My mum keeps a dead cat in the car. Between the seats up front. She says it’s for the hospital. She’s going to be a nurse. I don’t know what she does to the cat, or why she has to keep it in the car. On cold days it’s better, but it’s still weird. You don’t want to say “yes” when Ora asks you for a ride. But you do, and then she’s freaking out. Then at school, she’s asking me why. I tell her I don’t know why. My mum just keeps a dead cat in the car.
She used to practice giving shots on an orange. That seemed weird, too, until the cat.
She works on a hilltop, and the hospital there is called ‘Hilltop… something.’ I forget the name you call a hospital for old people. I don’t like going there because I’m afraid of old people, even though I know it’s probably not right to be.
My older sister Rita works there too but mum says I’m too young. She hates it, but Rita hates everything. She lights cigarettes for the old people when they smoke outside in their wheelchairs. It took her a couple days to figure out that the old people had to be sucking in for the cigarettes to light. She was just holding the lighter a mile away from them and blaming the wind.
My dad was the one who told her. He used to smoke and then he went outside to do it and then he finally quit. I kept bugging him until he did. I called them “cancer sticks,” even though I know that’s not creative. We see him on weekends usually.
Rita’s way older and going to college in a couple years, which is why she got the crappy tiny bedroom when we moved here a couple months ago. It’s got its own shower, which sounds nice, but everyone’s always going in there and peeing and showering and it’s tiny. It’s funny because I mostly don’t like Rita and she’s old, so I like to see her get a bad deal. I guess having a job helps her get into college. I don’t know why. I can’t wait for her to leave.
Dad’s still only twenty minutes away, which is why he can still see us all the time. He’s not like these dads you hear about who don’t want their kids. Mum made it seem like she got us during the school week because she was the mum and he got us on the weekend, like it was the law. Mum doesn’t make us do chores, so we like that, and Rita would’ve picked her anyway. She hates Dad. She has no taste in things.
I’d stay there all the time, even with the chores, if it was up to me. When Mum moved, he called each one of us and asked who we’d stay the week with. I didn’t know I had a choice. I felt so bad saying I was gonna stay with Mum. I had to, though. If I didn’t, she’d never stop crying and telling you all the reasons you should hate him. I was crying when I hung up the phone.
He hits us with a paddle. That part is true. But he’s not a “slavedriver”, we just have chores. Only one a week for each of us. Rita can’t dust or vacuum because she’s supposedly allergic. I sneeze just as much but I don’t have a note from a doctor so it doesn’t count. It’s not so bad to vacuum a little house. And Dad doesn’t scream at you and go crazy. He just calmly gets the paddle and you know you’re getting the paddle. I can handle that so much better. I don’t like the corner or soap in my mouth, but it’s better than a crazy lady. Rita hates when Mum goes crazy just as much. Always flinching. It’s funny.
My other sister Tula is too young to know anything. She likes Mum and Dad the same. She likes the dead cat. One’s too old and thinks she’s too smart, and the other one’s young and dumb enough to like a fucking dead cat. I don’t curse that much. I don’t think my mum does either.
My only real friend is Ora. You talk to people, to be nice, but everybody is so stupid. God, kids are so stupid. Adults just have better vocabularies, but they’re normally stupid too. Ora has a vocabulary at least. She comes and hangs out with us when we’re going around with my mum, because her own mum I don’t even know about her. She never lets me in there. I don’t think it’s good, though.
A movie’s about as exciting as it gets, or maybe Acapulco. That’s an awesome Mexican restaurant we have here. I always get the chimichanga because it’s like a blown-up burrito but crispy and slimy and fried. It’s the best food there’s ever been.
We stop by the bank first usually, and my mum says “fuck” about how much money she has, looking in her chequebook, and then she takes more out anyway. It’s a whole routine. It’s one of those where you drive through and they send a tube over and you send it back and they send a tube with money back. I love that place.
Then, driving to the movie we got into a fight, me and Tula, and Ora was just very quiet because she hates that stuff, and Rita trying to be the adult about it, all very mature and likes to show you that. We were just playing but Mum was trying to focus on driving and she said fuck some more and some other words, hitting back at us. I don’t mind, except that if she hears me say it, she’ll slap me, so she’s a hypocrite. But I guess all parents are.
How has any parent not done every single thing they’re hitting you or screaming at you for?
When it all happened, Mum was picking me up from school, and Tula already in the car, and we were just pulling onto the street and I swear it was just a flash, which isn’t a very creative way to say it, as someone who likes to have a good vocabulary, but that’s all it was to me. So fast and right in front of a school. We were hardly even pulling out, and then this big bang.
I know Mum’s head didn’t go through the windshield, because the windshield is fine, but that’s how I see it in my head. She must have hit the steering wheel, though, because she needs to get butterfly stitches, she calls them. They’re in her forehead. She’s groggy when she tells me what they are and I don’t know if she’s getting the word right.
I guess she still can’t do stitches, and probably couldn’t on her own head anyway. She never practiced them at home, and when I stabbed myself cutting the pumpkin for Halloween, I screamed and cried and begged for her to do it because she was going to be a nurse now, and she said we had to go to the hospital.
What’s the point of being a nurse if you can’t even do the most basic things?
We got to take an ambulance, which was so cool except for mum with the bandage on her head and Tula never stopping crying and Rita with her arms folded, you could tell scared but wanting to look – what’s a good word? – resolute. Big baby.
My dad got to the hospital right away – not even twenty minutes after the ambulance. He and mum didn’t talk, really, when he picked us up. I don’t even know how he found out. Probably Rita called him as soon as we got there. Probably crying to him to come and get us. But she hates him, right?
Then we were back at the accident spot, and Rita with her arms folded, back to hating him, and he was looking the car over because he knows about that stuff. I saw that the dead cat was on the dashboard and I couldn’t stop laughing and he told me to hush. Then he got in and it started up and he put us back in his car and drove us to Mum’s and then drove back to the school and drove Mum’s car back. Then has to walk to the school to get his own car again. This man Mum hates so much. Like she’d do that in a million years for him. Like she’d even know how.
I ask if I can walk with him back to the school and he says sure, and Rita stays with Tula, and we don’t say too many words but it’s so cool and like a dream having him there in Mum’s town. The car starts up okay and the brakes work and he makes sure before he lets me get in, then we drive it back home and we get in his car and stay with him for the night.
I dream all night of the butterflies in her head carrying her away, and that makes me so happy. No more weird cats and with Dad all day.
When she came home she had to rest, and I was sick, at least enough that I didn’t want to go to school, and someone on a soap opera got AIDS, so she was talking to me about AIDS, because fucking everybody has to talk about AIDS. It’s on every magazine and show and I feel so adult when it comes on because it sounds like sex to me. My dad doesn’t change the channel when it comes on, because it’s not just sex but news and science, too, but you can tell he’d like to. He disapproves of AIDS.
My mum’s a nurse, though, so she sees it as the science part. She wanted – I think what she was doing, anyway – wanted to explain it all very rationally so I wouldn’t be scared and think I got it from sipping someone else’s milk, although my dad says we don’t even know that yet. She told me the difference between HIV and AIDS, and how you get one and it turns into the other, and that’s what kills you, and she says that it can come from sex or blood transfusions but other ways, too.
I ask her why gay people get it and she says, “gay men” and it’s because the way they have sex, they’re very suspectable to things, which it took me a while to figure out. Everybody knows that Trisha Steiner does it that way to stay pure. I was almost laughing, thinking about how I was gonna tell her that. Her stupid ring and that oath she took, and then she’s doing it the worst possible way.
I ask Mum if women do it in the butt, would they get it more, and that’s too adult for her, even though I just wanted the science part of it and she’s supposedly a nurse – gonna be.
Then she tells me how she tripped the other day, at the hospital, and she fell down into someone’s fluid, and she could even have it. I don’t know why you would say that to your kid. I started crying right there. I think she wanted to make me cry.
When her stitches are starting to heal, I ask her if we can go to SeaWorld when she’s all better and she says we just went, which is halfway true, but we have the year pass, so it’s not like it costs us anything, and you could argue it costs us more not to use it, and I really want to see the man again who plays piano at the seal show. He puts on sunglasses at just the right moment during the music, in just the perfect, funny way. It’s really hilarious.
I pouted like a baby when she said we couldn’t see it again. We were walking out of the show and I was already begging. Which I feel kind of silly about. Ora was trying to get me to be more quiet and polite to my mum, and I told her to shut up and kept pouting. Then we saw the otters and things were better again. So cute.
After school the next day I’m walking home with Ora and we’re just talking about normal things, and then I tell her all about AIDS. She’s fascinated, especially the part about the butt and how a girl’s butt might be just as suspectable.
“I would never put anything in my butt,” she says.
“Me neither,” I say. “But I don’t even like the idea of the regular way. Oh my God, that scares me so much. I can’t believe Trish Steiner does it either way.”
“Yes, she is.”
“How did you learn all this?”
“My mum,” I say, and then she goes quiet – I only remember that now, because I kept talking. I say it’ll take a couple weeks but I’m working her over for SeaWorld and we have the year pass anyway so it would just cost for Ora’s ticket and we could split that or something. She’s still being all weird and quiet.
“I can’t,” she says.
“What does that mean?”
“Your mum cusses too much,” she says.
“Fuck you,” I say.
“Real nice,” she says.
“Yeah, we are nice. My mum is nice. We took you to SeaWorld and paid for you!”
“Your mum’s a weirdo. She keeps a dead cat in her car. My mother doesn’t even want me around you.”
“My mum’s the nicest. You hate your mum.”
“You hate yours!”
“Yeah, so? I hate her sometimes, too! She bought us those leashes with the invisible dogs on them! You ran around with me all day, barking!”
She says the leashes were stupid and that man was stupid. She means the man at the piano during the seal show. And that I was a baby for pouting over him, laughing at me. I punch her and her lip practically explodes which gets me almost to puke but also really excited, and she starts crying and runs away, and I yell after her about her being the baby now and that she’s gonna need butterfly stitches and hopefully they’ll fly her away by her stupid mouth, then I run home and hug my mum and I can’t stop crying, like when I was a little, little kid and it’s just all over you and you can’t see anything else, and I tell her I hate that she curses and I’m sorry for being such a baby over the SeaWorld man but I love her and don’t want her flying away or slipping anymore and getting AIDS.
She was her nice self. Calm and comforting me. She probably didn’t even understand most of it, but she was calm and nice about it. And then she said we could go to SeaWorld and we could take my friend.
I didn’t tell her about that part. I was so afraid the phone was gonna ring and she’d take it all back and turn into her crazy self.
She let me watch while she took off the bandage. You can hardly see the little line, but I started crying all over again, thinking how all her brains could’ve come out through that little line, and could tomorrow, in just another flash, one that’s a second earlier or later, and how can you live like that?
Then I’m running down the street for Ora’s and practically have no lungs left knocking on her door.
About The Author
Jeremiah K. Balko is a California native with degrees in philosophy and classical studies from UCSD. This is his second published story, in the hopes of making it a habit.
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