INTRODUCTION BY BRIDGET QUINN
When something speaks the way only art can––the way “Just Like Us,” Vanessa Hua’s wrenching story of girlhood, grit and grace, does––straight to the heart and guts, you can’t keep it to yourself. There’s some human imperative to insist: Share this experience with me, this tenderness, this human comedy, this terror.
So that’s what I’m here to do, writing to you as a fellow reader to say you must read “Just Like Us,” by Vanessa Hua. I write as someone who handed out copies of Hua’s collection Deceit and Other Possibilities by the dozen, to friends and colleagues, to my mother, my neighbor, my chiropractor. I was wild about it when it was originally published in 2016, and this new edition of the collection is even better. Because in the reissue of Hua’s collection, which I’ve heard her describe with pithy perfection as stories about “model minorities behaving badly,” there are also new stories like this one.
Like so many tales of the West, “Just Like Us” begins on the open road, with a mother and daughter driving north on Highway 101 through places with names that really exist, like Shelter Cove and the Lost Coast. Nina and her mother are lost and seeking shelter and they find it for a season or two at the Happy Trails RV Park and Camp, “where it wasn’t easy to get kicked out of,” but, well, you know.
It seems to me that if there’s a story that hasn’t been told enough, it’s that of mothers and daughters, particularly that fraught time of budding womanhood when conflagration feels inevitable. Who needs Oedipus when you’ve got puberty: “The attention my body had started to attract both disgusted and thrilled me. I was developing my mother’s body, her curvy hips and breasts.” But Nina is also like her Chinese father. Her white mother can’t quite properly braid her daughter’s “slippery” hair.
Hua relays with a journalist’s eye for telling detail what it is to be a daughter on the precipice of womanhood, dutiful and angry, loving and longing and a little pissed off. “Just Like Us” follows the complicated, ragged ways that people own identities, other people, and things. There’s boys of course, and men, to be reckoned with here, as there always are by the time any girl has managed to make the age of fourteen.
“Just Like Us” will break your heart.The sweet sadness in this story is the sweetness and sadness of youth, yes, but also of self-creation, of love and money, of race and class, of womanhood, budding and full-blown and blown all the way down.
In Hua’s story, happy trails lead…where? To jail, to the open highway, to freedom, to inevitable tears. But wherever Nina and her mother are going is a journey well worth taking.
Author of Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order)
Petty Theft and First Kisses at Happy Trails RV Park
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“Just Like Us”
by Vanessa Hua
It wasn’t easy to get kicked out of Happy Trails RV Park and Camp. The owner put up with a lot, as long as you followed the rules. Put your fire out before turning in. Dump your trash each night and secure the lid to keep the raccoons away. No fireworks on the beach. Only if people fell to shouting and shoving—after a long day of drinking that slid into night—did the owner call the cops. I won’t abide fighting, she said.
But she let us go without summoning the authorities.
Mama and I had arrived at Happy Trails the spring I turned fourteen. We drove north on Highway 101, past the green hills and herds of cows in Sonoma County, the billboards for the Indian casinos, the signs to Shelter Cove and the Lost Coast. Past Ukiah and Willits and Garberville and Phillipsville, each town smaller than the last. It seemed like we’d been driving forever in our truck camper and we were still in California.
We entered a grove of redwoods that kept the roads in a cool perpetual twilight and not long after came upon a carved wooden cowboy sleeping in a crescent moon, the sign for Happy Trails. At the front counter, the woman studied our hair, our clothes. Our camper’s shower had a lukewarm, faint spray, never wet enough.
“We’re looking for a place to stay,” Mama said.
“How many nights?” The woman wore a green velour track suit and a white visor tucked into her bobbed silver hair.
“Is there a discount for more nights?” Mama asked.
The woman peered at us. I didn’t look much like either of my parents, with my tawny skin and dark brown hair that people mistook for Mexican or Italian or Native American or Middle Eastern. Mama had sandy blond hair and fair skin freckled from too much sun. In photos, my Chinese father had been lean and dark enough to disappear into my mother’s shadow.
A fat man in flipflops came in and pulled out a cherry popsicle from the freezer case. “Thanks, Ma.” He tossed the plastic wrapper toward the trash can by the door. He missed but didn’t pick it up.
“That’s my profit you’re eating into,” she grumbled. She must be the owner. “Alan. Alan!” He didn’t acknowledge her and the screen door slammed behind him.
Fetching the wrapper, Mama asked the owner if she had any jobs around the campsite in exchange for a discount on the weekly rate. The owner leaned forward for a closer look, checking my mother’s hand—no ring. Please, I asked silently. Let us stay. Just for a while. A place to start over, maybe settle for more than a few weeks. For the last five months, Mama and I had bunked down in RV parks, by warehouses and factories, and in superstore parking lots.
“I could use a little help around here,” the owner said. “I’m Margie.”
Last winter, Mama’s boyfriend, Roy, tried to get her to sell the 1983 Ford Conestoga truck camper that she inherited from Grandpa Milanovich. With the money, they could vacation in Rosarito, relax on the beach with margaritas, and feast on $12 lobster dinners.
Then Mama caught Roy cheating on her for the third time, after a slow night at the Jackson Rancheria, where she worked as a bingo attendant. She left early and let herself into his apartment, only to find him with his neighbor under the silk sheets Mama had driven two hours roundtrip to Sacramento to buy.
I was asleep on the foldout couch when Mama returned home. She ripped open the closet and yanked out his belongings. A pair of jeans ripped at the crotch. A sweat-stained baseball hat. A stuffed bear with a red bow tie. I flicked on the television, and a travel show about the California coast flashed onscreen, the view swooping above jagged rocks, golden sand, bobbing otters, and surfers skimming waves without end. A red convertible zoomed along the cliffs.
We started packing that night.
My entire life, I had lived in Jackson, in the foothills of the Sierras. Mama left once, at eighteen, and returned six months later pregnant with me. She’d been waiting tables at a San Francisco diner when she met my father, a merchant marine. Joe Chang. His stories about the ports he visited entranced her: Hanoi, Shanghai, Manila. Names that floated like soap bubbles. He mailed us postcards and presents: a hula girl carved from a coconut, a cone-shaped straw hat, a wooden cricket. His gifts stopped when I turned two, though our desire to be any place else didn’t. Mama sent away for brochures for vacations in lodges in Greenland, cruises to Alaska, and resorts in the Bahamas. We tacked up free posters of mountain vistas and fjords, castles and cathedrals, waterfalls and jungles, and I checked out travel books from the library, memorizing maps of city centers and historical trivia. Someday, we hoped.
We drove to San Francisco on New Year’s Day. After we parked at Ocean Beach, I explored the truck camper, the closet-size compartment that held a tiny shower, toilet, and dinette that folded into a sleeping platform beside a two-burner stove and small refrigerator. Everything was covered in a peeling dark wood laminate, and orange plaid curtains edged the narrow windows along the bed. This was what it must be like to live on a sailing ship, I thought. To be carried away by the wind.
That night, I listened to the rain pounding on the ceiling, inches from my face. I loved being in the middle of something big, yet still protected. My mother slept beside me, her right arm curved above her head. If I had looked more like my father, more Chinese, would he have stayed? Would our lives be easier? He could have been an asshole like Mama’s other men. Maybe he’d been the original.
Mama cleaned the communal showers and unloaded deliveries at Happy Trails. She also drove into towns along the coast finding work, sometimes waiting tables at a brewery in Eureka or cleaning rooms in motels and bedand-breakfasts. At the local library she picked up books for me about life on other planets, the mysteries of the body, and histories of pioneers blazing trails to California.
One morning, before heading into town, she put her hair into a French braid, her hands hovering like hummingbirds. I stood behind her.
“How do I look?” She eyed my reflection in the mirror. The hollows under her eyes were deep and dark as thumbprints.
I tugged the end of her thick braid. “This will hold.”
“I’ve gotten so used to being around you all the time.” She tucked my hair behind my ears. “Do you want a braid?”
“Thanks,” I said, “but . . . it always falls out.” My hair was slippery compared to hers, and her handiwork would have un raveled after an hour.
That afternoon, thirsty for a soda, I went to the general store where Margie perched on her stool. A bell tinkled and a chunky woman walked in, followed by her husband, a short balding man with a groundhog’s overbite. She signed and paid for an RV berth. When her husband asked for a candy bar, she scolded him, no, that would spoil dinner.
“I bet she’s the boss,” Margie said after they left.
We both laughed, and in that moment, I knew how we could be united—against others. I bought a soda. “Pull one out for me too, hon,” Margie said.
She spread out a sheaf of brochures for local attractions: Fern Canyon. Trinidad Bay. Whale watching. Ferndale, the Victorian Village. I thumbed through them, remembering Mama’s freebie travel guides. We had dumped them when we left Jackson, and now I realized how much I missed them and their possibility.
Within a week, I began helping Margie keep order at Happy Trails. She forced a family to pay for the damages after I reported seeing their son flushing handfuls of toilet paper that caused the bathroom to flood. She yelled at a father with a sticky mess on his picnic table, after I told her that he left out a bag of marshmallows that raccoons devoured. In return, Margie slipped me hard candies wrapped in gold foil, and let me borrow books and magazines from the rack if I was careful not to wrinkle them. She’d paid for Happy Trails from her divorce settlement. She’d made mistakes but made the best of it.
At the weekly movie night, I wheeled a twenty-five-inch television under the trees and set up cardboard tubs of vanilla ice cream and bottles of root beer.
“You’re lucky to have a daughter like her,” Margie said to Mama.
I looked down, embarrassed, but it felt good to pull my weight. Margie’s son, Alan, fixed himself a root beer float, adding so much ice cream that foam spilled down the side of his plastic cup. He ran his tongue up the cup and licked his hand, studying me. “You want one?” he asked. He had his mother’s rangy build, but with a paunch big as a sack of cement. After hurting his back working construction, he was laid up on disability.
“No, thanks,” Mama said.
I said nothing, even though I knew he was offering the float to me. He’d been coming by the front office more often, awkwardly chiming into my conversations with Margie. The attention my body had started to attract both disgusted and thrilled me. I was developing my mother’s body, her curvy hips and breasts. I felt clumsy, off-balance. Askew.
Mama and I spread out a blanket and watched Star Wars. I smirked when Leia kissed Luke and a goofy grin spread over his face. He wouldn’t know it was his twin sister until two movies later. But what if they never found out, married, and had monster babies? It was a relief to see Leia and Han Solo flirting in the final scene.
Mama sighed. “I had such a crush on Han. Who’s your favorite?”
“You’re not interested in boys yet?” she asked. If I had to pick, it would be Han. Luke was annoying; Han knew what he was doing. But Mama and I couldn’t have a crush on the same person.
Other nights, when Mama worked in town, I patrolled the campground. Margie had complained there were too many Mexicans jamming the site with their tents and cars. “How can they live that way?”
She asked where my father was from and when I replied New York, she’d clarified, but where is he really from. After I told her his family was Chinese, last name Chang, she seemed relieved, and I knew she would have hardened toward me if I told her something different. If I told her that he—I—was Mexican.
The Mexicans brought their living room outside, installing bright lights and televisions hooked to generators. One night, two boys kicked a soccer ball, the thumps stuttering into the darkness. A pair of young men played guitars, and the family started singing along, some mouthing, others belting out the words. One of the guitarists waved at me. He had smoky eyes and messy curls. I shook my head but after they widened the circle, I squeezed in. Mama would have loved this music—on the road, we had listened to yearning songs like these, even though we didn’t understand the words. Although my butt went numb on the damp log, it was cozier than in the empty truck camper. Tomorrow, I’d convince Mama to stay in and bring her here.
The next morning, they were gone.
Mama and I snapped at each other when the weather was cold and foggy, and when the sink was piled high with dishes that neither of us wanted to wash. I was mortified when our periods synched and our single trash can overflowed with our used tampons. I had started my period a year earlier and my cycles had been sporadic—every five or six weeks. Now they were as regular as the moon, something to do with our sweat or hormones. Disturbing, what effect we had on each other when we weren’t trying. As we slept.
My mother started staying in town a couple of nights a week, to work late, she said, and didn’t want to drive back to the campground in the dark. She stayed with a coworker. A man, I guessed. Maybe the same guy or different ones, who offered to take care of her and expected her to wait on them in return.
One morning I caught her wearing my favorite T-shirt, a soft faded shamrock green. “That’s mine!” I hated the whine in my voice but hated her in my clothes even more. It was like watching her try on my skin.
“Some jerk spilled beer on me,” she said, “then tipped fifty cents.”
“Not that one. Take this.” I held up an ugly blue plaid shirt, torn at the elbow.
“I like this one. Didn’t you have time to do laundry? I left you quarters. Or were you with Margie?”
“It’s not her fault that your life sucks.”
“It’s our life, Nina. Our life.”
In June, we picked up another passenger, my cousin Ritchie. Though technically speaking we weren’t going anywhere. And technically speaking, Ritchie was not my cousin, but the son of Mama’s best friend from high school who lived in West Sac. Susie had landed in jail, after getting pulled over driving drunk for the third time. It had been decided that rather than staying by himself or with his granny—with whom he fought—Ritchie would live with us. He would sleep on the other side of the curtain, on the bed that folded out from the wall. His father had long since disappeared, like mine.
Ritchie rode the Greyhound to Eureka, about thirty miles north of Happy Trails. At the bus station, Mama hugged him and he mumbled hello. At fifteen, Ritchie was a year older than me, with the oversized feet and hands of a Labrador puppy. He rode shotgun. From the bench seat, I stared at the whorls of brown hair curling down his neck.
He was half Mexican—something I didn’t remember until now—with caramel skin and watermelon-seed eyes that could almost be Chinese. He and I looked alike, more so than Mama and I. The last time I saw Ritchie, I was eight or nine years old. Our mothers had blended mango margaritas while his father manned the grill. Ritchie and I watched television, not a word passing between us. He controlled the remote, flipping through the shows. Just as I started to understand, he was onto the next. That’s not what bothered me, though. It was how he complained that he hated burgers without cheese. How he wanted Dr Pepper, not Coke. How he brushed off his dad’s suggestion they play pingpong. You talk that way when you think that the people in your life will always be there. No one should be so confident.
The following day, I gave Ritchie a tour of the facilities: the basketball court with no net, the sagging pingpong table, and the horseshoe pit littered with cigarette butts. I brought him to the front office with the promise of free potato chips. Margie’s eyes lingered on him, trying to catch him shoplifting. Fidgeting, he flipped through dusty guidebooks.
I watched the both of them watching each other.
“Did you see the family that drove in today?” Margie asked me. “At campsite forty-nine. Their truck bed was filled with scrap lumber! Talk about cheap. Can’t even afford firewood.”
Ritchie dropped a magazine, and when he retrieved it, the cover ripped. He tried to hide it behind the others, but Margie had seen what happened.
“I’ll take it,” she said. “No one’s going to want that.”
He set it on the counter. “I’ll be outside.”
Margie shot me a look.
“I’ll pay for it when Mama gets home tonight,” I said.
She smoothed the cover of the magazine. “Just tell him to be more careful. You know how expensive these are, and people read without buying.”
Through the window, we glimpsed Ritchie huddled on a picnic table, arms around his knees, his head turned toward the redwoods.
“What’s his story, anyway?” Margie asked. I held back because he was too much like me, I could already tell, and I had to keep our common secrets from getting out.
“Mama told me to keep him entertained. Keep him from getting lost in the woods.”
Margie laughed. “Too late.”
Ritchie was dead in the water. He floated facedown, legs dangling, arms outstretched in the Eel River.
I counted aloud. “. . . fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight . . .”
He raised his head, sputtering. “Your turn.”
I took a deep breath and dunked my head. The water filled my ears, muffling the screams of a brother and sister splashing in arm floaties. Their parents were sitting in lawn chairs in the shallows, keeping their beer cool in a net bag.
Two weeks had passed since Ritchie arrived, and this was how we spent our days. We slept late, went swimming in the late morning, and hiked through the redwoods in the afternoon. We went cross-eyed, trying to see the tops of trees, immense and ancient, like the leg of a dinosaur. I had someone close to my age to hang out with after many months alone with Mama. I didn’t miss the girls from school, who flashed fake smiles and whispered when I passed them, or else stared right through me. I’d been marked as strange from kindergarten, after I arrived swollen, scabby, and oozing from rolling in poison oak.
“. . . sixty. One minute, two, three, four, five . . .”
My lungs burning, heart pounding, I lifted my head and gasped for air. I’d won.
He ignored me and floated on his back, drifting in the slow-moving current. I clasped my arms around myself and rubbed away goose pimples on my shoulders and belly. Looking up, I spotted Alan watching us from shore, sipping from a can in a foam insulator. I shivered. He waved and walked back to camp.
Ritchie threw a handful of gravel against the opposite shore. Most pebbles arced into the water, but a few clattered in the bushes. Drops sparkled in his hair. I felt a flutter in my chest, a silly rising excitement. He didn’t flirt with me in that jokey, bullying way boys had, as if they deserved attention for whatever they said.
“There’s nothing to do around here, is there?” His question was a kick to my gut.
I’d had more fun in the last two weeks than I had all summer, and I thought he felt the same way too. In his eyes, Happy Trails was a rundown campsite in the middle of nowhere, and I must seem like a freak with no friends.
An idea, an impulse, flickered in me as we paced in front of a shady corner site, far from the front office, far from Margie and Alan. I unzipped the red tent but then hesitated, thinking of Margie’s disappointment if she found out. She treated me like I mattered, and this was how I repaid her? Then I felt ashamed for thinking of Margie first. Getting caught would cause a lot of trouble, trouble I wasn’t sure Mama could handle.
Ritchie dove in. “Are you coming?”
I followed him inside the tent. Scrambling through the sleeping bags and air mattresses, we found a headlamp, a pair of glasses, and a pocketknife.
“Cool.” He folded open the pliers.
We were on our sides, admiring our finds, when he leaned over and kissed me. My eyes were open and his kiss landed off-center, taking in part of my chin. My first kiss. His sour-cream-and-onion breath. His heat upon my cheek. Should I move to kiss him square? Where should I put my hands? I gave Ritchie a tight smile and cleared my throat, remembering that Margie had warned me about him.
“We should go.” He dropped the pocketknife and started crawling out.
“Take it.” Maybe this would keep him with me.
He pocketed it, and that was the start of our spree. Soon we were hitting three or four tents or RVs a day. We took whatever we wanted. They would never know, and we would always hold that over them. We witnessed the lives of ordinary people who did not live on the road or flee bad boyfriends and debts. Tents were the easiest. Inside we found books, condoms, knit hats, and mittens. Our rule was to take only one item, without sentimental value, that would not be missed immediately. People always left the doors of their RV unlocked. We snacked from refrigerators, flipped through board games and playing cards. I figured them out from their smells—mothballs or sweat or grease or rotting orange peels, the sweetness of blood and the penetrating stink of shit, the thick sticky scent of sex. Everything magnified in close quarters. I saw them in the porn they stuffed in drawers next to self-help books, in the bags of marijuana and bongs tucked under the sink. Without their façade, people were disgusting. Just like us.
We were almost caught once. We watched three boys and their mother leave their RV, loaded with folding chairs and striped towels for a day on the river. As soon as we were inside, we heard someone pounding up the stairs, and we jumped into the bathroom, drawing the accordion door behind us. We held each other, Ritchie’s feet between mine, trying to avoid falling backward into the room. The kid bumped around, opening drawers.
“Won’t be long,” Ritchie whispered.
“If he finds us, we’ll say we mixed up their RV with ours.” At that, the intruder—for that is what it felt like, that he had invaded our private territory—farted. Three sharp bleats. I shook with silent giggles and though Ritchie clamped his hand over my mouth, he was holding back laughter too. The door slammed and then we were kissing, our arms tangled around each other, me pinned against the wall.
That kept us away only for a day. Most people thought what we stole had been misplaced, left somewhere in the mess of the car or never packed in the first place. We eavesdropped when they were hurrying to pack. It’s got to be here somewhere. We’ll find it later. Others were more frantic, running around their campsite or rooting through their back seats, but they always ended their search, the call of home greater than possession.
We hid our stash inside a hollow log in a clearing where the sun filtered through the redwoods. A creek flowed nearby, a quiet burbling that ended by some miracle in the Pacific—picking up size and certainty and direction along the way, though it started off as a trickle.
One afternoon Ritchie scrolled through the pictures on a digital camera, nude shots of a blond couple posing like statues in the woods. Bushes rustled and I sat up.
“Do you hear that?” I whispered. Ritchie and I had a cover story if we were caught: we had stumbled upon these items. No one could prove we had stolen them. I imagined Alan flat on his belly, peeking at us through the brush. His bad back aching. I hadn’t seen him in days and assumed he had given up whatever it was he wanted from us. From me. We waited, listened, and heard nothing but the sound of high wind in high trees.
Ritchie rolled on top and kissed me. A week ago, we started groping each other on the outside of our clothes, which led to him resting his hand under my shirt. Now he guided my hand to his hard-on, which I squeezed before pulling away. I was beginning to see how Mama could want this, and how it would make Ritchie want me. What I liked best was his dead weight on top of me—comforting, like a heavy blanket or an old coat.
“Do you think your mom would like me?” I asked Ritchie. “Mama likes you.”
He rested his head on my shoulder, his mouth next to my ear, his breath the roar of the ocean. “So listen. Tonto and the Lone Ranger are riding their horses, when suddenly they’re surrounded by enemy Indians.”
“The Lone Ranger is a cowboy and Tonto is his Indian side kick,” Ritchie said. “You never saw it? Grandpa’s favorite show.”
I nodded, picturing a bowlegged cowboy in a white hat, and a man in fringed buckskin and a single feather in his beaded headband.
“They’re surrounded. The Lone Ranger says, ‘Tonto, Tonto, what are we going to do?’ Tonto replies, ‘What do you mean we, paleface?’”
Ritchie started laughing, shaking on top of me. What did he mean? Our difference was all that mattered? I thought of the family of Mexicans, singing a song not meant for me. Ritchie was a boy and I was a girl. He was older and I was younger. He was half Mexican and I was not. Would he sell out his best friend to save himself?
I sat up. “We should get back.”
“What do you mean we,” Ritchie repeated, snorting with laughter.
The next day in the clearing, we stripped down to our shorts, our shirts off, even though I’d told myself I wouldn’t go this far. That I wasn’t like Mama. He pulled me on top of him and we rubbed, crotch to crotch. I felt an ache, a pounding between my legs. I opened my eyes and stared at him, his eyes closed and his chest pulsing with fast, shallow breaths. I could have been anyone to him. Anything. I was friction, nothing more. He started to knead my butt and ran his finger along the leg hole of my bikini bottom.
“Do you want to see it?” His voice sounded strained, as if he’d been running laps.
I nodded, my mouth gone dry, and he pulled it above the elastic waistband. Up close, it was hard, purple, veined, alien. I put my hand on it—smooth and hotter than I expected, like a feverish forehead—and then he came. Sticky wetness. Egg whites. Snot. His eyes shut tight, and his mouth hung open, exposing dark fillings that made his teeth look rotted out.
I wiped my hand on the grass, yanked on my shirt, and fled. He caught up with me by the time we reached the trailer, where Mama had lunch ready, ham sandwiches and fruit cocktail, and afterward, she suggested gin rummy. Work had slowed after Labor Day and she was spending more time with us than she had all summer. She was dealing the first hand when the knock came at the door.
Margie entered, her eyes lingering on the dirty plates in the sink, piled higher than the faucet. We’d run out of dish soap and Mama had forgotten to buy more. She informed us that Ritchie’s mother was calling collect from jail to the office phone. Cell phone service at the campsite was patchy.
In the office, Mama relayed each sentence to us: Susie was fine, reading a lot of books. She handed the phone to Ritchie, who listened before replying, “No, I don’t.” He dropped the phone and darted out of the office. I suspected that Ritchie’s mother had asked him if he missed her. Mama hung up soon after, offering to pay for the phone call, but Margie waved her off. “I know how expenses can add up. Especially with kids,” Margie said, and I flushed, feeling as if she knew exactly what Ritchie and I were doing together—the stealing, the groping— even if Mama did not.
Mama and I walked back to the truck camper. “Maybe,” Mama said, “maybe we could move back in a couple weeks. Get you enrolled in school.”
We never talked about what we left behind. Mama and I had seen so much, traveling around California, but life plodded on as usual in Jackson. While we were away, I figured they were the ones missing out. It aged you, to stay still. Like the twin paradox I’d read about. One twin rocketed at the speed of light and returned to earth younger than the twin who remained behind. Your life was set before you had a chance to figure it out.
“To West Sac. We could stay with Susie and Ritchie for a while.”
I said nothing, unable to imagine Ritchie outside of Happy Trails. Would he still want me in any other circumstance besides one boy, one girl, alone in the woods? I let things go as far as they had because I knew our time here would end.
The next day, Alan came by the truck camper after dinner. Margie wanted to see us, he said, crowding the doorway and blotting out the last of the sunset. “All of you.”
“If it’s about the rent, I told Margie, I’m getting paid tomorrow,” Mama said.
If we ran now, we would never have to face her. I glanced at Ritchie. His expression gave nothing away. If he stayed calm, then so could I. The fluorescent light in the front office stole our shadows, making everything flat like a cartoon. The stolen goods sat on the counter. Prickles burned on my neck, down my back, as though I’d fallen in stinging nettles.
“Well?” Margie stood in front of the counter while Alan waited by the door, blocking our escape.
“What is it?” Mama asked.
“Ask your daughter, and her friend. About what they stole.”
Mama gripped her hands together and thumped them against the counter. “Nina could never do something like that,” she said. “You know that, Margie. You told me how much she helps you out.”
“I would have noticed.” Mama would always defend me, because she loved me, yes, but also because she didn’t want to acknowledge what she might have done to lead us here.
“You can’t notice if you’re not around,” Margie said.
“Fuck you!” Mama said. Her shoulders sagged. She hardly ever swore, and this outburst seemed to exhaust her.
“Alan followed them and found these items piled in a log,” Margie said.
Earlier that afternoon, as Ritchie and I set off for the clearing, I’d felt unseen eyes on my back. I’d almost stopped us from going, until Ritchie impatiently tugged on my elbow. Not on my hand, we didn’t hold hands. I felt like a bird squashed flat in the road. A bloody pulp, with only the suggestion of a feather or a beak.
“That’s nothing. That’s no proof,” Mama said.
Margie rested her hand on my shoulder—gently, as though she were about to praise me for a job well done. “Not until you admit if there’s anything else you’ve taken. I understand someone might have put you up to it. Just tell us. Tell me.”
It was as if we were the only people in the room. My thoughts flared, disintegrated like a log on a fire. I had to blame someone, someone Margie expected, not someone she trusted.
“It was the Mexicans,” I shouted. “The Mexicans!”
Alan snorted and I wanted to swallow my words, even if they ate away my insides like toilet-bowl cleaner, even if it meant I would never speak again.
“Please vacate the premises,” Margie said, her eyes glistening. If I ever doubted she cared about me, now I knew.
We left. Ritchie did not look at me, not then, not while we were packing. Not while we hooked the camper to the truck, Mama cutting her hands in her hurry, and not after we pulled into the last available spot in an RV park about twenty miles up the road. Not when we put him on a bus the next day. He was gone, just like my father and all the men who had followed.
When we were on the road, Mama and I had only each other, and I might have told her how I felt: I was owed. Why should other people have casual accessories of permanence and stability? Look, these objects say, there is so much more where this came from. People don’t know the worth of their possessions because they so easily replace what is lost.
Mama and I had tried to start over, and we wound up here, worse off, punished for wanting more. She turned on the radio, skipped past a Spanish pop station, and settled on classic rock. The lead singer wailed about a small-town girl escaping into a lonely world—the coincidence of a song about our lives. We burst out laughing during the extended guitar riff. If you were driving in the opposite direction and glanced into our truck, you might think that Mama and I were on vacation. Together, exploring the coast, no worries except what to see next.
You’d be wrong.