The TA TravelCenter & Gas overlooks the confluence of two highways in the middle of west Texas. Molly rings up purchases for travelers passing through the oasis: bottled water, energy drinks, tobacco dip, sunflower seeds, all in the brightest colors. Sometimes the eager brilliance of packaging hurts her eyes.
Children with straining bladders shuffle towards the bathrooms as parents hurry them along and drop twenty dollars on Frappuccino and Chapstick. They pass, with a brief kiss of the gas pump, cradled by neck-pillows and cruise control, through these barren plains where oil refineries twinkle in nets of light cast along the horizon. Sometimes, Molly lets herself imagine climbing into the back of one of these family’s Suburbans, riding west until her first view of the Pacific Ocean that is bluer than any sun-blanched southwestern sky.
Plaintive pop songs begging shoppers to believe them pipe through overhead speakers. The playlist hasn’t changed much since Molly left eighth grade four years ago, after a drunk driver’s F-150 caught and flipped her parents Toyota into a cement-lined irrigation ditch. Towards the end of her shift, the playlist begins another saccharine round.
The sliding doors chime whenever someone passes through them. She hears, then sees him walk in, loses him for a moment in the aisles; then she is ringing up his bottled water, chips, and jerky.
“Know anywhere to camp nearby?” He says.
He's not much older than Molly, a patchy beard and baseball cap over a boyish face, hair the color of river sand.
“Ain’t really that kind of place,” she says.
He nods, gathering his bag. “I’ll figure something out.”
She pushes back her hair – red, recently self-cut in a bob, brushing around her cheeks - and watches him leave through the chiming doors.
The last half-hour on shift passes with granular slowness. The register keypad is soft with grime. Truckers turn in shower keys and make for berths in their cabs or swing their hinge of wheels back into the flow of American transit.
Her manager, Glen, reminds her to clock out on time. He shakes his head when she asks if he needs night-shift coverage. Molly pinches the inside of her arm.
After her birthday, in February, she won’t be a minor, won’t be count as a kid, and the disability checks won’t be the same - checks in monthly white envelopes that’ve meant survival for Molly, her mother, and her aunt Midge ever since the accident. Her mother’s sister, paroled on early release to serve as caretaker and guardian, has never in four years looked for a job.
Molly takes the flesh between her fingers and twists until it bruises. She wets her tongue and looks at Glen.
“I really need hours.”
Glen evaluates prices on a turnstile of sunglasses. He blinks and says he’ll look at next month’s schedule, then leaves to inspect the gas pumps.
After restocking the fridges with soda, ice-teas, and beer, Molly rings up a carton of milk, a dusty box of cereal, and Wonderbread. She does all her shopping at the TA and laundry in the machines that the truckers buy tokens for.
Outside, the wind smells of burnt oil and tired heat. She sees him leaning against his midnight-blue truck, his small frame slumped in his coat. He looks adrift on the moat of blacktop. As she crosses the parking lot, a blush rises in her cheeks she wishes she could banish to the asphalt and the shrinking distance between them.
He looks up, puts his phone in his pocket, and smiles. She asks where he’s staying and hopes she sounds casual, a little skeptical. He pats the dented hood of his Chevy. Oregon plates.
His name is Cody. He’s selling Christmas trees over in White Hill. In the morning, he’ll meet up with his partner, Ricardo, who’s bringing down the U-Haul full of trees. They bought bulk in Oregon and will mark up a genuine smell of pine at hundred percent or better in this place bereft of anything green.
Molly pinches another parenthesis between her fingernails, wincing through the gap before she leaps. She tells him there’s a camper behind her house she could rent to him. But if he can’t pay by tomorrow, her father will march him off with a shotgun; the lie flies off her lips before she can snatch it back.
“I'll follow you,” Cody says.
The trailer-home Molly shares with her mother and aunt sits in unincorporated territory, tucked up in the hills beyond the nearest zip codes. Evening paints the yard in flat sepia. A neglected swing-set and lock-jawed grill languish in the dirt - relics from life before the accident. Molly pulls her Honda Civic that barely runs into the drive. Aunt Midge is in the yard, hacking at dirt clods with a weathered croquet mallet.
Molly had sat waiting in the yard, the morning four years ago, when a parole officer delivered Midge. Her mother was still in the hospital then, and nights alone had been mute and spectral. Midge stumbled towards her – an embrace of soft body, stale smoke, and weepy promises– God was with them, Midge had panted at her, His hand would guide them.
As Cody pulls in behind her, Molly catches his eye in her rearview mirror, mouthing, “Stay there.”
Midge stands in a bathrobe, sweatpants and rubber boots, her left eye swollen by some allergic irritation.
Molly takes a deep breath. She has never brought someone home since Midge moved in, since the accident made everything so small and close. Having to work, she hasn’t returned to school. In a different life, she would be cusped on graduating high school. But here, there have been no friends or sweethearts. She already knows what Midge will say:
“Bunch of libtards in Oregon.”
Molly grits her teeth. “I’m not getting enough hours.”
“Didn’t I tell you not to cut your hair?”
Another pinch along her arm. “You could look for work, something part-time, maybe.”
Midge shakes her head, swollen eye pitched skyward as though some presence in the firmament provides her with truth.
“This’s what happens when we ain’t got church.”
Despite her daily evocations of God, Midge never takes them to the White Hill church to bear the sidelong glances of that stolid, middle-class flock. They’ve stayed apart from people, here, where only the distant oil refineries shine at night under the vast scatter of stars like a sieve catching under heaven.
Midge lights a cigarette, coughs up a laugh. “Honey, he could be some perv. With that hair, you look like a ten-year-old with tits.”
The trailer door opens. Molly’s mother, Janice, stands in the doorway clutching a blanket around her shoulders.
“Molly wants to rent the camper to a guy she picked up at the TA,” Midge shouts. “You believe that, Sis?”
Janice holds a hand over the seam of scar tissue embroidering the side of her skull where she bled into the grass, thrown free of the car twisted in the ditch.
“It’s warmer at night,” Janice murmurs. “On the TV they said ducks aren’t flying to Mexico anymore. We won’t see them flying over.”
Midge pecks her cigarette down to a nub and stamps it in the dirt with her rubber boot.
“Just a week,” Molly says. “Unless we’re both working, I don’t know what else to do.”
Midge’s face quivers with dismal calculations. “Well, he ain’t coming in the house.”
Once Midge has gone inside, Molly leads Cody over a field of scrub grass and lichen-speckled rocks to the camper and a pump-shed wrapped in tarpaper. She scans the hovel for scorpions, fixes a grimy hose running to the camper, and opens the spigot on the pump.
Cody nods. “Maybe less. Once the U-Haul’s empty, I’ll drive us back to Oregon. So long’s yours don’t mind,” he says. “’Specially your dad and his shotgun.”
Molly addresses the rocks at their feet. “He died,” she says, “and I sold his shotgun.”
Her father hunted ground squirrels, dirt coughing shot at their tails. The steering wheel pinned him to the drivers-seat, crushed out of this world in an instant of wrenching metal and exploding glass.
In the trailer-home, the TV declares that RIGHT NOW is your chance to WIN BIG. Janice and Midge recline in their recliners. In the kitchen alcove, dishes crowd, and a sour smell pervades the air above the sink. Ants busy in the Oreos on the counter.
“Make sure that's locked,” Midge calls as Molly closes the door behind her. “Now there’s a transient on the property.”
Molly peels open an expired strawberry yogurt and watches the backs of the two women’s heads bob in an eddy of smoke.
“Y’know, he could be a serial killer or a anarchist.” Midge lights a fresh cigarette. “I saw a show on cults of hippies conducting human sacrifice. And Lord, the awful people I knew in Klaxon.”
Molly has heard the stories of Midge’s stint at Klaxon many times: hard women that bullied soft-crimers like Midge sent up for credit fraud, sent her to huddle in nightly prayers for deliverance. Molly sometimes wonders if Midge’s calling upon God didn’t nudge that whiskey’d-up driver into the oncoming lane. Midge got early release to take care of Molly and Janice, and Molly hasn’t dared pray in years.
“When the Lord sees fit, I’m gonna get a wonderful job, ‘n’ buy us a beautiful house, sure as I know his plan,” Midge declares.
Molly drops the yogurt cup into the waste-basket full of junk-mail. Strangers’ names she reads through plastic windows in the envelopes. She asks Midge where all the junk mail suddenly came from.
The TV shouts with static teeth. Midge holds up a hand.
“Honey, you’re tired and tested. But it’ll be as He plans.”
Molly closes the door to her room and lies in her bed looking up at a poster of horses on the ceiling. The line of pink and blue indentions along her arm is fading. She gropes under her mattress for a hidden envelope, and counts the money stashed there, calculates how long it might keep the lights on, or how far it might take her away from here if, like a sleepwalker, she became possessed with the will to ever leave. The night passes like black and dreamless seconds, before the alarm at 4am returns her from tenuous, lightless places.
At evening’s onset, home from her shift, Molly waits for Cody, sitting on the rusted swing-set that is so small her shoulders graze the support poles. She was five when her parents brought it home in a box. She had run through the yard as they erected the cheap aluminum swing, hand over her mouth spilling delighted squeals. Or she dreamed of this some night; anymore, real memories and dreamed ones become jumbled.
When his truck pulls in, Cody furnishes her with the night’s rent. The trees sell themselves; people in White Hill pay two hundred for the big ones.
Molly shrugs. “There’s money in White Hill.”
“But no trees,” Cody says. “Back home there's more than you can print money for.”
“That don’t sound true.”
“Lots of things don’t.”
Molly drags her feet in the drift of the swing as Cody picks a gob of pitch from the tread of his boot. “I'll be glued in place, the way those firs bleed.” He looks embarrassed. “Not that it’s hard work. I’m no lumberjack.”
Molly leans her neck against the swing, into the rust-smell of the chain. Cody seems unreal, standing before her in his pitch-stained Ranglers and tired smile. And in her own weariness, Molly half-wonders if she’s dreaming.
“The word lumberjack always makes me think flapjack,” she says. “I won’t get pancakes outta my head all night.”
Cody laughs and turns, walking across the gravel spate. He hops in the truck and turns the engine, waving her to him through the open window. Molly stands up and knows as she approaches that she’s breaking with Midge’s warnings about the terrible, godless world. Then she is hoisting herself and all the friendless hours she has carried these years up into the cab that smells of motor-oil and pine trees. She doesn’t ask where they’re going; by the time they hit the highway, where doesn’t matter.
Cody’s high beams shine over the road like eyes cut in a sheet. Molly stares out at the moon that follows along, lighting up cold belts of sand. It’s the first time in three years she has ridden in a car as a passenger.
After her sister’s brush with the afterlife, Midge always insisted that God didn’t want her behind a wheel; she wouldn’t drive till He directed her otherwise. In the meantime, Molly is saddled with driving Midge to parole meetings and to cash Janice’s disability checks. Once, they stopped at the TA, where Molly watched her aunt slide a Snickers into the pocket of her sweatpants. Back in the car, Midge flashed the surprise of it, as if Molly hadn’t seen her swipe the candy bar, as if the world hadn’t already acquainted her with its terrible capacity for surprises.
Cody brings them off the highway at the White Hill exit. Evening buildings in skirts of window light. The Denny's is brightly yellow as they pull into the parking lot.
He parks the truck and gestures through the windshield.
The way he leans against the steering wheel is like she wants to believe she remembers her father did. True memory and how she’d like to think it all was before, churn and thicken until she can no longer distinguish between them.
Inside, an oldies station plays Patsy Cline and Buddy Holly. Bacon and eggs. The murmur of voices, low and intimate. They sit at a booth by a window. When the pancakes come, Molly uses all her butter and syrup, only looking up once her plate is clean.
“You don’t want coffee?”
Molly wrinkles her nose. “It’s so bitter.”
“So put sugar in it.”
“My dad thought a hot slap in the face was the only way to start the day right.”
It’s nearly ten pm. “I don’t remember how my dad liked his coffee.”
She does remember the last time she’d been to a restaurant with her parents. They rarely could afford a meal out. She had ordered a Shirley Temple, and her dad joked that she’d outgrown kids’ drinks. Yes – she’s sure of this memory – his grin and the joshing warmth of it. The ginger ale had tickled her nose with a playful, effervescent sting.
Three old men sit at the counter sipping coffee and cracking jokes that the waitress pretends to laugh at.
Cody nods towards them. “I bet they're always here. There’s a few old-timers like that everywhere.”
“I wouldn’t know.” Molly digs her nails into her wrist beneath the table. “I’ve never been anywhere.”
He tells her how in his first summer after leaving home, he kept a tally of how many floors, couches, spare beds, backyards, and bathtubs he slept in. Never more than a few days anywhere. Fishing red-drum in Louisiana was somewhere he wished he could’ve stayed a while, but by then he’d lost track of all the places he’d slept.
“When you feel like a small fish in a small pond, it makes you wonder why you were born a fish at all.” He stares into his coffee. “I guess you get out of the pond if you can.”
He tears at the corners of a Sweet ‘n’ Low. She can’t think of anything to say and drags the tines of her fork through a puddle of syrup. They could be children of any time. A waitress works her way down the booths.
“Should we order more pancakes?” Cody says.
Molly feels she could stay here all night as lights go out in the houses along the street, and sugar sings on her tongue. “You think they have Shirley Temples?”
It’s late when they roll up to the trailer. The heater fan whirls in the dash. Somewhere in obscurity, coyotes gather to cry beneath the moon.
The howling used to scare Molly. Her mother would stroke her hair when the moon came full. After the accident, the cries became a comfort, and with their wails, she felt her mother’s hand brushing back the daily coils of doubt, the feeling of stepping out over a void. Everything would fall away for a moment, as these wild creatures scraped their song against the sky.
“I like something that don’t sound trapped,” she says. “They ain’t sorry about a thing.”
They listen to the coyotes. Catching Cody’s eye quickens Molly’s blood until it’s hot in her skin, and for an instant she wants to burn her life to a cinder, immolate everything in the pure heat of this ineffable feeling. Her breath catches. Hurriedly, she says goodnight. The coyotes carry on, gouging furrows in the dark.
With a soft click, the trailer door closes. The TV flickers and flashes. Janice sleeps in her recliner, wrapped in a blanket, owl-faced and dreaming. Midge paces the kitchen. Her rubber boots whine against the linoleum.
“Get any money outta that boy?”
Molly shows her the cash and notices an empty milk carton on its side amid a mess of torn envelops on the counter. The garbage overflows with new junk mail.
“I’ll pick up more milk tomorrow.”
Midge’s swollen eye squints at the money in Molly’s hand, and she leans close as if she might snatch it. Molly stows the bills in her back pocket, and Midge slouches against the counter.
“I’m proud of you, looking out for us. I’ll get me a job as soon as the Lord puts one out there for me. Wait ‘n’ see.”
The TV shouts excitedly, a gameshow contestant has won a new car, and Midge turns to watch the confetti fall down the screen.
“I’ve been dreaming I lived in a big house made all outta windows,” she says. “I never felt sunshine so blue and true like it was beamed down from heaven. The kinda dream makes you sad to wake up.”
“Who’d look after Momma if you got sent up again?”
Midge shuffles past her and falls into the waiting spoon of her recliner.
“Your momma was so pretty when we were kids.” Midge’s voice is hoarse. She closes her eyes. “I’m gonna look for that good dream.”
In her room, Molly adds Cody’s money to the stash under her mattress. The pillow is cool against her cheek. Soon, the dark collapses, pulling her into its density where horses run through dreams in meteoric trajectories, their manes brushed with the diamond light of stars.
The highway flows like a river of bright fish, and Molly is wrapping up a double shift at the TA when she spots Cody’s truck in the parking lot.
She quietly rings up and bags his supplies, taking little sips of breath; the air in her lungs and all around seems to thin. Her work polo reeks of fryer oil and gas fumes. Her bones ache.
“I thought it would take longer.”
Cody nods. “Ricardo says he’s never seen folks so eager to spend money. Three days is a new record. I’ll get him after he turns in the U-Haul tomorrow.”
Her fingers stray to the inside of her arm. The skin swells and blues as she tries to fold back the quaking feeling in her chest.
“You said a week.”
A woman yells at her child in the candy aisle. Songs Molly’s heard countless times cry in used-up melodies.
“I wonder if you'd wanna come into town with me,” Cody says.
“I should see about getting hours.”
He shakes his head. “I'll be outside.”
In the White Hill city park, Christmas lights hang from booths and tents, and string through the sycamores. Cody pulls the truck over. They hear music. Molly rests her temple against the cool glass of the passenger window. She mutters that the Christmas fair is for people with spending money.
“Today, I'm a guy with spending money.”
They pass between a dusty pair of plastic Santas, past a shooting gallery and its menagerie of prizes. A man tap-dances on a wooden box, playing Christmas carols on a saxophone. People meander and eat red and green cotton candy. A tent shelters a makeshift stage where a band plays western-swing renditions of Christmas songs. A few couples circle the packed-dirt dancefloor in slow orbits.
“I don't know how.” Molly says as Cody encircles her waist.
“Hell, no one does,” he says.
They rock to the mournful peals of pedal-steel guitar. A warmth on the small of her back emanates from his hand. Molly grips his palm and leans her cheek into his shoulder, feeling a knot in her chest slacken. They dance until they are the last two people beneath the moth-cluttered lights.
They are walking to his truck when they pass the psychic's tent. The awning casts a cat’s-eye slit of light. Five-dollar palmistry.
Cody's eye glints like a flipped dime. “Wanna know the future?”
A foreboding emanates from the tent. Molly feels it sweating her palms and in the way she imagines the grass beneath her feet is shrinking away from her.
“I don't think I do.”
But he reaches for her hand, and she clasps her palm in his, and they duck beneath the tent’s apex.
The air inside is pungent with incense, and wavers in a dance of candle flames. The psychic wears a plastic bead on a chain over her forehead, and a pair of felt reindeer antlers droop around her ears, weighted with little bells. Cody drops money into an embroidered purse, and the psychic gestures for him to sit in the folding chair across from her throne of sequined pillows.
“No, it’s for her.”
Molly shakes her head. But Cody nudges her with his elbow.
“You wouldn't toss a fiver on the fire just to burn it would you?”
The psychic regards Molly with tired bemusement.
“Fine,” Molly says. “But he waits outside.”
Cody looks as though he’s about to protest, but then smiles and backs out through the canvas. In the new quiet without him, Molly sits stiffly, and the psychic takes her hand, palm up, splaying her fingers.
The old woman’s eyes are dull, set in a lined face. After a long moment, she says, “You have a low level of refinement.”
With her free hand, she rummages through a calico purse that swallows her arm up to the elbow and extracts a lozenge.
“You work hard. The Mount of Saturn, here, tells me that.”
The lozenge clacks behind her teeth as she talks. “But you’ll struggle for some time.”
“I don’t need you to tell me that.” Molly whispers. She feels so tired she could cry.
She begins to pull her hand away, but the woman’s grip tightens, pulling Molly’s arm
until their faces are close enough to smell the woman’s mothwing musk. Her eyes are milky storms. And it’s as though Molly’s thoughts - the crushing cycle of double shifts, her mother staring out from her head, the crying of coyotes - were all surrendered through the psychic’s grip.
She brushes a nail over the pinch bruises on Molly’s arm.
“It’s all we have isn’t it?” the woman says. “Toil and loss?”
Her finger drops into the center of Molly's palm. The plain coming off The Mount of The Moon is wild country where futures are hard to discern. She taps where two lines intersect. Here, a burden will lift. In ten years, she sees a bouquet of roses on a fire, the pop of burning rose oil released. Release, the psychic says, release from lifting the weight of every thankless tomorrow without hope that the next will rest lighter. Release in this distant certainty; ten years hence, fixed in the prescient stars and all their miles of dead light stretching back a million years.
Molly’s hand tingles as though it has fallen asleep. The bells on the old woman’s reindeer antlers gleam dully in the candlelight. Molly stands up, feeling like the woman’s smell on her skin will never leave her.
The trailer emerges on the sweep of Cody’s headlights, then curtains in shadow again as he kills the engine. Molly slumps against her seatbelt, rubbing her palm. In the settled quiet, Cody points into the sky, outlining a southern constellation.
“That's mine,” he says. “I don’t know what it says about me, but I can always find it.”
“Years of struggle.” Molly mutters. “Like I don’t know that?”
“I thought it’d be fun,” he says apologetically. “The hell does she know anyway? What’s your birthday, I’ll find your star sign.” He touches her arm. “You seem like a Pisces to me.”
Shadows roll and break over rocks and scrub grass. The winging of a Barred Owl. An errant rag of cloud flying beneath the moon. Molly quickens her step, walking with Cody to the camper in the wind flying up the hill. It feels like time has jumped a belt, and the ground under Molly’s feet surges past her.
In the cramped bunk, they hold one another. Rattling gusts claw at the camper’s skin. Beneath a thin blanket, they sleep with their clothes on, coats zipped to their chins. They protect a valley of warmth between them. In the dark of the early hours, their lips may have brushed, may have pressed dryly together. But Molly can’t know if this is true or something she dreamed.
In the morning, she is woven in the unfamiliar rhythm of another person’s breathing, listening to Cody’s blood beating through cotton, muscle, and bone. She stays there as long as she can, holding out on the edge of wakefulness, touching the nascent day through bleary lash-combed light.
Cody stoops into his boots and stares with that lost look she saw the first day he came into the TA. He jots down his number on a napkin he found in his coat pocket and presses it into her hand. An ache like an ash pillar rises from her stomach. As she watches him driving away, not even the urge to cry holds a pulse.
Then she sees the vacant space where her own car had been, missing from where she had parked it the day before.
Coming into the trailer, the first thing she notices is the quiet. The TV, inert, like something that has died in its sleep. Janice sleeps, belly rising and falling peacefully. Midge’s recliner sits empty. Molly staggers to her bedroom and sees the mattress pulled back off the box-spring. Midge’s note on the turned-out bed in a near-illiterate scrawl: She has been called; All will be as He plans.
Molly cleans the dishes in the sink. Something for her hands to do. Panicked thoughts shiver at her edges. She washes until all is scrubbed clean; her hands prune, prophetic lines swell and wrinkle.
Janice stands at the mouth of the kitchen alcove, holding her blanket like a shawl. Round killdeer eyes.
“Need anything, Momma?”
Janice regards Molly with a child’s curiosity.
“I’m gonna take care of us now, y’hear?” Molly says.
Janice nods solemnly and looks up at the ceiling swirled in clots of cheap paint. “It’ll be Christmas soon,” she says. “All over the country they’re putting up beautiful trees.”
Outside, color bleeds back into the land in the dilute slowness of morning. The cold metal of the swing seat bites the backs of Molly’s legs through her jeans. She sits and regards the hills of gray scalped dirt.
Her calls route to the automated TA TravelCenter & Gas call menu. On her third try, Glen picks up with a terse “What?”
Reception crackles, and she asks if there are any shifts she can cover.
Most days she forgets the timber of her father’s laugh, the comfort of her mother’s hands in her hair. Last night she held a bird’s nest of pink lightning to her chest and by morning she knew she would never get it back; she would never see the ocean, and she would work until anything left to forget was peeled away. Her nails bite into her arm like begging to be known.
Glen tells her the month’s schedule’s been made already and hangs up.
Her hands ache with cold. She shoves them into her pockets. She imagines Midge rolling down a highway with the cash and bogus credit cards until there’s nowhere to go. She whispers a brief prayer for her aunt, and lets it go on the wind that whistles through the swing’s aluminum bones. For a second, she mistakes the breeze mewling on the rusted joints for the cry of some lone coyote.
Morning has nearly erased the last stars whose brilliance, the psychic said, takes millennia to reach earth. Molly watches them fade away above the clusters of electric light constellating the oil refineries in the distance. Ten years is called a decade; Molly doesn’t get much chance to use words like that, but she knows what it means. And it comes to her then: how with a single word, ten things become one thing. As her eyes relax and swim with fatigue, the far-away shining appears close enough to touch.