December 5, 2018KR OnlineFiction

Twin

I can thank my resemblance to Reese, the Groovy Girl doll, for my twenty hours a week at Kid Genius Toys. The owner hardly looked at my application, just held up an organic-felt ten-year-old, who, in her miniskirt and bangles, looks like a shop-girl already. My other job, Quiznos, has the black company polo and visor, but here, where I wear what I like, I can feel the customers not seeing me. I’d been waiting for someone who knows me to come in.

There’s a boy, Matthias, the owner’s son, eight or nine years old, who’s always here and, of course, far more interested in me than any toys. But he’s all right. He hates the children’s music his mom plays. She leaves him here with me, often for hours, while she runs errands, god knows what, and he’ll switch it over to my songs as soon as she’s gone. He likes me to sing—“Jimmy Jazz,” “Alison,” Stevie Nicks. He doesn’t even know how in love with me he is.

He always has trivia, which I always believe: Did you know that in a one hundred percent silent place you can hear the blood inside your ears?

“What’s it sound like?” “I don’t know.”

“Does anybody know?”

“Actually everybody, we just don’t know it,” and we both catch each other listening to our ears.

Who did you see when you saw me today? Nineteen years old. Two jobs, an apartment, a forgivable roommate, a little less than a thousand dollars in my account. Reese, according to her tag, wants to defend the environment. Her favorite food is grapefruit, favorite activity hanging out with friends. I have a few friends, a boyfriend I plan maybe to break up with soon. Matthias, true authority, says I have a wonderful voice. Less sugar in it now, but despite myself I hear it sweetening up for the Kid Genius moms. “Don’t you love him?” when they pick up a plushy bear. I can more or less imitate anything Matthias wants, but I have no actual talent I’m afraid. Don’t know about you, but when it’s just me I don’t sing.

 

For weeks this summer, Maple’s father has been Sunk Dad, they call it, lying in the living room, clawing raisins one at a time from the box.

When he surfaces finally, gets up from the crumpled couch, there’s something different about him. He stands in the living room brushing his teeth, looking at the air.

“Daddo?” Maple says. A weird smile cuts his stubble.

“Hey, my girl,” he says, toothbrush tucked in his cheek. He gathers the newspapers, spitting his toothpaste in the yard, takes a floor lamp from the living room and sets it up at the kitchen table, where he sits late into the night sorting through a stack of marble-green file folders, signing notes and making stacks.

“What are you doing?” she says. He’s busy. A tuft of his hair bobs along with the pen.

From bed she hears him on the phone: “Peggy, could you take Maple for a couple days? No, feeling much better actually. It’s a, what do you call it, a retraining thing. If I do well, maybe they hire me back.” This is a lie, she can tell. “Pete’s? So bring her. Take her with you to the falls.”

He comes into her room, watches her a second, starts putting clothes into her duffel.

“I’m not asleep.”

He doesn’t say anything. He packs two shirts, two pairs of underwear—then throws in a handful more of each.

“You lied to Ms. Woljson.”

“Call her Peggy. You’re almost a teenager.”

“I’m eleven.”

He twists a pushpin in the giraffe print where they pencil off her height. “You’re the most beautiful, strongest woman I’ve ever known. OK?”

When she doesn’t answer, he says, “Wake up, there’s something we have to do.”

He sits beside her with his guitar and the tape deck on his knee. “This one’s the studio version,” he says. He nods and strums once. She watches the wrinkles in his neck. “We’re doing all the hits.”

“We have to do it now?”

“We’re ready. I’ll go copy off a few.”

She wants to pinch and wake him. “What’s the falls?”

“Me, my, mo, mull,” he sings, but there’s no humor in it. “Warm up for your solo.”

 

Sasha’s parents come at dawn. At the curb the open van looks like an eye. Maple drags her duffel down the walk, smears an earthworm through her hopscotch and her moons.

Sasha’s straw hat is on her face, the brim slick from breath and brightened. Maple sets it straight, covering the length of the scar, as she climbs by.

“Morning, Maple,” says Ms. Woljson. “Look, Sasha, look who it is.”

Sup, Lefty, Sasha says to Maple, mind to mind.

Hey.

The seat belt has lanes in the weave, dry red jam on its buckle. “Good morning, thanks for taking me,” Maple says aloud.

“We should be thanking you. Sasha, you get a whole weekend with Maple! Yay, exciting!” Ms. Woljson tickles out a little squeal.

My mom’s an idiot, Sasha says.

Totally, Maple says.

No, you fucking love my mom.

Not really.

Liar. It’s going to be fucking extra boring at my uncle Pete’s. Sasha is two years older; everything bores her exquisitely.

We’ll have to write like a hundred new songs, Maple says. She tries to say it with no enthusiasm. She’s never actually bored when she’s with her best friend.

Mr. Woljson presses a button and the van door skates closed, crushing a tissue pack that rolled into its track. They pull forward and a Saint Christopher medal swings from the rearview mirror, child god glowing on Saint Christopher’s back.

It’s quiet. Ms. Woljson turns to say something to Maple or to check if she’s asleep but changes her mind, turns back with parted lips. Sasha has her bear tucked under her thighbone, its fur sharp with old spit. When the van brakes, her leg squeezes down on his face and the eyes go loose. Sasha’s key chains swing against the back of her wheelchair. Her arms lock up like chicken wings and she hunches around them, her chin not quite propped on her wrists. Her beach hat slides forward and the scar, a pink come-hither, curls out from the hat’s back brim. Ms. Woljson puts her hand on her husband’s and smears around his knuckle skin. The van ferries its load of humming air.

Band practice? Their band, most recently, is called the Dead Ringers. Only original compositions now. Their latest singles: “Lobster Blue Bruises,” “Supercuts,” and “Hate You 2,” all by Sasha. Maple’s songs, “Bullhonky” and “Slap Bracelet,” still sound like gay birthday party music, Sasha says.

No. I’m gonna sleep, Sasha says.

Rock-a-bye, assholes, Maple sings. It’s from one of Sasha’s old tracks, but Sasha doesn’t laugh. Whatever she’s so annoyed about, Maple can’t guess.

Maple fakes sleep. When no one’s looking, to see if Sasha’s really sleeping, Maple pushes on her eyes and looks hard right and back at the node that connects their brains. The halo is gold and fiery and swells a little in pattern with her breath. The thin light squeezes and flares as Maple pushes on the channel that leads through to her.

You could have just said you were feeling like a needy little bitch, the node says. You want some atten-ten? Sasha laughs. All right, fine—and she sings lead, Maple harmony:

You took me to a late-night movie;
I fell asleep and dreamt of you.
I know I’m your best distraction—
Hate me once, and I’ll hate you too.

 

Maple wakes a hundred miles later to the sound of gasoline glugging into the tank beneath her head. It’s a Sinclair truck stop with two retired army tanks and a helicopter out front. A POW flag droops above a plastic dinosaur. Sasha is gone.

“Peg’s changing her,” Mr. Woljson says, sliding the door. He’s tidy, smiley. He’s got the tiniest butt. He probably would’ve been scoutmaster if Sasha were healthy and a boy. “Pac-Man? There’s an arcade inside.”

But inside there’s no Pac-Man. Zombies splatter and fuel tanks explode in the dark. Mr. Woljson grumbles and feeds his quarters into a game called Fog City Pandemic. They lift heavy etched-plastic guns as melted-down faces moan and encroach. Wailing pipes out of the black speakers that overhang the screen. A fragment of the Golden Gate Bridge forks up at the game horizon.

“So how’re things in the Palensky household?” he says. “Your dad seemed to be doing better.” He levels at a zombie, fixes his aim, and shoots again.

“Uh-huh,” Maple says.

“Shoot offscreen to reload,” he reads. “Dang.” She is dead already. He fights off another zombie and drops his gun into its rubber holster, wipes his palm against his jeans. “Look, Peg and I want you to know you’ll always have our place when his bummers hit. You’re really sweet with Sasha—if fair was fair, we’d be paying you—but it’s OK if you’re not there to see her. This year’s middle school, and Washington doesn’t do special-needs inclusion. She’ll have her track, and you won’t see her so much. But really, come hang with us whenever you like. Spin some records.” They’ve rounded on him, a herd of the Fog City dead.

Maple can’t help it. He winces and grabs her a stack of mostly unused napkins from on top of a discarded pizza box. “I’m sorry, Maple. It’s OK. He’s getting better. Hey, let’s get back to the van.”

Maple watches from her seat as Ms. Woljson and Sasha back out of the finger-smudged double doors. “Chuck? Everything cool?” Ms. Woljson says when she elevates the chair.

What a surprise, says Sasha. It’s Maple in tears.

Shut up.

“Tender times is all,” he says. They drive by the tanks, the POW flag, the dinosaur. PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB ON DINO is printed on the dinosaur’s side. “Did you hear they did the fossils wrong?” he says. “No such thing as the brontosaurus after all.”

“No?”

“But if it didn’t exist, then it’s not extinct, am I right?”

Ms. Woljson reaches over and thumbs a skin flake from her husband’s ear. Two brothers fight for who gets to stand with the tank’s gun to his head. Dino looks up with happy squints.

OK. What is it, Sasha says finally.

If she stares hard enough at the boys, the tank, Dino, maybe she won’t say it, but it comes anyway. They’re splitting us up.

 

I do love to watch the Kid Genius moms try to figure out who Matthias is, when he’s sitting there on the counter—my son, my brother, my ward. These rich young boutique moms have placed their all-in bets, and anything that doesn’t abide by their code now threatens them. At least that’s what I tell myself as I chirp, “Right this way,” and scurry to show them the Lilys and Laylas and Lolas and Reagans, mothers’ ideas of daughters’ ideas of late girlhood. You’d be surprised how many can’t stop themselves from asking. “Is this your big sister?” they ask him.

“She’s my daughter from the future via time machine.” We decided we needed a reply, and this is what he composed.

Me: “Da-ad, you’re embarrassing me.” They, the rich moms, flee.

Matthias, as far as I can tell, has no dad. Dead or absentee—he doesn’t seem plagued by it. He likes the idea of being my dad; he keeps making new attempts to turn it into a game, but I don’t know. He wanted me to tell him his future, but I wouldn’t tell him about Daddo. I stirred his staticky hair with a sparkle wand and said, “Thy fate is thine to discover.” “I want to be a life scientist,” he said.

 

The first five years of her life, Maple lived inside someone else’s manic episode. She was lucky. They had her mom’s life insurance to spend out, so why not go for it? They named every fish in the library tank. They blowfished at each other through the glass.

“I didn’t miss you or anything,” Daddo said when he walked her home after her first-ever day of school. “I worked all day on my business plans! I could drive a Thanksgiving food truck? Lady Maple’s Turkey Tank? Or make my line of savory chewing gums? Lady Maple’s Chicken Chews?”

He said it was her vote. She sucked on her name-tag yarn.

“I see. You made so many best friends you don’t even talk to me now?”

She told him about the one girl, the special deaf girl in her special chair.

“That’s Siamese Sasha. You’ve met her before. I’ll show you something amazing.”

He showed her online when they got home. The article’s picture showed the Woljsons, still young and blond, looking with strong, worried love at the baby, or two babies, in their arms.

“Sasha and Hannah, before the surgery,” he said. “Connected at the brain.” Two baby girls fused at the fontanel gazed up with symmetrical wet grins. Their long skull made a pink tunnel beneath four happy eyes. “The cookies baked together—as the cookies sometimes will.” He scooped Maple crossways onto his lap in the swivel chair and pressed his forehead, his long eyebrows, into hers. “‘Sorry, Boss. Either she comes to work with me or I go to kindergarten with her. We’re joined at the nog!’”

His sour man-breath puffed into her mouth.

He hoisted her in front of him, their skulls still connected, and wobbled elephant-style into the kitchen. It hurt her armpits. “We are Palenskys if you please. We are Palenskys if you don’t please! Hey, Honeybuck, Maple and me put our minds together and determined—”

“Daddo?” Maple said. He’d fallen quiet. “Who’s Honeybuck?”

It was like a fly had hit him in the face. He blinked and put her down and used the kitchen window to erase the warm spot on his forehead; on hers, a splotch of his panic remained.

When he couldn’t, or didn’t, find work, he collapsed. He lay with sunk eyes, on his bed or the couch, his stubble pushed into the cloth. Maple missed school. She threw the volleyball against the living room wall. Plaster shook down into his hair.

For four months, he hardly spoke. He got her meals, got her dressed, got her into bed—all from afar. He was unreachable, but when he cried, she cried too, like they were connected behind the eyes. He tried to hide it, went to his room, and she, automatically, went to hers. She pressed on her eyes to keep out his tears, pressed till she could only hear them straining and that was all, the oily inside roar. That was where she found the node. Orange, black, a ring of blue, she tried to see where it led.

That fall, Sasha’s mom arranged for every kid in kindergarten to have a playdate at their house. Sasha had a big-screen in her bedroom, Madonna posters. Ms. Woljson had a glassblowing studio with a furnace and a long blowpipe. “Sasha loves the colors,” she said. “She loves orange.”

“Me too,” Maple said.

“Talk to her. It’s OK to talk. She’s very thoughtful in her own way. Maybe you’ll connect.”

The two girls watched from across the studio as Ms. Woljson blew a cooling drop of glass into a sphere. An aperture in the hot glass opened and closed, and the orb sealed in her breath.

Are you there? They said at the same time, inside.

Jinx.

Sasha’s house was a knight’s hop from Maple’s, two blocks over, one up, and Sasha’s parents never asked. She’d kick her shoes under the bench in the entry, run back to Sasha’s room. Pretty soon they gave her the code to the garage. This was childhood, right? A tin-can phone line, out your window into mine? Best friendship, which has always been equipped with exactly the powers it needs?

Maple sat on the edge of Sasha’s queen bed and watched MTV, muted and taller than her. I can’t believe you’re allowed to watch this, she said.

I watch whatever. I can tell you all about everything, if there’s ever anything you want to know. Do you like the Shamblers?

I don’t know.

They have that song “Sucking on Ozone”? “Crash-landed in your stepmom’s pool, I remember you from the middle school”? Her voice was so clear and close.

I don’t really know about anything, Maple said.

Most people don’t.

Will you sing it again? Maple said. Do the whole song.

I’ll do it once, she said. Then we’ll try it together.

 

On the interstate, Mr. Woljson puts in Maple’s dad’s tape and his voice comes on: “Hi Grandma, hi Woljsons, hell-o the future, ha-ha. It’s Maple and Brian here, August 2004. Studio cut. All songs were written by Maple Palensky, my beautiful daughter. First some oldies, then our hot new set. Ready, Maple?”

There’s a pause while he waits for Maple, last-night Maple, to nod. She remembers his weird calm face lit by her plug-in globe.

“We don’t need to play this,” she says. The van has speakers back, front, high, low. It feels like panic to have his voice all around.

“Come on, chanteuse. Don’t be shy.”

“Maple wrote all the songs,” her dad is saying. “Well, it was a collaboration. Here’s what I mean.”

The pinwheel turns loudly. The guitar lets out the bronze gust of a major chord. “It’s always the same. She thinks it’s a . . .”

“Game.” Her little voice barely made the tape.

“I start out a line, I’m doing just . . .”

“Fine.”

“But every dang time, I can’t find the—”

“Rhyme!” Ms. Woljson sings out.

“This is so sweet.”

It’s idiotic. Maple knew it was, but with Sasha here it burns worse. “Kangaroo Soup,” “My Fallible Mailman,” “Invincible Tim.” Her dad is loud and flat and idiotic, she is squeaky and faint and idiotic.

You tiny ho baby. It jets through the node.

I know.

And your dad sounds like moldy balls.

We both do. I hate the sound of my real voice.

Your real voice?

Not like that. I meant—

“Oh, Invincible Tim never learnt to swim,” Ms. Woljson sings along. “Drowns and clambers out again.”

“This is really rude,” Maple says, “but is it all right if we turn it off?”

“No way. You guys are rocking it. Brian sounds so jolly.”

Is this what you do all day? Fart away the college fund?

“Now the new set,” Daddo is saying. “Here’s a little number Maple and me cooked up.”

I don’t have a college fund.

Well, we got thousands stashed away for me. Sasha is turned away, watching the trees slice by.

You’re really good at sarcasm.

No, you’re really good at sarcasm.

“Peg,” says Mr. Woljson. “She said she doesn’t want to listen.”

“OK, OK,” she says and hits eject, but it’s too late. The first lines have already played:

You took me to a late-night movie;
I fell asleep and dreamt of you.
I know I’m your best distraction—

 

The node goes to ice.

You did not.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell him it was our song.

I wrote it.

Your song, I meant your song.

Mr. Woljson glances at Maple in the rearview mirror. He taps down the cruise control.

“So want to play a game then?” he says. “Suitcases? I’m going on a trip, and I’m bringing my atom bomb. That’s A and B.”

I just wanted to hear it out loud and then he wanted to tape it and—Sasha’s anger swells into her skull.

Out loud? Sasha says, disgusted.

“Sure, I remember that one,” says Ms. Woljson. “I’m going on a trip, and I’m bringing my atom bomb and my Christian Dior.”

“Oo—very nice.”

She tries to silence her mind, but the interrupted song skips and earworms, the incomplete line floundering and replaying without its second half: I know I’m your best distraction . . . I know I’m your best distraction . . .

Are you trying to kill me? Sasha says, her anger trembling.

“Maple?” The Woljsons are consulting each other in their silent way. “Your turn, Maple Candy,” Mr. Woljson says. “All riders must play suitcases.”

All riders—Maple can feel it gouge Sasha. All the time, in little ways like that, they forget she’s there.

He doesn’t mean it like that, she says.

Just stop.

He—

Stop! Sasha shrieks—the scream, the airless scream that doesn’t pause for breath. The thin node sears and rips. A migraine blooms at the back of Maple’s skull.

“Maple? Maple, it’s E to you.”

“Maybe a little Ebola fever?”

“Oh dear. Maple, what’s wrong?”

 

She pukes on the side of an exit ramp and Sasha quits screaming and switches to the silent treatment now. At a gas station, Ms. Woljson gets Maple a Fresca and a straw. “I got migraines bad at your age too,” she says. “Just awful.”

They arrive at Uncle Pete’s houseboat at sunset, and Maple remembers that this has been advertised, a houseboat, a night in a houseboat, but it doesn’t look like a house or a boat, no pitched roof or glass windows, no paddle wheel or furled sail. It’s a storage unit, floating beside many others in a harbor—a flooded parking lot—along the flat course of the Erie Canal.

Uncle Pete welcomes them from his roof with a quick sideways spit and a big wave. He helps Mr. Woljson carry Sasha across his gangway and up the spiral stairs that lead to the small roof porch, the only space that can hold them all. He hands Maple an old Super Soaker with a brownish reservoir and squeaky pump. “Maple, was it? Will you take gull patrol? It’s Rolling Thunder around here.”

“Where’s Jeremy,” Ms. Woljson says.

“He’ll be back soon. He’s out drawing dicks and balls on everything.” Maple has only heard whistling laughs like Pete’s in movies, old whiskey-faced men who die clutching their chests. He mixes a few drinks on the top of a mini fridge whose orange extension cord she traces back down the stairs. He rolls the cap of the tonic water off his finger and into the murk, slices a lime with the pocketknife he keeps on his hip.

The houseboats are lined like trucks at the truck stop, only enough water between them for garbage to collect. No steering wheels or braking levers that she can see. An American flag slaps its backhand at the other boats, atop a four-foot pole.

“You like my flag? If I’m not mistaken it’s the flag they fly on the moon,” Pete says. “It’s a moon flag.” He leans back and swigs wisely. “The lonesomest flag in the world.”

“What happened to your old Jolly Roger?” Mr. Woljson says.

“Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.” Pete laughs his whiskey laugh again.

They talk about money, about Lockport, Pete’s little town. Sasha’s wheelchair is pointed off at the sunset. At her knees, a slingshot is bracketed to the gunwale. They talk about Niagara Falls, how Sasha starts cawing there, every single year, as if she knows. They talk about pituitaries, CAT scans—“I hope they don’t make you pay,” Pete says.

“Why’s that?”

“Why? They lost your kid.”

“Christ, Pete,” says Ms. Woljson.

Mr. Woljson says he’s going to go unload the van.

Ms. Woljson says one year she’d like to visit the ashes without a blowout.

“What blowout?” Pete says. He points at a gull for Maple to shoot, but she misses.

“Pete lives here all year round,” Ms. Woljson says to Maple. “Even after the water freezes.”

“If I seem deranged, she means.” He tosses her an Otter Pop.

Alexander the Grape. Maple has purple on her lips when Sasha’s cousin Jeremy climbs up the stairs and nods hey to his aunt. From the corner of her eye, Maple can see the rip in his pants where his knee sticks through. He’s drawn on it with a pen. He sits and takes a big can of iced tea out of his cargo pocket, cracks it open confidently, but he doesn’t know where to put his eyes.

“Hey, Jer,” said Mr. Woljson, coming back up the stairs. “When’d you sneak in? Meet our Maple?”

“Not really,” Jeremy says. As he drinks, his pale black mustache gets wet and sticks to his lip. It’s just a bluff of a mustache, as soft as the hair under his Big Dripper Plumbing cap, she can tell.

“Well, you should,” Mr. Woljson says. They all sit there.

My cousin’s pretty much a Neanderthal, Sasha says. He’s going to be one of those forty-year-old guys on BMX bikes, you can tell already. He won’t even look at me.

He’s the freak. I bet he stole that Arizona.

I wonder if he’s in love with you. Wouldn’t that be gross?

Disgusting, Maple says.

The adults resume their conversation, but she doesn’t listen. What would you do, Sasha says, if tonight you wake up and he’s trying to kiss you—if it’s even possible for him to kiss, with his big teeth. Maple hides her laugh. Is there a type of girl, somewhere, who would find him cute, the way some people like those skin-disease dogs? But they decide they cannot even bother with him and have band practice instead. They sing “Lobster Blue Bruises” and “Supercuts” and just to prove they’re past it they sing “Hate You 2” and swear they will never, ever fight again. And they never do.

Jeremy takes a tin of Vienna sausages from the same cargo pocket, fits a half inch of preserved meat into the slingshot on the gunwale, and aims at a neighboring boat. There’s a wince in the air and a seagull perched on the boat falls back in a spasm of flight. Jeremy whoops. The sausage bounces but stays on the roof, and the seagull lands again and examines the lump of meat.

“Eat it,” he whispers. The bird feints twice and devours it in four quick nips.

“Dude,” says Pete. “I told you, don’t feed the enemy.” He takes the water gun and squirts nipples onto Jeremy’s shirt.

Maple watches the Woljsons look down. She watches Jeremy set his jaw and turn red. He wants to spit or swear or storm off, but he’s trapped. It doesn’t matter how much he hates his dad—there’s nothing to say and no one to say it to.

 

Maple wakes that night when Jeremy jumps onto the bunk above hers. His ankles hang down in front of her face. He brightens his bug bites with three fast claws, flicks his rubber flip-flops off, and pulls his feet out of sight. His hand drops down but swings away from her toward a tackle box on the stand. The hand opens the box and takes a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, a paper-towel tube with a dryer sheet rubber-banded over one end. The lighter scratches, he exhales aloud, relief and mock relief. She can hear his wet lips squished inside the cardboard, and she can tell how terrible it would be to kiss them, his long and flappy lips, covered with that weak black hair. She thinks about them rippling toward her, water leeches, and shudders. He reaches down, and she scooches away, but he just takes an iPod from the tackle box, dusts it carefully with the overhanging sheet. Soon miniature screams tunnel through his earphones above. It’s too soft to hear the words, just the tiny rage.

She turns and touches her forehead to the plastic wall beyond which Sasha and her parents sleep. She pushes in on her eyes and tries to listen in on Sasha’s dream but remembers Daddo’s voice coming on from all sides in the van. She pushes harder and plunges up a glimpse from the dream across the plastic wall. A dark school hallway. Or the hallway of an office or apartment building. Where is this? she whispers, but Sasha isn’t there. She runs down the hallway looking for her, pressing her forehead harder on the plastic wall. The farther she runs, the darker, and the less real. When she gives up and opens her eyes, her bruised vision swells with dizzy, addled lights. Jeremy flicks the lighter just for sparks.

Balled in her cot on the other side of the wall, Sasha, as always, is the first to understand. Don’t go, she says. Please. Even if it is a lie, don’t go.

Maple jams her fingers into her eyes again and bites her blanket. She calls to Sasha—it’s not a lie, it’s real, it’s real, I’ll never go—but the words circle and make no sound.

There’s no one else for me. Please. I’ll be alone.

Maple pleads back identically. Please. Stay. She echoes back—it is how the game is played. Don’t go. She digs into the node, calls down the long hallway, but it doesn’t make any sound. She listens. The lighter stops scratching, the iPod dies out. With some imagination, she remembers they’re afloat. Her own little voice will be hers to keep. Maple does not even say goodbye. She fakes sleep by faking dreams, from which, in the morning, she wakes.

 

Niagara Falls: Uncle Pete and Jeremy ride with them in the van. Pete, in the way back, digs his knees into Maple’s seat. The tires strike a long note from the asphalt. No one talks. Daddo’s tape sits there in the console above the Woljsons’ hands.

In the parking lot, young couples sunscreen their thighs, old couples hurry each other, sort through little taupe backpacks in their trunks. The noise of the falls is there already, air and crushed air and air rising. They follow the crowd. A woman in ranger greens hands out blue ponchos from a box, a waxy bag of French fries on the table at her side. A German man photographs the Woljsons slipping Sasha’s poncho on. “Wonderful,” he says twice. “Wonderful.”

A simple labyrinth of ramps and rails shapes the waiting crowd, which shifts leg to leg, a single twisting sheet of plastic blue. From a few feet off the ponchos look opaque, but up close Maple can watch the hair on her arms lift against the plastic. The Woljsons, Pete, and Jeremy, pushing Sasha up ahead, merge with the strangers. Maple stops to tie her shoe and the crowd pushes around her. When she stands, she hardly needs to walk. The crowd walks for her. They’ve already moved aboard.

She can’t see the Woljsons, but she’s OK. The blue crowd wraps around the main deck and spreads up two sets of stairs. The wind on the water is shaky. The crowd’s plastic cloak flicks one way, flicks another. Then the ramp is up. The horn has blown. A murmur rises all around.

She tells herself what she has told herself since, and it is true: you are alone but you will be OK. She climbs the stairs to the upper deck—Pardon me, excuse me—the crowd parts without a word.

She can’t see, but she doesn’t care. A man struggles with the camera strap under his poncho. A boy, hoisted on shoulders, kicks blinking sneakers into his father’s chest. The crowd points, makes dull, awed sounds.

Somewhere on this boat, she imagines, the Woljsons are searching for her: Maple? Peg, where’s Maple? I think Maple is lost.

Finally they are close enough. Water rises over the crowd, and there is not one world: a higher earth crashes down on this one. Maple closes her eyes as the boat enters this place of constant rain.

Under the mist she can feel the burst world quaking. This is why they come here every year, she realizes. Not to visit Hannah—these forces dispersed her cupful of ashes long ago—but for Sasha, who once could hear and understand and move like any other child, before she was cut halfway out of the world and trapped there. In her guts Maple feels a planetary purr, its slow singing. This is the place where Sasha remembers sound.

Then the ferry turns and the roar shifts through her belly. Slides away. The deck talk starts again.

She finds them on the dock. “There she is,” they say, mostly unconcerned. Jeremy pretends not to notice her. They all get clam rolls. Life goes on.

 

“Shotgun,” Jeremy said back in the parking lot. Your mom said nothing, just went and sat with her brother in the back. Your dad raised your chair, and Jeremy climbed in up front, surprised.

I remember him showing off his legroom, playing with the locks—bored, nervous, feeling watched. He flipped through the AAA maps tucked into the door, fingered the phone charger, the glove box latch, took Daddo’s tape out of the console, flipped it over a few times, and pushed it in.

At first there was nothing recorded on side two. For ten minutes the van speakers just breathed. Then, beside a Christmas tree farm, my dad came on: “Hi. Hi Maple. Hi everyone. Hidden track, ha-ha. I hope it’s a good surprise.” There was a long pause. I remember your dad smiling at me in the mirror. “Who knows when or if you’ll hear this or how long it’s been. Maybe it’s ten years, twenty years later, and you just put the tape in to hear my voice and remember. If it’s been long enough, maybe you could play this for her. I just wanted, especially for Maple, to explain. It’ll be an accident, but I think you’ll know deep down. It’s better for you. I’m bad for you. I see you sometimes, your teacher said it too, slipping off into some dreamlan—”

Your dad pressed stop and pulled to the side of the road. I watched him dial 911 on his cell phone and step out of the van. When he returned he took the tape and put it in the pocket of his shirt, glancing at your mother with tight lips. “It’s going to be OK,” he said vaguely and drove fast.

 

What they don’t tell you is that, even at its worst, when your body seems uninhabitable, depression makes you believe in a comfort, in you somewhere, that your attention is retreating toward. Geoff, my boyfriend, called this morning around ten and could hear I was still in bed. “You must like it there,” he said.

“I tried. I can’t get up.”

“You can. You just don’t.”

“I could toast a strudel. There’s a strudel I could toast.” I lay there striving for the intoxication of actually being stuck.

What got me out of bed finally was a conversation I imagined myself having with Matthias. I’d go in to work and I’d teach him about “I Feel Fine,” the Beatles song, how, before Hendrix or the Who, it was John Lennon who invented feedback by leaning his guitar against an amp and being bighearted enough to realize there might be something musical in the squawk of trapped sound. I’d tell him my dad told me and tell him he had to tell his daughter, so that she could go back in time and tell him again—

Get it?

Maple, you’re weird. I might have talked to him half an hour in my head, long enough to wonder about myself.

My dad, so far as I know, made no suicide attempt. He would have had plenty of time. He changed his mind? He lost his nerve? I didn’t ask. It was assumed collectively that I didn’t know, that I had not understood, and I could go along with that. Our tapes disappeared, but I know we made them. I remembered what I’d heard, the extra underwear he’d tossed into my bag.

Matthias brought a friend to the store today. A friend his age—a girl, no less. They sat on the floor together playing some high-speed card game that had them slapping at each other’s hands and giggling. I left them alone. Finally there’s time to sort through the receipt drawer—that’s what I told myself, but I didn’t. I played my own game, one I’ve been practicing lately, in which I concentrate on the simple sentence that describes me at present—Maple is making a turkey melt, no mustard, or Maple is discounting a coloring book with a bent spine—I concentrate very hard and try to sense my life taking place in that sentence. Look, I am smoothing out crinkled receipts, I am smoothing receipts with the heel of my hand.

I texted Geoff under the counter and told him to stop by.

So that was the scene when your mother brought you into Kid Genius Toys this afternoon: Matthias sitting barefoot on the counter, his girlfriend gone, and Geoff eating his lunch. He brought me—who works at Quiznos—a Subway sub. “Thought you might want some variety,” he said.

Geoff. He’s been about to start his lifestyle magazine for two years now, about to fix up the motorcycle his brother gave him, elaborating the same business plans, sketching the same tattoos. No real strikes against him. Maybe he talks a little too loud. I suspect I don’t love him, but sometimes I honestly can’t tell.

The bell jingled and your mom backed you in. “I heard a rumor we might find you here,” she said. She parked you under the stuffed-animal tree.

Geoff gets earnest when it’s good-manners time—“Such a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Woljson. I’ve heard great things about you . . .”—till his notion of himself is the only thing in the room. Your mom made sure to tell me in earshot how impressed with him she was—anyone with any pity can see how he needs to impress.

Do I need to tell you about you? You looked like an old lady. You were lying back in your jogger, your old pink headband holding the hair out of your eyes, bandanna around your neck to keep your shirt dry. An Animal Planet octopus show playing on an iPad strapped to your chair.

“Hi, Sasha,” I said, out loud. I petted your hand like I’d pet my grandma’s.

“Oh my god, she’s smiling, she totally remembers you,” Geoff said. “Look at your great big smile for your old friend.” He almost poked your face.

“I don’t know. She just sort of smiles like that.”

He said I could trust him. He said he could tell.

And then what? We watched the octopus special on your lap, the giant creature squeezing itself through tubes. Geoff showed you the plushy mosquito puppet. You didn’t stay long. Geoff had to go too, held the door, thumbs-upped. “Sasha loved Maple,” your mom said to him on the way out. “I never saw anything like it.”

I might as well admit I was scared—of something, of you, the twenty-one-year-old with diapers and armpit hair, the real person I abandoned when, in the name of reality, I abandoned you. How are you?

Me? I ride the bus from Kid Genius to the Quiznos. I listen to my songs, watch the high school boys listening to theirs. I collect my paychecks, take them home, Swiffer the kitchen, feed my roommate’s cat, settle in with some cereal and my roommate’s HBO. I don’t hear voices. I feel fine.

Matthias didn’t say a thing the whole time you were in the store. He’s often quiet with the customers, but I don’t know. At the very least he could tell there was something between me and the handicapped woman in the special chair.

Tell me something, I thought at him after you left. Ask me, did you know humans are the only singing land animal. That birds can’t survive in space shuttles because they need gravity to swallow. Tell me if we ever need to leave the earth and start a new planet, the birds will be left behind.

But he couldn’t hear me. Or I couldn’t hear him.

Finally, when the quiet was too much, I went to the back to turn the kiddie music on. I put my sub into the unused mini fridge, and a butterfly fell out. It must have flown into the ancient fridge years ago, baited by the light.

“Look what I found,” I said, hardly breathing. A sign, a gift, from the universe, from you. The golden eyespots trembled in my palm.

“Can I have it?” he said.

No, he couldn’t have it. Ten bucks an hour and no one paying me to be his sitter. But I could tell it was his already. Once upon a time, those wings had stared down birds a hundred times their size. It worked until it didn’t. It worked enough.

I get my paycheck, the money’s mine. “From me to you,” I said.

He placed it gently on his knee.

That’s me. A grown-up by any measure. I’m taller, smarter, more sensible. I have work, I have a plan, I’ll be OK. We knew it even then—I would have friends and boyfriends and a husband someday, and you would not. I would, with relative ease, live among the living. I do. And only very seldom does the scream rise up: Where is Maple? Where is Maple? Maple has been lost.

Mark Mayer
Mark Mayer has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. From 2012 to 2014, he lived at Cornell College’s Center for the Literary Arts as the Robert P. Dana Emerging Writer. His first book, Aerialists, won the Michener-Copernicus Prize and is forthcoming from Bloomsbury USA.