What to Do
    Celia White
Say, "What? What?" over & over as your mother shakes you awake in the middle of the night. She has your suitcase packed; your sisters are already standing at the door of your room, the light from the hall leaving their faces in shadow, but they are very, very still. "Get up, honey. We're going away."

Say "What?" again, less sleepily this time.

"I'll tell you about it in the car. Right now you need to get up & put on your sneakers & get in the car. Hurry up, now."

Look at everyone's faces: they've all been crying. What have you missed? Your dad's not there. Notice some beer bottles on the table & your mom dabbbing at the corner of her mouth with a wet washcloth you used for your bath a couple hours ago: there's blood on the white terrycloth. Start to get it; start to be scared, too.

"Daddy's not coming," say, on your way to the car. "Right? But we're all going away."

"Right. We're going to California to stay with Aunt Sandy, my sister. We're going to have a new life, and it's going to be better."

Wonder about this, but Mom is already buckling your sleepy self into the front seat. Your ankles are cold but it's neat to be outside this late: there's a light covering of raindrops on the windshield. Your mom starts the car. "Daddy was so mean sometimes," you say. "That's why, right?"

"Right," your mom says. Her lip's all right now but she seems tired already. Your sisters are curled up in the back seat, sharing a blanket, silent. But you are full of questions.

"Will we ever be able to come back?"

"No, honey. If I thought we could, we probably wouldn't go so far away. Do you feel very sad that you might not see Daddy for a while?" Think about the last time you got yelled at, and how he grabbed your arms so hard & shook you; they sort of hurt now, just remembering. Say, "No."

Fall asleep & don't wake up till your mom stops at a park-like place with a gas station & a McDonald's & lots of bathrooms. Change clothes with your sisters in the narrow stalls. Whine when your mom says no way are you having breakfast at McDonald's, but get happy when she takes you to a diner off the next highway exit: pancakes, your favorite.

Start a ritual the very first day. It's your thing, making spells & charms & stuff like that. You found it out when you were four and could make traffic lights change. You never tell anyone about it, because you are still practicing, but you have talked a great deal to flowers, sipped raindrops from leaves, chanted magic words for luck, cured yourself of being afraid of the dark by telling yourself the moon lives there.

This ritual is neat because it's sort of public, almost a game, even though nobody else knows. As the car crosses the New York-Pennsylvania border, scream "State Line! Pennsylvania!" Your sisters are indignant & complain that you should've warned them; really they're mad 'cause they're older but didn't think of it first, like they do most things. That's one way you confirm that you have magic: there are things you know anyway.

Your sisters don't miss a "State Line!" for the whole rest of the trip.

Eat at A&W's. They don't have them anymore where you live. It's good; you've always liked root beer best. Eat in the car: potato chips, bread & salami, juice from a waxed carton. Eat at a rest stop: french fries, ice cream.

In the hotel bathtub, slip under the surface of the warm water, just 'cause its fun. Think about.... Crash through the surface as if waking from dream into nightmare, your mother screaming at you in more anger than fear: she has changed, she has no energy anymore to be sympathetic, you have to learn. She won't cry so much anymore. She'll scream.

Think about your father missing you & feel sad. Think about your father finding you; get worried. Say, "Mom, when will we be there?" Say, "I love you, Mom." Say, "Mom, this is pretty fun." Say, "I wish we were invisible."

"Jesus, shut up," she says. Shut up.

Decide the only time you will speak for the rest of the trip will be when you are alone or to say "State Line" or which food you want. Already know this won't be too hard to accomplish; it's been 6 hours and no one has spoken directly to you. See.

Pee at the side of the road, crouching, and hope the car hides you enough from the highway traffic gasping by. Get a little on your shoes--it doesn't smell, it bothers you. and your sisters make a really big deal about it. Your mom doesn't say anything. Of course, neither do you.

Wake up while the car is going very fast in the middle of the night. Listen to the radio your mom has on very low: a love song. Be surprised she'd still listen to that, but hear her singing, even, softly, her voice unfamiliarly thick & doubled, like she's two people, and one of them you've never met.

Don't let anyone know you're awake. Look out the back window at the stars, watch the way the lampposts whip by. Find the moon outside the rear window. Watch how it follows you, even though the car's going at such a speed--in fact, your mother was always a slow driver, till now--even though you kind of thought the moon only lived above your town, even though there's no reason it should care about you.

Think it does anyway.

Find the moon in the sky all the next day, too, and feel grateful. Thank it while you sip milk from a thermos in the car, thank it and press your hand flat against the window.

Don't speak. It's been three days now. It's a little weird, but mostly neat: it feels like a strong thing to do. Listen to your sisters' constant conversation: they don't actually say much, besides to discuss what torture they might next inflict upon you.

Share a bed with your sisters; your mom gets the other one. You don't like this, but as usual, say nothing.

Worry about the weather: one thing your mom has told you about California is that it doesn't rain much there. She likes this. You, personally, love the rain. Worry about this, but try not to.

Wake up in the blue tv light of the hotel room & read the clock: 1:07 AM. Your sisters are slack-jawed asleep. drooling on the pillow. Feel both disgusted & jubilant: it is something you can use...well, you'll probably be killed if you ever try.

Find Mom, though, nowhere in sight. Her bed is smooth & vacant, unused. The silence beyond the buzz of the tv tells you she's not even in the bathroom. Get up & check she's not on the concrete balcony, which is no bigger than your dining room table at home. Home.

Go to the tall door which is plastered with fire escape instructions & other warnings & threats: feel creeped out. Slowly turn the silver doorknob--it's so big it's hard to hold, especially with that belly-button thing sticking out, pressing your palm.

Open the door & peek out into the empty hall. All you can hear is the far off rumble & clink of the hotel bar: tv's, glasses with ice, laughter. That's the direction you take.

Scrape along the rough carpet in your bare feet & your secondhand tiger pajamas, your eyes feel big & open & like the fluorescent light is stabbing them. Start humming for no reason, really, except to keep yourself company, or to make it like you're on tv. It's a song your dad used to sing to you when you were, as he said, knee-high to a chicken: "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." Do a little loping dance to accompany yourself. You're nervous.

The second you get close enough to see inside the bar, spot your mom sitting at the bar with 3 empty glasses & a pack of cigarettes in front of her, but despite your worst imaginings, she's alone. There are other people sitting in the smoky dark, men mostly, but your mom's just sitting there, looking sad. You feel sad, too, and scared; turn and bolt back toward the room, crying a little now as you mumble the last part of the song: "because I'm free...nothin's worryin' me."

Find the door to your room locked; undergo major panic. Try & try the knob, till it's sweaty & your hand smells like metal: nothing. Sink down to the floor moaning as you consider your options, none of which are less than horrifying: wake your sisters, fetch your mother from the bar, hide till she comes back. Cradle your head in your arms. Smooth your own hair like your mom used to. Fall asleep almost at once.

In the morning, wake in your hotel bed as your mom opens the balcony curtains; she says nothing.

Make a spell to make it be raining when you get to California. It's important that the song be around for you to start your new life with.

At the last rest stop in Nevada, pull up a handful of grass. It doesn't feel right, the grass, like it's not real somehow, but maybe its just 'cause it doesn't get much rain. Wrap it up in the orange plastic wrapper you saved from your Reese's the day before. Think: your mouth, maybe, it's wet--but no, too uncomfortable, and it shouldn't be inside you: rain's outside. Pockets don't seem right somehow, not close enough. In fact, the more you think about it, the only place that seems right--and also a little exciting--is inside your underwear. Think; that's where you rain from, so why not? In the stinky restroom, wrap the bundle in toilet paper, and tuck it in your underwear like a baby into a bed. Feel satisfied. Ride in the front seat with your mom & think about it constantly, smiling as you hum the raindrops song till she asks you to stop. Then hum it inside your head.

If the spell works, you will have a good life, even though the symbolism of dark clouds & bad weather seems wrong at first: the best spells are the ones that make sense only to you. Also then you will be free to speak again. If the spell doesn't work, it will be a long time before your magic will be strong again, though if you are quiet a long time it will simmer & grow. That's not so hard, really, but you already miss talking.

An hour later wake to the sound of your sisters screaming: "State Line, California!" and sit straight up in your seat anxiously, looking up through the windshield at the sky. "We came all this way to sunny California," your mom grumps, "and look, as soon as we get here, it starts to rain."

Shout "Hooray!" as if you're still talking about crossing the line; you're late but everyone just laughs. Your mom turns to you, smiling for what seems like the first time the whole trip. "It must be because of your song," she says. Start singing it again, making your mom & even your sisters join in --your magic's that strong.

Celia White is a poet, fiction writer and librarian living in San Francisco, CA. Her work has appeared in Cleansheets, Exquisite Corpse, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and forthcoming in the Academy of Amercian Poets anthology, New Voices. She has also received several prizes, including the Academy of American Poets University Prize and the Eckerd College Poetry Contest.


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