There’s a hornet in the car. Isabelle hears a buzz and then feels a brush of wing against her cheek. A grape-size electric motor sings past her right ear. What’s it doing out in this weather? she wonders. It rumbles past her again, and she practically jumps. She tries to wave it outside, but instead it kamikazes to the back of the car, navigating among her cameras. Which is worse, she thinks, waiting for the sting, or the sting itself? She opens all the windows wider.
September fog is rolling across the highway, westbound US-6. Isabelle’s windshield clouds. At first, she doesn’t panic. She’s been driving for twenty years already. She’s a good, careful driver, and right now all this cloudiness is just an unwanted surprise. A trick of weather.
She switches on the headlights before she sees how much worse the lights make everything, how they reflect the fog. She tries the parking lights instead, which are a little better. They cut a small visual path on the road for her. Already, she feels a headache the size of a hard, shiny dime, forming behind her eyes.
Isabelle strains to see the road, checks her gas gauge, which shows half empty. She slows down. She wants to keep driving but might have to get off at an exit in Connecticut to fill up her tank.
Isabelle rubs at the window. She can still see. In the backseat, she’s got money she took from the bank to help get her resettled until she can find work. All her cameras are here, and one small suitcase stuffed with clothes. Let Luke toss the rest. Let him give them to Goodwill or his new girlfriend.
Or his new baby.
She knows this is crazy, but right now she’s capable of anything. She could reinvent herself. She could blot out her past.
A green sign, LEAVING CAPE COD, flashes by, and she starts to breathe. People sit in traffic for hours just to get here. They come from Boston and New York to spend two weeks in a tiny cottage and bread their bodies with beach sand and tanning lotion and absorb more sun than is healthy. Tourists collect the beach glass like it was diamonds instead of chipped pieces of soft drink bottles, and though everyone always tells her how lucky she is to live here, she’s never wanted anything more than to leave. Every time a visiting friend gets ready to leave, she’s had to stop herself from begging them to take her with them.
This isn’t the first time she’s run away, but the first time was a lifetime ago, back when she was sixteen and God knows that doesn’t count. Now she has a little money, a profession, and a dirt-cheap illegal sublet in New York City that’s available for as long as she wants it, courtesy of her friend Michelle. She yearns for cities where people don’t make you feel there is something wrong with you because you live there year ’round.
She tugs at her thin necklace, lapis on a gold chain that was a gift from Luke for her last birthday, and in a flare of despair she yanks it off in one brief rip. She throws it out the window and lets the fog swallow it up. She tugs off the wedding ring he gave her, too, a broad gold band wide enough to have her name scratched on the inside, and bounces it onto the highway. She checks her rear-view mirror, wondering if Luke will come after her.
She squints at the sky. Maybe the fog will lift. There’re still rays of sun out there, shooting through breaks in the clouds. God startling people into paying him some attention. That’s what her mother used to say. A sign.
Isabelle glances up at the sky again. If you want to talk about signs, talk about how the sky had looked just this way the first time Isabelle had brought Luke home. She was just fifteen and he was twenty-five and working at the local gas station, a job that didn’t exactly go over big with her mother. Of course, Luke’s age made it even worse. She was so in love it was like being insane. She couldn’t breathe when she was near him, couldn’t eat or sleep, and her brain felt rewired.
Luke was the one who cleaned her mother’s windshield without leaving a single smear, who put gas in the car and checked the tires and the shocks. She knew his name because it was embroidered in red on his pocket. He had a green bandana that he wore like a headband in his long, glossy hair, and he always rolled up his sleeves, so Isabelle could see his muscles. When he smiled at Isabelle, his eyes were full of light. He looked at her like she was the most interesting thing he had ever seen.
When her mother was paying inside, he told Isabelle that he wanted to go live on the Cape, right by the ocean, and he almost had enough money to do it. He had asked Isabelle for her phone number and suggested they go to a movie.
“Not on your life,” her mother said, coming up behind him. “She’s way too young for you and way too smart and she’s going to college to be somebody.”
Keeping her eyes fixed on the road, Isabelle opens the glove compartment and takes out the Saint Christopher medal her mother gave her, needing its reassurance. Impulsively, she loops it around her neck. Nora, her mother, would be stunned to know that Isabelle had kept it, that, in fact, this necklace is something she truly treasures. Everything had seemed like a wide open road back then, and of course that was before she knew that everything she had ever hoped for was impossible. “Safe travels,” her mother had told her, fastening the chain about Isabelle’s neck, even though Christopher’s sainthood was stripped a long time ago, even though Isabelle no longer believes in saints.
Isabelle and Luke came home one evening, when Nora was supposed to be at work at the library. They had been seeing each other a year then. It was a summer evening, and Isabelle wanted to pick up money so they could go to dinner. But as they pulled up, her heart sank, because there was Nora’s little red sedan in the driveway. “Cheeze it, the cops,” she said, trying to stay light, and then, as they got closer, she saw all these bright bolts of color scattered across the front lawn. “What the fuck?” Luke said. He started to laugh. “Is this her way of spring cleaning?” he said, but Isabelle gripped his arm.
“They’re my clothes.” Her voice was a rasp. There was her favorite blue dress, her winter coat, and all her junk jewelry sparkling among the dandelions. Her shoes were thrown on the bushes, her straw hat on the walk, her Saint Christopher medal gleaming on the lip of the lawn. The yard was a Jackson Pollock of clothes. Then the door banged open, and there was Nora, tall and beautiful back then, in the sleek green suit she had worn to work at her job in the library, her hair caught in a pin. Her arms were full of clothes and she stared hard at Isabelle and Luke, then opened her arms so the clothes tumbled out onto the front steps.
Isabelle leaped from the car. “Mom!” she cried.
“You don’t follow my rules, you don’t live under my roof,” Nora shouted, slamming the door shut so fiercely that Isabelle began to cry. “Mom!” she wailed.
She made her way to the front door, grabbing up the Saint Christopher medal, picking up her sweaters, her skirts, bunching them in her arms. Her heart was racing so fast she was dizzy. She banged on the front door, rang the bell, but there was no response.
She dug out her key and then she saw the new, shiny lock. “Mom!” she cried, slamming her hands against the door. “Mom!”
She was banging on the door when she felt Luke touching her. “Shhh,” he said. He led her away, and when she bent down to get her clothes, he said, roughly, “Leave them. We’ll get you new ones. Better ones.” He guided her back to the car and then there was nowhere else for Isabelle to go even if she had wanted to, except with Luke.
All she had with her were her cameras. “Drive slow,” she told him. She said it was because the cops around here were such hard-asses, but it was really because she wanted to give Nora a chance. She kept expecting her to run from the house, to call Isabelle, Isabelle, to stop Isabelle before she did something that couldn’t be undone.
Isabelle and Luke drove to the Cape, landing in a tiny town named Oakrose, a place right outside Yarmouth, that all the signs said was famous for its sunny beaches and fried oysters. The beaches, though, were small and crowded, and Isabelle didn’t like oysters. Almost immediately Luke got a job at a local bar/café called Josie’s. Isabelle got a job taking pictures at You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, a cut-rate child photography place where no one cared if the shots were artistic or you had a degree, as long as you were fast and could focus a camera. No one had come looking for Isabelle. Her mother had never called. Then the owner of Josie’s died, and Luke took all the money he had saved and got a loan to buy it, renaming it Luke’s. In that moment Isabelle somehow knew her mother would never come for her and Luke would never leave.
She wore the Saint Christopher medal all through her new high school, forging her mother’s name on the paperwork, getting her records transferred, not really making friends because who else at sixteen lived with their boyfriend and not their parents. Who else worked every shift she could at the Leaning Tower of Pizza in order to save some money for film instead of going out and having fun? She wore it through the times she’d called home and gotten no answer, gripping it for comfort and hope. She’d worn it while she worked at the photo studio, loving the feel of it against her skin, the slide and flash, as she adjusted a child’s hair or repositioned her light meter. She swore the medal made her customers behave better because they thought she was a believer, when really, she had no idea what she believed in.
And now here she is, thirty-six and married, and no longer a child, with no child of her own. There was never enough money for her to get the college degree she thought she’d have. Though she works at her photography, she’s never sold a photo or had a show. The necklace brings her bright, glimmery hope, and ridiculous as it is, it comforts her to feel it around her neck. It still makes her feel that things can change.
She rolls up the windows and turns on the air conditioner. The car clicks and knocks. Luke had spent the last few years trying to get her to buy a better car, a little compact in a bright color instead of this black box that was always breaking down.
“How can you love something that never runs right?” Luke always said. And her joke response was always, “Well, I love you, don’t I?”
Three hours later and she’s still driving. She knows she has to stop for gas, so she gets off i-95 South and heads deeper into Connecticut. The weather is muggy and strange, as if it doesn’t know what it wants, can’t decide if it’s going to rain or turn sunny.
She’s in a white summery dress, but still, sweat beads on her back. With one hand, she tries to gather up her hair, so long she’s practically sitting on it. Sometimes at the photo studio, the kids stare at her and ask her if she’s a witch with all that black hair, if she can do magic. “A good witch,” she says, smiling, but today, she’s not so sure. The wire-rimmed glasses she needs to drive slide heavily on her nose; when she takes them off, there’s a red mark on the bridge, like someone’s underlined her for emphasis. “You’re too sensitive for your own good,” Luke had always told her.
And well, she is, isn’t she? She feels the cold more than Luke does, bundling in sweaters as soon as the fall chill hits. The heat makes her wilt. She feels hurts more, too. The way, even after all this time, the cards she sends her mother always come back in the mail, scribbled across them in her mother’s hand: addressee unknown. The way Luke sometimes looks at her when she surprises him at his bar. Though he says he is happy to see her, his blue eyes go cloudy, like an approaching storm.
People comment on her sensitivity at work, too. Sometimes people say that she actually sees things that aren’t quite there yet. She’ll capture a serious, thoughtful look in a usually sunny child. Or make a delicate little girl look steely. Some people say that Isabelle captures the very spirit of a child, that it’s downright unearthly how you could look at one of Isabelle’s images and somehow see a child’s future. Years later, parents come back to the studio just to tell Isabelle how the serious and lawyerly looking baby she had photographed now wanted to be an actuary. How the delicately posed baby had signed with the Joffrey Ballet. How did you know? parents would ask. How could you know?
“I don’t know,” Isabelle would reply. Or sometimes, because it would make the customers happier, she’d lie and say, “Ah, I just know.”
But she didn’t know. She didn’t know anything. She didn’t even know what was happening in her own life. Within the past year she had found a white filmy scarf in the laundry basket, a silver bracelet in the kitchen, and once, a tampon in the wastebasket when she wasn’t having her period. All of them Luke insisted belonged to friends of his from the bar who’d dropped by. “Don’t you think if I was hiding someone, I’d make sure to hide her things, too?” he asked. He acted like she was nuts.
She came to his bar some nights and saw him surrounded by beautiful women, laughing, letting their arms drape about his shoulder, but as soon as he saw Isabelle, he shook them off like raindrops and kissed her. But still something felt off, like he wasn’t really there with her.
Three nights ago, a call woke her from a deep sleep, and when she grabbed for the receiver, reaching across Luke, she swore she heard a woman quietly crying. “Hello?” she whispered and the line went dead. And when she looked beside her, she saw to her shock that Luke’s eyes were open and wet. “Baby, what is it?” she asked, alarmed. She pulled herself up, staring at him.
“Just a dream,” he said. “Go back to sleep.” And he had rolled toward her, one arm on her hip, and in minutes he was asleep, but she lay awake, staring at the ceiling.
Then this very morning, when Luke was at the bar, a woman called her, blurting her name. “Isabelle.” And then the woman told Isabelle she was Luke’s girlfriend, how she had been his girlfriend for five years. “I know all about you, Isabelle,” the woman on the phone said. “Don’t you think it’s time you knew about me?”
Isabelle braced one hand along the kitchen counter.
“I’m pregnant and I thought you should know,” the woman said.
Isabelle’s legs buckled. “Someone’s at the door,” she managed to whisper and then she hung up the phone, ignoring it when it rang again.
Pregnant! She and Luke had wanted kids desperately. She had tried to get pregnant for a decade before all the tests and herbs and treatments ground her down. Luke brushed away talk of adoption. “Is it the worst thing in the world if you and I don’t have kids?” he said. Isabelle thought it was, but she didn’t know what to do about it. She made Luke help her turn the spare room that was supposed to be a nursery into a darkroom, and the only children who lived there were those whose faces she photographed.
At first, when she found out about Luke’s pregnant girlfriend, she thought it was the end of the world. And then she told herself it was only the end of one particular world. She surely deserved better than what she had. She would shed this life like a cocoon.
Now her back aches and she stretches against the seat. Last month, she had gone for a massage, and the masseuse, a young woman with a yellow ponytail, had tapped along her body. “You carry stress here,” she said, thunking Isabelle’s shoulder blades. “Here’s anger.” The sides of her hands wedged against Isabelle’s neck. “Here’s sorrow,” she said, touching Isabelle’s spine, and Isabelle gripped the edge of the massage table, wincing.
Smile and you’ll feel like smiling, her mother used to tell her. God rewards happiness. At You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby, people always commented on her smile, bright, glowing, drawing kids to her like iron to a magnet. But she can’t smile now no matter how hard she tries.
Isabelle glances at her watch. It’s midafternoon and she’s getting hungry. Her cell phone rings, but she doesn’t pick it up, half afraid it’s Luke’s girlfriend again. I don’t even know her name, Isabelle thinks. By now Luke is home and has found her letter. Maybe he’s upset, maybe he’s grabbing his jacket and his keys and he’s gone off looking for her, desperate to find her. Maybe he’s furious, smashing dishes on the kitchen floor the way he did when she first told him she wasn’t happy living there, that she felt the Cape was suffocating her. In all the years they’ve been together, he’s never hurt her, never raised a hand or even his voice, but he’s smashed five sets of dishes, broken several glasses and a figurine he had bought her as a joke, a Scottish terrier with a tiny gold chain.
Maybe he isn’t mad. Maybe he’s just relieved. But really, who is she kidding? Of course he isn’t home. Of course he hasn’t read her pathetic letter. Dear Luke, I want a divorce. Find a lawyer instead of me. Isabelle. Of course he’s with this new woman.
With this new baby.
Angrily, she swipes at her eyes. She sees a baby, small and glossy as a pearl, with Luke’s eyes and not hers, and then she shuts her eyes, just for a second, and when she opens them, suddenly, she doesn’t recognize where she is. The road is unfamiliar.
Isabelle turns on the radio. Even though it’s a rock station, Tammy Wynette wails out at her. Oh, good. A heart as battered as hers and all she has to do is sing along as loud as she wants. If Tammy can survive, then so can she. She thinks of the money in her pocket, of her cameras settled in the back, maybe of her mother, welcoming her back, the prodigal daughter. “I never liked him,” her mother will say about Luke, and Isabelle will hope to hear, too, “but I have always loved you.” Her mother has lived outside of Boston her whole life, endured her husband dying of a heart attack when he was only thirty, coming out of a Superette carrying groceries, continued on through Isabelle running off with the man who fixed their car, a man she said she knew was trouble from day one.
The fog is heavier now, the visibility terrible. Damn. She knows she’s lost now. It was a mistake to take a side route, but she can always turn around and get back on the highway. Maybe she can stop at a diner, treat herself to a late breakfast, eat everything that’s bad for her, everything she loves: eggs, bacon, sausage.
The darkness gets to her. It doesn’t feel natural at this time of the day, and even though she knows it’s just fog, it feels spooky. Squinting, she tries to see more than a few feet ahead of her, but the fog’s enveloping her, making her increasingly uneasy. She flicks the parking lights on and off to try slice through the darkness and then the fog moves again and she sees, almost like pieces of a torn photo, patches of what’s there. Something red. A glint of chrome.
A car stopped in the center of the road, turned the wrong way, its lights completely dark. A fillip of red dress. She jolts. She knows the stopped car is not moving, but it still seems to be speeding up toward her, anyway, growing larger and larger even as she tries to pull away from it. The road’s too narrow, ringed with tall, thick trees. Her eyes dart on the road, but there’s nowhere to go. There’s no space to turn around, not enough length to stop in time, no matter how she’s pumping her brakes. Oh, Jesus.
Isabelle veers, trying not to hit the trees. The car slows, lurching her forward. Time turns elastic, stretching out, slowing. Then, shocked, she sees a woman with short, spiky, blonde hair, a red dress frilling around her knees, coming into sharp focus, rising up like one of Isabelle’s negatives in the milky developing fluid, and the woman is just standing there, in front of her car, not moving, staring as if she knew this would happen and she was somehow waiting for it. And Isabelle swerves again, harder this time, the tires screeching, her heart clamped.
“Get out of the road!” Isabelle screams. Frantic, she grips the wheel. “What are you doing!” she shrieks, but the woman seems pinned in place. In the distance she can hear a voice, like a splash of pennies, and then she sees a child — a child! — a boy with dark flying hair and when he sees her, for a moment, he freezes, too. His eyes lock onto hers and for one terrifying moment, Isabelle feels hypnotized, for one second Isabelle can’t move, either. And then, she smashes on the horn and he startles and bolts across the road, disappearing into the woods, and her car’s going too fast and she can’t stop it. She can’t control it. Her heart tumbles against her ribs. Her breath goes ragged. She’s losing control, and despite herself, she’s praying: God. Jesus. Then she hears the hornet again, which flies past her out into the night and then the woman finally moves, pressing herself back closer to the sedan, and it’s too late, and the two cars slam together like a kiss.