By Haley Quinton
Cole closed his eyes and dreamed of space travel. The old car’s engine thunked and whined, sounding just like a spaceship. He was wrapped in his mama’s raincoat, but he was still cold; the heater emitted a death rattle and little else. But he was a space explorer, and sometimes, it was cold in space. Besides, this was an adventure. Mama had told him so when she picked him up from school that day. Sometimes, adventurers got cold. He thought about the planets he’d learned about in school. Mercury was too hot, and Venus didn’t have enough oxygen to breathe. Mars, then. They’d go to Mars. The only problem with his little game was the radio. Mama had turned it to some country music station, and Cole wasn’t sure they had country music in space.
Cole opened his eyes and glanced over at Mama. The dashboard lights made her face glow green. She was chewing gum, her jaw working hard. Every now and then, she’d spit into a cup. He’d asked her if he could have some gum, too, but she’d only laughed and told him this was special gum, only for grown-ups. He looked at her hands clutching the steering wheel, her fingernails sort of yellow. His stepmother, Paula, always painted her nails bright red, and Cole thought red was prettier than yellow. He wouldn’t tell Mama that, though. It’d hurt her feelings.
Cole’s stomach growled. It was eight o’clock, so he’d have already eaten supper if he’d been at home with Daddy and Paula and his little brother, Wyatt. It was Friday night, so his cousin, Georgia, would probably be over to spend the night. He thought about what they’d be doing. He was allowed to stay up late on Friday night, all the way to ten o’clock, so he’d probably be watching television with Wyatt and Georgia, or else Georgia would be reading a book to him and Wyatt. Georgia was his same age, seven, but she was a better reader.
“Mama?” Cole said, and talking felt funny to his throat because he’d been quiet for several hours.
“We’ll stop somewhere,” she said.
The sky was black now, so Cole could see his reflection in the car window. He could see the moon now, too. It was a sliver, glowing bright and white. Cole imagined curling up in the sliver to sleep.
It was yellow behind his eyelids when Cole woke up. They weren’t moving, and he smelled gas. He opened his eyes. Mama wasn’t in the car. The yellow glow was from the light above the gas pump, and it was still dark outside the island of the gas station. The car was off, so he didn’t know what time it was. He was even colder now that the heater wasn’t spitting out anything. He sat up and peered through the window. Mama was probably inside. He couldn’t see another person, and the cold had soaked through his skin all the way inside of him. He put his hand on the car handle and tried it. It opened; Mama had left it unlocked.
Cole stepped out of the car, pulling the coat up around him to try to keep it from dragging on the ground. He was too small, though, and it made a slithering sound as it trailed along behind him. He pushed open the door, and a bell tinkled. He smelled old smoke and something musty. His stomach growled as he looked at the rows of Little Debbie cakes and beef jerky by the front counter. He didn’t see anyone in here, not even Mama.
He walked up and down the aisles, past the motor oil and browning flowers and tins of soup and bags of sunflower seeds. Along the back wall was the giant refrigerator full of drinks. Suddenly, the raw thirst opened in Cole’s throat and he traipsed closer, his tennis shoes shuffling on the dirty tile floor.
He glanced around the store again. No one. He walked past the fridge full of Grown Up Drinks that Daddy and Paula sometimes had after dinner. Then there were Cokes and Dr. Peppers and, his favorite, root beer. He put his hand to the handle and pulled. A blast of icy air washed over him. He snatched the root beer bottle out and let the door slam shut with a thud. He had a quarter in his pocket; he wondered if that would be enough to pay for the root beer. He walked back up to the front of the store. By the counter was an opened box of Moon Pies. Before he even knew what he was doing, his hand was reaching into the box and clasping one, feeling the plastic crinkle against his skin. The Moon Pie was big and yellow, the perfect food for a space explorer.
Cole placed the quarter on the counter and sat down cross-legged on the floor. Paula would have yelled at him for sitting on the ground. He twisted open the root beer cap, listening to it hiss. The foam rushed up to the top of the bottle, spilling out onto the floor. He took a sip, then a gulp. It tickled his nose and burned his throat since he was drinking it too fast, but he was so thirsty, he couldn’t stop. Finally, he set the bottle down and wiped his mouth. The fizz felt like it was rising up in his stomach, and he burped. Paula would have yelled at him for that, too. Now that he was no longer thirsty, he felt even hungrier. The Moon Pie wrapper was slippery in his hands, but he finally gripped it enough to open it.
It tasted even better than he had imagined, and it was gone before he’d even realized how fast he was eating. He took another drink of root beer and pulled another Moon Pie from the box. He was halfway through it when he heard the footsteps.
“Hey!” said a man’s voice. “The fuck you think you’re doing?”
Cole froze as the man appeared. Cole was sitting on the ground, and the man looked huge, looming over him. His hair was long and greasy, and his beard grew in patches. He reached down and snatched the half-eaten Moon Pie out of Cole’s fist. The hand closed around his wrist, and Cole felt himself being yanked to his feet.
“Where did you come from, boy?”
“Hey, leave him alone. That’s my son.” Cole heard Mama’s voice.
“Yeah, yeah, he was in the car.”
“I’m sorry, Mama, I was hungry,” said Cole.
“Boy should know better than to steal food.”
“He’s only five,” said Mama. “He didn’t know better.”
“The Moon Pie’ll cost you extra,” said the man.
“I paid for it with a quarter,” said Cole.
“Please, Mike, we need to get on the road. I’ll make it up to you when I come back through this way.”
“I did pay for it,” said Cole. “There’s a quarter on the counter, see.”
“You better make up for it good next time,” said Mike.
“I will,” said Mama. “I will.”
Mike kissed Mama on the lips. Cole wrinkled his nose, then Mama extracted herself with a smacking sound.
“I’ll be back through, Mike,” she said. “I’ll make it up then. Please, we have to go. We have to get on the road.”
“I paid for it,” said Cole.
Mama grabbed his hand and pulled him from the store. The bell tinkled again.
“I paid for it,” Cole said.
“Baby, why didn’t you stay in the car?”
“I was cold and I didn’t know where you were.”
“Don’t you know better than to steal, Cole?”
“I paid for it with a quarter.”
She was walking too fast for him to keep up, half dragging him.
“Don’t do that again.”
“But I was hungry and you didn’t get me anything to eat!” Cole was whining, he knew, but he couldn’t help it. He was still hungry, but he felt kind of sick, too.
“Get in the car, Cole.”
Mama opened his door, and Cole climbed inside. Mama stuck the key in the ignition and turned. The motor made a funny noise, then went quiet.
“Shit!” said Mama.
She turned it again, and then again.
“What’s wrong with the car?” Cole asked.
“I don’t know, Cole. Hush.” Mama sounded mad at him, so he hushed.
Finally, the car started, and Mama slammed her foot down on the gas pedal. The car lurched forward, and Cole felt himself being thrown back against the seat. He peered out the window again. The yellow light of the gas station receded, and they pulled out onto the road. The streetlights whizzed by them. The sick feeling was still there in his stomach. He pretended like the streetlights were stars, and they were whizzing by them in their spaceship. Up ahead, a green light turned yellow, then red.
“Shit,” Mama said again, slamming her foot down on the brake. The seatbelt dug into Cole’s chest.
“Mama?” he asked.
“What, baby?” she said, and she didn’t sound so mad at him anymore.
“Where were you in the gas station? I looked for you.”
“The bathroom, baby,” she said.
“You were in there for a long time,” he said. “I looked for you.”
“It wasn’t that long, baby.”
“Mama?” he said.
“I’m still hungry,” he said.
“We can’t stop now.”
“I thought you wanted to go on an adventure.”
“I do want to.”
“Well, then, hush.”
Cole hushed. The light turned green, and Mama slammed her foot down on the gas pedal again. The streetlights began whizzing by again. They passed another car, another spaceship, the first other spaceship Cole had seen for a long time. The vomit feeling was rising in Cole’s stomach again. Mama was driving fast, faster than Daddy or Paula ever did. Mama flicked on the radio again. Country music twanged.
Cole shivered. He was cold, but his forehead was starting to sweat. So were his palms. The vomit-feeling was stronger now. He saw his reflection in the car window again, and now his own skin looked alien-green. He imagined all of space whizzing by. They were going to Mars. No, they should have passed Mars already. He had just learned all the names of the planets at school, and he began to recite them in his head.
Mercury, Venus, Earth.…
Cole looked at the clock on the dash board; it was three o’clock in the morning. He wasn’t sure he’d ever been awake at this time before. If he’d been at home, he’d have been sleeping. It was Friday, and Georgia was probably spending the night. He and Wyatt and Georgia would probably have slept in their tent on the floor. He’d be sleeping between Wyatt and Georgia, and he’d be warm and listening to Wyatt and Georgia breathing in the dark.
Mars, Jupiter, Saturn….
Cole was hungry, but still had the vomit feeling. He remembered the Moon Pie and root beer and how good they had tasted, but now thinking about it made him feel sicker. Wyatt and Georgia were probably sleeping in the tent. Cole shared a room with Wyatt, and last week, Daddy had decorated their ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars. Cole and Georgia and Wyatt would have been sleeping in the tent in the bedroom floor. If Cole had crawled out of the tent, he’d be able to see the stars glowing on the ceiling. He could count them if he wanted.
Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.
Cole remembered the Moon Pie and how good it had tasted, but now the vomit feeling was stronger than ever and the streetlights were whizzing by, and they were going so fast that the lights became straight lines, like when they went into hyperspace on Star Wars and then it felt like they were going even faster, and Cole’s hands were shaking, and—
“Mama?” Cole said.
“Can you stop the car?”
“No, baby, no. We have to go.”
“On an adventure, baby, I told you.”
“Please, Mama, I feel sick, I need to stop.”
“Maybe we’ll stop tomorrow, okay?”
Cole looked at the streetlights and he thought about the glow-in-the-dark stars. Georgia and Wyatt would be sleeping in the tent, and Georgia would have read to Wyatt already, and Cole could count all the stars on the ceiling, and he could recite the planets for Georgia and Georgia would think he was smart.
The vomit feeling rose, and then there was a taste of sweet and sour and bitter, and then the vomit was out of his mouth and splattering all over the floor mat.
The car was stopping and swerving onto the side of the road, and Cole flung the door open and he threw up again and again onto the side of the road. His forehead was really sweaty now, and his hands shook. Then he felt his mama’s cool fingers on his forehead, pushing his hair back.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she was whispering.
He was finished now, and the cold air from outside felt good, and Mama’s fingers felt good in his hair. He leaned back into Mama’s arms.
“I’m sorry, baby, you told me to stop. I didn’t realize, baby, I’m sorry.”
Cole remembered once, back when Mama still lived with them, he was sick and Mama held his hair as he threw up and Daddy went to get him some water, and the water had tasted so sweet after the bitter taste of his vomit.
“I’m sorry, baby.”
“It’s okay, Mama,” Cole whispered, and his throat was raspy and burned. “It’s okay, Mama.”
“Are you okay now?” she said.
Mama opened the glove compartment and dropped some napkins onto the floorboard, onto the pile of vomit. Then she picked them up and threw them out the car door. Cole took some deep breaths of the cold outside air. He looked up at the stars, thinking of the glow-in-dark stars on his ceiling. These were bigger, brighter, better.
“We’ll stop somewhere for breakfast when we get to a town, okay? And I’ll get you some water so you can wash your mouth out, okay?”
“Yes, Mama,” said Cole.
Cole closed the door, and Mama began to drive again. She drove more slowly this time. Cole closed his eyes and thought of Georgia and Wyatt in the tent, and the glow-in-the-dark stars, and he thought of Paula’s red fingernails and Mama’s yellow ones. He could hear the radio in his dreams. He thought he heard his own name once, Cole Hensley, but the radio wouldn’t be talking about him, and so he slept, thinking of space.