The gas station bathrooms were always open, but if it wasn’t the middle of the night and we had a choice, I liked Dunkin’ Donuts better. The bathrooms there were cleaner and, if I crossed my legs and sort of hopped around, the people behind the counter would usually let me use it even if we didn’t buy anything. If we stopped for the night, we looked for a 24-hour Wal-Mart or someplace else that was always open, because it was safer to park there. My mom would only sleep at night if she thought it was safe. Sometimes we drove all night and parked during the day. She’d sleep then, but I never could, even with a blanket over my face to block out the light.
If my mom was in a good mood when we passed a Welcome sign, she’d pull over so I could stand beneath it. The signs were always much bigger than I expected them to be when I got up close. Welcome to Ocala. Welcome to Gainesville. Welcome—We’re Glad Georgia’s On Your Mind, with a giant peach in the corner. That was the first state line. Back in Florida, she pulled over at the sign for the Suwannee River so I could look over the railing at the water. It made me dizzy; the river was a long way down.
We were headed to Oregon to stay with my Grandma June for a little while. That was all I knew.
I kept asking questions at first. “Why do we have to pack so quickly?” “Why aren’t we saying goodbye to anyone?” “Why don’t I have to go to school tomorrow?” I stopped asking when she wouldn’t answer. We were both quiet for a long time.
The only time I complained was on that stretch of highway after Nashville when we’d just passed the rest stop and the AC had switched off again and wouldn’t turn back on even when I hit the dashboard and I kept asking her to turn around so I could use the bathroom but she wouldn’t turn around and instead she pulled over and made me pee in the sawgrass on the side of I-24. When I got back in the car, still damp between my legs because we didn’t have any toilet paper, I said, “I wish we’d never left home.”
“Me, too,” my mom said, and turned up the radio.
It was weird how looking out the window of a moving car made me forget about a lot of things. I barely thought about my friends. I’d had plans to walk to Target with my friend Shauna later that week to buy a new pair of sandals. I barely thought about my homework, or the vocabulary test I was missing, one that I was sort of looking forward to, even though I’d never have admitted that. Every time something like that popped into my head all I had to do was stare out the window for a little bit and it would just float out again. The only thoughts that stuck were the ones of home. My mom and her boyfriend Daryl at the kitchen counter, a bottle of anything between them, hysterical with laughter over something I pretended to understand. The frayed, pilling fabric of the couch that I picked at absentmindedly while watching television. The ceilings that looked like popcorn somebody had painted over. No matter how fast everything was going by outside the window, those thoughts didn’t go away.
Daryl had always been around. But he wasn’t with us anymore. Sometimes my mom would go over to his place, but she always spent the night at home, even if she got back really late. Daryl lived with his brother Marcus in one of the trailer parks on Gandy. I’d been there a few times, mostly for barbecues. I would sit on Marcus’s bench press machine, part of the outdoor gym he’d put together by scouting out the alleys of the rich neighborhoods on trash nights. He told that story a lot. I’d lean against the metal bar that rose from the bench and fiddle with the screws that held it together while I watched the men light the grill and the women unfold card tables on the patchy grass, setting out sliced watermelon and pasta salad and pitchers of sweet tea.
Memorial Day had been the best. I’d seen my mom walk up behind Daryl while he was turning the hotdogs and put her arms around his waist and settle into his body; and instead of getting mad at her for surprising him, Daryl leaned into her and smiled. In the flickering light from the grill, they’d looked like something I wanted to take a picture of.
Fourth of July had been the worst. I’d been excited to wear my new shorts—red-and-white stripes on one side, blue with white stars on the other—but they were made of that spandex denim that stretched out so much I had to keep hiking up the waistband to keep them in place. Mom had on a black halter-top and lipstick the exact color of pink in the Baskin Robbins logo. I thought she looked good. So did Daryl. When we got there, he looped an arm around her waist and told her so. But Daryl must have thought Charlene, who was a hostess at the pizza place Marcus managed, looked good too, because I saw him sidle up next to her later, telling her how much he loved her Coca-Cola cake, his flimsy paper plate buckling under the weight of the food he’d piled on, baked beans slipping off the side and onto the dirt. I walked over to Daryl and Charlene and swiveled my foot back and forth in front of them, making an indentation in the ground. Daryl didn’t even notice as I kicked the spilled beans into the hole and covered them with the dirt.
When my mom came back outside with a new coat of lipstick and another red plastic cup full of punch, she saw Daryl leaning into Charlene’s story and she grabbed his arm and dragged him behind the neighbor’s place. Charlene shrugged her shoulders at Desiree, who was unwrapping packets of sparklers for the little kids. “I’m not gettin’ messed up in all that,” she said, hands to her chest, palms facing out.
From next door, my mom’s voice grew louder and louder until I heard the crack of an open palm on skin, then she came running for me. I’d been excited about climbing up to the roof of the trailer to watch the fireworks, but she grabbed my arm just like she’d grabbed his and speed-walked me to the car. It wasn’t even all the way dark yet. On the drive home, I flicked the lock on the passenger side door up and down until I noticed we were drifting across the centerline. I grabbed the wheel and jerked the car back into the lane. I steered the rest of the way home while my mom worked the gas and brakes, and I pinched her arm every once in a while to make sure she didn’t close her eyes again. In bed that night, I realized there had been no red mark, no handprint, on my mom’s face. She had slapped Daryl.
The next morning, she came into my room and crawled into bed with me just as the sky was getting light. “Do you think I’m a bad mom?” she asked. I was facing the wall; she was spooning me, still wearing last night’s outfit. Her breath was hot on my neck, and I could smell vomit under the minty scent of her mouthwash.
“No,” I said after a minute and I meant it, but I knew I should have said it quicker.
“I’m gonna quit drinking, I think,” she whispered into my hair.
In Missouri, my mom decided we had enough money to spend the night at a motel. Just one night. I was so happy to sleep in a real bed. As soon as we got to the room I flopped onto it, the bedspread rough against my bare legs, and turned on the television. I was desperate for something familiar. My mom switched it off.
“Let’s go swimming,” she said. She tossed a pillow at my face. She got like that sometimes. “We’ve been cooped up in the car all day.” Neither of us had packed a swimsuit. Underwear showed the same amount of body, but it felt different to be in my underwear where anybody could see me. My mom was in her underwear too, but her bra was black and shiny so you couldn’t really tell.
Some nights after my mom came home from Daryl’s, she would bang into the furniture or clang the pots together in the kitchen until the noise woke me. She’d pretend it had been an accident. “Now that you’re awake, want to walk down to the pool with me?” she’d say. The pool was shaped like a giant kidney bean and sheltered by the different buildings of the apartment complex. It was crowded in the evenings, but when it was really late it would be just the two of us. I would perch on the ladder at the deep end of the bean while she swam in restless, sloppy circles in front of me, telling me about Daryl and Marcus and everything I’d missed out on that night.
But at the motel pool in Missouri she was sober and quiet. We were floating in the middle of the pool with our stomachs to the sky, our limbs slowly sinking into the water. “I think you’ll like Oregon,” she said, and backstroked until her head was floating next to mine, our bodies facing in opposite directions. “It’s a good place to grow up. You’ll need a real jacket. We’ll get you one. Grandma June might have some old ones of mine, too.”
My legs started getting heavy, I kicked a couple times to keep them on the surface of the water. “Does it snow there?” If she answered yes, I would ask more questions.
“Not in Eugene,” she said. “Maybe once or twice when I was growing up.” I closed my eyes and tried to make myself believe that I was back in the kidney bean. The pool water lapped against the filter, flapping it open, then shut, then open again.
In the room, I showered under such hot water that it left me flushed for hours. My skin was wrinkled and puckered from the pool. My mom washed our clothes in the bathtub and dried them with the hair dryer and in the morning when I put them on they were stiff and smelled of shampoo, but they were clean. At the free breakfast I had bacon and pancakes and used as much syrup as I wanted, and she didn’t say anything. Before leaving the dining room, she tossed my backpack under the booth and filled it with whatever would fit. Anything that might stay good for a couple days. Croissants, muffins, packets of jelly, tiny boxes of cereal, waxy green apples and bananas. We never went hungry on the road, but I missed certain things. I missed standing next to my mom at the stove, listening to the sizzle of the ground beef hitting the pan, sneaking a lick of the seasoning before she poured out the rest of the packet. I missed the heavy plates with the painted flowers on the rim that I used to trace with my fork between bites. I missed drinking milk in the mornings. But I didn’t tell her any of that.
She’d switched on my light, grabbed my suitcase from under the bed, and started pulling clothes from my dresser before I’d even sat up. “What’s going on?” I asked, narrowing my eyes against the sudden brightness. My mom was drunk. Ever since the Fourth of July when she’d drifted off at the wheel, she hadn’t been drinking, at least not around me. But that night she was drunk.
“Take your favorite things,” she said, tugging hard on the bottom drawer of the dresser, the one that always stuck. “We’ll come back for the rest later. Just take what you want. Quick.” The drawer came unstuck, sending her stumbling backward. I was half-asleep and obedient, and filled the suitcase easily. Tank tops. My white denim shorts. A soft old shirt of Daryl’s that my mom used to sleep in. Underwear. Flip-flops. My copy of Bridge to Terabithia, page folded down to mark my place, which was chapters ahead of where I was supposed to be for school. It was funny, the things I chose to bring, the things I forgot. I brought my toothbrush, as if that were something expensive and irreplaceable. I forgot my friendship necklace—the golden “BEST” to Shauna’s “FRIENDS,” with the chain that turned my neck green if I wore it for too long.
My mom stabbed at the ignition with the key until she finally managed to get it in. I almost asked her if she needed help but she drove carefully and we didn’t go far, just to the IHOP near the interstate. I ate French toast like a robot while she drank a whole pot of coffee and ordered a refill. We stayed until the waitress started wiping the table to move us along, and by then my mom had pretty much sobered up. I knew because she asked me to calculate the tip. When she was drunk she just left the change, whether it was barely a dollar or far too much for what we’d ordered.
When we walked back out to the car, I noticed that the bumper was slightly askew and the glass casing around the right headlight had been shattered.
“What happened, Mom?” I asked, pointing.
“Nothing,” she said, staring at the car, tilting her head the same way as the bumper. “Nothing happened. Try to sleep in the car. It’s late.”
Both of us were in good moods. We’d had dinner at a Dairy Queen in a little town in Nebraska called Grand Island, and that name was still cracking us up because it was the most hick town we’d ever seen and there was no body of water for miles. Grand Island. It was the first time I’d seen her laugh in a while and I was trying to think of more jokes, to keep her laughing. We were going fast on a back road that the man at Dairy Queen had told us would lead to the interstate, belting out our favorite Carly Simon song. Jesse, I’ll always cut fresh flowers for you. She was almost screaming it. Jesse, I will make the wine cold for you. I was tapping out the beat with my feet on the dashboard. I will put on cologne, I will wait by the phone for you. Something about that song made me feel so hopeful, even though it was about Carly Simon going back to someone who didn’t treat her like he should. But she sounded triumphant, and I could sense it: Everything was going to work out. Jesse was going to be a better boyfriend this time around. We would make it to Oregon. Happiness fizzed and bubbled up inside me.
We didn’t even see anything; just felt a thump under the wheels that made us bounce against the seatbelts. Carly Simon kept singing. We hadn’t passed another car in miles, but my mom still looked in the rearview mirror before pulling over. She got out of the car, telling me to stay put, but after a minute I went to find her. She was standing over the body of a small animal, staring down, her arms crossed over her body like she was cold. She didn’t notice me until I was standing next to her. “Just a rabbit,” she said. “Nothing to worry about.”
I squatted down. Its body was splayed open, fur wet with blood. Its face was untouched though, and its mouth hung open slightly. Its ears looked soft. I bit my lip. “Can we bury it?”
My mom shrugged. “Sure, I guess. I should get it off the road, anyway.”
She dragged it by the ears over to the shoulder so no other car would hit it, and we kneeled next to each other in the dirt beside the tar and started digging. It was so quiet I could hear the scraping of our fingertips breaking the earth.
“I screwed up,” she said.
I looked back at the rabbit. The trail of blood from where she’d dragged it gleamed, dark on the asphalt. “It wasn’t your fault,” I said. “It just walked out in front of the car.”
“Not that,” she said, digging harder. “I mean, shit, I screwed that up too, but I meant with everything else.” The hole was already plenty big enough.
“Like what?” I said. I’d never heard her talk like this, especially not sober. She unearthed a small stone and turned it over and over in her hand.
“With Daryl,” she said. “I messed up pretty bad with Daryl.” I wondered what she meant, but I didn’t want to interrupt. “With you. I think you’re the best thing I ever did and I fucked things up for you—” She laughed and wiped her nose with the back of her arm, and I saw she’d started to cry. “And now we’re digging a grave together,” she said, laughing harder.
I didn’t know why it was funny but I wanted her to think I understood so I started laughing too, and she kept laughing and pulled me close and soon I really was laughing because it felt good. We sat there a long time, in the dark, just laughing.