Mosquitoland by David Arnold

For Stephanie and Winn,

the whys behind my whats


   (947 Miles to Go)


   A Thing’s Not a Thing until You Say It Out Loud

   I AM MARY Iris Malone, and I am not okay.


The Uncomfortable Nearness of Strangers

September 1—afternoon

Dear Isabel,

As a member of the family, you have a right to know what’s going on. Dad agrees but says I should avoid “topics of substance and despair.” When I asked how he propose I do this, seeing as our family is prone to substantial desperation, he rolled his eyes and flared his nostrils, like he does. The thing is, I’m incapable of fluff, so here goes. The straight dope, Mim-style. Filled to the brim with “topics of substance and despair.”

Just over a month ago, I moved from the greener pastures of Ashland, Ohio, to the dried-up wastelands of Jackson, Mississippi, with Dad and Kathy. During that time, it’s possible I’ve gotten into some trouble at my new school. Not trouble with a capital T, you understand, but this is a subtle distinction for adults once they’re determined to ruin a kid’s youth. My new principal is just such a man. He scheduled a conference for ten a.m., in which the malfeasance of Mim Malone would be the only point of order. Kathy switched her day shift at Denny’s so she could join Dad as a parental representative. I was in algebra II, watching Mr. Harrow carry on a romantic relationship with his polynomials, when my name echoed down the coral-painted hallways.

“Mim Malone, please report to Principal Schwartz’s office. Mim Malone to the principal’s office.”

(Suffice it to say, I didn’t want to go, but the Loudspeaker summoned, and the Student responded, and ’twas always thus.)

The foyer leading into the principal’s office was dank, a suffocating decor of rusty maroons and browns. Inspirational posters were plastered around the room, boasting one-word encouragements and eagles soaring over purple mountain majesties.

I threw up a little, swallowed it back down.

“You can go on back,” said a secretary without looking up. “They’re expecting you.”

Beyond the secretary’s desk, Principal Schwartz’s heavy oak door was cracked open an inch. Nearing it, I heard low voices on the other side.

“What’s her mother’s name again?” asked Schwartz, his timbre muffled by that lustrous seventies mustache, a holdover from the glory days no doubt.

“Eve,” said Dad.

Schwartz: “Right, right. What a shame. Well, I hope Mim is grateful for your involvement, Kathy. Heaven knows she needs a mother figure right now.”

Kathy: “We all just want Eve to get better, you know? And she will. She’ll beat this disease. Eve’s a fighter.”

Just outside the door, I stood frozen—inside and out. Disease?

Schwartz: (Sigh.) “Does Mim know?”

Dad: (Different kind of sigh.) “No. The time just doesn’t seem right. New school, new friends, lots of . . . new developments, as you can see.”

Schwartz: (Chuckle.) “Quite. Well, hopefully things will come together for Eve in . . . where did you say she was?”

Dad: “Cleveland. And thank you. We’re hoping for the best.”

(Every great character, Iz, be it on page or screen, is multidimensional. The good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad, and any character wholly one or the other shouldn’t exist at all. Remember this when I describe the antics that follow, for though I am not a villain, I am not immune to villainy.)

Our Heroine turns from the oak door, calmly exits the office, the school, the grounds. She walks in a daze, trying to put the pieces together. Across the football field, athletic meatheads sneer, but she hears them not. Her trusty Goodwill shoes carry her down the crumbling sidewalk while she considers the three-week drought of letters and phone calls from her mother. Our Heroine takes the shortcut behind the Taco Hole, ignoring its beefy bouquet. She walks the lonely streets of her new neighborhood, rounds the skyscraping oak, and pauses for a moment in the shade of her new residence. She checks the mailbox—empty. As always. Pulling out her phone, she dials her mother’s number for the hundredth time, hears the same robotic lady for the hundredth time, is disheartened for the hundredth time.

We’re sorry, this number has been disconnected.

She shuts her phone and looks up at this new house, a house bought for the low, low price of Everything She’d Ever Known to Be True. “Glass and concrete and stone,” she whispers, the chorus of one of her favorite songs. She smiles, pulls her hair back into a ponytail, and finishes the lyric. “It is just a house, not a home.”

Bursting through the front door, Our Heroine takes the steps three at a time. She ignores the new-house smell—a strange combination of sanitizer, tacos, and pigheaded denial—and sprints to her bedroom. Here, she repacks her trusty JanSport backpack with overnight provisions, a bottle of water, toiletries, extra clothes, meds, war paint, makeup remover, and a bag of potato chips. She dashes into her father and stepmother’s bedroom and drops to her knees in front of the feminine dresser. Our Heroine reaches behind a neatly folded stack of Spanx in the bottom drawer and retrieves a coffee can labeled HILLS BROS. ORIGINAL BLEND. Popping the cap, she removes a thick wad of bills and counts by Andrew Jacksons to eight hundred eighty dollars. (Her evil stepmother had overestimated the secrecy of this hiding spot, for Our Heroine sees all.)

Adding the can of cash to her backpack, she bolts from her house-not-a-home, jogs a half mile to the bus stop, and catches a metro line to the Jackson Greyhound terminal. She’s known the where for a while now: Cleveland, Ohio, 947 miles away. But until today, she wasn’t sure of the how or when.

The how: a bus. The when: pronto, posthaste, lickety-split.

And . . . scene.

But you’re a true Malone, and as such, this won’t be enough for you. You’ll need more than just wheres, whens, and hows—you’ll need whys. You’ll think Why wouldn’t Our Heroine just (insert brilliant solution here)? The truth is, reasons are hard. I’m standing on a whole stack of them right now, with barely a notion of how I got up here.

So maybe that’s what this will be, Iz: my Book of Reasons. I’ll explain the whys behind my whats, and you can see for yourself how my Reasons stack up. Consider that little clandestine convo between Dad, Kathy, and Schwartz Reason #1. It’s a long way to Cleveland, so I’ll try and space the rest out, but for now, know this: my Reasons may be hard, but my Objectives are quite simple.

Get to Cleveland, get to Mom.

I salute myself.

I accept my mission.

Signing off,

Mary Iris Malone,

Mother-effing Mother-Saver

RETRACING THE STICK FIGURE on the front of this journal makes little difference. Stick figures are eternally anemic.

I pull my dark hair across one shoulder, slump my forehead against the window, and marvel at the outside world. Before Mississippi had her devilish way, my marvelings were wondrously unique. Recently they’ve become I-don’t-know-what . . . middling. Tragically mediocre. To top it off, a rain of biblical proportions is absolutely punishing the earth right now, and I can’t help feeling it deserves it. Stuffing my journal in my backpack, I grab my bottle of Abilitol. Tip, swallow, repeat daily: this is the habit, and habit is king, so says Dad. I swallow the pill, then shove the bottle back in my bag with attitude. Also part of the habit. So says I.

“Th’hell you doing in here, missy?”

I see the tuft first, a tall poke of hair towering over the front two seats. It’s dripping wet, and crooked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The man—a Greyhound employee named Carl, according to the damp patch on his button-down—is huge. Lumbering, even. Still eyeballing me, he pulls a burrito out of nowhere, unwraps it, digs in.

Enchanté, Carl.

“This is the bus to Cleveland, right?” I rummage around in my bag. “I have a ticket.”

“Missy,” he says, his mouth full, “you could have Wonky’s golden fuckin’ ticket for all I care. We ain’t started boarding yet.”

In my head, a thousand tiny Mims shoot flaming arrows at Carl, burning his hair to the ground in a glorious blaze of tuft. Before one of these metaphysical Mims gets me into trouble, I hear my mother’s voice in my ear, echoing a toll, the chime of my childhood: Kill him with kindness, Mary. Absolutely murder him with it. I throw on a girlish smile and my mother’s British accent. “Blimey, that’s a lovely uniform, chap. Really accentuates your pectorals.”

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