Lorraine Rice | Flash Fiction

That’s me clinging to the Sunbird flying up 95 to see you after too many days and pangs and mother-hungry nights. BeBe, Dad, and Junior—all of us in the Pontiac on our way to Fort Dix for your graduation from Basic Training. Like there was anything basic about my mother learning to salute and shoot. In 1984, I was nine and terrified of too many things, but especially World War III. Every night, another nuclear blast of dreams to knock out the entire planet—except for me. I was always the sole survivor, wandering the streets past piles of dust that used to be people; some I hated, some I loved.

But it was a celebration, and we were a blur on our way north to watch you become a Black Woman Soldier in the US Army. BeBe and me in the backseat beaming, looking sweet, not the least bit motherless, in our ruffled white shirts, ribboned plaits, pleated skirts: lavender, blue. Hair fixed extra nice, thanks to Miss Debra next-door, who snatched and raked and never took her time—for no added fee. Good thing, because the grocery paid pennies, which was why you joined the army in the first place, even after Dad’s rants, No wife of Mine and What kinda mother leaves her kids behind?

That’s us, minus you, trapped in the loaded Sunbird for the endless drive. The car that caused the clash of the titans when Dad brought it home, and you said, Take it back. The week before you left was all storms, quakes, and chasms of silence until Dad swore he’d take care of it—which he did. He kept it washed, looking fresh, and freaked whenever we used it for base in tag. The day he found the hood ornament broken—amber wing snapped and stolen—I thought he might cry. Of course, he raged. You should have been there. Fast forward to grease-stained paper bags at our feet, drool and sticky fingerprints all over the seat, forehead smudges on the windows. The ride was long, hot, and reeked of cigarettes, ketchup, and fake cherry car freshener.

This is me, rolling down the window to stick out my head and howl, and love the way my ribbons dance in the wind. Dad growled, Stop being so wild, and I caved in. Bit my tongue, and silently yanked my invisible chains until the passing truckers sounded their horns. Each time I was amazed at the noise I could make, the power of my will. Junior turned to me from the passenger seat, all teenage moody, eye-rolling—mad at being dragged along when it wasn’t his mother we were going to see. I could have felt sorry for Junior, whose own mother sent him away to Dad, who made up for lost father-son time by hammering every lesson. But Junior was mean, and never spared a sorry for me.

This is sunbaked Saturday morning, Fort Dix, and we were almost late, had to hurry to our seats in the bleachers. An army of strangers crowded my view, and I could still pick you out of the muddy green—marching, but not cradling a gun, like you did each night in my dreams. Right before the world turned white. I shielded my eyes and squinted to see you, stone-faced and still on a dirt stage. It could have been a play, and you only pretending to be a soldier and not my good mother. I willed you to turn and look at me, but you stared straight ahead where I could not see because of all the bodies in the way. Sweat dripped and collected where my shirt tucked in; carnation air soured by the end. Then applause and the band kicking in—drums, horns, and hands so loud I couldn’t think what I’d say to you, face-to-face again.

That’s the sea of bodies crashing, everyone eager to collect someone, and I was swept away by the ebb and flow. You swooped BeBe up in your arms, Dad smothered you with a kiss, and Junior stood to the side smirking at me watching from the middle of another family scene. It took forever for them to notice I didn’t belong, for me to break free of their hug confusion, and by the time I reached you, I felt too big to be held. Anyway, your hands were full.

That’s you, shifting BeBe to one hip and reaching for me, but landing on a ribbon instead. You said, You’ve grown, how pretty you look. I wanted to say the same, but had no idea how you might have grown, and pretty was not the word for that uniform. There was no reaching all of what I’d saved to tell you, so I grasped what I could—Congrats. It was written in gold on a black balloon floating over your head. You laughed, Dad hustled us through the crowd to the car, and I was in the backseat again thinking a laugh was better than nothing.

This is the motel with a bubblegum Vacancy and an empty cement bowl for a pool. Junior said, Forget the bathing suits, and BeBe started crying, working up to a full-blown fallout, but I kept my cool, even as I melted on the black top of that parking lot where you clicked the camera. Dad promised us ice cream, said we could stay up late watching cable TV, but first, Go play. We need a nap. And you did look tired. Junior mumbled, Yeah, right, a nap, and dragged me and BeBe off to what I guessed was some kind of playground.

See the teeter-totter, and two bars for pulling up or hanging by the knees? That was it. No swings or slide, which was fine because the metal burned my thighs, and I got sick going back and forth all the time. Belly-flat on one side of the teeter, BeBe kissed the ground with the tips of her braids, then slid along the arm and tottered down on the other side with a crash. I kept telling Junior to make her stop before she busted her lip. He was perched on the top of the tallest bar, tossing rocks into a ditch. Said he’d do what he wanted and be the one to tell me, Dontchu forget.

There I am, stealing off to number six and trying the stubborn knob. I pressed my ear against the splintered door—TV wailing, AC groaning, the occasional creak, and something else underneath. Those grunts and breaths that punched, sent me flying backwards to the car baking in the heat. The asphalt was on fire and only a sliver of shade, but I chose heatstroke over a glimpse of Junior’s smug face. I rummaged through my bag for one thing I wanted to tell you—so much I would have told you if I could just get close enough, long enough, for you to take it in. Messy edges, swollen tongue, blistering dreams, feral song—all of it.

That’s me, crouched behind the car under a dissolving sky. The sinking sun was an orange slice, curved like the amber wing in my hand. I was the one who broke the hood ornament and cried for ruining such a beautiful thing. All in the race to get safe. Are your dreams like mine—at the end of the world with nothing but piles of used-to-be? I wanted to leave a message for you to remember when they sent you off to wherever next. In the dying light, it was hard to see the scar carved into the body. Poor Sunbird, but I needed you to know and never forget— I Am Here.