“Counting Mississippis” by Dora Badger
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So many of the things we tell our children are lies. We weave tales of tooth fairies and jolly old elves, beings who exist solely to delight and to gift them. Our children listen to every word and fade a little when their belief begins to crumble.
So much of what our children tell us is true. They invite us to parties with their invisible friends, beg us to protect them from bogies and beasties and bumps in the night. We play along for a time, but as they grow, we close our eyes and turn our backs and leave them to bargain, alone, with monsters.
When you were five and curled up in my lap, playing at being afraid as lightning flickered outside the blackout curtains and thunder slammed above our house, I told you that your father would destroy us; that I’d rather die than be a family with him; that he murdered innocents and started fires for sport.
When you were six and jumping on the couch in the basement while we waited for a tornado that never came, you told me he’d never loved any woman but me; that he’d rather die than remain apart from me; that he would burn the world to ash in his search for the path back to his one true love. You said if he did evil things, it was because he was terrified he’d never see me again, that he loved me all the way to madness. You told me I still loved him, too, and that’s when I smacked you in the mouth.
No news is coming from New York City — not through the regular channels, anyway. CNN, MSNBC, Fox: before I ran from the house and jumped into my car, the footage from Newport showed hundreds, thousands of people surging from the Holland Tunnel. They staggered from the tunnel’s mouth and were shoved by those behind them into the mass of refugees who already overflowed the Waterfront. Some people fell from sight, and those immediately behind them would rise up a step or two as they walked over them.
People are being trampled to death at every one of New York City’s points of egress, and many of those who do make it out of the city are blinded or burned. The sky, they sob, the sky came down.
Telephones aren’t working either. I’ve called and called you, but all I hear is a hot, crackling buzz punctuated by an oddly pitched whine. I turn the radio dial as I drive. Scientists, psychics, and religious leaders are waffling at the interviewers; they all finally admit that they can’t identify the sound.
Early in, my lovers learn to love thunderstorms. When the skies begin to darken, I pull them to me and they follow me, laughing, to the bed, the floor, the grimy alley. The wild electric arc of the lightning drags me along their bodies and the thunderclaps drive my hips; in the time between I silently, frantically, count my way up and up — one Mississippi, two Mississippi — and finish with the rolling crash of air.
Later, my lovers leave me naked and panting as the last-straw storm rolls out. There’s always a last-straw storm: one that makes them dress in a rush, muttering filth and trembling with rage, as if I’m the only person they know who’s ever used fantasies of long-ago loves to fuel a newer flame.
When you were seven and called me from the last childhood birthday party you would attend, soft static clouded your side of the conversation. I could almost see the phone sparking, almost smelled it beginning to melt. “I’m leaving now,” I told that empty sound, “Don’t touch anything.”
You stood alone on the sidewalk in front of your friend’s house, glaring so hard at the EMTs and the girls crying over their burnt fingers and scorched dresses that for a moment you didn’t see me. Your blue-gray hair undulated and twisted in a fierce corona around your angry face. Shreds of colorful latex clung to your hair and plastered your skin and clothes. Before getting in the car, you touched the bumper and the car shook with the force of the discharge. The children on the porch and in the ambulance, the frightened parents, all screamed and jumped. You laid your head on my arm.
“I told them not to rub those balloons on me,” you said.
I pulled away quickly, calculating costs and making plans for yet another late-night move.
My wipers are coming loose. Rain floods the windshield, but it doesn’t matter: a slight shift of focus, a little bit of a squint, and the water makes a tunnel so I can see through the downpour. Cars in front of me pull over to avoid the squall and I cruise past, twenty-five miles over the speed limit in stormy weather and perfectly safe. Your father’s sentry stretches a quarter mile in every direction overhead, centering carefully over my little car and clearing my path to you. The traffic and weather station reporters are going on about how a freak storm has terrorized motorists into clearing the Pulaski Skyway: another sentry, standing ready to escort me to the riverfront.
The Skyway arches ahead of me. I maneuver around the cars pulled over or stalled on the freeway, catch glimpses of windshields shattered by fist-sized chunks of hail. I can see people huddled inside most of the cars but some of the windows are opaque, slathered in shades of red.
My sentry merges with the one clearing the Skyway and the rain becomes a waterwall that no one else would dare breach. I’m thankful, I guess, but I wish these two would back off a little. The road nearly flooded out from under me at least three times during my scramble from Ohio, and when I get off the bridge to navigate New Jersey’s back alleys I’m nervous about the car being swept away. I’d be fine in the water, could slide along rivers and streams and reach you just as quickly, but I’d rather drive than swim.
When you were nine and stretched out on my bed, avoiding your chores by pretending fear as another storm tried to see inside our house, I noticed you were counting your Mississippis the wrong way ‘round. After each lightning flash, you’d say: hello, hello, fourteen Mississippi, thirteen Mississippi, twelve Mississippi, and continue your countdown until the thunderclap came. When I asked you why, you told me the hellos were for your father; if you guessed right and got to one, he would be able to come for us. I asked if that was what you wanted. You said yes, of course, and said it was what I wanted too.
You left the room before I could throw you out. Sparks bit me when I touched my bedspread.
The screams of the Eye in the Sky reporters were what caught my attention. I dropped the laundry basket and ran up the basement stairs to find the television had turned itself on. In spite of the bright sun and even from five miles away, cameras captured the blue-white glow that covered the island from Broadway to the Meatpacking District. Despite the cacophony of the bewildered crowd at the Waterfront, the microphones picked up a faint noise from the electrical charge infecting New York City’s air, a hissing, popping noise that made the little hairs along my arm hop in time and sent me sprinting to the carport.
When I turned on the car radio, I learned the screams had come from news helicopters flying from New Jersey into Manhattan; the camera crews aboard the helicopters made it halfway across the river before static filled their transmissions, foaming white noise punctuating the reporters’ screams and the pilots’ calls for assistance. Two helicopters had spun into the Hudson; the news team just behind them filmed the bright explosions as they hit the water.
I never met my father, either, but at least my mother didn’t drag me all over the country. We lived in the scorched desert town of Moriarty, New Mexico. Aside from the sky, my thick wavy hair was the bluest thing in the entire state. Some evenings, my mother would touch my hair in a sad way and warn me away from the ocean. Once, when I was very small, I jumped up on her bed and screamed at her to go back to my father so she could be happy.
She smacked me right in the mouth.
Croxton is quiet and dark. Blackouts, hail, and the vicious rain have closed the city down. I drive along empty roads and watery back alleys, edge around fallen trees and streetlights. The Waterfront will be packed with reporters and with those who are fleeing New York, so I’m heading for Hoboken.
On the radio, reporters are interviewing the shattered refugees. They say people are broiling, suffocating, in the electrified, superheated air. Everyone who is still able to make it out of the city reaches the other side covered in burns. I’m taking the long way around the Waterfront, but if I squint and look through my tunnel in the rain I can just see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles.
It was my hair that first attracted your father’s attention: shimmering blue, with just a hint of green and a whisper of a wave. When I wore it down, he’d follow me anywhere; I had to hide it or bind it or hack it off to get a moment’s sunlight. He could always find me by my hair, so you never knew me out of scarves or hats or my latest getup: tight cornrows wrapped in dark leather.
When you were eleven you cut a strand of my hair as I slept, then ran for the front door. The dripping of the clipped ends woke me. You were jumping and waving hello, hello, and I caught up with you just as the first clouds appeared at the end of our block. I nearly pulled your arm out of its socket, dragging you back into the house. You screamed and sparked all the way to the door. The neighbors glared at me from their porches and I began calculating and planning for that night’s move. Fretting over money, I forgot to make you give me the lock of my hair.
I didn’t even want you to go on this trip, but the science awards and the articles hailing you as the next Tesla made refusal impossible. I offered to come along and you rolled your eyes while your hair twisted and snapped in staticky irritation.
If I had my mother’s resolve, I would have raised you in a desert state or given birth as far north as people can survive, some place where thunderstorms are rare and easily avoided. You would have grown up far from your father and his underlings, and may never have learned your backwards count or worked out a way to let your father know he had a daughter.
If I had your honesty, I would have opened our blackout curtains, let down my hair, and walked with you into that long-ago storm. My humanity would have washed away in the floods of your father’s love, but I wouldn’t have spent your entire life hiding the two of us from every clouded sky.
I assume your class had large chunks of free time in the city; you are seniors, after all, and only months away from college. There would have been many chances for you to slip away. You could have set that strand of my hair on a roof in Manhattan under open sky to call him, or pinned it in your own hair and chased after rainclouds until one reported back. When I think of you calling him, though, I see you leaning from an alarmingly high window, waving my hair like a flag and calling out hello, hello, ten, nine, eight… while your own curls rear up in anticipation. I think of the brutal winds that buffet skyscrapers ripping my hair from your hand and scattering it across Broadway as your father rushes in and begins scouring the city for me. If he recovered even a single hair he would have felt you, known of the years you walked with my hair in your pocket or under your shirt and wondered about him.
He is burning the city to ash in his search for his only daughter.
I am sitting on the edge of a roof in Hoboken. From here I can see the roiling electric storm that New York City’s sky has become. The blue-white glow ebbs and flows, leaving trails in my vision. I can hear your father’s howling, crackling cries as he calls to you. Your father’s sentries are calmer here, but they still bluster and dump water on the street below when anyone ventures out. Dark leather bands litter the sidewalk below me. I am undoing the last of my cornrows.
A sudden flare of bright white light makes me duck my head and close my eyes. It disappears so rapidly that I open them again, afraid I’ve been blinded. The noise of New York City’s skyscrapers shattering as air rushes in to fill the void left by miles of lightning rushes over me. The sound reaches me only slightly ahead of your father.
He roars across the river. In the clouds he brings I see you waving hello, your hair finally at peace. My eyes sting with tears: of shame, because I was never protecting you; of ecstasy and anticipation; of relief that you know me at last and have forgiven me.
I stand, face raised, and your father smiles. The lightning hammers the roof in front of me and burns the tears into my flesh even as the heat and the shockwave shatter my body, shred me into the sky.
|Dora Badger is a writer of horror and magical realism. Her work has been published in Dreampress’ Ténèbres 2015, FLAPPERHOUSE, A cappella Zoo, Mirror Dance Magazine, Jennifer Miller’s Ladies of Horror, The Daily Nightmare Anthology and other small press publications. She lives in Detroit with her partner and their two rescue dogs.|