“How long’ll you be staying?”
The campsite host pressed his palms on either side of her mother’s window. His eyes moseyed around the interior of the car, from the sleeping bags and boxes of food to Aster in the back seat.
“Oh, just for the weekend,” her mother told him. “We’ll be leaving Sunday. Early to work on Monday, you know.”
“Yup,” he said although he didn’t look like he knew. “Just you and the girl?” Aster thought he looked like a pumpkin with big square teeth when he smiled.
She and Mother had been on the road for hours. Mother drove like a hunted animal with both hands gripping the steering wheel, eyes wide, head sweeping back and forth, back and forth like a fan, and intermittent muffled shrieks when other cars got too close. Before the divorce and when Aster was little, Mother had preferred to sit in back with Aster, said that if there was an accident she could act as a human shield. She claimed that all roadside rest stops were for “desperadoes” so to avoid stopping she brought snacks, maps, and a Mason jar to pee in.
“Just us chickens,” Mother told him. She peeled one hand from the steering wheel, reached back, and grabbed Aster’s knee. Her eyes seemed pressed even more deeply into her skull than usual and her eyes glinted meaningfully from dark shadows. “Ladies only this weekend. Right, Aster? Everyone else will just have to wait.”
Mother was always doing this, clutching with clammy hands. Aster brushed the hand aside and turned her attention to the campsite host’s trailer with an American flag jutting up front and Christmas tree lights stapled around the front door and somewhere, the sibilant chop of a sprinkler blade slicing spray. The campground lay beyond, a road looping through grass as stiff and green as Astroturf, each site marked with a tidy line of whitewashed rocks. Aster kicked the seat in front of her as if that would make the car go faster. Her foot had dented the seat back but she didn’t care, a ten-year-old ought to be old enough to sit in front where she could reach the radio. Finally the man took his hands off the car and they drove slowly past dusty campers, RVs, and fat men teetering in cheap aluminum chairs.
“Why did you tell him there was someone waiting for us at home?”
“He didn’t need to know, dear,” Mother explained. She rode the brake and leaned forward over the steering wheel. “It’s the power of suggestion. Like putting a sign on your front door that says ‘Beware of Dog’ even if you don’t own one.”
“Well why don’t we just get a dog then, if you’re so worried? I’ve always wanted a dog.”
“That’s beside the point.”
They inched past a low, windowless brick structure. “Oh my lord, that must be the bathroom.” Mother gasped. “I don’t know how you talked me into this. Why would anyone want to come here when we have two perfectly nice bathrooms at home?”
Aster kicked the seat until they arrived at site #37: one picnic table, a cemented brick fire pit, and a scrubby oak tree with branches blackened with soot. Outside, the air was thick with the smell of hot dust and trembling with the hum of cicadas. Aster ran to the edge of the slope that dropped down to where she assumed the river was, although she couldn’t see through the dusty tangle of bushes.
“Let’s go swimming!” she called over her shoulder. “Please can we go, please?”
“I have to get the tent up before it gets dark.”
“Oh, come on. That won’t be for hours.”
“But darling, it’s my responsibility to ensure our shelter.”
“Let’s just go cool off real fast and then we can unpack.”
Mother was pulling sections of pole from the bag, searching for the instructions. “I can’t let my baby sleep in the dirt.”
“But I like dirt. I mean, we’re camping, right?”
Mother studied the diagram carefully. “It will only take a minute. Unpack the car if you want something to do.”
Aster had everything arranged on the picnic table when Mother threw a pole down and gurgled a moan. “Your father put up the tent last time. I bet he misplaced the parts I need. He probably broke it and neglected to mention.”
“I bet I can do it. Let me help.” Aster walked over to the tent sagging like a downed elephant with ribs jutting through. “See? These two poles are longer. They must go on the ends.”
“I’ll do it if you’ll just give me a moment.” Mother’s pale skin was slick with sweat and her hair clung to her scalp. “How about collecting some kindling?”
So Aster balanced on a line of painted white rocks back toward the restroom and past the group of kids sitting on the back bumper of a pickup truck with its windows rolled down, leaking tinny music. No one made a sound as she passed but then a skinny boy with a cigarette behind his ear threw a frizbee at her, fast and hard. “Heads up!” he screamed, and they all laughed and slapped their thighs.
Beyond the squat hulk of brick lay a dry creek bed that cleared a shaded path through a thicket. Aster followed it for awhile, slipping on smooth stones, tunneling under the heat and hum of cicadas through mottled light, loading her arms with branches and bits of wood before she came across the pair of women’s underwear dangling on a branch; once-white, hanging at eye level like a sign, like a piece of evidence of what was and what was coming, what would always be true: grayed panties skewered on a twig. “Hello?” Aster called out, but of course no one answered.
Back at camp Aster piled the kindling by the fire pit. Mother stood beside the assembled tent with her hand behind her back so that Aster would not see the blood between her thumb and index finger. Mother never liked to divulge any discomfort. Her lips pulled back in a tight smile.
“Is everything okay?”
“Of course I am,” said Mother. “It wasn’t so hard after all.”
“I’ll go change.” But when Aster stepped out of the tent in her swimsuit, Mother was fretting over the boxes on the table.
“I just want to get this organized before we go. We’ll need to cook dinner soon.”
“It’s the middle of the day!“ Aster stomped her foot in the dust but when Aster got angry, Mother always averted her eyes. “Fine then, I’ll take myself to the river while you do what you need to do.”
“Oh, no. It’s my job to keep an eye on you.” Mother did not look up from the pots and pans. “Go cool off in the sprinkler. We’ll swim tomorrow.”
By then, the sun was white hot. Aster draped a towel over her head and walked the long way, counter-clockwise around the camp site, behind the camp host’s trailer to where the sprinkler spurted its high and aimless arc. If she stood still, the water struck like machine gun spray, but if she followed the rotation, she could catch the residual drizzle.
Huddled in their camper’s shade, two fat men in baseball caps sat, watching. One called her over with a whistle saying he just wanted to be neighborly, asked what her name was and how old, where she came from, and while she dutifully answered every question, she realized that the silent man sitting next to him wasn’t a man at all, was perhaps his wife wearing his clothes or maybe his twin sister. He wanted to know if she went to church and wondered whom her daddy voted for in the last election. To Aster, the sunburned folds of flesh at his neck looked like a pack of greasy hot dogs but she didn’t say so and when he held out a beer, she took the can he offered. Her father used to give her beer and if Mother caught him, she’d always give him that look. “What’s the harm in one sip?” he’d ask, and they’d both wait for her answer, but she never bothered to explain. Aster never liked the taste but she took a sip from the fat man’s beer and held it in her mouth for a moment before swallowing, waiting to see what would happen.
After dinner, Mother cleared and washed the dishes while Aster played solitaire until it got too dark to see the cards. The camp host came by with a raccoon warning that sent Mother into a silent frenzy but finally, after repacking everything in the trunk of the car and retrieving the pepper spray from the glove compartment, Mother zipped them into the tent. Aster lay still for a long time, listening to distant radios and the occasional car on the road. She thought Mother was asleep until she reached out in the darkness and lay her hand on Aster’s arm.
“So here we are.” Mother whispered. “Are you glad we came?”
“I just want you to be happy. That’s all I want.”
“Sure I’m happy.”
Somewhere outside, a woman’s laughter erupted like a raucous dirge that filled darkness with its reckless yearning. Lying there in her sleeping bag, Aster imagined she was part of that darkness, lost in the radio jangle, swallowed up in smoke. The moist pressure of her mother’s palm was the only thing that kept her from floating away. Aster lay there with her arm outstretched in offering, reliving the strangeness of the day and almost said it out loud but held her tongue. With fingers that pretended to know, fingers like question marks taking her pulse, her mother held her arm and said what she always said: “Tomorrow will be better. I promise.”
Aster slept well, roused only twice by the edge of Mother’s silhouette. It was still dark when she unzipped quietly but the sun was high before they had washed every dish, packed a picnic, and covered themselves with sunscreen, before Mother finally let herself be led down the path toward the river. Aster held her hand gingerly, careful not to press the gauze, pulling her through the dry yellow grass, dusty bushes, and onto the bald gravel where they unrolled their towels. Aster tumbled down to cool her feet in the stone-colored water. After arranging the towels, Mother sidled slowly down and stood at the edge of the river.
“Are you ready?” Aster was already in up to her knees.
“It’s so cold. I don’t think I can do it yet. Let’s sit for a minute, okay?”
But the cold was irresistible and Aster edged further out, splashing her thighs, gasping. When she was in to her waist, Mother used her stern voice to say her name but Aster didn’t turn around, just stroked the surface of the water and giggled like she’d been plugged into an electric current and when she was in up to her chin, Mother was stumbling behind, outstretched hand just missed as Aster dunked down under the silt gray surface, one full breath and eyes screwed tight, and when she came up she turned to grin and shout but Mother’s eyes had been sucked back into her skull so she couldn’t see, only groping fingers that found what they were looking for and Aster’s arms were suddenly held tight, legs kicking against Mother’s legs. They lost their footing and were both afloat, only Aster couldn’t move and Mother tried to lift her up, only there was no floor to push from and they both went under, mouths full of sediment, eyes open to the milky white world below, scratching and kicking, screaming.
Aster kicked hard and swam fast, not stopping until she reached the other side where she crouched alone on the far bank, for one heartbeat and another, alone in blinding sun.
Finally, a shadow rose and a head surfaced, thirty feet downstream, finally pulled onto the bank and lay there, coughing. Aster swam to her side but Mother would not open her eyes, was lost somewhere deep inside. Finally, Mother pulled herself to her knees.
She knew she wasn’t supposed to, she knew she shouldn’t, but she couldn’t stop herself, Aster had to know. “What happened?”
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“I forgot.” There was a bruise forming on her cheekbone. Her arms were scratched, the gauze was gone, and her hand was bleeding. “I guess I just forgot.”
When Mother looked at Aster, it was from the bottom of a well. “I forgot you can swim.”
They pretended it never happened. They went back home that day, back to their nice clean house with the sanitizing dishwasher and sockets guarded by plastic plugs where nothing bad happened. They never spoke of it again and Mother never said she had cancer, either, even when her hair fell out and her bones rose to the surface of her skin, she had everything under control, and in the hospital when her lungs filled with fluid and she couldn’t breathe any more, even when she died, she didn’t say a word about it, she pretended not to be surprised.