“Nimbus, stratocumulus, cumulus—” Mel began.
“Don’t forget cumulonimbus.” Dash always butted in, throwing around all her big words and ideas, adding “lenticular” or “supercell storm cloud” when she could.
“Shut up!” Mel punched her younger sister on the upper arm but not too hard.
They both stared up, the air empty and blue, not a nimbostratus in sight. In fact, the sun was so big it wasn’t even a circle but half the entire sky, a pulsing, too hot yellow-white.
“I need a lemonade,” Dash said.
“There’s water in the tin cup.”
“Figures.” But Dash sat up and drank it anyway, her teeth tinging on the metal.
Mel closed her eyes. Sometime last week, she’d forgotten what day it was. Monday? Or Wednesday? It was July, she knew that, the dead center of summer break. But the days swam in such long, hot, boring sameness; the only thing she could count on was Sunday, what with her mother’s strange desire to go to church, all of them.
“But which one?” they all asked, even their younger sister Kit, and even Pigeon, who could barely talk.
Which church indeed. Baptist or Methodist? Catholic or Presbyterian? Never the nice evangelical down the street, the one they could walk to. But Mom said they did funny things with snakes, so they drove across town to any but that one.
“Stupid,” Mel whispered under her breath.
Their father was “on the road,” as their mother said, and that meant gone, all of him, he and his leather suitcase and the Oldsmobile station wagon.
“We should build a fort in the pine tree,” Dash said.
“We should run away.” Mel batted away a fly and let her forearm rest across her eyes. She blinked against her skin, the world a warm brown against her face.
“Where to now? Africa?” Dash asked. “I want to see a giraffe.”
“Not Africa.” Mel wanted to hit her again. “Somewhere real. Somewhere we can get to.”
“But they’ll find us,” Dash said. “They always do.”
“Not this time,” Mel said, sitting up and brushing dead grass off her shorts. “I have a plan.”
The plan did not involve the castoff bathtub in the backyard, but Dash and Mel ended up there anyway. During a renovation flurry years back, their father had replaced this old tub with a new fancy one made of fiberglass. It was shallow and uncomfortable and didn’t have legs.
“Some plan,” Dash said. She pretended to drink from the tin cup as if she were a celebrity lady drinking a gin martini with six olives.
“I’m still thinking,” Mel said, though between the dried up lawn and the bathtub, her thoughts had evaporated.
“Don’t say it,” Dash said. “I can see you thinking the word.”
“My plan sublimated,” Mel said in a practiced monotone, an approximation of their father’s voice. When he wasn’t a salesman, he was a pretend teacher, a true know-it-all, bossy and mean.
“Sublimation,” he sometimes said, holding out a block of ice, the pick resting near his feet. This when he finally made the one, precious bucket of ice cream each summer. Sometimes, Mel imagined what the pick felt like in her hand. They weren’t allowed to touch it. Looking at it was bad enough.
“Sublimation,” their father repeated, “is when a solid evaporates.”
“Poo,” Dash chuckled now, holding her stomach. “Poo sublimates down the drain.”
“Gross,” Mel said. But the truth was, things disappeared, just like that. Solid, liquid. Gone, in a snap.
“So how do we do that? Sublimate but without disappearing?” Dash pretended to wash her hair under an invisible faucet. From birth, her hair was the color of a sunset, a red so gold it was like treasure. Her skin was so pale, she sometimes looked blue, like the powdered milk their mother made in the big glass jug.
“She’s the pretty one,” their mother’s sisters said when they brought over casseroles and Jell-O salads that wobbled like their aunts’ chins.
Didn’t matter, Mel thought. Even though she was tall and thin and dark, Mel was the smart one but by a smidge. And besides, who knew how pretty Kit or Pigeon would be, anyhow.
“Here it is.” Mel leaned back against the tub’s back. Overhead, three starlings shrieked by. Soon, she and Dash have to go in and get dinner going for their sisters. “We learn how to drive.”
“You’re only eleven,” Dash said, letting armfuls of her hair fall down her back. “I’m barely nine. You’ll get arrested.”
“Not if we practice,” Mel said. “I’ll get some of Mom’s high-heeled shoes, and I’ll sit on three encyclopedias.”
“It’ll take all summer,” Dash grumbled. “By the time you’re ready to take us anywhere, we’ll be forced back to school.”
“I swear,” Mel said, holding out her right hand, pinkie extended. “I’ll learn before then. Swear. I’ll start tonight.”
Dash leaned over, her pinkie gripping Mel’s. “If you don’t,” she whispered, her breath hot. “I’ll knock you into tomorrow.”
They stared at each other and then burst out laughing, funny only because this time, their father wasn’t the one who said it.
Mel sneaked outside after her mother fell asleep on the couch. As Dash put Kit and Pigeon to bed, Mel gathered the encyclopedias and her mother’s high heeled shoes and slid out the side door. In the dark yard, the crickets were on fire, twanging away like nobody’s business, as her granny used to say when she visited. They all used to sit out on the patio and listen to the night, at least Granny, Mel, and Dash did. Inside, her parents stayed quiet. Her dad stayed home. Their aunts visited. Her mother stayed awake when she was supposed to be awake, no bottles clanking in the steel garbage can by the back door in the morning. The house was cleaned, food prepared, table set.
Too bad Granny had only visited twice yearly, mid-summer and Christmas to New Year’s Day.
Too bad Granny died last February.
“Nobody’s business,” Mel whispered.
At the car, she put the books on the hood and opened the door, staring at the steering wheel, brake and accelerator. For years, she’d been her mother’s navigator, pointing out street signs and turn offs. If she didn’t, her mother drove on autopilot and took them to the Fred Meyers downtown, whether they needed groceries or not.
Mel understood how it worked. Grab the wheel. Press on the foot brake. Release the emergency brake. Put the car in reverse. Press the accelerator. And really important: Look in the rearview mirror.
But what would she see out here? A raccoon or possum. Maybe a loose dog or a feral cat. The worst thing that could happen besides her mother waking up—and that wouldn’t happen—was their father coming home.
He’d take one look at her in the driver’s seat and do the thing he did to her mother, the sucker punch Mel had witnessed countless times on channel five movie reruns.
“Right to the kidneys,” the bad guy said as he did the old one-two on some guy.
Just like their mother, the guy landed flat on his back.
But it had been months since her father had been home. Given the odds, Mel was fairly certain he wouldn’t barrel up in the next thirty minutes, Oldsmobile overheated and billowing steam.
Percentages were in her favor.
“I’m ready,” Dash said, breathless. She clutched Mel’s arm. “Are you?”
Mel shook her off. “It’s just practice, dummy.”
“So?” Dash put the encyclopedias on the driver’s side of the bench seat. “Get in.”
Dash slapped the books on the vinyl seat. Her eyes were dark and reflected lights burning in the house.
“What are you doing?” someone said.
Mel shuddered, thinking of her father stealing up on them in the night, but then she stopped. Kit. Only six, with hair the color of the too-hot summer sky, and a personality to match.
“She’s going to be trouble,” their aunts said.
“What are you doing?” Kit asked again.
“You are supposed to be in bed!” Dash grabbed her by one slim wrist.
“You are, too,” Kit said, wrenching her arm away. Kit had a point.
“Go inside!” Dash raised her voice.
Mel could see Kit’s glare even in the darkness. “You aren’t the boss of me.”
“Cripes. Get in the back seat,” Dash said, pushing her in and slamming the door. Then she turned to Mel. “Well?”
Mel shrugged and arranged herself on the books. Dash came around the other side and got in the passenger’s seat and closed her door quietly.
“Now you’re quiet.”
“Last thing we need is Pigeon out here.”
“She’s asleep,” Kit said. “Sucking her thumb.”
“You still suck your thumb,” Dash said.
“That’s why I know we’re okay,” Kit said. “So what are we doing?”
Mel put on her mother’s shoes, the points touching the pedals just enough. “I am learning how to drive.”
“You’re teaching yourself?” Kit asked.
“No, dummy,” Dash said. “You’re teaching her.”
Kit was silent, and then she asked, “Did you bring the keys?”
Mel shook her head. That was the one thing she’d forgotten. She kicked off her mother’s shoes.
Five minutes later, she was back in position. Dash and Kit were giggling about something.
“Where’s the keyhole?” Mel asked loudly.
They stopped laughing. Dash stood on her knees and turned on the cab light. And, of course, there was the ignition and the keyhole, just where it had been since her parents brought the car home four years before.
Mel pushed the key in. “Sit down,” she barked, her voice a quiver of nerves. “And buckle up.”
“For safety,” Kit said. Mel waited to hear the clicks and then reached up to turn off the cab light. She grabbed the steering wheel with her left hand and pushed her right pointed toe hard onto the brake.
“Bad drivers,” their father always said, “drive with two feet. You should only drive with one, foot like a metronome. Back and forth, brake and accelerator.”
Mel had no idea why he’d told her all that. Maybe he’d known all along she was just like him, ready to bolt.
Her lips pressed together tight, Mel turned the key to the right and almost felt flung to the seatback, the cab filled with a roaring screech.
“Holy Jesus,” she screamed. Dash and Kit screamed along with her.
“Let go of the key!” Dash yelled, and Mel yanked her hand away, half of the sound stopping. Now, the big engine lurched, straining against Mel’s foot, and then just glugged.
Mel’s heart beat in a solid line from her chest to her eyes. “Gosh,” she said.
“Let’s go inside,” said Dash, her hand gripping Mel’s shoulder. “Let’s not go anywhere. It’s dark. We’ll get lost.”
Mel wondered if they would even go anywhere at all.
“I peed,” Kit said, her voice matter-of-fact. “Only a little bitty bit.”
Dash swung herself over the seat, and Mel clenched the wheel, listening to Dash and Kit confer. There was the unclick of a buckle and a shuffling of clothes, most likely Kit’s wet underwear being slid off her skinny stick legs. Then a door opened and then quietly closed.
“I’m not wearing my underwear!” Kit cried. “It’s on the driveway!”
“Buckle up,” Dash said.
Mel unrolled her window, letting in air tinged with the gas her mother called “Ethel,” like some old lady.
“Are we going?”
Mel nodded and grabbed the stick on the wheel. Now that the car was on, the dashboard glowed a faint yellow. Like her mother did, Mel pulled it from P to D. The car shuddered. Kit squeaked.
As she lessened her death press against the brake, Mel imagined what might happen. All at once, they could be flung out into the road just as Mr. Thomas from down the road roared by in his Chevy. The world would smash like glass. Or they could end up at the back side of the Smith’s barn, chickens on the hood, smashed into cutlets.
But she breathed in and turned her head, eyes focused behind them, just as her mother did. Mel was too short to hook her arm over the seat. But behind her, she saw the darkened street curve by, their picket fence like tiny grave markers.
“We’re moving!” Kit whispered, kicking the back of Mel’s seat.
They were moving, the wheels under the great car catching gravel and acorns and dirt, a slight sucking sound as they rolled.
“Are you pressing the gas?” Dash asked. “Should you press the gas?”
Mel ignored her, and then they were down and then over the deep, dirt gutter and into the street.
“You forgot to turn on the headlights!”
Mel pulled the knob and the world grew bright. Behind them, pine trees turned red.
Slowly, one toe, one nerve, one tendon and vein at a time, Mel released the brake and then put her foot on the accelerator, the swoosh move her father taught her. At the same time, she turned the steering wheel.
“Wrong way!” Dash yelled.
Then she turned the wheel the other way—a clutching, awkward motion, nothing like the way her parents drove—and the car moved into the road, almost straight. A few more turns and they were facing forward and headed toward town.
Things got easier. As they passed first the Arlington’s house with the long white fence and chestnut tree and then the McCords with the beat-up trucks, ghost white boulders, and brand new Cadillac on the wide front lawn, Mel let parts of herself uncoil, unclench. She wiggled her pinkie finger. She released her molars from the dental clamp she’d imposed on her whole mouth. She was still leaning forward over the steering wheel, trying to grow an inch or four on the spot, but her back unkinked, her neck muscles loosened.
Dash patted her knee, leaving her little hand there, warm and reassuring.
“You’re doing it!”
Kit giggled, a waft of urine floating in the cab.
They kept moving, Mel testing out the accelerator, feeling the way the car surged when she pressed it with her aching toe. Faster, slower, faster, slower. Then she managed a steady speed, letting herself glance once at the speedometer.
“Ten miles an hour!”
“Think how far we could go if we drove all night?” Dash said. “Maybe we could go to Canada.”
“I need a lot more practice–Be quiet. Don’t talk to me,” Mel said as a car’s headlights approached. “Duck down!”
Dash pushed Kit down with a hand and then fell flat on the bench seat. Mel pressed the gas as the car passed them and then laid off when the taillights were in the mirror.
“Jesus Lord,” she whispered, feeling, at that moment, very Baptist. That’s what the ladies who passed around the good books and the Kleenex during services repeated, over and over. “Jesus Lord.”
Maybe she would ask her mother to take them there on Sunday. She would need forgiveness by then.
Dash peeked up and looked out the windshield. “You did it.”
“I’ve got to turn around,” Mel said. “But I don’t know how.”
Dash scratched her nose. “Go down to four corners. Then do like this.” She moved her right hand in a swan-y circle. “Turn this way and go around and then back up. Mom does it when she forgets her purse.”
Mel nodded. Once Mom forgot Pigeon in her crib and did that same move. Mom’s default position—Mel had heard her father yell this—was forgetfulness. She wasn’t sure what a default position was, but it seemed to make sense.
“I really need to pee now,” Kit whined.
“Hold on,” Mel said. “We’re going home.”
At four corners, Mel tried to make the graceful arc that Dash described with her hands, but grace wasn’t a guest on the wide bench seat. Instead of a nice smooth right-hand circle, Mel understeered, tried to correct herself, but then the wheel spun in her hands as if the car were trying to drive itself.
“Mel!” Dash yelled as the great car lurched into the gutter with a horrible thunk and then rebounded, bouncing up over a retaining wall. The car clattered and banged down onto the cement, the engine running, wheels spinning, headlights bright on Mr. Bunze’s broadleaf maple.
“Turn it off!” Dash reached over but was caught by her seatbelt.
Mel fumbled with the key, but then got her fingers around it and turned off the engine. Something was burning, an acrid smoke filling the cab.
“Get out,” she yelled, flinging her whole body out the door and then opening Kit’s. Dash was soon at her side, and they all backed up, staring at the car that heaved and moaned like a wounded cow. Mel was only wearing one high-heeled shoe, and Kit didn’t have on any underwear. Dash was shaking. They all smelled like pee. Dust spun around them, shining like fairy dots in the light.
“I don’t have to go anymore,” Kit whimpered.
“It’s okay,” Dash said.
Mel grabbed her sisters’ hands and kicked off her remaining high heel. They’d only gone barely a mile, so it wasn’t a long walk back. Their mother wouldn’t have even noticed they were gone, so all Mel had to do was walk them home, clean up Kit, and get them all to bed.
They stood together, breathing in the night, the car pinging a song of broken things. Something thudded. Something hissed. Overhead, an owl whooshed by as the night settled back into sleep. But then a light turned on in Mr. Bunze’s house. Mel squeezed Dash’s hand.
Tomorrow, they would wake up as usual. Mel would prepare breakfast for her sisters and coffee for her mother. Finally, their mother would wake up, ready to watch Pigeon and Kit. When she realized the car was missing, they would tell her it was stolen. Some joyriders took the car out for a spin. That was it: Teenagers wanting to have a good time. Kids who could afford a mistake.
The streetlight flickered and went out. There was no moon. Crickets got over the accident and recommenced beating sound into the air.
“Come on,” Mel said, but just then, there was a car’s engine in the distance, headlights glaring. No, two cars, one with a siren.
Kit held her around the legs, and Dash leaned up close. They all backed up to the gutter and waited for whomever was coming.
Mel tried to remember the words of the rosary, that list from the Catholic church their mother had taken a liking to last spring. Hail, Mary, full of . . . something good? She tried to recall, teeth chattering.
The police car arrived first, the siren a broken wail, the red and blue lights flashing. The big blue car made the turn that Mel could not and stopped right in front of them, tires hot and rubbery.
“I don’t want to be arrested,” Dash sobbed, wiping her eyes.
“They’ll just think we’re runaways,” Mel said, but she wasn’t sure. Maybe they thought she and Dash had kidnapped Kit. Or that all three of them had stolen the car.
The passenger’s door opened, and their mother stepped out, holding Pigeon, who clung to her like a desperate baby monkey. Pigeon’s brown hair was sticking up straight, her nose and cheeks a patchy red from crying hard, her eyes blurry. She shuddered and snot streamed out of her nose. She reached out to Mel, and their mother moved her to her other hip and slapped her arms down.
Mel and Dash should have never left Pigeon alone.
Their mother looked like she always did: nightgown, bathrobe, slippers. But her eyes, for a change, were sharp and focused.
Mel looked down.
A police man got out of the car and then waved another vehicle—a tow truck—toward the car wobbling on the retaining wall, oily smoke coming out the hood in plumes. Then there was a rustling. After a moment, Mr. Bunze beat back maple branches and stood at the edge of the road, hands on hips.
“I knew it was bad. Heard it from the back of the house.” He shook his head and then waved the tow truck driver over. “Come on then.”
“These the girls?” The police officer pointed at Mel, Dash, and Kit.
“What were you thinking?” their mother said, nodding to the officer. Her mouth remained open as if the rest of her words refused to come. But even so, it was the most she’d said to Mel in days.
“We—” Dash started.
“Melanie! Don’t ‘we’ me,” their mother said, pointing at Mel. “It was all you.”
Mel’s knees started to shake. The officer stood with his hands on his belt, metal things—keys and locks and a walkie talkie—clicking and clanging. She couldn’t see everything in the darkness, but she saw his gun. Maybe that is what things had come to. The whole long summer was going to end right here.
He walked toward them. Mel clutched at her sisters and tried to look up. But she didn’t have to. The officer knelt down and put a finger under Kit’s jaw. “You okay, honey?” he asked.
“I peed,” Kit said. “I don’t have any underwear on.”
Mel looked at his name tag: Fred Kupinski.
“Mommy sleeps all day,” Kit went on.
Officer Kupinski nodded. “Let’s get you home.” He gave Mel a look. “Maybe you and I can have a chat while your mother puts your sisters to bed.”
His eyes were brown, wide, and shiny in the tow truck’s headlights. Mel nodded. She didn’t know what she would tell him, but finally, someone wanted to listen.
Their mother got into the police car with a slam and sat silent and still on the way home, not looking back or saying a word. Pigeon must have fallen asleep. Mel could feel her mother’s rage billowing up like the smoking Buick hanging on Mr. Bunze’s retaining wall.
Their mother didn’t say a word on the way home. But Officer Kupinski asked questions about their summer and their teachers, and Dash wiped the tears off her face and told him all about fourth grade and Ewan Jones, the boy she’d been sitting next to for-ever.
“He tastes like salami,” she said.
Tastes, Mel thought, feeling Dash’s tongue on the back of her hand.
They were halfway home, almost there, when Mel realized a car was following them. She turned in her seat, clutching the cold vinyl, and looked out. Following too close behind them, his eyeglasses reflecting car lights, was her father in the Oldsmobile, his eyes on hers. She could almost see him thinking the words he was going to fling at them like knives, at least once the officer left.
She didn’t wave. She didn’t turn around, though, staring at her father the rest of the way home. The police car hummed. Dash talked and talked, while Kit curled in her lap, asleep.
Officer Kupinski would never talk to her now. Maybe she could tap him on the shoulder and ask him to make Dash’s move, the bird turn she’d described with her hands. But there was no turning back. That would have had to happen before Pigeon was born, or maybe even Kit. Perhaps they could go back to the day her parents met, on the steps of an apartment building in Seattle. They all knew about it. Their father’s shining eyes. Their mother’s pink dress. The first date. The courtship and wedding at the courthouse three months later. It was famous, or used to be.
They could swerve away then.
The night flickered by in the car’s light. Mel’s mouth was dry, her breath like tiny balls of nothing. From now on, every day would be a disturbance. A sudden stillness. An arc of lightning. An anvil-shaped supercell storm cloud, full of wind and hail and fury, rotating over their house, waiting.
Image: Car in the forest by Hamid Khaleghi, via Unsplash.