She liked that the Sonic had its long rows of light boards with the menus. There were only a few darkened places around it, so when she looked out through the window into the night, she saw rectangles of light reflecting against each other and onto the glass. Even at night it was bright. If she closed her eyes tight, she could pretend she was at an old-fashioned burger stand in the 50’s, everything as carefree and sepia-colored as an episode of Happy Days.
Then all she pretended would feel real as her dad turned on the radio to their favorite station that played every era and style of music imagined. The beginnings of the next song stirred out of the speakers, and she kept her eyes closed but smiled big. Dad laughed and said, “Aw yeah, this is a great song!”
And it was, because it was Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”. She lifted open her eyes onto the light-rectangle world. For some reason, that cascade of music at the beginning, especially when it was just the music without the voice, always made everything beautiful. She let the music into her eyes, and soon the world under her gaze had a new, vibrant shimmer to it.
They sailed along to the melody from inside their little car, and as soon as Springsteen’s voice started, they took their cue. Dad sang the worst but also the most hilarious, because he got so into it. He belted it out to his imaginary audience behind the dashboard and squeezed his eyes shut and flicked his head back and forth like an idiot.
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
She always admired the unselfconscious way he sang and the fact that he could make her laugh until her stomach hurt. She just hoped he would never try out for American Idol. Thankfully, he hadn’t (yet).
It always took a hell of a long time to get their food because the people at Sonic were so slow, but in truth, she didn’t mind. She bet he didn’t mind, either. Once the song was over, he would usually say in his teasing voice, “That’s my baby, you sing worse than me!”
“Me?” she said. “You sing like a dying cow!”
“I thought that was you,” he replied.
She leaned over the seat and punched him a few times – not very hard – in the arm for teasing her. Then he would laugh and say over and over again, “Ouch! Okay, I give up! I give up!”
Now, eight years later, she sat in the passenger’s seat of the car and looked at the row of light board menus to either side of her and pretended not to know that this might be the last time she ever waited with her father at Sonic ever again.
She did not need to let the music in her eyes this time to see the new shimmer in the world: the thought of not returning again did it for her. She saw things she hadn’t seen again since she was a child. She saw the reflection of the lights as beautiful as her own personal stars in the night. She saw the highlights as sharp as glass on her father’s face.
He turned up the radio, playing the station they loved as always, and the music stirred up out of the speakers. She recognized the song.
“I love this one,” he said. He picked up his cue and started to sing.
There's a port on a western bay
And it serves a hundred ships a day
Lonely sailors pass the time away
And talk about their homes
He did not belt out the lyrics to make her laugh. He sang quietly, mixing his own voice with those of the words. He did not sing well, but it was the kind of singing of an average man compelled, by some nature-bound power beyond this world, to sing. It was as if he recreated the song for this very moment.
She did not sing with him. She lifted her neck away from the headrest of her seat and tried not to think that childhood would soon vanish for her. She tried to tell herself that childhood would never truly vanish, - not as long as she could close her eyes and pretend waiting outside a 50’s diner, - but then she didn’t really know. No one could ever really know, and that terrified her more than anything.
The sailor said, “Brandy, you're a fine girl
What a good wife you would be
But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea”
At the end of the summer she would get on a plane halfway across the world and attend the university. When she compared it to the thousands of other times she sat with her father like this, sharing smiles and laughs, she didn’t think she could through with the future. Wouldn’t it better to go back? Wouldn’t it better to live as a child forever?
Except she could never reverse time or stay stagnant. She knew what trying to do both had done to people, and in her heart she could never stay. She did not have much choice in the next step that lay before her, of leaving the nest. She wished she had more time.
The waitress roller-skated over to the driver’s side window. Dad turned down the radio and paid for the dinner and handed the sacks over to her. He rolled up the window and put the car into gear and backed out into the driveway.
“Mmm,” he said. “Are those the fries? They smell really good.”
When rage and passion blinded them, they couldn’t see the way their bodies crashed into each other. This blindness only grew with age: as children, their arguments turned into physical tussles, though Fakir held back because hurting a girl was dishonorable. As preteens, they started brandishing words as weapons. Now, as teenagers, they aimed their words lowered and fought, tooth and nail, for Mytho’s well-being. They flew headfirst into the spat until their faces came too close, their bodies too tangled with each other. Rue’s hot breath against his face felt familiar and comfortable, which irritated Fakir to no end. He saw the same thing in her eyes too: the unwillingness to break their pattern despite how she burned in her loathing. Neither of them noticed or cared for their proximity until the veil long lifted from their eyes. Only then did Fakir sit on his bed, remember how their lips almost touched with the insults they shouted at each other, and feel embarrassment wash over him.
For instance, one day shortly after he and Mytho enrolled in the Academy, he left Mytho asleep in the room and went down to the library. He went to his usual book closet, his because no else bothered with such an isolated room and such old books. He opened the door and almost ran into Rue.
Rue recovered swiftly. She backed up a few steps, balancing her back against the ladder in a gesture both vulnerable and domineering. “I can do whatever I like with Mytho,” she said.
He went straight to a shelf. He doubted his own strategy, but maybe if he didn’t respond she’d go away.
“You haven’t let him go to class in days,” she said. “I know what you’re doing, but you’re mistaken if you’ll think it will work. Mytho belongs to me.”
His eyes narrowed, but he pulled out a random book and opened it.
“He’s better off with me than with you.” She gave a haughty chuckle for good measure.
He turned a page and acted as if reading.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” She hadn’t meant to use a phrase from her preteen years, but the petty frustration of it came out in her voice. She gave a slight wince, as if to seem childish in front of him pained her, but soon she replaced it with a more level expression.
He went to them, their bodies held by the long lines of grace, their heads bowed like sunset in the sky. At his approach, they stilled, and he stopped to let them examine him. Their eyes grew as black as the stones in the river. The smaller of them quivered. Then their eyes turned over his soul, remembering and cherishing it, and in time they bowed their heads again. He went into their pasture and sat in the grass next to them.
He stroked the downy head of the larger deer. Her ears flickered, but she went on eating without disturbance.
He spoke to them in their language that he had not yet forgotten and would never forget. “Illtha,” he said, “Again I come today, seeking your good evening.”
The larger deer finished eating before she lifted her head to him. In the almost inaudible whisper of deer, she said, “Good evening. We grant thee welcome into our domain.”