Here and Gone – Haylen Beck

THE ROAD SWAYED left then right, the rhythm of it making Audra Kinney’s eyelids grow heavier as each mile marker passed. She had given up counting them; it only made the journey slower. Her knuckles complained as she flexed her fingers on the wheel, palms greasy with sweat. Thank God she’d had the eight-year-old station wagon’s AC serviced earlier in the year. New York summers might be hot, but not like this. Not like Arizona-hot. It’s a dry heat, people said. Yeah, dry like the face of the sun, she thought. Even at five-thirty in the evening, even as the vents blew air cold enough to make goose pimples on her forearms, if she put her fingers to the window, her hand would recoil as if from a boiling kettle. ‘Mom, I’m hungry,’ Sean said from the backseat. That mewling voice that said he was tired and grumpy and liable to get difficult. Louise dozed beside him in her booster chair, her mouth open, blonde sweat-damp hair stuck to her forehead. She held Gogo in her lap, the ragged remains of the stuffed bunny she’d had since she was a baby. Sean was a good boy. Everyone who knew him said so.

But it had never been so clear as these last few days. So much had been asked of him, and he had endured. She looked at him in the mirror. His father’s sharp features and fair hair, but his mother’s long limbs. They had lengthened in recent months, reminding her that her son, now almost eleven, was approaching puberty. He had complained little since they left New York, considering, and he had been a help with his little sister. If not for him, Audra might have lost her sanity out here. Lost her sanity? There was nothing sane about this. ‘There’s a town a few miles up ahead,’ Audra said. ‘We can get something to eat.

Maybe they’ll have a place we can stay.’ ‘I hope they do,’ Sean said. ‘I don’t want to sleep in the car again.’ ‘Me neither.’ As if on cue, that pain between her shoulder blades, like the muscles back there coming unstitched. Like she was coming apart, and the stuffing would soon billow out of her seams. ‘How you doing for water back there?’ she asked, looking at him in the rearview mirror. She saw him glance down, heard water slosh in a plastic bottle. ‘I got a little left. Louise drank hers already.

’ ‘All right. We’ll get some more when we stop.’ Sean returned his attention to the world passing his window. Rocky hills covered in scrub sloping away from the road, cacti standing sentry, arms reaching skyward like surrendering soldiers. Above them, a sheet of deep blue, faint smears of white, a yellowing as the sun travelled west to the horizon. Beautiful country, in its way. Audra would have drunk it in, savored the landscape, had things been different. If she hadn’t had to run. But she didn’t really have to run, not truly. She could have waited to let events take their course, but the waiting had been torture, the seconds upon minutes upon hours of just not knowing.

So she had packed everything and run. Like a coward, Patrick would say. He’d always said she was weak. Even if he said he loved her with his next breath. Audra remembered a moment, in their bed, her husband’s chest against her back, his hand cupping her breast. Patrick saying he loved her. In spite of everything, he loved her. As if she didn’t deserve his love, not a woman like her. His tongue always the gentle blade with which to stab at her, so gentle she wouldn’t know she’d been cut until long after, when she would lie awake with his words still rolling in her mind. Rolling like stones in a glass jar, rattling like— ‘Mom!’ Her head jerked up and she saw the truck coming at them, lights flashing.

She pulled the wheel to the right, back onto her own side of the road, and the truck passed, the driver giving her a dirty look. Audra shook her head, blinked away the grimy dryness from her eyes, breathed in hard through her nose. Not that close. But still too close. She cursed under her breath. ‘You all right?’ she asked. ‘Yeah,’ Sean said, his voice coming from deep in his throat, the way it did when he didn’t want her to know he was scared. ‘Maybe we should pull over soon.’ Louise spoke now, her words thick with sleep. ‘What happened?’ ‘Nothing,’ Sean said.

‘Go back to sleep.’ ‘But I’m not sleepy,’ she said. Then she gave a cough, a rattle beneath it. She’d been doing that since early this morning, the cough becoming more persistent through the day. Audra watched her daughter in the mirror. Louise getting sick was the last thing she needed. She’d always been more prone to illness than her brother, was small for her age, and skinny. She hugged Gogo, her head rocked back, and her eyes closed again. The car rose onto an expanse of flat land, desert stretching out all around, mountains to the north. Were they the San Francisco Peaks? Or the Superstitions? Audra didn’t know, she’d have to check a map to remind herself of the geography.

It didn’t matter. All that mattered right this second was the small general store off the road up ahead. ‘Mom, look.’ ‘Yeah, I see it.’ ‘Can we pull in?’ ‘Yeah.’ Maybe they’d have coffee. One good strong cup would get her through the next few miles. Audra turned the blinker on to signal a right turn, eased onto the side road, then left across a cattle grid and onto the sandy expanse of forecourt. The sign above the store read GROCERIES AND ENGRAVING, red block lettering on a white board. The low building was constructed of wood, a porch with benches running along its length, the windows dark, points of artificial light barely visible beyond the dusty glass.

Too late, she realized the only car parked in front was a police cruiser. State highway patrol or county sheriff, she couldn’t tell from here. ‘Shit,’ she said. ‘You said a curse, Mom.’ ‘I know. Sorry.’ Audra slowed the station wagon, its tires crunching grit and stones. Should she turn around, get back on the road? No. The sheriff or patrolman or whoever sat in that car, he’d have noticed her by now. Turning around would arouse suspicion.

The cop would start paying attention. She pulled the car up in front of the store, as far away from the cruiser as she could manage without looking like she was keeping her distance. The engine rattled as it died, and she pressed the key to her lips as she thought. Get out, get what you need. Nothing wrong with that. I’m just someone who needed a coffee, maybe a couple of sodas, some potato chips. For the last few days Audra had been aware of every law-enforcement vehicle she saw. Would they be looking for her? Common sense told her no, they almost certainly weren’t. It wasn’t like she was a fugitive, was it? But still, that small and terrified part of her brain wouldn’t let go of the fear, wouldn’t quit telling her they were watching, searching for her. Hunting her, even.

But if they were looking for anyone, it’d be the kids. ‘Wait here with Louise,’ she said. ‘But I want to come too,’ Sean said. ‘I need you to look after your sister. Don’t argue.’ ‘Aw, man.’ ‘Good boy.’ She lifted her purse from the passenger seat, her sunglasses from the cup holder. Heat screamed in as she opened the driver’s door. She climbed out as quickly as she could, closed the door to keep the cool air in, the hot air out.

Her cheeks and forearms took the force of the sun, her pale freckled skin unaccustomed to the sheer ferocity of it. She had used the little sunscreen she had for the kids; she would take the burn and save the money. Audra allowed herself a brief study of the cruiser as she slipped on her shades: one person in the driver’s seat, male or female, she couldn’t tell. The insignia read: ELDER COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT. She turned in a circle, stretched her limbs as she did so, saw the hills that climbed above and behind the store, the quiet road, the tumbling rolls of desert scrub on the other side. As she completed the circle, she took one more look at the sheriff’s car. The driver took a drink of something, appeared to be paying her no attention. She stepped onto the concrete porch, walked toward the door, felt the wash of cool air as she opened it. Despite the chill, stale odors rode the current out into the heat. Inside, the dimness forced her to lift her shades onto her forehead, though she would rather have kept them on.

Better to risk being remembered for buying water than for tripping over boxes, she thought. An elderly lady with dyed black hair sat behind the counter at the far end of the store, a pen in one hand, a puzzle book in the other. She did not look up from it to acknowledge the customer’s presence, which suited Audra well enough. A cooler full of water and soda hummed against the wall. Audra took three bottles of water and a Coke. ‘Excuse me,’ she called to the elderly woman. Without lifting her head, the woman said, ‘Mm-hm?’ ‘You got a coffee machine?’ ‘No, ma’am.’ The woman pointed her pen to the west. ‘Silver Water, about five miles that way, they got a diner. Their coffee’s pretty good.

’ Audra approached the counter. ‘Okay. Just these, then.’ As she placed the four plastic bottles on the counter, Audra noticed the glass cabinet mounted on the wall. A dozen pistols of different shapes and sizes, revolvers, semi-automatics, at least as far as she could tell. She’d lived on the east coast all her life, and even knowing Arizona was gun country, she still found the sight of the weapons startling. A soda and a gun, please, she thought, and the idea almost made her laugh out loud. The woman rang up the drinks, and Audra dug inside her purse, fearing for a moment that she had run out of cash. There, she found a ten folded inside a drugstore receipt, and handed it over, waited for her change. ‘Thank you,’ she said, lifting the bottles.

‘Mm-hm.’ The woman had hardly glanced at her through the whole exchange, and Audra was glad of it. Maybe she would remember a tall auburn-haired lady, if anyone asked. Maybe she wouldn’t. Audra went to the door and out into the wall of heat. Sean watched her from the back of the station wagon, Louise still dozing beside him. She turned her head toward the cruiser. It had gone. A dark stain on the ground where the cop had poured his drink out, the ghosts of tires on the grit. She shaded her eyes with her hand, looked around, saw no sign of the car.

The relief that followed shocked her; she hadn’t realized how nervous the cruiser’s presence had made her. No matter. Get on the road, get to the town the woman mentioned, find somewhere to rest for the night. Audra went to the rear car door, Louise’s side, and opened it. She crouched down, handed a bottle of water over to Sean, then gave her daughter a gentle shake. Louise groaned and kicked her legs. ‘Wake up, sweetie.’ Louise rubbed her eyes, blinked at her mother. ‘What?’ Audra unscrewed the cap, held the bottle to Louise’s lips. ‘Don’t wanna,’ Louise said, her voice a croaking whine.

Audra pressed the bottle to Louise’s mouth. ‘Don’t wanna, but you’re gonna.’ She tipped the bottle, and water trickled between Louise’s lips. Louise let go of Gogo, took the bottle from Audra’s hand, and swallowed in a series of gulps. ‘See?’ Audra said. She looked over to Sean. ‘You drink up too.’ Sean did as he was told, and Audra got into the driver’s seat. She reversed away from the store, turned, and drove back to the cattle grid and the road beyond. No traffic, she didn’t have to wait at the intersection.

The car’s engine rumbled as the convenience store shrank in the rearview mirror. The children remained quiet, only the sound of swallowing and satisfied exhalations. Audra held the bottle of Coke between her thighs as she unscrewed the cap, then she took a long swallow, the cold fizz burning her tongue and throat. Sean and Louise guffawed when she burped, and she turned to grin at them. ‘Good one, Mom,’ Sean said. ‘Yeah, that was a good one,’ Louise said. ‘I aims to please,’ Audra said, looking back to the road ahead. No sign yet of the town. Five miles, the woman had said, and Audra had counted two markers, so a while to go still. But not far.

Audra imagined a motel, a nice clean one, with a shower – oh God, a shower – or, even better, a bath. She indulged in a fantasy of a motel room with cable, where she could let the kids watch cartoons while she wallowed in a tub full of warm water and bubbles, letting the grime and the sweat and the weight of it all just wash away. Another mile marker, and she said, ‘Not far now, maybe another two miles, all right?’ ‘Good,’ Sean said. Louise’s hands shot up and she let out a quiet, ‘Yay.’ Audra smiled once more, already feeling the water on her skin. Then her gaze passed the mirror, and she saw the sheriff’s cruiser following behind. 2 A SENSATION LIKE cold hands gripping her shoulders, her heart knocking hard. ‘Don’t panic,’ she said. Sean leaned forward. ‘What?’ ‘Nothing.

Sit back, make sure your seat belt’s done up right.’ Don’t panic. He might not be following you. Just watch your speed. Don’t give him a reason to stop you. Audra alternated her attention between the speedometer and the road ahead, the needle hovering around fifty-five as she drove through another series of bends. The cruiser maintained its distance, maybe fifty yards, neither gaining nor falling back. It lingered there, following. Yes, it was definitely following. Audra swallowed, shifted her hands on the wheel, fresh sweat prickling on her back.

Take it easy, she told herself. Don’t panic. They’re not looking for you. The road straightened once more, passed beneath rows of cables strung between the pylons on either side. The surface seemed to grow rougher as she travelled, her station wagon juddering. The mountains on the horizon again. She focused on them, a point on which to concentrate her mind. Ignore the cop. Just look ahead. But the cruiser swelled in the mirror, the sheriff’s car drawing close.

She could see the driver now, a broad head, broader shoulders, thick fingers on the wheel. He wants to pass, she thought. Go ahead and pass. But he didn’t pass. Another mile marker, and a sign that said: SILVER WATER NEXT RIGHT. ‘I’ll turn off,’ Audra said. ‘I’ll turn off and he’ll keep going.’ Sean said, ‘What?’ ‘Nothing. Drink your water.’ Up ahead, the turn.

She reached for the stalk to signal, but before her fingers could touch it, she heard a single electronic WHOOP! In the mirror she saw the flickering lights, blue and red. ‘No,’ Audra said. Sean craned his neck to see out the back window. ‘Mom, that’s the police.’ ‘Yeah,’ Audra said. ‘Are they pulling us over?’ ‘I think so.’ Another WHOOP! and the cruiser pulled out and accelerated until it was level with the station wagon. The passenger window rolled down, and the driver pointed to the roadside. Audra nodded, signaled, and pulled onto the verge, kicking up dirt and debris. The cruiser slowed and pulled in behind her.

Both cars halted, shrouded in dust so that Audra could barely see the other, apart from its lights still spinning and flashing. Louise stirred again. ‘What’s happening?’ ‘The police pulled us over,’ Sean said. ‘Are we in trouble?’ she asked. ‘No,’ Audra said, with too much force to be convincing. ‘Nobody’s in trouble. I’m sure it’s nothing. Just sit tight, let Mommy handle it.’ She watched the mirror as the dust cleared. The cruiser’s door opened, and the cop climbed out.

He paused there, adjusted his belt, the pistol grip jutting from its holster, then reached back into the car for his hat. A middle-aged man, maybe fifty, fifty-five. Dark hair turning salt-and-pepper. Solid build, but not fat, thick forearms. The sort of man who might have played football in his younger days. His eyes hidden behind mirror shades, he lowered the wide-brimmed hat onto his head, the same beige as his uniform. He put a hand to the butt of his pistol and approached the driver’s side. ‘Shit,’ Audra whispered. All the way from New York, sticking to county roads when she could, avoiding highways, and she had not been stopped once. So close to California, and now this.

She gripped the wheel tight, to hide the shakes. The cop paused at Louise’s window, dipped his head to peer in at the children. Then he came to Audra’s window, tapped it, moved his hand in a circular motion, telling her to wind it down. She reached for the button on the door, held it as the window whirred and groaned. ‘Evening, ma’am,’ he said. ‘Do me a favor and shut the engine off, please.’ Be casual, Audra thought as she turned the key in the ignition to the off position. Everything’s going to be all right. Just stay calm. ‘Evening,’ she said.

‘Is something the matter, Officer?’ The nametag above his badge read SHERIFF R. WHITESIDE. ‘License and registration, please,’ he said, his eyes still hidden behind the shades. ‘In the glove compartment,’ she said, pointing. He nodded. She kept her hands slow as she reached across, popped the catch, a bundle of maps and litter threatening to spill into the footwell. A few moments digging and she had the documents. He studied them, his face expressionless, while she returned her hands to the wheel. ‘Audra Kinney?’ ‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘Mrs, Miss, or Ms?’ he asked.

‘Mrs, I guess.’ ‘You guess?’ ‘I’m separated. Not divorced yet.’ ‘I see,’ he said, handing the documents back. ‘You’re a long way from home.’ She took them, held them in her lap. ‘Road trip,’ she said. ‘We’re going to visit friends in California.’ ‘Uh-huh,’ he said. ‘Everything all right, Mrs Kinney?’ ‘Yes, I’m fine.

’ He put his hand on the car roof, leaned down a little, spoke in a low drawl that came from far back in his throat. ‘Just you seem a little nervous there. Any particular reason for that?’ ‘No,’ she said, knowing the lie was clear on her face. ‘I just get nervous when I’m stopped by the police.’ ‘Happen often, does it?’ ‘No. I just mean anytime I have been stopped, I get—’ ‘I expect you’ll want to know why I pulled you over today.’ ‘Yes, I mean, I don’t think I—’ ‘The reason I pulled you over is the car’s overloaded.’ ‘Overloaded?’ ‘She’s bearing down on the rear axle. Why don’t you step on out and take a look?’ Before Audra could reply, the sheriff opened the door and stood back. She sat still, the documents still held in her lap, looking up at him.

‘I asked you to step out of the vehicle, ma’am.’ Audra set the license and registration on the passenger seat and unfastened her seat belt. ‘Mom?’ She turned to Sean and said, ‘It’s all right. I just need to speak with the officer. I’ll be right here. Okay?’ Sean nodded, then turned his attention back to the sheriff. Audra climbed out, the sun fierce hot on her skin once more. The sheriff pointed as he walked to the back of the car. ‘Look, see? You ain’t got enough clearance between the tire and the top of the wheel arch.’ He put his hands on the roof and pushed down, rocking the station wagon on its suspension.

‘Look at that. The roads around here aren’t too good, no money to fix them. You hit a pothole too hard and you’re in a world of trouble. I seen people lose control over something like this, they shred a tire, break the axle, or Lord knows what, and they wind up upside down in a ditch or hit an oncoming truck. It ain’t pretty, let me tell you. I can’t let you drive like that.’ A shivery relief broke in Audra; this sheriff didn’t know who she was, wasn’t looking for her. But it was tempered by his insistence on stopping her. She needed to keep moving, but not at the risk of getting on the wrong side of this man. ‘I’ve only got a little way to go,’ she said, pointing to the turn up ahead.

‘I’m heading to Silver Water for the night. I can get rid of some stuff there.’ ‘Silver Water?’ he asked. ‘You staying at Mrs Gerber’s guesthouse?’ ‘I hadn’t decided yet.’ The sheriff shook his head. ‘Either way, still more than a mile to Silver Water, narrow road, lot of switchbacks. A lot could happen between here and there. Tell you what … grab your keys and step back here, off the road.’ ‘If I could just keep going a little further, I’ll be—’ ‘Ma’am, I’m trying to be helpful here. Now just grab those keys like I asked you and come on back here.

’ Audra reached into the car, around the steering wheel, and took the keys from the ignition. ‘Mom, what’s happening?’ Sean asked. ‘What does he want?’ ‘It’s all right,’ Audra said. ‘We’ll get it figured out in a minute. Just you stay put and keep an eye on your sister. Can you do that for me?’ Sean twined his fingers. ‘Yes, Mom.’ ‘Good boy,’ she said, and gave him a wink. She brought the keys back to the sheriff – Whiteside, wasn’t it? – and handed them over. ‘Step onto the shoulder for me,’ he said, pointing to the dirt at the side of the road.

‘Don’t want you getting hit by something.’ She did as she was told, Sean and Louise twisting in their seats to watch through the back window. Whiteside reached for the trunk release. ‘Let’s see what we got back here.’ Was he allowed to do that? Just open her trunk and look inside? Audra put a hand over her mouth, kept her silence as he surveyed the packed boxes, bags of clothes, two baskets full of toys. ‘Tell you what I can do for you,’ he said, standing back, hands on his hips. ‘I’ll move some of this stuff over to my car, just to lighten the load, follow you into Silver Water – I’d say Mrs Gerber will be glad of the custom – and then you can figure out what to do. You’re going to have to leave some stuff behind, I’ll tell you that right now. There’s a Goodwill store, I’m sure they’ll help you out. This here is about the poorest patch of land in the state, and the Goodwill store is about the only one left in business.

Anyway, let’s see what you got.’ Whiteside leaned in and hauled a box to the lip of the trunk. Folded blankets and sheets on top. All bedding and towels underneath, Audra remembered. She had packed the kids’ favorite covers and pillowcases: Star Wars for Sean, Doc McStuf ins for Louise. She saw the bright pastel shades as the sheriff dug down into the box. It crossed her mind then to ask why he was looking inside the box, and she opened her mouth to do so, but he spoke first. ‘Ma’am, what’s this?’ He stood upright, his left hand still inside the box, a stack of sheets and blankets held back. Audra stood still for a moment, her mind unable to connect his question to a logical answer. ‘Blankets and stuff,’ she said.

He pointed inside the box with his right hand. ‘And this?’ Fear flicked on like a light. She thought she had been frightened before, but no, that had been simple worry. But this, now, was fear. Something was going terribly wrong here, and she could not grasp what it was. ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said, unable to keep a tremor from creeping into her voice. ‘Maybe you should come take a look,’ he said. Audra took slow steps toward him, her sneakers crunching on sand and grit. She leaned in, looked down into the dim innards of the box. A shape there that she couldn’t quite make sense of.

‘I don’t know what that is,’ she said. Whiteside slipped his right hand down inside, gripped whatever it was by its edge, and drew it out into the hard light. ‘Care to take a guess?’ he asked. No question what it was. A good-sized baggie half full of dried green leaves. She shook her head and said, ‘That’s not mine.’ ‘I’d say that looks a lot like marijuana. Wouldn’t you?’ The cold fear in Audra’s breast spread to her arms and thighs like ice water soaking through her clothes. Numb at the center of her. Yes, she knew what it was.

But she hadn’t used in years. She’d been completely straight for the last two. Not even a beer. ‘It’s not mine,’ she said. ‘You sure about that?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure,’ she said, but a small part of her thought, there was a time, wasn’t there ? Could I have stashed it and forgotten it lay among the sheets? Couldn’t have. Could I? ‘Then you care to tell me how this wound up in the trunk of your car?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she said, and she wondered, could it be? Could it? No. Absolutely not. She hadn’t smoked anything since before her marriage, and she had moved apartments three times. No way the bag could have followed her here, no matter how careless she was. Heat in her eyes, tears threatening, her hands beginning to shake.

But she had to keep control. For the kids, she thought. Don’t let them see you lose it. She wiped a palm across her cheek, sniffed hard. Whiteside held the bag up to the light, gave it a shake. ‘Well, we’re going to have a talk about who owns this. I tell you, though, I think this is a touch more than could be considered for personal use. So it’s going to be a long and serious talk.’ Audra’s knees weakened, and she put a hand on the lip of the trunk to steady herself. ‘Sir, I swear to God, that’s not mine and I don’t know where it came from.

’ And that was the truth, wasn’t it? ‘Like I said, ma’am, we’re going to have a talk about that.’ Whiteside set the baggie on top of the blankets and reached for the cuffs on his belt. ‘But right now, I’m placing you under arrest.’

.

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