Let’s go to the zoo. The car’s first words arrived a few days after my mother’s funeral. I’d been spending my time driving, losing myself to the blinking waters winding the causeway, taking in the sand—there was always so much sand. I drove and the hours passed and my mother was still dead. Every time the car was low on gas, I stuffed Twinkies into my mouth and filled the tank. I didn’t get around to eating much else those days. Icee sweating into the cup holder whose sticky bottom had been blackened from countless corn syrups already. I like the emus, the car said.
I was less surprised by her talking than I probably should have been. This was, I thought, because I was in the throes of grief; I wasn’t thinking clearly. After all, what was a car talking when my mother was now dead? And so I drove us to the zoo.
The radio beeped before she spoke. The colors spinning to a start. I’m sorry, she said. I know how much you loved her. There are no words—
Did you know emus have two sets of eyelids? One for blinking, one for dust.
I knew that, she said.
Of course, you love emus.
I remember the time your mother caught you smoking weed inside me. She slapped at your bottom with her chanclas.
I think if we park along the side you can peer into the emu enclosure, I said, gesturing towards the rusted fencing that ran down a plain of dust I swerved into. Sheets of soot rose. The clink of gravel to the car’s undercarriage.
That sounds perfect, she said. Thanks, Phil.
She idled. I gripped the steering wheel tightly, feeling its heat against my palms. Sweat pooled, and when I lifted, branches of it glinted back. The cluster of emus crossed their cage. A hot wind blew and cruddy feathers shuffled. The car lit her headlights and the emus’ ruby eyes stared back. The AC whirred, and a lone feather floated from the vents and into the passenger seat.
* * *
At dinner, my father and I tackled one of the many casseroles we’d crammed into the garage freezer. This one had tater tots and bacon. I shoved forkful after forkful into my mouth, the acids in my stomach reacting honorably, heartburns a guarantee, heart attacks a casserole away. He tipped back a tallboy, the glugluglug down his bloating throat. When he was done, he exhaled, smacked his lips. The can flattened in his fist, tossed into the garage bin towering with junk. Items tumbled to the floor from time to time; I plucked these, settling them back up the pillar. Mom was the one who took out the trash.
Hers was a gruesome death. A stray bullet during a gas station hold-up. She’d been pumping, yards away, when the attendant lurched at the assailant. Between their palms, the gun went off. The assailant was apprehended. I thought the attendant should have been, too.
Storm’s coming, I now said, lobbing my tongue through the fork’s tines until not a smudge was left.
There’s always a storm, my father said. His palms were laid flat on the table. His eyes fixed somewhere far and away.
Maybe we should think of hurricane-proofing this time, I said.
His eyes flicked back. If it gets bad, he said, we’ll drive up to your aunt and uncle’s in Gainesville. A second tallboy popped to a soft hiss.
When we were done, I drowned our plates in soap and hot water. Suds tripping through the air. I patted my hands dry and slinked into the garage. The car was off. Can you hear me? I asked through the hot darkness.
The radio beeped and whirred. Phil, she said.
I hobbled around the car, running my finger over the metal. Say, have you seen the movie Christine?
The lights blinked. Can’t say I have, Phil, she said.
Oh, it’s a horror classic. Stephen King. John Carpenter. Wait right here.
Of course, Phil, she said, and into the garage I lugged the basement TV. Flipped on the VHS player. Half-way through the film about a killer car, she spoke. I’m not violent like that, she said.
I know, I said. From the driver’s seat I rubbed the gear stick. Tickled the worn top. The TV was frozen to the image of Arnie’s love interest Leigh choking in the passenger seat. This comes after she expresses her dislike of Christine, the car. Arnie says she’s just jealous of Christine. When Arnie leaves the car, a piece of food gets caught in Leigh’s throat. This is Christine’s doing. The inside lights burn brighter and brighter, washing her skin out into a saintly shade. She looks up, clawing at her neck. Death only around the corner.
Unless you need me to, the car now said.
My eyes wandered around the interior of the vehicle. The dash that was sleek from some recent polish. The pine tree that hung from the rearview mirror, dangling and fresh. The seats made of cloth and without a single fray. Do you have a name? I said.
I am a 1998 Nissan Sentra.
Looking at the hood now, I said, Your color is Black Cherry.
Call me Cherry, she said.
* * *
Jensen worked the Taco Bell drive-thru. He flung a paper bag through the window, asked me how I’ve been holding up. I’m alright, I said. Doesn’t feel real yet.
He took my cash and asked after my father.
I said, He’s handling it fine. Better than I thought he would.
Jensen rested his elbows through the window, eyes fastened over me. He was tall and lanky, features which he rose to one day, stumbling through school with this new tilting frame. Acne flared and vanished. Small pits of which remained. Pale skin, patchy beard. Breath that smelled of spearmint. One second, Jensen said, I have a treat for you, and he ducked into the back.
Cherry hummed. I think he likes you, she said.
That’s just Jensen, I said. I’ve known him since middle school.
Okay, Phil, she said.
When Jensen returned, he had a Starburst freeze between his fingers. For you, he said. On the house. I prised it from his hands, thanked him. The pink color shot up the straw and down my gullet. The cold was welcome. I’m working here all summer, Jensen said. Saving up for senior year. Don’t be a stranger.
I told you, Cherry said on our way back.
That was nothing, I said.
You shouldn’t be a stranger, she said.
I reached over for a cinnamon twist. On the floor, a feather. It was whitish and gray. Like the emu’s. I dropped another twist into my mouth. A second feather unfurled across the dash.
At night, I gave Cherry a bath. Hosed her down until she purred. I swiped away the grime with a sponge. She thanked me. I buffed her with new polish. She thanked me again. Do you go anywhere at night? I asked.
Who says I go anywhere.
You haven’t been seeing the emus on your own at night?
I enjoy my rest, she said.
Good night, Cherry.
* * *
The next time I went to Taco Bell, Jensen was finishing his shift. Let’s drive to the beach, he said, and inside he hopped. I thought of Cherry as he grew comfortable in the seat. As he yanked the belt, fastening himself tightly into the lengths of her back. He threw sour gummy worms into my mouth. Offered me a sip from his vape pen. We coasted down the causeway. Jensen pointed his finger at a spot, told me to drive through the dunes. I thought of Cherry as the sand lashed the car. As the wheels trudged through in struggle. Jensen stretched himself over the hood, and together we watched the sun sink. An orange rind carving the horizon. Pinks blooming before evaporating. It was night. When he reached over to kiss me, I felt the hood rumble. His tongue flitted up and down and left and right inside my open mouth. Saliva gathering in sticky corners, small drips landing over the car’s shining metal. His breath was hot and sweet-tasting. Cherry rumbled some more. I pulled away. Jensen rested his head over his folded arms, watching the stars once more. That was nice, he said. I pressed my palm to the hood, listening for Cherry.
Jensen turned his neck. We could do some more in the backseat, he said.
It’s getting late, I said.
He ran his fingers up my arm.
Okay, I said, and we squeezed into the backseat. Jensen’s weight over mine. We fumbled through belt-buckles and zippers. He twisted his face, and I remembered Leigh, choking, and it occurred to me that Jensen was choking. I screamed. My fingers reached for his neck to help. He groaned, blasting cum all over my chest. He opened his eyes, exhaling with pleasure.
Did you cum too? he asked. What a scream.
* * *
At home, my father dozed beside the blaring TV. A map of the developing hurricane trajectory unscrolling across the screen. The storm was coming straight towards us. I shook my father awake. Told him he should make it to bed unless he wanted to be sore all over the following day. He hooked his arm to my neck, and together we wobbled to the bedroom. We need to figure out our plans tomorrow, I said. About the hurricane.
I talked to your aunt and uncle, he said. We’ll head out first thing. And he curled himself into his twisted sheets, his snore returning.
In the garage, I inspected the back of the car. Vacuuming it of any trace of Jensen. Cherry? I said, slumping against the seat. The radio whirred. Is everything alright? I said.
I was worried you’d left me. I was feeling so lonely before, and then you appeared—
I helped you in your time of need.
My forehead was pressed to the headrest. Do you expect the same of me? I said. How will I know when you’re in need?
The lights from the radio control spun. I’ll leave you once you no longer need me, she said. I reached around the seat, gathering her into my arms. I told Cherry I will always need a car. She said, But you won't always need my company.
With my cheek to the warm fabrics of the seat, I said, Did you ever speak to my mom the way you speak to me?
There was someone, a long time ago. A previous owner dealing with a loss.
I closed my eyes. Were you jealous of Jensen?
No, she said. I was on guard. Ready to do what needed to be done. If he’d hurt you, I mean. Do you want to go for a ride?
I jumped into the front. Let Cherry steer for me. We tore into the glittering lights of downtown. Crowds flooded the sidewalks, gushing into the streets. People mashed into people, palms slapping backs slapping palms. Some hollered into the night. Others howled. Voices cheerful with drink, thick with drink. All that life, I lost myself to it. To the faces sheeny with sweat, to the blinding whites of teeth flashing in broad smiles. All that life, and Cherry screeched. My forehead smashed to the window. Cherry dragged us into a U-turn, the scent of burning rubber drifting over the intersection alongside dark fumes wisping upwards. She slowed beside a bar, bodies spilling out the door. I’m sorry, Cherry said. It was then I saw Jensen. His fingers laced into another’s. His tongue lapping up the sweat that slopped from a man’s pale throat. Do you want me to do anything? Cherry asked.
Just drive, I said, and we hurled into the night. The shore iridescent under the moonglow. Why did you lie to me about visiting the emus at night? I said.
I don’t visit the emus.
Did you kill them?
People will believe what they want to believe.
My mother used to say that. I don’t know what to believe anymore.
I know, Cherry said.
* * *
Midnight. I stepped into my mother’s garden. A spot that neither my father nor I had entered since her death. The plants were tough, having survived our abandonment. The tufts of lavender that grew in heaps. The corner of herbs that jutted out in solid stakes. There was the potted arrangement she had roped me into helping her with not so long ago too. One large Tiffany lamp she’d turned upside down, packing it with soil. Atop sat a second, smaller Tiffany lamp. A fluorescent succulent spread its wings encircled by smaller succulents. These would all be carried away by the storm. There was no stopping that.
We left first thing in the morning. We piled up supplies into my father’s truck. Boarded up the house. Cherry, all alone in the garage.
From Gainesville, we watched the hurricane batter the coast. The waters rose and washed out gridfuls. Our block all blue. I thought of Cherry. How perhaps losing her wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
My father sat beside me. Thinking about your mom? he said. Me too.
If we lose our home, he said, the insurance could be enough to start fresh somewhere. How about that? Maybe there’d be enough for a new car even. She’s getting old.
A new car sounds good, I said.
And a new home?
Sure, I said. I could use a fresh start.
* * *
The new car runs smoothly; the new car doesn’t talk. It is a deep, impenetrable blue. The passenger seat is packed with trash, though I try clearing it when I can. The scent of new plastic remains—who knows for how long. I run the car through the washer down the drag only when I remember.
My efforts now go into the garden. The one from the previous house was demolished, as expected. But, in our new home, though smaller in scale, the garden is a more serious endeavor. I’ve planted forsythia that erupts in gold. The roses that run across the rust-free fence. There are succulents that hang off the wall and vines that climb. There are my cherries, too. The trees are small still, the branches spindly, but sweet fruit sprouts, and I pluck, and I suck, and I swallow, and I think of that odd time in my life.
I haven’t named my new car—what’s the point? If it has a name, I don’t know it.
I drive it to the beach. The sand smothers the windshield. From tupperware, I savor my labor. Mouth coated in bright red. From time to time I think of Jensen. Or, rather, I think of what it would be like to have someone like Jensen in my life. I think the same of Cherry.
I think the same of my mother.
At night, my father flicks open his tallboy. He nurses it, lets the hours pass before his single aluminum can gets tossed into the recycling bin. I don’t help him to bed because there is no need to—we’re both making an effort in different ways.
When I can’t sleep, I stalk the yard. The fruits silvery under the moon’s shine.
The days pass, shapeless and unthreatening. I’ll take the car to community college when the time comes. When the time comes, I’ll join my father for supper. We’ll share a tallboy, maybe. We’ll share a silence, maybe. We’ll talk about the weather, most likely. Our mother may become a topic of conversation. Sometimes, I wonder what he’d say if I told him about Cherry, and if I’d get tossed into the looney bin. Sometimes, I’m convinced he already knows all about it. On the TV, emus flood a field.
Dad, did you know emus have two sets of eyelids? One for blinking, one for dust.
Huh, he says. I didn’t know that.
The pasta is hard and no longer warm.