God, she smelled. Not unpleasant, but strong and urban-wild, like a rainy alley behind a bar: alcohol and food and city air. At least she was clean. And decent. But she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt.
“Would you mind buckling up?” His voice was sterner than he had intended.
“Oh yeah.” As if she had forgotten. She stretched the belt over her bony hips and clicked it. Then she smiled at him brightly, like a puppy who’s sat and stayed. She was missing her front left incisor. He adjusted his cheeks in an attempt to return the smile, but it was more of a grimace. He was glad he was driving so he didn’t have to look at her.
The foothills swelled up in front of them. They were three hours from the town where the funeral was to be held. They had come an hour from the city, and they had yet to drive through the hills and into the desert. Mom had loved the desert, its lonely cacti and its cold moon.
“Oh oh oh!” She whipped back so that greasy hair strands flew out and swirled round her head.
“What is it?” It could be a thousand things.
“Stop the car!”
He stopped the car. She unbuckled, darted back a few meters into the ditch, and emerged triumphantly with a clear bag full of grimy bottles.
“I’ll just throw these in the trunk. Can you open it?” She grinned, breathless, and scurried to the back of the SUV. Cars were screaming past. There was next to no shoulder on the road. He punched on the hazards, waited for a break in traffic, and scrambled out to the hatch.
“Look – sis.” The term was too familiar. He stared at the angry stream of cars. “Are you sure you want those? They’re kind of dirty.”
It was a stupid question. She wanted them; her eyes were alight with the wanting of them, full of pride at having spotted them and anticipation of the coins she would carry out of the depot. But she understood.
“Oh, right,” she said, and lowered the bag onto the crumbling shoulder. A truck whizzed past; the driver honked and swore out the window. His sister thrust her middle finger out, defying the fact that she had caused the roadside hazard and her brother’s shame. She climbed back in, buckled her seat belt, and folded her hands in her lap.
It was silent for a long time. He wanted to apologize for shaming her. His mind scrambled, but cotton was in his throat, so he simply fixed his eyes on the road. Flashing lights appeared at the bottom of the hill.
“Is it an accident?” she said.
He attacked the subject. “Could be. They’re ambulance lights.”
“And police sirens.”
An officer approached. His sister became smaller in her seat as he spoke. “There’s an accident up ahead. You can take a detour through town.”
They turned right into the town and passed the accident on a side road. Red and blue light beat like moth wings upon his sister’s face. What was she thinking? She knew more of this darkness and blood than he could imagine. The ambulance wailed past, mourning for its trapped and dying occupant, and she watched it, knowing.
“Want anything to eat? I think there’s a McDonald’s here.”
“No, thanks.” She was staring out the window, hugging her bony knees up to her chest like a jackknife. “I could use a smoke break though.”
He had forgotten that his sister smoked. For all he knew she was starving for a cigarette. He felt a surge of appreciation – she had not even tried to light up in the car. He let her off at the ash tray outside and swung around the curve.
“Welcome to McDonald’s. Can I take your order?”
“Yeah. I’ll have a Big Mac meal please, with Coke.” He could see his sister in the rear view mirror, tall and thin, a bunch of black angles with a white face. “And a small fries.” Perhaps she would eat them.
He picked up the brown bag, received his change. The coins were heavy in his hand – they had had no more ten-dollar bills so they had given him toonies. It was twice what his sister would have gotten from that bag of bottles. He should have let her have them, but his pride had not allowed it. Should he offer to make up for it? She had refused help from them ever since she descended into her drink. He had made the offer for duty’s sake, but was glad when she hung up the phone in anger. She had gotten by with money from their mother, the government, and on the small profit of her bottles, the dregs of her own poison. But now their mother was dead in the desert, and his sister was lost in her own.
When he pulled up, she was chatting with one of the McDonald’s employees who had come out for a smoke. She gestured for him to come. He considered refusing on the pretence that they had to go, but instead got out of the car. He owed her this, at least.
“Betty, this is my big brother, Donald.”
“Hi, Betty. Nice to meet you.” Ridiculously, he felt shy.
“Good to meet you”. Betty nodded at him, turned to his sister, and said, “He looks like Ryan Reynolds.”
His sister laughed, a scratchy, joyous sound. She began to cough, and Betty and Don looked at each other uncomfortably. Don went to the SUV and returned with the fries.
“Sure.” Betty beamed. “It’s funny, I never get sick of these things.”
They all laughed and Betty and his sister began to gobble the fries like ravens. He even had a few. They were good.
“Well, we should hit the road.” He said once they had consumed the last of the burned crumbs. He was dreading the return to the distant seats of the SUV.
The two of them climbed in. Determined not to allow the thick silence to overtake them, he said, “She was nice.”
“Yeah. I invited her to come, but she had to work.”
“Come to what? The funeral? Meg! You don’t just invite random McDonald’s workers you meet at the smoke pit to come to your mother’s funeral!”
Meg was silent. Then she said, “She isn’t random. Mom used to stop here all the time on her way back from the city. She told me about Betty. When I saw her nametag, I knew.”
It was another hour before either of them spoke. Don’s consciousness whirled within him like a dust devil. Possible words he could say periodically emerged from the dust, but he rejected them and they were sucked back into obscurity. They would get him nowhere.
“Let’s stop here.” said Meg, pointing to a peeling ice cream shack on the side of the road. A child with blue ice cream dripping from his chin waved at them. Meg giggled and waved back.
He pulled over. She hesitated. “Well, don’t you want anything?”
“I just want to look.” She climbed out of the SUV, shut the door, and leaned against it.
What was there to look at? He sat, answering work emails. She would have her smoke, and then they could finish their agonizing journey.
The door opened. “Come out here.”
He put down his phone. Outside, he fell back against the vehicle and folded his arms.
He looked. Behind the ice cream shack, sand stretched to the mountains, punctuated by lonely cacti. Ashamed and finally full of words, he turned to his sister, but she smiled, and they looked into the desert in silence.
Hannah Senft is unsure of how to identify herself at this particular moment: Is she primarily a student? An aspiring… something? A human being living life in Grande Prairie, Alberta? Something she does know is that she is currently in her second year of a Bachelor of Arts program at GPRC, and engaging in a fierce internal debate about what to do in the future. One possibility is writing; she very much enjoyed crafting – or was it discovering? – her first short story.