I was twelve, perhaps younger, lying on my sister’s hard mattress. The frame had once belonged to a hospital bed used during the civil war. Mom bought it dirt cheap at a garage sale from the crumbly old yellow building in town that used to be the hospital. Before that it was a women’s college, but I don’t think it recovered after the war. Mom had my sisters and me sand it and spray paint it a muddy brown that looked like wood but shined like plastic. It squeaked as a sign of well earned wear. I wondered sometimes how much rusty blood was still left from the oxidation, still hiding under the spray paint. Sometimes I’d fall asleep wandering down a rabbit trail of imaginings where civil war soldiers died, mothers cried, and nurses fought hard to save them. Or cut off patients’ limbs. I’d heard that was normal back then.
It was while I was lying on that bed, eyes wide awake and staring at the deep darkness of the high ceiling in the night, when a girl two years my senior rolled over next to me, the smell of alcohol undecided between sweet and sour fermenting off of the roof of her mouth, the back of her throat, and shouted her whisper in a smog of Budweiser fragrance half demand, half invitation.
“Hey Spud! Spud. I’mma make you ketchup and frog soup.”
Her hand had latched out onto my arm as if she could see straight through her eyelids. Solid. Firm. Right to me. She was still asleep.
“N’kay,” I whispered back. Solid. Afraid. Unmoving. When she had touched me, I’d turned stiff as a board. Asleep, she wasn’t really out to get me. Awake, she was out to prove everything. Sometimes I got hurt for it, bruises mostly, but that was OK.
A few nights later we were there again. I had just cradled her off the floor over my shoulder, dragged her to the bed, and even wrestled her deadweight feet to the proper end of the creaking mattress. The jean-covered comforter was like sky colored cloud, crumpled up and over and around her to comfort, protect, sooth. I tucked her in tight and cozy with it. I lay on top of the covers in a thinner wool blanket after coming back from the kitchen with a shiny blue bowl for her to vomit in. Just in case she did, it was on the floor next to her side of the bed. I avoided thinking about if she threw up in the wrong direction and hit me instead while I dreamed of electric sheep or something.
She rolled over with her face nuzzled into my shoulder.
“Spud. Spud! What’s for dinner?”
I thought of steak. Potatoes. Then chocolate cupcakes with colorful icing and psinkles starting dancing around my brain. I decided on, “Cookies.”
“N’kay.” She rolled over and fell back into restful sleep. She loved to tell about her quirkier dreams, but never her frightening ones. The next morning she shared her restful night’s dream of Oreo cookies and ice cold milk.
A few nights later, it was the same. She had been talking that day about going to the town carnival, the one that had the same deathtrap rusty old rides every year, the same small town people you saw every day of your life, the same death-in-your-insides carnival food. She loved to be seen, and to see herself being seen. She loved to go out. We’d all talked about it earlier that day, and planned to go within the next few.
She rolled over and started shoving me. It was her was of a poke, asleep or awake.
I stifled a laugh, a few snorts popping out of my nose in the process. I quivered. From tiredness, relief, and the irony.
I considered what would be appropriate. Realistic. “Twenty dollars.”
“Thanks dad!” She hugged me in her sleep, rolled over, and was out for the night.