My stepfather drives fast, grinding his jaw from side to side, breathing through his nostrils in loud quivering rasps. My mother leans back in the passenger seat, one hand on her belly, hiccuping behind her other hand. Usually my mother would be asking Stefan not to drive so fast; he would be asking why she couldn't control her belching. But this morning they're silent, so I know things are worse than usual. I bend my head over my video game.
As we cross the border from Florida into Georgia, Stefan speaks while his eyes bore into the road ahead. "Why couldn't you be a little nicer? She's an old lady, she's not going to live much longer."
"Why couldn't she be nicer to me? All she did was criticize, every move I made, every word I spoke. And she wouldn't even acknowledge Jonathan, she acted as if he weren't there."
"He wasn't there! He had his nose buried in that game thing the whole time."
"There was nothing for him to do! She wouldn't let him watch television. She said it wasn't good for him."
"We didn't have a television when I was growing up. I found things to do. I went to the beach."
"It was different back then. It's not safe now, a twelve-year-old boy by himself on the beach."
"Was I supposed to take him? I was there to visit my mother, that's the reason we drove all this way."
"She could have spared you for an hour."
"Then you would have been alone with her. You would have loved that."
My thumbs fly across the keyboard, annihilating alien invaders. My mind screams Stop this, Stop! I want this trip to be over, I want these two people to stop fighting, to stop sniping and pecking and ripping each other, to leave me in peace; but I have nowhere to go so I remain silent.
My mother vents an unusually loud burp. "Stefan, could you pull over. I think I'm going to be sick."
"I thought your morning sickness was over."
"Maybe if you didn't drive so fast."
"We've got to keep going if we're going to get home tonight."
He drives off the highway, pulls over at a gas station on the outskirts of a small town. My mother goes to the bathroom while Stefan fills the tank. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel while he waits for her to return.
"Yes, thank you. I think I'll be okay now." She dabs at her lips with a tissue. Stefan grinds the gears and roars off through the town, following the sign to the interstate.
"Maybe we should go slower. You know how the police are in the south. They love to catch a car with northern plates."
"I know what I'm doing. You just concentrate on keeping your breakfast down."
"I didn't eat anything."
"Well, there's your problem."
How long has this been going on? I count the months since my mother married Stefan, since we moved into his house. Twenty-two months, I figure. How many more months until I can leave on my own? Maybe forty-four, then I'll be sixteen. So I'm one-third of the way there. I could go to California and make money writing video games.
I pick up one of the Tin-Tin comics my friend Richie loaned me. He was reluctant to let them out of his house. I begged him, told him how bored I would be on the long car trip and swore I would take good care of them.
A siren whines in the distance, grows louder. I see Stefan's eyes checking the rear-view mirror. "Shit," he mutters. My mother compresses her lips into a thin line. He pulls the car to the side of the road. I close my book but keep my finger inside, marking my place.
Stefan pulls out his wallet. The sound of his breathing reverberates in the car. He rolls down the car window as a policeman saunters up. Short and fat, the man wears a Smoky-the-Bear hat. I try not to giggle, because I remember the song "Little Fat Policeman" my mother sang to me when just the two of us lived in our little apartment in Brooklyn.
"License and registration." The trooper speaks in a lazy commanding drawl. Patches of sweat bloom on the front of his tan shirt. He takes his time with both slips of paper, turning them over to read front and back.
"You got any idea how fast you were going back there?"
"Look, officer, we've been visiting my mother, I'm tired, we're anxious to get home."
Don't say that! I cringe at Stefan's words. Don't say "Look", don't say you're tired, that makes you look unsafe. Don't say you're anxious. Say you're sorry, act innocent.
"You were doing fifty-five in a thirty-five mile zone." The "five" sounds in my ears like "fahv." "That's twenty over the limit."
"Officer, we need to get home. My wife's pregnant, she's feeling sick."
In a slow deliberate gesture the policeman removes his aviator sunglasses and looks past Stefan at my mother, and then into the back of the car. I try not to smile or cower, but his eyes skate over me, and back to Stefan. "You got a wife that's expecting, and a boy? And then you speeding, with your family in the car? That's reckless driving. I ought to lock you up and throw away the key."
"I'll keep it down, officer."
The policeman's jaw works around his gum but he doesn't react to Stefan's plea. "Now ain't that a coincidence," he drawls, "that you've stopped right by the co'thouse." He gestures to an imposing square of marble across the road. "We'll just go on over there and see what the judge says."
Stefan looks hard at my mother before getting out of the car. I know he's furious that she was proved right. The policeman escorts him across the road and they disappear between tall fluted columns. The stone glistens white in the broiling sun, the air in the car burns my lungs.
I pick up my book and rejoin the adventures of Tin-Tin and Snowy his faithful dog. In their world good and bad are clear: you fight evil, defeat it. My mother's hand descends from the air, slapping my comic to the floor. One page flutters to the seat, torn away from the binding.
"Don't think you can hide." Her face twists in fury. "Look, see what's happening to me!"
I sit up straight, fix on my face an expression of concern, squeeze the corners of my eyes with worry, resign myself to await the punishment the judge will levy on my stepfather, the anger that Stefan will lavish on my mother, the fearful devotion that she will demand from me. I stare out the window, down the long tunnel of my unhappy life.
Michael Wright has worked as a mechanic, a carpenter, a news reporter, a potter and a math teacher. He lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and raises heirloom apples. His stories have appeared in diverse online and print publications, most recently in Writers on the Edge, The Sigurd Journal and Poor Mojo's Almanack.