the badlands

☆ erik kirkland memorial prize finalist ☆

the badlands

brooke mitchell

brooke mitchell

My brother and I were young when we went, so we climbed near the trailer park, bodies slated between skinny boulders, edged just barely on the safe side, half-suicidal only because we wondered what we’d see at the bottom. When we asked a park ranger, he said A whole lotta snakes. Our Pap led us to the edges of cliffs, keeping watch while we dangled our legs above the gorges. We scared my grandmother so bad she threw a fit and walked a half mile back to the trailer. 

Past that cliff, the land tried replicating the sea, dipping miles down where the water had once been, where it left a postcard picture in its wake. Ruddy trenches, sediment rising, falling, layered yellow and gray, stretched so far the land and horizon met in a tight line. In fifth grade, we learned the human eye can only perceive two dimensions, and I learned the truth of that at the edge of the cliff. I pictured Badlands, South Dakota rolling across the sky in blocky gold script. On the back, I’d have written, This is the only place I’ve ever felt I exist.


I know I am a person the way I know it’s sunny when I see heat blurring pavement through the window. I see my personhood because I perceive it somewhere on the fringes. I don’t need to open the window and stick my hand outside to know it’ll be warm when I pull it back in.

I didn’t love the Badlands because they tempted me outside. They didn’t. I think the metaphor falls apart here: dissociation isn’t optional. You don’t get to choose to open the window. At some point, trauma added a lock to the window and threw away the key. I loved the badlands because they brought the warmth inside the room, inside my body.


Lightning in South Dakota laces the sky with gold straight from the Black Hills. Cracks open slits between the stars, lets you glimpse the underside of heaven’s streets. The storm scared me. 

We’d parked the RV in a Walmart lot sometime around seven in the evening. A black smudge floated across the far sky. By midnight, the wind picked up either end of the camper and rocked us side to side, back and forth. I cried. My brother boasted how unafraid he was, and my grandmother pretended to concur. They crammed themselves onto the couch in the small living area. She watched him play Mario on his DS. 

My grandfather really was unafraid and didn’t feel like getting up from bed. So, I crawled down from the loft above the driver’s nook and curled up next to him. Clung to his arm while the RV swayed. Stole his warmth and courage until morning. 

When the storm quieted, we opened the door. Stepped outside. A humid chill clung to our shoulders. The sunrise strung silver light against purple clouds and warmed the high planes of our faces. No birds chirped yet. The near world lived in the space between fear and relief where reverence for the fearsome thing kept us silent. We’d been tossed to a completely different part of the parking lot. My family gazed out at the new perspective with dropped jaws and disorientation. For me, this felt like looking in a mirror.


In the mirror beside my friend’s bed, I am skinny. Here, I find the reflection of my social self. My cheekbones elongate into a pinched jaw. Thighs tightened a few inches. In my mother’s vanity mirror, my smile is red, usually because I only use it when stealing her L’Oréal lipstick. My daughter self. The oak frame accentuates my brows. In the bathroom mirror at the library, I only ever see my acne. My studious self. In my dorm, there’s a blue-trimmed full body mirror leaning against the floor. I don’t know the self, here. Reality splits the air between my eyes and the glass. The face, body, clothes, makeup, earrings, shoes reflecting at me seem so alive and imagined. They can’t be mine. I do a body check before leaving for the day and see a different person in every mirror passed until I go home.


My grandfather backhanded my grandmother in the RV bedroom, the day before my birthday. My brother and I moved, shoving each other outside. We didn’t know exactly why, and we didn’t know what to do next. We swallowed and looked at each other’s knees. Our grandmother cried, shrilled, raged at our grandfather, muted through the walls. Whatever he responded with was sharp, harsh, biting, moved us to unlock our bikes. 

This was one of the nicer tourist trailer parks in South Dakota. We rode newly paved paths through the campers and RVs. Passed red Fords and golden retrievers. Upper-middle-class families with grinning, beer-bellied fathers. Mothers with long summer dresses, essential oils saturating their wrists. Other kids biked around. They gathered at a pavilion with restrooms and water fountains to play football. We joined them for a bit. 

Our grandmother biked around the corner. Her large body barely balanced on the small metal frame. Her joints grated louder than the rusted chains. She huffed and puffed when she pulled over beside us in the grass. She shielded her eyes from the sun with a freckled hand perpendicular to her forehead. It seemed like all the blood in her veins rushed to collect in her face. Her left cheek was tinted a bit purple. We’re going home, she said. 

I grinned. I missed my mom. Koen’s brow folded and he ran up to our grandmother to hug her. She sniffled hard. She said she’d drive us home in the Lincoln we’d been trailing with the RV. She said Pap would do the rest of the drive by himself. She said we needed to be good kids for her, though, or she wouldn’t be able to do it. We agreed.

When we rode back to the trailer, my grandfather was flipping steaks on the pull-out grill outside the RV. My grandmother smiled at him. I knew we weren’t going home.


I wondered what my grandmother saw when she looked in the RV mirror. What parts of her face did she focus on so hard they enlarged? How did that illusion haunt her perception of herself? Maybe she stared at the red pores on her nose until they gaped and filled with oil. Maybe the oil on her forehead looked more like sweat to her. Maybe her forehead grew so wide she saw her hairline receding five inches instead of one.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and my face morphs into some ugly construction. After a few minutes of staring at a not-me, I flare my nostrils and smile. This smile looks violent. Frightening. This is usually in the small makeup mirror I keep at the edge of my desk. My grandmother often pulls a compact mirror from her purse to pluck white hairs from her chin. Another thing I wonder: What faces does she make when she’s alone?


Before the Badlands, back at home in my mother’s house, Pennsylvania, I washed my hands in the bathroom sink. My new father’s cigarette butts had drug ash across the ceramic bowl. He left the orange filters to soak in whatever water passed over them throughout the day. They crowded together in a soggy mass. Yellow stains tinted the grout between the turquoise wall tiles. Vignette edges smoked the mirror.

I’ll summarize that household: post-parental-divorce pit stop on my mother’s way to building a new life; a man, my mother’s high school flame, freshly clean from heroin, arrived two weeks earlier from prison; a fun diet—ramen, popcorn, Lipton chicken noodle packets; twin Bluetooth speakers in Koen and I’s rooms, so we could drown out the noises from the new couple’s bedroom; my mom smoking weed for the first time; lots of love. So much love. The love made it the warmest house I’d ever lived in.

I thought I must feel angry about the cigarettes, but I didn’t. I knew some younger version of myself would have stomped up to my mother and raged. I didn’t care at all. I tried to fabricate anger on my face. I furrowed my brow and pursed my lips. The reflection looked wrong. What looked even more wrong was my face’s placid cool when I let my features rest. It didn’t look like me. I raised my hand in front of my face and stared in total disbelief. That couldn’t be my hand, it didn’t feel like mine. Nothing felt like mine. I couldn’t feel me.


At the climbing spot, a thin boardwalk led around the boulders to a break in the sandstone, a rough circle. A window of sorts. White sunlight pierced through the sediment’s edges. Beyond, another postcard picture of the Badlands. To the right, a classic National Park plaque inlaid with metal words. Four-inch slats of wood raised from either side of the boardwalk. Below the boardwalk, a two-foot drop onto pebbles and stones.

“I dare you to walk on the sides.” Koen’s lips split into a grin around his yellow teeth. His cheek fat raised with his smile. His skin summer-stained from weeks of outdoor adventures that July. His overgrown bangs twisted in the wind.

“Sure.” I stepped onto the makeshift balance beam. “Can’t be that hard.”

And it shouldn’t have been. But my 14-year-old body had legs like a foal. Obnoxiously long. I didn’t know how to work them yet. So, I fell.

I felt pain, but it didn’t hurt. A rock sliced my knee. Blood poured out. Pebbles shaved off every layer of skin but the last from my shin. 

“Idiot.” Koen held out a hand, pulled me up to the boardwalk. He yelled for our grandmother.

I crouched and touched the brush burn. The blood beneath flexed away where my finger met the skin. A harsh sting bit my leg. Still, it didn’t hurt. I decided it might be a fun idea to gain a new scar for every cool park we visited for the rest of the trip. (That idea ended abruptly after a “fall” at Glacier and a scolding from my grandmother over the behavior).

Back in the trailer, my grandfather called me a “strong girl” for not crying. I beamed at the intended compliment, yet again felt nothing. 


Six months after the trip, my step-dad overdosed. I wasn’t at the house when it happened. The week before, Koen and I stepped over a garden of empty beer cans to get to the door of our new house. My brother swung into the kitchen for an after-school snack.

The house was small. Our washer and dryer rumbled to the left of the front door. On the other side, the wood stove burned away January’s chill. The main room held our living area where a red woven recliner faced away from the door. Jimmy’s buzz cut peeked over the top. His wrists laid out on the chair’s arms, loose. Strong hands. His veins thick, crossing inside his forearms like chicken wire. 

He was usually watching Judge Judy when we came home, but the TV was turned off. The only sounds in the house were the wood stove’s crackles and Koen rooting through kitchen cabinets. 

“Hey, Jimmy, what are we having for dinner?” 

He didn’t answer. I repeated myself. He didn’t answer. I walked in front of the chair.

It looked like he was close to knocking out—sleepy eyes, small breaths, head bent forward a bit. He didn’t look at me.

“Are you okay?”

He grunted. I walked outside. I called my mom. She said it was adult stuff. 

The next week, he survived the overdose. I thought I should be scared or sad, but I wasn’t. That lack of feeling brought cognitive panic and bodily calm.


The morning of my fourteenth birthday, I asked my grandfather if we might visit the cliffs once more before heading to Montana. With his grandchildren, he is tender. He blew on his coffee, sipped, then set it on the kitchenette table. He said yes. I hopped out of the seat across from him and rapped on the bathroom door where my brother brushed his teeth. I let him know the morning plans. We woke early on the cross-country trip, so the sun hadn’t caught up with us yet. We bounded around the RV, waiting for my grandmother to finish the breakfast dishes and laundry. Once she put the last plastic plate in the cupboard, we all escaped to the outside.

My grandparents entertained my brother when he asked them to watch him climb the boulders. I had a moment alone.

I closed my eyes.

Each breath pulled air marinated in gravel. That air burrowed gray valleys into the bottoms of my lungs. My ribs rose to bracket the tissue, layered red, brown, and when I exhaled, they contracted, pouring the breath out of the valleys, pressing the layers together. I held the bottom of that breath. This is where the Badlands live, solidified. Their dust and rocks squeezed together; their water evaporated. The terrain has lodged itself inside my chest. A reflection. A burrowing. An offering.

brooke mitchell
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Brooke Mitchell is a queer Appalachian writer obsessed with memory. She savors mac and cheese, lyric poetry, and calm moments with her closest friends.