A phone rang in the darkness, piercing the cool silence of the bedroom with three quick electronic chirps. Linda moaned and shifted beneath the covers, and at the second ring, she sat up with a start. In a single practiced motion, she peeled back the covers in a triangular fold, then swung her feet to the floor. She jogged around the edge of the bed to the opposite nightstand with quick, tiptoed steps, then fumbled with the telephone handset, pushing blindly at the buttons with both thumbs.
“Hello?” Nothing. She pressed another button. “Hello?”
“Ronald, is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“What’s wrong, Button? What’s happened?”
“Nothing mom, I’m fine.”
“You sound terrible,” she said, loosening her grip on the handset.
“Nah, I’m just--” He coughed away from the receiver, “I’ve just got a thing, like a cold or something. Are you okay? You sound weird.”
Linda switched on the lamp next to the phone and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Oh no, you just startled me, is all,” she said, crossing her ankles primly as she brushed the wrinkles from her pajama bottoms. “You know, you should try making some green tea with honey. That always used to make you feel better.”
“Yeah,” he said, letting the word trail off in to a pause, then, “I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“Oh no, dear, I was just settling down.” She pinched a piece of lint from her sleeve and flicked it away. “I thought I might hear from you soon. I had a dream about you last night.”
“Oh yeah?” He coughed again.
A silence fell over the line. Linda thought she could hear someone talking in the background wherever Ronald was. Or maybe it was music. It was too faint to tell.
“You still there, mom?”
“Yes, yes I’m sorry.” Linda let out a small laugh, “It’s just… It’s nice to hear from you.”
“Yeah. So I was wondering, I need a couple things from the store and I was wondering if you could meet me? I know you said you were in bed...”
“No, I’m up. I can come.” She glanced at the clock. “Isn’t it a little late for groceries?”
“No, it’s not groceries this time. I just need to get some stuff for this cold, and I’m in the area so I thought we could, you know, see each other for a bit.”
“Oh, I’m so glad. Yes. Yes, let’s meet. Where?”
“How about that drug store off the highway at Duvall? I think it’s open 24 hours.”
“I should be there in about half an hour, I think.”
“Alright Button, I’ll see you there.”
“Okay mom, bye.”
“Yes, bye dear.” She kept the phone pressed against her ear until she heard a click, then replaced the handset in its cradle on the nightstand.
As she pulled in to the parking lot she saw only one other car -- an Oldsmobile with red paint chipping from around the tire wells. The exhaust pipe bounced, emitting staggered puffs of fume even as the car stood stationary, parked in the farthest space from the door underneath a flickering streetlamp.
Linda pulled in to the nearest parking space, right in front of the sliding glass doors. She stepped out of the car on to the wet pavement and smoothed out her skirt. She had re-dressed in her work clothes, as well as put on a fresh coat of makeup. Her long black hair was straightened and her bangs perfectly coiffed.
She pressed a button on her key ring and her Toyota hybrid chirped back at her.
As if in response, the passenger side door of the still-running Oldsmobile clicked and swung open with a creak. A pair of legs appeared, covered in loose-fitting denim pants with strings hanging from the fraying seams. On the passenger’s feet were two puffy black skateboarding shoes that seemed to have more holes than suede. The sole of one shoe hung off at the heel and brushed lazily against the pavement. For a moment the legs protruded from the side of the car, disembodied.
There was some movement barely visible through the rear window’s dark tinting. Linda squinted to make out the shadows of two heads on either side of the car. As a pickup truck turned on to the opposite side of the highway, its headlights stretched and warped the figures in to bulbous monstrosities, before swinging on to the road and returning them to their proper dimensions. After a moment, the legs outside the car shuffled, and the rest of the passenger stepped out of the Oldsmobile.
It was a young man, about twenty-five, though he could be confused for being much older. His face was covered in patchy stubble, and the gaunt structure of his skull caught every light and stretched thin shadows across his hollow cheeks. His dark hair hung around his face in thick, oily strands that were just too short to be pulled back behind his ears. He wore a puffy black vest over a faded green flannel shirt, unbuttoned around the wrist so the sleeves billowed around his skinny arms as he walked. As he crossed the parking lot he hunched his shoulders and aimed his nose directly at the ground.
Linda fiddled with her keychain between her fingers. Her eyes never strayed from the man as he made his way toward her,
“Hi mom.” He gave a thin smile and held up one hand in greeting.
“I’m so glad you called.” She guided him in for a hug with eager, beckoning hands as she stood on her tiptoes. He bent over stiffly and allowed himself to be embraced.
She stood back to appraise him at arm’s length, her face tilted slightly. “You’re so skinny. Are you eating?”
“Of course I’m eating. Why wouldn’t I be eating?”
“I mean enough. Are you eating enough?” She said it in the way of all mother’s and TV lawyers -- an accusation in the form of a question.
“Yeah, mom. I think so. Can we go inside?”
“But what about your friend, aren’t you going to introduce me?” Linda looked over Ronald’s shoulder at the sputtering Oldsmobile on the other side of the parking lot.
Ronald glanced back then began ushering his mother toward the sliding doors. “Uh, not tonight mom. She’s not feeling well, and--”
“She?” Linda intoned with the curiosity of a schoolgirl. She looked back across the parking lot as Ronald turned her toward the door.
“She’s just a friend.”
Linda slipped her arm around Ronald’s rigid elbow as the doors slid open with a woosh. “Well I’d like to meet her whenever she’s feeling better.”
Ronald said nothing.
“Evening,” a voice called out as they passed through the metal detectors. A woman in a red vest stood up behind the checkout counter with a box cutter in hand. She was a large woman in a patterned long-sleeve shirt covered in small cartoon birds. Her wire-frame glasses perched on the tip her veiny, pockmarked nose, and her thin upper lip draped over one protruding tooth.
“Oh hello there!” Linda said, as if greeting an old friend. Ronald gave a curt nod as they passed in to an aisle lined with boxes of hair dye. Hundreds of untouchable women smiled from cardboard boxes as they passed -- identical faces repeating in a rainbow of hair colors, both natural and otherwise.
“Whatever you need, Button, it’s my treat.”
“We--” he started to say, but stopped himself. “I just need some cold medicine I think. No big deal.”
“Well I’m glad you called anyway. It’s been too long.”
They entered the Cough & Cold aisle. Ronald pulled his arm free to scan the shelves of cardboard boxes through discerning, squinted eyes. He picked up one and read the drug information on the back, then shoved it back on to the shelf, leaving the line of boxes askew.
Linda walked up behind him and absently smoothed the row of boxes with her hand. “So what have you been up to, Ronald?”
He picked up another box and read the back. “Most people call me Ron these days, mom,” he said, not looking up from the box.
“Oh, okay. Ron.” She said, as though learning a new word in a foreign language. “So what have you been doing? Are you working?”
“You know, it’s pretty tough out there right now.” He held two boxes, comparing the back labels. He put one back on the shelf and picked up another. “I was doing some warehouse stuff for a little while, but--” he replaced both boxes and kept scanning the shelves, “but that didn’t really work out.”
“I see. Well, as long as you’re looking.”
They stood in silence as Ronald continued reading labels. Eventually he nodded as he read the back of one pill box.
“Yup, this is the one.” He counted out four boxes with the tips of his fingers, then held the stack out to his mother.
“You need so many?” She took the boxes in both hands, dropping one to the tile floor with a cardboard slap.
“You, know. Always a good idea to stock up.” Ronald stooped to pick up the fallen box and replaced it at the top of the precarious pile in his mother’s hands.
“Do you need anything else?”
Ronald looked around as he pulled his greasy bangs back with his fingertips. “Nope, that’s pretty much it.”
“Alright.” Linda turned to walk back toward the checkout counter but stopped. “Wait, your green tea!”
“No, it’s alright mom.”
“I remember one time when you had the flu -- I think you were in second grade -- you drank at least three cups of green tea with honey every day.”
“Mom, it’s really okay. I don’t need tea.”
She laughed and shook her head as she passed him, moving down the aisle toward the rear of the store. “I swear, you had to use the toilet every ten minutes.”
“Oh I’m sure they have it, it’s probably just back here.”
Something hard in his voice stopped her. She turned around, holding the medicine boxes against her chest.
“My friend is waiting outside.” He spoke quietly, but there was a cold intensity behind his words. “I kind of need to get going.”
“Alright Ronald.” She paused. “I mean, Ron.”
He dropped his gaze back to the tile floor between them, then, without a word, turned and walked back down the aisle. A few steps behind, Linda followed, trying to balance the boxes against her chest. As they approached the checkout counter Ronald turned, suddenly fascinated by a rotating rack of sunglasses.
The woman with the box cutter stood up again, holding her palm against her back as it gave a few concussive pops.
“How’s it goin’.” From this woman, it was a statement, not a question.
“Oh, just fine.” Linda smiled as she let the boxes drop with a clatter to the surface of the counter. The woman with the boxcutter eyed her over the frames of her glasses as Linda fished in her purse for her wallet.
“Pretty sick, huh?”
“Oh, they’re for my son.” Linda gestured behind her with a quick turn of the head. “He has a bit of a cold.” She leaned in, dropping her voice to a confidential whisper. “You know boys, always calling their mothers when they’re not feeling well.”
“Most boys just need the one box though.”
Linda smiled at the woman briefly, then turned her concentration back to the depths of her purse. After locating her wallet she pulled out her debit card and held it out across the counter.
“Gonna need to see some ID,” the woman said.
“Oh,” Linda said, “I’m sorry?”
“Need to check ID whenever people buy cold medicine.”
Linda reopened her wallet and held her ID across the counter. “And why is that?”
The woman took the ID and eyed it carefully before punching the driver’s license number in to the keyboard. “You ever hear of methamphetamine?”
“On the news, maybe. I think so.”
The woman behind the counter nodded and handed the ID back to Linda. She held up one of the boxes of cold medicine.
“One of the key ingredients right here,” she swiped the box over the scanner, “so it’s company policy to track whoever buys it from store to store. Makes sure no one’s buying an unusual amount.” She scanned another box.
“Oh dear. Well, my son really is sick, I can assure you of that.” Linda smiled warmly at the woman. She smiled back, but before scanning the barcode on the last box her eyes flicked to where Ronald was slowly turning the sunglasses display.
“Twenty-seven ninety-six.” The woman said. Linda handed over her card, and the woman swiped it and returned it, along with the plastic bag full of pill boxes.
“Thank you. Have a good night.” Linda said.
“Same to you.” The woman picked the box cutter up from the counter, but stood and watched Ronald and Linda as they walked through the door before bending over to resume her work.
“Thanks, mom” Ronald said outside, leaning down to snatch the plastic bag from her hand. The Oldsmobile had moved and now idled next to the curb with its nose pointed out toward the highway.
“It was strange. The woman asked to see my ID,” Linda said, looking up at her son.
“Huh,” Ronald said, furrowing his eyebrows. He looked over his shoulder, as if noticing the Oldsmobile for the first time. “Well, we’re in a bit of a hurry, so I should get going.”
“I don’t need to worry about you, do I Ronald?” Linda stared at her son evenly, and suddenly appeared much taller than her five-foot stature usually allowed. Her face was relaxed, but her eyes bore in to him as he fidgeted with the bag.
“No, mom,” he said, trying to force out a laugh that turned in to a short cough. “No mom, I’m fine.” He nodded squarely at the ground. “I gotta go.” He hugged her with his one free arm, then turned toward the Oldsmobile.
“I love you.” Linda said.
“You too.” He said it over his shoulder as he opened the passenger-side door, then disappeared inside with a slam.
Linda stood by the automatic sliding door and watched the car as it rolled toward the exit then turned and bounced down the road with an alarming mechanical lurch. She pressed the button on her keychain and her hybrid chirped pleasantly from the curb, but she didn’t move. She stood in the artificial light of the drug store windows, listening to the Oldsmobile accelerate then fade to silence down the rain-slicked highway.