by Rachel Laverdiere
Before Mother belts herself and Baby Brother into the passenger seat, she straps in Cookie and whisper-warns that we be good all the way to Grandma’s. Mother’s left eye is swollen and bruised. Of course, Cookie wriggles free and crawls into my lap before Father spins the tires and a dust storm chases us down our long dirt drive. I grit my teeth and wrap my arms around Cookie. She is easier to love than me. People see Cookie and say things like, just look at those red ringlets! or, eyes as big and blue as the Pacific! But when they look at my beady eyes and mousy hair, their faces grow soft and sad. They look at Mother that way, too.
Father swerves onto washboard gravel, and bump, bump, bump goes Cookie’s hard head against my chin. I’d give her a snakebite — twist the skin on her arm like Father does mine — but his eyes almost always watch me in the rear-view. I smile up at him, try to look like the glow-in-the-dark statuette of Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus Grandma gave me at my First Communion. The one Cookie scribbled over with my permanent markers. And now her slobber is making dark patches on the green hand-me-down jumper I only get to wear on special days.
Father’s eyes are still on me. In my head, I shove her off my lap and into the box of still-hot apple pies we’re bringing for Thanksgiving dinner. I smoosh the filling all over her new pink babydoll dress. Ruin her perfect curls. Make her as ugly as me.
The truck tires squeal onto asphalt, and then it feels like we’re floating. Cookie is playing with the dead flies and moths she finds in the seat cracks, so I count the telephone posts we pass. Try to picture Grandma’s voice racing all the way from her sunny kitchen in the city to our squishy house on the farm. I wonder if her voice ever tangled up with Mother’s in the droopy parts — kind of like pantyhose on the clothesline when it gets windy. I’m at twenty-eight telephone posts when Cookie starts banging her dimpled hands against the back window. Even Baby Brother, who can’t even crawl or talk yet, knows how to be good.
She starts cooing a song she’s making up, insect legs stuck to her lips, and I am finally free from Father’s eyes. I try not to be upset — Mother says anger won’t get us anywhere — but I know his eyes are wrinkling in the corners because he is watching Cookie. His eyes don’t freeze or boil when he looks at her. Like always, he calls her “Daddy’s sweet Cookie.” And he is laughing! He only laughs when Cookie does something bad that he finds cute, or when Mother or me are hurt or afraid. Like when he chases us with the riding lawnmower so it nips at our frayed pantlegs. Or when he hacks off chicken heads and lets loose the bodies to chase me around the pen until I’m drenched with blood. Mother says things like life isn’t fair, and that’s just how it is, but the sound hurts worse than when he makes me kneel on the heat register.
Father swerves. Cookie tumbles, and her skull cracks against my nose. Cookie isn’t hurt, but she’s crying. My mouth is filling with the taste of pennies, my nose trickling. Father’s eyes trap me in the rear-view, and he growls, “She’d better not be hurt! Just you wait until I stop this truck.” He startles Baby Brother, who begins to wail. Father turns to Mother and yells, “Shut him
up, or I’ll do it for you!” The hummingbirds that live inside my chest crash their pointy beaks into my throat, flap against my ribs.
I cannot see Mother’s face, but I imagine her eyes filling with tears as she pushes Baby Brother’s face into her neck. I want to crawl into her lap. Hold Baby Brother while she cradles me. Press my cheek against her soft hair and tell her that she’s beautiful. That I won’t let anything bad happen to her or Baby Brother ever again. But I blink away my tears and belt Cookie in because Father is still watching. Fumbling with the buckle, I let my nose drip red onto her pretty dress before taking a tea towel from the box of pies. Cloth against my nostrils, I tilt my head back and pinch the bridge of my nose. Like Mother does. Count telephone posts while I rock my hummingbirds back to sleep.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Atticus Review and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel's most recent and forthcoming prose in Bending Genres, Schuylkill Valley Journal , Grain, The New Quarterly and other literary journals. In 2020, her CNF made The Wigleaf Top 50 and was nominated for Best of the Net. For more, visit http://www.rachellaverdiere.com.