“I got to pee,” Janet said.
It was the perfect four words to break the long silence in the car. The road trip had now spanned close to eight hours since dawn, and the last two hours were the most arduous for Janet’s father as he wrestled pigtail curves across the endless countryside.
Ned Rollins glanced from the driver seat over to his wife. Maggie looked back at him with tired eyes. From behind them Janet said again, “I got to pee.”
“Honey, I asked you if you had to potty during lunch,” Ned said over his shoulder. “You said ‘no’. Even Mommy asked you.” He grunted as he made another sequence of braking and steering toward the oncoming curve.
“But Daddy I gotta piss bad. Right now! I gotta piss! I gotta piss!”
“Janet Ivy,” Maggie said, cautious not to break into laughter. She didn’t turn to give the five-year-old her expression of schoolmarm disapproval, not that she was able to do so effectively. Her eyes were kind, a soft hazel against the light of day, and the corners of her small face were round against her short-cropped hair, making her look more pixieish than womanly.
Janet started moaning and twisting in her pink booster seat, her small legs locking together. Now Maggie did turn to look at her pig-tailed daughter, feeling the tightness of her spine as she twisted to see Janet’s weary face. It was a long, relentless trip; the blurring of scenic green, mottled asphalt and yellow sunlight became a tiresome canvas spread endlessly around them. Maggie sighed and then looked back at Ned. She said, “You’ve got to pull over.”
Ned looked at her with shock. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “Do you see anywhere I can stop on this freaking rollercoaster track?”
“I didn’t mean right here,” Maggie said. She felt that familiar flush of rage that would kindle into loathing, but she doused the heat inside of her. She looked out the passenger window of the Rollin’s SUV and studied the steep decline below. From her side of the road the foothill sloped down dangerously into a chaos of thick trees and jagged rocks. She thought, Why on Earth did Ned’s parents choose to live this far out in the country? She hated every part of this impromptu trip, naturally, because she hated his side of the family – brash hicks that did nothing but cover their ignorance with stubborn pride. Pride in what? Living like hillbillies?
Maggie straightened in her chair, going into full maternal alert. She turned back to Janet, trying to find some word or action that would calm her daughter for at least a few more miles until they could reach some type of clearing. Janet looked back at her mother, defeated, and it took Maggie a moment to understand the resignation in her daughter’s eyes meant her child’s battle was over. Janet’s bladder had won.
“No Janet,” Maggie said. “Oh no!” Through the crotch of Janet’s purple shorts bloomed dark liquid, soaking out from her inner thighs; glistening streams ran down her shins and stained her white socks.
“Ned. We’ve got to stop. She’s peeing on herself!”
Ned growled, stifling the expletive under his tongue. He inadvertently yanked the steering wheel out of true and the boat-like SUV swished and screeched in and out of equilibrium.
“What are you doing?” Maggie shouted. Ned ignored both her and his mistake. He sped up at the last stretch of the latest curve and saw the road blessedly straighten for the next few hundred yards. He said, “Mag, there’s nothing we can do about it now. I’ll pull over when I can pull over.”
Maggie opened her mouth to protest, closed it and looked back at Janet. Her daughter looked away, her eyes reddening with tears. Maggie wondered if her daughter’s embarrassment would linger on past this moment, becoming a mental scab bronzed into her worst childhood memories. She let out a long breath, mentally preparing for the job of cleaning up both her daughter and the backseat.
“It’s okay, honey,” Maggie said. “You just had a little accident. We’ve all done that.”
Before Janet could hear the rest of her mother’s comforting spiel, the Rollins family came to a stop. Ned grinded the gearshift into “P” and opened his door in quick succession, leaving the SUV rocking to stillness. The heat from outside invaded the AC frost within; the smell of grass and sunbaked vegetation filled the interior. Maggie watched her husband get out without a word. He was a tall, lanky man in shorts looking up at the hot August sky. Above him were bulbous clouds that seemed unnaturally low to the ground. He shaded his eyes with a hand and then turned back to look at the rest of his family.
“Well,” he said. “You wanted me to pull over. We’re pulled over.”
“Don’t be an ass,” Maggie said. She turned and opened her door and felt it jar back against her arm. There was a dull, metallic thud from the car door rebounding back.
“I can’t get out,” Maggie said and then looked around, taking notice of her husband’s half-hearted parking efforts. Ned had nested the SUV against the right side, edging close to the flat green fields on Maggie’s side of the road. She looked through the front windshield and saw the stretch ahead was flat where the road was no longer paring into mountains but laying straight for several hundred yards.
Far ahead, the yellow glint of a sign flickered back, and Maggie was sure it was another countless warning of more dangerous curves to come. She thought of how this area was like some sort of relief zone linking to the next treacherous climb, where during a time the old builders of this cursed road had decided to obey the flatness of this part of land.
Maggie needed to get out. She had to clean up Janet, but she also wanted to get out, stretch her legs and walk about. Only her door would not open. There was nothing she could tell blocking her, only a scattering of trees — and something else far beyond the first speck of trees. Some type of boxy thing.
“Geez, you dented the door!”
Maggie jumped back when Ned’s large face popped up from the other side of her window, consuming her view of outside.
Janet said, “Mommy, can I get out now?”
“Wait,” Maggie said and then to the monstrous face outside she said, “What do you mean I dented it? I can’t get out. There’s something blocking me.”
Ned kneeled back down out of view. Maggie heard rustling behind her and saw Janet had removed her seatbelt and was scooting down off of her booster seat.
Ned, his voice muffled from outside, said, “There’s a damn rock sticking out right here. We got to move up a bit.”
Maggie took this cue and waved her daughter back, “Wait honey, your father’s going to move the car up a bit. Then you can get out. Okay?”
Janet grimaced and made no effort to get back in her seat. Maggie let it go, seeing as moving up a few feet wouldn’t be worth strapping back in for, and she knew sitting back down in a puddle of urine wasn’t something she wanted to force Janet to do.
Ned slipped partially back into the driver seat, his door still ajar and his left leg still hanging outside. He shifted back into drive, his right foot lifting off of the brake to idle forward.
“Maybe we should get off the road,” Maggie said.
“Nah, we’re okay,” Ned said.
“It just feels like we’re still in the middle of the road.”
Ned said nothing, but the weight of the silence came through to Maggie clearly. They hadn’t come across anyone else over the past two hours since passing through this part of Tennessee, and there was nothing else on the GPS map until they reached Ned’s parents, which was another twenty miles away.
She looked behind her, looking past Janet through the rear window. She saw the road behind them veer left and then disappear behind the massive foothill they had just cleared. She could hear the contented idle of the SUV grow louder and wondered why it grew louder still after Ned had stopped. Then her mind retreated, stifling her voice when she saw a metal face suddenly appear from the road behind them, growing larger and roaring forward. Before Maggie could react, could even interpret what she was seeing, the Rollins family began to twirl.
It wasn’t a complete spin in place, and there was no hard impact, but Maggie was disoriented, for now her view ahead was the open field instead of the road. Janet, she thought immediately.
“Janet Ivy,” Maggie cried. “Janet. Are you okay?”
There was no answer. Two things immediately registered. Both Janet and Ned were gone.
“JANET!” Maggie shouted. She reset her mind through her panic and began to think back in series. She saw a car. No. A truck. Loud.
Maggie stretched through the space between the front seats and saw Janet lying on the rear floorboard, her eyes closed. Maggie screamed and riddled Janet’s body with trembling hands, feeling for life and breath.
“JANET! Wake up baby!”
Maggie wanted to pick her daughter up, not caring about internal injuries, but it was impossible to pull Janet through the nook between the front seats, even if she was able to climb over toward the back. She called out for Ned, nearly cursing his name. She peered through the gaping hole of the driver side where Ned had just been sitting.
Through the door-less view was the road leading onward. Maggie half-expected the rusty pickup truck somewhere ahead, parked and idling, perhaps damaged. There was no truck, only the empty road and the letter ‘L’ lying on it. Maggie closed her eyes quickly, squeezing out tears and sweat down her face. She turned back to the passenger side door and pushed frantically, not caring that it had once denied her exit. Because there was no longer anything blocking her side now, she easily spilled out onto the ground. She pushed herself up and groped for the rear door, feeling exposed to the road now behind her.
Janet was still nestled on the floorboard, her still face pointed up. Maggie reached in and then broke her fast-forward motions and slowed the moment her hands cupped her daughter’s face. She was afraid to move the girl. She put her face close to Janet’s upside-down face, feeling for the feather-warmth of a child’s breath mixing with the humid air.
“Please Janet,” Maggie whispered, “Baby please wake up.” And with a rush of blissful relief, she felt her daughter cough into her face. Without the trained grace of a paramedic, Maggie fished her daughter out of the car. If there were broken bones, if there was anything wrong, it would have to wait.
Maggie hoisted her daughter against her chest and then staggered out toward the open field. Janet stirred in weak sobs, never fully awakening. Maggie shushed her, pushing back her own guilt for another moment. It was her fault, she thought. She should have strapped Janet back in.
“It’s going to be okay baby,” Maggie said, stroking the sweat from her daughter’s forehead.
Ned’s croaking voice came faint through the hot air, not really coming from any direction. Maggie cleared five feet into the grass and looked around for him. She knelt, still holding Janet, thinking that being more level to the ground would help her find her husband.
“Ned? Where are you?”
“It’s cold,” he said. His voice was louder, almost leading to echo. Maggie’s arms were near atrophy, becoming solid support beams that did best to hold and not crush her daughter, but she refused to let Janet go. She studied the SUV now perpendicular to the road, the gleaming front bumper smiling back at her. From there she traced her eyes north back to the ‘L’ shape on the road and took in the reality of her husband’s dismembered leg. Suddenly Ned’s morbid phrase he would say on occasion to her popped into her mind like a dirty joke: I love every piece of you my dear.
Call someone now! Her mind demanded and then she remembered her cell phone was in her purse still in the blasted car. “Mag, I can see you,” Ned said and as if the sound of his voice had spiked into her eyes and pulled them down to show where he was, she found the rest of her husband sunken in long grass, nearly enveloped in green. He was easy to miss, as if he was being pulled into the ground. Beyond him, Maggie eyed the strange structure she had seen just before the hit-and-run, something like a wooden box, gnarled and dark.
“Ned!” she shouted and stood erect, keeping Janet intact.
“Don’t come here,” her husband said. “Don’t let her… see me.”
Maggie stopped and looked down at Janet. The young girl’s eyes were still closed, but they moved behind her eyelids as if lost in nightmare. Maggie set Janet down as gently as possible onto the field, feeling replenishing blood course back into her arms. She stood up, giving Janet a reproachful look, and then ran toward Ned.
“It hurts, Mag. God it hurts.”
Maggie ran fast, her sandals flapping hard against her feet through the waves of grass. When she went full stop a few feet in front of Ned, she nearly slipped in a pool of his blood. She looked with disbelief at the amount of red that puddled before her and streamed slowly between the blades of grass like a swampy murk.
Ned shook with gasping breaths, his bulging eyes darting about. He lie there clutching something tight against his chest with both hands. Maggie opened her mouth in horror, seeing him splayed out on the ground with two legs extending from his drenched shorts, one of them made of pure wet crimson.
“Janet?” Ned said. Maggie was silent for a moment and then blinked.
“She’s fine Ned. She’s okay.” Tourniquet, Maggie thought and wanted to cry. She needed help. Because she was no life-saver. She was no girl-scout. She couldn’t even begin to know how to tie a tourniquet knot or do something even more profound like cauterization or whatever the hell else trauma surgeons did. What could she possibly use? Her shirt? No, her mind objected, his belt. And with that cosmic joke, Maggie looked above the fly of Ned’s pants to see the belt loops empty. From far off, she heard Janet crying.
“I’m sorry,” Ned cried. He shook harder, his entire body quaking, his head pitching back and forth on the ground. He said again, I’m sorry, muttering it over and over. Again from far off, Janet continued crying. Only it really wasn’t crying. It was laughing.
“Don’t let her go there,” Ned cried, his voice straining in between grunting breaths. Maggie had gone into action, putting her hands down — palms flat — below Ned’s left hip where his hip bone once presided. She pushed above the torn stump of him, ignoring the disdainful voice telling her it was pointless. Ned struggled, releasing the thing clutched to his chest, his cell phone falling away greasy with his blood. He pushed Maggie’s hands away.
“Keep him away from her,” Ned said again, and then went into full convulsions. Maggie cried back at Ned, wanting him to be still — please just be still. Then in one final jerk, tensing for the last time, Ned Rollins did go still, staring with eyes that had finished crying under the vaporous sky above.
“Mommy, come here,” Janet said.
Maggie leered behind her, still in shock. She wiped hard at tears spilled more from relief than horror. Janet came into focus about twenty feet away. She was jumping up. Dancing. No. Not exactly dancing. Catching. Catching the air.
They glistened in the sunlight like faint fireflies twisting around the little girl. Janet reached out into what seemed like random pockets in the air, ending the lives of these strange bubbles with her small hands.
Maggie stood up slowly. She stared silently, first at her daughter and then simply at fuzzy light. The world wavered and the acute treble of sounds around Maggie was slipping off to muffled white noise. Maggie slapped herself until she could feel the sting on her cheek. She dispelled the urge to pass out and began to breathe in and out slowly.
“Janet, stay right there,” Maggie said, her own voice a stratosphere away. She knelt back down, not looking at Ned’s eyes, and grabbed his cell phone. She then walked, lurching at first and then striding slow and careful, toward Janet. The phone was a bloody mess in her hands, but there was electronic life in the glare of the screen. She dialed 911 and increased her pace toward Janet. Because those bubbles aren’t really there. Maggie was in shock. So was Janet. So this was okay. Let them share imaginary bubbles together.
Maggie heard the unfeeling beep of a failed call and tried again, caking the phone screen with blood-spackled fingerprints. Little Janet continued running through the swarm of bubbles, heading closer to the box ahead. Maggie heard another call beep with failure, and then she dropped the cell phone to her side when she saw the person in the box.
From this close to where Maggie could see, the box was more like a dilapidated woodshed. The roof was rusted tin, ruffled with the edges curled down like dog ears. Wooden boards, aged to grayness from long years past, lined together like gaping teeth for walls; they slanted the entire structure unevenly to the left, making the small house appear tired of being upright. There were no windows among the wooden walls, or any kind of thoughtful disruption to decorate the structure.
The person sat on the ground directly in front of the house, sitting on three boards laid unevenly to what Maggie could only guess was the vestige of a porch area. The person was shaded black under the shadow of the shed, but it was clear to see that the trail of bubbles that spewed out long and plentiful into the air came from where the person sat.
“Janet, get back here now!” Maggie shouted. Janet, ignoring Maggie, leapt forward in the next fray of bubbles, twirling about and laughing, her urine-soiled shorts now nearly dry in the summer heat. Maggie doubled-timed it and caught up with Janet. She grabbed at the little girl, gingerly at first, remembering the image of the unconscious child from before.
Forget the phone, Maggie thought. They were getting out of here. She had the car. She would take Janet and drive them far away from here. And if the car didn’t work, she had her legs. Both legs. This made her think of Ned again, the feel of his spongy stump under the weight of her hands.
The person stood up slowly. Maggie couldn’t make out any features in the shadow, but she saw the person’s frame was short and frail with drooping shoulders, clearly soft and unintimidating. Before she could think of why she said, “Excuse me.”
There was no reply. Maggie pulled Janet closer to her, considered picking her up, but then decided to pull them both back, away from the stranger.
“We had an accident,” Maggie continued. No reply, but the person stepped forward into the sunlight and Maggie saw the oldest man she had ever seen in her life. His yellow egg eyes were crossed. He was bald, his head blotched with red, flaky sores. His faded blue shirt and jeans were nearly colorless, almost blending with the dark boards behind him, stained only under the armpits and crotch from body sweat.
“I saw,” he said slowly, his southern voice low and gravelly. He raised his hand, holding what Maggie could make out as some type of bottle. It was ceramic, mud-like, riddled with cracks. The top of the bottle narrowed into a long gooseneck tip where the man put his ancient lips around and blew. Through the middle of the bottle a flap suddenly opened and a flurry of fresh bubbles shot forward. Janet giggled, reaching out for the next wave coming her way.
“You saw,” Maggie repeated back. The old man removed the bottle from his cracked lips and watched the bubbles make their way to the woman and child. Maggie looked down at Janet and then back up at the old man. Just harmless old mountainfolk. “So then you know my husband is hurt really bad.”
The old man grinned, his toothless gums showing like a second row of lips. “Naw’m,” he said. “He dead. Burnin’ in Hades.”
He started laughing in slow, soundless heaving breaths. Maggie recoiled, pulling Janet closer to her. She yelled back, “You think that’s funny? You stupid old hillbilly bastard think that’s funny?”
Bright pain suddenly burned into Maggie’s eyes when a cluster of bubbles landed on her face, bursting whatever foul juice that came from the old man’s bottle into her eyes. She blinked rapidly, feeling the burning intensify. She cried out, rubbing at her face. She tasted her tears and detected the medicinal taste of the strange bubbles mixed in. She hit the ground screaming on both knees, dropping the cell phone and letting go of Janet. Dear God I’m blind, she thought. Blinded by some backwoods moonshine.
“Janet, don’t touch the bubbles,” she cried. “Stay right here and close your eyes.”
“Come on chile,” the old man said. The music of Janet’s laugh was soft and distant. Maggie forced her eyes open, but no light came to her sight. She screamed out again at Janet, reaching blindly through the bubble slime around her.
“Chile come over,” the old man cooed. At this Maggie found direction and ran full-speed to where the old man’s voice came from, feeling more obscene bubbles burst upon her bare skin. Through the unseen air, Maggie’s groping hands found pigtails. Maggie grabbed and pulled hard, reeling Janet back into her arms. If the chile felt pain, she laughed through it. She’s gone, Maggie thought. Her mind is gone. Maggie held on tight, falling onto her back with Janet on top of her, contained in her arms.
The old man said, “Ye shall judge angels, chile. All stillborn.”
Maggie kicked out, hoping to break some fragile part of the old man. She tried desperately to see, feeling the hot wind around her eyes, but saw nothing. As she kicked away, she felt a bristled heat go down her bare thigh, the prickling sensation hardening to a grip and she understood the old man was holding her leg. Janet laughed as Maggie reeled away, nearly steamrolling her daughter as she moved from the old man’s touch. One of Maggie’s sandals flew off as her foot connected with something hard, cracking it. She heard something fall next to her with a dull thump.
“Angels be damned!” the old man cursed. Maggie heard him hawk back and spit. She felt warm liquid pelt her left cheek and she twisted her face away, her mouth gaped open in disgust and then mindfully shut.
“Stupid hillbilly!” she shrieked.
Maggie trashed her legs farther out, but hit nothing. She kept at it, scissoring her legs out blindly until the fatigue from her hysterics started burning through her body. Panting hard, she heard the low sound of an approaching car.
“He’s gone,” she heard Janet say. Only it was her own voice that said it. Not Janet.
Maggie felt her eyes cooling, her vision returning. She could now see faint sunlight trickle through. She remained still on the ground for another minute, listening to the approaching footsteps crunch through the grass, the concerned but reassuring new voices of help on the way.
Maggie touched her face, wiping away her sweat. The old man’s spit, she remembered. She smeared the sopping wetness onto the grass and then stood up, staggering for balance. A hand cupped her right shoulder, steadying her.
“Ma’am,” said one of her rescuers. She looked at the young man’s pale face scrunched under a John Deere cap. He stared back at her with wide eyes.
“What happened?” He asked, his adolescent voice breaking. “Is she…?
He pointed down to something on the ground. From behind him, a child-faced woman stepped up next to him, a hand over her mouth.
“They’re dead,” the young woman said.
Maggie ignored them both, her rescuers. She kept looking around for the old man, looking for his strange bottle, now broken somewhere on the open field. Whatever she would do, she would not look down at the two bodies on the ground. One, a man. The other a small child. Her frayed, dark pigtails buried in deep grass.
© Jack Lee Taylor 2015