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The day her visa arrived she came home to find the pictures on the mantelpiece turned to face the wall. She felt no urge to touch them. They’d looked fine from the front, catching the light in their brushed-nickel bevels, but from the back their inexpensiveness was plain. Puckered gray cardboard, no stronger than paper. These were no sacred relics. They held meaning for three people only, of all the untold billions, believer and unbeliever alike. And not even for those three people anymore.
She found her mother in the bedroom with the ridgebacks and the pit. The room smelled of old smoke and Lysol and beer. The dogs raised their heads when she opened the door but her mother kept still, both hands slack in her lap, staring out the window at the cul-de-sac. The T-shirt she wore said SANTA ROSA ROUND-UP and she sat upright and prim on the high queen-sized mattress with her bare feet planted squarely on the floor. The girl studied that proud ruined profile from the foot of the bed, trying as she often did to find her likeness there. For the first time in her life, in all their eighteen years together, she had no need to guess what her mother was waiting to hear.
—It came, she said.
—You know what did. My visa.
Her mother made a gesture of dismissal.
—I thought maybe it wasn’t going to get here in time. I really thought it wouldn’t. If it hadn’t got here—
—You told me you’d be home by five. Five o’clock at the latest. That’s what you told me and I fixed my day around it.
The girl looked down at the pit. —I know I’m back late. I went for a drive.
—Don’t think I don’t know where you’ve been, Aden Grace. Don’t mix me up with somebody who can’t tell shit from taffy.
—I’m sorry. She reached down to scratch the pit between the ears. —I’m not trying to keep anything from you, Mom. I guess I’m just excited or whatever. Maybe even—
—I’ve asked you not to lie to me. You owe me that kindness. Don’t you owe me that kindness? I’ve asked you not to complicate my life.
—I’ll be gone this time tomorrow, said the girl. —I guess that should uncomplicate some things.
Her mother turned toward her. —You think I’m just counting the minutes till you’re up in that plane? Look over here, Aden. Is that what you think?
—No. I don’t think that.
—All right, then.
—I think you’re waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
Her mother gave a clipped laugh. —Your old dad said the same thing to me once. You know what your trouble is, Claire? he told me. You’re always expecting some failure. The failure of a person or the failure of a given situation. She laughed again. —The failure of a given situation. Those were his words exactly.
—Right again, girl. Pat yourself on the ass.
—I didn’t even have to tell you. I’m old enough now. I could have packed up my stuff and just walked out the door.
—That’s exactly what you’re doing, far as I can see. Walking right out the door. Or am I missing something?
The light above the cul-de-sac lay thick against the hillside and glimmered down through air gone dim with pollen. The same air she’d moved through and breathed all her life. A hummingbird circled the feeder by the pool and found it empty. It had been empty for days. She asked herself how long that small bright bird would keep on coming.
—Try to remember to fill up the feeder, she said.
Her mother dragged three fingers through her hair. —You going to see him before you jet off? Is that part of your plan?
—I don’t know.
—You don’t know much, do you?
—I might go and see him.
—I never asked where you got the money for the ticket. I guess I must already know the answer.
—You’re wrong. I asked him for money at Christmas. He told me it was out of his purview.
—That’s what I said. He told me to go home and look it up.
—Well doesn’t that just sound like our professor. She coughed into her fist. —I tell you what, though. I bet it gooses him in all the right places, this life plan of yours. I bet he feels fulfilled and justified.
—He’s got no reason to feel one way or the other about it. None of this is on account of him.
—Who do you think you’re talking to here, Aden? Who do you think you’re fooling?
—I’m telling it to you as clear as I can. I can’t help it if you don’t want to listen.
—For those with ears to hear, let them hear, said her mother.
—That’s about right.
—That comes from a different book, though. Not the one in your pocket. She curled her toes into the carpet. —I should have made you learn that book by heart.
—You tried to, said the girl.
—Noticed that, did you? I guess that counts for something.
—It’s not your fault I turned out like this. She bit down on her thumbnail. —You did what you could.
Her mother turned back to the window. —I’m tired. Go on out and leave me alone.
—I will if you promise to sleep.
—I’ll sleep when I’m ready. She arched her back and lit a cigarette. —I can’t say I’m going to miss your goddamn fussing.
A jet passed overhead as the girl turned to leave. The house was on the flight path up from SFO and she’d always loved to hear the planes go by. It was a carelessly built house, cheap as the frames on the mantel, but when it shook she felt less separate from the world.
—I’m going for a walk, she said. —I’ll be back in an hour. I’ll make us some dinner.
—Whatever you say.
—He never paid a cent for it. I saved up from work. The church got me a discount on the ticket.
—Don’t you call it a church. There’s a word for that place you go to, Aden. Even I know the word.
—You can forget it as soon as I’m gone, said the girl.
Her mother’s face caught the light as she pulled the door closed. Impassive and prideful, prepared for the worst. She recognized her likeness there at last.
* * *
She walked down Hidden Valley Drive to the cemetery, past Carmen’s Burger Bar, past Ramirez Pawn N Carry, then up Pacific toward the junior college. On Mendocino she stopped in front of a shop window and shaded her eyes and looked in through the glass. A pyramid of mobile phones, leather protective cases for the phones, matching plastic belt clips for the cases. She imagined a world in which she might possibly enter that shop—in which she would work and save to buy the items offered there for sale—and it was not a world in which she cared to live.
Some kids from school walked by and snickered, and she allowed herself, for the last time, the luxury of picturing them dead. She watched them in the glass until they passed out of sight, then took stock of her own reflection, frail but straight-backed in a white shalwar kameez. Not a girl, not a boy. Just a ghost in a body. She felt a passing pang of sadness, perhaps even pity, but whether for herself or for the kids who’d laughed at her she couldn’t say.
* * *
The campus was quiet and dark and unnaturally flat, a painted backdrop in a silent film. Her father’s was the only office lit. She picked up the ancient security telephone at the service gate and waited for Ed Aycker’s sleepy mild voice and the sharp double tone of the buzzer. It had excited her once, this clandestine transaction: it had put her in mind of coded entry to a military compound, or the vault of a bank, or the visiting room of a prison.
—You came in the back way? said her father before she could knock.
—Same way as always.
—I’m surprised Ed let you in with that crew cut of yours. Not everybody gets past him, you know. Must be a sign that you are pure of heart.
—You made that joke last week, she said, lifting a stack of legal folders off a stool.
—As I recall, you didn’t laugh then either.
—I guess I haven’t changed my mind about it.
—Fair enough. He brought his hands together in an attitude of prayer, an unconscious salaam, a gesture he’d newly adopted. —You haven’t changed your mind about anything else, I suppose.
—I fly out tomorrow.
He lowered his hands to the desk. —And your mother? How’s she handling this, would you say?
—She turned all the pictures around. Even ones you’re not in.
—Don’t play dumb with me, Aden. It doesn’t suit you. He looked down at his hands. —How’s she handling this trip of yours, I mean.
She watched him for a time across the great round-cornered teakwood desk that took up half the room. He had brought her with him to work on certain rare afternoons of her childhood, a reward for good behavior, and she’d often napped beneath its creaking eaves. In her imagination and occasionally even in her dreams she’d sat behind it, poring over parchment scrolls and penning learned studies. It seemed unwieldy to her now, a monument to some forgotten culture, an ocean liner stranded in the desert. Her father’s soft complacent face was hard to get in focus.
—It’s not a trip, she said.
—Of course it’s a trip.
—Not the way you mean.
—No? Maybe you should explain.
—I shouldn’t have to explain. Not to you. She shook her head. —I’m not going over there just to see the sights, Teacher.
—I’ve never liked it when you call me that.
He nodded for a time. —You’re traveling to the Emirates to study, he said finally. —To improve your language skills, to broaden your perspective, to see for yourself what the fuss is about. I appreciate that. You’re a serious girl, Aden. An asker of questions. You always have been. He pressed his palms lightly together. —Or is there some other reason?
She stared down at the floor between her feet, at divots in the carpet where a less stately desk had once stood. She wondered whose office the room had been then. She could picture no one but her father in that space.
—Have you given any further thought to your plans for the future? he asked her. —To your education?
—This is my education.
—I’ve spoken again with Dean Lawford. He’s agreed, very generously, to permit a deferral—
—I know all about that.
Copyright © 2018 by John Wray