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Turning This Car Around

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“So how much longer until we get there?”

Holly’s question jarred Jackson out of a hypnotic doze he hadn’t realized he was in, one that had overcome him sometime after he’d driven over the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into flat farmlands, empty save for the occasional scrubby tree that was not quite bold enough to flank the road.

He glanced into the rearview mirror, adjusting it until it reflected his self-proclaimed teenage hostage. She had wedged herself between Holland’s blue Samsonite and her own pillow, propped against the rear driver’s side door. Out the back windshield, the rust tinged mountains shrank and faded, graying in the distance, while long stretches of grassland lay ahead. It was, in short, the kind of landscape with clear air that a person could never breathe in Los Angeles, and the kind of peaceful quiet that could only be broken by the whiney complaints of a teenage girl.

At the moment, the expression on Holly’s face was neutral enough, but she’d crossed her arms in a manor that spoke of a potential shift in patience. Jackson readjusted his mirror. “Kiddo, we’re barely north of Red Rock. It’s gonna be a while. Sit back and enjoy the scenery.”

Aaaannd there went any hope of benevolence. “You know, I had better things to do today than stare at a bunch of stupid rocks and trees. Why did I have to come along anyway?”

“It’s a fam...it’s an everyone trip,” Jackson said, shrugging his shoulders lamely, glad he was no longer reflected at her in the mirror where she could see him blush. Even after going on three years, there was something about referring to their little triad as a family which still made him feel like he was going to be called out for interloping.

Perhaps it was a matter of definition. Jackson appreciated words, respected them for the certainty they gave him. ‘Family’ was a word learned at his parent’s knees, narrowly defined for him before he was even in school. It had certain measures and watermarks that he and Holland and Holly did not (could not) reach. So though Jackson would lay down in front of a train for either of them, the word family still stuck on his tongue, and it gave him a pang every time.

Holly, however, didn’t seem to have that problem. “I’m too old to go on a family trip if I don’t want to. I’ll bet you didn’t have to go on any family trips when you were fifteen.”

“Only because he was in juvie,” Holland spoke up from the passenger seat. He returned Jackson’s irritated expression with a grin, lit cigarette bobbing between his lips. Taking a drag, he blew clouds of smoke into the currants of the air conditioner and watched them tumble in a turbulent stream behind him.

Holly scrunched her face and waved a hand in front of her nose. “Do you have to smoke in the car?”

“Yes, I do. Absolutely.”

“It’s bad for me.”

“No, it’s bad for me,” Holland said, flicking ash into an empty cup. “It’s good for you. Right now, this cigarette is the only thing standing between you and prolicide. I’m smoking to save your life, show some gratitude.”

“Prolicide?” Jackson asked.

“It means ‘the murder of one’s offspring,’ Holly said. “But he’s been telling me that since I was eight, and he hadn’t tried it yet, so I think it’s just a bluff.”

“Trust me, when I’m trapped in the car with you, it’s a real threat.” Holland nudged his and Jackson’s little black toiletries bag with his shoe and said, “I’m telling you, Jack, we should have flown.”

Were they having the fucking airline argument again? Still? Something in Holland’s tone made Jackson think that he was half asking if it were a fight he could still win. “Tahoe’s nine hours drive, max. It’s not worth three airline tickets.”

“Yeah, you’ll want to tack a couple hours onto that,” Holland said. “Holly’s in the car, so all trips take two hours longer.”

“Why’s that?”

“Can we stop somewhere?” Holly asked.

“It starts,” Holland said, leaning back his seat as far as it would go. “Tell me by the time we reach the north bank if it wasn’t worth three airline tickets.”

Jackson ignored him. “What do you want to stop for?” he asked Holly.

“My leg is cramping.”

“There isn’t any place to stop out here.”



“I need to go to the bathroom.”


“There isn’t any place to stop!”


“I don’t feel well!”


“You’re just making stuff up now. Sit back and button it.”

“Fucking Hitler,” Holly mumbled.

“You know, Delta had some excellent deals this week.”

“Shut up, Holland,” Jackson said.

 

“So when are we going to stop to eat?”


Somewhere around mile one hundred and fifty, Holly had unbuckled her seat belt and rearranged herself so that her legs were thrown over their little tower of suitcases, her head resting down on the seat. Normally, Jackson wouldn’t care, except that now he didn’t even have a face to argue with - only a pair of rainbow flip flops. He took a deep breath - breathe in, hold, out. Again. “It’s only eleven. We’ll stop for lunch around noon.”

“I get hungry when I’m bored.”

“Play a car game.”


“Like what?”

“I don’t know, think of something. My brother and sister and I used to see who could spot the most out of state license plates.”

Holly was clearly unimpressed. “I didn’t know cars had license plates back in then 1890s.”

“Very funny.”

“Why would you play such a dumb game anyway?”

“Because if we whined about being bored, my father would stop the car, and wouldn’t start it again until he’d left a dent in each of us.”

There was a pause, and then Holly sat up, alarmed. “Your dad used to hit you?”

Jackson jolted a little at her question. He hadn’t really meant it like that. “No...not in the face. It was a different time, Holly.”

“Dad’s never hit me.”

“We’ll, my father never hit my sister, actually.” He shifted in his seat. This conversation felt exceptionally strange to him, not the least because he was actually defending his father. “It was different for boys.”


“Dad wouldn’t have hit me if I were a boy. Right, dad?”

“Your mom used to pop you on the butt when you ran in the street,” Holland supplied. He, too, seemed less than comfortable with the direction of their conversation, and lit a cigarette to cover it.

“Yeah, but what do you mean ‘it was a different time’?” Holly asked, because she never let anything go. “Dad’s old, and Grandma told me she never spanked him.”

Holland glanced back over his shoulder. “She’s a liar. I used to get the belt from her.”

“Really?” Holly’s eyes went wide.

“Yup. Even worse, it was her heavyweight title belt. She won it for child beating.”

Holly huffed. “You’re never serious about anything with me.”

“That’s true. Eat some crackers and shut up.” Holland passed her a box of Ritz from the front seat.

“Whatever. Stop at the next gas station, okay? I have to pee.”

Jackson took a deep breath. Held it. Breathed out.

 

They decided to stop for lunch early in the town of Olancha, at a mediocre, overpriced barbecue joint with greasy sandwiches and cricket-infested bathrooms, which Holly flat out refused to use. Jackson started to insist that there was no way someone who could handle herself in a firefight could possibly be afraid of a few crickets, but Holland stopped him cold. “Don’t even try to fight her on this,” he said. “Not worth it.”

So they found a station and refilled the gas tank early. And then ... blessed peace.

“Holland,” Jackson whispered, glancing in the review mirror, “I’m gonna ask you something, all right? Be honest with me.”


“Yeah, sure. What is it?”

“Did you drug her?”

“What? Of course not!” Holland, too, glanced back at his daughter, passed out in the backseat. “I’m not a monster. For fuck’s sake.”

“Right, sorry.” Jackson went back to focusing on the road, silent for a heavy minute. “I really seriously considered it,” he said.

“Yeah, me too,” Holland admitted, and then they never brought it up again.

 

"I don't have enough room,” Holly said a couple hours later, once their reprieve ended.

“Too bad,” Jackson said. “The seat adjuster’s stuck.”

“I’d have more room if we could put anything in the trunk."

“Well, we can’t. The fishing rods are back there.”

“Plus, all our clothes would smell like that dead guy you found in there last month,” Holly added. “Which is totally gross, by the way. You know, none of my friend’s parents have jobs where their cars end up smelling like dead bodies.”

“That wasn’t our fault,” Holland insisted, trying and failing to get a decent flame from his lighter. He rapped it lightly on the dash. “We didn’t put him in there!”

“You could at least fix it by getting the car detailed.”

“You want to pay for that?” Jackson asked.

“No, I’d rather spend my money forcing people to go on vacation.”

“Holly, you’re pushing it,” Holland said, smacking the empty bic against the dash again. Jackson glanced at him without turning his head, a quick side eye to the right. Holland’s voice was taking on a wire-tight quality that Jackson didn’t like at all.

“Oh, so now I’m the one being pushy? How come don’t I get an opinion about any of this?” Holly cried. “No one asked me if I wanted to go on a trip, no one asked me where I wanted to go, no one asked me when I wanted to go, no one asked me what I wanted to do -”

“Holly,” Jackson tried to interrupt.

“No one asked me if I like lakes or fishing or nature, or if I wanted to fly or drive -”

As she ranted, Holland bent down and started rooting through the toiletries bag, until he fished out a small red and white pill bottle. “Right. I’m taking a little visit to pharmacy town. Have fun with the kid, wake me up when we get there.”

Jackson shook his head at him. “Those are supposed to be for nightmares.”


“They’re for sleeping,” Holland replied. “And right now, I could use some chemically assisted slumber.”

“Don’t you dare,” Jackson said. “You’re supposed to take over driving in an hour.”

Holland clenched his jaw and made a white knuckled fist around the little plastic bottle, so tight that Jackson started to worry it would break. Instead, he wound up his arm as far as he could and hurled the bottle back into the travel bag hard enough that it bounced right back out again and rolled under his shoe. “What the fuck, Jack!?” he shouted. “Everything is ‘supposed to’ with you lately. We’re ‘supposed to’ take family trips, we’re ‘supposed to’ drive there, we’re ‘supposed to’ get a Polaroid camera and take pictures at the world’s biggest ball of twine or whatever. What are you trying to prove, anyway?"

“You really want to do this?” Jackson snapped, eyes fixed on the road, hands choking the wheel. “You really want to get into it with me, in the car, in front of the kid, now?”

“Don’t mind me,” Holly said.

“Shut up, Holly!” they shouted in unison.

Holland made a sound then, a soft whine that set off alarm bells in the pit of Jackson’s stomach, and began to fumble with the door handle, and then the lock. “This is fucking idiotic. I gotta get out of the car,” he said, yanking up on the little lock bobble. “Pull over, Jack, let me out!”

“Hey, calm down, take a deep breath!”

A hand smacked Jackson twice on the shoulder from behind. “Do what he says!” Holly cried in his ear. “Pull over and let him out!”

“Alright, alright! Christ!” Jackson pulled the wheel to the right, aiming for the roadside shoulder, the gravel catching in the car tires and crunching beneath them like ground glass.