The next morning involved various checklist items.
Mitch sent a message to Roland and Marie to let them know he was at the cabin and would be there for some time. Then he ripped the bandage off and informed Jodie as well, making sure to emphasize that he was perfectly safe, despite not being well. Ideally, he would have been able to wait until after she returned from her trip, but he didn’t want her coming home and finding that he was gone.
Or -god forbid- if Avi was put into a position where he had to explain what happened.
Of course, she responded with a wall of text, asking when he’d be back and if there was anything she could do, and the like. He didn’t have answers for her, but said he’d call when she was back home.
And once more, he emphasized that he was safe.
The next step involved getting food, and he knew that may be a tall order on New Year’s Day. But the lone gas station at the edge of town was open year round, so he drove out that way. When he got there, the lot was full of locals with their green and white Vermont license plates, the majority of the cars half eaten by salt and old pickup trucks with plows attached to the front. He used to love it when Roland filled up here, since the station had an extensive and strange assortment of candy, carrying things like Razzles and Sour Skittles, which none of the stores back in Burlington stocked.
In the summer, he and Jodie rode their bikes to there armed with anywhere from a five to a ten-dollar bill (whatever Roland or Marie had on hand to spare). Fueled by can-do attitudes, they pushed past the rolling hills and the pavement’s heat, but the sweat and exhaustion dissipated once they entered the small lone building with its rattling AC unit that smelled like must and cigarettes. They splurged on enormous slushies and ice cream bars, which usually involved a small tug-of-war match between Jodie’s ego and Mitch’s love for her, since he figured out that she didn’t have any money of her own. Or when he realized that she hadn’t eaten that day.
Sometimes she dug in hard, so he’d buy something and pretend that he didn’t like the taste of it, then hand it over. That usually satisfied the requirements of the ritual. She got a job there the summer before college started, and she’d sneak him freebies when he came by to keep her company during overnight shifts.
In the winter, the odors were pungent as ever and it made him nostalgic nearly two decades later. The bell attached to the door jingled as he pushed it open, and the first stop he made was to the coffee counter. It may be the world’s worst coffee, but it was also 50 cents; with enough sugar and creamer added the battery acid and dirt mixture came close to palatable. He browsed the sealed assortment of pastries, checking the expiration dates before settling on a honey bun, then grabbed a few other overpriced goods that would at least carry him until the next day. Satisfied with his selection, he stood in the long line of people picking up milk or eggs or flour, things that you might run out of at the last second when hosting people during the holidays.
Finally at the front, he set his items down on the counter. A familiar voice that came from behind distracted him. His first instinct was to turn his head at the origin of the sound, but paused before looking too quickly and possibly drawing attention to himself. Instead, he tilted his head only enough to see from the corner of his eye, and in his peripheral vision he spotted her: Jodie’s mother.
He hadn’t seen her in over a decade now, but she looked mostly the same with her round face, tired eyes, and long, mousy hair, always braided and went all the way down her backside. The only feature that she and Jodie shared were their noses, but it was dead on. If she wasn’t wearing long sleeves due to the weather, her tattoos would be on full display, a patchwork curation of her beloved winged things such as fairies and angels and butterflies.
To her leg clung a child, not any older than 5 or 6, who she kept shushing each time they made a noise.
The cashier didn’t bother saying his total, and Mitch didn’t ask for it. He practically threw the cash down and tried to scurry away while also not standing out. Once he was back in the safety of his car, he peeled out of the lot and buckled up about half a mile down the road.
“She has another kid?!” he shouted. Did Jodie know? Was he supposed to tell her if she didn’t? That was a problem for Future Mitch, he decided, and instead focused on freeing the honey bun from its wrapper with his teeth to take a huge bite out of it.
But in his heart of hearts, he knew that for the rest of the day -rest of his life- he was destined to fret over a child that he’d never even met.
Add it to the pile.