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The sun glimmers through the windshield, a pale disc that hangs just above the greying horizon, not yet warm. Jimmy breathes into his cupped hands. He rubs his palms together then folds his arms tightly, tucking his hands into his armpits and twisting his fingers around his t-shirt sleeves like he’s locking his hands in place.
Kim’s curled up on the passenger seat beside him, still hidden beneath his windbreaker. Her eyelids flutter. He worries if he opens the trunk to get a blanket he’ll wake her, so he just stays where he is, his arms laced, and looks out at the flat sun. It leaves little ghosts on his eyes.
He’s not tired. He can feel his heart strumming in his chest, reverberating from that moment when he’d reached the Nebraska border. Vibrations from crossing the line. They’re still not far from the border. He could turn back now and be in Kansas before Kim wakes.
He doesn’t. He waits here, his heart ringing.
They’re parked up at a rest area that’s not much more than a widening of the dirt shoulder, just a couple of empty spaces for cars and a large wooden sign. Nobody’s passed this way since Jimmy stopped, and it’s easy, in the cold and the quiet, to forget that there’s a road behind him at all. It’s easy to think there’s only more ancient grasses, on and on, unimpeded.
Just them in the car on the prairie.
Dawn licks up over the rippling land before him. Shadows pool like black water in the gullies, like the inky lakes of an old silent movie. Jimmy lifts cupped hands to his mouth again and breathes into his palms. His breath gives a kind of warmth that seems to steal more than it gives. He shivers. The inky lakes drift forward.
He turns on the engine, the ignition kicking. Heat churns slowly from the dashboard vents and spreads through the thin fabric of his shirt, running out to his shoulders and then down his arms. The warmth does nothing for the feeling that’s been building in his chest all night like a crank being turned, like something being wound closer and closer to a breaking point.
This is good, he thinks—this is good. Coming here made sense. We were so close and it would have been a waste not to come. It would have been sad to just pass by without stopping.
The folded landscape before him looks black and white now, de-saturated. Just shadowed dips and pale white grasses. The creases in the land vanish into undulating distance. It’s all a wash, all soft shades of light grey and deeper grey; until finally the pale sun blinks and opens and suddenly all the colors ignite: browns and greens and golds, rippling outward. The tall grasses catch the sun and glint red with wildflowers—a deep purple-red, like wine.
The cord cranks itself tighter in his chest. He could snap it right now if he woke her.
He doesn’t. He just shuts off the engine again. Kim’s hair drifts in little eddies, and she huffs when the warm air stops. She doesn’t wake. The ticking of the engine settling is like the weary exhalation of some mechanical animal.
And Jimmy wipes his hand over his mouth. His tongue sticks to his lips, peeling away to leave tender skin. The engine ticks and Kim breathes.
He’s still watching the long dawn shadows ripple over the shifting grasses when he hears a rustle beside him. He turns. Kim’s hand emerges from beneath the hissing windbreaker, and her fingers wipe down over her face. She exhales unevenly, and Jimmy’s breath tightens in his chest.
Then she’s motionless again, for a long and stretching moment—but soon the hand rises once more and she rubs her eyes and opens them. They’re soft and scrunched and dazed. Pale blue and lingering.
His lips stick together as he forces his mouth open. He says hoarsely, “Hey.”
“Hey,” Kim echoes, just above a croak. She clears her throat and shifts in the seat so she’s a bit more upright, her hair falling over her forehead. She rubs at her face again. “Is it morning?”
He gives a humming agreement, then thumbs his watch. “It’s still early.”
She nods slowly, like she’s processing the words. “How far’d we make it?” she murmurs eventually, brushing hair back behind her ears. “You drive through the night?”
He’s nodding now, too, and he swallows—an echoing crunch.
Kim stills. The softness in her gaze sharpens. “Jimmy?” She sits up completely, the sluggishness turning into swift energy. “Is everything okay?”
His lips are glue.
And at his silence, her eyebrows angle steeply. Her pupils flick back and forth between his own like she’s hunting for the source of whatever horrible thing is no doubt painted all over his face.
He has to look away from the blue. He chooses to study some vague spot on her chin instead.
Kim shifts forward, the windbreaker falling away. Her profile angles to look out through the windshield. He can feel a tightening in the air. A tightening of time ticking down and ticking down until her gaze locks, as he’s always known it would, on the square rest-area sign. He doesn’t need to read it again. He already knows what it says.
Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.
When Kim turns to him, her face is sheet-iron. “Jimmy?”
And the thing that’s been hanging in his chest finally snaps and falls, dropping like a stone into water, down and down. “Yeah,” he says, distantly. His voice rises from somewhere underwater with that stone. Well, Kim, we’re not in Kansas anymore, his brain offers dumbly.
But he inhales, and he says: “I was totally wired, Kim, I mean, like, just wide awake, too many coffees and Big Gulps, I guess”—a weak laugh—“wow, you were so right about that, but I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to sleep and anyway I just couldn’t face stopping in some shitty motel and bunking with all the rats and the cockroaches, so I just kept driving and driving…and driving.”
He breathes out now, shaky and uneven, still staring at Kim’s chin and not her eyes. “So eventually I figured we could…maybe…take another little detour.” Another little detour: just to the off-brand Paul Bunyan. Just to see Lincoln’s Tomb. Just a couple of root beers with Mark Twain before we get back on the road.
Just a quick stop in your hometown, Kim. It’s only a little out of our way.
Kim rubs her forefinger over her lips, looking away and nodding. Her gaze flicks in the direction of the Willa Cather sign. The ancient grasses ripple. She lowers her hand. The silence feels thick in the air, thick and thicker, and then: “Okay.”
Jimmy’s heart thuds. “Yeah?”
She nods again. “Yes, Jimmy,” she says. She glances down at her feet and frowns. Opens the glove box. She shifts aside a couple of scrunched-up Jays wrappers with a crack of plastic, then closes the glove box again. She turns back to him. “Do you have the road atlas somewhere, then?”
It’s in the driver’s door pocket. Jimmy fishes it out and hands it over.
Kim flicks to a previous page. Her careful blue pen line from yesterday runs across the map, splitting through that section of Kansas. She turns another page and the route vanishes again. “Well, there’s no point in doubling back to Wichita now,” she says, and she spins the map book sideways. “But we can still make it to Albuquerque by tomorrow. We’ll have to stop somewhere soon for a payphone so I can call in with HHM, but we should definitely go through—”
Her gaze cuts to him, eyes pale. “Will you be able to drive at all? You said you haven’t slept. I can handle most of it, but you should probably nap, if you can, because you might need to take over later. And we should probably, we should…” And she stares down, chewing at the nail on her forefinger as she studies the page in the road atlas. It’s turned to somewhere in Colorado. Through the window behind her, the grasses sway. They seem to give off an orange light.
He says her name again, half hummed this time: “Kim?”
“…should eat on the road,” Kim finally continues, her voice slower and softer now, still chewing her nail. She’s nodding again, a small movement that builds and builds. “Yes, eat on the road. I could use a coffee first, and I know you probably could, too, unless you want to sleep right now. It’s about ten hours if we only stop for gas.” She frowns, and out her window the prairie shifts. “Actually, if we make it before dark, I can probably head into the office for a couple of hours of work tonight, start to make up for the lost time…”
He turns his torso toward her, his fingers curling around the edge of the steering wheel. “I’m sorry, Kim,” he says, into the thoughtful quiet. “I should have asked you first.”
She lowers her hand from her mouth. Finally faces him again. The road atlas hangs open on her lap. “Jimmy,” she says flatly. “You drove here through the night from Lawrence, Kansas”—an inhale—“and now you think maybe you should have asked?”
He says, weakly, “Yeah?”
She actually chuckles at that, short and dry. She looks back down at the map.
“It’s just…” Jimmy huffs out a breath. “It’s just we were kind of right here.” There’s another heavy silence. “Or I guess not right here right here, but we were close. And it’s kinda like how you just bought that extra plane ticket, right? You were there, and I—” He cuts himself short of saying what he was about to say. Needed you. He can hear the unspoken words in the silence anyway.
Kim’s fingers flex slightly on the road atlas.
Jimmy rubs at his sore lips, then exhales. “Anyway, I kept thinking about what you said back in Cicero, and I thought that maybe you might like”—and his voice comes, suddenly, softer—“I thought you might like to see it again.”
And again her fingers flex.
Still using the strange hushed tone, Jimmy adds, “To see it’s still here for you, too, you know?”
Kim furrows her nose a little and looks down. There’s the click of a swallow.
And around them the grasses sway over the rippling prairie. The disc of the sun glows yellow, warm and warmer through the windshield. But Jimmy just watches Kim, the soft curve of her face, her solemn eyes. He murmurs, “How long’s it been?”
Another click of a swallow, then Kim angles her head to stare off at the Willa Cather sign. To stare past it, maybe, to where the bronze-green grasses go on and on beneath the dawn. She says, finally, “Five years.”
Five years, Jimmy thinks. Five years ago, he was living in a dark basement apartment, the cold pressing against the thin windows, the cold spilling down to the floor, sensing the hard cement beneath the thin carpet and finding a home there, and never leaving.
The cold sensed a home in his bones, too, somehow.
“I mean…” Jimmy starts, turning away so that he can’t see her anymore, so he just sees the unfolding land that spreads hugely around them, reaching out in glints of yellows and bronzes to the horizon. “It’s like…a galaxy of wildflowers.” A sideways glance and a grin. “I didn’t make that up; I read that in a National Geographic once. There was a full page spread. I forgot until earlier. Kinda makes sense though, huh?”
Kim’s face is unmoving, soft in the dawn. In the clean light, it’s easier than normal to see the swipes of shadows beneath her eyes, the pale lines at their corners.
“Hey,” he says quietly. He shifts in the seat again, inching closer. “So maybe you don’t have some stupid old stickers on your ceiling, but, hell, Kim, you’ve got this.” He waves a hand to the fields, to the ancient grasses rippling in ribbons like folded paper, to the wine-colored buds. Old and unbroken. “This is here.”
And the wind brushes the tops of the fields, flickering through the wildflowers. He can imagine it running over Kim, running through her hair, some movement around the stationary figure she makes right now in the passenger seat.
Because Jimmy can almost feel the wind on his skin, too, here inside the warming car. He murmurs, “Like how we went to see Pop’s old shop. You know, I hadn’t been there since…God, I don’t know how long it’d been, Kim.” He rubs his hand against the thin fabric of his t-shirt. “But seeing it again…” A long exhale. “It was kinda like the old place was layered on top of the new. Like the old thing was still there, even though it had changed so much.” He turns back to her, bright in the car. “For me it was still there, anyway, and for you it was there, even though you’d never seen it.”
She looks to him now. Her eyes are strange and pale.
Jimmy lifts his hand from the steering wheel and then drops it again. “And so maybe you could show me the old things that are still here, even if they’re gone.” He chuckles softly. “Does that make sense? That doesn’t make sense.” He huffs. “But, hell, Kim”—and another waved hand—“show me the famous bowling alley, show me the Willa Cather sign your mom thought was for diet pills, show me the old diner, show me the world’s largest round barn or whatever the shit that one was—”
“Jesus, Jimmy,” Kim says, in a strangled voice, shaking her head. “How do you remember all that?”
He just looks away. The distant sky is cloudless, softening to a pale blue with the golden light. The grasses ripple enormously.
And he thinks, then, with these waving grasses, of Kim’s hand in his hair, of his head on her lap. Little pieces of a hazy and drunken memory that feel almost more precious to him than any other memory he has of the two of them. Her voice reading to him about Red Cloud, or a fictional Red Cloud, at least. He can hear that voice again now as he looks out at the prairie, can hear the warm tone of it, and he can feel her fingers threading through his hair, her nails tracing over his scalp…
It all makes him think of those early days of their friendship and more-than-friendship, back when he had felt the need to always be around her and stick close, like she was grounding him, like together they made one tightly-wound thing.
Remembering that old feeling brings with it another thought, one that he hasn’t had in a long time: that Kim was put in Albuquerque for him. That she was waiting in the mailroom so that when he got there he would have somebody. And with the thought, as always, comes its opposite: that really he was brought there for her. That it was all for her.
He thinks now maybe it could be both.
And then he hears a click. In the passenger seat, Kim’s letting go of her now-buckled seat belt. She tilts her head at him, eyes glittering.
“Yeah?” he says, a soft echo of earlier.
And she nods. It’s a fragment of a thing, like a glint of light on glass.
So he cranks the ignition. As they pull away from the rest area, the old Volvo hums, warm and steady on the road to Red Cloud.
They haven’t made it far along the narrow interstate before the rippling grasses begin to make room for speckled clusters of trees. The green and orange treetops are at road-level, their trunks disappearing down into deep cuts in the land, into the gully of a snaking river. The trees look as ancient as the prairie grass, wind-worn and hardy, and they ripple in the same wind, too, so rhythmic he can almost hear them rustling.
He and Kim cross the river itself soon after: a yellow-green stream with marshy banks that are wide and flat like a flood plain. As they pass above the water, Kim twists to watch it go by, a controlled movement to match the speed of the car. When the river’s behind them, she faces forward again.
It’s quiet in the car, or as quiet as the old thing gets, anyway. The body creaks and rattles on its frame.
“Do you want…” Jimmy starts, and he waves a hand vaguely toward the glove box, where a dozen cassettes are by now all jumbled in the wrong cases—mostly his doing.
But Kim just shakes her head.
Buildings appear in the distance: first one, then several, blinking up above the low treetops. They’re strange, angular things, grain elevators linked with high metal bridges and beams. The brutal structures glint with dew and drop spiked shadows that flicker over the car as Jimmy drives through them.
Beyond the grain elevators, the road reaches an overgrown rail yard. There’s a light on in one of the buildings already, industrial and fluorescent, but the whole place just feels disused. The sorting tracks are latticed with weeds, and, along the roadside, the dirt is cut and scuffed, heaped in piles on the shoulder. It looks like a job started and then abandoned.
Jimmy suddenly hears Kim’s voice from a long time ago: It’s an old railroad town. It doesn’t seem like many trains come through here now.
The main line, at least, is gleaming. In the slow seconds as Jimmy approaches the level crossing, he can see the tracks disappear into the distance, east and west. To the west, the tracks stretch off in perfect straightness past an old-fashioned red-walled depot, and to the east there’s nothing. The line just goes vanishingly on—on and on toward all the places they’ve just been.
On the other side of the tracks, the town opens up. To the left of the road, scattered houses appear. They’re small and look like they were built a hundred years ago, built when the trains ran every hour, when the train-cars carried people and goods off into the cities and carried money back. Here, the prairie is struggling, the wildflowers lost beneath crops or hard-looking short grasses or the patchwork earth of empty lots; though in the empty lots, at least, some wine-colored wildness is starting to take hold once again.
As they pass a side road, again Kim’s head tracks something, matching the movement of the car to follow some spot out near the houses. He can tell from the pace of her turn that it’s somewhere far off. After the spot has passed, she faces forward again, wordlessly.
Another river-side grove of trees emerges on the right, and Jimmy hums. “You know, I didn’t expect so many trees,” he says softly.
She makes a short little sound, curious.
“I guess I don’t know what I expected,” he adds eventually, shrugging with one shoulder. “Less trees.”
Soon, the trees grow even denser, and they rise from their river gullies, finding purchase in the brown earth, stretching toward the sky. The houses draw together in the shadows beneath them. There are no fences between the yards here, and it all feels temporary; temporary houses on temporary squares of land, with no way to tell one square from another except for the color of the grass or the condition of the yard, and if the houses weren’t so old Jimmy might almost think this was a town ready to be packed up tomorrow and vanished. A traveling town.
The road itself feels impermanent, too. It bleeds without sidewalks into the dirt and into the yards, into the short grass that’s struggling to endure. Grey dust peeks through the patchy green threads, stubborn and unstoppable. In some places the dust streaks over the surface of the road here, too, and in other places the cement cracks and he can see the dry earth beneath. Either way, the dust is winning.
Jimmy steers around one of these cracks in the road, and when he looks ahead again, they’re approaching a red-brick building, something so solid and permanent it feels out of place. It could almost have come from Cicero, could fit right in on Cermak, all steep walls and high glass windows and an iron roof. After everything else, it feels eerily familiar, feels like he’s seen it before.
Kim’s head tracks this building, too. Jimmy slows until he’s stopped right alongside it, the tires creaking as he pulls up next to the curb.
The place is quiet and still. Along one wall, there’s a huge gravel parking lot, empty of cars. On the far side of the parking lot are the backs of smaller buildings, with air-conditioning units fastened to the walls, with red doors up sloping ramps. In the entrance of the lot stands one of those signs with the changeable black letters. MAY 19 LAST DAY, it says, and then, at the bottom, RED CLOUD K-12 NE US.
Kim studies the place for a long time. She doesn’t say anything.
Jimmy presses his lips together to hold his own words inside, and he waits, and waits, until a lone car arrives at the intersection, and it turns slowly and then passes them, and as if the sound of it rumbling by was what Kim was waiting for, she faces forward again and says nothing.
He glances once more at the school, at the brick building and the enormous empty parking lot, and then he drives. He shifts into third gear too early and the car groans and struggles to find any speed, but he pushes on, rolling slowly through the empty streets until the revs catch up.
Past the school, they reach more borderless houses. Lights are on in some windows now, and the low sun casts blue shadows through the patchwork yards, extending coolly from gnarled trees and the worn-down cars in the drives.
But Jimmy keeps most of his attention on Kim. The next time her head turns to follow something, he slows for that, too—slows at another standalone building. This one is more cement than brick. The front says they open at nine o’clock, still a couple of hours yet. It’s a farmers’ co-op, and the sign for it is layered over a piece of wall where he can see, through the shadows left by the sun, faint traces of and older lettering that was once beneath. He can’t quite make out what it says.
He hears Kim swallow, but she still offers no words. And when she faces forward, he drives on again.
Soon, the houses become wealthier-looking: multi-storied with tidy weatherboards and sloping roofs and elaborate porches. They still sit on the same worn and patchy grass, though, the hard-won grass that seems to want to peel away from the greying dirt and free the dust beneath.
The next time Kim’s head turns, he stops again, but he can’t exactly tell what she’s looking at. It’s an empty lot. There’s a tree and a telephone line. A gravel road running parallel on the other side, and then nothing: just tough grasses and more distant trees and then the horizon.
Yet she watches it for longer than the others, turned away from him. He can only see the back of her head and her hair, tangled from sleeping scrunched up in the passenger seat all night. Thick threads of blonde swirling one over the other, riverlike.
The threads churn when she finally does face forward. He looks dartingly to her eyes, to the one eye he can see with her face in sharp profile, anyway. There’s no expression in it.
And he drives on. More empty lots, and more houses, too. More houses than Jimmy expected at all, really—and it’s somehow too many and also not enough. Because even with all of this, all these borderless streets, he knows the whole town is still gone in the flicker of a train window, gone in as much time as it takes to glance away as you raced over the level crossing. He thinks of riding the L into Chicago, and staring out at all the houses and backs of houses and apartment blocks and windows and lives. So many you could never see them all.
Jimmy slows, and he makes a turn. All at once, like the appearance of the school, more red-brick buildings pop up, and again they seem too substantial for the surrounding town. A block here has white cornices and ornamentation, expensive flourishes from hundreds of years ago. Along the block are terraced shops with old-fashioned awnings. Half of them have boarded-up windows, and the other half have such ancient and sun-beaten signs he can tell that nothing about them has changed for years.
The cement road turns to brick here, too, and it grows wide and sprawling, wide enough for four lanes of traffic, the main street of a much bigger town. The bricks are interlaced and uneven and human, and the car grumbles over them. The street is lined with green lampposts that hold their lights in angular glass cages.
“Oh,” Kim says suddenly. “They changed it.”
With the jolt of her words, Jimmy stops, there in the street. There’s no one around. No cars behind him on the road, nobody walking. He glances at the half-empty storefronts, at the brick buildings. “Changed what?”
Kim points outward to where one narrow building rises a dozen feet taller than the others—almost like a clock tower, though there’s no clock. On its side, the part that climbs above the other roofs, there’s a curling mural of a scroll. It says, Willa Cather, State Historic Site.
Jimmy peers up through the windshield. The paint is dark and fresh, the wall behind it covered over in white. A gleaming canvas.
“It used to be…” Kim says, and then she makes a soft sound. “I can’t remember.”
Jimmy looks from the mural. Kim’s lips are folded together. A glass-shelled lamppost glows through the passenger window. The light inside it flicks off, suddenly, in the stillness. Some automatic timer going. The others down the street follow, until it’s just the car headlights and the wash of early morning.
Kim releases her lips. “I just know it looks different now,” she says, eventually, her voice low and thoughtful. She leans a little forward again, and then sits back. “Maybe there used to be a sun or something.”
Jimmy nods. He says, “A sun sounds nice.”
Kim makes a humming noise. He can’t tell if it’s agreement or disagreement.
“Hey,” he says. He waits for her to look to him, and then he smiles. He unbuckles his seat belt, opens his door, and hops out. The morning air is cool in the shadowed line between the rundown shops, and the road is uneven beneath his feet, the bricks laid at off angles. There’s a smell in the air of cut grass and of fires burning. He walks forward, leaving the Volvo behind him, parked up in the middle of the road.
A door opens, and then: “Jimmy?” Kim stands next to the car with her hand on the roof, hair drifting above her shoulders.
“C’mere!” he says, waving and continuing on. He passes an old store, sewing supplies and undressed mannequins, and all darkness and dust inside, and the painted letters on the glass window cracking. He stops on the sidewalk opposite the building with the Willa Cather mural, and then he grins and looks up at it and— “Oh.” His grin drops.
Kim’s figure breaks through the pale cones of the headlights. Her blouse is untucked from her jeans and open over a plain grey camisole. Her hair catches the headlights in bright threads. After a pause, she continues forward, her footsteps quiet over the uneven bricks, and then she reaches his side. She stares over in the same direction, then looks to him and quirks an eyebrow. "What?"
Jimmy chuckles and shakes his head. “I don’t want to say.”
“Jimmy,” she says, somber. “What?”
“Okay,” he says, more huff than fully-formed word. He points loosely across the street. “I thought we were going to be able to see the sun.” When Kim remains quiet, and he adds, “Like, up there where the mural is.”
More silence. When Jimmy glances back down to her, Kim’s wearing a barely-disguised smile.
And he hurriedly says, “I meant the real sun.”
“I know that,” she says warmly, her eyes twinkling. And then: “What, over the buildings, Jimmy? Standing here in the shade?”
“Okay, shut up,” he says, looking away from her again. “Whatever. I don’t…” He frowns again. The headlights of the car catch his eyes, flaring, and he looks to it. The green Volvo seems tiny in the middle of the wide brick street. It’s dusty, the windshield streaked with bugs and dirt.
As he walks back over, his unfinished sentence still hanging there on the sidewalk, Kim makes a questioning sound, not quite a word.
Jimmy pats a hand to the roof of the sedan and trails his fingertips over the paint, moving around to the back of it. He wedges a knee onto the trunk and then climbs up. Scrambles the rest of the way onto the roof, leaving smudges in the dust and grime. The metal bucks a little under his weight, but he finds his balance and stands staring again at the patch of sky near the Willa Cather sign. The wind rises and he wipes the dust off his hands with the front of his jeans.
Beneath his feet, the car shifts. Kim’s climbing up on to the trunk, now too. He holds out a hand, but she doesn’t take it, just clambers up onto the roof, arms shifting for balance as she finds her feet, briefly leaning on his shoulder for support. She steadies herself and turns. Stands side by side with him, looking up exactly where he had been looking. The patch of empty sky.
The sleeves of his t-shirt flutter, and he stares at the blue space next to the mural. “You know,” he murmured, “if we waited long enough, the sun’d be right there. It would be perfect.”
She doesn’t say anything to that. Her open blouse flutters, too, cream and purple. There’s just the sound of that and the thoughtful weight of her silence.
“I mean, I can maybe already see, like, the glow—” he says eventually, waving a hand down where the rising sun is obscured by the red brick buildings.
Kim makes a soft noise. She doesn’t say anything for a long time, and then, just above a murmur, “I can definitely see the glow.”
He looks down to her.
She’s in shadow, of course she is, and her eyes are narrow as she studies the unglowing sky. His sleeves flutter again, and so does her blouse, and her hair blows forward over her chin. She brushes it back, and then she turns to him. Freezes for a moment and then chuckles. “What?”
He says, “Show me where you used to watch storms.”
The sound is what he notices most. The sound of the wind on the tall grasses, and on the wildflowers, and somehow even the sound of the wind itself, too. The rush and rustle of it all around them, like paper crinkling or waves coming in or steady breathing.
They’re out on the prairie again, just a little past where Jimmy had first stopped the car. This time, they pulled over in a fully-paved rest area. There was another Willa Cather sign, this one with a little biography. It was joined by a couple of others about the prairie preservation efforts, and some photographs of the wildlife and flora.
And, some dozen feet out in the grasses, a bench.
Jimmy runs his hand over the wood next to his right knee. It’s smooth and varnished. The signs and the car and the interstate are all at his back, silent and vanishing. Already forgotten. It’s just the two of them on the bench in the ocean of grass.
The sun is higher now than earlier, and it’s at their back too, spilling light down onto the world before them. The colors are vibrant: vermilion and indigo and ultramarine and all the other words he used to read in the pages of a National Geographic or on tubes of paint in school. The whole land is cracked like paint, really, shattered shards of ocher and umber.
And the brushstroke grasses swell with the wind.
“You know, there wasn’t a bench here, then,” Kim murmurs. “This is new, too.” She’s holding a packet of cigarettes, though she hasn’t lit one yet. She stares off distantly. “I mean, it’s not exactly where I would sit back then either, but…”
He nods slowly. Follows her gaze. “Do you want to sit exactly where you’d sit?”
Kim shakes her head. “No,” she says, eventually. “This is better.”
Jimmy tries to catch her eye but he can’t. He says lightly, “Yeah, the ground over there’s probably full of like, smelly old worms and stuff, anyway.”
She snorts but doesn’t look to him. Just stares off, outwards.
The sky over the land is big and blue, mottled with clouds. It’s hard to imagine it swelling with storms, hard to imagine it darkening to a bruise and beating the land and the distant town with rain. He tilts his head, and says, “You really came out all this way when you were a kid?”
Her grip tightens on the packet of cigarettes, cardboard crinkling.
“How long’d that take?” he murmurs.
There’s the tap of her thumb on the packet, a little arrhythmic beat. “Couple of hours,” she says eventually. “Less if I ran.” The tapping starts again, then gradually slows. “Sometimes I’d stay so long I had to race the weather back. Me against the storm.”
Jimmy chuckles. “Well, I bet you won.”
She looks at him and shrugs. “Sometimes,” she says. “Sometimes I didn’t.” And then her stare returns to where the prairie spills over the horizon, to where the storms must have arrived, as enormous as mountains out there along the skyline.
He can’t even imagine it, not really. He tries to stitch the idea with the reality before him and he can’t. Distantly, some vulture or other carrion bird cuts serpentine shapes through the sky, so high above the prairie it seems impossible. It winds like a river through the blue, and with each turn it reveals its wingspan in perfect silhouette, back and forth.
Eventually, Kim opens her packet of cigarettes with a crinkle of cardboard that’s almost lost in the rush of the wind-blown grass. She taps out a smoke and holds it, unlit, staring outwards, like she’s still seeing those mountainous old storms. The clouds today are high above and bright white. They cast shadows that skim over the folded landscape, gliding through the gullies and staining the prairie briefly blue.
The cloud shadows brush the tops of the grasses like a hand, rippling.
The whole thing is just one great movement, Jimmy thinks, one great shifting thing, and all the grasses are a part of it, and all the flowers are a part of it, and all of it is moving, all at once.
There’s the snap of a lighter, and Kim ignites her cigarette. She takes a drag and holds it in for a long time and then exhales through barely-parted lips, the smoke curling. She wedges the cigarette between her fingers and stares off again.
The cloud shadows drive past them, darkening and then illuminating the bright dots of petals, the galaxy of wildflowers.
“How old were you when your dad died?” she says, suddenly.
It takes him a moment to really hear the question. He knows the answer automatically, as instinctive as breathing, but it still takes a while before he can say, “Just turned nineteen.”
She glances to him. Her eyes hold his, unreadable, and then she passes him the cigarette.
He lifts it to his mouth. Blows out smoke to drift away with the wind and the shadows and the grasses. Exhales again, and closes his eyes for a moment. The darkness of his eyelids is warm. He opens them again and passes the cigarette back to her, and says, “Why’d you ask?”
Kim just shrugs. She holds the cigarette near her mouth but doesn’t smoke it, just keeps her hand there for a long while. A piece of white ash falls from the end and is lost to the wind. Kim doesn’t notice. Her eyes are fixed on the horizon, on the memories of storms, maybe. Eventually, she says plainly, “My dad left when I was young.”
Jimmy’s fingers tighten around the edge of the bench. He doesn’t want to move in case he breaks this new moment, this tentative step out onto the ice. He can already hear the sheet cracking beneath the weight.
Kim looks to him then, and she shakes her head, reading something else in his face. “Nothing like that,” she says. “He just left. He didn’t say anything.” A scoff. “Of course he didn’t say anything.” She does take a drag now, and she holds it in her lungs for long enough that Jimmy can almost feel the burn of it himself. And, smoke entwining with her next words, she says, “Everyone leaves Red Cloud.” She ashes the cigarette neatly. “Hell, even Mom moved to Lincoln like ten years ago.” A bitter laugh. “She got out before me.”
With a brief tug, Jimmy’s thoughts return to his duffel bag in the car, where there’s a pamphlet about blood cancer that he hasn’t read, that he hasn’t told Kim about yet even though he said he would. A hospital pamphlet tucked in there with the stupid law school letters. He shakes his head to get those thoughts out, and he just watches the silhouetted carrion bird circle higher and higher, a faint and elegant dot against the clean bright sky.
He thinks, instead, of Kim as a child, walking two hours to sit here on the prairie among the mottled land, the grasses streaked with paintbrush strokes in the direction of the driving wind. He wonders if she still came to this spot in the years right before she left for Albuquerque, in the years when maybe it was just Kim here alone, just her and this place and the wind and the dust and the sun.
Kim lifts her cigarette to her lips and has another long drag, and then she exhales in snaking threads. As they vanish on the wind, she says, “He was so still.”
Jimmy flexes his hands around the edge of the bench again, pressing the pads of his fingertips against the hard surface. The scent of the tobacco hovers, sharp and woody.
And, amid the rush of the grasses, Kim continues: “He would sit there in the living room every night with the TV going, and him not moving. A drink in his hand. Just one.” She says the last in an unfamiliar tone, like she’s imitating somebody. She shakes her head. “It didn’t matter where it was, which house, which room. If it was him and a TV, it was still. Always.” The next words come like she’s saying them from far away, short and precise: “And, if I sat with him, I got to be still, too.”
A change, now, in the wind. The prairie turns. It’s like he can see the texture of the wind itself, the visible shape of it against the blades of the grass and the heads of the wildflowers, all bowing to make room as it goes by. A curl here and a twist there, little tornadoes where the grasses turn back to face each other.
Kim shifts. The side of her hand touches his on the bench. She leaves it there, warm and firm, and gestures with the other one, the cigarette wedged in it. “All of this,” she says, and she lowers the hand. “All of this, and he was the only still thing. He just sat there and the TV flickered and it seemed like nothing could touch him, like nothing could ever touch him.”
Jimmy looks down at their hands on the bench, at Kim’s so small beside his.
She gives a soft and biting laugh. “And I guess nothing really did.” Her head turns, and he meets her eyes. She holds out the cigarette again.
He takes it with his free hand and has a long drag. Her eyes soften as they cling to his, her brows twisting. The smoke is warm in his lungs as he holds her gaze. And he exhales slowly, breath vanishing to the wind.
Kim reaches toward him and takes the cigarette back right from his mouth, her fingers brushing his lips. His jaw hangs open as she shifts the cigarette to her own lips and puffs, and then he swallows and turns away.
The carrion bird is gone now, or at least he’s lost track of it. His lungs burn and he can still feel her lingering touch.
The wind turns again. Smoke curls in ribbons past him as Kim exhales, and the prairie rustles and churns, and everywhere he looks there’s movement, the clouds rushing above and the grasses stirring. A galaxy of wildflowers and every star leaving a glowing trail.
Kim’s hand shifts next to his, warm. “I always feel it when I sit here,” she murmurs, barely audible, like she’s hoping the wind will take her words away like the smoke.
He rubs a finger over his mouth and turns to her.
She meets his gaze and smiles, shaking her head. “I’ve always felt it here. That old anger.” It’s her turn to stare down at their side-by-side hands now. He feels her pinky shift, just a little. Her hair rises in rivers past her chin. “It’s like it’s buried in the soil here, rooted way down deep. Deep enough to survive the storms. And the droughts.”
He can see her chest rising and falling now. More movement, more churning.
She folds in her lips. Shifts her hand away from his and looks back out to the heaving grasses. She murmurs, “And I think we can feel it because it’s always shaking down there, and it’s always shaking down there because it wants to get out.” She looks to him again. “You can feel it, too, right?”
Around him the prairie seethes, like the world breathing. The shadows of the clouds race by, surging and flowing with the ribbons of sheet-iron. He nods. He can feel it. The rush of the land.
“It wasn’t him or her, you know,” she says, so soft. “It was me. I was the angry one. It was me.”
He inhales sharply. It’s a sound lost to the lash of the ancient grasses that stretch so golden out to the creased horizon. A sound lost to the whip of the wine-red wildflowers and the pale green buds and the yellow glow of the land, all bright and cracked in blistering lines like paint, like old paint peeling up to reveal the older layers beneath, peeling up to reveal all the lost things and all the years of dust and cigarette smoke caught in there, and always somewhere beneath it the roots of the ancient prairie grasses that endure year after year through everything.
When he looks back to Kim, after a long time, she’s staring at the cigarette between her fingers. Studying the burning end. She continues watching it as she speaks. “Sometimes, Jimmy,” she says, “sometimes it’s not worth looking back.” Another long stretch of rushing wind, and then: “Sometimes it doesn’t deserve it.”
And she drops the cigarette to the dry dirt. It glows for a second, orange and bright, then she crushes it beneath her sneaker. When she lifts her sole away, the end is driven into the soil. They both watch it for a long time. Nothing dry in the land catches.
“No looking back, huh?” Jimmy says, tearing his eyes away from the cigarette butt. He waits for Kim to look to him, and then he says, “Don’t want to turn into a pillar of salt?”
Kim gives a half smile, her head tilting. “Nobody wants to be a pillar of salt, Jimmy,” she says. Her eyes catch his, blue and bronze and golden. “Let’s go, Catholic boy. We should have gone an hour ago.”
“So we push the speed limit,” he says, lightly, falling back into easy words. “We’ll make it. My father was a brick, remember?” He finds her gaze again and chuckles. “Heavy on the gas.”
Kim laughs quietly and shakes her head. She claps her hands down on the bench once, definitively, then stands. She frowns down at him. “Do you want to drive first, or should I?”
Jimmy squints upwards. The clouds pour around her, one great stream, and the prairie flowing with it. He says, “You can drive.”
She holds out a hand and he takes it, pulling himself upright with her help.
They turn and head back to the car, back to the interstate and the hum of tires on cement. It feels like they’re moving with everything now, too; moving with the ancient grasses and the wildflowers; moving with the cloud shadows; moving with the driving wind as it carries them westward back home.
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