We visited the City of the Dead every year. Our mother bundled us into the car early—the sun barely having crested the sky. She told us we’d get there in time for pancakes. She always promised this, even though it didn’t matter what time we got there as we could have pancakes all day long if we wanted.
My little brother grumbled and then fell into sleep. I leaned forward in my seat and asked our mother questions. “Why do we have to drive so far? Why do cities have to stay in one place? What was your favorite thing to do before we were born?”
She never answered, just stared straight ahead. Driving is concentration, she used to tell us. Don’t blink. Don’t even think, except about the road. All that was before we knew that our father had been on a phone call when his car spun and spun on the ice.
I always got bored at the halfway mark. The scenery flashing past stopped being exciting and I’d glare at the trees and fields as if they were injustice.
“Do you believe in Our Lord and Savior?” A man in the city once asked me. My mother was holding my hand, but I didn’t like that the man loomed above us and that he had pamphlets on shiny paper. I’ve never liked shiny paper.
“No,” I said. “Lords are boring.”
My mother smiled at me and shrugged at the man. “She’s not wrong.”
The man sighed and walked away. That was the year when my brother was only just born and our father was only just gone. Mother was always half in some other place. Perhaps, she too dreamed of my father flipping pancakes at the stove. The smell of vanilla and slightly charred batter and maple syrup.
We drove so long to get there. The cities around us rose and fell. I never particularly liked watching their destruction, but I liked the rebuilding, the buzz of people racing around to reassemble storefronts and park benches and billboards that proclaimed that this soft drink was the number one.
Years later, I once danced with a man who had never been to the City of the Dead. He dipped me low, and I felt the orchestra’s music vibrating under my skin. I thought I’d want to stay that way forever. In bed, the man kissed me as if I would never leave him. I had never been able to love anyone who didn’t know they could lose everyone.
In the backseat of the car, my brother’s body gave off waves of heat and soft buzzing snores, and I tried to play games by myself. I counted the cars coming at us and I wondered who the drivers had been visiting in the City: whether it made them sad or whether it made them happy, because with our mother I couldn’t ever tell what she was thinking.
Our mother drove like the grandmothers do on television shows, hunched forward in her seat with both hands on the wheel. She never seemed to blink and her eyes watered.
When I was ten, I missed the trip to the City. I had to go on a field trip for school instead and mother said that was fine and signed the permission slip without a word. On the school bus to the City of the Jobs, I sat pressed against the window and tried to soak in the coldness of the glass. I got myself so chilled that the teacher came down and told me I’d get myself sick. She said I was the color of a ghost and I wasn’t listening so I thought she said I was the caller of ghosts and I asked her if that was a thing that I could be in the City of Jobs. The whole bus laughed at me.
When we got to the city, my mother roused my brother and we walked together from the parking lot towards the main street. People were out and about and I saw so many groups just hugging, standing close together. A man and a woman were holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes and I wondered if they were having a contest, whoever blinked first would be the one who loved less. Even though it was our day, it was so many other people’s day as well. When I was young I didn’t think about that much, but it hit me later and sometimes I’d wake up thinking how small our loss might seem to other people.
In the diner we crowded into a booth, all on the same side with our mother in the middle. She put her arms around our shoulders and we waited for the waitress. Her name was Sally and she knew all of our names and our order because we never ordered anything else.
The pancakes were steaming, big stacks that teetered on the plates, and the syrup was golden dark. We ate them slowly, and then at the right time, our father appeared. He sat across from us and smiled. We all smiled, eating our pancakes in silence and, for those moments, we were so happy that it seemed unfair to the rest of the world.
Once, years later, I asked my mother why the dead never spoke to us, even in their own city, and she paused for so long that I thought she wasn’t going to answer.
And then she asked, “What would they say?”
I had no answer. So I took her question as something wise.
Notes from Guest Reader
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I really love the writing in this piece, especially this sense of forward momentum that also pulls the characters back. I honestly didn’t think much of this on my first read, but I kept reading and rereading and picking up on new things each time. It does the thing I love about flash, packing a lot of complexity, emotion, and depth into a small space.