We waited through June, through July, when the sun ripped a white fissure from tree line to sky, a sky that burned all day and all night, turning away from us for only moments, four hours, five, settled into its own sleep. The days were long then, stretched wide and full of light, but for us, full of only bruises. Full of slaps, across sunburned cheeks when flowers weren’t watered, when dishes sat and scummed. Full of cuts from broken bottles, held against our throats until we gasped Yes, take my money, just take it and go. Full of scratches from the exposed metal of pick-up flatbeds, latticing the backs of our thighs, hands held across our mouths to catch and crush the word no. They were long days, spilling light, so much light it shadowed every hurt.
We waited through split lips, through whistles from car windows, through bribes brokered at the movie theater, Free tickets for a hand job. We waited through failed lifeguard applications, through mocking glances at our muscles—Those biceps can’t save anyone—through gazes that moved from arms to breasts, through allowances paid to our brothers, the extra change flipped our way, Go buy yourself a Seventeen. We waited until Wren came late to the bluffs, one night in August, carrying a six-pack in one hand, the other covering her mouth where blood spilled between her fingers. She landed her beer hard on our picnic table, removed her hand, slapped a wet, red handprint against the wood, said Enough.
The bluffs were where we met then, past dusk, the sun finally glutted of its own glare. When the men of Willow at last left us alone, crept inside to corner taverns or living room couches, the bluffs were our hidden shelter, wooded shade from others who still prowled. Willow, north of Anchorage, abandoned by miners seeking gold, leaving lines of sons behind, only occasional daughters, only us. And in winter, left by tourists too, once the sun discarded all adventure after September dimmed each day. We met among tall pines, separate blood, divided by arms and hands and hearts and lungs that all held the same wounds, mine were Kestrel’s and hers were Tee’s, Wren’s were mine. We met to drink, to smoke, to scream every word ignored until they ricocheted from the rocks, until Wren came late, smacked a bloodied palm against the table, until she said low and steady, We need a plan.
We would wait, she said, quiet through summer, and through the weakening glow of early autumn. We would wait until the equinox brought new lights, northern streaks against black, burning bands into the sky after the men crawled home, after they’d forgotten the shape of our hips, our breasts, long stretches of night that we could climb inside, a cloak, some shroud of darkness where, beneath the pale glow of atoms, we could see our own hands to practice. We would wait, so quiet they’d never notice us gone, until we could learn to fight, for self-defense, for release, until Wren’s father never knocked her teeth into her gums again, for something as simple as not taking out the trash, she said, her blood-stained palms curling into fists as she spoke.
I am angry, she said, eyes smarting to tears. I am so fucking angry.
But why wait? Tee took a beer, popped the tab. Why the fuck should we wait? Why not start now, for Christ’s sake?
Because the nights are too short. Wren stared at her, eyes red. The nights are too short, and the light we need, it’s not here. Flashlights are too obvious.
Tee climbed on top of the picnic table. I’m ready now. She held her skinny arms above her head, the left baring dark bruises where her boyfriend Brett had held her down. We all knew he played rough, though she denied it, said some girls liked being handcuffed, slapped around.
Wren stared over the bluffs, toward Willow’s blinking lights.
You know damn well that’s foolish. My dad knows we come here. Your little playmate does too.
Tee lowered her arms, stepped off the table. I looked away as she tugged her shirtsleeves down.
Every one of us, they know we’re here, Wren said. Let the girls have their time. But winter, it’s better. Nights that long, no one goes out. No flashlights, no headlights.
And just then, a blue Chevy crept past. Headlights dimmed, closer to road than bluff, but Kestrel recognized the car, we all did, her brother, his carload of derelicts. Kestrel wouldn’t say but Tee had seen it, behind the bleachers after school, her brother pinning her back by the elbows, taking dollar bills from his friends after they’d slid a hand beneath her shirt.
Kestrel stared at the car, watched the tail lights fade beyond the pines.
Wren wiped her mouth, a streak of red staining the cracks of her hands cut by talc and detergent, long hours worked at the car wash, the paychecks of which her father kept, no wife, no second guard over Wren to tell him no.
We will wait, she said, just a matter of months now. And though her voice held a lilt of hope, the word months—not weeks, days, not even the beating pulse of seconds —rolled away from us, prostrate, as long and terrible as the dull drone of flatlines.
Wren lived across the street from me, ever since memory allowed either of us to know one another, and through the open windows of my bedroom I heard her screaming sometimes, through the fixed stillness of summer air when every window shuttered open to let in what stale breeze flowed, our town too far north for air conditioning. I heard her screaming at her father, his roaring voice consuming hers in return, a lobbied match of aggression that splintered through my windows while I tried to sleep, punctuated at times by the sound of broken glass, dishes thrown, and sometimes, the piercing thud of fists.
She had it worse than me, I knew, no monstrous fathers in my house after mothers finally left, no brothers selling me to their friends, and no boyfriends holding me beneath the weight of them, not even lovingly, no tender hands against skin. There was only me and my mother, what felt like the only home without a man in all of Willow, and yet beyond our four walls I knew the insults and catcalls and touches meant to harm, the intent for me sometimes so much worse than for Tee or Wren. Every man in town knew I had no father. Bastard whore, they sometimes shouted, snickered bush child from mocking huddles, knew I had no daddy to go home to, no one to tell on them. My mother stayed away, never diverted from her well-worn path between the chemical plant and home, and never told me who my father was, never mentioned what couldn’t matter now.
So when Wren’s flashlight flickered from her room, a shotgun path across the street from my own bedroom window once September burned away, once Willow swallowed itself in dark just past the school’s afternoon bell, and after her father, my mother finally fell to sleep before blue-glowing television sets, inside sweat-stained sheets, I threw on my darkest sweatshirt, my blackest pants. I climbed down the tree beyond my window, the Morse tapping of Wren’s flashlight still lighting my path, casting my shadow against the house. I waited by the curb, breath steaming October midnight, and watched the sky slowly begin to illumine, green streaks, then blue, staining their way up the horizon like colors on acid test strips, shimmering ribbons of light that I watched without words until Wren appeared.
Together we walked, straight down the center of the street, no one out, our clothes black enough to hold us against night while the auroras bloomed before us, wavering curtains of emerald, bright enough to sustain our way without flashlights.
Wren carried old pillowcases, stuffed heavy with grain sacks, with hay. At the bluffs, Tee and Kestrel already waited for us, Tee smoking a cigarette on the picnic table, and Kestrel sitting unmoving beside her, watching the borealis blossom in bands beyond the rocks.
And then, our wait was over. Tee turned our way, jumped off the picnic table, stubbed her cigarette against dew-frosted grass. As Wren held one old pillow against her chest, gripped tight between white-knuckled hands, Tee walked over steady and slammed her fist into the center. Wren stumbled back, coughed, a dust of hay bursting from the pillow, volcanic ash. Tee rubbed her bony hand, stepped back and looked out over the bluffs, and in the glow of the northern lights, I saw her eyes shimmer wet.
Tee, I said, then stopped when she looked at me, the glow illumined a bruise down her cheekbone, black cast green in the swirling skylight.
Fuck off, Tee said. She walked back to Wren where she punched the pillowcase again and again, Wren holding the edges tight, footing staggered across the uneven surface of rock until Tee finally had enough.
Tee pulled the pillow from Wren’s hands, held it steady against her own chest while Wren bent low to catch her breath, palms against knees. Tee knew, we all knew, that Wren’s dad had taken her latest paycheck again, had locked her earnings inside a small safe of his, kept for booze, poker, women. When Wren’s breathing slowed and steadied, she stood to full height and faced Tee, eyes hard. She punched the pillow once, slow at first, then quicker until Tee’s body shook with each blow, like a western, a riddling of bullets.
I looked at Kestrel, who stood there by the picnic table, shoulders hunched, curled in to protect what was hers, constantly taken. I clutched the other pillow Wren brought, resting heavy on the picnic table, and stood before Kestrel, pillow held against my breastbone, arms steeled and ready for the first tremored blow. Kestrel raised her eyes to mine, and behind her the auroras wavered like brushstrokes, alighting glints of her hair and for a moment, casting her face in indelible sorrow. Her eyes moved down to the pillow and fixed there, seeing what I imagined was more than thread counts, more than cotton. Then she punched, both hands clenched rigid, she punched so hard I felt what force was in her move through me, a kinetic quake, all the light she held inside her, some separate sun no one saw, eclipsed.
We’d learned all our lives what the auroras meant. In grade school, each year, we learned the terms that grew more technical, from atoms to photons to geomagnetic storm to solar wind, a flow of ions shot from the sun, colliding with the earth’s magnetic fields. We learned the auroras’ shades, their seasons, their steady growth past equinox. We learned so much that Willow traded wonder for routine, dozed, favored sleep over splendor, ignored beauty burst and blooming overhead, haloing our town.
We loved and hated Willow then, how ignorance made us safe inside moonlight, unsafe beneath sun.
The days grew shorter, nights longer. And yet the days felt still stretched, even without light, all the hollers and whistles and barks filling the dark spaces the sun left behind, all our walks home, every walk to work. At the car wash, before her dad even made it to her paychecks, Wren suffered catcalls, her hands sliding sponges across hoods while boys shouted from backseat windows, You can wash my hood anytime, mocked and high-fived, tried to tuck meager tips into the waistband of her jeans. Kestrel avoided the bleachers after school, tried the shortcut through woods, and was cornered in the library bathroom instead, during study hall, locked in by Todd Marcus, her brother’s best friend. He pinned her to the wall, slithered a hand down her pants. Threw five dollars against the tiled floor, once he’d had enough.
And me, I took back roads too, through woods and past the river, twice the length home but worth the peace of tall pines and blackbird songs, after Jim Henshaw pulled up alongside the sidewalk, exposed himself from the car, said, Who’s gonna believe you, no daddy around? He worked at the chemical plant with my mother, seemed nice enough when he’d given her rides home, waved from the driveway. When he pulled up beside me, I thought he’d slowed to offer me the same.
Thought a cougar caught my girl, my mom said, when I came home an hour late, pine needles piercing my jacket, back roads mired in bramble. She stood in the kitchen stirring soup in a pot. I ached to tell her how close to right she was.
Where you been, Teal? she asked, and when I didn’t respond, she looked up. The smoke from the pot curled into her hair. What, big cat got your tongue? she laughed, and though I wanted to, I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her that despite the four walls she’d built around us, despite every roof and warmth and meal and tenderness she’d laid before me, something had seeped through, water stain through walls.
I sat beside her, held the tongue that soup scalded, rolled the burn around my mouth while the television blared from the living room.
That night, Wren brought a bat. When I met her in the street, the lights illumined what she held in her hands, its mottled wood cast in pockmarked jade. Her eyes burned hard, phosphorescent beneath charged sky.
My dad takes my paychecks, I take his bat.
I nodded and we walked, there was nothing left to say.
Kestrel sat alone when we arrived, perched on the picnic table, hands clutching her middle. She glanced at us, said Tee hadn’t showed, then her eyes moved to the bat Wren carried, at rest but ready. Kestrel grabbed the bat, I’d never seen her move so fast, and she slammed it against a maple tree, bark splintering from root, chips bursting, revealing sap. She held the bat trembling inside her unsteady hands, then pulled back and smashed the trunk high, low, perpendicular to bark lines, sometimes parallel. She smashed and smashed, wood against wood, but the bat never cracked, never broke. She paused, lungs steaming anger. Wren approached her then, from behind, enclosed Kestrel’s hands inside her own, guided the bat. Even swings, steady. Practice, Wren told her, and Kestrel calmed. I watched the breath leak out of her, watched her arms move stable beneath guiding hands until her swing grew even, until Wren moved away, stood back next to me.
It isn’t enough, she whispered near my ear, both of us watching Kestrel. It isn’t enough to just be angry, to vent our wrongs. We need to be calculated, prepared.
As the northern lights flared above us, I looked at her and thought release, practice, slow build of muscle to fight if needed, self-defense. But through the cadence of her voice, and the way her jaw settled in a thin line, clenched, I wondered for the first time whether the plan held an if for her, or only the tenor of when.
Tee never showed at school either, her desk empty next to mine in physics, all the locker room stalls deserted where she sometimes hid to cut class. But Brett moved through the school halls, cocky swagger, indifferent gaze, and when we came to the bluffs that night, Tee was already waiting for us, silent, still.
Where the hell have you been? Wren asked, then her mouth closed upon her words when she saw the blood staining Tee’s wrists, soaking through her sweatshirt sleeves.
Oh, Tee, I breathed, and moved to hold her. Kestrel looked down, away, as Tee pushed her palms rough against me.
Shove it, Teal, she said. Then she drew in a breath and looked at me, quiet. It’s so much worse than you think, she whispered.
She told us no, they weren’t cuts, no knives dug deep into her wrists, self-inflicted. They were wounds from rope, rubbed burn, Brett had tied her to his bed. He’d bound her captive, over twenty-four hours, while he ate dinner downstairs, slept, went to school and sat in study hall, left her without food, water, to dig skin into twine to free herself, to thrash like some wounded animal, trapped.
I looked down past Tee’s bloodied sleeves, saw a urine-soaked stain creeping down her jeans.
You don’t know how humiliating, she said to us. You can’t even fucking fathom.
She looked out across the bluffs, toward Brett’s house, some unseen musty bedroom where he’d finally cut her free. I can’t go home, she said. Not like this. She wiped her nose against her sleeve.
She stood and grabbed Wren’s bat, leaning sturdy against a pine, and slammed it fierce into the picnic table bench. She picked up pinecones, cracked them hard out over the bluffs, jagged shapes black in silhouette against blue-green, northern lights streaked like fingerpaints down sky-dark canvas. And when she finally crumpled into the grass, collapsed on herself and shaking, I pulled her up and she let me. We left Wren and Kestrel behind, walked without words to my house where I climbed the tree and gave her my clothes, bandaged her wounds, let her light her old clothing on fire, down to burned, ragged ash.
That Friday, after Wren’s dad finally went to bed, we sat on her roof and watched the northern lights alone, just me and her, Tee sheltered in her bedroom and Kestrel refusing to walk from her house to Wren’s. A fair reason, I knew, and why we never went to the bluffs on weekends, only weeknights when bars closed early, when the streets were deserted. I could have pole-vaulted to Wren’s, thrown stones through her window from mine. I could tiptoe across the street without the Jim Henshaws of Willow sidling alongside me, calling from cars.
That fucker needs a lesson taught to him, I said, thinking of Brett, then of Tee, her rope-cut wrists, how when I washed them, her blood swirled down the drain, staining ivory porcelain pink.
You know what would happen, Wren said, staring out across her yard, eyes weary. Besides, that’s Tee’s problem. We’ve got our own.
I watched the dyed horizon, more crimson than blue tonight, and wondered if that was ever true, if any of us existed alone, our own separate spheres.
My dad, Wren said, glance burning down through roof shingles, he keeps that safe in his car. I saw him, once. He put it in the glove box. All my cashed paychecks.
The auroras burned bright, shimmering lines, a beauty I knew blazed only from trapped particles, nothing more, ions shuttling toward earth, beating back, enraged that gravity held them.
I could take all that money, Wren said. I could just take it all back, if I knew he wouldn’t beat the shit out of me.
I didn’t look at her when she spoke, but I heard it anyway, that same cadence in her voice, something known when everything else for us was unknown, our fists the only solidity, the crack of knuckle on grain sack, a violence of choice.
Your mom, Teal. Wren looked at me. How is she?
She’s tired. She gets by, I said, unsure why Wren brought her up, she never had before.
Wren sighed. Maybe once we’re her age, these fucks will leave us alone.
I didn’t respond, just watched the auroras, all those charged particles inside all that banded beauty, as impossible to imagine as a future that far away, a future in Willow, and Wren, even more impossible, a burn too bright to smolder, to sustain itself.
Tee hid her wrists when she came back to school, easy task as October frosted to November, all our sleeves lengthened, and though her face was still bruised, patched black faded slowly to muted yellow, she told everyone she fell, slipped on a patch of early ice, not yet used to stepping gingerly.
She forced her strength to ignore Brett, we all did, but I saw her anger pool inside her, unchecked, watched her dig a pocketknife into her desk, deeper and deeper, chips of wood flaking, the center growing dark.
I took the back roads, cut through woods, wore bulky clothes, blended into pine. Jim Henshaw came by only once, dropped my mother off, smiled at me and I turned away. My mother looked hurt, teenage apathy, self-absorption, but she squeezed Jim’s hand anyway, told him thanks for the ride, shot me a look.
The auroras burned brighter, clear and fogless as the air grew starker, and the solar winds more desperate. Wren’s pay increased at the car wash, a brief burst of celebration we commemorated with beers, stolen cigars. She tried to hide the difference, kept some small cache for herself hidden between mattress and box spring, but when she met me in the street late, eyes red, dark circles, I knew her dad had checked the discrepancy against pay stubs, bruised shiner beneath her left eye sealing all certainty.
She held a knife in her hands, small switchblade, extended.
When we reached the bluffs, Tee and Kestrel already there throwing punches against pillows, Wren clutched the knife, carved a target into a maple tree. A silhouette, arms and legs, full height, taller than any of us. She stood back and stared, breath cloud rising, then stabbed the knife into the tree, hitting leg, abdomen, heart until the knife stuck, flush inside frozen bark.
Wren turned and looked at us, each of us, auroras glowing behind her, softening her somehow inside rippled bands.
What did you want to be? she asked. What did you want, before all this, before you knew what we know?
Her words were general, spewed in anger, so swift and rapid I struggled to make sense of them. But I heard Tee breathe next to me, quick intake, the wind knocked from her as if she’d been punched.
I wanted a house, she said. Two dogs, maybe a cat. She glanced at us, eyes sad. I wanted to share that with someone who loved me.
Kestrel looked up, away from us, watched the lights shimmer blue-green, silent streaks. I wanted to be an astronaut. She laughed, mocking herself. Can you imagine? An astronaut. A girl from Willow.
That’s more than me, Wren said. You know what I wanted? To cut hair. All I ever wanted, to open a goddamn hairdressing shop, and now, what? Not even scraps, not even fucking change, nickels, dimes. She stared at us. None of it, any of it, is mine.
Wren pulled the knife from the tree, retracted the blade.
If I left this place, that’s what I’d do. If I just had the money, I’d leave this fucking place behind.
Tee nodded, Kestrel smiled with sorrow. And me, I watched the hard-packed ground, a question I’d never considered, if Willow had ever left me space to dream, to wish, or if I’d only had it so much better, my mother and me, no need for animal instinct, the inborn desire to flee.
In physics, Tee began to pass me notes, her arms stretched just enough for her sleeves to pull back, revealing scar, deep cuts scabbing toward healed. She passed me notes of houses. Drawings. Boxed figures, triangle on top. Circles of cats, of dogs playing in crude shrubs, herself standing by smiling, skinny stick-figure arms. I nodded, folded her notes into my pockets, paid attention instead to classroom lectures, to examples of vectors, momentum, power. Our teacher gave us equations, formulas that explained the charge of electricity, an endless stretch of theory never tied to tangible example, to the ionized particles above our homes every night.
I was studying on the couch when my mother came home, arms full of grocery bags from Al’s Market where she’d stopped on the way, something she never did unless she had a reason.
Let’s celebrate, she said, unloading tomatoes on the kitchen counter, garlic, onions, fresh produce she almost never bought, from-scratch meals she never made.
What are we celebrating?
She set the brown bags down. I don’t know, she said. She stared at me, smiled. I guess I just wanted a nice dinner with my daughter.
She unpacked wine, giggled like she was fourteen, and I imagined her as a girl then, something I rarely thought about if ever, where she came from, what source, what roots of Willow sprang her from childhood, my grandparents gone.
I helped her make marinara, sliced tomatoes, celery, garlic. She let me have a glass of wine, asked about school, my friends, and the scent of simmering onions filled the house, seeping into pillows, couch cushions, percolating warmth.
When we sat down at the table, I watched her twirl noodles around fork tines, pull them slowly from her plate, a comfortable silence between us, something earned.
Mom, I said.
She looked up at me, face smooth of lines, and the joy there broke my heart a little, to crack the silence, to pull her from the refuge of pleasure, so small.
What did you want? I asked, I almost couldn’t look at her.
She twirled more noodles. What did I want when, sweetpea?
When you were a little girl. What did you want to be?
Her fork stopped twirling, and she set it down. She swallowed. A sadness wavered across her features, but when she looked up at me, I saw only a smile.
I wanted you, Teal.
She reached over, squeezed my hand.
In the end, you’re my baby girl. That’s all that matters.
She held her hand there on mine, then picked up her fork again, and I thought of the chemical plant, a sauce from scratch, small refuge of home while Willow crouched outside the door, if any moment of it, this life, was ever for her. I considered telling her about Jim Henshaw then, I wanted to open my mouth and shout all the wrongs, mine and hers, into the unsullied space between us. But the silence was too comfortable, her enjoyment too great, and the space sealed itself beneath the calm of the room, the warmth still leaking from the stove, beneath the joy on her face, cracked by sorrow if I spoke.
Tee and Kestrel were already at the bluffs when Wren and I arrived that night, Tee swinging the bat against the silhouette Wren had carved. Tee set the bat down when she saw us coming, picked up a pillowcase instead, and held it before me while Wren pulled out her pocketknife again, stabbed with precise force into the tree, targeted thrusts, focused accuracy.
It was me who first noticed when Kestrel never moved.
Kes? I asked, lowering my hands, turning her way. She sat on the picnic table, hunched away from us, sweatshirt sleeves pulled high over her hands, hood obscuring her head and face.
You okay? I walked over to her. You can take my place, a few punches.
When I was close enough to touch her, I reached a hand out to her shoulder. She flinched beneath my fingers.
I moved in front of her, felt my breath escape my lungs.
Swollen lips, crusted red. Damaged eye, bruise webbed down the capillaries of her cheeks. And in the glow-illumined dark, I knew, could see the bloodied stain seeping down her jeans, ripped, staining the insides of her thighs.
I whispered Tee’s name, then screamed, then screamed and screamed until someone’s hand clamped hard onto my shoulder.
Jesus, what? Tee’s voice, beside my ear.
Why didn’t you say anything? I screamed. You were here. You were both here.
Tee stepped back, face splintering confusion. Then she saw Kestrel’s clothes, her bruised face, bleeding mouth. I heard her breath accelerate, watched her lungs pulse, then heave.
Who the fuck did this? Tee yelled. Who did this, Kes? She looked at me. I didn’t know, she said. I swear to fucking Christ, she was sitting here when I came. I yelled over, she yelled back. I picked up the bat.
I pulled off my jacket, wrapped it tight around Kestrel, a cocoon. I felt her body tremble through the fabric, small tremor burst to quake, burst to shuddering sobs, her mouth choking spittle, choking blood.
Wren came over behind us, switchblade in her hand.
Who did this?
Kestrel trembled, moved away from me, stepped off the picnic table.
Who did this, Kestrel? Wren repeated, her voice level, harsh.
Kestrel stumbled back toward the woods, away from bluff, away from the lights streaking the sky. In her few unsteady steps she hobbled, broken bird, unable to stand fully upright, barely able to walk.
Who did this? Wren shouted after her, voice echoing futility through the pines, since we all knew who it was, Kestrel’s brother and his friends, and we knew knowing wouldn’t matter, wouldn’t pull the blood from her jeans, paste her cracked lips back together, rethread her ripped clothes, ripped heart.
Wren watched her go, while Tee ran after her. Threw her arms around her, gently as she could, pulled her to the ground and held her, shaking. Wren stood there beside me, steamed breath escaping above her over the bluffs, settled against aurora, seashore green. Then she retracted the switchblade, dropped it heavily to the ground, and took off running, back through pine toward road.
I ran after her, mottled fear choking my chest, dread clouding, growing thicker. She ran back the way we came, through pines, across road, back over the sidewalks and gutters that had led us, each night, from our homes to the bluffs. I followed, gasping air, chest burning hot, burning frigid, night pulled in on lung. When we finally reached our houses, Wren disappeared into hers, and I stood on her lawn breathing hard, immobile, waiting for a light to blink on inside her father’s room, for the same piercing thuds I’d heard so many times before, only now, something ending, something imminent.
But then, Wren reappeared, glanced at me and glanced away, moved from her front porch to the garage’s side door, slipped quietly inside.
When I finally stepped into the garage, Wren was sitting in the driver’s seat of her father’s Ford, engine off, lights extinguished, hands fixed tight around the thin arc of the steering wheel. I hesitated a moment, then slid into the passenger side next to her.
Wren, I said.
She stared ahead, her father’s keys resting in the ignition, the glove box opened and waiting, she must have gone inside for every key. I knew he’d hid them, car key, deposit box key, Wren never said she knew where. The dread bloomed full swell in my chest then, this was it, her own plan kept quiet, plan crystallized, practice to performance, an end she’d always known.
It’s bad, I said. I know. But it won’t help Kestrel if we leave. It won’t help any of us.
I’ll pick her up. I’ll pick Tee up. All of us, we can go. She looked at me. It’s time, Teal. I can’t stay here anymore.
I imagined her father waking up, car gone, money, safe box, daughter.
It’s bad, Wren, the pay stubs are bad. But where would we go?
Her eyes flashed to me, burning through dark, through me.
You think I hate my dad so much about a bunch of fucking pay stubs? That’s half of it, but it’s nothing. She closed her eyes, turned away.
Well, what then?
Wren’s lips closed tight on themselves, pursed to trap something in.
Her voice stopped there. A haze floated across my brain.
My mother what, Wren? What?
My father. She looked at me, anger faded for a moment, eyes widened in the shape of apology. He raped her, Teal.
The air of the car pulled the breath from me.
Wren stared ahead, eyes wet. He told me this summer. Said she was always so smug, there across the street, no man. Just fine with only her parents, no one else.
The car was a capsule sealed tight, smothering.
He told me in one of his rages. Smacked me across the face. Said he’d do it again, if I wasn’t careful.
Wren’s wet, red palm print, branded into wood. She’d known then, half-hatched plan, futile rage to pulse inside an eggshell of pines, for violence if needed, some space for us, some release. But for her, muscle to beat back if caught, only time to map the contours of escape. My chest seized, heart sputtering, my head swam through the years and years of asking about my father, who he was, where he’d gone and why my mother always turned away, deflected all question, said don’t worry, sweetpea. I’m here for you. I’m always, always here for you.
Someone must have known, I said. Someone would have told me. I heard my voice growing louder. Why didn’t you fucking tell me?
She touched my hand. I slapped it away. She sat back in the driver’s seat, sighed, stared ahead.
You think anyone gives a shit here? Look at Kestrel. She can barely walk. Wren slammed her fists hard against the steering wheel, anger returned. You think anyone will take care of her? Think anyone in this town gives a fuck?
Wren grew quiet then. I’m sorry I told you. But we can leave this place. There’s nothing here for us. Any of us.
I felt my nose burn, precursor to tears. I watched the dull walls of the garage through the windshield, and felt Jim Henshaw, Wren, her father, his past, past made mine, Wren’s, ours together, I felt them all burn through me. I felt Kestrel, blood-soaked legs, I felt Tee, rope-cut wrists. I felt all of Willow, boiling burn, the smell of pine, the flash of solar storm, bands streaked from sky to ground where at the end stood my mother, four walls, her hand on my hand. You’re my baby girl, Teal. I must have broken her heart not to crack the silence of joy, but simply to make her say it.
I can’t go with you.
Wren turned to me, face red as if struck.
I can’t go with you. I can’t leave my mother.
You could do whatever you want, Wren said, voice already lower, resigned. We could cut hair together. Until you figured what you want.
I didn’t need to tell her I’d figured. I knew. I looked at her, roil within me, I wanted to slap her, beat back the words unraveled, shake some logic rattled through my hands to her, make her stop, make her stay. But I touched her face instead, hand held to skin partly mine, then pushed open the car door.
I walked across the street, stood on the front porch of the house that had always been my mother’s and mine, had always been, still was. I sat on the steps, everything reeling, unsteady, and watched the shimmer above, fixed point, stable sky to hold me balanced. I heard the engine of the Ford ignite, the garage door roll up, watched the car back down the driveway, slow and quiet, rubber on pavement. Wren backed the car into the street, safely on road with highway ahead, then she gunned the gas, tires screeching, smoldered rubber blazing a burn, particles unrestrained, streak like a palm held up in goodbye, scalded black. I watched her taillights fade, until they became nothing more than a red glow sputtering out, until our street, our homes were what they’d always been, again. Willow was quiet, unlit streets, darkened roads, everyone asleep. I thought of my mother, of waking her up, of pulling her onto the porch, to watch the burn above, to see. I watched Wren’s window, no flash, no Morse. I waited for dawn beneath the blaze, streaks so palette-luminous I wanted someone next to me, to watch a rage of electricity, magnetic storm, made beautiful only by collision, trapped, shuttling toward earth just to break apart.