“I have to do the wee,” announced the child.
“You have to make a wee,” her mother said. “And I asked you before we got in the car, remember? It’s too late for that now. You can go at the gym.”
“I have to do the wee,” the child repeated.
“How many times am I going to tell you—”
“It’s go wee, I’ve always thought,” Richard put in affably. “And it’s no problem, Maya. We have plenty of time.”
“You spoil her,” said the mother. “You spoil that little terrorist.” She reached over and gave his thigh a squeeze, which hurt a little. “Brooklyn! What do you say to Richard?”
“I have to do the wee.”
“Here’s a Hardee’s,” said Richard. “Let’s all do the wee!”
He’d always made a little show—a considered performance, teasing but understated—of joking with children: It was a way of demonstrating, to them and to himself, that he meant them no harm. He meant them no harm, and he often found them tedious, and he wasn’t afraid of them—not in the slightest. It was he who had authority over his mind and his body, not the children around him. Not even the most beautiful. He could take them or leave them alone.
His hands, for example, did nothing without his direction. At present he was directing them to turn the wheel vigorously to the right, then to release it incrementally, then to grip it again, comfortably but firmly, as he backed up between a snowdrift and a tank-sized SUV. He considered the scene as if in retrospect: a late-nineties Suburban, carbuncled with rust, coming to a precise, unhurried stop. The mother’s Suburban, not Richard’s. His own car was a gently used Volvo V90, crate-like and professorial and safe. No model could have been more appropriate to his income and ethnicity and station. He’d taken great care about that.
“As long as we’re here,” said the mother, as he held the door of the Hardee’s open for her, “we might as well pick up some Crispy Curls.”
“Crispy Curls?” said Richard, pointing out the bathroom to the child. When she kept still, she was more like her mother than most children are—most nine-year-old children, at least—but when she moved she was a different child entirely. She moves knowingly, he said to himself. He understood this thought to be a falsehood but he chose not to correct it. He liked the way it sounded in his mind.
“They’re like the regular curly fries,” said the mother, “but tiny. I love those kinds of things. It’s like a fetish.”
“What kind of things?” Richard said absently, watching the child. She’d reached the door to the restroom and was pulling it open with her chapped, nail-bitten fingers.
“Small things. Cute stuff, you know? Minis.”
“Is that right?”
“Everything is cuter when it’s little, don’t you think?” the mother said, holding her hand out to him.
Now Richard looked at her. At Maya. She has a name, he told himself severely. A beautiful name. Maya was gazing dreamily past him at the backlit à la carte display above the heads of the cashiers, her lips tightly pursed. She was dear to him, she was all that he had in the world, but he couldn’t bring himself to take her hand.
“I’ll take that as a no,” she said, turning back to the counter.
He said her name under his breath, slowly and soundlessly, as though they’d just met. Maya Jessica Davis. He tried to imagine her as she might have looked at the child’s age and failed, as he knew that he would. He succeeded so rarely—usually late at night, when everything was warm and dim and blurred along the edges—and then only for a moment. In time, of course, it wouldn’t be enough.
“This kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?” he said.
“Eating at Hardee’s on the way to spin class.”
The damage was done in an instant. The child emerged from the restroom to see her mother lumber out onto the curb with quaking shoulders, overacting as always, an arm held out in front of her as though the light had gone out of the world. The child took in the performance—her mouth slightly open, the faintest hint of pleasure at the corners of her eyes—then turned to him to see what might come next.
Meeting the child’s gaze, Richard felt a sudden, violent twinge of hope. He permitted the feeling to make the full circuit of his body, putting up no resistance. He hadn’t done anything yet.
“What happened to her?” said the child.
They watched the Suburban’s lights come on, the two of them together, in unspoken solidarity.
“She’s always upset,” the child mumbled. “She’s been upset forever.”
“You know what?” said Richard. “What the heck. Let’s grab a box of Crispy Curls to go.”
The Crispy Curls proved his next miscalculation. The mother simply batted them aside. They’d progressed, in semiotic terms, from referent to symbol, both to the mother and—if he was honest about it—to Richard himself. But a symbol of what, exactly?
He might have asked this question of his undergrads, if he’d still had any undergrads to ask. Discuss, he’d have said, smiling at them blandly, then crossing his legs and letting his eyes glaze over. As he sat behind the wheel of the idling Suburban, watching the mother make a sullen exhibition of unseeing the manifest object, he allowed himself to imagine the case study it might present for the Introduction to Postwar European Thought seminar he was no longer teaching at the nationally ranked private university within a stone’s toss of the Hardee’s lot. He missed his old milieu, soul-killing though it was; he could admit it now, if only to himself. The pleasure of dissecting the minutiae of the Frankfurt School, for example, with a roomful of openly hostile second- and third-year Comp Lit majors, was akin to the pleasure he’d taken, as a child, in worrying a loose and tender tooth. It was a sadomasochistic transaction, a de facto death ritual, and his students had resented him accordingly. He’d never seen any cause for concern in that—quite the opposite, in fact. It struck him as appropriate and just.
Eventually, however, this resentment had risen, sap-like, from his students to his colleagues to the chair of the department, and his application for tenure was regretfully denied. There was no word of warning, no off-the-record chat in the excellent on-campus café: He’d simply been told, at the end of the semester (his seventh), that he wouldn’t be required in the fall.
He’d suspected, at first—how could he not have suspected?—that he’d been fired because they’d somehow found him out. They had seen it in his expression in a louche, unguarded moment; they had felt it in the slackness of his handshake, that classic “tell”; they’d smelled it rising off him like a musk. There seemed to be no other explanation. He managed to convince himself, if only briefly, that he’d already been judged and found guilty, and even found the courage to feel indignation at the notion that his thoughts—call them fantasies, by all means, if it please the court—had been inspected and summarily condemned. It was exquisitely painful to see suspicion colonize his colleagues’ earnest, well-bred features, to see disquiet take the place of plain good faith, to hear the tinnitus-like ring of their unspoken reservations behind even the most trivial exchanges. But he was not a neurotic man by nature, and eventually a simpler, more plausible truth occurred to him. No one had seen into his thoughts—no one had felt the need to look so closely. He was a moderately able lecturer, with an undistinguished publication history and no true affinity for his vocation. Simply put, his students could take him or leave him alone.
By the time the Suburban pulled up in front of the terrarium-like façade of For Your Body Only, the mother’s anger at him had segued into revulsion at herself, as he’d expected it to. There was no cause for concern after all, thank heaven; there would be no change in prevailing conditions. It was snowing again. The grease-flecked paper bag sat untouched on the floor next to her green leg warmers (her teal leg warmers, she never failed to correct him), and she pulled them on and left the car like someone in a trance. No one ever wore leg warmers to spin class, much less to Bikram, but Maya did. God alone knew why. Richard followed her progress until she’d passed out of sight, afraid to the last instant that she might turn and come back to the car.
When at last she was gone, gone beyond any doubt, he felt his head and chest go cold and light. The bag remained on the floor, where her feet had just been, and he forced himself to look at it and nothing else—to follow the contours of each spot of grease, to let the world go quiet: an exercise in discipline and calm. There was a term for this, he knew (not that it mattered). The mother had books on the subject, a stack of them on her bedside table, among her supplements and dream catchers and opals. What was the term? He closed his eyes and let it come to him. A meditation of the outer way. See the bag, observe the bag, behold the bag to the exclusion of all else. He folded the bag in half and smoothed it flat against his thigh and waited for the child to come up front.
“Where to now?” she said, pulling the door shut behind her. The car seat barely gave under her weight.
“Back to Hardee’s!” said Richard, playing the buffoon.
She rolled her eyes at him. “Not to Hardee’s. To Lucy’s.”
“What’s Lucy’s?” He thought hard for a moment. “Not that place in the mall? The one with the candles?”
The child shrugged her shoulders.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Richard. “It’s snowing right now, which I think is a cool thing. What do you think about it?”
“I’ve got sleds in the back,” he said, feeling his mouth going dry. “I thought it might snow, so I brought sleds along.” He was repeating himself. “Have you ever been sledding?”
Never had the child looked so much like her mother as she did at that moment. He watched her in the rearview—he couldn’t have looked straight at her, not then—and what he saw there made him want to cry aloud. She was frowning and squirming and covering her ears with her mittens. Apparently sledding appalled her.
They were still idling in front of For Your Body Only. The child’s seat belt was unfastened. She could slip out the door in an instant.
“All right, then! Lucy’s it is. But I’d just like to say—”
“Maya took me sledding,” the child said. “I like it.”
He sat up straight and cleared his throat and shifted into drive.
The city fell away preposterously quickly. They drove out past the park and the university and the terra-cotta hulk where they’d built cars of some kind in the last century—much grander and sleeker than the Suburban, or his frumpy, graceless Volvo—whose name he could never remember. The mall came and went without comment. They’d never been left alone, not for more than five minutes, and now they were as alone as two people could be. They had nearly two hours. Richard expressed it to himself in exactly those terms, repeating it silently in what Maya, God bless her, would have referred to as a mantra: We have nearly two hours. He saw the child, in his brighter moods, as a coconspirator, and his current mood was as bright as it could be. We have nearly two hours.
“I thought we were going sledding,” said the child.
“Of course we are. The sleds are in the back.”
“Park’s not this way. This is out toward the farm.”
“Farm?” said Richard, smiling helplessly. He’d never heard of any kind of farm.
She nodded. “My cousins live there.”
The possibility that the woods they were approaching had significance for her—that she knew them, perhaps, better than he did himself—darkened Richard’s state of mind at once. He said the first thing that entered his head.
“When I was small, like your age, I went sledding so much. I had my own sled, a Flexible Flyer—the kind with the rails on the side. The kind you see in old movies. Ever heard of a Flexible Flyer?”
The child didn’t seem to be listening. “Uh huh.”
“It was anything but flexible—ridiculous name—but it sure as hell flew. I took it out all the time. There was a hill by our house—we lived on a farm too—and I went there every day, by myself. Every day that I could. Do you want to know why?”
“Why,” said the child, yawning into the glass.
“Because I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop once I’d started. I’d stay out until dark, till my father came for me. He was angry every time, every day, and he beat me for it. But I kept right on going. I couldn’t seem to think about anything else, not even at night. I’d lie there and think about my Flexible Flyer, out all by itself in the garage. It made me sick to think about it, to think about time going by—to think about it waiting for me, out there in the dark. But that was the only way that I could fall asleep.”
The child was watching him now. “Why?”
“I hit a tree once. The only tree on the whole hill. Not by mistake, or because I was upset—I wanted to hit it. I’d spent so much time and effort missing it, steering around it, on so many thousands of runs. I wanted to see what would happen. It was a spruce, I remember, with fat silver needles. It knocked the wind out of me and bent the left rail of the Flyer. It tore the bottom half of my right ear.” He brushed his hair back to show her the scar. “I couldn’t ride the Flyer after that, but that was all right. I didn’t have to ride it. I’d finally seen, or perhaps understood is the better word—”
“There’s the farm,” said the child.
He followed the line of her sight to a double-wide trailer at the low point of a sloping, cluttered lawn. It was no more a farm than the house he’d grown up in had been. There were three snowmobiles in the drive, but no cars. Snowmobiles had always made him apprehensive.
“Should we drop in?” he found himself asking, wondering what the hell he’d do if she agreed. “Should we pay them a visit, these cousins of yours?”
She shook her head. “I hate those sons of bitches.”
He hadn’t looked at her yet—not directly, not once—but he looked at her now. She was sitting upright in her seat, staring blankly ahead, the way he pictured her sitting in class. She went to an all-girl’s school, middlebrow but expensive, slightly more than the mother could comfortably pay. That sort of thing was important to Maya, crystals and kaftans and koans notwithstanding: the all-girl’s school, the prewar charm, the discipline, the worsted tartan skirts. Why on Earth was he thinking about Maya now? Because thinking about her reassured him, even then, even there, grotesque though that was. It was agreeable to think about her, here at this comfortable distance: to imagine her huffing and grunting through Bikram and spin class at For Your Body Only, nursing her grievance with him until it lost its last savor, like a wad of old gum—chewing it well beyond the point of pleasure. It was easier to think about the mother than to think about the child.
He looked at her again. If she sensed his eyes—what his students would have called his “gaze”—on her, she gave no sign. She was wearing the teal high-tops Maya had given her and her tiger-stripe leggings and her sequined beret and a coat that hid her torso like a disassembled tent. Her arms were inside, pulled all the way in, doing who knows what inside its quilted dimples. It was torture to him that he couldn’t see them. His imagination, normally so strident, so relentless, had suddenly failed him utterly. He entertained the possibility that he himself was the cause, that she was trying to hide her body from him—but that was the old way of thinking again. Excitement was the catalyst, the triggering agent of his paranoia; he knew that from experience. The child’s sight was trained on the road ahead, on a fixed point in front of the Suburban’s grille, as though to ward off car sickness. She was lost in thought and he remained unseen.
He found himself thinking of Maya again, recollecting her fondly, generously, as though she were some tragic figure of his past. He’d been out of work for eight weeks when he’d found her—he’d met her online, there was no shame in that—and immediately, as if by some form of hypnosis, had stopped wallowing in his anger and self-pity. Maya had been the one to find him, actually: She’d responded to one of his wry little posts, passed along to her—for what earthly reason, he couldn’t recall—by some not-quite-friend of his in the department. He had put her off at first, needless to say. Nothing about her had appealed to him. These women, he’d said to himself, as he clicked through her handful of family selfies. These divorced, skittish women who post pictures of their children in their profiles—sometimes only their children—hoping to discourage the wrong kind of man. These women who use their children as a filter. What does that say about them?
As for Maya, she regarded her daughter as a burden she was privileged to bear. Her entire sense of self derived from this, Richard recognized: She drew power from the wrong that had been done her. “My carry-on,” she sometimes called the child, though never, of course, in her hearing. “My little fuck-up. My sweet exhibit A.” Her daughter was no worse behaved than any other child—better, in Richard’s experience—but her mother would never acknowledge this fact. At times the child appeared aware of the futility of any attempt that she might make at good behavior, and acted out accordingly; but even the worst of her tantrums struck Richard as an overture, a form of echolocation, a way of finding her way forward through the dark. The mother fussed over her daughter’s clothes and hair, sometimes for hours on end, but she seemed to have no interest in her moods. Maya’s child was an abstraction to her.
“What’s that noise?” the child said suddenly.
As the rearview filled with streaks of strobing blue and crimson light, beautiful in its way, Richard heard the same voice that he always heard when taken by surprise. Pay attention, it said. This is happening now. The voice was his own, though his father’s ran through it, and a trace of his mother’s, and the singsong of a sports announcer from his childhood. Pay attention now, Richard. A moment of dumbness, of animal freedom. A purely reactive moment, here and gone. He lifted his foot from the pedal. He heard three clipped squawks, like the toot of a stadium air horn: a sound he’d always understood as cheerful. The lights, the commotion, the flickering mirrors. The car became a kind of discotheque.
The child turned in her seat and gawked wide-eyed behind her. He was already finding the shoulder, frowning good-naturedly, the concerned citizen, the taxpayer, his grip on the wheel steady as ever. Interpretation would come. Pay attention now, Richard. He brought the Suburban smoothly to a stop.
“What is it?”
“No big whoop,” he said. “This shouldn’t take a minute.”
“It’s the police.”
“No big whoop.”
“It is a whoop,” she said. She sounded happy.
“Listen to me, Brooklyn. I want you—”
“It’s a lady police. Here she comes. Look at her walk! She’s a chubber.”
“A chubber like Maya.”
“Listen to me,” he said, taking her by the shoulder. It was the first time he’d touched her. She was hard to keep hold of through the tent of her coat and he gripped her shoulder harder than he’d meant to. Much harder.
“Listen to me, Brooklyn. I’m going to roll down this window and answer her questions and you’re going to zip it. You’re going to zip it, do you hear me? You’re going to sit right there and smile at her and not say a goddamn thing unless I tell you. Understood?”
He’d thought she might squirm under his grip, or cry out, or complain, but she frowned at the floor and said yes sir, and that she was sorry. She’d been gripped hard before, it was clear—by her father, perhaps, or some transient other—and the thought of this affected Richard strangely. He said her name just as the tap came on his door.
“License and registration?” said the officer as soon as the window had come open. It was odd how she said it—gently, interrogatively, as if he might have opted out of the transaction. She looked too old to talk in questions, ten years out of school at least, but he’d always had trouble with heavyset women. Their abundance perplexed him.
“License and registration,” the officer repeated, looking past him at the child.
“That’s right,” Richard answered, for no reason whatsoever, relaxing his grip on the wheel. When the papers had been found and duly turned over, the officer stepped away from the window, holding the registration up to catch the light. Her breath came in asthmatic-sounding sucks. She breathes like a pervert, thought Richard. He couldn’t help smiling.
“What are you grinning at?”
“Not a thing, officer. I smile when I’m nervous. I’ve never actually been—”
“This vehicle is registered to Maya Kowalczyk.”
“That’s right. She’s at spin class. She’s spinning.”
“I’m her husband,” said Richard. “And this is our girl.”
No one spoke for a moment. “Is that a fact?” said the officer, looking past him again. She ducked her head slightly. “And what might your name be, little lady?”
The child stared at the floor between her feet.
“Her name’s Brooklyn,” said Richard. “Brooklyn Lindsey Kowalczyk. Daughter of Maya.”
“I’m asking her, not you, Mr., uh—” she squinted at his license. “Mr. Ossenbach.”
“I’m terribly sorry. Brooklyn, would you please—”
The officer held up a hand. “Do you have any idea why I pulled you over, Mr. Ossenbach?” Her face wore a searching expression, as if she were retrieving some half-buried memory.
“—I don’t,” he murmured.
“Ossenbach,” the officer repeated. There was no trace of girlishness in her manner now. He found himself searching his own memory, ransacking it for her likeness, although the last time had been years before and in another state. It had been nothing to speak of—public intoxication, indecent exposure—but it had been the furthest he’d gone, the freest he’d been, the most he’d ever dared. He’d pulled down his swim trunks as a bus full of children went by. The sensation had been almost spiritual in nature: a rush of relief, of release, of long-due recognition. At last, he’d thought, as they’d wedged him into the back seat of the cruiser. It had happened at last. It had moved beyond the realm of possibility.
“Mr. Ossenbach,” came the officer’s voice. “I’m going to ask you to step out of the vehicle.”
Such a strange way of putting it, Richard thought. They have their own language. She’s not going to ask me; she’s asking me now. Right away. He got out of the car.
“Put your hands on the hood and place your feet apart. Look straight ahead.”
He couldn’t look straight ahead. He looked instead through the cracked, bug-spattered windshield at the child. She returned his look, her expression strangely clouded. Her eyes were fixed on a point, as near as he could tell, between his forehead and the middle of his nose. Her chapped lips were drawn inward, and he could tell, though she kept her mouth perfectly still, that she was running her tongue back and forth across them. He could detect no other sign that she was anxious.
Very gradually, as Richard watched, the child worked her arms into her parka’s sleeves. They squirmed as they filled, like two enormous, jet-black caterpillars; then her plump hands emerged, chapped and pale and precise. The smile she gave when this was done was directed not at Richard or at the officer behind him but at herself—at her reflection in the passenger-side rearview mirror. He could not have said why this filled his heart with fear.
“What’s going to happen?” said Brooklyn. To the officer, not to Richard. She’d slid into the driver’s seat now and was resting one arm on the top of the wheel, the way her mother sometimes did when she was smoking. The officer was still frisking him, still patting him down, and Brooklyn was watching her do it. She was watching with interest. He groaned and forced himself to look away.
“What’s going to happen?” the child said again.
“We’ll get you home soon, honey.”
“To Richard, I mean.”
He kept his sight trained on the pitted, rust-marked hood. Brooklyn’s small voice was clear; he decided she was leaning out the window. The officer didn’t answer. She took two steps away from him and told him to stay as he was. I’m going to ask you to stay as you are, Mr. Ossenbach. He nodded without looking back.
The simple fact that I’m keeping quiet, that I’m not putting up a fight, must strike her as an admission of guilt, Richard thought. All she’s wondering at this point is which kind. Her partner is running my license, and she’s killing time, keeping her eye on me from a secure distance, waiting for the results to come in. It was soothing to imagine the procedure. They go to school for this, he reminded himself. That’s where they learn the language, the protocol, the appropriate and efficient use of force.
He’d once read, in a chatroom—a chatroom! did those still exist?—that the surest sign of guilt, in a suspect, was to fall asleep immediately after his arrest. An innocent man will rage and curse and shake the bars, demand another call, abuse his guards, throw up into the seatless aluminum toilet; the perpetrator, on the other hand, has imagined this turn of events countless times. He feels satisfied, on some subconscious level, that the inevitable has come to pass: It makes sense to him. The tense, endless waiting is done. He lies down in his cell and falls asleep.
But he, Richard Bingham Ossenbach, was not a perpetrator. Not in the eyes of the law. The chatroom in question had been a forum for like-minded persons, a file-sharing platform—and though sites of that kind were prohibited now, they’d been perfectly legal at the time. He himself had never offered any information, never shared any files; he’d been a fly on the wall in that chatroom, titillated and sickened by turns, convincing himself, as best he could, that what he read there was more than idle, boastful talk. He was there because he hadn’t done it, not because he had. He’d still been too afraid, too divided, too scandalized by his own thoughts and inclinations. He hadn’t recognized himself in the threads he’d read so avidly: He was different in some way he couldn’t name. His thoughts were his own, even his most contemptible; to act was to share them, if only with the object of the act. He’d never wanted to share them before. Not sincerely, not wholly.
Not until he’d seen the child.
“Spread your feet wider, please. Keep your hands on the hood.”
What would he tell them, he allowed himself to wonder, when they finally brought him in? He pictured two low chairs and a Formica-topped table, the obligatory drop-ceilinged room. Not the wheezing, awkward officer anymore, but a pair of men in loose, unfashionable suits, their shoes scuffed, their ties knotted too thickly. One silent, one shouting. No—not shouting at all. Speaking to him in a disappointed voice.
What were you going to do, Mr. Ossenbach, once you’d pulled the car over? When you got up your courage? When you finally arrived at that place in the woods?
Snow was falling again, not gracefully or gently but in clumps that seemed to sizzle on the hood. He raised his head, half-expecting to find himself alone on the highway, and saw the officer and child in conversation. They kept their heads close together, leaning toward one another, like conspirators in some amateurish play. Nothing was real suddenly. Nothing was convincing. The officer had one fist braced against the car’s rust-rimmed door and the other on the buckle of her belt. They were discussing him, that much was obvious, though he couldn’t make out more than one word in a dozen. Hardee’s. Snowmobile. Flyer. Mother. From time to time the officer would glance at him—grudgingly, it seemed—and raise two fingers, like a bishop in a painting. It was the child who did most of the talking. The officer mostly nodded, listening closely. Her left thumb fiddled with the brass snap of her holster.
The marvelous thing about certainty, Richard realized, is that it leaves so little room to be afraid. It wasn’t fear that kept him fixed in that pathetic attitude. And yet he couldn’t have gotten up to save his life.
“Stand up, Mr. Ossenbach,” the officer said.
As easily as that the spell was broken. He turned around slowly, although he hadn’t been told to. He looked past the Suburban at the patrol car behind it. The second officer, an enormous pink-skinned man, was coming swiftly toward them up the shoulder of the highway. He seemed to be limping.
“Mr. Ossenbach? Are you listening?”
“I’m sorry, officer. What were you saying?”
“I was asking you to accept my apologies. We’re looking for someone, a home invader, that’s driving a similar model.”
“How are you feeling, Mr. Ossenbach? Would you like to take hold of my arm?”
They were beside him now, both of them, guiding him upward. He felt frightened again, much more than before, because of his total lack of understanding.
“I’ll be all right,” he murmured, and started to cry.
“It’s all right, Mr. Ossenbach. Deep breaths now. That’s the ticket. We’re just about there.”
He did as he was told, breathed in as they instructed, feeling as hollow and translucent as an eggshell. The packed snow beneath him seemed to squeal in pain and anger. He did his best to focus on the sound.
“How you feeling, Mr. Ossenbach? Can you take it from here?”
To his astonishment he told them that he could. The door came open and the warm air hit his face and gave him courage. He let the officers ease him down onto the creaking threadbare car seat, let them pose him and arrange him like a doll. They seemed to expect this. They shut the door and smiled at him and waved and fell away.
The mall was in sight when he finally spoke. “What did you tell them?”
“Don’t ‘huh’ me, goddammit. What exactly did you say to them back there?”
She smiled out the window, in no rush to answer, pleased with herself in some serene, exclusive way. He’d expected her to chatter all the way back to town, to put on a show, to luxuriate in her newfound power—but she kept quiet, watching the trees and barns and Quonset huts roll by. He caught her watching him every so often, studying his reflection in the mirror, just as he had studied hers on the drive out. He was furious with her, all but speechless with rage, though the thought of what she’d spared him made his bowels go weak with panic. The shock had long since faded and it was all he could do to keep his hands from shaking. The child had never looked at him so carefully before: She seemed to find him fascinating. He hated her now, cringed under her steady, insipid attention, would have suffered any penance to escape. The child saw all this—she must have—but she kept looking.
“I told them you loved me,” she said.
“I said we were running away,” she repeated, slowly and clearly, with no trace of her customary lisp. “I said we’re running away to Canada. We’re going to get married.”
“Hold on, Brooklyn. I don’t—”
“It’ll be in a chapel,” the child informed him calmly. “That’s what I told them. A chapel in the middle of the forest. Up in Canada.”
Richard struggled to take in breath, to think clearly, to keep himself from driving off the road. The fact that he knew that she’d said no such thing—that she was lying to him brazenly, shamelessly, taking careful note of his reaction—brought a dome of perfect silence down over the car. The air felt tight against his eardrums, pressurized, as though they’d somehow passed into a tunnel. They drove by the university, then the water tower, then the plant where the great, ill-fated cars had been built in the previous century. He would never touch her now, that much was clear. He would never take her out into the woods. What did he know about nine-year-old children, his lust and his magical thinking aside? Next to nothing. Next to nothing, he said to himself, the words resounding across the damp, floodlit proscenium on which he performed his private pantomime of defense and inquisition. I know next to nothing about them at all.
Maya was leaning against the half-mirrored doors of For Your Body Only as the Suburban pulled up, her back making a sweat mark on the glass. Her cheeks were flushed in artificial-looking blotches, symmetric and garish, and she radiated health and magnanimity. They were twelve minutes late but she deigned not to notice. Richard tried to say her name but could not do it. She chose not to notice that either.
“You look great,” he murmured.
“I feel wrecked,” she said, heaving herself lengthwise across the back seat. “Go ahead and stay up front, Brooklyn. Mama needs to collapse.” She pulled the door gracefully shut with her foot. “How’d your adventure turn out?”
He shook his head. “Not too well, actually.”
“Trying to get that kid to exercise is like trying to talk a monkey into playing Texas hold ’em.” She yawned. “I bet my next three paychecks she spent the whole time on the phone.”
Richard kept his eyes on the taillights of the minivan in front of them, listening to the child’s breathing. It seemed faster than normal. The van’s brake lights came on and he jammed his foot down on the brake.
“Ouch! Jesus, Richard! I’m trying to feel sorry for myself back here!”
“Sorry, sweetheart. This jerk in the van—”
“How about you, little queenie? Did you have fun goofing around with this old nut?”
The child cleared her throat.
“Maya,” Richard cut in, “I’ve been meaning to ask—”
“I’m talking to Brooklyn. I asked her a question.”
No one spoke for a moment. The child’s eyes sought out Richard’s, as if they were sharing a joke, one that held meaning for the two of them alone. He bit down on his tongue and closed his eyes.
“I have to do the wee,” announced the child.