The summer after my sister died, I went to music camp in Western Maryland, one state over. By then I was eleven. Maybe that summer, my parents let me go to camp because they felt sorry for me, or they wanted to be rid of me, wanted to be alone with their grief. I’d never gone before. The night my sister died, my brother and I had been alone in the house with her. My parents thought that would be fine. For some reason she had gone out, and she hadn’t ever returned. She took my parents’ other car, and crashed into a guardrail. She was sixteen, had gotten her license perhaps a week prior. Leaving us alone, that was uncharacteristic of my parents.
That year, my brother, Daniel, would sit at the dinner table and not eat. He would grab the fork and eat only three frantic bites. One night, he carved a hole in the wall in his closet, and slid things into it. He cut off all his eyelashes with a pair of kitchen scissors. He destroyed a bike. He would scream insults down the hall at my father and mother but at neither of them, at it, at the hallway, the linen closet, the brown carpet, at nowhere, at everywhere. His voice high-pitched, damaged. My father would yell back, roaring, and I would see delirium. A bent bike frame. On a snow day, my brother threw a clump of ice at a boy from the neighborhood. The boy threw one back, and my brother got four stitches. It was a double deal. At night, he sometimes would wake, and vomit in a panic. Then he would apologize. I have a theory. I have a theory now that he was trying show us that it was impossible to die. He was trying to prove that, despite our best efforts, we will survive to see the ruin.
If I wanted to disappear, he wanted to cut himself to pieces.
The morning they drove me to camp, my father, in the car, was almost jovial. Lying in the back seat, watching the stream of a telephone wire passing overhead, I had the sense that I could be the new girl. Someone would say the name of my school as though it was an exotic word. My father’s mood persisted, with my brother next to me, headphones in his ears, until we were on the road, and a pickup wouldn’t move as he tried to merge onto the highway.
“Jackass,” he said. Then it was as it usually was, and he was sullen, he and my mother, staring silently out the
At the camp, there were kids who had been there for two, three weeks already. We drove up a hill past the pool, past tennis courts with sagging nets. My mother went with me to register, into the building that was like a barn, with translucent panels for a ceiling, letting in a shallow daylight that seemed to pool everywhere. There was a main room like a gymnasium, and a dining hall. A counselor showed us upstairs to the bunk room. Then my mother planted a kiss on the part of my hair, and left. The bunks had all been pushed together, into two longs sets, making what felt like a couple of train box cars. A room with almost forty beds. I had a top bunk on an end, near the door, far from the windows. The one least desired. The girl next to me had pink sheets and bunions on her feet and was a foot taller than I was.
I climbed into my bunk and put my sleeping bag down, accidentally putting my foot on the pink sheets.
“Your mattress is kinda stiff,” I said to her.
“I like it that way,” she said. “I had yours before but I hated it.”
She lay back with one hand on her forehead like she had a fever. The feeling of potential I’d held in the car, even as my father gripped the steering wheel, evaporated. A weight descended on the place like a thunderstorm about to roll through. I went into the bathroom at the end of the long room. There were no lights in the showers, hung with thick blue curtains. A brown stain covered one corner, like the paint had been vaporized.
At dinner that night, I waited in line holding the plastic cafeteria tray, the color of sour milk, the girl with the bunions standing ahead of me. I sat with her even though she hadn’t looked at me. Another girl sat next to me, her bangs forming an arch on her forehead.
“Nora got a letter today!” she said. I realized she was talking about herself. “You’re too new to get letters,” she said to me. “What instrument do you play? I play sax.”
“I wrote Matt a letter,” the girl with the bunions said.
Nora leaned to me and quietly said, “One of the other boys has a crush on Sabrina, but she likes Matt.”
“Wow,” I said, although I didn’t know any of them. “I play clarinet. I like the sax.”
That night Nora taught me to play a card game where you had to slap all the jacks. She was tiny, but already she was curvy, her hips forming a bell on the bench as we sat, the lights on overhead, moths batting the fluorescent tubes. I heard one of the female counselors say to one of the male counselors, I can’t make myself love you, I just don’t love you.
For some, it was that summer. That summer he had his arm around your waist and you walked in the dark with the breeze of insects and he whispered. That summer you all fell asleep in the afternoon before dinner, that languid hour with the smell of grass drying, your swimsuits on. That summer it rained and got your towels wet on the clothesline. That summer you exchanged addresses, and when school started, there was a letter. For me it was that summer of those girls. I have no memory of the boys at that place. They were a forest of skinny legs and battered saxophones, electric guitars, lacrosse sticks. I remember only the one counselor, so blonde and tan that he glowed, untouchably, unreally handsome. I remember a bricolage of objects and surfaces. The polished concrete floor in that half-warehouse, half-barn building where everything was spilled—pipe cleaners, string, an entire bucket of beads one afternoon. The cheap ice cream, strawberry a medicinal pink, sand from the ant farm, sheet music from the band practice that took place every afternoon, cables from the jazz band amps, folding music stands. The girls were not the band kids I knew from home. Those kids wore shirts with music jokes printed on them. They were overweight, or impossibly skinny. These girls were fashionable, they had sunglasses and cover-ups that matched their swimsuits. They were twelve, or thirteen. The only one who resembled the kids from home was Becky, one of the counselors, who had a triangular bob and wore heavy brown sandals. She admired my clarinet. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. She gave me the private lessons the camp fee entitled me to.
At the end of the week there would be band performances and a recital. She picked a duet by Faure that I would play at the recital, even though all the music there was not that sort of music. It was Red River Valley, or the theme from Superman. At home, I was last chair. On Tuesday the band director moved me to the front, that man who ran the camp and had long white hair that flopped when he waved his baton. When he counted rest measures, he laid his arms across his belly. The great American composer, John Williams, he said.
Later, at the pool, I lingered by Nora. Sabrina shrieked at me from the water. “Get off my towel!” she said. I scooted farther away, up the pebbled grassy hill. Nora looked over her shoulder at me.
“I wasn’t on her towel,” I said.
“She’s just mad about Matt again,” Nora said, and ran and jumped in the pool, and I went too. But she drifted away to the diving board, but I was too scared, and got out. At night, in the bunk’s bathroom, brushing our teeth, she said, “You got a tan!” I poked my shoulders with my fingers. I could never become the golden color that she was. We looked at each other in the mirror, then we sat in the bunks until lights out, Nora picking at her toes. “I’ll be thirteen next month,” she said. “Then my mom will let me shave my legs.”
The next day I played the Faure duet with Becky outside, under some trees, our feet on pine needles. “More!” she said. She sang along as I played my part. When we were finished, she said, “Good, very good. Just watch your control. So who did you ask to play the other part in the recital?”
I just stared at her, the sunlight catching the dust in the air, the sound of drums being played wafting out of the main building. I squeezed the tips of my fingers into the holes in my clarinet.
“You didn’t ask anyone to play the other part?”
“No,” I said. “There isn’t anyone to ask.”
She let a long trail of air out of her mouth, exhaling, like a practice breath.
“I could skip it,” I said.
She raised her flute, resting it against her chin, like it belonged there. I didn’t really want to skip it. I wanted to show the other kids that I was the best one there. At least I would have that.
“I’ll play it,” she said, and she sighed, this time a loose, sloppy breath. I wanted to hug her, even though she didn’t want to play it, and I stared into the music stand so she wouldn’t see my face. On the picnic table, before dinner, Nora and I played cards. When I won, she said, you cheat, and kicked her heels at the mulch.
* * *
The last night, Friday, arrived. The next day was the recital. After dinner, as the sun slipped behind the tops of the trees, a cloud bank the color of ash rolled in. They were calling for rain. At the end of dinner, tables cleared, noise of clattering dishes drifting from the kitchen, the director stood and presented some awards. Most improved woodwind, most improved brass. The girls screamed, working themselves into a frenzy. The counselors cheered. He said how proud he was, how well he was sure everyone would do at the performances the next day. Some of the girls began to sniffle. In the air hung the smells of the meal. Browned beef. Bread, melted cheese, spaghetti sauce. When everyone clapped, I clapped, but I felt silly doing it. The girls were all upset, or ecstatic.
The director patted his hands toward the floor, asking for the applause to die down.
“Now,” he said. “They’re calling for rain. We planned to show the movie tonight outside on the hill. Do we want to cancel?”
Everyone screamed, No.
“Okay,” he said. “But if there is lightning, and if there is pouring rain, everyone has to be back in here the minute we say so. That’s the deal. No buts!” And he waved his hand, index finger pointed at the ceiling.
The blonde counselor came in, wearing a windbreaker and carrying a flashlight.
* * *
After the speeches, a ruckus broke out. Some of the boys ran around the balcony by the bunk rooms. The doors to the outside opened, slammed, opened, slammed. I walked around looking for anyone, maybe Becky.
I went to the bunk room and most of the girls were there, fussing with clothes, makeup. The counselors were gone. The sky had darkened, the trees turned to a black abyss. I lingered near my bunk, under the fluorescent light, packing my things. My jean shorts. My tube of sunscreen. My flip flops. My bathing suit. I went to the bathroom. Girls were looking in the mirrors, doing their faces, their hair.
“Aren’t you going to do your hair, Katie?” somebody said.
“Should I do my hair?” I said.
“That’s what we always do on the last night,” a blonde girl said. “It’s the last night, so you want to look good on the last night.”
I caught my reflection in the mirror. My bangs had become puffy from the heat, like a brown muffin. I’d pulled the rest away from my face with a barrette. My hair was so long that it was often caught under my arms. My curl was uneven, some limp. In the fluorescent light, it looked inky. My chin bumped out at the bottom. None of the girls were looking at me, they peered at themselves in the mirror. They looked angry. My chin had a crease, a cleft the width of a hair. For a moment I saw my father’s chin, his brushed in black stubble. I had his chin.
“I wasn’t going to do my hair,” I said.
She glared at me. “I was just asking,” she said.
“I could get my hairbrush,” I said.
It was silent, except for brushing, the tapping of bobby pins against the sink edge. I didn’t know how to do my hair. I used a barrette. That was how my mother did it. I took the barrette out, felt the shift in my scalp. It had been in my hair all day. I gathered it back up in its tight mass. I had never noticed my chin before. But now I did. For the first time I saw it—I began looking at my face the way they looked at theirs. Its bump, that crease, and I saw something ugly.
I went to the stall, locked the door behind me. They could all hear, hear the sound of me urinating. When I was finished I went to the sink at the end, where no one was using the mirrors, and washed my hands with the slimy bar of soap, squeezing my wrists.
As I left, someone slammed the door ahead of me, and although I pulled my hand away, the tips of my fingers were caught. A stab of pain ran up my hand, my arm. I tried to be silent, but I yelped anyway. A flash of heat rose to my face, and although I didn’t turn around, I knew they were all staring at me. I pulled the door open and Nora was there. She wore a windbreaker five sizes too big for her, so it covered her shorts. I held my hand with my other hand. She had slammed the door. She snapped her head away, ponytail flipping, flashed me a look.
I caught a glimpse in her eye, like remorse. Although I couldn’t have named it then. It was something that would become remorse later. She’d only have my face to think of when she thought of that moment, later in her life, only me to witness that she hadn’t apologized.
The movie’s starting! someone said. The girls all ran out, clattering down the wooden staircase, and I followed. Outside, the kids were assembling on the hill, jumping in front of the screen, their shadows Rorschach tests. I stood near the doorway, the light from the main building shining outward behind me, my shadow on the ground. Above me the projector sat at the top of a wooden staircase, one of the counselors fiddling with it. With a wobbling blare the film began, the sound bouncing around the trees. The kids hooted. The girls sat in clusters on the grass, their ponytails sticking up.
Becky came up behind me. “Aren’t you going to watch?” she said.
“I guess so,” I said.
She wandered down and I followed. We sat near the top of the hill, I on her left. I felt better, I was watching the movie with someone. The floodlights over the tennis courts switched off. I could hear the switches flip, a powerful mechanical sound that echoed over the movie. One by one, the floodlights went off, the tennis court disappearing into the black. Then we were all lit by the flickering of the movie, shining around every blade of grass. Over the sound of the movie, still, was the sound of insects devouring the darkness.
We watched for a while. On the screen, the characters walked through a corn field with a setting sun overhead. Then Becky got up and left, without a word. I saw Nora ahead of me, gazing down the hill, not watching the movie. The blonde counselor stood near the row of hedges that bordered the trees. He still carried the flashlight. The pine needles felt like a stiff carpet under my legs.
He took a few steps from where he was standing, and sat in the grass. Then Nora got up, her back to me, and sat next to him.
A gust of wind blew, which I heard before I felt, the sounds of leaves moving as though in waves. I shivered. On the screen, there were baseball players in crisp uniforms, carrying bats.
The tune of the duet began to run through my head, and I thought of my father’s hands, gripping the steering wheel, and although the melody was light, almost playful, the sound of it in my mind made me feel afraid. That gust of wind that seemed to last forever, blew the darkness around. I stared into the branches, moving in the darkness beyond the flickering screen.
When I looked back, the blonde counselor—Mark, his name was Mark, I remember it now—was lying on his back. His knees were bent, his feet on the grass. Nora was reclining next to him, resting her head on her hand, leaning on her elbow. She was touching his thigh, above the hem of his shorts. How tan he was, perhaps he had a tan line there somewhere. She was stroking the hair on his leg. Running it through the tips of her fingers. He lay there, his hand pressed against his face, across his eyes, his mouth. It lasted for what seemed like hours.
“Do you want me to stop?” I heard Nora say. She asked like it was a serious question. Maybe she thought he was in pain. He might have looked like he was. Under his hand, in the flickering light, I could see he was wincing.
“No,” he said.
“I could stop if you wanted me to,” she said.
He shook his head.
I looked behind me. There was no one there. No one could see. The door to the main building was closed, a seam of light from inside leaking around its edges.
When I looked back, I saw him lift his other hand, and slide it beneath his belt. He let his knees fall slightly open, his one hand pasted against his face, the other working at whatever was there.
I was sitting so close to them. It was as though I was invisible.
I felt tears start to well. I got up and opened the door to the barn. I squinted in the bright light, at the empty room. I wanted to find Becky. I went upstairs to the bunk room.
The light was off. Maybe someone was asleep in there—but no, I thought, they’re all at the movie. I couldn’t find the light switch.
All of a sudden I felt something move on the floor. Like a shaft of air. But something else. Like someone’s hair, passing through the air, pricking my legs. I froze. On the wall, there was a shadow. It hung on the blank wall between the two windows. In the shadow was a face. It seemed almost perfectly formed. A man, bearded, the shapes of leaves all around him, as though in a forest, and he wore a hood. The two eyes were black, from corner to corner.
My breath caught in my throat. The face seemed to move, twist. The air in my lungs released. I felt my limbs unfreeze, and I ran back to the main room and outside again.
The light from the movie was almost entirely white, the crowd still. A ball player swung at a ball, and a crack sounded. There was a hammering in my chest. I searched through the crowd. Nora and the counselor were gone. I found Sabrina sitting with the other girls.
And although they hated me, although they wished I was not there, I went to them and sat, the sound of the movie washing over me. Sabrina turned and stared at me. I guess I must have half-smiled. Her face didn’t move, a halo of light from the film around her head.
I would have done anything for someone to simply look at me and let me see their face change into anything other than a mask. I stayed until the movie ended, and we all filed inside. I wasn’t going back inside the bunk room unless the lights were on. Unless someone was with me.
* * *
Back inside, everyone lingered around the main room for a long time. All the counselors seemed to be gone. I sat on a bench, shivering, my hands jammed in my pockets. I was freezing. The door to the outside was open, and the wind rose and fell. There was only one counselor, who finally began shouting at everyone to get to bed.
At last they went to the bunk. I followed, only after seeing that the light was on. Inside there was noise, pillows being thrown, laughing. I sat on my bunk with all my clothes on, my jacket on. I looked at the spot where the shadow had been, and there was nothing.
“What’s wrong with you,” Sabrina said.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Why are you sitting there like that?” I opened my mouth to speak, but she began talking to someone else. I felt in my face that I
had turned my mouth into the false smile I had worn all week.
Nora came in. She looked perfectly normal, like nothing had happened. She was wagging her arms by her sides, the sleeves of the jacket dangling over her hands. She tilted her head to one side, and there was none of the meanness of earlier, only a sleepy, wavering look on her face. I almost said hi, like nothing was wrong, and nearly began to cry. My fingers felt tangled.
At last Becky came in, telling everyone to go to sleep.
“No more talking,” she said.
I rolled myself into the sleeping bag, tried to close my eyes and not open them again. Although I had to go to the bathroom, I just lay there, clenched. Though my closed lids, I saw the light change—Becky had turned off the lights.
“Lights OFF,” she said. “Don’t make me explain one more time what that means.”
For a long while, there was murmuring in the darkness. I tried to listen to it, I tried to hold on to that sound.
“Girls,” Becky said.
The talking stopped and there was only the sound of breathing. In the night, I heard the long, low roll of thunder. Slowly, it came closer. Beneath the thunder I thought I heard the sound of an object hitting something, glass, breaking. Of footsteps. As though someone were going quickly, about to break into a run. It was under me, not from outside, but not from inside. As though from the space in the floorboards. Perhaps it was only in my mind. The wind moved through the trees, and at last, it rained, and somehow, at last, although I do not know how, I fell asleep.
* * *
What do I remember about that morning? It was cold. The sort of cold where you’d freeze in a shadow. The clarinet case. The sheet music, its cover the green of a still river. I try to get my memory to start in a particular spot. It seemed that someone was missing. Maybe someone had gone home early, skipped the recital. That wasn’t the point, anyway. The counselors were on edge, maybe it was only that the parents would arrive today, everyone under scrutiny, the kids sad to leave.
I start here: A vinegary taste in my mouth; a reed with a chip in its feathery edge. I had to hold a new one under my tongue, although it never seemed to soften, waiting for my turn to play. I was tucked in the crowd, assembled on the tennis court in the thin sun. I kept watching the hillside for my parents to appear. Kids, holding brass saxophones, guitars. There must have been a dozen short songs played by others, but I do not remember them. The quilt of people shifted on the hillside, some hidden by the chipping green chain link fence, the links obscuring their faces. Dozens of happy adults in windbreakers. My father would want to stay near the back. My mother would cross her arms, leaning off to one side, her leather purse strap gripped in one hand. They didn’t make a fuss over things. They were punctual.
But they were not there.
Becky came up to me, dashing across the tennis court during a round of applause.
“Up next,” she said.
Then I was pinching the reed in the clarinet’s ligature, and I was in front, the green sheet music cover staring back at me. The crowd was a fidgeting mass. We stood there for some long seconds. Becky was waiting for me to open the sheet music.
I thought if I waited just one more moment, they would arrive. They would be there, and my mother would see me, she would even lift one hand from the strap of her purse to wave, and I would know that they were listening. But I could only hold the clarinet, hold that vinegary taste in my mouth, my fingers on the keys, touching them all at once, as though they held in some secret, trapping it inside.
I saw Becky’s soft, pasty arm reach to open the music. She began to tap her foot, hard, loudly. She counted. Two, and, three, and. I could feel my fingers unfreeze, and we both breathed in, and we began.
And although it lasted only a moment, I played it perfectly. That was the time, that one time it occurs, effortlessly. As though gliding on ice. I barely needed the music. Becky left her line, momentarily, to flip the page, and I heard the sound of my solitary playing, rise up into the trees, and I wished it would hang there forever.
* * *
It was over. I was among the first to get all my things down from the bunk. I did not need to wait for my parents to converse with the counselors, or the director, who came up to me as the recital finished and said, Well done. Will we see you next year? You have to come for three weeks next year! I didn’t linger and say goodbye to the other kids or write any addresses on scraps of paper. Nora left with her parents; that was the last time I saw her. I sat on the picnic table outside the main hall, with all my things, waiting. The day grew warmer as I waited, watching the cars reverse and turn around in the gravel parking lot, the sound of stone being crushed under the tires, people running up and down the wooden staircase slowly dwindling until I was last.
As I sat I grew angry. I squeezed my wrists and pressed my arms into my stomach. I wanted to crack something. Tiny quivering magnets caught at the ends of my fingers. I stared at my shoes, my white sneakers with bright blue laces. They were too loose. They were foolish.
I don’t remember being the last one for very long. One of the counselors must have talked to me, something friendly, perhaps asking me if I wanted to call my parents. But she made me uneasy. I wanted Becky, but even she was gone.
When they arrived, my mother got out of the car without her purse; this meant that we were not staying. She was wearing culottes and she’d clipped her hair up on the back of her head. My father had a crease in the side of his mouth that I recognized, one that formed when all the muscles in his face became pinched, from whatever was searing inside his mind. My brother was in the back seat. I could see his sandy hair, the color of my mother’s, mashed against the window. My father stood with the driver’s door open, waiting for my brother. He was waiting for him to get out, waiting to click the automatic door locks. He didn’t turn. I could see only the back of his head, his hair black as iron.
He would want me to stand up and bring my things, but I sat, watching them, waiting for them to come to me. My mother waved to me and smiled.
My brother got out. He was holding a model rocket. He was barely older than I was, had entered the grade ahead of me by a short time. At times I looked at him and saw so much of myself that I was frightened.
“Dad,” he said. “What about down there?” He pointed at the small open field beyond the parking lot.
“Too many trees,” my father said.
My brother raised the rocket aloft, mocking its blast-off. “Power systems—on!” he called.
They walked slowly toward the picnic table, my father putting his keys into his pocket and rattling the change that was in there, his arm stiffly against his side. I knew it was worse that they had arrived so late. If they had arrived earlier, when more of the other parents were around, they could have disappeared into the crowd. But now one or two of the counselors seemed to descend from nowhere, like vultures, squawking at my parents. My mother was nice to the counselor, cheerful.
“We had a little mishap at home,” she said. Then I saw—something had come loose that morning at home. She was pretending nothing was amiss.
“Did you have a good time?” my mother said, her smile a flat shape.
“Did you have a good time?” the counselor asked. Even then I knew to behave like a child. My father cast a glance at the counselor, his face in a kind of rictus. His thin arms were tan. I wish I could have acted not like a child. I didn’t feel like a child, I wish I could have acted instead without that falseness.
“Yes I did!” I replied.
My father paced away, back toward the car.
“Ready to go?” my mother said.
I got my things and my father unlocked the trunk. He wouldn’t let me put them inside myself, he took each and put it inside in his own way, even though the trunk was empty and clean. Wispy dark hairs on his hands brushed the bottoms of his knuckles, his fingers, stretched open to reach for the handles of my bags.
The counselor said, “Is this your dad, Katie?”
Beyond the car, my brother was shuffling the rocks under his feet, his hand gripping the rocket behind his back. He looked listlessly out into the field, into the sky, as if imagining how it would appear, breaking into a cloud of orange. I caught his eye, and his look threw scissors at me. His eyes their hollow green brown, like the bottom of a stream.
His look said, say something, you dumb mule.
“This is my husband, Bill,” said my mother. My father nodded, lifted his hand, shook it, resembling a wave. “We should be going,” he said to my mother.
The counselor said a farewell to my mother, and we were all slamming doors and fidgeting with the seat belts and the air conditioning, and it was though we were hermetically sealed in there, and the familiarity of them all and the car, with its brown stain in the back seat from a spilled drink, felt strange. My father drove down the road quickly.
I watched the trees drift by. A feeling nagged at me. It occurred to me what it was, and I thought for a long time about it. I could say something and make us turn around. I almost said nothing. We almost did not turn around. By then we were on the main road, back to pavement.
“Dad,” I said. “Dad.”
My mother turned around. “What is it, Katie.”
“I forgot my sleeping bag.” She exhaled gently and said to my father, “I guess we better stop.”
My father drove on for a few moments before he, too, let air out of his nose, until finally he said, “Okay.”
He stopped in the middle of the road. He clicked the shifter into reverse and began turning the car around.
“Bill,” my mother said. “Bill.”
He stopped making the turn to answer her.
“What?” he said.
“Someone could hit us. Couldn’t you turn around on the shoulder?” Her voice was panicked.
“What shoulder?” he said. “There’s no shoulder.”
“Or, I mean, on the side of the road.”
“I’m already half turned,” he said. “What do you want me to do now? I can’t stop in the middle, can I?”
“All right,” she said. She sat back in her seat. My brother was leaning his head on the heel of his hand, his elbow on the ledge of the backseat window. I felt as though a loop was forming in the air above me. The carry of his shoulders was hunched.
My father finished the turn, very slowly, it seemed. We returned to the building.
We passed a car exiting. “Don’t run me off the road,” said my father.
He stopped the car and left it running.
“Can you get out and get it?” my mother said. We could not have been gone long, but it was as though the place had been abandoned. As I walked to the main building, the car, my family inside, shrinking behind me. Under the canopy of the trees that led to the side entrance, the light was dappled. A piece of sheet music lay on the ground, trampled.
The wind blew and the sun disappeared. Without warning, it was gray. I turned the corner around the side of the building. On the gray flagstones, sunken into the grass, was a bird, red in its wings. I startled, and it rose; I heard the tips of its wings, its claws, against the stone. The sound evaporated.
I pushed open the side entrance. The cavern of a room was empty, the doors of the far entrance thrown open. The chairs were stacked in corners, the tables and benches gone. Suddenly the sun returned. Light streamed through the translucent panels in the ceiling. A bright light shone in a rectangle onto the concrete floor. As though the light had stepped down from above and placed its foot there—a living light.
Something was in the room with me. I couldn’t move. A scraping sound came from somewhere, as though a piece of paper were being dangled, gently, from string, against a brick. A gust of wind blew through the doors, the sound of leaves so loud I thought it would deafen me. Then it was still once again.
I thought of them in the car. I felt afraid that something was hurting them. But I couldn’t move. I am not sure how, but I took one step, and I heard a voice. I am certain I did. The light in that room was frozen, the sounds trembling in the air. I listened, and I felt something I could only describe as a pressure. Like someone was blowing a steady breath against my temple.
I heard the distant noise of a car door opening and closing. The sound made me able to move again. Then it was gone. Whatever was there had moved and changed. I saw the sleeping bag. It had been rolled up into its neat pod. It was sitting just at the base of the stairs. I ran for it and took it into my arms, ran out.
On the path leading back to the parking lot, my father was there. The day’s heat was building, I could feel it, he looked flushed. I caught a pang of the kindness that he showed at times. An empty, gentle look on his face, his mouth an o. A look I remembered, when we were too little to tie our own shoes, and he had to do it for us. I wanted him to run and pick me up. But then his face changed, his mouth flattened and the crease on the side of his face appeared. He walked toward me. He always walked with a light touch, as though he had no weight. His feet brushed the stones.
He took a step backward, his heel catching a loose stone. He looked down, and kicked it away. He held the car keys, twisting them in his hand. I wanted to say, please help me.
“What are you waiting for, Katie?” he said. “We’ve been running late all day.” He waved his arm. “Come on.”.
I saw his chin, my chin, that cleft like the border drawn on a map, and it was my sister’s chin too, and I had to swallow the tears that had puddled in my throat, and he waited for me to walk ahead. There was a coldness coming off of him as I passed. As we walked to the car, I heard his light footsteps behind me, his breathing, angry.
By the car, under the trees, my mother stood. “You ready?” she said. “You want to put that in the trunk?”
I shook my head, got in the car and slammed the door.
My father already had his knuckles wrapped around the steering wheel. “Is there anything else?” he said.
“Can we go?” my mother said to me. I was still too stunned to take in that I had to reply, and that the stopping, the starting, the turning, was my fault.
“Yes,” I said. “We can go.”
Moments later we were on the back road that reversed us to the highway. I looked into those dark hollows, those shadowed patches under the canopy of branches. We got back on the highway, the white line on the dark pavement ticking by, coolly. The air conditioning humming. My father’s fingers seemed to uncoil a little. He was behind the wheel of the car, operating a machine, a comfortable machine, and between my brother’s feet on the rubbery floor mat, the model rocket lay, and I could almost feel him waiting, until he could watch it explode into the sky.
* * *
But then we stopped. Maybe my mother had to go to the bathroom, or was too hungry to wait until we got home.
We stopped in a pizza place. We ate something. It must have been ok. I don’t remember the food, or the table. I remember my father shaking the last of the ice out of his glass. He liked iced tea. The ring of a cash register. A cold stream of condensation on the window that looked out into the parking lot. The asphalt, so hot as to practically bubble under our sneakers.
On the way out, as he was exiting, my father crossed the path of a woman. We were all in front of him. He would often shoo us in front of him. I can imagine what expression must have crossed his face to make her erupt. Perhaps she’d tried to hold the door for him. Perhaps she’d made him feel beholden to her for her gesture of holding the door. It would have been a look of pity and fury and pridefulness. No one asked you. That’s what his look would have said to her. Don’t you look at me like I need you to hold the door for me. He’d stalked through the door. Then she was yelling at him.
“You are a nasty, old man,” she shrieked.
I saw my father wave at her, a pinched grin on his face, his skin the color of a fire engine. He twisted his jangly watch on his wrist, and unlocked the car.
My brother was still holding the model rocket. He’d brought it into the pizza place. All of a sudden he dropped it. It rattled on the asphalt, did a dance, like it was trying to get away. I saw Daniel’s feet, in his black sneakers and his white socks with the stripes around the ankles. He was trying to get it. He scurried. But my father got to it first.
In his thin hands, which were already gnarled from whatever was creeping inside, my father picked it up, and snapped it in two.
* * *
We descended from the arid hills, the lawns unrolling around us humidly. Curbs, mailboxes. The air a muddy color in the late afternoon. In the house, it seemed dark, although the sun still drilled the meadow behind our house. My mother opened the window over the kitchen sink. I heard my brother run up the stairs to his room, two at a time. The clock that had hung on the wall was down. It sat on the counter, a crack traversing its glass face--and I saw this was the mishap. The kitchen had a plate glass window that overlooked a deck my father built. He pulled the fifth chair away from the kitchen table, that round kitchen table with its nicked wood. He set it in the corner and sat, his arms folded across his chest, his fingers gripping the car keys, and stared out that window, the line around his mouth turned to stone.
It was a thing I had seen him do many times. My father could be a bright spool of ribbon, unfurling. He was squirrelly. Maybe he was willing himself to return to himself, to return to us. The sun was disintegrating, the lawn outside becoming engulfed in evening, the lush, breezy humidity of July. He didn’t get up.
I left them. I went upstairs to my room. My mother had cleaned, and the shades were down except for a crack. I passed the closed door of the fourth bedroom. There’d been one for each of us. The upstairs smelled completely different. It was a smell I didn’t recognize, like pine needles. I sat on my bed and I heard my parents’ voices. Their quiet talking could have been anything, about dinner, about it being stuffy in the house, for they never seemed to discuss things that happened. I wanted it to not be this silent time of day. Then his voice rose, hers, his again. Through the floor, they sounded like whips.
The thought of the night coming flooded me. I wanted desperately for it to be daytime. I went to the bottom of the stairs. Again they were silent. I heard my mother rustling at the counter.
“Katie?” she said.
“Yeah?” I said.
She walked through the foyer to where I sat, curving her neck around the banister.
“Don’t sit there,” she said. “We’re going to eat soon.”
Before I could look at her face, she had turned and I stood, clinging to the banister. As I returned to the kitchen, my father rose, hung his car keys on the hooks by the telephone, and walked out, through the garage.
"I’m going for a walk,” he said.
But he didn’t go for a walk, really. I heard the garage door open, his great heave as he threw it upward.
“Katie, get the hamburger rolls,” my mother said.
I did, and she moved slowly through the kitchen. She peeled potatoes, the peeler rattling with each of her strokes. The clip that held her hair had slipped, the bundle at the back of her head nearly undone. She took the silver pot and boiled water. I wanted to ask what had happened to the clock, how that could possibly be enough for them to miss the recital. But I answered every one of my own questions in my mind.
“What’s Dad doing?” I said.
“He’s going for a walk,” she said. “That’s all, he’s just going for a walk.”
“He’s doing something in the yard.”
She lifted her head. She took a long breath, a breath that made my rib cage tighter.
He was crouched on one knee, scraping in the yard. In one hand he cradled a couple of bricks. Even from inside, I could see his movements were harsh, as though he was in a spasm. He set the bricks in the spot he had worked at. He stood, a silhouette in the last of the light. He ran the back of his hand across his mouth, to brush away the sweat from his work. In his other hand was a tool I couldn’t see, a trowel or a spade. He gripped it like a staff, a lone figure in an empty field. I wanted to call out to him. I wanted my mother to run after him, to say, what’s wrong. But she just stood there. She looked at the chair that he’d pushed into the corner. She put her hand on it, and pushed it gently. But she didn’t move it back.
My father turned and walked in slow steps and only after he had walked the length of the yard did he raise his head, but he didn’t look to the kitchen where my mother and I stood, she with unwashed lettuce in a bowl under her hands. He looked up to the windows above.
“Daniel,” I heard him call, his voice a cry like a bird’s.
“Daniel,” he called again.
Upstairs my brother moved. I heard his steps.
“Katie,” my mother said. “Go get your brother.”
I felt the urge to tell her no. I felt the urge to tell her to go get him herself. A strand of hair had tumbled from the clip, lapped at her shoulder. Her hair was light, but her eyes were dark, exotic, and in the light they were blacker than ever, saying to me, go. A choking feeling rose in my throat.
I went upstairs, the hallway bathed in shadows. My brother sat on his bed. He arms were under his back and he sat motionless, staring at the wooden shutters over his window.
“Did you hear him calling?” I said.
“I heard him,” he said.
“Aren’t you going to go down there?”
The room became cold, a breeze had blown in through the open window.
“Daniel,” I said. “Mom wants you to go downstairs,” I said, a bite in my voice like I was twisting the link of a chain.
“Why can’t you stop talking, Katie,” he said. “You think I’m listening to you but I’m not listening to you.”
He got up from the bed, knocking things off the nightstand as he did. I followed him.
“Daniel, wait,” I said. Something made me stop. I was in the hallway alone. The air was cold; I was next to the closed door. All of a sudden there was a shadow on the wall, like a jar of nails spilled on the floor. And I felt it again. Something taking a step. Breathing. But it was also saying something.
It was like a hate. But it wasn’t a hate that wanted to hurt you. It was like a hate that wanted to warn you. As though it was saying, Go on, get out. Daniel, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t say anything.
Then my father called again, the house felt like it was moving. “Daniel? he said.
And I heard it, and I could move again, and I heard myself say, please. I felt something hunting me, a feeling that has never left me since.
I went downstairs. Daniel hadn’t gone outside. He stood at the window in the kitchen, looking, and through the balustrades of the deck’s railing, we three saw my father. He waved, looking at my brother.
Daniel went outside. I heard his feet on the dry grass, the sound carrying far, and I saw his figure standing a ways from my father.
I had to see whatever was about to happen. I went to the yard. As I got closer, I saw that it was not a trowel my father had in his hand, but the rocket, repaired. What he had built was a launch pad. A square of grass, ripped away, layered with a row of bricks.
“It’s getting dark,” my father said.
* * *
They set up the rocket. My brother kneeling in the grass, stretching the red cord out. He was scrambling, arranging. He stuck his hand in the air, pointing, the white of the underside of his arm glowing in the dwindling light.
“It’s supposed to go 400 feet,” he said. “Northeast, right?”
“Seems so,” my father said.
My father seemed to be panting, squatting in his bare feet in the grass, which had turned damp. He was pressing his lips across his teeth, a grimace.
“Dad,” my brother said. “Can I light it?”
“It’s too dangerous,” my father said.
“But I wanted to do it. You said I could do it.”
“I said it’s too dangerous,” he said. “Stand back.”
In our house, there were no lights on, I kept waiting for my mother to turn on a light. I wanted to return inside and have the night be gone. Please, I thought. But we were outside the house, and inside I could see only my mother’s face at the window, a white, waning moon.
“Stand back,” my father said again.
“But why can’t I do it?” my brother said.
“Just stand back.”
He had a box of matches in his hand, the long, thick ones he used to light the barbecue grill. My brother’s face had gone red, he stared at the ground, his eyes practically shut. He pinned his arms behind his back, a gesture he often made. The grass was sharp on my feet, yet it held something damp, alive.
My father had the match in his hand. He looked in my direction.
“No,” he said. “Katie, go over there.” And he waved, his whole arm, as though swatting a wasp.
I didn’t take another step away. It can’t get me, I thought. I heard my brother breathing, though, a gnawing sound. He was about to cry.
My father had that match in his hand, between the tips of his fingers, about to strike it. But then he gripped it in his fist. He lowered himself to his knees. He reached out and grabbed my brother, hugging him tightly. I could see them both, some vapor trail releasing into the air.
The landscape of the yard where I’d spent my whole life then became foreign to me, a wild heath, coated in vines and dark. The yard sloped away, downward, into a meadow that I knew was filled only with the backyards of other houses. My mother was inside the house, I was outside. No one could see me. The moon was rising over the ridge beyond. A shiver tunneled its way down my limbs.
My father, in his bare feet. Digging. All of us, our family, like a machine to him, something that had gone out of control. A tractor, plowing a field, rolling uncontrollably toward the leg of a small animal. I think of that day now and half of it is has the flatness of looking into a television, like a projection. The other half has the roundness, sharpness, of looking through a telescope. The tune of the duet returned to my mind. It was so beautiful.
“Listen,” I said, but they never turned. I went closer to them. But I could not touch them, it was as though they were hot pans on a stove. I could not see my father’s face. His back was turned. I could see only the top of my brother’s head, and it was shaking, terrified.
I looked up at that moon. I heard the noise of the match that my father struck before I saw it. The light on the ignition cord was like a moving candle in the grass, a silhouette of light around the thin fence of my brother’s legs. It exploded, shot up into the night sky, going so high for so small a rocket, a glimmering sparkler on its tail, shining a bright light onto all of us. Inside, something shattered. My mother, startled. A dish breaking into pieces.
A fizzing, a crackling. My brother stared up in awe. He raised his arm and pointed. Then he brought his arm down suddenly, his hand in a fist, in triumph. The noise was so loud for something so small.
“Guidance systems—on!” he said. In the flash, my father’s face was covered in lines, as though his face had been coated in dust
and splashed with water, and I could see he was laughing.
When the noise faded, he was still laughing. It was a frightening, maniacal laugh, a laugh that bled out into the air like smoke.
“Boom,” he said, and another kind of brittle grieving had begun.
ANNE RAY has worked as a waitress, a gardener, an English teacher, and a fish monger. Her work won the 2014 StoryQuarterly fiction prize, and has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Opium, Conduit, LIT, Gulf Coast, and Cut Bank. Her libretto for "Symposium", a ten-minute opera, a collaboration with composer Oliver Caplan, was performed in 2011 by Juventas New Music Ensemble as part of a contemporary opera series. She works on the 18th floor of an office building in lower Manhattan.