by Kirie Pedersen
When the green Toyota Tacoma struck the Triumph 350 almost directly in front of Jana and Sherry as they sped toward Sherry’s ski date, the rider’s body tumbled through the air and landed like a limp doll atop the concrete median. She embraced the concrete, arms tumbled over one side and legs draping the other, and then she bounced again, slow-motion, before landing beside the lanes that roared with traffic. Jana smelled the lavender and rose geranium in her child’s hair beside her, and on her own wrists, and she heard herself start to scream and then the strangled tightness in her throat and chest as she suppressed the scream, the weight of her wrist as she flung it across her child’s chest.
“Aren’t you going to stop?” Sherry asked. “Render aid? Isn’t that your job?” She spoke with the sarcasm she’d so recently acquired, like some outfit chosen in a thrift shop, as if she could truly care less what Jana did.
“Charlie’s expecting us,” Jana said. “I have to get you to Tammy Lynne’s.” More than anything, she wanted to stop and take the fallen child’s pulse, tuck warm blankets around her broken body, tell her she was loved. But already sirens pierced the distance, drawing closer. She was not required to stop and render aid. The old rules no longer applied.
“I hate skiing,” Sherry said.
“That’s why we packed your board,” Jana said, but Sherry was humming quietly to herself, tonelessly, one of her many ways to shut Jana out. Sherry peered into the mirror and applied blood-red lipstick, and the disdain she tossed in Jana’s direction seemed familiar, a just reward for locking her child up for no other reason than to escape her own failures and pain.
That morning, Jana awakened in the darkness of the cottage she and Paul built at the base of the Olympic Mountains. The fragrance of cedar and salt blended with that of her coffee, pre-timed in the kitchen below. Jana disliked waking in the dark. Her shifts started at seven, and most of her patients lived miles away in the tiny rural communities that dotted the Olympic Peninsula from Hoodsport to Sequim. On the rare winter morning the sun appeared at all, Jana took little joy in the red-gold sunrise reflected against the curling bark of the madrona. But she had promised Sherry to pick her up in Tacoma, where she boarded at Annie Wright, and then to drive her to Bainbridge Island for a ski date with her best friend Tammy Lynne. The day was, at least, clear and cold. It was a perfect day for snow in the Cascades, where Tammy Lynne’s father worked medical ski patrol, but an awful day to drive two hundred miles to pick up the child who suddenly seemed to hate her.
Jana and Paul had separated six months before. Jana stayed all those years for Sherry, and then she left to protect Sherry. That was what she told herself. The final evening was no different from countless others. Paul stormed out of the house and headed off who knew where, nothing new at all, really, and Jana filled out mountains of patient charts on the round oak table beside the fireplace. Then Sherry, her eyes dark like her father’s, and her hair tangled to her waist, appeared at her side.
“You always told me I needed self-esteem,” Sherry said. Jana hadn’t even looked up. She moved her pen across the page, filling in the blank. Mistakes were not allowed. “Well, how can I have any self-esteem if you don’t have any for yourself?” Sherry said then. “We’re acting like prisoners of war.” As if she were the parent and Jana the child completing her homework at the kitchen table, Sherry said, “I’m going into my room to do my homework, and when I come out, you will have written the note.”
“What note?” Jana collapsed her sore wrists onto her lap and placed her forehead on the table. Her head felt swollen, too heavy to hold up for even one second longer.
“Tell him you’re leaving.”
“He’s your father,” Jana said, and she rubbed her eyes, too hard, but unable to stop herself. She wanted to pull them out of her skull and roll them around on her palms. Now she’d have black eyes, and everyone would blame Paul. “What will happen to you if I go?”
“I’ll be fine,” Sherry said. She pulled her hair over one shoulder and twisted it into a loose braid. Her eyebrows were thick and dark, and she looked like Frida Kahlo standing there in her bright-red dress. “I’ll take the scholarship to Annie Wright, like you did. What was good enough for you is good enough for me.”
As Jana pulled on the jeans and sweater she’d laid out the night before, the first light of dawn reflected pale across the bay, etching the current pink. A figure stood in the the path outside her window. It was Paul, tall and still, staring up at her. At her best friend Rachel’s insistence, she had changed all the locks, but Paul had already found his way in, once, and he then found the brochure from Dove House. When she returned from a hike, he was waiting, screaming at her. “I came to fix the stove for you, and I find this shit.” He towered above her, his fists clenched. “I am not an abuser!”
“I didn’t ask you to fix the stove,” she said.
And then, just before she packed Sherry off to school, she found a spiral notebook among Paul’s abandoned belongings. “I want to dust her,” she read. His handwriting started out neatly enough, but then sprawled sideways and down toward the bottom of the page like water trickling off a cliff.
“Don’t read that.” At fifteen, Sherry was ancient, older than she would ever be again. Sherry tugged the notebook from Jana’s hand. “You don’t need to know that,” she said.
“But I do,” Jana said. “I have to protect you.”
“Daddy bought three handguns,” Sherry said, her voice soft and casual.
“How do you know?”
“You know that yellow locked cabinet he kept in his office? He showed me the guns, and he made me hold one.”
“What did you do?”
“I cried.” Sherry looked at Jana with her beautiful dark eyes. “Daddy says I need to learn how to handle a weapon.”
“That’s what my shrink said. My shrink told me to buy a rifle.”
“Don’t say shrink,” Sherry said.
“It makes you sound crazy,” Sherry said.
The first time Paul showed up, it was late summer. He stood silent and unmoving beneath the ancient cedar that embraced the cottage. Jana called Rachel, who worked dispatch at the sheriff’s office, and Rachel patched her through to a deputy.
“He’s within his rights to visit his own home,” the deputy said when he finally showed up four hours later. In his polyester uniform, he looked awkward and uncomfortable, sweating in the midday sun. He refused Jana’s offers of water or coffee. “Unless you have a restraining order,” the deputy continued. He frowned at Jana and then looked away. “But even if you file one, it won’t do any good. By the time we get clear out here, it will be too late.” He looked up the path toward his cruiser, which he’d left running. “Maybe you should think about moving.” He meant that the cottage, encased by huckleberry, salal, and cedar, stood an hour from the county seat. The middle of nowhere was what he meant, and it was true. By the time he got clear out there, it would be far too late.
Jana mentioned Paul’s visitations to a patient, Mrs. Doucing, a former horsewoman in her nineties who could no longer walk. Mrs. Doucing turned down the volume of Fox News, which she played at full volume every waking hour. Its menu of rape and kidnappings and violence caused Jana to say “That could be me.” Mrs. Doucing directed Jana to a nearby shelf, and behind a vase of dried hydrangea, bleached of color and covered with dust, Jana found a loaded revolver and a knife for gutting deer. She was almost ashamed to tell the fierce Mrs. Doucing that she’d never handled a gun.
“Take those, honey,” Mrs. Doucing had insisted. “You’ll need them.”
“I can’t take your stuff,” Jana said, and she was glad to hear the next aide arriving for her shift. “If I did, I’d lose my job.”
Using her entire force to lift the window that overlooked the path, Jana leaned out and spread wide her arms. “I see you, Paul,” she said. When she hiked in the mountains behind her home, she always paused at the trailhead to study the Fish and Wildlife warnings. If faced with a cougar, she should pick up small children and stand tall. Never run; a cougar’s instinct is to chase. If the cougar has a kill near its kittens, do not approach it. Try to appear large; never crouch down or try to hide. If the cougar approaches you, stay on your feet. Shout, wave your arms, and throw rocks. Convince the cougar you’re not prey. “Cougars have been driven away by people who fought back,” the sign said.
“Go home,” she called out. Paul seemed frail. She wanted to call him into the house, light oil lanterns and candles, and serve him sausage and eggs and toast on a thick white plate. She would take him into her arms in the oversized pole bed she made as a surprise for his fortieth birthday.
“This is my home,” Paul said, still staring up at her. His huge hands hung by his sides. “You stole my home, and you stole my daughter.”
“Oh Paul,” Jana said. “Go back to your apartment and get some sleep.” She shoved the window back down. “Red flags,” Rachel had said of Paul’s insistence she move into his house as soon as they met, and then again when he moved her to a trailer, before the cottage was built, while she was pregnant, out there in the middle of nowhere. She’d been embarrassed to even tell Rachel most of it, at least at first. Surely she was too intelligent and strong to be treated like this. Surely she could never confess her enormous and secret belief that she would save Paul and save Sherry, that with the power of her love she could in turn force them to love her, beyond all imagining.
It was after one of Paul’s mean streaks, as Jana preferred to call it, that Rachel tucked the Dove House brochure into Jana’s purse. “This is all adding up,” she said in her quiet voice. “You need to move into a safe house. You and Sherry.” Although Jana hid the brochure deep inside her purse, terrified Paul might see it and go into one of his furies, she never called the number.
“Sherry has the right to know her father,” Jana said. “If I stole her, I’d be the one she ended up hating.”
“They’re offering you an almost full ride,” Jana told Sherry when the offer came from Annie Wright. It wasn’t that they’d thought of applying, but Sherry scored well on a test at school, the score indicated by a battleship nudging the top of the scales. Offers started to appear in Jana’s inbox. “We’d be crazy to refuse.”
“I don’t want to go,” Sherry said. “I want to be with Tammy Lynne.” Some of the offers were from out of state, but Annie Wright was only a hundred miles away. Sherry frowned. “Anyway, this isn’t a full ride. It’s a three-quarter ride. Who’s going to pay the rest?”
“I’ll take extra shifts,” Jana said, and she had. The brochure said it took an average of seven times to leave an abusive relationship. She couldn’t wait that long. And Sherry, at least, would be safe at Annie Wright in those beautiful rooms with their gabled windows opening out over the fields and the turquoise harbor beyond. On Jana’s own first day there, a classmate asked if she was in the Social Register. “I don’t know what that is,” Jana said. Most of her classmates never spoke to her or even looked at her, but she’d loved the intensity of the classes, the sports and the clubs. She thrived on the simplicity of pulling on a uniform and the prohibition against make-up and pierced ears. She was happy to escape boys and her family.
With Sherry, it was different. The rules were less strict, and lots of girls spoke to her. They climbed into her bunk at night to snuggle. “I fall asleep to the tears of heartsick girls,” Sherry said. “I’m considered the happy one.”
Another family was leaving as Jana arrived, and she slipped inside as if she belonged. The high ceilings, leaded glass, and curving staircases were as beautiful and intimidating as they’d been the first time Jana stepped inside. She climbed the familiar staircase until she reached the top floor and hurried down the hall to Sherry’s room. She hadn’t realized how much she missed her. The door was open, and then, for far too long, she was too stunned to step inside.
By the time Jana and Sherry had located Sherry’s assigned room on the first day, three months earlier, the roommate, Ruth, had already commandeered the window side and lower bunk. Now Ruth’s half of the room was immaculate, her books in tidy rows and her bed immaculate. The other half was piled knee-high with wrinkled clothes, shoes, torn books, and crumpled papers. But more shocking was how Sherry looked. Her skin was pale as ever, and her lips painted blood red. Her large eyes were circled with violet liner and topped with shadow. It took a moment to figure out what else had changed. Sherry’s thick eyebrows were gone. In their place, she had drawn high curved arcs.
“It’s you,” Jana said, and she waded through the debris to fold her daughter into her arms, breathing in the sweet fragrance of her hair. “You smell delicious,” she said.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Sherry said.
“Where’s your roommate?”
“Her parents picked her up.” Ruth’s father was a prominent cosmetic surgeon, and her mother had the face to advertise his skill. “They’re off to some horsey thing.”
“You have your snowboard and boots?”
“I’ll rent. Let’s sign me out and go.”
For the first fifteen minutes of the drive, Sherry stared out the window. Jana knew that if she herself remained silent, Sherry would eventually talk. Allow your adolescent her transitions, her shrink lectured. This isn’t about you. And then, as Jana focused on her breath, the pick-up struck the bike, and the woman’s body contorted into a shape no human could possibly survive. Around them, traffic slowed and then stopped. When she landed, the rider’s black boots turned slightly askew.
“Let’s sing the Rubbernecker’s Song,” Sherry said as the aid cars screamed toward them. During their endless commutes when Sherry was small, the hour to the nearest store or ballet class or library, or to pick up and return friends, Jana and Sherry invented songs and games to pass the time. They scorned drivers who slowed to gawk at twisted cars and crumpled bodies, parasites who thrived on the pain of others, Jana called them, and her daughter played along because what other choice did she have.
“Rubberneckers Rubberneckers Rub-Rub-Rubberneckers,” they sang, and Jana inched along, the red flashing lights of disaster reflecting in her rear view mirror, until the cars and trucks around them picked up speed again, pushing them along as if they were cattle in a chute moving toward their own execution.
“Ruth said she feels superior to me,” Sherry said then. She turned her geisha’s face toward Jana, and her expression was wide and sweet. “She says she can’t help it; it’s just how she feels.” She closed her eyes. “She records every penny she spends in a little blue book and blasts ‘Phantom of the Opera’ by my ear when she thinks I should wake up.”
Jana glanced over. “Have you asked her to stop?” she said, and then immediately hated herself. This wasn’t about Ruth’s choice of morning music.
“Oh, I don’t care. She can’t help it. She doesn’t care if I like her or not.”
“How does she feel superior?” Jana asked. “She thinks she’s smarter?”
“Socially.” Sherry snapped down the visor, opened the mirror, and carefully reapplied lipstick.
“She said that?” The traffic was thinning now as drivers took exits to unknown destinations. “She said she is socially superior?”
“Ruth doesn’t know how to censor. That’s why she doesn’t have any friends. Except me.”
“The one she’s superior to.” Jana drove along the mostly clear highway past decaying Scotch broom, Douglas fir twisted into grotesque shapes, and endless acres of car lots. She was familiar enough with the glance Ruth’s mother had given her on orientation day, and the different, more appraising look from Ruth’s father that the mother would never see. Jana wore her own wild hair twisted into a knot at the base of her neck, and she rarely had the patience or time to apply make-up, although she liked how she looked when she did. Nor did she have the patience or skill to search through stores and figure out outfits and shoes. Even now, she preferred her uniform, which required no thought at all other than to track down something cotton that wasn’t decorated with baby animals.
“Ruth says she can’t help it, and she is really sorry, but she knows she’s better than I am.” Sherry twisted in her seat and placed her hand on Jana’s head, as if to keep her from leaping out of the car. “Am I? Am I inferior?”
“Do you think you are?”
“Don’t mirror.” Sherry pushed a button to roll down her window. The breeze tossed Jana’s hair across her face, and she pushed it aside. “I’m asking for your opinion.”
“Okay,” Jana said. “My opinion is that Ruth’s father makes shitloads of money, and her mother went to Smith.” Jana glanced at Sherry, who was again staring out the window. “Your father’s a mechanic, and I’m a home health aide. So yes, in certain worlds, Ruth would be considered superior. Those just don’t happen to be the worlds I respect.”
Sherry began her toneless hum, but somehow she seemed happy again. She smiled. “So what do you think of Ruth’s mother?”
“Your turn.” If Sherry got Jana talking about Ruth’s mother, they wouldn’t have to talk about how Sherry was already flunking her classes, what she’d done to her room and her face, or what cry for help any of this might be.
Jana surrendered. “Those little tailored shirts,” she said, smiling at her daughter. “Those perfectly matching sweaters and slacks. The scarf. Her hair always in place.” She exited the Interstate and drove into an ATM, thrust in her card, extracted a stack of bills, and stuffed them into the side pocket of Sherry’s backpack and zipped it closed. As she pulled out, she slammed on the brakes. “Shit,” she said. “Holy fucking shit.”
“I left my card in the machine.” Jana swung back into the ATM, but the card had vanished. She would have to deal with it later.
Sherry again yanked down the visor and frowned at herself in the mirror. “I like Ruth’s mother,” she said. “She just seems, like, stifled.” She licked her fingers and smoothed her hair. “It must be hard to be perfect.”
Jana pulled up in front of Tammy Lynne’s house, situated in a neighborhood of enormous houses, each almost exactly like the rest. Tammy Lynne’s mother stood on the front porch, but some reason acted as if she couldn’t see them. Pam was dressed in a pink track suit, though Jana doubted Pam ever ran anywhere, and her hair was perfectly styled. Jana leaned out her window. “Yoo hoo,” she said. “We’re here.”
Pam clutched her hands to her chest. “I am on the phone,” she said.
“And I just drove almost two hundred miles to get Sherry here for skiing. I confirmed it last night with your husband.”
“You’re late,” Pam said, glancing at her phone. “They’re getting on the ferry right now.” And she turned her back, again talking into the phone. “They’re just arriving now, Charles,” Pam said. “I told them, yes.” Pam always insisted on referring to her husband by his formal name, and a flame of anger exploded in Jana’s belly. Ruth could tell Sherry how superior she was, and maybe that was what was going on here too, but she had given up her one free day to arrange this, and she was not going to let her bright-lipped brow-plucked child be treated like this.
“You just tell your fucking husband Charlie to make the boat wait. Tell them it’s a medical emergency.” Jana skidded back toward the road. As she descended toward the dock, the last few cars filed into the open mouth of the boat waiting below.
“I can’t believe they would just leave me like this,” Sherry said in a quiet voice. “I’m sure Tammy Lynne didn’t want to. I’m sure it was just her dad. He never likes to be late for skiing.” On the middle deck, the drawbridge was still down, a few final passengers crossing beneath the watchful eye of the guard. Jana grabbed Sherry’s backpack from the back seat.
“Run,” she said. “Just run.” They dashed down the pedestrian overpass, Sherry ahead and Jana stumbling along behind, the backpack pounding into her belly with each step. Just as they reached the drawbridge, the departure whistle pierced the air, and the heavy gate that linked the overpass to the boat began to rise. Jana looked down into the churning water, and then across to where Charlie suddenly appeared beside the guard.
Charlie was laughing. It was as if the looks on their faces as they stood, panting and sweating, was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. He looked at them across the narrow crevasse, and he laughed and laughed. Tammy Lynne, tiny and blonde like her mother, stood just behind him, her sweet face stricken. The scent of salt rose from the churned and frothing water. “I told you, I hate snow,” Sherry said.
“So do I,” Jana said. She imagined how they’d spend the day together, close again, as they’d been when Sherry was little and they hiked the trails of the Cascades and Olympics, afraid of nothing. Charlie leaned toward the guard, and she nodded and then leaned over to fiddle with something. Slowly, the gate sighed back into place. Jana eased the backpack over Sherry’s shoulder, and Sherry ran across the ramp into Tammy Lynne’s arms. As the gate again rose, untethering the boat from the pier, the girls headed to the upper deck, and, still laughing, without looking back at Jana, Charlie followed. The ferry slid slowly through the narrow inlet and around the peninsula with its elegant estates. In the distance across the Sound, the Cascade foothills looked as if they were floating in mist.
After Paul moved out, Rachel told Jana she was lucky. “He can’t hurt you anymore,” she said. Yet when Jana finally arrived back at her cottage on the edge of the forest, for the rest of that day, she wandered the trails, howling from time to time, and she knew nobody would understand what, exactly, she was howling for.
Kirie Pedersen lives where she was born, just above a saltwater fjord in Washington State. Her writing appears in Quiddity Journal and Public Radio program, Eleven Eleven, Utne Reader, Rodale Press, Laurel Review (Greentower Press), R.KV.R.Y, Burrow Press Review, Foliate Oak, Juked, Pithead Chapel, Superstition Review, Agave, Eclectica, Ginosko, New Plains Review, Lunch Ticket, Cease Cows, Emrys Journal, and elsewhere. She holds a Master of Arts in writing. Links can be found at www.kiriepedersen.com