Elle

By Jennifer DeMotta

Part 1
Last year on my fifteenth birthday, I stood before my birthday cake, my face warm and lit up by fifteen pastel candles. Pink letters spelled out “Happy Birthday Elle.” I took a deep breath, anxiously thinking of wishes. Before I settled on a wish, my mother hung up the phone she’d been cradling on her shoulder and jumped up from the table.

“We gotta go, Elle. He’s on his way.” By he, she meant her sometimes-boyfriend Doug, a small man with watery blue eyes, who never smiled. My mother owed him money. A few hundred dollars, maybe. At least, that’s what it sounded like when I listened in on their phone conversation. My mother got into trouble, and since it was just me and her, I liked to know what was coming. We never stayed in one place long, and my mother had a habit of leaving a trail of unpaid bills and unhappy boyfriends behind her.

birthday cake

Photo courtesy of Rob J. Brooks (flikr.com).

As I was about to make my wish, my mother leaned over my birthday cake, her blonde curls nearly touching the fire, and blew. The sudden dark made me blink. My wish floated unanswered in my head. Wish limbo.

In a flutter, my mother ran into the other room, sweeping our stuff together. I stood there before my beautiful birthday cake, staring down at the smoking candles and the pink and white icing, wondering what to do. I took a deep breath and blew. The wicks on the candles glowed orange for one moment, then darkened, the smoke receding to a thin whisper.

“Elle, go pack up your room quick. We leave in five minutes.”

“Wish stealer,” I whispered.


Now, one birthday later, we were running again. But this time was different. Jimmy, my mother’s boyfriend for the last three months, had done something to scare my mother. And me. Over the last week, Jimmy had done one creepy thing after another. First, he started showing up at our hotel room at random times. He would burst through the door and tower over my mother, his eyes accusing, his thick body charging through our room looking for “the other man” my mother was supposedly hiding. Jealous, angry men often found their way into my mother’s life, but Jimmy was different. He was obsessed with my mother and always seemed to be around. He would just stare at me. I kept a switchblade under my pillow just in case he ever tried anything.

But this afternoon, everything changed. I had walked across the street to pick up a pizza for lunch, and when I came home, the pizza box resting on my left hip and my hand reaching for the doorknob, I heard yelling inside our hotel room. Pressing my ear against the chipping white paint of the door, I tried to listen to what they were saying.

“I know you’re going to try and leave, Kerry,” Jimmy said. “Not this time.”

“I won’t, I promise,” my mother said, her voice shaking.

“It’s mine. Remember that. Mine,” Jimmy growled. “I will take it one way or another.”

Fumbling with the doorknob, I pushed open the door and there was Jimmy standing over my mother as she held her hands in front of her face, as though to ward off his words and anger.

My mother’s face glowed pale like a ghost as she looked from Jimmy to me. Jimmy’s head whipped toward me and his eyes were like two black coals that burned steadily as they stared at me. With a curse, he barreled toward me while I stood, still in shock. With a quick flick of his arm, he pushed me out of the way as he stormed out the door, and I dropped the pizza box on the floor before I caught my balance.

“Jerk,” I muttered.

“Elle,” my mother whispered. “Pack your things, we’re leaving in ten minutes.”
I packed fast, haphazardly throwing my clothes in my suitcase, knowing I could sort it all out later. Whatever my mother had of Jimmy’s, I didn’t want to be here to find out. I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, like this was about more than just money.

Before long, our old orange station wagon, long and clunky, was weighed down with all our stuff and my mother was driving away from our tiny hotel room in Kearney, Nebraska.

orange station wagon

Photo courtesy of mfajardo (flikr.com).

Every time we had to run and we got on the road, my mother became excited and optimistic, as though we had a new chance. The farther away we got, the more cheerful my mother became. I’d feel it too. She’d crank up the radio and sing along to the oldies station, a little off key, but she knew every word.

“You’ll see, Elle. This time will be different,” she would say.

But this time, as we drove away, the radio was silent and my mother held the steering wheel tight, her knuckles white as she leaned slightly forward in her seat.

I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I fiddled with the clasp of my seat belt. I wanted to reach over and turn on the radio, but I was afraid of what could make my mother so silent and still.

“Where are we going?” I asked. She jumped. My voice sounded loud and unsteady. This was a trick question, really. Whenever I asked where we were going, my mother would always say California. She’d say it in this breathy, hushed voice, but we never made it to California. We always ended up in places like Iowa or Michigan. With every escape, California became more and more sacred, shrouded in mystery and full of possibility.

“I don’t know. I just don’t know where we’re going this time.” She stared through the windshield, eyes wide as she drove.

I tried to keep my eyes open, to unravel this mystery that was my mother, but like they were tied to heavy weights, my eyelids closed.

When I woke up, the car was stopped and the late afternoon sun warmed my face. I lifted my head and rubbed my eyes. We were at a gas station, in a parking space behind the store. The clock told me we were two hours out of Kearny. I looked around for my mother, but didn’t see her.

I got out of the car and yawned, my jaw creaking, and walked around to the front and went into the little store. A greasy haired boy was behind the counter. He looked only a few years older than me, and he smiled, approving and leering, as he looked me up and down.

I rolled my eyes and turned away, scanning the aisles for my mother, but she wasn’t there. Must be in the bathroom. I turned around and pushed open the door, ignoring the boy behind the counter as he tried to catch my eye.

I walked around the side of the building to the bathroom. Unisex. I tried the door handle but it was locked. I banged on the door twice.

“Mom! It’s me!” I yelled. I had to pee, and I held my knees together as I waited.

“Mom, open the door.” What the hell? Where was she? I groaned.

I jogged back up to the front of the store and pushed the door open with a bang. The boy behind the counter looked up and grinned when he saw me.

“You got a bathroom key?” I asked.

“Sure, here.” He lifted a big, rough piece of wood off the counter and handed it to me. Attached to one end was a tiny silver key.

“Thanks.” I grabbed it and turned, pushing open the door and running around the building to the bathroom.

“Come on, come on,” I mumbled, shoving the key into the lock. The door opened with a creak and the light turned on automatically. The smell of old pee hit me in the face as I entered and slammed the door closed, locking it. Gas station bathrooms were all the same. Disgusting, smelly, and cold. I laid down sheets of toilet paper on the toilet seat and sat down to pee.

When I was finished, I scrubbed my hands and splashed cold water on my face, then ran out and around the building, looking around for my mother. Our car was still empty. I pushed open the door to the gas station and walked up to the counter. The greasy haired boy smiled at me again, more hopeful this time.
“Thanks,” I said, as I set the key down on the counter.

“Anytime,” he said, still grinning.

“Have you seen a blond woman, late thirties, anywhere?”

“Yeah, she came in here a little while ago and bought some water. She left with some guy,” he said with a shrug.

“This is the same woman who drove up here in that orange station wagon out there?” I demanded.

“Yeah that’s her. Red sweater, jeans,” he said with authority.

What the hell? That couldn’t be right. My mother had done many crazy things, but she’d never leave me at a gas station.

“What did this guy look like?”

“He was like, huge, this tall at least.” He jumped up to show me how tall he was.

snake tattoo

Image courtesy of Tattoo_Lover (flikr.com).

“With a shaved head, and a wicked tattoo of a snake on his arm.”

Jimmy. How did he find us? He must have followed us.

“Did she look upset when she left?” I asked.

“I didn’t see her leave. I got real busy for a few minutes. Saw the truck pull out of here about ten minutes ago. He went south, I think.” He smiled again. “You could wait here until she comes back.”

I stared at him, thinking about my mother. She had to be with Jimmy. There’s no way she went willingly with him, not after this afternoon. I felt a shiver run through my body. This was not happening.

They couldn’t have gotten too far. For one moment I stood there, unsure, but then I turned and pushed open the door and ran to the car. The boy’s surprised face stared out at me through the streaked glass of the store window. The keys were still in the ignition. I climbed into the driver’s seat and buckled my seat belt. Next to me was my small backpack where I kept my most important things. I felt around inside and pulled out my switchblade. I stuck it in the pocket of my jeans. I hesitated for a moment, then popped open the glove box and pulled out a can of mace and set it on the seat next to me.

A folded piece of paper fluttered out of the glove box and landed on the passenger’s seat. I glanced at the paper as I picked it up and the words caught my eye. Pregnant. Positive. Kerry Belle. It was a test result from a clinic in Kearney. My mother was pregnant. Oh my god, this can’t be happening. The argument I’d heard outside our hotel room came back to me. It’s mine. That’s what Jimmy said. He must have meant the baby. But why did he take my mother? She couldn’t have been more than two or three months pregnant. Unless… I will take it one way or another, Jimmy’d said. No—I couldn’t think about that right now. I just needed to find my mother. And then everything would be okay. Yes. Everything would be okay. I gritted my teeth and adjusted the rearview mirror. […]

To Be Continued on March 31.

Jennifer DemottaJennifer DeMotta grew up in Maine. As soon as she learned to read she was scarcely seen without her nose stuffed in a book. At the age of twenty-one, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked at a bookstore and began writing her first book. She now lives in Portland, Oregon with her sister and two cats, and is currently completing her bachelor’s degree at Portland State University. She is in the process of revising her first book, and writing her second book. She loves music, books, and food.

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