The children had never been this far from home before. Liz had spent most of yesterday driving around, hunting for no-mess Crayola coloring books, praying they weren’t too juvenile to keep a six- and eight-year-old occupied in the car, then running up and down the supermarket aisles in search of bars and snack pouches in case they couldn’t find food on the road. Or in case they did find something, and Paul wouldn’t allow the kids to eat it.
Now the hours had ticked by, four of them, and it seemed they were no closer to their destination than they had been when they left home. Descending from the mountains of Wedeskyull had presented a stark contrast and it felt like they were really traveling. But the view outside the windows ever since had been made up of little besides cornfields. Liz wouldn’t have believed how bleak acres and acres of green could appear when the crop was so unvarying. The road they were driving on hadn’t dipped or risen for thirty minutes. It was a flat length of asphalt, inky mirages always shimmering just ahead.
“I wish we could see some real trees.”
As tired as she was—and they weren’t even at the hardest part of this day yet—Liz smiled reflexively. Ally, her gardening partner, her green thumb girl. To say that their youngest had a desire to be out in nature was like saying she had a desire to breathe. Sometimes Liz looked into her little girl’s eyes and saw a tiny version of herself in the serious brown lenses.
Reid’s turn now. Liz glanced in the rearview, but it wasn’t angled to offer a glimpse of her son. “What is it, hon?”
“Me, too,” Ally chimed in. “Everything looks the same out my window.”
The flatness was getting to Liz, too. She looked over at Paul in the driver’s seat.
“Another round of I Spy?” he suggested. “Or Ghost?”
Liz had already decided that car games must’ve been invented by some not-so-benevolent dictator masquerading as an elementary school teacher. For that matter, cars might’ve been invented by the same person, minus the schoolteacher part. She had no idea how people sat still for so long. Her body itched to be moving, knees sinking into the soil, hands digging in the ground. She had sympathy for both kids, who up till now had actually been pretty good.
“How about we sing?” she suggested, channeling the voice of that dictatorial teacher. Liz Daniels, schoolmarm.
Boos and groans from the backseat.
Paul responded belatedly. “I might have to let you out here if you do that.”
“Mom? I’m hungry.”
“Me, too!” Ally crowed.
Liz looked at Paul, but her husband had subsided into silence, eyes fixed on the long, blank road. “Bored and hungry, huh?” she said, twisting to peer into the backseat. A sight through the back window made her frown for a moment, but then the unhappy faces distracted her. She reached for a light tone. “Boy, you guys are really a mess.”
The protests were fast approaching a whine.
“Paul?” Liz said, squinting at the back window again.
Her husband didn’t answer. Liz’s gaze darted to the rearview.
“Paul,” she said more urgently.
He looked at her.
“I think that truck has been behind us for a long time,” she said.
Her husband reached up and tilted the mirror to get a better look. “It’s just a pickup truck,” he said, his tone a shrug.
“I know,” Liz said. “But look how closely it’s trailing us.”
She made sure to pitch her voice low so as not to alert the children. Reid, especially, had a tendency to get scared. His fear of death belied both his age and understanding. When Liz’s great-aunt had died last year, they took Ally to the funeral, but left Reid behind. No low-impact introduction to the subject, such as a children’s storybook or short-lived pet hermit crab, enabled Reid to cope. They even skirted cemeteries in case Reid caught a glimpse of a gravestone. Liz actually mapped out alternate routes to school or the grocery store or seed depot, aware of where Wedeskyull’s dead were laid. And although she occasionally dragged the whole family to church, hoping a religious connection might provide some sort of framework for Reid’s fears, she usually regretted it. The sermons about heaven terrified him, and Liz had to work to steer clear of the tilting rows of headstones in the churchyard.
She wondered whether this boycott approach to death was really wise. The ban would have to end sometime, and then what?
The pickup had drawn even closer, but Paul’s glance didn’t shift from the road in front of them. Liz had the idea to try and identify the model, but it was impossible to make out the front grille, so close was it to their car. They passed a farm, and a pungent, animal stink came in through the vents, the smell of portable potties and compost that needed turning.
The whine had become a shriek. Reid, going right past Go without stopping to collect his two hundred dollars.
Then Ally joined in. “How much longer? I’m hungry! I’m super hungry!”
The pickup loomed above them now, filling the entire rear window.
The volume in the backseat died at the exact moment as the noise from the pickup exploded into a rattle and a roar. Liz glanced down to see that her pocketbook had vanished, unfelt, from its position in her lap. It was in the backseat, and the children had begun tearing into packets of fruit snacks, looking shocked and sugar-stung by their unexpected bounty. At home, Paul tended to limit even the natural brands of treats, but these had been for an emergency.
The pickup truck’s engine growled, so close it would soon be touching them. Liz braced herself for the jolt, sending an alarmed look toward Paul. He seemed to have finally noticed the vehicle rearing up behind them, although he still appeared unperturbed. Their hybrid didn’t even handle winters at home all that well, and it certainly wasn’t built to go head-to-head with a truck. Liz closed her eyes against an image of the back of their car getting pleated, accordion-folded with Ally and Reid inside.
She suppressed a scream, willing her husband to floor it.
The truck swerved into the other lane. For just a moment it hovered beside them, holding even with their car. Liz caught a glimpse of the driver’s furious face, his knotted eyebrows. Then the pickup rocketed by them at such high speed that their car swayed in its wake.
Paul tapped the brake, swiveling the steering wheel to straighten out. He gave a shake of his head. “What a jerk.”
Liz’s chest was heaving beneath her T-shirt.
“A jerk?” she repeated. “Honey, that guy—I think it was deliberate. He was trying to terrorize us. Or something.”
The something was vague and unarticulated in her mind. It had to do with being away from home, as far away as they’d ventured since both kids were born. It might even have had to do with their destination, her husband’s childhood home, a place Liz had never visited before. But the expression on the driver’s face hadn’t just been her imagination, or an artifact of Liz’s sense of disjointedness. He had looked into her eyes with real rage.
Maybe they’d just been driving too slowly, Paul reluctant to get where they were going.
Her husband’s gaze slipped past hers. More and more interactions between them were going this way: Paul imposing his vision, Liz protesting in a way that felt feeble. She wondered when they had fallen into these roles. It used to be that their differences balanced them, but lately it seemed they just kept them on opposite sides.
Opposite sides of what? Liz wondered.
She decided to try again. “Paul, he practically hit us.”
Paul flicked the cruise control back on and spoke calmly. “Well, he’s gone now.”
The pickup had indeed shot ahead, not even its tail visible any longer in front of them. In the backseat, the kids were quietly eating gummies.
She recalled the rising fear that had filled her, like water coming in. Not like her at all; Liz considered herself the practical half of their pairing. Down there in the trenches of the day-to-day, making sure things stayed their course. The house, school, the kids’ activities. While Paul painted lofty pictures of what could be, leading people along like a Pied Piper.
He had settled back against the seat.
Ever since she’d known him, her husband’s customary capability, which he wore like thick tree bark, had been a source of comfort, allowing Liz to reach for things she never otherwise would have. Her business. The children even. But for one flickering moment, with the car gliding smoothly along, Paul’s unruffled demeanor made her angry.
She spied the blue sign that signaled services ahead. Liz forced herself to reach over, touch her husband’s arm.
“How about we stop?” she said, aware of the complexities such a pause would create, but not caring at the moment. “I think we could all use a break.”
She was surprised when Paul swung off at the exit; then she noticed the tilt of the needle on the gas gauge. Paul pulled up at the pump.
“Honey?” she said. “The kids are really hungry. I think we should get them something to eat.” Super hungry, she had heard Ally say.
“I made some sandwiches,” Paul said, indicating a small cooler at Liz’s feet. “But if we dip into them now, dinner might get a little tight. I doubt there’ll be a decent restaurant.”
Paul got out to pump the gas, and Liz let down the window. She leaned over to talk, surprised by the sodden heat in the air. At some point during their entry into western New York, the whole climate had changed. “I’ll take them in, okay?”
Paul looked at her as if she’d suggested bringing the children to Mars. “There’s nothing here but fast food.”
The kids seemed to be gearing up for a rare opportunity. In the backseat, Ally looked at Reid, and both kids unbuckled their belts.
Liz nodded quickly. “Just this once.”
“You already gave them candy,” he said.
“Not candy,” Liz corrected. “Fruit snacks.”
For a topic as inherently light and pleasing as sweets, this was actually dangerous territory for them. Liz knew that both kids secretly ate food Paul would’ve forbidden. Reid, as the older child and the one who tended toward self-assertion anyway, pilfered packs of gum from the knapsacks of seatmates. But if Paul had known that, he would’ve felt the need to enlighten them all about the history of gum, its origin as a natural component of the beech tree to today’s manufacturing outrages, and by the end none of them would be able to split open a package of Trident without worrying that they were ingesting something akin to cyanide, not to mention contributing to the exploitation of the working class.
And the thing was, by the time Paul had finished, Reid and Ally and Liz herself would all be left feeling grateful they’d gotten a chance to join his crusade.
Her husband shook his head. “Fruit snacks aren’t much better than candy. You may as well just go ahead and have them chew gum.”
Liz hid her smile.
“What’s funny?” Paul asked, and Liz smiled again.
“Just thinking that you can be very convincing.”
The pump clicked off.
“Dad?” Reid said, leaning over the front seat to talk through the open window. “We’re hot.”
“Yeah,” Ally said. “Super hot. Look, Daddy. I feel like one of those pansies.”
Liz looked when Paul didn’t. There were planters here, someone’s nod to beautification, but they’d been filled without a care to conditions, and the blotches of color were shriveled and blistered. Liz’s fingers itched to uproot the bedraggled clumps, offer the dirt a mix of zinnia, snapdragon, and rudbeckia instead, blooms that could withstand the assault of the sun.
“Can we get something to drink?”
Paul replaced the pump in its slot, studying the array of signs on the building behind them. “You might be able to find some fruit at the Starbucks,” he said to Liz. “Fill the water bottle. I’ll park the car.”
Liz hustled the kids away from the car, thinking, Muffins. Muffins for Reid and Ally, and a grande for me, and Paul would have to be satisfied with that.
She was standing on a long, snaking line, welcoming the air-conditioned cool and watching for Paul, when she realized that while one kid still hovered right beside her, the other didn’t.
“Al?” she said. “Where’s your brother?”
She’d gotten used to the fact that the kids kept better track of each other than she ever could, unless she wanted to be one of those gluey moms who never let her children out of her sight. The teachers told her that even at school, Reid checked up on Ally and vice versa.
Liz took hold of Ally’s hand and began looking around. People pricked the soaring, two-storied space; it was difficult to make out the head of an eight-year-old. Paul entered the building and she called out to get his attention. She didn’t want to stray too far in case Reid came back to find her.
Ally gave a little yelp and Liz realized how hard she was squeezing her daughter’s hand. She wasn’t all the way to worried yet—the kids had plenty of independence on the farm—but this cavernous network of fast food offerings presented all too much temptation to a kid unused to them. Plus Liz’s nerves were still jangled by their near miss on the highway.
“Christ,” Paul said, as soon as he understood the situation. He scrubbed his face. “I’m tired. Reid!”
People in the crowd began to take notice, pulling their own kids close.
“I’ll check the bathroom,” Paul said, scooping Ally up.
It hit her like an aha. How had Liz been annoyed earlier by Paul’s sensibility and competence? Her husband leveled her out every time. The restroom was where Reid had to be. After all, it was the kids who had polished off all the water, those sugary fruit things making them thirsty.
But a few seconds later, Paul was headed back from the men’s room, Ally still hooked to his hip. He didn’t have Reid.
Just then Liz’s peripheral vision caught sight of a man’s face, plum-colored and angry. The irate sound of his voice followed a second later. The man held Reid by one bony wrist, and Liz felt her own instinctual surge of outrage along with relief.
“Hey!” she cried. “Let go of my—”
Excerpted from Ruin Falls by Jenny Milchman. Copyright © 2014 by Jenny Milchman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.