Before the Gulf War and before Monsanto, Amber’s family took a road trip.
Amber and her sister Emily could not be more excited. Four or five days in the car, plus motels and restaurants, plus a stop at Magnetic Hill. Then time with family in a different province where they have lobsters.
In the car, the kids were mini queens. Most of the time they walked or took the TTC to get to school and other every day things.
But when Dad was driving that summer, every trip became an adventure.
He let Amber and Emily take turns being the driver. Dad put the keys in the ignition and then took his hands off the steering wheel and picked one of the sisters.
“Lead the way.”
Amber loved the thrill of feeling in control. She believed she could do as well as her father. One day, she thought, she would be a boss.
The first time Dad played this game, she shouted right, left, left, right! from the backseat without a care.
It was fun to tell Dad what to do. It was a rush to watch him respond. It was soothing to share a small space when he was in a jovial mood.
Amber wasn’t thinking about street signs or even stop lights. She didn’t know much about the gas gauge or engine lights or the odometer in the Oldsmobile.
She didn’t know it was an Oldsmobile. She just knew they had to get a new car after the last one was wrecked in an accident.
Before cell phones but after stricter seat belt laws, her parents had miraculously survived being t-boned by a drunk driver who ran a red light.
Dad had waited at the green light for an extra long time, as the story was told, because he just had a feeling. It was the middle of the night, no cars in sight. But he wanted to be sure. He waited through the yellow light.
Then, bam, out of nowhere, even though Dad was being extra cautious, a teen ploughed into the car as he made the turn.
They lived, thank god, with what was described as minimal injuries when compared to the severity of damage done to the car.
Amber and Emily weren’t touched by that accident. Asleep at the townhouse, no images of shattered glass or bodies violently thrown running through their heads. Invisible bubble wrap kept them safe from any after affects.
Left, left, left! Amber shouted that first time, loving every minute of this man obeying her commands.
She tried to allow her sister to join in on the fun, but Dad said no, Emily would have her turn. This one was all Amber.
She had no idea how far they’d gone or how long they’d been driving, but the surroundings became alien.
Suddenly, Dad pulled the car to the side of the road and said, “Game’s over”.
They sat together in that small space in silence. Amber was feeling betrayed that her moment had been taken so abruptly.
Even a pinball machine, which she’d seen in movies, gave notice.
Dad looked at Amber in the rear view mirror. A twinkle in his eye that tightened the muscles in her chest.
“Now get us home.”
He took his hands off the steering wheel in the same dramatic fashion. He studied her pupils as he waited for her response.
Mom started to speak. Dad shushed her.
Amber’s panic was silent. She fought fears that she would be responsible if her family couldn’t find their way home. She struggled to stay in her body. She wondered if they could make it. She pushed down terror because he was waiting for her answer.
Which way now? Left? Right? Could Amber remember how many lefts and how many rights got them to this alien land?
As the silence continued and he watched her pupils get bigger, Dad questioned her as if time was ticking.
“Which way? Can you get us home? I wasn’t driving, it’s up to you.”
Again, lifting his hands up in the air as though the steering wheel wasn’t his domain.
Amber was caught in a no-win situation and she refused to let him see her cry.
She crossed her arms over her chest. She gave in. It was the only way out.
“I don’t know.”
In her panic, she hoped like hell that he would be able to rescue the family after her foolish actions.
And he did rescue them. Dad saved the day, struggling at first, but finding his way home.
They celebrated by stopping at the burger place across from their housing complex.
Emily refused to be in control unless she knew she wouldn’t have to get us home.
Amber asked for the same terms, but she became ruthlessly vigilant about reading street signs, and her trips were much shorter. Preparing for the inevitable sharp turn.
By the time the family road trip to Nova Scotia came around, car time had been labelled fun time.
Both children agreed wholeheartedly that it was best for Dad to be in charge. Mom was the navigator, paper map opened and spread over her lap and the blue plastic dashboard.
After four days of playing travel checkers and licence plate bingo – just like they did in the movies – and stopping at roadside burger joints which the family members took turns choosing, Amber was getting sick of junk food.
“Can we find a Ponderosa so I can have a salad?”
“Salad,” Mom chirped, “we’re on vacation!”
“It’s my turn!”
“But there is no Ponderosa,” said Dad.
“Then I forfeit this turn.”
He shrugged and told Emily it was her turn.
Mom turned around in her seat.
“Why do you care about eating salad all of the sudden?”
Amber shrugged. “I feel fat.”
“Give me a break,” Mom laughed, “you’re nine! What do you know about feeling fat?”
Amber shrugged. “Iqbal said I was fat.”
Mom laughed. “Iqbal doesn’t know anything. He’s a kid. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re fat.”
“He likes Charlie and she’s skinny as a bird.”
“Bird’s don’t get their periods.”
That shut Amber up. Ever since the sex ed talk in health that school year and reading Judy Blume, Amber was dying to be the first in her group of friends to become a woman.
She had been promised a celebration. She couldn’t wait to find out what it was.
“Nobody celebrated my period,” Mom had said that winter. “I didn’t even know what was going on when it happened.”
They reached Moncton as promised. By the time they were over the thrill of creeping backward up a hill with the car in neutral, both Amber and Emily were ready to get out of that car.
With Halifax less than three hours east, Mom kept everyone occupied with a countdown.
As Dad turned one of the last corners, Amber spotted an ice cream shop.
“Can we stop? Can we stop?”
“No, we’re almost there.”
“But I didn’t get my turn!”
“You forfeited your turn.”
“There was no Ponderosa.”
“Maybe we’ll go to one while we’re here.”
“But I want ice cream.”
That tone meant it was his final answer. Amber crossed her arms. She pouted.
But she watched the street signs as Dad drove to his brother’s house.
The ice cream shop was around the corner and down the street. Amber wouldn’t be gone long. They probably wouldn’t notice.
As soon as she said hello to her aunt and uncle, she bolted to ‘use the bathroom’.
Amber hadn’t anticipated having to go out the back door because the front was busy.
The walking paths lead left, right and straight. Amber did her best to head in the direction of the road.
She got lost. It felt like hours on those walking paths going in circles without numbers or street signs or even cars to guide her back to a house she wouldn’t recognize anyway.
Amber started to get scared, but she wiped her tears fiercely with her sleeve. It was her turn. She deserved to choose the place.
When the setting of the sun started to colour the clouds, panic wiped away any thought of ice cream.
The walking paths were deserted.
She was in a different province all by herself. Nobody even knew she was gone. Why had they not come looking for her?
Would she have to sleep outside?
She heard Dad call her name. She followed the paths toward his voice with her head down.
Amber heard him getting closer. She started to look up. She saw Dad coming down a path, fury on his face and throughout his gait.
She could almost hear his thoughts. Learned your lesson. Make me look like an asshole. Never run away again as long as I’m alive.
Amber stopped. A thick spiderweb bigger than any she had ever seen blocked the entire path. It had been spun between two trees on either side. It was taller than her and started at her shins. There was no way to continue down that path.
But Dad was right there, glaring at her from the other side of the web.
“Get over here right now.”
“I can’t go through that!”
“You can and you will.”
“It’s a spider web, Dad!”
“Get over here now or so help me god…”
“I can find a way around.”
“Forget it. You’re going through.”
“But I can’t.”
“You’ll damned well do as you’re told.”
Amber was frozen. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t walk through it.
Dad reached his arms through the spider web, grabbed her by the shoulders, and then he pulled her face first through the wall of sticky silk thread.