(edited and revised)
On Friday afternoon I kiss Annie Dutchmen in the dark corner between the water fountain and the band room. Her lips are soft and sticky and taste like cotton candy. She’s my first girlfriend and everyone agrees that she’s the hottest girl in sixth grade, maybe even the entire middle school. I’m still flying high from that kiss when I get out of school and don’t notice my mom until she leans hard on the horn of the car. I walk over, embarrassed. There are some boxes in the backseat; I can see the sleeve of my favorite red sweatshirt intertangled with a heap of my jeans. She rolls down the window and a wave of warm cigarette smoke drifts out into the crisp air.
“Get in,” she says.
“Where are we going?”
“Just get your ass in the car.”
We swerve violently out of the parking lot, slipping a little on some loose gravel, and don’t even pause at the stop sign before pulling onto the county road. I chew on my lip. I’ve only seen her drive like this once before, the day Marcus kicked us out of our apartment. She drove all the way to the state line before she stopped in the orange glow of a lone streetlight and turned towards me. Marcus is an asshole, she said, Don’t grow up to be an asshole, Christopher. Even in the dim light, I could see her eyes, red along the edges like she was going to cry or had smoked too much weed. I promised her I wouldn’t. It took us twice as long to drive back. She and Marcus made up that night; I could hear them going at it through the flimsy cardboard walls. I listened to some music until I fell asleep.
“Where are we going?” I finally work up the courage to ask again as we turn right onto the highway.
“Great Falls,” she says, not taking her eyes off the road. We’re accelerating so quickly that my head is pushing back against the seat. Soon I’m watching the needle of the speedometer bounce between 85 and 90. I buckle my seatbelt.
“We’re visiting Grandma?” We only visit Grandma on Christmas. Mom hates Grandma. She says it all the time, That bitch should mind her own business, she says, whenever she hangs up the phone. I’m a grown adult, goddammit.
“Yeah,” she says, lighting another cigarette, rolling down the window and tossing the butt of the last behind our swiftly turning wheels. “Why don’t you find us a radio station?”
I twirl the dial through harsh static and jingly commercials, trying to figure out why we’re going to Great Falls. Maybe Grandma’s sick. Or dying. Maybe she’s already dead. I leave the radio on Led Zeppelin and think about kissing Annie.
“Mom,” I say after several hours. “I have to pee.” I’ve had to go since I got in.
She doesn’t say anything.
“I can’t!” I shift uncomfortably in my seat.
“You can,” she says.
“I can’t,” I say again, desperation creeping through my body and into my voice. “I really have to go!”
“Jesus,” she says, her eyes flicking up to the ceiling of the car. “Just hold it, will you? We’ll stop soon.” Her voice is final, commanding and I start to wish I’d told her sooner. My bladder feels like it’s about to explode in frustration and pain. I cross my right leg over my left, then my left over my right. Every movement only increases the pressure and I feel a hot trickle before I even realize what’s happening.
“Mom,” I say, panicked. A flush of shame spreads onto my cheeks. “Mom, I can’t hold it.” She looks down at my lap. Her eyes are quick and sharp and mad.
“What the hell, Christopher!?” She pulls off on the side of the highway. The car scrapes against knapweed and gravel. I push open the door and step out of the car. My jeans are wet through, urine darkening the crotch and spreading down the leg. Pulling them off, I finish taking a piss on the cold edge of the highway while cars sweep past. I ball up my jeans and grab another pair out of the backseat, yanking them on over my shoes. There’s a slight stain on the seat, but I pretend I don’t notice and sit there anyway. I stare out the windshield, fury and embarrassment boiling hot in my stomach.
“Christopher,” Mom says to me, softly.
I don’t say a word.
“Answer me,” she says.
“Fuck you,” I say. As soon I say it, I feel better, even though I can’t believe those two words came out of my mouth.
I don’t see it coming, only feel her hand tired and hard against my cheek. My face stings for a few seconds but it fades quickly. I concentrate hard on not moving a single muscle. Not blinking. Not even breathing. She starts the car again, a gush of air from the heater immediately blasting through the car. We get back on the highway. Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyou, I think, watching the road slide up before us and disappear behind.
It’s already dark when I wake up. I see my mom in the blue light of a pay phone adjacent to a Conoco station. Her face is a pale disk in the eerie blue glow, the black plastic of the pay phone a carefully carved curve against her jaw. When she sees me looking at her through the windshield, she turns around, but I can still hear her voice.
“He can go fuck himself,” she says into the receiver. I wonder briefly who he is, thinking maybe it’s Marcus. I wonder if he knows where we went, but probably he’s just passed out on the sofa, like he was when I walked through the living room on my way to school this morning. Feels like that was days ago.
“Shit,” she says, kicking her foot against the metal edge of the phone box. “I don’t know.” She waits a few minutes, listening to the person on the other end. “I got an offer in Spokane,” she says finally, her voice rising like she’s getting upset. “I just really don’t fucking know right now.” She waits again, and I reach for the door handle. My stomach is emitting a fierce growl and I remember that I haven’t eaten since lunch in the school cafeteria. At the noise, my mom turns back around.
“I have to go,” she says, looking at me. “Christopher’s awake. I’ll call you when I get there.” She hangs up, the phone clanking in its silver chokehold. I step out of the car and we enter the brightly colored warmth of the gas station together.
“Who was that?” I ask as we stand contemplatively in front of the harsh orange light of the deli counter.
“Uncle Braden,” she says, reaching for a prepackaged bag. “He says to say hello to Grandma.”
“Okay,” I say, but I’m thinking that she might say yes if I ask her if I can have a pop. “Mom, can I have a pop?” I ask quickly. I hope she’s not still mad about me pissing in the car, although it was her fault, technically.
“If it’s less than a dollar,” she says, moving towards the register. “Hurry up.”
Outside, I shiver at the rush of cold night air.
“This car smells like piss,” she says, as she slides into her seat. She lights a cigarette in the car lighter and takes a long drag. “I got corn dogs and jo-jos. Go for it.”
I reach into the oily plastic bag and take out a corndog, inhaling the sweet fried corn smell before sinking my teeth into the hot mush to the meat beneath.
She takes a sip of her coffee. “Hand me a jo-jo.” I pass her the warm wedge of fried potato, licking my fingers after she takes it. She rips open a ketchup packet with her teeth. We eat in silence, watching people buy junk food and lottery tickets in the bright lights of the convenience store.
“Why are we going to visit Grandma?” I finally ask. She stops chewing, swallows.
“It’s just for a while,” she says. “Till I get my shit together.” The words sound empty, like maybe she’s been practicing them for a while before saying them out loud.
“What’s just for a while?”
She takes a long drink of coffee, tipping the cup back in her hands.
“Don’t ask me questions right now, Christopher,” she says. “I’m too tired.” My whole body tingles with annoyance, but I don’t feel like being smacked again. I put my sweatshirt under my head and try to go back to sleep as she turns the key in the ignition.
The dawn creeps up on us. I’m half-asleep, watching the sky turn from black to navy to pink to a lighter blue. The car is thick and stuffy with the odor of old fried food and dead cigarettes. I roll down my window just a little.
“Good morning,” Mom says, and I smile sleepily. I’ve forgotten about yesterday, about her reckless driving and me peeing my pants and Great Falls and Grandma. For a few seconds its just us in the car and the morning light drifting through the trees. But the haziness of the moment passes, and I remember everything.
“We’re not on the highway,” I say to her. She looks exhausted, her eyelids drooping, purple stains under her eyes. Empty coffee cups cover the floor of the car. “Where are we?”
“You’ll see,” she says, and she stops the car in the middle of the deserted road. There aren’t any houses out here, no people or cars or anything but trees. We’re way out on the back roads but I can still hear the highway buzzing behind us.
She gets out and stretches her back in the cool air. Her curly hair lights up yellow in the bright sunshine.
“Get out,” she says, and I open my door. My legs ache. I look down at the seat, breathing a short sigh of relief that the evidence of my accident has long since faded from the worn material. Maybe yesterday doesn’t exist after all. Maybe we’ll just turn around and go home and forget all about Great Falls.
“You wanna drive?” I grin and look at my mom.
“Really?” I ask.
“Sure,” she answers. “Here’s the keys.” She tosses them to me across the roof of the car and I catch them despite my stiffness.
“You’re not kidding,” I say to her, testing. “You’re really going to let me drive?”
She gives me an exasperated look. It’s enough.
I walk around the front and slide into the driver’s seat, pulling the seat up so I can reach the pedals with my feet. The car does smell like piss, like piss and corndogs and ketchup and coffee and cigarettes. Like my mom. Like me.
“Put your foot on the brake,” Mom says.” “The one on the left.”
I step on it gently, feeling the pressure behind the pedal.
“Now turn the key,” she says, “Keep your foot on the brake.”
I turn the key and feel a thrill run through me as the engine turns on.
“Now put it into Drive,” she tells me.
“I don’t know how!”
She rolls her eyes. “To the right of the wheel, dumbass.”
My hands are clammy as I pull on the gear shift, moving it towards the D. Something happens to the car; I hear it.
“Slowly lift your foot off the brake,” she says. I lift up my foot just slightly and take a quick deep breath as the car begins to roll forward. I’m shaking. “Hold the wheel tight,” she says. We’re barely moving, just crawling past trees and bushes on either side of the road. “Now give it a little gas.”
I press on the gas and almost lose my grip on the wheel, slippery between my sweaty hands. It’s too fast, too much, too scary. But I can’t stop to think now. We drive slowly down the road, increasing speed and then decreasing, stopping and then starting, turning as the road curves through the woods. Satisfaction wells up inside me and I sneak a quick look over at my mom in the passenger seat, asleep. I can see the highway up ahead, cars pulsing past, and I push down on the brakes as we edge closer to the turn.
“Mom” I say. She’s slumped against the window, snoring softly.
“Mom” I say, louder. She whimpers and turns her face farther towards the window. Her hair is flattened into a frizzy halo above her face. Asleep, she looks much younger, not like my mom at all.
I sit silently for a few moments, feeling the imperceptible thrum of the engine. Then I suddenly push down on the gas and make a sharp turn onto the highway. My arms and hands are like jelly, my heart beating powerfully beneath my dirty Star Wars t-shirt. We swing into the other lane for a brief but terrifying instant and I pull us back over quickly. I’m trembling as we continue to swerve down the road, but I force myself to push harder and harder on the gas until we reach the speed limit. Then I hold the wheel tight and pray to God to not let us crash before we reach Great Falls.
Mom wakes up a little after seven. She yawns, looks out the window, and then at me, in the driver’s seat. I’ve been driving a little over an hour and feel like I might be getting the hang of it.
“Christopher?” she asks, still not quite awake.
“Good morning, Mom,” I say, and my heart unexpectedly surges with pride for keeping us alive and on the road.
She shakes her head, bewildered and bemused. “You’re driving,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “I am.” She bursts out laughing, and I start laughing too, though I have to be careful to not let my attention slip off the road, not even for a second. I’m focusing so hard it’s giving me a headache.
“Keep going,” she says, her laughter disappearing gently. I see her head slant back against the headrest out of the corner of my eye and she falls back to sleep.
As we get closer to Great Falls, she wakes to tell me to pull off at a gas station. I slow down and park in one of the many empty parking spaces.
“Next time use your blinker,” she says, but she’s smiling. My legs are cramped and my eyes are blurry from concentration. She hands me five dollars and tells me to get breakfast and some coffee. I buy her a large cup of dark roast and myself a bag of Doritos.
“Ew,” she says when I hand her the coffee. “For breakfast?” I shrug and split open the crinkly bag. She shrugs too and drives to Grandma’s house silently, but I don’t mind anymore.
“We’re here,” my mother announces unnecessarily as we park in front of the house, olive green paint peeling and stairs broken and tumbling onto the grass. “Get your stuff.”
As I pull boxes out of the back, I realize how many boxes she packed. Almost all of my clothes. There’s a box of my books and old toys. Even my sheets are folded at the bottom of a box of Legos and CDs.
“Mom?” I say, but she’s walking across the lawn to the screen door. She raps on it several times, the sound of her fingers echoing down the empty street. I pick up a box with my clothes and walk towards her, my chest thudding with uneasiness.
“Mom?” I say again, but the door’s already swinging outwards, revealing Grandma Helen in her faded blue bathrobe.
“You’re here.” She stares at my mom, and my mom stares back defiantly until grandma relents and shifts her gaze onto me. “Christopher.” I try to smile. “I guess you’d better come in.”
I leave the box in the hallway and follow my mom into the kitchen. I always liked Grandma’s kitchen even though her house generally creeps me out. Too many photographs of dead relatives, like my Grandpa, and my aunt Lorraine, who died in a car crash before I was born. Photos of my mom, too. Young, my age even. We have the same crooked front teeth. And eyes.
“You want some breakfast?” Grandma is moving around the kitchen and I think about how strange it is to be here without Uncle Braden and his wife Susie and all my cousins. The house seems much bigger, and I wonder if Grandma gets lonely living here all alone except for Christmas. I nod and she cracks an egg in a bowl and starts whipping it with a fork before I can tell her how much I hate scrambled eggs.
“I’m going to go,” says my mom, and we both turn to look at her, sitting awkwardly on a green vinyl chair. It matches the color of the outside of the house. “I have a long drive back.”
“What?” I say, confusion sliding through the tiredness in my head. “What are you talking about? We just got here.”
“You just got here,” Grandma says, glaring at my mom, her white eyebrows angrily angled downwards. “Don’t tell me you’re not even going to stay for breakfast.”
“I don’t eat breakfast,” she says, her voice high. “Never have.”
“What’s going on?” I say, louder. “Mom?”
“You’re going to stay with Grandma for a while.”
“Why?” I ask. Fear and uneasiness prickle along the back of my neck.
“Jesus, Evelyn,” says Grandma, “You didn’t even tell him?” Mom doesn’t look at her, just stares at me pleadingly with her tired red-rimmed eyes.
“Just for a while,” she says, and I suddenly understand what she was talking about last night in front of the convenience store.
“You’re leaving me here,” I say, and despite all my mental protestations, she nods.
I feel like crying but I won’t. My voice is scratchy with the effort.
“You can’t,” I say. “What about school?”
“You’ll go to school here,” says Grandma, her voice low. “It’s only a few blocks away.”
I shake my head, forcing my tears to stay back. I’m not a baby anymore.
“What did I do?” I say to her, and I watch the water spill out of her eyes and run down her pale cheeks.
“Nothing,” she says. “I’ll come back as soon as I can.”
She pushes back her chair, stands up, looks down at me. Her eyes are wet and red but still like mine, green at the center and gold at the edges. Tell me you love me, she wants me to say, that you understand.
But instead I think about yesterday, about standing cold on the edge of the gray highway, pissing in the wind. I think of all the mornings I tiptoed by her quietly sleeping form on the couch, afraid to even shut the door for fear she’d wake up. I think about all the P.E. classes I took a zero for, too nervous to change into my shorts and t-shirt and explain to Mr. Harris why I always seemed to be falling down stairs or walking into doors. I think about how I always do what she says, or what Marcus says, only to be yelled at or hit for something else. Now she’s leaving and even though I can’t imagine life without her, I don’t feel as though I’m going to cry anymore.
“I hate you,” I say. “Go to hell.” The eggs are burning on the stove, crackling and howling like little creatures in the burning pan. With a final look of begging defeat, she stands and moves out of the kitchen, down the hallway. I just sit and stare at the pattern on the yellow linoleum floor. I hear her bringing in the rest of my boxes, whispering to my grandma just outside the kitchen door, their voices hushed and angry. I don’t want to know what they’re saying. I don’t want to know anything at all. I want to be back at school, kissing Annie Dutchmen on the lips before recess. I want for none of this to be happening.
I look up as I hear her drive away.