Ditto kept driving through green lights and then red lights. We passed the Sugar Creek Bible Camp, the Humble Bush Bed and Breakfast, and Hub City's Bumper-to-Bumper Auto Parts. Back roads, town to town, we stayed off the interstates and the places we were getting to in a hurry led nowhere. I was hungry. No cafes. The only thing open so far was Tarboro Brothers Funeral Parlor: undertakers rolling the casket out, loading folding chairs into the back of the hearse, a feast of peonies and gardenias heaped on top of the casket. My eyes could smell death. Embalming fluid and Styrofoam crosses. Snow caught the silver Daughter on a ribbon and glinted on Sweetheart. The sky held more gray snow.
"A funeral," Ditto chuckled. "I guess every little bit helps." He kept his long brown tresses tied back in a ponytail, and since he hadn't shaved in a week, hairs sprouted from his chin and upper lip like wires. There were nicks and scabs on his cheeks from where he cut himself on rusty disposable razorblades. Mom used to be in love with him and told her friends he was seven years younger than her, a white man with a pretty face as opposed to a handsome one, and blue eyes as beautiful as two Shetland ponies. He tweaked one of his chin wires. "If only people would stop shitting out kids."
"You're not very nice," I told him. I wondered how long I'd have to go on like this, me leaning against the window with the sun slivering into my eyes like broken straw.
He wiped a hair wire on the leg of my jean that he'd pulled from his chin. "About every inch of earth is contaminated with people. Where we're at right now contains about the only vacant space left in the lower forty-eight states."
"Someone shitted you out."
I watched the snowfields pass, the sky and field melting into sameness. Ditto wouldn't tell me which state we were in but I guessed North Dakota. His hand curved with the wheel and I felt like we were sleepwalking except the van drove us through a land of abandonment. He made word pictures and kept pointing into the windshield. "See that bit of smoke? Did you see? That was a widow dinner wafting from a collapsed chimney. A ghost meal. Nothing else left of the homestead." He told me there were old women wearing chicken bone necklaces out in the snowfields dragging gunny sacks. I didn't care. My hands were frozen and I blew on them. The heater used to work in here but no more. My teeth chattered until Ditto, who finished eating an apple, got out the blanket. A soft gray-blue with a wolf baying from its center.
Hey, Wolfie, what are you whispering at the moon? Aloneness. Wolfie reeked of the place we camped last night. A farmhouse discarded down its lane. Even with a fire made inside, the shadows had been cast so long they were more real than us. Old onions were hanging from their roots like heads that had been ripped by their hair. They smelled like lilacs. I wanted to rub them over my wrists and behind my ears but I knew better. If I touched them they would disintegrate and I might fall to pieces too. He'd been talking about growing our family again and being on the lookout for a possible. Mom, that blond girl rises up like a kick in the gut.
Ditto stuck his hand in the apple bag and filched the last one. My stomach rumbled but I knew better than to grab for the chocolate-covered raisins on the dashboard. He was saving them for a special occasion. I listened to the turd pebbles rattle as the box slid back and forth. The highway being pulled under the van soothed me and I was aware of the window sticking to my cheek and wetness on the glass like it was my pillow. Right inside that pressed glass a medium sized black girl child was walking along a road because she'd lost the highway. Lost. There were birch trees by a house and they started running after her and behind the trees stood mountains and a skinny blond girl riding a bicycle with a flat tire. "Please," she started to cry. "Why are you doing this?"
"Wake up, Lila. Look alive." Ditto reached for the raisin box, shook it and emptied the contents into his mouth. His eyes got sharper as he chewed the rock raisins, and then he drove with his left hand and knee, while he lifted the soft blue-gray Wolfie blanket with his right hand and reached in. "You're my navigator, my second in command. I need your eyes."
It was something else he must have needed with his hand roaming around, making its own conversation. Rubbing the seams of my jeans, pressing his thumb like I'd grown elevator buttons. I wanted to wiggle away, and then I went limp. It was very beautiful and cold and I was waltzing in a white dress over the snow. Barefoot. Turning in circles. I was wedged in, couldn't move. The house last night had Kent Feed sacks nailed over the windows and snow drifting in where the sack had come undone. Ditto tore boards to make a fire. After we warmed up he took a blackened stick and scrawled a poem on the wall about deer flowers and burning ice, then he pissed on his words. Pathetic words, sorry substitutes for what he wanted to be—a musician. The back of the van was twisted with amplifiers lacking volume knobs and distortion; wah-wah pedals and keyboards missing every other black key; electric guitars with two strings and acoustic guitars with fist holes. He never asked what I wanted to be anymore than he asked the extension cords and rusted harmonicas if they were happy.
I heard myself breathe like a bird flying away, and then I saw the blond girl riding her bicycle on clouds that drifted into peaks and valleys, clouds like buckets of homemade ice cream. She twirled a shawl of mountain flowers and then went falling into the air, her bicycle falling too.
Ditto took his fingers back from under the blanket and I didn't recognize them squeezed over the wheel. My stomach rumbled and the spit had dried in my throat. A road sign swerved from the shoulder like he'd called it forth. We were outside of a city in spite of the fact that Ditto usually stayed away from them. Outskirts, strip shopping centers where people stumbled around on the hunt for nachos and barbecued pistachios and diet cokes or worked cash registers were okay. Everybody's walking around eyes might have well been cut out of their heads for all they saw. In cities there were video cameras everywhere and although people didn't see you the cameras licked you up with their surveillance tongues. Ditto, an older white guy with long hair, and me Lila, a thirteen or so year old dark skinned African-American girl, wouldn't be invisible. He had my birth certificate and on the blank father line typed his own real name in. Walter Ohmahoney. Father Occupation. Musician. I'd seen deputy sheriffs almost come up to Ditto, and then they saw that special shine in his sharp blue eyes and must have known about his name on that certificate because something stopped them. Mom, if there are places where I stand out it's in these snow states.
Mom used to complain that he needed to groom himself better and brush his teeth rather than cleaning them by eating apples. "You have nice eyes," a friend of hers once told Ditto. "Would you like to eat them?" he snarled back. Mom added that he required instruction in etiquette too. She was one of those goddess-type women that normal men get a cold sweat in the presence of and drop to their knees, but she only liked abnormal men who yanked her around like an old garden hose. When Mom broke with Ditto and took up with an even younger man, the new silky fine guy didn't want a ready made family. Ditto offered to look after me. Mom said it was only for a little while.
"There's a nice sit down place to eat in this city here. You better wipe your nose because I see green snot in your nostrils. Clean your face and use a Wet Wipe this time not the back of your hand."
Ditto's kept me in the van for almost two years now. I know because I scratched the days on the floor of the van right under the foam rubber we slept on before the heater broke. Three hundred and sixty-five days made a year and I had plenty of sets past that. I scraped six lines and then keyed a slanting seventh to finish the week and make a set just like Mrs. Bailey would. I liked to grow her in my mind, giving birth to her old-fashioned long skirts and legs with freckles on them. I cultivated nests of moles on her face, especially her earlobes and eyelids. Kids called her a speckled brontosaurus, but her brown eyes were so kind, even the spit that collected in the corner of her mouth seemed gentle. The Algebra book and a piece of chalk was all she taught from, never a lesson plan, or a stray sheet of paper, she sat on a student desk like the rest of us. The big teacher desk got pushed to the side. When she tried to give me clothes that had been left in her classroom over the years I got the shivers. I just couldn't take charity even if I'd worn the pink sweater with pale gray lace three days in a row. Mrs. Bailey said, "Lila, let me help you. You've got a good head on your shoulders. My brightest student." I heard love in her voice. Ditto waited for me in the school parking lot, keeping the van idling, and she walked right up to the window on the driver's side and studied him and that's the last time I went to school.
The booths were deep red and surrounded the island bar moored in the middle of the room with stools and a forest of beautiful bottles. When a waitress brushed by I thought of Mom in her hostess dress with red pompoms around the hem and her white cowboy boots. She gave Ditto a welcoming smile although nothing changed on his face. Women liked to grin at Ditto because of his body builder upper chest and shoulders and his pretty face with blue eyes, but then he didn't respond to their looks, didn't joke or flirt, he went stiff or sarcastic. "You're a corncob," Mom teased him. "Look at his face, Lila." Once a woman came up to him with potato chips and smiled and said, "Would you like some chips?" He snarled, "No, but I'll eat the bag."
On the table a red candle was burning, the wick floating in a red puddle. I watched it flicker when I blew on it. Ditto licked his two fingers and pinched the flame between them, a whiff of apples and cinnamon and then the candle died.
"Why did you do that?" I asked. A hate flush was spreading in my forehead. "Why?" I made a fist and hit him, belting him one two three times before he picked up the menu. I brought my fist into my mouth, biting on the knuckle. Mom, I want to live with you. Please.
The pretty waitress stood next to our booth smoothing her apron where the name of the eatery THE STOCKYARDS was embroidered. "What can I get you?" she asked, her copper hair hanging in one braid. She stared at me with her green-blue eye shadow that peered over her droopy lids like spots on a peacock's tail.
In the mirror beside the booth I glanced and saw my hair cropped close to my head, a halo of kink that stuck out here and there around two silver barrettes. I kept staring until my eyes stopped being frightened. My face was shaped like an orchid, and it was Mom's forehead I inherited along with her high cheekbones and spatula eyelashes, but she had gaps between her teeth and mine were even and white and I brushed them using my fingernail and liquid soap. The shade of my skin was where we were cleaved apart.
"Why I've never seen a prettier face. You must be proud, sir."
Ditto, who earlier changed his sweatshirt for a black tee-shirt and a corduroy jacket, sat up straighter, nodding. If you didn't look too close you wouldn't see the spots on them or know the cuffs were ringed with dirt. You wouldn't see the fires made in charred cook stoves or hear the wind trying to blow them out. Ditto tried but couldn't manage it so I smiled for him showing my dimples, one in each cheek. There were so many unusual families these days that no one knew what to say except beautiful beautiful beautiful what a beautiful child.
She must have forgotten for a second why she was here but then caught herself. "What would you like to drink?"
Ditto sneered, "Tom Collins for me and a virgin Tom Collins for my daughter."
"And to eat." The waitress hardly took her eyes off us to write on her pad.
He went on and ordered what I knew we didn't have money for. Tee bone steak medium rare. A baked potato with sour cream. Chicken fingers and French fries.
Where was Mom right this instant? Making her delicious food for that light skinned black man, that buppie, putting those sweating yams in brown sugar and molasses on a plate before him or maybe chicken and rice in roux? I embarrassed him. Mom was so light skinned that they nick-named her Raven and all her friends teased that I had been found behind the woodshed. A real raven brought this one. She is black black. But cute real cute. Long ago they called that shade a tar baby. Gran had said that, not my real grandmother but an old lady who belonged to the apartment building and to everyone. Gran would drink goat milk when she had bad lungs and it cleared them up. "I doctor myself except when someone put a curse on me and I got the green uterus." I used to hear the new guy and Mom playing. Yeah yeah call me Raven. I'm a good bird. Beautiful black scavenger. Make me feel like licking bacon from my wrist. I'm cream. Savor me. But Mom wasn't black at all, light brown maybe.
The drinks came and while we waited for our food I could hear the murdered steaks sizzling and waiters carrying heaping plates of freshly scalded deep red lobsters. Maybe the potatoes felt pain steaming in tight fitting skins with butter sweating over aluminum foil. Ditto's knee touched mine under the table, but I didn't try to understand what it was saying. Each of us fingered a Tom Collins in a tall cloudy glass sparkling with cut lemons and limes, except mine lacked the alcohol. I stirred the pink fizz and plucked out the maraschino cherry. Ditto's whiskers were scraping the glass as he drank from it. His grandfather wrote 52 nonfiction books and made a pile of money and Ditto himself went to college at sixteen and scooped up two Masters Degrees, one in American Studies and the other in Psychology. Mom liked that but when she found out he had disowned his family and owed the student loan association $150,000 his blue eyes didn't look as pretty and she stopped speaking to him altogether when she discovered he'd never paid income taxes. "What kind of man is that? He thinks that underwear steak of his will pay his way. He's got no pot to piss in." Mom, I wish there was nothing between us but a state line but it gets too cold in those farmhouses. I have to get up close to him. Like he could be a mountain goat I'm groveling against for warmth.
Ditto's appetizers arrived, his butternut squash soup and iceberg lettuce salad and relishes. "The portions are too small," he complained, wrinkling his forehead into a four-way intersection. "Jeez, only four pieces of bread." Two measly pieces of sour dough and two squares of cornbread.
I grabbed what I could the second the bread basket hit the table. I'd gotten two rye buns and Ditto retaliated by setting the basket on his lap. "Okay, trade me a cornbread for a rye," I said, pushing a saucer plate over. At the same moment Ditto eased the cornbread onto the plate I handed over the rye bun. Then I sat back real fast to get out of his way. He always looked angry when he fed, his elbow planted on the table, his arm like a hinge shoveling in pickle relish, bread and butter pats. Then he stuck his finger right in the vinegar and oil and waved it around before licking it. He smacked on the lettuce and tomato like he hated them, and when he gnawed his soup he hit the bowl, beating it with his spoon. Like a church bell. Like a Cro-Magnon. I could hear Mom letting loose into her cell phone. "I've never seen anyone fill his stomach like that one. He eats enough for ten people and does the work of one-half a person."
The door squeaked and in rolled a tumbleweed of snow and a family stamping their feet, two boys and a girl I guessed by her height to be a few years younger than me. I couldn't tell about her face because I only saw her from behind but the mom and dad each held the hand of a blond boy who looked exactly like the other one. Maybe they were twins or else white people really did look alike. Their coats were expensive like pelts of real animals, of fleece and fur. I was glad to be sitting down so no one could spot my black jeans that were turning white at the knees. Ditto had cuffed them at my ankles but they were still too long and ragged and they dragged on the ground. I wore a dingy gray Hawkeye Downs tee-shirt. I used to have a rose colored net shirt but you needed a bra for it and I was just starting to get bumps. Embarrassed I swiped a roll of black masking tape from a Phillips 66 and wound it around me until I was boy flat but that made Ditto mad. He stopped at the Pick City Laundromat and waited around and until he located almost the right size underpants and bra for me from a dryer. I told him I didn't like wearing what belonged to others. "Shoot me, if that's as bad as I get," Ditto replied. "Wasn't I trying to take care of you?"
The family sank into one of the booths where I couldn't watch them.
"Cute kids." Ditto tilted his glass back.
My head went hot. I could hear them joking in the family booth, the boys laughing but I didn't hear the girl. Then I heard a snowflake voice say hello and I glanced over. The girl from the family passed by our table, stopped and smiled at me. Mom, I'm going to die. It's so like her from a long time ago. A small face, big eyes with mountain water inside them. My mouth fell open and I couldn't make it close. I wondered if Ditto could see how closely she resembled the girl we'd picked up in that mountain town. Except this girl didn't have a broken bicycle with her. She was dressed in jeans and a pink ruffled shirt and a jean vest and had caught me red-handed stowing extras and condiments, trying to fill a Tupperware bowl under the table with butter pats and sugar, and sweet and lows. I glanced over to Ditto and almost gagged. His eyes were roaming over the girl's ruffled shirt. You'd think one baked potato would be enough to fill him up. That he'd never be hungry again. The girl turned and skipped away.
"Another virgin Tom Collins?" the waitress asked. Her black apron stitched with red ribbon at my eye level.
"Yes, ma'am," I told her.
"You're a thirsty girl," she said smiling.
I moved a piece of ice with the straw. "Yes ma'am."
The blond girl went into the door marked ladies. Then a waiter came humping a silver serving tray aglow with Ditto's tee bone steak and my chicken fingers and a plate of French fries all golden brown. The fries looked more like fingers than the chicken did. Like a pile of russet fingers chopped from the finger tree.
"And who gets the fries?" the waiter asked.
"We're sharing," Ditto said.
I smiled and thumped the table in front of me. "He's kidding. Right here." I had the advantage of dimples and being able to tolerate friendliness.
Ditto nudged me after the waiter and waitress melted off. "Don't you have to go to the bathroom?" He tongued steak juice from his thumb.
I bit down on my straw, saw all the indents of my teeth. "Why?" In the corner of my eye I caught his hand moving toward mine, those thick sausage fingers and one long guitar picking index. I knew he was about to pinch me and I swatted him off.
"We're staying in a farmhouse tonight. You need to get your washing up done. Now don't you have to go to the bathroom?"
"Dipshit, she could be your sister. All you have to do is smile."
"If you touch my chicken while I'm gone I'll kill you," I threatened, counting the exact number. Six.
The wastepaper baskets in the bathroom overflowed with hasty washing. People who had sinks of their own at home. I got drunk on that reek of fingerprints and green liquid dispenser soap crushed into paper towels. The girl had a little pink comb inside a pink purse and a brush and hand mirror and had them spread out all around the sink. Mom, sometimes I want to have hair like that instead of jinxed kink. Hair like the other one but then I notice how thin it is and how many gaps there are in her bangs.
"Hi," I said.
"Do you want to use my comb?" she asked.
"I dunno." I picked up the pink comb and she gave me a pretty smile. It made my mouth taste like Starbursts and then I remembered the warm places, apartments where I lived with Mom. The Laz-E Boy recliner and pillows, the snaky cord to a Daffy Duck lamp. "Can I comb your hair?" I heard myself ask.
"Yup," she said, excitedly. "We'll play hair salon." She was white blond with white eyelashes and pale blue eyes as if the snow made her. Like where the fence line ran out giving kisses to the wind when it was a blizzard they saw coming. Mom, I'm going to tell her to get away from me as fast as she can. And the man I'm with don't go near him unless you want to turn into a blue boiled potato.
I slapped the comb down on the sink counter. "Forget it." The other girl, Mom, is wearing only a white tee-shirt. I rubbed my swollen lips, all chewy and windburnt, and then I took the flattened wig brush from my back pocket and jabbed at my head. The tiles around the sink were hard white squares rimmed by black putty and I wished I had the courage to beat my brains out against them. She watched me and shook her pretty locks like tinfoil and her bangs dropped to her nose, the gummy light over the sink striking her. I dropped the wig brush, to hell with it. Her smile tinkled with the people who loved her, lots of people not just one or maybe two.
"I'm Holly. Who are you?"
I hesitated, my knees knocking. "Lila."
"I like that name. Lila."
I didn't know if I hated her or was afraid for her. Lucky for her she didn't have a bicycle with a flat tire. Feverishness spread through my head. Hot hot. I had to let it burn.
Once we were in the Rockies and Ditto took me up to Strawberry Lake Mountain. We'd picked up a hitchhiker who gave us lots of gas money and we drove until the flatness and fields reared into rocks and plateaus and for days I'd never seen anything as beautiful as these mountains shoved by glaciers into peaks and snow-covered slopes. We climbed up the mountain through the spruce and juniper, fording creeks, and at the top we found the remains of a hippie festival. Ditto's parents brought him here as a kid where the Rainbow Tribe of rich white kids had tried thirty plus years ago to build a settlement. He showed me around like this was his house. Lean-tos, scraps of tarp and rope, tents flapping between skinned branches. I stared past the lean-tos at the end of a vegetable plot, stakes marking off furrows. I felt a cold chill between my shoulders and when I turned I glimpsed an emaciated red haired man with green Day-Glo on his face sitting naked in a cross-legged position like he'd been settled there for lifetimes. I started walking toward him and he faded before my eyes. I stood in the very place he'd been sitting. When I told Ditto the ass he laughed. "Would not surprise me. This was where consciousness itself was supposed to change." I knew then I might be with him forever. I'd never talk to Mrs. Bailey or Mom again.
Ditto found a lily pond but I didn't want to go near the water because I couldn't swim. He meditated and afterwards he coaxed me into the pool. "Lila, be the first to bathe here in the icy hyacinth." Lily stems stuck to me in a flurry of leeches as I stood in the shallows; my teeth chattered and he held my hands until I couldn't touch bottom. "Trust me, trust me, I'm your father," he kept saying until I almost believed. "I'm going to teach you how to swim. Put your face in the water, lie on my hands." He lifted me onto the water, his fingertips on my stomach, feeble breathing of mountain birds, tiny quivering. "Now lift your face, turn, breathe, stroke, face back into the water." Afterward, he rubbed himself with stems, scrubbed his penis meat clean and then I closed my eyes while he washed me with stems. "We are Adam and Eve. Light and dark," he said. "Innocents." It was so slippery in that cold Garden of Eden, my arms and legs went rigid like deer legs trying to gain a foothold in syrup. I was hungry and would have traded my right arm for a candy bar. I could see on the mountain how old he was, how his eyes were a darker bruise blue with laugh lines like tiny cuts. It was a frozen lake on the moon that a comet had made.
I crawled out of the lilies and stood up, blood dribbling down the inside of my leg. I'd never seen such a thing. "Look what your water did." I accused Ditto. I was afraid my insides were falling out. I tried to shove stems and leaves there to stop it. He told me it was caused by the elevation and when he was here as a child all the girls bled. "You're a woman now," he announced. I sat on the ground and spread my legs. A red mouth speaking red words, red shiver fish, a blood bird flying from my thighs. Mom, you should have told me how to take care of myself, not leave it to some yesterday's news of a boyfriend.
After we came down from the mountain, Ditto made a sharp turn and I flew forward and hit the dash and that made him mad. "Put your seatbelt on. What kind of father will people think I am?" I rubbed my tongue over my teeth, making sure none of them were missing before slowly raising up. We drove over narrow roads that climbed and dipped. He pulled into Granby General Store and bought me Milky Ways and Snickers. Mom, why did you leave me in stores half empty like this? Where you can write your name in dust on the canned goods and the grocer stands wiping his slippery hands on his apron, his rotors lazily slicing blood sausage. It was a mountain town and I didn't know anything about them, about those black and white birds, a whole line of them perching on the telephone wire. In the next town we saw a girl at the Dairy Queen with her bicycle, the back tire flat. The ice cream stand was closed and she looked scared. Her ears and mouth were blond, her muffler bled red. "There's a potential," Ditto said and pulled the van into the closed for the season parking lot. A flickering radiated through my body and I noticed that my right and left hands trembled, full of light. I was of two minds; part of me was so lonesome. Ditto buzzed down the window on my side. "Tell her we'll give her and her bike a ride home."
Mom, the girl sat in the back of the van with her bicycle, her face stared at the flat tire but only one of her eyes worked, the other had gone out. Her skin wasn't pink but gray gruel. The girl made sounds like a washing machine when the towels and sheets twist together and throw the balance off. I wanted to hide in the dark nipple of the earth. I wanted chokecherries to bloom in her curled fingers, to ripen in her throat.
I counted my chicken fingers when I sat down at the table. Six. Ditto's mouth was full, each cheek pouched with steak and potatoes. Still he managed to ask how it went and I told him nothing happened. The girl went to the bathroom the whole time, poops. Leave me alone already, let me at least eat. The check came before I finished and this time Ditto put a twenty and ten down, not the ones he usually left, shorting them on the bill. This time I didn't have to faint and pretend to be sick so Ditto could gather up borrowings. No, I couldn't take anything for myself. My little girl might be stricken with sickle cell leukemia. My stepdaughter has a brain tumor. Without treatment three weeks to live. Should I reach for the tip money left on the next table before the waitress comes and make a dash for the door?
We walked through the parking lot to the far end away from the streetlights where the van was parked. The snow was beginning to fall in big soggy pieces. Like Kleenex. The night might not be as cold but we had extra containers of food. I felt the snow and knew that soon Ditto would be hunting one of those deserted farmhouses down a faraway lane. I'd shaken her off. I didn't know why but sometimes they stuck to me. I told them not to. Everyone wants to try out a different family, thinking somewhere else might be better. I didn't want the snow world for anyone else. I heard sounds of the restaurant door squeaking open and music escaping, Ditto unlocking my side of the van.
"Lila! Lila!" she called out through chattering teeth.
I bit my thumb, decided not to answer, not to turn. You're not here, understand, I don't want you to be here. Scat.
"Lila," Ditto snapped.
I whirled around to face the girl who hadn't worn her coat, who stood like a pink fawn in the falling snow in her ruffled pink blouse. Better go.
"Here you left your brush in the ladies room." She held the crusty wig brush out. Wind whipped her white blond hair.
"Thank the girl, Lila. Take the brush."
"I'm Lila's stepdad. Hurry and get in the van and we'll drive you back to the restaurant. You're turning blue." Ditto had the passenger's door open and tried his almightiest to smile.
"Wait," I said. "Holly, no."
Holly the girl from the bathroom jumped and clapped her way into the van. She shared the seat with me while Ditto pretended to start the heater, acting surprised that no warmth spewed forth. She laughed when we put our legs next to each other, her hand on her pant leg next to mine, her fingers five milky headlights, mine were five deep ditches. There was red fingernail polish on part of both our thumbs.
"Okay, girls, watch the side mirror and make sure I don't hit anything." Ditto put the gearshift into reverse and Holly leaned across my lap peering into the side mirror as the van backed up and then righted itself. Above the entrance to the restaurant red neon spelled out THE STOCKYARDS and splashed some of the lettering into the snow. After Ditto shifted into drive, the van cruised right past the restaurant and into the street. "Wait," Holly sputtered. "You forgot to stop."
She tugged on my jacket sleeve, a parka that must have once belonged to an adult man. God, make Ditto stop and turnaround and let this girl out of the van. You made the world so you can do this but I know you won't so I'll have to ask.
"Ditto, you overshot the front door. Holly's mom and dad are probably already looking for her."
"Look at that," he said, throwing a thumb into the air.
There was a banner stretched from street lamp to street lamp advertising a winter wheat festival come spring. Past that the moon was up like a pale February sun.
"Ditto, you can make a right turn and get Holly back before her folks worry."
"Not to worry, Lila. She's your new friend, isn't she? I thought she'd want to see where we live." His upper lip clamped down on his lower lip and his mitt scrambled through his tape box, grasping, looking, and then tossing them back. Ragged old tapes. King Diamond. Black Sabbath. Judas Priest. Merciful Fate, Anthrax. Music from his teenage years as fun to listen to as muskrats feeding on your kneecaps. In went Overkill twisted up to its highest volume like when Mom and I lived next to the Amtrak, the wheels trying to stop on frozen track. It was the wall of sound that he put up to separate him from us. You couldn't yell or punch through it.
The van cruised down this street and that making turns and zigzagging until I couldn't tell if we were coming or going. South Third Street and DeMers Avenue. LaHood's Drugstore that sold holiday wreathes made of yarn and potpie tins. A closed Dakota Theater where the last movie playing was Gladiator.
He turned the wall of sound down for a second. "This Grand Forks is one of the flattest places in the world, am I right Holly?" he asked, showing off his bombast and how he was a know-it-all especially on a full stomach.
"Yes." Holly's lip trembled, and you could see she wanted to cry but was trying hard not to. She squeezed my hand. "Lila, our church is close to here. That exit. Right there," she pressed her hand on the window. "University Presbyterian. My mom's a minister."
"A minister's kid. That's a beautiful thing." He turned the wall of sound back up full blast.
I tried to yell through it but the orange lights from the dash had a better chance of being heard. There went the rest of Grand Forks. We were skimming through the city east to west on four lane U.S. Highway 2. I looked out the window not wanting to see her cry. Johnny's Italian Steakhouse. Ho Lan Oriental Foods. Loffredo Fresh Produce. Thursday Night Live Grind. We drove until there wasn't anymore city and we headed west into space where the red taillights of cars and trucks were fewer and farther between.
Holly cupped her fingers around my ear and I could almost feel her soft lips. "My parents love my twin brothers better. My dad is my stepdad but he's my brothers' real dad."
I put my hands around her ear. "They love you just as much."
A car ahead of us threw a cigarette out the window, sparks bouncing like falling stars. I could smell her fear, her lilac hair and I wanted her not to be scared.
"He'll take you home soon, maybe tomorrow. It'll be okay."
"Yes, you'll see."
She sat in the ripped seat, reaching with her little starfish hand to wipe her eyes.
The kitchen was painted blue and the cabinets indigo. Frost covered the glass windows and gunny sacks were stuffed in the broken ones, and when I held the flashlight against my parka I saw my breath. "Over here," Ditto growled. "Put some light right here." It didn't look like the kind of farmhouse that riches would flow out of. Flypaper dangled from the ceiling and in the pantry where every drawer had been pulled, tin forks and knives, old pewter spoons blackened from fires crawled over the floor. Ditto worked on the walls with his crowbar and chisel, the plaster he'd breached and the lathe and slats stuck out like bones. Reek of old flour and paste, blue cornflower cupboard paper. Sometimes Ditto got inklings that treasure was hidden in one wall or another of a falling down farmhouse and then he'd have to see. No fire or sleep until he was satisfied. "Well, I'll bite a squirrel's ass. Would you look at this?" He found something in a cubby hole behind the lathes and lifted out a clanking bundle wrapped in burgundy velvet. "Come on, girls. Bring the flashlights closer. Didn't I tell you I'd find treasure?" I held a flashlight and Holly gripped a smaller one. If she was a good flashlight girl while he worked he'd take her home. She had no choice but to believe him. I knew better.
The flashlight beams lit up the cloth that Ditto slit with his pocket knife. Silverware, not pioneer tin or K-mart junk, but heavy knives and salad forks with carved handles, gravy ladles and butter knives engraved with grape clusters. "Wedding silver, real silver," Ditto whistled. "I bet the husband and wife this silver belonged to never used it, not once. Self-punishers."
"They were like you, Ditto," I sneered at him. "You hung onto those chocolate covered raisins like they were waiting for a special occasion until they went rock hard."
"Lila," Holly tugged on my sleeve, "is he going to take me home now? Have I been a good enough flashlight girl?"
The wind was picking up, rattling the windows and doors and slicing in, finding all the cracks. Ditto told us the wind carried the bloody ghosts of the Dakota Sioux and Yanktonai still quarreling over hunting rights. I shone my flashlight on a carving knife, heavy and engraved like the rest of the silver.
Shallow sleep that I wished would deepen kept me aware of the floorboards under us and the knife blade cold whenever the blanket slipped. It was the sleep of tremors, stinging in my knees and toes, in my ears and elbows and when I touched my lips they felt like rocks. Holly huddled against me; she had finally stopped crying and got under Wolfie. "Give me your hands," I said, "I'll blow on them." I wished I could throw myself into the future and know that both of us would be there. Mom, the other one's legs were nicked and scratched. When he let me back into the van Ditto was washing her, then he covered her in mountain laurel and slid the feather of a sparrowhawk into each hand. No red anywhere only white like all the air had been let out of her. We left her under a pile of rocks. I hardly talked for a month.
Holly yelped when she heard the wood ripping like the world had split but I put my arms around her and hushed her. "The fire went out. He's tearing off cupboard doors for more wood to burn. He's good at fires. We won't freeze." I could hear boots, those hard black lips tromping in the snow outside the house. Pioneer folk coming in from the fields and wondering who's in their house.
Holly raised herself up on an elbow, trembling with cold. "My cat won't be able to sleep without my feet." My chin rested on the top of her head and it shook when she started to weep. She smelled like sweat and snow and smoky lilies of the valley. "Holly, don't. Ditto doesn't take pity on anyone who cries."
He hated cry babies and feelers. The new fire Ditto had started in a cast iron bathtub, and then dragged it kindling and all into the dining room, was set against a window raised to vent the smoke. Ditto took off his parka and all his clothes before the fire and his shadow stretched over the ceiling. "Shut your eyes," I told her. He sat naked before the fire with his elbows balanced on his knees and his head between his legs. On the walls his shadow expanded and multiplied until there were three of him, each enormous. Red kept streaking the ceiling and the fire sputtered and popped.
"I have to pee." Holly slipped her fingers through mine.
A snarl of her hair tickled my nose and I brushed it away but it came back. These farmhouses were equipped with outhouses but I never went alone into one even in broad daylight. Some had graveyards. We stayed last month at a homestead with its own family cemetery. Ravaged daylilies and daffodils remembered the homestead woman who planted them. There was an iron fence and inside three tombstones sunk into the ground. Joshua Lamming 3 years 2 months. Violet Our Angel 7 months 5 days. Mathias Lamming 8 years 9 months. All died in 1845. Within days of each other.
"Lila, did you hear me? I need to go wee-wee."
"We have to go to sleep."
"But I'll wet."
"Hush," I said.
Ditto got up from the fire and spread his sleeping bag next to us, throwing the van keys in like he always did before stretching out. He aimed his flashlight at us and I could see mist steaming out of his nose. I could see his fur belly and chest, his knees. A lustrous gleam surrounded him with a tinge that made me think if I stuck out my tongue it would freeze. "I'll take her to the cellar. That's where the toilet is," he said.
A cellar always kept the farm's secrets and you stayed out of them if you could help it. I heard the wind trying to enter this house that should have gone back to prairie long ago. I tried to call out when I saw his wrist reaching for Holly, his hand smudged from tending the fire. Like she was something to shove in his mouth and swallow. "It's cold," she said. "I'll be cold in the basement."
Ditto swore he'd take care she didn't catch cold. "Please," she said, but Ditto didn't please he just kept pulling her toward the door that led down the wooden steps. Like a tree jumping at you from a grove and rattling its black leaves.
Something heavy was entering me like my mouth had opened wide and sucked all the wilderness of the house inside. I sprang to my feet. "Wait, for me. I have to go. I have to go too."
"You stay here, Lila."
"No, Ditto, you stay here. I'll take Holly to the bathroom." There could be rotten stairs that would snatch your foot and then the rest of you.
"You get under Wolfie," Ditto ordered.
Holly started to cough from all the fire's smoke. My eyes itched and watered, but I could see him. "I'm not going to let you do to Holly what you did to the other one." There, it all was out in the open. I swung the carving knife I'd slipped into my parka. He saw the blade and let go of Holly's hand.
"Put it down, Lila, you'll hurt yourself. You know I only do what's best for you. I thought you were lonesome and that's why I didn't object when you brought this one along. I wouldn't have picked a minister's kid not if I'd done the choosing. Same thing happened in the mountains when I tried to find a friend for you. That little thing had asthma and it was pure coincidence that she couldn't catch her breath in the back of our van. You can't hurt me, you know that. I can lift a cast iron bathtub and carry it up or down a flight of stairs."
I wanted to hurt him, I'd been thinking about hurting him for three hundred and sixty five days times two. I could see Holly creeping along the edge of the room toward me.
He shook his hair free of its ponytail and took a step toward me, and then another. I groaned and all my falling out in restaurants pretending to faint or vomit, all the sickle cell leukemia fakery came to me and my body shook like loose boards. The carving knife held me more than I clutched it; I was only following it, my fingers gripped the handle while the blade went whipping and whistling through the air, knowing what it was doing, jabbing, stabbing. I whipped it through the air until Holly slipped from the room into the kitchen.
Ditto laughed, "Pee in that Hawaiian Punch can. I don't give a flip." He kicked the can across the smoky dining room. "I don't give a damn, be my guest, I'm going to bed. And you can't put your Mom on me."
I lunged at him; I wanted to see his guts. "Huh? What do you mean about Mom?"
"Your mom's no good. Selfish. The worst of the worst."
My face itched and I raised my free hand to scratch, raking my face with my nails. There were squirmy things under my skin, angry worms inside my cheek. Mom, is that fine brown man still making you happy? You glitter and bat your caterpillar eyelashes, strut your sling-back heels, turquoise short shorts and tube top. Think about me for a change. Think about waking up hot and sweaty from legs thrown over you and sweat pouring out of someone's eyes. Think about waking up cold and the temperature never rising above zero. About being shut in with a filthy sputtering fire. About snow being fed into all the naked girls' sore cut-up mouths.
"Use the can and sleep. We're taking the girl back tomorrow." Ditto crawled into his sleeping bag. "Lila, your mom told me I was welcome to you. How her womb spat out an aborigine she couldn't figure."
I dropped the knife, couldn't see for a second, my eyes must have fallen from my head. Holly ran across the room and found the can and gave it to me. Please. I held the blanket around her so she could pee. I listened to his every kick, his tossing and turning, like how the current in a river must sleep. An hour passed before he finally quieted. There were long black lanes the van had driven down without headlights inside him and snow swallowing up tire tracks. The fenceline was off and running into the snow and you couldn't follow it. I told Holly that if he slept we would leave, cut through the fields toward the road, and find the highway where someone would pick us up. "Take this flashlight, I have mine."
He slept and I took his clothes and his parka, I palmed his Bic lighter and wallet. I gave my parka to Holly and put on Ditto's and bundled the rest of his clothes into the bathtub fire. I tossed his identification piece by piece. Holly wore western boots; I had on sneakers with a sheet of folded paper towel to cover a hole.
Huddling together in the snowfield we could see the van beginning to burn, the foam mattress in the back, the tape decks, all the sets of days and weeks, the slanting lines until after two years there was no more room to scratch, the wah-wah pedal, and the guitars. I could hear the hissing of the fire finding gasoline, licking and drinking. I thought of Ditto holding my head over a bucket while I threw up with the flu, how he brought me Coke that he'd kept ice cold with snow in a glass with blue flowers painted on the lip, the parka he'd found at a garage sale and gave me for my birthday, the deep pockets filled with Starbursts and red hots and Kit Kats and Snickers. Then an explosion threw the van's guts into the sky. The van itself was the cellar, the last room, a big black furnace where the secrets were. Airborne and burning: the towns the van passed through. Killdeer. Max. Turtle Lake. Napoleon. Fargo. I saw a wrist, then fingers reaching for a blond girl. "Holly he won't hurt you," I said, holding her sparrow of a hand. Then we started to run. Like sleepwalkers with arms to our sides and then like flashlight girls pointing our beams like fireflies darting into the snow. Maybe I heard Ditto scream, "Lila, I love you. I'll find you again." It was the trees roaming free of their windbreaks, staring into the night with their wide black eyes.