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BUS 691 by Steve Loiaconi

You make a phone call to some unlisted number whispered to you in a rain-drenched dark alley, you leave a message, use the right words, and you get a call back from a man with a stone-cold voice and one of those fakes names like criminals use in movies.

“Call me Mr. Black.”

You try not to laugh.

You tell him your story. He tells you the rules. Anonymity. Discretion. And most importantly, no matter what he says, trust him. You agree on a price that’s far lower than you’d expected. Then you hear nothing for six months. But things are happening, things you’re better off not knowing about, somewhere in some foreign country. Words like “covert ops” and “wet work,” Mr. Black tosses around. Words like “plausible deniability.”

Six months, then you get the page on the little red pager Mr. Black mailed you and told you to take with you everywhere. The coded message he promised you’d get.

“541-691-2345.”

The Eugene, Oregon bus depot. Bus 691, coming in at 11:45 pm tonight.

****

Little green numbers glow on the dashboard clock. 11:12. I look around the almost-empty parking lot and wish I hadn’t driven up here so fast. On the passenger seat lays a map of the west coast with several inches of I-5 between Sacramento and Eugene highlighted in pink. The directions printed off the public library computer are crushed into a ball on the floor of the backseat. No phones, I was told. Police can trace the phones. Sitting in this lot doing nothing but counting cars for the last half hour, my fingers tap the armrest to the beat of Christmas carols turned down low and my legs quiver like spooked cats. Artificial heat kicks softly. The music is barely audible above static and the hum of the idling engine. It’s snowing, light but steady, and it’s starting to pile up. Yellow lights flash in the rearview mirror and I hear a distant rumbling. A dirty plow shakes by, kicking up mud and ice and snow.

It’s 23 degrees outside and I’m sweating. I cough thick and heavy when I exhale. This cold I have, the cough drops, and Dayquil don’t help anymore. They just fill my throat with the sticky, numbing taste of menthol. I pull my coffee cup from its holder. I look down at my twitching hand and my trembling legs. Because what I really need right now is more caffeine, right? I gulp it down but it’s nowhere near hot.

Some silly song about angels sung by a choir on the radio.

Six years ago, I dropped Allison off at school. I never saw her again.

It was obvious what happened. I tried not to believe it then, but it was obvious. The day my ex-husband leaves for Mexico is the day my daughter disappears. Did he think I wouldn’t make the connection? Did he want me to?

The police found his car in long-term parking at the airport. He never came back for it. They followed countless leads and tips but didn’t get very far. There were always excuses. Legal loopholes. Bureaucratic hurdles. Some badge spouting the phrase “outside our jurisdiction” in my face at least once a week. Expensive lawyers billed hundreds of dollars an hour only explain to me in detail the many ways they couldn’t help me. I went on TV and did the little song and dance everyone expects the mothers of the missing to do. The holding up her picture for the cameras. The crying and pleading. I did everything you do when you can’t do anything.

A “left-behind” is what they call parents like me now.

We all try to do it the right way at first, to follow the diplomatic route, but when you’re dealing with foreign countries ruled by incompetence at best and corruption at worst, the odds are never in your favor. Eventually, you get tired of doing it the right way, and that’s about the time somebody comes along and offers to do it the wrong way.

“Kidnapping in reverse,” was how the woman described it when she stepped up behind me on the street outside a coffee shop one night. “We know who you are, Rachel, and we’ll get you what you need.” She never said who she was. She just told me about a network of ex-military types who do this for a living. Recovery agents, they like to be called. They go in, get your kid out. “By any means necessary,” she said. Then she gave me the phone number.

This is why I called Mr. Black.

I glance at the dashboard clock again.

“Silent Night” trickles from the speakers. I turn the radio off.

I take a deep breath and cut the engine. The windshield is covered with snow, the wipers frozen in place. Only the faintest traces of streetlight creep through.

I get out of the car and the cold air burns my face. The wind tries to blow me back as I cross the lot to the open bus station doors. Iced over or broken, the doors never close.

Near the entrance, I pass an old man at a little stand that, if he had any customers, would be selling candy and newspapers, wearing the sort of hat that we found in my grandfather’s basement when he died. He limps toward a lidless garbage can and spits something thick and black. I sit on a hard, rough wooden bench, careful to avoid splinters. I should have worn gloves.

The station isn’t crowded, and nobody seems to be talking. There are intermittent thumps and echoes, the sound of old hot air pumped through rusty vents. The unsettling smell of burning. A barely half-finished painting on the ceiling, what might once have been a map of the solar system. The floor is fake marble—dirty, scuffed and sticky. A janitor swabs one area in the middle of the room over and over again, constantly wetting his mop and then splashing it on the floor. He whistles “Joy to the World.”

Not the Christmas song. The one about the bullfrog.

A bus arrives outside from someplace northeast of here.

A handful of passengers scatter through the station. Some meet loved ones. Others go straight to the parking lot. One young man stands just inside the doors. He checks his watch, looks around, then checks it again. He slouches on the bench across the room.

Somewhere, not far south, Allison is traveling with a fake passport. Some made-up name that spirited her across borders, whisked her past customs agents. I hope it’s one she likes. Amelia or Faith or Suzie. Suzanne. What we could have named her.

She’s sitting on a bus out there, in a window seat, next to some frightening creature. A hulking beast of a man who’s got two shotguns in his duffle bag because sometimes you just need one for each hand. A former Green Beret or Navy SEAL. An Army Ranger. He wears camouflage jackets and pants all the time because that’s who he is and he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t look silly in it. A guy who learned how to be a hero to serve his country, then found a way to keep being one after it didn’t need him anymore because that’s all he knows how to do.

That’s what I want him to be anyway. This man with no name who Mr. Black hired for me. On paper, he doesn’t even officially exist. A walking shadow in a lawless underground.

I try not to imagine what six years with my ex-husband have done to that girl.

There’s a man asleep on a bench to my left, against the wall. He mumbles between labored snores, shivering under a torn and tattered dusty red blanket. A child’s wool hat barely covers his ears. A white beard is starting to grow from the stubble under his chin. His face is wrinkled like crumpled paper. Dirt-caked old boots sit on the floor beneath him.

A woman walks in from the parking lot, about my age, her daughter holding her hand. She brushes snow off her shoulders, does the same for the little girl. Must be about 10 years old. She unbuttons the girl’s coat. Five buttons, top to bottom. The girl wears a red velvet dress underneath that goes down to her knees. Little bows on the shoulders peek out from under the coat. She has brown curly hair, just short of shoulder length. Freckles. Blue eyes.

They stand in the doorway for a moment.

Then the guy who got off the bus with no place to go hops up from the bench. The girl runs across the room to him. Her shiny new black shoes clack along the floor. He picks her up and hugs her. He kisses the woman and all three head back out into the snow together.

There’s a clock on the wall above the closed ticket booth that doesn’t move anymore.

Right now, Allison is probably tired. She’s been traveling for at least twenty hours. Planes, buses. Maybe a train somewhere. The back of some shambled Mexican pickup truck. Hopefully not a boat. I told them she hates boats. They make her sick. And she doesn’t sleep well on long car rides. I bet she doesn’t have enough warm clothes. She’s been living in a desert.

Six years.

In my head, I’m still seeing her when she was seven. She hasn’t aged. She hasn’t changed. Except she doesn’t have her father’s eyes anymore. The way I see her, her nose looks more like mine than his now. I give her my ears too. Wipe away the traces of him. I see her in the skirt she wore on her first day of kindergarten. Floral print. Sunshine yellow dotted with red petals. A white top. An empty pink backpack hanging over her shoulders.

My girl, like she was never taken away from me.

I can’t tell anymore the difference between terrified and excited.

Minutes tick away as I attempt to calm myself, hoping that this girl’s first impression of me isn’t that her mother is a raving lunatic nutjob. I doubt having her abducted helped me much on that score. Scanning the room, I press my mind to occupy itself with anything but cold panic.

Half of the Sword of Orion fading in the ceiling paint. A fly buzzing around my face. Snow outside coming down harder. Dirt on the floor. The plow passes on another sweep through the lot. The old man on the bench shifts in his sleep. His blanket slides off. The man at the newsstand coughing into a stained handkerchief. The janitor sings softly about a drummer boy. The arrival/departure screen flashes black. The low drone of fluorescent lights above me.

Bus 691 pulls up to the station three minutes ahead of schedule. It‘d take more than I’ve got left to stop my limbs quaking, my heartbeat jackhammering and what feels like a drag race revving in my gut. I picture my ex-husband waking up alone this morning in his little Mexican shack and realizing his daughter is gone. It helps.

When people start to get off the bus, I watch for a 300-pound brick wall of a man and a gorgeous 13-year-old to enter the station together, him hovering protectively over her, a half-hidden gun under his belt emanating a pure aura of don’t-fuck-with-me that builds a perimeter of safety around her. After the bus empties and most of the passengers go off to wherever, all that remains is a thin man in a pinstriped suit leaning on an umbrella with a tense young girl standing next to him looking around the station, her movements twitchy, staccatic. I approach them. I had asked Mr. Black for some sort of code word I could use to recognize his man, like “how’s the weather in Cleveland” or “would you like a mojito” or clucking like a chicken. At the time, he just laughed at me and said, “This isn’t a game.”

So I walk up to them and say, “Did Mr. Black send you?”

His eyes sweep over the room and he whispers to me, “Did he mention the part about being discrete because of the 18 Mexican and international laws I broke to get here?”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s just that you’re just not what I expected.”

“I never am,” he says. He nudges the girl forward. “Say hello to your mother.”

Allison flashes a brief smile at me and then turns her head away.

The man says something to her in Spanish. She looks up just enough for our eyes to meet.

I hug her and her body wilts in my arms. She says “Hello” so softly I almost don’t hear her. Her voice is hoarse. She smells faintly of mint and roadkill.

“What’s wrong with her?” I say to the man.

“Probably a lot,” he says casually. “She was just kidnapped for the second time in her life. Give her a minute to adjust.”

He steps back and lights a cigarette. The blank look on her face, so far from the luminous excitement she always had when this scene played out in my mind, leaves me wasted.

“What did you do?” I ask.

“I got your girl back.” He blows smoke into the frigid air.

“How?” I say.

“If you really wanted to know,” he says as he walks toward the exit, “you wouldn’t have hired us. The police, the FBI, they explain things. We do them and we leave.”

I watch him closely, his left leg stiff and the umbrella tapping the floor with every step like a cane. He stops in the open doorway.

“Nobody’s dead,” he says over his shoulder. “If that’s what you’re worried about.” He pauses for a second and adds, “At least, I don’t think. Maybe one guy.”

“And my husband?” I ask, not sure what I want the answer to be.

“Most likely won’t be walking for a few days, but he’ll be breathing.”

At times, it hits me how far down into the deep dark I’ve let all these men drive me. He smokes stoically as a bitter wind sweeps by his face. I ask again, “What the hell did you do?”

He shakes his head slightly, as if that’s an answer. He walks toward the curb. A gray minivan pulls up. Opening the door, he turns back to me one last time, but he says nothing. Then he gets in and the car speeds away.

Allison looks up at me. I smile. Her hand in mine, I lead her out into the lot. When we reach the car, she stops by the trunk. I gesture toward the passenger side door, but Allison stares down at the slush of ice and dirt building up at our feet.

Snow falls. White flakes stick in her dark red hair.

It used to be blonde.

For the first time since she got off the bus, I take a moment to really look at her.

She wears a thin red jacket that’s long and at least two sizes too big. It’s stained black in a few places, streaks of grease or mud or worse. I can’t see much of what she’s wearing underneath except that it appears to be a faded pair of overalls that, like the jacket, are not her size.  The legs bunch up over her shoes. Dark water soaks into the cuffs. The denim is shredded around the knees and I know I’ll have to throw them out when we get home.

She had no luggage on the bus, so what I see, apparently, is everything she still has. And most of the clothes I saved for her back at the house barely even fit her when she was seven. Tomorrow or the next day, we’ll have to go shopping.

With the sleeve of my coat, I wipe snow off the driver’s side door. I unlock it and lean in to start the car, turning the key a few times before the engine finally turns over. My arm stretches across to the passenger side to unlock her door. I turn the heat on at the highest setting and an initial burst of cold air strikes me. I grab the ice scraper from behind the driver’s seat.

Barely able to see the top of her head, I say, “Get in the car, Allison.”

She doesn’t move. I shut my door and stomp through the muck over to her side. “It’s freezing out here,” I say. “Let’s go. The door’s unlocked.”

She looks up at me briefly and turns back down to the ground. While she shivers, I hear a police siren scream somewhere in the night. Eighteen laws the agent said he had broken. Maybe he was exaggerating or maybe what we’re doing is truly that wrong. Tossing the ice scraper aside, I kneel down in front of her. A cold sting runs up my leg as my pants sink into the snow. “It’s okay, Allison,” I say. I take off my heavy coat and pull her close. I drape it over her shoulders, hug her, and then stand and open her door. “Let’s go.”

She doesn’t move. My voice rises to a soft yell. “Allison. Car. Now.” Still nothing. A man, possibly a security guard watches us from the bus station entrance. Drawn in by all the noise we’re making out here in the silent storm. I whisper a harsh “Shh” to Allison like she’s the one who’s been shouting in an empty parking lot in fuck-all, Oregon after midnight. My nerves light up a frantic adrenaline rush as we stay perfectly still in this moment, the danger of it all washing over me. The man steps back into the station and out of sight. Whoever he is, he could be in there getting on a bus or buying a newspaper or waiting for someone. Or he could be calling the police.

“We’re leaving right now,” I say. My fist grabs the girl’s arm and wrenches her from the spot where she had planted herself. Her feet stumble and her legs drag across the snow. I lift her off the ground by the waist. When I swing her around, her body bounces off the car’s rear passenger door. My thick coat cushions her against the impact, but she yelps and falls. I grip her again and push her through the front door into the passenger seat. I struggle with her seatbelt as she writhes, her hand rubbing her bruised arm and her face contracted. I slam the door. The accumulated snow cascades off the window.

Inside the car, she’s looking away from me and not making a sound. My naked hand goes numb when it plunges through the snow to pick up the scraper, wrapping my fingers around the wood handle of the brush. I quickly sweep the remaining doors and the rear window, then come around to the front windshield. She gradually becomes visible as I clean her side, but when we make eye contact, she shows no reaction. Fifteen minutes together and I think I may have already lost her again. The windshield wipers are still frozen to the glass. I pick at them with the tip of the scraper, chipping away slivers of ice. After a minute or so, they’ve loosened, but they’re still stuck. My hands are sore from the effort and the exposure to the cold. The passenger side wiper seems to come free, but the driver’s side won’t budge. On my next swing, the scraper’s jagged edge snaps off and the plastic skitters along the hood of the car. I watch it settle atop a pile of snow glistening under the headlights. I bash the handle and brush against the side of the car and hurl it across the lot. Inside the car, her face is white noise.

I step away from the vehicle into the flickering glow of a dying streetlight and take a moment to breathe. When I look back, she’s watching me through her window. I hurry around the car to the driver’s side and get in. I don’t know how many times I say I’m sorry but she’s not listening anyway. Her gaze fixes on the dashboard, trance-like. She flinches when I reach for her and touch her cheek. I turn her head to face me, ready to apologize again, but I don’t bother.

I just run my hand through the damp strands of her long red hair, doing my best to shake out some of the lingering snowflakes.

I put the car in reverse. The tires spin furiously, fighting to gain traction.

As I shift into drive, I say to her, “Your name is Allison. You were born in Sacramento. I’m your mother. Everything is going to be okay.”

I can tell from the effort she puts into avoiding eye contact, looking away, looking down, that she doesn’t believe any of it. Driving out of the parking lot, the snow falls lighter now.

The one thing everybody always told me, even Mr. Black, is not to expect my daughter to be the same as she was. They talk about trauma and abuse. The horror stories. They tell me about kids gone less than a year who can’t even speak English anymore when they’re found. The ones who grow up thinking that living on the run—motel to motel, everything they own in one cramped, worn-out suitcase, their father barking at them to get their asses in the rental car before the police arrive—they think that’s what life is. That’s their normal. Sometimes they never recover. “Your daughter might not be your daughter anymore,” is the way Mr. Black put it.

It’s a long drive home.

The first hour or so passes in silence. She sleeps, her head leaned against the window, my balled-up coat as a makeshift pillow resting between her and the glass. She shifts slightly every few minutes, giving me brief snaps of hope that she might be turning around to talk to me, but she just lays there wrapped in closed-eyed quiet. There’ll be time for all of that later.

The Corolla rolls down I-5 South. It’s past two in the morning in the mountains a hundred miles from the Oregon-California border. I only allow myself to drive a few miles over the speed limit, well aware of the dangers of being pulled over in the middle of the night while carrying a bruised teenage girl who will adamantly insist I’m not her mother. The radio is off, my effort to provide her peace to sleep in and to save myself from hearing yet another rendition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by some fading pop star. Mile after mile passes. Nothing but snow, darkness and trees.

She stirs, yawns and turns toward me. I smile at her. She doesn’t smile back.

“You can turn on the radio,” I say. “If you want.”

When she doesn’t move, I reach for the dial and turn up the volume myself.

“This time of year, it’s mostly just Christmas crap.” I cycle through the preset stations, finding only the same handful of novelty songs and empty hymns that seemed to be in a perpetual loop during the drive up. “I don’t know what kind of music you like anymore.”

The dial hits on something tolerably festive and mercifully instrumental. After a moment, her fingers stop the music. Her head rolls back to the window. “My shoulder hurts,” she says.

“Oh, where does it hurt, honey?” I place my hand on her arm. She doesn’t immediately pull away, which, at this moment, I interpret as an encouraging sign of progress.

“It hurts where you pushed it into the side of the car.”

Up ahead, I see the flashing hazard lights of an SUV on the shoulder of the highway. I slow down but I don’t stop. A man on his knees tries to change a tire in the snow, likely ruining the tuxedo he’s wearing, while a woman in a long white dress yells at him.

In the rearview mirror, they fade into the night. “You understand,” I say to Allison, “we’ve got six or seven more hours in this car.”

She nuzzles her head deeper in my coat.

“My dad will probably pay whatever you ask,” Allison says into the coat. I keep my eye on the road. She faces me after a moment. “To get me back, I mean. He’ll pay you.”

“What?”

“He’s got lots of money. And a really nice car. It’s fast and the roof comes off. He used to let me sit on his lap and steer sometimes when I was little.” She pauses, then hurriedly adds, “My mom didn’t like it when he did that.”

My mom, she said, like whatever slut her father hooked up with down there has taken my place. My hands strangling the steering wheel, I look directly into her eyes. My mom. Slowly, forcefully, I tell her, “I’m your mother. You were born in Sacramento. Your father took you away from me six years ago. I’m your mother.”

Her neck cranes up for a minute, her brow furrowed. She glances around the car and then back at me. “You should watch where you’re going when you’re driving,” she says.

I shift my focus back to the highway as we approach a sharp turn and swing the wheel hard to the right, swerving, skidding on ice, the wheels rumbling along the shoulder. She grips the fabric of her seat with her little fingers, closes her eyes and clenches her teeth. I bring the wheel back around and steady the car before speeding up again. She loosens her hold on the seat.

“Thank you,” I say, searching for that not-too-patronizing tone I think mothers naturally develop when they talk to children often enough. “You were right. That was irresponsible of me. When you start driving, you shouldn’t do that.”

We pass mile markers that mean nothing to me and exits for cities and towns I’ve never heard of. Mountains loom over us, blocking out what little moonlight and starlight shines on the desolate highway. After a few minutes of awkward quiet, I reach for the radio dial again. As I’m about to turn it on, she says, “Are you going to kill me?” I slowly pull my hand back from the radio. “Because you shouldn’t. My dad has lots of money.”

“You already told me that,” I say. How did my husband become successful at anything?

“Well, it’s really a lot,” she counters with saleswomanly enthusiasm.

“I’m your mother,” I say, taking hold of her hand. She doesn’t recoil, but her face tenses up and her eyes mist. “I’m not going to kill you, I’m not going to hurt you and I’m not holding you for ransom. Why would you ever think that?”

“You kidnapped me,” she says.

“I did not kidnap you,” I say, fumbling for some other words to describe it. I let out a loud sigh and flick on my right turn signal. I pull over onto the shoulder. The car rattles as it comes to a stop, slightly tilted along the side of a steep bank of plowed snow. The only sounds I hear are the wind whipping by and her sniffling.

“Allison—” I say.

She interrupts me. “My parents call me Molly. It was my grandmother’s name.”

“No, it wasn’t. Your name is Allison. I am your mother. My mother is your grandmother.”

“I want to go home,” she says.

“We’re only a few hours away, sweetheart.” Her head drops in response and she turns back to the window again. “Oh. Now, come on. You can’t tell me you really liked living like that with him. With that man in Mexico doing god-knows-what? Really?”

Her face rises, and I see a faded reflection in the window, her eyes squinting but focused, like she’s working out complex math in her head. “I’m from Wisconsin,” she says finally.

I shrug as my mind cycles through all of the lies he must have made her believe. How long it’s going to take to fix her. The world she needs to relearn. “Is that what he told you?”

“We went to Mexico for vacation,” she says, now looking at me.

“For the last six years?”

“We were there for two weeks.”

Wisconsin. I don’t doubt she believes it. “Christ,” I say, shaking my head, “what the hell did that bastard do to you?”

“He woke me up at night and covered my mouth and told me he’d kill me if I screamed.”

“See?” My lips curl into a soft guilty smile. “This is the kind of man your father is. Right there. And you really wanted to stay with him?”

“And,” she continues, “then he made me ride in the trunk of his car for hours and hours. He put tape on my mouth and I couldn’t breathe. It was cold in there. And then we got on a bus and he told all these people I was his niece. And then he brought me to you.”

She’s silent for a minute. Then she speaks, stuttering with hesitation. “My father took three weeks off from work and he took me and my mom and my sister to a really big resort in Mexico. They had big swimming pools and a water slide.” She looks out the window in all directions and then up at the sky. “Where are we?”

“Oregon,” I say. I look at her eyes with more focus than I had earlier. I don’t see myself or her father in them. There’s none of me left in her face at all. “We’ve never been here before.”

“Are you lost?” Her eyes drift to the folded-up map stuffed between her seat and the arm rest. I shift the car into drive, hoping the forward motion gives her some confidence that I know what I’m doing. Something about those eyes continues to gnaw at me.

“We’re exactly where we’re supposed to be,” I say as I pull back onto the road. One headlight shines in the side view mirror, rapidly growing brighter. I swerve back onto the shoulder as a motorcycle blows past us in the right lane.

She unravels my coat and covers herself with it, leaning back in the seat and closing her eyes. After a few minutes, her breathing is low and steady and I doubt she’s still awake. I study her features again. Her nose is curved in an unfamiliar way and her ears are just a bit bigger than they should be. Everything else is her, though. For what that’s worth.

“I know this all seems wrong,” I say to a sleeping face I can’t recognize. “It is. All of it.”

She sags in her seat as she sleeps. Her open mouth inhales and exhales. She’s beautiful in her own way. Molly, she said her name is. All of these things I’m going to have to teach her about herself before we can live a normal life. My heart pulsates and my skin tingles. The Allison I remember flashes in my eyes, followed by some family in Mexico yelling at police officers and forcing photos of their daughter in their faces. The girl here next to me sleeping under my coat.

Headlights illuminate a green sign marking the approaching exit for someplace called Grants Pass. Hopeful at the prospect of seeing anything more than this girl and these endless overhanging trees, I press my foot on the gas, signal my turn to nobody, and drift onto the off-ramp.

The car ambles along the road out of the woods and into what I would guess passes for downtown, where we’re immediately greeted by the towering presence of a large caveman. Frozen in mid-stumble, he slouches toward the highway with a heavy club dragging from his left hand. His other arm is almost inverted, bent in ways humans aren’t able to anymore. A toga made of fake brown fur is slung over his chest. He looks up to the northern sky from his stone pedestal, surrounded by dead trees and fast food restaurants that have already closed for the night.

I slow down to gape at the intricate detail chiseled into the muscles of his bulging neck and his Neanderthal face, the complexity of motion the artist captured. Allison swivels in my direction. Even with her eyes closed, I feel her staring at me. The car creeps into a wide parking space in the lot behind the statue. For the moment, the snow has stopped, and the air is still.

I open the door and step out into the cold, leaving the engine running and the heat on to keep her comfortable while I look down the street into the heart of the town. A block away, a large incandescent box on the sidewalk strikes my eye. Hugging myself for warmth, I move closer to it. Christmas lights flashing, creating a mural of a red-nosed reindeer leading Santa’s sleigh through the snowy sky over mountains and the roofs of houses with smoking chimneys.

In the middle of a city block, lit up like a car on fire, the massive display almost twice my height bleeds familiar holiday music from its sides. The lighting changes constantly, timed to produce the blinking illusion of snowfall, the reindeer coming at you, Santa’s silhouette eclipsing the moon. My instinct is to run back to the car and call my daughter over, to show her the way the pattern of the lights tells the story. I study it alone instead. Up ahead, with so few cars parked on the snowy street, I can see the glimmer of other murals that litter the sidewalks, brightening the path to whatever lies at the other end of the road.

When I return to the car, she’s is awake, fiddling with the radio dials and listening to a news station weather report. A meteorologist reads through the week’s forecast with a distinct unearned confidence.

“My dad has lots of money,” Allison says as I put my seatbelt on.

“Well, I don’t, and I don’t want to, so you can stop saying that.” She frowns, then drops her head into her hands, her fingers tangling her long hair. I reach over and pat her sore shoulder. “Hey. Hey. Listen to me. It doesn’t matter what your father told you. It doesn’t matter what you remember. I am your mother. Okay? You’re going to have to trust me, sweetie.”

She sits up and looks forward, her eyes open wide. My coat rolls off of her knees onto the floor. Watching her stare out to some unseen horizon beyond these barren streets, aching to convince myself there’s some truth in my own words, the singular fear I can’t escape is that someday someone’s going to sneak into my house in the night, and tear her away from her bed. This girl in my daughter’s room.

“We’re going to make this work,” I say, pushing that thought aside. “You and me.”

Deeper into town, we pass under a banner that spans the width of the street. It welcomes us to Grants Pass, declaring in big blue block letters: “It’s the climate!” I drive slowly amid rows of coffee shops and bookstores and antique dealers and small restaurants, metal gates pulled across most of their storefronts to protect them in the dark. A large neon sign above a 24-hour diner—hot pink but with too many letters burned out to be sure of what it once spelled.

“Are you hungry?” I ask. She shakes her head.

I scour each intersection for the sign that will lead us back to the highway.

Steve, 39, lives in Washington, DC. He is a journalist and a graduate of George Mason University MFA program.

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