Eight years later, Janne comes to America. She emails an old account: Is three weeks notice enough? I say I left Seattle, I’m back in Nebraska. Not much for tourists, but she’s always welcome. She says her daughter is joining, will that be okay? I’m living in the house where my parents just died, sleeping in their bed and inhaling their dust. Of course, I tell her. Bring the girl.
I meet them at the Omaha airport. Looking for Janne, I find her daughter. She stands drowning in an oversized T-shirt that reads “BELGIË” in puffy font. She wears sunglasses painted as the Belgian flag, the lenses striped in black, yellow, red. Her chin tilts upward to keep them on her nose. She holds a pink briefcase at her side. Janne is hunched in the background, wiping her hands with napkins and balling them in the trash. She looks up and we hug -- soft, strong, fondly remembering our two weeks in Bruges. Her hair still smells of the night we met, in a bar beneath a hostel with no beds to offer, rain pooling in the streets outside. Other than the worry-lines etched on her face, her pre-maternal beauty remains intact.
“Took you long enough,” I tease, but the joke is lost in translation. Janne narrows a single eye.
“It was a lot of gymnastics to get here,” she says sharply. She sets her hands on her daughter’s shoulders.
“This is Pauline. Pauline, this is Madison.”
Pauline lifts her novelty shades, revealing a pair of wire rims that sit crooked on her face.
“She doesn’t speak much English, but she’s learning. She understands more than she talks.” Janne says something to her daughter in Dutch. Then: “It’s okay, practice your English. He knows better than me.”
Pauline is skeptical. She pulls her shoulder out from her mother’s grip and turns her attention to the passing traffic.
Janne shrugs. “She’s a crusty little thing.”
Janne doesn’t care for my sightseeing plans. She’s tired; she wants coffee. I bring us downtown while answering questions about Nebraska. It’s not all farmland, I tell her, but Omaha isn’t a city you’ve seen in the movies. No Empire State Building, no Golden Gate Bridge. Just the biggest city of a much bigger state: a seven-hour drive, east to west.
“Belgium is only three,” she says. “But you would never drive that far. Three hours, you would take the train or fly. It’s more ecological.”
We take seats at an outdoor cafe facing a playground. Before crossing the street to join a pack of children, Pauline leans her briefcase against a table leg, locking eyes to confirm her belongings will be guarded. When the girl runs off, Janne slides down the back of her chair and two steaming mugs are set down between us.
“You don’t do a little biscuit here?” she asks, lifting her cup to check the saucer. I shake my head. She tastes her drink and sets it down, wincing. Trees and buildings toward overhead: From the ground looking up, sunlight glancing off reflective glass walls, we might be sitting in any other city.
“You grew up here,” she says, breaking the silence. “You like it here. Seattle you didn’t like as much.”
“I like them both fine,” I say. Her lips purse. “When my parents died, I was needed here.”
“You came to settle their affairs.”
It began that way. Weeks earlier, my heart lonely and sentimental, I’d entered their home assuming the walls would radiate warmth. But it was just as always: The air stung with the chill of a stagnant marriage, each room as empty as the vacuum of space. Every piece of furniture, each imported knick-knack, had been positioned to suggest order and propriety. I’d grown up in a museum without placards, so it had been irrational to walk inside expecting connection and sentimentality. Their deaths, caused by a gas leak in the house, had been so abrupt that we’d been stripped of the traditional death-bed revelations and final goodbyes, the chance that a father’s final words might rectify the shortcomings of a lifetime. All that remained was the absence of conditions that make a home. There were no pictures of their only child hanging on the walls. My bed had been replaced by a dust-covered treadmill.
“I never expected to see you again,” she continues--odd, since she was the one to drop in. “You said you’d come back, but I know people just don’t like to say goodbye.”
“I always thought I’d see you again,” I say.
“You were waiting for me to be married? Buy a house?”
“Are you married?” I’m too nervous to return her smile.
She puts on sunglasses beneath cloudy skies. Across the street, Pauline is hanging upside down from a tree, her knees wrapped around a branch. Some boys her age are pointing from the ground; she shoos them away with one spastic arm.
“You’re doing well enough,” she says. “You’ve had a good life.”
I can’t tell if these are questions or statements. Or accusations. “Things haven’t been smooth,” I say, inviting some sympathy.
“I know about that,” she says, pointing across the street. Pauline is now upright on the branch, pelting the boys with torn-up twigs and scraps of bark. “She was a surprise. I’d been studying archaeology. But you can’t work a dig site in Asia with a daughter in Bruges, and no father to help. So I run tours out to the Flanders Fields Battlefield. I settled for what was around me.”
“That sounds great,” I say.
“It was the best option. There weren’t many options.”
I swallow the impulse to ask anything more. The long span of our friendship, and our brief period of intimacy, have obscured a hard truth: We knew each other for just two weeks, and years ago. Janne kicks back the bottom of her coffee and sighs. She doesn’t smile as much as I remember, perhaps the product of motherhood and jet lag. The space between us fills with ambient sounds: cars passing by, enameled cups clinking on metal tables, children shouting across the street. In the playground space, Pauline has climbed down from the tree and armed herself with a long stick she wields as a sword. She traps four boys into fenced-off corner; they plead for mercy, red-faced and neck tendons bulging, one of them calling for his mom to intervene. Pauline is laughing, drunk on terror, stabbing at their chests if they dare step forward.
“I secretly adore what a little bitch she is,” Janne says. “It gives me hope she’ll fight harder for the life she wants.”
I think of my mother: The world traveler who had never left America, who raised her son to know himself as an interruption of her dreams. Janne stands and yells something in Dutch; poor Pauline snaps up straight, lowers her weapon. She pushes up her glasses and runs toward the street, slumped shoulders and quick feet begging for forgiveness.
We go to the zoo. They’ve been to one in Antwerp, Janne says, but years ago. Pauline is thrilled--a zoo justifies the distance of their journey.
“What about you?” I ask Janne. “You didn’t cross the Atlantic for the zoo.”
Pauline enters a swarm of kids that squeal as a gorilla poops against the window.
“The zoo is okay for me,” she says, rubbing her temple. “Mostly I wanted the open space.”
The sun is overwhelming; all of us are sweating. We duck into a gift shop for its air conditioning. Pauline makes the rounds, twirling kaleidoscopes and caressing stuffed animals on display. She pulls a lion from a basket and pushes it toward me.
“De leeuw,” she says softly. We make eye contact for the first time. I find a sweet, kind-hearted girl behind the armor of a menacing tyrant.
“Lion? Is that how you say lion?” I ask. Pauline nods. I try the word in Dutch, but she flinches.
“Duh layewww,” she says, drawing out the vowels. I try again, coming closer, but she snickers and squeezes the lion at its neck.
Janne walks up holding an illustrated guide to Nebraska’s wild animals -- almost none of which I’ve seen outside the zoo.
“How far is the wilderness from here?” she asks. “Do you get lost? Do you wish you would?”
I don’t think she’d want to hear that most of the state is farmland, with fewer wild spaces than New York. I indulge her sense of wonder: I say it’s easy to get where you want to go, but just as easy to let the road lead you. My experience, I tell her, is you know where you are, but sometimes you don’t know where you should be.
Pauline runs up and pokes my arm. She tries to hand me the stuffed lion.
“You’re not getting that,” Janne says sharply, and adds a terse line in Dutch. “Put it back. It’s rude to ask people to buy you things.” Pauline’s chest deflates, and she drags herself away, though I can’t help feeling implicated myself.
“I’m getting you this animal book,” her mother calls across the shop. “Madison is already doing a lot. Don’t be greedy.”
As we move toward the exit, I pick the lion back out of the basket, crouch down to Pauline’s level.
“Da loo,” I say, gunning for a smile. But she rolls her eyes and shoves the door open. I’ve lost whatever goodwill I’d earned.
I grill burgers at the house--American fare. Pauline and Janne make fries.
“You remember Belgian fries,” Janne says. “Better than French.”
After dinner I pull a large map of America from a rolled-up collection my mother kept in a dusty corner. They were part of her rebellion against my father’s refusal to travel, the one thing she’d envisioned for their retirement. She would have liked them hung, but as with pictures of their son, they didn’t pass muster with my father. He preferred animal heads and yellowed portraits of long-dead relatives. They had spent their lives communing with the distant and the dead.
I press my finger down on Omaha. Pauline leans in close, raising onto her toes.
“That’s where you are right now,” Janne says. “Begrijpen?”
“Begrijpen means to understand,” she explains.
Pauline quietly forms a question, her shoulders curling inward to keep me out. Janne moves from her spot beside the kitchen table over to the back door.
“From America, Bruges is here,” she says, planting her feet near the threshold. “Russia is outside.”
Pauline moves her hands across the map’s paper surface, following lines that lead west from Omaha. She asks another question with the same shyness.
“Mountains are over here.” Janne points at the Rockies. “This here is flat.”
I tell them that Nebraska was once the bottom of an ocean.
Again Pauline consults with her mother, stuttering and taking several breaths. She twists her hair into a cord.
“No, the mountains are far away. You can’t go there,” Janne says. “Madison, the Rocky Mountains, they are too far to visit.”
I tip my head to the side. “It’s a long drive,” I say, and Pauline pouts. “But I’ve been there several times. Most people fly.”
“But very expensive,” Janne corrects. She bends down to Pauline and takes the girl’s limp hands in her palms. “You have to fly, and it costs a lot of money. Niet voor kinderen.”
Later we decide to watch a movie, but nothing in the house has subtitles in Dutch. It becomes a non-issue when Pauline falls asleep on the couch. I lead Janne into my father’s office and unroll a thin mattress on the floor. Together, we drape it with blankets and a pillow. Janne carries Pauline and slides her under the sheets, and we leave her there to sleep. In the living room, I open a bottle of wine. Finally free to travel back in time, we speak as close friends, and her icy demeanor begins to thaw.
“Our histories seem more connected than they are,” Janne says at last. “Do you also get that sense?”
“How do you mean?”
She runs her hand down her shoulder to her wrist, and I leave my stiff wingback chair to join her on the couch. Each sip of wine tempts our bodies horizontal. “You have this sense that you know me so well. Don’t you wonder why?”
I place my arm around her. She straightens her back, waiting for an answer.
“We just have that kind of connection,” I wax, hoping my charm overcomes a lack of substance. I lean in to kiss her, and she stops me with her hand, takes my chin in her fingers and stares at my lips. “But you don’t know me,” she whispers. “You’re the same as ever. A dumb American boy on a European fling.”
She sighs and rests her head on my shoulder. I kiss her forehead, and she laughs.
“You have been quite a problem for me,” she teases, taking a long drink. She sets her hand on my leg and curls her fingers. “I wish I wasn’t so tired.”
“You can sleep upstairs,” I offer. She furrows her brow.
“You said your bedroom is full of exercise equipment.”
“My parents have a large bed.”
She nods, sits up straight. “That is where they died from the gas poisoning.”
“The leak is fixed,” I say. “It’s the only bed in the house.”
Janne set downs her wine and presses two fingers to her temple. Her mouth hardens.
“I don’t think I will sleep with you there,” she says, biting the corner of her lip.
“Of course.” My face flushes with heat, and I take my arm from around her back. “Yes, of course. No.” In the mess of the evening’s unraveling, I know better than to try and defend myself. I fold my hands in my lap, hoping the right posture can place my sexual motives at a safe remove.
“Something is very wrong about that,” she says, shaking her head. “Even more with strangers.”
“I wouldn’t call myself a stranger.”
Janne stands up and pulls a blanket off the back of the couch--some Peruvian throw my mother had imported--and turns herself into it. Wrapped up, she props a knee on the couch cushion and lays down, tucking her feet and waiting for me to leave. I rise and find her dark brown eyes shining like obsidian in the yellow light.
“I wouldn’t call you anything else,” she says, closing her eyes. She stays frozen in pretend sleep until I go upstairs for the night.
In my parents’ room, I spread a sleeping bag on the floor, but then change my mind and crawl into their bed. Their pillows have preserved their smells, and when I breathe in I’m able to grieve. The rest of the home is anesthetic, items sterilized of meaning or connection. In my desperation to feel, I can lay down and let my eyes grow wet, only there, only then, the saline washing them away, a little bit at a time. As it comes, I’m happy to have left Janne downstairs.
Because I’d brought them in the back way, Janne hadn’t known the front storm door would slam shut behind her in the predawn hours. The metal clap jolts me awake, and I run downstairs. From the front window, I watch a pair of taillights shrink down the street.
I search the living room and kitchen for a note, let myself hope that she’s coming back soon. Picking up allergy drops at a gas station, or fetching pre-dawn donuts. But I know better. Her luggage is gone; the Peruvian throw is folded over the back of the couch. Her wine glass is back in the cupboard, cleaned of its lipstick marks. The living room and kitchen are returned to their normal state, empty of warmth, untouched by the living. Janne had vanished with a perfect attention to detail, all evidence of her visit removed. Except for one.
The hours before sunrise are filled with questions. The first are existential: Where has Janne gone, why visit me? Who has Janne become; how could that person leave their daughter behind; and who would entrust that young girl’s care to a man who slept with strangers in his dead parents’ bed?
Other questions are practical: What do children of a certain age eat? Is Pauline potty-trained -- is that the term Belgians use? Will she cry upon discovery her mother has abandoned her? Is it better or worse if she doesn’t?
As the eastern sky starts to brighten I arrange the cereal boxes on the counter, unzip her suitcase and lay out a pair of clothes. (Clean underwear -- she has broken her diaper dependance.) Pauline had slept soundly through her mother’s noisy exit, and through the several times I entered the office: First to find her abandoned to my care, second to confirm she was alive and breathing. Third, anxious to start the day, peeking in and hoping to catch her at the moment she blinked awake. She floats into the kitchen at six, sleep in her eyes and her hair a tangled mess. I unfold a printed sheet of Dutch vocabulary.
“Your mother is gone,” I say in Dutch, reciting a free online translation. “We will have fun today. Do you like cereal?”
The key to Dutch is articulating as you would from a dentist’s chair: lip full of Novocaine, suction tubes vacuuming spit from the back of your throat. Mother becomes moeder, today vandaag.
It isn’t clear how well she understands, but she takes a seat at the kitchen table, which is good enough for me: no hysterics, no questions rendered in a foreign language. We eat in comforting silence.
To counteract the day’s sense of urgency and pressure, after breakfast I bring Pauline to a large park. She finds another group of boys to terrorize, getting a little rough with one and scratching his face with a tiny switch of juniper. He whines to his mother that Pauline has ripped a clump of hair from his head. I call him a liar as we flee the scene.
Seeking a less violent arena, we visit the library. I go hunting for a Dutch-English dictionary, and for anything to keep Pauline busy. The movie collection includes a small selection of Disney films with Dutch audio versions. I spread them on the floor, hold up three fingers, and Pauline makes her picks. She insists on carrying the movies herself: When I try to place them in her pink briefcase she wrenches it away from me, presenting her own capable hands to handle the transfer.
For several hours, we wander downtown Omaha. Pauline behaves like no young child I’ve ever seen. She flicks her hand at the balloon animal artist, not even slowing her pace, and shrugs at unimpressive ice cream samples. I watch her fling herself down a set of long metal slides, but we’re forced to leave when she tries to shove a crying girl down the chute. Every so often I ask her if she knows where her mother has gone, but she only gives me a blank stare. We grab an early dinner in an old train car, where she returns from the salad bar with a mound of bacon bits.
By early evening, we’re out of things to do. My unreasonable hope is that the longer we stay out, the more likely we are to find Janne waiting on the back steps of the house. But Pauline is tired and fussy, and there is only so much a grown man can do with a little Belgian anarchist. At seven, we return to an empty house. I play one of Pauline’s library movies, and she falls asleep halfway through. I stay up late checking my email, translating English words and phrases, and filling Google’s search box with questions of paternity tests and the laws regarding child abandonment--phrases that read a lot like prayers.
In the morning, I shepherd Pauline into the bathroom, handing her a towel and toothbrush. She senses my urgency and sets to work.
Today we are visiting Mrs. Lieberman, the woman who had gifted a pair of wooden clogs displayed in our living room. She’d been my Sunday School teacher long ago, but I haven’t seen her since graduating high school, although she had kept in touch with my parents. She was the daughter of immigrants from the Netherlands and had been taught to embrace that heritage. As an adult, she spoke fluent Dutch and had imprinted our Sunday School classroom with her own cultural flair. We ate stroopwafels and hot chocolate while translating words and phrases in the Bible--just the sort of diversion that made her so popular among adolescents. While Pauline showers, I call the church to get Mrs. Lieberman’s address. As soon as the girl is ready, we leave.
We arrive at a suburban nursing home. No one stops me from walking straight inside and down the hall to her door. She answers my knock with a warbling invitation to enter. The scene is grim: Mrs. Lieberman is propped in a recliner, waving from her fixed station. Her hands shake badly; her hair is thin; her clothes hang loose on her body. Mr. Lieberman, whom I had also known, is present only in dusty photos flanking a box television set. His wife doesn’t seem to recognize me. I guide Pauline past her broad smiling face, settling us both on a stiff, red couch.
“My name is Madison Tolliver,” I say. “Do you remember me?”
She closes her lips for a moment, thinking, then relaxes into a smile and shakes her head.
“My parents are Robert and Linda. You taught my Sunday School class at Crossroads Baptist.”
Before she can connect the dots, Mrs. Lieberman looks around the room and fussily tries to play host from her chair. She gestures at Pauline: “Does the little girl want ice cream? Water? She must be hungry. Are you sure?” At her insistence, I adjust the thermometer. “The nurse keeps it warm,” she says. I take her up on the ice cream, an easy way to sate both Mrs. Lieberman and Pauline. Re-entering the living room, I lower the volume on the blaring TV.
I repeat my introduction.
“I know Robert and Linda,” she says. “Linda’s a good friend of mine.”
“I had so many children in Sunday school,” she says as an apology. “We had a lot of fun, didn’t we?”
“Do you remember one time, you brought in Dutch clothes and treats and taught the class about your ancestry?”
This time her brow furrows. “I remember that,” she says, although I’m not convinced.
“Do you still speak Dutch?”
She tilts her head back, maybe clearing the cobwebs from long-ignored corners, but the strain on her face suggests the words have left her. Then she straightens up.
“Ik spreek Nederlands zeer goed,” she says, afterwards beaming. Pauline’s eyes flash wide. She says something to Mrs. Lieberman, and the old woman’s jaw drops, her fillings catching the light. She pushes a finger out toward the girl.
“This little girl knows Dutch,” she tells me.
“She’s from Belgium,” I explain. “Can you ask her something: Ask her if she knows where her mother might have gone.”
Mrs. Lieberman takes a roundabout approach, enjoying several cheery exchanges and cooing over Pauline’s every response. It’s clear when she finally pops my question: Pauline slides both hands between her thighs, pinches her knees together, mumbles something and shrugs.
“The mountains,” Mrs. Lieberman translates. “She went to the mountains.”
“Did her mother say anything before she left? Why did they come to America?”
Mrs. Lieberman relays the question. This time, Pauline gives a long, animated answer--the most she has spoken since getting off the plane. She flutters her feet above the carpet while talking, and Mrs. Lieberman’s face elongates, its elation draining down into her neck, where she swallows several times. Her brow and lips tighten, and I wonder if the exercise is knocking the rust off of her cognition.
“Her mother had to go to the mountains for a while. Far into the wilderness, too far for children.” Mrs. Lieberman wets her lips with her tongue. “She doesn’t know when she’s coming back. She said she was leaving her with her father.”
I stand up--I don’t remember standing up, but here I am, opening the door to Mrs. Lieberman’s yellow fridge. I bend down: The cold air pours over my face. I tear a leaf from a head of browning lettuce, shove it whole into my mouth.
“Am I the father?” I ask, rising up. “How do you say ‘father’ in Dutch?”
Mrs. Lieberman pronounces: “Vah-der.”
Pauline’s eyes dart over to me.
“Vader?” I ask her, clapping my hand onto my chest.
“Ja,” she whispers, and stares at her feet.
Mrs. Lieberman touches a finger to her chin.
“Robert and Linda,” she says. “They had a son who moved away. Angry little thing. Did he ever come back?”
We take a second Schwan’s bar for the road. The drive home is long and quiet, full of doubt and supposings.
Suppose Pauline is my daughter. Suppose she isn’t.
Suppose I care for her as my own. Suppose I don’t--what will become of her?
Suppose Janne is waiting at home. Suppose she never comes back.
At a red light, I set my hand on Pauline’s leg--too intimate, is this what fathers do?--and when she looks up to find out why, I smile. She looks disinterested, if not quietly alarmed. I withdraw my hand and the light turns green.
At home, I start another Disney movie. Pauline flops onto the couch with a sigh of resignation. The currency of my diversions is plummeting in value, but for now I go back to the computer. Internet, show me the way. But everything I write is met with a moralizing backlash: Be a man, suck it up. Take responsibility, girls need their fathers. Thirty minutes as a parent, and I’m already a bad one.
I go upstairs for a nap, though in truth, I go to lay on my parents’ pillows. I can smell them still, but less every day. Soon they will be gone. My senses return me to the morning I left for Seattle. My mother wrapped me in a long hug, bawling as if she hadn’t raised me amid constant reminders of the sacrifices she’d made for me. Perhaps that’s it: She despised me because I was all she had.
Then I’m in the garage standing over my father. He’s sawing planks for a backyard shed and accusing me of wasting my college tuition, all that money just to burn through a string of dead-end jobs.
Then it’s Christmas, the last time I saw them both. I’m home for the first time in a year. There is no Christmas tree, no decorations. My father says it’s a lot of wasted energy. My mother sighs and says none of the family was visiting anyway. My dad spends the holiday fixing the snowblower; my mom watches television alone in her bedroom. Our Christmas dinner is leftover lasagna.
Now I’m out of bed and in the backyard, kicking my heel against the shed siding my father had installed. This is becoming a common occurrence: I find myself in a strange place, not knowing how I got there. Whatever happened in the intervening moments, it had brought Pauline to the screen door, where she watches me from a safe distance. I’ve been waiting for this girl to prove my paternity: If she had balked at mustard or chewed the skin on the ends of her fingers, I could accept her as my own. But Pauline remains a foreign creature. Her skin is olive, when both Janne and I have complexions of glue. Even against the strong odds of right-handedness, she holds a fork in her left. It seems our only shared quality is the way we’ve each stood at that back screen door, watching our fathers wrestle with the burden of unknown miseries. My mother had been the one to cast blame, but my father had been the tortured soul, silently blinking through his life’s unhappiness. Always working on a project, too busy to teach me to throw a football. He didn’t love me, and he didn’t not love me. He never wanted anything: No Christmas or birthday gifts, no recognition or thanks. No father-son time, no divorce. And I couldn’t have told him what I wanted anyway. I grew up watching him, wondering why he didn’t watch me back, and thinking that this was the nature of men--the inevitable nature of me.
“Come out here,” I say to Pauline. She opens the door--two inches at first, to make sure it’s safe, then all the way--and pads into the grass with bare feet. She divides her gaze between my face and the ground. I try to give her a comforting smile, and fail: From her expression, I suspect I might be a cannibal. She stands square to me, braced for the mangling of her flesh in my teeth, but hoping for … something different; I wish I knew what.
How badly she must want that thing, to face such certain doom.
I pat her on the shoulder and rest my hand there. Omaha’s air is sun-soaked and humid, reminding me of Belgium’s heat wave years ago. The mercury had climbed past thirty degrees Celsius, and the whole country was pouring out sweat. Janne had wanted to know how Americans handled the heat--Lay low in the basement, wait for fall? Sit in front of the fridge?--and I said I didn’t know, go swimming maybe, ice cream, the mall. Or sometimes we’d just go for a drive.
I run back inside, turn off the television, push Pauline’s briefcase into her hands. Pull her out to the garage, buckle her in. We go west: up the expressway, past the suburbs. I turn on the radio, and Pauline’s head bobs to the music. She watches the landscape turn from trees and buildings into tidy rows of green-and-gold stalks. We drive for thirty, forty-five minutes. The distance seems to energize Pauline, who is possibly on the longest car ride of her life. She pulls her legs onto the seat, stretches her neck to see the countryside spread out. Every mile brings a new thrill for Pauline, and for me a greater sense of remove. In moments, I forget what a problem she will be for me.
She pulls out her book of Nebraska’s wild animals, hopefully not the last gift she’ll ever receive from her mother. The briefcase flops open, and I glance down at its secret contents: Loose papers covered in drawings, a wooden whistle on a string, and an envelope labeled, in rainbow crayon, “Father.” The pages of her book flutter as she flips through its illustrations, comparing them to the landscape outside. I see her hunting for mountain lions and otter, whooping cranes and bighorn sheep. I want her to ask me questions. I want to give her answers, tell her things she couldn’t imagine. How pieces of the ocean are still in the dirt here, shark teeth and rocks etched with ancient bugs. How the animals in that book are so far away, because farmland is a city without buildings.
I turn onto a highway heading south, picking up my speed against the sun dropping in the western sky. Pauline plays with the radio while I try to remember where I’m going. The sun is orange when I find road signs pointing us down a smaller county road. Pauline pays close attention as the road turns to gravel and kicks up a swell of dust behind us. I pull into a parking lot and take her hand, dragging her down a grassy hill that becomes the sandy bank of a sprawling body of water.
“This is the Platte River,” I say. “You know ‘river’?”
“It’s almost a mile wide,” I say. “A kilometer wide, but not very deep. You can walk all the way across.”
I take off my shoes and step into the shallows, the water reaching my ankles. Pauline doesn’t move.
“Come in,” I say, stepping back to demonstrate. She shakes her head. I laugh.
“It’s safe, I promise. Safe.”
She sits down on the sand, crosses her arms over her knees. On the far side of the river there are children playing in the water, screaming and laughing. The sun is dropping fast. I offer her my hand.
“Come on. We only have a few minutes.”
She sits there, paralyzed, watching me.
In my softest voice I say, “Pauline.” I step forward and she scrambles back, crab-walking up the sand and out of my reach. Her feet are bent to kick me away. She’s flexed, wild, ready to run. She knows that in this new life, she’ll have to protect herself.