A hot, dry Santa Ana wind condition, common during the fall and winter in Southern California, blew from the high deserts down to the ocean on the morning Kelly O’Connor was released from Riverside Central Hospital. Native tribes had called the weather condition Devil Winds because of the dust, the forest fires, and the allergies and edginess of people caught in its path.
Kelly sat in the backseat of her mother, June’s, ’65 white, convertible Mustang with the top down. Her stepfather, Hank, was driving her mother and Kelly home to Azusa. The wind carried to the backseat the acrid smell of alcohol emanating from the couple in the front. Kelly’s loose hair whipped and stung her face, while sunlight cooked the top of her head. She felt as if she was trapped under a hair salon’s egg-shaped dryer.
“Isn’t it great to be out in the sun after being inside for so long?” Hank shouted over his shoulder. He steered the car with one hand while the other reached across the front seat to her mother’s slender neck, where his index finger crept up and
Kelly nodded and smiled as she had with therapists, doctors, and nurses for the last month. Lying was easier than the truth. So, yes, she wanted to live. Yes, she would move in with her mother rather than stay in Riverside with Daddy. Yes, to a diagnosis of mumbo-jumbo words like situational depression, not chronic or bipolar disorder. She’d smiled and agreed that a change in her home environment would make her fine and happy and able to forgive everyone, including herself.
Because no, she didn’t want the hospital psychiatrist to ask her any more questions and then ask questions about her answers and then start over again. She no longer wanted to eat in a cafeteria without knives, or sleep in a bed with rails, or brush her teeth in a bathroom without mirrors. Or stand behind a woman in line in the cafeteria room who wore only a T-shirt and sandals. Shirt and shoes required. No one said anything about pants.
But now, sitting in the backseat watching Hank caressing her mother’s neck, it would be so easy, very simple actually, to stand up and roll off the back of the car. No one would be able to catch her.
She glanced at June, who wore a pink, chiffon scarf knotted on top of her heavily moussed hair. Her mother looked so young that supermarket checkers still asked for identification when she bought liquor. She always wrinkled her nose and said, “Oh, don’t be silly,” but would repeat the story later to the family with a contented smile while stating, “They think we’re sisters, Kelly. Imagine that with you sixteen and me…” She’d break off and wink at them.
Kelly turned sideways and stretched her long legs across the seat. That way she could look back at Interstate 10 and not see Hank stroking her mother’s neck. She wanted to flick away that creeping hand with a snap of her thumb and index finger but instead drummed her fingers on the car’s blue upholstery. Her cut wrists had healed enough so she could do this without pain.
Her sweat pooled and ran under the hip, ’80s clothes her mother had brought for her to wear this morning––an outfit deemed more appropriate than the casual clothes Kelly had worn at the hospital. Due to the heat from the Santa Ana weather, she’d already taken off a pink blazer with linebacker shoulder pads. She still wore white tights, a short, black, pleated skirt, and a white, pin-tucked, starchy blouse with long sleeves and tight, wide cuffs that covered her wrists. At least with the jacket off, she didn’t feel so much like a six-foot, scarred flamingo.
“Not much traffic on the highway this morning,” Hank said. “Wanna see me open her up?”
“No.” Kelly tasted the word: a sweet, oozy plum dropping from her mouth. It made her lips pout like a fish. The word ‘yes’ made the sides of her mouth lift in an unwanted smile.
June said, “Well, I want to. Go ahead, honey.” She snuggled close to Hank and kissed him on the cheek.
Hank floored it. They flew past other cars as he wove in and out of lanes. Still sitting sideways on the seat, Kelly held her hair back with one hand and clutched the top of the backseat with the other. Prone to motion sickness, she swallowed bile. She glimpsed a black-and-white patrol car parked on an overhead ramp as they whizzed past. Kelly smiled. Maybe the cop would stop them before she got too sick.
“See how she purrs! God, I love this car,” Hank yelled into the wind. Kelly’s mother placed a hand on the nape of his neck and leaned back against the front seat. Hank changed a few more lanes in quick succession.
“I’m going to vomit if you don’t slow down,” Kelly shouted over the wind.
“Not in the car!” Hank decelerated.
“Lean outside,” June ordered.
Kelly twisted around to crouch on her knees and puke over the side. The wind caught her scrambled-egg breakfast and sprayed it across the window of the cop car sharking behind them in close pursuit with its siren wailing.
“Christ! Where did he come from?” Hank braked hard.
Kelly, still heaving, gripped the window edge to keep her balance and not fly out of the car.
Hank swerved the Mustang over to the fast lane’s shoulder and squealed to a stop, though the cop had signaled him to go to the right to an off-ramp.
Kelly opened the door and jumped out so fast that she tripped and her knees skidded across asphalt. She rose to stagger a few steps to an oleander bush growing by the freeway’s chain-link fence and wove her fingers into the holes for support.
The cop’s siren turned off with a yelp. A heavyset officer, his uniform snug across beefy shoulders and belly, strode over to her. “You okay, miss?”
She could see her wild-haired self in his reflective sunglasses. She nodded and wiped her eyes and mouth. Her knees burned. She’d have scabs on them like a little kid.
She looked over at the Mustang. Hank had moved fast. The car trunk was open, and he wiped off barf from the car door while his mouth chewed what looked like a wad of gum. Her mother was spraying perfume onto her neck and, looking back in the rearview mirror to check the cop, quickly into her mouth.
“Don’t worry about me, folks—I’m fine here!—REALLY!” Kelly’s words started in a loud voice and rose to a shout. She clutched the fence. How like them to worry about the vomit and their alcohol smell rather than her safety. Through her anger a realization, something important, wiggled at the back of her brain, but she couldn’t quite catch its meaning.
“Stay here, miss.” The cop walked over to the Mustang.
Hank dropped the rag on the ground and stepped forward with his hand outstretched. “Hello, Officer. I’m Hank Pearson, bringing our daughter home from the hospital.”
The officer didn’t shake Hank’s hand. “Tell me what’s going on here.”
“Like I said, my wife and I just picked up our daughter Kelly from a hospital in Riverside. We were speeding because Kelly is anxious to see her sister, Sarah, who stayed home to watch over our dogs.” Hank smiled over at Kelly and called out, “Isn’t that right, Kelly?”
“No.” Kelly loved the sound of the word. Wanted to say it a few more times, just to feel her tongue tap against the top of her mouth. She would not take the blame this time.
June glared at her. “Kelly!”
“Most people rush to get to a hospital, not to leave it.” The officer looked over at Kelly. His lower lip reached up to suck a brushy mustache. Turning his attention back to Hank, he said, “Kill the engine and show me your license and registration.”
Kelly watched as her mother slid across the front seat and stepped out of the car in her capris, flashing a shapely, petite leg in the process. “Pardon me, Officer, but my daughter needs to get home and rest.”
The cop scrutinized June. “So why aren’t you over there helping her, ma’am?”
June replied, “She’s just carsick—can’t take the slightest movement.”
The cop stared at her for a few beats and then said, “Let me see your license also.”
June held her right palm to her heart. “Why? I wasn’t driving.” Kelly looked away, embarrassed, as her mother fluttered her eyelashes at him.
“Let me see your license, ma’am.”
Kelly turned back to watch June rustling around in her purse.
“I don’t see why this is necessary.” June handed him a pink suede wallet.
The officer examined both licenses, checked if their faces matched their photos, glanced at Kelly and then back to them. “You two been drinking?”
“Of course not.” June untied her scarf, shook her head, and fluffed her hair.
“Let’s be honest with the gentleman, June.” Hank smiled down at her and then over at the cop while assuming a man-to-man stance. “No reason to lie. We had a couple of Bloody Marys at the Riverside Inn before we picked up Kelly. I’m not drunk—don’t even feel a buzz.”
Kelly faced the fence again. Speeding cars roared past in the opposite direction; wind lifted her hair. Curious faces peered through the passing windows. Childishly, she wanted to stick her tongue out at the cars and people, the world even. But she didn’t. A thought nagged at her again while the cop ordered June and Hank to walk a straight line. He had them remove their sunglasses and peered into their eyes. He turned to Kelly. “Come here, miss.” Kelly walked over to the Mustang, but stayed four feet away from Hank and June. “Do you have some type of identification I can see?”
June snapped, “This is ridiculous. She doesn’t have a license.”
“Yes, I do. Daddy’s wife taught me how to drive.” She walked past her mother, making sure they didn’t touch, and removed her purse. She handed the cop the wallet from inside it.
He asked, “Are these your parents? Your last name is different.”
June spoke before Kelly could answer. “Excuse me, of course she’s my daughter. Hank is her stepfather. I took his name.”
“Stay here, please.” After walking back to his car, the cop talked into a police radio.
“At least he could call me by my name and not say ma’am like I’m an old lady,” June said in what she thought was a whisper.
Hank put his arm around June’s shoulder. “It’s okay, honey.”
The officer returned to them. He handed back their licenses and registration. “You checked out okay but I’m not sure if I should let you go with just a speeding ticket.”
“We need to get home! We’re sober enough, aren’t we?” June jostled Hank with an elbow. “We’ll be good.” She wrinkled her nose and almost wiggled like a puppy at the officer.
Kelly watched his jaw flex as if he was biting back words. Her eyes hurt from the bright reflection off his sunglasses. She closed them.
“Pardon me, ma’am, but I’m trying to get your story straight. You two went to a restaurant, had a couple of drinks, and then drove to a hospital to pick up your daughter. Then you rushed down the freeway at over ninety miles per hour, weaving dangerously through traffic, even though you know your daughter gets carsick. Correct?” No one answered him. “Your husband only saw me when he turned around when she got sick. He doesn’t seem to know how to use his rearview mirror.”
While he spoke, Kelly played the freeway scene over in her mind. So gross to throw up like that––Hank and his swerving and braking. But she had held on. She’d held on and not jumped. Kept alive. Elation blossomed in her chest. She felt proud, like a preening, puffed-up pigeon at the park. She wanted to share this but deflated when she looked over at Hank and her mother.
They did not and would not care.
Hank cleared his throat. “Surely we can work something out. Some compensation for your time and Kelly messing up your car?” He reached for his wallet.
“I don’t need anything else from your wallet, mister.”
“This is so unpleasant,” June said. “What can we do to help?”
“Nothing,” Kelly said. “You’re obviously not taking me home to a safe place. You’re drunk and driving crazy.” She turned to the policeman. “I was in the psych ward—tried to kill myself.” She undid the button on her right sleeve cuff and shoved up the material to show him her red, puffy scar. “See? But I want to live now. I won’t get back into that car. Ever.” Her hand, still outreached to him, shook in anger and hurt.
June rushed forward, grabbed Kelly’s arm, and pulled down the sleeve.
“That’s enough!” The cop grabbed June’s arm and held it still as she squirmed to free herself. “You and your husband get in the back of my car. We’ll sort this out at the station.”
“Let go of me,” June ordered to no avail.
“What about the Mustang? I can’t leave it out here,” Hank argued.
The officer said, “Raise the roof and lock it up. We’ll deal with it later. Wait—do you need anything from it, miss?” He looked at Kelly with such a kind smile she wanted to cry.
“Just my suitcase, please.”
Hank opened the trunk, pulled out her Samsonite, and placed it on the ground. He raised the car’s roof with angry, jerky motions. He joined June in the backseat, muttering under his breath.
The cop said to Kelly. “Ride in the front seat with me, miss.”
“Why are you doing this? We were taking her home!” June shouted from the backseat. “Tell him the truth, Kelly.”
“I just did, ma’am,” Kelly replied.
-- Carrie Repking received a B.A. in fine arts from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has been a practicing fine artist for most of her life. Her love of reading lead to her opening and running an independent bookstore for ten years in Fallbrook, CA. She has had short stories published in The San Diego Writer’s Monthly, the Penmen Review, and now the Jet Fuel Review.