Second Nature by Patricia Perry Donovan

nickel heads-up on black background

Come sunset, the Sandia Mountains wore the city’s lights like an amber necklace. The Albuquerque twilight could seduce, but I resisted its lure that evening—more successfully than I have avoided other temptations. Miguel tapped the pickup’s horn; he and Rosa had promised a lift, but were due back by daybreak, when the cannery reopened. Show up late, and you might as well not show up at all. There were always hungry bodies in plastic chairs outside the hiring office.

I tossed both duffels (how light we traveled now) into the pickup’s bed, dogged by the sheriff’s warning: “An order of protection isn’t a bullet-proof vest.”

Back inside the shelter, a dusty two-story building with permanently drawn shades like closed eyes, Della slept, her head a tangle of straw waves on the pillow, pointer plumbing her peony mouth. Most children sucked their thumb. Not mine. At the first divination of stress—I swear that child could sense when her father was due home—up went her index finger, like a sailor gauging the wind’s course. After the first few times, I stopped trying to correct it. Offering my daughter her thumb was like trying to turn a southpaw. It was second nature for Della, soothing herself that way.

Alice watched from the next bunk, hugging her knees as I lifted Della from her cot. “But-ter,” Della declared in her secret sleep language before her head dropped onto my shoulder. I draped her sweater around her as best I could, then yanked the thin, scratchy cover from the cot and tucked it around Della. (Alice would keep this secret, as I kept hers.) Miguel warned me the overnight route to Angel Fire would be chilly, temperatures ricocheting at the Rio Grande’s whim, the two of us exposed like cherry flowers in a spring frost: petals unmarked at dawn, darkening and dropping later as their fragile tissues thawed.

“Good luck,” Alice whispered. I wanted to take Alice with me, to put a thousand miles between her and the rage that bruised her neck an angry violet. But Alice had her own troubles—too many to fit in the pickup.

Outside, Miguel had lowered the tailgate. I hopped up, a cocooned Della on my lap, and slid us both along the icy floor, wedging us against the wheel bed. Della stirred, midnight coolness lapping at her cheeks, the tailgate’s slam jarring her to alertness.  Blinking, she looked around—at the unmarked shelter; at the twin silhouettes through the cab window; at the duffels at our feet: one large, one small.

“Mommy, I don’t like this.” Whimpering, she buried her face in my neck.

I turned and clasped Della’s sleep-crumpled face in my hands. “I know, honey. We’ll be okay. Mommy promises.”

The pickup rumbled beneath us. “Where are we going?” Della asked.

“As far as Angel Fire tonight.” Santa Fe was too close. He’d sniff us out, like a dog sensing fear, the way he had all those other times.

“Then where?”

I inhaled. Beyond a scribbled shelter address, I had no plan.

Della wriggled, determined to free her arm from the swaddling. Desperate to distract her, I pulled a nickel from my pocket, wiping its grimy face with my thumb.  “Tell you what: let’s toss for it. Heads, Arizona. Tails, Texas. Which one do you call?”

It may have been reckless to give a four-year-old a voice in our destiny, but the ploy paid off: Della sat up, incandescent. She knew this game: past tosses awarded her chocolate over vanilla; Banana Splits over Schoolhouse Rock; Really Rosie over H.M.S. Donovan—contests she could not lose.

Did Della sense the stakes that night—that we were playing the game for life? At four, states were little more than plastic puzzle pieces from the shelter’s toy chest: Texas’s arm supporting us to our right, broad and red; Arizona stoic and evergreen to our left; our New Mexico cautionary chrome in between.

Still, Della accorded the decision its due, scrunching her eyes while she pondered. “Heads,” she yelped finally, clapping her hands in anticipation.

“Okay. Here goes.” Nickel in my outstretched palm, I prayed for guidance, from Perseus and Pegasus and other forsaken gods, before hurling the coin starward. Just then, the pickup lurched, and I failed to catch it. The coin clinked on the flatbed floor and rolled away.

Della’s pointer jutted from beneath the blanket like an antenna. “Where’d it go, mommy?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll find it.” On my knees, I palmed the metal ridges until I located the coin, making a show of placing it in its current orientation in my hand and extending it to Della, showing my daughter the path the fates chose for us, even as the Sandias retreated, softening and slumbering under a cloud canopy.

Patricia_DonovanPatricia Perry Donovan is a journalist who writes about healthcare. Her debut novel, Deliver Her, will be published by Lake Union Publishing in spring 2015. Her fiction has appeared at Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, Gravel Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine and other literary sites. She Tweets as @PatPDonovan; learn more at patriciaperrydonovan.com.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Ron W
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