A woman rubs her right eye with the back of her wrist, listens to the engine hum and spit, and tries not to think about the empty passenger seat. The minivan headlights cut through the night as she accelerates on Interstate 81 South. Her boy sits in the back with a chapter book open in his lap. Every so often he turns the page. A car passes going north and its lights illuminate the metal latch plate dangling above the boy’s head. “What did I say about your seatbelt?” she says, her eyes hovering in the rearview mirror. Her boy pulls the strap down across his body and the buckle clicks. “Thank you,” she says.
The boy turns another page. Through the tinted window he watches green mile markers flicker. He says, “We should go back.”
The woman depresses the gas pedal and monitors the glowing blue indicator on the speedometer as it climbs from seventy to eighty.
“How will he get home?” her boy says.
“He has money,” she says. “He will be fine.” She fiddles with the radio knob. She can’t find a decent station not blanketed by white noise in this particular nook of southern Pennsylvania.
Her boy closes his book and scoots forward in his seat. “What if he gets lost?”
“Gas stations sell maps.”
The three-lane highway narrows to two. It’s another three hundred miles to Blacksburg and already her stomach croons for something warm and heavy. A smoke would help, but she threw what was left of the pack out the window before pulling away from the gas station, a parting gift for her husband.
The plastic bottle in the cup holder is empty and sticky with spilled juice. There’s a fast food billboard every mile. One of her night classes is nutrition and she is learning about the hidden poisons in fast food: trans fats, simple carbs, corn-fed beef, beef-fed beef. But when she is hungry none of those ideas matter. She will probably have to quit night classes.
The woman taps her fingernails along the top of the steering wheel. “Hungry, buddy?” she says. He should be in a booster sat. She knows he doesn’t meet the suggested height and weight requirements to ride without one. None of the other kids his age use a car seat and she wants to save him that embarrassment.
Her boy says, “Gas stations sell food, too, right?”
“We aren’t going back to the gas station.” The fight is still fresh on her lips and she’s jarred by her own callous voice. A billboard for McDonald’s shines like a bug zapper. Another sign proclaims a Taco Bell slash KFC. Her boy flops over in the back seat. “Hey,” she says. “Sit up. I asked you a question. Are you hungry?”
“No,” her boy says. He doesn’t sit up.
Outside Hagerstown, very close to the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, two cars are parked on the side of the road, emergency flashers activated. A family of eight stand on the shoulder between the rumble strips and the tall grass beside the road. The father wears carpenter jeans and a canvas coat. Holding an electric lantern at arm’s length, he steps into the tall grass. The two oldest brothers and the oldest sister follow. “Fancy!” the sister calls. “Fan-see! Fan-see?” The mother stands between the two parked cars with the three youngest children huddled around her. A grey, hard plastic pet carrier sits at their feet, its cage door open wide.
The search party spends twenty long minutes in the tall grass, then reappears itching their arms and brushing debris from their scalps. The father shrugs. The mother fetches his thermos of coffee. Privately inside the lead car, the parents discuss how to move forward. They talk probability and sentimentality. It’s dark and getting late, but the mother convinces her husband to resume the search.
The younger children want to help but their mother says it’s not safe. “Shush,” she says. “Listen.” A guttural sound, like hacking up a fur ball.
The minivan is close to empty. The woman didn’t have time to fill up at the gas station. She sees a sign for Maryland and figures she can make it that far. The book in her boy’s lap is closed. His eyes are closed, too, but he is awake. “Do you know which state is next?” she says.
He shakes his head.
“Maryland,” she says. “You’ve never been to Maryland.”
He opens his eyes. “I don’t want to go to Maryland.”
The woman laughs. “We won’t be there long. We’ll just cut through a corner of Maryland. And then a corner of West Virginia. And after that we’ll be in Virginia.”
“I don’t want to go to Virginia, either.”
At least he is talking. “You don’t know that,” she says. “There are lots of nice people in Virginia who want to meet you. Family people. Family members you’ve never met before.”
“How many?” her boy asks.
“Oh, lots,” she says. She begins to list uncles and cousins, pauses when she notices two vehicles pulled to the side of the road. She flicks the turn signal and changes to the left lane. Thirty, forty feet from the road, a dim blue light bobs up and down in the tall grass. Just before she passes the parked vehicles, a black blur darts into the blaze of her headlights. The thick black fur covering the cat’s body and tail is stiff and puffed out, as if coursing with static electricity. The animal stops in time for the minivan to barrel right over it.
The woman screams and mashes the brakes, drawing dark skid marks on the highway in a long s-curve. The boy hustles to the farthest back seat and presses his face to the safety glass of the rear window. There, in the headlights of the parked cars, sits the black cat, unharmed. A man in a canvas coat walks towards the cat with a pet carrier. It bolts under the guard rail and into the wide, grassy median.
“It’s okay!” the boy shouts. “You missed it! It’s okay!”
But the woman keeps crying. She cries bone-shaking, phlegm-raking cries. With the minivan in park on the shoulder, she bangs both fists against the wheel until her hands are red and pulsing.
“It’s okay!” the boy says. Now he stands behind his mother’s seat, his head almost touching the ceiling. He leans over the center console and puts a hand on her shoulder. “You missed it!” he says. “You missed it. Why are you crying? You missed it.”
There are no tissues in the minivan. The woman wipes her eyes and her nose with her sleeve. She cranks down the window to feel a bit of cool air. “I’m sorry,” she says when she stops crying. “Mommy got scared for a minute, that’s all. I was just scared.”
“I was scared,” her boy says. “That was scary!” His voice swells with excitement.
“Mom,” he says. “We’re going back for Dad now, right?”
She shifts into drive, pulls back onto the road without checking her blind spot. “Sit down,” she says. “We’ve still got a lot of driving ahead of us. What did I tell you about your seatbelt?”