A Short Story by Emma Merchant
Cars passing under the Kansas City junction of highways sang together a beautiful harmony of engines and tire squeals, while bright fluorescent lights lined the ceiling of the tunnel and bounced off cars all the way through to the other side. Many of the speeding drivers lived there and traveled the same route every day, but others were only experiencing it for the first time. Among the newcomers were eight-year-old Rebecca and her father, coasting in a small, burnt-blue Subaru on their way through towards Denver.
“What does J-C-T mean, Papa?” Asked Rebecca, pointing towards a large traffic sign.
“Junction. Like, ‘conjunction-junction, what’s your function?’” He responded in song, remembering the silly tune he taught his daughter during her first Grammar class.
Before the hectic city, they had driven through long stretches of highway sided by old, shabby neighborhoods which appeared to dissipate further with every gust of wind. Rebecca had asked her father what was wrong with the houses, and who could possibly survive in a building so thin and small. He took a few minutes to digest the question before answering her,
“Many people cannot afford to fix up the house every time something breaks. And if they can’t afford to fix things, they surely can’t afford to buy a whole new house. Does that make sense?”
It hurt Rebecca deep down when he said that, reminded her of their own home in Florida– the one they were leaving behind. The home she had grown up in with both parents, to which no future home will ever compare since her mother left them for another man. It would just be the two of them in a house, and the thought made Rebecca nervous in a new way. She couldn’t quite place what it was until she remembered that her father would be working in an office. Full-time. What was she to do all day while he was gone? School in Denver would only go until 1:30 p.m. on most days–according to her dad.
“A junction is an overlapping of streets, highways, train tracks, or other transportation. See? We just went under and over many other roads and now we are crossing the river.”
She looked through the window at the passing city around her. They had moved through the thicket of traffic and into a dark, industrial side of downtown, made of stained, damaged, burnt brick structures that cast an ugly shadow, making it appear to Rebecca as though the streets were buried in soot. She could not see the ground through the darkness of the shadows, and she wondered how people living in Kansas City could see anything. Did they move here to start over after their mom abandoned them, too? Does anyone ever stay in the same place for their whole life? Would her mom ever come back to them?
Rebecca’s dad interrupted her thoughts again, saying
“See, kiddo? The river divides Missouri from Kansas, but Kansas City continues through both!”
She looked out ahead of them and the winding road began to stretch open on either side, exposing soft, rolling hills with pleasant grass and even some wildflowers. The clouded sky began to slowly part and reveal the light aqua tableau behind. It immediately felt like a different place. But they had only gone a short distance, and were still in the same city. Rebecca was baffled at how different she felt now that they had left the darkness of downtown. All the way through Florida and the southern Midwest, Rebecca had not noticed such a drastic difference in one city, in such a short period of time. She drifted into absent thought again, wondering if this view through the windshield would remain for the rest of their journey; if this is what she had to look forward to in the new place she’ll call “home.” She didn’t know very much about Denver, other than it had no beaches but many mountains. Her father wouldn’t stop talking about the mountains and the many trips and adventures he had planned for them. Hikes and boat rides and journeys together, where they could bond and become a two-person family of their own.
“I see, Dad. I like the Kansas side better.”
She glanced at him, how he gripped the steering wheel gently but firmly–the same way he held her hand, and she felt a knot form in her throat. Her eyes stung and she swallowed.
“I love you, Dad. I can’t wait to get there.”
Emma Merchant was born in Washington State and has spent her life exploring the world. Many of her stories are inspired by fond memories of traveling.