map Girl

by Robert L. Penick

Published in Issue No. 292 ~ September, 2021

Girl crept down the stairs on her first night home, treading sideways to keep her weight off the outer, squeaky portion of each step. When she descended far enough into the living room, she saw the Devil in a corner chair that no one ever used. The Devil can’t see you when you hold your breath, so she glided along the wall toward the kitchen, growing more light-headed with every step. She took the largest knife from a drawer tangled with ladles and graters and kept it in front of her as she retraced her steps to the living room. The Devil had vanished. Only a shadow occupied the corner chair. Girl sat down on the sofa, in the middle, surveying the walls, floor, and furniture while waiting for something to happen. Nothing ever happens while you’re waiting for it, though, so it’s a good way to guard against the unknown. She sat, vigilant, and surveyed her memory.

First thought: When she was born, her father handed out pink “It’s A Girl!” cigars that were made of chewing gum. He told her about this later, and there was even a blurry color photo printed on a primitive Epsom to prove it. He took off a month from the car lot to care for her, as her mother slalomed through postpartum depression and a series of 72-hour vacations at a hospital. A picture existed of Mum in a family album holding Girl and looking blankly back at the camera. Staring into another world. Girl was uneasy looking at this photo, afraid of her infant self falling. With the implementation of pharmaceuticals, Mum eventually came around, but her happiest early memories were with Dad. He kept her learning, was obsessed with with putting leaping deer and collapsing galaxies into her head. Mum showed the requisite amount of interest, but her energies stayed directed inward. Or away.

Next thought: Her father, four years ago, when she was ten. Lying on the kitchen floor, beet red until his lips turned blue. Him staring at the light overhead, half-heartedly reaching up to it with one hand while the other squeezed the front of his shirt into a wad. Mum garbling the address into the phone again and again. Girl, transfixed, watching Dad run out his clock, wind down into nothing and never again. Then the EMTs bustling in with the electric jump start. No good, one says. Then Dad’s rolling out the door, never to return. Girl staring at the medical debris on the floor, fluid (urine?), Mum trying to call Gran, find her keys.

Next thought: The way the other schoolchildren moved away from her the next week, after the funeral, afraid of catching death. Only Latrice, the one with the brace on her leg and the badly-knotted braids, sitting with her in the lunch room. Also her friend Dewey, who had no experience with grief and wanted to talk about the rocket he was building. Girl didn’t want to speak anyway, so she sat between the handicapped and the rocket scientist, listening to theories of jet propulsion and sharing her tater tots. She felt marooned, with a sea of contentment around her. That lasted a week before her compatriots drifted back. But she was different from them now, had a scar they could not match.

Her mind had to shift only a tiny notch to see the devil come into the picture. Dad’s buddy from work had been occasionally dropping in at dinnertime for a couple of years with a “don’t mind if I do” at the ready. Getting a bit too flirty with Mum over the pork chops. Dad always saying later, “If he had a brain, he’d be dangerous.” Mum laughing in agreement while they watched the ten o’clock news. Then the Devil showing up on the porch one afternoon and a whispered conversation that lasted twenty minutes. Don’t tell your father. He’s just lonely. Girl never told, and now is a traitor, picking the wrong side in a silent war by staying silent, and you can never apologize enough to the dead.

In the basement, the furnace kicked on. Her vision darkened, even darker than this living room lit only by street light. The gradual insertion of this man into the house after Dad’s death, the degradation of Mum into a parrot who mantracized his rules. Girl was demeaned, made less and less until she became unsure of her own weight, disbelieving of her own fingerprints and eye color. She was banished to the attic, her bedroom taken for a “home office,” where the Devil smoked cigarettes and watched basketball. That winter, Girl stared at the glowing elements of her space heater and tried not to hear the voice that knew everything booming downstairs. It was the coldest winter in her existence.

The hands followed the cold into the attic and into her thoughts. First the tickling that wasn’t tickling, then the rub under her shirt, with the other hand hooking her bicep so she couldn’t scurry away. This will do you good, the Devil said. Relax. Hands everywhere, on her bottom, between her legs. Lately the fingers in her mouth. Suck, he told her. But she never did. Mum less than useless, not looking at her, locking out her voice like someone slamming a window shut to keep out the chill.

She had told, of course, as instructed by the school assemblies about these sorts of behaviors. But the Devil had lied and Mum had protected him, and Girl got a lecture from human services, “the boy who cried wolf”, all of that. Things got quiet around the house, ominously so, and Girl stayed in the attic, peeing in a bucket and hording bits of food like a pack rat. Mum stayed in her bedroom, television turned up to a caustic blare, and didn’t see her daughter before school or in the afternoons.

The Devil had begun calling up to her from his office, her former bedroom. She had heard the door rattle against the two by four that served as a bolt. Her life was not going to get better. So she sat on that sofa, knife grasped in both hands like a crucifix. At some point one or the other monster would emerge from one or the other room, and she would cleave her way upward from this pit.


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The work of Robert L. Penick has appeared in over 100 different literary journals, including The Hudson Review, North American Review, and The California Quarterly. His "Exit, Stage Left" won the 2018 Slipstream Press chapbook contest.