Mom and Joanie are going on a road trip. This is what Mom announces when she turns on all the lights and whips the covers from Joanie’s bed.
“Get moving, baby!” she says, much too loud. “We’re chasing the sun to Mexico.”
The sky over the trees is linty gray. Even the birds are silent. Joanie pictures them docile and dreaming, curtained between their wings.
As Joanie brushes her hair and ties her shoelaces, Mom careens around the bedroom, stuffing all of Joanie’s clothes into a black trash bag. Mom is wearing her long leopard print coat. The room floods with her scent of rose oil and bitter onion.
It snowed while Joanie was sleeping. Her toes are numb in her sneakers. Mom’s high-heeled boots cut black crescents into the white. Uncle Kip’s Corvette is idling in the driveway. It’s an old red car with a broken headlight. Mom heaves the trash bag into the back seat and pushes Joanie in after.
Uncle Kip turns to look at Joanie, smiling his wide, white smile. He has the straightest teeth Joanie has ever seen. “Look alive, kiddo,” he says. “We’ve got to drive like the devil’s at our heels.”
Uncle Kip isn’t really Joanie’s uncle, but that’s what Joanie has always called him. He’s always making jokes that Joanie doesn’t understand. Once, he told Joanie that his left foot was fake, that he’d lost it to a crocodile when he worked as a guide in the Amazon. For weeks, she scrutinized the strip of skin between his shoe and his pant leg, searching for a hidden seam. It wasn’t until he took off his socks to wade into the flooded basement that Joanie saw his foot, pale and veiny and covered in dense black hair, just as skin-and-bones as the rest of him. She hasn’t trusted him since.
Uncle Kip merges onto the highway. His eyes keep flicking to the rearview mirror, but there’s no one behind them. The road is a slate of unbroken black. Joanie watches the apartment fall from sight, until it’s as though it never existed.
Joanie knows that they will never return to the apartment. When Mom and Joanie leave a place, they don’t come back. Before this apartment were more apartments, and before Uncle Kip were more Uncle Kips. Joanie does not remember the beginning. As far as she can tell, there was no beginning at all.
The world thaws into color. Snow sheds from the pine trees, and the sky is a pane of deepening blue. Mom shucks off her boots and wriggles her painted toes on the dash. Uncle Kip drives with one hand on the wheel and the other kneading Mom’s bare shoulder. His phone keeps ringing and he keeps turning it off. He and Mom pass a silver flask back and forth. Joanie rests her forehead against the window and watches the sun swing across the sky, like something on a string.
As they drive, Kip tells Joanie stories of his years in the Amazon. Joanie’s never left New England. She’s never known a winter without snow. Kip tells her about river dolphins pink as the soles of her feet, about crocodiles inert and blinking in brown water, about how when he grew bored he would shoot at the parrots that nested in low-hanging trees.
The day is clear and sparkling. The snow has melted clean away. Uncle Kip rolls down all the windows, and the car fills with a tumult of air, warm and wet and tasting of earth. Joanie feels it on her like breath.
“Sons of bitches,” says Uncle Kip, accelerating until he is nearly touching the bumper of the car in front of him. “Goddamn sons of goddamn bitches.”
Mom fans herself with a magazine she bought at the gas station. “You tell them,” she says. She finds Joanie’s eyes in the mirror and smiles a close-mouthed, secret smile.
Joanie has been awake for twelve hours. The car smells like Mom’s bare feet and the half-eaten pepperoni stick Kip has left in the cupholder. The sun is much too bright. Kip has run out of good stories. Now he’s just telling Joanie about a little girl who got ripped apart by baboons for the Hershey’s Kiss she was carrying in her pocket.
“Can we please stop?” says Joanie. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Hold tight,” says Uncle Kip, with a smile that flicks open and shut like a fan. “Just a few hours and we’ll stop for the night. When I was in military training, we had to go without pee breaks for twelve hours straight.”
Joanie begins to cry. She feels young and stupid, but she can’t stop.
“Cut that out,” says Kip. Sweat is beading beneath his hair. “You’re fourteen years old, for Chrissakes.”
“I’m eleven,” says Joanie.
“We can pull over for a second,” says Mom. “It’s okay, baby.”
“We’ll be there soon,” Kip says coldly. “No stopping.”
“You’re a tyrant,” says Mom. “I hope you know that about yourself.”
Uncle Kip’s hand tightens on Mom’s shoulder until her skin drains white. Mom sucks in her breath, but says nothing. Even though no one moves, something in the air seems to crack, as though Kip has hit her. In the wing mirror, Joanie sees her mother’s face, which has been swept of all expression.
Then it is as though nothing has happened, except a prickling silence has fallen over them. Joanie sits very quietly in the backseat, wiping her nose with her sleeve and trying to think about anything but how badly she has to pee. She pictures the pavement peeling away from the wheels of the Corvette, pictures all the people encased in the passing cars, the whole innumerable number of them, moving in parallel toward the distant and inviting edges of the world.
They’re spending the night with Kip’s friend Stevie. Stevie’s house smells like mold and cigarettes. He has a fat old dog who keeps rubbing its goopy eyes on Joanie’s jeans.
Stevie doesn’t talk much. He has a pink bald spot on his head, like a burn, which Joanie itches to touch. He microwaves a tray of mac and cheese while Mom and Kip go out onto the porch to talk in low, insistent voices with their heads close together. The mac and cheese is cold in the center but Stevie is watching her with such anxious expectation that she finishes the whole thing.
Stevie had a daughter who was born with a hole in her heart and died when she was four years old. He shows Joanie the curl of her hair that he wears around his neck. It’s like a doll’s hair, tied with a ribbon that probably used to be white. Stevie makes Joanie touch it, even though she doesn’t want to, even though it feels like touching something dead.
Mom and Kip are arguing. Joanie can’t make out the words, but through the sliding door she watches her mother pushing Kip away and Kip gripping her shoulders, hard, and shaking her. Then Mom wilts against him, and Kip takes her hand in his and flips it over as if to reveal something underneath. He presses his mouth to Mom’s flat palm, and Joanie has to look away, because it’s too private, this moment, like they are taking off their clothes.
Night drops like a curtain, and then it’s a party. There’s Stevie’s girlfriend, Berti, and two men, both named Pete. Berti’s throat is piled with necklaces, and she’s wearing a long silk dress. Berti doesn’t speak much English. “Stevie,” she keeps saying, in a deep, passionate voice, and kissing Stevie on the mouth. “My Stevie.”
The Petes sit side by side on Stevie’s lumpy couch. One is old and one is young, and though Joanie never sees them move, rows of empty beer cans materialize at their feet.
The adults sit around the coffee table and play cards. Soon they’ve drunk enough that they get red in the face and begin to talk in booming voices. When Berti loses at cards, she throws her deck down in frustration, and spades scatter like flung petals.
Mom sets her hand on Joanie’s head. She speaks in a high, lilting voice that is not her own. “Joanie is a very smart girl.”
“That she is,” says Uncle Kip. “It’s too bad.” All the adults laugh, and Joanie stands there with her mother’s sharp nails digging into her scalp, wishing she were anywhere else.
The adults cluster around the kitchen counter with their backs to Joanie, giggling and whispering amongst themselves, and when they turn back around their faces gleam like copper. Then they turn off the lights and dance. They twist the stalks of their bodies toward the ceiling. They become, to Joanie, indistinguishable from one another. Even her mother is lost to her. Stevie’s dog barks and weaves between their stomping legs, but they pay him no attention.
Joanie gathers the strewn playing cards and organizes them by suit and color. Kip materializes before her and plucks the deck from her hand. His face shines with sweat. His shirt is dark with it, slick as oil. He tries to show her a magic trick, but he keeps getting it wrong. Eventually he gives up.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” he says, frowning. “It’s late.”
“I’m not tired,” says Joanie.
“You’re a little kid,” says Kip. “Someone needs to tell you what to do.” He seizes her arm and steers her forcibly toward the stairs.
Joanie tries to pull away, but Kip will not let her go. She calls out for her mother, and then her mother is there. She lurches toward Joanie with her arms outstretched, her eyes feverish and feral. Instinctively, Joanie stumbles back. Then Mom’s foot catches on the edge of the carpet, and she falls, her head striking the corner of the coffee table.
For a moment Kip looms over her, laughing a lunatic laugh. But when she doesn’t move he grows somber and kneels beside her.
“Mom,” says Joanie. Her own voice is very far away.
Mom looks up. Her cheeks are laminated with tears. “It’s okay, baby,” she says. “We’re only playing.”
Kip pulls Mom to her feet. There’s a smear of blood on the carpet. He swipes at her cheeks with his fingers. “Look at that,” he tells Joanie. “She’s just fine.”
“Just fine!” says Mom. She begins to dance again, but now she seems to waver, like a reflection in water. She looks at Joanie over Kip’s shoulder. She tries to smile but it slides right off her face.
It’s too hot. Joanie opens the sliding door and steps out onto the porch. Wind exposes the pale underside of the grass, painting the yard suddenly silver. Joanie listens to the muffled pulse of the music and to animals shifting in the woods.
The adults dance for a long time, but eventually the energy leaves them. They sit on the floor like dolls, with their legs out in front of them, and watch the ceiling fan spin in lazy, slowing circles. One of the Petes laughs, then the other. Mom rests her head in Kip’s lap; he pets her tangled hair. Joanie leans her head against the armrest of the couch. She’s tired. The whole thing has taken on the timbre of a dream.
Berti pulls Joanie into her pillowy lap and cradles her against her chest. The skin of her breasts is crinkled like tissue paper. “Poor baby,” she says, her breath hot in Joanie’s ear. “Poor little baby.”
“I’m not a baby,” says Joanie.
“Of course not!” says Berti. She uncaps a tube of lipstick and outlines Joanie’s mouth. “Beautiful!” she pronounces. “Beautiful!”
Joanie inspects her reflection in the darkened window. She is wretched and wilted, like a girl in one of Uncle Kip’s dirty magazines. She tries to wipe the lipstick off, but she just ends up smearing it all down her chin.
Berti and the Petes fall asleep on the floor. One of the Petes knocks over an open beer and Joanie watches it pool across the linoleum until the dog comes and laps it up. Kip presses his hand between Mom’s shoulder blades, and they go upstairs together.
Stevie turns on the T.V., and Joanie sits beside him on the couch. They listen to Stevie’s dog licking its own butt and to Berti’s intermittent snores. Stevie places his hand on Joanie’s knee; she pushes him away. Then they both sit very still, looking straight ahead, like strangers on a bus. They watch a documentary about birds of the Amazon, but Joanie isn’t paying any attention. She just stares at the T.V. as if at a closed door.
Stevie falls asleep on the couch. Joanie finishes his beer and scratches the dog behind its ears. She goes upstairs, to the little room that Stevie has set up for her, which must have been his daughter’s room, because there’s a gauze canopy over the bed, and the closet is stocked with miniature dresses and shoes. There’s a dollhouse in the corner, all the dolls tucked into their mousetrap beds with their quilts up to their chins. Joanie thinks about how she was once as small as Stevie’s daughter, and the thought makes her ache in a way she doesn’t understand.
Joanie is awake for a long time. She thinks once more about Stevie’s daughter, about the tear in her heart, like a buttonhole. Thinks about the grownups dancing in the moony dark. She does not think about the delicate stamp of her mother’s blood on the white rug. This she holds inside herself like a penny in a closed fist.
Joanie can hear Mom and Kip laughing, can hear their bodies tossing in their bed. Joanie might be only eleven, but she knows what they are doing. At least, she knows what her mother has told her: that she and Kip take off all their clothes, that they touch each other, that they become something other than they were before. In Joanie’s mind, they grow talons and thick, dark fur. They keen and claw at each other. It’s frightening, how much this thought thrills her. It’s shameful, how often and eagerly she imagines it: taking off her clothes and becoming something new.
When Joanie wakes up, she realizes that she’s wet the bed. She bolts to her feet, peeling off her soaked, itchy pajama bottoms. Then she strips the sheets from the mattress and gathers the whole sour-smelling mess up in her arms, carrying it to the bathroom.
Mom is lying in the tub. She’s wearing her silk nightgown with stains around the armpits.
“I’m sorry,” says Joanie, her face burning. “It was an accident.” Then she feels silly for saying so, because of course it was.
Mom turns her head toward Joanie, taking in the urine-stained sheets and Joanie’s bare legs. “Oh baby,” she says. “Don’t worry about that.”
She opens the window and heaves the sheets out. They tangle in the branches of the oak tree outside and hang there like garlands. “Isn’t that pretty,” she says, sounding very sad.
She climbs back into the tub and tugs Joanie down with her. They sit facing each other with their knees drawn up to their chests.
“I’m all right,” says Mom, answering a question that Joanie didn’t ask. “I just feel funny.”
“Are you happy?” Mom asks. “Tell me honestly.”
“I guess,” says Joanie. What she doesn’t say is that she’s never been sure exactly what happiness means, or how she can tell if she’s feeling it.
“It was a trick question,” says Mom. “Got you.”
Joanie runs her hand along the porcelain lip of the tub. She can’t look at Mom’s face.
“You’re too quiet,” Mom says. “It’s creepy. What are you thinking about all the time?”
“I don’t think about much,” Joanie admits, embarrassed. “I mostly just look at things.”
“I leave you alone too much. It’s my fault you’re strange.”
“I’m not strange,” says Joanie.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” says Mom, “but you’re the kind of kid who would set a cat on fire.” Then she goes quiet and grips Joanie’s shoulder, turning her face to the open window. “Listen,” she says.
“They’re howling for the moon. They want it to come out.”
Joanie hears nothing but branches scraping against the side of the house and the static of the distant highway.
Mom takes Joanie’s hand. “Let’s sleep under the trees,” she says. “Let’s hunt deer and suck the marrow from their bones. How does that sound, baby?”
“What about Uncle Kip?” says Joanie.
“Forget Kip,” says Mom. “You know how it will turn out with Kip, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Joanie lies.
“We’ll hate each other, soon enough. He’ll leave, or I will, and it will all be about the same as before, just a little worse.”
Joanie cups the back of her mother’s head, running her fingers along the ridge of dried blood beneath her hair. Mom wraps her hand around Joanie’s wrist, then clamps her pointer finger between her teeth.
“That hurts,” says Joanie.
Mom only bites down harder, until Joanie cries out. Then she relents. “I’m an animal,” she says. “I don’t know any better.”
Joanie’s finger throbs. There are purple indents in her skin where her mother’s teeth bit into her. Mom’s face is much too close. Joanie can see the pores on her nose, the wiry black hairs growing out of the mole on her cheek. Until now, Joanie had thought her mother beautiful, but now she is monstrous, mangled by shadow. Joanie shuts her eyes.
Mom’s fingers press against her eyelids. “Baby,” she pleads. “Look at me.”
Reluctant, Joanie obeys.
“Tell me you love me,” Mom says. “I need to hear it now, as many times as I can, before it isn’t true anymore.”
“I love you,” says Joanie.
“Tell me you forgive me.”
“I forgive you,” says Joanie, but she doesn’t know for what, and she doesn’t know if she means it.
When they leave Stevie’s house, rain is falling, thick as syrup. The windshield of the Corvette is stickered with wet leaves. Joanie, Mom, and Uncle Kip pick them off with their fingers. They’re wide maple leaves the size of Kip’s hand.
When they pull away, Stevie is standing in the driveway with his sad old dog, the rain pasting his hair to his forehead, and Berti is beside him in her fine, tragic clothes, weeping softly and saying, “Poor baby, poor baby, poor baby.”
When she gets into the car, Joanie’s hands are red and numb from the rain. She wedges them in her armpits, but it’s no use. The cold is deep under her skin.
“Buckle up,” says Kip. His voice is somehow hollow, like he’s speaking into a tin can. “Before you know it, we’ll be in paradise.”
They stop at a gas station. Mom and Kip go into the bathroom together and lock the door. While she waits, Joanie wanders aimlessly around the store, watching herself in the T.V. mounted on the ceiling. She pretends to be deciding between two different brands of potato chip. She reads the labels over and over and scrunches up her nose like she’s thinking hard. When Mom and Kip come out, their faces are stretched and shiny, and they’re smiling elastic smiles.
Mom takes Joanie’s face in both her hands and squeezes. “My baby,” she says. “What did I do to earn you?”
Kip buys a large soda and a hot dog which he drowns in mustard. He presses them into Joanie’s hands. “Take it,” he says. “It’s my apology.”
In the parking lot, Mom tells Joanie, “You take shotgun.” She sprawls in the backseat, draping her arm across her face.
They drive for hours, much too fast. Kip switches on the radio and turns the volume all the way up, singing along at the top of his voice. Joanie doesn’t recognize the song, but by the end she knows all the words to the chorus. Sometimes Mom sings, and sometimes she laughs, and sometimes she cries. The road carves without end through the soaked woods.
“Kiddo,” says Uncle Kip. His eyes are round and bright, like lamps. “Why don’t you drive for a while? I’m not feeling quite up to it.”
Joanie has only ever driven on the dirt roads behind the old apartment, on the days when Kip would pick Joanie up from school and take her driving, just the two of them.
Kip pulls the car over onto the shoulder and gets out. He adjusts the driver’s seat so that Joanie can reach the pedals. His dark glasses are sliding down his nose and his breath is harsh and bitter.
When he gets into the passenger seat, Kip’s hands are shaking so badly he can’t buckle his seatbelt, so Joanie clips his, then her own.
She starts the car and they jolt forward. Kip pats her hand and says, “Good girl.” He rests his head against the window and takes long pulls from his flask.
The road is straight and empty and soon Joanie is feeling capable enough. She goes faster and faster. The spaces between the maple trees smudge like paint.
Soon Kip and Mom are both asleep. Joanie feels profoundly alone, as though they have ceased to exist entirely. There is only the beating of the rain and the occasional flash of passing headlights. She finds herself slipping out of time. She doesn’t know if minutes or hours or days have passed.
There’s an animal in the road, blurred behind the screen of the rain. Its eyes glint like coins in the white of the headlights. Joanie wrenches the wheel, and the car spins out and plunges into the ditch, where it fetches up against a steep embankment.
“Jesus Christ!” says Kip, startling awake.
They sit in excruciating silence as rain smears down the windshield and the wipers thump back and forth. Joanie’s heart is beating like it might come loose. She turns around, searching for the monster, but there’s only the fine netting of the rain.
Finally, Kip exhales and says, in a low, measured voice, “I’ll leave you here. I don’t care if you get picked up by a kid rapist or freeze to death in the rain.”
Joanie says, “You’re mean and old. I hope you die.”
He laughs. “Good,” he says. “That’s my girl.”
Mom wraps her arms around Joanie’s neck from behind. “Good morning, baby,” she says, right in Joanie’s ear. “Who taught you to drive?”
Mom and Uncle Kip go off down the road together in search of cell reception, so that they can call a tow truck. Mom keeps tripping in her high-heeled boots and Kip keeps setting her back upright, and they continue on like this until they are out of sight. Joanie waits in the driver’s seat. The sun sinks lower in the sky, and shadows spill across the ground. Cars pass but none stop. Joanie is hungry. She eats the rest of Uncle Kip’s pepperoni stick but is unsatisfied.
It is nearly dark when it occurs to her that Mom and Uncle Kip have left her, or at least forgotten her, though really what’s the difference. She resents her own feeling of betrayal. She has always known, after all, that they would leave her behind eventually.
She gets out of the car and stands at the edge of the woods. The rain has stopped and the air rings with its absence. The wet leaves gleam like glass. She steps upon them gingerly, afraid they will shatter beneath her feet.
She walks until she loses sight of the road. She forgets about her mother, about Uncle Kip, about the Corvette and the endless road and whatever they are running from. There’s only the forest: the damp, full smell of it, the moon slaking the wet leaves.
Eventually she comes to a creek. Water splits around mossy stones. She brings the sweet water to her mouth and drinks. The ribbon of its cold unspools in her chest.
Something moves deep in the woods, and Joanie knows instantly that it’s her mother. She sees the flash of Mom’s leopard print coat through the trees, the bottle-blonde of her hair. She stands and begins to run.
Branches whip her arms and face; thorns snag on her sweater. Her breath saws in her lungs. Mom is whooping and yipping. Sticks crack beneath her feet. She’s only inches away. Joanie reaches for the hem of her mother’s coat, but she remains just out of reach. Then she is swallowed by the impenetrable dark.
Joanie has a sense of everything changing, but she doesn’t know into what. She stops running. All around her, the pines warp and sway. The darkness ripples and distorts like cloth. She removes her shoes and socks, and cold water wells between her toes. Then she strips off all her clothes, casting them aside. She has never felt so naked.
She hears the animals everywhere. They’re howling, hooting, baying. They’re crashing through the woods, all muscles and hooves and rolling eyes and mouths dripping spit, all of them insatiably, horrifically hungry.
Joanie is on her hands and knees. Her teeth lengthen in her mouth. She grows a pelt of thick, dark fur. The darkness opens up before her. She’s ready to join her mother. She’s ready to become different than she was before.
© Madeline Curtis
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy. Read Madeline’s interview]