"Yeah?" He knew her. She was the skinny gal that lived just down the road. Someone's daughter, he was pretty sure. Pretty girl, but strange with silence. Always sitting on her front porch with a stare as he passed, going to the store or whatever else in town. Once he had waved and she had lifted a delicate hand. But it hadn't really been a wave, more like a flutter of movement, so he couldn't say if he'd been acknowledged or not, or if she acknowledged anything at all with those eyes that held no accountable reflection of the world. He'd wondered about it, many times, what was happening at the house just down the road.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
She strained to speak, like there wasn't enough air inside of her to make the sound. "May I come in?"
"I'm about to leave. I'm all packed up."
"Please, let me in," she said, louder. She bent to meet his eyes. "Please."
"What for?" He puffed on his cigarette a few more times, then flicked it out the window. He opened the door for her. "What do you want? You got trouble?"
After she'd gotten inside, he saw the bag she was carrying—not a purse. It had clothing in it. Life items. Items to live by, to travel with. "Oh now, shit, I'm not taking any hitchhikers. Rule one. You gotta understand that right away. What's that father going to think when we go driving by your house? Well, he'll think we got something going. Might even call the cops. You gotta figure out a way to work out these problems without involving me. No, no way—no hitchhikers. Sorry."
She pulled the seatbelt across her lap and secured it.
He started the truck. "I'll just drop you off at home."
She tensed and began to plead with him. When they neared her house, he saw that her father was on the front porch—a creature of muscle and anger. "All right, I'll take you to the next town" he said, driving on. "The next town, and that's it."
"Thank you." Her hands slid, releasing their clench on his forearm.
At the next town, she was asleep. Something about the truck's movement, or the friendly rattle of the Cimarron, gave her comfort. He could see that. He'd kept wounded animals as a child, and each of them had slept after they'd been saved and fixed. She was just like one of those animals, hibernating it all away. At a stoplight, he reached over to touch her on the cheek.
He never could refuse helping something that was hurt.
She was still out when he stopped to get gas. He watched her through the window as she curled against the seat of his truck, hair in sweaty threads against her face. With nozzle in hand, shooting precious fuel into a tank that ate too much for its own damn good, he kept looking and saw the spread of greenish purple bruises under the neck of her top. He figured she must be bruised all over. The son-of-a-bitch had beaten her where no one else could see.
He paid and hesitated near the glass donut case inside the gas station near the front counter. Usually he kept his food expenses on the practical side, eating only when he was past starving. Light things like nuts and jerky. But she was so damn skinny. He picked out a pink cake donut with sprinkles and a fried one that was jelly-filled. Then he bought them both some coffee. She was awake and had a handful of change ready when he got in the truck.
"Put it away," he said, placing her Styrofoam cup on the dash, then her donuts, wrapped in a paper napkin. "I bought this of my own will. By the way, is that all you got? I might make you pitch in for gas later." If you're still riding.
She put the coins into a small purse that she'd pulled out of her bag and then picked up her coffee. She blew on it with one hand cupped over the steam. "I have a lot more. About a hundred dollars."
"That's not a lot. Gas'll eat that up in a day. By the way, where do you want me to drop you? Any place in particular? I mean, did you think this thing out at all?"
"I saw you packing up and knew it might be my last chance. Last time I watched you leave, I wondered if you'd ever come back. I been watching you a lot."
He drank his coffee and smoked a cigarette, thinking the whole time about her watching him. What a peculiar thing for a girl her age. He wasn't much to look at. Mostly he was just gone, driving all over the place. He'd driven through the southern states. Spent a good amount of time in Louisiana. People down there were more open with themselves, but in the upper States folks seemed like lost buffalo, moving slowly around each other with nothing to say and hardly even a smile. If she had escaped with him that time, he would have missed out on a lot of fun with robust-talking people. Not to mention making love with three women—each at different times, of course. They'd all forgotten him now. Anyway, he wasn't headed that way this time, he was headed through the Midwest for a book he'd been commissioned to photograph.
"The cops might be after us. You prepared for that? They'll find you and take you back home."
She sniffed the donut, thought forever, took a sip of coffee, and then finally answered through her teeth, "I will never go back home."
"But you'd have to work things out eventually. Cops or not. I'm just trying to help you see the truth in all this. You can't ever really run away."
"Well I am." She began to scratch at her skin.
"Yeah." He started the truck. "Yeah, I know how you feel."
They were nearing the Badlands when he pulled over to take a roll of pictures. He wanted to get a good vista shot of the whole thing before it became swallowed by scenery. Sometimes, when you were in the middle of a spectacular view, you lost perspective on what was so great about it all. As a photographer, he'd learned to isolate scenes or objects, to draw them out of their surroundings. For now, he wanted to get a nice before shot. Later, he'd get the after.
That's when he had the idea to take a few pictures of her. Before. Before what, he didn't know. Maybe before all the bruises faded. Maybe before she started smiling again. Maybe before she left him at the next stop. If she did, he'd never get an after. But at least he'd have the before.
"Stand over there," he told her, pointing to the roadside. She was leaning against the truck's front fender with her hair blowing around in wisps. Her back was a long curve and her arms hung straight down, hands clutched together between her thighs. "Oh, wait, don't move. I think," he climbed onto the roof of the truck and knelt down, camera in hand, "I can maneuver enough to get the horizon and you at the same time. Tilt your chin up a bit." She did, and the wind blew her top apart so that all her bruises met light. "Oh, now... I don't know... can you move your hair down to cover it?" He didn't say bruises, but she knew what he meant. She slid her hair across her shoulders and tried to pat it down to make a cover. Then she looked up with the brightest, bluest eyes. They were bluer than the sky. More vast, more translucent, more distant, more filled with clouds, and rain. Sad. Tired.
"Thank you." He lowered the camera. "Do you mind hanging around while I get some other shots? I won't be a second."
He had started over the metal railing with a sign that said "Do Not Enter" when the thought came in his head that she might try to steal the truck and camper, so he ran back to grab the keys. Their eyes met. "Just taking precautions. Though I wouldn't blame you if you did. Be right back."
On a large rock just a few feet below the roadside, he set a leg up for a makeshift tripod. He was careful not to waste any film, and chose a good angle of flat land and buffalo. Distant rocks cut out like shark's teeth. Then came the black hills, fading into a sky that was partially spotted with clouds. The white shapes made shadows that rolled and raced.
The wind had dissonant whispers, like moans. But he knew it only got worse the deeper you drove into the Badlands. At night, those whispers could get so bad a person really got to thinking dead spirits were after them. You had to have a good, strong mind to survive nights like that. He usually kept a radio on to drone it out. Tonight, he'd be camping with someone who looked as haunted as the wind. He hoped she could make it through.
He noted none of the clouds looked storm-like, took a few more shots, and ascended to the road. His runaway was still there. Having made herself comfortable sitting in the truck again, she said nothing when he slid into the driver's seat and packed his camera away.
"We're heading out to a campsite near Custer State Park. You see those hills? It can get to be real rough out there, the deeper you get in. You want me to take you back to Rapid City and drop you off? Or do you want to keep driving with me?"
"Keep driving. The further I go, the better I'll feel."
He hesitated before starting up the truck. "What's your name?"
"Well, my name's Jack. Just plain old Jack."
He backed into the road and then drove until they met a line of traffic headed for the highway, early afternoon folks trying to get somewhere before the day got too hot. His stomach began to grumble. The coffee had done nothing to fill his need for something with actual nutrients in it. His fingers tapped against the steering wheel; it wouldn't be the first time he went without. Until she showed signs of being hungry, he'd just ignore the discomfort.
He tried to make light conversation. "You still in school?"
She put a string of hair against her lips and feathered it across her teeth. "I was."
She shrugged again.
"You older than sixteen at least?"
This time she nodded. It seemed like an improvement of sorts.
"Why don't you just move out and get your own place in town then?"
"I am moving out. With you."
He couldn't help it anymore. He had to eat. "Can you reach back there behind your seat and fetch me some bread and a jar of peanut butter? It's just right there, in a sack. Get me a knife too. I can't spread the stuff with my fingers."
She leaned way over the car divider and handed all the things he asked for. Her shirt rose above her waist and revealed too much skin in all directions.
"Did you find it yet?" he asked.
"Not yet," she said, still digging. Finally she settled back into her seat and dumped everything into her lap. She'd even found a napkin. He didn't know he had one back there. It had the logo of some fast food joint on it.
"I'll make it for you," she said, angling her arms to open the jar of peanut butter. She managed to make a nice sandwich right there in the passenger seat. When she handed it to him, he thanked her, but not too much. Anybody could make a sandwich.
"You want some?" he asked.
She shook her head. They were back to that again.
"Well, I'm sorry I don't have anything but this right now. Told you not to come with me." He wiped his beard and felt a sprinkle of crumbs tumble onto his thin flannel shirt. "Jesus." He was like a raccoon that way. No scraps. No manners.
He saw his exit and took it.
"I got more food in my camper," he went on. "So if you wait till we camp, there might be something for you to eat that you'll like. What do you like?"
"Avocados," she said.
"Avocados and limes and papayas and coconuts."
"Well, I ain't got none of those. You like normal stuff?"
"Like, soup, and more soup. It's not much."
They passed through a road that was held in by an arch of pines. It was a narrow road and a few times he had to maneuver to the side for other campers to get by. He was getting stressed about it when he finally heard her say, "Normal stuff is okay. I'll eat anything."
All the cars on the road came to a stop. A group of buffalo had decided to cross—all looking like great hairy ticks, heads hanging from their slumped necks. "That's your American buffalo," he told her. One came up to her window and sniffed with a snotted snout. Its eyes were dark and devil-like. She didn't pull away though. She appeared fascinated with the thing, and was going to reach out a hand to touch it.
"I wouldn't do that. It'll bite off all them pretty fingers. Keep your hand inside the window if you're smart." She ignored his order, and hesitated, hand outstretched for a moment longer. Then she must have decided she liked her fingers, because she retracted her arm and rolled the window up, right in front of the buffalo's face.
"They're called a herd, when it's buffalo. Gang, when it's bison." He was telling her information she'd never need to know. "But they're both the same thing." Pretty soon he ran out of facts to spew.
He grabbed his camera bag and pulled it to his lap. "Watch the truck." He got out and started taking pictures. Herds of buffalo weren't anything new to him, but to the average U.S. citizen it was exotic stuff. They were dumb creatures, mostly, but full of vigor, and irrational vigor too. They could up and charge you, bite at you, for no distinct reason. It would be best to take pictures from the hood of the truck, instead of standing in the road like a human target.
He contorted around, moved from a standing position to a sitting position; his ass pressed up against the windshield—it didn't matter if the pictures came out right. Pretty soon people were taking pictures of him from inside of their cars. Of him taking pictures of the buffalo. He figured it made a sight.
When he got back in the truck he looked over at her and saw the bruises again. They were darker now in the evening sunlight and the tree shade. They looked like hands, like fingers, reaching up to her throat. He felt a suffocation go through him, and tried to put his mind back on the road. The buffalo had moved on and traffic started again. There were too many drivers. That was what he started thinking. Why in hell was everyone trying to make, or trying to leave, camp so late in the day? Because he was on the road, that's why. He was unlucky with anything paved.
He avoided looking at her neck after that. He'd ignore it for the rest of the trip.
They swerved and swerved. His runaway held onto her seat with skinny fingers while the camper made its way through to a tangle of outlet roads that led to their campsite. When he pulled up to the spot he wanted, a mess of anxiety hit him. He had a girl. He couldn't make camp with a girl. Was he crazy? But now it was too late to leave, and it was likely she'd say no anyway. But where would he put her? In the Cimarron? In his bed?
His hands sweated on the wheel. "Well, I guess I didn't think this whole thing through. I only have one bed."
She looked out her window. Dusk came through the trees and made her skin glow orange in blotted patterns.
He lit up a cigarette and thought for a long while before going out to set things up. "I guess," he said, "I'll be sleeping here in the front seat." She didn't say anything, so he knew he'd settled the issue for himself and by himself. He left the cab of the truck.
"Damn it all to hell." He set to hooking up the spigot so they'd have running water and a toilet. He set up everything that made his Cimarron more like a home than a trailer. His runaway never left the truck. Several passes by the front windows showed her in there smoking a few of his cigarettes and looking bored.
She was damn pretty. It scared him. He wasn't interested, not in someone that young, but having her in his trust was a responsibility—one he'd never put upon himself. He had to make the best of it. Put on a show or something, with his face, or the way he spoke. He'd brush it off, keep her at a distance—but a safe distance, and just go about with his usual routine. Tomorrow he'd find a way to get rid of her. There was a bus stop in Sturgis. He'd drop her off there with some money and a—Take care of yourself, kid.
Another camper pulled up, taking a spot next to theirs. A silver bullet RV pulled by a rusted Chevy pickup. Out came a familiar face, and the mouth too.
"Jack! Jack Rivers, You ain't really here in the same campsite as me, is ya? Thought you'd gone south. Didn't you say you hated the cold? What's up? What's up, Jack Rivers?"
Jack was still attempting to hook the water and this new arrival was beating on his shoulder with every word. The threads of the connections kept breaking loose.
"Been commissioned down here. I won't be doing much visiting," Jack said. Best to get that out straight. Sometimes people latched onto you. They changed their plans and followed you everywhere and ate all your food, invaded all your thoughts, thrived off the vapors of your existence. They didn't have homes; they had roads. And roads were like feeding tubes to them.
"Commissioned for what?"
"Of the Badlands?"
"Of anything I want. I chose the Badlands."
"Why?" Victor Sheldon asked, tugging on a pair of Levi's that didn't agree with a midsection that was all bloat and no hips or ass.
"I don't know why."
He did know why. And Victor Sheldon should know why too.
"Well," Victor said, looking back to his silver bullet. "I'm getting around to all the usual places. Then I'm headed for Wyoming."
"That's good, Victor."
"How long you staying?"
"I got enough food and beer."
"Sign at the entrance said no more beer in this campsite. Against the law."
Victor went red for a second. He mumbled out, "I oughta set this place on fire." Victor was angry like that sometimes. Then he went back to normal and you thought maybe you'd been hearing things. That it was you who was crazy after all.
"I'm leaving in the morning," Jack said.
"What for?" Victor pulled a bag of chew from his back pocket and pinched out a good wad. He stuck it inside his cheek and spit a few times. A grasshopper wearing Levi's, Jack thought.
Jack didn't answer.
The threads still wouldn't connect. Someone had ruined them with a forced connection, and it felt like duct tape too, because sticky residue coated Jack's fingers when he gave up. "Spigot's fucked," he said. "I'll have to move."
Victor's eyes wandered to the cab of the truck where smoke filtered out. "You got company?"
"None that needs announcing." Jack erased all the prep work he'd done with the Cimarron and hopped into the truck. He started the engine.
"Why you leaving in the morning?" Victor repeated. He leaned into the driver's side window and eyed the runaway. "Who you got there?"
"None of your goddamn business."
They found another spot a few spaces away. Other campers came to fill the difference.
The sun set. The chill arrived. And the voices of the Badlands were preeminent.
Another familiar soul had rolled into camp, though Jack missed the event while setting up. Moe Simmons had a baby face and a baby voice, but he ruined it all with his vasectomy talk. It was an hourly topic with him. A conversation starter and extender. Everyone across America knew about Moe Simmons's vasectomy. But he didn't tell people that he didn't like. Some folks, the lucky ones, found themselves cold shouldered. They went about their ways never knowing how blessed they were. Jack wasn't one of them.
Moe came by right around dinner, after the girl had settled into the camper with magazines and a battery-operated radio.
"It hurts sometimes," he said. "Sometimes I feel the phantom of my abilities, like one of them amputees that still feels his missing leg. Isn't that funny? It hurts before it rains. Better get out your umbrellas tonight, buddy."
"You really think it will?"
"Big storm, maybe. I don't know. How long you staying?" Moe's eyes kept darting around. He was looking for the runaway. He'd been informed.
"Until tomorrow. I got business. But I'll be back to take pictures. Different camp probably."
"I got business too. Someone in the ring has a secret opportunity with moola written all over it. You want in?"
It wasn't that much of a secret—not to Jack. He'd been approached more than a few times, and always said no. He'd rather stick to his photography and leave the dangerous job of cooking up meth to people like Moe who didn't give a shit about danger or laws or anything. One day, one of the rigs was going to explode on the highway and the whole "business" would be exposed to the entire world. Meth labs on wheels. What was the world coming to?
"Thanks anyway," Jack said. "You want some coffee, Moe?"
"Sure, I will."
Moe picked up Jack's aluminum percolator and poured himself a mug full. He'd brought his own mug of course. He liked to taste everyone's coffee in camp. Moe was a java connoisseur. Jack's was plain old Folgers, so Moe took one sip and dumped it near the fire.
Finally, he got to it. His voice was under the tones of eavesdropping volume. "So, you got a girl with you?"
"It was—uh—not to my taste. My taste changes. It ain't your Folgers' fault." Dart, dart. "Where'd you get her?"
"I didn't get her. She got me."
"How'd you do it?"
"I didn't. She's hitching. And then she's leaving."
"'Cause she's got trouble."
"Can I meet her?"
"Why would you want to meet her?"
"I don't know."
Jack lit up a cigarette and poured himself his own cup of Folgers. He didn't like fancy stuff, so it was fine by his standards. His taste never changed. It remained faithful to his mouth and stomach.
"How old is she?" Moe asked.
"She's leaving in the morning, that's how old." Jack changed the conversation by going inside the Cimarron and shutting the door.
She lounged against the flat cushions that made up a couch, Field & Stream in her hands. The little radio he'd given her played rock music near her hips, almost quiet enough to not even be on. She dropped the magazine and reached down to turn it off when he came in.
She watched him move around the camper, head low because he was too tall. Watched every move he made. Watched him reach into a box full of canned goods. Watched him decide. Watched him pull out a can of chunky potato soup. Watched him grab a saucepan, and two spoons, and two bowls.
She said, "Am I really leaving in the morning?"
He looked at the open window near the couch and cursed himself for not closing it earlier. "It's the best plan."
"Could be. But it's probably even better for you, if you think about it."
She threw the Field & Stream across the Cimarron. It passed by his right ear and hit the door behind him.
"Why'd you do that?" he asked.
"Just take me home. I'd rather go home than be dropped off at some bus station."
"You know that's a stupid idea."
"I don't care." She began to cry, slumping down into the couch. The cushions weren't attached, so they scattered and fell as she slumped. All that remained was a polished wooden slab.
"Why the hell would you want to be with me?" he asked, then couldn't believe he'd had the nerve. She'd never said she wanted to be with him. Maybe she was scared of being alone. It didn't have anything to do with him yet.
She was still crying and wouldn't answer, so he moved aside the soup and things and went out the door. He bent to grab the magazine. It'd become fire kindling by bad circumstance.
The sounds of the camp battled the sounds of the Badlands. Jack heard radios and laughter; children playing; women chatting—but mostly he heard the men of the camp, because their deep voices carried better to his ears. He heard them talking about his runaway. All the why's and what-for's and who she was and would she ever come out. Jack stirred the soup and smoked.
Finally she did come out, so quiet you'd think she was a daydream. The camp died into a mid-hurricane silence. She'd slipped one of his shirts over her flimsy top and tied it at the waist. She'd even combed her hair. She was young and she was beautiful, and he was frightened when she came to sit next to him by the fire.
"I'm sorry I threw that magazine at you," she said, reaching her hand out for a drag of cigarette.
"I'm over it." He passed the half-sucked Marlboro and watched as she pulled it to her lips. That was all he could watch, he decided. He didn't ask for the cigarette back.
He almost jumped off the log they shared when her arm slid into his. She pulled close and even rested her cheek against his shoulder. "Is this okay?" she asked. "It's cold out here."
Jack took a look around, without moving his head. From left to right he scanned the camp; there were many eyes staring back. Some that knew. Some that remembered. Some that would never know. But the ones that did know, would always know.
"I can get you a jacket," he said.
"I don't need one. You're plenty warm."
The mothers allowed her into their tents and RVs because she was good with children, and it gave them a moment to sit by the fire with their men. But they did look worried, and they all kept one eye on her.
Jack saw how the children flocked to her. How they clung to her legs and played with her long hair. It should have made him happy, but he couldn't stop a restless worry. He smoked and smoked, watching her flit around the camp; it wasn't long before he accepted one of Victor's illegal beers.
Moe told them jokes. He told political jokes, blonde jokes; he waited for the children to go off a distance before unleashing the dirty ones. Jack wondered how someone could know that many, and it always bothered him to hear a baby voice shooting out so much sex and smut, with those two lips sputtering and spitting such self-effacing laughter.
"What does the rooster who's married to two hens say every day when he wakes up in the morning? Cock-I do, I do!"
A log shifted in the fire.
Victor crushed an empty Coors and threw it into the flames. "That joke's about as funny as your dick is long."
You could joke about anything but Moe's dick.
"You tell a joke then, asshole."
Victor's mouth was already getting dry. He shoved a pile of lop inside and muttered that he didn't know any good ones.
"Well, then leave it to me, 'cause I got plenty."
"That's the problem. You got too many, and they're all stupid. Why don't you just shut up sometimes and let people think?"
Moe looked around. "Do any of you guys want to think? We think all day on the road—right?"
Some nodded. Then the fire drew their eyes inward and they all went quiet.
She passed by the trees, hair flowing behind her. She was a sprite, an angel. There was nothing real about her but the sound of sticks crackling under her feet. The children followed close, whispers and laughter.
Moe nudged Jack in the arm. "Can I have her?"
"Can you have who?"
"I'm getting lonely on the road, but I could never settle down. There ain't no place right for me to settle down. But I'm lonely, Jack. I'm real lonely."
Jack sputtered. "Go get yourself a puppy."
"She must've come here for me—since you don't want her."
"Who said I didn't want her?"
"Said you were dropping her off in the morning. Why not drop her off with me? I'll be good." Moe's trout lips trembled.
Jack sipped the rest of his beer even though the fizz had long ago dissipated. "It ain't that easy. She's got her own mind. I can't pass off another human being without getting their consent first. Anyhow, seems like maybe she wants to stay with me."
"Give me a moment to ask her, maybe she'll change her mind."
"Go ahead then, she's out there. Nothing says you can't ask."
Moe struggled from his cheap lawn chair and headed for a tent—that's where the runaway and all her followers had gone. Jack watched their shadows merge within the silken fabric that swayed like a ghost's skin. The beer was empty; nothing but silt now inside the can. He tossed it into the fire. Victor met his eyes.
Victor remembered. All the way back to when Jack first bought the Cimarron. Right after the war, when their minds hadn't set right. When all they knew how to do was run. Back so long ago some of these trees were sprouts, not towering enigmas. He remembered a young girl named Violet, and how she and Jack were on the start of something new.
Jack had brought her here, to the Badlands, because he'd held a romantic idea about the rocks and landscape. About those haunted echoes. And here they'd cemented their new marriage the same way everyone else did, only he'd forced himself too much and scared her. He was young back then, but she was even younger. Too young.
She'd screamed, but he went on and finished. Because that's what his father had told him to do. Just finish, and think later. They get over it. It's life.
He never could make up for that night. She cried every time, and soon he stopped. You never could get over your past sins. Not with one person. You had to find new people, all the time, so that your sins and their sins equaled out and all the past became forgotten.
Every camp they went to she pulled more and more away so that, before long, she was so distant he couldn't look her in the eye. A new man came along; one with his own sins, and a silver-bullet RV fitted to his truck. She took to him, because he was headed north, and Jack wanted to go south. Jack always thought it was funny how direction could make decisions for you. Life decisions.
He'd put up a stand, said she couldn't go. He'd grabbed her by the arm and thrown her in the Cimarron—all seventeen years old and 113 pounds. But then the engine wouldn't start. He tried everything, but the goddamned rig wouldn't start. Soon she was laughing at him, right there in the front seat. He screamed horrible things and was going to slap her, but she slipped out of the truck and ran to her new man.
Jack sometimes wondered if the engine dying was a grace from God so that he could start over and heal, or if it was a punishment from God so that he'd never forget.
So then, all he had was a Cimarron and no wife. And he always felt guilty for not stopping that first night. But it was too late. His sin was old and permanent.
She died a few years later in a car accident. Life had settled the issue in its own way.
Victor shifted on his log and reached for another beer.
Moe emerged from the tent with lips tucked together in dissatisfaction. He wandered into the trees to take a leak before coming back to the fire.
"She say no?" Jack asked.
"She wouldn't even speak to me."
"Not too wise if she's with you."
"All the same."
"Ah, shut up, asshole."
"Evening." Jack got to his feet and left the fire.
He set up the bed the same way he'd do for himself, only he took extra care to fit the sheets right so things wouldn't slip off in the middle of the night. Maybe she was a restless sleeper, tossing and turning all over the place. He was a still sleeper. But that was because he didn't sleep. Not much, at least.
Then he sat on the couch and waited for her to come in from running around. He wouldn't ask about Moe. She could tell him, but he wouldn't fish information out of her.
When she came in, around nine, she had a funny look on her face, but tried to hide it by keeping her hair all around her face. She sat down next to him on the couch. It was so quiet in the Cimarron you could hear the wheels groaning with her movement, though each step was light and careful.
She smelled like fire and the decomposition of leaves. "See what I got?"
He looked down, and saw something fuzzy crawl from the neck of her top. "What is that?"
"They gave it to me—that lady in the red tent. Her cat had kittens and she's itching to get rid of them."
"But you can't keep a kitten."
"Why not?" she asked, reaching in and scooping it out. She held it to her cheek. It was as black as an eclipse and its eyes were sealed shut.
"Did she say when the mom give birth?"
"Just the other day."
"Then it ain't even close to being weaned. You'll have to take it back."
"I can't," she said. "I promised." The kitten began to fuss. It needed milk.
"You'll have to break your promise," he said.
She stuffed the thing back inside her top. Then she sat on the cushions and stretched out her legs.
"It needs its mother. And you're getting on a bus tomorrow. They'll never let you on a bus with a kitten. Is that why you did it?"
She got up, left the camper, and returned later with empty hands—and shirt. Then she sat on the floor and stared at him for the longest time. Each window held its own darkness. His eyes flitted to each one, and then back to her. He stroked his beard and cleared his throat.
"That was the right thing to do," he said.
"I must be growing up."
"I don't know. You tell me."
Then there was silence. And that's when you could hear the Badlands crying. "Can I have a cigarette?" she asked.
He pulled the pack from his shirt pocket and tossed it to her. The matchbook too. "I'll help you out tomorrow. Give you some money."
She sucked and puffed in a rhythm, hand held close to her mouth.
"Are you nervous?"
"No," she said. Her hair was loose strands shining all around her oval face.
"I made up the bed for you."
She glanced over her shoulder to see, then she was looking at him again and he felt his mouth parch.
"What's that sound?" she asked.
"It's just the wind, honey."
"I ain't never heard wind like that."
"That's all it is though—wind."
"It makes me feel weird."
"You get used to it."
She puffed her cigarette until it was done, then came to the couch and decimated the butt in a nearby ashtray of amber glass. She sat close, so close he could feel her body trembling.
He wanted to ask her if she was scared again. He wanted to ask her about Moe's questions. All he could do, though, was sit there and act ignorant. He turned to his runaway and looked into her eyes. "Don't fool yourself about me. I don't have anything special."
She gave him a quick peck on the lips.
"I'm fifty years old."
She kissed him again.
"You don't know what you want."
"Take my father from my skin," she whispered. "I can still feel him." She began to itch and itch until blood spotted out.
"No one can ever do that. Not me, especially." He winced at the way she ripped at herself.
"But you can. I know you can. You're the only one."
Something was about to break in her. A fountain of pain held up too long. She undid every button on her shirt and brought his trembling hand to her skin. Then she bent forward and kissed him all over the top of his chest and neck; she took his lips and made his breath hers.
"Please, please," she said, falling back and pulling him onto the couch. "Please take my father from my skin."
"But I can't, honey." He wanted to cry for her.
"Oh, please. Please."
Maybe he could, if it were possible to erase things already seen. Here, there. Her and everyone else. Maybe he could, but he couldn't. Her father was everywhere. Every pore and follicle. Bruises, cuts. It looked like a map. A negative image against her stomach and chest.
Still, she kissed him and he was falling into the invisible perimeter where bad reasoning made sense. Violet never let him touch her like this. It'd always been a struggle to evoke any kind of abandonment in her. Things like that ruined a man. They'd driven him into a canyon with no direction out.
Eventually it happened: Virginia became Violet. She came and went within the runaway's body, blurring lines, possessing him, becoming her. He believed every second of it.
Until he opened his eyes.
He saw all that damage, thrust away, and ran out the Cimarron door to vomit in the grass. Inside: wretched cries louder than the wind.
A figure transpired from the shadows. "What was going on in there?"
"Nothing, Victor. Everything's fine."
Jack wiped his mouth. "Go back to your camper."
Victor ran a hand all along the Cimarron's ribcage and drew a heavy sigh. "You've been driving this thing a few decades now."
"And I thought you'd give it up much sooner. What makes you keep driving? What is it, Jack old buddy?"
"Same thing as you."
"The same, but not the same."
"Almost the same."
Jack reached for the door handle to go back in. He'd comfort her. Tell her everything in the world to make things better, and then he'd send her to bed. Afterward, he'd sit by himself for a while and think things through until they made sense again.
"Have I ever apologized for taking her away, Jack?" Victor said.
The door handle was loose. Too many years of being grabbed in haste. Everything, it seemed, done in haste.
"You don't have to say anything more," Jack said. "I'd prefer it."
"But we ain't never settled this. I can tell you, it's damn near killed me every day since it happened. All I know was she kept begging me to take her, and pretty soon the begging made sense. I didn't want to do it."
"Of course you didn't."
"But I've always felt sorry."
Jack's fingers squeezed around the door handle so tight the thing cracked and broke off in his hand. It'd make a good tool to hit someone in the face with—like a brass knuckle made of plastic. He held it up and examined it for a few seconds.
"You gonna hit me, Jack? I can see it in your eyes. I deserve to be hit. I sure do."
Jack opened his fingers and the handle tumbled out and fell to the ground.
"Why weren't you at her funeral then, if you're so sorry?"
"I've always wondered that myself, Jack. I just couldn't see her in a coffin like that."
Jack had gone to the funeral. He'd bent close to her skin, pale and silent with a tinge of blueness within every line. And he'd placed a kiss down upon her lips, cracked and silent like a desert canyon.
The door opened behind Jack, and he turned to see his runaway hesitating on the stoop. Victor's eyes drew up and it was as if he were seeing a ghost.
"She looks just like her, Jack."
"But it ain't her." His teeth ground saliva into foam.
"Just like her." Victor extended a hand to help the runaway step down. There were tears in her eyes, but she smiled anyway. "Are you real?" Victor asked her, and she said, "I am."
By morning, the winds had switched their direction and the people of the camp emerged with shadows under their eyes. They knew a transfer had occurred. Hard not to with your runaway sitting alongside a different man, your shirt switched for his—a blue jersey with stains on the front.
Jack avoided stares and ate his breakfast, a piece of wheat bread toasted over the fire and two cups of coffee to rinse it down. He set up to leave, pausing only once to hear Moe explain how the vasectomy had saved his life, though he wished he could still do things like any other man. "I feel like I have to prove myself to the world," he said, eyes squinted, and Jack nodded.
"You don't have anything to prove to me," Jack said. Really he was saying: Goodbye, friend.
When he got home, he'd sell the Cimarron to the first person with a wad of money in their fist. He planned on setting up a pay-by-session photo business. Time to disappear, gel, fit in. Become one with the human race. Not with misfits of the roads. They could keep to themselves and do what it was they did, but he had lost his desire to watch them do it.
Perhaps a river had broken in him after all, though he'd tried hard to avoid it. She passed by in Victor's shirt and Jack thought he saw a bruise on her cheek where one hadn't been before. She looked lost on the inside, where it went deeper and decayed a person. He grabbed her arm and regretted it, but didn't let go.
"Let me take you to Sturgis. It's no trouble to me."
"Thanks all the same," she said, her blue eyes veiled in shame.
"I'm heading home." A question.
"No thanks. I'll never go home again."
His fingers loosened. He ran a hand all along her arm, up her shoulder and then to her cheek. "Then, this is goodbye."
"Goodbye," she said with tears. Hard little tears, because it was too late for an apology. They ran like rivets of mercury into his palm.
"The first thing that happens when you grow up," he said, "is you learn to say no. Understand? Sometimes, you don't want to say no. Sometimes it kills you to say no, but you have to." He drew his hand away from her face and dragged its wet surface across his chest, up to his very own cheek.
They parted. The breaking sun turned her hair into glass as she walked away.
From the Cimarron he watched a silver bullet drive off, and for the first time in his life he said a prayer. A prayer for his runaway. That she might yet escape all the things that had her running.
He didn't wait to start out back home. He drove to Mount Rushmore with its four faces, all men of stone and sin, and sold the Cimarron cheap. The buyer couldn't believe his luck. He looked over the rig longer than necessary, just to make sure it wasn't full of rust.
"She's in good shape, except for the door," said Jack. He showed him the missing handle.
"Then why you selling?" the man said.
"It is just time," Jack said.
Title graphic: "Into the Woods" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.