We were outside an antiques and oddities shop, somewhere in New Hampshire, when I said, Look, it’s not my fault, it never was my fault and it will never be my fault. He danced his fingertips up and down the steering wheel and said, It’s over. I don’t want to think about it anymore. Kapeesh? I shrugged and he pretended to take a drag from a cigarette. We were too broke to buy them so we had been faking it to get our fix.
We’re from the West Coast and we’ve been on the run for almost a month now and he sleeps in the back seat at night all curled up with his stuffed tiger from when he was a kid, and I sleep in the front seat with my arms crossed over my chest like a mummy and I look out the dash up at the moon or the stars or the streetlights in the rest stop parking lot, and I think about what it would be like to be Beyoncé or Tiger Woods or somebody with a reputation before I fall asleep, and we haven’t been together that long and he’s only ever hit me once and it wasn’t hard and I probably deserved it and that’s what he said anyways and he’s got six tattoos, two of them done by his own hand, and I’ve got a wart on my thumb that’s been there since I was little and I’m beginning to think it may never go away and that maybe it’s time to do something about it.
He puts out his fake cigarette in the cup console and he parks his hand on my knee and he says, Wanna take a peek inside? And I say, What if someone recognizes us? And he says, Life’s all about taking chances baby.
So we walk inside the store and there are jaw bones and antlers and human teeth and centipedes in little glass boxes and framed wreaths made from hair and dried roses and stuffed squirrels and deer heads and bobcats and regular cats and birds and pheasants and there’s a coiled up python on the floor, his eyes replaced with glossy blue marbles, and I wonder if someone polishes them, and what they do when they’re not doing that, and next to him is a crate full of vintage vibrators and a part of me wonders if they still work and if they do, if I’d like them or not, and next to those there is a stack of old books on anatomy and taxidermy and on top are a few children books from the forties, all of them about some kind of journey to something better, some kind of journey to happiness.
A large clown head made out of papier-mâché hanging from the middle of the ceiling like a chandelier and I kneel to the floor to run my hand along a rabbit’s skull, and I stick my fingers into its empty sockets and I imagine seeing what it used to see, a tree stump, far ahead, nearly lost in the forest, pillars of light pushing through scrawny branched skeletons, bits of white sweeping through the air, and it runs, it scurries to the stump, and it climbs atop and the pillars begin to fall and the skeletons disappear and the rabbit, the rabbit there on the stump is shot, and it is skinned, and sold, and placed on fireplace mantles and bookshelves, and somehow, finally, the skull makes its way here, to the bottom shelf of a bookcase with a price tag tied through it’s jaw bone for forty-five dollars. I think about its family, its friends, the things it left behind, the things I left behind, my brother, his wet face, the way he said, Don’t do this. The way he said Please Addie. His hand, his wrist, him still wearing that goddamn bracelet, him still believing.
Then Tyler tugs at my arm and I stand up and he says I have to show you something.
He brings me to the far corner of the store and inside a large glass case there is an animal. A chimera. He reads the index card taped to the case out loud to me like it’s a secret, and then he looks at me and says, Can you believe it? And before I have the chance to say, Yes, I don’t imagine it’s that hard to taxidermy more than one animal together. Before I can say, did you think it was real? Before I can say I think we should go the shop-owner jaunts over and he looks at me and he looks at Tyler and he says, it’s a pretty rare piece, and Tyler shakes his head yes, never taking his eyes off the case, and the man looks at me again and he winks like we’re playing some kind of trick on him, like this is a game, like it’s our joke, our secret, and I start to wonder if he knows any of my real secrets. I start to wonder what he would think of me if he did, and then he says, it’s the only one they ever found. There are no others on earth. And he took a breath and he said, I’ll give you a deal for it.
We drove a few towns over to Fitzwilliam and ended up at the Woodbound Inn. Tyler must have had some extra cash on him that I didn’t know about. He said he needed to stretch out somewhere. He needed to take a shower. That we couldn’t let a miracle like this just sit in the car. Tyler carried it into the room and put it on the TV table. I asked him what we would do if we wanted to watch TV and he said we could sit on the floor.
An hour later I left Tyler on the plaid couch, clipping his toenails into an empty tissue box, and walked next door to the gastro pub. Inside there were two tourists speaking Chinese at the bar. I leaned against a chair, putting up my hand to try to get the bartenders attention and the couple leaned over and handed me a brochure. It was for the Rhododendron State Park. They pointed at the picture of a sign that said Rhododendron State Park and then shrugged like they were asking me a question. I handed the brochure back to them and when the bartender came over I ordered two cheeseburgers to go.
They said, you know where?
I shook my head no and pointed to myself and said, I’m also a tourist. They looked at each other and then back at me and said want to come find?
It felt easier to say yes than to say no so I agreed. Back in the room Tyler had removed the top of the case. He was rubbing its head with his index finger. He said, God we’re so lucky, and when I asked why, he looked at me like I didn’t know anything and I was beginning to think that maybe he was right. He said, Come sit by me, and then he picked up my hand and carefully placed it on top of the chimera’s head. He said, Do you feel the energy? He said, I think this thing is still alive. I asked him if he took the leftover tabs. He hadn’t. That night he fell asleep leaning against the case and I lay in the bed looking at the ceiling, counting the tiny holes in the Styrofoam like they were stars.
In the morning I went to the lounge to get a coffee and the tourists were eating yogurt with a fork in two big armchairs by the window. I asked, did they run out of spoons? They said, come find park? I shrugged and I followed them to their car and we drove fifteen miles to the Rhododendron State Park, me in the backseat with the road map telling them when to turn.
We parked in front of the sign and got out, and they pointed at me and then to the sign and then to their camera. I shook my head, no, but the husband put his hand on my shoulder and nudged me forward. His hand on my shoulder. The first hand on my shoulder in months besides my own or Tyler’s, and it felt different, it felt warm, it felt right. It felt like it belonged there all along. I walked to the sign and stuck out my tongue and they laughed and snapped the picture and it spit from the front of the camera and they handed it to me. I shook it while I looked up at the sky, the sky looking like me when I was a kid on Halloween with my little brother, me Dorothy and him a dinosaur, and we’re standing in front of a table filled with candy and spider rings and ghost stickers and there’s a bowl of punch with a plastic severed hand sticking out of it and behind us are fake cobwebs and orange streamers and a kayak covered in dust and real cobwebs and in front of us are our parents, my dad before he died, my mom before she lost it, and this real nice couple who owns the garage we’re standing in, and they say, alright kids say trick or treat!
They hit the button and the light flashes and they hand me the photo and I shake it and I look and I shake it and I look, because we’re not quite there yet, we haven’t filled in the cracks, and when we do I stick it in my pocket, not in my candy bag, because it’s my favorite treat, and I do this every year and then when I get home I tape it under my bed so I can watch us grow, watch us evolve, because it is the only proof that we actually had.
The Chinese couple begins speaking to each other in Chinese and I give the photo one last shake and I look down and it’s me, so many years later, it’s me and I’m not dressed up in anything, I’m just me with all my flaws exposed and all my secrets and all my regrets and I slip the photo in my pocket the way I used to, and I can feel it through the fabric, pressing into my skin, and it’s pulsing and it’s begging me to look, to remember, to feel, but I keep moving because I don’t want to listen.
The couple walked ahead of me, and when I yelled, Wait up, they turned around and pointed at their watches and yelled Three! Before scurrying down the trail. I wandered down a different path, pushed through bushes of rhododendrons, stopped in front of a sign explaining the origin of the flower and I wondered if there was a park for every flower and how the flowers who didn’t have parks felt. If they felt anything at all. As I was walking back to the car, up ahead, in the middle of the trail, there was a rabbit. As I walked closer I watched it’s eyes, those black beads, looking like the same ones I would make bracelets out of for my brother, the bracelets I would give him and say, Whenever I’m not around just take this off and hold it and it’s me, I’m in there, I’ll save you wherever you are, and the rabbit tilted it’s head like it knew what I was thinking so I thought about the skull, the one back at the oddities shop, with the tag reading forty-five dollars, and I wondered if this rabbit knew that one, if it was on its way to grieve.
I knew everything I ever wanted to know about grief.
I stepped closer, the dirt between us closing up like a wound, the ground becoming a scar, and I reached out my hand to it, to let it know that I knew, that I knew better than anybody else knew, that nothing is fair, that everything hurts, that it never goes away, and it pushed it’s nose into my fingertips and I said At least it is itself. Your friend. The rabbit. It is not a part of anything else.
When I got back to the room Tyler was on the ground, in his underwear, and he was sweating and he looked up at me and he said you won’t believe the things I’ve learned. I sat down on the floor next to him, the carpet tough and stained in coffee spots like my grandmother’s back, and I started picking at a tuft of thread that had broken free, but my nails were too short to really get at it and I wished I hadn’t cut them. He placed his clammy hand on mine and he breathed in sharp, like he was swallowing a needle, and he said, it spoke to me, it said we would be okay. It knows things Addie. It knows. I told him I needed to pee and that I had blisters on my feet and that I was going to go get a bucket of ice from the ice machine to soak them. I asked him if he had taken the tabs and he said Goddammit Addie I’m not a fucking addict. He was right.
On the way back from the ice machine I saw the Chinese couple again. They were outside the door to their room fumbling with their keys. They said hi and stuck out their hands. I shook them. I asked them what they were up to. They stared at me and then nodded at the ice bucket and pointed at their door. I followed them inside. Their room was stuffy. It was a different set-up from ours. They had two double beds with a framed photo of a covered bridge over each of them and the carpet was darker and less tufty. There were two small suitcases placed neatly by their porch door. They pulled out three cans of coke from their mini-fridge. I asked them if I could soak my feet in their tub. They looked at me and smiled and handed me a coke. I took it and pointed to the bathroom door and they both nodded, so I went in.
I close the toilet lid and rest my head on it and I wait. I think maybe I’ll wait until they knock, until they try to open the door, until they call the hotel manager, until the hotel manager calls the police, until the police call the fire department, until someone finds Tyler, alone in our room, his shirt off, his back and shoulders and face and the skin behind his knees all sweaty. Tyler on the carpet with the chimera up on the TV stand, Tyler praying to it, unaware of the day, the time, what he’s done, who he is, unaware of where I am. Tyler not concerned with where I am, who I am, what I’ve become.
It was my fault.
It’s always been my fault.
The fire department will take down the door and they’ll find me here and my eyes will be open, wide open, because it hurts too much to shut them, and my head will still be against the yellowed plastic lid, and they’ll say, Ma’am, because they won’t know who I am yet and maybe they’ll feel bad, just for a second, maybe they’ll look at me and they’ll think about their grandmothers, aunts, sisters, mother, and daughters. They’ll remember sometime when one of them looked just like me, all doe-eyed and curled up real small, and they’ll throw a blanket around me, put a hand on my shoulder, on my back, and it’ll feel good, really good, to know what all those other hands feel like, hands of people who don’t yet know who I am, and the Chinese couple will be there through the whole thing, they’ll follow them and me out to the ambulance or the police car or the fire truck, and they’ll wait there with their hands and their eyes and their nods and their shrugs and the police will run my name and they’ll find out who I am and the Chinese couple will have a story, a real good story, for when they get home because all anybody really wants is a story.
They’ll tell their families about me, about the girl they befriended, the girl they took to the Rhododendron State Park, the girl who was arrested in their hotel bathroom. And the police will cuff me and they’ll take me away and it will be over, the price will be paid, all those nights spent looking up thinking about what it would be like to be someone, anyone, to be something other than a girl with a dead father and a crazy mother and a little brother somewhere lost in the world wearing a black beaded bracelet, a little brother asking where are you? I need you.
And I can finally say I’m here. I’m somebody now. Everyone will know my name. We will never be forgotten. I will say Sometimes you have to take risks to get here, to climb this far up, to be remembered. Remember that. And I will say remember this too, that this, all of this, this could have happened to you.
Chelsea Harris was awarded the Follet Graduate Merit Award to attend Columbia College Chicago and received her MFA from the Department of Creative Writing. She was named to Glimmer Train’s top 25 list for their Very Short Fiction Award in 2014. She has had work published or is forthcoming in Cigale Literary Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Habitat Magazine, Quaint Magazine and The Fem. Chelsea also had a flash piece published in “Stripper-A-Go-Go: Deep Inside The World Of Exotic Dancers”, a book designed and published by Thought Catalog. She is currently the editorial assistant and event coordinator at Fifth Wednesday Journal.