Scorched wind blew in the car window and whipped through Mel's thistledown hair. Frogfur, her mother called it. Such sparse growth, only an inch long, stained pistachio green from hundreds of stolen midnight swims. She stared straight ahead and let herself be hypnotized by the gray rockscape unfurling beyond the Buick's pockmarked hood. The car jittered when her mother turned the wheel a second too late to avoid a dead rabbit. Just a small bump, but Mel shivered and pushed her hands into the grit and gum wrapper cleft between the seat cushions.
Her fingers closed on something wedged in the gap: an old toothbrush. She held it up and spoke into the splayed bristles as if it were a microphone. "Welcome, Ladies and Germs, to the Bobby, Mom and Mel Show. We're cruising along the interstate and... " She glanced across to the driver's side and her voice broke, "...we just squished a little rabbit."
"It was already dead," her mother said. "And anyway, there's zillions of rabbits in the world." Her voice had an artificial huskiness, planted there by a truckstop cowboy who said she reminded him of Bogie's wife. She'd been calling herself Lauren, for a couple of weeks, though her real name was Anita.
Mel whispered, "Poor little thing." Then she squared her shoulders and sat up straight, as if she'd made a decision to push grief aside. "Where are we, anyway, Mom?"
"Just outside Winnemucca."
Mel nodded. "So it's a fabulous day just outside wonderful Winnemucca. Sounds like an Indian word."
"That's right," Bobby said from the back seat. "It means shithole."
Lauren flexed her fingers on the steering wheel and glared into the rear view mirror. "Watch your mouth there, Pal."
Bobby yawned and leaned forward to rest his head on the seat back between his mother and sister. Even with his chipped front tooth and the scar across his chin, he was good looking.
"We're not stopping, are we? 'Cause I remember Winnemucca," he said. "That's where you and that Raymond guy had that knock-down drag-em-out."
"Nope." Lauren snapped her wad of Juicy Fruit. "Not stopping. No way."
"Good," Bobby said and sat back. "Great. So when can I drive?"
"Ah, I dunno. In a while, maybe."
"A while, huh? So, how long is that, exactly?"
Mel looked from Bobby to her mother and back.
"Mind your own business, Melissa," he said and leaned forward again to hiss in his mother's ear. "How am I supposed to get my license, if you won't let me practice?"
"I said in a while."
"No, Mom. No. What you said was 'maybe'. That's another way of saying 'forget it,' right?" He gave her shoulder a nudge and his voice climbed an octave. "I'm sixteen. Sixteen! And you treat me like a baby. If you'd just give me half a fucking chance..."
Lauren threw her gum out the window. "Ah, c'mon Bob, don't get your bowels -"
"I'm not some baby."
"Of course not. You're the man of the house."
"Jesus, Mom...Jesus! As if we had a fucking house."
Lauren pushed the car's cigarette lighter with her thumb. "Listen, Melly, get me a smoke, huh? Then would you be a real doll and find your big brother's pills?"
Mel opened her mother's purse.
Lauren cleared her throat. "You're the head of our family, Bob. We depend on you, don't we, Melly?"
"Completely," Mel said. She poked a fresh cigarette between her mother's lips and took the lid off the pill bottle. "How many?"
"You forgot my breakfast dose." Bobby sounded sulky.
Mel felt a sudden jolt then, as if he'd kicked the back of her seat.
"Hey!" She turned in time to see his eyes roll up and his head snap back. "Mom?" Her voice sounded calm. "He's having a seizure."
Lauren skidded the Buick onto the shoulder.
Mel scrambled to her knees and stretched over the seat to shove a pile of clothes between his head and the car door.
Lauren too, reached toward him, as if a mother's hands could somehow put a stop to the terrible storm raging in his brain.
There was nothing they could do but watch his wrenched muscle dance and listen to the single eerie note that wove its way between gasps and grunts.
An eternity and two minutes later, a final shudder jack-knifed his body and left him limp and urine-soaked, like something washed up on a beach.
When the Buick stopped bucking and shaking, Lauren wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "Where's the goddamn Kleenex?" Her cheeks were smeared with mascara.
Mel tore a couple of feet from a roll of toilet paper and handed it to her mother, watching her blow her nose and blot muddy tears.
Lauren snatched the roll away, tore off another yard and leaned into the back seat to capture a string of saliva from Bobby's mouth. He stared through her as if she weren't there.
"From now on, we gotta make sure he gets his pills regular." Lauren smoothed his hair and mopped his damp forehead. "No more screw-ups. You hear me, Mel?"
"Yeah." Mel's thigh muscles cramped. "I hear you."
"Okay." Lauren settled herself behind the wheel. She took in a couple of deep breaths and started the engine. "Okay, we'll find a motel." She pulled back onto the road. "Get him cleaned up. Let him rest."
"Not in Winnemucca. You told him -"
"He won't know the difference."
"Maybe...," Mel said. She looked back to watch a rabbit dash out of a creosote bush and run across the highway. "So, who's Raymond?"
"Nobody." Lauren shook her head. "Just a guy I used to date."
Mel opened her mouth and, before she could even think, asked, "Is he my Dad?"
Her mother gave her a surprised look. "Raymond? Why on earth would you think that?"
"Well, I don't... think it. I just wondered, you know? About my Dad? I mean, you never told me."
Lauren shrugged. "You never asked."
"I'm asking now," Mel said.
Her mother hesitated, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. "Yeah. Okay, well, his name was...Jim."
"Was?" Mel looked stricken. "You mean he's dead?"
"No. No, he's alive." Lauren pushed the cigarette lighter and nodded toward her purse. "You mind?"
Mel tore the cellophane off a fresh pack of Winstons and tamped a cigarette on the box the way her mother sometimes did.
She passed it over and asked in a casual way, "So, what's his last name?"
Lauren lit the cigarette and replaced the lighter before she said, "Smith. Smithson. Jim Smithson."
Mel stared out the window for a while. "I guess you don't have any pictures..."
"I was sort of wondering what he looks like."
Lauren inhaled again and let it out slowly. "He's handsome. Tall. Nice guy. You'd like him."
"Does he have frogfur?"
"Well, it's not green like yours."
"Doesn't he like to swim?"
Lauren sighed. "I don't remember. Probably. Would you take a look at Bobby?"
Mel glanced into the back seat. Bobby blinked at her and licked his lips.
"He's okay. He's starting to look around." She picked up the toothbrush again and tapped it on the dashboard a couple of times. Then she brought it to her mouth and said, "Newsflash, Ladies and Germs. Mel Granger has just been informed that her dad is named Jim Smithson."
Lauren looked at the toothbrush. "Where'd you get that yucky old thing?"
"It was stuffed in the seat cushions. Why didn't you marry him?"
"Jesus, Melly, what is this? The Spanish Inquisition?"
"Does he know?"
"Oh. Yeah. Sure, he knows."
"Wonder why he never wanted to see me."
Lauren stubbed out her cigarette. "Beats me. I think he moved to another state or something."
"It was fourteen years ago, Mel. I don't remember. Give me a break, okay?"
A few minutes passed before Mel said very softly, "Wonder what he does for a living..."
"He's a doctor," Lauren answered, in a tight little voice. "A specialist."
That's when Mel knew for sure that her mother was lying. She dropped the toothbrush out the window and didn't ask any more questions.
"It's got a pool," Lauren said, and tossed the key to her daughter. "Room Four. Go open it up. Then come back and help me with Bobby."
The door was stuck but it popped open when Mel put her shoulder against it. She took a quick look around. Two queen-size beds took up most of the floor space. There was nowhere else to sit. She turned on the air conditioner and reached to close the drapes. A dusty plastic bouquet of turquoise flowers in a vase glued to the windowsill made her feel like crying.
Through the window, Mel saw her mother standing outside the car, smoking. She looked like someone in a magazine ad. The way she leaned against the fender with her back arched so that her breasts jutted out like a ship's prow. Or maybe it was the way her face was turned up to the sun, with her eyes closed and that tiny secret smile.
Mel wondered if maybe her mother was just like her. If she secretly loved the day or two of peace that usually followed Bobby's seizures. Because it meant they had an excuse to stay put. It meant Bobby might not pick so many fights. He might be more gentle. They might all be more gentle.
Lauren suddenly opened her eyes and looked right at Mel. She ground out the cigarette with the toe of her sandal and motioned to her to hurry up.
When they opened Bobby's door, Mel gagged at the concentrated stink of sweat and urine.
Lauren swallowed a couple of times and said, "C'mon, Bob. Nice bath and you can sleep the day away."
He was docile, letting them guide him.
Lauren pushed the door closed and quickly surveyed the room. "Well, it ain't the Ritz, but we like it."
Bobby started to sit on the nearest bed, but Lauren grabbed him by the shirttail. "Hold on, Big Guy. Let's get you cleaned up first, okay?"
They steered him into the bathroom and he sat on the toilet seat while the bathtub filled.
Mel said, "I'll finish unloading the car," and moved toward the door.
"Don't bring it all," Lauren answered. "Just what we need for tonight. Hold up your arms, Bobby." She pulled his tee shirt over his head. "Just the little white suitcase and -"
"Stand up a minute," she said to her son.
Bobby put a hand on her shoulder and stood. He looked mildly surprised. "Mom...?"
"Yeah, Bob. That's right." She unzipped his sodden shorts and they plopped to his ankles.
"And my make-up bag, " Lauren said.
"You're going out?" Mel couldn't hide her disappointment. "Tonight?"
Lauren nodded and tugged Bobby's jockey shorts down over his narrow hips.
Mel's eyes were drawn to the heat rash scattered like tiny red stars just above his pubic hair.
"For God's sake, Mel," Lauren said, "Don't stand there gawking like that. You seen him naked before."
Mel blushed but didn't say anything until her mother had eased Bobby into the bath and settled herself on the rim.
"I don't see why you have to go out, Mom. You never went out before when he -"
"Well, tonight I am, okay?" Lauren unwrapped a bar of soap and rubbed it on a wet washcloth. "I got...an appointment."
"An appointment," Mel repeated, spitting out each syllable as if it left a bitter taste. "You usually call it a date."
Lauren looked up and stared at her for a long time. "Okay, Melissa," she said, quietly. "Call it whatever you want." Then she shifted position on the rim of the tub so her back was turned.
Mel had the dinky kidney-shaped pool all to herself. She dove in and swam underwater, twice the length before coming up for air.
Then she slowed her pace, gliding silently back and forth, as if she were in her natural medium.
A long time later, she crawled out to lie dripping on the hot weed-cracked concrete.
The elastic of her swimsuit was shot, so it bagged out around her hips, even though it had become too tight across the chest. But Mel had learned not to let herself care how she looked or what people thought. She lifted her head and tugged at the bottom of the swimsuit, smoothing it over her protruding hipbones. The fabric, once blue, was now bleached to a mottled gray that vaguely resembled fish scales.
Mel stared down at her feet and wondered how it would feel if her legs were fused into a tail. She closed her eyes and lay back, fantasizing how it would be if she were just a visitor on dry land, a mermaid on vacation.
A shadow fell across her face.
She opened her eyes and squinted up at her mother.
"How's the water?" Lauren said.
"I'm going out for food. You stay with Bobby." Lauren handed her the room key and said, "Want anything special?"
Mel shook her head and stood, but as her mother turned to walk away, she suddenly grabbed her arm and said, "Wait! I want to go to California. I want to swim in the ocean."
Lauren frowned. "Look, I told you a zillion times, that's where we're headed. Didn't I?"
"I know, but ... it seems like we just keep going and never get anywhere. And if you let him drive -"
"Don't be silly. Of course he can't drive."
"Promise!" Mel tightened her grip. "Promise you won't let him. Because he's going to keep nagging until you give in, Mom. Happens every time."
Lauren pushed her daughter's hand off. "Don't be an idiot, Mel. He'd kill us."
Bobby was still asleep when Lauren came back with Chinese food and a bag of penny candy.
Mel, still in her swimsuit, was curled up on the other bed, watching television with the sound turned off.
Lauren handed her the food. "We'll save some of this," she whispered. "For when he wakes."
As if on cue, Bobby groaned and rubbed his eyes.
"Hey, Big Guy. How you feeling?"
He looked around the room. "Where are we?"
"Ah, it's just a one-horse town," Lauren answered. "Not even on the map."
He swallowed. "Anything to drink?"
"Damn," Lauren said. "Knew I's forgetting something. Be a doll, Melly and get him some water, huh?"
Bobby raised himself up on his elbows, watching as his sister walked past the bed. "She's getting tall," he said. "Think she'll be taller than me?"
"Who knows?" Lauren said. "We've got sweet and sour, fried rice, egg foo yung, red licorice and malt balls. What's your pleasure?"
"Nothing. Not hungry."
Mel brought him a glass of water from the bathroom. He gulped it down and set it on the nightstand.
"How's the pool?"
Bobby swung his legs over the edge of his bed and sat for a second, getting his bearings.
When he stood up, Lauren rushed at him. "Here, let me help."
He deflected her hands and slipped into the bathroom. "I can take a whiz all by myself," he said, slamming the door.
"Don't lock it," Lauren called, a second before he did.
She muttered, "Damn it, Bobby," and walked to the other bed, where Mel sat eating fried rice in front of the television.
Mel shrugged, "Some old movie."
Lauren sat next to her and opened the carton of sweet and sour pork.
"Hey," she said. "That's Cary Grant."
Mel passed her some chopsticks.
"I met him once," her mother said. "At the airport in L. A."
Mel looked at her with sudden interest. "You got to go on an airplane?"
"Nah." Lauren shook her head. "But anyway, he said, 'hello' and smiled at me with these great big white teeth. Cary Grant ... God, I about died!"
"Big deal," Mel said.
"Well, yeah, Miss Priss. It was a big deal. 'Cause here's this famous movie star and he singles me out of the whole crowd. I mean he was close enough so's I could smell him. His aftershave was sort of pungent, you know? Like ... um ..." Lauren wiggled the wire handle of her carton while she sought the right word.
"Newsflash," Mel said to her chopsticks. "We've just been informed, Ladies and Germs, that Cary Grant smelled pungent."
Lauren frowned. "Like cloves, smartass."
Bobby came out of the bathroom and said, "Can I have my fortune cookie?"
"I thought you weren't hungry," Mel said.
"Right. I just want the fortune."
Mel held out three tiny slips of paper. "Pick one."
Lauren gave her a surprised look. "Melissa? You little pig."
"Jeez, Mom, he said he wasn't hungry. And you never eat fortune cookies."
Bobby took a slip of paper from Mel's fingers. "Oh, brother," he said. "Listen to this: 'You will take a long journey.'"
"Yeah, " Mel nodded. "They all say that."
Mel hated the way her mother looked. It was partly the dress, made of iridescent fabric that scattered light around the room. She hated the way it hugged her mother's breasts and bottom and came to a halt only a third of the way down her long muscled thighs. And those gold stiletto high heels that looked like they could strike sparks on the pavement.
Even more than Mel hated the dress and shoes, she hated the peacock colors painted on Lauren's eyelids, the deep plumy red on her lips and the gaudy razzle-dazzle of her jewelry.
But most of all, she detested the gardenia-scented cloud that lingered in the motel room after her mother had closed the door and gone in search of men and money.
"I hate you," Mel whispered. She hid her face in a pillow, so Bobby wouldn't know she was crying.
"What's wrong?" he said.
"Nothing." Mel threw the pillow across the room and got to her feet. "I'm going for a swim."
"Wait. I'll come too."
"No! You can't. I don't want to watch you."
Bobby caught her by the shoulder. "Hey, you're not my babysitter, Melissa."
"Okay." He dropped his hands to his sides. "But, if I want to swim, goddamn it, I'll swim."
"And if you have a seizure, Bobby, I swear to God, I won't lift a finger to help. I won't pull you out, understand? I'll just let you drown like a stupid rat."
"It's a deal," he said. "Let's go."
The gate to the pool was padlocked and the lights were turned off.
"They got a rule about no swimming after ten," Mel said.
"Aw, fuck 'em."
"I'm sick of your mouth, Bobby."
"And I'm sick of everybody bossing me around."
"Okay, okay. Look, we can climb over, but we gotta be real quiet."
He lifted her by the waist until she could reach the top of the wrought iron gate. She straddled the narrow bar like a gymnast for a second and then eased herself slowly down to the pavement on the other side.
Bobby backed up and took a running leap that rattled the gate as he scrambled over and dropped heavily to the ground.
"You call that quiet?" Mel whispered.
"Try not to splash," she said and slipped silently into the inky pool.
They swam as if they were blind, reading the ripples and eddies to avoid collision. Sometimes, the water-born cues became confusing and Mel felt Bobby's fingers brush across her back or her legs. When that happened, she slid under the water and glided away like a frog seeking a private lily pad.
After a while, Bobby crawled out to lie at the lip of the pool while Mel finished her solitary ballet.
Finally she too got out and sat next to him with her legs dangling in the water. "We should probably go back now," she said.
"Yeah," he answered, but didn't move.
Mel felt desert heat radiate up from the concrete decking. The stars looked bright and brittle as sugar crystals in the black sky. "Tell me about Raymond."
"Not much to tell," Bobby answered languidly. "Just some loser that beat the crap out of me and Mom."
"When? Where was I?"
"You?" Bobby slapped the water with the flat of his hand. "Don't know. Guess you were there, but I can't remember. I was only like three, maybe four. He smacked my head against the wall. That's when I started getting seizures."
"What'd he look like?"
Bobby snorted. "Like a big, mean, ugly asshole."
Something shot across the sky.
"Look," Mel said. "A falling star." She caught her breath like she was falling too.
"Hurry," he said. "Make a wish."
"Bobby? There's something I want to know. Was Raymond my father?"
He sighed. "Melissa... Jesus. Mom's been on her own since she was sixteen. Don't you get it? Hooker's kids don't have fathers."
Hooker's kids. The phrase seemed to swoop and circle above her head like a razor-beaked hawk. Hooker's kids? She imagined a blur of mud-colored feathers and grasping talons, sharp as broken glass.
Mel shuddered and got to her feet. "I'm going back to the room."
Bobby stood up. "You ever wish you were somebody else?" he asked.
She stepped toward the gate. "Like who?"
Without warning, Bobby caught her from behind. "I'm not gonna hurt you," he whispered and covered her mouth with one hand even though she was too stunned at first to cry out or struggle.
His other hand moved quickly across her small breasts and then down to creep inside the leg opening of her swimsuit. His fingers were cold. His breathing was calm and even. Much quieter than the sound of her own blood rushing, pounding through her head.
Then he let her go and she felt dry air sear its way back into her lungs.
"NO!" she screamed and spun around, flailing her arms, kicking wildly.
"Hey, it's okay," he said, dancing away from her blows. "Didn't mean to scare you. Jesus! Take it easy."
"You... BASTARD!" she sobbed. "You ever touch me again, I swear I'll kill you. I mean it, Bobby! I'll kill you!"
"Look, I'm sorry. It's just, I ... I've been wondering, you know, I wanted to know what it would be like. To be ... to have a girl's body."
"You make me puke," Mel said. "You hear? You make me puke!"
"Hey! Hey, there!" yelled a phlegmy-voiced man, transfixing them in the beam of his lantern. "What the heck you doing in there? Can't you read the darn sign?"
Mel squinted into the light and saw a bald man, whose hairy belly swelled to fill the space between his greasy tee shirt and cutoff jeans. He unlocked the gate and pushed it open.
"Awright, c'mon outta there, now. What I gotta do? Put up barbwire? That what it takes?"
"Me and my little sister was just trying to get some exercise," Bobby said. "We been on the road for weeks."
"Take a look at this." The man shoved his wristwatch in front of Bobby's face and held up the lantern. "What's that say?"
"No, for criminy sakes. The time."
"Oh. Eleven thirty."
"Bingo! You kids oughtta be sound asleep. And me too, dang it. I got a heart condition."
"Sorry," Mel said. Her mouth twitched as she struggled to hold back tears.
"I'm sure you are, young lady. So you better sashay your fandangos on back to your room."
After they stepped through the gate, the man pulled it closed and clicked the lock.
Bobby said," 'Night, Mister."
"Same to you. Go on now," he answered and held the lantern high until they disappeared around the corner of the building.
Back in the room, they moved around each other in a fog of silence, taking turns in the bathroom, getting ready for bed. After the light was out, Mel lay for a long time trying to remember if he'd had all his pills for the day.
When she was at the edge of sleep, Bobby said, "People expect men to be a certain way. All strong and everything ... but sometimes I have these dreams." His voice grew shaky. "That I'm a ... girl. And I wish ... oh hell! Some day, I'm gonna leave. 'Cause if I don't, if I stay with you and Mom ..."
Mel waited but he didn't finish his sentence.
At dawn, she awoke to the sound of water running. Her mother came out of the bathroom. Mel watched her shed the iridescent dress like a snakeskin.
In the half-light, Lauren leaned against the wall, with her arms across her chest as if the effort had exhausted her. Without make-up, her face was pale and mask like.
A minute later she stripped to her panties, leaving everything else puddled on the floor. Then she pulled on one of Bobby's old tee shirts and slumped into bed with a weary groan.
If I had enough money... Mel thought. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and rolled away from her mother, away from the stink of whiskey and smoke and crushed gardenias.
"I'm starved," Bobby whispered. "Isn't she ever gonna get up?"
Mel got Lauren's purse. "Here." She passed Bobby his pills. "There's a gas station a couple of blocks away. You want to see if they've got vending machines? "
"Stale potato chips for breakfast?" Bobby made a face.
"Maybe you're not really hungry," Mel said. She opened the wallet and her eyes widened.
"What's wrong now? Don't tell me we're broke."
"Look at this, Bobby. Twenty...forty...sixty, eighty. Hundred. Fifty...Two hundred. Three...four...five...six... Jeez. Seven...seven-fifty... eight..." Mel looked up at him, stunned. "Almost a thousand dollars."
"All right! Let's order pizza."
Mel frowned. "Where'd she get it all?"
Bobby shrugged. "She's got more talent than I thought."
"Maybe she stole it..."
Bobby snatched the wallet from Mel's hands. "Look, I don't care how she got it. She got it, okay? That's what counts." He took out a wad of twenty-dollar bills and dropped the wallet back in her lap. "What kind of pizza you want? Pepperoni?"
Lauren didn't wake up until mid-afternoon.
Bobby glanced at her briefly, mumbled, "Morning," and went back to his game of solitaire.
"Yeah," she croaked and continued toward the bathroom, tugging the bottom of the tee shirt down to cover her panties.
Mel sat at the foot of Bobby's bed. "Yes, Ladies and Germs," she said to an old "Reader's Digest" she'd been dragging around since Pocatello, Idaho. "Mom will be joining us shortly for another edition of the Bobby, Mom and Mel Show. But first a word from our sponsor." She got her mother's purse and rifled through it, singing a Winston commercial.
After Mel put a fresh pack and a book of matches on the nightstand, she went back to reading "Life in These United States" for the fifteenth time.
Lauren came out of the bathroom and sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, smoking and flipping the dial through the TV channels.
"Past the time for check-out. Might as well stay another day," she said. "Maybe we should go out, huh? You two wanna do that? See a movie? Have a big dinner someplace nice?"
"Sure," Bobby said. "Sounds cool."
"Where'd you get all that money?" Mel asked.
Lauren stood up and stretched. "This sweet old guy. Filthy rich. 'My Dear, I like your smile,' he says. And he hands me the money. Isn't that a hoot?"
"You do have a nice smile," Mel said. "We all do. Even Bobby."
Lauren laughed. "Especially Bobby." She slipped her arm around his neck, catching him in a mock chokehold. "'Ladykiller!' That's what we oughtta call him."
He pushed her away and turned to face her squarely. "Think I could drive us to the movie?"
Lauren raked her fingers through her hair. "Gee, I don't know. Maybe. Let me think about it, okay?"
Bobby stared out the restaurant window at a gleaming blue Peterbilt truck in the parking lot.
Lauren took a sip of her drink and reached across the table to pat his hand. "Classy rig, huh?"
Bobby nodded, watching as the driver stepped down out of the cab and adjusted his Stetson in the side mirror.
"Those long haul guys make a ton of money," Lauren said. "But I hear it's rough on their kidneys."
"Yeah," Mel said. "And their kids."
Lauren laughed, deep and throaty. Bobby swiveled to look at them. "What?"
Mel crunched an ice cube. "I said, it's rough on their kids."
"Oh. Yeah." He turned back to the window.
The waitress came to take their order.
"I think I'm going to have the porterhouse," Lauren said. "What about you two?"
Mel closed her menu. "Lasagna. And can I have another coke?"
"Sure," Lauren said. "What about you, Bob?"
Lauren winked at Mel. "I'm having frog legs and snails. You want the same?"
Lauren cupped her hands around her mouth. "Earth to Bob."
He turned away from the window with a blank look and abruptly stood up. "Goin' to the john."
"Fine," he said and left.
"I guess he'll have the porterhouse too. But well done," Lauren told the waitress.
Bobby was gone a long time. After a while, Lauren started fidgeting, drumming her nails on the tabletop, looking over her shoulder toward the bathrooms.
She glanced at her watch. "Two more minutes, then I'm going in after him. You been giving him his pills regular?"
Mel nodded. In the window glass, she saw the shrinking reflection of the blue semi pull out of the parking lot and turn toward the highway.
The food came. Lauren ordered another drink and looked at her watch again. "I'll give him one more minute."
"Lasagna's delicious," Mel said.
Lauren smiled and cut into her steak. "Mmm, perfect. God, I love a good piece of meat." She looked over her shoulder again at the bathroom doors.
Mel took a swallow of her coke. "He touched me last night."
Lauren turned to her with a puzzled smile. "What?"
"He put his hand in my swimsuit."
"Well, I'm sure it didn't mean anything. Probably just an accident."
"No." Mel shook her head.
Lauren pushed her chair back and stood up.
"I'm going to go check on him."
Mel put her fork down. "He's not there, Mom. He's gone."
Lauren frowned. "What? What do you mean 'gone'?"
Mel pointed to the window. "He left with the guy in the truck."
"He's got his pills. He's got money. He'll be all right."
"Why didn't you SAY something?" Lauren screamed. "Why the hell didn't you TELL me?"
The restaurant instantly hushed. Everyone stared.
"He needed to go. It was time."
The waitress stepped to their table and anxiously whispered, "Everything all right?"
"No, it's NOT fucking all right!" Lauren yelled.
"Could we please have a doggie bag?" Mel asked.
The waitress nodded and turned on her heels.
A tear slid down Mel's nose and dripped onto her plate. "Sit down, Mom. Finish your drink."
Lauren moaned and dropped heavily into her seat.
"You gonna call the cops, Mom?"
The waitress brought Styrofoam containers and the bill. Then she hurried away.
"That old man I told you about? The one who liked my smile?"
"He passed out. The money was right there in his wallet. So I took it. He was rich. What difference would it make to him?"
Mel shrugged. "None, I guess." She scraped lasagna into one of the Styrofoam trays and reached for Bobby's untouched steak.
Lauren was sobbing now. "We can't just let that boy go..."
"He's not a boy," Mel said softly.
"But he's sick, Melissa. What'll he do without us?"
"He'll take care of himself, Mom. Just like you did. I looked at a map. If we drive all night we can be in California tomorrow."
"What? What are you saying? Just let him go?"
"He'll find us, Mom. In California. When he's ready. If he wants to."
"Oh, Christ. I'm so goddamn tired."
"You're fourteen." Lauren gave her a sad look and downed the last of her drink. "You really think you could drive that old Buick?"
The breeze was cool. Mel took her sandals off and stood up. "Come on, Mom, we're going in."
"No. You go ahead." Lauren yawned and rubbed her puffy face.
Mel tugged her hand. "You have to come too."
"I can't." Her mother dug her toes into the damp sand. "Never learnt to swim."
"You don't have to. The ocean does all the work. You just lie there like a baby."
"Who told you that?"
"Nobody. I just know, that's all. Come on." Mel slipped out of her clothes and walked to the edge of the water. "Come on," she called again. "At least get your feet wet."
"If I drown you'll be an orphan," her mother yelled.
"You won't drown. I promise."
Lauren stood up and walked toward her daughter, leaving a trail of dropped clothes along the way.
Hand in hand, laughing, shivering, crying, they waded farther and farther into the waves, until their feet no longer touched the bottom. Then they let the ocean cradle them as the sun rose over the cliffs and like Midas, turned everything to gold.
Appeared in World Wide Writers, 1999; British Royal Nat Inst of the Blind (Braille), 2002; CollectedStories.com, 2002