Just north of Truth or Consequences, Landis heard the unmistakable bang of metal punching through metal deep inside the engine. Lights came on all over the dash and then they were coasting along dead. He pumped at the brake pedal, which had lost its power assist, and aimed toward the shoulder.
"What did you do?" Bernice said, once they'd come to a full stop.
"I didn't do anything. We threw a rod, I think. I told you there was a rattle."
"So, this is my fault?"
"I didn't say that." He sighed. "It's no one's fault."
Emily, who had been asleep, rubbed her eyes and sneezed.
"Oh, baby," said Bernice. "You want a tissue?"
Emily nodded. She had dark brown curls and blue eyes, a high forehead, sharply defined eyebrows, and wore a detached expression that suggested she was constantly in a state of remembering something that had happened elsewhere and at another time. She had on blue and white Oshkosh’s over a light green undershirt, an outfit Bernice had selected for her early that morning at the Hardings' after poking around to see where the child's clothes were kept.
Bernice leaned back and wiped Emily's nose clean, then balled the tissue and tossed it to the floor. "You're thinking 'I told you so,' aren't you?"
"Not at all."
"I know you are. Can it be fixed?"
He turned the key. There was a clicking from the solenoid, but that was all. "With a new engine." Landis stared out at the huge rock formation that slept off to the side of the highway, rising up layered and dark out of the flat, desert landscape. “That’s Elephant Butte,” he said. “It’s on the map.”
“I know all about it,” she said. “Now, don’t you think we’d better see about getting a hotel room?"
The temperature was nearly one hundred degrees out, and with the AC off, the car was quickly turning into a convection oven. He turned to Bernice, in her jeans and white tank top, her bright-lemon dyed hair standing up off her head like some comic-book artist had drawn it that way. He loved her. But she scared him a little, too.
He worried that a state trooper would come along, but it was a cowboy who stopped and asked if they were OK. Twenty minutes later, they were getting a tow into town. They stayed in the car, the three of them, tipped backward in their seats like they were headed up a roller coaster; at any moment, Landis expected his breath to be sucked away as they reached the top and went spilling over. Instead, the windshield remained full of bouncing blue sky.
The mechanic had gone home for the day, and the boy who'd towed them took Landis's forty dollars and wrote down his name on a grimy legal pad by the register.
"Where you staying at?" he asked.
"What you got?" Landis said. He could hear Bernice outside with Emily, trying to kick a soda out of the Pepsi machine.
"Oh, there's a bunch of motels. Where you are, here, this is a resort town."
**"Last resort, don't you mean?" said Landis.
"Used to be people come here for the hot springs."
The boy adjusted his dirty cap. "Just to say they been."
"Sounds like my wife's having a little trouble out there."
"I'll bet she is. There ain't no soda in that machine."
Landis didn't find this surprising. The whole town seemed to him like it had been emptied of its contents. Or maybe more like a stage set – one of those fake towns you could visit for six bucks, where desperadoes shot it out with lawmen in the middle of the street every day at noon.
"Any of these cars for sale?"
The attendant looked dubiously out toward the side of the lot where, next to the wrecker, there were three parked cars, one on blocks. "The Nova, maybe. You'd have to talk to the owner. He went down to Hatch today."
Landis had four hundred dollars in cash with him, along with a maxed-out Discover card. He wasn't sure about Bernice. He knew there was a roll of bills in her purse, but he had no idea how much it came to.
They checked into the Hot Springs motel, two blocks down the street, and took naps. When they awoke, they went to the Fiesta Cafe for dinner. After their orders arrived, Emily leaned her head forward and clasped her hands together. Bernice rolled her eyes and batted at the flies hovering over her chicken. "Thank you, Lord," Emily said in a quiet voice, "for the bounty we are about to receive."
"Bounty," said Landis. "That's one way of looking at it."
There used to be a candy bar called Bounty," said Bernice. "I can't tell you what was in it, though. Probably coconut. Do you like coconut?"
Emily didn't answer.
"This town was named after a television show," Landis said.
"I'm not allowed to watch television," said Emily.
"Yes, you are," said Bernice.
“No, just videos.”
"There's a town in Montana that changed its name to Joe." It occurred to Landis that trying to explain this further would be more trouble than it was worth.
"They should have called it 'Hollywood Squares,'" Bernice said. "Or 'Star Trek.'"
They turned their attention to the food. Emily had a bowl of macaroni with butter on it. She ate half, then pushed it aside and drew quietly on her placemat with a Bic pen. Landis tried to get her interested in the mini-jukebox that hung over the table, but with no success. Bernice took the pen and did Emily’s portrait on a napkin. After coffee and pie and milk, the three of them walked through the still, hot air back to the motel.
The mirror over the dresser was missing about two inches of the upper left corner. The dresser itself was covered in cigarette burns. "Look," said Bernice, "a rotary phone. You don't see that every day." She turned the television on to the cartoon channel. Emily, clutching the stuffed turtle they'd bought her at a rest stop outside of Albuquerque, climbed up on the bed to watch. Bernice stared hard at her.
"What?" said Landis. "Something wrong?"
Bernice turned to him and squinted. "You're kidding, right?" She went over and touched Emily's face with the back of her hand and held it there. "She's burning up. I knew she was hot, but I thought it was just the weather. I thought she'd cool off once we got her into better air-conditioning. Come on over here and feel her."
Landis touched her forehead. "Maybe she should take something?" he suggested.
Bernice brought over a glass of water, but Emily wouldn't drink. Her cheeks were red blossoms against her white face, as if she'd been slapped.
"Please, honey? I think you have a touch of the flu. We have to put out the fire."
Emily shook her head.
"Hey, little girl," said Landis, "listen up. Drink that water."
Bernice set the glass on the night table. "Never mind. Go on and watch the show." She motioned to Landis to join her outside, and the two of them stepped out the door.
"We need another car," he said.
"I know you think this is my fault, but it's not." She lit a cigarette. "You drive too rough."
He watched a bug bang itself against the floodlight attached to the side of the building. Getting into a big fight with Bernice wasn't worth it. He had suggested using his truck, but she'd insisted on her Hyundai, because it was a family car, and because it was illegal to drive a kid around in a truck. He’d distrusted the thing, but conceded her point.
Bernice sucked deeply on her cigarette, then tossed it. "I'm going to go sit with her. It's no fun being sick."
The door clicked shut. He stared for a moment at a dark cloud shaped like a hand floating in the purple sky. Bernice had a friend in Tucson. She and Emily were going to stay with her at first. Landis would ride the bus back to Colorado Springs, take care of details – packing up her apartment and his trailer – then drive down in the truck in a few days. After that, they would start their new life together.
He'd met her six months ago at Midnight, the club downtown where he was substitute soundman. Their first date was the movies, followed by cheap Mexican food, and not a lot of talking. That was OK with Landis, as talking made him uneasy. It had been his experience that people gave him more credit the less he said. They agreed to see another movie the following night – the latest Bond – and afterward went back to his trailer with a bottle of Hornitos. There she told him her story about how she’d been living in Atlanta and gotten pregnant. She'd answered an ad from a childless couple, come out to the Springs, and stayed with them.
"They prayed for me and the baby every night – I could hear them up in the living room, just kind of murmuring. Creepy. After I gave birth, I got out as fast as I could, to Florida, where I beach-bummed, waitressed, took some classes. But I always knew I’d come back. I kept a key.”
All fall, she explained, she’d been going to the house. She’d park a block away, sneak in, eat leftovers from the fridge, watch a little TV, look at the pictures of Emily. She’d even managed to get hired at the Coffee Connection across the street from where Emily was in day care,. She could step outside and watch the children playing in the yard. “It’s Christian day care, of course,” she told him. “Whatever that means. The Hardings both have jobs in town, but the mother isn’t full-time. The mother drops her off Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.” Emily liked to sit by herself, Bernice said. Emily was leading the wrong life, and even if she didn’t understand that, exactly, she *sensed it, and it was making her unhappy.
It was nearly 4 am, and they both still had on all their clothes. This was not what Landis had envisioned, but he was coming to the conclusion that Bernice wasn't much like other girls he'd known.
"They are brainwashing her. It isn't right. They bought my child from me because they couldn't have one of their own, and now they are killing her mind, one day at a time. If there is a God, I think it’s pretty clear that he did not mean for these people to have children."
"What are you going to do about it?" he asked.
"Take her back."
Her eyes narrowed. "You don't believe me?" She lifted her hand to her mouth and bit into the fleshy part at the base of her thumb.
"Hey," said Landis. "What are you doing?"
She didn't answer, just looked out at him over her hand, which she continued to bite. After a few seconds, when blood appeared, she stopped. "Most people couldn't do that to themselves," she said.
"Most people wouldn't want to."
"You're looking at a woman with a purpose." She grinned, the traces of red on her mouth like smeared lipstick. Then she took off her T-shirt and wrapped it around her wrist. Landis tried not to appear to be staring at her breasts. "Will you help?" she asked.
"No way in hell," he told her.
Emily's room was Bernice's old one, in the basement, so it had been easy enough slipping in and getting her this morning. Emily didn't seem surprised when they woke her. She held on to Bernice's hand like she'd been doing it all her life. Seeing them that way had given Landis a warm feeling.
Bernice was on the bed now, next to Emily, watching Scooby Doo. "Remember Lucky Charms?" she said. "Those marshmallow pieces made your teeth hurt."
Landis saw that she'd wrapped Emily in a blanket. "If she's cold, we don't need this." He went over to the air conditioner and switched it off. It shuddered, did a miniature version of the noise the Hyundai had made, then fell silent.
"She was shivering, and her fever seems worse. I don't like this at all."
Emily poked at a cigarette hole in the blanket and said, "I can do the minor prophets."
"This ought to be good," said Landis, sitting on the edge of the bed to listen. “I’m a sucker for the minor prophets.”
She closed her eyes. "Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum . . ."
"Bert, Ernie, and Kermit." Bernice stood up. "I'm getting you an aspirin."
She went into the bathroom and fumbled through her bag. From where he was, Landis could see her reflection in the mirror, her smooth strong arms tanned and pretty against the white of her T-shirt. She came back in with a tablet that she had cut in half in her hand. "Please?"
“Don’t you give kids Tylenol?” asked Landis. “I think aspirin might be bad for them.”
“Ever hear of baby aspirin?” she said.
“Seems like they just give that to old people.”
Bernice held the pill in front of Emily’s flushed face. “Anyway,” she said, “this is Tylenol. I just said aspirin.”
Emily turned her head and looked at Landis for a moment, then brought her attention back to Bernice. She swallowed the half pill, washing it down with water Bernice gave her in a plastic cup.
The water tastes ucky,” she said.
Landis got up and peered out the side of the blinds. He could see across the parking lot to the lobby, where a fluorescent light illuminated the Vacancy sign. There were two other cars in the lot, both of which had been there when they'd arrived. He wondered if they belonged to guests, or if they were always there. He tried to put himself in the Hardings' position. They would have called the police pretty early this morning – Bernice said they got up around eight. The police would have asked who they thought might have taken the child. Would they think of Bernice? It hardly mattered. Even if Landis and Bernice could somehow manage to return Emily without getting caught, the child could identify them.
"I can get us a Nova, I'm pretty sure," Landis said. "Then I think maybe we should turn around and take her straight back. Drop her off on the corner, give her a push in the right direction, and run."
Bernice stood silently in the middle of the room, her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. “Are you backing out on me?” “No, of course I’m not.”
"Do you think I'm crazy?" she asked.
"I don't know. No.”
"But you think it's possible, right?" She came over and leaned against the wall beside him. With the air-conditioning off, the room had quickly grown stuffy. The walls were permeated with old cigarette smell. "I need to hear from you that except for the engine blowing up in my car, and for Emily getting sick, this was an OK plan." She pushed up against him and touched his arm with her hand. "Please? Can you just say that?"
In the various conversations they’d had about this through the spring and early summer, he'd tried to talk to her about alternatives. The courts, for instance, regardless of the papers she'd signed. But she wouldn't listen, claimed he didn't know what he was talking about. “You think knowing how to run a PA system qualifies you to give legal advice?” she said. And then they’d stop talking about it, except that it was always there, an underlying hum in the system that would not go away. She was the strangest girl he’d ever known, and time and again, he’d thought that if he were smart, he’d have nothing more to do with her. But then he’d see her, with that infectious smile, that look in her eyes that suggested imminent sex, an electric surge that seemed to radiate from her and make everything in her vicinity vibrate. Some days they made love four, five, six times, doing it in her unmade bed and on the floor and just about anyplace, until both of them had reached a point of exhaustion, until Landis was so sore it hurt to button his jeans. But then she’d disappear for a day or two, and he wouldn’t know what to think. He’d feel her absence in his whole body, like a fever. As long as her plans about Emily had remained hypothetical, he hadn’t figured there was that much to worry about. People lived with all sorts of stories they told themselves.
“I know what I’m doing,” she’d promised him, when she’d told him last week that it was time. They were at his trailer, in bed, listening to the coyotes. “It’s all going to work out fine. You have to trust me.” She’d gotten up her nerve, she explained, and, when the girls who supervised the playground outside Little Angels weren’t paying attention, she had leaned over the wall to talk to Emily. “I just said, ‘Hi.’ Know what she said? ‘It’s you.’ I asked her, ‘You, who?’ And she said, ‘My real mommy.’”
“And what did you say?” Landis asked.
“I didn’t say anything.” Bernice was beaming. “I put out my finger and she gave it a squeeze.” She held up the finger to show him.
“Don’t you think she might say something about this to the people?”
“No, no, she won’t. She knows it’s a secret.”
“Kids aren’t great with secrets.”
She wrapped herself around him and hugged him hard, and he realized with some surprise that without ever consciously making a decision, he had in fact made one.
"It was an OK plan," he said, now.
She went into the bathroom and began running water into the tub. "Go get some ice," she said. "Get a whole big bag."
He was gone less than five minutes. When he returned, Bernice had put Emily in the tub. He reached a hand in and quickly pulled it out. "That's cold."
"What do you think the ice is for? We need to get her fever down."
"That can't be right. Look at her." He put the bag down in the sink. Emily's naked body was magnified and flattened under the bluish lens of the bathwater, and she was clearly shivering. Her eyes were shut tight. Landis reached in and scooped her up in his arms. Water splashed all over the floor and all over him. She was so light. He grabbed a couple of towels off the rack and wrapped them around the child, brought her back into the room and placed her in her bed. Behind him, he heard the bathroom door click shut. He dried her off and put the T-shirt back on her.
“Did I do that OK?” he asked.
“You forgot my toes,” Emily said.
So he did them, too.
“And I want underpants.”.
“Right.” He found them on the floor, handed them to Emily, and looked away as she pulled them on. Then he tucked her in, leaving a towel under the back of her head where her hair was still wet.
Landis knocked, entered, and found Bernice staring into the mirror over the sink. "I've ruined everything," she said. "I'm an unfit mother."
"Shhh. Nothing's done that can't be undone."
"It isn't? Do you know what you are saying? Are you even in the same movie as me? Because mine is a bad gangster one, and it ends in a hail of bullets."
"Just stop it. Everything is under control. We've got a little money. We've got Emily. What we need is to get some sleep."
They went quietly back into the bedroom. Emily's face was still flushed, her closed eyelids fluttering like tiny moths. He couldn’t tell if she was asleep. She was a strange one, he thought, like her mother. Any other kid would have been screaming in that ice water. Landis took the towel out from under her head and hung it on a chair. "She's still hot," he whispered.
Bernice took off her clothes and got into bed, and Landis did the same. He inventoried his body: his chest, hairy and beginning to gray; his appendicitis scar; another scar on his left thigh where a disturbed woman had stabbed him on a Greyhound ten years ago; the flat feet he'd inherited from his father. There'd been a time in his life when he was impressed by his body, the fact that he had muscles, the full head of long hair that made him look like a rock star. Now, he was just glad nothing embarrassed him too much.
He climbed into bed and slipped his arms around her. "Who was he?"
"Who was who?"
"The guy. Her daddy."
“I’ve told you before, I don’t want to say. It doesn’t matter.”
“If it doesn’t matter, why not tell me?”
"Just some kid I liked for a while. He was a baker."
"A baker? Really?"
"What did he bake?"
"Muffins. Bread. Cakes. Pies."
"So what happened?"
"I was a part-time cashier at the bakery. I saw the ad in Creative Loafing and I called."
"Where is this baker now?"
"Married his high school sweetheart. That was his plan all along. Let's not talk anymore, OK?"
"You never told him?"
"Nope. It didn't involve him."
"It didn’t? How can you say that?"
"I'd flunked out of school. I just did this thing. It was my business."
“If it was me,” he said, after a while, “I think I’d want to know.”
There was a rustling from the next bed, and Emily got up and padded into the bathroom. When she came out, she did not return to her own bed, but climbed up and got in next to Bernice. Landis turned on his side so that he was pressed up against Bernice's back and put his left arm over her, his fingers just brushing against Emily's hot shoulder. As he lay there trying to gauge from their breathing whether either or both of them were asleep, the child took his hand and squeezed it, lightly at first, then harder. She was making sounds. He thought about what he had prayed for as a child – a dog, a ham radio, his parents to stop the yelling that went on night after night. That was the thing about kids – they believed if they just asked the right way, they could get the things they wanted, all of them.
In the morning, Emily's shirt was soaked and clammy with sweat, but her fever was down. "It was the bath," said Bernice, proudly.
Landis left them to clean up, walked back to the repair place, and struck a deal with the owner: the much newer Hyundai, plus a hundred cash, for the Nova. It was fifteen years old and on its second engine, and there was rust lacing the metal around the wheel wells, but it ran, the tires were decent, and the radio worked.
"Never thought I'd have a Korean car," the owner mused. He was a fat, red-faced man of about fifty, with thick eyebrows. From the adjacent service bay came hammering sounds as the boy who'd towed them yesterday attempted to remove a tire from a rim. "But I used to say that about the Japs, and look at them now. That Nova’s a Jap car. I had a real Nova, a ’69, with a 350 V-8. That puppy could fly. Traded it for an El Camino. Shouldn’t have. Did you know the bombs Japan dropped on us at Pearl Harbor were made out of steel we sold them?"
"I guess what goes around comes around," said Landis, fingering a collection box for cerebral palsy on the counter. "I'll be back in a few minutes with my wife to sign over the title."
"I'll bet that car is made of steel from bombs we dropped on Korea. I wouldn't be surprised."
"Swords into ploughshares," said Landis. "Or sedans." He thought about Emily. How long would it be before she asked to go home? It surprised him that she hadn't already, but there was something between her and Bernice, an understanding, that he would probably always be excluded from. He supposed he didn't mind that much.
"My point exactly. It's nice to have an intelligent conversation like this from time to time." The owner wiped sweat off his face with the back of his hand. It occurred to Landis that the last thing he ought to be doing was making an impression on people. He found a penny in his pocket and stuck it in the box.
"Well, I'll go get the plates off that one," the man said.
Landis followed him out into the sun. A mangy yellow dog watched him from the shade beside a dumpster. As he headed back up the street to the motel, he reminded himself not to forget to transfer the booster seat they’d bought last week, the two of them shopping the baby section of Walmart like any other responsible set of parents.