By Emily Vander Ark
Maybelle could not see over the feathered ears of the owl in her lap. It was a plastic owl, and the huge, painted-on eyes made yellow spots in her vision as she had no choice but to stare into them. She had never seen one of those up close before, and there was a lot she could have noticed about it if she hadn’t been so preoccupied by the fact that it was stolen.
Maybe it was best that she couldn’t see out the window. Beside her in the driver’s seat of the station wagon, Maybelle’s father belched, and it smelled of an alcohol she intended never to taste. If she were able to see the yellow lines on the road over the huge bird in her lap, Maybelle assumed she would be holding on to her seat for dear life. Instead, she held on to the owl.
Her father started drinking two years ago when Mom died, and he hadn’t stopped since. Usually, he stumbled to the couch and slept if off, and neither of them ever spoke about it. But after one too many tonight, he’d come up to the steps of the house and pulled her along with energy she hadn’t seen in him since she was twelve.
“Let’s have some fun,” he quipped, pushing her toward the car.
Of course, Maybelle knew it was a foolish thing to get in a car with a drunk when you hadn’t even finished driver’s ed, but what was she to do? Let him go alone, stay home wondering where he was and what had happened? Wake up to an uncomfortable uniform come to tell her that she was now an orphan?
Better to just get in the car and hold her breath. He probably just wanted to make it a few miles to the bar where his buddies usually hung out, and then his friends could help Maybelle convince him to let her drive him home. Everything would work out.
She soon learned that Dad was further gone than she’d thought, and his inebriated idea of fun was first to drive — she thought he would keep driving forever— and then to stop the car at random houses and jump out, snatching an item of little value, and scrambling back into the car.
Which was how Maybelle ended up with a stolen garden owl sitting squarely in her lap.
It started with the owl, then a ‘Welcome’ sign carved from rough wood. It was one of those signs that could be flipped around, one side read — “WELCOME” — and the other — “GO AWAY.” The “GO AWAY” side was facing up at Maybelle from the floor by her feet, and she wished she could obey.
Each time the car stopped, Maybelle tried to work up the nerve to slide over into the driver’s seat while Dad was out pillaging, but each time she faltered. Maybe he was a little buzzed, but did she want him to end up in jail for theft? If she tried to take over the car and Dad caused a scene, someone nearby would surely notice and call the police.
After the sign, a conch shell that had been hidden in the corner of someone’s porch. Where had a conch shell come from, out here in Indiana? It’s prickled, spiny edges reminded her of the spiked back of a dragon, or the jagged teeth inside its jaw. The sweet peachy pink inside the shell looked to Maybelle like the soft flesh under a tongue.
At the fourth stop, when Dad was trying to decide between taking a couple of solar lights from along the sidewalk or a porch planter full of begonias, Maybelle shifted the owl to one side and leaned her head out the car window.
“Maybe I should drive for a bit,” she suggested, trying to sound casual.
“What?” Dad shouted. “No way, May! You just got your permit! It’s the middle of the night!” He finally made the tough decision and heaved the begonias into the back seat. May turned around in her seat as far as she could to inspect the flowers.
The soil in the pot was dry. If the owners didn’t remember to water them every day, it would be a while before they noticed them gone.
Dad was back in the driver’s seat, stomping on the gas pedal even though the car was still in park. Maybelle closed her eyes until he figured it out and they lurched forward.
The road was a single lane each way, and it wound through the backcountry where there were no streetlights — no lights at all but the reflectors on the guardrails that shone the station wagon’s headlights back at them. It was a clear night and the tall pines made dark places against the starry sky. The contents of May’s stomach sloshed from side to side and she held tight to the owl. She didn’t know if the owl would save her from the impact of an air bag if one went off, or if it would mean her death or serious injury.
The next house was up a long gravel drive, the kind that leads to a house out of sight from the road that is always bigger than anticipated. This one had a big porch with rocking chairs like the ones outside a Cracker Barrel and flower boxes hanging from all the railings. Maybelle was pretty sure she could see the green pinprick of a light blinking just inside the window door: a security system.
There were no cars in the driveway, but with the huge garage underneath the house that was no guarantee that it was empty. It could very well be full of the snoring Indiana elite.
She didn’t see any, but May wouldn’t have been surprised if they even had security cameras.
May winced as Dad closed the driver’s door, almost slamming it. She didn’t see any odd baubles of knickknacks on the porch or anywhere else around — it wasn’t that kind of house. The yard was manicured and the house well-groomed. There was a heavy-looking stone birdbath, but if Dad tried to pick that up, he’d probably drop it on his foot and scream, giving them away for sure.
He shuffled toward the porch with deliberation. What was he going to do, take a whole rocking chair?
This station wagon was so old that she actually had to roll down the window. “Dad,” she loud-whispered. “There’s nothing here. We should go.”
“What are you talking about. There’s everything here,” Dad said, almost hollering. “This is the jackpot, baby girl.”
May groaned. This wasn’t going to be good.
Dad climbed up the porch stairs and proceeded to look so out of place among the white spindles and the wrought-iron flower boxes. His worn-out jeans and trucker hat were like a barbecue stain on a crisp white shirt.
The porch wrapped around two sides of the house, and there was another door on the side, over the garage. May couldn’t tell if that door had a green security system light, too, but she shoved her door open and clambered out, leaving the owl on the seat behind her.
“Dad, really. We have to go,” she said.
He didn’t appear to have heard her, because he was actually reaching out to try the doorknob.
“Dad!” Maybelle felt her breath catch in her throat. The door opened. Dad chuckled and stepped inside. It was all May could do to keep herself from calling out — maybe these people had the kind of security system that had lasers across the door, or something, so they didn’t bother locking up.
May held her breath as Dad disappeared inside the dark, apparently defenseless house. Taking things from people’s yards and porches was one thing — they were out in the open, unprotected. But this was something else, going too far. This was breaking and entering.
Well, at least the entering part.
It seemed like forever before Dad came back into view, and the thing he had found was huge. A vase, tall enough that it almost blocked Dad’s face as he was carrying it. Maybelle couldn’t even think of what anyone would put in that vase — sunflowers, maybe. It was dark in the shadows on the porch, and May prayed Dad wouldn’t trip coming down the steps to the drive.
He made it, and in the moonlight she could see that this was no ordinary vase. It was intricate, made of dozens — maybe hundreds — of pieces of colored glass, all glued together like a stained glass window. There was no obvious pattern Maybelle could see, but it was obviously a delicate thing, not meant to be stolen and carted around in the back seat of a station wagon, even with the begonias for company.
Not to mention that it was probably worth a small fortune.
“Dad,” she pleaded, “we can’t take this. Let me go put it back.”
“No way, May,” he said. “This is the motherlode right here. I got it for you. Isn’t it pretty?”
“Oh, yes. It’s beautiful. Here, let me see it.” Maybelle held out her arms to take the vase before Dad dropped it, and it turned into beautiful, brightly colored gravel.
Dad actually handed it over. May took it gently, feeling the weight of the glass and the cost of the vase at once.
“All right, Dad, go ahead and get back in the car. I’m just going to put this in the back seat, okay?”
“Sounds good.” Dad walked around the car and touched the handle, and Maybelle didn’t wait to see if he got in. She turned around and started to carry the vase carefully back up the steps.
She winced and froze where she was.
“Stop shouting,” she whispered.
“Well, you stop sneaking around! Get over here and put that in the back seat. It’s a present for you.” Dad was not whispering.
“You have to be quiet, okay, Dad? I’m just going to put this back in the house and hope they don’t have cameras. But you have to be quiet.” She took another step up to the porch.
“Cameras? What are you talking about? Here —” Dad came back around the car and met her on the steps. “I’ll take it and put it in the car myself so I know it’s done right.”
Maybelle didn’t fight him for the vase, afraid if she did it would break for sure. Dad took it and put it on the seat right behind the driver.
“Any chance you’ll let me drive, Dad? How much have you had to drink?” May asked.
Dad waved his hand at her. “Hardly a drop. I feel much safer driving myself, especially with that vase, and in the dark.”
Maybelle stayed where she was as Dad got in the car. “I can do it, Dad. I promise.”
“Maybelle, if you don’t get in the car right now, you can sleep in that big fancy house tonight,” he replied, putting the car into drive.
May got in. But she glanced at the vase, in the backseat.
“I don’t know, Dad,” she said. “Maybe we should buckle it in or something.”
Dad laughed — too loud. In the empty night, the sound was terrifying.
“Buckle in decoration? Seatbelts are for people. See, you’re wearing yours.”
She certainly was.
Things were serious now. There was a small fortune’s worth of colored glass in the backseat, and Dad had broken into a rich house. Whether or not there was anyone there, Dad was probably on camera. It was only a matter of time before they came after him.
“Hey, Dad, let me drive,” she said. “I need to get some hours in for driver’s ed, and I need practice driving at night.”
“I like driving,” Dad said. “It clears my head.”
Right. Take two.
“Well, can we go home? I’m really tired, and I have a project at school tomorrow. I have to be wide awake.” Wasn’t that convincing enough?
Dad maneuvered the station wagon out of the driveway and laughed. “Tired? You’re tired? You’ve gotta live while you’re young, baby girl.”
Maybelle closed her eyes. If only she lived until she wasn’t young anymore. She’d have liked to be a wise old owl.
Even with her eyes closed she could feel the acceleration. Dad was speeding faster and faster, with no idea where he was going. The turns became sharper, and May laid her face on the bumpy plastic of the owl that was once again in her lap.
That’s when she heard the crash.
May waited for the impact, for the pull of the seatbelt and the push of the airbag. She waited for the sound, for the screeching of breaks and crunching of metal.
They didn’t come. Instead, she felt her body right itself as they came out of the sharp turn and heard Dad let out a — whoop!
What had she heard? What had she heard?
The truth came like a stab to her gut.
Steeling herself, Maybelle glanced into the backseat.
Shards of glass splayed over the seat and the floor. Like killer confetti, they glinted in the changing light as the station wagon sped on, oblivious. There were even a few small pieces in the begonia planter.
The glass shards reflected light. Red, blue, clear…
A siren started to wail.
“Dad. You need to pull over.”
“No way, May! We’re just getting started.” Dad kept his foot on the gas as they took another turn a bit too sharply.
There’s a police car behind us, Dad. We need to pull over and talk to the officer.” There was no getting out of this. “Come on, Dad,” May whispered. “Do the right thing.”
He pulled over.
It seemed like an eternity before the officer got out of his car and came up to the driver’s window. Dad rolled it down and said, “It’s a great night for a drive! You had the same idea I did.”
May clenched her teeth and passed Dad’s license and registration over when the officer asked for it. That directed the officer’s attention to her.
“Who’s this you have riding with you?” he asked, shining his flashlight into the car. It bounced off the plastic owl, and Maybelle squinted to look at the light.
“Oh, that’s May,” Dad said.
“I’m his daughter, officer. Maybelle Latimore.” She wished he would just make the arrest rather than go through the whole rigmarole when everyone present knew what the verdict would be.
The officer took the documents back to his patrol car, and Dad turned on the radio. When the officer returned, he had a breathalyzer in hand. He asked Dad to get out of the car and stand with him on the pavement for a few minutes before he asked him to blow. It took a few tries, but eventually Maybelle heard the shrill beep that indicated the test was over.
The next thing May knew, the officer was cuffing her Dad, reading his rights, and putting both of them in the back seat of the patrol car. She thought about telling him that she had her permit and she could drive the car home, but she decided against it. She had to leave the owl behind, its yellow eyes staring down at the vase shards. The vase would never be whole again, she knew, and she wondered if it was worth hoping things might be different for her broken Dad.
Emily Vander Ark teaches college writing in southwestern Michigan. She is the managing editor of “Forest for the Trees: A Home for Young Adult Writing,” and has been published herself in “Crack the Spine,” “Garbanzo Literary Journal,” and elsewhere. She enjoys writing fiction for children as well as young adults, and you can visit her at emilyvanderark.com or on twitter @ibelonginabook.