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I could keep driving and never go back.
She lingered a moment by the car, watching the cars on the interstate in the distance. The night air felt wonderful on her face.
Then she headed inside.
The store was almost deserted if not for the cashiers behind the front counter, exchanging plans for this weekend, and the man sitting in one of the chairs in the lounge area, head buried in a copy of USA Today.
No one seemed to acknowledge her, and that was good.
Across the room, she grabbed the payphone off of its ledge and, wedged between her ear and shoulder, fumbled through her purse for change.
The man raised his head to meet her gaze briefly as the operator assumed her ramble, and then Caroline was picking up on the other end, and Laura turned toward the wall.
She went with the first thought to enter her mind.
“How are they?”
Caroline wasn’t at all surprised at the voice she received.
“I put them in a while ago. Do you want me to get–”
“No, no, that’s okay.”
Laura paused, examining the patch of wall above the privacy booth, every tiny notch and fleck and little scratch of unnamed graffiti.
Lewis Carroll was a pedofile.
You know what they say the difference is between Palin and a bag of stupid?
“Laura, you there?”
“I’m sorry, I wish I could have been there for you . . . Is he . . .?”
Is he what? Okay?
Is he just sitting up with a beer and a cigar and celebrating with a rare rerun of As the World Turns?
Her voice came high and wavering—the voice of an eccentric ventriloquist dummy that had taken her spot a long time ago.
“He didn’t make it through. They told me before he—that they didn’t think he would. Just don’t tell the kids yet. Wait for me. I should be home by morning.”
“Laura, don’t drive if you’re tired. Get a hotel room somewhere or something, okay?
They’re all still asleep anyway.”
“No, I’m fine. Really. I couldn’t sleep if I tried.”
The night switched over to a faint mist that shielded the interstate and the truckstop from the rest of the city, and in it, the street lamps hung like lost spirits. Laura Braugher craved to be in it. To feel something more on her skin than exhaustion, maybe with the hope of washing it away.
Halfway across the lot, she broke down, heaped against the steering wheel as rain tattered against the roof.
It was ecstacy.
He was bent at the window, smiling a little at her startlement as she roused from a miserable doze.
Laura rolled the window down, smiling herself, and met the man from inside the truckstop. Mr. USA Today.
“Ma’am, I just thought I’d come out and see if everything was okay. I thought maybe you were having car trouble.”
She tried to smile.
“No car trouble. I was looking for something. But thank you.”
“No problem . . . Did you find it?”
“What you were looking for.”
“Yes, I did.”
She reached for the window button and stopped at the stranger’s half-grin, looking at her.
“No, something tells me you didn’t.”
He grabbed her hand through the window, his blue eyes intent on hers. Laura looked around in his grip and saw no one at all around the store, only the line of semis on the other side, dark and sleeping.
“What if I told you I know how you could change the circumstances you’re under?”
She freed herself and pushed away into the passenger seat, groping out for the door, and before she could open it, the man was sliding into the driver’s seat. He turned to her.
“Laura, I can help you.”
It would be easy to throttle the man and no one would know a thing, and to feel the anger dripping from her fingers . . .
And when they ask me why I did it I’ll tell them all about this cruel joke. They’ll understand.
Laura laughed in spite of herself.
This was funny, after all.
This whole scheme of things and how they worked.
“How then? How are you going to help me?”
(If you don’t want my help, I’ll leave you)
(leave you to your business here tonight)
The man’s eyes never lifted. They were the furthest thing from humor.
Laura’s voice barely came above a whisper.
Soon the same lights she had watched along the interstate a lifetime ago were moving around her in a tiresome sequence, falling across the sobriety of the stranger’s face and joining
She did not speak, and below, her hand searched along in darkness for the door handle and rested there. She still had that freedom.
Something tightened in her own throat when the man spoke again next to her, and then she realized it really didn’t matter what he said or what was coming next. In dreams it rarely did.
Why, then, did her mind keep returning to their faces out of everything else?
But this had to be a dream. Going all the way back before the accident. One long, unmerciful nightmare.
“I know a way you can have your husband back, where you can hear his voice and touch him and . . . and he could be with you again. He could be alive with you.”
She smiled softly.
“And how is that?”
“There’s just one thing to it. A trade, you could call it.
“How much would you give to be with him?”
She didn’t know—what the hell kind of question was that anyhow? The tears were fleeing down her cheeks now, and she wiped them away almost as soon as they managed to escape.
Laura thought of a woman she worked with before her lay off at the nursing home, a woman she had come to understand more in the past few months than she ever expected to in a lifetime.
Of course, we never expect what we have coming to us. Not most of the time.
She said nights were the worst, when you didn’t have anyone to share your day with. And the dreams . . .
The mornings were worse, though. She knew that. Every morning waking up to the same realization that he’s gone. Other times she found herself talking to him, rolling over . . .
Waking up was the real nightmare.
He was waiting.
(What would you give?)
But they always made it better. She had them, at least.
I do have my husband. Some of him I still have, right?
—Waiting for an answer.
(to touch him, feel his skin)
The man turned to her for the first time, away from the road.
“Would you give everything?”
(your future, everything you have and everything you’ll ever come)
(come to have)
“I can’t, my kids.”
“They won’t know, Laura. He won’t know. You won’t know. Nobody will know any different.”
“What happens to my kids?”
“They’ll be no more, Laura—but you’ll never even know they were. Do you understand? They’ll never know they were.”
“But I’m their mother. I’m . . .”
“I love them ”
“I know you do. I’m giving you a choice.”
(could start all over new beginning)
The smooth, wet track of interstate kept under their wheels. Up ahead, the lights of a city she had probably been through a dozen or more times, but failed to recognize now.
In her lap, her fingernails were buried into the back of one hand.
She couldn’t feel it.
And Laura wondered just if the stranger beside her knew—if he actually knew how it felt, how bad it could be, the little things, talking to him when you forgot, what does he want for supper, answered only by silence intermixed with a child’s happy babble, a teenager’s video game, the plans that were torn out from under you in a matter of seconds that took half a lifetime to write.
(and they won’t know)
(nobody will know—)
“Yes, yes . . . Please, let me be with him.”
The man’s hand flew to her own and clung to them as the car that had once been hers picked up speed under them, toward the city, and he did nothing more, only squeezed them in his grip, and it might have been painful otherwise, but her hands had gone numb a long time before.
“Look The lights ”
They wavered in her vision, delusional goads of the night sky.
“Wait for them ”
Laura closed her eyes, felt a last and final tear slip down her skin, until the flesh of her eyelids turned a brilliant, fluorescent pink.
The car pulled to the street curb slowly in front of the small cracker-box house. She noted, randomly, as she got out, how the tulips in her flowerbeds matched the shutters on either side of the main windows perfectly. Those they added last summer. Pink shutters. The flowerbeds she couldn’t remember.
Absolutely, he said, at first mocking, then, after a pause, pulling her to him, the “thinking-frown” creasing his brows. Yeah, let’s make something totally new. Reinvention of the shutter as 32nd Street knows it.
The house itself cast a brilliant warmth over the sidewalk at her feet and ceased as a familiar figure came to the front door, waiting on her.
Laura carried on inside against the night.