American December
Belle Crawford
Break

In an international airport during holiday season, after 18 months in rural Japan, I watch a mother drag her child to a vending machine and stuff his crying face with a honey bun.

I'm back, I think. America the robust, a zoo without gates.

One more two-hour plane ride lands me in Charlotte, then Hertz, then the highway and my brother's tiny suburb. He hugs me twice, his arms thin, weightless, bending around me like paper folding. We take my rented Honda Civic because my brother doesn't drive— he lost his license when he wrapped his Buick LeSabre around a telephone pole on New Year's Eve in 2007. We take the interstate south toward Miami, to the end of our country's fat, sea-stirring finger, where our grandparents live.

We follow the holy parade of SUVs, driven by bearded men, heavy, red-faced, their children in the back seat staring at the screens of their own tiny televisions, their wives with feet propped on the dashboard, heads back, mouths open, asleep. My brother lights a Galoises. It smells stronger than other cigarettes. More like burning shit.

"Are you kidding me?" I ask him.

He grins. Dustin is always grinning.

In Georgia we eat at Cracker Barrel, where there are three generations of women in rocking chairs on the porch. They wave at us, they smile, the wooden sign above them reads 'Hey Ya'll!' Inside there's a fireplace. There's a stuffed turkey on the wall above our table. I have grits, eggs, coffee, too many spongy bleach-white biscuits drenched in mucus-like goo. Afterwards, we check in to a Day's Inn across the street and I fall asleep without changing my clothes. Sometime in the middle of the night I wake up from a dream about having cotton where my lungs should be. Dustin is sitting up in bed watching a documentary about Jim Henson, the room is hazy and thick with smoke.

"God, what a fucking genius," Dustin whispers, the flickering-blue from the TV making the features on his face dance.

"I can't breathe in here," I say.

"I mean, this guy is such a huge part of who I am." Dustin points his Galoises at me. "Such a big part of who YOU are."

"I can't breathe," I say again.

"Remember when Kermit got amnesia? Remember Beaker? Dude had one hell of a speech impediment."

I turn over and go back to sleep.

Day two: Near Okeechobee Road, signs point to Julie's Diner. We stop in, drop ourselves onto cracked red faux-leather benches and meet the waitress who pats backs.

"Are you Julie?" Dustin asks, grinning. I think I see him scooting toward her, angling his shoulder for another pat.

"There is no Julie," she says. It's a secret, the telling of which seems to have lost its flair. The waitress doesn't smile. She doesn't pat Dustin's back. We order key lime milkshakes and the surge of sugar makes my heart race, makes Dustin drum on the table top with his spoons.

All the way down Florida's Turnpike Dustin is Muppet-crazed and hyper, overly excited by the occasional west-coast license plate and the growing possibility of college-aged girls flashing him as they pass us on the highway the closer we get to the beach. I want to remind him that it's winter. I want to get where we are going. I want to throw up. My own driving has made me sick.

When we get there Miami is more awake than me, ablaze with Christmas lights—a glowing Jesus and his family march across too many lawns, unsurprising anymore, connected at the ankles with electric wires, like a chain-gang.

When our grandmother answers the door she weaves, unsure. Her skin is slick and shiny with Vaseline. For three years now she's been losing her mind. But this Christmas she sees people with no arms and no legs hovering in corners up by the ceiling, their babies forgotten on the floor.

"How do they get in here?" Dustin asks, lighting a Galoises.

"They stick their fingers in their belly-buttons and twist," my grandmother tells him, glancing through her kitchen window at Jesus glowing on her grass. "This causes them to deflate, like balloons," she explains. "It allows them to slip through the cracks up under in the door." She makes a gesture with her hands, one sliding under the other, like tectonic plates. "After they come in, they can puff themselves back up again by blowing on their thumbs."

Dustin holds his laughter in for a long time. I can tell he's holding it in because he's not breathing, there's no smoke coming from his mouth. Then he lets it go, tries to hide it in his hands. And there's a part of me that wants to laugh too. But I don't because the part that wants to laugh is exactly equal in size to the part of me that wants to cry.

My grandmother pats Dustin on the knee. "I love you boys," she says.

And even though she's crazy, we both know that it's true.

Belle Crawford received her MA in creative writing from Manchester University. Her fiction is forthcoming in Glossolalia, For Every Year, and The Smoking Poet. She's been long-listed for the Bristol Short Story Prize and her novel was one of three finalists in the annual fiction contest at UM. She currently lives in South Carolina.