In the garage where spindly mother spiders guarded egg sacs in the corners and we often tormented the spiders with sticks as we turned their webs into cotton candy, we loved the pile of cardboard boxes we sometimes made into houses, or we lay on our backs and embellished our futures, the cement in the garage cool and dry. This morning, after Mom filled us with cereal and went to bed, I took her car keys and we reclined in the seats of the minivan with the radio on, the heater on high as we pretended we lived in Las Vegas, which, after Hollywood, was the most famous place on Earth, the engine idling, and the low rumbling felt like we were driving somewhere. I resisted the urge to honk the horn, Rita in the passenger’s seat, and Theresa in the back. I was the babysitter to my little sisters and I was getting pretty good at making us sandwiches.
We hadn’t known we’d started a countdown, with an hour left, minutes left, the garage door closed and our play area filling with exhaust. We heard our last seven songs, songs where we sang ooh baby baby, songs with hand holding, rockets to the moon, sailing on ships, songs with violin and cello, a dumb song about a dog, and a song called he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. We liked the oldies station because it made us laugh, it took us to an imaginary world, and we chose it as a two-to-one vote against Rita, who wanted booty music all the time. She said it made her want to dance, but we knew she only liked to bounce because Mom hated it.We played in the garage instead of our house where boredom was the norm, and because all the places in town we might go expected money.
We sisters had agreed to marry rich, to divorce young, and to share what we had with each other. Rich men will fall for us, Rita said, because we will work at being pretty. It doesn’t always work, Theresa said, and besides, rich men sometimes have unbeautiful wives. I wanted to draw up a contract so they kept the promise but would wait until I knew more, because there were binding contracts and non-binding contracts. I knew this from Mom and Dad’s divorce, her getting fired, and from the time she didn’t pay the guy who cleaned our carpets. She was mad at what he charged, and he was mad and kept calling.
The night job was temporary, Mom said. Her friend, Tracy, came to stay, also temporary. Mom promised a good Christmas and today we waited for the snow. I was in the mood for a snowman, and it had been cold enough.
They make snow on ski slopes, Theresa said. I wonder if you can just buy one of those machines, or how it works.
It works like a fire hose attached to a snow maker, Rita said. I saw it on a show called How It Works. As long as it is cold enough, and the hose is long enough, snow can be made anywhere.
I like the real kind, I said. The kind from the sky.
How would you even know the difference?
There’s a difference, Theresa said. Like the difference between rain and water from a sprinkler.
We have a garden hose, I said. I wonder if that would work.
In the minivan as the oldies spun, things seemed better at least than in the house, our toys on the carpet, the Barbies with their arms and heads popped off, so if Mom saw the scene she’d scream, but I am serious when I say if I got one more Barbie for Christmas I’d scream.
We should bake a cake, Theresa said.
I guarantee we do not have any cake mix, Rita said. Or we would have done that like a week ago.
You can make a cake without mix, Theresa said.
If you’re super mom, Rita said. And we still probably don’t have everything.
I’m not hungry, I said. I had a headache and so I was glad the inside of the garage was dim. The thought of cake turned my stomach.
I’m not hungry either, Theresa said. I was just thinking we might like to have cake later. To surprise Mom.
We sat there quiet for a couple of songs until Theresa said we should open the garage door. She said, There’s too much smoke in here.
I kind of like it, I said. Like we live in Seattle. Or London.
Rita panted like a dog and her eyes were closed, but I felt dizzy and didn’t want to move. Rita wasn’t going anywhere either.
Where’s the remote for the door opener, I said, and we looked for it. Probably in Mom’s purse.
Rita threw up and I had no idea how to clean a mess like that, and before I knew it, I was next. Mom was going to kill us. I was wracking my brain trying to figure out our next move, but nothing made sense. In the rearview mirror I saw Theresa curled up and asleep. I was talking to myself and thought I should honk the horn. No, don’t, I decided. Don’t wake Mom.
We were holding hands, or the idea of hands, and we rose like a ring of smoke floating up through the fog. We drifted into the house to where we saw our mother sleeping. We wanted to wake her to say goodbye and goodnight one last time. But instead, we let her sleep. In the minivan each of us, one at a time, had counted down to zero, to our last sleep, to stillness and the quiet of night in the middle of the morning, with no more sun or soft music, no calm, no comfort, no light.
John Minichillo’s work is published widely on the web, including, FRiGG, Smokelong Quarterly, decomP, Night Train, Necessary Fiction, and Nashville Review. His debut novel, The Snow Whale, a contemporary retelling of Moby-Dick, will be published by Atticus Books July 30. He lives in Nashville. Follow him on Twitter at @thesnowhale.