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Oprah, Maslow, and Me
by Amy Emm

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Jell-O lady is the best one so far. Janice. You can’t be a mean lady and be named Janice. She calls me hon, even though I just told her my name is Melanie. I imagine Janice sitting in a bright cubicle farm, framed ad posters on the walls, shiny plants everywhere, neat desks and new light blue carpets. Maybe she gets free Jell-O on her breaks, any flavor under the sun. Cool and soft, so easy to eat, she doesn’t even have to move her mouth to chew. Lucky.

“So hon, can you describe the defect for me?”

“Well, when I opened the box, there was a red packet inside…but the outside of the box showed green Jell-O.” With my free hand, I tore open the closed end of the empty box, flattened it against my knee and flipped it over. Green cubes in a white bowl.

Just don’t look over at the nightstand, just neveryoumind about my container of green Jell-O sitting pretty there, under the lamp. Just look away. I myself study the ceiling.

Kind Janice, sweet kind unknowing Janice, has me read the codes printed on the flap. BF021, that is my code. Probably for one of the factories, the day of the week, the manufacturing line, what have you. Par for the course.

“Ok,” I can hear typing as she pauses, “For your trouble I’d like to send you a coupon for a replacement product.”

This is where I have to hang up. Because there had not been a red packet of powder in this particular box, the one with the green cubes on the front. There had been a green packet, all green sugary crystals, the promise of green Jell-O dutifully fulfilled. The container on the nightstand is all sorts of proof.

“Hon? Hon? Where might I send the coupon?”

I almost laugh. Where. The thin polyester bedspreads aren’t talking–not that you’d want them to. The long gray curtains covering the windows block out the parking lot sign, and the phone cord doesn’t let me reach that far to push them aside. Where was here?

Room 113 at the Motel 6? Or was it room 6 at the Super Eight? Is this a Rodeway Inn? A Ho-Jo? No matter. By the time the coupons chase us down, we’ll be gone.

With my finger I depress the telephone’s little bar to disconnect, as gently as I can, on kind Janice. Maybe she’ll think I wanted to say goodbye, but was cut off by mistake. Have fun at break, Jan, and have some Jell-O for me.

 

Praise J that 1-800 numbers are a free call, and that someone always answers. I like the routine the best. It is always the same: state your problem, then the apology, then the offer of coupons. No matter whom you call, the beer company, soda company, cookie company: tell ‘em your beef, they say sorry, you get coupons. Except I never want the coupons. There are so many other good things: thinking about where I was calling, listening for other workers in the background, imagining what the customer service person looked like. Sometimes I got someone who asked about me, where I was calling from, what the weather was like. Those are my favorite. That is my hope, always, that I’ll get that person.

Plus, no one ever questions me. No one ever says, “Really? Are you sure there was a blue corn chip inside your yellow corn chip bag?”

It’s because I am never outlandish. I never say I found a mouse in my soda, never a severed finger in a cheese block or an earplug in my soup. No nonsense, you know? No, my complaints are just things that maybe could happen. The foil lid to my yogurt is askew, creating a dangerous entry point for foreign bacteria. (Hey, biology was the last subject I paid attention to, I know what I’m talking about.) Perhaps I found a clump of chips molded together, all deformed and mutated. Hey, anybody can get stale M&M’s out of a vending machine, anybody at all. Maybe me!

 

I am halfway through my green Jell-O and just getting into an old Hitchcock film when Corinne comes busting though the door with her supplies.

“Am I on? Am I on?” Her plastic bags slide against each other as she dumps them on her bed while kicking the door closed behind her. She leans in to see the TV while shrugging off her coat. “What’s this? More black and white?” She stands still and gives me a look, “Come on, Mel, it’s after five!” She’s still got one arm in her puffy coat but manages to motion for the remote by flapping her hand.

“Aw, Cary Grant was just about to do something good.” I toss the remote onto her bed. She wants the news, she can change the channel.

“You and Cary Grant,” she says, lunging across her bags for the remote, “He was probably a scoundrel. Hollywood cheater.”

“I just like his voice.” I did. Smooth, capable, debonair. You don’t see debonair much these days.

I head to the long dresser to cover my Jell-O while my sister furiously clicks through the channels. I wonder if Janice has any kids at home, or if they’re older. Maybe she has an extra bedroom she’d like to rent out.

The first time I saw Corinne’s face on TV I thought she had won something. But no. No no no no lol no. I don’t know why I was surprised, really. We hadn’t exactly been angels. And by we I mean her. And dad. But at least he’s not still on the news.

When she finally finds the local station there’s a cheerfully plastic yet serious woman really belting out the news, like it’s her job, which I guess it is. Theresa Dewitt. With a fresh blast of music, her name swirls around the screen and comes to rest at the bottom, signaling a new news segment.

“Well isn’t she special,” Corinne says.

I had to agree Theresa delivered the news in a smug You’ll-Have-To-Deal-With-This fashion.

“Yeah, she could be a little more detached.” I expected her to shake her head sorrowfully as she reported on a yet another shooting in Syracuse. She practically sighs. She uses her Thankfully-I-Live-Elsewhere voice.

“Looks like she likes to shop. Look at that hair! Find out where she lives, k, Mel?”

“Yeah her hair does look a little too shellacked.” Like it’d break right off if you tried to bend it. I don’t comment on tracking her down because I am not doing it. She probably has cameras and a little dog with sharp teeth.

“Shhhh! Shhh!” Corinne waves her hand at me. “This is us!” She turns up the volume.

I wasn’t even talking.

Theresa Dewitt can barely conceal her repulsion: “The girl, known as The Ghost, is suspected to have been operating in the Cazenovia area and may have been spotted in the Manlius and Fayetteville areas. If you have any information—“

“Blah blah blah don’t use fountain pens, we know Theresa, we know.” Corinne talks over the part she knows Theresa’s going to say. “Ugh! What a snob. We should find out where she lives. I bet right in her precious Manlius. She looks like a dumb cluck. Probably won’t even take her own advice, thinks she’s safe. Serve her right.”

Corinne turns down the volume and drops the remote onto the bed. She reaches for her plastic bags, shakes everything out. I watch for a Reese’s to come sliding out. Nothing. “You open this.” She tosses me a bottle of pale pink nail polish remover. “None of that acetone-free shit this time.” Corinne thinks she is bad-ass, and I did too, I thought we both were, but that was four months ago when it was September and the sun still actually shined.

Corinne peels the sticker off a new plastic sandwich container and pries off the top, sets it on the nightstand. I pour in the nail polish remover.

“Which one do you want to do?” She reaches into her back pocket and comes back holding three checks like a card dealer. “You pick. Oh wait,” she says, using her thumb to push one out, “How about this one? National Parks.” Lightly imprinted on the check’s background is red flowing lava, black rocks, and a small bit of sea. Hawaii Volcanos National Park. “Closest we’ll ever get.”

“Whatever, Corinne. Just do it.”

With tweezers meant for plucking eyebrows, she slides the check under the liquid, swishes it around. The solvent turns from pale pink to light blue with dissolved ink. “Thank youuuu, Opraaah,” she sings.

“Poor Oprah.” I bet she never imagined this.

“Yeah, poor Oprah,” Corinne says. Her voice doesn’t quite match the sentiment.

“Corinne, she lives to help people. It’s like, her mission.”

“Well this is irony at its best, then, isn’t it? Or maybe we’re the ones she’s helping now?”

The nail polish remover gets bluer by the minute.

“I doubt…” I lean over to read the unfortunate soul’s name who happily mailed their National Grid bill this morning, “that Mrs. James Anderson would agree.” Mrs. J-A had a heavy hand because the J in what used to be January is taking forever to dissolve.

“Well, Mrs. James Anderson should have: A – memorized Oprah’s survival tips from 1985 like I did, or B – listened to Theresa Dewitt’s snotty warning tonight. Oh wait. Too late!” She laughs. And swishes.

Corinne has twisted Oprah’s helpful survival tips beyond recognition. She is obsessed with the eighties (hence catching that old rerun episode) and Oprah (thinks she should be inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame) but has warped Oprah’s good intentions something fierce. The episode that landed us here featured tips on surviving a plane crash (wear sneakers, sit in an exit aisle), warding off an attacker (poke the eyes), and protecting yourself from check-washing criminals (don’t use inky pens). That last bit I guess didn’t stick with many people from 1985 (or those who caught the rerun), cause people still use inky pens and then put their checks in their mailboxes, out there for the taking. Sitting ducks, we call them.

“Yeah, well, you had better hope I don’t call Oprah and tell on you.” I am only half joking.

“Yeah, well, as soon as Oprah shows up with my new car all wrapped up with a big red bow, we can talk.”

“Hey, she came from humble beginnings. She worked for what she’s got.” I get up for a towel. When I get back Corinne is whispering.

“You get a car,” she whispers slowly, in Oprah’s cadence, recalling another rerun where Oprah gave out free cars to every audience member, “You get a car.”

That episode always killed Corinne. Hey, maybe the audience were military moms or retired schoolteachers, maybe they were more than deserving. I usually argued the point, but eh, not tonight.

“Should have listened to Opraaaaah,” Corinne sings, louder and herself again, as she lifts Mrs. James Anderson’s now-blank check into the air. Fat blue drops drip back into the container. I lay out the towel and Corinne places the check carefully on top. Hawaii National Park looked better than ever.

 

“The Ghost likes to court trouble,” Corinne says, pressing on the gas as the light changed to green, “Oh yes she does. Head on a swivel, k, Mel?”

“Yeah, Corrinne, I’ve got eyes wide open. I totally bet Theresa lives here. I bet she doesn’t live in shots-fired Syracuse,” I said, “But do you think we should be here, I mean, they just mentioned us on the news last night.”

“Don’t be such a chicken. Did you see that picture they had of me? That was like three haircuts ago. Let’s just poke around, k? No mailboxes today.”

“Yeah ok fine.” I slide down in my seat anyway.

Manlius, so far, is pretty fancy-schmantz. We pass a shiny Ethan Allen showroom, a Lexus dealer, and a Talbots perched on a high snowy hill, where even the models in the windows look warm and satisfied.

Apparently the Manliusans are very proud of their swan pond, as evidenced by the flags hanging from every light pole. A sparkly snowflake decorated one side of the pole and a flag depicting a pond hung on the other. We found the pond, easy-peasy, right in the center of the village. We park and hunch our shoulders against the cold, to get a closer look and to read the sign. Every summer the pond is stocked with two specific and clipped-for-flying swans, enclosed in a black wrought-iron fence six feet tall.

“Eh,” Corrine says, “Big deal.”

“Probably looks better in the summer,” I said. Broken spider webs flap between the fence rails.

The swans are gone, the fountain off, the little island in the middle covered with snow, the whole pond mostly iced over, just a puddle of open water left. A laminated sheet stapled to the wooden sign explains that the swans overwinter in a local farmer’s barn, safe and sound. “See you in May!” the sheet proclaims. It is signed by the swans, Manny and Faye.

“Come on,” Corinne says, “Let’s get hot chocolate.” She heads to the walk-up coffee/ice cream stand next to the pond.

I manage to reach out and pull her sleeve. “What’re you, nuts?”

She spins. “Oh come on, you think everyone watches the news? Come on, I’m freezing.” She pulls her sleeve from my grip and reaches up to pull her hat down further on her head. “It’ll take two minutes.”

I pull my hat down, too, and my hood up, just in case, and follow her. I can’t turn down hot chocolate.

Freedom of Espresso’s outdoor counter had a sign taped to the window: No Hundred Dollar Bills Accepted. I am not making this up.

“Looks like we’re in the right place.” I nod toward the sign.

“Yep,” she says, reading it, “But they can’t do that, hundreds are legal tender. If I had one on me now I’d pay with it, just to make ‘em squirm. They’d have to take it. Maybe we’ll come back later.” She pauses and sticks her nose up in the air. “After Theresa’s.”

Before I can protest a man in a knit cap and fingerless gloves slides open the to-go window. “What can I getcha?”

“Two hot chocolates,” Corinne says. I watch Knit Cap for signs he recognizes her.

“Five-fifty,” he says, and slides the window closed. I watch him through the glass, make sure he doesn’t reach for the phone or pause to press any red emergency buttons he’s got back there.

He doesn’t. He slides the window open to exchange two cups for Corinne’s money. Sweet mercy.

“Why the swan jail?” Corinne asks, nodding to the pond.

“Years ago some kid got in there and killed one of the swans. Wrung its neck. Up went the fence,” he says, pouring coins onto Corinne’s mitten-coated palm, “They mate for life, you know.”

“Unless one dies,” Corinne replies, shaking her head and puffing air from her nose, “Then no more mating.” I know she is thinking about mom but seriously? This is not the time to bring it up.

“Yeah….” The guy looks a little too long at Corinne as she turns away. I grab the back of her arm like my dad used to do to us to get us to move along.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.” I walk faster.

“Yeah, yeah,” she says, matching my pace but turning to look back at the No Hundreds sign, “But we are definitely coming back.”

 

Corinne said no mailboxes but she loops through the streets behind the swan pond anyway. I cannot even imagine the jobs these people had. Neurosurgeons – no – Head Neurosurgeons. These guys did ten-hour brain surgeries. Who else? Judges? College Deans? Top lawyers – yes – all the partners lived here, right next to each other, when they weren’t working late into the night.

We usually go for the middling neighborhoods. We don’t want curving brick driveways, brass knockers, tall clumps of waving grasses, gates, cameras. Nope – we want something riiiiight in the middle. Nothing like our old neighborhood, either—no crooked posts, no rusty metal rods, no duct tape—and definitely no molded plastic. If Corinne spots even one of those giant green one-piece Rubbermaid mail boxes she’ll press on the gas and shake her head.

“Looks like a garbage can for your mail. No taste,” she’ll say, nodding her head in the direction of the offending box, “Bank account’s probably already overdrawn.”

Here there are fancy scrollworked metal boxes, with little doors in the back that can only be opened with a key. “Mmm-mm,” Corinne says when we cruise by a box like that, “Wish I could get some-a what’s in there.” But we can’t. So we go for the easy ones, for the houses of big-box store managers and real-estate agents who leave home early, the high-heeled ladies putting their mail out and their flags up, little red beacons for us. It’s better in the fall, when we could hear them coming from our lookout spot, the click-click of their dress shoes on driveways. “Sounds like money,” Corinne usually said, wiggling around in her seat for a better view.

Corinne reaches for her hot chocolate and brings it to her lips. “Too hot.” She lowers the cup and bangs it around the holder till she fits it in, not taking her eyes off the road. “Let’s get outta here. It looked clear up north. And it’s only noon.”

“Yeah, ok,” I say, even though in winter I think we should cool it. Footprints, tire tracks, the snow belt. You have to watch the weather every morning to see if you can leave your house and not die in a whiteout.

My idea is to follow the sun, like snowbirds. Back and forth, up and down the coast, right when the air turned chill – boom, we’d fly. No heavy coats, no mittens, no hats and the ridiculous hair that went with it, just sandals all the time. If we can do the check thing up and down 81 why can’t we do it up and down 95, spend a couple days in Key West, under some palms, let me dip my freezing feet in some sand, you know? But no, Corinne feels safer up here. She knows people. The car! The car! Her old high-school friend Bobby and his shop. So fine. I can do my Jell-O thing easier in the winter anyway. Back in September I had to bury the container in the ice machine. Now I just leave it outside the room and hope nobody kicks it.

By the time we get far enough away from swan-proud Manlius it’s too late, there are no red flags, mail must’ve already come, and everything’s too empty, we’re running parallel to the highway, small town USA. It’s too hard to tell where the bigger cities are, and there’s no such thing as a neighborhood up here, just random houses super far apart, horses and cows huddled in alternately muddy and snowy fields.

We drive by a house with the number spray-painted in neon green on the mailbox. “Yeah no,” Corinne says.

Just as well, we still have the other two checks and I am not in the mood to jump into a snowbank for what might be a handful of baby-shower invites.

“So back to 81?”

“Yep.”

“North or south?”

“North, let’s not go back toward Manlius and Theresa Dewitt, please.” Not to mention Knit Cap and his searching looks.

I should say south, and can we just keep driving and driving until we splash into the Gulf of Mexico?

Corinne turns and turns and turns, following the highway signs. Each turn I think we’re going to see 81 but alas, another sign, more fields, more horses.

We pass a two-storied white-pillared high school, a wedding cake of a building. Port Byron, Home of the Panthers. Everyone in that frosted building already home. Says it right there on the sign.

I can feel Corinne looking, too. “What’s over there?”

“Just a pretty high school.” I bet in spring they have tulips around the flag pole, newly greened soccer fields, and their own cross-country trails threading through the distant woods.

“Hmmmm.” Corinne feels around for her hot chocolate, grabs it.

“Makes me miss ERA.” East Rochester Academy. I was a Spartan.

“Homesick for high school? Impossible.” She sips her drink and holds out the cup for me to fit back into the holder. “Finally cool enough. Geesh.”

At first I liked this whole bit, this outlawish, Mad At The World bit. I loved that Corinne moved back home. I loved standing up in that last calc class and tossing my test over my shoulder, a good-luck grain of salt. The rhino-skinned tough girl had finally arrived, and she didn’t take calc. She hung with her sister. But now I miss everyone, even the people I hated. Gossipy, judgmental types that could take you down for a spot on your jeans, lest you infect their clean-eating, ironed-hair lives. Maybe I could have hung on, I could have asked someone (was there a counselor I missed?) for a couch. People love a stringy-haired hungry girl, right?

Corinne finally finds an onramp and is solidly on 81 North before we see it – blue black clouds straight ahead. And it’s snowing lightly.

“Oh shit,” she says. It’s snowing harder. In the past two seconds, yep.

“I thought you said it was clear up here!” I grip the door handle as if it will help.

“I thought it was! Get out the map, Mel, how far is the next exit?”

“If we hit the wall we are fucked, Corinne!” I pop open the glove compartment, rifle through napkins and straws and grab for old maps. When I look up – it’s snowing even harder and the roads are covered. The car in front of us has disappeared. Corinne takes her foot off the gas.

There’s this wall, it’s more like a shower curtain of snow, and it’s terrifying. One second it’s clear and sunny and the next you cannot see the car in front of you. Because of the curtain, and the band behind it. Lake Effect.

“I know what the next exit is.”

I have the map unfolded and am mad flipping it around.

“What?”

And then I know, without even looking at the map.

The Tug Hill Plateau. I have only heard about it on the news. It’s snowing on the Tug, they’ll say. Three inches an hour, they’ll say. Once it snowed eight feet in one day.

My arms fall heavy on the map. Corinne’s profile is stone, concentrating. “Remember the eight feet?” My throat squeezes tight on eight feet and it comes out panicky.

“That only happened one time, Mel, calm down—”

“But you can’t—” I can’t see anything. There used to be a forest on the side of the road.

“—Calm down! Hit the hazards!” She is white-knuckling the wheel.

You can never find the fucking hazard button when you need it.

Next I cheer on Corinne, the next stage of Lake Effect driving. First is anger that you’re even in this situation, then there’s panic that someone’s going to spin out and kill you, then acceptance, then you start the you’ve got this type sayings.

“Ok, we have the hazards on. See the reflector things? Stay between those. Ignore that guy! Ignore him!” There’s always an SUV buzzing by in the passing lane, thinks he has Four Wheel Stop. “You’re doing great!”

There’s no sound in the car (except for the map crinkling on my lap), there’s not even slush hitting the wheels, and I’d kill for slush right now, as she pulls off 81 and onto route 11. Corinne drives into the parking lot of the first thing we (barely) see, a gas station surrounded by 4×4 pickups driven by unworried people, probably. Snowmobiles in trailers and in pickup beds abound.

“Let me go ask about a hotel.” Corinne leaves the car running and jumps out before I can even offer to do it.

I get out and brush off the lights as much as I can but my skinny arms and wooden brush are no match for Lake Ontario. I get back in and throw the snowbrush into the back seat. Pathetic. Corinne comes back and plops down in a rush of swirling snow. She stress-laughs, a defeated heh. “It’s across the street. You should see the guys in there. Standing around with their coffees. Not a worry in the world.”

I knew it.

The motel is called The Snowed-Inn. You cannot make this shit up.

 

Whenever I get pissy I try to picture the Domestic Help-Line pad at our old doctor’s office. That pad was always empty, a telltale line of leftover glue at the top. Always just the cardboard backing left, imprinted with the same phone number and message as, presumably, the rest of the missing sheets. Every time I went into the bathroom, I checked on the paper pad, hoping that it’d be full or just a few sheets missing, only a little of the glue strip showing. But no. Always empty. Full glue strip. So either people were feverishly tearing away at the help line sheets or the nurses never replaced the spent pad. In either case, Mel, there are people worse off than you so Shut. UP.

I try to remember the Domestic Help-Line pad now but my head is itchy, my hands will not warm up, and my wild and desperate side is dangerously close to the surface.

And the smell in this no-tell motel is Not Normal. My best guess is that it’s a fishing in summer/snowmobiling in winter lodge. The wood-paneled walls must’ve soaked up the smell from every sweaty man that has ever slept in these beds. The only good thing is that we spotted a Pizza Hut across the street, the glow of the sign recognizable through the snow, and all we need now is a blank check and a nervous kid or an overworked mom at the register.

Corinne sits at the little table dipping a check with a Mickey Mouse background. I flip through my Ikea catalog. It’s wrinkled and battered but it helps me plan for my someday apartment, everything clean and tidy, smooth and Swedish.

“I am sick to death of this sweatshirt.” Ikea’s not working tonight. I mean, I can be earthy. I recycle. I don’t litter. I don’t wear deodorant so that I don’t add more plastic to the landfill. Or spend an extra dollar. But this GD sweatshirt has crusty sleeves from I don’t know what.

Corinne could bitch with me, commiserate, complain about the cold and the snow and being stuck. She says nothing, just continues swishing her check. I look at shelving units.

I don’t want it to slip out but it does, in the smallest voice: “It’s not fair.” I hope Corinne doesn’t hear me because she will jump. Her head swings around. She heard me.

“Oh really? And you think I’m having a party? You think I wanted China to undercut the penicillin prices?”

Ohmygod not China and the penicillin again. I peruse the lighting section. Corinne goes on about her lost job, about the factory that made eighty percent of the world’s penicillin, until the Chinese cut safety and quality corners – and the price. Her factory could barely keep the lights on, blah blah, until it closed and she was turned out, I have heard it all before. She is the world’s oldest twenty-five-year old.

“…well good luck with that!” She finishes up and I tune back in. I have no idea what she just said.

“I just feel like we’re pretty low on the hierarchy of needs, right now.”

She fixes me with a look. “Are you talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?” Her voice is level. She lifts Mickey out of the plastic container, lays him on the towel. Must’ve been some nice ink on that one. Easy.

I press on, matching her smooth tone. “Yes, Corinne, I think we’re okay with food and water but I’m a little concerned about safety and housing, it’s essential—”

“Are you wondering how we’re going to get to the tippy-top of the pyramid?” Her voice is weird now, sweet and sing-song-y, like how you’d talk to a baby. She jumps off her chair and bends over, her hands on her knees and her face even with mine. “Are you concerned about self-actualization?”

I actually wasn’t. I thought I’d get to that when I was, like, fifty. “No, Corinne, right now I’d like a clean t-shirt that I don’t have to wash out in the sink. Maslow said­—”

Corinne slaps her thighs with both hands so hard it must hurt.

“I know about Maslow! You think I don’t know about Maslow? I went to college!” She straightens up and paces around. “Not that I needed to, because you learn that shit in high school if you pay attention! And I did pay attention, Mel, I did, I was third in my class and summa cum laude at Colgate.” She extends her arm and points at the door as if Colgate is across the street. “Do you know what summa is? That means my GPA was over 3.85. I worked my ass off for those grades and that job. You think I wanted this to happen to us? That I want to be here with you?” She is breathless. I think she is shocked I knew enough about Maslow to bring it up.

“If only you spoke Spanish!” I say, and she turns and runs for her shoes and coat. I knew that would get her, because next up is her second favorite topic, Puerto Rico and all the pharmaceutical jobs down there, if only she spoke Spanish.

“That’s right!” She pushes her feet into her shoes. “I could be in Puerto Rico RIGHT NOW!”

“But you fucking took French! Didn’t you! Good one Corinne!” I get the last word in as she yanks open the door and slams it behind her. I see her pass in front of the window, raising both her arms, and I hear her too, “She tells me about Maslow. Me! Me! I invented Maslow!” Her voice fades as she heads to the concrete staircase at the end of the building. “Fucking French!” is the last thing I hear. Even though I’m mad I hope the staircase isn’t covered in ice. Her sneakers have no tread. They are no match for the way she bounds around when she’s mad, even on a dry day. Maybe in a minute I’ll peek my head around the corner, make sure she didn’t slip and is laying there all unconscious. That’s all I need.

I should rip up the clean check and leave it on her pillow but I want Pizza Hut more than I want to piss off Corinne. Or do I? She’s the one who ran out. Tiny pieces of Mickey would show her who’s boss. I weigh Corinne’s reaction against my stomach. I leave the check alone. The Hut wins.

 

When Corinne doesn’t come back I open the door and peer down the hall. Nothing but blinking fluorescent lights and air so cold it feels abusive. A couple of idling rigs ring the edge of the parking lot. A line of snowmobiles sit closer to the building, lights on and steaming. I hear a woman laugh, a sharp smoker’s cackle, but all the riders are out of sight. Now I have to go check the stairs.

After I push my feet into my sneakers (who thought of grabbing boots in September?) and get my coat (Salvation Army – I don’t want to talk about it) and my key-card, I head for the staircase, praying Corinne’s dumb old head is not laying there bleeding. I’d really hate to step on her.

The staircase is empty. So is the lobby, but a bunch of big guys in snow pants and black jackets stand outside the main glass door. They stamp their feet, helmets under their arms, laugh. I should totally run upstairs and rip up Mickey’s face. No, Mel, remember the pizza.

The blonde at the front desk examines the ends of her long hair, and as I approach, before I can say anything, she pulls on a single hair, making two hairs out of one.

“Split ends,” she says, raising her head.

“I…I…” I forgot what I was going to say. I look away. I didn’t know it was possible, to pull split ends like that.

“You have great hair,” she says, presumably looking at my hair. I have no idea. I am busy counting ceiling tiles.

“Oh…a good haircut will fix you right up,” I say to the ceiling.

“Oh no way, I been growing this hair out two years now.”

Of course. Always an excuse.

The guys out front laugh and stomp again and someone revs an engine. Corinne I hope you’re as smart as you say you are because I am not in charge of you. I head for the lobby’s back door.

I take the concrete steps two at a time and know that I am a No Excuses kind of girl. At least I was. Corinne was, too. We wore plaid skirts to elementary school and each classroom posted this sign: No Excuses! But then we slip-slided to here, and along the way we gathered so many: why we couldn’t keep the house — ok that was easy, Dad was up in Clinton Correctional, aka Dannemora, which is what I like to call it, sounds like a resort — but before that, why we couldn’t fix the bb hole in the front window, why we couldn’t screw the doorknob back on the bathroom door.

I once overheard a conversation between two women in a sub shop that made me realize that excuses were really just faulty logic. One lady complained that she wanted a baby so badly she could taste it, but her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her because she had collected an enormous number of dolls and he was allergic to dust. Weird baby-tasting cliché aside, the answer was so clear to me but invisible to her: get rid of dolls, vacuum the hell out of house, make way for boyfriend and baby. But no, there was just this circular argument: I want a baby but I also want these dolls and my bf is allergic so we can’t get married or live together but I want a baby with HIM but I also want these dolls so we can’t live together as a family, around and around we go…remember ninth grade logic, those IF/THEN statements? Yeah, apparently this poor woman didn’t remember a thing.

Like the lady at the front desk: I do not want split ends. A haircut will cure split ends. But I do not want a haircut. I walked under the blinking fluorescents and tried not to have a mini-stroke from my beating heart and the lights and the fury of ignored logic.

 

When I get back to the room Corinne is there, sitting on the bed. She’s watching the local news, snug as a bug, while I’m off getting practically kidnapped and positively grossed out. A blue ribbon crawls across the bottom of the screen: Lake Effect Snow Advisory Warning. Three beeps as I unbutton my coat.

“Can you do the check?”

“Yeah.” I leave my coat on and my shoes, too, and I hope I soak the floor and she steps in a wet spot in her socks. At midnight.

Excited voices throw the news to a very excited team of weather people. A deep blue wedge signaling Lake Effect shows up on their map. One weatherman, all hopped up on meteorological fervor, points at the west to east band. “This band will move south during the night as the winds off Lake Ontario shift in that direction.”

“We are socked in,” Corinne says.

“Of course.” I rub my hands together to warm them. Cold signatures never look right. “You didn’t see this, this morning?” I keep my head down but tip my pen in the direction of the TV.

“This morning it was just a watch. I remember now.”

Summa cum laude my ass. I cannot believe I have to sleep in the same bed as her tonight. I hope I don’t kick her in my sleep.

“Ok. Done.” I get up and hand her the check, Ms. Morgan Jackson’s new signature right over Mickey’s face. It’s on Corinne tonight, and she had better pray for a newbie at the register.
“We should walk.”

“Fine.”

All the idling vehicles have gone, and it’s quiet except for the retreating sounds of snowmobile engines. We don’t die crossing the street, and I have to admit the snow is pretty, mesmerizing, even.

Ms. Morgan Jackson of 193 Waterford Lane treats us to dinner. Praise J.

 

Two days later we decide to make a run for it. 81 South. The weatherman’s face this morning looked decidedly less excited, less like he’d been up all night studying maps and wind directions.

“Let’s bust on through.” Corinne clicks her seatbelt, determined.

“Yeah – and the next place? No sweat scented wood paneling, please. Let’s do this!” We kind of have to, even though it is still snowing. We are tougher now, baptized by a three inch per hour snowfall rate. Plus, we are down to one check, and that means a bank run. Cash. Never easy.

We need a city with a hospital, a research center, a defense laboratory, anything with neighborhoods, with money making, bill paying people.

From the highway I keep my eyes peeled. Closed closed closed. Everything. Modern-day ghost towns. Once busy highways now swept right by plywood-windowed factories, empty loading docks, parking lots filled with snow instead of cars.

We did this one town, a couple months back? Gloversville. A whole town named after one thing – the glove factory. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. So now it’s closed, right, the workers and the leather and the thread and the paychecks all gone somewhere else, to China, probably, with the penicillin, and now what do they have? A couple of blinking traffic lights, a pizza shop (there’s always a pizza shop), sagging houses, and clinical depression.

Even the baby food factory, the one you can see from 81, is silent and still.

I turn up the radio, hoping to distract Corinne, get her singing, keep her from noticing the fading Beech-Nut logo.

“What, is China making baby food now too? We can’t make baby food here?” She notices.

“I don’t know, Corinne, maybe they just moved south, like we should.” I lean my head into my hand, against my window. Hopefully she’ll get the hint.

“I know shit,” she says, jamming on her directional to exit, “At least I used to. It’s not my fault I got so specialized, that this is all we have,” she sweeps her arm toward the crumbling brick factory, “What, we all have to code for Google?”

“So you’re saying you can’t find something similar to what you had?”

“I am a Chemical Engineer, Melanie,” she says, in this snotty voice, as if I just met her and speak a different language, “But do you see any chemicals around here to engineer? No! There are just dollar stores and laundromats for miles.” She juts her chin into the air. “And I am not stocking shelves with Chinese tampons and generic Band-Aids just because it’s honest. Where has honesty ever gotten the two of us?”

Another small town, it looks like. A strange mix of McDonalds and grain silos. It’s snowing again and Corinne is taking corners like the roads are dry.

“I was honest.” She points at herself. “You were honest.” She points at me. “Yet here we are.”

We are in the drive-through bank teller in a sleepy town, hoping for a sleepy teller, one that just wants to go home.

 

We get that careless teller and we get more Jell-O. Later I should totally call Jan.

All dollar stores have Jell-O. It’s a staple of the American diet. Plus, every hotel room, even the fleabaggiest motels, have coffeemakers. You make hot water in the coffeepot. Tip: run one pot through first, unless you want coffee flavored cherry Jell-O. You empty the packet into your plastic container (get one with a tight-fitting (I mean it) lid), pour the hot water in, put the top on, and shake to dissolve. Donezo.

My container fits perfectly on the railing outside our room. I scrape snow from beside it, nestle it in good.

On my way back to bed I wonder if there are any vitamins in Jell-O. Would it kill them to inject some vitamin C in there, maybe a little D for winter?

I want to nap but Corinne is flipping channels. I toss and turn and finally stare at the ceiling. No dice on the nap.           “Corinne, do you miss our house?”

“Hells no.”

“I do. I miss the records.”

“Mel, those records are what got us in this mess.” She exhaled. “Those records and stupidity.”

“Oh. I always thought he used CDs to DJ, or mp3s, like on a computer.”

“Whatever. I’d break every last one of them if I knew back then what I know now.”

“Maybe he didn’t do it, Corinne, maybe he was set up.” I flip onto my side, wedge my pillow under my arm.

“You have watched too many movies. He wasn’t set up. The courts know all this stuff. He was selling, both at night and from the house. Don’t you remember all the cars coming by?”

I didn’t. “But why?”

“I have no idea. That is the million-dollar question.”

I sit up, pile my pillows behind me.

“I loved the company parties.” Bausch and Lomb had the best – a sprawling corporate park, huge company parties every summer.

“You did.” She laughs. “You ran around like a crazy woman!”

“I played EVERYthing!” I bounced in the blow-up house, I tied my leg to Corinne’s for the three-legged race, I played kickball, egg toss, origami, you name it, I did it. I even got the back of my shoulder painted, right next to my tank top strap, a big bright yellow sunshine, every year with that sunshine, since I was ten. “Remember the balloon toss? I was in it to win it!” I can still feel the water balloon in my hand, the fragile potential, the cool squishiness.

“And when we won the rabbit and raccoon stuffed animals? You practically fainted from happiness.”

I had a thing for woodland animals. Still do.

“We came from somewhere, Corinne.”

“Yeah but now we’re here. Fallen from a great height.”

We have. Our neighborhood had rusty duct taped tilting mailboxes but it also had us, and it wasn’t so terrible. We had a carpeted basement and air hockey and those plaid elementary school skirts until it closed down, and we had dad, Manager of Research and Development.

Corinne flips to an old movie and leaves it.

Vertigo.” Unbelievable. Cary Grant and she’s not changing it. “Wait. Mute.”

Voices outside have me out of bed and peering through the peephole.

“No one is going to touch your Jell-O.”

Up on my tiptoes I see a couple people move on down the hall. The Jell-O is safe. Behind my container the parking lot is filling up with snow.

“Dude. You should see it out here.” It’s coming down so hard it is like the sky is mad.

“Again with the Lake Effect?” Corinne says. “It’s like Lake Ontario is giving us the finger. The middle one, you know?”

“Yeah. I don’t know why anyone lives here, or anywhere near here. So can we go south now?” The parking lot lights are a barely visible faint orange. Cold air rushes in under the door. I leave the Jell-O to the snow.

“You know why we can’t go.”

“Yeah yeah, Bobby can fix the car, I know.” I hope she can hear the eye roll in my voice. I hop back up onto my bed, bury my feet under the covers.

“And?”

“And I could take my GED and enroll in some college with palm trees in their logo.” I motion for the remote. A diamond-encrusted Hollywood lady looks like she’s going to jump into the ocean. Where’s Cary now?

“Mel. Look at me. That is a reason why we CAN go. What is a reason why we can’t?”

“And there are bound to be jobs for a summa cum laude voulez voulez vous, like you!” I am not going to take the bait.

“Still a reason to go. And why we can’t?”

And nothing. She can fish all she wants. I am a master at holding grudges. You will need to send me flowers and cakes and balloon bouquets and heartfelt cards and dedicate a song to me on the radio every day in order to me to thaw out. It is because I am part Italian (so is Corinne but she doesn’t let it affect her) and we are not known for forgiveness and moving on. Instead we invented the mafia, which is all about grudges and payback.

“I can’t believe you want to stay here. Aren’t you mad, didn’t you just want to break all the records?”

“Yeah I can be mad and at the same time want to visit. It’s called complexity?”

“You are really harshing my may-o.”

She shakes her head. Dad taught us that phrase. When I was a kid I couldn’t say mellow, and I’d say may-o instead.

“We should go ask him why he did it, you know?”

Corinne just played her ace. Why give up free food and sunshine on your shoulder, bounce houses and squishy water balloons for part-time DJing and selling? Why put all that on the line? Why put us on the line?

“Corinne, it’s been four months, now we’re going to show up? Besides, if the roads are bad here, what do you think they’re like up north? It’s probably an Arctic tundra.”

“Yeah Mel, there are polar bears around every bend.”

Dannemora was a stone’s-throw from the Canadian border, so it was probably true.

“Besides, we’re no better, we’re going to go up there all righteous and ask why? Why are we doing what we’re doing?”

“We got pushed here. I’m not in love with this either.” She doesn’t mention Chinese penicillin or generic tampons or her Colgate transcript, praise J. I cannot get on that merry-go-round again.

Silent Cary runs his hands through his hair, grimaces, all his usual debonair gone. Bad guys afoot, probably.

“Look,” Corinne says. She unfolds a sheet of torn notebook paper, hands it across the beds.

Waterford Lane. Shalimar Lane. Mrs. James Anderson. A whole list.

“I’m going to pay them back as soon as I get my voulez-voulez-vous job, and you enrolled in that palm-tree school. Just wait.”

I hand back the paper. “You are lucky, Corinne, because I was just about to call Oprah on you.” She smiles and refolds the paper.

Even though I’ve unmuted Cary and he’s back to calm debonair, I can hear Corinne over on her bed, softy to herself in Oprah-cadence, “You get a car, you get a car…”

 

I once saw this illustration of a cartoon fox in his wintertime den – a cross section, if you will. He was lying face-up on his couch, wide-eyed staring at the ceiling, a book open on his stomach, a striped scarf wrapped around his neck. This fox, he even had a steaming cup of tea on the table next to him and two fuzzy bunny slippers strewn on the floor. The best part wasn’t even that he had a roaring fire in a woodstove, vented via a silver pipe that extended through the room into the ceiling and into the earth above him, even though that looked so cozy. I liked that you could see the whole picture, the snow piling up outside, the dark sky, too, and him on the couch, still and patient, doing his best, with his book and his fire and his scarf and his tea, waiting. I wish I had a real copy of this illustration, because I am like this fox. Except without the cute scarf and hot tea. Oh and forget about the woodstove and bunny slippers – ha! Me and this fox, we are doing the best we can. Under piling snow and darkening skies, there’s me, wide-eyed and still, waiting.

 

THE END

The Angel Age
by Val Howlett

Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

 

It always comes full-on, the memory. Complete with scenery—the beige rug, the mauve seats of the auditorium. I don’t just get an echo of the pumped-up slow-mo feeling of looking at Dani Aguilar. I see you, consumed by that feeling. Squeezing the cushion on the flip-bottom of your seat. It’s like you had coffee, you’re so awake.

It isn’t the first time you ever saw her, but it’s the first time you’re really watching. It’s one of the early stage crew meetings, and four eighth graders run the crew and she’s the only girl. She’s sitting on the stage’s edge, leaning back on her arms, talking to the eighth grade boy in charge of the meeting, who is taller than your grandpa. Between her thighs she holds a bag of Chex Mix that she occasionally plunges an arm into and scoops a handful from, like it’s totally fine to inhale a big bag of anything onstage in front of three rows of sixth grade girls. Everything seems brighter, louder. She is making the boy smile and popping those Chex pieces into her mouth over that full bottom lip.

She’s a million roundnesses—linered, crescent eyes, kid cheeks, tiny zigzag curls that fall to where her breasts start to curve back into her. You’re not thinking the word “breasts,” but you’re staring. For a good long minute before you catch yourself and it’s all why are you doing that? What’s wrong with you?

No one is looking at Dani Aguilar like you. You get that, right away. You’re surrounded by fellow sixth grade girls and they’re texting, waiting for the meeting to finally start.

The girl who played Cinderella last year, in fifth grade, is sitting right by you. One seat away. You were the evil stepmother. Her backpack’s on her lap and she keeps finding reasons to rummage through it. She pulls out her phone and checks it, slides a compact mirror onto her lap and checks her face for who knows what. She doesn’t look like she’s wearing makeup. Her hair is glossy as ever.

Then, from the stage, the boy who runs things—Cole Something—calls out in his guy croak, “Listen up, stagehos!”

He’s grinning. What is he talking about? He’s talking about you. The group of you. Stagehos—like stagehands but not. Actor-hopefuls, actor girls who only joined crew so Mr. Rosen will remember your faces when he casts the play next year. There’s an awkward giggle rising up from some of the girls in your group. Definitely not you.

You’re queasy. You’ve got that same uneasy nausea that came about a week before, when you walked into your room and lying at the foot of your bed was a thin book, paper bag brown. You knew it wasn’t yours right away, knew from its prominently subtle placement on the bed that someone had left it for you.

The title was in faded scripted pink. You had to lift it close to make out the words You Are Changing.

There were those frantic moments of wondering who the culprit was. Of looking for a written name on the inside cover, a note scribbled on one of the musty pages, any sign that it had once belonged to someone else.

It didn’t seem like something Mom would leave you. Mom was a nurse. Her explanation of where babies come from got you in trouble in kindergarten. If she wanted to talk to you about body stuff, she would just talk. Probably.

Which left Gran. Or Grandpa. It seemed like the kind of book Gran would save. And she probably didn’t mean it like that, but having to approach the book and read the words You Are Changing was like finding a mean note taped on your locker. Like You Are Changing and the Whole World Notices. Even your Gran is thinking about your zits, or your BO, or your boobs growing, or something. There must have been some reason she left you that book.

And being called “stageho” is like the same thing is attacking you again—that something everyone must see when they look at you, except you. You can’t see what it is.

Cole Something is still chuckling at his own joke. Dani Aguilar’s mouth is wide open with laughter. She says a word to Cole, then punches him in the arm, a playful punch. There’s a half-second when her dark eyes glance out at you—all of you, all the stagehos—at once, on their way down to her Chex Mix bag. That’s how much you mean to her. You’re not worth watching, not even if someone makes a joke about you and you’re right there. Dani Aguilar only cares about the people on the crew who are for real.

So when Cole asks if anyone wants to go up to the loft where the prop room is and look for things from his list, you say, “I will!”

Everyone is suddenly looking at you. Cole says, “Woah, alright.” You didn’t just volunteer—you shouted. Like a little kid who wants ice cream. You can’t bring yourself to meet Dani Aguilar’s eyes. You pull the list from Cole’s outstretched hand and practically run backstage left.

When you get to the prop room—ascend the ladder to the loft and walk three steps to the wall and open the groaning door—you see an angel. It lies hunched on the rug, its head slightly, shakily lifted, its black coils of curls tangled in the dirty, ragged feathers of its wings.

*

What if I could break right through my memory and talk to you then? To you, at the very start of The Angel Age. You, A.A.

The girl who had gasped and backed out of the prop room and swayed standing on the platform, who while waiting on the school steps, while riding home with Gran, was stuck in that recognition moment—the dawning that what was in front of her wasn’t an animal (even though its limbs were splayed on the ground, its head lifted like a colt). The girl who couldn’t stop seeing that dirty robe, the hairy human leg kicked out underneath it, the head that was like a person’s but not round enough—too oval, with too-long lips. Yellow owl eyes. Dark feathers drooping off the long thick bones that protruded from its back.

The girl who is wondering who she even is.

Back when you were rehearsing for Cinderella, you always hammed up the scene where you and the stepsisters had just returned from the ball. You danced around the room as you told Cinderella about the ball, speak-singing in an opera-ish voice, so everyone who watched you laughed. Then one day, Cinderella interrupted you, breaking character and freaking out. “Stop it, stop it!” she’d shrieked. “Why do you have to be so crazy?”

You had laughed with the stepsisters for a full month about how jealous she was. But now the Angel Age you is hugging your pillow, letting Cinderella’s question loop and loop around your head.

Why do you have to be so crazy?

What if you are crazy? What if the normal part of your life is over? What if you wind up in a mental hospital, trapped in never-ending fantastical nightmares that only exist in your mind like Dorothy in Return to Oz?

There’s a lot I could tell you. But I don’t know if telling you would make a difference. Don’t worry about the angel? How many things have you been told to not worry about, and when has that ever made you worry less? I could tell you not to go to the loft again, but now, I can’t imagine life without the angel.

I think it would have appeared somewhere else anyway.

The only advice worth giving would be small, I think. Suggestions of things to avoid so your life won’t be worse than it has to be. Like don’t hop on the computer and google “seeing angels” and then spend an hour trying to figure out how to erase the browser history. None of the adults in your house actually check the browser history. Don’t stare in the mirror for an hour trying to figure out if your face is what an insane person’s face looks like.

And don’t, definitely don’t, look for answers in You Are Changing.

*

You Are Changing, introduction:

It all started when the flat lips on your chest puckered—the first sign of your breasts beginning to blossom. Or perhaps it began when you stopped playing kickball with the boy next door . . . and started wondering if he liked how you looked.

You are changing. You are in the midst of that ever-confusing, heart-flutteringly exciting phase of life between childhood and adulthood. And that’s where my little book comes in.

Perhaps you picked it up because you’re eager to become a woman. You’re the type of girl who wonders when your menses will finally arrive, who dreams in exquisite detail about your first kiss. You want to get each and every question answered, all the whys and, of course, the when.

You might, however, be the opposite—a girl who prefers to live in the past, who doesn’t understand the change. You might cry at night, wondering where the former you has gone, the girl who used to play with toys and didn’t spend hours in front of a mirror. You might not even have purchased this book yourself, but instead received it from a concerned parent or trusted friend.

If you are the latter, I say: chin up, young lady! There is so much to love about this new phase of your life, when your beauty starts to emerge—inside and out! It’s a time of discovery and gaiety, too, a time when you start to become who you truly are.

*

When you wake up the next morning, you decide that none of it happened. That all of it—the angel, your ensuing panic, was imagined—a hazy result of an off-mood, bad cafeteria food, something.

In the kitchen, you greet Gran and your sister with midday hyperness. You slather cream cheese on your bagel and drop blueberries and grapes on top. You listen to your sister’s stories about fourth grade, nodding with a full mouth. You are aggressively normal.

But sooner than you’d like, it’s time for stage crew and it’s harder. Walking to the auditorium, it hits you that you never returned to Cole Something and Dani Aguilar yesterday with props from their list. They might be angry, or waiting for you.

You hover outside the auditorium double doors, read the fliers taped to them, the cast list. All those seventh and eighth grade names you barely know. The hallway is emptying. You could go home, drop stage crew, and forget about the angel, but the list’s right there with roles listed in order of importance and real people’s names next to them. Your name could be there next year if you stay.

You push the doors open, walk down the aisle where actors are standing tall, singing melodic ah-ah-ahs. No one’s looking for you. No one from crew is even there.

You head backstage right—the opposite side from the loft—and eventually think to push through the double doors to the adjoining tech room. There are the sixth grade girls, surrounding a giant table covered by a canvas. They talk to each other mostly, half-heartedly painting the canvas dull beige. The eighth graders aren’t there.

You sit on a stool near Cinderella, who is in a group of girls from a different elementary school. She doesn’t look at you when you sit, but one of the girls gives you up-down eyes. You wonder if there’s something wrong with your outfit.

You lift a paint roller, dip, roll.

Then Dani Aguilar enters with the boys. They are wearing black, talking urgently, looking important. You bend close to the canvas. Their voices grow.

“Rosen’s gonna talk to us tomorrow about our design for the recess scene.”

“He better like it.”

“He probably hasn’t looked at it.”

“Oh, the Rose-man. Rose-dawg.”

“The prettiest flower.”

A laugh.

“He’s probably just gonna ask about props.”

A groan from one of the boys.

“Hey,” says a thick, loud girl voice. “Didn’t we send someone on a prop run already?”

They’re quiet. They don’t know who went, you realize. They don’t know your face. You all look the same to them.

“It was you, wasn’t it?”

Dani Aguilar’s standing over your shoulder.

You turn and your eyes are in line with her chest. You have to tilt your head up at an unnatural angle to meet her gaze.

She recognizes you.

“Yeah,” you hear yourself say.

“Well?” asks Cole Something. The boys are behind her, but you can’t focus on them with Dani Aguilar looking at you. You can’t tell if she’s mad. She’s not smiling. Her hair is falling forward, curtaining her cheeks, so you can only see the middle of her face, her pursed lips. “Did you find anything?”

You didn’t actually set foot in the prop room. You try to picture what was beyond the angel staring from the floor.

Shelves. You saw shelves. Probably there were props on them.

“Yup,” you say, for some reason. You sound like your grandpa.

Cinderella’s girl-group is watching you now. Cole Something is annoyed. “Why didn’t you bring them down?”

“It—there was too much to carry.”

Cole Something looks at Dani like you are an agonizing chore, like why are we even talking to this stageho?

“Alright, alright,” Dani says to Cole, as if they have been arguing. Then she turns to you. “I’ll go with you.”

It takes you an extra minute to understand, to recover from the fact that Dani Aguilar is talking to you.

“We can bring them down together,” she says. She’s not smiling, but she doesn’t sound mad about it either.

Then Cole asks, “You think you can get it all?”

“What?” Dani Aguilar’s voice turns sharp. “You think I can’t?”

Cole makes surrender arms. “Just asking a question.” He’s smiling, like he’s used to this, but Dani is giving no hint that she is not actually angry.

“Who brought out all the fresnels yesterday?”

The other boys are laughing.

“I’ll give you a hint,” she goes on. The ends of her lips curve into a slight smile. “It wasn’t someone named Cole.”

You’re standing up. You’re so in love with this universe, this You and Dani Aguilar Against the Haters universe. You picture yourself in the prop room, just with Dani—no boys allowed—joking while you scan the shelves. Lifting heavy things together. You’ll be strong, loud like her, the exact opposite of how you felt when you saw the angel. You’re already amused about yesterday, like you can’t believe you actually imagined an angel and worried about it through the evening into your nightmares.

But then a cool voice says, “I can help.”

It’s Cinderella, polite and nonchalant. She’s smiling that infuriating smile that had been on her face throughout the whole ball scene last year, the tiny one, with her eyebrows raised, like she was making fun of the prince.

Why does she even want to come? She’s been texting her way through every rehearsal. She doesn’t even care about stage crew.

If anyone’s a stageho, it’s Cinderella.

Dani Aguilar should see that, but she doesn’t. She takes in you and Cinderella like the two of you have blended into this single amusing thing and says, “Sure!” all huge. She faces the boys. “The more the merrier!” she says, and once again they’re laughing and it feels like they’re laughing at you but you can’t put your finger on why.

“Come, stagehos!” she cries, raising her arm with actor flourish. She marches backstage, leaving you and your rival facing each other, struck.

You turn away, follow Dani. You don’t need to share a moment with Cinderella.

The backstage lights are off. The actors are in shadow, lit only by the faint glow of the house lights onstage. You tunnel around them, trying to keep up with Dani Aguilar, but Cinderella has somehow gotten ahead of you, her shiny hair swishing beside Dani’s curls. When you have to pass single file behind the stage to get to backstage left, she’s between you and Dani. She’s not even keeping her voice down. There’s a rehearsal going on right in front of you and she’s still talking as if she’s the star of the show.

“Have you been in stage crew since you came to this school?”

“Did you have Miss Hart when you were in sixth grade?”

She’s trying to annoy you.

And Dani Aguilar is answering like Cinderella is normal instead of awful. She’s murmuring, so you can’t hear what she’s saying, but her murmurs sound friendly.

It doesn’t make sense, because she called you stagehos just a minute ago. Cole Something asked her in a totally polite way if the two of you could carry all the props and she freaked out, but now she’s being nice to someone she doesn’t even know.

You turn the corner to backstage left, which seems darker, for some reason. Maybe because it’s less crowded? It’s just two actors, waiting by the front to go on, and the loft ladder before you, looming in a shadow.

Dani Aguilar stops at the ladder and just stands there, watching Cinderella wander toward the actors, looking around like she’s lost.

“I can’t see anything,” she says, too loud. “Can someone turn on the light?”

The actors stare at you.

“Shh,” you want to say, but Dani Aguilar says it first. The sound is soft, velvety, like something you could eat.

She’s laughing to herself. Her face looks different when she smiles—sweeter. Like she’s not so much older than you.

You walk toward her so when Cinderella turns, she’s looking at the both of you, side by side. She seems genuinely confused, like she really doesn’t know why Dani shushed her.

“You have to be quiet backstage,” you explain.

She doesn’t respond. She gazes up at the ladder. “That’s where the prop room is?”

It looks so different with the lights off. Like a reverse ocean, dark-to-black as it moves up. You can’t even see the top.

“Yeah,” says Dani, “You’ll see the door on the side, right when you get to the top of the ladder. But if you go back farther, the loft takes you to the catwalk. You can walk over the stage on that.”

“We’re supposed to climb that ladder without any light?” Cinderella asks, her voice more wavery now.

“You scared?” asks Dani Aguilar. It’s less taunting than it is surprised, like she’s wondering if Cinderella is real.

“You want me to go first?” you offer with sugar concern. “I’ll go first.”

You step onto the first thin ladder rung, then the second, and that pole feeling against your shoes brings you right back to the angel. And you’re sweating. You can smell your own stench as you lift each arm to climb closer to the angel, because what if it is there? You were so stupid to volunteer to return after last time, to think one day could cure you of your crazy, to think you could be anything like Dani Aguilar. Now there’s no light and you’re still you. You’re more you than ever. A sloppy body, kid-scared of the dark.

Your foot hits the platform with a soft clang, and then you bring your other leg up, hoist your body into nothingness. You know from yesterday that there’s about seven feet of platform from the ladder to the prop room door, so if you step to the left you should be fine, but you still feel like you’re on the edge when you do, like you’re hovering over the stage.

Between you and the door, something is moving.

You can’t step back, because then you’ll be blocking the ladder, but what if it’s the angel? It doesn’t sound like the angel. It’s softer. Rustles. Suctioney sounds.

Dani Aguilar steps behind you, so close that if you lean back a little you’ll fall into her.

The rustles stop.

“Someone there?” A girl’s voice.

The sound is a person. People. Thank god. The darkness starts to form their shapes, now that you know what they are. The girl is so much shorter than the boy. They are pressed against each other and the prop room door.

“Nobody,” Dani stammers. “We’re just here to get props.”

The couple rustles as they move so that your path to the door is clear and they are deeper in shadow. You take a step, but you don’t want to walk beside them, so close. Dani doesn’t seem to either. She stops next to you, half-whispers, “Your friend’s still climbing.”

“She’s not my friend,” you say, then regret it immediately.

Dani Aguilar lets out a laugh. “Woah.” But then she says, in a to-each-his-own sort of way, “Okay.”

She’s right there, hand-holding distance, breathing distance. The couple is kissing a foot away. You and Dani Aguilar are listening to their lips.

Cinderella clangs onto the platform. There’s a pause for a moment before she asks, shrill, “Are those people making out?”

No one answers. Then Cinderella shakes her mane and says, “Ew.”

It’s amazing how easily her judgment comes, like it’s almost automatic, like there’s no question in her mind that she’s on top and can say things like that.

“What’s your problem, princess?”

Dani Aguilar has whirled around. Her roar is punishing. You almost feel like Dani is yelling at you. It’s startling, how fast she turns.

“You don’t have to be up here if you don’t want,” she goes on. “You can just climb on down that ladder.”

The making out couple has stopped. They’re listening too.

“You gonna get those props or what?” says the guy. The girl giggles.

Cinderella doesn’t say another word. You just feel her moving away from you, the soft pats of her shoes whimpering down the ladder. Your stomach rolls because now it’s just you and Dani, and it’s what you wanted, and it’s scarier.

Dani Aguilar barrels toward the prop room like she wants to get away from all of you, throwing open the door, flicking on the dull yellow light. It makes the shadow-couple more contrasty, with dark bits and light bits. Now you can see that the girl is standing on her toes, lifting herself up. Her head’s tilted back, her lit hair swaying like a flag in the darkness because their heads keep moving, fast-then-slow. You’ve never seen anyone kiss like that in the movies—so messy. You can see their tongues.

“Prop Girl!” you hear. Dani Aguilar’s voice.

Is she talking to you? Are you Prop Girl?

You walk into the prop room, shut the door.

She is standing by the shelves, the angel at her feet. The angel. It’s there, on the dirty floor, holding itself up with its arms so the wing bones are its highest part. It’s looking at you, right at you, with its too-round yellow-black eyes that make you want to run.

But you don’t, because Dani Aguilar is right behind it, looking at you too. She’s marvelously angry, standing with her weight to one side, her arms crossed under her breasts. Her face looks like a model’s, impatient and a little pouty, with her hair up except for one perfect calligraphic curl curving in under the silver hoop in her ear.

“You gonna show me what you found?” she asks.

She doesn’t see the angel.

You are the only one.

Below her, horror movie slow, the angel stretches out one milk-white too-long arm. Toward you. So disgusting your eyes start to water.

You almost pivot out of the room, but you can’t. Dani Aguilar asked you a question. She’s waiting for you, and if you don’t answer, if you walk away, it’ll make her notice, it’ll make your craziness real.

You force yourself to look up at Dani, to step in a wide circle around the angel toward where she is standing in front of the prop shelves. Because for some reason, she thinks she needs you. She sees something inside you that’s not the angel, that’s the opposite even, something you don’t see. And whatever it is has caused her to raise you up above the mass of stagehos and crown you Prop Girl.

*

From You Are Changing, Chapter 4: Boy Ups and Boy Downs:

It may seem, at times, that all your girlfriends have found a steady and you can’t get a boy to look at you. Every woman feels that way at one time or another. And in those times, it is important not to focus solely on your personal appearance. While it never hurts to look presentable, your personality can also factor into a boy’s attraction for you. It is true that not every young lady (or grown-up lady, for that matter) is beautiful. But loveliness is something we can all strive for.

Of course, there are young ladies with the opposite problem, who do not yet have feelings for the opposite sex. If you are one such character, I say: don’t be perplexed by your friends’ new fixation. In time, boys will become a hobby of yours as well. It’s simply inevitable. Meanwhile, your girlfriends will appreciate your support, and will return it in kind when they are dating and you finally experience that uncomfortable first crush.

*

When you were in the prop room with Dani and the angel, you could barely speak, let alone remember what props were on Cole’s list and look for them on the shelves and point them out to Dani as if you had found them the day before. The angel hovered by the doorway and Dani stood so close her presence almost engulfed you—her powdery smell, her leftover roughness from yelling at Cinderella—so you only pointed out three props. Three. You could have carried them yourself. Climbing down the ladder after Dani was like feeling her disappointment rise up and settle into your skin.

Upon getting home, you tear apart your backpack and coat pockets, looking for the prop list. If you could only find the list to work from, maybe you could find more props somewhere else.

But the list isn’t anywhere. You wind up making your own, sitting at your dining room table, combing every page of the script. Your little sister wants to watch talk shows and Gran asks you to set the table for dinner and you tell them both, “I’m sorry, I can’t, I have to do all this work for my show.”

You gobble your dinner and return to the task. It is slow, soothing work. It’s easy to list the props—what takes awhile is finding and recording the scenes when each prop is used. But at least all the information is there, in a packet in front of you. All you have to do is find it.

You switch to homework shortly before your mom comes home from the hospital. You’re hastily scribbling equations as she stands behind you for a minute, looking down at your work.

“Long day, huh?” she says, but it sounds like she’s talking to herself.

*

It’s hard getting Dani Aguilar alone. She’s chatting, businesslike, with another crew boy, then with a candy cane thin actor girl. They part and she starts to walk backstage and you have to work against your muscles that don’t want to move toward her, your heart doing puppy beats you can feel.

“Hi,” you say. She’s looking at you, surprised. Does she recognize you? Is it possible that even after yesterday, she doesn’t remember who you are?

You hand her the paper without even explaining. She looks down like it’s alien and you rush to say, “I made a new prop list. I mean, I know you have one, but I noticed a few things were missing from your list…”

You follow her dark eyes as she reads, her long lashes starting to cover them as she gets to the bottom of your paper. You can feel yourself sweating. Again. You have to take a non-obvious small step back so she doesn’t smell you. How can you live in a world where she also exists, with her so gorgeous and you so disgusting? Not that you’re attracted to Dani Aguilar in a crush type of way. It’s just that she’s one of those magnetic people that you want to be friends with, that you can’t stop thinking about.

She turns toward stage right. “Hey Cole,” she calls. “Come see this!”

Cole Something strides out. Dani hands him the paper like she forgot you’re here.

“It’s a prop list,” she says. “It’s better than yours.”

His eyes slide across a few lines. Then he says, uncomprehending, “Who did this?”

“Her,” says Dani Aguilar.

And now their attention is all on you. Cole looks at you for a moment before turning back to the list, and that look tells you he doesn’t understand who you are, why you made this. He doesn’t like you, either.

Dani grins as if you’re a kid trying to act grown-up, like she’s barely repressing a laugh. You were so stupid to think she’d be impressed by your work. It was too much. The list is too much.

But she says, “This is good.” To you.

Cole is still staring at your paper.

She says, “You think you can find some of this stuff upstairs?” and loses some of that awful smile.

You nod before it sinks in, what she’s asked you. You’ve been sent back to the prop room.

You go. Backstage left, up the first rungs of the ladder. You have a strategy in mind for the angel. You’re just going to walk around it, fast, like it’s not even there. Focus on the props. But someone’s already on the platform, above you. More than one person.

It’s not like the softness you heard from yesterday. There’s more sound. Low animal groans and the same high note again and again—mmm, higher than a girl’s voice should be.

You don’t move. You can’t interrupt. But then you’re even more creepy, just frozen on the ladder, listening. You climb as softly as you can, one foot above the other, slower than the rhythm of the sound.

But then your feet hit the platform like cymbals and everything stops.

“Someone there?”

It’s the same girl from yesterday, breathy. She was making that too-high sound. You’re frozen for a full minute before you can choke, “I’m just here for props!”

“It’s Prop Girl!” The boy.

“Oh, hey Prop Girl!” The girl, laughing. How can she laugh like that, like what she’s doing is normal, like it’s fine that you heard it up here, the three of you standing above the entire cast and crew?

You practically run into the prop room and slam the door and when you turn on the light, you’re not ready for the angel. Its eyes snatching at you, its arm outstretched.

Walk around it. Don’t look, you tell yourself, maybe out loud, and somehow you’re doing it, heading for the shelves. You take the list out of your pocket. You just have to be fast.

And then there’s a screech, a piercing scream that makes you jump, that makes you look, it’s coming from the angel. The angel is moving toward you, kneewalk-crawling in white-and-gray jerks. You back up, round a shelf to the next row. You’re panting.

Ignore it.

Look up.

Another rabid high cry. You can’t help it. You glance. It’s rounded the shelf, it’s coming down your row, eyes cutting you open, its black hair dragging with its robe in the dust of the floor. It can’t touch you, you can’t let it. You flee again, yanking the prop room door open so hard the making-out couple turns. You hear the girl call, “Bye Prop Girl!” as you climb down the ladder.

The angel is not going away. It is getting worse. You are getting worse. You can never go into the prop room again. Never ever ever ever ever.

You have to tell Dani you want to find props somewhere else. Our props are cheap-looking, you could say. You could say you don’t mind buying new ones. Props you buy yourself can be changed. You can paint them bright colors, so the audience will see them better.

Maybe you’ll sound dedicated—like the opposite of a girl who sees angels in lofts. Maybe Dani will be impressed, start including you in crew meetings. Maybe.

You begin that evening. You rummage through your basement, searching for props on your own. But it’s hard to focus when you keep hearing sounds in your head, those mmm moans of the making-out girl. It’s their realness you can’t shake, their untouchable private-ness. Like if you made a sound like that in class, everyone would make fun of you. The guys. Girls, at all levels of popularity. You heard something no one else was supposed to hear, except for maybe the making-out guy, and if girls can actually make those sounds in places besides the movies, in real life, can you?

You go upstairs to the bathroom and lock the door, turn on the shower and step into the steam, listen to the shh sound of the water which drowns your voice as you try to make the sound, yourself, in your throat. A moan. Finally.

You don’t sound like the making-out girl. The sound is lower, foreign in your mouth, like something inside you is being twisted loose.

I am so screwed up, you think, and moan again. It’s a quiet sound but it feels too big for standing still. You press your hands on the glass, even slide them down a little. It is so unsatisfying. You wish there was something in the shower you could actually hold—an edge, a handle. You need to grip, clutch, tighten.

*

You can’t put your quest for Dani Aguilar’s approval into words, but I can. It’s about her contradictions, the boy and girl of her, the meat of her voice coupled with the way the white stitching on her black hoodie rounds her shoulders and circles toward her waist.

Plus there’s the inherent danger of getting on her bad side. If Dani Aguilar was all over you, if she lauded your ideas with enthusiastic approval, if there wasn’t that unclear note in the way she calls you Prop Girl, that faint hint of maybe derision, would you care so much?

Because when you present your prop-gathering idea, she doesn’t finally see your brilliance. She looks at you like you’re a little weird, again, and says, “Well, yeah, you could do that, but it’s a lot more work. You really want to do all that work?” Her frown is inscrutable, and maybe beautiful because of that, like there’s this whole Dani Aguilar you still don’t know.

So you don’t give up. You don’t quit crew or fade into the white noise of the other sixth graders, barely trying. You say, “Yes. Yes I do,” like a soldier. And you get to work, so there’s no danger of her ever calling you princess.

Over the weekend, you convince your grandpa to drive you around so you can scan the streets for yard sale signs. You visit three. Grandpa buys a bookshelf from the second place. You buy a bucket of children’s toy food, two wiffle ball bats, three brooms, and four baseball bats.

You ask Gran to drive you to school Monday so you can bring it all in. You get there early, thankfully, so most people don’t see you hauling garbage bags full of props to the auditorium. Mr. Rosen doesn’t seem to know who you are, but when you explain, “These are props for the show,” he blinks, then smiles. “Leave them in the tech room,” he says.

After classes, you sprint to rehearsal, so you can be painting props when Dani Aguilar comes in. Everyone looks at you—the stagehos, all confused. Cinderella comes in with a few friends and takes in the bats lying on the tech room table, you are painting one of them red. “Is that, like, our job right now?” one of her friends asks, and you shrug, because you’d rather Dani Aguilar see you doing it on your own.

She finally strides in, swigging a Diet Dr. Pepper. You keep your head close to the table even as you watch her gaze move from the spread to you. It’s a lot of props.

“You can get paid back for that stuff, you know,” she says, and that hint of critic in her voice pulls your eyes right to her. Her attention is all on you, her soda bottle dangling forgotten at her side. “We have a budget for props.”

“You do?” you ask, like an idiot.

But then Dani Aguilar walks around the table over to you and you can smell her powder and she says, “That’s a good color. Can you make all the bats that color?”

“Sure,” you say, and your nonchalance comes out perfect this time and Dani Aguilar doesn’t walk away. She says, “Or maybe, like, the bats for one team that color and the bats for the other team different, like blue or something?” And Cole Something walks in at that moment, sees the two of you talking, and nods as he passes. He’s nodding at both of you.

It’s the smell and the nod that carries you through two weeks of staying late to paint props and going home and sending out emails to the stagehos begging them to look for props you still need and doing your actual homework late into the night. Of rubbing your eyes and inhaling all those paint fumes as the stagehos sit near you and gossip and text and the stage crew boys walk by you too. Of Cinderella asking, “So are you like a crew person now?” sounding almost nice she’s so relieved.

The angel haunts you. In the rare moments when you have to go backstage left, you hear faint screaming coming from the loft ladder. It’s almost as if the screams are coming from the ladder itself, as if the angel is shaking it so hard it hurts.

But you don’t look. You barely look. Looking would mean thinking about the angel, and you want the sight of it stumble-crawling—feathers quivering—with those yellow eyes steady on you to dim into a nightmare impression, until it doesn’t seem like it really happened.

When your props are mostly present and painted and Dani Aguilar says, “It’s probably time to set up the prop table,” you say, “Let’s put it backstage right,” as far from the ladder as possible. She pulls her neck back and stares at you. You’re not sure if she’s surprised by your confidence or the fact that you know the difference between stage left and stage right.

“There are more props for actors who enter on that side,” you explain, and she says, “Okay, Einstein,” and looks into your eyes when she smiles.

She lifts one end of the table and you lift the other. She hollers, “Coming through!” and you share a grin as the actors and stagehos scatter, just like that.

She walks backward so you’re looking at her the whole time. The weight of the table strains your arms but you bend your knees and hold it up like Dani, and the resistance makes you feel strong. You’re almost sad when it’s time to set it down.

“Sunday is tech day, you know,” Dani Aguilar says. “So you got to wear black.”

*

From You Are Changing, Chapter 8: Down in the Dumps:

Young ladies, you must cling to your optimism! Even in the midst of your loneliest, grumpiest mood swing. Mother Nature herself is optimistic. You only need observe flowers blooming after a brush fire or a rainbow following a storm to understand that Providence wants you to go on.

I am not so naive as to think you will turn to my little book to solve every problem that flits through your adolescent life. There are situations that may seem complex or specific, that you may need to talk to someone else about. I certainly endorse conversation! You might even find, after a good long gab session, that other people’s problems are not unlike your own!

But don’t just turn to your friends for advice. Consider your parents. I know you want to say, “Those fogeys don’t know anything about my modern concerns!” But I guarantee you’ll be surprised. Remember, parents were teenagers once. And not in the dark ages, as you might think!
But if your mother and father are not available for one reason or another, I recommend finding another adult—a clergyman, perhaps, or a teacher—that you can trust.

*

On the evening before tech day, you can’t sleep. You keep thinking about your only black pants, jeans from last year. What if they look too fifth grade? You get up, grab the pants, and step down the stairs toward the bathroom to try them on.

You start to pass through the living room, but Mom’s on the couch. She turns from the TV and calls your name, pats the cushion next to her.

You sit. She smiles at you like you’re a friend she wants for company.

She’s watching a hospital show. It feels good to take it in—safe. The doctor characters walk very fast in scrubs and have dramatic conversations with the other doctor characters.

“This is not what it’s like,” Mom says, which is what she always says during every hospital show. She raises her eyebrows and looks right at you, like you’re adults sharing a sarcastic secret.

You want to cuddle up to her, put your head in her lap, have her tangle her fingers in your hair while you pour out everything about the angel. You want her to laugh in her hearty, sympathetic way and tell you it’s normal to see angels, that everyone does at your age, that she’s sorry she didn’t warn you. That you’ll grow out of it in time.

But you don’t. You can’t. You watch a doctor duck into a side room and covertly kiss a nurse. The kiss is passionate and pure—their heads perfectly tilted, the music swelling to crescendo—and you know you’re supposed to sit there with your mother and appreciate this moment instead of anxiously hooking your fingers in and out of the loops of the pants on your lap, wondering if that’s what love is supposed to be.

*

Early in the morning, before the actors show up, Dani Aguilar helps you set up the prop table. She shows you how to divide it by scene by sticking masking tape around an edge, then pulling the roll in long quick strips to make boxes. You label each, covering index cards in clear tape and then pressing them into their making tape squares, small squares for scenes with two or three props, a huge block of space for the baseball scene.

You put the props on top and take a step back and just stare at your table, your work. After all those hours of researching and scrounging and emailing and painting, it’s weird how it only takes up one little rectangle of space.

Then Dani Aguilar assigns you a job: to stand by the table all day like a guard, making sure the props return to their correct places.

“The actors’ll mess them up,” she says, “If you’re not here.”

She claps you on the back and strides off to her job. She’s working lights with the boys. You’re still feeling that hand press as the actors trickle backstage and the lights are turned off. The dark is thicker than it’s ever been, because onstage there’s no more big generic light—there are special lights, spotlights and lights on focused spaces. You hear Cole Something’s voice calling to the actors, “Move a little to the right… stop” and then muttering tech jargon back and forth with the boys and Dani Aguilar before the light onstage shifts slightly. You’re so far away from it, next to your table against a wall, that even the actors don’t see you. They walk past you in a different dimension. It’s like you’re dissolving into the darkness, like the agony and secrecy of it are overtaking your physical body. You’ll separate soon, spread apart, until you’re nothing but floating anxious feelings in the dark.

The silence grows. You listen for Cole Something’s voice and don’t hear it. You’re the only person backstage right.

Maybe everyone took a break and forgot to tell you?

You inch forward, taking baby steps toward the stage to peek out. There’s a spotlight onstage. It looks like there’s a girl sitting in the spotlight—maybe rehearsal isn’t over? Maybe it’s a solo scene? You’re not sure if you should be this close to the stage. You’re supposed to be by your table. Someone in the audience could see you—what if Dani Aguilar is watching by the light grid and sees your head poke out of backstage and thinks, “Stupid actors, don’t they know not to inch up that far?” and then notices it’s you and regrets everything she’s done for you?

But you don’t want to be backstage by yourself. You’ll just look for a second.

The girl in the spotlight is leaning back, twisting to see you. It has yellow eyes.

It’s the angel.

It has been looking for you.

It starts animal-running toward you, on hands and knees. It’s rodent fast. You back up toward the prop table but you don’t want to be pinned. A screech hits you and you run, sprint, behind the stage to backstage left.

There’s no one there either. Empty except for that stupid loft ladder. How did the angel get down that ladder? You’ve never seen it stand up, let alone fly.

You step on the first rung as you hear the angel turn the corner, scamper toward the ladder. You climb faster, feeling for the rungs above you. You can’t see anything.

You’re getting near the top when you hear a familiar rough voice.

“Hang on!”

You freeze. It’s not the making-out girl. It’s definitely Dani Aguilar.

“We gotta go down soon,” she says. “Break’s almost over.”

“Okay, okay!” Cole Something’s voice—gruffer and easier than you’ve ever heard. “Hey, where’s your shadow?”

Aguilar laughs. “She’s probably, like, painting the whole stage for us or something.”

They’re talking about you.

“You know what I think?” Cole’s voice. “I think she has a crush on you. I think you have, like, a little lesbo follower.”

“Ew,” Dani Aguilar squeals. “You have a sick mind.”

“She wants to take you to the prop room and scissor.”

“Stop it!” she squeals, the way Cinderella would squeal. The way girls say stop when they don’t mean it, when they really mean keep going.

You hear her giggle as you climb down two, three rungs before you stop again. The angel’s at the bottom. There’s nowhere you can go.

And you’re so stupid. Stupid and crazy. Any normal person who sees an angel would run away, but you had to stick around. You had to get yourself noticed by Dani Aguilar. You should’ve known she’d never like you. That you could never be like her.

And the worst part is she’s still beautiful. Her voice still makes you picture her face, her cheeks, her lips, and your body is responding like she’s the whole world, like you still want so desperately for her to like you. But she doesn’t. And now you know she doesn’t, and you know why. You’re so crazy, you’re a joke, and Dani Aguilar knows you’re a joke, and that truth is so unbearably ugly.

You look down. The angel is waiting for you at the bottom of the ladder. It straightens and pulls its head back when it sees you, like it’s prepping for another bird roar.

You could roar right back. You look down at its purple pale face and you see red. Because why you? Why this angel? Why couldn’t you have gotten one of those nice angels you read about on Google, who know how to speak and tell people things like, “Be not afraid?”

Your angel would never say that, even if it could speak. It would probably say the opposite. It would probably say, “Be afraid. Be afraid of everything around you. The boys, the girls, changing. When you are changing, it’s not just you—everyone around you changes. The way they see you changes. There are intimidating angels you don’t want to talk to and beautiful angels you want to talk to but can’t and glorious angels that get in the way of everything. When you are changing, everyone around you looks a bit like me. And they all kind of make you want to scream.”

*

This is it. The moment where I actually could change things, if only I could talk to you.

Because I know this moment in The Angel Age so well. I know that right now, your biggest wish is for your consciousness to disappear, evaporate into dark.

I know you’re going to climb down the ladder as quietly as you can so Dani Aguilar and Cole Something won’t hear you, and when you get to the bottom where the angel is rearing, you will look the other way, you will walk fast in that direction, and when the angel screeches, you’ll run.

I want to tell you that you don’t have to run.

You don’t have to unofficially quit stage crew by never setting foot in the auditorium again, or to choose not to audition for the school play next year in an effort to avoid the angel. And when the angel comes looking for you, when you inevitably see it in classrooms and hallways and the cafeteria, you don’t have to look up away, pretend not to hear it screaming for your attention.

You don’t have spend high school distracting yourself with homework and bad dates, telling Mom and Grandma and your kid sister that everything is okay when it’s not. You don’t have to turn away every time the angel appears, until the middle of college when you’re exhausted from finals and a hangover and just can’t do it anymore.

Instead, when you reach the bottom of the props loft ladder, you can look down and meet the angel’s animal eyes.

It won’t hurt. It’ll surprise you with its softness, actually—that first moment of looking. The angel will stop screaming just from the shock of your met gaze, close its lips. Closed, they won’t look so uncannily long. They’ll just look like human lips, purpler than most—like the angel is a homeless person watching you walk on a frigid night. Stark. Entreating.

Don’t turn away. Stand there. Look. Even though fixing your gaze makes your body feel rigid and too too open to fear and heat and revelation. Even as the angel’s cold bird eyes turn into something else, something so beyond human sympathy that your eyes fill to teeming. Even as you realize you’re shaking.

The angel won’t break its gaze, but it will move, slowly getting to its knees, lowering its spider hands to the floor. And at first you will recoil like it is going to crawl toward you, but instead it will push itself back onto its feet and rise.
And rise. And keep rising, until it’s taller than you—Cole Something tall, tree-tall. So tall that the dim backstage light will seem to have ascended with it—the angel should be shrouded in darkness, but it’s not. It looks down at you with its boy-thick jaw and delicate mouth, its curtain of curls falling toward you. If it were stern, it would be monstrous, but it’s not. It seems concerned, like it’s wondering how you’re doing with all of its glory, if you’re okay.

You will realize that you are.

You will feel yourself smile as the angel’s wings stretch out and lift it up and you will laugh because the wings are whole new miracle. How wide they are, how marble white in the middle, how their former dusty raggedness has become a grand outer layer now that you can see the long ovular shape of each individual grey-black feather. The swooping thunder rhythm of their beat. How it looks like they are constantly changing colors, but it is really the light that’s moving, rolling along the wings in shimmering waves. You will understand that beauty is continuous movement, is one thing flowing into the next—lights changing on a stage, in-and-out kissing, a girl doing cartwheels, a dance.

If you want it to, the angel can put firm hands on your waist, lift you up, fly you above the ladder to the loft where Cole Something and Dani Aguilar are laughing at you. They’ll stop laughing when they see you in the air, hovering above their heads like a vision. They’ll scream. You can say things like, “You are the worst!” and “You are not actually in charge!” and “I am not a stageho! I am not a prop girl either!” You can tell them your name.

And when you’ve said your peace, you can bellow, “Do you understand?” like you’re God.

And you will get to hear their chorused reply, that single, deep note that will reverberate through your body until it is a part of you: an immediate, pleading yes.

 

Tilt-A-Whirl
by Rachel Furey

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

It’s just you in the Tilt-A-Whirl cart until Jimmy Miller slips in beside you. He reeks of cigarette smoke, and you want to grind an elbow into his stomach and tell him to find another cart. But the handlebar clicks shut and the ride starts up and Jimmy’s sitting there beside you smiling underneath his baseball cap, his camo pants brushing against your basketball shorts.

On a different day, this might be a good thing. He’s one of the few guys in school as tall as you. You respect that he doesn’t try too hard, that his hair is messy, that he’s almost always wearing camo pants, not giving a shit that some people call him Camo. He’s an expert shot—always brings down a deer on the first day of the season. You appreciate that kind of efficiency.

But you came here to be alone—came because all that spinning is your way of slowing down the swirl of thoughts in your head. Your cart hasn’t started moving yet, and Jimmy reaches over and places a hand on your knee. His palm is hot, damp, and it stings your floor-burned knee. You push his hand off.

Your cart teeters back and forth, then takes its first full spin. Your body presses into the back of the cart. Jimmy pushes his hands into his pockets and stares at you as if to say, See, now I have my hands contained. Your knees are no longer in danger. Most guys wouldn’t dare to sit beside you. Most guys think you are more guy than girl.

You’re about to tell him his hands don’t have to stay in his pockets—they just have to stay away from you—when your cart turns again. More slowly this time. It doesn’t seem fair. The cart beside yours is spinning like crazy. You catch flashes of three middle school girls in jean shorts and tank tops. They squeeze the handlebar and laugh so hard one of them has spit running down her chin. You used to laugh on this ride. In fact, you probably laughed the last time you were on it.

“What the fuck is wrong with our cart,” you say to Jimmy. He stares at you hard, like he’s looking at you through the sight in his rifle. He has hazel eyes. You never noticed that before.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asks.

You squeeze the handlebar. It’s sticky and you wonder what pudgy, popsicle-eating kid sat there before you. You want to be that kid. Ten again. Not six feet tall. Not a licensed, driving adult.

“My dog died,” you say. You time the words just right. Your cart makes its biggest turn yet, and he can’t say a word.

You stare down at your hands. There’s a spot of blood on your thumbnail that you missed when washing your hands. You found it when drying and couldn’t soap again. It seemed fitting that you couldn’t wash all of her away—that a part of Assassin would remain on you. She’d earned her name by hunting groundhogs as a puppy. Even when she was the same size as them, she could kill a couple every week. At the time you were seven and also loved that the word ass was in Assassin twice.

“What kind of dog,” Jimmy asks.

“I’d have to show you a picture,” you say. You had one of those mutts that was part everything. Long ears and short tail. Black, brown, gray, and white hair. Short in some places, long in others. You used to get a kick out of going down to the dog park and telling people Assassin was sixty percent St. Bernard or thirty percent greyhound despite the fact the dog was about two feet tall. You had the swagger to make people believe just about anything.

Your cart spins again. Hard. Three times in a row. You close your eyes. This is what you came for. This moment when your body is one with the seat. You thought this motion might make you forget the morning. But you can still feel Assassin’s warm, wet fur in your palms. You squeeze the handlebar more tightly and her fur is still there.

Your cart slows and you wait for another hard turn, but the ride is slowing altogether. If Jimmy weren’t sitting beside you, you’d curse at the ride operator—tell him to go for another round. Instead, you scoot farther from Jimmy. As soon as the ride stops, you crank open the handlebar and scuttle out.

Jimmy follows you. “Hey,” he says. “Can I get you something to eat?”

You almost tell him to fuck off, then you remember that he is not seeing the same images you have been seeing for the past hour. He wasn’t there on your road to see Assassin’s head turned at an angle so horrific that you had to sit on the pavement a minute before crawling forward. He didn’t pick the dog up and hold her in his arms, didn’t press his neck against the wet snout, hoping to feel a pant of warm air again his skin. He didn’t stand in the backyard with the dog in his arms, its dampness transferring to his T-shirt, while he decided where to bury her.

You hadn’t buried Assassin. Not yet. You needed to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl first. You’d merely picked out the spot, which you believed to be beside the Barbie doll your Aunt Evelyn gave you for your eighth birthday. Barbie was tall like you, but there were no other striking resemblances. With your dad’s power sander, you sanded off her breasts. Then you dissembled her, limb by limb. You took her parts to school in a paper bag—a decision that earned you a week of after-school detention and an order from your dad to either put the doll back together or throw her away. Instead, you buried her. Assassin once dug Barbie up and you had to bury her once more, deeper.

“I’m not hungry,” you tell Jimmy.

“We could ride the train,” he says.

“You mean the dinky kid train?”

“Yep.” He takes a step closer to you. He pulls his hands out of his pockets and keeps them at his sides. “When my little brother gets upset, I take him on the train. It’s calming.”

“Do I look like a little kid to you?”

He shakes his head. “Just a suggestion. That’s all.” He turns like he might leave.

“Fine,” you say.

There’s not a line for the train. That’s one upside to a boring ride. The two of you climb into one of the front cars. They’re made for kids and your knees press against the warm metal. Your floor burn stings again. The kids are slow to load because they’re yammering about the snow cone man being out of watermelon and Mom only allowing one bag of cotton candy. You shift in the tiny seat, eager to be in motion again. Jimmy taps his fingers against his knees. He looks at you, and you think he might say something, but he doesn’t.

Finally, the train starts up. It rattles on the tracks, and vibrations shoot up your feet. The driver pulls a cord, activating an annoying horn that the children cheer for and Jimmy laughs at. The horn blows one more time and you’re back in that scene from an hour ago, the garbage truck blowing its horn. Once. Twice. Three times. You got up off the couch on the third and ran outside to find Assassin.

Your basketball shorts don’t have pockets in them. You wish they did because you don’t know what to do with your hands. The train doesn’t have a handlebar like the Tilt-A-Whirl. You squeeze your fingers into fists and let them bounce up and down on your thighs. You glance up ahead. Gray squirrels are playing chicken with the train. Darting back and forth across the track, their furry tails flitting up and down. On a different day, this might be funny. On a different day, you might root for the train to clip one. Today, you pound your fists into your thighs harder.

The train clatters along, then hits a tunnel. It’s cool and dark and you let yourself go for a moment. You stop pounding your thighs. You relax your face. You take a deep breath, and on the release, you feel something catch in your throat. In the movies people cry one tear at a time, but when the train comes out from under the tunnel and back into bright sun again, your face is wet. You tilt your head away from Jimmy and stare at the grassy hill to your left.

Jimmy does the nicest thing he can. He takes off his baseball cap and places it on your head. He punches the bill down low and then gives you a minute.

You wipe your face. You hold your elbows out to your sides in a way that suggests strength. “It’s my fault,” you say. “I let the dog out. I forgot it was garbage day. The garbage truck was her favorite.” She’d pace up and down the road for an hour after it had gone through, her nose pressed to pavement as if she could absorb each of the smells.

“Okay,” he says. One word. That’s it.

You ease the bill of the hat up and look at him. He meets your glance. “I flipped the trash man off like it was his fault,” you say, “but it wasn’t.”

“To be fair,” Jimmy says, “it was partially his fault. And partially the dog’s fault.”

You shake your head. “No, it wasn’t Assassin’s fault.”

“Wow.” He gazes out into the park. “That’s one hell of a name.”

You want to tell him the part about the word ass being in there twice, but it feels silly now.

He reaches for your knee, then remembers and pulls his hand back. “According to my brother, all dogs go to heaven.”

“Please,” you say, “no clichés.”

“Sure.”

You glance up ahead. Squirrels are still scrambling over the tracks. “This isn’t really a calming ride,” you say.

“Sorry. It was either this or the dunk tank.”

You’re not sure if he’s joking. Maybe you could go for a dip in the dunk tank. All that cold water. A moment without air.

The squirrels are still playing chicken. You swear one had its tail nipped by the train. You can’t watch anymore. You scoot toward the edge of the seat, then you tilt to the side and let yourself fall. You thud against grass, the fall not as hard or satisfying as you expected. But you are on a hill. You let gravity take you. Let yourself roll. Let yourself be ten again, the world circling around you the way you wanted it to on the Tilt-A-Whirl. It’s all warm grass and soft dirt.

Until a chip bag rustles under your thigh. A rock under your hip. Geese shit against your forearm. You pull your arms away from your sides to slow yourself down. The park and the hill and the train are all spinning, but you can make out Jimmy rolling toward you. You reach a hand toward him. You want him to be the one to stop the spinning.

In the Middle of the Night
by Catey Miller

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Twenty-one days ago, exactly one month before Layla and I were set to move to different states for different colleges, I was lying on the couch in Layla’s family’s den, pretending to be asleep while she and her mom, Ellen, had a loud fight. The den was dark and Scrubs was on Netflix in the background and Layla and Ellen were shouting at each other about something I don’t remember. I kept pretending to be asleep until the fight ended and Layla moved back onto the couch, at which point I sat up and let her curl her feet up on my thighs and didn’t touch her very ticklish toes while she cried and then fell asleep and I watched more Scrubs. Sometime around midnight, Ellen put her hand on my head as she walked behind the couch and said, “Danielle, if you’re falling asleep, you can stay.” I didn’t want to stay. I said I would rather sleep in my own bed, but thanks. Ellen helped me tuck a blanket around Layla. She told me to please be careful out there and I nodded and waved and didn’t think to hug her goodbye. I made it home fine.

Twenty days ago, Ellen was walking to her car in the Food Lion parking lot, and the driver of the F-350 didn’t see her. It was an accident. I can picture Ellen with her purple reusable shopping bags slung over her shoulders, talking to Layla’s dad on the phone about dinner, reaching for the remote to unlock her car. I can’t picture Layla and her dad and her brother eating dinner that night.

Seventeen days ago there was a service, and my parents cried, and Layla’s dad and her little brother cried. I didn’t talk to Layla at the service, but I held her hand when we circled back to look into the casket again after everyone else had, my second time and her third time. Layla’s mom’s nails were still painted a matte purple called “Black Cherry Chutney,” which we’d picked out for her even though she said it was too dark for her. The polish had chipped on two fingers on her right hand, and this was the part of her that looked the most wrong to me, and I couldn’t remember if I’d painted her right hand or if Layla had. I wondered if her toenails were still painted, too. I wondered if the polish would ever chip if it stayed in her socks in her shoes in the box in the ground. Toenail polish lasts forever.

I’ve been leaving my phone volume turned up overnight, just in case. The first time the phone rang, I answered, “Hello? L?” She hung up. The second time, and the times since, I just slid the green bar, was just there. Sometimes there’s crying, sometimes just the white noise hiss of being connected. Tonight, ten minutes ago, twenty days since I last saw her, there were words. “I’m picking you up.”

Layla is just rounding the cul-de-sac to loop back to my driveway when I slip out the front door. I take quick short steps to the end of the driveway, skimming my fingers along the side of my mom’s burgundy Wrangler as I pass it. The Jeep always looks like some hulking creature in the darkness, its taillights glinting the wrong colors in the bright moonlight. I pat its bumper as I go by.

Layla has the windows rolled down so when she comes to a stop on the road a foot in front of me, I can hear her music. And it’s not her mix CD of songs about girls with L-names—“Lola” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Laura” times three, but not “Layla,” because she hates that it’s a song written about someone else’s wife; “Clapton is such an asshole,” she says, “couldn’t he have just waited for the divorce to write about me?” Clapton notwithstanding, that mix is Layla’s comfort food, and hearing jazz music in its place stops me for a second.

Then I take the last few steps to the car and gently lower the duffel bag I’m carrying onto the floorboard—the half-empty bottle of whiskey swishes against the tempo of the trumpet or whatever is hissing out of the speakers—and fold myself into the car after it. Layla drives the Mazda Miata now, the one her mom was walking to, and it’s so small, so low to the ground and confining. Layla has been badly claustrophobic since I’ve known her, but it doesn’t seem to bother her now.

“Hi,” Layla says when we’re off my street, zipping past stop signs and speed limit markers in the maze of the development my family lives in.

My line is How’s it going, but she’s driving too fast and her fingers are tight on the steering wheel and her hair is tight in her ponytail, and I don’t say anything until we’re out of Sunrise Echoes, out on a main road with traffic lights and shadowy clumps of trees that could be shielding cop cars, and Layla slows to five over. Her fingernails are painted bright yellow, thick and gloopy like she’s been painting over cracks. Mine are dark purple and chipping badly and I hide them under my thighs. Yellow is, I guess, as far from purple as you can get.

It’s too late for my opener now, so I try, “Where we headed?” even though I know we’re headed east, for the ocean, and she knows I know so she doesn’t respond. We always said growing up that it was the best place to be on a hot summer night, said it must be hard to be bored or lonely or sad with the moon on the water; it seemed too perfect. Our parents wouldn’t ever let us go.

It’s just a few minutes to the ocean from my house. My family lives closer than Layla and her dad and her brother, and I wonder if she’s been coming without me, making the longer drive alone all those nights. The hiss of bedroom background noise could’ve been waves, maybe. I wonder if every night she’s been listening to jazz—which is/was a favorite of her parent/s—and what happened to the L-name girls. A saxophonist takes a solo and Layla’s knuckles are popping up against the steering wheel and she hasn’t said anything yet but I know soon she’ll need me to listen, maybe to talk, and I suddenly, selfishly wish I could just nod off in the front seat, my foot rolling the whiskey from above my parents’ fridge back and forth on the floorboard.

But then we’re there and she’s launching herself out of the car, drawing in deep lungfuls of salt air, and I wonder if maybe the claustrophobia didn’t go away after all. It’s always hard to know with Layla, has been since fourth grade, when she was the only one of us who didn’t love horses but still wanted to be involved in all our conversations about them. I keep thinking it will get easier and it keeps going the other way, especially since graduation, and since Ellen.

It occurs to me, listening to Layla get her breathing under control, that maybe now is when it starts to get easier. Maybe if I can understand the shape of her grief I can finally understand her. And then it occurs to me how stupid that is, how things can only get harder from here, and what a bad friend I am to want something good—for me—to come out of this. What a bad person.

“Come on, Dani!” Layla’s voice is high and too loud. She half-walks-half-dances away from me, toward the water, becoming a silhouette. I flick the Miata’s headlights on, grab the duffel, and pocket the keys before I climb out of the car and lock the doors behind us. Then I jog after Layla, half-dancing toward the water, spotlit by the headlights. It smells clearer here at night than during the day, or more private, the salt in the air getting through to us better in the absence of sunscreen and snacks and so many bodies.

“My mom loved it here,” she shouts at me over the ocean spray, even though we’re not close enough to the water yet for it to drown her out.

The last time we all came here together, my parents and Layla’s family, Ellen wore tennis shoes and jogging shorts and a scowl, and she dragged my mom, in a one-piece, on a half-mile walk with her toward the pier. When my mom, chafing and irritated, begged off to play with Layla and me and the others in the water, Layla’s mom kept walking the same loop to the pier and back, arms pumping, stopping every few laps to ask if anyone wanted to join her, and no one did, and I feel a little bad about it now but then I only felt bad that she wouldn’t stop asking. It didn’t seem like she loved it here at all, but that she came here as an obligation.

But I watch Layla kick off her sandals and run in the direction of the pier, her arms spread wide and her head tipped back, and I let the memory she’s creating replace the one I have. Ellen loved it here. We were part of that. I run after Layla and we’re doing what she would’ve wanted us to do, what she would’ve wanted, and it’s an honoring thing, not a grieving thing.

It feels like a grieving thing again when we walk back to the duffle. Layla, like she can sense the mood shifting, starts doing her jerky dance-walk again, sort of a skipping motion that I can’t picture her doing when she’s by herself.

“Hang on,” she says, and darts away toward the parking lot before I can react. I watch her vanish into the darkness the closer she gets to the car, the headlights blinding me more than illuminating her. I have a brief and horrible vision of her going, getting back in the Miata and peeling out, letting me think she was letting me join her and then leaving me out as punishment for something, like maybe I should have called her before tonight, maybe I should have been the one to reach out and say let’s be sad together. But she wouldn’t. She won’t. And then the headlights go off and I’m left blinking in the dark, and suddenly I feel the bulk of her car keys in my pocket and I feel like an idiot.

I reach blindly for the duffel and wish I’d had the presence of mind to shake out the blanket I grabbed from our hall closet before she turned off the lights. The sliding thuds of her bare feet running back toward me in the loose sand make me feel more relieved than I try to let on. I take the car keys out of my pocket and offer them to her when she’s closer, but she waves me off, so I put them back.

“Look up, Dani,” she says, plucking at the back of my T-shirt. “Can’t you see them so much better?”

She must mean the stars because I can, she’s right. I also think the ocean sounds louder, somehow, like the Mazda’s lights were muting the roar of the waves. It’s like we always thought it would be, dark and bright all at once and left here just for us.

We haven’t watched Disney movies together in years, but suddenly I’m looking at the stars and thinking of The Lion King and wanting to ask Layla what she thinks about that, about souls in the night sky like Mufasa, if her mom is one of those big balls of gas and we’re looking up at her light.

But then Layla is sitting on the blanket and reaching for the whiskey in the bag and I’m glad the moment has passed. Though I wish now, out of nowhere, that we’d kept up the Disney movie night tradition from middle school. I can’t tell if it’s a real wish or if it will be gone in the morning.

“It’s so empty,” she says. She swings the bottle around by its neck. “How much did you have before I got to your place?” she asks, teasing, as she unscrews the cap.

I make a pfft noise because I’m not sure if we’re allowed to laugh yet. “Nah, this is just my mom’s favorite.”

“Oh.” She pauses with the bottle an inch from her lips.

“No, that’s not—I mean, that’s why there’s not much left. But no, like, it’s fine. I brought it for you. For us to share.”

She takes a quick sip, or holds the bottle to her mouth long enough for me to believe she did, and passes it back.

While I’m sipping, Layla rolls off of the blanket and onto the sand beside it and spreads herself like she’s going to make an angel. This her mother definitely wouldn’t have done. But Layla looks right at home, squirming a little so that the sand slides and whispers under her moving shoulders. She curls her fingers around fistfuls of sand and tosses them up, does it again, does it again, makes a sound that’s almost a laugh. Her laugh in all its variations sounds like her dad’s, and her round brown eyes are his, and she and her brother both have their dad’s thick curly hair.

“Have you talked to your roommate yet?” I ask.

It takes a while before she answers. “For school, you mean,” she says.

“Yeah. Mine Facebooked me this week to ask what I could bring for the room. She wanted to know about, like, rugs and dishes. Like am I bringing pots and pans. She wants to bring a crock pot.”

“To your tiny dorm room?”

“Yep.”

“She sounds delightful. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

We go silent for a while. We pass the bottle back and forth. I can’t tell if she’s drinking. I can tell there’s something one of us should be saying now. The waves are loud and the sand is cool and I’m still thinking about The Lion King.

“Didn’t your roomie write you a few weeks ago?” I ask, prodding.

“Yeah. She sent a Facebook message.” Layla’s words come slow, like she has to pull them out one by one from some recess in her brain. “She asked me to bring a TV.”

“More normal than a crock pot. But also kind of assumption-y.”

“Yeah. But I mean, I have one, so.” She tosses up another handful of sand. “Her name’s Lily.”

I hmm sympathetically. There are so many “Lily” songs. Not fair.

Layla sighs like she’s feeling like it’s not fair, too, and I don’t mean to, I’ve been trying to avoid it, but I can’t help it anymore and I spin her feelings—my feelings about what her feelings must be—out in front of me, up at the stars. Layla, left behind by a mother who had grown too smothering sometime in junior or senior year, who didn’t know about the bird tattoo she’d gotten twenty-five days ago, on her eighteenth birthday. A mother she told me she was hoping to re-engage with in just a few months, once we graduated, once she moved three states down and could use the distance as a bridge. Layla, songless by choice; close-to-but-not L-o-l-a Lola, close-to-but-not Billy Joel’s troubled Laura, and so maybe it was just easier to listen to jazz, where you never had to worry about not hearing yourself mentioned.

She interrupts my interior monologue in a faltering voice: “Aren’t you sad, Danielle?”

And everything in me falters. My heart collapses in on itself and my stomach is full of acid. My eyes close against tears that rise fast and make them burn. I wish I’d hugged Ellen goodbye. I wish I’d told my mom I was going out tonight. I am so sad. It is not my sadness.

I inch my left hand into the gap between our bodies, my wrist on the hem of the blanket, and Layla reaches out and grabs it right away, holds it tight, and suddenly I can hear her crying, the wet sniffling sound complementing the rhythm of the ocean in a way that makes me think they’ve synced up before after all.

“I was giving you space,” I say.

Her fingers tighten around mine and I squeeze back, trying not to dig my nails into her skin as much as she’s digging hers into mine, and she scoots across the sand and back onto the blanket. “Too much space,” she says.

“I’m sorry.” I twist so that I’m facing her more and wrap my arms around her, brushing the sand off the back of her shirt while she keeps crying.

She’s saying she’s sorry, too, and she’s saying “I love you,” but I don’t think she’s talking to me. Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask if she wants to watch The Lion King.

I press a hand into Layla’s curly hair and think about how she doesn’t look anything like Ellen and I miss Ellen, who always invited me to stay, who always had blankets ready, who called herself my other mom. I miss her in a way I don’t feel like I have a right to. I hold onto Layla and I miss her, too, and I try but I can’t remember what they were fighting about or why I pretended not to hear.

 

 

Hunger Mountain Announces Winners of the 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing

Winners, who hail from Missouri, Connecticut, California, and India, receive prize money, publication, and invitation to literary representation

Montpelier, Vt.—Hunger Mountain, the Vermont College of Fine Arts Journal of the Arts, today announced the winners of the 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing. The contest received nearly 200 entries and was judged by Ammi-Joan Paquette, children’s author and senior agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

“I very much enjoyed this opportunity to judge such worthy entries, and had a tough time choosing just one winner out of each batch of finalists,” said Paquette. “The kind of fresh, unique, and well-crafted writing for children and young adults that I saw in these contest entries are just the type of work I’m looking for in the publishing industry,” she said.

Paquette invited some of the prizewinning authors to submit writing to be considered for literary representation at EMLA, making this contest a doorway into the publishing world for new and emerging authors.

“This is exactly the kind of connection we hope to see for emerging artists who publish and win prizes at Hunger Mountain,” said Editor Miciah Gault. “I’m thrilled that our judge this year found such quality work in our contestants, and even more thrilled to help our prizewinners gain the audience they deserve,” she said.

First place in the Katherine Paterson Prize was awarded to Rachel Furey, of Jefferson City, Missouri, for her young adult fiction story “Tilt-a-Whirl,” about a teenage girl who, after losing her dog, is afraid to open up to possibilities of human love and friendship. One of Hunger Mountain’s first readers called the writing “powerful.”

“Over the past seven years, the Katherine Paterson Prize has been awarded to some of the most accomplished and interesting new voices in children’s literature,” said Hunger Mountain Children’s Literature Editor Caroline Carlson. “This isn’t the first time Rachel Furey has caught our guest judge’s eye—she received a special mention from judge Katherine Applegate in last year’s contest—and we’re so pleased to bring her exceptional work to a wider audience,” she said.

The winner receives $1,000 and publication in a special prizewinner issue of Hunger Mountain.

Three category winners were also selected: Elaine Alexander, of Colchester, Conn., for her picture book, “Angler Fish: Black Devil of the Deep;” Mathangi Subramanian, of New Delhi, India, for her middle grade manuscript, “Banu the Builder;” and Sharry Wright, of San Francisco, Calif., for her young adult novel excerpt, “The Lies and Illusions of Lucy Sparrow.” Category winners receive $100 and publication in Hunger Mountain.

The full list of finalists and special mentions are listed on the Hunger Mountain website at hungermtn.org/contests.

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About Rachel Furey
Rachel Furey completed her doctorate at Texas Tech and now teaches at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. She won Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize for Fiction and her work has also appeared in journals such as One Teen Story, Crab Orchard Review, Cicada, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Women’s Basketball Magazine, and Chautauqua.

About Ammi-Joan Paquette
Ammi-Joan Paquette is a senior agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency, representing all types of children’s and YA literature. She is also the author of the middle-grade novel Princess Juniper of the Hourglass (Philomel, 2015), and other books including Rules for Ghosting (Walker, 2013), Nowhere Girl (Walker, 2011), and Ghost in the House (Candlewick, 2013). In her agent acquisitions, Joan is particularly drawn to richly voiced, unforgettable characters and settings, as well as tightly-paced, well-plotted stories with twists and turns that keep you guessing right until the end. Visit her on the web at ajpaquette.com

About the Katherine Paterson Prize
Named after award-winning author Katherine Paterson, author of more than 30 books for young people, including Bridge to Terabithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins, The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing began at Hunger Mountain in 2009, to recognize outstanding writing for young audiences. The inaugural contest, judged by the eponymous Paterson, was awarded to Liz Cook, a graduate of VCFA’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults program. The prize is open to all writers who wish to submit work in the picture book, middle grade, or young adult category. The deadline for the 2016 Katherine Paterson Prize is March 1, 2016, with judge TBD.

About Hunger Mountain
Founded in 2002 by Caroline Mercurio, Hunger Mountain is a print and online journal of the arts publishing fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, visual art, young adult and children’s writing, and literary miscellany. The mission is to cultivate engagement with and conversation about the arts by publishing high-quality, innovative literary and visual art by both established and emerging artists, offering opportunities for interactivity and discourse. Its editorial offices are located at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in historic Montpelier, Vt. The print issue comes out annually in the spring, and online content changes on a regular basis. Learn more at hungermtn.org.

A B.S. in Environmental Science

Rebecca Thomas

Hector’s brother, Berto, wakes him at a quarter to midnight. He slaps Hector’s face with his fingertips until Hector throws out his arms, swinging. Hector starts to shout, but Berto puts his hand over Hector’s mouth and points to their sister, sleeping.

The streetlight coming in through the blinds stripes Berto’s face. He grins, and his teeth gleam white in the darkness, transforming him into the Cheshire Cat of Ash Street. “Undie run,” he whispers.

Hector gets up.

Their parents’ door is closed. No light escapes under it. But the two know that even if their parents were awake, their dad would talk their mother into letting them go. He would grin and say, “Boys will be boys,” and they’d wait for their mother’s death stare, then eye roll, then wave of her hand before they left.

They grab coats and put on their sneakers outside, shutting the door behind them, so only they can hear the click. They can see their breath outside, white plumes from their mouths. Berto nudges Hector, winks, and pretends to smoke. Hector joins him. The two grin before looking away. They haven’t pretended to do that in seven years, not since Berto went into junior high and Hector was in fourth grade, but it feels perfectly natural now that they should be out pretending to smoke in the middle of the night. Berto nods, and with their shoes on and coats zipped, they walk down the stairs and head east toward the nice part of Old Towne Orange that starts just half a block away. They walk without talking, their footsteps pushing them closer to the college, away from the train tracks and the defunct packinghouses, to a place where people run in their underwear to celebrate finals week.

“You came up just for this?” Hector asks.

Berto nods. “Well, that and Mom said she had a batch of my laundry done.”

“You been to this before?”

Berto nods again, slower. “Oh yeah.”

The houses transform from Craftsmen with barred windows and chain link to ones with landscaped lawns and crisp white fences. The doors become windowed. Furniture stands on porches with throw pillows and outdoor rugs.

Closer to the university, girls’ laughter blankets the air, light and fluffy and full of next-day misgivings. They stop next to a falafel place closed for the night, and Berto pauses next to the dark windows. Suddenly, he takes off his jacket, stuffing it in the bushes. He strips off his shirt and moves to his pants.

“What’re you doing?” Hector asks. He looks around, but all he sees are houses and shops shut up tight.

“Blending in,” Berto says.

“This is blending in?” He points to Berto’s bare legs.

Berto’s jeans are bunched in his hand. “What did you think we were doing?” He stuffs the jeans in the bushes, too.

Hector shrugs.

“This isn’t like a parade or something, Hector. You don’t stand on the street and watch girls jog in their bras. They’d have us arrested or fined for being out past curfew…for you at least. ” He stares at his brother. “So if we’re going to do this, we need to do this.”

Hector’s heartbeat covers his body. He can feel it in his fingertips. He looks around, checking both sides of the street as if he were going to cross it, before taking off his jacket. He takes off his pants next, and then he’s left standing next to a restaurant in nothing but navy Walmart boxers and an undershirt. He glances at his brother, who’s wearing Christmas-themed boxer briefs with ho ho ho over the crotch. Berto stretches in the cold, his six-pack goosebumped. Hector smooths his undershirt into place.

“The shirt next, bro,” Berto says.

“Come on.”

Berto nods, points to the shirt.

The night is cold on Hector’s face, but he can feel the heat as he blushes. He checks the street again.

“You won’t get a girl in an undershirt, dude,” Berto says.

“Who said anything about getting girls?”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t to hear that. The shirt goes next.”

“Don’t you have a girlfriend?”

“Mind your own business. Do you want to get a girl or not? The shirt next.”

Looking at the ground, Hector pulls off his shirt. He can feel the tug of cotton on his belly as he takes it off. He shoves it in the bushes with the others.

“Better.” Berto grins and gives Hector a Santa hat. “It’ll make you seem festive.”

“Where’s yours?”

Berto winks and puts on an elf hat.

“Really?” Hector’s body shivers. He can feel his belly jiggle as he moves. He’s begun to dance from one foot to the next, pulling his knees almost up to his chest.

Berto puts an icy hand on Hector’s shoulder. “Girls like it if you can make fun of yourself. No one wants to date an asshole.”

“Who said anything about dating?” Hector hears panic in his own voice.

Berto punches him in the arm. “Now, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Hector shrugs and puts on the hat, brushing his black hair away from his eyes.

Berto starts walking and Hector follows. “Now,” Berto says, “what are you majoring in?”

“Nothing.”

“You need to be majoring in something. Something preferably endearing.”

“I’m a junior in high school.”

“Yes, but they don’t know that, and please don’t tell them that, Hector.”

They turn the corner and enter through the university’s gates.

“Environmental science,” Hector says. It’s the first thing he thinks of, but he stops and realizes how good that sounds. “You know, yeah.” He nods. “I like biology and these guys came into class last year and talked about it. It’s kind of cool, looking at problems and figuring stuff out.” Music flashes into his head seconds later. Girls like musicians.

Berto nods, his face serious. “Environmental Science is good, dude. That’s some smart-ass shit right there, and it looks like you care about the earth. That’s on point.”

“Thanks. I was going to say music.”

Berto touches his shoulder, looks him in the eyes. “You made the right choice. A music major is a nerd.
A music enthusiast is a man who gets laid.” He holds up a finger, pointing to Hector and then to the heavens. “And tonight, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to you.”

Hector grins, but he can feel the sweat pool in his armpits. “What about you? What’s your major?”

Berto snorts. “Econ.”

Hector pauses, stares at his brother. “Why not make up something better?”

Berto holds up a hand. “Okay, first off, econ is awesome. Don’t act like it’s not. My degree is the shit. Second, econ makes it seem like I know money, and knowing money means that I’d make money, and making money is good to bring up to women. And finally, I know econ.” He leans forward. “And this brings me to my first rule of the night….” He pauses. Hector rolls his eyes, but Berto continues, “Always keep your lies as close to the truth as possible. You get in less trouble that way.”

“Whatever, dude,” Hector says. “You still go to Fullerton or here?”

“Here, of course. Otherwise, why would I be here? Think, Hector.”

Across the university, streetlights pool, illuminating patches of cement, grass, art. The two pass a statue of the founder sitting in a copper chair surrounded by orange trees. They pass a plaza complete with a fountain that shoots up water in a cascade of ever-changing colors. They pass the college’s original buildings, painted to Victorian-era specifications, and then they stand next to the hundred-year-old auditorium and see a sea of underwear. They stop. Hector stares.

Never, not even at the beach in August, has Hector seen so many undressed people.

Berto leans next to him. “Isn’t this worth losing some sleep?”

Hector stands in his navy boxer shorts, white socks pulled up to his knees, black converse flat against the sidewalk. He nods as a flock of girls passes in bras decorated with twinkle lights.

The crowd builds, and packs of girls huddle together to keep warm as if a magical magnet connects them all. Bottles snake through the groups, being passed around like collection plates on Sunday. Everyone freely takes, until someone presses the bottle into Hector’s hands and Berto grins and Hector drinks. It burns his throat. It’s not the first drink he’s taken, but the burning still surprises him, makes him sputter. Girls giggle. He drinks again, longer this time, until he can feel the heat straight from his lips through his esophagus and deep into his belly.

Berto places his hand on the bottle. “Share the wealth,” he says loud enough for everyone to hear. “Don’t make me kill you,” he whispers. “I am not about to handle your drunk ass, and Mom would murder us both if you woke up hung over.”

Hector gives him the bottle. Berto holds it up, the clear plastic bouncing in the streetlight, and drinks a quick drink before passing it along. He leans over to Hector. “Rule two, don’t get drunk in a strange situation. It will always end poorly.”

In front of them, two girls with the symbol for Delta Gamma on each ass cheek suck something from a baby bottle. Their straight hair, dyed in different shades, floats behind them.

“And rule three,” Berto says. “Being the sober one can pay off.” He walks up to the sorority girls, cheering. They cheer back, and Berto gives them a high five before maneuvering them into a side hug. The girls cheer again, sandwiching him, jumping up and down, and Berto winks at Hector.

Hector can feel the alcohol swirl inside of him, eating its way through his stomach lining. “I am an environmental science major,” he says. “I like the earth and music.”

All at once, they run. The mass of people surges and moves. Hector’s Converse beat against the pavement, the night air against his chest, his back, his legs. Everyone bounces back and forth as they make their way past the lawn and the sign that announces the school, crossing onto public property. Hector’s body moves without him telling it to. He can no longer feel the air on his chest. He is warm, and there is underwear everywhere. He runs, staring at a lacy black bra. His body grows red. Things swell, and he looks away. “Concentrate,” he whispers. “Concentrate.” He does, making himself look at the buildings instead of the girls—the law school, the dentist, the lawyer, then the abogado right next door, the Craftsman refashioned into a café, and the gas station changed into a restaurant. They pass the halfway home, the mechanic, and move on to the true downtown. To the church that used to be a vaudeville stage (and once was a pornography theater), to the sandwich place that used to be a key and safe store and originally was who knows what, to the antique stores, the record company, the candy store, the facades for countless films set in the fifties. Hector focuses on this, the buildings’ past that his father always talks about. His body calms as he reaches the park in the traffic circle.

A giant tinsel Santa and Frosty wave. Already, students are getting into the Nativity scene. A girl pole dances on the menorah. The crowd bunches as it reaches its destination—a fenced-off fountain in the middle of the circle. The city blocked it off after one too many semesters went by with college students bathing in the historic water. Students try to climb over the fence—guys being extraordinarily brave, in Hector’s opinion, as they climb in their loose boxer shorts; women being extraordinarily wonderful, in Hector’s opinion, as they climb in their cross-trainers and panties. Cops lift the students off the fence, and Hector joins the crowd in booing.

He looks around for his brother, but Berto has disappeared. He cannot see that green hat anywhere. Of course, Hector thinks. Of course, Berto would do this—trail off with some girl when he has a sweet-ass girlfriend already; of course he’d pretend to be all friendly and then ditch him the first chance he gets. With nowhere to run, Hector jogs in place. He likes the bouncing up and down. It gives him something to do. It lets him forget that he is actually just a half-naked sixteen-year-old boy who has to wake up in six hours for school.

Plastic clatters to the ground. A girl curses. He turns to see a bright pink bra and a girl with braided pigtails, bending over. He checks out her ass. It’s small but good. And then he has to remember to concentrate and focus again. She points to her phone on the ground and curses again. He looks for friends of hers, but she’s by herself, pointing, cursing, bending, swaying. Berto’s warning about staying sober enters his head. Okay, so he’s not entirely sober, but he seems more sober than she is. Plus, she’s pretty. He could go to school here, he thinks. Yes. She doesn’t know. He nods to himself. He jumps up and down, and hits his leg twice. “Let’s do this,” he says, and then walks over to her. “Hey.” He keeps his voice calm.

She looks up. She has green eyes. Freckles. Her face is flushed.

Hector grins, and he can tell that it’s his creepy grin, the one where he just parts his lips slightly and keeps his teeth together like those cabbage patch dolls his sister had.

“Hi,” she says and looks back down. She sways.

“Need help?” He’s still grinning.

She holds up her phone and the case, reassembling it, using her beautifully flat stomach as a prop. “I got it.” She looks back at him, smiles. “But thanks.”

“I’m an environmental science major,” Hector says.

“Okay.” She grins again but a bit more uncertain.

Get it together, Hector reminds himself. “Where are your friends?” he asks.

She huffs. “Well, my roommate ran off with some guy.”

“He wasn’t wearing an elf hat, was he?”

She laughs. “No, but I like you, Santa.” She blushes. “I mean, your Santa hat. I like it.”

“Thanks,” Hector says. “How’s your phone?”

“Works fine. See?” She holds up the lit screen to Hector.

They exchange years and names—she’s a sophomore. Her name is Samantha—and Hector, without thinking, admits to being a junior. “A junior?” she asks. “You look so young.”

“I graduated early,” he says. “From high school. I graduated early from high school because you need a high school diploma to go to college.”

Samantha tilts her head. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen?”

“You’re like Doogie Howser.” She shouts it as if this is the discovery of the night.

“Okay.”

“Because you’re young and stuff.”

“Okay.”

In front of them, police usher everyone back. A bullhorn tells them to return to school. The crowd moves again, slower this time, with less urgency. A few people stay around, pop into the bars, but the rest move en masse to campus.

Samantha asks about finals. Hector says he has six. She asks about his other classes. He says he’s taking history and science and art. That’s her major, she says. Art. And when he asks her where she’s from, he can hear the lie in her voice when she says, “New York City. How about you?”

“Here,” he says. “I’m from down the street.”

“No.” She bats at Hector, her hand on his shoulder. “Not where you live. Where are you from?”

“Here,” Hector says again. “I grew up two blocks away.”

She sighs. Leans forward and moves her hand to Hector’s chest. Concentrate. Focus, he reminds himself.

“No,” she says again. “Where are you from? Like…” She waves her other hand. “You know, Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala. Like, I’m Irish. What are you?”

“You’re from Ireland?” Hector asks.

“No.” She shakes her head. “I’m from here.”

“Me, too,” he says.

But she sighs. “Come on. Tell me. What are you?”

Hector closes his eyes. “Mexico, then, I guess. I was born in Mexico City.”

Samantha takes her hand from Hector’s chest and puts it over her mouth. “That must have been so hard.”

Hector looks away. “Being born?” he asks. “I don’t remember.”

“No, silly,” Samantha says and bats at his chest again. She trails a finger along his stomach. Everything inside of him clenches. Concentrate, he reminds himself.

She tilts her head to the side. “Like, it must have been rough transitioning. I once took a class—”

He interrupts her. “I was two when we moved here, so I managed.” He looks at her hand on his stomach. He looks at her chest just a few inches away. “But, you know,” he says. He takes her hand. “It’s never…” He searches for something to say, anything. “It’s never easy?”

Samantha leans on him, nods. “You, sir, are brave.”

“Okay,” Hector says.

Her eyes grow wide. She smiles. “You want to walk me home?”

“Yeah,” Hector says. “Where do you live?”

“Lemon. You?”

“Over on Ash.” He points left.

“Where?”

“Ash,” he says it louder. “One street over from you.” Her face is blank. “Last one before the train tracks.” Still blank. “By the parking lot.”

She stops and stares. Her green eyes look over Hector, and he instinctively covers his chest, making an x across his nipples.

“Really?” she asks.

“Yeah, in the apartments.”

“I didn’t even know there were apartments there.” She laughs. “Rent must be ass cheap.”

“Why?”

Samantha looks down at her shoes, pink Pumas, before looking back at him. “Oh, you know.” She lets her voice trail off.

Hector looks at Samantha, at her tan body with pink, pink, pink. He wants to tell her that he has to go back to his street that is cheap for a reason, but isn’t cheap like she thought. Back to his life that apparently is hard and worthy of bravery, but he sees her and follows her down the street, heading towards both of their homes. Her street is quiet. It isn’t crowded with cars or shadowed with empty lots. It is a street where people are sleeping deeply.

She leads him behind a yellow and green Craftsman to a backhouse covered in ivy. “This is me.” She leans against a bright blue VW Passat.

He waits for her to say more. He thinks this is the moment where girls invite guys in.

“Thanks for walking me. I always feel a bit unsafe around here at night, you know.”

His stomach pushes him forward into her, and he kisses her, hard. But she kisses back, and she tastes like Fruit Roll-Up. She’s in a bra, he thinks, she might be kind of racist, but she’s in a bra—he pushes closer—she’s in panties, too.

She pulls away. “This is nice, yeah?”

“Yes!” He leans in for more.

But she stays back. “We should do this again.”

“Yes!” Hector steps forward.

Samantha steps back again, but he finds himself reaching out for her, touching her waist and pulling her towards him. They kiss, and she leans into him. Half of his brain is telling his body to behave. The other half of his brain is focusing on her body. The latter half wins. He backs away from her, hoping she won’t notice.

“Come here.” She leads him up the stairs. He follows. His eyes widen.

Her apartment is pastels. Candles. Framed pictures of Rome and Paris. There are throw pillows on the couch. They match. Hector notices this, but he doesn’t have time to process the information. Instead, he stares at her ass and follows. They sit on the couch, and Hector sweats against a purple fleece throw.

“You want to watch a movie or something?” She points to a collection of romantic comedies.

“Sure.” Hector brings his shoulders up to his neck once. Sweats some more.

She puts in a movie. Hector doesn’t pay attention to what it is. This is happening, he thinks. It’s happening. Holy balls. It’s happening. She sits back on the couch and kisses him. She lies on top, pushing her weight into him, until she pauses and leans back. “I’m not really from New York,” she says.

“I’m from Indianapolis. New York just sounds better, you know.”

“Mmhmm,” Hector says, rubbing his hands up and down her back.

“And here you are from Mexico City.”

“I’m from here, really. Orange. I grew up here.”

Samantha shrugs. “Yeah, well.”

“I’m from one block away.”

But she isn’t listening. Instead, she’s prattling on about Mexico. How’s she’s always felt an affinity with the region. How she wants to go there and see the culture. She’s not afraid, she wants him to know. She’s heard about the shootings, but she’ll get along. She’s tough, she says. She wants to see their art museum. She finds Frida Kahlo dreamy.

Hector leans his head back. He laughs. He can’t help it. “Dreamy?”

“So what if I find her dreamy?” She moves to the other side of the couch. She coughs, once, her cheeks bright red, and turns back to the movie.

“Hey,” Hector says.

“I’m watching this.” She crosses her arms.

Music plays. A phone on the television won’t stop ringing. Hector can’t stop looking at her, trying to catch her attention, but she keeps her eyes locked on that screen like it could save her life. As the movie plays, he moves down the sofa like a caterpillar, inching along until he’s by her side. His leg grazes hers—his bare leg all hairy and goosebumped, hers smooth. “Hey,” he says again, only now he looks at her face.

She’s asleep.

He pushes his leg against hers, but she doesn’t budge. She doesn’t wake up. “Fuck, man,” Hector says. He tries again, but she’s asleep. He checks out her rack one last time, gets up, goes. On his walk back to the restaurant, he can see others heading home, but no one is near. He can walk without having to make eye contact, without having to nod his head hello. He pulls on his clothes to the sound of drunk people trying to walk quietly.

Hector slaps his feet against the cement as he walks home, trying to fill the night more with his steps and less with his thoughts. Behind him, he can hear an occasional shriek, but for the most part, the night is quiet. At his apartment building, he creeps up the steps, and there is his brother waiting for him.

Berto grins. “Where were you?”

Hector opens his mouth to explain, shuts it, grins, laughs. He sits down next to his brother. His breath poofs white in front of him. He nudges Berto and pretends to smoke. They smile.

Slip Kid

Stephen Eoannou

Slip kid, slip kid, second generation

Only half way up the tree
– Pete Townshend

My bedroom walls are covered with posters of my heroes: Pete Townshend windmilling his guitar, Roger Daltrey clutching a microphone to his mouth, Keith Moon flailing on his drum kit, his arms a blur. I’m listening to their latest album, the volume kept low because my mother is already asleep across the hall. My head is fuzzy from too much beer and too much weed. I think I hear my old man running up the stairs. Then I hear him calling my mother’s name, and I know some serious shit must be hitting the fan. The old man never runs.

Then I’m running too, to see what’s going on, hoping I don’t smell like dope. The old man is already filling the stairway when I get to the hall. The Greeks call him Tavros—Bull—because his shoulders and arms are so heavily muscled from years of heaving tool cases down at the warehouse. He stands on the top of the step, his collar loosened, his face stroke red.

Mother comes out of their bedroom, her hair mussed from the pillows. Without makeup, she looks haggard, her face drawn and colorless.

“Paul?” she asks.

The old man’s thick chest heaves with each breath.

“Paul?” she asks again, louder.

He raises both arms and turns his calloused palms upward before letting them fall to his sides. “They shot Father George,” he says, and the first thing I think is, Billy, what the fuck did you do?
Mother covers her mouth, her eyes blackening to puddles. Before he can tell us more, a piercing scream from Yiayia, my grandmother, cuts through the house, pushing every other sound right out the damn walls.

We find her lying in bed, propped up by two pillows, the room dark except for the flickering black and white television on her dresser. An arthritic hand points towards the TV. Mother rushes to her and sits with one arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. I stand shaking beside the old man, feeling smaller than I usually do next to his bulk, and stare at the screen. I recognize the gray cut limestone of our church. The camera pans the parking lot, then focuses on a sign, “Reserved For Pastor;” Father George’s Toyota is parked in front of it. The camera cuts to footage of a body on a gurney being rushed towards an ambulance, its back doors swung wide. One paramedic trots alongside, holding a bag of plasma above the body. The gurney stops and another paramedic pounds on Father George’s chest.

“Mother of God,” the old man whispers in Greek. He places a hand on my shoulder and squeezes as if looking for something solid to hold onto. I swear to Christ the only thing keeping me standing is his grip.

Yiayia makes the sign of the cross in Orthodox fashion—right to left. Her lips move in silent prayer as she crosses herself three times. Her whole body is shaking, like she has palsy or something, and now I’m scared the news is too much for her.

Goddamn you, Billy.

Mother’s tears catch the TV’s flickering light. “We have to call somebody. Somebody must know something.”

“Yes.” Father straightens. “Yes.”

This new mission of discovering the details of the shooting revitalizes him. The old man strides from the room as if he plans to call Billy himself. I lean against the wall, my head buzzing worse than before, wishing I could be absorbed into the floral wallpaper that’s hung in this room for as long as I can remember. I choke down the bile.

Yiayia pulls away from Mother and shoves her blankets aside. Her yellow-white hair, normally rolled tight in a bun, hangs loose to her shoulders. She shuffles to her altar, a small table covered with a white cloth; icons of Jesus The Teacher and Saint Peter hang above it. Resting on the table sits her worn Bible, a small vial of Holy Water, a blood red egg wrapped in white mesh from the previous Easter, and her Candelie. She lights the candle and starts praying in Greek, but I’m thinking it’s too late for that.

Mother and I leave her mumbling in front of the icons and head downstairs, where the phone book lies open on the kitchen table. The old man hates the phone and holds the receiver in his thick hand away from his face. Clipped bursts of Greek shoot from his mouth like rounds from an Uzi. I can only make out a few words. I sit at the table and listen as he rattles into the phone. His muscles tense and bunch beneath his clothes as if he’s about to rip the damn phone right off the kitchen wall.

Mother sits next to me and follows his half of the conversation, shaking her head at what she hears and what I can only guess at.

The old man hangs up the phone and turns to her. “He’s gone, Christina. They shot him. Five times.”

Five times? Jesus, Billy.

Mother’s whole body shakes. “Who?” she manages to say, her voice twisted like her throat’s not working right.

The old man opens and closes his fists. “They don’t know. They think it was a robbery.”

The robbery I planned.

The old man is breathing hard now, like he’s still running up the stairs. “They found him in his office. Shot in the back. He died on the way to the hospital.”

Mother leans forward, her arms crossed in front of her stomach like she’s going to be sick, and asks again, “Who shot him, Paul? Who?”

The old man shakes his head. “They’re still looking,” he says.

I sit in the chair, the beer souring in my stomach, my head feeling like it’s in a vise, and wonder where the hell Billy is now.

~

“It wasn’t a robbery,” Mother says the next morning, freezing me in the kitchen doorway. For a minute, I think maybe Billy didn’t kill him after all.

Outside the kitchen window, the early morning sky has lightened to purple, the same color as a deep bruise. Mother sits at the table still in her robe, her eyes swollen and circled from crying and lack of sleep. The Courier-Express is spread before her. I feel like shit and I can’t tell if I’m hung over or if it’s the guilt eating me.

“What are you talking about?” Father asks from the stove. He holds the coffee pot in one hand, a cup in the other. “Of course it was a robbery.”

She shakes her head. “Not according to this.”

“It has to be a robbery. What else could it be?” He sets the coffee pot back on the stove and then sits at the kitchen table holding the empty cup.

“There was no sign of a break in. No broken windows, no kicked in doors. Nothing.” Mother has delicate fingers, the kind that should have plucked harp strings or glided over ivory keyboards, not the kind that should trace the details of a homicide in the morning paper.

“How’d they get in then?” the old man asks, the coffee cup small in his hands.

“An unlocked door.”

“Which one? The one from the parking lot?”

Mother shakes her head again. “No. The little one on West Utica. The blue one.”

The blue one that doesn’t lock right, the one I told Billy about.

Fuck.

“The one to the basement? Who’d leave that unlocked?”

Mother looks up from the paper. “It’s been years since I was down in that basement. It’s all winding hallways. Somebody must have known their way around pretty well to get in and out of there, especially in the dark.”

The chords and tendons are visible in the old man’s neck. “Who? A Greek? Ridiculous!”

He stands up, crosses to the kitchen stove, and finally pours his coffee. I grab a box of cereal from the counter and begin to eat directly from it, just to give my shaking hands something to do. The cereal tastes like sawdust.

The old man bangs the coffee pot down on the stove and turns towards Mother like an idea has just smacked him in the forehead. “What was taken?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” he repeats. “Nothing?”

“Not a thing.”

“This can’t be,” he says in a small voice, the possibility finally taking hold.

I plunge my hand deep into the cereal box. “What’s there to steal anyway?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“What’s there to steal?” Father asks, his voice loud again. He holds his cup so tightly, I wait for it to shatter. “What do you mean, ‘what’s there to steal’? There’s plenty to steal. The Sunday collection money. Gold chalices, sterling silver candle holders, the jewels on the gospel. There’s a fortune in that altar.”

It’s the same list I told Billy when he asked.

~

The walk to school is cold. Wind from Canada swirls across the lake and loosens the last grip of summer. Every brittle leaf that scrapes across the pavement reminds me that snow will soon blanket the city and accumulate on the roofs, in the gutters, and on the dead limbs of skeletal trees. I hate winter and already feel weighted down by the layers of clothing I’ll wear in the coming months: thermal underwear, heavy sweaters, down-filled parkas.

I walk towards Kenmore West High School, unable to think of anything else but Father George. I try to piece together his last minutes. I knew he had attended the wake of an old Greek; my parents had gone to pay their respects. The funeral parlor is here in Kenmore, so Father George would’ve traveled south on Delaware Avenue to get back to church. I picture his blue Toyota moving down the street like a scene filmed from a helicopter. The car makes its way through the ‘S’ turns in front of Forest Lawn Cemetery, the headlights knifing through the darkness, before accelerating out of the curves. Father George picks up speed as he heads towards church, only slowing to go around the fountain at Gates Circle. After several more blocks, the right turn signal flashes amber and the Toyota turns into the church’s deserted parking lot. He pulls into the spot reserved for him near the side entrance and kills the engine. He gets out of the car, slams the door shut, and heads to the side door. After unlocking it, he makes his way down the hall, past the church office, to his study.

Where’s Billy? Hiding in the corner? Did Father George turn on the lights? How many steps towards his desk did he take before the shots ring out? Three? Four? And why the hell did Billy shoot him? That was never part of the plan. I picture Father George sprawled on the floor, the blood soaking through his black suit coat, and I vomit in the bushes near Kenmore West.

Where the fuck did Billy get the gun?

When I straighten, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and see my friend McGuire laughing at me along with everyone else who saw me throw up; the girls turn away in disgust. Kenmore West, a four story brick building built during the thirties as part of the WPA program, looms behind them like a factory. A giant smokestack rises from the roof, but I’ve never seen smoke come from it. The school looks like it could survive a Soviet blast.

I walk towards McGuire and the rest of the juniors and seniors who are smoking just off school property. McGuire’s hair is longer than mine, brushing the tops of his shoulders. He wears faded jeans and a green fatigue jacket. He’s growing his first mustache, a ratty thing he constantly strokes like a two-inch pet.

Another kid, one I don’t know, stands next to him. His red hair is cropped short and cut around the ears, marking him as a “Joe’s Boy,” a kid who goes to Saint Joe’s, the all-boys high school a few blocks away. He isn’t wearing the khaki pants and blue shirt and tie they’re required to wear. Instead, he’s dressed like me and McGuire in tight Levis and motorcycle boots. He bends forward, cups a match with a freckled hand, and lights a cigarette.

“Still sick from last night?” McGuire asks, grinning at me. He fingers his mustache.

“Fuck you,” I say, stopping in front of him. I nod at his cigarette, bumming one without speaking.

He reaches inside his army jacket, pulls out a pack of Camels, and shakes one loose. “You look like shit.”

“You seen Billy?”

He digs deep in a pocket designed to hold hand grenades and ammunition and pulls out a plastic lighter. “Not since last night when he dropped us off. He was so wired, we might never see him again.” He turns to the red-headed kid. “You’ll love Billy. He’s fuckin’ nuts. Last night we’re in his car and he shoots the ‘S’ turns on Delaware with the lights off, driving totally fucking blind. We must’ve been going about eighty, sliding from lane to lane, beer spilling everywhere, all of us screaming. Then he comes out of the last turn and pops the lights and we’re almost off the fucking road.” He shakes his head. “Fuckin’ Billy.”

He lights my cigarette, still shaking his head, and I inhale and let the smoke fill my lungs and calm my stomach. I blow smoke just past the Joe’s Boy’s face but close enough to make him blink.

“Who’s this?” I ask.

“Fehan. They kicked him out of St. Joe’s last week.”

“I’m Pete,” I say, and shake the freckled kid’s hand. We all call each other by our last names, like we’re in the army or something. Except for me. My Greek name is too hard to pronounce, so I’m just Pete. Billy isn’t Greek, but he’s always been just Billy, too, ever since we were kids. His old man used to call him Billy The Kid before he took off.

Jesus.

“So you going?” Fehan asks me.

“Going where?” I ask.

“What the fuck,” McGuire says. “Don’t you Greeks own a friggin’ radio? Haven’t you heard?”

The old man had tuned every radio in the house to WBEN, the all-news station, and kept the black and white Philco blaring in the front room in case of breaking news about the murder. Even with all that I still don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, so I just shoot twin streams of smoke out my nostrils to show how bored I am with them.

“The Who’s coming here,” McGuire says. “In December.”

“Here?” I ask, looking from McGuire to Fehan then back to McGuire. “You’re kidding.”

Fehan shakes his head. “They just announced it. We’re camping out for tickets to get good seats. You in?”

“In? I’m first in line,” I say, but I’m looking past them, hoping to spot Billy on the street.

The warning bell rings, signaling ten minutes until homeroom. Both Fehan and McGuire take final drags on their smokes before flicking their butts at a couple of freshman. They start heading towards school, but I don’t move.

“You coming?” McGuire asks, over his shoulder.

“No,” I answer. “I gotta find Billy.”

~

I walk fast towards Billy’s house, the taps on my boots clicking out a warning on the sidewalk. Billy, McGuire’s cousin, is older than us, already out of school and on his own; he shares a flat with three other guys on the west side. He buys booze for us and sells us weed, sometimes lets us hang out at his apartment and listen to albums. I don’t have to walk far, though. Billy is waiting for me when I turn the corner from Kenmore West. He’s leaning against his car, a black ’72 Cutlass. His arms are folded across his chest; a forgotten cigarette burns between his fingers.

He looks worse than I do. His thick, sandy hair is parted in the middle but sticking up in back, like he slept in a chair all night. He’s still wearing the same Who t-shirt from the day before—the black one with the Kids Are Alright album cover on it, the one where the band is sleeping against a wall, their heads resting on each other’s shoulders, a giant Union Jack tucked under their chins. Sunglasses cover Billy’s eyes, but I know they must be red and burning, sensitive even to the pale autumn sun.

“Motherfucker,” I say, walking right up to him.

“What are you going do? Hit me?” he asks.

Even in my boots he still has a couple inches on me; he outweighs me by twenty pounds. “What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking anything, Petey Boy,” he says, his voice so soft and low I can barely hear it over the passing cars. “You’re the thinker, Pete. It was your plan.”

“It wasn’t a plan, Billy. It was us bullshitting around. It was a game—which place we could rob and get away with it, like which girls we’d fuck if no one would ever find out. I wasn’t serious.”

“The cops aren’t going to think it was a game, Petey Boy. You’re in this as deep as I am.”

“You’re crazy, man. I’m not in this at all.”

“You’re not, huh?” He leans close so I can smell last night’s booze on his breath. “If I get pinched, I’m telling the cops you were with me, that you pulled the trigger.”

There’s a roaring in my ears, like too much blood is running in the wrong direction. “They won’t believe you.”

“Only a Greek would know about the blue door with the shitty lock. Or how to get from the basement to the church office.”

“Shut up.”

“You’d know the collection is biggest on the first day of Sunday School when all their parents bring their kids, not me.”

“I wasn’t there, asshole.”

“No?” Billy jerks a thumb over his shoulder towards the Cutlass. “How many people saw you driving around with me last night—the kids at the arcade, the guy at the beer store, the waitress at the pizza place? How many is that? Eight? Ten witnesses? Maybe more?”

“That was earlier, Billy. Before you shot him.”

“Was it? You think a jury won’t put the pieces together?”

“My prints aren’t on the gun,” I say, my mind racing, trying to find a way out of this.

“I’ll tell them you wore gloves, Trigger Man.”

“Jesus, why are you doing this? What do you want from me?”

Billy sighs then, a long, noisy exhale the way my old man does when he finally gets to the friggin’ point. “You gotta help me.”

“Help you? How the hell can I help you?”

He notices the cigarette he’s holding and looks surprised that it’s still between his finger and thumb. He takes a drag, blows smoke out of the corner of his mouth.

“You gotta help me find the gun,” he says, his voice breaking for the first time. “I lost it.”

~

We’re driving down Delaware in the Cutlass. Empty beer bottles from last night roll by my feet. This ride is different than when we blindly shot the ‘S’ curves; there’s no yelling or laughing, no Who blaring from the 8-track; Entwistle’s bass isn’t pounding in my chest like a second heartbeat. Billy’s not talking much, just ashing one cigarette after another. Like my father, he has the radio tuned to the all-news station, but Billy’s waiting to hear them say his name. I half expect them to say mine, too, but I know that’s just me panicking.

I’m trying not to look scared. The window is rolled down and the cool fall air is rushing over my face and blowing my hair back. The wind is the only thing keeping me from getting sick again. My stomach clenches every time I think about getting arrested, thrown in a cell, and having my face and name all over the papers and TV. The Greeks will have nothing to do with my family if that happens, and it will kill my old man. He’s always down at the church for some meeting or another, volunteering for this committee or that fundraiser. If this were back in the old country, they’d run us out of the village and burn our house behind us. Hell, they still might.

Police cars are angled in front of the church and along West Utica. News trucks from all the local channels—WBEN, WGR, WKBW—are parked on the opposite side of the street, narrowing the road so we have to slow down to pass; Billy grips the steering wheel like he’s afraid of being yanked out of the Cutlass by his hair. Yellow police tape marked “Crime Scene” cordons off the area in front of the small blue door. A newspaper photographer is snapping shot after shot.

“Jesus, there’s cops everywhere,” I say, turning in the seat to watch a cop on his knees crawling behind bushes.

“They’re looking for the gun,” Billy says, checking his rearview mirror to see if anyone is following him.

“How the hell did you lose it?” I ask.

Billy lights a fresh smoke from the butt dangling from his mouth. “I parked a few blocks down so no one would see the car. After…I shot him, I panicked. I just ran. The gun was in my jacket pocket. It must’ve fallen out. I didn’t hear it hit the ground. It must be laying on the grass around here.”

He turns on a side street off Utica and pulls to the curb out of sight of the cops. “I parked by that mailbox,” he says, pointing. “Let’s look from here to there. We can’t search for it on Utica, not with all those cops around.”

“Jesus, Billy. What if someone recognizes the car from last night? Or thinks it’s weird that two guys are crawling around their lawn just a couple blocks away from a murder scene?”

Billy gets out of the car and eases the Cutlass’ door closed. “Welcome to my world, Petey Boy.”

I get out of the car but don’t take a step. Billy is walking with his head down, checking the grass on either side of the sidewalk. He goes about ten feet before he realizes I’m not moving. “What?” he asks.

“Why’d you shoot him?”

Billy just stares.

“Everybody loved that guy. My mom was up all night crying and my old man looks like he’s going to explode. Our phone’s been ringing off the wall with other Greeks calling and crying. It’s like you shot the whole damn Greek community, Billy. It’s fucked up.”

Billy walks towards me with his head down. He stops a few feet in front of me. When he looks up, his eyes are all red and watery, but I can’t tell if that’s from chain smoking or if he’s about to bawl.

“I pulled the gun and told him to back the fuck off when he walked in on me, but he wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t even scared. He looked pissed, like he couldn’t believe anyone would rob his church. Then he said he was calling the cops. When he turned and reached for the phone, the gun just went off.”

“Five times? The gun just went off five times? What the fuck, Billy.”

Billy shuts his eyes and sways. “I don’t know, man. All the booze and pills and dope. It just happened.”

“And for nothing. The paper said nothing was stolen.”

“I got something.” Billy says, and opens his eyes. “Twenty bucks.”

~

The whole family is crammed in the Front Room, waiting for the six o’clock news. The room, the smallest in the house, is long and narrow like a shoebox. We’re the only family I know that doesn’t own a friggin’ color TV. Each time I ask the old man about getting one, he tells me he’ll buy one when the black and white dies. The damn Philco shows no signs of giving out, as if it could go on showing us the world in two colors for another ten or twenty years.

The old man fills the overstuffed chair, a chair too damn large and bulky for the Front Room but perfect for him. He lowers the paper.

“You’re just getting home from school now?” he asks.

I tell him I stayed after to get extra help in math and then hung out with the guys. No one notices the mud on my boots or grass stains on my knees. He opens his mouth to ask another question but stops at the first beats of the snare drums announcing the start of Channel 7’s newscast. Fast cut images of the city flash on the screen—City Hall; springtime in Delaware Park; skiers swooshing down snowy slopes; O.J. juking left, then right. I imagine the colors—O.J.’s red and blue jersey, the greens and yellows of the park, bright ski vests against a backdrop of white—but all I see is gray.

The murder is the lead story. The same video of the exterior of the church and the parked Toyota are shown again. The anchorman tells us that the police still have no motive, no clues, no weapon.

We couldn’t find the gun either.

“I wish they would stop showing that,” the old man says as we again watch the paramedics pound on Father George’s chest. He grips the arms of his chair so tightly his knuckles whiten.

“They showed it at noon, too,” Mother says. “And during those news breaks between my shows.”

The video of Father George being wheeled to the ambulance ends. The camera is now inside the church, just outside Father George’s study; yellow police tape blocks the doorway. The shot zooms in on the bloodstained carpet, the stain wide and expansive. There’s more blood than I imagined.

“They can’t show that!” Father yells, sitting now on the edge of his chair.

Mother holds a hand to her mouth as the camera focuses on the splattered desk.

Jesus, Billy, I think, and slide down the wall so I’m sitting on the floor. I hug my knees to my chest, wanting to turn away from all that blood, but I can’t. On the screen it’s black and white, but in my mind it’s bright fucking red, so bright it’s searing my brain.

The camera cuts to the airport. Father George’s wife, Presveteria Vicki, had been visiting her family in Cleveland; the reporters are waiting for her when she arrives. Dr. Lambros, our Parish Council President, has his arm around her, trying to console her. Her head rests on his shoulder. She weeps uncontrollably, her whole body shaking. The cameraman must have been kneeling, angling the lens upwards to capture the tears and the way her face twists.

“Poor Vicki,” Mother whispers. “Poor, poor Vicki.” She pulls the afghan to her chest.

I hadn’t thought of Father George’s wife, his widow now, or their three kids, all younger than me. For the first time since I heard my father run up the stairs to tell us about the murder, I feel like crying. It’s like those five bullets ripped through his body and hit everybody.

“Look at those reporters,” Father says. “Damn vultures.”

I’m hoping Billy’s mug shot fills the screen next, and at the same time I’m scared that it will. Instead, they run video shot outside the church earlier in the day. A pretty reporter is interviewing a tired-looking homicide detective. Thick bags hang under his eyes. He licks his lips and swallows, as if he’s trying to rid the taste of cigarettes and coffee from his mouth. The detective stands a foot taller than the reporter. He tells her that they’re considering every angle and following up on all leads, that they haven’t ruled anything out yet.

The old man starts to say something in Greek, but the phone rings, cutting him off. I don’t move to answer it. I know it’ll be another Greek, another person hurting, who just needs contact with someone feeling the same way. My father heads to the kitchen to answer it. I wonder if they call other Greeks or just my old man. They probably think if anyone knows anything, if anyone has any answers, it would be him.

The phone’s still ringing when the doorbell buzzes, and I’m afraid it’s Billy wanting to go back and look for the gun again. I get to my feet and open the front door, but it’s not Billy wanting to conceal evidence or McGuire wanting to make plans about getting Who tickets. Two men stand on the porch, and I recognize the taller one from the news. Up close the bags under his eyes seemed heavier, but the skin coloring is the same shade of gray as it looked on the Philco. My heart starts to pound, like Moonie is smashing it with drumsticks. A weird vibration makes my hands tremble so bad I stuff them in the front pockets of my jeans. I think of all the cop shows I’ve watched on TV—Kojak, Baretta, Hawaii Five-O—and I start hearing the word “accomplice” bounce around in my head. I expect the detective to reach for the handcuffs, to spin me against the wall, to read me my fucking rights.

The tall cop, the one from the news, pulls a gold badge from his suit coat pocket and tells me that his name is McCarthy and his partner is Gorski.

Gorski nods. Neither of them smiles. It’s like fucking Dragnet on my front porch.

I nod back, too stunned to talk, and McCarthy tells me they want to speak to my mother.

“My mother,” I repeat, sounding retarded.

Gorski stares at me, taking in my long hair, my grass-stained jeans, the mud-caked boots. I imagine him running my face through mug shots and wanted posters and I hear Daltrey singing, “I’m the punk with the stut-ter.”

I step aside and he smiles before squeezing past me into the house. The smile looks unnatural on his face, as if he doesn’t use those facial muscles much. Thin lines crease from the corner of his eyes and the sides of his mouth, but they weren’t laugh lines. I can’t imagine that tall bastard laughing at anything.

“Peter? Who’s at the door?” Mother calls from the Front Room.

“The police,” I answer, pushing the words out my dry mouth. “They want to talk to… you.”

She walks towards us, taking small steps, as if her legs can’t be trusted. She pats the sides of her hair, feeling for forgotten hairclips, and motions them towards the Front Room. I’m not sure why she bypasses the larger, more comfortable living room. Maybe she feels safer in the room we use every day. She leads us there and turns off the television.

The detectives sit beside each other on the couch. Gorski pulls a small notebook from his shirt pocket and flips it open. Mother sits engulfed in Father’s chair, and I take my place in the doorway, still stunned that two homicide detectives are in my house and that I’m not handcuffed in the back of their Crown Vic.

The old man joins us, summoned by the strange male voices. He stands next to me, and I feel small again.

“They’re detectives.” Mother twists a handkerchief in her lap. “They want to ask me questions.”

Father nods at the two men. “Gentlemen,” he says, his voice strong and unwavering, as if talking to the police is a daily occurrence for him. “What kind of questions could you have for my wife?”

“Just a few, sir,” McCarthy says, and he starts right in, asking us our full names and Gorski writes down our answers. Then he wants to know about the volunteer work my mother does at the church, but he’s not interested in her singing in the choir or baking for the Greek Festival; he wants to hear how she covers the church office on Wednesdays, especially last Wednesday.

“Who else was down there with you?” McCarthy asks, and I swear Gorski is staring at me the whole time, his cop eyes boring into me. I can’t even look at him.

Mother turns to the old man for help, but he only shrugs his thick shoulders. None of us knew what the cops want.

She looks back at McCarthy and sighs. “Father George was there and Manny, the accountant, came in to do the books around ten.”

“Anybody else?”

Mother rubs her forehead, trying to massage the memory back. “Father George had several appointments. The Morphis girl and her fiancé, Mrs. Tzimas from Greek School. I don’t remember the others, but their names would be in the appointment book. Oh, and Frank. Frank was there.”

“The custodian?” Gorski asks, without looking up from his scribbling.

“Yes, he was there when I arrived.”

“But he didn’t work all day, did he, ma’am?” McCarthy asks.

She looks at Father, her eyes widening, as if she had just remembered something horrible. “No.”

“Father George fired Frank last Wednesday, didn’t he, ma’am?” McCarthy asks.

“No.”

Gorski’s head jerks up from his pad. “No?”

Mother eyes Yiayia’s afghan folded neatly on the couch. I can tell she wants to grab it and cover herself. “Frank quit.”

“Why did he quit?”

She folds her hands in her lap, lacing her fingers tightly together. Then she unlaces them and crosses her arms in front of her chest like the old man, leaving the handkerchief on her lap. Mother tells the police that it’s a big church with a great deal of wood to polish and carpet to vacuum. There are Sunday School rooms to clean, lawns to cut, sidewalks to shovel and steps to salt in the winter. Frank told Father George he wasn’t being paid enough for all the work he had to do. They argued in the church study, the same room where he was later killed, and Mother had heard it all.

I see where all this is going, and I want to scream at the cops that it wasn’t Frank, that it was my friend Billy who pulled the trigger, that I was stoned but home when it happened. But I don’t say shit. I just stand there, trying to avoid Gorski’s eyes, feeling everything spiral away from me.

“Did Frank threaten Father George when they were arguing?” McCarthy asks.

“He yelled that Father George was always riding him, and Father George yelled that Frank was sloppy and that we were paying him to do the job right. Then Father George said that if he couldn’t handle the job, he should quit. So Frank did.”

“You didn’t hear Frank threaten Father George, ma’am?” McCarthy asks again.

“The yelling was so bad, so ugly, I left the office. I went to the ladies’ room.”

“The accountant said he heard Frank tell Father George to watch his back. You didn’t hear him say that, ma’am? That he should watch his back?” McCarthy asks.

Mother sinks way back in the old man’s chair, like it’s swallowing her. She shakes her head. “I was in the ladies’ room.”

I swear to Christ the only sound in the friggin’ Front Room is the ringing in my head. It’s so loud I’m sure everyone can hear it, especially Gorski. I can feel his eyes on me without even looking.

“Did they argue a lot before last Wednesday?” McCarthy asks, interrupting the ringing.

Mother shrugs. “Father George wanted his church clean and that’s what he expected.”

“I see,” McCarthy says. “Can you think of anything else that might have happened last Wednesday or recall anything else about the argument?”

Mother shakes her head. She looks drained, like she just did something really hard and is now exhausted.

The detectives exchange looks and stand. Mother rises with them. Gorski slips his notebook back into his shirt pocket.

McCarthy hands Mother his card. “If you think of anything that might help us, please call.”

Mother takes the card, her hand shaking, and places it on the arm of the chair, as if the business card was burning her fingertips.

“I’ll walk you out, gentlemen,” the old man says, and the three of them head for the door.

Mother slumps back in the chair. The color is gone from her face. “Peter, get me some water.”

When I return, the old man stands with his hand resting on her shoulder. They talk in quiet tones, stopping only when they notice me.

I hand her the glass.

Father pats her shoulder. “At least we know who did it now.”

“Frank didn’t kill anybody,” I say.

“Of course he did,” he says, his eyes black stones. “He knew his way around every inch of that church. He could have slipped in and out of there easily in the dark. He could have left that door open or had a key made. He probably even knew Father George’s schedule. And now we know why he did it. They’ll search his apartment and find the gun and that will be it.” He turns away from me, his final point made, the conversation over.

And I still don’t say shit about Billy.

“Come on,” Father says, offering his hand to Mother. “Let’s get some coffee. The pot’s still warm.”

She takes his hand and leans into him as they walk to the kitchen.

I flop down in Father’s chair and throw a leg over the arm. My parents’ wedding picture stands on one of the end tables. No one will ever call me Tavros. From my mother’s side, I have inherited the slight build, the thin bones, the narrow shoulders. My face, however, is a carbon of the old man’s, especially when he was young. We share the same oval face, the same cleft chin, the identical straight nose. Our faces are mirror images, but that’s where the similarities end.

The ringing in my head grows louder.

~

The next morning, I sit at my desk, forging the old man’s signature on a note excusing yesterday’s absence, when the phone rings in the hall. I hear the bathroom door unlock and my old man answer it. He talks for a long time, his voice a low grumble. I’m surprised to hear him hang up the phone and knock on my door.

He enters my room shirtless, his skin warehouse white, his stomach soft and loose over the waist of his pajama bottoms. Even his arms and shoulders don’t look quite as thick with his shirt off, as if his muscles had shrunk during the night. The towel draped over his right shoulder is smeared with shaving cream; a daub still clings to his earlobe. His hair, rumpled from sleep, looks more silver than I remember, the same color as newly forged tools. He sits on my unmade bed.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, turning the note over so he can’t see. “You look sick.”

“I am sick.” He runs his fingers through his hair, rumpling it even more.

“Should I get Mom?”

“No, not that kind of sick.”

“Who was on the phone?”

“Mr. Pavlakis.”

“So early? What’d he want?”

Father takes a deep breath and looks at me; his face is shaved smooth on one side and dark with whiskers on the other. “I want you to come home right after school today. Don’t stay late, not even for math.”

“All right,” I say, not knowing what the hell he’s getting at. “Why?”

“Get some rest after school. Sleep if you can. Don’t eat much. Just something light. Then try to sleep again.”

“What’s happening?”

He looks at me for the first time. “Threats have been made.”

“Threats? What kind of threats? Against who?”

“Father George.”

“He’s dead,” I say, and the old man looks at me like I’m one sorry bastard. His voice is a whisper now, and I have to lean forward to hear. “His body, Peter. They threatened his body.”

He looks at me to see if I had understood, then hisses, “Desecration.”

Billy, I think, what the fuck did you do now?

The old man rubs his palms on the top of his thighs as he talks. “The threat was called into the police. They don’t know who it was. Some lunatic, probably.”

“What did they say they were going to do?” I ask. None of this is really making sense.

He takes several breaths, as if he’s pulling the words from deep inside him. His eyes grow bright with tears. I don’t remember ever seeing the old man cry and it scares me.

“Cut him,” he says. “His face, his heart.”

“Jesus,” I say, and slump in my chair.

Why would Billy do that? To throw the cops off his trail? I picture him calling from some corner phone booth, the Cutlass rumbling in neutral at the curb, the cherry pipes sounding angry. I wonder if McGuire is with him, riding shotgun, fingering his mustache and doing one hitters while he waits for Billy to finish his call.

“The wake will be at the church, not a funeral parlor. There’ll be police there guarding him,” the old man says, “but the Greeks need to be there, too. The Parish Council and their sons will be sitting in the church around the clock keeping watch. We’ll do it in shifts so we’re fresh in case something happens. I signed us up from eleven o’clock tonight until seven tomorrow morning. The graveyard shift.” His smile is sad, ironic. “That’s why you need to rest.”

My mouth gapes, unable to form words. It’s all too fucking surreal to be true.

He looks towards my bedroom door. “I need to tell your mother. I don’t want her to hear about the threats on the radio or read about it in the papers.”

He stands to leave.

“I have plans,” I say.

“What kind of plans can you possibly have at eleven o’clock at night?”

“There’s a concert. I want to wait in line for tickets with some friends.”

I wonder if Billy will be there. I suppose it would look strange if he wasn’t. I try to picture all of us—me, Billy, McGuire, Fehan—riding to the concert in the Cutlass like nothing happened. The car would be smoky with dope and loud from laughter and Townshend’s power cords, but somehow I can’t see me there.

The old man sits back on the bed. “A concert.”

I nod and wait for him to explode, but his voice is dead calm.

“What kind of concert?”

“The Who,” I say.

He just stares.

I point to the poster behind him. “Those guys.”

He turns and studies the poster of my favorite album cover. I’d bought it from a used record store just days before. The poster hadn’t been for sale; it was part of a display, but I slipped the clerk ten bucks when the owner wasn’t there, and he looked the other way when I took it. The poster is an outdoors scene. Blue skies streaked with clouds contrast with the rocky terrain that dominates the shot. The picture was taken right after the band finished pissing against some cement structure; they’re zipping their pants, buckling their belts, as they walk away from the wall, the piss stains clearly visible on the cement behind them. Across the top of the poster written in blue is the title of the album: Who’s Next.

The old man turns to me and gestures over his shoulder with his thumb. “Those guys?”

I nod. “Their drummer died last year, so this is probably their last tour, my last chance to see them.”

He begins rubbing his eyes with the tips of his fingers, talking while he rubs. “How’d he die?”

I clear my throat, knowing it’s going to sound bad even before I say it. “Overdose.”

The old man stops rubbing his eyes, leaving them red and watery. He looks at me for what seems like forever before he speaks. “When I was your age, I dropped out of school to work,” he says, starting in on a story I’ve heard a million times before. “Your Papou died and all his responsibilities became mine. Mr. Aleveras hired me as a picker at the tool factory. I’ve been working there ever since.”

The old man looks at the poster behind him again, then turns back to me. “You need to start making your own decisions. You’re not a baby anymore.”

He rolls his head from side to side, as if his thick neck muscles are bunched tight. The numbers flip on my clock radio with an audible click. We both glance at the time.

“I better tell your mother about tonight.”

The old man starts for the door then stops. “Oh, they arrested that bastard Frank,” he says. “His fingerprints were all over Father George’s office, and they found keys to the church that he never turned in. And the sonofabitch doesn’t have an alibi either.”

“They don’t have the gun,” I say, wondering where the hell that piece is, whose jacket pocket it’s stuffed in now.

The old man waves at the air like he’s swatting my words away. “They have enough without it, but that will turn up, too.”

I sit in the chair but don’t move, like my ass is bolted to the seat. I stare a long time at the door after my old man closes it behind him. The only sound I hear is my breathing, the numbers flipping on my clock radio, and that damn ringing in my head, like someone is holding a tuning fork to my ear.

~

I walk the long way to Kenmore West. I don’t want to hang out with McGuire and Fehan and the other smokers this morning. I don’t want to talk about The Who and what songs they might play or if we’ll get tickets on the floor. The morning news ran video of Frank being taken away in handcuffs, McCarthy and Goski holding each arm; the image is burned into my brain and I can’t shake it. In the clip, Frank is wearing his Yankees cap, the one he wore when he cleaned the church, and he’s yelling at the camera that he didn’t do it, that he was home alone watching the Yanks on TV the night Father George was killed. Then the mayor, Jimmy Griffin, fills the screen. He’s a little prick Irishman and doesn’t give a shit about anyone except the Irish in the First Ward, his old neighborhood. He’s praising McCarthy and what a great job he’s done to crack the case so quickly, blabbing on about what a safe city we have and how priest killers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. He doesn’t mention Gorski at all.

The whole thing makes me sick and I’m still sick as I walk to school. As soon as I saw the mayor I knew Billy was going to get away with it. Old Jimmy Griffin and the cops wanted to arrest somebody—anybody—as quickly as possible. Murdered priests are bad for the city and they want this story off the news and out of the papers right away. I know sure as shit that they’ll railroad Frank straight to Attica. There was a guy on the radio this morning already talking about bringing back the death penalty for priest and cop killers; my old man said he’d be the first one to sign that petition, to cast that vote, to pull the damn switch.

Then part of me thinks that if Billy gets away with it, then I get away with it, too, even if I didn’t do anything more than come up with an idea of how to rob the church, an idea I never took seriously. If Frank’s convicted, then things will eventually get back to normal for me, for Billy, for my old man. I won’t go to juvie, Billy won’t go to jail, my family won’t be shattered and run out of town. And that part of me that’s thinking all this shit, that voice that’s getting louder in my head with each step I take and that sounds nothing like my old man’s voice, is the part of me that I hate the most.

~

By third period I’ve had enough. The teachers’ words are just noise; I didn’t take a single note all morning. McGuire and Fehan aren’t in my English class and I don’t see them in the hall between periods. I keep seeing Frank, though, wearing his Yankees cap and yelling at the camera that he didn’t shoot anybody. When the bell rings, I blend in with the BOCE kids, the ones who go to school for a few hours, then get bussed out for vocational training—welding, food service, auto repair. Billy told me once that half the kids in the program end up working the line at Chevy and the other half end up in the Marines catching bullets. Nobody stops me or notices me and then I’m out the door, around the corner and gone. I don’t even try to be cool. I’m running now, my legs and arms pumping hard, my breath short and gasping from too many smokes; pain stitches across my right side and down both shins, but I keep running straight to Billy’s house.

The Cutlass is parked right out front for everybody to see. It’s been washed and waxed since yesterday, the black paint glossy, the chrome gleaming, and it pisses me off. The shiny car looks like a big middle finger, Billy’s way of saying that this is the getaway car that nobody saw, that he killed a good man and will get away with it, that some other poor bastard will get twenty-five to life instead of him. After I catch my breath, I kick the rear quarter-panel as hard as I can, leaving a good size dent, my own middle finger to Billy.

I can hear The Who even before I get to the door. It’s the part of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” where Daltrey gives one of his vocal cord-ripping screams, the kind that hurts the back of my throat every time I hear it. The sound is raw, predatory; it’s why Billy likes Daltrey so much.

The door is open. I don’t bother knocking; no one would hear it above The Who anyway. The living room is dark except for the weird glow of a lava lamp and the lights on Billy’s stereo spiking and dropping with the volume. The sweet smell of hashish hits me. Fehan is sitting on the couch Billy and I garbage-picked a few months ago. He’s doing hash under glass. A sewing needle pokes through an album cover with a piece of hash stuck on top. He lights it and covers it with a glass and waits for it to fill with smoke. When it does, he tilts the glass, sucks it empty, and then sinks far back in the cushions.

Billy and McGuire are standing in the corner by the speakers. They’re passing back and forth a bottle of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey. The commemorative bottle is shaped like a powder horn from pioneer days. McGuire holds it by the neck and waves it around as he sings along with the music like Davy fucking Crockett at a rock concert. Billy doesn’t see me at first but when he does he lets loose a rebel yell and walks towards me with his arms outstretched. He’s still yelling when he wraps me in a bear hug and lifts me off the ground.

When he puts me down, he keeps his arms resting on my shoulders. Our faces are close, his eyes wild and dilated.

“It’s over, man!” he yells, above the music. “It’s fucking over! They busted someone else. They’re not even looking for me anymore.”

McGuire lets out his own rebel yell when he hears this and walks towards us.

“He knows?” I ask.

“Hell, yeah, he knows,” Billy says. “He’s my cousin. Besides, I had to tell him why we’re celebrating, didn’t I?”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about the plan,” McGuire says, smiling like an idiot. His face is slack from whiskey and dope. He stops in front of us but his body keeps swaying.

“There wasn’t any plan,” I yell. “It was just me and Billy talking one night.”

“Fuck that,” Billy says. “It was a great fuckin’ plan. It would’ve worked, too, if they didn’t make the bank deposit right after church.”

“And if that priest didn’t try to be a fucking hero,” McGuire adds, and I want to punch his stupid Irish face. The album side ends and the needle keeps hitting the record label so a scratching sound comes from the speakers. Fehan’s too hashed to get up and flip it.

“What about the gun?” I ask, keeping my voice calm like I’m just making conversation with two old friends. “That may still turn up. Your prints might be on it. You got a record, right? For that Drunk and Disorderly? They got your prints on file, dude. They’ll match the bullets to the gun and the gun to you.”

Billy’s face goes a little gray because he knows I’m dead right. “Then we’ll just have to find it first, Petey Boy,” Billy says, and squeezes my shoulder until it hurts, that scratching and popping sound coming from the speakers the whole time.

~

Billy laughs when I tell him I’m not camping out for Who tickets.

“No one’s going to cut his body, Pete,” he says, grinning, but he never admits to making the threats.

My family, even my Yiayia, stops talking to me when I tell them that I won’t be standing guard over Father George. My old man doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t even glare at me when I tell him. I wait for the yelling, the curses in Greek, the long listing of reasons why I’m a piece of shit, but I get nothing, just a nod, leaving me to fill in that long list for him.

I’m at the church but not inside with all the other fathers and sons. I’m not sitting in the hard pews with the saints’ sad faces staring down at me from the stained glass windows. I’m not sneaking looks at Father George laid out in gold vestments in his coffin in front of the altar, or smelling the stale incense that shrouds the church, or jumping every time the old building creaks, thinking it’s some madman breaking in with a knife. I’m not crying.

I’m outside, dressed in black like I’m in some bad movie, crawling around trying to find the gun. I move slowly, looking everywhere, pressing myself into the ground when a car goes by, the dew soaking through my clothes. I picture Billy and McGuire and the long line of kids in front of the Central Ticket Office on Delaware, wrapped in blankets, trying to stay warm, counting down the hours until tickets go on sale in the morning. A hundred different cassette players are probably playing a hundred different Who songs at the same time in a weird jumble of sound. I see and hear it like I’m there, but I’m not.

I cover the same ground, search the same lawns that Billy and I did before and the same ones the cops must’ve already checked; even in the dark I can see the pressed grass and the footprints of everyone that’s come before me. Time passes, but I don’t know how much and I keep looking, moving slowly, my eyes roving back and forth, my hands feeling in front of me. If I don’t find the gun, I’ll have to rat Billy out and testify against him. Then he’ll tell them it was my plan, that I pulled the trigger, that he only drove. Except for Billy, I’ve never heard of anyone as deeply fucked as I am.

Then, on a lawn overgrown with ankle-high weeds, I see the gun, the streetlight reflecting off the bluish barrel. The size, the smallness of it, surprises me. I thought something that had done so much damage, hurt so many people, affected so many families, would be a hell of a lot bigger, but it’s not. It’s a deadly little thing. I wonder if Billy really did wear gloves, if dew wipes out fingerprints, if he’d really pin the murder on me. It would be easy for me to take it, to dump it in the river or bury it someplace. It would be even easier just to walk away, to leave it there in the grass for the cops or some other punk to find. I lie there in the weeds not moving, hardly breathing, like I’m the one who’s been shot, and stare at that gun a long damn time, trying to figure out what the hell I should do now.

When I finally do stand up, I walk the few blocks to the corner of Elmwood and Utica and call the cops from a payphone in front of a bar. The lies come easy. I tell them I found a gun not far from where that priest was murdered while walking my dog, that I don’t want to be involved, that I’m going to stay anonymous. I give the address where I found the gun and hang up fast. My hand shakes when I light my cigarette. I lean against the wall, the orange neon light of the Elmwood Lounge washing over me, and wait for the sirens.

The Water is Wide

Jan Lower

Ford walked through the empty lot next to the parking garage, stepping over clumps of dead grass and avoiding the bottles and trash. He looked at the steely sky above the top level and wiped his nose with the back of his glove. At his elbow, his brother skipped and hopped and sang in a high voice, “Little frog and little toad, walking down a country road,” a tune he had learned last year in kindergarten. They were heading for the mall, to spend the last couple of hours of Saturday afternoon away from the house where they lived with the Hardisons. As foster parents went, Ford guessed, they were decent; but without kids of their own, everything they did seemed off.

He took Eddy’s hand and swung him onto the ledge of the garage’s street level. Then he jumped up himself, and they both scrambled over. The garage was half empty. Ford steered Eddy toward the stairs; they would use the second floor entrance, to avoid the fast food stands on the ground floor. Ford had counted out the coins in his pocket, and he didn’t want to make excuses all the way to the bookstore on the top level.

The door squealed as Ford pulled it open and guided his brother through. Eddy had barely put his foot on the first step when he stopped short and grabbed for Ford. Ford looked past him up the stairs, muscles tensing, his instant response whenever Eddy was alarmed. Midway up the staircase was a plastic grocery bag, and beside it was a blanket, folded around a lump of something. The lump was moving. They heard a faint cry. Eddy squeezed Ford’s hand and leaned against him. It can’t be, Ford thought.

“What is it?” whispered Eddy. “An animal?” Ford pulled his hand away and put his arm in front of Eddy’s chest, pressing him back.

“Stay here.” Ford moved up the stairs to the bundle. It wiggled. He pulled away the edges of the blanket until the face was exposed. It looked at him with a steady gaze.

“It’s a baby!” Eddy leaned over Ford’s shoulder.

“I told you to stay back. Yes, it’s a baby.” Its skin was pale and clear, and tufts of caramel-colored hair stood out on its head. The baby looked at them, from one to the other.

“Somebody forgot their baby. Or they lost it.” Eddy bounced up and down. “Do you think they’ll come back soon?”

Ford didn’t answer. He picked up the bag, surprised that it was heavy. He sat down on the step and went through the contents, Eddy’s head close beside his. A plastic baby bottle filled with a tan liquid, two empty ones, a can of powdered formula, a box of diapers, and a package of wipes. There was no note.

Ford looked at the baby. It waved its hands, quivering.

“What are we going to do?” Eddy clapped his mittens together. “I’m cold.”

“Okay, okay.” Ford stood up. “We can’t leave it here.” He handed the bag to Eddy. “You carry this, and I’ll carry the baby.” He took off his gloves, shoved them in his pocket, and picked up the bundle, making sure to fold the blanket around the baby’s body.

“Ford? What if it’s Willow?”

Ford looked at Eddy. His face was drawn and pale, no longer pink from the chilly air. Eddy almost never mentioned their baby sister. They hadn’t seen her for more than three months, not since the police came and took them out of the apartment after their neighbor called the ambulance for their mother. Ford had deflected the neighbor’s intrusions as long as he could, although in the end he had been glad when the paramedics came. But he was still angry at the social services people for sending their sister to a different foster home.

“It can’t be her. This baby’s hair is light brown, and Willow has dark hair like you and me. And brown eyes.” He tilted the bundle toward Eddy. “This baby’s eyes are light.” They’re blue, he thought, like a summer sky reflected in a lake. He had seen a picture like that once on a calendar in a gas station. “And we don’t even know if this one is a boy or a girl.”

“What if the people who are taking care of Willow leave her in a stairwell?”

Ford felt the yawning space inside, of worry and not knowing, that always came when he thought for more than a moment about his mother or his sister. He took a deep breath to squeeze the space smaller.

“They won’t. They know they’re supposed to take care of her. The police won’t let them leave her alone.” At least he hoped that was mostly true. He started up the steps.

Inside the mall, Ford walked quickly, trying to look as if he belonged with the baby and the boy holding onto his sleeve.

“What are we going to do now?”

“I don’t know. Give me a minute.”

“Well, where are we going?”

Ford wondered what kind of person would abandon a baby. It didn’t seem hungry. Did it need a clean diaper? At the end, before his mother went to the hospital, he had changed all of Willow’s diapers, for days. And made up her bottles. And fed her.

“We’re going to the bathroom to check its diaper.” He veered off the mall’s corridor into a department store and started searching for a men’s bathroom. He found one without having to ask anybody, in an alcove off the shoe department. Ford ushered Eddy inside and was relieved to find no one else there. It even had a pull-down shelf where he could lay the baby down.

He unwrapped the blanket and unsnapped the fleece pajama. It was a girl, and her diaper was dirty. Free of the blanket and cloth, her legs wiggled and she waved her arms. I bet you’re glad to be out of this, Ford thought, folding the diaper and tossing it in the trash.

The door swung open and a man strode in. Ford opened his eyes wide at Eddy, warning him to be quiet. Eddy moved behind Ford, away from the sinks and stalls. Ford leaned over the baby and put on a new diaper as the man flushed the toilet and washed his hands.

“Wish my son could take care of the little ones like that.” Ford looked up quickly to see the man smiling at him. He smiled back, and the man pushed open the door and went out.

“He thinks she’s ours,” Eddy whispered.

“I know,” Ford whispered back. He snapped the baby’s clothes together and returned her to the folds of the blanket.

“Can we keep her?”

How could they? “Come on. To the bookstore.”

They walked through the mall and took the escalator to the third level, Eddy skipping along, hanging onto Ford’s arm, trying to get the baby’s attention. Ford felt uncomfortable, as if everyone knew the baby wasn’t his, but he also felt like he fit in, like before, carrying Willow, leading Eddy, when his mother was okay, only starting to be sick.

They went to the children’s section. This time, instead of choosing books to look at, Eddy sat on the floor beside Ford, leaning against him, while Ford held the baby on his lap. She grasped Eddy’s fingers and he made soft animal sounds at her, laughing, his eyes shining. Ford glanced around and saw a woman watching them, but he relaxed when she turned back to the two children sitting near her. Listening to Eddy, Ford felt like he had jumped back to a time before anything bad happened, when he and Eddy and Willow were together.

He checked the cat-shaped clock on the wall above the picture books. Almost six. The Hardisons were hosting a football party tonight and wouldn’t expect them back yet. The baby’s fist was in her mouth, shiny with saliva. Now that she was in the warm air, she had a sweet baby smell. Willow had a sweet smell too; it came back to Ford as he pressed his nose into the baby’s hair, and he closed his eyes.

“Ford, I’m hungry.” Eddy tugged on his jacket sleeve. The baby rubbed her eye and whimpered. Ford realized he didn’t know when she had eaten last. Shifting her to one arm, he stood.

“Can I get a snack?” asked Eddy.

“A soft pretzel. I have two dollars.” Ford settled the baby on his shoulder and she put her head down. He pulled the blanket between her cheek and the scratchy wool of his jacket.

“But I want a chocolate chip cookie.” They walked out of the bookstore to the escalators.

“Okay, okay, you can have a cookie. One cookie. That’s all the money I have.”

When they got to the food stalls, the baby began to cry. Only three tables were occupied, all by adults. Ford gave Eddy the money and sat down at a table away from the others. He felt around in the bag beside him until he found the full bottle. He unscrewed the top. It smelled like formula. He remembered to shake it. It was room temperature but the baby didn’t protest. As he fed her, she reached up, her fingers pinching the bottle. Just like Willow, he thought. Ford felt the yawning, the worry, again.

“Are we going to keep her?” Eddy stood next to him, licking chocolate off his fingers. He put some coins on the table.

“I don’t know.” Ford’s eyes were full of the baby’s face, her tiny lips, her blue eyes looking around, her hair catching the light, sparkling. They couldn’t put her back on the stairs. Someone might see them leaving her. Or someone who shouldn’t have her could pick her up. If they told a security guard, he’d call the police and they’d be in trouble, kept at the station for hours. That would be like the bad time before; Eddy would get scared again. And wouldn’t this baby be sent to a foster home?

A scraping noise made Ford look up. A gray-haired woman in a baseball cap that said Broadway Curly Fries was clearing tables nearby, watching them. She had thin lips pressed together in disapproval, like their old neighbor.

“Please?” Eddy leaned over and kissed the baby’s hair. “She can sleep in my bed.”

Ford shook his head. “Keep your voice down. No, she can’t. The Hardisons would find out, and they’d never let us keep her.”

Eddy frowned. “Then where will she sleep?”

Ford glanced again at the woman. She still had her eyes on them. He looked down at Eddy for a long moment, deciding. “In the boat.”

Eddy tapped the toe of his sneaker on the floor. “You mean the boat in the garage?”

Ford nodded.

“But there’s no bed in there.”

“I know. We’ll have to make one.”

“But isn’t it cold in the garage?”

Ford remembered that Eddy had only been in there once, when they had stored their suitcases after they moved in with the Hardisons at the end of the summer.

“The garage is heated. It’s not as warm as the house, but it’s a lot warmer than outside.”

Eddy scratched his ear. “But won’t she feel lonely in the garage by herself?”

Ford put the empty bottle on the table and sat the baby upright, patting her back. She rubbed her eye with her fist.

“You kids can’t just sit here without buying food. Where’s your mother?” It was the woman in the cap. Her voice grated, and she smelled like cooking grease. She frowned at them, a dirty rag in the hand resting on her hip.

Ford stood up quickly with the baby in his arms and put the empty bottle in the bag. He faced away from the woman and whispered to Eddy. “You carry the bag. Hurry.”

Moving toward the exit, with Eddy trotting beside him, Ford tucked the blanket snugly, arranging it so that a flap covered the baby’s head. He held her tightly in one arm and clumsily pulled on his gloves. He pressed her head gently into his shoulder.

The house was bright with lights inside and out when they got back. Several cars were in the driveway and at the curb. Ford and Eddy stood with their breath puffing in pale clouds.

“This way,” Ford said. He led Eddy around the side of the garage to a door by the trash bins. It was unlocked, but a pile of newspapers inside blocked it, and Ford and Eddy had to push the door to move the stack out of the way. Ford flipped on the light. He closed the door and walked quickly to the boat, which was parked on a trailer in the middle of the garage. Ford was relieved to see that the covering was thrown loosely over the stern; Mr. Hardison had re-varnished the deck a couple of months ago.

“Help me make her a bed.” With one hand, Ford pulled the cover back and helped Eddy up the boat’s ladder, handing him the bag of supplies. The deck angled up to the bow, following the trailer’s tilt.

“Do you see any rags or blankets or anything in there?” Ford asked.

Eddy shook his head. “Just some really stiff-looking cloth. It’s folded up.”

The baby whimpered. Her hands were together in front of her chin, and her mouth was pulled down at the corners. “Just wait, baby, a little while more,” Ford whispered, his lips against the side of her head.

Ford found an old wool coverlet in a plastic storage bag and gave it to Eddy, who folded it on the canvas. Ford climbed the ladder, and kneeling on the deck, laid the baby down, then slipped his gloves into his pocket and pulled off his jacket. He could just see her in the dim light of the single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Her eyes were half-closed. She reached a hand up toward Ford; he put his thumb out and she closed it in her fist. With his free hand he wrapped the sides of the coverlet around her. After a few minutes, she drifted off to sleep, and Ford gently peeled her fingers away.

“Now what do we do?” whispered Eddy.

“We have to go inside.” Ford rubbed his arms from the chill. “Pretend that we just got back from the mall. Leave your jacket out here, though, for later. We’ll use the door into the kitchen.”

“What if she wakes up?” Eddy laid his jacket on the deck of the boat.

“They won’t hear anything. The game’s really loud. And babies sleep a long time.”

Again, Ford hoped it was true. They turned off the light and quietly opened the door. There were voices down the hall, but the kitchen was empty. Ford and Eddy filled paper plates with food and went to stand by the door to the living room, watching the TV as if they were interested in the game.

“There you are!” exclaimed Mrs. Hardison. “I wondered where you’d gotten to—didn’t hear you come in. Everybody who hasn’t met ’em, these are the boys we’re taking care of.” Some of the people looked up and smiled; a few just waved without taking their eyes off the TV.

“Dinner is good, Mrs. Hardison. We’ll just finish eating and go to our room,” said Ford.

“Fine by me.” She waved her hand and turned back to the game.

After they threw their plates into the trash, Ford rinsed out an empty soda container; he’d need it later for water to make formula. When they got to the room they shared, he closed the door.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” He sat down on the bed he used and Eddy plopped onto the floor. “We’re going to pretend to go to sleep, and then I’m going to get up and bunch some clothes under my covers so it will look like I’m still in bed.” Ford rubbed the back of his neck while he thought. “Then I’ll sneak back to the boat and spend the night—”

Eddy jumped up. “Me too!”

“Shhh. Listen. What if they check on us and we’re both gone? I need you here for that.”

“But I’m scared to sleep alone. And when do I get a turn to be with her?”

Ford studied him. Eddy’s eyes were pleading. Maybe Ford couldn’t manage this after all. He missed his mother, the way she was before and right after Willow was born, until things got bad. He missed his sister more than he had known. The hollow feeling, made of worry and uncertainty, was creeping up into his chest. He took a deep breath.

“Soon,” he said softly. “I’ll come and wake you early. We can all be together then.”

It took Ford a while to get Eddy into bed. The noise from the living room ended, and Ford sensed that the crowd’s team had lost. He heard a heavy door open and close. His heart pounded until he realized it had been the front door, not the door into the garage. He put some clothes under the covers and then sat on the edge of his bed in the dark, not moving, willing the baby in the boat to keep sleeping. By the time the sounds of cleaning up had ended and the Hardisons’ voices had moved into the hallway and the bathroom, Eddy was asleep and snoring. When Ford had heard nothing for what seemed like a long while, he tiptoed down the hallway into the kitchen with the empty soda bottle.

He stopped there in the darkness. Ford pictured the baby in the boat, and Eddy in his bed. He couldn’t be with one without worrying about the other, more than he could stand. At the sink, feeling for the tap, he filled the soda bottle and put it by the door. Back down the hall, he felt his way across the room and shook his brother awake, holding one hand near Eddy’s mouth in case he made a noise.

“Eddy, wake up. It’s time to go sleep with the baby.” Eddy climbed out of bed and followed Ford’s whispered urgings to put on socks and sneakers, and a sweatshirt over his pajamas. They got the soda bottle, went quietly into the garage, and flicked on the light. The baby was still asleep. Watching her, they put on their jackets. Her pale skin looked soft, and Ford thought her eyelashes seemed like tiny feathers, long and thick. Her hands were curled under her chin, and her mouth was relaxed. Ford reached for the bag and opened the container of dry formula.

“Do you think she’s hungry?”

“No. But she will be when she wakes up. And I don’t want her to cry.” He peered at the label on the formula can, reading how many scoops he should use. He held one of the empty bottles up to the light, then smelled it to see if it was clean, and looked at the nipple inside and out. He measured out the formula, added water from the soda bottle, and shook it. It would be all right for a few hours, he decided, until she was hungry again.

Eddy yawned. “We have to tell them sometime that we have a baby and we’re keeping her.” He lay down on his side with his head on the edge of the folded canvas. “And we have to give her a name.” He pulled his jacket around him against the chilly air.

Ford sat in the dim light, gazing from the baby to his brother and back, imagining the baby was Willow. Suddenly he felt it was all right, just at this moment, this exact part of time. The yawning feeling was much fainter. Just Eddy, Willow, and him, here in the boat. For now. He wished he could make it stretch out, last for hours and days. Ford put his hand on the coverlet and listened to the silence. He closed his eyes, leaning against the bench in the boat’s side.

Ford woke with Eddy shaking his shoulder.

“Ford, I’m freezing, and the baby’s crying.”

He sat up, every muscle stiff. His hands and feet were cold. The baby was fussing and wiggling, kicking the blanket. Ford rubbed his eyes and hair, and found the bottle where he had left it in the bag. He held it for her, but the baby twisted up her face and howled.

“Why doesn’t she want it?” Eddy patted the baby’s leg. “Shh, baby. Shh.”

“It’s too cold.” Ford shoved the bottle under his shirt, against his skin. The shock of the cold plastic woke him fully. This won’t work, he thought. The baby’s crying stopped when she crammed her fist into her mouth for a moment.

“Ford, she’s hungry.” Eddy kissed the baby’s head, then looked at Ford, his eyes wide. He began to pat her leg again. She started to cry once more.

Ford stood up stiffly and pulled the bottle from his shirt. He put it on the deck. “I need you to stay here for a minute.”

“What are you doing? Are you going away?” Eddy grabbed his sleeve.

“I have to go inside to warm the bottle.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“Shh, keep your voice down.” Ford picked the baby up. She stopped crying for a moment; then her face crumpled again.

“Sit down.” Eddy sat and Ford put the baby in his arms. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around them, tucking it in under Eddy. “Hold her tight – not too tight – and sing to her. Softly, close to her ear. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed the bottle and hurried down the ladder.

“What if she doesn’t stop crying?” Eddy’s voice quavered.

“I’ll be right back,” Ford repeated in a loud whisper. He moved quickly into the kitchen, trying to muffle any noises from the boat, then stood listening. The Hardisons slept with their door closed but Ford knew that sound traveled through the thin walls.

For a moment he pictured Mrs. Hardison appearing in the doorway, wanting to know what he was doing. He felt himself closing off, going silent, protective. But she was kind, he thought, kinder than the social workers and the people who had come to the apartment from the school. Would she help them? He frowned. Mr. Hardison wouldn’t, he knew instantly. Ford’s mother had always said to be careful about trusting people. If Ford told them about taking the baby, maybe they would send him to a different family, leaving Eddy here alone. Ford breathed in sharply and realized he was gripping the bottle so hard a drop of formula had squeezed out and run down onto his fingers. He had filled it too full.

He heard the baby crying. Ford crossed the kitchen, wiping his fingers on his shirt. At the sink, he poured a small amount of formula down the drain. At their apartment he had run hot water to warm Willow’s bottles, but the Hardisons had a microwave. He put the bottle inside, standing close to block the light and mute the click of the door. The digital time glowed green. How long? He stood frozen, his mind scrambling, until he heard a squall from the garage. He punched in thirty seconds and hit the start button. Ford held his breath as the numbers counted slowly down, then hit the stop button before the timer ran out so it wouldn’t beep. He grabbed the bottle, put the top on, and shook it as he slipped back into the garage. A wail erupted as he squeezed the door shut. Ford ran to the boat and jumped up the ladder.

Eddy had tears running down his cheeks. The baby’s face was bright pink, streaked with damp, her eyes brimming, eyelashes sticking together. Her mouth was a wide circle, the corners pulled down around her tiny fist. Ford’s jacket and her blanket had slipped off.

“I sang, Ford, but she didn’t listen.” Eddy’s nose was running.

“It’s okay.” Ford put down the bottle, sat beside Eddy and lifted the baby from his lap. Her cries eased to whimpers and Ford wrapped the blanket around her. Eddy wiped his eyes and nose on his jacket sleeve. Ford shook a drop of formula onto the back of his hand. It was warm. He tilted the bottle to the baby’s mouth. She drank hungrily, tears sparkling in her eyes.

They sat quietly until the baby finished. Ford dried her eyes with the edge of his sleeve.

“I want to go back to my bed.”

Ford turned to Eddy. His shoulders were hunched in the chill. Ford put his arm around him, the baby kicking softly on Ford’s lap. Ford’s whole body ached.

He stood up, and transferring the baby from one side to the other, he shrugged on his jacket and put the empty bottle in the bag. They climbed out of the boat. The sky was pearly; the garage and everything in it was colored gray.

“Go back in,” Ford said softly. “You need to be brave and go by yourself.”

“Where will you be?”

“Taking care of the baby,” Ford said. “It’s all right. I’ll be back soon.”

Eddy nodded and went into the house.

Ford laid the baby on the newspapers, changing her diaper in the cold morning light. She never took her eyes off his face as he bundled her back snugly into the blanket. He picked up the bag and they silently left the garage. He threw the diaper into the trash bin. The streetlights began to shut off as he crossed to the empty lot.

Ford walked around the parking garage and in through the car entrance. It was early; no shoppers would arrive for a little while. He opened the door to the stairwell, climbed the steps and sat down. He settled the baby on his lap so she could look at him, and slid the blanket off her head. She reached her hand toward his face. The overhead florescent lights clicked off; a thin light came in through the windows in the wall. The baby’s eyes were the color of deep arctic ice.

“I’m glad I could take care of you,” he told her softly. “I wish it could have been for longer.” He looked into her eyes. “I have a sister. She’s called Willow.” He stroked the baby’s hair. He tried to picture Willow; she’d be bigger now. “I used to ask them if we could see her, but they always said no.” He thought about how he had eventually given up and how she had fallen into the empty place inside him. He held the baby close; she gazed at him. “But now, maybe they’ll let us. I don’t know. I want to ask again.” The answer might be the same, he thought, but he would try until he saw her, until he could hold her again.

He heard a car moving past the stairwell door. He waited until he heard a second car before he kissed the baby on the cheek. He stood up and laid her on the step, making sure the blanket was around her to keep her warm. He tied the handles of the bag and set it beside her. Ford pulled open the door into the parking lot. Other cars were arriving. He ducked around the corner and crouched behind a trash can. He heard a wail in the stairwell. A car pulled into a space a few yards away and a woman and three children got out, laughing. Ford pressed himself against the wall and closed his eyes. Their chatter echoed as they entered the stairwell.

The talk stopped abruptly. Ford heard cries of surprise and concern. He stayed frozen, listening to the voices. Then a sudden energy flooded him and he burst from his hiding place and bolted across the garage to the low wall. He vaulted over it as if he had wings, landed on the grassy lot, and ran fast into the morning.