The summer we were fourteen, Nick McFadden and I found an abandoned camper in the mudflats along the Watonwan River, about a mile outside of town. It was one of those boxy aluminum trailers, painted white with a bright green stripe on the side, and it was a wreck. The paint was chipping and the undercarriage was rotted with rust and the inside was saturated with a sour, moldy smell that clung to your clothes and hair. The front end of the camper rested squarely in the mud, which made it look as though it had nosedived out of the sky and landed there by the river. But it had a booth-style table, a foldout bed, and a working propane stove, and Nick and I took bleach and rags from my house and spent a long afternoon scrubbing it out, and when we were done it was still a wreck, but clean enough for our purposes.
What were our purposes? Passing time, mostly. Playing cards, swimming, fishing for carp, throwing rocks into an old coffee can, smoking cigarettes stolen from our mothers’ purses. Nick had an old, out of tune guitar that he sometimes strummed.
Daydreaming. We felt too old to lose ourselves in some make-believe game as we might have a year or two earlier, but we channeled that imaginary impulse into fantasies involving older girls and plans for our escape. We sat at the table and dreamt up elaborate scenarios in which the camper figured prominently. It didn’t matter that it was stuck in the mud, or that we had no car to tow it: we were going to leave our little town behind, sleep in truck stops and parking lots, drive down to Chicago, or all the way to California. We would work in peach orchards like in The Grapes of Wrath, dig potatoes from roadside fields, pick up beautiful hippie hitchhikers who would paint our faces and give us new names. On the back of the trailer, in faded green letters, was the word “Oasis.”
Nick was the source of most of these schemes. He’d moved to Madelia the previous summer, and before that he’d lived in other places ⎯ Arizona, Idaho, Detroit ⎯ that sounded exotic to my ears. This gave him a certain authority, a worldliness. He kept his hair a little longer than my mother would allow. He provided most of the cigarettes. He loved Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, and sang their songs loudly while strumming his guitar, unembarrassed by his cracking voice.
Nick got ahold of a Rand McNally atlas and he would spread it open on the table and trace routes with a pencil while I lay back on the bed and smoked and listened.
“We haven’t even talked about Alaska,” he said. “We could make Anchorage in a week, easy, but we might want to spend some time in Canada on the way.”
“Saskatchewan,” I said.
“The Yukon,” Nick said. “The Northwest Territories.”
I’d never been more than a day’s drive from Madelia. My youth had been quiet and solitary. I was a scrawny, timid kid who preferred books to sports. My parents did not farm; my father worked for the real estate office. I kept to myself, watchful, like I was protecting a secret.
That was before Nick arrived. The first week of school, soon after he moved to town, Nick and I were matched as reading partners. I’d already done all of the reading over the summer, and I recounted the plot of Huckleberry Finn while he sat half-listening, cleaning his nails. We had different classes in the afternoon, and I didn’t see him again until after school, when he appeared out of nowhere as I was walking home and fell into step with me, wheeling his bike. He must have been waiting for me in the parking lot.
“Hey,” he said casually, flipping his shaggy hair. “So, what’s there to do in this podunk town?”
I was surprised, but also pleased. It felt like I’d been chosen.
Of course, there wasn’t anything to do in that podunk town. Over the next weeks, we fell into a routine, wandering the streets after school. I showed him the library, Flander’s Park, the picnic tables outside the One-Stop Market where boys too young to drive congregated on weekend nights to watch the street traffic. We sat in the bleachers and watched football practice, cheerleading try-outs. Nick took it all in contemptuously: the farm-boys driving their tractors down Main Street, the old men sitting all afternoon outside Oak Barrel. He seemed genuinely perplexed at the twist of fate that had landed him in our town.
And as the year went on, I began to see Madelia through Nick’s eyes. I’d always understood that our town was boring and slow, but I’d accepted this as a fact of life. What else could I do? That year, though, Nick’s scorn awakened something inside me: a vision of myself, someplace else. In the trailer, while Nick planned our escape, I think I knew deep down that it was a game, just make-believe. But at the same time, as I listened to him say Memphis, New Orleans, San Francisco, Cape Cod, the names took on a new meaning. The weight of possibility.
Saskatchewan. The Yukon. The Northwest Territories. That summer, I would have followed him anywhere.
Nick needed those daydreams. His family had moved to Madelia because his father had taken over the Hometown Diner, a restaurant on 7th Street that had been struggling even before the recession and which now threatened to go under at any time. But it wasn’t only that times were tough. The place just carried an atmosphere of failure. Anyone could see it: in the chipped paint on the facade, the stained yellow linoleum, the dead flowers in vases on the tables. Or, more intangibly, in the sad tilt of the “Open for Business” sign and in the way that the afternoon light canted in through the dirty front windows, dense and watery and polluted with dust.
More than anything though, the doomed quality emanated from Nick’s father. He exuded failure, gave it off like fumes. His name was Nick too, but people just called him McFadden. He and Nick looked alike, with the same dark hair, strong nose, and heavy, brooding brow. On Nick, these features were counterbalanced with a quick, broad smile, but on his father they were combined with a slouch, a thick neck and a mean, squint-eyed glare. At the restaurant he cooked on an open range behind the counter, hunched, sweating, mumbling under his breath, a cigarette burning down in the ashtray next to him, and he seemed the very picture of frustration and disappointment.
He drank. This was known but not talked about. He drank and he was bad with money. Nick’s father had taken over the diner from his wife’s uncle when he died, and he’d borrowed a lot of money to do it. I knew this not from Nick but from my own father, who was generally reticent about other people’s affairs, but who’d said more than once in my hearing that it was a shame how Nick’s father was running that place into the ground.
And there were the occasional outbursts that occurred at the restaurant, directed towards Nick’s mother ⎯ a tall, red-haired woman who ran the register and delivered food ⎯ or towards a customer who’d crossed some arbitrary line by asking for a steak to be cooked a little longer or reminding Nick’s father that he’d ordered his eggs over-easy, not scrambled. I’d heard about these eruptions before, but that spring I saw one myself.
One evening I’d stopped by the restaurant to meet Nick, who sometimes worked washing dishes and bussing tables during the dinner rush. We were going to ride down to the high school to watch a basketball game, but Nick had a pile of dishes that he needed to finish, so I sat down at one of the tables to wait.
It was around seven-thirty and the place was nearly empty, just two solitary men eating at the counter. Baseball season had just started and there was a Twins game on the little portable radio beside the cash register. Nick’s mother brought me a Coke and smiled and said that Nick would be done in a few minutes. She was always a friendly woman, with a quick smile and a bright laugh. I thought she was beautiful, too, and I remember noticing her beauty again in that moment. Her hair, a few strands of which had come undone, caught the light and seemed to glow.
I thanked her and she resumed chatting amiably with one of the customers, a young man in a brown suit who wasn’t from Madelia. Maybe a salesman passing through. Nick’s father was sitting at a small table in the far corner of the restaurant, logging the day’s receipts in a notebook, and I could see Nick with his arms sunk to the elbows in the big sink behind the counter. For a moment it seemed to me that the doomed climate of the place had been lifted, or put on hold. There was a buoyancy in the air, a feeling of optimism and satisfaction, of a hard day’s work well-done and ending.
Then the salesman said something that I couldn’t hear and Nick’s mother laughed loudly with her head thrown back and her hand on her chest. Her laughter rang through the restaurant and faded away, and in the quiet afterwards there was some new feeling, a stiffness, a tense anticipation. I didn’t understand it, but I could feel it; my mouth went dry. A moment later Nick’s father rose from the table and crossed the room with quick, decisive strides. He picked up the man’s glass and threw the water in his face.
“What in the hell?” The salesman stood up quickly from his stool and wiped his face with his napkin. “Are you crazy?” he yelled. “What’s the matter with you?”
“You better get your ass out of here,” Nick’s father said. His voice was raised but he wasn’t shouting, which somehow made him seem even more menacing. “This is a nice town, and we don’t need your kind around here.”
“My kind ⎯ ” the salesman said, confused.
“You’re the kind who comes into a nice family restaurant and tries to pick up a man’s wife, maybe leaves a hotel room number on the napkin. You’re about as low as a snail.”
Now he was jabbing his finger at the man’s chest. His face was red, livid, horrible; a vein bulged from his forehead. “You’re lower than a damn snail!” he yelled. “I’ll wipe you off my shoe.”
“Jesus, man. You’re nuts.” The man looked around for a moment, then shook his head and took out his wallet.
“We don’t need your damn snail money in here,” Nick’s father said. “Just get your ass out on the street where you belong.”
“You’re nuts,” the man said again. He turned and walked hurriedly past me out of the restaurant. While the little bell above the door was still jingling, Nick’s mother picked the salesman’s coffee mug up off the counter and threw it hard on the floor. The sounds cracked through the room. I flinched, brought my hands up to cover my face, and when I dropped them again I saw her storm silently out from behind the counter and through the swinging double doors that led back to the kitchen.
For a moment, the diner was full of heavy stillness. Nick’s father seemed suddenly deflated. His eyes looked down blankly at the counter. The other customer ⎯ Mr. Perkins, who worked at the bank ⎯ stood up silently, threw a bill down on the counter, and turned to walk out. As he passed me, he said, “Come on, kid,” and nodded towards the door.
I got to my feet but paused and looked back at Nick. He was stone-faced, glaring at his father. There was no fear in that look, or pity. It was hate, clear and sharp as glass, and when, a moment later, he looked back to me, that hate was still there, pointed at me like a gun. But a beat later it softened, and in its place was something else, something I recognized immediately: shame.
I turned and walked out the door. Outside, in the warm twilight, the street was still and quiet. I didn’t know what to do, whether I should leave or stick around, but it seemed wrong to just abandon Nick there. I crossed the street and leaned against the front of the pharmacy to wait. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I knew something about shame.
My mother sometimes went through periods of depression, during which she stopped looking after things. When it wasn’t a bad episode, this only meant that my father would pick up dinner on his way home from work or cook spaghetti or hamburgers for us. Sometimes it was worse than that, though. Sometimes she would not eat, would barely move from the living room sofa for a week or more, and the whole room would take on her musky smell. Sometimes she looked at me through hazy eyes, and I wasn’t sure if she recognized me at all.
One afternoon, she’d asked me from where she lay on the sofa with the shades drawn to bring her the telephone, and I’d watched her call my father at the real estate office. “You better come home,” she said in a voice that was formal and matter-of-fact but also full of meaning, desperation, a lurking threat. “Hurry,” she said and hung up and looked at me, her hair undone and her eyes flat and her lips slightly parted. I felt a strange terror ⎯she might do something awful, unspeakable ⎯but also, at the same time, a deep, saturating shame. I wanted to flee, to burst out of that dark, airless room into the outside world and breathe.
Nick burst out of the diner and without looking around, he stormed down the sidewalk. I pulled in line with him on my bike and dismounted. We walked for a few minutes in silence. I was waiting for him to speak first. We turned the corner of 4th Avenue towards the high school and he stopped for a moment and lit a cigarette.
“Fuck him,” he said dismissively. “Fuck him and fuck this whole town. This whole damn town is sinking, and I’ll be cracked if I’ll go down with the ship.”
He passed me the cigarette and I took a drag. It felt like we were sharing something, that we were allies, co-conspirators. As we walked down to the school, I could feel the whole dark world swell around the edges of our town. I could hear it there, humming.
“Just a matter of time,” Nick said. “This place is going down.”
And it seemed to me, too, that some disaster was impending, crouched and waiting in the dark.
As it happened, the disaster struck in late July, at the end of a long heat wave. Nick and I were down at the mud flats, which, in the absence of rain had turned into hard, crusty dirt. It was too hot to stay inside the trailer so we set up in a shady spot by the riverbank. The water was low and brown with silt, but periodically we would each rise from the bank, wade out into the river, and lie down in the shallows to cool off. Otherwise, we watched the water flow slowly past. The day was passing with the same liquid slowness. We didn’t talk much. Nick seemed a little withdrawn, but that wasn’t unusual: he had his moods. I didn’t ask him about it. I figured I had my moods, too, and left him alone.
We were playing Blackjack, throwing the cards down on a flat rock in the shade. Suddenly, Nick rose to his feet, shaded his eyes, and peered off over the trees.
“Jack,” he said. “Look.”
I rose too and squinted through my glasses. Smoke. Unmistakable, a grey column that rose above the trees and pierced the clear blue of the western sky.
It only took us ten minutes to get to town, but we smelled the smoke even earlier, a sharp, chemical smell. The streets were nearly empty, and we rode through them wordlessly. We slowed as we got closer ⎯ the smoke hurling up into the air above the buildings ⎯ trying to prolong the moments before we’d be confronted with what seemed inevitable. I knew it was the diner. It felt preordained, as if that fate had been locked in on that night in the spring when I’d witnessed Nick’s father’s outburst. I think Nick felt it, too, and neither of us spoke as we approached 7th Street, too afraid to articulate what we already knew.
We heard the crowd before we turned the corner. The whole town was packed together on the narrow street. The smell was stronger now, and I could hear the fire ⎯ a huge whooshing sound, like fast-moving water, punctuated by the occasional crack and spit ⎯ but we couldn’t see it yet through all the people.
Nick turned and looked at me for a moment, and I held his gaze, waiting to see what he would do. Then he dropped his bike on the asphalt and rushed forward into the crowd.
I followed him, pushing through the mass of bodies. I saw people I knew ⎯ Mrs. Schraeder, who taught fourth grade; Mr. Lewiston from the grocery store; a group of older girls from the high school; Pastor Paul from church ⎯ all huddled together there, sweating in the heat, craning their necks to see. I made my way through them, searching for Nick, but when I got to the front of the crowd, I stopped too.
Most of the diner’s roof had already collapsed and the flames rose several feet above where it had been. The two front windows were broken and the fire curved up out of them, like upturned palms. The walls were black, charred, and the smoke was tremendous, swirling furiously up into the sky. Only fifty feet away, I could feel the heat of the fire on my face like a horrible breath. I stood and watched for what felt like a long time, and for a while I wasn’t thinking about Nick at all; I was hypnotized, transfixed by the power of the fire, its indifference to us, its ravenous hunger.
The police had blocked off the street with yellow tape for a few dozen yards in either direction. In that space our town’s two volunteer firemen were standing, each holding a long hose aimed at the buildings on either side of the diner, trying to protect them. It was clear ⎯ to me, to everyone ⎯ that the diner itself was beyond saving.
“Did you ever see a thing like that?” said a voice next to me.
I looked up. It was Craig Dawson, who worked for the farmer’s union. He whistled and shook his head. “Lordy, ain’t it something?”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Grease fire, they’re saying. They called up to Mankato for help, but I don’t see much use in it now. That place is gone.”
“Grease fire,” I repeated. I was a little stunned, not thinking straight.
“That’s what they’re saying.” Craig leaned in towards me and lowered his voice. “Miracle no one was hurt. They pulled him out of there right before the whole place went up.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Who?” He frowned. “Who do you think, kid? McFadden!”
The name brought me reeling back to myself.
“Where is he?” I asked frantically. “Is he dead?”
Craig’s frown deepened. “Dead? No, he’s not dead. He’s right over there.”
He pointed to where Nick’s father sat, in front of the pharmacy, on the other side of the yellow police tape. Someone had brought him a chair. He slouched in it, his head hanging. He wasn’t even looking at the fire. His white shirt had big, grey stains across the chest, and his face was smudged with soot or smoke or ash.
Then I saw Nick, standing on the sidewalk at the corner of the crowd. He wasn’t watching the fire, either; he was watching his father. The look was the same, though. He stared at his father in the same way that you’d watch any doomed, self-consuming thing. Nick was surrounded by people, but separate; he looked totally, hopelessly alone.
I weaved through the crowd until I stood next to him. He kept his eyes on his father, but he must have known I was there. “Look at him,” he said. “Dead to the world.”
He was right. I saw now that his father was stupendously drunk. I’m not sure I’d seen that type of drunkenness before, but somehow I recognized it immediately: the slight sway of his body, the sightless, squinted eyes. On the ground between his legs I noticed a clear glass bottle, and at almost the same instant that I saw it, he picked it up, lifted it to his face, and took a long drink with his head thrown back. When he was finished, he lowered the bottle and turned his head slowly in our direction. It was such a slow, idle movement that he reminded me of a large animal, a cow or a buffalo. He looked almost surprised to see us all there, as though he hadn’t realized that a crowd had gathered.
Around us now tiny white flakes of ash were falling, roused from the smoldering wreckage by the firemen’s hoses. They fell like snow, settling onto our hair, our shoulders, our shoes. A flake landed on Nick’s eyelashes; he raised his hand absentmindedly and brushed it away.
Then he was moving, ducking underneath the police tape, taking short, quick steps towards his father, who seemed oblivious. For a moment I thought Nick might hit him, but instead he grabbed the bottle from his father’s hand and, in one smooth motion, he turned and threw it towards the fire. It rose in a high arc, spinning ⎯ the glass glinting in the sun, vodka spilling as it turned in the air ⎯ and landed unspectacularly in the burning remains of the diner. A fireman turned and yelled, but by then Nick had started yelling too.
“Look what you did! You drunk! Look! Look!”
He was facing his father but pointing behind him at the fire. He took a step forward and stuck his finger in his father’s face.
“This is your fault! You worthless drunk! You shit! It’s your fault!”
I was shocked. It was as if Nick had transformed from the boy I knew into someone else altogether. He had shed childhood like a skin. There was something familiar about the evenness of Nick’s voice as he shouted, the way he was standing and jabbing his finger. It reminded me of the night his father had yelled at the salesman in the diner. I was dumbstruck, full of fear and awe.
His father, meanwhile, sat there with the same confused expression on his face; he was beyond anger now. He frowned up into Nick’s face like he couldn’t remember who he was.
“It’s your fault!” Nick yelled again, more softly now. “Look what you did!” And I heard the quiver in his voice, the break, and I knew that he was on the verge of crying, and he was restored again to the Nick I knew.
At that moment, two men from the crowd stepped forward. They moved to take hold of Nick, but before they reached him, he turned away from his father and stormed back towards the crowd. He passed by me without looking up, but I knew to follow him, again.
I caught up with Nick where we’d left our bicycles lying in the street. He picked his up and straddled it. I wanted to say something to him, to console him. I wanted to let him know that I’d do anything, whatever he wanted. “Nick,” I said, but stopped there, waiting for him speak.
He looked at me. His eyes were red and I could see the tear stains on his face, but he wasn’t crying now.
“We’ve got to go,” he said calmly. “Tonight. We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I have some money, a little. We’ll need some other stuff, though. Some food and stuff. Blankets. Can you take care of that?”
His voice was flat, soothing, like he was talking to a dog, or a much younger child.
“Blankets. Okay, yeah.”
“Good,” he said, nodding. “Good. Then meet me at the river. You’ll get the stuff and meet me there later, tonight?”
“Okay,” I said again. “Tonight.”
He smiled slightly, a wry, world-weary half-smile. I was so relieved to see it that I almost started crying myself. I loved him, painfully. Then he rode off down the street, and I stood watching him until he was around the corner and out of sight.
There was nowhere for me to go but home. I rode slowly through town, into the wide, shady streets of my neighborhood. Through the trees that lined my street I saw that the sky was growing dark; a bank of dark clouds was rolling in. It was as though the smoke from the fire had risen into the sky and been transfigured there into a heavy grey carpet. The air was dense with the smell of rain.
I walked into the kitchen. My father was standing at the counter, chopping onions.
“See the fire?” he said without looking at me.
“Yeah,” I said, warily. I was afraid to talk about it, afraid that I’d somehow give away our plan.
“It’s a miracle no one was hurt.”
I wanted to go up to my room, but I sensed there was something else he wanted to say. My father was a good, honest man, who liked nothing more than to spend Sunday afternoons smoking his pipe and playing chess with himself. He was quiet and humble, and I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice. So when he wanted to say something, I paid attention.
After a moment, he stopped chopping and turned to face me. “Seen Nick?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He was down there.”
I shrugged. “I guess.”
My father nodded, frowning. “Listen,” he said. “I looked up the file on the restaurant at work.”
My father worked for the real estate company, and usually his job couldn’t have been less interesting to me. But now I was listening intently.
“Okay,” I said. “And?”
“Well, Nick’s father didn’t have any insurance on that place.”
“So?” I said, not understanding what he was getting at. “What does that mean?”
He looked down at the floor and sighed. “It means he’s ruined.”
The tone of his voice and the way he averted his eyes made me nervous. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be “ruined.” The idea was nebulous to me. In Mankato I’d seen people begging for money, and I knew people in our town who were poor, but those associations seemed distant. Now though, as the word hung in the air, it had a strange new gravity. It made everything feel terrifyingly real. If they were ruined, then nothing was stopping Nick from running away, and what had been a hazy fantasy solidified with a new, crushing weight. I stood in the kitchen looking at my father—his rumpled pants and receding hair-line, his kind, open face⎯ with the smell of dinner in the air, remembering the promise I’d made, and I was scared to leave it all behind.
After a moment, he turned back to cooking.
“Go in and see your mother,” he said. “Dinner in fifteen minutes.”
I went into the living room, where my mother was lying on the sofa. The blinds were drawn and the room was dim. That room was always dim, always musty and close. It seemed like the thick cushions and heavy drapes had absorbed all the light and the air.
When I walked in, she opened her eyes and smiled.
“Jack,” she said softly. “Come here.”
She sat up, slowly, sleepily. Her loose, untidy dark hair fell across her face and she pushed it back behind her ears. This was not a bad episode, I knew. She would say later that she’d just had a headache. I walked over and sat down next to her and she put her arms around me. She smelled like mint tea and stale sweat. Sometimes, when she was like that, she just wanted to hold me.
For a few minutes, she stroked my hair, put her face into my neck and breathed. I sat stiffly and let her, but as it went on, I felt that I was being smothered. I hated that room, that musty smell. I wanted to break away, to run back outside into the light. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her, scream at her, tell her to get up off the couch, to make dinner, to put the radio on and dance lightly around the kitchen while she cooked, like she did on her best days. Instead, I let her hold me, and turned my mind back to the trailer where Nick was waiting, and I started to make a list of all the things we would need.
That night, after my parents were in bed, I stole out of my room and packed. Besides my clothes and some extra things for Nick, which I put in my school backpack, I filled a duffel bag with sheets and blankets, flashlights, matches, two mugs and two sets of silverware, a pot and a frying pan, a loaf of bread, a stick of butter, some ham and cheese from the refrigerator, and several cans of beans. I took a can of coffee, too. We didn’t drink coffee yet, but it seemed like we might want to start. When it was all packed, I took one last look around my kitchen, which seemed strangely normal, undisturbed. Then I went out the door and got on my bike and, with the duffel positioned awkwardly across the handlebars, I rode off to meet Nick.
It was an unusually dark night. The clouds blocked the moon. After I got out of town, I had to wait a few moments for my eyes to adjust. I couldn’t even see the road. The air was still charged with threatening rain, and the wind had picked up. Riding out to the river on the county highway, I could hear the corn thrashing in the fields.
As I approached the turnoff to the mudflats, I saw a fluttering light through the trees, and as I got closer I saw that Nick had made a fire there in the dirt and was sitting next to it on a log. When he saw me, he stood up and rushed to help me with the bags.
“Oof,” he groaned theatrically as he hoisted the duffel. “I don’t think we’re going to need all these encyclopedias.”
I laughed. I was relieved to find him cheerful, eager; I’d been vaguely worried that he might have changed his mind. We brought the bags into the trailer and, using the flashlight to see, we did an inventory of what I’d brought. Nick was impressed. “Good,” he said. “We can get by on this for a week, I think, maybe two.”
He took the bread, ham, and cheese from the bag and made himself a sandwich on the narrow counter beside the stove; he’d been out there all night, I realized, without eating dinner. On the table I saw the atlas spread open, and with the flashlight I sat down to look.
“I think I’ve got it all figured out,” Nick said, chewing. “We’ll need to find a place to stay as soon as possible, and I think our best shot is to look for work on a farm, where they might have a bunkhouse or a barn we can sleep in. I think we should head west, back through town. We’ll have to hitchhike. Someone’ll pick us up on Highway 60. Here.” He pointed. “I think we should head over towards Sioux Falls. We need to get some money together. I’ve got twenty bucks, but it’ll go fast.”
“Where’d you get twenty bucks?” I asked him. I’d never had that much money.
“My mom gave it to me,” he said quickly.
Just then, there was a violent roll of thunder. We hushed as the echoes reverberated, and then I heard the sound of raindrops on the roof.
It was a real summer storm, the rain the farmers had been waiting for all month. The noise of the rain on the metal roof of the trailer was loud enough that we had to raise our voices.
“Shit,” Nick said. “We’ll have to wait it out.”
He unfolded the bed from the back wall of the trailer and covered it with the sheets and blankets I’d brought. “We can leave early in the morning. I’m going to get some sleep.”
I went on studying the map in the flashlight’s yellow beam. Sioux Falls, South Dakota. On the map, it looked very close ⎯ about a hundred miles away ⎯ but the name was so strange and foreign it might as well have been a thousand. I was beginning to feel tense and nervous, and I wanted Nick to stay awake and keep planning in his easy, assured voice.
“Nick,” I said softly. Perhaps too softly to be heard over the rain, or perhaps he was already asleep.
I didn’t feel tired, but I went over to the bed and lay down next to him. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the rain. After a while, I began to hear Nick’s breathing next to me. It was even and rhythmic, soft and slow, and I took from it what comfort I could.
The rain stopped close to dawn, and the silence woke me up with a start. I sat up in bed and blinked, trying to remember where I was. It was still dark, but gradually I made out the shapes in the trailer. Nick was still asleep, curled up facing the wall.
I put on my shoes and went outside. Everything was very still and quiet. The rain had left a wet, earthy smell in the air, and I could hear the humming of insects in the trees and the faint sound of the newly-swollen river. The ground was deep mud, and I stood on a half-submerged railroad tie that Nick and I had put outside the camper door. The clouds had cleared and the moon had already set. I could see the stars and, in the east, the pale band of morning. I stood there for a while, remembering. It was like a light switched on in my head, and the events of the previous day swarmed back to me.
Woken too by the silence, perhaps, Nick came out and stood beside me. He blinked and rubbed the sleep from his face. I watched him in the feeble new light, waiting for him to call it all off, but he spit into the mud and said, “Ready to go?”
I nodded. I had promised, after all. We went back in and gathered our things.
As we were leaving, we stopped and looked back at the trailer.
“Goodbye, Oasis,” Nick said.
“Goodbye,” I said, and we rode away towards town.
Around us, the world was appearing, the trees and fields, all of it rain-freshened. Everything seemed different than it had the night before ⎯ more solid, more real ⎯ and I think Nick felt it too. Neither of us said anything as we rode.
The sun was nearly up when we entered town. At the intersection of 2nd Avenue and 3rd Street, we paused. To get to the highway, we would need to go left; turning right would lead us into town. I waited for him to choose.
“I want to see it,” Nick said. “One last time.” I nodded, and we turned right, just as we’d done the day before.
We rode through the empty town to 7th Street, where we turned and stopped in front of the burned wreckage of the diner. There wasn’t much left: most of the front wall had collapsed, along with the roof. Further back, a few beams were still standing, and there was a foot or so of charred debris on the ground. I could see the shape of the counter and the grill behind it, now fully black. There was a line of yellow police tape strung between the adjacent buildings.
“Ruined,” I murmured without thinking. The word left my mouth and floated off into the gathering light.
Nick let out a long sigh, like some world-weary traveler. “He kept a cash box under the counter,” he said. “It was metal. Could have survived.” I looked at him, not quite understanding. “Could be a couple hundred bucks in there.”
I looked again at the rubble, frowning; the idea that anything had survived seemed ludicrous to me. But Nick set the duffel bag down on the ground and dropped his bike there and, ducking under the police tape, he walked into the ruins through the space where the door had been. I paused for a moment, but then, as always, I followed him.
I wondered if the debris would be hot, but it wasn’t; the rain must have cooled it off. Charred and waterlogged, it crumbled under my feet. It still held the smell of fire, like doused coals. Most of it was indistinguishable, just black and grey mush, but as I waded through I began to make out definite, recognizable shapes: a hand-crank for a window, the base of a lamp, one of the vases that had sat on the tables. It was amazing: the day before this soft, shapeless mass of rubble had been wood and plaster, tables and chairs. Now, nothing. Gone.
Nick was ahead of me, on the other side of where the counter had been, kicking around in the rubble.
“It’s got to be here somewhere,” he said.
I made my way to him and began kicking around too. My shoes and the cuffs of my jeans had turned black with soot. Nick knelt down and began combing through the debris with his hands, and I joined him. The way I remember it, we dug through the mess for a long time, searching. Beneath the wet top layer of ash, the rubble still held the warmth of the fire. We dug and dug, ruining our clothes, and our search took on a kind of desperation. We were looking for the money, but I think it was more important that we find something, anything that we could save.
Of course it was hopeless. The fire had been too powerful. The mess was too big.
But we did find it.
I did. Just as we were about to give up, I kicked aside a large, solid chunk of burned wood and something underneath it caught the light, flashed sharply like a mirror.
“Nick,” I said, standing back, not quite ready to believe. “Look.”
Together we looked down at the smudged metal box lying there among the ashes.
Nick bent down and picked up the box. He held it for a moment, the early light reflecting off the metal into his face.
It seemed impossible, but there it was.
“Open it,” I said.
He did, slowly. It wasn’t locked and offered no resistance. Inside, I saw a few rolls of change and four neat, clipped stacks of ones, fives, tens, and twenties.
“Holy shit,” I said.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t all that much money ⎯ maybe a couple hundred dollars ⎯ but it was certainly more cash than I’d ever seen in one place. Looking at it, I felt a strange mixture of disappointment and relief, exhilaration and fear. I think that in the back of my mind, I’d been counting on the inevitable failure of our escape plan. We would be gone for a couple of days, I figured, before we got scared or hungry and came home, or before we were picked up hitchhiking by a state trooper. Now though, anything seemed possible.
Nick reached into the open box and pulled out something else, something small that caught the light. He held it up in front of his eyes, and I saw that it was a ring, a gold band with a small, square diamond. I frowned at it, confused. When I looked back at Nick, I saw that slow tears were running down his cheeks.
“Nick,” I sputtered. I didn’t understand what was wrong, but I wanted to comfort him, to hold him. Perhaps sensing that I might touch him, he shook his head, put the ring back in the box, closed the lid, and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
“I’ve got to go home now, Jack,” he said, and without waiting for me to say anything, he turned and began trudging back through the debris to our bikes. I stood there for a moment, confused, and then I followed him. On the sidewalk, he picked up his bike and threw his leg over it, the cash box wedged under his arm. “I can’t leave him,” he said. “I’m all he’s got left now.”
“What do you mean?”
“She left,” he said.
“She left,” he said again. “She left him.”
“My mom. She left us. A few days ago. She went to stay with my aunt in Sioux Falls.”
Sioux Falls. I thought for a moment, trying to understand. Through everything, through the fire and the scene in the street between Nick and his father, through the night spent next to him in the trailer and the morning spent rooting around in the debris, I hadn’t thought about his mother at all, hadn’t wondered where she was for a minute. Now, though, something clicked into place, and a lock sprung open in my mind. I thought about Nick’s father, sitting drunk in the chair the day before, with his life burning down in front of him. The twenty dollars Nick said she’d given him. The ring in the cash box. It all made sense.
Except for one thing. “Why didn’t she take you with her?” I asked.
“She wanted to,” he said. “I said no.”
“No? How come?”
He shrugged, shook his head. He wasn’t crying anymore, and seemed to think seriously about the question.
“I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “I just couldn’t leave him behind.”
We were silent for a moment as I wrestled with this new information. We weren’t going to Sioux Falls. We weren’t leaving at all. In my chest I felt a clear and unmistakable relief.
“I’ll see you around,” Nick said. Then he turned and rode off down the street towards home, where his father would be waiting for him, alone.
As I found out later, my father had been right: they were ruined, bankrupt. They left town not long after; certainly they were gone by the end of the summer. I must have seen Nick again after that morning, but I don’t remember it. They might have joined his mother in Sioux Falls, but I don’t know for sure. The last clear memory I have of him is that morning, watching him ride off with the cash box under his arm, the only thing he could salvage.
When he was out of sight, I slung the duffel bag over my handlebars and rode towards home. The early light was warm and soft; it coated everything it touched. I went slowly through town, past the high school and the post office, the library and the One-Stop Market. I felt as though I’d spent a long time away from home and was coming back from a long trip. I noticed things I’d never seen before: how crisp and clean the flag outside the American Legion was, the way the rain-washed metal sign outside Max’s Hardware gleamed in the early light.
I was relieved, like I’d woken from a disturbing dream, but I felt vaguely hurt, as well, slighted that Nick had chosen to stay, chosen his father over me. I’m not sure that he ever really planned to leave at all. But I’d been ready. I would’ve followed Nick wherever he wanted to go, and as I rode through town, my hurt dissolved into shame. I’d been ready to leave it all behind. I would’ve left her behind. As I approached home, that shame hardened into resolve, into a promise I made to myself.
By the time I got home, my father had already left for work and the driveway was empty. In the kitchen, I took off my dirty shoes and dropped the bags on the floor. I went into the living room, where my mother was sleeping on the sofa. I stood there for a moment, just watching her sleep, the slow rise and fall of her breath. I felt the ache of love in my throat. She must have sensed me there, because her eyes fluttered and slowly opened.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good morning, baby.”
The room was dim and stuffy, as usual. In a quick burst of movement, I crossed to the windows and threw open the drapes. The morning light blazed into the room, burned through the shadows and the close, musty air.
by Mike Alberti
First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize