I am sitting outside of my middle school, clutching my phone in my hand. I am feverish. I clutch my chest tightly, breathe deeply, and a roll of mucus runs down onto my lips. I sniff it back it up.
I dial my mom’s number.
“Hey, mom. You here soon?”
“See you soon.”
“Yeah, see you soon. I love you.”
She tells me she loves me too. I want Advil, but it’s all the way at the bottom of my backpack.
I’m in preschool. There is a dead hamster in the corner of the room. All of the children surround it. Its little legs are curled up, its eyes open, terrified. I too am terrified. I imagine myself curled up in the corner. The teacher hurries in and gasps. We all know who killed it – Dylan. The day earlier he cornered me and bragged to me about how he burned the soles of his dog’s feet with his dad’s cigarette. I knew he killed the hamster, but I didn’t want raise my hand and say something. That would require taking my thumb out of my mouth.
Inside my mother’s car, she’s playing Billy Joel. More mucus runs down from my nostrils. I tap the window idly. She asks how my classes are going; I say that everything is fine. She looks down at her gas meter.
“Do you mind if we stop by the gas station, honey? I know that you want to get home…”
She nods and pulls off at an exit. We pull up into a Shell gas station. I offer to do the gas for her, but she tells me that sick middle schoolers need their rest.
The wind howls against the windows. I imagine them warping inward and shattering, letting the cold in. Billy Joel is still playing softly on the stereo, and my mother smiles and waves at me from outside. I smile weakly back. My head feels like a furnace.
After locking the gas nozzle in place, she climbs back in the car.
“It’s cold,” she says.
“Yeah.” I notice she doesn’t have a coat. I offer my own.
Dylan marches towards the hamster, inspects it, pokes it with his pencil and sniffs. The teacher tells him to step away, but he picks it up and hurls it at me. I shriek and fall to the floor, my head colliding with the side of a bookshelf. As I fall, I see my mother’s horrified face from the classroom door.
The tank is full.
“Honey, I have to go inside to get the receipt.” I nod.
She smiles, then turns around and heads towards the adjoined shop. I close my eyes as I lean against the headrest. I’m sitting there for what seems like an eternity when I hear a knock on my window. I turn my head – it’s not my mother.
I’ve just fallen into a bookshelf. I’m sobbing, screaming for my mom, and suddenly she’s there, like always. I collapse into her arms and she holds me, massaging my head. She’s not looking at me –her eyes, like a hawk, are trained on Dylan, who stands at the other end of the room, sucking on his finger. He doesn’t look ashamed. He looks fascinated.
There’s a man knocking on my window, motioning for me to talk to him. I unroll the window a crack.
“Hey there, young man,” he says. “Would you mind helping me out with something?”
“No, thanks,” I say.
“Aww, c’mon, big guy. It’ll only take a little bit.”
His lip is twitching, and his grin is a little too wide for my liking. I manage another small, “no, thank you.”
“No? C’mon! It’ll just take you a few moments. My car is acting up –”
“Then go ask the gas station attendant,” I say. The man looks perplexed and in his eyes, there’s an indescribable hunger. I imagine this man burning the soles of a dog’s feet. I roll the window back up, but I can still hear his gravelly voice.
“C’mon. Why don’t you just unroll the window all the way? I’m sure your mommy won’t mind.” I haven’t called my mother “mommy” since preschool –
– where I am now be carried out of the classroom by my mother. She’s cradling me in her arms, whispering that it’s going to be okay. I see Dylan being reprimanded in the corner, but he is avoiding the teacher’s punishing gaze. I grab my mother’s neck to feel her pulse. I match it with my own.
I’ve managed to ignore the pounding in my head as I climb over the console into the driver’s seat. I turn behind me – the man is now tapping rapidly on the window.
“C’mon, kid, you look what, junior high age? You know how to fix a car! Just step on out of the car and help me, will you?” I’m terrified. I look down at my feet, and I see--
--a dead hamster. Dylan is screaming at me about burning the soles of his dog’s feet. I’m sobbing, looking frantically around for my mother, where is my mother, my mommy?
A voice interrupts everything: “Get away from my car.”
My mother has appeared by the car, her hawk eyes targeting the man. He backs up.
“Sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“Yeah, I bet you didn’t. Get away from here.” I look out the window at my mother, her neck straining with rage – I don’t know of whom I should be more terrified. The man walks sheepishly back to his car, his arms raised in surrender.
“Ma’am, I just wanted to talk to your son and –”
“GET AWAY FROM MY CAR.” With that the man hobbles away. My mother hops back into the car, puts it into drive and speeds out of the gas station.
Only when we’re safely on the highway do I realize that she’s trembling too. I grab her hand and squeeze.