Keesha craves the soothing that comes with nighttime driving. The road’s yellow line threading luxuriously, slowly, in the high-beams of the truck, hypnotizing her into a nighttime fugue of not thinking, but not sleeping—an in-between state as mild and sweet as twilight.It’s her fourth day into a 2,000-mile trek across Alaska, four hours into darkness, and she isn’t soothed. She is stabbed awake by thoughts of home.
Stabbed by the memories of the most adrenaline-spiked moments: the curb at the front of the hospital jarring her little Nissan Sentra sideways as she squealed cockeyed into a no-parking zone; the blue swish of parting doors and the face of the front-desk woman shuttering closed at her sister’s name; the stiff back of the head nurse leading her through a warren of white rooms to her niece, Dahlia.
Stabbed by the memory of Dahlia, swaddled in white, except for a pink blanket pressed to her snot-crusted, spit-streaked face speckled red from the implosion of windshield glass. White butterfly Band-Aids criss crossed her face. Hey, kid, Keesha signed. Of all the things she could have said in that dismal hour, and she sees it on repeat, again and again—her own hands doing that stupidly cheery sign, hey, kid.
A memory like a horse-kick to her chest, when Dahlia looked away.
A glimpse of her sister, a white sheet covering everything except a spread of dark hair—
But then—at the very edge of the rig’s high-beams, a movement—and the next second a blown-out white shape on the yellow line of the road; a mirror flash of eyes; a tall, human shaped figure.
Keesha brakes, pure instinct, hauls the wheel right, even if impact wasn’t imminent, the high-beams giving her the benefit of distance. The truck slides to a stop in the gravel of the shoulder, half-up an incline, headlights beaming toward the Kenai Mountains.
With only two hours of service left on her seventy, enough to reach Seward and unload her payload, she should kick the truck into gear and keep going. A delay would force dispatch to reroute someone else to unload. She’s managed her time pristinely; she knows every route, every refuel, every unload to the minute and it’s been years since she missed the payout of unloading. If she doesn’t look back, she can tell herself it was a moose or an elk. Native, natural, and no reason to investigate. But what if it wasn’t an animal? The pale silhouette of a person cuts the blue-black square of darkness in her side mirror.
Keesha clicks the cabin door open, and the greedy cold sucks her breath away. She hops down to bundle up: a jacket, windbreaker, gloves, a scarf wound around her neck and over her mouth. She slides her phone into her back pocket and the pepper spray from under her seat into her coat pocket.
When she squints, she confirms it wasn’t an illusion, a person-shaped glare of moonlight, standing right on the yellow line of the road. Without venturing closer, Keesha calls, “Hullo?” The person doesn’t turn.
She walks seven or so paces. Stops. The paleness isn’t a matter of winter clothes, the unadorned head not a fuzzy white hat. A naked woman. The spine knobbed and shadowed, thin arms widen at the elbows, the butt flat, curved low by the decline of advanced age.
“Ma’am!” Keesha jogs around the woman.
She is moonbeam pure; her arms hang at her sides, and her mouth is slack and wide. Her eyes, dark and shadowed by long lashes, swivel to Keesha. A tongue moves to touch top teeth. Keesha steps back, an avoidance and retreat as instinctual as braking, but from what she cannot say. After all, it’s a naked 80-something-year-old woman who needs help. The woman must belong to someone; a daughter or a nurse’s aide will come back into a room to find it empty, discarded bedclothes just outside the pool of porch light. A frantic call to the police.
Cold feels like a drill, sharp and boring between the cracks of jacket and jean and sock. The woman’s skin is crisped white, nubbed with goose bumps. Her bare feet flat against the dark asphalt, as if she were at the beach, defy comprehension—there had to be a medical explanation, diabetic neuropathy or vascular disease.
Keesha crimps the scarf against her mouth, releasing a small enough space to say, “Ma’am, can I help you?’
Keesha thinks of a praying mantis as the woman tilts her head and takes a step back, then another.
“Hey, hey,” Keesha croons, “it’s okay.”
Now perched at the edge of the road, an arm behind her and her back foot poised, the woman is still as a tree. It’s so quiet, the air seems to absorb sound as if the atmosphere wishes to obscure them, yet the moon is bright enough to enflame the clouds between and illuminate the white fluff of the woman’s hair, the length of her arms, the small sparse triangle of pubic hair.
“I won’t hurt you,” Keesha reassures her. “How about I call someone, yeah?”
Keesha slips her phone out, ready, squinting against the blaze of the phone’s cheery lights. She is blinded, but she senses the woman move. Keesha follows her off the road, nearly losing her in the thick thrum of dark trees and bushes. “Hey, no, wait, I’m putting away my phone.”
Crouched, arched like a cat, the woman swivels slowly to face Keesha, unbothered by the branches plucking her hair into a halo, the dark leaves shadowing her face. If Keesha unfocuses her vision, assesses from the side of her eyes instead of searching, the woman fuzzes into nothingness. She could be dappling of light in the brush.
Keesha debates. This isn’t just a matter of lifting a brittle old lady into the truck. It will take effort to coax the disoriented woman into safety. In training, then again in orientation, and later as an occasional reminder from dispatch, the directive is: “Don’t stop.” Stopping messes up your OTR; helping opens you up to lawsuits. A stopped truck is a beacon for theft and attacks. That edict usually absolved her—made it easy to blow by broken-down motorists and hitchhikers. The number and manner of half-crushed, wild creatures she’s swerved around in the road, much less the birds and rabbits she’s pulled from her truck’s grille—a taxidermist phantasmagoria that’s never given her a night of unrest.
Unbidden, Keesha remembers a chocolate lab off I-10, whuffling along the shoulder, oblivious to roaring trucks and cars. He wasn’t a lean, angry creature to be sheared off by the natural selection of the road; his tail-wagging, barrel-bodied gait and green collar were the pure, stupid charm of a pet. Keesha saw him a mile ahead and thought I should stop, because someone loves him, but below that conscious thought ran the constant clicking calculation of distance, rates, pay and time, which spit out a ticker tape showing hours left to drive to Houston. As quick as that, the urge to help was overturned, don’t have the time; I’m sure he’ll be fine. She blew by him waddling along in a straight line, but in her side mirror she saw him dart left into traffic. A screech of brake and a Ford F-150 knocked him clear across the road.
Now, in the deep darkness and cold of the night, she remembers him pinwheeling in the gray haze of the Houston air. The hot squeeze of guilt overwhelms every sliver of disquiet. She reassures the woman: “I won’t call anybody. I put the phone away, see? How about you tell me your name?”
The muscles of the woman’s neck tighten, a sideways glance and narrowed eyes, and finally, words: “Where’s the shimmer?”
A shiver shoots through Keesha at the sound—flat, without any inflection, but with a strange under-pitch, a reverberation of the words, slightly out of sync and warped lower like the bending, fraying ribbons of northern lights vibrating above them.
There’s something not right here, but she can’t say what, an ineffable unsettling she would never be able to explain to authorities in the shining normality of daylight, and if she leaves it has to be for a reason so solid, she can look someone in the eye later and explain exactly why she abandoned their grandmother.
Keesha suggests, “The northern lights, yeah? The shimmer? They’re above us, see?”
The woman tilts her head back, exposing the corded tension of her neck, and regards the sky.
“Yeah, see? You’ve found the shimmer…Want to watch from my truck? It’s nice and warm inside my truck.” Reassured by a quick touch to the pepper spray in her right pocket, Keesha inventories the rest of her pockets’ contents: a wad of Kleenex, a snarl of bobby pins, sprigs of hair, an over-stretched hair band, a Lego person, dollar and change, and a half-eaten bag of gummi bears in her parka. Was it just a few day ago that she’d cracked the bag open to shovel a handful into Dahlia’s hands and quiet her signing, Auntie, where are you going? When will you be back? Providence has transmuted that anguish into luck. “Want a gummi?”
The bag crinkling open is a firework in the quiet. Keesha mimes putting one into her mouth and extends her arm to the fullest.
Keesha blinks and the woman is there, head angled, to inspect the contents of the bag with one eye. She plucks a handful and stuffs it in her mouth. Keesha is treated to the slicing of gummi bear by oddly angled teeth. Bits of bear slop outside the rim of her mouth, opening and closing wider and darker than seems necessary for such simple food. A dark tongue roots along the edges of lips, worming around for strays as if hunting on its own volition. The woman hums.
“You liked that, yeah? Come on, have some more.” Keesha takes a few steps back, frost crackling under her boots, as she leads the woman to the road. The woman darts forward for another handful of gummies. More smacking of lips, slurping, and a low, constant hum. She even closes her eyes, following the packet of food unerringly as if she can smell the gummies.
They progress across the road to her rig.
Keesha sights the truck over her shoulder, but with gummies almost gone and the woman so focused on the food in her hand, she can’t sort what trick will get the woman into the safety of her cabin if they run out. Being out of tricks seems to be this year’s theme. Faced with a mourning and listless Dahlia, Keesha had caved on junk food every evening. She’d kicked the challenge to her neighbor Lorena, who agreed to watch Dahlia this time because Keesha promised to be back by Thursday. “Maybe see if you can get her to eat regular food. Give her some fruit, yeah?” Dahlia had looked up, tuning into something the women were saying, and signed, “banana?” Lorena didn’t know sign language, so Keesha translated, “maybe a banana.”
Keesha remembers what else she has now. “Oh, dang, looks like the gummies are all gone. Did you want a banana?”
At the truck door, the woman licks her finger, quickly, noisily then drops her arms as if she’s lost control over them. Nothing changes on the woman’s face. No indication of having heard.
Keesha makes the sign for banana. Reaching behind without taking her eyes off the woman, Keesha clicks open the cabin of her truck and gestures inside like a hostess welcoming someone to a party. As soon as it opens, the woman climbs up in a smooth, swift ascent, limber and strong. Keesha uses the handles to haul herself up to usher the woman across the bench-seat to the passenger side.
In the buttery cabin light, the woman watches Keesha unzip, peel off gloves, rub her hands together, unwind the scarf, and swipe a tissue over the drip of her nose. Keesha asks, “aren’t you cold, ma’am?”
The keys rattle as Keesha slides them into the ignition, but the woman’s head comes up quick, a hand on the door handle, poised to open it. This old woman, knobbed and thinned to mere skin droopy as soft cheese would do it, too—crack the door open and skitter into the darkness, across the highway, and into the wilds around Bear Lake faster than Keesha could possibly chase her. Keesha releases the key, hands up in surrender.
“Okay, I won’t start the truck. How about that banana?” She roots around in the plastic bag from the Circle K for an anemic banana, bruised brown—all that is left from a lunch of a pre-packaged ham sandwich, Cheetos, and an Arizona Iced Tea. She peels the banana and passes it over.
The woman crams all of it in her mouth at once, blowing out her cheeks and pressing two hands to her lips to keep any from spilling. Her jaw flexes, her breath huffs loud in the cabin as she chews with schlocking and slurping.
The cabin is sweet with the scent of banana, barely covering the pungency of the unwashed woman, an intense mixture of sour sweat, urine, and metallics—iron minerals and mica. Dark scabs and fresh red welts crisscross her forearms and thighs, the teeth mark of brambles and other sharp flora of the underbrush.
“How long you been out there, lady?” Keesha murmurs, watching the sinew and tendons of her throat force down a lump of banana, not expecting an answer.
“Since the dark.” In the cabin, her voice sounds normal, not like before, and not frail like an old woman’s, but firm—powerful enough to get around the banana.
“Dark? Just tonight? That can’t be right.”
The woman chews slowly, pausing to pump chunks of food down. The jut of the woman’s brow shadows her eyes, but the planes of her face are sere, stark white in the light of the cab. Keesha can’t tell what’s off, what small proportion of composition is misaligned to make the woman’s face seem so long, the outward swell of mouth like mandibles.
Keesha touches the spray in her pocket.
“It shimmers.” The woman is nearly done with the banana.
“Yeah, you said that earlier…You mean the northern lights, right?”
“It shimmers, and They come.”
The woman shakes her head a few times, taps her hands on her forehead as if she’s trying to shake loose a thought. She whimpers and suddenly leans forward to peer through the windshield, tilting her head up, left, then right to scan the clouded expanse of sky and whispers, “Yes.”
Keesha’s stomach sours. Oh shit, you picked up a crazy woman. Why had she ignored the rule? Don’t stop. Don’t pick people up.
Leaning now into the light of the cabin, the woman’s eyes swivel to look at her.
She should just let the woman go. Release her like a spider caught in a cup—not even waiting until the sun comes up—let her creep back into the cold wilds. She’s about to suggest it, a mutual parting of ways, but then the woman jerks upright and reaches across Keesha to unhook the CB microphone. She clears her throat into the chatter channel, knocking Keesha’s knee with a hand as she twirls the tuning dial. Her fingers are exceptionally long and thin, almost bone-colored in the gloom of the truck. She dials past stations, crackling static followed by bursts of human voices, to stop at a frequency that is quiet, but not empty—a hum that veers briefly into the strata of static. Keesha’s teeth ache, she rubs her jaw, tugs at her ear lobes to ease the tension of the sound, a subsonic ratcheting of insect wings vibrating through the bones of her face.
Pressing the call button down hard, the woman holds the mic like she’s done it before, hovering it close to her lips. She closes her eyes, tilts her head, and presses it to her throat, hard enough to dent the skin, pushing it around along the threads of tendons until stopping high up under the chin. Keesha’s lips have been against that mic, it has her spittle, her atoms on it, and the sight of it nestled against the woman’s throat is unbearably intimate. Keesha wants to jerk it free by the cord.
“That’s not how you talk on it.”
She said the same thing nearly six months ago to Dahlia, with an entirely different tone. Her sister, Jazmine, and Dahlia made a short car trip to Bellevue to meet her at the weigh station with a picnic lunch. Soon as she was in the cab, Jazmine placed a spiny succulent on Keesha’s dash, reflexively signing as she spoke, “I brought you a cute succulent. Aloinopsis luckhoffii.” She even finger-spelled the plant name.
“Come on, Keesh. I did research on what could work. It needs, like, no water; it’ll be hard to kill it.”
“It’s going to cook on my dash, like all the others. I’ve already told you this: I drive through cold parts of the world, but the dash is a convection oven. I don’t want to watch it slowly die.”
“Fine.” Jazmine rubbed her fingers along the ridge the succulent. “So, what about a cat?”
Keesha rolled her head back against the seat, “I don’t want a cat.”
“What? It looks like you have plenty of room for a cat box in the back. Just imagine,” Jazmine snagged the mic and pretended to radio, “Breaker 1-90, my copilot, Pickles, spotted a bogey ahead so watch your speeds out there.”
Keesha would spend days looking forward to truck stop picnics with her sister and niece, imagining all the stories she would tell, gathering little knick-knacks from gas stations to give to Dahlia, but as soon as they were together, the words would dissolve out from under her, cotton candy in a river. The important words, solid, meaningful words, were a wet clay she couldn’t form quick enough to keep up with Jazmine. She managed to say, “living things—plants, kids, pets—that’s your thing, Jazz. They’re not my jam.”
Still into the mic, Jazmine argued, “they could be—”
Dahlia yanked the mic from her mom and held it up to her mouth. She pressed the button and pantomimed talking, all the head wags, shoulder lifts, hand waves, and mouth movements of an animated monologue without a single sound.
“That’s not how that works,” Keesha said, forgetting to sign.
Jazmine laughed, “cut her some slack. She’s never heard talking. She doesn’t understand what we’re doing with our mouths.”
In admonishing the woman, Keesha feels abashed in the same way she had with Dahlia, as if she’d misunderstood a fundamental way other people operate in the world—as if she were the one with the strange gaps of knowledge. Seeming to sense Keesha’s uncertainty, the woman cracks an eyelid, frowns, and leans toward Keesha, who is already pressed against the door, her own hand curled around the handle. “They. Hear. Our. Heartbeats.”
“Right, of course,” Keesha says, but doesn’t let go of the handle.
The woman scans the sky through the windshield. She whimpers, presses the mic closer to the tendons threading her neck. Her eyes flutter and close, her head drops, and she folds up on herself. She warbles an upwelling of tears.
“Ah, Christ…” Keesha lets go of the door and puts a hand on the woman’s bare shoulder. The skin rasps dry and ice cold under her fingers. The body trembles under her touch. “Hey, hey, let’s not get worked up. Hey, I’ll take you to Seward and we’ll get you all taken care of.”
“No,” the woman wheezes through tears, but it’s faint and Keesha senses a shift, a defeat she can exploit to finally shift everything into motion.
“It’ll be fine.”
“I’m not going back.”
“Where is ‘back’? Where did you come from?”
“I’m going to wait for Them. Even if…even if They don’t come this time.” She hiccups into a sob and bends her head almost to her knees.
“Oh, lady, hey, I bet whoever it is, they went to the police station to report you missing. And the police, they put out an ABP on you. Bet if I turn the dial to the right station, we can hear them looking for you.”
The woman sits up again and shakes her head, “that’s not how They are.”
“How are they, then?”
“They come on their own time.”
“Who are they?”
“They first came when I was young. Seventeen. Aiden was born. Raging. That kid was born angry. From the moment he came out, squalling, beet red, and his hands little fists. Oh, the crying…I just needed a rest,” her voice drops out, “Joey was gone that night and in the field by the water tower…I had the shotgun…for the racoons and there was a—shimmer, all around and I was lifted. I felt lifted. Like, like I could breathe again.” The cabin light clicks off. The moonlight silvers her eyes in the gloom. Her voice is a sandpaper rasp in the quiet of the cabin. The woman’s story may have been weird, but it wasn’t nonsense. It wasn’t dementia. Despite the strangeness of the details, there was a certain coherence to the woman. “They want you to do things, but nothing is painful. Nothing is stressful. Every time I was with Them was like a vacation. I rested. True rest. Like sleeping really deep. It was the best I’ve ever been.”
Keeping her eyes focused on the slow drift of cloud outside the window, Keesha thumbs through the index of her life and can’t find a time she hadn’t been hustling—working one job while studying to get licensed for the next job, counting pennies and tracking deposit days, negotiating with landlords, calculating every haul and every mile; now there was Dahlia, on the sidelines, about to be counted into the fast moving double-dutch of Keesha’s day-to-day life. Everything is scrambled and rucked-up with anxiety. She imagines what it would be like to walk into a clinic, give herself up to the white-clad nurses waiting to enfold her in an over-sized terry cloth robe, lead her into a quiet place called the soothing room, while someone else took care of the day-to-day of making-do. Keesha turns the cabin lights back on, the dimmer version that preserves the truck battery. “Sounds lovely. Why did you come back?”
“You don’t get to pick how long They keep you. Gone for years. Gone for a day.”
“Years? Gone for years? You’re telling me you missed whole years of your life?”
“There wasn’t much to miss. You miss paying bills? Miss the crying? Miss his noisy breathing as you’re trying to watch TV?”
“No, nobody misses those things, but what about your kids, growing up.”
“They learned to live with what I gave them.”
Could kids learn to live on crumbs? Keesha only had a few signs, enough for a weekend aunt. Some rough sentences, the alphabet, a few jokes. Enough sign language to ask about the bathroom, get through a meal, but not enough to comfort Dahlia at night, half-awake, whimpering, and signing mom mom mom mom mom over and over again until Keesha couldn’t bear it anymore and captured Dahlia’s hands into quiet. How would she fit a sign language class into seventy hours on the road? It’s not like there’s a book on tape for sign language. Could Dahlia really grow into a healthy person feeding on the measly nutrients of Keesha’s sign language?
Her niece as a spindly little weed growing up through broken concrete with Keesha’s anemic signs. The woman’s kids, yellow-headed dandelions in the same crack. “It couldn’t have been easy for your kids.”
“No, I mean, kids need their momma.”
The woman paused so long Keesha wondered if she’d heard. But she said so quietly Keesha had to lean into the sound, “it all went better when I was gone.”
Keesha had to hold a hand over her heart for a moment to ease the constriction of her own grief. Outside, on their apartments’ joint patio, Keesha negotiated babysitting rates and protocols with Lorena. Hard-smoking, ribbon-thin, epileptic Lorena with yellowed teeth and always-handy cart-on-wheels instead of a purse that ported her abundant day-to-day wares in her travels on the city busses. Her cheeks hollowed with each drag of cigarette. She motioned to Dahlia, a limpet attached to Keesha’s waist. “I’m fine taking her for the week, hon, but what’re you going to do when she goes back to school?”
“Back to school?”
“Yeah, she’s in school, ain’t she?
Keesha rubbed a hand over Dahlia’s head, and her niece looked up. Keesha finger spelled, Are you in school right now?
Dahlia wrinkled her brow, glancing between Keesha and Lorena for the punchline to such an easy question. She signed, yes, then nodded vigorously.
Lorena scoffed, working herself into a cough. Keesha wanted to grab her already-packed travel bag, get in her truck and drive. Drive into the wilds of Canada. Somewhere she’d never been and couldn’t find her way back from. Because even Lorena, with one son dead by suicide and the other a drug addict somewhere in Laredo, knew when a kid should be in school.
“Do you really think that’s true? That they’re better off without you?” Keesha asked the woman.
“I know they’re better off without me, now. The shimmer will solve everything.”
“Which is why you’re out here, looking for a place where They can pick you up?”
When the woman smiles, Keesha sees the shine of teeth in the dim light.
“Lady, I get it…I get that it’s something you believe, but—I just can’t leave you out here.”
The woman shifts in the seat. “People are afraid of Them, but They’re not the ones who locked me in white rooms.”
“Okay, but unless someone shows up—”
The cabin lights click off although no one touched them, and the woman is a mass of shadow across the seat, a dark cluster of matter that sucks up the air in the cabin. “I won’t go.”
“We can’t sit here all night.”
The woman screams.
“Shit!” Keesha claps her hands over her ears. In the tiny cabin of the truck, the unbroken howl amplifies to a painful reverberation. Keesha squeezes her eyes closed against the sight of the wide maw of the woman’s mouth, ribbons of saliva, and teeth flashing between black spots of sounds and static. Keesha pleads, “Stop!”
The woman is right at Keesha’s shoulder, quiet. Too close. Her proximity is aggressive, as if the woman is poised to bite her, disembowel her with long fingers.
“I won’t go,” the woman repeats, and she sounds like she did before food and conversation, the echo of the words doubling up in a sonic loop of each other.
“I won’t force you anywhere, but can I at least radio in to my boss—” but the words squeeze quiet as pressure in the cabin deepens, as if molecules of air swelled wide. Keesha’s stomach dips and her body presses into the seat with a squeak; then air just as quickly thins and Keesha lifts from the seat, as if gravity turned off. Every loosely anchored item—the mic, the hula girl on the dash, the can of Coke in the cup holder—rise too, spiraling into the space around them. Two seconds, maybe more, of weightlessness, and then gravity grabs them back. The Coke can clanks into the cup holder, the hula girl clatters to the dash, and Keesha whuffs out surprise.
Her left hand grips the door handle so hard it hurts, and her right hand bumps against her throat with the thread of air and pulsing blood. Did I have a stroke? The woman is unruffled, leaning forward to peer into the side mirror with atavistic focus.
Glancing in her own side mirror, Keesha sees a car parked behind her truck. A dark sedan, cool blue in the bend of northern lights, fins cresting the dark to shine in moonlight.
“Holy shit, where’d that car—”
“It’s Them!” The woman is out of the cab instantly, passenger door left swinging open.
“Wait!” Keesha fights her own door handle, the simple mechanics stupefying her shaking hands. Leaping into the cold is like hitting a solid block, rattling her breath and heart so hard she leans against the truck for a moment to recuperate before dashing to the back. As she rounds the corner of the payload, she catches up to the woman where she’s stopped a few feet from the nose of the sedan, arched low and still as a stick bug pretending to be a twig.
A driver and a passenger sit in the car, blocky shoulders and heads like drawings of shadows, framed in the pane of the windshield. Even night creatures have been stunned quiet, and the only sound besides the atmospheric movement of wind is their cooling engine pinging.
“Is that Them?” Keesha whispers.
The car headlights burst on, forcing Keesha back with a hand to shield her eyes against the bright blare. The woman stands her ground, and Keesha edges forward again, close enough to hear the woman keening a high-pitched sound wavering on the edge of a larger, louder ululation.
“Is that Them? Is this who you wanted?” Keesha considers breaking the intensity of the moment with a touch, but the woman has pinched her hands up close to her chest, so Keesha can’t reach them without breaching the woman’s space. Lit up by the beams, the woman’s age-speckled skin is blown out bright white, darkened at ribs and hips by protrusions of bone. Motes flicker light to dark to light again, moving in and out of the lines of the headlights. A quivering point of eddying dark paints its way up the woman as a moth, out of season, hurls itself against the hard plastic of the mistaken moon.
A car door snicks open. The woman’s keening stops.
Keesha can’t hear or see movement past the cone of light, but the woman’s head quirks as if following a sound.
“Hey, you’re blinding us! Can you turn off your headlights?”
The lights tick off and the space fizzes into the cool air and soft light of the night. Through the blobs of after-burn, Keesha sees the driver is still seated behind the wheel, the passenger side empty. The Passenger stands at the nose of the car.
Wearing a black trench coat darker than the midnight blue of the evening, The Passenger is crisp, straight lines suggesting the shape of a female, and a wide-jawed moon face. Slicked back into a long, low ponytail, the Passenger’s hair slithers against the shiny material of her coat as she turns her head first one way, then another.
“Moira, love, we’re so glad you got in touch.” The Passenger’s voice is brimming with affection, honeyed, and happy.
Moira moves so fast Keesha isn’t sure she sees it. For one moment, the woman is a potent, breathing, trembling creature close enough to touch and then, with a hard scrabble of foot against roadside rocks, she is yin-shaped white curled against the Passenger in a hug so tight the sinews of her arms flex.
The Passenger’s coat squeaks as she encircles Moira in her arms, her black-gloved hands denting Moira’s skin in firm embrace. Moira whimpers, and the sound could be relief or pain, but the Passenger murmurs nonsensical reassurances and Moira’s eyes squeeze shut. “Tsk, Moira, love. It’s okay now.”
The Passenger lifts her eyes to Keesha. The precision of her hair, jacket, even the symmetrical arc of well-manicured eyebrows suggests officiousness. The confidence of competency and authority of officialdom, like all those Keesha has encountered who consider themselves in charge: doctors, police, the shabby chic social worker who kept insisting, “you’re named in the will, but there are plenty of adoptive families who would be happy have a little girl like her.” It’s the I-know-what-to-do attitude that makes Keesha want to yield, trust the Passenger to handle Moira—but also resist, wondering not for the first time that night if she’d regret giving up so easily. If something went bad later and they saw her GPS, she could she say to the police, to Moira’s family—but the woman seemed legit. No, not like any nursing home staff I’ve ever seen. No, not like a daughter or a niece.
“Who are you?” Keesha asks.
Very little on the woman’s face moves when she speaks, but her head tilts left, then right. “Did Moira not tell you about us?”
“She talked about a ‘them’ and…I…”
“From the way she described us, you thought we would be little green aliens.”
Keesha forced a quick laugh. We’re commiserating over Moira’s specific delusion, right? “Yeah, she certainly had a way of talking about you. I wasn’t sure anybody would show up.”
The Passenger shakes Moira gently, “Ah, we’d never fail our Moira.”
“But, you did. I found her naked, wandering in the Alaskan cold. If you’re supposed to be taking care of her, you’ve done a shitty job of it.”
“We have always done a good job taking care of Moira,” the Passenger insists. “It’s the other people.”
“Then who are you? What claim do you have on her?”
Moira’s eyes flip open, a black opening in an expanse of pale face. “They’re my family.”
The Passenger reiterates, “We’re her family.”
Keesha knows they’re not her family. Knows they don’t resemble anything that could be easily construed as family. So what now? Against her will, load her angry as a cat into my truck and take her to the police? According to the Department of Transportation, Keesha’s far enough beyond her Hours of Service that she would be in violation to drive her truck to Seward now. Her schedule is shot to shit. She’s 2,382 miles from home, nine miles and hours from job done celebrated with a watery coffee and a Styrofoam plate of scrambled eggs with Tabasco at the Marina Motel. Add into that a police visit. Assuming a police station visit went well…A ragged long-haul trucker dragging a naked white lady into the station and an FBI-esque woman with easy solutions right behind.
Keesha looks away. The mist foams up from Bear Lake, the mountains jagged edges against the blue-black sky, and above it all the moon sunlight bright. It all seems too beautiful, too unreal to be true—like she’s slipped sideways into a warped version of the world. She’s a record player pressed to play slow, distorted sounds, the northern lights smeared as time and place slides around her. If it were daylight, if it were that chocolate lab with the collar on the side of the road and her ham and cheese sandwich as bait, if it had just been something straight, an old lady needing a ride home—maybe then she could have done it differently.
“It can’t be this easy…” Keesha isn’t sure even as she says it, “for me to trust her to you. To let her go.”
The Passenger lifts her chin, her irises swell so wide her eyes go black and Keesha feels a buzzing, a vibrato of energy shimmying from her feet, up her legs, through fingers, palms, and chest, until it zips out the top of her head, lifting the roots of her hair. Her body feels wrought and loosened into jelly, as if all her ligaments were relaxed enough for muscle and bone to slip into piles if not for the skin holding them in.
“Jesus,” Keesha gasps, and stumbles away from the car.
The Passenger’s ponytail has cascaded across the crown of Moira’s head, so Keesha can’t see her eyes and can’t see her mouth move, but when Moira speaks the sound feels close, like she’s at her shoulder. “The shimmer.”
“Stop!” Keesha points at the Passenger. “Don’t you do anything to me.”
“You’re okay,” the Passenger says so warmly, it tugs at Keesha.
“Don’t sweet talk me.”
The Passenger tsks. “We don’t need to.”
So softly she can’t tell at first if it’s just her eyes adjusting to the darkness, but the air around her lightens, the dark particles warming to a royal blue. Physically, Keesha has a sense of invite, a warm corona of welcoming. The shimmer envelopes. It soothes. Relief surges up hot and overwhelming, it’s a reprieve. A break from the relentless future, the years of life without her sister. It feels as if her insides are being pulled up; a warm happy stretching of taffy. Her body lifts, eases up into the air until only her toes skitter across gravel.
The pull deepens, hip bones, shoulders, her right elbow angle upward, but her toes remain firm on the ground, like a counter-pull of tendon. A memory from the day before the trip becomes something integral to the inner-working of her body: Dahlia shadows Keesha as she packs her bag, watching every sock and shirt, every bra and jean. Just before Keesha zips it up she signals a frantic, Wait!, running out the bedroom, back in a flash with an armload of snacks, a banana, an apple, a box of animal crackers, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that must have come from her own lunch earlier that day, and the Lego person. Dahlia nestles the treats into the folds of clothing in Keesha’s duffel, but hands the Lego person directly to Keesha, signing, it’s a truck driver, like you! She can survive the dashboard. Blue pants, a red shirt, bald head. As truck-driver looking as any Lego person could be. Dahlia’s wide smile is a mile of over-sized teeth. Sadness clashes with delight, log jamming any decent response beyond, thanks, kid, as Keesha pockets the toy and almost runs to her truck.
Are those the last stupid words she’ll have from me? Am I going to let her be some sad kid? Now the pull is painful, the anchored sinew and muscle stretched; she gasps, “no, no, let me go. I don’t want to go into the shimmer.”
“Fair enough,” the Passenger says.
The sensation eases, the tingling of her scalp dissipating and her knees firming up under her. Every limb still tingles like she slept on them wrong and her lungs feel too small to bellow in all the oxygen she needs. Keesha bends and gulps big breaths. Moira is tucked under the Passenger’s arm. The Driver is a man-shaped shadow in the car. They are all watching her.
“Moira, are you sure?” Keesha asks.
She isn’t going to get Moira away from them. And she’s not going with. She asks the Passenger, “what happens now? What do I tell my bosses? The cops? The people who come looking for her?”
The Passenger’s voice is sweet, crystalized sugar crunched between teeth, but she’s curt and confident. “You won’t have to handle any of that. Don’t worry. You get in your truck and go.”
Keesha stumbles back around the driver’s side of her truck, remembering too late that the passenger side door was left open. She hauls herself into her seat and the passenger door is closed.
Shaking so hard she can’t stick the key into the ignition, it’s a few tries before she can get the engine to turn. The cabin rumbles awake, hula girl bobbing, and the radio mid-song. Keesha clicks the automatic locks and blasts the heat. The blue of her dash is her world, the same gauges and glows for millions of miles. Now that she’s, safe she feels supercharged—like Red Bull straight to her veins. She wishes she could peel out of there, leave them in a shower of pebbles and burnt rubber, but the truck lumbers forward, protests the way she hauls the wheel left to merge back on the road.
As she chugs up the hill, she looks back in the side mirror to see them, but everything reflected is jumpy moon and the snake of the blacktop, the chop of yellow dash down the middle of the road.
Her speed climbs, her engine shifting gears smoothly, and still she looks back and maybe she sees a blue glow on the horizon behind her. Maybe it’s the northern lights. Maybe it’s the mist of Bear Lake rising. Maybe it’s nothing, and soon there’s only dark and stars. She glances at her clock and it reads two minutes from when she stopped. The amount of time she’s been back on the road already, but not the time she took to stop. Her watch, a digital Casio from her sister seven Christmases ago, shows the exact same time—the numbers flip to the next minute in sync. Never mind she always sets her watch five minutes fast.
Keesha doesn’t pull over to the side of the road, she screeches the truck to a halt right there in the lane. She fumbles the phone out of her jacket pocket and starts calling her sister, phone to ear, the ringing of the line a comfort before she remembers and punches the red hang-up.
Keesha opens her door and flops out. Tears stream out of her eyes and she has to breath big and deep, relishing the electric cold zinging every bit of exposed skin, and her throat and lungs. The Lego trucker is in her hand, and she squeezes it hard, deep into the tendons of her hand, relishing the ache because it means she’s awake, alive, and okay.
She’s not sure how it will all look in daylight, what she’ll say about what happened that night. What stories of the road she’ll share, what stops she’ll make, or what will come for her and Dahlia. Bent over in the cold, crying in relief and grief, she discovers all of the words are in her brain, a deep wide well of words, the lexicon of signs, the syntax of gestures and facial expressions of ASL, everything she’ll need beyond hey, kid, but none of them enough to capture the enormity of what just happened.