It’s his son’s first time driving a roundabout. It’s a Friday just before rush hour, and Nate has drawn the short straw of showing Liam how to do it. Leah was so anxious that she made them go by themselves, saying that she was tired, that the forecast wasn’t great, that she’d stay home. It does look like rain, the sky blown into stone, the air on the verge of slick. As they back out of the drive, Nate stares at the house, thinking of the desiccated remnants of his latest apology. He thinks of Leah leaning over their daughter, Sylvia, of Sadie, their standard-issue goldendoodle, with her tongue lolling stupidly. He thinks of what more he could possibly say.
Then there they are, at the edge of the roundabout, and when it’s Liam’s turn, he freezes. Behind them, a car honks its dissonant horn. Nate can see a man in sunglasses with both hands in the air. He tries to keep his voice level, a nervous heat quavering in his throat.
“Liam, go,” Nate says.
“I can’t,” Liam says.
“Just wait for this one to pass.”
Nate watches Liam’s leg stiffen on the brake.
Leah had said he wasn’t ready, asked Nate if he was sure he wanted to do this. And Nate had said that he needs to learn, that she might want some time alone anyway. She’d said fine. On this fundamental point it seemed they were agreed, that it would be best if he weren’t around.
“Liam, you gotta go,” Nate says, his voice dusted with exasperation. Behind them, the line of cars grows from one to two. Then two to five, the honking monotone, laced with invective. “Do you want to switch?” Nate asks.
It’s nearing rush hour. The traffic is only going to get worse.
“No,” Liam says. “I want to do it.”
“Alright,” Nate says, looking back at a gigantic truck on a menacing lift kit. The first note of rain hits the windshield.
“Yeah,” Liam says shakily.
Finally, a break in the traffic. It’s clear. The allegro of rain pounds as Nate watches his son’s foot ease off the break and onto the accelerator. He can almost feel the relief in the other cars even as thunder slides past the clouds overhead.
Now they’re in it. Hand slaps of rain peppering the windshield. Nate is trying not to shake, as he finally understands Leah’s trepidation in full. His hand slips into his pocket for his phone, the entire world swirling in watercolor as they round the first bend.
Then the roads leading into and out of the roundabout are gone, along with the line of cars behind them. They’re at what used to be the second exit arcing around, but it’s gone as well, as though the earth had opened to absorb it. The darkness of the storm presses.
“Just keep going,” Nate says, thumb jamming the phone, dialing Leah.
The streets are gone. There’s a nothingness outside the roundabout, father and son locked inside.
“Dad,” Liam says.
“Drive,” Nate says, not wanting to give away that this was, in fact, worse than any fear Leah could have possibly dreamed up.
Finally, Leah picks up. She’s on speaker.
“Hey,” she says flatly. Unperturbed. Always on solid ground.
“Hey,” Nate says. They drift around for a second lap in the rain.
“What?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” Nate says. “It’s just…”
“What, Nate?” she asks.
“We’re stuck,” Liam blurts.
Nate observes his own knuckles, the alien strings of the tendons in his hands tensing. In the background there’s the lilting sounds of Sylvia humming an indistinct tune.
“What do you mean?” she asks. “Like in a ditch?”
“106th street roundabout,” Nate says. “We can’t get out.”
They round the same, manicured median for another pass. In the middle juts a pristine concrete sundial engraved with the silhouette of a blue heron.
“You need to tell someone,” Nate says.
“The fuck, Nate?” she gasps.
He can feel her voice growing distant as they continue to circle. He can tell she doesn’t believe him. Again. Probably for good reason. They have their normal problems, their middle-America woes. As they make yet another lap, Nate realizes this is the beginning of a whole new set of troubles. Yet he can’t help imagining, as he has so many other times, their heads close together, a damp defense drifting from him into her, a breathy, tentative reconciliation.
“I know how it sounds,” Nate says.
“Who the hell would I even call? Goddammit, Nate,” she yells. “For real?” Sylvia’s humming extinguishes.
It’s only been a couple weeks. He should have gathered this would sound like a lie. Everything for a while will sound like a lie. Maybe it is.
“I don’t know how long my phone will hold a charge. Liam, turn yours off. We’re going to slow down and think about this. I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Nate says.
On the other end ethereal static.
“I love you,” Nate says.
“Yeah, I love you too,” Leah whispers. “Be careful.”
The rain slows.
“Slow down,” Nate says.
“Dad,” says Liam. “What the fuck are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know.”
All of the strip mall corners are gone, all the whitewashed brick and towering billboards, the crush of conformity. It’s just them, circling. Around them a new sameness of boundless meadow where there once were streets crisscrossing and winding toward the highway. Everything flat and gouged out by ancient glacier. Green and tepid, flowing monochromatic. The sky above still gray. Luckily, Nate notes, a full tank, charged phones.
Goddammit, Nate, he can’t stop thinking in his wife’s voice.
He lets Liam keep driving, watching the landscape ripple, the world spin smaller into the absurd ease with which they now sat in silence, winding around the circle, thinking of what to do next. It’s been nearly an hour of silence and revolving. He can tell Liam is afraid.
“Should we call Mom again?” Liam asks.
“Nah,” Nate says.
He knows this is the last thing they need here, and in their own way, they seem to be adjusting already. The concrete circle. The smooth grass. Except Nate’s arms and torso feeling bounded and tight, lower back knotting up against the upholstery. He strains his eyes toward the horizon line, looking for anything.
“Are you and Mom okay?” Liam asks.
“We’re fine. Just one of those things.”
The rain stops, the lie gliding out of his mouth so easily. As he says this, the world seems to shift around them, a low luminescence brimming at the edges of the gloom left from the brief storm. Just the promise of shimmer.
“Maybe we should stop the car,” Nate says.
“Why?” Liam asks.
“To save gas,” Nate says.
“We have a full tank,” Liam says.
“I don’t know, bud,” Nate says. “Just stop. I need to get out and walk for a minute.”
He watches Liam pull over. However, behind his son’s straight face Nate can sense the roiling fear pooling in his jaw muscles.
“Turn the car off,” Nate says.
“I want to listen to the radio,” he says.
“Liam,” Nate says, thinking of his next set of lies, the way he might maneuver things back to normal, the way he might be able to get things back to the way before.
They stop. Liam gets out of the car, pulls out his phone, and holds it arm’s length in front of him. Nate watches him walking to the median then back across the concrete and out into the meadow, watches the steady light of his phone screen.
Nate’s phone goes off. A text.
Leah: Liam is streaming. What happened
Nate: No idea.
Leah: Call someone.
Nate: Why? They can’t get here. There’s no road.
He knows their marriage can’t take something like this. She’s typing again, the three dots holding his sanity. The sun breaks through the clouds.
Leah: I don’t know what to do
Nate: Me either
Leah: I’m sorry
Nate: Me too.
“Just tell me. What’s going on between you and Mom?” Liam asks when he returns.
“Nothing,” Nate says. He thinks of the slinking ease of his wife’s laughter.
In the distance, a chunk of meadowland rends itself from gravity, shoots upward into the sky. A green and tan mess zooming up. He watches it into the sky, hearing his son shouting behind him. Liam is there with his phone outstretched, breathing wildly, capturing the whole thing.
Then the shakes are over, his phone rings. It’s Leah, and he doesn’t know what he’ll say, so he lets it ring. In his mind he can still hear his justification, feel the heat of his face during the fight. The resignation of her limp arms as she sat on the bed, tearless. How he’d begged and pleaded with no real hope.
“Dad,” Liam shouts.
The earth shakes. He feels heavy, replete with an exhaustion so absolute that he crumbles and sinks to his knees, a sense of loss careening into his stomach, his collarbones.
“I’m calling Mom,” Liam says.
“No,” Nate shouts back.
“Why? What the hell is going on?”
“It’s just one of those things. We had a fight.”
“That’s not—” Liam says.
“Let’s get back in the car.”
“And go where?” Liam yells. “Dad!”
“I don’t know,” Nate says.
The ground trembles yet again, and another chunk of earth splits in the distance, rockets upward.
A new text.
Leah: It’s all over the news. Everyone saw you disappear.
Nate: Did you feel the earthquake?
Nate: Nvm. I’m sorry
They’ve found there is a limit, an ethereal plane extending into the heavens near where the earth had blown itself upward at the very beginning.
But eventually those outside find a way in, at least to get them supplies. Gas cans appear. Razors and bottles of water, non-perishables. Car batteries and tools to install them. They pile what comes in heaps, Liam constantly reorganizing the boxy remnants like firewood. Reams of business cards and half-complete first-aid kits. They’ve found that they can’t send anything out, but they can receive. They still have cell service, but Leah hasn’t called to talk directly to Nate since their last conversation. Instead, she texts to tell him that she can’t get through on Liam’s phone anymore because of his constant streaming. He braces himself against the car. He’s tried to call, but she won’t pick up. He can feel the dispossession in his toes, the creeping ankle pain as he limps around the sundial when they hang up. He monitors Liam in the distance as he patrols the meadow, arms and phone locked in place, his head bobbing excitedly.
The narrative drags on in the media. It’s t like a hostage situation.
Liam gains millions of viewers on his live stream.
“Dad,” he says in an increasingly rare moment without his phone. “Please. Just tell me.”
“We’ve been through this, son,” Nate says. He’s taken to calling him son instead of bud or buddy or his name. The formality between them a growing cavern.
The earth rumbles beneath them, and they both crouch next to the car, cover their heads as the sound of moving earth envelops them in a fetal white noise, threatening to break the very air they breathe as it moves through their open, screaming mouths.
Then it stops.
When they emerge, there’s a fully grown, ancient-looking forest crowning hills off in the distance, the same direction of where the ground seemed to threaten to come apart and shoot into the sky all at once.
Nate’s phone goes off.
Leah: We felt that one.
Nate: Can we talk?
Nate: What about Liam?
Leah: We’ve been through this. I’m working on it.
Eventually they stop tracking the passage of days and are just glued to their phones, watching the coverage of their situation. On screen, the barrier shows itself as a resplendent cylinder around the 106th Street roundabout, gossamer cells of writhing light. The crowds swell by the day. Nate and Liam eat what they can, save their batteries, turn on the car only to charge their phones. They’ve traversed the entire meadow, explored the forest, breathed in all the scents of the wood, climbed to the top of the tallest trees they dared. Nate’s back is starting to hurt all the time, his muscles seeming to pile up on themselves in a way they never did even just a few years ago. Liam has all but stopped speaking to him, and yet Nate is glad he has his son with him.
He’s sitting in the passenger side of the car with the seat leaned all the way back when Liam comes up to the door and taps on the window. It’s gotten unseasonably hot outside. The air seems to be dripping.
“Dad, what happened?” Liam says. The pleading in his eyes, the longing to return to his half-open, sixteen-year-old life.
And yet a mysterious glint. His son’s hand gingerly wrapped around his phone.
“I told you it’s best not to talk about it.”
They’re sitting together in the car with the A/C cranked.
“Dad, please,” Liam says.
The sun beats down.
“Honestly, son, I don’t even know anymore,” Nate says. He ventures the half-lie into the stale air between them. The heat languid to the point the air glimmers outside the car. Sweat tingling on his collarbone.
A tremor beneath them. Nate closes his eyes. It’s over quickly. Nate raises his head, looks around the meadow, over the tops of the trees. Fire. Black soot seeps over top of the treeline, spiraling up in great smiles of smoke.
His phone goes off.
Leah: Some people think there’s a way.
Nate: Do you even want me to come?
Leah: I’m not doing this.
The fire burns the entire forest, but it’s been contained by something, leaving a stark, black line of ash in the grass. Deer, hawks, a cavalcade of insects run out of the blaze and vanish into thin air; as soon as they hit the barrier, there’s nothing left, not even a sound. Conversely, piles of fire extinguishers, USB chargers, takeout boxes grow into three small hillocks. It’s a one-way. Nate watches his son’s face lighting up when he turns the camera around with an effortless tap. Watches him casually pick over the latest food offerings and come up to the driver’s side door just as the moon glides into the sky.
The next night, his phone goes off as he’s on a walk back from the barrier. In the distance, Nate can see the oceanic light of Liam’s phone beaming from the driver’s side window.
Leah: They think there’s an opening. Are you coming?
Nate: I’m sorry.
Leah: Me too. I just can’t do this anymore.
Leah: All of it. I’m so tired.
Nate: Do you think I wanted this?
As he nears the roundabout, Nate sees the light of Liam’s phone go out, hears the car ignition sputter. Then the car drops into gear, begins going in circles, headlights rotating at steady pace. Then the engine flares, a squeal of tires as Liam picks up speed.
“Hey,” Nate shouts. The light of Liam’s cell phone still flashing in his mind, the finality of his marriage brewing. His back burning as he runs. Perhaps this rift is too great to cross, too absolute. He can’t imagine a scenario in which they go back to the way things used to be.
The engine revs to deafening power just as he gets to the edge of the roundabout, and Nate is sure Liam will lose control. He has all the intention of just standing in the way, of just putting his entire body on the line, as he’s unable to offer much else. But as the screaming tires pass, he can’t bring himself to take the final step.
He screams at his son, unloading his guilt in great heaves as his breath tumbles out, his shoulders shake. Around him, he can feel wind pick up. Liam keeps driving around at speed. As Nate screams, the truth roars inside him. He can’t even remember what happened, now, what the origin of the rift was, how he’d been able to so utterly obliterate the life he’d fallen into, the family they’d made. All he knows is that the damage is irrevocable, that his cowardice is so complete. He screams and screams, the wind picking up, his skin roiling. He wants to shed himself, to just simply step outside himself and float into a billion particles without intention of reassembly.
The car is tilting dangerously. He still can’t bring himself to step in front of it. His legs won’t work, and he wonders if he secretly has no desire to do so, tries to convince himself that he would, yes, of course, do anything to stop his son harming himself. But this wondering breaks him and he falls to his knees, his throat seemingly on the verge of tearing as he just keeps on yelling.
Without warning, the car quiets and slows, pulls over into the grass. He hauls himself up from the damp ground and runs to the door, sees his son doubled over the steering wheel, the most magnificent tears he’s ever seen budding in Liam’s eyes.
The world around them shimmers into a vibrato of sobs. Liam keeps asking what happened, and Nate’s mind is murky as creek water. All he knows is that the memory is sliding, burning the base of his skull as he holds his son through the coming storm.
“Why won’t you tell me?” Liam asks, the quakes subsiding past anger into resignation. Nate sees the film over his son’s eyes through his own crying.
“I truly don’t know,” Nate says.
“That’s bullshit,” Liam says.
“I know,” Nate says.
“Just tell me, Dad,” Liam says.
Hearing the word ‘dad’ come out of his mouth sends a tremor through him. Nate’s arms slip from behind his son’s neck as he falls to his knees yet again, looking in the distance at what looks like a tear in the barrier. For a moment, he can see thousands of camera flashes, hear the twittering sounds of a crowd floating on the hot wind.
His phone goes off.
Leah: Did you see?
Leah: They say they’re ready.
“Dad,” Liam shouts above the tumult gathering on the wind.
“Let’s go,” Nate shouts back. “Move.”
The tear has grown wider, and the crowd is a mass of faces swaying in the oncoming storm. The whole scene wreathed in static light, the barrier finally giving way.
Nate takes the wheel. Whatever his sins, he will get his son out of this.
He checks his phone.
Leah: Are you coming?
Nate: On the way.
They clamber tearily into the car, and Nate slams the gas, drives around the pile of supplies just as the earth starts to shake again, gigantic stones floating upward just as they had that first day. In the rearview mirror, he can see an opening in the ground swallow all their provisions, mountains of sustenance and novelty tumbling down. The rain sheets as the world throws itself upward. As he drives, he realizes that he can barely remember his life up to this point, much less how all this started.
They’re past the copse of trees and wheeling toward the barrier opening. There are armored trucks, toneless voices booming through speakers, untold numbers of uniformed people walking in silhouette. He’s looking for Leah and Sylvia, remembering their presence, the lightness of their hands. The wind picks up and threatens to topple them just as they reach the technicolor opening, barging through into a bizarre mirror of the roundabout they’ve been living in. The same, all the signs of suburbia intact, reassembled from memory and solid as bone.
Liam opens the door and crashes to the pavement, lying flat. Paramedics rush in, and their voices are so quiet in the suddenly dry air, barely able to penetrate Nate’s senses. He can see a fist knocking on his window, mouths moving, but he clutches the steering wheel, trying to remember. He looks at his phone. Nothing. There’s a throbbing in his ears.
Sylvia and Leah are being ushered through the crowd, and when they emerge, they fall upon Liam in a mess of limbs. Boom mics are everywhere, it seems, vans and other vehicles, a crowd with a crush of voices stretching for what seems like miles. The knocking on his window grows louder, more insistent. Nate keeps checking his phone, waiting for the next message, the resolution, then watches his family embrace, the relief palpable in the way their shoulders move freely as they cry. His arms are heavy, laced with the faint tug of weeping exhaustion. His back burns. Coiled in his chest a smoky iteration of his guilt. He can’t grasp it, can’t get out and join them.
Then his family is falling away, a new barrier piling on top of itself around the car, a gilded web forming. The fists and knocks dissipating, the low hum of voices casting off into a watery silence as the rain returns to a plain highway lined with green. When everything settles, he’s on a straightaway with no end in sight.