If it had been night, the neighbors wouldn’t have stared at Ilsa in the back of the squad car. In darkness, the blue and red lights overhead might strobe her mother and Harold into sight, but Ilsa would have remained invisible. The fight was between those two anyway; it had nothing to do with her, but California’s fierce late-afternoon sun exposed them all.
“Sit tight,” the officer had said as he shut her in. Ilsa imagined he wanted not so much to protect her as to contain her until the on-call social worker arrived.
On the lawn, her mother looked, as usual, like everything was under control. Even though it was Saturday, she was wearing one of her office skirts, always a little too tight. Ilsa’s mother believed that, if she squeezed in, her clothing would remind her hips and waist that they were supposed to be smaller. Her thighs would snap to once they saw that she wouldn’t give in to laxity. That’s why she was so valued at Clemmons, Stein, and Barco. In battles of will, she always won.
On the opposite side of the lawn, in the middle of a ring of officers, Harold bent over with loud, shoulder-racking sobs. His grey ponytail hung limply down the back of his Hawaiian shirt. Hate filled Ilsa’s belly like soup, hot and substantial, a food she could live on. Weeks ago, she’d found the gun while looking for scissors. From the back of the squad car, Ilsa now wondered if the moment she first touched her finger to the cool metal had set all this in motion.
On the morning of the last day of school, she’d been digging through the forbidden drawers of her mother’s armoire when her fingers hit the heavy barrel—so much to know, too quickly. No matter how many times she turned the gun over in her hands and in her mind, it wouldn’t make sense.
She got on the bus, went to class, and after school ended and yearbooks were signed, she rode the bus home again and walked through the development to the hill because it was the one place she could think of where the world was large enough to hold what she now knew. She always loved the moment when she passed the last hedge at the end of the neighborhood, the moment when the lush green lawns abruptly stopped. The lemon trees and lime trees and orange trees and grapefruit trees, the ivy and the olives, the power-washed pavement and crisp blue swimming pools and chlorine-tinged air, the manicured palm trees and the oleander—everything that made her neighborhood her neighborhood suddenly ended, and the place revealed what it really was: dry brown hills and sage, rattlesnakes and coyotes.
Though she looked and saw her hands were empty, Ilsa could not make them light again.
The boys were there that afternoon. They weren’t always. Sometimes, Ilsa walked through the construction and all the way to the top of the hill only to watch the lines of cars waiting at the light where Central teed into Chicago Avenue, but that day, they were there, starting their summer the way they would continue it. Four of them. Three sitting at the edge of the drainage ditch watching the fourth ride his skateboard up and down the curve of the concrete, the closest thing to a half pipe the suburb had to offer. The skater touched the lip of his deck to the lip of the ditch, clipping it or kissing it, depending on how you looked. The move would have been cool if he had pulled it off, but the board caught, sending him running down to the dry bottom of the ditch while the other three laughed. The sun shone in their hair as they flipped it from their eyes. The helmets that their mothers insisted on sat in a tumbled heap.
Ilsa wanted all of it: a skateboard, a group of friends to laugh when she fucked up, a mother who gave enough of a damn to ask her to be careful.
She hadn’t expected anyone to sign her yearbook. She hadn’t asked. Becky Mills, too popular to even know Ilsa’s name, had seen it on her desk and assumed, scrawling her standard “2 cute + 2 be = 4gotten” before handing it to Vince, who added “L8r sk8r.”
The boys’ laughter was soft as it floated up to where Ilsa knelt at the top of the hill, the grit biting into her knees. When she first started watching them, she was afraid they would catch her. The dry desert grass and tumbleweed were hardly enough cover. But she had watched them for a year now, from when they first got their boards and tried to ride, and not once had one of them ever thought to glance up the hill. The worry that they would see her had grown into a wish that they would. She wanted nothing more than for them to look up and spot her spying on them. They would know her as the girl they went to middle school with, another Gage Gator, the quiet girl blending in at the middle of the class. But in this light, they would also see her as something more. They would recognize her as one of their own and would invite her down into the ditch. They would lend her a board and teach her to skate. Vince’s note would be true, whether he meant it or not. sk8r: what she was. sk8r: the word not filled with a stupid, meaningless number but with an upturned infinite loop, with wheels that spun forever, rocketing away.
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, her grandmother used to say. Maybe it was enough to be invisible. The scissors were there, in the forbidden drawer, thrown in among the tumbles of condoms, a half-used coke vial, lace and satin lingerie, and, Ilsa now knew, her mother’s gun. The hot day hummed with wheels rolling over concrete. Then more. Footsteps.
Ilsa recognized the steps running up behind without having to turn. They belonged to Angie, the foster kid who’d come to live with Susan next door; Angie, forever wearing heavy brown orthopedics with a yellow and white Humpty Dumpty on the side, shoes any right-minded six-year-old would have been embarrassed to wear; Angie who was ten, two years younger than Ilsa and stunted small as a first grader; Angie, who every other kid in the neighborhood avoided. Their parents forbade them to hang with her. She had too much history, too much experience. They moved to this neighborhood in the first place to keep their kids safe from her kind. Bree, the little snot who ran the fifth grade, spread rumors of all the things she was supposedly too innocent to know: Angie fingered herself under her skirts during Social Studies; Angie gave some Mexican kid a hand job in the bathroom; Angie pressed her flat chest against the principal and said she’d suck him off if he let her sit on his lap and call him Daddy.
“Guess what?” Angie said.
Ilsa started back through the development, kicking up dust as she went. She couldn’t remember the last time it rained. Angie followed her. Clomp, clomp, clomp. “Mom says we’re going camping this weekend and you can come.”
Ilsa stopped and gazed at the wide holes that would be pools or crawlspaces and the narrow holes that would just be the spots where something buried went, a box for electrical lines or water mains. Someday this would be all groomed and finished and neat, another expensive neighborhood adjoining their own. Stucco and Spanish tile. The honest brown of the dirt would be made green with grass and flowering shrubs and automatic sprinkler systems. Someday, these places would be off limits, but they weren’t yet. The closest hole was deep and narrow as a grave. Ilsa jumped in. The earth was cool around her, and she thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be buried alive.
Angie stood, illuminated by sun, at the top of the hole. “So, do you want to? Go camping?”
“No.” Ilsa lay down and closed her eyes a moment. She imagined the roll of wheels, and the pull of gravity carrying her up and down the sides of a ditch. She felt the freedom of the air as she left the concrete, letting her board kiss its rough lip, then leaving it quickly, stomping back down and travelling away. Skating would be a love affair. The concrete might betray you, but it was always there. Dependable. If you skated long enough, maybe you could master it. Maybe that’s how love worked. Love could be bright and shining as the California sun in the sky over her hole.
“Mom rented Dark Crystal. Want to come over and watch?”
“She’s not your mom.” Ilsa squinted up at Angie, who looked away. In profile, she wasn’t so weird.
Angie said, “She’s mom enough.”
Ilsa closed her eyes again and let the cool of the hole seep in deep. “She could give you up any time. She could take you back.” If someone looked across the land, they would not see her. She’d vanished. She could disappear altogether.
When Ilsa opened her eyes again, Angie was still there looking down at her. If only Angie would go away, Ilsa wouldn’t have to be like this. If only Angie would realize that Ilsa was no more her friend than Susan was her mom.
Angie sat down on the side of the hole and dangled her legs, swinging them in and out of the shadows. Susan said Angie had been through two rounds of parents before she was fostered out. Her own father raped her before she was two, so the state gave her to an adoptive uncle who did the same. “He saw rape as the ante and raised the bet,” Susan had told them the day Angie was due to arrive, laughing as if poker jokes could make the whole thing a funny anecdote from the past. “Broke her femur and cracked her skull.” Angie had been in ten homes before Susan’s. Ilsa couldn’t see how anyone who’d lived through all that could still be so fucking clueless.
“Is your mom going out with Mr. Gillespie tonight?” Angie didn’t wait for Ilsa’s answer. “Seems like he’s over every night. Mom said she saw him crying by the lobelia yesterday. Grown man and everything, she said. I thought he was in a band or something. Can you cry if you’re in a band?”
Ilsa scrunched her eyes tighter and wished Angie a million miles away. She wished Harold had even one bit of the self-control that her mom did. The guy was all enthusiasm. Smiles and energy one moment, horse tears and self pity another. He had no in between, no normal. Her mother said he had an artist’s temperament, but Ilsa knew better. His guitar was a front, a way to fake coolness when you weren’t actually in any way cool. Harold had the liquid eyes of a Spaniel. They might work on her mother, make her think she was loved, but Ilsa knew he’d turn those same eyes on anyone. He was too stupid to love for real. He loved like a dog loved: everywhere.
At school, he was “Mr. Gillespie.” Leave it to her mother to date a substitute teacher. And not just any substitute teacher, but one with a greying ponytail. He’d filled in for their art teacher in their last week of school and was all uptight about scissors, showing the kids over and over how to hold the blades and pass handle first, as if seventh graders weren’t old enough to know, as if scissors even ranked a spot on the scale of threats at Gage Middle. The kids carried the scissors open, blades out, breaking into short jogs just to cheese him off. “Isn’t this right, Mr. Gill’s Pie?” they would say. Kids could smell weakness, and Harold was too dumb to realize that he made things worse by being kind. He bought in every time, hurrying over saying “heavens no” and turning the scissors gently in their hands, tears already trembling in his eyes. Heavens no. Good heavens. He was always bringing heaven into it—but that didn’t stop him from taking Ilsa’s mother to one dive bar after another to watch him and his stupid surfer throwback band.
Angie’s voice pulled Ilsa back into her hole. “Mom and I never see a babysitter when they go out. You’ve got one though, right? Does your mom pick her up or something?”
They were spying on her. Spying as if any of this were their business, as if Ilsa weren’t old enough to take care of herself, or to babysit other kids for that matter. Ilsa was damned if she was going to give Angie or Susan one bit of gossip.
Ilsa’s silence didn’t matter. Angie ran on and on. “You hear the Night Stalker struck again? Shot a man and raped his wife. Mom says it’s only a matter of time before he hits Riverside. She says no one is safe anymore, not even here. It doesn’t matter where you live.”
Ilsa opened her eyes and pulled herself out of the hole. What would Susan think if she knew her mother had a gun? Would that shut her up? What if Ilsa stuck the gun right in Susan’s face and fired? A blank maybe. Just enough to give her a scare.
“I’m going home,” Ilsa said, wishing that were enough to make Angie leave her alone.
Her mother’s black BMW was parked in front of the house, shining hot in the late afternoon sun where people could see it and remember that, single mother or not, she had made her way. Angie was saying something about the elementary school talent show, about Bree and her friends dancing to the new Madonna, chattering on as if Ilsa cared. Ilsa shut the door in her face while Angie was mid-sentence, the only way to make the talking stop.
“You can fix yourself dinner tonight?” her mother called. “Heat a burrito or something? I have to go out.”
“It’s our anniversary. Two months.”
“Anniversary means a year, not a month.”
“Can you just be happy once in a while?”
Her mother rounded the corner and froze. Her thick eyebrows, red from where she’d plucked them back, met in a crease. Her nails were painted purple. Her lipstick, an even darker shade. “Ilsa, those had better not be your new jeans.”
“No,” Ilsa lied.
But her mother already had her, nails scratching the belly skin as she pulled the waistband searching for the tag. “Fuck, Ilsa. Those were Gloria Vanderbilt.” Like cutting the legs off changed what they were. It had been hot that morning, and Ilsa didn’t have clean shorts. She could point out that her mother hadn’t done the laundry in a week. She could say that the girls who mattered wore Guess now anyway. She could say that, looking for scissors, she found a gun.
“Tell me you at least have a bra on.” Her mother snagged the collar of Ilsa’s tee shirt to expose a bare shoulder.
Ilsa squirmed away. “God, mom. Get a grip.” Heat rushed over her. She didn’t want breasts, let alone a bra. She didn’t want clean clothes or to be the kind of girl men leered at. Who needed jeans in the summer in the desert? She liked them better now that she’d cut them off below the knees. Maybe if the boys in the drainage ditch saw her in them, they would see her as a girl with potential, a girl they could hang out with. Better yet, maybe they would not see her as a girl at all. Maybe she could be just another skater without all that sex crap messing things up.
“I don’t know why I buy you anything nice.” Her mother pulled off her work blouse and threw it across the sofa. Standing in front of the window in her emerald green bra, she dug through the pile of plastic-wrapped dry cleaning and selected a beaded sweater two sizes too tight. The neckline dipped low, offering her cleavage. Ilsa supposed that’s why her mother had chosen it, as if Harold needed incentive.
Her mother pulled the sweater down over her hips, trying to cover the roll at her waist, lowering the neck further. Pursing her lips in the window’s reflection, she puffed her hair and pressed in the fat at her sides. “We’re going to get dinner before his show.”
“The Night Stalker struck again,” Ilsa said. “Killed a man and raped his wife.”
“Ilsa, don’t start.”
“Could be Harold for all you know.”
“OK, but if you come back and find my stomach guts all over the living room, just remember I’m not the one who decided you should go out with Harold.”
“I don’t fucking need this.”
“We don’t need Harold either.” Ilsa was named after a movie she had never seen. Her mother had once told her that the movie contained all you needed to know about love: a lot of bustle and drama leading to heartbreak. The goal was to look classy throughout the whole disaster, to be stronger at the end.
“Damn it, Ilsa, can’t you think about what I might need once in a while? You think I can spend all my time working and shut up like a nun with a twelve-year-old who thinks she knows it all? Think again.”
“You only like him because he does what you say.”
“I’m not having this conversation with a child.” Her mother rummaged through her purse. She pulled out her kit and chopped coke on the mirror, moving the powder into a line that Ilsa knew better than to cross. She hacked at the coke as her teeth clipped her words: “I work damned hard. I get you everything you need. Nice clothes that you cut to shreds. Pretty little bras you won’t wear. A good house in a good school district. Don’t you dare deny me my little bit of happiness.” She snorted quickly, leaning her head back so that nothing was lost.
For a moment, everything was still. Then, a smile began to pull at the side of her lips. She wiped her nose quickly and glanced at her watch, all poise and power, once more in control of herself and the situation, just as she liked. The last five minutes might never have happened. She scooped everything back into her bag. “I need to go. Don’t stay up past ten.”
Her mother rarely snorted at home. Coke was her work friend, the one she could call on when things got intense, when the hard deal had to be made and she needed an extra edge. Even so, the coke didn’t bother Ilsa like the gun did. She couldn’t say why. Maybe because she knew the coke was off limits. She thought about it from time to time, how it turned any moment happy. There was something to that. If Ilsa took the smallest amount, though, her mother would notice it missing. But the gun? Ilsa had taken the gun from the drawer and held it in her palm and felt every piece of her changed by its weight and no one knew any different. She could do it again. She could take the gun whenever she wanted.
Ilsa put a frozen burrito in the microwave, then locked the front door leaving the chain unfastened. Even with the Night Stalker out there somewhere, Ilsa knew that her mother and Harold would stagger in some time in the early morning. If she left the chain off, if she was lucky and they didn’t laugh too hard as they crashed into the walls and fumbled for the light switch and for each other in the dark, Ilsa might sleep through the whole thing.
Was it a week later that she found the puppy head? She’d gone again to watch the boys, and there it was: nestled amongst the dried weeds and dirt, the head of a yellow Lab that had been no more than a couple months old, sitting at the base of a telephone pole at the top of the hill. The golden fur shone softly in the sun. From the front, it looked like it was sleeping. From the back, it was cleaved. She wondered if they used an axe, or maybe a knife. It must have happened recently. The round bone of its skull was still pink with blood, and only a few flies buzzed around the red meat of its neck.
Below, the boys were skating. They didn’t know about the dog’s head. They didn’t know about Ilsa. They didn’t know that Harold had been over every night that week. They didn’t know about guns. They knew about gravity and wheels and nothing else.
Ilsa couldn’t understand what the head meant or what it was doing there. Why would anyone kill a puppy? Why would someone leave its head at the edge of a housing development at the edge of a neighborhood? She supposed she should be frightened, but she wasn’t. She wanted to pick it up. She wanted to stroke its little head and make it come back to life, grow a new body, something, but if she touched it, she would only make the head that much more dead. Even sitting there, absorbing the sun, it wouldn’t have a living puppy’s warmth. If she touched it, she’d know all the breath it didn’t hold. It would be too light or too heavy for its size. She wouldn’t be able to look at the eyes anymore and imagine it to be sleeping, or to forget that the back of its skull was open as a head should never be.
Thank god Angie wasn’t there. Angie would jump straight to the nightly news her foster mom never missed. Susan would say it was Satan worshippers or the KKK or kids who listened to AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. She’d say again as she always did that no one was safe. She delighted in how unsafe they were, how much less safe they were everyday.
Laughter floated up from the boys. One of them had fallen again and lay on the bottom of the ditch, hugging his skinned knees to his stomach and calling his friends a bunch of fuckers before he rolled to his feet and laughed with them.
She could go to them. She could tell them about the puppy head and bring them up the hill. They’d be bound to her then. They would have all seen something amazing, something incomprehensible, and they would not ever be able to disown that knowledge. In the fall, at school, when they saw her, they would nod hello—and in that nod would be the knowledge of the puppy head and a world that was beyond what anyone could fathom or explain.
Even as she had the thought, she rejected it. Telling would be a form of buying them, and she wouldn’t buy the boys, not even with the horrible currency of that head. She wanted and didn’t want to share this knowledge. She folded her arms tight over her braless chest. No, she thought, the dead puppy wasn’t a way to buy friends, but a kind of poison. Spreading it might bind them, but in a way that would only fester and corrupt.
She should bury it. She should kick it down the hill a little ways into the sage where no one would ever know about it except for her. Instead, she kneeled and watched the boys try their tricks for one another, always ultimately failing but trying again. She let the sun and the boys’ laughter soak into her.
The fight that ended with police cars started over Saturday lunch. School had been out three weeks. Ilsa was bored with summer but more bored with Harold. She’d have taken any excuse to get away from the table that day, but her summer was empty, so they ate their sandwiches together, like a family, her mom had said. She smiled across the table to him and went back to spreading her mayonnaise.
Ilsa had slid the gun into her back pocket that morning, an oversized tee shirt hiding it from sight. She didn’t know why she had taken it and didn’t want to think about what her mother would say if she found out that Ilsa had been through her stuff.
Or maybe she did want her mother to find it. Maybe it would remind her mother that she existed, that she wasn’t just a moving doll to dress up in designer clothes. Maybe Ilsa needed her mother to see that the world did not revolve around Harold. The gun in her back pocket was a kind of truth or dare, asking how much her mother loved her and what she would risk to prove it.
Harold dabbed a glob of mustard from his mouth with a paper napkin. “Goodness, I’ve been here so often lately, I might as well move in.”
Even as Harold said it, they all knew the failed joke for what it was. A hint. A request. He’d smiled that stupid, sheepish smile, like he was apologizing for even having an opinion. Ilsa was terrified that her mother would agree. He’d come home with her the night before and seemed to settle in for the weekend. He brought a bag.
But when her mother’s head shot up and she stared at him with her I’m going to make partner confidence, a joy rose in Ilsa like she hadn’t felt in as long as she could remember. This was the moment. It came sooner for some than for others, but her mother was about to crush Harold as she had crushed other men who tried to infringe on her power to define the terms of their relationship. The smile had already spread over Ilsa’s lips as her mother said, “I really don’t think you’re the one to make that call.”
Later, Ilsa would realize that she had misjudged just how tenacious a weed Harold was. The man dug in his roots. He might snap, but he wouldn’t pull. The curtains were drawn against the afternoon sun, and in the dim light of the stained glass lamp hanging over their kitchen table, his Hawaiian shirt looked all the more tragic: the optimism of it, the false insistence on youth, the gentle flowers in the face of her mother’s glare. He said, “I just meant that I care about you. I want to spend my time with you. I thought you felt the same.”
“Don’t you think you’re moving awfully fast?”
No, Ilsa thought. No. Her mother could not soften.
“If we’re moving fast,” he said, reaching out to take her mother’s hand in his own, “it’s because I love you.” Ilsa felt herself folding inside, a kind of perverse origami, her stomach becoming a crane or a cup. Harold smiled across the table, looking all gentle and kind, and her mother smiled back. She was going to give. The toughest deal broker in the firm was yielding to a pony-tailed man with flowers and parrots on his shirt.
Then hopeful Harold went a step too far. “My lease is up on Friday. My landlord says if I want to renew, I need to tell him tomorrow.”
“That’s what this is about,” her voice was dead level. She dropped his hand.
“No, sweetheart, no.”
“Don’t fucking sweetheart me.”
“I’m just saying that the timing is good. It’s like a sign.”
“Sign my ass. I notice you’re not offering to cover any of the mortgage payment.”
“Well, I figured if you were paying that anyway. I mean, it’s your house.”
“I see.” Her mother got up and started pacing.
Ilsa quietly gathered her plate and put it in the sink, the gun’s grip grazing the skin of her back as she moved. Neither Harold nor her mother noticed. “I think I’ll go out for a little while,” Ilsa said to no one. They could be at this all day. If blades could shoot from a face, they shot from her mother’s. Harold tried the teary eyes defense, a poor choice. Ilsa slipped away.
“You’re taking this all wrong,” Harold said behind her. “I’d like us to move to the next step in our relationship.”
“The step where I pay for all our shit?” her mother said. Ilsa heard a crash. “Whoops. There’s one new plate I’ll need to buy.” A second crash. “There’s another.”
Ilsa shut the door before she had to hear more. She turned to find Angie in her face. “What’s going on in there?” Angie asked, straining her neck to look around Ilsa as if she could see anything through the closed door.
“None of your business.”
“Sounds like they’re having a fight.”
Thank you, Captain Obvious. Ilsa started walking towards the development. Angie stood rooted, unable to decide between the drama of the fight she’d clearly been spying on and the lure of Ilsa herself.
Ilsa walked. An old man aimed a rifle, shooting the pigeons from his palm tree, as Ilsa had seen him do on many afternoons. She supposed it was one way to spend retirement, though what was so precious about his palm tree was anyone’s guess.
For the first ten years of her life, she thought her father died at sea. In hindsight, she didn’t know where she got this idea. They were watching TV one day and a commercial came on for aftershave and somehow that bottle with the ship sailing across it, or maybe the actor himself splashing his face and hugging his daughter, or maybe something else altogether made Ilsa say, “I wish I’d gotten to know him before he died.”
“Know who?” her mother said.
“Who said your dad was dead?” And that’s when the whole story came out. He wasn’t the rugged sea captain Ilsa imagined. He hadn’t fought wind and sea trying to get back to them. He hadn’t even fought traffic. Her father was just another loser in the long line of losers her mom would date, a man who left when his knocked-up girlfriend was eight months along, saying that he was moving to Alaska to be closer to the fishing grounds and to get the hell away from her—one of the last men to say when the relationship was over. He told her she could send his stuff along or donate it to Goodwill or burn it for all he cared because he wasn’t coming back.
Had he stayed, Ilsa might have been just another Jennifer, just another Heather. Instead, he left her mother to binge on black-and-white movies all night for the last month of her pregnancy. Ilsa could picture her mother staring coldly at the failed romances, absorbing them all as she rebuilt her strength. Her mother would pick herself up, take control, transform her life, but not before Ilsa became Ilsa.
Angie’s feet slapped against the pavement as she ran to catch up. No one that small should run so loudly. The girl had no idea how to move in her own body. Every motion was awkward. The Humpty Dumpty shoes didn’t help, but Ilsa doubted Angie would be any quieter in sneakers. “Leave me alone,” Ilsa said. “I want to think.”
“I’ll think with you.”
Anger churned in Ilsa’s throat, setting in her jawbone with every slap of Angie’s shoes. Ilsa stared ahead and walked faster, hoping Angie would give up and go home. Ilsa wondered if the skaters were out. She wondered if the puppy head still lay where she’d found it, hidden under the weeds she’d piled on, or if the crows had pulled it out to peck its eyes.
Angie was going on about the Night Stalker again, delighting in the danger of darkness. “Mom says most people break into houses during the day so they can steal stuff while people are at work. Not him. He looks for places where people are home so he can rape them before he hacks open their throats. You can’t protect yourself. You just have to hope he doesn’t come to you. Hope he picks some other house. Then one day, they find the prints of his Avias outside your window, and you’re done.”
Ahead, a group of girls meandered through the holes, their heads bent towards one another as they giggled. Angie hesitated, then hurried on before Ilsa could leave her. Ilsa didn’t really know them well, but she knew who they were: Bree, Laura, and some girl whose name began with an M or maybe an N.
Bree, a skinny blonde with a sour smile, turned as they got closer. She put her hand on her hip and narrowed her eyes like some gossipy socialite housewife, a stance undoubtedly learned from her mother. The neighborhood was full of mothers like hers. They’d sip Long Island ice teas after playing a round of tennis at Victoria Country Club, but their favorite sport was judging career women. Sure, Ilsa’s mother could buy into the neighborhood. She could buy herself a Beemer and buy her daughter clothes every bit as expensive as their daughters’, but at the end of the day, she couldn’t belong. As much as Ilsa wanted to be fine with that, as much as she wanted to scorn them right back, at that moment all Ilsa could feel was anger at her mother for what she was: a coked out trader who serial dated losers.
“Ho-ly shit,” Bree said. “Angie finally found someone desperate enough to hang out with her.”
“We’re not hanging out,” Ilsa said. She should have kept her mouth shut. She should have kept walking. She knew even as she stopped that it was a mistake.
“Could’ve fooled me.”
“She’s following me. Won’t leave me alone.”
In the stark heat of the afternoon sun, Angie’s face blanched. “We are hanging out,” she said.
The girls laughed. Their carefully brushed hair, home-highlighted with lemon juice, shone white in the sun. Ilsa looked at Angie. She had a chance to do the right thing: to let Angie have that little bit. Why not allow her the one friend she had in the world? Who else would ever value Ilsa as much? Only, the fact that Angie worshipped her was exactly the problem. Ilsa was no one to admire. “Get away from me,” she said. “Leave me alone.”
Angie’s eyes trembled with tears. “We’re friends.”
“No, we’re not.”
“We’ve always been friends.”
Under the glaring sun, the hot stares of the watching girls burned Ilsa, as did Angie’s groundless faith. Ilsa felt the day closing up around her, folding like an envelope to seal her in. Saliva swam hot around her tongue. There was nothing to say, and she did the only thing that came to her. She built that saliva into a ball and spit.
Angie stood trembling, the blob of goop and bubbles sliding slowly over her cheek, mixing with her tears. The other girls bent over with laughter, and Ilsa walked away toward the silence of the hill overlooking the ditch.
For an hour or so, she turned the gun in her hands as she watched the boys skate, knowing that she would never walk down that hill to join them and that they wouldn’t have her even if she did.
Harold’s blue VW Beetle was still in the driveway. Fuzzy dice hung from the mirror because he was a cliché, because he was the kind of person who believed that you could substitute teach and be in a band. Because he was the kind of guy who played Beach Boys songs like they had relevance. Because he was the kind of man who cried over his eggs in the morning for no reason at all. Because he was just another cheese dick boning her mom.
Inside, her mother was yelling again, or still yelling. Her voice carried through stucco, past the bougainvillea and bottlebrush. Ilsa considered her options. It had to be three o’clock. The afternoon was hot, and she was thirsty. Maybe she would hide out in the backyard, see if she could find any last oranges on the tree and wait for things to blow over.
No. She needed a tall glass of water, heavy on the ice. Then maybe she could sneak in to get her swimsuit and sneak out again to pass the rest of the afternoon in the pool. From the sound of things, her mother and Harold weren’t likely to notice her.
She went to the side door of the house and crept into the kitchen. The gun had worn her back raw, so she took it out from under her shirt and laid it on the counter, wondering again why she hadn’t had the guts to point it right in Bree’s face and imagining what might have happened if she had done just that. In the living room, Harold had resorted to suicidal threats. “You’re what I live for.” He was crying so thick and hard that his words came out gurgled. “You’re all I live for.” This over a woman he’d known a few months.
“More like, I’m what you leech off,” her mother said. Ilsa rolled her eyes as she crossed the kitchen. They were still stuck in the same part of the argument where they’d been when she left. “Put your fucking pills away and go cry your river somewhere else. I’m done.”
“I’m serious. I’m doing it.”
“I’ll get you the water to wash the bottle down.”
Good, Ilsa thought. It was over. The only thing left was for Harold to leave. She stood by the water cooler, calculating how much she could pour before its glug gave her away. The last thing she needed was Harold coming in and trying to enlist her to his cause.
But it was her mother who came into the kitchen. She froze in the entry, her eyes locked on the gun. Ilsa couldn’t move, her mind consumed with calculating how much trouble she was in. A lot. More than she’d ever faced. Her mother strode across the kitchen and grabbed the gun.
“I can explain,” Ilsa said, but her mother didn’t seem to hear her. Ilsa might have been another fruit basket or bar stool to her mother, who strode in the living room before Ilsa could figure out what had just happened.
“You think you want to die?” her mother’s voice dripped with sarcasm. Ilsa pulled the cooler’s tap, her hands shaking almost too much to hold the glass still. Every molecule of her body needed that water, something to steady her. Her mother’s voice was hurricane strong, unswerving and relentless. “You really do? You think you can test me? Let’s see how much you mean it.”
The gunshot startled the glass from Ilsa’s hand. It smashed on the Mexican tile at her feet, a shard grazing her ankle as it flew.
“You still want to die?” her mother said. Ilsa ran to the doorframe to see her mother fire two more rounds over Harold’s head. The wall behind him was ruined, three bullet holes surrounded by flaking plaster, but Harold seemed to have pulled himself together as her mother shot.
“You’re trying to kill me,” he yelled.
“If I wanted to kill you,” she said, “I wouldn’t have missed.”
That was the line she told the cops when they arrived. By then, Ilsa had finished a Dr. Pepper, sitting on the front steps and watching Harold drive his Beetle over their yard and Angie’s and on to the Winchester’s and the house beyond them, going up the block and back, tearing everyone’s grass to shit. The policeman talked kindly to Ilsa before closing her off in his car to wait, but he was less forgiving of her mother.
“My daughter wasn’t home,” she told him. “I would never have fired the gun with Ilsa in the house.” When she saw the disbelief in his face, she changed tack. “That bastard was threatening us,” she said.
“As I understand it, ma’am, he was threatening harm only to himself.”
“Exactly,” she said, thrusting her chin at the cop as if he’d just proven her point.
In the back of the car, Ilsa closed her eyes. It all would have been OK if it weren’t for everyone watching. Then she might have been able to figure out the degree of her guilt. She liked the contained world of the cruiser, its cocoon. Maybe if she could stay in here long enough, she could grow into something beautiful, but that did not seem likely. Didn’t girls grow up to be like their mothers, whether they wanted to or not? She had practically put that gun in her mother’s hand. She would have been happy to pull the trigger.
Only a little sound leaked in over the hum of the air conditioner. She liked the way it made everything outside unreal, a movie with the volume muted. She liked the distance it created. The only problem was the light, how it let the neighbors line up and witness. She couldn’t turn off their eyes. She couldn’t mute their memories or their mouths.
Next door, on their front steps, Angie held Susan’s hand. Maybe this disaster made Ilsa and Angie even, but Ilsa doubted it. She could no more understand why she had spit at the one friend who wanted her than she could understand why a person would behead a puppy or why her mother would fire a gun at a man she loved or why a stranger would break into someone’s home only to slit his throat or why a father would leave his daughter before she was even born. Ilsa watched Susan and Angie’s delight. Maybe the only thing threading people together was a deep, unfathomable ugliness.
This would all be over soon. Harold would go back to his sad apartment, wherever it was, and renew his lease. Ilsa almost allowed herself to feel sorry for him. If this went to court, her mother would hire a good lawyer and Harold would not. In the end, nothing was actually harmed except for the wall.
She closed her eyes and again imagined the pavement rolling below her feet, letting it carry her over its ups and its downs, feeling it moving in her hips and shoulders. The pavement and wheels spoke to each other in that voice she loved, hushing only as the board reached towards the sky, speaking again when it stomped back to the ground.
Except she knew neither the ditch nor the board was her place. Her place was on the hill, not quite above it all. She was the girl who sat where the dead dog’s head looked over the lanes of traffic, watching one wide intersection of lives.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she teaches at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Cincinnati Review, American Short Fiction (online), Indiana Review, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her novel Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press) was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com