The Middle of Nowhere
Rose’s mother said they lived in the woods and her father said they lived in town. Rose wasn’t sure who to believe. The two-bedroom clapboard house was the only place she’d ever lived and it just seemed like home to her. 

“We’ve got neighbors barely a half-mile away,” her father argued.

Her mother laughed—a wicked witch cackle she used when nothing was funny at all—and flung one of her long braids over her shoulder. “We are smack dab in the middle of nowhere.” She said that a lot. According to her, they lived in the capital of nowhere, which Rose understood was called Nowheresville.

Rose’s father quit arguing and went outside. The electric growl of the weed whacker started up almost immediately. He was working on clearing the brush for fire season, sweeping a wide circle thirty feet around the house in every direction. Rose imagined the circle where nothing was allowed to grow was nowhere and their house was right in the center. If a forest fire caught, the flames would sweep up to the edge and stop because they would have nowhere left to go. Rose and her parents would watch the blaze just like a giant fireplace and her father would have a beer.

Rose flopped on her stomach in the center of the balding living room rug and flipped through a picture book of fairy tales given to her by the grandmother she’d never met, her mother’s mother, a mythical figure from a faraway land Rose imagined was something like the enchanted kingdoms in the book. Los Angeles. The name sounded like the tinkling of small bells. Rose knew her mother had been to many other places, places far away from their mountain, down the tiny capillary road to the center of town and through great veins of highway to distant cities and towns, none of which had been good enough to stay in for long. She’d called a hundred places home and left them all behind until she found herself up here and Rose’s father caught her like a wild hare. She had to love it here, the furthest north she could go without leaving California, because if she couldn’t be happy somewhere in California, maybe she couldn’t be happy at all.

“I’m bored,” her mother said, and yanked on one of her long braids. “I’m tearing my hair out.”

Rose knew better than to say anything back.

“I’m telling you I’m going to lose it,” she said, and stood to pace coiling circles around the rug where Rose lay, the eye of the storm.

“Everything is so beautiful,” she said, but she sounded angry. She stopped pacing to look out the window again at the clearing around the house and the forest beyond that stretched all the way to forever. Her two long braids lay in straight lines down her back like the lines on the highway. Rose watched her mother’s long, lean back against the window. She was more beautiful than any of it, like a tropical bird waylaid en route to paradise.

“I’m going for a walk,” she said, and left the house.

She might go nowhere. She might only turn circles around the house along the edge of the clearing, but she might also pass through to somewhere, to the highway, and continue walking the two miles to the Lucky Lady Lounge at the edge of town, even though the road was long and dusty and there was no sidewalk for her high heels to click-clack against and send her hips into that irresistible sway.

Rose and her father sat still on the sofa and waited when her mother went on her long walks. They counted minutes until she returned. If they didn’t pay attention, Rose thought, she might never come back. The angles of her body were dangerous, the sway of her curving lines like a whirlpool in the ocean that drew sailors to their doom.

Her father called it a roller coaster, the ride through life with a woman who never seemed to want what she had, who was forever staring out the window closest to the road and wondering what lay beyond her gaze.

Rose had seen a roller coaster on TV once. It was loud, a grating clatter of machinery rattling with speed. The children aboard screamed.

* * *

The front door slammed and rattled the house frame. Rose’s mother was an earthquake. A cackle rang out and a low voice murmured. Rose lay in bed and imagined her parents were dancing in the living room, her mother in a ball gown and her father in a tuxedo, and all either one could talk about was how much they were in love. That was all the murmuring voices could say. I love you. I love you more.

But then there were three voices, two low and her mother’s trilling above them both. Rose opened her bedroom door and peeked through the crack of light, half hoping to see something from the pages of her storybooks—an ogre trying to kidnap her beautiful mother, an enchanted princess from a faraway kingdom suffering under an evil curse, and her father, a long lost prince draped in chain mail, who carried with him always a vial of sparkling purple liquid that lifted dark spells.

This time the ogre was a fat man, much bigger than Rose’s father, with a cap pulled down so low his eyes were in shadow. His arm slithered around her mother’s body and his hand rested on her hip to hold her swaying frame upright against whatever terrible curse he had over her.

When the stranger suddenly dropped his hand and walked out the door, Rose was afraid her mother would tip over and fall, but instead she shouted “I can’t breathe,” and went out the door too. It seemed to Rose that grownups were always running out of air. She watched her mother moving in and out of sight through the front window, a cigarette like a magic wand glowing through the darkness. She could see her father watching too.

* * *

Rose didn’t say anything when her mother groaned her way to the sofa and lay down facing the back cushion, or when her father turned away from them both to stare out the side window Rose was too short to look out herself, even though he stood right in front of the air conditioner so all the coldness blew into his shirt. Instead, she concentrated all her energy into her yellow crayon, brightening the sun in the corner of a landscape drawing until the paper beneath was invisible and the wax shined.

When her father, still turned away from them toward the sun streaming through the window, said, “Would you look at that?” Rose leapt into the broken silence.

“What? What is it?” Rose jumped up to try to see around her father’s middle and above the air conditioner. She ducked under her father’s arm and stuck her face against the grate so the strange chemical cold numbed her cheek. “Is it a bear?” she asked. “Or a mongoose?”

Rose’s father patted her head. “No,” he said.  “It’s a vine. It’s grown right through the window.”  He slid the vine between two fingers, like he sometimes did with her mother’s braids. The skinny tendril wove its way through the tiny crack between the window and the air conditioner, then spiraled around looking for something else to latch onto and climb.

“Whoa,” Rose said, and held her mouth open so her cheeks filled up with iced air. She closed one eye and peered through the crack to see where exactly the vine had come from, but all she could see was black. “It’s like Jack and the Beanstalk,” she whispered, though of course the vine was still tiny. Rose closed her eyes and waited for the vine to swell and spread, the stalk creaking and curling upward until it crashed through the ceiling and she could climb up, up and away.

The sofa creaked an announcement that Rose’s mother had gotten up. Her eyes were pink like she’d been crying, but she grabbed the slender vine away from Rose’s father and charmed it like a snake so the coiled end danced before his eyes. “I told you we live in the woods.” She smiled with one half of her mouth, like the other half of her body was still sad, but Rose’s father smiled back so Rose smiled too. She liked when everyone was happy at the same time.

“I’ll take care of it,” her father announced. “Cut it off from the outside. I need to clear this side of the property anyway.”

Her mother twirled the vine between her fingers. “Not yet,” she said. Her eyes gleamed so Rose knew she was imagining something wonderful, like a pet goose to lay them golden eggs or a magic harp to sing them all to sleep. “Let’s see how long it gets first.”

“Whatever you want, darling.” He hesitated for a second, then picked her up off the ground by her waist so her braids fell forward over his back. She squealed like she was being tickled.

* * *

Rose thought her mother’s hair was like vines, long and blonde like ladies on TV, but twirled together into braids, the way the vines on the outside of their house wound together on their way up the wall—until her father cut them down so they’d be safe.

Rose’s father sometimes teased her mother that the braids were like two long snakes. One was the devil, like in the bible or in cartoons where there’s a little red man on someone’s shoulder, and it was always talking in her ear because she was the prettiest woman on earth and he wanted her all to himself. But luckily she had another snake, a good snake, to keep her from running off with the devil. 

Rose wondered which of her mother’s braids was good and which was evil. Then she could make sure to sit on the good side and not get in trouble. Her mother wondered why they couldn’t get cable TV up here. Then they wouldn’t always have to listen to silly stories about snakes and braids and the devil, she said. Rose thought her mother knew which of her braids was bad and which was good, and just wasn’t telling. She was like that. Good at keeping secrets. 

* * *

Rose watched the vine every day for signs of change, and even though she could never see a difference between one moment and the next, the vine snaked its way up the glass until it reached the top of the window and started for the ceiling. The vine stretched into a long, coiling thread, but didn’t thicken the way Rose had imagined. It twisted and turned like it couldn’t figure out which way to go instead of shooting straight up into the sky like Jack’s beanstalk would have.

“I can’t believe it keeps growing,” Rose’s mother said. “It’s going away from the light now.”

Her father stared at her mother’s back for a long time. “It won’t keep going forever,” he said, “and you know I need to cut all that back anyway.”

“But, what if it did?” Her mother’s eyes were wide and sparkly, like when she came up with a new game to play or when she had a plan to get them all rich. When she spoke her voice sounded far away. “What if the whole house was taken over by vines? They’d swallow us up into the woods and we’d have a real forest house.”

Rose’s father shook the newspaper out and grumbled “Nature,” as though it was a complete sentence and explained everything.

“I think that would be divine,” Rose said.

Her mother laughed. “Divine. Yes, it would.” She tousled Rose’s not-so-long hair.

* * *

When no one was looking, Rose snuck into her parents’ bedroom and took the framed photograph from the top of their dresser. She tucked it under her shirt and ran outside to look at it behind the pile of brush her father had been stacking up in the nowhere space to burn. The picture was of her parents’ wedding day. Rose had spent hours contemplating the photo, the dress-up clothes she’d never seen them wear and the wide smiles pasted on their faces. Her mother’s hair was extra long then, and she wore it down, cascading over her left shoulder and reaching nearly to her waist. Rose was in the photo too, a rounding in her mother’s belly waiting to be born. That’s what her parents told her anyway, but it was hard to believe. She wished she could remember back then, before her mother’s hair changed into snakes and they put away their fancy clothes.

* * *

Over the following days the vine grew longer, leafed out, and reached the dark corner of the ceiling. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, it shrank back into itself and withered away. The leaves turned slowly yellow and fell one by one to the ground. The vine itself turned yellow next, just like Rose’s mother’s long hair, but it was sick, an unhealthy yellow. The vine withered from yellow to brown, the color of Rose’s own hair. It had grown too far from the window, Rose’s father said, looking for a better source of light when it had the sun all along. 

Rose’s mother watched the plant die slowly.

“See,” her father joked, “we must live in town after all. That little plant gave up getting in here when it saw such a pretty city lady inside.”

Rose’s mother didn’t turn around. “I’m not in the city anymore, am I?” She broke a twisted, dried bit off the end of the vine and twirled it in her fingers. She stuck the twig behind her ear like she sometimes did with flowers.

“They finally called a burn day,” he said. “That’s good. We can get rid of all that brush.” 

Rose’s mother wasn’t listening. She went into the kitchen and banged pots but didn’t cook anything.

* * *

When Rose took a bath that evening, she washed her hair and pulled the wet hank over her shoulder, but it barely reached her collarbone. She wanted long-long hair like her mother’s, long like the vine had been before her mother broke it off, long like she wished the vine had grown so they could live in the vine-covered forest house her mother imagined, but her mother said she didn’t comb it enough and it would turn into a rat’s nest. 

When she got out of the tub, she saw something strange on the ground, in the little crack between the tub and the wall, a small brown growth peeking out at her. She crouched down close and pulled back the shower curtain. It was a mushroom. Their house really was turning into a forest house, just like her mother wanted.

Rose dried off as quickly as she could and ran out into the living room with the towel slipping lopsided off of her head and her nightgown sticking to a wet spot she missed on her back.  “Mommy,” she called out. “Guess what?”

Her mother looked up from a magazine and smiled with all her pretty teeth. She flipped her blonde hair, now taken out of the braids, over her shoulder. “What is it, honey?”

She was beautiful, just slightly sad, and Rose was thrilled to make her happy again. “I found something.” She grinned and grabbed her mother by the hand, pulling her to the back of the house and the still steamy bathroom. Rose pointed. “It’s a toadstool.”  Rose had chosen the word carefully, a fairy-tale word that sounded like magic. She beamed up at her mother, but her mother said nothing. She wrinkled her nose. “Just like in the forest,” Rose explained. “Remember?”  Her mother still said nothing, but Rose could feel her going tense, backing away.  Rose leaned down and examined the mushroom, sprouting out of a black moldy spot in the corner where water seeped through the unsealed space between the tub and the wall and left dark spots on the wallpaper. She petted the soft mushroom cap with one finger. It felt like smooth leather, like a worn baseball glove.

Rose’s mother gripped her arm with talon-fingers and yanked her up to the sink. “You don’t know what kind of fungus that is,” she said, and thrust Rose’s hands under the faucet with the hot water on high. “It could be poisonous.” She hissed the last word just like a snake and Rose was afraid the bad braid had taken over, mingled its badness all through her hair now that it hung loose over her shoulders, covering her face. She scrubbed Rose’s hands with her father’s Lava soap, green and gritty and painful against her skin.

“But,” Rose said. Her throat closed up. Maybe the mushroom was poisonous. Maybe she felt like crying because the poison was already inside her, making her face hot and her throat sting. “It’s what you wanted. A forest house.”

Her mother dropped Rose’s red hands and turned off the faucet. She sighed and pushed her hands through her hair so Rose could see her face again. She looked like she might cry too, like the poison had gotten to her when they touched hands and she was burning up before Rose’s eyes. “I used to want a lot of things,” she said. “Sometimes I make a mistake.”

Rose didn’t understand but she kept quiet. Her mother rubbed her eyes and bent over the sink to splash water on her face. When she emerged, she was a like a new person, a person that didn’t make mistakes. “Your father will pull it out tomorrow,” she said. Rose just nodded. She didn’t want to argue with the wild-haired woman, the kinks in her hair revealing where her braids had been, the two snakes turned into a thousand. 

* * *

She followed her mother’s gaze through the window and saw her father standing over the burn pile, watching a tiny fire at the base smoke and grow upward, devouring the dry brush he’d been cutting back for weeks. A small fire to keep a big one from catching and running wild.

A spark leapt out from the fire into the low grass of nowhere, and Rose’s father ground it out with the toe of his boot. Her mother sighed and smoothed her hair, one hand over the other, like Jack climbing up his vine.

SHELBY GODDARD, having left her native California for New Orleans, now finds herself returning home in her fiction. Her many works in progress include a novel set in the mythical state of Jefferson—otherwise known as the mountains of northern California—of which this story is a small part. She spends her days working, writing, biking, sewing, writing some more, and crocheting fanciful hats for her Etsy shop Strung Out Fiber Arts.