What’s more frightening than the undead?
Dora does the same thing for the fiftieth time this week, then asks Jodi what she enjoyed most about the episode.
That it’s over. Jodi leans back and sighs, looks out the window as the Very Large Array slides by, her parents silent in the front seat. She presses her nose against the glass, pants so hard a cloud of white mist gathers around her eyes, taps a hasty cadence with her fingertips.
“Dad, can we pull over?”
Her father says nothing, white knuckles and tight jaw indicate he shut off his ears long ago. He’s listening to music.
Her mother turns to her, sunglasses reflecting the gleaming dishes in the distance. “What’s that, sweetie?”
Jodi points to the up-turned saucers, their antennae feeling the sun-drenched vault for the broader spectrum beyond vision. She learned about radio astronomy from an episode of Cosmos–then she watched her first grown-up movie about a woman that hears a signal from outer space and gets to meet the aliens who sent it. She really liked that movie–she liked that the actress who played the heroine shared her name.
“Lucas, can we stop for a moment?”
Her father’s knuckles whiten even more, the tips of his ears glow pink.
Mother’s hand on his shoulder and he flinches. Jodi winces. Her mother whispers, “Please?”
His grip relaxes as he shrugs her hand off. “There’s something up here. Some tents. Maybe a tourist trap. There. That good enough, sweetie?”
Jodi nods and her mother relays the signal by resuming the awkward silence, the awful stillness marring the vacation, the promise of divorce.
She wants to cry, but presses “Play” for the fifty-first time, instead.
The tent village offers postcards and t-shirts, crystal jewelry and silver baubles, petrified wood, small lumps of turquoise, and amethyst geodes. Her mother gets her a book about stars and a pen made to look like a feather quill. Her father grabs a small replica of a radio telescope for her. He hands the Native American lady at the cash box a fifty and tells her to keep the change.
She still wants to cry, even as she flips through the photos the old woman helped them take. She had to show the old lady how to use her iPad to take the photo, but it turned out beautifully–mom, her, dad with the VLA behind them. She smiles in the photo; her parents do not.
Dora asks again, and again Jodi couldn’t give a damn. I liked the part where my parents were still married, Dora. A tear slides down her cheek. Then another. Then she’s crying and embarrassed because she’s bawling like a baby and she can’t tell them why, can’t let them know that she knows.
“Are you hungry, sweetheart?” her father calls from the front seat.
Unable to speak, she nods.
“Next town we come to, pull over and we’ll get lunch,” her mother says.
“Yeah, no shit.” Her father whispers it, but she hears it, and she heard the tone in her mother’s voice that set him off.
I’d make a good radio astronomer, she takes little comfort in the realization. I’ve got good ears.
They pull off the highway and drive a few miles down a dirt road following a sign that promises mesquite flavored bar-b-q. Neither of Jodi’s parents like bar-b-q, but she does. She likes pulled pork and spare ribs and almost anything smoked or off the grill. The tears press against her lids once more, but she blinks them back.
The waitress brings them unsweetened iced tea and a brown clay bowl stuffed with packets of sugar. Her father churns furiously as her mother sips water. Jodi doesn’t care because she’s not thirsty. She’s not hungry. In truth, she simply wasn’t–at that moment, in the diner, something falls out of her heart and head, clatters to the floor and shatters as her parents swap barbed compliments, as the waitress looms over their booth.
“We’ll need a minute,” Jodi says to the lady, but her voice sounds wrong in her head, distant.
Her mother and father laugh, the waitress doubles over and screams of precociousness to the cook. Jodi watches them melt, listens to them laugh from a mile away. I’ve got good ears. I could be a radio astronomer.
She falls over in the booth, eyes wide, lips parted to make way for a raspy, sibilant hiss that forms equally in her bowels as in her lungs. Whatever fell out turned to gas–Like what happens to dry ice….–and fled, tugged itself free from my toes and the tips of my fingers, disentangled itself from the roots of my hair, withdrew its rays from the orbs in my skull, silenced the chorus of my voice. Even her thoughts sound strange.
Her father looms over her, and behind him her mother. The waitress takes up the rear and past her the cook comes into view in his grubby t-shirt. They recede down a long tunnel the color of gasoline floating on a mud puddle.
The mountains outside her window are wrong, but Jodi doesn’t care. The doctors and nurses come and go, but she doesn’t care. The radio telescope replica her father bought sits on the small table where they leave her meals–I don’t care.
Her mother visits one afternoon, then her father. The awful silence comes back, but she doesn’t care.
The staples in her scalp will leave a scar, and a little boy pokes his head in the wrong room–in her room–and calls her “Frankenstein” but she doesn’t care.
She makes up a lie about one of the nursing assistants, just to see what will happen, and tells one of the nurses with the big badges around her neck. She says the assistant slapped her one afternoon
“Who?” the elderly woman asks.
Jodi finds that the tears come easily. “The girl with the pony-tail.”
“Do you remember her name, sweetie?”
Bethany doesn’t come around after that, and when people enter her room they come two at a time, never alone. Even the doctors and the MRI technicians come in small groups.
They fear me.
She cares about that.
Her son points out the window of the minivan to a sign that says Meteor Crater, AZ. She smiles at him.
“Can we pull over, please?” She lays a hand on her husband’s shoulder.
He grunts. “That place is pricey.”
“Please?” She mimics the tone she learned all those years ago, the patronizing, pleading, mewling sound of someone pretending to understand etiquette. The tone that signifies she’s in the game to win, no matter what it takes, because she knows that he’s doing exactly the same thing.
His knuckles whiten and his ears darken. Her son doesn’t see it, but he’s not supposed to notice. If I had a daughter, though…
“We’re almost to your parents’ place. Can’t we see it on our way back?”
She nods toward the backseat, gives her chubby child a wink and a kiss. The boy pales and his lower lip starts to tremble.
His father pulls off the Interstate and heads toward the crater. The awful silence returns, and he’s left alone with his thoughts–the grown-up thoughts of divorce, the childish thoughts of caring.