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by Natalie Blake
When her parents fought, and Melissa had blunted all her colors to stubs, she would crank open the window and take herself off around the trailer park, unseen. The oppressive Tennessee summer often baked the inhabitants of her two-bedroomed, ten-by-twenty-eight-foot home; and she understood from a young age that heat, combined with all-day drinking, made both grown-ups so dehydrated they were delirious even in their raving.
The first time she’d thought of this solution, she’d been eight years old and tall for her age; a peculiar child prone to fits of imagination. But who could blame her? For until then she’d known only the closet, candy pink pajamas, and Push-Pops for tea. The very shadows on the wall came alive to keep her company; they danced just for her. And Melissa, being the child that she was, documented the goings-on in earnest. With chalk her chosen medium, then crayon, then snaps of graphite as she grew, each plywood panel became a painted fresco of absolute certainty: that this, compared to anything else in her world, was real.
As it was, Melissa had only passed for eight. She’d actually been a year or two younger — if I remember correctly — but she never corrected folks of their assumptions. No one liked a little miss smarty-pants.
As she walked the park, and sun-bleached grass gave way to pale patches of unfarmable earth, it dusted up little clouds behind her stretched-out sneakers. Most crammed-close neighbors heard the same fights she lived through — albeit less intimately — so most cast a sympathetic gaze when the saw her out late at night and alone.
Some invited her in for tea.
I think I did myself, once. But Melissa never accepted such kindnesses; no, she strode on, too proud and too headstrong, crossing the park on desire paths, this way and that way — paths Melissa often pondered the existence of. Were they all of her own creation? Or were they there before she came along to use them?
Like the belt marks on her Momma’s thighs.
Her Daddy often said those were of her Momma’s own making too, that if you did a thing regular enough, you left a mark. So, her logic about the paths seemed sound. And though Mari — her sister older by three years who always stayed home — didn’t care for her younger sister’s theories, she too, on occasion, pondered life beyond their bedroom.
Her Daddy often spouted lessons like these to her Momma, in the assumption all of his girls were listening. Then he would beg forgiveness for them from Pastor William at Sunday service. But Melissa could never quite make her mind up about God. If He did exist, she concluded, then He was might more powerful than people thought, and He must get awful bored doling out doses of forgiveness each week — just as she got bored of listening to those repetitive, guilt-inducing sermons said in His name.
By thirteen, Melissa had begun to tie her tee-up in a knot and her hair just the same; making friends with boys, changing her mind again, rolling her eyes at their teenage chat-ups. There was no listless walking anymore, no escaping out bedroom windows, only the determined crash of their trailer door being flung open wide, demanding the world be in awe of her flowering maturity.
For Melissa knew she was pretty (pretty as a princess, her Daddy used to say); she didn’t need to be told so by a boy who thought he was a man, just because he’d inherited his uncle's beat-up Ford Maverick. She knew her worth was greater than that, even then. Still, she’d let the boys take her up to Crooks Point to make out a while, because the other girls said you should pretend to like it; and Melissa had come to notice if a boy’s arm was around her, it stopped anyone else from bothering her.
At fourteen, Melissa perceived something greater: the senior school girls were vanishing from campus. She reported this righteously to her Momma, convinced there was wrong-doing afoot. Her classmates whispered stories of truckers and lay-bys like they’d once exchanged tales of the bogeyman, of girls who would hitch a ride home then hitch their skirts, never to be seen again. Though these tangible threats were raw and real, Melissa’s concerns were waved away.
It didn’t change what was happening though one minute the girls were there, ruling the halls and vying for the attention of Tommy Finnegan, the quarterback heartthrob; the next — and not necessarily at the end of the semester either — they were gone.
The ranks of the cheer squad became so depleted doing one competitive season, that Melissa found herself being asked to sub for a flyer, though she’d never once joined a practice. Pulled right out of the bleachers and begged into a skirt to make up the numbers, just smile! they’d said and up she went into the air. But being part of the team meant staying late at school, and missing the three-twenty bus, and her Daddy didn't like either of those things.
As it was, the cocooning safety of her closet was unable to shield Melissa from her parents arguments much longer. For she was tall now, nearly fifteen, and all limbs — spurred on by growth spurts rather than good nutrition — so while deliverance remained only a pane of glass away, she saw little reason not to take it.
By then, Melissa’s tracks across the park scorched the earth like veins; they split off, rejoined, then circled her back around to her trailer as the beating heart of her life. With each cycle it pumped her out again, sent her around her route, only to return home to find their argument still wasn’t done.
I remember her explaining these risk management strategies she employed — though she didn’t call them that of course. To Melissa, it was just common sense that her sister didn’t seem to have: if she wasn’t at home, she couldn’t get yelled at; and Lord did her Daddy find things to complain about. The length of her skirt, her push-up bra, the smudge of glittery eye shadow she’d swapped for a stick of gum and a couple of her Daddy’s cigarettes. She’d discovered there was a market for most anything you could think of, such deals done on a Sunday around the back of church. This had become as much a reason as any for Melissa to put on her Sunday best and go along.
Soon, fourteen became fifteen, and for Melissa, everything seemed to go on just as usual. She lazed on kid swings, imprinting the metal chain on her cheek she lounged there so long, its creak a painful pendulum to mark time, and her sentence.
She was waiting for her life to start.
Waiting, waiting, and staring down the dirt track toward Crook’s Point; Melissa told herself that at any moment, that Maverick would dust-up a cloud of dirt and he’d be back to take her for a drive. She’d gotten good at those things boys liked her to do; he gave her thirty bucks and they’d drink clean out of the bottle together for a while after. Other nights, like tonight, she was left wanting.
One such evening, perched upon a faded five-bar gate, Melissa watched the horizon, nothing and nobody to occupy her restless mind. At different times of day, she had noticed, the sun bled its color differently. It was a disquieting thing to witness; because if the sky wasn’t just blue like she had grown up believing, what else had they lied to her about? Unable to pin the color down on paper the way she wanted to, Melissa hopped off the gate, ass numb, and headed home. Besides, a more urgent predicament was seizing her and quite by chance.
Melissa had spied those missing girls. Across the Southside field, she’d noticed them, their bra and spaghetti straps dangling off their shoulders, looking tired and thin and with babies planted to their chests. It was in that moment that Melissa learned something about the cycle she was staring down. That the reclaimed trailers made new on the far side of the park were not waiting for new families to move in, but were waiting for her.
She stopped getting in the Maverick after that, and I for one was glad of it.
Natalie Blake is a British-born writer, now living abroad. In 2022, her short fiction appeared in The Bookends Review, Sleet Magazine, and in a printed anthology by Pure Slush Books. Coming up, her flash fiction will soon feature in Full House Literary and A Thin Slice of Anxiety. Through her work, Natalie often explores contemporary issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and the intersectionality of women's lives with wider society.