When I wake up, sandpaper is crawling on my skin. At least that’s what I think it is, until I feel hot breath against my cheek. The bunk bed where I am sleeping is two feet from the camper ceiling, and it’s coffin-dark. I can’t sit up, so I lay perfectly still, while my 8-year-old mind tries to understand sandpaper and beer-soaked breath. At first, I think someone has broken into the trailer. I must be alone, or my mom would jump up and scream. My dad would grab his rifle and start shooting. My brother would run out of the trailer and hide in the trees.
The sandpaper keeps moving, five round pieces the size of dimes. It scrapes my stomach, sliding along the top of my pajama pants, where it hesitates, then dips down. Completely disoriented, I try to scream, but no sound comes out. Holding my breath, I force myself to buck—away from the beer and abrasion, into the tightest ball I can make. The sandpaper stops moving. The breath grunts away from my face.
I’m swimming in tar. I will suffocate. I lay awake listening to the wind beat the trailer for hours.
The next morning, my dad and I walk to Fishhook Creek. I lead, he follows. I find a log, whitewashed and slippery, and inch across it to the center. My dad scoots behind me, lights a Camel, and sits down so that the soles of his black work boots just skim the ripples, which are metallic and bright.
I feet itchy and sick to my stomach, like I’ve been sunburned from the inside out. My dad puffs on his cigarette, exhaling streams of smoke that hang in the frosty air.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says. “I know what you think that was.”
I consider asking him what he thinks I’m thinking, because what I am really wondering is how the salmon, struggling against the current below my feet, breathe in the murky eddies that disappear under the grassy bank. I am imagining, in some abstract and childish way, that I will dive in the river and let it flush me downstream. I hold my breath and let my dad continue. He puffs on his cigarette, then throws the butt into the creek.
“I mean it, Tracy,” he says. “I was only tucking you in.”