Daniel O’Malley grew up in Cedar Hill, Missouri, and currently lives in Huntington, West Virginia. His fiction has appeared in Meridian.
Sometimes she drove. It was always his idea, and he always had to ask several times, then reach across the seat and shake her by the knee, while the girl sat there faking like she was asleep, with her head hanging forward and a little bit of drool bubbling out of her mouth, though it was never actually real drool, only pretend. When she eventually said yes, yes she would like to drive, he’d help her over the armrest and into his lap. “Careful,” he’d say, “careful now.” And then he would take his hands off the wheel so she could steer. They drove across Missouri this way, across Kansas, Colorado, until they got to the mountains and turned and headed north up to Nebraska, then east all the way into Iowa and back down, and now they were in Missouri again. It was September. Occasionally there were trees, solid-seeming walls of them along the roadside, but mostly all they passed were fields. When the girl wasn’t driving, she liked to look through the binoculars. She liked trying to see what the people were doing in the houses at the far ends of the fields. When she saw animals, she would ask if they could stop the car, if they could pull over and maybe try to get one of the cows or horses or, every once in a while, goats to come over so she could feed it through the fence. But then the man would ask what, exactly, she thought she would feed this animal, because horses and cows and goats didn’t eat pretzels like the girl did, now did they, and before the girl could say that this wasn’t really a problem because surely she would find something outside for the animal to eat—some grass maybe, or a flower—the man would have pushed just a little bit harder on the gas pedal, and the car would already be past the field with the animal in it, and the girl would be up on her knees in the passenger seat, twisting to see it through the binoculars.
When the man said he was tired, they stopped at a motel. It wasn’t even dark. The girl knew the routine and ducked down below the level of the window while the man walked into the lobby. When he came back to the car, they drove around to the back side of the building and she stayed close to the man’s leg as they made their way up the stairs to their room on the second floor. They ate pretzels and potato chips and drank apple juice from the vending machine. There were two beds in the room and the man let the girl choose which she wanted. But then he said it wasn’t fair because he couldn’t see the TV from his bed, so he came over to hers and they sat there side by side, leaning on the headboard, while the girl clicked through the channels.
After the man fell asleep, the girl turned the TV off and stood up and stretched. She cracked her knuckles one by one and watched as the man stayed sleeping. Then she went to the bathroom and turned on the water in the tub. She pulled up on the lever that closed the tub’s stopper, then wadded toilet paper and packed it down into the drain just to be sure.
Outside, the sun was just beginning to set. The girl had remembered the binoculars, but she’d forgotten the hat. She liked to wear the man’s hat sometimes while he slept. He always wore it himself when he was awake, because, he said, the top of his head would get sunburned if he didn’t. The girl pretended she was being followed and crept down the stairs and across the parking lot. She paused in the shadow of a truck and turned the binoculars back toward the motel, room 202. No movement. The motel was situated next to the highway and for a while the girl lay in the ditch and watched the cars as they passed. She turned the binoculars around so that the cars seemed small and far away, but really they were right there, blowing right past her and making a wind that she could feel lifting her hair.
After the sun went down, the girl crossed the parking lot back to the motel. She counted the rooms that were lit up and the rooms that were dark. She walked around the parking lot inspecting license plates, then started collecting little pebbles and putting them in her pockets, imagining all the things a person might be able to accomplish if their pockets were big enough and they could find enough good, smooth rocks, and this is what she was doing when a woman touched her on the shoulder and asked her if she was lost.
The girl shook her head.
“Where are your parents?”
When the girl didn’t answer, the woman said, “Well, let’s get you inside then.” And she took the girl’s hand and led her into the lobby, where it smelled like fried chicken and there was a TV on over in the corner. The woman told the girl to go have a seat on the couch over there, which the girl did. She watched the woman ring the bell and wait. The girl tried to listen while the woman from the parking lot whispered to the woman who came to the counter. The woman from the parking lot was thin. She had hair that was brown like the girl’s hair, but longer. She had a jacket made from the skin of a cow, and, sticking out from the jacket’s sleeves, the woman’s hands seemed to the girl especially pink. The girl studied her own hands, which were not clean. She brought the binoculars to her eyes and looked at the women up close, but she still couldn’t hear what they said. The woman who worked at the motel shrugged and pulled a phone from behind the counter and set it where the brown-haired woman could reach. But the brown-haired woman turned around and approached the girl and squatted down on the floor in front of her.
“Those are nice,” she said, meaning the binoculars.
The girl nodded.
“Do you know what room your parents are in?”
The girl thought for a few seconds, then shook her head.
“Is it on the ground floor or upstairs?”
The girl thought about that for a few seconds too, then she said that her parents were dead. When the woman didn’t say anything, the girl went on. “They’re up there,” she said, pointing, meaning not upstairs but in the sky. “If I’m not good,” she said, “I won’t get to go there and see them.”
“Oh,” the woman said.
The girl said, “Can I stay with you?”
Then she lifted the binoculars and held them to her eyes backwards so that the brown-haired woman seemed small and far away. When the woman stood up and walked back to the counter, to the phone, the girl stood up too and tiptoed toward the door.
And then, when she got outside, she ran. She ran the length of the motel, rounded one corner and then another and then up the stairs until she was back at room 202, where the door was opened just enough. The man was awake now. He was watching TV. He had the remote control in one hand and a can of orange soda in the other. He didn’t look at the girl. He wouldn’t. He was disappointed, she knew. Their bags sat by the door. Now that the man wasn’t tired, they would probably leave soon, back to the highway. He would not ask her if she wanted to drive. Probably he would tell her that if this is the way she planned to behave, then maybe it was time to ride in the trunk again for a while. How would she like that? Then probably she would cry and he would close his eyes and sigh and they would compromise: She would not have to ride in the trunk, just the backseat, which would be fine with her except that he’d probably also make her put the seatbelt on and then, even if he did let her hold the binoculars, she wouldn’t be able to get up on her knees and see anything.
When the commercials ended, the girl saw that he was watching a baseball game, which meant that it would probably still be a while yet before they left. She passed between the bed and the television, ducking so she wouldn’t block his view, and sat on the floor, close enough to the bathroom that she could feel the carpet wet beneath her. The baseball game was on the west coast, so it was still day-light in the stadium. Everyone was standing, the men on the field, the people in the seats, everyone. The girl tried to concentrate on the game, to see what everyone found so fascinating, she tried hard, but she just couldn’t see it, so she leaned back and closed her eyes and pretended to sleep.