My little brother’s heavy breathing fogs up our view while his mouth sticks to the window like a cleaner fish. The room’s pretty dark, so we pulled the curtains away just a bit to see the stars, only to be disappointed by the blinding, excessive lighting of the motel sign. Our little sister, Frida, is curled up between mom and dad while Benjamin and I take shifts, staying on the lookout for the perfect car.
The receptionist asked mom the length of our stay, but dad chimed in, saying it would only be a couple hours, just a night, which was all we could really afford. Mom laid out some bedsheets over the carpet in case me or my brother get tired, but we decide to stay awake because honestly, all-nighters to us are pretty fun, and we detest sleeping on the floor.
Dad taught us the secret to finding the perfect car. It doesn’t need to look pretty; the paint can even be a bit washed out. It needs to be old, nothing past the eighties. Dad can Slim Jim a window pretty quickly, and mom is great with using a coat hanger. Any early model Toyota or Fiat will do, but I usually try to go for something a bit more spacious since we’re in five.
A few months ago, we ended up with a Panda, uncomfortable and cramped, but it was enough to get us past four states. We emptied the tank of our last car a couple days ago while still on the freeway. Mom, Benjamin, and I had to push the car into the side of the road, grab our things and walk a quarter-mile while dad held Frida as she cried.
My little sister didn’t want to leave the car. Frida wiggled like a worm in my dad’s arms until she finally gave up, stuck out her hand, and waved the car goodbye.
“That’s it.” I point to a dark blue Stanza Wagon passing through the motel plaque entering the lot. “That’s our ticket out of here tonight.”
Benjamin open’s a wide smile, “Way to go, Jane,” he says. “Should we wake up mom and dad?”
“No, not yet, we need to stake the driver out, make sure he enters a room for the night.”
“Got it, so what do we until then?”
“I know,” I say, grabbing a chair and placing it close to the window. Benjamin holds the seat in place by its back while I stand tall and exhale onto the glass, covering it in a layer of mist. I draw four lines over on the window and make a circle right in the center square.
“Hey, no fair,” Benjamin says. “I hate being X.”
They used to tell us, “This land is our land.”
Mom and Dad aren't big fans of using maps. We traveled coast to coast, never from California to the New York Islands, but we did get to see the Red Desert in Wyoming, and the beaches of New Jersey, stopping by campsites, empty gas stations, or warehouses. We once stayed at a harbor in Maine, sleeping close to the docks, before the police came and had us bolt, threatening to arrest my parents for trespassing.
“But this is public property,” dad argued. “You can’t force us out of here. I know my rights."
The two officers laughed and threatened my dad and mom with their guns and cuffs.
“Just get out of here,” one of them said. “Look at your kids. Wouldn’t it be better for them to not see their parents get involved in some crap?”
Mom grabbed Frida, then Benjamin’s hand, and waited by the car. I walked the dock out of the harbor, constantly looking back to my dad.
“Come on,” I’d mutter under my breath. “It’s not worth it. They're policemen. Don’t fight them on this.”
Frida was crying out by the car; mom tried to calm her down. Benjamin grabbed our sister, cradled her in his arms while mom opened up the vehicle’s doors.
Dad walked away, knitting his brows, and with shame stamped across his face. The police officers shook their heads. They called him a crazy hippy and told him to watch out.
“One of these days, you’re gonna get yourself killed,” mom warned.
He got inside, shoved a screwdriver into the ignition, and started up the car. We drove out of Maine that night, entering New Hampshire before lunch. Our bellies were near empty, much like the fat, lazy Citation we stole, nearly dying along the road.
“Are we running away from the police?” I once asked.
I felt the heat on my cheek before registering the sound of the slap.
“Why would you ask that?” Mom returned, retracting her hand and placing it over her lap.
Dad was driving awfully fast, holding a beer while maintaining a single hand on the wheel. It was cold; the windshield was masked in a misty overcoat. The station wagon's wipers didn’t work. Benjamin sat in the passenger seat by dad and periodically hunched forward during our trip to wipe the inner glass with his sleeve.
“We’re not doing anything wrong by being out on the road, Jane,” Mom said. “We’re happy with our lives. We do whatever we want, travel, live off the land. We survive.”
It was drizzling. Water droplets wound up accumulating quickly despite not raining heavily. They stuck to the transparent surface, scattered across our field of view, impairing Dad’s already blurry vision.
A dark shadow cast over the front of the hood, rifts formed like torn flesh on the glass. The car shook. Benjamin was hurled back into his seat from the impact. Frida threw herself onto me, her head digging into my chest. I wrapped my arms around my sister’s body and stretched my gaze to Benjamin, who had the wind knocked out of him but didn’t look dead.
Dad stopped in a craze, almost drove off the side of the road. There was honking, probably from another vehicle, but I doubt that dad even heard it. He ran out. Mom went and flung the side door open. I arched over to my brother; he was breathing and seemed groggy, almost as if just waking up from a nap.
“What happened?” mom shouted, walking around the car.
“This stupid animal, that’s what,” Dad replied, kicking the deer, which twitched slightly before finally dying.”
“Stop it,” I said from inside the car. “Leave the poor thing alone.”
“Poor thing? This thing’s gonzo,” he returned.
Mom leaned into the car window, “At least no one was seriously hurt.”
There was a gash on the side of Benjamin’s head, probably from a shard of glass, while the hood was dusted in crystal fragments, wet from the rain, and the windshield irreparably smashed.
Dad hopped back into the car, fired up the motor, which ignited much to his surprise.
“Well, will you look at that? I knew this car was golden,” he smirked to mom, who returned with a chuckle and shaking her hand. “Come on, let’s get the hell out of here before the cops come.”
“But what about the deer?” I wondered. “Are we just gonna leave her there?”
“Now, now, Jane, don’t think that you have to save all the animals. How about you just stick to helping out your family and leave the rest to your dad and me?”
We left the deer in the middle of the road. Mom occupied the passenger seat, fixing up the glass with duct tape she found in the glove compartment. She tossed some scrap paper to my brother and told him to apply it to the wound in his head.
“You’re bleeding, honey. Here, have Jane take care of that.”
That day my sister slept soundly over my knees; my brother and I kept our eyes peeled open to the road, occasionally diverting our gaze to mom and dad. They laughed and winked at one another. Mom ran her fingers down dad’s face while he drunkenly smiled.
“I love you, you know that, right?”
Mom nodded and blew him a kiss.
“I love you guys too,” he repeated, turning back to us, uttering those words with his beer breath.
I remember when we once slept in a hut, or so that’s what we were ordered to call it. We stopped in West Virginia, where dad found a job in a coal mine for a few weeks. We couldn’t find a home cheap, so we stopped our car a couple miles out of dad’s new job. He and mom formed a make-shift sundeck using slabs of old wood and the trunk door of our damaged car.
While dad went out early in the morning, mom would have us forage around our campsite for anything useful. She taught us about the spiritual healing properties of moss and what mushrooms were edible. Mom had us learn knots and taught me how to braid, while she took advantage of nature’s beauty and made ink from berries and flowers to paint the landscape. We didn’t have paper, so she opted to use the leftover unstained documents from the car.
I watched her while Frida slept, and Benjamin cut his own hair with a switchblade he received from our dad. She absorbed the sunset, drank in the beauty with her eyes, and stroked her fingers across the sheets of paper with red, brown, and green dyes.
“It’s beautiful, mom,” I told her.
“So are you, honey,” she said with her hand on my shoulder. “It’s our home, you know?” All of this.”
“What do you mean?”
“This,” she said, stretching out her arms like a hawk. “All of this is ours. This land is all ours.”
Mom’s filling up her pockets with all the bathroom soap, and dad’s taking the towels, shoving them into a garbage bag.
“What else should we take?” Benjamin asks while I stare at the parking lot and terrace windows to make sure no one’s watching.
“The mini-fridge,” Dad says. “Get the water, the tiny drinks, and anything we can eat.”
My brother raids the fridge throwing everything into a pillowcase. Frida lies on the bed watching the muted television, hypnotized by the late-night cartoons, and doesn’t notice our mess.
“Jane, how’s it looking out there?” dad asks.
“Coast is clear,” I answer, stepping away from the window.
“Alright, grab your sister, dear,” mom says. “Remember, no making noise, and stay close to your dad and me.”
We head out of the motel room, leaving the bed bare and only the furniture behind. Dad walks down the lot with his hand to his side, holding his revolver that’s been bullet-free since I was nine.
Benjamin is the first to get to the van, crouching as soon as he reaches the passenger door. Dad tosses him the Slim Jim, which he slides into the gap of the window and unlocks the car. He slides into the seat, opens up the driver’s door, and hops into the back. Dad sits, mom occupies her place and passes up everything we stole, tossing plastic bags and pillowcases onto our laps.
I spot Dad’s fingers working magic with the wires. Mom removes her jacket and places it behind Frida’s head to act as a cushion. “Don’t forget to wear your seat belts, guys,” she says.
The engine roars, the headlights flare. Dad backs up, swiftly turns the vehicle. A cloud of smoke from the car rises and dissipates as we drive off, leaving the motel, laughing and clapping after achieving our new ride.
“Good job, kids,” dad says, taking hold of mom’s hand.
“Where are we off to next?” My brother asks.
“How about the mountains?” mom suggests, kissing dad’s hand. “Don’t you think the kids will love it there?”
Benjamin looks to dad, who nods, “Good idea,” he says.
I rest my head against the car seat, thinking that I’ll sleep until we arrive at our next stop, hopefully before the car runs out of gas.
“Do you think maybe we can find a house, dad?” Benjamin lets out.
“A place where we can all get a bed.”
“Sure thing, Benjamin, we’ll find a nice place to say.”
My brother rolls his shoulders back and dives into the stiff car seat. He smiles, stuffs his hand into the pillowcase, and offers me a mini-sized chocolate bar.
“Hey, pass me one of those tiny bottles,” Dad says. “Give one to your mom too, so she can get some shut-eye.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” I ask.
“Don’t worry, you three,” mom interjects. “Just trust your mom and dad.”