In a motel, outside of Vegas, I lay awake staring at the ceiling. Wes is snoring, curled up with his bunny that used to be mine. I want to turn on the TV but Wes needs to sleep and so do I.
Mom says she’ll be home before five. She taught me how to read a clock before I was six, back when Wes was only two. I count every second before she gets home. I can’t sleep until she’s back and kisses both Wes and I on our foreheads. This is the first thing she does before she heads outside for a smoke, but she always leaves the door cracked so I know that she’s there.
Sometimes, I pretend Mom’s a superhero. Hiding in the shadows to get the bad guys. I tell Wes these stories before he goes to sleep so he knows that Mom is alright. I tell him this is what Mom’s job is—that’s why she works such late nights. He’s still young enough to believe and I feel better making him feel better.
“Is that why she’s got a bruise on her arm?” Wes once asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sometimes the bad guys get her, but in the end, she always wins.”
Mom told me to stop telling Wes those stories, she said she’s nothing like a superhero, and then her face got all sad the way it sometimes does, but I don’t know what to tell him instead.
Sunday is Mom’s day off. She always takes us to a matinee. Wes sits on her lap and sometimes I get to pick a candy.
“Sundays are my favorite,” I tell her as we walk back home.
“Mine too,” she says, squeezing my hand. I have her smile and Wes has her eyes.
Right now our room is number two. In the last place we stayed we were in room number five, my favorite number, and before that in thirteen, which is Mom’s favorite. We’ll stay here for a month or so before the owner starts peeking in our window whenever Mom is gone. Even though we always make it look like she’s asleep by putting pillows under the blankets, he eventually will ask to talk to her. He’ll knock on the door, and we’ll tell him she’s very sick—contagious even, and he’ll leave us alone for a little while. When Mom gets back we’ll tell her what happened and that’s when she’ll decide it’s time to go.
Wes and I like to watch the people who come to Las Vegas from all over the world. Some are still hoping to win some money while the others have already lost.
Mom tells us to be careful who we talk to. She doesn’t want anything to happen to us, but sometimes the scariest people are the ones that Mom has over.
“You know the rules,” she tells a man who frequently comes by. He’s tall and skinny and has a tattoo of a raindrop on his face, except it was black. His hair is black and always greasy.
“Yeah, I know. No touching, no talking, blah blah blah. Just give me the cash and I’ll be on my way.”
That’s when Mom will say, “Okay,” and head into the bathroom, where the safe is. The man stands right outside the bathroom door, arms crossed, impatient.
The man smiles at us, revealing one gold tooth. Wes smiles back. I grab Wes’s arm and lead him from the bed to the TV where his favorite cartoon, Batman, is playing. The man looks at me and frowns. He’s about to say something, but Mom comes back.
“Thank you for your services,” he says patting her on the back, then moves his hand up to rub her shoulder.
“Thank you,” she says with a half-smile, and I could tell she didn’t want him to touch her. Once when it was the middle of the night and Mom thought I was asleep she wrapped her arms around me and whispered that Wes and I are the only ones she wants to touch and be touched by, then I saw tears running down her face. I worried that they would stain her face like they did that mans.
As the man leaves, he ruffles my hair. Mom squeezes her fists like she wants to punch him, but he gives her a dirty look and she stops.
“He broke the rules,” I say after he leaves.
“I know,” she says.
“Is he one of the bad guys?” Wes asks me later that night.
“I don’t know,” I say back. “But I think so.”
“What grade are you boys in?” an old woman asks after Mom pays the motel owner for the week. The woman is wearing a shirt that says ‘Las Vegas’ in big bright yellow letters and white shorts that show off the blue lines under her wrinkly skin. The motel owner prints Mom’s receipt. He’s an east Indian man and forces a smile as he thanks Mom for her stay.
“Grade?” I ask back. Mom brushes my hair back taking the receipt.
“Sam is in the fifth grade and little Wes is in kindergarten,” Mom says turning her attention to the woman.
“Well,” the woman says. “How nice.” Mom smiles and we leave.
“What does she mean?” I ask Mom outside.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “Let me worry.”
Sometimes I see kids my age taking vacations with their parents. Their clothes are neat and clean. Not old, or wrinkled, or dirty. Sometimes I want to be like those kids and other times I’m glad I’m me. Mostly I wish I was them when I see kids with their families, going to the pool and splashing in the water. I want to be like the kids whose father buys them a popsicle and they’re mom cleans their face after. But other times I see families like the ones in the Denny’s across the street, the families I watch from the window who have mothers who scold their kids for not sitting correctly and for putting their elbows on the table, and fathers who ignore their kids until they do something wrong—then I like my life better again.
Sometimes Mom and I pretend that we’re like the people on vacation. It’s a game we like to play. I think Mom wishes she was them all the time.
“Look, some new clothes,” Mom tells us, putting the pile on the bed. “I found them in the laundry room.” She hands me a shirt that’s too big, but it has a dinosaur printed on it and the label says, Lucky Brand. I wonder if that means it’ll make me lucky, especially since we’re staying at the Lucky Club these days.
Mom isn’t always home by five. It’s rare, but it can happen.
The first time was a year ago. We were at a Motel 6 and Mom didn’t come home until seven, after the sun was already was up. She apologized a million times before going to sleep for the rest of the day. The next time she was only twenty minutes late, but she excused herself to the bathroom before she even went out for a smoke, and cried for over an hour while she ran the shower, as if that would cover up the noise. The most recent time was especially scary because she didn’t come home until after sundown. She smiled at us and apologized again. This time she wasn’t even wearing the same clothes she left in, she was wearing a light blue sequin dress that she once told me she wouldn’t be caught dead in unless they paid her like a bazillion dollars.
I watch the clock tick past six, then past seven. I watch the sun rise and Wes wake up. I fix us some breakfast—the usual, a bowl of cereal that Mom gets from the discount section of the store. Sometimes it tastes stale but this time she got us the marshmallow kind so I don’t complain.
“Where’s Mom?” Wes asks.
“Working,” I say, pouring the milk.
“Still?” he asks looking outside at the empty parking lot. The only car parked is a white pickup truck. They’ve been here almost as long as we have.
“Yeah,” I say. Wes doesn’t ask again until noon and I don’t have an answer and I doubt I ever will.
On Thursday, Mom still isn’t home. I get into the safe in the bathroom by using Wes’s birthday as the combination. I’m glad Mom made it such a big deal to teach me all the names of the months and what order the go in. I was born in May, the fifth month, which is why five is my lucky number and Wes was born in August, on the eight, in the year 2000—the year Mom calls the goose eggs. I use some of the money to buy chips from the vending machine. We can see it from our window. It’s across the parking lot, right beside the front office, but I go late at night when no one will see me. Mom doesn’t like me sneaking out when its dark—once she caught me when she came home early, but this is an emergency. When she caught me that once time, Mom told me all about the people that take kids away and put them with new families who are mean and beat you. She said that’s how she grew up. She said, “It’s no way to live.”
Mom isn’t there on Sunday to take us to the movies. I wanted to see the new one about the talking animals, but now I just want Mom to come home. Wes cries and cries and wants me to take him to the theatre.
“I can’t take you! We’d get in trouble!” I say. “We’ll go next weekend when Mom is back.”
The ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hits against the door, it sounds like knocking and it startles us. It’s stayed on the door so long the housekeepers are probably going to go talk to the manager soon. I wish we could have the housekeepers come in since the food wrappers and dirty clothes are starting to stack up.
“But what if Mom doesn’t come home?” Wes asks.
I turn around, grab his arm, and squeeze as hard as I can. I’m Mom now. I do what she did the one time Wes tried to run into the street. “Ow!” he says. “I was only asking.”
“Don’t be stupid, Wes.” This is what I say and I hate myself for it as I watch his eyes fill with tears. He doesn’t talk to me for the rest of the day. I don’t care. He’s wrong and I’m right. Mom will be back by tomorrow, I just know it.
Even though we’re in room number two, I’m wearing my Lucky Brand shirt in the Lucky Club Motel and I’m doing everything in fives. When Wes finally talks to me its because he wants chips, I give him five dollars for it, and I tell him to chew for five seconds before he swallows. I know she’s coming back, because I watch the clock and every five minutes and I say a little prayer in my head.
Holli Kellogg is originally from Murrieta California but she has lived in Colorado most of her life. She attends Colorado State University where she is getting a bachelors degree in creative writing as well as a degree in theater performance. Her short story “Sisterhood” has been published in the literary journal, The Plains Paradox, and her short story “The Lucky Club Motel” was a finalist for Narrative’s 30 Below contest.