Mom moves softly to the music streaming from the dashboard radio, shaping her lips to the words. She doesn’t make a sound. She’s caught up in her own little world, and if she knew I was watching, she’d stop right then. I watch her in the rear-view mirror where through the slits of me eyes I can capture that secret moment of happiness. When the song ends, she stops swaying. I look out the window.
We’re traveling on a country road. Old red barns with sunken roofs rise out of the tall green grass, and clusters of cows stand in the fields, flicking their tails. Mom doesn’t make me sit in a booster seat sometimes on special drives, and this is one of them. To pass the time, I kick the back of her seat after we drive by a telephone pole. Each one we pass, I kick her so gently she can’t even feel it. Jed chews his nails, but I never do. Still, Jed gets to sit up front.
“I don’t want to go,” he says, pouting again. Mom and I already knew he didn’t want to go. She told us the night before. We all sat in the living room. The TV was on. On the wall beside us were the family pictures and the outlines of collected dust, whiter than the rest of the wall from the sun never reaching, where Mom had taken some photos down, including our big family portrait we had to get all dressed up for last spring.
Mom told us we had to go, and Jed started crying right away. When she told him to stop, he stood up and stomped off to his room. There were some banging noises, and then he came out with a blanket and pillow and hurled them to the floor at our feet.
“What are you doing?” Mom said. The way she said it, you could tell she was getting angry. But he was already gone, returning with shoes and a stuffed penguin of his named James. Mom repeated her question with a voice that couldn’t be ignored.
“I’m moving out,” Jed said, screaming it. He went to his room and came back with a beanie bag and his Power Rangers. He piled everything up on the floor. Soon he had all his things in a big mound. I started crying. I didn’t want him to leave. “You can’t make me go,” Jed said. Then it was like he didn’t know what to do next; he stood there taking deep gasps of air, face flushed and furious.
“Come here,” Mom said. She opened her arms to both of us, laughing enough to where we didn’t know she was crying too.
And even then, all of us together, Jed said, sobbing, “You can’t make me. You can’t make me.”
In the car, Mom reaches over and pulls Jed’s hand away from his mouth. “What did I say about chewing your nails?”
“What if he’s angry with me?” Jed says. “Why can’t I stay home with you?”
“You did nothing wrong.”
“It’s complicated, sweetie. When you’re older we’ll talk about it.”
“Will you tell me when I’m older?” I say.
“I promise.” Mom glances at me in the rear-view mirror. Her blonde bangs curl just above her eyes. She smiles. When she smiles it’s like nothing else. She has a warm spreading one that makes dimples appear above her cheeks. “When you’re both older we’ll talk about it.”
“You have to tell me first,” Jed says. “I’m oldest.”
“Where did Dad move to?”
“He got his own place. You only have to visit on the weekends.”
“I hate it there already,” Jed says.
“You have to be big boys for Mommy if we’re going to make this work.”
“I am big. I’m eight.”
“You’re seven,” I say. “You’re not eight yet. You’re seven.”
“I’m almost eight.”
“I’m six and almost as big as you.”
“Stop it,” Mom says. “Both of you.” She wiggles a stern finger in the air, looks at me again in the mirror, and winks.
Lots of telephone poles go by before we get to a town much smaller than the one we live in. There’s a few brick buildings, some houses. Looming over everything is a big factory that has smoke coming out of it. Downtown, an old leathery man sits on a bench outside a diner, following the passage of our car with a level turn of his head, his hands resting on the top of his cane. Mom pulls into a parking lot. The shop next the diner has a sign with an ice cream cone on it. She turns the car off and sighs. The man on the bench just stares.
“He said he’d be here,” Mom says. “He better come.”
“Where are we?” I say.
“We’re meeting your Dad here. He just started work in that power plant.” She points to the black smoke curling in the sky.
“I don’t want to go,” Jed says, and I can tell he’s getting close to crying. “I want to go home.”
Across the street, a family walks out of the shop holding ice cream cones. I ask if when Dad comes, maybe we all can get ice cream together. Mom thinks about that while chewing her thumbnail. She decides we should get some now while waiting for Dad.
The man on the bench follows us with his eyes. When we get near enough to hear, he says, leaning on his cane, voice crackling like crumpled paper, “Taking good care of your Mother, boys?” We nod, and he continues, “She needs a pair of strong boys. Do you stay out of trouble? I was a naughty boy, always kissing girls. My own Mother used to beat me with a belt whenever I misbehaved, and you know what?” Mom tries to pull us away right as the man leans forward even more, his face flush with our own, his coal-black eyes darting back and forth between us. “I still misbehave,” he cackles, sitting back. He taps the cane on the ground. Laughing, he exposes dark gum lines inside a hollow and toothless mouth. Mom yanks our arms. We hurry inside, the shrill sound of a brass bell clanging above the opening door.
Inside the shop is a withered woman standing behind glass. Decorating the walls are photographs of cows and barns, other scenes from the country, and shelves of taffy and hard candy. The crone has a scowl on her face that pushes her chin out. She narrows her eyes at us. She pulls on a pair of latex gloves, picks up a scoop, and asks us what we want. Jed doesn’t want anything. Mom keeps looking back at the parking lot outside. She says how about two ice cream sandwiches, and the woman, in a show of annoyance, tears the gloves off and gets a couple from a freezer in the back.
We eat them by our car. Mom leans against the hood with her arms wrapped around her sides. After a while she gets a pack of cigarettes from the glove compartment. She smacks the pack sharply across the palm of her hand, tears off the plastic, and takes one out. She watches the street. She watches the man on the bench. She puts a thumb in her mouth. Then the cigarette. Then the thumb.
“Mom, stop chewing your nails,” Jed says.
“Let’s go,” Mom says. “In the car. Let’s go.”
“Is he coming?”
Mom starts the car with all of us inside, and right as we are about to leave, a little car with a dent on the hood pulls in so quick the tires scream. Dad parks alongside us, and Mom sighs again. We all get out. There’s a moment after leaving our cars when we all stand and stare at each other across the gap between us. Dad looks at Mom across this space and frowns.
“Sherry,” he says.
“You’re late,” she says.
“I know – I.”
Mom turns and kisses us each on the forehead. “Be good,” she says.
“I want to stay with you,” Jed says.
“You’re going to have fun. I promise.” She leads us by the hand to Dad’s car.
“Can I sit up front?” I say.
“Sure,” Mom says, but that was too much for Jed because he starts crying.
Mom grabs him by the shoulders, lightly shaking him. “What did I tell you? What did I tell you?”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Sherry, can we talk?”
“Now’s not a good time. Jed, stop crying. Get in.”
I climb into the front seat, and turn and shake my tongue at Jed.
“We have to talk. I have to say some things.”
“It’s too late for that.”
“You’re too late.”
“Mom’s crying,” I say to Jed. He stops crying to watch.
Mom’s face is downturned to hide from us. Dad stands before her with his hands out in front of him. He looks like he might hug her but then he reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out his cigarettes and a lighter. He lights one. Mom has her face in her hands and her shoulders shudder.
“Sherry,” he says, so soft we almost don’t hear. “I can’t begin to tell you.”
“When I’m old enough, I’m going to beat him up,” Jed says under his breath. “I hate him.”
“I’m telling,” I say.
Mom pulls a sleeve over a fist and wipes her eyes. She takes the cigarette from Dad’s hand.
“I thought you quit.”
“A lot’s changed,” she says. She coughs and hands it back. She peers into the car at us and puts on one of those smiles. “Good bye, boys,” she says. She blows us each a kiss.
“Bye, Mom,” I say, waving my hand.
“Be here on time Sunday,” Mom tells Dad.
“Can we talk then?”
“It’s too late for that.” She goes around to the driver seat, starts her car, and drives out of the lot and onto the road. Dad follows her with his eyes. He finishes smoking in three long drags. He flicks the butt away. Jed starts quietly crying again.
We drive out of that town and back into the country. Dad says, “Stop crying, Jed,” and that gets him to stop. Dad turns the radio on and turns the volume up. Dad must have his own little world too, but it’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like.
I say, “What are we going to do today?”
I turn then and peer out at the hills and barns and cows, seeing nothing in particular except for telephone poles flashing by, one after another, and when we pass one I kick out, hitting nothing but air. A soft sob arises once more from the back seat.
“What did I say, Jed?”
Dylan Couch resides in northern Wisconsin, near Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. For work, he restores log homes. He spends his time reading and penning fiction and has plans to attend graduate school for an MFA.