Michael sat with his legs tucked under in the backseat of his parents’ blue station wagon. Big Blue, they called it. He tried to count cactus out the dark window, but he could only see as many as the headlights hit as they drove the windy back road in Arizona. The wrong back road, Michael suspected, because his dad often got directions wrong, and he was driving. Right then his parents were discussing his father's band’s latest recording, a song about sea weather. Michael pressed his forehead against the glass and puffed a cloud to write in. Thirty cacti. Thirty-one. The side of the road was desert, more desert. In daylight, what was now dark landscape had looked the same for days. They had started from home on the Jersey Shore and were headed to Phoenix, visiting family and friends in various southern states along the way. Mysterious Uncle Steve with the curled moustache and slurred speech. His father turned up Van Morrison and Michael sang along with Crazy Love. Nights in the car, the murmur of his parents talking. The warm buzz of being in the car with them and the suspicion they were lost.
Thirty-five cacti. Michael felt the familiar wave of nausea as his father turned a sharp corner and the road became a slight hill, then dipped down again. Thirty-six cacti. His mother murmured something about paying attention to the painted lines.
Then, in a flash, a new scene brightened by the headlights appeared as one living, cohesive image. His mother drew in a horrid gasp he had never heard, his father slammed on the breaks. Michael stared out the window, mesmerized as the bright yellow car disappeared as quickly as it had come into view.
“Oh my god, Josh, did you- Josh, back up! Did you pack…” his mother shrieked as she reached frantically beneath her seat. Michael heard the rustle of a paper bag behind the heart in his ears, which beat harder and harder until he was dizzy with his hands stuck to the glass.
“Michael, get down. Get down, Michael,” his mother ordered hysterically, the grocery bagged pistol in her hand. He froze as his father reversed the car. He had watched his father toss a box of bullets into the same bag, just before they pulled out of their gravel driveway. Michael remembered his sister waving goodbye from the front steps.
“Mikey, get down,” his father demanded, as energetically as he had ever heard him.
It was too late. Michael knew what he had seen.
“Evie, look at the plates, get the plates, quick!” his father shouted. Out the back window Michael watched two men sprint across the road. The engine of their brown car rumbled, and their tires screeched, flinging out sand. Michael had seen their faces when they first passed. He knew the shape and the sag of their cheeks as they had looked up dumbfounded into the headlights. As his father reversed high speed, Michael returned his attention to the window attached to his palms. Beyond it, a woman came into view, stretched out long and heaved atop the small, bright yellow hood of her car. Blood covered her orange dress and the little girl she gripped in her left arm. He watched his father run to the woman and cradle her to lift her as his mother swung the baby to her hip.
Then his mother flung open the blue metal door he was perched against, and Michael fell back to the floor as his father awkwardly placed the woman on the backseat where he had just been sitting. She was panting and moaned slightly.
“Vi,” she sighed with a deep but nearly silent groan. The twitch of her legs repulsed him.
Michael looked up to the front seat where the little girl sat on his mother’s lap. His father screeched Big Blue back onto the road.
“Mommy?” she called. Michael watched the woman, whose face was inches above his. She tried to squeak out Vi. The strain beneath her taut skin looked like all the bright life he had ever seen, but then her mouth faded into a soft grimace.
“Joshua, drive, just go fa - go faster!” his mother yelled. Michael knew his parents were looking for a hospital, and that it had been a long time since they passed a town.
“There’s lights, there’s lights,” his father called. “Honey… sweetheart back there, you’re going to be alright... we see lights, just hang in there.” Then red lights flashed through the back window, where a crack had spread nearly all the way across. His father did not slow until he came to a blinking stoplight and then he slammed on the breaks and rolled down his window.
“We need an ER, quick,” his father said to the approaching officer. Michael knew that sweat would be dripping down his father's temples and wetting his sideburns. He pictured the deep lines in his father's forehead with a sense of nostalgia, and his unkempt eyebrows.
“Follow me,” the officer instructed as he swivelled his boots on the uneven asphalt and ran back to his squad car. The lights whined as he pulled out in front of them. They followed him, driving fast. The rubber floormat was warm against Michael’s bare legs. The woman breathed lighter and lighter, until her face went pale in the dark between them. Michael reached through air that was thick with death and night.
The little girl called, “Mommy” with such a cry that Michael reached higher to touch the woman’s face. He held her jaw as her mouth formed to speak a V. He looked behind him as his mother murmured to the little girl,
“It’s okay baby, Mommy’s resting. What’s your name sweetie?” His mother’s voice shook with terror as she spoke. It was strange to hear her comforting tone in the dark somewhere other than his bedroom, away of their home; the voice he recognized but was suddenly afraid of.
The little girl leaned with all her force against Evie’s arms between the seats, where she could peer into the back. Michael instinctively waved his left hand until she looked in his eyes. He held her eye contact, transfixing her large brown eyes in his own so she would not look beyond him to her mother.
“My name is Violet,” she cried timidly.
Behind him, against his palm, the woman’s jaw went slack. Still, he held the little girl’s gaze.
“Vi,” Michael murmured, as his father hit the brakes outside a short hospital. The chaos that reigned in the first seconds of death, the blood that must be cleaned, the deepening cry from Violet, the strange orange light and the whipping silence when everyone but Michael was out of the car, the frantic running. He hid his head in his knees to blot out the sag of those cheeks he had seen, obscuring the permanence of that quick image.
Vi, he whispered, crouched on the floorboards, afraid of breath, afraid of constriction.
He said he could identify the faces. The police had found the plates his mother remembered, but no sign of blood or foul play. Michael had always been good with faces. His mother held his hand, incessantly talking about accepting this card that had been dealt them. Life had hit them hard, she said, out of the blue, during what had been a long-awaited road trip across the country. His father had been on the phone for hours, updating friends on their waylaid plans.
“How do you know, son?”
Michael stared at the officer's downturned eyes and the mole hidden in his right eyebrow as he passed black and white images across the table. Michael glanced down and saw the men, pulling two out of the pile. Disgust that made him roll backward, out of the room, away from the table.
"Tourette’s," his mother said softly, the word he knew like a scab.
The officer said the same two had been found at a bar where they had tracked down the license plates Evie reported.
“You’re a brave boy,” the officer said, as if he was trying to soften the crime, the harsh lighting, and the direct language.
“He has a knack for faces…” his mother started, choked up. She held his hand tightly.
As they waited for his father in old itchy burlap covered chairs, Michael drew Violet’s long brown hair and scared brown eyes shaded by the night. Violet. Vi.
He recreated the woman’s face. With pencil and paper from his bag, he sketched her jaw where he had held it. Her name had been Adrianne.
For the entire trip back home to Jersey, Michael replayed the scenes in stages, ending with Violet leaning over the seat towards his face. The colours were fixed in his mind like a blast: the yellow car, the orange dress, the red blood. Big Blue. The landscape was bland on the freeway back through the southern states, they all merged together into one, except the vibrant green of some plants, some trees. Often, his mother and father wept, and he wept behind them. His mother reached back to pat his head and he tried to remember what her hand had looked like when not covered in blood.
At night, under the flashing freeway light posts, he recalled the criminal faces he had identified, and watched the back of his mother’s seat instead of out the window. When the moon was bright and large and shone on the land like safety, he remembered a night-time he had loved. But now, it seemed like an omen of disaster.
When they finally arrived in New Jersey, summer season was in full swing. Aunt Stephanie and Uncle Phil had been watching his older sister Sally, and Cousin Reece was waiting for him to try surfing. They’d been standing on their dads' boards since they were two, but this was the summer they’d paddle out alone. Opening the door to their small, shingled house wasn’t as comforting as he had thought it would be. When he crawled into bed and his dad sat down at the piano like he had every night Michael could remember, in the dark living room below the stairs, the soft melody drifted like a useless apology. Everything would mean something else now, Michael thought.
“Why don’t we pray for Violet, sweetie,” his mom said, sitting on the edge of his bed and rubbing his legs. He listened to her prayer, not understanding much of it but while his mother spoke to God, he found the meditation of Violet’s face much easier- she became a song, a painting.
The next morning, he let Cousin Reece go to the beach without him while he stayed home with his paints. He pulled out bright yellow, orange, red and blue, and sheets and sheets of aged white paper. His mother let him be. She checked in on his work from time to time, incautious, revelling in his visual memory rather than worrying about the depiction of death. The images became a secret language; he painted all day. He painted through the barbecue that night and the murmured tones of uncles and aunts surmising. And then he slept deep through the night.
The days that followed were a haze of nothingness. He remembers them now, how the ache in him turned molten and the sunlight was hard to bear. When the morning light snuck past his window shades, he saw the dead woman’s ghost. Adrianne. He tried to place the face with the name. When he reached out to her, she vanished. He asked her to come back, and she returned every morning. All day, the recent memory of her ghost mesmerized him; inside, he rolled back and back to the calm place where he could remember how the white morning light patched her into being.
That summer merged into one long day in his memory, which he holds now as the private place inside him, the cauldron of senses that informs his art. It’s a place he can visit anytime; in a blink, he is back in that summer. He remembers his mother’s blue and white striped t-shirt, her tan legs and how she started smoking again at the picnic table in the garden. He remembers the hush around words like trial, conviction, sentencing, the smell of weed and the soft sound of Neil Young which soothed his father’s nerves.
That summer, Sally came into his bedroom to spoon him when he wasn’t sleeping at midnight. She petted his hair and whispered fanciful plans for his next birthday party. Rather than tell his parents, she took on the night watch, always aware of him when he was awake. No one ever found him at early dawn with the ghost. Adrianne came to him until the leaves changed, when the sun rose too late for their crystal communion.
Greedy for her, Michael woke every morning before dawn. What was acute became chronic. Michael knew Violet was somewhere in Arizona where the sun never left for Christmas. The chronic became art. He drew what he remembered. On folded pages from his mini notebook, he drew the crime. He folded them into tiny little squares and threw them under his bed. He explored the thoughts of everyone involved and put them in captions. Over and over, he drew different versions of the story, eventually started with things like an abduction, a broke down car, a scandalous meeting.
On warm autumnal afternoons, Michael paddled through the inlet that shone like cut glass. It wasn’t hard to control the water under his board. The rush of waves was a song that soothed his longing. He shouted his secrets to the sea. With a whisper, he sent their names skipping across the surface like smooth stones on a pilgrimage to the horizon.
Thanks to Michael, the men went to prison.
What a strange power, his memory. It haunted him. Had those men memorized his face as well? A little boy stuck to the window, whizzing by in the dark?
Michael never lost the feel of death. It created a tremor in his chest. The tremor calmed the impulse to stare at people, and to roll his eyes. Usually, the impulse would come out of nowhere. It would come as a thought, such as, I should look at that. I should roll my eyes. The thought would build like a growing mass until he followed through with the action.
The thoughts expanded. They told him to write graphic language on his art. Evie, the gatekeeper of his Tourette’s, discovered this new territory and instructed his teachers not to interrupt his drawing. However, with the constant quiver of the tremor, thoughts couldn’t build and build until he’d explode anymore. The tremor pushed the usual bundle of pressure, the mass, out to the sides. They came back in rippling tides, out and back they flowed, calmly.
His mother, ever the faithful confidant, sourced photographs of Adrianne and Violet. She found the obituary in the Wickenburg Times and an article about Violet with a hazy photo included. Michael treasured these items like an elixir. He knew if his memory ever faded, he’d consult these images. He memorized the shape of Adrianne’s jaw, where he’d touched her dying. He tried to find similarities in Violet’s, but her face was different. When he studied her hazy photograph, he found a child un-warped by trauma. Her features revealed how free of mind she was, how careless.
By the time he first saw her, the warping had begun; when he looked at the picture, the difference was in the eye sockets. Michael imagined how the pain would twist through her face, like a corkscrew around the angel nose and across the feather brows. It would settle in her jaw, where Adrianne had released her daughter’s name, then died.
His father played piano while Michael drifted off to sleep. Sally complained about this new melancholy in the house that only she was not a part of. She talked about it to her friends. None of them wanted to come over and feel it, so Sally spent more time away from home. Michael missed her when she stopped coming into his room. Her parents lost interest in the logistics of where she was going. One week it was Wisa’s, then Danae’s. Sally began to live her own pain, suddenly belonging to a family tainted by the darkest of human experiences.
Michael wished he could tell her what it was like to send two men to prison. Facial recognition had luckily or unluckily amounted to a power that negated all other power. He used to find himself struck by power, surprised that when it manifested itself as ability, resolve, or strength. He felt it trickle away, down a gaping black hole. It had been essentially overshadowed.
In autumn, Adrianne’s ghost lost her substance. Michael sat in the back of the classroom, as usual. He was allowed a drawing pad on his desk. When he was occasionally caught rolling his eyes, his classmates resisted the temptation to say freak. Their impulse to say freak was weaker than his impulse to roll his eyes. Sometimes he drew the classmates from whom he could sense discomfort; it emanated from their bodies like a smell. Michael thought of these smells as colours.
In prior years, Michael had stared at some of the girls inappropriately. Evie had managed the situation. She’d explained to the parents, he wasn’t trying to annoy them. The teachers moved him to the back so he could stare without craning his neck. Now these two new faces of Violet and Adrianne preoccupied his mind with such fervour that he couldn’t hardly stand to look at anyone else for too long. He was compelled to remain loyal to the only two that existed anymore.
With the newspaper photographs he maintained facial purity. He never forgot.