Where All the Heat Is

Fiction by Hannah Hollifield

You start your period twenty minutes before Vacation Bible School. Your momma comes into the bathroom, hands you a tampon, and shows you how to stick the blue applicator in and send the cotton up. Then she hurries and y’all have to leave because the women’s study group is cooking the dinner. She listens to 106.9 the Light on the way and you are wearing your bright orange leader T-shirt.

You are thirteen and in charge of the children ages two to four. You are holding one of the toddlers on your hip and you can feel the tampon in between your legs. There is a sinking feeling in your stomach. You feel too grown up and your boobs hurt. There is something about holding a child on your hip that you don’t like. Abigail and Lindsey are obsessed with their groups. They are so good at it – holding babies. They volunteer to babysit for the families at the church and sometimes you go with them. You sneak Goldfish and Nutella from their pantries. They say you’ll be better when it’s your own baby and that makes you want to throw up.

The church is hot and filled with every child you have ever seen from town. They scream and sing the children’s songs and you are supposed to show them the dance moves. They’re sweaty and won’t stop running and touching you. Still, you like the decorations and the music because it is happier than the normal Sunday service. They don’t holler about hell as much, you think. And then you go on to the next activity where you build crosses with popsicle sticks. The adult activity leader talks about how Jesus died on a cross like this but bigger and you think about hell some more. A toddler gets loose in the hall and you wait for a minute to see if someone else is going to get him but that’s your job. When you finally grab him, you sit him in your lap while he picks his nose. You think about hell and wonder if hating holding babies will send you there.

You are seventeen and you watch Sam Pressley make a touchdown. He is the second cutest boy at East Wilson. Your youth pastor talked about lust last Sunday and you wonder if he knew you would be lusting after Sam Pressley tonight, and that message was straight from God to you. Tomorrow there is a pool party at Abigail’s house and Sam will be there so you lay out your hot pink bikini. You know this is definitely sinning. Premeditated sin – you’d heard that in youth group when the girls do True Love Waits. Lindsey says you are a late bloomer. Your youth pastor says you are a chocolate bar. It’s all very confusing because you love flowers and chocolate. These are good things, you think.

At the pool party, there are chips and Coke and popsicles. You take a blue raspberry popsicle and let it swirl around on your tongue and on your lips. You know Sam is watching.

You and Lindsey lay your towels down on the pool chairs and rub in tanning oil. It’s the end of August and the UV is nine so you know you’re going to get a nice tan. You get sweaty quick so you go to the pool house to get a float and you know Lindsey is whispering to Sam about you. Sam is a boy so he comes into the pool house too. Then you’re even more sweaty because you know you’re about to have your first kiss. And it is Sam Pressley. You let Sam kiss you and it’s sloppy but you think this is what passion means. It goes on too long but then his hand is touching the bottom of your bikini where all the heat is.

You’re twenty-one and you can drink. You broke up with Sam before you went to college and he called you a bitch. No one had ever called you that before but now you hear it all the time. There is a local band that plays rock and roll covers and you love to dance so sweaty and drunk to them.

Your momma calls you once a week but sometimes more. She asks if you’re seeing anyone and you always say no. But you do see guys, they’re just not the type your momma wants to hear about.

After Sam there is Jackson who takes you to a museum and talks like a thesaurus; Xavier from psychology who smokes a lot of pot and teaches you how to longboard; and then there’s Nate – who you sleep with every now and then. He’s pretty in the face and an atheist and has other girlfriends, but you like him the most because he’s confusing.

On the weekends and after class you work in a restaurant downtown. They don’t have AC and you think that should be illegal. So whenever you’ve run around too many tables, or another person asks for the manager, or you get a second to either go to the restroom or breathe, you sit in the walk-in and look at the containers. Sometimes you open the Blue Bell ice cream bucket and graze your finger across the side and think oh this is so delicious.

You’re twenty-nine and you married a man named Daniel and there is a baby on your chest. You are not glowing, you are heaving and Daniel is taking a picture. The nurses watch as you ache and they seem to know. You want to talk to them and tell them take it back, put it away, you didn’t want it to begin with. You want to ask them why your watermelon stomach hasn’t shrunk yet. You want your body back to normal. There is a baby lying on your lungs, suffocating you. And it is screaming so fucking loud. The place Sam Pressley touched in the pool house is numb. A doctor or a nurse stitched the skin because it ripped, and they numbed it.

You aren’t heartless. You know you should be so happy you could cry. And you do cry, but not because you have a new baby and you love it so much. You cry because you feel trapped inside another person’s body, inside another person’s life.

You are a good mother. Daniel wanted two so you gave him two. Two daughters. He was thrilled. My girls, he’d say. You aren’t thrilled because you know what Daniel doesn’t.

You’re a little detached, maybe. Cold was the word Daniel threw at you sometimes. He’s the better parent, more maternal, more nurturing. You raised good kids, people at the school and church tell you. You braid and curl their hair and put little ribbons on the end. They sing in the children’s choir at church. You make dioramas with popsicle sticks and help them with multiplication. They say ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ and never forget to say their prayers. But sometimes they say ‘Momma’ and you forget they’re talking to you.

 You love them, you do. They are just so much of you.

You see Sam Pressley at the gas station from time to time. You wave. Your daughters go to school together. You think about the last time you and Daniel had sex while you’re standing at the pump. It was tiring and you spotted dust on the bedroom ceiling fan. You should probably clean that.

When you get home you tell the kids to go play outside and you’ll fix them a snack. You forget about the snack because you feel real tired. You sit down on the couch. Just for a minute, you say inside your head. And then you smell smoke. The kitchen is on fire. Then the house is on fire and everything is burning except you and that awful plaid beige couch Daniel’s mother gave y’all. You’re standing on it, your bare feet locked inside the cushions. Everything is crackling and somewhere you can hear a child coughing. You wake up gasping, suffocating, because all you smell is Clorox and lavender oil and the walls are still white and sturdy around you instead of piles of ash. You book an appointment with your psychiatrist. She tells you lots of women feel this way. She asks if you’ve been working out. You haven’t.

The children have been put to bed and you and Daniel eat dinner on TV trays in the living room. You sit on opposite ends. Daniel doesn’t say anything. You don’t say anything. There are more wildfires in California, the anchorman says. They show videos of helicopters dumping water and firefighters standing in front of black trees and orange smokey skies. You think about your house burning and you feel guilty because you’re jealous. You think about the people on the other side of the country who never had dreams of their houses burning. You wonder if this is hell – the world burning and you wanting to go on with it.

Hannah Hollifield

Hannah Hollifield is from Spruce Pine, North Carolina. She studies English literature at Appalachian State University.