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I am a mouse in a red saddle, the girth pulled so tight around my chest that I cannot breathe. This is what I know: Ganesh has come. I am Ganesha’s little mouse, and as the huge god plops onto my back, my lungs compress, and I am flattened into something paper thin and airless.
The stricture around my chest eases, and I am not the mouse. I am me. I am eleven, and Ganesha is only a dear and funny fellow from my bedtime stories. I lie weeping in a bed soaked in the antiseptic reek of roach spray. Kai has doused the mattress so they don’t come and touch me with their whispery, plastic feet while I am sleeping.
We used to live in Asheville with Hervé, who had horses and an inheritance that let him say he was a folk musician. Kai kept him as her boyfriend for more than two years, a personal best. Then they started fighting more and more, and he called me a little shit when I spilled juice into his sitar.
The next time he took a fishing weekend, Kai told me to grab my stuff and load it in the old Mazda Hervé let her use. It was not my first hasty evacuation, but it was the first one I was actively against. I stared at her, big-eyed and balky, while she shoved her underpants into a duffel.
I wasn’t crazy about Hervé, but I liked his horses plenty, and I loved the hippie co-op school his money paid for. Before Ashe- ville, we’d homeschooled. It was easier than reenrolling me as we changed names and cities, pausing only in the places where we lived with Eddie, then Tick, then Anthony. Kai loved teaching I was working ahead of grade in English and science—but I was a class of one. I’d pick up day-pass friends at parks or fall in with a tribe of campground kids, good for a weekend.
At the co-op in Asheville, I had friends I got to keep. I felt at home there from day one, sitting in a multi-age classroom so mottled with colors that my copper hide was just another bead in a mosaic. My purple thrift-store pants were rendered regu- lar when placed between a sari and a snaggy home-knit rainbow tunic. There was a girl named Meadow and a boy named River, not related. My essay on marsupials was taped up in the middle of the honor wall, and I’d collected nineteen Reading Challenge stickers. Only my friend Poppy was ahead of me, with twenty.
Kai saw me, frozen in the bedroom doorway, and said, “Thirty minutes and we hit the road. Anything that’s not in the car gets left behind.”
I knew from experience she meant it. I ran and started throw- ing all my favorite books in the trunk, claiming space, while Kai thoughtfully and thoroughly robbed Hervé. Kai drove the Mazda to Greenville, where a guy she knew gave us cash for it, even without the title. We took a Greyhound to Lexington, where we bought ourselves an old VW bus with a mattress in the back that gave us lice. We threw the mattress by the road and got a futon, slowly camping our way south to Georgia.
We met Dwayne right when the weather started turning cold. Now we’re living with him in a sagging farmhouse deep in
Paulding County. Kudzu heaps are laced around us, shielding us. From the highway, the house isn’t visible at all. Neither is the path that runs through the woods behind us, winding through the clearings where Dwayne’s pot plants are growing.
I have become the me my mother has invented to match the her she’s made for Dwayne. The word mama is an odd shape in my mouth after spending two years as Kai’s orphaned baby sister. This new daughter-self pinches at me from the bottom up, like I’m wedged into my own old shoes. I don’t belong in this place. Paulding County people are either black or white, and they don’t mix. The only Asians I’ve seen are three middle-aged ladies who work at Viet-Nails. If they have kids, they keep them elsewhere. We could be here awhile, though. Dwayne is not a palate cleanser. He’s a genuine boyfriend, with broad shoulders, curly hair, and square white teeth set evenly, like Chiclets. He’s easy- going, and he makes Kai laugh. Worst of all, he’s nice to me. No matter how mad and mean I get, no matter how I goad him, he laughs and calls me Bossy Pony, tugging on my bangs like they’re a forelock. That goes a long way with my mother.
I miss the big bay gelding quietly. I miss my school out loud. So loud and so consistently that Dwayne decides to fix it. He sells fake IDs as well as pot and stereo systems of dubious origin, and he gets me registered for the local public middle school. My name there is Pauleen Kopalski; I don’t look like a Kopalski, and I can’t remember how to spell it.
At this new school, the white kids drop half their consonants, the black kids drop their helping verbs, and I don’t speak like any of them. I don’t get their references. They all stare openly at me, practically nose-picking as they ogle my pale and tilted eyes, my copper skin, my shaggy black hair. It’s not because I’m pretty, either. At eleven, I am breastless and storky-legged, doughy in the middle. I have a huge outbreak of stress pimples on my forehead.
My second week there, a couple of seventh-grade white girls trap me in the bathroom.
“What are you, anyways?” the first one asks me. I don’t answer. I look down, wait for them to get bored and go away. “Are you black?”
The other answers for me. “She doesn’t seem that black.”
I try to step sideways for the exit, and they jostle me back. They use their shoulders. When I try to bolt sideways, the first one catches me and shoves me, her hands sinking in my squashy belly.
“I know one thing, she’s a Fatty-Fatty Ass-Fat,” she tells her friend.
Her friend repeats it, laughing. “Fatty-Fatty Ass-Fat! That’s what we can call her.”
The push and the injustice leave me breathless. These girls own the third-best lunch table, and one of them has a boyfriend. The meanest wears a pair of real Guess jeans, and she has pretty hair and hardly any ass at all, just a narrow slice where her slim legs meet.
They step in closer, crowding me into the corner by the stalls. The meanest had an egg for breakfast, hours ago; I can smell the salt and rot of it behind her teeth.
I feel something—someone—new, rising to my surface. It is not a Paula I have been before, but I find it inside me anyway, both new and already mine.
I’ve been a lot of things, but until Asheville, I’ve been them all in tandem with my mother. We’ve been tambourine players and yoga teachers and Ren Faire workers. We were vegans with Eddie, then spent the next winter squatting in Tick’s deer blind. We’ve read palms and tarot on the street near Anthony’s tiny New Orleans apartment. At the Asheville hippie school, away from her, I was somehow all those incarnations—an amalgamated girl who felt like me.
This is different.
“Are you some kind of ching-chong thing?” the meanest says, making more red rise up beneath my copper skin.
In fight or flight, Kai has always chosen for us, and my mother is made out of wings.
I don’t think that I am like her—not in this way. My ears are cocked inward to hear a rushing sound like churning water, a violent, foamy washing away to something bedrock and essential. “Let me by,” I tell the meanest. I’ve decided it’s the last thing
I will tell her.
When she says, “Not until you tell us what you are,” and shoves me back against the stall, my hand is already a fist. I rear it back and punch it toward her belly, and it feels good. I like when it connects. I like to see her fold and puke onto her shoes. I like the way her friend’s face blanches right before she runs to get a teacher.
These two girls are white honor students who’ve been in this county since first grade. I am new, and racially confusing, and I didn’t do well on the Monday fractions quiz. I’m the one who gets suspended.
Now I lie in my stinking, bug-sprayed bed, thrashing and snotting, and I’m not sure where the fight-y girl has gone. I’m not even sure that she was more than panic and adrenaline. I weep and kick like a ruined infant until Kai comes and pulls my head into her lap. She runs her fingers gentle through my hair.
My body stays in a stiff curl, unyielding. “I hate it here.” It’s not the first time I’ve said this. My face is slick from weeping.
“You can’t get into fights,” Kai says.
I didn’t mean to. They started it and pushed at me and pushed me. I only punched a girl who deeply needed punching. “I hate that school.”
Kai keeps petting my hair with soothe-y fingers. “You haven’t given it much of a chance. Dwayne did some things to get you in, babe. It’s what you said you wanted.”
“I hate it there,” I say. “And they hate me.”
I’m on that whole clique’s radar, now. Next week, I’ll have fifty watery-eyed rednecks blinking their pink-rimmed lids at me, waiting for a chance to smash me into paste. Maybe I’ll be that fight-y girl again, I think. It scares me. I like it, and that scares me, too.
“Baby, you can’t call attention to yourself this way. We can’t have DFCS sniffing around here. You can’t get in fights or disap- pear from school.” When I don’t answer, she adds, “Keep your head down, okay? Try to find a friend or two. It will get better once you settle in.”
“Is she okay?” Dwayne asks her, from the doorway. “She’s fine,” Kai tells him.
“Poor kid. Middle school is hell,” he says. He leans in and sets two dollars down on my roach spray–smelling blanket. “If you want, you can bike up to the Dandy Mart. Get yourself a Coke and Pop Rocks. Would that make you feel better?”
“Maybe in a little. Give us a sec,” Kai says. She waits until he leaves before she lies down beside me. Her voice is soft from sweetness, not from whisper. “I’m going to tell you something that happened a long time ago. A very long time ago, but it’s hap- pening right now.” That’s how Kai begins her bedtime stories. It’s her way of saying once upon a time.
As she speaks, she curls in even closer. I am enveloped in the familiar smell of pot smoke and fresh orange peel. I still to listen. I think she’s going to tell the story where Kali fights the Red Seed Demon. Every time, Kai tells it just a little different, but it is my favorite; in every version, Kali wins.
Instead, she tells me a Ganesha story.
A long time ago, right now, Ganesha has a saddle mouse. That mouse carries the feasting god, carries his big belly, his heavy elephant’s head, and all the lunches that Ganesha tucks inside himself for later. The mouse wears a little red saddle and a silver bit. He carries Ganesha to the market, to the temple, to weddings and funerals, to sickbeds and to celebrations. Now he’s carrying Ganesha home from a feast. The god lolls on his little mouse’s saddle, holding his round stomach, so full of feast that he is groaning.
At the crossroads, Ganesha’s mouse meets a rat scuttling home with a small bag of rice bound to his back. The rat eyes Ganesha’s mouse, strapped into the saddle, staggering under all that god.
The rat says, “You poor thing! How can you carry the weight?”
And the mouse says, “What weight?”
I wait, but that’s the end. My eyebrows knit together. I’ve heard a hundred iterations of this story, too. In most, they don’t meet a rat. They meet a cobra, who scares the mouse into bucking Ganesha off—it’s slapstick, and very funny. I have not heard this version before.
I hate it, instantly. I will never come to like it any better. I hate it because I understand it. She is telling me to settle into this life. To accept it, as I have accepted every other role she’s handed me. But in Asheville, I started making a Paula of my own. Ashe- ville Paula was competitive and smart. She liked horses and lining up her reading stickers in a careful row. Paulding County Paula is only starting, but I already know I’m not going to be good at accepting things, especially a life that smells like roach poison. I already know what it feels like to hit a girl hard enough to make her give her breakfast egg back. The story Paulding County Paula wants is Kali shredding Red Seed Demons, winning against all the odds. Instead, I’m being told to lose so endlessly that losing becomes normal. To duck my head down and become Fatty-Fatty Ass-Fat for my whole life here. After a little while, Kai’s story tells me, I won’t even notice it.
I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I even tried.
New York Times Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson is the author of seven novels and a novella: The Opposite of Everyone, Someone Else’s Love Story, gods in Alabama, Between, Georgia, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Backseat Saints, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, and the novella My Own Miraculous. Learn more at JoshilynJackson.com