He was kicking in the trunk, his screams muffled through the bandana Barbara had tied around his mouth.
But then, quiet.
I cracked the windows. Cold air sliced the tops of our heads as I drove us up into the mountains. It was 2am. I thought about him back there, garbage bag slicked against his face with his tears, his sweat. He didn’t know there were a couple of slits for air. He had to be afraid of suffocating.
“Barbara,” I said. I put my hand on her shoulder to help her hold still. “Shhhh.”
When their child is upset, parents must hide their reactionary panic. Could be a small thing or a big thing.
“We shouldn’t have done this,” Barbara said. “Mom.”
“Shhh. Pass the water, please.”
For example, a small thing: when your toddler refuses to eat the home fries you prepared because you had apparently cut them into pieces too large, and therefore made them taste too potato-ey. Do not yell, God damn it, Barbara! Instead, say, I’m sorry it’s not what you wanted. Then say, But I hope you choose to eat it.
“I can’t do this,” Barbara said.
“Shhh. Yes you can. Where’s the water?”
A small-to-medium thing: when she comes home in fourth grade and says her best friend hates her and now everyone else does too, do not yell, That little skank bitch! I knew it! Instead, say, That must hurt your feelings so much. Then hug her and say, It’s not about you. And, Let’s join the girl scouts! Want to try that?
“I think I forgot to put it in the car,” Barbara said.
These are all medium-level things: She doesn’t finish her book journal, her science lab, even her dinky English paper. She drops out of drama club, then track, then debate team. With each beginning, you envisioned, in this order: 1) her rise to star-level, your daughter the phenom; 2) her journey into a soft, loving community; 3) her relief from the dread you’ve obviously allowed to plague her all her life; 4) okay—how about one moment of confidence. A light breeze of empowerment. Anything.
But when she quits art appreciation, a club that requires her to sit in a desk and watch a slideshow with a few other students for two fucking hours a month, and then comes home and tells you, as she stands in the doorway and drops her head in shame and lets her backpack drop to the floor, that she left after the first five minutes, you almost, almost—it’s so close—say: You’re going to think you’re never capable of anything, Barbara! God damn it! And maybe you’re not! Maybe you’re just not!
Instead, bite the tip of your tongue and force yourself to hug her gently around her shoulders and say, I know you’re trying, honey. I know. And as she hugs you back, feel your rage fade and think: This is my fault.
Because it is.
“You forgot the water?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” Barbara said. Her voice rose into panic. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Nonononononono. Honey! It’s okay!” I grabbed her hand from her face and squeezed it. “We’ll be fine. I don’t need it.”
But I did. I needed it wherever I went. Ever since I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, and started dieting.
8 glasses a day, they said.
God, I was pathetic.
“I’m sorry,” Barbara said.
“It’s okay, honey.” I opened the vent on the dashboard and leaned into the cold air so it hit my face.
This one is a big thing: The nightmare where you’re crouched in the corner of a dim prison cell, stuffing clothes into a duffel, because you’ve been arrested for protesting or marching or trying to save some element of this world that is currently collapsing. You stuff as fast as you can, but clothing keeps piling around you. You also have to either keep people out of the cell or escape from it—you don’t know whether you’re trying to stay or go—and then a guard clangs open the door and smirks at you in the dark and moves across the cell so fast you can feel the air swoosh and hear his heels rapid-click on the concrete floor, and you realize that you are Barbara, that you cannot move despite your terror, and he grins, and you understand that he cannot wait to hurt you, that he is eager to tear you open or cut you up, and you force your mouth open and feel your jaw spasm and scream your soprano siren—Ohohohohohohohoh, and your soft palate vibrates, your head rests flat and damp on your pillow. You blink. Barbara has run in from her room and stands over you.
Mom. Mom. Mom. She rubs your shoulder. It’s okay. Shhh. What was it this time?
Don’t say, Never ever ever ever leave my side.
Instead, swallow and say, The drowning one.
And you think about your death. All the time. (Is this a big thing? Or does everyone think about death all the time? Does this mean it’s not a big thing?) Even as you teach—and thank God P.E. exists even in its diluted and not quite meaningless form, because the harder life gets the stronger your students will need to be. That’s a positive right there. You walk between rows of middle-schoolers and show them the proper form for jumping jacks, burpees, pushups. Because those basics are what make us feel powerful. You ask permission to touch a student (not a kid, they’re not goats) so you can adjust his shoulders and then you remember: you will eventually leave Barbara alone in this world.
How long before algal blooms make swimming in fresh water impossible? How long before aquifers are empty? How long before it’s too late?
It’s already too late.
Barbara’s future is unimaginable suffering. You will not save her. You will not even know what happens to her.
Is there a greater injustice? To leave your child?
There is: To leave your child at the end of the world.
Fuck you, everything.
You will not let her see your fear. Ever. Because your fear becomes hers.
Instead, when she tells you, finally, that she is so afraid of what’s to come she cannot sleep or eat or think, say this:
People are working on everything, honey. All over the world. Every day.
Aren’t they? Aren’t you?
Sit beside her on her bed. Which she never makes despite your requests. Then hug her.
Say, Millions of people. Including us.
Stroke her hair. Tuck it safe, behind her ear.
You really don’t know what the future will be, honey. No one does.
Because we don’t.
Damn it. We don’t. Wasn’t this true?
God, it was dark. I drove us deeper into the forest. At least we couldn’t see all the browned trees in the landscape.
“I can’t,” Barbara whispered into her lap. “I can’t.”
Do not slam your hands on the steering wheel and say, You back out of EVERYTHING, Barbara! This is why you have no confidence!
“We have to, honey,” I said.
Barbara crossed her arms and pressed them into her like a mental patient. Out her window, the night passed by so very very fast.
“I know,” she whispered, sniffled, wiped her nose with her palm.
We had watched him for a few weeks, learned that he came home very late after a strategy meeting or a big-man-with-cigar gathering or a Hitler prayer group or whatever it was he did with his friends every Thursday. Were they his friends? Did those people think of themselves as friends? A city councilor, an assistant city manager, 2 loud local Republicans who had invaded the school board. The man who was now suffering in the trunk (yay!) had become a Facebook star by posting pictures of people who lived in tents around our city and inviting his followers to harass them. Last year, he posted a video of a homeless man convulsing right in front of him because of an opioid overdose. The comments:
More garbage on the sidewalks.
Where’s the trash collector?
Get the poop scoop!
The man died.
“No one else is doing enough,” I reminded Barbara.
“It’s a war on every front.”
“I know.” Barbara pulled her beanie over her ears, then adjusted it to where it was before. God she was thin. We had dressed in black. Her giant sweatshirt made her disappear.
Barbara put her hands on her chest.
“Good! That’s right! Center yourself.”
“In through the nose. With me? … And … out through the mouth.”
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
“The police are on their side.”
Barbara’s burner phone clinked.
“Auntie Ruth says we’re clear.”
“Ask her if she’s sure.”
“She says definitely.”
“Tell her to go home, then. Tell her we’ll be another two hours, three at the most.” To make sure no one saw us when we got him, Ruth watched his house and now had his phone. She was cool as a cucumber, so steeped in justice, so unshakable. What we knew was coming for us had been happening to her clients forever. But right after Kelly killed themselves, beautiful fractured Kelly, Barbara’s only friend and Ruth’s long-time client from the Queer Center, Ruth sat us down in her kitchen. All three of our phones were screen-up on the table, set to SILENT.
One notification after another, bubble after bubble of words on our screens.
He should go to jail!
Where are the police?
Let’s march. Let’s march for Kelly’s life!
“I cannot go to another march,” Ruth said, earrings brushing her shoulders. “What’s the fucking point? Honestly?”
Where are the police?
How did this happen?
Where is the district attorney?
“No one is going to do anything,” I said.
Ruth nodded. Barbara cried. We all cried all afternoon.
And then we decided: We would do it ourselves.
One fucking fascist at a time.
It was a holiday weekend. He lived alone. No one came to his house. We had his phone. No one would miss him for days.
“We’re almost there,” I said. We were in a remote corner of the county adjacent to ours, the landscape thick with stumps. I turned onto a logging road, then another, both long abandoned and nearly impassable.
I pulled over and shut everything off. I couldn’t hear crickets or anything else, really, because of insect decline. Remember when there were so many flies that they got into your house and buzzed against the windows, their tiny bodies tap-tapping as they flew into the glass?
Through the bandana, he screamed for help in a throaty, almost Scooby Doo language.
Barbara started to cry.
Do not say, God damn it, Barbara! How many times have we practiced?
Instead, I said, “Honey, we can do it. He’s not just a bad man. He is a horrible man. He is a horrible, evil, terrible man who deserves to die. And everyone in the world will be better for it.”
“I know, I just…”
“No one else is going to do anything, honey.”
“I know, I know,” she wailed.
He kicked again and again. The car rocked. “Elp ree! Elp ree! I can’t breeve!”
“Yes you can!” I yelled.
Do not slap her and say, Damn it, Barbara! We’ve gone over this!
I said, “I need you, honey. I need to you to follow us out. You don’t have to do anything, okay? But I need you there just in case.”
She did her breathing, took her hands off her face, stared into the windshield. Her profile was delicate, a soft painting.
“You can finish this,” I said.
“You know it’s the right thing to do.”
He cried quietly, then started what sounded like a prayer.
She lost it again.
“Shout at him!” I said. “Remember how furious you are? He’s just scared now. He’s going to beg and pray. That’s what humans do. He’s a beggar. We’re all beggars. Fearing for your life does not make you a good person or a worthy human being. It doesn’t make him able to change.”
“Try it.” I said. “Yell something.”
“YOU FASCIST PIECE OF SHIT!” I screamed. “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE NOW! MOTHER FUCKER! I CAN’T WAIT!”
Do not say, That felt so good.
“That felt amazing,” I said. But also sick. Like starting a poisonous habit.
“Peeze, roh,” he wept.
“ONE MORE WORD!” I screamed. “I WILL KILL YOU RIGHT NOW!”
I put my hands back on the steering wheel, closed my eyes. Breathed in. Exhaled.
I was becoming. I was a person who did something real.
She shook her head.
Do not say, God dammit, Barbara!
I said, “Please, honey. Just try.”
She cleared her throat. In a cricket voice, like the terrified girl she of course is, she said very slowly, “You… mother fucking… piece… of shit—”
“He can’t hear that. You have to mean it.”
“Remember what he said about George Floyd?”
“Remember what he did to Kelly?” I hadn’t wanted to want to throw Kelly out there like that. I hadn’t wanted to use them.
But we needed to get going.
“Barbara,” I said. “Remember.”
“You killed my best friend,” she yelled weakly.
“You killed my best friend!” she yelled.
“Call him a name!”
“BASTARD!” She yelled. “FUCKER! I HATE YOU SO MUCH!”
“Good, honey! Now let’s do this!”
She got the flashlight and the headlamps out of the glove box.
“We might not need them,” I said. “The moon is so bright. But bring them just in case.”
We’d worn hiking boots so we wouldn’t trip in all the ruts. Good thing, because with his wrists zip-tied and his snazzy shoes, he was falling down a lot. I untied the garbage bag and took it off. He looked around wildly, as if surrounded by stinging creatures. His gray hair, which he dyed black, had turned slick with his sweat, the short ends pointed in different directions all over his head.
Was that blood on the collar of his dumb white businessman’s shirt? Yes. He had hurt himself, thrashing around.
And he had loosened the bandana. It now hung at his neck.
“Please,” he said. A mist of his breath disappeared into the air.
Barbara gasped. Hearing his voice out here was terrifying. Truly. It was ugly, too real, a boom in all the unnatural quiet.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Everyone,” I said. I grabbed him by the arm, just above his elbow. He was thin, small, bony. We walked.
“Where are we? Are we—”
He tripped and I pulled him upright. He was shorter than me, lighter than me. A fascist wisp.
Can any fascist be a wisp, though? Really?
Then I stopped.
“I could just let him fall, huh?”
“Couldn’t I? What difference would it make? Who cares if he breaks his ankle?”
“Wouldn’t we have to carry him, then?”
“Very good, honey!” I wanted to applaud. “Excellent point!”
He dropped to his knees, ungracefully, one at a time, grunting with the effort. He looked up at me. The moonlight seemed to curve around his head; his chin was in darkness.
“Please,” he said.
I didn’t think he would beg that way—I thought he would be crazy and angry, like a psychotic mafia bodyguard.
But that was all right. I had planned for pleading, too.
I put the point of my utility knife against his skinny throat. “We know where your sister lives,” I said. “By the park. Across from the footbridge.”
He started crying, let his head fall between his shoulders.
Barbara started crying, too. “It’s too much.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said.
“I can’t,” she said.
Don’t say, What about Kelly?
I said, “What about Kelly?”
Barbara cried harder.
Do not say, KellyKellyKellyKellyKellyKellyKellyKellyKelly.
I said, “KellyKellyKellyKellyKellyKellyKellyKellyKelly—”
“Oh my God.” He looked up at me. “Her? I didn’t think she would—”
That did it. I stabbed him in the arm. He wailed.
“They!” I yelled. “Kelly’s pronouns were they/them!”
He looked down at the dirt, at the rocks under his knees.
“They were fragile! They were just a kid! You stupid evil fuck! Get up!”
He tried but fell. He bonked his chin on a rock. We heard a crack. He screamed and screamed, face down, into the earth.
Barbara didn’t move.
Do not say, fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.
I yelled over him, “Do you want to stay here, honey? You can stay here! I think I’ve got this!”
Was she going to faint?
Don’t kick him.
I put my foot on his head. “Be quiet!”
“Barbara. Stop. Put your hands on your knees. Honey. Breathe. When you breath out, make the letter H with your mouth.”
She did. She did it. Her head and shoulders rose and fell with each breath. Her mouth hung open.
Was he convulsing?
I said, “That’s great, honey. You’re doing great. I know this is hard.” I was sweating, my fingers cold but my body hot, sweat dripping into the first fold of my waist.
“Just sit down right here,” I said. “I’m going to get this done. Then we’ll go home, okay?”
She sat. She nodded.
“Wait here.” We could see the edge of the butte, boulders and that dead knobby trunk bending into the night. Unless Barbara turned away, she would witness the whole thing. We were that close.
Would she have PTSD?
She already did.
Would she have nightmares?
She would anyway.
Would she be okay?
I pulled him upright. The fall had broken his jaw; it was crooked. Blood seeped from somewhere.
He walked. He did whatever I wanted.
When he spoke, he sounded like his mouth was full of rocks. “Ell hah vmee,” he said.
Don’t say, I am doing this. I am doing this. I am doing this.
I said, “They won’t. They won’t find you.”
I was nauseated. Dizzy. I had let myself get dehydrated. Barbara had forgotten the water. I needed it wherever I went. Ever since eighth grade, and I started dieting, and they told me 8 glasses a day would help me lose weight.
God, fuck them.
Fuck them all.
I was getting dizzier, my throat a lump.
“Ah hav chillphen,” he said. “Ah rah prapher.”
He said, “My mupher ish uh-rhive.” He started to cry. “Dis vill schill her.”
I didn’t know why I wasn’t talking back to him, responding. I had planned to. And I had a speech about Kelly, about their hair, their sparkly vests, their parakeets, their Travel Scrabble. The way they strutted, all themselves, all the time. “Well how are you?” they’d say in a low lilt, a faint lean forward on the you, almost an accent. Like a Southern Belle without the fake. As if you were the most important person in the world.
You would not understand, I’d planned to say. You’re just fear in flesh. You’re a pathetic lethal piece of frightened shit.
“Stop talking,” I said. My words were squeaky and dry. I could barely hear them.
“Rirahin roosing your rild,” he said.
We were almost there.
“Rirahin roosing your rild!”
“I’m going to lose her anyway!” I started to cry, too.
He shook his head. “Row! Row!”
“Stop talking!” I screamed. It was time to push. I did, but not hard enough. He stumbled forward and as he caught himself on one foot and tried to stand upright, I put my boot in the middle of his butt and pushed with all my strength. Every bit I had.
Which was a lot.
He went over. I heard bonks, a muted crunch; I felt a sudden settling in the breeze, in the world, a sigh from the universe.
There was no reason to verify.
And I wasn’t going near that edge. I was not coming out here ever again.
I thought I was going to pass out, so I sat down. I didn’t know if I would be able to drive home. Barbara didn’t have her permit or her license. Kids didn’t want to drive anymore. They just wanted to hide.
“I’m here, honey.”
“Are you okay?”
“Did you see that?”
“I just need a minute,” I said.
“I’m coming to get you,” she said.
“Watch the rocks. Don’t trip.”
I heard her footsteps, the crunch of damaged earth beneath her feet. I stared at the moon, low and bright, at the black between the layers and layers of stars. All that practice, all those prep sessions, and not once had I truly seen them. So much power. So much time.
“Mom.” Barbara sat beside me, touched my shoulder, held my hand. My fingers grew warm in her palm.