The radio played softly as Milo’s eyes clouded with the thick fumes of Mom’s Marlboro Reds. The windows of their ’96 Ford Ranger were rolled all the way up, keeping the sharp bite of the late autumn wind out and the acrid taste of cigarettes in. The once black seats, faded to a sickly gray, were coated in a thin layer of grime and permeated with years of greasy food and stale cigarettes.
“Where are we going?”
“We’ll know when we get there.”
Milo watched Mom take another long drag on her cigarette, flicking the ash into the ripped off bottom of a Styrofoam cup she kept taped to the dashboard. Milo never really understood how she could always get the perfect leverage, just enough to dust the top layer of ash. When he was younger, he remembered practicing with pencils and sometimes with Twizzlers, but the movement had always felt awkward.
In school, they told him cigarettes were bad. They even showed him a picture of a lung, cancerous and covered in a thick black tar. Milo figured his mother’s lungs must look even worse than that, like a piece of meat left too long on the grill.
Once he had asked her why she smoked. If she was worried that her lungs might shrivel up and die just like the one in the picture.
“They only say it’s bad for you. Don’t believe ‘em,” she said. “Don’t you never let no one tell you what to think.”
That was two years before, when they had lived in the wooden house with the flowered wallpaper. Even then, Milo knew Mom wasn’t like other moms. Other moms came to parent teacher night and knew when their son’s birthdays were. They went out for ice cream and held hands with dads dressed in suits and smiled at their kids like those pictures of Jesus’s mom on the drugstore bookstand.
Billy never seemed to mind though. Milo didn’t remember Billy all that well. His red hair, already thinning on top, and the way he used to laugh with his whole body, not just his mouth.
Billy knew what to say when Mom disappeared into herself. He would set Milo on his lap to hold him close.
“Some folks,” he said, “can follow the rules. Mom isn’t one of them. She has to do what she wants.”
But this was before Billy went away to Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or whatever place it was that all the bad people lived, and left Milo with Mom.
Milo didn’t know where they were going this time, but he almost never did. Mom would hustle him out of whatever flea bag dump of a hotel they were staying in, bundling him into the car at the crack of dawn. Sometimes they would have to leave in the middle of the night, before the owner realized they had skipped on the bill and stolen the sheets. Or the TV and even once a faded steel mini-fridge with six cans of beer and an old tuna sandwich. They would pawn the junk for a few dollars and then leave town.
Did anyone know who he was? Did anyone wonder about the mother and son in the beat up red truck?
Milo didn’t think so. People almost never asked questions and when they did, Mom had a ready answer.
“We are moving in with my parents soon as the month is over. They just gotta get a place set up for us, and then we are goin’ to Greensboro.” Or Roanoke. Or Baltimore. Always going, never staying.
“Doesn’t he go to school?”
That was a question they sometimes got, usually from old ladies with their church hats and their church minds.
“Them schools don’t know nothing about teaching kids. That’s why I teach my boy myself. I teach him all he needs to know.”
The old ladies would nod in agreement, “The world sure is going to heck. Your boy doesn’t need to hear all that trash.”
Milo stared out of the grimy window, the Blue Ridge Mountains hung with a thick mist and the naked branches of the trees swayed in the bitter air, a few desperate leaves clinging to the frozen surface. Inside, a wrapper from a cheap burger crinkled under his feet and the cold fries sat forgotten on his lap. He had gotten a smudge of ketchup on Billy’s hand-me-down and faded Baltimore Orioles sweatshirt, another added to a large collection of stains and dirt.
Mom stubbed out her cigarette, burnt well past the filter into a tiny nub.
“I need to make a quick pit stop. I think there is a gas station a few miles out the Cedar Run exit.”
They had just stopped for gas about an hour ago outside Brighton. Milo hated pit stops. Mom rested her hand on the middle consul, where she kept IT all wrapped up in an old dishrag.
Milo remembered the day they had left. Mom sold anything that would sell, her grandmother’s jewelry, her father’s Korean War medals, and the Honda. All that was left was Billy’s old truck and a whole lot of emptiness. Even then, he was shocked when Mom told him the house wasn’t theirs anymore.
“Whose is it?” he asked.
“Uncle Sam’s,” she said, striking her lighter.