I’m going eighty on the highway when the baby screams. Irrationally, I think his scream is a warning that we’re about to crash, that he’s seen something I haven’t — a semi barreling toward us. But then I look in the rearview mirror, and I see my five-year-old Rona’s hands gripped around Max’s neck like she’s trying to twist the lid off a jar. His face is red, but Rona is calm, focused. It’s the expression she has when she rides her grandfather’s ranch horse, Turnip.
“Rona!” I shout as I pull into the breakdown lane, barely missing a hunk of shredded tire.
Fingers shaking, I unclip Max from his car seat. There are red marks around his fat neck.
When he had colic and Nick and I took turns bouncing him on the yoga ball while he bawled in our ears, Nick called him “our mini police siren.” Now he’s a twenty-two pound siren. I hold him to my chest. His bellows ricochet through me like I’m a cave.
“You could have killed him,” I tell Rona.
“I know,” she says.
She looks down when she’s in trouble — Nick claims you can always tell when Rona is lying because she becomes fascinated by her shoes — but now her gaze is steady. “I know,” placidly delivered, as though I informed her we’re having Sloppy Joes for dinner.
Recently, Max reached from his high chair and grabbed a fistful of cake from Rona’s plate. She emptied her glass of lemonade over his head. I reasoned that the lemonade was tit for tat, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the explanation.
Two semis pass us within seconds; I hold myself rigid so that Max and I don’t blow over. I hate being parked alongside the highway. I hate driving on the highway, but Rona’s dance recital starts in an hour, and this is the fastest route. Nick got stuck at work. He may not even make it, not that I told Rona. She has been wearing that blue tutu since this morning. Spinning sloppy pirouettes throughout the house like a drunken tornado.
Rona says now, “We’re going to be late,” and I think, with horror, that if I didn’t have Max in my arms, I might reach inside the car and smack her. That I would enjoy it.
Before we had children, my best friend Amy said that she totally planned to spank her kids. When I freaked out, she said, “What? My parents had to whoop me and my brother. We were hellions. We set fire to a haystack and nearly burned down the whole property. And remember when we tied that neighbor girl to a tree and pegged her with pecans?”
“Mae,” I said. I’d thrown two of the pecans. Then I saw Amy’s dad running toward us, and I took off into the woods like I was being chased by a battalion. I was well aware that Amy’s parents weren’t satisfied with time-outs.
Time-outs: they’re for my sake more than Rona’s. So I can breathe, so I can muzzle the bubbles of rage.
“Why?” I ask Rona now, and immediately I feel stupid and compromised. As if there’s anything Rona can say that would legitimize strangling her baby brother while I chauffeur her to the dance recital. Posing the question assumes there’s an acceptable answer. So why ask?
Because I want her to offer a narrative that will neutralize, like an antacid, the expression on her face, captured in my rearview mirror. That clinical face — not enraged, but curious: Marie Curie mixing her beakers. I think of those Chicago college students, Leopold and Loeb, drunk on Nietzsche, who killed some kid just to prove they could.
Throwing pecans at Mae all those years ago, I wanted to show Amy and her brother that I wasn’t the soft girl whose parents thought delaying an ice-cream sundae for a day was fitting punishment for lying. I wanted to prove Mae wrong, too, because she looked at me with knowing eyes, like there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d hurt her.
Of course, I had no intent to kill her. But I don’t think I appreciated the finality of death until I was seventeen, and I witnessed a semi mow over a classmate’s car. Amy and I were not far behind Jack, in the convertible I inherited from my grandmother. Caravanning to a party at the MacKenzie twins’. The wind whipped our hair as we passed a joint back and forth. We wove in and out of lanes, tossed beer cans like they were cigarette butts. We saw it happen: Jack’s car crumple, a metal Kleenex a giant crushed in its hand. Jack folded into those jagged pleats.
Earlier when Nick called to say that I’d have to drive the kids to the recital and I should take the highway, I flipped out.
“What the heck is it with you and highways?” he said.
Nick knows about the accident, knows about my teenage carelessness. But it’s like Rona with the lemonade: my explanation might be comprehensible, but doesn’t fully make sense. “You were a kid,” he said, when I reminded him.
Now Rona clenches her fist, smacks her own leg like she’s whipping a horse.
“Look at me,” I say.
When she does, her expression is anxious and sulky. Not because she’s ashamed, not because she’s hunting for a plausible answer to my question — she just doesn’t want to miss her damn dance recital.
What I could never convey to Nick was why the intensity with which I was drawn to the highway back then — the freedom, the speed, the anonymity — scares me all these years later.
But looking at Rona now, I wince to think of how reckless I once was. Before Amy screamed, before I turned back and saw blood bloom on Jack’s shattered windshield, nothing could touch me. Those gory driver’s ed. films might as well have been video games. My vehicle was a weapon, and I was taking aim.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing, winner of the 2017 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award, is forthcoming in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has appeared in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, Word Riot, and many other journals.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in Hobart, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Synaesthesia Magazine, Threadcount, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. www.michellenross.com
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