Illinois Forks

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Lizbeth Hernandez, Ryan P. Kelly , and Ashley Zhou

When we were roommates in college, Sarah used to wake earlier than I did, and I remembered many mornings squinting sleepy-eyed at her while she dressed, sun from the dorm room window tracing the curve of her waist with diffused light. I used to watch the girls I brought back for the night like this too, but sunshine never quite cloaked them right, their movements too jerky, their faces angled with embarrassment. The window in the motel room wasn’t directly behind Sarah, but still the light from the open bathroom door drew an orange outline around her elbow as she gathered up her hair and said, “Let’s go.”      

Highway, again. Lake Michigan passed without a word. Illinois startled us with its abruptness, the exits falling back to low numbers. The radio stations Sarah put on spiraled into static every half hour, and sometime between the end of one song and the beginning of another, I fell asleep. When I awoke, my head was fuzzy and my mouth dry. I reached for the water bottle in the cup holder only to startle at its lighter than expected weight.

“I drank it all,” Sarah said.

I pressed my tongue against the roof of my mouth, trying to gather moisture. I had no conception of how far we’d driven since I’d fallen—the outside to me looked the same as Indiana, the same as Ohio and Pennsylvania, green and bright. I swallowed and cleared my throat at the same time Sarah said, “Rachel,” then stopped, the beginnings of a rising cadence in her voice.       

“Sorry, I was just clearing my throat.”       


She nodded and glanced at the side mirror.      

“What did you want to say?”      

She nodded again. And again. She took a hand off the steering wheel to smooth hair behind her ear and kept it there, pinky across her dimple, index finger behind her ear. “I wanted to ask,” she said, “if you remembered that time we almost went to France.”       

Isaac had been four then, and it was the first vacation Sarah and Jake would’ve taken since his birth. They’d been planning for months, explaining to Isaac the situation daily, trying to wean him off their attention, her attention. The day had come and they’d dropped him off at Sarah’s father’s house—they’d given him my contact information just in case. It’d only be for five days, they’d reminded Isaac and his grandfather, and later Sarah told me that when they’d driven off, Isaac’s face had been blank as his grandfather squatted down, trying to encourage him to wave goodbye. He wouldn’t. Then Sarah had turned around in her seat and smiled at Jake, taken his hand.      

They never made it to France. Sarah’s father had called in a panic after they arrived at the airport, a high wail behind his words. Isaac was inconsolable, he’d told them. Uncontrollable. He was screaming and wouldn’t stop. He was breaking things. Please come back.       

“For a long time after that,” Sarah was saying now, shifting her hand so it moved back and forth across her neck, “I kept a photo of the entrance to Sainte-Chapelle in a book beside my bed. Sometimes I’d take it out and look at it, pretending I was reading.”       

“Did you want to go that badly?” The edges to my question sounded brittle, even to me. “You told me afterward that you should’ve known better.”      

She waved a hand. “It was fine. I’ll go to Paris someday.” The last word breathlessly, like a stone had dropped, small and heavy, into her stomach.     

“I looked at that photo for so long and so often,” she continued after a loud inhale. “It was a picture of the steps up to the cathedral specifically, grooved by hundreds of years of feet.”      

The armrest caved under my fingers, the tendons in my wrist standing white against skin. I ran my tongue around my teeth, dry like an apple picked too soon.     

Sarah was saying, “I kept thinking about the millions—the billions of repeated actions it must’ve taken for the stone to wear smooth like that. The steps slanted down on both sides like a bowl. I thought, just keep rubbing and rubbing and even stone, something like that, can get worn into a depression. You know?”       

The highway forked here into a path for cars only and a path for cars and trucks. Sarah merged into the former, and my thigh pressed into the door as we veered left. The leather sucked off my skin, a wet sound that intersected with the threads of static and half-sung lyrics still playing. I could feel Sarah like a smell. The car, the outside grew unimportant—the white lines inside which we stayed, the metal frame that hurtled our lives at 70 mph, the distance that separated her mother and us and Jake—my whole body and mind were so attuned to Sarah’s emotions I could no longer distinguish them from my own. It was my breath that gave way, my pulse clapping loud in my ears, my shoulders that folded like paper too often used when Sarah said, “I’m so relieved, Rachel, that he’s dead.”



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