When I was a young girl, a creature crept into my bed and into my body. A creature that dwells beneath the surface of my skin. I imagine her, not located within a specific area, but spreading out the vast expanse of my body, snaking through my veins. When people say, “trust your gut” or “follow your instincts,” I imagine my creature, my protector, nodding along with a strange, sad sense of disappointment and dread, and I remember the violent times she broke out of me, unable to bear me. Abused that she is, it is a wonder she always returns.
“This is not an appropriate gift for a 9-year-old girl.” Momma sighed in response to my stepfather, Jeff’s, birthday gift.
“She likes it!” Jeff retorted.
“I do! It’s exactly what I wanted Momma!” I joined in with Jeff against her.
This is how it usually was, Jeff against my Momma. This is how it usually ended up, me on Jeff’s side. His side typically suited my whims. It was my ninth birthday, and he had bought me a slingshot. Not exactly a surprise, he was always coming home with new and slightly risky “toys.”
Jeff’s whole family had strange ideas on what children wanted as gifts. One of his brothers, even more rugged than he, had once given me a mule for a secret Santa gift. Popcorn, the mule, now lived out in the country on Jeff’s family farm. In comparison, to me, the slingshot seemed perfectly normal. I was a fearlessly adventurous child. Destructive, really. A slingshot suited me pretty well. Momma shook her head and turned back to the dishes. Victory.
Shooting out of the door, I set off barefoot down the road. My next-door neighbor and best friend, Mallory, and I were notorious neighborhood tomboys. When something went awry, we usually had a hand in it – missing real estate signs or the fence to the pasture mysteriously locked open. That last one was particularly well known.
I knocked on Mallory’s door to see if she was home, but no one came to the door. I snuck around to the backyard to peer in the glass doors, but I could not find Mallory or her siblings, though I thought I could hear a muffled sound coming from the side of the house. Sneaking to the side of the house, I peered in one of the windows.
Momma told me countless times not to do such things. I had a lack of personal space, so she always told me. Besides, Mackenzie, Mallory’s big sister, had an extreme fear of peeping toms, whom she had sworn up and down had visited her window at night. If I listened to my creature, I would have peered in far less windows than I did through the years.
Inside, Mallory’s mother was lying naked on the bed. Her hair was messy, and I remember I thought she looked sad. She was making strange, loud noises and rolling around on the mattress.
It was not unusual for Cathy to burst into tears out of frustration with her kids, so I assumed this must be what most mommas cry about when they were alone. My creature watched wearily with me, through the blood vessels expanding in my fingernails, pressed up against the hot glass.
Moving on, I felt somewhat secretly relieved that this would be a solo mission, a solitary adventure. I was going on a hunt, and a hunt should be quiet. If Mallory came, we would probably just giggle the whole time and scare away any potential prey. I wondered what my first kill would be, as I felt the scratch of the rocks jiggling in my pocket. I walked a few blocks, seeing squirrels and birds, but never aiming, the weight in my pockets mocking me, reminding me that this was a mission, not just an idle stroll through the neighborhood.
I walked past the rose witch’s house, leaning a little further away from the side of the road as I passed. All the neighborhood kids avoided the rose witch. She filled her yard to the brim with rows of roses. Red, pink, yellow, and orange roses lined the border of her yard and the small ditch that separated the yard from the road. Her eternal scowl and the rose bushes’ thorns told the neighborhood to keep out, and yet the abundance of brightly colored flowers invited unwanted guests.
Before last summer, the rumors about the old woman consisted of her being a hermit of sorts, a modern day elderly, female Boo Radley. But ever since Mallory’s older sister Mackenzie’s run in with her last summer, she was now the fabled rose witch.
Mackenzie had been riding her bike around the neighborhood when the wild hair struck, not uncommon in teenagers. I always imagined this particular wild hair whipping into her ear while she rode and sticking there, whispering to her, until she could no longer resist riding her bike into the rose witch’s garden. The rose witch came outside of her house and yelled at Mackenzie to get out of her roses.
“Your roses are dead!” Mackenzie yelled in a smug, thoughtless retort, the kind that burns with youth.
As she was riding her bike away from the yard, the rose witch and my big sister, Sarah, disappearing behind her, she and the wild hair looked back and laughed at the old woman walking through the trampled bushes. Looking back over her shoulder and giggling, she never saw the car when it hit her.
I never knew what to say. Not at the house after the cops had called, not at the hospital, not at the funeral, and not across the hall from Sarah’s room at night, listening to her sobs those first following weeks. The rose witch did not come to Mackenzie’s funeral. No one ever talked about that. I always wondered. I wondered why she did not come, and I wondered why she would.
I had mistakenly asked Momma and Cathy in our kitchen one night. I had come downstairs late for water, and they were in the kitchen in nightgowns, talking with faces scarlet as the wine in their cups. When I asked about the rose witch, they turned around, and I imagined their heads exploding into little bits of red flakes.
Cathy’s sobs pierced through the walls of our house, followed by the shrieks of my baby sister, and Momma turned on me.
“What were you thinking?” Her question seeped into my bones, but I had no answer. I never knew what to say.
“Leave her alone,” Jeff had walked into the room in his robe, “nothing wrong with a curious mind, Mel, let’s go upstairs.”
I remember walking up the stairs, my hand encased in his hand. The stairs creaked under his weight, and I stared silently ahead while my creature snaked up from my hand to my arms and buried herself in my chest.
I shook my head, turned, and went down a different street, the colorful roses still pressing on my mind. Stop thinking, start hunting, I thought absentmindedly. There were so many living things to hunt. Birds, squirrels, even the cows in the pasture. I held their futures in my hands, in my pockets. I fingered the rocks in my pockets again. I really was not in the mood to take down something as large as a cow. A squirrel, I decided. Squirrels were small enough to stun with a pebble, and they were everywhere. Surely, I could snag one.
Wanting to find a sunny area to set up, I wandered around in the pasture until I came to a small ditch with a log lodged in the middle. This was the spot. The kids from the neighborhood across the pasture from mine met us here when we had free time. It was a beacon of play. If someone was sitting on the log, time was to kill and energy was to spend.
The ditch and log were smack in the middle of the comfortable area of the pasture, the fields. The back of the pasture backed up to my Gigi’s house in another neighborhood, but that part of the pasture was forbidden. We only went there when we were feeling particularly brave. There were far more trees in the back of the pasture.
The open fields of the pasture made the trees seem even closer together. I imagined the view from the sky looked like a prairie backed up against a deep forest. Trips into the back of the pasture always ended the same way: racing out, fleeing from the shadows.
I sat on the log and practiced with my slingshot a few times, until an unsuspecting squirrel came into view. The squirrel was perched on top of one of the many hay bales right in the open, an easier target than in a tree or a bush. I took aim from the log. I was ready. Time seemed frozen as I stared ahead at the squirrel’s twitching face.
Why was I not letting the slingshot go? I stood still, ready, and aimed to hit the squirrel, but my hands never moved. The squirrel looked up at me, finally noticing a predator nearby, jumped down from the hay bale, and quickly scampered off into the nearby trees. Next time, I thought, definitely next time. My creature shook inside of me. I felt rushed to leave. The sky was darkening, and the smell of rain distracted me from reeling in my failure for long. Slingshot in hand, I packed up my bag and began walking out of the pasture and back towards my house. The sun was just starting to lower in the sky, and I knew Momma would want me home for supper soon.
There was something special about the afternoons in my neighborhood. I wondered if all neighborhoods felt this way. Most of the houses had their blinds open while the families inside were doing whatever their afternoon routines were. Getting supper ready, doing homework. Walking down the sidewalk, the breeze blew my hair in my eyes, gently chiding me for my voyeurism. I had lived in this neighborhood for years; I knew every street, down to the sewer systems below. Peering in windows was not my only unsuitable habit.
Returning home, I walked into the backyard and set the slingshot down on the back porch railing. My dog Peanut came up, no doubt in search of a belly rub. He was what Momma called “so ugly he’s cute.” I never thought he was ugly. He was a short, brown mutt with a black muzzle and two holes in his side. His run-in with the wolf dog down the road had left him with character and left us mildly traumatized.
I sat on the steps with Peanut, petting him and cooling down from my adventure. The back porch’s concrete had me and my siblings’ handprints, and Peanut’s paw prints, sealed into it. I loved this house. The backyard was my jungle; somewhere Mallory and I played, fought, cried, laughed, and ultimately felt like we belonged to—and had control over—the events that transpired there.
A few minutes later, Jeff walked out of the back door. He was a big man. Too big for the small back porch, which was really just a small square that happened to have a roof over it. I smiled, about to greet him, but he spoke first.
“Why didn’t ya use the sling Mel?” His voice was heavy. I thought he seemed frustrated.
“I tried, but the squirrels were too fast.” I lied.
“Aw Mel, gimme that thing I’ll show ya.” He grunted.
“It’s ok, I’ll try again tomorrow.” My creature began to struggle, trying to crawl out of my belly and up my throat.
He grabbed the slingshot out of my hands and walked down from the porch into our back yard. I caged my creature back in my belly, and we followed him. He smelled like a mixture of sweat and pee and smoke, and something else that I could not place. The smell made me uneasy, and my creature rattled inside a familiar cage.
“All ya hafta do,” he slurred, “is not be a pussy.”
My creature wrapped her arms around the cage bars and bellowed, but I did not move. Jeff raised the slingshot to his eye and pulled back into the silence, while my head swam and my creature howled.
A crow drops dead to the ground, and I fall on my face and knees in the grass and dirt beside it. The dirt is cool on my legs, and my hair is hot and knotted in my hands. My creature bursts up through my throat and takes refuge in the dead bird beside my mouth. Jeff stumbles over to me, and I cry until my face, the dirt, the grass, the dead crow, and his hands swirl in an endless cycle – a painted scene among the others hanging in the hall of our house on Mimosa Street.