Photo Credit: Amanda
Once, I dropped my sister on purpose. I picked her up, flung her over my arms, rocked her around like a baby, and then dropped her. She was bigger than me, maybe by twenty pounds, but I was strong. I blamed the drop on her weight. "Mommy," I said. "She's so much heavier though." My sister's knees and elbows turned blue with bruises, and she looked at me with her big dark eyes and blinked.
We were very young then, not even preteens, not even ten.
"Maybe it's time you spent some days apart," my mother said, because she'd been noticing our arguments, the fact that we had nobody to invite to our birthday parties except each other. At lunch we ate at the same long table in the school cafeteria, sharing raisins, and secrets, and head lice, and embarrassment.
We also slept in the same bed, drifting closer when we were scared and moving into separate corners when we were fearless, but after the fall my mother bought another little bed, and moved it right beside the old little bed. She pulled pink sheets and blankets over the white mattress, and smiled, "Presto, change-o!"
I stared at the new bed for a long time, thinking of the way my sister's toes felt against my ankles, thinking of the sound of her breathing when she slept. She breathed funny, sucking in watery gulps of air as if she were drowning.
"Well?" my mother said finally. She wanted our reactions.
"Looks good to me," Shelly said, and I clenched my fists.
I got used to sleeping alone after a while. It wasn't even a big deal. I took the new bed and my sister kept the old bed. Except sometimes when my sister breathed like that. Except sometimes I thought if I were near her she wouldn't breathe like that. I'd be able to tell by the warmth of her body she was dreaming. I would hold my hand over her heart and feel the rhythm of its thumping.
In my right hand is a beer and in my left hand a jump rope. I find Shelly by the pool lying on her back on a towel, staring into the bright orange sun. "Want to play?" I ask.
My sister gazes at me and her eyelashes look like thick black spider's legs. She shields her face with a fashion magazine. "Not right now," she says. "And anyway, I'm too old to play." Her short, stubby fingernails are painted glittery red.
I drop the rope and sip the warm beer. I'm not sure why I drink it but I do. My sister has one too, a tall can glistening beside her towel, almost empty. She turns her neck to look at my cousin, Theo. He is sitting in a lawn chair in only his underwear, his long body angular and brown. She touches her mouth softly, thinking about her lipstick or her boobs I bet, and whether or not Theo likes them. Last summer, when Theo came to visit us from Pinetop, we played softball in the backyard, rode go-carts at the amusement park, and gorged on hotdogs with mustard and chili for breakfast. Now he's been in Tucson a few days and all he's done is make crazy eyes at Shelly. He tosses his dark-blond hair back and smiles at her, big, so that his teeth sparkle in the light. I am tired of being left out.
I sit down on the pavement next to the pool and run my fingers over the surface of the water. The summer sun makes the water hot, almost burning. I dump the rest of my beer in the pool, watching it bubble and bubble until it disappears. I imagine melted butter folding into flour and sugar.
"Don't do that," Shelly says. "You idiot. I'll tell mom if you keep doing that."
"And what then?" Theo is awake now. "She'll just be upset with you for letting your kid sister have a beer. Shelly. Jesus Christ."
I turn to look at Theo. When I look at him, something hard and heavy settles in my stomach as if I've just eaten an entire cheese pizza. His Fruit of the Looms are cotton, small and white, and blonde-brown hairs crawl up his thighs, disappearing into creases of cloth. I wonder if those hairs are prickly like saguaro needles. I turn back to the pool.
"He's right," I say to my reflection. My face is as bald as a mound of wet clay. "Mom won't care about the beer in the pool. She'll care that I drank beer at all."
"Oh, fuck," Shelly says. I hear the scraping of her knees against the concrete as she pulls herself to her feet. She says the f-word every time she gets upset now, because it's cool to say such a bad word. When I say the f-word I feel dirty, and I wash my fingers beneath hot water until they turn a cherry red.
I listen to the wet patting of my sister's feet as she walks toward me, and suddenly my head snaps back so that I am looking at the clear blue sky instead of my reflection. "Keep your smart-ass remarks to yourself," she hisses. She lets go of my ponytail and I rub the back of my head. My cheeks burn fiercely.
"Hey," Theo says.
I turn my body to look at him again.
"I'm the oldest here, so I make the rules. No hair pulling."
Shelly wrinkles her nose at me. "I hate you," she mouths.
I crunch my beer can in my hand (not as easy to do as I expected) and narrow my eyes at my sister. "I hate you more," I say. I feel a clenching at the back of my throat. "This summer is terrible."
"It's terrible because of you." Shelly settles onto her towel again. She wiggles her fingers and sucks in her stomach. She's putting on a show for Theo, like the women in beauty pageants put on a show for judges.
"Now, now," Theo says. "That's not right, Shelly. But, it might be better if you found something to do on your own, huh, Gerta? Okay? Just for a little while? Let us teenagers hang out, huh?"
I sniff. I throw my beer can in the pool and green water splashes up around it, onto my ankles. "Shelly is thirteen. Barely a teenager. And I'm only a year younger." I wait a moment to see how Theo will respond to my statement, but his face is motionless. His straight, pointed nose is bright pink at the tip.
I don't turn around as I walk away, but I am conscious of the way my butt and thighs jiggle in my bathing suit, and I wish there were a way to cover the jiggling so Theo couldn't see it. I want my mother. I don't even care if she knows I drink beer. I just want her. When she gets a day off work and doesn't have a date, my mother makes cookies with me sometimes, letting me put as many butterscotch chips into the dough as I want.
Inside the house the cocker spaniels waddle over to me and push their hard, freezing noses against my kneecaps. I kneel down and pet them. "I'll tell mom everything," I say to Sunny, Hairy, and Sammy. Sunny responds by licking my cheek with her gummy tongue. "Shelly will never get away with this." I think I see something like fear in her eyes but I continue. "She'll never get away with any of it, I promise."
"Leave those dogs alone," my sister interrupts, walking by me into the kitchen.
I hadn't realized she was behind me. I stand up to face her.
She pulls a soda from the fridge and pops it open. The soda fizzes over the top of the can, dribbling onto her fingers. "Stay in here for a while, all right?" She puts her hands on her hips. Her blonde hair is piled on top of her head in a messy bun and she looks drunk. Her pink bikini is loose and wet, so that it both covers and exposes her new breasts. I know she doesn't hate me, not exactly, she just doesn't care about me.
"I'll do what I want," I tell her. "And there's nothing you can say about it."
Shelly lets out a moan, her red mouth a perfect O, and goes back outside, slamming the screen door so that it hangs off the tracks half-open and crooked. Flies buzz into the house, and I think of going after them with the swatter, or just fixing the screen door so that they can't get in anymore, but I decide it's Shelly's job. And anyway, I don't mind bugs like everyone else seems to. Their wings are as delicate as lace.
I watch Shelly until she's out of sight, by the pool again. I open a kitchen drawer and shuffle through coupons and paper clips until I come across a shimmering pink pack of cigarettes. My mother doesn't smoke but she keeps them around for when her boyfriend comes over and she has wine. I know exactly where they are and I steal them when I'm alone and have nothing to do. They're Virginia Slims, long and thin and womanly cigarettes with a pink band around the filter. I love to smoke and pretend I'm grown, like my mother, like the beautiful, exotic women in movies. I light a cigarette on the stove and inhale sharply. I'm the only twelve-year-old I know who can inhale. Even Shelly doesn't inhale.
I tiptoe to the kitchen window where I can see Shelly and Theo by the pool. Theo is rubbing sunscreen into my sister's shoulders. Her bikini top is untied and the pink strings hang limply down her back. Theo's arms look shiny and strong as they move. All I can see are the backs of their heads, not their faces. I have no idea if my sister looks happy, sad, or nervous. Theo, though—I imagine he is smiling.
Before I know it the cigarette has burnt down too low. I throw it on the floor and shake my hand. The cocker spaniels run over, sniffing the smoking cigarette like it's a chunk of meat. I crush it out with the heel of my foot and kick the dogs away. "Out!" I scream. "Get out of here!" The dogs scatter, each going in a different direction. Their nuclear family splinters when there is danger, each dog out for its own safety. I am angry, hateful toward them. Those stupid, cow-eyed, ugly dogs.
I look back out the window and see that Theo is kneeling beside Shelly, whispering something in her hair, so close to her neck he could either kiss or bite her. His hand is cupped around his face, like he knows it's possible someone is watching, like he knows it's possible that the someone watching can read lips because she read a book about it, and suddenly Shelly pushes him away, and I see her mouth part in a raucous laugh. Her bun falls loose, and her wet, wavy hair uncoils down her back, tangled up with the strings of her bikini. Theo stands erect, folds his arms, and laughs politely at his own joke. Men don't rock around and shake their hair loose and go into convulsions the way women do when they think something is funny. Men recognize humor and respond accordingly. Women are delighted by any kind of humor, as if hearing a joke were as good as winning a million dollars; or, they pretend it's as good.
I can't watch this any longer. I turn away from the window and go into the room I share with Shelly and sit on my bed. I want to do something. I want to forget how Theo rubbed my sister's back, how slowly and precisely his hands moved, and how Shelly laughed at some stupid secret joke. I pull my piggy bank off the shelf, the old, faded piggy bank my sister gave me as a birthday gift when we were little. It's been dropped many times, and thick cracks sealed with super glue cover the pig's body, crosshatching its eyes and glass snout. I'd like to buy a bus ticket to my father's house in San Diego. It's only a few hours from Tucson, right? I can get along with my half-brothers if I try.
My father has the children whose faces he put on Christmas cards, and then he has my sister and me. The children he puts on Christmas cards—cards he sends to me and my sister, unembarrassed—are bucktoothed fat-faces who look like their mother, Vicky Lin, a cocktail waitress with a large, dry-looking bouffant. Vicky Lin is pretty nice though, and does my laundry when I come to visit. My father just sits in his armchair watching television. "Gerta," he says now and then. "Can you move the antennas to the left?" But there is the ocean, and the surfers with their long hair, and the seashell necklaces I make with Vicki Lin at the kitchen table.
I empty out the bank onto my bed and count the hard coins. Only twelve dollars and sixty cents. Not enough to do anything with except buy a CD or a few slices of pizza and some ice cream. No San Diego, that's for sure.
A knock comes on my bedroom door. I jump. For a minute I think it might be Shelly trying to apologize. Then I imagine it's Theo, asking if I want a hot dog. I straighten my hair and put a pair of shorts over my bathing suit, and then get up and open the door. Benny Harpy, my neighbor, stands in tight jeans and Converse tennis shoes, his posture so bad his stomach sticks out like a pregnant woman's.
"Hey-lo, Gerta," he says.
My disappointment makes me turn away from him without responding. I sit back on my bed and he follows. His black hair hangs in his eyes and he's playing with his new nose ring.
"Gerta," he says. "Gerta, what's with your name, huh? Who gave you a name like Gerta?" His teeth seem sharper than normal and flashy white. He reaches forward and pokes me between my breasts, which aren't really breasts at all, more like nubs. "It's an ugly name. You're too pretty for it."
He always tells me that. I'm sick of explaining to him it's my grandmother's name. I go back to counting quarters.
Benny is fourteen and everyone in the neighborhood calls him a pervert. I don't care if he is or isn't a pervert but he makes me uncomfortable for other reasons. For one, he asks too many questions, and he can be mean. He's the only boy who speaks to me, though, and the only boy who seems more interested in me than in my sister. He sneaks into my house whenever my mother isn't home.
"What's with all the money, huh? And who still owns a piggy bank these days? What are you, weird or something?" he asks. He starts to push at the quarters stacked up on top of my down comforter.
"Shut up," I say, shoving his hand away. "At least I have some money."
"Whatever," Benny shrugs. He spreads his fingers out in front of his face and examines them. His nails are painted black. "I'm playing with you, baby." He winks.
"I know," I say. I put the change back in the bank before he gets any ideas. The quarters make banging noses as they fall into the pig. I don't want to spend it after all. One day I'll have enough to go to San Diego. No one will be able to stop me then. I don't care if Benny thinks I'm weird or not.
"So, what's with your sister and your cousin?" Benny asks. He pulls his legs up onto the bed and crosses them. He knows all about Theo; when Benny and I are getting along I tell him about the go-carts, the hot dogs, how that was the most exciting summer of my life, how Theo is the best and nicest cousin in the world.
"What do you mean, what's with them?" I ask. I push the piggy bank onto the shelf.
"Well, on my way to your room I saw them in the yard. I don't know—seems like they're leaving you out." Benny shrugs.
"I guess they are," I say. I turn on the radio. Soft rock creeps from the speakers. I switch the station until I find something louder. "But, what do I care? I have a lot of other stuff to do."
"I'm as old as Theo," Benny reminds me. "And I'm willing to hang out with you."
"I don't even care anymore," I say again. "I mean, I was mad, but, I guess I just want to forget it now." I look down into my lap. "And who said he wasn't willing to hang out with me," I mumble.
Benny falls back on my bed and clasps his hands behind his head, looking at the ceiling. "Your sister's a cunt," he replies. The word is strange, like "fuck" but worse.
"No," I say. "She's okay." No matter how I feel about my sister, I don't want anyone insulting her. Any day now we might go back to being friends again. "Let's stop talking about this."
"Can I have a beer?" Benny asks. "A cigarette?"
"There isn't anymore beer. But there's wine." Wine will distract him from my sister and Theo.
Benny stands. "Show me."
I take him to pantry. The wine is pink in the bottle, a soft, hesitant pink. Skin-pink. I am sure my mother will miss it but I want to please Benny. Even though I nearly hate him, I want to please him.
"It says serve chilled," I say.
"Well, we'll serve it warmed," Benny grins.
He finds the bottle opener after fumbling through drawers. He drinks directly from the bottle without a grimace and then passes it to me. I sip it and make a sour face. Wine tastes terrible, bitter and sweet at the same time, almost the way vomit tastes coming up into my mouth when I have the stomach flu. I like how light my head feels, though, how Benny's eyes look softer the more I drink.
"Wow," I say. "This is disgusting!"
"This is rad," Benny says.
We sit across from each other at the kitchen table. I'm sweating and I'm not sure why. The bottle is almost empty. After a few drinks the poison taste goes away. I smile. "My mom is going to kill me," I say.
"No, she won't. Your mom doesn't know her ass from the ground." Benny covers his mouth, laughing. He always covers his mouth when he laughs.
"Ass from the ground?" I say. "What does that even mean?" I laugh too, despite myself. "And your mom isn't any better."
Benny shrugs. He knows I'm right. His mother is a train wreck, or, at least that's what my mother calls her. My mother says she herself isn't close to being a train wreck compared to Benny's mom. Benny's mom leaves the house every night at nine or ten to go strip at a place called Eleven's out on the highway. I'm twelve, but I know what stripping is. I've seen enough television movies to know. My mother is a receptionist at a dentist's office and she gets child support from my dad. She makes her money the right way.
I push the pack of cigarettes toward Benny. I'm starting to feel a little sick. But, I'm also a little drunk. "Wanna go spy on my sister and Theo?" I ask. The room is turning, round and round, so that it is like I'm on a slow carousel, atop a golden horse, and it's mildly fun.
We stand up and go to the window. Shelly and Theo are on the same lawn chair. It takes me a minute to realize that Theo is on top of Shelly. He seems huge compared to her. I've seen porn, sure I have, the stuff my mother's boyfriends have left around, but I never knew it looked like this in person. I never knew how large the man looked, how monstrous. But—but—they aren't really having sex. Are they? My sister's arms seem pinned beneath her, tiny little bird's wings pinned beneath her. Her top is off, and his clothes are gone too. Theo is naked. Is he raping her? I know about rape; I know what it means. Women are raped all the time, my mother says. Women are raped sometimes without even knowing they are raped. They wake up in the morning raped and they are ruined. My mother says the world is dangerous for girls, entirely dangerous, and I have to be careful.
I turn to Benny. "He's raping her," I say.
Benny scratches his head and looks out the window. He seems pleased. "No." His eyes are glassy, unfamiliar.
I look back again. I can't say anymore if she's being raped. I notice she is grinning, from ear to ear, as Theo kisses her neck and face. Benny touches my shoulder. "Does it make you feel horny?" he asks.
I bend forward and throw up on the kitchen floor. My vomit is pink from the wine. The mosaic tiles my mother raves about to everyone who comes over are covered in my pink vomit. She used her bonus from the dentist's office to buy those tiles. I feel too tired to clean it up. The dogs come in and clean it for me, their tongues the same color as the wine.
I go into my room and Benny follows me. I want him to leave. "Can you leave?" I ask. He turns on the radio and Heart's "Barracuda" comes through the speakers. My mother used to play that song in the car with the top down. My sister and I sang along in the backseat. Hard wind would cut through my hair like a knife. "Can you leave?" I say again.
Benny lies down next to me when I climb into bed, and we get under the scratchy comforter for no reason. It is so wet-hot I can feel my legs sticking to the sheets. "Shelly's so much older than you now," he says. "Now that she's not a virgin, she's a lot older than you."
"Only a year," I say. I can't believe my sister did it. I can't believe she did it with Theo. I think for a minute I want to do it with Theo, too. I want him to kiss my face and neck. There were those times last summer when Theo shared ice cream cones with me, those times our shoulders touched as we sat on the back stoop. I didn't want him to kiss me or anything, or do it with me, but my throat had tightened, I'd licked my lips and smiled at him in a different way than I smiled at my sister. "Only a year," I say again.
"A year is a long time," Benny assures me.
Somehow he's inched closer to me, so close he's nearly on top of me. His body feels peculiar, sharp-boned and scorching-hot. I wonder if everyone's skin is that hot, if even I am that hot and don't know it. His arm is pressed up against mine, his fingers against my fingers, and he smells like laundry detergent, better than I'd expected him to. He grabs my wrist under the covers and puts my hand around something that is both hard and soft, like a piece of metal wrapped in tender leather. I push against his chest with my free hand, and my mouth is so dry I imagine it is full of warm sand. I feel the same way as when I try to speak in front of the class at school: paralyzed.
"If they can do it, we can do it. They're cousins," Benny says.
I pull my hand off of his penis and turn away from him. I know, without knowing, I've been touching his penis. I press my fingers, hard, between my legs, curling into the fetal position. I might throw up again. I want to be good at something, have a boyfriend, but Benny is no boyfriend. I hear him behind me, breathless and tender-voiced.
"C'mon," he says. "Just give me a kiss. Give me a little touch." He tries to pry my hand from between my legs. He is stronger than me.
I squeeze my eyelids together and imagine I'm not alive, I imagine I am buried deep in the ground, that none of this is happening. I could give up fighting. It would make it easier if I did that. I know that if I have sex with Benny, I'll at least outdo Shelly, because he isn't my cousin. He's a real boy—not a family member. It's best just to go along. But something inside of me, something welling and welling, something not unlike a bomb set to explode, will not let me just go along. I hate Benny, hate my sister, hate my father and his fat kids, hate my ugly mother. I am tired of all of them suddenly. And especially, I hate Theo. He wrapped around my sister like I saw a snake do to a mouse once, squeezing it and squeezing it till its eyes went dull and grey.
"Leave," I say.
I grab Benny's penis as soon as he guides my hand to it, and it is small and sweaty in my palm, disgustingly soft now. I can't look at him, so instead I close my eyes and clutch him like he is an almost-empty tube of toothpaste. Benny jumps out of the bed, throwing me off of him so that I bounce backward and hit my head on the wall with a thud. I uncover my eyes. Benny's lower lip is dark-pink and wobbly, and his eyes are round and wild. I tell myself I'm not sure whether I hurt him on purpose or on accident.
"What's wrong with you?" he cries.
It takes me a moment to find words. My head throbs and my hand burns where I grabbed him. "There's nothing wrong with me," I say finally.
Benny shakes his head, his mouth hanging open. I realize he is scared. There is sweat on his upper lip, above his brow. "Go fuck yourself," he says, still holding his crotch.
The words are horrible, like "cunt" had been horrible, but I'm not shocked anymore. "No," I say. "You go fuck yourself." It isn't hard to talk like that, to say those things. I roll over toward the wall so that I don't have to look at him.
Benny slams my door so hard the books rattle on the shelves.
My heart is pounding in my chest. I feel mean, sad, anxious, as if I've narrowly escaped death. I will never tell Benny but I'm a tiny bit glad I hurt him.
After I dropped my sister, I was glad I'd hurt her, too. I loved her, but I was happy to hear her cry. She believed me when I said it was an accident and so did my mother. We were best friends, Shelly and I, but look what I did to her. And look what I did to Benny! Only I know what I am capable of. My mother says the world is dangerous, but I can be dangerous too. I press my fingers into my mouth and try to fall asleep, satisfied that Benny is gone, that everyone, everyone, everyone is gone.
Kindall Gray is an Arizona native who writes poetry and fiction. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories, as well as a novel entitled The Crying Party which focuses on a young wife's mounting paranoia regarding her husband's fidelity. Her fiction has previously appeared in Back Room Live.