Years later, Bird would go rigid whenever blankets were draped over her body. Her limbs remembered the darkened backseat the way clay formed to a mold – blue upholstery, cigarette stink, carpet of crumbs and ash, and the sound of her mother’s voice, cracked with its own static, rasping along with the radio. Gutters. Roofing. Electrical wiring and Christmas lights. Payphones, streetlamps, stereos, manhole covers, transmission lines, the guts of old televisions. Twelve gauge, sixteen gauge. Sparkplugs. Bare-bright #1: a hank of pink wire thick as bone. The newest, the cleanest and softest wire, Bird was allowed to keep in the backseat, cradling the coils like baby dolls.
Her mother taught stillness the hard way. Wouldn’t speak to her when she was driving. Told her to get under the blanket whenever she heard voices. Whenever she saw a red-blue scream of sirens. Sometimes she brought Bird things she found when she left the car, broken sunglasses and chipped lawn gnomes and abandoned tool belts. If anyone else ever opened the car door, run like hell.
There were several hundred pounds of copper in the average American home: refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave, washing machine, dryer; teakettle, toaster, pot and pan. The older it was, the more it stank like old pennies, like blood. Even when it was wrapped in tarp and locked in the trunk, Bird could smell it.
Sometimes it would be half an hour, forty-five minutes, before her mother came back, clanking and jingling, swearing at the weight, arms bleeding from scratches. While she was gone, Bird lay perfectly still under the blanket and took turns pretending she was a mummy, a store mannequin, a dead body.
Farm equipment. Tractor motors. Spaceships.
Except the times she forgot. The times she sat up to see where they were. The times she pushed her nose to the crack at the top of the window to breathe the air of Devil’s Den Bay, to sniff the dusty perfume of Spanish moss that lined the back roads of Bickford County. When her mother found her, she took her by the shirt collar and slapped her once, twice. Never looking her in the eye. Is this what you want?
Bad weeks were brass. Pipe valves, fluid manifolds, junky light fixtures, doorknobs. The men who ran the scrapyards called it bronze, called Bird’s mother methhead, thief, but still they bought whatever she brought in.
In high school Bird would almost fail algebra. Strange, considering she had been balancing equations most of her life. Quiet in the car equaled no angry mother equaled a good haul. Equaled sneakers. Burger King. A new toothbrush. Equaled, once, a stuffed walrus that Bird loved maniacally until the night it fell out the car window and her mother, laced in a chemical sweat, bent low over the steering wheel, refused to go back for it.
Equaled don’t ask questions.
The worst weeks were soda cans, showers in the library sink. A sweet syrupy smell lingering in the backseat. Bird knew better than to check if they still held soda, knew they oozed dark brown like tobacco juice. When she was five, a wasp had flown out and stung her on the lip and her mother had said that was life, better get used to it.
Once in a while, when the TV wasn’t in the pawnshop and the electricity wasn’t shut off, her mother liked to watch the news. If there were reports of power outages she would pretend they had happened because of her. I did that, she would say, switching the channel before the anchorman could say electrical storms, fraying infrastructure, scheduled maintenance. I could shut down the whole goddamn bayou if I wanted to.
One night they parked in front of an abandoned house. Poorly lit street, spring peepers chirping, big aluminum antenna in the backyard. Her mother disappearing up the muggy driveway. A few minutes later, Bird heard the concentrated sounds of sawing and tearing. Her mother returned to the car and began piling long rods of metal in the trunk and backseat. The edges poking at Bird where she hid under the blanket.
She thought she was staying still. Quite possibly she was. She was ten years old. Her world was a dirty blanket and the scent of rust.
While her mother went back for more, Bird crept a hand out from under the blanket. Five fingers. She started to fiddle with the pieces of metal. Pretending she was a radio announcer. Pretending she was talking with her mother, clearing the static from their communication lines. Tuning in, trying to find the right station. Waiting to hear what came next.
In the foster home, Bird would dream of her mother. Smoke-scratch voice, wrists thin as wire. In dreams, her mother had escaped from jail and was clicking through the city, shutting off the lights one at a time until she came to her daughter. Until all that remained between them was the dark and the smells of blood and sugar water and ash.
Alone under the blanket, Bird jiggled the antenna to her imaginary station. If she stayed very still, she would hear it. Any minute now.
Come in, come in.
About the Author: A native of Northern New York, Gabrielle Hovendon is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in more than a dozen publications, including Necessary Fiction, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, and apt.
Story Song: "Demons" by The National