At 85 miles an hour, your car trembles but doesn't shake. You think that if you go any faster, the old tires won’t be able to handle it. You imagine the friction, the burn of the asphalt skinning rubber off the wheels. The tires haven’t been changed since you were 16 years old and you failed your driver’s test. You couldn't have known that one of the tires had a small nail in it, which caused the whole thing to blow out when you hit the sharp edge of a curb on a right turn.
Three hundred miles west of central Kansas is still Kansas, burnt golden plains stretching out to the ends of the earth. Farmhouses bleached the color of the sky on a breezy afternoon, milky blue and splotched with clouds.
For a moment you let yourself wonder what if. What if you casually let go of the steering wheel. Cars are practically able to drive themselves these days, but this one can't. An old Taurus GL, top of the line back in the day, now wheezes every time you start it. Your friends call it pathetic, but it gets the job done, and besides the one time it failed you out of getting your license, it's been with you for decades.
There is a passenger in the car with you. She is inside a plain and heavy urn. Every dozen or so miles your eyes flit over, make sure she's still doing okay. A habit you formed five years ago and were never quite able to break.
Every few minutes you imagine hearing a light snort, a soft chuckle of air through her portable ventilator. Those chuckles used to make your heart seize, not knowing if it would be the last sound she’d ever make. Those chuckles have caused you to develop a full body flinch every time you hear someone you love laugh gently.
In the darkest moments, you wake up sweating, disoriented, choking on a feeling of dread. You wish she would just die so you could begin mourning properly instead of living in between a state of grief and frustration. Then you remember that she did die. She is dead.
When she died, the part of you that said finally drowned the part that said please, God, no and when you went up to the podium with wet eyes but steady hands, you could feel your sister judging you from where she sat in the front row.
You don't understand, you want to holler, you moved 4000 miles away, and now you don't have to remember what she was like at the end like I do.
Familial relationships are a sticky thing.
Heading west, it's almost impossible for you to see the road clearly when the sun starts to set. Soon, it will be too difficult to drive, and you'll have to stop for dinner. You anticipate stopping someplace with tacky booths and a tired waitress who will serve you grits that will glue your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Towards the end, grits were one of the only things she liked to eat that didn’t require chewing. You took to finishing off the rest of her grits for her when she couldn’t because she hated wasting food, and now you’ve developed a taste for it.
Growing up, there was a week where all you ate was chicken, beans, and rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You remember salivating over four dollar peaches that were too expensive and too small to split between a family of four. You were left inhaling the scent of that fuzzy, smooth skin in the fruit aisle of your local grocery store, caressing the plump peach in your hands, marveling over the fragrant ripeness of it. Trying to work up the nerve to take a bite, to steal one and hide it in your pocket.
For your 18th birthday, she got you a plastic box of four peaches. You gorged yourself on them, sucked the sweet flesh out of the pit, let the juices drip down your chin.
When you got a job in a city that was a two-hour plane ride away, you suddenly realized in a staff meeting that your boss mimicked an expression she wore often. The scrunched eyebrows, drawn together into a dark line of frustration. You threw tantrums over things that neither you nor she could get.
You think about that the next time you visit her at the nursing home. You even get as far as remember when you got me those peaches, and they were the best things I ever tasted...before you're reminded that she usually doesn't recognize her own reflection in the mirror anymore. She won’t remember the peaches.
Ma, what about grits for dinner? Your voice sounds strange in the empty car--the words linger on the hot dashboard, floating somewhere between you and the bug-splattered windshield.
Your eyes flit over to the urn. To the ashes sealed inside.
You imagine her nodding as she dozes between wakefulness and sleep, head resting against the window, face turned towards the waning warmth of the setting sun.
You imagine her ashes on the wind, becoming one of the dust clouds that rages through the center of Kansas during tornado season, the kinds that sweep houses off the ground. You imagine that maybe one day the dust cloud will settle to the earth like a blanket over your father's grave.
Another three hundred miles, and then another, and you'll be there. A place where your feet grew callouses walking over river rocks and branches. A place where you once felt like a king, the ruler of the plains.
A place where your mother gave birth to you.
The plains shimmer like waves, a trick of the light that transforms the wheat fields around you into molten gold. Something in your chest aches as you drive through this abandoned palace, a place you once thought of as home.
Michelle Hsu is a writer based in Los Angeles. She writes in film/TV as well as short fiction.
You can find more of her original work at m-hsu.com.
Still Kansas is a Fiction War Magazine Open Call submission. Please do not reproduce without permission from the author. Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: