1. The Car Ride

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By rights, the late-spring morning should have been warm but breezy, a day of golden light and the faint scent of flowers and freshly cut grass in the air. But by 10, the sun was already fat and blazing. With no wind, the dust hung in the air, suspended in beams of light, and the refraction of each particle cast a surreal hue. The effect was exactly like entering an attic that had been shut up for years: that feeling of being caught in time, held in the in-between spaces.

It was the sort of weather that ship captains would regard with extreme superstition, the kind of stillness that left ships dead in the water with slack sails and flat, tepid currents. It was cursed weather, foreboding weather, and even though the sun was hot and bright overhead in its canopy of blue-blue sky, a shiver ran down Natasha's spine.

She reached to fiddle with the knob of the van's air conditioner. A blast of hot air, like warm breath, exhaled from the vent. She turned the knob back down and shifted her weight against the door, acutely aware of the way sweat pooled at the small of her back, the dampness of her jeans as the seams climbed uncomfortably up her inner thigh. 

She did not mention that the van was overdue for maintenance, that the AC system had been out of coolant for weeks now. Not now, not when the atmosphere was already so tense, when their nerves were raw and exposed from so many small irritations. 

She stayed quiet, a small concession toward keeping the peace. 

Keeping the peace was a thing Nat Drangle - now Nat Loman - had grown quite good at since marrying Liz.

"Honey, you're dripping." Liz said. Her eyes flicked from the rear view mirror, glancing up at her son, before glancing back at the road. "Eat your popsicle or throw it out."

"I don't want it."

In the backseat, Liam was staring out the passenger window, a popsicle clenched in his fist. It has begun to melt in the heat, beads of sugary purple run-off rolling slowly down the popsicle's surface and over the back of his hand, threatening to drip onto the seat. He was wearing an adult-sized baseball cap, a gift from his father, and it hung low around his ears and shaded his eyes so that only his nose and mouth were visible. His mouth was fixed in a scowl.

"Either eat it or throw it out." Liz repeated, not looking up now. She was using a tone of finality, a tone that suggested she was already well beyond bargaining.

"It's grape. Grape is gross."

They had been on the road for nearly an hour, stopping once for gas and the now-contentious popsicle. Before, when Nat had lived on her own, an hour of driving had been nothing. But that was when she could climb into the car and drive alone, the windows down and air fluttering through her short dark hair. It was when she could invite the night in through the open windows and drive without worry or destination, maybe smoking a cigarette, maybe turning the music up loud.

That was before restless children.

Before the business.

Before Liz.

"Just throw it out the window if you don't want it. You're dripping all over the seat."

"You said not to litter."

"Oh -- for god sake just throw it outside!"

Traffic slowed to a sudden stop, and Nat extended a hand to reflexively brace herself against the dashboard as the glow of brake lights grew closer.

The van decelerated quickly, jolting to a stop behind a battered tan pickup. A pair of gag-gift testicles hung absurdly from the truck's tow hitch, just visible now past the nose of the van. 

"I'm watching the road," Liz said, and the tension in her voice trembled like the plucked string of a guitar, threatened to snap. "Let me drive."

"I didn't say anything," Nat murmured, and then grimaced.

Traffic cleared ahead of them, and Liz stepped too harshly on the accelerator; the van thrust forward with a lurch.

Liam was not supposed to be here today. If Nat had known that he would be coming along, she wouldn't have suggested this trip, would have rescheduled, would have offered to go alone -- something. 

Up ahead, a sign for "Al's U Store It" loomed at the side of the road, and Nat sighed in relief. At least they had finished the first task of what was shaping up to be s very long day.

Liz had purchased the antique store less than a year ago, just a few months after she and Nat's wedding. She had thrown herself into it fully with the kind of "all in" attitude she approached most things with. Every weekend now seemed to be spent searching for things to sell: visiting estate sales, following Craigslist leads, coming to storage auctions. Nat had been given the task of finding these leads, of scheduling their routes, planning their acquisitions. 

Liam usually spent weekends with his father. But Kyle Loman - Liz had kept his name in the divorce, passing it on to her wife like some sort of disease - had been unable to keep the boy today because he was working weekend overtime. 

That irony was not lost on Nat.  

"Well, we're here," Liz declared, pulling up into the parking lot. There were a handful of cars already, including the be-testicled pickup. They piled out, the two of them, Liz circling the car to open back door from the outside and work at the seatbelt. 

"You have popsicle all over everything." 

Liam slithered from his booster seat and onto the dusty parking lot, his overly large baseball cap pulled down low around his ears. Liz caught him by the shoulder, held him in place before he could stray far. 

Liz's eyes lifted to Nat's, plaintive. "He's filthy. Can you take him to the front office and find a bathroom? I want to get set up here."

Natasha nodded, holding out a hand for Liam. He evaded her, ignoring the outstretched hand, and leaned into his mother's side, casting her a suspicious - slightly hostile - look from beneath the wide bill of the baseball cap. Nat sighed, reached out, grasped his hand firmly and gave it a light tug, and the boy followed her without complaint, meek as a lamb, like a prisoner resigned to death. 

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