Suffocation
by Kihin Ranno
PG-13
1/1

It feels like hours go by before Scott finally pulls up to her house. Not a word has passed between them since the parking lot, and while Sarah can tell that the heavy quiet is making him fidget, she wraps herself in it. The silence is like a comforting blanket that she's pulled over her head to block out the rest of the universe. She takes further solace in the metaphor because it's the way she's always slept – comforter pulled over her head, sheets wrapping her in an impenetrable cocoon. It makes her feel a little bit safer and a little bit calmer when her world is so often very un-safe and always chaotic.

Suddenly, she remembers Nicki once told her you could suffocate under the blankets if you slept like that. And with the thought of Nicki comes the thought of the compound, and then all Sarah can think about is Alby touching her hair and leering at her like he's going to do a lot more than just touch her hair. She can't stop the shudder that rises from her toes and travels up through the rest of her body, stopping only when it collides with Scott's hand on her shoulder.

"I'm sorry," he whispers hoarsely.

She pushes her lips together, closing her eyes. She's glad he's apologizing. With Alby leaning in the window, she'd wanted to do nothing but shout at Scott to hit the gas. Alby's always terrified her, ever since she was a kid. She's able to hide her disapproval of her family's lifestyle, her sadness over being alone, and her guilt about lying all the time from her parents (all four of them), but she's never, ever been able to hide her fear of Alby. There's just something wrong with him: too much inbreeding or too much Roman, she's not sure which. But the fact remains that he's left her shaking and pale and nauseous and why, why, why didn't Scott just hit the gas?

"It's fine," Sarah answers, her voice just as quiet, just as rough. Her eyes dart out the car window, searching for the headlights of a Hummer or a skulking silhouette. She sees neither, but this doesn't help.

Scott shakes his head adamantly. "No, I should have…" He stops talking, and for a minute Sarah wonders if he's going to lash out and hit the steering wheel. But no, he remains cool and collected and simply grips the wheel just a bit tighter, his shoulders slumping forward as if something is pushing against his back. For the first time, Sarah thinks he actually looks his age of twenty-eight, and something flutters in her cramping stomach because the thought of her being twenty-eight seems as impossible as being sixty. But there he is, two years shy of thirty and looking guilty. She hopes it's because of Alby, but she can't help but notice that his lips won't stop moving. She wonders if shame is itchy.

"Are you all right?" he asks softly, not quite looking at her.

She wants to ask him if he regrets it, if he never wants to see her again, if the seventeen-year-old polygamist baggage was fine, but the crazy Juniper Creek uncle, no, that's just one step too far, never call me again, you freak.

"Yeah," she says, swallowing all of this. "Thanks for driving me home."

Sarah unbuckles her seatbelt and starts to climb out of the car. She pauses a bit before hopping down to the ground, hoping that he's going to reach out and stop her. But he doesn't do anything. She sighs quietly, closing her eyes and nodding to herself because really, what else could she expect? She finishes her descent, landing with her feet flat and sending a jolt of pain through her ankles. Then she turns and moves to close the door, probably for the last time.

"Sarah."

She looks up, eyes wide. She doesn't have to wonder if they betray her hope; she knows they don't. "Yes?"

Scott clears his throat and looks around. Sarah knows he's searching for Alby, but he doesn't know the signs, so she glances behind her. Still no Hummers, still no silhouettes, still no country music wafting in the air.

Satisfied, Scott turns back to her. "If you… need anything – and I mean anything – you'll call, right?"

He wants to help. Is that good? Or does that mean he wants to help her like he'd help any person in trouble, or does he want to help her because she's special? She finds herself once again wishing she hadn't spent so long keeping to herself so that she might have some idea about what to do with boys. Maybe then she'd have a vague clue about to what to do about men.

"I will," she assures him. "Promise."

He nods. "Good."

She stands there for a minute longer, fingers drumming against the door. She's nodding back at him slowly, the awkward head-bob that people do when they know what they want to say, but they don't really know if they should say it. Finally, she opens her mouth to inhale and speaks up, a bit too loudly. "So, does this mean you're not going to call me?"

He blinks and finally actually looks at her. He looks bemused behind his glasses and he's stammering. Even though Sarah expects the worst, she lets a tiny glimmer of faith stay alive before he answers. "I… need to think about it, Sarah."

She's still nodding. "Right."

"You're a really great person," he starts, and his sincerity doesn't help to lessen the sting. "Smart and mature and graceful and… not like any other seventeen-year-old I've ever met, but—"

"But I'm still seventeen," Sarah finishes for him. "Okay. You need to think. Fine." She pauses, her fingers tightly wound around the door. She wonders if he can see how white her knuckles are under the street lamps. Finally, she stops nodding. "Kind of wish you'd thought about this before."

He begins to say something else, but she doesn't wait for it. She closes the door and doesn't quite swing hard enough because she was determined not to slam it shut. She doesn't linger to fix her mistake, however. She just starts walking, moving quickly because it's cold and because she wants to hug herself but she doesn't want to let Scott see and because she still doesn't know where Alby is. She hears him fix the door, but she doesn't hear him drive off until she's opening the front door to her home. She doesn't slam that door either, resisting impulse after impulse because that is, after all, how she's been raised.

She has to walk through the living room to get to the stairs, and she's only half-surprised to see her dad and three moms sitting there, looking grave. Her heart leaps into her throat thinking that Alby's been by, but things look too serious even for that. Even if Nicki does seem to be at the center of whatever drama they're going through.

Her mother looks up, and Sarah watches the smile smooth out the worried lines on her face. She sits up primly, looking as if this act of straightening her posture can make her ignore Nicki's red-rimmed eyes, Margene's fidgeting, or her father's tight jaw line. "Hey, Sarah. How was the movie?"

"Fell asleep," Sarah mutters.

Her mother's features tighten for a minute. "Oh. Did Heather like it?"

"I guess," Sarah answers vaguely. She looks at all four adults in turn and asks a question she knows won't get answered. "Everything all right?"

"Nothing you need to worry about, sweetie," her mother assures her.

Sarah knows this, like so many other parts of their lives, is a blatant lie. She thinks about calling them on it, but she's had enough of information she didn't really want to hear. "Great," Sarah says, her voice devoid of enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, Margene is the one who narrows her eyes. "Honey, are you okay?"

This momentarily puts Sarah at the center of attention, and not for the first time, she kind of wishes Margene would go away. Her mother, after briefly glancing at the third wife is looking at Sarah, and even Nicki is looking at Sarah expectantly. The only one who doesn't turn is her father, and maybe that's why she says what she says.

"It's nothing you need to worry about," Sarah lies, her voice hard. "I'm going to bed now."

Before anything else can be made of Sarah's mood, she turns and walks quickly to the stairs, ascending them at a jog. In seconds, she's in her room with her back to the door, her arms wrapped around her chest. She doesn't close her eyes and keeps them wide open, searching every corner of the dark room for Alby even though she knows he can't possibly be there. She refuses to fully satisfy her paranoia by switching on the light, but she doesn't move for a long time, afraid of turning her back on whatever intruders aren't there (even though they could be).

She knows she shouldn't have lied. She should have just said, "I wasn't with Heather, I was with a guy who could have been my boyfriend, but now won't be because Uncle Alby jumped out of nowhere and said that's watching me, and if he's watching me, he's watching all of us, and I know he's always scared me, but now he really, really scares me, and I don't care what else you're dealing with right now, fix it, Daddy, fix it!"

But the moment's gone now, and she isn't going to get it back. Besides, she doesn't want anyone to know about Scott even now that it's a non-issue. She doesn't want to deal with her mother's shock, Nicki's outrage, or Margene's conspiratorial giggle. And she doesn't even want to think about how her father would react to knowing that she'd been kissing a grown man in a parking lot.

He might have turned around if he'd known that.

Sarah shakes her head. She is not one of those girls whose lives are ruined because their fathers didn't pay enough attention to them. She's practical, and she knows that with six other children, he doesn't have time to dote on her. Of course, this doesn't explain away the time he spent with Ben over her and then over her and Teenie. Nor does it rationalize the way that she feels like he talks to Wayne, Raymond, Aaron, and even Lester more than he does her.

But she doesn't care about that. She's a loner, an introvert, and she likes her solitude. She doesn't need to be looked after all the time. She likes being self-reliant. She likes not telling her parents everything because not-talking isn't the same as lying, which she loathes. She can't have her harmless little secrets if she's Daddy's little girl

Besides, if she's going to resent her father for something, it's not going to be for the time he spends with his daughters.

She'll probably talk to her mom about it tomorrow. She won't tell her about Scott or the parking lot or Alby touching her. She'll just say that she saw him and that she's worried. Mistrustful as her father is becoming, it'll be enough for them to rally. And it'll be more than enough for her father to place yet another angry to phone call to Roman, the ones he thinks everyone's in the dark about. She'll probably be scolded for not saying something right away, but it'll be a lot better than the fallout over Scott.

Not that Scott really matter anymore.

Except that he does.

Sarah crosses from the door to the bed, only taking the time to kick off her shoes before falling onto the mattress. Then she loses herself amongst her multitude of pillows and the thick blankets. She pulls them up over her head, twisting inside the sheets and building flimsy, physical walls. They aren't as fortified as the ones that can't be seen, but they're something.

You know you can suffocate under all those blankets if you sleep like that.

Sarah buries herself farther in, drawing her knees up to her chest. She wills herself not to think about Scott or Alby or her four parents or the fact that the desire to sob is overwhelming. She lays like that for hours before she finally falls asleep, breathing in and out, in and out. Just before she drifts off, she can't help but think that if this is what suffocation is like, she wouldn't really mind choking.