Forgive our main character for being no more than a child, when the world begins and ends at the edge of one’s sight and anything beyond that wholly ceases to exist. As she leans her head against the Spitfire’s worn leather interior and tries to fall asleep, a torrent of rain batters the crank-down windows and beats on the ragtop. At least this one’s windshield doesn’t leak. At least this one runs. She opens her eyes for a second to look out past the waves of water running down the glass in the fading, mottled light barely filtering through the storm clouds. She can’t see anything at all out there. Even the endless march of trees along the highway is eclipsed by the sheer amount of water suspended in the air—but she doesn’t know enough to be worried by it. She closes her eyes again. She adjusts the seatbelt beneath the red corduroy snout of the stuffed bear in her lap and listens to Jimmy Buffet’s voice come over the radio.
“Almost home, Harley,” her dad tells her. He must have seen her eyes open.
She rubs her face and sits upright. Her dad looks eight feet tall in the driver’s seat. She wouldn’t turn out nearly as tall as him, despite wanting that for a while. She only has three or four more years left to grow even if she doesn’t know it yet.
“Where are we?”
He could say a county, a town, it wouldn’t matter. She had no idea where they were any time they made this drive, except for the few moments when they passed under the sign that said WELCOME TO MARYLAND on the way up and WELCOME TO VIRGINIA on the way back. Sometimes she sees the sign that says Simonton on the toll road, but not usually, and she never sees a sign that says Mulberry; probably because they go to Marbury and she only thinks it’s called Mulberry because that’s the way her dad says it.
“Halfway,” he says. The blinker is on. Harley can hear the crash of tires tearing through deep puddles on poorly maintained roads. The storm is chasing them out of Maryland fast, and though the sky is bright ahead of them they probably can’t outrun it. “We’re gonna stop soon,” her dad says.
He starts to turn. They’re going fast, but her dad always drives fast. He drives a Ural up and down “the big hill” in their cul-de-sac that really isn’t all that big, and down the trails in the woods where nice people walk their little dogs and nothing happens. He has control of every vehicle in any weather or state of disrepair.
The Triumph starts to move forward instead of left, the weight of all that 70’s steel swinging through the intersection across the surface of the water. Her blue eyes widen only a little. She leans with the car as it hydroplanes what had to have been eight feet out of where it started. She hears the water rushing under the tires. Her dad whips the steering wheel around and around one way and then the other in a frenzy to resume contact with the road—but the whole thing passes her by. She would only remember the car swerving badly out of place and quickly straightening out on a nearly empty road, the rain pouring down as they chased the fading light. Her dad doesn’t say anything about it. He looks at her, then back at the road. She’s fine. They could have died, but she’s fine.
They stop where they always stop. A diner with red neon lights wrapped around the building and an old blue and white car like a Cadillac cut in half from bumper to bumper on display. She would remember the paintjob, and how the tailfin lights still lit up despite being mounted on a roof.
Harley climbs out of the car before her dad and stands unwitting in the buffeting rain. She is of a certain thoughtless type that it would take a few years more until she is particularly aware of anything. Water runs down her thin arms in rivers and her fine blonde hair whips about her face and sticks. Her hair is short because her mother hacked it off. Braiding it is too hard, her mother says. It is always full of knots. So, she had it cut short. It makes her look like her mom.
Harley squints against the wind flicking raindrops at her eyes. Every second feels separate in time. As she looks around the parking lot, the diner exists like a small, white pencil sketch on a sheet of black paper, made of lines and figures and blank spaces. The other cars are just boxes, the edge of the road an endless strike across the surface of the earth. Soon she would be in the next place, inside the diner, in the car.
"Come on, it’s raining!” Her dad waves her on behind him as he sprints to the diner’s door. She runs to catch up, sliding her hand through the filthy, muddy water covering the black emblem on the hood of the car—she runs because he’s waiting for her, holding the door open and letting the storm inside.
They sit in a booth against the window so she can watch the storm. Her dad probably doesn’t care, unless he’s worried the old car might float away on the tide sweeping through the parking lot. A waitress wipes away the drip-trail of muddy water Harley leaves across the linoleum floor. She dries her hand on her red bear in the seat beside her, something that she would never do a few years from now.
The inside of the diner is yellow. There are blank spots on the walls that were likely black-and-white pictures of a time when the place might have fit in a little better. Every table is a little unsteady, and her dad puts his foot on the feet of theirs to stop Harley from rocking it slowly from side to side, side to side.
“Did you have fun at work today?” he asks, perusing the menu. Harley doesn’t look at the menu. Anything that she would like her dad would choose and order for her. The quarrels of raising a picky eater.
“Yes,” she says, still trying to rock the table. Her eyes flick all over the place in between limited eye contact. “Everyone liked my shirt.”
“It’s a good shirt.” Her dad nods. She made her own shirt for take your daughter to work day to look just like her dad’s uniform: a gray shirt with black cuffs on the sleeves and a pocket with the company name B. F. Sam hovering over it. Harley used a fabric marker to fill in the hems of a plain gray t-shirt with black, drew on the pocket, and spent ten minutes making the garment lie flat so she could write on it properly. Her dad gave her a spare hat the same as his when they got to his office, so they could match.
They went straight from her dad’s work to Mulberry to see his family out there. It almost seemed like a second job.
“Today Michael told me his big brother died in the road in front of their house. He got hit by a big truck on his motorcycle,” Harley says. She keeps looking out the window.
Her dad orders something for both of them. If her statement alarms him at all, he doesn’t show it—maybe a slight raising of salt and pepper eyebrows that she doesn’t see. Maybe.
A waitress is standing by the table. She has no face. All Harley perceives of the her is the length of her hair and the thinness of her limbs. It makes her skin seem translucent and fragile where it wraps around her jaw, and the blue veins stand out in her neck.
“Michael shouldn’t tell you that stuff,” her dad says.
“Are we getting milkshakes?” she asks.
The wind outside kicks up, and the rain starts to sail sideways across the glass. The windows on the far side of the diner begin to shake in their frames like some angry beast is beating against the side of the building. The sky turns black all the way to the horizon, and the lights cut off. The storm is coming in.
In a second they’re back on. Harley is sitting a little further from the window in the booth, but still watching. Deep beneath the surface she is afraid.
She draws her eyes back to her dad and keeps them there. “Why doesn’t Mom come with us when we see Aunt Kathleen and them?”
“Because Mom and Aunt Kathleen don’t get along.” Her dad’s face disappears. She can only see the figure of him and hear the sound of his voice.
“Then why doesn’t she come when we visit Aunt Moggy, or Uncle Ralph and Aunt Marylin?”
“Because she doesn’t get along with them, either.”
“Because they’re mean to her.”
“But Pauly and Crystal aren’t mean.”
“Their parents are.”
The waitress comes. She sets down two chocolate milkshakes and walks away. Harley looks around the diner, at the claw machine and the jukebox covered in lights as she tucks her knees underneath her to be level with the table.
She pulls the frosty tin cup towards her. “Is that why we had to move?”
“Part of it.” Her dad reaches over and drops his cherry in her cup. “But also for the schools. Fairlake County has the best schools.”
“I don’t have any friends at school.”
“You’re friends with Rose.”
“She’s my only friend.” Harley frowns. Her face turns red, and before she can begin to cry she presses her filthy hands against her eyes so the cold from the milkshake sinks into her skin. All it does is leave mud on her cheeks. “All the other kids have friends. They go over to each other’s houses and play games outside and ride their bikes. I don’t ever get to do any of that. I don’t have any friends and I don’t get to go outside—”
“But you have us,” her dad tells her. “You have your family. Me and your mom.”
“You’ll die one day, just like Michael’s older brother. Then I won’t have anyone because we moved away and mom doesn’t like your family, and she doesn’t like her family and she doesn’t like the other parents; and I’ll never have any friends because no one knows who I am and I can’t ride bikes and I can’t go outside. I’ll grow up and it’ll be like I never existed. I won’t know how to exist in the world outside this diner because you and Mom—”
That might not be what she says.
Her dad smacks his hand down on the table. Everybody looks. Harley can feel their eyes on her, their gaze sliding up and down her wet skin. She presses her back against the seat like it might scrape them off. “Don’t talk bad about your mother like that,” her dad snaps at her. “She does everything for this family. Everything for you. Don’t you dare say anything like that about her ever again, understand?”
Harley nods and bows her head. She drags her arm across her face and tries to hide her tears, because she already knows that now and for the rest of her life, crying would only make things worse.
The waitress comes and goes. They eat their meals and drink milkshakes in silence. Her dad speaks only once a few minutes later, to snap again and tell her to quit crying. She holds her breath and proceeds to hiccup quietly. A tree falls outside in the parking lot. A slow, splintering snap reaches them through rain-slicked glass. It comes down in a flash of smoke and fire two parking spaces past the Triumph. Harley looks back out the window, watching the flames leap up only to be stamped down by the rain. When they leave the tree is still smoldering, embers struggling to stay alight tucked among broken crevices of in the wood.
Her dad tells her not to touch it. He makes her get in the car.
She falls asleep with her face balanced precariously against the taught seatbelt. When her head lolls too far to one side or the other she unconsciously shifts back into equilibrium to avoid her head smacking against the door. When she wakes up in her bed in the middle of that night, she is lying flat on her back with one arm folded up like a teapot handle. Her shoes are off but she’s still in her home-made work clothes. She doesn’t think about it, but she knows her dad picked her up and carried her inside—probably through the dark and in the rain.
She’s awake because she feels sick. She stumbles up out of bed. Her clothes are sticking to her skin. The hallway is pitch black, and she finds her way to the bathroom across the top of the stairs by kinesthetic memory entirely. In a few years she won’t even remember the shape of her room that her dad built for her out in the Mulberry house before she was born, or the black rat snake that lived in the bushes outside her window. She would get all the stories from her mother, because her dad talked about as much as Harley did. How odd a thought it would be to her, that someone could just build a room.
She puts her hands on the counter and puts her weight into her palms. People tell her she looks like her mother. The blonde hair, the pale skin, everything. Harley leans into the mirror to inspect her features. Strangers stop her and her mother in Target to tell them they look just alike, but her family in Maryland tells her every time they see her that she has her dad’s blue eyes. She would grow up acting like him, too, but they would never see that.
She turns away from the mirror and pukes some odd shade of red into the toilet. Cherry Slurpees and chocolate shakes make a color like the clay you can dig up in Northern Virginia less than a foot below the soil—and they make little kids pretty sick in combination. Harley doesn’t fully register it, though, even when she goes from puking to coughing and dry heaving. She doesn’t get upset at the pain of her guts wringing out inside her stomach. She won’t remember what it felt like within the day. She just tries not to puke out her nose because it burns, and she listens to the fan in the tiny bathroom with the yellow-white walls.
She’s standing at the sink again when the floorboards creak across the house. She can hear the dog stand up, her tail hitting against her parent’s bedroom door. When it opens Spots sprints down the stairs, past the bathroom where Harley is standing with her head over the sink, trying to rinse her mouth out with a cupped handful of water. She knows her mother’s steps from her dad’s. Harley doesn’t look at her mom when she appears to block the doorway in the reflection.
“What’s wrong? Why are you up?”
Harley opens her mouth over the sink and lets the water run out. “I threw up.”
“What, are you sick again?”
“Yeah.” If throwing up was sick, then yeah.
“Jiminy Christmas…” Her mother throws her hand up and turns her face away. “How? You’re always sick.”
“Me and Dad got Slurpees and chocolate shakes.”
“You don’t get Slurpees every night.”
“Then why are you always sick?”
“I don’t know.”
“Christ.” Her mother hits the T in Christ so hard Harley stiffens like she might hit her head into the faucet just this once. This happens a lot in the middle of the night. Harley wakes up sick. The fan comes on with the light. The noise wakes her mother up, who then comes in to check on her. It happens over and over. Harley never gets any better. Both her parents began to think she was faking.
“What is it, Harley, do you not want to go to school? Are you hiding from something?”
“No, I’m just sick.”
“You’ve been sick almost every night for a month—”
“I don’t know.”
“—and Dr. Tony says there’s nothing wrong. Are you jealous of me? Is this to spite me, because I started getting every other Friday off?”
“What do you want then, huh? Do you want to quit school?”
“You wanna drop out? Be a bum for the rest of your life and never move out? Have me and your dad support you forever, so you can skip school whenever you want? I can’t stay home and watch you all the time, you know. Do you want me to lose my job, too? Not be able to pay the mortgage? What do you want Harley, huh? What do you want?”
It’s a trick question. They’re all trick questions. Harley wipes her face on her shirt and shuts the faucet off. She doesn’t look her mother in the eye when she slides past her through the doorway, leaving as much space as possible between them, and goes and shuts herself in her room. She locks the door even though her mother hears it and tells her not to, but there’s nothing she can do. Harley listens to her mother descend the stairs, cursing the dog the whole way down. She hears her smack the animal hard enough to make it yelp, the tags on her collar rattling as she grabs it. Harley rips the door open in time to see her mother hauling Spots up the stairs by the scruff of her neck. She can hear the dalmatian crying, wheezing past the plastic buckle digging into her throat.
“Don’t hit her!” Harley slams her weight into the metal banister. It shakes all the way down the stairs. “Leave her alone! Let her go!”
Her mother does her best to throw the dog down, but Spots only drops to all fours and scrambles off whimpering.
“Fine!” She screams, and her voice is hoarse and ragged in a way that adults are not supposed to scream. “I’ll just leave, then. Nobody wants me here anyway!”
Harley holds the banister and watches her mother. She grabs her purse and her keys, and puts on a coat and her garden shoes. Harley doesn’t stop her. She doesn’t say anything. She just watches her mother scrounge up her things and slam the garage door.
Harley goes to bed and falls asleep to the Magnolia branches tapping on her bedroom window. Her dad is always saying how he needs to cut them back, so they don’t touch the house.
Her mother is back before her dad wakes up. No one speaks a word of it again.
Or of the next time it happens.
Or the time after that.
All the fights have run together. Maybe this isn’t when that one happens.
At 3:15pm Harley is sitting in the office of Hunter’s Glen Elementary School. Her dad is late picking her up. She knows his number by heart and calls him from the office phone. The first three digits are still the area code from Maryland. When she calls it rings through and he doesn’t pick up. Once. Twice. Three times and the receptionist is tired of hearing the same ten tones over and over again from the office phone and tells her to go sit on the bench outside. The receptionist can still see her through the window, but as soon as Harley passes through the door the office disappears with all the people in it. All that exists is the triangle of browning grass and the single tree in the center. The world ends at the sidewalk and where the roads disappear into the trees. Simonton is supposed to be like living in the woods, her mother says. It’s not the same.
She can hear her dad before she sees him. She would grow up and find herself able to guess an antique car by the sound. They’re all a little louder, some of them making sounds they aren’t meant to and a few of them sometimes falling silent at a red light only for the engine’s noise to be replaced by swearing.
Harley runs to the end of the sidewalk with a fistful of grass and buttercups. Her backpack bounces with her and the receptionist is screaming through the window that doesn’t open. An old Chevy truck rolls around the curve of the kiss-n-ride. Sunlight glances off the hood and leaves colored lines in her eyes. The paint is the color of a candy apple’s shell and filled with metal flake to make it shimmer in the sun. Two perfectly parallel white stripes run over the cab from the grill to the bed. CHEVROLET is stamped on the tailgate in letters half the size of her. Harley starts yanking at the chrome handle on the passenger side as the truck creeps a few more inches to a stop. The lock on the door is broken, so with the handle held in the right position it swings free on rusty hinges.
Sometimes it swings free in moving traffic, too, but Harley’s dad always catches her before she falls out.
Harley throws her backpack on the floor in the middle of the cab and plants her hands on the red-and-white bench seat to pull herself up. She climbs in on her stomach, tucks her feet in and slams the door. She squirms upright once the truck is moving.
“Sorry. I know.”
“It’s okay.” Harley can barely see out the windshield over the dash, but she knows her way home by the trees. She knows where there’s a willow and where one is dead, and where one leans too far over the road and never considers it might fall.
Her dad is wearing the same uniform he always wears. He lets go of the wheel for a second with one hand and reaches behind the seat. Harley looks away from the windows when she sees the motion. “I brought someone to pick you up,” he says.
He pulls out a dirty, red corduroy bear. Harley grabs it by the head before he can even set it down. She tucks it under her arm beside her on the seat, pinching its neck in the crook of her elbow. She doesn’t think about when she saw him last. Her dad doesn’t say anything about it.
It storms again that night. She isn’t sick, so her mother doesn’t yell, but the wind is howling and throwing trees down in the neighborhood. Lightning cracks and the night lights up. Harley gets out of bed to open the curtains in her room. The window is a glass door set into the second floor of the house and blocked off with a metal rail. She can see everything from the pools of water forming in the dead grass in the yard to the strings of light that split the sky above the tree line. This isn’t like the country.
She hears the power in the house go off when the AC stops running and the TV in her parents’ room goes quiet. Now they can hear the force of the storm in earnest; they can hear the claps of thunder and the wind battering the side of the house with heavy rain. Spots starts to bark. Harley can hear her parents walking across the house. The window in her room lights up. She feels the floorboards shaking beneath the carpet from the thunder. This house has never been rattled this much. The suburb’s storms seemed not as bad as Mulberry. There is a snap and a crunch that hurts her teeth to hear. Something is wrong with the house, but all Harley notices is the broken window, the branches sticking through the glass still hanging half-together like a spiderweb holding heavy drops of rain. Her arm is scraped from a broken branch grazing her as it came into the room. She can feel glass as fine as powder on the tops of her bare feet.
Her mother is pounding on the locked door of her bedroom and yelling at her to open the fucking door.
Her dad can pop the lock with a bent coat hanger.
Maybe now they can move back home.