The Metal Steed
Spinning on the ice like an Olympic skater, the minivan threw Maxine and her mother against their seatbelts. Airbags punched Maxine’s chin as the car came to rest against the West Seattle Bridge guardrail. It was over in seconds.
Maxine listened to the tick of hot metal cooling in the cold October air, barely heard under the thunder of her pounding heart.
Pushing the airbag away from her face, Maxine rested her forehead on the steering wheel. This accident had to be, she thought, all part of the same spiral sucking her and Mom deep into a gravity well. The gravity pulled on her now, gluing her to the driver’s seat, her body heavy and leaden.
“Maxine, are you all right?” Mom’s oxycodone high had evaporated quickly when the minivan spun out.
“OK, honey, get out of the driver’s seat. Now.” Mom kicked open the passenger door. “We have to change places.”
“But, we can’t do that. They’ll put you away.” Maxine’s breath caught in her throat. This would be Mom’s second DUI. She could go away for a long time. I’ll be going to Aunt Cherry’s to live. The first thought filled her with sorrow, but the second brushed a good deal of it away.
“Maxie, listen.” Climbing out of the car, Mom leaned in through the open door. Headlights cast her in golden light as a car pulled up behind them, making it look like there was a light bulb under Mom’s skin. Maxine tried to blink the eerie image away.
Mom said, “You would be in far worse trouble if the police knew you were driving. Your record is clean. Mine not so much.” Mom pushed a hank of tangled cinnamon hair from her face. Her green eyes sparked with purpose, a look Maxine had not seen in a very long time. “Please, honey, shove over. You were notdriving, OK?”
Weary and aching and heart-sick, slouched between Aunt Cherry and Uncle Roger in Aunt Cherry’s chili-pepper red El Camino Maxine Nutbeam tried to tune out Aunt Cherry’s harangue about how Claire Nutbeam, Maxine’s mother, ruined their lives once again. Popping four Percocets, Claire had decided she needed to see the Sound from the Smith Tower, and made Maxine, who was only 14, drive her there. A typical Claire Nutbeam stunt, as unforgivable as any of her previous crimes.
Aunt Cherry had stuck twelve chopsticks in her brillo-y orange hair. Her hands never touched the steering wheel as the car took them down the slopes of the West Seattle hills to Georgetown, a sprawling South Seattle neighborhood of airplane and cement factories amid quirky bungalows like Aunt Cherry’s and Uncle Roger’s house. The El Camino could drive itself. It was a demi-mage thing.
Aunt Cherry sounded especially irked, her voice sharp and quick as the car bounced into their driveway. “And not only that, we’re throwing a party tonight, and I haven’t cleaned the house yet!”
Aunt Cherry and Uncle Roger had planned one of their numerous famous parties, with Roger creating mountains of astonishing edibles and Cherry flying around making everything harder for everyone, particularly Maxine.
Staring at the bouncing hula girl glued to the leopard-print dashboard, Maxine brooded under a mountain of loneliness. She felt sorry for everything, particularly herself. She had not been able to talk her mother out of the car trip. She was responsible for ruining Aunt Cherry’s day. She could do nothing to stop Dad leaving her and Mom three months ago and ending up dead.
Touching her shoulder lightly, Uncle Roger gave her a smile, long creases in his black-stubbled cheeks deepening. All the way home, he had said nothing at all. But Maxine knew he understood how she felt.
They had already stopped at the trailer park for Maxine’s things. Aunt Cherry insisted on stuffing two suitcases full of clothes Maxine hadn’t worn in a year, even though all Maxine wanted was the backpack of books she hadn’t read yet, her ball cap, and her mirror. By the time they arrived at the bungalow, it was already dark and the party was soon to get underway. Uncle Roger schlepped the suitcases into the house, following Aunt Cherry stomping in. Moving slowly, the air become molasses soup, Maxine plodded into the living room.
As always, the fresh, flowery smell of the bungalow pushed aside Maxine’s mopey mood, at least for now. Shrugging off her backpack, she was able to file away her mother’s red, tearful face as the police led her away, because now Maxine could look at the ceiling of Aunt Cherry’s living room.
A city of arches and spires encircled the upper reaches of the walls, bordering a sky where a vestige of hidden sun could not penetrate the black, star-laced space directly above. Seeing this eased Maxine’s worries about Mom and the more distant throbbing grief about Dad’s death. Here was something she could look forward to. This mural had been painted by Dante Mandragora and he was going to be at the party tonight.
Picking up a red vase and moving it from one table to the next, Aunt Cherry told Maxine the thing she had heard many times before. “He painted it all in one day. Or was it night? I really can’t rely on telling time accurately when he’s around. It’s all very unsettling, having a Chrono-mage in your house. It makes the hours very odd, it does.”
Aunt Cherry had a specific way of talking, and it sometimes took Maxine a few seconds to unravel what she had said. Picking up the vase again, Aunt Cherry hugged it to herself.
“This is a very special party, you know, because it’s Dante’s birthday on Monday, so he’s letting us throw him a party tonight.”
Setting down the vase and picking up a stack of books, Aunt Cherry gave her a very Aunt Cherry look; one eyebrow up, one down.
“Maxine, do you ever take that ball cap off your head? Have you even washed your hair in a week?”
“This was Dad’s hat. He gave it to me.” She stopped herself from rubbing her lower lip. She had just healed a very chapped lower lip, developed over the last several weeks. “And I washed my hair last weekend.”
Setting down the stack of books and picking up an intricate layered ashtray, Aunt Cherry glared at her. “Well, I guess you better go wash it now. Once a week is not enough. I wash my hair every day!”
Maxine thought Aunt Cherry’s hair, bristling with chopsticks, looked as if it needed to be treated with Round-Up, but prudence meant not saying so.
The cat, whom Aunt Cherry named Ghoul, gazed at Maxine from one of the linen-draped love seats.
She is making me nervous, he said to Maxine, his voice making words in Maxine’s head like subtitles in a French movie. When Maxine figured out that no other children in her many schools could read animal minds this way, it was a real blow.
We’re having a party, aren’t we? As soon as the first person comes, I am hiding in the closet for the rest of the night.
Maxine nodded at Ghoul. Not me. I’ll be here. I am not missing a chance to meet Dante.
She’s not going to let you come to the party. At least you have your mirror. If she makes you go to your room for the night, you can watch the party from there. Ghoul flicked the end of his tail as Aunt Cherry buzzed past carrying a stack of magazines.
Giving Ghoul a shrug, Maxine said to her aunt, “Will you let me meet Dante? Dad never wanted me to meet him—he always made up some kind of excuse.” Approaching Maxine, Aunt Cherry pulled the ball cap off Maxine’s head and looked at it. Her eyebrows crooked with sadness. “My dear, crazy brother Malcolm. Your dad was so talented. He defended me against our parents, you know, when I discovered my skill with cars. They were so disappointed when I drove home in my first talking VW. Your dad convinced them I was the best demi-mage with engines he had ever seen.”
Maxine nodded. A wave hit the black pool deep inside, as black as Dad’s motorcycle jacket that she so wanted to see again, that had disappeared when he did.