I decide to wait on the deck; get used to the November chill. After a while the screen door creaks and Mom steps out, work weary, eyeing the road with impatience. For this thing of mine, she doesn’t say no, she doesn’t say yes. I wonder if she’ll stand waiting with my little sister, when—if—her time comes. Who knows. Talent’s a tricky thing.
The headlights from the pickup grow on approach, find the house, my patient face, Mom’s frown. A gravel crunch, then the engine settles into a stubborn hum. Its dusty sides hide the nearly-payed-for Honda. Mom stands back at the threshold as I move forward.
“Math test tomorrow.” She says, to say something.
“I won’t be gone long.”
Her voice follows me down the driveway, loud enough for the driver to hear: “You’re goddamned right.”
A face leans out the rolled-down window. Looks about to speak, but instead just nods me in, impatient. The arm bracing the door is all muscle and fat. A stubborn ring-line dents the one finger. I scramble up into the passenger seat, slamming my door to the echo of the one at the house. My life these days is a clock tick.
I leave one mother and sit with the other.
“Buckle up,” says Mona, revving out into the dusk. Always with her cautions. The supplies sit rattling in the back.
Too fast. We’re stopped. Red blue strobes lazily slap Mona’s face.
The cop appears, head height at the window. The road stretches ahead of us out of town, empty. He’s someone’s uncle, a face in the store. He nods a vague recognition my way.
“Out late for a school night.”
Mona raises the eyebrow I know well. Is that a question?
A flashlight sweeps the cab, then rests on the truck-bed behind us.
The engine plinks.
“Target practice,” Mona eventually offers, exhaling boredom.
The guy nods slowly, the light back on me.
“Bit young, ain’t she?”
Mona makes that scoffing noise; the one that used to bounce up the stairs after bedtime.
The guy is about to speak, but from the squad car, a woman’s tone.
“Leave it, Art.”
He holds his gaze on us a while.
“You ladies have a great evening.”
Mona ignores him, offers a curt nod to the rear-view. She puts the pick-up into drive. We continue. Into the woods.
This is the lesson.
We unload the pickup. The stake and hammer scrape the metal bed; the hold-all unspills its contents.
We take the heavy tape-measure, unravel its metal tongue, walk out the distance in stages. One hundred feet. A line in the pine-needled sand. Stake in. Hammer down. Borders are important.
I take off my jacket, roll it carefully at my feet. Ignore my frosting breath.
We take the purse and put it on my shoulder.
We take off my shoes, and we strap me in ugly patent heels.
We take the lipstick and Mona smears it across me like a wrong answer.
She strolls back to the far end of the line, and squats down at the stake, adjusting her jeans as she goes.
A long time. I can see stars now. We shiver together.
Then she whistles. A long wolf whistle that has nothing to do with this place of wildness.
I grip my purse. I stand firm.
She calls out, gentle, playful in someone else’s voice. “Hey, girl. What’s up?”
I avert my gaze, make myself a shape solid but not suggestive. She stands. Moves forward on the line. Two feet.
“I said what’s up girl? How you doin’?”
I say nothing.
She steps forward. A different tone, apologetic, deep, urgent.
“Hey ma’am, can I talk to you?”
I turn, enunciate clearly.
“I’m waiting for my uncles.”
A brief upturn of her lip – she thinks the plural was a reach, but gutsy. She steps forward, re-loads. Gushes.
“You’re so smart! A look at your paper before the deadline would really help me out.”
I smile, switch to warm but knowing.
“Thanks, that’s kind. But maybe the teacher can give you some pointers?” (Deflection. Boundaries. Reference to an authority figure highlights risk of external censure.)
A step forward: shift-change. Charm. Moneyed confidence.
“So everyone’s heading to that party. Got my car. Give you a ride?”
I mime extracting a cell-phone from the purse, turning on the GPS.
“What’s the address again? I have some errands, but maybe I’ll meet you there?”
Shit. Tier 3 response, not what she’s looking for. I try again. Firm.
“No thanks, I’m good. Have fun.”
A step forward.
She says: “Can I have your number?” Step. She says, “Can I take your picture?” Step. She says, “It’ll just get you mellow, trust me.” She says, “I know a short-cut, trust me”. She says, “You can help me out, right?” She says, “You’ve gotta be a team player.” She says, “I take mine black, two sugars”. She says, “What are you, frigid?” She says, “What, no smile?” She says, “I’ll tell your mom.” She says, “Your mom’ll never know.”
On and on, step by step; the owls and the winter things waking.
This is the practice.
I say no.
I say no thank you.
I say not now.
I say what the fuck you say to me?
I say I’m not alone.
I say my god, that’s so thoughtful of you, but y’know I can’t right now, I’ve got this call, oh hang on, hi Dad I’m just here with—
I say back off.
I say you’re nothing.
I say I’m nothing.
I say nothing.
By the time she reaches me, the volley is sharp and cutting, my face bruised from rictus smiles, lowered eyes. Weary. I miss my TV, and steamed greens, and the dishwasher, and the spine of my math book, and giggled smearings of sticky fingers colouring over the lines.
Here is my space, and Mona has finally stepped into it. She stands heavy and tall above me, all sweat and sneer, and says the thing that needs no language.
This is the latest lesson, the hardest thing to learn: for when the words, the looks, the posture, the unmaking of yourself, isn’t enough. The last chance for us few lucky girls who can be taught how.
I glare a final warning. I hold the air between us like the fall of a glass. Then I let all that threatens me shatter.
For a hundred feet around me, I unmake the world.
In the few minutes after, I just savour the unwatching dark. The creaks, the thud of shocked things falling from branches, the breeze rustling dead forest at my ankles. A soft snow of former flies, mosquitoes, night creatures unflapping. My arms dimpled with cold. The only part of this I have learned to love: my unhurried solitude beneath the sky.
When Mona starts breathing again, I haul her up, choking, from the ground: the only regular touch we have left these days. My jacket did its job cushioning her skull. She’s pale and shaking, but she laughs to hide it, slapping her thighs.
“Good.” she says. Once.
I change my shoes. I wipe my face. We pull up the stake at its border mark. We pack up. We drive home.
No one stops us.
We bump and rust our way up to the house. This time she turns the engine off, flicks the cab light on. Stares back at the house for a second, her face and regrets lost to me. I watch the light behind the front door shift: my other mother waiting. On the air is the cheerful honk of cartoons.
Before I step out, she reaches over, ruffles my hair like I’m a kid again.
“Same time next week, yeah?”
I smile across to the driver’s side weakly.
“Sure. I’d like that”.
She holds her own warm expression a second and then it’s gone. Disappointment drops her face to scorn.
She looks away, shaking again, with something else.
“Get out.” She says. “Just get out.”
I close the door. I open the door. Tick tock. So much more to learn.
Jess Moody is a Wulfrunian in London, UK. She likes her words and worlds a little weird. Nominated for Pushcart ‘19, Best of the Net ‘20, and listed in the BIFFY 50 (Best British & Irish Flash Fiction Awards). www.jmoodywriter.com. Tweets @jessmoodhe