The school bus is late. Daniel unzips his coat — it feels more like June than early March. The dog that always barks lies quietly, and a hot sun raises the smell of asphalt. He checks his cell; after he walks his son to his ex’s, he’s heading north with a friend. No way he’ll make it on time now.
So yeah, he should have picked Trey up from school and driven him. But Fridays are tough already — the transition to Leah’s, half-built legos breaking apart in Trey’s bag — without changing the routine.
People tell him he should let Leah take Trey during the week. Have fun with him on weekends. And sure, Daniel likes looking for Wii games at Goodwill and bringing Trey to McDonald’s. But Daniel wants to do the heavy lifting. He wants to help Trey with his homework and make sure he showers before bed.
The bus pulls up. Halfway down the stairs, Trey shouts, “Dad!”
“Watch your feet!” Daniel says. Does it amaze him that his six-year-old manages days on his own, that Trey remembers his coat and a backpack with papers stamped You Rock? It does. Why do they make the bus steps so big when the kids are small?
Trey shucks off the pack, reaches for his duffle, and slings it over his shoulder in a way that makes Daniel proud and a little sad. “I can carry that,” he says. Trey shakes his head. This is how they’ve done it for six months, the back and forth between apartments on foot unless it’s pouring down rain or snowing.
Setting off, Daniel matches his steps to Trey’s. It’ll be 5:15 before he’s back at his apartment, let alone packed. His friend Cooper won’t be happy, but hell, there’s nothing Daniel can do other than try to enjoy these twenty minutes. They head down the sidewalk, the same intoed gait, the same dark hair. A pickup passes by and honks. Daniel waves, though in Redham it’s hard to tell one F-150 from the next. They cross the river. Daniel catches a whiff of Blue Lotus Paper, one town up the Callaway.
Still hot. Daniel takes Trey’s hand. So yeah, his son.
“The permit came through.”
“Reuben had a hard time getting it.” Cooper lights up, exhales a sigh. He’s doing eighty, keeping the van just below a shudder. “They want us to stay inside the park.”
“Okay.” Daniel glances at a pile of flyers: Save Morganville — Stop Mass Immigration! The lettering is superimposed on a collage of kids’ faces. White faces. He unrolls his window to let the smoke out, rolls it back up. Their headlights catch on dirty curds of snow along the roadside. He can tell Cooper’s waiting for him to say more.
He dodges. “Morganville tomorrow, then the north country?” That’s the plan: the leafleting first, then up to his uncle’s camp for hare hunting on Sunday. They’re all over western Maine this year, hares. Eating the buds off people’s bushes and chewing up their grass. The state made hunting season open.
“Sounds good. I haven’t been out in the woods in a while.”
Once when they were teens, Cooper had fished him out of a crevasse on Bald Mountain. They’d gone there picking mica, and Daniel tripped. Wasn’t really hurt, just banged up, but he was ten feet down in the rock. Cooper tossed in rope, told Daniel to tie it under his arms. Coop pulled, and Daniel was able to scramble out. At the top, he saw the rope levered over a branch and Cooper digging in his pack for band-aids. Soon after that Cooper’s mom died, and his dad bellied up with parenting, so Coop had to finish raising his sisters. Daniel didn’t see much of him for years. When they started hanging out again, Coop was hard around the edges but still a helper, an EMT who volunteered in New York after 9/11.
“How’s Michelle doing?” Daniel asks. She’s in her early twenties, Coop’s youngest sister. Not the easiest person.
Cooper presses his lips together. “Moved to the coast.”
“On her own?”
“With a guy she met.”
Coop knew what to do on Bald because he was an Eagle Scout. Daniel had quit Scouts in sixth grade, too worried about being cool to keep going.
He fiddles with the radio, finds rock that goes to static before he figures out what’s playing. Cooper hands over his cell. “Check out my playlist. Password is Washington.” He grins. “President, not swamp.” Over the years Coop has gone right-wing, but so have a lot of Daniel’s friends.
Daniel sets them up with metal. “Enter Sandman” comes on. Cooper lightly drums the wheel, his mom’s high-school class ring tapping along from his pinkie. “Keep you free from sin… ‘til the Sandman he comes,” he sings.
Daniel stares out beyond the snow into woods that give way every so often to a lit-up house in a clearing. It didn’t go well at Leah’s when he had dropped off Trey. No one answered his knock, but the door was unlocked. So they went in. Mommy! Trey called out. The living room smelled the way their apartment used to: shampoo and coffee and the incense Leah burned to cover her weed. Then she was there, upset — Jesus, you can’t just walk in like that, Daniel — and Trey was starting to cry, and Leah’s mouth was lip-gloss pink and what in the hell, but Daniel felt himself getting hard.
Leah reached down and hugged Trey. It’s okay, little man, the top of her head a rebuke of Daniel. Trey peered up — Stay, Daddy — and Daniel hated himself for wishing Leah would let him. He wondered whether he had food in his teeth and whether she loved him. Leah stood. He looked away. The living room was messy, clothes piled on the couch. Trey’s Batman pajamas were part of the heap. Daniel did not say: there are clean PJs for him in the backpack.
Just. Fuck. He leaned and kissed Trey’s forehead. Told him bye. Told him he’d see him Sunday.
In Morganville, they find Reuben’s place without trouble. Nice ranch, quality vinyl, flanked by fenced-in gardens. Cooper drives around back. Reuben’s wife Brenda is walking from the house, a jar in her hand. Reuben tends a new-looking grill. “You made it just in time for his famous chili,” Brenda says. She comes up behind her husband, pats his ass, and peers into the pot. “He’s been working on it all afternoon.” She pops the jar — corn relish.
Reuben looks over, nods; the flash of blue eyes. Daniel had met him a few years back when he went to Morganville with Coop to shoot pool. Reuben clocked them at eightball without saying a dozen words. “Doesn’t talk much, but he’s a thinker,” Cooper said later. “First and second amendment guy. Anti-big government, but he wants that wall.” After Syrian and African refugees started moving to Morganville, Reuben began showing up in the comments of the Sun-Times. Others used fake names, but not him. The gist was that refugees were absorbing too many resources, and Morganville was sinking.
Cooper heads over to the grill. “You using beef or pork?”
“Both,” Reuben says.
“Well, it smells great.”
Daniel cracks a beer. So yeah, the faces on Coop’s flyers had reminded him of the kids in Trey’s class. It bothered him, and not just because Morganville has a lot of people who aren’t white.
It’s the innocence, he thinks. The way kids believe that things work out.
Daniel runs inventory at AutoPlace, ten bucks an hour. His dad was a tender at the mill back when it was Flagg Paper, before the Chinese company that bought it renamed it Blue Lotus. Union money — a house and snowmobiles and his uncle’s camp on weekends. But even then, Flagg was cutting jobs. When they shut down the Number 4, his dad retired early. Half pension. His mom finally found work at the post office. What will be left when Trey grows up? Daniel thought about that when Coop asked him to come.
Reuben carries a steaming pot to the picnic table — “Alrighty, let’s eat.”
Daniel’s belly rumbles. It’s this, too, isn’t it, the need to escape another weekend alone?
Quiet for a minute while they pass the grated cheese. A fat, waxing moon shines overhead.
“Pretty night,” Daniel says.
Brenda nods. “It sure is.”
Reuben clears his throat. “So tomorrow we’re going to spread the message that having all those refugees in Morganville isn’t working out.”
A pause — “Who’s coming?” Brenda asks.
“I’ve got confirmation from forty.”
“Hope we get sixty,” Cooper says. “It’ll be good to let folks see that a lot of us think this is common sense.”
“Expect protesters,” Reuben says. “At least one busload’s coming in.”
The beers Daniel drank on an empty stomach have gone to his head. He holds back what feels like a laugh. He does not see Maine being taken over by foreigners.
He had met a refugee woman at a regional training. She was an apprentice cashier at the AutoPlace in Augusta. Her English was accented but good — she told the team she’d learned it in night school. Afterward, the woman’s husband picked her up in an old Dodge Caravan. When he opened the slider, kids spilled out. She propped the smallest one on her hip.
He takes one of Brenda’s brownies. Was it envy he’d felt as the family piled back into their van? He keeps his mouth shut. Even if new immigrants aren’t really the problem, things do need to change.
He finishes the brownie, thanks Reuben and Brenda for dinner.
Reuben smiles. “Glad you’re here with us.”
Daniel’s knock on her apartment door had jolted Leah back. Friday afternoon, and him here with Trey already? She’d been resting on her bed, in a far better place than sleep. True, dishes were piled in the sink, and she hadn’t picked up the living room. Now Trey was with her for the weekend, bless his needy baby heart. She heard him out on the porch — “Mommy!”
Meanwhile, she’d made it through a workweek from hell at the Ramada. Three-day telesales conference, ninety guests, just her at the front desk. The hot water ran out twice, and there were mice in the pool. Today when she got home she smoked the last of her Berry White. Lay down for a few minutes. So what. So she’s nice and relaxed.
She stashes her pipe in her nightstand, walks barefoot out of the bedroom, and oh my God they’re already inside.
“You can’t just walk in like that,” she tells Daniel, but he stands there.
Straight up: she loves him, but she can’t live with him. She loves him, but she loves weed and the occasional something else, and Daniel doesn’t approve and Daniel doesn’t miss a fucking thing.
“Leah, were you in there sleeping?”
Trey is bawling from the conflict, so she grabs him for a hug. “Stay, Daddy,” Trey pleads. Leah ignores that and wills Daniel out the door. He goes.
“You want French toast for dinner, Trey?”
He wipes his eyes. “Got any juice?”
“How about milk?”
“I don’t like milk.”
He does like milk, or did last weekend. Daniel’s spoiling him.
Half an hour later, he’s content with his French toast and the beginning of a Finding Nemo DVD she found in a clearance bin at Ames. Color plays across his winter-washed face. Leah decides she’ll get him outdoors tomorrow. But then — “I’m done” — he runs over to his bag. “I want to play Wii.”
“Trey, you know there’s no Wii here.”
He pulls out his handset. “I brought it!”
“That’s not how it works. Come watch Nemo, I’ll open some chips.”
His nostrils flare. “I want to play Wii. It’s boring here!”
Leah’s hand itches to swat his butt, but she holds back. She doesn’t want to do that, never has, and besides, he’d tell Daniel.
They get through the evening. Leah has him in bed by nine, her at midnight. She sleeps heavily, the way she does on indica. Wakes up after 8:00. Out in the living room, Trey sits on the couch eating from a box of Corn Flakes. Leah brings him some milk. He drains it.
“I love you,” she tells him.
“Love you, too.”
Okay. The thing to do is get on with the day. She had a plan. What was it? It comes to her as she pulls on yesterday’s jeans and a flannel. Fresh air, the park.
Trey appears in her bedroom doorway. “When am I going back to Dad’s?”
Standing there he looks like her brother Timmy, eyes dark and too big. “I’ll be right out,” Leah tells him. “Go play with something.”
He goes. Leah’s armpits prickle with sweat. Daniel spoiling him is making things hard. She rummages in a drawer, pulls out a foil packet. Opens it. A few very small rocks, more gray than white — probably fixed to bring things on faster. She puts the packet back. No. Not jumping on that horse today, not with Trey here. She promised herself five months ago.
One of the conference guys had helped her scoop the mice from the Ramada pool. Four mice. He used the skimmer. Leah opened the sliders, and he let them loose outside on the half-thawed ground. Later she bumped into him at the bar and bought him a beer. A few laughs, more beers, and they wound up upstairs in his room. Leah let him put his mouth on her, and then she jerked him off. Thought about Daniel while she did. On her way out of his room, he’d palmed her the little packet and kissed her mouth.
She opens the drawer again, plucks out the packet. Within seconds she’s creased the foil and turned up the ends. A tiny canoe, meth lined along the keel. Pretty. She grabs her Bic and a straw. The release does come on fast, but it’s manageable. The edges of the room sharpen.
Next thing she knows she and Trey are zipped into coats and headed to the park on the brightened, beautiful day. She piggybacks him, and he giggles as she jogs. Her mind pings. Zipping sounds like zipping, what’s the word for what that is? Starts with O. She notices the yellow centerline, sandy roadside, barely budded trees, and geese honking overhead. Mentions all this to Trey. His sneakers are worn down on the soles. She got paid yesterday — maybe they’ll look for new ones later. First, they’re going to enjoy the hell out of this morning.
“Mommy, you talk a lot,” he says.
Mommyoutalkalot. Leah laughs. It’s an okay world. Occasional ice helps. You don’t have to get stuck in it. There’s recreation, there’s an in-between.
At the park — empty, on a day like this? — she pushes Trey in a swing. “Touch the sky with your toes!” Then they swing with him on her lap, facing her. The top of his head smells like coconut.
Daniel has always liked this part of Stillman County, where the ground falls and rises and falls again. It’s pretty coming into Morganville — those knolls and then the gradual drop into the river valley. He and Coop are behind Reuben and Brenda, with a dozen cars behind them.
Daniel considers calling Leah, but even if he says he’s checking on Trey — which would and wouldn’t be true — she’ll think otherwise. You’re always crowding me, she had told him before she left.
Coop looks over. “Doing okay?”
“I keep thinking about getting back with Leah.”
“Hmm. That a good idea?”
“Hell no. Train wreck.”
“I get it,” Cooper says. Daniel knows he does, how loss shape shifts memory. It’s strange to look back on a night they had fought and Leah’d left and come home drunk at 1:00 a.m. and see it as: At least she came home.
Her back is strong and smooth. He likes when she sings karaoke Miley Cyrus. Likes the way she stands with one hip cocked.
Cooper: “Thanks for doing this today.”
Daniel nods. “I’m glad I came.” Before he voted for Trump he’d voted for Obama. But eight years, and Stillman County’s worse off than it was. He’s applied to Blue Lotus four times and never gotten a callback. So. He eyes the stack of flyers, wonders how people will react. Cooper would say the kids’ faces reflect Morganville’s history.The word that comes to Daniel’s mind is moderation. That’s what he’ll tell people today. From 100 refugees to 4,000 in three years. What’s happening in Morganville is too much too fast.
At Sewell Park, there are a lot more than the few college kids Reuben predicted last night. People line the whole east end. Daniel figures a hundred — all ages, men and women, many of them holding signs.
He’s wishing Reuben would just keep going, but he leads the group down from where they left their cars and into the park’s west end. They stop near a gazebo. Reuben partners them — Cooper with a woman in her fifties, Daniel with a bearded guy he doesn’t know. The two of them trade names then stand awkwardly, waiting. The idea was they’d pair up to talk with people coming through the park. But right now it’s just protesters and them, with a patch of grass between.
Just after 10:00, two young guys break off from the other group and start toward them. One carries a sign that says “Haters OUT.” Other protesters call them back. A helmeted cop Daniel hadn’t noticed before steps in.
Daniel’s thinking he might leave, might wait it out in the van. He’s about to nudge Coop and tell him when the other young guy throws a rock that barely misses Reuben. A man in front of Daniel flicks open a baton. His partner pulls brass knuckles.
The woman partnered with Coop drops her leaflets and runs. “Stay!” Reuben yells, but she’s gone and so are others.
Fear washes over Daniel. Some people watching from the sidewalk now — “Racists!” a girl in a headscarf shouts.
The man with the baton goes after the rock-thrower. And then the other guy is there — swinging at Daniel and missing. Cooper steps in and the man swings again, this time at Coop.
Daniel hears the hit and a crunch of cartilage. “Fuck off!” he shouts, aiming a kick, but the man punches Cooper again and more cops are there, and everyone is running. Cooper’s with him, the van not far but too far.
Someone’s right behind them. Running, Daniel feels it: the handcuffs, the cruiser, the call he gets before they put him in a cell. Leah showing up to bail him out, and Trey asking What did you do, Dad?
It doesn’t happen. They make it to the van. They’re both panting, Cooper’s blood on the seat and Daniel behind the wheel because Coop’s eye is a mess.
Daniel shoves the flyers he’s still holding under the seat and turns the key. They should’ve walked when they saw that crowd. The van lurches into gear. He points it south. Hare hunting’s not happening this weekend.
Coop’s nose and eye keep seeping. “No hospital,” he says, so they drive twenty minutes then stop at a CVS. Daniel goes in for gauze and tape.
He’s bandaging what he can when Cooper’s cell rings. Reuben. Coop nods — “That’s good. We’re pretty much okay, too.” He touches the gauze over his eye. “Yeah, that’s true. Next time.”
Daniel gets back on the highway. No next time. He hopes the AutoPlace cashier doesn’t live near Morganville.
Leah feels off, the blood in her veins gone thick. She’s down but not tweaky. Whatever was in that ice dampened it. And there’s none left.
They’re still at the park, her sitting on the edge of the sandbox while Trey buries a dump truck with a little spade he found. He flings sand, intent on his project. A few grains strike Leah’s sleeve. He is so much life. She takes a breath, pulls in as much air as she can.
The soles of her feet itch. A big itch close to pain. Which sometimes happens afterward — it will go away.
“How about some lunch?” she asks. Not that there’s much at the apartment.
Trey stands in front of her, red cheeks and a runny nose. Those eyes, right now part Timmy part Daniel. Spooky how kids look like one person and then another and sometimes both at once.
She gets up, wipes his nose. “Come on.”
“But this is the wrong way.”
“We’re going to Daddy’s,” Leah says, like it hadn’t been months since she was there.
“Can I get that part of my Wii you said, so I can play at your house?”
She won’t have to worry about entertaining him tonight. Twenty-four hours: she’s got this. And lunch at Daniel’s — payback for him letting himself and Trey into her apartment.
It was a good morning, worth the itching and the tiredness. The thing is, you have to stay loose of it. Choose when. It may not have been so smart to use today, but now she’s done. Don’t let it take over — Timmy never learned that.
She stops, pulls off her sneakers and pads on the sidewalk in socks. Trey frowns up at her. “You look weird.” Leah laughs. Grumpy disapproval, but her feet feel better without the shoes.
When Timmy was fifteen and she was twelve she’d wanted to be him, all balls and no fear. That was years before rehab and probation and relapse and him working at Burger King for six weeks and Wendy’s for three months and rarely sober anymore. In February when she went to see him, he was cooking up a raggedy batch. The egg-and-cat-piss smell of it stung her eyes. He offered her some. She’d said no, that time.
“Will Dad be home?” Trey asks.
They turn off Main onto Oak. Pass Trey’s school and St. Ignatius. A couple of houses for sale, others boarded up. Redham isn’t what it was, but Leah loves it. This is how it is now.
Inside Daniel’s apartment it feels different, the old blue walls painted over with cream. There’s a scrabbling sound in the corner. Trey walks toward it — “We have a guinea pig!” — turns to look at her, knowing she always said no pets. From a glass case he extracts a spotted animal. “Her name’s Callie because she’s cal-i-co,” he says, pronouncing it carefully. “Me and Daddy got her.”
Of course. Daniel’s always been strategic — ordering things online in bulk when stores were low, getting them on the affordable housing waitlist the day it posted — but on behalf of the three of them. Now she’s outside, one-upped. Maybe she deserves that.
The guinea pig snuffles against Trey’s shirt. More of a pet than the Ramada mice, but still a rodent.
“Please put it back.”
“I will,” Trey says, but stands cradling the thing.
In the kitchen, Leah puts on the water to boil and rummages in the cabinets. There’s a lot of food, pasta but no sauce. Fatigue presses in. She switches off the burner, pulls a leftover pizza from the fridge, and pours two cups of juice. Breaks off two bananas and feels a twinge of trespass. As soon as they eat, they’ll leave.
In the living room, her son is on his belly by the couch, and the glass cage is empty.
“What the hell, Trey!”
“It’s not my fault. She wanted to get down.”
Leah sets the food on the table. She can’t cope with this, but she lies on the floor and sweeps her arm beneath the couch. Twig-like feet, small furry body — she hands the animal to Trey. Wordlessly he puts it back.
Leah takes a banana and sinks into the big chair in the corner. The guinea pig peers out. Now it knows, thinks Leah, the world is bigger than that case.
Straight up: you’re either on your way down or you’re clean. Using or not. That stuff she told herself earlier about limit-setting and choice is crap. You don’t stay in between for long.
That time when Timmy was cooking up a batch, he’d gone out earlier and gotten them some Wendy’s chili. It’s tasty, he told her — real beef not processed; he knew from working there. Leah ate hers. Timmy took the lid off his and left it. He offered her some of his new ice. She said no, Trey was coming over later. She said, You haven’t touched your chili. Yelled it. Then she went into the bathroom and cried into a towel, because of Timmy and because she wanted the meth so bad.
Trey eats his pizza and hers, then drains his juice. “Come on over here,” she says. He wedges in beside her. Sun comes through the window, the way it used to when she sat here. Leah feels pinned in place. “Let’s take a rest,” she says, and somehow Trey stays put.
The phone rings six times and goes to voice. Daniel doesn’t like it. He waits a couple of minutes, tries again. The third time he calls, Trey picks up. “Hi.”
“Hey Trey, where’s Mom?”
“She brought me home.”
Oh, God. Daniel’s heart in his throat — oh, fuck.
He levels his voice. “You mean you’re home now, and Mom’s at her apartment?”
“No, she’s taking a nap here. Why’d you put my Legos back in the bin, Dad? I was making something!”
Relief expands inside him. Still — “Son, go wake Mommy up.”
“I don’t want to.”
Cooper looks over at him, mouths What the hell? They’re five miles from Redham, four by the time Trey comes back: “She says she’s resting, and I can play whatever I want.”
“Tell her I’m on the phone.”
“But I’m doing something.” There’s the sound of cascading plastic pieces. The call ends.
So she’s seen the guinea pig. Daniel hopes several things at once: that Trey will be okay in the minutes it takes to get home, that Leah didn’t use, that she understands a pet helped distract Trey after the break-up. It occurs to him to be pissed she went to his apartment in the first place, but by then he and Coop are pulling up in front and Daniel’s out of the van.
Inside, she’s asleep in the chair where she used to nurse Trey, and Trey’s on the floor building something Lego. The guinea pig lies next to him.
“Hi,” Daniel says, but softly, as if he doesn’t want to startle any of them.
“Look at this, Dad.”
A free-form ship, his son’s fingers moving nimbly.
Leah’s still dozing, her face relaxed. She’s wearing a pastel flannel he’s always liked, though it’s buttoned one-off over her tank top. If she did use, she’s okay now.
Daniel’s uncle told him the hares are forming into packs, that they’re taking on squirrels and raccoons over food. He texted a video of two hares chasing a fox from the entrance to a burrow. Coyotes haven’t shown up yet, he said.
Trey holds up his ship. “Done!”
“You built that fast.”
“I want to put it in the tub and watch it float.”
Daniel can picture it — the ship listing, pieces breaking off, sinking. Trey’s tears. Or maybe it will float.
He misses weekends — the three of them walking to the flea market by the river, detouring on the way back to let Trey put pennies on the track and wait for a train. He misses coming home and starting dinner.
Maybe she’ll stay. Maybe she misses the same things.
Trey picks through the pile. “I’m adding some flags.”
“Let me know when you’re ready to fill the tub.”
He could help her if she’d let him. He could try. Half the people he knows are on one kind of shit or another. Mostly they manage. His mom got into codeine after she hurt her back loading pallets at work. His dad orders it gray-market from Canada now, not cheap, but it keeps her off worse things. The guy upstairs smokes weed pretty much all day. And Timmy — in and out of rehab, but still here.
Daniel gets it, the need. Things aren’t like they were. Blue Lotus is so barebones they don’t even have layoffs. Only three of eight machines are up. And before Lotus, Flagg was only running two. It’s eaten away at the county — half-full schools, sports teams losing games they used to win. Empty downtown stores. People are just getting through the shrunken days. It goes beyond politics and stops short of them too.
Nothing wrong with caring most about your own, Reuben had said last night, and there with the chili and the moon, Daniel didn’t push back. But those flyers are about stirring things up. Most people aren’t hardcore like Reuben. They’re joining in because they don’t have much, and anger gives them something.
Leah sleeps on, quiet and still. Awake, she’s always in motion; she’s wind, one direction changing to another. It refreshes Daniel, mostly.
He goes into the kitchen and opens a Coke, comes back, and stands near her. He wants to straighten out the buttons on that shirt. To touch her.
“I’m ready, Dad.”
Leah opens her eyes, absorbs the sight of him, the apartment, the guinea pig on the floor. She starts to say something, stops.
“Dad, come on.”
Leah stretches but looks uncertain. “So,” she says.
She nods. He hands her the Coke, and she drinks. “Thank you.” She gives it back. “Trey wanted his console. And I was a little low on food. So we came over.”
“Why are you home early?”
Daniel doesn’t have an answer. But the world is not large. He lifts the can to his lips. He’s here, taking care of what he has.
Photo by Josh Willink from Pexels