Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sample Sunday: Magnitude from Beyond Home

This is a portion from the beginning of Magnitude, the leading short story in my collection, Beyond Home.

***

They could never agree, not in all of her twenty-three years, so why would they start now when things seemed much more important? As much as Laura wanted life to be different in the wake of her father’s death—for everyone to be more pleasant and realize that life was beautiful and meant to be lived—things just went back to the way they were. Her mother still washed the dishes every night at seven fifteen, and her eighteen-year-old sister couldn’t agree with a word she said.

“I just think it would be really awkward,” Jessica said. “We haven’t seen them for years, but now that Dad’s dead, we’re going to go visit them?”

Laura wished she wouldn’t say he was dead. She knew they all meant the same thing, but passed away, gone, or even left, they all seemed different. “They’re family,” she said. She remembered the funeral, and seeing her first cousins, who she had only seen in pictures every few years. They were growing tall and scrawny, like their dad and uncle.

Jessica scoffed. “Right.”

“Look, it’s just one stop,” Laura said. “Cheyenne, Wyoming. Add it to the list.”

Jessica huffed, but obeyed. Cheyenne, Wyoming, where their dad grew up and where his brother and sister still lived. “That’s number five.”

Laura examined their road trip destinations in Jessica’s loopy handwriting. The first one was the one that seemed the most important. Since Laura had been old enough to walk, Dad had promised that he’d take them to the Grand Canyon. Something else had always come up: Jessica’s broken leg, Disneyland, his mom dying. Some nights, he’d tell them stories about the canyon to get them to go to sleep, how big and far and wide it was. And Laura would fall asleep, amazed that anything in this world could be bigger than her school.

They had a lot of ground to cover. They’d leave from Chico, California and travel to Flagstaff, Arizona, then up to Colorado, where Dad met Mom. Laura couldn’t remember whose idea it had been, but now that it was being put into action, it seemed like something they had to do.

“Did Mom go shopping?” Jessica asked. She stood up and walked over to the fridge.

Opening the fridge answered her question; there was a wealth of food inside. Their mom was thrilled to have her older daughter home for a while. She had cooked something grand every single meal: banana pancakes, homemade potato salad, lamb roast, apple pie. Laura was pretty sure it took her mind off of Dad.

Jessica started warming up leftover lamb.

“Come on,” Laura said. “We’ve got tons of planning to do if we really want to leave in six days.”

“Six days is an eternity!” Jessica exclaimed, flipping her light brown hair off of her shoulder. “All we need is money.” She left the room, whistling, and Laura didn’t bother to ask where she was going. She was just going to have to do this herself.

***

A few days later, the three of them sat on the back porch. The crickets were chirping loudly, almost drowning out the soft music that came from the old record player. Mom had a bottle of beer in her hand, and it looked odd, like she was wearing a bikini or something. A lot of things seemed odd, though: Dad’s empty chair, the way everything in the house looked the same even after four years, but just the air felt different.

Mom looked at Laura, a sleepy smile on her face. “I’m glad you guys are here.”

Laura nodded. “Me, too.”

The stars spread over their heads in the deepening sky. They seemed to go on forever, twinkling and spelling out stories. The four of them used to lie on the back porch in the summer, bundled up in sleeping bags. Dad would tell them about Orion, Leo, Andromeda. Jessica would always fall asleep first, and Mom would go inside because of her back. Laura would try to stay up longer than he did, but she usually fell asleep anyway and woke up with mosquito bites on her face.

Jessica went inside for a moment, then came out with a slice of apple pie. She settled back down in her lawn chair, and the three of them sat in the silence, listening to Dad’s records and the crickets.

“When do you girls leave?” Mom asked.

“Tuesday,” Laura said.

“You’d better be careful,” Mom said. “I’ve heard stories about rapists at campgrounds.”

“There are rapists everywhere,” Jessica said with a full mouth.

“Geez, Jessica, swallow your food,” Laura said.

Jessica mimicked her in a high voice. Mom began laughing, and Laura rolled her eyes. “How old are you?” Laura asked.

“I don’t know how you’re going to survive two weeks on the road with each other,” Mom said with a chuckle.

Jessica gave Mom and Laura a smile that worked on her teachers in fourth grade, the one that said, I’m completely innocent.

Laura couldn’t believe Jessica was eighteen already, old enough to vote, to buy cigarettes. She had a high school diploma and probably a boyfriend, though Laura hadn’t asked yet.

She wasn’t sure how they were going to survive two weeks, either.

***

Laura woke up early Tuesday morning. She took a shower and finished packing. The last trip she went on, not including driving here to her mom and dad’s house, was going to the Coachella Festival a few months ago with Nathan, Kayla, and their friends. She had camped in a small tent with three other girls. They were up giggling at three in the morning every night and tried sleeping in the next morning only to be forced out of their tents by the heat.

Dad’s truck had definitely seen better days, but Jessica assured Laura it would get them all the way to Colorado and back. Laura knew they didn’t really have any other choice. Mom wouldn’t give up her Excursion, and Laura’s small Honda would be useless with Dad’s pop-up tent trailer on the back. It was something they had used a few times when they were younger, mostly during Memorial Day weekends, a trailer that had sat in the driveway for five years now.

Laura remembered coming home after Dad’s burial and memorial service. She and Jessica sat in her car in the driveway, not yet ready to go in for the reception. “We should go help Mom,” Jessica had said.

“Yeah,” Laura had said, but they sat there, feeling the emptiness of death. She saw the trailer in front of them. “Is that thing still working?”

They got out and worked to bring the trailer to its full height: cranking it up, putting the bars in place, fitting the door on, bringing the table down, even attaching the bungee cords. When they were done, they were sweaty, and their dark-colored dresses were covered in dust and dirt. They stood back and admired their work, staring at the trailer Dad had been so excited to bring home fifteen years ago. Mom came out, asking where they’d been, but she stopped short and came to stand next to her two daughters, looking at the trailer in silence. It almost felt as if he were still alive.

They now loaded their things into the back of the truck, which Jessica had taken to get washed yesterday. Laura opened the front door, only to find it still littered with Dad’s things. A half-finished pack of cigarettes rested in the console, trash was scattered across the ground, and his sunglasses hung from the rearview mirror.

“Jess!” Laura called. “I thought you cleaned it out.”

Jessica looked up from the hitch, wiping her forehead. She just stared at Laura for a moment, and then said, “I cleaned the outside.”

“Well. . .” Laura said, motioning to the dirty truck. Jessica went back to attaching the trailer to the hitch, silent. Laura looked back into the truck. It still smelled like him, like tobacco and sweat and his aftershave. She began taking out the trash. She left his sunglasses, his cigarettes, his scent.

Mom was crying as she said goodbye. “Take pictures for me. You know I’d come, but. . .”

“Don’t worry,” Laura said. “I’ll call Aunt Julia and make sure she’s taking care of you.”

“I’ll be fine.” Mom wiped her face and pulled Jessica over for a hug. “I love you both. Have fun. Call me when you get to Las Vegas.”

“We’ll bring you back lots of money,” Jessica promised.

Mom laughed as they got into Dad’s truck. Laura remembered learning how to drive in this thing, her dad giving constant instruction, and Laura swearing when the brakes took longer than she thought. The stop sign had ended up almost completely past the truck.

“Love you, Mom,” Laura said. She smiled, starting up the engine. “We’ll be back before you know it!”

They pulled out of the driveway. Jessica immediately took out her iPod and asked, “What do you listen to these days?”

Laura shrugged. “Anything. I like oldies, though.”

“Hmmm. . .I haven’t got anything old but Michael Jackson.”

“Nah. Put something else on.”

Jessica began playing a pop-rock band. She sang every word, and Laura wondered how long it took her to memorize the lyrics. Aside from occasionally talking about school with Jessica and commenting on her pictures, they hadn’t talked much. Her senior year had taken up most of Laura’s time.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Laura asked.

Jessica just laughed. “No.” She put her seatbelt on and put her feet up on the dashboard.

“What about that Jake guy?”

“We just went to prom together,” Jessica said. “He’s nice, but he’s kind of an airhead.”

There was a moment of silence as Laura maneuvered the truck and trailer through town, headed for Burger King. “Want some breakfast before we go?”

“Yeah,” Jessica said. “What about you?”

“Yeah. I love Burger King’s french toast sticks.”

“No, I mean, are you still going out with Nathan?”

Laura, too, laughed in response to this question. “No. We broke up in May.”

They got through the drive-through, though Laura was convinced she was going to sideswipe the trailer, and ate in the parking lot. Laura was feeling proud of herself for being able to drive the trailer well when Jessica asked her what happened with her and Nathan.

“I guess we just grew apart. It was like he was suddenly a different person. I don’t know.” She paused. “I don’t think Dad would have liked him.”

Jessica munched thoughtfully on her sandwich. “Who will walk us down the aisle?”

This simple question brought tears to Laura’s eyes. She didn’t want to think about the rest of her life without her dad. But all of these unanswered questions loomed before them. Who was going to take over Dad’s shop? Who would disapprove of their boyfriends? Who would take care of Mom?

“Sorry,” Jessica said quietly.

“Forget it.” Laura started the engine up. “Let’s go.”

***

This short story was originally published in Literary House Review 2010. The entire collection is for sale now for only 99 cents. 




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