by Lance Dyzak
Carolyn read somewhere that in the ‘90s mothers were dropping their babies into public toilets. Tiny corpses discovered by the janitors and covered in wet toilet paper, the umbilical cord still attached. And she reassured herself with this knowledge – Steven could have had it worse.
She laid the suitcase at the end of the bed. The hard-covered American Tourister that her father had given her when she went away for college. She remembered the old excitement of snapping open the catches. The hinges yawned as she unfolded it, and the smell of it was musty, like a vacant motel room. Carolyn ran her fingers over the satin lining and felt the current of her adrenaline like an electricity. She’d sent Steven out to ride his bike and told him not to come back for an hour so that she could concentrate. All morning she’d been clumsy with anticipation. When she’d pulled the suitcase away from the closet door, she banged the wooden jamb so hard that it chipped the paint. For the first time it seemed possible. This was step one. Step one was required before you could get to step two. Step one meant that she was on her way. Step one was part of the process.
The sun poured in through the bushes in front of her bedroom window and left their pattern on the wall. The bedroom was spotless; everything dusted and cleaned, the bed sheets pulled taught against the mattress and tucked into the corners. The bedcover, with its pattern of country flowers, was flat against the sheets like a canvas. There were no distractions.
She might have run around the world. Instead, she went to Steven’s room.
Just the essentials, enough to get him through. She went to his dresser at the far wall. All of his winter clothes were in the bottom drawers. She tugged the lowest one open and took out two of his sweaters and a long-sleeved thermal tee-shirt. She gathered them into her arms and went back down the hallway. It would have been more efficient to bring the suitcase into Steven’s room, but it felt better to do it this way; in steps. Every round-trip with another load of essentials was one more step. She went from the lowest drawer to the highest: two pairs of jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, three undershirts, three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks. She went to his closet: two buttoned-down dress shirts, one pair of dress pants, his dress shoes, his winter coat, a stocking cap, a pair of gloves. She went into the hallway bathroom: his toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a container of shampoo. Slowly the suitcase filled. It was so big, and everything he had seemed small in it. She didn’t notice Steven behind her.
“You’re acting weird,” he said. The noise made her jump.
“Jesus kid, you scared me,” she said, and tried to smile. “What did you say?”
“Why are you acting weird?”
Carolyn went for her bathroom.
“I’m not acting weird,” she said, over her shoulder. “I thought I told you not to come back—”
“It’s been like two hours. How long will we be gone?” He stood in the doorway, thumbs hooked into the front belt loops of his jeans.
“I told you, I don’t know yet.”
She’d told him the week prior that they were going away on a long trip to see some friends. It was such a simple thing to tell him then, this shapeless thing that they were going to do together. But when he’d walked in just now she was unguarded and lightheaded from the idea of it. She didn’t trust what she might say to him. Everything rang in a high pitch. She knew he’d want more details, had prepared for more details, but now she pushed the details away. Carolyn shut the door right in his face. He knew which lines not to cross. The floor tiles were cool on her bare feet.
“What about school?” His voice reduced, dribbled in through the cracks. His feet little dark spots at the bottom, flitting in and out of the grim light beyond the door.
“We’ll worry about all that later.” The shower walls were lined with ceramic tiles just like the floor, all blues and grays. “This is summer vacation,” she said, speaking to the tiles. “School isn’t going anywhere.” She waited in the bathroom until she heard him leave. Then Carolyn went out and closed the suitcase, snapping everything shut. It wasn’t like him to interrupt. She saw that he was spooked, and that she needed to be careful.
He came out of his room a few hours later. Carolyn made turkey sandwiches and served them with corn chips and cherry Pepsi. They sat at the kitchen island under the dull glow of the pendant lamp. Steven ate slowly, taking small bites as Carolyn studied him. He was fidgeting with the digital watch that she’d given him for his birthday, breathing through his mouth like he did whenever he was concentrating. The questions from that morning had all dried up. The watch didn’t keep great time and he was always adjusting it. She listened to his breathing and the little electronic chirps. She cleared the dishes (the little bites up to the edge of the crusts), and Steven wiped down the table.
That night they watched a rerun of All in the Family on the Me-TV channel. The one where Edith asks Archie how he wants his bowling shoes laced and Archie tells her what’s the difference? Steven went to bed without being told, something that Carolyn had instilled early on. All the lights were off in the living room; there was just the flickering and the steady murmur from the television. Carolyn watched as he slid down from the recliner and disappeared into the hallway. Carolyn turned off the television a short time later. As she passed Steven’s room, she could hear him moving around on his mattress.
She was glad that she’d decided to put fresh sheets on her bed. It was satisfying to feel them fold away neatly as she turned them down. They were cool on her feet just like the bathroom tiles, and she loved the way they made her feel enveloped, neatly folded. But Carolyn’s mind wouldn’t slow down enough for sleep. She’d taken a pill, but her thoughts still somehow slogged through and ping-ponged around in her skull.
She and Marc on a day trip to Door County. They’d taken the ferry out to Rock Island and hiked around the lighthouse. Early October and the temperature just above freezing, but warmed by the sun inside of their ski jackets. Marc with his beard grown out for the deer season. Inside the little tavern with the worn leather and the ancient dark timber.
Hey… he’d said, after she finally told him. Hey, hey, hey… Just kept saying it over and over again, like a lullaby. Kept wiping his beard with his thumbs. The tears leaking out as if she were cracked open. Keeping it is the right thing to do he’d said. I love you he’d said. I’ll be a father for you he’d said. We can still get through school. You can still have a career. This will all work out.
The bizarre way Steven had seemed to her as a baby. Sexless in the beginning. The nose and the ears too big for the face. The skin dry. The strange way it would slough off around the scalp. An old man, shrunken and useless.
It. That’s how she’d referred to him during those first days. There were two times she’d said it out loud. The doctor presenting him like a waiter with a bottle of wine. Why is it so red? Her limbs distended and obscene against the whiteness of the recovery room. Marc reading off baby names. I don’t give a shit, Marc. Call it whatever you want. The nurse excusing herself and the click of her shoes. She had to train herself to call him by his name. It became a taboo word, like fuck or cunt. But it’d taken months before she could cleanse the word entirely from the way she thought about him – Steven.
Outside her door she heard the sharp snap of the hallway light switch, and a cold anxiety passed through her. It meant Steven had had another nightmare. He began calling for her, as he always did. His voice, tinny and stranded in the hallway, normally irritated her during these episodes, and she would yell to him from under her bed sheets to go back to sleep. But tonight was unlike those nights. A few empty seconds passed. Carolyn took a deep breath and held it against the weight of the silence. Then she heard the soft thud of him backing up against her door and the hiss of his body sliding down the length of it. She rose slowly and crossed over the room toward him. When she opened the door she could feel his weight pushing it inward, as if the hinges were spring-loaded. He rolled back slightly – crouched into a ball with his arms slung over his knees – and lolled his head up toward her. He was wearing the footed pajamas again.
“I thought I told you to put those in the Goodwill box,” she said. “You’re twelve years old now.” He was picking the lint balls off of the sleeves.
“It was the guy with the big head again. He was standing in the doorway.” The big-headed guy was a frequent visitor. Carolyn looked down the hall toward Steven’s bedroom and knelt down beside him.
“Look at your door,” she said. “Is he there now?”
“No,” he said, into the crook between his knees. She nudged him on the shoulder. “C’mon then. Back to your room.”
“Can you tuck me in?”
Carolyn stood over him and ran her hands through her hair, holding it in a heavy, wiry ball above her forehead.
“Yeah, I can do that,” she said, and started down the hallway toward his room. She turned back toward him at the doorway. Steven was trailing timidly behind, using one hand to trace the length of the wall with his fingertips. “C’mon kid, I’m tired.”
She opened his closet door and yanked on the pull chain for the light. The metal grommet leapt up and rattled against the bulb. She pushed the door forward with the tips of her fingers and let it swing slowly open to let the light pour out. She’d forgotten that his closet was now mostly empty and the sight of it caught her for a moment.
“Hmm? Yeah?” She looked back over her shoulder. Steven walked to his bed along the far wall and went back in stiffly under the covers.
“What’s it like in Nebraska?”
She didn’t mean to laugh, but it was so absurd. She’d never really thought about it. “I just—” she started. His expression shifted and she knew that he was puzzled by her reaction. He’d assumed she’d deliver something a bit more standard. Rolling hills? Omaha?
She made a gesture toward the closet door. “Look, he’s not in here either.” Steven rolled toward the wall, which gave Carolyn an odd sense of relief. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, it was just a dream.”
“I’m not afraid,” he said.
“Then why are you bothering me?” She stepped past him. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow so you should get some sleep.”
“Hey mom…” Carolyn paused at the doorway. “I mean I’m afraid at first, and then it goes away. It’s like I’m still dreaming when I first wake up.”
“Yeah, I know.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “I have nightmares, too, kiddo. You just get used to it, Steven. It’s part of growing up.”
Carolyn left his door open a few inches, just enough to let the light from the hallway fall over his face. He wasn’t a bad kid, just so goddamned needy. And she was so sick with it; too sick most of the time to give anything away anymore. The pill was making her feel groggy and swollen; she could feel her pulse in her lips. Sleep wasn’t an option, so she went into the spare bedroom and sat behind the small, laminated computer desk to wake up her laptop. There was the light from the screen.
She’d mapped the route over a month ago. But back then it was just a whim, like when she would pretend to sign up for classes at the UW-Extension. It was roughly seven hundred miles from the house in Marinette, on the thumb of Lake Michigan, to Douglas County, just over the Nebraska border. She studied the screen without blinking, and read the estimated time and distance, over and over. Ten hours, twenty-seven minutes. They could drive straight through and be there the same day. The route looked tedious, a diagonal slice through the Fox Valley (Kaukauna, Winnebago) along Hwy 151 toward the Mississippi River (Mineral Point, Platteville), crossing over it at Dubuque, and then through the entire length of Iowa.
There were similar laws in other states. Texas called theirs the Baby Moses Law. But the one they passed four months ago in Nebraska was different because they didn’t set an age limit. They called it the Nebraska Safe Haven Law, which for some reason made Carolyn think of a bird’s nest. Thirteen Nebraska babies had been discovered dead and abandoned within a span of ten months. A genuine epidemic. One was unearthed by a dog, wrapped in aluminum foil. So they passed a law. Meredith, one of the girls from Cosmetics, was fanatical about it. She was always yelling about the latest details as she flipped through the newspaper in the break room. Jesus, Carolyn. I mean shit! Did you hear about this guy that dropped off his entire family? It seemed like there was a new story every week. Carolyn would always nod and make an impatient expression, a halfway smile. Another one, Carolyn! Another one! Did you see it?
Carolyn had kept the idea incubated in her mind, quarantined to barracks unpatrolled by her conscience. She had kept the idea and used it in the same way the terminally ill keep a suicide cocktail. For comfort. But then the news stories had kept coming and coming and she knew they would ruin everything. She knew she would have to decide.
The morning arrived cloudless and stifling, but the house was surrounded by tall evergreen trees, which kept it cool and dim. She’s meant to get them on the road before noon, but she couldn’t shake the feeling she was forgetting something Steven might need. She kept drilling him for answers. Do you have your extra pair of glasses? Where’s the wallet I gave you? And so they left later that afternoon. When Carolyn finally stepped out the front door and out of the shadows, the shock of the sun temporarily blinded her and she squinted her eyes against it. With the weight of the suitcase, she stumbled from the narrow walk onto the grass. August had been dry – it hadn’t rained in weeks – and so the grass was brown and the blades crunched with each footfall. After a few steps she stopped and slowly widened her eyes as they adjusted. Everything was drained of color. She turned and saw Steven as he struggled with the door, a dark lump against the shade of the house. He had to tug on the knob to force the door shut. The keys jangled as he pried the tumblers of the lock into position. Carolyn winced when the deadbolt finally snapped and wished she’d thought to let him out first – to be relieved of this spectacle. It was just last year that she’d handed him his first key ring with the set for the front door.
He had his backpack slung loose, and the bottom of it hung down below his belt, weighted down by whatever he could fit. She’d told him to bring along his favorite things. As Steven jogged toward her, it jostled up and down on his narrow shoulders. Carolyn opened the rear door of the car, and he heaved it into the backseat. As Carolyn pulled away from the curb, an elderly woman with a watering can flapped her arm at them.
On the day the news broke that Nebraska was going to set an age limit there was a related story in the paper about a woman – out of work and a thousand miles from any semblance of her extended family – who took her daughters to the hospital. She told the ER staff that the girls had a strange rash and didn’t know what to do. Then, while the nurse knelt down to look them over, she excused herself to use the bathroom and didn’t return. So simple. So clean. One moment she was a mother. And then she wasn’t anymore.
Meredith had been beside herself. The headline read: Another ‘Safe Haven’, and directly underneath it there was a full color photo of the mother. The reporter had dredged up a mug shot, a DUI judging from her glassy-eyed expression. She looked too young to have children, and Carolyn had wondered absently if either of her daughters were around when the picture was taken. She didn’t look crazy or vengeful, just confused. Maybe a bit naïve. Her eyes averted the camera.
Carolyn imagined this woman holding one of the babies with the same glassy-eyed expression that she wore in her mug shot. She wondered if Meredith considered herself a good mother. Probably. Meredith was just as full of shit as everyone else. Carolyn had never claimed to be a good mother. But she had been a guardian. Keeper and provider. She gave her son food when he was hungry. She cleaned him when he was soiled. When he was cold, she put more clothes on him. But there was an emptiness in the way she did these things, and she derived no pleasure from it. It was as if he were assigned to her.
“Six and eight years old. Can you even imagine it?” Meredith had asked.
“No, Meredith. I can’t imagine.”
“Where do you think they get—”
“The first of September it all ends, Meredith. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
They were just a few hours from the Nebraska state border when last gasp of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon. There was no moon. Ahead, beyond the pallor of the headlights, there was darkness. Darkness like Carolyn had never seen. It seemed to have a thickness, a heaviness that weighed down on them.
“Where are we?” Steven asked. In the darkness, Carolyn could only see his face, lit by the electric blue lights of the dashboard. He looked frail, corpselike.
“We’re almost to Des Moines.” Her voice was monotone. She looked at the clock. It was almost ten. “I thought we could make it there, but then the sun went down and it sapped everything out of me. I have to stop for a bit. Just for a bit. We’ll pull over so I can sleep.”
There were no other cars on the road, but out of habit, Carolyn flipped the turn signal anyway. The amber light flashed against the pavement as she veered the car over to the shoulder. The tires whined against the pattern of the rumble strip, and then whispered over the gravel shoulder as she brought it to a stop. The night had grown cold – cold enough that she’d switched off the AC and had the heater running.
In the trunk there was an old woolen blanket that she kept for emergencies. She took it and climbed back in behind the wheel. Steven was slumped back against the window. Carolyn reclined her seat as far back as it would go, and she hit the automatic locks.
“I just need like twenty minutes of sleep,” she said. “Christ, it’s too quiet.” She turned the keys forward in the ignition, and the dashboard sparked back to life. “Why don’t you try to find something on the radio.”
He began to play with the dial, but there was only static. It pulsed over the speakers in waves.
“There’s no signal,” he said.
“Just keep trying,” she said, and spread the blanket over her. Steven shifted in his seat and paused with his fingers on the knob.
“Mom?” His voice was just above a whisper, and there was no depth to it.
“What…” She had begun to nod off. The words were muffled under the blanket.
“Why don’t you have a suitcase?”
Her sleep was shallow, just below the barrier of consciousness. In her dreams Carolyn was back in her own bed, burrowed under the weight of the comforter with the country flowers. She thought she was alone, but then a small voice from across the room disturbed her. Somehow she knew that it was Marc. He kept asking to borrow the car, a test to see if she were awake. But she pretended to be asleep. When she peeked at him she saw that Marc was a boy, maybe thirteen years old. He was reaching into her sock drawer where she kept the jar of spare change. She became angry, saying, “If you touch that jar, I will kill you.” He paused, caught for a moment, and then turned suddenly toward her. His eyes were full of tears, and there was a curious look of surprise, as if he’d not realized she was there.
“I missed my mother,” he said, the words weighted with sadness. “I miss…”
He came over to the bed then and crawled in with her. But when she felt him – his embrace, his hot tears against her neck – she was not his mother. She sobbed along with him. There was a feeling of admitting, of blissful release. “I know… I know… I know…”
When Carolyn woke, it was cold inside of the car. She could feel it at the tip of her nose and her fingers. The wool fibers of the blanket were damp from her breathing. For a moment she lay still and felt her heart beat against her chest. There was a crackling sound coming from the radio, and behind the static a man’s voice sputtered. She pawed for the edge of the blanket and peeled it away from her face. The pale light of the dashboard reflected on the window. She could see the reversed numbers of the clock. It was after midnight.
“Shit.” Her throat was raw from breathing in the cold air. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” She turned toward the passenger’s seat, but Steven had moved into the back while she slept. Half-dazed, she was momentarily unable to process his absence.
In the back of the car, his form was barely visible in the darkness. He had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, and his hands were jammed into the front pocket. She leaned in closer, squinting her eyes, which allowed her to see the slow rise and fall of his torso as he breathed. Carolyn gripped the top of the driver’s seat and collapsed over the headrest. She was looking out of the backdoor window, but with the light from the dashboard the window became a mirror. She studied the small, metallic levers on the armrest, the slim cylinder of the door lock, flared out at the top so you could pull it up and push it back down. So simple. Just two options. It was pushed down.
“Steven, wake up.”
“I’m not asleep,” he said. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“I do, too. C’mon, we’ll go out by the bushes.”
Caroline put the high beams on. They illuminated the terrain just beyond the edge of the gravel. There were no bushes. There was only the long grass in the ditch along shoulder and then the endless fields. She took the blanket and went out to the trunk. She watched Steven walking gingerly away from her, toward where the corn started. He slipped beyond the reach of the headlights, and then she couldn’t see him anymore.
“Steven?” But he didn’t respond. Several seconds passed. Then the splashing sound of his urinating. The splashing stopped, and she heard him struggling in the grass coming back toward the car. He reappeared out of the darkness like a ghost.
“Get back in the car and wait for me,” she said. “I still have to go.”
She’d overslept, but there was still time to make it.
When she got back to the car she saw that Steven had returned to the back seat. Carolyn turned the keys in the ignition. She moved the shifter into drive. The car lurched forward. She pulled back onto the highway. The man on the radio kept talking. A student was shot at a high school in Knoxville. The United States won a gold medal in men’s basketball. Hurricane Gustav was pummeling the Gulf Coast. Carolyn switched it off. Steven lay in the back. He had his head on his suitcase.