by Emily Fiocco ’10
The suitcase handle slipped from my hand as I whirled back toward the street. I lifted a hand to call the taxi back, to tell the driver I’d made a mistake. But the door opened behind me, and it was too late.
“Sophie!” Aunt Tara’s tongue caught on the S and spit sprayed my cheek. She reached as if to take my luggage but wobbled, losing her balance. She caught hold of the doorframe and then smiled with her lopsided grimace. “Welcome,” she said.
“Hi.” I shrugged my shoulder to my cheek to get the spit off. “I’m here.” I tried to smile, but abandoned the effort.
“Come in!” Aunt Tara said. She backed up as she opened the door and grabbed her cane from where it leaned against the steps. “How was your flight?” Her mouth twisted all the words up. Saliva gathered in a cream on her lips.
“Fine.” I looked away. We stood in the foyer for a minute. She shrugged her good shoulder.
“Your room is ready.” She reached for the banister.
“I know where it is.”
I walked past her and up to my bedroom. The room I always stayed in when we visited. The room I was stuck in for a month. It was dim like the rest of the house, despite the windows. The glass was smudged; it refracted the light. Aunt Tara had made up the bed. I tried not to think of the effort it must have cost her. I waited until she called, and then went downstairs for dinner. I’d planned my dinner speech the entire way over.
“I don’t want to be here. My parents didn’t ask me. I’m letting you know this right now.”
She’d ordered in fried chicken. I finished my words and crunched down hard on my drumstick. The bone splintered. I had to pull fragments out of my mouth before they impaled my tongue. I couldn’t look at her. I wanted to punch her, or the table, or slash a hole in her orange velour sofa. Anything to get sent home.
When I looked up she was just staring at me. The left side of her face looked like someone took her skin and tried to yank it to her chin. But her eyes seemed very blue. The left one was smaller. The stroke she had when she was three stunted everything on that side of her body. I had never noticed the mole beside her right eye before. I looked back down.
“So we’ll stay out of each others’ ways,” she said.
Adrenaline made my thighs numb. I pinched my skin. “Really?”
Aunt Tara nodded slowly and her good eye stayed steady.
“Fine.” I ate another chicken wing. She hadn’t made it through her first. Without a word I got up, threw the paper plate in the trash, and went upstairs. That night, it was easy to fall asleep.
I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep the first night there. Instead the fear came in the morning. Even with sun seeping through the window glass warm my face, it didn’t change the fact that I was stuck with Aunt Tara. It didn’t change the reasons I was stuck, either. Didn’t change the fact that my parents had been fighting for over a year, and apparently, it wasn’t going to get better. I jerked into a ball and the Fight played out again in my mind.
Dad had started the yelling. “You’re late. You’re always late.” He’d come in late from work but there still wasn’t dinner on the table. Mom and I had eaten a late snack. She put the frozen chicken in the oven ten minutes before he got there.
“You’re late,” she told him. “You’re an hour late. And you didn’t call.”
“A call? You need a call to tell you when dinner should be?” He wrinkled his lip.
“No point cooking if you’re going to be late.”
Dad stepped forward, opened his mouth—
“Come on,” I said. I got up and stood by Mom. She didn’t look over at me. “Food’ll be soon.”
Dad swept out his arm like a Shakespearian actor but his face was all twisted. He pointed at Mom. “You say I’m late? It’s you.” He hissed the words. “You want to talk about problems. You’re the problem.”
“Dad!” I was already crying, my voice rising higher. “You’re not being fair.”
“Shut up, Sophie.” His eyes squinted, narrow and mean.
I grabbed onto the table. He moved to the door.
“I’ve had enough,” he said.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. I still don’t know where the words came from. “I’ve had enough too. You’re a fucking asshole.”
I didn’t see her hit me. Just felt the burn of my cheek. When I turned she was still standing with her arm out across her body.
“What?” I couldn’t make sentences. “You hit me? Not him? He is!”
She took a step forward. I thought she was going to apologize. “How could you?” I said, and I ran to my room.
No one came up to find me. I sat in my room while the sky grew dark and dinner time passed. There were sounds downstairs, footsteps and words. Doors opened and shut and then there was silence. In the morning, Dad wasn’t there.
“He’ll be back soon,” Mom said. She didn’t look me in the eyes. I didn’t say a word, to her or to Dad either when he came back five days later. That’s when they gave me the ticket. Told me the plan to bus me off to Aunt Tara’s down the coast.
I said I wasn’t going. “It’s not fair,” I told Mom. “Even you can’t stand her.”
“She’s my sister,” she said. Her voice was very cold. She looked me in the eye, then. I had to go.
When my mind cleared the fear came back. I thought of the way Aunt Tara had watched me last night, during the meal. How when she blinked, the eyelid on her ruined side didn’t come up all the way. She listened like a radio antenna tuned into some arcane station. Calculating.
The next morning, there was no sign of Aunt Tara. I left the house as quickly as I could—packed a bag for the day and took off without looking for her. My parents have given me a credit card for what I “needed”—and I knew there’d be a lot of things I’d “need.” But it felt strange to be in the town without them. I walked by the General Store, white and ramshackle, where we’d get the picnic lunches they made me eat with them on the beach. A few times during the week at the least. Sand got into everything. I passed the candy store and the ice cream shop and the bathing suit depot…we’d been to them all.
I stopped in front of the entrance to the main beach. I could picture the beach like I was standing on it. The white sand, blue waves, nasty little kids screaming everywhere, girls on double-sized towels in tiny bikinis, mothers in too-small swimsuits and fathers who roasted their beer bellies in the sun. If there were cute guys the whole thing would be passable, but the male population was mostly middle schoolers. I kept walking, into the heart of the beach town. The stores were the same and different—the maternity shop had turned into a wig store, the display window full of blonde and brown and even red and purple hair. The jewelry store had expanded but my favorite coffee shop next door was still in place. A new bookstore, a renovated deli. Another used clothing store. It didn’t take long to walk the three main streets of town. I went through them once, then again, and then got on the road that led out of the cutesy places, and on towards the city a few miles away.
I didn’t know how long I would have to stay in this place. They said they’d have to work things out. They said it might be a while. Might be a while, to resolve a year of fighting.
The fights started a year ago. Dad came home later and later and when he got home he’d yell about anything. During the school year it was the worst.
“Where are you going,” he asked when he found me getting ready to leave the house on a school night.
“I’m done. Going to hang out.”
“It’s a school night. Answer is no.”
“Greg, I think—” Mom would start. I didn’t want her protecting me. He turned on her.
“She has to learn sometime. Work ethic. It’s important. She needs some sort of example.”
Because Mom taught flute lessons out of the house. And she wasn’t teaching many. She cried a lot in her office during the day.
“You’re not fair,” I screamed.
But I never had the guts to just leave. I just stood up and went to my room while the fight continued. I closed my door and waited it out, talking for hours with my friends on the phone. Pretending like nothing was wrong.
By the time I got to the main city my flipflops had rubbed my feet raw. Already the tops of my arms and shoulders had turned red in the sun. I welcomed the pain. There wasn’t anything interesting in the regular city. Just a mainstream bookstore. I went in and got my SAT book. That and pre-class English essays were my only activities for the summer. I stayed at the bookstore for a while with a magazine. The café was quiet and I sat at a little square table, drinking cold coffee and pretending I was from a big city. Pretending I was older than a sophomore. Imagining I had moved out and my parents had nothing to do with me anymore. I tried not to cry.
The walk back home took almost twice as long. I did most of it barefoot. It was almost dark when I got back. I sat down on Aunt Tara’s porch. There were buildings in the way of the beach but the sky seemed wide open. Before the sun fell below the buildings across the street the sky shone purple and blue and pink and gold and gulls looped, black silhouettes, through the glory. There was a creak, and then I heard stuttered footsteps.
Aunt Tara limped out onto the porch and sat down at the chair by the door. I didn’t move. We both sat, not talking, until the sky faded. Without a word she got up and went back into the house. I sat on the steps in the dark. The quiet was strange, but everything seemed soft. Muted. Or it was just my thoughts. I’d buried them on the walk and their absence surprised me. I got up, and went to my room to sleep.
She was in the kitchen the next day when I went to get breakfast.
“Good morning,” Aunt Tara said. The orange juice in her pitcher sloshed near to the sides as she brought it to the table. Two glasses already sat at the table, empty.
“I made it myself,” she said, and gestured towards the juice. Orange halves lay on the counter, twisted and mutilated, their leftover pulp spewed on the counters.
“Oh,” I said. I sat down. I poured a glass of the stringy juice and took a sip. The acid and cold hurt my teeth and I tried not to grimace. She sat next to me. She smelled all over like oranges. Orange pulp stuck to her wrists and even her useless hand.
“How is everything?” she asked.
I put the glass to my lips but then put it down. “Fine,” I said. “Busy.”
“Busy?” Aunt Tara raised the eyebrow on the good side of her face. “I thought you might get bored.”
It took me a minute to understand her speech. “Nope,” I said. “Got work to do.”
“Do you remember Benny?”
Benny. Last time we’d visited they’d made me babysit this kid because I’d complained about being bored. I hate kids. I’d let them all know that after the fact.
“No,” I said. “Not going to babysit. Not going to happen.” I got up.
“If you want it,” she said.
At the end of a parking lot on the far edge of the town, up a dune and through a hole in the fence, a private beach stretched rocky and kelp-strewn for a few hundred meters. A landscape full of dull green and brown and grey. But ugly meant empty—even the people who lived in the apartments it belonged to just went to the tourist beach.
I’d found the beach a few years ago. It took until middle school for my parents to let me go off on my own, but that first vacation I was freed, I explored everything. One day, I went through a parking lot, under a missing slat in the fence, down a dune, over some rocks and a patch of long sharp grasses. There it was. Once I found it, it was mine.
Now, it was the only place I could think of to go. I had to hop across the sand; the gravel and broken shells burned on my open blisters. I didn’t go far before I spread out my towel. Took out my books and put on a hat and figured I’d just read for the rest of the day.
Time didn’t pass as quickly as I thought it would. Even the sun distracted. Sweat popped from my pores. I put my book down and tiptoed through the shells and seaweed to the edge of the water. Waves caught my ankles, pushed up to my calves—I jumped back. When I was little I took swim lessons at the YMCA. I never learned to open my eyes. Chlorine made them burn. Mom and Dad towed me out into the ocean, years ago. They tried to make me swim through the waves. “Open your eyes,” they said, but I was paralyzed, terrified of what swam beneath the water. I kicked and screamed and sobbed. When they let go, I sank. Finally they brought me back in to shore. I fell onto the sand, crying my heart out, feeling over and over the sensation of the wave dragging over my head, pulling me under.
The waves broke in little white spurts of foam. There was a buoy line a hundred meters out or so. No life guard at this beach. Even thinking about the deeper part got me high stepping out of the water. My ankles had turned numb. I walked back to my towel. Shells crunched under my feet and I thought I’d cry with the pain. I lay back on the towel and let my feet throb. The heat baked my skin and melded with the pain in my feet. I closed my eyes. No one was around. No one to tell me what to do. No one to shout.
Things could be worse.
Benny came to the beach the very next day. I put down my towel and just minutes later I heard scrambling behind me. I jumped up. Sand poured into the hollow of my towel.
His face was still scabby—from eczema or heat rash, I’d never known. He looked almost the same as three years before—knobby knees, light-white hair. Invisible eyebrows. In his hand he had a little rubber duck. If it was the same one, I couldn’t tell.
“Benny. What are you doing here?” I sank back down into my sandy towel. I hadn’t realized how much my heart rate had sped up. I breathed in.
Benny shrugged. He kicked at the sand. Looked up, then down.
I sighed. “You still carrying that thing around?”
Benny looked at his duck. He thrust it in the back pocket of his swim suit. “Why haven’t you come over?”
“I’m not babysitting you this year.” I crossed my arms. He looked serious, like always. “I mean it,” I said. “I have other things to do.”
“I don’t need a babysitter. I don’t have to have one.” He jutted out his chin. I had to stop myself from laughing.
“What are you? Five? Six?”
“Okay,” told him. I brushed sand off the towel and lay down on my side. “That’s just fine.”
He came closer. Then he sat down.
Benny didn’t say anything. He looked up and he didn’t even pick at his face. He pulled his knees to his chest and rested his cheek on them. His shoulders were small, thin. His spine bumped down his back and blue veins traced faint paths beneath skin.
“Alright,” I said. I sighed again. “Just don’t bother me.”
He came the next day, and the next. I could walk down to the beach town and he’d find me there. Anywhere I went, he appeared. My albino shadow. Then he didn’t show.
I tried to read. But I kept thinking every movement on the beach was him. I waited for him to jump out and surprise me. For him to hand me a shell and tell me it was cool, or run laughing out of the water, coming to tell me about the latest way he’d amused himself. I couldn’t concentrate. I walked around town and when I found myself looking at all the little kids for the one with the bright-white hair I shook my head and walked faster.
That day I went home early.
“Hi,” Aunt Tara said. She sat at the kitchen table. I’d gotten all the way to the sink without noticing her.
“How’d you get there?”
“How are you?” she asked. She’d left her hair down. It was thick and chestnut colored. She pushed it back with her good hand and her neck showed, slender and white. I was staring.
“Fine,” I said. I got my water. I sat down at the table kitty-corner to her, poised to leave. She looked over and she smiled.
“It’s nice to have a friend,” she said.
My stomach lurched. I shrugged. Aunt Tara massaged the stiff skin around her mouth. “They’re good to keep around,” she said. She ran her good hand down her crippled arm to the useless hand that clenched small like a claw. I thought of my friends back home. Of my parents. My arm twitched and I almost threw the glass I held at the wall.
“I’m getting dinner,” I said. I never stayed in when she was in the house. I started walking towards the door. I stopped, and turned back around. “You want anything?”
. Aunt Tara sat still at the table. After a minute, she looked up. She smiled her half smile. “I’m fine,” she said. She pushed herself up from her chair. Took a jerky step towards the sink, then another. She had no cane. I didn’t see it anywhere . Suddenly, I was afraid.
“Bye then,” I said. I turned and ran out the door and didn’t come back again until dark.
A week went by. Same activities, different days. Benny came most days. I never asked him where he was when he wasn’t with me. But without him the beach seemed like a vacuum. I’d sit there with all my work laid out in front of me but I didn’t do any of it. I missed them. I missed having my parents around to laugh when a gull flew too close. My dad always fed them. I missed our trips. One time we’d gone whale watching. The ocean sprayed everywhere, the engine was loud. We went so far the shore disappeared and if I didn’t look back I could pretend we were going to go forever. Saltwater flew up and hit my face and I loved it, all of it, and didn’t care there were no whales, even though Dad tried to get his money back.
I knew it wasn’t like that anymore. Even if they’d been there we’d be fighting all the time. I had to remind myself of that. I left my stuff and went on walks, back and forth over the sand and then down roads around the town. I walked until the sweat ran down my back and I was so thirsty all I could think about were the fifty cent slushies, lemonade and cherry flavored, at the entrance to the main beach. And then I walked a little more before I let myself get one. I made it through another week. One thing at a time.
Then it rained.
“Good morning,” Aunt Tara said when I finally came downstairs. I’d hoped she’d be gone. She’d made another pitcher of orange juice. I aligned my elbows with the worn grain in the table and ignored her. She sat down across from me.
“Your parents called last night.”
I couldn’t move.
“You should probably call them.”
Her fingers tapped the table and the good side of her mouth began to turn up.
“What are you happy about?” I asked.
“I’m not,” Aunt Tara said. Her smile disappeared “But maybe you will be.”
I opened my mouth to yell at her but Aunt Tara stood up and walked out of the kitchen, leaning on her cane. Her yellow skirt swished like a beaded lampshade in an earthquake. She didn’t look back.
I ran out the door, crying. Ran down the streets of the town; only the bars were open. Music played through the rain—Queen and James Taylor and all the oldies and beach songs in between. I stopped under an overhang and dialed my parents.
“Hi sweetie.” Mom answered.
I tapped the cell phone on the wall, waited for her to keep talking.
“Your dad and I have been discussing some things.”
“Where is he? Where did he go?”
“He’s not here right now.”
“You mean he’s already moved out?” My voice rose high. No one was around to hear it. I squeezed my phone, fingers wrapped around it. It shook. There was a silence. “Mom!”
“Honey,” she said. “We just think it’s better if we—”
“I can’t believe you. I can’t believe this.” My throat hurt, I couldn’t speak. I tried to swallow but I gagged instead. “You’re actually. No.”
“No!” My throat went raw with the scream. I slammed the phone shut and stood shaking. Then I ran through the rain to the private beach.
My t-shirt caught on the barbs of the fence. I heard the rip and felt the sting as the barbs tore through to my skin. “Dammit!” I shouted, and shook like a dog to get the sand out of my shirt. My hair flew everywhere, un-pony-tailed and tangled, and sand sprayed from everything. Grains ground my skin under my bikini, my shorts. The rain had soaked my shirt and it clung to me, covered in gray sand.
Gulls shrieked overhead. There was a fish laid open on the sand. The birds cawed and fought as they tried for the meat. Others swooped to pick up the crabs marooned from the night before. One flew near my face and I swung at it. The bird landed and cocked its head. It hopped once, then twice, closer to me. Its white feathers glistened in the rain.
“Get,” I said. “I don’t need you.”
I walked the length of the shoreline to the apartment complex, then back again. My soles had grown tough but I pressed down hard with my heels to feel the sharp edges. Beached seaweed seeped fish smell into the wet. I walked four laps before Benny showed up.
“What do you want?”
Benny’s eyes went wide. He came a little closer. He had the duck in his hand. With his hair plastered to his head he almost looked bald.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yup.” Tears formed in my eyes so I turned around and walked the other direction.
“You’re lying.” He hopped to get in front of me.
“I got an idea,” he said.
“Don’t care.” I scuffed my feet in the sand and kicked a clump of it over his shins.
“The boat. Let’s take out the boat. We can run away.”
“You’re an idiot.” I stopped, crossed my arms. Then had to uncross them to wipe away the tears that fell out when I blinked. They mixed with the rain. The rain had grown lighter, just a drizzle, just a spattering of real rain drops mixed in. Wind blew and I shivered.
“Come on,” Benny said. “Look at the boat.”
He grabbed my elbow. His fingers were small and hot. He wrapped them tightly and pointed down the beach. There, half in the weeds and sand in a dune was a yellow boat. I’d seen it before but it had faded into the landscape—beyond notice long ago.
“I don’t like water. I’m not getting in. It’s raining”
“Please? Look, the rain stopped.” he said. He had the duck out and his thumb was going furiously, polishing its little yellow head.
“What’s it to you?” I wanted to be cruel. Wanted to say, get the fuck out of here, you little twerp. I hated him.
“It would be fun.” His voice was low and he’d already turned to walk away. He reached up to pick some scabs off his head. It made me want to puke and I picked up a handful of sand to throw at him. I thought of his delicate skin. Of how he sat so close when he came to visit. The way his whole forehead wrinkled up when he smiled. I dropped the sand.
“Get the boat then.”
Benny turned and ran to the boat. By the time I’d gotten there he’d pulled it from the dune. Just a little yellow pedal boat. Dirty and swampy on the inside, but intact. It was surprisingly light to pull, just bumped and slid right along behind as we took it over the slant of sand to the water. “Get in.”
It didn’t take us long to get clear of the beach. I pedaled and Benny sat up on the seat back. I didn’t realize how close we’d be to the water. The rain had become a steady stream of droplets soaking us from above. Waves slapped up on the yellow plastic and then washed over it, icy splashes on my thighs. We were almost eye level to the ocean. I swallowed down a panic. There were things beneath us. Things in the water. I pedaled faster so I didn’t scream. We got to the buoy line and then passed it. My thighs started to burn.
“We’re too far.” Benny slid off the top of the boat to the seat. The boat rocked. Dead bugs in the bottom of the boat brushed my legs. I flailed them in the air.
“Hold still!” I told him.
I looked back to shore. It was close. Just a little smaller. A little grayer, through the rain. “How are we going to run away if we can still see land?”
“You didn’t say we were running away.” He took out his duck and threw it up. He caught it and did it again. And again.
“You said we were, dumbhead. And anyways, no one will care. No one will care if we disappear.”
Benny picked a scab on his face. His forehead wrinkled down in a frown. A little spot of blood bumped up on his chin where he’d been picking. Grey lights raced over the rain-pockmarked waves, water mirroring the sky. In the silence and stillness the rain and the waves hitting the boat seemed even louder. The rain pattered steadily while the waves hit with a wet thwop, then a suctioning sound. A barge moved slowly across the horizon, edges blurred by the rain.
“That isn’t true,” said Benny. He looked back towards the beach, but no one ran out to look for us. He held his duck and rubbed its head.
I took the duck. He watched me with mouth half-open but didn’t try to take it back. I ran a finger over its head, felt the smooth narrowing body. It was just a little damp and I smoothed the water over its body. When I was little I had stuffed animals I’d carry everywhere. My lucky charms. I felt the ridges imprinted in the rubber of the duck for wings, the smooth round outcropping of bill. It grew warm in my fingers and I put it to my lips. The rubber felt warm, intimate. I brushed it against my cheek then held it down in my lap. Benny stared.
“But it is,” I said. “It’s true. No one would know.”
“I want to go back,” he said.
I started to pedal again. I reached into the waves and mimicked strokes I’d learned once with a canoe paddle. I strained at the pedals. Benny helped. We got the boat turned back towards shore. We pedaled and pedaled but the beach didn’t seem to get any closer. The rain fell harder. Drops slid into my open mouth, slipped over my forehead into my eyes. They were salty from my skin and the ocean. I slitted my eyes and did my best to see.
“I told you we were too far out.”
“We’re not. How are we supposed to escape if we don’t go far out?”
He didn’t answer. I kept pedaling and he did too.
“I want my duck,” he said.
I’d forgotten I was holding it. The plastic was slick like a bar of soap. “This?” I held it up between finger and thumb.
“It’s mine,” Benny said.
I stuck it behind my back. “What you want it so bad for?”
“It’s mine,” he said again. “I want it back.”
I held it up, just out of Benny’s reach. “I’ve got it right here,” I said. “You want it?”
Benny stood up. He lurched on the wet plastic and the boat rocked. I steadied the boat. I looked up at him. I held the duck in my hand. My heartbeat sounded in my ears and I could feel a smile growing on my face. He started to climb over the divider but the boat rocked again and he almost fell. “Come on, Benny,” I said to him.
He stood up again. He was tiny in the boat, the divider coming up almost to his waist. The rain fell harder, sleeting in a thousand pinpicks. My hair spread like seaweed over my cheeks and shoulders, the sand washing out and salt taking its place. Benny came towards me but he’d grown even smaller, so small I didn’t see him. I didn’t see the duck, either. I could feel the boat rock and tip and sway and I held on but it was no use. I was in the water. Dark spread around me, and Benny, and the boat on the ocean. The water was cold, and I was numb.
The Coast Guard brought me back. Found me dangling on the side of the boat, crying. I’ve cried a lot since then. They picked me up and they said I said, “ducky, get it, the ducky I’m sorry” over and over. When they asked me if anyone else was in the boat, I shook my head.
Aunt Tara picked me up after the paramedics came. They said I would be fine. She brought me back to her house. My parents wanted me home but she said I wasn’t fit to fly. I lay in bed. Sweat on my skin, wet sheets, sleep, nothing. Aunt Tara put food in my room. Sometimes I ate it. I kept my mind a blank. But in a few days there were voices, thoughts, all clamoring in my head. Finally, I stood up. They fell back away.
My legs shook but I put my hand on the wall so I wouldn’t fall, and I walked downstairs. I only wanted water from the kitchen. But my aunt sat at the window in the front room. Without thinking I went and kneeled in front of her. I held onto the feet of the chair and tears burned at the corners of my eyes. The room wasn’t lit. Neither she nor I spoke and the room got darker.
“Tell me what happened,” she said, finally. Her words were slow and precise. I shifted back to my heels but kept looking down. I shook my head.
“I don’t remember.”
She was silent. Aunt Tara’s cane stretched across the floor in front of the chair. Every grain shone perfect and preserved in the polished wood, grayscale in the dimness. I shivered and looked up. She stared towards the window so I looked, too. Her face glowed in the dirty glass of the window, a blurred reflection. In the warped surface it was almost her, but everything different, like the time when my friends and I stole a couple cases of Mike’s Hard and drank them down like we’d always drunk lemonade, and giggled when everything started to shift.
“He tripped,” I said, words coming to me. “He tripped and hit his head and he fell.”
Aunt Tara nodded.
“I tried. I jumped in after him. I couldn’t save him.” It hurt to talk. “I held him,” I said. “He was too heavy. He fell in.”
I couldn’t swallow so I stopped talking. I thought she was watching me but when I looked she still was watching window. Minutes passed. Then Aunt Tara turned towards me. Slowly, she shook her head. She stared at me, her small eye growing bigger until it was symmetrical in her face. The wrinkles on her left side pulled taught. I saw the whites of her eyes and my chest stopped moving, stopped pulling in air—I couldn’t breathe.
Finally, she looked away. My chest released and I drew in a breath then followed her gaze to the window. Lights sparkled at the corners of my eyes, white static in my vision. My sight shifted; I could see outside, now. I saw how the sky was lighter than the pavement. Everything was grey, moonlit. The beach wasn’t far—it would only take six minutes to get there. Wouldn’t even have to hurry.
Then everything shifted again. Rain blurred everything. The little plastic boat glowed in the landscape, the brightest color around. I had the duck, and Benny stood and asked for it. Demanded it. I was going to hand it to him but it was so slick. I teased him, holding it over the boat, and then it dropped. Benny saw it drop. He dived in after it. Hit his head coming back up—I could feel the thunk of his head on the boat. I couldn’t see him so I dived in. Couldn’t see anything in the rain, but I got a hold of him. He wasn’t supposed to be heavy. He was always so little. When my arm went numb, when my legs stopped working, when everything was frozen—he fell below the water. I caught hold of the boat and held on. I didn’t want to fall down deeper. I was afraid. Then I was numb. At some point, the Coast Guard came.
On the floor of her house, I looked at my aunt and moved my fingers. Even after a week, they’d still felt empty. I felt empty. “I didn’t mean to do it,” I said.
But Aunt Tara shook her head. She didn’t speak. Her face was stern and her mouth twisted down. A cloud moved and moonlight glanced out from behind slatted clouds. Light lay across the floor in slanted bars of light. It broke the light filling my head. I reached out, clutched the chair in which Aunt Tara sat.
The floor rocked like I was still in the boat. I cried out and spread my fingers on the carpet, trying to hold on. Benny reached out, asking for the duck. I laughed at him, at how small he looked. I knew I could do anything I wanted. Knew Benny couldn’t stop me. I laughed and then reached back, and even as he yelled, demanded his duck back, I reached up and then I flung the duck as far as I could.
Benny stared at me. His mouth opened—not in surprise, but in anger—to yell. He climbed over me, punching and kicking and then he jumped into the ocean. He swam out far, looking for his duck.
“Come back, Benny,” I yelled. But he kept going, cutting through the waves like a small pale sickle. But then I couldn’t see the spray from his kicks anymore. I barely saw his arms flashing above the waves.
I yelled at him again and in a minute he stopped moving. He splashed as he moved forward or stayed in one place—I didn’t know if it was him or the boat that was moving. I saw his arms start to move again. It took a long time but he got bigger and bigger and then he was there. Just a foot away. He treaded water, panting. He opened his mouth and reached up an arm.
“Help?” His face was so pale.
I stuck out an arm. “Here,” I said. “Grab me.”
He pulled. The plastic was slick and the boat already tilted. Even as I tried to hang on he pulled me down. I screamed. “What did you do?” I asked, or tried, but there was water in my mouth, in my throat and I choked on it. He didn’t say anything. Just grabbed onto my waist as I clung to the boat. “You can’t do that!” I said. He was dragging me down.
But he didn’t say anything. Just hung on. It got harder to hold on to the boat—I was holding up two of us and my arms were so tired. The plastic so slippery.
When his grip started to weaken I could do nothing. Could only gasp against the side of the boat. The rain fell around us and mixed with my tears as my biceps strained. Then suddenly, the load was less. I clung to the boat and didn’t look down as he fell deeper in the ocean.
No, I said. My mouth hadn’t moved. “No,” I said again, out loud, to Tara. “No. No!”
She had stood sentinel over me and I lay on the carpet after it all, arms outstretched. She looked back out the window. Light moved across her face. Her mouth pulled down and showed briefly, a slash in the darkness.
“No,” I said, but it was only a keen. I wrapped my arms around my knees and felt the breath go out of me with the sound.
I went home the next day. Bought a ticket. Took a taxi to the bus station and left, and didn’t look out the windows until I’d gotten home. Only my mother was still there. It didn’t matter, anymore. I didn’t talk to either of them. Wouldn’t. It was easier to think about, though, then the rest of it. Think about how that went wrong. About when the fights started, and why. What made them fall apart, after having me, and all those years together. Maybe they never should have gotten married in the first place. Wonder when they figured that out.
I thought about how in their wedding pictures, they looked happy. How in the one they framed, my father cups my mother’s elbow and wears a proud smile, like he’s just won a trophy. My mother cocks her hip just enough to have it brush his thigh, and looks up at him like she couldn’t wait for the rest of her life.
I thought about the pictures to block out the other memories. But when I closed my eyes they played on my eyelids like a movie, as clear as though it were the day before. Sometimes all I could see was Aunt Tara.
Even now, hiding in my room in my own house, I can feel her touch. Like a scar, burning, throbbing, ancient. When my eyes come open and I gasp for breath, trying again to think only of my parents, to think of nothing on the beach, my hand burns. Nothing can stop it. Nothing makes it go away.
Over, and over I see how Aunt Tara leaned over. She reached out with a claw, and touched my hand.