It starts with a single shoe on the side of the highway. Tall trees behind the guardrail and some evocative litter. Now: zoom out to the empty road, sky that kind of cloudy that hurts your eyes. Then just when people wanna crank the volume—check if there’s any sound, a single car whooshes past, roars down the road, fades to a whine. Doppler effect. In the car’s wake, a hot chips bag stirs and settles. Dead silence. Single shoe still in frame; maybe it’s a baby shoe.
That’s how my movie opens. That’s what I play in my head while I fall asleep, on a loop that smooshes into my dreams. Then maybe weird critters come out of the woods and file down the road like they’re evacuating for a natural disaster. Or else a guy with a quiver on his back and a crossbow in his arms, he’ll come out of the trees and nudge the roadside shoe with the toe of his own, like to test if it’s alive. He notches an arrow and sites something back in the woods, nervous. I watch the action from a top corner of the frame. Never remember quite all of it once I wake up.
While we eat our Honeycomb, I tell my sister about my movie, and she says, “It’s called a dream, Stupidass. Everybody has them.” She shovels more cereal into her mouth, milk dripping down her chin.
I start to answer but she glances at the clock on the microwave—grabs both our bowls and drops them in the sink.
“We’re late,” she says and throw me my shoes. I race out the door after her, pulling my sneakers on as I go. It’s fall and the cold air burns my lungs, which always hurt a little from my asthma. I follow behind my sister to the bus stop.
“It’s not just a dream,” I say. “Just cuz it gets finished while I’m sleeping doesn’t mean—“ Then, climbing onto the bus I realize I’m too light. “Camille,” I say in a whisper. “I forgot my bag.”
She gives me a long look and says, “I’ll write you a note.” I file into a seat behind her and she pulls a heart-shaped notepad from her backpack. Scrawls in loopy handwriting, Lula forgot her bag, so sorry! and signs our mom’s name. We get off the city bus at Kroger and join the kids milling around and showing off, waiting for the bus from our school.
“Camille!” a girl calls from a clump of them, all in furred boots and tight sweaters. My sister follows the voice without even a backwards glance, and now I’m alone. In the movie last night, nothing came out of the woods at all, and that was weird. Just a bunch of sounds and light through the trees. Maybe it was like, a battle between robots. Maybe some aliens or something in those woods, bent on abduction.
It’s still dark in my room when I wake up, but I can feel it’s late, mid-morning at least. The girls must’ve been quiet, leaving for school. My chest is heavy, crushing weight. I’m pinned like a bug. Dry hot pain in my head and neck. Another hour before I make it out of bed, needing to pee.
In the bathroom I splash cold water on my face and avoid the mirror. Try not to see the puffy folds that have eaten my features. Eyes swallowed whole. I looked young, looked like myself, until I didn’t. My feet don’t want to uncurl today and every step is agony, arches threatening to snap in two like overstretched bows.
I get the bucket and fill it with hot water from the tub—bite my lip to keep from crying out while I carry that over to my chair. Dump in epsom salt and alcohol, throw a towel on the floor and finally sit. I lift each foot in and hiss at the painful relief. Camille left the clicker on the arm of my chair and a breakfast bar so I’d have something to eat. The kitchen is too much for me—that long hallway and all. I don’t have much of an appetite anyway. The letter’s where I left it, tucked between the arm of the chair and the seat cushion. Camille’s a good girl.
My sister told me he can’t see Lula if I don’t let him, that he’s got no rights. But the letter he wrote says he won’t just send the money, he wants the girl, and what am I supposed to do? We gotta eat still, don’t we? Who else do we have? Won’t be getting anything more from Camille’s daddy. Eighty five miles an hour around a blind curve, deer went through his windshield and a hoof—pow—right through his face. His life insurance, the fact that he thought to tend Camille like that, that shocked me. It kept us afloat for years but ran out a couple months ago. When he died, I couldn’t bring myself to tell Camille. She was so little that when a few months went by, no visits, she just sort of accepted it, stopped asking.
So it’s Lula’s old sperm donor I gotta ask for help now, the skeeze who real slick tore open the condom wrapper and mimed rollin it on—had me fooled until he shuddered like something dying and pulled out, dripping that child right into me. His mom brought diapers over a few times when Lula was real little, and when she was maybe three he took her to McDonalds and watched her like zoo animal through the glass walls of the play place. She just sat in one of those bubbles not looking at him or anybody. Talking to herself. I followed them there, watched them from the parking lot. I never even thought to do something like that with Camille’s daddy, but there you go. Some people just leave you uneasy.
Letter says, he’ll take her, he’s gotta good job these days as a warehouse manager and he can cover her inhalers and school supplies and all that until I get back on my feet. Says if I send Lula, he’ll even help me and Camille with rent. That’s his mom, I bet you anything. Itchin for a grandbaby. Lula’s almost eleven though and maybe not what they’re expecting. I don’t want to send her to the wolves. I wish Camille could go in her place. That one’s got resiliency. I read the letter again. It would be temporary of course. I tap a pen against the legal pad I had Camille dig out for me yesterday for the purpose. Dear Marcus, I manage to write.
After a while the weight returns to my chest and I close my eyes against it.
The water in the bucket grows cold and I lift my feet out—set them gingerly on the towel. Click on the TV, lay my chair back, and set the letter aside, for the moment at least.
Reading, Social Studies, Spanish, I suck at all that. I disappear into my head. But in science we learn about calculating force, all those influences adding up and balancing out, and even though I don’t have any of my books, I know what’s going on. Mr. Crutcher calls on me over and over while the rest of the kids look glaze-eyed with their pens limp between their fingers. I’ve got my hand halfway in the air when I feel it, a tightening in my throat and a weight on my chest.
“Mr. Crutcher,” I say, my voice a strangled whistle.
“Yes, Lula.” He points at me, waits for me to supply an answer.
I shake my head and point to my throat. “I need my inhaler.” I’m scared of how my voice sounds. I turn sideways in my desk and bend over, trying hard to fit air in my lungs.
There’s a flurry of motion around me, a squeak of desk chairs. Someone shouts, “Give her some room,” like we’re in one of my mom’s shitty daytime shows.
Mr. Crutcher’s shoes come into the frame, brown loafers with dumb little tassels. He asks me questions I can’t answer and I grope around under my desk for a bag I don’t have, for my inhaler. “Camille,” I manage to say.
Then the shoes are gone and I’m just staring at linoleum, gray skid marks across the beige. My breath whistles thin. I shift, trying to lever open my airways, and my own feet come into the frame, Camille’s hand-me-down Keds, little flowers hiding stains. Only now do I panic, kick my feet like roadkill, and I hear a crash as my foot connects with a desk. The crashing from the woods, bright lights through the trees, single shoe all focused and dead—
Someone yanks my head back and plastic clinks against my teeth, a cold chemical hiss in my mouth—I gasp, staring at the white foam board ceiling. “Stupidass,” Camille says under her breath. She’s crouched beside my desk, petting my hair. She presses the inhaler into my hand and closes my fingers around it. Mr. Crutcher stands behind her all worried, and the other kids with their chairs pushed back, they watch me like a show, like a not-real thing. “Stupid Lula,” Camille says again gently, breathing with me, long careful breaths.
I sign my name carefully at the bottom of the letter, fold it and seal it away. It’s done; two weeks and he’ll come get her. The phone rings. My sister, I think, calling to make sure I didn’t chicken out on writing him back. She’s the one that made me set a deadline. The decision’s already made, she said when I told her about it, no point dragging it out. My sister said: Lula will be fine, she’s tougher than you give her credit for.
I don’t know though. Camille doesn’t talk about it, but I know Lula spends most of the time on her own, creeping around under her bed. Something not right. Point is, this wasn’t even the hard part though: I still have to tell Lula.
“I did it, I did it,” I say when I pick up the phone.
“Ms. Winters?” The voice on the other end of the line sounds confused.
“This is Mr. Crutcher, from the school. I’m calling about Lula.”
Shit. I pulled the lever on my chair and it pops back upright. “What’s wrong?”
Walking home from the bus station Camille says to me, angry, “Why’d you do that shit?”
I don’t answer. I watch our feet on the sidewalk, Camille’s worn boots, her Keds on my dumb feet.
“You know there’s nothing wrong with you,” she says. “Just your head that’s fucked up.”
“Why’d you have a spare inhaler then?”
“Because Lula, a fucked up head can still get you dead. Too stubborn to breathe even.”
She turns down the drive to our house and I follow.
Camille jiggles the key in the door til the deadbolt slides, calls to our mom that we’re home, that Lula’s fine, ignore the messages from school. “I’m not walking with you anymore, you keep doing shit like that,” she says to me. She kicks off her boots and retreats to our room.
Once Camille has stopped crashing around I go in there too. She’s plugged into her tablet on her bed—on her side of the room—bright orange headphones blocking me out.
I get my flashlight and make my way under my bed. I keep it clean down here. No one’s allowed. The dark dust ruffle I picked out special.
Click. My flashlight in the corner of two shoeboxes is the setting sun. The inside of one shoe box is painted with the pine trees. A guardrail built of q-tips, painted silver and taped together. Another box is set up at a right angle to the first and shows the road receding in the distance. Foreshortening. The highway spills over the lip of the box and onto the floor, little strips of masking tape for the dividing lines.
I’m the fourth wall and I adjust the light.
From a hole in the box spring I retrieve a silken pouch that used to hold our Scrabble tiles. Now it holds other stuff. A Matchbox car. The shoe from Camille’s old Barbie, the one that came with cashier set her dad gave her when she was real little. The Lladro figurine of a child and a fawn that was my mom’s. Part of her Peaceful Kingdom collection that she sold off. I saved this one though, “And The Little Child Shall Lead Them” #6928. The last thing in the bag is the little plastic man with the bow and arrow, from some movie I never saw. He came in a Happy Meal a long time ago.
I set them up now, behind the guardrail, at the edges of the wood. The car stays off set, at the far end of the road. I don’t know how to get the flashing lights right. My forest needs more depth. Maybe some construction paper trees coming off the painted landscape, those LED twinkle lights behind them that flash on and off in a pattern. I could get those at the store this weekend, if Camille would walk me.
A yell comes from my mom’s room, the words indiscernible but the tone piteous and clear.
A thump, Camille’s dirty sock under the edge of my dust ruffle.
“What?” I snap.
“It’s your turn.”
I groan and wave a hand at her from under the dust ruffle. “I’m busy,” I say.
She pads away and out of sight and I hear the squeak of her bed as she climbs back in. “Fair’s fair,” she says.
I look at my set and hold out a hand to my guys. “Take five,” I whisper. I wriggle from under the bed.
The hallway’s short but the air at the far end of it still feels different. Heavier. There’s light playing under the crack at the bottom of the door, from the old tube TV set our mom’s got back there. My heart races and I take deep breaths, fight the tightening in my throat and chest. Nothing wrong but a fucked up head. I knock and ease the doorknob open, and the door swings in without a sound. A wave of smell hits me, hand cream and sickness. My mom used to have her own smell but it’s gone now.
“Mama?” I whisper, and as the words leave my head I float out with them, pin myself to the top corner of the room and look down on the set.
The bright orange globe of her bedside lamp, losing a war against the shadows. The bulk of her in the recliner, continuous with the furniture, the floor, the food wrappers, half drunk glasses of water perched on every surface. Even from my vantage point up high, I hear the quiet sounds of her crying, a wet animal snuffling. I see me in the doorway, curling in on myself like a bug. “Mama?” The words float out my mouth like mist, like morning fog over asphalt. “What do you need?”
Devan Del Conte lives and writes in Memphis, TN. Other stories of hers have been published in the Collagist, Hobart and Jellyfish Review.