The Incognito Parallel -17-

Down in the valley...

incognito.gifby Wanda Cunningham

Chapter 17
Owl and Pussycat

 
Chapter 17 - Owl and Pussycat
 

The night around the car seemed deep and wide and the moon in the Western sky looked like a boat. For a moment, I could imagine the Owl and the Pussycat from the song floating away across an ocean full of stars. Neither of us said anything for a long time.

I tried not to think too much on what had happened in the vacant lot across from the motel. Maybe I slept for awhile, though it couldn't have been very long. I woke up while we were going through some mountains. We started down a long hill into the Valley of the Rio Grande, according to a well-lit sign.

We began talking again a few miles from Las Cruces. Mom said a couple of times that we would get on the freeway there.

I looked out the window. "Isn't this the freeway?" I asked. The road stretched away across desert and farmland behind us and in front of us in two concrete and asphalt ribbons. It sure looked like a freeway.

Mom shook her head. "No, honey, this is just a divided highway. See? There are crossroads without overpasses or exits. In the next big town, we'll catch Interstate 10 and head into Arizona."

Her cold seemed a lot better, not so congested and she hardly coughed at all. On the other hand, I felt tired and sick and sad -- and grumpy.

She glanced at me sideways several times. "Want to stop and get something to eat?" she suggested.

"I guess," I said. I knew I should feel hungry but I didn't really want to eat. I kicked my feet where they dangled off the booster and the edge of the car seat. Sitting in the booster seat made me feel a little silly. I'm actually eleven even if I do look about eight and could pass for seven. As long as I keep my mouth shut.

"We'll get fast food," Mom decided, "then do some more shopping. Walmart will be open."

I thought about that for a bit. "Okay," I said. "I want a Happy Meal."

"Chicken?"

"Yeah," I said. "And a milk." A Happy Meal isn't a lot of food but it sounded about right.

"Okay."

I turned sort of sideways and looked at Mom. Her new hair made her look different. More daring, black with red bangs and a blonde streak on the side I couldn't see. She looked younger and could almost have been some high school girl. She didn't look like anyone's mom.

She saw me looking at her and grinned. "What's going on in your head, kiddo?" she asked.

"What are we going to call each other?" I asked. "I mean when anyone else is around?"

"Uh?" she said. "I dunno. What name did you tell the kids back there?" She meant the ones I had played baseball with in the last big town where we had bought the hair dye and clothes.

"Annie," I said. "But some of them called me Tinka, after the Tinker Belle hat I had on." One of my real names is Andrew and before we ran away, most people called me Drew.

She nodded. I'd told her that before but things got a little dramatic with the storm and the sirens and us leaving the motel in a hurry. "Annie is fine with me, easy to remember. Maybe we'll think of something better when we get to Martha's."

"Okay. What about you?" Mom's real name is Debra or Debi.

"Yeah, I dunno. I've always kind of liked Jennifer."

"You don't look like a Jennifer," I said. I couldn't imagine a Jennifer dying her hair three different colors.

She laughed. "Okay, what do I look like?"

"Something weird," I said. She laughed again. "How about Zoe?" I suggested.

She thought about it. "Annie and Zoe. What a minute, that sounds familiar somehow." The town had begun around us and the road had changed to be more like a freeway. "Annie and Zoe?" she repeated.

"Last name?" I said.

"Cooper," she decided. "Annie and Zoe Cooper, I guess. Do you think I could pass for a teen-ager?" She steered toward an exit to a sort of fast food oasis thing.

"No zits," I said.

"Oh, come on!" She laughed. "I never had zits!"

"That's good to know," I said and she laughed again. It felt good to make someone laugh.

Mom, or Zoe, took the exit and the McDonald's was just half a block down. We did the drive through thing and asked the lady at the window how to get to Walmart. It wasn't far away. "Let's go there and eat in the parking lot," Zoe suggested. I had to get used to thinking of her as Zoe.

We drove toward the town, which had even more trees than the previous one that was named after trees. The Walmart parking lot wasn't that crowded and we got to park pretty near the door. I used the Happy Meal box as a table and dipped my chicken and fries in the barbecue sauce and drank my milk. Mom, er, Zoe, had a fish sandwich and a diet cola and she stole some of my fries.

The meal came with a little toy in a plastic bag, a My Little Pony, all pink with a fluffy mane. "I've never got one of these," I said.

"You got the girl's Happy Meal this time," Mom pointed out.

"Oh, yeah," I said. "Wow, I would have really liked this when I was little."

Mom --Zoe!-- grinned.

I frowned a little to have admitted that, but something occurred to me. "Will they have horses at Martha's?"

"They did when I was there before you were born. But no little cute pink ones. Just big brown cowponies."

I stuck my tongue out at her grin. Well, if she was going to be my sister and tease me like one, I could do that, too. Anyway, we both giggled. "Did you ride one?"

"A couple of times. Scary. Horses are big. Tall, I mean. It's a long way to the ground." She thought about it. "And I was bigger then than you are now. I think I'd still be scared on top of one of those horses."

"I think it would be neat to get to ride a horse."

"We'll see," she sort of promised. "We may not be staying that long."

We finished eating, bagged all the trash and carried it to the door of Walmart to dump in the trashcan there. "Huh," said Mom once we were inside. "There's a McDonald's in here."

"Yes, miss," said the greeter, pointing toward it. "Most Walmart's have a Mickey D's inside now."

"Thank you," said -- Zoe. We both smiled at the greeter who looked a little like some old cowboy star.

He grinned back at us. "Y'all have a good evening and thank you for shopping at Walmart," he said; he even sounded like a movie cowboy.

Mom took the cart he pulled out for us and we wandered in past the checkouts.

"This place is huge," I said.

"Well, don't get lost. I'd never find you."

"How much cash do we have?"

"Enough," she said. She picked up another pair of black slacks for herself and one black and one plum-colored top. They were plain and pretty cheap but she ended up putting them back, deciding to shop in the junior department. "I'm supposed to look nineteen or so, huh?" she said.

"I guess. If you chew gum, maybe you can look even younger." I mimed chewing gum like a cow.

"Younger or dumber?" She laughed.

We cruised through the juniors shop and she picked up some more fashionable stuff. "This will probably fit me better anyway," she said.

"'Cause you're short," I said.

"Look who's talking."

"I'm only nine, I'm not that short for nine," I said.

"Nine, I thought you were supposed to be eight?"

"I dunno," I said. Getting closer, I whispered, "Do you really think I can sound like I'm only eight?"

"Sure," she said. She grinned at me.

I didn't know if she meant it or was just trying to yank on me. So I stuck out my tongue again.

We ended up in the little girl's part of the store. "Let's see how serious you are about making this work," she said. She headed toward the dresses.

"I knew you'd think of this," I said, following her.

She laughed again. "Well, if you want your Dad not to recognize you, this would do it." She pulled out a frou-frou kid's dress in an orangey sort of pink with little yellow flowers and green leaves. It didn't have any sleeves and had ruffles top and bottom.

"Z-zoe," I said.

"It's a sundress," she said. "For playtime, you'll look adorable." She picked out another one, a blue-purple with kittens wearing red bows. It had poofy little sleeves and a kind of square collar. "You pick one," she said.

I looked up at her. "I'll figure out something to do to get even, you know."

She grinned. "I don't think you're nearly as upset about the idea as you think you ought to be."

I frowned at her logic and she crossed her eyes at me. I had to look away to keep from laughing so I stepped over to a different rack and pulled out a green dress that looked more dressy. It had white cuffs and a collar and a bow in the back. I glared at Zoe.

"You sure?" she said. "That's sort of a party dress."

I almost couldn't hear her. As soon as I touched the green dress, the sound of my blood running in my ears drowned everything out. I didn't want to let Zoe -- Mom, know how much I wanted that dress. And I wasn't quite sure why I wanted it, but I knew I did. "I guess I should try them on?" I said. I didn't seem to have enough air to say it very loud.

"What?" Zoe leaned over next to me. "I didn't hear that."

I pointed at the dressing booth which had a sign that said, "Probadores" besides the one that said, "Only 3 items in Dressing Rooms."

She handed me the other two dresses, "Well, you've got three of them to try on."

I nodded but didn't move.

"You want me to come with you?"

I nodded again. It just seemed safer somehow.

The lady at the counter near the booths smiled at me. "She's afraid to go in alone?" she asked Zoe.

Mom laughed. "Yeah. She's a bit shy."

I know I blushed.

"Just as well," the lady at the counter said. "We don't allow kids her age to go in alone, huh?" She smiled at me. "Someone pretty as you...." She trailed off and shrugged. Her nametag read Sylvia and she looked a bit like a younger sister of Rosie back in the Denny's in the town where I had played baseball.

Zoe nodded, looking serious. She took my hand. "C'mon Annie, let's see if they fit." We went into the dressing rooms together, my heart still pounding in my ears.



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