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By the time the alarm clock is in the middle of its second ring, I've smacked it hard on the head, knocking it off the night table. Six-thirty. Can it be six-thirty already? It feels like I turned off "Antiques Roadshow" and crawled into bed just an hour ago.
Even this early in the morning, the heat is oppressive. I roll over, pushing the comforter off my sweating body, and am confronted by the vast emptiness of the queen-sized bed. It leaves a little ache in my stomach that won't go away until I've hauled myself to my feet and shouted, "Michael! Sarah! Time to get up!"
I pull on jeans, huffing a little as I struggle to zip them. After last night's pizza, I won't weigh myself. I can't bear it.
Sarah, my 10-year-old, is an early riser and is already tying her shoes as I pass her bedroom. There's no movement from Michael's room.
"Come on, Michael, last day of school!" I yodel. "Just one more day and you're home free!"
I thump barefoot into the bathroom, brush my teeth, run a wet rag over my face, and am fascinated by the baggy-eyed old woman glaring at me in the mirror. Is that really me? When did I get those creases on my forehead? My eyes are blue but laced with fine red lines. It has to have been just in this last year, with all the chaos. I'm not that old. I'm not even 50 yet - but I'm getting closer every day. The cold water feels good on my sweating face; I cup my hands and splash myself again.
If David could see me now ... he'd probably laugh. Or worse, he'd give me a kind smile.
The hammering on the bathroom door makes me spray water on my shirt. "C'mon, Mom, I've got to use the bathroom!"
Downstairs, coffee seems to help tighten my skin. I feel a little sharper, but this awful heat is still making my normally curly brown hair wilt. Sarah is chomping happily on her cereal; Michael slouches down the stairs, oozing into his place at the table. He's 15, tall and a little gawky. His eyes are big and dark and wondering like a doe's, and they have a knack for following me. They're like his father's. I could never be angry with him for long when he looks at me with those eyes.
"Excited for the last day of school?" I chirp. I always feel like I have to be unnaturally cheerful around Michael; it's hard to get a rise out of him. Especially this past year.
He shrugs and pours some Fruit Loops into his bowl, adds milk. Sarah watches him intently, as though waiting for something. They must know something. Michael's not talking.
There's nothing I can do except wait and pretend that I'm not anxious, that my hands aren't shaking like my arth-ritic grandmother's. I pour their orange juice and slide it across the table. This gives me an excuse to look at their faces - Sarah's, tense with expectation, and Michael's, with eyes down, studiously casual.
"The lawyer called yesterday while you were at work, Mom," Sarah finally says. Michael gives her a quick, hunted glance, then looks down again.
"My lawyer or your father's?" I ask quickly.
Now Michael pretends he's just remembering. "Oh, yeah, it was yours, Mr. Nichols. He said something about signing some papers for our summer house."
My heart lurches. I've been fighting for that property for months! "When did he call?" My voice comes out harsher than I mean.
"Around four," Michael mumbles, and fills his mouth with cereal so he won't have to talk.
"Why didn't you tell me when I got home? Who knows what could have happened since yesterday!"
Michael slouches down more. "This isn't the first time you've 'forgotten' to give me important messages, Michael. Do you want me to lose the house?"
Michael is saved from answering by the doorbell. It'll be our neighbors, ten- and eleven-year-old James and Caleb, since today is my day to carpool them. I have to swallow hard to get a pleasant expression back as I open the door.
"Come on in, boys. We're almost ready to go. Are you excited for the last day of school?"
"Oh, yes, Mrs. Carroway," Caleb says. They're both blond and blue-eyed little cherubs with toothy grins. Sarah plays with them on weekends. Is it strange for a girl her age to have boy friends? I know I won't be able to talk about this now.
"All right, it's 7:30. Everybody in the car," I say, and hunt for the keys and my cell phone. Maybe once I've dropped everyone off, I can call my lawyer.
Sarah, Caleb and James all cram into the back, jostling for room, while Mi-chael slumps in the front seat, staring out the window. Once I've dropped the younger children at the elementary school, I'll have a couple of minutes to talk to Michael. It occurs to me that with all the fighting lawyers, faxes and phone calls, I haven't talked to him for a while. This is what they always say happens with divorce, I think, and for a moment I get a rush of throbbing panic that makes me dizzy. I want to lower my head onto the steering wheel to fight back the nausea. It's almost as bad as when David first asked for the divorce a year ago. The feeling of the whole Earth sliding out from under you, and you are scrabbling desperately with your fingernails to hold on ...
But the kids are waiting, the clock is ticking, and we're still sitting in the driveway. I rev up the engine and pull out quickly; the turnpike will be awful and I'm pretty sure both my children think I'm insane.
Why is the turnpike always packed on hot days? This inching along makes my skin crawl. Michael just stares out the window and the kids in the back wave at people passing in the other lane. The air conditioner is going full blast, which makes conversation difficult.
"Looking forward to summer vacation?" I ask.
Michael shrugs, "Yeah."
Is there an unwritten law that teenagers must be unenthusiastic about everything? I take a deep breath and try again. "I think your new camp is going to be fun."
"Look, a horse trailer!" Sarah shrills. "Pull alongside, Mom!"
But as we crest a hill, the traffic finally opens up, and with a sigh of relief I lean on the gas pedal. The horse trailer rushes behind us.
"Come on, Mom, let it pull alongside!" Sarah cries. "I want to see the horses!"
"Sarah, we're late," I start to say, but in the middle of my sentence the car sags to the right and the wheel suddenly is frighteningly loose in my hands. I seesaw my arms back and forth for a moment, fighting for control. Michael sits up straight in his seat, his eyes wide; Sarah falls silent. In a few seconds, I have control again, and I ease the car into the breakdown lane.
I twist in the seat. The three kids sandwiched together are sitting very still, their eyes round and glassy like marbles. "Are you all right?" I ask.
They nod and I turn to Michael. I don't need to ask; he just nods.
"It felt like a flat tire," I manage to say calmly, but inside I'm screaming, Of all the days! A flat tire, now!
I start to open the door and nearly get my ear taken off by a motorcycle roaring past. I jerk back, then glare around at the blank faces. "Don't get out of the car," I instruct. Then I slide out and along the side of the car until I can scuffle quickly onto the burnt grass. The right front tire is completely deflated, and it isn't hard to find the puncture. I look at my watch: it's eight o'clock. Rats.
All the kids have their faces pressed to the windows, staring. "What is it, Mom?" Sarah shouts through the glass.
"A flat tire, just like I thought," I say. I gesture to Michael to roll down the window. When he does, I say, "Hand me my cell phone. I'll have to call AAA."
Michael doesn't move. "But we've got a spare in the trunk."
God almighty! "I don't know how to change a tire, Michael. Please give me the phone."
For the first time, Michael raises his head and his eyes meet mine. "Dad knows how to change a tire," he says, boldly.
Again that wave of nausea, like a hot worm in my stomach, threatens to overwhelm me. I fight it by getting angry.
"Well, Michael, he's not here now, is he?" I snap. "Is he?" When Michael doesn't answer, I say, "Give me the phone!"
Michael quickly retrieves the phone. I snatch it out of his hand and turn my back so he won't see how guilty I feel. On the screen, a little picture of a battery with an X through it appears for a moment; then it's gone. Damn damn damn.
I want to yell, to kick the stupid car, but those wide-eyed elfin faces are peering at me. So I take a deep breath, count to ten, and then turn around.
"I'm afraid I forgot to charge the battery," I say. "It's useless."
Michael groans, claps a hand to his forehead, and slides down in the seat. The boys grin; this is really turning out to be an adventure.
"What do we do?" Sarah demands.
"Well, I guess I'm going to have to flag someone down with a cell phone," I say heavily. "It's rush hour, someone should stop soon."
"Today's color day!" Sarah cries. "We're going to miss the games!"
"I'm sorry, Sarah, but I don't have any choice. Michael, it's too hot out here. Roll up the window and keep the air conditioner going. Don't leave the car."
The cars streak past, each accompanied by that maddening roar. The little breeze of their passing is the only relief from the heat. Dad knows how to change a tire. He just had to say that, didn't he?
A sedan with a businessman inside passes every few seconds. No good, they probably wouldn't want to get their suits dirty. And no SUVs either - they're usually driven by soccer moms.
I see a pick-up truck. Someone who drives a truck will know how to change a tire, but it's probably some greasy-haired guy with bad teeth who'll scare the kids. The truck is roaring at me - I don't have time to decide - I throw my arm up and wave wildly.
The truck screeches as it brakes; the man inside waves and pulls over. Then the door jerks open and a 40ish man wearing denim everything thumps out. He must not have air conditioning in his truck, his creased face is shining with sweat.
"It sure is a hot one," he says, and grins. "What can I do for you?"
His dark little eyes rove over me.
"I've got a flat tire and my cell phone is dead," I say. "If I could just borrow your phone -"
He just laughs. "I don't have a phone, but if you've got a spare I can change it for you."
I should have waved at the businessmen with their phones. They're all nicely dressed like David always was. He could wear a nice suit and change a tire at the same time.
"That would be wonderful," I say.
I tap on the window until Michael rolls it down. "Lock the doors," I say quietly.
"This whole thing wouldn't have happened if -" Michael begins, but I cut him off.
"Just do what I tell you, Michael. Now." And he obeys.
The man squints at the car; at the window, the three kids shrink back. "All these kids yours?" he asks.
"No," I say hurriedly. "Now, the spare is in the trunk. Let me just -"
I stand by, feeling helpless, while he wheels the tire, jacks up the car, takes off the old one. Having overcome their fear, the children press their faces to the glass again. Michael is looking out too, but he's looking at me. Dad knows how to change a tire. He knows how to hurt me the worst.
It doesn't take too long. "Well now, that's it."
"I can't thank you enough," I say quickly. My heart has been fluttering the whole time. I know it's unfair to be suspicious of this man because of his appearance, but those shiny round cheeks pressed against the window, those big eyes watching, won't let me feel any other way.
Still, he lingers. "Which ones are yours?" he asks.
"Um, the boy in the front seat, and the girl in the back," I say. Please, leave now.
But he takes a half-step toward the car. "What are their names?"
His tone is friendly, casual, but my legs jerk of their own accord and in a moment I'm standing between him and the car, staring him down, my breath coming in short, sharp gasps. "Please, sir, I'm late as it is," I almost whisper. "Thank you for your help."
Behind me, I can feel Mi-chael's eyes watching the whole exchange. Please, God ... I don't finish the thought.
The man squints at me for a moment, then shrugs. "Happy to help," he says, and trudges back to his truck.
I stand, pressed against the hot car, until his truck pulls away. Then I feel my way around the car like a blind person and slide into the seat. I sit and breathe quietly for a few moments before I raise my head and smile again.
"Well now, that wasn't so bad," I say, and put the car in gear. "Sarah, boys, you'll only miss the first half-hour."
As I'm pulling back into the stream of traffic, Michael asks suddenly, "Was that man ... going to ... to do something?"
"What do you mean?"
"You acted like he was going to ... hurt us."
"It was foolish of me," I stumble, "He wasn't going to do anything."
Michael nods, but something has changed in his demeanor, so I risk a little prod. "So, I can change a tire too. I just do it a different way."
He nods. He even smiles a little. I just don't know anymore. It's so difficult, piecing together the eyes and the voice and the body and seeing my kid poking through. Maybe he appreciated my standing off that man.
I'm only kidding myself. I can't change a tire or pitch a tent or cheer about football the way David can. But I can love them.