by Kami Westhoff
1. Start from the place you now call home, where cherry blossoms erupt overnight and the scent of lilac lulls you into thinking maybe everything is going to be okay. A doe tracks you from the overgrown flowerbed, her eyes stitched to the blur of your body. She’s pregnant, stiffens as you approach. You know she could charge, her hooves a flutter of stomp, but she stays put in the doe-shaped indentation in the bark. Perhaps she trusts you by now, knows you are also a mother exhausted from the constant effort of protecting your young, of being on the verge of violence. After you pass, her ears twitch in the outskirts of your periphery, snagging a scrap of sound from the next possible disaster.
2. The trail near your house will tug you left, promising corners and curves choked with spring’s brag. Resist. There are some things you will have to sacrifice: two hundred miles a month of running with only yourself to save when the snip-snap of twig or crunch of gravel behind you is finally the terror you expect it to be. Follow the sidewalk past the “Impeach the Media” neighbor toward the intersection where a teenager once burned to death in her Volkswagen Bug. Don’t look uphill to where her father mows the lawn as if he’s still alive. Pass the roadside memorial without reading the messages scraped into a wooden cross.
3. Avoid the interstate: you’re a county-road girl in your gut and this time there’s no shortcut. There’s only this route to where you need to go, no way to avoid the make-out parking lot where you mistook what happened for something you wanted. If the skin under your fingernails itch for the split, go ahead—but know it’s the last time. You might want to stop at the corner store, where your father brought you every Saturday for a Whatchamacallit you rinsed from your teeth with a Cherry Coke, and where one afternoon you and your sister found stacks of half-burned Penthouse magazines, mouths melted onto places we’d never thought to put faces. But don’t stop. Head west, past the carcass of an unrecognizable: something was always dying on a county road.
4. The last block will be rough: imagine you’re sitting on the dropped tailgate of your father’s truck, arms pretzeled with your sister’s, mustard fields smearing your sight gold. Don’t let that one house on the hill snag you: you’ve already spent a lifetime there. The hill descends and you see the house of your childhood: if you look closely, you can still see the remnants of your last name on the mailbox. Dahlias of every color and shape smother the brown from the garden. Ghost, Bossy, and Radar graze in the field; if you stand at the edge of the fence, they’ll saunter toward you, slide their tongues into one nostril then the other, side-eye you until you offer a carrot or kohlrabi. This is a moment you’ll wish you could keep, so take your time. Sync your heartbeat with the slow scrunch of their chewing. When a tail slices the air to snap a fly, breathe from the new slash of air.
5. Your father’s car is parked in the driveway, his lower half sprouting from underneath a sky- blue Dodge Dart. Here are the images you won’t be able to ignore: a bucket frothing with blood-red bubbles; a vanilla-scented, pine tree air freshener dangling from the rearview; your father whistling “Oh My Darling, Clementine” as he tinkers with the oil pan’s plug; your sister bleeding in the front seat after the stranger’s assault, something you never saw but could never unsee. This is where your father will stay, forever tinkering with this part or that, greasing bolts, soaking filters, checking levels. He will ask you to help, there are things you need to know, he’ll say. Tell him your mother needs you inside.
6. When you step into the house, the scent of scorched pancakes swallows you. Most of the dishes have been cleared from the table, but a bottle of syrup remains, along with a plate you made when you were five. Your self-portrait was typical: head enormous, a tiny body of sticks sprouting from the face. Eat the pancake if you can stomach it: your mother made it for you. She’s humming in the sewing room. Notice her foot on the machine’s pedal, the strip of thread dangling from her mouth. Don’t look at the latest embarrassment she’s stitching for you, plaid when all you want is paisley, flap collars when you long for the V. She no longer makes you and your sister the same outfits (yours always green, your sister’s yellow). For that, be grateful.
7. The stairs to your room are cluttered with clothes your mother has folded. Take yours with you, put them away. Your room is forever daylight, and the buttercup walls pull you into the eve of your eighth birthday: the last birthday before everything changed. You are still Cabbage Patch and Ramona, Flintstones and Smurfs, running shirtless through the sprinkler, lips stained scarlet from cherry Jolly Ranchers, hot dogs roasting on just-whittled sticks, sparklers hissing your name into the night.
8. Dissolve into this moment. Was there ever a better age than eight? Your body just a thing to get you where you wanted to go: barefoot hide-and-seek in the garden where the cornstalks nicked your knees; the barn’s loft, where you found kittens so new their eyes were dark slashes in a face full of fur. Strapped onto your father’s back, fingers clasped across his chest as he stepped over a creek too wide for your stride. Criss-cross applesauce on your mother’s lap as she braided your hair, your back resting against the vibrations of songs sung to you before you were born, songs about sleep, songs about love, songs you’d never not known.
Kami Westhoff is the author of the story collection The Criteria (Unsolicited Press, 2022), and chapbooks Cloudbound (Dancing Girl Press, 2022), Sleepwalker (Minerva Rising, 2017), and Your Body a Bullet (Unsolicited Press, 2018), co-written with Elizabeth Vignali. Her work has appeared in various journals including Meridian, Redivider, Carve, Third Coast, Hippocampus, Passages North, Waxwing, and West Branch. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.