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2022 Pushcart Prize Nominee - Scream Test Over Hetty Canyon by Lillian Sickler

Lillian Sickler

Scream Test Over Hetty Canyon

When the tornado hits the canyon, I’m belly-up on Dr. B’s examination table. Clear skies in both directions before a cloud came out of nowhere to drop a funnel.

“Sounds like the wrath of God,” Dr. B mutters.

“It’s a canyon,” I whisper as the pressure of her finger eases. “There’s no one there to punish.”

Dr. B’s gloves snap like chewing gum as she slips them off. She leaves and the nurse who’d taken my vitals returns with a clipboard.

“You can take the abortion pill before you leave the clinic, or at home. You take a second dose up to 72 hours later.”

My hands become fists, then straight planks of wood, and then fists again.

“Any questions?”

Something slippery wriggles in my chest. It’s always been there. After my first kiss, it was a grey earthworm. In college it was a rotting spot. When Rory died, it was an oil slick wider than a meadow. People say there’s a pill for it—there’s a pill for everything. But I’m too scared. I heard about a woman who lived with a dead fetus in her womb for years and then died when they took it out.

I listen to people whisper about the tornado as I collect my prescription. Rory’s scream rings in my ears, but then a spurt of sadness blots it out.

Once home, I feverishly dream of a pig roast, fat dribbling through the gaps between my fingers. When I wake up, someone is pulling into my driveway, and I hear a rumble of thunder.

My best friend Julia assesses my appearance as I swing open my screen door. She eyes my wrinkled dress and the sweat beading across my brow. Lightning flutters and then the yard floods with light, brighter than a hospital room.

“You still okay to go to Corrine’s?” My sister’s birthday is today. She’s turning thirty-three. Or thirty-two. I try to remember as I suck on my molars, imagining meat and tasting salt.

I nod. “Sorry, I passed out when I got back.”

“It’s okay. How’d it go?”

“Fine.” I shrug. “Did you hear about the tornado?”

She nods, catching my eye. The slippery thing stirs, pulling breath out of my lungs like roots from mud. Sometimes looking at Julia feels like balancing before a cusp. Like I’ve become a shark who smells the deepest cut of the deepest ocean.

On second thought, maybe I’ve misplaced the word for awe.

Getting an abortion on Corrine’s birthday hadn’t been part of the plan but neither was getting knocked up in the first place

“I don’t have a plan,” I admit to Julia. “At least not anymore.” She peers at me in her rearview mirror, and I think of Rory again as I stretch out in the backseat.

Corrine answers the door in her apron. She insists on cooking for her own birthday every year knowing no one else will. My fingers clench and unclench as she peers at my face. Fist-wood-fist.

“You’re late.”

The irony makes me laugh, but it sounds more like choking. Corrine raises an eyebrow, and the slippery thing bites my sternum. I glance at Julia. My sister doesn’t know about the baby. Lately, she sees nothing beyond her own front porch.

“Mom’s late, too,” she explains.

“I can’t believe you invited her.”

Corrine steps back to let us inside. The dining room chandelier glints off Julia’s left incisor and I’m momentarily blinded by the intimate detail of her mouth.

“You okay?” she asks.

Being pregnant is a heaviness. My body steadily filling with water. As Julia looks me in the eye, I wonder if she can see how deep the water is. Truthfully, I want her to smell the red steak of my grief. I want to lay it on the counter and watch her stitch bite-sized pieces of it back into my body.

When she sits beside me at dinner, her knee knocks against mine. The slippery thing whines but I’m not brave enough to touch Julia back.

When Corrine brings out dessert, I realize she’s made Rory’s favorite and I want to punch her for it. Thunder echoes through the house like a sound pulled out of a nightmare as Corrine smiles at me. My ears are ringing. Opera singers shatter glass when they hit a high enough pitch and frequency. Their voice shakes its atoms until the whole thing just falls apart.

The slippery thing pulls me through the eye of a dull needle. Weaves my stomach into coils. I bolt for the bathroom. A horse within my gut is rearing back, spooked.

I realized Rory was my favorite sister when I was ten and she was eight. Corrine drove us to Hetty Canyon just before dawn for something she called a ‘scream test’. All three of us were barefoot. Rory had a loose tooth that dangled by unseen threads.

“You’re too young to know it yet, but women are full of rage,” Corrine had explained. “You gotta let it out before it hurts you.”

I volunteered to scream first. Even then, I never put off the inevitable. Rooted to the side of the canyon, the sound I expelled was dull. Tail eaten by the dark.

I did not get the slippery thing out.

But when it was Rory’s turn, she released the loudest scream I’d ever heard. I swear it shook the stars. Popped them from their sockets.

Corrine calls me in the morning. Mentions the tornado. I’m in bed, pressed against a heating pad. The baby’s gone and the slippery thing is teething to fill the space.

Some families are brought together after tragedy, but Rory’s death locked us in separate boxing matches with grief. Fist-wood-fist.



“Remember when I failed the scream test at Hetty Canyon?”

For a second, she’s silent, and I wonder if she’s hung up.

“That was stupid of me to take you guys there. You can’t get something out of you like that.”

She laughs, and for a moment I feel completely hollow.

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