The Undersized Negative

By Robert Glick

Sometimes the day after Mom’s miscarriage, a chemistry teacher with chin-only stubble interrupts class to tell you he is dying. There were so many reasons not to be anywhere. I, Dr. Watermelon, convened everyone at the abandoned house, which I insisted on calling the sketch house, on account of the Etch A Sketch I had found in a toy chest. My buddy Filbert plopped himself down on one of the oyster chairs; the air clouded with dust mites and dried skin. “Finders, keepers,” he said. We demanded answers of the Harris family from phone bills and colanders, from the oregano scent of the bathroom cleaner, from a postal sack half-full of gas caps. The throat to the fireplace was choked; perhaps a bird’s nest.

Rob and Ron each kept one eye perched on the doorless front door, wary of the patriarch Dustin Oskar Harris barging in to reclaim what he once owned. They thought the sketch house itself was sketchy, as if its waxy kitchen linoleum had been responsible for mawing open and swallowing its former occupants. Ron suggested that we get sizzled on the freon from the fridge. Rob agreed; they were repurposers. “Highly toxic,” Filbert said, reluctantly we transitioned to flicking matches at the shelves – flyfishing magazines, nautical books – knowing damp, expecting sulfur, anticipating cartwheels of burn through the air. Filbert, nicknamed for the teratomic testicle lodged like a moon above his kidney, had a talent for fire: me, not so much. I was a Pisces; I went as long as I could underwater.

Filbert’s lit match flew through the air and landed on my crotch. I didn’t want to move. I felt crowned, blinkered by a halo of marsh fog. I observed the flicker of little flame, a prickle of warmth on my jeans. “Huh,” I said. That was my best eloquent admiration for the trajectory of heat and light.

Yesterday morning, Mom and I were at McDonald’s, where I was sloughing the cherry of a chocolate shake into the swing-door waste; such were my breakfasts the last month of my junior year. Though I had my own car, Mom insisted on chauffeuring me. Most likely she wanted to pay forward how inefficient the pregnancy would make her. I didn’t mind, as I liked watching Mom use her thumbnail to scrape the salt off the Egg McMuffin bun. We were food-adapters. The McMuffin was for my sister Jess, who had contracted some dubious mini-flu and was staying at home.

“The brain,” Mom said, mostly to herself, “is shoddy wiring that sometimes speaks right.”

She was an anesthesiologist, which meant that she overlorded the groggy. Two weeks ago, her patient had died during a liver transplant. Soon she had to make a presentation on what went wrong, which she couldn’t find. Especially in the evenings, when she felt less queasy, she sped herself through her theories like she was trying to hit a piñata.

“Sure,” she said, “some of the formulas had to be extrapolated out, but still.”

“How come the brain’s shoddy?” I asked.

“It’s not. It’s unbelievable. It’s magical. One thing it’s not, is perfect.”

It wasn’t the bun that was salty. It was the ham, which could have killed a slug.

“GOLF TEAM AT GREENWOOD TH@4,” read the school’s digital marquis. “UNDER PAR ON THE LINKS, OVER PAR IN THE CLASSROOM.”

Mom pulled into the handicapped spot; she liked leaving me as close as possible to the front door. “Catch ya later, skater,” she said.

“What year is this?” I asked. “No one says that.” I kissed her cheek and surreptitiously scooped my ear of wax and went in.

The cute Chipotle girl had brought in an abacus to history class, and clicked it annoyingly all through the Korean War. Filbert gave me a ride home. I asked him about the Chipotle girl and he described the disproportionately small size of T-Rex’s arms. That was how his autistic brother talked; Filbert had started to mimic his worsening digressions.

I walked into our kitchen and knew immediately that something was up. Jess twirled back and forth on the bar stool. Her sniffle wasn’t a cold sniffle and Dad, also red-eyed, was drinking ginger ale, and Mom wasn’t there at all.

“Your mother lost the baby,” Dad said. Absently he was scratching a new cleft into his chin.

“No way,” I said. I dropped my backpack onto the dryer. “Is she all right?”

“She’s fine, thank god. She’s upstairs.”

“What happened?”

“We’re not sure.”

Eventually Mom came downstairs, clutchy on the handrail. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s not your fault,” Dad said.

Mom wanted some broccoli, blanched.

“Anything,” I said. I took the knife from the magnetic rack, put water in the pot. The word “floret” stuck to the top of my mouth like a cat eating peanut butter.

“Not how we planned it,” Mom said. She kept patting her belly.

Jess was establishing how many pencils she could rat up in her hair. Even after the corn maze, she refused to talk, refused to tell me that she had to wet-swiffer the blood from the kitchen floor. And it was Jess, not even with a learner’s permit, who had to rush Mom to some other hospital, since she refused to receive treatment at her own.

Eventually Mom trudged back upstairs with her now-buttered bowl of broccoli. Dad followed me into the garage, needlessly spotting me. I upped my reps. I wouldn’t pause between sets. I lifted huge. Sometimes you don’t want to admit that babies can turn back into objects.

Mom insisted that we clear out. Despite protests, Dad drove Jess and her pseudo-friend Lix to the corn maze, and I drove without destination, desperate for that weird feeling of superiority you get when the suburbs fan out, spread thin, give way onto fields, parallel phone lines to event horizon. I crossed west into Kansas. I let wind replace thought. Sometimes you feel guilty for giving the fetus a name, for naming him Sprocket, and you want to retire that name, in the same way that the Royals retired George Brett’s beloved number 5.

The derelict house didn’t catch my eye; it was the drydocked boat beside it, maybe the neon striping on the sawhorses that held it aloft, or the anchor half-submerged into what once was mud. I stopped the car, tiptoed up to the house. A large triangle in one supporting wall had been malleted down. The front door served as a floor mat.

I hit the lights, expecting empty and blackout, expecting flies on a desiccated body, expecting bathtubs full of crank. The lights came on. Some exposed plumbing, a smell of cow patties and the peculiar mold of citrus.

Whoever had lived here had left quickly, or packed lightly. Throw pillows and frozen foods, a fan of vacuum cleaner bags, a checkbook registered to Mrs. Joaquinta Harris. On each check, a cliniclown held a spray of balloons. I put a piece of cardboard down before I sat on the couch; bedbugs. I was worn out, intensely so. And sad. I thought a long time about that wrong word, lost. Lost, I supposed, insofar as Sprocket was absorbed back into Mom’s body, or expelled out of her into the hospital room, onto a bleached sheet, the same way that alligators are lost in toilets, into sewers. I felt older or younger than I should have been.

I fell asleep. I dreamed I was protecting a family of giant frogs, all blurping safely in little craters I had dug for them. Our dog, the rattlesnake terrier, ran in front of me and puked out what I thought was a half digested frog, but it wasn’t! The frogs had grown, they were as big as giant pancakes and cadmium red, and then the popping joists of the house scared me awake. Hours had passed. Through me spilled a brain-chemical flood of useless or helpless power. The cardboard had sagged under, folded me in. To get off the couch, I planted my palm hard on the coffee table, which was sticky, as if someone had spilled maple syrup on it. Now this house of cracked drywall and canned peaches was mine.

Me and Jess, our first word was curdle. Our first word was rattle. Our first word was gentle. Jess paid that word no heed. Mom still murmured it to herself, to calm. You can put the quiet mind into stories or stasis but I couldn’t tell you how. I was ashamed of my Adam’s apple. There was no way to hide it. I chugged milk in the light of the refrigerator before dawn, and all the embarrassed parts of me smelled like a bald head on a swelter day. I wiped off my chin, and realized that Dad had gone to pick up Jess and Lix at the corn maze but they hadn’t come back.

Mom was up already, watching someone on TV smear circles of avocado on their cheeks.

“Do you want me to track them down?” I asked.

“Go to school.”

“You think they’re fine then?”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m too tired to worry.”

The remote control, covered in Jess’s old stickers of humpback whales, lay on a printout of an ultrasound, which lay on Mom’s lap. The ultrasound was creased, as if Mom had been looking at it before falling asleep. I didn’t ask if the ultrasound showed Sprocket alive or dead or how you could tell the difference.

“Why’d you keep it?” I asked.

“I thought I was looking for an explanation.”

For a while we watched TV. A few months ago, a plane had crashed, and the ultrasound looked like the satellite pictures of wing debris in the ocean. Pomegranates, said the talk show host, had anti-aging as well as scar-healing properties. Also they excelled as a facial mask.

I missed first period, but I did go to school. Jess was nowhere. Repeated calls to her and Dad went straight to voice mail. Filbert caught up with me after auto shop, where he had burned himself learning how to hotwire old Pontiacs. “A quality skill for the apocalypse,” he said, proud of himself. The thumb and forefinger of each hand had fine sprays of wire burn, as if tiny jellyfish had wrapped their tentacles about his fingertips.

At home, the front fender of Dad’s car looked like a radio wave, and I could see through the headlight cover to the filament. On the kitchen table, Jess left the eyebrow hairs she had pulled out. Jess and Lix had spent the night in a 24 hour mini-mart. Dad had gone to pick up them from the corn maze; instead, he had driven the car into a ditch. He had a diagonal cut on his forehead that made a not equals sign across his two big worry lines. And there was a bruise around part of his eye socket, maybe from the steering wheel.

“It was the Reckless,” Dad said to me. No one asked him to clarify. Mom snorted. Normally she would arch an eyebrow, as if saying, you’re playing that card? Normally she would pressure him into recounting exactly what he was thinking and feeling before the Reckless took over.

“I had no signal,” he said.

“And you didn’t call why?” Mom asked Jess. “Because you didn’t think your mother would be upset?”

“I didn’t need to,” Jess said. “A good time was had by all.”

“Grow up,” I said to Jess.

“Ass kiss,” she said.

Dad put his hands, one atop the other, on the table, the way I had seen contestants do on game shows, which made me think of the guy on Press Your Luck who made a b’zillion dollars because he figured out the pattern of Whammies. Sometimes Dad has a tuft of hair in the back of his head that just sticks out. “We’re all okay,” he said. “Isn’t that a good thing?”

A few hours later, I convened everyone at the sketch house, which, as I suspected, gave us dominion. Ron, our resident artist, showed me what he had drawn on the Etch A Sketch. “What is it?” he asked me.

“Nice guitar!”

“Pudbrain!” he said, “it’s a lyre!”

“Nice lyre,” I said.

“Double Pudbrain, it’s a mandolin!”

“Nice bear, okay? Stop dicking me around.” I flicked his forearm hard with my snapping fingers before going upstairs. In the toy chest, the furry bear had recently been chewed on, as if referring to one bear had done literal damage to another.

Mom still didn’t trust that her body was her body, so I drove her to her first work day back. She wanted me to “radically avoid” all potholes and speed bumps, which made me constantly swerve like a drunk driver.

“The brain,” said Mom, “is the all-time-original black box.” Anesthesiology was all about secrets, she told me. About covening how the brain circuits jump without knowing why or how.

Any job that made you do things without knowing why sounded repulsive. I wanted to make patina and rust metals and roughened leathers in period-piece movies; what they called a “Prop Distressor.”

The dead patient was an obese cartographer. His obesity, the morbid obesity, was the key to his death. “I have no idea why,” Mom said.

“Are you feeling better?”

Late at night, she felt rose thorns through her uterus. Otherwise she felt weak but better. I put my McMuffin down next to the gear shift, accelerated onto the freeway. The wrapper kept crinkling. The car in front of me was going like 45. Peripherally I caught Mom’s foot pumping an imaginary brake.

The sketch house was our tar pit, I told Filbert. It curried white magick. Every detail evoked opportunities for interpretation butterscotch-colored insulation unpeeling from the hot water heater, ball bearings of black peppercorns rolling aslant the kitchen floor. The mud encrusted in the chevron tread of the toddler’s shoes and the staple of carbon paper detailing unpaid water taxes and the skull-shaped dent on the fridge door. We watched episodes of Scooby Doo on YouTube to locate false floors and secret doors. “Clue!” yelled Filbert. A drivers license in an office drawer told us that Dustin Harris was 37. Brown hair, brown eyes, not a donor. We didn’t learn that the house was abandoned due to a divorce of a family who had lost a child in a hiking fall. In a waterskiing accident. In the thin ankle’s handcuff of algae. To hyperthermia. The child hadn’t lost their life, only their legs; one above the kneecap, one below.

Close to midnight, I dragged myself home. Dad stood in the driveway. He had been working on making Mom’s car invincible: oil change, lube. He had even recycled the antifreeze.

“Hey,” he said, “the rattlesnake terrier needs a pee.”

“That Jess’s job.”

“Your sister,” he said, “has decided to live in the treehouse.”

“Since when does that exempt her?”

“Since right now.”

I ran upstairs to Jess’s bedroom. Right outside her window, a thick branch stretched out to the treehouse. I could see Jess sitting cross-legged on the tree-house floor, her iPad flickering across the slats and making her hair flash bluish-white. Against her thigh lay an open bag of Oreos.

“About the RT,” I said.

“Leave me alone,” she said.

“Talk to me,” I said.

She looked down and then away; she didn’t want to cry. “If you want to escape a corn maze,” she said, “keep going left.”

I took a deep breath. Why didn’t I say: You think your shit is worse than Mom’s? Because on the evening Mom miscarried, I found her screeching, on our bathroom floor, her gymnast’s body jackknifed, an uncut toenail caught in the stitch of a black sock.

“Just take out the dog,” I said. “It’s a small thing.”

“Get raped,” she told me.

“Jeez,” I said. “I’m just trying to help.”

The retractable leash hung on a hook downstairs. The dog barely made it past the back door before lifting his leg. After everyone had gone to sleep, I snuck into Mom’s office. She had left her notes scattered across her desk, along with some spinal needles, a laryngoscope, which I pronounced in my head as a laryn-GO!-scope, and some big pieces of orange peel that I tried to juggle while I scanned and printed out Sprocket’s un-sprocket ultrasound.

I did my bench presses early the next morning. It was a Saturday. Dad didn’t notice that I had pasted the ultrasound onto a milk carton, right at the foot of my dumbbells. He did, however, spot the hole in my lifting gloves, wanted to buy me new ones.

“I’ve got stuff to do,” I said. I hated being around him during the aftermath of the Reckless, which always left him sheepish and repentant.

“We can get Mongolian after,” he said.

“Fine,” I said; we were callous averse.

The drive slogged on. We had to wait for a train, alternating container cars and empty flats, like some broken record of morse code. Hapag-Lloyd, Hanjin, Evergreen.

“Mom’s revving back to normal,” said Dad, “isn’t she?”

“Eating nothing but broccoli counts as improvement?”

We started driving again, passed a synagogue guarded by oleander. Dad had eaten an unripe banana, as was his way, and he was threatening to throw the peel out the window. Though I didn’t care about the littering, I felt abnormally betrayed, as if Dad was yet again flaunting some invisible order.

All I wanted was for Dad to be a dad.

“The banana peel,” I yelled, “cannot be safely and/or legally thrown out the window!”

“Too bad!” he yelled. He chucked the banana peel past my nose and out the passenger’s side and somehow, beyond all luck and skill, the peel slapped a Hasid right in the face. For one minute, with all our frustrations chunked up, we weren’t so chiseled apart. The Hasid wiped off his pulpy forehead. Dad and I drove off laughing.

We agreed to become poker stars. We worried about random drug testing in the professional poker leagues. We wondered how Google Glass might help read the bloodshot on our sclera, the bluffs waiting to twitch up our cheeks. We kept adjusting the tilt of our Royals and Cardinals caps, as if protecting ourselves from the chariot of the sun. Filbert found an old 110 camera. It had a weird plastic film cartridge that looked like an open scroll. He shot us in our fast-developing poker personae: cowboy, metrosexual, deaf-mute, storyteller. The photos would be grainy, he told us; the undersized negative made the 110 film hard to develop, unsuitable for the precision we desired. We didn’t care. We practiced fist pumps. We practiced the flourish of pushing chips all in. Rob and Ron tabulated decimals and percentages-I worked by fractions. For Filbert, math came immediate and immaculate. If he ever had to think, he sucked on his burnt fingers. Even when he smelled like boredom, the dirtbag won everything.

Still, the musty air held extra gravity, pressed a baker’s floury fingerprints down on my chest. I folded an outstanding hand. Ron and Rob, who had gone all-in, started jumping from couch to couch, executing Ninja Turtle flying kicks and then tumbling over. Without goodbyes, I sped to Chipotle’s. The cute cashier gave me extra avocado, which I fantasized scooping with a finger onto the back of her freckly neck. She asked if I had done my history homework. I didn’t smile. I kept my headphones on, ate in the parking lot.

The next day, Mom asked me to go in to work with her again. Other doctors kept teddy bears on their desks. Everyone in post-op was puffy or mint green. Families huddled together against the walls. Sitting in her office, I watched the death of the obese cartographer keep burrowing itself inside her. I watched her mutter and scribble. Another doctor, Dr. Moreland, would pass by the open door and tell her it wasn’t her fault. I hated how he lay his hairy meat hand on my mom’s arm. I didn’t know if an empty uterus was hollow or if it folded in upon itself like a brain. By the time Jess drove Mom to the other hospital further away, the baby wasn’t a baby. Maybe the baby was never a baby. Before the baby was a baby, I hated Mom’s bedroom. It had nothing but a bed and night tables and a painting of workers planing a ballet floor. Everything she did seemed skillfully calculated. Now she always used a pen to write patient notes, never a pencil, which seemed backwards to me. As if nothing was erasable, only smearable or binding.

“Stop fidgeting,” she said. “Stop bouncing your head like that.” I took off my headphones. She didn’t let me roam the halls. Under bladder duress, I flew off to the bathroom. The network wiring, like veins and arteries, and a third color, a yellow line, went along metal runners in the ceiling. On the way back, I passed a lab with four rats packed in vacuum tubes, and someone watching them, holding a stopwatch. I saw their tails twitching, slowing, stopping.

By then, Mom had finished her work. “Can you unplug my laptop for me?” she asked.

“Sure.” I got down on my knees, contorted myself behind her desk.

“You love your mom, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“Good,” she said. I handed the laptop cord to her, threw a pistachio shell into the trash. She walked to the elevator as if her purse was filled with paperweights; she waited for me to push the button.

Before anyone woke or after everyone slept, I restocked the sketch house with items designated for next week’s garage sale. I brought an egg beater, a row of boutique coat hangers, two of Jess’s old hand-painted bird feeders. Dad was a gemologist. Since he swore that everything seen under glass gained value, I took an ancient set of his loupes, to examine reddish flecks, like strands of saffron, on the slope of the clawfoot tub. Some nights, I went early to shine the flashlight down the pipes. The photos of a girl pasted weakly above the kitchen sink might have been two distinct girls, or even three. Sometimes the sketch house shifted in my absence. I had no proof others didn’t reside here by day, as if we were renting out a single bed, in shifts, head to toe and sock to head. The spiders relocated, found new avenues of descent. Cobwebs kept blowing loose in that unreachable corner of the ceiling. I could safely sleep only on the stairs. My blood pooled at my swollen feet. The upstairs bedroom had one ghost; sometimes two. My desperation to know who left their wiry gray hairs still in the shower drain made my stomach tight. I felt myself dissolve in the amplitude of what I didn’t know.

Sometimes, when Dad’s uncle Mort has died, your mom holds up the phone for a long time afterward, which makes the receiver look like it has a place on the magnetic knife rack behind her.

“What should we do?” asked Dad.

“Obviously,” said Mom, “you should go to Phoenix.”

“They’ll understand if we don’t make the funeral.”

“If you’re worried about me, take one of the kids. I’ll keep the other, just in case.”

Dad asked me and I said no. Jess ran upstairs. “I thought you liked them?” Dad said to me.

“Not that much,” I said.

Jess came back down with her phone, sent a text. Dad received a text, read it. “I’ll go?” he said. Jess nodded. “If you hate me,” he asked Jess, “why?”

She started to type something and Dad grabbed her wrist. “Can’t you communicate more directly?”

Jess huffed and went over to the white board on the refrigerator and scratched out a lovely picture of the rattlesnake terrier’s doghouse with a stick figure inside labeled ‘dad’.

There was the part in The Odyssey when Odysseus lashed himself to the mast, plugged his ears with wax. That was how I imagined my sister. Snotty, but for a reason. Sometimes you have no choice but to close off your communications apparatus.

“You’re impossible,” Mom said to her.

“At least my water bowl is clean,” said Dad. “That’s a start.”

Ron and Rob did nothing but throw the medicine ball to each other while lying on their backs, the petroleum-colored soles of their tennies pressed against each other in the air. If Ron wasn’t there, Rob used the 110 to take pictures of all the household objects. Then he would crack open the film canister and paste the overexposed negatives right next to the objects.

I asked Rob why Dustin Harris left his drivers license, just expired, on a trivot on the gas stove, and Ron shrugged. “The dude and his family are gone,” he said. “Who gives a steamer?”

“What’s changed for you two?” I asked later.

“I woke up yesterday,” said Ron, “ and all the juju was juju.”

The worst part? Filbert didn’t seem to care either. He kept going out back, smoking, spending longer out there than the smoke itself.

“What’s up with the danger twins?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “When your tailbone stings or sings,” he said, “you have to listen.”

When Dad bought plane tickets, Mom sent me out to buy the extra-pulp orange juice that reviled everyone else. All day, she scuffed along in her hospital scrubs. Dad made her hearty soups, soups with squash, even in this swelter summer.  A pack of thieves, Mom told me, were stealing all the standalone ATMs with tractors and forklifts, and she wondered what far-off field the machines wound up in. “Crows pecking at the keys,” she said. I imagined her imagining all the memories the obese cartographer left behind. The chopped scallions stuck to the side of the sink, or the way he touched his pinky to his wife’s forehead before he left for the disorienting work of topography and scale.

We gave her lots of space, although there were different kinds of spaces. Sometimes I catch Mom gliding down the hall. We made our own meals. We used cheese as drapery over burger and granola. We stuffed mint jelly inside chicken, stuffed chicken inside hollowed loaves of bread. Dad asked me and Jess if we thought sustenance was about concealment. I said I thought it was about forgiveness, and Jess crossed her eyes at me. I had caught her rummaging through Mom’s medicine cabinet, mumbling something about her period, which, sharing a bathroom, I knew was last week.

Sometimes I defend the sketch house with a curling iron and a mop. Filbert slashed open the dog bed and stuck his hand in pretending to be a bovine gynecologist. By way of counterattack, I cast a fishing line at his ear.

Something was seriously misshapen with Filbert. He had taken to wearing a pork pie hat with a cardinal-colored feather. He had brought six-packs of PBR held together by plastic, because when you lit the plastic, well then, you could make it drip fire.

“Self-immolators,” he said, “make sure they bring their own accelerants.” Ron and Rob had crowbarred off the back of the refrigerator. Ron had punctured one of its metal pouches with the sharpened tip of an umbrella, and freon was hissing out.

We opened the windows and ran outside and lodged ourselves in the boat.

“You were totally right,” Ron said to Filbert. “Toxic stuff.”

Everyone wanted the sketch house to be something it didn’t want to be.    I wanted the house to be a house, uncomplicated, with hospital corners and tupperware full of cereal. The Harris family wanted it to be safe, look what    it got them. On the day they were raptured or dragged out, they, too, had retreated to the dry-docked boat, where, judging by the white and black discs, they may or may not have played Othello.

Later we sat down to poker. Filbert couldn’t take it seriously. Slumped in his chair, he bet heavy with Jack-six off suit, barely acknowledged the loss.

“You’re making no poker sense!” I yelled. Irrational play meant no trust, nothing to reverse engineer. I flung chips at him, disgusted. The next hand, same thing; he bluffed a pair of fours, laid them down, and I took the Etch A Sketch and slammed it over his head like a wrestler with a folding chair, but not as hard. The house Ron had drawn got the tectonic shift it deserved.

“Why’d you do that?” Filbert said. He rubbed his head. He seemed more confused than offended or hurt.

“Can’t you play with commitment?”

“Sketch House Party Foul,” he said sadly.

Sometimes we were just objects. I found a First Aid kit in the basement. Sometimes the basement is crunchy with roach carapaces. Everywhere, tiny cracks expanding in the earth. Sometimes it’s voracious.

In the treehouse, Jess had strung some blinky xmas lights. Lix and her were snuggled together under a French-flag blanket, giggling.

“Come on up,” said Lix.

“Jess?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said.

I asked them if they knew the Chipotle girl’s sister, who was in their grade.

“Poser skank,” said Jess.

“The boys get to do whatever, and she gets to feel good for a minute,” said Lix. “A minute at most.”

Even from outside, we could hear Mom and Dad arguing.

“It’s been like that for like an hour,” said Jess.

“Great,” I said.

She showed me her iPad; neatly indented lines of code, green on black. “Introducing Pinwheel version 0.1.”

“Hit ‘run’,” said Lix.

I did, and the word “oxycodone” popped out.

“Excuse me?” I said.

For their programming class, Jess and Lix had to write a randomizing algorithm, and so they had fed the computer an array of prescription pharmaceuticals.

“I haven’t even stopped bleeding!” yelled Mom.

“Here’s the fun part,” said Jess. “We are obligated to do whatever the computer says.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because it’s cool,” she said.

I knew better than to disagree. I stayed with them in the treehouse. Jess offered me a Jalapeño chip. Lix kept touching the tip of her pointy canines; I didn’t know if I liked it, or her bangs, which lined up severely above her eyebrows, but maybe she made Jess behave less hostile in her presence.

“I’m going to test-drive the Pinwheel in Phoenix,” said Jess.

“Come on,” I said. “With Dad around?”

“Like he’ll know.”

“Jeez,” I said, “please, please be careful.”

“I won’t land face down in the pool,” she said. “Super-duper promise.”

“Watch out for cousin Bruce,” I told Jess. She snortled.

Two years ago, at a family picnic, Bruce decided to talk Dad’s ear off about EMT pulses. If you heard an explosion, Bruce had said, and a sizzle in everything electric, a sizzle like frying crickets, take off your watch. When Dad replied that he never wore a watch, Bruce asked Dad how, after the ash and whiteout, he would know when to emerge from the bunker. This adult discussion escalated into a play, then not-really-play wrestle in the park fountain.

“I’ll call every hour, on the hour,” Dad said to Mom, who gave him her cheek.

Dad and Jess left for the airport. Mom looked really sad. “We should stop eating tater tots,” she said.

“Why?”

“If you became morbidly obese, I wouldn’t know how to treat you.”

“Why is it morbid to be obese? It feels kind of discriminatory.”

“It’s just a classification,” she said, “between severe and super.”

I tried so hard to be kind to her. I rigged a tinkly bell to her lampshade.

“Thank you,” she said. “From now on, you will be known as Dr. Watermelon Jeeves, Esquire.”

“Maybe Dad and Jess will bond in Phoenix,” I said.

Mom glanced at her hand. Sometimes she looks at a body part to show me some gesture she doesn’t have the energy to execute.

Filbert had taken to sequestering himself in the master bedroom. He was messing around with a propane tank, a spray nozzle, and a thin rubber hose. He said he was trying to MacGyver a flamethrower. Once he came out, rummaged the kitchen, and returned to the bedroom with a box of thin spaghetti. You could see the pink lines on his fingers from holding something both heavy and sharp.

Rob came in and said, “What’s wrong with you? You have a sin you want to confess? No?” Then he admitted how he whacked off, regularly, to his posters of Transformers.

“Megan Fox is hot,” Ron said.

“It’s not about Megan Fox! It’s about the robots!”

“Gross,” said Filbert.

“All that slick, gleaming metal,” he said. “Oh, oh, oh yeah.”

“That’s not normal,” I said.

Ron and Rob went back out.

“How’s your headaches?” I asked Filbert. He didn’t reply. I opened the night table drawer. Condoms, and a user’s manual for a barbecue. “Look, I’m sorry I brained you.”

“It’s okay,” he said. He was trying to glue the rubber hose to the propane seal. Then he finally told me that his autistic brother needed special care in a different city. His parents, not unanimously, had decided to move to the Kansas side. “It sucks,” he said. “It sucks the prickliest ball in the world.”

“That does suck,” I said.

The next day, we sat down to poker. On the third or fourth hand, I folded, and the flop was jack-four-seven.

“If I win,” Ron said to Filbert, “You burn down the house.”

“This is our house,” Filbert said.

Ron laid down his cards a pair of unbeatable jacks. “Which is exactly why we can burn it.”

“I’m not burning the house,” said Filbert.

“Then why build a flamethrower?”

“Why the fuck not!”

“Going Columbine on us? Bought any trench coats lately?”

Filbert threw his cards in Ron’s lap. The oval rug under the table, colored like an archery target, didn’t have a single hair on it, as if the dog left first, sensing temblors.

Mom had her books fanned out around her on the bed. “Moreland called. The date for my presentation’s moved up. He’s coming over later to help me finish it.”

“I feel bad for you,” I said, “having to keep going through it.”

“Sometimes you work through problems,” she said, “and sometimes you work around them. For example, you seem to be working around your problems by not going to school.”

“Mr. Wasserman is falling off, piece by piece,” I said. “Last week he was using a cane with a brass duck on the handle.”

“So you deny?”

“No, I do not deny.”

“Then you’re on house arrest.”

“For ditching?”

For not putting the salad greens all the way down the sink. And for the artisanal quince jam from Dean and Deluca, which I had forgotten to promptly re-refrigerate, causing it to subsequently acquire a thin sheet of mint green mold.

“Fine,” I said. The grounding didn’t really bother me, except for the minor bummer that I’d miss a low-stakes poker tournament we had thought about crashing. Mom pored through diagrams of absorption rates. I sat on her bed, made price tags for the garage sale, read a book called Shipwrecks of the Midwest.

Jess texted, “Pinwheel is a go! Xanax round one.”

“It’s a fine line,” said Mom, “between inducing a desired effect and inducing toxicity.” She walked slowly to the bathroom. I thought I saw her sprout wings. I thought I heard the great ripping of her scapulae.

In the morning came blue-haired antiquers and ironic handlebar-moustache-estate-sale parasites skimming for vintage sunglasses and two dudes in leather vests with a can of spray paint who wanted to erase the address off the curb.   I sold a sand wedge and ten orange tees for three dollars. Out of boredom, I texted Dad, pretending that our house was disappearing, bit by book by brick.

“Plz keep the tile saw,” he texted. “I want to refinish the bathroom.”

Mom came out, drinking orange juice. “Your father,” she said, “hasn’t checked in.”

“I’m sure he’s been keeping himself busy,” I said.

In the afternoon, the wind picked up, made everyone’s eyes water. The girl across the street set up her folding table and crystal pitchers, hung a cardboard sign that said “Lemonadology.” Our neighbor, the one with permanent laryngitis, wheezed on aggressively about a set of misshapen blown-glass-animals. I tried to do the trick where I found some beauty close by: inside the gnarl of the oak tree, or the cloud that Jess would say looked like Totoro, or the drops of water condensing off the swamp cooler. Even after I factored in all this flying dust and eye-blur, these days have not sparkled.

Jess sent an update. Uncle Mort’s old parrot had gotten free of its cage. Dad and Bruce, who had once again almost come to blows, this time after a fender bender en route to the funeral, were all trying to pin the bird down, only for their brooms to pass right through it, as if the parrot was made of nothing more than color inhabiting molecules of air.

“It wasn’t the pinwheel talking,” texted Jess.

When Moreland rang the doorbell, Mom groaned; she had moved quicker to the door than her stitches would allow.

“You remember my son Russell,” she said.

I hated the name Russell: a snake in the grass. Once Filbert and I tried to milk a milk snake but all we got was the residue of black scales on our skin that wouldn’t clean off without bike degreaser.

“I’ve got a theory,” Mom said to Moreland. “It might work as an article.”

“Let’s dive in,” said Moreland. He didn’t have a lazy eye, though I wished him one. An eye like a mutational bullfrog.

Mom fixed him a drink. While they jabbered on about class one carcinogens and Sevoflurane and hemodynamic stability, I felt tentatively content, invisible in the best possible way, reading about a wrecked gambling barge in Joliet, Illinois, until some confusions played their way in. Dr. Moreland, who wore a lavender T-shirt, was sitting conspicuously far away from my mom on the couch. And Mom was, for the first time in weeks, actually laughing at some joke about ketchup?

I excused myself, took the stairs in twos and threes. Mom must have been feeling lost or hated or wanted or needed and that made me feel helpless, having no idea how much, or in what combination. I had figured Mom and Dad’s fighting as a natural side-effect of Sprocket; now I considered that Mom and Moreland might be having an affair. Maybe now was exactly when one had an affair: when one didn’t know what else to do.

Sometimes your mother says you’re on house arrest but neglects to specify which house. I removed Jess’s window screen; I let the moths flutter in.

Why did I want, this one time, to come in through the back of the sketch house? Stealth. I hoped to catch Filbert and Rob and Ron in their native habitat, before they could prep a poker question. Quick: the odds of a flush with two suited cards before the river, grape popsicle on offer! Did they conduct the same stupid shit in my absence-the fluorescent light-saber fight, the dunk-the-ragdoll-into-paint?

As I pushed the back door open, I sensed an object unbalance from atop the door. Something hard whacked the back of my head.

I heard Ron say, “OOOOOOOO!”

I dropped to my knees. Pain radiated out from the back of my head to my shoulder, over one eyebrow. Everything went yellow and black, warbly, multiple.

Rob said, “Dude, wrong target!”

Filbert said, “You motherfuckers!” He helped me to the couch.

Ron said, “Dr. Watermelon P. Lemaire, concussed by Spaghettios!”

“Sorry,” said Rob.

“Spaghettios?” I asked. “Really?”

Ron said, “Most sorry.”

Filbert got the can. “Check it out,” he said, laughing. He showed me the dent. I must have closed my eyes, because he said, “Don’t sleep.”

“Relax,” I said, “I don’t have a concussion.”

“How would you know?”

“I just do.” I drifted off, had a mini-fantasy of the Chipotle girl wearing nothing but a long lumberjack’s shirt, holding an ice cream scooper loaded with guacamole.

When I woke, I was alone. The lights were off. I could feel a dried trickle of blood down my neck, another behind my ear. My head hurt so bad, I had to keep my eyes closed most of the time. I took out my phone. It had been about an hour, and Mom had both called and texted: “where u!?!?”

Jess had also texted: “Round 2: Adderall. My heart flutters in all the fkd ways. Thanks for listing. I suspect yr a gd brother.”

I could hear running water outside. Slowly I followed the sound.

Filbert yelled, “He’s up!”

“Hooray!” yelled Rob and Ron, who sat in two of the four folding chairs that faced the boat. There were open PBRs in each cupholder.

“You guys are dicks,” I said weakly.

“We know,” said Filbert. “Sit down.”

I sat, drank half of the beer. Someone had cranked on a garden hose. They had diverted the thin river down a slight grade, down a mini-gully beneath the sawhorses that supported the boat. The river suggested either that the water would eventually carry the boat away or that it would never ever reach the boat.

Filbert handed me the flamethrower. “It’s perfect,” he said. “Strength, length, direction, aperture, everything.”

Rob and Ron played fanfare from detuned air trumpets. “Dial it down!” I said. My brain wanted silencers muffling all objects; hours staring out a double-paned window, watching the soundlessness of snowfall and ash.

“Be a fire guy,” said Filbert, motioning the flamethrower toward the boat. “Go ahead.”

“It’s not our boat,” I said, harshly. “And you know I’m not a fire guy.” I thought I lacked the capacity to find pleasure or release in destruction, the way some people don’t enjoy food, think cilantro tastes like soap on their tongue. I saw no benefit in rebirth, in starting over. I imagined the weeds gone ablaze, a brush fire to flatten the state, the huge oil rigs spraying out flame over the plains, naive storks in the sand dunes of Nebraska turning to charcoal, the grains of sand clumping and black-glassing, sparks taking nest in our unconditioned hair and causing our scalps to bubble and pop, expecting the splintering planks sharp and bloody against the exposed parts of my skin, forearms and ankles.

“It’s not just for you,” said Filbert.

“It’s not going to work,” I said, knowing it untrue; everything Filbert did worked as Filbert planned. I went to the boat. I turned on the propane tank, pulled on the handle of the spray nozzle, which sent out a drip line of propane. Filbert lit the match. Flame popped up, ran down the length of spaghetti, whooshed out to the hull. I felt waves of heat on my forehead, held everything steady until the wood started to wisp and smoke. Once the fire caught, Ron threw a doll up and over the side. Rob, trying to grow his stringy hair long like a Seventies rock star, threw a brush. Filbert shot-put something heavy; the lockbox to his house, which had just gone up for sale. He tipped his hat at the boat. “Arrivederci,” he said.

Filbert pointed me back to my chair. He took the flamethrower around to the rest of the boat, spraying parts of the hull like a bug exterminator, and I remembered the old bug ad with the huge guy with a top hat and a hammer or a mallet or something hidden behind his back, and Ron gave me another beer and I watched the boat really start to burn.

I felt weirdly analytical. It wasn’t all the physical sensations. I didn’t appreciate the smoke, the fainter, dizzying smell of the paint, maybe periwinkle, and I didn’t want to be hypnotized by the fractal way that some of the wood was bowing and other parts were exposed. It was more that I was here with Filbert and Ron and Rob, occupying the same place, the same moment. I felt this intense love for everyone, even for me. Sometimes my mom’s only problem is that the downturn her lips have taken might not reverse. The Reckless wasn’t a flood; it was a more of a short-time-only-favor. Sometimes families show affection backwards. The boat burned slowly, different planks at different rates. Mom called again. Strips of paint peeled and curled. The smoke kept blowing in our squinty eyes no matter how we repositioned our chairs. At some point,  I didn’t know when, the sawhorses caught on fire and collapsed, and the boat fell and keeled, or rather it broke open, the way that a cardboard box will break open in every direction when dropped from an attic window, and sparks swarmed out. The stars crackled through the oak branches. Like a movie director, I put my two hands up, palms facing the stars, thumbs touching, thumb and index finger at right angles. I framed Orion, which sparkled through the smoke. Then I turned everything 90 degrees; then I rotated the sky.

Sometimes it’s a quarter to five in the morning, and the shell of the house acts as it ought to, its coiled hoses and untripped motion sensors. I climbed up the treehouse. My door hinged open, meaning that Mom knew that I had spurned her directives, and her door was open as well. Any sense of peace and wonder I had felt at the burning boat lingered faintly in my stomach. My shirt smelled of smoke. I put on a hoodie, hoping it would hide the cuts and bruises, and I clambered down the stairs. Even though Moreland’s car was gone, I wanted  to give her fair warning. In the living room, the lights were on and some jazzy thing played on Dad’s stereo. I imagined the drummer, always smiling, using those metal brushes.

Mom was lying on the couch, reading. She had a block of ice in her whiskey, which she kept pulling out, sucking on, spitting back down into the glass.

“If your father and Jess are going to go off to Phoenix,” she said without looking up, “and you’re going to break restriction in front of my face, in front of my boss even, you know what? I’m going to go somewhere too. We’ll see how you like me leaving you behind. Where do you think I should I go? The Congo? Should I go to Cuba? Is anyone taking care of me?”

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “Did you get a lot done?”

“Moreland shot down my theory right away. I’m going to have to tell all the people I respect that the man died why? What sophisticated and complicated reason? Because. Just because.”

“That sucks.”

“I know. Lots of things, as you say, suck. Now get out of here.”

“I’m really sorry,” I said again. “I had to though.”

“No, you didn’t. Now go.”

I wasn’t tired. I went into the garage and sat, shoulders humped, on my weight bench. The acetylene torch that Dad had bought in a crème brulée phase found my hands. I had some vague conversation with the ultrasound, or maybe with the next baby, if there was a next baby, something about keeping my comic books mint for them, and I was a little mad at Sprocket too. I kept glancing at the unsellable goods surrounding me, hoping that something, perhaps the Connect Four box that held hundreds of rubber lizards, or more likely the musty beige curtains, would catch on fire. Everything should go smoke and orange, at least once. Nothing did.

I heard Mom go upstairs. The rattlesnake terrier started whimpering; it must have been hours since he had been let out. We went outside. Usually I would walk the RT holding one object in my hand a tennis ball, or an old transistor radio and on the best nights, I found something sparklier, like a sleeping bag or a mostly full bag of animal crackers, to trade up for. I’d eat the animal crackers at the lake, heads nibbled first, and wait for the breaching of tiny fish.

The RT ran over to his favorite tree to do his business. “Good dog!” I said. I remembered two nights ago, when I stayed with Jess and Lix in the treehouse long after Mom and Dad stopped fighting. Far down the street, I saw a dark blob, and a lady limping down the sidewalk. The blob was the rattlesnake terrier. The lady was my mother. The blue object in her hand was the handle for the leash. It had filled me with shame, how little and precious there was by way of clarity. Now, it sort of amazed me. It was a fact, obvious and unarguable; that was all. A fact. Sometimes you can’t see the black tether from one sentience to the next.


Robert Glick is the author of the short story collection Two Californias (C&R Press, 2019) and an Associate Professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches creative writing, electronic literature, and the occasional course on zombies. His work has won competitions from The Normal School, Copper Nickel, Diagram, Summer Literary Seminars, and New Ohio Review; other stories have been published in the Masters Review, Denver Quarterly, and Gettysburg Review. You can visit his website at: robertglick.com And follow him on Instagram: @rdglick1x

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