I glance around and see my mom sleeping in the front seat. Val, Mike and Greg are asleep to my left and my right. They're so peaceful. I try to slip quietly out of the car. I crawl over Mike carefully. He grunts but does not wake.
It's creepy outside in the cold air. I make my way quickly to the brightly lit doorway of the gas station convenience store. As I slip through the door, it swiftly closes behind me, clipping me on the ankle as I walk.
I keep close to the walls, weaving through the grocery aisles, bee-lining toward the back of the store where I hope against hope the bathroom is. I hear my dad's voice but can't see him above the rows of snack foods. He laughs at what might have been his own joke. I smile. His laugh always makes me smile.
I finally make it the bathroom and it's icky.
The room is smelly like poop and stale air. The floor seems sticky. The light is dim and blue and flickering. I hover over the toilet seat trying not to let my bum touch the little drops of who-knows-what that cover it. I try to hold my breath to keep from breathing in the stink.
When I reach for TP, it's out. Trying to balance, I squeeze my legs together to keep my undies up and my favorite yellow flower-y dress from falling to the floor. I reach as far as my fingers can reach and grab the very tip of the paper towels and rip. Success! I defeat the farty bathroom and wash my hands of it.
Leaving the store, it is eerily quiet. No laughter. No noise of any kind.
I walk back out to the dark parking lot and realize the car isn't where I left it. I spin around and look at the other pumps. At the parking spots next to the store.
No cars anywhere. I feel the tears start to well in the corners of my eyes. I run around the building, hoping maybe they drove around back for some reason.
Back inside the store, the tears are now running freely. I am babbling at the man behind the counter. He doesn't look overly friendly. But his face is warm. And I can tell he doesn't like seeing me cry.
I try to spout out sentences but only fragments emerge.
"Da.." "Mom.." "Where did they..?" "Why did they...?"
He comes around the counter and tries to comfort me. He touches my shoulder. He strokes my hair. I am soothed. Temporarily.
The police arrive and they are nice. This town is small and it seems like everyone knows everyone else. Sherman, the policeman that drives me away from the gas station, talks to me like we have been friends for years. His wife is at the police station; their house is connected to the back of it. She hands me a cup of hot cocoa and talks cooing at me. As we sit there at the dining room table, their company makes me forget about my mom, my dad, my brothers and my sister.
When the phone rings, Sherman answers and a full bright smile crosses his face. He turns to me and gestures the phone in my direction. I take it, tentatively, and put it up to my ear.
It's my dad's voice but it is muffled and he is talking away from the phone.
"She's there!" he yells to someone on the other end. And then that laugh. He laughs that full-belly laugh that starts at his toes and rolls all the way up his body to the tip of his tongue.
And I smile.