P. L. Watts


Alt 1) We are never taken away from our birth parents:

But we are poor, and our birth mother is bipolar. After an ever-escalating set of violent episodes ends in the emergency room, our birth father has our mother institutionalized to protect us. But he himself escapes into drugs. Our little brother, Eddie, is autistic. With both parents incapacitated, he is left without a caretaker. I drop out of school at sixteen to take care of them all. Cricket runs off a year later and gets pregnant. The baby is taken away, and Cricket dies strung out under a bridge.

I never stop believing the world is flat.

Alt 2) Mommy takes me and Cricket away from our birth parents, her son and daughter-in-law, but her real daughters, our aunts, never die:

I am an angry child, but I am put into therapy where I learn how to process my anger in a healthy way. At the suggestion of the therapist, Mommy takes me for regular one-on-one adventures down by the beach until I feel safe. We walk along the shore, our toes burrowing into the soft white sand, ice cream dripping down our arms, collecting the colorful little butterfly coquina shells. She teaches me how to tell the difference between grey stingrays and harmless brown water skates so I don’t have to discover by stepping on one. She throws me elaborate Jimmy Buffet-themed birthday parties. I feel loved. 

She still divorces Papi, but her daughter Titi Lauri comes to live with us and she spends special time with me, as well. She teaches me how to tap holes in coconuts to drink the milk while preserving the meat and how to press hibiscus flowers between the pages of my diary. When her son, Baby J, is born, we all live together, and he is like a little brother. He never becomes a drug dealer, and he never gets violent or mean. And nobody ever touches me down there. And I never go hungry or have to hide.

I am not bullied at school in this timeline, either. In fact, I am popular. I’m even a mean girl. I graduate top of my class. I go to Duke and become an art critic. I get married and have a family. Cricket gets married and has a family. Baby J is a bachelor for many years, but even he, eventually, gets married and has a family. We all go up to the family reunions in Mayberry each year. We are not the nicest people on the planet, but we are, for the most part, quite blessedly boring.

Alt 3) Mommy takes us, her daughters die, but she doesn’t leave Papi:

She emotionally abandons both me and Cricket and clings to him for emotional support. They are both alcoholics, and Cricket and I are both left to run feral. We make mischief in the neighborhood—throwing golf balls through windows, smashing kumquats and grapefruits on neighbors’ cars. By eleven, we’re stealing beer and cigarettes from the Seven Eleven and getting caught with them in the school bathroom. I get suspended for fighting some bitch at the bus stop who taunted Cricket about dirty clothes and hair. 

I break the bitch’s nose. 

I am sent off to boot camp at fourteen. The authorities decide I am a bad influence on Cricket, so I am put in a group home where I learn to light girls’ hair on fire when they cross me. It’s a wake-up call for Mommy who gets clean long enough to help Cricket finish high school, go off to college. Everyone shakes their head about how I ended up (in jail for robbing a liquor store at twenty which morphs into drug charges, theft charges, violent and disorderly conduct. I never really get out.) But they all agree there was nothing to be done. 

Some seeds are just bad.

Alt 4) Mommy takes us, her daughters die, she leaves Papi, but that middle school science teacher who noticed I never smile realizes it might be because something’s wrong at home, so she files a report with social services:

I am still abused by “Uncle Bob.” Mommy still loves Cricket, not me. I am still left to run feral through the rough sawgrass. I still find ways to let Papi back in, to hero-worship him because I need someone to love. He still teaches me to drink and shoot cans off old stumps at the dump. And I still let him touch me, and I still crave that closeness. But the authorities see his DUIs and Mommy’s depression and Bob’s abuse. A medical exam confirms I am malnourished. I am taken away to live with a non-kinship foster family. Cricket, who’s not found to be in the same danger, is allowed to stay. I never find out how they end up, because I never see them again. 

My new foster family is OK. They live in a gated community and have a kid of their own, so I never feel like more than a rescue dog. But I’m put in therapy and a caseworker actually meets with me weekly. I also have special “classes” at school to work on my anger and social skills. I graduate from high school but don’t go to college. I end up working as a grocery clerk for many years, but I always keep writing a little on the side. I start writing letters to the editor, and eventually he tells me I have some promise. I become a local reporter in my forties. I get married a little late. We never have kids (or much of a sex life), but he’s kind. 

It’s not a bad life.

Alt 5) Mommy takes us, her daughters die, she leaves Papi, Baby J comes to live with us, but my high school choir teacher knows something is wrong, and she won’t shut up until somebody listens:

All the bad shit happens—the abuse, the neglect, the rape, the violence—but I am legally emancipated at sixteen. I go live with my choir teacher and her partner. I help them with their musical theater company. We ride all over town setting up equipment, rehearsing, singing songs from Victor, Victoria. I learn about the Indigo Girls way earlier, and I’m obsessed. I am half in love with them both. They put me in therapy and help me sue Florida Child Protective Services for negligence. I am wealthy by eighteen. 

When I graduate high school, I go to Sarah Lawrence and study musical theater. I become a high school choir teacher and playwright. I work my shit out and meet a beautiful woman with black, black hair, like the song. We’re married beneath a blooming poinciana tree, its top, the color of blood and love. We adopt a toddler out of the system and love her to pieces. (She’ll seek therapy of her own for this smothering in her late twenties.) When I am thirty, I write a play called Feral about my life. It’s optioned and made into a movie. 

I buy a fucking yacht.

Cricket and Mommy and Papi and Baby J all end up just as they ended up, but I don’t blame myself for it in this timeline. I know what happened to me was fucked up. 

I never learn forgiveness. 

Alt 6) Everything happens just as it happened except they don’t all die when I leave:

I never stop hearing their voices in my head. I never stop believing everything that happened was my fault. That I was evil. That I was unlovable. I run as far as I can, as fast as I can. I cut all ties. But I never really stop hearing them.

This is the only timeline that might end by my own hand.

Alt 7) It all happens. Nobody intervenes:

At eighteen, I run away to a tiny school in the New Mexico high desert where I can read the Classics with just the coyotes and Chihuahuan ravens to keep me company. Within four years, Mommy, Papi, and Baby J are dead. Cricket and I are estranged. For twenty years, I run from state to state, job to job, college to college, bad relationship to bad relationship; anything to keep from drowning. When I run out of energy for running and places to hide, I finally realize God was waiting all along.

I am baptized and join a church where I learn about community, intimacy. Mommy and Papi and Baby J’s ghosts haunt me for years, but I finally see their pain and the truly impersonal nature of their crimes. An elderly woman from my church is a medium. When I go to tea at her house, she invites them in over the cross-stitching, and I forgive them. Mommy asks what she should do now; we tell her to go towards the light. I spend years in and out of therapy, but I doubt I ever really get it all worked out. Just as I doubt that I ever get married or score a movie deal. But I do start to write. Somebody reads one of my essays and understands a piece of her own life, like I did when reading The Language of Flowers. I eventually learn all the names of my mailman’s children and share coffee over my camp stove with the homeless woman at the end of the street.

I die without family but surrounded by love.


P. L. Watts escaped the Florida foster care system and worked her way through college and graduate school. She earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a Lambda Literary Fellowship for Emerging LGBTQ Writers. Her personal essays have appeared in Ruminate, New Letters, The Florida Review, Nightmare Magazine, and elsewhere. Her queer, gothic novella THE BONNY SWANS was released from Cemetery Gates Media in January 2023 as part of Mother Horror’s My Dark Library series. Find her work online at plwatts.com