In those days when the town was still young, a river cut between gray-green mountains and lazied along a postal road, murmuring fool’s-gold secrets. At the water’s edge on a cul-de-sac, a sturdy ranch house materialized, built by the pub’s new manager, who was married to an aspiring preschool teacher. The newlyweds carpeted the rooms in a medium beige and papered the walls in sunflowers.
That summer Layna arrived amid screams. Her mother was glad to have another presence in the house, a bright focal point, a baby-cheeked distraction. She breathed easier and carried her daughter like a breastplate or an amulet. Layna’s father doted on his only child. As she grew older, he often had her sit with him on the sofa and watch the television on his days off and at night when he couldn’t sleep. On those nights, Layna watched the fan blades blur, blinking round baby eyes.
She liked to laugh. Bugs made her laugh, the watching part—the teasing part. She would push them with the edge of her finger in tiny fits, especially the biting ones, too quickly for them to hurt her. Her mother told her it was wrong to squish bugs, but Layna would giggle away at even the sound of the word. “Squish, squish!” she would shriek out, and dissolve into giggles. Her mother tried to teach her other words for when a bug went splat, but Layna would shake her head. “Not crush. No kill!” Her mother made fists with her hands and turned away, easier to turn than to press the issue.
Layna did not like to kill bugs, only to squish them. For her, this was an important distinction. It made her angry when her mother insisted there was no distinction at all.
Layna laughed when she and her father played in the autumn leaves. Mountains of red and gold, and when you jumped in one pile the rest went up like feathers or like impossible raindrops floating back into the sky. When her father joined her, rolled with her, he squashed all the leaves. Squish, squish. Once, when she was feeling rebellious, she told him not to roll with her. He took her into his lap, nuzzled her, asked her why. She wiggled to free herself, but he held on tight.
“You squish them,” she said. “Leaves don’t like to be squished.”
He held her tighter and promised to be more careful.
Layna laughed at tickles. Her mother tickled her feet to get her out of bed on school mornings. If she giggled too long, her mother would tickle harder or swat her feet and toes. Then Layna would laugh even when it hurt because she knew if she cried it would hurt more. Her father tickled her belly with his mustache. Layna found his mustache immensely funny. She would pull on it when he bent over her belly, his arms coming down like tree trunks on either side of her head. He’d throw a leg over hers to prevent her moving. He’d bite if she pulled, so she made a game of pulling only when she felt his leg go soft enough; then she’d pull and wiggle out from beneath him and let loose a series of high-pitched squeals as she fled behind the sofa, peaking to make sure he was not angry.
Sometimes he was. And though she tried, she could never laugh when he was angry.
Today Layna’s father was angry. She knew it because of the way he closed the front door. Not the usual thump when he kicked it shut with his foot on the way in, and not the slam after a long day at work. Today was the slow slip of a creak at the joints and the mush between rubber and pith and wooden frame. The sound Layna had learned meant running.
She was in her room putting her dolls safely away when she heard that small, deliberate sound. Her muscles bunched tight like a caterpillar encountering a fingernail. She heard his footsteps and the sound of her mother turning. A glass broke. Their voices together were the voices of two things that weren’t meant to sound at the same time.
She knew why they were fighting. Her mother had been out last night long past teaching hours. Layna had barely been able to keep her eyes open by the time her mother came home. She dared not fall asleep while she and her father sat on the sofa watching the late-night shows: she’d been startled awake once by his mustache, and had learned to count fan blades as others counted sheep.
When they fought, Layna had learned to slip out and dart for the woods. Today, though, her bedroom window wouldn’t give. She pulled and pulled as their voices rose. It was unlocked, wasn’t it? Yes. But still, it wouldn’t come. She considered breaking it but knew that would only make it worse for her by the time she returned.
Finally, she decided to sneak out through the bathroom window. It would require getting out of her room without being seen. Without being heard. She must be only a tremble down the hallway where beyond there was yelling and hurling and bodies blooming with bruises in places only the walls ever witnessed. She tightened the laces on her shoes. She opened her bedroom door. Its spine groaned.
Their shadows crawled on the back wall of the living room, monsters with claw hands and snarling mouths. Creep down the hall, now into the bathroom. The door was ajar. She went through, soundless. The bathroom window opened too swiftly, thumped at the top. She bit her lip, heart in throat, pushed out the screen, dropped to ground, heels hitting, and ran.
Who knew if it was rain or dusk? The sky was overcast, and weeds were sandpaper on her bare calves. Her stomach growled, but she hushed it. No supper to miss. Mama would be in her bedroom with a liquor glass, smoky stuff yellow as piss in the toilet bowl. And him. He would be sitting on the sofa calling, calling for Layna.
These were the parts she had to run from: her mother’s chalky hands after the glass was emptied two or three times, and her father’s hands when he called for her. His gentle hands all over her. He would tell her to laugh; and since the anger had simmered out of him, she could laugh easily, loudly even. She didn’t understand why gentle hands made her more afraid than rough ones, why they made her laughter louder.
Layna found the path without trouble. In winter, she knew, it would be harder to follow, but now, in summer, she traced the smooth river stones and chunks of sparkling fools’ gold with ease, uphill through the forest, zigzagging above the town, hiking, hiking, as the sun sank and the stars muttered in the low sky.
She found the place. Near a short cliff face, she’d posted three sturdy sticks as thick around as her thighs and balanced a large sheet of corrugated metal on top for a roof. Last time, she’d put a blanket in a banker’s box and put a rock on top of the box to keep it from blowing out from under the metal.
Good, there was the rock surrounded by leaves; and underneath, the box; and inside, the blanket.
She climbed into her shelter, huddled, chilled, and squished the first bug that came by. A fat black beetle. She couldn’t figure out why squishing, when she was up here, never made her laugh.
She woke and uncurled. Woke stiff and cold all the way down to her toes, stuffed sockless in ragged shoes. She could hear the town below. A vague almost-quiet. It had not rained. That was a blessing. She knew from other times that her hideout roof would keep out the downpour but not the slush and seep of rainwater. The understated gray sky was nearing sunrise. Her back and shoulders ached.
She rolled up the blanket and returned it to its box, which she sealed with a rock and covered with leaves. Standing slowly, she let the pain from sleeping outdoors settle into her spine and thighs and hips. That was good, too, that settling. That pain of being alive, being here, now; not floating somewhere just outside the curled shell of her sleeping self, heaped in blankets on a too-large bed beside a too-large body. It was good, instead, to be here.
The trip back was slow. She didn’t run. She crossed the river and skipped a stone over it. Watched it sink, blink back at her from the mudbelly bottom of the riverbed. By the time the sun broke over the eastern mountains, she was just descending her trail to the point where she could no longer hear the river. The town was a machine, humming.
When she finally approached her house, lights glowed in her parents’ bedroom. The television flashed through the sliding patio door. Among the sweet, musty morning smells was that of her mother’s cooking leaked through thin walls. Bacon on the air, and coffee.
She wound back to the bathroom window, reached up to crawl through.
But the screen was back in its place. Beyond the screen, the glass was closed and locked from the inside.
For a moment, she stood looking dumbly at the window. Then, she went round to her bedroom window—
—and found the obstruction that had prevented her from opening it last night: a wedge of wood stuck firmly between the top fixed half and the bottom sliding half. Only a pair of gentle hands could have secured it there. Her throat and chest tightened. No. Do not be afraid.
She tested each window, walking slowly around the house, sweat sticking her short red-orange hair to her neck. They were all locked. All the windows and doors.
Finally, she walked up the steps to the front. Locked. She stood frozen. Her core contracted, closed in on her. She was a block of wood wedged between unmovable forces, not a little girl.
She knocked. No one could hear her. Thump, thump this time, to the rhythm of her heart. She waited, glanced right, left, back at the door. She thought suddenly with a gasp so deep it pounded in her head: the car! The new red car that sat sleek and animal-like in the driveway. She could have curled up in the back, small as a beetle, and waited until her mother drove into town to work. Unseen, Layna could have waited a few more minutes until her mother had gone inside the building. Then, she might have popped out of the trunk and slinked to her classroom and sat at her desk with its fire-engine nametag, stomach don’t you growl, armpits don’t you stink, face, oh, please don’t be dirty.
But the front door opened, toweringly full of Layna’s mother, whose clothes were freshly laundered and whose face was powdered and pretty; you almost couldn’t see the sleepless circles or the cut at the edge of her smile. She bent down and hugged Layna hard and said she was sorry about the windows but Daddy wouldn’t let her leave them open. And now, Angelface, there was breakfast on the table. Then off to the bath before school. And better be lickety-split, or they’d be late.
So, Layna went inside.
Post-MFA in Tucson, LORA RIVERA worked as a literary agent, children’s biographer, and crepe maker. Today, she develops online trainings for child welfare professionals. In her spare time, she serves as Vice President of a climbing advocacy nonprofit where she is the senior editor of Stories from the Drylands: A Southern Arizona Climbing Anthology. She’s Asian-Indian, queer, and happily partnered. Her creative work is forthcoming from Reckoning and Ink in Thirds, and has recently appeared in Gravel, The Voices Project, Speculative 66, FLAPPERHOUSE, The Chattahoochee Review, and Eastern Iowa Review. Learn more at www.lorarivera.com
SALLY DESKINS is an artist, writer and curator. All of her work focuses on women, feminism and curating issues in art. Her artwork has been exhibited nationwide and published in Masque and Spectacle and Extract(s) among others. Her 2014 illustrated book, Intimates and Fools, with poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, won the Nebraska Book Award for illustration and Design. She also created art for Leaves of Absence (2016). She is founding curator of Les Femmes Folles, an organization for women in art.