"Mama?" my child asks, nestled into the lace of my collar. She looks up at me with eyes the color of the raging green lake outside, and as she lay her head on my breast, she says, "Please tell me the story of Daddy."
I run my fingers through her silky hair; how is it that children are blessed with the purest satin-like features? "Darling," I coo into her ear, "I've told you a thousand times."
She sighs. "Just one more time. Please."
Trees peck against the windows, following the lead of the tempestuous wind. Thunder rages some miles the distance, and rain pelts upon the house with a pat-pat-pat rhythm so strangely gentle, my baby and I could dance to it.
"It was a dark and stormy night," I smile. Serenity looks at me with sparkling eyes, her red cheeks growing ruddy with exhaustion. I'll keep this story short so we can get to bed soon. "On a night just like this one, where the rain howls and the trees are knocking on our windows…"
I met Daddy. Oh, I didn't meet him right away, no; we're going to start in the kitchen, where all the best stories start. I am making myself a pot of water, watching it boil, hoping my eager eyes upon it will it to bubble and trouble. Alas, I am standing there patiently, watching it defiantly sizzle away – not nearly hot enough to pour into the mug full of coffee powder awaiting beside it.
I drink decaf at all times of the day, but at this point it is particularly important I avoid caffeine, as it is pitch-black outside and I am looking forward to a peaceful slumber. Outside the clouds must be covering both the stars and the moon, because through the kitchen window there is nothing but lightless abyss and the sound of rain pattering the earth and roof.
A voice tears through my reverie. "Sara?" somebody calls from several feet away, distinctly deep and male.
"Yes, Dad?" I call, my voice relaying kindness, but my being belaying nothing but impatience for my water to boil.
"Did the phone ring while I was away?" My behemoth of a father comes closer to the kitchen, wherein he stands at the other side of the counter and puts four or so envelopes down on its cherry-wood surface. At nearly seventy-five inches tall, sometimes I mistake him for a bear when he's far away enough. "I'm waiting for a call from a guy who wants to buy the Buick."
"I haven't heard the phone ring," I tell him, lifting my gaze just enough to look him in the eyes as I say this. The news makes his expression fall. "Maybe you can call him," I offer. "Or he'll call tomorrow."
He heaves a sigh and turns away, heading toward the couch, where he'll probably pick up the remote, turn on the television, and die to the world. "Yeah, yeah," he says, hurling himself down into the couch's plushy beige depths. "Enjoy your coffee."
"Oh, I will," I mutter to myself, rubbing my hands together as the water erupts into tumultuous waves of bubble after bubble. I extinguish the fire beneath the pot, and just as the flame is licked out and I pour the delicious water into my delicious mug, there's a rap rap rap! at the door.
Instinctively, I crane my neck to look at the door. My father has the remote in his hand, pointed at the television, but the television is off: black as this moonless night. "Who the hell is that at this hour?" he grumbles, setting down the remote and hobbling toward the door. He's been needing knee surgery for months, but has been putting it off for financial reasons. I'd pay for the damn thing myself if I weren't also destitute.
Before what I feel to be is a dramatic scene, I take in the smell and sight of my coffee: its dusky aroma, its sexy black color. I look into the cup and see my reflection, and flutter my eyes at myself. I silently remind myself to drink every sweet ounce.
I hear Dad unbolt the door – twice – before taking a breath and swinging it open in a grand reveal.
On the other side stands a very wet, trembling, small man. In his hands is a yellow padded envelope, the kind that costs 5.99 at the post office, and he patiently smooths back his drenched hair and smooths down his skinny red tie as he waits for my father to take him in and say something.
Dad looks him up and down, not looking amused in the slightest. "What do you want?"
The small trembling man holds out the envelope in a peace-offering manner. "F-for you, sir," he says, his words coming out so fast they bump into each other. "It's from my boss. He wants to buy the car. He has all the money in this envelope. He saw your price on its window and wanted to buy it before somebody else got to it."
I sip my coffee and make my way around the counter toward the door, curiously glancing over my big mug. Both the wet man and my father glance at me briefly before deciding I'm not a threat and continuing on with their conversation.
Dad takes the package and opens it. I tiptoe behind him and glance into the envelope myself. Sure enough, there are a couple dozen 50s packed into this sucker. It makes me salivate just looking at it. Dad quickly seals it up. "I have to count this to see if it's the full amount," he says, beckoning the man inside. "Go get a towel for him, Sara."
"Yes," I say, putting my coffee back on the counter and flitting away toward the bathroom. "What does your boss like about the Buick so much?" I hear my father ask just as I leave earshot of the duo.
In the bathroom there's a linen cabinet, green with some wood chipped away. However it is adorned in a beautiful manner; birds and flowers bungle to life along its sides, and I take one of the golden button-handles and open it to reveal a colorful assortment of towels. Now, which color would be best for the wet rat in my living room?
Tack tack. At the noise, my entire body zips to life with a shudder; I spin toward the window. Nothing but black. Fear tearing through my heart, I inch closer to it. That sound could have been a tree, or a rodent, a deer, a raccoon…
Inch, inch, inch, my feet do a dance between the cabinet and the window. I'm unsure of how close I want to get.
It could have been anything, my mind rationalizes. It doesn't have to be a person.
I glance at the fluorescent light shining on me from the ceiling, making me horrendously visible to anybody on the other side of the window, while they stay as invisible as a ghost.
I snatch the window curtain's string and pull it, zipping the curtains down and blocking me from view. Phew! "Thank goodness," I mutter, a hand on my panicked heart. I turn my attention back to the pile of towels and put my hand upon one that is cyan blue, the color of the sky in June. Just what this man needs – something to remind him of when the weather is kinder to wanderers.
Tack tack tack!
Oy! I snatch the towel out of the cabinet and close it. Tack tack tack! Okay, it's definitely a person. Is it Mister Rat? I stay still, and hear both him and my father talking in the other room. I'm about to leave the bathroom to run and ask my father to check out the suspicious noise when the window begins to open ALL BY ITSELF.
Breathlessly, I throw the towel to the side and seek something to protect myself with. I only see an array of toothbrushes in a cylindrical porcelain holder, which could also be used as a blunt weapon, and I grab it. "Stand back!" I call, my voice bordering on hysteria. "Don't come in!"
A face appears in the window. It's hard to tell if it's a man and a woman, it's so wet! The dark hair is so matted to their cheeks, their neck, their ears, that I can barely make out their eyes.
The pleasantly-featured face doesn't seem malicious, but it is still a nighttime intruder trying to crawl in through my window, having somehow opened it from the outside (isn't that something only criminals know how to do?), and I raise the toothbrush holder high above my head. "Who are you?" I demand.
"I'm the guy buying the car," the burglar explains, wiping water from his face.
"Why did you open the window?"
"Can you put that thing down?"
"Absolutely not. Why did you open the window?"
The face sighs, and before I know it, a long, wet leg dangles upon the window ledge. "Aha! No!" I screech, striking his calf with the toothbrush holder.
He lets out a cry of pain and drops the leg back outside.
"Dad!" I call.
"No, no no!" the man in the rain pleads. "Please, Sara, just let me in. And hurry up."
But the footsteps were already coming. My father barges into the bathroom, little wet man behind him in tow. "What, what is it?" he asks. Immediately his eyes settle upon the window. I turn around and look too – empty, only the mysterious blackness of the void.
How did the stranger know my name? And was he really the man behind the thousands of dollars of cold hard cash?
"There was… somebody," I explain, unsure whether or not to trust the stranger. My heart is saying yes, but my brain is setting off too many alarm bells to hear it clearly. "At the window."
Dad rushes to the window and sticks his head outside. Surprise surprise, there's only black and more black to be found. He stays there for a minute, rain dripping onto his face and shoulders. In the bathroom it's so quiet and severe that all I hear among the three of us is the rain and the gentle rustling of leaves. The little man is still dripping onto the floor, and in a moment of clarity I retrieve the fallen blue towel and toss it to him. He smiles at me thankfully.
"I don't hear anything," my father grumbles, looking over to me. I shrink with guilt. "Are you sure?"
"Um," I mutter, my voice small. "It could have been just a bird. I'm sorry. I was scared."
My father eyes me warily, knowing me to be braver that I am presenting myself. "Okay," he says, and he and the little man exit the bathroom, closing the door behind them.
The moment the door is closed I turn back to the window, and to my surprise, the young man is already halfway over the window ledge, with one leg fully inside the bathroom, lifting the other inside steadily.
"Ah!" I cry, pushing on his abdomen. He resists, his body stagnant by the window like a post.
"Let me in, fool," he says, shooting me a look of disdain.
"You are an intruder," I say to him through gritted teeth, continuing to push on his sturdy wet body. "Leave."
"I need to be inside without your dad knowing," he says, lifting the other leg into the bathroom. He is fully in here now, inside the house, dripping wet, with me standing here, defenseless, confused, and unfortunately, intrigued. He is handsome and I sense absolutely zero intention of harm or foul. Still, I curse myself for seeming so easy to manipulate.
The stranger reaches for the cabinet, where he undoubtedly had seen me retrieve a towel. "Not a chance," I hiss, swatting his hand. He ignores me, opens one of the doors and takes another blue towel, this one darker, the color of a stormy sea.
"How do you know my name?" I ask him, tugging the towel from his hands. He holds onto it and pats his face dry while I pull and pull. That's it. I'm not a weakling. With a burst of energy, I pull the towel hard, and the stranger is surprised enough for me to pull it out of his hands nearly all the way – but he catches a snug handful before it's all gone. "Fuck you," I whisper.
He laughs, a jovial, good-natured laugh that makes my heart skip and my face flare.
"I used to work with your dad," he explains, expertly pulling the towel from my grip and patting his neck and abdomen dry. "I wanted the car, but he wouldn't sell it to me. Says I'll run it into the ground. And I don't care. I want it, and I'm buying it."
I stare at him, dumb-founded. "Okay, that answers one question," I say. "Another one: why are you here now?"
He looks me dead in the eyes. "Because I need you to get me the keys."
"What!" I exclaim. "I am not a pawn in anybody's plan. I'm getting my father."
As I turn to leave, he grabs my arm and pulls me back. His touch makes my breath halt, and he pulls me close to his body, not so wet now, but damp to the touch.
He puts a finger to my lips, and looks deep into my eyes with his wild bronze ones. "I have my reasons, Sara. Look, he has the money he wants. The car is mine."
"Why can't you just do this out in the open?" I protest, struggling to tear myself from my grip, but unlike with the towel, this time he is firm and yielding nothing. He knows he is stronger than me, and while he may not make a show of it, he wants what he wants, and he is determined to get it.
That kind of determination really sets my heart alight, but I owe my father my loyalty, and I look back into the stranger's eyes with the same level of fire. "Those keys belong to my father. I can't just steal them. He'll ask me where they've gone, and I'll tell him the truth."
Finally, the stranger shows sign of bad temper. He releases me and stalks back toward the window. "Fine. Tell me where they are and I'll get them myself."
"Sara. This whole affair doesn't concern you. This is between me and him."
"And the car."
"Are you toying with me? I don't have time for this." He comes back over to me, his tall frame hovering above my small one. For some reason I am tethered to the spot, awaiting his presence and command. It's terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time, and I know this feeling: I am in love against my will; I want to do something that my ethics do not allow.
It is a feeling of painful conflict, and the more the stranger stares down at me, intimidating my very soul, the more my eyes well up with tears. "I can't do it," I breathe truthfully. "My father has done so much for me, and to steal his keys, that would be a betrayal I couldn't bear. Please don't make me do it."
The stranger's eyes stay hard. "Tell me where they are."
"I have to go."
"Sara!" He takes both my arms and pulls me close. He puts his lips to my ears and murmurs, "Please. I need this car."
I rip myself away. "And you won't tell me why. Unless I'm included in on your little secret, I am leaving this room, finding those keys, and putting them in a place where you'll never find them. Go about this honorably – and also, close the window after you leave."
He stands there, arms crossed, as I shut the door.
When I return to the living room, the little man is gone, and my father has the large pile of cash in front of him on the coffee table, the yellow envelope next to him on the couch. He is patting, preening, and counting the stack of green bills. "Any other birds come to bother you?" he asks, looking up at me briefly.
"No," I say, sitting down on the couch adjacent to him. "Is all the money there?"
"Yep," he grins, flipping through all the bills. "Ninety-five hundred dollars, cash."
"Is there something special about your car, Dad?"
My father gives me a sidelong glance, and I can see the suspicion in his eyes. "You think I charged too much for the Buick?"
"I mean," I say honestly, "It's old and rusted and it's jerky when it rides. You can drive a new car off the lot for ten grand."
"It's a specialty car," he says, eyes averted, putting the money back in the envelope. "I put a lot of expensive new parts in it. It doesn't jerk anymore – it rides smooth."
"So you gave that guy the keys?"
"Oh no," he laughs. He takes a ring of keys out of his pocket and twirls them around. "I'm gunna wait for the man who's gunna be driving my baby to take it away. Little man says he'll be around tomorrow morning, before I head off to work. Originally he said later, but I want to meet him in person. It could be somebody who wanted the car, but who I won't sell it to."
"Why won't you sell it to them?"
My father's face goes red with rage. "Because he's a screwed-up punk who destroys every car he drives. I want this car to stay intact – to maintain its dignity. I've put too much work into it to see it go to the junkyard."
"But you have all the money right here, in your hands!"
"It's not about the money!" he roars, and I sink into the couch a little. He sighs and pats my knee. "I'm sorry, Sara. It isn't about the money. I've had this car for ten years. I've loved it like it was my child; I've torn it apart and rebuilt it again with my own hands. I want to see it go to somebody who will take care of it."
I stay quiet for a moment. "Let go of the car, Dad. Let whoever wants it, have it."
My father looks at me in surprise. "Excuse me, Sara, but I have to ask you: why do you care?"
Oh damn, I let my emotions run the show for too long. "You've been trying to sell the car so long, Dad, it's taking a lot out of you. With the knee surgery and everything, if this punk wants the car, just give it to him. He probably sent this guy to you first because he couldn't come in person, because he knew you'd turn him down."
"Damn right I'd turn him down!" he says, standing up and throwing the envelope on the table. "That car will stay in that garage until someone nobler and wiser comes to pick it up."
"That's a tall order, Dad. We need the money."
"How are you so sure it's the punk?"
At this point we just stare at each other. "I'm just saying," I say slowly, "That it probably is. Who else sends somebody else to drop off the money first?"
"He said he'd be around tomorrow morning."
"What if he steals the keys beforehand?"
Tack tack tack! The kitchen window, a good fifteen feet away from our discussion, gets our attention. "What in God's name is that racket?" Dad says, taking four long strides over to the window. I notice that the ring of keys is still on the table. I take it and take off the Buick's, putting it back just as Dad turns to me.
"Get a flashlight, would you, Sara? Maybe what you heard in the bathroom was a raccoon."
"Sure, Dad," I say, slipping the key into my bra. "Do you mind if I drive the Buick one last time? Just for memory's sake, now that we're selling it?" I take the flashlight from a small desk next to the television and hand it to him.
My father grants me a sidelong glance. "It's dark and raining outside," he says, warning lacing his tone. He turns on the flashlight and shines it into the blackness. The stream of yellow reveals droplets, dust, and several shaking trees. He roams it all around the back yard, but there's nothing: not even a raccoon or a bird.
"I'll take the main road - I need to buy more coffee anyway." I had completely forgotten about my, now cold, cup of decaf sitting in the living room. "Do you need anything?"
My dad switches off the light and looks me dead in the eyes. "For memory's sake, you can drive the thing. But if you're not back in thirty minutes I'm calling the cops for a search party."
"I'll be back in twenty," I smile, and saunter off to the garage, the key feeling cold pressed to my bare skin.
"Pick up a pack of smokes while you're there!" my father calls after me as I shut the garage door. When I switch on the light, there the stranger is, leaning coolly against the Buick, smoking a half-finished cigarette.
"Wanted to see me again, eh?" he grins, blowing out a long stream of smoke. "Let's go for a ride, chickadee. I promise I won't steal the car from you. I want to go for a test drive, too."
I round my way to the driver's side and avoid looking at him. "You're not coming," I declare, but we both know it's a lie. I open up the door with the key in hand, but he pushes past me, takes the key, and shuts the door behind him. The garage door opens up slowly – he must be using the control from inside – and he knocks on the window and waves as I vainly pull at the handle. "So long, buttercup!" he says, and my hands slip as the car drives out into the night.
"Fuck," I whisper to myself. My only choice now is to confront father, who is watching television patiently in the living room with his eyes on the clock. He will wonder, why is my daughter here if I heard the car peel out of the driveway?
But in fact, I don't need to reappear in the house; my father comes outside. He stands at the top of the short stairway, his entire being yielding shock and surprise. For a moment I envision what he is seeing through his eyes: Sara, standing stock still, in the garage, without a car.
"Where's the Buick?" he asks, stepping toward me.
I heave a great sigh as he approaches closer and closer. "He stole it, Dad."
His eyes waver as they look into mine. "Who stole it?"
"The punk. He took the keys from my hand, got into the car and drove off." And that's the God-honest truth.
Dad doesn't say anything for a while; he simply turns away and goes back into the house, leaving me alone in the garage.
I go to follow in after him, but my hip reverberates; it's my telephone ringing on silent. I take it out of my pocket and look at the caller ID: a phone number with an area code completely different to this county's.
Yet I have a feeling I know who it is.
I pick it up.
"Hey, popsicle stick," a smooth voice on the other line starts. "Wanna meet me at the end of the road? We'll have an adventure."
"And that's the first time I ever met your Daddy," I tell Serenity as I stare out the windows. I stroke her hair, but her soft snores against my chest indicate that she's already asleep. "All right, you," I whisper, picking her up and carrying her into her bedroom, tinged with the blue din of her nightlight. The luminescent plastic stars on her ceiling shine above, and I lay her gently in her bed. "Goodnight; Mama will see you tomorrow."