I'm not that girl.
She doesn't exist.
She's the one you might have found crouched in a closet behind her mother's unused winter coats—Southern California forever associated with rejection, and not just of wool. Some fathers ditched their responsibilities, too—leaving them behind to hide away from other men who took advantage of such voids.
She was the seven-year-old who awoke trembling in February of 1971 at six in the morning, when a 6.6 earthquake shook walls, shattered glass, and cracked porcelain. She pulled the covers over her head and cried for her mother till she heard the stepfather leave for repair supplies.
Please, Mommy, let's get out of here.
--It was just an earthquake, sweetheart.
Let's go now before he hurts you any—
--Shhhh, it was just an earthquake.
The girl wandered outside while the stepfather replaced the toilet. He'd laid the broken one on the brittle, colorless grass. It was odd to see it at such an angle, split almost down the center, rusted under the rim. She peered at it from what she deemed a safe distance, a grown-person's body length.
The sun shone brightly that day, yet lacked strength to warm shaded areas, and it coaxed her to the open sidewalk. She settled into a familiar pattern of step, step, skip; step, step, skip. It seemed to be the lone sound on the street. She liked watching the loops of her white laces flop on her cobalt-blue Kinney's. Cobalt blue, raw sienna, Winsor yellow—colors she'd found while examining the stepfather's oil paints. He was an artist.
When she reached the end of her block—as far as she was allowed to go—she stopped. A breeze sprang from nowhere, disturbed the empty branches of an enormous sycamore at her left. She’d been wanting to climb it, but her mother wouldn't let her—said it wasn't safe. The girl stomped her foot, then traced the air as it kicked a crumpled brown paper bag along the corner lot and into the road. She imagined it bruising with each bounce on the pavement, the air in charge till a line of evergreens on the opposite corner subdued it.
At the sound of her name, she ducked into the undergrowth of firs, curled her head to her knees.
His work boots thudded along the path she'd just come. I'm sick of you hiding from me, he growled. He found her straight away, yanked her out by the wrist. One of her laces came undone. She couldn't keep from stepping on it as he pulled her back home.
What's going on? the girl's mother asked. She was on her knees mopping up water that was seeping from under the base of the new toilet.
I was getting the damn flange I forgot, when I saw her crossing the street. He kicked the mother in the thigh. I told you I didn't want her roaming.
The mother let go of the soggy towel, stood up, wiped her hands on her jeans. She held her palm up and the girl caught hold of it. They stepped into the hallway.
Don't you back away from me, he told them. I'll throw you out in the street.
All the way down the hall and through the kitchen, he told them what he was going to do to them. They continued on till they reached the enclosed porch, the room the stepfather painted in. The girl inhaled deeply—the mother had warned her about the hazards of turpentine vapors. She thought she could hold her breath till they reached the screen door and fresh air. They could escape to the neighbors who lived behind them. The girl was sure they'd help—the father looked a lot like Eddie's father on TV.
But the mother had stopped backing up. She said, Why don't you relax, Matt, paint for a while. I'll call a plumber, mix you a drink.
Nooo, the girl cried, and the mother slapped her.
The first of many aftershocks.
The girl stayed with them a few more years, but eventually found a strand of evergreens. She had a different kind of life to live. One that didn't nurture man-made disasters. One where she climbed trees. One in which she wasn't Fatherless.
No, I'm not that girl. But every once in a while, when sunshine lacks warmth on a day made eerie by silence, and the air harasses the innocent, I think of her.
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