Mina was buckled in, and Mom had tied her shoes. Her backpack sat upright in the seat next to her. It was purple and shiny plastic, and it glinted in the sun.
It was early, and Mina wished she had stretched her body before her mom placed her in the backseat of their little plum-colored car. At least just pulled her one arm with the other arm and then her other arm with the one arm. But Mina had kept her eyes closed as Mom packed her purple backpack with socks and underwear and a change of clothes. And she had kept her body limp as Mom carried her downstairs to the car.
At the door, Mom had some trouble with Mina’s legs getting in the way. Maybe six, almost seven, is too tall to be carried, but fake-asleep is important. Fake-asleep is how you find out how much your parents love you. How they treat you when they think you’re not around.
Mina was careful to keep her mouth closed this time. Last time she pretended to be asleep, she stuck her tongue out to be realistic. It was so realistic that Mom thought she was dead. Mom said to Dad, I think she’s dead. And Mina couldn’t pretend anymore. No, I’m alive!
In the car, Mina watched her dad through half-open eyes. He pulled the garage door down but left a Penelope-height crack so that Penelope could slink in and out as she pleased. He leaned against the yellow siding and waited for Mom to lock the front door, slip on her dark sunglasses. Mom leaned over to pat Penelope goodbye, but Penelope prefers to be alone and doesn’t like to be touched—everyone knows that.
Damn cat, she said.
Dad patted Mom hello. She giggled and stood up straight again, adjusting her glasses like a movie star. As they moved towards the car, Mina shut her eyes and leaned her head heavy against the window. Dad started the car, and Mom said, Quiet, Danny. She’s sleeping.
Mina opened her eyes when she felt the sun warming her face and arms. She and Mom and Dad were flying on a long wide road, weaving between the more timid cars. Mom slept with her feet propped up on the dashboard. Her mouth was open. Her toes were pressed against the windshield, and Mina could see smudges where Mom had put her toes above and to the right and to the left of where they were now. Dad had a quiet look on his face, like someone who is trying to pass his eye exam.
Sometimes they passed a patch of wildflowers, all different colors and bright against the dead grass. Mina liked to press her cheek against the window and peer ahead of the car to get ready for the next patch. This way she could keep her eyes on the flowers, turn her head with them as they sailed past. Focusing her eyes on them slowed the flowers down. It let each flower be a flower, instead of a flash of colors hurtling by. This way, each flower could be a flower for longer.
When there weren’t so many cars on the road, Dad scratched his bristly face, and looked in the rearview mirror at his girl, Look who’s up.
His eyes were animated, but he whispered so as not to wake Mom up. Mina giggled and kicked her feet. She slouched into her seat and lifted up her leg, tickled Dad’s left ear with her left toe.
What’s that, he whispered. And he was so ticklish he could hardly keep the wheel straight.
Who’s there, he said and veered the car left and right. Left, and then right. It’s me! Careful! We’re going to die! Mina sat straight up and gripped her seat. She missed a patch of flowers flying by.
Mom kept her eyes closed and her feet on the dash. Danny, stop.
Dad chuckled, Okay. Okay. We’re alive. We’re alive.
At the rest stop, Dad ordered a chicken sandwich and two hamburgers with cheese while Mina and Mom waited in line for the bathroom. As they waited, Mina looked between doors and their hinges. She liked to see all of a person in a single, vertical line. The pinky-toe side of a cowboy boot, the hem of a pale blue skirt, a pink doughy thigh pressed white against a pink doughy body.
Don’t look, Mom said.
Outside, Dad waved to them from a booth next to a smudged glass pane that faced the parking lot. He had taken a big bite from his chicken sandwich and was chewing as he waved. He had ordered a Coke for Mom and orange juice for Mina.
So are you excited to see Uncle Seth? Mom asked.
Mina nodded, which was a lie. Uncle Seth had gaps between the tops of his teeth. He wore sandals that exposed his thick, dry toes. Uncle Seth’s face was smooth, not bristly at all. And he liked to squish his face hard against Mina’s when he hugged her. She felt like an ocean shining with oil slicks afterward.
Seth took pictures of buildings for a living.
The lines are what’s important, he said. Sometimes you get crooked lines, and that makes the building look crooked. You want straight. See?
He lined the edge of a notebook along a building in a magazine picture so she and Dad could see. The notebook made the building crooked.
They visited last year, too. That time, Mina saw a dead raccoon in the road in front of Uncle Seth’s house. A car had smashed the raccoon’s head and shoulders into the grey street-top. One of its eyes was far away from its head—about a raccoon-head away. Later that afternoon it rained, and the eye and some other raccoon bits floated away down the street. Mina stood by the window and stared at the body, frowned at it from inside the kitchen.
Mom was sitting at the breakfast table and looked up from the paper.
If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t look at it, she said.
Mina stared even harder at the raccoon leftovers—scraps all flattened and mixed together.
But I want to, Mina said.
Mom didn’t look up from the paper this time.
You’ve got a crooked mind, then. Just like your dad.
The next morning Mina remembered the raccoon while she was brushing her teeth in the hallway bathroom. When she closed her eyes to wash her face, she saw it. Red guts and smushed hair. Holes for eyeballs. Maybe she did have a crooked mind. Mina opened her eyes, and soap got in. She reached for her towel. The bathroom door was mostly closed, but not all the way. Between the door and the frame, she saw a line of a person. Black hair, yellowy eye, blue jeans, fat bare toes.
Need any help in there? Seth said.
In the kitchen later, Uncle Seth brewed coffee, and Dad waited to drink it. Mina went back to the kitchen window. The raccoon was covered now, by a thin pile of dead autumn leaves.
When he saw her looking, Uncle Seth looked too, sipped his coffee. He chuckled and said to Dad, I know two dead things don’t make a life, but.
After their sandwich and burgers, Mom and Dad ordered coffee. Dad consulted a paper map. Be there two hours, I’d say, Dad said.
Mina was suddenly sleepy and rested her head on mom’s lap. She kept her eyes open and watched their legs under the table. Mom’s feet slipped themselves in and out of her dark purple sandals. Dad’s legs were still and solid, like tree trunks. His hands were clasped loosely underneath the table, like he was holding a fragile thing. Maybe a baby bird or some broken glass.
When she woke up, Mina was buckled in again. Her backpack was upright in the seat next to her, purple and shiny plastic. How long had it been since they left? How long would it be until they were at Uncle Seth’s? Mom’s toes were pressed against the windshield, and Dad’s face was concentrating like at the eye doctor. Mina’s mouth was dry, and she had to go to the bathroom.
She tried not to think about it. She looked outside, directed her attention out of the car. The view blended together—grass and fence posts streaking behind and away. She closed her eyes, but that just made every part of her body focus on how badly she had to go. In the dark like that, all the cells and nerve endings and muscles and bones in her body thought about her bladder. Moved toward it and pressed against it on all sides.
So she went. She went, she went, she went. She was like an octopus, and it was like octopus ink, a swift and quiet attack. She felt the puddle bloom under her. First a bud, then a flower, spreading itself beneath her like a cloud into the seat of the car, wetting her bottom and her legs. It was warm.
The new rest stop looked a lot like the old rest stop. Mom strode ahead. Mina could have walked, but Dad carried her. That was nice except he carried her too loose. Hands underneath her armpits, arms straightened in front. Like she was a cat with fleas or a dead thing. She drooped her head to one side and closed her eyes and stuck her tongue out a little bit.
I’m dead, she said. Bury me.
Mom turned around. That’s enough, Mina. Don’t do that.
Mina opened her eyes. She saw Mom and the shiny plastic and purple backpack hooked on Mom’s arm.
Okay. Okay. I’m alive. I’m alive.