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Homeward Hound Part 2

As soon as Mom felt the rumble of the Witch's fart, she forgot all about going home, and the car-house, and ooey-goey, cheesy tortillas. She tickled the Witch and her mouth bunched up on one side. She held the Witch high in the air and followed her deeper into the hills.

I stuck my butt to the ground. "But what about my quesadilla?"

"Let's just see if there's cell service a little higher up the mountain," she said.

"You mean closer to the sun? How about we go back to the beach instead?" I turned back toward the End of the World. "Come on, it's this way."

"Just a little ways." Mom walked away, holding the Witch in front of her like a magic charm.

"But my quesadilla!"

"I just want to see how far the drive is to the quesadilla place from here. You don't want to get there before the kitchen opens, do you?"

I plodded heavily behind them like the rock tied to a balloon's string, trying to keep Mom from floating away. No matter which way Mom waved her, the Witch stayed silent about my quesadilla.

The Witch pulled harder on the invisible leash and Mom started to trot. I couldn't tell if it was nature or civilization calling her back, just that Mom was accepting the call. She ran in clumsy, plopping steps that made the packpack slosh like a fish having a temper tantrum. After a few more steps, she dropped the Witch-arm to her side and started to jog, only looking down at the screen every few steps.

"Where are you going?" I panted. "I thought you were just going a little ways."

"If we can just get around to the other side of the... Achhhllllrrrrrgggghhhh!"

Mom made a choking sound as her bladder suddenly started leaking. It soaked her shorts and poured in rivers down her legs and into her socks.

Oscar! That's not fair. You're being deceptive just to make me look bad. Tell them what really happened.

That was Mom helping me write the story.

It wasn't the bladder inside Mom's body that failed, but the one in the packpack that let go and dumped drinking water down her back, butt, and legs. She stopped short and wriggled out of the straps. She held the out like a baby with a full diaper as it kept piddling on the ground.

"Ugh, gross." She opened the zipper and pulled the sack of water out of the packpack. It came out easily, water streaming from the hole where the straw belonged. She shook the empty packpack with her other hand and even more water tinkled out.

"Good thing you already got your socks wet or else I bet you'd be really uncomfortable," I said.

"They were just drying out!" Mom howled. She squeezed her shirt and flapped her shorts to try to dry them, but there was nothing she could do about her socks and shoes. "Okay, fine. I guess we should go."

We jogged back toward the forest between the in-side and the ocean-side of the hill. I perked up when we reached the cool shade, running ahead to sniff for wood sprites among the dead pine feathers and soggy bark on the forest floor.

When Mom caught up, her stride wound down like a toy. "Why are we running? We're not in a rush."

It was a tough decision for a life coach. Should I slow her down so we could hide in the wilder-ness a little longer, or rush back to the car-house that would end my Birthday, but bring me back to a life of endless treats and leisurely naps?

Mom read my mind. "The worst part about the last day of a trip is that your mind is already at home even if your body is still on vacation."

"Or in the quesadilla kitchen," I said, not quite sure I was ready to go all the way home yet.

We walked until Mom's skin bristled and her shoulders stiffened against the chill. She rubbed her prickly arms and started trotting to keep the cold away. It wasn't an all-out jog, more like the shuffle she uses in a crosswalk to show a car that she knows it's there.

When we came out on the ocean side of the forest and the hill took hold. With wet socks and swampy shorts dampening the vibe, Mom let the hill pull her into a run. She squish-squished like a jellyfish down the long, twisting fall to the ocean, with me pitter-pattering after.

The trail was in no hurry to dive into the ocean. It hung onto its height by swinging side-to-side in lazy swoops. With the fog gone, it was hard to tell if the trail was beautifuler from a distance where I could take it all in at once, or right under my nose. The colors were so bright that I could almost see them and Mom could almost smell them. A bright-green tang wafted across the mountains and the flowers smelled like the sweet color of Skittles. The ocean was the same intense grey as the sky, with edges the softer shade of toothpaste foam.

We settled like a feather back onto the road. When we came to rest outside the car-house, Mom paused to look back at the sky we'd just fallen from. "It's a shame we didn't make it to the peak," she said. "We should have gone faster so we could see more."

Now that all the fun was over, the hundreds of miles we'd explored hit me like a ton of feathers. Suddenly, I was Pooped-with-a-capital-P. "If we'd gone faster, you would have just run right by everything without noticing it," I yawned. "We saw more because we slowed down."

"Fine, fine, Mr. Smartypants." She opened the car-house door. "C'mon. Up-up."

I climbed inside and flopped heavily into the bed between the copilot's seat and the driving chair. When Mom took her post, I settled my head into her lap so she could give me a head massage as we drove.

I was just dozing off when Mom sat up, tensing my pillow and pulling me out of a dream. "Hey, I know where we are. We're on the course of my first marathon."

"What's a marathong?" I asked.

"It's a 26 mile running race. People build them up like it's a huge athletic achievement, but finishing a marathon is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. It's all about accepting that you're going to be uncomfortable and not letting it stop you."

"Ah, that must be why they put thong at the end of the word," I said wisely. If you don't know, -thong comes from ancient Greek word something that isn't that uncomfortable as long as you don't think about it. "If you've been here before, how come you didn't recognize it earlier?"

"I was running. Marathons have a way of erasing your memory."

"Told you. Running isn't always the best way to see the world after all. If you only visit the trails that you can run without slowing down, you'll miss the white dirt, and rock climbing, and secret desert waterfalls. And you might forget to slow down for a cliff until it's too late."

"I suppose, but there's so little time. Most jobs only give you a couple of weeks off per year."

"But as long as you haven't seen all the trails, you'll always have something to look forward to. Wouldn't it be horrible to know that you've already seen all the cool stuff?"

"I know, I know. But the more I see the more there is to see. We could keep traveling like this for the rest of our lives and still have more things to discover. Life is short."

"So short that only one marathong fits inside?"

"No. I've run more marathons than I can count." She twiddled her fingers to see if they could count that high and shook her head. "I can't remember them all."

"If you can't remember..."

"Yeah, I know. I guess I have found time of adventure after all. Maybe I just wish I spent less time at work."

“Guess what," I said. "I’m not done having birthdays. I plan to turn four-and-a-half, and five, and six, and seven… and eighty-four, and eighty-five… We’ll still have plenty of adventures left for those birthdays too.”

"I suppose you're right," Mom said.

I closed my eyes with the satisfaction of a dog who, after traveling thousands of miles to earn it, can finally claim the crown of "Right." At last, Mom had learned the lesson I'd been guiding her to all this time.

“...And it'll be nice to have a shower. And a fridge. And to know where my bed is every night," Mom said, pulling me out of my nap as if she'd been talking to me the whole time. Outside the windows, houses sprung up among the trees beside the road. "It’ll be hard, but maybe I can find a job that will let me have more dog adventure time, even if they pay me less money. Now that I know it’s not scary to live like a dirtbag.”

“And Bingo was his name-o!” yawned the bestest life coach in the whole, wide world.

The houses and stores spread into neighborhoods and then whole towns as the road swelled from one lane to two. When it bulged into three, the car-house rolled off the road and washed up in a car kennel filled with the smell of frying. I lifted my head from Mom's lap to sniff.

"I used to come here to eat off my hangovers in college." Mom pulled the leash from around the neck of the copilot's chair. "You're gonna love their quesadillas."

"College? Isn't that for young and fun people? You're not young or fun. If you meant to go back to our old life, maybe you went back too far."

"You think I'm hopeless now? You should have seen me back then! Remember that marathon? When I finally got back to the parking garage, I couldn't remember where I parked."

"You still do that. Half of every adventure is finding our way back to the car-house."

"Yeah, but I was not having a good time that day. It felt like a human rights violation to walk up and down the ramps between levels after all those hills in the marathon. I was about to call the cops."

"That's what the police are for, right? To help you find your way home when you're lost?"

"That's just a lie they tell to children. I thought my car was stolen. I was so broke back then that everything I owned was precious. With all those BMWs and Mercedes in the lot, I thought my 1992 Pontiac Grand Prix was the most enviable treasure of all. Plus, it's not like I could afford a cab."

"So what did you do?"

"When I went outside to call, I noticed the identical parking lot across the street. The one my car was actually parked in. You can't imagine the relief when I found it. It was like I'd won the lottery. I've never appreciated the things I have as much as when I was too broke to replace them."

"I bet the quesadillas tasted better, too," I sniffed. "Being a stray is a pretty good way to live, don't you think?"

"Yeah." Her sigh was both happy and sad. "I owe you lunch, don't I?"

Mom sat at a table in the sun and I sat in the shade underneath, basking in the smiles of all the people walking by. So many people! "I'm about to have a quesadilla all my very own," I wagged at them.

A lady with tattoos for arms and a bull's ring in her nose poured water into a cup for Mom and a bowl for me. "What can I get ya?" she asked.

"Do you still have that salad that's mostly cheese with a little lettuce tossed in and a fried patty on top?" Mom asked.

"I'll have one of those!" I said. "Hold the lettuce."

"And can I get a quesadilla for him?" Mom added.

"They're pretty big," the lady bragged. She held her tattoos wide to show an invisible circle the size of a pizza.

"Do you have a children's size?" Mom asked.

My new favorite person shook her head. "Nope. We only have the burrito-sized tortillas."

"In that case..." Mom looked at me for a long moment. I grinned at the lady and then back at Mom. "... eh, go for it. He doesn't have to finish it."

But I did have to finish it. It's important to finish what you started.

The lady came back with a colossal quesadilla the size of one of those satellite dishes that can see a mosquito on the moon. Just like the moon, it was dripping with cheese.

Mom pulled it apart one bite at a time. Even when she stretched her arm as far as it would go, she still needed a fork to cut the threads of cheese holding it together. She piled the loose ends on top of the tortilla and aimed it at my mouth.

We ate the whole meal taking turns, a bite for Mom and a bite for me. When all the cheese was gone, we got back in the car-house and putt-putted back onto the highway. Tall trees gave way to tall buildings that I recognized more with my heart than my eyes. It was the feeling of home.

With all that cheese in my belly weighing down my eyelids, I let the nap take me back to the mountains and canyons that I'd carried home with me inside my head. Mom may have to return the car-house, but those memories were mine forever.

It was the best birthday ever.

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