By Elaine Cary
Their mother had driven them out to their grandmother’s for the weekend, a trip usually reserved for Christmas day, but on occasion for a boyfriend crisis, where the only remedy was the wisdom of one’s own mother. Usually, their mother turned to Maggie during such plights.
”Us girls get each other,” She would say, and go on about complexities within relationships that Maggie did not get at all, though she pretended to. They looked like two high school girls, the mother being the pretty and popular cheerleader who complained to her less-experienced and frumpy sidekick. This past boyfriend, however, had destabilized her mother completely, and even Maggie couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. Off to grandmother’s house, they went.
On the afternoon, they arrived, Maggie followed her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, where she could listen to their ribald conversation. Her mother liked to brag that Maggie was mature for her age, but really Maggie just thought adult’s lives were so much more interesting than kids’ lives. Leaning on the island in the kitchen, the two women chattered about the boyfriend and his sloppy habits, laziness, and selfishness in bed. Maggie, perched on a stool and listening politely, imagined this particular boyfriend hogging their mother’s blankets and pillows, very selfish indeed.
Finally, Maggie sensed a gap in the conversation and felt brave enough to say something that might show off her wit. ”Mom sure knows how to pick ’em,” she said and waited for a round of bravos. She’d heard the expression on a TV show, and guessed that it applied here. Her grandmother laughed and gave Maggie a squeeze on the arm, but her mother was not impressed. She pointed a red fingernail at the doorway and told Maggie to get out, and that she should think before she disrespected her mother like that.
Betrayed, Maggie went outside, where she found Thomas playing with the little toy cars he’d brought for the weekend. She told him to get up, that they were leaving, and stalked off through the yard before she could see his reaction. Thomas, always one to acquiesce, got up and followed her.
Now they were on this road, and Maggie had to admit that she wasn’t quite sure where they were anymore. When they left the house, they had wandered into the woods near their grandmother’s property. There they had played for a while, pretending to be wolves and hermits, and Maggie eventually forgot that she was angry at her mother.
When the children grew tired of their games and plucking burrs from their shoelaces, they moved to the edge of the woods, where they were split out onto a road. By then it had felt like hours since left the house, and Thomas reminded Maggie that they had never eaten lunch. Maggie thought this was a very astute observation, but ignored him. The road was the best place to be, anyway. If her mother came back looking for them, she wouldn’t have to drive far, and maybe Maggie wouldn’t be in as much trouble.
Inevitably, the children became thirsty. Maggie realized that she almost never thought drinking water, that she did not have to make a conscious effort to stay hydrated. But now she was aware of her thirst. Since he hadn’t yet complained, she asked Thomas if he felt, too. He nodded solemnly and continued jabbing his walking stick in the dirt, like a dejected Grim Reaper whose scythe no longer provided him joy.
After walking for quite some time, and nearly staggering now in the dirt beside the road, Maggie decided that her feet needed a break. She wandered closer to the trees that lined the road and sat in their shade, where the coolness soothed her hot skin. Thomas followed.
‘’You know, we’ll probably die out here,’’ she said. It was the first time either of them acknowledged the peculiarity of their situation.
‘’We will not!’’ Thomas shouted.
This encouraged Maggie. ‘’Oh, yes,’’ she said, ‘’we’ll dehydrate. We’ll be like Jesus in the desert, only we won’t last nearly as long as He did. I give us another hour or so.’’
Thomas started to cry. Surprised, Maggie looked at her little brother. He sat with his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around himself. She looked away and signed, not willing to pity him, as that wouldn’t be helpful to anybody. Perhaps they really would die, she thought, and their skeletons would be found there in the shade, and her mother would feel terrible for forcing Maggie out of the kitchen earlier that day.
The thought of her mother pricked something anxious in Maggie, and she glanced worriedly at the sun, overcame by the need to know the time. She waited for the sniffles coming from Thomas to cease, then stood and helped her little brother off the ground. It was time to get going.
They walked on, refusing by their silence to acknowledge that they were lost. Maggie noticed that Thomas had abandoned his walking stick, and after asking him why, he claimed that it was stupid. A few minutes later, Maggie spotted another stick, a little shorter than the old one, and handed it to her brother, who smiled shyly as he took it. They continued to drag their tired bodies forward, though after a while, Maggie forgot why they were walking at all, or perhaps she’d stopped caring.
Her eyelids drooped with the somnolent rhythms of their shoes raking through the dirt, like waves washing over a shore. She let her eyes close, pretending she was at the beach, wandering languidly into the yellow darkness provided by the curtain of her eyelids. Sometimes she would think she lost Thomas and would peek her eyes open. But he was always there, clump-clumping with his little stick.
The yelling woke her up. Lying in the grass beside the road next to Thomas, she lifted her head and saw their mother’s Buick. Thomas jumped up and ran to their mother, who had left the side door open as she maneuvered around the car.
‘’What the hell are guys doing?’’ she said, lifting Thomas up and squeezing him. ‘’You scared me half to death.’’
The children climbed into the back of the car, and their mother made an illegal U-turn into the direction back to their grandmother’s. She remained silent, and Maggie was grateful to not have to answer any questions. She was fixated on the little clock on the dashboard, which told her it was only dinner time. This had a disorienting effect on her: hadn’t it been ages ago when she found her brother playing with his little toy cars? And surely she hadn’t had a sipe of water in days. When they turned into their grandmother’s long driveway, Maggie was again surprised. It had only taken five minutes to get back. She leaned her head against the window, feeling awfully displaced, and wondered why people kept track of time when it always seemed to be lying to them.
When the car was parked, Maggie tried to sneak away unnoticed into the house. But her mother grabbed her in the driveway and lifted her up, as she had done with Thomas when they were found.
‘’Come here,’’ she said. The embrace took Maggie by surprised, and she was no longer able to hold in her tears. She cried into her mother’s hair, which smelled like perfume and cigarettes and let the stiff curls brush away her tears. ‘’I know, I know,’’ her mother said, bouncing softly as if she were shushing a baby. Maggie tried to believe that her mother really did know, that she did not have to explain herself or this feeling, this burning pain in her heart, like a crying sun.