Catherine's parents were missing.
She had not yet called the police, although she had stood in the kitchen, curling the telephone cord around her fingers, nibbling on her bottom lip, hoping they would come stumbling up the walkway, half-drunk. Her father, Benny, would be supported by her long-suffering mother, Ann, as they picked their way home. She had a math test the next day, and although her parents had done many dark things in their lives, they had never left Catherine alone all night.
She was jolted out of a light doze by their pounding on the door the next morning. "Open up!" she heard her mother calling. "Anybody home?"
Catherine went to the door with a mixture of relief and anger in her heart. She unbolted the lock and swung the door open, already drawing in her breath so that she could begin with the questions about where they had been, and why they had forgotten her, and did they know that was illegal? But she saw her father, looking pale and like he was standing in a shadow, somehow, even though the morning sun was shining directly on them. "What?" Catherine said.
"My clicker," Benny said, and instantly Catherine knew to what he was referring. "Damn doctors wanted me to stay a few more days," he continued, pushing past her and into the kitchen, to the table. "I told them to suck on a lemon."
"You're a damn fool," Ann said, following him in. She looked at Catherine, as if for support. "The doctors said he needs surgery. He's not taking care of himself." She began to rattle through cups and plates, looking for anything. "You've done a lot of stupid things," Ann said, leveling her gaze at Benny and holding her hands still. "You've risked your life before. But then, it was worth it. This is just foolish pride."
"We're done here," Benny said, his voice flat and final. "We're leaving."
"What?" Catherine said. Really, this did not upset her; she did not like her school. Oftentimes she got the impression that nobody really knew she existed, except in that moment when they were talking to her, or stepping around her in the hallway. Nobody would miss her. She did not know whom to hate for that. "I have school," she said.
"We'll teach you," Benny said, massaging his left breast. "You doing fractions yet?"
"Fractions was fifth grade," she said, twisting her lips upward.
Ann put her hands on Benny's shoulders and rubbed, and then interjected faintly, "We're not being fair to Catherine, baby."
"Life ain't often fair," he said, standing. "Get packed. We're leaving today."
Catherine stood in the kitchen with her mother, and they watched him leave like a drunk searching for an open bar in the small, lonely hours of a dark night. Neither of them spoke; neither of them needed to. He was a man who was going to ruin their lives yet, the way everybody always predicted, and Catherine had to admit that at least a small part of her was looking forward to it.
For a twenty-year-old, barely-street-legal vehicle, their Nova ran like a sweetheart. The engine was a bit loud and coughed some when Benny brought it to a stop. But when he nudged the accelerator with his toe, something large and intimidating sounded off beneath the hood. Ann stared out the passenger window and Catherine kept expecting her to open the door and say that she was not going another foot with him, but she never did. The window was still down, and Catherine liked the way the wind beat against her face. It was already afternoon, and she wondered what her classmates were doing, if they had noticed her absence, if they ever would.
"Can you tell us where we're going?" Ann finally asked. They had been driving north up Interstate 95 for a few hours. Catherine's father never took the Nova above 60 miles an hour.
"Sure," Benny said. "You never asked. New York."
Even though she was staring at the back of Ann's head, Catherine could tell that her mother had rolled her eyes. "Why in the world are we headed up there?" she said. "Where we don't know anybody. Where Catherine will have to find another school, and we'll have to find a place to live."
"A place to live is just a bed to sleep in and a toilet to sit on," Benny said. "We can live in the Nova until we find a more permanent place."
"Oh, God no," Catherine said. But nobody paid her any attention.
"I'm not sleeping in this car," Ann said. "We're too old to keep doing this."
"I know you're scared," Benny said. "That's what keeps life interesting, don't you think? A little fear. It will keep us fresh."
Ann stared out the windshield, and Catherine wondered whether the emotion sketched across her mother's face was fear. She doubted that it was. Her mother was a woman unaccustomed to fear. Her father, too, but it had always been clear to Catherine that her mother was in charge, even if she most often let Benny have his way. Benny was the one who experimented with the homemade detonators on the kitchen table, finally perfecting the timing ("It's the most important part," he said, winking in Catherine's direction one evening). But it was her mother who decided where the package was placed, what the message was. That was in Texas; there was no fear in Texas, but they had run anyway. Benny was the one who cooked the chemicals and the powders on the stovetop, who sent Catherine out to play with the neighbors for hours at a time ("Fresh air is good for a growing girl," he smiled at her). She would always remember the way the kitchen smelled for days after one of his cooking marathons--like the paint should have been peeling off the walls.
Catherine did not often think about these things--in fact, they were as natural to her as Saturday laundry was to other kids. Ann leaned her head back and closed her eyes. "Wake me up when we get there, or when you come to your senses and we're back home in South Carolina," she said.
Catherine woke to the sound of laughter. The sun was orange and dull--morning, and her eyes hurt. Her mother and father were sitting on the hood of the Nova, passing a cup between them. Catherine could see steam rising from it. She wanted to drink from it, too, but neither of her parents knew that she was addicted to caffeine, and she did not want either of them to know. It was something just for her, her own little vice in a world where her parents were afforded so many and she, so precious few. She watched them for a moment, prepared to look away or bang the door if they started kissing or fondling each other. But they did not, and so they were actually kind of fun to watch, just sitting in the morning air, crooning to each other, putting up with one another. Catherine tried not to imagine her parents as real people: how they were, when they were younger, the places they had seen and the things they had done. She had heard snippets of stories, but those accounts all sounded heavily-edited to her ears, the way a novel could be condensed and simplified for innocent readers.
A few minutes later, Benny was whacking on the window and yelling for Catherine to get out of bed. "We're here, baby," he called, his grin wide enough for a pigeon to fly into his mouth. "New York!"
She stepped out of the car and for the first time realized how badly she needed to pee. "We made it," she said softly, thinking that the words would somehow humor her father, and then he would want them to pile into the Nova, and they would go back to South Carolina. When it did not immediately happen, she turned directly to him and asked, "What are we doing here?"
"One word," Benny said, licking his thumb and using it to slick his eyebrows down. "Gold."
"That's right," Benny said. "There's gold in these hills. Sure, you say there's gold in New York and most people get to thinking about Wall Street, and all those fashion types and movie stars. But I'm talking about the real thing." And, as if this were not explanation enough, he added: "The kind you got to dig for."
"Where's the bathroom?" she asked, filing all the things her father had just said in a kind of temporary folder in her mind, for later perusal and eventual discard.
"It's everywhere," Benny said, waving his hand at the expanse of nature about them. "Wherever you find a free bush, it's all yours."
The thought horrified her for a moment, but then she trudged away from the Nova and suddenly there was quiet and nobody near her. It struck her just how little of her life she had spent alone, and just how much she wanted to be alone. She never understood the movies where the hero was afraid of dying alone. To Catherine, it sounded like the perfect way to go. Now she pulled her pants down and squatted and did her business. They had been on trips like this before. South Carolina was the longest they had ever lasted in one state—four years. They left just as abruptly in the past, too, as at the shifting of the wind direction. One day, she would be signing up for swimming lessons at the community pool, and the next evening Benny would be throwing a few hastily packed bags into the Nova and hurrying them along. That kind of lifestyle made her parents her best friends, and thinking about that for too long gave her the creeps.
When she returned to the Nova, her parents were in the driver and passenger seat, and they saw her coming and straightened their postures. Catherine was left with the impression that she had interrupted something personal. She did not like it. Her mother hung her head out the open window and said, "All done?"
"Yes, Mom," Catherine answered.
"Well, let's go digging," Benny said, starting the Nova. Catherine got in the backseat, and they rolled out of whatever roadside park her father had found. Catherine had never been to New York, and this was not what she was expecting. Traffic was sparse, and there were no tall buildings, no prostitutes, no Chinese people. Benny took the Nova up to 58 miles an hour and the wind from their speed whooshed in and played in her hair. Catherine heard her parents talking in the front, and the crinkling sound of her mother consulting a state map. She heard words like "Forked Lake," and "Plumley Pond." After an hour or two Benny pulled the car off onto a dirt patch and cut the engine. He looked at Catherine in the rearview mirror, and she knew she would miss his open, inquisitive eyes if ever they should close forever. "We're here," he said.
"What do we do?" Ann asked. Catherine knew that her mother was humoring the old man, and she knew that he knew it, too. But it was okay. She did the same thing when he invented his "radio," which picked up mostly static and somehow the neighbor's telephone calls. "How does it work?" she had asked then, leaning in to better listen. And he had explained it with what the boys in Catherine's class called a shit-eating grin, whatever that meant.
Now, he said, "We go and sift around. Anything shiny, we set aside."
"How do we know if it's gold or not?" Catherine asked. She was treading in dangerous territory here. It was never safe to question one of Benny's plans.
"I know what gold smells like," he said, putting the matter to rest.
Ann swiveled in her seat to look at Catherine. "If we find enough, he said he'll have the heart surgery."
"How much do we need?" Catherine asked.
"That's not important," Benny said, barely moving his lips as he spoke.
"Let's go," Ann said, her voice chipper.
They scattered away from the Nova. Benny stood, hand on hip, pointing and directing Ann to the prime spots. Catherine walked with her head down, studying the soil. Some places were sand pits, and a few of these were festooned with dog poop, half-buried like submerging submarines. There were grassy areas which Catherine largely ignored, and then there were rocks, where she took her shoes and socks off and felt them crunch beneath her feet like tightly packed marbles. She was glad she was several states away from the kids in her school. If they saw her here, combing over a corner of a New York state park, they would laugh and say horrible things about her when she was not around.
Her parents' voices grew dimmer as she zigzagged away from where they searched. It was not really all bad at school. At none of the schools had it been all bad. She could make friends, given enough time and the right set of circumstances. There was Stacey in Wyoming, and Bobbi in Texas. Catherine gravitated toward the girls who sat in the corner and hid their faces as much as they could. The girls who wore dirty clothes, or who crossed their arms over too-fat stomachs when they sat down, or who never smiled because their teeth were outfitted with braces. The boys never gave these girls much trouble. In fact, Catherine always held the suspicion that boys gave the popular girls the most grief. And then they turned around and flooded all that anger and humiliation and self-hatred onto girls like Bobbi and Stacey and Catherine.
Benny, her father, never understood and never would. But Ann knew. Catherine could see that Ann understood everything when she came home from school those first few weeks, because already she knew where she stood there. The realization that she was not number one anymore, not the most important, but instead just another shadow moving through the hallways and trying desperately to stay out of the way. To Catherine, it had felt like being locked in a freezer—horrifying at first, but then the numbness took over. But she had never asked her mother if she had felt the same way, too.
Catherine came abruptly to a lake and peered out across the water. There was nobody here, but the remains of parties past were scattered along the shoreline: a pop can lying on its side, a pen cap, a torn wrapper which, upon closer inspection, proved to be for a condom. Catherine stared at it for a long time, wondering if they did it right here, right where she was, and what it was like. Some girls at her school already knew.
Five feet further along there was gold. She felt her heart jump in her chest, and she ran over to its gleam in the morning sun and crouched down. It was a wristwatch, and she was surprised to see the hands suggesting the correct time beneath its glass face. It was nearly ten o'clock. Written there beneath the hour twelve was CHAUMET, and beneath that, in smaller letters, PARIS. The face of it was a rectangle and very small. It was cold in Catherine's hand. All she could think was, He was right. She tossed the watch in the air and caught it, heavy and small, and blew on it, watching the dirt fly off it like magic dust.
Catherine walked away from the lake and tracked her parents down. They had apparently given up; Benny was leaning against the hood of the old Nova, staring at the trees, and Ann was sitting in the passenger seat. When he saw Catherine coming, he waved his arms and hollered, "What took you so long?" It broke Catherine's heart to see her mother staring out the dysfunctional passenger window at her.
"I was looking for gold," she said. The watch fit nicely into her jeans pocket and she considered what she might do with it. It was hers, and it reflected a time only she knew about. The time she was alone, by the lake, and her parents had disappeared. She wanted to freeze that moment, to be able to revisit it whenever she needed it most.
"There ain't no gold here," Benny said, lurching off the hood of the car and walking over to the driver's side door. "We're going home."
"Just like that?" Catherine said.
He nodded. "That's right. Just like that."
Catherine shrugged. Ann must have put her foot down and told him that she had had enough, already. Catherine patted her pocket as she climbed back into the Nova. For a while, she thought she could hear the watch quietly counting the passing seconds. She wondered if it would bring enough money for Benny's heart surgery, if she sold it; she convinced herself it would not be enough. This tiny thing was hers; if she had learned nothing else from her parents, she had learned that everybody had secrets, and they were good things to keep close to your heart. Even if that heart was breaking. Because nobody was speaking, she was able to sleep all the way home.
BIO: Jake Walters has been published in numerous journals, including Fractured West, Corvus Review, Allegory, the horror anthology America the Horrific, Hobart online, and many others. He currently lives in Transylvania, a place of the world with which he is intimately familiar, after serving three and a half years there as a Peace Corps volunteer.