Issue 14

Prose: Shelagh Johnson

The Art of Navigating

We’d been on the road for less than an hour when my father pulled the car over and climbed out, shutting the door quietly and deliberately and walking off without a word, like he was finally through with us and this was goodbye.

My brother had been insisting we pull off the highway every few minutes, gasping and heaving and beating his little fists against the back of my father’s seat, wailing that he was about to be sick, and then sitting back and announcing that it was a false alarm just as our car weaved through traffic and onto the shoulder. He’d tried putting his head between his legs, staring out at the horizon, squeezing his eyes shut and taking deep, heavy breaths; the only cure seemed to be my father negotiating through the Orange County traffic, cursing out the window at the honking cars as we pushed through to the side of the road. It wasn’t until Nathan had assured us all that he was fully recovered and we had snaked our way back into the thick maze of cars that he leaned across me and threw up all over the center console.

We sat silently for a minute or so after our father got out of the car, watching his hunched, angry figure grow smaller in the distance, dust rising up off the road behind him. My mother was busy cleaning up Nathan’s mess with a handful of papers from the glove compartment, and I wondered what sort of new fight would begin when my father decided to come back to the car. Even if the papers weren’t important I knew the sight of them crumpled in my mother’s hands and coated in my brother’s watery vomit would be enough to set him off.

Outside, the air was still and thick. We leaned against the car doors, swinging them open and closed, churning the heat around, trying to get the smell out of the seats. Nathan sat down on the ground, dust clouding up around him, his face pale and drained. “I wish we could just go home,” he said, tracing a finger through the dirt that had settled on the tops of his sneakers. “What if I get sick again?”

“Then dad will put you out of your misery.” I slammed the car door shut and sat down next to him. “He’ll put us all out of our misery.” I squinted, trying to see where our father was, but between the dust and the pools of heat swelling up from the pavement I couldn’t see much of anything. I couldn’t imagine how we were going to make it out of California at this rate, let alone halfway across the country. Even before Nathan had started feeling sick the atmosphere in the car had felt tense, weighted with the pressure to have fun and act like a family. When I’d asked if we could turn on the radio my father had answered with a barking and definitive “no” and I could see something in my mother’s posture change immediately: a ripple of realization that made her sit up straighter, like her body registering that her expectations had been all wrong.

She’d packed up the trunk of our car tightly and meticulously, filling it with things she’d bought specifically for our trip, things we’d never owned before and would probably never use again: sleeping bags and kerosene lamps, hiking maps, tarps and ropes and windbreakers and flashlights. She’d filled plastic bags with bug spray and suntan lotion, folded our brand new outfits into neat little squares that fit into our brand new backpacks. She seemed to take pleasure in the preparation and anticipation, posting lists on the refrigerator door in the weeks leading up to our trip and marking things off with enthusiastic red checks, as though each item she tucked into the car brought us one step closer to taking the vacation that would change all our lives.

The plan was to go down the coast of California and then cut across New Mexico and Arizona and Texas, camping in the deserts and exploring the canyons and becoming the kind of family that spends day after day in the cramped space of cars and tents together without a second thought. My father had read books about how to survive in relative wilderness: the basics of hitching a tent and starting a fire, the art of navigating the desert with a compass and how to get a good night’s sleep on earth that’s frozen solid. I’d awaited our departure with a kind of detached anxiety, sure something would get in the way before the day we were scheduled to leave–a crucial business trip for my father, a fight between my parents, the collective realization that an adventure like this was not something any of us knew how to handle–until the day arrived when the car was packed and the route was mapped and the long, empty summer that lay ahead was snatched out from under me.

My mother came over and sat down beside us, crossing her legs beneath her and resting her head in her hands. She looked young to me sitting like that, a girl in distress on the side of the road, scratching at the bug bites on her arms and squinting against the sunlight with nothing to do but wait.

“I guess we’re off to kind of a rough start.” She stretched her bare legs out in front of her and pressed her sandaled feet against the dusty tires of the car. I could see the shimmer of blond hair coating her thighs, so pale you’d never know it was there if she weren’t sitting still beneath the sun. “How are you feeling, bud?” she asked Nathan, and he took this as an invitation to fall heavily against her, digging his face into the crook of her armpit.

“Bad,” he said, his voice muffled against her skin. “Very, very bad.”

“I’m sure your dad will be back soon,” she said, running her hands through his hair and pressing her chin to the crown of his head, and I could tell that she wasn’t sure at all. Our father had been gone nearly fifteen minutes, which is a long time when you’ve just left your family on the side of the highway. “I think he just needed some air.” She looked over at me. “It’s hard when he gets ideas in his head about how everything is supposed to go.” I nodded, even though I knew the same was true of her, maybe even more so. My mother was forever planning out the way she hoped things would be, waiting and hoping and planning and being let down, getting her heart broken over and over.

My father was gone for nearly an hour, and when he finally came back he was somber and unapologetic, handing off the keys to my mother and climbing into the passenger’s seat without a word. I was surprised when my mother reached for the map and pulled back onto the highway to head southward. I had assumed that this would be enough to guide us back in the direction of home, that by dinnertime we’d be back in our house, pretending the day’s events had never happened. But instead we continued on our way in the direction my parents had plotted out, our car following the thick red line my mother had traced along the California coast of the map. The sun had begun to sink below the line of trees and I wondered where we were going to spend the night, how we were going to put up a tent in the pitch black darkness of some unknown campsite and what we were going to eat for dinner, but I felt glad for the calm silence of the car.

The sun had nearly set completely when I felt the car lurch forward and slide sideways. The tires screamed against hot road and our bags and suitcases thumped loudly against each other, toppling down over the seat behind me and into our laps.

“What in the hell!” my father bellowed, suddenly sitting upright as we halted to a stop. I could see my mother’s hands trembling as she gripped the wheel. We were the only ones out on the road but there were houses on either side and signs for food and motels in the distance. The empty stretch of highway in front of us was fading to purple beneath the dark sky. “What the hell just happened?”

“I hit something,” my mother said, her voice shaky. “Didn’t you feel it? It ran out in front of us. I tried to avoid it but I hit it.”

“For Christ’s sake,” my father said, unbuckling his seat belt. “Is that all? You nearly killed us over some goddamn rodent?” He shook his head and reached for the passenger door. “Get out, I’ll drive. Jesus. Scared the crap out of me for roadkill.”

“I think it was a cat,” my mother said, and I could see tears streaming down her face. “We’re in a neighborhood, it’s someone’s cat. It isn’t roadkill.”

But my father was already out of the car, coming around to the driver’s side, his hands balled into tight, angry fists. He didn’t look under the car to inspect whatever it was we’d hit, just yanked open the door and told my mother to get out. When she climbed out, I got out too.

“Get back in the car, Caroline,” he said, but I followed my mother around to the front of the car, afraid of what we’d find, my heart beating fast from the shock of the impact and from the prospect of what we may have hit.

Beneath the front tires, just under the bumper, I saw the cat, sprawled and motionless, and for a moment it seemed as though he were dozing in the sun or waiting for someone to come by and scratch his belly. I leaned in closer and I knew that he was dead. He lay split open, halved like a melon that had slid off the back of a truck and cracked against the pavement. I heard the sharp intake of my mother’s breath and then she put her hand up to my face and said, sad and quiet, “Don’t look, sweetheart,” as though this were something she could save me from. I moved away from her and stood, looking. His eyes were still partly open, just wide enough for me to see a slice of electric yellow, and the fur above them was caked with brown-red blood. He looked alive to me, like he’d been frozen mid-movement and could reanimate at any moment, lift gracefully off the ground to shake out his fur and lick his wounds until they sealed back up. I wanted to reach out and touch him, to pet the small stretch of his flank that remained perfect and whole, to feel the rise of bones as they fused back together beneath my fingers.