Two days before Christmas, the children were exchanged at a gas station on a windy
pass north of San Francisco. Their father waited in his car, parked beside the air and
water. Their mother didn’t get out of her car. From behind the wheel, she passed their
backpacks to them, kissed their mouths and as the girl slid out, said something to her
that the boy didn’t hear; he was already outside and the trucks on the road were loud.
Then the boy and girl, huddling against the wind, climbing into their father’s car. When
they looked back, their mother was already gone.
The plan was to meet again at four, the day after Christmas, when the children
would be returned to their mother. But now, the children hunted in their backpacks for
Christmas lists and showed them to their father. He held first one list then the other
against the steering wheel to read. The boy’s list was numbered while the girl had written
all over the paper in many colors. Their father asked for clarifications. Was a bandage
dress what it sounded like? What was the boy planning to put in a wallet? Number four,
the boy told him. He asked if their mother had seen the lists. No, they insisted, the lists
were made especially for him. He folded the lists and slid them into his pocket. It was
still early morning and the children dozed as their father drove east to the mountains,
singing along with the radio.
That day, they toured Moaning Cavern in the foothills. The walls of the cave were
polished pearly green and, as their father remarked, contoured as a skull. Everyone on
the tour took turns shouting in the largest chamber and listening to the echo. Their
father shouted the loudest but the noise seemed to become tiresome to him because he
went ahead of the tour, hiding in a crevice and leaping out when the children passed,
making the girl scream. She was fourteen but he could still make her scream. The boy
was twelve and most of the time he was nervous and uncertain. For the remainder of the
tour, he kept a close eye on his father. His father looked pale, born of chalk or soapstone
and stumbled along the cave’s path, touching the walls and gazing around in awe at the
formations. Later, their father bought them T-shirts in the gift shop. Despite the cold,
they ate lunch from the cooler at a picnic table near the parking lot and the girl put her
hand on her cheek, making a pained face.
“What’s wrong?” said their father. He held up a bottle of beer, ready to drink.
“My tooth hurts,” she said, then put her finger in her mouth, felt inside, closed her
lips around the finger and slipped it from her mouth.
“When did that start?” he asked, but was too distracted to hear the answer.
Something far away had caught his attention. He looked intent like a dog hearing what
The next day, Christmas Eve, they planned to visit their aunt in the mountains. First,
his father had what he called a business meeting. From the motel room window, the boy
watched him sitting in the car and talking on a cell phone. While he spoke, his father
held the steering wheel with one hand as if driving. He adjusted the rearview mirror and
looked in it for a long time. After a while, he got out of the car, still talking and opened
the trunk. He carried a canvas bag to the hood and looked inside, smiling. He seemed
happy, the boy thought. Then he threw the bag in the backseat, hung up and waved to
the boy in the window.
In the bathroom, his father dressed, knotted a tie, combed his hair, clipped stray
hairs on his eyebrows, and checked his teeth. His hair was gray and soft, tufted and
streaked yellow in places, not like his children’s hair, which was coarse and red, like
their mother’s. The boy jumped on the bed while his sister curled in a chair still wearing
pajamas. She looked up from a novel. It was a romance featuring monsters.
“Stop it,” she said.
His father plunged a hand in his pocket. He said, “Get lunch,” and handed money
to the boy. When the girl protested, he took the money back and divided it more or less
The boy looked at the money in his hand. “She got more,” he said.
His father took a few more bills from his pocket and gave them to him. He bent to
kiss the girl on the head. “We’ll find a dentist,” he told her as she tongued her bad tooth.
His father didn’t kiss the boy goodbye. The boy followed him to the door.
“Who are you meeting?” said the boy.
“Why do you ask so many questions?” said his father.
At the sound of the locking door, the girl gazed up from the book. “I’m hungry,” she
said. After a while, she closed the book, shut her eyes and appeared to be daydreaming.
The boy lay on the bed with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. In the
room above them, water in the bathroom turned on. Next door there was knocking as if
someone were pounding a nail to hang a picture. The girl opened her eyes slowly, a sort
The intersection had a clear view of the Sierra Nevada foothills where white streaks
ran down the mountains from overnight snow. Dressed in pajama bottoms, flip-flops,
and new T-shirts from the cave’s gift shop, the boy and girl shivered while waiting for the
light to change. Behind them were the motel where they were staying and a steakhouse
advertising all-day breakfast on its marquee. Air guns fired in loud bursts from the garage
bay of a tire shop and traffic on the boulevard was heavy. When the light changed, the
boy and girl crossed the intersection to a plain-looking strip mall.
At the corner of the strip mall, Gently Donut sold sandwiches, cigarettes, lottery
tickets, and shaved ice with red bean. A menu hung above the tall glass counter and
some of it was in a language the boy couldn’t read. A brown fedora moved along the top
of the counter. It belonged to the man who worked there. Some people who ordered
called him Frank in friendly voices but his face remained impassive and after they left
he’d shout into the kitchen and pealing laughter would return. A baker sang in the
kitchen, making a scratching sound like a rake on concrete. When the boy paid with the
money his father had given him, Frank held the bill to the light. “Sugar Daddy,” he said,
chuckling. The boy and girl ate donuts from a sack and drank hot chocolate in a booth
near the cash register.