“Does skin have a smell?”
“Yours does,” says Vivvy, pinching up her nose. “P. U.!”
She tosses down a peeled carrot onto the pile we’ve made. Daddy’s got a secret plan and we are helping. He left instructions and a mess of carrots and we’re to peel them and grate them as soon as we’re home from school. He thought I should be the one peeling so my knuckles and thumb tips stay clear of the eyes of the grater, but Vivvy rolled her eyes reading that part of his note so I said I could do it just fine and went to get the wax paper for underneath.
“Well does it?”
“What is wrong with you?” she says, looking right at me. There are plenty of carrots so I go back to shredding them up on the grater.
It’s just the sound of us in here—the slick clipping sound of the peeler combing the rough skin away, the swiveling of its blade, and the voot vroot of the grater’s holes stripping their bits of carrot.
“What’s he got up his sleeve?” I ask.
“Who knows,” she says. She’s on her last carrot and glances over to the big pile in front of me.
“Is there a PTA meeting? Maybe Ma signed up to bring something.”
“Maybe he’s getting us a rabbit.”
“He is not getting us a rabbit, Enid.”
“He could be.”
She gives me her look, Ma’s look: hand on hip, elbow flung out, head leaning over almost to her shoulder, lips tight like tasting lemons.
“Fine,” I say. “No rabbit.”
“Where’re my girls?” It’s Daddy and I didn’t even hear the car. Floey didn’t get up either. Now she just lies on her side, her tail thwunking the floor. Lazy dog. The puppy jumps on Daddy’s feet, though. His teeth tug at Daddy’s hands so when Daddy stands back up, his fingers are wet and pricked cherry with tooth tracks.
“Did you get us a rabbit?” I ask, jumping high to hug around his neck. Then I feel the mushy carrot on my hands and let go but don’t tell him it’ll be in his hair. “To eat all these carrots?”
“We did what you said,” says Vivvy. “Enid’s not done yet, though.”
I pick up my carrot hunk, grate it while I talk. “I’m nearly done,” I say. “Only three more.”
“Perfect,” he says. “Perfect.” He sets down his satchel in the doorway and slips out of his blazer. He goes to the pantry and comes back tying Ma’s apron around his waist, only the ties won’t reach so he stuffs them in his pocket and lets the apron hang from his neck.
“What’re we doing?” I ask.
“We,” he says, making a big to-do and leaning over a recipe book, “are making—”
“Carrot cake,” glums Vivvy, spoiling his announcement.
“Yes, indeedy,” he says. “A lot of carrot cakes. Vivvy, get the eggs. Enid, move it along with those carrots. We need flour and sugar. Pull that cream cheese out to soften.” He points inside the refrigerator door’s cubby.
Now it’s the sounds of all of us: my voot vroot vroot, faster this time; the slapping of Vivvy’s bare feet to-ing and fro-ing across the linoleum, from fridge to countertop to pantry to cupboard; Daddy reading over the recipe to himself. He gets the mixer bowl ready, Ma’s favorite wooden mixing spoon—the one so slick and tall, dyed red up to five inches from the top from us making Kool-Aid with it when we knew we weren’t supposed to; she cried in her room and never uses it now on account of it’s ruined beyond repair. The oven’s warming up and Vivvy’s swabbing butter into the pans—cupcakes we’re making, tons and tons, he says, of cupcakes: “As many as it takes.” Daddy starts up with “a bluebird on my shoulder,” and then we sing, Daddy and me.
“What’s wrong with her?” Daddy asks.
Vivvy has gone upstairs. We’re waiting on the cupcake tins to cool. Staking them out, Daddy and me—you couldn’t pay us to leave this kitchen.
“Watch your finger,” he tells me because I keep sponging into the tops of the little cakes to see do they spring back. And they do. And I can hardly stand it. I need one, hot and squishy, so bad.
“Does she have homework, maybe?” he says, wiping down the countertop, making a thick line of flour he then scrapes into the trash can.
“Don’t know,” I say.
He sticks his fingers on a cupcake top, presses down.
“What? Just checking.” His arm comes back from the pan.
“Are they ready?”
“I think they might just be.”
I start grabbing at the pot holders to dump them out on the cooling racks and then into my mouth.
“Eh eh eh,” he says, stopping me. “Got to frost them first.”
“Just one?” I tug at his loose apron tie.
“No, fish stick.”
I go to the book, looking for the frosting recipe to help speed us along. He’s already holding the cream cheese wrapper over the mixing bowl, letting the soft hunk fall down in. Then there’s powdered sugar and egg whites he lets me separate even though Vivvy’s the one who’s good at it. I scoop the yolk back and forth, shell to shell, dangling the gloppity white until finally the yolk lets it loose and it falls plop into the bowl. I swipe my finger through the smooth creaminess up around the collar of the mixing bowl.
“Enough of that, you hear?”
We used to snitch together.
“Go see if Vivvy wants to help frost.”
I go upstairs, wishing it would be just him and me doing it. She’s on her stomach in bed, her feet up in the air, ankles locked. She’s looking out the window. Looking to the tree, the yard, to Clint’s house. I step up on the side rail. “He says we’re frosting now, if you want to come.”
She’s quiet. She rubs at one cheek, then at the inside of her knee like she’s got an itch on the move. “She might not come back,” she says.
“Can I?” Enid puts her hand over the capped end of my pen as I’m writing her mother’s name.
“Go on outside and play,” I tell her.
Enid looks at the card. She looks at it. Then she looks up at me. Her face puzzled, trying to get to whatever it is I’m doing here.
“Go find a friend,” I tell her.
She starts out the door.
“This is sort of private, that’s all,” I say and still she shuts the back door behind her.
Shell is not a secret. But that doesn’t mean anybody talks about him. A whole year can go by, maybe more, without a single word or name or glimpse inside the room that was his. Mom keeps his door shut and only she can go in. Then I start to think maybe my splintered memory of that day—with him living just as pieces of sounds, bloody knuckles, me holding Enid’s crinkly face, saying, “Shh, shh”—means he was not real. Or not as I remember him. But if so, then what are those two blurs that smear across us in all the holiday pictures of Dad, Enid, and me, where we are staring straight ahead and even Floey is there, lying in front of our knees, her head up and facing the camera, too? When I look really close with the magnifying glass from the downstairs bookshelf, I’m certain her eyes are looking straight out of the room, looking, about to be following, where those two white flashes have gone.
“Puppies!” says Enid, out of habit—it was her first word, her favorite. She used it on anything she loved. Right now it’s for beef cattle. Her hand presses to the side window in back; her face is quick to follow.
“Such a retard,” whispers Vivvy.
Clover comes in through the vents, tangy and sweet.
Enid touches her sister’s kneecap. She waits, maybe for a laugh, then touches the glass with both hands. “The hillsides are like mas’ tummies. Like there are babies inside.”
“They’re called mountains,” says Vivvy.
We travel I-81 south, sidling the Blue Ridge for a bit. A stand of silver birch trees lines the base of the blue hills in the distance, white as fence pickets. Now there are silos and a dairy farm that must have sold off too much land to the Christmas tree growers; their angular cows push right up to the highway railing.
“P. U.,” says Vivvy, holding her nose shut.
Enid takes a deep breath. Breathes it out steady. “I love it.”
“You’re so disgusting.”
“I know you are but what am I?”
I roll down the window and the wind is all I hear as we move through this cut in the mountains, down I-77 now. The farms are few but Enid is right: each square of farmland seems upholstered to the hillside, plumped and soft; these rounded, corner-tucked pillows are just like a woman fat with love.
Each and every day Daddy brings me another. He says it smells good, he says if I won’t eat them he will—but it’s a hollow threat. He opens each new box, and there, taped in place for the preservation of messy white swoops of cream cheese frosting, is the most divine little carrot cake I have ever met. He sets the boxes in the grass around me and I watch them. Watch to see how long it takes the ants to find folds and seams, to make their way in. A few climb all the way to the top and fall gleefully from the stiff box flaps into the white frosting.
The trees are shifty today. Lots of breeze. They can’t decide on a single direction, so the branches weave together then apart, like the dance around a maypole. The leaves are beginning to dry so they do not shush and whisper but make sounds like an old radio Tate used to like to leave on at night for the way the dial glowed orange, his face wide and strangely pink to me in its light. A private kind of crackling came through its cloth speaker, now comes from the great canopy of poplars above me.
I pee in the cool bathroom at the front of the house. Outside the window, the corner of the house is shaded in a cluster of yew trees so close to the wooden siding that behind them the house is the same bright shade of yellow Mother painted it way back when.
I climb the stairs feeling it in my head, the dizzy stars of fasting. I step down two, three, then step up again just to feel that surge of gravity and weakness collide, just to make my vision go split-white momentarily. The cuts in my lips sting. I smell.
I go back where I belong. Feel the pain of lying flat again. I turn away from the house, on my side. Looking into the grass, I pluck a blade and study the many greens of it.
“You want it or not?” Daddy says, appearing over me with another box already open.
I reach for it out of reflex, take the box from his palm, and Daddy shuffles back across the yard, dragging his slower left leg.
I rest my cheek right back into the ground, the hard, hot earth. Tips of grass tickle my lips. I nibble at one, swallow the color green wet and warm, its tang down my throat. I lift the box on the tips of my fingers and set it down.
I bite the grass again, clearing a spot around my chin and nose. I swallow. Wonder what it is to be a cow with so many stomachs and food coming up and going back down as a matter of course.
The smell sneaks up on me. Cinnamon and nutmeg. It creeps from every box around me, slips over my shoulders, and climbs within me.
Today, there is a note.
I know you’re scared.
You are not alone.
I cannot help that my face is wet. I eat the cupcake. And the next.
Noley Reid lives in Newburgh, Indiana, with her two best boys.