by Ginger Roberts
The first time I became conscious of the entity named Aunt Nicole was on a cross-country trip that involved my mother, my son, Thomas and my dog, Waffle. We had all the time in the world to sample all the nuances of our trip but the destination was always on my mind. I did not want to go back to work after having a month of leave. I did not want to come back to the United States. I did not want to put the boots on and trudge through the muck or answer to anyone for anything. I wanted to enjoy the freedom a little while longer.
Mom and I want to see the country that I was fighting for. Thomas wants to steal Wi-Fi off the truckers and complain about being in the back seat of the cab of my Ford F-150 without enough snacks. So, with a perfect opportunity to make Thomas even more miserable than he already was as a teenager being dragged all around the world with me, Mom and I took our time to see all the roadside attractions along the way, like we used to when I was a child. We prepared for an extensive drawn-out trip, estimated at six days, from Texas to my next duty station in Maryland but we had to make a few stops first.
Mom and I decided to do this old school and not use a GPS. Mom knew I wanted to get a piece of my childhood back, a piece that was well before my motherhood and other adult responsibilities. I made arrangements with the American Automobile Association (AAA) to let them plan the whole trip using folded paper maps. The AAA representative explained everything in great detail to Mom because he assumed she didn’t understand technology and that was the reason for the map request.
“No one asks for maps anymore, uses maps or even knows how to read an actual paper map,” he says, “You sure you want to go cross-country without electronics? Alone? What if you get into trouble?”
Mom dismissed his concern with a wave of her hand as she replied, “I don’t think much has changed. We will be alright!”
“Ok, if you are sure… I highlighted all the stopping points.”
“Did you? That is so nice,” Mom politely exclaimed with surprise and without him seeing, rolled her eyes at me.
We received detailed paper maps of our general route with highlighted information that pointed out specific stops along the way before our departure. After getting the maps we had to make a stop at the Verizon store to get a new cell phone for me. I had spent the last four years in Europe trying to evade the existence of current technology and my new duty station required me to be in contact with them at all times. After putting the phone numbers of my future handlers into my flip phone, we were well on our way.
Whenever there was something interesting off the beaten path that had a sign, we turned off the Triptik, folded the map and let the signs on the highways direct us to our entertainment but on a planned stop in Dallas, Waffle, who begrudgingly shared the cab with Thomas, urinated on Dealey Plaza. Her peeing on the Plaza was not the actual intention of the visit, I wanted to see the big deal from all the conspiracy theories about JFK’s death and because we were passing through anyway but being cooped up in the cab all day must have caused Waffle’s tiny bladder to burst. I snatched her up in my arms as soon as I noticed, which is easier said than done because she weighs thirty-nine pounds, she was not done relieving herself and scrambled back to the truck, with her leash flapping in the wind, closely followed by Thomas and my mom. As far as I know there isn’t a law that says that it is illegal for an animal to relieve oneself on Dealey Plaza but I am sure that it is highly discouraged and frowned upon, lest we cause disrespect in some manner. As we drove on, we settled upon the excuse that it was Waffle’s comical display of passive resistance to the idea of government in general. I wonder if she even knows what I do for a living in order to get money for her food.
We ate blueberries on the side of the road in Arkansas at the “World’s Greatest Blueberry Festival,” Tennessee was home to the “Biggest Ball of Yarn in the Country” and along the way we found a place that touted the “Best BarBQue in the Land” but it was not a five star in Zagat’s, even though it pacified Thomas.
Three days into the trip we end up in Kentucky. We stopped for the night in order to hit the ground running at the Mammoth Cave National Park. My plan was to put Waffle in the free kennel, otherwise one of us would have to wait with her in the truck while two of us would have fun inside the cave. I was willing to sacrifice myself so that Thomas and Mom would have fun and proceed to blend in with the bats in the cave while slipping and sliding in the dark toward the echoes but I wasn’t happy about it. This was supposed to be my vacation.
Mom said, “We will see what happens in the morning but after the cave, we get on the road again to cover more ground toward Maryland, right?”
Before I could answer her, an unfamiliar sensation came from my new flip phone. Getting texts was new to me. Texting is not a thing that people do on the other side of the pond as it is here; people expect you to actually talk to them face to face. It is a text alert from a number I do not recognize, asking if I am going to show up.
“Mom, what do you think I should do? I don’t know who this is,” I say as I show her the text.
Mom says, “Are you sure you don’t know this number?”
“I am positive,” I respond.
“Then let’s have a little fun,” Mom declares with a dubious sparkle in her eyes. Mom comes up with a great idea to play a prank as she tells me to text back, “Sure.”
Instantly the phone beeps. What time you going?
Mom and I giggle with anticipation. How to continue this hilarious exchange? Someone somewhere is expecting someone to show up someplace. How hilarious would it be if no one met them? Throwing caution to the wind was quite liberating.
“Mom, can we order a pizza?” Thomas interjects.
Ugh! Back to reality, I thought.
When I didn’t answer right away, Thomas asks, “Grandma, can we order a pizza?”
“Yeah, in a minute,” I hiss and then sigh as the momentary text exchange lingers on my mind.
With the boy placated with a pizza and passed out on the floor of our hotel room, I finally am able to reply to the previous text. When are you going?
Again, an insistent *BEEP* pops up with the message, The usual time.
I suck in my breath to hold in a giggle.
By the time I read it another message appears in the queue. What are you going to wear?
“Mom, what would you say to someone if they asked what you were going to wear?” I whispered so as not to wake Thomas.
“It depends on the weather,” Mom whispers back.
I text my reply: Depends on if it rains.
The texts stop for the evening and I fall into the bed, grinning at the prank. This is such a departure from the structure of the military where I have to be serious all the time, taking orders, following orders, lest someone die. Everything is life and death in the military, there is no real pleasure where I can let my hair down and just be impractical because being impractical gets you killed.
A shrill series of *beep, Beep, BEEP* comes from the phone as it wakes me up from a dream the next morning. I tenderly open the phone and scroll past my contacts in the menu to retrieve the texts that came from last night’s number. I try to rationalize the harmlessness I thought of the previous night after reading, You never showed!!!!; I waited for you but went home with Sam!!! and How could you do that, Nicole?
I threw the phone onto the unmade bed and paced the floor. At first, I thought I had to come up with something clever to cover my apprehension but I made up my mind that I would just bite the bullet and tell them they got the wrong number next time. These were real people, with real lives and real expectations. I am not a child and should have known not to be childish. I forgot out here with all the civilians, there are still expectations.
I chickened out. I never replied. Thankfully no one demanded any answers. We followed through with the plan of action and crossed Mammoth Cave National Park off the itinerary and continued our travels.
After another day, another hotel and two more tanks of gas, we arrive at Virginia’s Drive Thru Zoo. We miss the sign that said No Dogs Allowed!!! until it was too late to back out or turn around. There was only one line in and no exit in sight. We are already committed. In order to circumvent this breach of protocol, we hurriedly covered Waffle with a blanket so she could not see the animals and they could not see her. Waffle is not what you would call “sociable.” As we drive through the winding queue, all kinds of animals would come to the sides of the truck to get the pellets that were a separate charge on top of admission. Others would only come if you threw pellets to entice them.
When all the pellets are thoroughly consumed, the animals, mostly llamas, become belligerent like privates who won’t work through lunch to accomplish the mission even if lunch was provided. The llamas did not like the offering of empty buckets and attempted to climb into the truck to demand more sustenance. An angry horde surrounds my truck. Thomas screams in terror as he throws his bucket out the window thinking that would distract the llamas and give him enough time to save his Cheetos.
In order to protect his Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Fries from an oppressive llama he lets Waffle break free of her restraint blanket. She bites the llama whose nose had poked into her space through the open window. My truck was in the one lane line and all we could think of to do was to roll up the windows and hope that no one saw the fury of the furry tornado in the back. I do not know what the penalty is if a llama is injured. Surely they have precautions to prevent such things from happening. Oh yeah, they have a sign that says No Dogs Allowed!!! Whoops! I do not have llama money.
We get out of the crawling line headed towards the exit, pass through the Jurassic Park gates and speed down the highway towards our ultimate destination as fast as we can. An outbreak of communication erupted from all of us in my truck.
Mom exclaims, “Do you think they saw her?”
“What do you think they can do us? I can’t get in trouble. Not before I report to my new unit,” I groan with worry. “Bad things happen to you if you don’t follow the rules.”
“We will deal with that when it comes,” Mom says as she looks out the window.
Bark, Bark BARK!!!
I look back and forth from the rearview mirror to the side mirror then back to my mother as I say, “MOM, they could have written down my license plate number, tracked it and now have a posse waiting for me at the gate when I report.”
“It is going to be alright,” says Mom, “I don’t think they could kick you out of the military for hurting a llama. That would be a first!”
“Great! Just what I need, to set precedents,” I mutter.
Bark, Bark BARK!!!
“WAFFLE, calm down,” Thomas yells.
“Well, you always were a trendsetter way before your time,” Mom laughs.
When we realize that no one followed us to demand payment for the damage to the llama or cared that Waffle even attended the event, we slow to a crawl, fall into silence and take in the rest of the road. I do not recommend travelling the Blue Ridge Highway with a fully loaded F-150. That stretch of road is not especially easy on the engine as we rode the warped highway, stomping the brakes on the way down the sheer side of the mountain only to push the gas pedal to the max on the way up the mountainside.
Having finally arrived in Maryland and our grand adventure over, I secured Mom on a plane back to Texas after showing her the post, settled my son into his new school and bought plenty of pizza at the Commissary. I had to be serious now; playtime was over. I had a new command to work with and new troops to train. Seven months passed.
The faint *beep* reverberates in my pocket. Trying to shove a sandwich into my face during my rushed lunchtime and grabbing the phone is a somewhat delicate procedure. I can’t go back to work with mustard on my pants.
Aunt Nicole, where are you?
With the whirlwind of work I forgot about Aunt Nicole but it all floods back; the trip, the texts, the giggles with Mom. I smile as I think of it but I am going to tell them the truth. I want to try to tell them innocently that I am not Nicole but my fingers type Aunt Nicole does not have this phone anymore. Damn this auto correct!
They ask me who I am. Well, they were not really so nice about asking me who I am and why do I have her phone. They actually said, Who the fuck is this??? and Why the fuck do you have her phone?
This caught me off guard. I am not used to being spoken to in this manner unless it came from a higher rank and even then they would never text it, they would scream it while I was standing in front of them. I want to explain calmly and rationally how I acquired this phone number but I then I thought it was none of their business and got angry and since they broke the rules of protocol in speaking, which was swearing at me first, I now have the right to swear back.
I text, It is none of your FUCKING business why I have this phone. It is no longer hers and if you keep contacting me I will turn you in.
How can you turn us in? We are kids!
“Mother mode” kicked in as I tell them, I don’t give a SHIT who you are, please leave me alone. How dare a child speak to me like this? I won’t tolerate it from Thomas so I sure as hell won’t tolerate it from a stranger.
They tell me they won’t leave me alone until they find out who I am, where I live and what I have done with Aunt Nicole. Big words from little kids. They must have put their big boy pants on today but I still have to protect myself. As I hold my phone, my thoughts spiral to question how secure this installation is. Could they really find me? I have to show my ID card while they lift the barrier to let my truck through every time I go on or off post. NSA patrols the housing units. The FBI has a six-minute response time. Bring it!
I take a deep breath and type that they will never know who I am nor will I give any information.
They keep badgering me to tell them. I fire off No, and Fuck off.
They tell me, YOU FUCK OFF BITCH!!!!!!!!
Staring at this last communiqué, I ask myself, Why do the crazy people like exclamation points and a lot of them? Stupid kids. I do not feel they deserve an answer.
After the initial shock of the exchange wore off I laughed and then called Mom.
“Mom, you will never guess who I just had a text conversation with! Do you remember that crazy back and forth text I got on our trip about Nicole?”
“Ooooh, what did they say?” asked Mom.
“They said they were looking for AUNT Nicole and when I told them that I had her phone number now, they got pretty heated and accused me of doing something with her and taking her phone. I am beginning to think that Aunt Nicole doesn’t want to be found by these people and don’t blame her one bit!” I state.
“Do you think something happened to her?”
“I’m not sure but I have to go back to work. I don’t have time to think about this right now. I am going to be late, I have to go to a training meeting,” I say, “love you!”
“Love you too!”
I clamp the phone shut and go back to work but I still keep my head on swivel just in case they really could find me and my time calculation for the authorities to help me is drastically underestimated.
A few months later on a weekend, I receive several texts again from one of her family or friends or lovers or someone else with thumbs because it happens to be Aunt Nicole’s birthday. Now I know that it is just stupid kids, I can mess with them because there are no repercussions. I am in a good mood and I do not reply in any negative manner. I just thank them for the well wishes and raise my glass in her honor.
As I read the greetings, my mind starts to really wonder who this woman is. If she is still alive, I question how old she is. What does she do? What does she look like? What kind of house does she live in?
Maybe she skipped town without a trace (with a ton of money) in order to relieve herself of her obligations and has not told a single soul. Sometimes I wish I could just pick up and leave but then reality sets in and I wonder who would take care of Thomas and Waffle? Mom would do it but I don’t want to burden her with my responsibilities. I am not sure I could walk away that easily. Considering some of the conversations I have had with her friends and family, I do not blame her for not telling anyone about relinquishing her phone number cold turkey.
The one thing I am worried about is that something really did happen to her and no one knows anything about it. She might have been carjacked. She might be buried in a hole somewhere, gasping for air through a tube while hunting dogs search for her body. She could be dismembered, buzzards are eating her and the only pieces that they find are scraps from her yellow polka dotted dress matted with hair and one shredded red high-heeled shoe. I know that can’t really happen to me because I am on a short leash with everyone knowing where I am at all times. I hope nothing sinister happened.
It has been a few months after Aunt Nicole’s birthday and I start to get texts from Aunt Nicole’s people that ask me about my family with questions like, Who is your favorite Uncle? and When you coming to visit Gramma? I know they are not really asking about my personal preferences within my own family because everyone in my family knows the answers to these questions. Rather than give them direct answers to their cryptic questions, I start directing them to contact the FBI as soon as possible regarding this issue. She seems to have a really large family; I can totally understand why she would not inform the whole clan that she no longer has this phone number for almost a year!
The texts and calls are coming less frequent now. I would say at the most three times in a year. Many months pass before I can log this text exchange with Mom:
Hey, is this Nicole?
I reply, Who is asking?
Thirty minutes pass and I get, Your cousin.
I reply, No, this is not her! I am waiting on a reply but work and other obligations overtake my immediate concern.
I have not heard from her people in a long time. They stop for months at a time and then came back every so often to let me know someone out there is still looking for her. I write down notes about the texts to later share them with Mom or my friends on Facebook because they are interested that someone would still persist in contacting me even though they have been told on many occasions that I do not have any idea where she is. Every once in awhile I would get a glimpse into her life by the sporadic announcements that seem to pull me back at inopportune moments, just when I would try to forget.
One time, I’m sitting in the required sexual harassment briefing and my phone rings. I was waiting on a call from my car mechanic about the new tires I needed, so I answer it. I grab at it and you will never guess who was on the other line: a raspy voice that was shaking asking for…wait for it…Nicole!!! I was getting curious because I had not heard from them in quite some time. I quickly said, No as all eyes in the room were on me like E.F. Hutton. I apparently interrupted a riveting Power Point on reporting sexual abuse because I forgot to mute my phone. My bad! I barely could hear the muffled threats as my phone clicked shut. I turn down the volume to vibrate mode and pretend nothing happened. Not like it would matter, the information they were dispensing in the meeting has not changed in six years and they do this every quarter. I wonder if the voice heard any of the briefing before I closed my phone.
When I got home I used the reverse lookup for phone numbers and I find it is someone from Indiana, area code 765. This mystery is entertaining. I mark it on the mental map. So far it is Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, Illinois and now Indiana. Long live Aunt Nicole!!!
Another year passes and people are still calling for Aunt Nicole! The call was so quick it took a minute to register who they were asking for because of all the new people I have met over the years and the distractions of work. It has been four years since the first mention of Aunt Nicole! Don’t they know she is long gone?
Sometimes, I think back on this time with Aunt Nicole. She was, at times, a welcome respite from the mundane and entertainment in times of crisis. It has been a year since the very last text or phone call and I have not received a morsel of news from this family. Not a snippet from a long lost uncle. Not a crumb from a favorite niece. Not a whisper from the stupid kids. All the people that once seemed to care have vanished. Just like her.
Is it weird to miss such an intrusion now that it seems to be gone? I mean, once something has become habit either good or bad, it can be missed, right? Now that I am out of the military, I do not get frequent calls on my phone and I miss it sometimes. I miss the importance of it all. I will keep this number as long as I have the need for a phone. Not because this may be the only lifeline Aunt Nicole’s family has to her but to affirm the fact that this truly is a dead end to those that call and they need to look elsewhere. If it were me, I would want them to keep looking … I need them to keep looking.
Ginger Roberts is a former UH-60 tactical transport helicopter mechanic/combat camera documentation production specialist who lives with her misanthropic dog in Texas. As a soon to be graduate of Sam Houston State University with a B.A. in English, she is consumed with stories that exist beyond the battlefield. She plans to continue her education with an M.A. in English, much to the chagrin of her professors.