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Fiction Issue 5

[ALEX LUCELI JIMÈNEZ]

The Peeling

Too hot. Her father hasn’t called someone who can fix the air conditioning in his trailer yet. Their city got to 116 degrees yesterday afternoon, ten degrees away from the county’s record-breaking high from eight years ago. According to the purple suit-wearing lady on the news her father watches. The lady who looked like wherever she was, she wasn’t feeling the 116 degrees her glossy lips were talking about.

Or at least not the way she can feel the 116 degrees sitting on a faded black leather couch which the backs of her chafing thighs are stuck to like the butterfly stickers on the bed frame she has in her mother’s apartment. Stickers she put there when she was too young to think and now they won’t come off no matter how hard she pries. Real life butterflies give her goosebumps. She doesn’t like having those black legs above her while she sleeps.

Right now, her mouth is the worst part—makes her think of the desert she watches fly by on the freeway. This dryness is more pressing on her mind than the flicker of movement darting by the kitchen window again, the window that sits over the sink. She’s lost track of how many times she’s seen it through the corner of her left eye. She wishes the window had blinds she could close.

She’s also lost track of how long her father’s been gone to get water, which they’ve been out of since two days ago when her mother dropped her off. Sink water isn’t good here, not clean, says her father. So she made the warm water bottle she had in her backpack last about six hours.

He’s been gone five minutes. Or ten. Or more or less. Her head is too heavy on her shoulders for her to care. 

She thinks she can hear someone calling her name outside except that no one ever calls her the full thing: Soledad. So it can’t be. Sol is what everyone calls her. Even those girls who go to her school and live in the neighborhood next to the trailer park call her Sol. They called her Sol when they chased her last year on her thirteenth birthday because they wanted her to admit she’d stolen one of their pink mechanical pencils. Which she did, but she’s never going to admit it. Not when she can’t even show it off at school. When their hands connected with her back, it was her knees that took the brunt of the fall. That was the same day her father said he got a used pull-out couch so she wouldn’t have to share a bed with him anymore when she came over. Her name, Sol, was a taunt and a sigh that day and today it isn’t here at all. 

Sun is, though. All 116 degrees of it.

Last night she watched her father turn over all the couch cushions. He said he was cleaning. Nothing was cleaner when he put them back. She thinks he was looking for loose change, even though he looked when she was here last month and there was nothing then. There was nothing last night. He taught her to keep track of every penny she has. Maybe she slipped or he slipped because this morning he found some quarters. Didn’t tell her where he found them. Just put them in his pocket and loaded up the truck with two empty five gallon bottles and headed over to that refill place next to the Mexican market they go to. Water Garcia charges 75 cents for a refill of one type of water and a buck-fifty for another. He always gets the first type. She doesn’t get why there’s more than one type of water. 

Water. She’ll drink two glasses of water when he gets back. Maybe even three. Someone whispers Soledad again. That or it’s the dry wind picking up the dry dirt. Her dry mouth. She’ll drink three glasses of water when her father comes back. Maybe even four. She’s so tired. If she lies down, she thinks, she’ll fall asleep but she wants to be awake when the water gets here.

The neckline of her father’s old hole-filled XXL college t-shirt that she’s wearing is sopping wet like the bottoms of her sweaty feet, which stick to the floors that look and feel like plastic. Floors that were white once, she thinks, before she came around. The dry granola she ate for breakfast keeps reminding her it’s still in her stomach. The television is nearly muted but the bright colors of some old The Big Bang Theory episode her father left on are becoming streams, assaulting flashes blending together with whatever keeps flickering between the light coming in through the window. She can hear her own heartbeat. That or it’s someone else’s heartbeat. Her heartbeat shouldn’t be this loud. She can imagine someone else’s heart beating this loudly but not her own.

Soledad, says someone or the dry wind. She rises, watching sweat fog dissipate on the floor with each step she takes. Before her mother dropped her off, she had a glass of orange juice with a piece of Bimbo frosted toast for breakfast. There’s an orange on the kitchen counter and little else that’s edible. It shines when she squints at it and is deceptively soft to the first touch—it takes a special effort to get through the peel with the first stab of her overgrown thumbnail, which her mother keeps saying she’ll cut. She doesn’t know why her mother doesn’t teach her to do it herself. She’s never held a nail clipper in her life.

Sun catches the orange when she presses her ribs against the edge of the sink that catches pieces of peel. She’s not good at peeling so she carves out tiny bit by tiny bit. Halfway through, she glances up and out the window, gaze flitting down before her chest clenches and she looks again. 

Two wide dark eyes are staring at her through the blinds of a window in the trailer across from her father’s. 

Except that there’s never been a trailer across from her father’s. Especially not such a shiny and new trailer. There are never such gleaming trailers in this trailer park. Just normal and then beat-up trailers, the worst of them worse than her father’s trailer with its rusty scratches curving up and down one side of it. The half-free orange falls from her grasp. The gap in the blinds slams shut. She stares. Five minutes pass. Or ten. Or more or less. She would’ve noticed if there was a trailer there when she arrived. Or maybe she wouldn’t have. When her mother pulled up in front of her father’s trailer in the white sedan her family’s had since she can remember, she ran straight inside and started catching him up on the past month. Because she leaves bits out of their thrice-a-week phone calls so she can tell him all of it again in person and still entertain him. 

Too sour—the smell of the orange. Her head is spinning with the acidity in the air when the blinds fold up and fling open all the way. There’s a girl standing there, looking like her stomach is pressing against something, too. Wide eyes and what comes with them: features that alternate uncertainly between harsh and soft even though she’s always had perfect vision and she should be able to tell which one it is. Also unnaturally bright white sleeves, and hair that looks like it’s been combed. Not like the unruly zigzag craft scissor cut hair that earned a murmured Oh, Sol last Christmas Eve before her mother burst into tears and didn’t stop till maybe 2 a.m. They had a loud fight and she’d thought it would be a good way to get back at her mother, because when she was littler her mother seemed to have a lot of fun tying her curls back in tight braids. She wasn’t scolded at all, though, and when winter break was over, practically everyone made fun of the uneven frizz her mother wouldn’t pay for anyone to fix.

The girl in the window holds up an orange and starts peeling. Properly—the way it’s meant to be peeled. A challenge, or something else, but really a challenge in the end. So she digs her spear of a thumbnail back into the messy thing in the sink. Reclaims it. Keeps going tiny bit by tiny bit. Finishes peeling and starts to divide the slices but she’s no good at it and it’s orange mush in her hands, miniature rivers of juice running down her palms and wrists and joining bits of peel under her nails. Her tongue is running all over the juice on her arms before her eyes flicker up and she remembers that there’s someone watching—someone who now has a perfect little slice in one hand, the rest of the imperfect orb surrounded by a hand of manicured fingers. 

She’s punched by that cold feeling that punches her when she thinks she’s been caught cheating on an algebra test or when her friends that are supposed to be her friends leave her out of the conversation or when she’s taken her whining too far and now her father is going to take away TV privileges for the night. When she starts shoving the dripping orange mush into her mouth, she’s thinking about that Friday with her father last month when she lost TV privileges after telling him she’d rather kill herself than mop the floors, so she spent all night sitting outside on the concrete, staring up at a starless inland desert sky until it got dark enough that she started getting scared and retreated inside, where her father’s snoring scared her as she entered. Even though she’s used to his snoring. Even though it’s white noise, like the construction they’re doing by her mother’s apartment, or like the way her parents used to fight until one day they stopped and then her father was telling her that he was moving into the trailer park by her school. That night without TV privileges, the white noise of her father’s snoring scared her so badly she jumped. 

Which she does again, juice all over the tip of her nose and chin after she’s chewed through every bit of the range, when she looks up in search of the girl in the window and sees there’s no one there anymore. She grips the sink so hard her knuckles turn white like the floors used to be, then lets go and stumbles back like she’s been pushed. Though it’s just two or three steps it feels like she’s taken fifty. Her chest has never moved forward and back this fast before. Fast like the way she runs to the trailer door and throws it open, tongue covering every inch of her face it can reach. Sweat and orange. She doesn’t want to waste a drop of the salty-sweet juice and she doesn’t want to let that girl and her perfect little orange slice get away like that. 

Out here the sun is so bright that everything is tinged with a ring of searing white. It’s not till she’s gotten halfway across the strip of concrete separating two rows of trailers that she realizes she’s still barefoot. Her feet are on fire and she thinks it should hurt more than it does so she ignores it. Keeps limping. She stops at the white steps leading up to the white door and she’s reaching out with a hand that feels disconnected from her body when she hears her name again. Over and over: Soledad, Soledad, Soledad. She twists her neck to the side and there’s the girl standing at the end of the trailer row, nearly all the way by the white brick wall that surrounds the park, an anger on that harsh-soft face that shouldn’t be so easily seen from all the way over here. She opens her mouth and tries to speak. What comes out is the click-click-click of a dry mouth. Sharply, the girl turns around on the heel of a white sneaker, knee-length white dress, or what is something like a dress, swaying in the dry wind as it heads toward the wall. 

She runs after the girl or thinks she’s running. It feels like she’s going nowhere and like she’s never run faster in her life. Don’t go, she shouts at the girl, don’t go come back who are you and why. The girl gets smaller and smaller. It must be louder than she’s ever screamed, she thinks, because she doesn’t hear the car engine until it’s right behind her. Until she’s crashing into the brick wall and there’s no girl there with her.

The engine shuts down and when her father’s hand comes down on her shoulder and he says Sol, Sol what are you doing, she’s scratching at the brick that’s as dry as her hands are and as dry as her mouth is. 

Where did you go, I don’t understand, why did you go, Sol shouts at a girl she can’t see anymore. Her father is asking her something, talking to her and trying to get her to turn around. The nail on her left hand’s index finger bends. It hurts. She turns around and in her father’s shadow, a moment’s reprieve from the assailant sun, she closes her eyes and lets herself fall.

Too hot.

[about]

Alex Luceli Jiménez is a queer Mexican writer based in Monterey County, California. Her fiction has appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, Barren Magazine, Southwest Review, Moonflowers & Nightshade: An Anthology of Sapphic Horror, and others. She is currently revising a queer young adult horror novel as part of the WriteHive Mentorship Program. Visit her online at alexlucelijimenez.com and send her book recommendations on Twitter and Instagram @alexluceli. 

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