Short Story Contest Finalist: Red Clay Halo

By March 14, 2016 No Comments

Written by Mylissa Fitzsimmons

I’m half asleep when I feel my body floating. She’s trying to cradle me, but the body of a seven-year-old isn’t as light as a baby’s. I wake a little more and see the red-haired babysitter who looks to be coming out of her teen years. She’s struggling to push me into the back of a truck, where my little sister is already snuggled up, fast asleep.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“Shhh, it’s a surprise!” she whispers. “Lay down and go back to sleep, and when you wake we’ll be there.” Her shaking hands work in a frenzy to bury us under blankets and pillows.

She arrived a few days before, alone, and set up camp at our desert commune on the edge of town. Hippies, white trash, poor souls, criminals: this is what the people in town call us. They’re not so wrong.

She kept to herself, but she was useful in the gardens and at entertaining the kids, so everyone accepted her without question. “Welcome without judgment” was a phrase you heard often in our group. Nobody even asked her name.

My older siblings were away at my dad’s when my mother needed someone to watch us while she worked the nightshift at the gas station. The red-haired girl showed up.

I surely don’t question her as she pushes my head down in back of the truck, deep into the blankets. But I catch a glimpse of the man sitting in the driver’s seat. He’s fat. He’s wearing overalls with no shirt and the fat is spilling out of the sides. I see the lights from inside the truck reflecting off the sweat seeping from his giant body. Even though I can’t see his face, I know he’s not from around here. A man this size couldn’t go unnoticed in a town this small. Us kids would laugh at the sight of him: his long greasy hair, pox-scarred skin, dirty overalls. We’d see him at the grocery store and jeer as he filled his cart with microwave dinners, out of breath from having to put all that weight on his fat legs. Our parents would smack our heads and threaten to let him sit on us if we didn’t behave.

I don’t know this man, I think as my eyes grow heavy with sleep.

I already know I don’t like him even before the hair on my arms starts to tingle. My hands reach for my little sister, who is fast asleep. I pull her close to me and listen to her breath. I fall asleep to the rhythm of the road underneath us.

My eyes open to darkness, and I can’t tell if it’s day or night. I recognize the smell of stale river water, mud, and salt. I sit up. I think I’m down by the river, maybe zipped up in a tent, camping. But I don’t hear water, and the air has a weight to it that sits on my lungs. I’m trying to adjust my eyes when I hear stirring in the far corner. Someone is shuffling about.

A match gets struck and a small glow from a lantern gets brighter, and my eyes start to focus. I’m in an open space—a cave-like room, with rock walls above, behind, and to the sides. There’s a table made of pallets. Next to it, the fat man sleeps in an old stuffed chair. There are three ice coolers lined against the wall, and I watch as redhead pulls a jug of water from one. She doesn’t notice me as she drinks and then returns to her bed, an old mattress on the other side of the cave.

I know where we are. The fat man and red head have taken us to a mineshaft.

Abandoned mineshafts are sprinkled all through out the mountains and desert of Utah. Once, on one of my many adventures exploring, I stumbled across one filled with vintage cars. Signs posted through out the areas warn people of possible cave ins and trespassing arrest have not deterred people from turning the mines into homes. They are dark and hot, and when you breath, the air burns your throat and eyes. It’s like living in the belly of a dragon. And here is where I find myself, and my sister who is stirring beside me.

“Does my mom know we’re here?” I ask later, when we’re sitting at the pallet table eating cereal mixed with water.

“Of course,” the redheaded girl says. “She even said I should bring you.” She smiles her head twitches back and forth, like she’s waiting for someone to jump out at her.

I know the redhead is lying. One time I came home covered in mud from exploring a mine and my mother spanked me with the big wooden spoon. She screamed about the dangers of radiation, of a cave-in. She said she’s use a brush on me the next time I went into a mine.

My sister’s too young to know about the dangers, and she seems to accept that my mother would allow us to be taken in the night by strangers. Her calmness almost makes me accept it too. My mother has put us in danger before, and this could just be another one of those times.

On the table are coloring books and crayons to keep us quiet and busy. Somehow this occupies us as the hours tick by. Food consists of puffed cereal mixed with water. When the puffs soak up the water they turn gooey and taste like glue. My sister and I are used to the taste, since milk can be scarce in our house. Welfare provides cheese, but milk is a luxury.

Here, if we have to use the bathroom, there’s a hole in the back corner where we can squat. When we’re done with our business we have to remember to cover it with a towel. We’re not allowed to drink water from the jugs in the cooler, only the water in the saucepans sitting on the table. The hours roll on. The only sounds are the scratching of crayons on paper and the heavy breathing from the fat man.

He hasn’t spoken once. He just sits in his chair looking at maps. I can hear his wheezing heavy breathing whenever he adjusts in his chair. I can smell him, too. He’s tried to cover up his fat smell with cheap cologne. It’s overwhelming, though, and if I breathe into deep I’m afraid I’ll sneeze. I spend most of my time trying to avoid any eye contact with him.

It’s nighttime when I first hear him speak.

“We need to get out of here. Drive up the junction,” he whispers to the redhead.

“I think we should wait a day. Leave in the night,” she whispers back.

I keep my eyes closed so they’ll think I’m sleep. I hold my breath. Cracking my eyelids, I see them sitting at the table, maps spread out. The lantern casts a glow on their faces, highlighting the grey peppered in his long hair and the dryness of her skin. If not for his hand rubbing on her thigh, I would think he was a grandfather with his granddaughter. I don’t realize I’m staring at them till his eyes make contact with mine. I quickly shut mine. I imagine my own grandfather. He’s sitting next to me.

“I’m having a bad dream,” I imagine telling him.

“Bad dreams, bad dreams go away. Good dreams, good dreams come and stay,” he whispers in my head. It’s hours before I finally drift off.

The next day my head aches it’s getting hotter. I’ve lost track of time. If not for my sister and trying to keep her busy by drawing whatever pictures she requests, I would curl up in the corner and cry myself to sleep. The fat man sits in his chair and passes a bottle to the redhead. I can read the label on the bottle: whiskey. I know the effect this has on people. I’ve seen it happen the few times I’ve met my dad. They’re whispering about name changes and haircuts, and I’m trying to listen but my sister keeps talking to me.

“Draw me a cat,” she insists.
I’m drawing when she turns to them and asks, “Are we going home?”
“No, not today,” the fat man grunts. It’s the first time he’s actually spoken to us.

My sisters’ chin starts to wobble like it does when she’s about to cry. I can’t tell if the furrow in her brow is confusion or fear or both.

“Does my mom know we’re here?” I ask again.

The redhead walks over and sits next to us at the table, placing her hand on the small of my sister’s back. My sister goes stiff.

“I already told you, she said you could come with us on our little trip.” She’s smiling, and I can see her missing teeth. Her voice is calm. She wants us to stop asking questions.

“I don’t think my mom wants us to go on a trip. I want to go home,” I say. I stare at her and watch as her smile fades into the dark circles under her eyes.

My sister stops coloring. I’ve said the words she was thinking. “I want to go home.” She gives in to her tears. “I wanna go home.” She cries into her hands as she wipes her face.

The fat man stands up from his chair. His greasy hair is covering part of his face. He looks like like a giant one-eyed Cyclops. He grabs for us both and drags us to the dusty piles of old blankets that has been our bed for the last two days.

Your mom is a whore! She doesn’t want you. God has given us to you now.” His voice echoes around the room. He’s close enough that I can smell the whiskey on his breath. His eyes are bloodshot and glassy.

Later that night when the shadows fade, I feel his hands push aside the blanket. They make their way up between my thighs.

I know not to move, not to push away, not to breathe. I know to turn of all the senses in my body and escape into my mind. I know how to let this happen to me so it doesn’t happen to my sister sleeping next to me.

When he is done, I feel nothing. He has rubbed me numb. I must get us out of here, away from them. All I can think about is how to do this as I drift off.

When I wake up, it is dark and quiet. I can hear my sister breathing next to me. Her breath is shallow and fast, scared. I can hear my stomach—days without eating much has made it upset. What I don’t hear is snoring from the fat man or whispers from the redhead. I hold my breath and focus on isolating all the sounds. They’re not there.

“Hello?” I speak quietly. “Hello,” I say, a little louder. Nothing.

I stand up and blink my eyes. Slowly they adjust to the darkness. I can barely see the outline of the table, and I and tiptoe to it. Frantic, I’m searching with my hands—crayons, books, and then, finally, the matches in a box next to the lantern. Light. It’s a small glow but enough to prove we’re alone. I shove the remaining matches in my pocket of my sweater. Kneeling down, I wake my sister.

“Shhh, quiet. Listen to me,” I whisper into her ear. “Listen, we have to go now. Will you help me?”

Sleepy, she shakes her head.

“Will you be quiet? Don’t cry, don’t talk. Hold my hand tight and don’t let go. I’m going to get us home, do you understand?”

I’m gripping her face in the palm of my hands. She nods and gets to her feet. I light one more match to quickly get my bearings. Before it goes out, I see the slant in the wall that leads to the tunnel, our only way out.

With my hand pressed against the stone wall, we shuffle forward. I’m counting steps in my head 37…38…39… The darkness does not scare me. What awaits in the light does. The redhead with her missing teeth, ready to take us away, the fat man with his fat hands between my legs every night. 101…102…103… I have four matches left. I will use them to light the redhead on fire if I have too. I can feel air now. It has no weight, and it smells new. The walls are casting shadows. There is light ahead. I stop.

“We’re almost there. I can see the end.” I’m still whispering afraid my voice will give us away. I kneel in front of my sister, face to face. I can hear her heartbeat, loud as my own. Both of us are shaking, our teeth chattering even though it’s not cold. In fact, I’m sweating. I’m burning up. My skin feels raw, stripped and exposed. Every part of my body aches.

“What does grandpa always say to us?” I ask.
“When the world gets tough, you get tougher.” She straightens up.

“That’s right, and we have to get tough right now. Do you understand? You have to do exactly what I tell you. If I say run, you run and you don’t look back. Be very quiet and stay right behind me.” I take a deep breath and head towards the opening.

I’m fingering the matches, ready to burn our way out of the belly of the dragon. At the entrance my eyes tear up, making it hard to focus. I’m blinded by the sweetness of the sun. Grabbing my sister’s hand tightly, we walk out into the day. There is no truck. No sign of the redhead or the fat man. There is nothing.

A narrow dirt road stretches away in front of us. The red cliff mountains loom on both sides, and behind us there’s a box canyon. I’ve been on enough camping trips to know that in a box canyon there’s only one way in and one way out. If fat man and redhead are not here, the only place they’ll be is on that road.

“We have to go up,” I tell my sister. “We have to climb up and hide in the mountains. If we go down the road they will see us.”

I don’t wait for her answer. I’m practically dragging her.

“Get tougher, get tougher,” she repeats over and over in a low voice. This is her mantra, her motivation. She is my motivation.

I’ve grown up in this mountain desert. The red rocks have stained my knees. I learned to swim in the river that runs through the mountains at age two. I learned to jump from the red cliffs holding nothing but rope at age five. I know how to work my fingers and feet into crevices made for small insects. I’ve camped for weeks in the valleys and played with my dolls in the mountain caves. I don’t bleed blood, I bleed red dirt. The way up into the mountains is the way out.

My sister is like a rattler slithering over boulders twice her size. I see the distance between us and the mineshaft is only a few hundred feet.

From the top of the crest, I have a clear view out of the canyon. I see the narrow long road snake through the canyon, where it ends at the river before a paved road veers left. The river is flowing left, and the paved road goes left. I’m hoping this means that town is to the left.

The crest ends a few yards up, and the mountain breaks. A small crevice in the smooth mountain cracks its way up to the next crest. From there, it’s a straight walk out of the canyon along the mountaintop. Maybe we’ll find a trail that leads to the paved road. This is the only way out.

The sun is dipping, and it will be dark soon. I see my sister out of the corner of my eye. Her mouth is moving but the words are silent. Her body is small, made even smaller by the lack of food and water these last few days. She looks weak, but I can see the red dirt seeping into her blood. Making her strong.

Then her lips stop and her eyes get wide. I turn to see what she sees. The truck is back. The dirt is kicking up mini tornadoes behind it. The headlights flick on just as the sun kisses us goodnight. We hide behind small boulders above them. If not for those boulders, we’d be exposed. All they have to do is look up.

“I KNOW YOU’RE OUT THERE.” The fat man’s voice echoes through the canyon, bouncing off the cliffs. “I’M GOING TO FIND YOU BOTH AND GUT YOUR LITTLE BODIES AND EAT YOUR INSIDES.”

My sister sobs uncontrollably. I know he can hear us.

I am positive his body will not allow him to make it past the first boulder. But I am not so positive the redhead won’t come after us.

I grab my sister’s hands. “Look at me, stop crying now! He can’t find us. He won’t get you. We are going home. We are going home right now!” I say this with such conviction that even I believe it.

Running above them along the crest, I find the crack in the mountain. It’s smooth to the touch. I can see the moon lighting my way. I lift my sister onto my shoulders. It’s barely wide enough to squeeze into. With my back pressed firmly against the wall, I bend my knees in front of me, lifting my feet to the wall in front of me. With all the strength I have left, I use my legs to push up.

“I am tough,” I repeat with every push.

I learned to camp in this desert. I learned to swim in the river, I learned to climb these mountains till the skin from my knees peeled back and revealed the red clay. These mountains are my playground and after playing I will get us home.