The girl worries about her family’s bones. How wolves will surface them to be scattered about the forest floor. She can picture them, packed, slavering beneath a howling moon. Lam’s growl joins this chorus as he confirms to her mother just how easily he could make any of them disappear.
“Bitch, I’d only have to dig one hole. No one knows where we are right now,” he says. “So no one would even know you’re gone.”
“Hush, baby,” the girl’s mother tells her crying son, whose name is Isaac but whom they call Tubby, on account of his baby fat. She turns sideways in the passenger seat of the motorhome, tapping her lips with an index finger. Then, to Lam, “He’s just a baby. He doesn’t know any better.”
”Yeah? Well, he’s not my kid,” he says. “And he ain’t gonna be a kid period if you don’t keep him the fuck quiet.”
“Oh, Lam,” she says, placing a hand on his right shoulder. She laughs, but it is lost in the hot summer air rushing through her open window.
He shrugs her off, cranks the steering wheel, and guides the ‘93 Winnebago Brave through the turn lane and into the dirt parking lot just north of a gas station. “Oh, Lam, my ass,” he mutters.
The girl is quiet. Around Lam, she’s quickly learned to be invisible, peering out from beneath a coif of auburn hair. But Lam has his own secret powers. And lately he has used them to reveal her. Brushing her hair. Her teeth. Or the time she was in the recliner in shorts and had one foot up under her knee and discovered him recording her on his phone. “Close your legs; I can see your panties,” he said before putting it away.
Her little brother is still in diapers and “teething,” according to the girl’s mother, and when he yawns, which is sometimes—or wails, which is often—she can see crescent moons lining his gums. But Lam doesn’t much care about that. In fact, just yesterday he told the girl’s mother she was lucky her son didn’t have teeth, as he “sure as shit would have knocked them down his fucking throat” long ago.
Lam sets the parking brake and inspects himself in the rearview mirror, running a hairy hand through his black pompadour. The girl catches him staring at her, eyes shining.
“See anything you like?” he asks, winking.
“Lam!” her mother says.
“Hey, I ain’t trying to be a creep—but the little weirdo’s always watching me.”
”She’s afraid of you,” she says.
“Yeah? Well, she shouldn’t be, Ada. When I was her age, my old man tanned my hide just for darin’ to be.” Lam’s voice drifts at the phrase, and he is no longer with them. “That’s what he used to say, too—‘It ain’t nothin’ you done, boy; this here’s just for darin’ to be.’ He’d tell me that every time he skinned me.” Lam’s eyes blink rapidly, and he returns. He twists around and pouts at the girl. “Which was damn near every day.”
“I’m so sorry. No child should be treated that way,” the girl’s mother says.
The girl turns and looks at her in profile.
“Since when did that make any difference?” Lam asks. Her mother does not reply.
“Exactly,” Lam answers. He rolls his eyes and sneers, lips pulled back from giant teeth in disgust at the woman. “You all got five minutes to go use the shitter. Change Tubby. Whatever. Five minutes, Ada.”
The Winnebago’s bathroom is off limits. The black tank has not been dumped in the three weeks since they crossed the Red River into North Dakota, somewhere south of Fargo. Lam had a warrant and was therefore in a hurry to leave Minnesota, and forgot to unhook the hose before driving out of the KOA campground.
A cloying, citrus veneer of tank treatments coats the girl’s throat even when she breathes through her mouth, which for the past five days has been any time she is not near Lam—who, when given the opportunity, makes small circles with his fingernails on the back of her t-shirt and admonishes her for “breathing like a retard.”
She throws the diaper bag strap over her neck, shoulders her brother, and steps outside. Could she run now with her brother? Hide deep within the forest? Slip out under moonlight and use a payphone to call her grandmother? Or perhaps wait within a glade of ferns for some kindly lumberjack to offer them safe passage—wisps of smoke curling above his hand-hewed home?
Evening settles upon the parking lot, and the grove of nearby box elder trees melds into a purple wall bordering a dark creek that snakes from local mountains, which have within the past month shed most of their spring melt. There is a path running down to the water’s edge. Here, the ground flattens. She can see a shadowy picnic table and what must be a park-style grill set into a square of rough concrete. The girl can hear small stones rattling along the stream bed like bones rolled to tell a fortune.
The restrooms are locked. Her mother takes the boy and bag, and asks her to go inside for the key. Lam is standing on his tiptoes wiping the Brave’s giant front windshield with a black rubber squeegee.
When she returns, her mother hands her the baby. “Hold him, please? Mama’s gotta go.”
As the girl waits her turn, a red sedan pulls off the highway. A young couple exits the vehicle with a daughter about the girl’s own age.
“Mom, can I get candy?” this other girl asks.
“I don’t know, sweetie.You better ask your father.”
“Dad, can I?”
“I suppose—but only if you share with me,” he says, and the three of them go inside the Circle J, laughing.
Ada opens the bathroom door. She comes out and pulls on the elastic waistband of her brother’s pants, checking the diaper beneath.
“Clean,” she says. “Ok, give me our little man. You’re up, hon. And please hurry. You know how Lam gets.”
They stare at each other. The girl knows all too well. Her mother’s eyes reveal that she knows what her daughter knows. And then she looks away, refusing to admit it.
It’s nearly dark when the girl finishes. The bones still offer whispered prophecy from beneath the towering grove. The red sedan, with its fairy tale family, is gone from the parking lot. Lam is gone. And so too are her mother and Tubby. She’s on her way to the motorhome when she hears a scream rise from the trees.
Sprinting down the path to the picnic area—her ugly world bruising somehow more bizarre in the past five minutes—she sees her mother sprawled on the grass. Lam is calf-deep in the stream, and has just dunked her brother under the water.
A rock is suddenly in her hand.
Her feet send bouquets of water into the night.
She swings her arm up and back.
Crashes her weapon into his skull. Feels bone give beneath the stone.
Lam says, “Gunngh” and crumples face first into the creek. Floats away. Air is trapped inside his shirt, and his back seems to rise from the water like an angry pelt.
The girl grabs her brother and hauls him ashore. He is crying so hard he is only making hitching sounds, his body trembling.
“What the hell?” It is her mother. Her voice is hoarse, papery. Even in the dusk, the girl can see the mouse swelling beneath her left eye.
“He was drowning Tubby,” the girl says. “He would’ve killed you too.”
They gaze at each other.
“Are you okay?” her mother eventually asks, stumbling to the picnic table. “Did he hurt you too?”
“No. He did this for me.” Of this, she’s sure the bones foretold.
Her mother opens her mouth; closes it without answering. The girl sets her brother down on the tabletop and removes his shirt and pants. She wrings them out, listening as water spills into the gravel at her feet.
Minutes pass. “Did I ever tell you about my sister?” Ada eventually asks.
“I don’t know,” the girl says. “We should get Tubby back to the camper. He needs dry clothes.”
“She got pregnant when we were still in high school.”
“Which is…whatever. Lots of girls get knocked up before graduation. But what I didn’t tell you—have never told anyone—is that I prayed she’d lose that baby.”
“Really?” the girl asks.
“She was always just so perfect at everything. And a part of me hated her for that. I knew she’d be a perfect mom and raise the perfect kid. So I wished it dead.”
The girl thinks on this. “Did your wish come true?”
Ada stands. Touches her cheek and winces. Looks downstream. “Mine? They never do.”
An evening bird calls softly from the trees—is answered by another of its kind.
“What are we supposed to do now?” her mother asks.
The girl smooths her brother’s cowlick and gently taps him on the nose with the tip of her finger. “I’m not sure, Mom. I guess we just dare to be.” A moment’s breeze catches her hair, pushing it from her face. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it dies away.
gina marie bernard
gina marie bernard is a heavily tattooed transgender woman, retired roller derby vixen, and full-time English teacher. She lives in Bemidji, Minnesota. She has work appearing in Meow Meow Pow Pow and Monkeybicycle. She has work forthcoming in STORGY, x-r-a-y lit mag, Anti-Heroine Chic, and Whale Road Review. Her daughters, Maddie and Parker, share her heart. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas, Monticello.
Artwork: Chie Yoshii, Somewhere not here, 2019