Tara told herself that she didn’t mind when her daddy sent her into the corner store for beer while he stayed in the van and smoked. Tara liked pretzel rods, and the lady who owned the store always gave her a pretzel rod on the way out the door.
Her daddy drove into the empty parking lot and pulled into the space farthest from the shop, his usual spot. He didn’t like parking close, didn’t like being looked at through the window, and called the lady who gave Tara pretzel rods judgmental. But he did like the corner store itself. The “OPEN” sign in the window flickered orange, the O blinking on and off. “Thought so,” her daddy said, a knowing grin pulling at his face. “The only one in the county brave enough to weather this.” He nudged Tara in the shoulder, always a little too hard. “Besides you and me, right, Princess?”
The man on the radio had said something about a state of emergency, the ice storm on the way, and the importance of staying indoors. Tara knew the importance of listening to adults. It was how you got them to like you. She wondered whether her daddy not listening was why so many people seemed to dislike him. “Yes, Daddy,” she said.
“Attagirl.” Tara watched her daddy unbuckle his seatbelt. He shifted in his seat, lifting his butt up just enough to get his wallet out of his back pocket. He handed her his license and a twenty. “Look for Busch, the twelve-pack. You remember what that looks like?”
“It’s blue and gray and has a mountain on it.”
“Good job,” he said, and Tara couldn’t help but smile at the praise. “Now go on.”
Tara climbed out of the van. The parking lot was covered in salt, preparation for the storm. The wind cracked her cheeks and cut through her jacket, the pretty pink cotton one her mom had bought before passing. She pushed her small body against the shop door’s heavy glass and took in the immediate rush of heat. The bell jingled, and the lady whom Tara liked looked over at her from behind the counter, visibly surprised. “Tara, baby, what on earth are you doing out here?”
Before Tara could say hi or offer a smile, the woman looked past her, out into the parking lot. “Of course,” she said. Tara’s face burned. She was embarrassed but wasn’t sure why. “Come on, baby, let’s get the Busch.”
Tara followed the woman to the back cooler. The two scanned the glass for the blue and gray box, the logo with the mountain. “There,” Tara said and pointed.
“That’s an eighteen-pack,” the lady said. “Your daddy gets a twelve, doesn’t he? Except—” The woman clucked her tongue, brow furrowed in concentration as she skimmed the rows of beer. “It looks like we’re out of twelves at the moment. He’s not gonna want to go smaller.” She stopped to look at Tara. Eyed her up and down. “Baby girl, can you carry an eighteen? You might have to go and call him in.”
Tara’s stomach turned. “No, please, ma’am,” she said. “I can do it.”
The woman let out a long sigh. “Well, all right.” She opened the cooler and grabbed the eighteen. Tara followed her to the register, where she handed the lady her daddy’s license and the twenty. Behind the counter, the small TV spoke in static, the president’s face blurring in and out. He said something that made the woman laugh, but in a way Tara recognized as not really thinking something is funny. “George H. W.,” the woman said. “What is this country coming to, huh?”
“I don’t know, ma’am.”
The woman looked up from the register; she caught Tara’s patient stare and smiled. “How old are you now, baby?”
“Eight. Just ten more years, you know.”
Tara cocked her head to the side. “Ten more years till what?”
The woman handed Tara her change, along with her daddy’s license. She unscrewed the lid from the big plastic tub resting on the counter. Pulled out a pretzel rod. Tara reached out to accept the offer, her smile genuine now, but the woman pulled back before giving it to her. Tara’s face fell. “What’s wrong?”
The woman looked past her again, into the parking lot, toward her daddy and the old family van. “Tara, baby,” she said, “you think you got a decade’s worth of strength in you?”
Tara frowned. She didn’t know what that meant. She really just wanted her pretzel rod.
The shop owner sighed. “OK, sugar, come on. I’ll walk you to the door.”
Tara followed her to the exit. The lady slipped the pretzel rod into Tara’s front coat pocket and placed the pack of Busch in her arms. Tara wobbled. Caught herself. They both looked out toward the far end of the parking lot. “If you need to stop once or twice to rest your arms or catch your breath, don’t be afraid to, OK?”
Tara nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
The woman patted Tara on the head. “Be safe now.”
Outside, the wind had picked up significantly. Tara’s eyes stung. She sniffled against the cold as she hoisted the case of Busch closer to her chest. Everything was knives. She took one step before falling to the ground. Tara landed on her palms; they bled from salt and cement. Tears from the impact sprang to her eyes. She looked up to see whether her daddy had noticed the eighteen-pack on its side, but he was still in the van. He stared straight ahead and worked only on his cigarette. Tara watched the tip burn orange and wondered at how warm it must feel. She would know that warmth soon. She just had to get to the van.
Tara sucked at the scrapes on her hands to help ease the pain before pulling herself back up. She walked to where the case of beer had fallen, and even without the burden of its weight, she struggled to stay standing. The parking lot was a thin sheet of ice now. Bits of hail stuck to her hair, dirty blond and bouncing. The salt had done nothing to stop the storm’s burn.
Tara picked up the Busch and kept moving. Ahead of her, the sun was already beginning to make its descent into the Blue Ridge Mountains. She knew, instinctively, that she would not make it to her daddy before dark. What mattered now was surviving the night, making sure she didn’t freeze to death.
Soon the snow was up to her waist and perfect for packing. Tara was grateful. She put the beer down and went straight to work. The sky was dark and the stars were out by the time she was finished, her little hands chapped and bleeding. Tara’s blood mixed with the snow, her igloo streaked with pink, but she was proud of her work. She crawled inside and took the beer with her, protective, but not before looking back at her daddy. He was still in the van, still smoking. The ignition turned on, but the van stayed in place. Tara knew that meant he was warming up, that he had turned on the van to turn on the heat.
Inside the igloo, Tara tore off pieces of her coat and wrapped the cloth around her hands. She knew from her mom that it was important to take care of an open wound so that it wouldn’t get infected. She sat on the case of beer and pulled the pretzel rod out of her front pocket. Hungry as she was, she couldn’t stop herself from pretending it was a cigarette, remembering how warm her daddy had looked in the van, the tip and its small orange ember. She smoked and posed in front of a make-believe mirror, tossing her jacket over her shoulder like a mink stole. She looked down at the case of beer and imagined the eighteen cans as eighteen different children, orphans who needed protecting. It was up to her—their hero, their queen in shining armor—to get them far, far away from the orphanage from which Tara had rescued them. “Don’t worry, little ones. I’ll make sure you get there safely.” Tara took two bites from her pretzel rod before putting her jacket back on. She placed the remainder of her snack back into its front pocket. Several minutes later, Tara fell asleep.
The next several years were largely the same. In the mornings, Tara would emerge from her small house of ice, and she would spend the day traversing the expanse of the parking lot, always building a new igloo before nightfall.
And then, spring—Virginia’s woods alive with green and yellow and also pink, the color of Tara’s jacket that no longer fit. She could see all of it from the corner store’s lot, past her daddy’s van and the back roads that had led them here, life bursting and blooming and moving forward.
One night, when Tara was swatting mosquitoes away, she saw a woman she recognized from their old church, the one her family had attended before her mom passed and Tara’s daddy gave up God. The woman knocked on the passenger window of the van. Tara watched her daddy lean over, open the door, and let her in. Tara watched them talk. Tara watched the woman take her daddy’s cigarette straight from his mouth, watched her put it out on the dashboard. And then Tara watched as the two climbed into the back, where the windows were tinted and dark. She watched the van rock and sway and grind until finally the sun came up, and the only sound was Tara’s quiet breathing, alone in the tent of her childhood jacket.
On one of those nights, when the van stopped rocking and Tara lay awake with the eighteen pack of Busch, she felt something warm, something stir at the base of her belly. Tara pressed her hand against that place between her legs and pushed herself against it. She pulsed and rubbed until she was a sharp inhale of breath, her growing limbs spent with exhaustion as she collapsed heavy to the ground, the discovery of this new and exquisite thing.
Summer now, spring gone and buried beneath layers of pollen. Tara was thirsty, the air crackled with heat, and her daddy’s Busch looked better and better. Tara had promised herself, years ago now, that she’d never drink, no siree Bob. She didn’t like the way her daddy and his friends smelled afterward, hard wafts of hops that hit her nose wrong and made it water. One time, Tara had been playing on the kitchen’s linoleum floor with two Happy Meal toys she’d purchased for twenty-five cents at their neighbor’s yard sale. Her daddy called her over when the football game turned into commercials for tires and Hess trucks for the holidays.
Two of his friends were sitting on the couch; Tara’s daddy was sprawled on the loveseat. He waved his can of beer at her, summoning. “Do you want some of this?” She didn’t, but his friends sat expectantly, two sloppy grins, while her daddy smiled in a way that made her think she was invited after all, during this time that was never allotted to her, a time when she knew to stay quiet and hidden until the game came to an end.
Tara took a sip and choked immediately, the taste of wet hay churning bile in her throat. Her daddy’s friends laughed and laughed, cracks of lightning thundering through her ears. Her face burned red with the prank, with her choking, with her daddy’s guffaws as she tried to get her breath back. When the game came back on, Tara’s daddy waved his hand at her, shushing. “OK, time to stop,” he said, his expression shifting into the one she knew to be scared of. Tara covered her mouth with her hand to mute the cough and left the living room and her daddy and the men.
But here was summer. Here was the parking lot and its black pavement, boiling with fever. Hot enough to fry an egg on, her mom would have said. Here was the Busch and only the Busch. And there was her daddy, still in the van.
Tara cracked open a beer. It still tasted like hay, but its bitterness sat in her mouth differently, a sensation she could see herself liking—could train her tongue to want. Still, it wasn’t the taste that made it worth drinking, or the relief from thirst that she so desperately needed. It was the warmth it left behind, the core of her person dissolving, spreading into her limbs, the tips of her fingers. That warmth. She hadn’t known it existed for her, and here it was all along.
Sixteen beers left. She’d wait till the fall before having more. Wait till the air turned crisp, till her exhale bloomed like smoke. Wait till she needed the heat moving through her, wait till she couldn’t stand it.
And then, autumn—red bright as burning, a shock of orange leaves against the horizon, the Blue Ridge Mountains a corsage of squash yellows and baked apples, pulled from an oven out of Tara’s reach by the hands of a mother of some child, somewhere.
Smoke rose from the outskirts of the parking lot, little houses within walking distance of her daddy’s favorite corner store, their chimneys exhaling into the clear blue air. Tara sat on the pack of Busch as she worked on her fourth beer—the cold crack of the tab, the pop and fizz of carbonation, her new favorite sound. In her shirt pocket, the pretzel rod. Tara traced the last remaining bit through the cloth, hungry. Tempted. But she knew better, knew to hold close what little remained, the stub of her pretzel and its crystals of salt.
Tara watched her daddy—she was close now, closer to the van than ever before—as he sat, hunched in waiting, eyes narrowed in concentration at the book in his lap, a highlighter where his cigarette used to be, balanced between his teeth like his own daddy’s cigars, her grandfather dead and buried “right where he belongs.” Her daddy’s words. Years ago, now. Years and years and years. The two of them at her late grandpa’s grave, her mom’s headstone not far off. “The thing you have to realize,” he said, “is that the reason I get angry is because your grandpa was no good. Do you understand? This kind of thing, it’s genetic. You get me? When I get upset . . . it’s out of my control.”
Tara crushed a can under the memory, her hand around its middle like a throat. She looked at the remaining beers—her fourteen children, her once upon a time, her make-believe orphans, dependent on her for survival. She grabbed another can. Popped open the tab.
One day, Tara thought, she’d let a man fuck her. Hard. Not because she thought it would save her, oh no. She didn’t believe in any of that. But she’d let him fuck her insides, destroy everything that bloomed—uterus, ovaries, all of it gone. She had enough growing inside her already. She didn’t need anything else.
Tara drank through the fall, years of burnt orange and smoke, the parking lot littered with the aluminum husks of her children. By the time winter arrived again, by the time she turned eighteen, only one can of Busch remained.
At her daddy’s van, Tara threw open the trunk. Tossed the case inside. The last beer rolled out of its cardboard packing, moved across the trunk’s floor like a punched-out tooth in the mouth.
She opened the front passenger door. Climbed in. Next to her, Tara’s daddy removed the highlighter from his teeth, placing it in the open spine of his Bible, bookmarking his place. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Tara,” he said, voice even. He wore the air of repressed impatience, the fuse of his person buried in a shallow grave, the soil loose and upturned. “Do you realize how long I’ve been waiting out here? What were you doing this whole time?”
Tara removed a cigarette from the pocket where her pretzel used to be. Rolled down the window of her daddy’s van. “You know how she likes to chat,” she said, referring to the woman behind the counter. They sat, silent, as Tara lit her cigarette. Watched the cherry burn bright against the backdrop of winter, the parking lot covered with salt.
“Your mom and I—”
“Your mom and I are worried about you, Tara.”
“Oh, yeah?” Tara said. She hid her grin behind her hand, amused. “Why’s that?”
Tara’s daddy started up the van. It rumbled to life, the air thick with exhaust and the stench of beer permeating Tara’s clothes. “We’re worried,” he said, “about the state of your soul.”
Tara didn’t answer. Some things weren’t worth responding to anymore. The van pulled out of the parking lot, out of the corner store’s reach, and made its way onto the back roads of Virginia’s woods.
Tara’s daddy kept talking. “We just don’t understand how you turned out like this,” he said. Tears gathered at the corners of his eyes. Tara felt sick. Not with shame, but with secondhand embarrassment. “Tara,” he said, but angrier this time. Old familiar. “Are you even listening to me?”
Tara took another drag of her cigarette, watched the smoke curl. Outside her window, the trees stood tall in their nakedness, their branches wrapped in layers of ice, drippings that froze before hitting the ground. The refusal to shatter.