The cousins have been taking turns in the backseats of different cars as we zig our way across the States; the parents switch us up so siblings won’t fight and drive them up the wall. There are gummy bears in this uncle’s car. My cousin eats them by first biting off every tiny appendage, one at a time; ear, ear, arm, arm, leg, leg. Body. Chew. She’s the eldest, and she doles them out at the same pace in which she eats them, and I sit with the aftertaste of each one for a while before I get another, watching the scenery whip by.
It’s 1990. When someone has to pee or gets hungry, a message is written in big letters on a piece of paper and gets held up in a window. The driver pulls up beside each car long enough for the passengers to read the message, then takes the lead, everyone following behind them to the next gas station or to pull off on the shoulder. We’re in a constant state of picnic; trunks are popped open and out come blankets, coolers full of food. The moms take the kids to pee in the trees while the dads have a beer and look at maps.
“M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.” Another aunt is in the front seat of this car, and so now we all know how to spell Mississippi. My little brother repeats it over and over again, and he’s only five years old, so everyone thinks it’s so great, but enough already, we get it. There was an oversight, and we’ve ended up in the same vehicle. There’s a cousin buffer between us, listening to a Walkman.
“Holy cow,” my aunt says, every time we pass fields of cattle. I feel like my giggles are expected, and I pray for no more cows.
“How do you get from Canada to Las Vegas?” Everyone keeps asking my brother, every day.
“You just follow the yellow line on the road,” he explains, earnest.
My dad’s brother is driving this car. Things get tense in the front seat.
“Look at him,” my uncle says, angry. “What is he doing?” He has a voice that sits comfortably in anger, but I can tell something is really wrong. I crane my neck around the headrest, trying to see through the windshield. My family’s car is ahead of us, my dad at the wheel. I’m not sure about the rules of driving, but I see my dad has pulled into the next lane. He’s driving so fast, right towards the oncoming traffic. “That son-of-a-bitch is going to get everyone killed!” I feel heat prickle through me. Grown-ups can’t get mad like that, not at other grown-ups. My dad swings the car back into the right lane and my uncle swears with relief. My aunt is fiddling with the radar detector. I stare out the window, turned to hide my face, hot with shame. I refuse to speak.
When we make the next stop I run to my parents, and now I couldn’t speak even if I wanted to. My tears won’t stop. He almost got them all killed, and words were yelled, like yelled about him, and he was a son-of-a-bitch, and what did that make me?
Everyone is getting out of the car, but I keep my eyes closed.
“She’s going to miss it. She should see this.”
“Let her sleep,” my mother’s voice decides over the sounds of belt buckles clicking, chunking door handles, excited children stretching legs. I can feel eyes on me, expectant, but I’m good at pretending. I’m thrilled by how good I am at pretending. My cousins slide out, bouncing the seat, but I don’t move an inch. I’m a daughter-of-a-son-of-a-bitch, doing what I want. The doors close and the voices are muted by glass and steel. Our fleet has pulled over to see something beautiful; they’re gathering for a family photo that I’ll be missing from, smiles stretching like the Nevada desert. I stay still, listen to myself breathe.
Nadia Staikos (she/her) lives in Toronto with her two children. Her work has previously appeared in perhappened, (mac)ro(mic), Fudoki, and elsewhere. She is prose editor at Chestnut Review, and is currently working on her first novel. Find her on Twitter @NadiaStaikos.