I don’t care who knows.
This morning I sprayed some of Mom’s perfume on my flower after putting on this scratchy suit. Mom loved flowers. Every single kind in every kind of color. So I took this yellow flower from one of the big bundles last night at the viewing. After Grandma pinned it on my suit, right before we left for the funeral, I went back into Mom’s room and sprayed it. I guess I just wanted to remember her smell today.
I’m standing in the cemetery with my hands shoved so deep in my pockets I can feel my index finger tips creating a hole at the bottom of the fabric. I remember once when I was still a little boy watching TV with my mom and getting frightened when the camera showed an old man in his hospital bed. He’d just died and his family was standing around him. It wasn’t scary, but it must have bothered me because Mom said to remember that the man was just an actor. She told me if I pretended he was just sleeping instead of dead, it wouldn’t be so scary.
I want to try that now, just like the day Mom died, and at the viewing, and at the funeral. But I know it’s too late. Plus, if I’m being honest, I saw Mom sleeping a lot the last few years when she’d had a sad or hard day.
I try to imagine I’m at a movie funeral like Tony Stark in Avengers or maybe even the Black Panther’s. I close my eyes and see the actors in costumes. I picture them laughing between takes and there are cameras and crew everywhere. I like how it all feels so pretend. Then I remember that the actor who played the Black Panther died in real life and that brings me back. I open my eyes again and I know I’m not in a movie and it’s not Hollywood fake.
I’m still here at Mom’s grave, even though “grave” sounds like what you call it when the grass has grown back over and the tombstone is here. There’s no grass at Mom’s grave. Just a flimsy plastic thing with Mom’s name on it and the dates.
I thought the dirt was piled up too high, but when I asked Jeeps he said that was normal. It would settle.
I told him dirt is dirt and that nothing was normal about this. Then I told him I didn’t think I’d ever settle.
There are graves all around me, hundreds, maybe more. I imagine all the people who’ve died and been buried in this ground. You don’t have to be an adult to know that people die in tons of ways. Disease. Crashes. Old age. Accidents. War. I wonder how many people die the way my mother did. Do their families tell their stories? Am I supposed to? Will I ever even want to?
My grandparents said I could stand here as long as I want. They’re in a rental car down the hill. They also said I could cry if I wanted to and that I deserved some privacy. I told them I’d rather just have my mother back.
It’s cold outside. “Pretty cold for December in North Carolina, don’t you think, Son?” At least that’s what the adults mumbled when they didn’t have anything else to say. At the viewing last night I told some guy that I didn’t know because I wasn’t some old TV weatherman and maybe he should just watch the news.
I thought it was actually sorta funny.
My grandmother did not.
I reach up and feel the bandage on my face. It’s on my right cheek running up and down. The top of the tape isn’t too far below the circles under my eyes. Mom used to say I came by my eye circles honestly, whatever that means. She said they’re darker when I’m tired or don’t sleep well. Right now they’re so dark I look more like a raccoon than a twelve year old.
I’ve been wondering how long this scar will take to heal. The doctor said probably months, not weeks, because it was pretty deep. I haven’t even looked at it yet. My grandparents say they know a good doctor in Utah who will look at it when we get there in a few days. He said it like “doctor” was supposed to be the most important part of that sentence and not “Utah.”
After a few more minutes by myself, I see my grandma walking up the hill toward me. She’s wearing this black sweater and wrapping her arms around herself, like she’s giving herself a hug. Mom and I call her Meems and my grandpa we call Jeeps.
Meems is getting closer and I can see the air blowing out of her mouth as she walks. It’s like little tube clouds that disappear before you even get to enjoy them.
She’s right next to me now, her arm around me. Warm.
“Doin’ OK, Shane?”
I nod back, because I heard someone say this morning at the funeral sometimes that’s all you can do.
“Ready to go?” she asks.
I shrug, because that feels more like truth than nodding.
She pulls me in a little tighter and I can smell the perfume on her too. I close my eyes and pull a piece of her baggy sweater over my face. I’m pretty short for being twelve, one of the shorter kids at school, and I notice this sometimes when Meems or Jeeps are close. Everyone says my time will come to be the tallest in the family. But will it?
I’m trying so hard not to cry right now. And it’s harder than I thought. I mean I’ve cried before, like when they told me she was dead. Then when I said goodbye before they closed the casket. And at night, almost every night, if I’m being honest.
I can feel my nose running and I’m afraid to look up at Meems. I’m afraid of what she’ll think. Or say. Or both.
She kisses my forehead again. “This is OK,” she says. “Feeling this. I feel it too.”
I’m full on crying now. It’s barely been a week since Mom died and I guess I forget sometimes that Jeeps and Meems lost someone too. Losing a mom is hard, but maybe losing a daughter is even harder.
When I stop crying I let go of her sweater and stand up straight. My cheeks are wet and cool. My hand goes back to my bandage. My fingers run across the edges of the white tape and on top of the cotton strips. Meems wipes a tear that’s stuck at the corner of my mouth. It tastes salty and sad. Then she puts her hand on mine as I still trace the edges of the bandage on my cheek.
“Will it heal?” I ask.
“What?” She says, but I know she heard me.
“Will it get better? Will it heal? The scar?”
Meems smiles, not a big one with teeth showing, or the kind that stretches up to the wrinkled corners of her eyes, but a tiny smile I can barely see. Then she pulls me in again and I think I hear her whisper, “Which one?”
I keep talking to myself. Like, out loud. Meems says that’s normal when we’re dealing with heavy stuff. Of course she also says she thinks Jeeps’s jokes are funny. They’re not. Not even a little.
Meems is my grandma, my mom’s mom. They said when I was a baby I couldn’t say grandma really well. So one day they just started saying all these other names to see what would stick. Like which one I’d be able to say. I don’t know if that’s true. Not sure I even know what the truth is anymore about anything or anyone.
My grandfather says he was in the Army a million years ago and that might actually be true because he looks a lot older than Meems. She smiles big when I say that. In the Army, his friends called him Jeeps because he drove real jeeps, fixed them, even slept in one sometimes. He says the name stuck to him like stink and pretty much everyone still calls him Jeeps. He even drives a couple of them. One is super nice, shiny blue, and fits a whole family. The other is small and camo painted and he says he takes it into the mountains by their house.
Their house. The house that will become my house soon. That’s where we’re going tomorrow. In Utah. I’ve never been there. They came to visit us a lot here in North Carolina because I guess they’re pretty rich and Mom said Jeeps hasn’t had to work in a while. When Mom was away a few times they flew out and stayed with me. Now with Mom gone, they’re all I have.
Who ever thought I would be moving to a place called Highland, Utah. I didn’t even know where it was until Mom made me choose it for a school project in the fifth grade. I had to stand up in front of the entire class and give a presentation. All I really remember is that the Olympics happened there. And there’s a huge lake filled with salt water. People ski there. Like, a lot. Pretty much everyone. And pilgrims, no, wait, pioneers, moved there a long time ago to be free and safe and have a fresh start. I guess I remember more than I thought.
I’m in my room packing, but not really. Most of my stuff is already in the rental truck parked out front. Jeeps said I could take whatever I wanted from our house, but there isn’t a whole lot worth taking. Mom’s and my place was pretty plain. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, small family room, not much else. I told Jeeps I’d take my dresser and desk, but not my bed. I asked for Mom’s bed because it’s way bigger and sometimes I lay in it when I couldn’t sleep or when she didn’t feel good.
Meems has taken some of Mom’s things too. Stuff to remember her like a couple of rings and a few dresses. Mom loved dresses. Almost all she had were dresses and skirts. Even if we just went to the store, or the park, or to get gas for the mower, she wore a dress. Mom liked to say dresses made her feel pretty on the outside when she didn’t always feel pretty on the inside. She promised one day I’d understand.
Most of the rest of our stuff is being given away to a thrift store. Jeeps said after we leave someone will come get the rest and that will be the end of it. Just like that. It’s been eleven days since Mom died and it’s like everything else is passing away too. I have friends here, real good ones. Meems and Jeeps keep saying we can text and call and keep in touch or whatever. But we’re not little kids. We’re in middle school. I know we probably won’t hang out again. We had pizza last night and sorta said goodbye. A couple of us will probably still game online. It won’t be the same though.
Christmas is almost here and we won’t meet up to talk about what we got.
The winter carnival comes to Wilmington in January and we always go together and get wristbands for the sketchy rides and eat funnel cake until we’re sick. I guess they’ll probably go anyway.
I was going to move up a level for spring soccer so I could play with some friends who are a little older. They’ll keep playing here and I’ll be in Utah where I don’t even know if they play soccer.
Now I can hear Meems outside in the front yard talking to the next door neighbors. Besides Mrs. Waddell straight across the street, who’s one of the nicest adults, most people in our neighborhood weren’t super nice until Mom died. Now suddenly they’ve been here like everyday. They’ve brought so much food. Other people have too. One family has a girl in high school, Annabelle, who is way older than me and I think she might be the cheerleading captain. Earlier Annabelle asked if I wanted to hang out at the firepit in their backyard and make s'mores with her friends after the funeral was over. It was cool to ask, I guess, but I told her I know her mom made her invite me and she didn’t have to babysit. I meant to be nicer than I was.
I stand up and look around my room to make sure there’s nothing else I want to take. Jeeps and Meems want to leave early in the morning and I know there’s no turning around. I pull open the closet door and see the stack of quilts up on the shelf above my hangers. The shelf has three or four old blankets I decided to leave because I haven’t used them in forever and they’re just store bought, nothing handmade or special.
I reach between them and pull out the one thing I haven’t decided about yet. It’s a thick stack of birthday cards held together with an extra thick rubber band. One every year since I was born. There aren’t long messages. Mostly have just a few scribbled and happy words.
They’re from my father.
It’s flat. Like so flat. Like you can see-to-Canada flat if you’re looking the right way. And I don’t know for sure but I think it’s to my right somewhere. Jeeps and I are in the rental truck on a highway halfway between North Carolina and Utah. Not sure where exactly but I do know one thing. It’s flat.
“Hey Mr. Copilot,” Jeeps ask. “What you thinkin’ over there?”
I shrug, but I doubt he sees it.
“Come on Goose, I can’t do this mission alone. You gotta watch for Migs.”
I roll my eyes hard. That he sees.
“What? You too cool for Top Gun references now?”
“You know Goose dies in the movie, right Jeeps?”
“True. But it was Mav’s fault, we’ve been over this.”
I know what my grandfather is doing and I’m trying hard to not fall for it, but it’s getting boring in the truck and we’ve been driving for two days and I can’t stare out the window much longer. Did I mention it’s flat? “It wasn’t his fault,” I say. “Goose should have waited for the canopy to clear. And if he had, he would still be alive and his son wouldn’t have gone all wacko on Tom Cruise in the sequel.”
Jeeps smiles and stares straight ahead. “How ‘bout that Maverick, huh kid? Your grandmother cried ‘bout five times.”
“Bet you did too.”
“Nah, three for me. Four tops.”
We continue breaking down the movie as the flatness passes outside the window and he tells me for at least the one thousandth time that I should have my own show. “You know I always say you would be so good with your own show on the YouTube, Shane. Talk about movies, how you always wanted to be a superhero. I’d watch.”
“First it’s just YouTube. Not the. And it’s channel. Not show. And you’re the only one who’d watch.”
“False. Your Meems would watch.”
We ride quietly for a few miles. “Shane, you remember how your mother used to say you might save the world someday?”
“She really did think you were a hero. Her own personal superhero.”
He keeps talking, but I’m thinking about how when I had a chance to save her, I didn’t.
“No matter what, you’ll always be my go-to man for Marvel trivia. Ain’t no one better in real life or on the YouTube.”
The argument resumes, but it’s not really an argument. It’s just me and Jeeps. The way we’ve always talked. Jeeps likes to debate pretty much everything, even just for fun. He was a lawyer for some company in California that another company paid a bunch of money for and he and Meems took home some serious money. He told me once he took a chance when he started at the company and worked for free for a couple years in exchange for stock in the company. Mom said he’d never have to have a job again unless he wanted to. That’s about the time they moved to Utah.
Jeeps is singing The Rolling Stones, again, and drumming on the steering wheel. He brought a huge CD holder that zips up and weighs a ton. He somehow found probably the only rental truck in America that still has a CD player.
He’s really going at this song. He says it’s the music of his generation. It’s not the worst ever and to be honest I don’t mind. He also listens to Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, and Elton John. That last guy is still playing concerts and once Jeeps went to a show with some lawyer friends. I only remember because he sent me a shirt when he got home. I wore it a couple times, but one of my friends said it looked like a girl’s shirt, so of course I threw it away and when Mom asked where it was I told her I’d lost it.
I watch the towns go by and it sorta feels like we’re living in an episode of the Mandalorian. We’re flying along in a ship just above ground and every town is both brand new and gone before I can even really see it. I know I’ll never be back and how can I know if I’d want to. Everything out the window at this speed is just alien. Alien sites and sounds and people. I wonder what we’d find if we just stopped at one of these planet towns and explored. I bet we’d forget all about the real trip. Wouldn’t that be nice.
We pass a billboard for Cracker Barrel and I wonder what my grandmother is doing. She didn’t want to ride in the truck, which Jeeps said was probably a good thing so we could have guy time. Meems flew back to Utah yesterday to get things ready.
I wonder what that means. Get things ready. They said I’d have my own room in the basement and there’s even a fridge down there I can put snacks in. Whatever I want. I know she’s being nice. Jeeps too. They want to take me shopping at some fancy outlet mall. Said I could get some new clothes. Nice shoes. Stuff that’s better for Utah than Wilmington. I guess I need it, just not sure I want it.
Mom used to talk about wants and needs all the time. I’d always get my needs, she said, and sometimes my wants. She never explained what happens when my wants and needs are exactly the same. Like now.
We pass Topeka, Kansas and Jeeps says we’ll stop for the night once we get on the other side of the city.
“We’ll find a place with an indoor pool,” he says. “Yeah?”
Jeeps turns down the music. “Ever played Marco Polo?” he asks.
“Any good at it?”
I shrug my shoulders. Then my words shrug a little too. “I dunno.”
“I guess we’ll see tonight,” he says.
“It’s sorta a kids’ game, don’t you think?”
He grunts and slaps the steering wheel with his right hand. “False! I’m a master of Marco Polo.”
“I am! Trust me. I played it when I was in the Army.”
“You played Marco Polo in the Army?”
“Well, technically we played it in a swimming pool, but yes.” He pauses for a while, and I’m trying to tell if he’s being serious, or if he’s just being Jeeps. “One guy almost drowned. Game got so serious.”
“I gave him mouth to mouth.”
Jeeps laughs and he asks me to switch CDs. A minute later he’s singing Rikki Don't Lose That Number by a couple guys he says are called Steely Dan. I don’t know if that’s their names or whatever and I kind of want to hate it, but I don’t. He sings the words loud and confidently, like he knows something I don’t.
Rikki, don’t lose that number
You don’t wanna call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki, don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home
He keeps singing, but I stop listening. I feel a little like I lost a number too. For Mom. For Wilmington. For home. And I have to wonder if my dad has a phone. Of course he does, it’s 2023. And yes, I wonder what his number is.
Soon we’re at the hotel. Soon we’re eating Chick-fil-A in the lobby. Soon Jeeps is borrowing scissors from the front desk and cutting off a pair of jeans into a swimsuit.
Later we’re playing Marco Polo with some other kids in the pool and I almost forget that I’m wearing a bandage on my face that I’m not supposed to get wet. And, for a little while, it feels good to be just another kid.
I’m not sure what time it is, but the hotel room is bright when I open my eyes. I roll over and see that Jeeps’s bed is made. Of course it is. I grab my phone, still charging on the nightstand between our beds, and see a text.
JEEPS: Please come down tothelobby when you are up! Free brfast ends 9:clock.
ME: Polo and why did u text a turtle
For a while now I’ve been teaching Jeeps to text better. It’s not going great.
I throw on shorts and a Carolina Panthers hoodie and when I get to the lobby, Jeeps is sitting with some business-looking people and they’re all laughing way too loud. “There he is,” Jeeps waves at me like he’s flagging down a rescue plane or something on an island. “Come say hello!”
I do, but only because I know if I pretend I don’t see or hear him it’ll only get worse.
“Gentlemen,” he says, “this is my grandson, Shane Dakota.”
I smile and shake their hands, because manners matter, as my mom said literally every day. “Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you.”
One of the guys lowers his eyes and looks right at me. “Your grandfather here was entertaining us during breakfast with movie trivia. He says you can top him?”
“Not really,” I look down and study my flip flops.
“Come on, Shane. Let them try you out. Maybe Marvel?” He looks back to his new friends still taking sips of their coffee. “He knows everything about movies. Especially superhero films. Try him.”
“Marvel? Really?” One of the men in a white shirt and tie says. “Marvel is my jam!” His face looks like he instantly regrets saying it. I know I do.
“OK, let’s see what you’ve got, young man. What is Captain America’s shield and Bucky's arm made of?”
I look at Jeeps. He winks at me.
The group smiles and nods like I’ve solved some mystery. “Nice, nice,” the man says. “We started easy. Let’s see ... Which eye does Nick Fury wear the patch over?” Jeeps laughs. “Even I know that one.”
“Well?” The man looks at me.
“He’s good, you were right. Let’s really test him. Trevor Slattery revealed in Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings that he escaped execution in a ... bizarre way. By performing something. What was he—”
“Macbeth,” I say. “He started performing Macbeth. By Shakespeare.”
The businesspeople all clap and Jeeps smiles up at me and now the game is really on. A few others join in and I’m killing it.
“What other superhero movies did Sam Raimi direct besides Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness?”
“The Spider-Man trilogy,” I say.
“Who is the Power Broker in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier?”
“What actor did Mark Ruffalo replace as the Hulk in the MCU?”
“What? No hard ones?” I say. “Everyone knows it’s Ed Norton.”
The group actually cheers now, real clapping, like it actually sounds like a crowd, and they all stand up to leave. Jeeps stands up too and puts his arm around me. “I told you gentlemen. This young man is the best. He’s a real marvel, am I right? Marvel?”
They laugh, probably because they have to, and he shakes their hands and wishes them good luck with their meetings. Meanwhile I sneak away toward the long counter with the free juice, muffins, bagels, bacon, and the minifridge with mini yogurts. My face feels hot and it’s probably red, the way it got when Mom used to compliment and embarrass me. It feels so familiar. And even though part of me wants to cry right now, it still feels good.
Over by the automatic lobby doors, Jeeps says goodbye to his new friends and I hear him shout.
“Don’t forget! One day he’ll have his own show on the YouTube!”
Two days later we cross the Utah border and I think we’re both ready to get out of the truck. Probably because about every half-hour Jeeps rubs his neck, groans, and says, “Goose, I’m ready to be outta this truck.” But according to my iPhone we’re still like three hours away. It’s snowing a little bit, actually it’s been snowing on and off since we went through Denver, and we stop at a place called Maverik for gas and food and a sit inside.
“Your grandmother wouldn’t be real chipper about this lunch.” Jeeps takes a big bite of hotdog dripping with chili and cheese. “But she’s not here, is she?”
I smile because I know he’s right. I don’t know what life will be like in Utah, but I doubt it includes the kinda food we’ve been eating for five days. “Probably,” I say.
We eat quietly. I got nachos with the same cheese that’s hanging on the side of Jeeps’s chin and the taste makes me miss North Carolina. And home. And Mom. I’m still thinking about her when Jeeps flicks his straw at me and I get hit in the face with cold drops of Diet Mountain Dew.
“What the heck?”
“Sorry partner. I had to wake you up.”
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Shane, I said your name three times.”
I slide my plastic tray of nachos away and look up at him. “You did?”
“Who’s grandpa?” He looks around him and pretends to be all offended. “Now I know something’s really wrong.”
I fiddle with the cap on my bottle of Dr. Pepper. I twist it off, then on, then off again and take a sip.
“You want to talk about it?” He asks.
I shrug, which Jeeps says I’ve been getting good at lately.
“You know you don’t have to, right?”
I nod and take another sip.
“Someday you’ll want to, even though you might not believe that yet. The truth is you’ll need to.” He pulls a handful of napkins from the dispenser thing and wipes cheese off his chin. “Maybe I should have saved that for later,” he says with a wink. He stands, gathers the trash, and suddenly stops and puts his heavy, strong hands on top of mine. “Son, no one can go through all this, through everything you’re dealing with, without talking. What you’re feeling? Those things that creep in when you least expect it? Like when we’re driving along and your Jeeps is singing real loud and you’re looking out the window? Those feelings, whatever they might be, they need to come out sometime. When you’re ready, I’m here. And look, even though it might sound like I’m always talking, because I probably am, I can listen too. OK?”
We just sit. Silent. I don’t know how long, but it feels like forever. I finally look up at him. He’s staring down, like I was, and his eyes are wet. He’s so still though, like he’s not really there. Like he’s visiting someplace special without me. Someplace a million miles away.
As I watch him, I remember how sad he must be. I mean I haven’t really forgotten Jeeps and Meems lost her too. But it’s not the first thing I think of when I dream or wake up. When memories of Mom pop into my head, even at times I don’t really want them, they’re not really times that Jeeps and Meems are there. And when I feel like I want to cry, it’s not because they lost a child. It’s because I lost a mom.
I’m still watching him and I wonder what he’s thinking. Mostly I hope he’s not mad at me for forgetting he’s sad too.
“Jeeps?” This time I put my hands on top of his. “Jeeps?”
He blinks a bunch and looks up at me. I get that I’m not the smartest kid, but I know when adults are trying to decide what to say. What words to pick. And he’s doing that now. It’s like he’s trying some out in his head before saying them. Mom used to tell me I should do that sometimes. Think first. Then speak.
Finally he smiles at me with his eyes. “One day we’ll be ready, won’t we?”
I smile back.
“Both of us,” he says.
After cleaning up and using the bathroom, we get back in the truck and begin driving the final three hours to Highland. Somewhere I fall asleep though and I miss all of it. Instead, I dream about Mom and going to a thrift store back home in Wilmington. Mom tries on a pretty yellow dress and spins around outside the dressing room while I watch. She asks me if I like it, but she doesn’t stop spinning, not even when she talks. She just spins and spins and spins. No matter what I say, she spins.
“Shane, partner, we’re here.” Jeeps says, and I hear him unclick my seatbelt. “We’re home.”
My eyes take a second to adjust. We’re sitting in a wide driveway next to a big house. There’s snow on the ground, more than I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and even more piled up alongside the sidewalk. “You know what they call this area?” Jeeps says as I sit up.
I shake my head and stretch out. “Happy Valley.”
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