At first glimpse, the car is not ominous. Nothing about it suggests that it might change my life, although it is the kind of car you’d notice even if this weren’t a small town where everyone knows everyone else. The chrome gleams and flashes in the afternoon sun. Every head turns to look as it passes slowly down Main, all glossy black paint and white-wall tires. I’m standing outside the post office and can’t see the driver at first with the sunlight bouncing off the windshield, blinding me. As the car cruises by, I catch a glimpse of him through the too-long dark hair that hangs down over my eyes. It’s not much: a worn-leather-jacketed elbow poking through the open window, the impression of a large man, well built and disguising the fact he’s balding by shaving his head. A shrill laugh shatters my thoughts with its familiarity and I let my eyes slide past to him to see my mother in the passenger seat. I turn my gaze back to the driver and find myself staring into a pair of green eyes that perfectly match my own.
My father’s eyes; eyes I haven’t seen for nine years. I see recognition flash across his face and he mouths my name.
It’s past me then, picking up speed as it reaches the end of Main, growling low and throaty as it carries on into the countryside. Not knowing what else to do, I continue on my way to the hardware store. I’ve been promising my sister Molly, that I’d fix her bike for three weeks, so I left school early to pick up the parts I need to do the job.
I am hesitant as I walk through the door of Maria’s Café where my mother works split shifts as a waitress. Calling it a café is aggrandizing the place. It’s a diner, and not a particularly good one. But there isn’t much choice in a town this size, and my mother was grateful to get the job -any job- when my Dad walked out on us when I was nine. Molly and I go there almost every day after school. My mother takes her break then, and the three of us pile into a booth to talk and eat pie until it’s time for her to set up for the dinner rush.
The place is almost deserted. Two farmers are at one of the tables in the window, drinking coffee in stoic silence. My mother is behind the counter, re-filling the sugar bowls. Her face is flushed, a small smile tickling the corners of her mouth as she works, humming to herself.
“Hey,” I say as I swing myself onto one of the stools at the counter.
“Yeah. Study period last, so I skipped out.”
She looks sternly at me. “Tony! You know you’re not supposed to do that.”
“I know. Can I have a coke?” I’m waiting for her to mention Dad, waiting for her to explain. She doesn’t, just slides a cold, sweaty bottle towards me and turns back to her sugar.
“Hi Tony! Hi Mama!” Molly skips through the door, her pink backpack bouncing on her shoulders. “Guess what?”
“What?” I watch as she clambers onto the stool next to me.
“I got an A on my book report!” She holds up the two scrappy pages I’d helped her with last week proudly, the red “A” scrawled across the top.
“That’s great, Molly!” My mother takes the report and pins it up on the board behind the counter. “There! Place of honour.”
The bell over the door tinkles its bright tune and I turn towards the sound, eyes skimming the front window as I do. I freeze when I see that car parked right in front, knowing that when I finish turning I will be face to face with my father.
“C’mon, Molly!” I say, taking her arm and dragging her from the stool. “We’d better go.”
“I just got here!”
“I know. But I want to get home. I got the bits to fix your bike.”
“Really…” I don’t get to finish because he appears next to us, slipping in between the two stools. I leap off mine, elbow swiping the half-full coke bottle that crashes to the floor.
“Tony!” My mother tosses a cloth across the counter, expecting me to clean up my own mess. I leave the crumpled rag where it falls and half drag Molly out of the place, shouldering my father aside as we go.
As we trudge up the road towards home, my mind keeps sliding back to my father, wondering how long he’s been here, what he wants. We look alike, I realise, he and I. And I’m as tall as him now, but slimmer, wirier. It surprises me because I’ve always remembered him towering over me. But it has been nine years. Nine years since he decided he wasn’t ready to be a father, or a husband. Nine years since he chose his freedom over me and my mother, and the bump in her belly that became Molly. Molly doesn’t seem to notice that I’m oblivious to her chatter, keeping up a steady stream until we reach the steep rise just ahead of our driveway.
Fixing the bike is good, takes enough concentration that I don’t have an opportunity to think about anything else. Molly runs around the yard, occasionally trying to help, but mostly just keeping out of my way. She’s a good kid. I’m just about finished and starting to think about dinner when I hear the scuff of gravel at the top of the driveway. I look over and see that car coming slowly down towards the house, engine purring.
“Who is it?” Molly asks, coming to stand by my side.
“Nobody.” I tell her, wiping grease from my fingers onto my jeans. He parks in front of the porch and gets out, studying the house. Probably noticing the peeling paint and the way the porch steps sag. His leather jacket is worn white in places and a little too tight. His arms swing awkwardly from his shoulders, constricted by the leather.
“What do you want?” I ask bluntly, taking a step towards him.
“Molly?” He doesn’t even glance my way. “Do you know who I am, Molly?”
“No.” She is pressed against my leg now, wary of this stranger.
“I’m your father, Molly. I’m Daddy.”
“Really?” She looks up at me for confirmation and reluctantly I nod. She steps away from me, towards him, and I want to reach for her, drag her back. But I don’t. She is asking him questions, but I don’t hear any of them. Can’t listen to anything either of them is saying. All I can think about is the way my mother cried when he left. Night after night I would wake up and find her curled on the couch, or at the kitchen table, tears pouring down her face as she sobbed. I remember praying that he’d come back; lying in bed and actually begging God or whatever force there was out there to bring Dad back to us.
Dad reaches out a hand, touches Molly’s shoulder, and that’s when I lose control.
“Don’t touch her!” I say, startled by the cold hardness of my voice. “Just get away from her!”
He is looking at me now, those green eyes like my own reflection. “Tony…”
“No!” I cut him off before he can say anything more. “Keep away from us. We don’t need you!”
“Tony.” Molly’s eyes are huge and frightened. “Don’t say bad things, Tony.” But I can’t help it. Bad things are pouring from my mouth. Nine years worth. I’m shocked by the venom in my words, hadn’t known there was so much poison stored within me. It’s almost as if I’m not in my body. It’s as if I’m standing off to the side, watching this person called Tony Detwiller say words that are killing his little sister inside.
“Just get out of here!” I shout. “You have no right to talk to her! You didn’t want her! You dumped her before she was even born!”
Molly’s face crumples until she just looks destroyed. There are tears in her eyes, but she’s not crying. Her jaw is set like concrete, lips pressed into a thin white line as she fights the sobs. She’s shaking like a leaf.
“Stop it!” she screams. “Just stop!” And then she’s running; grabs up the bike and keeps going, jumping on at the bottom of the driveway and standing on the pedals to get enough momentum to make it to the top.
“Molly!” I holler after her. “Molly!” My heart is in my mouth and I can barely speak around it. I turn and see my father still standing there, where I’d been berating him seconds earlier.
“The brakes aren’t connected,” I choke, watching as Molly disappears over the crest of the driveway, turning towards the steep hill just beyond our place.
Dad moves before I do, dashing up the driveway to the street. A second later I follow, but he’s still ahead of me, running like the wind. It’s like running in a nightmare. I’m going as fast as I can, sprinting, feet pounding the ground, but I’m getting nowhere. It feels as if I’m moving through syrup or quicksand or some other viscous liquid. I reach the top of the driveway and see Dad’s back as he speeds down the incline. I can see Molly on the ground, the front wheel of the flattened bike still spinning. By the time I get down there, Dad is kneeling next to her, picking gravel out of her leg through her shredded jeans.
“Get away from her!” I order, leaning over my father. If he doesn’t move I’m going to haul him up by the arm and drag him away. I’m going to hit him, beat him to a bloody pulp.
I kneel next to Molly who is basically okay, just grazed and scared and sore.
“C’mon,” I murmur, scooping her up in my arms. “Let’s get you home. I’ll take care of you. ”
Mom doesn’t get home until almost eleven. I’m sitting in the slice of light just inside Molly’s bedroom door, guarding her like a protective lion. Mom sees me there and sighs as she drops her keys on the table.
“Is she okay?” Mom asks, telling me she knows what happened. Telling me she’s seen him.
“Yeah,” I say gruffly. “She will be.” Most of Molly’s right side is skinned raw, but otherwise she’s okay. She’s lucky she fell sideways. If she’d gone over the handlebars we’d be having a different conversation.
“How long?” I ask in a low voice, my eyes not leaving Mom’s. Today is not the first time she’s seen him. The way she was laughing in the car with him tells me that. I would have noticed the car though, if he’d been hanging around for long. You can’t miss something like that. But then, maybe she’s been seeing him somewhere else. In a town this small it doesn’t take long for rumours to start, so yeah, she must have been going elsewhere.
She sighs. “A couple of months. Can you come out? We need to talk.”
“I love him,” she explains, head down, looking at her hands. “I’ve always loved him. Since I was younger than you are now.”
“So what does that mean?” I’m sitting on the couch, across the coffee table from her in the armchair. “He’s going move back in and we’ll play happy family?”
Mom raises an eyebrow at me. “Do you think you can do that?” She knows me too well. I can’t hide anything from her.
“No,” she agrees, then surprises me with what she says next. “You’re going to have to let her go, you know.”
“Molly.” Mom sighs and looks at me again. “Let her go, Tony. Maybe you’re too old to have a relationship with your Dad now. I know you are. But she’s not. I don’t want you to poison this for Molly. She could still have a father. She doesn’t have the resentment you have.”
“What are you saying?”
“I guess I’m letting you go.” Mom’s eyes are shiny as she says this and I hope she won’t cry. I’ve seen enough of her crying to last me a lifetime. “I’m treating you like an adult and I’m giving you a choice. You can stay here, but you’ll have to live with Dan. You’ll have to be civil to him. And not bad-mouth him to Molly.”
“You can go. You’d be leaving soon anyway, you know. You’re eighteen, a man.”
“Where would I go?”
“That’s up to you, Tony.” My mother’s voice is low and gentle. “I’m setting you free.”
“Some choice!” I get up and pace the room, not quite believing that my own mother is forcing me to make this decision. This morning the biggest choice I had to make was whether to wear the blue shirt or the green.
“Unfortunately, Tony,” Mom says. “That’s what being an adult is like.”
I drop back onto the couch. “I’ll go. But I’m taking Molly.”
“No.” She shakes her head. “That’s not part of the deal. She stays with me. You’re not her father, Tony.”
“Yeah?” I challenge her. I may not be Molly’s father, but for the last nine years, her whole life, I’ve been the closest thing she’s had. Now it seems I’m going to be replaced by the real thing. I wonder how Molly’s going to feel about that.
“It’s been hard, Tony. You know that. And I’m sorry that I had to put so much on you. But I had no choice! Now I do.” She’s one tough lady, I have to give her that. There are no tears, just a steely resolve and tortured blue eyes holding onto me.
“What do you want?”
“How can you even ask me that? I want you to stay. Of course I want you to stay, Tony! You’re my son, and I love you. But I don’t want you to be unhappy. Or angry or bitter or any of the things I know you will be if you’re around your Dad.” I just look at her then, learning the planes of her face all over again, studying her so I won’t forget later.
I leave that night, kissing Molly as she sleeps.
“I’ll be back,” I whisper to her, hoping that it’s true. I don’t want to think this is the last time I’ll see her. I have no idea where I am going, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s almost liberating this not knowing. The future awaits me, blank and uncertain. The whole world is out there, just waiting to be explored and discovered. I’m on my own with no responsibility, no burdens and no expectations. Just me. Alone. Free.
Only it’s hard to see where I’m going through the tears.