Fiction 2014 / Volume 44

Fort — Emm Borgerding

July 1999

I am Abbie, I am eight years old, and this is my fort.

It’s actually my brother Lincoln’s fort. He and my dad built it after we moved here from Indiana, but he’s gone back for college, so it’s my fort now. I go here every day after my mama comes home. I take the leftovers from the fridge so I don’t even have to go inside for dinner. I can heat them up in this old microwave if I remember to plug it into the shed. Lincoln and I exploded a potato in here once. If you stick your head in you can still see some of it. It’s all crusty now. I don’t touch it because old food can give you germs, and one time Lincoln ate old steak from the fridge and wouldn’t stop puking so we had to take him to the hospital. There’s still a puke stain on the couch over there. He kissed his girlfriend, Twilla Fay, on that couch a lot, only one day I pointed to the stain, right where her butt was, and said, “Lincoln puked there.” He yelled at me and told me to go away.

Twilla Fay told him to calm down, that she thought it was funny. She was always nice to me, kind of like the older sisters in movies. I told him he was dumb because he and Twilla Fay didn’t even fit on the couch. It’s really small. Even I can’t lay down on it anymore. Lincoln would try to sleep on it, not just with Twilla Fay, but by himself, too. He said I’d do it when I got older. I guess he’s kinda right, but I always go inside for bed because it gets really cold here at night because some of the wooden planks my dad nailed in for the roof are broken and rotting out. Lincoln liked that because he could see the sky. One night last year, I brought his dinner out to him, because it was before my mama was mad and I still ate dinner inside, and his eyes were big and dark and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He touched my face and his knuckles were hairier than I remembered. He asked me if his heart was beating. I told him I’d check and I ran inside and got my doctor’s kit from under my bed, the one in the shiny black bag, and I held my blue stethoscope to his chest and felt it thumping really hard and said, “I think you’re alive.”

He said, “That’s a surprise.”

The doctor’s kit is back under my bed, but the blue stethoscope is still on top of the microwave. Sometimes, I stick the buds in my ears and press the stethoscope against my chest and try to hear my heartbeat, but it never beats as hard as Lincoln’s.

August

My brother was going to do great things. He kept a notebook full of them in his drawer of flannels. Stop global warming, it said. World peace. No homophobia. Freedom for all. He said he crossed off the ones he already did. I looked once. He had “Fall in love” and “Write a novel” scribbled out. It was a good start. He was smart, too. Super smart. He always came home with seven straight A’s and his beaming, crooked smile, crooked because when he was fourteen, a kid punched him in the mouth and his cheek got all mixed up in his retainer and braces and the doctors had to take away a lot of skin and stretch it out so he couldn’t smile like me; he smiled like a triangle, and he wasn’t even mad. He didn’t punch back. He never hit anyone, because he was too busy writing down all of the great things he was going to do. When he went to Indiana, he left the notebook at home with all of his flannels. He said he had it “all up here.” I keep the notebook in my dresser now, and I crossed out the first great thing he ever wrote: “Get out of here.”

***

The street behind Bourbon Street isn’t actually behind Bourbon Street, it’s behind the streets that have all the bars and strip clubs behind Bourbon Street. It’s like the after-party of Bourbon Street. All of the bottles, vomit, feathers, and stinking water form a sort of colorful muck in the gutters. Kids play in the ooze until parents say things about E. Coli and worms and drag them out by their ankles and shut themselves in peeling white houses with screened-in porches and doors that don’t shut all the way. All the mothers watch from flimsy paper blinds, on the lookout for lost drunk men from Bourbon Street as one hand changes a diaper and the other holds down her boyfriend from leaving and becoming one of the drunks stumbling in the muck of the gutters.

The street doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one. The smelly pee cloud of Bourbon Street floats by, and you know where you are.

One day, Lincoln learned in science class about molecules so he went outside and scooped up a jar full of the gutter muck and kept it in his closet. After three days, it had all separated into different layers. Lincoln pointed to the brown mud clinging to the bottom “That’s Dad,” he said. He moved his finger up to the clear layer of vodka. “That’s Mama.” Then he grimaced and moved down one layer, to the tan sludge, thick and chunky, the vomit. “That’s us.”

I shook my head and pointed to the collection of sequins, feathers, and broken glass floating at the top. “No,” I say. “That’s you.”

He smiled.

***

It was the last sticky day of August and my brother’s body was brought back in an airplane just in time for the funeral. It was already in a dark oak casket, closed and placed in the back of the funeral home with a wreath of flowers on top. The police told us we didn’t want to see the body. The people who crowded my mom nodded in agreement, a set of bobbleheads dressed in black. “Yes, yes, what a tragic accident,” they said, all drinking wine coolers.

My dad couldn’t come down for the funeral. “Too much work,” my mama said, but I think she was lying because I heard her arguing over the phone last week and she kept saying, “You’ll just make it worse, Ira.” That’s my dad’s name, Ira. It sounds like a girl’s name. My mama’s name is Sam, which is a boy’s name. They are opposites of what they are supposed to be.

My mama had already found the beer. Her best friend in a tough situation, she had always claimed, was her loyal pal, Albita. “Don’t give me that bullshit, we all know what he was doing in that kitchen,” she drawled. She always drawled when she was drunk, even though it sounded fake and horrible because she’d grown up in Michigan. I hid my face behind my fan and frowned.

My mama was a bitter person, but her bottle or two of Purple Haze hadn’t helped. She kept telling people it was Lincoln’s own fault he died, which was a lie. My mama lied a lot when she was drunk, and she was drunk a lot. She had told a man at a bar once that I was her sister and Lincoln was her boyfriend. Lincoln had walked me home that night, his face twisted up in disgust. “You never be like mom, okay?” I had nodded.

I let go of her hand as she talked to our neighbors and walked around the funeral home, fanning myself with a red wooden paddle my mom had bought at a gas station on the way over here. I had cried a lot while we were in the car. “Do you feel sick?” she had asked. “Did you hurt yourself? Are you hot?” I hadn’t been crying for any of those things. I had been crying because on sticky days like this, Lincoln should have been walking shirtless to Ms. Hank’s house with a bottle of Jack to go play piano in the air conditioning. He should not have been sealed in a box. But under my black dress, I had been sweating, so I said I was hot, and she bought me the fan, but only after I had promised to stop crying.

There were people in clumps, hot, sweaty clumps of strangers I had never met, sticking to the walls of the funeral home. They gave me sideways glances as I made my way up the aisle to my brother’s coffin. They whispered things like “no-good” and “meth” and “just like her brother,” but I pretended not to hear and kept fanning myself, thinking only about the feeling of the cool air pushing back my hair as I walked.

I saw Lincoln’s girlfriend, Twilla Fay, and her eyes were all red and she smelled like my mama after a night out. I let her hug me anyways, even though she was sticky and kept running her fingers through my hair. “It’s just you and me now, Abs,” she said, and she smiled a little, but it looked more like she was growling. I let her hold my hand for a while until she went to go grab another beer from the cooler, and then I walked to where my brother’s coffin was.

It was a pretty box, a very expensive one, all shiny with imprints of palms and lilies, but Lincoln would have hated it. It was the kind of box my mama should’ve been in, not my brother. My brother shouldn’t’ve been in a box; it was much too hot. I stuck my fingers in the cracks and pushed up on the coffin. There was a hissing sound, and it started to go up all by itself, like the trunk of our minivan. I looked at Lincoln’s face and he was like a puddle of red and yellow wax, unrecognizable, and he stunk. I felt queasy but refused to gag and, on tiptoe, began to fan my brother with my paddle.

Every gust brought his face closer to normal, tightening, shaping back to his big nose and triangle smile and he was smiling, and he was blinking his blue eyes and he said, “How’s it going, Ab?”

I started crying again, even though I promised my mama I wouldn’t cry anymore, even though I was so happy to hear my brother again, all I could do was cry and ask, “When are you coming back?”

“Thanksgiving, Shorty, I told you. I’m coming back to grab my stuff and see you.”

I kept fanning him, and blush returned to his cheeks as his chest reformed, his elbows, his fingernails. I said, “Why did you have to die?”

As he opened his mouth I felt a tug on the back of my collar, and my mama dragged me away, the coffin shutting as she yelled, “Abigail! What do you think you’re doing?”

The clumps of people just stared, no more whispers, just stared as I kicked my mother in the shins with my shiny patent shoes. I kicked her hard, as hard as I could, and I could see tears leaking out from behind her sunglasses as her yellow teeth held back the curses she so wanted to yell. She dropped me, and I ran out, out of the funeral home, down the street and all the way to the stop sign. I leaned up against the pole and started fanning myself, because it was hot and I didn’t know what else to do.

***

On the days that it was really hot, so hot that even having the windows open didn’t help, Lincoln and I would go over to Ms. Hank’s house because she had air-conditioning. I would always be in my blue jumper and Lincoln wouldn’t even wear a shirt, it was so hot. At the garden store where my mama worked, they had to take breaks every thirty minutes so they wouldn’t get heat stroke.

Lincoln would hold my hand all the way down the street, even though our hands were really sweaty. There were other people outside, too, sitting on their screen porches with iced tea or amber bottles of beer. Sometimes, they’d yell at us, yell bad things about our mama and our dad and about Lincoln and even me, and Lincoln would just pull me closer to him and keep walking. His chest was always really sweaty and would make my jumper damp, but I never said anything.

Lincoln always brought a flask of mama’s Jack over to Ms. Hank’s house because the liquor store across the street wouldn’t sell it to her anymore after she hit a woman with her car when she was really drunk. Ms. Hank was a grumpy lady and she wouldn’t’ve let me and Lincoln in without the flask.

Her house looked like ours, only blue, and the paint was peeling off her house more than ours. She didn’t have a lock, or a doorbell either, and she couldn’t hear real well, so Lincoln would just open the screen door and slam it a couple of times and she’d come out of her bedroom. She’d smile, and it used to scare me because she only had five teeth, and she’d shuffle back into her bedroom, clutching the Jack to her the way mama used to clutch me.

Lincoln and I would go to the piano room, and I’d lay down on the white wicker bench while he played Ms. Hank’s piano. He didn’t know much about music; he couldn’t read notes or anything like that, but if he heard a song enough, he could play it. He liked to play stuff he heard on TV or in video games. He was really good at the Super Mario Brothers’ theme song right before he left. The piano was old and some of the keys were missing, but Lincoln could always make it sound good.

After a while, Ms. Hank would always come watch. At first, she’d be helpful, and say smart things like “chord progression” and “phrases” and “dynamics,” and Lincoln would get a little better, but then she’d drink more Jack and get mad. She’d start telling him everything was wrong. She liked to punch the air and wiggle around, and her long, wispy white hair would get tangled in the wicker and tear out of her head. By that time she didn’t even care.

When the flask was empty she’d start crying and calling Lincoln “Mr. Hank” and that’s when he would stop playing and take my hand and thank Ms. Hank for her hospitality. We’d leave, back down that same street into the heat, and I’d get sweaty and hot again but still feel cold inside, a chilly storm in my belly, like I’d done something to be ashamed of. I know Lincoln felt it too, but we always went back with a bottle of Jack every time another heat wave would roll through.

October

This is the first cold autumn I’ve ever had in New Orleans. There isn’t snow, but there is wind, so cold it goes through my skin and bites my bones. My mama said it’s climate change but I know better; I know it’s Lincoln.

I slept in the fort with my door open. I felt Lincoln sneak in under my makeshift blanket of sweatshirts; he pinched my toes and ruffled my hair and hugged me so hard I heard cracks and I cried, but I didn’t want him to leave so I held onto him tight and told him to never go away.

My mama took me to the hospital the next morning. “You could have died,” she said. “Why the fuck did you leave the door open?” I didn’t answer, because she doesn’t like it when I talk about Lincoln. I just cried, because I missed my brother and my insides hurt after being hugged all night long. The doctors told my mom my old bone breaks were acting up because of the weather. My mama believed them, but I knew I was hurting so bad because Lincoln never wanted me to forget him.

***

Before Lincoln left, before my dad left, I used to have dreams about Christmas trees. I was always in a field, naked, and there was snow on the ground. I was walking because I had to find a Christmas tree because that’s where my family was. There was a cold wind blowing me back but my breath was fire and I blew and blew fire and doves and the wind screamed and swirled and let me be. Lincoln found me and gave me his flannel and his shoes, which fit me just right.

Then we were at the Christmas tree decorated with shot glasses and my parents were throwing bottles of vodka at each other and then the sun came out and my parents burst into flame and were running around scream- ing with their hands in the air and it would’ve been funny if it hadn’t been my parents. Lincoln told me to go hide because I was on fire too, but on the inside. I wriggled under the roots of the Christmas tree and climbed up into it. I could hear the sound of glass breaking and Lincoln calling my name, but I stayed in the tree because it was warm.

I was naked in a field ofsnow and there was a box in front ofme made from the oak tree in my backyard. I tried to open it, but it burned my fingers.

I grabbed Lincoln’s hand but my fingertips melted him. I pointed to a fat pine tree burning in the snow. “Let’s get that one,” I said, because Lincoln was cold and the air was cold and the ground was cold and all I wanted was to be hot.

I was naked in a field ofsnow and there was a box in front ofme made from the oak tree in my backyard. I opened it, but there was only sky. I closed it angrily, and it shattered into splinters.

Lincoln pushed me into the snow and left me there in the cold for one day. My dad found me and picked me up, tucked me into a box and buried me under a Christmas tree. I almost died, but I’d wake up before Lincoln could come and save me.

The dreams stopped after we moved to New Orleans, after we moved away from winter and snow and Christmas trees. I remember telling my dad the dreams had stopped and I remember him fake-smiling. I could always tell his fake-smiles from his real ones because I could always see his missing tooth when he fake-smiled. I didn’t know then, but now I know because after he smiled his fake-smile he slammed the screen door on the way to work and never came back to the street behind Bourbon Street. Sometimes, I think I dreamt that too, but then no one eats the creamed hamburger on toast my mama makes every morning and I remember.

***

Lincoln kept his most secret things under one of the sofa cushions in the fort, in a little hollowed-out hole in the base. He had a wrinkly picture of his girlfriend, a couple of mushy love letters, and the birch pipe our dad used to smoke when we still lived in Indiana. I think that’s why he went back, other than the scholarship. I think he wanted to find our dad again, or maybe he just wanted to see snow. Lincoln loved snow.

***

The first time someone said sorry to me was when my dad said sorry for forgetting my fifth birthday. The second was after my mama slapped me for being sassy while she was drunk. The third was after Lincoln accidentally threw me down the stairs and I couldn’t move and I passed out because I hurt so bad. He kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” and I believed him, because Lincoln never hurt anyone. My mom was so mad. She called him a freak and said he was a “no-good scumbag” just like our dad. Lincoln didn’t say anything, but just stood with his hands in fists behind his back and I knew he wanted to throw mama down the stairs like he’d accidentally thrown me, but he didn’t, because Lincoln never hurt anyone. I didn’t even have to stay in the hospital that long, only a few days, and I only have a little scar on my chin from it. He started his list that night, sitting next to me in my hospital bed. “I’m going to do great things,” he said, and I believed him.

November

Sometimes I don’t remember the things I do.

I used to sleepwalk when I was three and I would steal Lincoln’s clothes and pull his hair and bite him until someone woke me up. My parents started locking my bedroom, and my mama said she’d hear me scratch and pound at the door all night long. They took me to the hospital after my hands got really bloody and the doctors gave me medicine so I wouldn’t sleepwalk anymore. That’s when I started having the dreams.

Now, I will be walking in the middle of the street when I should be in school and have no idea how I got there. There will be a cigarette in my fingers that I don’t remember smoking. My teacher, Mrs. Beaman, caught me one time and walked me all the way home, tugging me by my elbow, saying how second grade was too young to start smoking. I woke up on the couch under a sweatshirt in the fort. At school, I opened my eyes and I was bit- ing a girl and she was screaming, and I got sent home twice for hitting Jake Bouteille, who pulled my hair during snack time.

Sometimes I write Lincoln on my homework instead of Abbie.

I’ve started having dreams again, and I’m always at the funeral, and Lincoln keeps saying, “Thanksgiving, Abs, I’ll be back for my flannels,” and then I wake up.

I try to remember things, but all I see is a picture of a fire and white powder on my fingers and I am always angry and my bones hurt bad all the time.

But sometimes, I’ll wake up with bruises all the way down my back and I feel calm and happy and I know I’ve won today. I don’t know what I’ve won, but it’s something.

***

“There’s not enough room for all my flannels,” Lincoln had said,

pointing to the blue truck he and a couple of friends were taking with them to Indiana. The truck bed had been full of amps and hard drives and a couple of duffle bags of jeans and sweatshirts. Lincoln gave my mama a quick kiss on the cheek and looked her in the eyes. He was taller than her. “I’ll be back for the rest at Thanksgiving.”

I ran up from the backyard and Lincoln caught me, lifting me up to make me feel like I was flying. “You’ll hold down the fort, right Abs?” he asked.

“Duh,” I said.

***

There was a knock at my bedroom door, where my mom has been keeping me for the past three weeks “for my own good.” She was so mad when Mrs. Beaman brought me home and told my mother about my cigarette. With her crazy red hair and blue eyes and big fat cigar, I had thought she looked like a dragon. I told my mom, but she didn’t think it was funny. She told me I should respect my elders, especially teacher-women like Mrs. Beaman.

I opened my door a crack, expecting it to be Ms. Hank with the daily batch of gooey yellow cupcakes she’s been bringing since Lincoln died, but she wasn’t there. It was a tall girl, with soft blue eyes and dark hair with green stripes. Her shirt was bright pink with a really low V showing a lot of freckles and a white scar curving up her neck. My heart felt tight and my cheeks felt hot. I barely recognized her from the crinkly picture from under the sofa now hiding in my back pocket: Lincoln’s girlfriend, Twilla Fay. “Can I come in?” she asked softly. She was born here, her syrupy accent woven really strong. I didn’t say anything, but she slipped by me anyways, looking around with wide eyes at the room. “Wow. Your mom wasn’t kiddin’.”

My floor was covered in Lincoln’s clothes, my bed made up with Lincoln’s sheets, my walls painted with his posters and our finger paintings from when we were little and still living in Indiana. Twilla Fay reached up and almost touched one of these, one I had done of my dad and I in front of a fat Christmas tree, but tugged her hand back as if it’d zapped her. “What are you doing here?” I ask, climbing onto my bed and sitting with my legs crossed. “Did my mom send you?”

“Maybe,” she said. “But I really came to talk about Lincoln.” I felt warm at the sound of his name and smiled. “Really?” “Yeah. I bet you miss him a lot, don’t you?”

“He was the best brother ever,” I said. I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve said that. He was the best brother ever. “Do you miss him?”

“A little bit,” Twilla Fay said, sitting next to me, folding her legs, too. “But I’m glad he’s gone.”

“What?” I scoot away from her, my stomach doing flips. “But you loved him and he loved you and you were going to go to Indiana with him next year!” Twilla Fay was a year younger than Lincoln.

“Abbie.” My body shudders. “Abbie,” she says again, and I frown. “That’s your name, Abbie. You aren’t Lincoln.”

I shake my head. “Why shouldn’t I be like Lincoln? He was smart and happy and nice and he was going to do great things.”

“Maybe he would’ve, but Lincoln wasn’t always nice, Abbie. He could be pretty mean sometimes.”

“Lincoln? No.”

“Abbie.” I shudder again. She leans in closer. “Don’t you remember him hitting you? Hitting me? Throwing you down the stairs? Don’t you re- member him shootin’ up all the time?”

“No. He didn’t do those things. He would never do stuff like that.”

“Why do you think your mom made him sleep in the fort all the time?”

“He wanted to sleep there.”

“Abbie…”

“Stop lying to me!” I stood up on my bed, so I was taller than her.

“Stop lying about Lincoln!”

Twilla Fay opened her mouth to answer and I slapped her across the face. It was a lot louder than I thought it would be. One of Twilla Fay’s hands went to the red mark where I hit her and the other grabbed for my neck. I tried to move backwards, but I fell over onto my back, and she leapt on me, holding me down.

“Get off of me, you bitch!” I screamed, slapping her again.
It wasn’t as hard as the first time, but Twilla Fay’s eyes closed and I could see tears start to leak out of her, even as her teeth were bared like an angry dog and she growled, “Stop it! Stop it!” She was shaking, not just her arms but her whole body. She started to sob just as my mother came into the room, slamming the door open. I could smell her night beer.

“Twilla Fay! What the fuck do you think you’re doing to my daugh- ter?”

She got off me, but she was still shaking and her makeup was ruined from all of her crying. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m so sorry, I just got…”

My mom simply pointed to the door, and Twilla Fay walked out, holding her cheek. “Serves you right,” I said, hands on my hips. “Bitch.”

This time, I didn’t make Twilla Fay angry, I only made her cry more. I felt a little sick in my stomach. My mom glared at me as we listened to the screen door slam and Twilla Fay’s car start up. “You’re a monster,” my mom said.

I bared my teeth just like Twilla Fay. “Grrrr,” I said, but my mother just left. She didn’t even slam the door.

***

Twilla Fay closed her eyes and sighed. I could see the spots on her lips that didn’t have lipstick. Her face was still red from where I slapped her yesterday. “I told you to go away,” I said, and rolled to the other end of the bed, away from where she was sitting.

“You remind me a lot of Lincoln,” she said, and some of my bad feelings towards her went away.

I smiled at her. “You really think so?”

“Yeah.” Her smile didn’t make it all the way across her face like in her picture. Her fingers were twitching. “In a lot of ways. You’re both smart, you have the same nose…” I rubbed my nose, a little sad. It’s our dad’s nose, a big one with a hook at the end. Lincoln and I both wanted our mother’s tiny button nose. Twilla Fay kept going. “Brave, and stubborn, creative, musical… and you both are damn trouble.”

I jumped a little at this, at first at Twilla Fay swearing for the first time I had ever heard, then at what she had said. “Trouble?” I say. “We’re all trouble.”

“I know about your mom and dad, Abbie, but that doesn’t give you permission to be so mean all the time.”

I felt the sticky sick feeling in my belly again, and I almost apologized. Twilla Fay continued. “My daddy left, too. That doesn’t mean I can go around and beat up whoever I want.”

I said, “Okay, I’m sorry.”

“What?”

“I shouldn’t’ve called you a bitch. That was bad and mean. I didn’t mean it, not really. But you were being mean, too.” “By telling the truth?”

Twilla Fay’s eyebrows were up and her voice was sassy, and I almost slapped her again but I made my hands into fists and stuck them behind my back. Twilla Fay noticed.

“Maybe I wasn’t very nice yesterday. Maybe we were both mean, mean like your brother.”

I shook my head, jerking it back and forth until I was dizzy. “Nuh- uh. No way. Lincoln never hurt anyone ever because he was…”

Twilla Fay cut me off with two of her polished fingers placed over my lips. I felt really mad at her for cutting me off, but her sleeve pulled up from her wrist and I saw a scar on her arm that looked a whole lot like the one on her neck.

I grabbed her, but not in a mean way, and poked the scar. It was thick and felt rough. “What happened? Did you hurt yourself?”

Twilla Fay got all stiff, still like a statue. She tugged her arm away from me and her eyes got real narrow. “Do you really think I’m like that?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “You were really sad at the funeral. Really sad people do really bad things sometimes.”

“Your scar on your chin. Did you do that to yourself?”

It wasn’t a nice voice, it was a mean one, the one my mama uses when she talks bad about people, the one she uses when she’s drunk.

“No,” I said. My belly hurt, like it was twisting into a knot. I crossed my arms over my stomach, trying to push the knot away. “Did Lincoln do it?”

Twilla Fay stood up, and her fists were at her side, and I could see the scar on her neck again. She looked mad, madder than I’d ever seen her.

“He didn’t mean to,” I said, because it was true. “It was an accident. He never meant to be mean.”

Twilla Fay laughed, an ugly laugh, and I backed away from her. My ears stung, like her words hurt them. “Your brother was a monster, Abbie.”

“No!” I stood up on my bed, almost as tall as Twilla Fay.

“He hurt you, and he hurt me, and…”

“You loved him!” I was screaming, and I could hear my mama stomping down the hallway, but I didn’t care. “You’re a liar! You’re horrible and I hate you!”

Twilla Fay was crying again, but it wasn’t like the time before. They were little tears, and she was still calm. “Maybe at one time I did,” she said, “but he never loved me, and he never loved you.”

“You’re still lying! Stop it!” I backed away from Twilla Fay, from her scars, from my scars, and my bones started to hurt again.

“What he did to me, to you, that wasn’t love, Abbie. That wasn’t kindness. Brothers don’t beat up their little sisters. Boyfriends don’t cut their girlfriends.”

“Go away. You’re hurting me.”

“Abbie—”

“GO AWAY!” I tried to push her, but my body didn’t move and I fell onto my stomach, groaning in pain. Twilla Fay bent down to the bed, but I swiped at her with my hand and grabbed her hair. She yanked her head back, and a few green hairs ripped out, but she wasn’t even crying anymore. She just stared at me like she was grossed out, like I was nothing but vomit in the gutters.

I turned my face away from her and stared at my painting of me and my father and the Christmas tree, crying. She put a hand on my shoulder, and it burned. “Ow!” I screamed. My mother came in again, but I barely heard her and Twilla Fay talking over the sound of my heart going ba-bam, ba-bam. My head felt like it was about to explode. My body shook, and every little twitch hurt more than anything I’d ever felt before. My mom tried to pick me up, but her arms burned and I screamed louder and she dropped me. I swear I felt my bones shatter. My eyes were open, but everything was spotted and dark. My mom said something about an ambulance, but I didn’t see her leave.

***

My mama says it is hard for the doctors to find out what’s wrong with me if my body is perfectly healthy. “It hurts,” I said, and they nodded, but looked at their clipboards and told my mom that they didn’t know what’s wrong. I’m in a hospital bed, but it’s not like in the movies because I don’t even have any needles in my arm and because I am really healthy. The food isn’t even that good.

But being in bed still hurts. First, the pain will start to die down and go back to my bones; the next, it’s like a fire and I’ll start screaming and thrashing around.

Even though I don’t have needles, they’ve been giving me pills at least once a day. I’ve been here for two weeks, and they’re talking about keeping me here for a long time. A man came to talk to me, and babbled to my mom about something called PTSD but my mom said, “She’s only eight,” and that made him real quiet for a while, because in places like New Orleans, kids aren’t PTSD when they’re eight, only drunk. That’s what my dad used to say, anyways. My mama told him the story about how I cut up all my clothes back home and would only wear Lincoln’s flannels and he got really confused. I don’t remember doing that, but my mama’s been sober for a while, which means she doesn’t lie as much, so it is probably true.

Today is Thanksgiving, and I woke up feeling good. I threw up after eating my Lucky Charms, but I didn’t hurt anymore. There was no fire, no burning, and my bones felt fine. I told my doctors, and they smiled and asked if I wanted to go home today. I would make it home in time for turkey sandwiches with my mom. I just nodded, mostly because I was afraid that if I talked, the pain would start again. At home, though, my mom got me to laugh with a joke about an owl and the pain only hurt a little, right in the center of my chest.

December

My mama is sending me to Indiana for Christmas, to my aunt’s house a couple of towns over from where we used to live. My dad will be there. It’s his side of the family. My mom’s not coming because she’s not ready to “leave the heat.” That’s what she says, anyway. I don’t think she’s ready to see my dad again, but I am.

I called my dad for the first time in a long time. He said sorry for missing my birthday. I said sorry for never calling. We talked about Lincoln, but mostly, we talked about me. “Have you been behaving, Abbie?”

“No, not really. I’ve been better though. I stopped smoking and I’m allowed back in school because I promised never to hit anyone again. And I stopped taking sips out of mom’s beer.”

My dad was quiet for a while. Then he said, “I guess I’ve missed a lot, huh?”

My dad didn’t know anything about me anymore. I told him a little, but I’m going to tell the rest when I get to Indiana.

I asked my father if we could get a Christmas tree, a fat one, a green one, and he said yes.

I also asked if it was snowing in Indiana. He said yes again, and I smiled and wrapped my flannel tighter around my shoulders.

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