They drove through the day. They had to.
Come nightfall the father pulled to the roadside and got out of the car and went to the back. He opened the trunk.
The girl was just starting to stir. She looked up at him with bleary, half-open eyes.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
He reached past her and grabbed a duffel bag and unzipped it, all the license plates inside rattling together. He tipped the insignias of the various states toward her.
“Where do you want to be from tonight?” he said.
He thought he saw her smile.
Sometime after midnight they stopped at a diner named Roy’s, its neon facade the only sign of civilization for several miles. The girl was staring down at the floorboard.
“Here,” the father said. He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a pair of sunglasses. He handed them to the girl. She put them on and looked around.
A bell tied to the door announced his entrance. The diner’s namesake came out from the kitchen hitching up his pants — an old, liver-spotted man that had long since lost his hair to time.
“Sit anywhere you like,” he said. He looked past the father to the girl still standing on the other side of the door, peering through the glass with her sunglasses on.
“Is she with you?”
“She wants you to invite her in,” the father said.
Roy shook his head. “Mine always did funny things like that when they were her age.”
He went to the door. The bell tinkled again when he pushed it open.
“Come on in, sweetheart.”
The girl breezed past him without saying anything and kept on going until she reached the furthest table tucked into a dark corner.
The father gave Roy a kind of half-pained expression to apologize for the girl’s manners. He went and sat and Roy brought them menus. The father ordered two links of sausage, eggs, grits, and a side of toast.
Roy scratched it down on a little pad. He looked down at the girl. “Anything for you, darling?”
The girl said nothing.
“She’s fine,” the father told him.
Roy gave them a curious look and shuffled off to the kitchen. The girl looked up at her father.
“It’s bright,” she said.
He looked up at the fluorescent bulbs above them. “You’ll be fine.”
He sighed. “I know.”
The girl folded her hands on the table and the father studied her like it was the first time he had ever set eyes on her. Her pallid skin, veins showing through her face.
A memory came sliding back through his tired mind. The girl was six years old, running through a sprinkler in the backyard and giggling. The sun high above them. The girl’s mother was there too.
The memory almost transitioned to a graver image but was interrupted by Roy setting the plate down. Steam curled off the food and the air was rich with the smell of sausage.
The father thanked Roy, and Roy went to walk away but stopped. He looked back at the girl.
“You sure you don’t want nothing? Not even some juice?”
“Really,” the father said, “she’s fine.”
Roy walked off shaking his head and pulling his pants up again.
The girl stared at the food on her father’s plate. “I hate the way it smells.”
“I’ll eat fast.”
He cleaned the plate in five minutes and washed it down with orange juice.
“Why don’t you try a grilled cheese?” he said. “You used to love those.”
She sighed and picked at the sleeves of her shirt. “You know I can’t.”
The father looked out the window. The diner was silent save for an old country tune crackling out of a juke box nearby, and the sound of Roy humming along while he cleaned the grill.
“He’s the only one here.”
The father said nothing. He only nodded. The girl pushed out from the table and stood. He listened to her footsteps as she went toward the kitchen. He heard Roy say something to her. The clatter of a pan hitting the floor. Another metallic crash. Then silence.
The father sat trembling. He wiped at his eyes and heard her coming back. He looked into the window but couldn’t see her reflected there. He turned.
Blood stained the corners of her mouth. She wiped at it with her sleeve.
The sight brought back the night he tried to avoid remembering. Coming home and calling for the girl and her mother. Neither of them responded. Going upstairs, his hand on the bedroom door, pushing it open. She stood there with her hands folded at her waist, her head bowed and her entire face lathered in her mother’s blood, her mother at her feet, eyes glassy and holding nothing of the world.
“Daddy, I’m sorry.”
It was the last time she had acknowledged their kinship.
The father shuddered and the memory was gone, but he felt the pain and fear of it loitering in his veins and washing through him.
“I can’t help it,” the girl said. “You know I can’t.”
“I feel better now.”
The father rose. “We should go.”
The diner faded in the rear-view as they drove. He watched it until it was nothing more than a pinprick of light. The car’s headlights cut headlong into further darkness.
He looked over at his daughter. She took the sunglasses off and set them in her lap. Her pale face was phosphorescent in the dash lights. She smiled at him.
He reached out and took her hand and squeezed her little fingers. She was all he had. He would hold onto her as long as he could.
He tapped the gas and the car shuttled onward, into the dark.
Travis D. Roberson grew up in Central Florida. His work has appeared in Coffin Bell, Barren Magazine, the horror anthologies Decay (Vagabondage Press) and Dark Monsters (Zimbell Publishing), and a few other places. In 2011 he was the third place recipient in the non-fiction category of the Porter Fleming Literary Competition. He currently resides in New York.