At Rest

“Are we sure about this?” Alice hugs the urn against her chest and flicks an uneasy glance at Jenny and me as we gather together on the manicured lawn. Evening sunlight seeps between the scattered oak trees, dappling Alice’s face with liquid shadows and flashes of vintage innocence. Wide, dark-lashed eyes, clueless and glassy, and cheeks swollen from a long afternoon of swiping at misguided tears. Sometime during the drive up here, she shed the shell of a grown woman and reverted back to the naïve little sister I remember from the backseat. And Jenny, too—ignoring speed-limits and squealing the brakes, emerging youthful in her own self-indulgent, insolent way. She’s even got her Cubs cap on backwards. I suppose it’s fitting. If we’re doing this, it should be as the children we once were. 

“We need to speak our truth,” I tell Alice, and for a heartbeat, I’m thirteen again, all skin and bones and hidden bruises. My voice eclipses Aunt Bethany’s from decades earlier when she offered me the same advice. A downhome beauty in a black Sears dress. Her arm had trembled across my shoulders as she walked me toward the closed casket. Speak your truth, Olivia…

But how could I tell a broken corpse I wished she’d been stronger? It wasn’t fair. I simply stood there, infinitesimal and just as weak, clutching a sagging bouquet. White tulips, Mom’s favorite—or were they daffodils? It’s strange the way the old days flicker and fade only to reappear at times like this, fireflies sparking transient patterns against muggy Midwestern evenings. Memories I thought I’d caught and released years ago.

“Speak my truth?” Alice shifts her feet toward the parking lot, wavering on spindly legs, a doe ready to bolt, forever the skittish one. We were all bred to be meek, but for Alice the training stuck. She would’ve hid from this for the rest of her life if Jenny and I hadn’t appeared in her driveway and dragged her from bed. Road trip we promised her, but not like the ones in the back of the family’s old wood-paneled station wagon. 

Never again. 

“Saying it out loud feels wrong,” Alice whispers, as if the contents of the urn might actually hear her. “He was the way he was because he loved us.” 

Jenny sucks in a sharp laugh. “Oh, that’s classic.”

I throw her a look as Alice disgorges a sob and muffles her face with one hand, hiding more tears from us. Her sorrow hits me like a tuning fork, vibrates my bones and my scars. Makes me want to shatter. Does she really believe that? That Dad loved us? Maybe we were wrong to bring her out here today. Maybe it’s still too soon.

Jenny rolls her eyes and stamps out her cigarette on the squat brick building at her back. She considers the urn before flicking the butt onto the lawn. “I’ll start.”

Alice shrugs and grits a smile, hugging the old man close, bracing for the worst. But we shouldn’t have to tell her: the worst is behind us.

“Just remember…” I warn Jenny, in case I didn’t hammer the point home when we planned all this. We still live in the same town, but during times of non-crisis, we barely even speak over the phone—and forget hanging out. Yet somehow, Jenny and I ended up crammed into her crappy little apartment for the past week, blowing the dust off the years, replaying them like lost cassettes.

Funerals, the great re-unifier. 

“I’ll keep it light.” Jenny smirks at me, eyes as hard as the triple shot of whiskey I watched her eat for breakfast. After all, it’s not her fault our baby sister bruises so easily. She clears her throat, aiming her melodrama Alice’s way. “Good old Dad didn’t love much, but he loved himself a road trip. Any excuse to escape the grind of a shitty job and house and family. Too bad the family had to tag along, right?”

“Jenny…” I warn.

“Do you remember the trip to Chicago?” Jenny asks Alice, ignoring me. “Remember Dad singing “Here Comes the Sun”? Singing his stupid lungs out right along with the rest of us, happy as clams for the first time ever. Maybe he got a coworker fired at the factory or something. Whatever it was, the man was feeling generous that trip—he let Mom choose the road music. So, of course, it was gonna be the Beatles.”

“That’s right.” Alice lifts her head. “They were Mom’s favorite. She used to play them all the time at home.”

“Never when Dad was home, though,” I say. “And never in the car. But we were having fun that day. I actually remember all of us smiling.”

“We were?” Alice smiles a little, too. 

“Some of us more than others,” Jenny says. “As soon as the next song started, Mom reached for the tape deck to dial up the volume. But good old Dad smacked her hand away. No more!” Jenny drops her voice an octave, pulling out her infamous Dad impression—the voice that sounds like it gargled highway tacks and makes me feel infinitesimal and helpless all over again. “That’s enough of this hippy-dippy-high bullshit, Lois—you’re gonna make my damn ears bleed. My car, my rules.”

“So what?” Alice says, forever finding excuses for the man. “It was his car.”

“And it was Mom’s Beatles cassette!” Jenny snaps. “And he launched it out the window. Don’t tell me you forgot that, too?”

“Why would he do that?” 

Jenny snorts. “Why did he do anything he did to her? Because he could.”

Alice hugs the urn closer and shakes her head. “I don’t remember that,” she says, and the chasm that’s formed between us all these years cracks a little wider.

“It happened,” I assure her. “He unspooled about three feet of tape before he threw it out the window.”

“It flew like kite strings,” Jenny says, “and exploded into a million pieces when it hit the pavement. Dad actually adjusted the rearview mirror so he could watch it shatter. And he laughed like he was having the grandest time of his life shattering Mom a little, too. He never let her get too happy, you know. Like he only put joy out there so he could yank it away.” 

“After that, Mom stopped singing on trips,” I tell Alice.

“How about the map of Des Moines?” Jenny challenges her. “Do you remember that?”

“Des Moines?” 

“You were pretty little,” I say.

Alice’s wide, glassy gaze drifts across the lawn toward the bustling road beyond. She watches the rigid carloads of nuclear families as they head toward so many tragic highways. 

“The map that got lost?” she says at last, barely a whisper. 

“That’s one way of putting it.” Jenny strikes a match against the bricks and lights another cigarette. She takes a drag then leans back against the wall. “One minute the map was in Mom’s hands, the next…” She blows smoke out. “Whoosh.”

“It blew out the window?” Alice looks at me. 

I half-nod. “We were going to visit Aunt Bethany in the hospital in Des Moines. She’d gotten into a bad car accident. Mom was so sure Bethany was gonna die her hands kept shaking. She had a hard time reading the map.”

 “The damn thing’s upside-down, Lois,” Jenny Dad-growls—and oh, that voice! Alice cringes, and I resist the urge to knock the urn from her arms. “Does stupid run in your family?”

“She wasn’t stupid,” I say, decades too late. “Except that day she ended up sending us about ten miles in the wrong direction. When Dad realized what she’d done, he threw the map out the window.”

“No he didn’t,” Alice says. “Did he?” 

Jenny’s laugh is bitter-sharp. “He sure as shit did. Throwing stuff out was kinda his thing. After that he straight up refused to stop for directions. Said we were just gonna drive around Des Moines until we found the hospital blind. He ran stoplights, squealed his tires, scary stuff.” 

“By the time we finally got there,” I tell Alice, “visiting hours were over. Dad was furious. He wanted to drive all the way back to Illinois and call it quits. Mom had to plead with him to get a motel.”

“He made her get on her knees before he agreed,” Jenny says. “And he only let us visit Bethany for thirty minutes the next day.”

“He set a timer, didn’t he?” Alice says. “On his wrist watch? Such a tiny beep, but it always sounded so big.”

“I hated that watch,” I say. 

“Yeah. I hated a lot of things,” Jenny says. “Turns out, Aunt Bethany only had a concussion and a broken arm, nothing fatal. A waste of my damn time, Lois! And sure as shit, that was the last time we ever visited Bethany in Iowa.”

“And Dad never let Mom forget how stupid she was with maps,” I add.

“Don’t forget the flat tire and the missing jack he blamed on her even though it was his car,” Jenny says.

“Or the time we had to turn around because she forgot to pack her meds and he ranted at her the whole way home.” 

“Or the trip to Indianapolis when he accused her of flirting with the bellhop, then her luggage got ‘misplaced’.” 

“Or the rest stop,” Alice says. 

Jenny and I fall silent, trading surprised glances. Or the rest stop. We were going to get to it eventually, of course we were. Maybe it’s best that Alice is the one to bring it up. Maybe it means she finally understands the need for this. 

Still, my heart cracks a little deeper along those old scar lines. 

“That’s the spirit.” Jenny steps forward, and the westering sunlight cuts her shadow against the grass and the brick wall. “The rest stop. At last.”

“The rest stop,” I say. 

“He never let us stop at rest stops, never ever.” Alice squirms uncomfortably, twisting her feet in the grass. A grown woman, yet she looks younger than ever, smaller than the nine-year-old girl she was during that final frightening drive. 

Rest stops stink of piss and ass-slime,” Jenny Dad-growls, reciting each cruel word. “Only perverts and trash people use them, LoisDo you wanna be a trash person?

“But when you gotta go, you gotta go,” I say, feeling as if I’m speaking in echoes. How many times did we whimper those same words from the backseat, squirming and crossing our legs? Dad refused to have his wife and daughters squatting in rest stop filth like tramps. He announced the rule as if he gave a damn about us, like we should thank him, like it wasn’t about making good time or watching us wriggle miserably in the rearview mirror. 

“I can’t remember the sound of her voice anymore,” Alice says with a tremble. “But I remember her asking Daddy to pull over. She kept begging him, over and over: Please, Henry, one stop, just this once.

Alice might not remember the sound, but good God—Mom is definitely present inside my little sister’s voice. Heartbroken, fragile, never quite strong enough to stand up against the man who ruled us all. Nothing that happened was Mom’s fault, but it happened to her anyway. 

Alice falls silent and stares hard at the polished surface of the urn, at the ugly reflection of our past. When she doesn’t go on, I continue the story, because this is my truth, too. “Mom was supposed to drink extra water with her meds. Her bladder got uncomfortable quick. But like always, Dad told her to hold it.”

Alice closes her eyes, but her tears still fall. 

“He refused to pull into every gas station and rest stop we passed,” I say. The words seethe from me. “By then it had turned into a sick game for him. We were still two hours from home. And Mom was only human.”

“She had an accident,” Alice says, voice shaking. “All over Daddy’s upholstery. And he was so disgusted with her, even though it was his fault. He jerked the car to the side of the highway, shoved her out the passenger door. He called her trash. She begged him to forgive her, begged him to let her back in, but he just left her there in the middle of the highway with a wet bottom. It was past dark—the fireflies were already out—but he just drove away.”

“He sure as shit did,” Jenny whispers, and tears glint in her hard-as-nails eyes. 

“You two unbuckled your seatbelts, started begging, screaming for him to go back. Only he just got madder and madder. His car, his rules. And he didn’t go back, not for a really, really long time. It got darker and darker outside the windows, but he kept on speeding away from her. And when he did finally turn around, we saw the lights, red-and-blue lights and… and…”

“It’s okay, shhhhh…” Jenny flicks her cigarette aside and loops a rare arm around Alice. “That’s it. You don’t have to say the rest.”

Because we’re all thinking it. 

We saw the ambulance racing past. 

But we never saw Mom alive again.

The long-haul trucker who slammed into her said he didn’t think she intended to step out in front of his rig. He told the highway patrol she was probably trying to wave down help and got disoriented by his high-beams. On my good days, I believe that. 

On my bad days, I remember our family road trips. 

The closed casket, the cemetery, Dad’s cruel, remorseless eyes. And Aunt Bethany steering me past the bastard and toward what remained of my mother, tulips or daffodils in my hand, telling me, “Speak your truth, Olivia…”

I wish Mom would’ve been stronger, I wish she would’ve found a way to get away from him. But of course, maybe she did. 

We’ve taken long enough with this. The sun has faded. A humid breeze ripples the oak leaves over our heads. Out across the open lawn the first fireflies of the evening spark against the deepening indigo darkness. It’s kind of lovely actually.

Probably better than he deserves. 

“Now,” I say to Alice, “are you sure about this?” 

“Sure as shit,” she says, simply, bravely. Jenny winks at her.  

We help her unscrew the lid from the urn, then we step back. 

“Any final words?” I say.

Alice holds the urn away from her heart. “She deserved better than you, Daddy. We all did.”

“Amen,” Jenny and I say together. 

We flank our little sister as she scatters the dust of the past along the grassy perimeter of the low brick building. After she finishes, we linger together in silence, contemplating the moment. 

It feels perfectly apt. 

I wish Mom could be here for this—and Aunt Bethany who raised us after Dad lost custody. But these days, we’re all that’s left. 

The wind shifts, carrying a squalid yellow odor our way. We step back, wrinkle our noses, and exchange tiny, juvenile grins. 

“Finally.” Jenny takes the empty urn from Alice and flips it into a nearby trashcan. “You two ready to hit the road? Put this shit behind us?”

“Almost.” Alice sniffles, dabs her eyes, then holds her chin high as she starts around to the front the building. “First, I’d like to use the little girls’ room. Anyone else need to go?”

Jenny and I shrug then follow our little sister into the bathroom of the rest stop. 


  • Amanda Cecelia Lang has published short fiction in The Other Stories, Uncharted, Out of Time, and Flame Tree’s Hidden Realms. Her story “The Clover Café” was recently long-listed for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year.

  • We bring ourselves to what we see in space. In 1895, Percival Lowell popularized the idea of canals on Mars, suggesting the presence of intelligent life. This first image is from his book Mars as the Abode of Life (1895). The second set of images are an imagined map of Mars by Eugene Anoniadi, a Greek-French astronomer who initially supported the canals, but later dismissed the idea in favor of the regions depicted here—Antoniadi’s image is here redrawn by illustrator Lowell Hess in the 1965 book Exploring Mars (via Tom Ruen.) The third image is by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona and was widely thought to look like a bear, though it is in fact a hill with a v-shaped collapse and two craters surrounded by a circular “fracture pattern” in the rock.