← Issue 8
by Rachel Quisel
It’s the first time I remember seeing my father cry. My feet are cold and someone takes my hand and leads me away from where he’s doubled over on our couch. Something is wrong with Maw Maw, but I don’t know what. She took a nap while she was driving, they say, because of the diabetes, and they pat down my hair and my dress. My father’s hands muffle monster noises coming from his face. My momma’s gone, he says. Sometimes he takes little white pills in the mornings.
It’s the year my cat, Baby, dies, but I don’t realize that for a long time. My father tells me that Baby was recruited by NASA and launched into space. I cut out an image of a white cat wearing an astronaut helmet and tape it to my bedroom wall.
My father waits until the Home Depot aisle is empty, then opens a package. He takes out part of it, slips it into his waistband, beside his gun, and replaces the package on the shelf. He tucks his shirt in around his paunch. A woman in an electric orange apron squints at us. I feel a tap on my shoulder. Let’s go, he says. She makes eye contact with me, and I say nothing.
At the bottom of my pool, I count to one hundred in French until my chest convulses. I shoot up to the surface. Sunshine is a hot twill smacking my face. I skim out snuff-colored leaves and drowned animals. White-bellied frogs with swollen limbs and cataract eyes. Their bodies disintegrate in the netting and small parts disperse in the water, creating a kind of death soup. My parents forget where I am.
The Columbine massacre happens on the other side of the country. Twelve students and one teacher are dead. Inside a wooden box on my parents’ dresser is a gun. In the coming years, my father will tap it against his palm when I arrive home past my ten o’clock curfew. It’s heavy and smells like sweat and metal. I point the barrel at my reflection in the vanity’s desilvering mirror. My father doesn’t mention the shooting. No one in my family does. It’s like it didn’t happen. But the gun stays in the box, the waistband, the glove compartment, the unstable man’s hands.
My friend Brian and I lean into our plastic N64 controllers. The TV screen reflects off our shiny faces. Dinner is ready, but I ignore my mother’s call to come to the table. In an instant, my father’s hands are around my neck. He wrestles me to the floor and presses his knees into my shoulders. The last openhanded slap dislocates my jaw. Pain pins me to the carpet. Don’t you ever disrespect your mother, he says. Brian is a smudge slinking to the front door. I can’t lift my hand to wipe my father’s spit from my face. He releases me, and my feet squeak to the green linoleum kitchen floor. My mother drops chunks of chicken liver on my plate, breaded and fried. She lights a cigarette and sits. Dig in, she says.
When I wake up, IV lines are coming out the inner parts of my arms and the top of my hand. I’m woken every few hours to take medicine. It involves a straw and bitter-tasting fluid. A nurse touches my shoulder. It’s always the pretty ones, she says. My mother arrives. She sits by my bedside. She holds down my arms so I can’t yank out tubes from my nose.
My room at the youth psychiatric hospital is so still. All the corners are folded down. Adults listen and respond when I speak. My questions are met with answers that make sense. My father arrives and demands I be discharged. AMA? Is that a good idea? the psychiatrist asks. But I’m being pulled out the front door. It swishes closed behind us. You cost me ten thousand dollars, my father says. I begin counting the days.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” clatters out of my car radio speakers. My fingers tap the steering wheel in time with the fast tempo. I hand-crank the window and turn up the volume. Sweet-smelling air swishes through my hair. It’s my father’s song. I like it, too, though I don’t tell him this. I don’t tell him anything anymore. There’s a promise in the morning road—in the steam rising up from the asphalt. I keep driving.
Rachael Quisel’s writing has been published in the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, Meat for Tea, and HerStry. They’ve been accepted into selective Tin House intensives. They’re currently a Creative Writing and Literature Master’s degree candidate at Harvard University Extension School and at work on a middle grade novel. When not writing, they’re reading the slush pile for the Harvard Review, managing their hospitality business, and being walked by their cats.
The Roadrunner Review nominated “Departure” for the 2022 Pushcart Prize.