By Judith Schiess Avila
Five-year-old Robby holds chubby arms above his head in the classic pick me up stance. “Show me my daddy,” he demands. “And big bubber.”
I place a paring knife next to the others in the drawer I’m sorting and lift him, pushing him away from my shoulder so I can look into his eyes. I see the uncertainty lurking there, the unasked questions. Our furtive preparations are making my little brother nervous.
“Don’t worry,” I whisper, brushing my lips across his cheek. “We’re all going on a trip—even Yoda—and it’s going to be someplace nice. You’ll like it. I promise.” I hope I am not lying. Mom has refused to reveal our destination.
I carry him through the living room to the fireplace. “Here they are.” The framed photo of Dad and Michael sits dead center on the mantle.
Robby is silent, staring at the father and big brother he barely knew.
Focusing on the photo, I search my older brother Michael’s face, as I’ve done thousands of times before. Did he have any inkling of what was coming? No, his grin is genuine, engaging, as though he’d just run for a touchdown with all the cheerleaders watching. He is relaxed, confident of his place in this world.
My father’s arm drapes over Michael’s shoulder, claiming his oldest son. A thin, gold wedding band hangs above Dad’s knuckle. Michael grips a fishing rod loosely in his left hand. Life is good. Was good.
My brother Michael was my age—seventeen—in that picture. I, the smitten younger sister, took the shot. I position Robby so he can see them eye-to-eye. “Remember them,” I whisper. “They loved you.”
I hold my phone up and snap a copy. Mom will never know.
Robby’s chubby hand reaches for the framed photo.
“No, Sweetie,” I say. “We can’t take it with us.”
Our departure is to look like a vacation, not an escape.
I carry Robby to the car, his head heavy against my shoulder, our golden retriever Yoda padding close behind. When both are settled into the back seat, I return to the house for my roller suitcase with its half-broken zipper. Hoisting it into the open hatchback of the Subaru, I force it between luggage and a box of books, a too-small space.
My home, the place I can’t separate from feelings of safety and love, stares through pitiless, blank windows. A persistent kettledrum pounds in both temples, and an icy stone sits heavy in my gut. I slam the hatchback door with all my weight, and the shocks moan in protest.
“Zola, shush.” Mom, in the driver’s seat, sounds more tense than angry. She never calls me “Zola”—only “Zee” like the last letter of the alphabet—unless something is wrong. “We don’t want the neighbors to see us taking all this stuff,” she says in a stage whisper.
Mom’s right. Our departure is serious. But Zola? She named me after a man. Really. Don’t know whether I’ll ever live that down. But he, Emile Zola, actually wrote some totally outlaw things. If you bury the truth it will still grow. And, like Mom, he believed in living out loud. Not something I have mastered.
I am definitely “Zee” material, not “Zola.”
A chill climbs up my legs and back as I glance one last time at our home. We packed carefully, painfully, leaving drawers and closets filled with clothes. Rumpled socks and underwear sit in the dryer. Dishes and canned foods still populate the cupboards. We even left precious bacon and green beans in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Of course, in a government attempt to discourage food hoarding, our larger, stand-alone freezer was tagged and removed months ago.
Family pictures remain on the mantelpiece, rubbing shoulders with the one of Dad and Michael.
I walk to the front of the car, yank the passenger door open, and drop onto the seat, cool morning air brushing over my face and arms. Robby is already nodding off in back, looking impossibly innocent. Yoda lies, head on Robby’s leg, wearing the red and black vest that identifies a medical assistance dog. Robby never goes anywhere without Yoda.
Our dog is well known here in tiny Newbury, New Hampshire, but we’ll have to guard him on the road. Dogs have become fair game as meat.
I fold my arms across my chest and turn toward Mom. “Why did you tell me we were going to Aunt Suzy’s when you knew we weren’t?” Dad’s sister Suzy lives in a rustic cabin on Great Diamond Island, just off the coast of Maine. I love it there, surrounded by trees and deer and ocean. Tranquility washes in like a tide.
But my silent mom has other plans. And they are so illegal.
“Mom, this is because of the baby, isn’t it.” I am telling her, not asking.
She throws a distracted glance at me and pulls her mouth into a frown. “No. Well … Maybe a little.”
That’s the trouble with Mom’s job. She’s been the head of neonatology at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for years, but when a baby dies she still feels it like she did the first time. I see the ghost of that baby lurking in her eyes for days.
But why this sudden move, now?
“I need to get away,” Mom says, as though she can hear my thoughts. She glances at me again, and this time something in her eyes scares me.
“I’m sorry, Honey. I need to make a difference somehow. Help to change things.”
Change. My problem with a go-getter mom like mine is I avoid change if I possibly can.
Mom goes silent, and I do, too. I suspect she never really tried to get a relocation license. Poverty and unrest in every major city have Congress scared shitless. There have been riots in Chicago, LA and Atlanta. Last year, a third round of tax-cuts for the rich was passed. Job growth was predicted, but instead unemployment has skyrocketed, and the working class has hardly seen a rise in wages for a decade. Many of my friends’ parents hold down two jobs—when they can find them. Just last month, the President signed an executive order forbidding any citizen to move without official permission. He assures the American people it’s a temporary measure. Just until things are brought under control. But, like his father, the first president impeached for racketeering, he is famous for an adversarial relationship with the truth. Even so, I try to believe that this new order is, indeed, temporary.
In the side mirror, I watch our two-story house until its peeling paint becomes a smoky smudge between the gray trunks of evergreens and maple trees. Pale dawn casts faint shadows across the road. My heart squeezes with each breath. “I don’t want to leave, Mom.”
“Me, neither. But we’ll be okay. You’ll see.” Her gray-threaded bob swings with her nod.
I run fingers through my own purple and auburn shingle cut and picture Mom’s auburn hair, thick and smooth, with no springy wisps of gray. It wasn’t that long ago. The gray took root after Dad and Michael were killed by lightning.
We had been hiking in the White Mountains, and while Mom and I scouted near the campsite for signs of wildflowers, which were all but extinct with the endless drought, Dad and Michael decided to explore. Robby, only two years old, and Yoda stayed with us at camp, digging holes. It hadn’t been raining that day, and no thunder clouds were visible over the mountains. Heat lightning, a freak accident, the park ranger called it.
Now the ashes of my father and brother are scattered in the backyard—the backyard we are leaving. I touch the small glass and silver vial hanging from a chain around my neck, glad I saved some ashes. The sturdy chain, pinching hairs at my nape, assures me that I once belonged to a complete family. Mom says she couldn’t bear the constant reminder, so she has no vial. I get it, but for me the ashes bring a sort of comfort, a promise that someone out there—or up there, or wherever—is watching over me.
I study my mother’s profile. A strong chin endows her fragile features with determination. On her, it looks good; on me it just looks large.
Radio silent, we turn south toward the southern tip of Lake Sunapee. I direct my eyes away from the lake. Then, realizing this might be my last chance to see it, I force my gaze back. Once brimming with achingly clear water, it has shrunk by half, leaving private boat docks forlorn and marooned. And there’s an algae growing, a blue-green bloom shimmering just under the surface, that has moved north all the way to Canada with the warming waters. It makes lake water dangerous. Cases of Lou Gehrig’s Disease and dementia, in alarming numbers, have been documented.
The silence is eerie—no boats or swimmers, no water skiers on this lovely, warming August day. A few of the trees surrounding the lakebed are still green, but elsewhere I see only death. Individual branches poke bare from thinning brown canopies. Every year, lately, the online Farmer’s Almanac promises more rain. Every year we are disappointed.
Navigating the winding road at forty miles-per-hour, we pass a sign that commands: “It’s up to you. Conserve Water!”
Mom glances at the sign and sighs.
I can’t hold back. “Fuck! How do we conserve what we haven’t got?”
Mom nods, not even mentioning my language. She believes in the right word for the right sentiment. She’s with me on this one.
Robby mumbles in his sleep, and I turn in time to see Yoda raise his head. He studies my brother for several seconds, then relaxes into his nap again.
Two miles down the road, when Robby wakes and sits up, Yoda does, too. My brother slides his window down. One small hand reaches out, waving to three men walking toward the day-labor center. “We’re going away,” he shouts.
“Shushhhhh. And pull your arm inside.” Mom hits the button to close his window. “Go to sleep, Robby. We have a long ride ahead.”
Maybe a quarter mile later, another billboard shouts, “Conserve!”
I grit my teeth against the impulse to scream. While we catch what precipitation does fall in barrels, government-subsidized EarthFuels—it’s headquarters only forty miles away in Concord, New Hampshire—continues to release chemicals from fracking into the atmosphere and ground water. EarthFuels, the largest corporation in the world, has operations across the planet and the most highly paid lobbyists in Congress. What can we, a family of three, do to offset that?
I tap Mom’s arm. “Will you please tell me where we’re going?”
She adjusts the steering wheel slightly, using both hands. “Soon.”
I stare at her, saying nothing. We have rounded the southern tip of Sunapee and are heading north, fairly close to the shore. I glance at the lake again and wish immediately that I hadn’t. Silvery fish bodies float in the shallows and lay sprawled along exposed sandy beaches—mostly bass, but I can make out a few striped perch. Many dead fish are scavenged, despite the dangerous algae, but these must have rotted too quickly in the summer heat. I brush the smell from my face, but even inside the car, every hair on my body is suffused. The slow death of my beloved lake is more real to me than the famine attacking my country.
We must be heading to California, I decide. Californians have converted all power to solar and wind. As a result, they have less pollution than the rest of us, and the nation’s lowest mortality rate for babies. That would make Mom happy. Do billboards dare scold them?
I nudge Mom’s arm again. “C’mon. Tell me.”
She sighs. “I guess it’s safe, now that we’re on our way.”
I wait, trying to blink the image of dead fish from my retinas. I finally break into her long silence, “Well?”
Mom tilts the rearview camera, probably to see whether Robby is sitting up. He isn’t. In a whisper she says, “I thought … uh … New Mexico.”
What? My teeth clench. “New Mexico! We’ve never even been there.”
“I was there once before you were born. Albuquerque. A desert, but very beautiful.” She turns to glance at me. “The colors are amazing, Zee—tans and reds and purples, all baked by constant sun, like pottery. The mountains are called the Sandias, Spanish for watermelon. They turn bright pink at sunset.” She smiles, getting that faraway look she always has when she’s remembering something good, then shakes her head and comes back to me. “Ironic, they get enough rain now to grow most crops there. And they have clever ways of supplementing the rain with irrigation.”
I close my eyes, trying to recall anything I’ve ever heard about New Mexico. Mountains. Cactus. Tumbleweeds. Desert, not water. I will myself to be calm and ask, “Why not California? It’s got the ocean. Why, of all places, New Mexico?”
“They need us.”
“Do they even know we’re coming?”