They pulled into the parking lot of the 7-Eleven. Twin headlights licked the rain-slickened surface.
They debated over who was going to go in and grab the beer. Eliza, because she was driving, felt like she had the better claim: −I’m driving, she said.
Owen, already pulling the collar up to cover his neck, replied: −But so? If I was driving, I’d have to go.
−Tough shit, Eliza shrugged. −Think of it next time.
He opened the door. Rain blasted in. Slanting bullets pounded on the hood, filled the air with a bacon-sizzle that drowned out the sparse sound of traffic on the never-ending interstate.
−And a pack of cigarettes, she said, as Owen prepared himself to step out.
−Fuck you, he said, then darted for the sliding-doors.
Inside, the store was cool. He made a beeline for the back, past the rows of condoms and phone chargers, scissors and noodle packets. He opened up a fridge full of beer, scanning the rows for something less individual, something akin to a share-pack. No 12 packs, nothing they could share around. He ended up picking out 8— no, 10— beers, from all around the world, different vintages he told himself, and chuckled his way down to the register.
−And a packet of, uhh...
He pointed out some cigarettes on the rack. The girl slapped them down beside the beers. Owen looked at the picture of the throatless man on the cigarette pack, an adenoidal mass, caught mid-pulse, and nearly puked. He was glad he didn’t smoke; he hoped it never got to the stage that Eliza would be eligible for entry to the Marlboro Box Family of Misfits and Freaks. The door jangled behind him as he spooled out money.
She’d been to this store before. A long time ago, before everything happened, with Dad. Mom had sat in the car, flipping through a magazine.
−Afraid to get her nails broke, Dad had said, as they’d walked through the doors— not sliding in those days— and entered the cool interior of the store. Dad had showed her the snacks aisle, had insisted she think long and hard before choosing something, and had then vanished.
She’d run her eyes— then her 8-year-old fingers— along the rows of chips, of candy bars. The bags of chips felt full. She could feel the jagged edges of potato chips within.
Dad appeared again, carrying a crate of beer under his arms. −Just keep me alert on the drive, he’d said, and led her to the register. She’d climbed into the back of the car, eating her potato chips, while Dad drove the four or five hours home, drinking a beer. The summer vacation was, already, a distant memory, thoughts of the beach, the sound of the seashells, ebbing away like the tide itself.
−Can you buy me some beer? she asked, appearing out of the darkness between the vending machines. The rain was still beating down hard. Owen nearly dropped his beers, had to steady himself with deep breaths before replying.
−Buy you— no, no, I won’t. Water was dripping from the girl’s hair, smothering her face in vertical wrinkles of moisture, H2O comet trails that sped across her skin.
Eliza’s head appeared out of the driver window. −Hey, can we give you a ride?
The girl looked at Owen, then at Eliza. Her face cracked, broke into a smile. Her teeth were yellow, off-kilter, the mouth of a child given the privilege of candy and not the responsibility of teeth-brushing.
−What’s your name? Eliza asked, taking an opened beer off Owen and pulling onto the interstate.
−That’s the name on my birth certificate. But everyone calls me Bunny.
−My Dad. She shrugged, then smiled.
−Speaking of, Owen said, lighting a cigarette and putting it in Eliza’s mouth. He coughed out whatever smoke he’d accidentally inhaled. −Where is your dad? Or your mom?
−My mom is— gone.
−How about your dad?
−He’s waiting for me.
There was silence a moment. The sound of trucks passing in the opposite direction, that whack of wind against the windshield; the sound of Eliza smoking and drinking; the sound of suds crackling in the beer can Owen held. Both sides of the interstate were dark. Whatever mountains there were in the distance were simply shimmering silhouettes, barely-there shadows against a backdrop of darkest blue.
−So where are you guys going? She had her head behind the driver’s seat, and her legs behind the passenger seat. Owen traced the curvature of her legs in the rear-view, then, seeing none to speak of, shook the thought from his head and promised himself not to look again.
−We’re on a tour. Eliza dropped the cigarette into the beer can, then threw the beer can out the window.
−A tour? To, like, Disneyland?
−Eliza’s been reading a lot of Kerouac, Owen shrugged, by way of reply.
−You want a beer, hun? Eliza asked. Bunny nodded, sitting up. −Owen, give the girl a beer.
−Man, she’s like 14.
−If she’s old enough to be hanging around a 7-Eleven on a night like this, she’s old enough for a beer. Give her one of mine if you’re gonna be a tightass.
−Alright, alright, Owen grumbled, reaching for the loose beers at his feet. He handed one back to Bunny. Bunny cracked it, took a long glug.
The first time she tasted a beer had been at her Dad’s. After the divorce, of course. A sleepover every second weekend.
Dad had, in the middle of a monologue, offered her a sip from his beer can. It had tasted horrible, but she’d persevered, and had later accepted when Dad offered her a beer of her own. The sudsy taste, the way it sat like a layer of scum over her tongue; she put up with it.
They’d sat, watching Basil Rathbone solve crimes on DVD, the taste of beer still hanging on her lips, desiccating her mouth. Dad crushed his beer cans, but she found it difficult, her 11-year-old hands not quite up to the task of crippling the aluminium.
Later, she’d rooted around in the one-bed apartment for a blanket and, having found it, pulled it up over Dad, and let his snoring lull her to her own sleep, curled up into the pit his arced legs made. His snores smelt sweet, like a fruit she didn’t know. She watched, from her vantage point at the foot of the bed, an ember slowly dimming in the ashtray.
−Do you like Tom Waits? Eliza asked, taking her eyes off the empty void that was the interstate to look in the rearview.
−I don’t know who that is.
−He’s only the greatest fucking musician of all time. She shoved a CD into the player. She skipped a few tracks, listening for the gruff, almost-unintelligible ‘one-two-three-four’ that led into ‘I Wish I Was in New Orleans’.
−She’s crazy for this kinda stuff, Owen said, reaching a hand across to squeeze Eliza’s knee.
−It sounds weird, Bunny giggled.
−That’s the point. It’s supposed to be this, like, drunken sound, the sound of a man hitting rock-bottom. She tipped beer into her mouth. −You don’t know yourself ‘til you know rock-bottom. Here’s hoping.
−Where’s your mom gone, Bunny? Owen asked. He’d had three beers, and the question had only grown more insistent in his mind.
−She’s a bitch, Bunny replied.
−Oh. Owen paused, unsure of what to say next. −Uhm, why’s that?
−She made my Dad leave. Used to say nasty things about him. I’m glad she’s gone.
−Fuck. Owen cast a sideways glance at Eliza. −That’s some, uhh, heavy shit for a girl your age.
−I’m not a kid, Bunny said, crossing her arms. −I’ve drank beer. I even smoked weed one time.
−Jesus, Owen muttered. A rest stop blurred by. Two men stood outside trucks, smoking cigarettes, shaking hands in the middle of the oily forecourt. The fluorescent-white lights burned Owen’s eyes.
−She called you what? Dad asked.
−A skank, she said.
−A fucking skank. He tutted, then steadied his grip. His fingers curled around the handle of the revolver; he eyed the empty beer cans, weighted against the wind with stones, and shut one eye.
−She said she don’t want me in the house anymore.
The first shot made her jump. Like the blast of rockets. And the smell. Like firework smoke.
−You can stay with me long as you like, Dad said, kneeling down and handing her the gun. He showed her how to hold it; fixed her posture; clapped when the first bullet grazed the last-can-standing.
−Your mother’s due for a fall, he said.
−Where do you want us to drop you?
The beers had knocked Bunny, and she found herself struggling to come up with an answer. She was sprawled out on the backseat.
−Uhh, anywhere, she said. −You can let me out here, don’t matter. She looked out the window, at the endless expanse of black, and hoped that they wouldn’t take her up on that.
−We can drive you as far as San Francisco, that looks to be as far as we’re going this way, Owen said.
−Or we canbring you to Mexico with us. Viva la revolution.
Eliza bared her teeth, then laughed. She tipped her head back; Owen poured beer into her mouth. She was swerving now, the car unsteadily veering over the midline. She swerved, attempting to right the car’s trajectory as strong headlights bore down on them. The wheels began to hiccup as they left tarmac and touched wilderness.
−Liz, straighten the fuck up, Owen said.
−‘S fine, ‘s fine, Eliza said, nodding along, now, to the title track of Swordfishtrombones. She straightened up. Far off in the distance, her head between the front seats, Bunny could see far-off streetlights, orange oases in this desert of the night.
−Are you, like, some abused runaway or something? Owen asked, now five beers in and flying, −or is this some superhero origin story?
−I don’t, uh—
−Leave the girl alone. Eliza slapped Owen’s chest. Owen leaned over and whispered some obscenities. Eliza, loudly, responded: −Just ‘cause I drink don’t mean I’m easy. ‘Sides, there’s children present.
−You want another beer? Owen reached back, a beer in his hand. Bunny took it from him, smiling gratefully, then adding a −thanks.
−Don’t mention it, Eliza said. −Us streetfolk gotta stick together.
−You’re not streetfolk if you have a car, Owen said.
−Or an apartment in New York, a trust fund set up by your daddy, Owen counted off on his fingers, −a Harvard education—
−monthly investment payments. Hell, I don’t think streetfolk carry Beat poetry about in their Prada handbag.
−Yeah, yeah, I geddit, Eliza snapped. −Sorry I wasn’t born with fucking lice and a mother with a heroin addiction. I’m sure it’s all perfect on planet middle-class grocery store owners.
−I’m not the one acting like Charles fucking Bukowski.
She hated fights. Always has, always will. Every fight now, though, always brings her back to those confrontations, the nexus of this particular phobia.
Mom and Dad would fight over the usual: bills, lost hours at the track or in bars, magazine subscriptions, snarky comments at barbecues, even the supposed parentage of James, but there was nothing usual— Bonnie felt— in the fights themselves. Fights that shook the wallpaper, that made dust fall from the light fixtures, that sent the baby brother she’d never wanted bawling in his cot. She hated the sound of the front door slamming, the sound of mom’s footsteps on the stairs, the sound of mom’s voice telling her Dad was going to be taking a break.
She remembered pulling the covers up over herself, ensnaring herself in that Cinderella-emblazoned cocoon, and waiting for it all to be over.
Owen and Eliza’s tiff cooled into a silent resentment. Each directed statements destined for each other towards Bunny, who responded as best she could.
−Bunny, would you ignore the speed-limit while drink-driving?
−Bunny, would you talk shit to the operator of 3000 pounds of machinery?
−Bunny, would you burn all your bridges at work and set off to become a slam poet?
−Bunny, would you dare to stifle the dreams of others just to gain your soon-to-be ex-girlfriend’s father’s fucking— fucking approval?
−Nuh— no, I don’t think so, Bunny replied, her catch-all. Eliza drove with a vengeance. She overtook station wagons, she didn’t slow down for dozing cops with radar guns. Owen stopped doling out beers, consolidating them for himself, opening each one with a satisfied: −Oooh, you hear that?
−So you guys’re going to Mexico? Bunny asked.
−That’s— Eliza cast a sidewards glare at Owen, who also went to speak. −That’s the plan. See America, y’know? Hopefully get to the bottom of the socio-economic-political-cultural mess we’re in. I’m a poet, you know.
−A poet implies you’ve published stuff.
Eliza drove on the wrong side of the road until Owen went pale, a litmus test Eliza gauged by the blue light of the CD player. She was onto Mule Variations now.
−So, yeah, Mexico is the plan. Drink tequila, discover what arouses my muse, that kind of thing.
The three rocket blasts shook Bonnie from her sleep. The hall lights were on. On the other side of the room, James’s bed was empty, the covers tossed, a clear imprint of his four-year-old body visible in the mattress.
Bonnie took delicate, barefoot steps along the hall, coming to the stairs and peering down between the wrought-iron balusters. Downstairs, the porch light was on; the light from the kitchen, also, crept into the darkness of the downstairs hall, a yellow sheet sneaking its way onto the wood-panel floor.
Bonnie walked downstairs. She could smell fireworks; she could imagine them all standing in the backyard, watching crossettes and comets puncture the sky like needle-marks in black paper, hotdogs in bubbling water in the kitchen, a mom and Dad reconciliation party. She pushed open the kitchen door.
−You can let me out here, Bunny said, forcing herself out of a broken sleep. Daybreak was grey, miserable, the clouds threatening to burst through.
−Are you sure? Eliza asked. She looked out the windscreen at the advertisements for logging services, at the pharmacist, the post office, another 7-Eleven. −I mean, this is Bumblefuck, Nowhere.
−No, I— I’m sure. Eliza pulled up at the kerb. Bunny thanked her, told her to thank Owen when he woke up, then climbed out.
−Where’s the kid gone? Owen asked, when he woke up thirty minutes later.
−She got out.
−I don’t know.
−OK. Listen, I’m sorry about—
−It’s fine. Eliza’s knuckles whitened, then relaxed. Pink flooded back into her hands. −Forget about it.
Owen nodded. He looked out at the day, at the grey sheet that covered the sky, at the mountaintops kissing the clouds. He pressed his head to the window.
−I hope she finds her Dad, he said.
John Higgins is a 23-year-old Irish writer. He has a B.A. in English & History. His work has been featured in Honest Ulsterman, New Pop Lit, and The Blue Nib, among others. He was recently shortlisted for the Scribble Short Story Contest. He lives in Galway. You can read his work on Twitter: @JohnhigginsW.