The autumn I turn ten, we leave my dad and the crusted expanse of Arizona desert, hard-packed sand dotted with dried grass and shriveled cacti, for the suburbs of Chicago. I’m crammed in the middle of the backseat with my two older siblings and a caged parakeet, tracking the warning signs that portend our new future: the radiator blasting open outside a ghost town in New Mexico; the U-Haul trailer screeching the bumper clean off our car in Oklahoma; and when we arrive at our destination, Mom’s forehead folding in the middle and her lips setting in a sharp, flat line.
Something else has gone wrong.
We kids know better than to ask questions, so when Mom marches us into an apartment block, we bite our lips shut in imitation. My first time in an elevator sends us five floors up—ding!—into a long blue-carpeted hallway; a swirling mist of urine and meatballs. We pass door after door, each one belching a chorus of new odors from the cracks. Pipe tobacco, cleaning fluid, baby diapers.
We stop at baby diapers and knock. A lady with short dark hair answers. A baby grows out of her hip. The lady doesn’t smile when she lets us in.
“It’s only a one bedroom,” she says.
There’s already another family sleeping in the living room, parents with their teenage son, and we take our places on the floor next to them. Nine people in one apartment.
In the morning, when Mom leaves for her new job, I crunch dry cereal and roll it into balls of paste on my tongue. The baby lady clutches her temples and says we kids can’t stay in here all day.
I suck in diaper air and hold my breath through the hallway—ding!—elevator, breathe—ding!—out into the October air.
Honking cars and shouting voices. The buildings go up and up, crowding the sky, and a train sounds, brassy and deep.
We weave a path through the cobbled city-center, watching for traffic lights instead of rattlesnakes, until we find a small stream with a wooden bridge. I trod back and forth over it with my eyes open then closed, open then closed—trip-trapping, like the littlest billy goat gruff in search of greener pastures—expecting magic.
We find the library but don’t dare go inside; we don’t belong here. Next to it, a tree trunk rises from a circle of dark earth, dropping a sunset of red-yellow leaves onto the grass.
I lean into the rough bark, into the hush of whooshing leaves.
When the sun dips behind a building, I shove my hands into my pockets and kick at the earth. I gobble up the unfamiliar good-dirt and fallen-leaves smell—as much as I can hold—until, like train smoke, my breath chuffs out and away.
Sara Hills’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, and Reflex Fiction. Her work has also been included in the 50 Best British and Irish Flash Fiction of the Year (BIFFY50) 2019-20, shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award and The Bridport Prize, and nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfictions, and Best Small Fictions. Originally from America’s Desert Southwest, she currently lives in Warwickshire, England. She tweets from @sarahillswrites.
Photography by Audra Kerr Brown
The NFFR and Sara Hills Interview
Is your MicroLife essay related to anything else you’ve written or are working on? If not, what else can you tell us about your current writing?
This micro was originally inspired in a workshop taught by the inimitable Kathy Fish. I’d love to say I’m working on a memoir-in-flash (someday!) I am, however, putting together a flash fiction collection, hopefully for 2021, and I have drafts of both a novella-in-flash and a novel simmering on the back burner.
We’ve been thinking about the elusive definition of Creative Non-Fiction. What’s your working definition of it?
CNF, for me, is about discovery–examining how our experiences have shaped our narratives. How each memory and experience builds our understanding of the world and our sense of place or displacement in it.
It’s obviously been an insanely rough year. what’s been your favorite artistic escape–either book, music, or tv?
I’ve been reading old favorites by Goldberry Long and Ursula Hegi as well as tons of flash, and at night I’ve been watching cheesy TV/films with my teens–whatever keeps them sane, keeps me sane.