Purple Mountain, Majesty

They were on the run, but where were they going, and when would it end?


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Objects blurred past, castoffs swept to the margins behind the white shoulder line. Hana, temple pressed against the sweaty window, captured each one in her peripheral vision and added it to a mental catalog: a teddy bear, one beetle-shiny eye dangling by a string. A gold sandal. A tiny red-and-black sneaker. A dented hubcap leopard-spotted with rust. A purple fleece glove. Balled-up sweatpants.


Like us.

The thought rose unbidden, an algae bloom in a heatwave, and Hana sat up, sucking a shock of cold air through her teeth when it hit. Guiltily, she imagined pressing a palm against it, bracing her full weight behind her shoulder, and plunging it back into the murky depths. “Stay down,” she whispered.

In the rearview mirror, she caught her father’s eye, one brow lifted in a question mark half-hidden under a flop of dark hair. She pinched her lips between her teeth, hard, and slumped back against the glass.

He was right there. Obviously. And their mother … she was back there somewhere, way beyond the reach of the rearview. Hopefully.

Hana rolled her shoulders to loosen the pressure clamping her ribs. No, they weren’t orphans. They were something else. Something new. In that sense, too, they were heading somewhere they’d never been.

Next to her, Ethan squirmed in an uneasy nap. Hana reached across the middle seat and tucked the pink satin edge of his blankie back between his shoulder and cheek. Wiping a streak of drool from his chin and smearing it off on the car seat, she settled back in to watch the empty miles between the things that had washed up on the shoulder. A soccer cleat. A doll with a tire print streaked across her pinafore. A yellow binkie. Kids lose so much, she thought. Guess we haven’t learned to hold on tight yet.

Ethan mumbled his way from dream to waking. He had dropped his blankie again. Hana draped it back over him, but this time he was too close to the surface. Up in the mirror her father’s gaze found her again. The chisel-sharp crease between his eyes deepened; the afternoon sun couldn’t reach the bottom. Her breath shallowed.

“Shh,” she hummed, breaking mirrored eye contact and reaching over to rub her brother’s foot through the flannel. “Better go back to sleep.”

“Hnn-uh.” Kicking her hand off, he scrubbed his face against his shoulder. A sleep-damp lock of hair stuck up from his forehead, and Hana sat on her hand to keep from smoothing it back down. “Where are we? How much longer?”

She glanced back up front. Her father’s hands gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles pulsing white with each squeeze.

“We’re getting closer.” She kept her voice low. “I think we’re almost to Vantage. Remember the metal horses on the hill? If you watch out your window, maybe you’ll see them.”

A soft lie, she thought. She had no idea where they were or where they were heading. Hills of dead grass and sagebrush stretched, landmarkless, in all directions. They had been driving for hours. Long enough for radio signals to dissolve into static, and for static to swell into waves that built and broke against the rumble of the road beneath them. Long enough for sweat to glue the backs of her thighs to the vinyl seats and her butt bones to ache from stillness. Long enough for her mouth to grow dusty and sour with thirst and the hunger pangs she’d felt several lost objects ago to dwindle to prickles.

“But I’m hungry,” Ethan said. “And I hafta go potty.” His voice pitched higher on its way to a whine.

Hana chewed her lip. “Dad? Hey, Dad?” she repeated louder. “Are we going to stop soon? Ethan needs the bathroom.”

“Is it, like, an emergency?” he asked.

Ethan nodded vigorously. “Yeah,” she relayed.

He unclenched one hand from the wheel and rubbed his forehead. “Okay, okay. I just … a quick one, right? We’ve got to … got to get a bit further.”

Hana nodded, too. Even without knowing the destination or the plan, the need for distance felt imperative. Primal.

* * *

At the truck stop, Hana peeled her legs from the seat, unbuckled Ethan’s booster, and led him through the overbright aisles to the bathroom. She stood outside until the toilet flushed and she could hear his thin voice sing a tuneless ABCs. “Two times through,” she reminded him through the door.

He came out, trailing drips of water from his hands and a square of toilet paper from his left shoe. “How high do you think you can count before I’m done?” she challenged him, bending to pull the paper from his sneaker.


“Ooh. High bar. Let’s see if you can get there.” She took her turn quickly and only washed her hands to one ABCs, worried Ethan would wander off.

“Seventy-eight!” he crowed when she opened the door, wiping her hands on her shorts.

“Way to go!” She slapped him a damp high five. “Let’s find Dad.”

Hand in hand, they walked a circuit. They skimmed past the Skittles, corn nuts, jerky, gum. Past the motor oil and sunglasses and ice scrapers. Past the diapers and dish soap and tampons. Past the canned alcohol and caffeine. Past the hot dogs dripping grease in their lamp-lit cage. No sign of him. No familiar stance. No tight-clipped voice at the register. Gripping each other’s hands harder, they lapped the shelves again, faster, letting the packaging blur into kaleidoscopic chaos.

He hadn’t wanted to stop, had he? Hana thought of his hesitation, discomfort throbbing off him even as he turned into the parking lot. Thinking of the trail of cast-off objects they’d passed on the road, wondering if the two of them had joined their ranks, she rushed Ethan to the door and peered out through the smudged glass.

For a hollow beat, she drew a blank, the space between her shoulder blades abruptly numb with fear. But then—

“There!” said Ethan, pointing to a spot in front of the propane tanks.

Their father leaned out the driver’s side window as they pushed open the door, and Hana’s back tingled with the rush of blood returning. “’Bout time,” he said. “Buckle up.” He tossed a pair of cellophane-wrapped sandwiches onto the seat between them as they climbed back in.

“Thanks,” she mumbled. Mom said never to leave a store without her. To stay inside no matter what. Mom … Hana shook the thought away and worked a fingernail under the edge of the plastic on the first sandwich. She handed it to Ethan and double-checked the buckle on his booster seat as they pulled out of the parking spot.

The grin he took his first bite through turned upside down and then inside out, a damp hunk of sandwich falling into his lap and his eyes filling with tears. Hana took the sandwich back and peered inside to find a smear of yellow on one stale slice of bread. Sighing, she unwrapped her own sandwich and swapped the pieces around so she had two mustards and he got two mayos. “Boom,” she whispered, handing it back to him. “Problem solved.”

He gave her a watery smile, and she bit into her own disappointing dinner.

“What’s the matter now?” their father asked.

“Nothing,” she said. And then, because he was still staring her down in the mirror, “I think the mustard was too spicy for Ethan. I fixed it. We’re good.” It was the most they’d talked since they left. The back of his jaw flexed as he chewed his own sandwich. Outside, the last sliver of sun slipped behind the hills. “Are we going to keep driving all night?” Hana asked cautiously, feeling the ache in her backside radiate out in every direction. Watching the mirror for his answer, she could see, too, that his eyes were bloodshot in the corners, that dark smudges had gathered underneath. He was tired, too. They were all so dismally tired.

His jaw kept clenching, although he must have already swallowed his mouthful. “No. Better not.” And by the time Hana had forced down the rest of her sandwich, they had pulled into the gravel lot of a run-down motel.

Their father emerged from the office with a key, grabbed the single suitcase from the trunk, and hustled them up a metal staircase to a room at the end of the row. The suitcase had toothbrushes but no toothpaste, clean underwear and socks but no pajamas. Hana pawed through it again to make sure she hadn’t overlooked anything. She ran her tongue over her teeth, tasting the rank echoes of mustard and baloney.

“Hey, Dad?” He was sitting at the tiny table, his head propped on his fist. Beneath the surface his foot tapped with ferocious speed. “Can we see if the office has toothpaste?”

“No.” He didn’t even bother to turn around. Didn’t even hesitate.

It was so abrupt that Hana didn’t have time to stop herself from asking why.

“Because I took you, goddamn it.” The remote jumped from the force of his fist on the table, and Hana jumped, too, on a split-second delay. “I packed the two of you in the car and just … took off. If she’s notified the authorities, and you can bet your little butt she has, they’re going to call it child abduction. If I use a card, they can track it. If we make a phone call, they can track it. If they’ve put out an Amber Alert with our pictures or the license plate number … we have to be careful. We have to lie low until we’ve had a chance to think.” He stood up and paced, his shoes tracing the threadbare tracks countless pairs of other feet had stepped before. “I did what I had to do. I had to do it.” His voice dropped to a mutter, and Hana knew these words weren’t for her.

Later, though, as she lay back on the stiff bedspread and let the day wash over her, she worried those words like a palmful of smooth stones. Across the room, despite his earlier agitation, her dad clicked off the bedside lamp and dropped into a sudden snoring sleep. But Hana could still feel the rumble and twist of the road under her, could still feel the strain of pressing down all the words she couldn’t say, of speeding away from the wreck she had caused but didn’t understand. With Ethan sprawled next to her in clean underwear and his dirty T-rex T-shirt, she closed her eyes and watched the morning spool out behind her lids like the rerun of a terrible TV show.

* * *

It had been later than usual when she shuffled into the kitchen, still waterlogged from her dreams. A tinny jingle threaded in from the living room where Ethan was watching a cartoon, and their mom was already wrist deep in the dishpans. Wrist deep in suds, and waist deep in fury. Hana had felt the sizzle of it before she reached the table and froze mid-step. Every nerve felt electrified; her dreams evaporated in its heat, leaving her alone in the line of fire.

“Get enough beauty rest after your late night?” Hana could only see her mom’s back, but she could hear the left-sided curl of her lip from the way her voice dragged through the word beauty.

“L-late night?”

“I got a call from Wanda this morning, trying to sell me a coupon book for her son’s baseball team. And you know what she told me?” Hana couldn’t get her lips around the no fast enough to give it voice. It didn’t matter. “She told me it was so cute to see you and the little Hawkins boy holding hands in the park last night.”

The tips of her ears burned. Jon was learning magic tricks out of a book he’d found at a garage sale and wanted to practice palm reading. Pitching his voice low and slow, he’d informed her that because of her extra-long love line, she would have seven children, but the life line that dead-ended under her ring finger suggested she would die an early and fiery death in an industrial explosion. The skin of her palm tingled where his finger traced the creases. A matching tingle fluttered somewhere behind her belly button, and she advised him, reclaiming her hand, that his customers were going to want their money back if he told them such nonsense. And as a matter of fact, she wanted her money back, too.

“You didn’t pay me anything,” he had said, aggrieved.

“Well, then, I want my five minutes back,” she replied.

In the morning light, refracted through her mother’s retelling, the memory of that moment turned ugly. Whatever had fluttered inside her last night died and crumbled to dust. She took a careful step toward the sink, heel-toe, the way she had when she found an injured raccoon in the yard last year. The nubby bottoms of her monkey slippers squeaked softly on the tile. “We weren’t—”

“Don’t give me that!” An arc of soapy water flew behind the wooden spoon her mom brandished as she spun to face Hana. “Sleeping in. Leaving me to do your chores. And now, going off in the woods with boys. Your laziness is one thing, but I refuse to have it said that I’m raising a heinous little slut.”

“Christ, Laura. She’s only ten,” her father said from the doorway. He said it softly, like a suggestion.

Head fixed downward, Hana swiveled until she could see his feet. The tile reflected his brown work shoes; the polish of his shoes reflected the tile. Tiny mirrors reflecting blank spaces. She wished she could disappear into them.

“You’re never to speak to that boy again. The park is off limits for you indefinitely. Now go get dressed.” Hana heard the spoon slap the dishwater and knew the conversation was over.

But — “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Hana looked up as she spoke, looked up just in time to see the blue enameled lid take flight. Just in time to see her dad take a step between them. To see his head snap sideways on impact. To see the trail of suds on the floor, casting tiny rainbows reflected in the tile, in those perfectly shined shoes. The lid rolled elliptically, a metal clang reverberating long after it settled into stillness. Hana’s breath, already shallow from the confrontation, sped up until she was gasping silently.

“Wait!” her mom yelled. Hana watched as furious ropes knotted in her mom’s jaw, above her eyebrows, in her forearm. Her empty hand still gripped the air, suspended at the point of release. “It was an accident. I didn’t mean it, goddamn it. It was an accident.” Her father grabbed Hana by the wrist and dragged her into the hall. Neither of them answered, so they could clearly hear the kitchen door scuff the threshold, hear her say, “Everything’s always my fault with you guys. I just … I can never do anything right,” could hear the sob grab in her throat and the silence after the latch caught the slamming door.

“Go get your brother. We’re leaving,” her father said, dropping her wrist. His breath was loud and ragged. A trickle of blood traced a thin line down his jaw, and a bloom of red radiated away from it. He took the stairs two at a time, paused halfway up, and bounded back down to grip Hana’s shoulder. “Has she ever done that before?” he asked, his eyes boring into her.

“Has she ever —” Hana repeated, at a loss.

“Has she ever hurt you before?”

Yes, often. Often with you in the room. No, never, not if that lid was really meant to hit me. She thought of the thousand sharp shards of words that wounded with nothing to show. Of nails that cut a half year’s worth of half moons into her skin. Of trying to navigate her mother’s moods, walking a balance beam stretched across great gaps of uncertainty. Which hurts counted? “Not quite like that,” she mumbled, and pulled free from his grip to gather Ethan from the living room. She held her breath, listening as he hesitated, waiting for his steps to retreat up the stairs.

* * *

Now, in the hotel room, Hana listened to the intermittent snores from the other bed and considered those words again. He did what he had to do … but which part? Stepping in or walking out? She wondered when he would change his mind, and whether he would leave them behind or pull them along like flotsam in his wake. She inhaled deeply and caught a whiff of baloney on Ethan’s water-brushed breath. Turning onto her other side, still clicking the thoughts against each other, still feeling the motion of the road, Hana slid into shallow dreams.

The next morning, half-washed (shampoo, no conditioner; soap, no comb) and dressed, Hana emerged from the bathroom to find their father looming over Ethan at the small table.

“What is it now?” At first Hana just heard the impatience, but there was something else at the edge of her father’s voice. She’d heard it last night, too, in those words that weren’t meant for her — a kind of desperation, a not-knowing that set her heart racing.

Ethan’s arms were crossed over the same dirty T-shirt, his bottom lip protruding with a tremble. Even though he was really too old for it, Hana could feel the tantrum brewing in him, sweltering and humid. On the table in front of him was an individual box of cereal with a spoon stuck in. Next to it, milk foam clung to the tattered lip of a tiny carton.

There was power in having knowledge her father didn’t, and she felt her heart settle back into rhythm as understanding clicked into place. “He can’t have milk,” Hana said softly, pulling up the other chair. She opened the box of Cheerios at the seam and pinched the bag apart, passing it to Ethan and pulling his quietly fizzling Rice Krispies toward herself. She took a bite. It tasted subtly of cardboard and victory.

“No mustard. No milk.” Her father raked his fingers through his own uncombed hair. “Anything else I should know about?”

Most kids didn’t like spicy things, and maybe he couldn’t be expected to know that. But the milk … “He really can’t have it. It’s not going to kill him or anything, but, well … it’s not pretty.” She’d had to clean the toilet often enough to know what would happen.

“Crap. I should have known that.” He shook his head and turned away, throwing clothes back into the suitcase with one hand and tossing back dry cereal with the other, retreating into himself again.

If yesterday’s drive had been quiet with tension, today’s was silent with trepidation. The sagebrush turned to scrub pines and then full-fledged forests. A river threaded through a chasm below the highway. And still, despite the changing scenery, there was no suggestion of a destination, no hint of a safe landing.

“Where are we going?” Ethan asked between fitful naps.

Hana felt the I don’t know come off her father in a current as strong and unyielding as the one in the river below. She searched the seats for a book, a toy, any distraction, but once again came up empty-handed.

“Did you know that way back when, the river was filled with gold?” It was so unexpected that Hana did a double take.

“It was filled with gold,” their dad continued, “and so people flocked to the region from all over the country, convinced they were about to get filthy rich. Soon enough, the riverbanks were crowded with people panning for gold, fighting over their finds and stealing from each other in the dead of night. They caught the forests on fire and polluted the water with their poop.”

Ethan giggled.

The eyes in the mirror crinkled at the edges. “It was a real problem. The river turned brown and sad as the people sucked the life out of it from every direction. So the river and the woods and the forest creatures held a council of war to decide how to stop them.”

“What did they do?” Hana asked, drawn in despite herself.

“They appointed guardians. Look for yourself.” He pointed out the passenger window. “You can still see them over that way, across the river. Hunched up over the water there.”

She looked where he was pointing, then squinted to see further, but found only the familiar landscape on the other side of the window. “The mountains?” Hana asked. She knew it was only a story, but still she felt her heart deflate.

“Oh, no. They only look like mountains. That’s part of their disguise. But when you relax your eyes just right, you can see that really it’s the fur of a great shaggy beast, stretched out along the shore to protect the river from intruders. In fact, so many beasts signed up for the job that they had whole ranks of them lining the river. So many that beyond the green ones are blue ones standing by to provide a second line of defense. Entire legions of guardians. That’s where we’re heading.” He pointed again, to a crevice in the foothills between the blue and the green. “Right at the feet of the great protectors.”

Hana slid her eyes out of focus, and like magic, the mountains cloaked themselves in ragged plush. A tightness strung through her chest. Hoping against hope, against her better sense, she imagined the three of them stepping around the roots and rocks, searching for a place to settle, beasts curled around them like cats by a fireplace.

“What about the purple ones?” Ethan asked, pointing higher on the horizon. “Can’t we go to the purple ones? Please?”

Part of her wanted to beg alongside Ethan. The purple was farther away. It would be safer. Those gentler folds, hazy with distance, would envelop them. They could rest at last. But she was older than Ethan, too, and she knew what she wouldn’t say to him: that the purple was an illusion made up of evaporating water and light, that as they got closer, the purple, too, would become blue and then green, that the shaggy beasts would perpetually retreat toward the horizon, seeking other orphans to shelter.

Their dad turned around and glanced at Ethan directly. When he smiled, the purpling lump on his jaw, furred over with day-old whiskers, lifted gently.

“That’s the third line,” he said. “The protectors of the protectors. They’ll keep standing watch at a distance.”

The highway turned a corner and the mountains disappeared behind a screen of trees. Ethan started whimpering, his eyes flooding again. “Where’d they go? Turn around. We have to get back to the beasts,” he sobbed, twisting in his booster seat to catch another glimpse.

“Hey, now,” said their dad. “They’re just through this tunnel of trees. I’ll bet by the time you count to fifty, they’ll be back again.” Hana flushed to hear him use her trick with Ethan.

When he got to forty-seven, the trees thinned and they emerged on the other side. The shaggy beasts lined up for miles, staggered peaks in diminishing blues stretching until they dissolved into sky. And there, rising above them all, was a snow-capped stony peak, remote and cold, standing guard in the distance. Hana felt the string in her chest snap, felt something crack open wide, and she pulled hard to get the air past the catch in her throat.

“What’s that one?” asked Ethan.

In the rearview mirror, Hana held the eyes superimposed over the mountain. “That one?” she breathed. “That’s their king.”

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