Nighttime Ride

The dad had a sweet tooth; it was something fierce. When it got ahold of him, no matter where he was—clearing invasives on the job, taking the kids for a weekend, eating his one-pan dinner—he had to satisfy it, like if he didn’t it would consume him inside out. 

This happened one time when the kids were with him. It was a school night—he never got them on a school night, but the mother was off somewhere with friends, or more likely a new man. The dad had been managing fairly—he ’d gotten the boy to brush his teeth by bartering a glass of milk to go along with bed, though the boy was twelve and shouldn’t need glasses of milk with bed, and the girl was partway into pajamas. She refused to remove the panties she ’d worn all day or switch out her little denim shirt for the pink nightie, so he ’d had her put the nightie on over the denim. She looked squashed and uncomfortable but said she was fine, so he ’d ushered her beneath the covers. 

The kids had no books at his house and he had none to his name, not being a reader and this move being quite recent, but they wanted a story. They insisted, and he worried that if he didn’t give them what they wanted they ’d stay up and up and up, and it was already an hour past their bedtime.

When he returned the kids after a weekend, the mother always squinted at them and said, “He let you stay up late again, didn’t he?” He would be standing right there and it got to him that she didn’t just say it to his face, but she was right, of course, he did let the kids stay up later than he should. But he saw them so rarely and wasn’t sure how to corral them, how to be in charge.

The dad picked up his Fleetwood Mac CD and lay down on the bed between the kids. They moved in on him, each head taking a shoulder. The girl, teeth unbrushed, breathed over them her sweet, musty breath. 

“Over and Over,” the dad began, trying to remember the words to his favorite song. “Could you never need me and I wouldn’t know why? Baby, it’s not our time.” When he was done with the song, they looked at the pictures on the CD. “That’s Stevie,” he said. “She rocks.”

“More,” the boy said. He was large for his age and pink like a ham. He held his glass of milk on his chest, sipping from it so incrementally that the volume appeared to stay the same. 

The dad, on nights without his children, didn’t always think of them. He was tired from hacking port jackson, wattle, pine, and mesquite off the land where he worked as carpenter, bonfire builder, tractor operator, fence repairman, uprooter of dead stumps. When he wasn’t too tired, he ’d think that his son was odd and worry that he ’d grow up to be one of those boys who watched women through windows. A pervert. His daughter had big eyes and would grow into her mother’s big breasts and would be fine. 

“Do you want ‘The Ledge,’ ‘Think about Me,’ or ‘Save Me a Place’?” the dad asked. 

“Save Me a Place,” the girl said. 

“Save Me a Place,” the dad said. “Don’t know why I’m working all day. Don’t know when it’s time to play. Turn me up, turn me down, but don’t you never turn me away.” 

Then, there it was, a craving something fierce. 

“Shit,” the dad said. 

The boy smiled. 

It was right around 9:30 and the dad’s small house was out at Smitswinkel Bay, where he worked, and that was out from town by a good twenty minutes. The nearest store closed at ten and if the dad didn’t get his fix he ’d be up all night, pacing, thinking what a relief that first fruit pastille would’ve been. Fruit pastilles were his favorite: gummy sugar on the inside, colors that congratulated you, and an extra coating of sugar on the outside. He knew he should keep some around the house, on his person at all times, but he just didn’t. He wasn’t that kind of man. 

“Nighttime ride,” he said to the kids. 

“Is that the story name?” the girl asked. 

“It’s an instruction. Bundle up—we’re going to the store.”

“Can I get strawberry milk?” the boy asked. His top lip, bathed in milk, glistened anemically. 

The dad was already working his jaw on an imaginary pastille. “We’ll get you a case of strawberry milk,” he said. “A truckload for all I care. Just move your ass.”

The boy skedaddled. But when he and his sister were strapped into the passenger seat of the dad’s gold ’84 Corvette, the boy said, “Just the one strawberry milk will do.”

Out where the dad lived there were no streetlights, no houses visible from the road, so it was a darker dark than most have known. They charged through the night like gold lightning, like a flash you only think you’ve seen. The house was on one side of the mountain, the town and its store on the other. They wound up and through the night, fireflies and dragonflies and miggies splatting on the windscreen. A dog crossed the road and the girl screamed, but it was for nothing because the mutt ran safely out the other side. 

“I’m scared,” the girl said. 

“I’m scared too,” the boy said. He held his sister’s hand. 

“Just think about being in the store, how nice and bright the lights are, how many things are on the shelves, things you’ve never eaten, maybe never heard of, and things you do know, favorite things that taste the way they always have and get you feeling good again,” the dad said. 

An owl swept up off the road. They crested the mountain, and below looked like stars reflected in a clear lake. The kids felt something ease off; they knew light was good. But the dad looked at his watch and saw time running out. His mouth was filled up with the phantom taste of sweets and his fingers worked at a foil wrapper that wasn’t there. 

“Don’t tell your mother about this,” the dad said. “It’s secret.”

“Why?” the boy said. 

“Because secrets bring people closer together,” the dad said. 

“I have secrets,” the girl said. The girl was only seven, too young for secrets. 

“What secrets?” the dad asked. 

“Secrets with Mommy, secrets with Tammy, secrets with Paws, secrets with Ron, secrets with Daffodil,” the girl said. 

The dad didn’t know who Ron was, but they ’d made it to the store parking lot and the lights still shone and inside was the cashier in his lime-green vest. 

“Kids, hop to it,” the dad said and tore from the car. 

He went to the third aisle and loaded up on pastilles. Standing right there, beside a woman and her schnauzer browsing chocolates, he tore through paper and foil and stuffed an orange pastille into his mouth, closing his eyes and moaning like he ’d been touched by the hand of the Lord. The woman raised her haunted eyes to him, then went back to the chocolates. She wasn’t much better off. 

His kids were at the counter, selections in hand. The cashier was glaring at the dad. How long had he been lost in his sweets? He paid for one strawberry milk, a Lion bar, two packs of pastilles, and one flattened pastille wrapper. 

The kids didn’t thank him. They sensed they didn’t need to. Perhaps he should’ve thanked them. 

_____

His sweet tooth at bay, the dad drove easy, pastilles emptied into a pouch made from his tee shirt. He turned the radio on and they listened to part of “American Pie” before it ended and AC/DC came on and the dad snapped the radio off. 

“You kids have to learn good music,” he said. “Stones, yes, Beatles, no—don’t let anyone tell you different.”

The kids were working their treats. The boy had gnawed a hole in the bottom of his plastic milk bottle and was squeezing a thin squirt into his mouth. It came out with a squeak. The girl had caramel in her hair and smeared across the collar of her denim shirt. Wafer nestled in the folds of her nightie. She ’d flattened her Lion bar before they were out of the parking lot. 

The dad worried she would grow up to be like him. 

“I like Elvis,” the girl said. She wound down her window and let her wrapper flee into the night. 

“Good,” the dad said. “The King.”

A car rushed past and the dad hit the hooter. “Your brights, you moron,” he yelled. 

“I like Johnny Cash,” the boy said, “and also house music.”

The dad wondered if the separation had gotten to the boy. He threw a pastille into his mouth and it snagged in his trachea. But he coughed and the pastille flew out, a yellow one, and gobbed against the dashboard. 

“God,” the dad said, “imagine that disaster.” He bent for the pastille, which had fallen at his feet, so didn’t see the duiker in the road, which was the real disaster. 

The body hit with a sound like someone had whacked a massive tin drum. The dad braked when the duiker was already meters behind them. The Corvette’s bonnet was crumpled into golden waves. The boy, strapped to his sister in the passenger seat, was shivering, while she peered into the night thinking how big a sound for such a small body, and wondering if her body would sound the same. The car was scattered with rainbow pastilles and the boy’s strawberry milk, which had flown from his hand to splash pastel pink across the windscreen. 

“Stay in the car,” the dad said to the kids, though he didn’t think they were about to move. He picked a pastille off the seat and went out into the night. It was just creeping up summer, and the nights were like a warm spring. Mountain plants had their blooms and the air was rich with it.

The dad’s heart beat too fast. He ’d veered into the other lane when the duiker hit. What if there ’d been oncoming traffic? The mother of the children would’ve had him for sure; she would’ve seized his meager visiting privileges. If they ’d lived. The car was still in the wrong lane and the dad got back in, released the handbrake, and rolled down the hill a little way onto the gravel berm. The kids sat silent as a lake.

“Hey,” the dad said, patting a leg in the dark, “hey, we’ve made it all right.”

Standing in the headlights he saw that the bumper had cracked, but it was the bonnet that had taken the brunt. He ’d had the car two months and done a lot to get it. But there it was. 

The animal was a ways up the road and the dad had a hike back to it. He ’d hit a dog once. Birds had dashed on his windscreen. He ’d broken a friend’s foot beneath his wheel. It was always such a painful thing—he was in the wrong, he had no right to be rushing around the world at eighty kilometers an hour. 

He spied the animal only when he was upon it, the night was that dark. It was breathing, its body rising and falling. Why did animals stay silent when they were hurt or dying? He ’d hit his thumb with the hammer countless times and each time jerked about shouting, Fuck, cock, shit, piss. 

The black stripe on the duiker’s head wavered. One of its horns was a nub, the sharp tip in his car or on the road. 

“Will it be all right?” the girl asked. 

The boy stood meters behind her, visible only as a white tee shirt. 

The dad squinted at the duiker, wishing for a light. Not knowing what else to do, he ran a hand down its flickering flank, which was warm and wet. The stomach was split open, a slithered mass. Knowing the animal would die, he wished it were already dead. Its eyes darted but it could not lift its head. 

“Get my hammer from the boot,” he said to the boy, but the boy stayed where he was, a ghostly shape, and it was the girl who ran off, bare feet slapping tar. 

“What are you going to do?” she asked when she returned.

“Stand back,” he said, but the girl stayed close. 

The dad thought about all the nails he ’d missed, the bad hits he ’d made. He worried he ’d hit an eye or the jaw, but in this moment got exactly what he needed. The boy cried out faintly and the girl turned away, but only after it was done. 

Had he scarred his children? He ’d seen his father decapitate a hen and botch the job. The animal had run about, head half on, for long enough that it would always be there in his brain. 

“This is good meat,” the dad said. 

“No,” the girl said, horrified. 

But the dad was lifting the animal by its hooves. He put it in the boot next to a chainsaw and his mishmash of loose tools. The fit was tight. He packed his work overalls onto the belly to soak up spilling blood. He piled his kids back into the car.

“I’m going to tell Mommy,” the girl said. 

The dad didn’t know how to say what the consequences of that might be, so he said nothing. They drove home in silence, the dad taking it slow, tapping his foot against the brake pedal at every night noise. 

The dad had gathered pastilles off the car floor, eating one before he entered the house and flicked the light switch. His hand was dark with dried blood. Not wanting his children to see, he went into the bathroom and scrubbed. When he came out, the kids were waiting. He ’d planned to sort the animal out while they slept.

“Will it stay in the boot?” the boy asked. 

“I want to bury it,” the girl said. 

“Have you ever had duiker meat?” the dad asked. “It’s good meat.”

“Does it count if you just bury bones?” the girl asked.

The dad was not a man who saw the point in religion, but their mother dropped the kids off at Sunday school every week. “I don’t know,” he said, thinking it best not to lie. Things were going to get back to her. 

“Will you leave it in there all night?” the boy asked.

The dad had a small chest freezer that was empty and off, but he could turn it on and keep the animal fresh until tomorrow when the kids left. He went back out into the dark and the kids followed, watching as he sprang the boot. He got the duiker by its ankles and heaved, but his grip was wrong and the legs fell open. Guts spilled out, and a fetus. The thing’s hooves were little black high heels, its hair coming in. It dumped on his shoes for his kids to see. 

“It was a lady,” the girl said, and went inside. 

The boy stayed while the dad wiped muck from his pants and shoes. The dad wanted to say Won’t you just go away? but knew he had no right. 

“Hold the shed door,” the dad instructed. He carried the body like a young bride and placed it in his freezer. The boy watched silently. 

“I’m going to change,” the dad said. “I’ll be in with you kids in a minute.” 

The dad showered, the warm water eating him up. He lathered with Gentle Breeze. What do I say? the dad wondered. How do I solve this? If only he could stay in the shower, beneath the blessed stream, until the kids left for school in the morning.

The kids were beneath the covers. The girl had pulled the crocheted blanket over her head, but her eyes moved beneath the open weave of the wool. The boy worked the Fleetwood Mac CD like a fan. 

“I’m sorry,” the dad began. “Death is a fact of life. I will die one day, you too, but the problem is that there are too many of us, just too many, and we get in the way of the natural order of things and it’s animals that get hurt, and we have to do what we can to get by.”

“Why?” the girl asked. 

“Because . . . ” the dad said, “because . . . I don’t know, I guess because we’re humans, because we’re fucked.”

The girl emerged from the blanket, her face wavering on the pillow. “Why?” she asked. 

The boy held out the CD. “Story,” he said, forcing it on the dad. 

The dad moved in and the girl shifted over in the bed. He kissed the boy’s buzz cut even though the hairs pricked his lips. 

“Will you let me tell your mother about tonight?” the dad asked.

The boy shrugged. He wouldn’t have thought to say anything. 

The girl looked at her dad, saw that it mattered, mattered more to him than it did to her. “What will you give me?” she asked.

“What do you want?” the dad asked. 

“A promise,” the girl said. 

“A promise of what?” the dad asked. 

“A promise to have,” the girl said. “To keep until I need it.”

“That’s tough,” the dad said. “How can I make a promise without knowing what I’m promising?”

“You just do,” the girl said. She turned on her side so that her narrow, vulnerable back was against his ribs. 

“You just do,” the boy echoed. 

The dad watched the moon shift shadows across the ceiling and, for a moment, it was a blade descending. He flapped the CD over his head. “What’ll it be kids—‘Never Make Me Cry’ or ‘Tusk’?” He ’d meant to sound upbeat, jovial, but the words came out weighted and weary. He couldn’t even get that right. 

Hemmed in by his children, the dad wished he could be where they were instead of where he found himself now. There ’d been a lot of disappointment lately—he ’d been a disappointment lately—and he ’d had enough, though his was the type of life where there would always be more to come. He tried to think of all the things he might one day be called upon to do, but found that all he could think about were the bloody pastilles. 

Holly Beth Pratt received her MFA from the University of Florida in 2017. She has interned at Tin House Books and Subtropics, and she is the new associate director at Willow Springs Books. Previous publications can be found in the New England Review and Lunch Ticket. Originally from South Africa, she now lives in Washington State.