The woods behind our house, leaves crunching underfoot, trees towering above, their branches keeping out most of the light. Sharp treasures gleaming from secret knots: glass shards and bottlecaps and rusted pipes. Mushrooms growing shelf-like out of the damp tree bark, smelling of licorice and vanilla. The feel of their gills, not slimy like fish gills, but like velvety pages in a book. With Dad’s candy-apple Swiss Army knife, blade rusting, I carve a notch shoulder-high, marking the days he’s been gone, hurting the tree a little more each day.
Jumping roots, my stomach lurches toward home. The yellow square tiles of the bathroom floor, mildew seeping in cracks and corners. The door rattling against the jam, urgent, and Betsy’s voice a thin dagger, “You better get out.” She wants the cherry soda lipstick she pocketed at the dollar store, so she’d smell like something that boys want to suck.
Locked in my night-cloaked bedroom, the dark so dark it’s blue. Squeaky box springs behind the peeling-papered wall, louder, louder, straining under a heavy load, Mom’s soprano lilt against a stranger’s deeper-voiced porcine grunts. Climbing in Betsy’s empty bed, inhaling her coconut hairspray on the pillowcase, pulling the covers chin tight.
Sunlight cracking my sleep, the unfamiliar thumping of boots down the steps, door slamming, tires spinning dust, leaving us quiet. My tiptoed sockfeet catching splinters on the floorboards.
Mom’s spaghetti nightdress, silky emerald, bacon-splatter-stained, one strap safety-pinned. Her breasts hanging unbound and heavy, gone soft like brown bananas, armpits smelling like week-old milk. A Yuban coffee can full of butts, perched on the porch rail. Mom sweeping dried mud off the steps, pale veined legs rising from her off-brand Crocs, her flannel robe falling open. Mom glancing through me, a stare to nowhere. Wiping Dad’s tractor, the white rag browning with spiderwebs and rat poop. My green Army/Navy puffer jacket where I pocket sunflower seeds to last the day. The smell of fire in the air, of burning decay, as I run back toward the woods, toward the bird’s caw bouncing off dying trunks. With knife in hand, I’ll make my mark.
Jill Witty is writing her first novel from Florence, Italy. Her short fiction is published or forthcoming in Atlas & Alice, Defenestration, Reflex, and Burnt Breakfast. Find her online at jillwitty.com or connect on Twitter @jwitty.
Photography by Jesse Dodds