This is Hal, an infantryman, just come back from war. His eyes were sore because he’d been up for thirty-four hours, but he was wide awake. He was driving on a dark road, slick with mist, that swirled around the mountains through the trees. His daughter, Molly, was staying up late to see him.
His wife had found another dick a month ago and she and Hal were filing for divorce. It was fine: in the desert he’d fallen for a communications operator named Jacob and hadn’t thought of Lisa in a year. But the daughter, five, was turning six. She had auburn hair, her daddy’s eyes, and mommy’s nose. Freckles dotted her cheeks. Before he deployed, Hal had read to her from Doctor Park’s Introduction to Human Disease and Modern Treatments, and since then she’d been wearing a stethoscope and treating the dog and stuffed animals for Amyloidosis. When Lisa caught her playing with a 3-inch nail, Molly said she was injecting herself with vaccine and got the spanking of a lifetime. Hal found out and threw Lisa against the bedroom wall. He knew the court would give her Molly. It made him cry, and when he cried he remembered crouching with his M4 carbine behind a Stryker, feeling the rattle of mortar rounds through his boots while thinking only of Molly. He told Jacob she was his pride and joy. She was going to be a doctor some day and she’d cure his emptiness. He had a week to file the papers and say goodbye before changing station to Kentucky. Now he was going to pick up Molly from their house in the country north of Nampa. The house would go to Lisa, too.
The forest materialized rapidly around each curve and Hal glanced at the clock every few seconds. He drove too fast for this black road and this deep night. Bam! A tire blew. He made it to a straightaway where there was a shoulder on the road. The car hobbled to a halt with two wheels on the asphalt.
The trees were tall and thick, so full that their branches canopied the road. Hal set the lights to flash, got out of the car, and saw the front right tire flat, a semicircle in the dirt. He thought he had a flashlight. Nothing but some papers, wrappers, beer cans in the glove box. A pink teddy with a bow, reclining in the passenger seat, watched him. His knee pressed into the ground. He loosened the wheel nuts with the lug wrench; each one resisted then gave way. The jack he placed beneath the car and clanked it up until the wheels floated off the ground.
Hal looked up and wiped his brow with his wrist. No cars had passed. The forest was big and empty. The sky stretched out above it, sparse clouds and abundant stars going on forever. He collected the nuts and removed the tire, setting them in the dirt. He lifted the spare out of the trunk and bounced it on the ground. He stopped.
There was someone in the street, in his lane, standing in the headlights. He wore baggy blue pants and something dirty unbuttoned over a white shirt. His face was obscured, and he had a long chopping axe held in both hands against his chest.
Hal bolted down the road. After three hundred yards, there wasn’t enough light to continue and he stopped to listen for footsteps. All was silent. His car was a block of shadow and light in the distance, surrounded by total darkness.
A pair of headlights gleamed behind the trees, then stopped in front of him. A window rolled down.
“You ok, buddy?” said the driver, leaning over the steering wheel.
He thought of asking for help and saying he was in danger. But he was all alone and that guy was just his imagination. He almost laughed at his childish reaction. “My car has a flat tire.”
“Need a ride to town?”
“No, I’ve got a spare. I was fixing it. I was walking, I came up here to get reception. I needed to phone, to call someone and tell them. My wife. But if you could hold up a light or something.”
“I’ve got a flashlight.”
The driver told Hal to get in. They drove up to the red SUV and Hal quickly inspected it for dents or marks or evidence of the apparition, in case he wasn’t crazy. The car hadn’t been touched; he was crazy.
They both put knees in dirt and the kind man gave Hal light to set the spare and tighten the nuts.
It was done. The dead wheel was in the trunk with the tools. The man drove away and Hal waved as he got in his car. Hal started it up and saw the same someone behind a tree, the shoulders of the dirty shirt. He drove away overcome with trembling.
Hal pulled onto the dirt driveway leading to the house. He parked next to the boyfriend’s car—Hal didn’t even know his name. Should he have asked his name? No, Hal thought. He didn’t actually care. The living room lights were on and the TV was loud. The porch steps creaked worse than ever.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” came her small and happy voice from inside.
Hal heard Lisa say, “Wait, Molly. Sit down. I said sit down right now! Get back here. I’ve told you not to answer the door. Now, stay.”
The first door opened. Lisa looked like shit behind the screen. She wore sweats and furry boots and both had holes in them. Her hair was scraggly and her eye bags were so sunk and purple they looked like bruises. Hal wanted to tell her that he’d never seen her worse.
“Hey,” she said. “You made it.”
“Can I come in?”
“Sure.” She pushed it open. “It’s still your house.”
“Molly ran,” and Hal lifted her high. He wept. He spun her around and bumped her head on the ceiling.
“Ouch,” she laughed.
“I’m so sorry,” he held her close. He kissed her head. She was big and getting heavy. It made him cry that she remembered who he was, and that he remembered too despite the time, the distance, the brightness of the desert sun that might have blinded his memory. To him, love was a dormant plum-tree that sprang to life when she was near.
“You are so big,” he said.
“I’m a big girl.”
“Yes you are.”
He set her on her feet. She took his hand.
“Hal,” said Lisa, “this is Sergio.” Sergio wore a shirt with a loosened tie. His glasses and smooth face made him look young. Maybe he was young, in his late twenties and still figuring out women.
“Hi,” they said to one another, shaking hands.
“Sergio works at the bank.”
“That’s great,” said Hal.
They observed one another. Molly swung her free hand.
Hal looked around the room and said, “Where’s Fox?”
“Sergio doesn’t like dogs.”
“So you—where is he?”
“We gave him away.”
“You could’ve told me. You could’ve waited. That wasn’t your—” He stopped himself.
Lisa looked at him.
Fox was a big shepherd mix who played tug-of-war with a piece of rope and liked to be tackled. He’d take her to the mountains to let him chase squirrels up juniper trees. Hal didn’t know if Fox’s new family was taking care of him. Was he being fed right? Was he being taken out often? What if he hadn’t been adopted yet? Doesn’t like dogs. Doesn’t like dogs? Who doesn’t like dogs? Was Sergio a pussy, or was he trying to convince himself he wasn’t taking over another man’s life?
Hal picked up Molly and walked around the house. Molly told him about something that happened in school and explained one of her new toys. Lisa and Sergio waited in the living room, whispering. When he was ready, Hal sat down on the couch opposite them with Molly on his lap. He tried to make small talk with Sergio but forgot the responses. The guy was from around here, had a degree, worked as an accountant, and deeply respected the military. He said the wind blew him into Nampa.
“The wind,” said Hal.
Sergio nodded evenly. Some moments passed.
Hal stroked Molly’s hair, cleared his throat, and said, “What do I need to sign?”
“I’ll get the papers,” said Lisa. She walked quickly to the kitchen table and found the papers, neatly stacked. When she came back with the pen and papers, Molly was sleeping in Hal’s arms.
“We don’t have to do this tonight,” she said.
“It’s fine,” said Hal, laying Molly on the couch.
Lisa pointed, softly saying, “Here. Here. Here.” Hal signed them carelessly.
He picked up Molly. Lisa opened the door and said, “Be back by dark on Friday,”
Hal drove to a motel in town. Molly slept in the passenger seat, clutching her new pink teddy bear. Her mouth was closed, cheeks un-smiling, her breathing faintly audible. Hal already dreaded the parting. He could see Lisa waiting on the porch with arms outstretched greedily. Molly would cry and scream and hold him by the leg and Lisa would have to pry her away forcefully. Molly would ask Why, why, why and he’d have to say, Because she’s your mother. But I want you, says Molly. I know, says Hal, Don’t cry. She says, You’re crying, and he says, Because I’m sad, and she replies, I want you. He’d look at her and say, That’s alright. You can want; you can cry; but you have to stay.
She’d scream ‘No’ so loudly and so many times that he’d be crushed, and he’d watch Lisa take her inside, and there’d be nothing he could say to soothe his daughter or himself. He’d ship out to his new station and keep fighting for his country and try not to think about his angel.
The motel room was plain and dark. He held Molly in one arm and yanked the bedsheets open with the other hand. He set her down gently, feet then bum then head. He brushed her hair from her face and folded the covers over.
Funny, if he wanted he could scoop her into the car and drive till dawn. He’d reach Vegas, he guessed. Then he’d keep driving to Kentucky. Wouldn’t that be a dream come true? Make her breakfast every morning, drive her to school, make dinner, put her to bed each night with a reading from a medical textbook, ask her what she wants to be and who she wants to become. But he knew it would end when he re-deployed. He’d have to send her back to Lisa and do this all over again, so it was a stupid thing to fantasize.
Hal sank into his bed and reflected on the improbability of hearing the sound of Molly’s breathing again. He didn’t believe in God, but he shut his eyes and said, “Thank you,” to the darkness because he was grateful for this moment and the moments to follow.
Molly crawled onto his bed crying. He sat up suddenly and asked what was the matter. Her big eyes were open wide, he embraced her, and he felt her body shaking.
“Come here,” he said. He switched on a light. “Better?”
She nodded and squeezed his shirt in her hand.
“Daddy’s got you,” he said.
“It was really scary.”
She buried her head.
“Oh, honey. You’re ok. You’re awake now. You’re ok.”
“I saw a man,” she said.
“What kind of man?”
“A man with a stick. He was outside the window.”
“In your dream?” insisted Hal.
“No,” she said, “Outside.” She pointed at the motel room window. “Out there. I saw him.”
Hal’s body went cold. He got out of bed and peeked through the curtains. He saw cars parked outside, a trashcan, a fast food restaurant across the streets with the lights out. He put his jacket on.
“Stay here, Molly. Daddy’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?”
“Outside,” he said.
“I’ll be right back.”
“Please don’t go!” She tugged his pants as he tied his shoes. “Please,” she said again, face wet with tears.
He stopped. “All right.”
“Stay here with me,” she said.
Hal took off his shoes and doublechecked that the door was locked. He put Molly to bed and stayed up watching the door. He looked through the curtain again. He watched for ten minutes and not a single car had passed. Molly was sound asleep, so he slipped outside. He listened for the sound of television sets at maximum volume, for voices raised in argument, for knocking on doors and doors opening and closing. Nothing. He stood for ten or fifteen minutes listening.
“Hello?” he said. “Anybody here?”
He walked down the motel. The lights were out in the reception area where he’d checked in. What time was it? He pulled out his phone and pressed the control button and got a pixelated screen. Hal returned to the motel room to find the door wide open. He ran inside. The bed was empty with the sheets pulled back and the pink teddy on the floor.
“Molly!” he shouted, running into the parking lot. He shouted again and there was no response. He ran around the corner. Molly was standing blank-faced with a chopping axe in her hands. Hal yanked it free, tossed it away, and shook her shoulders, saying her name repeatedly. She didn’t move; she didn’t blink; her arms were limp at her sides.
He picked her up and ran to the car, but the door wouldn’t open. He carried her to the hospital, which was three miles away. All the streets were empty as he called for help.
He was out of breath and exhausted when he arrived at the hospital. He pounded on the doors and the lights flickered out. This wasn’t happening, he thought. This wasn’t real. He didn’t believe in ghosts or the spirits of the night. He didn’t believe in anything supernatural.
Hal squeezed Molly’s doll-like body and said, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” until his voice was hoarse. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he was standing on a mountain road beneath a sky as black as oil-smoke and rubber. A pair of headlights approached and passed without hesitation. He wandered back to his SUV and finished changing the tire, then drove another thirty-five minutes to his house.
Lisa greeted him at the door and said, “It’s so late, I didn’t think you’d make it.”
Hal smiled and hugged her, which surprised her so much that at first she didn’t hug him back. Fox ran up to him and barked once. He clasped his hand, the signal command for ‘quiet,’ and scratched him behind the ears.
“Molly’s asleep,” said Lisa. A tan-skinned man in a button-front shirt got up from the couch.
Hal said, “Sergio,” and shook his hand. Sergio looked at Lisa as if to say, You told him about me? Hal continued to the kitchen and started signing the papers on the counter.
“I—” started Lisa, “I think if you want to take Molly for the week, you can come back in the morning.”
“Let her sleep,” said Hal, “I can—” his last signature scribbled off the edge of the page. He wondered what was happening, he wondered where he was, and why was the air so hot? Why was Lisa’s face so strangely old, with bags under her eyes? Why didn’t his heart leap like the first time he saw her? Why did they fight so much over money, and couldn’t she have stayed in love with him for Molly’s sake? Was it right for him to sign it all away, and what would there be left for him? There was a sense of duty—that was a small part. There was providing for a nation, making a living for himself, protecting his brothers and sisters like Wilson and Kershaw and Cortez, still out there on a flat plate of wasteland. Mostly he had to prove something to himself—show he was a real man, he was strong, he had courage, grit, and resolve, that he’d never cower in fear when he was alone at night.
“Is something wrong?” said Lisa.
“We were young, weren’t we?” he said.
“When we fell in love and got married. I was seventeen and you were the first person I cared about more than myself.”
“Hal,” said Lisa, looking at Sergio.
“Honestly, I’m going to love you forever, in a way. I love Molly, and she looks so much like you that I can’t love her without loving you. I hate—I hate things about this.” He put the pen down and stacked the papers on the counter. “I hate the way I feel: like everything I’ve done wasn’t enough for you. I hate that I’m not my baby’s father. Not really—not anymore. I don’t know why—I don’t know what there is to live for, after this. And…”
Sergio and Lisa watched him as he searched for the words.
“And,” he continued, “I hope this makes you happy. I really do. And I’m taking the dog. Ok?”
Lisa nodded. “Ok.”
“Anything else?” said Hal. Lisa checked the papers.
“No,” she said. Hal started to leave and she said, “Hal. I—” Hal waited for her to finish her thought, then went out the door with Fox at his heels.
He started the SUV. Fox was in the passenger seat eating the pink teddy.
On the drive he hoped he’d run into a ghost—the same ghost—and look at him as though into a mirror and say, “You lose, you sad sack of shit. This is my home; these are my mountains. I am Hal.”
As the sun softened the sky over the ridgeline, Hal stopped at a gas station to buy a pack of beer and told the attendant, “I don’t even know which way Kentucky is,” and bent over laughing because he was a free and clear at last.