Middle of August. Eight months in America, and Isa will be seventeen. The year before, the whole village celebrated her birthday, and in her white, floor-length dress, Isa looked like a bride. This year, we celebrate at the new Pizza Hut on base, and give small gifts: she gets pink fuzzy slippers from my parents, nothing from Darwin, and an egg-carton caterpillar I made in school, from me. “Next year you’ll get more,” my father says, and as I’m about to sing “Happy Birthday,” my mother shushes me. “People will stare at us,” she says. When I try again, Isa takes my hand. “You’ll sing to me later,” she says. But I never do.
The one who makes her birthday matter is Malcolm. The next day at the diner, he tells Isa he wants to take her out for her birthday, someplace far away from here. “Hanford,” he says, “maybe Fresno. Anywhere but Lemoore.” He takes the saltshaker and taps grains onto the table. “Goddamn Lemoore.”
Isa puts her hand on his wrist, right in front of me. “But Lemoore means love,” she says. “In French.” Then she says “love” all the other ways she knows—koigokoro, beminnen, mahal—and Malcolm lights a cigarette, nodding with every word.
That night at dinner, Isa says her boss needs her for a Friday-night late shift and will pay her double, maybe triple, even drive her home afterward. She says the late shift might lead to a promotion, maybe a raise, but my mother says no. “A girl out at night,” she says, doom and threat in her voice.
“Then I’ll be with her,” I say. I tell my parents how much Isa’s boss adores me, how I remind him of his son. “But that boy died. A car crash,” I say. “He was crossing the street. A van came …” The story is even better than we rehearsed it, and as I lie I’m picturing Isa in a car at night with the window rolled down, her ponytail like a ribbon in the wind, singing to any song the radio plays, and finally, because a dead child fills them with pity, my parents tell us yes, we can go, just this once. “Thank you,” Isa says to them, but she’s really thanking me. Beneath the table I squeeze her hand to tell her You’re welcome.
Everything is perfect. Darwin has come down with a fever and won’t be coming with us. My mother still refuses to leave the house at night, and insists my father stay with her. “We’ll be okay,” I tell my parents throughout the day. “We take care of each other.” They believe everything I say.
Just before dark, my father drives us to the bowling alley. Before we get out, he makes us kiss him goodbye on the cheek, which we’ve never done the other times he drops us off. He drives away, and I imagine myself in his rearview mirror, shrinking and shrinking as he travels down the road. I’m still waving even after he’s gone.
Isa hurries inside to change in the bathroom. I stay where I am. Then, as if he’d been watching, Malcolm pulls up in his van. He doesn’t say hello, doesn’t invite me in. He just sits there smoking a cigarette, then flicks it out the passenger window. I watch it glowing on the ground until Isa steps out and takes my hand.
“Let’s get him home,” Malcolm says. He reaches over and opens the passenger door. The backseat is crammed with boxes and crates, album sleeves, parts of a bike, so I sit in front on Isa’s lap. She goes over the plan once more, making sure I remember every step. Her arms are wrapped around my chest and I lean back, my head resting against her shoulder. She’s shivering and her knee bounces a little, like a mother trying to calm the wailing baby in her arms. “I’ll be fine,” I whisper, and Isa says, “I know.”
Off we go. Malcolm takes a different route home, and every turn becomes a street I don’t know. When we finally reach the end of our block, the fog is so thick I almost don’t recognize that this is where we live.
Malcolm pulls over. Isa and I step out. “Count eleven houses,” she says, pointing toward home, “and you’ll be there.” She pulls my hood over my head, tugs at the drawstrings, and as she knots them together she tells me to be brave, though she is the one who cries. Then she tells me that she loves me, and that’s the most important thing, the only thing.
She kisses my cheek then steps back, climbs into the van. I let them leave first, watching the red taillights of Malcolm’s van until they disappear into the fog, and that’s when I see it, for the very first time: my breath in the air. It floats before my eyes like a tiny ghost, and I stand perfectly still, marveling at the fact that I possess the power to project something from deep inside me into the night air. I breathe again, watching my breath and remembering the smoke rings Isa made, and I think we are exactly the same.