Floating on her back, she imagines what’ll happen if she starts bleeding right then and there.
She tiptoes around her snoring parents, showers, and changes into short shorts her mother always shakes her head at, but never says a word about. Never goes so far as to forbid anything. She’s noticed that Sasha has started smoking on occasion, when her friend Marisa sneaks them from her older brother, but all her mom does is wonder aloud if anybody else smells smoke when they’re sitting together at the dinner table. Sasha’s an only child, the miracle baby that followed a grueling series of miscarriages. She doesn’t feel like a miracle, but senses her parents’ careful deference. She’s only begun to test the extent of her leeway.
When she gets outside, she’s confused to find the streets full of people, more people than she’s seen since they left Phoenix. Calling them “streets” doesn’t even seem right. More like vague paved areas between a gas station, an antique shop and a restaurant that claims to be famous for its three-bean chili. Sasha can’t imagine anyone ordering chili when it’s 100+ degrees, as it so often is here in the desert. There’s some fast food somewhere too, at the next freeway exit, but that might as well be a thousand miles away.
But now there are people everywhere, floating across the blacktop like Sasha at the pool. She enters the AC blast of the restaurant, sits at the counter and orders a milkshake. She usually likes to sit by the window, but the place is packed now and that’s all there is. Instead of watching the parking lot, she zeroes in on her fellow diners. She watches the way an old man chews scrambled eggs, with his bottom teeth jutting at odd angles. She sees a table of women in their twenties, sweaty-haired and dressed for vacation in maxi dresses and big dangly earrings. They’ve all got their phones out, are fanning themselves with their menus. Via eavesdropping, she gathers that all these people are here because of a big rig crash. Both trucks burnt to a crisp. Road shut down until it’s cleared. One by one, cars have been peeling off and making u-turns to wait out the traffic jam here rather than roast alive at the wheel listening to podcasts.
Sasha sips her milkshake and daydreams that she will meet a boy. Maybe he’ll be here waiting for a car repair like her. Maybe he’ll see her right now and be captivated by the way she bounces her leg under the counter. Or the way her long wet hair leaves an imprint on the back of her white shirt. He’ll sit down beside her and strike up a conversation. Maybe he’ll ask if she knows what time it is. Or if she’s heard any news on when the road’s expected to reopen. She won’t have an answer to either question, but he’ll be charmed by her essence somehow. Maybe, after they’ve forged an intense connection, he’ll admit he didn’t need to know the time or the traffic news, he just saw her and wanted to be near her. Is that how it happens? Could it be? She scans the room, but can’t find anybody who fits the hazy picture she’s built up in her head. She downs the last bit of milkshake, the little bonus in the metal tumbler, and listens to the table of vacationing women lament their lost day of pool time at the hotel.
Sasha leaves cash on the counter and goes outside, strangely proud of how she, a Northern Californian, has adapted to the arid climate. When they first arrived at her grandfather’s house in Phoenix two weeks earlier, she could hardly stand to leave her room. For two days, she kept the shades drawn and the ceiling fan working overtime, recoiling at the sun whenever her mom persuaded her to take her grandfather’s Schnauzer for a walk. But somehow, without her even noticing the shift, she’d come around to appreciating it. She started to take her time with the daily walks, keeping her eyes closed for a few paces at a time to focus on the feeling of the heat burrowing through her skin and spreading through her muscle fibers. Now she feels like maybe she could be a desert person. Maybe she’s always been one, a desert person without a desert.
At the antique shop next to the restaurant, amidst the random kitchen items and yellowed linens, there’s a table with a stack of books, all the same book, a seemingly self-published history of the of the town they’re in, which, as she learns in flipping through it, is not, in fact, a town, but an unincorporated area that’s been nicknamed “Cactus City.” Until ten years ago, they weren’t even on the electrical grid, instead running the place on generators. She wonders what changed, who decided it was time to join society, but only go halfway. The only cactus she’s seen here is the fake one at the motel’s front desk. She’d felt it to be sure, on the way to the continental breakfast buffet. She tried to dig her fingernail into the meat between spikes, confirming its hard, slick surface wouldn’t give.
She drags her fingers along the display tables and notices that there’s nobody else here, not even at the cashier stand. She opens up an old-timey Coke machine, imagining it’ll emit a rush of cold air, but it just smells like mildew.
Glancing around again, she picks up a small glass figurine and thumbs its surface, a translucent green angel, with soft-edged wings and no face. She slips it into her pocket and slips herself out the door. She doesn’t even like or want it.
She slips it into her pocket and slips herself out the door. She doesn’t even like or want it.
She is waiting for something to happen. Her grandfather has been in decline for a couple of years now, gradually losing every bit of his independence. He can no longer speak above a whisper, and needs help each morning to move from his bed to his wheelchair. He drinks Ensure, no longer interested in or able to eat real food. His primary caretaker is her mother’s younger sister, elected by the siblings because she lives nearby and doesn’t have children. When her mom volunteered to take over while her sister went on a much-needed vacation, Sasha got the impression she didn’t know what she was getting herself into. She watched her mom get flustered at having to wipe dribble off his chin after every sip of his morning shake, her eyes go dead when it was time to take him to the bathroom. Their last night there, Sasha stood in the doorway as her mom was getting Grandpa settled into bed.
I’m gonna open the blinds so you can see the moon, okay? You’d like that, right?
Sasha couldn’t see her grandfather’s face, but her mother looked so tentative, so desperate, her hands all fluttery as she tried to get the blinds just right so the moon would be visible but the room still dark enough to sleep. Sasha’s mouth felt dried out, a nauseating pity rising in her stomach. Then her mother caught her eye, and the two shared a long look, her mother so frightened, Sasha so unprepared to be seen.
Next to the antique shop is an old defunct gas station, preserved as part of the antique shop’s outdoor display, directly across from the functional Chevron station that serves as the road trippers’ nucleus. It’s not to buy, it’s just to be, the paint long worn away so the pumps are a uniform matte gray. She pulls out one of the nozzles and sniffs it for any phantom whiff of gasoline. She begins stretching out the hose to see how far it can reach, kicking up a cloud of dust with the drag of her feet.
Then she’s stopped short, not by the hose reaching its limit, but by a hand wrapping around her hair, right at the base of her skull. She drops the hose, stands up straight. With her hair gripped tight, she can’t turn around to see who’s there, and though she can speak, she also can’t.
She waits for something to happen. For the stranger to speak, or to move to the next step of dragging her somewhere, or for someone to see and intervene. Surely someone can see her? The blacktop seems to widen, so the people at the Chevron station look like little dolls moving in busy parabolas. She can see people coming and going from the restaurant, but none of them look her way, led through the door by a gravitational pull that cancels out their peripheral vision.
Slowly, she tests the stranger’s grip. As gently as possible, she pushes forward with her head, and feels her hair slipping through. Just as the still-wet tips of her hair reach the stranger’s hand, its grip tightens again. Droplets of water fall in the dirt at her feet. Her hair is long enough that she can turn now. Though she knows to be afraid, she can’t help, in the moment, but imagine the stranger as tall and handsome, with the face of her favorite band’s lead singer, a man old enough to be her father, whose images she ogles online almost daily. But she can only look at the stranger for a second, only long enough to note his grim-set, thin-lipped mouth and take in his metallic body odor, before adrenaline takes over. This is what she will tell people, if she ever tells anyone, which she hasn’t had time to decide. She’ll tell them a surge of purpose rushed through her blood and caused her to yank herself away from the man, that she overcame him and ran faster than she knew she could. What really happens is that she spends an endless moment staring at the man’s chin because she’s afraid to look in his eyes, before realizing that he’s let go, that she’s free. She takes two steps back, then two more. His face is entirely in shadow now, so she can look without fear. She waits for him to move but he remains still his hands lowered to his sides. She turns away and runs her hands through her hair, incredulous, walks as far as the Chevron station before turning around to find the stranger gone.
She’ll tell them a surge of purpose rushed through her blood and caused her to yank herself away from the man, that she overcame him and ran faster than she knew she could.
As she’s returning to the motel, Sasha feels a rush of warmth, a pressure drop in her underwear, something she’s been anticipating for the last year, ever since one by one her friends started keeping tampons in their lockers. Her pace quickens, her arms dangling from front to back in some vain effort to camouflage the blood that must be soaking through her shorts by now.
The motel room is still dark. As she rushes to the bathroom, she imagines she’ll have to ball up her shorts and stuff them in the wastebasket under a layer of tissues. But when she pulls them down, there’s nothing there. Her shorts and underwear are clean, just a little sweat dampened. She sits down on the toilet, turning the clothes over in her hands, more mystified than she was by the stranger, or by the sudden influx of people in town, because this is her own body she’s misread, her own body gaslighting her.
She sits there in the bright light with air blasting from the vent overhead, remembering the stories her mother’s told her of all the times blood came to dash her hopes and snatch her plans. The mornings she woke up with not only a disappeared pregnancy, but a mattress to bleach. The clothes she shoved in the trash rather than face scrubbing them in the laundry room sink, her cuticles stained with her own blood because she’d been too distracted to put on rubber gloves.
At her grandparents’ house, after her mom saw her in the doorway, Sasha went back to her room and put on her headphones, retreating into her music and the dog curled up under her arm, his muggy breath and the warm rise and fall of his back. She didn’t hear her mom knock, was startled when the door opened and her mom sat down on the bed. Sasha sat up and slid her headphones down around her neck, waking the dog, who jumped down and scurried out of the room. Her mother didn’t speak for a long time, just looked down, running her fingers across the faded pink bedspread.
Maybe I’m a bad daughter, she finally said.
Sasha shrunk back, shook her head. The music went on thumping quietly at her throat.
Do you know what he said to me? He whispered it in my ear. It’d be better for everyone if I just died, he said. I don’t know why I don’t die. Why would he say that?
Sasha didn’t look at her mom, didn’t know what she was supposed to say.
Her mom got up. She rubbed her eyes, scratched her scalp, recalibrating her exterior. Anyway, don’t let me keep you up, she said, her tone entirely shifted. Get some rest. Donna’s coming back tomorrow and we’ve got a long drive.
Sasha washes her hands and looks in the mirror, but avoids really looking, only taking in one piece at a time—her hair on her shoulders, her dry lips, the freckles that congregate across her nose and cheeks. She nudges something with her foot as she’s shifting her weight and looks down to find the little green angel. It must have fallen out of her shorts when she took them off. She puts it back in her pocket.
When she turns off the bathroom fan she hears a phone, her father’s cell. He’s still sleeping, so she rushes to pick it up off the nightstand before it goes to voicemail.
Yeah, this is Transmissions USA, just calling to give you an update. That valve you need should be getting here tomorrow, Wednesday at the latest. We’ll let you know.
Sasha nods, then remembers she’s on the phone. Okay.
As she replaces the phone next to her father’s glasses, she notices her parents’ position on the bed. Though they’re facing away from each other, their bare feet are intertwined, cradling each other. She rarely witnesses any kind of tenderness between the two of them. Maybe she hasn’t been looking for it. She’s neither comforted nor repulsed, but feels compelled to leave the room again.
Back at the pool, Sasha dangles her legs in the water up to her knees. She lies back on the hot concrete and imagines it searing her thighs and shoulders red, leaving her with grill marks instead of tan lines. Her hair is dry now, and dulls the heat permeating the back of her head. She pulls the angel from her pocket and holds it up to refract the sunlight, bending it to her will with the back-and-forth motion of her thumb and forefinger. She wonders how many more milkshakes she’ll drink before they’re able to fix the car and go home. How many more hours she’ll soak in this pool. She thinks about the stranger and where he might have gone. She imagines spotting him on the blacktop, coming up behind him on tiptoes. She imagines wrapping her fingers around his neck and squeezing, never saying a word.
Anne-Marie Kinney is the author of the novels Coldwater Canyon and Radio Iris. Her short fiction has appeared in Joyland, Fanzine, The Collagist, Alaska Quarterly Review and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles, and can be found online at annemariekinney.com.