A few years back when I’m twelve and old enough to be alone at home while my parents leave and stay out late, I find some cigarettes and smoke them in the house, then I take two sips each from all the liquor bottles we have in the house, and then I get hit over the head with a premonition that my mom and dad are never coming back home.
I move to the front window, the one that I can see the farthest down the road, and I stare out the glass and watch for their car. I focus on the pairs of headlights flashing by, willing them to slow down and turn into the driveway, crushing the curtains in my fist when they don’t.
I can tell by the size of the lights, or if they are too high up from the road like the ones on a truck or a van, whether they belong to my parents. I do this for minutes or even hours. I wonder how there could be so many cars in the world.
When I’ve decided the worst has happened, I hop up and turn over a wicker basket and watch various issues of Field & Stream and Popular Mechanics and Popular Science and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine go sliding across the carpet in a slick, glossy sequence. I grab the Yellow Pages from among them and flip through until I find Pearley’s Tavern. I take the phone from where it’s mounted on the wall and punch in the number listed.
Someone answers and it’s loud and I give the person on the other end the names of my mom and dad but he (she?) says they’re not there. I flip over more pages until I find St. Mary’s Hospital.
I call, and a woman answers, and I wonder if her name is Mary. I ask if my parents are there except I don’t say my parents. Instead, I tell the woman their actual legal names.
She says, “I’m sorry” like it’s a question, and I ask again if there are any car crash victims tonight and give their names again as if that will clarify.
She says there aren’t, but I don’t believe her, so I hang up and leave the house and sprint around the corner where my bike leans against an enormous tree that Dad once said was older than George Washington.
I ride my bike to the St. Mary’s emergency room, which is only two miles away, so it’s not like it’s even that extreme of a decision. I know that every second I waste is one percent more of a chance that my parents are there, dying. I don’t know how I know this except that I feel it in my spirit.
I pump harder and my quads sear, and the wind rips tears right out of my eyes so they streak over my temples and detach, trailing behind my head. I go as fast as I can until I flash right up to the emergency room entrance.
I let the bike go and it sails ahead, ghost-riding, and crashes into the brick side of the hospital building.
I head straight for the big sheet-glass doors that slide open like people are waiting for me to get there. I go right up to the woman at the desk. It’s the one I was on the phone with, Mary. I can’t prove it’s her, but I believe in my heart of hearts that it is.
She looks just like Aunt Jessie if Aunt Jessie stayed up for three nights straight and her hair turned brown. There’s a bubble of skin right at the corner of her square chin.
“Are there any car crash victims here tonight?” I say right into her face because I didn’t believe her over the phone.
She looks annoyed, as if kids like me were always asking if their parents were dead or dying and she’s over the whole thing.
“May I have a name please?” she asks.
I tell Mary their godforsaken Christian names, for the third time.
She says no and motions to something behind me. I follow her outstretched arm down to the tip of a finger that looks like it had been sawed off someone twice her size and sewn on Frankenstyle. It’s too red and puffy compared to the rest of her hand, and I imagine popping the tip with a needle so it explodes blood everywhere.
What she means with her sick, bloated finger is that I should sit in the waiting room with all the other sick people. But I’m not sick. Her finger is sick, and I think about telling her that it should take its own seat, but instead I turn around and find myself floating to an empty chair.
On either side of me are two other sickos, one who is cradling her left elbow in her right hand, hair all frizzy, and she’s trying not to moan but she’s not very good at it, and it comes out all weird and I have to snap my head away so that she doesn’t see me staring.
On the other side of me is an old man in a seat with wheels—not quite a wheelchair— just a small wiry seat with wheels on it. Next to him is his wife, I guess, because she looks just as old as he is, her hair, skeleton white, flying out in wild licks everywhere like she’s just woken up for this specific emergency. Across the waiting room is a sorry looking guy who’s just crying. He’s alone and he looks too old to cry. Like he should be a dad or something, but he’s just alone and crying. Can you come to the emergency room for just crying?
I don’t know.
Where are my parents?
I’m sitting between Cradle Arm and Old Couple wondering what I’m doing here since I’m not sick. And if Mary Fat Finger says my mom and dad aren’t here, then what am I doing?
I have this superstition about hoping for something wonderful but knowing it’ll never happen. Like a fantasy. Like, maybe at the Winter Dance, Charlotte Berns comes up to me while I’m being a lonely dork by the punch bowl and tells me that she’s glad I came and that she’s always had a crush on me, so I take her hand and leave the gym and we go under the stairs and make out. Or how maybe I wake up one morning and my dad calls me over for breakfast and he calls me something dumb like Son or something, and says that now I’m old enough to know that he’s the heir of a fortune, but they’ve kept it hidden from me and we live in this dumpy-ass neighborhood so that all of mom’s greedy, drunk brothers don’t come hounding us for cash and that someday I’ll inherit the fortune and everything is going to be all right.
Those things don’t ever happen, right? Because literally nothing ever happens exactly the way you hope for.
It works the opposite way too. It’s so simple. I just imagine every possible awful thing that I’m afraid will ever happen, so then there’s no chance that it will ever actually come true. It’s like a disaster lottery. You ever meet anyone that has won the lottery? I haven’t. You ever meet anyone who fantasizes about winning the lottery? You bet I have.
I sit here between Arm Cradle and Old Couple and imagine my parents dying in violent fiery deaths. Through the glass on the far side of the waiting room I can see where the ambulances show up and wheel all the dying people through the doors. I wait to see people that look like my mom and dad on stretchers, EMTs racing them inside.
I imagine a t-boned car where the metal spears my mom right through and my dad goes head-first into the windshield. I imagine a mass shooting in Pearly’s Tavern. A knife fight on the way to their car. I imagine sudden onset drop-dead cancer for both of them. I imagine them running off, deciding I’m too much to handle, and what’s stopping them from leaving me and their old life behind anyway? I have my greedy drunk uncles who could look after me, right?
This last thought is interrupted by two giant police officers who enter the ER waiting room from somewhere within the hospital, and right away I know they’re here for me, so I jump up and start running. They leap after me and I swear I hear one of them call me a little shit, which isn’t fair because I haven’t done anything wrong. I just came in because I’m worried my parents are dead or dying.
I pass through the ER sliding doors again and snatch up my bike which looks like a crumpled thing against the side of the building but still works just fine once I start pumping. The cops are large and have to hurdle over other people in the waiting room to even get close to me, so by the time they’re out the door, I’m way off down the dark streets back toward my house.
When I get home, I see our car in the driveway. I walk into the house and find my parents passed out in their bed, half dressed and uncovered. I think about putting a blanket over them, but I don’t because why should I? After everything they put me through tonight.
There was another night after that when my mom didn’t come home at all. I didn’t know it at the time because I was asleep when it all went down. In the morning my dad told me she was gone and that I shouldn’t expect her to ever come back, and that’s all he’s ever said about it.
Now I just wait and I play my dumb video games and I read the books they give me at school and I go out to the creek and smash lizards with a baseball bat. I try hard not to imagine Mom driving back into this dumpy neighborhood and walking through the front door and saying, “Hey, bud. Sorry I’ve been so long.”