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Herman Melville, Volume 1 by Victor Lodato

She’s carrying two skateboards, two backpacks, the banjo in its scratched-up case—a husk of molded leather that’s always looked to her like a giant key but now seems more like a coffin.

Maybe because she hasn’t played in weeks. This time of year, people don’t stop; the coins in their pockets stay there.

Are you too good for fifty cents? Evan had scolded her. If Evan had his way, she’d be playing every day. He doesn’t understand how much it takes to stand in front of strangers and summon up songs she learned as a child. Especially on dark afternoons, with the mist spitting in her face like some pissed-off ghost.

Anyway, she wants to protect the instrument—the pretty cherry wood, the feathery carving on the neck. It’s the only fine thing she has; why ruin it? Her father had said never get it wet.

So she’d let it sleep for a bit. The case was comfy, lined with velvet.

Again, the coffin comes to mind. She grunts and shifts her load, trying not to fall.

Maybe Evan had wandered into town. Often he didn’t sleep well, and sometimes, when he got up, he needed to burn off some dream he’d had. Usually he was back within an hour. Today she’d waited almost until noon, when a woman who lived across the street from the empty lot came over to inform her that the land was private property. “Move along,” she’d said, snapping her fingers, as if at a dog.

Evan’s pack is way too heavy. What feels like bricks, she knows, are books. One of them, a hardcover, is biting into her shoulder.

There’s a diet book, a book about car repair, a biography of the guy who wrote “Moby-Dick.” The biography is nearly a thousand pages long, even though it’s only Volume I—just the first thirty years of Melville’s life. She assumes it’s pre-“Moby-Dick,” because who writes something like “Moby-Dick” before they’re thirty. Evan was already twenty-three, and she’s used up only a few years less. It was unlikely that either of them would accomplish much, at this rate. She’s never even read “Moby-Dick,” though of course she knows it’s about a whale. Man against nature. She recalls the phrase from school.

When it comes to books, Evan takes whatever he can find—freebies on the curb, or sour wrecks from garbage bins. It drives her crazy, the way he doesn’t discriminate. The diet book, for instance—that was just ridiculous. She and Evan were about as fat as Popsicle sticks. On cold nights, when they slept in the same bag, they fit no problem, and when they jammed against each other for comfort their hips clacked like castanets.

On Main Street, men are blowing leaves; the air smells like diesel. She notices that they don’t turn off their blowers as she approaches, the way they do for most people. Maybe she has leaves in her hair—it was certainly possible.

She smiles at the men, showing her good teeth, which she hopes will distract them from the rest of her. The younger man smiles back and turns off his blower. The other one follows suit.

She scurries by, unaccosted.

Good teeth, she’s learned, are like a passport: they helped you cross borders. Evan has terrible teeth, insanely crooked. Every time he opens his mouth, you can see the unloved child he’d surely been.

She hurries on, hoping he isn’t in trouble.

It’s a pretty little town—she’ll give it that. They’d passed through here before, in the spring. But even now, cast into gloom, the place seems poised for a postcard. Fairy-tale pines and fearless deer. Fresh-painted porches, fluttering prayer flags. There are squirrels cheeky with nuts and autumn roses poking through fences. Some of the houses look like the witch’s cottage from “Hansel and Gretel,” with Victorian rooftops resembling fancy cookies.

Maybe Evan had got hungry. She heads toward the café they’ve been going to for the past few days. There’s a guy there who gives them free coffee, though he fills the paper cups only halfway.

Not that she was complaining. It was just funny how, even when people were being nice, they gave you only as much as they thought you deserved. When she played her banjo in the park, it irritated her if someone tossed down pennies.

She could see why Evan thought she was prideful—but that wasn’t the right word. Sure, she knew she was good, but she never considered the music hers. All the trancelike drones and the clever fretwork, she’d fashioned after her father. The way he could open a song, make it shimmer or bleed, depending on how he cut it. To recognize the same competence in herself wasn’t pride; it was simply gratitude, or respect.

It was sort of like putting flowers on his grave.

She stops by the fountain. With some napkins she’s saved, she tries to freshen up a bit. But when she wets the brown paper and rubs it across her face it falls apart. She can feel bits of it sticking to her skin. She brushes her teeth with her tongue. She’ll brush for real in the bathroom of the coffee shop.

They haven’t had proper shelter in weeks. Up North, there are more places, but around here there’s only the one, and Evan doesn’t like the vibe of it—the prayers before meals, the sad chapel with folding chairs, the pamphlets.

It doesn’t really bother her, that religious stuff. Plus, a shower’s a shower. She’s hoping for one tonight. It’s supposed to snow, and they’ll have no choice but to go back to the Christians.

He’s not in the park. When she emerges back onto the plaza, there are several men with packs. Evan isn’t among them.

She’d like to sit on one of the benches and wait—but she knows, if she does, one of the other roamers will approach her and want to chat. Where you coming from? Where you headed?

Some man will ask her if she wants company.

There are about five of them, loitering by a sculpture of a bear standing on its hind legs—a splotchy bronze. The men’s skin is a similar color, strangely candied by sun and weather. Their scarves look like bandages, and two of them have knife sheaths hanging prominently from their belts. One guy has so many tattoos on his face he seems to be peering out from behind a thicket.

In the warmer months, there were more women. There were kids from California roughing it for a week; hikers from the Pacific Crest Trail. These days, it’s down to something darker—the folks who can’t or won’t go home. Mostly men—and, with the weather closing in, they seem more tightly wound. Evan should realize that he can’t just disappear whenever he’s in some crazy mood.

As she walks away, it’s hard to tell if the knot in her stomach is anger or fear. She looks up at the gray, potbellied sky and wishes she were back in Tucson. Her father’s tiny adobe with its tin roof, the pink-grapefruit tree in the back yard. She wonders if new tenants have moved in.

But maybe no one would want to rent the place after what happened there. She hopes that somebody is watering the grapefruit at least. It was an old tree, and temperamental—turning yellow and dropping its leaves if you ignored it for even a week.

How long has she been gone now? Seven months? The tree was probably dead.

The guy at the to-go counter isn’t the one from before, but she asks him anyway.

“Sorry,” he says. “We don’t offer samples.”

She touches her face, worried that some of the napkin is still stuck there. “Oh, O.K.” She smiles. “Because they did yesterday—and the day before. Just, like, half a cup.”

“Yeah, sorry, I can’t do that.”

“No, that’s O.K.” She holds her smile for a little longer, until it cracks.

There’s a line of people behind her now, and she can feel the familiar rush of shame. It starts at the base of her neck and moves into her face.

“Did you want to buy anything?” the guy asks.

“Let me think about it,” she says, stepping aside, making a show of looking at the pastry case. “You can go ahead of me.” She gestures toward the woman who’s next in line and slowly slinks away.

The funny thing is, she has some money. But Evan doesn’t like her to spend it—not frivolously, anyway, on pastry and coffee. He says they need to save it for when they get settled, maybe for a car. So far, they’ve set aside around fifteen hundred. In addition to what she gets from playing, they’ve worked some farms—picking or packing.

She approaches the bathroom and uses the code they gave her yesterday. It doesn’t work. She steadies her shaking hand and reënters the numbers and letters into the keypad.

“New code,” the counter guy calls out. “You get it when you order something.”
She thinks to get back in line, pull out the roll of bills. But she’s already made a fool of herself, and people are starting to stare.

Outside, the cold air startles her. The men with their sleeping rolls are still in the plaza. There’s no sign of Evan. If she were a normal person, she could just call him—but they no longer have working phones, just dead relics at the bottom of their bags.

A wing of white light cuts through the clouds—a merciless angel, it brings no warmth. She tugs her gloves back on, but they don’t help. One of the drifters has spotted her—an older fellow with a beard that looks like it’s made of mud. He lifts his hand and waves, as if he knew her. She hates to think of herself as one of them.

It’s hard to say why anyone travels like this—the way she and Evan do.

When they first met and she asked if he had family, he said yes.

When he asked the same question, she said no.

Both answers bore witness to a story neither had the strength to tell. And what did it matter? All they needed to know was that she wished to leave behind an absence, and he wanted to become one.

Of course, over time they’d given each other clues, little comments laid down casually in the night like playing cards. No tears or drama. Just facts. Nearly deaf in his left ear from smacks. A bullet hole in her father’s bedroom wall.

Shocked into travelling, she supposes.

In the first few months after her father died, she’d only pretended to run away. She’d pack some things and head down to the Greyhound station on Congress Street, just to see how it might feel. She did it a few times, with all her money in her pocket, after which she’d go back to the old adobe and eat a bowl of ice cream.

Then one day Evan was at the station. He came over and smiled. “Nice board. You a skater?” She said she wasn’t great.

“And a musician, too,” he said. At which point she started to cry, and he held her.

It wasn’t much more complicated than that.

Sometimes, though, she wonders at her decision—to just take off like that with a stranger. But the truth was, nothing had ever been easier. And it wasn’t just some chemical thing. She’d trusted him immediately.

Of course, it was possible she hadn’t been thinking clearly. The blood, the bullet hole in the wall. What if she’d made a mistake?

When she looks up again, the man with the beard is walking toward her. The way his Lawrence of Arabia rags flap in the wind makes her seasick. She puts down the packs, and the next thing she knows she’s on her knees. Her yellow gloves look like starfish. She retches, but nothing comes up.

“You O.K.? Hey.” She feels a hand on her back. “You want some water?”

“Please,” she tells him, “just leave me alone.”

But when she looks up it’s not Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a tall woman in a red parka and furry boots that look like teddy bears. The woman pulls a plastic bottle from one of her huge pockets.

“Poor thing, what did you eat? Did you eat rubbish?”

“I don’t eat rubbish,” the girl says.

“Well, that’s good. Here, take a sip.”

The girl accepts the water, but as soon as she drinks she’s afraid she’s going to be sick again.

The woman keeps staring. She has a pale, wrinkled face and neat gray hair twisted into enormous braids the size of baguettes. She’s clearly not a traveller. Her clothes are too clean, and she smells sweet, like lavender. She holds out a bag of almonds. “You probably need some protein.”

“I’m fine,” the girl says, relieved to see that the bearded man has gone back to his buddies.

“You’re not fine,” the woman says. “Let me make you a cup of tea. I live right around the corner.”

“No, thank you.”

The girl stands, tottering slightly to the left. She picks up her stuff and walks away.

“You don’t want the tea?” the woman calls after her.

The girl shakes her head and wobbles back toward the park.

She decides to walk up to the old reservoir. She and Evan had camped there for a week during the summer. On the trail, as she pivots at a switchback, she slips and nearly falls. Cold air plummets from the mountaintop.

She can’t do this. Why is she doing this? She does it because the reservoir is where Evan proposed to her, and where she accepted. It was late, they were tipsy on a bottle of wine—a rare treat. Maybe he was kidding, who knows. They’ve never discussed it again.

She keeps going until she sees the rusty tank and then a flash of water. It’s such a relief she nearly forgets the pain in her toes.

But then she spots two high-school kids kissing solemnly on a blanket. Apart from them, there’s no one up here. She watches them longer than she should before turning away.

On the way down, she proceeds slowly and keeps her eyes on her feet. When finally the trail flattens out, she eases off her pack and then throws Evan’s to the ground.

She’s nauseated again, and starving. Why the fuck didn’t she take the almonds? All she has is a few stale crackers.

“Where are you?” she screams.

There’s an echo, and then footsteps.

“I’m right here,” he says—a backlit silhouette at the entrance to the grove. “Look at your face.” He laughs. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

When he comes into view, she can see the horrible beard, the filthy cape. His voice has the South in it, and the hysterical keen of a chainsaw. He suggests helping her with her stuff.

She stands frozen as Lawrence of Arabia ambles closer, but when he reaches for her pack, the one with the money, she quickly snatches it up.

“I’ll carry the other one,” he says, lifting Evan’s bag from where she’s thrown it.

Whoa!” he says. “That’s some heavy shit. What do you got in here—gold?”

“No, it’s just—we just have some books. It’s my boyfriend’s,” she says, trying to make the word meaningful.

“So, where is he? Your friend?”

She doesn’t know what to say. “I’m meeting him in, like, five minutes, so—”

“He’ll want his books.”

“Yes. He will.” She extends her hand, waiting for the man to return the pack.

But he only stares at her. “You guys have enough blankets for tonight? Gonna need them.”

“Yes, we’re fine. Thanks. I really have to go.”

The man sets Evan’s bag on the ground, and begins to unzip it.
“Honestly, it’s just books and underwear and . . .”

She’s crying now, but the man doesn’t stop. He’s got Evan’s blue sweater in his hands and then the box of crackers, and then he pulls out Herman Melville.

When she tries to stop him, he grabs her wrists.

“Don’t be nasty,” he says. “You have to learn to share.”

He pushes her against a tree, and even though his hand is somewhere else, the girl feels it on her throat. She can’t speak. She only squeaks. A shadow falls, as if to give them privacy. The man takes full advantage.

Get the fuck away from her.”

There’s a sudden cracking sound, and the man yelps.

When he stumbles away, the girl cries, “Evan”—but when she looks she sees the old woman in the red parka, standing there with a long pole or maybe a branch. She whacks the man again, and he falls to his knees.

“Get your stuff,” the woman instructs her.

The man rubs his head. “Crazy bitch.”

“That’s right,” the woman says, raising the branch high and holding.

The girl shoves Evan’s sweater and the Melville into the open backpack, but she leaves the crackers, kicking them toward the fallen man. She knows she might run into him again. The road is like that. “Please,” she says quietly. “Peace.”

“You follow us and I’ll have you arrested,” the woman says.

The man picks up the crackers and leans over and starts to eat. He looks like an animal now, or a child.

She’s still shaking as the woman makes the tea.

“Can I use your bathroom, please?”

“Sure. Right down that hall, first door on the left.”

The girl picks up her backpack.

Something churns in her gut. But when she crouches before the toilet, nothing comes. She moves away from the bowl and sets to work on the pack, pulling out her clothes and tampons and toothbrush, digging to the bottom for the bloated roll of bills. She’ll put it in her jacket and then steal some toilet paper; tell the woman she has to go.

Her hands are still aflutter, and so she empties the rest of the bag onto the floor. She doesn’t see the money.

O.K., O.K., she thinks, I put it where, before I went to sleep?—and though she knows exactly where she put the roll of bills, she’s sticking her hands into pant legs and sweaters, into filthy socks and underwear. She keeps looking long after she understands why the money isn’t there.

Evan must have it. Evan who she can’t find. A funny sound comes from her mouth.

She leans over the bowl to vomit.

Sweating, she peels off her coat and then the jacket underneath. For a while, in the bathroom, she stares at her hands, appalled by their lack of faith.

Her teeth are chattering, too.

When she opens a small window, it lets in no relief. A scolding sound of leaves, the empty smell of snow. Her thoughts kneel like beggars.

It wasn’t possible he’d do something like this. There had to be another explanation—someone else to blame.

The room spins, laughing at her—because of course she’d said similar things about her father. Someone could have broken into the house. A bullet hole in the wall! How do you explain that? She’d shouted these things at the social worker.

“I know,” the man had replied patiently. “But what you have to understand is it’s not uncommon for a person to miss, the first time. His hands were probably shaking.”

In the kitchen, she drinks the flowery tea.

The woman keeps talking, but the girl’s thoughts get in the way of conversation.

It doesn’t make sense. Why would he leave his stuff behind—his favorite blue sweater, his skateboard?

Because it’s worthless crap, she answers herself. Evan can replace every bit of it a hundred times over with the money. She thinks of all the times he made her beg or busk in the rain.

Fucking asshole.

She stands and reaches for her coat. “I better go.” Despite everything, she’s still hoping Evan’s out there. “Thanks for the tea.”

The woman nods. On the table, there are orange peels and half-eaten sandwiches. There’s snow on the windowsill.

“Do you want me to pack up this food for you?”

“You don’t have to.”

Glancing at the snow, she wonders how she’ll make it to the shelter. She could ask the woman for a ride, but the woman’s done enough. Even now, she’s packing up not only the leftover sandwiches but also grapes and cookies and almonds.

It does something to the girl, watching this.

“Oh, honey, you’re shivering. Do you want to take a bath before you go?”

“I just—no—I need to find my friend. I have his stuff.”

The woman frowns, but says she understands. “You know, I was mauled by a bear once.”

“Excuse me?”

“In Alaska. Made a real mess of me.”

The girl isn’t sure what to say. She thinks to tell the truth, say that she’s stolen a roll of toilet paper. Instead, she asks the woman if she’s ever read “Moby-Dick.”

“Oh God, yes,” the woman says. “Dreadful book.”

They’re in the car now, but everything looks different, dusted with snow. The girl’s disoriented. Without her feet on the pavement, she has no sense of direction and can’t recall exactly where it was she camped last night.

“It was by the railroad tracks,” she says. “And I think there was a playground pretty close.”

“Say no more.” The woman makes a sudden left. “I know the spot.”

When they pull up to the empty lot, she isn’t sure it’s right—the dirt graved in white and the scrappy weeds glazed to silver.

But then she sees the big flat rock where she and Evan had eaten their dinner of kipper snacks and crackers.

She gets out of the car and walks over to the place they’d slept. She kneels on the ground, wishing the woman weren’t watching.

She feels like digging. Maybe the money fell out of her pack. Maybe Evan didn’t take it before he left. Maybe—why the fuck not?—they’ll get married in the spring. She removes her pointless gloves and sends her hands down to where the earth is warmer. All she finds, though, is a wadded tissue.

She can’t help but think of her father. The white putty plugging the hole in the wall. Maybe they put something similar in his skull—who knows. After they removed his body from the bedroom, she never saw it again. And the coffin had been closed.

She scoops up some snow and undoes it in her fist, throttling it back to water. It’s no longer surprising to her that a person would want to die.

Time to grow up, Evan had said.

She’s twenty now. She understands everything.

Back at the house, she’s freezing.

The woman directs her to a plush red chair in the living room. “You just need to rest. Travelling takes a lot out of you.”

For the past ten minutes, the woman’s been describing a backpacking trip she took forty years ago to Nepal. “Have you been to Nepal?”

Maybe, the girl thinks, she hasn’t explained her predicament sufficiently and it’s her own fault that she’s been mistaken for a more civilized kind of traveller—maybe a long-distance hiker in between care packages.

“And then we went down to India. This was after college, with my friend Ginny.

She was a great lover of mountains. A real cragswoman.”

The girl can feel her hair swimming in a flow of heated air.

“Shall we have a little sherry?”

The girl opens her eyes.

“Or do you want to have a shower first? Yes, why don’t you? And then we can just relax. I’ll put your things in the room at the end of the hall.”

The hot water is first cruelty and then something like God. She wants to stay in here forever, become a saint, a fleshless thing with glittering bones.

Stay in here until she can forgive him.

She wonders if Evan’s in a room, too, having a wash, or maybe he’s already in a hitch, heading south. Probably to California. He said he’d never go back to Tucson. She doesn’t cry, because in some way she’s already shed those tears.

Still, she can feel his chapped lips at her ears, her breasts, whispering things into her that she’ll never forget. Terrible things about his family, breathless things about their future. The stunned blue marbles of his eyes, that strange yelp of his. She’s always known he was crazy, but she never expected something like this. Not from the boy who stayed facing her after they fucked, gently thumbing her eyebrows as if trying to remove a smudge.

There’s a clean nightgown laid out in the room where the woman’s put her stuff. It’s a flannel thing with a high neck that makes the girl think of Mary Poppins. Beside it is a note: Please put this on.

She wants to laugh, but all that comes from her mouth is a pant. As she slips the gown over her head, she’s shocked by its softness, the way it butters the rough patches on her back. When she walks into the living room, the woman’s kneeling before the hearth. She’s in a nightgown, too—disturbingly similar.

“Give me one second. I’ve almost got this lit.”

A moment later, there’s a dull boom as the flames jump.

On a small table is a glass decanter filled with straw-colored liquid. There are two glasses, one with a few dregs in it and the ghost of lipstick. When the girl looks up she sees that, indeed, the woman has put on some makeup.

“Shall I pour?”

“Not for me.” And then, when she sees the woman’s disappointed face: “Well, maybe just a little. I don’t really drink.”

“Why—are you pregnant?”


“Well, all that nausea this morning.”

“No, I just—”

“Anyway, it’s none of my business.” The woman pours generously. “Either way, a little sherry won’t hurt you.”

As the girl sips, the woman reclines on the sofa, pats the place beside her.

The girl hesitates and says, if it’s O.K., she’d rather sit by the fire.

“No more,” she says, as the woman refills her glass.

The room’s a blur and she’s desperate to go to sleep, blot out the day. But the woman won’t shut up.

“You know,” she says, “I’ve had quite a few adventures myself.”

The stories pile up. The woman chugging kava with Fijians and braving temple food in Rajasthan.

The girl nods dutifully. Out the window, the snow has stopped and, in the dim light of the garden lamps, she sees someone standing there.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just—” She realizes it’s a deer. “I think I’m a little tipsy.”

“Me, too,” the woman says. “This is nice, isn’t it?”

Beyond the walls, the hum of the freeway—a gentle shush, like the ocean.

Evan had said they’d go back to the coast next summer. Back to the beach where they’d seen no whales, only tankers floating precariously on the horizon.

“I told you about the bear, didn’t I? That was on another trip with my friend Ginny.” The woman’s lips are slightly smeared now. There’s some sherry on her nightgown. “That was a pretty good vacation, despite everything. Well, you know how it is when you’re travelling, ups and downs. So, when are you heading home?”

The girl feels something like anger. She wants to tell the woman that she’s not on a fucking vacation. She wants to say that she lied earlier, that she has eaten rubbish. She wants to take off her socks and expose her feet, which, after seven months, are swollen and poxed with blisters.

Instead, she shrugs and puts down her glass, touches her belly.

She feels sick, bloated, forced to eat this woman’s stories. It doesn’t seem right to know this much about a stranger. It occurs to her that she knows more about this old woman than she does about Evan. She even knows where this woman was the day her mother died: “On a boat, headed toward Spain. I got a telegram!”

Still, she doesn’t know the woman’s name, and the woman doesn’t know hers.

“You know what I’d love?”

The girl is nodding off. “I’m sorry, what did you—”

“Wait. Let me get it.” The woman stands and disappears into the hallway.

The girl feels woozy. A clock on the mantelpiece reads 10:18. Usually by nine she and Evan are on the ground, often in the same sack. Often naked. She leans back on the cushions and gives in to the weight of her lids. She thinks about all those books she has to carry. Half of Melville’s life. She pictures him, a hairy man with a harpoon. When a hand brushes her arm, she jumps.

It’s the woman, setting the banjo case on the couch. “I hope you don’t mind my going into your room. I thought it might be nice to have a little music.”

The girl feels a sudden rush of heat. She swallows, shakes her head. “No.”

“Oh, come on.” The woman’s voice rises childishly. “Play something.”

“No—I really can’t.”

The woman frowns and pours herself more sherry. “I mean, you’d think I’d be entitled to ask.”

“Yes, of course, it’s just I’m—I’m really tired.”

“Oh, she’s tired now.” The woman rises and lurches toward the fireplace, lifting the poker and smashing a blackened log to sparks. One flies to the carpet and chars it. “You know, all you girls are the same. When it’s your turn to give . . .” The woman thrusts the poker again, leaning unsteadily against the bricks. “I suppose you only do it for money.”

“Excuse me?” The girl stands and reaches for her case. “I really need to go to bed.”

“Oh, so you’re staying here?” the woman says imperiously.

The girl flushes, looks away. She says she’ll pack her bags.

“No.” The woman puts down the poker and grimaces. “Oh, my God, I always do this.” She steps on the smoking cinder.

“Please,” she says. “I’m sorry. Please don’t go.”

She says it so many times that the girl starts to cry.

They sit for a long time in the stifling room, not speaking. Finally, the girl takes the banjo from its velvet bed and places it, properly, on her lap. It’s been a while since she held the instrument this way. On the streets, she’s always standing up, and the banjo’s fairly heavy. When it rests on her lap, she’s got more freedom to find just the right angle. She can practically feel his hands at her side, adjusting her posture. The lessons she hated as a child.

She chooses a simple song, one of the first she learned. As soon as she begins, though, she wants to stop. The sound’s so rich it frightens her. The way it flies from the instrument but doesn’t dissipate like it does when she plays outdoors. Here the notes can’t escape; they hit the walls and ceiling and circle back to her.

Leaning in, she clawhammers the melody, gathering speed as she goes. Imping, her father had called this sort of frenzied picking.

When she finishes, it’s with a sweeping flourish that’s not for show; it’s the imp, breaking loose and fleeing. Where it goes the girl can never understand.

She hopes the woman won’t applaud.

It’s like a test, this hard-earned silence; only a fool would squander it.

All night she sees him, his body breaking from the water, the white skin pierced with sticks. When he goes under again, she follows him. The sound, a whining bass.

She asks him why he’s crying.

He says, “I have no mother.”

When she pulls a spear from his side, there are slow red clouds that smell like rain.

In the morning the house is jumpy with light, sudden glints off melting snow. The girl puts a blanket over the woman, who’s asleep on the couch. Then she creeps to her room and goes through the packs, winnowing them down to what’s essential.

She keeps Evan’s blue sweater and his black hoodie, the warmest of his filthy socks. Then, stupidly, for luck, she grabs the Melville. The rest of his stuff, along with most of her own, she chucks into a bin in the garage.

What’s left fits into a single bag, but when she lifts this onto her shoulder it frightens her. She pictures Evan face down in a ditch. Maybe she should call the police.

“You’re up already?”

The woman is standing in the doorway. In the sun, her bloated face is a road map of wrinkles. The way she lingers outside the room embarrasses the girl. That anyone should feel shame in her own house is awful.

“You can come in,” the girl says.

When she mentions the police, the woman says, “I’m sure your friend is fine. It’s you I’m concerned about.”

The girl picks up the nightgown and folds it neatly. “I’ll be fine. But—I don’t know—maybe you could drive me to the freeway?”

When she sees the sign for the interstate, her heart begins to thump.

Maybe the woman can hear it, too. “I’m not comfortable leaving you by the side of a road.”

“Just drop me off up there by the gas station.”

“No, that’s not a good area. I’ll leave you by the Denny’s.”

When the girl spots some travellers near the traffic light, she rolls down the window, just to be sure.

Evan isn’t with them, though she can’t stop looking back. She’s still sick with worry.

The car rolls past the Denny’s, and before the girl can protest the woman turns left—a long, curving loop that feels like an amusement-park ride.

“Where are you—”

The woman accelerates and merges onto the freeway, the wet road bordered by slush.

“Stop,” the girl says. “This is fine.”

But the woman only laughs. The road sounds like a river and is blinding with puddles of light.

“There are sunglasses in the glove box,” the woman says. “Would you grab them?”

The girl feels queasy again. After she hands over the glasses, she leans back and closes her eyes. She tells the woman she’ll get out at the first rest stop.

The woman says nothing—and then, after a while: “I’m Kathryn, by the way.”

Then they’re quiet, letting the freeway thrash its tail behind them, sending up sprays of water. When they zoom past the rest stop, the girl steadies her trembling hands. “Where are we going?”

“I’ll take you home,” the woman says.

The girl shakes her head at the ridiculous word.

But then she thinks of the grapefruit tree. “Tucson is, like, over a thousand miles.”

“Don’t worry,” the woman says. “I’m a good driver. I took a lot of road trips with Ginny.”

The girl suspects that they were more than road trips—probably some kind of love story.

“So you were attacked by a bear once?”

“Oh, yes. And I have the scars to prove it. I’m sure he would have killed me had I not punched him in the face.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” the girl says, remembering what Evan had taught her. “Or you wave your arms and shout at them.”

“Yes, exactly. You make yourself bigger than you are.”

The girl wonders how on earth a person could do that.

But the following year, just before she delivered the baby, she understood how it was possible. How there was a certain point when you were no longer what you were; when you became like the largest animal that ever existed—and no one, no one, could fuck with you.

Victor Lodato was born in New Jersey. He is the author of ‘Edgar and Lucy’ (Head of Zeus UK, St. Martin’s Press US) and ‘Mathilda Savitch’ (2009), which was hailed by The New York Times as ‘a Salingeresque wonder of a first novel’. The novel won the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, and has been published in sixteen countries, including the UK (Fourth Estate). Victor is a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Camargo Foundation (France) and the Bogliasco Foundation (Italy). He was shortlisted for the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His short fiction and essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta and Best American Short Stories. Lodato currently divides his time between Tucson, Arizona and Ashland, Oregon.