Nancy sits quietly in her bed, coloring. Her brother comes in and glances at the work. She tries to hide it. He overpowers her and holds it up.
“Pink, purple, purple, pink!” He jeers.
Her mother, drawn into the room by the commotion, catches him by the ear. “Give that back to her, Aaron,” she says.
Nancy snatches the papers out of his weakened grip. “Dumbass,” she hisses.
“Nancy!” her mother says. “Nice girls don’t say nasty things. And they color inside the lines, to practice their hand-eye coordination.”
After they leave the room, Nancy puts her crayons away.
Nancy sits in the back row in her high school class.
“Who knows the answer?” The teacher calls.
Nobody answers. If no one else is going to try… Nancy raises a timid hand.
“Yes, Nancy?” the teacher says.
The teacher shakes her head. “No, that’s incorrect. How did you get that answer?”
“Um… in my head.”
“Come up to the board and show me.”
Nancy feels a flush spreading as she walks up to the board, in front of everyone, and slowly hashes out her incorrect question in front of her bemused classmates. The pressure makes her slow, awkward. She can hardly hold the chalk, much less think.
“No, see here,” the teacher says. “You’ve skipped this entire row.”
A titter from behind her.
“Don’t worry about them,” the teacher says. “We’ll go as slow as you need to go.”
The family eats together at the dinner table, Aaron declares his acceptance into Penn State.
“Of course you were accepted,” her mother says.
“We’re proud of you,” her father says.
Nancy focuses on her potatoes.
He walks into the drugstore where she works. Underneath his T-shirt he’s lean as a whippet, unlike herself. She appreciates the nape of his neck as he picks out a drink, making sure to avert her eyes before he makes his way back to her register. She’s good at watching people without being noticed.
He pays for the drink in cash. As she accepts the money, she risks another glance at his face, and is caught like a moth in his electric blue eyes.
He isn’t looking at her the way others do.
He sees her.
Nancy’s hands are shaking. She sits crumpled next to him on the bed.
She should have been smarter about it. But she could never say no to him. No, that’s not right. She can’t blame him. It was her responsibility to prevent this kind of thing. She has simply failed again. What will her mother say?
“You don’t want to get it taken care of?” Robby says.
She cradles her hands around her belly. “If you think I should,” she whispers.
“Well,” he says, pausing to irritably suck his cigarette, “we’ll have to get married then.”
Even when she doesn’t ask, he always knows what she wants. She’ll be able to move out of her mother’s house. He is doing this for her. He is saving her. She feels a rush of gratitude.
Nancy is six months along. She is making dinner when she delivers the news to Robby.
“A girl, huh,” he says. “Shit. She’s not going to be much to look at.”
“No, Robby,” Nancy says softly.
Robby glowers at her. “What did you say.”
Her voice remains low. She can’t even look at him but she must say this now. “You don’t get to talk about her that way. Not her.”
“You don’t get to fucking tell me what to do!”
He hits her for the first time. She turns to protect her belly from hitting the stove as she falls.
They never talk about it again. He quits drinking and doesn’t hit her for a year.
When their baby is born, Nancy watches, tense as a predator, whenever he draws near to the baby. Robby senses that anything directed at Elsa will be the end of them. Eventually he learns to avoid their daughter.
Nancy isn’t always safe. She can accept that as long as Elsa is safe.
Elsa is four years old, coloring quietly. Robby sees the pages on the floor, bends over to examine them. Nancy stiffens, but Robby is focusing on Elsa and misses her warning. She sees in his body language what is coming.
“C’mon Elsa. There’s no such thing as a green dog,” he says.
Before Elsa’s eyes even have a chance to widen, Nancy is there. She scoops her daughter up in her arms. Robby and Elsa are both startled by her interference.
“What?” Robby says.
Nancy heads to the kitchen counter, grabs the car keys.
“Are you crazy?” Robby says.
She leaves the house through the front door. Elsa starts crying.
“What is your fucking problem!?”
Nancy shuts the car door and calls out the window at him. “You dumbass.”
She drives away, leaving him standing in the doorway, unable to believe.
She fears the future, protecting Elsa alone against the world. But she’ll figure something out.