Steve celebrated his first short story acceptance with a strawberry frappe. He works for the electric utility in the greater Boston area, and lives in Massachusetts.
Dark Circle Girl
Julia stared at the clock.
A rap at the door would come, but until it did there was an infinity to endure, and within that infinity, when the red second hand would push forward a notch, each stop became a finite infinity, when Julia would concentrate on the red hand so hard she no longer heard the swell of voices rising, no longer saw Mrs. Johnson, legs crossed on her desk, peering over her paperback, scanning the class, did not see Mrs. Johnson stare at her, did not remember their talk a few months back, which Mrs. Johnson now thought of, squatting as she had in front of Julia’s desk in the empty room, her father’s tombstone in her mind as she placed a hand on Julia’s shoulder and whispered, You are brave, and that’s never easy, and it may never be easy, but you can do it, Julia’s head lowered, staring through the floor as Mrs. Johnson pushed her thoughts away for fear of crying in front of her student, no, never that, and here she was again, watching Julia watch the clock, wondering what Julia would be going home to, wondering what her life was like that made her quieter and quieter as January became June, no longer calling on the girl with questions. Julia no longer saw Ben sitting in front of her, Ben, who would steal looks and no-look toss her notes over his shoulder, random thoughts and silly doodles and Walk hone today? What’s for lunch? Study for test? none of which she answered, no, Ben was gone, Mrs. Johnson was gone, five minutes more, a finite time that, maybe, Julia thought, hoped, she could break, a clock unmoving, bending her will to this red second hand, Do not move forward, just stop, just stop, I don’t want school to end, I don’t want summer vacation, stop moving now, stop moving now, her hope swelling in that pause, that potential of infinity when the second hand lay still, her hope swelling and swelling that the hand would stop, that the red hand would never move, that it would remain forever in place, it was possible, she believed, she hoped, this impossibility, until it moved again, crushing Julia’s will once again, a will she forced herself to mount again and again, and then again yet.
Then the rap at the door, and Mrs. Powell walked in. Hello class, so nice to meet you all, I’ll be your teacher next year--
And again the clock had stopped for its infinite pause, the object again of an infinity of prayer, the girl’s hand clasped, her fingers pink to purple to white with strain, please God please God please God please
—you to bring in for the first of the year. A little icebreaker, right? Pass those back please. Who here knows what a diorama is? Handouts were coming towards her. I can tell you they’re a lot of fun, and really quickly, all you have to do is design a scene. Take a picture or a memory and make it real. Make it into a model. The handout has examples. Make a sculpture of your life, something fun you’ll do over the summer. Use your imagination. Be creative! And make sure they’re ready for the first day of school.
“Sooooooo, maybe,” Ben said as he handed her the papers, “I was thinking that you and I can work on these together?” Julia took a handout and passed on the rest. “What do you think?”
Julia studied her handout and shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe.”
“Sounds like a plan! We’ll talk about it soon, m’lady.”
The paper she held, Julia realized, was a miracle in the making, this diorama, her project for the summer, her means to escape, and when the bell rang, she was the last to leave, though not for the same reason she’d thought it would be before.
She held the screen door until it closed, then slipped from her sneakers, laid her backpack on the couch, and glided to the darkened kitchen, the floor cool though her socks.
At the table with some stale crackers, she flew to and fro through the handout. This diorama project, she saw, would be her lifeline of distraction. She looked at the bottom of her sock, covered with dust got from the front door to the kitchen. Supplies wouldn’t be a problem, but where would she work? Somewhere quiet, somewhere by herself, not her room, not the attic, not the basement. At the thought of Justin’s room her heart raced, and she pushed the idea away. The tree house! she thought, and stood up. It was perfect. More than perfect, perfectly perfect! But. But but but, did she have the nerve to go there? And she’d need the shoeboxes in mom’s closet, and that thought turned her stomach. So. That first then.
“mom?” she said. A lump on the bed made a muffled grunt. “momma, I’ve got a summer project, for school, to work on, so I wanted to take some of your shoeboxes. If that’s all right.” The lump grunted again, thankfully without malice. Jula made her way to the closet as another, different grunt crept from the bed, dad on the left, she knew now, and mom on the right. She grabbed the two biggest boxes and stacked smaller ones in them. Leaving, her mother croaked about the light from the door, the light, the light, and her head and something else so close that goddamned door.
The tree. The only tree in the yard. And the treehouse. I’m not afraid, yes you are, it may never be easy but there’s no ghost up there, you know, you’re safe up there, yes, I believe that, but not his ghost, his ghost isn’t there, but I’ll go anyway, I’ll pretend to be safe.
Brown grass, too early for late June, stood tall up against the chain link fence, the other side of which Ben was playing basketball in his yard with some other boys. Victor. Marty. Tim Sullivan. She fixed on the tree, its shade for the picnic table, shelter for rainy day games. She followed the rungs nailed to the trunk, stopping at the one carved with Justin’s name only to say, I see you ghost. The treehouse loomed above, nearly a part of the tree itself it was so camouflaged now. dad and Uncle Jack had spent a whole spring building it, ladders and brown bottles, no arguing then, except about sports, Julia safe nearby, dolls and dirt, the men spitting nails and hammering drinks.
Yes, I believe that.
Up eight rungs to the hole in the floor. Don’t think, don’t stop, don’t look at his name, don’t call on the ghost.
She popped through the hole in the floor and pulled herself in. There were leaves and dust and candy wrappers and other things Justin, looked like his bedroom in a way, posters, books, batting glove. These were his things, here or there, and he was neither, not any more, or both, if she let herself believe. It was quiet up here, too, the shouting of the boys next door diminished.
She stretched out on the floor and looked up at the ceiling, hands behind her head. When was the last time she’d been up here? Never without Justin, but that was her choice, not his. Mi casa Julia casa, that’s what he s—that was his saying. Maybe he was still here after all. He was, yes, and now she was swallowed by memories untouched for months, birthday cake fights and catching him in the bathroom, his cap backwards on her head, listening to him whisper to Stacey on the phone. She looked at her feet. She’d forgotten to put on her shoes.
The quiet settled round, the heat dimmed her eyes, and she fell asleep.
Jesus, hamburger again?
dad sat down opposite Julia. His tie, faded and irregular, bore the stains of previous hamburger dinners, as did the kitchen table. mom stirred something at the stove, her nightgown as old and yellow as the linoleum.
Maybe when you stop avoiding home you can cook something you like, mom said. What’s your excuse today?
You. You’re my excuse.
Ot did you actually stop at the pharmacy for me?
No, and you know--
Well thanks, Doctor Asshole, but until you actually, you know, are a doctor--
—goddamned pills make you—
—through the day is all I—
—me my pills!
mom threw the frying pan onto the table.. Saucy meat slopped over the rim, further staining the table.
Goddamn it! Where’s the salt?
If I don’t have my pills--
All right already! I’ll go after dinner! Can you shut up now?
You mean go to the bar.
Your poison ain’t that different from mine, sweetheart.
Don’t call me that! Ever! You have no right--
Says the woman living in her bathrobe.
You know what? Fuck you!
A word lashed into Julia’s mind: doomed. She put down the salt shaker she’d been holding out to dad.
You can go to the grocery store too while you’re out.
What do you think?
Get it yourself. You can drive. Or walk. Or stumble, whatever you want to call it.
Jesus Christ! Why don’t you just leave already? Just get out!
Julia looked at the salt shaker.
Or better yet, I’ll leave. I just figured I’d give you first option, since abandonment seems to be becoming your thing. Especially when someone needs her f--
dad threw the frying pan towards mom. It clattered off the wall above her, spraying meat and sauce on the stove and fridge and Julia’s hair. Almost before the pan hit the floor, dad shot up from his chair, look at the salt shaker, the slight curve it has, like a sculpture maybe, or a lamp, it was Grandma’s, how long ago did she die?, and in two steps took mom by the throat and pinned her to the fridge.
Don’t you ever, ever! Suggest that I was a bad father!
mom quit her job, then we moved here, perfect for a family of four, not big enough for three. dad slammed mom against the fridge again, then let her go and strode from the kitchen while mom slid down the fridge and Julia picked meat from her hair, the salt shaker, yes, more of a sculpture than lamp, and mom cried, then screamed I’m sorry! I’m sorry! towards a slamming front door while Julia put the salt shaker in her lap, concealed it with both hands.
Every inch of the shoe box surface was covered. Light yellow construction paper for the linoleum, pale blue for the walls. A couple of stacked matchboxes painted brown for a fridge. A doll set table in the middle, along with four chairs. Almost done.
Four chairs, three dolls, two sitting, one not. Now the title. She took a black marker and wrote on the front edge: FAMILY TIME.
It wasn’t right though, wasn’t accurate. She removed the three dolls from the box. Better, yes. Even perfect.
“Hey! I know you’re up there!”
Someone was calling her. She leaned out the window. Ben, on the ground below, smiling.
“M’lady!” he said, bowing low from the waist, arms posed theatrically. “Hey, aren’t you hot up there?”
“Why don’t you come over for a while? We can shoot hops, and you can have something to drink.”
“What about Victor and them?”
He smiled. “Aren’t you a little lonely up there? Come on!”
Lonely. A word as foreign to Julia as diorama had been last week, a word that hit her just as hard, blunt. “I . . . I don’t think so.” Ben looked at her, his eyebrows expectant. “Maybe it is a little hot though.”
“My mom’ll be happy to see you too. She asks about you all the time.”
“I don’t know,” Ben said, his hands in his pockets. “Just come on! I’ll teach you how to play Donkey.”
Julia looked at the walls and the floor and all that Justin had left behind, all that was left to remember him by. “Okay.”
They scaled the chain link fence between her yard and Ben’s.
“You want a drink?”
It was the first time she’d been in Ben’s yard, and it felt strange and familiar both. The sight of cut grass, bikes on the drive. Her own yard, once, but that was last summer, so long ago seeming that she couldn’t even say those thoughts were from her own memory. The familiarity, that felt good though. Normal. Ben’s yard felt like a place where she could relax. Drift on her own terms, not because she had to. Was this what normal was? What did she want as normal? What would Justin want? He would never have been in this spot. He was too confident for that, sure of what he wanted, mom and dad never argued around him, that wasn’t fair.
Ben had two glasses now. “M’lady,” he said, bowing again lightly, conscious of the glasses. “My mom says hi, says come over for dinner anytime.”
“What about tonight?”
“I’ve got a lot to do.”
“What, your summer project? You’ve still got more than two months. And if you come over tonight, you can help me with mine. You already promised.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“What are you making yours on anyway?”
“Summer vacation stuff. From last year.”
“I don’t know what I want to do. Maybe you have some good ideas? Maybe I can make mine about something we do.”
“What about your other friends?”
“They always do the same things. Plus, you and I share a backyard fence. You said you’d help, and, if you need it, I could help you too.”
Julia sipped her drink. It tasted good. “Okay.”
“What should we do first?”
“No skateboards or rock fights.”
“I’ve seen you from up in the treehouse.”
“Okay, no rock fights. Cross my fart. Or is that too gross?”
“I had a big brother you know.” And she looked at Ben and forgot about the treehouse.
Who’s your friend.
Julia looked up from her cereal.
mom turned on the faucet and began to wash her face. Your friend. The boy I saw you with in the backyard yesterday.
That’s just Ben.
Just Ben, huh? Well, men suck so stay away from him. God, can you find me the aspirin? Check the bathroom. Oh, and by the way, some bad news. Your dad’ll be gone for a few days. Your Aunt Corrine died last night. Decapitated in a car accident. Hah, almost sounds good, right? Get me a glass of water too. He has to go to the funeral. I’m too sick to go. So. There’s leftovers in the fridge. You know where everything is. At least it’ll be quiet around here for a few days. Why are you still here? Go get the aspirin already.
Julia left the kitchen. Aunt Corrine, decapitated? She remembered how excited she’d felt flying on an airplane by herself, down to Houston. She’d stayed with Aunt Corrine for two weeks, two weeks of doing what she’d wanted, mini golf and ice cream, coloring books and cartoons, no curfew, waffles for dinner. She’d forgotten about that trip. Now there would never be another.
mom wasn’t in the kitchen. Julia put the aspirin on the counter and headed to the treehouse.
She woke up cold and sore. Where was she? In the night’s dark, the treehouse was another world.
Leaves rustled. The crickets had taken over. There was the new shoebox she’d been working on. There was the car, hot pink, there was the pencil telephone pole leaning over the windshield, the shoelace wire strung across the front of the car, there was the toilet paper roll tree, the car smashed against it, and there in the driver’s seat a doll, headless. Or it had been. The head was on top of the body, not by the tree, and not just as if she’d laid the head back on, but connected, as if whole, as if never removed. She knew she’d cut the doll’s head off, colored the neck stump red with marker, a red ring, put body behind wheel and head by tree. And the neck still showed red where she’d colored it, but now, with the head back in place never removed the red ring looked more like a drawn-in scarf. She pulled on the head to be sure. Maybe she hadn’t cut the head off. Maybe she’d only dreamt it. She’d been working on the diorama, it had been daylight still, yes, she was sure she’d cut the head off, she’d finished the diorama as much as she’d wanted to. Then came thoughts of Houston, wishing Aunt Corrine wasn’t dead, thoughts of promises and plans never to be realized. Then it got warm. That must’ve been when she’d fallen asleep. But what did that explain.
Now she was cold, and she didn’t have a pillow or a blanket. She’d have to go inside, and remember to bring them out for tomorrow night.
Someone was shouting. Julia left her bed and walked to the living room. It was dad, on the couch, on the phone. She stood there until he threw the phone at the table. When finally he noticed her he flung himself back on the cushions.
“How come you’re here?”
I’m the parent, so you don’t get to ask that.
“I mean, I thought mom said you were going to Houston.”
Sure she did, because that’s what she wants.
“But I thought Aunt Corrine was . . . sick or something.”
She’s fine, wonderful bitch she is.
Julia headed to the kitchen. When she looked back dad was rubbing his scruff, staring at a stain on the carpet.
She held the doll, stared at the neck, the red ring now pink and smeared. The ink was real. And, yes, the head was attached. Still, there was a thin line around the neck, wavy and irregular, a line right where she’d made the break with her scissor blade. Did she glue it back on? She couldn’t have. No way her glue would’ve worked so well. The answer was obvious. Aunt Corrine was still alive. Julia hadn’t cut the doll’s head off.
Ben on his side of the fence, waving. “Come ohhhhhhhverrrrrr!”
But she knew. She’d cut the head off. She knew it, and she knew it, and here was proof against it. So she was wrong, somewhere. She climbed down from the treehouse.
It happened again as soon as she hopped the fence: that change in the air, like she was on another planet. And her house, covered in tree shade.
“I’ve got a new game for you. It’s called Hoops or Dare.”
“Hoops or Dare?”
“Yeah. If one of us makes a shot and the other misses, then instead of getting penalized like in Donkey you have to do some sort of challenge.”
“Like what kind?”
“Like we got to throw a bucket of water at Victor every time he tried to shoot until he finally got one in. Nothing embarrassing. I promise.”
“Just try it, and if you don’t like it, we’ll do something else, okay?”
Ben shot first and missed. They traded misses for a while until Julia scored first from the free throw line. Ben smiled. “You gonna tell me what I have to do if I miss?”
“Of course not.”
“Not that I’m worried, I shoot a thousand of these every—” Ben’s shot clanged off the rim. “Fuck!” He looked at Julia and froze. “Sorry. You probably don’t swear, do you.”
“I’ve heard them all before.”
“Yeah, but do you swear? Have you ever said one before?” She shook her head. Ben gestured with his hands for her to continue.
Julia set herself, legs straight. “Um . . . fuck. Fuck.” She rolled the word in her mouth, tasted it, her cheeks hot, the word now an echo, a memory, an experience, a rung. She smiled, and Ben nodded.
“Fuck,” he said, smiling.
She wondered whether Ben ever thought of her when they weren’t together, what he was thinking now and why she was even wondering and what did it mean. Ben’s mom thought about her, or so he said, and maybe that made sense because that’s what Moms did, they thought about their kids, they cared for them. Ben stepped towards her and her heart thudded and she noticed another change, a field of flowers on this new planet, he looked so serious, but not, his smile had altered some, she could feel his smile, it wrapped her up, overwhelmed her, it was a relief, she didn’t fight it but let it roll.
“Are you all right?”
Julia cried then, oh such relief, a blessing after those long months of nothing, her head light, she let the tears come, something new, something foreign, a first taste of maybe not happiness but at least a release from sadness, unbearable, she’d felt this way forever it seemed, she couldn't remember anything else, what it felt like not to hurt. Justin was gone and mom and dad might as well be and no friends came over anymore, she had the treehouse now and Justin’s stuff, but that wasn’t enough no, not nearly, Justin was gone, now, gone gone gone and . . . What? Kindness. Ben was kind to her, and that was something, that was everything. That was what she felt. She was opening again.
“Can I ask you a question?” she said, wiping her cheeks on her arms.
Ben gripped the basketball, head down. “Sure.”
“Have you ever had a dream that seemed so real that when you woke up you thought it actually happened?”
“Oh.” He tucked the basketball under his arm. “I don’t think so?”
“I had a dream, I think, that my aunt died, and when I woke up I asked my dad about it, and he said it didn’t happen, that she was still alive. But i know that my mom told me about her funeral in Houston.”
“That’s probably something that could seem real in a dream. Dying I mean.”
“But it wasn’t like my normal dreams. When my mom told me that my aunt was dead, I know I was awake. But my dad says she’s not dead.”
“Maybe your dad’s lying to you.”
“If she’s still alive then you had to dream it, right?” Ben put a hand on her shoulder. Warm, even in the sun. He looked her in the eye. “It’ll be alright. I promise. I’ll help you.”
She didn’t know what to do, what to say, until he pulled her into his toothpick arms. She stayed stiff, unsure, didn’t notice his rabbit heartbeat when pressed up against him, asking herself instead, over and over, what’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with me?
The kitchen faucet was running, and mom was on the floor, holding one hand with the other, crying. Blood seeped out between her fingers.
God, Julia, get me a towel or something.
Julia grabbed a dish towel, a 1956 calendar printed on it. mom stuck out her hand. A gash ran diagonal across her palm. The hand shook, sending blood in all directions, and when Julia touched the hand with the towel, mom hissed.
No no, you need to do it, put it on tight, I can’t, tight as you can.
She wrapped the towel around the hand and pulled it tight.
Oh dammit fuck!
mom’s fingertips went pink to purple to blue to white. Julia wrapped the towel around again, the towel yellow to red.
That should be good. Let me sit for a minute. Hold it on.
Julia cupped her hand around the towel--Ben, Ben, is this real Ben, what’s wrong with me, help me, help me, help
I just need to lie down now. Help me get to the couch.
Julia held mom’s hand as she stood, mom’s legs shaking worse than her hand, her free hand before her as if walking blind. She shuffled forward, the rushing water loud now in Julia’s head, slow, so slow, into the living room and onto the couch.
I need my pills.
Julia rushed back into the kitchen. Where were they? Water rushed over a knife and a cracked pill bottle and something else, a red chunk of something raw in the corner of the sink. There was blood everywhere, sink, counter, and floor, an actual pool of it. Is this real is this real. There was a gash on the side of the bottle, a slice that ended in a jagged dent. Her head swam. She put the bottle on the counter and gripped the edges of the sink. She closed her eyes, the faucet a waterfall, white dots drifting on her eyelids. Then it passed. She opened her eyes. The knife was still there, the pill bottle, the chunk of something red.
Pills! Fucking pills already!
mom was slumped into the couch, her hand limp beside her, as if she’d tried to throw it away.
Put them in my mouth. Five or six.
Julia tilted the bottle over mom’s mouth, a bird feeding her baby. Pills rattled out and Julia watched her mom chew and swallow.
Better. God, better already. Go get the first aid kit in the bathroom.
By the time Julia returned, mom was unconscious. Julia shook her. What’s wrong with her, what’s wrong with dad, what’s wrong with Aunt Corrine? Why did Justin die? Nothing. She took the towel off mom’s hand. It was red and wet and already crust had filled the slash. Blood seeped from the hole of missing flesh. Maybe mom is dreaming maybe I’m just a part of her dream. She spread vaseline over the cut, wrapped it in a bandage, laid the hand back by mom’s side. Now what?
Julia stared out at Ben’s house. Which room was he in? Did his room look like Justin’s? What did Justin’s look like? She couldn’t remember. No more Justin. Not right now. Half an hour ago, mom was still knocked out on the sofa. She couldn’t find dad’s work number anywhere. A flashlight lay on the floor before her, the light cone shining on another box. She’d had an idea earlier, an intuition, a desire to make another diorama. The Aunt Corrine diorama sat in a corner, spent. Her aunt, her dreams, mom’s blood under her fingernails, already the new doll, the mom doll, borrowed from “Family Time,” was dressed in a one-piece ratty outfit, the painted rouge still faint on its cheeks, its hair disheveled. She took a screwdriver and gouged out a piece of plastic from the palm of a hand, left hand, left, a little surprised to see no blood. Red marker then to color in the cut, read all over, the hand almost covered, she got some on her own hands too, but that was fine. That was normal now.
How would this work? What had she done last time? She remembered thinking about Aunt Corrine, wishing her head had never been chopped off, and then there were images, vivid, past and future, playing in the park, driving down to Houston after graduation . . .
Would her life be better if mom had never hurt her hand? mom was alone, just like Julia, and how did mom feel about that? Was it worse to be alone when you were an adult? To have your son die and always need pills, was that worse than feeling alone? Maybe not worse, but both were bad, both had pain, Julia didn’t know, she might know someday when she had a life she couldn’t imagine, but to lose a son, to cut a hand, to not get out of bed for days, to not even want to eat, what was that like, what? Julia put a fingertip on the doll’s cut hand, please mom, get better, please, and she saw mom at the stove with a healthy hand, making dinner, fully dressed, and mom turned from the stove and whispered something into Julia’s ear, a secret, intimate and pure, mom smiling as she whispered, Julia could feel it, It’s so easy being brave, no, that wasn’t it, and now her head throbbed, her jaw muscles ached, her arm throbbed too, she could feel the doll’s hand warming under her finger, please mom please.
“Jooooooollllll . . . “
She looked at the shoebox, the air fresh and cool. Ben’s voice was louder than normal. Was he down below? The scene in the box had mom in it still, the hand still covered in blood, but the shard of plastic she’d carved out to make the wound was back in its original place. She closed an eye and studied the doll’s hand. There were marks on it, definitely, the scratch was still visible, and there were fault lines where the hand had been gouged.
“Hold on!” she called. “I’m coming down!”
Julia jumped, landed on an old frisbee, shattered the black plastic.
“Did you sleep out here last night?”
“I wish I could sleep outside. My parents don’t trust me though.” Julia put her hands in her pockets. “What’s that on your nose? Is that blood? And on your shirt, too!”
Julia felt the stickiness above her lip. “I must’ve bumped it last night. I didn’t feel anything.”
“Come over for breakfast then. We have cereal and stuff. And you can clean up.”
“I have food inside.”
He nodded towards the tree. “You must be almost done up there.”
“I’m not ready to show it to anyone, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Now you’re making me nervous. I still haven’t started.” He looked at her, squinting. “I think tonight you should come over and we can start on mine. After a movie. And maybe popcorn too. I’ll even let m’lady pick the movie.”
Maybe I should run away. Maybe? “Okay, I’ll come over.” Ben smiled, and were his cheeks red? “I have to ask my mom first.” Or do I? Has anyone wondered where I was last night? “I’ll be back in a bit.”
“I’ll wait right here. Yep.”
“But I’m going to have something to eat. And clean up.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Okay, but promise me you won’t go into the treehouse.”
“Yep, yep. Promise.” He smiled, and she smiled back, and the warmth returned, now more familiar, now more intense. She thought about the doll hand, and then Ben’s hand, and how that felt. A daydream? Maybe, but a good one. Normal.
“See you in a bit.”
In the kitchen everything was like it had always been. She kicked her sneakers off to keep the sink from knowing she was coming, because otherwise it wouldn’t be real. But which real would be real, and which real did she want? The sink was empty. No knife, no blood, no chunk of something red. She stuck her head under the faucet, peered at the sink walls. Was that a spot of blood? Where was the towel, the bottle of pills? She looked at the floor. Not clean, but no sign of blood either. She looked at the bottom of her foot. Nothing. She looked for the bloody towel in the garbage, the laundry, underneath the sink, the bathroom, the front lawn even, nothing nothing nothing at all. What did it mean? And where was mom?
Julia opened the bedroom door, waited for her eyes to adjust. It would be there, the cut was real. But what if? On the bed, above the sleeping lump, it was still too dark, she had to risk some light, where was the hand, which one was it. She ran a finger over mom’s hand, tracing the wrinkles in the palm, wrinkles that seemed familiar, unblemished, uncut. mom rolled over and groaned.
Get out of here. I don’t want you here.
“I’m not dad,” Julia said.
mom rolled away, pulling the comforter with her. Julia shuffled across the carpet, that old trick again, close that door.
“Joooooliaaaa, your diorama is so cooooooooliaaaaaa . . . “
Julia sprinted across the yard and took the rungs two by. Ben sat next to her boxes, legs crossed, back to her. “Let’s go swim at the poooooooliaaaa, don’t make me a f—”
“What are you doing?”
He spun around. “Oh man, busted.” He lowered his head, a slight smile. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you with my singing.” He looked at the shoeboxes. “I don’t know why you didn’t want me to see these, they’re better than I—”
“But you promised!”
“I know, I know, but then I thought you might’ve really wanted me to look, which is why you made me promise, because one of these might’ve been about—”
“No! Get out! Now!
“I’m sorry. Honest. Really. I didn’t—”
“I don’t care! Just go!”
Ben’s head sagged. He watched Julia scooping all her shoeboxes towards her. “Okay.” He walked past her, slow, keeping her distance, a magnet only allowed so close to the opposite pole, down the rungs, across the yard, head still down, jumped the fence, into his house.
Was it really so bad he’d looked? Should she have instead explained herself to him? She’d already talked to him about dreams. Make sure Ben didn’t get the wrong idea about them, like she was going to hurt herself. What if he told his parents? What if mom and dad found out? Or the police? The hair on her arms was up. Everything was ruined. She raised her leg to smash the shoebox, but stopped. What else did she have anymore other than her dioramas? Nothing, just like her, a long string of zeros. If she destroyed her dioramas, how would she know what was real? She would smash them all, soon, burn them even, and maybe the treehouse, and that would feel good, but for now, she had to know, had to find out one way or other what was real. Justin’s room. That might help her figure things out. If only she was brave enough.
Julia walked the trees’s shadow trail back to her house. Justin’s room, Justin’s room, I can do it, into the kitchen, Justin’s room, Justin was real, I am real--
mom was in the living room, bent over the back of the couch, ratty nightgown bunched up around her waist, and dad behind her, slamming into her back, grunt, sweat, his eyes closed, his hands on her hips, mom looking into the couch with glassy eyes, her hands running the sides of the middle cushion, dad slapping away, then mom’s head jerked and she grunted, too, a triumph, a hand springing from the couch with a familiar orange bottle.
Hey sto-op that for a mi-inute. mom yanked at the cap.
Shuh huh, dad said.
His pants and shoes were in a pile on the floor. The bottle cap popped and pills flew out. mom dropped the bottle and shoved back against dad, sending him stuttering back, now exposed to Julia, red, swollen.
The cover popped. mom scrabbled at the couch to pluck up the pills with her vacuum hands, and pop them in her mouth, no scabs, no scars. Then dad slammed into her again, mom distracted by the search, dad then looking at Julia, looking right through her, his eyes greasy, vacant and blue, and Julia turned and ran from the house.
No more Ben. She didn’t want to involve him in her problems. That was too much to ask. She wanted to be alone, like she’d been most of the time, live forever in the treehouse, never go back to mom and dad.
Leave me alone! Wasn’t it obvious that was what she wanted? The fence rattled. Ben yelled, then a fleshy thud, a squish-snap, distinct, sonorous, then Ben yelled again, louder, and now he was crying. Ow! Ow ow ow ow ow! God, why now? Why did this have to happen?
Justin was real. Justin.
She wiped the tears from her cheeks. Fumbled down the rungs, Ben still crying, his mom by his side, crying along with him, the fence rattling and rattling, his father there, now, telling Ben softly he’d be okay. Julia’s heart pounded and her legs shook, her hands on the rung with Justin’s name while Ben’s father caressed Ben’s head, saying, it’s all right, it’s all right and Julia jumped down and turned and ran from it all.
Julia stirred her cereal. The pepper mill stood alone in the center of the stained table.
Nice mess you made, mom said as she plodded in. Having boys sneak over in the dark? You think I don’t know what that’s about?
Couches and flying pills. Julia stared at the pepper mill.
Jesus F, now that kid’s got a broken arm, and it’s whose fault? God, my fucking head wants to explode! I can’t deal with this. Can’t! Your ass is punished. mom rubbed her head, her eyes slits. And you’ll find out just how bad when your father gets home. Just go outside. I can’t even look at you right now.
She’d already thought Ben’s broken arm was her fault, and now to hear mom say it too. She felt heavy, couldn’t even move. If she hadn’t yelled at Ben. If she told him the truth. If she’d been stronger.
But she could fix this. Couldn’t she?
She worked straight through the morning, despite the heat, the sweat, the outside world, the boys next door shooting hoops, Ben with a cast she tried to copy as best she could for her boy doll, breaking off its arm and patching it back together with a gluey wet paper cast. The boy doll lay by the fence she’d drawn on the side wall, the father doll kneeling over the boy, the mother doll standing by the fence, a black circle O drawn over the thin red prepackaged doll lips, one hand to her cheek and the other holding a raisin phone. This diorama wasn’t nearly as good as her first two, not nearly as thorough, but she didn’t think that mattered.
She ripped off wads of toilet paper and stuffed them up each of her nostrils. Each breath now nervous, gasping, knowing what would come, hot, hot and hopeful, this would work. She didn’t have any power. She couldn’t make this one right. It was a dream. You’re just a dream.
No. This would work. Watch and see. Even if she’d only imagined Ben breaking his arm, and this could make it better, then what did it matter?
Immediately her head pulsed, her stomach turned sour. It was going to work. There was nothing for it to work on that warm sensation when she brought Ben to mind, unbroken. Ben’s arms, and she was warm, and she felt like she was going to faint, dinner, movie, definitely not a date! not yet, Ben, Ben, light-headed now, focused on Ben, focused on his arm, m’arm m’lady, and she heard her face hit something.
Blood glued her face to the floor. She touched her nose, the paper wads in her nostrils squishy. Her head felt awful. She never wanted to eat again.
Her blood had made its way to the base of the box, a patch on the bottom now rust brown. The inside looked clean. She picked up the Ben doll and ripped off the cast. The plastic arm was whole, a thin fracture line running around the circumference of the forearm. The dad doll still held its kneeling pose, but the mom doll’s black mouth was gone, the original smile there. She tugged at the arm. It was solid. It was whole.
Was that proof? She needed to see Ben. She would wait. And watch.
She scratched flecks of dried blood off her face. A car droned by. Justin. Would he have the courage to confront mom and dad? Would he believe he had the power to change reality, to make things whole, would he believe in the power to heal? Why couldn’t it have been her? Why did mom and dad ignore her? Was she worth less than him? She was alone. No friends, no relatives, no brother parent aunt, useless. Where was he? She looked at his driveway. Only one car there. Didn’t they have two? Ben’s dad probably worked, but what if they were on vacation? But how could they be on vacation if he had broken his arm two days ago? If he hadn’t broken his arm, if nothing had happened, they could be on vacation. They could’ve left last night, or this morning, any time. Did he break his arm? Did Aunt Corrine cut her hand, did mom get decapitated? Did Justin die or even ever live? A spider slid down a single string of web outside the window. What if she was the only person alive? If this was a dream, why did it hurt? It’s not brave to be easy. Who had said that? Her classmates at school had avoided her since December, a leper with a dead brother, chosen last for everything, games, meals, what was real?
It was time then. Justin’s room.
Julia left skidprints in the dust. No one had been down this hallway in over half a year. Not since mom made Julia go get Justin’s suit.
It was a room full of dust and faded colors, but it was Justin’s. Clothes, books, baseball bat, all of it his. She smelled his pillow and a t-shirt and went through his drawers, tossing everything here and there—red shirts, notes written in floral cursive, socks and socks and deep in a sock a switchblade, and still she pulled all from the drawers and then the desk and the closet too, boxes and boxes of games, and under his bed dirty clothes and fast food wrappers, she pulled and pulled until there was no more.
Here, then, was Justin. Had been. Justin, Justin, dead, not dead, a ghost, no, real, at least once. But what if she was the dead one? What if she was a ghost or a dream? What if she was the one who didn’t belong?
And then she knew what she would do. Through the piles she scrapped and searched, there had to be stuff small enough, a pair of shorts with a drawstring and a t-shirt, yes, from when he was younger. She put the clothes on, but something was still missing. The ball cap! That went on too, backwards, just like always.
She was Justin now. She was he, and he was alive.
She sprinted through the house, looking for Mom and Dad.
What would they do? Hug him, kiss him, kindness, kind words, for him, for each other, loving things, words of warmth, hope, a family again, a child again, not an outcast. But the rooms were all empty. Someone had to be in the bedroom at least. The room was dark and an old fear seized her, followed by a voice: You’re Justin now, I am Justin. Not afraid. She flipped the light switch. The bed was empty, its comforter bunched up at the foot. She ran to the window. Two cars in the drive. She hadn’t checked the basement or the attic, though when she did they were the same—empty. That left only the backyard.
The fence, the yard, Ben’s yard, it all stood empty, unblemished. She couldn’t see or hear so much as a dog, a car, a mailman, a squirrel, a bird, a mosquito. She was. Alone.
Julia fell to the ground with her brother’s shorts and backwards cap, her blood-stained face, wanting only to cry, but she couldn’t because she was empty. She was someone else’s dream. Justin was gone again, faded back into shriveled invisible Julia, a ghost, a dreamer, a red second hand, a nobody, a nothing.
The treehouse, then. The diorama. The answer. Right over pain, life over not.
“Family Time” was still empty. She searched amongst her scattered things, the kitchen table, three chairs, the three dolls transformed back from Ben’s mom and dad and Ben to Justin’s mom and dad and Justin. With some quick marker work, she made the three dolls smile. She sat them at the table, she heard the laughter as Justin talked about his accident during his driving test, the scene was so real, a family once more, and Julia felt it, the loss, the loss of family, the loss of belonging, the loss of self. Then it was gone, and she was empty, she was at peace, right over pain, she was ready, it’s so easy to be brave when you don’t exist, and hours from now Ben would climb into the treehouse and scream and scream, he would understand eventually she thought, her body curled up around a box called “Family TIme,” protected, Justin, Mom, Dad, her hands almost touching, circled on the floor around a box, a life, a circle almost whole but for one flaw, she closed her eyes and pressed herself forward, her core, and she felt the blood flow from her nose and eyes and ears and her heart, one thought only, the answer, the prize, only one thought, please please let Justin be alive please God don’t let him be her heart beating infinitely fast, finite beats with no space between, a potential now come to pass, the blood running down her chest the last thing she felt thinking, Justin Justin Justin