Suddenly the Dodge gave a clank and a jerk. The engine seemed to sigh with relief, and then relax. The car began to slow down. Ruby pushed the gas pedal and shifted the gears without result. A car behind them beeped impatiently, then roared past. “Mom, pull over!” Ellie cried. “There’s smoke coming out the back!”
Actually it was steam. But the car evidently could go no further. Ruby eased it over to the curb and pounded the steering wheel with her plump pale hands. “God damn it to hell!” she yelled. “And what are you grinning at?”
Ellie smiled indulgently. “I bet you’ll blame this on somebody out there.” She jerked a thumb out the window at the prim houses, each centered on its square of lawn.
Ellie couldn’t understand what Ruby shouted then. It was more an inarticulate cry of rage than words. Ruby lunged and seized her by the neck. Ellie screamed too, using both hands to wrestle one of Ruby’s wrists down and away. A stranger seemed to be looking out of Ruby’s eyes, moving in her skin. Ruby never lost control. Ellie could scarcely think, she was so afraid. “Mom! Cut it out, have you gone crazy?”
“It’s impossible! It’s more trouble than it’s worth!” Ruby shrieked. The hat with the bow had fallen off. Her fair hair straggled over her forehead, and a drop of spit clung to her lower lip.
With only one hand Ruby’s grasp on Ellie’s neck was none too secure. Ellie panted not with strangulation but with fear. She thrashed in the front seat for leverage, but the dashboard cramped her knees and her elbows kept hitting the door or the seat back. “Mom! Tell me what you want!”
Ruby seemed not to hear. Tears and sweat ran down her cheeks and dropped onto Ellie’s hands. In desperation Ellie tried her other vision. She had never used it under such stress and it was different. It was like looking at Saran Wrap rolled on its tube, each layer clear enough but the entire roll completely opaque. Ruby was a mass of desires, as all people are, but Ellie couldn’t distinguish them.
Then Ellie glimpsed something she recognized instantly. She saw her own self wound up in the Saran Wrap, in Ruby’s desires. Ellie, her only child — what did Ruby want from her? Ruby wanted Ellie to love and admire and adore her. The strength and simplicity of it made Ellie blink. And it was all twisted up, wrapped round Ruby’s heart, layer on layer, until Ruby could be here trying to squeeze her neck. Ellie yelled, “Mom, this isn’t what you do to someone you love!” No effect, so she tried again. “Mom! I hate you when you do this!”
That sank in. Ruby didn’t relax but she let go. Tears poured down Ellie’s face, wetting the collar of her school blouse. Gusty sobs shook her. She pushed Ruby back a little and sat up. Ruby herself wailed noisily too, covering her face with her hands. The faded interior of the car seemed packed full of roiling emotion, closely folded together like a fist.
A tap at the drivers’ side window made both Quarterns jump. A policeman stood beside the car. His cruiser was pulled up behind them, the red light on its roof revolving and blinking. Ellie shrank down, terrified, in her seat.
Ruby wiped her nose on a wrist and hurried to grind down her window. The patrolman’s hat brim shaded his face so that he seemed to wear a mask. “Anything wrong, ma’am?”
“My car broke down, officer.”
“Let me call the gas station for you. I think they have a tow truck.” The patrolman retreated to his cruiser.
Ruby drew a long shuddering breath. “All right, baby,” she said roughly. “You can stop crying now. I’m sorry I got mad.”
She doesn’t know. The thought percolated down through Ellie’s distress, slowing her sobs. She doesn’t know that I saw how she’s been jerking me around all my life. She turned away, and looked stubbornly out the window on her side, sniffling.
Booted footsteps crunched on the gravel. “There’s nothing to cry about, little girl,” the patrolman said majestically. “Ma’am, a truck’ll be out in half an hour. You just sit tight.”
“Thank you, officer.”
Ruby spoke so meekly, like an upstanding respectable citizen. Ellie briefly imagined what the cop would say if she told him her mother had just tried to strangle her. A murderer, several times over at least. I’m trapped in a dead car with my mother the murderer. But she was only kidding herself. The rat doesn’t tell the cat.
Something cornery poked her arm, and she turned. Ruby thrust a box of tissues at her. Ellie took one and blew her nose. Now that the car window had been lowered the sounds of the day rushed in — the murmur of traffic, the rumble of tricycles ridden over uneven sidewalks, the clack of cards fixed to slap against the spokes of the paperboy’s bicycle. The enclosed shell of the Dodge was breached. Ellie drew in deep grateful breaths of the air.
“A new car,” Ruby mused. “How do I get a new car? You have any ideas, baby?”
“No. But I bet the tow truck man would.”
“Mmm. I guess.” When the tow truck appeared she eyed the driver without much favor. He hooked the Dodge onto the tow bar. Ruby and Ellie climbed into the front seat of the truck and rode to the gas station. As soon as she caught sight of the station proprietor Ellie knew her mother’s question was answered. She could see the light of some overarching preoccupation around his balding head. The minute Ruby spoke to him Ellie could sense the flavor of his need. Sex again, she thought with resigned contempt.
Ruby saw it too. “You wait over there, Ellie.” She nodded at the wooden bench at the side of the building, between the rest room doors. “It’ll be some job, fixing the car, and it’ll take a while to get an estimate.”
Ellie didn’t watch the gas station man usher Ruby into his office. She sat obediently on the bench in the last of the October sunshine. Some rusty old cars were propped up on blocks in the weedy side yard, and in front of them were three or four newer cars with faded price tags taped to the windshields. She waited for hours, while the sun slowly set and the street lights came on, and she got colder and hungrier. Ugly thoughts grew and blossomed in her head.
Ruby didn’t love her, she realized. Probably Ruby didn’t love anybody. For a moment Ellie toyed with the thought that Ruby cherished an eternal flame for the man who fathered her. Mom must have loved him — she had me with him. But the fact that Ellie had never seen her father, didn’t even know his name, made the entire idea seem a little thin. All she knew was where she was born, in Philadelphia.
But even though she doesn’t love me, Mom wants me to love her. For a second Ellie couldn’t imagine why. Then she saw it would be far easier to raise a kid if that kid thought you were the greatest person since Abe Lincoln. Besides, it must be fun to be constantly adored. That’s why people keep dogs. All those times when Ruby had said, “I know best,” and Ellie had enthusiastically agreed — Ellie made a sour face at the vision of her gullible younger self, nodding and smiling like an idiot.
Ellie knew now that was why she was born. Ruby needed a tame yes-man, someone to always approve of her. The gift let you give people what they want. But they didn’t usually have anything to satisfy you. Ellie remembered creepy Brian, and weird Mr. Pavel. It was all give, give, give to them. Ellie would never have gotten anything back. It must be the same for Ruby. She was forced to give and give. So she had a daughter, to take and take from.
A tear trickled down her cheek as Ellie thought about it. But the moment of self-pity passed. Ellie wiped her nose on her jacket sleeve and concentrated on the future. Today is my Independence Day, she promised herself. No more being pushed around. I will feel and do like I want, not like she wants. I’m twelve years old, so I’ll have to live with her. But today I’m free.
It was quite dark now. Ellie stood up and stretched her cramped legs. Impatient, she looked around the corner. The light from the towering Sunoco sign cast a harsh yellow glare over the gas pumps. In the window the neon words “Open 24 Hours” throbbed red and green like an overdriven heart. The door opened and the gas station man came out. As he came her way Ellie saw that his face was stunned, exalted — the face of the believer whose faith is justified, a Grail Knight whose quest is fulfilled. Ruby followed, lighting a cigarette. Her fair hair was brassy in the light. The man climbed into one of the used cars and started it. The engine coughed but turned over readily enough. Like a sleepwalker he checked the lights and wipers. Then he idled the car over to the pumps and
filled it. “She’s all yours,” he said to Ruby in a whisper.
Ruby nodded. “You got my number. Ellie, go get the maps and the Kleenex box from the Dodge.”
Ellie was too astonished to obey. But the gas station man forestalled her anyway. He cleared out the glove compartment, moved the rubber floor mats, transferred Ellie’s school books, even unscrewed the license plates and reattached them to the new car. When he was done Ruby climbed in behind the wheel. At her gesture Ellie hurried to get in on the passenger side. Ruby gave the man a nod and put the car in gear.
They drove in silence for a few miles. “Pretty quick work, huh?” Ruby said at last. She pushed open the side vent to flick ashes out. “It’s a Rambler Nash, a good solid car. Only 11,000 miles on the clock — it even smells new.”
Ellie couldn’t help but agree. She ran her fingers along the gleaming wood-grain dashboard and the sleek vinyl upholstery. It was hard to tell in the glare of the streetlights, but the interior of the car seemed to be a luxurious red. The outside was light gray. “Guess you won’t be able to say anymore that the vision doesn’t get you anything.”
Ruby’s plump rosebud mouth tightened. “I paid for this car all right. And I’m going to
continue to pay, too.” They drove the rest of the way home in silence.
Brenda W. Clough writes novels. She has been a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest.