By Tara Cameron
Mel found herself gazing into the cracked rear-view mirror for the umpteenth time that hour to check on the boy. She watched as he shifted uncomfortably in his sleep on the peeling black vinyl of the ancient sedan’s back seat. Dirty laundry and food wrappers rustled as he tried to avoid the worst of the exposed springs.
Behind the slumbering child, framed by the cracked rear window, the setting sun lit the sky on fire. The brilliant shades of orange and red caught Mel’s attention for a moment as the voice on the cassette tape, a relic from a bygone age, clicked over. The bad moon began rising from the speakers again as the twang of the guitar signaled the beginning of a loop that had been reverberating through the cramped space for days. The bad moon had been threatening their horizon for nearly a week.
The slow-building tremor coming through the floorboards of the old C-Net sedan pulled Mel’s attention back to the task at hand and the road ahead of her. As the windows commenced their familiar clattering, new cracks joined the growing legion already gathered around the edges of the glass. Mel yanked on the fuzzy magenta steering wheel, and the rusted hunk of junk careened into the far lane of the empty highway. She cursed as a huge crack appeared across the rear window. It was the third quake in as many hours and Mel was unsure how much more the timeworn beast could handle. The shaking had grown so intense in the previous few days, Mel no longer felt comfortable simply pushing through. It had become too difficult to keep the sedan on the road, too difficult to determine which part of the road would still be road and not rubble when the quaking subsided.
The matching purple dice hanging below the grimy rear-view mirror swayed violently as the C-Net pulled onto the dirt shoulder and trundled to a stop. The last embers of the setting fireball of a sun were momentarily obscured by the cloud of grey dust kicked up from the car’s bald tires. Mel laid her head back. A tinny pinging sound joined the grumbling ground below her, as gravel pelted the underbelly of the dying engine.
The rumbling intensified as the hunk of corroded metal continued swaying back and forth, as if moving in time to the music. Mel glanced over her shoulder, feeling a protective need to check on the new passenger, only to find the child still fast asleep.
“We can’t keep him, Mel. You know we can’t.”
Sophia’s stern voice broke through Mel’s revere, a hefty dose of ice-cold reality to her face. It was uncanny how well her partner of twenty years could read her; Mel had just been contemplating that very idea. She brushed a lock of long, greasy brown hair from the child’s forehead before returning her attention to the road, careful to avoid looking Sophia in the eyes as she did.
She waited patiently for the last of the aftershocks to subside, all the while avoiding her partner’s determined gaze. She immediately pulled the clunker back onto the highway at the first opportunity. Sophia, losing the first round of what was shaping up to be yet another unpleasant showdown, was the first to relent and break the heavy silence that had replaced the stale air in the suddenly cramped sedan. Sophia sighed, opting for a softer approach.
“We have to leave him with the authorities in the next town, for so many reasons, Mel. Least of which, there could be people looking for him—parents, a family. He didn’t just spring forth fully grown or something. There must be someone missing him, someone that’s worried and scared. That loves him. That isn’t us, Mel. It just isn’t.”
Mel understood the truth of Sophia’s words, but still she refused to break her reticence. The only indication that she heard her lover speak was a whitening of Mel’s knuckles as her grip tightened around the steering wheel with each statement. Sophia waited, and waited, but when it became apparent Mel was committed to her selective mutism, she continued to push.
“Okay, the kid also needs to see a doctor. He obviously has some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, or something. Who knows what happened to him out in the middle of nowhere. He doesn’t speak, has yet to say a word. He’s covered in cuts and bruises. Mel, that cut on his temple, the one over his left eye, looks serious. It could be infected. We need to take him to the closest emergency center, and we can’t stay while they check him over. We just don’t have the time. I know. I get it, Mel… But we just can’t.”
Mel’s grip on the ugly magenta wheel continued tightening as Sophia’s words smacked her in the face, a series of direct hits. Mel was keenly aware of the reality of their situation. Months, if not years in the making, it was impossible to deny. It was the sole reason for travelling through the middle of farm country in a sedan smelling of old gym socks. Mel understood that everything Sophia said was completely logical. Sophia had always been the logical one of the two—there were times Mel despised her for it.
Mel glanced again at the slumbering child. She understood their predicament with complete clarity. The problem was Daniel. The boy’s resemblance to Daniel was eerie, painful.
“He’s not Daniel, Mel. You know he’s not.”
Mel had been unaware she’d spoken his name out loud. Hearing Sophia say their son’s name snapped her out of her silent contemplation in the space of one broken heartbeat. “I realize that. I am fully aware he isn’t Daniel. I am all too aware, Sophia.” The tears, always a threat when speaking of their son, spilled from Mel’s swollen eyes. She tried in vain to keep focused on the road as a crystal-clear image of their son’s face flooded her mind’s eye. His bright smile, with those deep dimples, his sandy brown head of hair with its sparkling blond highlights. It all came unbidden, and in perfect detail. Mel fought to keep the sedan out of the debris-littered ditch as her son’s face eclipsed the road in front of her.
Daniel’s mischievous smile, always eliciting a grin in return when the boy was alive, now only fermented Mel’s aching sorrow as the agony spread out from the center of her chest until it encompassed her whole being. Feeling as though an ocean was suddenly encapsulated within her, Mel found she was thoroughly incapable of taking a breath. Tears coursed down her chapped face as the ocean searched for any means of escape and happened upon her tear ducts. A mild tremor began in her hands as Mel finally loosened her grip on the wheel.
“I’m so sorry, baby. I am so, so sorry.”
Sophia reached toward Mel, attempting a gesture of comfort. She moved to place a hand on the shaking woman’s shoulder only to have Mel forcefully pull away before she could, thumping the side of her temple in her haste.
Mel understood her partner wasn’t trying to cause her pain, however she couldn’t seem to keep from pouring all her pain and frustration into Sophia. The new yet familiar exchange between the two was escalating rapidly. Mel was unsure how to break the vicious cycle they found themselves in. Her inability to see any means of escape stoked the pain and anguish, the fury that had slowly permeated every cell of her being over the past year, perpetuating the cycle into the infinite. None of that was Sophia’s fault, and Mel knew that, but the knowledge changed nothing. She needed an outlet, and with no one left, Sophia won the title by default.
“And where do you think the closest emergency center is, dear-heart?” Mel’s tone was low and glazed with sarcasm. “We’ve driven by three since leaving, not one of them still in operation. Not one, Soph.” The sardonic glaze to Mel’s voice was replaced with an exhausted sheen as she continued, “There isn’t much of anything left operating, there isn’t much of anyone left to operate it even if there were. Who would they be operating it for anyway? Those that could leave have left. Or they’re well on their way to leaving. Anyone unlucky enough to be left behind have all gone to ground, if they’ve got any brain cells left anyway. Not one car in five days, Sophia.” Mel turned and gestured emphatically toward the boy. “That kid and the two of us are all that’s left out here.”
Sophia recoiled as Mel threw each new venom-covered piece of their reality in her face. Still refusing to so much as glance in the poor woman’s direction, Mel continued pushing the proverbial knife in, all the way to the hilt. “You aren’t the only one that can play truth-teller. Maybe I am having some flashbacks of our boy. Frankly, it would be strange if I weren’t. We only buried him a year ago. Twelve months. Just twelve months, dammit.”
Sophia might have interrupted then, but Mel was on fire as the anger, exhaustion, and pain spurred her forward. She could no longer contain the rage she’d been channeling into the steering wheel, and it came flowing out of her mouth unrestrained instead. It was too much, the days locked in the rundown sedan with her distant lover, the boy that looked like Daniel but was not her son, the world literally falling apart around them. Something in Mel snapped. A fundamental part of who she was, a puzzle piece integral to the overall picture, became malformed in an unforeseen way.
“You’re talking as if things haven’t changed. You’re speaking as if we aren’t on our way to a dropship, right now. It’s why we’re on the road, Sophia. It’s most likely why he was on the road. You act as if there isn’t an hourly reminder that there’s very little left. What is here, well, it won’t be for much longer. That includes the people, so many people, Sophia.”
Mel didn’t need to lay eyes on Sophia’s tired face to know she was crossing her arms over her chest and pursing her lips at that moment. She always did that when she thought Mel was making things worse, turning a simple disagreement into a smackdown.
“You act as if dropping him off at the local police station in the very next town is an option. You’re the one in denial of the situation, not me. You’re the one pretending everything is still normal.” Mel couldn’t stop a mean-spirited laugh from escaping her lips. If she’d had the nerve to turn and face Sophia, Mel would have found her lover staring slack-jawed at her.
“You’re talking like there’s any authority left,” she said, “like there’s anyone left at all. We aren’t on vacation, Sophia. We can’t just leave him at the next hospital and be on our merry way. It sounds like you just want to drop him off in the same kind of place we found him. You sound like…like you’re suggesting we leave him to die and save ourselves.” The anger bubbled to the surface again as Mel’s voice rose. “I mean, he’s nothing more than an inconvenience after all, right?”
The look on Sophia’s face, a fair impression of someone who just took a solid one-two to the gut, would have told Mel that she’d gone too far in that moment, had she been able to bring herself to look. The jab about cutting their losses would have been bad enough, but Mel throwing the inconvenience remark in Sophia’s face was over the top. It was an old wound, one Mel refused to let close, a gaping wound in which Mel insisted on pouring all of her own pain and anguish.
The hurt and betrayal written all over Sophia’s face and throughout her body language would have immediately had Mel wishing she could take it back, under normal circumstances. But under those circumstances she also would have been able to look her partner in the eye. In their new reality, with Mel ensconced in her own personal hellish feedback loop, it elicited nothing but rage. It was a pure unadulterated rage that consumed the last of what made Mel the person she was, the person she’d been before the cataclysmic announcement eighteen months ago. The announcement that had come only days before the test results they’d been waiting for. The news on both fronts made the first dents in Mel’s sanity. Picking up the abandoned kid was the last blow to both women.
The slumbering boy, who had never truly been asleep, watched the weird woman driving out of the corner of his eye. He observed as she opened and closed her mouth several times before turning her attention back to the crumbling road. The cassette clicked over, and the bad moon began rising yet again. The boy now knew the song by heart, one he had never heard before climbing in the junk-covered backseat. He couldn’t help but agree with the twang. There was most assuredly a bad moon rising. He only wished this bad moon would hurry up and rise already.
The boy had been a lone witness to the disturbing display—argument if one could call it that—many times in the past several days. He’d been travelling in the aging vehicle, springs poking his backside blue, for some time before that. The bizarre little world inside the car made it difficult to gauge time. When the boy first crawled underneath the pile of laundry and food wrappers, feigning sleep almost at once, it had been a markedly different atmosphere in the rattletrap sedan.
The technician was tired of the repeated destruction that went with running the current scenario, and he was tired of the puny child-like form they forced him to assume. He would be glad to see the end of his latest assignment. He watched as the broken woman began glancing over at the empty passenger seat next to her. The bad moon was not the only repeating loop in the C-Net. He felt another rush of pity as the depressing tableau began its endless repeat. The boy found himself abhorring the General Overview Director for continuing to run such a sadistic experiment.
For the past several days, the boy had been forced to silently look on as the broken creature, driving the broken car, continued arguing with her dead lover. Never had the technician wanted the ability to speak more, to offer comfort, offer something, anything really. He found himself cursing the non-verbal part of Autonomous Non-verbal Guardian Encoding on Location, wishing he’d read the fine print of the job description before joining the team. He’d been blinded by the prestige of working in the Creation Reproduction and Evolution for Anthropological Testing and Organizational Research department, otherwise known to the big hats upstairs as the C.R.E.A.T.O.R. department. The boy found himself wishing he’d thought it through more thoroughly before jumping in with both feet. It had become routine for him to look forward to the sweet relief that was about to crest the darkening horizon.
The technician wondered if his fellow techs could also sense the oncoming end to a scenario after a bit of time on the job as another tremor began to build beneath the boy’s feet. His relief was right on schedule. He found the fragility of the environment for this particular C.R.E.A.T.O.R. scenario absurd and the self-destructiveness of the test material depressing, often frustrating as well.
The floorboards of the junk-heap began to shake as large cracks formed on the windows. Small chunks of safety glass pelted both the technician in the backseat and the stammering woman sitting in front of him as the window glass began to fragment. The quickly intensifying earthquake had no effect on the tableau replaying in the front seat. The last argument either woman would ever have repeated for the final time. The silent passenger of the C-Net was glad to be free of the death knell that had been sounding in the car for days, nothing left but the last chorus and then the resounding finish.
The boy watched out the side window as the resounding finish began. The tremor, which had not dissipated as the others had, became a full-blown earthquake. The boy-that-was-not-Daniel looked on as a farmhouse in the distance was reduced to nothing but rubble in seconds. The sad, broken woman in the front seat broke off her guilt-ridden diatribe of apology, which the technician now knew just as well as the song, and began shrieking uncontrollably. He felt another wave of pity for the poor creature as the road before them began disintegrating. A fissure opened along the faded yellow separating line as the technician pondered the idea of transferring back to the janitorial service.
The fissure’s progress reached the front wheels of the car as the grubby, silent boy watched the surrounding buildings of the farmhouse in the distance join the main building in a massive pile of wood and twisted metal. It reminded him of the clean-up involved after these little exercises in futility. As the rusted-out sedan began its decent into the fissure, the shrieking in the front seat turned into high-pitched keening. The technician ignored the sound as the car began its final descent into darkness. He was already writing his latest report to the BUDDHA board in his head, and wondering what his next assignment would be.
Tara Cameron is a writer, editor, and photographer who has struggled with mental illness and being an odd duck since childhood, has never fit into any of the neatly labeled human boxes. Her photography has appeared in Rascal Journal, Red Flag Poetry, Scene & Heard, and Penultimate Peanut, and has been featured in an outdoor installation by her hometown in Kingston, Ontario Canada where she lives with her three daughters, partner, cat, dog, three rats, and a house that is way too large. You can find Tara on twitter @CreativeOddDuck, Instagram @the_creative_odd_duck, or on her website https://thecreativeoddduckca.wordpress.com.