Kat Lewin is a recent Stanford University graduate who lives and writes in Boston, MA. She has poems published or
forthcoming in Word Riot, nibble magazine, and Breadcrumb Scabs. She also personal-adventure blogs at notthatkindofgirl.net.
I pull up to the gas station just after midnight and a woman—wraith-like, or maybe just caught in a halo of
moving light behind her oversized white T-shirt—flags me down, but I’m tired from driving all night and I’m practicing for messy argument once I get to Emily’s apartment. The gas station isn’t even in a town proper, just a little oasis for big-riggers, mostly. One of those dusty desert shitholes between where you want to be and the place you’ll have to go back to. (“But we’re in this together!” she’ll quaver; “What’s ours is yours now, Em, or no one’s at all.”) Two children are strung behind the woman, the older one a girl of about fourteen and so much like her mother that it is like trick photography. The girl is doing something with her hair, but fourteen is a fidgety age and my eyes drift past her.
“Please,” the woman yowls. Her voice is streaked with abuse.
I look through the back window and jesus her rusty gold volvo is a clown car packed with four or five more of the little things. I don’t look close, because that’s how they draw you in.
“Please help my children.”
She reaches for my elbow and her cold rough fingers break the momentary spell. I flinch her off and bolt inside for my pack of cigarettes, peeking through the door to see whether she has found another victim. One of the kids in the back seat looks like he’s trying to crawl out through the window and keeps jerking his head, dog-like.
The cashier looks a little like Emily—horrible beautiful Emily who disguises her edicts as pleas, and against whose latest attack I am now driving four hundred miles to cast my unambiguous ballot. Maybe the cashier doesn’t look like her. It could just be the way she stands there, rocking from one foot to the other, waiting for me to make a decision. I ask for my smokes, then tell the woman to hold on a second while I grab a family-size bag of plain potato chips. Outside, the fidgety daughter is still pawing at her hair. She would be pretty if...if a lot of things, I guess. Her wrists are tiny. They look more like strokes of calligraphy than recognizable human parts. I nudge the potato chips back into their display and choose another bag, the kind with those thick ridges.
I open my cigarettes as I walk away from the counter and flip the lucky one inside the box, but after I put one in my mouth, I feel the woman’s eyes on me and decide not to light it. Not next to her. I’ll get better time if I just smoke in the car, anyway, and driving a $20,000 ashtray can just be the next entry on the list of reasons I am a colossal fuck-up. So with the stick in my mouth, I walk up to the woman and hold out the potato chips.
“Why won’t anyone help my children?” she moans. Her jaw keeps clenching and unclenching, popping out a vein in her neck that looks almost muscular from all the movement. My grand salty gesture, I go out of my way to be a great guy, and she doesn’t even look at me. It’s so like a woman.
“Here, take these,” I tell her, pushing the edge of the bag against her fingers. Her hand doesn’t move, just gets pushed back dumbly by the obnoxious yellow wrapper. “Come on,” I tell her, “they’re for your kids.”
Her gaze is bovine so I look to the kids flanking her for a spark of enthusiasm. I lock eyes with the boy and—pale shrieking lord, there is a long twist of wire shoved through one of his ears and coming out the other. He tilts his face up at me. The twitchy girl has pulled her curls away from the sides of her head and there also a wire is jammed, fat droplets of blood hanging from her earlobes like garnets. The potato chips hit the ground, and the kid scooted up in the back of the Volvo turns to look at them, his wire scritching against the rear window.
“Jesus, lady,” I shout, “Why didn’t you tell me what was wrong?”
Her head sort of floats down at a sideways angle, and she stares without focus toward the little boy. He gives out a whimper as a pair of headlights blurs down one of those unnamed desert roads, and in the flash of light I see his lips are pale blue, and where they are chapped, little crevices of burgundy, like raw steak that’s too old to cook. I take his shoulder in my hand—his whole shoulder in just my hand, he is so small.
“Stop,” the pretty older girl croaks, and a drop of blood trickles out of the corner of her lips. On reflex, her pointed little tongue darts out and catches it. She dams the corner with the butt of her palm, and her mother finally seems to wake up, and holds the girl, staring at her with intense maternal lovelight.
“Why didn’t you take them to the hospital? We have to take them to the hospital. Who did this—are you okay—jesus, okay, we’ll take your car.” The boy feels hollowed out when I pick him up and move toward the front passenger door of the Volvo.
“We can’t take that car,” she tells me. “Not that one. We can’t take it.”
Fine, okay, I tell her, let’s take my car, and somehow I practically teleport to the passenger side, open the back door and slide the boy in. His breath is grating out of him so loud it’s in my head.
I run back for the girl and try to pick her up, but she walks on her own, slow and prim. Come on, I tell the mother, watching the kid curled up by the back window of her car, his head now barely just bobbing. Open up your car so we can get the others.
“We can’t open my car,” she says, in this weirdly affable tone. “The children are in there.”
“No shit the children are in there,” I say, reaching for her T-shirt, but getting poked by something underneath it, a tag or her keys, I guess. “We need to get them to the goddamn hospital.”
“My children are in there,” she says. “It’s awful.”
I am shaking a little bit, out of frustration and everything else when I go back to check whether the daughter has buckled her seatbelt. She hasn’t—she is leaning across the front seat divider, her stained hand on her brother’s thin ankle. His breathing has gotten quieter. Or—silence.
I run back to the Volvo. When I get there, I have to choke back bile. The little climbing kid has settled with his face mashed into the back foot mat. The fall must have dislodged the wire through his ears—it emerges only from his topmost ear, teetering drunkenly like a carnival ride. Another brother and a sister are huddled together next to him. Their bodies have fallen a few inches apart from where they had been clinging together. Their wires are poking each other’s faces, but they are not going to complain now.
“I’m—I’m so sorry. I know this is terrible,” I try to soothe the woman, but my voice is gushing forward in spurts. “But you need to get in my car right now.”
She looks up at me again, and all the intensity has drained out of her eyes.
“I can’t leave the children. My children are in the car.” She’s in shock, I understand, and that’s why I pick her up around the waist to carry her, but she is surprisingly strong. She snakes her skinny arm down the back of my shirt and digs her fingernails into my skin, ripping it upwards.
From my own car, I can hear her last daughter sob then gasp, sob then gasp. I drop the mother, right there on the ground. She stands up and pulls out from her shirt a coat hanger. And then she starts bending the hook with shockingly nimble fingers, until she is holding a long twist of wire. The intensity is back in her eyes. It is not lovelight. It is something altogether different.
She makes one rapid lunge at my eyes and I bat her out of the way, harder than even I’ve hit another man. I run for my car and turn on the ignition. I am hundreds of yards away before I have time to catch my breath. The pretty daughter looks up at me, and asks where we’re going. “The hospital,” I tell her. Don’t look back now.
But I do look back, one more time. The mother is on her knees, leaning against the body of the car, rolling the hanger between her hands. From here, she looks for all the world like an ordinary woman with an ordinary car, who has locked some object of great value inside and is only trying to jimmy the lock and get it back.
The daughter and I drive on. There is a hospital to find first. When the daughter’s being treated, I can sneak away for a bit and call Emily, let her know I’m coming—she’ll ask why, how long I’m staying, whether I’ll stay no matter what. I’ll let her plead however long she wants this time. Anything must better than driving this car and its blood-smeared passenger through the quiet desert and the time of decisions.