Damn them, he thought. Damn them and their damn bellies.
He had wanted to stop an hour previous, when the pressure on his bladder had been urgent but tolerable. They—his lovely wife Rita and her spoiled brat Chase—had put up a fight about it. “I’m huuuuungryyyyyyy,” the kid had squalled mercilessly from among the trash pile of candy bar wrappers and soda cans he had assembled around himself in the backseat. It was a pile that, Reed admitted to himself, was mostly because of his own bad influence over the boy. But only because Rita insisted on taking these long, cross-country car hauls to the Gulf every year instead of buying a plane ticket.
“I want to eeeeat,” Chase squealed. Meanwhile, Reed’s sweet understanding spouse bored holes in his skull from her place in the Trailblazer’s shotgun seat. She had sensed their drift toward the upcoming exit ramp.
Don’t you dare stop here when our baby needs food, her eyes chastised him. I will not allow him to eat out of a vending machine again.
“I have to pee, dear,” Reed explained. Did he sound defensive? Maybe, and that bothered him. What man never has to pee? He struggled to not sound irritated as well. “Really bad.”
Rita craned her neck so that she could see Chase, who sat directly behind the driver’s seat. “Daddy needs to go to the bathroom, sweetie,” she said in that same sugary baby talk voice she’d used since the lad was born, the one that Reed had asked her to stop using a million times.
He’s nine for God’s sake! He’s not a baby!
“After daddy uses the bathroom we can go find a nice restaurant somewhere,” she continued. “You don’t need another candy bar.”
In Reed’s rear view mirror, Chase’s lips contracted into a tight little bow. His eyes narrowed. His nose twisted to the right in that all-too-familiar wind-up to another ear-splitting tantrum. “I want to eeeeat NOWWWWWW,” he wailed.
Reed clenched his teeth. His eyes felt like they were bulging out of his head. Rita plugged an index finger into each of her ears and regarded Reed from angry, lidded eyes. Reed gripped the Trailblazer’s steering wheel hard enough to create deep stitch prints in the palms of his hands.
“All right!” he shouted. “All right! All right! I’ll hold it! We’ll find a restaurant! Just shut up already!”
Silence fell upon them. Reed’s face felt hot. A prickly sensation crawled down the back of his neck, and he shivered a little in spite of his boiling blood.
He glanced at Rita, who gaped back at him with her arms knitted tightly beneath her breasts, her eyes wide and hurt. He felt a spark of shame struggling to ignite within his heart and squashed it. She rarely smiled at him anymore anyway. Why should he feel ashamed? Just because she thinks he should?
Behind him, he could hear Chase sniffling but could no longer see him in the rear view mirror, which meant that the boy had ducked his head in that sulking way a child does when a scolding parent finally snaps and says something traumatizing or otherwise life-altering. For that, he supposed he should choose to allow that guilty spark to kindle and burn him a little. But he didn’t.
An hour later, the Big Burger emblem on one of those blue Interstate signs floated into his vision. His need to go immediately became a thousand times more urgent. He veered onto the exit ramp.
Rita, who had been riding with her arms folded, her eyes closed, and her chin resting against her clavicle, suddenly snapped awake. A second blue sign with a second Big Burger icon, this one paired with a thick white arrow that pointed to the left, sped by them. From his peripheral vision, Reed could see Rita glaring at him, her nose twitching.
“Big Burger?” she snapped. “Really?”
He silently vowed not to shout at her. “Honey, I really have to go. This is the best we can do.” He glanced at her and managed a wry smile. “Hey, at least it’s not Snickers joint. Right?”
Rita did not appear to get the joke.
She folded her arms on her abdomen and shook her head in that annoying, patronizing way she had. It was a shaming gesture that Chase had learned to imitate at an early age. There you go, folks. There was the main reason the boy had no respect for him: his mother didn’t.
“Right,” he answered himself. It came out as a hoarse grunt.
He’d swung the Trailblazer into a handicapped parking space and leapt out, barely managing to snatch the key from the ignition before his feet hit the pavement. He had not bothered to wait for Rita, whom he could barely hear above the sound of his own running feet as she attempted to wake Chase from another sugar-induced stupor.
Damn them, he thought again. Damn them and their bellies.
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