I twist and pull and after a while the stick snaps right off in my hand. Inside, the guts of the plant are green and dripping, like a limp pickle. I drop it down to the ground and kick dirt over it with my shoe. My mother is calling.
I am strapped into the back seat behind the dark outline of my mother’s head and do not wave to Aunt Claire, where she stands in the mouth of the door blowing small, sad kisses. I am not supposed to touch the stick I broke. It is only a baby, and Aunt Claire has just planted it in her garden. But I am angry at Aunt Claire because she is married to Uncle Eddie, and I am really, really angry at Uncle Eddie. So I don’t feel sorry. I am wild, destructive. I can kill things with my wrath.
My day did not begin angry. It began with a surprise trip to the park with my mother. And then hamburgers for lunch. And apple cider donuts. A rare no-reason outing so delicious and unexpected that I did not think to be suspicious.
When we got home, my father was not at work, but inside waiting for us.
“Is it done?” my mother asked.
“Is what done?” I wanted to know. But my mother just jutted her chin toward the bathroom. “Go wash your face,” she said.
I licked the corners of my mouth with my tongue. “Not like that,” she pushed. “Go. Scoot. Now.”
I dragged my feet on the carpet. My parents whispered in the hall. The water in the bathroom was cold and made me have to pee.
“And make sure to pee while you’re in there!” my mother hollered. I wondered how she knew the things she did.
I sat on the toilet and flushed without letting anything come out. When I got back in the room my father was saying, “When he was leaving, Eddie mentioned–”
“Uncle Eddie? He was here?” I bounced excited on my toes.
My parents exchanged glances. “Just for a quick hello,” said my father.
“No fair,” I whined. Uncle Eddie gave me bear hugs. And shoulder rides.
“No fair?” my mother fixed me with her frown. “Excuse me, but who just got taken out for donuts?”
I knew my mother knew it was me, so I didn’t need to answer.
My father bent his head and lowered his voice. “Eddie says Claire isn’t doing so hot. He thought she might like some company.”
My mother chewed her lip, ran a finger over the valley of my dimples and scraped the remaining sugar away. “Well, then,” she said after a minute, “Doops and I will just have to go pay her a visit.” She smiled, petted my head. “Won’t we, Doops, honey?” she asked me. “Won’t we cheer Aunt Claire up?”
It wasn’t a long ride over to Aunt Claire’s and Uncle Eddie’s but the rocking of the car made me drowsy on a full belly. I yawned. None of us had been sleeping well on account of the possum family living in the walls. Despite my father’s attempt to draw them out, they continued to scratch and bite and pee all night long. “Get those pests out of here before I lose my mind!” my mother yelled each morning like a rooster’s doodledo. But I didn’t want them to leave. I was delighted to have some playmates around for once. I named them “Papa Possum,” “Mama Possum,” and “Baby Possum.” I stayed up till all hours and told them stories while they scratched away in the walls. I whispered tales so elaborate I couldn’t even be bothered to get up and go to the bathroom, even.
My eyes felt heavy and the seat felt deep. The car rolled down the highway and I was a passenger on the way to sleep. Just before I nodded off, my mother nudged me. “No napping,” she said. “You’re not sitting on a towel.”
When we pulled up to Aunt Claire’s I prepared to fly myself out of the car. “Hey, Doops?” my mother’s hand was on my arm, stopping my take-off. Doops was my pet name. I was five and it didn’t yet bother me that it came from “dupa,” the Polish word for butt. My ears stuck out like little antenna and I had a sweet moon face. “Aunt Claire is sad, okay? We have to be extra nice to her.”
“Why?” I asked.
“She lost something.”
“What?” I asked.
When my mother pulled her hand away, it was ready set go.
Ring ring ring ring. I got at least four good buzzes on the doorbell before my mother caught up to me and swatted my hand away. My mother knocked, and it took Aunt Claire a long time to answer. When she opened the door, she was in her pajamas even though it wasn’t dark yet. Her top was crumpled with little stains along the front of it, like someone had spritzed her with a water gun. She smelled sour when she pulled me to her, like milk gone bad.
“Dupie! My little Dupie!” she hugged me till I crushed.
I pushed her off of me, then thought the better of it and gave one of her legs a half-hearted squeeze. I liked Aunt Claire better when she wasn’t not doing so hot.
My mother hugged Claire after that and for a while I felt as if there was a lot of hugging going on for a bunch of people not saying goodbye. When Aunt Claire finally stepped away and led us to the kitchen, that didn’t seem right either. The faucet was leaking, and there were dishes everywhere. A single fly buzzed terrifically from plate to plate.
“I’d offer you something to eat,” Aunt Claire shuffled to the fridge “but I really don’t have much in the house…”
“Claire, honey,” my mom said, “you don’t need to fuss. You should be resting.” I had never heard my mother call anyone but me “honey” and for the first time, I realized something I already knew. That Aunt Claire was “aunt” because she was my mother’s sister.
Aunt Claire opened the fridge, grabbed a jar from the top shelf. “Pickle?” she asked, sloshing cloudy water. She let out a laugh that was sharp and mean. “I was even craving goddamn pickles this time.”
I was startled by her use of the “g.d.” word, but before I could point her bad language out, she slammed the fridge shut so hard that the whole thing shook and the magnets came loose. “Goddamn,” she repeated. A black and white picture fluttered to the floor along with the “World’s Best Aunt” magnet that I got her for her birthday a few months before. I picked up the magnet and left the blob picture where it was.
My mother put her arm around Aunt Claire’s shoulders. “Come sit,” she said, and she guided Claire into a chair. I flopped myself on my mother’s lap and squirmed.
“Do you have to go to the bathroom?” my mother asked, but I shook my head, pressing my nose against the window where I thought I had seen a butterfly pass.
“Quit smudging.” My mother pulled my face from the glass. “You’re making a mess.”
But Aunt Claire said, “She’s fine, aren’t you, Dupie,” and pulled me onto her lap. Her fingers fussed with my clothing, smoothing out my skirt and fluffing the ruffles of my blouse. “Say, Dupie, this is a beautiful outfit,” she said, “did you pick it out yourself?”
I ran my hands over the wild patterns, stripes and plaids and lacy things all smooshed together. I thought I looked extra fine. “Yep,” I said. “And if you want,” I continued graciously, “when I get too big, I’ll put it in the box of stuff we’re saving for your baby.” I said this even though I knew I was not supposed to talk about that box. I had been forbidden because it was a surprise into which my mother put things that I later fished back out again while I was supposed to be sleeping.
Aunt Claire’s face turned red and ugly.
“Sarah!” my mother gasped, and I was confused because I was Sarah, but I was not. Mostly I was Dupie.
“Don’t, Liz,” Aunt Claire said, and she began crying and pressing her face into my head. I pulled away and twisted in her arms but she wouldn’t let go. The way that she was squeezing me was pushing on my bladder, but I didn’t have a name for that part of me yet. I just knew that it was full. And then it was not.
“Oh!” Aunt Claire said. “Oh!”
“What?” my mother asked. Claire stood up, and my mother saw the blooming dark under where I was sitting. Her face turned red too.
“Dupie, wait outside,” she commanded.
I was swept out, but the fly got to stay.
The yard was flat and brown. There was only a clothesline of old sheets and Aunt Claire’s garden of ugly bare bushes to look at. I was warned never to play with those bushes, or the little rocks laid out in front of them, but they were heavy and uninteresting so I was not tempted, not even by the new little stick in a pile of fresh dirt at the end of the row. I understood that there were exactly zero things of interest to look at in the yard because no children lived there. I stood alone in the center of the dead zone and waited around for my underpants to dry in the breeze. After a while, a truck pulled up and I ran toward it. It said “Exterminator,” but I couldn’t read. I only knew this because my Uncle Eddie was driving it and that was what he was, killer of bugs, hero of me.
Eddie stepped out of the truck, overalls splattered with insects and chemicals. He smelled of aerosol and my father, and I liked the combination so much it made me want to be an exterminator when I grew up too.
“Dupie,” he said. “There you are.” His voice was scratched, like a cold coming on.
“Horsie ride! Horsie ride!” I demanded, climbing up his back.
“Ho ho,” he said, “not today, kiddo.”
He picked me off him like a tick and plopped me on the grass. I was annoyed by this change in our routine. We always did horsie rides. He never called me “kiddo.” I was Dupie. And sometimes, “Little Bud.”
I followed him around to the back of his truck, but before I could scramble over the cans and buckets and other fun things in there, he pulled me back and locked the door. “Not for children,” he grunted. Then, ignoring me, he trudged across the lawn to grab the hose from the side of the house and drag it through the dirt.
“Can I help?” I asked, but he shook his head and pointed his water pistol at the puny stick. He wetted it till the brown dirt turned black and weepy looking.
I sulked on the porch steps, until eventually, my mother came out to join us. She studied my uncle drowning the stick, then said, “She’s changing her clothes. I think we better take off.”
“But Uncle Eddie just got here,” I protested.
My mother’s fingers pulled a curl of peeling paint off the porch post.
“You know,” she said to Uncle Eddie, letting the little paint strip fall into the grass, “you didn’t have to deal with our mess today. I asked the office to send a different tech.”
My uncle adjusted the angle of the hose, and a rainbow formed low to the ground. “It’s fine,” he said, turning his wrist. The rainbow vanished. “It helps to keep busy.”
“So, they’re gone then?” my mother asked.
“Who’s gone?” I wanted to know.
“Dupie, go use the bathroom before we get in the car.”
I didn’t have to go, but before I could say so, my mother pointed to the door and snapped, “Go. Scoot. Now.”
I walked backward out of the yard so that I could watch my footprints fill with water from the hose. First they pooled, then they overflowed. Then they disappeared completely.
Inside it was dark, but I left the bathroom light off anyway so I could play a new game I invented. I scrunched my body flat against the cool of the tile and scratched like an animal stuck behind a wall. From the open window, I could hear the world carrying on just on the other side, like my friends could.
The faucet squeaked, the hose slithered. My uncle’s footsteps creaked up the porch as he approached my mother.
“They’re gone, alright.” His voice blew through the screen like rain. “It was by the chimney, how they were getting in. Chewed right through the flashing, made a nest. I pulled a whole litter out from behind the sheetrock. Took them down to the river. Won’t be keeping you up anymore.”
A piece of grout crumbled sharp beneath my fingernail. A sting of blood welled up and wetted the space where the hard part met the skin. I slunk down to the floor, playing dead.
“Jesus,” my mother swore, “I’m so sorry. The poor things”
Then, she said, “Were they big?” and he said back, “Big enough.”
When the bathroom fixture clicked on above me, I was so startled that for a moment, I thought I might really have died. I was lying on my back, heart racing. Staring at a light so bright it hurt.
“Dupie! My God!” Aunt Claire shouted. I closed my eyes quickly, but it was too late. The bulbs had already burned themselves onto my lids. Even without looking, I couldn’t stop seeing them. I would never stop seeing them.
“Dupie, you scared me! What on earth are you doing on the floor?”
I scrambled to my feet, a ghost brought back to life. I didn’t look at Aunt Claire as I pushed by her in the doorway. The soft cotton of her nightgown brushed against the hairs on my arms as I passed, leaving a little trail of shivers.
Somewhere in the house a faucet dripped lonesome, and even before I got outside, I could already feel the way the wet stick would bend between my fingers. It would be springy and resilient, I knew, and it would take some effort, but in time, I would manage to break it.