Vivian sat in the darkness of her dining room, her gaze pinned to the side door, her lips working to push the ashy breath of her cigarette out far enough to avoid a cloud on her glasses. She could make out scattered bits of paper and cooking supplies on the kitchen counter by the garage. In a minute, there was bouncy music creeping up the street, behind a set of slow-moving high beams. Vivian ground out her butt in a nearby teacup and covered it with her hand; a red glow lit up the dining room through the front windows as the noisy vehicle backed up her driveway. Vivian kept her eyes on the kitchen door as the light and music faded. The door burst open suddenly, spewing garage light into the kitchen, making her daughter’s shadow twice as long as her silhouette.
“Woah,” The girl giggled, seeing her mother suddenly.
“Woah is right!” Vivian stood, teacup in hand, breathing out the last of her smoke. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“No!” Alexis tried to saunter to the table, but her balance was clearly off. “Why, am I late?”
“Are you drunk?” Vivian folded one arm over the other, speaking through her teeth.
Alexis’s snort-laugh erupted damningly, but she tried to play it off. “Drunk, what? How? I haven’t been drunk.”
“And you were out on the road like this…Alexis!” Vivian cupped her daughter’s face in her hands as the girl tried to squeeze past her into the hall, forcing her chin up. “How dare you be so reckless? After all the trouble with your last accident – and you know our insurance just about doubled for next year? Who’s going to pay for that, you?”
“I work…” Alex mumbled, avoiding her mother’s eyes.
Vivian looked her daughter over suspiciously in the dark, and slowly, tremulously reached for the light in the hall. When the naked glare landed on her daughter’s blood-spattered blouse, a moan escaped Vivian as though the sight surprised her.
The back bedroom door thunked open, and Dan could be heard shuffling toward them. “What’s going on?”
“Nothin’, Dadda,” Alexis slurred. “I’m going to bed.”
“Son of a – !” Dan froze the instant he’d lumbered around the corner. “And who’d you hit this time,” He breathed, after a forlorn-looking pause. He cleared his throat, bringing strength into his voice again. “The painter’s girl with the big nose? Or was it the big boy with the green shoes, finally? You’re girlfriend’s been talking about getting them for a couple of weeks, I can’t even keep track anymore of who we’re supposed to be worried about.”
“Ok, fine!” Alex admitted. “I messed up, again. I’m the worst girl in the world, I get it!”
“Who’d you hit?” Dan asked again, coming closer.
“I didn’t hit nobody, Daddy. I didn’t hit, I didn’t kick, or nothing. All I did was throw one tiny little brick.”
“At who?” “Don’t know,” said Alex.
“McDonald’s drive-through window, all right? McDonald’s drive-through, that’s who I hit.”
“While Shirley was with you?” Vivian glared through the front window to see if the car that had dropped her daughter off was still there, but it was long gone down the road, with its chipper music. “We can’t keep doing this!” Vivian felt herself gearing up to yell, but Dan put a restraining hand on her shoulder.
“Why don’t we all clean up, go to sleep, and we’ll talk about this in the morning.”
“Right,” said Alexis, then turned and made a beeline for the bathroom.
Vivian glared at her husband. “This, is…”
“Fist-fighting, drinking, dog-fighting and now smashing windows, Dan! We can’t afford it – she can’t afford it. We’re not covered for felony charges. At this rate we won’t be able to afford another six months of minimum protection. And if we have another incident they’re liable to take our insurance away altogether.”
“Tell me something I don’t know, Viv.”
“You know what happened to Donna and Mike’s kids when they lost coverage. Didn’t even last four days before –”
“Yes,” Dan cut in sharply, his face a shock of pain. “I know.”
“I’m sorry,” Vivian whispered. She knew she’d regret bringing up her husband’s nephews, but she couldn’t stop herself from finishing the thought. “I’m sorry, Dan. It’s just – how are we here? How is it so easy for her to throw all of it away – everything we’ve done for her, everything our parents have done for us? As hard as we work , and neither of us have ever been in real trouble. How are we now on the brink of seeing our girl behind bars?”
“I don’t know,” Dan said. His voice was close to breaking. “Work doesn’t pay what it used to, and nothing’s getting cheaper. Used to be that you could count on your kids being covered. But it’s not that way anymore – our times are changing, Viv. If Alex doesn’t figure that out soon, I don’t know what we’ll do for her.” He stopped, pressing his forehead into the wall against his hand and squeezing shut his eyes. He opened them again suddenly, with a violence that would have been surprising to someone who hadn’t been married to him for twenty-three years. “It’s those kids!” He growled. “It’s those no-good lawyers’ and doctors’ kids always brining our girl into these things. Well, there’s to be no more of it, Viv! No more Shirely, no more Cane, no more Kyle, no more Teke. We’ll keep her under lock and key if we have to, bar the windows, send them kids away if they come knocking…”
“Oh, Dan, you know that won’t work. She’ll burn the house down trying to get out, or they’ll burn it down trying to get in. There’s nothing to be done, short of packing up and heading out of town.”
Dan opened his mouth, and then closed it again, his eyes growing wider.
“No,” Vivian gasped. “I was only joking, Dan!”
“Why not?” Dan’s eyes glowed with distance.
“Where would we even go? We’ve got no money to –“
“So we’ll go someplace we won’t need money. Yeah, Viv, I’m serious. We’ll pack it all up, go out to the middle of Montana, someplace she can’t get into trouble, someplace there’s no trouble to get into. We’ll go to where we’re not the poor folks, to where we can’t find any lawyers or doctors or bankers at all. And we’ll live there. Maybe we won’t even need insurance, but we’ll still pay, we’ll keep saving it and keep paying, just in case she ever needs it.”
Cold fingers of air were crawling up Vivian’s spine. “Dan,” she choked. “You and I can’t live that way…”
“The way my father lived? You think we can’t?”
“Move out to nowhere….disappear?” Vivian glanced at the painting of black lilies down the other end of the hall. “It’s so many steps backwards.”
“I know it is, a step backwards. I know it, and there’s nothing we can do. We can’t go forward anymore – not here, not now. I don’t know what would have to change for things to start moving the right way for us again. Whatever this is, we won’t get through it by staying put. Something has to give.”
“Alex,” Vivian choked. “Alex should give! She’s got to see that this here is her life, the life we’ve made for her. And if she keeps going this way…”
Dan shook his head, and Vivian swallowed, sure that he was right. “Pack up the car,” she said. “You have to do it. I can’t…”
“But you have to get Alex,” said Dan. “Get her into the car, keep her from waking up too much. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be somewhere new, and it’ll be too late then. Leave the GPS, leave the phones.”
“She’ll grow old away from everything important.”
“She has to. If she’s going to make it, if we’re ever getting back to where we were.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of, Danny. What if we don’t come back? What if we never come back?”
“Just let’s worry about tonight.”
Vivian couldn’t help finishing her husband’s sentence, with his mother’s favorite idiom. “In case tonight is all we have.”