Submitted for Contest #95 in response to:
Le Pneu Michelin
Tw: abuse, child abuse.
I retract my fingertips into the sleeves of my puffy, silver coat. An easy feat, as I still haven’t quite grown into it these past three years. It’s a crisp Sunday morning in late fall. In Oklahoma, autumn mornings are nearly winter and yet autumn afternoons blaze with the heat of summer awakened by a thousand fireworks on the fourth of July. My palms and my ribs are damp with sweat — from my nervous fidgeting or the turning of a cool morning into a hot day, I don’t know. I don’t take off my coat. he sheer volume of the coat doubles my size. It makes me feel like a powerful, wintery queen, the silver shining like fresh frost on grass. T My family, however, calls it my Michelin Man suit. “Nunc est bibendum,” Bibendum, the Michelin Man, says to me. Bibendum hides my layered dress and jeans under its silvery folds.
It is undoubtedly my favorite coat. Wearing it now might give away my plans if He ever paid attention to me. But he doesn’t see me, not as a person. To him, I am a child-size laborer. One of the many pawns under his control. For once, this will be to my advantage. I shuffle across the stripped, splintering floors of the mudroom, my coat rustling against my movement. I push my hands out of my coat sleeves to pull on my work boots and some gardening gloves.
The gloves slide across my damp fingers but stick on my sweaty palms. Some things are like sweat, they reduce friction in some ways and increase it in others. At this moment, I feel both free and stuck. My thoughts are a jumble of excitement and terror, future plans and anxious memories. They all lead to me here, now, in the mudroom, protected only by a puffy coat. Nunc est Bibendum. Now is the time to drink. I can only hope my decision is the first kind of sweat.
The final straw happened nearly a month ago.
I had invited Christina to my house. It was a rare, momentous occasion because I was not usually allowed to have friends over. This was not a stated rule in our home, rather a consequence of my human condition. It’s hard to have time left for friends when you reap the many consequences of your laziness, conniving, and greed. Somehow, I had managed to avoid my own nature just enough for this playdate. My enthusiasm was all-consuming as He answered the door to welcome my friend.
My excitement was doused with liquid dread as soon as I saw her face. I knew that look. I wore that look. It crept across her pixie features with every step she walked across the graveyard of machinery and rust to our house. Maybe seeing the ripped screen door and the crumbling, weathered wood siding sealed the deal. Or, perhaps, it was seeing him. It didn’t matter. Christina peeked inside to find me. By the time we locked eyes, I knew. She was not coming in.
“I…” she stammered.
I shuffled forward and attempted to offer a winning smile. Maybe she would change her mind. Maybe she would still talk to me in school after this. I was mortified. I should never have invited someone to this place.
“I… just wanted to say I can’t come over today,” her words whooshed out in a high-pitched rush.
Crestfallen, I froze. My smile froze. I became the silver ice queen. I pushed away my disappointment. I couldn’t blame her; I couldn’t let him see any emotion.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I responded in a monotone voice. “I’ll see you at school?” I raised one hopeful eyebrow to punctuate the raised pitch of the question.
“Yeah,” Christina said. She smiled apologetically. “My mom is waiting in the car. We have… we have to go somewhere. Now.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Have a good day.” I said. It was stupid, but it was the only thing I could think to say. I was like those greeters at Walmart. I was a greeter in my own doorway. Well, his doorway.
She turned on one heel and raced back to the safety of her mom’s van. I worried she would trip on a rusted tailpipe or a mangled mower blade, but she didn’t. I noted that their car was from this century. The paint was silver, sparkly like my coat. That was good.
He closed the door. I fought off tears and stiffly turned to go to my room.
“Where are you going?” he accused me.
My chest tightened. “To my room. To draw?” I half-stated, half-requested.
“No. You don’t have anyone coming over, so you’re going to go do chores. Go to the kitchen. You’re a spoiled brat. That’s why people don’t like you. Maybe if you do enough chores, you’ll learn to be a good enough friend that people will want to stay.”
I deflated like a Pirelli tire punctured by a nail. I knew he was right. If I was good enough, if I was worth it, people wouldn’t be bothered by our dump of a house. My dad wouldn’t scare them. If I was enough, they’d only see me and not where I came from.
Somehow, at the same time, a small voice — not a voice, more like a spark when both ends of jumper cables touch, a spark with the small, burning zing of a habanero pepper rocketed from somewhere in my stomach, through my limbs and into my throat. My ears were on fire, my eyes burned with salty tears. My vision blurred and my knees wobbled.
“That’s not it.” I said with a calm that could slice metal.
“What?” His voice was dangerous.
Even my terror couldn’t restrain the explosion of wrath wracking my body and controlling my mouth. I raised my voice. “That’s not it. She didn’t leave because of me. She left because of you! You terrified her. You’re huge and you’re scary and…” My voice continued to climb in volume and pitch, equal parts fear and anguish. “It’s not me! I am a good friend. She was excited to see me until she came here. Then she saw you. She saw this place! Because of you, our house is scary. There’s holes in the floors, nails in the walls. None of your ‘projects’ are fini—”
I choked on the word ‘finished’ as my feet left the floor. I should have used my time to move out of the warpath instead of digging deeper into trouble. A rookie mistake. Instead, I was now suspended in the air by my shirt collar, his tobacco breath and hot spittle flying in my face, my ears ringing from a voice louder than a tornado siren. I have no idea what he said. I remember looking into his dead eyes. They were at odds with the pulsing, red rage filling the rest of his body — as if the demon controlling my father was now disinterested in the game he started, and couldn’t be bothered to watch as I was beaten. But, there was no demon; just the father who loathed me so thoroughly that even hating me wasn’t worth his full attention.
My body went slack. I turned my thoughts as inwardly as I could — the best preventative measure I had. Blows landed with less profundity when I disconnected from all feelings. I was a numb snow queen, a Michelin girl of rubber. I could drink glass and nails like Bibendum and still not shred.
I returned to full sensation when my back collided with the wall. The wind was forced from my lungs and my back became a lattice of sharp, shredding pain and dull arches. My pants filled with wet heat. He laughed, deep and harsh. A dry sob forced itself from my lips, eerily similar to his laugh. I heard my mother’s voice from somewhere outside of my tunneled field of vision. A peaceful, intense dovelike cooing blanketed the air. I thought she was speaking to me, trying to soothe me. I wanted to rebuke her, but I couldn’t breathe.
Then I recognized the imperceptible note of ambiguity in her voice. Like a hostage negotiator, her soothing tones had no real emotion; nothing too weighted. She was talking to him, despite the consequences she might face herself. Maybe he had gone a bit overboard. Yes, I was unforgivably disrespectful; perhaps I deserved a longer, more lasting punishment. He could put me down so I could receive my real consequences.
Somehow, my mother succeeded. Perhaps he did not realize her agenda. More likely, her agenda didn’t matter in the wake of his power. He was the ruler of his domain and all things could be used to his advantage.
I felt the pull of gravity as he released my shirt collar. I felt the sharp stabs across my back lengthen into deep, tearing sensations as my feet lowered to the ground. I felt the tickle of tiny spiders across my skin, and then the stickiness of sweat. My shirt stuck to my back in some places, other places were slick. I reached my arm around myself to wipe the sweat off of my back. My hand came away red and sticky. Where had that come from? I looked behind me at the unfinished wall. Nails from the construction in our dining room jutted from the wood frame, the tips of some shining with wet blood. At the sight, I felt nauseous and woozy. Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle. The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles. I was not, after all, the indestructible Michelin girl. I could not drink up my obstacles.
In the mudroom, I clench my fists remembering my shame. My fear disgusts me, the phantom sensations of the nails in my back tingle nearly a month later. My defiance was my downfall. My resilience failed me. But, I am, once again, the Michelin Man, the winter queen. I have made up my mind and I will not fail. I cannot; my best armor protects me.
My plan, however, is unravelling.
I spent the weeks it took my nail wounds to heal huddled in the middle school library during lunchtime, plotting my escape. I’d begged my mom to take us away from this place for years. But, no matter how many “accidents” she suffered through, she couldn’t. It must be an adult thing. So, I would leave on my own. I knew better than to ask her to come with me, but I couldn’t leave without telling her. I needed permission to go… and I needed her help.
Today, I was supposed to go to church with my mom. Instead of going home after church, Christina’s mom would pick me up. I planned to stay with them until a caseworker helped me find a new place. Despite my accompanying embarrassment, it was in my favor that Christina and her mom saw where I lived. They were credible people, not a fairytale snow queen or an animated pile of tires. My imagination wouldn’t save me, but these people could. My mother was in the car with a few of my things, waiting to take me to church. Things were going smoothly until I opened the front door to cross the threshold.
“Where are you going?” He sneered from the living room over the din of the television. My stomach flopped. What is it with this doorway that turns things for the worse? I paused.
“I… I’m going to church with Mom. I figured I need church, with as bad as I am.” I managed to keep the tremor out of my voice.
He chuckled. I felt a dash of pride, thinking my answer had humored him enough to let me go.
“No you’re not. Church is for good people. You’re still working off the last time you ran your mouth. Get those fancy clothes off and get out to the yard. There’s still glass and rocks in that three acres. You’ll keep working until I say there’s none left.”
The blood drained from my face. If I was old enough, I would have cursed. “Yes, sir,” I said. I pushed the door closed and turned around to change my clothes. THINK. I screamed inside my head: THINK! I could not stay here for another day — another minute, even!
As I changed my clothes, a thought struck me. He made a mistake when he ordered me outside; I could still leave. I stopped changing and put my clothes back on. Then I rummaged through my drawers for some of my remaining clothes. I didn’t care which. I found some jeans and a long sleeve shirt — perfect for yard work — and pulled them on over my church dress. The dress bunched up all around me. If the situation weren’t so dire, I would have laughed. Resigned to the look and praying for a miracle, I trudged quietly toward the mudroom. I would leave out the back door. I hoped my mom was still in the car and hadn’t come inside looking for me. His back would be to me if he stayed in his chair.
On my way to the back door, I heard his chair groan from the living room as he shifted his large frame. I froze, once again, the ice queen. Without turning to look at me, he hurled insults across the house, “You thought you were so smart, getting out of your chores with church, didn’t you? You’re a sneaky little liar. Now you’ll do more work once the yard is done. Maybe you’ll learn your lesson.”
I composed myself, almost not trusting my voice to respond evenly. I had to say something so he wouldn’t be suspicious. I needed to keep him in that chair.
“Yes, sir,” I said as evenly as I could. “That’s probably for the best, sir.” I waited. When he didn’t respond, I quickly shuffled through the dining room and kitchen to the mudroom.
Once there, I caught the sparkling reflection of morning light on my silver coat. I couldn’t believe I almost left without it! This literal beacon of light steeled my resolve. I pulled it off the coat hook and nestled into its protective layers. Now, he wouldn’t see my dress under my clothes. If he saw me as I sneaked towards the car, he might wonder why I wore my favorite coat to do yard work. But, I doubted that. He wouldn’t know my favorite coat, or even care.
“Quit dawdling! Get out there.” His loud bark startles me. My already racing heart revs and my breath leaves my lungs. I jump. Act normal! I chide myself for being startled. Though, I suppose I am startled any time he raises his voice. You never know what will follow.
I am out of time for any more reflection. Before he has cause to check on me, I open the back door, step into the chilly, humid morning air, and slam the door. Bang! I need him to hear that I’ve gone outside so he doesn’t follow me. I hesitate on the lawn for one last moment before sealing my decision with irrevocable action. Then, I walk to the car, each step closing the gap between me and the other choice, between me and freedom.
Inside the car, I’m met with my mom’s puzzled expression. I must look ridiculous.
“He said I couldn’t go to church because I’m still in trouble,” I offer as an explanation.
My mom nods, understanding.
“I can’t go back,” I beg.
She nods again.
Tears pool in the bottom of my eyes. I am not a noble, wintry queen, I am not an impenetrable Michelin Bibendum. I am a terrified, broken little girl. Nunc est bibendum. À votre santé. Now is the time for drinking. Here’s to your health. She puts the car in reverse.
“You won’t go back. We are leaving.” She decides.
Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle. The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles.