I snuck out of our tan stucco house and ran across the hot blacktop barefoot. I wanted the bottoms of my feet to touch something other than carpet and linoleum. The asphalt baked all day in the Central California sun and it was cooking my toes. I ran straight into the golden grass on the hill just across from our home. It was higher than my head and dry as uncooked noodles.
Mama would never let me go out there to play, even with a friend. She worried about rattlesnakes, about ticks, about black widows. She said I’d be up on that hill when someone flicked a cigarette from their car, lighting the whole thing up and leaving me trapped at the top. Mama liked it better when I stayed inside and played video games, watched television, or better yet, read a book. I watched that hill across from our front window for all fifteen years of my life. I watched monarchs migrate through our valley in the spring and poppies bloom just after the winter rains. They may as well have been on television. We were only separated from glass but they weren’t a part of my world.
I never would have had the chance to go outside at all until Mama had to start bringing meals to Mrs. Rodriguez across town. Mrs. Rodriguez hates kids. But she had cancer and Mama said she had helped us out before. I couldn’t wait in the car either because Mama worried I’d burn up like people’s dogs you hear about on the news. I promised her I’d stay inside, a promise I broke the first day. This was my third time on the hill. I hadn’t been caught yet.
I made it to the top and watched the hawks circle around the sky looking for mice. A warm wind whistled through grass like a sad, slow song written just for me. The sun was roasting but it made my skin tingle and feel alive. I know the air here in the summer isn’t very clean, but filling my lungs with the wind that ran through the trees felt so much better than recycled air conditioning.
A rustling nearby interrupted my moment. I saw its tail first: a black stripe on a flash of white. A skunk. They’d come onto our back porch to eat cat food, but I’d only seen them at night, never out in the day. I knew if it sprayed me, my summer days on the hill were over.
I stayed as still as I could, waiting for the animal to pass, when I noticed it zig-zagging and wobbling around. I could hear it breathing, a raspy, almost snore-like groan coming from its lungs. It was sick. I turned my body, still keeping my eyes on the creature. I was inching away when I lost my footing and crashed to the ground. I gashed the top of my foot on a sharp rock and blood poured out and in between my toes, pooling up on the hard dirt. Worse, the skunk noticed. She tore after me with all the confidence of a pissed off chihuahua. Maybe she was protecting her nearby young, I didn’t know. I jumped to my feet and felt a searing pain shoot up my leg. The gash was deep, but I could hide this injury in a sock. I wouldn’t be able to hide the skunk’s spray all over my clothes, skin, and hair. I forced my legs to run as fast as they could down that hill, but my body demanded a limp. The skunk was right behind me and gaining ground. I was only a few feet from the street but she was inches from me, her tail high in the air. I was just about to slam my bloody foot onto the asphalt when it happened: I didn’t feel her liquid spray soak my skin. Rather, I felt her sharp little teeth sink into the back of my calf. I shook my leg with a violent force. She wouldn’t let go. She growled, thrashed, and dug her bite in further. I pried the feral animal off my leg and tossed her as far as I could up the hill like a baseball.
Mama had been none the wiser about my outdoor excursions and I cleaned up my foot real good. It had been a couple weeks and it looked like it was healing alright, but I was starting to feel feverish. The spot where the skunk bit me, that got pretty itchy but I cleaned it up too. I didn’t worry about that as much. It looked like a cat bite. If Mama ever asked about it, I could lie. She’d know something was up with my foot though; any excuse I could come up with would be something she wouldn’t like.
I laid in bed and worried all night. I didn’t know why this night was so much worse than any other. I tossed to one side, unable to get comfortable. Every muscle in my body was taught and felt like they was ready to snap from my bones. I tried to think about other things. School tomorrow. Christmas. Visiting Grandma. Anything else. I knew Mama would find out sooner than later and I’d never be allowed to set foot outside again. She’d probably homeschool me. I wouldn’t see my friends anymore. I wouldn’t see Mrs. Larson in English anymore. No more clarinet or ceramics. I was just so hot. I kicked the covers off the bed onto the floor. She’d never even see the wound now, it was just a faint scar. But what if she noticed that scar? Would she realize that I’d tried to hide something from her and would be even more upset? Maybe I should have just told her right away. I should have ripped off the Band-Aid and got it over with. My sheets held in every ounce of heat that my body was trying to expel. I felt like I was under the weight of a thousand quilts, but it was just one thin cotton top sheet and a matching one that covered my mattress. I tore them off and opened my window letting in the cool night air. Like a lightswitch, it was gone. My tension. My anxiety, out the window with the wind. What am I doing? I asked myself, allowing my jaw to unclench. My fists to relax. Just as quickly as it left, my terror returned shooting through me like a nail gun to the brain. She’ll find out and I’ll never be allowed out of here again. I’ll live and die in this bedroom. I’ll be trapped here until I’m nothing but bones.
On my feet, I found myself pacing the room, fraught. It’s too late now, I told myself. I can’t go back and fix things. I have to keep hiding it. Maybe I’ll tell her when I’m sixty and we’ll laugh about it. That’s it, I’ll wait until I’m sixty and then nothing can happen. But she cannot find out about it before that. She cannot. I scratched the spot where the skunk had bit me, it was so itchy again. Probably because I was sweating. Sweating makes everything so itchy. Stop pacing, I told myself. This isn’t helping me cool down. I should stop moving. I want to stop moving. I can’t stop moving! I should try to lie back down. I yanked off my clothes and threw myself on the bare mattress. The upholstery dug at my skin, I could feel each fiber pull at my pores and let heat crawl inside. I was trapped in a humid bubble, unable to escape the persistent clamminess. I got off the bed and stood in the path of the breeze wafting in from outside, but even that wasn’t helping.
I flung open my bedroom door and swung it back and forth frantically trying to create a breeze. It just irritated me. I slammed the door shut and ripped open the door to my closet looking for a fan. I chucked clothes and toys behind me, desperately trying to find a stupid fan. My fear turned to rage. Where is it? Why don’t we have a fan in here? Why can’t I find this? Why is there so much stupid stuff and no fan? Why did Mama never think to buy me a fan? She’s so stupid. I hate her so much. God, I hate her. I just—hate!
Mama threw open my door, awoken by all the ruckus.
“What is going on in here—do you know what time it is?” She paused, seeing me naked on the floor of the closet, my room torn to pieces.
I wasn’t phased by her plea. I needed to find a fan. Now.
Mama turned on the light in my room, and a surge of intense pain shot through every nerve in my body. I screamed and writhed on the ground, covering my eyes, cowering into the closet to escape the light. Unsure what else to do, Mama tried to hold me steady. I was thrashing on the floor. I burned. I was fighting my own skin. Her hands touched my body—the pain only intensified. A scream welled in my throat: I was livid. I threw my limbs around with all my might just trying to get her off me. I screeched and swore, my mouth slurring over every shout. I spat out every word I wasn’t allowed to say. I called Mama every filthy word I knew.
Mama didn’t let go. She held onto me tight and carried me into the bathroom and turned on the shower. I was as big as her at least, but she found the strength. For a moment, the cool tile soothed my skin, but the light stabbed at my eyes. Mama hauled me from the tiles and tried to put me in the shower but I didn’t want to be anywhere near it. I punched. I kicked. I fought. I latched my fingers and toes onto the sliding door of the tub, but Mama still wedged my leg in. Again, it all slipped away. I took in everything that was happening around me: my nakedness, my heaving breath, and a genuine fear in Mama’s eyes. I want out of this. I want out of this. Please let me go. I was just about to speak when she pushed me in further and threw on the shower water.
When the water hit me, I bellowed a cry so primal even I didn’t know where it came from. I was yanked from reality back into my nightmare. I was an animal again. Startled, Mama dropped me, and I crashed over the side of the tub. Any other time, this drop in itself would have been cause for crying, but I was too blinded with fury for tears. I bolted from the bathroom, slipping on water on my way out, crashing through the cracked open bathroom door. Mama grabbed my foot, She’ll see it! She’ll see the scar and know!
“Come on. We have to get something on you.”, Mama begged, holding my ankle with a death grip. I hollered and convulsed, kicking to get away. Her hand would kill me. It wasn’t her grip, it was the touch. She pulled me back and bear-hugged my body. She carried me out into the living room and rolled me up in an afghan off the back of our couch. My burrito-ed body was easier for her to handle, but the yarn from the blanket felt like a wire brush on my nude skin. It was everywhere but my face, and was holding in all my heat. I hated her so much. God how I loathed her. I wanted to knock her over and run as far away from her as I could. I wanted to run back up the hill. I’d kill her so I could get back up there. I’d do it. I’d kill her and I’d live on that hill.
I squirmed and hissed as she carried me to the car. It was dark outside and the air was sharp. She buckled me into the front seat, still keeping me tightly bundled. The respite from a sensory overload gave me another moment of clarity. Something was really wrong with me. Something wasn’t right. It had to be from falling. From cutting my foot open on that rock and letting every germ inside. I thought I’d cleaned it good but maybe I hadn’t, maybe my blood was poisoned. I was infected.
“Mama.” I said, my words coming out raspy.
She turned off the radio. The sound of the car roaring over the pavement was rhythmic. I could hear the tires hit every pothole, every patch of gravel, and Mama’s hesitation when she tried to remember the directions.
“Yes, Norah?” she said, looking at me, but quickly back to the road. I’d never seen her drive so fast.
“Mama, I went outside. I went outside up the hill and I cut my foot open on a rock. I think that’s what happened. I think my blood is bad.”
Mama didn’t say anything, and for a moment her silence cut deeper than any screaming or scolding ever could.
“Alright Norah. I’ll tell the doctor. Just hold tight.”
My eyelids weighed down heavy. My vision dimmed in and out of black, giving me momentary peace from the searing green of the fluorescent lights. The crisp paper on the doctor’s table crinkled under my seat. Mama fussed with her ponytail while a nurse filled an enormous needle. The nurse plunged the needle into my arm eliciting a shocking pain. I screeched, startling the nurse who knocked over a canister of cotton swabs. I fell back to fading.
“She said she cut her foot outside—is it something like tetanus,” Mama said, doing her best to avoid looking at me.
I wished I hadn’t thought those filthy words at Mama. I didn’t really hate her. I was just so tired. And so hot. I wanted to tell her I was sorry but my lips were so dry. So heavy.
“We’ll wait and see what the doctor says—her symptoms aren’t at all consistent with tetanus.”
The light was gone and the pain faded. I heard my own breath slow. My eyelids weighed so much I couldn’t keep them open anymore. I let them fall and they stayed that way.
The nurse lifted up my leg and pointed at the skunk bite.
“What’s this?” she asked Mama.
“I don’t know.” Mama said. “It’s probably from the cat.”
Molly Osborne is a Los Angeles based writer. She has fiction in STORGY and Blood and Bourbon. When she isn’t writing, she works in stop motion animation production. She is currently writing a dark speculative fiction novel for adults.