Marianne’s alarm clicked a second or so before the music started. Her hand slammed down, cutting off Madonna’s mournful crooning.
Quiet was restored. She heard the wind and the birds. Quiet enough to hear a truck passing on the road. Quiet enough to hear the wash of an airplane. When she held her breath she could hear her heart beating.
She smiled and swung out of bed. There was still good cereal left from grocery day.
Daytime TV became a background drone. She caught the end of the news, then a bad game show started. She grabbed a book from the top of a stack ready to go back to the library. A beefy guy bent a woman back, enraptured by her boobs. She flipped through it until she got to thrusting manhoods. Her mom liked some racy stuff. Maybe she could take them in today and find something for herself that wasn’t shitty.
“Morning sweetie. You’re up early.”
“The sun comes right into my room.”
“We went out and got you those blinds.”
“Forgot to close them, I guess.”
The smell of coffee filled the trailer. Her mom stood next to the cupboard, turning her cup around in her hands.
“Do you have plans today?”
“Maybe go to the library before work. They’re almost due.”
“I need the car.”
“I’ll take the bus.”
“Sorry. You know. I really…”
“It’s okay, Mom.”
She watched her pour, a few escaped drops sizzling on the coffeemaker’s hot plate.
“You want some?”
“I probably shouldn’t offer. It’s probably not healthy.”
Her mom sat down at the table, hands folding around the cup. Marianne had a dim memory of her mother painting it. She remembered the smell of the paint and the raw ceramic. It had the word for coffee in different languages, done in green and brown.
“You got paid yesterday, right?”
Marianne pushed one of the marshmallows around in the milk.
“Well, I have an interview out at the mill. Can you imagine? It’d be good money. Union. Get on there and we’ll be laughing. Just need gas money.”
“I was going to get new running shoes.”
“Yeah, you’re right. That’s more important than a job interview. Christ, Marianne…”
“Sorry. I’ll get it.”
“It’s not like you don’t get yours. Who paid for that cereal?”
“I said I’ll get it!”
“You watch your tone with me.”
“Sorry.” She pushed her chair back.
“Don’t you dare waste that food. You’ll be begging for it one day.”
She drained the bowl and dumped it in the sink.
“Rinse it, please. I don’t want the whole place smelling like sour milk.”
She left money on the table, slipping out while her mother was getting ready. It was stupid. If her mom landed a good job she could replace her shoes. Even if she didn’t, they’d last another season.
Season. She snorted, kicking a roundish rock ahead of her. The clouds billowed under the sun, and where there was no sun it was cold enough to make her pull her jacket closed. School was done. She didn’t have another season of track.
The rock skipped into the grass at the side of the driveway. It looked so normal in the daytime. Just the same scrawny trees. But at night it would change. Every night for the last couple of weeks, it changed.
The evening rush gave way to a long dead period. She took out the list of busywork. Wiping down the seats. Better than cleaning the toilets.
Kneeling in the booth to scrub at the base, trying not to think of how long it had been since the last time, even there she found the lure of the trees impossible to resist. The trees and the lights and Ewan. She straightened, barely feeling the water soaking into her jeans from the rag. He’d told her to call him Ewan. It was close enough, he said, to his real name. Call me Ewan. The way he said it made her want to die. It shook her like those stupid girls in her mom’s romances. She really got it, then. She understood it.
A honking horn returned her to the present. Charlene waved to her. Marianne waved back and went to turn on the pumps.
She hung out for an hour or so, turning the tv over to music videos, since there were no truckers to complain that they couldn’t watch the game. What game never mattered. Baseball, football, hockey. If it was men playing sports they’d gulp down their shitty food with eyes glued to it. Marianne knew what an offside penalty was, and wished she didn’t.
“We’re going out to the pit tonight. Wanna come?”
“I don’t really feel like it.”
“Come on. You never want to hang out anymore.”
“We’re hanging out right now.”
“Cause you’re trapped at work. Can’t get away.”
“I’m not trying to get away. I just…don’t feel like going to the pit.”
“Did something happen last time? You just took off that night. Bobby says you’ve been weird lately.”
“No. Nothing happened.”
Charlene stirred the ice in her coke. “It’s our last summer. I mean, the last real one that we’ll have.”
“You’re going away?”
“Yeah. Mom and dad decided finally. McGill.”
“That’s really far. I mean it’s great. It’s a great school!”
“It’s going to be awesome. I wish you were going, too.”
“Maybe in a year or two.”
“But we can have fun this summer. I want to do everything that we used to do.”
“Saturday morning cartoons.”
Charlene laughed. “Yeah. With leftover Chinese food.”
“Soon.” She prodded an ice cube with her straw. “Sure you don’t want to come?”
“Are you sick or something?”
“Not that I know of.”
“You kinda look pale.”
“I’m already like a corpse.”
“I don’t know.”
“Call me, okay? We can hang out.”
It felt lonely after she was gone. She flipped through one of the books she got from the library, waiting for the clock to tick over, so she could go home. Studying ate up the time. She sort of missed her chemistry text.
The car was gone when she got home. She dumped her books and grabbed her walkman and wallet of CDs, shoving them into her backpack. No jacket. She wouldn’t need it once she got into the trees. The gravel crunched under her boots. It was never long to wait. She lurked along the side. It would be awkward explaining if someone happened to notice. But who would notice out here?
A truck passed on the road, the sound fading away, taking the smell of exhaust with it. Silence swallowed her. It would be soon. Her hand tightened around the straps of her bag. Every night she tried to really see it, but she couldn’t even see it as well as she had that first time. The space between the trees was there or it wasn’t.
And it was there. She felt the touch of a wind warmer and softer than any wind she’d ever known. Nothing up here, for sure. No matter how deep the summer, the edge of cold followed. She closed her eyes. It smelled rich and green. It smelled sweet, like perfume was supposed to smell, but didn’t.
The lights came down toward her, laughing. A wave of well-being washed over her. She wiped her eyes quickly and hurried to try and catch them.
She was laughing too, by the time they arrived at the black cottonwood tree. They liked to play tag, darting around, impossible to catch, but she tried anyway. Once she passed behind the trees she was tireless, never running out of breath, not even sweating. And she could see, even though it was night, and she knew it was night. She really did. But it didn’t matter. She could see everything, leaping over tumbled trees easily, eyes on the flickering lights. By the time she got to the clearing she had to pause to try to get her laughter under control.
Ewan stepped around the tree. Her laughter trailed off.
“Oh, my dear, don’t stop. That’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.”
She pulled off the backpack, distracting herself. “That’s…Really? My friend said I sounded like a horse.”
“Your friend is mad.” He took her hand. “You’re beautiful.”
“Why would you deny it? The light in you is blinding.”
She could barely meet his eyes. It really was like those stupid books, except that the women in them always knew what to say back. And they weren’t wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt.
“Come now. Many a maid has come to my door. I’ve seen great beauty and great ugliness. But brown hair strung with gold? Eyes as warm as a doe’s? Skin like snow, and roses in your cheeks? I know beauty, Marianne, and you are beautiful.”
He touched her chin. She shivered all over. It was a bit like when Bobby was trying to make up for something. Or the way it was when they first started fucking. Yes, it was like that; when all he had to do was look at her and she felt it all the way down.
“Crass young men don’t deserve precious things. They don’t understand what they have in their hands.” His eyes drifted over her, so kindly.
“What’s his name?”
“Ah, crude beast, to treat with indifference so flawless a gift, besmirching it with grubby prints.”
He let her go. It seemed like she stood there before him for a long time. It was hard to tell here. The music that filled the air ran sometimes like music always did, but sometimes it came to her through molasses; each musical note stretched out longer than it should.
“I brought you music.” The lights danced around her. They were sitting, when they hadn’t been sitting before. It was a fallen tree. A creek bubbled under their feet.
“The last time I was here you said…you asked about music.”
“I brought my player.” She fumbled with the zipper and pulled it out. “It isn’t like the music here. Classical or—” She wanted to say world music or ethnic music or something, but it wasn’t like that either.
“The music that the trees make, my dear Marianne, and the sky and the sea.”
“Guess it won’t stack up.”
“Play your music, Marianne.”
She put in a CD. It didn’t spin up, and the display remained blank. She tapped it, then opened the back, poking at the batteries.
“I just put in new ones in.”
“You’ve come a very long way.”
“What? What does that mean?”
He picked up a CD. The lights gathered close, all of them looking at it curiously. Her eyes followed the rainbows that spun around the surface.
“I’m sorry you can’t hear it. That’s a good one.”
“You can give it to me.” He held out his hand. “Please. Share with me.”
She didn’t know what he meant, but she took his hand.
Music washed out of her, bouncing between the trees and rolling back, a storm of guitar and drums and screaming, primal voices. The lights shrieked and scattered.
“Oh. Oh yes!” He tilted his head back exultantly. “Oh, this is magnificent! This is the sound of the heart.”
He stood, pulling her to her feet. “Show me, Marianne.”
Every times she came to visit him he said she should dance. The lights loved it. But she always refused. Maybe because it wasn’t really dancing, it just felt like venting. Or purging. But tonight she let the music move her, drunk on it.
They rampaged, dancing with the lights in the middle of the all the cottonwood fluff. She could dance forever, raging against the shitty trailer and Bobby and his indifference that wasn’t even bad enough to be bullshit and her stupid hometown and why couldn’t she have been a little smarter? Or faster? Why couldn’t she get out? She flung herself around until she was dizzy. Now, now she panted and sweated, feverish with it.
Ewan took her hands. She looked up into his steady gaze, shaking her hair out of her eyes.
“This is a song I’ve heard before. It calls the young men to war. It whispers all the evil of the world, and demands righteous blood to flow.”
His smile was wide and sharp. Strangely wide. She flinched.
“Don’t be afraid, Marianne. Everything that you feel is yours. It’s as beautiful as your eyes, and your hair, and your song. Give it free rein. It feeds the light in you.”
He cupped her face in his hands. She felt a tremor of misgiving. His lips hovered over hers. Her lungs emptied, and she couldn’t draw another breath. Her arm fell by her sides.
“The light in you is everything.”
Her eyes snapped open. Her mom straightened up, concern collapsing into irritation.
“How much did you drink last night?”
“Nothing.” She covered her eyes. The morning light was merciless. Her neck ached like she’d been headbanging.
“Is it drugs instead?”
“Nothing. I didn’t do anything last night. I just stayed home.”
“Bullshit. I heard you come in at three this morning.”
“I wasn’t drinking. I wasn’t doing drugs.”
She waited to see which direction she’d go.
“Well, you don’t stink.” She heard her retreat into the hall. “It’s almost noon. You have work today, don’t you?”
The sounds of cooking reached her, followed by bacon smells, and the toaster popped. Her stomach growled. Then she heard the shower come on.
Her mom was at the stove. Smoke curled up from the ashtray. There was a pack of Players beside her usual Du Maurier.
“John. You remember? I told you about him awhile ago. The man from the garage near work.”
“You went out?”
“I wanted to celebrate. Don’t worry! He paid.” Her good mood persisted. “I think the interview went great. I’ll find out soon.” She smiled, reaching around to pick up the ashtray. “He’s a nice man. Please.”
She didn’t say what she was asking for. Marianne retreated to her room until she heard voices, then got ready for work, ignoring her hollow stomach.
There was mud on the bottom of her backpack. She pulled out her CD player. When she hit play the disc started to spin.
“Marianne, come out and eat.”
She shoved the player back into her bag and pulled it on.
John was sitting in her chair. An empty plate sat awkwardly where the mail and flyers were usually stacked. He was older, bald, with a beard to make up for it. A crisp plaid shirt was buttoned up over a T-shirt. As soon as she appeared he stood up with a friendly smile.
“Hey. I’m John. You must be Marianne. Your mom told me all about you.”
Her mom’s eyes were hopeful. Pleading.
“Nice to meet you.”
“I made breakfast. Enough for all of us.”
“I have to get to work.”
“It’s really good. Are you sure you can’t stay?” John sat again. “It would be great to talk to you.”
“Yeah. Sorry. I can’t lose this job.”
“Sweetie? Are you sure you’re okay?”
“You just look really pale.”
She took a breath. Her mom sounded so much like she remembered from when she was little.
“You know me. Fish belly white.”
“Okay. Maybe could you come home right after work tonight? We’ll watch a movie or something.”
She looked out the window, towards the driveway and the trees, full of longing. A flashing memory of his smile made her shake her head. It was just a smile.
“Yeah. Maybe that’d be cool.”
“I got a great collection. I could bring something over.”
Her mom looked so happy. She forced a smile. “Sounds great.”
She didn’t look at the trees when she walked past. What was it about that smile anyway? It was just a smile.
She was feeling decidedly lightheaded by the time she got to work. She didn’t really like long shifts alone, but one advantage was that there was no boss hanging over her. She made herself a burger, piling on the pickles, wolfing it down before a customer came in.
The sun worked its way down behind the hills. The heat vanished with it, and the cold dampness crawled in. She shivered when she ran the garbage out to the dumpsters. Behind the parking lot the details of the hills melted away into frilled silhouettes, scraping away at the pretty, deep blue sky. She watched the trees sway, wishing—
She shivered again. He was smiling, and seemed happy. So…
The bell rang above the door. She slammed the dumpster lid down and jogged back inside.
“Sorry! Garbage run. Just let me wash my hands and I’ll be right with you.”
The dark haired woman nodded. Marianne stopped short, frowning.
“What is it?”
“You look familiar.”
“Do I?” She cocked her head. Her voice teased at the back of Marianne’s mind.
“Sorry. I might be going crazy.”
“Do I look like a good familiar person?”
She had an accent. It sounded exotic. Marianne scrubbed the smell of garbage off her hands.
“I bet you say that to all the customers.”
Marianne snorted. “Okay, no, definitely not. Not some of the people who come in here. What can I get you?”
“Anything to eat?”
“Not just now.”
She really looked familiar. Marianne shook her head, forcing herself not to stare. “You’re not a local.”
“Nope. Travelling back through. I was heading up to Alaska, but it is damn cold.”
“Bit of America just to the right of Siberia.”
The woman nursed her coffee, filling Marianne’s downtime with idle chatter. What was irritating in old ladies and truckers ended up making the time fly. She told amazing stories. How old was she? In her twenties, maybe, but she had a hundred years of stories, it seemed like.
Marianne made up a batch of fries and offered a plate on the house.
“They owe me for all the bathroom breaks I don’t get.” She looked at the clock. “Eat fast, though.”
“My shift’s nearly over,” she said, feeling apologetic.
She thought of her mom waiting at home with John.
“Tell me about it.”
“Hm. Well, since the company is leaving, I’ll take myself off to my own little nest.”
“I bet you have some miles to go tomorrow.”
“I think I might stay a few days. I hear you can see the northern lights from here.”
“Not in the summer!”
“A few months then,” she laughed. “It’s an interesting place.”