The apple cider sold for a dollar seventy-five per cup there, but after pulling the Sedan into the parking lot, our mother handed Lola and me five dollars each. At the time, this was more money that I was used to—our mother always calculated tax and handed us exact change in coins. At thirteen, Lola, four years older than me, understood a bribe, understood what it meant to take one, but she did anyway, scratching our mother’s palm when she took the bills.
“You’re always biting the hand that feeds, Lola,” my mother said, and pressed her cold thumb into her skin to soothe the sting. “But I don’t see you handing me that money back.”
“Better I spend it than you,” Lola said, and shoved the car door open with her shoulder. “C’mon, Kitty.”
She slid out feet first, tripping a little at impact. Then she hitched the faux fur collar of her coat up around her ears and stuffed her fists into her pockets. She reached for me, even as I shrunk into the seat, trying to stay in the heater’s aim, then gave up and banged the door shut. My mother brought her hands to noon on the steering wheel, and leaned her forehead so far down, I thought she might bash it against the horn and spook the horses chewing hay in the paddock ahead.
“She didn’t mean it,” I said, trying to protect Lola and my mother both. I was always their buffer, trying to pad them with so much care they wouldn’t notice the other person’s chiding, their slash of cruelty that invited a fight. “She just wishes Dad was here.”
“I have to pee,” our mother said after a moment of watching Lola stalk into the barn. “What about you, sweetheart?”
“No,” I replied, though I’d been feeling the pressure build, tight, in my bladder for almost an hour now. A little bit had trickled into my underwear until I clenched hard, told myself it just wasn’t the time to bother my mother and ask for a rest stop. Even now, I didn’t want her to see how desperate I was, else she might cup my cheek and ask why I hadn’t said anything. I didn’t want that kindness from her. It was too much of her energy, better used in places that weren’t the unending spiral of take, take, take that was me.
Our mother had dragged the blankets off both Lola and me around three that morning, right after our father must have headed into the shower after finishing up his shift at the security booth. She hustled Lola and me through the door. The suitcases were already loaded. She had put down the back seats and handed us a quilt to make a nest with. I drifted and awakened in starts with my head lolling against one of the small dirty suitcase wheels. Lola scrolled through her emergency cellphone, checking whatever was on there—contacts and photos she never left me see—then eventually sighed and slipped it under her thigh.
We drove for hours, first past giant trucks that seemed unwieldy as they changed lanes, then finally meeting the sun as it started to lift past the horizon. I wondered briefly what my father had thought, coming out of the steamy bathroom and seeing our empty beds. But I didn’t want to think what he might have done. Kicked the wall, smashed one of the two ceramic plates we owned. Called the police. Maybe they were after us now. And after, if they caught us, our father would say what he always would, that refrain. Baby, I’m sorry. I turned my face into the side of the car and pressed hard, so my nose collapsed and my lips lost feeling. An ostrich in the sand.
When my mother passed us sunflower seeds and peanuts, Lola finally spoke. “You’re doing everything wrong,” she said.
“Please, Lola,” our mother replied, “can you hold it in for at least a few more states?”
“Dad’s going to find us,” Lola said. “He’s not stupid. And then we’ll be fucked.”
“Don’t say that word. How many times do I have to tell you not to say that word?”
Lola reached towards the door and clicked the button, so the window rolled down slowly. The highway sped around us, and so did the unfamiliar landscape at the side of the roads. The trees didn’t look so different from ours, mostly pine and a few maples and oaks that had dropped their leaves in the ice and snow, but they weren’t the quaint one-offs that I knew from the neighborhood.
“Fucked, fucked, fucked,” Lola screamed through the open space. It was so cold her breath was making clouds immediately.
“Close it,” our mother said, though she was already hitting the control button near the steering wheel, and Lola had to jerk away to make sure her lips wouldn’t be caught in the rising glass. We were quiet after that, listening to the radio that was mostly crackle. We didn’t know what stations had good service in the area, and we were too frustrated to fiddle with the dial.
After about three miles, Lola reached over and held my hand so gently, like she used to do when we were younger and walking home from school. She traced the creases in my palm with her finger. When she let go, she rubbed the back of her hand against mine, both of our skin soft and delicate.
“I’ll take care of you,” she said to me, barely breaking the silence. I didn’t think our mother had even heard her voice, let alone what she said.
In the farm store, Lola grabbed the hood of my jacket and pulled me over to her. I watched my mother open a creaky-hinged door, head into what I decided was the bathroom. She didn’t look back for me, and I thought she was probably grateful to be alone, finally.
Lola was already checking out, a cider and a small block of fudge, salted caramel with peanut butter. I turned it over in my hands while the cashier tallied our bill.
“I guess I’ll add the zucchini loaf too,” Lola said and then nudged my shoulder. “Give me your money.”
She had always known how to demand and never gave me any time to say no. I had gotten used to it, had even stopped questioning her in my mind. It even gave me satisfaction to obey, because when Lola approved, she was kinder. While Lola and the woman exchanged money, I unwrapped the plastic on the fudge and bit into the block. The taste, almost a body sensation, carrying me to a place unreal but lovely with a spiraling fire, blankets, a stove releasing creamy sugar smells into the air. A world like the black-and- white movies that played on the television past my bedtime.
Then Lola encircled my wrist with her fingers and pulled me close. She said, “You’re supposed to save that, you dumb shit.”
“But it’s good,” I said quietly. We didn’t eat treats in our house. We didn’t have the same Christmases as other girls’ in my elementary school class. We didn’t open up fancy clasps on lunch bags and pull out fudge brownies that notes attached that said, I love you, my sweetest girl with little hearts and xo’s in a cloud around the scrawl. I would have surrendered to Lola normally, but I was young, so easily overwhelmed by the fantasy that I’d already constructed.
“Quit it,” I said.
“She has a sweet tooth,” Lola said to the cashier in a tone that seemed overly shiny to me, like a spot on the kitchen counter that my mother cleaned over and over again, trying to erase the memory of our father pinning her face to it the way he did, enjoying the way her nose ground into the stone. And he would turn at me and say, Look what you made me do, kid.
Lola smiled wide, and her teeth glinted. She kept her tone high and lilting, but she tightened her grip until I dropped the fudge to the counter. I stared at it, and then wiggled my hips a little, the pressure in my lower body aching.
She noticed and asked: “Why are you fidgeting like that?”
I shook my arm a little, trying to get Lola to let go. Now that I was paying attention to my bladder, I wasn’t sure I could keep holding. Suddenly, I wanted to follow our mother, to leave my sister as far away as I could.
“I have to pee,” I said, and reddened at the cashier’s pitying look. I hoped I’d find my mother at the sink, warming her hands in the hot water until they turned pink. Maybe she’d sling an arm around my shoulders and tell me to take my time and then after, maybe she’d let me sit up in the front with her so Lola could spread out in the back and I could rest my feet on the dashboard. We could pretend the running was a road trip.
“We have a bathroom in the back,” the cashier began.
“Thanks, we’ll find it,” said Lola, already pushing me away with the hard brunt of her hand thrust into my lower back.
Stupid, I thought as Lola took control, holding the fudge herself, to think up dreams like I had. Those were lives for good girls, and all I could do was keep trying to make up for all the trouble I’d caused since birth.
We headed out into the lanes of Christmas trees instead of the bathroom, and when I protested, Lola herded me with so much force that I bit my lip instead. Hopefully she’d only take a minute and then after that I could go inside. But we went further and further back, to where the older, barer trees leaned against the wooden railings of a paddock.
“We don’t need a tree,” I said, parroting what I’d heard. “A whole bunch of money spent just to kill a thing.”
“We need a plan,” she said, ignoring me. “We have to get Mom to take us home.”
I stared at her. At the long sleeves she wore to cover the various bruises that were leftovers of his grip. At her collarbone, which she’d broken when he’d shoved her off the back of the couch. Her body would bear our father forever—just like mine, with the remnants of a burn on my left shoulder, more scars on my lower back. And then, branded into my mind, into my vision when I closed my eyes was the look on my father’s face. The pleasure, when he hurt us. He must have thought the pain would mold us into girls more like what he wanted us to be.
“I don’t want to go,” I said, “I don’t want to go back to him.”
“What do you know?” Lola asked bitterly. She turned away from me, thumped her fists against the wood. “You think you can have a family with just me and Mom?”
I crossed my legs and hopped a little, trying to stem the flow. I needed to say something, anything, to make her let me go inside. And she was wrong, I was sure of it. If we got far enough away, we could be the right kind of family. We could make it work, as long as Lola would shut up and behave. And if she couldn’t, then maybe she could go back to Boston—
“Maybe just me and Mom,” I said. “Maybe that’s all the family we need.”
It was strange, the expression that crossed her face. I thought of it like a princess’ haunted face as she exited a witch’s woods, though when I thought back on it, when I had more of a vocabulary for my sister’s emotions, I knew it was terror that she’d have nothing one day and where would she go from there?
“I’m calling him,” Lola said. “I’m calling Dad, I’m telling him what you did. What Mom did.”
“You can’t,” I said, and I remember the terror permeated through every cell in my body, turned my limbs electric. How many times had I seen this before, Lola, angry with something our mother had done, betraying her at the dinner table? Our father’s face contorting, rage, the eventual screaming and hands in fists. I didn’t want it again.
I wanted to save what pieces of us I could, so when Lola started to dial, I lunged for the phone in her hand. I don’t know if her violence came from mine—the jump startling her—or if she’d been waiting for an occasion to strike. Her hand, with little ragged claws—the white crescent nails she bit in the car, in the house, in school—lashed out, hit my face. It was meant to be a slap, but manifested like a scratch, leaving behind white streaks on my skin. There was no blood, but it felt like there ought to be with how it stung. Everything hurt—my face, my stomach, my bladder, which ached so hard I knew I couldn’t hold any longer. For a moment after, Lola propelled forward, using her other hand to caress my cheekbone even as her chest sunk inwards. I couldn’t feel her touch, just hear her words, so frantic: Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry Baby, I’m sorry.
Someday in the future, we will realize how many people we allow to say these words, but on that day, my mother found us. She was scratching a little at her forearm and pulling down the sleeve of her sweater, but when she saw the two of us, she rushed closer.
“What are you doing?” she hissed, trying to pull Lola away from me.
“I’m taking care of her,” Lola said, throwing her body to the side so our mother had to tighten her grip. “I’m doing what you’re supposed to do.”
They both looked at me then, as if asking me to choose, but I was in the midst of trying to clean up. The urine was dribbling down my legs and my pants were turning dark and cold already. I patted at the corduroy with my hands, as if that would help.
“See,” Lola said, “Kitty’s not up for a road trip. She’s a baby.”
“Kitty,” our mother said, “oh, Kitty, what did you do?”
But as my mother moved towards me, so did Lola, and then just a moment later they both were holding me at the same time, arms and arms atop me, and none of them felt comforting, and I didn’t feel deserving. They wanted something with those hands, and I was sure I couldn’t give it to them, whatever it was, support or alliance or hope.
“It wasn’t me. Lola did it,” I said, pointing to the phone, my other hand moving mindlessly against my pants. They backed away as I kept my body shifting.
“It didn’t work,” Lola said, trying to kick at the phone, even though she wasn’t close enough now.
But then, of course, it had, and a voice came from it, tinny and snarling all at the same time. “Gail, where the hell are you? Where the hell did you go?”
And then, as he realized no one was going to respond, our father kept up his tirade: “You took the girls, didn’t you? I can’t believe you’d do that to them. They need a father, Gail. They need a man who’s gonna show them how to be women. Now, baby, I’m sorry about the other night, but you have to understand, you were acting crazy. Like you were on your mother’s meds or something. Now, if you come home I promise—I promise—that I’m gonna show you just how sorry I am.”
Our mother leaned down to grab the phone, while she held up to her ear. But didn’t take it off speakerphone.
She said, “Okay, we’re coming. We’re coming home. Please don’t—”
And then she didn’t finish. She could’ve meant, don’t yell or maybe don’t hurt us when we get back. She just stared off into the mountains, not speaking any longer, and I couldn’t tell if maybe her brain had shut off for just a moment. It happened like that sometimes, when one of us was scared enough. But then she shook herself, just as my father started talking again.
“Thank fuck,” our father said. “Hurry the fuck up or I’ll fucking kill you, Gail.”
When he hung up, my mother turned to Lola and said, “The reason I’m taking you away is because I don’t want you to be any more like him than you already are.”
Lola stared between the me and our mother and then she finally said, in a very small voice: “It felt good to hit. I’m so sorry, but it felt good. It like how Daddy always says it feels. Like you can do anything. I’m sorry, Kitty.”
“Lola,” I said, reaching forward and grabbing her hand, because I thought my mother wouldn’t do it. “It’s okay. You’ll be okay. I don’t blame you. You didn’t do anything wrong, not really. I was being stupid.”
“We need to go,” our mother finally said, and for a moment I couldn’t believe she’d be so little of a mother to us. That she’d want to pack us in and just keep driving. That she wouldn’t hold us, the way mothers were supposed to. I’d seen enough movies of girls crying in their mothers’ arms because of boyfriends and bad days at school and prom going wrong. Why wouldn’t we have that kind of mother, who could slow down time and comfort us? For just a moment, I doubted her again. I thought of our father, who at least seemed sure in whatever role he had. And then I imagined him killing our mother, and I knew he could do it and I knew what the blood would taste like in her mouth.
After that, Lola stalked to the car and our mother dug through a suitcase and handed me a pair of pajama pants to wear instead. She told me to change in the bathroom. I cleaned my legs with wet toilet paper that kept shredding in my hands. I wasn’t clean. I might stink, and I knew Lola would say something, but it was the best I could do.
When I came out of the farm store, Lola and my mother were looking at a map together and talking in low tones. I stopped and watched their fingers, tracing the same routes. I hoped it would always be like that, though I knew it probably wouldn’t. I knew in just a few moments they’d fight again. They explained to me that we were going to keep going south, as far away as possible now. Maybe somewhere very warm, like Florida.
Except, as my mother took the parking brake off and started to speed off, she turned the wrong way.
“That’s the way back,” Lola said. “That’s north.”
Our mother stopped on the side of the road and put her face on the steering wheel so hard there was a loud honk. When she finally rose, her eyes were already red, like they would get when she was trying to hold back tears. I wished I could be her mother. I wished I could hold her hand and tell her we’d made it through. Years later, I would understand how terrible that day was for our mother. How many times she had to convince herself that she was doing the right thing. How she didn’t have room in her heart to be the kind of mother we wanted when she was being this kind, the one who would throw away all the safety she’d ever understood to make us a better future.
We kept driving. Once again, there was silence after that in the car, everyone sick with the knowledge that we were all sorry without knowing how to act on our guilt, that the man of our house—as he liked to call himself—was relentless, that the car was still driving on away from him, even as its passengers hadn’t yet readied themselves to leave home.