Rachel can see half of her windshield through the front window of the store, above the pile of overstuffed bright pink pigs that lines the entryway. That helps. The constant glint of sunlight prevents her from seeing inside the car, but still she oscillates between glaring at the cashier—frantically willing her to move faster—and checking the windshield. It disturbs her that with every step she takes toward the register the visible area of her car shrinks behind the behemoth cab of a pickup parked next to her sedan.
On a wire rack beside her, a few headlines call out the unseasonably low temperatures expected for the weekend. “Nineteen is still hot,” Rachel thinks. “No. Not hot. Warm.” Seeing the checkout girl’s hand move to the phone next to her till and hearing her voice over the store’s P.A. system, Rachel cringes.
“Intimates, call 202, please.” A purple spangled thong hangs from the cashier’s left index finger. Rachel can see that the tag clipped to the thigh reads three ninety-nine, while the register blinks four ninety-nine.
“Honestly, I’ll give her the extra dollar,” Rachel thinks, training her gaze on the rail-thin woman at the front of the line, her sharp elbow straining against the pink velour of her zip-up as she leans against the conveyor belt, one hand perched on a bony hip.
The pickup has been replaced by a massive S.U.V. and Rachel’s car is now completely blocked from view. She thinks she might see someone standing next to her car through the tinted glass of the S.U.V. Above her, banks of fluorescent lights give the store a sickly, bluish hue, even from twenty feet above. “A hand lifting a phone to an ear? Is that a baseball cap? Maybe just the guy who owns the truck. Too hot for him to make a call from the driver’s seat? Goddamn it.”
The cashier continues to speak into her handset. The velour-suited woman has purchased an assortment of items that can only be amassed at a giant store such as this: sequined thong, enormous bag of dog food, tube of glittery lip gloss. Teeth sucking and sighs are beginning to rise from the line of customers. Rachel is pretty sure she’ll have the crowd on her side if she complains, but she says nothing. Squinting through the glare that bounces from the S.U.V.’s left mirror, she tries to clearly determine who it is that’s standing next to her car. She looks for the silhouette of a brow, the profile of a jaw. She is most concerned that it is a woman. “A woman who thinks that dogs should be outfitted with water-dispensing backpacks six months out of the year. That’d be my luck.” The snark of her own thoughts makes Rachel feel a little ill. “You know you shouldn’t have left them in there.” Betsy is probably a bit of a grey area. Not a lot of fur. Used to being outside all summer. But Betsy isn’t the only one in the car.
Luca had screamed when Rachel tried to unbuckle her seat belt. Arched her back so that her bony little rib cage pulled tight against her pink Superman T-shirt and pressed her white-knuckled fists into Rachel’s chest.
“I’m not going! Not going!” she’d said, baring her teeth in primal defiance. As soon as Rachel had finally given up and let her fall back into the well-worn cradle of her booster seat, red-faced and breathless, she’d added, “Get me a Rolo, Mom?”
With no additional cashier in sight, no movement in the line, and the disturbingly consistent whir of the store’s air conditioning in her ears, Rachel can’t move her eyes from the front window of the store. She can make out the hood of her sedan. For a moment it looks as if she had imagined the figure standing beside her car, phone to ear. There’s no movement beyond the flash of a slight shadow over the blue hood. The plastic clatter of the cashier’s phone finally finding its way back to its hook brings her focus back into the store. The underwear are quickly bagged and the bra beneath the velour hoodie is awkwardly adjusted as the entire line waits for APPROVED to appear on the debit machine screen. As the girl at the front of the line pulls her card out, something catches Rachel’s eye.
Another shadow. Short this time, and hovering over the hood of her car. Getting longer. A body in movement toward the nose of the sedan. Finally she comes into view. A woman, maybe forty, forty-five, her bleached blond hair piled high in a messy topknot. Rachel watches as she moves to the front of the car, phone still to her ear. The woman looks down at the licence plate. She’s reading the plate number. Into the phone. The woman looks back and forth from the plate to the windshield, her eyes pinched at the corners, her head just barely shaking.
The wire shopping basket hits the floor with more clatter than Rachel would have liked. She runs to the automatic door too quickly and she waits—face an inch from the glass—for it to open enough to slip through. The heat of the day hits her, and her fright mixes with guilt and a fresher, deeper panic that has nothing to do with the stranger calling in her licence plate number. “Nineteen without the humidex. Shit.”
The keys are somehow in her hand—she doesn’t remember fishing in her purse—and she is shoving them into the driver’s-side-door lock before the woman in front of the car can say a word. She doesn’t look into the back seat—won’t look until the ignition has been turned.
“Hey. What are you doing? You left your kid in there. It’s practically sweltering out.
Rachel is in the driver’s seat and the door is somehow closed beside her. The keys won’t find the ignition. She pulls her hand back and tries again.
“I called you in. The cops are coming and they have your plate number.”
The woman is right next to the driver’s-side window, she pushes a pair of bug-eyed sunglasses onto her head to look Rachel dead in the eye.
Finally Rachel leans her entire body to the right so that her face is inches from the ignition. Only then can she successfully push the key through the slot and start the engine. She still doesn’t look into the back seat. If she did, she thinks she might be sick. A warm lick on the back of her neck as she rights herself does little to quell her feelings of dread. Betsy’s kisses are usually cool as a tomato slice. Those are Luca’s words, not hers. She instinctively twists one arm behind the passenger seat to back out of the parking spot, and meets Luca’s shining pink face as she does. She’s blinking, and flushed.
“It’s kinda hot in here, Mamma,” Luca says.
The woman outside slaps the window as Rachel pulls away.
“I’m gonna wait here for . . .”
Rachel can’t hear the end of the sentence over the A.C. fan, but she is pretty sure she gets the gist. The traffic light just outside the parking lot is red, so she makes a right just to keep moving.
“Betsy thinks I should get two Popsicles when we get home,” Luca says, as she presses one finger against the glass next to her. “And she’d like to chew the sticks when I’m done, please and thank you.”
Rachel drives for ten minutes in whatever direction will put the most distance between her and the mega-mart store in the shortest span of time. She finally stops at a rusty little parkette.
Two of the four swings hang limp and unslung from their chains, but the two that still cling to their hinges are enough to send Luca swirling toward the set, arms pinwheeling as if she were directing some uncontrollable orchestra. Betsy bounds around her, bowing and jumping as they go. Rachel thought there would be absolution in seeing them play and run freely, proof that she has done them no permanent harm. But that doesn’t come. Relief perhaps, but guilt nonetheless. Luca leaps onto a swing, trusting the fraying canvas to catch her weight. Betsy is cautious as ever. She is just careful enough so that Luca will keep playing with her, keep loving her. The two of them, Luca and Betsy, have that in common. A calculated manipulation that comes from a place of total innocence.
Rachel pulls her phone from her pocket. She unlocks it, sliding her thumb slower than usual over the greasy screen. She knows she has not missed any calls; the side of her abdomen where the phone rests in the kangaroo pouch of her hoodie is acutely attuned to its vibrations. But she hopes. Maybe in her panic at the store she’s missed a text, E-mail, something, from Travis. Nothing.
Their last conversation had been exactly seven hours ago. Rachel was on the way home from picking up Luca at the community centre—where she had spent three hours chasing soft red balls around a gym and sitting in a circle singing songs she didn’t know the words to. Rachel was sure there was more to it than that, but those two activities seemed to be the only ones Luca ever remembered participating in.
“How was Little School, Lu?” Rachel would ask as they rushed through the brown-tiled hallway of the community centre. “Little School” was Luca’s name for the community centre daycare program. It was where she went three days a week before Long School, a.k.a. kindergarten.
“Same. Sang a song.”
“Oh, yeah, what song?”
“How would I know?”
Rachel arranged her lunch breaks on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to coincide with shuttling Luca between the community centre and school. It was a tense trip that saw Rachel lead-footing through every just barely red light she came across and whipping glances between the speedometer and the rear-view mirror, constantly fearful she’d see flashing lights behind her. Travis should have known not to call between noon and one on a Friday. At least Rachel thought he should have known. So she ignored the first buzz of her phone against her rib cage. Telemarketer, she figured. Or their landlord calling about the next six months’ worth of rent cheques. It buzzed a second time just as Rachel was attempting a left-hand turn into the school parking lot through a not-quite-wide-enough gap in the steady flow of midday traffic. An oncoming pickup sped up for dramatic effect while blasting its horn directly into Luca’s ears in her passenger’s-side booster seat.
“Loud much?” Luca had said, turning her face full and defiant toward the approaching silver grill.
Rachel swung into the closest open parking spot and pulled the phone from her pocket. She nearly tossed it against her cheek.
“Hello? Yeah, hello?”
“Hey. You sound like you’re running. What’s going on?”
“Jeezus. You know I’m in the middle of driving Lu, why are you calling me now? Hold on a sec.”
Rachel reached into the back seat and pre-emptively unclasped Luca’s seat belt. She dropped the phone on the driver’s seat as she shuffled around the car—her work heels making running impossible—to the passenger’s-side back door. She lifted Luca from her seat and swung her onto one hip. Luca would soon be too heavy for this manoeuvre. Rachel resolved to try lifting weights to delay that reality. Once Luca was required to move around on her own, the pace of Rachel’s life would slow to an unlivable crawl.
The period bell was ringing just as Rachel plopped Luca in front of the classroom door. The door itself was split in half widthwise so that adults could see into and out of the classroom, but students were kept inside by an impassable four-foot barrier. All the children sat on a red carpet at the rear of the room, save one chubby little girl with stringy blond hair who stood in the middle of the room on her tiptoes trying to see over the half door to catch a glimpse of who it was that was arriving after the bell. Rachel reached over the door to unlatch it and guided Luca into the room. Luca didn’t look back as Rachel kissed the back of her head before closing the door behind her. Rachel made a mental note to find out why Luca’s hair smelled like peanut butter as she sprint-shuffled back to her car, almost turning her heel as she tried to jump the loose metal threshold on the door to the playground.
“Hey, O.K., sorry, I had to get Luca into school.”
Rachel was breathless as she clambered back behind the wheel and started the car.
“Dude, this is long distance,” Travis said. “You could have just said ‘Call me back.’”
“Whatever. I’m in the middle of something here. You know I have a whole routine.”
“I’m standing at a pay phone with a line of six guys behind me.”
Travis lowered his voice.
“I had to pretend I was still talking to you that entire time so they wouldn’t get pissed.”
“What did you say?”
“They think you have a prescription drug problem now. It started with me pretending I couldn’t hear you, then you were high, then we fought about you taking out prescriptions in my name. It was the best I could think of on the spot.”
“We are more than even for me leaving you on hold then.”
A yellow light in front of her, Rachel decided to stop. It was good to hear Travis’s voice.
“Hey, so listen,” he said, his tone straightening a little, as it did when he had something practised to say. Rachel noticed the change, but ignored it.
“Ohmigod, it’s, like, twelve-thirty, aren’t you supposed to be on your way to the airport?” she interrupted.
“Yeah, that’s the thing,” his tone remained rigid, unmistakably so. “So, Deluth has a double he needs somebody to work, a straight turnover between night shift and afternoon today.”
“O.K. . . .”
“So I’m gonna do it. Since it’s overtime it’ll be time and a half, and it’ll be a full shift. Nine hours.”
“O.K., so you’re gonna come home tomorrow, then?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Travis said again. Everything was “the thing” when Travis tried to convince Rachel of something. It is among her top five pet-peeve phrases. Along with “no-brainer” and “slam dunk” (when not used in a strictly basketball-related context).
“The shift runs from four till one, so I’ll get back to my bunk around two. I’ll need to sleep off the double shift, and then get cleaned up and packed, so by the time I’d be ready to come home, the only flight would be a red eye, and then there would kinda be no point.”
A small, nauseating quiver shot up Rachel’s spine, but she did not speak. Having a relationship that consisted solely of phone conversations for five days a week, inflection, intonation, and phraseology had become incredibly important to her. She hated the way Travis built his sentences like scaffolding around his point. Language was never a bridge for him, something that linked his thoughts to her understanding by a straight and sturdy route. His speech reminded her of the planks she’d once nailed to the dying pine tree in her parents’ backyard, trying to fashion a ladder when she was too weak to climb it. Like those planks, Travis’s words spiralled round and round, looking sound enough at first glance. But as soon as Rachel tried to rely on them, they all came loose.
“So, bottom line is, you’re not coming home.”
“Well, don’t say it like that! I don’t have a choice.”
“Yes, you do. Just say you can’t do the double. What am I supposed to do with Lu? I have stuff I gotta do. There’s . . . just, stuff. And I don’t do it during the week because I know I’ll be able to do it when you’re home.”
“Yeah, I know, but Duluth is already gone. He had his brother’s wedding or something last night, and when he asked me I’d already had a couple, and I didn’t know what to say.”
“You’ve known since when, then?”
“What do you mean?”
“Since Wednesday, then? If he had his brother’s wedding last night?”
“And I talked to you on Wednesday night. And you were drunk. So you must have talked to Duluth before you talked to me.”
“Jeezus. I don’t know. I guess.”
Rachel looked out over the steering wheel. Her left arm was looped through it backward, so that her fingernails were hooked over the top, facing her. She had been anticipating a turn. She suddenly realized that she needed to do her nails. The matte, powder-blue polish on her index finger was chipping and she could see the flaky ridges of the brittle nail beneath.
Rachel said nothing.
“This call is really expensive. So if you’re not gonna talk, I’m—”
“Yeah, O.K. I gotta go anyway. I’m driving.”
She slipped her thumb onto the red circle on the screen without even moving the phone from her cheek.
A muffled thumping follows Rachel and Luca as they wind their way from the park to home. Rachel rolls up her window in an effort to stifle the sound. She knows it is coming from somewhere within the engine of the Honda, but she is convinced that if it can be made inaudible it can’t be bad enough for a trip to the mechanic. But the metallic drumming can still be heard through the closed window; and over the whine of Christina Aguilera through the speakers; and over the whir of the fan through the vents. Rachel exhales and rolls her eyes. She has always been a champion eye roller, even without an audience. It’s automatic. Symptomatic. Like a cough or a sneeze, the unique sound a person makes when they first sit down after a day spent on their feet. There will be no trips to the mechanic until Travis is back to deal with it.
In the rear-view mirror she watches Luca as she considers the city, block by block, fence post by fence post, as it passes her window. Rachel can see her eyes twitch as they try to focus on the moving objects. For a second Rachel wonders if Travis notices things like that. When he decided to take a job that would put two provinces between him and Luca eighty per cent of the time, he had told Rachel it would be good for them. Make the time he did spend with her more fun. “I’ll be home on weekends, so I’ll be here for all the good stuff.” Somehow he seemed to forget that left Rachel with the bad stuff.
The last weekend he was home, while Rachel made dinner for the three of them, he’d taken Luca to the park near their apartment. Just a little grass square with one swing set and a free-standing, rust-rimmed metal slide. Luca returned riding high and hands-free on Travis’s shoulders. Rachel watched them from the living room window as Travis spun down the street, taking two steps forward and then spinning in place three hundred and sixty degrees, dipping his head from side to side to let Luca flop and sway this way and that. In the two strides forward, Luca would catch her breath, clasping fistfuls of hair from the top of Travis’s head. Then, just before the spin, she tossed her arms above her head, her fingers spread wide and joyous, blue sky breaking between them as he sent her swirling. It was a level of physical wonder Rachel would never be able to recreate. She didn’t have the height, nor the stomach, needed to twirl Luca with seeming abandon over concrete and asphalt and know that she would not be dropped.
Travis’s love was huge and grand. It was an obvious kind of love Rachel assumed any child craved. She watched them walking for half a block, taking a full seven minutes to cover a hundred and fifty metres of sidewalk. When the front door finally swung open, Luca was already in full sprint toward Rachel.
“Did you see me flying?” she squealed, leaping with her arms outstretched toward Rachel.
Rachel caught her under the arms, but the heavy force of her momentum and her growing weight meant that the leap resulted in a feeble little half spin, and then Luca was grounded again.
“Daddy’s a lot stronger,” Luca said, hands on her hips.
She ran through the wide doorway toward the kitchen, where Travis stood arched over the open fridge door. Luca ducked under his arm and stood staring up into his face.
In the rear-view Rachel can see that Luca hasn’t taken her eyes off the window. A man walking three miniature pinschers passes by and Luca actually swivels in her seat, straining her cheek against the glass to watch the stumps of their little docked tails jutting straight up toward the overcast sky.
“Lu? Hello? Mom to Lu. Are you there?”
Luca waits until the dogs have rounded a corner, before slowly turning her head. “Um-hmm?” she hums, looking Rachel straight in the eyes through the mirror.
In that look Rachel sees a glimpse of the teenage self Luca will become—it is both amusing and terrifying.
“How about we swing by the park again after dinner?”
Luca turns back toward the window, shrugging her shoulders.
To enter their apartment, Rachel must drive the car down the laneway between their house and the neighbour’s. The boxy little sedan nearly skims the brick on either side as she manoeuvres around two sets of trash bins. Clear of the laneway, she makes a tight left onto the wavy patch of gravel that serves as a parking spot. The yard of the house is enclosed in chain-link on three sides, the open side running directly parallel to the length of the car.
Rachel throws the car into park, grabs her purse from the floor of the back seat, and unbuckles Luca’s seat belt with one deep lean between the front seats. Luca is dexterous enough to scramble out and pop open the door once the criss-cross of buckles has been unlocked. Betsy leaps out after her, clearing the booster seat completely and landing on the gravel. They skip around to the back of the car. In the rear-view Rachel can see the fuzzy purple spray of Luca’s scrunchy over the lip of the trunk. She stays in the driver’s seat for a moment, listening to the intermittent pings of the cooling engine. The dash clock reads seven thirty-two. Sixty-two hours before she’ll walk Luca back into morning snack time at the community centre. She hears Luca in the tiny, almost-fenced yard running up and down the wooden steps to the apartment door.
“Up, up, up, and I’m a king in the castle. Down, down, down, and I’m drowning in the moat.”
Through the loose faux leather of her purse, Rachel feels her phone vibrate. Not long enough to be a call, so she knows it cannot be Travis. A spam text, reading, “important message: your mobile number has been identified as part of a massive online banking breach. To confirm your account is secure, call this number back immediately.” The number is international, at least fourteen digits long. The whole thing doesn’t fit in the little box at the top of the message. Rachel texts back as she gets out of the car, “Should I jus send u my visa number and bank account login now to save myself the long distance? Asshole.”
“Lu, let’s go,” she calls to Luca, who is bent next to the fence, her face inches above some grass Betsy is chewing. She turns her head toward Rachel without righting her body.
“Now, guys, come on.”
Luca skates across the grass, not lifting her pink boots from the ground, and lets her arms swing stiffly at her sides.
“Speed skater,” Luca says, in a mockingly deep man’s voice.Betsy takes another pull from the crabgrass and jumps up onto the moldy decking without using the stairs, careful to avoid landing on the one rotting, grey board.
Inside the kitchen the steel of the door is cool against Rachel’s forehead. She leans against it as she toes her shoes and kicks them onto the heap next to the door. She pivots on her forehead to face the kitchen. Dishes piled high and dried just enough to make scrubbing futile. And beyond, in the dining room, Luca’s scrambled mess of crayons and construction paper. She can’t see Luca, but she can hear her in her bedroom, the springs of her mattress straining under what may well be her last round of jumping. Betsy has her front paws up on the edge of the Formica dining table, her head tilted to the side, straining to grab a red crayon in her jaws. Rachel doesn’t stop her. She won’t relish dabbing up the inevitable bloody looking vomit hours from now, but she’s not in the mood to raise her voice to the level it would take to stop her. Her purse buzzes again.
“You’re kidding me,” she says as she taps open a text from the same long-distance number.
“Yes ok. texting details is fine. We will make sure your account is secure.”
Betsy’s nails make one final, digging pull to lunge her lips toward her prize. As soon as she has it she scrambles into Luca’s room, the metallic crunching getting louder, and more frayed with each leap. Then silence. And a barely audible, “Oops.”
They finish up a late meal of Kraft Dinner and hot dogs, and Rachel shuffles Luca from the table into her pyjamas, with some cajoling, and finally onto her now broken bed with one duct-taped spring.
“I wanna play space when Daddy gets home.”
Luca says this not with excitement or glee, but with the stern look of someone making their final offer after a terse negotiation. She will tolerate nothing less than playing “space,” which means sitting on the steps of the porch and leaning back so that the roofs of the four houses that surround their little scrap of backyard form a perfect frame through which to travel to the stars. Forget that most of the “stars” are actually overnight flights or the odd satellite. This is one of many games that only Travis is permitted to play with Luca. Early in the summer, when the long days meant no lights could be seen in the sky before 10 p.m. Rachel had tried to soothe Luca to sleep by suggesting they play space. Luca’s bedroom was sweltering, nearly forty degrees, Rachel figured, when she opened the door to find her lying starfished on top of her duvet, her sweaty head flopped sideways toward the door.
“I need some water, Ma. I’m dying in here,” Luca had said, before flinging both legs up into the air and back down onto the mattress with a loud huff. Rachel gave her a drink that was sixty per cent ice and carried her out onto the porch to cool off. The only fan in the house rattled from the kitchen ceiling, so she left the back door open with the fan whirring at top speed. It was enough to move the air a little bit on the porch, on an otherwise completely breezeless night. Rachel put Luca on the step and leaned her elbows back against the prickly wood.
“Are we ready for liftoff, captain?” Rachel whispered, mimicking the lines she had heard Travis use. Luca didn’t respond. She craned her face up toward the sky.
“We’re headed for Orion’s Belt this mission, right, captain?”
Still no response. She looked down and took a sip of water.
“Captain, I need the O.K. to start the engines.”
Luca looked up at Rachel, hair matted across her forehead in wet, sweeping strings. Luca pushed it aside, giving her head the distinct look of a middle-aged comb-over.
“We can’t play space, Ma. You don’t sound like a spaceman.”
“Well you don’t sound like a spaceman either. Just use your imagination.”
“No. You gotta have one real spaceman at least. That’s the rule.”
Luca took another sip from her cup, then stood. She leaned in and hugged the top of Rachel’s head, then shimmied off into the house to fall asleep on the cool bathroom floor.
Telling Luca that there was no chance she would be playing space this weekend might permanently derail the evening—send Luca sailing into a tight-lipped rage. Rachel looks at her daughter, who is propped with her hands outstretched behind her, her brow scrunched into an impossibly deep furrow.
“Maybe another time,” Rachel says, leaving the news that Travis won’t be coming home unbroken for the time being. She’ll tell her tomorrow. Or not at all. She doesn’t want to see Luca’s disappointment. She’s tired of seeing it. And the fact that she’s tired of it makes her feel even worse.
Rachel leaves Luca on the bed, sitting bolt upright, singing a song to Betsy as she holds the ends of Betsy’s soft limp ears between her fingers and makes them dance.
Outside, the night is breezy, but still warm. Rachel drops herself onto the top step of the porch and digs her elbows into her knees. A bat darts between the big maple that stands just beyond the rusted-out Honda and an evergreen in the neighbour’s yard. She wonders what else lives in that tree. Whether it is full of its own dramatic life of feuds and turf wars and angling for leaf and trunk space. She doesn’t marvel at the thought. It feels futile. Kind of sad. A song begins to drift through the upstairs neighbour’s window. The first three words are curses before a deep bass and drum line take over.
Another bat shoots out from the canopy of the maple, this one followed by a small bird that twists around it, pecking and flapping madly. The fight continues into the neighbouring evergreen and out again into the darkness until Rachel can no longer see them.
The summer Rachel nailed up those seven-inch lengths of board on the bare and knobby pine in her parents’ backyard, she’d used some thin little one-inch screws and a rubber hammer she’d found on her father’s tool bench. Rachel knew that screws were not meant to be hammered, but she thought if she hit hard enough and for long enough they’d go in. And they did. A bit. But she didn’t have the strength to hammer them deep enough into the dense wood of the tree to support her weight. When she tried the climb anyway, she made it to the third board before a screw popped and the spinning piece of wood sent her ass to grass.
She remembers sitting there, post-fall, looking up at the gnarled bark, the untouched boards looking firm and sturdy, yet completely useless.
“I’ll have to teach myself how to use a drill,” she thought.