The pool was bleeding. Byron noticed, adrift in shade on my shark floater: an acorn hit him on the head and he’d opened his eyes to find it bobbing in the water, ribbons of red uncoiling beneath. Came and got me and I got mom and she got dad.
“It’s not blood,” mom said, squinting. “What is it.”
“Not blood,” dad agreed.
No swimming till our pool guy Darren gave the OK. Byron and Mackenzie fought on the rock waterfall while he worked, Kenz fussing her bikini for tanline checks, Byron plugging the spout with his foot for fields of spray, gagging when he glimpsed the Runt’s flatness. That plus Darren’s screaming equipment plus Berkie pawing the door to go out were fucking up this Mozart piece, and just as I banged the piano shut, Kenzie materialized, dripping on hardwood. She did her who-wouldn’t-love-this smile, ran a tongue over top teeth. The braces were finally gone, but not the nightmares: threaded metal tightening, the crank when gum and bone pulled apart.
“Can you beat Byron up?”
He almost won (we’ll be the same size again soon, but he looks like my botched clone), and I took the injury, a black eye even mom asked about. Already said, Tinman whanged me with his axe in rehearsal. Anyway, I pushed Byron into the water when he thought it was all over.
“You’re not supposed to!” Kenzie wailed. Byron heaved himself onto the deck, sputtering.
“I know,” he went, and rubbed where I’d bitten him.
Darren came out to collect his stuff and said: Your standard red algae, killable with chemicals. Daddo doesn’t check the pH too often, he laughed.
“Nah,” said Byron, shivering in my towel, “but I give it a litmus test now and then.”
* * * *
Neuter Your Pet Day at Barker Field: drop them with lab-coated people at the turnstiles, pick them up fixed after. We had put off doing Berkie long enough. Took baseball gloves and crammed into the backseat. Dad came out of the house alone.
“Can I sit up front, then?” Kenz asked, but we were already moving.
“Factory was going crazy last night,” Byron said.
“You don’t hear? It goes whooooofff: krang!” He shook his whole face; his cheeks swung where he’d lost the fat. Mackenzie squealed. I made my own noise. She reminded me I wasn’t funny. I kept at it, and she sang Spice Girls to drown me out. By the time Berkie started howling, dad was threatening to pull over.
The ballpark, PS, had only neutering. Spay Day was a week before, and did we expect them to babysit our mutt for three hours? We piled back in the car, came home and found mom in an Adirondack chair by the hot tub, having a gin and tonic with Darren. They looked at us and down at the pool deck. At a soggy broken squirrel piled on a bed of pink splatter. Clods of dirty grass and a single acorn for garnish. It was dusk but the underwater lights were off.
“Algae strikes again,” said Byron.
“Deep in the filter,” Darren explained, “missed it the first time.”
“Where’s your father?” asked mom. “Game over so soon?”
Kenzie cried because a cute thing died, then said she was PMSing and wasn’t hungry for dinner.
“Nobody’s making you,” I said.
“And you don’t have PMS,” Byron added, scratching his balls.
Dad showed up with a beer. Darren fiddled with his crappy State U visor, told him these accidents come with the territory: animals get disoriented, follow the lights, then drink, fall, drown, get stuck. He brandished his gizmo for sucking them out, I guess expecting us to be wowed.
“Wonder about diseases,” Byron said to the squirrel, and went inside for a book with the answer. Dad said if we’re talking drowning then why the blood and scrapes.
“Prolly thrashed around a bit,” Darren said.
Now or never I saw dad think before he fired the guy. It took Darren a long ten minutes to pack up his crap as we figured out dinner. Mom asked if we wanted barbecued cow and suggested dad would be happy to cook.
We ate out on the deck, slapping ourselves pink from mosquitoes. The pool quietly hummed and stuttered—there was the factory for you. Byron said the neighbors should be forced to sign a waiver: any of their dumb kids might wander over and . . . whatever.
“Wouldn’t be our fault,” Kenzie said.
“On our property it is,” I told her.
Byron nodded gravely, steak juice on his chin. Mom said we’d put in fences first, but the zoning.
“I do have PMS,” Kenzie pouted. “Can we have separate birthday parties this year?” Berkie stole the napkin from my lap and fled.
“How’s The Wiz, you two?” asked mom. I said fine and Kenzie said good. She’s Toto, so how hard could it be.
“He apologize for hitting you in the face?” dad was keen to know.
“Who?” asked Byron.
“Ryan never hit him,” Kenz practically sang, stabbing the potato she refused to eat.
“What I don’t get,” said dad, the water purring under his voice, “is why you have a bunch of white kids do that show.”
* * * *
We carpooled with Ryan, this total wart. Every other morning, his dad drove him, Kenz, and me to rehearsal. Byron got dropped at squash or science camp. They lived nearby in half a McMansion sealed up with pink siding—money ran out, according to mom. Their crummy jeep’s rear window was missing. On cold dewy mornings in the way-back, you felt it. Ryan’s dad would blow through town at seventy miles an hour, telling stories about Iraq, or German rollercoasters that he’d ridden drunk. American coasters, he assured us, were choking on buttloads of German dust.
“Can we turn on the radio?” Kenzie never gave up asking.
Ryan was even worse than his dad, smelly and he blinked too hard. Squeezed his eyes shut. Dad couldn’t remember his name but called him Tinman, which worked, and made us acknowledge his existence: “Meanwhile, what’s up with the Tinman?” One morning he threw himself into the backseat and asked if a blue jay had gotten down our chimney, too.
“What,” I said, dropping the quarter I’d had walking over my knuckles.
“Heard this flapping when I was on IM last night, and I went in the den and a blue jay was in the fireplace soot jumping around, like, panicking.”
I wondered if Ryan was retarded.
“Why would that happen to us just cause it happened to you?” Byron asked. Ryan burrowed into his shoulder, giggling. Byron pressed his face against his racquet’s. “Kenzie should have to sit in the middle,” he mumbled through the mesh.
“We don’t even have a chimney,” Kenz said, squirming as the boys struggled and mashed her against the door.
“Just the hook for Tinman’s story,” said dad. “Lighten up, Mack.”
“Tell By to lighten up.”
“Byron, lighten up.”
“Had to keep Schmoozer—that’s the white cat with spots—we had to keep him away,” Ryan went, trying to make Byron punch himself. “Sometimes he brings us dead birds like they’re presents.”
“Ew,” said Kenz. “Glad Berkie doesn’t.” She asked about the radio. Byron leaned forward, elbowing Ryan in the chest, and dialed to dad’s classic rock station. I reached under the chair for my quarter, touched slime, kept trying.
* * * *
Mom spent her vacation criticizing the guest columnist. She’d mutter initialisms, WTO, J18, G8 . . . said she’d better get Seattle come November. I was up early one Saturday to try a pushup routine and found Kenz on the porch, peeling off the op-eds. I snuck up behind and scared her bad.
When mom said she was going out for another Times, to replace her missing opinion pages, I said I’d go, but not to tattle. Just needed a reason to move, any sort: the hot tub was too relaxing. I slipped into the colder pool, waking up my skin.
In the driveway, the Runt was leaning against the Explorer, arms folded, mom cycling through her half-dozen keys.
You promised, Mack mouthed before turning to bare teeth at mom. She asked if we could get pet rabbits, boy and girl. Mom unlocked the car with the key, not the button, and said there were too many rabbits already. Inside, the dog went nuts.
Found her standing in the den, barking right in Byron’s face, Byron doing sit-ups in a tank top, watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Brushing dark dog hairs off his jagged mini-muscles. Berkie glanced back and thumped her tail on my shin when she saw I had the harness.
I led her out back. Jacuzzi bubbles were still on; I hit the switch again. Buzzing quit, but the pool lights came on weakly. Berkie curled up close to the water.
* * * *
Later dad called me into his office. Said I touched the pool controls. Aren’t we supposed to? He called me smartass for saying that.
“They don’t need your help shopping,” he said. “Hang out with girls enough as is.”
“They asked me.”
“You’re old for it.”
He was curious what we’d covered in health class. Everything, I thought.
“Some people bloom late, some early,” he said. “Everybody’s different, you know?” I had to zone out as the talk went on—there was bad calm in it.
“Respect girls and don’t get one pregnant,” I heard.
In the fax tray were papers that had gone through. Top one had Darren’s name and number. A picture of his truck.
“Anything you want to tell me?” dad went. “You know I love you no matter what.”
* * * *
Snuck out that night. Everyone went to Ryan’s basement, his dad wasn’t there, didn’t care. More people than last time, most from the play. Schmoozer went around trying to get some affection. Wanted to pet him, but allergies. Ryan drank two beers and interrupted my quarter tricks to announce that my parents weren’t divorced.
You’re the only one, he crooned.
I drank some more but didn’t feel it.
What was with this girl? I’d talked to her once at rehearsal . . . she tackled me into the bathroom and shut the door behind us. Outside they laughed, they her plans. She made me take my clothes off. Blew me just because, felt like. First I gently tried to stop it, then I watched the doorknob and worried. Was I allowed to touch her tits during? I didn’t, to be safe. Then she put my hands there and I was pissed at myself. A knocking started, the doorknob rattled and I probably said No. Couldn’t decide what to do at the end, so I stopped thinking, which made the end come sooner.
I crept back over our lawn, the grass rustling louder than fucking World War II. Lifted the second-to-last flagstone and felt out our spare key in the dirt. Found the front door. Missed the lock and dropped the key. Bending over was like: maybe get ready to puke.
Darren’s pickup was parked across the street. I stared. Must’ve been there a while, glowing white in the dark. Shadows sliced the letters on the side, hiding everything but MENACE.
I re-read: MAINTENANCE.
I blinked and then I was walking over. The truck coughed dryly and sped away with its headlights off. Down the street, another ignition caught, a van that followed Darren.
The house was asleep but I couldn’t close my eyes. In the den I rewound Byron’s video. Maybe because of the beer I couldn’t follow the story, something about blackmail, and the lamp next to me kept flickering. Burnt my fingers trying to screw the lightbulb tighter. Hitchcock said if anyone from the year 2000 was watching, they ought to send him a letter describing life in the future.
Overhead there were two thuds like heavy luggage dropping, and Berkie lost it outside. Glass broke. Dad said something, but “fucking” and “baby” were the words I caught. “Grow up,” mom’s clear voice sang, like Mackenzie’s. “He’s not out for revenge.” Their bedroom door slammed too hard—I heard it swing back open. Dad asking.
Mom: “Take it, then.”
Another slam, and it stuck this time.
I snapped the light off and rolled under the couch.
Dad’s feet slapped across the wood. He turned off the static, blaming Byron. His bathing suit fell close to my face and he picked it up and walked on, popping a beer in the kitchen. The sliding scrapey sound. Blue patterns in waves on the rug. I crawled to the bamboo plant by the door, where central air wrestled with gross heat.
The pool lights were spazzing. They briefly shot on full. Saw dad at the waterfall’s control panel, jabbing with a knuckle. He stopped to change out of his boxers, and I looked away just in time, above the stammering blue. He mashed all the buttons, and colors turned off. The waterfall hiccupped once.
A splash. Berkie, zipping back and forth on her cable, growling at dad as he cut white wake in the dark. She hated the idea of swimming. Black fur shining in the moonlight. Eventually she broke her path and loped off into hanging black shapes.
Dad swam full laps before taking air. I tried to hold my breath too.
There was a wobbly screech, finale of Kenzie’s orthodontist nightmare, and dad paused for a minute. He stood in the shallows, waiting for more.
The little suns blazed, circling him, and bubbles madly foamed in the hot tub. His head flung a spray of moondrops. Electricity fell away.
Then Byron’s true factory noise in total blindness, a swallowing torrent of air like jet engines. Something touched the edge of the wind; it killed the storm with an echoless clang.
And there, with my sight askew and slowly rebooting, was dad in total fear, a creature all teeth and hair and fingers trying desperately to be born, to evolve out of the streaming ooze, find an edge, and pull itself up.
* * * *
Next morning I said I was too sick for rehearsal. Hard white daytime creeping over my bed. Took Victoria’s Secret out but couldn’t get things going. Models stared at you like they were disappointed. I was sick of my CDs—annoying baby music. A buzzing roar was just the landscapers’ mower, and I watched them sweat through an afternoon. I’d finally fallen asleep by the time Kenzie’s crying came through the vents. Stayed at the top of the stairs, asking if it was safe to come down.
“Come in here if you want to talk,” mom said.
In the kitchen I found her and Kenzie, a folder of death threats between them on the counter. Outside the sliding door was the pool. Wet patches on its plastic cover sparkled for the sunset.
“Why do you keep them?” Kenzie demanded.
“So sensitive,” mom went. She was dicing onions.
“If any of them kill mom,” Byron yelled from the bathroom, “we’ll have a case for premeditated.” The toilet flushed way loud.
“Mack, honey, these people are losers. I’m not the one out-sourcing.”
“Murders by assembly line workers are up,” Byron quoted as he came out waving dad’s piece in Newsweek.
“Stop!” Kenzie cried. Mom dumped her onions in a pan and groaned.
“Stop saying ‘stop,’” she said. “You may no longer say ‘stop.’”
“Is there a personal hate letter from Darren?” Byron asked. He picked up mom’s reminder notepad and tapped his lips with her pen.
“That you’ll have to ask your father,” mom said.
Kenzie mentioned that after rehearsal a girl had asked for me. Maybe one of the dancers. I had to know which, but naturally she couldn’t remember the name, only what color nail polish.
“I told her not to bother, you have no personality.”
Byron smirked the right way, never looked up from his writing. We waited until mom left, then plucked Mack from the stool and hefted her out back, stretched and swinging like a hammock.
“This is why no one likes you!” she screamed. Byron lifted a few cicada skins from the trees that separate our yard from the Petruzellis’ and hung them by their barbs in Mack’s hair while she bellowed.
“Tell us to stop,” Byron said.
“Aw,” she moaned, “your breath is nasty.”
I asked, did somebody have a bad dream last night? Who’s the baby?
Dad came out toting a long metal pole with hook and net attachments and muttered that mom better not’ve called Darren. What to say to that. We dropped Kenz, who ran off. Dad toed a yellow spot on the lawn, jammed the hook extension on. Flipped up a corner of the pool cover, kneeled over the filter duct, fed the pole in carefully. Nothing on the hook when it came back out. We waited, and a bloodslick cruised into view.
“Yup,” dad said. He reinserted the pole, tongue bent in the corner of his mouth. Handfuls of grass and dirt floated free. Then a slashed rabbit. He swapped the hook for the net, fished it out, told Byron to grab a garbage bag.
“How’d you know?” Byron said.
We followed him to the driveway. The trash cans were knocked over, cereal boxes and string cheese wrappers all shredded.
“Raccoons,” dad said, “again.”
We helped clean it up. The rabbit went in with the rest of the garbage. The garbage went out to the street for collection.
* * * *
Had to dress up for a muscular dystrophy dinner. Berkie kept tugging Byron’s dress socks off his feet. Mom reminded us that we had long ago promised to walk a dog if we got one. Dad said responsibility was a notion we’d be wise to embrace.
“Poor girl was out all night,” he informed us.
“Berkie always sleeps in my room,” Kenzie went, using up mom’s lipstick, adjusting ransacked jewelry. “She likes to protect me.” So, were we going to tell her that wasn’t true? I turned to do Byron’s tie, but he’d learned.
“Don’t lose my earrings,” mom said. “Remember the AIDS banquet.” Kenzie handed the silver tube back and snapped her compact shut in my face.
“Nobody felt worse about that than me,” she said.
As we walked out I tore the top sheet from mom’s notepad and shoved it in my blazer pocket. Soon as I could, I ducked out of the Hilton ballroom and found a freezing men’s room where it smelled like someone was shitting cologne. I flattened the paper out and read:
Dear Mr. Hitchcock—
Still a few months till the year 2000, but trust me,
it’ll be too much.
I came back to him and Kenzie guffawing as the grown-ups posed for a picture on stage. Byron filled me in:
“Mom was threatening to adopt one of the muscular dystrophy kids.”
“If we didn’t behave!” gasped Kenzie. “How about a deformed little brother?”
“Wouldn’t stand a chance against us,” I said. Found a quarter in my pocket and bounced it into Kenzie’s glass of water.
“Sharing with you two is bad enough,” she admitted.
“Blame science,” said Byron. “Works too well.”
“We want a kid . . .” I prompted.
“Have three!” they shouted together.
* * * *
Next rehearsal: same old. “You Can’t Win” stopped right as we got to the box-step needing work. The crows couldn’t help but whine.
“Scarecrow’s got to have more soul,” Mr. Dunbar said, a bald spot bouncing behind the crappy upright piano. “Dance with soul.” Kenzie cracked up in the wing. “Have you watched the original?” Dunbar asked yet again.
“Hey brainless,” Kenzie called when I came backstage.
“Hey bitch,” I went.
“Not funny,” she pouted.
Ryan popped out from behind a flat of painted city skyline and invited us to a party. When Kenz got away he made sure: Kenz would bring other girls, right? Asked if Byron would come too. Told him no one wanted that. The dancers passed through in a whispering knot. None with pink nail polish.
At home dad said to hold off on the pool. He fetched the pole, did the routine and freed a raccoon with its throat inside-out. Screwed open a valve and dumped powder in, told us to wait another half hour. We sat uprooting grass till a killer skunk smell made us run inside.
Figured I might as well practice that Mozart. Turned out I still sucked. From the kitchen I heard mom say, “Darren? It . . . yeah.” Then dad, stomping up from the basement: “Give me.” A violent crash in the glass recycling. “No, I do not need your help,” dad said—into the phone, I think. “I know what you’re doing.”
Weak heartbeats. Byron hitting a squash ball against the outside of the house, regular as a metronome. I started to play in time, but I could never keep up.
“Since then it’s been clockwork,” dad said. “Controls are glitched. And there’s no reason you can think of.”
Mom yelled for me to stop playing, then asked if I would fetch a new bottle, a couple left in the downstairs fridge. I played louder, with more mistakes.
“You think I won’t do something about your behavior?” dad said.
Mom asked if I’d heard her.
“Come in here if you want to talk,” I offered.
“Say it’s normal again,” dad went. “Go ahead.”
A damp hand landed on my shoulder. From there it moved to my cheek. You could feel her sway to the music.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “What is it?”
“Mozart Fantasy in C Minor.”
“You have no idea, do you,” dad said.
“Play me something,” she went. Her fingers found my neck. “You never play for me.”
The phone slammed down.
“Play something and sing with it.”
“It’s so easy to make me happy, and no one wants to.” She wrapped me from behind and kissed the top of my head.
“Got that out of your system?” mom said, joining dad in the kitchen. He said he had to apologize. He was talking softly. Mom snorted.
“We’ll see,” she laughed.
I leaned back to see dad kissing her into the wall.
* * * *
Even with bug candles we were eaten alive at dinner. Fireflies out pulsing in force. Pool lights winked off. Minutes later, they started blinking.
“Great corn,” mom mentioned.
“Ready,” said Byron.
“Ready,” mimicked Kenz.
“That’s what the pool is flashing. Morse code.”
“Stop,” I said.
“How come he gets to say it,” Kenzie whined, “and I get in trouble.”
“All in the delivery,” dad said.
“Did you call about the possums under the porch?” mom asked.
“Ready,” said Byron, “it’s ready for sure.”
“You all hate me,” Kenzie said.
* * * *
Dad plumbed the pool filter for dead things. Once it was a blue jay and crow together, which mom said was good news for the flowers. “But those deer’ve been wreaking havoc, too.” Dad taught us his method for yanking the animals out. Just a regular chore. When I slept through the factory noise, I dreamed about tornados that danced across my tongue. We once pried a skunk out of the chute. Doesn’t stink when it’s dead, I noted. Byron shook his head.
“Pool’s always trying new things,” he said.
“Darren’s doing it,” I said. “Don’t you know anything?”
“Darren,” Byron smiled, “must have better things to do.”
We got dad when something was wedged too tight. He couldn’t work it loose either, hired a new pool guy to help him extract this bony, white-spotted fawn. Unballed on the grass, you could see gashes like a lion had brought it down, the soaked fur standing as it dried. Berkie trotted over and put her nose against its belly. Tried to nudge it back toward the pool, whimpering, and that’s still the saddest thing I’ve seen.
She ran away the next day. Sort of. Sometimes you’d hear her jangling choke chain. But it would fade, replaced by gurgling water and the drone of so many cicadas.
Can’t recall when I closed the piano and heard the jangle close by. Brightness rang over the patio, dimming in the yard. I opened the door and heard a rhythmic panting. We hadn’t blown out the new tiki torches, and beyond them glowed the yellow-black curve of Berkie as she stooped to dig. Her head snapped up once—I was sure I’d been caught—but she bowed again, picked up a ragged hank of meat dripping gold. She laid the creature belly-up in its grave and stretched her front legs to humble herself before the gift.
A pencil-thin tail flicked out, the possum nearly dead or done bluffing. Berkie reared back, not expecting it: her snarls bled into the savage hum, spun into the factory’s killing note and quickened blue. My heart contorted, trying to hide.
Kenzie put up lost dog signs, but we had no picture to go with. Main difference was the quiet. Still that film of blue-black hairs on the couch.
Monday. Ryan’s dad was more spaced than usual, chanting softly to make approaching red lights turn green, running them when it didn’t work. Kenz told us the Navy was hunting for pieces of JFK Jr.’s plane.
“Ever played Cloud Nine?” Ryan asked.
“Don’t you care?” Kenzie went.
“What do you do?” I asked from the way-back, since I definitely did not care. Ryan unbuckled himself and turned to face Byron.
“Take a deep breath and hold it,” he instructed. Byron was bored enough. Ryan waited, lunged, and crushed him in a bear hug. Byron got a hand free and put it to Ryan’s jaw, pushing him into Kenzie. She screamed. No sooner had Ryan’s dad turned around than a bone-jarring crunch threw us all against our seatbelts. In my gut the accident wasn’t over, so how was this woman at the driver’s window, cursing us as Ryan’s dad put his head to the wheel and let the horn just blare?
That Friday, he called to weasel out of his turn. Mom picked up the phone at breakfast and shook her head with true pity, walked into the bathroom.
“That fucking loser,” dad roared from the shower. He’d forgotten the new phone was cordless—Mom was holding it. Ryan’s dad heard.
“Why can’t he drive?” Mackenzie asked after the fight, lacing the guest columnist’s picture with graffiti from mom’s red pen. “We should kick him out of the carpool anyhow.”
Dad could barely finish his sentence.
“He forgot . . . he had to get married . . . today . . . in Japan.”
“Should’ve mail-ordered,” mom said from the study.
We had to laugh that night: Time wanted dad in Tokyo to cover ANA Flight 61. Byron told him to have fun at the wedding. He faxed us a note the next day with details: psycho had popped a ton of antidepressants, stabbed the captain, and driven the plane crazy low, planning to fly under Rainbow Bridge. What’s a skyjacking without a political message? A joyride, he wrote in his article, which made enough sense to me.
Ryan’s blowout was that night. Guess he didn’t clinch Best Man. I was supposed to meet Kenzie out back, well after mom went to bed. Near the waterfall I saw the shape of a boy with her, touching the pool cover with his foot. I cleared my throat to interrupt them, but it was only Byron.
“Evening,” he said.
At Ryan’s I found the girl who’d picked me out before. She led me to a door we couldn’t open, then a bedroom. Shoved me into a mirror that cracked under my spine. Called me a snob who thought he was better than everyone. I said I was just shy. She grabbed everything in a pink-nailed fist. Said she liked it in her mouth so that she had the power. I didn’t like thinking about that. Or pieces of mirror falling when I moved.
“Try,” she said. “You won’t break me.”
* * * *
Had no reason to give Kenzie shit about drinking, and she left, beer in hand, before it got much worse. Ryan told me Byron was here, as if I didn’t know. Oh, to kick his dumb teeth in.
“Thought triplets got along famously,” he said.
“That’s twins,” I told him.
We looked into the other room and saw a new boy touching Byron’s hair. He said something and raised an eyebrow. Byron turned to look at us and laughed. Ryan begged me to help with wide, wide eyes.
I wandered the unfinished parts of the house. Suffocating paint smell. Upstairs, black ragged holes where light switch panels would go. Something flashed in moon-glow (the cat?), and I took a heavy step forward.
The floor wasn’t there, only a softness of nothing and cool rush, falling forever before the bottom slammed up beneath. I inhaled sawdust. My ribs were bent, exploded. I reached out . . . my fingers curling over a curved saw blade . . . skeleton thrumming in distant pain. Surely part of my body was gone. Standing took a few tries. I was wet with beer, and the sawdust clung to it. I groped around the sleeping equipment, led myself by bundled wires back to where everything dropped out, the doorframe of the gutted room. The cliff was a foot or two high. A line from Orange Club swim lessons went sifting through the haze: You can drown in just an inch of water.
Was limping out of the house alone when I heard a smack and strangled cry. The way Byron rushed down the stairs, Ryan must have made his move. I opened the front door and rubbed my face, holding an arm out: After you. Byron grunted and walked out. We tiptoed over the neighbors’ backyards, into ours, saying nothing. Sent an animal scuttling through mom’s white-bluish hydrangeas.
“Want to play Cloud Nine?” I said, to be weird, and tackled Byron. He kept walking with me strapped to his torso, serious and strong. The harder I squeezed, the more he smiled. At last he went slack, and we collapsed, shaking with laughter in wet grass. Byron rolled onto his back but was somehow uncomfortable. From under himself he pulled out Darren’s visor.
* * * *
Dad wasn’t able to see the play, and I really didn’t mind. The four of us went out to Sul Fiume—Kenzie loved the baccalà fritte— and we got a view of the river. Mom said our show was “fresh.” When the food took longer than normal, Byron pointed out a guy with a rod outside.
“Can’t eat till he catches Mack’s fish,” he said, and I laughed, Kenzie too. Mom stopped chewing her nails. I didn’t try to make a joke after that. The guy reeled in a clean hook. He cast. Dad called that night, saying he was homesick. Sounded like he meant it.
* * * *
Day before the first day of high school, Byron and I had to cover the pool. Dad had said to anchor it with rocks. Byron went hunting for some while I dragged the tarp into place. Kenzie was sunning with her discman in the Adirondack.
Waiting for Byron, I stuck my feet in the water. Shouldn’t have been so warm: we’d shut off the heat weeks ago, when we’d all quit swimming. Red rings collected around my ankles. I got on my stomach to peer down over the edge.
Looking into the filter’s tunnel, I couldn’t see the flap at the end. Byron tapped me and held out the pole. I took it and fished around inside, jabbing lumps. Hook snagged. I wobbled it loose. Grass and pink threads of flesh stuck to the metal. Kenzie stood over us, her features widening. I looked into the tunnel again.
* * * *
When they unfolded Darren, I could see my hook-hole in his neck, Xs of grassblades plastered to skin, his dozen extra joints. A bad mix of drugs in his system, they said. In the neighborhood, knew the house, foolishly decided to swim. Maybe even drawn to the lights. Got stuck, struggled. Ugly, improbable, but it happens.
“Anyone wants to confess to cramming him in there,” a detective said on his way out, “that’d make life easy for me.”
Kenzie freaked that Darren had been prowling around. Mom was sick. She wanted to fill in the pool, erase it. Dad shrugged. He was in no special rush.
“Wasn’t the pool’s fault,” Byron said. “Just the way it was made.”
Three months later, we moved.
From TRUE/FALSE. Used with permission of OR Books. Copyright © 2015 Miles Klee.