by Briana Maley
I am riding in the wayback of the station wagon with my stepbrother Pauly, who is not the same person as my real brother, who is named Paul. My name is Jenny, but I like to pretend it’s Cassandra. I think if my name were Cassandra my hair would be long and thick and wavy. I could flick it over my shoulder when I was telling stories or describing rules to a game, and everyone would listen to me. If my name were Cassandra, adults wouldn’t ignore me when I told them that riding in the wayback makes me carsick. But here I am, watching the highway roll out under my feet. It feels like roller skating backwards. Suitcases and wrapped presents are pressed against my knees. The gift wrap crinkles every time I move.
Pauly is six and his mom says he’s a chatterbox but all that means is he never shuts up. I’m nine and I always get stuck with Pauly because we’re the two youngest. My brother Paul and my other stepbrother Eric get to sit in the middle row. They’re both eleven. Pauly says it’s like they’re twins. When I told him twins have to grow together in the same uterus, Pauly asked me what a uterus was. My stepmother Joanne lifted her eyebrows in a way that told me I better not answer him, although I don’t understand why not.
I try to move some of the presents to build a wall between Pauly and me but it’s not quite high enough and he peeks over the top and keeps talking. Snot is oozing from both his nostrils. It looks like the yellow lines in the middle of the road. He dabs the slime with the tip of his tongue.
‘Do you think Santa will be able to find you at my Grandma’s house, Jenny? Did you write and tell him where you’d be?’
I hate pretending I believe in Santa. I’ve never believed in Santa because my mom is a person who believes in being honest with children. She tells us that all the time. I used to think my dad was one of those people too. But now my dad says if I spoil Christmas for Pauly, there will be nothing but coal and tacks in my stocking. I don’t know where a person can even buy coal, but I didn’t ask him that. Instead I said I don’t know why I have to spend Christmas with Joanne’s family instead of staying with Mom. He said that this year was his year to have Paul and me for Christmas. Which for some reason made me think of that boardgame, Life, where you spin the wheel and land on different squares and they say things like ‘buy a furnace, pay $8,000,’ or ‘a daughter is born, collect presents.’ Only this square says, ‘parents divorce, lose a turn.’
When I don’t say anything back to Pauly he asks me again. ‘Did you write to Santa, Jenny?’
He won’t shut up if I don’t answer, so I say, ‘Don’t you think if Santa has enough magic to fly around the whole world in a single night, he has enough magic to know I’m at your stupid Grandma’s house?’
‘Grandma’s not stupid!’
‘You should write to Santa and ask him for tissues,’ I say. Pauly pulls his sleeve down over his wrist and drags it across his upper lip.
‘It’s too late to write him. It’s already Christmas Eve,’ he says.
I turn to look out my window but moving my head to the side makes my stomach get tight. I look straight out the back again, but now that the dizzy feeling is in my body it won’t leave.
Pauly says, ‘My dad said that Santa will leave presents at his house too, so I’ll get some presents at Grandma’s, and some at his house. Is Santa going to leave stuff at your mom’s?’
‘Probably not,’ I say.
‘How come? If I get presents at two houses, you’ll probably get presents at two houses.’
‘That’s not how it works, Pauly.’
‘Why not?’ he says. His nose is leaking again. He tries to suck the snot back up and it’s the sound of milk bubbles being blown through a straw, only backwards and more disgusting. The wobbly feeling in my belly climbs into my throat.
‘It just doesn’t.’
‘So Santa will leave presents only for your mom? Will she open them by herself?’
Until now I’ve only thought about how I wanted to be with Mom on Christmas. I haven’t thought about Mom being alone. I picture her sitting in the living room, hunched over next to the tree, her hair hanging in limp strings around her face as she sips from her coffee mug.
I didn’t leave a present for her to open.
We pull off the highway. I’ve never been to Pauly’s grandma’s before. Pauly says she lives at the top of a mountain. The station wagon bounces along bendy roads. In the middle row Eric and Paul start playing that game, “Lean,” where you throw your body to the side each time you go around a curve.
Pauly says, ‘I want to play Lean!’ We cut around another curve and Pauly heaves his little body toward me. The presents I had stacked between us spill over onto my lap. The carsick feeling is all the way in the back of my throat now and I don’t know if I can hold it in much longer. I shove the presents to the side. ‘Hey!’ Pauly says with a laugh and pushes them back toward me.
‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ I say, but Pauly ignores me and no one up front can hear me. ‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ I say again, louder.
Paul hears me this time and says, ‘Dad, Jenny says she’s gonna hurl.’
‘I think we’re almost there, Jen,’ Dad says.
‘Just five more minutes,’ Joanne says. ‘Can you hang in there, Honey?’ I hate when she calls me that.
‘I guess,’ I say. My voice is just above a whisper, because anything louder will make my stomach churn.
‘She says she guesses so,’ Paul says.
Pauly says, ‘I think we should go to bed right after dinner, Jenny. So Santa will come.’
It feels like there is a rubber band around my forehead. I push against the luggage with my knees to try to get some space. Eric and Paul have started a contest to see who can say more of the alphabet during a single burp. I pull on the neck of my shirt to get more air.
Pauly says, ‘What did you ask him for, Jenny? I asked for a remote-control car. One that really works.’
‘I didn’t ask Santa for anything. I only asked my parents.’
‘How come? Your parents have to pay for your presents with money. Stuff from Santa is free.’
The car lurches around another corner and we bounce onto an unpaved road. The sky is getting dark. Joanne tells my dad he’s missed the driveway. He backs up the car, then makes a sharp turn. The driveway is steep and the car climbs slowly. I think we will never reach the top.
‘Should we put out cookies for Santa, or a healthier snack like carrots?’
I do not have space in my body to hold everything in. There is the throw up and the truth about Santa and the sadness about my mom and it doesn’t all fit.
I unclick my seatbelt before the car stops. I climb over the suitcases and as my dad touches the brakes, I yank the handle of the giant swinging door of the wayback and jump out. I run to the edge of the driveway and into the trees. Before I can lean forward, I vomit on my shirt and on my shoes and in my hair. My sand-colored hair which is not thick and wavy and long like it would be if I were named Cassandra. Cassandra would walk straight through these woods, all the way back home. She would give her mother the most beautiful present.
I crouch forward and put my hands on my knees. I gag and spit, trying to get the burning taste out of the back of my mouth. Behind me, the car doors open and slam shut. Pauly runs up the porch steps and calls out to his grandma. ‘Do you think she’s alright?’ I hear Joanne say.
There are footsteps crunching toward me through the gravel. I don’t want to look at anyone, so I keep looking at the ground. Paul’s sneakers appear next to mine. My brother. He thumps his hand on my back a couple of times, like he wants to comfort me but isn’t sure how. ‘I’ll switch seats with you on the ride home,’ he says.
I stand up and wipe my mouth on my sleeve. ‘What do you think Mom’s doing right now?’ I say.
Paul shrugs. ‘I don’t know, making dinner?’
‘We didn’t even get her a present. Why didn’t we get her a present?’
‘I don’t know. I guess because nobody told us to?’
‘I wish we could leave right now,’ I say. ‘At least you have Eric. I’m always stuck with Pauly.’
‘Yeah, he can be annoying. But when you were his age you were pretty annoying too.’
‘I was not,’ I say, even though I know he’s kidding. I shape my hand into a fist like I’m about to punch him.
‘Hey!’ he shrieks, jumping back. ‘Keep your barfy hands away from me!’
‘You guys alright over there?’ my dad calls from the car. The sky is completely dark now and the only light is the glow from the front porch. I don’t want my dad to come check on us, so I say, ‘Be there in a minute.’
I wave at my brother to go join the others. As he walks toward the house, I hear my dad ask him if I’m alright. I hate when people talk about me. Thankfully, Paul just says, ‘She’ll be okay in a minute. I think we should leave her alone.’ Dad asks him to help unload the car, and soon I hear them both trudging up the porch steps.
I look up through the bare black branches at the stars. I think about how my mother is under this same sky. My eyes blur with tears. I want to see her right now. I want to march through these trees. I want to use the stars to navigate.
I don’t want to go back to the home where my mother is now, where she’s probably sitting reading her book next to the Christmas tree, but to my home in the time before. In the time before Joanne and Eric and snot-faced Pauly. I imagine that to get back to this time, I will need to stumble upon some magic, perhaps tumble down through a hole in the ground to the time before. I know that’s not possible. I know no magic like this exists, just like I know Santa doesn’t exist. But this is what I really want. It’s what I wish I could give my mother for Christmas. A way back.
Briana Maley’s short stories have been published in Fiction Southeast, New Flash Fiction Review, Little Patuxent Review, and elsewhere. She received Lilith Magazine’s 2019 fiction prize, and was runner-up in the 2020 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival fiction contest. She lives in Maryland with her family and a dog named Ramona Quimby.