Naomi Ulsted



It snows in Casper County. Last winter, our first since moving here from the city, the snow piled up at least a foot. I’d clear snow from my mom’s sedan, scraping ice off in big chunks that landed silently and disappeared into the white blanket of the parking lot. It gets cold enough for me to wear the fleece neck warmer my dad gave me, even though it’s a print of giant daisies and I hate daisies. Flakes fell from the sky now, landing like kisses in my hair and on my cheek. I reached my hand out to catch them. But these weren’t snowflakes. A bead of sweat dribbled down my side. Mom yelled at me from inside the apartment to put on my breathing mask. The ash falling from the sky is a twisted winter landscape. An aberration. Something that doesn’t fit. Like the story I’m going to tell you. Like me.

I breathed in deep, dangling the mask from my hand.

“You can’t wear that hoodie in court,” Mom said. “And put on your mask.” Mom wore her best slacks and a silk blouse.

“Sorry. I didn’t have the right outfit for going to jail.”

“Tessa, you’re not going to jail.”

“Juvenile detention. Whatever.”

“You’re not going there either,” she said, smoothing her already smooth slacks.

“You don’t know that.”

My mother named me Tessa after the tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time. She’d had some kind of epiphany when she read the book. Like when she saw that picture of the ant walking across the two ends of string brought together, the “wrinkle” in time, she realized there was a whole world of possibility out there that we couldn’t even fathom yet. So she named me after possibility. After amazing things she couldn’t know. So I was named after a wrinkle.

The ash was in grimy layers on my car, which we didn’t use, but instead I climbed into the passenger seat of Mom’s sedan. We were the only ones in the apartment complex parking lot and silence stretched around us. She poured a bottle of water on the windshield to wash away ash that flowed in dirty rivulets, a few shades darker than the grey of the air around us. I hadn’t driven my car in a week. Partly because I only left the apartment if I absolutely had to. Partly because I wasn’t working now, at least not getting paid, so I couldn’t afford gas. Partly because the word “bitch” was still scratched into the side of the car. It was less than motivating.

Mom started in on my hoodie as we wound our way to the other side of town. “You can’t look like a deviant.”

“I am a deviant.”

“Knock it off. At least pull the hood back. Did you put some makeup on today?”

I pushed my hood back and faced her so she could see I tried to splash on some liner. I’d have put on blush, but with my mask on, who could see anyway?

“Good enough,” she said. Mom’s makeup was perfect, as always. Even when she quit going to the salon and started coloring her hair herself, it still looked amazing. “Maybe take your hair out of that ponytail? Wear it down?”

I ignored her. Two people in breathing masks walked down the sidewalk toward a restaurant. Normally, restaurants would be packed with hikers and backpackers in August, vacationers from Portland out to play in the Oregon woods or hike mountain trails. Portland was only two hours away, so they’d come out for a day trip or a long weekend. They’d shop in boutique stores hawking designer clothing. They’d drink overpriced iced mochas. But not this summer when the forests were burning away to embers and you couldn’t go outside without a mask.

Mom drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, then adjusted her mask that was threatening to drop below her nose. Funny thing about masks. When you talk with someone you can only see their eyes, and even though the eyes are supposed to be the most expressive part of the face, it’s surprising how much the nose and mouth contribute to the team. Without them, it’s like you can’t be totally sure if the person you’re talking with is sympathetic, understanding, skeptical, angry, or lying. Which is probably why I didn’t catch on that I shouldn’t be dawdling in the grocery store talking to Brent, but should’ve been getting out to my car before someone scratched “bitch” into it. If I could have seen his nose and mouth, maybe I would have noticed a curve to his lips signifying his disgust with me, or a slight sniff indicating a lie. Maybe I would have known that if he was ever was attracted to me, that was done and now, just like everyone else, there was only resentment. Maybe shock. Maybe if I’d seen his whole face, I would have realized he was just stalling, giving someone else time to hurt me.

“Tessa, stop that,” Mom said. I realized I’d been scraping at my cuticles again and my thumb was bleeding. Mom put a hand over mine and I let it sit there for a second until I pulled it away and wiped my thumb on the side of my jeans.

“We’re going to get through this,” Mom said. “We’re going to get back on track.”

Acrid air stung my eyes. I didn’t say anything, but shifted away from her in my seat.

“You’re not the only sixteen-year-old in the world who’s had some problems.”

I sincerely doubted there were many sixteen-year-olds in the world who had burned down a whole forest.

The courthouse in Elmsville didn’t see much action. Just standard traffic tickets, overdue fines, or divorces where couples needed a judge to tell them how to be civil to one another now that they didn’t love each other anymore. It was much smaller than the court back in Portland where Mom and Dad got divorced just over a year ago. Where Dad sat on the other side of the room and tried to give me a jaunty wave, but I just turned and stared forward at the empty jury box. This court was for settling disputes about property lines, whose pig was on what side of the line when someone’s pit bull killed it. Not generally the type of ruling that generates a lot of interest, so the courthouse was usually sparsely attended, ordered and predictable. Until today when they came for me.

Mom sucked air in sharply as we turned into the parking lot to see a large group of people assembled in front of the courthouse, carrying signs made of wood and cardboard. One of them said, “Grown Up Sentences for Grown Up Crimes.” A woman wearing shorts and a T-shirt held a sign reading “Where’s the Accountability?” A group of five or six people in their mid-thirties wearing what I liked to refer to as “backwoods rich” attire, like North Face and L.L. Bean, clustered together and I’d bet they were from the city. They held up signs reading “Nature’s Playground is Burning Down” and “Arsonists Come in All Ages.” I was glad, for once, of the masks. I didn’t need to see the rest of their faces.

“Can I put my hood back on now?” I asked.

Mom turned off the car, but didn’t move, her grip on the wheel tightening. The door of a Mazda a couple spots from us opened and Tanesha Carlisle emerged. My lawyer was dressed for the courthouse kill, wearing spiked heels, slim skirt and a business jacket. Even her mask was no-nonsense, matching her navy blue jacket. She clicked over to us calmly, as if there weren’t a rioting group of thugs holding pitchforks behind her. Well, that wasn’t quite it, but it felt like it.

She peeked in Mom’s window. “You guys okay?” Her hair was styled in a tight bun, although a couple crinkly curls escaped, framing her face. “Hold on,” she said and came around the back of the car to my window. I rolled it down for her.

“This isn’t going to be easy,” she said.

“Piece of cake.” I stared at the dashboard, a prickling feeling behind my eyes.

“She thinks she’s going to juvenile detention,” Mom said, eyeing the crowd. “She’s not, right?”

“Ellen, I’m eighty-five percent sure we can talk the judge into releasing her to your custody. Honestly, those places are too crowded for people with first offenses. Trust me, Tessa?”

I picked at my cuticles. “Okay,” I mumbled.

“We’ve got to go in there now, but you’re going to get through this. Tessa, listen. We’re going to walk up those stairs together and I don’t want you to say anything to them, or even look at them. Just keep focused on one step after another. I’ve got you on this, okay?”

“Can I keep my hood on?”

She nodded and went back around to Mom’s window. Mom leaned over, squeezing my hand. “It’ll be okay.”

It wasn’t going to be okay. I wasn’t stupid enough to think that. But I got out of the car anyway.

The three of us strode toward the courthouse. The steps seemed a long way off. Across the street on one side, a neon “open” sign in a Subway Sandwiches restaurant blinked into grey air. There was a park on the other side of the courthouse with a splash pad for kids. It was empty and dry, even though it was a stifling hot day. Kids weren’t allowed outside in the ash. The crowd rustled as they realized who we were. Who they’d been waiting for. I kept my head down and my hood up, but I now saw there were police who maneuvered themselves in front of the crowd, in between them and us. Tanesha was in front, then me, then my mom. As always, the mask made me feel like I wasn’t getting enough air. I tried to focus on breathing. As I stepped up onto the first stair, I realized the crowd wasn’t shouting or chanting. They just stood silently. I peeked up from under my hood and saw faces with masks, their eyes glaring at me with such anger I missed a step, stumbling into Tanesha’s back. Mom grabbed my arm to steady me. She would have kept hold, but I shook her off.

I heard a woman’s voice. “As you can see there is a quite a crowd here at the Elmsville Courthouse where Tessa Hilyard and her mother are just arriving.” I kept my face down, watching my feet as they stepped up each stair, trying to follow Tanesha’s instruction to focus on one step at a time. With great effort, I could mostly shut out the world around me. I was just walking up the stairs. No big deal. Not leading to a courthouse, but maybe the stairs to my old elementary school doors. Those stairs were scuffed and you had to avoid stepping in gum. Or the stairs covered in rubber matting that led up to the locker room in the community center in our old Portland neighborhood. Like I was just going to the gym to workout.

“You took my home.” A voice startled me back to reality. The woman might have been in her late sixties. Above the mask, lines stretched from around her eyes. “Why would you do that?” My feet stopped in front of her. “Why?” she asked again.

            I heard words come from a voice that wasn’t my own, a voice small and insignificant. Or maybe it was my own voice. The real one. “I didn’t,” I started, but Tanesha turned quickly, grasping my elbow.

            “Almost there,” she whispered.

            As if my voice had triggered something, the crowd began murmuring and then a chant rose. “Justice. Justice. Justice.” Mom pressed in closer to me and my feet kept moving and I kept my head down.

            Finally at the top, Tanesha pushed open double doors and as they swung behind us, the sound of chanting quieted like we’d turned off a faucet. The courthouse was silent. A policeman stood to the side and a long hallway lay in front of us. I pulled back my hoodie.

This is the kind of story I’m going to tell you. The kind where a girl who used to have her whole future planned out was about to be charged and the potential list of charges blurred together in my mind. Arson. Reckless endangerment. Reckless burning of public land. Second degree mischief. So many different charges for one thrown firecracker. It could be any of them or all of them. In some ways, it didn’t matter. It was the end of what used to be my life. This is not the kind of story where there’s a tesseract showing us infinite possibilities. This is the kind where a girl who’s supposed to be a tesseract turns out to be only a stupid wrinkle.

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