TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 5

Bamboozling

 · Fiction

At night it was hard to see things: the scurrying white hermit crabs around my feet, where my brother’s hands were. It was easy to glide through water, to feel alive as I slid over someone’s body, while my own twirled in somersaults. It was easy to be together, to push and shove and dunk and come up choking.

An ocean-blue, tissue-papery envelope stamped par avion arrived in the mail. Inside were three sheets of paper with typed questions and answers written in a strange print that slanted to the left. Like the interviews with foxy stars in Tiger Beat magazine, the questions asked, “When is your birthday?” “Where do you live?” “What is your favorite color?” “What is your favorite food?” “What is your favorite song?” “What is your favorite movie?” In the top corner of the first page, a picture small enough to fit in a locket formed our first impressions of The French Foreign Exchange Student. “Mommm? she’s fat.”

*  *  *

We were going Pensacola, Florida, where we would shack in with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a one-story brick duplex the color of sand. In the back of our tri-tone blue Dodge van, butterflies rose inside me when we pulled out of our driveway with our Holiday Rambler rambling along after us. I was thirteen, fluttery, and impatient to get to the tidy, crushed oyster-shell driveway that curved around either side of a lawn thick with Spanish grass and tucked the beach house into a nook on the sound side of Gulf Breeze. This year I would share my room with the stranger. Usually when we stayed at the beach, my older brother Wyn and my cousins Tim and Tommy ganged up on me and made me eat sand and mean shit like that. Maybe the foreign exchange student would protect me from those sharks.

*  *  *

When we picked her up at the Pensacola airport, Brigette was all slinky legs, big bazooms, and ooo la la. Her round face and chipmunk cheeks had deceived us. She was sixteen, a year younger than Wyn, and exactly how old I wanted to be. She wore lavender, lip liner, and Levi’s.

With my frizzy hair standing off my head, and my bones defining the edges of my body, next to Brigette I felt like The Bride of Frankenstein. She was gorgeous. Like Raquel Welch in Casino Royale.

Brigette was from Arles, where Van Gogh had cut off his ear. Her parents were called Count and Countesse Rojeulais so I figured they must be rich. They lived in a townhouse in a stone building from the seventeenth century. She liked listening to Elton John and hanging out with her friends at street cafés. She told us her grandmother lived in a cottage in the mountains in northern France, where her family vacationed every summer. She said they had goats and chickens and a cow named Chocolat, which she pronounced Shocolah.

From her suitcase, Brigette gathered soaps and perfumes wrapped in fancy papers sealed with wax stamps. “In Aix-en-Provence, flowers grow into perfume,” she said.

“How pretty.” Mom sniffed a bar of soap. “Thank you. Say thank you, April.”

“Thank you.” I didn’t care about soap or perfume.

Brigette gave my mother a bottle of olive oil. In zee zouth of France, she said, “Les olives are delicieux.” Digging around in another bag. “Oui est les T-shirt? Phfff.” Making a funny sound with her nose and her mouth, she blew the shaggy golden bangs out of her fawn eyes. “Très bien!” Brigette thrust T-shirts at Wyn and me, with Speedy Gonzales, racing up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower, exclaiming, “Je t’aime Paris!

“I know what that means,” Mom said. “I learned it in my French class. It means ‘I love Paris.’”

Bon!” Brigette clapped her hands.

She also brought us strange French foods like Nutella, jars of homemade yellow and greed mustards, mayonnaise in a tube like toothpaste, and candy bars like Kit-Kats with French writing on the wrappers.

In our bedroom, I helped Brigette unpack all her strange clothes. Short, pink, and green cotton jersey dresses, tight leggie jeans, and V-neck sweaters she wore tied around her shoulders. Wrapping scarves around my neck she said little French things to me I couldn’t understand.

Wyn went all red and stupid around her, choking on his tongue when he tried to say anything. What a goon. At dinner he wouldn’t even look at her. Just kept biting into his sloppy joe like a Neanderthal. But when Brigette bent over to pick up the napkin she’d dropped, he looked at her. I saw him. And I squinted my eyes at him.

It was fun to watch Brigette eat and talk and walk. She put mayonnaise on French fries, talked with her hands flying like airplanes over the table, and she was a complete klutz. Stumbling into chairs and walls and tripping over her feet, she was like a cartoon character.

After dinner she changed into a nightshirt that barely covered her bottom. My mother’s eyes followed her as she sat down next to me on the sofa. I looked to see what Mom was seeing, and there was Brigette’s bush peeking out like a pink sea anemone. We must have made her uncomfortable because she tugged on her shirt and crossed her legs. Turning their turnip-colored faces to the TV, Wyn, Dad, Uncle Dodge, and Tim and Tommy pretended they hadn’t noticed.

“This is M*A*S*H.” Brigette pointed to the TV. “We have this in France.”

“No way? Really?” we said.

Oui,” she said. “I mean, yes.” Brigette’s cheeks flushed raspberry red.

“Is it in English or French?” Mom asked.

“French.” Brigette uncrossed her legs and crossed them again. “And Hawkeye’s voice is much, how you say? Higher?”

She must be disappointed, I thought. Coming all the way to the United States to watch a show they had in France.

“Oh my,” my mother said. “You must be very sleepy after your long flight?”

Brigette looked confused. Mom clasped her hands under her tilted head, faked a yawn and closed her eyes.

Ah, oui,” Brigette said. “You are very tired.”

After a while, Brigette dozed off. Her head leaning on my shoulder, her long legs sprawled apart at odd angles.

My father and brother tried not to look. But looked.

“April!” my mother whispered loudly. “Why don’t you try to wake her up and take her to the bedroom.”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes.”

I nudged Brigette a little with my elbow. She opened her eyes and made that funny phfffing sound again.

“Let’s go to sleep,” I said closing my eyes and tilting my head.

Brigette followed me to the bedroom where two twin beds were divided by a nightstand. “You sleep here.” I pointed to Brigette’s bed, and then crawled into mine.

Brigette frowned. “I have a sister,” she said. “Like you. We both sleep in same bed.”

I wasn’t sure what she wanted at first, but then I was helping her move the nightstand out of the way so we could push the beds together to make one.

*  *  *

For breakfast the next morning, my mother made chocolate chip pancakes. Brigette ate them hungrily and Mom kept making more, never sitting down and having one for herself.

“Brigette?” Mom held up a spoon and asked, “What do you call this in French.”

Une cuiller,” Brigette said with her mouth full.

“Y’all repeat it.” Mom made us.

Mom then held up a banana and Brigette said, “Une banane.

An egg was un oeuf. A bowl was un bol or une boule.

Then my mother asked Brigette questions like In France what do you do after school? In France do you have a pet like a dog or a cat? Do you have to mow the grass in France?

After breakfast, the boys ran off like a pack of freaks and Brigette and I loped in and out of the surf along the sound to the Pac-A-Sac, where I turned her on to Slurpees and Snickers bars she called Sneakers. Flip-flopping across the hot pavement to the ocean, we sucked down the chocolate faster than it could melt, licking it away from the corners of our mouths and the creases of our palms. She wore an itsy bitsy blue bikini my mother called just a string. Tanned construction workers whistled at Brigette, said, Hey hey hey foxy lady. I explained the words to her, and Brigette, so nicely in French, said, “Va te faire encule,” which she told me meant go fuck yourself.

Laying out on the beach, we put Sun-In in our hair, built drip castles, collected seashells. Angels’ wings, olives, and cat claws. On a sand bar our toes found sand dollars. Brown, fuzzy, and slimy. And when we got tired and waterlogged, we leaned back on our towels and watched the ocean stretch to the edges of the world. Brigette told me in France you could be naked on the beach.

Strolling along the surf in the late afternoon, I watched people watch Brigette, looking at her like she was a supermodel. In the distance I could see my father and Uncle Dodge, tanked already. Getting tangled up in a six-foot-long kite of a French maid, they took turns running down the beach to get her off the ground. Eventually catching a gust of wind, up she went. The air filling her waist, inflating her legs until her stiletto heels stabbed the sky. As if talking about racehorses, they yelled things like, “She’s a strong one!” Men and children looked up from their rafts and inner tubes. Women stopped searching for shells and looked skyward. Some laughing. Others tsking. Dad went on about how that had to be the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in the sky. How he’d always wished for something like that instead of rain.

The clouds turned pinkish and we’d have to leave soon or my mother would come looking for us. Worried that we’d drowned, been devoured by sharks, burned by the sun, caught in the undertow.

And then there was Wyn and Tim and Tommy running towards the surf like a scene out of Lord of the Flies, and Tim was carrying something in a brown paper sack.

Brigette whispered in my ear, “Let us pretend we sleep.”

We closed our eyes when we heard their footsteps thunder through the sand. Wyn scooped up two handfuls of sand and let the grains spill from between his fingers onto my head.

“Cut it out!” I spun my head around, shaking the sand all over Brigette. “Idi-o,” I said, pronouncing it like Brigette did and sticking out my tongue.

“I wouldn’t keep that nasty thing in my mouth either,” he said.

Brigette shook her head at Wyn phffed at him with her pouty lips.

Wyn smiled at her.

“Oh brother,” I said.

Tim pulled a box of Alka-Seltzer out of the bag. He looked like a beach rat. Like the residents of Pensacola who wore perpetual dark tans, sand between their toes, in patches on their calves, who went around barefoot all the time, had sun-bleached blond hair, and who wore cut-off shorts and Jesus sandals.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“We’re going to blow up seagulls.”

“What?”

“If you feed Alka-Seltzer to seagulls, they’ll explode.”

“Why would you wanna do that for?”

“‘Cause it’s fun,” Tim grinned.

Brigette snatched the box out of Tom’s hands and ran to the surf. Ripping it open she spilled the white tablets into the ocean. Foamy bubbles fizzled and washed onto shore. She was my hero.

“Man. This isn’t any fun,” Tommy said. “Let’s go somewhere else.”

Wyn stared at Brigette’s toes. “Yeah. Chicks,” he said and shuffled off.

“How stupide,” Brigette said.

Très,” I said.

Reaching into her bikini bottoms, Brigette brushed away grains of sand. We waded into the ocean. Hopping over shallow waves, we dove in where it was too deep to stand, and swam farther out, towards big waves that lifted us up and carried us over their crests. Beneath a curtain of water, we wriggled out of our suits and cooed at the slick sensation of the cool ocean tickling our nipples and lapping the sand from between our legs.

I asked Brigette if she had a boyfriend.

“He was idi-o.” Brigette shook off droplets of water that fell from the short, wet points of her shaggy bangs. “He didn’t want me to come to the States. He said he will find another girlfriend. No problem.”

“I don’t want a boyfriend,” I said. “I think they’re ugly. And gross.”

“You and I can be girlfriends.” Brigette pinched my cheek.

I smiled.

Walking home, I warned Brigette about sand spurs but she kept stumbling into them, and had to stop every few steps so she could pluck them out of her bare feet.

I wished she could stay forever.

*  *  *

One of the beach house rules was we had to rinse the sand off before we could come inside. Uncle Dodge and Tim and Tommy had built an outdoor shower surrounded on all three sides by tall wooden slats, connecting to the house through a door opening into the bathroom. Inside the shower, Brigette and I rinsed off together. Fighting for the narrow stream of cool water, Brigette reached for the showerhead and shot me in the face. I squealed and tickled her. When we were done, I forgot to knock on the bathroom door like you’re supposed to do, and we walked in on Wyn who was standing, as naked as we were, in front of the bathroom mirror, holding his willy.

“Fuckin’ knock,” he said, dropping it. Wyn was getting taller and hairier and his face was pimply all the time. Guys were so Neanderthal. Like monsters and creatures you should run from.

“Shit! Sorry,” I said and backed out the door.

Brigette was laughing so hard she couldn’t catch her breath.

Before we could grab our suits off the slats, Wyn snatched them and was running off.

“Oh no,” Brigette said, “What are we going to do?”

Inside the bathroom, I got us two towels and mimicked Brigette by wrapping it around my body like a tube dress, tugging at the loose edges, trying to make them tight around my chest, trying to work up some cleavage. Brigette tried to help me by pushing the sides of my chest inwards and up, but not even a bud rose. I huffed and settled for a safety pin.

*  *  *

The next morning, I woke sniffing the greasy smells of scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, and tomato gravy, and by the reek of garlic, I knew my father was whipping up breakfast. When I tried to turn my head to see if Brigette was awake I felt my hair pinch at my scalp. Reaching behind me I tugged at a band of packing tape stretching across my head and onto my pillow. Smaller pieces were stuck to my arms, and beneath the tape my hair was smashed down in swirling waves. Brigette made a funny French aiieee sound. I yanked my head, freeing myself, and saw Brigette moving her head up and down, trying to sit up. I could see where her shirt, at the shoulders and the ends of the side seams, stuck to the bed when she moved. With the tape flapping at my shoulders, I got out of bed and tried to help her. “I’m going to get them back,” I said. “An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.”

Brigette arched her thin eyebrow like a tern’s wing.

“Those dogs did this,” I explained. “They glued your shirt to the bed.”

Sliding her arms inside her sleeves, Brigette inched down the bed and slipped out of her T-shirt. Completely naked, she sat down beside me, made a frowny face, and tugged at the tape in my hair, loosening my curls and neatly rearranging them. I couldn’t stop staring at her big bouncy breasts. Wondering if mine would look like that, I was repulsed and fascinated all at the same time.

*  *  *

Lately, my mother was all about molding me into Miss Manners. Fork on the left of the plate, knife on the right. Make sure the blade is turned in towards the plate. She treated me like I was in training for the Miss America pageant and she was my stage mother. “Hold your shoulders back. Get that hair out of your eyes. You’ve got beautiful eyes. People want to see them.”

Everyone had gone sailing and hadn’t bothered to ask me along.

Mom spread out waxed paper and worked flour, egg and water into a crust. She had her hair pulled back in a bandanna and looked like Mary Tyler Moore. I slouched on the bar stool across from her, bit my fingernails, and read Supergirl.

“Get your fingers out of your mouth. That’s nasty,” she said.

“My fingers aren’t nasty.” I did as she told me but when she turned her back to rinse her hands I stuck out my tongue.

“I saw that!” she said.

“Gawd, Mom. How do you do that?”

“Mothers have eyes in the backs of their heads and in their fingertips. And we can pluck them out whenever we want and have you followed.” Mom wiggled her fingers at me.

I spooned a heap of sugar onto a lemon half, stuck it in my mouth and sucked.

“That’ll rot your teeth.” Mom cut the dough into lattice strips. “But you just go right ahead and let ‘em rot. What do I care? They’re not my teeth.”

While she pinched and pinked the rectangular strips of dough, I slipped out the sliding glass door, wondering if her fingers could see me.

Wyn was dragging the sailboat in. Sneaking up on him, I yanked his bathing suit down to his knees in front of Brigette. Then I bolted, ran along the surf, my legs dripping with globs of wet sand. I ran past rows of stucco beach homes, their pastel colors blurring together. A blue house and a yellow house turning into a green house. Around a bend I scampered up a wall of railroad ties and slid through thick, sharp blades of grass that clung to my feet and ankles. Rounding the street corner, I tried to disappear through the labyrinth of beach houses rising above me, seeming to close in on me as if walking on their stilts.

Wyn caught me behind the tall rusty legs of a rental house built to look like a flying saucer. From the road, the other houses hid its long stilt legs so it looked like it was hovering above the other houses. Through a row of skinny rectangular windows wrapped like a belt around the spaceship’s belly, green glow-in-the-dark alien eyes stared out the windows. No one else seemed to be there. Wyn grabbed me behind my knees, lifted me up and held me tight as I kicked and screamed and wished for a Martian to bean him in the head with some funky laser gizmo. Over his shoulder, he carried me, telling me I was in deep shit for exposing his “package” to Brigette.

“What package?” I asked.

He flung me into the water, pinned me to the sand, dunked me, then pulled off my red, white, and blue, starred-and-striped bikini and left me there naked. The jerk-wad.

I swam back to the beach house like an otter and raced out of the water for a towel to hide in. Inside, I sat down next to my cousins, and helped them mess with a puzzle of the Grand Tetons.

“Heavens to Betsy! How many times do I have to tell you to leave your wet towel outside on the line?” Mom waved a sharp knife in the air.

“Yes, ma’am.” I went outside, hung my towel on the line, and sat my naked ass back down like so what.

“April Edwards!” she used my first and last name to make it clear she wasn’t fooling around. “Where is your suit?”

“Wyn took it.”

“And what did you do to Wyn?”

“Nothing.”

“Uh huh. Well go put some clothes on.” Her lips twitched at the corners. My mother was about to crack. She would get so mad sometimes she’d chase Wyn and me around the house with a wooden spoon and when she caught us, we’d grimace like The Bad Seeds. Seeing us smile, seeing no fear, she would laugh, the wooden spoon going limp in her hands. When she could get a breath in, she’d say, “No. Really now. I’m serious!”

I fit a blue piece into the lake.

“April!” Mom laughed. What did I say?” She pursed her lips together to seal in her giggles. Her face was flushed and with the new way she’d plucked her eyebrows she looked a little like Joan Crawford.

*  *  *

At dawn the next morning, Wyn, Tim and Tommy had a shower from the sprinkler system shooting water inside the open windows of the trailer. Since there wasn’t enough room in the beach house, they all had to sleep in there. Like a pack of wild dogs in a big doghouse. The sound of the jets swoo-swoo-swooshing across the yard had woken me up. I peeked out the window just as they shot across the side of the trailer. Snickering, I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

In the kitchen, Mom made me set plates at our places along the counter. When no one was looking I spat onto a plate, poured Tabasco all over the eggs, and set it down in Wyn’s place.

I watched my brother scarf all of his breakfast like an animal.

Uncle Dodge talked with his mouth full. “I just don’t understand why the sprinkler system came on this morning. I swore I turned that dang thing off.”

“Yeah. We turned it off because it was spraying through the trailer windows.” Wyn glared at me. His face turns as red as Yosemite Sam’s when he gets angry and steam shoots out his ears.

*  *  *

Wyn piled, packed, and smoothed sand over me. Beneath my shut eyelids warm colors swirled. Red whirled into orange whirled into yellow.

“I’m going to bury you alive.” Wyn’s strawberry afro hair stuck out in two places above his temples like devil’s horns.

“So. What.” The sand was cool on my sunburned skin. I listened to the sounds of the grains shifting beneath me and imagined sand crabs crawling through a world of tunnels. If only I could make myself small enough, I could escape my brother and live with the crabs.

He’d snuck up on Brigette and me. Sidled up next to her and said, “Of all the beaches in all the towns in all the world, why’d you have to walk onto mine?” And she was giggling! How could she laugh at that baboon?

He was up to my neck now, packing the sand over my throat, pressing too hard. He looked at Brigette like she was a goddess, and I didn’t like it one bit.

I wanted to wiggle, but I’d crack. Lie still. Don’t move. The sand will break into veins.

“Okay.” Wyn swept the sand ridges away with his big Frankenstein hand. “You’re dead!” Then he asked Brigette if she wanted to go see the jetties. Off they went off without me, abandoning my grave.

I lay there watching their bodies shrink as they walked over the slope towards the water until they looked like nothing but two heads bobbing like buoys on the waves.

*  *  *

Uncle Dodge and my father were drinking margaritas and singing fraternity songs when they spotted me looking for critters underneath the bushes. “Hey, Doodle Bug!” Dad clapped his hands. “Come here and make yourself a ball for us.”

I was moping around because everyone had gone to see Friday the Thirteenth. “You’re not old enough,” they’d said.

At my father’s feet I curled up and wrapped my arms around my knees. He scooped me up and tossed me to Uncle Dodge. Holding tight to my ball, I flew back and forth through the air. Until my mother spotted us from inside the kitchen window, which she rattled open — all aprons, anger, and wooden spoons — and told us to cut it out!

Later, Uncle Dodge gave me a white paper surgical suit and a pair of latex gloves. I stuffed the suit with the newspaper, blew up the gloves and taped them to the sleeves, and with more wadded newspaper, I made a roundish head to fit inside Tim’s hockey mask.

Mom and Dad were playing Life with Uncle Dodge and Aunt Joyce. Looking up occasionally to watch Planet of the Apes, I could see Dad playing footsie with Aunt Joyce, who was stacking, one by one, all her toes in a neat pile on top of her big toe.

I stuck a hanger through Michael Myers’s shoulders and Uncle Dodge helped me hang him from the ceiling fan, a few feet from the front door.

When my cousin’s green VW Bug — we called it the Toad — crunched over the shell driveway, I sat up, giggled, and waited to hear the front door open. I heard them scream bloody murder when they saw Jason brandishing an ax over their heads. I muffled my laughter in a pillow and pretended to be asleep. A few minutes later Brigette tiptoed in, shuffled around in her luggage, and on her way back out, tripped on the rug. I cracked an eye to see her tumbling to the linoleum floor. She pulled herself up awkwardly, using the wall for leverage. Then she closed the door quietly behind her. I was disappointed they didn’t all come clobber me.

Hearing the sliding glass door opening against the gritty sand in the track, I got up to find out what was going on without me.

At first I didn’t see anyone. I climbed the stairs to the deck, and from the top step I watched Wyn and Brigette walking away from me, down the beach, hand-in-hand. I wanted to follow, fit right in between them. Listening to the slow shush of water as it hit the retaining wall, I wondered what Brigette found so interesting about my grody brother. The simple fact that he was a boy wasn’t enough ‘cause girls can do all the things boys can. Mom had told me this. I took the all part literally, to the point where once in a while I peed standing up to prove it. I had even pissed my name in the snow when my brother said I couldn’t.

In the distance their silhouettes met with the hook of a burnt orange crescent moon. I watched them hang from the moon like that until it hurt so bad I wanted to scream. I felt lonelier than when I was told, You can’t come. You’re too young. I imagined what I couldn’t see. The two of them making out. If I tattled on them maybe they wouldn’t disappear together. Maybe Wyn wouldn’t be so cruel to me. Maybe Brigette would have to go home.

*  *  *

I wandered around looking for Brigette, for Wyn, for Tim and Tommy. I couldn’t find anyone, so I sat on the retaining wall, my legs dangling over the edge, and ate one slice of watermelon after the next. We “kids” had the place to ourselves. The “adults” had taken an excursion to Chatahoochie to buy seafood and seashells. The ripples on the bay were chasing each other. Suddenly I felt dizzy, couldn’t sit up straight, and fell into the water in a fit of giggles. I floated on my back, and from there could see Wyn and Brigette smooching on the deck, the noon sun blazing down on them, burning their skin. I could drown, I thought, and no one would care. I sat up with my weight on the palms of my hands, my butt skidding across the sand. “Gross!” I yelled. They paid no attention to me. “Hello? Hey, hey, hey!” I ran in circles with the tips of my fingers skimming the water. “Hey! Check this out!” I dove into a handstand and tried to walk on my hands but fell over.

“Go bury your face in the sand!” Wyn shouted.

Suddenly, I felt sick. The beach house was spinning all over the place. Tim was beating the hell out of Tommy for messing with his battleship models. I tried to pull myself up and slipped, my head butting against the corrugated aluminum as I slid into the sound. I spat out sand and bawled.

Tommy stood over me, smiling. “Need some help, Squirt?”

“Something’s wrong with the swatermelon,” I said.

“Yeah.” Tommy reached down and pulled me up. “It’s like loaded with Everclear.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Alcohol, Kiddo.”

“Uh-oh.” I lay in the grass and watched Tommy wading sideways into the water. Tim came running out the back door and bolted past me. Leaping into the bay like a monkey, he helped Tommy carry in the crab trap. It was full of the little suckers. Their pinchers reaching through the cage bars. Unlatching the door, the crabs scrambled on top of each other trying to get out. Their pincers reaching for something familiar, something wet. So they wouldn’t scuttle away, Tim kicked sand in their eyes and Tommy buried them in sand.

“Come help us.”

“Help you do swhat?” I wobbled into a sitting position.

“We’ll show you.” Tommy said.

Squatting beside him, I helped pile more sand over their cracking, quivering graves. He told me to watch what he was doing. Holding one hand firmly on top of a crab, he snapped off a claw. Then it was my turn. I steadied my hand over one and tore the legs off one side. I was surprised how they loosened away from the body so easily, shocked that my little hand could do such a cruel thing. I pulled the legs off the other side, feeling prouder and prouder as Tommy complimented me, saying, That’s right. But I didn’t feel exactly right when I watched my crab thrust its pinchers into the sand and try to drag its body forward, towards the water, back home. I remembered Mom once told me grasshoppers were to me, as I was to some bigger bug. Like an alien or something. I felt sick. Dropping the leg, I stared at the crab’s body and then threw it at Tommy.

I ran to the spaceship beach house, sat on the steps and stared at the plastic aliens in the windows. Their oval eyes glowed down on me. Condemning me. I imagined them storming out of their spaceship, plucking me from the sand, tearing me limb from limb. I’m sorry, I whispered.

Walking back, I watched schools of silver fish with strange iridescent eyes. I fantasized about living in an underwater world. The undulating surface of sand drifts like mountains and valleys, kelp swaying in the water like trees in the wind at night, leaning towards the road, reaching their branches out to tell us something secret, something meaningful.

*  *  *

My mother was pinching the heads off shrimp. She wore plastic gloves covered in guts. I sat on the counter and stared into the bowl of beady eyes that looked at me sideways. Why was everything staring at me? Mom pushed a pile of shrimp in my direction. “Make yourself useful. And get off the counter. It’s unladylike.”

I watched the way she dug into the shells with her thumb, popping the heads off into the bowl. I sunk my hand in and got the heebeegeebees. “Mom? This is way too disgusting,” I said feeling wet slime ooze onto my finger.

“Why don’t you make a salad then, Miss Priss.”

Salad was much easier to deal with. No eyes.

After I made a salad, I helped my mother fold the laundry. Then I swept the living room, dining room, and kitchen. I even cleaned the bathroom. I knew she knew I wanted something, but she didn’t let on. Probably trying to get as much work out of me as she could. Finally, when I asked her if there was anything else I could do, she said, “Honey. Thank you for helping out. If there’s something you want, the answer is n period o period.”

“I saw Wyn and Brigette making out.” The words ran like melting butter out of my mouth.

She snapped a sheet in the air. Watching it sail immaculately over the bed, I was sorry I told.

“Thank you, Dear. You can run along now,” was all she said.

During dinner my father talked on and on about a pesticide FuturChem was developing. No one was listening. “We’ve got to get the Asians interested in this one.” Dad waved a shrimp by its tail before popping it into his mouth.

I looked around the table. Studied everyone’s eyes to see if anyone was on to me. Mostly everyone else looked as guilty as I did.

After dinner, Mom told Wyn not to “run off.”

He made a what-did-I-do-face and said, “Yes, ma’am.”

When the dishes were washed, leftovers sealed, counters and tables sponged, Mom and Wyn went up on the deck for a talksy. Below them I hid in the bushes, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The wind was blowing too hard. I waited and waited. Scared to move.

I don’t know how much time passed before Wyn sniffed me out. It didn’t seem like very long when he thrust his big hairy arm into the hedge. Picking me up by my ankles he carried me upside-down to the Toad, where he dropped me into the trunk like a bag of dog food.

As he pushed down on the hood, I tried to kick it open and wound up with my foot in my mouth. Then everything went black. Blacker than black. Most of the time I liked the liquid solitude of dark confined spaces. At home I would sit in the cedar closet of our basement for hours pretending I was camping. Stranded in the woods. Injured. Dying. Over the sofa and coffee tables I would build forts, draping sleeping bags and blankets to make a tent. In these places I could create my own worlds where light seeped warmly through cracks, between cedar planks, and through fabric. In the trunk, without a pinhole of light, there was nothing defining the limits of my space. I felt like I was floating in outer space. But when the Toad hopped, I collided with edges, and my world shattered. I guessed by the way the car turned that we were headed down the beach, away from town. I crouched into a ball and protected my head with my hands.

After what seemed like forever, we pulled over and stopped. Then I heard the car door open, Wyn’s footsteps, his key in the lock. I climbed out and begged him not to hurt me. Holding my arms behind my back he pushed the back of my head with the palm of his hand. “You are going to get it get it get it.

The wind blew. The big ocean waves thundered up the beach. And there was no one around. He’d driven out past all the houses, where there weren’t any lights. I tried not to blink, to keep the welling pools of tears from spilling onto my cheeks. I didn’t want him to see my fear reflected in the moonlight. He marched me in front of him, through the sand dunes. Then he shoved me into a fat clump of sea oats, uncoiled a rope, whipped out a blade on his Swiss Army Knife, and cut several long pieces of rope. Pinning my wrists against the bottom of the oats, he tied me so tight the weeds bundled together and shrunk to a tiny clump.

“Oh. I’m sooo scared.” I said.

Leaning over me he let out the most revolting cabbage-smelling burp.

“Dégeulasse.” I used a French word I’d learned from Brigette that meant more than disgusting.

Pulling at a lock of my hair, he went boing boing boing as he let go and watched it spring back. I watched the clouds float across the sky like icebergs on a black ocean. I dug my fingers into the sand. With his Swiss Army knife he hacked loosely at a hunk of my hair. “You’re an ignoramus.”

“I know you are but what am I?” I said.

“You’re going to be real sorry when Brigette leaves. You’re not going to have any Big Sister to play with.” Wyn untied my hands and pinned them down. His thumbs pressing hard into my wrists. “No one to come to your rescue.”

“What?” I acted all surprised.

“Don’t what me. You wanted to get Brigette in trouble.” His pupils shone like holes through his head to the stars. I could hear the waves crash into the beach and fizzle away.

“I would never. I love Brigette!” I said. The wind blew harder and I wanted to shield my eyes from the sand.

“You’re too young to know what love is.”

“You’re not the only one she kissed,” I told him.

“She didn’t kiss you like she kissed me,” he said.

“How do you know?” I said. “You weren’t there.”

“Did she kiss you on the lips?”

“Yes.”

“Did she…” Wyn smashed his lips against mine. I tried to move my head to the side, but he took my chin and held tight. He slobbered all over me, trying to shove my lips open with his tongue, and when he did I bit down hard. He made an Ooow sound that was all muffled and weak in my mouth, then pinched me hard in the ribs until I let go.

“You better confess or I’m going to cut off your naturally ugly hair.”

“I swear on Mom’s grave I didn’t tell!” I said fearlessly, like I believed it.

He whacked off a lock, held it in front of my face to prove he wasn’t kidding. “You’re too young to swear.”

“I am not too young, dammit!”

“Mom’s going to send Brigette home.”

“No way!” I sobbed into the sea oats. I never really wanted my mother to send Brigette home, and realized at that moment what it meant to be careful what you wished for.

“Yes way. And it’s all your fault,” he twisted my arm behind my back.

I blinked at the stars. So far away they couldn’t save me.

“Say it,” he said. “Say it!”

“Mercy,” I said faintly.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll only let you go if you tell Mom you lied and beg her not to send Brigette home.”

Crying an ocean, I told him I would. That I was sorry and would do anything so she could stay. Finally, he untied me and I ran after him. Afraid he’d leave me there if I didn’t keep up.

Wyn let me ride in the passenger seat on the way back. He told me Brigette was even madder at me than he was, and probably wouldn’t ever be my friend again.

When we got back, Brigette was curled up in bed, clutching her pillow to her chin, crying.

“Brigette?” My palms were all sweaty. “I’m really really really sorry.”

Brigette wiped her eyes. “I don’t want to go home! We are having fun. No? We are girlfriends. No?” She threw her face in her hands, and her copper-colored shoulders shook.

I wrapped my arm around her. “I’m so sorry. I don’t want you to go home.”

“Why can not I be friends with you and your brother?”

I kissed her on each cheek and told her everything would be okay. That I’d fix it. I never felt so horrible in my whole life.

*  *  *

Breakfast the next morning was like a funeral reception. Except for the scrape of silverware across plates and bowls, everyone was quiet. I felt guilty, like I’d killed the person whose funeral I was attending, and no one would point the finger. Brigette, Wyn, and my cousins all sat on bar stools along the kitchen counter with their chins dipping into plastic bowls of Count Chocula and Captain Crunch. In their grubby paws they held spoons and read comic books. I made myself a bowl of Kaboom and when I sat in my place next to Wyn, he kicked me in the shin. “Why don’t you go sit somewhere else,” he said. “We don’t want you here!”

I held my head down in shame and slunk outside. In the porch swing I planted my feet on the ground and made sure not to rock. I didn’t deserve to rock. I stared into my cereal, stirring and mashing the colorful clown faces until they all bled together and turned the milk that vile dark gray color you get if you mix too much blue with red when you want to make purple. Gulls, crying like babies, dove into the bay and caught fish in their beaks.

After everyone had finished eating, I went back inside, stacked all their bowls in mine, and put them in the dishwasher. Like a poor man’s Cinderella cleaning up after her evil stepsisters. Mom raised an eyebrow at me. Around her waist she tied an apron that read, “Kiss the Cook.” She opened a packet of lemonade-flavored Kool-Aid, poured it into a glass pitcher, added water, a handful of lemon slices, and stirred and stirred.

I watched the liquid spin into a funnel and wanted to disappear in the vortex. “Mom? Uh. I need to tell you something.”

“Sweetie. Don’t you worry your pretty little head off.” She pat me on the top of my head. “Your father and I have it all taken care of.”

“But Mom? No,” I said. “I lied about Wyn and Brigette. See, I just wanted to freak Wyn out for being a gay-wad. He put sand in our Slurpees and glued us to the bed. Please don’t send Brigette home. It’s not her fault. Please, please, please don’t sent her back to France.”

Mom wiped her hands on her apron and held me by my shoulders. “We’re not sending Brigette home,” she said. “I’ve spoken to your brother,” she grinned. “Now you go on and mind your own beeswax. The only thing worse than a snitch is a liar. And you’re too old for that.”

Wyn made up the part about Brigette leaving and I was pissed he’d scared me and made me cry and everything, but I vowed to quit spying on them all the time. Mom never said anything about throwing me in the trunk of the Toad or driving me out to the ocean or cutting my hair, either.

When Mom wasn’t looking, I fished a lemon slice out of the pitcher.

“Why don’t you enjoy the time left you have with Brigette.” Mom took the lemon out of my hand, rinsed it off, and put it back in the pitcher.

“But she’s with Wyn all the time.” I made a sour face.

“No buts. There’s a lot you could learn from Brigette. She could teach you some French.”

Yeah. If she wasn’t so busy teaching Wyn French.

*  *  *

When Brigette did have to go back to France, her last day sneaked up on us too soon. That final day my brother and I shared her, curling into either side of her like ears, hovering around her like insects rubbing their wings together.

At the beach, we built the biggest sandcastle, searched for special seashells, ate American junk food all day, and took pictures of everything.

That night I fell asleep dreaming of the ocean, rocking seahorses and bleached branches of driftwood. I didn’t need a conch to hear the ocean when I’d been swallowing the sea for years.

When I opened my eyes the sky looked startled. That ghostly glow just before dawn. Brigette’s arm was flung over my chest. Like a seagull wavering over the beach, my hand hovered over Brigette’s. She opened her big cocoa-colored eyes. “Mon petite chouette,” she said and kissed my cheeks.

After we said goodbye to her at the airport, my brother locked himself in the trailer. I was trying to mind my own business, but as I crouched outside the door, I heard him crying. Except for the yelps of Tim and Tommy fighting, the sunny beach house was gloomy and silent without Brigette’s laughing and phffing, tumbling into walls and slipping on rugs.

When everyone had gone to sleep, I tiptoed down the dark, gritty hallway, felt my way into the kitchen, and opened the freezer, where Uncle Dodge kept a bag of Snickers.

“Hey. I want one too.” Wyn yanked my ear and covered my mouth with his giant hand. It was as big as my head now, and I told him they should make a B-movie about it.

Handing him a Snickers, I pried his fingers away from my mouth. “Geez, all you had to do was ask. You don’t have to be so cruel about everything,” I said, following him out the front door and up the street.

“You’re not old enough to be out this late,” he said.

“Shut up,” I said, sucking on my frozen candy bar and trailing him to the Gulf.

Beneath the night sky, the waves were lit up as if the sky, the moon, and the stars had fallen into the ocean. Digging my big toe in the wet sand, I ran along the surf backwards, watching the phosphorescence sparkle and glint along my twisted path.

“Let’s go skinny dipping.” Wyn dropped his jean shorts and ran for the water.

It was hot and still that night. I pulled my sundress over my head and shook the flip-flops off my feet. As I followed my brother into the dark water, I stared at his bare white butt and wondered if, like growing too old for trick-or-treating and believing in Santa Claus, we were too old to see each other naked.

Diving into the waves, I swam through the dark until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer.

Where we stood, my toes barely touched ground. The absence of gravity drew me closer to my brother, then pushed us apart. He lifted my legs around his waist and suddenly I wanted to hurt him, but he was bigger and stronger. For as far as I could see, up and down the shoreline, there were no lights illuminating beach house windows and no people sitting on their decks or taking walks along the beach. Our skin felt strange together. Wyn walked in swift circles stirring up a whirlpool and I held onto his shoulders. The spiraling force grew stronger and faster, as if we were being drawn into the center of a galaxy. Out of breath and stumbling, he lifted his feet from the sea bottom, and as the force swirled us around, the moon and stars painted comet tail streaks across the sky.

At night, the moonlight slithered over the surface of the water like sea snakes. The freckled skin of my brother’s fingers like eels disappearing under the black magic water. In the distance unseen, time was kinking the ocean’s rhythms like a heart palpitation and a giant wave was gathering. After awhile, the undertow tugging us, lifting our feet from the sea bed, as the silver jaw crested over us, separating us, swallowing us, slamming us to the ocean bottom where the sound was like voices traveling through tunnels, through the lips of conch shells. A slow swoosh, as close as your ear, but muffled, distant, and as fleeting as the last breath you can hold under water.

 


Copyright © 2017 TINGE Magazine. All rights reserved.