Mona drives with the windows down to dispel any left-over Arizona air. It makes her nose cringe.
Mona is twenty three. Her dry hair blows backwards, slapping the seat. She pulls out the first cigarette of her last pack, anticipating its comfort like expecting rain.
Kevin McTeirson, so many years ago, had taught her what it was like to lose breath forever. After fourteen years of heavy inhaling he managed to seize her wrist. In her resistant palm he dropped her first bad habit. She’d taken it, every day. Back then, her lips shook, and the cigarette felt bulky. But it’s steady now, and she’s grown. Kevin works with his father selling car parts to all the tourists in the small Arizona town, and she’s leaving for the city. But as the sun begins to fall into itself on the other edge of the universe, she remembers the going away present he had left her with a grimace. It shakes its tiny fists, beating on the side of the car seat.
The air clears her senses. For miles, there are just trees and livestock and trees and trees, with the occasional livestock or passing pick-up that rattles away.
In her mind, she resists her new mantra that moving to the city will help her escape this hole. She knows not to think this because every time she does, McTeirson comes back and twists her wrist again. The road ahead stays curved and she thinks about new debts to make and the time to buy. She thinks about jumping from one friend’s house to the next, and then the thin lace underwear that tore a little when she packed it.
After a while, shade becomes dark, and then night. Mona finds a gas station and fills up her grateful car, and lets the baby sleep. The fluorescent lights on the gas station sign isn’t on, but the lights inside eerily flicker in the refrigerated section and over the counter. The man who takes her money looks old and disinterested, but even his few mumbled responses feed her. She smiles at him, a -big, goofy grin, and even uncharacteristically buys a scratch-off ticket. She doesn’t win anything, and discards it in the waste basket next to the pump. She also purchases a map.
“Ain’t nobody needs maps ‘round these parts. The road’s a straight line, you goin’ noth or south,” he scratches his chin, leaning towards her against the counter.
“It takes so long to find an exit that I’m sometimes afraid I’ve dosed off and missed one,” she confesses with a small smirk.
If he hears the joke, he doesn’t understand it. “We ain’t needin’ them maps, cause we know where we supposed ta be.” But he turns around and finds one anyway, handing it to her while looking at her eyes.
It takes strength to get back on that lonely road.
“Just miles and miles,” she says and nibbles on some gas station beef jerky, letting the incense-like smoke of the cigarette calm her from the ashtray. Eyes glow on the forest’s edge, and she locks the door. The baby screams and she jumps, and then it laughs.
“All the city lights. That’s where we’re headed– the city. Where the lights are always on.”
Her stomach suddenly leaps into her throat. For a moment she battles it, but loses.
Mona pulls her car to a thin ditch near a cow field. The baby tries to speak but shakes in frustration as its mother almost rolls out of the car. One bovine looks up jadedly and then, feeling no threat, continues to eat.
“Don’t look,” she says, and suddenly leans over and heaves. It lasts for at least a minute. Her trembling hand falters slightly off the car’s hood, and for a frightened moment she prepares to fall face-first into what she’s just retched out of her system. Shudder. Spit. Shudder.
Pine needles fall. Cows call out in the distance. The car begins to stall, and then blasts rebelliously into full life. Gnats buzz around her head.
She leans up, then back before she climbs back into the old fighter, making sure to chuck the gas station snack out of the car door.
In the back seat the baby continues to spit nonsensical noises. Her eyes are closed, and they become tighter and tighter shut. Then she yells.
“We’re almost there Kevin!”
After a pause she drives on as the baby watches Arizona get farther away and cries.
Mona once loved her family’s attic. She ran barefoot on the creaking wood floor, and her spring dress would dance around her thighs. Dust would fly up in the air and bother her nose. She spun with her arms outstretched, viewing the world in haze and shadows. But she knocked a mirror off the wall, twice her height, by simply trying to reach too far. It fell down a whole foot and stood vertically for a moment before crashing to the ground like a deer that’s been shot. The glass rippled and scattered, and for a minute, Mona was mute and stiff in terror. One of the shards dug a shallow cut into her ankle. The glass glistened in the light given off by the only window. Her only thought was “I’ll be here forever,” and she’d screamed then, loud, guttural screams.
Mona wants to stop thinking about Arizona.
There. There is something there. Her mind begins to panic. In the fuzzy, dark distance, she can see a large- thing. It’s huge, and it’s in the way. Even though it isn’t moving, she begins to slow down and curb to the right.
The nerves are shocked. She puts out the cigarette. Rolls up the window. Subconsciously ducks forward behind the wheel, still rolling at forty-five, but slowing down.
She holds her breath, feeling that young terror like broken glass cut her stomach.
Now she can tell that this thing is white, but a big black hole like a yawning mouth hangs open at her.
She is close to tears,-
If I don’t move it can’t hurt–
only one hundred feet away. And finally she inhales. The fuzz of fear has cleared from her eyes long enough for her to recognize the mighty slumbering beast as a mobile home. Dead stop.
She is surprised at the caution that strikes her before exiting her car. As a final precaution, she snatches a flashlight out of the glove compartment. Then she crawls out into the night, leaving her headlights aimed slightly left of the slumbering beast, and the baby groping for her mother.
Before she goes towards it, she aims her flashlight into the forest for the eyes- the glistening glass. For a minute, she stands there, and then takes a few steps forward, still hypnotized by the forest’s animosity.
She finally looks at the mobile home and her heart skips and then races. Then tin metal sides are dented all around, like it’s been rolled on its side until it resembled someone sucking in their stomach. It leans lazily on three slashed tires. The front door hangs open. It is too dark to see the interior, but in the daytime she would have found it completely naked.
And the writing. The writing. Her feet are blocks. She cannot turn again. Her jaw falls as she thinks “I’ll be here forever,” over and over.
The writing reads, in dark red paint along the metal sidings: “YOU GO WHERE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO.” Under that, on a broken sign hanging limp, reads “Welcome to our happy home!” probably abandoned by the last owners.
A cloth closes over her gaping mouth. Her arms and legs suddenly dispel any energy. Muffled screams, and suddenly she is that little girl trapped in her basement, and that young woman about to inhale her first cigarette, cough it out, and try again. She does not cough it out, and the world goes black, and then blindingly white.
Kelsi Graham is a writing student. She is inspired by the works of Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski, and hopes to become successful in freelance short fiction.