On our summer vacation to Washington state, my mother pulls me back from Mount St. Helens with her gingham oven mitts. She is careful to protect her own hands when handling mine.
On the long drive home, I practice speaking with my new gravelly voice that sounds like I’ve been drinking glass and bourbon or chain-smoking like my grandmother.
We go to the doctor when I cough for six months straight, leaving white shrouds all over my sister and the dog and my tenth birthday cake with its ten volcanic candles.
The doctor declares my lungs are looped with lava. I imagine Virginia Slim and the Marlboro Man are living there too. I feel them hopscotching over the lava onto my pretty pink girl lungs like it is a magic carpet. I cough and cough again. He tells my mother I have the lungs of an old woman and she blames it all on the volcano, not the old woman who sleeps in the room next to mine.
I stay home from school and make looped potholders like Rapunzel in a tower, quickly accumulating enough to escape out the window but I don’t because I am winded by the wind and my grandmother’s cigarettes in my face. At first I looped and re-looped and crochet hooked them off the metal loom to replace my mother’s singed picnic oven mitts, out of guilt. I find I have a rather entrepreneurial spirit and become good at creating them in color schemes to match our neighbor’s kitchen or my teacher’s science lab that I haven’t seen yet.
I didn’t have much choice.
“Stay in bed,” my mother said.
“Stay in bed,” my grandmother said.
I believed them both. I laid down obediently under yellowed ghost sheets that blew more smoke into my lungs, stayed horizontal as my grandmother dropped Pompeiian ashes on my face, made notes in my diary like I was Pliny the Younger.
The pile of potholders by my bed grew, competing with the flammable book stacks. I alternated looping with reading, nylon rows and rows of boxcar children that live in the green forest, not a gray bedroom. I eventually escaped to fourth grade and the Prince Charmings that I had heard laughing outside of my bedroom window for months.
My grandmother lives now in a box, paralyzed in some ashy crouched form, cancer slim, gray cigarettes in her gray pockets. Her chest is sunken and she hasn’t managed to escape the tiny yellow-walled house like I did. She’s clutching her tiny gold Timex in her hand, the second watch hand frozen at the time the ash and lava poured into her bedroom and finally choked her.
“There are no lungs to include,” the coroner tells me.
“How was she breathing?” I ask.
A white question cloud exits my slim lips, blows like a gray tsunami around the gray hospital room with only pale pink chairs to break up the mundane.
“You would have to ask the doctor,” he says.
“How am I still breathing?” I ask the coroner.
“You would need to ask your mother,” he says.
He points at a gray and white x-ray with no hint of pink (not extraordinary in itself for all x-rays are those colors), but I only see Virginia’s footprints and a left-behind cowboy hat. I feel myself falling and reach for my potholder cushions.
My mother holds out her oven-mitted hands to catch me but she’s too far away and I sink into the volcano, again.
Amy Barnes is the author of three collections: AMBROTYPES (word west,) “Mother Figures” ( ELJ, Editions) and CHILD CRAFT, forthcoming from Belle Point Press, She has words at The Citron Review, Spartan Lit, JMWW Journal, Janus Lit, Flash Frog, No Contact Mag, Leon Review, Complete Sentence, Gown Lawn, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, SmokeLong Quarterly, McSweeney’s and many others sites. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, included in Best Small Fictions 2022 and long-listed for Wigleaf50 in 2021 and 2022. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor and reads for NFFD, CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, The MacGuffin, and Narratively.