Finalist in Voyage’s Best Chapters Contest
Content warning: parental abuse
At the boardwalk, the world’s a hazy blue. The seagulls are already squawking, bothering everyone who camped out the night before. Soon, bodies will emerge from makeshift tents, asking for money. C’mon, man! they’ll say when I tell them I don’t have anything. I’ll smile when I try to pass them as quickly as I can. After work, I’ll see them passed out on the boardwalk if they had a chance to score or they’ll be in the sand, a bright blue tarp barely shielding their bodies burning in the sun.
When I wake in the mornings, I still smell the smoke from Ma’s first cigarette before she goes to work until I realize that’s impossible. I feel relieved each time I realize where I am. Far away from everything that was once familiar. It’s an inky dark when I roll off the couch to take Eleanor Rigby for a walk. Back inside, El goes back to sleep while I brush my teeth quickly before leaving Chloe’s small apartment. I carry the same skateboard I stole from Levi before I left Pittsburgh. The coast’s only a few minutes away.
I skate along the trail with early runners and cyclists, occasionally looking to the ocean as the sun rises to a soft pink. Soon it will turn orange so bright I could peel it with my thumb. When I hit the Santa Monica pier, I catch my breath, turning my hat so the brim shields my eyes from the growing light.
The salon is a hole in the wall. Bright pink with three chairs shared by a handful of dykes who love me. Margot promised they would and she was right because Margot’s always right. The women tease me every day until I blush and I tell them to stop without really meaning it. I’ve worked here for a month. I love every moment of their attention.
Every day I wash hair. I sweep clippings off the floor into piles the size of bad wigs or tiny dogs. Sometimes I work the front desk, checking clients in and out from behind a small school desk. I take their money and give them change from a small maroon bag too full of bills. When the salon closes, I lock the door and sit in one of the chairs, feeling closed in by the pink walls. My chest looks almost flat in the one button-up shirt I own.
You ready? Cheryl stands behind me, a smile on her face.
When she takes the clippers to my head in the early evening sun, I close my eyes as the locks fall. I feel a dark cloud disassembling above my head, gathering together in loose piles on the floor. Bad wig or tiny dog? It’s too early to tell. I open my eyes. Tiny dog, I decide.
All done, Cheryl says. You look great.
I run my hand back and forth over my head slowly before looking in the mirror. My palm comes alive with a pleasant kind of hurt or a softness that makes my whole body feel warm depending on which way I go. I look up. My smile slowly fades.
I see I’m still your sister. I’ve never looked more like you.
You’re gone, I remember. But I’m still here.
# # #
The room is dark when the knock comes. Two raps, like always. He didn’t forget, I think. It’s a few minutes after midnight. In a few months, you’ll be eighteen. And a few months after that, you’ll barely graduate high school. At least that’s what I think will happen.
I’d gone to bed hours before, reading Brave New World for AP Lit until I couldn’t stop my mind from racing with thoughts so fast I could barely think them. I’d been having many sleepless nights like these since you left. I would lie in bed, staring at the shadow of trees outside the windows in front of my bed, a book held open against my chest, a flashlight limp in my hand.
Ma is already asleep. She has to wake up at four to start her shift at the diner. Tom isn’t home yet. He’s at the bar, I’m sure. Most nights I hear him come in through the garage just below my room before walking up the basement stairs. I hear the click of the TV turning on and his snores from the living room only a few feet from my door before I also fall asleep, waking only a few hours later for school.
I whisper back to the knock. What?
You open the door and lean your head in. Let’s go, you say. Your face is serious.
What? I whisper, laughing. I can’t. I have a test tomorrow.
I can barely see your face in the dark. Get up, you say again.
I close the door after you leave, dressing quickly in my uniform of black jeans and a hoodie, the outfit I’ve worn almost every day since the tenth grade began. A warmth in my belly runs straight through my neck.
I walk across the cramped corridor connecting my room to Ma’s. I find you in the living room. Your tall frame is nothing but a shadow except for your blond hair just long enough to tuck behind your ears. A spot of dim light shines on you through the living room window. When you see me, you walk towards the basement stairs. I follow.
In the garage, you pull a six-pack of beer from the fridge.
Tom’s going to notice, I whisper.
You laugh. He’ll know it’s me, you say.
We crawl under the garage door you’d left open when you came in, walking towards the truck parked on the street. I want to ask you where you got the truck and where we’re going, but I know you well enough to know that you won’t tell me, that telling me would ruin the fun. So I say nothing. I also want to know how things are going at Aimee’s. You’re staying with her and her parents, right? You left home a few weeks before. The tail end of summer. Tonight was the first time you’d come back home.
I pick at the passenger seat that’s ripped from wear while you drive to the end of a block lined with small ranch houses just like Ma’s. The lawns are overgrown or made of more dirt than grass. You take a right towards the hill I used to walk every day to school before Margot got her license and began to drive me instead. The houses and lawns grow as we climb the hill. At the top, we turn off Broad Street onto Elm. You park in front of a house twice the size of ours. I know it’s Levi’s house, but you don’t know that.
The backyard is fenced in by bushes, the largest on the block. Levi’s kneeling on the ground in front of a fire pit, blowing on a small flame that grows with each breath he pushes from his body. When he looks up, he nods at you then looks at me quickly before looking away. I try not to look at him or the messy hair he always pushes from his face under a hat.
We sit on benches around the fire. Levi pulls a lighter from his pocket and picks up three bottles from the ground with one hand. He pops the caps off and then hands one to each of us. Levi holds his smile wide, exposing the gap between his two front teeth, a secret we both share until we smile.
I laugh a little, feeling embarrassed, though I don’t know why. We clink our bottles and drink. Levi looks at me warmly then back at the growing fire. He takes a sip from the bottle.
I’d never been drunk before. You knew that. I’d always avoided it because of the way I’d seen Tom come home after a long night with friends at the bar. Sometimes you helped him up the stairs when he couldn’t make it on his own. I’d hear you from my room. The house is so small. I could hear you saying, There you go. There you go. It’s alright. Tom was a sweet drunk, not mean or cruel like Ma or unpredictable like the other boyfriends.
The beer tastes bitter, but I like it. I drink as quickly as you and Levi and I begin to feel a little like someone else. A little bigger. A little sharper around the edges though my limbs feel loose. Levi brings out more bottles from inside and you talk about people I don’t know. Guys that do BMX and that Levi skates with. Girls you’ve met at parties. I sit there listening, laughing a little when you both laugh.
I know I’m drunk when I linger while looking at Levi until he looks back. When he looks at me, I don’t look away. Instead, I smile. You look at me then get up before disappearing around the side of the house to pee.
Where’s your dad tonight? I say.
Levi stares at the fire and laughs like it’s a stupid question. Who knows where the old man is, he says.
Probably at the bar with Tom, I say. I’m surprised when the words tumble out.
Levi smiles and coughs a little while taking a sip of his beer. He keeps his gaze on the fire. You’re probably right about that, he says.
Levi’s mom died the year before. Cancer. On and off for a long time, at least since middle school. After, Levi slept on the old couch just outside your room in the basement when his dad got too drunk and mean. One weekend I came home late from Margot’s. I walked through the garage and saw you both. You were watching a movie. I looked at the screen before you said I was too young for whatever you were watching. You laughed as I shook my head and ran up the stairs to my room where I covered my face with my hands as soon as the door was closed, feeling how heavy my breath was until I calmed down.
Mostly I hid in my room when Levi was over, asking you later how he was doing. You never said much, only I don’t know or fine or dude, why do you even care?
I wished to say that I was sorry to Levi, but for some reason, I thought I shouldn’t tell a boy like Levi something like that. I knew I shouldn’t say anything that might make him feel pitied or small. And I knew that if I did, there could be consequences I might regret.
# # #
My heart is in my head as we walk toward the woods. I can barely see your bodies ahead of mine in the dark. In the woods, I run my hands along the rough bodies of the trees to steady myself. My face is warm. I trip over a raised root and fall on my hands. I get up, keep going. When I emerge into the small clearing, I pretend I’ve never seen it before. A ramp in the woods, cushioned by trees older than we will ever become. The middle of the ramp is lit brightest by a half-moon. Beer and iced tea cans litter the ground. Candy wrappers are covered in dirt.
Wow, I say. I mean it even though I’ve been here before. It’s beautiful in the way the unexpected always is.
I built it, Levi says, playing along. It’s kind of shitty.
You crawl up one side of the ramp and stand with a board in your hand.
Be careful, I say. I’ve never seen you skate.
You put the board beneath your feet and balance on the ledge. Immediately, you eat shit. We try not to laugh while watching you moan, pulling yourself back up. You try again until you fall so hard you wrap your arms around your stomach and don’t move. I’d never seen you like this, so out of your element.
Levi shakes his head and smiles. He covers his mouth while rubbing his nose and stepping up to the ramp. The board is beneath his feet when he looks down at you. Get out of the way, dude, he laughs.
Fuck off, you say, rolling off the side of the ramp with your board. You’re holding back a smile, I can tell.
We watch as Levi drops in, easily cruising back and forth, sometimes doing a trick, his body held by nothing but air before landing on the rail only to drop in again. Eventually, out of breath, he jumps off the board before picking it up and walking toward us.
Your turn. He nods towards me.
You laugh when I take the board from Levi’s hands. Alright, I say. Show me what to do.
The problem is, Levi has already shown me where to place my feet and how much to bend my knees. He’s already shown me how to hop on and off the board to get a feel for how to balance. We aren’t good actors. Still, I try to skate worse than I can, pushing back and forth on the flattest part of the ramp as he instructs me. I feel awkward and stupid with you watching, afraid you’ll know I’m full of shit. I hear you crack open a beer from the bag Levi brought along. I look over and you’re eyeing me then Levi.
Really, dude? you say.
I get off the board and hold it.
What? Levi says.
My sister? Really? You take a sip from your beer and shake your head. You’re a fucking dick.
I walk towards you and tell you to stop, but you aren’t listening to me.
Levi backs away from me. You don’t know what you’re talking about, man.
You’re fucking dead, you say. You push past him with your shoulder as you walk away. You yell for me to go without turning around.
Levi laughs, mumbling something before taking a sip of beer.
I call for you, but you keep walking. You’ve disappeared into the dark of the woods.
Levi nods in your direction when I look at him. I begin to walk towards the woods, but then he calls to me. Hey, he says. Happy birthday.
# # #
In the truck, you say something before chugging the rest of your beer, but I can’t understand it. You throw the can on my side of the floor. You drive down the street, heading towards the hill that took us here. You say it again. You’re not like us, you say.
My heart sinks. You pull a tape from the dash and push it into the deck. A slow, fuzzy song plays through the speakers.
You look at me, then back at the road. You’re smarter than us, you say. At least I thought you were.
The truck hops over a bump. The sound of the engine whirs.
I roll the window down. You and Levi? I say. I let my arm hang out the window. It’s not like that’s a big accomplishment, I say, trying to make a joke.
You stare ahead and your face tightens. I’m serious, you say. You stop the truck a block from the house and close your eyes. Were you about to cry?
I was used to your sudden anger when I did or said something you didn’t like. I was used to you becoming distant out of nowhere. I’d never seen you cry.
Okay, I say.
You tuck your hair behind your ears. I know I give you a hard time, you say, looking ahead. I just want to know you’ll be okay when I’m gone.
I look over at you in surprise. You’re not coming back? I say it as though it couldn’t be true. I knew someday you’d leave, but not yet. Eventually, you’d get into a fight with Aimee and her parents and come home. You’d be kicked out. You’d be over it. It wasn’t a possibility that you’d be gone for good.
You start the truck again and shift into drive. Did you think I was going to wait tables at the country club forever?
I look out the window. Well, what are you going to do? I say.
Don’t worry about it, you say before pushing me against the door of the truck. I push you off me.
C’mon, you say, trying to make me laugh. Don’t act like you’ll miss me.
I don’t say anything. Only look ahead.
You know, you’re going to have to find a way to protect yourself from her when she gets crazy. You look at me quickly before looking back at the road.
I’ll be fine, I say.
At the house, you open the garage door slowly so it doesn’t make a sound. We crawl through the opening just big enough for our bodies.
In the dark, you tell me to stay away from Levi.
I laugh now, thinking I could have ever lied to you. You who saw everything. You who were the first to spot a lie in anyone we ever met. You who could give a look that exposed the truth without having to speak of it. I don’t know why I couldn’t admit the truth to you or myself then. I suppose I only wanted something that felt like mine and mine alone.
You put your hand on the door. Are you listening to me?
I give you an annoyed look like I did when we were still kids. Aimee’s clearly a bitch. I don’t tell you to stop hanging out with her, I say.
A silence hangs between us. You’d been seeing Aimee on and off for a year and you knew I’d never gotten over how she tortured me in middle school. She didn’t leave me alone until I’d lost weight and grew almost as tall as you.
You laugh. You’re right. She is a bitch, you say and you open the door.
I follow you into your room, a small box that barely fits your bed and dresser, a tiny rectangle of a window in the top corner of the wall. I tell you I’m only friends with Levi while you open your drawers. I remind you that you know I’ve never made friends as easily as you. And we both know without me having to say it that there is a certain kind of injustice that you were the one who got the pretty blond hair and clear skin. The one who could be funny and draw attention to himself anytime you wanted it or needed it while everything about me is plain. My hair is practically beige, always in a state of disarray. My skin is not even acne-riddled enough to be remarkable, only perpetually glossy with oil that never seems to disappear, a number of recurring zits so deep my face aches when they take up residency each month.
You had always floated through receiving attention as though it were a perfectly natural phenomenon. Despite my craving for what I thought you had, I had no way of dealing with even a glimmer of it. Whenever a boy I liked or didn’t like talked to me at school, I went quiet for longer than I knew was acceptable, trying to piece together how I thought they expected me to respond. I knew I appeared slow and dull. I had no way of properly translating myself to the world then.
I only want to be Levi’s friend, I say because I have no other way of dealing with the guilt I feel. It was my fault that you got into the fight that made you leave home in the first place.
I’d come home too late, telling Ma that my phone had died and that’s why I hadn’t returned any of her calls. She laughed. You’re a fucking liar, she said.
She was already in the living room as I opened the door. I was caged in by furniture that barely fit the room. I smelled a lit cigarette from the kitchen on the other side of the wall.
My head could hit the table. The side of the chair. Be slammed against the wall if she got to me as she had before.
Whatever, I said. I tried to walk toward my room.
She lunged at me and dug her hands into my pockets. I attempted to pull away, yelling for her to get off me, but she only grabbed harder, pulling my hair until I screamed.
You came up the stairs so quickly. You had to have taken them two at a time. I couldn’t see you, but I knew you were there. You tried pulling her off me, but she only grabbed harder until I cried. When her grip loosened, I turned around. Your arm was around her neck. We looked at each other and a moment, like so many others, passed between us. We acknowledged to one another that we were okay without a word. You loosened your arm from her slowly. You stood in front of her. I stood behind. The silence was heavy as milk.
When she hit you, I put my hand over my mouth as you held your face. I watched instead of doing anything. I was a coward, unable to move.
When your shock subsided, you laughed, shaking your head. I had no idea what you’d do next. You’ll never hit me again, you said.
I watched you leave the room. Heard your footsteps tumble down the stairs.
The basement door slammed shut before I heard the garage door open and close quickly. Ma ran after you. I went to my room and pushed my dresser in front of the door. I could hear her yelling for you to come back.
I looked out the window. You were gone.
# # #
We never talked about our mother’s anger. Why would we? It was a volatile constant, an ocean we swam through our entire lives. It took me a long time to understand that it was possible for someone to not always carry rage around like a bomb.
I never questioned when she hit me. I believed I deserved it then. And when I grew taller and bigger than she was, she still scared me enough to never hit her back.
Before you left, the last time I saw her hit you was when we were kids. I’d woken up in the middle of the night, overcome by hunger. I was eight. I creeped into the kitchen in the dark and pulled a chair over to the fridge. I climbed on top of the chair then the counter, pulling a box of cereal down with me. In the fridge, I found a gallon of milk unopened. I cradled the milk with both hands and carried it to the counter. I stood on my toes and opened it. Next, I pulled a bowl from the cabinet.
When I turned back to the counter, I knocked the gallon to the floor with my elbow. I stood frozen in fear before bending over quickly to save what I could of the milk that hadn’t spilled. I reached for the paper towels, unspooling the roll and throwing them over the growing puddle on the floor. I peeked around the corner to the hallway. I shoved the paper towels to the bottom of the trash. There was only a quarter of the milk left. I ate the cereal dry and as quietly as I could. I filled the rest of the jug with water so it looked more full than it was.
In the morning, I awoke to yelling. I walked from my room, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. You were in the kitchen with Ma, saying that it wasn’t you. I saw the milk jug on the counter. In the daylight, it was full of cloudy water. A bowl and the cereal box sat atop the counter unopened.
I squeezed my eyes shut when I heard the slap. When I opened them, you were looking at me standing in the doorway.
Ma turned. What’re you looking at? she said. Her voice sounded as though it had traveled from another life.
Nothing, I said.
# # #
You never asked where I’d been or why I came home late. Even if you did, I wouldn’t have told you. How could I tell you I’d started seeing your best friend every week since that night on the couch? It was when he was still staying with us. Our hands touched. At the sound of the garage door opening, I ran upstairs to my room. The next week, Levi took me to the woods behind his house after school. And then the week after that. And then.
I hear Eleanor Rigby’s collar jangle in the dark. I leave your room as she comes down the stairs and her shadow jumps on the couch. The basement where you have lived most of your life smells like cigarettes and piss. I pet her.
Your bag is full when you emerge from your room. We look at each other. I hug you, but you barely hug me back. You laugh me off, saying, I’ll see you at school.
You stop before opening the door. I almost forgot, you say.
You pull something from the front of your bag. A present. On the spine, the cassette reads for rose written in small black letters. I follow you into the garage and watch you walk away. You open the door. The truck door closes. The engine turns. Bright light disappears down a dark road.