March 15, 2015 by The Citron Review
by Marley Andino
My house sits a city block from the Chesapeake Bay—not the bay of picture books, but of stinky marshes spilling between rail lines and chained-up lots. My cousins live one street north. I walk there, looking both ways at the corner, skipping the oily stain where Mom said a sedan splattered a kid like me.
My cousins’ clean house has an empty smell. I stand in their foyer, gulping air-conditioned chill.
My house smells like penicillin and Rit Dye.
I am six—old enough to help with the washing. Mom lets me pour in dye, and the machine wobbles and beats the clothes into coffee-colored foam.
“This way,” Mom says, “we don’t have to worry about stains.”
My brown play clothes smell like licked pennies.
At my cousins’ house, I hear something. Funny words, sing song—Dong Nai, Saigon—coming from the den. I wander in and listen. I wonder about a world outside my city block.
Mom runs to shut off the T.V., but I see dead boys, balloon skin stretched tight over puffed-up faces.
“We don’t need to see a bloodbath,” Mom says. She’s mad, she’s pushing me out of the room.
“Is there a war?” I ask my aunt.
“My girl should go on home,” Mom says.
Back home, I beg Mom for a sleepover.
Her look says we don’t have visitors. But she gives in. My aunt sends my cousins out of the air conditioning and down the block to my house.
Seven o’clock. Bath time, my cousins say. They said it like fact. Seven pennies, seven dandelions, seven is nothing to me.
Mom runs lukewarm water. “Knuckle deep,” she says. She closes the bathroom door.
I am scared but fill it higher, hotter.
I slick the iron tub with shampoo and slide down its sloped back, spraying the girls with water.
Lilly, she’s five and brave, goes feet-first down the ramp. Water splashes the tile and soaks everything.
I help Gabrielle up onto the steep back, tugging at her elbows.
“Be brave,” I say.
She squeezes her eyes shut, slips. I hear a crack.
Gabrielle is still under water when she opens her eyes. Her blond hair fans out around her like mermaid hair, and vines of blood leak out into the water.
I cradle her head.
“This was you,” Mom says, when she sees Gabrielle in my arms, and the blood, and the deep water, and I don’t deny it.
Mom leaves us alone in the warm, dye-smelling bath.
After a long time, my aunt comes in, breathing hard, and pulls Gabrielle from my arms. My cousin is limp, spilling pink. “Call an ambulance!” my aunt yells. I stare at the back of Gabrielle’s skull. White jelly shows through the inch-wide gash.
Mom stands in the doorway. She bends, bare hands mopping at the bloody, foam-flecked tile. “They’ll see this mess,” she said. “I can’t let them in.”
Everything slows. It feels hard to breathe, like it’s me under water. I want Mom to dry me off, but she’s kneeling, frozen.
Later they come, in a rush of uniforms, and crowd the room. I’m cold. I sit in the bloodbath and try to cover myself with my hands, because they are strangers.
Marley Andino is a Virginia-based writer and sculptor. She was selected as a 2014 Virginia Quarterly Review Nonfiction Scholar. Her essay “Water Capes and James Bond” was chosen as the third place winner of the 2014 Norton Girault Literary Prize. She is currently at work on DRY LAND, a memoir. An excerpt of DRY LAND appears in the Spring 2014 issue of River Teeth: A Journal of Narrative Nonfiction.