The Midwest |


by Mike Broida

Just four weeks after moving home as a freshly minted graduate, the small amount of money that Marcy had saved was gone, and she was broke again. So, when her father told her that her uncle might have a job for her, it felt like divine providence, striking her there on the couch, as Marcy stared up at the creaky ceiling fan.

“Like a paying job?” she asked. She couldn’t help making a mental note of when the interest payments on her loans would start kicking in.

Her father shrugged. He had just come in from a call and was still in his junky work clothes and ancient steel-toed boots.

“I didn’t ask,” he said. It was late, the evening turning dense and muggy and buzzing with the eternal burr of street traffic and stray bottle rockets, even though the Fourth of July wasn’t for another month. Marcy hadn’t bothered to turn on the light, and her father stood there, dark and grim looking, backlit by the neon glow coming from the kitchen. “He didn’t say, either. It’s a family job, I gather.”

Marcy never understood why her uncle didn’t just hire somebody, like really hire somebody. He was loaded, after all, and his was a pile of money that seemed to hang about like peanut butter on a mouse trap in a way that made Marcy’s nose wrinkle at such a “family job” coming her way.

“He said you should call tomorrow,” her father said, before wandering out through the kitchen and flicking off the light. “Unless you have something else going on.”

“It would be a godsend,” her uncle said when Marcy called that next morning. “We only found out yesterday that our regular nanny won’t be able to make the trip and—well—we could rent a car once we get there but the kids are just so used to the Purple Thunder.”

“Purple Thunder” was what her uncle called his near-freighter of a car, a grapeish colossus of an SUV that barely squeezed into their driveway whenever her uncle’s clan used to warily venture into Marcy’s neighborhood for a hasty Sunday dinner. If she had ever known—if her father had ever told her—what had driven their brotherhood to such strained and strange encounters, it seemed little more than some pointless, sidewinding explanation now.

“We could just hire a driver for the car and get the kids on our flight, but Jeanie thinks that a summer road trip is one of those experiences that every kid needs to have growing up, you know?”

Marcy had no idea—the farthest she had traveled in a car was a four-hour round-trip trek to the state fair. Her only time in a plane was a long begged-for five-day vacation to Disney World, when she had to cash in both her birthday and Christmas presents.

“Wouldn’t you want to drive them?” Marcy asked.

“Geez, wouldn’t we,” her uncle said, “but I’m already pretty booked up on meetings—a real ‘working vacation’—and, well, Jeanie can’t drive much more than an hour in the car without getting sick. It’s all the fumes.”

“Of course,” Marcy said. “Can’t have that.”

“Besides,” her uncle went on. “The kids are pretty set on it and would be heartbroken if they couldn’t have their little adventure.”

“Right,” Marcy said, even though she wasn’t sure that she still knew what he was talking about.

“So—think you can steer the ship? Step behind the wheel?”

“Um, where are you guys headed again?” she asked.

Her uncle laughed.

“Oh boy—can’t believe I didn’t mention it right away! We’re all off to a little getaway to Provincetown for a few weeks. Jeanie was tired of renting so we finally took the plunge and closed on a place. You can imagine how excited Blaine and Eileen are about it—so, whatcha say?”

Provincetown. Marcy had to look it up on the map—she told her uncle she’d have to see about moving a couple things around and get back to him. She thought he had meant a trip down the lake to Put-in-Bay or the amusement park in Sandusky or, at most, a drive up to Traverse City. Provincetown was nearly twelve hours by car and, by the looks of it, at the far ends of the earth—the very tip of Cape Cod—any further and they’d have to drive into the ocean.

She spent the next day, instead of “moving things around” or filling out her endless stream of job applications, looking up pictures of Provincetown: the broad, creamy beaches, the frigid slate of rolling, white-capped waves, the little main street ringed by cutesy, shingled houses and storefronts—she’d probably have to sell a kidney just to buy a coke and a ham sandwich out that way. She’d been to the beach before, of course—quite a lot, actually, just not the ocean. When she had been a girl, and her father had still worked for the mill, they used to rent a cabin for a week on the lake, out near Put-in-Bay. The beach there was always a thin strip along the lakefront—the sand had been carted in to make the closest approximation of a “real” beach, but that didn’t change the constant smell of mild rot, the swampy stink of vegetation and dead fish, or the muddy bottom that sucked her feet into the muck. Marcy had never seen the ocean. She wondered what it would be like to smell salt in the air.

She called her uncle back and told him she would do it. They would leave in just over a week’s time.

After graduation, all of Marcy’s friends scattered to the coasts, as if they had had springs winding tightly inside themselves for four years that launched them high over the corn fields and the auto plants and the lake, nestling them instead into shabby, fifth-floor walk ups in once-precarious parts of cities that Marcy had only seen in the opening shots of television shows. She had, instead, driven the forty-five minutes across town, back to her father’s house. Seeing photos of all her friends in front of their new, lovely skylines on her newsfeeds, she felt as if her spring had malfunctioned on the launch pad. She had not posted any updates or pictures of herself in front of the mill or from the pier downtown that overlooked the lake. She did not want to even post them ironically.

Back home, Marcy had forgotten about the orange sodium glow of the streetlights, the musty smell of her father’s house. She had forgotten about the empty lots and about all the abandoned houses stripped of their aluminum siding by scavengers, their insulation dancing naked in the wind. She forgot about the indelible, dark smudge of the mill on the horizon. She forgot how the raccoons knocked the trash over in the night, the ones that nested under their porch, their eyes shining in the dark. The people from the city wouldn’t come and clear them out unless they were dead and starting to smell. Over those next few days, Marcy found herself spending more time reading travel articles about Cape Cod and Provincetown, its horrifying yet strangely alluring legacy of whale hunting, its history and founding by the Pilgrims. The drive had become fixed in her mind. The plan was to leave in the early hours of the morning, to make the whole thing in one long go. The night before, her father drove her out to her uncle and aunt’s house, way out in the spooky, dead-end streets of the suburbs.

“Have you ever been out that way?” Marcy asked. “To Cape Cod?”

“No,” he said.

“Have you ever wanted to?”

Her father shrugged.

“Been to the beach plenty of times,” he said.

Marcy knew he was talking about the lake, their rosy weeks at the cabin, though Marcy wasn’t particularly spoiling for a fight about one’s definition of a beach.

“I can send you a postcard if you’d like,” she said.

Her father didn’t say anything, or maybe gave a nearly inaudible grunt—Marcy wasn’t sure.

Success had become an impermeable barrier between their two families, all their words lost in a wash of goodish intentions. Marcy had the chance to change all that. As part of her father’s severance from the mill, the company had agreed to award a modest scholarship fund, its mere existence the only thing that had made her college applications feel even remotely possible to her. As a “daughter of a mill worker,” a sort-of-nearby college had loved her spunky disposition and all that, and she had graduated, too, with perfectly manageable amounts of debt. It all had felt like one giant leap forward, arms wide open, to deliverance, providence, or whatever.

After his layoff, a family job had come his way, too, or that’s what her father had called it then—something much better than working for some sterile megacorporation based in Berlin. Still, it didn’t change what had been offered and what had been accepted. Her father was now her uncle’s super. Her father said he liked it, said he got to work with his hands.

Her aunt answered the door, circling Marcy in a weak-hearted hug—the sort where she only used her shoulders, bending in at the hips to keep the rest of her body safely unengaged.

“Marcy, darling, we cannot thank you enough for jumping in!” she said. “I cannot tell you how excited Blaine and Eileen are for your little adventure.”

“Of course,” Marcy said. There was something Marcy had always found vaguely creepy about her aunt: the way she had stayed reed thin though everyone else Marcy knew of that age had plumped and softened, the way she always looked ready to hop into a photo-shoot for a fall catalog of women’s running apparel, or the way she made Marcy feel less like family and more like she might, at any moment, chase her and her father out with a broom, like they were a pair of vermin.

Marcy had seen the old pictures, the photo albums in mildewed boxes in her father’s attic: her aunt and uncle in nervous prom get ups on the old front porch. It made Marcy wonder how, if she ever had a few dollars, would she transmute, too, werewolf-style, into the sort of person who bought passion fruit and vegan cookies at the grocery store?

Her aunt led the way—under the dangling chandelier in the foyer, through the sparkling living room, past the wet bar, the full dining room, just past the den and back into the kitchen. Marcy could hear the punctuated roar of the TV in the next room and the ecstatic shrieks of her cousins. Marcy knew they had a lot of “help,” as her aunt put it—beyond the nanny, there were the cleaners, the landscapers, and the “handyman” who came by to screw in loose light bulbs, but Marcy still found it strange how the kitchen nearly glowed in its cleanliness, as if no one ever managed to splash tomato sauce on the marble countertops.

Her uncle sauntered in from the den—he and her father were undeniably siblings—there was something in the nose, maybe the crease of their cheeks, though her uncle was shorter and had more hair.

“Well, look who’s here,” he said, giving both Marcy and her father big, bearish hugs.

“I was just telling Marcy how much of a help she’s being,” her aunt said.

“She speaks the truth,” her uncle said.

“No problem,” Marcy said. “Happy to lend a hand.”

“Say, Jim, since I’ve got you here, I wanted to ask you about that payment structure we were talking about,” her uncle said.

Marcy’s mother had left when Marcy was quite young—only six or seven—to live in Phoenix with a systems administrator named Tony, sending Marcy an array of greeting cards with twenty dollars in them. After her mother left, the Sunday dinners had started, a fixture for them all, at least for a few years. Still, family dinner had never sat well with Marcy’s aunt and uncle, their eyes constantly flashing to the living room window to make sure the Purple Thunder hadn’t been stolen in the last thirty seconds. Perhaps it was the blocks pockmarked with abandoned houses, the sooty-feeling cloud that hung in the air, the nighttime streets creeping with the occasional scavenging animal or person. Had such a remark been what had sunk their strained ritual? After all, even if these things were true, it was still her home. She still lived there. Her uncle had, too, at least once. “Ambition” had been what had divided them, this hazy and unfair word that Marcy could never get a handle on: it was this “ambition” that had motivated her uncle, as a novice contractor, to start flipping houses, while her own father had joined the mill’s apprentice program. It was this “ambition,” this egregious manifestation of dumb, two-bit luck that had slowly grown her uncle’s meager hammer-swinging skills into a minor renovation and real estate empire, the American Dream replete with its very own water feature. Yet Marcy knew there was no one that worked harder than her father—was it this absent “ambition” that held him back, too? This magic gatekeeper? Was it some curse that was in her blood? The daughter of a washed-up mill worker?

Her father nodded and followed her uncle into the hall. There was a certain clockwork about it all that Marcy had come to recognize: her father and uncle talking business, she and her aunt stranded with mindless chatter, until her little cousins eventually stormed in like the cavalry. When her father would be invited to stay for dinner, he usually had an excuse ready for why he had to be heading back home.

“The kids wanted to get pizza delivered—you know, must have seen it on the TV or something,” her aunt said. “But the only place around here that actually serves quality, organic pizza—you know, without all that gluten and lactose—is all the way out in the heights and doesn’t even deliver.”

“Bummer,” Marcy said.

“I know,” her aunt said, “but Blaine—you know how good he is with computers—he said there was this new service where someone will actually order it at the restaurant and bring it to you anyway, and what price can you really put on convenience?”

“None, I guess,” said Marcy, though she secretly wondered if this mystery company might be hiring.

“Well,” her aunt said. “That is what we always say.”

After Marcy hugged her father goodbye, she lugged her bags up to the guest suite, more-or-less a full apartment unit in the house with a kitchenette and sitting room and a dart board that seemed perpetually unused, a little bedroom with sliding doors to a tiny balcony that looked out onto the oblong pool and the always freakishly manicured yard. The bed was piled with so many pillows that she could hardly sit on it, and as she took them off, Marcy wasn’t sure what to do with them—eventually stacking them neatly on the sideboard, around the vase of plastic flowers. Lying awake, neatly bound beneath the covers, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was some mouse who had lingered too long on its glue pad, now stuck and peering out in the dark.

Her alarm went off while the inky darkness was still draining from the morning sky. The night before, they had loaded the luggage into the front foyer (well, mostly Marcy had, under her aunt and uncle’s direction) and, in the misty first light, she heaved the family’s bags into the Purple Thunder. When Marcy was about halfway done, her aunt wandered down to observe her progress, a cup of coffee in her palms, a travel mug on the side table for Marcy as a tantalizing reward. Her uncle wrestled down Blaine and Eileen, sleepy-eyed and grouchy, toting their plasticky book bags covered in princesses and monster trucks, respectively, and filled to the brim with distractions for their twelve-hour journey. The sun had just started to peek over the tree line.

When she got behind the wheel of the Purple Thunder, fully loaded, her cousins strapped into the bucket seats and already falling back asleep, Marcy finally realized how massive the car really was: she could barely see anything over the hood, and the thing was so wide and tall, with the wheel in her hand she felt like she actually was steering a massive iron ore freighter down one of the channels of the river and to the mill. As she gingerly pulled away, her aunt and uncle waved from the front porch, and, as they rounded the fountain and edged down the steep drive, Marcy finally started to realize how far she had to go.

She didn’t dare play the radio, hoping to milk as much quiet time from her sleeping cousins as possible—in the rearview mirror they looked ominous and zombie-like, mouths agape and heads gently lolling with the motion of the car. Eileen was older, twelve, still taller than her brother and bony, on the verge of puberty but possessing a child-like angularity, all elbows and knees, her hair a wild tangle about her narrow face. Blaine was a few years younger, softer and rounder about the middle—Marcy’d made the mistake of calling it baby fat once, to his dreadful ire, his round face immediately collapsing into a butterball of insufferable tears. She used to believe that they would find her to be the cool, older cousin, but she had realized, in the last year or so, that she was much more likely to be a peculiarity, more zoological than familial.

Amid the dull hum of the road, the interstate curving out of the city and running right up against the dark roll of the lake, the wrinkling surface of the water made Marcy think of the ocean, all those pictures she’d seen of the curling, foamy waves, the little, weathered, shingled houses, and all she had read of the sharp, salty smell of the sea—something she couldn’t even imagine. Her aunt, as Marcy had grabbed the last bag, had pushed a thin sliver of cash into her palm: five crisp one hundred dollar bills for “anything that might happen.” Was it her pay? Could she keep the balance? They had already given Marcy a gas card—what else could cost nearly that much? She imagined finding a job out there, in Provincetown. She did have experience, after all, scooping cones and making floats at a stand on the lake; she might even love coastal life so much that she would call her father and tell him how hard it a choice it had been, but that she was going to be staying.

She had studied sociology, though not for any particular reason, and when people—even her father—asked what she was going to be doing with her life, her passable answer was that she wasn’t sure, not really. She spent her summers working the ice cream stand by the lake while her friends accrued their coastal internships. She had no connections, no hobbies, and why delude herself with such things, really, when she would end up moving back home, anyway? Even if she found a job, any job, it would take months before she had a small stash of money saved to facilitate a move. And yet, the providence of Provincetown had called for her, and now she was answering.

In college, she had considered herself fiscally responsible with a certain pride, even as she watched her friends burn through money on drinks and three course meals at the campus’s one fancy restaurant. Her moderation and ascetic lifestyle made her a grand old stick in the mud, but restraint was its own reward, wasn’t it? Right before graduation, they had all gone to buy dresses for the ceremony, but Marcy had wussed out at the last moment

“It’s too expensive,” she had explained.

“Can’t you just ask your parents or something?” one girl asked—someone who had lived on Marcy’s first-year floor but who Marcy still didn’t know well. “It’s not like it matters.”

She had known it then, that all her responsibility, her friends’ lavish flashing of plastic cards—it was just a game in the end, and she had been the loser. But that was the old Marcy: she would be in Provincetown soon. She had seen the pictures, a place without mills or fathers or family jobs.

Blaine was the first to wake up, just an hour into the drive.

“Are we there yet?” he asked.

He yawned and squirmed around in his seat, straining his little, nine-year-old body against the seatbelt.

“Nope—we haven’t left the state yet so there’s still a ways to go.”

Blaine didn’t say anything, as if he didn’t hear her at all, staring blankly out the window, perhaps getting his bearings.

“Why didn’t Uncle Jim-Jim come too?” Blaine asked.

“Oh, well, he has to work at his job. Besides, I’m not sure my dad likes to go on vacations, anyhow.”

That same dull looked glazed across his face for a moment.

“Do you guys live in the ghetto?” Blaine asked.

“What?” Marcy said. She wasn’t sure how to react—most of her time spent with Blaine before this had been pretending to shoot space aliens with him in the backyard. “What makes you say that?”

Blaine shrugged.

“My mom said so,” Blaine said, as if he had presented an open and shut case.

“Well, maybe that’s just one person’s opinion,” Marcy said, though she wasn’t even sure what she was trying to say.

“She says that’s why dad helps you and Uncle Jim-Jim,” Blaine said.

“Blaine, Uncle Jim-Jim—my dad—he has a job, OK? There’s a difference, alright? Working is different. You earn money from a job. It’s not the same as helping.”

Through the rearview mirror, Blaine looked mildly stupefied, mouth slightly ajar, as if Marcy had accidentally fried his cerebellum.

Sure, her father had never taken her to lunch at the Ritz, they had their tough times—hadn’t everyone?—but Marcy had done everything right, worked hard, was even leaving home to make her own name. It was different.

“Well,” Marcy said. “Don’t you want to play a game or watch a movie or something?”

He sat there, unmoved for a moment, before wiggling again in his seat and digging into his bag, pulling out a tangle of cables and the glossy rectangle of a tablet. The screen came aglow as Blaine plugged in his headphones and plunged into distraction.

Eileen woke up a little while later. Marcy’s other cousin was noticeably silent but strangely conniving at the same time, and Marcy always felt like Eileen was trying to get something out of her. Eileen stretched her bony arms, taking in the scene, before absently kicking her brother’s shoes and giving him the stare down.

“What, Elle?” Blaine said, eventually. “Cut it out.”

“Hey, Blah-Blah,” she said, still kicking his shoes.


“You’re a booger. I think your name should be Booger,” Eileen said.

“My name’s not Booger,” Blaine said. “That’s gross.”

“Eileen—” Marcy said, “why don’t you start up an episode of Lakeshore High and let me know how it is?”

Eileen, as uncommitted as ever, shrugged and pulled out her own tablet, plugging into the melodramatic high school-based series that she had become completely obsessed with, often keeping Marcy up to date on her excruciatingly detailed running summary and commentary on the show. Sitting there, Marcy still noticed how Eileen swung her legs, every so often giving Blaine a good whack on the heel, which he seemed to mostly tolerate. Ten hours left to go.

They pulled into a rest stop for breakfast and the kids begged to order from McDonalds.

“Mom and Dad always let us eat here when we drive really far,” Blaine said.

They waited in line, but when they arrived at the front, Blaine and Eileen both panicked.

“What kind of food is it?” Blaine asked.

“What do you mean?” Marcy said. “It’s McDonalds.”

This did not seem to clear things up for him.

“I don’t want a hamburger for breakfast,” Eileen said.

“You don’t have to—look, see? There’s the whole breakfast menu,” Marcy said.

Eileen looked unconvinced.

Marcy ended up ordering three stacks of pancakes and sausage patties and orange juices, breaking one of her sparkling hundreds for a handful of greasy bills. It only then occurred to her, once they sat down with their trays, that she’d been had—her aunt had wedged a cooler of organic, toxin-free snacks in the back of the Purple Thunder. Marcy had forgotten all about it, and she figured her aunt would have rather they all crawl through a desert before eat at the Golden Arches. Still, this was their first road trip, wasn’t it?

“I said I didn’t want a hamburger for breakfast,” Eileen said.

“Eileen, honey, it’s not a hamburger, it’s a sausage patty,” Marcy said, though she wasn’t sure she could explain the difference. “Just try it, OK?”

Both of her cousins dissected their food as if it were forest toadstools.

“What’s your favorite thing from McDonalds?” Marcy asked.

“Milkshakes,” Eileen said.

“Um, a double burger,” Blaine said, mashing his pancakes with his fork.

“Yeah?” Marcy said, trying to temper her voice. “What about your parents?”

“Dad likes steak,” Blaine said.

“And Mom eats lots of quinoa,” Eileen said.

“I bet,” Marcy said.

Maybe she was just their draft horse, Marcy thought, and they were gleefully cracking the whip.

“Marcy, Dad lets us get a candy bar when we stop for—um, for being good,” Eileen said.

“Yeah,” Blaine said.

“Time to hit the road,” Marcy said. Perhaps they’d forget to tell their mother about this small, fast food tangle, or maybe Marcy would have her hypothetical pay docked instead. “Go to the bathroom before we leave, OK?”

They both stood there, antsy.

“What?” Marcy said. “What is it?”

“I don’t have to go,” Eileen said.

“Me either,” Blaine said.

“Are you sure?”

They both nodded, and she wondered if they had ever used a public bathroom before, either. She had a message from her aunt—just to check in, and Marcy sent a text back that they’d just had their first bathroom break.

The day was warm and clear, the heat radiating up off the asphalt as a pleasant garland for the infinite-seeming stretch of summertime. Once in the car, the drive came easily to Marcy, the roads mostly empty and humming along. Her cousins sat absorbed in their screens. Marcy made a game of hunting on the radio for the current, dominant, and addictively terrible pop song of the summer. It felt providential, this beat with its overproduced starlet around Marcy’s age belting out about the most wondrous thing—a trip to the beach.

“What do you guys like to do with your parents at the beach?” Marcy asked.

Blaine and Eileen were quiet for a moment.

“We only go to the beach with Gloria,” Eileen said, referring to their nanny.

“Dad has lots of golf meetings,” Blaine said.

“What about your Mom?” Marcy asked.

“She plays tennis,” Eileen said. “But Blaine and I play crock-ett.”

“What’s ‘crock-ett’?” Marcy asked.

“But Dad said I could start golf this year and start golfing with him,” Blaine said.

“That’s boring,” Eileen said.

“But when do you see your Mom and Dad?” Marcy asked. It was only just starting to dawn on Marcy what the true length and extent of their road trip was going to be. Her whole two weeks in Provincetown might be absorbed this way, a sucking wind that she would not be able to escape at all.

“Marcy,” Eileen asked, “where’s the charger bag?”

“What’s that?” Marcy asked. “Don’t you have those in your backpacks?”

“Mom keeps them all together in one place so we don’t lose them,” Blaine said.

“What’s the bag look like?” Marcy asked.

“It’s big and red and looks like Mommy’s purse,” Eileen said.

The dread set in that the bag was still tucked neatly in the foyer somewhere, nearly six hours behind them now.

“Well, we can buy a couple new ones at the next rest stop,” Marcy said.

The next rest stop was more of a picnic area with a bathroom and a bank of vending machines and another McDonalds of which Blaine and Eileen now seemed especially dubious. Marcy tore the car apart looking for the bag of chargers, but, coming up empty, they settled for foraging through Aunt Jeanie’s cooler of certifiably toxin-free snacks at one of the picnic tables. Afterwards, she forced them both to go to the bathroom.

“Or at least just stand in there if you don’t have to go,” Marcy said. Dutifully, they ran off to the appropriate side of the little pavilion.

She tried to check her phone and got zilch—reception out here was terrible. Marcy took no weird pleasure in this “learning on the job” part of the ordeal. They were somewhere in New York, and, for a moment, she forgot why she was doing this. Somehow, being buried on the interstate had made the rippling, vanilla dunes of Provincetown feel even more distant, as if like they might be a ruse, that they didn’t exist at all, as if she had been lied to.

Without their chargers, the tablets and music devices began to power down only a few miles after the picnic—and soon the pronouncements began.

“Marcy, I’m bored.”

“Marcy, are we almost there yet?”

“Marcy, why is my brother such a booger?”

Marcy tried to get them into the games she used to play: I spy, the license plate game, the alphabet game, the way her father had always kept her occupied on long car rides, but each one crashed and burned after a few minutes.

“Marcy, are there sharks at the beach?”

“Marcy, what is high school like?”

“Marcy, what do animals do at night?”

“Marcy, how do really tall buildings get built?”

If her cousins’ questions started as genuine, they slowly lost their grip on reality, even as Marcy did her best to answer them seriously. Even so, Blaine and Eileen quickly became consumed by the giggles, stretching her name into two, wobbling syllables:

“Marrrr-ccccy,” Blaine wailed. “What’s on the other side of those trees?”

“Er, I dunno, Blaine,” Marcy said.

“She just doesn’t want to tell you because you’ll be a baby about it,” Eileen said.

“Nuh-huh,” Blaine said. “No I won’t.”

“You sure, Booger?”

“Yeah. I’m not a baby.”

“OK,” Eileen said. “I warned you. That’s where they put all the dead animals.”

“You’re lying,” Blaine said.

“Where else do you think they go? They scrape them up off the road and throw them in a big pile. Then, the other animals know that’s where they should go when they’re ready to die. A big, smelly pile of dead animals.”

“That’s not true,” Blaine yelled. “You’re lying.”

Eileen was kicking his feet again, and Blaine finally started kicking her back.

“If the wind blows the right way you can smell it,” Eileen said.

“You’re gross,” Blaine said. “Marcy—make her stop!”

“Both of you, cut it out,” Marcy said. “Or I’ll pull the car over.”

Marcy wasn’t sure if either of them knew what that meant, but it seemed to do the trick, the only sound being the dull beat of the radio and the hum of the road and the soft knocking of Eileen kicking her brother’s foot.

“Hey, Marcy,” Eileen asked after a time.

“What’s up, Elle?”

“Does Daddy still give you an allowance?” Eileen said. “Is that why you’re driving us?”

“Well, your parents gave me some money to help pay for the trip, but that’s not an allowance, Elle, right?”

“But Daddy said he was helping you and Uncle Jim-Jim,” Eileen said.

“Honey, that’s work, I was telling Blaine—it’s different—”

“But Daddy said it was to help pay for school, like an allowance, because you and Uncle Jim-Jim don’t have a lot of money.”

“Eileen, I’m sure you just didn’t understand what he said—I had to take out loans and be responsible. I earned a scholarship to pay for it.” But as she said this, Marcy felt a gross sickness in her belly. She had trusted her father’s assertion so fully. Of course there had been that magical pile of money from the mill. She had earned it: good things happened to hard workers like her. Maybe her father had never told her the truth of where the lion’s share of her college tuition had truly come from.

Marcy wondered if there had been pity in his voice when her uncle said it—Uncle Jim-Jim and Marcy need our help. They live in the ghetto.

Eileen didn’t have a response, at least not right away, as if her prepubescent brain was trying to grasp the strange territory they had all wandered into.

“Daddy says Uncle Jim-Jim unclogs toilets,” Blaine said.

“Ugh,” Eileen said. “You would like toilets. That’s all you ever think about.”

“That’s not what I said,” Blaine said.

“Booger-wooger is a smilly-smelly toilet breath,” Eileen said, though all the weird joy from before had melted out of her voice. She started kicking Blaine’s feet harder.

“Stop it,” Blaine said. “I do not have toilet breath.”

Blaine was kicking her back, but Eileen was on a tear now—nothing could stop her.

“Toilet breath, toilet breath, toilet breath,” she howled.

“I—am—not—a—toilet—breath,” Blaine yelled in big huffs. He flailed his little arms at her, but either the coordination or distance was too much for him.

Eileen let out a terrible laugh.

“Enough!” Marcy said. “Both of you. Cut it out.”

If they heard her, it seemed to make no difference. What to do? Pull over? Spank her cousins? They had lost so much time as it was. She reached an arm back to try and grab a swinging leg or to erect some meager barrier, but during one of her glances into the back of the car, she saw something flash out in front of her on the road. Marcy tried to swerve, her cousins now screaming jointly. Whatever it was, she felt it thud along the right side of the bumper and thump under the wheels. By instinct, she slammed on the brake, and the smell of asphalt and hot rubber filled the car as they jolted to a halt in the breakdown lane. The other cars around her laid heavy on their horns. Blaine and Eileen kept screaming, whether out of fear or sheer delight, Marcy was unsure.

Once Marcy had her own breathing under control, she checked on her cousins.

“We had an accident,” Blaine said.

“Did we hit somebody?” Eileen asked.

“No—I mean, I don’t think so,” Marcy said. “Are you OK?”

They both nodded, if a little woozily.

Marcy took a deep breath—this wasn’t one to get past her aunt and uncle. How would they ever make it to Provincetown now?

“Stay here,” she said. Marcy got out of the car, nearly leaping from the high perch of the driver’s seat. The early evening had turned terribly hot, suffocating as the waves radiated up off the asphalt. She felt nauseated from the hard shake of the few cars rocketing past her. Behind the Purple Thunder was the long, snaking trail of black tire tread smeared along the road, a small lump of some poor, newly deceased creature in the middle distance. Marcy came around the front of the car and, along the bumper was a hideous, bloody splatter and notable dent. It didn’t help her queasiness.

A car door cracked open. Blaine and Eileen had put up with as much as they could from inside the Purple Thunder. Both of them stumbled out.

“Did Marcy kill somebody?” Blaine yelled.

“Is Marcy gonna have to go to jail?” Eileen asked.

“Look, will you guys get back in the car?” Marcy asked.

Eileen came over to assess the damage.

“Marrrrr-cy,” she whined, “that’s so gross.”

Blaine had wandered off. She didn’t see him in the car or even about the sides. Marcy made her way around to the trunk, and then saw Blaine walking back towards them along the tire tracks. He held something by the tail—a raccoon, Marcy realized—or what was left of one after the Purple Thunder was done with it. What had the creature been doing out here, in the middle of the day? Why had it wandered out into the road? She thought of the raccoons back home, those codependent scavengers, their desperate, shining eyes in the darkness. In truth, she admired their ravenous hunger for survival, their penchant for almost always looking out for themselves, present circumstances excluded. She thought of her father, how he never really minded their trashcan gleanings or the empty barrels rolling in the driveway come morning.

“Blaine,” she yelled. “What are you doing? Put that down. Right now.”

Blaine held on tight, confused. Marcy had never seen a raccoon so close—such grey and dour creatures, this one especially. The car had caved in part of its skull. The force of the blow had split open its belly, a bulge of viscera poking out from its side, a trickling of blood forming to droplets on its nose and staining the pavement.

“Blaine,” Marcy said again.

He held the creature aloft for his sister.

“Here,” he said to Eileen.

“Gross,” she said. “Booger, I don’t want that. That’s gross.”

“But we have to put it with the others,” Blaine said.

“What are you—” Marcy started, but Eileen began to laugh, a high cackle, and raced around to the other end of the car as Marcy realized what he meant.

“The dead animals—we gotta pile it up with the rest,” he said.

Marcy felt a terrible fire start to burn in her, an anxious anger, her hands white-knuckling into fists.

She snatched the dangling creature from Blaine’s doughy little palm and, with one, broad, swing of her arm, launched it over the guardrail and into the tree line. The raccoon thudded against a trunk, tumbling into the grass, the lump of its back still visible from the road.

Blaine started crying, and Marcy looked down to see her own shirt and pants dotted with a constellation of red.

“Marcy,” Eileen said in a small voice.

There was no time, no time for any of this—they were supposed to be in Provincetown, her nose filled with the spray of salt and water, the air crowded with the cries of sea birds, her eyes taking in the glassy roll of the waves along the sand.

Marcy grabbed Blaine about the waist, hauling him up like some sort of oblong piece of lumber, carting him back towards the car. Her cousin was so surprised that he stopped crying and Eileen, fearing this new wrath, scrambled to open the door and buckle herself in. Marcy heaved Blaine into his seat, strapping him in before going to slam the door shut. She went around to the front and climbed back in to the driver’s seat.

“Marcy—it’s too tight. I can’t breathe,” Blaine said, tugging at his seatbelt. Eileen had pulled out the bottle of hand sanitizer and was squirting it on any part of Blaine she could get.

“Gotta get rid of the cooties, Booger.”

They were OK, Marcy assured herself. They could still make it. She felt like a horror show, sweating and mouth breathing and splattered with creature blood. They could still make it, couldn’t they? She pulled them out onto the road, the Purple Thunder maybe rattling just the slightest as they picked up more and more speed, as her cousins still hollered in the back, as her phone began to ring—her aunt’s number on the screen.

It was already getting late: the sun was falling to the earth, the sky suddenly red and luminous and alive. The tree line turned jagged and dark before her, the road rolling out ahead like a rough, languorous tongue, burnt an awful black. Between the narrow pins of their lights, the high hills pulled in about them, a greedy mouth ready to swallow.