After we arrived in Michigan, I holed up for weeks in the backyard bunkhouse and slept on a moldy cot. The bunkhouse was no more than a shed, repurposed decades ago by my father in his teenage attempt to escape his father. I sprayed so much Raid keeping the wasps at bay that my lungs ached with a chemical burn. The wasps were relentless and territorial and, during daylight, forever hovering.

To get away from California, my father had decided we would spend the summer on a small island near Detroit, in my grandmother’s house, where he’d grown up. In January of that year, 1997, we’d watched on the news as houses near Sacramento had succumbed to a great flood: Aerial shots showing miles of still, muddy water. Hundreds of shingled roofs peeking just above the surface, like pods of whales coming up for air. That March Biggie Smalls was murdered four miles from the dull LA neighborhood where we lived. A couple of weeks later authorities loaded dozens of bodies into trucks near San Diego after members of a comet-obsessed cult committed mass suicide. They had each been tucked into their own little bunk bed, belly up, like children. “Jesus, fuck,” my father said. “I need to get you out of this state.”

I hadn’t seen my grandmother in years. My father had been telling me for months that she was dying, but each time he would visit her, I’d make excuses. He’d pay a college girl to stay with me, and he’d ask how he’d raised me to be so selfish. After he left, I’d cry and picture my grandmother’s dark curls and glamorous wine-red lips, her long cigarettes and thin neck. Whenever I’d enter a room, she’d say, “Hey, toots.” In the months after my mother had left for the fourth and final time, my grandmother had slept next to me in my twin bed because it was the only way I could fall asleep.

Now she slept all day on the living-room sofa in her small brick ranch. The television was always on, the volume set to mute. Her hair had gone white, her skin had turned a grayish color, and she had nightmares about the war that caused her to scream and cry out in Polish. A sharp smell of urine clung to her clothing, and a crusty residue formed at the corners of her lips. At night, when her strength permitted, she’d wander from room to room like a ghost. I stayed in the bunkhouse until morning.

My father had once been in a punk band, but now his hair grayed at his temples, and he wore a suit to commute across the bridge every weekday to the Detroit office of a large flooring company. While he was at work, a hospice aide named Sandy took over the house. She was plump, with short brassy hair and large glasses, and when she wasn’t giving my grandmother medicine or helping her to the bathroom, she watched soap operas while munching frozen grapes. Whenever I passed her, she touched my shoulder and said something like “Poor thing.” I began to wander the island, returning only to eat and sleep.

Amid the summer smell of mown grass I would walk inland, getting lost and eventually finding my way back to the shoreline when the wind changed and I could follow the scent of dead fish. Vacant, weedy fields sprawled across the north and west sides of the island, while renovated Victorian mansions hogged the south shore, occupied only in summer months by rich people from the suburbs. Locals like my grandmother lived on the east side, near the bridge and the ferry docks, where narrow streets led to tree-lined neighborhoods of modest, crumbling homes. When it rained, the septic tanks released the smell of sewage. My father paid a gardener, so my grandmother’s manicured shrubs stood out on a block of peeling siding, tarped cars, and dandelions. In LA I had the sense that everyone at my school was richer than us. Here, whenever I stepped onto the porch and felt the neighbors’ eyes on me, I experienced the shame of having more.

Back home I’d been teased about my big breasts and ample thighs, but I was an optimistic thirteen-year-old. From television I’d learned that, outside of California, being from LA carried social cachet. I figured all I had to do was meet a group of cool kids, and they’d make me their leader.

My walks always ended at a small bridge where local teenagers sunned their thin bodies and drank from flasks. They dove into a murky river from a railing with a sign that read, “No Diving.” I would walk past them and spread my towel on the narrow pedestrian path twenty feet away. There I sat, fully clothed, listening to Nirvana while cars flew across the bridge and sprayed me with gravel.

The kids spoke with a Midwestern accent and pronounced really “rilly.” I watched one of them with particular interest: a dark-haired boy with a farmer’s tan that somehow seemed cool. Each time he glanced anywhere near my direction, I looked down. The other kids called him Jesse.

One afternoon I watched him lift a blond girl from her towel as if she were a large dog. He carried her to the railing, writhing and clawing and slippery with tanning oil, and tossed her over. She stomped up from the river, leaking water from her bikini bottom, and called him an asshole, and I thought, Yes, what an asshole, but I also wondered what it would feel like to be lifted from the earth like that. I was too young to truly want his body; I feared it a little. Even so, there was something about his desire for her—the way he kept looking back at her like a driver watching a blind spot in traffic—that I craved. Later, on my cot in the shed, I thought of them together and made myself come. Afterward I fantasized about my skin sliding against his chest as he threw me off the bridge, the calm that would come from letting him decide where I should be.

At home there were few rules: I had to be back by seven for dinner. Occasionally I had to grocery shop if my father was running late. And I had to be in the bunkhouse by midnight. My father said that, unlike in LA, kids on the island could safely roam.

One evening he asked me to buy green beans and milk, and as I stood in the checkout line, I recognized the cashier as the girl who had been thrown from the bridge. Her hair puffed away from her face in a platinum nest, and black smudgy liner rimmed her eyes. Her lips were bare but pink.

She asked if I was a discount member. I told her no, and she scanned my items, looking bored in the way beautiful girls often did. Her nails, long and oval, were painted army green. She recited my total as if she were reading from a teleprompter, and I handed over my father’s Visa.

“I’m going to have to call the authorities,” she said, tapping her nails against the card. “Unless you’re David?”

“It’s my dad’s.”

“Sorry, they’re going to have to take you in.”

I tried to reach for the card, but she was too fast for me. “Please don’t call the five-o,” I said. I’d never used the term before, but I’d heard older kids yell it whenever cops rolled by.

“Where are you from?” she asked.


She paused to appraise me. “I would have guessed maybe Ohio. Me and my boyfriend are moving to California soon.” She handed me the card. “I was just messing with you.” When she smiled, her gums showed. A man behind me set a case of beer on the belt. “Are you going to Warren?” she asked me. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen,” I lied, feeling weak with nerves. “I’m just here for the summer.”

“No shit? I’m fifteen!” She smiled the gummy smile again. “I don’t blame you. This town blows.” She leaned in. “There’s this thing later. You can come if you want?”

“Sure, maybe,” I said, trying not to sound desperate.

“I’m Larissa.”


“A boy’s name. That’s so Cali.”

She grabbed the case of beer and scanned it, and I started to walk toward the exit, then stopped. “How will I find you?” I said.

“I’ll pick you up. You’re on Orchid, right?”

I stared, confused.

“Small town,” she said.


Larissa rang the doorbell around eight. My father invited her in, but I said we were in a hurry.

“I like your boots,” Larissa told me once we were in the street. “Like Courtney Love. I wanted some like that, but they were three days of work after tax.”

“My mom gave them to me,” I said.

The last I’d heard, my mother was touring Europe with her new boyfriend’s band. She’d met him in rehab. I hadn’t seen her in over a year, but she mailed me postcards of castles and Renaissance art. She’d sent the boots from England for my birthday, with a note emphasizing that they were also from her boyfriend.

“You can have them,” I told Larissa. I sat down on the curb and started unlacing. “Trade me.” I handed her a boot.

Larissa laughed, then sat and pulled off her black Converse One Stars. On the rubber she’d drawn doodles in blue ink. “They smell,” she said. She lit a cigarette and offered me one.

“I quit,” I lied.

“I thought you’d give me shit about smoking Virginia Slims.” She put on my boots and paced around in the street.

Larissa’s sneakers were a bit too big, but they were my new favorite shoes. The night was warm and not yet dark, and the smell of a wood fire hovered in the humidity. Clouds of mayflies bombed around the streetlamps. “I remember those,” I said, pointing at the flies and recalling my one visit to the island, when I was much younger. My mother had hated coming here.

Larissa picked up a stone and hurled it at the bugs. “This island is nasty.” She pointed to a red clunker idling at the end of the street. “My boyfriend’s driving.” My stomach seized. “He’s seventeen,” she said, tossing her hair.

“Why is he waiting way down there?”

“Would your dad have let you get in a car with some random dude?”

“Good point. So, do you do this with your dad?”

She walked ahead of me, flung open the passenger door, and flicked her cigarette onto someone’s front lawn. “My dad’s in prison.”

I crawled in the back, and Larissa introduced me to Jesse. “Cali, huh?” was all he said.

He drove for a bit, then pulled into the gravel driveway of a squat brick house. “Welcome to the palace,” he said, gesturing grandly.

“Jesse’s mom claims his dad is a millionaire,” Larissa said. “Some married tycoon she fucked once.”

“He’s probably a fat truck driver,” Jesse said.

We got out, and as we walked toward the house, a mosquito landed on my arm. I watched it feed before I slapped it, and the sound echoed off the house. The silence of the island made me anxious; I had trouble sleeping without the numbing rush of the freeway, the incessant helicopters and air traffic like distant sounds of war.

Inside, a small group of kids stood around the kitchen table drinking beer. Music blasted from buzzing speakers, vibrating my chest. Another group of kids lounged in the living room, and in the corner a couple under a blanket appeared to be having vigorous sex. In another corner sat a child in a complicated-looking wheelchair, eyes closed, a quilt over his lap.

Larissa pointed at me and yelled over the music, “She’s new.” All the boys had facial hair and deep, intimidating voices. I sat in a chair, and Larissa and Jesse joined a skinny guy in gym shorts on the couch. He lit a joint, and smoke slowly filled the room. When it was my turn, I pretended to take a hit.

A cute, freckled kid who looked about ten years old peeked into the room.

“Go back to bed, Dustin!” Jesse shouted.

The kid didn’t move. “Cody’s tummy hurts.”

Jesse groaned. “All right, get some bread and go the fuck back to bed.”

The kid scampered toward the kitchen and reappeared a moment later carrying a loaf of Wonder Bread. I wondered where their mother was.

Later Larissa and Jesse led me to a screened-in back porch, where we listened to roaming, distant thunder. They each slipped something into the other’s mouth, then kissed. Jesse bit at Larissa’s bottom lip, and she opened her eyes and saw me watching. “You want one?”

“What is it?”

“A vitamin.”

I took it, and as a fizzy feeling began to percolate through my body, I realized I needed to call my father. He asked if Larissa’s parents were home.

“I don’t know where else they’d be,” I said.

Despite my response, he allowed me to sleep over.

The three of us massaged each other’s heads and tickled each other’s forearms. I told Larissa I loved the way her elfin ears connected to her neck, that I was so happy we were friends. She begged me to describe LA in detail and to repeat the word soda again and again.

At one point I went inside to pee, and all was silent and still. Everyone had gone home, and the light in the kitchen bathed everything in a golden glow. In the living room a front window was open, and from across the street, wind chimes tinkled angelically. I grinned at myself in the bathroom mirror and brushed the softest hand towel in the world across my face.

Just as it started pouring, I stepped back onto the porch. The roar of rain entered my body. Larissa stood pressed to the screen, watching a gushing gutter, and then a flash of lightning lit the side of her face. She sprinted into the middle of the yard and turned to us. Her hair clung to her scalp, fat droplets splashed off her head, and as she reached up and touched the leaf of a maple tree, she exposed her pale stomach and a glinting gold belly ring. Jesse ran to her, and they hugged, swaying like old people slow-dancing. The sky cracked and exploded, the house shook, but they lay down there in the grass, limbs spread like they were making snow angels.

After they came inside, soggy and glassy-eyed, they changed into dry hoodies and pajama pants, and we all fell asleep in a warm pile on the rug, like puppies.

It was still dark outside when I opened my eyes. I wasn’t sure what time it was. Jesse slept on his back, and on the other side of him, Larissa was nestled in his armpit. With each exhale, she let out a faint whistle.

I placed my thumb over a small scar on Jesse’s chin and felt a calm charge, as if I’d plugged back into my source. An impulse overwhelmed me, and I kissed his top lip. He opened his eyes and studied me. The only sound was the rain hitting the roof and Larissa’s sweet, rhythmic breathing. I wanted to crawl between the two of them and sleep there, like I used to in my parents’ bed. Jesse leaned forward and kissed me harder. It was the first time I’d ever felt a guy’s tongue in my mouth. It was larger than I’d imagined. When he rolled on top of me, I closed my eyes and gave in to the tranquilizing weight of him. He squeezed my breasts and pushed his thigh between my legs. His breath was sharp, and he kept whispering, “You want it?”

I said yes. Yes, I said. I gripped his back and tried to mimic his kissing, and our movements felt like a dance until he pulled a blanket over our heads and started to unbutton my jeans. I froze, but he continued tugging at my waistband. Under the blanket the air was stuffy. I was scared of being touched, so I decided to touch him instead. I unzipped his jeans, and before I understood what was happening, he’d yanked down his boxers and pushed his way into my mouth. His torso moved up and down above me as I struggled to breathe through my nose. His stomach smelled like calamine lotion: near his navel a pink smear crusted over a bug bite. He thrust harder. When I tried to push his hips from my face, he grabbed the back of my head. I held my breath and waited for it to end. From kids at school I had a vague understanding of what would happen, but I was unprepared for the volume. After he came, he kissed me, and I felt ashamed that my kisses would taste bad, like rank detergent. He climbed over me toward Larissa, leaving me the blanket.

I remember thinking daylight would never come, but I must have fallen asleep, because I was forced awake by a jab to my back. The morning sky was white with rain, and beside me Jesse and Larissa were spooning. A red-haired woman in short shorts stared down at me.

She walked around to Jesse and nudged him in the ribs with her boot. “I work two jobs so I can come home to your harem?”

“Mom, you’ve met Larissa,” he said without opening his eyes.

The woman kicked Larissa’s calf. “Get up. This isn’t a goddamn brothel.”

Larissa kissed Jesse, pulled on my boots, and walked out into the downpour. I followed, struggling to keep pace as she jogged toward a church. I was afraid Jesse had told her what we’d done, but when we got under the awning, she laugh-screamed and hugged me.

“That was a good night,” she said. “I’m gonna be late for work.”

“Best night of my life,” I said, and in some way, at that moment, I meant it.


Over the next few days it rained incessantly. I didn’t hear from Larissa or Jesse. Feeling certain Larissa knew what had happened, I became paranoid and afraid to leave the bunkhouse. I reread magazines. I didn’t bathe. I slept all day.

Late one afternoon my father came out and gently shook me. “Wake up, my sleeping ugly.” He laughed like he always did. I knew he wasn’t trying to be mean, but I still wished he’d say beauty. “Your grandmother is awake.”

She was sitting up on the couch in the living room. Sandy sat in a chair, her soaps on the television.

“Mom, Ryan is here.”

“Hi, toots,” she said.

My father went into the kitchen, and I sat beside my grandmother. I tried to kiss her cheek, but she turned her head, and I kissed part of her mouth. Her scalp showed beneath wispy white hair. Every bone in her face seemed visible. She smiled. “Do you remember how, when you were just a babe, we all had to sing, ‘One for the money, two for the show,’ and you would come running? Now look at you. Beautiful!”

I tried to keep from crying. I was pretty sure she was remembering something she’d done with my father.

“Where is Lisa?” my grandmother asked.

“She’s coming tomorrow,” I said.

It was what my father had told me to say if she asked about my mother. My grandmother had forgotten about the divorce and the years she’d spent living with us after: teaching me to roller-skate and picking gravel from my knee; letting me cry for hours at the otter exhibit, while pups lolled on their backs, slick and glimmering; rubbing my head every night until I fell asleep. I didn’t care if she couldn’t remember; I just wanted her to live.

The next morning she didn’t recognize me when I tried to wake her. A watery sound burbled each time she gasped for breath.

I hid out in the bunkhouse, dozing until I heard a tapping at the window. Jesse squinted in at me. His breath had made a foggy patch on the glass, and in it he’d written, “HI.”

I pretended I hadn’t seen him. It was noon, and I was in pajamas, zit cream crusted over my chin, but he tapped at the window until I opened the door. I could feel him staring at my chin. Water drained off his black raincoat into a pool by his feet. He gave me a quick hug.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Standing in your shed thingy.”

I couldn’t tell if what I was feeling was excitement or fear. “Where’s Larissa?”

“Working,” he said, looking at the dead wasps on the windowsill. He picked one up and held it close to his face, then put it in his coat pocket. “Do you want to hang?”

I stared at the wasp carcasses and thought of my grandmother. “Turn around while I change.”

He turned. “I’m supposed to be watching the kids.”

I wondered if he’d try to peek, but he didn’t. “Ready,” I said, proud to seem like the sort of girl who didn’t care how she looked. As we walked to the car, rain splashed my face, and I wiped away the zit cream.

He put on Radiohead and sang along, and everything outside seemed choreographed to the music. The sky was blue-gray, the windshield wipers working overtime. Long veins of lightning pulsed. I wanted him to keep driving forever, but after a few minutes we pulled into his driveway.

In Jesse’s front yard the freckled boy from the other night leaned over a white painter’s bucket filled with rainwater. Two smaller boys stood nearby, one a younger version of him, freckles covering his face and lips, hair buzzed to his scalp. The other—a toddler, maybe three—was dark-haired like Jesse. They wore grubby T-shirts and shorts slick with mud. “I told you to wait inside,” Jesse said, getting out of the car.

“We almost have a pool again,” said the middle boy, who looked about eight.

“Cody! You said you’d stay out of the basement,” Jesse said to him.

“I know,” Cody said. “Dustin wants to swim, is all.”

Jesse looked at the oldest. “Did you tell him to do this?”

“No!” Rain had clumped Dustin’s eyelashes into little spikes.

“I’m not even getting in this time,” Cody said.

“No one’s getting in,” Jesse said. “Go around back so you don’t track mud in the house.”

They trudged away, the three-year-old running to keep up. Jesse kicked the bucket over, soaking my shoes and socks.

“Cute,” I said. “They’re trying to make a pool in the basement?”

“They’re retarded.”

“Isn’t your mom worried? My dad freaks out if there’s any water in our basement.”

“No. The whole thing needs a new foundation anyway.”

Inside, muddy footprints had been tracked through the living room, across the small kitchen, and to the back door and basement staircase. The child in the wheelchair was still in the same spot in the living room, asleep, or maybe vegetative.

Jesse sprayed the soiled rug with carpet cleaner and went out the back door. He yanked off muddy socks and wiped hands with paper towels. The toddler cried. When Jesse told him to shut up, he cried harder. In the kitchen Dustin helped Jesse erect a dog pen, and they set the three-year-old inside with a plastic giraffe. Dustin and Cody climbed in after him with a sleeve of saltines. They were still in their wet clothes.

“Don’t you dare get out,” Jesse said.

He showed me around. The toddler and Cody slept in a laundry room off the kitchen, their bunk beds next to the machines. Jesse shared a room with Dustin. Both twin beds were unmade, their sheets twisted, the mattresses exposed. Above one bed hung a cracked mirror, and on a nightstand a half-empty coffee cup cultivated white scum. Jesse sat on the edge of his brother’s bed, and I sat on his. I felt something underneath me and removed a bottle of cherry-flavored lube. My cheeks grew hot.

“That’s Larissa’s,” Jesse said. “We haven’t used it.”

“It would be cool if you did. I mean, it looks like it tastes good.”

“Larissa really wants to. Have sex.”

“You don’t?”

He shook his head.

“What about us?”

“That wasn’t sex.”

“Right,” I said.

He rubbed his face. He looked tired. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“I don’t know anyone.”

He laughed, then turned serious. “I want to be a priest.”

A flimsy ceiling fan circled above us. I thought about the other night.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said: “it’s sad not to be able to get married and have a family. But I have to make sacrifices.” He leaned in close. “We can’t ever do that again. We aren’t married, or even in love.”

I felt embarrassed that he didn’t like what we’d done, and also relieved. “Why do you want to be a priest?” What I was trying to ask was: What had I done wrong?

He rubbed his palm against his thigh. “So, my baby sister died. She was two.”

“My mom died.” The lie came so naturally. I think I wanted to tell someone my grandmother was dying, which felt like my mother dying. I asked what happened to his sister.

“She drowned. My stepdad was giving her a bath, and he went to check on the boys and forgot.” He lay back on the bed. “How do you forget about a baby?”

“Is that why you don’t want them making a pool? You’re afraid they’ll drown?”

“No, I taught them all to swim after.” He kicked off his shoes.

“How old were you?”

“Oh, it just happened in December.”

I counted the months in my head: six. “Did your mom forgive your stepdad?”

“He died, too, in February.” Jesse stood and walked over to a corner with his back to me. I could hear the flick of a lighter, the gas whir, then quiet, then the flick again, the gas, quiet. He came and sat next to me on his bed. The edge sagged under our weight. For a while we didn’t say anything, his bare arm touching mine. I wondered why he’d asked me to his house, if he just wanted to be friends or something more. He’d said we weren’t in love, but maybe he was falling in love with me.

He flicked the lighter and held the flame up between our faces. I tried not to back away. The flame wavered closer to my face than his. I felt the heat near my right eye. “I guess that’s why I want to be a priest,” he said. “To know why shit happens. You know?”

I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to sound mature. “Do you and your brothers have a good counselor?”

“Yeah, and then after we go to Disneyland and eat lobster.” The lighter went out, and he tossed it on the bed. “They aren’t my brothers. They’re my half brothers. My stepdad was their dad. The little one’s just a foster.”

I’d thought the toddler looked the most like Jesse. “Is the boy in the wheelchair your half brother, too?”

“Foster,” he said. “Mom does it for the money. We’ve had him since he was little.” He yawned. “So, I almost forgot: I told Larissa I’d stop by on her lunch break. Can you watch them? I’ll only be gone a minute, and you can play video games or whatever. Just don’t let them out of the pen.”

I agreed, though I wanted to tell him I didn’t know how to watch kids, that I was just a few years older than Dustin. Only after I heard Jesse’s tires splash through puddles did I realize he’d invited me over so he could see Larissa.

I read a TV Guide and tried to ignore the sopping, miserable children. Dustin and the toddler appeared to be asleep. Cody picked at his toenails. I walked over to the child in the wheelchair and touched his arm. He didn’t wake. I shook him gently and asked if he wanted anything, but he remained asleep. I touched his eyelid.

“Don’t,” Cody called from the kitchen.

“I was just checking on him,” I said.

“Don’t,” he said again.

Dustin woke and punched Cody in the arm, and the toddler began to wail. I sat back down on the couch and watched the three of them crawl around the pen, pinching and slapping. A pacifier hung from the toddler’s lips. When he screamed, it fell to the muddy floor, and Cody stuffed it back in. I got up, took it away, and cleaned it.

“Does Jesse always make you stay in there?” I asked.

Cody nodded.

I pictured Jesse and Larissa in a stockroom, doing what he and I had done the other night. I felt a rush of anger and power, a blue light blazing up through my feet. I released the safety lock and yanked open the door. “Have fun, be kids,” I said, something my grandmother used to say.

Dustin stood. “Can we do the pool?”

“I don’t care,” I said.

“We aren’t supposed to go down there,” Cody said.

“Do whatever you want.” I walked to the kitchen sink and heard the three of them putting their shoes on. Through a window with an apple-themed valance, I watched them carry buckets outside and solemnly wait for them to fill with rain. Cody and Dustin placed theirs under rushing drainpipes while the toddler waited with a small pail under the open sky. Their T-shirts clung to their scrawny torsos, and rivulets of rainwater streamed off their chins. The toddler was shivering.

At the kitchen table I paged through a knitting magazine. Eventually they came trudging back in, Dustin leaning to one side to compensate for the weight of his bucket. Cody waddled, knocking his bucket with his kneecaps and sending water sloshing. The toddler hugged his pail to his chest.

They marched single file toward the basement stairs, their faces blank and focused, as if they were sleepwalking. From the basement came splashing sounds, and then footsteps back up the stairs. They repeated this bucket-filling sequence again and again: the orderly march down the stairs, the pouring, the sober waiting in the rain.

I ate stale wafers from a package on the counter. Despite my attempts to push my grandmother from my mind, her ragged gasping and shriveled lips kept reappearing. Have fun, be kids. I thought about Larissa, pleaded with some higher power that she and I might still be friends.

As I was dabbing up cookie crumbs, the toddler appeared at the top of the stairs, sucking his thumb and crying. Only then did it occur to me that the boys had not been back up in some time. I patted his damp hair and went to check on his brothers.

The basement air had a pungent mineral quality. When I stepped off the bottom stair, my shoe sank into earth, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, to decipher forms and depth. The ceiling was so low I had to hunch; the area was more like a tall crawl space than a basement. Pink insulation dangled from above like dirty cotton candy. At the far end of the space, Dustin was silhouetted by sunlight streaming through a foundation vent. I stood up straight and hit my head on a beam, then walked toward him, stumbling on the dirt-and-rock floor.

Now I could see he was crouching over what looked like a huge puddle, dunking his arms in, his back to me. Something in the water thrashed. Only once I was next to him could I see that Dustin had Cody pinned underwater. Legs broke the surface and scissored the air. Arms grasped wildly at nothing.

I shoved Dustin aside, and Cody sat up, gasping and screaming. I waded into the water and carried him out, across the dark crawl space, up the stairs.

Cody clung to my torso as I sank onto linoleum. The kitchen light seared my eyes, and my head hammered. Cody coughed in wet, rattling fits, and the water from his shirt soaked mine, seeping into my bra. At the kitchen table the toddler poured salt from a shaker into small mounds. He climbed down and sat next to us and petted Cody’s back.

The door flew open, and Dustin burst in. “Don’t tell Jesse.” He sat down at the table and wiped his nose on his shoulder, suddenly seeming much younger than ten. “It was only twenty seconds; I was counting,” he pleaded, desperate. “It takes whole minutes to die. I wasn’t going to hurt him, but he wouldn’t stay under.”

“I made it up,” Cody said from my chest.

“He can talk to our sister.” Dustin began to cry. “I just wanted him to see if Dad found her yet.”

“I told you, I made it up,” Cody said, raising his head from my chest. He retched once, and a trickle of warm water flowed onto my sternum. I wiped it, my hand shaking.

“Liar. I know you saw her,” Dustin said. His skin was blotchy and streaked with dirt. “He saw her last time we made the pool, and she told him there’s cows where she is.” His shoulders shook. “He can see her. Not everyone has the gift,” he said.

“Mom and Jesse told you,” Cody said, his voice rising. “It’s not real.”

“God, I hate you.” Dustin dug his thumb into the toddler’s salt mounds, flattening them.

“Bodyfafe!” the toddler shouted.

“What’s he saying?” I asked.

“It’s his word when he’s mad,” Cody said, glued to my chest. “It means something really bad, like worse than cocksucker or butthead.”

Dustin ran to his bedroom and slammed the door behind him. The toddler climbed onto the couch. Exaggerated sound effects blasted from the television. Cody squashed my breast as he pushed himself up and sat beside me. Dark lines of dirt outlined his toenails.

“I didn’t make it up,” he said, looking at his hands.

“I know.” I believed him. Or, at least, I believed he thought he didn’t make it up.

“I tried at the school pool, but it doesn’t work there,” he said.

I did not call the police or my father. Once I could stand, I told the boys that I had to run a quick errand, and I walked out the back door.


My father was home early. My grandmother had developed a lung infection and was unresponsive from the morphine. “You should prepare yourself,” he said. That night I slept on the floor next to her and listened to the wet ripples from her lungs, the low murmur and intermittent clicking of her oxygen machine.

In the morning the sun was out, and my father was making breakfast. I was still half asleep on the living-room floor when Sandy rushed into the kitchen. “Who would do such a thing? The kids here are no good.” She whispered with my father for a minute, then walked over and squeezed my calf. “You’re a nice, good girl.” Sandy took over flipping the bacon while my father went outside. He came back wild-eyed, blocked the front doorway, and told me I was not to leave. I ran through the kitchen and out the back. Toilet paper streamed from the willow tree and clung in wet clumps to my grandmother’s roses. The driveway and my father’s car were spattered with crusty yolk and shards of eggshell, and on the red-brick exterior of the house, in black spray paint, the word SLUT stretched from window to door.


My father helped me pack my things. He booked a flight for the next morning and arranged for me to stay with family friends. “Your mother was right about this place,” he said. “She didn’t want you around these kids.” He didn’t say anything about the vandalism, though I wanted him to tell me it wasn’t my fault, to ask who had done it, to be angry in the way that my grandmother would have been. I thought about what Sandy had said. I wondered if I was not a nice, good girl.

I hid in the bunkhouse until late afternoon, when I heard a car pull in. From the window I saw Jesse standing in the driveway, and my father stepped out to meet him. I was afraid Jesse might hurt him, but instead he edged backward toward his car, gesticulating wildly, while my father took slow steps forward. Jesse suddenly looked young and scrawny. I opened the bunkhouse door and stood just outside. Jesse raised one hand to me, as if taking an oath. “Sorry!” he yelled.

On my flight home the next day, as a kind woman patted my back and offered kleenex from her purse, I found a note tucked inside the sack lunch my father had made for me. Daughter of my dreams, it said, call me when you land.


For years my father has told the story of my last night on the island, the night my grandmother died: After dinner I curled up on the floor next to the couch, where my grandmother lay, and my father relaxed in the recliner. We watched a movie on the VCR and both fell asleep. He woke to the blue screen and high-pitched note signaling the end of the tape and found my grandmother had passed. He let me sleep there until morning.

What I remember: My father falling asleep and my grandmother, not long after, exhaling one long, last breath. Sliding from my blankets and walking outside barefoot in my pajamas. Bugs hissing in the tall grasses and an older couple drinking beer and waving from a stoop. Floodlights clicking on as I strolled from our neighborhood and down a street lined with new vacation homes. Wandering to the bridge. Moonlight on water. Tossing a rock and the plunk briefly silencing the insect chorus. Scrambling down the hill to the grassy shore, where I lay down and closed my eyes and imagined I was in that muddy basement pool.

First: Morning sun through my white wooden blinds. Stripes of light and shadow across her sleeping back. From just outside the window, a breeze of bitter tomato vine, and powder from the rosebush she planted. Her left arm partially covered by my plush sheep. The sheets smell like Downy. Her crepey inner elbow, soft like the nose of a horse. Thin blue threads of veins. The sound of my voice when I ask how she sleeps on her stomach without suffocating. She says, You have to turn your face to the side, like this, and she turns and faces me.