Canned Air, Hannah Montana, and the Purpose of Life

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Here’s a blog entry about this story.

I wrote this around 2011. You don’t need to be a Hannah Montana fan to follow the story, but it helps 🙂


“So what’s the purpose of your life, Daryl?” were the first words Starbourne heard that morning as the radio crackled to life.

“Purpose?” the DJ answered. “My purpose is to get up at four in the morning and tell fart jokes to the twelve people that listen to this show. Then I go home and search the internet for more fart jokes because I’m too lazy to think of my own.”

Starbourne chuckled at the mere mention of farts, and as though on cue, felt a rumbling in his stomach.

“You found a funny one you told me about–”

“That wasn’t a joke but more of a concept. Apparently unicorns fart rainbows. I don’t know how to turn that into a joke. If I did maybe I wouldn’t be working on morning radio.”

As the rumbling traveled downward and released, Starbourne pulled the blanket over his head to get the most concentrated smell. He suddenly asked himself the same question, what is the purpose of my life? Am I going to be on the radio like DJ Daryl when I grow up, trying to invent jokes about how life has already defeated me?

Mom’s familiar knock echoed through the door. “Starbourne! Wakey Wakey!” The doorknob rattled.

“Don’t come in!” Starbourne shouted back. He took another deep sniff. “I’m doing stuff you don’t wanna know about.”


“Hey Mom, did you know unicorns fart rainbows?”

“Everyone knows that, Son. You gonna get up for school?”

Groan. Fuck the fourth grade.

Starbourne dragged himself out of bed and pulled on his school clothes. The radio banter droned on, but now they were talking about boring politics.

Then he perked up. Oh yeah. Today’s Friday. Tomorrow’s the birthday party. Hannah Montana.

He smiled. But that didn’t answer this sudden question… what is the purpose? Why am I here? What am I doing? Why do I suddenly care so much? Why does it matter what I’m gonna do when I’m old and boring?

The vision returned. Jumping happily through trees, caring of nothing, then suddenly turning to stare down the business end of a shotgun. The boom. The pain exploding across his face, then the blackness and confusion…

That was awesome.

He felt the piece of buckshot still lodged in his cheek. If he pushed on it just right he could get a nice shot of pain in the morning, but today he was already awake, so he just massaged it like his own built-in worry stone.

He wandered into the hall and onward to the kitchen and the Lucky Charms… with extra marshmallows.

“Hey Mom,” he said as he sat down at the counter.

“Mornin’ Starry,” she replied.

“Hey Mom, can I get a ride to Cameron’s birthday party tomorrow? It starts at like noon.”

“What?” she said as she slid the milk across the table and Starbourne poured his cereal. “Your grandfather’s funeral is tomorrow. Did you totally forget about that?”

Oh yeah. Grandpa’s dead now. He froze. That sudden twist of reality. He’d never see the old guy ever again. Starbourne paused a long moment as he briefly fought with the milk cap. He’d never been to a funeral before, but it sounded boring. “Yeah, but this party is gonna be really sweet. Cake and a clown or some shit and door prizes and a pinata–or something we can hit with baseball bats. I’m not sure. I just know it’s gonna be sweet.”

“It’s your grandfather’s funeral, Honey.” She turned back to absently loading the dishwasher.

“Well you can go to the funeral and take notes for me, okay? I want to go to the party. Come on, all you have to do is drop me off… but Mom, you’re gonna want to stay at this party.”

“Why’s that?”

Starbourne waited a few dramatic seconds. “They got a Hannah Montana heavy-metal cover band.”

She froze, just as he knew she would, holding a grease-encrusted plate inches above the dishwasher rack. “That does sound pretty awesome.”

“It’s a high-school band so they’ve gotta be good.”

“Um… okay… I’m not sure about your logic there. So do they just do Hannah Montana or is Miley–”

“Oh, they do her entire catalog, Mom. All the hits.”

“Hmmm…” she paused a long moment, then shook her head and put the plate into its spot in the rack. “No. No. That would be seriously messed up. We’ve gotta go to your grandpa’s funeral. We would be so awful if we didn’t go. We can catch up with this cover band the next time they play.”

Starbourne took a bite of cereal and replied, “Duly noted but denied. I want to go to the party.”

Mom’s hands paused on the counter and her head slowly descended to rest between them. She groaned. “Oh, come on! Other moms get to tell their kids what to do.”

“If other moms were jumping off bridges would you do that too?”

“Hmm… I guess it’s not too late, and you’re still small enough. I could always buy a dog kennel.” She paused. Her eyes lingered suspiciously on the cupboard under the sink. “That would be a little weird at a funeral though I guess, to show up carrying my son in a cage.”

“So can I get a ride?”

“No. You’re going to the funeral.”

Starbourne’s eyes went wide. “What? Seriously? Is this Nazi Germany?”

“Come on,” she said. “Please, will you just come to the damn funeral? Us adults think these kinds of things are important.”

“Oh my God it’s like fucking Auschwitz in here!”

Mom dragged her head off the counter. “Aaaah! I’m not Hitler!” She sighed and shook her head. “Don’t you remember Grandpa, Starbourne? Don’t you remember when he lied about your age so you could go skydiving?” She grinned and chuckled. “You pissed all over yourself on the way down.”

Starbourne glared at his mom as he chewed an over-sized bite of cereal.

“You remember when he took you hunting and shot you in the face, straight-up Dick Cheney style?” she said with a creepy grin. “That old man scared the shit out of me that day. Kind of had to re-evaluate my safety procedures with you and him on that day, didn’t I?”

“I was so pissed at him! Remember I wanted him to get the chair?” He laughed. “Now everyone calls me Ass Face.”

“You’re the only one who calls yourself that, Dear.”

“Well, it’s kinda funny.”

“You don’t need to tell people about it.”

“They cut skin off my butt and glued it to my face. How do you expect me to keep that to myself?”

“At least you don’t look like you got shot in the face.” She grinned. “Come on. Do something nice for the adults and go to the old man’s funeral.”

“No,” Starbourne replied. He pointed at the tiny lump just below his right eye. “If I ever want to remember grandpa I’ll poke the buckshot in my face. But you can go. I’ll get a ride to the party from someone else.”

Mom groaned. “Lord, Starry, why won’t you just–dammit. I’m gonna force you to go. I swear to God I’m gonna do it. I’ll dress you up in a little suit and drag you along with me.”

“I’ll throw a tantrum,” he replied.

“Oh my God, grow up!”

“Hey Mom,” Starbourne said. “You seem stressed.”

She pointed. “Don’t! You know I promised I wouldn’t do that before work.”

“You should take a hit, Mom.”

“Dammit,” she replied. “Don’t pressure me to do shit you know I shouldn’t do. That’s one of the seven things I hate about you.”

“Quick. Take a hit and think about how awesome it would be to see heavy metal Hannah Montana. You know you’re gonna do it as soon as I leave anyway.”

They stared at each other for a moment. “Quick, before Dad Number Two gets up.”

Her eyes went wide as she whispered, “Don’t you call him that to his face!”

“D-N-T!” Starbourne exclaimed. “Hurry, Mom. He’ll be up soon.” She grunted in defeat as she turned to the cabinet under the sink and sank to the floor. Dad Number Two was already getting up, the sounds echoing up the hallway, but Mom was already entranced by her secret little sin, and Starbourne wasn’t about to warn her.

Is she gonna be able to hide it from him? Let’s watch and find out.

From its hiding spot under the sink came the familiar can of computer duster spray. She slipped into the corner, her legs splayed across the kitchen floor. She stared a long moment at the can, a guilty grin creeping across her face. Finally she put her lips to the spout, pressed the nozzle and took a deep, dramatic breath. “Oooohhhh, yeah…” she said as her hand flopped to the floor. “Every time you’re near trouble disappears under the ground,” she mumbled.

“That’s right. Hannah Montana. You know you want to, Mom. You can come with me and eat cake and there’s a creek by their house where you can hide and suck on your air.”

She sighed. “That does sound nice. We’ll talk about it when my brain works better.” She closed her eyes as her head sank into the corner. “But I keep on coming back and I can’t jump the track and can’t let you go…”

“Hey Mom,” Starbourne asked. “What’s the purpose of my life?”

“I don’t know, Babe. When you figure it out let me know. Maybe you can help me with mine.”

“You don’t know your purpose?”

“Do I look like I know what I’m doing?” she said.

The bedroom door opened and Starbourne leaned to the side to peek. Dad Number Two wandered into the hall with a swagger.

“D-N-T!” Starbourne shouted as he rounded the corner into the kitchen.

Mom scrambled to stuff the can of air behind her.

“You’re gonna have to explain what that stands for sometime.”

Mom shot Starboarne a quick middle-finger as Dad-2 had his back turned.

“Donut Tuberculosis,” Starboarne replied.

“What does that mean?”

“You get tuberculosis from eating donuts.”

“Are you thinking of diabetes?”

“Yeah! That’s the one!” Starbourne replied.

Dad-2 finally turned to Mom. “What are you doing down there?”

“Just chillin’,” she replied. “Chillin’ like a villian.”

He stared a long moment.

“It’s not so perfect everyday,” she sang. “I don’t have to try ’cause it all falls into place.”

“We gotta get you to stop listening to Miley Cyrus.”

“No!” Starbourne shouted.

“Yeah, we’re not gonna be doing that.” Mom’s head bobbed and her eyes met Starbourne’s and told him, in her usual silent tone, that she needed a distraction.

“Hey Pops!” Starbourne shouted. “What’s the purpose of my life?”

He’d no-doubt have a snappy answer so Starbourne dropped his spoon and brought his face to the bowl to slurp Lucky Charms from the milk, one after another.

Dad-2 turned away from Starbourne’s mom and replied, “Pirate captain. Why do you ask?”

Starbourne watched from the corner of his eye as Mom slipped the can from behind her and back into its spot under the sink. He perked up and thought for a second. Pirate captain. Hadn’t thought of that one. “Hmm…”

“You’d get shot,” Mom added as she climbed to her feet. “Again.”

“That’s a good point,” Starbourne replied. “It kinda sucks getting shot. So what’s your purpose?”

“Beer, Call of Duty and curling. You going to school today?” DNT pulled a yogurt from the fridge and popped the top.

“Yeah,” Starbourne replied. “We’re learning about slavery. Yesterday there was a guy all in chains and they were whipping him.”

“Yeah, your mom does that to me when I can talk her into it.”

Starbourne stared.

“Do you have clothes for tomorrow?” asked Dad-2.

“I’m wearing Mom’s homemade Hannah Montana t-shirt. I’m supposed to wear it ironically… do you know how to wear something ironically? Does that mean, like, sideways or inside-out?”

“To a funeral?”

“Not you too!”

“He wants to go to a birthday party instead.”

“Oh my God! Show a little respect.” Dad-2 tipped the yogurt back and slurped, a glob rolling down his cheek to splash on the floor.

“Respect, respect,” Starbourne repeated. “That’s all I’ve been hearing about–respect for the dead respect for my teachers and don’t talk that way because that’s not respectable’ and blah blah blibbidy blah blah and whenever I hear about respect it’s always someone who just wants me to do something.”

DNT licked yogurt from his chin. “He’s definitely your son,” he said, grinning at Mom.

Starbourne stared at his mother, in that silent challenge, knowing she was debating between using her usual guilt-trip or trying the old I’m-bigger-than-you routine that so many adults rely on. He silently dared her to try it.

“Yeah, you’re going to the funeral tomorrow.” She nodded decisively. “I’ll let you ride in the trunk though if you want.”

“Ain’t happenin'” Starbourne replied through a mouthful of sugary goodness. “Don’t you dare me to start a tantrum right here and now.”

“No, don’t do this. I’d be a horrible Mom if I didn’t make you go to this.”

“Tantrum time!” Starbourne shouted with a wild grin. He closed his eyes and focused on placing himself in the mind of a rabid, selfish child, which, as usual, wasn’t hard. He stuck out his tongue and shook his head. “Blaalalalalala!” His fists slammed down on the counter once, twice, and on the third pound, he opened his eyes just in time to see his fist collide with the edge of the bowl and watch his breakfast rise from the table, spinning, milk and Lucky Charms ejecting in every direction. The bowl bounced off his shoulder and spun toward the door, spraying the ceiling, carpet and far wall with sugar infused milk.

Starbourne froze as he retraced the path of destruction to the empty bowl sitting upside down by the front door. He looked back at Mom and Dad-2, who stared silently, all four of their eyebrows slowly rising. His finger went instinctively to the bit of buckshot in his cheek, but even rubbing that wouldn’t make him feel better. Usually adults are just being stupid when they get all mad, but this time, he could understand.

“You’d better be cleaning that up,” Mom said.

“School time!” Starbourne replied. He pushed back from the counter, a puddle of milk spilling from his arm. The barstool tipped and Starbourne’s arms flailed as he turned to see the floor rushing toward him. Somehow a moment later his right foot slipped in front of him and he hopped forward to finally gain his balance, the stool slamming to the floor.

“Really?” said Mom.

Starbourne slipped on his shoes as the parents simply watched with their standard judgmental and/or confused gaze.

“You’d better actually be going to class today,” said Dad-2.

“I am I am!,” Starbourne said as he threw open the door. “Peace out Mom and DNT!”




“Hey Starbourne, you wanna go build a city just to destroy it?” Dillon asked.

“Meh.” Starbourne shrugged as they walked down the crowded hall, dodging the older kids. “Didn’t we do that yesterday? I kinda told my parents I’d go to class today.”


“And I kinda want to go to class. Wasn’t that kinda interesting yesterday with the slavery. People were crazy back then and right here in America.”

Dillon shrugged. “Why do I care about what the Mafia was doing decades ago?”

“Was it the mafia who kept slaves? I thought it was normal people, like farmers.”

“No of course not,” Dillon replied. “The slave owners were the bad guys, remember? That’s why the police had to run the Underground Railroad, because criminals back then were so powerful they couldn’t just go and arrest them.”

“Is that who was running it?”

“Well yeah,” Dillon replied. “The police protect us from stuff like slavery. Who else would be running the Underground Railroad? That’s just common sense.”

“Ah…” Starbourne shrugged. “I didn’t realize that. I thought it was all just regular people and farmers. Maybe that’s why I should go to class. ”

“Come on,” Dillon replied. “Your parents don’t care if you don’t go. What do you have to lose?”

“They tell me I’ll be stupid when I grow up if I don’t. I think I’m gonna go today.”

“Fuck that.”

Starbourne sighed. “I guess that’s a good point.”




Starbourne shaped mud into a little cone where hundreds of alien citizens would dwell peacefully until their fateful day when they would be stomped to death by a giant Starbourne. “Hey Dillon,” he asked. “What’s the purpose of your life?”

“I dunno,” Dillon replied. “I think I want to be a soldier. Fight the English. I had this idea that we could fight this war so much better if we sent people over to England in secret. They could pretend to be friendly, but then they could blow up dams and power plants and drop grenades off bridges. They’d never see it coming. I don’t understand why we’re not doing that already.”

“Why would we want to do that to the British?”

“We’re at war with them.”

“We are?” Starbourne asked. There was still so much about the world he didn’t understand. How did Dillon get so smart?

“Well yeah. Don’t you remember the revolution from history class? They sent all those soldiers over here because they didn’t even want us to be a country. They murdered our people just because they don’t believe in America. We can’t let them get away with that.”

“I thought that was like, fifty years ago.”

“I don’t think so. As soon as the English get enough of an army, you know they’re going to try it again. There’s nothing to stop them unless we defend ourselves.”

“I don’t think they want to do that,” Starbourne replied.

“Of course they do. They obviously don’t feel bad about it. If they knew it was wrong to kill us to stop us from being our own country, then they wouldn’t be a country any more. What kind of a person follows a government that kills people for bad reasons? Only the British could be that awful.”

“I thought we were at war with Iraqnan–or wait, is that what it’s called?”

“Iraq and Iran,” Dillon Answered.

“We’re at war with two countries?”

“No, it’s the same country, just different names. Like England and Britain.”

“Oh.” Starbourne gazed at the city of mud they were building. A city built for the sole purpose of destroying. “How did you learn all this stuff?” Starbourne put his face down to the mud, imagining the little aliens going about their daily lives. Building buildings, going to school, playing in the mud pits that surrounded their city, maybe building little spaceships to fly to the dirt village or even the grass nation across the playground. Who are these people? Do they have little green antennas on their heads? How will they feel when we stomp their city to death?

“So I don’t want to be a soldier,” Starbourne said, his finger tracing the buckshot until he realized he was smearing mud on his face. “I don’t want to die and be all hot in the desert. So what do you think my purpose is?”

“I thought you were supposed to be an astronaut,” Dillon said.

“Why would I be an astronaut?”

“Isn’t that what your name means, like you were born to go to the stars?”

Starbourne laughed. “No of course not.”

“Where does your name come from then?”

“My mom’s favorite movie was The Bourne Identity and my dad’s was Star Wars.”

“Oh. I thought it had a meaning or something.”


They fell silent for a short moment, carving roads into the mud between their buildings until Dillon suddenly threw his head back and laughed. “You could become an inventionist!” Dillon said. “Oh my God that would be so lame and boring!”

“You mean an inventor?” asked Starbourne.

“No, an inventionist. He’s this guy who gets a family together to talk to one of them. We found him for my cousin and we all sat down and we talked to her and everybody cried and it was super lame and stupid.”

“For your cousin? You mean the cool one?”

“Yeah. She was doing drugs or something. She was doing this thing where she’d burn marijuana on a spoon and then shoot it up with a needle. ”

“That’s an invention?”

“Yeah,” Dillon replied. “That’s what we called it ’cause this guy just invented it a few months ago because nobody ever thought that you could solve big problems with just talking. I mean, you can’t stop people from doing bad things just by talking to them. That’s just silly.”

But Starbourne suddenly thought of all those times Mom had convinced him to do the right thing just by talking… or more specifically, guilt tripping.

“Did it work?”

“No,” Dillon replied. “They had to send her to some treatment place in California instead. She’s been there for like two months.”

“But she’s not shooting up booze anymore, right?” Starbourne asked. “Then didn’t it kinda work?”

“Well, yeah I guess. She agreed to go and everything.”

“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should do that.” Starbourne stared at the city they were building and suddenly the whole point seemed meaningless. Why stomp them out when they were such interesting little mud aliens? Maybe we could just talk to them instead. Maybe they would have interesting things to offer or new ways to look at things.

“It sounds boring and sappy and everyone was crying ’cause it was so lame.”

“Well you said it was just invented. Maybe I can make it fun. Hey, maybe we could have a great big invention for the British and talk them out of attacking us. We could ask them to stop hating us just because we’re our own country now and try to explain what life is like over here and try to get them to see why we like it so much. Nobody’s ever thought of doing stuff like that before have they?”

“Not that I’ve ever heard of,” Dillon replied.




The suit itched and the tie was too tight but Starbourne sighed and told himself he wouldn’t complain. This was important to Mom and once in a while he needed to not take advantage of her and the fact that she wasn’t like other moms. It was some kind of rule that everyone needs a funeral so everyone can follow the same pattern for grieving so that everyone’s emotions were orderly and predictable. Without rules we would all just float off into chaotic nothingness. Our ideas and feelings would become so chaotic and different that no one would be able to understand each other.

He massaged the buckshot against his cheekbone.

Perhaps it was the lack of rules in his life that was responsible for this sudden aching dilemma, this desire for some kind of purpose or long-term goal. If the old people and government people don’t force an order and a meaning on your life, you have no choice but to come up with your own.

When Mom sat down in the driver seat and started the car, Starbourne stared forward, determined not to reveal how much he knew today was going to suck.

“You’re gonna be cool today, right?” Mom asked. “I feel weird making you do this. I shouldn’t though. I’m the mom, you know. I should get what I want once in a while, even if you don’t like it. And you didn’t even bother going to class yesterday.”

“It’s okay,” Starbourne replied. “I want to go.”

“Really?” she asked as they pulled out of the driveway.

“No,” he said. “But I know everyone expects me to, like they’ll think I don’t care or something even though that’s not true.”

“So you’re gonna be cool? You’re not gonna get bored and go crazy to stir things up like you often do? Please don’t get me in trouble again.”

“Yeah,” he said. “What about you, Mom? Are you gonna be cool?”

“What do you mean?”

“You can be crazy sometimes too.”

“For those who don’t know me,” she sang, “I can get a bit crazy, have to get my way. I’m wired a different way–”

But Starbourne couldn’t handle more Hannah Montana quotes knowing he was missing the show, so he interrupted, “Don’t get caught huffing air in the bathroom, Mom!”

“Starbourne! What kind of person do you think I am? I didn’t even bring any today.”

“Really?” he asked.

She sighed. “Fine. I have one in the trunk.” She turned momentarily to point a finger before turning back to the road. “But I swear to God I’m not going to touch it until way later in the evening.”

“Okay,” Starbourne said. “I don’t know what the big deal is, why it’s gotta be this big secret.”

“Because it’s bad, it’s not something I should be doing.”

“Like how I shouldn’t be fucking swearing all the goddamn time?”

“No,” she replied. “This is actually bad. Swearing won’t collapse your lungs or shut down parts of your brain, no matter how many times you do it.”

“So why don’t people only write rules against things that are actually bad?”

They came to a slow stop at the intersection and she stared blankly forward.

Starbourne looked around but there were no other cars. He waited a short moment. “Mom?” he asked.

She was already mumbling, “Don’t let anyone tell you… there’s nothing wrong with just being yourself. That’s blah blah blah blah, so come on and raise your voice. Speak your mind and make some noise…” and she trailed off.


“Maybe you’re right.”

They sat for another long, silent moment.

“Fuck it,” she said, turning the wheel and pulling into the intersection. “Let’s go see some heavy metal Hannah Montana.”




As Mom slipped her duster spray back under the seat of the car, Starbourne had a sense that something was not right. He saw himself falling from the plane, strapped to the comically-positive instructor who somehow completely believed he was fourteen, grandpa watching from the door, wearing a massive grin, only to leap after him a few moments later. Starbourne’s massaged the buckshot in his cheek as he thought about the work grandpa had put in to finding a skydiving company with a low enough age limit, then the lies he told just to get Starbourne up to that age.

That day his grandfather had taught him that he could do anything and today Starbourne had missed his last opportunity to say goodbye.

The idea of heavy metal Hannah Montana had sounded so awesome, but somehow it hadn’t panned out and now all he could think about was grandpa and what everyone else would be thinking about him and his mother. It didn’t make sense.

As they pulled out of the driveway, Mom said, “I hate to say it, Starry, but that band sucked. Miley would be ashamed.”

Did they suck? Starbourne asked silently. Maybe that was why he hadn’t gotten so excited. Maybe that’s why mom had snuck down to the stream to inhale her air. Maybe that’s why he felt so guilty about grandpa right now.

Was the human mind really so liquid that such an important perception could be changed by whether or not some band played a good show? Would he not even care about his grandfather right now if they had rocked as hard as he’d hoped they would?

“What are we doing now?” Starbourne asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. What do you want to do?” he replied.

And they went silent for the first block of their drive.

“I don’t really want to go home right now,” she said.

“Yeah…” Starbourne paused. “Do you think they’re still at the cemetary?”

“No, I’m sure they’ve all gone home by now.” Another long pause. “Wanna go see him?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“That’s probably the least we could do.”

And they sat in silence.



“Why didn’t we go to the funeral?”

“Well, because I’m an awful person,” she replied. “I don’t know what excuse you’re gonna use.”

“You’re supposed to be the mom. This is just like that time you let me eat that adult brownie.”

“Hey! I told you exactly what that was.”

“I thought you meant it had a lot of sugar in it!”

“You remember you’re not supposed to talk about that, right?”




The stream gurgled in front of them as grandpa’s gravestone lay a few dozen paces behind their spot in the grass.

She mumbled softly, “We can let go. Don’t hold on to all of life’s hardest parts. When we think of stopping, let’s keep on rocking to the rhythm of our hearts.” She sighed. “Boy, do you ever wonder if what we’re doing is just totally ridiculous?” She turned the can of air in her hand.

“Are you still just playing, Mom?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Like you’re still just a kid inside, like you never grew up but when you got older things got way boring and you’re trying to find that same fun you had when you were a kid and that’s why you have that can of air, because you feel like a kid again?”

“I grew up too fast.”

“Why’d you do that?” Starbourne asked.

“I was a rule-follower,” she said. “I had this idea that if I was good, followed all the rules, and did what I was told, that the world would reward me when I became an adult. Then I got out of high-school and had the realization that it wasn’t true, that all those rules were meant for the rule-maker’s benefit. I spent the first eighteen years of my life following this pre-determined plan, only to find out it never had my best-interests at heart, and I’ve been lost ever since.”

“Okay. I’m not gonna do that. I’m not a rule-follower.”

“No, you certainly are not.” She dropped the can in her lap and looked at him. “That’s one of the seven things I love about you.”

“So why do I feel like I’m lost and growing up too fast?”

“I don’t know, maybe you’ve gone too far in the opposite direction.”

“I want to have a purpose–”

She smiled. “You’re still on that kick?”

“You told me that you still don’t know your purpose, and I don’t want to be like that. I want to do something that really does something good or something that people will remember. I’ve been thinking about this, like… since yesterday… and I don’t know why.”

“We all want to believe in something bigger than just us…” She smiled, gazing toward the stream and the graves on the other side. “I may seem like the same old depressed mom you’ve always known, but you have no idea how happy that makes me to hear you say that.”

“Really? Why?”

“I’ve been terrified ever since you were born that I was making a grave mistake by letting you choose things for yourself, for not punishing you when you skip school or swear or demand that we ditch your grandfather’s funeral.”

“What are you scared of?”

“I’m scared that you’ll turn out to be a criminal or something–” She ran her hands across the grass. “But deep down inside I know that could never happen. I know you’ll turn out fine as long as I stick by you… but what’s really terrified me all these years is that you’ll be taken away from me because… because… I don’t know. But that’s why I never want you to talk about my parenting style or the things I do.”

“I didn’t know. Do you get scared every time I skip class?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “A bit… but I’m just a terrified person, at least when it comes to rules. I’m terrified the police will come for me because I’m wearing the wrong color shoes or for some other law I’ve never heard of. I’m just paranoid. It’s not your fault. This world drives me nuts, Starbourne. Did you know that about me? I hate this society, and I’m trying to help you escape from it.” She lifted the can to her lips, paused, then took a long, deep huff.

Starbourne watched as the can slid from her fingers to land in her lap and she slowly fell backward to lie in the grass. For some reason, for the first time, it didn’t seem funny.

And she continued, “It’s all the bullshit about, parking is for customers only and no eating on the bus–”

Mom always seemed to give him a minute of nonsense immediately after a hit.

“Dogs must be on leash and no drinking until you’re twenty-one, keep your tabs up-to-date, no pedestrians in the drive-thru, oh no, that’s not appropriate for the office and no swearing in company e-mails or in school, or on TV or anywhere people might want to express their feelings, and no jeans in the gym, always spray down the equipment and be sure to zero the scale after use.”

“How come you never take me to this gym you speak of?” Starbourne asked.

“They don’t allow kids.”

Her head bobbed side-to-side against the grass as she mumbled. “Mention fast-twitch muscle fibers and you’re automatically a racist. Blah blah blah. You must do this, you can’t do that. Oh, there will be consequences. Shoplifters will be prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law, don’t you know? Better not mention any real-world artists or you’ll get your ass sued. Mind your manners because we’re watching you.” She finally drifted into silence.

“Mom,” Starbourne said. “Are you okay?”


“What’s wrong?”

“I’m slowly killing my brain.” They fell silent for a long moment as she turned the can in her hands. “And you’re the only one who knows.” She took a deep breath. “Why does killing myself feel so goddamn good?”

He watched the can turn and the phrase roll by, visible for only a moment between her fingers, Contents harmful or fatal if ingested or inhaled.

Why didn’t they use words everyone could understand?

But Mom had explained it before. It meant she could die from breathing it. Just like you could die from driving a car, the way grandpa did.

Except you can’t get away from cars. Those are required by law or something.

“My lungs hurt all the time but I just don’t care.”

Starbourne stared quietly at his mother, wanting to ask why she didn’t just quit, but she had probably already thought of that.

“You know something stupid about me?” she asked. “I can’t cross my legs in public. You know that? Ever noticed that about me?”

That was random… though random was normal at this point. Starbourne shook his head.

“The Arabs have this thing about crossing your legs,” she continued, “and if you have your legs crossed and your shoe happens to be pointing at someone, then it’s some great insult or something. Nobody cares in this country. Nobody pays attention and they don’t recognize that when they sit they’re doing this thing that’s so horrible and offensive in another part of the world, and it doesn’t mean anything to us, but every time I want to cross my legs I get this terror that the guy next to me is gonna be all insulted and hurt and think I’m a horrible person, but he’s not gonna say anything because he’s polite. I just have this constant fear that I’m gonna insult someone with something. I only found out about this whole foot thing a few years ago. What other insulting things might I be doing that I don’t even know about? It drives me mad sometimes. Am I wearing the wrong color shoes? If my hair points the wrong way, will it anger someone’s God? What if it truly is horrible and evil to mix wool and linen like the bible says?” She looked down at her shirt and pants. “I don’t even know what my clothes are made of. Is that a horrible crime?”

“Why do you care so much?” Starbourne asked. “People get over stuff.”

“That’s why I love how you never take anything too seriously. I love it even though it scares me at the same time. That’s why I had to take you to the party instead of the funeral, because you only get one youth, and I spent mine trying to do everything perfect, to follow the rules, believing someone somewhere would reward me for being a good little girl, but then when I grew up and had to hear all these people who were happier, more successful and in better shape than myself talk about how they’d skip school and get drunk and stoned when they were twelve, it felt like society had betrayed me.”

Mom always had something deep or insane to say when she was breathing from the can.

As she rambled, Starbourne’s mind drifted toward Dillon’s cousin and whatever horrible thing she was doing to herself and her kid and how her family had invented the idea of just sitting around and talking to her about it instead of calling the police and letting their anger confuse everything. Technically, it had worked. Wouldn’t that be cheaper and easier if we talked instead of punished?

“I don’t want you to turn out like me.”

“What–Why?” Starbourne asked. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Well, I don’t fit the stereotype of a drug addict or nut-job. Nobody thinks much about us… the ones who go to the gym and hold down a good job but underneath are totally bat-shit crazy. Even if you’re the perfect little obedient angel, it doesn’t increase the chance of you curing cancer when you get older so I say take your chance to enjoy your youth… so long as you don’t wind up doing something stupid.”

“Okay…” Starbourne replied. But the problem was, how do you go about making sure you enjoy something? Somehow he knew it couldn’t be as simple as chasing pleasures. That’s what kids with rules do. They’re not allowed to have fun, so it’s all they can think of. But Starbourne needed more.

So maybe it was time to change his strategy of pleasure seeking, and try something bigger, something that would affect the lives of others, something more meaningful than building mud cities or watching crappy cover bands.

“So this guy that Dillon’s family knows invented this thing–it’s got a stupid name, he just called it an invention, but it’s where you can just talk to people when they do bad stuff. There’s ways you can just talk to people when they do stupid things, and explain it to them in ways they can understand.”

“That sounds like a conversation to me.”

“Well they made a special thing out of it and did it for Dillon’s cousin to get her to stop snorting vodka.”

“That sounds like an intervention to me,” Mom said, her voice trailing off.

“You’ve heard of it?”

“Oh, yeah,” she replied. “Your buddy didn’t invent the idea.”

“Nobody ever told me you can get people to stop doing really bad things just by talking to them. Why’ve I never heard of this?”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s not satisfying to think of a bad person getting a conversation and making a change. It’s a lot more fun knowing they got their ass beat and thrown in jail. Because Starry… we’re all just animals pretending to be civilized. We lie to ourselves, just like when adults claim they’re smarter than kids.”

“So what if you made the invention fun?”

“A fun intervention? Maybe that’s a good idea. Instead of all the crying and threats… People do make careers running interventions…” she laughed, but it was a strange, forced laugh. “That would be fitting, I suppose.”

“How would I do that? I told my teachers I was gonna be a fireman.”

“They probably won’t hold you to that.”

“They never even told me this was something I could do. So where do I start?”

She sighed and paused. “I don’t know, maybe there’s someone close to you quietly crying out for help.” She put the can to her lips, pressed and huffed. She moaned softly and they both fell silent as she let herself go limp to lay back in the grass.

Was Mom the whole reason he’d been thinking about this?

“Hey Mom?”

“Yeah, Starry?”

“Could you go to jail for breathing that air?”

“Naw,” she answered. “Oddly enough, this isn’t illegal. Eating on the bus is illegal, but this is not.”

“So why don’t you tell anyone about it?”

“It’s complicated.”

“And you could actually die from it?”

She took a long, deep breath. “Yeah,” she said, her voice cracking. “Yeah, I could.”

Multiple futures spread out before Starbourne. One way or the other, he would grow up to be okay. He already knew the secrets… or he was getting them figured out anyway.

What if the rulers and their laws really didn’t have a clue… what if the British were not evil? What if they were just people like us, trying to live their lives? What if it was all a lie that they were bent on destroying our society? What if the rules saying we had to hate the British in order to be patriotic were as stupid as the ones saying you can’t chew gum in class?

He looked up at his mom, this bigger, older, wiser, more powerful and confident person, but all he saw was a lost soul, someone making grave mistakes and in need of guidance, and he knew that all he needed to do was reach out.

So he grabbed the can from her lap and with only a moment’s pause, threw it into the stream.

“What!” she shouted. “You little shit! What the fuck did you do that for?” The can stuck against a rock for a moment and she jerked upward, reaching out a hand as though she could stretch all the way to the stream to grab it. She began to rise awkwardly, but the can shook free and continued into the culvert under the road. She flopped back down and rolled to her side, her head hitting the grass with a light thud. “What the fuck, Starry? I don’t throw away things that you love.”

“Well didn’t you tell me it could kill you? So you kinda are.”

“What did you just say?”

Starbourne went silent. Was she mad?

“Am I really, really high or was that a really good comeback on your part?” She breathed a deep, careful breath, as though her lungs would crack if she did it wrong. “So what does this mean, you’re saying I need to quit these permanently?”

“Yeah,” Starbourne said. “I guess you need to.”


Because you might die, seemed too obvious. “Because I’m your son and I said so,” he said instead.

“Hmmm…” She rolled toward him. “Do you know what time it is?”


“It’s Lick Monster time!”

“Oh fuck, Mom,” he said with a sigh. She was using his own distraction tactics against him.

She grabbed the back of his head and a moment later her tongue was running up his cheek as he clenched and closed his eyes. She licked his forehead and down to the tip of his nose, across his closed eyelids and back to his cheek. “La, la la la la!” she sang before finally burying her tongue deep in his ear.

“God I hope nobody is looking right now,” he said, but this time, unlike every other time, he just sat there and let her be weird.

She finally released, the side of his face now sufficiently slobbered. She slapped the ground and then her hands, shouting “Boom! Clap!”

He sighed and tried to rub some of the slobber off his cheek.

Mom pulled a tuft of grass and let it fall through her hand. She put an arm around him and Starbourne took the opportunity to rub his cheek and ear against her shirt for a few moments, then rested his head on her shoulder.

She took a deep breath. “Now I guess I feel like I should have spent more time with your grandfather the last couple years.” She tossed the remainder of her grass to the ground. “Since we ditched out on his funeral, maybe we should do something else to remember him?”

“Yeah!” Starbourne said. “He always said he wanted to go to Wal-Mart on a Sunday right after church and slip condoms and hemorrhoid cream into people’s baskets.”

“Meh,” she replied.

“He also always wanted to fill up a shopping cart with kidnapping supplies and leave it in the aisle.”


“We could go bungee jumping.”

“Oh shit.” She took a deep sigh. “I guess that means I would have to do that kind of insane stuff with you now, huh? Can you pass for fourteen again?”

“You know I can!”

She paused, tapping her knee. “Okay, I’ll Google it when we get home.”


“You wanna go get some bacon sandwiches?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Okay, lets go.”

But they just sat there. Starbourne touched his buckshot.

“I need to stop at Radio Shack on the way.”

“No!” Starbourne shouted, pulling away to look at her. “No, please Mom, don’t.”

“Come on,” she said, rolling to her side, then slowly to her feet. “You didn’t think it would be that easy did you?”

He stared up at her as she held out a hand.

“We’ll get through this, Starry. It’s just gonna take a little more work, okay? I promise we’ll make it happen somehow.”

“Okay,” he said, taking her hand and letting her pull him rapidly to his feet. He would need to really think about things to say. A good interinteliventist (or whatever they’re called) has to know how to talk if he doesn’t want to use punishments. “You know I’m gonna nag you about this, right?” he said.

She nodded and put a hand on his shoulder. “You know what’s the seventh thing I hate about you?”

“Yeah, I know, Mom. You too.”

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