Arah Ko | Flash Fiction

You’ve seen so many people, you could never count them all, but this is the one you remember. Her mascara was smudged in the same way your mom’s did after she talked to your father; her eyes were bruises. She might have looked young if she wasn’t so miserable. She was brushing her teeth at the RV drinking fountain right between the bathrooms and your mother’s 1981 Chevy Camaro. Her mouth was bright red, with lipstick, maybe, or blood. As her hand moved, the color smeared across her teeth, the brush, her index finger. You and your brother stared, but she didn’t notice you watching. 

“Boys, you ready to go?” your mom called. It was less of a question and more of a statement. Jason popped the passenger’s seat over so you could climb in the back. Mom shoved the key in the ignition, knocked back the last of gas station coffee, and twisted the key. The engine of the car that used to be your dad’s sputtered to life, swerved on the gravel, roared onto the road. 

It’d been a few thousand miles since you lost your name. It used to be the same as your father’s, but it became harder and harder for your mom to say. There were days she tried to sound it out, stuttered over it, then she gave up entirely. 

“Son,” she said, firmly, somewhere outside of Tucson. You had been parked at pit stop, squinting at a thorny forest of saguaro but turned to blink at her, at your new name. “You’ve got a hole in your pants,” she said. “C’mere.” You came. She whipped a tiny sewing kit out of the glove box, threaded the needle with bright red string and sewed them up right there. You watched the wind wave through the furry-looking cacti, the bruised, bluish mountains. Jason laughed at your face the whole time. 

Four thousand miles before that was the last time you spoke to your dad. It had been on a gritty payphone in Alberta, which your mom says is in Canada, but Jason thinks must be in British Columbus, wherever that is. You clenched the phone between white fingers, remembering the vendetta your mother had developed against quarters, the way her mouth pulled down at the corners whenever she drove by a phone booth. 

Jason never wanted to talk about your father, let alone to him. 

“Don’t you remember what he did?” Jason snarled the last time you asked, shoving you in the shoulder. His eyebrows were dark and familiar, furrowed on his forehead. He searched your face for something he didn’t find. “You’re just a kid,” he said, disgusted, and followed your mom into the gas station, leaving you behind. 

“Moses,” your father said when he answered. You did not know if he could tell it was you from your breathing, or your older brother’s general reluctance to talk to him. “How are you?” 

“I got to ride in the front seat today,” you said, because you couldn’t say “good.” Your mom had washed your hair in a public restroom with baby soap that morning. Jason had eaten the last Slim Jim. British Columbus was cold. 

“Wow, little man.” Your father sounded like he disapproved but was proud at the same time. “You must be getting big.” You breathed together for minute; you liked the sound of your father’s breathing. “Moses,” he said at last. “Tell me where you are, buddy.” 

You heard the phone give you a “time’s up” warning. You watched the corner of the street, knowing your mom would come around it any second, remembering her desperate questions that first night on the road. You want to be together, right? She had said. You had been sleepy, squinting at the passing streetlights, your brother’s nervous shifting. Then we have to stay here, in the Camaro

You fingered the last coin sitting at the bottom of your right pocket. “We’re nowhere, dad,” you said, watching the sun set red on the horizon. 

You learned how to sleep on the road many miles before that. It had only taken several states—a few hundred miles—to get used to living in the car. You kept a toothbrush in the seatback pocket. Your pillow had dinosaurs on it, and Jason’s was speckled with astronauts. Mom owned four CD’s and could only bear to listen to two of them, so you knew each word of the Beatles by heart. You collected toilet paper rolls at public restrooms when you could and ate fruit from trees at the side of the street. After a memorable patch, when your mother worked evenings at a diner in Georgia and you lived in a less-ratty motel, you always ordered cheeseburgers with no pickles for dinner. You and Jason argued about everything: the color of the sky, the names of the birds, who made that scratch on the left door of the car. When you were on the road, your favorite thing to do was ride shotgun, even when your mom was in a mood, so you could count the miles the Camaro ate up accumulate on the odometer. 

Despite this, you had lost count of how many miles you’d been through when your aunt gave in. Your mom would stop by her sister’s house every few months, get a good shower, eat some whole grain toast, and ask for money. On one of those weekends she was just coming out of the bathroom when you saw the lights flashing red and blue on the lawn. 

“Mom!” you yelled. “What do we do? Where do we go?” Your mom went wild, leaping on her sister, nails tearing rabidly into her face. Your aunt shouted back, “You can’t keep doing this, Sharon! You can’t!” 

Jason’s face, you remember, had gone blank like an open road. He pulled you into a corner and hid your face in his shirt. You stayed there until the yelling stopped, until a tired-looking man in a white button down coaxed you to another car, another road, another life. You lived with your aunt, who moved into a small, sunny apartment with sixties-style furniture, far away from highways. When you started school again, Jason told the principal your aunt was your guardian because you were orphans, and you didn’t correct him. 

Now you live in Washington, some thirty minutes outside of Seattle. The weather is mostly the same; the landscape never changes. You keep the beat-up ’81 Camaro under a tarp in your tiny garage because, despite years of therapy, you still have the urge to sleep in it. 

Jason flies out every few months—you never visit him because he’s always moving. Your aunt called him “tetherless” once, which sounds about right. On good days, when it doesn’t hurt to remember, you think your mom was not tetherless, that maybe she had the opposite problem and saw that line chasing right behind her through the rearview mirror. 

This time when Jason comes, he seems restless, itchy beneath his skin, so you rip the tarp off the car and drive him down to Saltwater State park. You plant your brother on a chunk of driftwood next to a six-pack of beer, and you sit there for two hours, just drinking and listening to each other breathe. 

“You remember that woman?” you ask suddenly. “The one at the RV stop with red lipstick on her teeth.” It wasn’t what you meant to say, but you find yourself waiting for the answer. 

Jason raises one eyebrow at you. “You mean the one with the toothbrush?” he asks. You nod, surprised he remembers the same woman you remember, one of thousands. Maybe more. He turns to look back at the sea, squints from the sun. 

“Huh,” he says. “I always thought it was blood.”