By Melanie Thorne
We compare scars like veterans; replay our history by the marks in our skin. At night, quietly so Mom can’t hear, we trace the raised-flesh roadmaps of our lives and whisper our stories into the dark.
Tree branch shadows slide like monster hands across the room we share, and in the next room our father’s fists beat our mother’s flesh. If her body gives out before his rage, we know we will survive this, too. We are old hands at this thing we can’t yet name, even if our hands are tiny.
We are latch-key kids, daughters of cliché: abusive alcoholic father who can’t keep a job, hardworking single mother who tries her best but can’t quite make ends meet. We shop at Canned Food Warehouse, delight at rare and extravagant dinners out at McDonald’s.
We are kids who learned to lie well, young, storyteller prodigies as soon as we could talk, covering for our absent father, our mother’s bruises, our lack of lunch money. Social Services was the easiest to convince. People believe what they prefer.
Sharper than photos, we have inscriptions in our skin. Like pictures, bruises fade, though we remember those, too, but our misshapen bones, our peeled scabs and silvery-white scars are permanent badges of honor, proof of traumas already survived.
One of us stepped on a fish hook when she was four. She cried when Dad wriggled it like from a slippery fish gill, so he yanked instead, creating the pink snake-tongue fork on her sole. One has a puckered-ring burn on her forearm, a flower-shaped angry-red mass, the result of a sparkler one Fourth of July purposefully pressed.
We walk to and from school, sometimes together, laughing, sometimes twenty paces apart, brooding. So-and-so likes you better, you left me alone with Dad, you didn’t share your milk, you didn’t tell me Mom was crying, you used all the hot water, you stole my make-up, you didn’t let me protect you.
Some nights, we spin the safer tales. It was a stranger who knocked me down the escalator steps in JC Penney, my face scraping the steel grooves; it was a tetherball that gave one of us a black eye, it was a bully who carved the thatch of scratches onto her knees. We have smashed our own small fingers into car doors and fallen out of many trees.
Tell a lie for long enough, it becomes a memory.
It was not Dad’s unsteady hand that wielded the red-hot skewer at that barbecue and forever branded his daughters with his personal motto: I.
Our scars are records in Braille, charts of where we’ve been, but the smooth skin he’s left undamaged provides no map for us to follow. Some of us might not make it out.
When I do, I am surprised. Still, now, I run my hands over my body as I fall asleep. I remind myself that I’m still here, I’m still in one piece, safe.
It’s the story we tell ourselves.
Melanie Thorne is the award-winning author of the novel Hand Me Down (Penguin), which was critically acclaimed by People, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Associated Press, among others, as well as nominated for an ALA Alex Award, and named a Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2012. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Good Housekeeping, Global City Review, Litro, The Florida Review and The Nervous Breakdown. She was awarded the Maurice Prize in Fiction, an Alva Englund Fellowship, and residencies at Hedgebrook and the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and was a 2015 Tomales Bay Workshops Fellow, a 2014 Virginia Quarterly Review Scholar, and a 2014 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Mentor. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis and lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and in private workshops. Find her online at www.MelanieThorne.com.