Highway 11 was deserted. As far as he could see in either direction nothing stirred, not the distant stands of brittle field grasses and thistle, or the acres of wilted tobacco plants and cornstalks beyond them; only the hypnotic ripples off the hot pavement, what his father called miniature heat mirages. Through these shimmering pools of refracted light his eyes followed the road’s western-most edge to where it receded into the parched hills below the horizon. Small beads of sweat ran from his forehead into his eyes as he gazed at the sky, breaking his concentration and temporarily blinding him.
The afternoon sun was brutal. Its rays pushed him earthward like two massive fists atop his shoulders. He felt dizzy, lightheaded, as if the laws of nature here on this stretch of road were altered, magnified. Clumsily he took two steps forward, knowing the mini mirages would fade with his approach, yet certain of their reappearance further down the highway. Despite having seen this effect hundreds of times before, the phenomenon still intrigued him.
On a small black and white television in a motel room he’d once watched an old movie about a bomber pilot lost in the desert following a crash. Dazed and staggering, the poor fellow scoured the wreck site for any sign of his missing crewmates. “Mayday! Mayday!” he screamed into the radio headset to no avail. “Where did everybody go?” For hours he searched, the unrelenting sun laying waste to his weary mind until he began hallucinating – blurry images of his smiling, laughing crewmates materializing through the hot desert air, almost taunting him.
He couldn’t remember how the movie ended – if the pilot was ever rescued, located his crewmates, or if he died out there, his remains gradually swallowed by the ever-shifting sands. He watched long enough to see the man’s already wavering grip on his sanity slacken as he suffered bouts of ecstatic laughter, heart-wrenching sobs, and desperate pleas for mercy.
The quivering ripples out near the center of the roadway, however, were nothing like what was depicted in the movie. In them he saw little but patches of reflected sky and warped pavement – a seemingly endless black ribbon stretching into forever. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder what he would see if he stared long enough into those vaporous curls, whose eyes he might discover staring back at him, and what his reaction to them would be. He leaned forward expectantly, straining to see something that, he reluctantly admitted, would likely never appear.
Angry rumbles from his stomach shattered the fragile silence. He hadn’t eaten in nearly twenty hours – a cheeseburger and a pile of French fries at some dingy roadside diner on the equally dingy outskirts of some town whose name he never bothered to ask. But as distasteful as that greasy conglomeration of raw potatoes and burnt beef had been, his stomach snarled all the louder at the memory of it. Even the thought of that mug of bitter, flat root beer with the glob of gritty ice cream floating in its center sent his stomach into vicious wails of want. He tried thinking again of the bomber pilot stranded out there in the desert, the motel room that had been home for the better part of three months, the tiny black and white television on which he’d watched so many late-night movies while his father was working – anything but food.
When he heard the faint, muffled backfire of a tractor’s exhaust, he stepped to the highway’s center. Would its driver look different through those anomalous waves, he wondered. Would he seem older, younger? Would his overalls and flannels change color? Would the shape, and maybe direction, of the tractor change as well? Or would it all appear as the world had looked when stared at through the amber window panes of the church the three of them attended after his mother’s first hospital stay?
He narrowed his eyes and held his breath, through cupped hands watching the faraway bend, anticipating the tractor’s rusty red bullnose and narrow front tires. For a solid minute he stood motionless waiting, the mini mirages dotting the pavement growing taller as the sweat collected in reservoirs above his eyebrows.
Instead of a tractor crossing the highway, his eyes fell upon the faded-white clapboard walls of an old farmhouse. How he’d missed it up to now he could only guess. Yet there it was, its steep, silvery roof so bright he could not look at it, instead following the many cracked and peeling boards to its brick foundation. He stepped forward several feet more, and soon a covered front porch came into view. On it sat two rocking chairs, though try as he might, he could never line either up behind the rapid flickers of the mirages.
As the hiss and pop of the tractor faded he abandoned his roadway vigil and walked back to the woods, thinking again of the doomed pilot in the movie as he entered its relative darkness. He was relieved to be in the shade again.
“Don’t go too far, sport,” his father had said as he wandered from the van across the field towards the woods and the highway. “We’ll have the ol’ girl fixed up and back on the road in two shakes of a lamb’s tail – faster than you can say Jack Robinson.”
But he wouldn’t. He never did. Always it was the same.
When he returned there’d be talk of solenoids, water pumps, and a plethora of parts whose names he’d never heard before, an auto supply store in a nearby town that closed early on Saturdays so that its elderly proprietor might wet a line in a nearby stream, and the best mechanic for fifty miles who would gladly install said parts for next to nothing when he returned from a job later next week. Always there was a reason to stay.
Near the edge of the forest he climbed a rather stout sugar maple, working himself out along one of its bigger, sturdier branches. Carefully he scrutinized the camp below him, from their own van sitting on its periphery, to the rows of similarly-aged station wagons, campers, and former school buses backed into its corners and along its uneven edges. From this height and distance they resembled the fortifications of castles he’d seen in books about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – albeit decorated not in the colors of the king’s coat of arms but vibrant Day-Glo swirls. The creek bordering its southern tip, he concluded with a smile, must be its moat.
How his father could sniff out places such as this was beyond his comprehension, as if he possessed some sort of sixth sense about where they might exist, or a map detailing their locations but written in a language only he and others like him could decipher. It reminded him of the old timer at McDougal’s farm who could locate water under the ground with only a forked sapling branch. Back and forth over the rocky fields this peculiar man walked until, he claimed, he could feel subtle vibrations emanating from the branch – a sure sign of water beneath the surface. Maybe, he thought, it was like that – his father felt something similar up on the highway.
His eyes made their way back to the van. Although the hood was still up, and his father’s open toolbox still lay beside its balding front tire, the men who had so eagerly gathered around it to offer assistance upon their arrival had now retreated to the shade of a maple every bit the equal of the one in which he sat. Each held in his hands what he knew was a can of beer. A single cigarette was passed slowly among them. Their laughter raced across the mostly-empty field.
He sighed when he spotted his father dead center of this menagerie, grinning widely as if he’d known these people all his life. The look of complacency on his face was unmistakable. He couldn’t count the times he’d seen it before, though he took some comfort in the knowledge that it wouldn’t last. The same restlessness that had driven them this far across the country would find him again, soon enough wiping the satisfaction from his lips, and luring him back to the open road.
He paid no notice to the fair-skinned goddess to his father’s right, unable to pry her beautiful sky-blue eyes from those of the sandy-haired new arrival. He was too far away, and at the wrong angle, to see her small, delicate hand ever-so-lightly touching his father’s knee. To him she was but another drop of water in the endless river of humanity they had been wading through since striking out – a variable with which he had little experience.
We’ll be here all summer long, he frowned.
But he had no grounds for complaint. As far as encampments went, this one seemed nice, and was at the top of the list when compared to most of the others they had stayed in the past two years. This one was clean and relatively organized. Folks smiled, speaking to one another with what sounded like genuine concern. There was a sense of comradery and community it would have been difficult for them to fake.
More importantly, there were children – lots of them – in and around the many vehicles, playing all sorts of games from Frisbee to Hula-hoops and hopscotch, as well as skipping smooth, flat stones across the creek. How could a place be bad, he asked himself, if there were so many carefree children about? Mean children were most often the product of mean parents. This he had seen countless times throughout their travels. Life on the road had also taught him that ignoring your first impressions could quickly land you in a world of hurt. Thus he trusted his implicitly.
Once they pulled into a similarly-styled encampment only to have its occupants stop what they were doing and closely watch their every move as if they were Johnny Law with an irate landowner and a passel of heavily-armed deputies packed in the back of a paddy wagon. Shirtless men with wild hair and even wilder eyes emerged from the backs of cargo vans and crudely-constructed lean-tos in order to study them as they passed. Disheveled women hunched over grimy camp stoves scowled at them while sunburned children in threadbare rags abandoned their games of tic-tac-toe in the dust, disappearing among the rusting heaps and makeshift clotheslines like cockroaches startled by the bright beam of a flashlight.
Although his father had spoken at some length with two or three of the saner, more sober of these men, the children had roundly shunned him. His attempts at joining their play was met with silence, narrow-eyed suspicion, and low-simmering hostility: an unspoken but clearly-articulated warning to keep his distance and mind his own business.
No, he’d never felt at ease there; could never fully succumb to sleep thinking of those rows of spiteful eyes out there in the night, watching him and his father like a pack of ravenous wild dogs stalking two rabbits – waiting to seize upon that moment one or both of them dropped their guard, and wandered a little too far from the safety of the van.
But this place was different. This he understood the moment his father coasted their ailing van off Highway 11 down the hard-packed earthen embankment, and through the woods into the camp. Looking into their faces he felt it now more than ever. No harm would befall them here. They were safe among friends. He could breathe easy in the knowledge that tonight after filling his belly he would slumber in peace.
Yet he sighed the more he thought about it, the longer he watched the boisterous men beneath the maple branches, the lithe, suntanned women, as well as the jubilant children running among them.
All summer long, he thought. Well into fall. He’ll think up a million and one reasons to stay.
He studied the dense vegetation around him – the shapes and colors of the many leaves – then again the cloudless sky, unsure of where they were, of even the month. So much of the country looked the same when you got right down to it. It was often difficult to tell one state from another. And the days melted together when you weren’t on some sort of schedule. When winter comes, if it even comes here, will it get cold enough to prod him into movement?
Resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do about it now, and that his father would be occupied with his new friends for some time to come, he carefully slid his bottom back along the branch, swung his legs around, and deftly worked his way down the maple’s massive trunk.
Back on the forest floor, faintly familiar shrieks of delight made their way up from the creek through acres of cedars and pines, as well as a maze of brambles it took him nearly twenty minutes to circumnavigate. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d interacted with someone his own age. The laughter filled him with an odd mixture of excitement and apprehension.
On a large boulder beside the creek he removed his shoes and socks, rolling his jeans up his legs as high as they would go. A minute later he was calf-deep, the water soothing his hot, tired feet, though it was so cold at first it left him somewhat stunned, and nearly breathless.
He hadn’t fully acclimated when a boy near his age and a girl a few years younger joined him. From their golden hair and prominent cheek bones it was obvious the two were brother and sister. The boy wore a torn t-shirt displaying a faded logo he was unfamiliar with, as well as cut-off jeans; the girl a frilly bright red dress trimmed in orange lace.
“Ma and Jesse’s takin us to the Grand Canyon,” the boy boasted, flashing a wide, buck-toothed grin as if he’d just been awarded a merit badge. “We been on the road since spring.”
“Well, you ain’t made it too far then, have you?” he said casually, trying to coax from the boy their approximate location.
“Close enough, I reckon,” the boy mumbled, somewhat indignant, his smile faltering.
Both moved closer to him.
“Jesse says we’re modern day pioneers,” the girl said, raising the hem of her dress nearly to her waist as they waded deeper, “living off the land like they did a hundred years ago in wagon trains, stopping here and there for a spell, but never staying anywhere long enough to put down no roots.”
“Yeah,” the boy agreed. “We’re just like the pioneers of olden days, making our way out west a little bit at a time. And we ain’t been to school for months and months. Jesse says we don’t gotta go no more, that living off the land like pioneers is giving us the best education a body can get. He says nothing worthwhile ever come outta no book learning in no school.”
Upstream he saw a dam, and beside it the remains of an ancient field-stone foundation. Teenagers were scaling its crumbling sides, and leaping feet first into the deep pool below. Thin, lanky boys wrestled for control of the dam’s center, while unimpressed girls watched from the water’s edge, laughing at their every awkward tumble.
He wondered if they all came from the camp, and if so, how long they had been there. Had they started out as young as himself? Had they grown up there? Or were they only there temporarily, drifting in and out of such camps the way he and his father had?
His train of thought derailed when the girl stepped in front of him, blocking his view of the dam and the fierce battle raging for control of it. Her long hair was tied up in pigtails with large acrylic green and red balls that glowed in the dappled light like Christmas ornaments. When she noticed his keen interest in them, she blushed and quickly looked away.
“What’s your name?” she asked coyly.
He hesitated, his mind suddenly blank. “Huck Finn.”
“Is not,” her brother retorted. “Huck Finn is from a book. Even I know that.”
He remained silent, internally berating himself for not choosing a simple, common name such as Bobby, or Charles.
“Well, I think Huck Finn is a pretty name,” the girl said, undeterred.
The boy snorted his disapproval, waded back to the bank, retrieved the flattest stone he could find, and tried skipping it across the creek. He snorted again as it struck the surface and promptly sank.
“Rats!” he cried, returning to the bank for another. “Ain’t a decent rock nowhere! Them bigger boys done throwed all the best ones!”
“Say, um, Huck,” the girl nearly whispered, never looking up from their watery reflections. “There’s a tire swing up where the creek bends. They put it up just last week – Jesse and some of the others. It looks fun but I haven’t climbed up there yet cause I was kinda scared to. It’s pretty high up off the ground, and I’m kinda afraid of heights, but I think I might be able to if you was to come with me, Huck, if you helped me up and promised you’d stay close by in case I got myself into trouble.”
He snickered when they reached the bend and he discovered the tire swing was no little more than two feet off the ground. It certainly wasn’t difficult for her to climb inside, not nearly as formidable as she’d made it out to be.
“Denise,” she exclaimed, gripping the rope, waiting for his initial heave.
He furrowed his brow and stared at her.
“Denise,” she repeated. “My name’s Denise. You never asked me my name. It’s Denise.”
Reluctantly he leaned into the tire, pushing it away with little enthusiasm.
“I know your name’s not really Huck Finn,” she said matter-of-factly. “Nobody has a name like that. But it’s okay cause I like it, and I like you. I think it suits you. I sometimes wish I had a different name, like Elizabeth, or Veronica – exciting names like they have on TV. You can call me one of those if you want to. I won’t mind. Or you can call me something else. It don’t matter, so long as it ain’t Denise.”
The tire swung back and forth, side to side. Neither spoke for several minutes.
“You ever been to the Grand Canyon?” Denise asked.
“No,” he answered.
“Don’t tell Timmy,” she whispered, raising her head as the tire turned again towards the creek, “but I don’t think we’re gonna go neither. It’s been months… We been here since school let out. It was supposed to be for only a week or two until Jesse could make enough money to buy some new tires and a battery for the car, but it’s been months now and the car ain’t moved an inch. Jesse just plays his guitar under the trees all day. He ain’t never started working.”
Her eyes turned to the highway. “Momma cleans up once’t a week at that farmhouse down the road. Takes her all day even though it’s just one old man what lives there anymore. But he don’t pay her all that much. Momma and Jesse fusses something awful if we say anything about the Grand Canyon, but Timmy talks about it anyway. Anytime we’re away from them all he talks about is riding through the canyon on horseback and counting how many times his voice’ll echo off the rock walls.”
The tire stopped turning. The silence returned.
“Where you from, Huck?” she asked as their eyes met.
An uneasy half-smile emerged on his lips. He could lie about it easily enough, the way he had countless times before. Chicago, St. Louis, or Nashville – all places he’d read about in brochures he’d picked up at motels, truck stops, and rest areas. This would be easy.
Yet he didn’t feel like lying anymore. For the first time in a long time he wanted to tell someone about himself, his father, and their trip across the United States; share some insignificant, humorous detail about his upbringing; confide in someone the way Denise had just confided in him. And he wanted not only to talk freely and openly about himself but to learn about her as well: where she was from, and if she missed her home and school the way he did.
The smile evaporated from his lips as he drew in a deep breath. He was pushing them into the shape necessary to make the sound of a T when he was interrupted by a bell ringing in the camp. Like the unmistakable chime of an ice-cream truck, it forced its way through the understory down the slope all the way to the creek, obliterating whatever tenuous bridge had momentarily connected them.
“Dinner time!” Denise shouted, slipping confidently from the tire swing, her fear of heights all but gone, and her question for the time being forgotten.
“Last one back is a rotten egg!” Timmy shouted, emerging through an opening in the underbrush, exploding between them as he dashed up the hill.
Children of all ages exited the woods as if summoned by the pied piper. Many were singing joyous songs he remembered from music class. An older boy on the dam refused to relinquish what he had only moments earlier captured, grudgingly abandoning his post only when the girls he was attempting to impress shimmied down the remains of the fieldstone foundation and disappeared into the woods. He shouted to anyone who would listen that he had been ‘king of the water’ when the bell rang and was therefore entitled to retain his position when the game resumed tomorrow.
“We better get a move on,” Denise said, taking his hand, and squeezing it gently. “Jesse don’t like it when we dilly-dally. Momma don’t neither.”
Back at the camp he was given a plastic bowl of soup beans with a slice of crumbly cornbread on top. Despite the blandness of both, he quickly emptied his bowl and was given a second helping by a nice-looking lady with long brown hair wearing frayed cut offs and a dirty white crocheted poncho. He thanked her and finished the second bowl almost as quickly as the first.
As the sun dropped behind the tree line and slightly cooler air from the creek made its way into the camp, several of the men and quite a few of the women returned with guitars and drums to the fire pit over which the cauldron of soup beans had been prepared. At first their strumming and drumming was a random, reckless, undisciplined mess, but as the evening progressed they fell into a steady, syncopated, almost hypnotic rhythm. For hours this ragtag symphony played.
Adults and teenagers alike converged on the pit and began dancing. The lady who’d so kindly brought him a second helping of soup beans spun about the crowd in wildly-arcing circles. A small dust storm erupted in her wake, the fringe of her dirty poncho smoldering each time she whirled too closely to the flames. He failed to notice how transfixed his father had become with her ever-tightening spirals – the taut, suntanned belly visible only during her fastest twirls.
When Denise and Timmy approached him with an empty pickle jar he forgot about the fire, the musicians, and the trance into which most of the adults were falling. Along the forest’s edges they collected enough fireflies to light their way past the motionless tire swing all the way to the bank of the creek.
“You can’t see it too good now,” Timmy said, holding the jar towards an eddy a few hundred yards upstream of the dam, “but right out there is one heck of a nice fishing hole. Two fellows in waders came down this morning and loaded up on rainbow trout – a whole wire basket full of them – big ones, too! If we got up early tomorrow morning and made our way back down here we could claim this hole for our own. Jesse has a rod and reel, and a few flies he tied himself. He showed me once how to cast them, and I watched everything them two in waders was doing. If we worked it right, tomorrow night we could be eating something a lot better than soup beans! Let’s get some sleep tonight so we can get back down here first thing in the morning before them two in waders.”
Upon returning to the van he found his father sitting with the lady in the dirty white poncho, their bare feet and legs dangling over its back bumper. Her head lay against his shoulder as if she were sleeping. A handful musicians still played around the fire, but most had returned to their campers and buses. Silence was overtaking the field.
“Can you be a big boy for me tonight and sleep outside?” his father asked, gently tousling his hair.
Understanding he had no real say in the matter, he acquiesced. “Sure thing, Pop.”
His father smiled and lightly grazed the edge of his cheek with his fist. “It’ll be like the time we camped out on the beach. I’ll build a fire and maybe you can work out some of the constellations.”
But the fire didn’t last long. The hastily-gathered twigs and sticks burned down to a handful of flickering red and orange coals within minutes. The night was warm and humid, and save for the smoke that might repel a few mosquitoes, a fire wasn’t necessary.
He lay on his father’s old army coat, eyes to the sky, awed by the enormity of the universe. The ground was lumpy, and hard. He didn’t feel much like tracing the constellations, though he wasn’t the least bit sleepy.
“I slept outside all the time when I was your age,” a pleasant voice whispered through the darkness. “With my little sister in a brown canvas tent. We both were in Girl Scouts so it wasn’t a big deal for us. We were never scared.”
It was the lady in the poncho – her silhouette gliding through the dim light like a ghost. She chuckled softly as she joined him beside the pile of smoldering coals. “Well, maybe a little bit, but that was part of the excitement. We’d listen to the cries of night birds, and the rustle of the leaves around our tent. Then we’d huddle under blankets and tell spooky stories. It was a contest of sorts, the winner being whoever could most scare the other.”
She prodded the coals with a stick his father had missed. They glowed brighter a second or two, hissed, and quickly faded. “Sometimes we’d build a fire like this one, look up at the stars, and wonder what all was out there. That’s the scariest story of all, I think: that there’s nothing out there.”
Fractured beams of moonlight shown through the twisted tree branches, illuminating the hodgepodge of vehicles, clotheslines, and tents. In the muted, pale light her bronze arms and legs appeared as smooth as those of a porcelain doll. Her long brown locks sparkled like a golden waterfall littered with diamonds.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
She hesitated as he had earlier at the tire swing with Denise, then laughed again. “Mayberry, like on television. Not really, but near enough. The people were a lot like that, from Aunt Bea to Floyd the barber. We even had a town drunk like Otis. It was idyllic… plain and simple – good people with good hearts. It was a great place to grow up. We went to church on Sundays, and I sang in the choir. I grew tomatoes every summer for 4H, and entered them in the county fair. I played tennis on my high school team. My sophomore year we won a regional match, and I received a trophy. I guess it’s still sitting on the… I had more boyfriends than I could date. I got good grades, too, and had a scholarship offer from a prestigious university about an hour’s drive from home.”
She removed a rectangular case from a fringed leather satchel concealed beneath her poncho, opened it, and began assembling what appeared to be shiny lengths of plumbing pipe.
“My senior year the band marched in the Macy’s Parade – you know, in New York City on Thanksgiving morning, the one with all the balloons. Our band wasn’t big, but when we combined it with the junior high band it was nearly the size of any of the big city bands. It was a big deal, too, about the biggest thing that ever happened in those parts. How they put it all together and got us there is a miracle. But folks are like that in small towns. They pulled together and made it happen.”
She raised the instrument to her lips and adjusted her fingers, but just as quickly pulled it away. “I played this that morning – right down 34th Street. I’ve never been prouder of myself, my school, or my town, but that night is when everything started unravelling.”
She turned to the waning moon still behind distant branches. Although her face was concealed in shadows, her voice remained steadfast and confident. “We stayed in a high rise downtown – not the Waldorf Astoria by any means, but it was fancier than any of our homes. Our rooms were way up. I can’t remember which floor, just that it was higher than any of us had been in our lives. After dinner several of us snuck up to the roof and watched the city at night. As far as I could see in every direction was the flash of neon. We saw part of Times Square and the tip of the Empire State Building. There were more cars than I imagined existed in all the world. It was noisy, and smoky, and it stunk worse than the city dump. The people there all looked different, and sounded strange, like we’d crash landed on another planet.”
“I never forgot it. Even today it… Sometimes I catch myself thinking what if maybe… Well, we were too scared to venture out onto those streets – too scared of breaking curfew mainly, but also scared of those people, the smells, and all that noise – police sirens and ambulances, and music roaring down every alleyway. I would never have disobeyed the adult chaperones. Plus, Momma and Daddy had sat me down before I left and told me about the perils facing young ladies in big cities.”
“But I thought about it all night as I lay in bed with the curtains wide open watching the city go on and on. I suppose we all did. The girl I roomed with sobbed nonstop. I did, too, wondering what was going on in our little Mayberry, and how I could ever go back to ice cream socials and church potlucks knowing all of that was out there.”
She gestured with her hands as if presenting the grand prize on a game show.
“Not long after I returned home I started working in my Aunt Ruby’s flower shop. She didn’t pay me nearly as well as she did the other girls. I guess that comes with being family, but I did alright. I was able to sock the bulk of that money away in a pink envelope I kept hidden beneath my mattress.”
“Then one summer morning I filled a suitcase with as many clothes as would fit, and of course, this.” Gently she caressed the flute, lovingly fingering its keys. “I don’t remember why I chose that morning. Maybe I had another dream about the city, maybe it was purely random, or maybe I simply couldn’t stand it there anymore. I have no recollection why, just that while Momma was lugging her laundry basket to the clothesline out back I was hoisting my suitcase into the trunk of her Plymouth. Instead of going to Aunt Ruby’s that afternoon, I drove to the bus station and bought a ticket to as near New York City as I could afford. I haven’t been back home since. I doubt they would even… I guess I look totally different from those days. I wonder sometimes if maybe… I’m sure the man at the bus station counter told them where I’d run off to. He was somewhat friendly, I believe, with Daddy. I suppose they searched a while for me.”
She put her lips to the flute and played a haunting melody. Back and forth it went, from a whimsical lullaby to a maudlin, almost weeping cry of loneliness, and finally a spiraling crescendo so high it couldn’t help but collapse under its own enormity like a tidal wave that never reaches the shore. He held his breath until the final note faded into gloom, hoping it would not awaken his father or the others in the camp; that the song and the moment were his alone.
When she finished, she quickly disassembled the flute, placing its parts back in the rectangular case as if embarrassed. “Sleep tight,” she whispered, pulling his father’s army coat around his shoulders while pushing the tangled bangs from his forehead.
No sooner had she disappeared behind the van and closed its rusty back door than he pushed the coat away, folded his hands behind his neck, and stared again into the night sky. The coals of campfires rippled throughout the field, but no one stirred. Everything was silent.
His thoughts returned to the highway – the long, black ribbon of asphalt receding into the western skyline. Did those same mirages – so prominent in daylight – appear at night, triggered by moonlight against the still-simmering pavement? Were their distortions more pronounced?
He sat upright as if to return there and see for himself, but immediately laid back down, his eyes never straying from the silver sliver rising ever higher in the east. It made no difference, he concluded, if you were lying on your father’s well-worn army coat in the middle of nowhere, down the road on the front porch of an old clapboard farmhouse, deep within the water-sculpted recesses of the Grand Canyon, atop a high-rise hotel in New York city, or in any of the innumerable cities and towns in which they’d stayed these past two years – it was the same sky everywhere, the same moon and stars charting their nightly courses. A mirage was only that – a flash of distorted light, and wishful thinking.
There were no distortions in the stars. They might appear brighter, and clearer, in places such as the camp, far from the reach of city lights. And though they were often obscured by foliage and geography, they were present everywhere, even if you couldn’t always see them.
And he couldn’t remember having ever seen more – not camping at the beach, high in the mountains, or even back home with his friends during summer vacations. His mother once told him that for every grain of sand in the world there was a star burning in the heavens. On a night like tonight he couldn’t disagree, there being easily more stars than available sky. He sighed, his gaze returning earthward.
His father’s open toolbox still lay beside the van’s balding front tire, but he didn’t feel exasperated by it as before. He closed his eyes, trying to subdue the muddle of thoughts flailing inside him – the road, the woods, and the camp, his father, Denise, Timmy, and the lady in the poncho whose name he realized only then he did not know. He wanted only to sleep.
It was like the small hours of Christmas morning – the anticipation, waiting when time had all but stopped. He was eager for sunrise, ready to make his way back through the woods to learn whether Timmy’s fishing hole upstream of the dam was as good as advertised, raise a rod and reel over his shoulder, and cast a line across the water. More than that, he wished to see Denise again, return with her to the tire swing, and finish the conversation interrupted by the dinner bell.
“My name is George,” he said, again and again as if rehearsing lines in a play. “And I’m from…”