Mary woke with a start. Sean was sleeping deeply beside her; his slow, rhythmic breathing was the only sound. Even the ribbon of highway that snaked past the motor lodge was quiet. Their room was on the second floor, it overlooked the scrubby plains that stretched out beyond the outskirts of Billings, Montana. Earlier, when they unloaded the car, Mary had seen a small playground with a couple of weathered benches behind the building. Sean was sleeping but Mary woke with a start. Something in the night air had aroused her. She pulled a hooded sweatshirt on over her PJ’s and went outside, walking past the parked cars to the little play area.
The sky was clear and, as Mary sat, her eyes became more adjusted to the dark. In a few minutes, she was able to discern the Milky Way, its broad arc imperceptibly wheeling above her. Her reverie was interrupted by a slight scrabbling—the sound of claws on stone—followed by silence. Looking out over the black landscape she saw a pair of glowing eyes, followed by another pair, and then several more pairs that had fanned out in the brush.
“Coyotes… ” she thought, “… sitting out here is probably not the smartest thing.”
But she stayed. Sitting, watching, somehow feeling that this was a moment of import. Then the eyes began to blink, off and on, and Mary intuitively sensed the pattern. In the belly pocket of her hoodie, she kept a small flashlight. Mary took it out and answered the signals. The blinking stopped.
“You were up in the night?” said Sean. He and Mary were sharing a forgettable ‘continental’ breakfast in the lounge, “Nausea?”
“It’s up and down. I’m going to have to ask you to drive again. My biorhythms are all screwed up, and this breakfast won’t help them any. Can we stop and get some fruit on the way out of town?”
“No prob, do you want to keep off the interstates again today?”
“As much as you can, Sean. That highway to Rapid City, 212 I think, looks like a nice drive.”
“Here’s hoping we don’t meet any more of your ‘friends’ on the road again.”
“You never can tell…” Mary paused for a moment and then said: “You might think this is silly, but when I was up last night I went out back, behind the motel. I could sense that there were some animals in the brush, coyotes, I think. They were trying to communicate with me.”
“I won’t call it silly, but something in you is definitely changing, something other than hormones?”
“Maybe, I don’t know, I’ve never been pregnant before. I’ve been pretty rational all my life; it might be time to let my feral side be in charge.”
The drive to Rapid City took the rest of the morning. By the time Sean and Mary reached the town it was well past noon.
“For the first time in days, I’m really hungry,” Mary said, scrolling through her iPhone for restaurants, “I could eat a buffalo. I’ll find us a decent place.”
The restaurant they chose was emptying out after the noon lunch crowd, but the server assured them the kitchen was still open. It was decorated in a western motif, with taxidermy and antique weapons mounted on the walls.
“You’re in luck, they’re serving bison,” Sean said after he had glanced at the menu. Looking over his shoulder at a fierce bobcat frozen in mid-leap he added, “Do you get the feeling of being watched?”
Mary studied the creature. “That kitty has a glassy stare. In some weird way, it resonates with me,” She made a small, throaty growl as she mimicked the wildcat’s ferocious grimace, “I’m getting the bison steak.” Sean was surprised at her ferocity. After they had ordered, Mary took out her cell and said: “Should I check in with legal, or should we continue our journey in blissful ignorance?”
“Let no discouraging words be allowed to disturb our repast. We can deal with that when we get to Sioux Falls,” Sean said, relieved that Mary seemed to have returned to normal, “That part of the drive will be aggravating enough; I’m afraid that we’ll have to take the freeway.”
Roger Ramsen was finishing composing yet another anonymous comment on a conspiracy forum. He had spent several days disparaging Mary Robinson on numerous sites, suggesting that she was, among the milder epithets: a feminist witch, a hacker and a thief, a prostitute, and even the devil’s love child. On the sleazier sites, he posted the image of her naked on the balcony. When he finished his latest diatribe he hit ‘enter.’ He leaned back in his chair and rang his contact in Seattle.
“Ramsen here, what do you have for me?”
"Nothing, these birds have flown. No one has seen them around town, their apartment has been dark for days. There's definitely been a definite internet buzz on the woman, wow, she must have made her share of enemies—or are all those comments yours? The sites with the picture are getting a lot of hits, but not for the reasons you think. The comments are along the lines of 'You go girl' and 'She can compile my code any day!' She's a Farrah Fawcett for modern teen-aged nerds."“OK, I get it. Maybe the picture wasn’t the best idea, everything is Photoshopped these days anyway. Keep trying to find her and Sean, let me know if you find out where they are.”
The only place with a vacancy in Sioux Falls was a ‘Family Style’ motel, built in the form of an enormous hunting lodge. A pool and hot tubs occupied the center court. Sean and Mary’s room overlooked the pool where numerous children were boisterously playing; their yelling and laughing punctuated by the occasional shriek. A group of parents sat in lounge chairs along the pool: talking, reading, but keeping an eye on the kids all the while. While Sean was speaking to his aunt Tina on the phone, Mary opened the curtains and looked out on the activity below.
“In a few years this will be us, with our kid, won’t it?” asked Mary, after Sean had hung up, “Did you ever do this with your mother when you were growing up?”
“No, we didn’t do road trips, other than visiting Tina, and those were always done in a single very long day, leaving early in the morning and arriving late at night. I think my mother had a thing about motels.”
“What did your Aunt Tina say on the phone?” asked Mary.
“I got the impression it’s a pretty big deal for her. She’s expecting us for supper. She’s a pretty good cook from what I remember. Meat and potatoes and farm fresh vegetables, but she always made the food taste special somehow. I hope she’s still up to it. I don’t think we'll starve.”
“And I hope I’m over my nausea,” Mary said, “I felt pretty good all day today. I’d hate to throw up the first meal she served us.”
“We’d have to tell her about the baby then, wouldn’t we?”
“We’ll tell her anyway, Sean, she’s family.”
The children in the pool had all gone back to their rooms by the time Sean shut the drapes.
“I’m going to bed, I’d like to get an early start tomorrow so that we can reach Tina’s before supper. If we start out by eight we can avoid the freeway,” said Sean. “Are you coming?”
“In a bit. I’m going to sit here a little while… I’m still unwinding. Join you soon.”
As Mary sat in the dark, sipping her tea, she pondered the events of the last couple of days. Her pregnancy wasn’t really a surprise, the only thing she wondered about was why it had taken so long. She had gone off her birth control pills six months earlier, perhaps her body needed the release from the stress of selling her business before she could conceive. Mary came to the realization that ever since she began living with Sean she had been subconsciously heading for this result: motherhood and, in her choice of Sean, a father who would be there—both in body and spirit. A family of her own, a real family. She closed her eyes, mulling these things over. She was quickly asleep.
House. Abandoned, perhaps for many years. Walk closer, look through the broken windows. Walk around to the back. Door, hanging loosely, broken hinges. Inside. Kitchen, empty. Dim outline of grease stains where the stove sat. Wear patterns on the linoleum where the table was. Thousands of meals. Stairs lead down to the cellar; dark, dark, don’t go there. Walk through house. Living room. Family celebrations, birthdays, anniversaries: Christmas. House full of noise and laughter. Bathroom, broken tile, dirty tub missing toilet. All the soap and piss and shit and blood and tears of decades. Go up then, up the stairs, walk into empty bedrooms, sensing the lost passion of couples grappling with their shared loneliness through acts of quiet desperation. Then the hard times, bankruptcy, death. A house becomes derelict.
Return to the hall. A sound. Pause. Wait. Listen. Something. Someone coming up the stairway. A blurry form coming into view. Try to scream. Screams can’t come. A hand. Touching… touching… me.
“Mary? I heard you moaning in your sleep,” It was Sean, standing next to her chair.
“Oh, I’m… it was just a dream… just a bad dream, I was alone and afraid,” Mary said.
“Come to bed,” said Sean, “You don’t have to sleep alone anymore.”