It was one of those spring evenings that wouldn’t give up being cold. The rain hit so hard it bounced off the ground as if the mud wouldn’t have anything more to do with it. But Richard Franke’s good daughter, Eve, was outside, rain pants and jacket bright against the darkening sky and darker firs, ba-bumping a softball against the garage door. Donna was in the kitchen with a cup of tea and the newspaper. Richard rested on the couch in the living room, one leg up as was his custom when watching television.
The cable had been shut off but he got something from the local station by shoving a coat hanger through the vent at the back of the television, past the inner plastic components to connect with a metal screw. By nature a suspicious man, he considered his finagling another resistance to the big head of something. He watched ghost figures chase a ball in the grey fuzz and listened to the game over the radio so that he knew for sure what was going on. It was the top of the ninth, Mariners had tied the game in the seventh. When the phone rang, he knew what it was about but he hesitated, hoping Donna would pick it up.
“I can’t do it anymore,” she said from the kitchen table. “It’s your turn.”
Donna sprained her wrist the last time she dealt with Moira. A trim woman with a mouth that slipped towards austerity, she folded the paper on the table and watched him try to resist. He stood, used the remote to turn off the television but let the game play out on the radio. He paced to the kitchen. The radio announcer proclaimed Carter’s home run for a Toronto win, and by the time he picked up the phone, the answering machine was already connecting. He spoke in a tired way over his daughters’ cheer-harmonizing voices, “Leave a message!”
“Where are you, Moira?”
It wasn’t Moira but her friend, her nervous voice speaking directly to Richard and coming over the answering machine speaker.
“Mr. Franke? It’s Cate.”
Donna shook her head, no, picked up the paper and put it back down. Her face showed the strain of holding things together. But no matter—the long crease of her slacks, the faded warmth of her button up shirt—she looked like she was built to handle whatever God threw at her. In just a few seconds, the practice of everything is going to be fine now won, and her face settled into an it’ll-work-itself-out silence.
“We’re in Aberdeen. Can you come get us?”
They were advised by Donna’s pastor to give Moira tough love, to lock her out and make her find her own place to stay if she ran away again. Richard had a hard time listening to her, couldn’t get past his lapsed Catholicism to heed the advice of a female reverend. But at one point, when they were sitting in her office with the Christless crucifix hanging above her, he heard her say, “It’s like falling and bruising yourself. Tenderness is one way that the Lord finds us.” He agreed to try.
But now he wanted to do the opposite, to get Moira in the house and keep her there, somehow never let her out. He was walking towards his boots by the back door, extending the antenna on the cordless phone so that he wouldn’t lose the connection, moving the phone to the crook of his neck, slipping one tired boot over his foot, tying the broken and knotted laces while Cate spoke in apologies, so many that he had to cut in.
He could hear the rain hit a tin roof, could hear Cate shuffle the phone to the other ear, could hear her slide the door of the phone booth open, presumably to signal Moira that her dad was on the phone, putting his boots on, coming to get them in a warm, dry car. All the way to fucking Aberdeen.
“Is Moira okay?”
“She’s right here.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“She doesn’t want to come to the phone.”
“Where will you be when I get there?”
“What do you mean? We’ll be here.”
“It’s a quarter to eight right now. I won’t get there until about eleven o’clock. Where will you be?”
“We’ll be here. At Walmart.”
“I’m giving you and Moira one chance. I’m not waiting around for you. If you’re not at the Walmart, I’m turning the car around and going home. You can find your own way back.”
He thought he heard a sob and then, “Yes, Mr. Franke.”
His best friend’s baby, he’d known Cate longer than he knew his own wife, could remember her small fingers exploring his cheeks. He wondered how he could refuse to drive all the way to fucking Aberdeen to pick up his daughter but not his best friend’s daughter.
“Can you make sure she stays there? I’ll come get you both, but can you make sure that she doesn’t run off?”
“Does she want to come home? We’ve been worried about her.”
“She says she does, Mr Franke. She just wanted to see the house.”
“What house? What street are you on?”
She didn’t answer right away. He heard a man say something, the heavy sound of his voice calling to the girls, a truck door closing, the diesel engine starting and cars passing on the nearby highway, a final “fuck you, then.” Tires trying to grip the road. And rain. Coming down in sheets there like it did in Lewis.
“Can you wait inside?”
“No, sir. They said they won’t press charges if we left and didn’t ever come back.”
“Wait there,” he said emphatically, but not Don’t fuck this up. “I’ll come get you.”
“Okay. It’s right on the highway.”
He thought that she laughed, as if she and Moira were playing a joke on him—they were on Main Street, Lewis, maybe even calling from the pay phone in front of the Kwik-Mart. That was a problem with letting Moira find her own place to stay at night. She’d just stay at Cate’s, whose parents hadn’t been around much, not since Cate got through high school. Even before. They’d watch him fly down the highway to Aberdeen from the living room window. He cared, goddammit, he really did.
“Are you sure you’ll be there?” he said to gain time to listen for the train he could hear from his kitchen, not half a mile away from that pay phone in front of the Kwik-Mart. But Cate had already hung up, the brief fuzz of a line going dead and then the insistent repeating tone of a line trying to disconnect.
He kissed Donna on her cold cheek and left by the kitchen door. He looked when he walked out but she didn’t bother to get up. The rain became a patter on the garage roof rather than a roll of marbles. The damp weather felt kind of good—there was something clean to it. He crossed in front of Eve who held her pink softball to her glove just long enough to let him pass. She used his old glove instead of a proper girl’s glove, so worn that her left hand had a bulbous callous. He briefly regretted leaving her for this: Moira’s rescue that was always going to happen, if not on this night then another. He’d stop at Cate’s place to make sure they weren’t there. He wouldn’t knock. He was the landlord. He’d just go in and look for them, and if they were there, he’d make Moira come home. Or maybe he’d leave her, come home and play some catch with Eve. He’d let Eve keep his glove and he’d play bare-handed, even though she could throw as hard as any boy. He looked at Eve, expected her to say something, but she turned her back on him.
“I bet I won’t be late,” he said. “Bet she’s just there on Main Street. I won’t bring her back if she is. I’ll just come home, alright? Let her take care of herself.”
Eve looked like she was going to throw the ball directly at the garage but she knew better. She bounced it, caught it, went inside.
He drove out the driveway, past the mill, his mill. The weekend shifts were dropped so there were no cars going in or out. He drove into Lewis, which was ghost quiet, and stopped opposite the Kwik-Mart. He watched the windows upstairs but the curtains were drawn closed, and there was no movement of girls giggling behind them. He didn’t need to get out of the car, he remembered the sounds he heard over the phone and knew they were not there. They were in Aberdeen. He pulled back onto the highway, the rain starting again, the thoughts rising up and he pushed them away.
Somewhere along the way, the fuel light came on and he drove another ten miles or so, feeling an unreasonable panic that he wouldn’t find a station in time, but he did, just as it was closing. He ran in and explained his situation. The cashier knew who he was, said his family was from Lewis, though Richard couldn’t place the man’s face nor the name written in script on his shirt, which was only Dave. Dave acted as if he were doing Richard a big favor and Richard had to admit that he was. He paid in advance, handing over a twenty and asking for four back. The man rung in the cash and locked the door when Richard left. The pump shut off at exactly sixteen dollars and all the lights went out. Dave came out and started his beat up Japanese import, drove with his lights off until he was on the highway. His engine made a thin sound, his taillights flared before dimming.
Richard shut his car door, feeling canny when he turned the ignition and the engine started. He made a mental note to top off the tank before he arrived at Aberdeen because once he got Moira in the car, every stop became a new opportunity to leave. Like a scarf falling from a jacket, she would slip into the night, the darkness taking her from him time and time again. A long night to play the savior.
He saw them both as he turned into the parking lot: Cate stood by the phone booth, her bleached bright hair haloed by the florescent lighting; Moira sat in the shadows on sold-by-the-bundle firewood. They both waited calmly as if someone would come through for them.
He parked closest to Cate, thinking that he would get Moira to come to him and knowing that she would if he put his attention on Cate. He didn’t want to be the bad guy. He figured he would turn the situation around before it even got started. Neither girl wore a coat, and he would set the trap of a warm car. When they got in, he’d ignore everything that they had to say and he wouldn’t let up on the gas until they were home.
He leaned over and opened the passenger door, peering at Moira who had gotten down from the stack of wood but was turning away from the car. Really? he thought. They wait three hours in the rain and she’s going to walk away now? She wore only a tee shirt and jeans, jeans that she stitched tight around the ankles, so tight that he wondered how she got them over her feet, and when would she be hungry enough to eat?
He turned off the car. She could just stay out there, get colder, wetter. He turned the ignition on auxiliary, fussed with the windshield wiper, wondered how much longer before he could go home. Cate got in the front seat and shut the door.
“Didn’t you bring anything with you? Food? Jackets?” he said.
Cate wore cutoff jeans over long underwear, a flimsy men’s undershirt that showed her bra straps, and a worn flannel shirt. Nothing of her intentional messy style made sense to him.
Moira faced the car now but still held back. Her black hair was straggly down her shoulders. He wondered if she dyed it recently, or if she had been wearing it that way for a while and he didn’t notice. He hated the way she stood impassive, hair over her face, not even bothering to blink or shake it back.
“She won’t get in the car until you promise to take her to Kurt Cobain’s house.”
He wasn’t going to get out of the car and make that promise. He would back out of there and leave her if it came to that. Moira with her dead mouth and covered eyes, her cruel heart and tiresome attitude. Cate watched her, and then watched him. He rested his head, closed his eyes and prayed for more rain to drench his daughter and make her come home.
“Here she comes,” said Cate.
He lifted his head, she stopped walking towards the car. But he could see the change in her attitude, something small, a shift in her shoulders. He started the car and put it in reverse. She sauntered over and got in the back seat on the passenger side, shut the door and looked at him and then at Cate, as if she picked Cate over him. He missed his daughter for an intense moment, about the time it took for the keys to stop swinging. He looked back at her and she returned his look as best she could without moving the hair from her eyes. He saw a quirky smile and she scooted over so that she was sitting behind him. She took up a neatly folded afghan and wrapped it around herself. He forgot that it was in the car. Donna was always prepared.
“I’m cold, too,” said Cate.
“I’ll turn the heater up.”
He reversed away from the phone booth and then forward to the highway. He was going to turn left, just go home, but then Moira said, “Please don’t take us home until we see Kurt’s house. Please.”
He remembered the previous evening’s news report, how after she heard it, she went downstairs to her room and he let her stay there through dinner, through the night, through breakfast. How today was a Saturday, usually a day when they all pitched in and did chores around the house. How Eve resented that Moira wasn’t helping, and he went to her room and heard the music through the door but didn’t want to bother with her. He wondered if she’d been gone all that time, and he understood that he would never know what to do.
“You didn’t bring any coats with you?” he said again.
Neither of the girls answered him.
He looked straight ahead, ready to go, his blinker signaling to no one in particular. He looked again in the rear view mirror, tried to see the shine of Moira’s eyes in the dark of the car, the heater blowing frantic air onto his feet. She didn’t even bother to acknowledge him. He dropped his gaze, turned his attention to Cate who was straightening the bend of her body, pushing her feet against the floor of the car to reach in the pocket of her cut-offs. She produced a photo from a magazine that had been folded over many times
“It’s Kurt Cobain’s childhood home,” said Moira from the back.
A dumpy little place, grime suggesting where someone had tried to make it look friendlier with shutters, three short concrete steps leading to a tiny closed porch. The numbers twelve-ten next to the door.
“Do you have the street?” he said.
Cate shook her head. He looked at the clipping a little more closely, saw the open sky behind it. He had an idea where it was. He knew the neighborhoods of Aberdeen because sometimes he’d get lonely on business trips, his meetings with paper product distributors over before noon so he drove around, waiting to have lunch, waiting to go home. He knew from experience that Aberdeen wasn’t that big.
“I might know where this is,” he said.
Moira nearly smiled. She always got him by showing her happiness. He would do this for his daughter, for the mere opportunity that she might smile. His blinker saying one way, he went the other and drove some distance, not taking his eyes off his daughter who stared straight ahead but gave a quiver of a smile, like she used to when she was a kid trying not to laugh. He had to admit that he admired her some for this. Aberdeen was a lot farther away than Portland, where he used to run when he was her age. But for what? For the childhood home of her idol. He’d doubted that there would be anything for her to gain from this experience except maybe a lesson. She had to be tired and hungry. He glanced in the mirror again but she hadn’t moved, still stared straight ahead, her mouth almost a smirk.
“How about no running away this summer and we’ll buy you a new amp?” he said, but she didn’t respond.
He turned again to stay close to the river, kept it in sight as a place-mark to begin his search. He checked the rearview mirror, half-surprised to see his daughter still there, her mouth dead again. How long did that take? One mile? Two? Five minutes? Where does it all go, the energy that comes to the surface of her face and then slips away when he loses himself to memory and thoughts. He knew better than to say something, to try to draw her out of her act. It worried him, but it was better than yelling and kicking. He just wished that she would move to the other side of the seat for a while so he wouldn’t have to look at her. Does she have that dead mouth when she’s with her friends, or does she save that special for him, for family?
He remembered that he was going to get gas again before she got in the car because that parcel of gratitude might slip out the door and take Moira with it. Well, fuck it if she did. He’d take Cate home and tell Donna that Moira was in the car until he stopped to get gas. Screw the gas gauge.
Two lefts and a couple of blocks and there it was. Moira opened the door and got out, even though he had barely slowed to a stop, hadn’t even intended to stop. That was it. Let her go. But Cate looked like she might want to go out, too, so he pulled the car over properly. They both watched as Moira walked to the steps then sunk to her knees in front of the house. Cate shook her head; took her hand off the door handle and rested it on her lap.
“She’ll want to go to the bridge after this,” she said.
“The one we just passed?”
Three quarters of a tank. Nearly. He turned the engine off. He didn’t intend to wait long. He’d lost track of Cate these last few years, had heard that she was running fast. That’s what he and her dad did when they were just out of high school. But it was different for girls. Girls couldn’t get away with running fast for long.
How bad would it be if Moira got up from her knees and left now? He didn’t feel good thinking this, watching the sky throw drops of rain on his daughter, her hair stuck to the back of her head, kneeling prostrate over her knees like she was praying Mohammed-style. She’d come back to the car when she was ready. Maybe he could be this kind of father to her, stop trying to tether her and just be the one that she could rely on when she finally came around.
He sat back in his seat and looked at Cate, could see his friend in the general profile of her face. How he and Jer could do whatever they wanted when they were that age! Richard went on to college because his parents told him they would support him as long as he kept his grades up. They didn’t care what he studied as long as he studied, but every time he came home, they would push him to take a few business classes, a few forestry classes. His mind was always an untethered balloon.
“You’re a pretty girl,” he said to Cate. “Why do you have to wear clothes like that?”
He did not intend for it to come out like it did, like she looked dirty and trashy. But what was she going to do with her life? They couldn’t keep her in Jer’s apartment for free, couldn’t give her more than what they intended for their own daughters. Moira was supposed to have a job by the end of summer, and pay rent. She’d probably move out and live with Cate, and then what would they do?
“What about that shirt Donna made for you?”
Cate leaned back and looked at him, moved her hair around her fingers.
“It’s in my closet,” she said.
“Do you ever wear it?”
It was a white silk shirt, conservative and meant for job interviews. Donna never seemed to like Cate. She had always bristled whenever Moira said she was going out to meet her, and he would remind Donna that Moira needed friends, that it would turn out alright but not if she was all alone.
He looked past Cate to his daughter: dark clothes on a dark night, black hair, a negative in her negative world. He watched her stand and look at the house and realized that he hadn’t seen her so calm, so given to the moment in a long time. Maybe she really did need to come here. But then she moved to the other side of the house. He felt a momentary panic but made himself sit in the car. He wasn’t going to chase her. Determined that she’d come to him on her own or he’d leave her, he gave the horn two light taps—nothing too loud, nothing to alert the neighborhood—and glanced towards the dark house. No one pulled back the blinds, but Moira didn’t look back at him, either. He wouldn’t do anything stupid. Donna always reacted right away but he knew that Moira was mellower when she didn’t have an audience.
“It’s just a crappy old house,” said Cate from the dark. “People shouldn’t be obsessing over his home, they should consider the person. Like what did his childhood smell like?”
Then Moira was gone, just like that. He had been watching and at some point, he had stopped watching and she disappeared. It was as easy as that for her, and he was sick of it. He was not getting out of the car to go look for her.
“I bet she went to the bridge,” said Cate. “She’ll be back when she’s ready. She doesn’t really do anything, you know.” She put her fingertips on his arm. “She’s not like me.”
Uncomfortable with her touch, but not wanting to entirely stop her, he brushed her off by reaching to the backseat to get the afghan for her. Moira had left the blanket rumpled and he straightened it and wrapped it around Cate.
“Thanks,” she said.
He smiled at her.
“I didn’t mean anything about the shirt,” he said. “You don’t have to wear it if you don’t like it.”
“It’s just that there’s nowhere to wear it. It’s too nice.”
He laughed and said, “I suppose there isn’t a job interview in fifty miles of Lewis, and definitely not one you’d wear silk shirt to.”
“I think she means for me to wear it to church.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. She probably does.” And after a pause, “What do you think Moira’s doing at the bridge?”
“What she always does when she goes off by herself. She prays.”
“Sorta. She sits there and stares into space. Creeps the guys out. And no we shouldn’t get her. That’ll really set her off.”
She kept her face turned to her window as if watching for Moira and rested her hand on his thigh, light but not uncertain. He pushed his hand under hers, held it in a way that he hoped was fatherly, but she twined her fingers through his. He placed her hand on her side of the car. She rolled her eyes at him, sighed. He tried to override her disappointment by restarting their earlier conversation.
“Did she scrape the diapers or just throw them in the trash?”
Cate gave him a face. “What are you talking about?”
“What we were talking about. What his house smelled like. Did his mom scrape the diapers or just throw them in the trash. Maybe she used cloth.”
“I was thinking more like were there Ho-Hos or Raspberry Zingers,” said Cate.
She insisted her hand back under his, held it more firmly this time. He felt tired by her gesture, like he couldn’t keep both girls out of trouble. He leaned in to kiss her and just as suddenly he sat back. Even if his daughter was sitting under a bridge, mourning some OD’d rock star, even if she jerked his chain from Aberdeen to Portland, even if Cate was nineteen and his old buddy Jer practically left her in Richard’s lap, he shouldn’t. But it wouldn’t go any farther than this. Cate squeezed his hand against the inside of his thigh, and the heat of her palm went through his pants and straight to his flesh. It felt better than anything Donna had done in years.
“Like that’s the stuff that matters,” he said.
“It is. That’s where the music comes from.”
Why so much emphasis on that’s, he wondered to himself. Why this conversation? He didn’t know a damn thing about where rock stars come from, had too much on his mind to care. She left her hand on his thigh but gave him a look that said he was full of it, and he felt the drain of his age. He made a joke of it by putting his hand over his heart and flinching as if she had hurt him, the way life suddenly took a giant leap and left him behind. He laughed it off.
“How old do you think I am?” he said. “Seriously. We had our alt bands.”
“The Eagertones. The U-Men. Bikini Kill. You would love Bikini Kill.”
An outright lie. He had seen the cassettes in Moira’s bedroom, just the band’s name over the Memorex label. He listened and appreciated the noise and anger, the form that pushed against melody and then slipped into it. He wondered where she got the music—not from Cate, he could tell she wasn’t that into music; the clothes disguised a scared girl who knew she couldn’t amount to much, her whole life stacked against her in that piss poor town that his, Richard Franke’s ancestors, founded. Moira was different. His daughter was always pushing, and that’s what she needed to do to get out of there. He wasn’t able to tell her how, God knows he failed trying, but he thought that this was part of it: the running away, the music, the mushroom smelly jeans, dyed black hair.
Moira came into view and he breathed a little easier, but then he did something he shouldn’t have. Like a kid chasing a ball into the street, he couldn’t stop himself. And because she was a ways off, and because he wanted these girls to know that he wasn’t always like this, that he’d been young and crazy once, too, he moved Cate’s hand so that it covered his crotch. Nothing there, he would keep that old dog down, but he felt his blood move towards her touch. Not the rush it used to be, but a bigger thrill. His daughter slow striding up the street—if he squinted, Moira disappeared into Donna. There, there was the thrill. His head lolling back on his shoulders.
“Oh my God,” said Cate in a teenage way, looking out the window like she was watching Moira but he knew that she wasn’t.
“See,” he said, “I’m not so old.”
She laughed, pulled her hand back, eyes rolling up and away, like he was an old fool but a fun old fool.
“What’s wrong?” he pulled her hand back to himself. “Moira’s taking her time.”
He unzipped his pants. Her palm felt slightly sticky, as if it had sweated and then dried.
“Oh my God,” she said again. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” And then, “Hey!”
He followed her gaze out the window, watched Moira lean down in fluid motion and pick up a rock. He moved over Cate, her hand suddenly limp but caught as he rolled down the window.
“Stop it,” he loud-whispered to Moira. “Right now.”
Moira ran towards the car. He could see her whole expressionless face for the first time all night but she wasn’t looking at him. She looked at Cate. She raised her arm, gripped the rock like he had taught her to hold a softball. Keeping some space between the rock and her palm, using her wrist to get the full length of her arm, Moira thrust out her chest to throw. Cate laughed. He fumbled, caught himself in his zipper, “Fuck,” until she tucked him back in, zipped him just as he opened the door and propelled himself onto the rain soaked grass. His daughter turned suddenly and ran up the steps of Kurt Cobain’s childhood home.
He followed her, the porch light blared on, an old man’s eyes appeared through the opening in the blinds as Richard took his daughter in his arms, covered the rock with his own hand, felt the collapse of her into him. His daughter. He picked her up; the angry old face disappeared from the window, reappeared at the opening door.
“Sorry,” he said. “Really, I’m taking her away. She ran away. She just wanted to see your house. Kurt Cobain’s house from when he was a kid. Sorry.”
The door shut and the porch light flicked off as Richard stumbled the last steps to the car.
“Fuck, Moira, you’re lucky we didn’t get shot at.”
Cate didn’t get out of the car but reached around the seat and opened the back door. She looked startled, scared, needing him, too. He tried to get Moira in the back seat but she slipped out of his arms and tumbled to the ground, her hair laying over his feet and her hands limp on the ground. He picked her up, pushed her towards the car, bumped her head against the frame, laid her unresponsive body down. He pressed his fingers into her wrist, slapped her face, felt that soft place between tendon and bone, “Moira!” Cate looked passively from the front seat. He couldn’t find the rhythmic pressure in her vein. Skin so pale it was blue. It should be there, at his fingertips.
“What have you two been doing?” he shouted at Cate’s smirking face. “What drugs?”
Moira’s laughter, his hand raised to slap her face—like that could bring her pulse back—then coming down. A slap so hard it silenced the car.
“Jesus,” she screamed. “Stop it. Your fingers are in the wrong fucking place.”
Her face with that hidden satisfaction. He gave up. Folded her knees and shut the car door. He stood in the rain then walked around the back of the car to avoid looking at Cate, looked instead at rain falling silver from clouds so high that the sky was nothing but a turned over bowl. Did he blink tears away or was it more rain? The memory of what his daughter, that forever possibility in an infant, pushed into the tired sigh of what she grew into, this thin brittle person who said, as he sat in the driver’s seat and shut his door, “Just let me sleep.”
“Shall we go home?” he said.
The car started with ease that was almost ironic. He always did right by Donna. Her car ran smoother than anything in their lives. He felt Cate look at him but he wouldn’t look back at her. He remembered that he would probably need to get gas and felt like an idiot for not doing it before, couldn’t remember why he didn’t do it before he got Moira and Cate in the car. Cate unwrapped herself from the afghan and covered Moira with it. She snuggled it under her chin as if Cate’s kindness was the most natural thing she experienced all night. He heard her sigh, heard her breath become even, if not sleep-like. Maybe for once he could get gas, rely on her to stay in the car and not become a nuisance.
Vicodin,” said Cate.
“Two. The same as me. And pot.”
“Any beer, or was that what you failed to get at Walmart?”
She didn’t answer him.
He said: “It didn’t occur to you that you were stealing?”
“Moira stole it. I drank it.” She paused before continuing. “When you were nineteen, it was legal. So shut up.”
He made as if to shove her hand away but it wasn’t on his thigh.
“Where’d you get the painkillers?”
“My dad’s side of the medicine cabinet.”
Maybe Richard ought to scare them, take them to a hospital and have their stomachs pumped. He quieted himself.
“How’s your dad’s back?”
Moira laughed in the back seat. He turned to look at her. The color had returned to her face. Cate gave her friend a smirk. Who did they think they were fooling? Who did any of them think they were fooling?
He didn’t remember pulling onto the road but he had. They were almost out of Aberdeen, the last stoplight. The porch light on the only inhabited house went out. He wondered if the person it was on for came home, or if the person waiting just gave up. Moira, not having gotten the attention she expected, kept giggling in the back seat. He ignored her and she giggled louder. He ignored her some more and she kicked the door and the back of the seat but left it at that.
He made a mental check of the mileage when they passed a gas station, tried to remember how many miles they could go if the fuel light came on. Cate looked out the window. They all settled for the long drive home, the splash of water under the car. He wished he had a cup of coffee. Moira stopped laughing, said, “Fuck. My head.” He turned the radio up. It was a Christian station, a real holy-roller preacher was carrying on, fading in and out with the reception. It was late, about one in the morning but Richard didn’t know. The clock didn’t work, was stuck on four in the afternoon. The preacher was in the throes of his own words, which reached a fevered pitch of gibberish, people moaning and crying, calling out their own gibberish. He imagined fainting and blankets for modesty, like at Donna’s church. He resisted the ecstasy of it.
He wouldn’t change the station because he didn’t think he would ever find it again, couldn’t tell it from the two or three other Christian stations in the area that were crowded together on the lower end of the dial. Sometimes they blended with the illegitimate radio stations that were cropping up, playing hardcore music. Sometimes it sounded like the whole world was falling into hell and crying for Jesus. If he changed the station and couldn’t find it, Donna would get in the car, notice the change, ask him to be more considerate next time. He couldn’t take that anymore, her insipid reserve. Even if he pointed out to her that he used the car to get their daughter back, that he’d brought their daughter back, she’d say, “Even so,” and mean, “Even more so.”
A snore from Moira in the backseat, a clash of guitar chord, and the clattering of percussion. The preacher repeated “God is glory,” over and over until the frenzy collapsed on itself.
“It sounds like he’s saying God is gory,” said Cate.
“Why don’t you change it?”
He wouldn’t answer that. Cate reached for the dial but he gently pushed her hand away.
“You okay?” he said.
“I’m okay. You okay?”
Maybe they could all use the gory of God.
The preacher was letting them down easy. It sounded like some kind of ritual sex, the sighing and the fevered pitch, and he thought of saying something about it to Cate, but couldn’t, not after what had happened. The show broke for a chainsaw and small appliance repair commercial. Cate began to cry. Who did he think he was fooling?
Cate reached towards him, her hand pale in the dashboard light, a distorted oval from the cigarette lighter near her thumb. She let her hand rest on the console, close to his seat. He put his hand over it, meaning to quiet her, to show that he was concerned. It was probably the wrong thing to do, but he couldn’t say what he meant out loud, not with Moira in the backseat. Cate sobbed harder. He clasped down more firmly over her hand, gave her a squeeze. When he lightened his grip, she turned her hand and held his. Not what he intended, but he could not take his hand back.
Then Moira sat up behind Cate. He felt like such a jerk, his hand now pulled onto Cate’s lap, Cate continuing to look out the window, seemingly aware that Moira was sitting up, looking down at their hands. He couldn’t pull away without being obvious about what he was doing, which could be considered comforting if you looked at it in a certain way, so he kept his hand on her lap but loosened his fingers. Maybe at the right moment he could take his hand back.
“I feel fine,” said Moira. “One-two. One-two.”
She held her wrist up, her right fingers pressed into the pulse. She smiled at him, pulled her hair back from her eyes. That sneer on her mouth. It was the same sneer he could take some pride in, the way she told everyone to fuck off without saying it. He had the same attitude when he was her age, but when did he become deserving of her sneer? And then it was gone, her face passive with that death mouth, which he decided was worse for the way that there was no fight in it, no engagement.
He pulled his hand back to his lap without being too obvious. It didn’t fool Moira. The smirk returned. He kept both hands on the wheel until he cracked his window. There was the scent of boozy girls and then there was the scent of trees and rain, filth kicked up by the tires.
“Go to sleep, Moira,” he said.
Cate looked at him, and then over her shoulder at Moira, then back to the window. To his surprise, Moira lay down and her breath became even, and then heavy, unmistakable sleep.
He thought not to but at some point he forgot and put his hand back on Cate’s thigh, not so much in a sexual way, but almost as if she was Donna, and Moira was their problem that they were solving together. Cate tried to move his hand to the inside of her thigh but he wouldn’t let her. Instead he showed her that it could be like this—resting on her lap, equal parts innocence and naughtiness, even as she opened to him with a small shuffle, letting their hands fall between her thighs. The wrong of it went from his fingertips all the way to his shoulder like electricity.
He took his hand back and put it on the steering wheel. The fuel light blinked on. He remembered: twenty-five miles driving a conservative sixty miles per hour. Just enough to get there.