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Paula Priamos

In a Car, Far Away From Here

I should be suspicious a few weeks later when my sister asks right after dinner if I’d like to go get ice cream. She never asks me to go anywhere, never even comes out of her room. Despite the statewide manhunt for Cooper, our parents have allowed her back in her own bed at night. It’s not like she’s busy on the phone talking boys with friends. She doesn’t have any. Ever since we moved to Chino, she keeps more and more to herself. She misses too much school because she’s tired. And the few friends she did make have all but given up calling to find out what’s wrong. My parents now pay a shrink in L.A. to figure out what they can’t.

As I reach the car I call shotgun, forgetting in my excitement that I’m to be the only passenger.

We ride in her 280-Z, my father’s old sports car. It was a gift for having aced her driver’s test. The car is intended to be an incentive for her to drive to school, providing her with another kind of license—to show off. Before accepting it, she insisted that the maroon car be painted white like the Z the cool photographer drives in Madonna’s “Borderline” video.

My sister takes me to Baskin-Robbins and buys me a double scoop of chocolate chip. For some reason she doesn’t give me time to eat it there. Never before has she let me eat or drink in her beloved car.

I hang behind in the store, convinced this is some sort of trap.

“Are you sure?”

Rhea has the lightest-colored eyes in the family. They’re hazel, and they change colors depending upon the light in them. Something dark is in them now, something deliberate and dead set that’s doing more than clouding her judgment.

“C’mon, Paula,” she says. “Let’s just go.”

On the way out, I grab a wad of napkins.

Instead of returning home, she speeds south down Central Avenue, toward the outskirts of the city. We pass Chino Grain and Feed, built like a gigantic aluminum shed, where my parents pick up bales of hay and straw for the horses. We pass the grass field and wooden bleachers that is the Chino Fairgrounds. I don’t like where we’re headed. The prison is less than a block away.

“Where are we going?”

“I told you. We’re going on a drive.” She looks over at me in disgust. “It’s dripping.” My sister no longer likes food. She used to be overweight, so overweight that our grandmother, our yia yia, would sew her polyester pants with an elastic waist. In the last six months, she’s dropped more than fifty pounds. Now too thin, her weight still eats at her in other ways and she subsists on nothing but Tab and Cup o’ Noodles.

Quickly, I lick around the sides of the cone and stare out the window. The prison is surrounded by chain link, which is how it got its nickname “the prison with no walls.” Barbed wire is coiled across the top, though Cooper didn’t risk climbing over it and cutting up his hands. He didn’t have to. According to my father, he walked right out through a hole in the fence. “Either he cut it himself or somebody else had before him,” my father explained. “Naturally, they’re trying to keep that part out of the papers.”

All of the front towers are unlit, except for one where a man in a dark gray baseball cap is visible. Even at this distance, I can tell he isn’t looking where he should be. He’s focused on something inside the tower, maybe watching a baseball game or a game show on one of those portable TV’s.

I lean toward the dash and point at the guard.

“How come he isn’t on the lookout? He’s watching TV, I can tell. Don’t you see him?”

My sister bats my arm out of her line of sight.

“He’s probably watching the monitors, Paula.”

At the stoplight, she turns right, in the direction of the hills and there is now no denying where she is taking us. I roll down the window. The night air blows hard and fast in my face, and I can’t catch my breath. Ice cream melts cold down my fingers. I toss out the cone, hoping a cop will see it and cite her a thousand bucks for littering. Anything to make her stop.

The 280-Z doesn’t have power steering and she needs both hands to make this next sharp turn. There are no street lights so I’m not sure how she knows this is the right road. It’s made of dirt and gravel and at the sound of the spoiler scraping the ground, I’m convinced she’ll change her mind and back right down. Instead she downshifts into first gear and steps harder on the gas.

Hurriedly, I roll up the window as if being separated by glass is an actual form of protection.

“Turn around,” I say. “Please, Rhea.”

“You need to confront your fears.” Her tone is polished, adult sounding, possibly like her new L.A. shrink.

The house is just a dark bulky shape and I tell myself my sister might’ve gotten the addresses mixed up. This house could belong to a family that is off on vacation or simply out to the movies. The front yard is in need of trimming.

She stops the car in the circular driveway and outstretches her arm as if she’s performed a magic trick.

“You see? Nobody’s here.”

If this isn’t the spot where the worst mass murder in San Bernardino County took place, others have apparently made the same mistake as my sister. Beer bottles and fast food wrappers litter the front yard. In less than a couple of months, the house has become a creepy hangout spot for teenagers. It seems too soon. The cops should’ve secured it longer, but there’s no trace they were even here. No yellow police tape sealing shut the front door or fingerprint dust around the windows and doorknobs. No obvious signs of the bloody slaughter that occurred inside.

Cooper attacked the father first because he was the strongest, an ex-Marine who would’ve fought back on instinct. He stabbed and struck the father’s head and chest so many times that one of the man’s fingers was later found inside the closet. Next, Cooper turned the knife and hatchet on the wife who only got as far as the foot of the bed. The children, awakening to her screams, must’ve run toward the bedroom where Cooper hid like a shadow in the dark.

“I want to go home now,” I say.

“Or else what?”

My sister is taunting me by bringing me here. It has nothing to do with overcoming my fears. All she wants is to scare me.

Maybe it’s my anger that forces me out of the car and makes me grab an empty beer can. Although the lip of it is too smooth to do any real damage, I have a plan. The tab twists off easily and there it is, a tiny, jagged stump. I hold it against the car door, the custom paint job that my father jokingly said cost him an early appearance in L.A. Superior Court with a perverted high school gym teacher. The man was caught, his silk running shorts around his ankles, in the back seat of his Prelude during lunch period with a seventeen-year-old girl. Luckily for him, the student thought she was in love and clammed up. My father got the charges dropped, arguing that although he exercised poor judgment, the gym teacher did nothing criminally wrong by showing this girl how to avoid a groin pull.

I rattle my threat for effect.

“A long curly swirl would look cool,” I say. “Or maybe my name in cursive.”

Even in the dark, I think I see her eyes change color.

“You little skatofatsa.”

Cursing me in Greek, calling me a shitface, is just a start. Part of me is scared because I could be in for a serious beating. Sometimes she play fights with me, almost always getting too rough, and I wind up locking myself in my room, hating her, with a reddened cheek or a welt on my forearm. It occurs to me that my sister might even ditch me here on Cooper’s murdering ground.

“Don’t think I won’t do it,” I warn, thinking up my own Greek curse word I’ve heard my father use. “From taillight to headlight, palio hondree.”

I’m not sure what I’ve called her. My father shouted those two words once on our way back from an Angels game when we were cut off on the freeway by a female driver. They are successful in getting a reaction out of my sister. She reaches into the glove compartment, pops a pill from a prescription bottle, and downs it with a gulp of Diet Coke. I’ve only seen her take medication if she has a cold. This is different, and I worry if what she’s just swallowed is going to make her sleepy. Already, she looks worn out.

“Christ,” she says. “Just get in.”

I wait until we’re safely back on Central before I dare ask what I called her.

My sister smiles, though it’s an uneasy one. The pill has relaxed her some.

“You called me a fat ass.”

The worst I’ve ever yelled at her is vlaka. Moron is nothing compared to what I just said.

“Sorry,” I say. “You’re not fat.” And although I mean it, my apology comes too late.

 

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