I can tell it’s going to be one of those nights when I walk in the back door of Salerno & Sons to find Dmitri hunched over a stack of pizza boxes, flipping through tickets while the new cook slaps together pies. In the packed dining room, people stare anxiously toward the kitchen. They need water. They need breadsticks. I need help.
Rosalie, a server who works morning shifts at the diner across the street and calls the rest of us sweetie, slaps a hand on my shoulder and says through a smoker’s cough how sorry she is about the fire. “I gave you a good cut of my tips the night we did the collection. And I’m praying for you. Wanted you to know, sweetie.”
“You didn’t have to,” I tell her. Rosalie needs every penny she earns and then some. I’m gonna have to make this up to her. And to Kyle, who presses a Walmart gift card in my hand as he braves the kitchen to pick up delivery orders. I busy myself filling water glasses, moving between tables on autopilot, and hoping my emotions catch up.
Dmitri always says we’re family, and I assumed it’s just what people say, that he doesn’t mean it, but my coworkers have gone above and beyond to help me. Cait, too. It was a shock, running into her in the therapist’s office. Maybe I should’ve asked how she was doing, only Owen had always been grouchy after therapy so it felt like a third rail. I took money from my coworkers. I took Cait’s advice. I need to thank them. Yeah, and pay them back.
I laugh at the thought of hustling that much cash from, I dunno, refereeing youth soccer on Sundays, when we don’t have games. The laughter turns into a honking cry that sends me racing for a bathroom stall. I dab my eyes with one-ply toilet paper, holding my breath until the woman in the next stall leaves. I’d rather feel nothing than this. But I’ve got tables to serve, and I’m taking too long to pull myself together. I tell myself my flushed cheeks and fat lips are sexy, that it doesn’t matter how I look. Then I get back out there.
I throw my head down and sling pies for a solid hour. Everyone here knows who I am, but now they know I’m that girl. The girl who made the news when her house burned down. The girl from the wrong side of town with the dead-end brother who couldn’t stick sobriety. Such a shame about that girl. Their eyes linger on me like they’re trying to communicate thoughts and prayers by brain wave. My smile is a shield. I flit between the tables like a moth on a sultry summer night, with a slick of sweat on the back of my neck. My apron pocket grows fat with bills.
Later, Dmitri calls me into the office and hands me a thick envelope, tells me to guard it with my life. “This goes without saying, but, ah, we’re glad you’re healthy and if work is too much, if you need anything.” He licks grease off his fingers and hands me a business card with his home number scribbled on the back. “You know you can call me anytime.”
“Yeah. Okay. And it’s not too much, the work I mean.” Thank you sticks in my throat.
“Alright, well, get outta here. I don’t want us getting weeded.” He calls me back before I can exit. “Oh, and take a pie with you at the end of the night, a large, extra-large, toppings on the house. Someone’s putting you up, right kid? Right. For you. For them. I know it’s not much but—”
“Thanks, Dmitri. I won’t tell the new guy, but you’re a good boss.” He laughs me out of there, and I walk over to my tables feeling like myself for the first time all night.
Except the calm doesn’t last. I get my usual table of firefighters. I stretch for the self-assured, sarcastic pizza slinger but now that I know these guys, I can’t think past that afternoon. There’s the fire chief, sitting beside the young guy who went to look for Owen. We stare at one another, sharing a moment before the chief saves me by putting in his usual order.
“Coming right up,” I say. My voice shakes. I force a smile, then grin harder each time it slips until my cheeks ache. “Any drinks, gentleman? Maybe a salad?”
“Diet coke,” says the chief.
“Aw, c’mon man, she got you on diet soda now?” says a guy with broad shoulders and a beer belly. “Life’s too short for that. Live a little.”
The young guy kicks him under the table. “One pitcher of diet, one regular. Please. And, uh—”
I turn before he can ask about my brother. As I’m waiting on those soda pitchers at the bar, an older couple yells over the music. She complains about her hearing aid, while he drones on at high volume about the young people of today going downhill with exhibit A being me, the sad-sack homeless girl of Peterskill. The woman says she heard Owen nodded off with the stove on, on account of taking too many pain pills. “Whole place was gone like that.”
Her companion talks with his mouth open. “Bet it was the electric.”
Between the music and the general din of the dining crowd, you’d think it’d be hard to hear, but the pitch of the woman’s voice is gratingly high. I give up on subtlety and let myself stare, trying to gauge whether they know the girl whose house burned down is standing three feet to their left.
“I’m telling you what Dana told me when I went over to the grocery store,” the woman says. “All the cashier girls were talking. One of ’em said she sold the guy a thing of milk. Just milk. Said she thought it was weird, on account of who comes in and buys just milk? Not a guy if you get her drift. Anyway, she said it didn’t feel right. He didn’t feel right. Jumpy I guess. But that’s Dana for ya, always suspicious ever since—” She flings out her arm in a gesture meant to represent a gunpoint robbery, knocking over her water glass in the process. “Pow,” she says right as the glass drops off the table and shatters.
A baby at the next table starts crying. I grab a dishtowel off the bar and wrap up the biggest shards of glass. Kyle cuts in and brooms the rest. He tells me to get out of there, but the woman grabs my arm as I back away. “Miss, I got water in his lap. Could I get a towel?”
Kyle finds me in the supply closet. “Don’t worry. I’ll get the towel.”
“No, it’s fine.” I run my hands over the apron strings, feeling like I can’t get enough air in my lungs.
“They’re not your table.”
“Well, they’re not yours.”
“I heard what they said.” Kyle licks his lips. “They shouldn’t talk that way, Ali. You don’t need to be near those kinds of people.”
“Those kinds of people have been talking my whole life, Kyle. They think they know my story. They think they know what happened. But this time they’re wrong. Just wait till I find Owen. The truth’ll come out.” The knot in my chest loosens.
“Don’t,” I croak. “Don’t tell me you’re sorry. Not you, too. I bet it was nobody’s fault. I bet the fire got started on account of the heatwave.”
“Yeah, maybe. Like in California, with all those wildfires.” Kyle leans in to grab a towel and I get a whiff of fancy lemon.
“Nice perfume,” I tease him. As he runs off with the towel, I can see how it could’ve happened that way. The power lines are overloaded on account of that new development. The weather’s been brutal and the trees grow right up against the power lines. It only takes a spark to light a fire, like that sad old Springsteen song Kyle hums under his breath.
I stop the fire chief on his way out the door and ask if they know how it started. He shakes his head. “The important thing is, you’re safe,” he says, staring at his boots.
I follow him out to the parking lot. “There’s some kinda difference between knowing and feeling. If I knew what happened, maybe I’d feel safe—know what I mean?”
“Wish I could help, but that’s not on my guys. A fire investigator’s looking into it. He’s a good guy, very thorough. He’ll tell you what’s what, but it might take a while.” He chuckles under his breath. “Tell you what, if I hear something come over the wire, I’ll let you know. Until then, let the adults worry about it. How’s that?”
I stay in the parking lot as he gets into his car, an old Toyota Corolla with a “No Farms No Food” bumper sticker. Let the adults worry—that’s a privilege I can’t afford. I walk around the back of the restaurant, where the dishwasher’s perched on an upturned milk crate, whispering into a cellphone in rapid-fire Spanish. The few words I make out remind me how little I really know the language. We trade waves. I head inside, where Dmitri makes me help the new guy top pies.
Staying in the kitchen feels like punishment. Everyone’s telling me to wait for answers, but I don’t want to wait. Owen has answers. I can either wait for the investigation to wrap up or find my brother and clear his name. And if the fire was his fault somehow (a lit cigarette, or bad wiring on that second-hand gaming system, or an early-stage climate change cause-and-effect?), then at least I’ll know. Whatever it is, we can face it together.
After close, we turn up the radio and reset all the tables. Natalia sings along and I join in, faking happiness because if she asks how I’m doing I will shatter. I wonder if that’s what happened to Cait—and then I wonder if the rumors about her are true. When I asked a simple question, she shut down. It sucks to know I caused her pain when she was trying to help me.
It’s not hard to find Cait’s Instagram. Her photos are as pretentious and arty as my friends suspected (a flat lay of taxidermy and doll parts against a rose pink background) with the odd bit of knockoff VSCO girl aesthetic thrown in there to suggest a complex inner life. Channeling Natalia’s sweet nature, I send Cait a DM:
Wanted to say thanks for the tip earlier. You’re a champ.
Wait…she’s gonna think I’m teasing her. “Natalia?” I call out. “How do you say thank you?
She scrunches her face at me. “Whaaat, girl?”
I shrug. “I pissed someone off and I owe her a thank you note. Someone else, aside from you all. And I suck at it.”
Natalia snatches my phone from my hand. Her nostrils quiver as she reads my message. “Whatever you said, this message just made it ten times worse. But don’t worry, I’ll save you.”She paces behind the bar, thumbs flying. The expression on her face suggests I’ll get crap for this later. “All right,” she grins. “I laid it on a little thick, but you left me no choice.”
I wrestle the phone from her hands, but it’s too late:
Thanks so much and ignore the last message. For serious. Sometimes it’s hard for me to say what I really mean, so sorry if I was kind of an asshole earlier. I’m working on it. And thank you from the bottom of my chewed-up, spat-out heart.
By the time I get to my car and lock the contents of my new emergency fund, all $311, in my glove compartment, Cait’s messaged back and given me her phone number:
From one asshole to another, cheers. I have some more thoughts on where your bro could be if u wanna talk.
I call Cait from the Walmart parking lot. She sounds sleepy on the phone, which is actually kind of cute. “So if he’s technically homeless,” Cait says, skirting around the fact that I am, too, “then he’s gotta be staying somewhere. So I thought we could check motel parking lots or some of the big apartment complexes. Somewhere he might have a friend with an empty couch.”
The RVs in the parking lot remind me of Owen’s trailer. “I should’ve paid better attention to that townie truck,” I mutter, forgetting that Cait doesn’t know about Owen’s creepy friend. I back up and tell her about that, and she has a lot of questions. It’s nice to talk about it with someone who doesn’t ask me how I’m doing, and maybe Cait doesn’t need to ask because I made it clear earlier how not okay I am. She’s good with ideas, too. I lose track of time until there’s ten minutes until Walmart closes.
“Crap, I gotta go,” I tell her. “Underwear beckons.”
She laughs so hard she snorts, and I tell her it’s true. I’m out of undies and there are some things you can’t borrow from even your best friend.
“Well. If you need me to start an underwear fund, I’m your girl.”
“Come on, let a lady preserve her dignity.”
“And let me guess, you would be the lady in question?”
“Well, yeah, duh.”
“Mmmh, hmm,” she clucks, like I’ve confirmed something she’s been wondering about. She lets me go with a promise to map out the motels in town.
I make a beeline for the underwear. They don’t have multipacks in my size, so that leaves these pastel-hued, high-waisted, super-unsexy undies that cost twice as much. I grab a couple pairs anyway. Hidden at the back of the clearance rack, I find owl-print pajama pants for $5. Score. When the five-minutes-to-closing announcement comes on, an employee gives me the stink-eye.
“We’re closing,” she says, tugging on her crop top. “You need to get in line.”
“I need those jeans.” I grab the pair off her restocking cart and thread my way toward the cashiers. I’m not the last one in line—that’s the guy behind me, who’s mumble-ranting into the phone about his idiotic coworker who tanked a deal—but the cashier shoves my things in a bag without folding them, as if she’s already clocked out.
“Wait, those jeans are how much?” I ask.
She frowns. “Twenty-four ninety-nine.”
“Okay, forget it.”
“So you want ’em or not?”
“Take them off. Please.” The pajamas and undies are almost fourteen. I spill my change on the floor and dive for a quarter as it rolls under a register. A hand touches my shoulder. The ranting guy hands me a fresh quarter with an apologetic shrug. I stammer a thanks, then flee while the employees track me with glassy-eyed stares.
Jenna’s asleep by the time I get home, which is a relief. She’ll only ship me and Cait the way she’s shipping Terri and the tea-shop guy, and I don’t want anyone to come between us. Anyway, it’s not like Cait’s even queer.
I shower, slip on the new pajamas, and squeeze in the bed. Jenna automatically shifts to her side to play small spoon to my big spoon. I cup a hand over her belly, torn in two. The occasional sleepover is one thing, but sharing a bed every night…it feels too good. When she breathes, she presses into me. If I wake up early, I watch her sleep and think about what could be. One day if. Except what happens if I’m dreaming and make a move or start talking in my sleep?
Cait drops papers on my desk in Spanish class. I slide them inside my notebook, then take a look in the bathroom after class. It’s printouts of the motel maps she mentioned on the phone. A string of follow-up texts say which ones she checked on the way to school. She’ll go by again on her way home.
U tell anyone? I ask.
Of course not.
Thanks a lot.
I add some emojis to soften it up, having an idea of what Cait will like from her Instagram. Maybe I don’t suck at apologies as much as I thought. Maybe it’s what comes with being raised by men who never think they have to say sorry.
Cruising around dirtbag motels, wearing sunglasses and munching a crumbled granola bar, sports radio on low, I feel like a private eye. I start pulling into parking lots, checking grocery stores and strip malls. My brother’s around here somewhere, and it’s only a matter of time until we cross paths. And now I’ve got help.
Cait texts a blurry photo. Over by the middle school, she thought she saw the truck I mentioned. She tailed it then lost it by the railroad tracks. She snapped a pic as the barrier gate swung down.
Thought about running the barrier, but I don’t have a death wish. Today anyway.
We meet in a bank parking lot and case the area. The truck she saw is parked at a boxing gym. It’s not the same truck, but it’s the right model. Now I know we’re looking for a Ford F-150.
“Coffee break?” Cait asks.
I intend to say no, but I don’t. I say okay. I’m curious. I might as well find out why she’s helping me. Plus any caloric intake I don’t have to pay for I should probably accept. That $311 isn’t gonna hold me much past a brake job. She dumps four sugars in her coffee and takes it black when she learns they don’t have almond milk. I load up on cream, no sugar.
The tables are so small our knees touch. The coffee’s nutty, better than I’d expect from a mini-mall coffee shop. Cait shrugs and says sometimes she comes here after art class and she likes it alright. I get her talking about art as a warm-up, and it’s funny. She’s awkward normally, self-conscious about what to do with her hands, but when she talks about painting or sculpture, everything stills.
“Why are you helping me?” I ask.
Cait clams up. Again. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
“No, what I mean is—I appreciate it.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Forget it,” I tell her, remembering her comment about a death wish. She’s keeping secrets, too.
After the coffee shop, I drive across town to see Owen’s therapist. Her “Yes?” is more tentative than polite. She doesn’t remember me.
“Please, if there’s anywhere Owen could be. I know he must’ve said things. I know you can help me help him.” I press my hands into the wall, trying not to fidget. “Someone’s gonna find him. If not me, the police.” It occurs to me as I wrap up that there’s a third possibility. That we won’t find Owen because he’s taken himself out. Permanent sideline.
“Come in. I only have a minute, but we shouldn’t talk out here.”
“Are you going to help me?” The floor creaks under my foot.
His therapist shifts papers back and forth on her desk. Her planner’s open. It’s full of appointments. Someone will be coming any minute. “There’s a diner he liked, out by the garden center,” she offers without looking up from her desk. “He’d meet his sponsor there sometimes.”
“Okay, I’ll check it out.”
“One more thing. Not sure if it will help, but…” She knots her hands together. A silver wrist cuff catches the light. “He said he liked to get high in wild spaces. His words. He said people were too depressing to deal with. So if he’s using again, well, he never did tell me where specifically, but it’s something.”
“You think he’s getting high?”
Her face gives nothing away.
Two days later, I snag a corner booth at the diner Owen’s therapist mentioned. Cait’s late but texts about it, and we keep up a steady banter until her parents’ minivan rolls into the parking lot. “I’ll drive you home after,” I offer. “If you don’t mind that my car’s a mess.”
“I’m a mess.” She gestures to her paint-splattered shirt.
“Not the kind of mess that everyone talks about.” I tell her about the gossip at work, playing for laughs, but it lands flat. “It’s fine,” I tell her. “Everything’s fine.”
Cait reaches for my hand across the table. It takes everything I have not to pull back, but ten seconds later, my muscles relax. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t squeeze my fingers like Jenna would. We both stare at our menus and after a minute, she pulls her hand back but leaves it on the table, palm-side down. “I’m a sucker for chicken fingers and fries.”
“That’s so not on my training diet.”
“What are you gonna get?”
Whatever’s cheapest. I’m saved from answering because the door opens and Owen’s townie friend walks in. I slink down in the booth so he doesn’t see me and whisper frantically. “That’s the guy. That’s Owen’s friend.”
He settles at the opposite side of the diner. Cait moves to sit next to me to keep an eye on him. I’m pressed between her and the wall, hyperventilating. She places her hand against my thigh and tells me to breathe. “Someone’s joining him,” she narrates. “A woman. Oh, and she’s got a kid. A tiny one, strapped to her.”
“That dickbag has a kid? No. No way.”
“Sssh, take it easy. Okay. I’m ordering for us. I’m getting you chamomile tea, cause you need to chill out. This is good. He can help us.” She drums her fingers on the table and runs through a string of ideas about what to say to him. They’re farfetched, and they get me laughing.
“How about the truth? Here, follow me. I’m going in,” I say.
The townie can’t place me at first. I lean into their booth. Cait stands behind me with a hand on the small of my back, light so I know she’s there.
“You’re a friend of my brother’s and I was wondering, have you seen him? Owen Russo?”
He shakes his head.
“Please,” I say, staring between the two of them. “I’m worried. I haven’t seen him since you guys were fixing your truck, out in the yard. Since that day.” I stare into his eyes without blinking.
“We saw Owen,” the woman says. She strokes her baby. It’s a scrawny thing, no hair, a pink bow around its bald head. I’m surprised she’d want my brother around something that small and innocent. “They had a fight,” she tells me.
He nods at me. “I forgot. I got m-m-m-mind problems, m-m-m-memory. Memory problems.”
“Your brother took off,” says the woman. “But not without taking Hope’s stroller. I told Jay that was the last straw. No more sponsees at the house.”
“Wait, you’re—you’re Owen’s sponsor?”
“Girls,” says a diner waitress. “If you could step in. You’re blocking the aisle.”
The townie gestures toward the faded vinyl upholstery. “You can sit with us, if you w-w-w-want.”
“Will do.” Cait pushes me beside the woman.
I cradle my tea while Jay fills in the details. He’s been Owen’s sponsor off and on. He’s been spending so much time at the house ’cause Owen was in a bad patch and didn’t want to use, and he even got my brother some work doing house clean-outs with him. “He showed up a mess, so jumpy,” Jay explains, thumbing at his girlfriend. “Vicky was sure he’d gotten high on the way over. Some guys do, you know, one last ride before rehab.”
“He stole my money,” I say.
“Two hundred-eighty seven dollars,” Jay says.
“How’d you know?”
“I know he took your cash, but he was gonna pay it back, after. A short-term loan. This program, it’s not an official thing. All-cash, upfront. He was short. He said you wouldn’t mind.”
I exhale a mountain of stress. Owen. Rehab. “I’ve been looking everywhere. Blowing up his phone. Do you think they took it from him?”
Jay fumbles for his wallet. He hands me a business card for something called Western Way Rehab. “It’s a w-w-w-wilderness rehab, out in central Pennsylvania. Gets a lot of the guys from the oilfields. Tough guys. Until, you know.” Jay is softer in front of Vicky and the kid, but I don’t like the gleam in his eyes. “Anyway, he took off the day before I was supposed to drive him there. But he never checked in. Maybe—maybe it’s on me, maybe I…maybe I should’ve held the money for him,” he says, stumbling over the M sounds. “I tried, I really tried. Really tried to get him help.”
We fall quiet as the waitress brings over their food. Jay’s girlfriend tries to chat about normal stuff, and Cait gamely plays along. I whir through everything I already know, and everything Jay told me. If something spooked Owen off rehab, he’d go somewhere he felt safe. His therapist thinks that’s the wilderness.
There’s a hell of a lot of parkland around, but maybe Jay can help me narrow it down. “Did he ever tell you where he liked to get high?”
Jay laughs. “He wasn’t all that particular. Most of ’em aren’t.” His laugh turns into a hacking cough, which sets the baby crying. “He’d go with anyone, he’d go anywhere to get a fix. Tell you what, though, he took me on a walk one day. This was before the baby came. We went to some eagle nesting grounds or something, over the ridge and south toward Pennsylvania, come to think of it. I remember we lost phone service, and I was worried on account of the baby.”
I pull up a map on my phone. The highway goes west to Pennsylvania, but a local road cuts over the ridge, alongside one state forest after another. Six or seven in a row, with nothing but a couple of tiny towns and a reservoir. There must be a few campgrounds, a handful of motels. Cait and I could cover it in a day. “Thanks, and uh—” I scribble my phone number on a napkin. “If you hear anything, good or bad. Please.”
We stumble out of the diner and race to the car, talking over one another.
“I’m so proud of you,” Cait says. “And I can’t believe what Jay—”
“I can’t believe we’re so close. We have to find Owen.” I fumble with the keys, pressing all the wrong buttons.
“We will.” Cait crashes into the car. “We should do something to celebrate,” she says. “We found him. Well, the next best thing. We know where to find him, and we will. Find him.”
I pull open the door and shove my bag inside. Cait doesn’t shift out of the way, so we’re close. “It’ll take all day to make that drive.”
Cait’s eyes dart toward the road. “I feel like I could go right now. I feel, I dunno.” She sways back and forth. “Free.”
Free. The way she says it is intoxicating, or no, it’s the way she moves, dancing to the music in her own head.
There’s an inch between us. It doesn’t take much to close it. Cait’s mouth is soft, fruity with strawberry lip gloss. Her mouth tastes good. This feels good. Feels so good. Good. Strange. Good-strange. I get ahold of myself and pull back. “Whoa. Sorry. I—I don’t know why I did that.”
“I don’t know what took you so long.” Cait hooks a finger through my belt loop. She moves slow and sure, pulling me back to her for a kiss that leaves me dizzy. “I knew you were a jock, but I didn’t think you were quite so dense as all this.” Her body tenses against mine and then goes soft, and the small sound she makes when I deepen our kiss almost blocks out everything else. Almost.
We could get on the Thruway and head south, toward the Pennsylvania state line. Further south, toward the city. The city doesn’t beckon me much but the ocean does. We could dip our feet in. It’s where people go when they’re starting again, and I’d like to start again. With Cait. With Owen. With that woman at the restaurant who thought she knew my story from the bits and pieces on the news; who thought the worst of me because of who my brother is and what people think he did.
I press my forehead into Cait’s. Up close her eyes are amber with mossy flecks and little red lines that let me know she has trouble sleeping too. “So let’s go. Now. If you don’t have to be home.”
“I don’t.” She shakes her head and grins as she hops into the car.
Neither of us speaks on the way out of town. Cait’s got the window open and one hand outside, making waves in the warm spring air, all smooth as if we didn’t just do that. This close up, her hair is a million different shades of sandy gold and brown, colors I don’t know the names of, but she does.
I want her to teach me. I want to kiss her again, below her ear where her neck blushes, her neck her collarbone her everywhere, but I watch the road. We pass an apple orchard, flush with blooms. It was probably here long before the highway and still exists, improbably close to the road.
All they know is a piece of me, stretched out and woven with other stories until it hardly resembles truth. They know where I come from, but they don’t know me. And they don’t get to define me any longer.
I reach across the console for Cait’s hand. When she squeezes back, it’s the start of a new story.