The three-day drive home from Los Angeles promised to be miserable. The summer vacation could have been great, but Poppy’s mom and her little sister, Frannie, had become insufferable. Her older sister, Gen, hadn’t been there to act as a buffer, spending the summer earning extra money for college.
Poppy wondered how bad things would get in just a few weeks once Gen had left. How would she survive the years until she, too, headed to college? As far away from home as Mom allows.
They drove away from the west coast towards the Arizona desert, where colors muted under the blistering sun, contrasting with California’s deliberate and definitive hues.
Poppy drew in her sketchbook, replaying the previous night’s conversation over and over in her head. She always started at the beginning. She wondered if there had been a way to win the argument or if it had been doomed from the start.
Before the conversation, Gen had texted Poppy to warn that Mom was upset with her. Gen often coached Poppy before she had a run in with their mother. In last year’s English class, she had learned about archetypes. Ever since, she kept notes about everyone – aunts and uncles, cousins, and family friends. Even the mailman. She enjoyed finding evidence to bolster her classifications and would even add photos to her notes.
When she tried to prove Uncle Freddie was a Dilettante by taking a picture of him demonstrating a new magic act, Mom told her to be less judgmental and to stop seeing everyone as a cliché. Gen advised Poppy to add her figuring out of archetypes to the growing list of things she pursued in secret.
Mom had come out of the bathroom in the pyjamas with small pink flowers that reminded Poppy of laundry detergent commercials where happy moms pillow fight and snuggle with their kids and then fall asleep on the couch together. Those moms smiled and cared about their children. My mom is a bitch.
The hotel towel struggled to encircle her head. The bathroom fan didn’t work, leaving steam to escape into their barely adequate hotel room. The bathroom never seemed completely dry. Despite the hot, dry Los Angeles August outside, their room was somehow humid and musty, and the AC unit loudly pumped even more mustiness into the room. The first night at the hotel, Poppy counted thirty-two unpleasant odors. Everything felt dirty and claustrophobic.
As Mom sat down on the second queen bed that she shared with Frannie, Poppy swiped through the photos she’d taken earlier in the day, planning how to edit them, cut them up, paint over them, and work them into different art projects when she got back to the basement. My headquarters. There she had free rein to pursue her passion projects, no kid sister or parent looking over her shoulder.
“Go take a shower,” Mom said, patting Frannie’s leg. Frannie was watching a children’s show with grating music and colorful mythical creatures.
“Can’t I watch ‘til the end? Please?”
Mom glared and switched off the television. Frannie rolled off the bed, inch by inch, until she fell on the floor, then dragged herself up and slunk into the bathroom.
“Poppy, I want to talk about today. Please put your phone down.”
“I’m texting with Gen. I’ve barely gotten to talk to her this whole time!”
“Put it down. Now.”
The phone fell through her fingers and onto the thin, faded duvet cover. It landed on a tear in the fabric. She imagined herself shrinking until she was tiny enough to hide in the hole. Avoiding eye contact, she stared at yellow water rings on the popcorn ceiling.
“Haven’t you had a nice time on this trip?”
“Of course I have.”
“What have you enjoyed?”
“Are you just saying that because I wouldn’t let you have them for dinner? You’ve had them every single day!”
“Just so you know, I’ve been trying different enchiladas every day. I want to be an enchilada connoisseur.”
Poppy heard giggling from the other bed. “Connoseeeeuuur,” Frannie mocked, back from the bathroom and ready for bed. “You say such weird things, Poppy!”
“That’s not a thing, Poppy,” Mom said.
“Then I’d be the first one.” What’s wrong with that?
“Because it’s not normal to eat the same thing every day.”
“I don’t care. And, seriously, can you just tell me what you want me to do? I’m tired.” Tears circled Poppy’s eyes like sharks smelling chum in the water. If she cried, her mother would say she was just being a normal teenage girl. She didn’t feel normal. She felt like an exchange student, except that this family wasn’t fascinated with her different values and exotic culture. And, there wasn’t another family who understood her waiting at home.
Mom found her lotion bottle on the bedside table, squeezed a white creamy blob onto her hand and began rubbing it into her dry skin
. Make that thirty-three unpleasant smells in the room.
“You didn’t want to swim at the beach.”
“No. I didn’t.”
“Honey, are you embarrassed about your body? It’s normal to feel that way at your age. You’re just with me and your sister, and you are beautiful. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“I’m not embarrassed about my body. I just didn’t feel like swimming.”
“You spent the whole time on your phone.”
“Yes. I was taking pictures of the ocean.”
“Can I see the pictures?” Her mom finally looked at her.
“If you’re not willing to share the good parts of this trip with us, then I’m going to take your phone away. That way you can enjoy our company, distraction-free.”
“But we’re just driving home. What’s the big deal?”
“I want you to enjoy the trip!”
“I have enjoyed the trip!”
“For God’s sakes, Poppy, you haven’t smiled. You haven’t looked like you’re having fun. Your face is making the rest of us enjoy it less. I work really hard to take you and your sisters on nice trips, and you’ve looked miserable the whole time. You’ve been on your phone the whole time. I’m sorry that you don’t want to be here, that I’m not good enough for you.” Red splotches appeared on her face and neck.
Frannie scuttled across the bed and gave her a big hug.
“If you can act like you’re enjoying yourself tomorrow, I’ll consider giving your phone back for the rest of the drive. It’s up to you.”
“Wait. You’re taking my phone away for three days? Are you crazy?”
“Maybe next time you’ll find the energy to smile, even a little. Even if you have to fake it.”
“First of all, I have enjoyed it. I don’t understand why you’re punishing me for enjoying the trip. Now I won’t enjoy the drive home. So, congratulations, Mom, mission accomplished. Second of all…”
Poppy gave in. She felt tears slide from her eyelids to her chin. “Why do I need to fake anything? Don’t you want to know what your daughter is feeling? You’re always telling me to confide in you and be myself.”
“Are you calling me a hypocrite?”
“This conversation is over. Give me your phone.” Mom stood up, her whole face red, the hotel towel unravelling atop her head.
Poppy knew fighting for the phone was a lost cause. She slapped it into her mom’s hand just hard enough to sting without upping her sentence.
Hurrying into the bathroom, she stared at the mirror, halfheartedly brushing non-enchilada residue from her teeth. She took deep breaths. She counted to ten. She counted to ten many times. She wasn’t ready to face Frannie or her mother, even asleep, so she sat on the edge of the tub until she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer. Then she turned off the bathroom light and tiptoed to bed. The last thing she wanted was to hear Mom say goodnight or that she loved her or that this was for her own good.
The next morning, they ate rehydrated eggs from a box and half-raw pancakes. Frannie scarfed down the mediocre breakfast and prattled on about a unicorn cake she wanted for her eleventh birthday. Mom finally cut her off and handed her the room key to go brush her teeth and hair. Frannie lunged across the table, salivating at the chance to show her maturity and independence. Eager to prove herself more trustworthy and grown-up than I am.
After she had left, Poppy and Mom sat in silence amid the smell of burnt coffee. Poppy tried drinking orange juice, but the sugar hurt her teeth.
“Do you want to talk? I know you’re mad at me,” Mom ventured.
“Of course I am and no, I don’t. Can I go back to the room now?”
“Not until I’m finished with my coffee, and you’ve finished your juice. Let’s give Frannie some space to get ready.”
They resumed their silence while across the atrium other families buzzed with excitement about going to the beach, seeing the Hollywood sign, posing next to their favorite actors’ stars, going to Disneyland. While she struggled to swallow the sugary juice, Poppy surveyed the strangers and assigned them archetypes. Mentor, Explorer, Caregiver. She took mental pictures to add to her notes whenever she got the phone back. Her mother told her that it was rude to stare.
“Alright, Pops, let’s go back. But I also want to extend you an oak branch.”
“You mean an olive branch.”
“Why do you always have to be so critical? I just misspoke a little. Maybe let something slide once in a while, will ya?”
Poppy stared at the table cluttered with breakfast plates.
“If you behave well today, I’ll consider giving your phone back tomorrow morning. But I want to see you smile and look like you’re enjoying our company. Talk to us. We’re really not that bad, I promise!”
“Fine.” Poppy forced a half-grimace-half-smile onto her face.
“Better. Keep working on it though, hon.”
They knocked on the room door and heard Frannie ask “who is it?” since she wasn’t tall enough to see through the peep hole. As she strutted with pride back to her bed to watch some TV, Mom and Poppy finished packing.
They wheeled their suitcases to the door, Mom insisting she do a final check to make sure nothing was forgotten. Of course, no matter how thoroughly the sisters checked, Mom would go around herself, sighing about how easy it is to forget something.
“Oh! Frannie left her pyjamas in the bed!”
Frannie’s face crimsoned as she hurried to retrieve them, embarrassed by her failure. She threw her backpack off the suitcase and laid it down to open it.
“I’m so sorry! I just need two minutes!” She started to cry. “Mom! Can you help me?”
“Frannie, don’t worry about it.” Mom stooped over and hugged her. What a crybaby. “We’ll just put them in your backpack for today.”
Poppy wondered how she could she be so patient with Frannie and not with her. Was Mom’s patience entirely consumed by her little sister with none leftover for her?
They wheeled the suitcases along the carpeted hallway and took an elevator to the lobby. There was one family checking out in front of them. Mom’s face looked a little flush and she massaged her stomach, closing her eyes for a few seconds.
“Did you eat too much last night, Mommy? My stomach was upset, too!”
They’d eaten Italian, giving Poppy no choice on the enchiladas. Frannie had devoured mozzarella sticks, soup, a kid’s fettucine alfredo, and crème brûlée. Poppy wondered how she hadn’t thrown up.
“Oh, that’s probably what it is.”
Or the gross eggs and pancakes we’ve been eating for breakfast all week.
Once finally checked out and in the car, Poppy took out her sketchbook and some charcoal pencils in lieu of the phone camera to capture whatever she saw.
“Pops, I’m so glad to see you sketching! See, it’s a great thing that you don’t have your phone today.”
Poppy rolled her eyes, and Mom sighed. Before they had even left the parking lot, Frannie had her headphones on, though Poppy could still hear the music.
After about an hour, they stopped for coffee. Frannie ordered some giant sugary monstrosity. Poppy got another juice. A few hours later, they stopped for burgers before trekking onward into the Arizona desert. Poppy replayed the previous day’s conversations in her head and sketched things that she saw through the tinted window. She imagined a different family and wondered how it would feel to fit in. Gen would still be my older sister though.
From the backseat, Frannie shouted, “Mom! Poppy’s drawing a dead rabbit! Make her stop! It’s dis-gust-ing!”
“Poppy, why on earth are you drawing that?”
“Because I want to draw things I see since I can’t take any pictures.”
“Why do you want to draw something so gross? Would you really have taken a picture of a dead rabbit? You’re also seeing beautiful scenery.”
Poppy stared expressionless at the miles of dry, yellow dirt.
“You really don’t want your phone back, do you?”
Poppy forced a smile. “Ok, Mother. I’ll draw some flowers.”
Instead, she just put down the pencils and closed her eyes.
When she woke, the landscape had become rocky with bright red dirt covered in cacti. Suddenly they rounded a bend and a whole valley unfolded in front of them. No people, just cacti everywhere.
She screamed, “Pull the car over!”
Her mother swerved off the road, into a convenient scenic lookout. “Pops! Are you ok? What the hell was that? Do you know how insanely dangerous that was?”
But Poppy didn’t hear her. She bucked out of her door and ran to the railing.
Mom jumped out after her. “No way in hell you’re getting your phone back after that stunt!”
Poppy stood at the edge taking in the cactus-covered vista.
“Mom, please. Can I please have my phone? Just for this. You can keep it for the rest of the trip but I have to take a picture of this.”
“You lost that privilege,” Mom said, starting to cry.
“Mom, you wanted to see me appreciating the trip. I am! I’m documenting everything that strikes me as interesting, as different.”
“No! You’re just using it to categorize me and analyze me and judge me.”
Poppy wondered what the hell she was talking about. “What’s your problem? Do you hate me or something?”
“How can you even ask me that?”
“Well you don’t seem to like me. Not as much as Gen or Frannie.”
“Poppy, I love you.”
“That’s not the same thing,” she shouted over the roar of an eighteen-wheeler, careening down the freeway.
“No, no it’s not. I do like you. But you’re always sizing me up and you’re always on your phone. I don’t think you like me either.”
“You’ve been a bitch, Mom. Especially on this trip. At least at home I have somewhere to escape to.”
“You don’t have to like me, hon. I’m your mom. I’m sure you don’t like me after I took your phone away, but it’s what a good parent should do.”
“No. A good parent would try to understand their kid. Like how I want to take pictures and use them for my art projects. Or how I was really enjoying all the different enchiladas in California. Or how I miss my older sister. You don’t even try to understand me.”
“You don’t try to understand me either! You have no idea how hard it is being a single mom.”
“Well I have an idea how hard it is to grow up with a single mother. And besides, Frannie and I aren’t that bad!”
“Well, I’m glad you’re finally saying something positive about your little sister.”
“Unlike some people, I’m not a total bitch.”
Mom slapped her across the face. “You take that back, you ungrateful little brat. You have no idea.”
Poppy stared at her, stunned. “I’m not ungrateful. I do appreciate you. But I want to take pictures to remember what we’re seeing. What’s so wrong with that?” Her voice trailed off into a whisper.
Mom suddenly grabbed her and hugged her tight. “Oh, Poppy! I’m so sorry. I’m just so worried about you. You really do spend too much time on your phone. And, I just want to be a good mom.”
Poppy hugged her back.
“Poppy, I’m pregnant.”
“What?” Poppy took a step back, recoiling from the embrace.
“I didn’t know how to tell you or your sisters.”
“But, but how? You aren’t even dating anyone.”
“I know. It wasn’t a shining moment for me, but I really do want your little brother or sister to feel loved and appreciated. I’ve just been so scared to tell you and Frannie.”
“Does Gen know?”
“No. I was planning on telling all of you when we got home. I know I’ve been hard on you lately, especially on this trip, but I’m nervous and I need your help. It’s not fair to ask that of you, but I do…”
Poppy’s mind was spinning. She stared silently past her mother to the wide expanse of cacti beyond.
“Please say something.”
“Can I have five minutes alone?” Poppy mumbled.
Mom walked back to the car and closed the door. Poppy pushed the idea of another sibling out of her mind. She focused on absorbing every detail of the cacti, the rocks, and the road, planning how she would sketch the scene later.
Then, she walked back to the car. I probably shouldn’t draw more rabbit roadkill until I’m safely back in Poppy Headquarters. Resting her chin on her forearm and forehead on the window, she stared out at the passing landscape, tuning out Frannie’s singing and wondering again about life without Gen, except now with a new brother or sister.
She wondered if the new one would like her art and big words.
Relating to the Theme of Wonder
In this story, I wanted to explore how people experience awe and wonder differently, sometimes based on personality types and age. Even what we notice and excites us can vary widely. I also wanted to incorporate a play-on-words of sorts with the protagonist imagining or wondering about her future.