It’s a long way home for Mal. Route 79 cuts clear across West Virginia, hill after hill it has been so far. She can’t see anything past the next hill or anything behind the last one, and this gives her the feeling she’s in the middle of something she won’t get out of, as deep as this country dark. She shakes this off like she does with the sleep. She is eighteen years old.
Sledding capital of the world, Mal says, to try and lighten the mood. She says it out loud but Dalton doesn’t stir. For a long time now it’s been dead quiet, just her and her thoughts, and now the sound of her own voice takes Mal by surprise. Too close and too soon, like it’s somebody else’s.
Mal says, Mallory, Mal, lor, y. Mallory again until the voice is her own. But then she keeps going, Mallory, Mallory, until the word of her name doesn’t make any sense. Mallory, gibberish, but nobody notices. Dalton sleeps like he’s dead, the way he always does, same as the dog. Mama. That’s what he named her. She had loved it from the start, felt like it said something about him. Some soft spot, she was sure.
But for real, she says, as much to Mama as to Dalton, We have to come back here when it’s winter some time. The dog having been like a third leg to prop up their relationship, to give a kind of wholesomeness to it.
A fourth leg is growing, robbing them of that wholesomeness. That’s how she feels, she can’t shake it. Already there’s a bump, or maybe she only imagines it. Dalton doesn’t know. Oh the sleep of the innocent.
It’s not like Mal knows anything for sure yet, either. Five weeks late—or six now, but stranger things have happened. All that’s for sure is that the stores started declining her credit cards—her parents’ cards. Party’s over young lady. And so for all these reasons, the concrete, monetary ones and the maybe-baby ones, it’s time to go home. The money green Volvo she got for graduation does not smell like money—it smells like two teenagers and a dog who spent the summer outside. That and the leather her parents paid extra for. And weed. She picks a roach from the ashtray and relights it, steadying the wheel with her knees and taking her foot off the gas to coast downhill.
On the other side of the million hills she can’t see over waits her long, gravel driveway—there’s no tiptoeing up that gravel. She can already hear the crunch of it under the tires, can see her father’s frown on Dalton’s dreadlocks, already reads the thoughts in his head. This is the boy you left us for? This is why you put off Dartmouth, your whole life, this is your whole life now. If it’s a long drive home it isn’t long enough. Mal takes a drag and tries to cheer herself up.
She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes, Mal doesn’t quite sing. She looks at Dalton. That early summer morning he led her by the hand back into the tent after breakfast and laid her down, and after she’d came that’s what he sang. She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes, and she fell back laughing and Dalton, smiling, went right back in for more of her.
Has it really been a whole summer? The Smoky Mountains weren’t smoky enough. She opens the sunroof and the whir of wind is something new. It’s chilly outside in the early mountain morning, even now in August. Late August. She holds her hand up into the whir until it goes numb and then holds it to her cheek, feels the blood come back. The thermometer on the dash says it’s 46 out.
They’re freezing eggs nowadays, she says to Dalton, did you know that? Even the fertilized ones. We learned in bio. Oh, you never made it to bio, you say?
She isn’t quite smiling.
You never even graduated? Is that so? Well. If Mal’s smarter and more beautiful than you are, don’t move. That’s right, just sit there, sleeping. Just like that. While your way-more-beautiful, intelligent, interesting, funny girlfriend does all the driving. Your wide-awake girlfriend. Your baby mama.
She looks to make sure he is sound asleep.
What took her in from the start was the way he looked at her like he’d already had her a thousand times. Like he knew her inside and out, like she was a house and he was the one with the keys. At first sight, like that. The way they say it can happen—it’s true, Mal knows, it really can happen like that. It was Bonaroo, she had never done anything like that before, but her parents insisted she go down with her cousins, live a little this summer, and live a little she did. It was an old song they were covering when she saw him, old as Mal’s parents, but she remembers the song exactly. Down to the line, she can still see the fireflies floating over everything, can still see his eyes. Dalton’s hazel eyes that seemed already to have her from across the crowd. Shine on you crazy diamond, he mouthed over all of their heads, and it wasn’t lame or corny at all, he did it without any kind of irony, and so did she. Unreservedly she did, she shone for him that night and all summer long in a way her parents would have never thought possible, in a way she never thought possible. And now, in the car driving home, it all feels impossible.
Her father won’t recognize her. Mal tilts the rearview down and realizes that she doesn’t either. She tries to remember what it was like. What was it like to be Mal in the Spring? The Mal who had never inhaled, drank more than one drink. Mal the virgin. Her mother called her Mal-edictorian, which didn’t even make sense, especially considering she wasn’t. She was sixth in her class, sixth out of hundreds who she never quite got to know, who wouldn’t recognize her either.
For her eighteenth birthday her father took her to the Bahamas, just the two of them, this just back in April. They rode horses on the beach like she’d seen in the movies, daddy-daughter horse ride. She really believed her life would be like that, wind in her hair and sun on her face, horizon at sea as straight as a ruler, all of it measured out exactly. And now, in the dark of the road ahead, she can see herself in that memory, like she’s some third party to her own past.
How does that happen? she says, out loud. She genuinely wants to know.
Over a summer? Who I was versus who I am. Versus who the fuck is on the other side of all these million hills? Her voice doesn’t quite break, but even if it did Dalton wouldn’t have caught it. Baby daddy Dalton.
In the backseat, Mama whimpers. She is dreaming, her front leg twitching, maybe of running. If she were laid out on the grass by the fire she might work herself into a full gallop.
Know what I love about her, about dogs in general? said Dalton that day by the lake. She loved the water, to jump in after the stick and swim the forty, fifty feet out, to swim it back snorting. They’re born with it in them, the instinct to bring it back. I can throw this stick as far as I can, it’ll never be far enough. She’ll bring it on back.
Why Mama? Mal asked, even though she knew it was because he didn’t have one. Boy with no mama. Left him on a doorstep, stepped off into the night. He was raised by some aunt who never loved him, on whom he cut and run at seventeen years old, stepping off into that same night as his own mama.
But none of that was the reason. Dalton smiled at her by the lake, maybe guessing her thoughts, a little eager to end them, it seemed to Mal.
That was her name when I found her at the rescue. She was Mama when I met her. I think because she had puppies there.
Of course she was a rescue. He was a rescue. Still, that was why he picked her, Mal thought and kept to herself. He picked her because she was Mama already, and here he was now, calling her name through the mountains all summer, bringing her on back. Mama, the feel of it in your mouth, all that country in it. Not Mom or Ma or Madre or Mother. Mama.
But so then, Mal clears her throat in the car while he sleeps, these eggs they are freezing. These fertilized frozen eggs, these what, these fetuses? Zygotes. Pupas. They just sit in a coma, floating for however long it takes, take as much time as you want—you the mama. Until you feel like the time is ripe for the picking. Until you’re ready, I guess. You as the mama. To own up.
It’s always been a great favorite of her father’s, that expression. Own up young lady. Time to own up, Mallory. How many voicemails over the summer? She didn’t have to listen to them to hear them loud and clear. Own up. She, Mal, who never owned a thing in her life.
Till now. Another hill. Another and another, still another less to go. She does the hand-through-the-sunroof thing again, and asks Dalton to remind her about these hills when their baby is old enough to go sledding.
If you’re not still asleep, that is.
The other thing about 79 is it’s narrow. Two yellow lines dividing two lanes is all, with hardly anything you could call a shoulder. There’s little room for error here. Mal brings her hand back down and holds it cold to her belly, under her tank-top, and the instinct passes without her acting on it. It’s not like she’d actually do it, of course she wouldn’t. But still. Could you imagine? How different it would all be? Like that?
Like that, she says, but the wheel doesn’t flinch. The speedometer lifts a degree. The odometer adds another mile, one more less to go. Fetus to zygote to pupa to baby.
To idiot girl to mother. To mother, Dalton. Dalton, she says, again. And again and again, Dalton, Dalton, Dalt, Dalt, Dalton, until the word of his name doesn’t make any sense.
This is a kind of longing she doesn’t understand. She feels drawn out by it, lengthened. Her foot presses down as the longing gets longer, and it’s as if the car were in tune with its driver, as responsive as her father had said the car dealer had said it would be, the way it begins to whine and groan. She doesn’t look at the speedometer, but it’s been brought to its limit of 140 mph, and it’s quivering, too. She clears the next hill and the next, and it’s the smoke that finally makes Mal pull over. It’s the rumble strips that finally wake up Dalton and his dog. His dog, not hers, Mama never came running to anyone but him. They come to a stop at the bottom of a long valley they can’t see their way out of.
Fuck, says Dalton, rubbing his eyes. The smoke is white and by the smell of it you can tell something’s seriously wrong. What the hell are you during?
That’s how Dalton says doing. During.
This is the boy you gave up everything for? This rescue?
Mal has no idea. She pops the hood and says to stay in the car, and he rubs his face and does. It’s cold out. She lifts the hood and props it up with the metal leg, fitting it where her father showed her so he can’t see her standing over the engine, shaking it off, all of it.
He meaning Dalton. How she had wanted him awake and here with her, but her ears are ringing now and she doesn’t feel Mama licking at her fingers. Are they numb? Something white hot washes over her face, coming down from her scalp. The colder the egg the better preserved.
There hasn’t been another car for hours but the truck coming down the hill has eighteen wheels. You could see that even from the front, even in the dark. Anyone could see that without even counting. One for every year of her life, candles on a cake.
The ringing in her ears is nothing like a bell or a phone at all. Her breathing shallows out, her vision tunnels in a way it’s never done in her life. The sleek, steel maze of the engine another thing she will never make sense of. All her life she got in the car when someone said it was time to get in.
Mal turns around and starts to move her legs, but there’s a kind of disconnect. Like they’re somebody else’s. All she sees is the yellow way the headlights behind her are growing her shadow, a mile or more up the hill ahead.
The truck driver does what truck drivers do—he keeps the wheel steady. Drama on the side of the road at four in the morning has nothing to do with him and his route. Nobody’s even waving for him to stop. What is it, then, in the corner of his eye, just as he’s passing the car? A flash of blonde hair, a tightening in his throat. The vague taste of vomit at the thought, but the truck doesn’t flinch. No thump from the back wheels or anything. Then again there are eighteen of them back there. His eyes shoot to where the rear-view mirror would be if this wasn’t a rig, even though it’s been years since he drove anything else. Does he check the side mirrors, then? He lost the passenger-side one back in Carolina. It’s sitting shotgun as we speak. Does he pull over? He’s already a day behind, he’s got someone waiting on him at home, someone depending on him. If he stopped now he’d have to help them with the car, once you get involved with something you need to see it through, and who knows how long that would take, and anyway, he kept the wheel steady. Smoke is still rising from the Volvo but he doesn’t see that either, and soon he is over the hill and it’s too late to look back now even if he could. Turning around isn’t even possible—the road’s too narrow, the truck too long. The speedometer doesn’t budge, the odometer tallies on another mile, downhill from here. He tells himself what he’s told himself all his life for half a million reasons—stay in your lane, keep it moving. The hills flatten out as he pushes on North, the nausea ebbs, and by the time the sun is up all it’s got to light up is the cornfields of Pennsyltucky. Silo here and there, all quiet on the Eastern front. When he finally gets to Philly and pulls into the warehouse, he walks away from the truck and doesn’t even think to look back. Doesn’t check the tires. Not for blood, not for hair. Not for, somehow—what are the odds—a lone diamond earring trapped in a tread. His name is John.
It’s a long walk home, and at first it hurts like hell, but the pain’s how John knows it’s all still working. Get the blood pumping through that driving leg. John’s not young as he was, and you don’t just go from zero to a hundred—you got to get through the ninety-nine first. So he starts off slow, favoring his right with a little bit of a limp, and ten blocks or so later it smooths out, sure enough. Back up to cruising speed. He even takes the steps up Prudie’s porch with a kind of bounce.
Tries the bell, gives it a minute. Tries again. Nobody home, then. He opens his phone and sends a message:
Hey. Am home now.
He walks across the street to his own house, leaves his boots on the porch like always. It was almost forty-eight hours ago that Prudie texted asking if he was home, which John knew enough to mean: I need something. Sometimes what she needed was help around the house, the way anybody might call their landlord—she locked herself out again, leaky faucet, an extension on the rent. But more and more the help she needs has been above and beyond. Take the time she didn’t have money for groceries. Or the time that man wouldn’t leave her house and she didn’t have any other men worth a damn in her life to call for help. The time someone had broken in. What do you expect, though, that line of work?
I am in Charlotte, he’d texted her back two days ago, back when he’d been in Charlotte.
North Carolina, he clarified for Prudie, Prudie who hadn’t ever left the city in her life. Once she said she’d like to ride along with him sometime, get out of this damn city and see something else. Even if John knew it was just talk, how often did he fantasize her sitting shotgun there in the truck like the rearview mirror, how many long night drives?
Will be home tomorrow though.
But there was a delay at the warehouse in Charlotte, and it ended up costing him a full day. And whose pocket did that extra day come up out of but John’s? That’s how they get you to where they got you driving whole nights through just to make up for it. To where you’re always playing catch up. He might have retired years ago if not for the mortgage on the house across the street. The idea was the rent would cover the mortgage but then there’s all the repairs and upkeep—a good bit more than he’d bargained for. He was a damn fool for buying it in the first place, in this damn neighborhood anyway, and a bigger one for renting it out to someone like Prudie, always late with the rent. But what can you do now. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
John sets a pot of water to boil. Splashes some cold water on his face, ventures a call. Straight to voicemail, so he leaves one.
Hey now, Prudie, hey there. Just calling to say I’m home now, so whatever it was you needed that help with, well, here I am now. And I’m making greens for dinner. Turkey butts, your favorite.
A lawnmower starts up down the block and his mind stalls on something. It’s not like she actually asked for help in her text message, he realizes. But of course that’s what she wanted, and anyway it’s already out of his mouth and on her voicemail, nothing left to do but send it.
This is John. He presses the hang-up button with his index finger and set the phone down on the counter.
He drops the turkey butts in and starts scrubbing the collards. If he was straight with himself he’d say out loud what it was he sped the whole way home for—for Prudie to come over and sit with him for dinner like she sometimes did. For her to ask about his life. Or else to pour out whatever troubled her this time and see if he couldn’t help fix it.
All his life, John was a fixer of things. These days most people bang something up and throw it right away, but not John. How many times had he gone over there to fix her washing machine, and she still can’t remember not to slam the lid on it. How many more times will it be?
More often than not, though, John didn’t have any real insight to what was broke in her life, but she’d come on over anyway and sit down at his table and lay her troubles out for him to look at just the same. What’s John supposed to do with all her ex-boyfriend drama? Her bosses and ex-bosses and discrimination suits, a custody battle she’d been fighting since before she moved in—all the kinds of things that for all his life John made sure to give a wide, wide berth to. He always did take a kind of pride in the distance he’s managed to keep. It hasn’t always been easy.
It was only one time Prudie asked if John had a family for himself.
Very nearly did, he’d told her, but she didn’t press him any further on it.
If John was ever in all his long life straight with himself, he’d put it like this: Prudie had so many faults and dramas it seemed to John she was on fire with them—and John, much as he knew better than to get too close and catch fire himself, more and more let himself get hypnotized by it, the way those flames dance along her young, brown skin. He was old enough to indulge a little, he’d earned it, he figured, and more and more he allowed himself to scoot his chair a little closer, so to speak. To hold out his hands to the fire of her, opening and closing them.
Saw Prudie for himself one night, about six months ago now, walking the boulevard. Heels to the sky and one of those puffy jackets that came down lower than whatever skirt she must have had on, with the fake fur on the hood. The way her breath plumed out from under it like more of that fur. Was it possible he could make out the goose pimples on her legs from that distance? A part of John wanted to walk right up and negotiate a price, bold as you like, ain’t you two months behind on the rent?
Of course he didn’t. Didn’t he sometimes wish that part of himself was bigger, though? Some call that part courage. John has not had sex in four and a half years.
He drops in the greens and brings the pot down to a simmer. Lot of bit of salt, black pepper, red pepper. Some vinegar and that’s all she wrote. He flips the phone back open. Nothing but the background, Starry Night—Prudie’s the one who showed him how to change it. Even when she’s M.I.A. there she is, right on the face of his phone. The phone she can’t be bothered to text back.
John brings a cup out on the front porch while the greens cook down. It took him thirty-something years on the road to do it, but John’s got his appetite to a place where he only eats but once a twenty-four hour period, and when he does he makes sure it counts. Appetite of a python, someone said to him once. Komodo dragon.
He sips on his coffee, watching Prudie’s house across the street. His house, rather. A squirrel walks along the roof and ducks under it, right into the attic space. Easy as that, like it’s got keys. One of these days John will get the extension ladder and the strychnine out and evict the whole family of them. He tries not to think what a state that attic space must be in, what other tenants he’s got that he doesn’t even know about. What kind of damage they’re causing on his house, and how much it’s going to end up costing him.
He fishes a half-smoked cigarette out of his pocket and lights it, and the tobacco makes him realize how tired he is. He lets his head tilt back against the window behind him, and before he drops his eyelids he checks his phone one last time. The waiting, how he hates it. How familiar. Spend your whole life waiting for a thing to happen till it doesn’t and doesn’t and doesn’t some more.
Very nearly did, he’d told Prudie. But that was a long time ago, and anyway she never brought it up again. Couldn’t be bothered to, most like.
John dreams a memory, one of his earliest. It’s from way back when, when the neighborhood was more people than houses. The sixties. He can see himself in the dream, like he’s some third party to his own life. There he is, five or so years old. It’s winter, a snow day, and he sits upon a sled at the top of a hill. The tilt is familiar. The drop, the feeling in his belly, he knows this part well. Except that there at the bottom of the hill is a young girl. She’s not supposed to be there, flash of blonde hair, laying with her white neck stretched out in the snow. She is beautiful. She is good, too, he can somehow see. And the expression on her face as John’s sled rides over her neck isn’t so afraid as it is disgusted.
Don’t you touch me, she is screaming. Not you, John.
He wakes with a jump. He is sweating, he tries to push the scene out of his mind. The flash of blonde hair, he can’t quite shake it. It’s dark out now. Across the street, there’s a light on in the upstairs window. Prudie is home.
He checks his phone. Still no text back.
Another light comes on, this one in John’s brain, this one white hot. So she came home and saw your old self asleep on the porch and just kept it moving into her own house. No text back, and here you sped the whole way home for someone who couldn’t care less about you, hurry up and wait you damn fool. You who done how much for her, who was only ever there for her and who the hell is here for you?
Don’t you touch me. Not you, John.
He doesn’t even think to put on his boots, crosses the street in just white socks. Something is happening, in him and through him, something white hot. He doesn’t overthink it, refuses to examine himself like some third party to his own life. Doesn’t knock on the door, doesn’t ring. Uses the key. Is it his house or isn’t it.
Downstairs is dark, and he waits in the doorway while his eyes adjust. He can hear the water running upstairs from the tub.
He doesn’t close the front door, he doesn’t call out. He’s done calling, done asking. In his socks, he moves toward the staircase without a sound, but he’s stopped at the bottom when his right foot lands in a cold pool. His driving foot. He can see it glinting, the water coming down the wooden stairs from the bath up there. So then she’s on the hard stuff again, probably nodded out with the water running. Who the hell knows how long it’s been on, how much damage is already done to his house by this woman who could give a shit about anything but herself. Users use, him and his house. No more. He thunders up the stairs and kicks open the bathroom door like he’s never done a day in his life.
Except it’s not her. Knocking the breath out of John is a baby girl, four years old or maybe five, standing up in the bathtub without any clothes on, holding a plastic cup in one hand. Watching John back. They watch each other like that, with the water running. John can’t be sure how long it lasts, but inside of that time not a single thought enters into his head.
Eventually it’s the girl who speaks. I’m making a bath.
Yes, says John. You are. This must have been what it was, then, what Prudie needed help with. Got her daughter back from the city at last. But where is she?
Where is who?
Your mama. That’s your mama, right? Prudie? The water is still running but by now it’s a good ways away from on John’s mind.
She says she is. She looks down at herself, and John is embarrassed that he follows her gaze.
Who are you?
John needs a minute. He sits on the toilet and lets his face fall into his enormous hands. He breathes deeply, he is trembling, he can’t stop it. When he finally looks up, she is holding out the cup to him.
He drinks the bathwater. The whole cup in one long swallow, warm, and it does the trick, more or less. His tremors shallow out. Another full cup and he’s able to look her in the eye again. I’m Mr. John. I live across the street.
Yes it is. He leans over and turns off the water.
So how come you’re here?
Well. I own this house.
You left the water running, you know.
I made a bath.
You sure did.
Can I have my cup back?
He hands her back the cup. It’s yellow, he realizes. These are the kinds of thoughts he has, they skim the surface, they don’t go below, they don’t dare. He doesn’t look anywhere near the mirror. The cup is yellow and she’s just standing there holding it. Everything echoes in here now that the water is off.
But you don’t live in it.
No, I don’t.
Then how come it’s yours?
Well, I figure I’m the one who paid for it so I own it.
You paid money for it.
I paid money for it. I paid too much money.
How come? she says, but she doesn’t wait for John to answer. She holds the cup underwater and fills it up, brings it back up, tilts her head back, closes her eyes, and pours it onto her upturned forehead. The way she blinks her eyes open afterward, a hundred times in the space of a few seconds, it does something to John, turns a key. The way she spits it from her lips.
See my braids?
John sees them, plastic butterflies. All different colors, they are clipped onto the ends of her braids. They’re beautiful.
Yes, she says, they are. My mama got them for me.
And just where is your mama?
She says she doesn’t know, and she does the cup-of-water-over-her-head thing again. All that blinking.
Hey Mr. John?
Do you have anything to eat?
That’s what Prudie needed, sure enough, then. Food money. But something’s happened to John, he’s not angry. Not annoyed, he doesn’t begrudge Prudie at all. Instead, he breaks into a wide, crooked smile.
You like to eat butts?
The girl laughs, and he says he can’t believe she never ate turkey butts before. Come on and dry off, then, you’re going to love these butts.
She holds her arms up, to be lifted up, naked. John doesn’t know the rules, so he lifts her out by the hands. He averts his eyes out of instinct and finds a towel in the closet, and tells her to go ahead and put on some clothes.
I’ll be downstairs waiting.
Turkeys don’t have butts.
Downstairs, then, John doesn’t even think about the floorboards, the water damage. He doesn’t do the math on the price it will cost him, he’s got this glow to him he’s never felt before, like a high. What a mess he almost made. What a one-eighty this baby girl pulled on him. Another idea pops into his head, a final one, that this is his amends. This baby girl, his redemption for what he almost did, just fifteen minutes ago, for what he came here to do to her mother. What exactly was it he was going to do if he found her up there? He can’t even believe that the two Johns are the same person, the one he is now versus the one he almost was. How does that happen, how many Johns?
How could he have just kept driving like that?
What a day it has been. But it’s over now. What’s done is done, and John allows himself to let go. He needs to focus his energies on what can be done going forward—the baby girl upstairs getting dressed for dinner. The first of many, probably. He can see the three of them now. Prudie too, at his table, all the many nights to come. There’s a feeling coming down from his scalp, he lets it wash over him. At last John is straight with himself and he calls this feeling grace.
The last thing he hears is the baby girl splashing down the steps. The face in the doorway is the very one he’d been waiting for, Prudie’s. He’s so high on this newfound grace he can’t believe it, that she came back, just in time, and he rises from the couch without a word and moves to embrace her, arms spread, as if it was him she came home to.
The first memory that ever forms in the baby girl’s brain is an image. It’s her mother—who had to leave her at home to go out to make the money to feed her, who had run out of minutes on her phone yesterday, calling in favors, and who returned to find her front door wide open, the one she had locked, with her baby girl upstairs, the daughter she finally got back from the city—opening fire on the man advancing on her from out of the dark with his arms spread wide.
The girl won’t remember the name or the face of the man or anything about their time in the bathroom at all. He will be as forgotten as Mal’s diamond earring, still shining from its place in the tread of the truck tire.
The flash from the gun in the dark downstairs. This is all she will remember. The crash of it going off inside the house, just once. It will wake her up for years to come. For all those different bedrooms, it’s the same scene over and over, her creation myth. For years she will wake in a cold sweat, breath shallow, and it will take whole minutes before she can accept she is safe. Eventually, rounding the corner into adolescence, she will accept something else—that she isn’t safe, that she’ll never be safe a day in her life. This acceptance will turn into a kind of strength. In years to come, the flash and bang of her mother will come to remind her that she is strong enough, that she doesn’t need them, all these people claiming her. They can’t have her. Not this foster family, not the next one. Not the city, not the state, not a man all her life. Her name is Lilly.