Bend is a small, wealthy township in Connecticut full of “All-American” men and women with old-fashioned ideals and acres upon acres of painful nothingness. There is a Catholic church, a Methodist church, and a Protestant church, all of which are on the same street and seem to have a sort of unspoken cold bloodedness between each other that I never truly understood growing up. Main Street has Gina’s Southern Buffet, a small supermarket with mostly farmed goods, and the Merton Movie theater, which only has showings three times a week, and never advertises current releases. There’s a small, narrow river that runs behind Gina’s and pours out into Merton Lake, where Christian summer camps are held each June, and kids go to ice skate in the winter when the water freezes up. There are three schools: Hartford Elementary, Shoreline Middle, and Merton High. No one goes outside of the district for schooling, lest they risk receiving dirty looks from the Catholic congregation, which runs most of the education system.
I was the last to leave the plane. A flight attendant, decked out in a dark blue and crimson uniform, approached my seat and gave my shoulder a light tap.
“Sir, you may exit the aircraft now.”
“Right--sorry.” I stood and shuffled out of the terminal, downstairs to bag claim, and outside to the same driveway I’d visited every Thanksgiving, where a line of taxis hugged the curb, and men waited outside their vehicles with fat cigarettes between their fingers and dark craters beneath their eyes.
“Here! Over here, sir!” The man that saw me first--a wide-eyed, pale skeleton with a thick New York accent and a Yankees shirt--waved me over to his bright yellow van with a toothy smile. “Where you headed?”
“36 Chapel Street.” The words sizzled on my tongue like oil on a hot pan. Chapel Street. How disgustingly quaint it sounded, and yet I had lived there for most of my life with no ill will towards the name.
“Chapel Street,” the man said to himelf, stomping out his cigarette and slinking around the car to the driver’s seat. “You need me to open the trunk?”
“No, thanks,” I said. I hadn’t packed a lot of clothes, but my suitcase was the same kind I’d had since the second grade, when everything I wore was ten times smaller and didn’t need nearly as much space. I climbed in the backseat and shoved my bags between my knees. A tight fit, but it beat having to throw my stuff in the trunk, which looked to be occupied with its own assortment of fine goods. “Is that a syringe?” I asked, craning my neck around to look behind my seat at the array of drug paraphanelia scattered across the floor of the trunk.
“Doesn’t matter.” The man flapped his skinny hand around dismissively, and made a sharp right turn out of the driveway before I could protest.
Cruising down Main Street at night brought back an unwanted wave of memories. The sign marking Gina’s Buffet was lit up, its LED lights flickering weakly. Squinting through the thin sheet of rain that had begun to fall, I could see Jessie MacIntyre, Gina’s daughter, wiping down the counters. Her pitch black hair was tied up in a bun and accompanied by the classic white paper hat that employees were made to wear. Further down the road, Scott Worthington stood before the entrance to the Merton Family Market, shoving a key into the door and flicking off the lights. He’d been the General Manager since before I left for college; it had been only a year since I last saw him, but he looked like a completely different man.
“Sh*t,” I murmured as the car rumbled tiresomely down the long dirt road. “It’s exactly the same. Not a hair out of place.”
“You live here?” The driver’s face twisted into a yellowing smirk and his bloodshot eyes met mine through the rearview mirror.
“A long time ago,” I said. It had really only been two years, but I liked to distance my likeness as much as possible from that of the smallest, most secluded bubble of a suburb in all of Connecticut.
“A real sh*t show, ain’t it?” Driver said with a raspy chuckle. “I mean, it’s nice and all, but them Christians are real nasty. Bunch of lying b*****ds, if you ask me.”
“Uh-huh.” My eyes skimmed the grey horizon, trying to make out the line where the tops of the trees met the incelement sky. “Bunch of b*****ds.”
“‘Course I love God and all, but those quacks are too much for me, and that’s saying something.”
I figured he was right. Telling from the dirty needle that rattled noisily around his dashboard, he was bound to be what the Catholics liked to call “doomed to eternal damnation.”
Merton Bend got real quiet at night. Around seven or eight, all the old men and women would shuffle back from Gina’s with their pocket Bibles in one hand and rosary beads clutched tightly in the other, giddy and satisfied from the weekly prayer circle, in which they always discussed what they could do next to unleash the wrath of God on those “sinful” Methodists. Then, at nine o’clock, Father Thomasin would close out the evening sermon and excuse his congregants, warning them before they all hopped in their matching Plymouths to avoid temptations in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Ten o’clock was the typical Christian curfew, in which the few small groups of teens that had ditched the sermon would walk home, chugging ice water and slapping each other's faces to try and look sober for their parents, who would undoubtedly be watching the seconds tick by with a pang of hopefulness that they might be able to instill some sort of punishment on their sinfully secular children. Finally, around eleven, the Family Market would close its doors as the last of the local hooligans skated their grounded asses back home just in time to receive a harsh warning from a red-faced, sweaty father-dearest who would very likely smell of light beer and stale tobacco.
Driving through the neighborhood, I wasn’t surprised to see how suspiciously uniform each dark, cozy cottage was. Exactly the same as they had been when I last saw them. Bright green lawns, precisely manicured and watered half to death for fear of brown blades; vibrant rose bushes that always seemed to be in bloom no matter the season; exactly two cars in each red brick driveway, both shiny and clean, with the occasional “Leviticus” bumper sticker pasted by the back tail lights. Curtains had been drawn, and porch lights were turned off, for no one was afraid of anyone breaking in. No matter how much the Catholics hated the Protestants, they would never resort to violence. Even in the dark, with only a few dim street lamps to illuminate the rows of eerily identical houses, I felt a disappointing sense of comfort and home. The driver stomped on the breaks, and the sound of tires squealing against pavement sliced rudely through the quiet.
“36 Chapel?” he grunted, holding out his sweaty palm. I dropped a wad of cash into his hand.
“Thanks,” I said, and swung my duffel bag around my shoulder, stepping outside and shutting the door split seconds before the car took off down the road again, headlights blazing.
Chapel Street was quiet once more.
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
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