The sun turned the sky purple and everything under the sky black. Jessie was standing outside looking at the shapes which had once been objects. The world was growing dark, but the lights hadn’t yet been turned on. And everything was sort of changing. Everything was growing heavy and vague, misting off into the air surrounding. It was his favorite part of the day, but it lasted only a moment or two before the lights would come alive and wash ugly electric light over all the things—the dumpster, the fence, the parking lot—that were trying to change. They never did, not all the way. When the lights came on, they jumped back as if startled into what they always were.

Jessie checked his watch and slipped in through the back door to clock out. But the lights had switched on when he came outside again. Everything looked wrong under them. Everything always looked wrong, but he didn’t mind as much when he couldn’t see it. Brighter than any day now: the world like a floor model in a showroom, its gloss scuffed off and its insides gutted of function. The fence was made of plastic and it glistened unreally under the streetlights. The cars in the parking lot were bloated swellings of infected fiberglass. A mountain of trash rose up over the lip of the dumpster, swarmed by tiny grubs that crawled along the outside and fell, clumsy as infants, onto the spilled gravel below.

I can love this, Jessie told himself. This, too, and everything else. I can find a way to love this.


They drove beyond the place where the trees had been cut away, the points of light hanging in a lattice over the intricate folds and drapes of the countryside. It was like there was no country there anymore, only color and pattern. But the illusion failed as the car descended closer. Things again appeared out from under the scrim of abstraction. Rusted trailers, cars on blocks, collapsing houses, until everything was swallowed once more in a dense rush of vegetation. Steadman leaned on the gas and the scenery was chopped into a passing blur, the trees blending together into a wall that loomed dark and spike-like at each edge of the road. He picked up speed on the straightaway through the fields, the lights clearing dual arcs of space in the night in front of them. They made the drive so often they had to go fast just to break the monotony, faster every time they did it just to keep up the adrenaline kick. Jessie let the torque move his body side to side when the curves came up. Waiting, always, for the slide, the flip, the flight that never came. Waiting without impatience and without trepidation. Just waiting for the change.

Nearer to the highway, the houses grew closer together. Steadman turned off onto a side street gridded with wooden two-families cordoned by warped and rusted chain-link fences. The paint was flaking from every house as if they had all been struck by the same mysterious disease. Steadman pulled his car into the weeds and didn’t bother checking over his shoulder. Cops only hung around the major arteries, where they could make money from traffic stops. There were never any around here.

“You can come in if you want,” he said to Jessie. “But I’ll be quick.”

`           Jessie usually stayed in the car. He waited in the dark as the moisture gathered in the air and Steadman conducted his business. He conjured images of Liberty to pass the time. Or maybe images of her flooded into his mind in the absence of anything else.

It wasn’t even Liberty who was the problem. It wasn’t Liberty he was thinking about. It was her, but not because of her. Just because it had to be someone. Because there was always a feeling in him like he missed someone, and it made it easier, somehow, to put a real person in the place of the thing he was supposed to be missing. It was like the heartache was there before the girl, not the other way around.

There is beauty in this place, Jessie told himself. There is life here. Either there is or there is no point.


The road carried them out of the country and onto the gridlocked immensity of the strip. Ten lanes, all choked; smears of light and bleats of horns as the cars inched forward through miles of prefab buildings. Steadman was quieter than before, and driving extra careful now. But when he saw an opening in traffic, he seized the opportunity, swerving in a smooth arc across three lanes, his hands working the wheel one over the other, plunging down the ramp of a national burger chain.

Jessie hadn’t eaten all day. Even at work; he didn’t like the food. But there was something about cars that took away his appetite. The smell of exhaust, the smell of hot vinyl. He would have called it motion sickness, except it stayed with him even when he got out of the car. It was just regular sickness. It was always-sickness.

After the receipt, the cash register spat out coupons like tickets from a carnival jackpot. They littered the floors, useless and unwanted: You Win Nothing, they said. They went back to the parking lot to lean against the car and watch the night. Headlights dripped in spots of liquid light down the road in front of them. They waited, without talking, for Steadman’s phone to ring. It was summer, so it shouldn’t have been so slow. But everything was sort of off that night. The dampness in the air felt like the first chill breath of autumn. The next year of school would be their last. After that, they would have to figure something out.

A group of girls from their school passed by, walking back to their car from another restaurant. The girls were younger than them; they knew each other by sight but not by name. Now exposed, out in the open, they walked quickly, with their shoulders thrust forward and their heads thrust down, as if to guard their bare legs and arms against the prying molecules of night. Beads of condensation rolled like sweat off Steadman’s windows. There was a heaviness within both the boys as if concrete had been poured into their lungs. They forgot what they were supposed to be doing with their hands and regretted that they were not inside the car. The girls climbed into a battered minivan, and by the time the headlights came on, it had already merged, indistinguishable, into the many.


Jessie kept his face pressed close to the glass. It was too cold in the car and too humid outside. Everywhere he went, everything he did, it was all wrong. The sickness followed him everywhere. But he didn’t want to be home either. He was always on edge inside those walls; could never sleep, never let his guard down; never be himself, he said, though he knew already he wasn’t anyone. Much better to prowl the night making deliveries with Steadman. Keeping careful watch in case he saw anyone he might’ve known. In case he saw Liberty walking somewhere alone, in need of a ride, in need of comfort, in need of anything. But no one ever walked anywhere; everything was too spread out, and there wasn’t anywhere to go. Despite himself, he always hoped.

It was incredible to think. Anything could change. Everything could change. In an instant, in theory. There was nothing he could do to stop believing it. Like a gambler who’d been at the table so long that he had to keep believing. He’d been waiting for as long as he could remember.

Only once had anything come close to changing. He never told anyone about it, because he knew no one could help him. He was in Liberty’s basement and everything else was quiet in the house. It was the middle of the night, four in the morning, when everything was so still it seemed like the world would never wake up from its pre-dawn stasis. The only sound was the water singing its cold song through the pipes above their heads. But he was so close to Liberty that he thought it was the sound of the blood in her veins.

He didn’t do anything to her. She didn’t do anything with him. Because something was about to change. He could feel it. And if he did anything to disturb the stillness maybe it would never happen.

Nothing happened anyway. He didn’t regret it; tried not to. He did at first, regretted it so bad he thought it would kill him. But he didn’t anymore.


Steadman swung onto a ramp and the train of cars sluiced out of the bottleneck and onto the open freeway as if there were some sort of presence behind them, an inexorable pressure, and nothing could be done to stop them now. The streetlights fell away and they couldn’t see more than five feet past the guardrail. There was nothing to see: only reeds, marshes, some mowed plots marked for construction. These people took the emptiness and made more emptiness out of it. Emptiness was the essential quality of the space. Even once the buildings went up, it still looked so empty.

Somewhere, something had gone wrong. Just before they were born, or maybe just after. They trawled the night with their hearts spread wide like nets, but for all their work, they could only distill a drop or two of life out of all the garbage they caught instead.

Steadman swooped the car down the next exit ramp. Already they could see the fallen monolith of the mall loom in rectangle above the horizon, coral pink and dirty white. This was the last monument left behind by the prior civilization before it had disappeared. These people hadn’t moved away or even died off; but their spirit was gone, entirely, and nothing had come along to take its place. Nothing could be more alien to the present generation than the mall sitting there in space, marooned in empty acres of parking lots. Nobody ever went inside. They just drove their cars into the lot and waited under electric light for nothing to happen. Sometimes you’d see someone you knew. That was the point, if there was a point. Everyone became more real in the spectral gleam of the white lights. It was like a vision of a neutral afterlife, a place designed only to be more empty than anywhere else, where waiting was the only thing you could do.

Steadman’s self-polarizing lenses turned muddy brown as he peered up through the lights at the signs marking the different lots. He drove the car in lazy circuits around the network of lots, orbiting the mall like a satellite trapped in its gravity. Jessie leaned back and watched the uniform constellation of light roll its grid across the windshield.

There is meaning in all this, he told himself. There has to be. Because in all my life, I’ve been given nothing to do but try to find it.


Cars nosed like shy animals in the lots beyond the boundary road. All the windows were dark despite the profusion of lights, like they were driverless, moving under the direction of a primitive nervous system wired somehow into the metal and glass of the thing. This was where the cars had brought them, and now that they were all here, there didn’t seem to be more of a point.

One car distinguished itself from the others, the purr of its engines melodic and even, reflected light moving in oblong jewels over its glossy surface. It prowled with panther-like confidence through the empty lanes of the lot and came to a stop in one of the more secluded corners.

“That’s her,” said Jessie.

Steadman nodded, almost imperceptibly. He’d seen it too. But he would have ignored it if Jessie hadn’t said something. Steadman never looked at her, never once said her name. But she had an effect on everyone; him, too. Steadman swerved out into the lot and cut through the rectangle of spaces to the other car.

They got out, and the doors of the other car opened up, Ryan exiting first from the driver’s side and Liberty following unsheepishly after. She carried herself with her shoulders way back and her eyes clear and open, like she didn’t have anything to hide. And maybe she didn’t. But it was hard to tell, because she always looked like that.

Her hair was blonde and brown at the same time: brown at the roots and blonde at the edges, brown in the shadows and blonde in the sun. She was soft and dimpled all over, like there were no bones in her body. She never changed, but she looked different every time you saw her. She had a way of being everything to everyone. And now she was only Ryan’s, though pretty much anyone would have been good enough for him.

“What can I do for you gentlemen?” he said.

“I was wondering more what I could do for you,” said Steadman.

Ryan looked blankly back at him. Liberty wandered off to inspect some flowering weeds at the edge of the curb.

“You called me a month ago,” said Steadman. “But I haven’t heard from you since. Don’t tell me you found another guy, Ryan. How long have we known each other?”

“I’ve been busy. It’s not like that.”

He reached for his wallet, but Steadman put an arm out to stop him.

“Not here. Let’s go for a ride.”

Ryan’s car was closer and the door was already open. He called over his shoulder for Liberty as he stepped in, but she didn’t seem to hear him and he didn’t bother trying a second time. He would be back soon enough.

Liberty glanced at the car as it slid away, but turned again to her wildflowers without saying or insinuating anything. She and Jessie cast eight shadows beneath the matrix of lights arrayed above them. He approached until his blossom of shadows lay on top of hers, but came no closer. Together, they spent a moment studying the hairy, ugly flowers tangled with trash at the edge of the concrete.

I can love this, he told himself. If Liberty can love this, so can I find a way to love this.


When the car pulled away, Liberty lifted her head in Jessie’s direction, but still didn’t make eye contact with him, only looked up and down the empty lots and tacky dividers as if she could actually see something of value there. Finally, she addressed him directly.

“Want to go for a walk?”

They walked in a line beneath the skinny puff-topped trees planted in the center of the long peninsula of mulch. Jessie lagged behind and watched the leaves stir in the breeze and cast their patterns over Liberty’s figure. She was in her element here and received their designs like a gift, spreading her arms and watching the light play over her skin.

“Jessie,” she said. “It’s a nice night. What’s wrong?”

Jessie shrugged and kept his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know.”

She reversed direction and bumped him with one of her shoulders on the way back down the row. But this time, she kept bumping him so he couldn’t lag behind her.

“One day, you’ll be grown up and far away. And you’ll miss all this.”

“There’s nothing to miss.”

She reached over and pinched him lightly on the back of the neck. He had to take his hands from his pockets to fend her off.

“Okay. Maybe you won’t miss it. But you’ll wish you did. And that’s so much worse.”

She perked her head up with animal alertness and swiveled her neck in the direction of the approaching car. Its lights were off, but her senses were in tune with the indigenous noises of suburbia, and she could hear the hiss of the tires over the steady roar of the highway hidden beyond the trees. She jogged from the island of mulch and met them halfway. Jessie followed at a walking pace so that everyone could say goodbye before he got there.


Steadman fired up the engine after the others had gone, but just sat there a while before leaving, drumming his fingers on the wheel, sounding out words in his head.

“What did you two talk about back there?”

“Nothing,” said Jessie.

Steadman kicked the car into gear and left the lot, but didn’t head towards home. And not in the direction that Ryan had gone either. He took off deeper into the highway and zoomed past field after field of cleared space and new construction. The order of the lanes disintegrated and the road devolved into a chaos of lines and cones and obstacles, an electric confetti of reflective tape flashing at random where it was hit by the lights. Rows of rebar topped with protective caps stood like fields of nocturnal flowers in the dirt. Men, reduced to the neon outlines of their work vests, staggered through the smoke and machinery beneath the pure white beams of the spotlights. Against the backdrop of night, the flurry of color encompassed them, kaleidoscopic, as if they were flying through the bits and pieces of an exploded world, gathering from it what they could before its particles scattered through the ether. And as Jessie passed through this storm of light, the thought ballooned out with fear and pride somewhere in the space beneath his throat:

This is the world that made me. This is all I will ever be.