“Momma,” the girl said.
“Are we in Mississippi yet?”
“Can we stop walking now?”
“Can we get one of those rooms?”
“Stop asking questions and come on.”
They had slept off the road, walking into clumps of forest that stood back from the interstate, their clothes spread out across the leaves and dirt, eating packs of crackers and potato chips and drinking Cokes and breathing more easily in the cover of the night. They smelled and Maben knew it and once the girl was finished coloring they walked out of the café and through the gift shop and back toward the truckers’ quarters. They ignored the TRUCKERS ONLY sign and went into the women’s dressing room. Maben stood next to the shower stall while Annalee bathed herself and after the child was finished and dressed the woman took a shower and felt a relief in the filth that ran down her body and washed down the drain. They took turns drying their hair underneath the hand dryers and the woman found clean t-shirts and shorts for them in the garbage bag. She told the girl to wait in the dressing room and she walked into the convenience store and stole a small bottle of lotion and she returned and lathered the child’s red arms and face and neck and then she did the same for herself. She then washed their socks in the sink and she wrung them and dried them under the hand dryer while Annalee lay stretched across the tile floor with her head resting on the garbage bag. By the time the socks were dry the girl had fallen asleep and Maben sat down next to her and leaned her head back against the wall and prayed that no one would come into the dressing room while the child rested.
She had discovered that once things started to go bad that they gathered and spread like some wild, poisonous vine, a vine that stretched across the miles and the years from the shadowy faces that she had known to the lines that she had crossed to the things that had been put inside her by strangers. It spread and stretched until the vine had consumed and covered her, wrapping itself around her ankles and around her thighs and around her chest and around her throat and wrists and sliding between her legs and as she looked down at the girl with her sunburned forehead and her thin arms she realized that the child was her own dirty hand reaching out of the thicket in one last desperate attempt to grab onto something good.