The Side of the Road Forever | Heather Aronson

24 mins read

Winner of the Sonora Review Issue 80 Fiction Contest, selected by Lydia Millet

Holly’s pee sounded like voices. She used to think it was just the noise it made hitting the toilet, but as she squatted by the side of the road, words curled up from her urine like smoke. Most were muddled, as though from a conversation a few yards away. But some came through clearly: silence; violence. When it slowed to drops: along; be gone.

She tried to keep her shoes out of the way, but she still managed to splash them, dark spots spreading in the white. She shook her tush and pulled up her shorts, which were splotched with maple syrup from the pancakes at the Big Boy where they’d stopped an hour, maybe hours, ago. Holly didn’t own a watch, but she wouldn’t know how much time had passed if she did, since she couldn’t tell time at all. This was because Holly was stupid. She was a stupid imbecile and a big fat crybaby who could barely read, even though when Mary was her age, when Mary was 11, Mary ate libraries for breakfast. Mary threw up dictionaries for lunch. 

Through her feet, Holly could feel the vibrations of cars even before they appeared. There was one approaching now, but it wasn’t them. It was a small, blue, open car, its roof rolled up at the back. It spilled music over the highway, some of it coming from the driver. He was a man around Holly’s father’s age, with splashes of gray in his long sideburns and thick mustache. He turned his head as he passed, his sunglasses dropped low on his nose, but he didn’t stop singing. Then he was gone.

For a moment, Holly missed her dad. She was probably never going to see him again, even if they did come back to get her. They’d left her dad—and her older brother, Miles—with their house in Vermont, but it was better this way. Holly’s dad was a mean son of a bitch and an S.O.B., and they were all better off without him. 

And Miles.

And also, apparently, Holly. 

Something fluttered to Holly’s arm, settling just above the crook of her elbow. Its voice was a soft hum full of consonants—crkzzh, srkzzh—, its shell as shiny and black as a piano key. “Hello,” Holly whispered, willing her arm to hold still. Even so, the bug flew off toward the cornfields behind her. She took a few steps to follow it, but the roadside soon gave way to a deep ditch. She sank into weeds that came up to her chin, and quickly clambered back out. She needed to stay visible for when they came back.

Or she didn’t. 

Maybe she didn’t. 

That would teach them, all of them: to come back but she wasn’t there.

She’d gotten lost in a Kmart once, after hiding in circular rack full of coats. It was warm in there, and the different textures of the coats were intriguing to her hands: fuzzy, felty, sheeny smooth. She came out when she heard a voice calling her name on a loudspeaker: Holly Josowitz, please come to the service counter. Holly Josowitz. But she hadn’t known what a service counter was, or where you could find it. She’d been four then, which meant that it was okay to be a crybaby, at least if you were lost. So she’d stood where she was by the coat rack and cried until someone took her to the service counter, where her mother was waiting with Miles and Mary, everyone angry except Miles, who never seemed to care whether Holly was there or not.

Did it count as lost if nobody noticed?

Did it count as lost if someone left you there?

Wherever this was, it stank, the smell of cow flop somehow worse than the smell of Gremblin’s litter box in the car. Holly’s eyes burned from it, and then they were full of tiny black dots. She tried to blink them away, but they multiplied: a cloud of black dots, shimmying, shivering. And then the biting began.

But Holly was tough. She wasn’t a weenie like Mary, screaming any time she got around a spider or frog. Holly also wasn’t a psycho murderer like Miles, who’d killed an entire family of snakes just because she’d put them in the garage for warmth. Bugs and animals were so much smarter and nicer than humans, which was why Holly had become a vegetarian. Even if it meant everyone got to call her difficult. Even if it meant she had to send back her pancakes if they’d been so much as touched by bacon. So what if the bugs wanted a bit of her blood? Holly was full of blood. She was happy to share it.

She resisted the urge to slap at the flies, but the bites really did sort of hurt. Instead of killing them, she decided to outrun them. She scuffed through the gravel and weeds, flapping her arms. When that didn’t work, she found herself singing while she ran and flapped. She made up her own song, sung, loosely, to the tune of “Hey Jude.” Hey bugs. Please don’t bite me. Don’t bite me and I, I will not ki-ill you. Don’t bite me, and I-I won’t bite you. Then we can all be, alone together. 

As she sang the last line, though, Holly dropped to the ground, where she sat, shaking.

Well, crying.

She hated them.

Hated them all.

She hoped they never come back for her. 

She hoped the car crashed and they all died.

Except for Gremblin. He was a good cat. Sometimes, he burrowed into Holly’s neck when she was upset, running his tongue over her face, her hair. 

Maybe they really had crashed, and that was why they weren’t coming back to get her. 

Which was fine with Holly. 

Though she wasn’t quite sure what she should do next. 

They’d left Vermont the day before and had spent the night at a motel, which meant that they were probably about halfway to Iowa, since her mom had said it would take three days to get to their new home. Still, knowing this didn’t help to narrow things down. Iowa was somewhere in the middle of the country, and this was somewhere in the middle of half of that. Geography made Holly itch. Though she liked the sounds of the names—Idaho sounded like “I don’t know”; Texas was a word you could fling, like a swear; Mississippi hissed like a whispered threat—she had no idea what went where on a map, except for Vermont, her home near the very top. 

Well, her old home.

She contemplated walking back to the Big Boy to ask for help, but she didn’t know A) how long ago they’d been there or B) how fast her mom had been driving, let alone C) what she should do with the numbers if she knew them, since that was a math problem. And if Holly sucked at geography, she was an absolute fuckbrain at math.

She’d failed her math class that spring. All the numbers had jumped, wriggled, refused to line up. And then she’d failed everything else, because of her attitude problem, and was going to have to start fifth grade all over again in the fall. But at least it would be in a new place. In Iowa. She was small; no one would have to know she was too old, her mother had said.

But her mother had also said: Get out.

Why couldn’t Holly stop fucking up? 

Sometimes she tried really hard, but no one ever noticed. There were too many of them, and they were all bigger or cuter or smarter or louder or just more interesting. Miles took things apart and then fixed them. Mary knew how to drive. Hugo said things like hepicopter and pinewater. There was nothing interesting about Holly unless she pissed everybody off.

Still, this wasn’t fair. It wasn’t Holly’s fault that her little brother Hugo made so much noise when he drank. It wasn’t her fault that the only way to stop him from making noise was to smack his soda into Gremblin’s litter box. That wasn’t a crime. If Mary had done it, she’d still be in the car, telling everyone what to do and when to do it.

Hours passed while Holly sat on the ground, thinking about things that were also unfair. Her parents’ divorce. Having to move. Her mother’s big fat mental breakdown. Mary’s stupid face. Eventually, despite the flies, she somehow managed to fall asleep. 

She woke to the sound of someone pulling off the highway, gravel pinging and popping. Relief broke from Holly’s pores like a sweat, but she squeezed her eyes shut, so they’d know how much she didn’t care that they’d finally come back to get her. 

Her mother called from the car. “Are you okay?” she asked.

Holly refused to answer, and her mother’s voice grew more insistent. “Little girl? Do you need some help?”

Holly let her eyes open to slits. Instead of their dusty yellow station wagon, one of those VW Beetle cars—bright red, like an apple on wheels—had pulled up directly in front of her, its engine still running. Instead of Holly’s mother, a younger, skinnier woman leaned out of the car’s window, her black hair wildly feathered, her bangs swooping high. 

Holly scrambled to her feet. 

“Are you all by yourself?” the woman asked. She was wearing blue eyeshadow almost up to her eyebrows, and her cheeks were slashed on each side with bright pink. This was more makeup than Holly’s mother had ever worn; more, even, than Mary wore in secret. “Where’s your folks?” the woman asked.

This was a stranger.

Who looked, quite frankly, like a whore. 

Still, Holly couldn’t stay by the side of the road forever. The light lingered, but the sun was low over the farmlands stretching out behind her. In Vermont, it would have been dark already, the sun down behind the mountains. Holly didn’t have any food. She didn’t even have a drink. She thought with longing of the vanilla shake she’d left on her seat in the car.

Maybe this woman could take her back to Vermont.

Our maybe she could take her to her own house. 

Her whorehouse.

Sometimes, when she didn’t know what else to do, Holly listened.

Bugs, humming. The low grumble of the VW’s idling engine. The slight buzz of telephone wires overhead. The far-off yipping of a dog. Somewhere, a bird: Dee dee dee. Dee dee dee. 

A warning.

“I live here,” Holly said. She gestured at the cornfield behind her. “That’s my corn.”

The woman put her hand to her forehead and peered around, leaning further out of the car.

“I have to go now,” Holly said, turning her back and taking long, deliberate strides toward the cornfield. She hesitated at the edge of the ditch, but instead of the revving of the little car’s engine as it pulled back onto the highway, she heard the slamming of a door.

Holly plunged into the ditch, the weeds prickling, the smell of dirt sharp and tangy.

The woman’s voice grew closer. “Honey,” she called. “Wait!”

Holly fought her way out of the ditch and knelt on the other side, panting. Then she drew herself up, turned around, put her hands on her hips, and said, “My dad has a gun.”

This was technically true. Holly’s father had been in the Navy. When they’d all lived in their house together, his swords had hung criss-cross over the fireplace. His rifles had been mounted high over the antennae of the living room tv. 

The woman laughed. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you!”

This was the sort of thing someone said when they were thinking about hurting you. Come over here, I’m not going to hurt you, some kid would say, and then the arm burn, the pinch, the punch.

“Fuck off, fuckbrain,” Holly said, before turning and sprinting toward the cornfield.

She didn’t turn back until she reached the first row, the golden tassels waving overhead.

The apple car was gone.

A wind rustled through the corn stalks, and they began to talk.

What an imbecile, they said.

You blew it, pea-brain.

“Shut up,” Holly said. 

She said it quietly at first, but the cornstalks kept going—You little dummy. You stupid little S.O.B—so she ended up shouting. 

Years from now, at the reception following her mother’s funeral, she won’t remember the words so much as the feeling of the moment they left her body and joined all the other noises swirling in the air. Bigger. She felt bigger, like a balloon, expanding. 

She wasn’t just shouting, she remembers; she roared.

She roared at the cornstalks, and the cornstalks quieted. Cows mooed, and Holly commanded them to shut the fuck up. 

She cut off a bug mid-buzz. A bird circled, opening its beak, but Holly snapped it shut.

When she finally stopped roaring, the world had gone completely silent. 

The cornstalks swayed. Across the road, cows milled about. Cars zipped by. The beings of the sky—the birds, the bugs—swung and swooped and hovered, all entirely without sound.

Which was why, when their car at last pulled up, the tires didn’t crunch over the gravel. The horn didn’t honk. The door opened without a creak, and when Holly climbed in, it closed with barely a whisper, and no one, not anyone, said sorry to Holly, and Holly said absolutely nothing back.

But Mary tells her that none of this happened. That they’d left her there for barely a minute before their mother slowed the car to turn around and go back. That the engine had then sputtered, and Hugo had started to cry because he was scared that the car would break down. That it took two, maybe three minutes for their mother to turn around on the highway, and by then, all of them were crying because they were so afraid Holly wouldn’t be there by the time they got back. “But you were,” Mary says. “Standing in the exact same spot as when Mom drove away. You didn’t even look upset. In fact, I think you were singing.”

“Bullshit,” Holly says. 

“You were,” Hugo says.

“How would you know? You were six years old.”

Hugo shrugs. “Why bring this up now?”

“Because it happened.”

“Lots of things happened,” Mary says. “Good things. Shitty things. She didn’t know about your dyslexia because it didn’t exist in the ‘70s. She did the best she could.”

“Whatever, Xandra,” Holly says. “According to your diary, she loved you best.”

“Fuck off, fuckbrain,” Mary says.

Hugo holds his hand up. “This is a funeral. Have some respect.” 

“You didn’t bring up every shitty thing Miles ever did when he died,” Mary says. 

“He killed my snakes.” 

“Stop,” Hugo says. 

“This wasn’t every shitty thing Mom ever did. But she threw me out of the car in Ohio when I was eleven. It happened. You’re trying to erase me by pretending it’s no big deal.”

“You were being a brat and she was falling apart. You spent a few minutes outside in July. Come on. It’s not like you were scarred for life.”

“Listen,” Hugo says. “She’s gone. You’re just going to have to get over it.”

Somewhere close by, someone clanks silverware. Music—classical, vaguely mournful—drifts from a speaker on the other side of the room. Distant cousins a table away break into laughter. Someone’s child keens the word “no,” letting it rise and fall and rise, drawing it out like a long, long song.

Heather Aronson’s fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, CRAFT, Farmer’s Market, Mid-American Review, MonkeyBicycle, Story, and Witness. Her stories have been finalists for the 2019 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest and the 2021 Story Foundation Prize, among others. Her story “What You Know” was nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2020. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and was a Fellow in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with her husband and some of their five children.