The Choice

by Amy Robleski
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I count the semis on lonely mornings, sitting on our back porch in Pyletown and thinking of what might have been. The road dust sticks to my dark jeans, and I think about how I wouldn’t be in this God-forsaken place if it weren’t for those damn trucks. If it wasn’t for one damn man who drives one damn truck and only sees my mother two nights out of the week.

The nights are not even in a row. It’s usually Sunday and Wednesday. And even then, Craig spends half his time off at Holly’s Tavern. But my mother still puts on her best dress and does up her lips like berries. She doesn’t think her life is sad.

Being seventeen, I know my life is sad. Still, it’s better than it has been. Before Craig, my mother jumped from man to man and job to job, moving me and my little sister, Hannah, with her. She promised us things would be different in Pyletown. And, in some ways, things have been.

Mom got a job as a shampoo girl at the Pyletown Wash & Curl. She likes it because the tips are pretty good. I like it because she gets to talk to women all day, which I think is a hell of a lot better for her than talking to a shrink.

But I don’t say that kind of thing to her. I just sit out on the back porch, counting semis and plotting my escape.

#

It must have been August, ’cause I remember thinking about starting school. Dreading it. I was going to have to start my senior year without any of the friends I’d managed to make in our year-and-a-half stay in Cincinnati. Kids in Cinci never heard of Pyletown, and I hadn’t either. Not until my mom told me we’d be moving here because Craig had asked her to move in with him.

I could see the excitement on her old-before-her-time face as she told me that he hadn’t just asked her to move in. He had asked all of us: her, me, and Hannah; and we were going to be a family, and wasn’t that great? It would be just like a Disney movie, except without all the talking animals.

I rolled my eyes. My mom was always getting her hopes up. I didn’t know Craig well, but I knew he lived with his elderly mother. I’d heard him saying on the phone one night that he worried about her staying alone when he was driving.

It was obvious to me that Craig wanted us to move into his house in Pyletown so someone would look after his mother for free. But it wasn’t obvious to my mom. I’m sure she heard wedding bells and the cry of new babies when he’d asked her. But I couldn’t break her heart. I’d stood by her, packed up my few belongings and moved to Pyletown. That hot August morning, I was sitting out on the back porch, and Hannah came outside wearing one of Craig’s old t-shirts as a nightgown. I could see the pink hearts from her little-girl underwear peeking through the nearly translucent material. I stuffed my cigarette underneath the metal bench and stomped it out with my heel.

“Shouldn’t you be dressed by now, Hannah-Banana?”

She stuck her thumb into her mouth.

“Is Momma-Enders bein mean?” This was the name our mom had decided we should call Craig’s mother. Momma-Enders was supposed to help me take care of Hannah during the day, but most of the time I ended up taking care of them both.

Hannah shook her head. “Someone comin,” she said. “Someone tall.”

I guessed she’d been looking out the front window and saw someone on the road. In Pyletown, you saw the dust long before you saw the person.

“You sure he’s comin here?”

She nodded slowly. “Come on,” she said, grabbing my hand. “Come now.”

Pyletown wasn’t the kind of place where everyone knew your name, even though it was small. There were a lot of families like ours who were basically drifters. Still, you got used to the faces around town. Even though most people looked at us like we were just more of that red-brown road dust, we had been there almost three months, and we had an idea of who was who.

The man walking up to our house that day wasn’t anyone I knew. For one thing, he was a hell of a lot taller than any of the farmers, miners, or factory workers I’d seen in town. And even from a quarter mile away, his brown hair shone in the sun. It looked like the dust was running straight off it like beads of rainwater on a car windshield.

My sister was right-he was coming straight for the house. I guessed he must have come from Lake Road. Ours was the only house past the hill, and he was walking down it quickly. I thought at first that he was some kind of salesman, but he was dressed casually and didn’t carry so much as a briefcase.

“Don’t just stand there gawking,” I told Hannah as much as myself. “Let’s open the door and see what he wants.”

I could hear Momma-Enders snoring in her La-Z-Boy, and I eased the door open slowly.

“Put on some pants,” I whispered to Hannah, who was bouncing up and down on the couch. She ran into the back bedroom we shared and appeared a minute later, wearing a pair of pink corduroys. Her feet were still bare.

I took her hand and walked out onto the front porch, remembering to close the door behind me softly.

The man saw us now, and grinned. Heat melted slow and soft in my lower belly and ran all over what Momma-Enders called my “lady parts.” I’d never seen a man so mesmerizing attractive. He had one of those noses that look like they’ve been broken at least twice. His jaw line was sleek and chiseled. But it was his smile that had set me on fire.

He gave a little wave, and we waved back. Soon, he was just close enough to talk. He stopped there, fifty feet from me and my sister.

“I’ve got car trouble,” he yelled. I could hear him catching his breath. “You have a phone?”

I nodded stupidly. He moved closer to us, and Hannah gripped my hand tighter.

“It’s okay,” I whispered to her. “You go on around back and play.”

Hannah shook her head. I gave her a look, and then she went, glancing back over her shoulder at me and at the stranger.

Then he was beside me, and my head felt light, like I’d just shot-gunned a beer. I waved him toward the house and we walked together.

I’d had crushes, and even thought I was in love a time or two. But I’d decided long ago that I was smarter than my mother, and that I wasn’t going to be a fool for any man. That didn’t mean I hadn’t slept with Leroy Thompson last year after the spring dance. But it did mean I was careful-both about the sex and about the feelings. My mother had gotten pregnant with me when she was sixteen. But it was her blind, stupid love for my father that had been her real undoing.

Still, something about walking next to the stranger made me feel a way I hadn’t known I could. It wasn’t just lust, though God knows I was full of that. It was something like my mother’s boundless hope that everything would turn out just perfect if we only moved to another town or she got another job or another man.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Darcy.” I hoped I looked older than I sounded.

“Thank you so much for helping me, Darcy,” he said.

“No problem.”

We reached the house, and I opened the door slowly. “Be really quiet,” I said. I couldn’t think of how to describe my relationship to Momma-Enders to him, so I just said, “Momma-Enders is sleeping.”

He nodded as if he understood. Luckily, the phone was in the kitchen, which was about as far as you could get from Momma-Enders’s room and still be in the house.

“Do you want to call a garage?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “If you know one in town that carries parts for foreign cars.”

His accent didn’t sound like the ones of native Pyletown-ites, but it was definitely some kind of Midwestern.

“Joe’s does most kinds of cars,” I said, feeling flustered. I knew Joe Chubb from Craig’s poker nights. I wasn’t sure how good a mechanic he was, but I did know that he had a habit of trying to look down my shirt when Craig and my mom had their backs turned.

I opened one of the cabinets and took out our phone book. It had seven other towns in it besides Pyletown, but it was still pretty thin.

“Thanks,” he said. He flipped through the pages noiselessly, finding what he wanted without having to flip backwards. His finger slid down the page, settling on Joe’s. Then he picked up the receiver and dialed the number.

Wanting to give him his privacy, I glanced out the kitchen window at Hannah and saw her swinging happily on the tire swing. It occurred to me that I didn’t know his name.

When he’d finished talking to Joe, the man closed the phone book and ran a hand through his hair.

“Is he sending a tow truck soon?” I asked.

He nodded. “About half an hour. I have to meet him back at the car.” He crept out of the kitchen and I followed.

“What’s your name?” I asked in the daylight.

“Trevor,” he said, and I almost laughed. Trevor Princely was the hero in the pirate romance novel I was currently reading. “Sex books,” Momma-Enders called them.

He turned his face directly at me and smiled like I was the only person on earth. “Do you want to walk with me back to my car?” he asked. I looked into his eyes, but could see nothing of the slipperiness I saw when Joe Chubb looked down my shirt. He wasn’t asking me to sleep with him, I thought, but I knew if he did, it would be hard for me to answer no.

“Sure. Just let me go tell Hannah.”

I ran around the house as fast as I could.

“I have to walk up the road with Trevor,” I told my sister.

“Who’s Trevor?”

“That man.”

She looked at the ground as the tire swung slower. “Don’t go,” she said quietly.

“Why?”

She shook her head. “Just don’t.”

I took her hand. “I won’t be gone long, promise,” I said. “Momma-Enders won’t wake up until her soaps are on.” I squeezed my sister’s hand and then let it go.

Hannah jumped off of her swing and hugged my leg. “I love you,” she said.

“I love you, too.” I took her off my leg and walked around to the front of the house.

Trevor was standing with his back to me. In his hand was something metallic that glinted in the sun. I saw it was a cell phone, one of those fancy ones that are almost as small as a credit card. He held it up to the sky as if he were signaling an airplane.

“No reception out here,” I said, and he turned around.

“I guess not.” He flipped the phone closed and put it in the pocket of his jeans. “I tried it earlier, but when I didn’t get a signal, I started walking.”

“Pyletown used to have a U.S. Cellular tower, but it blew down in a storm last year. Not enough customers, so they decided to nix it.”

Craig nodded, looking around at the woods and the highway behind the house. “Want to get going?”

“Sure.”

#

As we walked, I thought about a story I’d read in English class last year. I couldn’t remember the title, but I knew it was the name of a Bob Dylan song. I did remember the author’s name, though, because she had the same last name as my English teacher. It was Joyce Carol Oates. The story was about a girl who let a weird guy into her house when she was all alone. Later, it turns out he’s a serial killer.

I looked at Trevor and wondered if I’d made as big a mistake as the girl in that story. But instinct told me I hadn’t. For one thing, I hadn’t let him into the house alone; Momma-Enders had been there and Hannah in the backyard. And that had been fine. He’d made his phone call and now we were just walking back to his car. I was just being neighborly, I told myself, with a little bit of bored and horny thrown in for good measure.

“How do you like Pyletown?” he asked. His long legs made it hard to keep up with him, even though I could tell he was trying to walk slow for me.

I shook my head. “Not much. But we haven’t been here long enough for me to hate it yet.”

He laughed. “I know the feeling. I grew up in Bakersville, about sixty miles from here. I don’t think I ever thought about anything but getting out from the time I could talk.”

We walked up the steeper part of the hill, and I slowed down to catch my breath. “So what did you do?” I asked. “How did you escape?”

The smile bypassed his mouth and went straight for his eyes. “One day, I just did it. I bought a bus pass to California, which was just about the farthest place I could think of. I had some money from a part-time job, and it took me a little ways. I took odd jobs and finally ended up doing construction. And now I own my own construction company.”

My mouth dropped open. I didn’t know anyone who owned something they’d call an actual company. I knew Shirley who owned the Pyletown Wash & Curl, but that was small potatoes compared to owning a company. And coming from a place like this! I’d wanted to kiss him before, but now I wanted to more than ever. Maybe just to see if he was real.

He laughed again. “Don’t look so shocked. I’m not as dumb as I look.”

“I don’t think you’re dumb, I’m just amazed,” I said.

“That’s the miracle of hard work and determination,” he said. “Sometimes it makes the impossible possible.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. It sounded a little too much like my mother’s Pollyanna approach to life. But damn, if he could do it, what was stopping me?

“How old were you when you left?”

“Sixteen,” he said. “Had a fake ID that said I was 18, and nobody ever questioned it.”

We were over the hill now, and I could see Lake Road below us. His car was there, just like he’d said, with the four-way flashers going and the hood open.

“What about your family?” I asked. “Ever see them now?”

“No,” he said, suddenly solemn. “Never looked back.”

#

We reached his car sooner than I would have liked, and I looked at him, shielding my eyes from the sun.

“I guess I gotta go,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Good meetin you.”

“Thank you for helping me, Darcy.” He took my hand in his, and goose bumps ran up the side of my body.

“You’re welcome.”

“Wait!” he said as I was turning to go. I let myself think for a minute that he was going to kiss me, but I knew he wasn’t.

“Darcy, do you really want to leave Pyletown?” he asked. “Because I can help you. Loan you money, get you a job; stuff like that.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’d waited my whole life to get out of crappy small towns-and crappy big ones too. I was tired of being a second (sometimes more like a first) mother to my little sister, and I was tired of my mom’s endless string of boyfriends. I was tired of taking care of Momma-Enders, who never thought anything I did was good enough. But most of all, I was tired of not being free.

Then I thought about Hannah and how she’d grabbed my hand and told me not to go. Told me she loved me. She’d seen something in Trevor, something that transcended our often-miserable existence. And it had scared her because she knew I could go. She would have to stay because she was still a child, but I could go.

But I couldn’t, I realized. For Hannah, for my mom, and even for horrible old Momma-Enders, I couldn’t go. Not now. I couldn’t be like Trevor and never look back. I would be too full of the things that make you a prisoner even if you look free on the outside. I heard the wind whisper through the trees, signaling the end of summer and the start of a new season. I knew my time would come, and soon, but I didn’t need to rush things.

“Thanks,” I said, wishing he had kissed me instead. “But no. I’m fine here for now.”

He smiled at me again, and I thought I saw pity in his eyes. I hoped he didn’t see the pity in mine before I turned around and walked back up the hill to the house.

2 Responses to “The Choice”

  1. Terry Ervin says:

    Good story. Keeps the suspense going for the reader, wondering what will happen in the end.

  2. Terry Ervin says:

    Good story. Enjoyed the pacing and kept me reading to see what Darcy would do in the end.

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