I push the buttons down on all four doors of Dad’s Honda. It’s warm. Too warm to lock myself in the car, but this time he will not leave. We’ll be safe here in these sixty seconds. In these flash burn seconds. I don’t care if he forgets to pick us up, if he punched holes in the walls, beat my brother with a belt, or even the way he held Mom’s throat. But then, I am seven. The anger hasn’t materialized yet. When I sit up on my knees to close the sunroof, the velour seat detonates blue filaments into sunlight, and I snort-laugh trying to catch one, or two, or twenty, but who can tell if I’m successful because anything tiny is hard to see, worse to capture. But I go after small. I handle caterpillars—their legs and prolegs sticking to my knuckle hair—and ferry them away from traffic. When I can’t save them, it feels like an unknown man is walking behind me again, wanting me to take his hand.
I’m strapped in the front seat. My brother’s in the way back of the Jeep with Transformers and Han Solo and Boba Fett fighting their Sisyphean war. We have stopped at the pharmacy where Dad’s friend works. We spend gobs of his allotted hours here. I know how it feels to race down aisles, reach my hand out, let the cardstock brush against my fingertips. I know the shop casts green when the lights are shut off, what candy I can pocket without getting caught. I know they’re behind the counter talking, their hands wild—adult male movements that might as well be wolf kind. I mimic them, watching myself howl in the side mirror, knowing I am powerless.
I’m in the baby’s room. Dad is passed out on the couch. My brother is snoring on the top bunk in the guestroom. I miss Mom and my bed and the halo of stuffed animals I surround myself with. Weekends and road trips three hours south of home can make a young girl feel cornered, a growing urge to pop the tops off a pack of highlighters and draw something awful, distorted, and murderous on the white walls belonging to your future sister, not because she will exist—because you will love her so much it splotches your face—but because you already realize you won’t know her as well as you wish. They have already made her crib. Shades of cream. Bunnies on the mobile dance in the air-conditioning. The motion-activated nightlight they’ve already installed flickers and I plop to the floor to color my fingernails orange and blue and pink.
Now I’m in the way back of the Jeep and my brother’s up front, in charge of music, talking to Dad about The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin. I put my headphones in. I love Ann Wilson’s wail. It’s goddess power radiating from way down. The girls are safe in car seats. I unfold a picture of a boy whose initials I’ve carved just above my ankle bone. Razors lift right out of Daisy disposables with a nail file, but now I must make sure my socks and shoes are high enough so Mom won’t see. The cabin we visit belongs to my sisters’ family. On the porch in the hours before anyone wakes, I watch the fog burn off the valley, spend hours perfecting my walking stick, listen for bears, but when I try to hold my sisters, they wiggle away, off to burn marshmallows in the fire or climb Dad’s back and sing.
I pin a Maxfield Parrish print on my side of the room, followed by pen and ink drawings made by friends, dead roses from some boy, song lyrics from cassette cases, a string of white lights to make this corner more mine, but no matter how hard I shrink into the thirty-nine by eighty-inch space, it will never be comfortable, it will never be me. Anxiety holds me under the hypnotic twinkling, suitemates coming and going at all hours, laughing and drinking and not even trying to quiet their proclamations about my lameness. I wonder about the limp in my head, how long it’s been visible. I live for Camels, those moments when I scrounge enough change for falafel, and my oversized Army jacket. I live for letters written in crayon.
Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She thinks she’s crazy lucky to work as Fiction Editor over at Little Fiction | Big Truths. Her work has been selected as Longform.org’s Fiction Pick of the Week, nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award, Best of the Net, and The Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in Re:AL, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Minnesota Review, Literary Orphans, and Little Patuxent Review, among others.