I hold on. I try to do what I am told. The second oldest rollercoaster in the United States, my father says. I wonder about the first, if it is carved from wood, too, if it looks like something wild has gnawed at its sides. Both hands, remember. And don’t tell Mom.
My father is falling. I let him run through my fingers. I let him tell me his truth. When we rush down the hill, the wind distorts his face. His eyes bulge, and it is the only time I’ve seen him terrified. It is satisfying, so much that I forget where I am, until we get to the tunnel. That’s when I close my eyes. In the tunnel, there’s nothing to do but listen to everyone scream. There’s so much sharp noise that I cannot think or hear and in that way it’s truly quiet, the way I like things. When we’re pulled into the light again, it’s up a small hill and then stillness.
I release the bar from my legs and walk with my father through the amusement park. He’s sweating and I can smell the stale sweetness of alcohol behind his cologne. He buys me a hot dog and I eat it and ask for another, only this time I feed bits of the bun to birds. Come on, he says. Before the park closes, one last ride.
When our car pulls in the driveway, Anthony, his parents, and baby brother are outside. Anthony’s father, Jack, walks up to the driver’s side door with a beer in his hand. Got something to show you, he says to my father, and I’ll stop by later, just like that, a wink to me in his tie-dyed shirt and cutoffs. There is a ghost in the background with hair in a thin, wet braid. She is drawing a chalk map for her sons. She is motioning for me to come along, but my father pulls the car further up the driveway. I tell him I’m going next door to say hey to Jack’s wife Ellie and the kids. Don’t listen to Jack, says my father. He’s half in the bag; be home for dinner.
They must know I can see them, that their window looks into mine and mine into theirs. I am embarrassed to undress, even in the morning with my thin curtain still down, when I know the sunlight is bright enough to block my body, when I know I am only shadow. My mother tells me not to be so nosey, to brush my teeth, lights out at ten. She doesn’t know that I stay awake once she leaves my room, that I peel back the shade and watch Jack drag the lace off Ellie’s body, different from how she removes it when she’s alone. Then Ellie disappears and all I see is Jack’s frame and his eyes on me when he turns his head out and away.
The stars are not something to wish on. They just illuminate the sky, illuminate my bedroom and theirs, and Jack’s body that always seems tired from concentration, like he’s working with numbers and not his hands. His smile reminds me of clowns and tight spaces. Some nights he hits Anthony for not calling him sir or cleaning up the living room. Some nights I am in the living room watching the baby while Ellie makes dinner and Anthony looks on, wanting to help but not knowing how. Some days I take the dollars that Ellie gives me for babysitting and go to the gas station to buy soda in glass bottles. Some days I have enough and some I am short the change.
In the park, it’s truth or dare. I pick the one you’re supposed to. Megan dares me to kiss Anthony on the lips, which he’s excited about until I tell him to hold his breath, that I’ll only do it if he doesn’t breathe. Megan is my friend with thick bangs and old sneakers. When I eat dinner at her house, her mother scolds me for rocking in the kitchen chair. There are rules to break, but these aren’t those kind, she says, then misses the ashtray and makes a mess on the table. Her mother blows her cigarette smoke up and above our heads, but it still stings my eyes. She’s beautiful in a way Megan is not, so everyone assumes Megan must look like her dad, though no one can be sure.
I collect a shard of glass from the broken bottle at my feet.
The doorbell rings, then the door pushes open. Jack is standing in our kitchen with our doorknob in his hand. Tell your pop I can fix this. You tell him, I say. Mom is at work. Dad is in the basement watching law shows in his recliner. I know you’re a good girl. You see Anthony doing anything stupid at school? Tell your pop I got something good for him. I open the door to the basement and call to my father. Jack brushes by me as he walks down the spiral staircase. Why don’t you go over to my place and talk to Ellie. She likes it when you come around. I shut the door, then go upstairs to take a shower.
The duct tape is coming undone. I get the roll from under the bathroom sink and cut four new strips of tape, then stretch them over the section of missing tile on the shower wall. When I turn on the hot water, the steam makes the new ends of tape curl anyway. I lower the temperature, undress, then crack open the bathroom window that looks onto Anthony’s backyard. I rip the bandages off my thigh, quick, then run my fingers over the thin pink lines. The water stings the cuts and I am angry with myself. To no one I say, Grow up.
Megan comes over after school and we play a game she made up, where we draw little pieces of paper from a hat. She blushes when she goes first and picks the letter T, but after a moment she lifts up her shirt. Her nipples look different from mine, which makes me not want to play anymore. When Megan gets a B she’s embarrassed at first and I tell her she doesn’t have to do it, that I don’t really care, that this game is boring and we should go outside, but she says no. She takes off her pants and squirms a bit, then drops her underwear. She spreads her legs, then her lips, wide. I look for just a second before Megan shrieks, then closes her legs fast. I ask her why she did it, and she tells me she saw it in a magazine, a girl holding herself open just like that.
I practice this on my own that night in front of my mirror to see if I look the way Megan does. I don’t.
Come on, my mother says. Stop dragging your feet. We are shoe shopping at Robin’s where Jack works part-time. I didn’t think Jack would be wearing a tie, but he is, a thin navy blue one, solid, no print. We go to the far back of the store to the wall of shoes on sale. Twenty percent off, plus my employee discount, says Jack. Let her look around, says my mother. Take your time, beautiful. Jack sits down on a bench next to my mother. When’s the last time you got something new for yourself, he asks. I’m not supposed to but I’ll add an extra five percent off. My mother says that’s not necessary, but Jack insists, says we’re neighbors.
Between the two walls of shoes is a full-length mirror. I pretend like I’m searching as long as I can, but once the mirror reveals Jack raising my mother’s pant leg, I turn around with two boxes. I’ll try these, I say to Jack. Excellent, he says, have a seat, honey. I’m not forgetting you, how could I? You’re next.
The sirens are not what wake me, it’s the lights. When I go downstairs to find my mother, she is sitting with Anthony in the living room. Come sit, she says. I ignore her and go to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and it’s there I find my dad with Ellie. Not now, go away; tell your mom come here. I ask what’s wrong, why Anthony is over so late, why Ellie is in our kitchen in her pajamas, why there’s a police car parked outside.
A neighbor called when Jack’s truck sped across their front lawn and tore out the plants from their berm. I find this out once Anthony leaves, once the cops are gone and Jack comes back, knocks on our door to collect his family. I’m sorry, he says. Let’s go home. Once they leave I can’t go back to sleep. I stay up with my mother and we flip through the channels while my father drinks from a coffee mug of vodka, his gun on his waist.
When I come home from school, there are dishes on the living room rug. Be careful, my mother says, don’t step there. Why are you home so late? I tell my mother someone fell asleep on the bus again, that the driver had to circle back. A lie, but she believes it. Watch these, she says, running away into the kitchen. When she returns, she has two rags in her hands. She tosses me one. I watch my mother kneel down; one strap of her overalls slides off her shoulder. A woman is coming over in twenty minutes, she informs me. For the china, gently used I told her, so polish. I kneel down beside my mother and try to remember eating off these plates, which look tired-delicate, born from somewhere already old. Smooth, when I run my fingers across them, no chips.
The woman who buys our dishes pays two hundred dollars in cash. My mother folds the bills neat in her back pocket, then stuffs her feet into her shoes. Be out in a second, she says. I go outside with the woman and help her load the dishes into the trunk of her car, which smells like wet dog. Your oak tree is sick, she says to me, pointing to the branches scattered across our lawn. My mother comes out with a few more pieces wrapped in newspaper. On the house, she tells the woman. They shake hands, then the woman drives away. My mother pulls out the money and counts it. Ice cream, she says. Me and you, come on.
In the summer, I help Ellie run her daycare in the backyard, which we have to be quiet about. We aren’t doing anything wrong, says Ellie. But just to be sure, you don’t know anything. Okay, I tell her, then spread peanut butter and jelly on slices of white bread. Ellie corrects me, the way I put both peanut butter and jelly on the same side of the bread is wrong, that to do it right is to keep the two separate from each other. Otherwise it’s messy, see? I hand out juice boxes to the kids, easy. I feed the baby its bottle and it cries. I’m doing it wrong. Like this.
Then Jack comes home, and Ellie is doing it wrong, so I close the gate, keep the kids entertained in the backyard, teach them a dance, one I just learned, one I’m not used to, but I keep it going, I keep it up, the way I’m taught. The way muscle. The way run.
Now Megan spits. Now everywhere we go. She buries her hands in her pockets unless she’s smoking. Her jeans are too big, and she won’t wear a belt, so I can always see her underwear sticking out. When her mom yells about the phase, she spits back at the ground. I stand in their front yard and watch through the window. She’s not coming, go home; I see her mother wave me away, then use the same hand to slap Megan’s mouth.
When she’s ungrounded, we sit on the Presbyterian Church steps and smoke the cigarette butts we steal from her mom’s ashtray. We watch Anthony circle around the church on his bicycle with big headphones on his ears, a Walkman in his hoodie. His body is dirty and scrawny and we are envious of the way he can fall. We talk about having dicks and what we would do with them. We punch each other in the arms, say hit me, now harder. A boxing match, no gloves. When Anthony notices us, he stops riding. Got something to show ya, he says. Megan just spits. Sweats.
We’re gonna keep him until we find his owner, says Anthony about the dog they found on the street corner last week. Ellie gives me a rawhide bone to give to the dog, who they’re calling Rocky. He doesn’t have a collar, but there’s a red ring around his neck. Did you see that, I ask Anthony. He pulled too much, he says. The dog nips my hand, playing. I throw the bone across the room, and it hits the front door. Rocky doesn’t chase after it. We have to teach him, still, says Anthony.
When Jack comes through the door, he trips over Rocky’s bone. Fucking dog, he screams. Anthony, what did I tell you would happen next time? Anthony grabs the bone and tucks it away in Rocky’s bed. I’m sorry, Sir. Jack walks through the living room with his boots on, tracking mud on the carpet. Anthony starts to cry and I tell him it’s okay, even though I don’t know what’s going on or where Ellie went. I’ll go find her, I say, but Anthony’s face says Don’t.
When Jack comes back he has his gun. I vomit on the carpet at the sight of blood.
That’s it, says my father on Saturday morning. A heavy branch hit the roof of our car and now there’s a dent. Call the place, he tells my mother.
From the porch, I watch three men cut down our tree. They sweat. My mother offers them water. My father takes pictures with disposable film. It doesn’t take long for them to grind down the stump, until the backyard is covered in sawdust, until everyone’s face looks up, wide and relieved. My mother pays the men, and soon I watch the car creep back up the driveway, my father behind the wheel. Now there’s a view into the house behind ours.
One night I’ll crouch down beside the window in my bedroom and watch Ellie and Jack pack their things into large cardboard boxes. They’ll move quickly, no talking, or at least that’s how it’ll seem. A system of Ellie loading, Anthony sealing, Jack carrying out, then back in, then again. The rhythm will make me tired but I won’t be able to look away. When there are no more boxes in sight they’ll pause together for a moment before walking out of the bedroom and closing the door behind them. They’ll leave their light on and so will I, sleep still in brightness until I know they’re gone.
The last night of the town carnival, Megan and I get to stay out late, since we’re technically with our parents. We agree to meet them at the beer tent at nine thirty, a half hour before the carnival closes up for good. When we get there, my parents and Megan’s mom are sucking tiny clams out of their shells, telling a story they don’t want us to hear, so they quiet down when they notice we’re on time. Everyone is drunk but pretends they’re not. My mother leaves to find a bathroom and Megan finishes the last of her mother’s clams. My father grabs my hand.
He drags me to the Tilt-A-Whirl at the back entrance of the carnival. I am too old and afraid of throwing up, I tell him, but before I know it we’re seated in the red car, our four hands gripping the metal bar. The ride begins and my father jerks to the right. We spin separate and fast through thick air which tastes like salt, and my thighs stick to the seat, and the distant lights from the Ferris wheel are vague suggestions, and my face hurts from laughing, and my stomach bubbles, and I think I might lose it, I just might, and when I turn, my father turns too.