The Road to Hell and Tallahassee
Florence Bowman was ready to leave home. Her little brother looked as though he was ready to leave the planet.
Standing at the end of her driveway, she watched as her parents packed the remainder of her college necessities into the back of their sedan. She had made a deal with herself that if she could survive this road trip with her parents, she would take the rest of her life more seriously. Her little brother was wearing a spacesuit.
The purpose of this trip was two-fold, her father had explained. They would first drop Florence in Tallahassee, at his old alma mater, to begin her freshman year. They would then take Arthur across the state to Cape Canaveral for space camp. Florence didn’t care about the reason, or about friends left behind in Maryland. She was ready to leave her house, and the memories within, behind her.
Florence watched her brother haul his sleeping bag over his back from the garage to the sedan. It unraveled over him as he tried to hoist it into the trunk. Their mother came over and began to help him roll it back up.
“You’re not taking that,” Florence’s father said after noticing the two.
“It said on the website that we could bring one if we wanted to,” Arthur said, clutching the sleeping bag which had once again unraveled over his shoulder.
“You don’t need it. They provide everything you need at the camp.”
“Hank, if it’ll make him feel—” Florence’s mother was cut off by a commanding glare from her husband.
“He doesn’t need it,” he said.
The family gathered the remainder of the boxes and essentials in a familiar silence.
Florence’s father was driving, and he would occasionally tap his fingers on the steering wheel, asserting his presence to the rest of the vehicle. Florence gazed out of the rear window. She looked past her reflection at houses that lined the interstate, all of them full of families. Families, she was sure, who weren’t tip-toeing on eggshells every weekend morning, families genuinely excited to spend time together.
Florence hated how much mental energy she spent grieving for her family that never was. She remembered a drawing she had made in the fourth grade of her family standing in front of a house much larger than their own. There were floor-to-ceiling windows on the ground floor that invited natural light into the house from sunrise to sunset. The family was standing on the front lawn surrounded by red, blue, yellow, and green tulips. Florence’s mother was holding Arthur, who was yet to be born in real life, and Florence was holding her father’s hand. They all wore long crayoned-on smiles that probably looked like double-chins.
The teacher had come around as Florence was finishing her drawing. “What a happy family,” she said, “But what’s that behind the house?” She pointed to an oblong silver oval with portholes down the side and black fins at the base. Florence explained that it was a spaceship for the family. “Oh, so this is in the future, very cool,” her teacher had said. She didn’t tell her teacher that it was her family then. They had taken the ship to another planet in another universe, one where they could all be happy and smiling. Florence’s mother had put the picture on the refrigerator, and her father had taken it down after a week.
Now Florence looked over at her brother sitting beside her. He was still wearing his spacesuit, but had removed his helmet. He was holding it tightly in his lap and staring out his window. She could tell that he was still stewing about the sleeping bag, thinking about all the reasons why it wasn’t fair that their father hadn’t let him take it. Florence had used those terms when she had been younger: fair and unfair, as if there were some universal judicator squaring away all injustice.
Arthur’s suit crinkled as he brought his feet up onto his seat. His suit looked like it had been made from the same material as space blankets, and when the sun was on Arthur’s side of the car, it refracted dozens of miniscule rainbows around the back seat.
Their father shot a look at Arthur in the rear view mirror. “Arthur, did I ever tell you the story of Galileo and the Catholic Church?” The rainbows dissipated as Arthur took his feet off the seat and placed them on the floor.
“No,” Arthur said.
“In 1616, Galileo was put on trial by the Catholic Church. Do you know why?”
Arthur didn’t answer.
Florence slid down in her seat, out of the rear-view mirror’s range.
“No, I don’t,” she said.
“Jesus Christ, are they even bothering to teach at that public school anymore? You’ve never heard of Galileo in all twelve years of school? And they let you into Florida State?”
She’d played it wrong. “Didn’t he, like, invent the telescope or something?” she asked. She could never be on his side, but completely ignoring him had its problems.
“Well he didn’t invent the telescope,” her father said with a chortle, “but close enough. He did improve on the design overall. Back to the story, Galileo discovered, like Copernicus before him, that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but that the sun was the center, and that the planets revolved around it and not the earth. He called it a heliocentric model as opposed to the geocentric one. You can use those words at camp. Everyone will be impressed.”
Florence noticed her mother clutch the center console with her hand as she shot a glare at her husband, but he didn’t notice. Arthur was looking into the visor of his helmet now. It could be folded up over the top of the helmet.
“The Catholic Church didn’t like that, and in 1616 they accused Galileo of creating theories that directly opposed the word of the bible. And after almost twenty years, the Church tortured him into saying that his idea was wrong. Then they imprisoned him until he died.”
Florence knew her father was telling his own embellished take on the story, and that the brutality of the Church’s treatment of Galileo had been exaggerated.
“What do you think about that story, Arthur?”
Arthur didn’t answer. Florence watched him continue to stare at the visor.
“What do you think about what the Catholic Church did to Galileo?” her father pressed.
“I don’t know,” he said, twisting in his seat.
“What if I told you, even now, Catholic theologians and religion apologists were—”
“Sounds like they were some bad guys, huh Arthur?” their mother said, cutting in.
Their father cut back at her with a wild stare. Florence could see the hint of a sick smirk on his cracked lower lip.
He pounded the steering wheel, “Why do you have to do that? Why must you always interrupt me when I’m trying to get a point across.”
Florence’s mother looked frightened, and Florence felt the heat in her hands that she always had when her father would inevitably turn on them. She sat on her hands but then felt an anxious rumbling across her shoulders and back.
“Jesus, just once, I would like to be able to say something without you fucking interrupting me.”
“Don’t curse at me,” her mother said. Florence had always wondered why this was where her mother drew the line.
“I will fucking say whatever I want, and you will not interrupt me. I’m trying to teach our boy a fucking lesson.”
Florence felt the car begin to accelerate, and they weaved in and out of traffic.
“Now, Arthur, what did you think? And so help me God, if you interrupt me again,” he said, glancing at his wife.
Florence could see tears start to form in Arthur’s eyes. She could almost feel the welling up in his chest. He couldn’t have spoken if he wanted to.
“They suck,” Florence blurted out. “The Church sucks. And everyone related to it and its tired dogmas suck, okay?”
She saw her father’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. They looked like two blisters with pupils.
“Not you,” he said, slow and deep.
“Arthur, tell me what you think about the church and how it treated Galileo or you’re not going to space camp.”
Arthur was quiet. Florence wanted him to answer, but knew what pain he must be going through right now. She didn’t think that there was anything else she could do to help him. He was on his own like she’d been before.
Their father tapped his finger on the wheel again.
“Well, no camp?”
“They’re liars,” Arthur finally said.
“That’s right,” their father answered, “See? That wasn’t so hard.”
Florence was breathing heavily and she watched Arthur turn to the window to keep his face out of sight. Her mother turned around in her seat and looked at her two children. The veins in her hand bulged.
“Oh, look a rest stop,” she said with the tone Florence recognized as: nothing just happened, but I only use this tone after my husband has lashed out at one or all of us, so obviously something has happened. “Let’s stretch our legs.”
Florence’s father crossed three lanes of traffic to pull into the rest stop. As soon as he pulled the keys out he opened his door and stormed off.
“You know how he gets on trips,” their mother said turning to them. “He has to drive because of my tenosynovitis,” she added looking at her hands, “It’s a lot of pressure, and they treated him awful at that Catholic school.”
For Florence, something about hearing their mother’s voice after their father had lost it made it that much worse. The tears Arthur had been holding back began to flow. Florence just looked away from her. In the reflection of her window she saw Arthur put on his helmet and slide down the visor.
That night, at a motel in north Georgia, Florence sat up in bed and took a sip of the water. Arthur was lying next to her. He had taken off his space suit and was wearing long sleeve pajamas, which it was probably too hot for, but he liked them.
Florence’s mother was up in the mirror, getting ready for bed, wearing a nightgown. She was using a wipe on her face to remove her makeup. Florence watched her mother slowly pull the wipe down the length of her face. It was something she had taught Florence to do when she was a teenager. Don’t just scrub it, she had said, grabbing Florence’s hand and demonstrating. Like this, see? she added, showing Florence all the removed makeup.
Florence’s father slid up behind her mother and wrapped his arms around her. There was a moment where her mother stood still before leaning back into his embrace.
“I’m sorry about earlier, dear. You know I’m working on it, right?”
“I know,” her mother said, “I just wish you wouldn’t curse at me.”
“You’re right, but I just don’t like being interrupted. It makes me feel like you’re not considering what I have to say.”
“I know. I know you’re right.”
Florence remembered her parents renewing their vows when she was fifteen. On the beach, during another family trip, they repeated them to each other, “Love is patient, love is kind…” Even then, it had made her stomach turn.
The next morning, Florence woke up as their mother came in carrying muffins and yogurt from the continental breakfast bar.
“Sorry honey, no apple juice, but they did have cranberry,” she said, holding the door open with her hip. Arthur did not seem thrilled.
Their father got up and grabbed a muffin out of her hand. “We’ve got a surprise for you today, bud,” he said, “This morning we’re gonna’ stop somewhere and I think you’ll like it.”
Florence’s mother handed Arthur the cranberry juice and he stared at it with limited enthusiasm. She smiled and kissed him on the cheek.
After packing up, the family was back in the car. There was a cautious silence that morning. Florence didn’t feel particularly on edge, but all the same, she judged it best to keep her mind on other things. Her mother was directing, looking at folded-over map of Georgia. She squinted as she read the names and numbers of streets and state roads. Their path took them east, toward the mountains.
After pulling down a winding dirt road, the family came to a stop by a sign that read “Gemopolis: Buy Two Birds with One Stone.” Beneath the words there were two blondes staring wide-eyed at a glowing diamond. Florence rolled her eyes, but noticed that luckily Arthur had missed the tastelessness of the sign.
“Well howdy, folks. Welcome to Gemopolis,” a plump man with a gray flattened beard said as the family walked toward the entrance. “Is this your first time here?”
“Yes, it is,” Florence’s mother said.
“Well then, welcome. Ain’t you two as lovely as the day is bright,” he said to Florence and her mother. Florence looked questioningly at the man, but couldn’t resist giving a good-hearted smile. “My name is Bijou Bubba. And, mind you,” he added, lifting up his blacksmith’s apron in a curtsy. “Bijou is French for petite and elegant, so I expect to be treated accordingly.”
“Now it looks like we’ve got a little rockhound in training. What’s your name, slugger?” he said, turning to Arthur.
“I’m Arthur,” he said. Bijou held out his hand and Arthur gave him a low-five.
“Hoo-eeh,” Bijou said, “You can probably just karate chop a geode in half today with that thing.” He leaned down to the boy and whispered loud enough for the family to hear. “You got that arm registered with the law?” Arthur smiled. “I won’t tell,” he added with a wink.
“You’ve got geodes here?” Arthur asked.
“You bet, son. Now, what may I call this beautiful belle?” he asked, turning to Florence.
“Florence,” she said.
“Well you’ve come from mighty far. Enchanté, Florence.”
“Florence is in Italy,” she answered, feigning a bit of sass.
“Well, pepperoni pizza to you then,” Bijou said. Florence couldn’t help from letting her smile out a bit more.
“And now—" Bijou began, but was cut off by Florence’s father.
“I’m Hank, and we’re on a schedule,” he said.
Bijou looked at him, and for a second, Florence could see honest annoyance on his face, but in a service-industry-second it was gone.
“Busy folks, I can respect that. Down South things move a touch slower ‘cause they’re left out in the sun all day.” He motioned for the family to head toward the entrance to the park. “‘Round here, time’s a gentle stream.”
The park consisted of four major buildings: the main building that served as the entrance, exit and gift shop, an old blacksmith with an anvil out front, a stable with a lone horse peering at the family, and, where they were headed, a large mill by a stream, with what looked like a thin metal slide coming out of the side.
“Now this is the sifting trough,” Bijou said, “You ever panned for gold before, slugger?” he asked Arthur, as he handed out wide, flat bowls to the family.
“Nope,” Arthur said, looking excitedly at the trough and the mud at the bottom of it.
Bijou demonstrated the technique to the family. Florence’s father was the first to stick his bowl in the mud. He lifted it out of the water and began to shake and sift through the mud. Florence and Arthur followed and began looking for gold. Their mother watched from behind.
“Now most don’t know, but the first gold rush wasn’t way out in the wild wild West, but right here in Georgia. And, before you get any ideas about running off with the loot, this here ain’t real gold, it’s called fool’s gold, but since I told you, you won’t be fooled.”
Florence’s father plunged his bowl in again and revealed some flecks of gold in the mud.
“Maybe a few more of these and I can afford a second bird,” Florence’s father said to his wife while gesturing back at the sign.
Florence’s mother didn’t answer, but her fist was clenched at her side. Bijou didn’t hide his annoyance this time, and glared at Florence’s father while lowering his head. Florence noticed Arthur begin to perceive all of this, and said, “Hey look at that one,” pointing to Arthur’s bowl. There was a fleck of gold in the middle of the mud. “That’s a real good one you got there, Arthur.”
Florence realized that those were the first words she had spoken to Arthur that day and felt a bit guilty.
“You’ve got way bigger ones,” Arthur said, sounding a bit dejected.
“Here,” Florence said and walked behind her brother. “You just have to dig the bowl a little deeper into the mud, like this.” She grabbed Arthur’s hand and helped slide the bowl deep into the mud. When they pulled the bowl up, Florence could already see a few large chunks of gold in the muck.
“Wow, good job, Arty,” Florence said. She hadn’t called him that since elementary school, and it caught her a bit off guard.
“Thanks, Floor,” he said. That was the name Arthur gave her when he was too young to pronounce the whole thing, but it had stuck.
Florence’s mother inched away from her father, and Bijou noticed. “Alright folks,” he said, “Why don’t we head to our next destination. Florence, do y’all mind helping me grab all the bowls?”
The rest of the family headed away from the sifting trough. After collecting the bowls, Florence followed Bijou toward the rest of her family, but Bijou stopped suddenly in front of her. He leaned around towards her but never made direct eye contact.
“That little boy is going to need you,” he said.
“Didn’t you have an accent?” Florence asked. She was afraid of responding earnestly.
Bijou kept walking and, returning to a jolly tone, said, “Alright folks, let’s make our way to our next destination.” Florence froze in place for a moment before catching up with the group.
After the stable and blacksmith, the family found themselves in the gift shop. One entire room of the shop was devoted to opening geodes. Florence stood before what appeared to be a shallow indoor pool filled with them. Arthur was standing next to her with wide eyes.
“How about the two of you share one?” Bijou said from over their shoulders.
“Yeah,” Florence said. “You pick it out Arthur,” she added patting him on the shoulder.
Arthur began scouring through the geodes, lifting them up one by one, tapping them and then holding them to his ear.
“Well, I want my own,” Florence’s father said to his wife, and began looking at the other side of the pool.
After a while, Arthur came back to Florence with a large round geode in his hand. “What do think of this one?” he asked.
Florence held the geode in her hand and pretended to sniff it, ran her hands all over it, and closed her eyes. After a moment, she opened her eyes and said with a smile, “This is the one.”
Arthur and their father both handed their geodes to Bijou who walked them over to the cutting machine. Bijou sliced their father’s first. The machine roared to life and a thin jet of water cut the spherical stone in two. Bijou opened it up to reveal a pale, milky inside.
“That’s some nice quartz you got there,” Bijou said with little enthusiasm. Their father seemed unimpressed. He held the stone at his side and Florence noticed a small smirk come across Bijou’s face.
Then, Bijou slid Florence and Arthur’s geode onto the stand. The machine slowly sliced the rock, but seemed to struggle with the middle of the stone. Bijou kept having to rotate the stone and only seemed to be able to pierce the radius of the rock.
“There we go,” Bijou said, pulling the rock from the stand once he was finished. He held the rock in front of Arthur. “How about we get one of those world-famous karate chops I’ve been hearing so much about.”
Arthur held his hand straight over his head. He let it hang in the air for a second before bringing it down on the rock. Bijou quickly placed his thumb between the boy’s chop and the geode before cracking it open.
Inside, the rock was a cascade of milky and crystalline quartz. The outer ring was a deep amethyst and the colors within shone like the night sky, their edges twinkling like stars.
“Great pick,” Florence almost yelped when seeing the stone. Her father looked on from over their shoulders.
“Wow,” was all Arthur could say. He seemed to be inspecting each shade and crystal in the geode.
“Now you see that in the middle there. That brown section’s what I was having such a fuss with. That’s called staurolite,” Bijou said, pointing to the brown stone in the middle of the geode. The stone had natural edges that cut into and out of the geode.
“Now look,” Bijou said, taking each half of the geode and demonstrated, “because of the staurolite in the middle, these two stones will lock together.” He handed the stones back to Arthur and Florence. “You each take one of these, and whenever you’re together, you bring these stones together. No one can take that brother-sister bond from you.”
“It’s like magic,” Arthur said.
“Yeah, it is,” Florence added looking up at Bijou. She couldn’t tell if it was the flood light behind him or if he was radiating some glow of his own.
The family made their way to the exit. Arthur was focused on his geode and Florence’s mother and father looked ready to go. On their way out, Florence turned to see Bijou waving from the entrance. He gave her a nod and she smiled back. Before getting into the car, she noticed that her father had dropped his geode outside his door.
Back in the car and on the road, Florence’s mother asked Arthur, “Did you have a good time, sweetie?”
“Yeah, it was great,” he said, still transfixed on the geode.
“So where are we headed?” their father said.
Florence’s mother took a long look at the map. She glanced at a small sheet of paper from her purse with an address on it. Florence noticed that the address was still in Georgia, but didn’t think much of it. Her mother continued to trace her finger along the map, but looked more distraught as she went along. “Take a right at the next county road,” she said with a stammer, “582.”
The car ride continued in this fashion, with Florence’s mother giving uncertain directions to their father. To Florence, they didn’t seem to be headed in any one direction, and they might have circled around once or twice.
“Jesus, why haven’t we hit the highway yet?” Florence’s father said.
“I’m not sure, it’s just—” her mother said.
“What do you mean you’re not sure? It’s the big fucking line down the middle.” He took one hand off the steering wheel. “There, there, there,” he screamed, jabbing his finger onto the map.
Florence’s mother clasped one hand in the other in noticeable pain.
“You know you really are a fucking idiot,” he said and snatched the map out of her hand.
There it was thought Florence. With all the honesty and sincerity in the world. Her father calling her mother an idiot. It struck her. It struck her hard. It was something about the banality of it that made Florence feel it in her gut. There was no sarcasm. No wit. Her father called her mother an idiot. And worse, there was no response.
Florence’s father focused his attention on Arthur now, who had put the space suit back on and lowered the visor.
“Take that suit off now. You’re not going to space camp.”
Arthur tore off the helmet. “What? But you—”
“It’s time you grew up,” their father said, disdain on his lips. His wife was silent in the seat next to him—she was still holding her hand. “I’m taking you to the Holloway Youth Camp. It’s a nice little place for good Catholic boys and girls to get indoctrinated. I want you to witness it firsthand. This is your trial.”
Arthur screamed like a limb had been torn off. “No, I’m sorry,” he said, “If it’s about yesterday, I’m sorry. They’re liars. They’re all liars. I hate them. I hate them.”
“Good. That’s good,” he said but kept driving.
The car turned down a dirt road that was soon enveloped in dark woods. Florence tried to put her arm around her brother who was now sobbing, but he jerked himself away. She looked from her brother to her mother, who was now staring blankly out the front window. She didn’t seem to blink much.
Finally, her mother spoke. “It’ll be OK honey. You’ll see. Give it a chance, you might even make some friends,” she said with a tone so lacking in life that Florence felt nauseous.
“I don’t want to go here,” Arthur shouted. “Why are you doing this?” It seemed as though his question was made to everyone in the car, but the only one with a real answer in the car was tearing down the dirt road before him. “Mommy, please. I—”
Florence’s mother clenched her hand and closed her eyes. Florence saw that she wanted to be anywhere else, just as much as Arthur did.
Florence’s father stopped the car near the first gathering of buildings. He opened his door and slammed it shut before opening Arthur’s, then dragged his son out of his seat and onto the dirt. The left leg of his spacesuit tore open. Their father pulled him to his feet as a man in a white suit with a twisted mustache walked towards the car.
“You must be Mr. Bowman, and this must be Arthur,” he said.
Florence was shaking, but was still stuck watching her mother’s closed eyes. She felt the heat in her hands and shoulder and neck. The cushion beneath her became warm, and she broke out in a sweat within seconds. She sprung out of the car with every intention of attacking her father. With her bare hands, she wanted to rip years of what could have been a normal life out of him, not just hers, but her mother’s and Arthur’s, too.
But then, she saw Arthur, who had wriggled free from their father and was now alone, staring towards the wood, and she stopped. Her father was shaking hands with the man in white, and she looked back and fourth between Arthur and her father. So badly, she wanted to lash out, but her feet turned towards her brother, and her legs followed with the rest of her.
“Hey, Arty,” she said, completely at a loss.
He remained silent.
“I’m not going to ask you to give this place a chance,” she said.
Arthur was still quiet, his space helmet’s visor concealing his face.
“Look, I spent a lot of time trying to explain it, or understand why he’s this way, how he could be this way, like if I only could understand why he was this way, I could excuse it or something.” She hadn’t spoken with anyone about her father like this before.
She put her hand on his shoulder. “It was just wasted energy. Giving him more and more chances just hurt more and more. There’s no excusing it.”
Arthur lifted his visor and turned to his sister. His eyes were red and scratchy, but there was something like a smile on his face. He wrapped his arms around his sister and nuzzled his face into her shoulder.
“You’ve still got your half of the geode, right?” Florence asked.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice muffled.
“And you’re not gonna let anything happen to it, right?”
“We’ll put them back together when you’re done with camp, okay?”
“OK,” Arthur said as their father loomed over them.
“Florence, back in the car,” he said and grabbed Arthur by the arm before leading him to the camp Viscount. The Holloway of the Holloway Youth Camp.
As their car drove away, she looked through the rear window at her brother. He held his space helmet in one hand, his half of the geode in the other. The Viscount was holding him snuggly by the shoulder.
That night, the family pulled into a small motel in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. There was no conversation, and each of the members of the family went about their nightly routines without acknowledging the other. Florence’s father had fallen asleep the moment they had arrived, and her mother was pulling off her makeup in long strokes.
Florence sat in bed and looked at the empty space next to her. On any other night, she might have been happy for the extra legroom, but not tonight, not ever again. She hoped the kids at Arthur’s camp were like kids everywhere. Weird at first, but fast friends, just like Arthur, except he stayed weird. Florence almost smiled at the thought, but caught herself, which made her ache more for him.
Florence’s mother had turned off the lights and lied in bed next to her husband. Florence stared at them, her father on his stomach, belly distended off the edge of the bed, her mother on her back, sleeping or pretending to.
Florence began attempting to concoct some story of how the two were when they met. How her father could have tricked her somehow into believing he was normal. The idea began to overwhelm her, so she grabbed her half of the geode and stepped outside.
Gazing at the dark silhouettes of the pines, Florence’s eyes were drawn to a large black and white billboard that she hadn’t noticed on their drive in. It read “Biggest Little Church on the Eastern Seaboard, .5 Miles.” The stars beyond the billboard reminded her of the geode in her hand.
She followed the old highway through the trees. A wind began to rustle the needles of the pines, which sounded like they were shushing themselves, as if they wanted to see where the girl would go.
After walking what she thought was about half a mile, Florence found a road, barely big enough for one car, that led straight into the pines. With little regard for her wellbeing left, she made her way down the dark path. The pines grew quieter as she walked, but the dark silhouettes of their rows of trunks seemed to guide her along.
She came to a clearing with what could only be a small wooden church in the middle. The front door must have been Florence’s height and the steeple only extended another two feet above that. The pines watched silently. Florence felt their presence, which seemed to close in around her. Before she knew it, she was standing at the front of the church. She was ducking her head to go through the doorway. She was seated at the sole two-person pew.
Without a chance to ask herself what had brought her out in the first place, she felt a warmth behind her, like a fireplace on a cool night.
“Hello,” a woman’s kind voice said.
Florence spun around. She saw an older woman with cherrywood skin dressed in a nun’s habit.
“What’s brought you here so late this night?” she asked Florence. Florence couldn’t place her accent but it sounded like a mix of Arabic and Cajun.
“Who are you?” Florence asked, unable to muster fright in the woman’s presence.
“They call me Sister Momma. And who are you?” she asked, sitting down next to Florence.
“That's a beautiful name, as beautiful as that stone you carry. Truly a gift. Don’t tell the pines. but,” she said leaning in, “my real name is Agnes.” Florence could hear the trees rustling outside. “Just hits the ear wrong, no?”
Florence shrugged sheepishly.
“So, Florence with the beautiful name, what brings you here on this night?”
“I—I’m not sure.”
Sister Momma exhaled out of her nose as a disappointed parent would. “Every time I get that answer, and every time it is a lie.” She took a breath, “Now tell me child, why have you come?”
Florence drew a deep breath of her own and, filled with a strength she couldn’t explain, began. “These past two days, all I’ve been able to do is watch, and I feel helpless. I’ve watched as my father berated my family and my mother. I’ve watched as he tore my brother from me and abandoned him at some camp, and I’ve watched my mother just sit and take all of this abuse. That’s what it is. Abuse. And, I want to yell at my mom the most, like why is she just letting this happen, to her, to all of us. Why haven’t I been able to say anything all this time?”
Sister Momma lowered her head and was silent. The whole forest felt silent around them.
“This saddens me to hear. No child should have to witness or experience this.”
“It’s not fair.”
“No, it is not.”
“That is not for me to say. All I am trusted with is the knowledge of what we can do in this life.”
Florence looked at Sister Momma as if she held every truth of this world.
“We try,” Sister Momma said.
Florence was a bit underwhelmed. Perhaps sensing this, Sister Momma continued, “We try, and then we choose.” Florence still felt (and probably looked) a bit lost. “We try as best we can to change the world around us, and then whether it changes or it doesn’t, we choose what we do next. That is all we can do.”
“But—” Florence tried to ask, only the words were just air.
“Goodnight, Florence with the beautiful name.”
With that, Sister Momma was gone, but the warmth she had brought with her remained. Florence looked down at her geode. Then, she was out of the church. She was on the road. She was back in bed.
After a few hours of driving the next morning, the family was in Tallahassee. Something about crossing over the Florida state line made the air cling a little closer to you, hang on your breath a little longer. The air you wear, Florence’s father had blurted out of nowhere to no one’s acknowledgement.
The family found Florence’s dorm and began hauling her boxes up the two flights of stairs. Then, Florence’s father went to move the car to a visitor’s lot, leaving Florence and her mother alone for the first time on their trip.
For a moment, the two stared around the room. The few personal eccentricities Florence had brought from home did little to alleviate the concrete-walled design scheme. The two took a deep breath in at the same time, both wanting to speak, but Florence’s mother got the words out first.
“Do you think there’s anything else you want us to pick up for you while we’re here, sweetie?” she asked.
Florence was a bit taken aback. She was sure her mother was going to finally denounce her husband and his actions. “Is that all you really wanted to say, Mom?”
“Well, yes, honey.” She turned and shuffled through a box of clothes.
“Mom,” Florence started. She felt as if she shouldn’t even have to say anything.
“Yes, dear?” her mother said looking thoughtfully at her daughter.
“Yes, your father. What about him?”
“What about him?” Florence repeated, feeling her shoulders begin to shake. “Mom,” she took a gulp of air, pictured Bijou with the geode, Sister Momma in the forest, Arthur at the camp, her father’s blistering eyes, “He’s abusing you, mom. He treats you—he treats all of us like shit.”
At the word “shit,” her mother’s shoulders tensed. “Now just because you’re in college doesn’t mean you can—”
“Cut the curse word stuff. Mom, I’m trying to talk to you about Dad. Why do you let him treat you like that?”
“Oh, he’s not so bad. We have a screaming match every now and again. When you’ve been married as long as we have—”
“No,” Florence cut her off again, “Debbie’s parents, Charley’s, Amber’s, they get in arguments. One doesn’t abuse the other. What about the map?”
“Oh honey, that was my fault. You know I’m no good with directions.”
“You didn’t want to bring Arthur there, I know it. Mom, he called you an idiot to your face. Your husband thinks you’re an idiot. He’s abusing you.”
Florence could see that her mother was beginning to look frightened, how she looked when her father yelled at her. She took a step back. Soothing her tone, she looked straight into her mother’s eyes and asked, “Is that what you would want for me? Is the relationship you and dad have what you would want for your daughter?”
Florence couldn’t read the expression on her mother’s face. She looked hurt, like she’d been beaten at a game she never wanted to play. After a moment, tears began to form in her eyes.
“I know this is a scary time for you, honey. You can come home any time you miss us.” She leaned in and hugged Florence, who lightly placed her arms around her.
Florence felt all the charge leave her body. She had tried.
From over her mother’s shoulder, Florence saw her half of the geode on her desk. Sun rays were catching the corners of the crystal, illuminating them like stars in Florence’s personal universe.