Six and a lisp as she jumps across the linoleum, her cone of hair shining like honey in the oven light: I thaw a wabbit, daddy, I twied to pet it but it wan away. Six and when he tells her to smile, she grins at the camera with her whole face, chin first. Six and no notion of hygiene—spit-out food she doesn’t like, sticky all over her face. Ten minutes with the green marker and her white polka-dot pajamas will never be the same. Six and she squeals, running into the back of his desk chair as he’s bent over folders at night, folders he doesn’t ever want her to see. Six and he needs her to turn seven, just a few months now, just a few months . . .
Six and she gives him a Valentine that’s covered in inscrutable scribbles, ragged heart-edges of pink construction paper. He calls after her when she runs--Ivy, not so fast. He watches her chase the dog into the tangled scrub bordering the neighbor’s yard. He feels himself becoming a person who says no—Ivy, don’t run, Ivy, come back.
His wife Maria wants to know can he come home earlier, can he get more sleep, does he have to bring the folders with him . . .? He tells her it’s an important time in the case, promises it’s temporary. He does not show her the picture of the other six-year-old in the folder. She knows enough already. Maybe she knows too much. When the conversation at parties turns to what he does for a living, Maria finds a way to change the subject. Not in front of Ivy, she says. Ivy is only six.
Six and he needs her to turn seven, not so long now, not long . . .
It’s not rational, Maria says, and he knows that. When he shifts at night, unable to sleep, she whispers, Ivy is safe, and he wants to believe her. He met with that other set of parents, got their statements, heard the lurking instability beneath their voices. He’d do everything he could for them, he promised, even though they knew and he knew how little that was. He’s spent days poring over crime scene photos, lab reports, but it’s the little girl’s picture he can’t get out of his head.
Ivy wanders off in Fred Meyer as he’s searching for the right brand of yogurt. After heart-stopping moments, he finds her in the garden section clutching a Beanie Baby chicken. Her voice rises in a protesting whine as he grabs her arm--I wanted to find the butterfwies, theywe hiding in the fwowahs. She blinks and then bawls when she hears his voice and he realizes that his rage has chosen the wrong moment to come out.
In their living room, he sits her down in the green plush chair and lectures her. She’s no longer listening, but his words keep coming, a compulsive stream of vague warnings and admonishments. She stares at him, her eyes brown pools above the two fingers in her mouth. She stopped sucking her fingers ages ago. Six years old and he is teaching her to be afraid of the world, because the thought of anything happening to her is more than he can stand.
Ivy, he says, stop sucking your fingers.
She sits huddled in the chair, her little bony knees sticking out from under her Winnie-the-Pooh overalls. Her arm is still wrapped around the chicken.
Ivy, come on. It’s okay.
The key turns in the lock of the front door. Maria appears in the doorway. What’s going on?
His little girl stares at him, sunk down in the depths of the armchair. He has never seen her try so hard to make herself look small. He imagines her shrinking before him, adjusting to fit the confines of her fear, becoming less than herself. His fierce, glowing, brave girl, who’ll grin at the camera with her whole face, who chases adventures and scribbles fearlessly on white fabric and thinks the whole world was made for her to live in it.
There’s somewhere we have to go, he says.
The botanical garden closes in an hour, but it doesn’t matter. They walk down the path past daffodil sprays and circular beds of pansies, Ivy clutching her parents’ hands. The glass building looms over her, its interlocking panes white beneath the clouds. Her dad opens one door for her and then another. Vivid green masks the faint rustle of water, leaves larger than any that naturally grow where they live. Tiny flashes of color move between the leaves. Ivy hurries forward, her face tilted up. She moves clumsily toward the nearest bit of orange, thrusting her hand toward it, and it flutters away.
Keep your hand still, says Maria. Be gentle.
She steadies Ivy’s arm, shows her how to stand palm outstretched without moving. Ivy’s eyes follow the butterflies as they dart between the leaves. Her dad watches her face. She is six and in this moment, there is nothing in the world that scares her. She is six and he needs her to turn seven, because not all six-year-olds do. She is six and he needs her to stay safe and brave, and he knows that for the rest of her childhood, he will be constantly caught between them. He gives her this moment, because that is all he knows how to do.
Ivy’s voice rises in excitement: Daddy, I got one!
I see that, he says. Stay still.
The place where the concrete driveway meets the hot black tar of the road: it is here that she stops, frozen, unable to go on. She is standing at the edge of something she doesn’t understand, having made up her mind to keep walking, down the street, across the intersection, to the bus stop, and (so her fragmented thinking goes) on a bus all the way to Alaska. She is thirteen years old and she is running away.
The heat yawns at her, Salt Lake summer heat—metal cars gleaming, naked sky bordered by fuzzy inversion, withering stalks in the flowerpots her mom no longer has time to water. It is cruel heat, dangerous in a way other summers have not been; there’s a feeling of exposure that frightens her. She longs for the protection of cold.
Twenty-eight miles up the freeway, in a squat little house with yellow columbine trailing beside the front lawn, her grandmother is dying of pancreatic cancer. This has been going on for three months. It is always happening and it never happens. The girl in the driveway is bored of the fact that her grandma is dying. She is bored by grief. She is bored by pills in little round boxes and hospice workers with clipboards, long days beneath the wilting leaves in the willow tree, consigned to the outdoors so she and the other children don’t get in the way. She is bored of being a teenager, her angst largely unnoticed by everyone around her. She wishes she could un-notice it as well.
And somewhere she got the idea that if she could just run away, get out, detach, she could start everything over—trade in her old, unwanted life for a new one. She could go to a town where snow fell year-round and she could be anything she chose: fiercely independent, carefree, mature, unhindered by obligations.
But now, standing at the edge of the driveway, she knows that she is not those things. She is trembling, blinking against the sun, her right hand gripping the worn yellow strap of the canvas backpack she hastily threw all her worldly belongings into moments ago. A loaf of sourdough bread, two apples, carrots from Grandpa’s garden in a Tupperware container, four books, her CD player, a change of clothes, and, rattling around at the bottom, the tiger eye stone she got on a family vacation the year before. She reaches into the backpack and grips it. It is one of those trinkets you find in gift shops, tumbled with an assortment of pretty stones in a wagon-shaped display: glittering topaz, lush aquamarine, cool black obsidian, sparkling quartz. The tiger eye was always her favorite. She knows it stands for courage. But the courage to go, she wonders suddenly, or the courage to stay?
Even as she doesn’t want to, even as she struggles against it, she remembers watching her mom hover awkwardly by her grandmother’s hospital bed. She remembers the uncertainty in her mother’s stance, the fluttering of her mother’s hand. Her mother is no nurse. She is constantly out of place in the squat little house, clumsy in the fading world of her childhood. This is unwelcome knowledge, but the girl can’t escape it now. For the first time in her life, her mother is a person. Her mother has a mother, and this is something separate from the girl herself, a relationship that existed long before she did.
She pulls out the tiger eye and looks at it. Its amber lines gleam, broken by endless tiny contours and divots; dark veins slash across the middle. It balances neutrally in her palm.
I’m running away from my mom, she reminds herself. Her mom: the one who yells at her, the one who criticizes, the one who makes her do chores. Her mom—invulnerable, untouchable, intimidating, unfair. Her mom.
Her mom’s hand fluttering by the metal rail of the hospital bed, not knowing whether to touch or hold back. Her mom’s brown eyes, pinned to her grandmother’s face . . .
There are certain things (so goes the girl’s thinking) that you just can’t do to a person. If the person is about to lose her mother, for example, you can’t take away her daughter too. There would be something wrong in that; it would be too much to handle all at once. The street beckons her, sloping downward, disappearing behind adobe walls. The girl’s hand closes over the tiger eye, caressing its smoothness, feeling its small strength.
She retreats up the driveway, into the house, the screen door slamming behind her. She dumps out her backpack onto her bed. The tiger eye rolls across the bedspread; she retrieves it and sets it on her windowsill. Not today, she thinks. It wasn’t the right time today. But maybe I’ll run away in July; maybe I’ll run away in August; maybe later, when all of this is over, maybe . . .
She has no way of knowing that, ten years from now, she will find herself at a bar with a group of friends swapping runaway stories, and only then will she realize that she hasn’t got one, because all of her stories are about turning around and going back.
About the Author: Kaely Horton is a second-year MFA candidate at the University of New Hampshire and the fiction editor of Barnstorm Journal. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Five on the Fifth, and Flash Fiction Online, and is forthcoming in RipRap Literary Journal. A native of Utah and Oregon, she currently resides in New Hampshire.