Top Dead Center 

Abigail Mooneyhan 

The Kit-Cat clock’s tail swung back and forth on the paisley print wall. Its classic smile, painted in thick, black paint, had chipped edges. Alyssa Jean gave the old relic a new home in her upscale Pittsburgh apartment; she managed to snag it when they cleaned out her dad’s house when he passed two years prior. The quiet hum of the city reverberated against the tightly closed windows of the fourth-floor loft. Softly trickling rain raced on the windowpanes.   

The silence is nice, Alyssa Jean thought. She let herself sink into the plush couch and kicked her feet up onto the coffee table. She pressed her fingertips to her temples and slowly moved them in circular motions, careful not to push too hard. Long days in the office proved to be taxing, just like she anticipated. She pulled her hair up above the back of the couch and let it rest, and the salon perm no longer weighed her down.   

Her peaceful silence came to an end as the telephone shrilled in the air. Groaning, she forced her tired body off the couch and trekked over to the hanging touch-tone phone beside the Kit-Cat. The clock read a little past nine.   

“Hello?” she asked, holding the cold plastic in her hand.  

“Hey, Alyssa Jean. It’s Buck.”  

“Oh, shit. How you been?” she asked. She hadn’t heard from her brother in nearly two years. They hadn’t acknowledged one another’s existence since their dad passed, not since they went through the old house.   

“Just fine…uh, look. I’ve got some bad news. Aunt Barb passed away,” Buck said.  

“Jesus Christ,” she said with a sigh, “what happened?”  

“She was sick for a while. They told me it was painless,” he said. His voice, cold and stoic, lacked agency. The only indication of life came from soft movements on the other line from his dog, the pitter-patter of her nails on the hardwood he worked so hard to install. The corners of her lips tugged upward a little. Thank God he’s not completely alone back home.  

“That’s good, I guess,” Alyssa Jean said, twirling the telephone cord with her fingertips. Aunt Barb died of the same cancer her dad did. Unlike her dad, Aunt Barb caught hers in stage two with enough time to seek treatment and fight it off for ten years. A twisting, knotting feeling churned in her stomach, and sweat sprang onto her palms. She wanted Buck to tell her he’d meet her at the diner and then head to their childhood home just to see how much it had aged. She wanted him to tell her he’d pick her up from the airport with her favorite soda in the passenger’s seat.   

“The funeral is this Sunday at two p.m. where Dad had his service,” Buck said with a pause. “She wanted to be buried with her brother.”   

Buried with her brother. The detail to start their own existential crises. As if their dad had divinely intervened from Heaven saying, “If you two assholes don’t figure it out yourselves, I’ll figure it out for you and take Barb while I’m at it. I’m bored up here.” She could envision the exact look her dad would give her—pursed lips with a cigarette hanging out of the corner, wise old eyes zeroed in on her, and a slow, judgmental blink to bring it home. Her dad would always holler at them when they’d bicker. He’d be beside himself if he could see the state of their relationship. She wondered if Buck could still picture their dad like she could.  

“Well, I’ll be home the morning of,” she said. “Are you going to be there?”  

“Yes.” All she could hear were the dog’s nails clicking on the hardwood floor.   

“All right.”  

“Look, don’t fly out. There’s heavy snow storms out this way. It’ll probably get delayed till past the weekend. Just drive.”  

Click. Not even a “goodbye.” Just the hollow, plastic click of a phone nine hundred miles away. She shut her eyes and pressed the phone back up to its holder on the wall. Here we go, again.   

The drive consisted of winding roads and desolate highways surrounded by nothing but cornfields, snow, and cows. Images of her Aunt Barb laughing and smiling filled her head as if she were sitting next to her, taking a drag from her cigarette, and pointing at the calves. She could hear the way her aunt’s laugh hopped up an octave when she thought something was really funny. “Quit driving too fast, AJ! You’ll miss out on the scenery.” Aunt Barb’s voice, clear as day, stuck in Alyssa Jean’s mind.  

Her dad always had something kind to say about Aunt Barb. “Barb’s a woman of strength. That’s the kind of woman you want to be, ’Lyssa Jean,” he’d say with a boozy grin. Alyssa Jean loved her aunt, of course, but she rarely spent time with her. When she did, Aunt Barb would give her a big squeeze and slip a twenty-dollar bill in her jeans pocket. As a generous woman, she took care of her family, especially her brother. When Alyssa Jean’s dad’s battle with alcoholism reared its ugly head in her middle school years, her aunt sent checks to the house for groceries and bills. When her dad went through the mail and received a check from his sister, he’d slam it onto the dining room table and shout, “Another round on Barb!” Buck would sneak downstairs after their dad passed out for the night and cash the checks for grocery money. Alyssa Jean always told herself she’d pay her aunt back for all those years of financial support. It was too late now.  

The rosary beads hanging from her rearview mirror swayed back and forth, letting her know she’d made it to the turbulent roads of home. She slowed her car to a stop at the stoplight, pausing to check her curly hair in the rearview, and adjusted the mirror. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a speeding truck just a few thousand feet behind her. The truck had a rusty hood and faded red paint chipping off every inch of the metal heap. Thick, gray smoke billowed from the back of the rusty parts.  

Whoever makes that much noise while driving is a douchebag, she thought. Curious to know the identity of the driver, wondering if it were some kid she went to high school with, she lifted her foot from the brake. Slowly inching forward, she peered at the driver. A tall, brown-haired man with the same nose as her father sat perched in the driver’s seat with a cigarette hanging from his lip. Buck.   

She whipped her head back to the road and placed both of her hands on the steering wheel, pretending she hadn’t seen her own brother. “Fuck,” she said, gripping the wheel. The blood ran cold in her head and a pounding sensation made its way to her temples.   

As soon as the light turned green, she slammed her foot on the gas and sped off down the road. Maybe he wouldn’t recognize her car, maybe he didn’t see her. She felt like he somehow heard her comment and that he would start a fight right off the bat, her chances of fixing things blown to smithereens. Despite her resentment, she loved her brother and wanted him back in her life. Her life wasn’t the same without a chipper phone call at six a.m., her favorite snacks stocked up in his apartment, and a father-figure who knew her better than anyone else.  

Whipping into the driveway, she slammed the car door shut and ran up the stairs of their old childhood home. She huffed as she leaned up against the vintage siding to appear nonchalant should Buck arrive. An old Victorian home with a gabled Mansard roof, a cream-colored wraparound porch, and a battered tire swing that hung from a weathered apple tree stood tall behind her. She spent nearly eighteen years of her life in that house, and never once had she been so anxious to see her own older brother.   

The pickup truck pulled into the gravel driveway. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared out onto the lawn, observing the dead grass bustling in the Midwest wind. She couldn’t bear to look him in the eye or see how skinny he’d gotten, or if he was wearing one of their dad’s old suit jackets.  

“Hey, ’Lyssa Jean,” Buck said. He shut the truck door and broke ground onto the gravel with his work boots.   

She swallowed her pride and studied his stature—skinnier than two years ago, somehow still managing to fill out one of their dad’s old coats, a pair of dirty Sears work boots that somehow matched his funeral attire. Maybe just Buck could pull it off. She still worried about his weight; he always struggled to fill out his clothes ever since grade school. She took a deep breath and shoved her clammy hands into her Limited wool coat pockets.   

“Hi,” she said. Her voice, meeker than she anticipated, made her cringe.  

“How was the drive out?” he asked.   

“Just fine. What’s with the truck?”  

Buck chuckled. He looked out at the road as the bright white sky of clouds reflected off his freckle-covered face. They could both feel it in their bones—impending snow. She could remember all those times when their dad was too sick or drunk to watch them outside in the piling snowstorms. Buck would kick up the biggest snow-hill he could muster at just nine years old, lift little Alyssa Jean onto the top with a bright orange sled, and push her down into the endless sea of white. A tiny smile crept onto her face at the memory. Those were the days she’d rush inside to hug her brother for warmth, taking in the smell of his wooly sweater knitted by Aunt Barb. She missed it.  

“It was actually Dad’s. Aunt Barb’s been living here, and when I went to see her, I’d work on the truck a little bit. It was buried in the garage under all that shit,” Buck said, motioning over to the garage just a few hundred feet from the porch. “I’ve spent days working on that engine. I finally found the top dead center and got the piston working again.”    

“Hm. I don’t remember Dad having a truck,” Alyssa Jean said, crossing her arms over her chest. She could only remember their dad’s old Lincoln Continental she reversed into the garage door in ’81.  

“Well, there’s a lot of things you weren’t here for. The truck was one of ’em. He got it after you left.”  

She rolled her eyes at his dig. Buck’s favorite guilt trip: she went to college and left him back home to take care of their dad. Her dad played a big part in her decision to leave. She grew tired of his excuses, shitty parenting, and lack of remorse for any of the things he’d done to them both growing up. She didn’t want to find herself downing Long Island iced teas in the pub down the street every night like him.  

“It’s a truck,” she said. “It’s not like I missed his funeral.” She looked over at him, noticed the shift of his jaw, and knew she’d pissed him off.  

“Didn’t see him in the hospital, though.” His eyes flickered over to her.  

“I couldn’t make it back in time, Buck.”  

“That wouldn’t have been a problem if you hadn’t left—”  

“Buck, I’m not gonna fight with you,” she said, laughing in disbelief. She rubbed her temples with her cold fingertips and shut her eyes.   

“The funeral is in an hour. We need to leave now so we can be there early enough to see everyone.”  

He took off down the wooden steps and made a beeline for the truck. Before she could even say a word, he yanked open the passenger’s side door and stared her down.   

The truck rattled down the cracked pavement road on the way to church. Alyssa Jean held onto the grab handle above the window for dear life and tried to drown out Buck’s rock radio station he cranked to full volume. She sighed as she looked out her window at the passing dead shrubbery.   

“Can you turn it down a little?” she asked, trying to make herself heard over the music.  

Buck ignored her. His tired, brown eyes remained on the road. The same brown eyes her dad had. She found herself resenting every feature of his that resembled their dad.   

“Hey!” she said.  

Finally, his eyes snapped over to her. He turned down the radio to complete silence.   

“What is your problem?” she asked. The truck sputtered.  

“My problem? You wanna know what my problem is?” he asked in disbelief. He reached around in the center console furiously, looking for a cigarette. She ignored him and stared out her window. She could hear him open the small, crumpled box and pull out a Marlboro.  

“I’d love to know what your problem is. Because your attitude is unbearable,” she said, folding her left leg over the other and leaning away from him.   

Buck struggled to light the cigarette and lifted his knees to manage the steering wheel. She immediately reached out to hold onto the wheel and glared as he finally managed to get a light. All that for a cigarette.  

With a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth, he scoffed. “Y’know what, ’Lyssa Jean? My problem is that you think you’re too good for where you came from.”  

“Oh my god, Buck. I went to college and moved out, so what?”  

His grip on the wheel tightened as the truck jerked. “You left when Dad was sick—”  

“Dad had been sick forever. He was an alcoholic with cancer. He got sick all the time.”  

“That doesn’t mean you leave anyway.”  

She finally looked over at him. “What was I supposed to do? Wait around until he died? I came home. I came home for the funeral and mourned like everyone else. Just because you stayed around and took care of him doesn’t mean I was any less of his daughter. You knew how I felt about Dad and everything he’d done. It was never your place to judge me for that.”  

“How do you think that made me feel? I raised you, Alyssa Jean. Maybe you didn’t love Dad’s choices, but I was there for you your entire childhood.”  

The truck lurched forward as the hood rattled and made a deep, guttural sound. Panic spread across both of their faces as thick, billowing smoke erupted from the hood. Buck swerved the truck off the road and into the emergency lane and shut off the engine. Without a word, he got out of the truck and slammed the door behind him.   

Alyssa Jean groaned and threw her head back on the headrest. This stupid-ass truck. They were parked only a few hundred feet from the exit for the church. Nothing but snow-covered fields and scraggly trees surrounded them. Small snowflakes began to fall onto the windshield and spread into tiny pools of water that slid down the glass.  

Minutes passed, for what seemed like an hour, until Buck finally lifted the hood. “Can you give me a hand?” Buck’s voice sounded muffled from the outside of the truck. She got out of the truck and slammed the door as she walked over to him. He hunched over the inside of the truck with his hand holding the hood up. His face flushed red; the pain of the cold was enough to rush blood to his cheeks. He motioned her over, and she placed her hands on the open hood and held it up.  

“What’s wrong with it?” she asked.   

“It’s the engine. It overheated. It’s fine.”  

“Christ. This truck is a piece of shit.”  

Buck remained silent as he unscrewed the cap of the coolant tank. He paused for a moment before he spun around to face her. His eyes were wildly searching her face as he slowly shook his head.  

“Do you know what Dad said when he was in the hospital right before he died?” he asked. “He asked where his ‘little girl’ was. He didn’t want to go without seeing you. It was the only thing he talked about. I told him you’d be there in just a minute…but you got there too late.”  

Alyssa Jean’s head snapped over to her brother.  


“I never told you because I knew it would hurt you. But I think you deserve to know.”  

Her eyes filled with cold tears as she took in the words. She could picture her dad with breathing tubes and a tired, sunken expression saying those words to her exhausted brother’s face. He must have felt so shitty having taken care of him for so long for Dad to ask for me.   

“Is this why you wouldn’t talk to me?” she asked.  

“I think a part of me resented you for doing what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t leave Dad by himself. I felt too guilty. But you were able to push through it and go pursue what you wanted,” he said. “At that moment when he laid there dying, he asked for you, not me. I was angry that you had what I wanted. It was stupid and selfish, and I’m sorry.”  

Buck reached up and grabbed the hood from her. She let her eyes shut, the corners of her mouth turned down, and cried. As much as she felt angry that he kept those details, she knew why he felt so angry and disregarded.   

“I wish you had told me sooner.”  

He let the hood down and locked it. He finally turned around to face her with small smudges of black all over his hands and a pained face. “I do too. I knew how you felt about Dad. You had every right to feel that way,” he said.  

“I should have thought of you more, though. It wasn’t just Dad I left.”  

“I know. But it wasn’t fair for me to judge you for going to college and being smart. I’m so proud of you, ’Lyssa Jean.”   

Back in the truck, Buck turned the key in the ignition and held his breath, praying it would start without a hitch. As the engine roared with life, the chain from the key swung back and forth. The snow began to lay a little heavier and the flakes froze to the glass. Alyssa Jean watched the fields begin to rush by as the truck made its way back onto the highway.  

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