The Secret on the Dog-Eared Page

by Sierra Duncan

            Go back ten years, flip the pages of a decade with the edge of your thumb and stop when you get to age twenty. You’ll find me there with long box-dyed black hair and wearing a dark blue and white polka dot dress with ruffles—a dress that was considered fun in 2011 and embarrassing any time past that. I had been out of my teens for a little over a month and gave off the impression of someone who was still in the middle of metamorphizing into adulthood and not ready to emerge from the chrysalis. It is February 4, and I am at an apartment that is being rented by my cousin and her boyfriend to get ready to celebrate his birthday. I am making sure the tattoo I had gotten on the back of my arm a few weeks prior is visible—a tattoo I would, in time, frequently forget I have but used to think would give off an illusion that I was cool and worth knowing. Tonight that is important because I will be surrounded by people who will be here for the birthday. People I don’t know yet but want to impress because I care too much about what people think.

            If you were to fold the corner of the page right there to come back to and resume your flipping, you would find me eight years later. I am telling a friend that I have always written poems. I wonder if I spark imagery with my words of composition notebooks filled with childish handwriting. I have claimed this story as true so many times that it feels like I have somehow revised my actual childhood to reflect it. The reality of my elementary school days feature me as a child with constantly scraped knees and an endless flow of energy. A child that could barely sit long enough to do homework. No, that girl wasn’t writing poems after school…nor was she quiet and reflective, carefully observing the world around her in wonderment as she was called by intuition to become a poet. She was just a kid climbing a tree in a backyard and riding her bike until it got dark and she had to go home. She accepted the world around her without further thought. She was content in being a kid: nothing less, nothing more.

            Let’s keep skimming though, see if there is a secret reason hidden somewhere in these pages that one would protect with a lie about something so trivial as when they started writing poems. The pages dance by before halting at age twenty-one. It’s the year after the birthday night from the dog-eared page. I am working at a pet supply store and scribbling on a blank piece of receipt paper. My hair has been cut short and never trimmed, resulting in a slight mullet. My uniform sleeve covers my tattoo and I make no effort to roll it up like I would have before. I am annoyed when anyone comes up to the register, putting the pen I’m gripping down and not making eye contact. There is a heavily highlighted copy of a Sylvia Plath poetry collection with me. This is the year that I carried it around like a Bible. The lines that I go back to writing after the customer leaves are derivative of Plath to a blatant degree, which means that I must have started writing within that last year and am still developing my own voice. Which means we’re close.

            Flip. We’re back to the dog-eared page of age twenty. You may take this time to smooth the crease on the corner of the page, or maybe leave it there as this is an important night if we’re to make sense of anything that comes after. It’s the catalyst that will put the ink on my hands, but first it will grab me by my hips and inject my bones with marrow made of the stars from the sky above me, making that night become part of my biology and stay with me forever. It will fill my veins with the Long Island Iced Tea that I didn’t order but ended up paying for anyway.

            On this page though, I don’t know about that. I am still half girl half woman, three kisses under my belt and feeling rebellious that I get to go to a bar underage due to my cousin knowing the owner. On this page, I am whole and every cell of my being belongs to me. I would like to stay here at this part, just a little while longer, but we must go on. In the last lines before it all begins—and ends, I am fiddling in front of the bathroom mirror with the ruffle of my dress and filled with a mix of nervousness and excitement. This is when I hear the front door open, and people start to fill the living room. It’s time. Before I walk out and face everyone, I give my reflection another glance.

            I ask that you read that line again, and maybe once more. Just to keep me from opening that door and walking out for a moment. Can you do that for me?

            That wasn’t a fair request, I know. What is printed on these pages is permanent and won’t change whether we read on or not. Besides, the truth that I protect behind fictional stories of a child forever with a pencil in her hand is hidden only because it is wrapped in a secret that may be revealed soon.

            When you turn the page, you most likely will find the words printed there to be faded and smudged. The first lines on the page introduce a new character. Someone I’ve never met before: a man two years older than me. He is a high school friend of the birthday boy, and I immediately feel shy because I think he is beautiful. This is when the ink begins to smear. It may take some time to piece what happened next together. That can be understandable when things aren’t clear and you only have shapes of letters to make out. I can see some things: he has blue eyes, don’t embarrass yourself in front of him, he says “got you a drink,” stumble, “I got you…just lean on me,” shut the door, no, it hurts.

            We could keep going and see if the page after is clearly printed, but all we’ll find is a nonsensical arrangement of words. If you piece them together like a ransom note, you’ll have a puzzle piece of a story featuring a girl who can’t walk from the alcohol in her system being half led/half dragged to a hall closet and the door being shut by the boy with blue eyes. Her mumbling no. A bite to his shoulder after she feels the sharp, startling pain. Cheers from the people at the party after they stumble out. The girl wakes up the next morning and hears a voice from someone asking if anyone told her she isn’t a virgin anymore. After that, there is nothing printed at all as you keep flipping until you get to months later. I can’t tell you if anything of note happened in the months that were supposed to be described in those pages. I know as much as you do about that time. I wasn’t there for it either, not really. What I do know is that you can feel like you’re drowning on solid ground.

            Finally, once you find get through enough blank pages there will be one with something on it written in pen like an annotation. It will only read “Sylvia Plath-Mad Girls Love Song” as if to remember it. As if it were important. This is the beginning after the end. This is when the boy with blue eyes and the cheers and the filthy night gets exorcised from my body with ink instead of Holy Water.

            We could keep skipping around different pages. Read about different years. There isn’t much of note though. Past that handwritten reminder there are just stories of a girl who, for three years, was held in the embrace of dead poets when that February night would sneak in her room and surround her. A girl that used a pen to carefully extract the poison just under her skin so it could be used as ink instead. A girl with the secret that she was no child poet or prodigy. She was just someone who found a way to heal.

About the Author

Sierra Duncan is a writer based in Baltimore, MD. She is a student at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where expects to graduate in 2023 and go on to pursue an MLIS. Along with being a member of Sigma Tau Delta, she has also had two poems, “Juniper” and “Burns” published in the 2021 literary magazine The Offering. Currently, Sierra is compiling her poetry into a collection intended to bring focus to healing and mental health.