Overexposure | Non-Fiction
My dad and I are driving back to my grandma’s house after leaving Gary’s only convenience store open at night. The rundown one with the sticky bulletproof cage around the register and alcohol fridges that are padlocked until 5 PM. I can already smell the hickory KC sauce that’s unopened in the backseat of my dad’s dark blue Chevy Impala which always hisses when it turns. All the windows are down, bringing in chilly September air. With the radio off, the hum of the breeze makes me drowsy. I don’t mind the coolness or vague car sickness. I love being outside in the dark. The whole world turns black except for the stars that always make me think I can gain magical powers if I stare at them kindly enough. The backroads we drive down allow me time to try. They’re empty, long, and Dad tends to drive slow. I open my bag of tangy Lemon Heads, fighting sleepiness.
Looking back, I have no idea how I didn’t notice the tailgate or my dad’s change in attitude that had to have occurred. He’s 5’10 and skinny. A small, strong man and someone older would’ve sensed his cowering. It happens so many more times after this to where it’s innate in me now, but on this drive, I just know he pulls over and becomes frozen, placing both hands on the steering wheel. I see flashes of red and blue behind us; Dad tells me in a low voice to stay still and quiet no matter what. Says it twice really fast without looking at me. I follow orders because he’s my dad – not understanding how important such a protocol is for us. I don’t know what’s wrong, so I hide my candy under my seat when the cop gets out of his car.
Fear abruptly hugs me. The officer walks up to us with jiggling keys, and my dad says hello to him in a cheery, unrecognizable voice. I keep my focus on my legs, forcing myself not to listen while the adults talk although I can hear muffled yet scratchy voices from the officer’s walkie. I rub my hands in circles on the beige, worn interior of my seat, feeling the sweat on the backs of my knees that make the skin itch. Like ants are crawling everywhere. I want to scratch them. I need to get my apple juice from the grocery bag as I become painfully thirsty and horribly nauseous, but I don’t move.
The longer I sit still and quiet, the more I think we’re going to jail. Dad wasn’t driving fast, and we’re both wearing seatbelts. Tears begin to scratch me while the odor of roadkill punches me in the nose. I didn’t mean to be bad. My dad is doing everything right, so this has to be about something I did.
To this day, I can’t picture the officer’s face. He shines his flashlight into our car before I can get a look and bright, sharp light slices across my eyeballs, completely bleeding them of vision. I don’t know why the light feels heavy. Feels like its lying on top of me, seeping into my bones. I’m wearing overalls, but the shine is touching me in places I can’t understand how it can get to. “What’s your name, little girl?” the cop says to me, focusing the beam entirely on my tiny body. It makes me dirty and ugly. It suddenly knows what I hide.
I fake queasiness at church so I can hide in the cramped, lemon-scented downstairs bathroom. I started kissing my best friend Kayla and I really like it, especially after we eat candy. I even put clean bath towels on my head and pretend I’m a pretty white girl. All of these bad things are what the flashlight is showing to the stars.
To my dad who I can’t see next to me.
He’s been erased by the beam – I can’t look at him like I could in the dark.
I try to answer the officer though my throat is brick dust and my mouth tastes moldy. Dad told me to stay quiet, but I know I have to listen to the police because they’re in charge. I’m terrified that I might get into trouble as the light in my eyes is overwhelming and loud, drying up the darkness in our car and from outside. I can’t see the officer either, but he’s crawling around my body like the ants on the backs of my knees. Freezing me along with my dad. Meshing his fingers into something deep inside of me that will take over a decade to figure out what it is.
All I can do is shield my eyes and squint. The glow is just so bright.
Janine Blue is an MFA candidate studying at Western Washington University. She currently resides in Bellingham, Washington and her writing interests include Black feminism and trauma, queer identity, and police brutality against marginalized groups.