“Honey, sit up in your seat.”
“What do you mean, which seat? The one your butt is in. Sit up right, the seat belt won’t work with you leaning like that.”
“But mom, the sun is in my eyes, it makes my head hurt.”
Her mother had already gone back to reading a map spread across her lap, legs crossed in the passenger seat. The little girl stopped leaning on the pile of suitcases in the seat next to her and sat up in her sunny seat, putting the chest strap behind her.
“Dad, can I have your sunglasses?”
“No, honey. Your Dad needs these to drive.”
The little girl picked up a mistreated Barbie doll and put it up by his face, and in her best Valley-Girl voice squeaked, “But, I, like, need them!”
Her father swatted the doll away, “Knock it off, what do you want me to do, move the sun?”
The girl sat back in her seat and pondered this for a moment. After a careful appraisal of which pictures in her coloring were least valuable, she ripped out a page and slipped it into the rubber lining of the car window. Taking an orange crayon, she scrawled, “grass” and filled in the rest with yellow and marking X for her car on a black road. Outside the car, strands of tall grass blurred together and peaking under the piece of paper, she tried to find animals in the anonymous expanse of grassland.
“I think it’s up here,” her mother said, looking at her map, “Yeah, here, take a right off this exit.” Her father turned the car off the expressway and took off his sunglasses, placing them on the dash.
“Look, Kate, a train,” he said, pointing out over the grass. The little girl lifted the paper and charted the trajectory in her mind, “We’re going to hit it!” she cheered.
“No, baby,” said her mother, “We’re not. See the train crossing with the rails down?”
“Oh.” The little girl pulled the piece of paper off the window and tucked it back into her coloring book, watching the train come closer as the car came to a stop. The engine raced toward them, whistling and glinting in the sun.
“Mom! It’s talking to us!”
“Shhh,” her mother put a finger to her lips before passing the map to her husband, “Do you see any train tracks on this map?”
The little girl counted the cars and looked at the shiny metal as it passed. She thought she saw faces on the cars, like a reflection but barely there. She waved to their impassive faces, low where her parents couldn’t see. She tapped her foot on the seat to keep count and sandal fell off. When the train passed she announced, “Thirty-six” before leaning down to pick it back up off the floorboards. When she looked back up, her mother still had her map open and hadn’t looked up.
“Mom, there were thirty-six cars.” She did not look up, so the girl kicked the back of her seat and wailed, “This is stupid. It’s just grass and nothing else.”
“Kate,” her father glared at her in the rearview mirror, “I told you to knock it off.”
“No, you told me to knock off doing the Barbie voice.”
“Kate, do we need to pull this car over?”
There was a moment of petulant silence before Kate leaned forward and slapped the side of her father’s head with her doll, “Barbie hates this trip!” Her father hit the brakes and pulled the car to the side of the road, but before he could stop she flung the door open and ran out, holding her doll in one hand. There was a barbed wire fence a few feet into the tall grass, but she wriggled under it and through the grass, which was over her head. The tires on the car squealed as it came to an abrupt stop on the narrow shoulder and her mother dashed out into the grass. Her father managed to get the car into park before running into the grass and nailing his crotch into the barbed wire. She could hear him howling as she ran, and her mother yelling her name in a tone she’d never heard before. Deciding it best not to return for some time, she kept running into the grass, blind and reckless with her hands out in front of her.
She ran until she could not hear her parent’s voices. She ran forever, it seemed like, before the grass thinned enough for her to have a look around. The road and the car were gone, and all she could see was grass up until the perfectly level line of blue sky. She turned in a full circle, searching for anything familiar. A shallow divot grew between her widened eyes and mouth opened slightly, tears were already welling in her eyes when she spotted a small rust colored surface just walking distance from her. She adjusted her grip on her doll so she was holding it aloft by the arm like a child that would not walk. “Come on!” she said.
The car was small and rusted out, the tires in rags on the packed dirt under the wheels. The little girl peered in, checking for spiders, and used her weight to wrench at the driver’s side door, which grated open. She climbed in and set her doll in the passenger’s seat, crossing its legs and strapping her in with an imaginary lap belt. She settled herself on the ragged upholstery and put her little hands on the steering wheel, holding onto the bottom side of the wheel, where she could reach. “Do you even know where we’re going?” She asked the doll, who leaned slightly to one side. She grabbed the doll and jammed it back into its seat. “Sit with your butt in the seat.” The doll leaned over again on the sloping cushion. “Oh that’s enough! I’m turning this car around.”
She jerked at the steering wheel and shifted her weight, pretending the car was speeding along. Soon she forgave the doll and ordered it a Happy Meal through a drive through window, passing invisible money to no one. She had almost made it back to her home when she realized she was still alone. She unbuckled her doll, lifting its arms to allow the invisible strap to pass by. Having secured her passenger, she climbed up on top of the car, planning to walk back to the road, but she could see nothing to orient herself, just a threateningly open space with nothing in it.
The sun was not yet setting, but the sky was dusky and it was hard to see the individual stalks grass. The whole landscape seemed to be made of one substance, undulating with the breeze. “See what you did?” she repeated to the doll a few times, holding it by its feet and slapping its head into the roof of the car. She calmed herself, pushing her wobbling chin with her fist and sat with her legs trailing over the windshield. “No, no. Don’t cry baby. We can fix this,” she whispered, propping the doll up to look out over the flatland.
From somewhere in the distance she heard a shrill lament and sat bolt upright. Out on the plain the freight train barreled across the grass, a wandering animal that had lost its path. A thunderhead roiled behind the locomotive, driving on the segmented beast like a panicked horse. Soon the sky was dark and she crawled into the car through the open door. Pulling the door shut behind her, she put the doll on her lap and held it tightly, patting its head and cooing, “Don’t be afraid, it’s just a storm.” Inside the car the little girl sat on her legs and leaned over the steering wheel to get a better look.
Wind slapped the grass against the side of the car and by the time the rain started to fall, the train was gone. Outside the car an oversized hare stared at her, nothing like the sweet animals she’d seen in pet stores. It was as big as a dog, with long, cunning ears. It lifted its lean leg and drummed a warning; a thunderous beating that cracked across the sky and kicked up dust around the car, then bolted away into the grass.
Rain pelted the windshield and streamed into the leaky vessel, running between the seats. It fell heavily on the roof, poured down the glass and into the well under her feet. The car began to rock with the wind, moving along with the currents in the grass, which grew slick and loose as kelp, waving around her. From inside the car, the grass seemed to lose integrity, and folded easily in the wind, parting and rippling away, exposing the soil. Prairie dogs breached from their safe, subterranean dwellings, crested and descended again.
The grass lapped the windows and moved singularly, swaying at first, and then crushing upon itself in swells. The car lurched and little girl was thrown across the front seat by the heaving plain and wailed in complaint. A great wave hit one side of the car and she felt herself surge upward, pressed into the saturated foam cushion. Freed of its anchor, the car slid along with the current, and bobbed along the surface of the grass. The little girl grabbed the armrest to steady herself as the car pitched from one side to another. Adrift in an ocean of space, the little car and its captives spun and reeled. Her doll was floating at the bottom of the car, face down.
Out in the distance a large rodent head surfaced, leering at her with one eye and then submerging again. Her shrieks filled the car and she hid under the wheel, crouching in the water as the waves thrashed their life raft to and fro. The little girl pressed both hands to the window and sobbed. “Mom!” she screamed, “Dad!” but there was no one to hear her. She hid from the terrible storm under the steering wheel, next to her floating doll, feeling the car list in one direction, then another in the wind.
She was under the seat, covering her eyes when the water sloshed to one side, carrying her little doll up onto the seat. She opened her eyes and grabbed the doll, holding onto the upholstery and climbing up out of the well. A river of darkness snaked toward them and with a final heave the car became lodged firmly in the bank, invisibly tethered to the axis from which all directions extended into her world. Overfilled by the storm, the river churned, but she welcomed it as an exploring ship’s crew would welcome land. “Look!” she marveled, her hands making foggy spots on the cold glass.
The tips of the grass blades still played against the car door, now individual and distinct, no longer part of the fearsome mass that had carried her across the plain. The wind still blew, but she knew they were finally immobile, deeply embedded in the mud. Her doll still rocked in a puddle between the cushions and she recovered it and shook it dry, squeezing its malleable skull to empty it of water. She squared her shoulders to the doll and made an exaggeratedly firm face at it and said, “See? Just wet, that’s all.“ Her doll ignored her and the little girl turned it to face the window, petting its hair. She frowned and addressed the doll again, “and stop breathing on the glass, you leave handprints when you wipe the fog off.” The intervals between the lightning and the thunder grew longer. Sitting cross-legged to keep her feet dry, she held the doll up to the window, watching the river and the receding storm.
Light began to filter through the clouds, low and pale in the sky. The thunder softened and mellowed into a monotonous roar, taking all but a drizzle with it. A watery light shone through the grass, first diffuse then attenuating to a single point affixed to the stern of the ghostly train. The metal was washed and pale as driftwood as it rushed past her, glinting her reflection, her wet hair clinging to her cheeks. It blew its horn again, no longer a sob, but a firm and directive noise, aimed at the road in its path. She pulled her sandals onto her feet and marched through the soggy grass toward the road’s intersection with the tracks, holding her doll by the hair.