Sara's pains are coming ten minutes apart now. Every time one comes, she jolts herself against the side of the car, trying to disappear. Everything outside is whizzing past her from the car window because Jack, her father, is speeding, something she's never seen him do before. Sara grips the armrest, her knuckles white. She presses her back against the seat and digs her feet onto the floor, as if any moment she will fly from the car. Stop, she wants to say. Slow down. Stop. But she can't form the words, can't make her mouth work properly. Can't do anything except wait in terror for the next pain. Jack hunches over the wheel, beeping his horn though there isn't much traffic. His face is reflected in the rearview mirror, but he doesn't look at her. Instead, he can't seem to keep himself from looking at Abby, Sara's mother, who is sitting in the back with Sara. His face is unreadable. He keeps pushing back his hair, thick and brown, dimmed with grey. He punches the radio dial from station to station, smearing the sound.
"Jack, for God's sake," says Abby. "Just pick a station." Abby hands Sara a hard lemon candy to suck on. She rubs Sara's shoulders, helps her wedge the pink rubber ball into the small of her back to press against the pain. The dress Sara's been living in for months, a blue denim that's two sizes bigger than the one she usually wears, soft from many washings, is soaked with sweat, pasted to her. Her hair snarls to her shoulders, the same rust red hair mother' short, styled cut, only hers is damp, frizzy with curls. No matter how frosty the car gets, Sara can't stop sweating.
"Nineteen eighty-seven and it's the worst heat wave in Boston in fifty years!" the radio announcer says. He keeps saying his name, which is Wild Bill, and every time he says it, he laughs, and the laughter gets under Sara's skin, crawling like some sort of insect. "We've never seen a July like this one!" He's got a crackling, gleeful voice that pops and snaps as if it were carbonated. "Keep inside, keep cool, keep tuned in. There's a health hazard warning for elderly and pregnant women." Sara feels a small shock of recognition, as if the announcer were talking directly to her, but Abby keeps rubbing her bare shoulders as if she hasn't heard anything, and Jack purposefully zips into another lane. Abby's face is coated with sweat. Perspiration beads on Jack's neck. "Two people have died already," Wild Bill says and Sara thinks, amazed, I'm dying, too. He talks about drought and blackouts and crime waves because people are going crazy from the heat. No one can be counted on to behave reasonably. An elderly woman was found by a neighbor panting on her floor by her open refrigerator. A white teacup poodle has nearly suffocated in a car left in a parking lot, but was revived when his desperate owner gave him mouth to mouth. "Even Wild Bill isn't wild enough to do that!" Wild Bill says.
Sara swears his voice is growing louder and bigger, crowding out all the room in the car, all the air, and she can't stand listening to it another moment and she's about to say so when another pain grabs at her and instead she cries out.
"Oh, honey," Abby says, turning to her, trying to push back Sara's hair, which is so wet now it's strings. "It's almost over. Almost over now."
Pain crunches down on Sara. "No," she gasps. "No, it's not."
"Soon," her mother promises. "Soon." Her mother's hands float over her.
Jack punches in another station. A long, itchy slide of jazz comes on, making Sara flinch. "Here's the turn," Jack says. His voice is low and determined.
Jack has taken a day off. He's an accountant and his cell phone sits beside him on the seat, and the only reason he's brought it is in case they need to call the doctor, or the car breaks down, or any number of disasters that surely couldn't be any worse for everybody than this one. Abby's a dental hygienist in Belmont and she's taking off a week, something unheard of for her. Usually she's so concerned with everyone else's teeth; she neglects her own when she comes home, but now it's different. "Everyone can take care of their own pearly whites for a change," she says. Every time Abby looks at Sara, Abby changes into something Sara's stopped recognizing. Abby's beauty leaves her. Her eyes, usually blue and soft as felt, become distant. Her mouth takes on a funny slope. And sometimes, when Sara least expects it, Abby's face saddens with regret.
Copyright Caroline Leavitt 2004. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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