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This Earth, That Sky

The two Travelers, both women, one older, one young, together in a pickup with a camper shell where they sometimes slept.

They drove the rural and snow-spackled Dakotas towards the horizon on a wintry afternoon across flat farmland blanketed in snow under the threat of more weather. “Nana, those are mountains.”

“Serena, those are clouds.” Nana held tight to the wheel. She knew the tires on the truck were bald. When wind flared, old snow stippled the highway, obscuring it. Sometimes she felt the truck skid. Late afternoon shimmered, alive with breaking flocks of birds heading South.

“Nana, they’re mountains.”

“They look like mountains, don’t they?”

She wouldn’t argue, even in jest. A large flock of dark birds wheeled above them, fighting for purchase against harsh wind, finally admitting defeat and flying with the wind, unable to go South. A fly buzzed against the windshield until she opened her window and shooed it out.

“Shoo fly, shoo fly,” Serena said, laughing.

A darkness was coming. It felt to Nana like vertigo and she wondered if what she saw was shadows made by congealing jelly in the aging vitreous of her eyes. She shook her head to clear her vision. “Without clouds, the land in these parts would feel naked.”

Serena narrowed her eyes to concentrate. “They don’t just look like mountains, they are mountains.” She had the open face of a young, bronzed angel, or what Nana imagined an angel would be if such things could light upon the uninhabitable parts of the earth. At ten she had baby fat, despite their hit-and-miss diet, and fleshy fingers the color of hard-packed earth. She enjoyed making things, whether with thread or felt or colored pencil, and playing games of all kinds, board games with cards or dice and any other game found at a flea market or in one of the abandoned moldy aisles in the new ghost towns as the Dakotas emptied out.  People died, moved on. There was nothing there anymore for anybody looking for a life. The ones who had connections, whether tribal or ancestral, sometimes stayed in place, locked and loaded. The others lived in the cities or close to the interstate highways, where police still patrolled, at least during the day, when they kept a kind of order, the ones who could be trusted.

The two were on the run.

Nana sometimes found herself hobnobbing in the little shops in the inhabited towns that still speckled the land.  She was social. She needed conversation. There wasn’t much of that anymore. Her husband, Martin Gonzalez, had been shot dead by somebody they thought was a friend. It felt like medieval times. It was hard to know who to trust. Shops in many towns were closed or had very limited hours. OUT OF BUSINESS. How many times had they seen that sign hung from a doorway or painted on a window? WHAT’S LEFT IS YOURS, one said. That one had been cleaned out long before they arrived.

They had stayed the previous night in an abandoned bed and breakfast, called THE OUT-OF-THE-WAY B&B, with Victorian lace doilies and a collection of bone china teacups on every available surface, all dusty and half broken, each with a gaily painted, wooden troll inside. A single gleaming toaster on the breakfast buffet table actually worked, a piece of crumbled toast still in it. Dust covered everything. Nothing had been plundered, only broken. There was a frozen loaf of bread in the kitchen freezer.

Nana had dreamed that night of a man who took her ticket from her, the ticket that could get them into a room where nobody died. He held it before her but refused to punch it. “I paid for it,” she argued. He stared stone-faced, like unyielding gneiss in a field, hate burning in his eyes, put the ticket in his pocket, turned away.

The electricity still hummed in the house. It was a mystery. We could stay here a time, she thought, if it wasn’t close to the highway. Not out-of-the-way enough.

“Nana,” Serena said when the toast, frozen no more, popped up so fiercely that it sprung to the table and almost fell to the filthy floor, “That toast is ready and it’s not going to butter itself.” There was no butter. She and Serena could kill whole weeks like that, traveling through towns where people once lived and thrived, stopping here and there, burning the days. Nana had a wad of money from the house she had once owned and kept it in a compartment under the seat. She felt a catch in her throat. “The whole world given away for 24 pieces of silver,” she muttered. The bitterness tasted like it was burning the tongue.

She knew they had to find a place to settle, a community to take them, or try their luck in Fargo, where she and her daughter, with Martin, had once lived, and hope for the best. Traveling was a way to kill time. It was also a way to get killed. Stay in one place, everybody said. On the road, without a convoy, you’re meat. And Nana had grown old for such a life. “They’re mountains, Nana. I can see snow.”

But she felt alive, safe on the road. Maybe it was disease after all the mayhem, a claustrophobia she couldn’t quit without moving, but Serena deserved better.

In the car Nana reached and squeezed the young girl’s arm. “We don’t have mountains in this part of the world. The horizon is almost flat.”

Alert, Serena turned towards her. “What’s horizon?”

“It’s where earth and sky appear to meet.”

“Do they meet?” Serena studied the road. “It looks like it. But we never get there.”

“No, they hope to meet but don’t, just look like it. A tragic love story. Romeo and Juliet.  Lancelot and Guinevere. Orpheus and Eurydice. Jane Eyre and Rochester. Pocahontas and John Smith. Rama and Sita. Frida and Diego Rivera.”

“The Fantastic Four. The Black Panther,” Serena added, smirking. ”The Three Stooges.”

“John and Yoko,” Nana added. “Jimi Hendrix and the sky.” She felt a catch in her throat. They were all dead. Was there anything that wasn’t? “I barely remember,” she said.

“They are so over, Nana.”

“Why are they over?”

“Why don’t we ever get there?”

“That’s a very good question, Serena.” She thought, there’s nowhere to get, that’s why. It was strange, how she felt safe on the road, in danger if cooped in a farmhouse with people they might trust or in a city where people might or might not give a shit. She remembered Martin Gonzalez. That had been more than a year ago. She was still a handsome woman, she knew that, but the last man she came across, after Martin, who had been good, had wanted something from her but wouldn’t give a thing in return. He had turned her to the ground and taken her from behind but let her live. Serena had not been in the yard at the time, but it would have made no difference to him.

That would never happen again. She staked her life on it.

The road is better than the roadhouse. Live free or die. She liked the sound of that.

The two of us and nobody else. Nobody else in the world. The last two people on earth, except for caravans of homeless with haunted eyes and filthy faces they saw sometimes in a field camping for the night or driving ahead of them in battered vehicles that she would go out of her way to avoid. The military convoys, coming from someplace and going someplace else. The occasional farmer in a combine plowing the fields, often with a son or wife or friend standing guard, holding a rifle, the equivalent of a scarecrow meant as a warning not to birds but to people like her. “There’s nothing for you here,” the profile with its rifle said.

It was impossible to know how much of the contagion the land carried, so Nana had no interest in scavenging food from fields. Some people were still good. They would help an older woman and child, but she kept her foot on the accelerator. “We need gas,” she said. “Goat Hollow is up ahead. The pumps there are still open, I’ve heard.”

“Heard from who?”

“You know. Word gets around. The telephone telegraph. Things have changed, I don’t know why, but we still find company, don’t we? This is still adventure, isn’t it?” The words rang hollow, but she repeated them anyway, for Serena.

“You don’t know why?” The question was high-pitched. Nana could hear a twang in Serena’s voice, anxiety rising. What were the rules of this game? Were they all-of-a-sudden talking about something else?

“I have an idea but I don’t want to give you the wrong information. Why don’t you pull out your crystal ball?” Serena had an old smart phone, which had long ago belonged to her mother, Ava, who was now (so far as Nana knew) so far away, up in the Boundary Waters, taken there by one of the men they were running from, who would find them if they stayed put, especially in Fargo, that Ava might as well be in another galaxy. Ava knew Serena had the phone, still with the same area code and number. Maybe one day she would call, Serena hoped, but Nana didn’t think Ava would be heard from again. Not in her lifetime, anyway.

Sometimes the phone brought them news. It was useful to know where the bands of Marauders were last seen.  Law enforcement had mostly abandoned the Dakotas to the Militias and word of mouth was essential, but the interstates and cell towers were still patrolled and protected. What good that would do on a lonely stretch she couldn’t say. The phone was the most precious thing Serena owned because it came from her mother and put her in touch with the world. It also gave her something to do. The world inside the phone often—too often, Nana thought—absorbed her attention, so that the world—the real world, Nana thought—vanished. As the Dakotas emptied out, the virtual world blinked on and off, too.

There were no guarantees anymore. Had there ever been?

“Will we ever reach the horizon, Nana?”

“No. It’s like tomorrow. We never get there. We wake up and it’s today.”

“Nana, we do get there. Tomorrow we’ll be there.” Serena had the white, burnished phone with a cracked screen in her lap. Nana noticed a black SUV approaching fast behind them. There was a rumble in the sky, the sound of fighter planes flashing past, the supersonic boom of one breaking the speed of sound. Had the country’s Dear Leader started another war to divert attention from the chaos everywhere? She couldn’t keep up anymore.

“We need gas,” Nana said. The gauge was close to empty.

“Won’t we get there tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow when you say tomorrow, you won’t mean the same day that you mean right now when you say that word. Get it? We can’t step in the same river twice because the water in it isn’t the same water that was there the first time we got our toes wet.” Nana found her mind perambulating from where she was and into the kind of trance that lets a driver go for miles lost in the thunk-a-thunk of tires kalunking over seams in the asphalt. The gas gauge was in the red zone. The last three stations had been closed. For good. One had been ransacked, the attached convenience store’s picture window shattered and shelves emptied. She could feel tears well up and fought them back. It wouldn’t do to weep. Not in front of Serena.

The black SUV had tinted windows and was riding their back fender. Nana snapped her fingers. It was a sign. Serena stopped talking and reached to open the glove compartment. The muscles in her wrists straining, she took out the heavy pistol, keeping the barrel pointed away from them both, unclicked the safety, and passed it to Nana, who placed it snug in her lap.

The tension in the car didn’t break until the SUV swung into the passing lane and held steady beside them, a passenger with aviator glasses staring at her with such intensity that she showed him the gun. Nana saw white teeth before the passenger turned to the driver and the SUV roared past. She slowed to increase the distance between them. Soon enough it had disappeared into the horizon that they never reached.

She handed the gun, safety engaged again, to Serena, who put it back into its compartment and played with her phone. “I found a site where they say the horizon is a question of perspective.”

It took Nana more than a moment to come back. “That’s right. Things look smaller when they’re far away. That’s perspective.” Though she kept the thought to herself, she was surprised the AI voice on the phone still functioned as normally as it did. Parts of the world still worked. The cell towers and relays, some of them, were still up. The police protected technology more than people. Fargo might be safer than the road.

“Hmm. Sometimes they’re not that much bigger when you get close,” Serena said. Nana could hear dread in her voice. A panic attack, something new this week, but frequent in their picaresque life, itched to get loose. “Why can’t we ever get there?”

Uh-oh. She could tell that Serena might whine, then complain, which could become a tantrum, or worse. It could get so bad that it might crash the system until there was nothing to do but stop the car and wait it out. “We’re getting closer. It doesn’t seem like it, because the landscape looks the same on both sides of the road as far ahead as we can see, all that dirty snow, the swirl of the wind on the road, but trust me.” Trust me, she thought, almost desperate. She could smell her stale stink, the funk of dread and fear. She needed a shower. “Soon enough we’ll be there, even though it feels like we never get any closer to where we want to be.” And where the hell exactly was that?

That was the question. To be or not to be?

To be, to be, to be, she thought.

A great sadness clouded her vision, like a mystic’s dream of peace destroyed by a false idol. “Your mother will find us, or we’ll find her.” She could see Ava, her daughter, as brave or braver than Serena until the dope sickness took hold and congealed her life into tilting desire for the next fix.

It didn’t really matter anymore what Nana said to Serena. It was all BS.

It was past time to leave the Dakotas for good, just like so many others had done, get down to Tulsa, the land of tornadoes, where it was supposed to be safe, where civilization was still intact, where people were welcome, more than welcome, or so she had heard, but that would be one, long, white-knuckled drive, and she found herself hoping that Ava would find them first. Otherwise, they needed to join a convoy; Nana didn’t have the resources or skills to turn the tables and go find Ava, not up in the Boundary Waters.

They waited for the phone to ring but it never did, at least not with Ava’s voice.

“We’re not getting closer, Nana!” It sounded like a shriek; she had one hand tight around the phone. “It’s further away! Nana! I want to be there! Stop the car!” There was panic in her voice. “Where are we?”

“I want to be there too,” Nana said, perversely stomping on the accelerator to tend to her own anxiety, glancing at the gas gauge, feeling her throat tighten, her own small hairball of panic finding purchase. She opened the window to clear the air and saw the exit for Goat Hollow, which was on a promontory, not in a hollow, and didn’t have any goats. It overlooked a lake with vacation houses around it, now mostly abandoned. “Goat Hollow will never lose its charm,” she remembered a friend, an historian of the region, telling her once. He was dead now. The Marauders had come through like a sky filled with locusts and left death and devastation behind. They had beaten him to death when he told them to get the hell out of town; he had always been a man who had no filters. That was what she had heard, anyway, that he was dead and gone, like an old blues song. He had been buried in a field of flowers. It gave her comfort to imagine blossoms growing out of his skull.

The gas station had survived, maybe bought safety with fuel. She hoped it was still open. We aren’t helpless, she told herself, and repeated the sentence like a mantra. Resist. Fight back. Prevail.

Snow swirled on the blacktop and made driving difficult. Serena’s phone pinged, a message from somebody better placed in the world, and she started thumb texting. She was very good at it. She had text pals all over the world but not in the Dakotas. They gave her hope that something better was ahead, over the horizon.

The panic that had been with them in the car like a crow keening over carrion took a break. Nana rolled the window back up. Thank God for attention deficit, she thought. Her own mind went traveling, far away from the narrow, deserted road with loose snow swirling across it. She remembered a picnic in a state park where the land was so desolate that it was beautiful, awe-inspiring. The weather dropped almost 30 degrees in a matter of hours; feeling it happen was life-altering. Her mother had been there, her father, her sister, her daughter, and an infant: Serena.

She rested in the memory. The panic passed.  So many no longer alive upon the earth. But isn’t that the way it always is, generations flipping like decks of playing cards in the hands of a gambler? Everything was broken but nothing had changed. The first rule of life is that everything dies. Maybe not so fast though, maybe not so quick.

She drove along a two-lane blacktop. Goat Hollow was 12 miles away. One section of road with shelter belts of bare-limbed trees on either side had mounds of snow rising up and tilting towards them. Somebody was keeping the road open with a plow. The invisible hand of civilization still had its story to tell.


The word took her by surprise. “Yes, Serena?”

“Are you crying?”

“Crying? No, I—yes, yes, I guess I am. Funny how that can happen.”

“Why are you crying?”

“Why? About something that happened in somebody else’s life that I can’t do anything to make better.”

“Really? There’s no medicine?”

“No, there isn’t.” She thought about it and slowed when she felt the tires slide into roadside gravel. The truck with its bare tires could be a boat, she thought, sailing across a great sea of white foam. “Well, there might be medicine, but it doesn’t work.” Not anymore, she thought. Too many quacks and con men. She waited for her own phone in her pocket to ping. Somebody would contact her. There had to be someplace in the Dakotas that was still safe, where solitary was a catchword and not a nightmare. She could remember not so long ago driving over a cattle guard to spend three nights with a family of farmers she had met in better times. They had made their money from oil. The land was spoiled but they had built a sanctuary. They grew food in greenhouses even in winter.

Two cowboys had stood on either side of the cattle guard and given the snake eye to her and the child. “Hey, honey,” one said. She had showed him the gun. He had raised his hands like a marionette in an exaggerated shrug to show there would be no trouble. “Crazy bitch,” he muttered.

The farm family was alarmed to hear about it because they didn’t know the cowboys, but at least they were just aimless drifters, not Marauders, and the family had fed the girl and the woman well, shared what they knew about conditions, particularly on the coast where the waters were so high that some cities had built walls that didn’t do much good, and packaged up some food for them, even tried—half-heartedly—to convince them to stay. “Thanks, many thanks,” she said. They headed back to the interstate and drove some days, stayed put on others, but never traveled, if they could help it, after dark.

“Medicine won’t help? It’s not that kind of predicament?” Serena asked. Nana was surprised she knew the word. Maybe it was something she had heard on one of the podcasts that she subscribed to.  Nana thought of the podcasts as little DNA packets of mediated information that might or might not be true about everything under the sun. “How about hugs and kisses, Nana? That always helps, doesn’t it? Mama always told me that.”

“That almost always helps, doesn’t it?” she said, half listening, preoccupied. “But in this case I don’t think it can do much good.” She scanned the roadside for temporary shelter, someplace they could hide if the need arose. There were farm roads, driveways, places to stop and hole up and sleep if need be in the shelter of the truck’s camper shell. Even a grove of trees might do the trick if they could get to it from the blacktop in the snow. She had rope and cowbells she placed around the truck to tip them off if somebody with ill intentions entered their private space. Sometimes just the wind made a racket.

“Why not?” Serena laid the phone between her legs and turned towards her, now all ears. My granddaughter is well-made, Nana thought, a notion that threatened more tears. Minutes ago, she was close to panic. Now, she’s taking a considered view of things.

“I’m sorry to say this, Serena, but it’s hard to explain to you.” What’s the right amount of information to share with a ten-year-old in such times?

“Will it make you cry again?”

Nana raised an eyebrow. What a clever thing to say. She considered the question. “It might. Even thinking about it makes me cry. But it’s also something that it’ll be easier to tell you about when you get a little bit older.”

“When I reach the horizon, you mean?”

“It’s about missing people and knowing what you would do if it was you inside their skin, and you love them, so much, but maybe they try to do what they think you want them to do instead of what they want to do themselves, or maybe they just don’t know what they want. Things break, is what I’m trying to say, things break inside people all over the world, and the world itself breaks, real bad, but I’m also making a mountain of a molehill because she’s alive, I think, just not happy or able to make her life move ahead. As long as you’re alive, there’s hope.”

“Who’s her? And how do you know she’s alive?”

“Let’s not get into it.”

“Somebody who might not come back? Somebody who doesn’t give—” Serena made sure to emphasize, like a headmistress, each of the next four words—“a good god damn?” The car became quiet. Nana almost turned on the radio to break the tension. “I think I know.”

“Okey dokey, maybe you do, but let’s not get into it.”

“Nana, you’re crying again.”

“Am I? That’s okay. It’s okay to cry.” It’s not, she thought, not now. “Just give me a minute.” The clouds cleared ahead, on the horizon. Flakes of snow, portending worse weather, followed behind. It would be close to a full moon. Even with the sparse white flakes, both grandmother and granddaughter could see sun and moon like low-hanging fruit. A welcome oddity, but neither said a thing.

They reached Goat Hollow. It was a town that had seen better days. She could see the gas station down the road past a pawnshop with heavy bars across its front window and an antique store with plywood instead of glass. Still, whatever the Marauders had wrecked, if that story was true, the town had cleaned up some.

Without being told, Serena retrieved the gun but didn’t pass it to Nana, who could puncture an empty tin can smack dab in its middle from a distance of 15 feet. She oiled it, kept it clean. Her father had liked guns and taught her what he could. Nana had done the same for Serena, but glanced at her in annoyance. “Let me have it,” she said.

“No,” Serena said. “I’ve got this.” She sounded to Nana like a stone-cold killer.

The streets were empty. Snow crunched under the truck’s wheels. Wind whistled in a minor key. The gas station was on a corner downtown, surrounded by brick buildings, a storefront black with soot and clearly vandalized, a few still looking sturdy and complete. This was a town that was still lived in.

An old white man with liver spots like creosote marks on his face and an oversized plaid shirt rolled up to the elbows that hid all but the bottom of his waistband holster emerged from the barred door of the station. He held out a palm like a traffic cop to indicate to her that she should stay inside the truck.

“Nana,” Serena said, almost laughing, pointing, “Look. A troll!”

Nana grinned hard to keep a straight face and retrieved a face mask—it didn’t pay to be careless these days—some cash from her purse, unrolled the window, and showed it to the owner. Walking hunched like a crab, he approached the cab cautiously. “Hiya,” she said.

“Bad storm coming,” he answered. She could see him take in the gun that her granddaughter held. “Why the mask?”

“Why not?” Nana said. “I don’t know what’s running its course in your town.”

He grudgingly offered a cramped smile. “Why not Minot? Ha!” he said, about as fake a sound as she had ever heard. He took her money. He fiddled with her gas cap and the machine pumped. She watched the gauge on the pump to make certain they got their money’s worth. “Receipt?” he said, coming close to the window. He hacked out some phlegm. She could smell his breath despite the mask. Nicotine. Pork and beans. Whiskey.

She laughed. “Any food inside?”

He took a deep breath, seeming to consider the question. “Too late for the hot dish,” he said. “Sorry about that.”

She nodded. “Okay, then. I better let you go. Thank you.”

He stood close. “Got a cot, though. For the night.” He put one mottled hand on the windowsill. He opened his mouth. She thought he meant it as a smile. It came out a leer. She shook her head, took a glance at Serena. Let down her guard.

It happened fast. He leaned inside the truck as much as he could, the arm and his face, shouted in her ear something insane, and reached across her for the gun. Serena had both hands on its barrel, clenched it tight, and leaned as far from him as she could get. He did his best to wrench it from her, but couldn’t quite reach it. His hand pawed empty air like a claw.

Nana clenched her other hand, the one close to the window, into a fist and drove her knuckles hard into the sagging jowls of the guy’s chin with all her strength. He grunted, hacked. Lost his breath. Stepped back just long enough to give Serena time to get her trigger finger in place and raise it in his direction.

He put up his hands as if under arrest and backed a step away from the truck. “No problem,” he said.

Serena kept the gun pointed his way. “Bad move, Buster,” she said, as calm as Nana, who ached to take the weapon from her. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Nana said. She could see hate in his eyes.

“Bitch,” he said. “Just want a good time. You got to be lonely for it, too.” He murmured something in a voice he must have thought was sweet and seductive and leaned towards her again.

She stared at him, dumbfounded. “What part of ‘Don’t be stupid’ don’t you understand? Back away.”

The man’s hand reached under his plaid shirt. He got his pistol out of its holster. He was slow, though, as if the thing weighed more than he expected. Serena, holding her own gun steady, setting it up with both hands the way Nana had taught her, shot him twice, once in the chest and a second time higher up in the forehead when the gun kicked.

“We got him!” she shouted. “Got him, Nana!” Without thinking she gave the weapon to her grandmother, whose ears were ringing so awful that she was deaf. “Bull’s-eye!” Serena shouted. “Bull’s-eye!”

Her eyes gleamed manic.

The guy lay twitching on the cracked concrete beside the car like a wounded deer next to the roadway, his arms splayed out on either side of him, his eyes wide, the smell of gun smoke filling the cab. Nana tried to catch her breath. Her ears rang. She was shaking, but she started up the truck. She kept it in park. Pointing the gun towards the still body in a growing mess of blood, she stepped out, leaving open the truck’s door, and kicked away his weapon. She bent down and laid a finger across the inside of one of his wrists.  She still had the shakes. There was no pulse. She reached in a pocket of his plaid shirt and took back her money, stared past the pumps into the dark inside of his office.

“Nana!” Serena shouted loud enough for her to hear. It shocked away her trance. “Let’s vamoose!” It was still a game to Serena, high as a kite on adrenaline. It would be a hard night when it faded and the shakes paid a visit.

Nana grabbed the man’s gun and hopped into the truck.

She stared into the rearview mirror as she pulled into the street.  Main Street was quiet. Nobody in sight. As they drove, she said anything that popped into her head. “No more gas from Goat Hollow.” She babbled nonsense. Her head felt stretched, as if her brainpan dripped oil.  The tinnitus in her ears sounded like a loud bell that wouldn’t stop ringing.

Serena shivered too, the way one person’s yawn can be contagious, and smiled. “Nana,” she said, a slur in her voice as if drunk, “it had to happen sooner or later. Now I don’t have to guess what it’s like.” She smiled. “It felt good, Nana. It felt good to me. We had to do it, Nana, didn’t we? We had to do it. We had no choice!”

She said it like a squawk. Nana heard that much, at least, though she could barely make out the words through the ringing in her ears. It was an astonishing thing for a ten-year-old to say.

“It was him or us, Nana. That troll got exactly what he deserved.”

“He dealt the play,” Nana agreed, remembering a phrase from a book. “You did what you had to do. He dealt the play.” She felt the shakes coming on and thought she might have to stop driving but knew distance from Goat Hollow was their best friend. “I’m proud of you. Very proud.”

“Kill or be killed, Nana,” Serena said with pride. She had already regained equilibrium. It seemed impossible. Either that or she was quietly hysterical.

Was that it, then? The future? Kids with guns and sharp swords?

The two of them shouted out whatever came to mind, a call and response that kept them high, like sports fans shouting out cheers with energy that ebbed fast, at least for Nana, until they reached the interstate. Dread traveled with her, a companion she wanted to acknowledge but didn’t. So did a fly. It buzzed in the car and couldn’t be caught.

“Shoo fly,” Serena shouted. She swatted at it and laughed maniacally. “Nana,” she said, almost unable to speak through her laughter, “what’s good for the goose—” her laughter came like a cascade of gelatinous oil dripping from a crankshaft every time she tried to continue—“Nana, what’s good for the goose is good for the baba ghanoush!” She repeated the sentence in full a dozen times, cackling with each performance. It had been made famous by two standup comics in Fargo, who called themselves Frankenstein and Faust; Nana hadn’t realized Serena had ever heard the phrase, or of them. Life goes on.

There was no going back. Nana understood that. It was Serena’s first kill.

When they had sobered up, when they settled somewhere for the night, the day’s kill impossible to erase, there might be wailing, there might be the gnashing of teeth. Surely what had happened so quick would return, a haunting, to fill her granddaughter with dark knowledge.

Or could she put it aside the ways kids do? Was that the way it was now?

Nana, though she could still hear the gunshots, smell the singe of powder in the car, was already working on the problem. A silence came between them. Nana felt inner darkness enshroud her like sticky humidity on a muggy day. It is what it is, she thought, a sentence so completely empty of meaning that it gave her comfort.

“Why can we see the moon during the day?” Serena said, back to herself. It sounded unreal. From a cold-blooded defender of womanhood to a confused child at the speed of light. “Does that mean something’s wrong with the sky? Tell me, Nana. Tell me!”

The sun was dim, the moon visible in daylight. An odd sight. A comfort.

“It’s a children’s moon,” Nana said.

Serena, relieved that there was an answer at hand, offered a puzzled look. “You mean like a naked moon?”

She had already put behind her, at least for the moment, what she had done. And the emotional consequences, Nana reminded herself, to kill a person and not reduce them in memory to nothing but scum. Just a sign of the times, maybe. We’ll talk that out later. For now, she was just grateful she could hear again. “It’s called that because in the old days kids couldn’t stay up nights to study the moon. This one, though, it’s there for all to see.” Nana’s mood lifted. “Emotions are like clouds,” she said. “If you wait them out.” She stopped speaking, catching up with herself. The fly buzzed again in the car, or was that the tinnitus after the gunshots?

Serena swatted at it. Nana opened the front windows and a cold, bracing wind blew through the compartment.

“Is it gone?” Nana said. “Did we get it?”

“A fly in the ointment,” Serena said. She giggled and couldn’t stop. “A fly! In the ointment!”

Nana buzzed up the windows and thought with an ache of Ava, her daughter, Serena’s mother, who had grown ferociously angry at what the world had become, at what men did to women, to the land, to each other. For Ava it was all savagery and anger and addiction. Butchery, treachery. Save us from sickness, Nana thought, from accidents, from addictions. Protect us from the longing we have to damage ourselves.

Her own first husband had been a drunk and child beater. Dead now. Good riddance. At least I had some time with Martin. He was a good man. Something to remember aside from the wars, the Marauders and militias, the plagues, the rising seas, the mass migrations, the pandemics that found their way from birds to pigs to human primates.

Nana felt her rage rise. All brought about by men. Her granddaughter had shot a man dead, done what had to be done. That couldn’t be taken back, but in a hundred years who would care? Women do things too, to other women, to children, and of course to men, but it’s men who attack and attack and attack. The one who had taken Ava, who wanted Serena alive because she was worth good money if he could make her grandmother dead. Where was he? Where was Ava? Was she still in his clutches?

She drove. And remembered Martin Gonzalez.

Maybe it was time to stop waiting for Ava and leave the Dakotas for good, see if Tulsa was safe like they said. Big, stone buildings with Art Deco swirls on them and a police force that protects and serves, rumor had it. What a novelty that would be. She liked the sound of the word: “Tulsa.”

Clouds were visible again on the horizon. Serena no longer insisted that they were mountains, but Nana saw a house on a rocky promontory, a trick of the waning light.

If clouds were mountains, they could be in the Rockies, surrounded by stone that would keep them safe, in a cabin with oak doors and thick forest all around them. She saw a big, naked tree held fast by its roots in the middle of a faraway, stubbled field. “We’re like that tree,” she said, “except it’s rooted in one place, a part of everything, and for some reason we can’t stop. We have to keep going.”

To nowhere, she thought, remembering the lyrics of a long ago song. I could stand there naked, she thought, in one of those distant windows, in that imposing mansion, inside a mirage. I could stand there not like an exhibitionist, longing for attention, making a statement, protesting so much merde, but simply to say, here I am, I stand here naked in my chrysalis, make of it what you will.

“Whatever,” Serena said, as if it explained everything, and maybe it did. “Whatever.” She shrugged and stared towards the horizon until the highway angled away from the children’s moon. “Nana? You listening?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I am. Whatever. It is what it is.”

They drove under the moon, now covered by clouds that still looked like mountains. Snow. It was a cold place much of the year, always had been. That would never change. Things might be different in Tulsa.

They could see the horizon.

Would they ever reach it?

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