The Ford died with a hiccup and a puff of smoke two miles out of Naxos, Wisconsin. I looked over at Ari in the passenger seat, she looked at me, and we said oh shit pretty much simultaneously.
“Should we…is it worth pushing?” Ari asked, but the question mark got lost some ways before the end. It wasn’t worth pushing, even if we had half an idea where to push it. We were royally, magnificently screwed.
“At least we can get it out of the road,” Ari said.
Gravelly dust crunched under out feet when we leaped down from the truck. On both sides of the road, fields of knee-high corn stretched to hazy lines of trees on the horizon. The mile marker was the only sign of civilization, government-green and crooked.
We shoved the truck as far from the road as we could, then leaned panting against the driver’s side step and wracked our brains for what to do next. Part of it was clear as water; we had to go to Naxos, or spend the night out here in the cornfield. Not much choice, I thought, swatting a mosquito that had taken an interest in the sweaty skin above my breasts. I wasn’t sure about Ari, but I wanted to find some air conditioning.
“Come on, sweetheart,” I said, climbing into the truck bed. Our luggage was stacked there; Ari’s no-nonsense hard-shell suitcase, and the pearly pink duffle bag Dad gave me at graduation—to pack for college, he said, like he thought I was going to hang around obnoxious kids for another four years. I tossed the bag and Ari’s suitcase into the road and jumped down after them. “I’m guessing we got a couple hours of daylight left. Maybe we can get dinner before we start worrying about the truck.”
“It’s only seven,” Ari said, checking her pocket watch. She was old-fashioned like that, carrying her father’s watch, wearing her hair pulled back like a librarian. “We might even find a mechanic.” She chewed her lip a little. “I don’t want to stay in Naxos all night if we can help it.”
I didn’t think we could help it, but I didn’t want to get her upset by saying so. “What’s wrong with Naxos?”
“Nothing. I don’t know.” She chewed her lip again, her teeth real white against the brown skin. “I just got a bad feeling, that’s all.”
“Hey,” I said. I tried to smile, but her face said it didn’t quite work out. “I got your back, sweetheart.”
“Yeah,” she said, picking up her suitcase. I shouldered my duffle bag, and we started down the road towards Naxos.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t trust Thes.
Even if I didn’t, now was the wrong time to do something about it. The time to do something about it was while I was sitting on an aluminum folding chair in the Minos High School auditorium, sweating in a borrowed graduation gown, waiting for my name to be called. Trying to figure out if I was doing the right thing, running away with Thes. Trying to figure out if I loved her.
Well, I did love her. But love and trust are two different things, aren’t they?
We made it into town about quarter to eight. The sun was a red ball in the west, almost but not quite dim enough to look at, and it made the gray houses and the double-paned shop windows look like they were on fire. Only a few businesses had signs: Frederick and Sons, barbers; Mary Anne’s Antiques and Collectables; Sunnyside Grocery; Hammer and Steichen, attorneys-at-law. The lights at the single-pump gas station were mostly dead, except for the neon bull advertizing cigarettes. About a mile down the main road, we found what we were looking for, tucked between a house with a historical plaque on the porch and a mint-green diner.
“Daedalus & Sons,” Thes read, shifting her duffle bag dramatically on her shoulder. “Oil change and auto repair.”
I didn’t want to say anything, but the garage gave me a bad feeling. The light in the windows was jaundice-yellow, and the flaking paint made the walls look like they had some sort of skin disease.
“You still hungry?” I asked. “How about we get burgers or something first?”
Thes rolled her eyes. “What’re you afraid of, Ed Gein?” But her stomach grumbled then, right on cue, and we went into the little green diner.
It was nicer than I expected—smooth counters, plush booths, real menus instead of a list hanging over the register. We sat on tall stools up front near the ice cream cooler, and a big waitress with ice-blond hair came by to take our order.
“Give me the biggest burger you’ve got,” Thes said, “and a glass of lemonade.”
The waitress looked at her kind of funny, like she thought a girl as long and skinny as Thes couldn’t finish a whole burger—or that a girl who talked as rough as Thes wouldn’t drink lemonade. She scribbled on her note pad and turned to me. “What’ll you have, my dear?”
“The same,” I said.
Thes elbowed me in the ribs. “Get a salad, too. You need your vegetables.”
“What about you?”
“I had an apple for lunch.”
The waitress raised her eyebrows. I sighed and smoothed my hair back from my forehead. “A salad, too,” I said.
When the waitress went back to the kitchen, I kicked Thes in the ankle. “What the hell?” I said. “You’re not my mother.”
“I promised to look out for you,” Thes said, crinkling her nose. She ripped the corner off a pink packet of saccharine crystals and poured it into her mouth.
Naxos is what my mama used to call a shit-town: like a shit-house, but bigger and with less to do. That’s what she said about the town I was born in, too, but it seems to me she found plenty to do there. Mostly drinking and swearing at the neighbor’s cat.
I hadn’t seen my mama in almost eight years, but I could imagine her voice just perfectly as I walked into Naxos. Watch out for gas stations that sell cigarettes cheaper than gas, she’d say, wagging her finger like she was teaching a life lesson. Never flirt with men who sit on porches and watch you walk by. Of course by “flirt with” she meant “screw,” which was something I didn’t do with men of any kind, much less the beer-stinking assholes on the porches of Naxos.
But no matter what my mama said, shit-towns got one big fat advantage; every business in town puts you on first-name basis with the guy or lady in charge.
The diner was called Minnie’s Kitchen, and its paint job—mint-green with a pink whatchamacallit at the top—was old-fashioned but recent. That meant Minnie had at least a little cash. I went around back, which is where you need to go if you want to get something done in a shit-town. A fat lady with white-blond hair was leaning against the dumpster, smoking a yellow cigarette.
“You Minnie?” I asked. I said it real sweetly, with just a touch of charm; waitresses don’t usually need more than a touch.
She let out a rancid ring of smoke. “Minnie’s my aunt,” she said. Shit, I thought, but the charm took at the last second and she looked me in the eye. “What can I do for you?”
“I need a job,” I said. “A one-or two-night deal.”
The waitress nodded. “As long as you’re not clumsy…”
“I don’t drop dishes, ma’am.”
“All right. I can’t let you near the cash register, though. And if you make trouble with anybody—”
“No trouble, ma’am. Just table bussing.”
She smiled a little and ground out her cigarette. “I can give you twenty bucks for the night.”
“Fifty,” I said.
“Thirty and a sandwich.” Charm only went so far, after all.
“Twenty-five and a sandwich.”
“Twenty-five, a sandwich, and all the coffee I can drink.”
“Deal,” she said, and we shook on it. She gestured to the kitchen door. “Get in there and tell John he can head down to his boyfriend’s like he’s been wanting to all evening. Then you can wash your hands and throw together a salad.”
John had arms that could carry a cow and I felt every muscle in them as he clapped me on the shoulder, but I figured he was just being friendly and didn’t start anything I couldn’t finish. Before he left, he took off his apron and put it on me, along with a black wire hairnet. Most times the small operations don’t bother with that kind of stuff, but whatever.
The waitress—who told me her name was Brit, short not for Britney but for Britomartis—pointed me towards the salad fixings, and when I’d worked out a decent ration of cheap-and-seasonal to grocery-store veggies, she told me to bring it to the customers up front.
Turns out, there were only two of them. One reminded me of a wax bean, tall and skinny and pale, with brown hair and gray eyes and a sprinkling of freckles on the bridge of her nose. The other was this gorgeous black girl, a little on the short side but with eyes like Mata Hari. Her hair was pulled back so it was hard to notice at first, but she had dyed it red sometime recently and the color was just starting to grow out.
“Hey,” I said, with my best five-alarm smile. The cute girl didn’t seem to notice, but the skinny one’s back straightened hard like someone was shoving a stick up her spine. So either she was straight and didn’t like me checking her out—not that I liked it either, I was just being polite—or she knew I was checking out her girlfriend and didn’t like it. No skin off my nose either way.
“Which of you fine ladies ordered the salad?” I asked.
The wax bean looked at the dark girl real hard, then winced like she’d been kicked in the knee. Which she had been, I realized, as the dark girl bent down to rub her toe.
“The hell!” The wax bean jumped up, her short hair bouncing. “You want me to look after you or not?”
“I can feed myself, thank you very much. Why don’t you get the goddamn truck fixed?”
“I guess I should, seeing as that’s all I’m good for!”
The dark girl was too smart to rise to the bait. She grabbed the salad from my hands and started shoving it fiercely into her mouth, as the glass door slammed and the wax bean stomped out into the night.
Yeah, since you ask, I was pissed.
Here was Ari, all scared and uneasy like some milky-breathed calf on her stepdad’s farm, and I did one thing to show I cared for her, and she bit my head off. Kicked me, actually, which was worse because she knew I would never touch her if I was angry. Ari’s stepdad was a hitter, and so was my mom, but not me. Not ever.
And she kicked me in front of a stranger, too. That weird waitress-girl with eight piercings in each ear and a mandala-stud in her nose and her black hair in wraps all the way to her waist. I thought about the way she’d smiled at Ari, a huge narrow-toothed smile, and it made me sick.
Yeah, I know what you’re going to say. Jealousy’s a bitch.
Daedalus & Sons reminded me of the garage out in Attica where my brother used to work. Big and bright and stinking of men and metal and oil and leather and who knows what else. But the guys in Attica had been real sweethearts, tripping over themselves whenever a lady came in, even when that lady was me.
Mr. Daedalus was a jerk.
“Hey,” I called through the doorway, glancing around the half-assembled cars and boxes of tools and tottering towers of crap. “Anyone in here? You guys open?”
“If we were closed,” a Cadillac said, “do you think the light would be on?”
There was the rumbling of tiny wheels, and a big bald guy rolled out from under the Cadillac. I felt a stupid flicker of disappointment, because this guy looked mean like Monday morning, and I’d much rather have talked to the car.
“Hey,” I said again. “Listen, my truck kind of died two miles down—”
“We ain’t a tow service,” a minivan said, which turned out to be a slightly smaller bald guy—Mr. & Sons, I guessed. “You get her here, we’ll take a look.”
“How am I supposed to get it here? The engine is dead!”
Daedalus shrugged and rolled back under the Cadillac. “Not my problem, lady.”
“I can pay,” I said, turning to & Sons. “I know I don’t look like it, but I’m not completely broke. Look, I’ve got my girlfriend out here in the middle of nowhere. She’s never going to forgive me if I get us stranded in Naxos.”
“Again,” the Cadillac snapped, “not my problem. Come back when you’ve got a car for me to fix.”
Let’s just say my rule about not touching when I’m angry doesn’t apply to anyone with front-wheel drive.
“Um,” the girl with the mandala-stud said. “What’s eating her?”
“She thinks she’s my mother,” I snapped unhelpfully.
The girl reached across the counter and took a carrot stick from the edge of my plate. She plunged it up to her fingertips in the paper cup of blue cheese dressing that I’d set on the side.
“Even my mother didn’t think she was my mother,” she said, and took a crunching bite out of the carrot. “That’s probably why I’m a complete mess. You, on the other hand, seem to have your act together, as Mama used to say.”
“Except when I’m shouting at my girlfriend in public.”
She waved her fingers dismissively. The nails, I noticed, were painted bright blue. “Trifles,” she said. “I ran away from home when I was twelve and haven’t been back since. You couldn’t screw up that bad if you tried.”
“I ran away from my high school graduation with Thes,” I said, jerking my head at her empty stool. “That wasn’t too bright.”
“Did you at least wait to get your diploma?”
I cracked a weak smile and nodded.
“You’re not too dumb, then.” The rest of the carrot vanished into her mouth. “My name’s Di, by the way. It’s short for something, but Mama was never sober enough to tell me what.”
“Ari,” I said. “Short for Ariadne.”
“Pretty name,” she said. And she shook my hand in both of hers, like a nineteenth-century gentleman. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Ariadne. What brings you to Naxos?”
“Bad luck,” I said. She gave me a funny look, part teasing, part genuinely curious. Before I could stop myself, I was spilling the whole story.
I was born in the city—I don’t know which, but I remember it being loud and bright, with wide white sidewalks and old-fashioned street lamps that fizzled on after dinner time, block by block. We lived there until it was time for me to go into elementary school, which was also around the time my father died. I never really figured out why we moved out to Minos—whether it was because of school, or my father’s death, or something else entirely. I guess I’ll never know now.
Minos is where my mother met M. My sister Phae and I were terrified of him from the beginning, he was so huge and white and loud. He had a farm somewhere south of town, and our mother used to go down there on weekends. She never brought Phae and me along.
I don’t know if my mother ever officially married M, but she got pregnant when I was in sixth grade. It was just after Phae moved out of the house, and suddenly I was all alone with Mother—and M, when he decided to come over. My mother never said anything, but I knew he hit her sometimes, even when she was pregnant with Aster. She had that look when he was around.
Then there was the bull.
M always talked about the bull. He described it in loving detail to Phae and me, how it stamped around in the barnyard, what it did to the cows and heifers. I hated that bull, and I hated it even more when I saw it. It was just like M, huge and white and loud.
I met Thes in seventh grade, the year they started busing the farm-kids into Minos. Thes had been home-schooled until then, in a family I would come to think of as boringly perfect—mother, father, brother, three cats and a mutt, like some old commercial for breakfast cereal. Later, when she came out, none of them cared that Thes was queer. If I had been smart enough, I would have been jealous of that.
Thes was…a distraction. First as a friend, when we would go biking together or build a fort out of old cornstalks in her yard, and I’d spend every free moment with her instead of walling myself up with my mother and Aster and M. Then, when I finally admitted my feelings for her, as a couple. I loved her obsessively; she was the only thing in my life that existed to please me, to make me happy.
We joked about running away together for months before graduation, but I didn’t realize how serious Thes was until I started talking about college.
“You’re really thinking about that?” she asked. “I mean, don’t you want to do something first? See the world, all that?”
“M doesn’t want me to go either,” I said.
“I didn’t mean it that way.” Thes frowned. “Won’t you at least give me some thought?”
But in some ways, she made the decision for me. That was the night she destroyed any chance I had of being safe and happy in Minos. That was the night she killed M’s bull.
I whistled low between my teeth. “She killed a bull? That skinny little thing?” The wax bean had more brass than I gave her credit for.
Ari smiled, stirring her dressing with a stick of celery. The pale green made her fingernails seem even brighter pink, like the diner’s paint job.
“So I get the running away part,” I said,” but why did you ladies come to a shit-town like Naxos?”
“Our truck,” she said. I raised my eyebrows, and she added, “Shuffled off its mortal coil.”
“Poor truck,” I said. And remembered her parting shot at Thes: Why don’t you get the goddamn truck fixed?
That gave me an idea.
I’m not calling it a good idea, because it wasn’t. It’s just that sometimes, I could do things. Like charming Brit into giving me a job for the night. Only it didn’t have to be people; sometimes, I could keep stacks of trays from falling over in busy kitchens, or coax grease out of plates without a lot of scrubbing. And I was wondering—just for curiosity’s sake—if it would work on the truck engine.
“Hey,” I said, “what do you say to me taking a look at it? I know a thing or two about cars.” That was literally true and idiomatically bullshit, but like I said, I was curious. And Ari was also gorgeous like whoa.
“All right,” Ari said. “But don’t you have to work?”
I peeked through the beaded curtain into the kitchen. Brit was leaning against the door to the walk-in freezer, and the on-duty cook was standing in front of her, whispering something soft and fast. Brit’s eyes sparkled, and she kept brushing hair away from her forehead. If I took a deep breath, I caught the smell of burning hamburgers.
“I think we’re good for at least a half hour,” I said. And thought a healthy bit of charm in Brit’s direction, just to be sure.
We left Ari’s suitcase and the wax bean’s hideous duffle bag behind the counter, and I added my hairnet and apron to the pile. When we stepped out into the parking lot, the summer breeze felt so good in my hair I could’ve sang. I shook my head back and felt my earrings jingling, and for some reason that made Ari laugh.
“So where are you from?” she asked. We reached the edge of the parking lot, which some anal retentive neighbor had marked off with a chain-link fence. Ari walked with her fingers brushing across it like a little kid.
“All over,” I said. “I mean, I was born in the middle of nowhere, in a place…” I caught myself before I said shit-town. “A place a lot like this. But I’ve been wandering around for eight years, you know? Nothing’s tried to become home yet.”
She looked at me a little sideways. “Do you want a home?”
“Not especially.” I shrugged. “I’d rather see the world.”
Ari burst out laughing.
It wasn’t a nice laugh, not a pretty you’re-so-cute chuckle or a funny giggle or anything like that. Her laugh was flat mean. “Bullshit,” she said.
“Seeing the world. If you want to see the world, what are you doing in Naxos?”
I kicked a loose flake of asphalt across the sidewalk. “Naxos is part of the world.”
“Sure, but so is Paris. Dublin. Delhi, Beijing, Tokyo. Reykjavik, for goodness’ sake. What’s in Naxos that isn’t there?”
“You,” I said.
And yeah, that was the way wrong thing to say. I don’t show a blush—got an Indian granddad somewhere to thank for that—but I felt sick-warm all over. I gave the sidewalk a little charm like I had with Brit, but concrete isn’t nice like fat waitresses, and it refused to swallow me whole.
“I mean,” I said, firm as hot jello, “you’re here, and you’re supposed to be seeing the world. What about you?”
We had reached what was effectively the edge of town, marked by the dumpster of Mary Anne’s Antiques. Ari froze, staring into the black cornfields like she thought they would swallow her up—which they would, given half a chance.
“Thes is the one who wants and adventure,” Ari said. You could have bottled her voice and used it to strip paint. “I just came with her.”
“For God’s sake, why?”
“Because she’s my home. The only one I ever had.”
We started walking again, both of us with our heads down, watching the reddish road. Soon the lights from the antique shop were little specks behind us, and I took the skinny flashlight from my pocket. Ari breathed a sigh of relief.
“I thought you were going to make us walk the whole way in the dark,” she said.
I felt something snap in my head, all the pieces fitting together like toy logs. So that’s what her problem was. “What about you?”
“What about me?” she asked warily.
“Why don’t you pull out a light? Why does it have to be my problem?”
She started fiddling with her watch chain—nervous habit, I’d bet. “You’re making me uncomfortable,” she said.
“Yeah, well, high time somebody did.”
“You know nothing about me!” she snapped, stepping in front of the flashlight beam. The light glinted off her eyes like a cat’s—or a bull’s. “Nobody’s been treating me like a princess, you know.”
“No, she’s been…she’s been ordering me around. Treating me like a kid.”
I flicked the flashlight back to the path. “It’s the same thing,” I said. “You like to be taken care of. Thes is dumb enough to think she can take care of you. Except she can’t, of course.”
“Yes, she can.”
I started walking again, betting I’d gotten her mad enough without killing her curiosity. And I must have been right, because she waited just a second before running to catch up with me. “You’re just a pair of kids,” I said, not looking at her. “How’d you get the money for food and gas in the first place? I’m betting you stole it, same as I did when I was twelve. Well, guess what—out here in the real world, that doesn’t work so well. What are you going to do when your cash runs out? Find a job? Good luck at that without a permanent address. Or you can do odd jobs like me, but that only works if you know how to ask, how to beg even, and a princess and her knight in shining armor don’t know shit about begging. Still think I don’t know anything about you?”
“This was a bad idea,” Ari said. “Let’s head back to the diner.”
“No,” I said. “We’re going to fix your truck.”
Ari stopped walking. I didn’t, not even when I heard her footsteps patting back towards Naxos.
I killed the bull on a night in early summer, when I knew Ari’s stepdad was up in town getting drunk. It was a warm night, but not hot and damp like it sometimes gets in June, and wherever my head had got to, that place was like ice. I climbed right over the barbed wire fence, grabbing it with both hands, holding the pistol in my teeth. I know I’ll have scars on my palms for the rest of my life.
The bull pen was pitch black, even with the night clear and the moon almost full. I heard the bull’s heavy breathing and I caught his scent, hot and sour and male. I thought of Ari’s stepdad, his huge hands, his beady little eyes. I pulled the trigger.
The heavy breathing stopped, and I ran like hell.
I didn’t pay much attention to where I was going after I left Daedalus & Sons. I mean, little town like Naxos, how lost could I get? Go too far in any direction and you hit fields. Fields and fields and fields.
Not like Minos. Minos was a dairy town, and everyone had fences to keep the cows together. You couldn’t go far without getting fenced in. It’s easy to get lost, tangled up, in dairy country. Sometimes you just have to give up and climb, come no-trespassing signs or barbed wire or angry bulls.
You never have to climb in Naxos. You can start walking and never stop until you reach the wall of trees on the horizon.
See, there was no way in hell I could go back to the diner.
Not for the reason you’re thinking. I mean, sure I was still pissed at Ari. But I loved her, and loving people means you can get past being pissed at them. The problem was, I was pissed at myself.
I got your back, I’d told Ari, but that was a load of shit. If I was really looking out for her, I wouldn’t get her stranded in Naxos by some piece-of-crap truck. And if I did get her stranded, I’d find some way to fix it.
But I couldn’t fix it. Not the truck, not the fact that we were trapped in Naxos worse than we had ever been trapped back home. I was no good at fixing things, only at running away.
When I stopped walking and saw the flickering pink-and-green lights, I realized I’d made a complete circle and was back between the diner and Daedalus & Sons. I took a deep breath and gave myself a good shake. Ari was in there, and I had to take care of her. At least I had to try.
But when I went in and headed for our place by the ice cream cooler, I realized something was wrong.
Our luggage was there, dumped in a pile by the counter. The ice-blond waitress was humming cheerfully as she went at the windows with a pink spray-bottle. But Ari was gone, and so was the girl with the mandala-stud.
I stood for a long time in the doorway, staring at the empty stools, the clean salad plate on the counter. My heartbeat was like something heavy rolling down a long flight of stairs.
Then I took my duffle bag from behind the counter and went back outside.
Two miles goes fast when you’re angry, and I was furious. I could hear my own breath like a freight train chugging. The broken-down truck was right where we’d left it, of course, and I don’t know why that relieved me so much, but it did.
I climbed up in the driver’s seat, planning just to spend the night there and work on fixing the engine in the morning. Reflexively, I put the key in the ignition and turned it. I nearly jumped when the Ford roared to life.
I did jump when someone spoke out of the darkness next to me. “Hello, Thes.”
When I got back to the diner, Thes’s luggage was gone.
I froze, bending over my suitcase with one hand on the counter. The faux-marble was cool and slightly damp beneath my fingers, and I felt for a moment that my skin had frozen to it like a tongue to a cold flagpole. I blinked rapidly, praying in the back of my head for a flash of pink, a glimpse of haybrown hair.
She couldn’t have left, I told myself. She had to fix the truck first. She’d come back here before long, and I’d be waiting for her. I’d stop her—
Stop her from what?
I looked at my hand, pressed against the countertop so hard the fingertips had gone pale. Di’s voice was ringing in my ears, matter-of-fact and merciless. You like to be taken care of. Thes is dumb enough to think she can take care of you. Except she can’t. And I looked at the place where Thes’s duffle bag had been, empty now. Another place Thes had left behind. Another place that wouldn’t become home.
I walked slowly around the counter and sat in one of the plush stools. The red clock by the restrooms said 8:30 in flashing numbers. Di and I had only been out a quarter hour. Our burgers probably weren’t even cooked yet. Biting my lip, I took a sugar packet from the ceramic cup by the napkins and rolled it between my fingers.
The blond waitress came out from the back a few minutes later. “Where’s the other one?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Haven’t seen her since she stomped out to find a mechanic.”
She looked confused for a second. Then her pale eyebrows twitched. “You’re thinking about the tall skinny one,” she said. “Yeah, she came in a while ago, grabbed her bag and huffed off without waiting to eat. But where’s the other one, the girl with the earrings? She’s supposed to be doing dishes.”
I grabbed a fistful of my hair, dragging it out of its bun. “Well,” I said, “I scared her off too. It’s turning out to be one shitty night.”
The waitress disappeared and returned a moment later with two hamburgers. “Eat up,” she said. “We’ll call these on the house, okay? You can help with dishes if the other girl doesn’t show up.”
“Thanks,” I said, swallowing hard. I thought about Di, the hard-eyed look she had when she said, You like to be taken care of. Well, I didn’t like it, and I didn’t need it. I couldn’t need it.
“Thanks,” I said again. “I can do that.”
Thes jumped halfway out of her skin when the truck started, and fell the rest of the way when I said, “Hello.”
“The hell,” she said, slamming her head into the roof. I winced sympathetically. “How the hell did you get in here?”
“Door,” I said, miming a handle. “Turns out they’re pretty useful for this kind of thing.”
She stared at me, and I saw all kinds of crazy rolling around behind her eyes, and I remembered what Ari had said about the white bull. However stupid and stringy Thes looked, however reckless she acted, she still had nerves made of steel and brass.
“Why is the engine running?” she asked. “It’s supposed to be dead.”
“Let’s just say I got more from my dad’s side than big ears, okay?” To demonstrate, I reached over her until my hand was an inch from the door lock. Come on, baby, I thought, and the lock clicked into place.
Fortunately my reflexes were better than Thes’s, and I managed to press her back against the seat before she did something really crazy. “No funny shit,” I promised, keeping my grip light. “I just want to talk about Ari.”
“You’ve got some balls, stealing my girlfriend right under my nose—”
“Yeah, yeah, cut the bullshit. She’s a lady, not a wallet. And ‘stealing’ is a bit over-the-top, even for you.”
Thes bit her lip, but I felt some of the tension flow out of her shoulders and loosened my grip. “When I got back to the diner,” she said, “and I saw the two of you were gone, I thought—”
“Again with the bullshit.” I nodded towards the ugly duffle bag she’d flung on the floor in front of me. “Ari didn’t take her luggage, Thes. That meant she planned on coming back. What about you?” I caught her chin, made her look me in the eye. “You coming back for her?”
And damn it, I should’ve known better. Whatever she’d done, whatever she’d tried to do, Thes was only a kid. Her face crinkled like an old valentine, and she started to cry.
“No,” I said, “I’m not coming back. I screwed up, okay? I don’t know what to do, how to take care of Ari, where to go from here. I’m completely fucking lost.”
The girl moved her hand to my shoulder, making tiny circles with her fingertips. It reminded me of the way Dad used to rub my back, and that just made me cry harder.
“It’s okay, Thes,” the girl said. I didn’t know how she knew my name, and right then I didn’t much care. “You’ve still got time. You’ve got a good home somewhere, a family who loves you. Go back to it for a while.”
“What about Ari?”
She kept rubbing my shoulder, little tiny circles within circles. “Ari doesn’t need you,” she said, not meanly, just like it was the truth. And it was the truth. I knew it all the way down.
Di came back to the diner looking like she’d been dragged by a train. “Hey,” she said, leaning against the sink. “I need a coffee.”
I smiled and handed her the mug Brit had given me when I’d finished cleaning the windows. Di smiled back, and I noticed for the first time how pretty she was when she wasn’t trying.
“Thes is gone,” I said.
Di nodded. “She took the truck—which wasn’t that hard to fix, by the way. She probably could’ve gotten it, eventually.”
“Probably,” I said, looking down at the dishwater.
I almost jumped when I felt her hand on my shoulder. “She’s going home,” Di said. “You don’t need to worry about her. It’s time to start worrying about you.”
“Yeah,” I said. I took a deep breath, like a bull. “How do I start going to college?”
I laughed—a happy laugh, a relieved laugh, a we’re-going-to-be-just-fine laugh. Because we were.
“No idea,” I said. “But I’m sure we’ll figure it out. Now let’s cut the chit-chat and show these dishes who’s boss.”
Ari smiled, then started laughing herself. We were going to be just fine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Megan Arkenberg began writing in Wisconsin; she now lives and writes in California. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, and dozens of other places, and has won the Rhysling Award and the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance.
Read her story appearing in our first issue, Hades (April 2013): “Harrowing Emily”