Her mother whispers a promise: that if she is a good, good girl, she will be baptized. They will plug her nose and tip her back into the lake. It’s all she can think about, the cool release that water, in any form, might bring. “It takes only a few seconds, and everything will change,” her mother had told her, brushing her daughter’s bangs to the side in her gentle way. Her lurking father had heard and raged. He put his big fist through the wall, adding to the collection of cracks and falling plaster. He did not believe in redemption and wouldn’t let anyone else, either. He grabs the little girl and heads for the door. His wife grabs at his t-shirt, but it’s no use. The daughter waves to her as she hangs over her father’s shoulders, caveman style. The mother, resigned, blows her a kiss, then sits down on the curb to wait.
She calls to her father. She sees him look in the rearview mirror, crinkle his eyebrows a bit, then gaze back to the road. She lies down on the back seat, closes her eyes, wills herself to stifle moan. When the car slows down, she thinks that they might be home, or close to it and she waits for her father to say “Up and out!” like he usually does. Instead he leans across the front seat and gives the door a push. A girl flops down on the seat, blows the smoke from her cigarette out sideways. Her eyes are rimmed in black and her feet are dirty and bare. “You won’t get very far without shoes,” the father says, with a catch in his throat. “You’d be surprised,” is what she says, her voice flat and devoid of all emotion. She ignores the small girl in the back seat.
He has that far away look while he drives. The station wagon, a rescued relic from a buddy who desperately needed money, travels at 75 mph. down the highway. His daughter sits in the back, twirling the seatbelt around her arm, the sweat making a slow crawl down the sides of her sticky face. She’d like an ice cream or something cold to drink. Dark clouds hang low, and she’d like to snag one with her fingernail. If she could pierce a cloud she would. She’d tilt her face up to the sky and feel the cold rush of water on her face. The air draws a tight hot curtain around them that shimmers. The girl they’ve picked up smokes, picks at her toes, sleeps, fiddles with the radio, closes her eyes and occasionally startles.
When the daughter wakes she cannot remember where she is. The seat belt is under, not around her and she remembers the long ride in the car. Her mouth is dry and she can hear the whoosh of cars coming close, and then going far away. When her father and the girl return to the car, they seem different. Her father turns around, reaching for his daughter, gives her cheek a hard pinch, then a playful slap. The girl in the front seat dares to look for the first time. A sad and dirty face stares back. She asks the little girl in a small voice “how old are you?” The daughter’s tongue is so dry, but she answers the question with a question: “Do we know you?”
When they stop at a gas station the father bellows, “Up and out!” The girl with the dirty bare feet goes into the mini-mart. The father follows her and quickly returns with two cold and sweating bottles of water. He hands one to his daughter and pours the other over her head. The shock of cold has her gasping for a few seconds, but then she beams with relief. He lifts her by the arm and tosses her into the back seat.
Before making the turn back onto the highway, the little girl turns around to see the girl coming out of the mini-mart lighting a cigarette, hopping around on the hot asphalt, landing on one foot and then the other.
“No one can save you, remember that,” he tells his daughter in his strange and distracted way, stabbing the thick air with a fat finger. “You can do what you want, just be prepared to pay the consequences,” he tells her while pounding out a furious beat on the steering wheel.
The day has been a long one and she wants her mother now. She aches to feel that soft cool cheek against her own and hear her mother’s voice telling her of all the good things possible, if you only believe, but she feels different now.
She needs to hear all of the stories again, because she has already forgotten the most important parts. Maybe it was because of the constant thirst. Or the heat. Someday she’d like to find the girl who they’d left behind. She’d tell her a few things. Buy some shoes. Quit smoking. Don’t take rides from strangers. Try not to be afraid.
words: Michelle Reale, Philadelphia (more & more)
image: Lori Fredrickson, New York (lorifredrickson.com)
another family story: The Sea Lions (#20)