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Fiction Suspense

Mom’s picking me up from school instead of the bus. I got a note from the office an hour before dismissal that said so. I couldn’t pay attention all through silent reading time, but that’s okay, I usually can’t anyway.

I run to her side of the car and fling my arms around her before she can bend down. She squeezes me back with one arm and combs my head with her nails. If I don’t pull away, she’ll maybe never let go.

“I’m so happy to see you,” she brushes her hair out of her face. It’s longer and turns blonde at the bottom.

I wriggle into the back of the car and the seat squeaks as I try to get comfortable. Mom turns on the AC. It didn’t used to work, and we had to roll the windows down and it was too noisy to talk without shouting. But now I pull my shirt away from my armpits and cool off. It’s cleaner now too—there aren’t any bottles or crumpled-up papers to roll around my feet. It still smells like old cigarettes though, but I kind of like it because it smells like her.

I put my backpack on the seat next to me and buckle the belt across it.

“I wanted to spend some time together,” she smiles at me in the rearview mirror, “How about we go get some ice cream?”

“Awesome!” I try not to yell, but I flap my hands a little because I can’t help it. Today couldn’t get any better.

Dad would be so upset. He always got mad with Mom for ordering fast food when he worked late, but those were the best dinners. Since she left, he’s been making us eat healthier. Too many veggies that taste like farts. Yuck. I like that Mom and I have this secret to keep from him—it makes me feel sneaky, but in a fun way, like trying to stay up late on Christmas Eve even though I’m not supposed to.

“Was Dad excited to see you?”

“I didn’t stop by to see your father.”

I don’t like it when she calls Dad ‘your father’. She does that when she’s mad at him.

I guess they’re still fighting. Right before Mom left again, they got into a big argument with lots of yelling. But that was forever ago. I can’t imagine being mad for that long—how exhausting. I wish they would just make up already.

“We don’t need him to have a good time,” she shrivels up her nose. “It can be our little secret.”

I don’t know why they’re so mean to each other now. I hope they don’t start yelling when we get back from ice cream.


Except Mom drives past Twin Kiss. We always go there at the end of the school year or when I get a good grade on a test. It’s attached to a diner and it has records on the walls and it smells like chicken tenders and they have the best soft serve. But Mom keeps driving.

“Mom, you missed it.” She doesn’t respond, then rattles her head.

“We’ll stop somewhere with a drive-through.”

I twist around to watch the building shrink. Why’s she want to do a drive-through instead of getting our special corner booth?

“Are you back for real this time?”

“Yes, hun. Of course.”

I want to be happy but part of me doesn’t believe her. Dad said that she was gone for good. But, I fought him on it because I knew she would be back. I can’t wait to say told you so.


I want to play I-Spy, but there isn’t much to point out since we left the main part of the city. Only fields on either side of the highway. ‘Red barn’ would be too obvious. I pull out my notebook and pencil from my bag and flip to the back pages to doodle.

We finally reach the next town and pull into a gas station that the ice cream shop is attached to. The gas smell makes me a little nauseous, but that can’t stop me from wanting ice cream. The illuminated menu board is dazzling.

The voice over the intercom takes Mom’s order, low and monotone and drawing out the ends of his sentences.

“Liam, what do you want?”

“Vanilla and— I can’t decide.” They have so many toppings! M&Ms or cookies or gummy worms—

“Pick something.”

“Gummy worms,” I say without thinking. I don’t like deciding under pressure. The menu screen changes to display a sundae with gooey brownies. That would taste so much better! I almost ask Mom if I can change my mind, but I don’t want to upset her. Baby hairs cling to her forehead and she fans herself with her wallet. There are dark spots under her arms, even though the AC is on full blast. Hopefully the ice cream will cool her off.


I had to get it in a cup instead of a cone so it wouldn’t be messy in the car. But as we keep driving, I get some on my shirt anyway. I try rubbing it off, but it’s getting too dark to see if I got all of it.

I scrape the bottom of the cup and eat the final gummy worm I saved for last. Instead of chewing it, I let it dissolve on my tongue so it lasts longer.

Mom’s is still sitting in the cup holder, getting all melty. She doesn’t eat and drive because that’s being responsible. She has both hands tightly gripping the wheel but keeps stretching her fingers and chewing at her nails.

She still hasn’t turned around to go back home.

“Mom, where are we going?”

She jumps like I surprised her. It’s been quiet since I was eating, so I guess my voice scared her. She swerves back into place.

“I wanted to take you,” she drums her fingers on the steering wheel, “show you where I’ll be staying.”

“I have school tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to go. This’ll be a mini vacation—no school, no meetings. Freedom. Just the two of us.”

This day just keeps getting better! First mom, then ice cream, now no school.

I bounce up and down in my seat. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where Mom was while she was away. Dad said it was somewhere nice with lots of friendly people, but he sounded like when he told me that Cooper was going to live on a nice big farm now. He wouldn’t tell me where it was or why I couldn’t visit. But I liked to think of it as nice anyway. A big fancy hotel with a huge chandelier in the lobby, and butlers in suits with a towel over their arm who bring lobster up to your room, which has the biggest bed in it.

Mom frowns, her eyebrows pushing together. Maybe she’s trying to contain her excitement in the way grown-ups do. But I think that some of my excitement is rubbing off on her. She looks like she just drank a whole cup of coffee.


“How much longer?”

“It’ll still be a little while. You can sleep in the car tonight. Then we won’t have to drive tomorrow too.”

I didn’t know it was so far away. I wish we had stopped at home first so I could have brought a game.

“I can’t sleep in the car.” I’ve tried to before—every time Dad took me on camping trips to the mountains. Last time, we prepared and brought a pillow and blanket for me to have in the backseat. It still didn’t work.

“Please just try.”

“I can’t,” I say again. It’s not about trying, it’s about not being able to. She should know this. Dad would know.

“Liam, I really don’t want to stop and stay here through the night.”


She inhales loudly through her nose, smiles, and her voice goes high like she’s talking to a puppy, “Don’t you want to wake up and already be somewhere new? On vacation? A fresh start.”

“This is already a bad vacation. I want to go home,” I pout. It’s true. I wish Dad had come with us. I want to sleep in a bed. The cigarette smell is making my nose itchy. I rub my eyes.

“I shouldn’t have given you all that sugar,” she mumbles to herself. Now she sounds like Dad. “Fine, we’ll find somewhere to stay for the night.”


Mom pulls in at the glowing motel sign.

After we get out of the car, she cups both my ears and tilts my head up so I look her in the eyes. They look like they haven’t blinked in a long time. “Behave yourself, ok? Don’t draw too much attention.”

Mom opens the trunk, which is Jenga’d with luggage and labeled boxes. I didn’t know she had all this stuff back here. She grabs a duffle bag from the top of the tower, and nothing falls over.

We go in through the big glass doors on the first floor. One of the overhead lights is out, and light spills into the dim lobby from a vending machine. The lady at the front desk has a nose ring like a bull and a spiky necklace. She doesn’t look like she’ll bring lobster up to our room.

She sends us back outside and around the corner to a room with only one bed. It’ll be okay because it’s big enough for both of us, and Mom doesn’t snore like Dad does. Across from the bed, a dresser acts as a TV stand. I plop down in front of it.

From her duffle bag, Mom pulls out a toothbrush, a hairbrush, and a pair of pajama pants.

“I’m going to get ready for bed,” she nods toward the bathroom. She grabs the remote from the dresser and hands it to me. “Here, you can put on whatever you like.”

I squirm under the covers. I wish I had pajama pants too instead of having to sleep in jeans.


I wake up and Mom isn’t in bed. Maybe she thinks the sheets are stiff and itchy too.

 On TV, an anchor in a tie speaks into the camera, but it’s turned all the way down. The bathroom door is closed, with a sliver of light leaking out beneath it. I can hear her voice from inside, but not the words that she’s saying.

I sneak over in the dark and press my ear against the door.


“It’s already on the news.”

I look back at the TV. There’s a woman in a floral dress sweeping her arms across a map of the country, guiding a storm.

“Mel, you have to help me—No, I’m sober.”

She points to the growing blotch as it turns deep red. Her teeth are overly white, and her dark hair turns blonde at the bottom. I watch her as Mom speaks.

“I can’t take him back. The cops will be there. I can’t go to jail—I can’t lose him.”

The lady disappears. The map takes up the whole screen and is painted in blues and magenta. The headline text box warns of Flash Flooding.

“No, please. You don’t have to get involved, okay? Just help me think of something. No, Mel, please—”


It’s silent.

I don’t back away from the door. I want her to keep going and explain what’s wrong. Why would there be police?

“Mom,” I whisper into the door. She drops something and curses. “Are we in trouble?”

She opens the door and wipes her face.

“Oh, Liam, I’m sorry. We’re ok. What did you hear? We’re ok.”

She holds her arms open, but I don’t want to hug her.

“I want to go home.” I look down at her feet for a long time. I don’t know what her face is doing, but I don’t want to know because her voice is all thick and wobbly.

“Okay, Liam. Let’s get you home.”

And I watch her feet step around me.

September 22, 2023 18:31

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
01:04 Sep 24, 2023

Suspenseful. Thanks for liking my Modern Day Monsters.


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