What she’s not thinking about takes up more brain-space than it ought to. She grits her teeth — an ungainly quirk from earlier than she can remember — and grunts a little as she heaves and tugs. It’s a grueling task, this dragging and pushing along; and her un-thoughts aren’t budging.
A hand slips, her teeth mash against one another so that a grating noise escapes — not thinking, notthinking, NOTTHINKING —
like sour bile, the eruption:
He is her neighbor.
He is not a biology teacher.
He is heavier than he looks.
His hand grazes the dirt, drags a little trail through the grit like a grubby Hansel and Gretel.
* * *
Three miles away, there is a sad excuse for a rest stop, slouched alongside an idle highway. Cars whisper by in the dark, lights cutting through the murky night hours every so often, no rhythm to their migration. The building is ugly, its cinderblocks every bit as bland as the day they were cobbled together so that passersby could relieve themselves with a shred of decency (but only just). The state department abandoned responsibility for upkeep long ago — a new road was built and traffic redirected toward bigger cities and broader horizons and gleaming stations that were more remote-strip-mall-with-bathrooms than this pop-machine-and-outhouse combo plopped amid a rare stand of trees.
A few shrubs spring from the earth, a bit too earnestly, perhaps; it’s unclear whether they were planted or an accident disguised as a wandering deer’s droppings. Overhead, a light whines. It’s miraculous, really, the glowing orb. Its filaments should’ve burned up years ago. Maybe it’s solar-powered — there’s a thought! This grousing bulb, a piece of nighttime sunlight just hanging over the gray bricks and curling brambles and cracked-asphalt parking lot like a lost lamb in a clearing brimming with wolves.
The bathrooms themselves reek of misuse. The only toilet paper that lingers are the bits sticking to suspect pools of liquid on the floor — is it urine? toilet water? liquified worm remains? — and the stall doors that remain are peppered with angular graffiti dug into the metal with knives.
Call Shanel for a wild time! 555-0872
F*ck you b*tch
The biggest poser in the world is the one who reads these words and thinks “not I”
Out front, where the open-doored entryways gape, a water fountain marks the divide. Water trickles from the spigot whether it’s in use or not, and it’s one of those impotent structures that teases children with a burble so slight they must press their lips to the lukewarm metal or face the consequences of inconceivable thirst.
The rest stop is miles away from the nearest town, but no katydids chirp tonight. There is only the buzz of the light, the soft gurgling of the fountain, the occasional zooooosh of a car.
* * *
It’s been hours, she thinks. Possibly years. The sun shimmied south of the horizon long ago, temperatures sinking right alongside her, but the woman’s sweat pools at the center of her lower back before gliding downward to fester.
She should’ve never come out here, she thinks. Should’ve never agreed to the job, or its constricting terms, or dinner with a man who claimed he helped surly teenagers comprehend the complexities of hibernating tree frogs and the deteriorating ozone. Should’ve never.
* * *
The sun hangs high in the sky, its brilliance off-putting against the cracked hopeless earth. A bird trills nearby, in one of the shrub-trees planted so long ago; the sound is a dirge. Nothing lives here, that much is clear.
The grass crepitates underfoot: a child explores, looking for cicada shells and ground squirrels while her family stretches at the car. Her father glances in her direction — a sliding of the eyes, quick and brief — and calls to her. Amelia, don’t go too far! Her brother squints toward her, freckles one hand shading his brow like a scout searching for enemies on the horizon. Shrugging, he pops the tab on a Coke; she can hear the fizzing from thirty feet away, she thinks. It’s that silent here.
A line parts the dirt path — is it a path if it’s wider than it is long? — and she crouches to peer more closely. The middle, a gully, edged on either side by ridges of crumbling dirt. Little ridges in the middle, here and there, teeny mountainous peaks. The girl looks back, where it began, and forward again — aha! A trail! She shimmies with joy and tramps farther from the ugly gray building. This line is like a treasure map, she decides.
Her father can only just see the blue of her cap soon; but he does not worry. There’s nobody around for miles. Let the girl stretch her legs a bit — after all, they’ve still got hours to drive. There’s no one as far as the eye can see.
* * *
In the side of the small hill, the girl finds a hollow spot where the earth makes a cup, or a little bowl. If she sits in it she’ll get her shorts dusty, but she’s certain her mom won’t mind too long. The ground is crumbly and little clods tumble down when she sits. From here, no one can see her, anyway.
The girl is just beginning to think how lovely it would be if a fairy popped out of that tree stomp over yonder, or a wild Sioux chief piled over the top of the dried knoll on his painted horse, when something does appear.
There, at the edge of the hill-cup, is a lump. A something, but what sort of something, she can’t quite be certain. In a duck-like waddle, she scoots closer, dag-blasting herself for forgetting the plastic magnifying glass in the car. It’s not great (it did come from one of those mail-in thingies on the back of a box of Wheaties, after all), but even the scratched eyepiece would’ve come in handy on this Real Exploratory Hunt.
The girl probes the dirt gently. Delicate fingertips brush aside dirt-crumbs, wisps of dried grass, a hard-shelled beetle with malevolent pincers atop his head. The thing she’s found is stiff, and it’s hard to tell beneath the cover of grime, but she thinks — is it possible? — it must be a fingertip!
She presses her tiny, peach-padded pointer to the filth-crusted one. It is the size of a nickel, she thinks; maybe a quarter. Her fingertip is much smaller, a pencil eraser. She cannot stop marveling at this disparity — large to small, small to large — or the good fortune of stumbling upon this treasure. It’s like a button, pushing up from the earth, and she has always loved buttons.
When she hears her father’s holler come careening over the hilltop, really, too close for comfort, the girl goes running.
The button is her secret. She won’t share it with anyone.
* * *
The woman is hours away from the rest stop. Her car runs hot, no good on a day like today, so she drives without the luxury of air conditioning. Blue-black strands stick to her temples, dotted here and there with sweat that beads up before running down her jawline and carving a path to her seat, where it pools. Dirt crowds beneath her fingernails, pushing in so that she can feel the nail longing to lay against flesh again. She digs a toothpick under the nails of her left hand and her shoulders rise a bit at the excised grime. She looks up, habitually; shudders.
The rearview mirror has been torn from its place at the helm.
The rest stop is her secret. She won’t share it with anyone.