It was pouring rain when I left the house, but the woman pulling my arm was undeterred. I dragged my feet, making long, muddy scuffs in the yard, taking a small secret pleasure in the spatter I was leaving on her white stockings. Who wore white stockings on a day like this, anyway?
The sky felt heavy around my skull, like a vise. The world was brown and gray, and the stupid white of her clothing was being taught a lesson not only by me. By the time we reached the car, we were both of us soaked and filthy. I mucked my shoes around on the carpet, rubbing the mud in. My pretty blue dress—it had been my favorite dress, before—looked gray like everything else, and as I sat waiting for the car to start, I rubbed some brown into it.
The engine made a wet, chugging noise. The lady swore, turned around and apologized to me sweetly, and then beat on the steering wheel and tried again. The beating got her nowhere, the engine merely choked and died. She placed both hands on the wheel and made loud breathing noises. I felt a small smile flit across my face.
I turned to look out the window at the house, which really deserved the yard it had gotten. Home. It had never before looked so unhealthy, so dark and forbidding. It had just been my house, where I’d lived. Mother had kept it bright, full of colorful cloths and paper decorations on the inside, and somehow I’d always felt that brightness even from the outside. And now it felt like all the light everywhere had just disappeared. Been sucked into nothingness. And God was going to beat us to death with all this rain. Now, the house looked just like grandma always said it did.
But still, it was home.
Then the lady was at my door, pulling me back out into the rain, and she cheered at me to keep up and hurry with her to the corner store. But I dragged along some more. Punishing her. I dragged along and dragged along, and every time that afternoon we stopped to meet people, I scowled at my feet and rubbed my fingers into the muddy spots on my dress. The lady patted my shoulders gently and spoke in a soft voice, but she carried no light with her. She was a feather, a wisp; totally inconsequential. Why did she get to live? By the time we got to the orphanage, I was disgusting and furious. I must have looked like a demon entering that vast, imposing house, and I could see the little sparks of fear on the faces of a few of the girls lined up to meet me in their fussy dresses. I felt that sly smile flit across my face again, and I tasted it quickly with my tongue.
“Michelle, sweetheart, let’s go draw you a bath, Ok?” The lady crooned from where she knelt beside me. “Then we’ll bring you down, and you can meet everyone at dinner.” She smiled vapidly and pulled off my shoes, then tugged my hand again as she stood up to march me up the stairs. The girls’ skirts rustled as we passed, meshing with their nasty whispers, and I heard “father” and “drunk” and “trash.” But I just smiled again, letting it linger this time. Because I had a secret. I had brought something with me, something horrible. And they were all going to find out what they were made of, once the lights went down.
In the bath, the vise around my head tightened, and I lost my place more than once. I discovered myself standing and dripping again but clean, wrapped in a towel. I found myself by the dresser, violently pulling knots out of my hair with someone’s brush. I pushed a small, wooden box under a wooden slat at the bottom of the armoire that I’d shredded my fingers pulling up, then covered it back and gave myself splinter after splinter smoothing it down, petting it, smiling at my secret treasure. I woke up on the stairs, staring at a candle at the dinner table, slapping at a mosquito in a corner of the kitchen. All the while, the vise kept tightening around my head. I couldn’t imagine how it could get any tighter without popping my skull, but then it did. It tightened, and then I saw him, standing by the fire. My father, the mess on the side of his head oozing into fat globs that dropped onto the carpet. That slow grin filled up his face. He arched his eyebrows, taking in my new surroundings, and he began to laugh. Loud.
My father’s laughter filled the room. Everyone looked up at once, their stupid little heads jerking around for the source of that unseemly noise, and then he helped them out a bit, grasping books from the shelf beside him and hurling them across the room in every direction. One of them hit me.
And then I woke up.