The skies looked mean all morning. It’d rained earlier so the heat had been cranking like a kiln since sunrise, casting the entire state under watches and warnings. Garrett Miller’s body felt blurry from the lack of sleep. As he pulled his Triumph up to the Dexton County Courthouse, the ride had turned his skin nice and numb. He didn’t wear a helmet, though Wendy said he was a father now. He should take care. But if he’d learned anything from his own dad, safety was never the point.
The courthouse was quiet today. Like every week, Garrett signed in with Reception, who led him to the bathroom, cup in hand. He left the UT by the sink and walked to Murphy’s office for the Breathalyzer. When Garrett blew a zero, the PO leaned back and asked about the baby again. “Thing have a name yet?”
“You have suggestions, Murphy?”
“Yeah, Miller,” he said. “Stay straight and get a job.”
Murphy hadn’t cared much for Garrett from the start, figuring him just another lost cause. But he still set up two interviews a week to satisfy the courts, despite the fact nobody wanted an eighteen-year-old ex-con handling their money. It was his first offense, but after posting bond, his mom couldn’t afford the fine. So Garrett got ninety days instead of a deferment. Murphy said he was lucky. A few more ounces and it would’ve turned Possession into Intent. And though it may’ve been true, jail was still jail, even if Garrett only served half a six-month sentence.
“So work is hard to come by.” Murphy opened a drawer. “But you can still go places.”
“Are you telling me to break probation?”
“There’re ways to leave without leaving.” He slid a brochure for Northern Community College across the desk. “Ever thought about learning a trade? They have several programs.”
“How much does it pay?”
“Better than living on assistance. Start investing in yourself. Got others to think of now.”
This morning, before Wendy woke up, Garrett stood over to their daughter’s crib. It amazed and terrified him that this little person depended on him for everything. When her eyes fluttered, Garrett wondered what she dreamt about—if babies even dreamt at this age.
“Plus,” Murphy continued, “register as a student, no more job interviews.”
“I think I’m better off with minimum wage.”
“Well, I’ve already made an appointment at NCC. They’re expecting you today. Don’t show up, you’re in violation.” Murphy stood to signal they were done. “And for Christ’s sake, name the damn kid already. It’s no good for her to not know who she is.”
When he stepped into the trailer, Wendy was pacing the family room, their baby screaming in her arms. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “We’re out of formula.”
Garrett dropped his keys on the table, along with the application. “Should I call Mom?”
“Oh, wouldn’t she just love that?”
“Let me try,” Garrett said, holding out his hands. Soon the sobs turned to a whimper and quiet fell over the room. Until recently, the baby rarely cried. Even when she arrived three months premature, Garrett calling from the prison phone bank for updates, the child silently emerged into the world as if already knowing what little good complaining would do. For weeks she lay in the NICU, refusing to be named until they were sure she’d survive. When the baby was strong enough to take home, Wendy promised to wait until Garrett got out—she wanted to name it together. But now it’d been so long they weren’t sure what to call anything anymore.
Wendy floated across the room like a deflated balloon. “How was the meeting?”
“Murphy wants me to register at NCC.”
She laughed and rolled her eyes, suddenly looking her age. At times he forgot she’d only recently turned sixteen. That they’d been forced to grow up fast, even if it was for different reasons. And though he was to blame for both, he also knew mistakes were a two-way street.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing.” She slumped down on the sofa. “Go to college. We’ll just put it on our tab.”
Her voice had turned nothing but bitter. Just a few months ago, Wendy got a license, her last class before the baby. She’d wanted to drive to every state, get any kind of distance from this place. It was clear she should’ve been the one planning campus tours, filling out applications.
“I guess it’s better than just riding around all day,” she added. “Right?”
“I got things I have to do. It’s not like I get to just sit around the house.”
“Is that what I’m doing?”
He sat close enough to smell the musk of her body but didn’t know what to say.
Maybe something about love though they’d never used the word before. In fact, for years they saw each other in the halls but never actually spoke—until last Valentine’s when Wendy Jamison asked him to the dance. His arrest had apparently helped his reputation, and though Garrett wasn’t much for school, after being bailed out by his own mom, he felt obligated to go. Partly to prove himself but also because it felt normal: the idea of a dance sounding so simple. They posed for photos and drank punch and by the end of the night, with no curfew and the car parked, it felt like there was only one thing left to do. He recalled a sigh as he took off her pants. How they didn’t look at one another during and refused to touch after. Then he drove her home and they never talked again until she called about the test turning blue and her dad kicking her out.
This afternoon, as the baby drifted off, he put his other arm around Wendy, tried to pull her close. She shrugged him off the same way she did every night in bed. And honestly, Garrett couldn’t help feel both relieved and ashamed each time she pushed his body away from hers.
He stared at his child, the pacifier puckered in her mouth. “She looks just like you.”
“I know,” she said, still not opening her eyes.
“Maybe that should be her name then. Wendy Miller. It has a nice sound to it.”
“Oh,” she yawned. “I think she deserves a little better than that, don’t you?”
THE CLOUDS HOVERED like a hangover as Garrett got on his bike. His mom lived in a double-wide down the row and had never fully forgiven him for leaving her. First for prison. Then a new family. So when Wendy said it was time to get their own home, his mom co-signed on the trailer, wanting to keep him close. But today, as he rode by her place, he didn’t bother to stop. He had to keep moving. Yet no matter how fast he went the air was still suffocating—wet and heavy as the day Garrett turned fifteen, when his dad suddenly appeared with a bike in the bed of his truck.
A busted coil assembly and a dirty carburetor, but otherwise his dad said it was a real steal—followed by a wink. Garrett hoped he wouldn’t become an accessory to anything by saying yes, even if the Triumph did look half-ridden to its grave. Then, just a few days later, when the wind picked up and sirens howled, they all took shelter in the bathroom. That night, his father held his family like a roof that’d never tear away. But by morning, when Garrett woke to an empty tub, he knew the only thing the storm left behind was a broken-down bike.
Today, on his way to NCC, Garrett caught that same first gust of wind, when the cold comes too quick and oxygen gets stolen from the air, like the sky could split at any second. He remembered the night they’d slept in the tub, his dad explaining how each time a twister touched down they’d always be kept safe by an ancient Indian blessing cast upon the land. And though Garrett knew the danger in those kinds of myths, today with the bike swerving between his legs, he had a desperate need to believe in something, even if it was just a bunch of superstition.
THE CAMPUS BUSTLED with kids. Garrett tried to ask for directions, but everyone at NCC walked like they all had somewhere to be. He wanted to call Murphy, say he was lost and running late, when he found the Registrar. Garrett waited almost an hour before being called.
The advisor’s cubicle had only three partitions, leaving his back exposed to an open wall. Garrett kept looking over his shoulder as a gray-haired man read a file. “We’re open enrollment. But with your situation, we can deny an application. Which I see you haven’t filled out.”
“I’m not asking for any favors.”
“I’m already doing a favor. For Murphy. He’ll need to write a letter of rec. You’ll also need a character reference. A written personal statement. Then a hearing will determine—”
“Say I do all that. There’s still a chance I won’t get in? And if I do, how is it paid for?”
“There are loans and grants. You have to apply for them in the same way.”
“So let’s say I do all this. And I get in. And I can get the money. Then what?”
“That’s what we want you to tell us. But first you have to prove you’ve changed.”
“I already did my time.” Garrett gripped the handles of his chair. “We done here?”
“This isn’t prison, son. You don’t need my permission to stay or leave.”
Outside, the campus had cleared, leaving behind a strange silence. He tried to take a breath, get his mind right, but the air got trapped in his lungs. Of course, this would all get back to Murphy. So for a moment he was tempted to go back inside and apologize, knew it’d be as simple as filling out a form and signing his name. But Garrett had learned long ago that when you see those dark clouds coming down, the back of a bike was sometimes your only way out.
WHEN HE WALKED into the dark trailer, a small burn caught in his chest. Since the baby, Wendy hardly left home. So though it’d be nice to be alone for once, anything feeling good was probably bad—and a quiet house was never a promising sign. He went from room to room, waiting for the baby to let out a cry like a breadcrumb. It was a feeling he’d suffered only twice before. The morning he woke up alone in a bathtub, and the day Wendy called about showing positive. On both occasions, the eerie stillness that followed always sat like verdict in his mind.
He finally found Wendy in bed, taking a nap. The baby was in her crib by the window. Once he saw his family asleep, the exhaustion of the day gripped Garrett like a drug. He put an arm around Wendy, taking in the smell of her unwashed hair, until she gave him another of her half-hearted shoves. Still, he shut his eyes, and in that darkness listened to his two girls: one dreaming of the distance it would take, the other maybe not dreaming anything at all.
SCHOOL BONFIRES were small, and they always took place half-way between Dexton and Gooding. For years, there were debates over a new highway that’d connect the two towns, until a last second vote diverted the project through Gooding alone. Before long, farmers were forced to sell as Gooding started to expand. At some point, it would absorb Dexton entirely, though until then the rich kids were stuck at Roosevelt High with the rest of the rubbish.
But, on weekends, they played tourist at bonfires, hoping to party without getting caught.
And last spring, Garrett spent an hour searching for his guy—another stuck-up kid from across the highway with dime-bags for sale—before a low whistle called to him from the woods. A figure lurked at the edge of the tree line, his pale face glowing against the dark like some kind of lost ghost. Then came another whistle, the boy waving a baggie in the air as if it was dog treat.
“Okay, I get it,” Garrett said, making his way into the weeds. “What you have for me?”
“Well, Miller,” the boy said. “That all depends on what you’re looking for?”
“I was hoping for a little loan, maybe. I’m kind of strapped.”
“There’s no layaway here.” He wrapped his fingers around Garrett’s wrist like a secret handshake, then slipped an almost empty bag into his palm. “But not to worry. There’s just shake left. So, I want you to have it. Always other ways to pay people back.”
The pressure of his touch, the heat of his skin, made Garrett dizzy, close to collapse.
He had to jerk his hand away to escape the hold. “Cool. I’ll get you back later then.”
As Garrett stuffed the bag into his pocket, the guy smiled and said, “I look forward to it.”
Beer cans cracked open. The fire snapped. Trucks were circled up like spotlights. Soon couples would head to those cabs, small squeals rising above the rumble of engines. But Garrett wasn’t up for a party anymore. He only wanted to go home and smoke, sleep off his nerves, when out of the shadows came the shriek of sirens, followed by a red blaze filling up the night.
THUNDER SHOOK the trailer, waking them with a start. As the boom faded, they waited for the baby’s cry. But when it never came, Wendy had to place a finger to his lips to stifle the laugh.
“What time is it?” she said, her face inches away.
“Late, I think.” The sky had clouded over, shedding a supernatural light across the room.
Garrett’s eyes struggled to adjust, bringing a small ache to his temples. He couldn’t recall his dream though the shadow of it remained, the erection still tight in his jeans. So far they’d been able to ignore the fact that neither had seen each other naked since that night in his car. And as long as he focused on the baby, things made a certain kind of sense. But now, close to each other in bed, a hush fell upon them like an obligation. Garrett put a hand on Wendy’s leg and slowly went in for a kiss, until she put a palm to his chest and said, “It’s been a long time.”
“Is that my fault?”
“Nobody’s fault.” She slipped out of bed and went to the crib. “It’s too soon anyway.”
“It’s almost been a year. We have a kid together. It’s not natural.”
“Not natural,” Wendy whispered, looking out the window. “Neither is going to jail.”
“That’s over.” Sweat surfaced on his brow. “And I never asked a thing from you.”
“You’re right. When I was kicked out of my house. When I had to beg your mom for help. When I was in the hospital for weeks. I never heard a word. Not then. And not now.”
He stood near her, watching dust blow across the gravel. “You say it like I had a choice.”
“There’s always a choice,” she said, as if talking to herself.
“It must be nice to think so.”
A bolt streaked the sky. He counted seconds until the rumble arrived. But when it rattled the windowpane, he was still unsure how long it’d be before the downpour upon them.
“She’ll be hungry soon,” Wendy said.
Garrett stared out at the green skyline. “I forgot the formula.”
“Of course, you did.” She kissed their daughter’s face, stroked that head full of hair.
“Well, what are you going to do about that, Dad?”
“Storm’s coming, Wendy. Can’t you see that?”
“Well, honey,” she whispered into the crib. “I guess we’re not eating tonight.”
OUTSIDE HIS MOM’S TRAILER, he could see light flicker from the TV. The sun hadn’t set but the air felt electric. In the distance, a shadow of rain fell over the fields. It looked minutes away but it was just the plains playing tricks. What felt so close was really far away, miles spanning between you and that vanishing point on the horizon where the world seemed to fall off and disappear.
His mom answered the door in her bathrobe, a menthol smoldering between her fingers.
“I need to borrow the car.” He pointed to the black clouds above.
“Need to sell that damn thing. Bikes are for boys, not men. Get a mini-van or something.”
“The baby needs formula.” He almost asked for some money until she took a deep breath, as if gearing up for a lecture. But when he kept quiet, she could only sigh and wave him inside.
“The baby this, the baby that. Feels sinful not having a name.”
“We’ve talked about this. We’ll do it when the time is right.”
She rummaged in her purse. “Seems like that time has come and gone.”
Maybe she was right, but at least Garrett could still pass along his last name—the only other thing his father left behind. “You’ll be the first to know, Mom.”
“‘You’ll be the first to know, Mom.’”
The TV was muted, people on a game show silently shouting.
“You guys need to go to the courthouse. Get official. Stop making that baby a bastard.”
“Don’t talk that way.”
“Not saying Wendy’s my first choice either. Can’t even figure out how to nurse her own kid. But you made your bed, son.” She gripped the keys, eyes beginning to glisten. “Made mine too, I guess. Didn’t stop me from raising you the best I knew. So don’t go proving me wrong.”
Garrett held out his hand. “I’m doing my best too.”
She gave him a kiss on the cheek, attempting a smile. “Lucky you still have me. Right?”
Once outside, Garret fired up the rusty Impala and shoved it into Drive, curious about how he and the baby would ever survive one mother, much less two at the same time.
THE GENERICS were sold out so Garrett had to get the good stuff. Near the pharmacy sat a display of flowers floating in plastic pots. And though it was perhaps a good idea to buy Wendy a gift—as a way to say sorry—the sight of all those pills behind the counter made him cringe. Not the drugs but the counter itself. He didn’t dream of being a pharmacist, but to know he could never be one now felt unfair. NCC probably had classes on how to read a script, but he’d go on forever not understanding what those words meant, making the entire idea of flowers seem silly.
Especially when the clerk swiped his EBT card and the register simply beeped back. After three attempts, when the cashier asked if he had cash, Garrett was tempted to walk away empty-handed until a voice behind him asked, “We have a problem here, Miller?”
As the ghost-pale face rose over his shoulder, Garrett wanted to disappear entirely, drive to that far-off place where no one knew his name. Except there was the baby. And Murphy watching his every move, and Mom setting her hopes on him, and Wendy waiting back home—and, of course, the boy next to him in line, whispering at his ear—so that soon running away felt like nothing but a dead end. Unless he wanted to look like he had something to hide.
“I guess,” Garrett said, letting the guy take the formula from his hands.
“Looks like you owe me again,” he said, sliding over a twenty. Then with a few taps, the register wound down to zero, everything bought and paid for as if it’d never even happened.
THEY SAT in the Impala, staring out the cracked windshield. The wind picked up, blowing a stray cart across the parking lot. Garrett studied the formula in his hands. “When did you get back?”
“A couple days. Family stuff. Go back to school on Monday.”
Garrett never met anyone who went away to college. He pictured lecture halls filled with important ideas, kids reading under trees. All the things Wendy wanted but would never know.
“I’m applying to NCC.”
“That’s nice,” he said, touching Garrett’s shoulder. “And how’s that girlfriend doing?”
“What do you want?”
“Depends on what you’re looking for.” He gave a low whistle and massaged his fingers into Garrett’s neck. “And sorry, Miller. I don’t accept food stamps.”
Garrett shrugged off his hand. “Even for people who don’t snitch.”
“So you’re saying I owe you.” He clapped his hands, like he just got a punchline. “Still doesn’t seem like that’s what you need.”
“Listen, I know how it works,” Garrett said. “Rich kids go free. Guys like me go to jail.”
“Is that what you know?”
“I know enough.”
“My mom’s about to die. Did you know that?” Garrett couldn’t stop staring at the boy’s mouth, the way it kissed the air with each word. “Sits at home, smoking her prescription all day.”
“Well, we all have problems. At least you have a house.” The wind stopped for a moment, the air dropping by a few degrees. “Probably a big inheritance now coming your way.”
In the distance, clouds lit up like lungs in an X-ray.
“Won’t be long now,” the boy whispered, wiping his eyes. They both sat, watching the sky until he pulled a baggie from his backpack, holding it up. “How about this for on the house?”
But when Garret reached for it, the kid pulled the Ziplock away
“Okay,” Garrett said. “I think we’re even here.”
“Nothing changes around this place,” he said, struggling with the ancient seatbelt. “In fact, how you ever ended up with a baby is beyond me.”
“Well, there you go. I guess some things do change.”
“You think so, huh?”
Garrett was worn out with one-sided questions. But as he reached over to open the passenger door, hoping the guy could take a hint, Garrett was met with a kiss that felt more like fire than flesh. It only lasted a second, but Garrett could feel the pulse between their lips. But when he felt the guy unzip him, holding Garrett hard in his hand, those same soft lips twisted into a smirk, as if they knew something he didn’t. “I bet you just loved it in prison, didn’t you?”
Garrett had never punched anyone before, but it wasn’t like he’d imagined: the way it hurt the fighter as much as the foe. As he rubbed the ache out of his knuckles, the boy simply stooped over, cradling his nose. But then the whimpers began. And all Garrett wanted to do was say sorry, ask how he could help—until it soon became clear the sobs were actually laughs.
“Well, I guess that proves it.” Then the kid slid out of the car and walked away. But not before he tossed the half-empty bag onto Garrett’s lap and said, “You’re a changed man.”
THE RADIO squawked about supercells, radar-indicated rotations, a few tornados touching down.
As Garrett sped down the road, he felt clouds swirl overhead. The wind knocked him between the lanes. The engine hammered like it’d come apart if pushed, and the last thing he needed was to be pulled over. As he rolled down the window, Garrett could almost hear his mom talking about apples not falling far from their trees. And though he threw the baggie as hard as he could, Garrett couldn’t shake the feeling it’d never be far enough.
He pulled up to the trailer and saw his bike had been tipped. Then the rain stopped, as if sucked into the sky—and no amount of superstition was going to prevent what was coming next.
Inside, Wendy was making dinner, the baby asleep in her arms. “Where were you?”
Garrett held up the formula. “I got it.”
“My hero. What took you so damn long?” she yelled, causing the baby’s eyes to jerk open. Garrett braced himself as his daughter’s voice filled the room. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Stop, Wendy.” He took the baby from her. “You just scared her.”
“What are you talking about? She never stops crying.”
Garrett wasn’t sure if they were talking about the same child. Was she actually a bad baby? Did he not know one way or another? “You’re just not doing it right.”
Wendy’s eyes cut across the room and Garrett waited for her words, harsh and revealing.
Instead, her face softened. And when she laid her hand on his, it nearly felt like a pardon, until her brow bent into a crease. “What happened to your hand?”
He pulled away from her, the baby somehow feeling heavier in his grip. “I’m fine.”
“Are you?” she asked, crossing her arms. “Because it sure looks broken to me.”
But before he could reply, sirens wailed across town, the sound descending like a scream.
“Get into the bathroom,” he said, shoving the little body back into Wendy’s grasp.
“Where are you running off to now?”
Outside, he had to stride against the wind and fight his mother’s trailer door open.
She was still on the couch, watching weathermen on TV.
“They haven’t shut up about it,” she said. “Now I’m going to miss my shows.”
“It’s happening, Mom. Why don’t you come over to our place?”
Garrett expected a struggle but instead her face filled with a joy he couldn’t quite figure.
She took his hand as he led her to their trailer where they found Wendy already in the bathroom, trying to shush the baby.
“You two. In the tub.” His mom started to get in when he stopped her. “I meant them.”
Her face went slack as he helped Wendy into the stall.
“It’ll all be over soon,” he said, knowing that unlike other threats, tornadoes came quick and left just as fast. You almost didn’t see them until they were on top of you, taking up all the oxygen, filling your world with debris. Then before you knew it, they were gone, hitting your house but missing your neighbors’ like some kind of lost traveler in the night.
“Just in case,” Wendy said. “I want you to know. I named her after my mother.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We couldn’t leave without a name. To take her home she needed a birth certificate.”
There was a sharp snap and the room went black. Garrett blinked at the sight of his family disappearing into darkness. The only thing still alive in the room was his child’s fragile sobs and the sound of the warning sirens with their steady ability to break everything open.
“Hello?” Wendy asked. “Garrett? Are you there?”
Garrett nodded, though he knew in the dark it did no good comforting her fears.
When the trailer shifted in the wind, he wondered if their little house could withstand the destructive desires of the oncoming storm. Or if they, too, would blow away for good.
“It’s a nice thing to do for your mom,” his mother said. “What’s her name, honey?”
“Hannah.” Wendy held Garrett’s bruised hand. “Her name is Hannah Jamison.”
Garrett said the name aloud; then whispered in her ear: “I like the sound of that better.”
Though thicker now, Wendy was still little enough to reach his arm all the way around. He had no idea how someone so small had survived the growing heft inside. It was a miracle she hadn’t been torn in two. So now, crammed so close in such a tight space, he gently touched her waist and waited. Another gust shook the house, Wendy pushed the baby into Garrett’s hands and locked her arms around his neck, the inescapable pressure of her embrace making it all but impossible to breathe.
▪ ▪ ▪
Marc Dickinson’s work has appeared in the Shenandoah, Cream City Review, North American Review, Greensboro Review, American Literary Review, Chattahoochee Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, South Dakota Review, as well as other journals. He lives in Iowa with his wife and two children, and teaches creative writing at Des Moines Area Community College.