We have been here five days, and Jonah shows no signs of leaving. I am tired of waiting. In the July heat, frustrations build, let out in short bursts as I slam the dresser, bang shut the window, walk the room with heavy footsteps, willing the ground to open up and take me. He spends his days sitting outside the motel door. With a bent stick, he draws in the dirt, circles and lines and swinging arcs. I know he is thinking and his thoughts run deep through mountains of gold and rivers of honey. He speaks to God, but I am losing my patience. I parade past in blue jeans shorts I’ve cut even shorter. I swing my hips and stop to bend down and tie my shoelace real slow. I give his sunburned head a kiss, and he closes his eyes, hums to himself a little tune.
The Dunes Motel sits on a blank stretch of road leading west to Chicago and east to Ohio. Out front a blue shack blinks a vacancy sign pink day and night. Our room is the last one on the left, the one with the door dented at the bottom like someone tried to kick the way out.
The first night I waited for my sister, hoping she could find me. After the accident, she came in through my bedroom window. She drifted in the day they laid her in the ground and remained for two months, keeping me company through those long nights when all I could do was watch the ceiling. And for three weeks she played leapfrog with Jonah and me, hitching rides on the back of his Dodge, finding a place just out of pitch, waiting for the right moment.
My sister’s voice, translucent as a spider web and stretched just as taut. No words, only her breath, her heart beat.
That first night at the Dunes, she stayed away, leaving me nauseous with worry, but on the second she blew in, louder than before. She has not left. Behind the motel, the pine trees spread their needles to let her in. They are her bodyguards, protecting her from the burning sun and the late night breeze and the cars that speed by too fast. I think maybe Jonah hears her, too. Always a heavy sleeper, here he tosses and turns. He gets up and walks to the window, peers out between the blinds. I watch curled on my side, eyes half open, playing at sleep because he is pretending I am not awake.
My memories are jagged, cuts of rock that split and slice but always shatter, leaving my hands coated in dust. I remember her face as she sang along to Carole King. I remember inside the car, life turned inside out.
Each morning I walk to the little blue shack and tell Eddie we’ll be staying another night. He takes the money without a word, his eyes barely moving from the motorcycle magazine spread across his lap. I wonder if he’s seen the photos flashed on late night TV. I wonder if he’s guessed.
I am a runaway. Sixteen but too skinny and too round faced to look more than thirteen. Even with make-up, but Jonah doesn’t like a painted face.
When I first saw him, I thought he must be imagined. He stood on a cracked slab of sidewalk outside the laudromat, his arms raised high like he wanted to bring down the heavens and lay them down flat for everyone to see. Most people ignored him as they lumbered past with bags and baskets, legs of jeans and sleeves of shirts falling out like disembodied parts of men. But the power in his voice, the strength in his movements, held me.
“I have seen the Glory and the Light,” he said. “I have seen the Darkness and the Despair.”
I watched him, and he watched me. The sun turned his bald head bright pink, but he never stopped, never went in for shade or water. He rolled up his sleeves, and I saw the tension in his arms, the muscles needed to hold up the world.
This was a man who knew the way out.
On the third afternoon, he called to me. He said he knew who I was, that he had been searching for me through all these weedy parking lots and shut eyed strip malls. He said that every day had been a quest to this very moment.
There was never a question. That night I packed my sister’s duffel bag and left the house while my parents shifted in their alcoholed sleep, their breath echoing down the hall, chasing me out the door.
“I want to see the sand,” I say.
Jonah is drawing a man. In a child’s scrawl, he creates a sun, a moon, a falling star.
“I want to see the water and the waves.”
His neck bends. The bones in his back pop beneath his white tee-shirt.
I shout. “Why are we still here?”
His foot jerks, erasing the drawing with one fast kick.
“Because, Allie,” he says. The voice of God never shakes. “This is where we are meant to be.”
Once he called me an angel. He called me the sin of man.
We left Pennsylvania in his tan Dodge with the windows rolled down to let the summer air in and his cigarette smoke out. I rode with my feet tucked under me, my skin growing sticky as mornings turned to afternoons and we drove past one light towns and cities outlined in smokestacks. We never stopped for long, just sandwiches at a truck stop or a gas station bathroom break, and as we drove, he talked about the messages he heard, how the words came unrequested and so loud he could not ignore them. The world would be ending soon, destroyed by society’s own corruption, and he had tried so hard to save it. Only no one would listen. He stepped on the gas. No one would listen. All that was left was to wait and for me to wait with him.
Nights came quiet and dense, a secret laid out thick. He chose a motel on the outskirts of town and checked in while I waited in the car. He got the key, and, after making sure no one was watching, I followed a few minutes later. The last thing we needed, he said, was someone getting in our way. The door closed, we washed our tired bodies, ate dinners of orange vending machine crackers, and laid ourselves down to sleep.
He never placed a hand on me, even when I reached for him first.
Daylight meant disappearing. Rooms were left neat, all our wrappers in the trash and the sheets pulled up. He left a dollar tip and the key on the dresser, and then we slipped through the parking lot, starting the car and driving away before anyone had the chance to notice.
We lived on the edge of reality. We were invisible, phantom shapes out of the corner of your eye. Blink and you’d miss us.
Until we took form. Until we came to rest.
I don’t know Jonah’s real name. I don’t know where he was born. But I never ask, and I never tell. This moment of the two of us is a bandage I am almost ready to pull off.
Jonah says his past does not exist. He bounces between the present and the future, taking care of his daily needs and waiting for the voice of his god to tell him what to do next. He is on a path leading somewhere great, some place and time when he will either save the world or watch us all burn. The messages come as pulls and urges and overwhelming emotions. Sometimes he cries for hours. Sometimes he lies on the ground and shakes.
The instant he saw me, Jonah knew. He waited three days to make sure I would come back, to check to see if I was false. And when he finally took my hand, he felt light shooting from my fingertips into his and knew it was the light of Heaven.
I don’t believe in God. I never did. I have no delusions of grandeur, but I never let on. While Jonah drove, I looked out the window at dried up creeks and soda can ditches and held my tongue. I left out the part about my mother, how she wore a navy blue terrycloth robe and read books on royalty, naming her daughters Catherine and Alexandra. And I didn’t speak about my father, whose hands were always covered in blisters from where he burned himself with his lighter. The drinking came long before the accident. At first there were crystal decanters and ice clinking in glasses the color of gemstones, then later cans of beer tossed toward the garbage and the kitchen smelling of vomit.
I know somewhere there’s an overlooked hesitation, a dismissed sigh, and then everything will make sense. Because my mother said the color belonged to a hooker, my sister painted her nails red and applied lipstick to match. She grew her hair long so it flew out like a black cape when she ran, and she was always running, out the front door on weekday mornings to start the car and wait for me with thumbs drumming the dashboard, around the track at school where her legs grew muscled and the curves I so envied defined, and late at night down the sidewalk toward the wood at the end of the street, where she drank our parents’ wine and smoked their cigarettes, knowing they would blame each other. I ran after her, the trust that I would always follow pulling like a chord between us, tugging our bodies and leading us into each other, deep where no one else could go.
I circle the parking lot, past the rusting green dumpster, my feet scattering gravel beneath the pine trees where the grass has turned brown and padded with needles. I find myself by the road and stare out at the concrete, my eyes focusing on the double yellow lines where the paint is still bright. No cars pass. Across the street an abandoned gas station slumps, the wood frame building covered in holes, the pumps staring out in frozen bewilderment.
I put my toes over the edge of the lot and take a step forward. I continue stepping until I am in the middle of the road, both feet firmly planted on the yellow line. I stretch out both arms and feel the emptiness. I let the space fill me. I want to breathe it all in. I want the loneliness to soak me through.
Inside my sister’s car, the ceiling became the floor. The ceiling became the ceiling, the side, the force bending down and against and through. Metal crunching, glass breaking, and a high pitched note, two notes, penetrating everything else, fighting through skin and bone and blood. For a moment I thought we would fly forever, and then I lost her, lost the sense of her being anywhere at all, and I knew. But I could not stop, could not end the tumbling, the turning, my eyes squeezed shut and the taste of iron in my mouth.
He calls my name.
He screams for me to come back to him, and I spin around, arms dropping. I watch from across the lot. Briefly his eyes focus on mine, then he returns to his work. I will him to look at me again, to explain why he has called me back. But I know. He does not want me, but he thinks he needs me. He doesn’t want to be alone.
My stomach contracts; I haven’t eaten today. I wander to the blue shack where a beaten-up snack machine leans outside next to a soda machine with an old bird’s nest on top. Over half the compartments are empty, the remaining selections in wrappers discolored with age. I fish in the pocket of my shorts for two quarters. Jonah gives me four each morning. In my bag, I have one hundred and forty-seven dollars in a balled up sock. I found the money after she died, hidden in a CD case under her mattress. I knew it was meant for our escape.
I lean against the shack and eat a chocolate bar that has gone stale. From here Jonah looks small, his stick poking the ground like the beak of a long, narrow bird. In the past week I’ve begun to notice the wrinkles around his mouth, the paunch stretching beneath his ribs. He is growing ugly, grotesque and sun-baked. He seems to have sprung a leak, his command escaping and leaving him deflated. I’m starting to hate him. I’m starting to think it’s time to go.
On the second day in Jonah’s Dodge, I noticed the crosses. They dotted the highways, some peeking out behind knee high weeds, others fresh white and decorated with flowers, a teddy bear, a message painted in red. I kept count, one, two, five in a day somewhere in Kentucky. Beside me Jonah talked about the afterlife and the glory we would face, and I looked for the crosses, the signs of death that made the road alive.
As afternoon becomes evening, I retreat to our room. The air is tight and shallow, like the inside of a jar. I lie down on the bed and pick up the TV remote, clicking through talk shows and sitcom reruns and the fuzzy channel where men and women fuck in grainy outlines. Tedium pulls, a rope around my neck, tighter and tighter.
I turn off the TV and roll onto my stomach. When I shut my eyes, I see my sister behind the wheel, her hair blowing across her face as she turned, laughing, to look at me. She was going fast, swerving over the line on the curves, and I was feeling the wind and thinking that the sun would be coming up soon and laughing, too. The radio played a song about being in love, and I felt that love, surging through me, radiating in the space between my sister and me. She was the most beautiful I had ever seen her.
I get up and take my shirts and underwear from the dresser drawer. I shove them into my bag, zipping it shut. Then I undress and crawl beneath the sheets.
He comes in late and settles into bed with a sigh that seems to shake the entire room. I wait for him to reach for me. I want his fingers to graze my back or pet my hair so I can reject him and leave him knowing I was not, was never, his. But he curls with his back to me, his breath evening out and slowing. He will not be up and down tonight, this day of drawing either more satisfying or more exhausting than the others.
I hold myself still and listen to the room, the quiet creak of the walls, the flutter of insect wings in the corner. The need to leave occupies every inch of skin, every strand of tissue, and the feeling burns so hot I think Jonah has to feel it, too. But he does not shift.
Carefully I sit up and put my feet on the floor. I pull on my shorts and tee-shirt and grab my bag from its place beside the dresser. I hesitate, looking back at Jonah, surprised that he is not waking, not stopping me, not begging or hitting or telling me the word of his god. I picture him in the morning finding the bed empty and wondering where I went, why the messages he received turned out all wrong, and I feel sorry for him but not because of what I am about to do.
I close the door softy and find myself embraced by a night warm and thick as an old, forgotten sweater. I listen for my sister, expecting her to tell me it’s all right, everything is OK. But I hear only my own pulse straining against my ears and pounding through my veins.
I slip among the shadows at the edge of the lot, my steps quickening as I near the road until I am running onto the pavement. The highway stretches out, long and dark, inviting me in, asking me to stay. I pick a direction and walk.