The girl stood on the outdoor balcony of the second floor of the Best Western in Fernley, Nevada, her arms folded on the railing and her chin resting on top of her arms, watching some clouds scuttle over the mountains to the west as the sun set, the clouds resembling nothing so much as sponges that were sopping up the blood of whatever it was that spilled out of the mountains as the sky ran across their jagged edges.
“Tomorrow, honey, we’re gonna see the sea,” her mother had told her. “But right now me and Dwight need some quality time together, so you run along and play outside.”
But outside there was nothing but a parking lot, and across from it was Sloopy’s Tavern (Cold Beer * Billiards) and a Ford dealership. Further on in that direction were the mountains, which were in California, she was told.
She’d also been told that California was going to be paradise, that there would be flowers that bloomed all year long and hummingbirds that came up to your hands and rested there, perched, licking sugar water off your fingers. She hadn’t seen anything like that yet. But they weren’t there yet.
“First thing they do when you go across the border,” Dwight had told her, “they’re going to stop your car and ask you if you brought any fruit. And if you brought any fruit with you, they’re going to stop you and search your car.”
The girl said she didn’t believe him. Why would they search your car for fruit?
“Don’t tease her, Dwight,” the girl’s mother said, but Dwight said that it was the god’s-honest truth.
It had to do with fruit flies, he believed.
“Luckily, you don’t eat anything but Froot Loops, so I think we’ll be all right,” he said, and mussed up her hair like she was a boy. Truth was, the girl kind of liked that, though she wore a sour expression on her face when he did it. And it was true, she did have a near-empty box of Froot Loops in the extended cab of the truck, where she had sat with her legs cramped and folded for the last two days, the wind coming in through the back window and battering her ears. She’d read over every single letter of type on that box a dozen times. She hadn’t eaten much of anything on the trip but the cereal, which she ate straight out of the box, trying to figure out which colors tasted better than the others, eating them with her eyes closed and guessing the color. Sometimes, she was even right.
She would have had to admit, had anyone asked her (which nobody did), that she actually liked Dwight.
Actually, she would have said no, just on principle, but it was true that she agreed with her mother, that he was cute as a button, and he was sweeter by far than any of her mother’s other boyfriends had been. He was from a place called Appleton City, but she never knew what state it was in until years later, when she was an adult, and she Googled it and found out it was in Missouri.
“Two things you got to remember about Appleton City,” Dwight would say. “There ain’t any apples there, and there sure as hell ain’t no city there either.”
That always made her laugh.
“Don’t forget to brush your choppers,” he said to her at night.
He meant teeth.
What she remembered of Dwight, years later, was that he was tall and lanky, and he always smiled and made bad jokes, and he would grab her mother and tell her things like, “Baby, I love you so much I just might even marry you.” She didn’t realize until later that he was stoned most of the time, and she wondered if that was part of the reason for their plan to move to California. He told everyone that he was a little bit country, but he was also a little bit rock and roll, and he sang along to whatever was on the radio when they were driving. He was blinded by the light, all revved up. Cut loose from the noose. He also wore cowboy boots, which would later prove fatal, such that for the rest of her life she couldn’t see cowboy boots without thinking about guns and death.
But for now, she was bored out of her skull with the tediousness of the whole thing. She had been told that this was going to be a great adventure of some kind. She tried to imagine that they were in some kind of adventure, but the Ford dealership and Sloopy’s Bar (Cold Beer * Billiards) across the parking lot worked hard at squashing that notion.
Then she saw an orange tabby cat crossing the parking lot, a wary look as it sped across. She took off like a flash, but by the time she got down the wooden stairs and across the lot, she couldn’t find the cat.
“Damn,” she said aloud.
As she crossed back to the staircase, looking all the while for the cat, she stepped on a pebble in the parking lot in her bare feet. It hit a tender spot.
“Son of a bitch,” she said. It was what her mother would have said.
She went back up to the balcony and knocked on the door that had the number 212 on it in raised letters. She knocked and waited. Knocked and waited some more. Knocked again.
“Come back in a few minutes, honey.” It was her mother’s voice.
She knew what they were doing in there. They had a bottle of wine, and they were drinking it out of the little plastic cups they give you when you check into a motel like this. They were laughing, and they were probably kissing.
Back to the railing. Arms folded, chin on arms.
A minute later, when the gun went off, she knew what it was immediately.
She knocked and knocked, but all she could hear inside was the sound of Dwight repeating, over and over: “O my god, O my god, O my god.”
She couldn’t hold it against Dwight. Later, after she went to live with her Aunt Margaret and Uncle Steve, who made her go to church every Sunday and occasionally on other days, she had come to believe that it was God’s will that had done it. This despite the fact that she didn’t believe in God, just like she didn’t believe a damn word that Reverend Gary or anyone else said in that crappy little building at the end of the strip mall that they called the church.
What had happened was that Dwight had a handgun tucked away in his cowboy boot, that taking it off, the gun had fallen out, and in what had to have been very long odds, the gun discharged and the bullet went right through her mother’s body in such a way as to put a quick end to her.
Later still, she would wonder about the randomness of it. She would sit through math classes in high school and later in college and wonder, could she calculate the odds?
And what were her own chances?
Matt Patterson teaches high school English and works as a college counselor in Lawrence, KS. He’s been writing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction for many years but has just recently started pursuing publication. This is his first piece of published fiction.