They’d just passed the Alabama state line when Winnie saw the billboard. Winnie’s dad sat in the front seat, his bloated face wrenched into a squint to keep the sun out of his eyes, and her mother beside him, tearing her split ends into smaller and smaller pieces that Winnie imagined floated into the air and then into her lungs where they would take root and grow and grow until they sprouted from her throat, leaving her gurgling as the blood and spit flowered over the frilled, white dress her mother had forced her to wear.
On a black background, a transparent cocoon floated, the creature inside curled into itself, the pink, wriggling tube stretching away into nothingness, and a single black dot, like an all-seeing eye stared back at Winnie.
“I loved you before you were in the womb.” Winnie pressed her fingers against the window, and whispered the words again and again until they were nonsensical sounds—an incantation only she would understand, something to be buried in the dark earth and left to sleep for a thousand years.
Her father darted a glance at her in the rearview mirror, frowned, and turned up the radio until bland Christian contemporary drowned out the susurrus of her voice. Her mother kept her red-webbed eyes trained straight ahead, her fingers jerking like spiders through her hair.
This trip was supposed to fix them. Five days of sunscreen-scented, burnt skin, itching sand, and salt water boiled into some miraculous tincture that would undo her father’s clenched fists since Jesus hadn’t been able to save what had fallen apart.
Two weeks after the night in the Eckerd parking lot, Winnie had not been able to keep herself from saying that word. Whore. She’d been sent home with a note from Mrs. Mushro, that if Winnie could not control herself in the classroom the principal would be told, and the school would be forced to “re-evaluate Winnie’s placement.” After that, Winnie had taken to writing it over and over again in her special notebook, and then tearing the pages into tiny bits before swallowing them one by one where they swam in her stomach, her hand laid against the flatness there as if she carried something alive rather than that word written in purple ink.
Ahead, another billboard loomed, this one advertising fast food, and Winnie let the words tumble out of her faster and faster, like the time she’d been sick on the carpet of her bedroom, her father cursing as he stood behind her mother who knelt, the towel in her hand stained a shade of orange that had no name.
“Stop it,” her father said, but Winnie squeezed her eyes shut, unable to keep her tongue from forming the sounds.
“Goddammit, I said stop!” He slammed the palm of his hand against the steering wheel, and the car swerved into the next lane, a horn blaring as the car streaked past in a gray blur.
“Trent,” her mother said, but her voice was filled with a silence that meant nothing.
Winnie swallowed, her throat clicking as she held that floating, pink creature in her mind, wondering what it would be like to swallow it down where it would wriggle in her belly like a worm.
In the front seat, her father made sounds that were something like I’ve had it with this shit, and psychiatrist, and medication, but Winnie let them fall away like dead things and focused instead on the fullness of her stomach. How it seemed to swell with love, with all those feelings Pastor Chris said were what made them holy. His lambs the chosen few among a black, sin-teeming world, and Winnie felt, even as the pew itched under her bottom, how she could let those feelings fill her up, let them drown out all the awful, sharp thoughts dug into her brain.
“Whore, whore, whorewhorewhore,” she whispered, and her mother twisted her fingers together as if she could squeeze them hard enough to fall away—plunk, plunk, plunk, one by one falling into her lap.
There’d been no exits for miles, nothing but thick scrubs of pine trees casting shadows over the cars that passed through them, alternating with fields plowed for tobacco or peanuts or cotton.
“Fuck this,” her father said, the car jerking once more as he guided it off the pavement and onto the shoulder.
“What are you doing?” her mother asked as her father threw the door open and pushed himself out of the car.
“I need to take a piss, and if I have to sit there and listen to her for another second, I swear to God, Mary-Anne.” He flexed his fingers and curled them into a fist before crossing in front of the car and then disappearing into the tree line.
Winnie pressed her face to the window and watched him go. “Whore. I loved you. Whore. In the womb. Before.” The words coming together and apart, dancing over her tongue like fire.
“Winnie, please,” her mother said, and Winnie clacked her teeth at her. Even if she wanted to keep the words inside, she didn’t think she could. Not since that night. Not since her father had brought her mother home and locked her in the bathroom, his voice going more and more hoarse until his scream was little more than a wheeze, as if the air in his lungs was dying. And then, the next day, there’d been the blood, how it streaked along her mother’s thighs, the quiet, calm in her mother’s voice as she told Winnie that everything was fine, that she’d been sick, but everything would be okay, and they shouldn’t tell her father. He would only worry, and Winnie didn’t want him to be more upset, did she?
Afterward, the bathroom smelled of bleach. Every time Winnie went in, she’d plug her nose until she’d finished, but she could still see those red smears in the toilet, the lumpy glob of tissue that floated there, her mother’s wet face as she flushed it all away.
Her mother flung the visor down and wiped at the makeup she’d already sweated off. When they’d left, her mother had reached to turn on the air conditioning, and her father had swiped her hand away.
“We’ll get better mileage. Crack a window,” he’d said.
“It’ll mess up my hair,” she’d said, and her father had not responded, only started the car, his jaw set in the knife-like way Winnie had seen that night at the Eckerd.
The heat in the car was oppressive. A living, breathing thing curled among them despite the partially open windows. For a while, Winnie had tried panting like a dog, but it had done nothing to cool her off. Instead, she’d laid down in the backseat, remembering what Mrs. Mushro had said about heat rising, but even then, the sweat clung, slicking her to the seat, and she finally sat up, tiny white stars glittering at the edges of her vision.
The brush at the tree line rustled and then parted as her father emerged. He kept his head bowed as he walked, his hands swiping at his pants and shirt. About halfway back to the car he paused and turned back to the woods, his head cocked as if listening for something. Winnie held her breath and leaned toward him, but she was too far away to hear whatever it was that had made him turn back.
Another moment passed, another series of labored breaths from her mother, another series of inthewomb,before,love,whore, and still her father had not moved.
“What is he doing?” Her mother leaned partially out the window. “Trent,” she called, but he stayed locked in place, the only movement his head twisting even further, an angle that seemed impossible, as if his head had momentarily come untethered, his spine snapping as he turned and turned and turned.
“Stay here,” her mother said and opened the door, the space momentarily filled with the humming of insects before she called out again, the slamming door cutting his name in half. Winnie imagined if she looked in the front seat, she would see the purple-rich slick of meat, those pieces her mother had not been able to keep safely tucked away in her body still dropping from between her legs.
“In the womb,” she said and watched as her mother marched through the tall grass, her hands waving in front of her face as if she could part the veil of gnats clouding around her face.
Her mother paused when she was a few feet away from her father, her mouth shaping words Winnie couldn’t hear, but still her father didn’t move, and Winnie wondered if God could even see them anymore. They’d gone so far from home. How could he know where it was they’d wandered?
Her mother took another step forward and grasped her father’s shoulder. Slowly, his head unraveled. Slowly, he looked back at her mother and then back at Winnie. Slowly, he smiled. A mouth full of impossibly white teeth. An impossible smile. A smile her father had never given her. Not even on the night in the Eckerd parking lot, his knuckles and teeth bloodied after he’d pulled the man Winnie had never seen before out of the car where her mother sat unmoving in the passenger seat. He’d smiled then, but it had been nothing like this.
And his eyes. There was something wrong, but Winnie couldn’t see. He was too far away.
Her mother stumbled backward, her hand at her throat.
“Whorewhorewhorewomb,” Winnie said, but it wasn’t a spell. Wasn’t a prayer. There was no God here, under this too broad, too bright sky. No God watching with his great all-seeing eye as her father took her mother’s hand and gently led her back to the car.
He opened the door and guided her into her seat, then leaned over and buckled her in, depositing a kiss on her forehead before looking into the backseat, and Winnie saw then what was wrong with his eyes.
His pupils were horizontal.
She pulled away. Tried to make herself small, but her legs were too long, her belly still clinging to the last of its baby fat, and even if she closed her eyes, her father would still see be able to see her, would still be watching her with those terrible eyes.
“Sweet girl,” he said and reached out to brush a hand over her cheek. Winnie flinched. His skin was too smooth. Too soft and almost squishy. Like something that had been left underwater for a long time.
“We’re going to fix you. Both of you.” Her father slid behind the wheel. “He told me so. There’s just a bit further to go.”
“Who said? Go where?” her mother said, but her father was guiding the car back onto the road, those awful eyes darting glances in the rear-view mirror, that smile Winnie had never seen pasted on as if it was the only thing keeping his face from slipping off and falling into his lap.
Her father didn’t respond but hummed, a discordant, metallic note that made Winnie squeeze her eyes shut; whorewomblove, dropping from her tongue in an unintelligible whisper that was nothing more than a theater of protection. Pastor Chris could tell them over and over about being washed in the blood of the lamb, but there was no blood covering their skin. There was no salvation to be found in the damp heat of their car. Only her father’s horrible eyes, and the bitter taste of panic.
“What the hell, Trent?”
Her father took one hand off the wheel, brought it down over her mother’s mouth. “Holy is she who keeps her tongue still. Holy is she who would cut it out lest it sin,” he said, and her mother clawed at his hand, bright lines of blood appearing on the rough skin, but he pushed harder, until her head was pressed into the seat.
In the back, Winnie curled into herself, tried not to pay attention to the acrid damp spreading over her thighs, to her mother’s thrashing, or the humming still coming from her father’s mouth even as he spoke. They were going too fast; the road beneath them making a sound that was a like a scream, and Winnie opened her mouth to join in that terrible chorus, but nothing came out.
There were no more words to vomit up. No more secrets. And really, hadn’t she always known? She’d carried them with her for so long, had pretended they weren’t slipping her inside out. Whore. Womb. That day in the bathroom, her mother gasping as she asked Winnie to hold the secret of the baby she’d carried. The baby that had nothing of her father beating inside it. Somehow, even without her mother giving voice to her indiscretion, Winnie had known it.
Her father didn’t slow as he jerked the car off the road, and Winnie’s head snapped forward and then back, her teeth biting into the soft meat of her tongue, blood slicking her teeth.
Maybe it was Jesus he’d found in the woods. Maybe it was like Pastor Chris always said—that your sins had a way of finding you even when you tried to hide from them. Maybe their sins had followed them all the way here and infected her father and now they would face a wrath Winnie felt didn’t belong to her, but to her parents. That was another lesson Pastor Chris had taught them. How the sins of the father often visited the children. Her broken tongue had said so many things, but Winnie had managed to follow her mother’s commandments of silence. And now, she would pay in equal share.
In the front seat, her mother had gone still. Her hands lay limp in her lap, and her eyes were fixed on some faraway point. Still, her father held his hand over her mouth, that smile frozen in place as he guided the car forward.
“He can see it all, Winnie. Everything,” he said, and then the trees swallowed them.
It was not dark as Winnie had expected it to be. The trees seemed to part around them as they walked, their branches arching away as if they would not dare to touch what had intruded. She couldn’t remember when they’d gotten out of the car. It was as if they’d always been here, walking through this twilight place.
Had her father always walked on all fours? She scanned her memory, but there were only the reddish, clotted things she’d seen that day in the bathroom and words she no longer knew the meaning of. Womb. Whore. Before. Loved. Had she ever known the meaning?
Her father skittered along beside her, his breath coming out in a heaa-heaa whine. She should rest her hand against his head, whisper some sort of comfort to him, but he frightened her. His pointed teeth. His pointed tongue. His horizontal pupils.
Eventually, he would devour them both. Those teeth would rut against her belly, her throat, and she would try to scream, but there would be no sound left inside her. He would eat the soft bits and fill her back up with stones, so he could carry her about like the daughter he’d always wanted instead of the one with the broken tongue he’d gotten. Winnie glanced over at her father. He no longer had anything that resembled hands. No matter how he tried, he would not be able to remake her.
Her mother stumbled along, her stomach swollen, the shirt riding up to reveal a series of bruises the shape of a tiny fist.
Winnie thought of Pastor Chris, and his smile as he told them they were all God’s children. How he loved them. How he held them in the palm of his hand, their faith a cocoon that kept them safe from the sin of the world. Somehow, her family had fallen, but she’d begun to wonder if they’d been cast off. If God had seen wickedness seeded inside them and tossed them aside like so much waste. After all, their’s was a jealous god. A god who extended his mercy only to those who drowned in their own piousness.
Ahead, the trees opened, and there, standing in the center of the expanse, was their house. Her mother sobbed once, the sound choking off as quickly as it had come as she pitched forward, her arms outstretched, her hands reaching. Her father loped after, his arms and legs an obscene reminder of what he’d once been.
Winnie paused and took a single step backward. The house looming before her was their house, but it also wasn’t. It was wrong. The doors and windows stood askew, as if some unseen hand had offset them. It confused the eye, drew it toward a center that didn’t exist. Winnie swayed on her feet, suddenly nauseous as she took in this house that should not be. This house that had no light, that was a dark smear against swirling gray sky.
She took another step away, watched as those awful doors opened, her parents gobbled up by whatever creature called the house its rightful home.
When the screaming started, Winnie ran. The trees pushed against her, thin branches lancing her cheeks, the air scented with blood as she pressed on. This place was not for her. This was not a hell of her own making.
Her chest ached, her heart a burning, rabbiting slab of meat, but she ran and ran, until there were only trees and that gray, swirling sky, and still she ran. On and on until the trees thinned, the ground beneath her sucking at her shoes as if it could absorb her, take her into its maw and hold her there until it re-birthed her into something that wasn’t her. Wasn’t human.
She lurched onward, and then the trees blessedly opened, the highway stretching before her, and she could have sobbed, could have laughed, but there was no sound inside her. No breath. She sank to the earth, and it was only damp. There were no teeth waiting there to tear her open.
When a car finally slowed, its hazards flashing yellow, Winnie stood and walked on coltish legs to the open door.
“You need some help, sweetheart?” The voice was grandmotherly. Kind. The kind of voice that belonged to someone that smelled like baked sugar.
Winnie climbed into the back seat and laid down. The car smelled of cleaning solution and coffee.
“You shouldn’t be out here all alone, darling. It’s dangerous,” the woman said. “You got people with you?”
“No,” Winnie whispered. Her mother and father were gone, vanished into the house they’d built with their own rage and shame. But that house wasn’t Winnie’s. It didn’t have to be.
The hazards clicked off, and the woman flicked on her turn signal as she guided the car back onto the interstate.
“What’s your name?” the woman said, and Winnie stared up at the window and opened her mouth.
“Before,” she whispered. She’d had a name once, but she didn’t think it belonged to her anymore.
“That’s okay. You just rest. We’ll get you somewhere safe,” she said.
Winnie settled further into the seat, her gaze trained on the window as the car picked up speed. They passed the billboard with its floating, pink sac, and Winnie felt the words fall silent around her. Womb. Loved. Before. Somehow, she’d come out of the woods miles from where she’d been, but it didn’t matter. She was going away from that place.
She closed her eyes and drifted, but the sleep was fitful, marred with brief dreams of her father pressing claws to her stomach.
She opened her eyes, her gaze still locked on the window, and once more, the billboard appeared.
She sat up. Had they turned around? Or was it another one? The same billboard in a different location?
She drew in a breath and held it for as long as she could. She did this three more times before the billboard appeared again. It couldn’t be the same one. It couldn’t. An interstate was not a circle.
The front seat was an impossible tangle of shadows. She could no longer see the woman, but then again, she couldn’t remember seeing her face at all. She hadn’t bothered to look when she crawled inside.
“Where are we?” she said, her voice cracking. Only silence answered her.
They passed the billboard six more times before Winnie started screaming.
From the darkness in the front seat, came the low, awful sound of someone laughing.