By Courtney Kezlarian
Imogen Larson dreamed of snow. She would dream all day of fluffed crystals the size of teardrops falling from the sky to land on her nose, to coat her eyelashes until she could barely lift them to see. She would wear white mittens and a knitted cap with one of those puffy pom-poms at the top. She would spend an entire afternoon building a snowman with coal eyes and a long carrot nose that, after a few days, would have icicles hanging from it, glistening in the sun. But most of all, Imogen dreamed of snow angels. She would fall backward, arms spread like wings, and the snow would catch her in a pile of whiteness. The snow would never touch her, but she’d know it was there, cooling her flushed cheeks. Then she would flap, she’d swing her arms up and down, her legs from side to side, faster and faster as she tried to reach the bluest of skies. And she would be fly.
But snow didn’t fall in Varson, Mississippi. Snow didn’t fall in hell. “Imogen!” yelled Louis from the television room. Imogen looked up from her book, The Snowiest Cities in America, and huffed. She closed her book and tucked it under her pillow. She always hid her library books in case Louis ever decided to use them as a beer coaster. She dragged her feet to the television room where Louis was seated on the couch, his bare feet propped on the coffee table and his belly protruding from under his tank top. Louis always snapped at Imogen when she called it that. ‘It’s a wife beater you little bitch!’ What a horrible thing to call something. She also never understood how that belly worked. Every other part of Louis was scrawny and weak looking, like his muscles had been filled with air and someone deflated them. But that stomach stuck out like a bowling ball, hard and round. Imogen went to the side of the couch farthest from Louis, “What?”Louis turned his head and grimaced, “Don’t give me that attitude. Go get me a beer.” “Fine.” She heard Louis mutter something about having to smack some sense into that little bitch. Imogen was only twelve but she had been called a little bitch every day for three years, since Louis started dating her mother, Patty.
At first Patty scolded him for calling Imogen that, but one night, about four months after the two had been together, she spoke to him about it when he was drunk.
“Do not call her that, she’s just a little girl,” Patty had whispered harshly. Imogen’s mother was a stringy woman, no weight to her and just tall enough to reach the bottom shelves of the kitchen cupboards. She had said it so many times before, but this time she got snippy, which for anyone else was just certain of herself.
Louis stood in a rush and stomped up to Patty, lumbering past Imogen, “I can call her whatever I like. If women knew what they were earlier on they wouldn’t be such a pain in the ass. Is that what you want? For her to be a pain in some man’s ass just like her bitch mother?”
“Louis you’re scaring her. Lower – ”
“Shut up!” he roared, knocking a chair over with the hand that didn’t have a beer in it. “You don’t tell me what to do, you hear me? I provide for this family, you will treat me with respect!”
Patty shook and looked down, “Yes, Louis. I’m sorry. You’re right.”
And from then on Imogen was a little bitch or a little whore or a little cunt. She learned to savor the times teachers at school called on her with her given name, half expecting each time for Mrs. Grayson to go “Yes, little whore, what is the answer?”
On that hot day trapped in the house, Imogen came back to the couch and handed Louis a Budweiser, “Here you go.”
He snatched the can from her and waved his hand, “Alright, scram, I’m watching the game.”
Imogen turned and hurried back to her room. She flounced on to her white bed and took out her book. The Snowiest Cities in America was an entire reference book of the places with the most snowfall in the United States, with full color pictures of blizzard enveloped streets and mountainous forests. Imogen loved the way pine trees looked like towers of little green needles, and how they poked through snow in tiny dots, like emerald freckles across porcelain skin. Her favorite place was Boulder, Colorado. It was a city nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where they could have snow as early as August. There were busy parts and quiet parts, with lots of trees and animals.
Imogen ran her fingers gently across a glossy picture of a moose amongst snow covered birch trees, chewing bark and basking in the sun that broke through the leaves above it. She closed her eyes and imagined sitting on a branch, swinging her legs back and forth while surrounded by light, she’d look down at the moose and he would look up at her. She’d remove a mitten and break off a shoot from the side of the tree’s trunk and hand it down into its mouth. Its fat lips would flap against her bare palms and she’d giggle, swaying with the laughter.
And as if shoved by the hands of reality, Imogen fell from the tree, landing with a crackled thud back in Varson, back into 90-degree heat where the coldest thing she had was the condensation on the outside of beer cans. She replaced the book under her pillow and scurried out to Louis again.
Louis’ head rotated slowly, his eyes bloodshot. He bore his clenched, yellow teeth and chucked his newly empty beer can at the four already on the table. The colliding metal seemed to explode into a clanking rumble as Louis launched from his spot and grabbed Imogen by her upper arm. Even if Louis looked anemic immobilized in front of a television, when he was drunk he was as strong as an ox and could throw Imogen halfway across the room.
“What did I say about the attitude?!”
“I-I’m sorry, I just, you called!” Imogen pleaded. She always did that. She begged and cried, even though she didn’t mean it, out of hope that it would stop him. But it never did.
“You little whore I should take you out and put a belt on your back!” His eyes bulged and his grip tightened. Imogen was losing feeling in her fingers.
“Please, I’m sorry, please, ah – ” she yelped as Louis jerked his arm and sent her toppling to the floor.
“You will get your bitch ass into that kitchen, get me a beer and say sir when you talk to me. I am your elder, you are my bitch and you will respect me.” He pointed toward the kitchen and Imogen scrambled to the refrigerator. Her hands were trembling and she knocked over the ketchup and mustard bottles as she wrapped her hand around another Budweiser.
She heard him snarl “Hurry up!” and she nearly tripped running to hand him the beer. “Here.” He raised a hand high, ready to release and she quickly added, “Sir! Here, sir!”
His hand lowered. He scowled and turned back to the game, slumping back into his spot on the couch. Imogen took the moment and ran back to her room. She shut the door behind her quietly and lifted up the sleeve of her dress. A large bruise in the shape of a hand began to bloom a pinkish red, a morbid field of roses on Imogen’s pale skin. The whole area felt sore, but her fingers only felt tingly.
It wasn’t the worst of her injuries. Once, when she was ten, Louis twisted her wrist so hard a bone broke and she had to be taken to the hospital. Imogen’s mother had to be called from her shift at the grocery, she mopped floors at night.
“Ginny, w-what happened? Are you alright?” Patty reminded Imogen of a lost doe, her eyes were always large and watery and her lips small, pursed with worry. She never was good at stress and could only work jobs that involved little human interaction. That didn’t earn much money, the janitor job, so Louis provided most of the money for food and rent. It eased some of her stress even if it added a little as well.
That’s why Imogen told her mother she had caught her hand in between her bookshelf and the wall.
That time wasn’t nearly as bad as the first time. Louis had been around for a almost a year. Imogen had come home late from school from working in the library and Louis was already five beers in.
“Where the hell have you been?” he had belched the words, some of the syllables disappearing in his alcohol haze.
“I was at school.” Imogen was heading to her room.
“Well I’ve been here all afternoon, waiting for the fucking cable guy.”
“So?” Imogen regretted that ‘so’ for the rest of her life. It’s not as if it would have prevented what happened next from happening, but Imogen liked to think it was some random occurrence, that if she had done one thing differently nothing would have happened.
Since Imogen had been eight, she didn’t remember all he shouted in his rage, but she did remember his eyes turning red, glowing with an evil so terrifying she wondered how she hadn’t died from the fright alone. Her whole body quaked as Louis came at her with all his drunken force, grabbed her shirt and flung her across the room, causing her to hit the coffee table. Tears began before she even hit the wood surface, and everything was spinning in her mind. When you’re eight you don’t really understand what can kill you and what can’t, how a bang on a coffee table can give you a concussion at worst. But Imogen felt like she was about to die, like she would never see her mother again or know the snow. She thought the last thing she would ever see would be the evil fluorescent eyes of her devil boring into her.
That night was the first time Imogen ever wet the bed. Her mother spanked her for it.
Imogen knew that if her mother knew, she would leave Louis. She would sweep Imogen away in the night and they’d run together. But before Louis, Patty was actually worse. She was thinner and so was Imogen, they hardly ate anything besides peanut butter sandwiches and orange juice from the concentrate metal cylinders in the frozen food department. Now they had chicken and green beans and Tropicana orange juice, from the refrigerator section. Patty gained weight and she didn’t have to work as much. The anxiety from Louis wasn’t good, but it was better than what it used to be. And the hitting didn’t happen that much, not enough to make Imogen talk.
Back in her room, the twelve year old rolled down the sleeve of her dress and climbed up on the edge of her bed. She had white sheets, white pillows and a downy white comforter. She came back here whenever Louis got that angry. She stood at its edge, her back facing the bed and spread her arms out just a little. She let herself tumble backwards, her body landing amongst the white blankets, almost cool enough to be cold, and she pumped her arms and legs, trying to make a snow angel in fire.
After school the next day, Imogen came home to her mother making grilled cheese. Louis was still at work and would be until late.
Patty smiled, “Hi my little tomata.” Imogen knew she was named after a movie called Fried Green Tomatoes and that Patty’s favorite character had been the one named Imogene. So she always got called a tomato, by far the strangest nickname Imogen had ever heard.
“Hi Mama,” Imogen hopped on the counter and picked up a cheese slice, ripping a piece off and popping it in her mouth. “How was your shift last night?”
“Oh, you know, quiet,” her sinuous hands pushing the sandwich around the frying pan, “Just the way I like things. How was school?”
“Oh, you know, quiet,” Imogen beamed, “Just the way I like things.” Patty laughed. It was a hiccupped, breathy reaction that always made Imogen laugh as well. Patty kissed her daughter and flipped the golden grilled cheese on to a plate and handed it to Imogen.
“I thought that was for you?”
Patty put her fingers to Imogen’s cheek, “All I do is for you, tomata.”
The little girl blushed and reached for a napkin across the table. As she stretched her arm, her shirtsleeve hiked up and revealed the bottom of her bruise. Patty touched the purplish swelling,
“Where’s that from?”
“Nowhere,” Imogen quickly yanked the edge of the linen down, “Just bumped into a door at lunch.”
“Well, alright,” Patty bit her lip and went back to the pan, now burning the crispy flakes that had fallen from the bread’s crust. “Just make sure you’re careful.”
Imogen stared down at the grilled cheese and suddenly didn’t feel hungry anymore.
There are few pieces of time children remember with clarity. Every sound, every smell, every breath. The evolution of life often erodes upon so many moments, softening the details in a mist of reveries. But that night, the night of the day with the grilled cheese sandwich, was the clearest memory Imogen had. She had almost fallen asleep in her snow-covered bed, the waves of slumber washing away the horrors of reality, when the tide receded and a voice came crashing into her head like lightning.
“PATTY!” The whole house shook with his drunken rage as Imogen scuttled out of bed and went to the door, cracking it open just enough to see down the hall. Her mother was standing in her nightgown, the thin pink one with applique roses embroidered on it, at the end of the hallway. Her shoulders were hunched and her arms were wrapped around her body, like she was cold as she faced the kitchen.
“Louis, what’s wrong?” Her voice barely reached Imogen’s ears.
“You used the last of the bread, and now I don’t have nothin’ to eat. What am I supposed to eat, Patty?” Imogen felt a knot twisting in her gut.
“Oh, I’ll just make you some chicken, or I could heat up some casser – ”
“AH!” The shout accompanied the clattering of pots against the linoleum. “I wanted to come home to a sandwich. A fucking sandwich. Can’t a man have a basic, fucking, sandwich? No, because the bitch he provides for just can’t get that through her puny head.”
“I’m sorry. I, I’ll, how about I go buy some bread now? The corner store’s open till 9:30.”
“You are the biggest damn moron on the planet Patty. That ain’t the point. My point is that you are a selfish bitch that needs to start thinking about me instead of yourself!” Then a skillet flew into Imogen’s view and hit her mother on the shoulder. She crumbled immediately, her frail frame could barely take a slap. She keeled over and heaved breaths.
Imogen ran from her room to her mother, kneeling to help her stay up. She smelled like the sweat that dripped from her neck and beaded on her upper lip. When Imogen’s hand cradled her elbow, she flinched. Then looked up. Imogen had never seen fright so purely evoked in a stare before she saw her mother’s screeching blue eyes. “Imogen, tomata, go back. Back, please, go back to your room,” the woman pleaded, trying to shove her daughter off.
“Well if it isn’t the bitch’s bitch?”
Imogen turned to Louis, who’s stiff, beer stench could be smelt from where she was stooping. He had his navy blue canvas work suit on, the sleeves rolled up and the collar disheveled. Imogen had always felt scared when confronted with Louis, always trying to subvert the potentially deadly result of these encounters. But seeing her mother crippled on the floor, snot oozing from her nose and her whole face wet with tears, Imogen felt something different.
“I had a sandwich today.” The words were clear, ringing and directed at Louis as Imogen stood from her crouch. “I made a grilled cheese with your bread.”
She felt the limp grasp of her mother’s hand, “Stop it, be quiet.” But Imogen’s voice was louder.
“I ate your bread and I’m sorry. Please, can’t we just go to bed?”
And with that, Louis walked over to Imogen and struck her 8 times. Imogen counted every one as they happened. First he slapped her across the face, then again with the back of his hand. He closed his hand into a fist and knocked her right eye. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her head to collide with the wall. Still clutching her hair, he thrust her toward the ground. The remainder of the blows was carried out with his boot-enclosed foot against her gut. While Imogen’s face lay on the gritty wood floor, bloody spittle escaping her lips with every kick, she watched her mother curled in the corner, fresh tears pouring from her eyes and her whole body trembling. And she remained that way as she watched in silence.
Later that night, after Louis had calmed down and fallen asleep, Patty dressed Imogen’s wounds. The two sat on the edge of the bathtub while Patty wrapped the bandages. Imogen was quiet, waiting for the words, for her mother to whisper plans of escape into her ear. For hushed commands to pack and urgent phone calls made to the police.
After Imogen was stitched up, her mother finally spoke. “Just be quiet next time, Imogen. Just stay quiet, you know, like we like.”
The next day, Imogen missed the school bus. She missed it the next day too. She stayed in bed for a week. Her mother came in with water and soup, but Imogen wouldn’t eat it. She flinched when her mother tried to caress her. All she did was look in her books of snow, but it didn’t help. She couldn’t make bed snow angels or else her stitching would have fallen out. She stayed in that room the whole time, eating her candy stash and drinking from a few water bottles she had in her backpack, leaving only for the bathroom when no one was home.
Then, on the eighth morning, Imogen was gone. When her mother went in to check on her, her bookshelf was cleared off, her closet was half empty and her suitcase was missing. Later, Patty would find that she was missing a few pieces of jewelry from her box, things that Louis had given her in the sweet beginnings of their relationship. And she would find a note under Imogen’s pillow:
I’ve gone to find the snow.
Originally published 05/12/15