Smiley found this story at Carve Magazine
Sardines, Sandbox, Devil by Katie Young Foster
Katie Young Foster grew up in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Masters Review Anthology V, Arcadia, Joyland Magazine, Booth 11: Women Writers, and elsewhere. She teaches at West Texas A&M University.
On the Fourth of July, 1999, my younger brother jumped off the kitchen counter and cracked his forehead against a claw-foot stool. I held a dishtowel to his skull while my mom called an ambulance. Blood trickled down around the edges of his nose as I blotted at the hole in his head. My mom hung up the phone and scooped Nick into her arms, and I followed as she ran outside to the truck. “Driving will be faster,” she shouted. She sped through the stoplights with my brother on her lap, holding his face against her shirt. I counted the number of flags on the street corners. We passed the pharmacy, the drive-in theater, the bed-and-breakfast built on the edge of the canyon. The sign in the lawn read For Sale. A few blocks from Great-Grandma CC’s apartment building, my mom slowed the truck long enough for me to hop out. She told me to ring the bell and go in. CC couldn’t hear very well, and her arthritic knees would prevent her from standing. My dad was at Market in Denver, and there was no one else in town to keep track of me. It didn’t occur to my mom that I could’ve accompanied her to the hospital. At eleven, I was old enough to wait by myself in the lobby.
My mom lingered until I closed the door to the truck, then swung left, sharply, hospital-bound. I stood on the curb and waved until I thought my younger brother had made it to a doctor. I pictured him carried into the operating room on a stretcher, his eyes finally open, the wound in his head beginning to clot. A spot of Nick’s blood had dried on my index finger. I squatted to wipe it off on the grass.
Great-Grandma CC lived on the end of Orchid Street near the entrance to the City Park canyon. Her building was three stories tall and painted off-white; her apartment was located on the second floor. Whenever my mom brought us to see her, my brother and I lingered outside. If we played in the yard, Nick reasoned, we could avoid CC’s babbling. Our great-grandmother had a clipped, automated way of talking that came from repeating, endlessly, the same story. We called it her cow poop tale. My brother and I had it memorized. Sometimes we’d shout her lines at each other for fun, or when we were fighting: There were hundreds of cow chips in the ex-soldier’s pasture. THERE WERE HUNDREDS OF COW CHIPS—! We dreaded the moment Mom called us inside. Sometimes my brother would give me a leg-up so I could climb the flagpole in CC’s yard. He’d spot me during handstands, or we’d play tag on the stairs, wasting time. When Mom yelled from the second-floor window, Nick and I would run up to the apartment to hug CC hello and goodbye.
“Here they are!” CC would announce, holding us tightly. Her clothes smelled like rosemary and, faintly, of peas. She wore fake diamonds and lipstick, and she dressed in soft colors. Her back was humped like a shell. Once, I’d overheard my dad call CC a scrap of a woman, though my mom had replied, “No, Dale, she’s been whittled.” After kissing our cheeks, CC would make us sit on the couch so she could ask us about the family land, which my parents had sold when they’d moved her into town from the country. Nick and I would shrug. Dad had told us that CC’s childhood home was long gone, plowed under, the site of a new County airport.
At the time, I didn’t think of CC’s questions as probing, but, rather, as part of a ritual. When neither Nick nor I answered her, CC would wave her feet through the air and begin to recite her cow poop tale. She always started with an image of plums.
On the afternoon my younger brother was rushed to the hospital, CC’s apartment was quiet when I entered. The kitchen gleamed with new appliances, ordered from the TV. Photos of my great-grandpa, my grandma, my mother, and my brother and me, framed the walls. The kitchen led to a hallway, past the eggshell-colored bathroom and into the living room, which was decorated with hundreds of snow globes. Great-Grandma CC was sleeping, her hand on the remote. Her hair was puffy and short, translucent enough that I could see the moles on her head. I sat on the couch and waited. My mom paid a high school student to dust and vacuum once a week, so everything in the living room was clean. I picked up Nick’s favorite snow globe, which sat on the side table next to CC’s candy bowl. She ate butterscotch drops and peppermint patties for breakfast. She got her dinners from Meals-On-Wheels.
“Lindy-girl,” Great-Grandma CC said, now awake. Her eyes were watery and red-rimmed. She blinked at me from behind thick, cone-shaped glasses and it struck me how old she was, ancient, old enough to need Velcro shoes. “Wind up that little cat-doodle,” she said.
I turned the knob on the bottom of the snow globe. A faint melody started up—“Clair de Lune.” The scene inside the globe featured a moose standing beside trees strung with laundry. A miniature orange jacket hung from the moose’s antlers. I tipped the globe, and snowflakes fell on the backdrop.
“What were we talking about?” CC asked.
“You were asleep,” I said, uncertain. “I’m here because my brother smashed his head. My mom is taking him to the hospital—she said it was okay to come in.”
CC’s eyes rolled toward the ceiling. I stared at her.
“Oh I remember,” she said, righting herself in the recliner. Her bare foot, bloated, immaculately trimmed, the nails painted a pearl-color, lifted a few inches into the air. Mom took care of CC’s feet, washing and cleaning them every few weeks. Last month, she’d allowed Nick to choose CC’s nail polish color. I scrunched my toes in my sandals, wondering if CC had noticed our toenails were painted the same shade. Her foot descended; the other rose. Great-Grandma CC began to talk. She spoke as if we had been interrupted in the middle of a story.
“My siblings and I gathered wild plum roots that would blow out of the sand,” she said. Her voice was raspy, cracked, like she’d been talking all morning. “We used the roots for fuel. We also hunted for deer and buffalo horns and dry bones. We sold the horns to a man who piled them at the railroad tracks to be shipped. They were going to a factory in Omaha that made—”
“Chicken grits,” I said. “Yeah, I know, you’ve told me this story before.”
“Chicken grits,” CC said. “That’s right! And, you know, back then everyone used cow chips to heat with. Ranchers piled them in large stacks like teepees. The housewives wore cotton gloves when they carried the chips to the stove.”
CC’s eyes rolled again, disappearing into the top of her head, and she shook a little, the slightest tremor of the shoulders. I dropped the snow globe onto the couch cushions and stood up. CC shook her head and settled back.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“My oldest brother and I found a stockpile of cow chips once,” she said. “In a pasture a few miles from home.”
I groaned and returned to my seat on the couch. I resisted the urge to parrot her story back to her, to interrupt CC’s telling with my version of what I considered, back then, to be the tedious events of her childhood.
“We certainly did!” CC said, indignant, misinterpreting my expression. “My brother and I found hundreds of cow chips in that pasture.”
Tempted by the sheer number of cow chips, she continued, CC and her brother began collecting them in gunnysacks to drag home. If they gathered enough, CC’s brother figured, their father could come by with the wagon. The land was government-owned, but an ex-soldier had fenced in a few acres of it. He had taken a homestead on the other side of the fence. CC had never seen the ex-soldier before, though she’d heard about him from her father, a rancher. The man was deranged, he had told her. Unbalanced, a killer of calves, the devil.
They picked up cow chips for an hour before CC sensed someone watching them. When she looked up, the ex-soldier was standing in the pasture. They hadn’t heard him approach.
“The ex-soldier had red eyes,” CC said, half-watching the master chef on TV. “And his hair was black, darker than yours, Lindy.”
“Why were his eyes red?” I said. “Had he just woken up?”
CC ignored me. “He told us to get off his land,” she said.
When CC told the ex-soldier they weren’t on his land, the man rushed her. He grabbed her by the collar of her dress and threw her down. He kicked CC again and again with his boot until her older brother tackled him. CC ran home and told her father what had happened. Her father got his old musket and, together, they rode to the ex-soldier’s homestead. The man had an axe in his hand when they got there—he told them again to stay off his land. CC called out for her oldest brother. Her father raised his musket, but nothing really came of it, CC remembered, because her father met the ex-soldier in the middle of the pasture. They shook hands. CC found her brother hiding in the cottonwoods a while later.
“And he went to Omaha after that,” I said, which was how CC always ended the story, with her oldest brother’s trip to the city.
To my surprise, Great-Grandma CC continued to speak.
“Once John was gone,” she said, “Father had to rely on me to do most of the chores. I became his little helper. When he died, he willed the ranch to me. I had worked the land just as long and as hard as anyone, he said.”
“Huh,” I said, surprised. CC had never told me that version before. I summoned a mental image of the family pictures framed on the wall in her kitchen. Black and white photographs, faded—Great-Great-Grandpa leaning on a hay bale, CC’s sisters in Easter dresses. In another picture, my mom and me at the zoo. Nick in a sailor suit. Everyone there on the wall, everyone except John.
I went to use the phone in the hall. I looked up the listing for the hospital in the phone book that hung from a hook on the wall, and when the receptionist answered, I asked for my mom.
“Stitches,” Mom said, after I’d waited five minutes on hold. “All these gray hairs for stitches.”
“Can you come get me?”
“Honey, I’m filling out insurance. If CC is bothering you, walk to the library. I don’t have time.”
CC’s apartment was a continuous circle—hall, kitchen, bedroom, living room, hall. I returned to the living room by way of the bedroom. A small doll was propped against a pillow on the bed; the patchwork quilt was untouched. The room smelled sour, though there was no dust on the dresser where CC kept her jewelry. I tried on a glass ring, slid it down my middle finger. Maybe I’d get it when she died. I put the ring back and shook out my hands, a habit I’d picked up from my brother, who’d told me the gesture helped get rid of bad thoughts. In the living room, I watched the back of CC’s chair. The top of her head was visible. CC’s hands rose from the armrest and angled to the side. Her hair shivered. For a moment I thought she’d been struck by lightning. I imagined the whites of her eyes, the red veins crackling along the irises. Her head shook again, and she slumped in the chair. A small breath wheezed from her.
“Lindy?” she called. “Lindy? I forgot to say that, sometimes, we hunted for buffalo horns and dry bones around the plum patch. There was a man who kept the bones stacked by the tracks to be shipped. They were going to Omaha to become chicken grits, can you believe?”
I left the apartment without saying goodbye. When I shut the screen door, I realized that someone was sitting on the bottom of the steps, his back to me. It was a high school boy with long hair. I thought I remembered him from the wrestling team roster that hung in the library. The boy was smoking a cigarette. His ears were pierced, shiny with diamond studs. I’d never seen a boy with pierced ears before. I paused at the top of the steps, unsure. I wondered if I should lock CC’s door.
“Hi,” I said, edging around him, hugging the rail.
The boy started. “Hey,” he said. He cracked a sudden grin and reached into his pocket to pull out two compact white cartons. He tapped out a cigarette from the carton in his left hand, then shoved both cartons back into his jeans.
He offered me the cigarette. I could see right away that it was candy, the kind you found in the gum aisle at Marty’s. I took the sugar stick out of his hands anyway and put it to my lips. He pretended to light it with his John Deere lighter. The smell of burnt corn syrup filled the air; the tip of the stick darkened. I chewed on the end of the candy cigarette.
The boy blew a cloud of smoke in my face. I coughed. The other carton of cigarettes had been real. “See ya,” he said.
I thought about CC in the apartment behind me, unable to answer the door if he entered. Did he know she lived there alone?
“What are you doing here?” I asked, trying to sound older.
“I live around here,” he said. Then, sensing my confusion: “I clean the old lady’s apartment.”
I nodded and snapped the candy cigarette in half with my teeth. One of his eyebrows was longer than the other. “Looks pretty good in there today. Won’t have much to do,” I said.
I turned away from him. My foot caught on an uneven crack in the sidewalk and I fell, snagging my jeans on the cement. The boy laughed. I replayed his laughter over and over as I walked towards downtown, past the First National Bank, past the ice cream parlor. The window sign advertised the sherbet as root beer, a flavor-of-the-week both Nick and I hated. The carhops, wearing aprons and special roller skates for the Fourth of July, took customer orders outside. Normally they wore jeans and t-shirts and served ice cream from the drive-through window. I stopped for a glass of water. Across the street, two teenage girls were lighting smoke bombs in front of the library’s book drop. I sat on the curb, breathing in the blue and green fumes, crunching on ice. My mom picked me up an hour later to go home.
I didn’t think much about Great-Grandma CC’s story until a few years later, shortly after her death, when I was thirteen. Melanie Mueller had invited me to a sleepover. Seven other girls attended, including my next-door neighbor and friend, Heather Long. Melanie had reached out—through Heather—to invite me, and I’d spent the days leading up to the party eagerly burning mixed CDs and planning my wardrobe. Melanie was someone I’d admired from a distance, though had never managed to befriend. She was a volleyball player, a brunette with scaly skin and five older sisters, all in high school or college. Autumn, who was sixteen, was the only Mueller sister at the party. Mrs. Mueller was at work.
The Muellers’ house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was three-stories tall and had been built in the 1890s as a mortuary. Later, the house was converted into a bed-and-breakfast resort for summer tourists. The Muellers had moved in when the B&B shut down. Inside, a balcony looked over the glass door entryway. Double staircases twined up the front and the back of the house. Autumn and Melanie shared the biggest bedroom, which had an old-fashioned steam heater and a view of the yard. I was scared of Autumn. She had thick blond hair and a boyfriend. From the moment I rang the Muellers’ doorbell, she had marked me. She scoffed at the way I spread out my sleeping bag, the color of my shirt, my silence. I sat on the couch for most of the party, ignored by Melanie and the others, even Heather. I thought about calling my mom. Autumn accepted the other girls’ advances with smiles and swats on the butt. I didn’t understand the game she was playing with me until that night, after Twizzlers and Jeepers, Creepers, when Autumn herded us into the basement. She turned off the lights and lit a beeswax candle. She placed it on the floor.
“It’s damn time,” Autumn said, “for some scary stories.”
The Muellers’ basement was unfinished; the bare walls and floor were cement. We sat in a circle on the ratty Persian rug, huddled shoulder to shoulder. The basement was where they kept the bodies, Autumn had said, before we’d ventured downstairs. I avoided looking around, wary of attaching significance to the shadows flickering on the walls. Instead, I focused on the faces in the circle—Melanie, Sarah, Heather. Candlelight glowed on their cheeks. Elsa, one of Melanie’s friends from the volleyball team, remarked that it felt like a fridge in the basement, the air was so cold. My knee was pressed against Autumn’s knee, and she must have noticed my goose bumps, because she smirked as she passed the candle to Heather.
“Tell us the scariest thing you’ve ever seen,” Autumn said. “The winner gets mad props and music dibs.”
Heather held the beeswax candle with two hands. We leaned closer to hear her soft voice, close enough to see the stains on her incisors. She told the story of her uncle’s death in the oil fields of Wyoming. At the moment of his death, she and her mom had been eating dinner two states away. They felt him enter the room, and Heather heard her uncle’s voice talking near the sink. One of the dinner plates cracked. When she and her mom turned around, no one was there.
“Oh my God,” Melanie said.
Heather passed the candle to Elsa. Elsa held her hair away from the flame. She talked about a nighttime visit to the City Park with her older cousins. They’d wanted to play on the swings in the moonlight, but had driven away when they’d found two men sleeping under the slide.
“So nothing actually happened,” Autumn said.
“A camper asked directions to a bar,” Elsa said, shrugging. The candle dripped onto the carpet. Autumn, I could tell, was displeased. Her eyebrows were raised in a way that indicated boredom. They weren’t scaring her. That was what Autumn really wanted, to be provoked. I recalled her face during the movie—grave, absorbed. She’d nodded in approval when the trucker grew wings, while half the girls had hidden their heads in a pillow. The thought came unbidden—offer something. The candle passed to me. I was quiet for a long time, trying to think. Then I blew out the flame. The basement fell into darkness, as if a curtain had been drawn over our eyes.
The girls clustered closer. The breathing in the room grew louder, and I could pick out individual inhalations. I told the story of Great-Grandma CC’s heart failure. I left out the medical details—the ambulance, the stent. Instead, I described the way her eyes had rolled up into her brain. How her limbs had trembled. Her crazed, hoarse voice. The girls around the circle were silent.
“There was a man standing on CC’s porch the whole time I was in there, helping her,” I said. “He was kicking the door, trying to get in, holding his cigar in the air. I watched him from the window. He had black hair and white, glowing skin, and wore a red ruby ring on his thumb. And eyeliner, too, as if he’d colored in the shadows of his eyes.
“Suddenly, the whole apartment began filling with smoke. CC was wheezing. It was hard to breathe. My great-grandma—she began to speak in his voice, in the voice of the man outside.”
An audible chill went around the room. I struggled for my own breath, fighting against the exhilarating pressure building in my chest. It felt as if the girls had surrounded me, had closed me into their circle.
“CC’s eyes were rolling,” I said, speaking louder. “She was shaking. I tried to call 911, but her phone was broken, so I ran to the front door and screamed at him to stop.”
“What did he say?” Autumn whispered from somewhere in the darkness. A knee pressed harder into mine.
I changed the pitch of my voice, low and rasping.
“Get off my land,” I said. “Get off my land.”
Melanie dove for the matches. She grabbed the candle out of my hands and relit the wick. The basement returned in a glow of dim light. The rest of the girls looked to Autumn, wondering what she would make of my story.
“Your great-grandmother,” Autumn said, slowly, full of authority, “was possessed by the devil.”
She let that sink in. Melanie hid her face.
“Maybe,” I said. My cheeks flushed.
“That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard,” Heather said. She reached out to squeeze my hand.
“The scariest thing I’ve ever seen…” Autumn paused. Again, the room became still. “Is Sardines.”
The tension broke. We giggled. “The fish?” I asked.
“The game, dumbass. Sardines.” Autumn leaped to her feet. “We should play it now.”
We streamed up the stairs and into the front yard, relieved to be out of the basement. On the porch, Autumn stood on the railing and propped one foot against the stone lion. Heather grabbed my shoulder and pointed to the moon, which was yellow and globular overhead.
“Sardines!” Autumn cried. “Lindy is it. She’ll hide. The rest of you wait in the street.”
“Why me?” I asked. I was reluctant to relinquish my new and tenuous spot in their circle. Heather was already walking away from me, her arm linked with Melanie’s.
“I know you, at least, will make it good,” Autumn said, grinning.
“True,” I said, trying for cool, and I took off for the backyard at a sprint.
The Muellers lived on the brink of the City Park canyon. The woods started at the end of their half-acre yard where the land sloped steeply toward the creek at the bottom of the hill. Sometimes drunk men wandered up from the campgrounds, following the Boy Scout trails, and passed out in the Muellers’ deck chairs. For girls like Heather and me, Sardines was a bridge to something older. It wasn’t alcohol, it wasn’t sex, but it wasn’t quite safe, either. The rules went like this: the Sardine hid somewhere inside the Muellers’ yard and waited to be found. When a seeker discovered her, she would also hide with the Sardine, until only a single person was left wandering in the dark, alone, feeling uneasy and somewhat dumb, wondering where everyone else had turned up. Hiding was easy at the Muellers’. Their yard was a rotting museum of Melanie’s old toys: swing sets, three play structures, a half-disassembled merry-go-round, and, in the far corner of the yard, a sandbox shaped like a turtle. Pieces of the house’s past life also remained, in the form of mossy benches and a grotto.
I bolted past the swing set. Old playthings jumped out at me from the darkness—tennis rackets, a crumpled volleyball net, a crucifix carved on a stone. The merry-go-round was covered in fallen pine needles—one of the horses was missing. I tried to scoot under the base of the merry-go-round, but my shoulders didn’t fit. I scrambled back onto my feet and headed toward the sandbox at the far end of the yard. I leaped inside the turtle’s body, expecting sand; instead, I sunk shin-deep in mud. Water had puddled inside the turtle’s shell from a late summer’s rain. I knelt and curled against the inside wall of the shell. I covered my face and clothes with mud.
“Ready? Here we come!”
Someone had turned off the lights inside the house, which towered above me like a dull, three-tiered cake. My eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness. Girls flitted across the grass. I recognized Sarah’s sloped shoulders, Melanie’s thin waist. Autumn hunted the perimeter of the yard, stooping to feel the ground with her hands. I lifted my head to see better. My skin itched. I pictured ants, or crawdads. Snakes. I held very still. After fifteen minutes, Autumn reached the sandbox. She sunk her hand into the water and grasped my leg. I sat up, but Autumn backed away and continued searching the yard. I sank back down into the mud. A few other girls came close to discovering me. Elsa brushed the shell’s rim near my face, but then noticed the water and left. Melanie passed by the turtle’s head, saying, “Yikes. Yikes. Yikes.”
“She must have gone to the park,” Autumn said, after an hour. The girls were huddled on the merry-go-round, close enough to the sandbox that I could hear them. They’d all counted heads. No one was missing, except me. The merry-go-round rotated, and I saw part of Melanie’s face. It was hard to tell, but I pictured her crying.
“We should go down there and find her,” Autumn said.
“No,” Melanie said, voice rising. “That’s a bad idea. Mom says never go near the campgrounds at night. We should go inside and wait.”
“Mom says,” Autumn said, mimicking her sister.
“LINDY!” Elsa yelled. “LINDY WE’RE DONE PLAYING SARDINES.”
The others took up the cry.
“We’re going inside!”
“Lindy! Come on! You win!”
I didn’t move. Melanie shouted that they were going inside to watch Ten Things I Hate About You, so stop being stupid and come out. Her voice didn’t sound tear-choked, like I’d thought. She ushered the others toward the front porch. Autumn was the last to enter the house. Brightness spilled from the windows as someone turned on the lights. I blinked, momentarily blinded, and rose to my knees. Mud dropped from my body in chunks, I had remained still for so long. I shook off my clothes, hurt that my friends had just given up on me. They’d ignored the whole point of the game—searching, getting pissed, discovering the Sardine in the last place they’d expect. And Autumn had found me! She was supposed to have hidden in the sandbox. I slapped the mud off my jeans. The circle I’d accessed during the telling of CC’s story had closed, had left me outside. The lone call of an owl sounded from the canyon.
Instead of going to the house—surprise! I was in the turtle all along!—I headed down the hill toward the creek, maneuvering around pine branches, feeling stubborn. The moon gave off a short blush of light, and after a few minutes of walking, I hit a trail. If Autumn wanted a disappearance, a spectacle, I’d give it to her. I’d make it good. I followed the winding path down the hill to the creek. Stupid. Stupid. Melanie’s shrill accusation echoed in my head, heavy with fear, though back then I’d heard only mockery. The girls had searched for me, yes, but they would’ve searched twice as long for anyone else in the group.
The creek was four feet across, with a wide mossy bank. The water glistened—I could just barely make out the lily pads and half-submerged branches. I sat on a fallen log and rinsed off my legs, then eased knee-deep into the creek and crouched to scrub the mud off my neck. Mosquitoes droned in my ear, circling my head. It was June. The water was tepid. To my right, fires glowed in the distance, evidence of the campgrounds nestled behind a thicket of trees.
I heard a rustling in the bushes across the creek. I climbed out of the water, dripping, wiping the tears off my chin, feeling jittery, and started back up the hill, avoiding the trails. What had happened? Nothing, though one glance at my clothes would suggest—everything. I imagined Autumn’s wide eyes, the other girls’ shrieks. Goosebumps erupted on my still-wet skin. I picked up my pace, using my hands to scramble up the hillside.
A branch cracked behind me. I froze, leaning against a pine tree, listening. A raccoon in the trees? An owl? Nothing. I shook out my hands and continued up the hill, sometimes crawling when the canyon grew too steep. I distracted myself by picturing Autumn’s approval when she saw my wet clothes. She’d know I had gone down to the creek. No one else had been brave enough, or interested in causing a stir. I pictured the other girls clustered on the second-floor balcony, Melanie’s hand on the phone, half-wondering whether to call my mom or the police. Crying over me.
I passed the sandbox and the merry-go-round. I kept my gaze straight ahead, fixated on the light emitting from the Muellers’ ground-floor windows. I sensed someone following me—maybe CC’s ghost, maybe Autumn herself, though even now I’m not sure. The stone lions watched me from the porch. The jittery feeling increased as I approached the front door, and I decided not to go inside after all. I didn’t need that circle, those girls. Even Autumn would agree that the stunt—the scare—would be better if I didn’t return.
I jogged the eight blocks home. My mom was drinking tea in the living room when I arrived, painting her nails. My dad was playing video games with my brother. No one asked any questions, though I caught my parents exchanging a look. Dad went to pop popcorn. I picked up his game controller and said, casually, that if anyone called, I’d come home from the party because I was sick.
“Sounds good to me,” Mom said. Later, she’d ask me about the events of the sleepover, probing for details, but that night she was content to cap her nail polish and sit between her two kids, letting her toes dry. I settled next to my brother; he gave me a side-eyed grin. My butt made a wet dent in the carpet, which, inexplicably, remained stained until seven years later, when my parents pulled up the carpet in preparation to sell the house.
Nick clacked his teeth and killed an alien with an assault rifle. I gunned down his backup generator. We stayed awake until midnight. No one called.
The Mueller house was uprooted a decade later, on a weekend I was back in town for the summer Star Party. My brother and our college friend Jared had taken the day off from their restaurant jobs, and we’d driven from Omaha to drink whiskey and admire the meteor shower through a telescope. We’d camped on the beach. The clouds had lifted at midnight, unveiling a cross-stitch of stars.
The next day, I woke the boys up early. We drove into town and set up our lawn chairs on Market Street to watch Wolfe Construction dig out the Muellers’ basement. I’d read on the Internet that a doctor from Beatrice had purchased the three-story house. She’d always wanted to live in a historic building, but not necessarily one in our town. She paid to move the Mueller house three hundred miles to the Omaha suburbs.
The whole town, it seemed, had gathered to watch the building’s removal. Nick and I shared gas station nachos from Shell as the construction crew threaded steel paneling through the half-exposed walls of the basement. I looked around to see if I knew anyone. Autumn Mueller’s face jumped out at me. She was heavier, tan, standing near the front door of the house with her arms crossed. I waved, and Autumn waved back, yelling, Don’t you have a kid? before shaking her head—she’d mixed me up with someone else.
“She totally remembers you,” Nick said, though Autumn didn’t look my way again.
At noon, the team pried the Muellers’ home from its foundation. The crowd clapped when the house rose stiffly into the air. Nick and I joined halfheartedly. Jared, I saw, was asleep behind his sunglasses, snoring.
“I’ve been in this house,” I told Nick.
“So have I,” Nick said, sounding bored. “Took piano lessons from the mom, right? Shit. You think the chimney’s going to topple?”
I craned my neck to stare at the brick, looking for a crack, but the structure seemed steady. Two-dozen wheels inched the Mueller house onto the street. Ivy streamed off the siding. The police made everyone move to the curb. Soon a jagged hole appeared in the ground.
“Melanie Mueller invited me to a party here, once,” I said, as we followed the crowd to peer into the uncovered basement—fifty feet of soil and loose stones. I looked for the beeswax candle, the Persian rug, but the Muellers had already moved everything out of the house. “We played the game Sardines. I hid for so long that no one could find me. I was so pissed at those girls.”
“I’ve heard the story before,” Nick said, interrupting. He licked cheese off his fingers and offered me the Styrofoam box of nachos. I shook my head. “You tell it all the time,” he continued. “You hid in the creek, then sent the meth head to their house. She wouldn’t leave.” Our eyes met. His scar from the accident had faded to a thin strip below his hairline. Sometimes I forgot I hadn’t been there when the doctor sutured his head.
I moved my lawn chair near the edge of the pit. A few kids had climbed into the Muellers’ open basement and were monkeying around in the dust. I passed my hand through the space where the west wall used to be. The air seemed stale, empty. Even the Muellers’ backyard was bare. The play structures, sandbox, and grotto were gone. Only the merry-go-round remained, tilted, bleached out. The trees on the rim of the canyon were blackened to stubble; a fire had swept through the City Park years ago. The town itself had also changed. Two of the banks had switched buildings. The ice cream parlor had closed. When we’d driven past that morning, the doors had been boarded, though the sign in the window still read Sherbet: Apricot.
Down the street, the Mueller house trundled along at five miles-per-hour. I stood up and stretched. A few weeks after leaving Melanie’s party, I’d gone to the swimming pool by myself. My beach bag was packed: novel, Skittles, goggles, lotion, towel. I performed swan dives and pencils off the board. Minutes before the twenty-minute break, while I was deliberating between a backflip or a dive, the lifeguard across from me made the sign of the cross. He blew his whistle and climbed down from the top of his chair. I did a cannonball, then laid out on a beach chair to tan. The lifeguard wandered over. “You that devil girl?” he asked. There was a white string of skin around his neck, the imprint of the lanyard for his whistle.
“Probably,” I said, though inside I shriveled, turned cold. I wrapped the towel around my chest and threw the novel above my face to shield my eyes. The lifeguard, it turned out, had dated Autumn Mueller earlier in the summer. Shortly after I’d disappeared, he said, someone knocked on the Muellers’ front door. The little sister thought it was me, returning from the game.
The lifeguard searched my face, looking for clues. I applied sunscreen to my shoulders.
When Melanie opened the door, he said, a strange woman was standing on the porch. She had dark ratted hair and a scar on her wrist. She asked to use the phone. Her eyes were bloodshot, tweaked out, he said. Autumn came up the basement stairs with a hammer. She told the woman to get out. This is my home, the woman said. This is my home.
“Did you send her?” the lifeguard asked.
“Did she leave?” I countered.
The lifeguard smiled down at me, as if confirming something that Autumn had claimed. He blew the whistle and twenty kids waiting by the edge of the pool jumped in. He returned to his post on the chair, surveying the summer-lit morning. I packed my beach bag, then slipped one last time into the thirteen-foot end of the pool. I treaded water. My lips tasted cool and chemical. I ducked under the water and swam down to touch the drain at the pool’s bottom, raking my fingers along the grate.
I emerged from the chlorine in what seems to me now to be a confluence of moments, serene with the summer’s secrets, having come into my own alone, and in the dark. I sloughed off the pool water, the creek, the mud from the sandbox. I’d scraped the shallow bottom with my palm. Concrete. Pebbles. Sand. I’d risen to meet the bloodshot eyes of the woman in the trees who was watching me. And even though I didn’t see her then, I can see her now—how she sneaked up behind me, her hair loose and ratty, the stick she carried to lean on.
This was the tale I recounted to my college friends, my writing class, my therapist, the track team, my fellow interns at Nationwide, my brother. I started the story, always, by saying I’d derived my power at thirteen from an accumulation of childhood props—candy cigarettes, sandbox, the meth head in the Park. They’d given me an edge, an identity. Even now I wasn’t sure if I could change the story they told.
The Muellers’ chimney was barely visible above the rooflines of houses on Orchid Street. Jared joined us at the edge of the pit where the Muellers’ home had once been.
“That house used to be a bed-and-breakfast,” I said.
“I thought you said it was a funeral home,” Jared said.
“No, it was a daycare,” Nick said. He tossed a banana pepper into the basement and clapped me on the back. “A daycare for angsty teenage girls.”
A line of cars was trailing the Muellers’ house down Orchid Street, past Great-Grandma CC’s old neighborhood, through the downtown district. The caravan was a send-off to what had been the most historic home in our town. As we headed toward Nick’s van, the neighbors began stacking chairs, cleaning up the lawn. Autumn started a game of Frisbee. She threw the Frisbee over the gaping hole in the yard. On the other side, a high school girl jumped off the old merry-go-round to catch it.