The Yellow Wrapper
First the bra, now this, Annika thinks as she slowly tears the saturated pad from the crotch of her underwear, positive the sound of the adhesive and the crinkle of soft plastic can be heard all the way down Park Hill to the Piggly Wiggly. When it’s finally out, she sits on the cold porcelain seat and listens, hearing only the sound of her breath.
She pulls the pad’s bright yellow wrapper from the pocket of her jeans. It’s been there all day, a constant reminder—as if the fear of leaking wasn’t enough—and it is damp now and wadded into a boggy lump. She rolls the pad back in the wrapper and clutches it, feeling the warmth, as she tiptoes to her bedroom.
Down the hall thumping bass and howling voices pour out of her brother Ben’s stereo and a slow trickle of smoke escapes despite the dirty T-shirt shoved under the door. The smell reminds Annika of when they hit a skunk driving out to Grandma’s last summer. Ben will be in his room all day with that nasty smell leaking out.
A year ago, in the old house, Ben didn’t spend all day in his bedroom. But a year ago, in the old house, a lot was different.
This duplex—three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a backyard no one uses—had been an early Christmas present for the three of them after Annika’s dad became just a voice on the other end of the phone and a check in the mail. The fights didn’t stop—Annika only hears one side.
Annika hears one now through the wall she shares with Mom as she closes her door quietly and goes to the window that faces the untouched backyard.
The late winter lawn looks crispy and dead. Overgrown brown weeds snake up the fence that separates their yard from the tree line. She can see through the bare trees to Maple Street, cars stopped at red lights.
When she opens the window, a cool breeze blows in, bringing with it the smell of roasting pork from the Piggly Wiggly. She leans out the window into the cool day, away from the rising sound of her mother’s voice, and pitches the pad into the lifeless grass.
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“Match Each Early Explorer with His Country of Origin,” the instructions at the top of the paper read. But Annika can’t concentrate. Instead, she colors in the holes in the letters, feels the uncomfortable trickle in her pants and listens to the whispers of Britney and Madison behind her.
“She looks like a cowgirl in those Levis.”
The girls snicker. At the desk beside Annika, Denise sits in her Levis, pencil to paper, drawing lines between each column.
This semester it is Denise and her Levis. Last semester it was Colby and the paper grocery bag he uses as a backpack.
“Christopher Columbus.” Annika fills in the o, the p, the tiny, oblong hole at the top of the e.
The whispers continue. To Annika, they are as loud as the pad ripping off her panties, but when she looks up, Mrs. Dehughes only yawns and pats the sides of her large hair, which is unnaturally puffy, almost like it was placed on her head in haste and without regard to proportion. Mrs. Dehughes hadn’t stopped them from calling Colby “Paper or Plastic,” either.
She looks back at her paper.
The e. The d. The tiny, oblong hole at the bottom of the a.
“Who even wears Levis anymore?”
Annika glances at Denise and thinks of Mom, sitting at the kitchen table, bills spread out in front of her and her hands spread over her face, shaking silently, pretending she doesn’t smell the scent of skunk coming from Ben’s room. But it always explodes in loud voices eventually. Annika pretends to be invisible then. She tries not to move or make a peep when it starts, as if her stillness will end it sooner.
Denise puts her pencil to her mouth and considers the page in front of her. Denise is either thinking about Ponce de Leon and his country of origin or she is good at pretending, too.
Annika doesn’t turn or look at Britney and Madison. Their ire could be drawn by motion. But she has to wiggle as the too-large pad is jammed uncomfortably in her butt crack and between the lips of her vagina. Movement brings the odor and for a terrible minute that is all she can think about, all she can smell. She is nearly choking on the rotten stink of dark blood. Denise turns and for a second Annika is sure she can smell it, too.
Denise’s eyes land on a spot somewhere behind Annika and the whispers stop. Annika holds her breath and counts to three.
As Denise turns back to the front their eyes meet and Denise smiles. Annika’s face flushes, warmth wrapping around her neck and climbing to the tops of her ears. With a quick breath, she looks down at the Os, the Ps, the Ds and starts to color as the giggles begin again.
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A year ago, when they were living in the old house, Annika brought home the flowery packet all the girls were given at school after going to the music room and watching the Video. The packet contained a booklet, a calendar, and a single pad. She’d hid it in her room away from her dad and Ben. That night, seated at the foot of her bed, Mom flipped through the little information booklet and asked Annika if she had any questions.
On the Video, a female doctor wearing an authoritative white lab coat had pointed to a graph and said, “The average age is twelve. Or, roughly one to two years after breast development.”
So the Video told Annika all she’d needed to know: she was a ticking time bomb. Mom had already taken her to JC Penney to try on bras, against Annika’s will.
“You really need one, honey,” she’d said gently, pointing to the rack of white lacey bras—some looked like undershirts, some like in the movies.
Now, in the new house, Annika takes out the calendar and draws a circle on the day before and a line through today, just like the nurse told them to do. She thinks of the box of Mom’s pads under the bathroom sink, half full now. She’s been using them as sparingly as possible, making sure one lasts all day, no matter how heavy and drenched they are.
Mom will notice soon.
Annika swallows thickly and walks out to the living room, shaking nervously. Mom is at the kitchen table, smoking, her eyes red-rimmed. The acrid scent of the smoke mixes with the skunk smell coming from under Ben’s door.
Annika wrinkles her nose reflexively and opens her mouth to talk but is cut off by the buzz and pulse from Ben’s room. Mom punches out the cigarette in the glass ashtray and brushes past Annika, pounding on Ben’s door and shouting. “Turn down the goddamn music!”
Back in her bedroom, Annika spreads out her dad’s business cards on the floor and plays grocery store in her mind.
As the pounding and shouting continue, she buys bread, milk, and eggs through blurry vision. The total is $12.45.
“Charge it,” she says, her voice wobbly, wiping at her wet eyes. “No, wait. One more thing.”
Pads. So Mom won’t notice. So Mom won’t have to deal with that, too.
She runs her dad’s card through the imaginary credit card machine, signs the receipt, then goes to the window and looks out at the dead grass, brown but for four spots of bright yellow.
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“Name two reasons settlers came to the new world,” Denise reads in a whisper barely audible. She follows along under the question with her pencil, then puts the eraser back to her lips.
It’s a group assignment. Mrs. Dehughes counted them off in twos and then went back to her desk to pat her hair and file her nails.
“They came for the rodeos,” Britney says behind them. She and Madison laugh. Mrs. Dehughes looks up with a scowl but goes back to her nails.
Annika looks at the side of Denise’s face and tries to read what might be hidden there.
“The New England Colonies were dominated by . . .” Denise reads, turning to face her. Annika shrugs.
The laughter behind them is deafening; it’s all Annika can hear.
“Puritans,” Denise says, cutting through the noise, leaving Annika with only the sound of blood throbbing in her temples. She swallows as Denise fills in the blank with perfect, bubbly writing.
“Do you know they’re making fun of you?” she whispers.
Denise smirks, filling in the next blank without consulting Annika.
“They’ll be mean to anyone. I guess it’s just my turn.”
Annika furrows her brow. She remembers last year, when they were still in the old house, when she first wore her new bra to school under a white shirt. She never made that mistake again.
But then Colby brought his books to school in a grocery bag.
But then Denise wore Levis.
And then . . .
The ding of the intercom cuts off Annika’s racing thoughts and everyone looks up expectantly.
“Attention students,” their principal’s voice comes through full and deep. “A piccolo is missing from the band room. If you have taken it, please return it immediately. Thank you.”
Everyone looks back at their papers and the giggling begins.
“Maybe it’s under Mrs. Dehughes’s wig!”
A snort and more laughter.
Denise shrugs as if to say to Annika, “See?” and continues to fill in the blanks.
“Would you like to spend the night at my house?” Annika asks. “I can ask my Mom.”
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Denise walks into Annika’s room and puts her overnight bag on the floor.
“So this is my room,” Annika says, gesturing weakly around the pristine room, a condition of the sleepover.
“I like it,” Denise says, studying the items on Annika’s desk—her picture of Grandpa’s lakehouse, the bowl of her dad’s business cards. “You have a swing set or anything?”
She throws back the curtains and looks out at the empty yard. Empty except for the yellow pads spread in a semi-circle around Annika’s window.
Annika rushes to the window as blood fills her cheeks. “No. We don’t use the backyard.”
“That’s too bad,” Denise says, staring at the ground and squinting. Annika feels her heart in her throat, beating faster and faster. “Are those . . . pads?”
Annika cannot meet Denise’s eyes. One month, a dozen pads, both her room and Mom’s facing the backyard and it is her new friend who sees them first. She wants to die. Instead, she looks out at the pads, her eyes wide as if seeing them for the first time.
“I don’t know where those came from,” Annika says, her voice constricted, sounding like a liar even to her own ears.
Denise is quiet. In Annika’s mind, Denise has already packed and left. On Monday, Denise’s voice will join the mean whispers. Finally, something to take the place of Denise’s Levis. “She throws her pads in her backyard!”
“I think it’s kind of cool,” Denise says.
Annika can’t breathe. She sits on the edge of her bed and whispers, “I guess.”
“I mean, whoever did that is pretty cool to not care,” Denise says, sitting down next to her. “At least I think so.”
“Like you’re cool,” Annika finally manages. “Like you don’t care what Britney and Madison say about you.”
Denise sticks her hands in the pockets of her Levis.
“But I do care,” Denise says. “What they say hurts.”
They sit in silence for a minute. Then, the phone rings and Ben’s music starts to hammer.
“But I think they’re afraid, too,” Denise says. “I think we’re all just afraid.”
Ben’s music and Mom’s voice fade.
“Maybe we should pick them up?” Denise asks. “I mean, we might want to use that backyard this summer for a camp out.”
Annika stands, feeling lighter.
“I’ll get a trash bag.”
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Annika switches on the bathroom light and catches her reflection in the mirror through sleep-filled eyes. The crotch of her flannel sleep pants is bright red with blood. She thinks of her calendar, knows it can’t have been a month, then remembers the nurse telling them it takes a few months for things to even out.
There are only seven pads left in the box under the sink. She takes one out and pulls down her pants. The blood is everywhere—soaked through her underwear and pooled in her pants. She sits on the toilet and listens to the drips.
It’s Saturday. She and Ben usually sleep in until at least noon while Mom works her weekend job at Wal-Mart. But it’s early. She must have been woken by the wetness in her pants. Mom is still home; there are heavy steps as Mom goes back to her bedroom, probably grabbing the earrings she forgot to put on. On her way past the bathroom, she pauses.
“Annika? Are you okay?”
“Yep,” Annika answers, wiping the thick blood and pulling her soiled pants back up.
“There’s bologna in the fridge for a sandwich when you’re hungry. We’re all out of chips. Sorry.”
Mom sounds sorry. She sounds tired. Annika wonders if that is her way of being afraid.
“I’ll be home at four,” Mom says, walking away, keys jangling.
Annika goes to the hallway.
Mom turns and comes toward her. Annika’s hands are trembling, fidgeting with soft, yellow wrapper. She should be pretending. Mom needs her to be invisible.
“I gotta go, sweetie, I’m late…” Mom begins.
But Annika can’t be invisible today. Today, she needs Mom to see. Without a word, Annika pulls at the crotch of her pants, flaring them out to expose the red stain, too afraid to look up.
Mom sets her purse and keys on the counter and kneels in front of her and pulling her chin up so they look in each other’s eyes.
“You’ll have to use my pads for today,” Mom says with a sad smile. “But I’ll grab you something better when I leave work, okay?”
As Mom pulls her close for a hug, the pad clutched in Annika’s hand no longer feels so heavy.
Erin Smith is a writer, funeral director and shiatsu therapist living in the Twin Cities. Her short stories have appeared in Mount Hope, Liars’ League NYC, Smoky Blue Literary, Arts Magazine and The Writing Disorder. Find our more on her website.