We ate a post-run picnic in the car kennel while Mom and the Witch searched for a place to spend the night.
"Cheese, 60 bucks for a campground?" Mom read. "That's crazy."
"Is sixey a lot of bucks?" I asked.
"I'd say so. It's just a parking spot after all. We could stay in a scummy hotel for that much."
"Why would we want to stay in a scummy hotel when we have this nice car-hou—"
"Look!" Mom butted in. "This place is only $22."
"What's the difference between a twenny-two sort of place and a sixey sort of place?" I asked.
"It's one exit farther from town. People probably don't like staying that far from restaurants. Lazy bums."
"Are you sure? I thought that the whole point of a car-house was so you could get out of town."
"It's amazing how many people plan their road trips around not-driving," Mom said confidently.
If Mom was sure, I was sure.
It was dark by the time the Witch ordered us off the freeway. The car-house bored through the shadowy unknown toward the only patch of light in the night. When it reached the beams of the first street light, the car-house hesitated.
"What do you suppose we do now?" Mom asked the front window. "Last night's place had a dropbox for money, but this looks more... residential. Like the sort of place where people live when they aren't allowed within a thousand feet of a school or playground."
The car-house stopped in front of tiny stuck house and we dismounted. I pressed my nose to the crack on the handle-side of the door and waited for it to open. The door rattled as Mom jiggled the knob, but it stayed shut.
Mom brought her nose as close to the door as mine and peered through the top pane as I did the same through the bottom one. No Lunchable shrine glowed through the blackness inside.
We were just about to give up when Mom noticed a button beside the knob. She pressed, just to see what would happen. The world froze as we listened.
Mom turned and scanned the little village for clues, but nothing stirred in the shadows. We were just about to give up when the button behind us shouted, "Are you checking in?"
"Yes please," Mom told the night.
"Hang on, I'll be right there," the button replied.
Before long, our host drove up in her kart. If it weren't for her Christmas-tree-shaped hairstyle, I might never have recognized Princess Peach behind the wheel. The years since escaping from Bowser's castle hadn't been kind to her, but her smile was kind enough.
"How long are you staying?" she asked as she fiddled with the door. This time it opened, and the lights inside came to life.
"Just for the night," Mom said, following her inside.
"The dog's got to stay on leash, and I don't recommend you leave the park alone." Princess Peach ducked behind the desk and popped up a moment later with a clipboard in her hand. She slid it across the desk to Mom and continued her story as Mom scribbled. "A few years ago they grabbed a woman just up the street from here." She paused dramatically to make Mom look up so that she could look meaningfully into her eyes as she said, "...And they had her for six months."
It's impolite to ask someone what they mean when they're being serious, so I waited until we were back in the car-house to ask Mom, "Where did the lady in the story go for six months?"
“You know what it’s like when you take a bath? How you don’t like it, but you stop fighting and just wait for it to be over?” Mom asked like she too meant more than she wanted to say. “For six months the lady had to take baths over and over with people who didn’t even love her.”
The very thought froze my blood like an ice-cold shower. "I don't like it here," I shivered. "Let's get out of here before a dogcatcher comes along and tries to take me to the groomer."
"No can do, Spud. We need to be near phone reception and stores in case the van doesn't start again and we need to call for help."
Which we did.
Mom rose with the sun and climbed into the cockpit without even pausing to make a cup of poop juice first. She slipped the key behind the driving wheel and twisted.
Tsk, tsk, tsk, the car-house flashed as if to say, We've been through this before. Won't you ever learn?
"Son of a snitch!" Mom head-butted the driving wheel a few times, then launched her full weight against the back of the driving chair. She bumped her ponytail against the headrest a few more times before coming to rest with her eyes on the ceiling.
I poked my head helpfully into the cockpit. "What is it?" I asked.
"We're stuck. Again," Mom told the ceiling. She grabbed the Witch and stomped outside, slamming the door in my face.
Mom paced outside the window holding the Witch to one side of her face while her free paw waved wildly with her words. She flung the door open, reached under the driving wheel, and slammed the door in my face again, all without interrupting her conversation with the Witch. Then she stalked to the front of the car-house and lifted its snout so I couldn't see her anymore.
Some time later she reappeared outside the door. "Yeah, squirrels. You can't miss it," she told the floor as she climbed inside "...I'll be here... Thank you." She peeled the Witch from her face and seemed to notice me for the first time all morning. Her face relaxed a little. "Do you needa go potty?"
"Boy do I ever!" I wagged.
I kept Mom company as she paced around the car-house, checking toward the freeway on every lap. The sun was high in the sky and our neighbors were starting to stir by the time the dogcatcher arrived.
He stopped his truck next to the car-house and dismounted with a snarl of alligator-snakes in his arms.
"Oh no, Mom! Cover me!" I whimpered, hiding defiantly behind her legs.
"I hear you have a dead battery," the dog catcher said. The jaws of one of the alligator leashes snapped mominously in his paw. I tried not to imagine its teeth sinking into my throat.
As if picking up a conversation that had already started, Mom said, "The battery died overnight yesterday, too. I just drove 150 miles from Eureka, so it should be fully charged."
"Holy moly!" the dogcatcher's voice said from inside the car-house's mouth. "Where did you rent this thing from? Come look at this." He scooped the air beside his hip a few times without ever taking his head out of the car-house's mouth.
"What?" Mom asked his back.
He didn't answer, just scooped the air beside his hip in a c'mere motion without taking his head out of the car-house's mouth.
Mom climbed on the car-house's lip to look down its throat with him. "Is it normal for a battery to grow crystals? And why are they blue?"
"What's blue?" I asked.
"I can give you a jump, but this battery's toast and I don't have the right kind in the truck. I recommend you drive straight to the nearest shop. Do you have enough gas to get back to town without stopping?"
"But I'm supposed to be on vacation," Mom wailed desperately, like a kidnap victim begging for her life.
"You're not going anywhere until you get that battery replaced," the dogcatcher told her. "There's a tire store in Redding that's open on Saturdays, but you'd better hurry before the line gets too bad."
"But I've already been waiting for you for two hours and that's in the wrong direction!" Mom howled.
When we arrived at the vet shop, Mom told me to guard the car-house while she went inside to order a battery transplant. Some time later she reappeared with the Witch stuck to her cheek and paced the car kennel, absorbed in whatever the Witch was telling her.
Mom was so distracted that she didn't even notice when a strange man opened the car-house door. I watched him silently from the couch as he climbed inside. I didn't realize what was happening until it was too late. He closed the door behind him, woke up the car-house, and guided it into the a loud, foul-smelling building where it would be hidden from Mom's sight.
It was happening!
I was getting dognapped!
I was going to have to spend the next six months (which is years to a dog) getting baths over and over from people who didn’t love me. Worst of all, Mom wouldn’t even know where I was. How would she manage without her life coach?
Besides the shivering, I stayed very still to not draw attention to myself as the man dismounted the driving chair and left me alone in the car-house.
I didn’t know whether this was a Scary Thing or a Normal Thing, so I listened carefully for the sound of running water. Instead, I heard the thud of someone opening the door.
This was it!
My life passed before my nose. Now I would know what it was like to have a rough and loveless bath! The door opened and it was…
She had come to rescue me! I was so happy to see her that I jumped and squealed a little ditty.
Mom led me back outside, where we sat in the grass in front of the shop to wait. I was so happy to be reunited that I wasn’t even scared of the man across the street screaming at the sky. He sounded more upset than anyone I'd ever heard in my life. His anger blew out of him with such ferocity that it made his hair stand out in squiggles, tore holes in his clothes, and singed him almost black from head to toe.
“What’s he so upset about?” I asked.
“That's meth for you," Mom didn't-explain. "It turns life into a living nightmare.”
“What’s math? Is that like when you can’t remember how far we have to run to get back to the car?”
“Meth is like kidnapping, but for your mind. It takes people’s brains and it makes them feel horrible things that are too scary to keep inside. It takes people’s whole lives, and sometimes they never get them back.”
“Is our car-house math?”
“No. There are real things to be upset about that aren’t meth. This van may take our vacation, but it won’t take our whole lives away.”
A voice came from behind us. "Ma'am?"
"You again!" I barked. "This is the man who tried to dognap me. Sick 'em, Mom!"
He held out the keys like a treat. "Your van's ready."
Mom snatched the keys. "How much?" she demanded.
"The rental company agreed to pay for it."
"Oh." Mom looked around like someone who had brought a gun to a knife fight, but got the date wrong. "So I can go?"
"Yup." He turned and walked back into his lair.
The mathematician's shouts were out of tune with the silence in Mom's thought bubble as she watched the dognapper disappear. Then she blinked back to life, aimed the key at the car-house, and it blinked back to life as well. "Come on," she announced. "Maybe there's still time for a run before it starts to rain."