They’ve packed up almost everything that’ll fit in the the van. They’re leaving a rocker in the front hall they promised to Sonya and there’s a small pile of odds and ends to be run down to the parish thrift on their way out. The place smells like pine and lemons and bleach, a sharp perfume that could almost cause a headache if the windows weren’t open.
He finds Jean standing in the middle of their bedroom, staring at a pattern of light and shadow on the wall where the bed was set up only hours ago. She glances at him.
“When we moved in, I used to look at that all the time and think how lucky we were. Then somehow I stopped seeing it.”
“It’s pretty,” he says.
She turns from him, a frown pulling her face. Walking to the lone window, she reaches up to take down a glass sphere they hung there years ago. It was almost forgotten. Her body breaks the pattern on the wall, the slanting gold light mirroring her shape down to the small flyaway curls around her face.
He digs his hands in his pockets. “I was remembering that disgusting mayonnaise jar we found when Kath moved out. Remember? The beer swill and cigarettes.”
She is having trouble getting the sphere down. They hooped the string over an old curtain bracket twice.
He says, “You called it something funny, like troll puke or something.”
The string breaks and the ornament hits the floor with a crash that is madly loud in the empty space. Shards of glass scatter all over.
“Shit,” she says. For only a second, in her mind, it seems like his fault the thing broke. He’s always trying to talk when she is concentrating on something else. It never fails. She takes a breath and smiles over her shoulder at him.
“It was shit, actually. I called it troll shit.”
He bends down to push the glass into a pile; they already put the broom and dustpan in the moving van. She kneels down beside him to help.
“Your mom gave you that,” she says.
“Sorry it got broke.”
He shrugs, gives her a smile. In all the years, that smile has never lost its grave, handsome beauty. It has not faded one bit, though his eyes are webbed all around with lines. His long face, his carefully trimmed beard and gentle, intelligent gaze used to make her think of men from other times. He has a manner to him like the way men look in paintings of American forefathers, as if even when he’s laughing, he bears a weight for many others. It makes her feel bad for wanting to blame him for every little thing that feels like a crisis for a half minute.
She leans in and drops a kiss on the tip of his nose. “Well, when we get to Kansas, we’ll find one like it maybe.”
Their fingers touch now and again as they push all the bits of glass into a pile.
He drives the first shift, five hours mostly westward. She sits Indian fashion in her seat, now and again helping him shift lanes by poking her head out to check their blind spot. Her hair is blown all around, the curls gone to frizz in the wind. They listen to the Shins mostly, because it’s one of the bands they can agree on. It’s good road music.
Jean opens her notebook on her lap and tries to work on her speech for next week. She was asked to talk to the students of a high school where there was a shooting two months ago. Three students were killed and a teacher. It wasn’t in the news for long because another one happened the next week, somewhere else, with more deaths. It is only used now and again as list filler in the overall argument over gun laws.
She didn’t imagine a couple of years ago that she’d be a spokesperson for the issue of random violence. When that kind of thing came on the news, she flipped the channel. Just the kind of thing the media loved. Despite their grave manner as they read off lists of murdered children, she was wise enough to know a school shooting gave the average reporter a raging boner. No one ever got an Emmy for reporting a break out at city zoo.
Shaking the tension out of her shoulders, she begins her speech where she left off last night. In the usual way, her fingers seem to speak to the keys before her mind knows what words to use.
Since that August morning when my mother was killed, I have seen the world differently. Violence changes everyone it touches. It changes the victims, their loved ones and even the person who commits it. In one terrible hour, Shane Holtzman went from being a troubled boy who thought about killing to becoming a mass murderer who can never escape his actions. I’ve thought a lot about that particularly. Every day when he looks in the mirror, Shane Holtzman is seeing a man who took lives. He lost his way, becoming someone his own mother says she has trouble recognizing, and he was so alone in his rage and his madness, that he couldn’t turn back once he’d decided to do what he ultimately did.
No one can turn back the clock, although I still have dreams where we somehow have. My mother is alive again, calling me to ask me about work. It’s a random dream and it feels real. I guess if she is alive in my dreams sometimes, the others are, too. I bet many of you have gone to sleep and found Chloe Michaels again and Ali Farook and Carrie Swartz and Mr. Timbrell. They are here again at school, moving through the days we all wish could come again. The days when we could be thoughtless about violence, deaf to the unspoken rage in a classmate we hardly noticed. Then we wake up and this is our world now.
I know all too well how you feel because I still feel it now and I’ve had longer to get used to it and to move on. I was asked to speak to you, as I’ve been asked to before, and I can’t help but always ask myself why. I can’t change what happened and I can’t stop you from hurting, from fearing.
They stop for gas around seven-thirty. In the distance, a huge orange sun sinks behind tall signs for restaurants and hotels. The noise of the highway is one hiss, occasionally broken by a guttering groan as a semi speeds up to pass, then cuts back to slip again into the outside lane. It seems to take a long time to fill the tank. Jean buys them each a bottle of juice and grabs herself a candy bar, glancing out at him standing at the pump. He glances back and throws up a hand in a quick wave.
She climbs into the driver seat and they ease onto the highway a minute later. He scrolls through his phone to find another playlist. The sun has vanished now, leaving a violet smear near the horizon that will darken in the coming moments.
“How’s the speech coming?”
She sighs. “I don’t know why I agreed again.”
“Can’t you use the last one?”
“I don’t like any of them,” she says. “They’re all shit.”
He plays the Rosebuds because he knows she likes them, but she gives him a sidewise glance that leaves him looking for another option. “Sorry.”
She shrugs. “Don’t be. I think I just want something mellow.”
A few miles down the road, she turns down the music.
“You know why I hate writing these speeches?”
“Because it feels like I have to live with this terrible thing all my life. To be honest, I’m ready to not be the daughter of a woman who was killed. I wasn’t that person for thirty-six years. Each time I sit down and write about it, I have to become her all over again. And I’m sick to death of it.”
“Why don’t you write about that?” he asks.
She frowns. “Are you kidding?”
“No, I’m not. Maybe those kids would like someone to give them permission to stop grieving.”
“You can’t just stop.”
“No, but eventually you do.”
She presses her lips together, feeling like she should argue against him. Yet she knows what he’s saying is only the truth. And maybe he’s right. She turns up the music again.
They drive without speaking for about a half hour. They come to an area where the highway runs beside a small prairie city. Traffic slows to a crawl as people get off and on the highway. She turns down the music again.
“But how do you talk about that with the right tone?” she asks.
He glances over at her. “I think you just say it as honest as you can. No need to sugar coat it, no need to make it harder than it is. You could say to those kids the exact thing you said to me.”
“What? That I’m sick of being the daughter of a murdered woman?”
She laughs shortly, again feeling something like anger. It isn’t at him, she knows, but still it feels almost like the moments before a fight. She reaches to turn the music up again, but then she changes her mind.
“There is something to that.”
“I just think the thing I hated most about being a teenager was being coddled. I felt like I was ready to hear things honest. And think of how being young feels. I bet some of those kids wanted to go to the movies and laugh the very next day, because being young is wanting to live and have fun, but everyone expects them to grieve.”
She nods. “I remember the first time I laughed out loud, it felt wrong.”
“Then say that, too.”
His hand finds hers in the dark cab and she grips his fingers gratefully. Smiling at him in the glow of the dash, she says, “You’re pretty smart.”
The traffic clears and they pick up speed. In the large side mirror, when she glances back, the little city is a galaxy of light. The shapes of the buildings and the knotty mess of exit ramps have vanished. Only the lights shine out in the night, with the lights of the cars behind them bursting outward like shooting stars.