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Burn out

Some days everything seems to go wrong. Other days, everything seems to go okay, but Mom tells you that everything is really going wrong and you’re just too dumb to know it. Our next day in Washington was that second kind of day.


howling fantods.  Once Mom has one of her “feelings,” it’s hard for her to shake it and she makes me stay close so that I’m not gobbled up by an imaginary monster. The word for things that are only scary in Mom’s head is “mom-inous.”

In the morning Mom was eating her usual breakfast of yogurt with nuts and raisins when she made a noise and squished up her face in disgust like she’d bitten into a cucumber. Then she spit into her hand. “Oh crap. I just chipped my tooth!” “So? I thought you liked chips.” “Now food is going to get stuck in there until I can go to a dentist, and it’s going to be expensive to fix,” she grumbled. “We’ll just get you a set of wooden teeth like George Washington’s,” I reassured her. “I bet wooden teeth aren’t very expensive, and you can drop them off at a carpenter’s shop when they need fixing rather than going to the dentist.” Then Mom woke up the Covered Wagon. “I don’t feel so well,” The Covered Wagon said when it opened its dashboard. “Oh hush! Now is not the time! You’re just being a hippo-chondriac because your gas cap sensor is broken,” I told it, because that’s what the two different car vets had told us at the two hospitals we’d taken the Covered Wagon to when it had complained a few weeks ago. I didn’t like being mean to the Covered Wagon, but given that Mom was seeing ghosts wherever we went, I wanted the Wagon to stop frightening her. “We all think we’re hungry sometimes when we’re not.” “But what if this has to do with that huge piece of wood we hit on the freeway yesterday?!” Mom said. “We’re pretty far out right now. If the van doesn’t start or breaks down, it’s not like we can call for help.” “See what you’ve done?!” I told the Covered Wagon. “Now we’re going to have to spend our vacation at the car hospital because of you.”


Muppet Forests, but red and spiky like the cheeks of the stray humans that sleep on the streets in The City. Even though all the mountains had trees on them, the trees were mostly naked and the ones that still had needles smelled dry and brown. When we got on the trail and saw the trees up close, most of them were black and shiny like they were made of black glass. Every one of them was dead, so that the whole mountain was like a graveyard. “Mom, what happened here?” I asked. “This is what a forest looks like after a forest fire,” Mom said. “A recent one by the looks of it. Most of the ash heaps look undisturbed.” “Is that what we were seeing in the sky last night?” I asked. It had looked like the sky was on fire. “No, not that recent. But it must have been a pretty big fire. All the hills around here are burned out. It’s eerie walking through a dead place after a disaster, don’t you think?”

We climbed through the tree graveyard for miles. Some trees barely seemed touched, but most were covered in black ash. Even more terrifying, some trees looked normal from the outside but had black holes where the fire had burst out of them from the inside. We had to climb over a lot of huge trunks where the bodies of the trees had fallen across the trail when they died, and no one had come in yet to clean up the dead. I mostly hiked with Mom, since there was very little to chase and everything smelled like old campfires. The mountain must have been hot during the fire, but today it was unnaturally, deathly cold. Under the smell of burning, the air had that cold smell that happens between Halloween and Thanksgiving when everything is dying, and not even the sun brings warmth. Meanwhile, the smell of the “heebie jeebies” coming off of Mom was getting stronger with every step.


So we went back down the trail, Mom looking at the mapp the whole time and trying to find the exact place where our blue dot met the red trail line again. When it did, we were standing in the middle of a giant fire pit. We walked around the hillside for long minutes trying to find some pattern in the burned logs and black rocks that looked like a trail, but we found nothing. “Perhaps the map was wrong,” Mom said. “It’s wrong about the distance, and the GPS has been having trouble finding us ever since we hit the east side of the range. Let’s go back and see where that other trail goes.”




It takes a lot of brain space to keep track of all the ways that you’ve been unlucky, and while you’re busy doing that there’s no time to notice all the things you can do to make your situation better. If Mom were a clever human she would have realize that the rocks were had been walking on were perfect for building Karens to point the way, and that The Witch had lots of ways to keep track of our path so that we could find it again. But the heebie jeebies had made Mom stupid, and she didn’t have space in her head for figuring out how to be safe because she was too busy thinking about all the ways that we might die.


Further down the trail we met the only other humans we would see in the tree graveyard. “Have you been here before?” Mom asked them. “Oh yes, many times,” they said with big smiles, like they hadn’t noticed that the whole place was haunted. “Damn, I never made it. The trail and my map diverged somewhere around the river crossing.” “Oh no, the trail stays on this side of the river the whole way up,” the man said. “Yeah, I tried that. I’m sure you’ll be able to find it if you’ve been there before,” Mom said sadly. As they hiked away up the hill, I could see the dark, cold cloud gathering over Mom’s head, even as the air warmed up to something more like summer, and the sun began to shine like it meant it. “That’s it,” Mom said. “Tomorrow we’re going somewhere where we’re guaranteed success.” “What? Are we going to go to the Motel Six Stars and eat cheese and sit in air conditioning?” “No, we have unfinished business from our trip last year, and I know where there’s a trail that is easy to follow, there’s cell service and auto mechanics nearby, and we won’t need to take the van on any desolate Forest Service roads. Plus, there’s a Starbucks in town.”

Oscar the Pooch


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