For the first day and a half he could pretend he hadn’t noticed it starting. Like the itchy, borrowed knowledge in the back of his brain that cows lie down before a rainstorm—like Fern always said, don’t want to know it’ll rain? Don’t look at the cows.
He kept the car radio low on those rare occasions he still had to drive, stopped wearing headphones on the subway, and started wearing them to stock shelves at work, the jack hanging loose, wire pulled through the belt loop on his jeans. And if Fern followed a little closer behind, if her put-on breathing seemed just over his shoulder? Well. Don’t look at her either.
At a certain point, though, there’s no stopping the weather.
“There is…a house…in New Or—”
He hooked his headphones over his ears, hiked his pants up as he walked. He kept his face turned to the road until the street player and his guitar were well out of earshot, past a Rite Aid, a Five Below, and the Tavern on Stokes. The bar was tempting, but the jukebox whir he could hear passing the door kept his feet carrying on—“they called…the rising—”
The corner ahead was choked off with foot traffic, and a cyclist squatting in the bike lane. The red lit walk sign held them all in place. Fern stood in the center of the little clump of bodies, between a baby carriage and two boys carrying penny boards. She was dressed for the last time he took her dancing. Red lipstick, sleek green gown and pearl lined décolletage. Her hair played to its own private, muted breeze.
He ducked around the far side, stepping down off the sidewalk and clipping his hip on the cyclist’s gear shift as he brushed by. He didn’t give the light time to change, facing the intersection with a flat ‘don’t try me’ stare. The laid-on car horns and cursing had a twang to them, almost the pickup of a guitar riff. “…and God, I know, I’m one—”
He thought about going home. Lying down in bed with the lights off, hitting his pen until the edges of the world dulled, and finishing off the bottle of Pink Whitney stashed beneath his mattress. But there was his mother to think of. His sister. And the little guy, too. He wouldn’t bring this on them again
Two blocks down and a left turn brought him to the parking deck. This early in the afternoon it sat vacant. Just him and Fern—barefoot now, and in sleepwear. Her eyes were backlit, gleaming out of every shadow.
His mother’s car was on the second level, a Honda from the ’90s. She’d bought it used four years back, trying to cut down on Lyft fees, and time spent walking alone at night. He pulled up the family chat. Taking the car for a road trip. He waited until the screen read Delivered, then set cellular status to off. His sister would be pissed. His mother…was better not to think on. They’d both have four days to come around towards forgiveness.
The spare key was taped behind the front license plate. He dropped his useless phone into the cupholder, backed carefully out of the space. Driving never seemed to get any easier. He figured it was just one of those things that had to be taught young. Otherwise you spend the rest of your life approaching it with the strained intentionality of a new language.
He didn’t touch the radio dials. Not even when the song started up, faint and full of static.
“My father was a gamblin’ man, down in New Orleans”
Ten miles down 206 the static had all but bled out. The volume, to contrast, had grown with every turn of the tires. It was loud enough now that he was catching glares at stoplights. He kept his chin high, leveled back a long look through his lashes. Still, his top lip was starting to chap where he’d been worrying it with his teeth. His palms left sweat prints on the wheel. City driving was hard, sure, but at least it wasn’t personal.
There was something sheltering about a city skyline, the way the buildings came up to cradle the street. A veritable fortress. The cozy crunch of urban infrastructure had fallen away over an hour ago, replaced by rolling yellow pastures, and far too much sky.
The people, too, kept him on edge. This far into hick country he stuck out, an outlier in the land of white farmers and white housewives.
He turned on Powell, side street cramped as ever. The radio calmed just enough to hear gravel grinding as he hugged the curb too tight. He pulled into the shoulder and rocked to a stop.
It was an empty stretch of bleached gray asphalt lined on either side by wheat. Wind rippled across the swaying yellow sea. There was the telephone pole—wrapped in wilted pink ribbons, a bedraggled teddy bear still tied below its limp, weather-beaten arms. And there, toeing the cracked pavement edge, was Fern.
If she’d had her thumb out she’d have looked like any other hitchhiker. Her wind-teased, tangled copper hair, black flannel tied above her midriff, bralette peeking through undone buttons. Her jeans rode low on her hips. They were torn out at the knees, and rolled to cuffs above the pull straps of her cowboy boots.
She still wore her dorm key. It hung from a cord around her neck. He watched her through the windshield, the glint of a bronzy key blade flashing as she pretended to breathe.
He stretched over the center console and popped the passenger lock.
“I’m not your fucking valet, alright? You can get your own door.”
He held his breath, she held his gaze. Eric Burdon still crooning on the radio was the only thing not in stalemate.
Then the radio crackled. The song skipped, restarted with a buzzing mechanical whine. Fern was in the passenger seat. Her back was a bowstring line, her hands sat stiff on her thighs, above the torn edge of denim. A constellation of moles marked the knee closest to him, a coin-sized bruise blooming from the ball of it.
He shifted the gear back to drive and pushed the gas pedal down. The radio volume raised just enough to be heard over the engine.
“It’s not the anniversary,” she said, more obstinate now, “you’re early.”
“You started on your shit earlier this year.”
“Last year you were late.”
He bit hard on the inside of his cheek. Over the road ahead the sky was deepening to a rich, cornflower blue. March meant a 6 p.m. sunset. He pressed the gas a little harder: he wanted as many miles behind them as he could get before then.
“I don’t understand why you’re still angry.” Fern’s voice permanently lay along a register of monotones. This one was low in her throat, somewhere around the range of annoyed. “You’re the one who made us late.”
“You came in my fucking house, Fee! Of course I’m pissed at you.”
She shrugged, or at least made a stiff approximation. “I haunt you always. House, no house, what’s the difference?”
“My siblings live there, man. It’s different.”
The radio cut. He glanced towards her, and found her staring back.
“I would never hurt them.”
He believed that. Whether it was couldn’t or wouldn’t, she hadn’t caused any real harm in the last six years. At least, not directly. Even so, hearing Fern’s heralding song drift out from under his sister’s bedroom door had twisted a knot in his stomach.
“Doesn’t matter, I don’t want you near them.”
“Well. Some things never change.”
A part of him really wanted to have that argument again. To give in to the pressing what do you mean by that? and let things devolve from there. Instead he spun the radio volume dial. Pointless as it was.
“Just play your music, Fee. Stop tryna start shit.”
It had been his favorite song once. Of course, Fern knew that. They’d only been about three months in, still tentative and mostly undefined when it first came up. She’d been on aux, legs swung over her dorm bed’s headboard while she flicked through a “dad rock” playlist. It was hard to picture now, the way her eyes had lit. He could remember loving that look, though. Half the things he’d confessed to her had been for the sheer enjoyment of watching her squirrel the knowledge away. The way she treasured each easy admission.
That the song now made him nauseous was undoubtedly why Fern picked it. She’d handled his heart carefully back then, but she knew how to twist a knife.
“There is… a house…in New Orleans,”
Fern swayed along. It looked less like dancing, and more like her head might be too heavy for her neck, lilting her from side to side.
“You can’t possibly be enjoying this.”
The swaying paused, leaving her stuck with her neck at an odd angle, “I like car rides.”
“I meant the song.”
“I don’t know. I guess I don’t really ‘enjoy’ anything anymore.” She tipped her head the other way. Her hair brushed the center console, “It doesn’t bother me though.”
The not like it does you was left implied.
They were on 295. Daylight had sunk from the sky, and the road was cast in blue. Traffic stayed sparse. He tried to be grateful for the easy drive.
Fern was starting to make herself comfortable, slouching in increments until she could tuck her knees against the dash. It was that way every year. The gradual loosening as they drove. In some ways he preferred the initial…wrongness. It kept him in the present.
He rolled his shoulders back, shaking out the tension. “So, can we talk?”
“Uh oh.” She pursed her lips, “I don’t remember liking what comes after that.”
“Fee.” She smiled. Sort of. For a second, at least, he could see her teeth. “We’re gonna need to establish some ground rules on the music crap.”
Fern sunk further into her chair. She drew her knees up towards where her arms were folded across her chest. “You tried to ignore me last year.”
Sometimes the years between twenty and twenty-six felt like lifetimes. Every year the gulf between their ages grew. He wondered when Fern would start to look like a child to him. He wondered who that would hurt more.
“Yeah, I know, and I’m sorry about that.” The radio popped. “Honestly, I am!”
He stopped at a yellow; other cars rolled past them as they waited for it to turn red. He put his hand on the back of Fern’s seat. She was pushing her tongue into the inside of her cheek, her face tight.
“I promise. I won’t do it again.” He sighed, “Just…you can’t be starting a week early. It throws a lot of shit off for me.”
“What’s your proposed solution?”
“Just go back to starting the day before. I’ll get the message.”
“And if you decide to ignore me again?”
A honk from behind alerted him to the changed light. He flipped the car off as it swerved past them.
“You can trust me.”
The radio went static, and when the song came back on it was playing again from the beginning. There is…a house…in New Orleans. As far as he could tell, that was the closest Fern could get to a laugh.
“Maybe you should just focus on the road for a while.”
It was half past one in the morning when he blinked his eyes a second and woke up in the wrong lane.
A semi’s horn blared as he yanked the wheel to the right. He was breathing hard, his heartbeat thrumming in his fingertips.
“Maybe you should start looking for a motel,” Fern said. She’d changed at some point into a band t-shirt—some DIY underground group she’d probably dragged him to basement shows for. Her key was now on a loop of yarn tied to her belt, and her Docs were on the dash.
“Sure. I guess it would be kinda funny if we both died in car accidents.”
“Oh, are we calling yours an accident now?”
If she had a response for that he didn’t catch it. He pressed his forehead to the steering wheel and let the air out through his teeth.
“You can’t blame me for this forever.”
“Who says this is blame?”
He tightened his hands at ten and two. “The fuck would you call it then?”
“Maybe it’s love,” she said, chipping black flecks of polish from her nails, “I loved you at one point, this could be what love looks like now.”
Somehow that was worse than blame. Fern shrugged. “Or maybe it’s just another terrible, tragic thing that happened, in a life already oversaturated with terrible tragedies.”
“Your life, or mine?”
“I wish you had.”
The radio whined. He ran a hand down his face, pushing his bangs back from his eyes, “Shit. Fee—”
“—And it’s been…the ruin…of many a poor boy,” volume blasted up to thirty-five. Conversation over. He tried to sit up straighter, to will the blurs of yellow and green in front of him into mile markers and headlight. The music had droned to white noise by that point, even the increased volume hadn’t helped. He started scanning for any signs of an upcoming motel.
Fern ended up being the one to find it—noting the sign while he was busy pinching his thigh to stay alert. It was instinct to thank her with a pat on the knee, and he tried to hide the recoil when his palm met cold skin.
It was the Holly Motel. Holly Hotel would’ve sounded better. Fern pointed that out in the parking lot, but hotels were for people who don’t pack boxes in department store stockrooms.
The clerk came out from a back office when they got to the front desk. She had eyebags under blonde bangs, and looked less than thrilled to be talking to him (and somehow even less thrilled when “House of the Rising Sun” started playing over the intercom), but she took his card without fuss. Fern followed the receptionist as she retrieved their key, trailing stiff fingers down her cheek. He wanted to tell her off, but there was no point. Not like the girl could feel it anyway.
They ended up in room seven. His phone speaker nearly blew out when he put the key in the door, so at least Fern found it funny.
The carpet felt a little grainy once he’d kicked his shoes and socks off. There was a framed print of a heron hanging above the double bed. He kept his t-shirt on but dropped the jeans, then lay down on top of the covers. Fern was floating a few feet down from the ceiling, lying back in the air to let her legs flutter.
“The front desk girl was pretty.”
He pushed up onto his elbows. “Okay?”
“Didn’t you think she was pretty?” He couldn’t see her face, just her long hair dangling.
“Fucking—come on, Fee. Cut it out.”
It had been a long time since he’d looked with the intention of finding anyone pretty. With the last girl who’d loved him a permanent figment in his peripheral vision.
He took his phone out of his pocket, turned cellular back on and waited for the messages to come through. He could guess what most of them would say—Are you seeing things again? Are you drunk? Are you high? Is your head fucking cracked?
He checked the last received for each contact. From his mother it was, “Baby if you need help we can find another program.” From his sister, slightly less gentle, “I fucking can’t with you. If you’re dead I’ll hate you forever.” He shut it off again without responding to either.
He rolled over, buried his face into a scratchy pillow case and closed his eyes.
Another hour saw him lying on his back, hands crossed over his stomach. It was hard to see Fern beyond a dark shape drifting near the corner.
“Your note blamed me.”
His phone was on the nightstand. The song still played from it, but hardly any louder than the radiator. His eyes were starting to itch. Shutting them brought him no closer to sleep, though.
“In the car you said you didn’t blame me. Your note said otherwise.”
“I didn’t see it that way.”
Whether she meant the conversation or the note she didn’t specify.
“You know what I don’t get?”
“Stop it, no.” He brought his arms up over his face, “Why would you write a note at all if you were going to do it as a car crash?”
Fern landed at the foot of his bed. The mattress didn’t shift to accommodate her weight. He could see her a little better though, in the crack of streetlight coming through the blinds, just a sliver of silver tracing the outline of her head.
“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“I mean it would have looked like an accident, right? Without the note?” He pinched his lips together, “Why not just…let it be that.”
She sat in perfect stillness for a while, considering. He found himself making his own breathing shallow to match the statue set of her shoulder.
“For closure, I think.”
He sat up, “How was a letter supposed to give us closure?”
The speaker on his phone flared, popped like a gunshot. The song vibrated.
“Fuck—What?” He caught himself on the nightstand just short of tumbling out of bed.
Fern shrugged, “It’s funny. That’s all.”
“How my whole life became, in an instant, just another bad thing that’s happened to you.”
His hand drifted towards her, but he snatched it away before it reached.
“I didn’t mean—”
“It was closure for me, not anyone else,” she said, “I had things left to air out.”
“Is that why you’re still…around, then? Still got something on your mind?”
Fern tipped back, disappearing over the lip of the bed, then buoyed up again toward the ceiling.
“Not right now. Maybe ask me again in the morning.”
He woke to a full face of afternoon sun, and the sinking feeling they were going to be late for checkout.
He showered, which only made pulling on yesterday’s jeans feel worse, and cursed his lack of foresight in not picking up a toothbrush. His whole mouth was fuzzy, and rubbing his teeth with a wet paper towel only went so far.
The woman at reception this time was older, mid-sixties, with a broad face and soft hands. He stuck his tongue out at Fern while she had her back to them. Fern made a show of pretending not to see.
There was only one other car still parked when they stepped outside, and it looked like they were also packing to go. A man struggling to fold down a double-seated stroller, and a boy with a bowl cut running laps around the car, mindful to step around the occupied baby carrier at his father’s feet.
Icy fingers closed around the cuff of his jacket. Fern was watching the children with distant, pained eyes. The father was nearly mangling the stroller now, biting off curses under his breath. He looked back to Fern, then to the family again. He sighed.
“Need any help with that?”
The man looked wary, watching him approach, but he was used to that this far south. The man looked between his two kids and the awkwardly balanced stroller, and seemed to decide it was worth the risk.
“S’pose I could use the extra hands.”
He knelt down to look for the release button on the bottom seat.
“So what brings ya out to Knoxville?”
He popped the bottom seat loose and set it off to the side, then started on the adaptors. Fern was sitting cross legged in front of the baby carriage. She ran her pointer finger along the knuckles of his curled little fist. The baby’s blueberry eyes were locked on her face. She sometimes had that effect on infants, like maybe they could see her too.
“A road trip. It’s an annual thing.”
“My boys and I are on a road trip ourselves.”
Fern was making noises for the child now, a sort of melodic cooing. It took him a second to realize she was trying to hum, vaguely in the tune of “You Are My Sunshine.”
He stood and lifted the stroller’s folding joint, then flipped the locks around the frame. He pushed it over for inspection. Fern, seeing the job was done, leaned down to press her face to the baby’s forehead. She held there for a moment before standing to go.
“I really appreciate the help.”
“No problem, man. Have a good one.”
Fern followed him back to the car without complaint. He opened the passenger door for her and pretended to be checking his glove compartment as she climbed in.
“Got your baby fix for the rest of the drive?” he said, trying not to look at her. Fern had always been so good with kids. She would’ve made a good mom. They’d talked a lot about it at the time, how different they’d be from their own parents, how ready they’d always been for the tantrums and the bad days.
He turned the key in the ignition and left the motel parking lot behind.
As soon as her mood improved Fern started whining about breakfast. He wanted to refuse on principle—you don’t actually eat, Fee, but the rumbling of his own stomach forced capitulation. He went through the drive through at a Culver’s. He ordered chicken fingers, and fries, which he put in the passenger cup holder for Fern to sniff at.
She was fully lounging in her seat—elbow propped on the center console, one foot on the upholstery. He rolled down the window so she could hang out her other leg. With anyone else he’d have worried about it catching on something, but that wasn’t really an issue for Fern.
“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to sit like that in a dress.”
“No one can see me but you, what does it matter?”
“Maybe I don’t want to see your panties either. Ever think of that?”
She was in a red cotton scrap that could generously be called a sundress, and a decidedly familiar lightweight bomber.
“That’s not your jacket.”
Fern shrugged, “You threw it out when I died. It might as well be now.”
She sniffed at her fries again, touched one to the tip of her tongue. By the face she pulled it wasn’t as satisfying as she’d hoped.
“Do you remember the chicken fingers we got when we drove to PA?”
“Oh my god,” he laughed, “that was somehow the best chicken I’ve had in my life.”
The radio crackled, Fern tipped her head back with a smile. “Fucking PA chicken.”
“And I wasn’t even high!”
“I would’ve killed you if you were.”
He merged into the left lane, cool air from the open window fluttering through his hair. “I wasn’t about to smoke before meeting your sister. Give me some credit.”
“My friends always said I gave you far too much.”
There was the echo of a sting there, dulled by a lack of surprise. He remembered their old dorm parties, sitting at Fern’s desk chair with her in his lap, trailing his fingers over her sides and catching her around the middle when she doubled over laughing. The way her friends would politely avoid eye contact, then tactfully cap his drinks at two. He didn’t go to the funeral. He figured the only person there who might’ve ever actually wanted him around was already ash in an urn.
He parked on North Rampart Street and walked to the cemetery. The trees they passed along the way were hung with thousands of strung plastic beads. It was just past four when they reached the wrought iron gates, the cemetery closed for the night. The filigree was easy for his sneakers to find purchase on as he boosted himself up and over. He nearly rolled an ankle, though, dropping off the other side.
Fern watched with a smile, arms crossed over her chest. While he was dusting grave dirt from the knees of his jeans she stepped up to the gate and put her hand to the metal. With a squeal they swung open. She stepped inside.
“The fuck, Fee!”
She turned her palms up, “It’s like I’ve got a house key, I guess. It wouldn’t have worked for you.”
They walked, winding through the raised tombs. Bodies were buried above ground here, Fern told him once, to keep the coffins from floating. She, of course, didn’t have a real grave. Dust to dust and all that.
“If your ashes sorta blew away, why is this your…resting place?”
She pursed her lips and hummed. “Maybe they didn’t get very far.”
Their jackets brushed, hers still rustled like real fabric moving against his.
“Did you want it to be this graveyard?”
“I just asked to be brought to New Orleans in the note,” she said, “I don’t know who had to actually pick the place.”
“If you had picked?”
“Scattered over the Mardi Gras parade, for sure.”
He snickered, “For sure.”
She led them over to one of the tombs. Marie Laveau, according to the plaque, which sat in stone above a planting urn of blue flowers. The stone was scratched in x marks, clustered in threes. He sat with his back to the grave and Fern sat down in front of him, the curve of her spine between his shins. She was warm, her ribs expanding with each breath. He spread his legs and let her slot herself between them. Her back to his chest, head tucked under his chin.
“She was called the Voodoo Queen.”
Fern gestured absently behind them, grazing his cheek in the process, “The woman buried here. They say she can still grant wishes. It was on my list of things to see when we came together.”
He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. Her hands settled over his. There were so many places he’d promised to take her. New Orleans was the big one, of course, but then there’d been the beach (his promise on the worst of her bad days. Don’t be like that—I’ll take you to the beach! Who could be sad at the beach?), and the Met, and one nearly blackout drunk vow to take her little sister to Disney World. He ducked his chin, buried his face in the crown of her hair.
“I never wanted to hurt you, Fee.”
“Oh. But you were so good at it.”
His eyes felt tight. He squeezed them shut, breathed through his nose. One hand slotted just under Fern’s jaw. The other, around her waist, she intertwined her fingers with, and ran her thumb over the back in soft circles. She leaned into the hand around her neck.
“Why did you leave me?”
He kissed the side of her head, let his mouth linger, “Could ask you the same question.”
“You left first.”
“I had a lot going on…it was complicated.” A laugh heaved out of him, and the dam behind his eyes cracked, “I thought you’d be better off.”
She reached up to run her knuckles below his lashes.
“Yeah, I get that now!”
He bowed over her, absorbing her body into his as he shook. He was too tired to be embarrassed to cry. She molded into his hold, locked her arms over his, shushing and soothing and letting him pull her close. His mouth was over her forehead now, dark hair tickling her face, but she made no move to push him away.
“It’s not my fault. It’s not my fucking fault.”
“I know,” she said, “I never meant it to be.”
“I didn’t fucking kill you, Fee.”
She turned into the hand on her jaw and kissed the palm. Her warm, dry mouth against his calluses. Then she took the one from her stomach, where their fingers were linked, and kissed the back. She pet at the nape of his neck, and trailed fingers over his arms until he felt like he could breathe again.
When all but the trembling had subsided, she pointed to the horizon, just visible through backlit monoliths. Pink clouds were drifting over the setting sun.
“My mom used to call that the sun’s pink blanket,” she said. “When I was really little, she’d pretend the sun was tucking itself in for bed.”
“You must miss her.” His throat was raw.
Fern rubbed her thumb across the ball of his wrist.
“Yes. It seems I do.”
“That’s not your fault either.”
Her head lolled onto his shoulder. She turned in, kissed his clavicle.
“I think it’s almost time.”
The phone speaker hummed, nearly mournful, oh mothers…tell your children…not to do what I have done. He kissed her forehead, then her crown. He held her as close as he could. When the sun slipped below the sea of graves she whispered his name against the back of his hand, and was gone.
“See you soon.” He would. It was never very long before she started to pop up again. A head of copper hair in a crowd, the flash of a green dress, the figment drifting closer and closer across the year.
His knees popped as he stood, stretching his back experimentally. He gave a pat to Ms. Laveau’s tomb. It crossed his mind to leave behind an x or three of his own, to ask for a wish, but he couldn’t think of anything worth wishing for. Not anything a dead woman could do for him, anyway. He started the walk back towards his car. It would be a long drive. Longer still without the radio, his ears ringing in the silence.