Campbell High School
The day Rosa turned 16, the house was still. When she came home it was close to midnight, and the sound of her footsteps ricocheted in the silence, settling in dusty corners and dustier carpets. She had been out all day, passing the time with girls who drew thick lines across their eyes with stolen makeup and with the boys who never seemed to notice it. Rosa had left early, sometime after she realized they’d forgotten her birthday but not before she found herself in a car with some boy who smelled like cheap cologne and did not appreciate her red lipstick. She had bought it because her friends had told her it would make her look sexy, but on her mouth it looked fake, like a stain from eating too many strawberries
She found her mother upstairs, folding laundry while the ancient TV in her room played a game show rerun quietly. Her mother glanced up and asked if Rosa was okay, her hands moving almost mechanically as she worked. She had crescent moons under her eyes, mottled purple and gray. They stood out on her face, the only imperfection in a sea of glossy amber skin. On the TV, the audience cheered loudly as bright symbols flashed on screen. Rosa blinked, stared at the patterned quilt strewn across her mother’s bed. The tears in her eyes blurred the colors, blending them together messily until they looked like a soupy jumble.
She hadn’t meant to end up in the car. She didn’t even really like any of the boys; they were all too loud and kind of stupid. They got drunk off warm beer in shopping center parking lots and called it living. But one of them had been inching closer all night, and when he finally put his arm around her, all the girls had winked and smiled with red mouths of their own, and she thought it must be okay. Later, when he closed the car door behind her she breathed deeply, told herself she was being ridiculous. This was normal, good even. There was a stain on the seat that vaguely resembled blood, and when she looked at it Rosa felt sick.
Her mother didn’t flinch when Rosa told her. She didn’t scream or cry or even seem to register the words. She finished folding a pair of dress pants, gently smoothing over the creases before setting it on the pile. Rosa swallowed thickly, acutely aware that she could hear her own heart pounding in the silence. On the TV, one of the contestants screamed excitedly She had won a car. Confetti fell on her new prize as she jumped around the stage. On the grainy television it looked like snow. Rosa shifted on her feet and felt a pit growing in her stomach. Her mother sighed.
“Can you really be sure?”
It was like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Rosa felt herself draw in a labored breath, felt a tear leak from the corner of her eye and trace her cheekbone before falling onto the bedspread that was already swimming in its own colors. There was a pounding in her head, and the strangest sensation that this wasn’t really happening. She had hoped that somehow it was all fixable; a bad dream that her mother would wash away with her words like she used to when the issue was stolen crayons or a skinned knee. She would wake up tomorrow with the memory already fading from her skin.
Could she be sure? She was sure of the way he had his arm too tight around her waist, how hot it was in the car, though the windows were rolled down.
She was sure of the shitty music playing over the radio as he crept closer, his hand sliding up her thigh, trailing sweat as it went. She was sure she had felt dizzy and nauseous, but he was already moving and she wasn’t sure she could breathe but he was everywhere, and she dimly registered pain, thought what have I done what have I done? She was sure she heard herself distantly asking, then begging him to stop, to move so she could just get out of that damn car, but she couldn’t find the handle, everything was too slippery with sweat or sin and her ears were ringing, her whole body screaming for escape. She was sure.
In the background, the game show theme song played as the lucky contestant hugged her family. Rosa’s mother was still talking. She wanted to know if Rosa had been drinking, if the boy apologized, if she had been flirting with him—you know he really could have just misread the situation, Rosa, these things happen, Rosa. Her voice rose and fell in harmony with the lively game show tune, mixing and tangling and weaving together just like all the colors on the quilt until they sounded muffled and distant, as though from a different room, or a different house altogether, where girls stayed home on their birthdays and didn’t shoplift drugstore lipstick or talk to sweaty boys who wore cheap cologne. Rosa closed her eyes and swayed on her feet, let the sound flow around her as everything swirled together until none of it meant anything. She reached out to touch the ruined quilt and wished to be fifteen again.
What I found really haunting about this piece was the contrast between Rosa’s shock and the mother’s indifferences, The contrast between Rosa’s terrible experience in the boy’s car, and the calm, understated images of the gameshow rerun, of the mother folding clothes. I think that readers will come out of this piece feeling a little older. Like they can’t go back to being fifteen again.
Katie Huffman will graduate from Campbell High School in Marietta, Georgia in 2020. Reading and writing have always been a big part of her life, and she is excited for this opportunity from Polyphony Lit.
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