“Don’t look,” my father says, and I know immediately that we have hit something. In the passenger seat beside him, I whip my head around.
“Don’t look at what?” I ask, and that’s when I see it. The cat, mottled black and gray. White ears. From its head to its front paws, it looks fine, like someone’s house pet sprawled listlessly on the warm pavement. But where there should be the jut of a hipbone, there is instead an empty space. My eyes snag there, fixating on the strange shape of the cat’s torso, so that for a minute I do not see that the entire back half of its body is flattened against the pavement, a rubbery contortion of exposed muscle and bloody fur. I turn away but before I do I see the cat staring at me.
“Dad,” I begin frantically, though he already knows what I am about to tell him. “We hit it, we hit that cat.” He doesn’t stop and he doesn’t look at me.
“I know,” he says, “There’s nothing we can do for it, Harper.” He keeps staring forward at the dotted yellow lines slicing beneath his wheels, fast and precise.
I turn back, the pressure spreading through my chest. We are driving so fast, we are already so far away. I never touch my father but now I want to reach out and grab his shoulders and shake him until he looks at me. It doesn’t matter that this cat will die, the moment the tires of our car cracked his spine, he became ours and now we can’t simply leave him here. “Let me out,” I say suddenly. “I want to get out.” My father shakes his head. I put my hand on the metal handle. “I’m going to get out, even if you don’t stop.”
“Okay,” he says absently. I am furious. It doesn’t matter that I am 18, five days removed from my mother’s funeral, to him my pain is always the ridiculously, frantic pain of a child, its threats empty and theoretical.
“I mean it,” I say, though I don’t know if I do. I look back again, and this time my eyes graze the silver urn in the back seat. Her ashes, my mother’s ashes. They sit upright and unbending and suddenly I have to turn away. My father still has his face steady, eyes locked forward. The inside of the car buzzes with a faint static; we’d forgotten to re-tune the radio when we lost service back in Kansas City. Outside, a loping tumbleweed rolls in the dust and ahead the Rockies rise up from the plains like shards of bone.
I pull the handle.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. If my mother were still alive, she would tell me I have to start at the beginning, that first impressions are always the most important thing. She’d say to make it clever and to not let her look too bad. But I’m not a clever person and I only know one beginning. So here it is.
It was 1989 and the whole world was being sliced open. That year a wall crumbled and governments dissolved and someone took a razor blade to the globe, a hundred new countries carved into the map with straight, sharp edges. And there in the midst of it all, on an unusually blustery day in April, in the dusty town of Lamar, Colorado, at a hospital called Saint Paul’s Mercy, a scalpel traced a long straight line in my mother’s stomach and I was born.
They gave my mother the c-section because somehow in the womb I had turned myself right side up and the doctor told her that’s no way to come into the world: feet first and completely blind. So he peeled back her skin like contact paper and pulled me out that way, flecked and purple and greasy.
Later when I was scrubbed to a clean pink someone put me in my mother’s arms and took a photograph of the two of us and my father on the hospital bed. In it, both of them are wearing large, round glasses that make their faces look blurry and oversized. And maybe it’s because of the glasses, or maybe not, but when I look at that photograph I think I can see something ragged in their eyes, something stunned and unbelieving. And I know it is because of me. Me–this thing that not so long ago was just a pitter-patter of cells, just a bulb in my mother’s stomach–I was suddenly real then and they did not know how to believe it.
Three days later we drove home in my parents’ new green Toyota Corolla. My mother held me in the front seat, humming off-key Beatles songs as she rocked me back and forth. All the way home she stayed like this, brightly content. She was still happy as the three of us walked into the apartment, laughing as my father held out his arms and announced boldly to the empty rooms, “Attention everyone, Harper has arrived!”
It was not until later, when she set me down in my crib, when she saw me separated from her, saw how small I was against the white mattress, how the empty space welled and rushed all around me, that she finally broke apart and began to cry.
For six years she kept crying. She cried when she held me and when the babysitter held me and when no one was holding me at all. She cried into the eggs she cooked my father for breakfast and the glass of wine he poured for her after dinner. She cried when she saw dead birds in the street and when she saw live ones too, their spindly legs so fragile it broke her heart.
The doctors nodded and took down her family history and wrote out prescriptions on squares of paper. But none of it could touch her sadness. Then one day, she noticed three red cars in a row parked on the street outside her bedroom. Three and not two. Three and not five. It seemed perfect somehow, to be able to count them like that and to know, to just know, how many there were. So she began to count other things. Twenty-four steps from the car to the front porch. Sixteen tiles from the bathroom door to the far wall. Four cans of tomato soup on the top shelf of the cupboard. On my eight birthday she dropped a bag of rice on the kitchen floor and the two of us spent the afternoon counting all 6591 grains. When it was countable, the world was finite, and when the world was finite, it could never swallow her.
Only, it could and it did. The cancer edged its way in when we were busy figuring out how many bricks there were in our driveway (134) and how far it was to Denver (286 miles). Afterwards, when we’d moved to Boston to be closer to the specialists, when the chemo and the hospital stays began to pile up, I would go back and try to remember the before–not our before but a different one where we had seen this coming. I would paint the foreshadowing into my memories, inventing the idea that she had always complained of stomach pains, that we’d always secretly known something was wrong. This is the trick of fiction, I think, to make us believe we can always see things coming if we just learn how to read the signs. But the truth is, I never knew what was happening to her, not when she was diagnosed or when she lost her hair or even the bright morning when the hospice nurse pulled me awake and told me she had finally stopped breathing. Even then, I thought if somehow I could just get to everything in the world and count it for her, she would open her eyes again and tell me we had won.
She has been gone for three days when my father and I pack our 18-year old Toyota Corolla and point it west. She wants her ashes spread in Colorado, in the town where we lived before she got sick. My father never suggests we take a plane and I never ask, because I do not want to do it that way either. Even now, with her here in the urn, I am beginning to miss her with a sharpness that makes it hard to breathe, and I am afraid that when she is gone completely the missing will be like an undertow, dragging me out beyond where it is safe. So when my father says we will drive I just nod and strap the urn into the backseat like it is a child. And then, as simply as that, we go.
The first day we make it to central Virginia before the sun begins to set. By the time it is completely dark, we are submerged in Kentucky. It has been raining and fog is dragged out like ripped cotton balls over the hills. Here the highway has only two lanes, a frayed rope of road that curls through the mountains and makes me feel dizzy when I stare at it too long. For hours the only other vehicles we see are coal trucks, shooting toward us one after another in quick succession. Their wild headlights rip holes in the darkness. As my father drives, I watch the highway signs rattle off a long stream of towns named for coal companies and forgotten pioneers. Whitesburg. Vicco. Harlan. Corbin.
Soon we pass out of the coal-fields and come up for air in Lexington, an oil-spill of lights in the empty farmland. My father stops to buy coffee and I wait in the car. Even near the city, the stars glow fiercely and I can see the splashes of light that are the little dipper just to the left of my window. When my father comes back, we switch places and I begin to drive. It is quiet in the car, and through the night we both hoard the silence jealously, like it is something we cannot afford to lose. In the morning the light pressed against our ribs will remind us that we are together in this car, driving west to leave my mother spread in the Colorado desert. But for now, for tonight, we are quiet, letting Kentucky slide beneath our wheels like it will never end.
The next afternoon we stop at a diner outside of St. Louis. My father orders scrambled eggs and I tell the waitress, a slight girl about my age, that I’ll just have a piece of toast with butter. She smiles and leaves and we sit with our hands folded in our laps. I don’t remember when my father and I forgot how to speak to each other, only that we did.
When the food comes he chews mechanically and I think of asking him to tell me the story of how he met my mother, at a diner not unlike this one, when she bummed a cigarette from him under the metal awning outside. It is a story without flourish and I like that. But I do not ask him because I do not want to interrupt his meal, so instead I pick at my toast and watch our waitress totter out of the kitchen with a massive tray of food balanced on her shoulder. For a second our eyes meet and she looks at me like we have some kind of understanding, of what I’m not sure, but I like imagining we’re connected somehow, so I nod back at her. She makes a little grimace to show how heavy the tray is and then wrinkles her nose in mock indignation. I smile.
As we get up to leave, I drop a five-dollar bill on top of my father’s tip.
We lose the fireflies somewhere in the Midwest. The first evening they are there, splattering in neon gobs against our windshield, and the next they are simply gone. On that second night, I fall asleep watching power-lines tangle over my head like an abandoned game of cat’s cradle.
I don’t know how long I am asleep, but at some point my father pulls over on the shoulder of the highway and the jolt of the car rolling to a stop shakes me momentarily awake. I drag open my eyes and see him unlocking his seatbelt. It is 3:12 a.m. He reaches for his phone and I hear him punch in a number with a quick, practiced motion. As he lifts it to his ear, he pulls open his door and steps out onto the empty road.
“Hey,” he says, and the word shatters me. It is not the clipped, diplomatic ‘hey’ of a business transaction nor the casual ‘hey’ reserved for friends and children. This ‘hey’ is heavy and bright and I know immediately what it means. My father laughs. “No, she’s asleep,” he says. I strain to hear what comes next, but it’s drowned out under the rush of a car going by. “Okay,” my father is saying now, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” Then a pause. “I love you too.”
If I were someone else I would get out of the car. I would stun him. Yes, I’m awake, I would say breathlessly, and yes, I heard everything you said. I’d demand to know who she was. I would brim with such incredible justified indignation that he would be shamed into confessing everything and he would beg for my forgiveness right there on the dark road.
If I were someone else I would have not have done what I did do, which was close my eyes again and pretend I was still asleep. And I would not have sat there in the car, completely still, for the next four hours, while his chest rose and fell beside me in great, rattling breaths that sucked the air straight out of the car.
It is 11:01 the next morning when I feel the soft thud and my father tells me not to look. From there, the whole thing plays out like a flip book, a stop-start of disconnected motions, one upon the other in a blur of movement I can barely follow, let alone control. I see the cat, crushed and dying, with its vacant eyes, and my father’s profile, the way he never moves his gaze from the road ahead of us. And by 11:01 and thirty seconds I am yelling in a voice I didn’t know I possessed. I am exhausted and the sky is so big I don’t know what to do with myself, so I let my anger keep rising until it fills my lungs and I can’t breathe. And finally, before 11:01 is even gone, I am pulling open that door.
When I let go of the handle, the door flies forward so fast that for a moment I am actually worried it will snap off its hinges. A gust of dry air rushes into the car and the loose strands of my hair slap back against my face. My father throws on the brakes and I pitch forward until the seatbelt catches me and snags against my chest just in front of the dashboard.
And then everything is still. The car has stopped, the passenger door still gaping open. In the rearview mirror I can see the urn on the seat behind me. It has broken the grips of its seatbelt and tumbled on its side and I don’t know why but seeing it breaks me. Without thinking I reach awkwardly over my father’s arm and take the metal container into my hands. And then suddenly I am holding it and crying and apologizing over and over–to my father, to my mother, to the cat I could not save. I want them to know how sorry I am, how many times I have wished things could be different than this. But it is an impossible, impenetrable number, and I know I cannot count that high.