"That's why it's a perfect disguise." It didn't sound any less stupid to say it out loud.
by Wanda Cunningham
More Than One Way
I sat on the bed, I had to pull myself up a little, it was a pretty high bed. Which was weird -- you'd think it had a thick, soft mattress or something but it wasn't much softer than the worn-out spots in the carpet on the floor where you could see the cement underneath.
I didn't know how to begin. Now that it got down to actually telling Mom what I'd thought of, it sounded stupid. I stared at the air conditioner for a bit. The buttons were all little rectangles, kind of off-white, except that the off button was brown and the button to make it swap air with the outside instead of recycling inside air was olive green.
Mom didn't interrupt my time trying to think what to say. I got the idea she had figured it out but wanted me to say it. I coughed, just to clear my throat. I hadn't caught Mom's cold, yet.
I turned sideways on the bed so I could lean back on the headboard but I kept my feet hanging off the bed because my shoes still had dirt and leaves stuck to them. Some of those sticky yellow needles from the shaggy trees next to the ball field. I realized that they had a smell, like the trees -- a dusty smell like an old pine scented air freshener that has hung from the mirror in a car so long it's gone stale.
"What if you cut your hair and dyed it black, and wore black jeans and the kind of makeup teenage girls use?" I said suddenly.
Mom flashed a grin at me. "I'd look ridiculous." She sat down in the beat-up looking chair in front of the dresser, or dressing table, I guess it was.
I shrugged. "No worse than the other girls. I think if you dressed and acted like you were seventeen or nineteen, no one would guess you were nearly thirty."
She made a face. "Right now, I feel more like sixty." She touched a finger to her red and swollen nose. Then she laughed, "Me as a goth teenager, that's a heck of a disguise, kiddo." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "What about you?"
I swallowed hard. "They're looking for a woman and her son." The rest of the words stuck in my throat.
Mom opened her eyes and looked at me. "Maybe you should have got that haircut." She laughed quietly, then coughed and spit up and I turned my head so I wouldn't have to watch.
Finally, she asked. "Are you trying to say what I think you're trying to say?"
I still didn't look at her. I shrugged and then nodded.
She didn't say anything for a bit then she asked, "I thought you didn't like it when people thought you looked girlish?"
I made a face. "That's why it's a perfect disguise," I said but not very loud so I repeated it. "That's why it's a perfect disguise." It didn't sound any less stupid to say it louder.
Mom made a funny noise, not like she was going to cough again but like she didn't want to laugh and hurt my feelings. "Your father would absolutely hate the thought," she said.
I did look up then but she had a perfectly straight face. Until I smiled just the tiniest bit and she totally cracked up. She laughed so hard she had to go into the tiny motel bathroom and shut the door.
I laughed some because she had laughed so hard but really, I didn't want to laugh. It really was a crazy thought. And scary. So was listening to Mom coughing in the bathroom. I didn't see how I could avoid catching whatever she had and I wasn't looking forward to it.
Mom came out of the bathroom, wiping her mouth with a towel. She looked less pasty and had more animation in her face than any time since we sneaked out of the house. She looked at me and chuckled. "Your father would hate the thought. So he won't think of it. And that's what makes it perfect." She grinned.
I think I grinned, too, but maybe it was a sick grin. I almost told her right then to forget it.
Mom said, "Do you really think you could do it?"
I nodded slowly. "All the kids at the ball game, they thought I was a girl. And I wasn't even trying. They called me chica and muchacha. I don't speak any Spanish really, but those words mean girl, I know that because they end in 'a'."
Mom smiled. "We'll get you a job as a translator at the UN. You didn't tell them you were a boy?"
I shrugged. The question made me uncomfortable. I felt a pressure in the back of my throat. "Um," I said, trying to make the lumpy feel go away. "I told them I wasn't a little girl. But they thought ...." I couldn't figure out how to say it without embarrassing myself down through the hard motel bed and the concrete floor and straight through the Earth where I would drown in the Indian Ocean, because China isn't on the opposite side of the world from America, I checked on a globe once.
Mom looked thoughtful for a bit. "Okay," she said. "Let's think about why it might not work."
I frowned. "Huh?"
"It's how you plan for emergencies, you think about what could go wrong."
"Okay, yeah, that makes sense." Like being ready to go either direction on the ball field instead of just planning on the left-handed batter hitting to right field. Coach always said, you can't be ready for everything so you have to be ready for anything. What he meant was keep your options open, don't move in so close you can't react to a ball hit over your head, don't move before you know where the ball is going. Like that.
Mom sat down on the foot of the bed. "We won't have any identification for being someone else. That could get us in trouble. With the police, or, well, how long are we going to keep up a disguise? Had you thought about that?"
I nodded but I didn't say anything.
"School starts in another month," Mom pointed out.
I took a breath but it felt like the brown air conditioner had blown soapsuds into the room instead of air. It burned my eyes and caught in my throat. I turned away from Mom so she wouldn't see if I started crying.
"We might have to be in hiding for a year, or more," she said.
"I know," I managed to choke out.
"Do you think you could do this for a whole year? Not let anyone find out you're really a boy?"
I nodded then shrugged.
"That's lots of time for things to go wrong," she said. "And just getting you registered in school could be a big problem. Plus, I need a driver's license to drive." She chewed her lip. "Really ought to get rid of the Cherokee anyway. Frank could report it stolen."
Frank is Dad. Actually, John Charles Francis Andrew Kelley IV. And I'm the fifth, which is why Dad's uncles call me Vee. Granddad Charlie calls me Andy. At school, I'm usually called John by the teachers and Johnny or Drew or Kelley by the other kids. Mom and her brothers started calling me Drew and Dad joined in, though sometimes if he's annoyed he calls me Andrew. I prefer Drew.
Mom's first name is Debrah. Debrah Lois Naismith Kelley. Deb or Debi to almost everybody, but her brothers call her Sis or Little Sis or sometimes Louie, a nickname from when she was little. I call her Mom and sometimes Dad does, too. Her parents were both doctors and died in a plane crash in Africa before I was born.
Technically, Mom and I are Jewish, since Grandma Ruth Garnitz Naismith was Jewish, her parents were from Lithuania, and neither Mom nor I have ever been baptized or confirmed in any church. Dad sometimes took us to church, Catholic church, and Mom's brothers sometimes took me to synagogue but I haven't really been taught to be real religious.
I realized I was thinking about other stuff to stop thinking about what Mom and I were planning on doing. I sighed and tuned back in to what Mom was saying.
"We'll need new clothes," she said. "And we don't want to buy them all at once. But we should definitely switch before we get to Martha's."
"Martha's?" I said.
"Your Grandma Ruth's college roommate. She married a rancher and now she owns his ranch in Arizona."
"No, she divorced him," Mom grinned. "It's more complicated than that. But that's where we're headed. It's near the Mexican border." She seemed to be thinking some more, imagining more problems we would have to solve.
I went into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I'm short, I said that before, and skinny. I'm eleven and I should start the sixth grade this year. It seems like every year since I started school, the other kids have gotten taller and I haven't. I'm only a couple or three inches over four foot tall and I don't weigh even sixty pounds. Lots of eight-year-olds are bigger than me.
People remember my hair. It's not blond, it's light brown and has yellow, red and white streaks in it. Pretty distinctive and I like to wear it long since, well, it does help people remember me. Long is down to my shoulders, almost. I've got bright blue eyes, not pale blue, but bright blue like the sky after it rains in the morning and all the clouds blow away in the middle of the afternoon.
Mom has the same hair, a bit darker, and the exact same eyes. She's short too, but almost a foot taller than me. We're both skinny, Mom doesn't even weigh a hundred pounds.
We've got the same face, too, nearly. Cute, I guess. Dad says Mom is beautiful but Mom says he's full of shit. She's pretty, though, even if she thinks she's too cute to be beautiful. We both have little round chins with dimples in them and small noses that would look piggy if they were any bigger.
It wasn't that hard to imagine Mom at my age, she looked pretty young as it was and I had seen pictures of her from when she was a kid. I looked so much like her that I really thought that this would work. If I wanted it to....
For some reason, I thought of when Jimmy kissed me. What would I do if I disguised myself as a girl and another boy wanted to kiss me? I didn't know.
People have been telling me I'm too pretty to be a boy since I was too little to know the difference. Maybe now was the time to find out if they were right.
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