The year my parents almost got divorced and needed the house empty so they could tear it apart, they sent me to live with my aunt and uncle and their adopted daughter, a thirteen-year-old, Native American girl they had found at a McDonald’s in Pulaski on their way to see a Vols game in Knoxville. They named her Pokey, and no one ever made a big deal about it or tried to take her away from them so that was that.
“Why can’t I stay here with you?” I asked my parents, who were ruthlessly dividing up the holiday ornaments, shocked that I was still around. “Why,” my mother asked, her lip split from where my father had slapped her, “would you want to stay here, baby?” I looked at the chipped and dull ornaments, knowing that when my parents finally killed each other, everything would be mine.
Walking off the bus, I saw my cousin, dark and vibrating. She ran up to me and kissed me roughly on the mouth. “You are all mine,” she said, not smiling. “I am,” I said, happy that someone wanted me.
“Sorry about your folks, sweetie,” my aunt said, not touching me, not looking at me. On the drive home, Pokey kept sliding her ink-stained index finger along my teeth, the sound of a damp cloth on a windowpane. I smiled wide, my entire face cramping, and felt the vibrations of her touch travel across the underside of my skin.
That night, rain pounding the tin roof of the house, I sat on the floor of the bedroom I would be sharing with Pokey as she dragged a swollen, ragged garbage bag out of the closet. “Take off your shirt,” she said, so I did. She untwisted the tie and ratty t-shirts spilled out of the bag, various sizes and styles, thrift stored and tossed out. “Take one,” Pokey said and I grabbed a light green t-shirt that said Gettysburg in red letters. She produced a pair of scissors, took the shirt out of my hands, and made several small cuts along the front and back of it. She gave it back to me and I put it on. She then took a Special Olympics shirt and made the same incisions. She stripped out of her clothes, even her panties, and pulled the shirt over her head. “Hulk out,” she said, and I stared at her, unsure of what to do. She hit me in the face with her closed fist and then bared her teeth, her body going into convulsions. She pointed to the air and then grabbed the neck of her shirt and began to rip it off her body in one, steady, slow pull. She made a sound like a charging animal and then she tossed the handfuls of fabric onto the floor. She was totally naked, her body deep brown and dusty, ropes of drool falling from her mouth. “Go on,” she said, slapping the back of my head, “do what I say.” I grabbed at my stomach like I’d eaten something rancid and, with some effort, ripped the shirt until all that was left on my body was the collar, hanging like a necklace. “Good,” she said, and we proceeded to tear through a dozen shirts before our bodies, aching and red from fabric burns, fell to the floor and refused to rise.
It rained for seven straight days and Pokey grew restless in the house. She had not understood that I would be staying longer than the first night, and now she had grown bored with me. She had a bullwhip that she would wind around and around her knuckles, frowning. I sat in the corner of the room and watched the rain fill up the crater-like holes in the driveway. “You,” Pokey said, not even looking at me, “are taking up all the air in this house. You’re stealing all the air that I like to breathe.” I kept quiet, held my breath for an extra second longer than usual. “You can’t stay,” she said. “I have to,” I replied. She uncoiled the bullwhip and cracked it weakly in my direction. “I’m going to pull out every one of your teeth,” she said, “but I’ll give you a thirty-second head start.” I didn’t move, still in my underwear, barefoot, but then she started to count, and so I scrambled to my feet, ran out of the house, and into the woods, my feet leaving sucking footprints in the mud.
Soaking wet, freezing cold, I ran deeper into the woods when I felt the ground give way and I was up to my knees in a soupy puddle of mud about the length and width of a mini-van. I pumped my legs to escape and felt the ghostly current of the stagnant water pull me hip-deep into the mud. I struggled a little more and, before long, I was up to my armpits in the morass, my hands in the air like I was being robbed. It didn’t appear that I could sink any further, had reached some kind of stasis, but I still couldn’t move with enough force to get to the edge of the quicksand. And then Pokey, muddy bullwhip dragging behind her, appeared over me. “You’re stuck,” she said, smiling. She tested the density of the ground with her foot and waited for me, popping the tail of the bullwhip against the palm of her hand. I knew that I would eventually make my way onto solid ground, would be ceaselessly beaten and molested by Pokey and that I would come to fall in love with her, and that, eventually, my parents would return for me and pull me back into the intense unhappiness of their lives. I felt the suction of something unknown beneath my feet, but, no matter how much I wished for it, I could not find my way beneath the surface of the world.
Kevin Wilson is the author of the story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009). His fiction has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere. He is the Creative Writing Administrator of the Sewanee Writers' Conference.