Gabby watched her mom watch the sun set ahead of them; sure her stare would kill her any minute now. She had it all planned: Grab the wheel once Emma’s head exploded, steer the car to the side of the road, and dump Emma’s body in a ditch. Turn the car around and never look back. The insipid cows would moo until someone found the corpse. Or maybe crows would pick at her. Or maybe one of the local necrophilia farmers would come out from the corn and--
“Almost home. An hour and a half to go!” Emma said as they crossed the Kansas state line.
“Yee haw!” Gabby quipped back, put her feet on the dashboard, and watched the welcome sign fly by. The chunky grey sweatpants underneath her little black dress she threw on last night while rushing out the door now clung to her in places they shouldn’t. Exasperated, she yanked the sweatpants out from under the skirt and flung them to the back seat. She turned the AC vent away from her and jammed her arms into her hoodie sleeves, zipping it up and pulling the hood over her head, at last comfortable. Sort of.
Emma sighed and tapped her fingers on the steering wheel.
“Something bothering you?” Gabby grumbled.
Emma removed her sunglasses and raised an immaculate eyebrow at Gabby. A large, dark cappuccino hat sat perched on her head, slanted in the twilight.
“Nothing bothering me,” Emma said. “You, on the other hand, seem quite agitated.”
Gabby rolled her eyes. “Where’d you get that idea?”
“My mother senses are tingling.”
Gabby shifted in her seat. “From here on out, I’m a mute.”
Emma laughed. “I’d love to see you try.”
“First off, ouch. Second, I’d make a great mime.”
“Sounds like it,” Emma smiled.
Gabby fidgeted with the edges of her hoodie sleeve. “Unless no one in Kansas knows what a mime is,” she whispered. “Then I can see that backfiring on me.”
Emma cleared her throat and checked her cellphone. Gabby turned back to her window. The car’s tires hummed underneath them, taking them further and further from New York. Further away from her best friend, Damascus. Further away from civilization. Hay bales dotted the flat wasteland around them, the grass looking like dirt and the green trees few and far between. Purples and pinks bloomed in the sky as the sun fell beneath the horizon, the clouds pressing down, forever suffocating. Too big, too open. It made her ache for the city. Her home. Cramped, dirty, and beautiful.
Gabby closed her eyes and breathed deep through her nose. For just a moment, instead of farmhouses, she saw their studio apartment, stacks of scripts highlighted and ravaged all over the hardwood floor. She smelled fresh paper, ink, and coffee instead of manure. She saw their luggage next to the front door, ready for departure. A Hello Kitty calendar hanging on one wall, May 21st circled in red with the word EUROPE resolute in the midst of that crimson tornado.
She heard last night’s rain hit the windows as she waited for Emma’s arrival. She heard a car’s door open and slam shut on the street below. She remembered racing to the window and watching Emma run through the rain. She heard Emma’s footsteps in the hallway and the key sliding into the lock. She grabbed their passports and met Emma at the door.
Everything stopped when Gabby saw Emma’s face. Fear, pain, and shock etched in her cheeks and forehead. Emma dropped her purse and ran her hands through her rain soaked hair. She slid to the floor.
“Mom?” Gabby asked.
Her words didn’t sound like Emma. Her words sounded like a stone hitting the bottom of an empty well. Gabby sat down next to her, unsure what to say. Emma remained still and silent.
After a significant pause, Gabby asked, “What’re we gonna do?”
Emma looked up at the ceiling, her head leaning against the front door. “You’re not gonna like it.”
“What does that mean?”
“I just got off the phone with Grandpa. He needs us—”
All of sudden the room was spinning. “But I’ve never met him—”
“You’ll meet him now,” Emma said, her voice raw.
Gabby couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Like, we’re leaving? Dropping everything? No Europe—”
“Can you please not make this about you?”
“I’m not,” Gabby said.
Emma glared at her. “I’m sorry this is such an inconvenience for you.”
“Are you really that selfish?”
Gabby’s lip trembled and a tear slid down her cheek. Are you really that selfish? The words pounded inside her head. Are you really that selfish? Gabby turned off the AC before rolling down her window. She put her face in the rushing wind. Her skin felt hot and pin pricked. Something like guilt settled into her pores and cemented her shoulders. Her hands gripped tighter on the car door. She closed her eyes again, but this time didn’t see their New York apartment. Just Emma’s disapproving frown. The last of Gabby’s anger melted away.
“Mom?” She whispered.
Emma didn’t say anything for a moment. “Yeah?”
“...I can’t believe what I said last night.”
Gabby shook her head. “No, it isn’t. I was awful.”
“Yeah, well...It was lot to take in.”
“I didn’t know what to say. It all happened so fast and then everything…kind of came out.”
Emma patted Gabby’s leg. “I’m sorry about Europe. I know this was supposed to be our summer.”
“No, it’s not,” Emma said. “You don’t have to lie.”
Gabby sighed. “I just wanted to ride in a gondola.”
“Of course you did,” Emma laughed.
“Don’t patronize me,” Gabby pouted. “Damascus may be more heartbroken than I am.”
“He’ll make it, I’m sure.”
Gabby shook her head. “You don’t understand. We spent hours—days—planning. Italy, France, Spain, London. We promised I’d Instagram everything so he wouldn’t be left behind.”
“…I bet he’s happy he’s not tagging along now,” Emma said, mischief dancing in her eyes.
Gabby shot her a disapproving look. “You’re horrible.”
“Have you Instagrammed any of the cows?”
Gabby laughed, “I don’t think that’s what he wanted to see.”
Emma nodded and checked her phone again. It hadn’t rung since they left. Her mother chewed her bottom lip and Gabby was once again overcome with dread for the unknown. It seemed vast and deep, swarming and still at the same time. Who were these people she was supposed to call family? What would she say? How would she meet her grandmother for the first and last time, all at once?
“You think they’ll like me?” Gabby asked.
“Not two seconds ago you questioned their mime knowledge.”
“Still a valid concern.”
“So?” Emma queried.
Gabby blushed. “I mean...everyone. Grandma. Grandpa. …Dad.” She still had to force it out. Dad. Yank. Tug. Pull. Dad.
“They’re your family. Of course they’ll like you,” Emma replied and clenched her hands around the steering wheel. “…I can’t say much for your father, though.”
“Like that’ll ever change.”
“What I meant was…I don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
Gabby didn’t reply and Emma rubbed her eyes before returning her attention back to the interstate. Gabby wondered again how long Emma planned to hide her father’s identity from her. It was in her sock drawer, she thought for the billionth time. Like some shameful secret tucked away out of sight, out of mind. Why keep the picture? What love she had for him disappeared over the years and it was clear to Gabby she thought him a mistake.
What did that make her?
A familiar prick of heat and something like insignificance sucker punched her stomach. Her skin grew hotter as she transported herself back to her four year old body, dressed in Care Bear feetie pajamas and ready for bed. After Emma tucked her in and thought she was asleep, she rifled through her sock drawer and pulled out the wrinkled photo. Emma sat on her bed and stared at the picture so long Gabby almost fell asleep, but she forced herself awake. This was the first time she saw her mom act this way. She knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t get out of bed. She knew the rules: Only get out of bed for water and the bathroom. Emma curled in on herself as she stuffed her fist in her mouth, muffling her crying. She crumpled the picture in her other hand and held it to her chest. Gabby sat up and asked, “Mommy, why’re you crying?”
Emma wiped her eyes and hid the picture fast. “Why’re you awake?”
“Because you’re sad,” Gabby answered.
“It’s very late, Care Bear. Go to sleep.”
“Can I sleep with you?”
Emma’s smile had a hint of sadness, but she nodded her approval. Gabby padded across the studio and climbed up on her bed all by herself. Gabby placed her head in her mother’s lap and Emma kissed her forehead. Gabby loved the way she smelled: Cigarettes and coffee. Emma held out the picture for her to see. A young boy, shirtless and skinny with curly dark hair and large sunglasses, looked like he was yelling at someone holding the camera.
“Who’s that?” She asked.
“Your Daddy,” Emma answered.
This confused Gabby. “But I don’t have a Daddy. I just have a Mommy.”
“No, sweetheart. You have both.”
“Where is he, then?”
Emma thought for a moment and pointed at the picture. “He’s right here.”