The car rushed up the mountain highway, weaving from lane to lane, passing the other cars. From the back seat, Jill watched Pops’ face, at least half of it, checking to make sure his eyes stayed open. On both sides of the road Fir trees stood sentinel, black under their blankets of snow. Pops played the same song over and over on the stereo and he sang along with it. She’d liked the song, but now she’d heard it so many times it sounded like nothing.
The car hit a wall of rain, water that seemed to come from a hose nozzle set to jet stream, then hail panged against the windshield and roof, swiftly subsiding. Sun flashed from behind a charcoal cloud, bright for a moment and the drops sparkled, each separate splash revealed.
“See there, told you the sun would come out,” Pops said. “Ten miles to the lookout. Gotta hurry. That mountain, she’ll light up like the Fourth of July, but it only lasts a few minutes.” He turned and looked back at her. “Ready Jilly Girl?”
She nodded. He was driving them all the way up to the lookout at the high lakes. Like a whipped horse, the car bucked into a higher gear.
Pops got the junked Mustang from a guy who owed him money. He’d said, “What the hell I’m gonna do with this heap of scrap?” He said Jill’s brother Gilbert could have it.
For months, Gilbert tinkered with the engine in his mechanics class. The day he drove home from school in the shiny, fast car, Pops got real mad. “That’s my car and I’ll drive it whenever I god damn want,” Pops said. Mostly he wanted to drive it after he’d been at the bar.
Jill checked her seatbelt. He’d slow down driving through the last town, but when they were back out on the highway, he’d gun it, pedal to the metal, tearing around the hairpin curve. Gilbert had warned her.
Pops stopped singing and turned the music off. “When I was your age, this is what we did for fun, see. The whole family got in the car and we went for a ride. How else are you supposed to appreciate the place you live? Sometimes we got ice cream.” He stared out at the road in front of him. “And here I am, I got a family that nobody wants to go for a drive. My own wife’s gonna call the police just because I’m taking my Jilly Girl to see something beautiful.” He pulled a bottle from inside his coat and took a clipped swig.
Jill turned to the window and exhaled onto the glass. In the condensation, she drew the shape of a whale with a long horn on its head. She and Kenzie drew Narwhals at school while the teachers lectured and ordered and shouted. They drew them in chalk on the playground blacktop and in pencil in the corners of their math worksheets. Kenzie drew them with rainbow horns, like unicorns, with manga-style eyes. Jill drew them springing from the sea, their long, spiraled tusks piercing the sky above the water.
When they came to the town of Brightwood, Pops slowed down to the speed limit. Icy rain left syrupy trails along the car windows. They passed The Shack restaurant and the Cozy Cafe, the lights from those places beacons of hope in the fading day. Then they passed the Thriftway and Pops sped up to beat the other cars before the road narrowed to one lane and rose steeply up the mountain.
“Your mother never did understand me.” Pops shook his head. “She thinks I asked her to marry me. Guess what? I didn’t. We’d had some drinks at Mac’s. I said something about, I don’t know. Harry chopped down a tree. Her face went like she’d seen Jesus rise from the grave. She squeaked. “Really? You sure?” I shrugged. She said, ‘Les Brody, of course I’ll marry you!’ She looked so god damn happy. I thought, well. What the hell. I’ll go ahead and marry her.” His mouth shut in a straight line. His eye blinked in slow motion. “I guess that was another one of my mistakes.”
Jill thought of Momma, how she’d run screaming after the car as Pops skid in reverse out of the driveway. “You’re drunk! Leave her!” she’d yelled. Momma wasn’t even wearing any shoes, running barefoot through the snow. A sob swelled in Jill’s throat and she swallowed and swallowed it down.
The curve was just ahead. Outside, the rain had turned to snow, coming from every direction, like a shook snow globe. She wished it was Summer. Gilbert always made her wait until late-June before he’d drive them to the high lakes. The day had to be cloudless, at least 90 degrees. In swimsuits, they lay on their backs on the gritty, dirt-brown sand, sweat dripping from their foreheads into their hair. Gilbert counted. One. Two. Three. They leapt up and raced. Sometimes Gilbert let her win. Sometimes, she hesitated, with just her feet in the icy water, staring up at the mountain, snow white even in June, listening to the calls of crows. Swarming mayflies stuck to the skin on her arms and strands of hair caught on the sweat on her face. Four. Five. Six.
Pops’ lips moved. She thought he whispered, “Sorry.” But maybe it was just air, a sigh. The windshield wipers started yelping. Pops took out the bottle. His eye closed, opened.
Seven. Eight. Nine. The water beckoned. Diving into the frigid lake would be like waking up inside a dream, her shocked body descending into black, arching and shooting back up, her face assaulted by pin pricks when the air touched it again.
Pops’ eye closed. Jill screamed. His head lulled to the right. The car thumped over something, then jerked forward and she felt a delighted tickle in her abdomen that meant they were falling.
Gilbert’s voice was a whisper. Ten.
Rebecca Haas has worked as a journalist and public relations executive for twenty years. Her fiction and creative non-fiction writing has appeared in The New Ohio Review, Into the Void, River River Journal, The Oleander Review and has been performed by Liars League PDX at Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon. She won first place in the 2019 Dreamers Creative Writing Flash Non-Fiction Contest. Rebecca lives in Portland with her husband and children.