Posted on: September 8, 2015

Read the rest of the "West" saga: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |

The Benadryl was kicking in. Brooklyn’s head lolled to the side as she watched Doc McStuffins on Drew’s iPad. The fire ant bites on her legs were so close together, the swelling around the individual bites overlapped into an angry, unending rash.

“Do you think we should call the doctor?” Drew asked.

“He’s just going to tell us to do what we’ve already done,” Jennifer said, shaking her head. Just in case, she dislodged her cell phone from the tight back pocket of her jeans and Googled “ant bite emergency?”

Then she noticed it: a text. From Dena.

I need you.

Jennifer’s stomach couldn’t decide how to react. It dipped as she remembered a brief flash of the smoky field, Dena’s hands inside her clothes. Then her stomach lurched in anger, confusion.

“Needs me? She left me,” Jennifer said under her breath.

By Jennifer’s calculations, it was her turn to ask for a favor. She had been the one to save the day, repair the RV, give Dena whatever it was she was looking for the night of the bonfire. Jennifer was the one left behind to act like an adult when she didn’t get what she wanted. What more did Dena need to take?

And yet--Jennifer was drawn to her. Her thumbs skimmed across her phone screen, replying before the rest of her body gave the go-ahead.

where r u?

The text bubble containing the always-taunting ellipses appeared on the screen. Then:

Santa Fe. I’ve made a huge mistake.

what happened??

I should have stayed in Austin. Chris disappeared. Took the keys and $.


Yeah. This crazy old Indian lady’s gonna lose it if I don’t get off her land in 24 hours.

lol thats racist

Native American. You know what I mean. For real though.

what r u gonna do? wheres chris?

His phone’s cut off.

hes GONE gone?

I think so.

Jennifer watched her brother turn off the iPad screen and scoop sleeping Brooklyn into his arms. She wasn’t sure what good mothering was, anymore. She worked hard, and she was still a disappointment. She tried to keep Brooklyn safe and loved, and the fire ants found her anyway.

“Drew?” she said.

“Yeah?” he whispered over Brooklyn’s sleeping body.

“You still want to go to California?”


Benny answered the door when Dena knocked. He raised one eyebrow at the greasy-haired white girl on his steps and said nothing.

“Is...Mae home?”

“She’s at Bingo.”

“Oh,” Dena said. “Well, will you tell her that my friend is coming from Texas and I will be gone as soon as humanly possible, but it might be tomorrow instead of tonight? Oh. And give her this? Kind of a thank-you-and-I’m-sorry gift?”

She thrust a Wendy’s hamburger bag into his hands, spun on her heels, and headed back to the lot. Benny watched her until she disappeared inside her hunk-of-junk RV. He opened the fast food sack. Inside was a package of peanut M&Ms and two plump, hand-rolled joints.


“Jennifer Michelle, you are being nothing but reckless right now.”

“Mom. It’s fine. You need to chill. Drew’s the one moving to California. I’ll be back as soon as I can hot-wire a Chinook.”

“I would like to repeat that this is a fact-finding mission only?” Drew chimed in. “If I don’t find any good job leads in two weeks, I’m coming back, too.”

“I don’t think you should take Brooklyn with you. Especially with those god-awful ant bites!” her mother squawked. “Jesus, how did she even get that many?”

“I’m a terrible mom, that’s how. But I’m still her mom. She’s coming with me.”


Highway 84 stretched in front of Drew’s Toyota, shimmering with summer mirages. Brooklyn snored in the back seat.

“We can turn the radio on. She’s zonked.”

“Zonked? Who says that?” Drew said.

“It’s in the Mom Handbook.”

“Har, har.”

Jennifer turned the radio to a Car Talk re-run.

“You sure you don’t want to get the RV going and then come with me?” Drew asked. “Carl won’t care. I think his girlfriend has a kid, actually.”

“Thanks. But I kind of need to see where this one goes.”


The RV still smelled of cats and mildew. Dena dumped a can of Chicken & Stars soup into a pot and lit the stove burner. She leaned on the flimsy table and turned her phone over in her hands. Chris had been off the social media grid for twenty-four whole hours. No selfies, no tweets. No Instagrams of his feet or his lunch.

He hated her enough to resist the pull of his biggest addiction.

She poked at the soup with a wooden spoon, watching the doughy stars swirl in the broth. Dena wasn’t sure how she’d gotten to this point. She and Chris just wanted different things, wasn’t that it? Jennifer understood her--Jennifer had her own complications. With her, Dena could be free and loved at the same time. Couldn’t she?

Not that she deserved something like that.


Dena squinted as a car approached--Jennifer in the passenger seat--a guy behind the wheel.

Shit. Who is that? Her baby’s father? Dena thought. She checked her phone, attempting to mask her anxiety. Jennifer got out of the passenger’s side, stretched, and bent into the back seat.

“You guys are so dumb,” the guy said.

“Shut up, Drew,” Jennifer said, still untangling the child from car seat buckles.

“You could have just had the camper towed somewhere.”

“This is my brother, the smartass,” Jennifer said. “And this is Brooklyn.”

“I panicked,” Dena admitted, relieved to learn the guy’s identity. “Chris just left me here. And he took our cash. I have, like, forty dollars in my account.”

Dena wanted to take Jennifer in her arms, to hold her in a combined death grip of attraction and gratitude. But her feet wouldn’t move. Brooklyn’s face was red from crying--and her legs--was that a rash? Dena realized, in that moment, the scope of asking them to come all this way.

A screech of tires cut the silence as Mae’s Pontiac swerved to park beside her house.

“I sure hope this is your rescue party,” Mae said as she crossed the road. Mae spotted Brooklyn and took off her sunglasses. Her small eyes wrinkled in delight. “And who is this?”

“Brooklyn?” Jennifer said, shooting Dena a questioning look.

“Let’s see if we’ve got something for those legs,” Mae said. “Benny?” she said into her phone. “Bring the bug bite potion.”

Dena half-expected a secret Native American herbal remedy, but Benny appeared, red-eyed, carrying a tube of cortisone cream. Mae knelt down in the dust, and Brooklyn walked right to her. The old woman cradled the child and spread the medicine on her inflamed legs.

Dena watched them, then looked at Jennifer, Drew, the RV. Benny. Was he high? All here, in this moment, because of her.

Maybe I’m not a stranger, Dena thought. Maybe reinvention, despite what she’d always believed, could be real. Could be possible. Even for her.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

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