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The Hump

by Bo Balder

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

The kids were excited to be out of school and to see grandpa and grandma.

“Why?” I asked. “Lincoln isn’t that big.”

“Wayne is smaller. The farm has its own well.”

He wanted to leave the room, to pack, I could see that, but I called him back before he was out the door. “Are you gonna stay there too?”

“No, I have to get back to the city,” he said, face averted. “In case the dean needs me.”

Yeah, right, linguists would be one of those essential jobs. I was pretty sure they meant plumbers and postmen and busdrivers, not college professors, but I had learned enough about my new position in those few months to lock those words inside me. Pretty wives with jobs, they could say a lot of things strange humped unemployed women should shut up about.

I packed for the kids and for myself. As I lugged the heavy suitcases to the car, the sun’s heat smashed down on the hump like a blow. I’d forgotten to wear my scarf. I decided I didn’t care anymore.

I strapped the kids in the back of the car, and then bent down to get into the passenger seat. David was already seated, tapping his fingers on the wheel. A couple of months ago we would each have done a kid. I didn’t get why my hump was turning David in to this guy. I wriggled in sideways, but then I just couldn’t turn and take a normal seat. Me and the hump together were too big. I’d have had to sit with my nose against the windshield to give it room.

So we all got out and I managed to squeeze into the back of the car. Alice beside me and Nicky in the front seat because he didn’t want to be alone with me, and David encouraged that behavior.

“Everyone just shut up and stay quiet,” David said. “Seeing as I’m having to drive the whole distance by myself.”

He really knew how to trowel on the guilt. I sat with the lower half of my body straight, the upper half turned uncomfortably sideways to accommodate the hump. My heartache was eased a little when Alice fell asleep against it. Her sticky cheek and sweet breath, her trust in me restored a little of my sense of self. At least I could still be mother to one child.

There were a lot of cars on the roads exiting our suburb, certainly for a weekday, but when we got up on the I80, the sea of glittering metal made me gasp. And it wasn’t just cars heading north, like ours. The southbound lane was as packed as the northbound.

“Where are these people going?” I asked unthinkingly, forgetting for a moment that David didn’t want to talk to me.

His teeth ground loudly before he answered. “Where do you think they’re going? Is your brain swollen too?”

Alice clapped her hands over her ears, and Nicky frowned at me. I didn’t answer. Who was the real David, the one who was nice when everything went well, or the one who became nasty one when things got pear-shaped?

We inched ahead now and then. I must have dozed, because I woke up to a sky dripping reds and oranges.

“Where are we?” I just couldn’t seem to shake the habit of talking to David. The car was switched off, and David was nodding behind the wheel.

I craned my upper body as far as the hump allowed. We’d turned off the highway, the cars waiting like patient beetles on the narrow road. Against the lurid sky an enormous elliptic shape rose up. For a millisecond I thought of alien encounters, but then I realized it was a football stadium. It looked like Rosenblatt stadium in Omaha. Why were we in Omaha? That’s not where we’d been going.

“They’re setting up beds and a field kitchen in the stadium,” David explained, ostensibly to Alice.

That made sense. “But what about your parents?”

“They say the roads are too full to drive, and tomorrow’s temperatures are supposed to be record-breaking.”

After an hour or so, we reached the tired official in his fluorescent jacket who was directing traffic. He handed us a ticket with a lane and parking space number on it, as if we were going to a game.

“Move along now,” he said. “Remember this number. If yours is called, you can leave the car and collect food, water and bedding in the stadium. Until then, please remain in your car.” His voice was hoarse and the words were a fast drone. I wondered how many times he’d already said them.

David drove the car to the allotted space. “You stay awake and listen for our number,” he said to someone in my vicinity. “I need sleep.”

The kids had already dozed off again, in spite of the tall Klieg lights that shone a false dawn over the giant parking space around the stadium.

I cranked down the back window. Before us, behind us, beside us, long rows of silent cars, gleaming under the starlight like boxy turtles migrating. I pictured the hundreds and thousands of families sitting in the car like us, children sleeping, spouses arguing.

After the spaces next to us had been filled up, the sound of engines diminished to a far away rumble. The loudspeakers were silent. No numbers were called out. Maybe they would be in the morning.

I dozed again, lured by the silence, the stars, the sweet breath of my sleeping daughter.

The second day broke as blue and bright as all the days of the past spring. The kids peed straight from the car. Everybody did it. Just like me, they didn’t want to leave the safety of the car. I fed the kids a measly sandwich, figuring I could do without.

David ate only half a sandwich. He still was a good father. It was very hot in the car. The kids played on the narrow lane, under our eyes. The kids from the next car over came and played a game. The mom watched them, looking flushed and tired. I stayed inside, I didn’t want to shame Alice.

The hump squatted on my neck like an evil passenger, bowing my spine and bending my will.

The loudspeakers stayed silent, as did the radio and our phones. Was the government having trouble with logistics? Or had we been abandoned, like the people struck by Katrina? I suggested to David that he go out to find an official, but he refused to leave us alone. It wouldn’t be safe, he said. I thought he was simply afraid to go out there.

The third day the first dead were carried out of the cars.

Our water was gone. It had seemed like such foresight to bring the extra gallon. I could see the children slipping away from me, as even their grizzling subsided into exhausted silence.

“Take them outside, in the shade,” I begged David.

He turned a hollow-eyed unshaven face to me. He hadn’t met my eyes in weeks, but the look in them now was not kind or understanding.

“Are you nuts? People are drinking each other’s blood out there. This is the only place we’re safe.”

In the middle of the day, although we were cooking in the hot car, and David and the kids would have sweated if they still could, Alice felt cold and crept up to me to nestle once more against the hump. She was dying, I guess. Nicky lolled on David’s lap, neither of them moving.

The hot glare from outside pressed against my eyelids even when they were closed. I rested comfortably against my hump. I dreamed of seas, cool spray crashing against wet rock, sleet, rain, drizzle, thunderstorms, raging rivers, babbling brooks. I woke up again. The light still burned, and I kept my eyes closed. There was such peace in that moment, such stillness. I knew what that must mean.

Against both my hands I felt the memory of soft hair. Had Nicky crept up against me in his last hours? I didn’t want to open my eyes and see the devastation of our former lives.

Then, soft sighs lapped through the car like the streams I’d dreamed of.

At last, reluctantly, I sat up and looked around. Nicky lay sprawled against the far door, his face flushed, but plump and glossy and healthy. David, his face hollow and his lips cracked, stared at me as if the hump had grown even bigger. I couldn’t stop myself from putting my hand in the back of my neck to check. No change. At best, a little less taut.

The sighing, lapping sound was still present. I craned my neck as far as it would go — further than the day before — and found Alice with her head buried in my hump. Finally, I identified the sound. She was drinking. Drinking from me? Like Dracula?

“Alice?” I said.

She detached herself and slid down, a dreamy, satisfied look in her face. She wiped her moist mouth. No blood, thank God. For a moment I’d pictured her with smears of blood around her lips.

“You’re just like a camel, Mom,” she said. “They have water in their humps.”

“Camels’ humps are fatty tissue,” David said in a cracked, broken voice. “Camels storing water in their humps is bunkum.”

He liked to quote Henry Ford.

David turned his back in the front seat and put his head in his hands. He didn’t move the rest of the day.

The next morning he was gone. I could leave the car now.

I stepped out, Nicky on my arm, Alice clinging to my free hand. The car roofs glittered gaily in the early morning sun, but nobody moved. Hunched, dark shapes sat still in closed cars. The air was still fresh, but already a taint was creeping in.

There... movement in the other lane. A tall shape unfolded itself from a car, like me with a child on his arm. And a hump on his neck, even bigger than mine.

I slid my hand from Alice’s and lifted it, waving.

After a brief hesitation, the man waved back.

Copyright © 2013 by Bo Balder

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