The road, endless miles of it. Thick green brush and farmland everywhere. No particular destination, just go go go. Aimless turns and arbitrary turnoffs. Numbered exits and dirty motels. Drive two days from Texas and you get here: Nowhere, Illinois. When Angela stops to think about what she's doing, which she tries very hard not to do, she comes up with nothing. Either she's trying to lose herself or she's trying to find herself. It doesn't matter. She's starting over.
In the rearview she can see Missy sleeping in the backseat, curled up like an infant, momentarily oblivious. She's starting over, too. Anywhere, they say, is better than here. Or at least better than where they were, with Richard, drunken, violent Richard. It's the simple truth, Angela thinks, the God's-honest truth.
Angela wipes absently at another tear and feels a jolt of pain: the tender swelling, the eye not black but blue-brown-purple. She wears sunglasses not to hide the bruise from the world but just to shield it from Missy, sweet little Missy, who never says anything, just looks at her funny, as though to say: You should have known better. And maybe she should have. But it's too late now.
It's too late for everything.
Another tear. Another mile. The Honda gobbles up the road.
* * *
It's the sign on the side of the road that first brings Carter to Angela's mind, a square of brown metal beside an enormous maple tree:
TAYLORVILLE EXIT, 2 MI
Taylorville. Carter was supposed to have moved there, years ago. How long had it been? At least six years now, she guesses, since she last saw him. Maybe five since she'd spoken to him on the telephone. Could he still be here, out in the middle of nowhere? It's possible, she thinks. It would be just like Carter to do this, to be the recluse, holed up, hiding out from the world.
A small voice from the backseat. Mommy?
I have to pee.
A light goes on in her head. Convergence. A multitude of reasons, or so she tells herself, lots of reasons. It's easier than thinking she'd been subconsciously heading here the whole time: away from her current life and back to her old. Impossible, she thinks. Too weird to contemplate.
She thinks of the Carter she knew: pretend-tough, a would-be cowboy. Pegged jeans and boots, grunge metal T-shirts. A sweet guy, though, underneath. Their breakup had been a quiet affair; Carter found God, became in his devotion a wholly different person. Ultimately, their differences became too great to keep them together; their relationship withered away. Carter had been the only one, she remembered, the only boyfriend that hadn't hurt her. A familiar refrain: I sure can pick 'em.
But still. A friendly voice would be nice. Good for Missy, too.
What if he's married? Or living with someone? What if he's gone, moved away? The urge to find out what had happened to Carter in the intervening years is strong, almost irresistible.
It's worth the risk, she thinks, and hits her turn signal. She can at least see if he's still around. The thought of seeing Carter is strangely exciting to her: it spells freedom. It's something she would never think of doing when she was with Richard.
Hold on, honey, she says. I'm pulling off at the next stop.
* * *
The restaurant is small and crowded and smells of grease, bacon, old sweat. Angela shifts in her seat, leatherette sticking to her thighs. She flips through a menu.
The waitress has a nametag that says: GRACE. If she's noticed anything strange about Angela's sunglasses, she's kept it to herself. Missy draws on a paper placemat with a crayon, humming to herself.
Coffee, Angela says. Just coffee. And... french toast?
Missy nods, distractedly.
French toast, Angela says. A glass of orange juice.
Blueberry syrup, Missy says.
With blueberry syrup, Angela says.
The waitress nods, scribbling on a pad. She walks away.
They wait in silence. Angela watches Missy color: a giraffe's head slowly turns orange.
Where are we going? Missy says.
Away, Angela thinks. We're going away. But says: We're going to visit a friend.
Does he have a pool?
I don't know. Maybe.
Does he have a dog?
When's Daddy coming?
Angela winces at this, behind her sunglasses.
I told you, honey. We won't be seeing him for awhile.
Missy gets a red crayon to color the giraffe's eyes. Twenty seconds pass before she says: I miss Daddy.
Angela feels the tears coming again. She fights them, swallows them back. I know, honey, she says, more or less soothingly. I know. It'll be all right. It'll be okay.
* * *
Angela's cell phone is in her purse, but she is afraid to use it. She's seen on television that people can be traced that way. She doesn't know if it's true but it seems like it might be. And she doesn't see a reason to give Richard any kind of advantage.
The payphone sits just outside a restroom door, down a short, poorly lit hall. Phone book in a slot beneath it, thin and well thumbed. She flips to the B's and finds his name right away, as if her eye had been guided there: BUELL, CARTER, 77 EVANSTON ROAD. Divine assistance. The hand of God.