Travis barely got his long legs folded into the front seat and the passenger-side door closed before his father slammed the gears into reverse and jolted them all out of the driveway. He glanced into the rearview mirror at his older sister, June. She had baby Lester on her lap, his clean Sunday shirt already streaked with some mud he must have kept hidden in his little fist. Travis knew that June hadn’t noticed it or she would be working on cleaning him up. The day after their mother’s accident, Dad had made June drop out of her junior year of high school to take care of Lester, Earleen, and Roy.
Now the whole family was on the way to see Mom for the first time, and Travis had a sour-note feeling about it. Travis thought either he or June should have gone first, before bringing all the little ones along. They were too young to understand what had happened. Travis looked over his shoulder at Roy, who was nervously running one of Travis’s hand-carved cars along the ridge below the car window. Even though Roy was only a second-grader, he hadn’t cried since Mom’s accident. Travis could tell from the way he kept his lips folded under that he was holding his fears and sadness inside.
“Let’s sing a song,” Earleen said. “We always sing when we’re in the car with Mommy.” When Travis didn’t respond right away, Earleen’s foot hit the back of his seat hard enough to make him lurch forward—an amazingly strong kick for a four year old.
“Okay, Earleen, okay!” Travis launched into the first verse of “John Henry” to stave off another boot in the rear. He deliberately picked a song that could last long enough for the whole trip to the hospital. Travis knew “John Henry” by heart, so he went on automatic pi lot and the words continued to spin out of his mouth, no matter what thoughts were running through his head. He stared out the side window, watching telephone poles glide by, their wires dipping, then swooping up in the same rhythm as the music. June joined in with a clear soprano harmony, reminding Travis of Mom singing and playing all the old songs on her guitar. He had to drop out for a couple of bars because he couldn’t sing around the lump in his throat.
Just as they finished the last verse, the hospital sign came into view, and Dad pulled into the parking lot. He looked over his shoulder. “I want you kids to act normal when you see your mother, hear?”
Travis thought normal was a strange word to describe his family, but he nodded. Checking the rearview mirror again, Travis saw June fish a tissue out of her pocket and wipe some snot off Lester’s upper lip and chin. It was hard to make that kid look presentable, but she did her best. “Mom’s okay, though, isn’t she, Dad?” June asked. “You said she didn’t have any broken bones.”
“That’s right, not one broken bone,” Dad said. “Only a bump on her head.”
“How bad a bump?” Travis asked. Dad had been pretty vague about that. Why would they keep somebody in a hospital for two weeks because of a bump on the head? Travis hadn’t pressed Dad for more information, but now that they were down to zero hour, he wanted to know what they were going to find up in that hospital room.
“She’s not perfect,” Dad said. “But she’s coming along. This hospital is the newest and the best. It has more computers than you’ve ever seen.” Dad was busy maneuvering around the parking lot, trying to find a space as close to the entrance as possible. He spotted a lady who was getting into a car just beyond the handicapped spaces. He started his turn signal and waited while she kept talking on her cell phone before starting the car. Dad’s thumb drummed against the steering wheel on the off beat to the blinkers.
Not perfect? What did Dad mean by that? Travis bled off a little of his uneasiness by tapping a riff of his own on his knee, then jumped when Dad laid on the horn and yelled, “Okay, lady, get a move on! Other people need to get into the hospital.” The lady gave him a dirty look and backed out. Dad pulled in, overshooting the space so they were halfway onto the sidewalk. Another ten feet would have parked them inside the building.
* * *
They all piled out and headed for the entrance. Travis tugged at the cuffs of his dress shirt to make them reach his wrists, but they only stayed there if he kept his arms hunched up inside the sleeves. The shirt was new for his sixth-grade graduation two years ago, and Travis had grown a lot since then. Dad had insisted that visiting Mom for the first time was a special occasion and one of his old worn-out T-shirts wouldn’t do. When Travis reached out to steer Earleen through a big lobby with a lot of couches, his wrists poked out again, so he unbuttoned the cuffs and rolled up the sleeves.
“Mom is on the third floor,” Dad said. “I’ll go up to her room and make sure she’s ready to see you. You kids wait here until I come get you.” He turned and headed for the elevator.
June was trying to carry a squirming Lester. He had learned to walk a few weeks ago, so he wanted to get free and practice his new skill. As soon as she set him down, Lester careened around the empty lobby, ran into a stuffed chair, and plopped down on his diaper-padded rear. Travis started to retrieve him.
“Let him be,” June said. “There’s nobody here he can bother. Besides, he needs to burn off a little energy before we go up to Mom’s room.” June settled into a couch and Earleen snuggled in close to her side, sucking her thumb. Roy was running his car around the magazines on a coffee table.
Travis sat on the other side of June. “Maybe I should go up first and check things out,” he whispered. “In case Mom looks too scary for the kids to see her.”
June kept her eyes on Lester, who had blasted off across the lobby again. “It’s been almost two weeks since the accident. If Mom had any bruises they’d be faded away by now.”
Travis leaned close to June, speaking softly so Earleen couldn’t hear. “But the pickup truck rolled over three times, June. That’s no fender bender. What if her head injury is really bad? What if she’s acting weird? Dad never could look trouble in the face. This might be a lot worse than he’s let on.”
“We’re here now,” June said. “We’ll have to make the best of it.” She leaped to her feet to retrieve Lester, who had latched on to a small potted tree and was about to bring it down, pot and all.
Travis saw a guy in a bright green uniform wheel a bed out of the elevator. The man lying in it was all hooked up to tubes, with a plastic bag of liquid swinging from a bracket over his head and another bag that Travis figured was filled with piss slapping against the side rail.
Travis felt a wave of nausea roll over him. The smell here brought back a sharp memory of his only other time in a hospital. When he was Roy’s age, he had fallen out of a tree. The emergency room doctor had poked around his arm and asked where it hurt. Dad always said that a boy shouldn’t be a wimp, so Travis told the doctor it didn’t hurt and used every bit of strength he had to hold back his tears. Then the doctor bent Travis’s arm, and a searing pain came from all directions, pulling a black curtain behind it until all that remained was a pinpoint of light that flicked out, leaving only a roaring in the darkness.
Later, Mom told Travis that he had passed out without a whimper. An X-ray showed that his arm was broken in three places. Dad had carried that X-ray around for ages, bragging about his brave son. Travis had never again been able to measure up to the image of that tough little kid. Now if he threw up in the hospital at the age of fourteen, it would only confirm Dad’s opinion that he couldn’t do anything right.
“Okay, Mom’s all set and can’t wait to see you kids.” Dad’s words brought Travis back to the present. He glanced over at Roy, who had ducked down behind the coffee table, only the hand running the car still visible.
“How about I go up with you first, Dad?” Travis said. “Maybe this is too much for the little kids. They could wait in the lobby with June.”
Dad shook his head. “Nobody’s waiting in the lobby. The doctor said it would do your mother a world of good to see you kids, so we’re all going in. Come on.”
June swooped up Lester, Travis coaxed Roy out from behind the coffee table, and they all followed their father down the hall.
Earleen was afraid to step over the crack in front of the elevator door when it opened, so Travis had to pull her by the hand to get on. It was the first time any of them had been in an elevator, and Travis was surprised that his knees buckled under him when they started going up.
Earleen had the same trouble getting over the crack when they got out on Mom’s floor, but Roy loved it. “I want to ride some more. Can we see how far up it goes?” It was the first time Travis had seen Roy smile since the accident.
“This is the top floor,” Dad said. “You can ride back down after our visit. Now you all act natural when you see your mother—like everything’s the same as it was before.” Dad flashed a wide grin that showed all of his teeth. He took a deep breath and led the way down a long hall.
A tune shot through Travis’s mind—Smile, though your heart is breaking. It caused the hairs on the back of his neck to prickle.
They stopped outside a double door labeled NEUROLOGY. Dad checked each one of them over, wiping the drool from Lester’s chin and using the goo to plaster down Roy’s cowlick. Something was always dripping out of Lester. Dad scowled at Travis’s rolled-up sleeves, then straightened his own skinny shoulders and tuned up his smile a few notes. “Okay, let’s go in there and bring some Tacey family cheer to your mother.”
They walked into a huge room with a full circle of counters and desks. Computers and monitors flashed jagged heartbeat lines. Dad led the way past the smaller rooms that ringed the outside. He had his arms folded, hugging himself, so his bony shoulder blades poked out against his brand new T-shirt like sprouting wings. He stopped by one of the doors, shot them what Travis thought was a phony, cheerful thumbs-up, and went into the room.
June and Travis looked at each other and paused by the door. There were two beds. The closest one held a little old lady who was leaning way over to one side with her mouth hanging open. Her snoring sounded like Mom’s ancient Ford pickup when she tried to coax it into starting every night to drive to work.
A curtain was drawn just far enough to hide Mom’s face, but Travis saw Dad reach out and gently take her hand. “Your babies are here to see you, Geneva.” He leaned in. “What’s that? No, you’re fine. You look beautiful, sweetheart.” He motioned for them to come into the room.
When Travis got beyond the curtain, all he could see was a fat bald woman with tubes and wires coming out of her. His mind couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. Was Dad making a stupid joke?
“Travis, June, bring the little ones over to see your mother.” Dad patted the bald lady’s hand, then he came around to the other side of the bed and pulled back the curtain. “You kids, say hello to your mother.”
They all stood there frozen, as if they had been playing a game of statues. Even Lester was dead still.
“Come on now.” Dad’s voice was soft and pleading. He had tears in his eyes.
Travis was numb. No way that bald fat thing in the bed was Mom. Mom was slim and beautiful with long reddish brown hair—chestnut, she called it.
Earleen broke the spell and ran to the bed. “Mommy! Are you coming home with us?” Dad scooped her up. Earleen must have been too short to see before, because as soon as she got a good look at the person in the bed, she stopped reaching out and pressed her little fists to her mouth.
Oh, Lord, please don’t let this be Mom, Travis prayed silently.
The woman tried to reach for Earleen, but only her left arm worked. The fingers of her right hand curled up, then the wrist pulled down and the elbow bent, as if the arm had a mind of its own and was doing the exact opposite of what the woman wanted. Her mouth twisted and she let out a weird sound—“Eeeeerrrrrrr.”
Earleen buried her head in Dad’s neck. “I want my mommy.”
Dad rubbed her back. “Mommy’s right here, Earleen. Look, sweetie.”
Earleen peeked at the woman again, her eyes hopeful, then turned away and sobbed.
The voice in Travis’s head had stopped praying and started screaming. This is not our mother! He had to get out of there. He backed away from the bed, knocking into the nightstand. Suddenly a piercing beep filled the room. Had he caused that? A nurse came out from behind the circle of desks in the outer room but went to the other bed. “Now, Mrs. Strawderman, remember not to bend your elbow, because it puts a kink in your IV and the alarm goes off.” The nurse adjusted a tube, pushed a button on a machine by the bed, and the noise stopped. Mrs. Strawderman never missed a beat of her snoring.
“Travis? Come see your mother.” In spite of Earleen’s howls, Dad still had the fake smile plastered on his face. Travis forced himself to move closer to the bed. He could see that the woman wasn’t fat because the body under the sheet was normal-sized. It was only her face that was all swollen and puffed up. There were three jagged lines of stitches running across her scalp. She wasn’t really bald, either. Her hair had been shaved off.
Travis wanted to look away, but he kept searching for signs of Mom. Well, what he really hoped to find was proof that it wasn’t her. The bristles of hair trying to grow back sparkled in the sunlight from the window. They were chestnut brown. And worse, when Travis looked into the woman’s face for the first time, his mother’s eyes looked back at him—light blue like the hunk of beach glass she had saved from a trip to Cape Cod when she was a girl. Nobody but Travis and his mother had that color. The rest of the family had Dad’s muddy creek-bottom eyes.
Travis heard someone take a sobbing breath. He wasn’t sure if it was June, or if he had done it himself.
Then Roy marched up to the bed, took a close look, and said, “You’re not our mother. Where is she?”
The woman … Mom … stretched out her good hand to Roy, but he yelled, “Don’t you touch me!” and ran for the door, dropping his wooden car on the way. Travis saw his chance to escape, but June beat him to it. “I’ll get Roy,” she said, running out of the room.
“I shouldn’t have brought you kids here,” Dad said. “How could you do this to your mother? You’re breaking her heart.” He headed for the door, carrying a screaming Earleen.
Mom moaned, thrashing her head back and forth on her pillow. “Neh, neh, neh,” she kept saying in a loud voice. She grabbed Travis’s wrist with a surprisingly strong grip. Her eyes locked on his and he tried to think of something to say to make up for what had just happened, but he couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t utter a sound. Could barely see his mother through his own tears.
Excerpted from Guitar Boy by MJ Auch.
Copyright © 2010 by MJ Auch.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.