Riley puts the car into drive and her father starts his stopwatch. From the passenger's seat, he lifts and lowers his arm, as if starting a race. He's giving her two minutes to get around the block, all while obeying stop signs, traffic signals, and granting the right of way to pedestrians. Riley hasn't made it under three minutes yet. She likes driving slowly, likes knowing she is going at a speed that allows her to stop the car at a moment's notice, and today it is raining. In places, orange salamanders dot the blacktop and she can't help but imagine their small bodies flattened in the treads of the tires like chewing gum. If her father would let her, she would walk the block ahead of time, clearing them from the blacktop and setting them in the grass flanking the sidewalk. If he would let her, she would stop for each bright orange body she spotted on the road. But they have already been around the block seventeen times and it is getting late. Riley is hungry and sick of listening to her father crunch his way through a bag of pretzels while he watches the stopwatch on the dashboard, giving her an update every thirty seconds.
Most people learn to drive when they are sixteen, but Riley never learned then (her father knew the teen driving statistics and she wasn't particularly interested herself), and now that she's nineteen her father considers learning to drive the perfect post-suicide-attempt activity.
"It's about control and power," her father told her before they began their first practice loop. "That's why most teenage boys love learning how to drive. This will set you on the right path. This will remind you that you can go places, that you can fit in in this fast-paced world." He gave the dashboard a slap then, as if to accentuate his decision.
But Riley supposes his insistence that she learn how to drive is him turning the tables on her. The night she tried to end her life, she stood in the middle of a curving country road and waited for the next car to come and end her life. It was spring and raining and spring peepers sang out behind her. Her father was in that next car and he lurched to a stop. He scooped her into his skinny arms and set her in the passenger's seat, where she promptly vomited on her thighs.
Headlights lit up behind them and cars began to honk, but he waited until she spoke to drive them home.
Now they are in the opposite seats. Now Riley is the one squeezing the steering wheel, gritting her teeth, hoping her tires don't crunch bodies below their treads.
* * *
Learning to drive isn't the only post-suicide-attempt plan Riley's father has for her. She had her wisdom teeth extracted because her father insisted she would feel lighter, that she needed to lose a part of herself. Instead, she felt heavier and spent a few days lying on the couch, her cheeks puffy and yellow with bruises, saliva rolling out of the corners of her mouth, unable to appropriately annunciate responses to her father's inane questions (Could you hear the drill through the anesthesia? Can you feel the hole with your tongue?). Her father served her Jell-O while he plotted out other goals for her, including enrolling her in the Movement and Self Awareness class that he was already participating in at the dance center in town. Together, they lay on cushioned mats, while an elderly man, supposedly accredited to teach four different forms of yoga, asked them to wiggle their toes, their ankles, their calves, their knees, slowly crawling their way up their body. He told them most people live their whole lives without being fully aware of all their joints, muscles, and bones—all the ways they can manipulate their bodies. While they were in the middle of downward dog, Riley's father looked over at her and grinned. "I can feel the blood going to my head," he said. "I feel smarter already. I feel more whole." In the front of the classroom, the elderly instructor twisted himself into a human pretzel.
Riley also takes a First Aid and CPR certification class at the local YMCA. Most of the other members are teachers in training or overzealous Cub Scouts anxious to earn the privilege of Eagle Scout. Today, they watch a video about being the first citizen to come upon a car crash. Watching the video would be more horrifying if the acting weren't so poor, weren't so clearly constructed instead of lived, and if the blood and pain actually appeared real. The woman who slides her minivan into a telephone pole, pieces of her windshield splintering into her face, groans in a slow paced manner that reminds Riley of a student in the back of class who mumbles to himself before falling asleep. While the Cub Scouts squirm in their seats and the instructor walks to the corner of the classroom to comfort a small scout in tears, Riley wonders what the fake blood, dripping down the woman's face, was made out of, how they made the windshield splinter, and how they lodged glass in the actor's face.
The check, call, and care steps carefully outlined in the textbook are followed by a man bicycling down the road. With his helmet still on,the man talks to the woman and then presses a hand to her neck, discovering that she is unconscious, not breathing, and has no pulse. He scoops her into his arms and sets her on the side of the road, where he begins CPR after removing his helmet. While the man pumps the chest, pinches the woman's nose, and breathes into her mouth, the narrator reminds viewers that the man supported the woman's head, that he checked for danger before approaching and moving the woman, and that through all of it the man remained calm.
The narrator doesn't give the man a name and Riley decides to name him Edgar—Edgar in his bicycle shorts and orange T-shirt, his matching orange helmet. He is a walking safety man, a machine that always remains calm. But Edgar is not a hero today. When the ambulance lights flash on scene and EMS workers emerge from the vehicle, the narrator interrupts the action, the screen freezing in place, showing a standstill of Edgar perched over the woman, breathing into her mouth. His eyes are blue and glowing. The narrator says the woman was pronounced dead on scene. She reminds viewers they can't all be saved and that even in the best conditions about eighty-five percent of cardiac arrest victims don't survive. The Cub Scout breaks out in a new bout of tears, snot sniveling its way down to the collar of his T-shirt, and the instructor rushes to his side with a box of tissues, shushing the boys who let loose giggles behind him. Riley understands this is why her father did not take this course with her. He would be worse than that boy in the front of the classroom.
After handing off the tissues, the instructor races to the front of the classroom, her long earrings bobbing beside her neck."I'm sorry," she says, smiling at the small boy in the front of the classroom. "I played the wrong ending to this video." She presses a couple buttons on the VCR and Edgar comes on screen, performing CPR again. This time, a pulse is eventually found, the woman begins breathing, and when the EMS workers arrive and put the woman on the stretcher, she has regained consciousness enough to give Edgar a handshake. This time, the screen freezes on the handshake and Edgar's glowing smile. This time, the narrator tells viewers citizen responders can save a person's life.
Riley doesn't believe any of it, thinks that this alternate ending was a daydream Edgar made up hours later, thinks a woman that bad off ought to just be let go anyway. The Cub Scout in the front appreciates the revised ending and claps his hands together. He goes to the closet and pulls out the dummies so they can practice CPR. His friends rush over to him and they grab up the infants first, pumping their plastic chests atop their desks, racing to see who can get an infant's head to pop off first. They wait to slow down until the instructor crosses their area of the classroom and comments on their careful CPR.
In an opposite corner of the classroom, Riley practices on an adult dummy she thinks of as Edgar. She pretends he has ESP and when she forgets a step, she waits for him to tell her what it is. He mentions that he wishes he had legs and arms and not just a torso. He reminds her that just down the hall there is an automated external defibrillator and that if this emergency were real, she would be using that. Riley has her mouth pressed against the dummy's, breathing air into the opening, when the instructor comes to her corner and tells her the man is dead.
"You forgot to pinch the nose," she says.
Riley realizes her hand slid away from the nose, down to the dummy's scalp and its smooth plastic head, where she fingered Edgar's hair.
"Try again. See if you can save him this time." She has her hands on her hips, her long painted nails pointing toward Riley.
Edgar winks at Riley. He reminds her that he doesn't have arms and legs. He tells her he'd rather be dead anyway.
* * *
In Movement and Self Awareness class, the elderly instructor wants them to pretend to be an element of weather. Riley chooses humidity, causing the instructor to rub his chin and raise his bushy white eyebrows.
"How can you be that?" he asks.
Riley lies stomach down on the cushioned mat. She presses her palms against its cool surface. "I'm sticking to the mat," she says, pushing her cheek into the mat, which smells like sweat and mold.
"How about something more active?" the instructor says while pulling one foot up so that it rests on the inside of his opposite thigh. He stands there like a flamingo. "How about something that allows you to use your whole body."
"I am using my whole body," Riley says, still clinging to the mat. She, too, is making a sacrifice. Bare feet have crisscrossed this mat and some of them may have been infected with athlete's foot or ringworm. Sweat has dripped onto this mat.
"Everyone will have to dance around you," the instructor says.
"I don't really mind," Riley tells him. This is not so different from what she is used to.
The instructor lets his leg down, does two cartwheels and then a back flip to the front of the classroom, where he holds his arms out like a conductor about to begin a concert. "Remember to listen to your inner rhythm," he says. "Let your body go. Just let it go."
Barbara starts up as rain, doing squat thrusts across the room. She tries to explain her choice to the instructor, telling him that hard rain hits an object and then bounces slightly upward, but he doesn't want to hear.
"As long as it is true to you," he says.
Jenny Lee calls herself thunder and does summersaults across the mat.
"I'm rolling thunder," she whispers to Riley while she goes by. Jenny Lee rolls herself right over Riley's hand and her scalp is damp with sweat.
Riley's father picks the wind. He starts at one corner of the classroom, his head bowed, his body still, and his eyes closed. He reminds Riley of the way the parrot in her fourth grade classroom looked moments before he fell from his perch, tumbling to the bottom of its cage with a thump that made everyone look up in the middle of their spelling test and run to the cage, poking their fingers into it as if they could prod the bird back to life. Riley, too, reached a pointer in and swore the bird was cold already. She missed every word that followed on that spelling test, unable to even make out the words Mrs. Rose read to them.
Now, she swallows the way she did when her father came to school to lead a book discussion in the library, giving the students an impromptu quiz on the dewy decimal system. Her father raises his arms out to his sides, looking like an airplane. He opens his eyes, bends his knees, and begins flitting around the room, his bare feet bouncing off the mat, his arms twirling like those of a young ballerina struggling for control. He bends his knees up and down, up and down, like a jack-in-the-box that just can't make up his mind. His calf collides with Jenny Lee, who quickly somersaults herself to the corner of the room and stays there with her knees pulled into her chest.
Barbara has run out of energy for further squat thrusts and instead sits on the edge of the mat, taking deep breaths the way the instructor has taught them. She hums to herself.
Riley doesn't move, though she does consider it. Her father is like one of those relighting birthday candles right now. You tell him to be the wind and he just keeps on going, despite twirling himself off the mat or running into the woman who calls herself a tornado, and because the instructor said follow your inner rhythm, he will not at any time soon stop Riley's father from this terrifying dance that will inevitably haunt her for years. She closes her eyes and hopes he trips over her, hopes she can take him out, ending the wind and throwing him stomach-down onto the mat.
Maybe it is this thought of hers that makes her father yelp in pain. He has closed his eyes in order to follow his inner rhythm and, in the process of doing so, has danced his way off the mat and into the pile of shoes in the corner, where he has tripped and fallen and is now squeezing his ankle while crying. Riley remains calm because in the midst of the car wreck Edgar was calm, and this wreck is of much smaller proportions.
She peels herself from the mat, going slowly so as not to slip out of her role as humidity. She hopes her father will stop crying by the time she gets to him, hopes he will leap back up and become the wind so that she will not become the girl with the crying father. While she advances across the room, she scopes out her surroundings for potential splinting materials. Don't be afraid to be creative, her first aid instructor once said in class, later applauding one of the Boy Scouts who splinted another's arm with the leg of a broken desk. The boy with the cold desk leg against his arm looked mortified, his face green, as if he really had injured his arm.
But this room is too empty; it's something about feng shui, about space clearing. There are not desks or chairs or even small welcome mats to wrap injured limbs in. Riley knows about shoe laces; she will use them to tie them binding. It's the binding that's the problem.
The instructor gets to Riley's father first and she pulls herself out of the role of humidity in order to reach her father. The instructor pats her father's back and begins to pull an ace bandage from his back pocket. Riley elbows him out of the way. She would say something, but nothing says it as sharply as her elbow in his ribs.
He gives her a gentle bow, as if to say, Yes, of course, he is your father and I'm sorry I have intruded.
"Hey," Riley says, wiping a couple tears from her father's smooth face. "That was some nice wind. Tree moving sort of wind. I could fly all the way to Australia on that sort of wind."
"Australia is far away," he says, his eyes wandering across the room to Barbara, who has started up her squat thrusts again. "I wouldn't want you to go to Australia."
"No, Dad. I wouldn't." Although, in this moment, she wishes she could, wishes she could look at him and tell him she has already booked the flight and is going to work at a kangaroo sanctuary and spend her afternoons with a clipboard in hand, recording stats about the kangaroos that run free in the eucalyptus-treed expanses of the sanctuary. Later, at night, she will sit by joeys in the nursery, making sure they get their milk, singing them gentle Australian lullabies she just learned. She will have a tan. And on weekends she can watch camels race.
She has heard that is the way they do it in Australia; they don't race horses, they race camels.
"Does it hurt bad?" she asks. By this, she means: Can you make it to the car? Do I have to drive you to the hospital? Do we really have to come back to this class again?
"Not so bad," he says, though he still squeezes his ankle in his hand.
"I learned something in that first aid class," Riley says. She grabs up Barbara's gaudy pink hooded sweatshirt, resisting the urge to pull down the curtains hanging from the wide window in the front of the classroom, making a show of it by tugging and tugging, until she brought the curtain rod down with them. She eases her father's hand from his ankle and then wraps the sweatshirt around it. Afterward, she teases the laces from her own sneakers and ties the sweatshirt in place.
Barbara is too busy doing squat thrusts to notice that her pink sweatshirt disappears out the door, Riley's father limping his way out. He has one arm slung over Riley's neck and he smells like sweat and Old Spice.
"Am I hurting you?" he asks as they make their way down the sidewalk.
"No," Riley says. She keeps her head lowered toward the ground, watching the pink sweatshirt turn gray and brown, picking up dirt and cigarette ash. She might wash it and give it back to Barbara, and she might not, instead hanging it in the back of her closet as a reminder of this afternoon. She puts her hand on her father's back and gives him a pat, a small part of her secretly wishing that this was more than just a twisted ankle and that he might come to depend on her for a time. He didn't need the binding, the laces; Riley's first-aid instructor would tell her that and so would Edgar. There is a part of her that fears she will never be able to repay her father for the night he became the next car on the road; the night he somehow—despite the darkness, the rain, and the curve—knew to stop. There were years she thought of her father as weak and uncourageous, the sort of person who always followed the rules and always played it safe. There were years she blamed her father for her own inability to strive past careful cautiousness and determined geekdom. But that night, he hit the brakes so hard they smoked. He lifted all one hundred pounds of her as if she weighed no more than a kitchen chair.
And when she vomited into her lap, he didn't break out into a frown or crack a window, only pulled napkins from the glove box and helped her clean up. Perhaps he was the most stoic she had ever seen him when he sat in the driver's seat, his four ways on, a string of cars behind them honking their horns, their headlights glowing in the rearview mirror. He wouldn't drive until she had admitted what she had done. Now, her father winces in pain, but it is the kind that will slip away with elevation, with ice, with time. Years from now, they will joke about the time he was the wind. But they will never joke about the night Riley stood in the road. There are nights she has dreams in which she is standing in the road again, but this time the next car is not her father's. It is a school bus or a semi-truck or a Jeep with a buck tied to the top of it, his head looking right at her as it approaches, his eyes glowing in the moonlight. These vehicles always get close enough that she can feel their wind, can feel the warmth of the engine beating at her side, can see the antlers of the buck spread out in front of her. They come close enough that she is blinded by their headlights and that she swears she could reach out and touch the front bumper. But she always awakes before the vehicle collides with her. She goes to the kitchen and pours a glass of water. On the way, she notices the thin line of light under her father's door and knows that that night didn't just change her, it changed him too. And all of all the repercussions that night has had, it is the change she fears she has caused in her father that bothers her the most. He always worried, and that night she gave cause to his worry. She gave him lasting permission to worry.
"You drive," her father tells her now while he slips into the passenger's seat and hands her the keys.
Without his weight on her shoulder, Riley suddenly feels lighter. She opens the driver's door and climbs inside. Underneath her hands, the steering wheel is cold and slick. She takes a moment to close her eyes and breathe deeply, all too aware that this is something she learned in class.
"It's alright," her father tells her. "Think of it this way: driving is one of the only times you get to have a sheet of metal in between you and everybody else. It's like being in your bubble. You get to regulate the temperature, the music, even the smells." He taps an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror.
The woman with whom Riley takes her driving test is thin and small. Her feet dangle from the passenger's side seat. The hands that stretch around her test clipboard are thin and wrinkled. There is a smell about her, too. Like mothballs and mints. Old clothes. Riley eyes her sweater and wonders how old it might be. Sixty years, maybe more.
"Let's get started," the woman says, motioning for Riley to pull away from the curb. Riley takes her time turning the key, putting the car into drive. When she finally squeezes her hands around the steering wheel, there is already sweat dripping down her back. She reminds herself of what her father told her – how she is in her own bubble now. The problem is that there is another woman inside her bubble with her.
"Turn right," the woman tells Riley.
But Riley hasn't really been right all that many times. She's used to left. Her father told her the course would probably go left. They've been left a hundred times. Home is left. The grocery store, bank, and library are all left. She goes left.
"I said right," the woman says.
"I know," Riley says. She drives past the grocery story, bank, and library, and because she can think of nothing else, she starts heading home. This is the comfortable route; this is the drive that meant she was nearly through with her practice for the day.
Beside her, the old woman pulls her clipboard to her chest and clenches her teeth together.
"It's ok," Riley tells her. "I'm not going to crash or anything. I'm an alright driver. Besides, if we do, I'm almost certified in CPR and First Aid."
The woman only clenches her clipboard more tightly.
Riley understands. The world is full of almosts.
Without the radio on, without her father's usual classical music bubbling out of the speakers at a low volume, the silence filling the car is nearly unbearable. They near the curve of the road Riley once stood in, rain softly pelting her shoulders, goose bumps rising across her arms while she scuffed her shoes against the crumbling pavement. She slows down, almost certain someone will be standing there again, someone will jump out at her, hurdling his body onto the windshield and causing the test instructor to cover her eyes.
"We can't stop here, there's not a pull-off," the woman says, squinting ahead to see where they might be able to pull over.
"I know," Riley tells her, squeezing the steering wheel, searching the road ahead. "I'm not stopping. I'm just being extra careful."
"You know you've already failed," the woman says. She runs a finger along her lower lip and rethinks her words. "I mean, you shouldn't stop being careful. I just mean that there's not anything you can do now to make yourself pass."
"I know." Out of the corner of her eye, Riley can see that the woman is shaking a little bit now. She's squeezing her hands together in her lap, trying to get them to be still. "You see, I didn't really expect to pass anyway. I've been doing a lot of failing lately. You see this curve in the road, this one we're going around right now? A few weeks back I stood here, my arms crossed over my chest, you know the way you do on a basketball court when you're setting a screen, or the way you do when you're doing one of those stupid trust fall activities, which are stupid anyway because no one's going to drop you when the college orientation leader is looking, but when you get rid of the people who have the power to expel you from campus, you know all six of those people stretching out their arms would just let you fall. I was standing here, thinking I could end it all, thinking it'd be real quick. It was dark and raining and there was fog and I figured the next car around the corner wouldn't see me until it was already on me and I was gone."
"I think you should really talk to someone," the woman says, her voice cracking. Riley finishes rounding the curve and keeps going.
"I am," she says. "I'm talking to you."
She isn't sure what it is about this small old woman, if it's her quiet fear or unassuming stature, that allows her to tell this story for the first time. Riley hasn't even told it to the counselor her father sends her to each Monday. She doesn't go back so much to ease her father's worries as she does to sit in the counselor's office, which is filled with plants. Ivies and aloes line the windowsill. In one corner, a small palm tree stands in a clay pot. On the table next to Riley, there is a small rosemary tree that she likes to rub her fingers through, letting the smell drift into the air. There is a fountain, too, toward the back of the room, behind the chair the counselor sits in. Bonsai trees surround it, their small branches reaching out as if they could conduct the gentle sounds of water falling. The counselor—she still can't remember his name—always has questions, things like: What would you like to talk about today? Where do you see yourself in the future? Why might your father have suggested you come here? Sometimes he grows bored with these open-ended questions and asks more specific ones: Do you get along with your father? Do you have any friends? What are your hobbies?
Riley barely answers any of his questions, and when she does, she's sure to keep it vague and incomplete. She has never spoken of that night she stood in the middle of the road because to have said something about it would have meant ruining the perfectness of that room and forever filling it with an uneasy air.
That room, filled with plants and always warm—the heater under the window softly rumbling away—reminds of her a butterfly conservatory her father once took her to in Niagara Falls. It was snowing outside and cold enough that Riley hadn't been able get warm inside the car, even with her hat and gloves on, her body pressed up against the heater vents.
Inside the conservatory, they peeled off their coats and left them behind on large rack. Her father pushed open a wide glass door and they entered a warm and humid world, her toes suddenly uncurling in her shoes, her fingers finally warm with life again. It was the tallest room she could remember ever having been in before and she had to tip her head back to see all the way to the top, to the glass skylights that let in sunlight. Plants stretched right up to the top of that building, tickling the glass on all sides, and butterflies freely drifted about, looking like pieces of a painting that had given up on sitting still and decided to take flight instead.
"Come on," Riley's father said, tugging her forward so that people trying to get inside could make their way past them. He had a butterfly pamphlet in his back pocket and he pulled it out in order to identify a butterfly resting on a large rock to the left.
Riley left him there, perusing his pamphlet, and followed the sound of water to a small river and waterfalls, where eastern slider turtles sat atop slick rocks, occasionally slipping down into the water, their legs stretching out beneath them. She followed the turtles down the river, watching them swim, brushing her hands along the rubbery leaves stretching out from both sides of the path. Once, Riley caught a woman watching her watching the turtles and, in the warmness of that moment, in that rainforest atmosphere, Riley let herself think of that woman as her mother. She had long dirty blonde hair that had frizzed slightly in the humidity, and large green eyes that Riley could imagine lighting up each night as she told bedtime stories about Puff the Dragon defeating the monsters that lived under Riley's bed, about the fairies that came down from the stars to rest on Riley's headboard—stories that were so much more than the cautionary tales her father always told.
That world had been so perfect, so dream-like, that when her father told her it was time to go, she thought of how winter would have overtaken the car: the plastic booster seat her father still made her sit in cold against her thighs, the seatbelt chafing at her neck, and the way the windows would be frosted over so thick her finger would go numb before she could, with her fingernails, etch out an oval for her to peer out of. Riley stomped her foot as if she were two again and told him no. When he picked her up and carried her out, she was sobbing into her T-shirt and the woman with dirty blonde hair was staring. Riley hoped for the woman to reach out a hand, to say she would watch Riley for a little longer.
"We should be going back now," the test instructor says, her hands still shaking, her jaw trembling. "You know, if I'm not back after a certain time, they'll know to look for me. They'll send someone after us. The police will come."
"Do you know who was in the next car that came around the curve?"
Riley takes her eyes off the road long enough to briefly glance at the woman. "Hey, what's your name, anyway?"
"Well, Gladys, who do you think was in the next car that came around that curve?"
"I don't know."
"My dad. My father of all people. You see, I knew he was coming home from the library, I knew he would be driving around that curve. But what were the odds that he would be in that very next car? Him. And he has like this weird sixth sense when it comes to me. He knows like everything. So there I am standing in the middle of the road and he can't see me, there's no way he can see me, and he stops anyway. I'm thinking it's any old car until he gets out and it's him and I can't believe it because now I'm screwed over twice. Not only am I not dead, but my father caught me trying to be dead, so I'm in about the deepest shit I can get myself into. I mean at this point I can't even move. I'm just standing there and my dad has to pick me right up and carry me to the car like I'm four again. And then I get in there and I can barely breathe and I can't say anything and I end up puking right onto my pants. And we're in a car so it smells pretty bad and it's hot against my thigh and my father, who usually throws up as soon as he sees me throw up, just grabs a napkin out of the glove box and wipes it up. Without even hesitating. You with me, Gladys?"
"So we're sitting there in the car in the middle of traffic and there's a whole string of cars behind us just honking, their lights flashing behind us and my father won't even move because he's waiting for me to say something. And there I am thinking like how the hell am I ever going to explain this to my father because there's just no way out of it." Riley hits the gas a little harder now that they're out onto straight road. She remembers what she had to tell her father, how that try wasn't the only one, how she wasn't sure it wouldn't happen again. Her heart picks up now, the way it did that night. It seemed like the cruelest thing she had ever said to him, almost like saying: fuck everything you ever did for me, all that caring and loving, the way you would miss me if I were gone, I wanted to end it all anyway. Her father put the car into drive again and when they pulled into the driveway, he carried her inside, all of her shaking then, as if she had suddenly come down with hypothermia, as if the rain had been ice instead. Inside, he sat on the couch and held her on his lap, gently rocking her back and forth, and in that moment, she had been aware how silly it was—her nineteen years old and being rocked by her father.
"What did you tell him?" Gladys finally asks.
"I told him what I had to. I told him the truth."
"And here I am. This was part of his post-suicide-attempt plan. Me getting my license. Only I guess I haven't done that yet." She pictures her father waiting for her when she returns, his crutches balanced against the wooden bench, his newspaper rolled in one hand. He'd have an expectant smile spread across his face, a celebratory dinner planned. "Have you thought about it? Have you ever wanted to?"
"No," Gladys says.
On the blacktop just ahead of them lies a cat, flattened and crunched, its legs bending away from its body at awkward angles. Were it a different color, its stripes darker and not so orange, Riley could think it a raccoon and this would somehow be better. She would not imagine the family driving down the road the way she is now, stumbling upon it—wondering: Is that Oscar? Could it really be him?—Mom pulling the mini-van over to the side of the road while little Suzie presses her face up against the window, peering at the furry smear on the road and creating fog ovals on the window. There would not be a family standing there on the side of the road, wondering if there would ever be a break long enough for Mom to run to the road and collect some part of the cat worthy of burial so that Sam and Suzie could have a funeral and there would be appropriate closure.
Riley doesn't realize she has frozen at the wheel, that she's not registering that turn ahead of them, until Gladys reaches toward her, grabbing the steering wheel with her left hand and slowly guiding the car around the curve while a vehicle behind them honks.
"Come on, honey. Just pull on over." Gladys's words are shaky and soft.
Something hot burns in the back of Riley's throat. "I think I'm going to throw up," she says, pulling the car over to a berm in front of a field. She rolls down her window and heaves out into the gravel while Gladys pulls the keys from the ignition and cradles them in her palm.
Riley wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and then settles back into seat, glad she's gone far enough that she can't make out the cat in the rear view mirror. "I bet you get this a lot," Riley jokes. "People just going crazy on you in the middle of their test."
"No, not really." Gladys looks right at Riley and her eyes have a steely coldness to them.
Riley opens her car door and takes off down the bank and into the field. She stretches her legs out, getting her strides as long as she can, imagining the policemen who might track her—the distance they would have to go in between tracks. The field is filled with ragweed and her nose already tickles. It's working itself into a sneeze when her foot lands in a rabbit hole and she trips to the ground, knocking the wind right out of herself. The earth below her is warm and she lets herself lie there, waiting for her lungs to pull air in and out again. When Gladys appears beside her, Riley tries to think of something to say, but can't.
"I suppose the police will be coming eventually," Gladys says.
Riley pulls herself into a sitting position. "It's funny," she says. "When I was little I used to have this daydream about the police picking me up, about them finding me while I was hitchhiking across the US, stealing enough to keep me alive. It took four of them to finally chase me down and handcuff me, and when they put me into the back of the car, there were people cheering for me, chanting my name. Pretty fucked up, right? I wanted to be caught by the police and have people cheer me on at the same time."
"You really should talk to someone."
"I'm talking to you, Gladys."
"I don't think I'm qualified."
"Right. Maybe your ears don't work, maybe your heart's gone cold. Is that it, Gladys? 'Cause you look pretty old to me. I mean, you've seen a lot in your days, you've lived through a lot. If a person like you can't sit down and hear a story like mine, then—hell, I don't even know." Gladys's hands begin to shake and it excites Riley.
"Seriously, Gladys. Maybe it's people like you who are ruining this world. You're a grandmother, right? You probably make them cakes and dolls and pretend the world is all smiles and ice cream, which is fine until something happens and they realize it's not and you keep pretending that the world is still all smiles and ice cream. And then there's just this weird discrepancy happening—you knowing the world's not all ice cream and smiles and them knowing it too, but no one being able to talk about it."
Tears run down Gladys's face and Riley walks up to her, wanting to hug her, wanting to feel that soft sweater of hers against her cheek. Gladys has some meat to her and the woman's hugs have to be better than that of Riley's father, who is hopelessly skinny. Riley wants to rest her cheek against that woman's sweater, but when she steps up to Gladys, Gladys backs right away.
"It's not just you," Riley says. "I didn't mean it that personally."
Gladys climbs up the bank and then stands at the edge of the road, waving to a police car coming toward them. It doesn't have its lights or sirens on; this is not the way it happened in Riley's daydream.
* * *
Inside the police car, Riley sits with her hands cuffed behind her, not able to scoot all the way back in the seat. The policeman who held her forearm, who led her to the car, told her he wasn't going to cuff her, but she told him about her daydream and she asked for the cuffs. He stared at her, his eyes wide and sad, and hesitated a moment before Gladys touched his shoulder and said, "Maybe you oughtta just listen to her."
When the cuffs went on, Riley looked around and half-expected to see a crowd go up in cheers. They weren't there. And the cuffs were colder than she had imagined in her daydream. They bit into her wrists, and now they poke into her back. Across from her, Gladys sits, her arms folded together atop her lap. Sitting there, the sun outlining her form through the window behind her, she looks something like an angel. Riley wants to wrap her arms around the woman, to pull her in for a hug, and to rest her cheek on the woman's soft sweater, maybe daring to ask what has carried her this far. But Riley's wrists are bound and Gladys is not looking her way.
"Can you please turn on the sirens and lights," Riley asks the policeman. He just shakes his head at her, not even willing to offer up a spoken response. She tries to think of what she will tell her father, knowing there are not any words that can than comfort him.
She leans her head against the window, wanting to have the dream in which she is standing in the middle of the road again. She has heard that if you die in a dream, you die in real life too, though she doesn't want to die just yet; she just wants the accident to be bad enough that Edgar will arrive in his orange helmet and matching T-shirt. She wants the antlers of the buck to pierce her all the way through, leaving her and the buck connected. She wants Edgar to arrive on his bicycle and put a hand to her neck, searching for a pulse. His fingers would be warm and soft, and in one of the endings, Riley would get to live. The narrator would probably have something to say about not removing objects like that, about stabilizing them, though buck antlers were never in the book. And when the EMS workers came, they would have to lift both Riley and the buck onto the stretcher together, the buck's body strangely soft beside hers.
Edgar, always perfect, would remain calm through all of it. Even with the antlers lodged in her abdomen, Edgar would find a way of hugging her.
Originally from upstate New York, RACHEL FUREY is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale’s MFA program and a current PhD student at Texas Tech. Her work has appeared in the Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Twins and More, Freight Stories, XX Eccentric, Squid Quarterly, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. Earlier this year, Tobias Wolff selected her story “Birth Act” as the winner of Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize for fiction.