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Today's Story by Osmond Arnesto

I wish Ben could see how much this joke of his hurts.

Pit Stop

“You’re going to get us killed, cialis Nance.”

The sound of my brother’s voice makes me jerk at the wheel. The car squeals. I wipe a sleeve across my mouth and it leaves behind a dark streak.

“How long was I out?”

“You didn’t fall asleep yet. Your head was going up and down.”

I tuck my hair back into place, prescription untangling strands from my earrings. A road sign catches my eye. Los Angeles, sovaldi 187 miles.

“I was asking you stuff. ‘Can I drive?’ ‘Do you smell like poop?’ You kept nodding.” He giggles.

“You looked stupid.”

Ben is riding shotgun, still clutching the large Coke he got from the McDonald’s back in Visalia. I always tell Mom that all the fast food he’s eating is going to kill him someday. I can already see it in how chubby his fingers are and how his cheeks look like they’re going to swallow his mouth. But she always babies him, and tells me that McDonald’s is his favorite, and he gets his plump, precious face from Frank.

Suits me just fine. Just don’t come running to me when he gets a heart attack.

“We there yet?” he asks.

“After L.A., it’ll be about two more hours until we hit San Diego.”

The engine is growling and the wheels are eating the miles in front of us. I need to stay awake.

I don’t know how truckers do it. At first I tried reading every road sign we passed. Out loud. I was going to do it, too. I was going to read every sign on Interstate 5 from Seattle, Washington to San Diego, California. Royal Brougham Way, one. Cherry Street, one and one-fourth. Will the last person leaving SEATTLE – Turn out the lights. Welcome to California – NOW GO HOME! Figueroa Street, three-fourths. Cristianitos Road, one-half. It got old after the first day and now I look at every sign in contempt. Ben didn’t take the hint and took it upon himself to take my old post. Since I didn’t want to kill my only brother, at least until Mom and Frank got back together and came up with a better one, I got him a Big Mac – extra pickles, hold the onions – fries, and a medium Coke. Make that a large Coke. They were out of the bag and in Ben’s stomach within minutes. That was hours ago. The car still smells like grease.

I hear something clicking again and again. Ben is trying to open the window.

“Not going to work,” I say, covering the extra set of buttons on the driver’s side. “I think you broke it.”

“I didn’t do anything.” His eyes widened though, and he hugged his large Coke closer. One of his pudgy arms disappeared under his shirt and started to scratch his belly. “Why does he have to live so far away, anyway?”

Don’t ask me, ask him. “This was the only job he could find.”

“Why didn’t he get a closer one?”

Because he wanted to be as far from Mom as he possibly could. Because he only wants us on certain weekends. “You say that like getting a job’s as easy as typing up a nice resume. Besides, it’s where Summer lives.”

“I like her.” He sips. “She’s nice.”

She is a two-bit floozy with a fake smile, blinding teeth, and enough plastic in her that Mattel can sue for infringing on Barbie. You can drop her in a pile of counterfeit hundred dollar bills and they would actually gain more credibility just by being next to her. “Yeah.”

“Why couldn’t we take a plane like last time?”

Because you ate all of our money. “Couldn’t afford the tickets this time.”

“This is boring.”

“Life’s tough.” I smile as it comes out of my mouth.

I hear another hollow sip from the plastic cup.

It isn’t long before the asphalt turns from a grey into a darker grey, and the sky follows suit to purple, then to black. For the most part, my view stays the same; license plates, blinkers, and miles and miles of brake lights, as far as the road is paved. I can see the stars here in California. Little white dots are sprayed across the sky, and it reminds me of the kinds of pictures kids draw. Without any clouds to block it, the moon looks like a searchlight.

“I need to go to the bathroom.” Ben has allowed his large Coke to roll onto the floor. He rubs his eyes and the vinyl squeaks as he starts to shift around in his seat. I pull into the next rest stop I can find. The road gives way to gravel, then dirt, as we go downhill towards a parking lot and a public bathroom. It’s the kind without any doors, where the lights are always on inside and you wonder who exactly pays for the thing’s electricity bills. Behind the little structure is a little copse. It is thick with trees. The clearing here must have been too, a long time ago. The only other vehicle here is a white Harley, and I guess that its driver is also dropping off the kids.

“Alright,” I say. “It takes some getting used to, but you go into the one with the picture of the little blue man on it, okay? The other one is for girls.”

He already has the door halfway open and is in the process of removing his seatbelt. It zips back into its mouth as Ben hops out. “Shut up, I know.”

“Hurry up then.”

He hobbles his way into the bathroom, his frame rolling like a bowling ball hungry for pins. I key off the ignition as I reach behind me into the backseat. I fumble around and find my phone.

I check my calls.

I check my text messages.

I browse my phone book.

I decide I want to call home. Parents can get paranoid when you don’t tell them where you are 24 hours out of the day. It rings once… Twice… Three times. I hear my own voice echo into my ear. Something about reaching the Emerson residence, how we aren’t there right now, but if I could please leave a message, they’ll get back to me as soon as they can. I hang up and put my phone down.

I start to wonder what the person who owns the bike is like. Maybe he is a young man. He is chiseled, scruffy, but still has a boyish face. Maybe he’s on his way to see a girlfriend, or he’s left home looking for one. He listens to The Ramones. Or Iggy Pop. His leather jacket shines like a lighter, and his jeans have been worn in comfortably and faded into a lighter shade of blue. He isn’t looking for someone with money, or someone with a pretty face. No, those kinds of things are superficial. Unnecessary. He’s been with all the pretty girls, and they’re cold.

They don’t think about anyone but themselves, and he deserves better than that.

Or maybe he’s a fat old man with hair growing out of his nose, a bandanna colored like the American flag on his head, and a list of ex-wives about as long as the 5. I bet he smells like grease too.

I watch someone run out of the boy’s bathroom. I’m about to key the ignition but the figure is too tall, too broad. It hops onto the motorcycle and blazes the trail. The rider doesn’t shine at all.

I try calling Mom again. I have just enough time to watch the screen blink a couple of times before its battery gives out.

“Shit.”

I throw it in the backseat and drum my fingers on the steering wheel. The soft thuds remind me of the rain. It’s too quiet here in California. Too slow. I dig the heels of my hand into the car horn a few times. The sound doesn’t faze the trees.

“Come on, Ben.”

I open the door.

It’s cold, even with my long sleeves. I close the door. I take my seatbelt off and turn around in my seat to get a look at the backseat. My knee bangs against the shift and I feel stupid while I rub my knee. My eyes meet the darkness and I think about how useful a bright little phone would be right now. I sort through bags and wrappers of all kinds – Swedish Fish, Three Musketeers, Milky Way, Dorito’s – empty water bottles, loose change, dirty clothes, and a couple spools of fishing line. Frank and Ben like to head to the beach when we see each other and just cast for hours off of the boardwalk. I don’t know why they do it. They never bring anything back. The sound of crinkling plastic doesn’t stop even after I fish out a thicker sweater and throw it on. Let’s try this again.

I open the door.

It’s cold, but it isn’t any colder than what I’m used to back home. I think about Mom and wonder what the hell it is she can be doing this late at night. She’s a light sleeper so she should have heard the phone. She should be in bed by now. I know how she gets when she stays up too late. I don’t want her to miss work again. I twirl the keys around one of my fingers and walk to the entrance of the boy’s room.

“Ben.” The sound of leaves brushing against each other answers me. “I’m leaving.”

I lean my head and try to catch the sound of running water. Or singing. He always sings when he’s taking care of business. A lot of the times it’s that over-played crap on the radio but sometimes he sings a tune or two from this school musical I was in when I was a kid. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but I used to be quite the child star. I like to think singing makes all his squeezing easier when he tries to reach those high notes. I have to admit, it’s kind of cute despite the fact that he’s pooping.

Imagine a Butterball turkey, fresh from the frozen foods section. It’s Thanksgiving, but it’s still sitting in the freezer because it looks more misshapen than it should. Imagine taking that thing home because you procrastinated and you’ve got family coming over in a few hours. Instead of sticking it in the oven when you get home though, you put it on the toilet, paint a smile on its thighs, and dangle its chubby little wings over the rim.

Put on some show tunes and you have Mom’s bouncing Benny boy.

“You having trouble in there?” I say. “Sing the one about the ducks.”

Still nothing. I creep closer towards the entrance.

“I’ll sing it with you.”

I glance around. I left my headlights on. There is no one else here. I walk inside the boy’s bathroom. The first thing I see is all the red on the floor. They stain the white tiles and the white walls. I see small, chubby fingerprints. The air smells like piss and tastes like iron and in the middle of it all is Ben. His hands – they were feeding fries into a hungry, smiling mouth just this morning and I told him not to eat too fast, he’ll choke – are hugged tightly around his stomach. Like they were trying to keep something precious inside of him. His face is a mockery of its usual doe-eyed, bushy-tailed, starry-skied self. Part of his face is covered in blood – when he was younger he got into my make-up drawer and smeared my good lipstick all over his face and I yelled at him for it – and the rest is covered in a shiny film of water.

“Nancy.” How long has he been caling my name? “Nance, it hurts.”

I leap towards him but my foot slips and my knee crashes into the linoleum. It doesn’t hurt. I raise my brother onto my lap. I open my mouth but I can’t get anything out – I was the one who burped him after Mom finished breastfeeding him – and air won’t come in. I should have gone with him, we’re in the middle of no one cares where.

“I want to go home.”

I look at the paper towels. They break too easily. Ben’s shirt is wet. It’s dark, and it’s heavy. I bite into my sleeves and I rip them off, and I do my best to wrap the fabric around his little body.

“Nance, what happened to your arms?”

My sleeves aren’t enough. I keep my eyes on his face as my hands press down on his belly. I feel something wet and warm and leathery, and I press down. He was singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall when we hit Bakersfield. He has 46 more to go. I can talk.

“Ben, we need to get to the car.”

Ben says something. The first word he learned was “Dada.” Then it was “Nanny.”

I try to carry him but he cries out and the sound brings the Seattle rain to California.

“Come on, Ben. Please.”

“But it hurts.”

I pull him, but my foot slips again and I fall back but I don’t let him go.

“It’s cold.”

“I’m here, Benny.” I cover his body with mine and I embrace him. He needs to be warm. I kiss his cheeks and close my eyes. And suddenly I hate Ben. I hate him.

Because when I open my eyes again, I know that Ben will be in my arms, smiling up at me. There will be a gap in his two front teeth that never closed itself up. His freckles will add color to his already blushing face, red with pride from fooling his stupid older sister. His brown curls will hang over his face, dampened by my silly tears. He’ll be hiding a ketchup packet from McDonald’s in one of his pockets or in his hand and I’ll scold him for getting his shirt dirty. Now we’ll have to stick this one in the trunk and we’ll have to use Frank’s washing machine.

He’ll joke about giving him some air, I’m squeezing too hard, he was just kidding. I’ll tell him to get up because we’ve wasted so much time already, and if he ever does this again I’m going to run him over.

I’ll open my eyes, and tomorrow we’ll drive the rest of the 5 to San Diego. The sun will be the only thing in the sky, and it will be 75 degrees out all day. Our faces will be red, burnt by the brightness neither of our faces are used to. We’ll find Frank’s house and we’ll saunter up his driveway and knock on his pale, blue door, and he’ll tell us that he has great news. He’s leaving Summer, he’ll say, that two-bit floozy. He’s going to move back in with us
– no, we’re all coming down here, so we can go to the beach anytime we wanted –
and I won’t have to worry about any pills because I’ll be all better. Macy’s is going to call, and they’ll ask me when I can start. I’ll wear shirts with short sleeves and I’ll sing and I’ll smile.

I wish Ben could see how much this joke of his hurts. It’s not funny, but I know I’ll be laughing too when he comes out of it. I’ll shove him to the floor and we’ll both be sitting in ketchup and God knows what else in this bathroom. He’s doing it now. He knows I’ve figured him out. His body is shaking in my arms, struggling to keep the giggles in.

I’ll open my eyes, and we’ll get back in the car.

I’ll open my eyes, and we’ll be on our way.

And when I do open my eyes, Ben is smiling.

—–

Osmond Arnesto is a working writer from San Diego who has been featured before in fiction365 and other online literary magazines. He’d like to thank you personally for reading, but since that is impossible, he’ll have to do it digitally. If you’d like to look at more of his stuff, you can go to growingupeventually.wordpress.com.

Read more stories by Osmond Arnesto

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