The Side of the Road Rebecca Andem:
The time spreading out between them worried her more than the miles, but until she came up with a plan, momentum was all she had. Allison whined in her car seat, and Evie groped for a package of cookies. In three days they’d already consumed more sugar than they’d eaten in a month, but vending machines were quick. The choices were limited, and the machines didn’t allow time to sit and reconsider anything else. Plus, when they climbed back in the car to continue on, the ramps out of rest areas only pointed in one direction. North.
“We’ll have supper soon,” Evie said when Allison, unappeased, dropped the cookies onto the seat. The collection of wrappers and crumbs was startling.
“Is Daddy cooking bar-a-cue?”
Evie hesitated and gripped the wheel. She shook her head. “Daddy isn’t cooking tonight.”
“I want bar-a-cue. Shrimps.”
“It’s not Sunday, Allie.”
“I want Sunday.”
Evie closed her eyes. The road was straight, and she wondered how long she could allow it to steer them. If she didn’t move her hands, did the car have decent alignment? Would it save them?
“No shrimp this Sunday,” she said and glanced in the rearview mirror at her daughter’s matted hair. “Sometimes it’s fun to do something different. What do you say, baby? We’ll worry about Sunday when it gets here.”
Allison’s eyebrows pinched together, and she turned her gaze out the window. Along with her father’s eyes and freckles, she had inherited her mother’s thick eyebrows. At every family gathering, the in-laws argued over whose family she would eventually resemble, but with her softly boned pixie face, it was still too soon to say who she would favor. Evie always responded by saying she looked like Allison, end of story, but she often wondered herself. Would Allison’s sandy hair stay light like her father’s or turn dark like her mother’s? Early years in the sun had bleached everyone’s guess, and Evie wondered if the effect was already permanent. Maybe a different climate could change them both.
“What do you think of New England?” she asked. “We’ll go from one corner of the country to the next. Maybe Seattle someday.”
As soon as she spoke, Evie felt her dreams spinning, her compass pointing. She could see them in Maine, dressed in rubber boots and baggy jeans, thick woolen sweaters. Allison would be a picture, a postcard sent to relatives, her elfin grin on a dock full of lobster crates or in a boat with a faithful dog, on a rocky shore draped in seaweed. Imagining a catalogue with slick pages of contentment, Evie mentally flipped through their new lives, scene by picturesque scene, but she also saw the colors cast in a thin light, a hue of hardship. She needed a challenge.
“What do you think, baby?”
“I want Daddy.”
Evie shook her head. She didn’t want to let the image in, the possibility of Ben standing in the blue dusk of Maine, his hair salty and tangled. She knew he would never leave what he had built in Florida, their home, a reliable business. Even if it wasn’t his original dream, it was the one that had come true, and his grip had always been so tight on anything he claimed. There was a time when it made her feel safe, but Evie didn’t know how to exist inside it any longer. She must have been gasping for air for a long time now. Otherwise, why would she break their lives?
“Daddy can’t come this time,” she said.
In the rearview mirror, Allison pouted and plucked at Lamb’s ears. “It smells,” she said, and Evie smiled. The accidental poetry of children always took her by surprise, and she lingered for a moment in the idea that an undesirable situation could take on concrete aromas simply by smelling instead of stinking. She wondered what the scent of missing your daddy might be and suddenly knew it would be caustic. Like oil burning.
Smoke billowed out from under the hood, and when Evie glanced at the thermostat, the arrow was quivering far above the red zone. She stepped on the brake, but the car didn’t respond. Nothing did. The engine was dead along with everything connected to it, including the power steering. Holding on, she waited for the car to lose momentum, and when it was barely rolling forward and honking cars were blaring around them, she threw her weight into the steering wheel and aimed the car at the shoulder.
They came to a stop with two wheels on the pavement and two in the dirt, a steeper incline than she would have expected with the long, flat scenery. The slant pressed Evie’s hip against the seatbelt and Allison’s head against the wing of her car seat. It was difficult to straighten her spine, and Evie had a fleeting urge not to, to simply unbuckle the seatbelt and allow gravity to pull her torso prone across the seats. But she knew if she didn’t stay upright, she would cry.
“Are you okay, baby?”
When she peered over her shoulder, Allison nodded, but her face puckered into pre-scream stage.
“It’s okay.” In a seamless mother motion, Evie unbuckled her seatbelt, twisted her torso in order to support her weight against the other seat, and reached to catch her daughter’s tantrum before it happened. “Look. You held on tight to Lamb. Good job. How is he? Is he okay? You better give him a kiss, tell him it’s okay. We’re okay.”
After a moment Allison nodded to herself and whispered in Lamb’s ear, gently kissing its grimy curls as Evie continued to caress her knee. She wished it were that easy to convince herself and wondered what Allison was telling her pet, if maybe the words would soothe all of them. The car reeked of burnt oil and electricity, and smoke continued to seep through the seam around the hood.
“We need to get out of here,” she whispered, and then she slapped a smile on her face in an attempt to mask the fear in her voice. But Allison heard it, and she started to scream. “No. No, baby. It’s okay. Don’t worry.”
As she spoke, Evie groped around Allison’s legs and belly. She hated the buckles on car seats, and when she pinched her finger for the millionth time, she swore and pulled Allison too roughly through the gap between the seats. Allison dropped Lamb, and the screaming swelled.
“I got it. Here. I got it.”
Evie stretched and groped under the seat to retrieve the filthy toy, and then with her hands full and her mind echoing Allison’s screams, she somehow managed to haul them all to safety. Except she didn’t know where safety was. She jogged several yards down the road and collapsed on a fallen tree rotting in the ditch. Swaying side to side, she tried to rock away their frazzled nerves, but ants swarmed around her feet. She stomped their tiny bodies into the sand, but it didn’t stop them. A few died, but more crawled over her sandals. One bit into her toe and wouldn’t let go. Sputtering her frustration and one brief sob, Evie ran back to the pavement, where she hopped on one foot like a Native American dancing a prayer.
No one stopped. Eventually Allison’s screams turned to sniffles and smoke stopped seeping from the engine, but cars continued to speed past. The sun reached the top of the pines, and gravity assisted the day’s plunge into evening. Evie couldn’t feel the sun’s heat anymore, and she shivered. She carried Allison back to the car and settled her in the car seat, and then she climbed back into the driver’s seat. It was time to call home.
Ben answered on the first ring.
“Where are you?” he asked, without a hello.
Evie shook her head. Her bottom lip quivered, and her throat constricted. She wondered if she looked anything like Allison gearing up for a good cry.
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
“Evie.” His voice was far, far away.
She shrugged. “Somewhere in North Carolina.”
“What’s in North Carolina?”
This time she could barely hear her own voice. “I don’t know.”
He sighed. She felt it more than she heard it, and the second that long hiss of impotence hit her intentions, her shoulders dropped, her spine sagged into the worn-out support of the seat, and she started to cry.
He waited a moment. “What am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know.” The silence was more than the distance could support, and the sounds of dusk on either end of the phone began to intrude. Between the rush of cars, Evie heard frogs singing, Allison breathing. She heard the porch door, that familiar clatter of wood on wood, more hollow than she remembered, and she wondered if Ben was walking in or out. “What are you doing?” she asked.
He grunted. “I don’t know,” he said, a childish retort that made Evie glance over her shoulder at Allison sleeping. As always, they thought of her at the same time. “How’s Allie?” he asked.
“Tired. She wants barbecue.”
“That’s easy enough.”
Again silence spread over the distance between them. After a moment Ben breathed. Evie breathed back, but she didn’t have any words to fill the air between them.
“What do you want, Ev?”
“Can you play me a song?”
A single note thrummed in the distance. He must have been on the porch, ready to serenade the sunset with his guitar and old dreams, his evening routine. “I’ve played every song for you,” he said.
Red and blue lights spun across the rearview mirror, and catching the reflection, Evie allowed the pulse to mesmerize her for a moment. A state trooper unfolded out of his car and walked toward her. He carried in his step an air of authority, but in his pace Evie detected caution, or maybe a resigned competence, boredom. Helping her would be another task in a long day, perhaps a story he would relate to his wife to assuage her fears or to make her believe in his job again. Evie wondered what his wife would have to tell.
“What do you want?” Ben was asking again.
Evie rolled down the window and gestured to the officer to give her a second. Across the distance another lone note reverberated, and as it faded into another silence, it all made sense.
“I want to play my own song.”
Rebecca Andem earned an MFA through the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. She’s had stories published in magazines such as Relief Journal, The Meadow, Prick of the Spindle, Word Riot,and in online collections such as Alfie Dog in the UK. She’s also published two novels, If the Ocean Were Empty and Marathon.Currently, she lives in China, where she teaches English at a university near Guangzhou.