That Bright Beautiful World
Ten years after devastating nuclear war, sixteen-year-old Hayden is used to the blinking lights and meager meals of his bunker. But when the administration inexplicably abandons a years-in-the-making plan to emerge and rations plummet, Hayden itches for an excuse to leave. It comes in human form when Brita, a mysterious girl with no long-term memory, stumbles upon their bunker and proves the outside’s survivability.
You Will Roam
When she witnesses a teacher commit suicide, seventeen-year-old Ana experiences a thrill that proves what she has always suspected: she is a sociopath. Ana uses her newfound powers of manipulation to find new sources of entertainment—like flirting with obviously-gay Logan or kissing naïve, homeschooled weirdo Reby.
Conversations with Logan and a summer tryst with Ana form Reby’s Normal People 101 course. Next step: public school. The people she gets to know there inspire her to paint in color again. But as her art begins to sell in galleries, she discovers that her “friends” don’t have her best interests at heart.
Logan likes guys. When his mother hears the rumors, she relentlessly tries to convince him otherwise. While Ana plays his girlfriend (a little too well), Logan tries to convince Reby to like him (because she’s much less annoying), all while resisting his attraction to that cute guy he meets at Volunteer Club.
Future. Time. Plans.
Amber, Mother, and Best Friend Haley pushed through glass doors of the South Meadow Mall, leaving the world of cool refinement for the wobbling hot parking lot.
Caramel Frappuccino oozed down Amber’s lidless cup and in between her fingers. There was something so sophisticated about the burnt sugar/coffee flavor melting down her tongue. But not all sticky on her hand! And now her rhinestone sandal was slipping off her foot. As she stopped to readjust it, Haley slapped her thigh. “Missed a spot, Amb. Or are you a feminist now?”
Amber looked down and sure enough, brown leg hairs glistened in the sun. “Whatever. I’ll shave before Cam’s bonfire.”
“Or don’t. Less competition for me.”
Amber’s mother flashed her a significant look. “Cam? He’s that cute guy you were telling me about, right?”
“Yeah, he is,” Amber confided, smiling. She swiftly frowned again after remembering her vow to not smile and thereby avoid wrinkles—like Kim Kardashian.
“This is the fucking Serengeti!” Haley moaned. She was right. The South Meadow Mall, being the only serious fashion establishment for some twenty mid-sized small towns, did have an expansive parking lot. But Amber didn’t mind. She liked parking lots. They were in between spaces. No decisions had to be made there. Nobody ever had to anything important to do in a parking lot. The heat soaking her skin, the shopping bags in her hand, the bright plans for the rest of the day made her feel like everything was as it should be.
The tradition of going to Starbucks with Haley, harassing employees, and getting carm fraps originated mid-1st semester senior year as something to do after telling her mother and step-dad Michael that she couldn’t go to school because “she was soooooo stressed” (read: senior sliding hardcore).
But now it was summer and the only responsibility was attending the many grad parties she and Haley had been invited to. Haley wanted to make a rule to only go to the ones they had a reasonable hope of sneaking alcohol from. But Amber’s favorites had been the ones semi-popular girls had invited them to with photo-stock cards of them as gap-toothed children. She loved the deer-in-the-headlights look they always flashed her as she actually showed up.
And that was the situation she was walking into today, she supposed—for her cousin Estefani’s party.
“Where am I dropping you off again?” Amber’s mother asked disinterestedly as she fumbled for her keys.
“Stef’s grad party.”
“Oh God. Really?” her mother raised a perfectly penciled eyebrow and laughed. “Haven’t seen the Morales’ since Mistake left for greener pastures.”
Amber stirred her Frappuccino. Freaking barista didn’t put in enough ice. It was melting already. Her mother had the habit of calling her biological father Mistake instead of Miguel, which was fine. Fine.
Honestly, he was a mistake. When Amber was younger, before her mother divorced him, he wasn’t that bad. Quiet, odd, but kind. She thought it was funny when he called her Ahm-Bear because it was “the Spanish way to say it.” And when he watched her in awe as she completed one of her famous up-dos. He would always say he was fixing it by pulling on her curls, which was so annoying.
But when she was twelve, he got laid off and his symptoms started. An old high school friend was out to get him. He controlled the weather. Staring at walls and mumbling to himself was a diverting pastime.
Amber pulled out the pieces of her love for him like she the bobby pins in her up-dos: carefully, one by one, smoothing out the kinks in their absence.
Loving him was the mistake.
“Honey, are you sure you want to go?” Amber’s mother asked her as they arrived. She seemed weary hearing the bachata music and hearty Mexican laughs filling the streets.
“Sure I am.” Amber stepped out of the car, but for a moment she closed her eyes and wished she was back at the parking lot.
“I’ll be there in an hour to save you!” Haley shouted before slamming the door shut.
Amber watched them drive off, and then had no choice but to turn and see what lay in store for her.
Toys and children littered the yard. A crayon-stained plastic table strained to hold its bowl of lip-staining punch, its cooler of sweating Coronas, its mismatched plates of mini wieners and still-steaming tamales. Relative after relative, in five dollar sundresses, in stained khakis and polos, leaned against the table to fill their plates. In eighth grade, Amber had to buy Stef a pair of tweezers and force her to use it only days before the impending doom of her brows merging into one. No one at this party, she comforted herself, had the right to judge her leg hair.
She scanned the crowd: vaguely familiar faces who did not seem to sense her. As nice as it was to sit back and not have to answer to anyone, she wished someone would say hi at least. Finally, girls her age who she assumed were Stef’s private school friends eyed her. Their stares reminded her of Miguel. The fantastic nature of his delusions were nothing to his ability to stare at walls for hours, barely blinking. Sometimes she would have to shake his shoulders and yell his name before his eyes would focus into hers.
Then the stares from Miguel’s family. They were familiar too. When he left they came to her house often, commandeering the kitchen and making meals like someone had died. Amber’s mother tried to shoo them away. It wasn’t a hardship—Miguel was just finally getting the help he needed!—and she didn’t even really like spicy food anyway. Amber couldn’t do her homework at the kitchen table anymore because of the absolute compassion in their eyes.
Sara, Stef’s mother, stood across the yard at that very moment with her eyes squinting in empathy. Amber realized that her invitation to this party might have been more of a formality, an act of pity, and not the for-old-times’-sake she had hoped it would be.
When she went to school the day after her father “entered the facility,” she expected to hear whispers about her crazy dad and more pitying gazes. Instead she got party invites. A boy asked her to prom. Girls in braces shamelessly watching her as if in wait for a makeover. She turned them all down.
It proved that her tan skin, her highlighted, meticulously curled hair, and her designer clothes were all they knew about her.
Which meant she could be anyone.
Amber strode to the cooler, wiped the dew off the sides of beers and stuffed a few into her bag. If she couldn’t get a look of doe-eyed shock to thank her for coming, she was at least going to get alcohol. She stared down some private school girls leaning against the table, daring them to stop her.
Suddenly Amber’s littlest cousin, Rosita, broke out from a pack of running children and embraced her legs, pressing her cheeks right against the area Haley had just been scrutinizing. “Oh hey,” Amber said, unable to stay afloat under the waves of the girl’s excited Spanish. She backed away from the cooler, knelt down, and returned the hug.
Something in the air broke and now Sara could approach her—there was no leaving now. Sara said she missed her, why didn’t she come around more, and how was Miguel?
God. This. Sara hadn’t changed her bit. She started the same way every time, asking the same things since Miguel left.
Amber closed her eyes and wished that all of it would just go away.
“Look, I don’t know how he is, okay? Anymore than you do. I haven’t visited him in a while.”
Sara bit her lips and closed her eyes to stop from crying. “I visit him every week. He doesn’t seem to be getting better. But I bet if you came. . .”
Right. She could visit and make the crazy go away. Because she did that so well when he lived in the same house with her.
Mercifully, Sara turned away as Stef made an appearance, lugging her cello across the yard. Even her littlest cousins stopped mid-tag to watch their sister. Everyone, the whole 100 something person party was captivated by this somewhat clumsy woman whose wide hips, music stand, and cello barely fit on the makeshift stage of her front step. Thank you, thank you for coming, Estefani was saying. She blushed, but Amber noticed that her speech was much less affected than it used to be.
Bitterness rose in her throat. It had been two years ago since she’d really seen her. At their shared quinceañera.
It had started so well. Giggling in excitement with Stef as Sara slowly placed jewelry on each of them. Pieces she had worn at her quinceañera. Her mother watching wanly with light bursts of curiosity like when she scrolled through the newest houses on the market. Her father watching, really seeing her for the first time in months.
“I um, I wrote this song.” Estefani said. “It’s called—well it’s untitled I guess. I’ll just play it.” She said this again in Spanish. And after straightening the instrument, plucking and replucking the strings, and taking a deep sigh, she went on to start the song with cool precision.
At the quinceañera, Amber remembered, she had felt strangely repulsed and seduced to her own self in the mirror. Spinning the light red poof of her skirt with her spidery/delicate arms. Fingering the obnoxious/beautiful brocade of the bodice. Breathing and disturbed/amazed at the rise and fall of her newfound breasts. She had cleavage now, she realized. The adult word made her think that what everyone was saying about her growing up was real and alive and unchangeable.
Amber watched Estefani with an unfamiliar discomfort. It was just that—she didn’t look different, no. It was just that Amber allowed herself, for the first time, to notice that Stef was beautiful. It was in all of the ways that she wasn’t. That she couldn’t have and until this point had been happy not to have. Her glowing dark hair and skin. Her wide hips shimmering in a blue silken dress.
Where was the speaker that was actually playing the ornate, passionate sound? Stef played a trembling note that made the hair on her neck, arms, and legs tickle and she was about to stand up and cheer when she felt nails digging into her wrist. Haley.
Thank God she hadn’t cheered because the song apparently wasn’t over. Haley and Amber wove to the edge of the yard and Haley was saying “Are you done with this little pity fest already? I need your help. I need to get ready for the bonfire tonight. Cam is sooooo hot. Do my hair, please.”
Haley knew she liked Cam. She knew that. Amber’s heart sunk, and not with shock, but with the knowing that this was exactly what she could expect with Haley. After explaining what she was doing, she could have said Haley’s lines right with her: “God, do you still care about Estefani Morales? Are you regretting hanging out with me instead of her?”
Suddenly, against Stef’s song soft in the background, the shrillness of Haley’s voice felt unbearable. Amber turned away and said, “Just go.”
That one moment would mean hours of hell with Haley later, but it felt right. It seemed to match the next movement in Stef’s piece, as she almost sawed the cello, strings breaking and curling at the ends of the instrument. Amber’s fingers curled into her palms. Her blood beat against her ears in some sort of righteous anger, Or maybe it was exhilaration. Or fear. Some feeling that broke the cycle of apathy and Friday nights of pot and vodka. She didn’t even watch to see Haley leave.
Stef only got Haley to go to that quinceañera by explaining that it wasn’t weird, it was just like a sweet sixteen. Haley snapped her bubble gum in the front pew during mass. As soon as they got to Stef’s house, Haley’s nails dug into her wrist. “Where is for the best place to smoke? You owe me for that hour of hell.” Amber trembled up the screaming wood steps to bring her into Estefani’s room.
Amber couldn’t help but smile at the way Stef had resisted her suggestions for redecoration. The posters of “famous” classical musicians and the bed full of stuffed animals comforted her now. It was so nice to be somewhere that was the same when everything else in the world was changing.
But then an earthshaking catastrophe—bears jumping off the bedside as Haley rampaged through. Amber could only watch as she disassembled the smoke detector, crushing other bears as she sat on the bed. Her lighting a little pipe and bringing it to Amber’s mouth and telling her to breathe in real deep.
The door opened, Stef’s wide eyes. “Um,” she had said. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Come here. Let me fix your bangs,” Amber commanded. Stef coughed from the pot smoke but sat by her like she always did, criss cross applesauce as Amber heated up the straight iron.
Miguel barged in, said he’d gotten Stef’s texts (fucking narc).
Even now she tried to forget the way Miguel’s eyes sparkled in the way her new step-dad Michael’s couldn’t. She remembered his smooth face, the way he pressed her to him so she couldn’t breathe, how instead of saying she was pretty he said she was special and smart and should know better than to smoke. That it was really too bad she chose today to do this. For one moment he wasn’t a crazy guy, he was her dad again, and she was his little girl.
Estefani ended the song softly and returned to her shy self, carefully placing her cello back in its case. She stood up and bowed and thanked the whistling audience. “Hey, Amber!” Stef shouted as their eyes met. She leaned her cello against her brother for safekeeping and then rushed off the stage and embraced her in the same open way Rosita had. “Ey prima! I haven’t seen you in so long!”
Amber’s face flushed, surprised. Stef hugged her so long she couldn’t do anything but melt into the embrace. None of this stiff-armed peck on the cheek thing.
And then they stood apart, holding each other’s elbows, looking into each other’s eyes.
They were both silent then. They walked to a table shaded by the canopy until the wind blew it to the side. Relatives from all sides ran over to right it again. It took several tries before they could stand it up and stake it back in the ground before the wind toppled it over again.
“It’s been so long,” Estefani began.
“Yeah. . .” Amber pulled a beer out of her bag and, much to Stef’s alarm, banged the top against the side of the table until the metal cap came off.
“I felt bad—“ BANG “—leaving. I wanted to—“ BANG “—stay and help you find your—“BANG “—way. Especially after your Papi left.” BANG “—I had no idea he was really leaving for good.”
Amber shrugged and sipped victoriously from her now open bottle of beer. “You should have let me curl your hair!” She would have looked so nice with her shiny hair done up. Not to mention some more makeup. Close up, it was clear that she still needed some help.
“I don’t. . . I mean I guess,” Stef said.
“Like, your hair even holds curls better than mine. I remember that.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Stef nodded, fiddling with dull, unmade strands of hair.
“I could come over some time and—”
“I don’t think you know this yet,” Stef said. “But I’m going to Julliard.”
“Oh,” Amber said. “Who’s Julliard?”
Stef smiled and paused, basking in Amber’s ignorance. “It’s a big fancy music school, Amb. In New York City.” She embraced Amber before she could finish congratulating her. “I can’t even believe this is all happening. My dreams are coming true, I mean—the hard work was really worth it! It was so lucky I got to transfer schools.”
Amber strained to imagine Stef outside the context of South Meadow, Minnesota. Maybe in New York or wherever people were into unmade faces and messy hair. Best of fucking luck.
Amber pulled away and choked on a swig of beer as she tried to imitate Haley’s condescending giggle. “Well, Jesus Stef, that private school made you dramatic. Public school wasn’t so bad. I was there to help you along. You were so close to figuring everything out.” It wasn’t a big deal. To just give a shit about how she looked. Take an hour to think about something other than her music for an hour out of every day.
Estefani giggled politely and hugged Amber again, even as she pushed her off. Every embrace felt more and more patronizing.
The moment after she had seen her father (the real him and not just his body) for the last time and for what she knew would be the last time, Stef tucked freshly straightened strands behind her ear, said she got a scholarship to some private school, and was going to transfer. To focus on music.
Amber hadn’t responded to either of them. She locked her mouth together. She was NOT going to ask them. She would not let them see her be that weak.
Haley lied back on the bed, suffocating all those bears, laughing over a joke no one else heard. When everyone else left she said that now that Stef was going, they could finally be BFFL.
And Amber told herself that she was the one making the right choice. Never actually coming out to the quinceañera. Smoking herself out of the choking realm of reality: him leaving. Doing so ever since.
“Isn’t there,” Amber asked Stef, “a music school around here? Is it really necessary to move?”
“There’s nothing for me here.” Estefani drew back, squeezed her shoulders in tender, final way, like they would not be seeing each other for a long, long time.
Amber no longer felt strong enough not to ask: “What about me?”
“Oh yeah,” Stef said brightly. “What are your plans now that you’re graduated?”
Future. Time. Plans. Amber never liked talking about any of them. For a moment, she just stood there, reaching for the words to say the only thing she knew about what was ahead for her.
“I’m going to Cam’s bonfire tonight. . .”
First day of summer and Isaac sits on my step. Leather jacket, faded jeans, cigarette. I think of something to say.
“Those will kill you, you know.”
“Most pleasurable way to die, you know.”
My heart sputters when he says things like that. For fifteen he’s unreasonably good at blowing smoke rings and talking about death. His dark, blank eyes hypnotize as they analyze. I can’t stop myself from pulling the cig from his fingers, putting it out against the concrete step, and pressing my lips against his.
He always just tolerates this. My lips press desperately into his for the slightest response until he gives in and presses back a little. My favorite part of the ritual is that we never speak about it, except for his sly smile and my sigh.
“Kimberly!” Mom shrieks, eyes squinting through a rip in the screen door. “What kind of example are you setting for the children?” It would be a lie to say they aren’t even around because there’s Bethy, six, running to my ankles and insisting I push her on the swing.
“We can go somewhere else if it’s a problem,” says Isaac, always.
“You’re the problem,” says my mother, half-joking and half-serious, always. She glowers at me. “You know I need your help here. Especially in the summer.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I say. I swallow my anger and it builds up in my chest like phlegm.
I take Bethy’s hand and walk her to the swing. A more accurate verb is saunter. When I turn around quickly enough, Isaac doesn’t have time to hide his smile, and I’m light again. Bethy scrambles onto the swing and cautiously lifts her feet up, and I expertly press against her back and she is flying. Long ago, before the second swing fell off, before I had periods and acne, before Dad had his first seizure, before I could realize what crap life actually is, Isaac and I swung up to see who could go up the highest. It was always a tie and then we would screech to a stop with our bare feet just to make matching clouds of dust.
He came over for the first time when he was five and his mother dragged him over from across the street to my house, Bunny Hutch Daycare. I was five too, and annoyed that my mother chose to fill our house with other women’s crying, shitting babies. We had no choice but to become quick allies, if not friends.
But I didn’t really think it was an advantage, growing up next to him. He had too much time to get used to me. The only interesting thing about me are my hips, which seem too extravagant for this small Minnesota town, for this house where each slice of stale bread is treated like treasure. Otherwise I look like a farmer’s daughter. Small lips. Large but dull brown eyes. Clumsy man hands. Hair the color of dishwater. I see him looking at the pretty, rich, popular girls at school like they’re candy. Still, he hangs around here. I’ve seen him make excuses to much blonder, larger-breasted girls so he could spend more time with me. And now, despite his even lips, I see something like want in his eyes.
We stay like that: Isaac staring behind a veil of cigarette smoke; Bethy yelling higher higher; me halfheartedly pushing and thinking too much about him. Mom comes to get the twins cleaned up and I take Hannah’s place on the swing. The sky darkens and I feel the itch of real or imagined mosquitoes. Mom calls out the window, “Dinner!” I tell Isaac to come up with me.
Both parents’ heads turn when they see him. “Isaac! Stay, stay. Invite your mom over if you want,” my dad says quickly, before my mom can break her grimace enough to speak.
“I’m not sure we have enough food for everyone, dear.”
“Oh, we have plenty.”
Isaac pulls out a chair, hesitantly sits. “I wouldn’t ask,” he says, “but you know I like your cooking better.” This always softens my mom’s expression, just a bit.
Dad scoops up a steaming plop of the hotdish for Isaac, then presses his hands together. As he starts to pray, Isaac is blowing on his food. “Dear”—pfft— “Heavenly”—Pfft— “Father.” Isaac always forgets that we pray. He belatedly puts his hands together, looking almost embarrassed.
As we eat the only sound is silverware scraping against our plates. It gives me too much time to think.
The reason why it’s like this—why Isaac is so often half-invited to awkward dinners—is that Isaac’s mom has different men over a lot. Almost every weekend you can expect to see some sheepish man closing Isaac’s front door and slinking off. Also, she’s a terrible cook. To my dad, this is no reason to like Isaac less, as he’s always had a “judge not lest you be judged” kind of philosophy.
But for some reason, my mother’s never liked Isaac’s mother or by extension Isaac. Maybe it’s the freedom that woman has, to not be tied down to an invalid. Maybe my mom doesn’t like how she raised Isaac and who he became because of it. Maybe she thinks that Isaac is a bad influence on me, her precious only daughter. The best clue is a memory so old and faded I’m not all that convinced it wasn’t a dream. My parents hushed arguing as I walked up the stairs. Their gaping lips and wide eyes as they saw me. Mom unable to stop herself from saying, “Did you really think that woman would take care of you like I do?”
When Isaac has finished, I tap him on the shoulder so I can walk him to the door. I watch him as he walks across the alley to his house, swings his hips dramatically side to side, and I laugh in spite of myself. When I’m with him, my parents’ worries seem so distant. It’s some other woman yelling at some other girl whose father is some other sick man.
Mom hangs up the phone gently. She’s squinting, the clear sign that she is trying not to cry. She pops in Cinderella, ignores Hanna’s and Bethy’s protests that they’ve seen it too many times, and fumbles through her coat pocket for her keys.
She doesn’t have to say a word. I know what’s going on, even though it’s been a year. Dad must have had a seizure at work, so she has to bring him to the doctor. The tumor must be back.
For having brain cancer, my dad’s pretty chill about it. He just goes to work at the plant, comes home, eats two helpings of dinner, and goes to bed. Sometimes it acts up and he has to stop working. We live off sick leave, then vacation pay. He sits in the living room watching construction shows and popping methadone. And then the doctors zap him enough and he gets better. I tell myself I don’t have to worry.
“Don’t forget to make lunch,” Mom says. “And I don’t feel like dealing with Isaac today. He can’t come over.”
I wait just until the clacking sound of her engine fades before I dial Isaac’s number.
He’s over in a second and Bethy and Hannah run from the screen to chant “Isaac! Isaac! Isaac!” He smiles lightly at his fame. The kids get sick of chanting his name eventually, as they always do, when nothing magical occurs. I back into the kitchen and he follows.
“What happened, K?” he murmurs.
“He’s back in the hospital.”
He frowns, brushes my cheek, walks past me. He digs in all our cupboards, pulling out old cookbooks and rusty pans until he finds what he is looking for: a giant silver thin-bottomed pot.
“WHO WANTS ISAAC SOUP?!?!?!” he bellows. The twins crash into the kitchen to watch. Here comes the magic. Every Isaac Soup is different. He somehow knows, after tasting a scoopful, exactly how much of which spice it needs. Our cupboards are full right now—the soup gets noodles, carrots, onion, celery, garlic, tomato, and corn. They won’t be so full when the vacation pay runs out.
Hannah and Bethy help cut the vegetables with butter knives. They take turns ducking their heads in the steam, taking a big whiff, and rubbing their tummies in anticipation. Their wide eyes track us as we ladle deliciousness into their bowls. We set the bowls in front of them with the condition that they blow off all the steam before eating.
After I fail to move Isaac scoops me the biggest bowl, blows the steam into my face. I thank him, but I cannot raise a spoon to my mouth.
“Is it awful that my dad’s in the hospital and the only thing I can think about is how my mom left me to watch the twins?”
“No,” he says in an almost rude way. He takes a big slurp. “Look, Kim, if I were you I’d never put up with this shit.”
The twins watch us, interest piqued at a swear word.
“Jesus!” he says louder. “Can I say anything around here?” They giggle.
It’s uncomfortable, the way he always takes the side I want to, but can’t. I set down my cold bowl, turn away.
He stands puts his arms on my shoulders, kneads out the knots in them. He could be an exorcist because it feels like his hands can free demons. Makes me feel so light I want to cry. I don’t want to feel better.
“Isaac, why are you here? Why do you still come here.”
“Because you’re my girlfriend.”
“OOOOOOOOOH,” the twins say in unison.
“Your girlfriend? When did that happen?” I say.
He pinches my side. “You will be, anyway. In a year or two. When you finally stand up to your mom.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You’ll be so much more beautiful when you’re free.”
It’s like he slapped me—I feel a sting and then numbness. I’ve imagined this love avowal for years, and I expected to be grinning in victory. But it’s happened too quick, all at the wrong time, said the wrong way.
Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my—
Isaac pulls me out of my book and we’re down the stairs, through the door. Bare feet on the metal bars of his back wheel, arms around his chest, and we’re already off. We ride through cracked gravel and alleys and unpaved roads. Right past stop signs. Faster, faster, I tell him. I hit his back. We stop at the railroad tracks.
A sign at the side of tracks says Private Property. I stop and stare at it. Swallow because guilt is a feeling I can taste—a sour clamminess at the back my throat.
“You want to kiss me, don’t you? Kick down that sign.” Isaac often taunts me like this, offering his lips as a prize for being brave.
I stay where I am until Isaac throws down his bike, plucks the sign out of the ground himself, and raises it in the air like he’s protesting.
I told Isaac a week ago that he had to get me out of the house. Both my parents have this new habit of staring at the walls, and I don’t really feel like I can join in. Every morning he knocks on my window and I climb out from the edges of my long-broken screen. I tell him I don’t care where we go, as long as it’s away. He’s clearly taking advantage of having me at full teasing disposal.
Most of the places we’ve gone to had the Private Property signs: an abandoned farmhouse, an old church with its own graveyard, the tiny grocery with the owner who doesn’t bother to lock his door. Isaac’s dared me to climb up a silo, lie on top of a grave, and eat a pickle from a ten-year-old jar—none of which I have done.
But I know he’s being sweet. Distracting me.
Isaac claims to have memorized the train schedules, but I still look behind me once in a while, just to be sure. The fact that we are walking between two parallel tracks makes it all the more frightening.
Isaac walks in one track and I step into the other, cross my arms. So we walk evenly in silence, each in our own tracks, until Isaac stops and turns to the side. Past the rail farthest from me, there is only a foot before the ground slopes sharply down to a road. He steps backward onto that rail. Doesn’t hold out his arms or lean.
I know that I should be shouting at him to get down, but there’s something strangely beautiful about it. For once his eyes are undoubtedly centered in mine, and they’re vulnerable, and they’re (I blush at the word) loving.
I realize that it’s never been invincibility that attracts me to him—he looks terribly fragile up there—it’s that he’s not afraid.
If the wind blew he would just fall right over, and he wouldn’t mind at all.
“Mom!” I yell in the general direction of the kitchen. “Is Dad up?”
“Yes. But don’t bother him.”
“I just want to—”
She comes out and puts her palm toward my face, a signal so rare and grave that I’ve learned to respect it. “I’m going out. But let him rest.” After shrugging on her purse she walks out and slams the front door shut.
She’s been strangely protective lately—and I’m not sure if it’s of me or my father. It couldn’t hurt to play chess with him or something, could it?
“Kimber-lay! Kimber-lay!” My dad’s voice fills up the room with my name and the twang at the end that always makes me laugh.
I fill up a glass of the coldest tap water and walk up the stairs weighed down with guilt. When I open the door I am little shocked—he’s standing in his nicest khaki shorts and crispest polo, perfectly authoritative. I don’t think I’ve seen him so awake in years. “We’re going for a walk,” he says.
“Mom said—” But his finger to his lips makes me smile before I can finish. He strides down the stairs, opens the door, and fills the entire frame with his wide shoulders. “Summer already!” he shouts. Then furrows his brows. “Better mow when we get back.”
I can only follow in his confident steps. He turns at the unpaved road that lines our house, stops at its end. He smells the lilac bushes weighed down with purple blooms. Then he pushes back the boughs to reveal a small dirt path. The woods here are sparse, but enough to house beavers and birds and the occasional wide-eyed deer, and it’s always been a place to go when the house is boring.
The path is more grown over than I remember it—probably because with his cancer, my dad hasn’t been able to walk it as often anymore. He told me once that before him and my mom moved in, no one seemed to realize that the land was public property. That he singlehandedly formed the footpath, became a micropioneer.
Once we are under the canopy, my dad stops, just to breathe in the air. He looks at me, and patches of sun shimmer over his smile.
“How are you and Isaac doing, huh?” he asks, winking.
“What?!” I blush. I had no idea he knew about my feelings for Isaac, let alone that he would encourage them.
“It’s okay,” he says. “Your mother feels differently, but I know he’s a good kid. He’s been through a lot and turned out pretty well given his. . . situation at home.”
I nod, but I don’t really get it.
“Oh, stop. Stop,” he begs. I haven’t said anything, but I recognize his urgency for quiet. He squints up at the canopy, stretches his arm toward my shoulder, but I whisper that I see it, I see it. A White-Breasted Nuthatch, rarely so far north. Its blue feathers contrast with the lime green leaves. It’s like the view of earth from space.
“Birds,” he whispers, “are the embodiment of freedom.” He’s looking up and he does look free. A smile stretches his face open. His arms tremble as he tries to lift them up—or maybe the rising and falling is his attempt to fly.
Instead he falls. Collapses on the path he no longer has the time to tread.
I’ve done my chores perfectly today. In the morning I made my bed, scrubbed the toilet, even took out the trash before she screamed for me to get my ass out of bed. I welcomed each kid racing up the stairs with a smile. For lunch, I expertly microwaved seven meals—you want them to all be lukewarm by the time you serve them so they don’t burn their mouths and cry but not too cold that they only stir it all together and pout. You also can’t serve one kid before another because that is asking for a coup. So you heat the first meals longer than the last ones.
I didn’t let my anger show when they snuck into my room and declared it their fort. Painted my white carpet with my nail polish. I never really cared about the nail polish (it was a birthday present from my grandmother, certified gender-enforcement officer)—but I did care that there would perennially be a shiny pink stain on my carpet. I just shooed the tykes out and pressed the door closed behind us.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Mom tells me later. She is burping the youngest charge. Her eyes mist and she smiles in her sad way. Usually I take this kind of thing as a compliment, even though she only says it when I’m doing something of use to her, like sliding dusty Cheerios into the trash or talking down a testy two-year-old.
“What are you going to do when I graduate?”
“What do you mean?”
“I want to go to college.”
Mom pauses, places the baby in its crib.
“We’re not going to help you pay for it,” she said. “We can’t.”
“Whatever. It’s six o’clock. I’m going to go hang out with Isaac in a bit.”
She tilts her head. This isn’t how our conversations go. “No, you aren’t going out with Isaac. You’re going to go to your room and think about your tone. And then you’re going to finish cleaning up.”
My gut wrings itself out, like the emotions can drip out of it like a rag. I let anger fill it back up.
My phone buzzes—probably Isaac texting that he’s here. Mom glares at me. “I don’t even know how you see going out as a possibility. This place is still a mess.” She is speaking in that angry, disappointed tone that she knows usually makes me cry. “You know I need to help your father with his medicine. I don’t know what’s gotten into you. We need your help now more than ever.” I am standing at the door. “You know he doesn’t have much longer.”
A knock—Isaac’s warped face warped through the wavy glass window. I let him in before she can stop me. He enters, smiles at me, then narrows his eyes at my mother’s red face.
She’s standing on her tiptoes the way she does when she’s angry. Her head a foot above ours, she yells, “Are you kidding me, Kim? You’re going to pull this? Right now? I don’t have time for your teenage angst. Go to your room, NOW.”
“I’m sorry if my being my own person is an inconvenience to you.” The words come out stronger than expected. There is a sick satisfaction in saying something you’ve always wanted to say at exactly the moment that it will hurt most.
Isaac presses his bewildered smile against my lips. Just pulls me toward him, slips his hands into my hair, and frenches me a few inches from my mother’s face. She shoves us out the door and we stumble away.
“Ohmygod, you fucking did it!” Isaac throws his hands up and shouts with the intensity of a sports announcer. My laugh sounds strange and far away.
My father’s grin is enclosed in a frame. Mom took that picture when he was in the hospital and she brought him a Big Mac. Some people walk up to the casket and look in at his real, dead body. My legs are not capable of that. The begonias on either side make my eyes run from allergies. Rows and rows of people I barely know.
The pastor talks. My mother talks. People look at me and it takes a while to register that I am supposed to say something. I stand up, but I don’t try to make it to the podium. “The least you could have done,” I say, “would be to have some birds. Flowers? You know he was allergic like I am, right? What the fuck. It’s like you don’t know him at all.”
Bullshit hymns drive us out of the room. In another room there is weak coffee, bologna sandwiches, runny coleslaw, tasteless melon.
After stirring the food around my plate for an hour the conversations dissipate and we are allowed to leave.
As soon as I step out, I see Isaac sitting on a bench.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. Then, “Why are you so late?”
He looks down. “My mom’s passed out in our living room. I tried waking her up, but I decided to just walk.”
We’re quiet for a while. I sit down next to him and everything is still so goddamn beautiful and I’m mad that Dad doesn’t get to see this. Out here there are birds. A red-winged blackbird flying to her nest of hungry young. The sun staining the prairie grass yellow. An oak tree’s rusty leaves. Churches ought to be set in dismal places to make it easier to—
I clench the cold metal edge of the bench. When I finally glance at Isaac he’s staring just past my face.
You would think that the circumstances would have prevented this: his lips, on mine, at the worst possible moment.
His eyes waver on mine as I push him off. His hands shake toward his shirt pocket for his pack, but he stops himself. I wait for him to say some sort of apology, but all I get is, “I’m going to stop smoking.”
I’ve been standing for a while. At first his stupidity makes me speechless, but then it only makes my words clearer: “I’m glad you stopped smoking. You’re going to have a long, healthy life without me.”
If I sit here any longer, I won’t be able to move at all. I stand up and walk out the door, not at all sure where I am going. A sharp wind whips scraggly leaves off of trees, and I really should have brought a jacket. I want to walk downtown or by the water tower, but I can only pace the alley. I stop at the entrance of the forest.
Memories haunt this place like ghosts. My dad walking me through these woods when I was little. As we walked, him putting his hand on my shoulder and holding me still until I looked up and followed the trail of his pointing finger. Cardinal. Conneticut Warbler. Just a Mourning Dove. A strange, almost effeminate habit for a man in our town. How he said he didn’t like hunting. Rather watch animals than kill them.
A braver person would enter, but I can’t see through burning eyes. So I turn back toward the only warm, stable thing I’ve ever had.
Isaac hugs me, of course. Stiff. Doesn’t say a word. Neither do I. I sit on his velvety green step, dangle my legs through the railing. He drapes his leather jacket over me and it falls off. He tries again, holds it there by wrapping his arms around me. A sadness fills me where longing used to be.
I got here, but I can’t move again. Even as the sky fades from blue to orange to violet. Maybe he says things, but I can’t hear. But now I break, and tears down my face and snot everywhere and my whole fucking world is ending. Isaac gets to witness it. He ducks into the house, comes back with a roll of toilet paper, watches me wipe off my wretched face.
The last thing Dad said to me in that hospital room was that before he came home from work every day, he was out in that forest, watching the birds. It was the only little thing he did outside of work and us. Made him forget that he was dying.
Isaac buries his head into my hair until his breath is hot against the back of my neck. He says, “You make me want to live.”