FICTION: “Night Creatures” by Patricia Meek

We’re parked in the middle of a snow-packed lane where treetops threaten telephone lines. Branches on both sides of the truck are knuckle-twisted and braided in ice. The headlights cushion my father’s draped body, but somewhere down the dark road, light, trees, and wire disappear. It’s midnight and Dad is taking pictures. He’s buried under a darkcloth as if that were enough to keep him warm.

Mom keeps track of time, and worries. The Ford pickup has gone dead before, so she hastily looks over to the dash as the light dims, then revives—bright, yellow, and safe. This is Utah and it’s cold in winter, especially winter at midnight. Even I know how fast a person can die from exposure and I’m just a kid. The heater doesn’t work so well, and the passenger side window has a crack in the glass, big enough to hear the mournful wind whistle. I am mostly warm except for my feet—which I’ve given up on—and my face, which I can sink into Mom’s lap anytime. She is not patient and firmly presses my shoulder back toward the seat so I’ll go to sleep. I get bored, pop up. She warns me with a clamped-jaw sigh, an airy whistle from her nose, and I lie down to be good. I stare at the pedals, which I know are dirty from my father’s boot. I am restless and can’t help myself: Pop-goes-the-weasel.

“What’s taking him so long?” I whine.

Mom pushes my parka hood up over my head, covers my ears. She doesn’t answer my simple question. Instead, “What do you want to do, get sick?”

I think about this and wonder if I have a choice. What I want, what I really want, is to see. My parka hood is stiff. It looks stiffly ahead. If I turn my face, the trim bristles against my skin. At this moment there is no Dad in hood’s view. There is a camera and a tripod. They alone stand in the light. I hear Dad’s boots crunching the length of the truck. The camper shell door creaks open. I suspect he’s retrieving from his duffel another metal-framed film holder containing two sheets of film. I hear his boots crunching over to Mom’s door. She rolls down the cracked window just far enough for him to speak.

“I’ll be finished here soon.” His baritone fills the cold cabin with certainty—voice of our captain.

“How long?”

“Ten minutes?” He points up to what he earlier called a pocket-full-of-glowing moon. “I’m waiting for that coverage to pass,” he says. “I need more light.”

Mom and I lean forward to get a better look through the windshield. The moon is still behind those clouds, but they are beginning to rip apart.

“How about some coffee?” Dad asks.

Mom nudges me and I lean toward the floorboard where a metal thermos has been rolling around next to my Crayolas. I hook the handle on my finger and fish it up to the seat. Mom takes it, twists it—top off—and carefully pours hot liquid into the red lid. The windshield steams up. She rolls her window down further. I feel the chill as the fog clears. As she passes his coffee, I see her breath brush his cheek.

“Ten minutes?” There is something in her voice that sounds flat and threatening.

“Ten minutes.” He winks and blows into the steam.

I begin to count under my breath. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. “Are we ready to go?” My parents look at me.

“It hasn’t been ten minutes,” Dad says.

“But I counted.”

He shakes his head, smiles. I know what he’s thinking. I’m the oldest in my class, the only one who cannot tell big hand from little hand.

“What are we going to do about our daughter?”

“She’s tired.” These are deliberate words and I can tell she speaks for both of us.

“It’s okay, Rug Rat.” My father leans forward the way I do when I’m peering into my dollhouse. “At least you were born under a lucky star.”

“Like Jesus?”

“Like me.”

“Jimmmmm!” she scolds.

My father sheepishly looks into my mother’s eyes, drains the rest of his coffee, and hands her the cup. He playfully smiles. “Ten minutes.” He taps his knuckle against the glass and then he’s gone. The window is rolled up. The crack reappears. Mom unzips her coat and draws me in. She’s warm and I burrow as close as I can to her heartbeat, which is strong even under all the cotton layers. I stare at the floor.

My crayons have spilled. Some of the colors are crushed. I think the thermos rolled over them. I bet Jesus had crayons that never broke. I have my own sketchpad too, and I carry my pictures—horses, maidens, and flowers—the way other kids carry favorite toys. I was told to leave them home. How could I? Dad brought his camera. Now my pictures are damp and as dirty as Daddy’s boots.

Mom leans over to turn up the knob-less heater, hoping for more heat. I feel the weight of her body. Her zipper grazes my resting cheek and I wince, but the heater’s sound comforts my heavy lids. My eyes glaze. My head nods a sleepy yes. My chin drops onto her lap. She rolls me over, helps me get settled.

I blink up at the sky one last time. The clouds around the moon split. The moon slides out. I see that face; the one that smiles down on my dad who is, just now, getting the picture of the long, dark road he’s been waiting for. The photo that’ll make him famous. I allow myself to close my eyes, comforted by the perfection of ten minutes. How did the moon know? How did Daddy know? My mother’s heart is all metronome, like the one I cannot touch in my father’s darkroom, and it pulls me down into sandy sleep. We’ll be going home now. There Dad will lift me from the cab, carry me to my room. Mom will come in with my pjs and whisper how proud she is of her little trouper while she pulls a sleeve down over my loose fist. She’ll tuck me in, kiss goodnight.

* **

“Night Creatures.”

It’s the first thing I hear when I creep down the hall to the kitchen, where my parents are already up and drinking coffee.

“Night Creatures,” Dad says again. “What do you think? Is it a good project title?”

“It’s fine, dear.”

“Can’t I get real feedback from you?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“Tell me you like it.”

“I do.” Mom sighs.

I stand behind the door with my back stiff against the wall, becoming a little pitcher with big ears and Prince Valiant bangs. Dad’s voice is excited; it must be heard, so I listen as he tells my mother of his dream.

“I saw them, creatures not quite human. Wandering. Snow fell and, once on the ground, drifted outward until it surrounded them, separated them. They disappeared, all except for their sound—low, guttural wailing. A muted echo underneath the snow. Like a pig or a dog. I couldn’t quite tell.”

“What did they look like?”

“What did what look like?”

“The creatures.”

I peek around the door. Mom sits with a newspaper fanned in front of her face. From the tabletop down she wears her flannel nightgown, her terrycloth robe, her fuzzy slippers. Dad paces the length of the Formica, tugs at his beard. He’s still in his underwear, cotton t-shirt and briefs, and doesn’t seem to notice the cold linoleum floor under his bare feet. He’s a big man and his presence fills the entire room. Mom thinks I’m too old to see Dad in his underwear. He has a black mole over his belly button. He sometimes lifts his shirt and shakes his bowl-full-of-jelly while singing “If I Were a Rich Man.” I laugh every time.

“What did they look like?” Dad repeats the question. Perhaps he’s already forgotten his dream. “I don’t remember,” he says. He stops for a moment, draws his hand over his thin hair. “Mannequins.” He snaps his fingers. “Like the wax mannequins at Lagoon. That’s why the project title is so good for an amusement park. What do you think? Abandoned terror, lost childhood. Night Creatures.”

“Yes,” she says, lowering her voice.

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, I know you were talking about Lagoon,” she says, lowering her newspaper fan. “But it’s so far away and we’re short on money.”

“Did you contact the park like I asked?”

“Not yet!” The T sounds hard against her teeth.

His face softens. “Would you mind doing that for me?” She folds the paper and then folds her hands. Her face looks gray, tired, and waxen. She’s thin and has the same short hair she’s always had. “You can call from work,” Dad says cheerfully. “It’ll be okay, just help me out.”

“Okay, but we’re not going all the way to Salt Lake with you.”

“It’s in Farmington.”

“I don’t care where it is, it’s still too far.”

“I know.”

“I want to go. I want to go,” I shriek, suddenly bursting from behind the door. I’ve never been to an amusement park before. My friends Sean and Trevor have. They returned from Lagoon with stickers, toys, and stories about the biggest roller coaster in the state. If I went with Daddy, I’d have the rides to myself. Mom stands her ground, eyes narrowing. “Stop it. You can’t go.”

I look to my father with puppy-dog eyes. “Please.”

He leans against the sink. “Sorry, kiddo. You heard your mother. No Lagoon. Besides, this time of year the rides will be closed.”

“Oh,” I say but deep down I imagine lights, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round. “Please?” I plead to my mother, but her jaw is set, and I know I’ll not be going to any amusement park.

“Let’s try this summer.” Dad nods his head slowly, up and down, hoping I’ll agree.

“You’ve told me that before,” I say, very grown-up, trying not to sound as disappointed as I feel.

“Come on.” Mom holds out her hand. “Let’s get breakfast and, if you’d like, I’ll drive you over to Sean’s.”

“You never drive me to Sean’s.”

“Today,” she reassures me, “is an exception.”

I am so excited. I nearly jump for joy, but there’s a stone in my heart.

***

I haven’t seen my best friend since the Veterans’ Day parade in Logan, when old soldiers threw hard candy and red paper flowers at our feet. Sean’s parents divorced and his mom took him to his grandparents’ house in Richmond. It’s twenty minutes away but might as well be in China. Sean’s dad moved back to Idaho, where he married a younger woman who doesn’t mind he digs for treasure. He found her an engagement ring that way. Sean has a brother named Trevor who’s my age. He tells me girls are nasty. He thinks I pee lying down, but he’s never seen a girl pee. Sean has because I showed him how it’s done. Sean’s two years older than me and already knows his multiplication tables. He’s the first boy I’ve kissed.

When the boys lived next door, we sometimes borrowed their dad’s metal detector. We were convinced that a Civil War battle had taken place in the field behind our backyards. One day the detector went beeping crazy. We got on our hands and knees, took turns digging. It was me who found the rusty fork. See, I told you there’s been a battle here.

Trevor tried to pry my treasure from my hands. He bent my finger until my knuckle nearly snapped. I howled but held on until I was able to elbow him in the rib spot. He doubled over, whining. I didn’t care; I had the prize. Sean called him a girl and a sissy. Come on, he beckoned to me, forget him, I’ll show you where Dad keeps a sander.

I looked down and saw that my fork was rusty. I scratched at the surface with my nail until flecks of silver appeared. Solid silver, I said, waving the fork at the boys. We’re rich.

Sean hurried me into his dad’s workshop, where the sander was mounted to a workbench like a wheel and crank. He rotated the handle while I held my fork hard against the metal. There were sparks. Rust came off easily but the silver was pocked and marred. I wanted that fork to be smooth, the way it’d been for those soldiers who’d used it.

Is that enough? Sean’s face was flushed; beads of sweat fringed his blond bangs.

Let’s get it smooth, I said. It’ll be worth more.

Sean cranked. The wheel whirred, faster. The fork snapped.

“She broke it,” Trevor hollered from the doorway. “Stupid girl broke our Civil War trophy.”

***

“Come on,” Mom says. “Sit down.” She points me in the direction of the table. “And you,” she looks at Dad. “You go get some pants on.”

“Aye-aye, El Capitán.” He salutes us and then marches from the kitchen to the sound of padded feet. I laugh. Mom tries to hide her smile. She looks pretty but then, when some of the milk splashes off my cornflakes onto the counter, her expression sours.

Mom usually doesn’t have time for messes. She’s an assistant payroll manager and can’t get everything done before it’s time to commute. I’m learning to cook. Mom’s easy, though; she eats one fried egg, extra crispy, and a slice of toast. She says I’m a perfect helpmate and that it’s good I’m learning to be self-sufficient. She wipes up the spill, hands me my bowl of flakes before leaving to call Sean’s mother. I eat alone, pretending that Captain Crunch is my friend.

***

Sean’s new home is concrete and stone, a two-story. It looks like a bunker. I bet there’s a fallout shelter somewhere in back. Mormons like fallout shelters. Dad says it gives them a place to store their food for two years before they can either eat it or give it away. Sean’s mother had two deep freezers filled, but they’ve been shipped to Idaho because she didn’t own them no more. We also have an extra refrigerator in the basement. It’s stocked with film.

Mom shifts the truck into neutral. I slide from the seat, slam the door, and am up the narrow drive, threading between a station wagon and a van. The garage is open. There are motorbikes, three-wheelers, a snowmobile, several bicycles, and an air hockey board with center court kicked out. The flat stones on the front porch are directly in the sun. They glitter and shine. I lean down to touch them before ringing the bell, making sure they are not wet. The door opens and there stands Sean’s mom; her blond hair is neatly tied back, away from the newborn baby she holds in her arms. I look over my shoulder. Mom waves good-bye, then the truck pulls slowly from the curb and away. This other mother invites me in—into the yummy house smells of cinnamon and baking bread—and I stand there fidgeting with the buttons on my coat, looking around at the large family room and the baby’s full-moon head.

“What’s his name?” I politely smile.

“This is Amy.”

“They didn’t tell me they had a sister.”

“You know how boys are.”

I nod, embarrassed, having just learned where babies come from. I don’t like the idea of having my stomach cut open, so I’ve already decided I’ll be adopting. I stuff my mittens nervously into my parka pocket, not knowing what to say. “Was she born under a lucky star?”

Sean’s mom looks at me for a long moment. “I don’t know,” she says hesitantly. “I guess so.”

“I was born under a lucky star,” I boldly exclaim. “Like Jesus.”

“Who told you that?”

“My dad.”

“Do your parents go to church?”

“We don’t have to go to church. My dad’s an artist.”

“If you’d ever like to go to church with us,” she gently touches my shoulder with her free hand, smiles, “you’re always welcome.”

***

Unlike our home, there is no art. Dad says religious folks aren’t used to seeing nudes. They see nakedness and we’ve plenty of nakedness hanging on our walls. There’s a long, framed series of watery, blue women in our hallway. They’re distorted except for hands, feet, and breasts. Once, when Sean came over, I covered his eyes until we reached my bedroom. It was our little game. I didn’t want his embarrassment to make me feel ashamed. There are photographs in this house, but they’re pictures of kids, and grandkids, and maybe even great-grandkids.

***

“The boys are downstairs,” Sean’s mom casually gestures. “Why don’t you go down and play. I have to feed the baby.”

I turn toward the stairs, but there’s a gate across the entry and I stop short. It wasn’t there before.

“Jodi.”

“Huh?” I say, half turning around.

“Would you like to hold her?”

I’ve never held a baby before. I don’t even play with dolls except to cut their hair or bury them in the back bushes. “Okay, sure,” I lie.

Amy is heavy. I squeeze tight and make goo-goo faces like I remember my visiting aunts making for me when I was a little, little girl. The baby shuts her eyes, cries out loud, stutters, and wails.

“It’s okay, Jodi.” Sean’s mom lifts the baby from my arms and rocks it against her breast until the wailing stops. “It takes awhile to get used to babies. But you’ve plenty of time.” She pats me on the head. “Go on. Play.”

I smile nervously but she reassures me with a slow nod, and I’m gone, climbing over the gate, running down the stairs, jumping past the last two steps. There’s a room tucked behind the stairwell, and I can’t help but take a peek into the darkness. From where I stand, I see dusty boxes, canning jars, a washing machine, dryer, a sewing machine. There are baskets of dirty clothes, diapers, and a canvas torso of a woman draped in a half-stitched dress. I think I might touch her, but I hear the laughter, the muffled thud of shoes against carpet.

The boys are playing chopper pilot. I jump into the room with whirring arms. Shot you, I shout.

Trevor’s arms wilt to his side. “Ugg,” he says, “your girlfriend’s here.”

“Hey, Jodi. How’s it going?” Sean holds his GI Joe over his head, casually tosses the soldier across the room at his brother, missing his target.

“How come you didn’t tell me you had a baby sister?”

Sean shrugs. “Dunno. She’s just our sister. Dad didn’t want us, especially not her. Got some cool new toys. Want to see?”

“Sure.”

Sean gallops over to the sagging red sofa, pulls out several brand new boxes, and holds one triumphantly over his head.

“Operation!”

It’s the game I’ve always wanted, but Mom says there are too many pieces; too many bones to lose or to be swept up in the vacuum.

The three of us sit close, and Sean sets up the game while explaining the rules to me. “You can only win if you have a steady hand.”

Trevor’s impatient and I insist he goes first. He can’t steady the wire tweezers and keeps killing the patient. I have quick aim, am able to go for the Adam’s apple, the spare ribs, but my hand cramps as I trigger the buzzer on the wishbone. It’s Sean’s turn now. He picks out the wishbone, but the nose lights up when he fumbles for the broken heart.

“Ha, ha,” Trevor says. “Some doctor you’ll make.”

“Shut up! I’m going to be a better doctor than you’ll make a president.”

“I’m going to be a president too,” I loudly interrupt, excited because I’ve never thought of it before.

They stop fighting and look at me.

“Why don’t you be a nurse?” Sean brightly says. “If you’re a nurse and I’m a doctor, then we can be friends forever.”

Forever. I turn this word over and over in my mind. That’s an awfully long time. “Okay,” I say. “What does a nurse do?”

“You hand the doctor things.”

“I have a better idea,” I say. “Why don’t we play Night Creatures?”

“What’s Night Creatures?” they both exclaim.

“I’ll show you.”

I pull my shirt over my head and they follow suit. Bare-chested, it’s the closest we get to be mannequins. I count: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. We run in circles, around each other, jump on the couch. And, in my own good time, I yell, “Night Creatures!” We freeze. We look at each other’s distorted bodies, try not to laugh. The first person who moves, melts and is destroyed. I’m not sure who melted first, but I know it wasn’t me. Sean said Trevor was dead, and Trevor said I was dead. I told Trevor he was dead. He said he didn’t want to play the stupid game anyway.

We begin kicking each other, mostly missing. At some point I yell Night Creatures, but the boys are no longer listening. They giggle and punch each other. I move back to watch. Sean frees his shoulders from out of his brother’s headlock, holds up his hand, and, in between giggles and gasps, breathes in the words, “Night Creatures.” Silence.

They each have a leg suspended in mid-air. Silence. Their arms extend toward the ceiling. Silence. Their wide, toothy grins mirror each other. Silence. They’re so still they could crack. Silence.

I’m positioned in the exact spot I was standing, silent. My arms shake. I should be dead but this is worse. I’m invisible. My fist springs up from my waist as I take a running punch. I miss Sean’s jaw but it’s all blood from his nose. He steps back, stunned, and when he looks at me, his eyes are watery. Blood pools into his cupped hand, drips down onto the carpet. It spreads out into a darkening spot.

My mouth falls open. “I didn’t mean to,” I finally stutter. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t hate me. Please…”

“Mommmm!” Trevor hollers. He is suddenly unstuck and animated. He bolts from the room. I can hear his heavy stomping all the way up the stairs.

“Why did you slug me?” Sean’s voice is thick and nasally.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I didn’t mean to.”

I hear his mother’s footsteps on the landing above, but she doesn’t set foot down on every step. Could it be she’s flying?

“Pinky swear, okay?” I desperately stare at Sean, but our gaze is quickly broken.

The mother has landed. She stands at the edge of our room, hands on her hips; she holds a clean diaper cloth. “Where’s your shirt?” she asks me.

In the excitement I’d forgotten about our shirts, and I move to find mine but can’t find it quickly enough. Then she’s right there in the room and she grabs her son. She eases Sean’s head back and holds the clean diaper cloth over his nose like a rag. Her eyes follow me. My shirt is lodged underneath the game board, and as I yank it loose, I upset the game board. Bones scatter everywhere.

“It’s okay, Mom.” Sean snaps his chin from her grip. “I’m not hurt. She didn’t mean it. It was an accident. We were just playing a game.”

“What were you playing that you had to play so rough?”

“Night Creatures,” Trevor says from the hallway.

“What’s that?”

“It was her idea.” Trevor points to me, a stabbing accusation. “We were going to take our clothes off, run around until we froze, then melt, then die.”

“Thank you, Trevor,” the mother smiles. “Jodi,” she calmly says but doesn’t really look at me, “I think I’d better call your house.”

I bite the inside of my cheek. No matter what, I won’t cry. For the first time since we began playing, I wish I WERE invisible.

***

I’ve been hiding underneath my bed between my headboard and the wall, too ashamed to crawl out.

“It’s going to crack,” Mom says, trying to make me smile. If she could have reached me, she’d have teased my pout into a smile.

My eyes are puffy; I don’t feel like smiling.

“You know if you stay that way too long, you might get stuck.”

I’ve been hugging my knees. My arms and legs are numb, and I imagine that I could get stuck.

“Come on,” she coaxes. “How can I give you a hug if you hide?”

For a hug, I roll out from underneath the bed and stand on shaky legs.

“Sit.” She pats the bed covers beside her. “What happened today?”

I sit, locked in by her arms.

“Mrs. Simmons said you and her sons were playing with your clothes off before you hit Sean. Did he hurt you?”

I shake my head.

“Did he make you do something you didn’t want to do?”

Again I shake my head.

“Why did you hit him?”

“I don’t know?”

Mom sighs. “Okay. You don’t have to tell me but I’m concerned. You shouldn’t be hitting people. For any reason. You shouldn’t be taking your clothes off either.”

“We didn’t have our clothes off,” I say sheepishly. “At least not all of them. Besides, it’s not fair.”

“What’s not fair?”

“Why do they get to take their shirts off and I can’t?”

“Oh, honey. Is that what this is about?” She smiles and seems relieved. “Girls’ bodies develop differently. That’s all.”

Horror crosses over my face.

Mom must have seen this moving shadow because she quickly responds, “Don’t worry.” She pets my hair. “Your body won’t change for a long while.”

“Then why can’t I play like the boys?”

“It’s not a good habit.”

Mom has a way of explaining things so that at the time they make sense, but then, afterward, I can’t seem to remember how.

“Is everything all right in here?” We both turn to see my father leaning into the doorway. “Heard you had a bit of a scrape. Did you give those boys hell?”

“Don’t encourage her.” Mom sounds annoyed.

Dad twists his beard into a sharper chin. His eyes are focused on me like he’s never seen me before. “You look different.”

I stare back, wondering what it is he sees.

“Can I take your picture?” he suddenly asks.

“This isn’t the best time,” Mom says. “It’s dark.”

Dad flashes, his focus turning toward her. “Am I asking you?”

Her face reddens, her lips stretch back. I see her teeth but Dad doesn’t take notice of this warning.

“Come on. It won’t take long,” he says. “I’m already set up, and besides, it’ll be good for her.”

“You heard me!” Snap-goes-the-mother.

“I want my picture taken.” I stand, treading the water wake of family words.

“Are you sure?” Dad asks me and I nod. He grins at my mother.

The three of us stare at each other. No one speaks. I think of something else to say, something to make us all happy, but Mom leaves the room, pushing past my father, before I get the chance.

“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine.” Dad knuckle-rubs my head. “You ready?”

***

Dad’s camera is on the outer edge of our backyard. Rubber boots cover my shoes, but I can’t see them because I stand in the snow. Dad tells me to lean against the street lamp; it’s icy metal, cold through my shirt. It’s starting to get dark. The light is eerie, casts long and blue, makes my hands glow when I hold them up. I can see my breath. Though it’s cold and my shoulder blades are numb, I wait patiently. Dad takes light meter readings. He hides under his darkcloth. He puts the film holder into the camera. He tells me to hold still. He says, This will be a long exposure, so take a deep breath. The strobe light, with its battery pack, is slung over his shoulder like a purse; he holds the bulb over his head. Okay, on the count of three.

The light flashes lightning in my eyes. The camera whirs before coming to a complete click. When I open my eyes, there are white dots frozen before me. They thaw; then dance, swirl, and, finally, dissolve into the snow.

“Once more.” Dad holds up his hand.

I try not to move, but when lightning flashes, I flinch.

“That should do it.” Dad smiles. He takes the camera off the tripod, slips it back into its metal box that’s big enough for me to hide in. He folds the tripod’s legs together and quickly pushes the bottom legs up into the top ones. He hoists the tripod over his shoulder, lifts the camera box—a fisherman, pole and tackle.

“We’d better get you back inside before your mother comes out here.” He winks. I traipse close behind his heels, worried that my flinch has somehow ruined the picture. As we climb the steps, I see a shadow move from behind the kitchen curtain. There’s a knot, pit-deep, in my stomach; it keeps sinking.

Mom doesn’t say a word. She helps me out of my damp clothes, dressing me in warm pjs, and then tucks me in. It’s time for bed.

“Are you angry at Dad?” I ask before she leaves my room.

“Don’t worry. Go to sleep now.”

***

Bands of thunder wake me. I sit up, elbows on the pillow, and look out the window. There’s another clap, then lightning. This is an unusual and sudden winter storm. Hail falls sideways against the windowpane. Just as suddenly I hear voices from down the hall. I balance on my knees to listen as closely as I can.

What were you playing that you had to play so rough?

My parents are playing Night Creatures. I am the creeper in the hallway. I find them in the living room. Their escalating fight is silhouetted in the open door. Lightning flashes like a strobe. My father stands like God, suitcase in hand, challenging my mother with his body. Her arms extend, a support driven into the doorjamb. Her face is hard, white. The veins in her neck protrude. Lightning flashes. My father’s hands are there; fingers push into her collarbone. The light fragments into thunder. He pushes; her grip slips. She easily tumbles through the screen door onto the dark porch. My mother has just been divorced.

I run back into my room and pretend to see nothing. The window from where the storm tries to scratch through is nothing. My headboard is nothing. The space under my pillow is nothing. But divorce is something. It means gone forever. Divorce means I’ve lost my best friend. Divorce means I’ve lost my mother. Divorce means I can never, ever be president. Divorce means that a perfectly happy freezer is shipped to Idaho. The word divorce makes me cry.

***

In the morning my parents are busy at nothing as if nothing happened. I sit at the breakfast table, look at them, and watch for sudden signs of disturbance.

Dad smiles.

Mom grins.

“Guess what, Rug Rat. I’m going to Lagoon next weekend. Your mother called the park this morning.”

I look at him suspiciously, wondering when they’re going to tell me about the divorce. They don’t; instead they discuss Dad’s plans for leaving. They’re making a grocery list, and Mom’s already on baggies and instant coffee. Dad writes everything she says down.

“Can you think of anything else?” He looks at me from across the table as if I were one of them.

I shake my head.

“Okay, that should do it,” he says, making a general announcement to the room. “I’m going downstairs to print. Knock if you need me.” He gets up, gives Mom a kiss on the cheek.

She’s washing dishes. She’s nearly finished drying when I ask her about the divorce.

“Why would you ask such a thing?”

“I saw you and Daddy.”

“Jodi, sometimes grownups have disagreements. That doesn’t mean they’re getting divorced.” She begins to put the dishes away.

“Then you’re not divorced?”

“Nooo.” She faces me, smiling.

“Sean’s parents got one.”

“I know.” She folds the dishtowel into a tight square. “But we’re not Sean’s parents.”

***

Dad’s been gone for several weekends in a row. He’s gone now. Each weekend seems longer. When he is home, he’s down in the darkroom, developing and printing. Today Mom is sick. She has one of her headaches that makes her throw up.

My job is to stay out of her way, to be quiet. I’ve been sitting in front of her bedroom door, listening to the soft music within, but now I’m standing on the edge of the basement steps. They lead down into Daddy’s darkroom. The basement is scary. The steps are steep and there are cobwebs on the stony walls. It used to be a root cellar before Dad built his darkroom and studio with two-by-fours and paneling. I’ve never been on the edge of these steps without my father. I’m not supposed to go down there alone but I can’t help it. I take another step. Then another. I find the light switch at the bottom of the stairs, turn it on. Light from a single bulb peels away the darkness. The studio is carpeted, though the stone walls feel damp. There’s a large worktable in the middle of the room, cluttered with a mounting press, mat boards, boxes of paper, negative sleeves, a tacking iron. In the corner there is a drying rack. It’s made from wood, framed and slotted so six large screens can slide in and out. There are prints drying there now, face down and curled. The darkroom itself is no bigger than a closet. I’ve been in there enough times to know exactly where the metronome is above the sink. There’s an enlarger on a shelf and big, plastic trays underneath. There are brown bottles filled with chemicals.

I’ve helped Dad many times, having stood on a stool while pinching a strip of wet film between my fingers while he ran a photo wipe down along the edges. There should never be stains on film, not even from water. After the strips are squeezed, they are hung in a dust-free box. It is from these strips pictures are made. But it’s not the darkroom I care about. I want to see what my father has seen, and the first pictures from Lagoon are those layered on the six drying screens. I find the stool—bring it over to the rack. I climb up and, very carefully, slide the top screen out.

Photographs—they are neatly lined up in rows, backs up, paper white. Dad prints many pictures to get the perfect one. I flip the first one over. There’s the roller coaster. Its top loop disappears into fog. I turn the next print over; the same roller coaster. Then the merry-go-round. The ride is empty; the horses, lonely. I continue my search, casually turning over riderless rides until a half-naked woman appears. She simply and unexpectedly appears. Her thin dress is torn. It slips from off her shoulder just above the nipple. She is manacled to an iron maiden about to close. The stakes on both sides of her coffin are sharp and bloody. There’re bloody holes puncturing her dress. Bloody holes puncturing her chest. She’s been stuck before. Her mouth is lipstick red and fashioned into an O, screaming. Her gaze is fixed in The House of Terror. Sean told me about this ride, said he couldn’t wait to be big enough to sit in the boat that nudges through the dark, hinged doors and disappears, taking only adults away.

I turn her over, returning her to the neat and tidy row of paper white backs. Have I seen too much? I rest my hand on her paper white back as if she’s already disappeared. But she’s still there, just below the surface. My fingers twitch. I can’t help it. I must take another look. Just one more look. I choose the next in line, the duplicate.

I expect to see the naked lady. I see myself instead. There I am, standing under the street lamp with streaks of light slipping down the length of my arm, exploding from my mouth where my breath should be. I’ve never seen such light before; I think it must be my soul. How was Daddy able to see such a thing? How was he able to capture my soul? I tear a corner and rip upward to where my broken heart should be. I rip further still to where my wishbone might be. Too late to have stopped it, I look down at my picture split between my two hands, thinking I am no different than them. I am a Night Creature. I take a deep breath and, just like the naked lady, stand very still so I won’t have to exhale. So I won’t have to bleed.


Patricia Meek taught English composition and creative writing, and hold a BA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University, an MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University, and an MA in Counseling from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is currently a medical integration clinician (LPC) in Southern Colorado. Her poem “Weather” was a 2016 finalist for the International Literary Awards, Rita Dove Award in Poetry. Her short story “The Crucified Bird,” published in Puerto del Sol and REDUX #59, won the AWP Intro Award for Fiction. Her novel, NOAH: a supernatural eco-thriller, was published by All Things That Matter Press in 2011.

Advertisements