Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards.
You can tell they’re trying to be sensitive: along with the police blotter and wedding announcements, I’d covered obituaries; afterwards they gave the obituaries to Ryan the intern so I wouldn’t have to think about death all day. I do anyway. Bloody violent death, wakes and funerals and the way a person’s eyes look right before they die, how when you try to close them they don’t stay closed like in the movies.
I’ve started adding things to the blotter, things that never happened but that he’d find funny, and the chimp wedding announcement I slipped in—photo included—didn’t get caught until right before press.
A few days ago I tried logging into Rooey’s email and got the password on the first guess. (It was “Miyazaki,” his favorite animator. Like a lot of teenage boys, Rooey was obsessed with Japan. When we tagged our suitcases for Hawaii, he’d spelled his name “Rui.” He’d even figured how to write his name in Japanese using the characters for “drifting” and “majesty.”) Now I check his email all the time. I’ve just logged in when Myra, the assistant editor, comes by my cubicle. She’s wearing the same man’s button-down shirt as always.
“Hi, hon.” Even when she smiles she keeps her lips pressed tightly together. I’ve never seen her teeth.
She opens her mouth and closes it like she’s changed her mind about something. “Maxine, how are you doing?”
“Oh, you know. It’s good to keep busy with real challenging tasks at work, like typing up wedding announcements.”
She sighs and looks at me pityingly. “I wanted to talk to you about that.”
I stare at the screen.
She shakes her head and lowers her voice. “I got your point with the monkey thing, okay? I thought it would be best to lighten your workload, but obviously that’s not working. So, Maxine, how about a cover story?”
“Great.” I empty Rooey’s spam folder. The screen looks clean and expectant.
“Sure.” My phone chimes, announcing the arrival of a text message.
She nods harder than necessary and says, “Well, great then! Why don’t you think it over this week and we can chat about it on Friday. I’m sure you’re full of ideas. Sound good?”
“Sounds great, thank you,” I say, because that’s what the old Maxine would’ve said.
Here’s a story: two people are in trouble and the wrong one dies. There’s been a cosmic mix-up, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and they all live sadly ever after. The end.
I snap open my phone and read Felix’s message. It says “Uijoljoh pg zpv.”
He’s used this code before. The trick is that each letter is really the one before it. It says “thinking of you.”
I write back “V 3” for “U 2,” close the phone, and go back to my email.
I walk to Felix’s after work. He rents a garden apartment which means he lives half-underground and there’s not much light, but it’s cheap. When we save enough we’re supposed to get a place together, somewhere up high.
Back before Rooey started high school our family lived near here, across from the tracks on Burlington in a house with an above-ground pool and a pop-up camper that never moved from the backyard. Mom said she and dad had used it all the time and that I’d taken a few trips in it too, but I don’t remember them and by the time Rooey came along dad was dead and I didn’t remember him, either.
There was a small door we could use to squeeze into the camper even when it wasn’t popped up and we’d take turns locking one another inside. The object was to
see how long we could stay in before getting scared and knocking to come out. We called the game Coffin. It was pitch-black inside the camper and the air was stuffy and smelled of hot wool.
Once—I think I was mad because mom had let Rooey get away with something, again—I didn’t let him out when he gave the triple-knock. He tried again. There was a moment of silence that I took to be him getting pissed, and I smiled.
Then he started pounding, and after a few seconds, screaming. I fumbled with the lock while the door shuddered. “LEEEET MEEEE OOUUUUT!”
When the door finally swung open my little brother fell out onto his side, his face white save for two spots of color on his cheeks. He stared at me in disbelief, his brown eyes watery.
When he stood and came at me, I didn’t fight back. I let him flail his fists and scream himself hoarse. Eventually we played something else. He didn’t tell mom—he never did. That was the last time we played Coffin.
There are six stairs leading down to Felix’s door. When I get to the bottom I’m always aware of how much of me is below ground. It’s like a very wide grave, this apartment. Recently I’ve had to fight the urge to turn around and go back up.
Felix is cooking with his back to the door and doesn’t hear me come in. He’s got his khakis on from work and no shirt. He has what he calls a “techie tan” which means he is white like recycled paper. He works at an internet dating company fixing the employees’ computers. He finds it exciting. He finds almost anything exciting. It’s probably why I like him.
I watch his papery back at the stove and think, he is biodegradable. Then I think that his body mirrors the apartment, the bottom buried and the top exposed to light.
He turns and sees me and sings, “Ma-a-a-axine! You don’t have to put on the red light!” I smile and he takes my face in his hands and kisses me loudly. His lips are mushy like old pillows.
We have pesto for dinner and he talks about how he managed to solve three peoples’ problems without even showing up at their cubicles.
“If people would just troubleshoot, it would save so much time. A simple logical process, that’s all it takes!”
Since Rooey died, Felix has become even more enthusiastic, maybe to make up for my silences.
I tell him about the cover story. He wants to celebrate so we get in bed and drink a bottle of champagne under the covers.
“I’m feeling better.”
“I think I’m getting over it. I think I’m done crying.”
“Wow! Well. You know. Take your time. There’s no time limit.” He looks at me solemnly and I notice his pores. When did they get so big? On his nightstand, turned upside-down, is a book: When a Loved One Grieves.
“Have you thought any more about trying therapy?” he asks.
“Not my thing.”
“I know you believe that, but how can you know if you don’t try?”
“I’d rather not talk about this stuff right now. Okay?” I slip my hand in his boxers. I could care less about sex with Felix lately and now is no different, but at least it will shut him up.
I wonder how he’ll react if I tell him to fuck me, so I whisper it—“I want you to fuck me”—and he blushes; we’ve never used this word before and I realize he doesn’t necessarily know how it differs from what we usually do, what he always refers to as “making love.” But he gives it a shot. He gets on top of me, sticks it in, and buries his face in my neck, biting me, I think, though I can’t be sure.
“Harder,” I tell him, squirming a bit, and he tries to pin my arms over my head while holding himself up with one hand, but he loses balance and folds down on top of me.
His face finds my armpit for a second and his nose wrinkles up.
I sniff under my arm. “Whew. Kind of manly, I know.”
He smiles. “No big deal.”
“I’ve been using Rooey’s deodorant.”
“Oh.” He pauses, traces my bellybutton with his middle finger. “Why?”
“Works better. And it doesn’t smell like flowers.”
“What’s wrong with flowers?”
I shrug. “They’re so girly.”
We fall asleep. I dream I’m alone, bobbing in a black sea. I don’t know which way to swim and the bottom’s miles below. A fin appears in the distance. I swim away from it, but it catches up and as it gets closer I see it’s Rooey and I see in his eyes that he hates me. I watch helplessly as he speeds closer, teeth and gums bared, and when he finally reaches me there’s a flare of heat in my neck, and afterwards a sensation like dissolving. Only when I give in do I wake up. That giving in is a release so powerful I find myself sitting up in bed, heaving. That giving in is the saddest feeling in the world.
It’s been three months and three days. Mom hasn’t touched up her strawberry blonde dye job since the attack and the dark roots are like a measuring stick: her grief is lengthening. She sleeps all morning and spends her afternoons shopping and preparing elaborate dinners. She cooks things Rooey liked—curry pork, eggplant parmesan. I’ve come to find comfort in this and, for once in my life, I eat everything on my plate. Mom is the opposite. Once, after filling our plates with salmon ragout, she sat down and stared at the table’s empty seats, two of them now, as if she were expecting guests who were running late. I had no words to offer up; I shoveled down the over-salted food and sat there as long as I could stand it, then stood and cleared her untouched plate.
While Rooey looked just like dad, I resemble no one. My face is a little of this, little of that, like a meal thrown together last-minute. When we ran into old friends of my parents’, they would make a fuss over Rooey. “A carbon copy of Dean,” mom would say, mussing my brother’s blond moppy curls. Then they’d turn to me and joke about the milkman.
School was my redemption. I was a member of the National Honor Society, Vice-President of the Ecology Club, and a varsity swimmer. When Rooey and mom came to my swim meets they’d always sit in the same place, at the top of the bleachers, laughing and eating Reese’s Pieces. Tearing through the water on the final leg of a race, I would think of them watching me and swim harder, muscles screaming, knowing that if I won, I would for a moment be the focus; I would fill that tiny space between them.
At the wake I talked about taking Rooey for driving practice last Christmas. For a kid who liked cars so much, he was a horrible driver. He made a joke out of it. Before leaving the house he’d preface everything with, “Allah willing.” It was an expression he picked up from a movie. “When we come back from driving, Allah willing, let’s get mom to take us to Culver’s.” “Allah willing, I’m gonna parallel park this baby, hard.” It was a testament to Rooey’s good nature that he was able to mock himself, I said; even more than that, though, he never seemed to get discouraged. He had confidence in life; he never whined. The part about “Allah willing” got a laugh.
What I didn’t talk about was how mad I’d been when mom told me I’d have to give Rooey my car when I moved out. The Nissan had been a hand-me-down from my grandparents and I’d had it less than a year. I never had a car when I was his age, I’d argued. It wasn’t fair.
But Rooey solved the problem—he didn’t want my car. He wanted an old Thunderbird and he got a job helping Roger, a Buddhist hippie guy who lived down the block, in his metalwork shop to earn the money for it. He was a hard kid to resent, and for that, I have to admit, I resented him even more.
Rooey’s door has been closed since I got back from Hawaii. Mom’s not ready to open it yet. “It’s too much of him at once,” she told me, crying at the mere mention of his name. But me, I can’t get enough. I’ve been coming in here every night. I lie in bed and wait until mom’s sleeping pills kick in, then creep over the cracked Parquet to his room, my feet instinctively avoiding the creaky spots that, when we were little, would give us away as we snuck into the kitchen after brushing our teeth for a handful of Reese’s Pieces from the green jar.
The room is stuffy and smells vaguely of peanut butter. When he was in grade school Rooey had insisted on painting his walls to look like outer space; I had painted Jupiter and Neptune and Rooey’d done the rest, except Earth, which mom did, and after the paint dried Rooey etched our tiny trio in ballpoint pen where he approximated Indiana to be. I haven’t been in here in years but I notice now there’s a tiny chip of paint missing where my head once was.
I flop onto his bed and try to imagine what it was like to be him.
Rooey’d had something of a girlfriend, though we never called her that; she was just “his friend” Lily. Her parents came here from Japan right before she was born, and gave her a name neither of them could pronounce. Once I walked in on Rooey and her together, in bed. Or rather on the bed—they lay belly-up beside one another, Lily’s arms at her sides, the hand nearest Rooey touching both her leg and his. Rooey’s hands were folded atop his stomach. They both stared at the ceiling.
She was a strange-looking girl, with a tiny pucker of a mouth and hair to her waist. Her eyes and nose were just little pinches too, and you wondered how her head
didn’t tip back under the weight of all that hair. She had braces—maybe that helped balance things out. At the funeral she cried and covered not her eyes but her mouth.
The entire night passes this way, me, flat on his bed as if afloat, my mind full of details, all the questions I’d never thought to ask him: what was happening with Lily, and whether he had a clue what he was doing; how his job was going at the metalworking shop; was he any good at the work?
The stucco swirls above me, lit by the half moon outside. Then that spot of ceiling, that personal place where the eyes rest when you’re thinking in the dark, whispers answers:
Things with Lily were slow moving, excruciating, thrilling; they’d French kissed once after school and it tasted salty; if he were still alive he’d take her to see a movie when he got his T-Bird. When things got serious he’d make her something in the metal shop, a figurine of some kind, and give it to her for her birthday. He was good at transferring the molds and pouring and measuring and scraping, all the intricate business of making casts. He had the patience for it.
When the first gray light struggles into the room I open my eyes, or maybe it just feels like I’m opening them, since I haven’t really slept. I wouldn’t call what I do in this room at night “sleep.” It’s more like a nocturnal hypnosis that only clears when the sun comes snapping its fingers.
I stand up and go to the closet. CD album covers shingle the door and partially obscure the mirror hanging there. At eye level is the cover for the Vapor’s “Turning Japanese” single I gave Rooey for Christmas last year.
I pull the door open and cool, sour-smelling air drifts out. Rooey’s favorite tee shirt hangs crooked on a wooden hanger. The shirt is gray and is noticeably shorter than the other shirts that hang there. The turquoise lettering on the front says “POCARI SWEAT.” He’d come home from school late one day, having stopped and bought it at Teed Off, the tee shirt place downtown. He said he’d looked online—he was always looking up something online—and read that Pocari Sweat was like Japanese Gatorade, and when he called Lily and told her about it she’d laughed and laughed; Rooey held the phone away from his ear and I could hear her from across the room.
I yank the shirt from its hanger and put it on. Then I lie on the bed and slide two fingers under the waist of my panties.
I don’t fantasize anymore when I masturbate. It’s just a lot of furious rubbing, no imagination required, though sometimes towards the end an image of Lily, sunbathing naked, pops into my mind. Before Rooey died, my orgasms had come in sweet, rolling waves. Now they’re like squalls, the pleasure almost violent.
Afterwards I think about my cover story. There was a time, I realize, when I fantasized about this opportunity—my name on the front page, a color photo illustrating my words—but the ideas I used to toss around aren’t appealing anymore. Profile piece on the owner of Ambrosia, the green grocer? A report on the solar-powered nunnery out in Teastown? When did I ever find that interesting? For a moment I think it’d be cool to write something on the guy in town with the Porsche Carrera GT. A half-million dollar car in this town—now that’s news.
I close my eyes and imagine I’m driving an incredibly fast car on a circular track, around and around, on the brink of losing control.
The trip to Hawaii had been a graduation gift from my grandma. I’d chosen to bring Rooey over Felix because, as I saw it, Rooey and I were at the end of our shared childhood. I was moving out, leaving him for the real world. I wanted to hang on to that life just a little longer.
The screaming had stopped quickly. I turned toward him, saw the gray sheen of the shark’s body, saw the red rising in the water—it spread so fast. It expanded around me in rusty clouds. Wait—am I okay? I wondered how I would tell mom that he was dead, and who would pay for the funeral. Punch it. If I punch it it will bite me and it will hurt. How would they see me—had I done enough?
They tell me I did the right thing, swimming ashore and yelling for help, but I don’t remember this. I remember sounds: a scream, a moan, then the sloshing of water like kids in a bathtub; I could hear children laughing on the sand while Rooey’s head went under and his forearm drifted away from blonde hair that clung to the surface; the fingers that had reached up from the bottom bunk brushed my abdomen while I watched ragged strips of tissue jet blood. I remember turning and swimming away. That I headed for the shore was purely coincidence.
I must have dozed off, because when I open my eyes a few hours have passed and I’m thinking of Lily. Her long dark hair, and the way she locks eyes with you when she laughs. My chest aches, and I realize: I miss her.
It’s a weird feeling, missing someone I barely know, yet when I think about it, it seems odd I’d feel any other way. Why don’t I go for a visit? I look around the room for something to bring her. I look down and—that’s it—I’ll give her the shirt—the shirt she’d laughed over so much!
I walk there, swinging the CVS bag that holds the tee shirt. I’m walking quickly, looking up at the clouds as I go, wondering what Lily will have to say, and whether she’ll be glad to see me. A car horn blasts. I jump back and a woman in a Jeep waves me across the street I’d been about to step into. I hustle across, blushing. I’m glad to have an excuse to rush, and I jog the last block to Lily’s house.
Mrs. Mizukami answers the door. She’s wearing bright orange slippers. Her mouth drops open at the sight of me, and she keeps a hand on the doorknob as I remind her who I am, though of course we’ve met before. I hold up the bag, full of nervous energy. She ushers me into a dim living room full of ferns, and looks at me with sad eyes. I want to say, don’t be sad! Things are going to be fine, really!
Mrs. Mizukami leads me into the kitchen, where Lily is seated at the table, doing homework.
She scoots her chair back when she sees me and stands up. I can tell she’s surprised, and I say so.
“Yeah!” she says, taking me in. “But, you know, in a good way.” She doesn’t say anything else, but she smiles.
Mrs. Mizukami sets a glass of iced tea and a plate of cookies on the table. “Please, sit,” she says, and we do. She shuffles out of the room.
“I’m sorry I interrupted your homework,” I say. “I should have called.”
“Nah, it’s okay.” Lily pushes an open textbook away and leans both elbows on the table. “Math sucks anyway.”
I ask her about school. I watch her mouth move as she answers, then follow the smooth line of her hair down, over her small breasts, to where it puddles in her lap, like a waterfall. I want to touch it.
“Are you okay?” she says, leaning back.
“Yeah, sorry.” I blush, and fish for something an older sister would say. “Your hair’s great. I wish I could grow mine that long.”
She makes a face and bats her hair back, then picks up a pair of red-handled scissors from the table. “I think I’m gonna chop it.”
“What? No! It—it’s so pretty.”
“Whatever. It’s been long my whole life.” She gathers a fistful. “Time for something new.”
I laugh nervously as she slides the scissors open, brings the blades to her hair. “Very funny,” I say.
She’s watching me, eyes wide, and then snaps the scissors shut. I lurch out of my chair to stop her, and she laughs. She’d moved the blades at the last second.
“I made you pretty nervous,” she said, grinning.
I lean back and take a breath. “You had me for a second. Well, maybe a half-second.”
“Well, I still might do it.” She pulls a few strands forward and really does snip them off. We watch them float to the ground. She says, “It could be like . . . an offering.”
“But—wouldn’t he want you to keep it?”
She shrugs. “He’s not here to ask.”
I look at the hair on the floor and am seized by a desire to pinch it up and hold onto it forever. Then I remember the shirt. I grab for the bag and dump out the tee shirt in front of her. “So, I brought this for you. I thought you might like to have it.”
She stares at the balled-up fabric and bites her lip. She blinks back tears, and I lean over and hug her tight. I close my eyes. We rock together, her head on my shoulder and my face in her hair. It feels wonderful. I move my hand on her back, hold her tighter.
“Can I—” Mrs. Mizukami slippers back into the kitchen. Lily and I spring apart like two kids caught necking.
“Beg your pardon,” Mrs. Mizukami says, bowing slightly and backing out of the room. “I just wondered if I could give you more food.”
“No, mom,” Lily says.
“No thank you,” I say as she leaves, and though I haven’t touched them I call, “The cookies are delicious, though.”
Lily and I look at each other. She looks at her lap.
“I should get going,” I say.
She nods. “Thank you,” she says, standing up, grasping the shirt with one fist.
I stand up too. At the front door, I put my shoes on and say goodbye to Mrs. Mizukami. Lily steps outside with me.
“It’s nice to see you,” she says. “Just, you know, a surprise. Sorry I’m all crying and stuff. I mean, he was your brother.”
“It’s good to see you too. Someone he was close to, who he really liked. He was very picky about people, you know.” We laugh; she nods and sniffles and catches my eye.
“I dunno, this is weird, but when you walked in, I thought it was him. I could’ve sworn it. Isn’t that messed up?”
I shake my head. “I think I see him all the time.”
She nods, bites her lip. “I just . . . miss him.”
I think of them lying on the narrow bed together, touching without acknowledging it, and think of me lying there with her instead, what that might feel like. I want to tell her this, but what would I say?
She’s looking at me again, really focusing, like she’s looking for something she dropped. She takes a deep breath, shakes her head, and hands me the shirt.
“You should really keep this.”
I say no and reach for it anyway.
“Really, I’m definitely sure.” Her eyes are watering, her tiny nose pink, as she backs into the door. It’s shut, and she fumbles for the handle while keeping her eyes on me.
“Thanks again.” She turns the handle and takes a step backwards, into the shadows. “I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah,” I say, and force a grin, a wave with the shirt. “Allah willing!”
I walk home slowly. It’s only September, but the sidewalk’s already full of leaves that crunch underfoot. It seems like the leaves are always falling. I don’t know how the trees keep up.
It’s Friday. My meeting with Myra is not going well.
“I’m not saying the story on Metalfest is a bad idea,” she’s saying. “At all. Just not right for our readership.”
I can tell she’s not wearing a bra under her light blue blouse. I wonder what her nipples look like.
“How about the comic book convention?”
“Well . . . I mean, it could work, my only concern is that, well, it raises the same issue as the music festival. Japanese comic books are certainly popular these days, but for most of our subscribers . . .” She licks her lips, slowly. Her tongue is plump and pink and her lips shine.
“You know,” she continues when I don’t respond, “didn’t you mention something once about a profile of that lady who owns Ambrosia?”
Something is happening inside me, a wild building energy like a wave.
The AP report had read like a Mad Libs:
“Died of blood loss.” Nope: Cardiac arrest.
“Swimming alone.” Wrong: It could’ve been me.
“The victim was sixteen years old.” Wrong again: he was fifteen. If he’d been sixteen he probably would’ve stayed home, peeling around corners with his friends. He’d be a different person. He’d be alive.
“Oh, fuck it,” I say. “Fuck journalism.”
Myra jerks back in her chair.
“I don’t give a shit,” I say. I get up and walk away, all the way to the door, and out into the blinding afternoon sunlight.
On the drive home I get a text from Felix. “rinned ta iva lebla?” it says. I’ve been avoiding Felix since our awkward night in bed and whatever the message means—probably an invitation of some sort—I’m not in the mood to figure it out. “Call u later,” I respond.
When I get home, mom’s not there. I go to Rooey’s room, the only place that really feels like my own anymore.
The shelves are lined with Japanese comics and language learning manuals. I slide one of the thin books from the shelf. In the cover illustration a blue-haired, starry-eyed girl holding a red ball reaches out to a boy swathed in tentacles. The boy’s teeth are clenched, his face fierce. The girl is saying, “Swallow this orb to reverse the spell!” The title is 101 Japanese Phrases You’ll Never Use.
My phone rings: Myra. I don’t pick up and she leaves a voicemail suggesting that I take a week off, “to think things over.” She wants me to know that I am in everyone’s prayers. As soon as I’m done listening to her message, Felix beeps in and I answer without thinking.
“Hey,” he says. “You didn’t call.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry. I got sidetracked.”
“More or less.”
He’s silent for a second, then says, “Did you figure out my text?”
“Oh. No, I forgot.”
“Aw. Well I was suggesting dinner at Via Bella. We haven’t been there since our anniversary. I’m going through withdrawal.” He laughs.
“It was an anagram,” he adds.
I pick up Rooey’s guitar, a red electric with frets worn down past the grain.
“Can I call you back in a few minutes?”
I hang up and cradle the guitar. Despite all my accomplishments in school, music has always eluded me. Band’s the only activity I’ve ever quit.
But Rooey’s guitar feels right. Its slim weight against my chest is a comfort and the curved wood nestles into my thigh. The neck is thin and the strings soft. I know no chords but find it soothing to close my eyes and let my hands wander, the smooth woodgrain cradling my fingertips, and occasionally I hit upon a combination of strings that sounds like a choir.
When it gets too late to have dinner, Felix texts me, Are you OK? I pick up 101 Japanese Phrases You’ll Never Use, open it to a random page, and respond back with the first sentence I see: Ebi wa dashi ni yuukan na tatakaimasu ne!
It means: How valiantly the shrimp struggle in the broth!
They’d held Mass at my grandparents’ church. While the deacon said things like, “The Lord takes first whom he loves best” and “To die young is a blessing,” images of that day slide-showed through my mind—Rooey’s head, just above water, snapping back on his neck, Rooey’s eyes wide and black as he had looked at me that last time, while I treaded water a few feet away. I wondered if he knew he was dying, that when he closed his eyes on the pain, they would never reopen. I thought of this as the deacon droned, as my mother’s pale jaw clenched and unclenched, her eyes like ice—she had not cried yet—and I stood up in the pew and whispered, “Bullshit.”
My voice rang through the church. I began to sob, and the sound echoed off the rafters and the stained glass window where Jesus hung on the cross with a trickle of blood on his palm and a serene smile on his face.
Him, not me, though I was just ten feet away. Him, not me, though it had been my idea to swim out that far in a race we both knew I’d win. Not me, though I’d been on my period that day. It doesn’t take much blood to draw a shark.
I stood there, shaking, everything in slow motion, while the deacon wrapped up the homily, in his calm gravelly voice, and I only began to move when he descended from the podium. He never looked in our direction. When I sat down, my mother shed her first tear.
I’m still playing the guitar when there’s a knock on the front door. I go to answer it: Felix. He looks worried.
“Hey,” he says. What’s going on?”
“Can I come in?”
I let him in and lead him into Rooey’s room. We sit on the bed and he looks around. His gaze stops on me. I don’t meet his eyes. It’s not a comfortable silence, but it’s not uncomfortable, either.
“I’ve never been in here before.”
“I like it here.”
He nods, slowly. “I realized that message was in Japanese, Romanized, so I translated it but I don’t know if I got the words all right because sometimes there are a few different meanings for the same word.”
“Good job,” I say, and pick up the guitar.
He grunts. I strum indiscriminately and suddenly he throws his arms around my neck. “Max, I feel like I’m losing you.”
I let myself be held by this guy who feels at once familiar and strange.
Finally I say, “I saw Lily today.”
“Oh yeah? Where at?”
“You went over there? That was nice. How is she?”
Cute, I want to say. Crazy cute and wonderful. Instead I say, “I can see the attraction.”
He laughs. “That’s good, I guess. Did you talk much about Rooey?”
I shrug. “A little.”
“She misses him too. It’s good to talk about it.”
“Yeah. If only there was a way to bring him back.”
He hugs me tighter.
“Have a do-over. Let mom keep the child she really needs. And Lily. Let everyone keep the person they really need.”
“Max, don’t say that. Your mom needs you now more than ever.”
“That’s not really true. You can’t understand.”
He pulls away and looks at me. “Make me understand,” he says.
I shake my head. I feel dizzy.
“I just want to help.”
“You can’t fix me,” I say.
“I can try.”
I sigh. “It’s like . . . I’m a different person.”
He nods. “After what you went through, that’s totally normal. Of course this will change you. It’s okay to let it change you.”
He takes my hand, kisses it. Then I’m crying, sobbing into my palms. “She’s going to cut off all her hair,” I say, and sniffle.
“I see.” He hugs me tighter. “Let it all out. It’ll be okay.”
“And . . . I don’t want to move in together.”
We sit in silence after that. After awhile I notice he’s crying, too.
“It’s not your fault,” I say.
“No, no, it’s okay. You’re confused right now and that’s okay,” he said. “This is my fault, I shouldn’t have tried to be so cheery. I’m going to find some help for you. A good therapist, or a group or something.”
“I feel sick,” I say, and I do.
“Do you want something to drink?”
“No. I think I’ll just lie down. I’ll give you a call later on.”
“You want me to go?”
I nod. “I’ll call you.”
“If it’s what you really want. Is it?”
I nod, yes, yes. He’s barely out the door when I start to gag. I run to the bathroom, where I empty my stomach of water and some half-chewed bread. It feels good to do that, to cleanse myself of the unnecessary. Afterwards I call Lily, but there’s no answer. I leave a message: Thanks for today. If you ever need to talk, or want company, please give me a call. I really hope you will.
The cotton of this shirt is worn so thin it’s silky. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Lily was right. I do resemble him.
My hair has gotten lighter. From being out in the sun, Felix says. It’s also developed a wave, for the first time in my life.
I remember something Felix told me, something out of his book: “Grieving and healing go hand-in-hand. Cut yourself a wide swath. Things will get better.”
“Fuck that,” I say to the mirror. “I don’t give a flying fuck if I get better.” I like that, “a flying fuck.” Rooey used to say that.
“Fuck getting better. The sooner I get better, the sooner someone else is going to die. It’s all bullshit.”
It could’ve been me, and maybe it should’ve. After all, it was my scent in the water. It was my idea to race. It was my graduation trip.
Could’ve been me, should’ve been me. Hell—maybe it was me. I look in the mirror. Are my eyes getting darker? I lean in close to the mirror. Brown speckles the blue.
I sink to the floor. The boards creak. I entertain the notion that I am dead.
True: I have not had my period since the attack.
True: I haven’t slept in days.
True: I no longer desire anything. Well, no, that’s not exactly true. I am horny as hell.
From the floor I can see under the bed. There are so few things under there, I can count them. Seven—eight, if you count each hockey skate. Two shoeboxes, a sock, an orange peel, a measuring tape, an unopened bottle of Corona.
I reach my foot under the bed and nudge the big shoebox toward me, the one that had originally housed the hockey skates. It’s heavy. Stuff clinks around inside. Tools, maybe.
I lift the lid, feeling strangely ceremonious.
The box is filled to the brim with figurines. The ones Roger makes in the metal shop, little Buddhist statues about an inch tall . . . what are they called again?
Juzu? Something like that?
I close my eyes and the explanation comes: They’re called jizo. Like a combination of Jesus and Bozo.
I pick one up and examine its face. Two crescents arch across the smooth metal face to form eyes. The ears are overlong; the earlobe grows out of the jaw.
I think they have something to do with Buddhism, but beyond that, I realize, I have no idea. I set the figurine down and fetch my laptop.
The online encyclopedia tells me that translated from Japanese, “jizo” means “Earth Treasury” or “Earth Womb.” “Traditionally,” says the article, “jizo are seen as the guardians of travelers, firefighters, and children.”
Children. I should bring one to Lily. Lily would like one.
I read on: “In particular, jizo are said to tend to the souls of miscarried or aborted fetuses, or any child who precedes his parents in death. It is said that children who die in this manner are not allowed to cross the sacred river to heaven as penance for the pain they have caused their parents.”
If I focus all my willpower I can bring him back, I think, staring at the jizo’s sleepy face. I just have to want it enough.
I focus on the statue’s face so long it begins to move. It wriggles in my palm and the lips move to speak but before I hear the words, mom’s voice cuts in. She is standing in the doorway. What she says is, “Hi sweetie.”
“Look,” I whisper, holding out the statue. “Did you know? He’s the guardian of children.”
Without a word she crosses the room, wraps her arms around me from behind, and begins sobbing into my hair. In the mirror I watch as she clutches at my hair, pulling and twisting, and each time she releases a handful it is blonder and wavier than before.
I close my eyes. When I open them, my vision is blurry, like that of a newborn.
Suddenly I know the truth of my death, that despite our best efforts we live in a naturally violent world. We rule but are not untouchable; we live among sharks and serial killers; we live amongst ourselves. I’m almost glad for the way I died. Not the pain or fear of my last moments but the primal nature of it, the reduction of human to animal; the same feeling that drew us inside the camper, where no matter who was waiting outside you had to go in alone, and there was no guarantee you’d come out, and that was why we did it.
“Oh Rooey,” she says. “What are we going to do without her?”
I hug her back without turning away from the mirror. I gaze at our reflection, her arms around the figure in the gray tee shirt.
“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay right here.”
Kelly Luce is the author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail (A Strange Object, 2013). Her work has been recognized by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Ragdale Foundation, the Kerouac Project, and Jentel Arts, and has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Salon, Electric Literature, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, and other magazines. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers and a fiction editor at Bat City Review.
See Michael Noll’s apt appreciation of Kelly Luce’s technique in “Rooey” on The Huffington Post.