It's late June. School's out. Now you can watch soap operas and game shows until you're told to get outside and get some fresh air. And you're free of the kids from the apartments behind the Honeywell factory. You were the new kid when you entered sixth grade here, and a group of girls from over there descended upon you immediately. A lot of them have frizzy, bleached hair and really bad acne. You never really understood what a pummeling was until you moved here.
But whatever. The girls and their zitty entourage are gone. The sky's blue, and you're coasting from one end of the elementary school lot to the other on a blue skateboard. You don't have to stop until dinner.
The best part is that all summer long you can live in your favorite clothes: a men's faded green Army jacket, a red tee with cap sleeves and a glittery rainbow on the chest, bell bottom jeans with parrots that your mother embroidered on the legs, and a billed Army cap. A tape over the jacket's breast pocket says Thomas -- your dad's best friend in the last place you lived. Every time he dropped by, you stood, fixated, and said, "I like your coat, Mr. Thomas." Your mother finally told you to leave the poor guy alone and to quit bugging him about his damned jacket. Expressing desire for something like that was often the surest way not to get it around your house, so you did what you were told. But the day your family pulled out of the drive after the moving van had packed up, Steve Thomas handed you both cap and jacket through the back passenger window.
"Make love, not war," he said.
"Okay," you said.
As you pulled away you watched him stand in the street for a moment, then walk back to his apartment.
You're gangly and accident prone, so you're a lousy skateboarder, but it isn't about the skateboard. This is a rolling meditation. Awkwardness and self-consciousness and the pitiless judge always looming just above you disappear, and you're not you anymore. You're better than you. You feel free. You feel famous.
The feeling doesn't last. Kirby Carlson, another kid from behind the factory, rounds the corner of the school on a boys' stingray bicycle that's too small for him.
Some of the kids say he's retarded. He has to repeat fifth grade in the fall. This past year, you'd spot him through the window in the Special Ed. room. If he caught sight of you, which he almost always did, he would cup his right hand over his left and flip you off. The first time it happened you looked around, wondering whom it was for. When you realized it was you, you flipped back.
You were immediately drawn into an all-out flip-the-bird war between you and this little creep with long, blond, greasy hair hanging in his eyes, dirty T-shirts, and high-wader Toughskins.
One day after school he accosted you from behind, pushed you to the sidewalk, and called you a turd. You called him a faggy retard. Unfortunately, your part was the only one overheard by a teacher, and it landed you in the principal's office for the first and only time.
That night at dinner your father asked if you even knew what a faggy retard was, anyway.
"Kirby Carlson," you said.
"I know," your sister, who just finished third grade, said.
"Well," he said, "let's not say that one any more. Whether you know what it means or not."
You stood. "I'm going outside."
"Finish." Your mother tapped your plate. You sat. "He likes you," she whispered. You don't like her look. "That's how boys your age show it."
You shoveled Brussels sprouts in your mouth. "He needs to show it to someone else," you said, spraying food.
Kirby Carlson approaches and you push off in the opposite direction. You decide, for the first time, to take your mother's advice to ignore him and maybe he'll go away.
You can't ignore that he's racing in your direction. You jump off the skateboard, grab it, and make a run for your house. You should have left the skateboard. Before you can hit your stride, he pounces from behind, yanks Mr. Thomas' hat off your head, and pushes you down.
"Ha!" He waves the hat in victory. "Fuck you, you fucking flat-thy!"
Flat-thy? You dust off your jeans. Oh. He means "flatsy." Why didn't you ever notice his lisp?
"Why don't you go back to your own stupid neighborhood?" You drag yourself up. "I was here first."
He pushes you again, harder. The skateboard falls out of your hands, and you trip over it. You feel the concrete through the tears in your jeans. You look up; he's a silhouette against the sunlight. Your knee is scraped and bloody. You don't care. It doesn't even hurt. It's the blue, chartreuse, and yellow embroidered parrot on your jeans. The strands of embroidery floss are bloody and frayed.
Kirby Carlson pulls your cap on and turns the bill backward. "Awww. Ith the flat-thy thad about her panth?"
You had requested that parrot, and your mother stitched it to your specifications. Better than your specifications. You love these jeans. Rather, you loved them. Now they're ruined. You rise to your feet.
"Ha ha!" Kirby smirks, adjusting your hat on his greasy head.
With agility that surprises you, you reach forward, grab Kirby Carlson by the neck of his goldenrod tee, punch him in the eye and the nose, and thrust your knee into his crotch. You yank the cap from his head and release your grip from his shirt. He falls to the pavement.
"Tho thorry, ath-hole!" You kick him square in the ribs, spit in his face, grab your skateboard, and run home.
After dinner, you will crumple your embroidered jeans into a ball and cram them to the bottom of the trash. You will wince at your scraped and bruised knee. You will mention none of it to either of your parents.
Most of the time your mother and father ignore one another. But there are times, like tonight, when they're being nice and look like they're having a good time. Your father hasn't traveled for work in a month; your mother loves her landscape painting class. They're planning to put a bay window in the dining room. They laugh and joke about the crazy lady across the street.
All four of you are in the basement rec room, seated at the feature that sold your dad on the place: a long, black, faux marble wet bar with tall stools upholstered in red vinyl. He loves the rest of it too: pool table, dartboard, and a lit Hamm's beer sign with a constantly moving waterfall behind the bar.
Your sister is always bartender. She moves with purpose, washing the muddler with which she's mixed the old-fashioneds. She has a white towel thrown over one shoulder and really does look, despite her Coke-bottle glasses, like the real deal. She pours your mother and father's drinks through a strainer and splits the leftovers between two highball glasses. You clink your glasses and drink. Your sister deejays: The Platters for your mother, Captain Beefheart or Black Oak Arkansas for your dad. Behind her, beneath the basement window well, is the aquarium you ignore and she tends, glowing and filled with multicolored fluorescent gravel and a swarm of plain gray guppies.
"Perfect once again!" Your dad sets his drink on a coaster. He and your mom smile at each other. You swivel your chair so your back is turned to them.
You rattle your glass in your sister's direction. She pours your refill.
You down yours in a single gulp, and through bleary eyes, you watch as a rock -- a chunk of concrete, really -- crashes through the window well and shatters the aquarium.
Your sister, amidst the shouting, swearing, and scrambling, calmly brushes a bulging, flailing guppy from the countertop and gently drops it into a highball glass filled with water.
"She's pregnant," she says, eyeing the glass.
Your room is in the basement, near the bar, so every time the lawn mower passes by the window well, the motor roars like it's coming down on you.
You trudge upstairs to the kitchen, pour Cheerios and milk into a bowl, and look for the bananas. They're in the refrigerator. You eye them, shut the refrigerator, and eat your cereal standing.
Your sister shuffles in, pours Cheerios into a bowl, opens the fridge, pokes at a banana, and makes a face.
Her mouth is full of Cheerios. "Where's Mom?"
"I can't even hear the cartoons." She nods over her shoulder toward the roar. "Don't you think he's worked off his thing by now?"
"I don't know," you say. "Every time he comes over, I want to throw up."
You didn't ask for this situation, and your resentment of it colors everything you do. Kirby Carlson is out there, mowing your lawn and talking with your dad as if he belongs here, and there's nothing you can do about it.
On the day after the fish tank incident, Kirby Carlson confidently approached you and said he knew who did it but would never tell.
Kirby is always bold when his utterances don't include an "S" he has to lisp through.
You told your parents. Your entire family piled into the car and followed a police cruiser to the Carlsons' duplex. Kirby burst into tears upon answering the door.
Kirby's punishment was to do chores on Saturdays to work off the damage he'd caused, but he made up for that weeks ago in August. Why's this guy still here, and not just on Saturdays? You started seventh grade and now ride the bus across town. When it deposits you across from your house and you enter through the kitchen, you're no longer surprised to see Kirby Carlson sitting at the table. He's still in fifth grade. He has a faint mustache.
Sometimes you watch him poke his head in the fridge for a glass of milk or Kool-Aid. He's allowed to do anything, and because he likes Twinkies, all of a sudden there are Twinkies in the cupboard. You never got Twinkies before.
Kirby's sixteen-year-old sister Kimmie has also become a fixture. Kimmie is the last person on the planet you'd think to call Kimmie. You used to want to dress like Kimmie, with her workman's boots, a twisted bandanna tied Indian-style on her head, and a pack of Kools rolled in the sleeve of her T-shirt. You're over it. Now your attire is something between Cher and Ziggy Stardust, with a bit of Janis thrown in, though you still wear Dave Thomas' coat nearly everywhere you go.
Kimmie claims she's in eighth grade, but you've never seen her on the bus, and you've never seen her at school. She's in front of the shop down the street from the bus stop that sells cigarettes and rolling papers without asking for ID. All the Honeywell kids are there, as well as those from across the river. Kimmie Carlson's always leaned up against a street sign at the corner, looking over her shoulder and palming off small packets. When you walk by, she nods deeply and winks.
Kimmie has earned you an in. You'd normally be shunned by these girls in gauzy peasant blouses, huge hoop earrings, and cowbell necklaces, but because of Kimmie you're permitted to stand on their periphery, cigarette cupped in one hand.
You don't even mind helping Kirby with his homework. You wonder if anybody ever taught him anything. "Ya gotta capitalize a proper noun, Kirby. That's not really a sentence, Kirby." He always grunts his thanks and goes outside to smoke.
Kimmie now clearly runs the house. She smokes weed and Kool filter kings at the kitchen table. Your mother even brings her an ashtray. She and Kimmie talk. Kimmie's voice is raspy and deep; she coughs a lot after hitting on her pipe.
You don't care. Your mom's happy being the cool mom. You're fine with it. You switched to Kools so you can smoke at the kitchen table when your parents are out. You like Kimmie; she has good weed.
It's late October and a darker, taller, and more sinewy version of Kirby shows up at your door. You stare. He smiles.
"I'm Kelly," he says. "Kirby and Kimmie's brother."
He's in a blue plaid flannel shirt and has his hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans.
Your hand is frozen to the handle of the screen door.
He drums his fingers on the screen. "Can I come in?"
You stare intently at each other in the foyer. The spell breaks. "Kirby here?"
You say maybe he's in back. Your skin feels hot and everything you say sounds far away.
You're the only girl in Kimmie's crew who's only in seventh grade and doesn't live by the factory. The others, like Shannon and Marcy, talk about things you pretend to understand: having sex with their boyfriends; being on the pill; other girls who've had abortions. They skip classes. Sometimes, they cut the whole day.
When passed a joint at the bus stop, you pray you look cool. You always nod and say, "For sure" or "Totally." You worry they'll find out you've only made out with one guy in your life, and he didn't even try to go to second.
Shannon's foundation ineffectively masks her acne. Marcy's white lipstick makes it look like she just ate a powdered doughnut.
One Friday afternoon, while you're standing in line for the bus, Doug Marshall swaggers over. He's legendary: The Stoner King. He wears a faded Levi's jacket and a Led Zeppelin tee. His thumbs are hooked through his belt loops. He stops in front of you. Even in your platform sandals, he's taller than you. He jerks his head and his straight, shiny black hair swings out of his face.
He has high cheekbones and smooth, blemish-free skin. His voice is deep. It's rumored he dropped out last year, but if it's true, you don't know why he hangs out around the middle and high schools so much.
You clutch your books to your chest, and the bottom of your shirt rides up, exposing your midriff. You fumble with your armload.
"Hey. You deaf?"
You shake your head.
"There's gonna be a kegger in the field off Cumberland Road."
He walks off, then looks over his shoulder. "Friday," he says.
You step back and stumble as your pant leg gets caught on your heel. You're still staring at Doug Marshall as you board the bus.
Kirby Carlson sleeps on the living room couch a lot. Kimmie and your mother's conversations have become more intense. They go silent when you enter the room, continue when you leave.
Two or three times a week, Kelly joins the secret meetings. He leans against the wall, listens for a few minutes, then seeks you out. The two of you play pool, watch TV, or sit, as you are now, in silence, on top of the picnic table in the backyard.
You poke him in the side, lace your fingers through his.
"I'm eighteen," he says.
You agree and rest your head on his shoulder.
Shannon's sister Misty drives a red-and-white Gran Torino. Her best friend Angie rides shotgun, while you, Shannon, and Marcy are squeezed in back.
"I can't believe I'm going to the same fucking party as my eighth-grade sister and her seventh-grade friend," Misty says, eyeing you in the rearview mirror. "Who wants to go to a party with a bunch of little kids?"
"You do," says Shannon. "You wouldn't even be invited if it weren't for us." She gives you a sidelong glance. "If it weren't for her."
"Yeah, whatever," says Angie. "Glad you've got a friend who's good at blow jobs."
You look out at the fields of dried cornstalks flying by in the dark night. In the distance, you see figures and a fire blazing in a metal drum.
One night, after two in the morning, Kirby showed up with a black eye, a gash down one cheek, and a missing tooth. Your mother drove him to the emergency room.
You understand now why Kimmie couch-surfs, Kelly lives over Mendel's Stop 'n Fuel, where he pumps gas, and why neither of them mentions their parents. You understand now why Kirby never passes fifth grade. He misses weeks of school due to broken bones and concussions; one year his stepmother pushed him from a moving car, and he couldn't attend school for a year.
Your mother and father meet with a social worker. Your sister's room, with its lilac walls, flowered spread, and white lacquered dresser, is given to Kirby Carlson.
You now share your basement room with your sister. There is not enough space to accommodate her gerbil habitat, Visible Man and Woman, microscope study-station, and sheet music stands, so they're crowded in and around the faux marble wet bar.
You spent a lot of time personalizing your lovely basement room. You have a black light poster with a hairy little cartoon guy flipping the bird. You have a red crushed velvet bedspread, a red, white, and blue vinyl beanbag chair, and a tree you painted on the wall, with branches that reached across the ceiling. Now there's barely room for either of you to get up to pee.
It's November and the sky is clear and black. The party tonight is behind a cluster of trailers at the river's edge in Walters Park. Walters Park kids are even wilder than Honeywell kids. You've heard that most of them are related. One of them, Jeff Gleeson, has the same dirty plaid flannel shirt on every time you see him. His blond, wavy hair is always greasy. You like him.
As you step from Misty's car, you realize you should have worn a warmer coat. Your butt is already freezing.
"I don't even know him," you say. It's true. "I've never talked to him, not once." He's talked to you, to tell you the location of the next party. Other than that, he just smokes and stares in your general direction.
"Of course you've never talked to him," Angie says, passing you by. "You've always got his dick in your mouth."
You and Shannon shuffle down to the riverside, where two fires blaze in metal drums. Doug Marshall sees you and nods. You recognize just about everybody. Kimmie Carlson's here, palms to the fire. You're shivering. Jeff Gleeson taps you on the shoulder and hands you what looks like Hawaiian Punch. Some spills on the sleeve of your jacket.
"It's got Everclear!"
You taste. Better than beer. You down the whole cup.
Now you're lying on the carpeted floor of somebody's van with your sweater pulled up and your pants unzipped. You're warm all over, and you and Jeff are kissing and groping. Your mouth is stained red. You might be more stoned than you've ever been in your life.
Jeff is tugging at your jeans when the van's sliding side door opens with a bang. You try to prop yourself up on one elbow but realize you can't move. Everything is spinning.
Doug Marshall reaches in, grabs Jeff Gleeson by the collar of his flannel shirt, and throws him to the ground. He grabs one of your legs and pulls you out too. You look at him questioningly through your nauseated haze.
He belts you in the arm.
He hits you again and again, harder and harder. He jerks you by the elbow, and you know it'll get worse, but it all seems far away. You barely feel it. All you can think about is how nauseous you feel. When you look into his eyes, they don't seem any different than when he's telling you about the next party.
You collapse to the ground when Doug Marshall is jerked away from you.
"Asshole." Kelly Carlson knocks him aside, pulls you up by the hand. He pats down your disheveled hair. You throw up on his coat.
You don't resent your sister in your room anymore. She doesn't tell your parents about anything you do. Your parents are nicer to each other. Since Kirby's been at your house, he stopped stinking like B.O. When your dad's in town, he takes Kirby with him to the hardware store. They sit down together and watch the Bears and Blackhawks on TV.
You and your sister and Kimmie like to fake-torture Kirby. Sometimes you'll tie him to the phone pole out front and refuse to untie him until he agrees to do one of your jobs, like picking up dog crap, which he does until your mother notices.
Kirby's thirteenth birthday is the week before Thanksgiving. Your mother bought him a beige fisherman's knit sweater, a pair of forest-green cords, and a pair of Adidas. Everyone in your family, as well as Kimmie and Kelly, eats pepperoni pizza and watches Kirby blow out the candles on his cake. When he opens his red plastic Panasonic Toot-a-Loop, with AM and FM radio, he takes it out of the box and twists it back and forth.
"I'm stealing that," Kimmie says, laughing.
Kirby Carlson walks over to your mother and hugs her. She pats his back and smoothes his hair.
Since the night of the van, you and Jeff Gleeson avoid one another. Doug Marshall, to your surprise, does not avoid you. He walks several feet behind you until you get to the school grounds, and he hangs around outside when you get out of class.
The night Doug hit you, Kelly Carlson had quietly carried you through the garage and down the stairs to your room. With your sister's aid, he wiped your face with a wet washcloth, stripped you down to your underwear.
"What happened?" your sister whispered.
He pulled you up and your sister slipped your nightgown over your head. They struggled to put you into your nightgown. "Maybe we shouldn't say anything."
You reached for Kelly Carlson's neck and pulled him close.
"Kiss me," you slurred. You grasped his hand and put it to your chest. He eased you into bed and pulled the covers to your chin. "Why won't you kiss me? Don't you like me?"
He and your sister traded glances. She went into the bathroom and returned with a glass of water. You knocked it away. "Oh, yeah, I remember: you're eighteen."
He stood. "Yeah. I'm eighteen."
Kelly Carlson stayed away from your house for a couple of weeks after that.
School's out for Thanksgiving break and you're waiting for the bus as Doug Marshall approaches, just like always. Your arm, which is still swollen and purple from shoulder to elbow, seems to throb more violently in his presence.
"Sorry," he says.
The two of you stand in silence. Someone pushes past to board the bus. You get back in line. He reaches for your arm and you recoil.
"I said sorry."
You sit by a window. He stands, his hands in his pockets, until the bus pulls away.
Kelly Carlson is back. He bought a black Jeep. He drove it to Grand Canyon, he says, just trying to get his head straight. He gives you a hand in and drives around the neighborhood. He pulls to the side of the road. With the engine idling, you pass a joint back and forth. You take his hand and you lace fingers. You lean in to kiss him, and it looks at first as if he'll kiss back when he stops.
"I -- " He bites his lower lip. "No."
He stands, rubs his gloved hands together, and looks at you for a long moment. He looks at his crotch. "Good thing it's cold out here."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Why are you doing this? You love me," you say. "You know you love me. If you don't, why come back?"
You ride in silence, huddled against the cold wind. He pulls into your driveway. You start to cry.
"I'm gonna stay away for a while," he says, looking at the sky. "Probably a long time. I don't know. I wanted to say bye."
Though your cheeks are numb, you can feel the tears. "But I love you too." Your voice is somehow squeaky and whiny at the same time. "That should make a difference. Doesn't that make a difference?"
"Yeah." He touches your coat sleeve. "It makes it worse."
"But we could -- "
"No. We couldn't."
"But -- "
He reaches forth and cups your chin in his hand. You stare at one another. You lean in, and he grabs your shoulders, pushing you back. "When you're old enough to drink -- "
"I drink all the time."
He raises a hand. "Legally." He watches you get out of the Jeep. On the porch, you turn and wave good-bye as he waves good-bye to you. The sky is clear. The snow glitters blue and white. The Jeep pulls out and disappears down the deserted road.
At school the next day, when you feel Doug Marshall lurking behind you, as he always is these days, you turn quickly around.
"Where's the party?"
Misty and her friends won't acknowledge you, even when you're sitting in her Gran Torino. Shannon says Misty's sick of bringing you to parties just to get in. Tonight's a special night. Ray Tobolski's parents are in Orlando. It's the kind of party that everyone dreams of when the temperature drops: It's indoors.
You remove your coat. Still, you're hot.
Jeff, Ray's younger brother, is standing on the coffee table lip-synching Bad Company's "Ready for Love." You follow Shannon and the rest of the Gran Torino girls into the kitchen. There's a keg of Stroh's and a stack of plastic cups. After pumping three cups of foam, Misty yanks the cup out of your hand, fiddles with the spout, fills the cup, and walks away with it. You pour one for yourself.
You sip, pretending to like it more than you do. You recognize a few people from school, but there are many you've never seen. You wonder if they're from the next town over or are just dropouts. Doug Marshall appears and takes your hand. He leads you down a hallway with fake wood paneling. You are alone. Doug swipes his hair out of his face, reaches into the breast pocket of his faded denim jacket, pulls out a pack of Marlboros. You take one. He lights it. You stand, looking down at the silver appliqué of Saturn on the front of your black cotton turtleneck.
You drop your lit cigarette to the floor when he yanks you to him, pulling hard on your hair. You're not even high. Why couldn't he have done this when you were high? You're struggling, but when he thrusts his tongue in your mouth, he tastes good, of weed and cigarettes and alcohol, and he smells good, like he's been scrubbed clean with a non-girly type of soap. He maneuvers you so your back is to the wall, and he presses himself against you, hard.
After a nearly strangling kiss, he lifts his head and pushes you down the hallway.
In the faint glow of a lava lamp on what must be Ray Tobolski's dresser, Doug Marshall shoves you to the bed. It's understood somehow that you owe him, that this is payback. You wonder if he'll beat you again. And if anyone will help you this time.
It ends before you know what happened. You're bewildered. He sits up, reaches for a cigarette from his jacket.
You never took your sweater off, but you fumble about for your jeans and panties. You lean back and stick your hand into a warm, wet pool. You gasp.
Doug Marshall switches on the bedside lamp, and both of you look at the thick dark blood on the bedspread. You don't like Doug Marshall's self-satisfied half smile.
"Gross. Can you get me something?" You hold out your bloody hand. It feels like it belongs to somebody else.
The week before school gets out for Christmas Break, you are not surprised that guys leer, whistle, and make rude comments. One guy grunts like a pig. None of the girls you hang around with will make eye contact. They cross to the other side of the hall when they see you coming.
Jeff Gleeson follows you to class, chanting, "Ho-ho-ho! Get it? Ho?"
Your mother's on the phone a lot, pacing back and forth as far as the cord will allow. A social worker visits your house twice.
Since Kirby moved in, he's been allowed, every two weeks and with the supervision of the social worker, to spend Sunday with his parents. The minute he leaves, your mother ropes the entire family into a Kirby project. Today, your sister's former lilac-colored room is transformed into something mod and masculine. Your sister carefully tapes off sections where your mother paints glossy burnt-orange stripes against a beige ground. You paint on the screaming yellow accent stripes, and your dad applies a chocolaty brown to the doorframe.
In the bedding department at Montgomery Ward, you hold brown and orange paint chips to a quilted spread. Your sister is perched on the edge of one of the display beds.
"You like Kirby, don't you?" Your mother approves the chip/spread match and packs one encased in plastic under her arm.
You and your sister eye one another. She shrugs. "Sure, I guess," you say.
Your sister flops backward on the bed. "I want my own room again."
"You will." Your mother moves to the shelves stacked with sets of sheets. "I promise you will." She holds up the sheet up to the comforter. "He's reading at the fifth grade level."
"Cool," you say.
"We're looking for someone to help with his speech impediment."
Your sister raises an eyebrow.
"The lisp," she says.
"Oh, yeah," your sister says, looking at you and rolling her eyes.
Your mother examines the items. "He probably needs a new pillow." Stopping in the middle of the sheet aisle, she hands the bedspread packet to you and the sheets to your sister.
"Well, these are practical things," she says, looking around, "but what should we get him for his real Christmas present?"
In the mailbox, among bills and Christmas cards, is a letter to you with an Arkansas postmark. It's from Kelly Carlson. His handwriting is fine and controlled, with a uniform loop on his "y's," "g's," "b's," and "d's."
He's driving a truck for a meat distributor. The money's good. He hates country music, and it's all these hillbillies play. He likes the trees and the mountains, and it doesn't get cold. He thinks he'll stay. He's trying to quit smoking.
He's sorry he hurt your feelings. He's sorry he had to leave. He thinks about you all the time.
Love, Kelly, it says at the end, with three lines drawn underneath the Love. You fold the letter and put it in your coat pocket.
When Kirby gets back from his parents' house, he expresses only a reserved enthusiasm for his new room. After shuffling around on the carpet and setting his backpack onto the bed, he looks around and exits, shutting the door behind him. He sits down in the living room in front of the stereo. He puts your ELO Eldorado LP on the turntable, clamps on the headphones, and flops back onto the carpet.
While you're in the kitchen stealing some of Kirby's Twinkies, you answer the phone, yell for your mother, and hand her the receiver.
After hanging up, she covers her face with her hands and sobs. You set your unfinished Twinkie on a vinyl placemat and fold your hands in your lap.
Your mother sucks in a long sniffle. Her face is red, and mascara has run down her cheeks. She looks at the ceiling for a couple of seconds and walks out of the kitchen. The bedroom door slams.
Your family has waited until evening to celebrate Christmas and open packages so Kirby Carlson can join in after spending the morning and early afternoon with his parents and the social worker. He sits down to dinner without saying a word.
The Carlsons, who have been on a probationary period, have regained full custody of Kirby. The petitions your parents filed have been denied.
When the social worker arrived with the paperwork a couple of days earlier, your mother, nearly hysterical, recounted the abuses Kirby had endured: the beatings, the neglected hygiene, diet, wardrobe, education.
"How could the state," your mother shrieked, "or you, an advocate for children's welfare, do this? How can you people do this?"
The social worker was sorry. It was out of her hands. The Carlsons had the law on their side. They are his parents. And in mid-January, Mr. Carlson is taking a job in Peoria.
Your dad stabs a slice of ham from the platter and slides it on to Kirby's plate. Your mother plops an enormous pile of mashed potatoes on it, you pass him the green beans, and your sister pushes a well in his potatoes with the back of a spoon and pours the gravy.
The five of you eat in silence.
After dinner you sit around the tree and take turns opening packages. Kirby's big present is saved for last; he sits cross-legged on the floor and rips at the paper. Upon lifting the box lid, he stares.
"Man!" He holds up a pair of steel-toed Indian-brand biker boots, a black leather biker jacket, and a long, tooled leather wallet on a silver chain. "Oh, man!"
He runs his finger over the jacket. He pulls it on. He pumps your father's hand.
He embraces your mother and she bursts into tears.
Kirby Carlson moved his stuff back home after Christmas, but he's decided, since he'll be moving, to spend New Year's Eve at your house. You don't mind. No one invites you to parties anymore.
Despite the full case of Old Style behind the bar and the fact that they've never permitted anything like this before, your father drives the three of you to Milt's Liquors to pick your poison before he and your mother go out for the evening.
Your sister, typically matter-of-fact, returns from a tour of the aisles with a fifth of cherry vodka, a bottle of schnapps, and a bottle of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill.
Your dad watches her place them carefully in the cart. "You think you got enough there?"
She clears her throat. "There's a possibility that I won't like one of them."
"Fair enough," your dad says, laughing. "Better safe than sorry."
Seeing this, you add a bottle of Heublein Hereford Milk Chocolate-Mint Cow, a beverage the consistency of Pepto-Bismol, to your bottle of Frangelico.
"Same deal," you say, when he raises an eyebrow.
Kirby Carlson has a bottle of Jack Daniel's.
"Finally," your dad says, "somebody with some taste."
Throughout the night, you, Kirby, and your sister dance around the rec room and jump on the couch. You and Kirby smoke cigarettes and dope. At 10:30, your sister lets out a huge belch.
"I'm going to bed."
Kirby looks at his watch. "You'll miss New Year's."
She stands, shakily. "It will miss me." She staggers off.
Dick Clark is counting down the New Year, and you're seeing double. You touch Kirby's hand and he leans into you. You can't tell if he's crying. He grabs you by the front of your shirt, and you're reminded of the time when you grabbed his and knocked him down. You kiss instead, hungrily and violently.
Your parents return to find you passed out on the basement rug on top of Kirby Carlson. You're in your jeans and bra, and he's fully clothed. Both of you are drenched, and your hair is a tangled mat. Your father lifts you up.
"What the hell?" Your mother tosses him a blanket. He wraps it around your shoulders. He shakes you. "Why the hell are you two wet?"
"Um?" Kirby props himself up on one elbow, runs a hand through his wet hair, and squints. He looks up at you. "I dunno?"
The room spins. You mumble about vodka and showers and puke on your father's shoes.
It's June. School's out, and you're done with seventh grade. Your father bought a beige Ford Econoline camper, and you're watching the peaks of the Smoky Mountains from the backseat that folds out into a bed.
After Christmas break, Misty and Shannon and the other girls still ignored you, so you made friends with a quiet redhead from art class named Claire McKay. The girls in Claire's circle wear polo shirts and madras plaid and shoes with no heels. After a while, so do you. Though they party as much as, maybe more than, the people you knew before, they seem to pull it off more neatly. They never get suspended from school. They live in nicer houses, drive nicer cars.
You look out the window at the verdant landscape, the dark mountaintops. The trees fly past and you think about what eighth grade might be like and if Claire McKay will nominate you for student council.
You saw Kirby Carlson once before he moved to Peoria. Your dad took all of you to the Steak and Ale. Your mother covered her face and cried when your dad dropped him at the end of his driveway. He waved a couple of times, then shoved his hands into the pockets of his forest-green corduroys. You saw none of the Carlsons -- Kirby, Kimmie, Kelly -- again.
Your father stakes out a campsite, and you help pitch the tent. You and your sister forage for kindling.
You stand at the river's edge and notice figures on a rocky cliff. One after another, they hurl themselves into the water below. Some cry triumphantly; others yowl as they realize their irreversible error. Each leap is trailed by a light smattering of applause.
Your mother sees you watching them and grabs your elbow. "I know what you're thinking," she says, "and I'm telling you to forget it. The last thing I need on this vacation is a trip to the emergency room!" She squeezes your shoulder. "Understand?"
"Yeah." You follow her and your sister back to the campsite, but look over your shoulder as a guy bawls, "Holy fucking shit!"
Near the rocks, five girls stand in a semicircle; you smile shyly as you approach. One squints behind the rising smoke of her cigarette and cocks her head. You're the only one wearing a swimsuit. The other girls wear ragged cutoffs and casually sliced-up tees over their bikini tops. A guy with a long ponytail and faded tattoos says, "You're gonna lose that thing, little girl!" He eyes you up and down, shrugs, and lifts his beer to toast. "Not that I mind."
Out of the corner of your eye, you see the beige Econoline van approaching. Your mother leaps from the passenger side and starts yelling about getting away from there before you kill yourself. She wants you back now. Right this minute.
But it's too late. You're running in your rubber-toed sneakers and your blue-and-white striped bikini with only three plastic rings holding it together. The older kids laugh and yell, "Go, kid!" while your mother shouts about you not needing any encouragement.
What you've got going on here is epic. Your legs are pumping and your feet are pounding the dirt and you know they're not going to catch on anything when you shove off from the rocks.
Everything is in slow motion and you have no idea how often you'll be kicking and screaming and defying and running and flailing and knocking your head over and over and over against what appears to be the same brick wall.
You have no way of knowing that, at twenty-six and waiting tables in a Tex-Mex joint in Houston, Texas, you learn that Kirby Carlson, twenty-two and living with some other meth-heads in Gainesville, Florida, was beaten to death with a tire iron while tied to a telephone pole, and you don't know how often that will haunt you.
It's blue and clear above you, and you know, somehow, that you'll always be striving for things you can't get and longing for things you can't even name. Even now you know you will always be struck with the feeling that things should have been different, better. That you should have been different, better.
But you've leapt, and this is what joy is, with sun on your skin and wind in your hair. In this instant, with at least fifteen shades of green meeting the skyline, you can almost touch the clouds in their ether of cerulean blue. And it's perfect right here, right this second, but you know it can't last, and you don't know how it will feel when you meet the water, how cold it will be, how deeply you will plunge.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Laura Lark. All rights reserved.