Kyle watched the stucco ceiling and inhaled a mixture of his mother's cigarette and peroxide fume from the bag around his scalp. His nose wrinkled and he moved just slightly on the fat white mattress. She'd stripped the covers off. She told him they would glow like St. Elmo's fire under blacklight.
"Hold your head still," his mother said, cig flexing between her arterial red nails. "Don't fidget." She was watching the window, curtain cracked enough for one sliver of sunlight to bisect the smoky room. Kyle ran his tongue over his sticky lips and tasted watermelon. She didn't want him to do that, either.
The curtain rattled all the way shut and then the only light was the mute television flickering furiously on the wall. A moment later, the alarm on his mother's cheap mobile started to sing. She unfolded her legs and stood up.
"That should be good," she said. "Come on. Into the bathroom." She cradled his head carefully while Kyle sat up. Some dripped out the back of the cap and stung cold. She clucked her tongue and wiped it off as they walked to the bathroom. Kyle tried to measure his steps and make them more like hers, like they'd practiced. She didn't notice.
In the bathroom, Kyle leaned his head over the shallow tub and after a false start the shower nozzle brap-brap-brapped a freezing jet against the plastic cap. His mother peeled it away and ran her fingers through his hair. They moved in small circles around the nape of his neck, tangling and untangling. His teeth started to chatter as the drain swirled. Her nails scraped him. She wrapped his head in a complementary towel.
He turned and sat on the lip of the tub, but that put him below the mirror, so she stood him up and he watched in silence while she unplugged her laptop charger and jammed the blowdryer in its socket. It roared hot air in his face and made him blink.
"What do you think?" his mother asked when it had been switched off. She teased the peroxide blonde curtain, slicing it to frame his face just so, fluffing it between her fingers.
"Good," Kyle said, looking away.
"Oh, honey. Clothes now." She kissed the top of his head, where his hair was still slightly damp, opened the grocery bag. "Here." She removed a pair of black panties with the tag rubbed blurry. He pulled them mechanically up his legs, snagging once around his sharp knees. The bra didn't quite match, stolen off a La Senza rack. His mother fit it around his chest and had him do up the front-closing clasp. It snicked shut under his clumsy fingers. She moved the puffy pale flesh of his chest around to halfway fill the cups.
Kyle looked in the mirror and behind toothpaste spatter the pretty blonde girl looked back. Her eyes were deepened with two coats of Clinique mascara, her brows were tweezed thin, her lips were pouty sticky pink. She was dangerously thin, bra straps digging at pristine skin and the edge of one rib showing under the lace, but she was becoming a woman.
"There's my daughter." His mother wrapped her arms around him. "There's my gorgeous girl."
"Any name you want, honey," his mother said. She smiled sinuous. "We're ready now. Trust me, nobody will give us any trouble."
"Avery is okay."
"It's only temporary," his mother said. "Just until they stop looking. It'll be fun, okay? Mother and daughter. Having fun."
"Okay," Kyle said. His mother pulled the rest of the clothes out of the bag and helped him dress. When the skirt was snug on his hips and the blouse hung right on his shoulders, exposing his collarbone, she brushed out his hair again. Kyle walked back into the bedroom. She stayed to wash her hands. More often, now, that was happening.
When she came out she went to the window, and whatever she saw or didn't see in the parking lot brought a smile to her face. She unmuted the television and found a satellite music station while Kyle perched on the end of the bed and tried to make sense of crossing his legs.
"Practice," his mother said. She slipped her feet out of cramped shoes and handed them to Kyle. Veins stood up on her ankles. She rubbed her toes in the stained carpet and gave him languid advice around a cigarette as he tripped up and down the length of the room. Kyle concentrated on his feet, trying to keep from sliding in the slightly-too-big pumps, placing one and then the other.
"If your bastard father could see you now," his mother said, half-smiling. Kyle tried to return it, but couldn't manage even the half. He practiced in the shoes until his mother said it was time to go.
Rusted power poles and graffitied brick slid past the train window and Kyle did not hate or love his mother any more than he hated or loved weather, or gravity. She was sitting beside him, head nestled back in the plush seat, and recently-sterilized earbuds trailed under her dyed-dark hair. He looked over at her. She smiled at him, winked. Her lips were carmine today.
Her lips were carmine the day she apparated on the corner of Jasper and 115th, smirking under bug-eyed sunglasses, carrying a black nylon bag and a pharmacy's worth of pill bottles and a crazy, beautiful story about going back to New Jersey, just the two of them, and not having to worry about custody court dates or black eyes.
Then a week of clandestine meetings, like being a spy. When his father asked how junior high was Kyle would pull the straps of his backpack taut so they ached his shoulders and he would shrug and say that it was fine. He would not say that his mother had been discharged and that she hated him so much and hoped Kyle would be nothing like him, not ever.
On a night Kyle was supposed to drink Coke slushes and play videogames until his eyes hurt at Jamison's house, he met his mother outside the Macs instead. Then they drove furiously with the radio hammering out old music, eighties hits, until the sky was raw pink. That was the first car, a battered white Nissan, but after it there was another that belonged to a friend of hers. It was rusty red. After it broke down, there were buses.
Kyle saw his face in the bus station one morning, looking very pale and sad, and they were very careful after that. His fourteenth birthday happened in a women's shelter, but everyone sang for a tomboy named Avery who had shaggy hair but nice bone structure. Kyle blew out the candle in the pastry even though he didn't think the wish would count. His mother had taken the name Avery off a billboard. She said it was a good idea. She bought a few things and then stole a few more.
And now they were on the train, and the skirt rode up his goosebumped thighs if he wasn't careful. Nearly to Newark. Two boys a row down were playing eyetag with him. That was something new. The conductor was loping easily down the car, handloop to handloop. Kyle's mother smiled guiltlessly when she showed the tickets.
"Ma'am, these aren't valid," the man said. "These are AmTrak." Kyle widened his eyes a bit so his mother could exchange a look of surprise with him. She blushed and apologized and rummaged in her purse for cash.
"I'm so sorry, I must have been confused," she said. "I could have sworn they told me…"
"These are expired anyways," the man said. "Off at the next stop." He sighed and loped on. Kyle's mother flipped the bird to his back. She'd known they were expired, of course, and they only needed to get to Newark tonight, anyways. Five minutes later, the other commuters looked over with slight interest as the cheats trooped off the train. Kyle felt the one boy staring again. He let his hips sway a bit, like his mother's did.
She caught him at it in the Metro bathroom, pouting his lips at the mirror and playing with the ash-blonde fall of his hair. Kyle had dimly heard the flush, but didn't realize she'd finished until she was behind him in the cracked glass. The stall door swung open and shut behind them. The toilet inside was mummified by toilet paper.
"You like it, don't you?" his mother asked. Her thin arms draped around him like cabling. She smiled.
Kyle's ears flushed red and he went back to washing his hands, three times with soap because she was watching. His mother adjusted the strap of his bra.
"Those boys on the train did," she said. "The conductor did, that old pervert. He looked right down your shirt when he asked for the tickets." She put her chin on his collarbone so their faces touched, and he saw again how much he looked like she used to look. "Maybe if these were a little bigger he would have let us stay on," she said.
"Um. I doubt it."
"Me too." His mother shrugged and straightened up. She turned the water on in the next basin over. Shadows flickered in the corners of the bathroom. A purple grafiti was blooming under the hand dryers. A syringe had missed the garbage can. Someone was still knocking at the door, but they would give up soon.
Kyle watched the water turn lava-hot, hiding the mirror and the blonde girl in steam, and that was when his mother finally put her hands underneath and began, furiously, to scrub.
Another hotel, close to a liquor store. The hallway stank with something Kyle didn't recognize but his mother told him was marijuana. It reminded her of university, she said. They dropped their things by the door and Kyle took the pumps off his aching feet, then helped his mother wipe down the faucets and strip the beds. She took out her laptop, which had a toothy gap where the battery had once been, and plugged it into the wall.
Kyle watched the muted television, trying to piece together a happy sitcom, while his mother sipped at a two-six of vodka and used the webcam. Her shirt slipped gradually lower down her shoulders. Her laugh was melodic. Her mouth whispered the kinds of things she used to whisper to his dad, but he knew her fingers were tapping out PayPal account numbers.
"Honey, come over and say hi." His mother's voice was like cheerful ice. Kyle had been almost drowsing; he came awake. His mother dropped the laptop and came over to the bed, slightly unsteady. She brushed the hair out of Kyle's face and inspected him. Her forehead creased above manicured brows.
"To who?" Kyle asked.
"Someone friendly," his mother said. She fluffed his hair and produced her own lipstick. "Just talk to him for a little while, okay? Just be a girl." She coated his lips, touched them up with her finger. He tasted wax.
Whoever was on the other end of the laptop wasn't using a camera, so Kyle only saw Avery in the window. Her hair was a halo in the light and she looked like a blurry angel. Kyle smiled and Avery smiled, a wet pink thing that sent chat scrolling into the blank space below. Andyboy said hey there, gorgeous. Kyle typed hello.
He heard his mother close the bathroom door and turn the fan on. Under that roar, the rasp-click of a lighter. Kyle hoped she wouldn't wash her hands again.
ur very cute, how old ?
Kyle stared at the words and wondered if he was meant to lie. He found the one and the four, then swapped it for a six.
very cute. gorgeous. what do u like to do ?
Kyle heard water running but forced the smile to stay. He turned his head the way his mother did. He said that he didn't know.
must b smthing. i bet u like boys.
Kyle thought of the train. He said nothing.
show it to me please. ur so gorgeous.
Kyle asked what, show what, even though bile was building up his throat. Andyboy told him to show him his cock and Kyle slammed the laptop shut with sick hot waves prickling his gut. He smashed it hard against the frame of the bed. He smashed it again. His mother came out of the bathroom coughing. The vodka bottle was half-empty.
"What are you doing?" She snatched the laptop back, smoke hanging tendrils from her mouth. "What the fuck? It's not a big deal, you can't even see him, Christ." Her voice was slurred and she fumbled with the cigarette, the bottle. "Christ, you're such a fucking baby. You're selfish. After I do all this for you, I'm trying to fucking save you, it's money, isn't it?"
Kyle grabbed the bottle away as she put it to her lips. The skin of her hand was boiled red. She hissed at his touch and pulled away.
"You drink it, then," his mother said, half-laughing, half-crying. Massaging her hand.
"I'm going to pour it out."
"No." He was off-guard and she wrenched the bottle back, smiling chemical-bright. "That would be a waste, honey. Either I'm drinking it or you are."
"What's going to happen when we get there?" Kyle demanded. "Tomorrow. What's going to happen tomorrow?"
"Your daddy always hated vodka," his mother said, stumbling. "But you're my boy, aren't you? Or my girl." She held out the bottle. Kyle snatched it and saw five places to hurl it where it would shatter like marriages and happy suburban families and other sure things. Salt tracks were running down his mother's face again but her eyes were flint.
Kyle wanted to drown it, all of it, drown the girl in the mirror and the laptop and the night drives and the hand-scrubbing, drown it the way his mother did, so before he could reconsider he drank the vodka. His stomach heaved, nostrils twitched. His cheeks burned red. He had to stop twice with a pin in his forehead, but then it was done and he was in the bathroom, vomiting, and his mother was kneeling behind him with her arms over his, dripping tears down the nape of his neck and saying that she was sorry, so, so sorry.
The world went slantwise and it was his mother vomiting, he was draped over the edge of the bathtub, neck crooked on dry porcelain. She rambled about his father, and then about Princeton, about how beautiful the campus was and how very old it was, and how they never should have left, why did they leave? There was a bookstore, the Labyrinth, and he would have loved it.
Now the shower was on, sputtering cold water on his toes, and his mother was looking at herself in the mirror and laughing. Her makeup was running. Kyle knew dimly that his own had run, too. He moved so he could dryheave over the drain, raindrops battering his head. He asked if she really hated his father, really truly.
"Well, I have to." She blew her nose in the sink. "Don't I? For what he did to us."
"Just to you," Kyle mumbled. "He never touched me."
"He never touched me." Kyle looked at his mother through the mirror, the flecks of vomit around her lips. "I told you that," he said. "Because you wanted me to."
"Oh, honey." She wobbled to the bathtub. "I thought that. Maybe." She found his head and stroked it, fingers interplayed with the falling water. "But you hated living with him, didn't you? You wanted to come with me. With your mom. Didn't you?"
"I can't understand you," Kyle said. His mother clambered over the edge of the tub and they lay like that. He smelled her sour breath. Her hair was chunked and stiffening in places. Her heartbeat was soft, soft, soft against him.
"I'll go back to the hospital," she said. "I'll do everything right. I promise."
"You say that, but you don't."
"Well." She stretched and Kyle heard her spine click. "Nobody's fucking perfect, are they?"
After a while Kyle said no, they weren't, but she didn't hear him. Her breath was noisy. Kyle untangled himself and went to the mirror again, to look at Avery. She'd never looked more like her mother. He found nail scissors and began to snip, strand after strand falling into the sink. It filled up with the dead blonde hair. When his head was emerging ugly, he fished her mobile phone out from her toiletries.
He climbed back into the tub and his thumb traced old digits, digits that would ring a black cordless in a burnt-orange kitchen. Maybe startle a red-eyed father. His mother shifted against him, vodka-sweat going cold.
Kyle traced the digits and knew that come morning, whatever he did, come morning his mother would have to scrub and scrub.
BIO: Rich Larson is a 20-year-old student living in Edmonton, Alberta. His novel Devolution was selected as a finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. His shorter work has since appeared in Word Riot, YARN, >kill author, Monkeybicycle, Prick of the Spindle, DSF, The Molotov Cocktail, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and many others. His self-published work can be found at Amazon.com/author/richlarson.