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Nonfiction Essay Showcase Award submission
The Orlando Airport, 5:00 p.m.
A deep voice, throaty, cold.
“Someone is gonna die here and that someone is gonna be your wife!”
I scan the crowded baggage claim for an assailant.
“Oh, yeah? You better watch your back, you double-crossing SOB,” an elderly Italian shoots back.
The men circle each other, growling menacingly. My eyes dart between them.
What the hell?
They get too close, knock me against a group of hot, sticky people. Then, laughter.
“Let’s get the hell out of here and bullshit at home,” they say, slapping each other on the back.
The curly-haired one winks at me. He has on a pink flamingo–print shirt. His wife is wearing a dress made up of ruffled yellow chiffon. There are three couples total, gray-haired, cute. I watch them hug, then disappear into the crowd. They’re friends I tell myself, but my anxiety is building. I hate new places. Unfamiliar settings make me feel incompetent. He always made me feel incompetent.
I try to get some bearings, but there is nothing to focus on. The corridor is uniform, austere; 1,000 feet of marble and steel lie in front of me, and I’m overwhelmed. The few potted ferns and palms that dot the hall do little to soften the mood. I gather my girls, our bags, and venture off toward the exit.
We pass a long line of stores, Disney, Universal. Mickey and Bugs face off through opposite windows. We pass a Burger King, an Old English Pub. I’d love to stop at one of them, but I’m overpacked. I feel like an explorer stuck on the summit, existing on fantasy yet dying from exhaustion. I want to break free!
“Mommy I’m hungry,” my five-year-old whines. Her little dimpled cheeks quiver in pseudo pain.
“Madison, you ate on the plane. You can wait another hour.”
I glance back at my other two. They are purposely lagging.
“Listen here, I want to find the hotel before it gets dark. Move it.” Claire, age eight, and Kasey, age impossible (12), groan.
“We’re tired. Can’t someone help us?”
“No. We’ve already had this conversation. I told you to pack light, that you’d have to carry your own stuff. Remember?”
Sweat soaks the underarms of my new white T-shirt. Damn humidity, but life is full of little inconveniences. I know this. This is my first vacation without him, and I’m struggling to remember how it’s done.
“Do you have to yell at us?” Kasey huffs, her glitter-adorned lips purse together indignantly.
“Sorry,” I say, hurrying toward the exit.
They pout, dragging their suitcases behind them. I have eyes in the back of my head, so I know they are following. Yet, even with my unique capabilities, I feel vulnerable. I think about my predicament as I gaze at them. They have no clue, three little bobbing heads, pink cheeks with attitudes.
First, there’s Maddie, my little blue-eyed brunette. She’s tall for her age, thin, but not delicate. She’d rather have a pillow fight than watch TV. She loves to read, make up stories, and pretend she’s a princess. Maddie’s smart, but way too trusting. She loves everyone and is sure to say so. “You look beautiful today,” she tells women on the street.
Claire is gorgeous, shy, and quiet. Her blond curls bounce against her face as she walks. There is a sweet naivety in her step that makes me protective. When she was younger, I worried someone might snatch her. A passive child, she would not have made a peep.
Kasey is teetering on womanhood, that dangerous zone between being able to fend for herself and being led astray by older boys/men. She, too, is beautiful, although she doesn’t know it yet. She is long and lean, a young princess Caroline. She worries me the most.
We make our way out to the parking structure, three floors of concrete and dirty asphalt. Maddie whines from fatigue. Lodged in monotony, we are rats stuck in a maze. Twenty minutes and five rental-car agencies later, we finally find the cheese, aisle 5.
“Pick any car you want. The keys are in the ignition,” the jolly man smiles. The fat on his chin bounces and wiggles as he speaks. I like him, kindness being new to me.
The girls pick a bright red GMC Jimmy. I concede, although I’m worried about standing out on the highway. Several years ago, I remembered hearing about robbers that targeted rental cars leaving the Orlando airport. I think they murdered some German tourists. The incident fouls my mood, and I’m angry with myself for recalling it. I look out at the sky for assurance, but it is gray, ominous.
“Shoot, we’re losing light,” I say. My heart fluttering in my chest, stuck in some sick panic mode. I cough to catch my breath. I can do this. I have to do this. There is no husband to rely on anymore. He’d made a beeline for divorce court earlier this year. “Too much estrogen in the house,” he had said.
Too much estrogen in the office, I thought.
I load the bags and situate the girls. Maddie and Claire are in back because they fight over every inch of leg, foot, and arm room. Kasey is in front with me. She sprawls out like a feline, which, I admit, is cute. I don’t remember being that comfortable in my own skin. I wink at her and take a few minutes to adjust the electric seats and mirrors.
“Kasey, hand me the map, please.” She doesn’t respond. Both Kasey and Claire have headphones plastered to their ears. They’re bopping and dancing to their own tunes, blissfully immune to my stress. Stepping on the gas, I screech down level three, two, and one. The exit shoots me out into the center of fast-moving traffic. I catch a glimpse of a sign, but it doesn’t help. I choose an on-ramp and realize I’ve made a mistake. Impatient drivers pack the highway. They herd me along.
“Great. Kasey, give me the map. It’s in the glove compartment.”
“The map, please give me the map!” Everything blurs together—there are too many cars.
My foot slams on the brake. Our car skids. The black Camaro behind us swerves to the left of me, and the driver gives me the finger.
“God, Mom! What are you trying to do, kill us?” Kasey yells, ripping the headphones off.
“Yeah, Mom, are you trying to kill us?” Madison mimics.
Claire makes a clicking sound under her breath.
“Sorry.” My eyes tear up, and I pull off onto the dirt shoulder.
Kasey tosses the map at me. I reach up, hit the overhead light, and try to make sense of it. “Why do all these highways have numbers? It looks like I’m supposed to take the 417S and exit 27 or 26B, or 25B. Geez, can’t they think of names in Florida?”
The sky is no longer gray. It is midnight blue, and the world is flat and lifeless.
“I wonder if there’s crocodiles out there or snakes? Daddy says they have coral snakes in Florida and that they’re poisonous.” Kasey speaks with genuine concern.
Your father is the only snake I know that’s poisonous. Again, the clicking sound, slow, deliberate, I shiver, “Claire, stop it now!”
He thinks I’m going to crumble because I’ve never been on my own.
I drive and drive and drive some more. The monotony of the road frustrates me. It seems like I’m driving in circles. I know I’m driving in circles. It is dark now. We are completely buried in the night. I look at the girls and try to hide my fear. We are so far from LA, so far from home. Little Maddie sits tugging on the curl at the nape of her neck, the one you never see unless her hair is up. Somehow it makes me feel ashamed, makes me feel like I’m failing her as a mother.
I put on my survival mask; this trip is about my ability to adapt, after all. I notice a car behind us. Mysteriously, it seems to match our speed, never passing. It is colorless, almost invisible, and it appears to skim across the road. For a moment, it takes my breath away. Then on the horizon, the orange glow of another tollbooth. I take my foot off the gas and prepare to stop.
“Is this the Florida Turnpike?” I ask the blue-tinged man.
“No, this bypasses the turnpike.”
“Well, how do we get there?” I shout, realizing it is not his fault, but angry just the same.
“We’re lost,” Madison cries out.
“It’s OK, Maddie. Don’t worry.” I look for the car in my rearview mirror. It sits behind me like my lost happiness, a specter of all that should have been.
“Get off at exit 255 and turn left. Go for about five miles, and there will be an on-ramp for the turnpike.” His Adam’s apple bobs up and down when he talks.
Again, I hit the gas. The ghost car is still sitting at the tollbooth. I glimpse a bony, yellow hand toss a dollar at the attendant. God, what is that? I ask myself.
Chills go down my neck and spine. My arms begin to shake. I look ahead, see the moon, pale, white . . . huge. It floats in the sky like a beacon, illuminating the clouds. I shudder, gag. I’d followed it once before. Lost, vulnerable . . . my life hanging on the whim of another. My husband’s hand on my throat, now I choose to forget. After all, I have these girls to protect! My girls/my life. I’d trusted before, and I ended up alone, scared, damaged. So close to Hell.
My mind is set on autopilot, and I follow the toll attendant’s directions. I am numb, absent, and the land is vast, black with sections of trees so thick that they form walls on each side of me. There are shadows within shadows, and everything seems to be closing in on me. I am lost—lost in my thoughts.
Out of the blue, Kasey screams.
“What’s wrong?” I shout back.
“Mom, look. You found it . . . the entrance to the turnpike.”
“You did it,” the girls sing in unison.
“Disney World, Mama. You found it.”
They are right. It is there. Right in front of my face—like my future—like my chance for a future if I would stop focusing on my failures . . . stop focusing on the ghost car.
Sheree La Puma is an award-winning author, producer, and social media strategist. She holds an MFA in Critical Studies and Writing from California Institute of the Arts and has published articles, fiction, and books on a myriad of topics.