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Authors: Tawni O'Dell

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BOOK: Back Roads
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The collar had belonged to the kitten Dad got her for her tenth birthday. It only survived for two months before we found it shot in the woods.

I remembered Mom taking the death harder than anyone. She burst into tears when she saw what was left of the blood-matted fluffy white carcass Misty had dragged back to the yard by its tail.

She folded Misty into her arms and held her while Misty stood stiffly and stared at the body with her eyes a glazed brown like a medicine bottle. Then she knelt down and slowly unbuckled the collar and fastened it around her wrist while Mom’s hands still clutched her shoulders. Later Mom said she had been in shock.

“Did you get my egg roll?” Misty called out, rubbing her thin bare arms at her sides and her stockinged feet against each other.

I threw the bag. Elvis stopped in his tracks on his way to meet me and watched its flight. It fell on the frozen mud next to the steps and he bounded over to sniff it.

Misty glanced at me, unsmiling, before she walked down to get it. I couldn’t tell if she was pissed or hurt or couldn’t care less. Her mask of freckles gave her the appearance of being more persecuted than she really was.

I started across the yard and paused at the patch of cement with a sawed-off piece of pipe sticking from it where Dad’s satellite dish used to be. I tapped at it with the toe of my boot and reminded myself I needed to get rid of the rest of the pipe before someone got hurt on it. The dish had gone the way of the dogs, leaving us with only four channels. Jody lost Disney. Misty lost Nickelodeon. Amber lost MTV and Fox. At the time they had all been too depressed about Mom and Dad to care, but now they weren’t and I had to hear about it every day.

I went inside and wiped my boots on the mat by the door, but I didn’t take them off the way I used to have to.

“Did you get my fortune cookie and umbrella?” Jody asked from the living room.

On my way through, I told her Misty had the bag. I tossed the stuffed dinosaur over the back of the couch, and Jody’s head popped up from the cushions.

“Sparkle Three-Horn,” she cried. “I lost him.”

“I know. I found him.”


“My truck.”

The head disappeared and the couch said, “Thanks.”

I walked into the kitchen and found the Thursday pot of boiling water on the stove and five hot dogs laid out on a paper plate ready for nuking in the microwave. I opened a cupboard and grabbed a bag of pretzels. Misty came in after me, eating her egg roll.

I hadn’t noticed from a distance that she was wearing some of Amber’s purple eyeshadow again. Mom wouldn’t have approved of her wearing makeup already, but I had surrendered control of everything female to Amber the day Misty came to me the year before and told me she was pretty sure she had started her period.

I looked at the hot dogs again and did the math: one for Jody, one for Misty, three for me.

“Isn’t Amber eating?”

“She’s got a date.”


Misty tore open the Kraft box, pulled out the cheese packet, and dumped the macaroni in the pan. The water foamed up, and she adjusted the heat.

“She said you’d be mad. But I can watch Jody. I’m old enough.”

“That’s not the point.”

“I know. Amber said the main reason you’d want her to stay
home is because you want to ruin her fun. Not because of the baby-sitting.”

I threw the bag on the counter, and pretzels spilled onto the floor. Elvis lunged for them as I stormed out. Misty pushed one aside with a blue-polished big toe and kept stirring the pot.

I pounded on Amber’s door so hard her Indian dream catcher fell off the wall. She was holding it in her hand when she opened the door. She had on a red lace bra and hiphugger jeans, and her pinched expression of annoyance changed into a satisfied smile when she saw me looking at her.

“You’re supposed to watch the kids tonight,” I yelled at her over the music blaring from her radio.

She turned her back on me and walked with exaggerated hip thrusts over to her dresser, the top of her hummingbird tattoo peeking at me over the waistband of her jeans. He seemed to be waving a green wing at me.

She grabbed a brush and bent over.

“Misty’s twelve. She can baby-sit a six-year-old,” she said upside down from behind a curtain of reddish-blond hair.

“They shouldn’t be alone in the house late at night,” I said.

“What is your problem? Why is it okay to leave them alone during the day and not at night? I swear you’re afraid of the dark.”

She finished and stood up, tossing her hair behind her with her throat arched and exposed, a female gesture that always cut right through me.

I stood at the doorway not wanting to go in. Every inch of wall space and ceiling was covered with tie-dyed scarves and pieces of sheets done mostly in purples and blues. Her only window was hung with strings of midnight-blue star-shaped beads. The shelves behind her bed were packed with psychedelic-colored candles, most of them lit. The combination of the colors and the dim lighting gave the place a half-digested feel.

I walked through it quickly and arrived at her stereo sitting
on a cinder-block shelf next to a stack of
magazines worth at least two hundred pounds of dog food.

I turned off the radio.

She threw her brush back onto her dresser in protest where it clattered against all her makeup and hair stuff.

“What is your problem?”

“I can’t hear.”

“No, I mean what is your problem?” she said again, rolling her empty blue eyes at me. “Did Betty Wetty tell her Harley Warley he needs to have more wee-spect for himself? Did she tell him he needs to get more wee-spect from his girls?”

She made a kissy face. I didn’t say anything.

“I don’t need to stay home tonight,” she added, and pulled a tiny, striped sweater out of her drawer that looked like something a schnauzer might get for Christmas. Amazingly, she squeezed her head into it and the fabric expanded, first taking on the shape of her face, then the shape of her breasts.

She caught me staring at her again and smiled triumphantly. “Admit it,” she said. “You just hate the idea that I have a life and you don’t.”

“Define life,” I said.

The smile flickered and went out. She retrieved her brush and gave her head a few vicious strokes, then started lightly slapping it against the palm of her hand the way Dad used to do with Mom’s wooden cooking spoon before he took off after one of us.

“You know what your problem is? You’re pissed off because you have to work. Well, you’d have to work anyway. It’s not like you’d be going to college or hanging out with friends or doing anything meaningful. You don’t even watch TV.”

I laughed even though I wasn’t feeling the least bit humorous. “Meaningful?” I repeated. “Like fucking guys in the back of pickup trucks?”

The brush flew out of her hand and hit me in the arm.

“You’d give anything to fuck someone,” she hissed at me.

I wanted to pick up the brush and beat Amber senseless with it. I wanted to put big red welts on her pretty face and make blood gush from her ears. Not because I hated her. Not because she deserved it. Not because I wanted to make her fear me. Simply because it would feel good.

This must have been the same way Dad used to feel before he belted me, and I took some comfort in realizing the desire to hurt someone was nothing personal. The difference between Dad and me was that he always went ahead and hit one of us, and he was a much happier person.

I knew it never occurred to Amber that I might hurt her. She believed violence was an act of strength, and she thought I was weak. Otherwise, she would have never risked pushing me like she did. She hated getting hit.

I picked up her brush and gave it back to her. For a moment we both held onto it, and I felt it tremble.

She went back to preparing for her date. I went to get ready for work.

Amber had the best room in the house: mine. She used to have to share with Misty until Jody came along, then she got my room and I got kicked into the basement. I didn’t want to go, and I never bothered to try and make the place homey. A twin bed with a naked lightbulb hanging over it, a chest of drawers, a stereo, a coat of leftover green bathroom paint on one of the cement walls, a square of purple shag carpet, and a couple of mousetraps were the only signs of life down here.

Most nights I lay on my back and imagined what it would feel like if the lightbulb crashed down on my forehead and a needle of glass pierced my eyeball or got in my mouth and I swallowed it.

Skip used to say if someone got a glass sliver under his skin and didn’t take it out right away, it would get into his bloodstream and travel to his heart and kill him. We tried killing
Donny that way once—there was a ton of broken glass around the old mining office—but Donny wouldn’t let us stick the glass in him, not even for a Tastykake Jelly Krimpet.

If the bulb ever did break and a sliver did kill me, I’d want to be buried with the white glass shards all over my face. People would think they were white rose petals unless they got up close.

I pulled the string and the light came on after a couple sputters. In a day or two, I was going to pull the string and the bulb was going to die with a hollow pop, and I didn’t know where Mom kept the new ones. When she went off to prison she took all sorts of secret domestic knowledge with her: what drawer the envelopes were in; how to make Jell-O jigglers; which bubble bath brand made the longest-lasting bubbles; who was allergic to what, and who was afraid of what.

The closest I ever came to asking her for help was the time I needed the cupcake pan to make cupcakes for Jody’s school birthday party. It had already been a year and a half since Mom’s sentencing, and I hadn’t heard anything from her outside of secondhand messages through the girls. Not a single phone call, card, or letter. Not a single attempt to mastermind a jailbreak or mount an appeal or tell her story to Oprah. Of course she hadn’t heard anything from me either.

I knew it was stupid for both of us to be sitting around blaming each other for abandoning each other and trying to figure out who did it first. It wasn’t any different from asking, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” knowing full well it didn’t matter because God had to come before either one of them.

But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t see any reason to keep up a relationship with her. She wasn’t ever getting out. She was done being our mother. I understood that completely from the moment I saw her take a seat in the back of the sheriff’s car with a serene slumped relief like she was going
off to bed after a particularly long hard day. The part I still didn’t get was why.

It turned out Misty knew where the cupcake pan was and spared me from making the phone call to Mom. Misty used to bake blueberry muffins in it for Dad all the time. Mom wouldn’t do it for him because she knew he was going to smother them in butter, and she worried about his cholesterol level. She told me once she envied women who lived back in the good old days who only had to worry about Indians and mountain lions killing their husbands. Something about those things being beyond a wife’s control.

I changed into the black pants and blue polo shirt I had to wear at Shop Rite, put my dad’s coat back on, yanked off the light, and started bounding up the stairs two at a time. Then I turned around and went back for Skip’s letter and stuffed it in my pocket.

Misty was already eating. Jody had a full plate, but she was busy writing in her red notebook covered with stickers. About twenty dinosaurs were lined up on her side of the table. Sparkle Three-Horn sat in a place of honor in the very middle with the fortune cookie. Elvis whined and scratched from outside the back door.

I reached for the loaf of Town Talk.

“No buns?” I asked.

“We’re out,” Misty said.

“Why aren’t you eating?” I asked Jody.

I slapped three slices of bread on my plate, put a hot dog in the middle of each, squirted mustard and ketchup on them, rolled them up, and was done eating two before Jody answered me.

“I’m making my list of things to do. I don’t like hot dogs anyway.”

“Since when?” Misty asked.

“Since always.”

“You always eat hot dogs.”

“Not like that.”

We all looked at her Lion King plate and her hot dog cut into pennies and the puddle of ketchup she dunked them in.

“I like them long now,” she said. “Esme says cut-up hot dogs are the number one cause of choking deaths among children in the United States. She wasn’t sure about the world. She told me on the bus today.”

“Live dangerously,” Misty replied.

“I won’t eat it.”

“You have to.”

“I do not.”

“Harley,” Misty commanded me. “Tell her she’s got to eat it.”

“I don’t care if she eats it,” I said, and emptied the pan of macaroni and cheese onto my plate.

“I’ll eat it if you fix it.”

“How am I going to fix it?” Misty asked, narrowing her eyes until they became two purple slits in her speckled face.

“With glue,” Jody stated in all seriousness.

I smiled across the table at her. She cracked me up sometimes.

Misty looked back and forth between the two of us. “Eating glue will kill you,” she instructed us.

“Then make me another one,” Jody asked.

“I don’t want to.”

“Make me another one.”

“Eat Harley’s last one.”

“No way. I want it,” I said.

“Trade with her,” Misty said.

Jody looked at my hot dog skeptically. “There’s mustard on it,” she said. “Wipe it off.”

Misty’s hand suddenly shot out. She grabbed my last hot dog, scraped off the bread and mustard with her blue fingernails, and plunked it down in front of Jody. Then she picked up Jody’s plate and dumped the sliced hot dog onto mine.

Jody studied the situation for a moment, then gave Misty a
shit-eating grin and asked her for a juice box. Misty stared back at her blankly, the lack of expression on her face betraying a storm of emotion underneath.

“We don’t have any,” she said slowly.

“Then I want milk.”

“Get it yourself.”

BOOK: Back Roads
9.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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