Nano project 2011.
All places and people are wildly fictional, so put away your maps people.
- Bernadette, July 1994 –
They drive forever and ever, windows rolled all the way down, Mama smoking those thin menthol cigarettes, one after another and Mila is queasy but she doesn't dare to ask Mama to stop by the side of the road so that she can puke.
"Like an adventure, you'll see," Mama lisps, her little red mouth pinched around the filter.
But it doesn't feel like an adventure. Feels like a trick. Mila keeps her eyes on the white lines of the road. Tries to push the sour taste in her mouth down. Mama doesn't like fussing so she doesn't. Hopes Mama will change her mind. Don't. Don't leave me.
"I'll be good, Mama, I promise, just don't make me," she whispers, her hand over her mouth.
Mama makes no sign of having heard, just keeps on driving, a stiff smile on her face, meant for someone else, something else than Mila.
Discussion closed. Already told her, it'll be like a holiday camp. And that she'll be back to pick Mila up after the summer is over. The warm air rushing through the windows does nothing to ease the heat. Like being steamrolled. Mila's naked legs stick to the plastic seats. She tries wedging her hands under them, right where the dress ends. The slap is instant. Mama's hand snapping out like a whip. Bad girl. Bad girl. Wants to explain she wasn't doing anything wrong but Mama's china-doll face is hard and empty. Knows she won't believe her.
They take off down a dirt road. It's bumpy and there are potholes everywhere. Mama drives fast and carelessly. Mila knocks her head against the car door, again and again, tossed here and there. The road runs on a raised bank between muddy, watery land. The trees are nearly naked from leaves. They look like giant skeleton hands stretching their bony fingers towards her.
She squeezes her eyes shut. Somehow Mama will change her mind. Somehow she will realize she can't spend all summer without Mila. Needs her. Yeah, Mama needs her. Nobody can take care of Mama like she can. Who'll watch out for Mama when Mama's ghosts bug her?
Mama has barely time to fling herself out of the car before she asks the man she calls Uncle Kelsoe if she can use his restroom. The man grunts and they both remain in the driveway of the big freaky house, watching Mama make her way towards the house, glossy black hair swinging down her back. Mama wears one of her Vietnam dresses. It's pink and tight, shimmering and shining like a fish skin in the sunshine. Her butt moving left and right as she takes the steps briskly.
Mila glances at the man. She knows men like to look at Mama. The man immediately tears his eyes off Mama and adjusts his hat, clearing his throat, pretending he wasn't staring. But Mila isn't stupid. Knows his kind.
"That monstrosity up there's Blue's Folly. Story has it, old Wallace Blue wasn't all right up there. As you can see." Uncle Kelsoe thumps his own skull with his index finger to make that clear and Mila can't hold her mouth no longer.
"I ain't staying here," she hisses.
"Ain't inviting you either, kid." He's got a chin that sticks out further than his nose and Mila decides that she won't like him. Won't like him even a bit. "Got any idea what business your Mama has around these parts?"
Mila won't answer. Won't tell him about all Mama's talk of adventure and holiday camps. Suits her fine if that man doesn't want her here. Suits her just right.
The man peers at her with small eyes, almost buried in the fleshy face. Like a hogs. Or a boars. She bets he's a mean one.
"Ever see gators before?" He has a big old barrel-like belly that looks like it's about to burst out of his dungarees.
She shakes her head. She doesn't care about his dumb gators. Her eyes on the front door of that old house. She wants to wait here for Mama. Doesn't feel good about Mama alone in that ghost house with its boarded up windows and sagging porch. An adventure, Mama said. She gazes at the Spanish moss flagging from the trees in front of it, like those skeleton trees lining the road. She won't stay here. She'll kick up such fuss Mama will be forced to bring her with her.
"Come along then, snapling." He puts a hand as big as a bear paw on her shoulder making her knees sag. He smells unwashed, his hair peeking out under his hat like the fur of an old scabby dog sticking out over his collar. Maybe he feels her cringing because he takes back his hand and turns on his heel. So sure that she'll follow. "Your mama can catch us up."
Wants to argue but instead she picks her way behind the man, careful not to splash mud on her new white socks, itching to tell him that he shouldn't take the trouble seeing as how she ain't staying anyhows. No way.
He leads her towards what looks like a long wooden bridge, winding through the brushes, sludgy water beneath and ugly gators lazing around here and there on the pond banks. They seem to walk and walk forever, mosquitoes and bugs eating her up. She swats and swats and watches the broad back of the man. He hardly seems bothered at all. He stops by what looks like an enclosure. A big pond with a fence around it. A small stretch of dry land.
"Hey, small-fry. See that one over there, the hunk with the grin?"
The man points with his cigar and her eyes follow the wafting smoke. A gator, large as a canoe lying waist up on the bank. And it's true, it really looks like he's grinning. A crooked, mean shit-eating grin that makes Mila think of Mama's latest boyfriend, Hal. She twists her head, eager to hear the tippety-tip of Mama's heels on the wooden trail.
She yawns to show the creepy old man that she doesn't give one hoot about his silly gators.
"That there's old Moe. And if there's one thing and one thing only to know about gators..." The man smiles at her, not unlike the alligator himself. "If the sonofabitch grins like that, he's looking to take a fucking bite out of you. You best remember that."
"Uh. Okay." She fidgets with the ribbons on her pigtails, wondering why Mama went through the trouble of gussying her up. Not like this mud-splattered old grump is going to care either way.
And then she hears it. As if she's a bunny rabbit in the forest, screwing up her ears. An engine starting. No. No. No.
She swivels around and sets off on the landing. It's rickety and the wood rotten on spots, she leaps, jumps. Must get there – in time. Mama. Her breath burning, stinging her throat. A thundering sound behind her, the man's heavy weight making the wood creak and complain. Dunn-dunn-dunn. But she's small and light on her feet. She hurtles forward. How did they get so far? Can't hear the engine no more. Her own breathing too loud.
She loses her balance, one wrong step and she knows she's falling before she's hit the ground. Instead of ground, a big splash. But she can stand up immediately. The water shallow and she has just about time to turn her head and notice the gator, bubblegum pink gap wide open, when something yanks her back. Hauling her up by her collar or the short hair of her neck. Finds herself like a fish out of water, twitching on her back on the wooden planks.
A shadow over her as wide as a barn door.
"Gid up." That's how he says it. "Ain't nobody gonna' teach you any lesson twice around here. You watch your feet or you don't, it's that simple."
He waits for her to get to her feet. Doesn't stretch out a hand to help her up. Just watches her clamber up, tired. As if he's too lazy to keep his eyes properly open. Her white socks are brown with mud, her clothes soaked through and through. And Mama. No, that engine wasn't Mama. It can't have been.
Mr. Kelsoe trundles on in front of her, the back of his pants sagging, almost down by his knees. He stops where the footpath ends, Mila coming up beside him. And there where the car was is an empty space so empty she's never seen anything like it. Gone.
"Looks like your mama's done a runner on you, kid."
No. Mama can't have left her here with this horrible weird old man. Not like this.
"Maybe she's getting something from the store," she says, a disgusting quiver to her voice.
Mr. Kelsoe takes his hat off and scratches the side of his head. It's bald and redish on top and the thick tufts of hair hanging down at the sides making him look like he's got wolf's ears. He'd look funny if he weren't so creepy. If Mama hadn't left her with him.
"Your mama do this sort of thing often? Dump you on innocent folks and skedaddle?"
'No," she lies and decides that she won't cry even though her eyes stings and her throat feels thick and achy. She hadn't cried when Mama left her behind at that gas station in Lafayette or when she'd found herself alone at Hal's so she sure as hell won't cry now.
Besides if Mama comes back and finds her bawling she'll get a scolding and Mama will be upset. Ghosts eat tears. She ain't gonna' give them reason to come. Mr. Kesloe's old house probably has plenty of ghosts on it's own, no need to lure Mama's there.
"Your mama never was right in the head, never will be. The way I see it, it's a damn miracle she done raised you this far. Never thought I'd see the day..." Mr. Kelsoe picks up her pink knapsack where Mama has dropped it. Mila can almost see Mama chucking it out through the car window before disappearing in a cloud of dust. Mama hates goodbyes. But she said she'd be back after the summer. She'll be back, she will. All Mila has to do is wait. "Come along then. Let's get you inside while we figure out what to do with you."
Mr. Kelsoe trudges ahead of her up towards the house, gravel crunching under his big waddling feet.
"I'm gonna' wait here," she calls after him. Hating how she sounds like a scared little mouse. "Mama will be back soon."
He turns to her, shrugging, cigar in his flaccid mouth as he pulls in what seems to be a shipload of snot.
"Well, hate to break it to you, kid. I ain't seen her for ten years. Wouldn't be surprised if it's another decade before we see hair or hide of her again."
"Fuck you," she squeaks and he looks her over as if it's no biggie, a kid cussing at him, his face bland and calm like chicken broth, running his slug-like tongue over his front teeth.
"Yeah you can be as pissy as you want, hatchling, but you best just suck it up. She done cracked your egg open and I reckon that's all the rearing you gonna' get. Nothing to snivel about. You're on your own now, kid. Deal with it."