Sunday
Nov112012

You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky

Chad Simpson


 

The boy's sister is missing or has not yet come home. It's only 9:30, still too early to tell, but she was supposed to have the car in the garage and her own two feet on their property by seven.

The boy's mom says to his dad, "Did you get the yard mowed before it got dark?"

The boy's dad answers, "Is that your third Beam and Coke or your fourth?"

What they are really saying to one another, the boy knows, is, I hope Leanne isn't still over at Ledarius's house.

Only the boy thinks his sister might be missing. He kind of hopes she is. He kind of hopes that what's going on here isn't the same old same old, that there's something more mysterious and tragic stirring beneath the surface of these latest events, about to erupt like hot lava from an old volcano.

But the truth is his parents don't like the fact that Leanne keeps dating black guys. All summer long, ever since she got her driver's license in June and began dating Tony, the first of three black boys, all younger than her, she's been saying to her parents, "It's 2010. Think about who's in the White House." Her parents have been saying back, "That doesn't make it right."

The boy listens from his bedroom to his parents yelling more questions at one another and plays a video game on his handheld. The screen is cracked. The emitted music is damaged, warped—the notes last longer than they should and are slightly off-key. After a while, he tosses it onto his bed and starts sketching a dinosaur in his drawing book.

He is ten, too old to draw dinosaurs according to most of the kids in his class at school, but it's not like he's just tracing them out of some stained book from the library. He is creating them.

This one has a head much too small for his body, super-short arms and tiny hands with enormous thumbs. This one has tattoos on his belly and lips that are caved in like the lips on old people or meth-heads. He likes the way this looks. When he puts the finishing touches on it—a half moon of bruise beneath one of the dinosaur's eyes and a pair of broken glasses ringed with tape at the bridge —he laughs and closes the book.

In the living room, the boy's mom holds her drink in the air and says in this defeated way to the boy's dad, "Could you maybe just add a couple ice cubes to this?"

The boy's dad rises from his chair and says, "Sure." When he returns with the freshened drink he tells the boy's mom that he'll mow the yard first thing tomorrow.

It is just past ten o'clock. What they are really saying to one another is, Do you have any idea how to proceed from here? When Leanne comes back, what are we going to say to her? What are we going to do?

Neither one of them acknowledges the boy as he passes through the room. He feels, as is often the case, a little like a ghost. Just before he enters the kitchen, he raises his hands in the air and whispers, "Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha."

He grabs a flashlight from under the sink and steps out the door that leads to the backyard. The door slams shut hard. It echoes in the thick and humid air, and the boy can feel the sound the door makes in the small of his back.

Near the garage, near the place where his sister should have parked the car over three hours ago—because tonight, just one night this week, her parents didn't want her driving god-knows-where at all hours of the night with that fifteen-year-old boy in the front seat with her—there is a basketball hoop and a large square of dirt in the yard where the boy has dribbled the grass dead. He clicks on his flashlight and crouches low, begins searching the dirt for earthworms.

It is mid-August, and the dirt is hard-packed and cracked like dry skin in the flashlight's beam. There is not an earthworm in sight. The boy wonders whether the worms are still living there in the ground. He wonders how deep they've had to burrow in order to find mud moist enough to move through.

He hovers his hand over the dirt and makes shapes in the air that cast cool-looking shadows onto the ground. Here is a bunny rabbit with fangs like samurai swords. Here is the meanest junkyard dog in all of Kentucky. The boy is trying to remember what other things he knows how to make out of shadows when he hears a noise. He can't tell whether the maker of the sound is human or animal, but he is aware suddenly of the downy hairs, now gone stiff, on the back of his neck.

He clicks off the flashlight and sets it near his foot. The darkness for a moment transforms into its own living and breathing thing, and it occurs to him that he's gone earthworming in this same dark about a million times but never quite so late at night. It's like his backyard has become an entirely different planet.

The boy listens for the sound, prepared to sprint toward his house's back door if necessary, but hears only the pulse of bugs, like the nighttime's beating heart. He picks up his flashlight and turns it back on.

First, he points the flashlight at the sky, which is starry and brilliant. He takes aim at a particularly bright star that might actually be a planet, high in the sky, and clicks the flashlight on and then off again a few times. The boy doesn't know Morse code but he's pretty sure aliens don't either. He wonders how long it will take his little stutter of light to reach the stars. He wonders who will be there to translate what he has communicated when it does.

This is an easy and comforting line of thought for the boy. He loves the night sky over Kentucky. He loves the idea of aliens, of beings out there in the universe more powerful than anything here on earth. Beings capable of ending our little marble of a planet just because they were bored, in only seconds.

The boy is imagining a quickly destroyed world—water rising up out of the oceans, insects and birds falling from the sky, each and every human being's skin bubbling like milk in a pan on the stove and then turning to paste and dripping from their bones—when he hears the sound again. It's human, he realizes this time. It's a voice. It has just said, "You."

The boy clicks off his flashlight so that he can slip back into his backyard's darkness, in case the voice means to cause him harm.

"That didn't make you invisible, you know," the voice says. It is female. Older than him, he thinks, but not so old as his parents. Maybe his sister's age.

The boy turns the flashlight back on and swings it in a slow arc at the houses across the alley from him. Here is the Johnsons' busted trampoline. Here are their stacks of PVC pipe that've been sitting around forever, doing nothing but squashing grass. Next door, where an old lady who has her groceries delivered to her lives, there's a sad-looking doghouse with three holes in its roof and no pet in sight. The boy pauses the flashlight for a moment. He's not sure how it's possible, but it seems as though everything looks worse in his flashlight's beam than it does in the light of day. Everything seems to look more miserable and ruined. It's like the flashlight is revealing the place's true nature, which up until right then had been hidden from him in plain sight.

The boy can't believe that this is where he lives. That this is where he has been growing up. It's no wonder his sister has become the kind of person she has become.

"You're getting warmer," the voice says. "Keep going. Just one more house to your right."

It's kind of an ugly voice, the boy realizes. It sounds like it is coming from a girl who is chewing the insides of her cheeks while she talks, and he recognizes it now. He hasn't heard it for months, not since school let out, but it's Rebecca.

Heat lightning flashes in the sky over the row of houses across the alley, and the boy imagines for a second that someone out in space is responding to the blips of light he'd sent up that way a little bit ago. Whoever it is, the boy thinks, they have misinterpreted his signal. He'd meant it to be friendly.

The boy shines the flashlight in the direction of the next house over, and there is Rebecca. She is sitting on a screened-in back porch, and the boy can see most of her torso. The steel braces she uses to help her walk glint in the light. Rebecca shields her eyes. She says, "Down, boy. Holster your weapon."

The boy isn't sure what to do. He knows he should be nice to Rebecca—she's been through some sorrowful and agonizing shit—but she is mostly a total pain in the ass. He turns off the flashlight slowly and soundlessly and lets his arm fall to his side. He is still facing Rebecca's back porch, but if he began walking backward, he would reach his own house's back door in probably thirty steps. He would become invisible inside his own house again, and Rebecca would probably forget that she ever even saw him out there looking for earthworms, shining his flashlight at the sky, hoping his sister would just come home already. Hoping maybe she wouldn't.

Above him, the boy knows, there are stars that have been shining since fish had feet, and this, too, offers a kind of comfort. He wipes some sweat from his forehead and runs his hand through his hair, begins walking forward.

The story people tell about Rebecca goes like this: Two years ago she was as beautiful as any girl in Nelson County. She was a gymnast and a cheerleader. She liked history and had a decent GPA. and dated a boy who was runner-up at the state wrestling meet in the 185-pound division. Then she went to a party one night in the summer before her senior year and got wasted on wine cooler-spiked gin. A little while later, she was in the passenger's seat while some other gymnast/cheerleader-type was drunkenly navigating the bendy roads out near Maker's Mark.

The girl driving the car walked away from the wreck with a broken occipital bone and some superficial scratches. Rebecca shot through the windshield and past the tree the girl's car had collided with, the boy has heard told, like the prettiest cannonball ever.

Leanne was in driver's ed around the time this happened, and the boy's parents drilled this story into her head even before Rebecca's family moved from the country to Bardstown six months ago so that it'd be easier to get her to school and her doctor's appointments. Since then, the boy has encountered Rebecca mostly on his way to school in the morning. He walks, but she stands near the street out in front of her house and waits for the short bus to come and pick her up. Once, she called the boy over and counted from one to ten in German while staring him right in the face. Spit drooled from her mouth as she spoke the phlegmy and hard-edged words. The boy couldn't imagine a less beautiful language.

Another time, she yelled to him that she'd bought a new bikini and asked the boy if he wanted to see her try it on. When he kept his head down and his feet moving, when he didn't even swivel in the direction the words were coming from, Rebecca's voice turned mean. She shouted, "Before my accident, you would've counted yourself lucky to receive such an invitation! And I mean lucky!"

The next few months, she usually said something to the boy about a hot tub. She would tell him how warm the water in her hot tub was, and how good the jets would feel on his back. She would ask him if he wanted to come and sit in it with her, and then she would cackle out a broken laugh. She didn't even seem to get mad anymore when he zoomed right past her, afraid to look. Though it made no sense to him at all, it was like the shyer he became, the more fun she had goading him.

His sister, he is certain, is beautiful. She has long and wavy red hair and skin as white as the belly of a bass. It is impossible for him to imagine that Rebecca was ever beautiful the way Leanne is.

The boy stops well short of the screen door, but he can smell the mesh and dust of it. The porch is dimly lit by a window that looks in on the house proper. Rebecca, he sees, is wearing shorts.

"Name, rank, and serial number," Rebecca says.

The boy stands there smelling the door, trying not to look at Rebecca's horrible legs, thinking about how it wasn't just her face and body that were damaged in the accident. She missed an entire year of school, and they let her come back as a senior so that she could graduate, but her brain, he has heard, isn't what it used to be. He isn't sure what to say, and he feels this uncertainty as a hollowness in his throat. He starts to say his name, but Rebecca interrupts him.

"I'm kidding," she says. "Come in, come in. I'd get up, but—" She touches the tops of her metal braces. It's hard for him to believe the person sitting before him is only nineteen.

He opens the door and steps inside and smells something. It's not a bad smell, and it's strong. He can't quite identify it, and when he inhales more deeply, trying to figure it out, Rebecca points to her left. "It's eucalyptus," she says. "Look anywhere in this house, you'll probably find eucalyptus."

The door closes behind the boy. He can hear a television playing somewhere inside the house, the volume up high. He doesn't know what to do with his hands. He remembers for some reason that when he first saw Rebecca using her poles to board the school bus he thought they were kind of cool. It was like she was part robot.

"My parents fall asleep with the TV on like that every night," Rebecca says. "I come out here for some peace. Plus, it's supposed to rain sometime soon and I want to see it."

The air is humid like rain, the boy thinks, but there were no clouds in the sky earlier. "There are stars," the boy says.

"For now," Rebecca says.

The boy tries to remember whether he had seen the moon earlier. Maybe, he thinks, it was hidden by clouds.

The boy is trying not to stare, but his eyes keep flitting back and forth between Rebecca's face and her legs. He saw her face up close that one time she was shouting German—which she called Deutsche—at him like an SS officer, but all he was really seeing then were those ugly numbers. Her face, he sees now, is swollen and bumpy, puffy to the point of fat, but jagged in places, as if there is glass buried beneath the fleshy surface. Her legs aren't any better. The boy knows a little bit about skin grafts, about how doctors sometimes take skin from one part of a person's body to build up another part, and it looks like doctors have spent a lot of time gouging her legs. They're still big and jiggly-looking, but her thighs and calves are pocked with pink crevasses. The boy wishes it were darker there on the porch.

"You can sit down," Rebecca says, swiping a hand through the air at a chair across from the glider.

"OK," the boy says. He squats and sets his flashlight down near the door and then crosses the porch. The sounds coming from the TV inside are more like vibrations. He can feel them more than he can hear them.

As the boy lowers himself into the chair, he feels his throat going dry. He thinks about those earthworms in his backyard, chugging through dry dirt, looking for mud. Once he's sitting, though, he realizes that the light over Rebecca's head is no longer illuminating her the way it was when he was outside. Now that he's closer, it's as if the two of them are sitting in almost utter darkness. All he can see of her is a vague outline, like a shadow.

"If you've come for the hot tub," Rebecca says, "I should tell you now that it's a little under the weather." She moves an arm—a thumb, maybe?—in the direction of the house. "Repair guy is supposed to come later this week."

The boy wonders whether the hot tub even exists, and he hopes in a way that hurts that it does. More heat lightning flashes in the sky, lighting up the porch like a camera flash, and the boy remembers how desperately Rebecca used to call out to him when he was hurrying past her on his way to school. "Hey, cutie!" she would call. "I have a hot tub! You want to come and sit with me in my hot tub?"

She had this way of leaning on her braces when she spoke. She would drape a chubby forearm over the top of one of her poles and then rise up onto the toes of her thick-soled shoes. She looked like she might topple over with want.

The boy isn't sure what to say about the hot tub. It occurs to him to say something about not having his swim trunks with him, but that seems stupid. He decides to stay quiet and sits there hoping that Rebecca asks every single boy that passes—and not just him—to come and sit with her in that hot tub that may or may not exist.

There is thunder now, and Rebecca audibly shivers. The boy's eyes are beginning to adjust, and he can see her rubbing her hands over her forearms.

"You want to sit over here?" Rebecca says. She scoots over in the glider. "You can't see what's going on out there with your back to it all."

The boy wonders whether his parents have noticed yet that he's not in the house. He remembers a time, not all that long ago, really, when his parents weren't quite so preoccupied with Leanne. Their whole family was different then. Leanne would smile, and laugh even. She talked to him. Neither one of his parents used the word "nigger" very often.

The boy stands, and Rebecca pats the glider seat with her hand. He expects her to say something pervy, to call him loverboy or somesuch, but she doesn't say a thing. He sits down carefully. He doesn't think he'd be strong enough to pick Rebecca up if he bumped the glider and caused her to fall to the floor.

The eucalyptus smell is even stronger now. The boy can't believe how strong it is. He takes a deep breath because the eucalyptus makes his nose tingle in a way that he likes, like sucking on a cough drop, and Rebecca catches him.

"My mom thinks the eucalyptus is going to heal me," she says. The way she says this, it sounds to the boy like she is maybe rolling her eyes.

"Really?" he says. He can't imagine a person believing a thing like this. It makes him think of witches and Indians, and these thoughts for some reason put him at ease. He lets his feet touch the floor and begins rocking the glider.

"Really," Rebecca says. "Look." She reaches down toward her shorts. They are made out of denim and fit a little tight, but she gets her fingers around the hem of one leg and begins slowly rolling it up. The boy is curious about what she's going to reveal, but he's nervous, too. He looks away.

Heat lightning flashes out on the horizon, and the sky lights up in about eighteen shades of storm, which isn't a color, the boy knows, but should be. There is real lightning, too, streaking down out of the sky in jagged, drunken bursts, as if searching, followed closely now by thunder.

"You aren't looking," Rebecca says.

When the boy glances down, she has one side of her shorts rolled up so far the skin is starting to dimple from being squeezed, and there on her thigh, as if tattooed, are little leaves.

The boy immediately reaches out to them. It's instinctual—he wants merely to touch the leaves, to see what they feel like—but he catches himself and withdraws his hand.

"It's OK," Rebecca says. "Here."

She takes hold of the boy's fingers. Her hand is warm and a little damp, and the boy's breath catches. He thinks he's lost some feeling in his fingers, that maybe they're going numb, but he lets her guide his hand.

She places it on the inside of her thigh, which is also warm and a little damp. It feels like the water balloon he left sitting out in the sun all day earlier that week. He is trying to touch her without actually touching her, but then she lifts one of his fingers and strums it across a eucalyptus leaf, from its crisp edge all the way down to its tip.

"I wear these on my skin because my mom thinks they'll make me better," Rebecca says. "I wear these everywhere."

The boy flinches and knocks one of the leaves to the floor.

Rebecca holds his hand to her leg. She is stronger than the boy'd thought. When he tries to resist, his arm won't budge. "Don't," she says. "Just relax."

The boy leans forward, hoping she won't be able to see his erection. He has woken up this way for much of the summer—his penis so stiff it aches—but if he waits long enough, if he just lies there in bed in his underwear, not moving, it usually goes away. He's not certain, though, that this will happen right now. There is something about this particular erection that feels permanent. He wishes he wasn't wearing shorts.

The boy wonders what time it is. And then he wonders what Leanne is up to, why she hasn't yet come home. He remembers hoping earlier in the night that she was missing, that she wasn't just out with Ledarius, but he wants to take back that thought now. He doesn't want to see his sister on the evening news. He doesn't want his sister to become a story that people tell like the one they tell about Rebecca.

Rebecca picks up the boy's fingers again and moves his hand down her leg to her calf. There is a divot the size and shape of a small football where doctors have taken skin at the back of her calf, and she sets his fingers inside it. The skin there is cool and completely hairless. It feels smooth in a way that skin shouldn't.

She lets go of his hand and leans back in the glider, but he keeps his fingers in the small canyon in her calf.

More lightning lights up the sky. He thinks about how high Rebecca was able to roll her shorts, and about those leaves stuck to her leg, and he begins to massage her calf with the tips of two fingers. Rebecca lets out a little moan but it might be a sigh—he isn't sure.

The boy caught his sister once, with Michael, the black guy she dated after Tony and before she started running around with Ledarius. The boy's parents were both at work, and even though they had been telling her since he was little no boys in the house during the day, she and Michael were right there in the living room, watching a movie on the good TV. Leanne gave the boy two dollars not to tell and closed him up inside his bedroom, said to call for her if he needed anything, but only if it was important. There was meanness in her face when she said this last part. There was no trace at all of the sister he'd grown up with for most of his life, and he wondered where she'd gone off to, the old Leanne. He wondered whether he would recognize her if she returned.

The boy had stayed quiet in his room for a long time. He'd ignored the sounds of the movie coming through the wall. He'd ignored his growling stomach. He'd put a pillow over his face and tried to sleep, tried to forget that there was anyone else on the planet except for him, but it was June and hot and he was sweating. He was getting thirsty.

He called for Leanne three times before he opened his door. He was curious why she hadn't answered him, sure, and he had some hazy ideas about what he might find going on in the living room, but he also wanted a drink of water. More than anything, though: He wanted his sister to remember that he was alive. When she still hadn't come to his door after the third time he'd called for her, he'd thought, What if my bedroom was on fire? What if I was dying?

He watched for what felt like a long time. Michael was on top of his sister. And then she was on top of him. The boy had the door inched open, and his throat felt raw or he might have screamed. He was hoping she both would and would not notice him standing there with one eye visible in the crack of the open door. If she noticed, he thought, maybe she'd end up feeling as terrible about that night as he was feeling. After a while, he figured that he could stand there forever and she still probably wouldn't think to come and check on him. He figured he might as well be dead.

He closed the door and picked up his handheld video game system and threw it against the wall, and it made a sound like a cheap toy breaking. Like nothing at all.

The boy gently digs his fingers into the skin of Rebecca's calf. It's like he is exploring her, and he takes his time. She is still leaning back in the glider, not talking but making little sounds.

He wonders—maybe because of the dark, or because of the way the walls vibrate with sounds from the TV inside, or maybe because of something else entirely—what it would be like if Rebecca were his girlfriend. If he were older and they were a couple and did the kinds of things that he knows his sister did with Michael right before he broke up with her and she started dating Ledarius. Would it be wrong for him to be with Rebecca, because she's been through such a terrible accident and now needs metal poles to help her walk around? Would it be wrong because her legs and face are gouged, the same way it's wrong for Leanne to be with black guys? If he were older, would his parents get mad at him for going with a girl like Rebecca, or would they maybe say it was OK?

The smell of eucalyptus in the room begins to weaken and the boy thinks he hears something coming from the porch roof, but he doesn't want to stop rubbing Rebecca's calf. It's like his world has become small. Manageable. Perfect. 

Rebecca squirms in her seat. She rights herself. "Finally," she says. "It's raining."

The boy doesn't really want to but he unpeels his fingers from Rebecca's leg and sits back in the glider. There is no more lightning in the sky. There are no more stars. There is only rain, falling steadily but not too hard.

The air smells earthy, like something the boy's mom might force him to eat. It smells like the lake where he goes fishing. Rebecca brushes some of the eucalyptus leaves from her thigh and begins unrolling the leg of her shorts, and it's suddenly as if the the two of them have been relocated to the public library, or the school cafeteria, some place where they can be strangers again. Rebecca says, "I should probably get inside now."

"Yeah," the boy says. He starts to stand but realizes he can't, not yet. "It's getting late."

He stays seated and Rebecca does too. They watch the rain fall. They listen to it. The boy closes his eyes, and he hears behind the rain, coming from the near distance, the familiar crunch of car tires on the gravel in the alley.

Over the past few months, he has come to both love and hate this sound. He loves it because it sometimes means his sister has come home and that she will be walking in the door any minute. He hates it because sometimes—about nine times out of ten, actually—it is not his sister. It is just his mom or dad, or a neighbor. And he hates it, too, because sometimes his sister won't be alone. She will have with her Tony or Michael or Ledarius, and the boy will be like an only child all over again.

He realizes too late, because he's still a little dizzy with excitement, watching the rain, the back of his hand touching Rebecca's on the seat, that he's not hearing the crunch of gravel through his open bedroom window, the way he usually does. He realizes where he is. He sits up fast and scurries for the flashlight. He has it in his hand before he knows what he plans to do with it.

Rebecca says, "What are you doing?"

The flashlight feels heavier now than it did earlier. The crunching gravel gets louder, and the boy is certain somehow that it is his sister. He gestures with the flashlight toward Rebecca, which doesn't really answer her question, but she nods as if she understands.

"Oh," she says. She starts to say something else in that awful voice of hers, and the boy wonders if her voice was somehow damaged in the accident or if it has just gone bad—the same way she has gotten fat. The boy shows her the palm of his hand while searching the alley.

If the boy began running right now, if he shot out the porch's screen door into the rain, through the small bit of Rebecca's backyard, across the alley, and into his own backyard and up the porch steps, he could be inside his bedroom, he thinks, in seconds. In way less than a minute, at least.

More gravel crunches and headlights slash through the darkness, illuminating rain that seems to slow down as it moves through the beams of light.

A moment passes in which the boy's head is stuffed with about a thousand questions he is incapable of answering, and now the car's headlights are shining bright and white on his garage door. The garage is filled with junk—they never park the car in there. When the boy's dad said he wanted Leanne to have the car in the garage by seven, it was just an expression.

His sister puts the car in park, and the boy is trapped. There's no way he could get inside his house now without his sister seeing him first.

The boy forgets all about Rebecca and gets down onto his belly. The porch floor is turf that smells like nothing at all and scratches his chin and knees and the bellies of his forearms.

He hears a car door open, and he thinks that maybe there's a way to turn the tables here. He inverts the flashlight so that it is pointed toward the porch floor and turns it on and off a few times, to make sure it still works, and it does: An orange-ish circle of light appears and disappears on the turf.

His eyes are so used to the darkness now he can see everything there is to see. He can see for miles.

His sister slams the car door, and behind him, Rebecca stands up out of the glider. She makes an oomph sound as she does this, and her metal braces clack and squeak, and the boy worries his sister will turn toward them, but she doesn't. She throws her purse over her shoulder and begins walking toward her house's back door. She is walking in her usual way—looking all slouched and grumpy and bored—and the boy turns on the flashlight but keeps it pointed toward the porch floor.

Rebecca makes it to the door that leads inside the house. She opens it and says to the boy, "Good night."

The boy waves his free hand at her, trying to shut her up. He doesn't want her to give away his location. He needs to stay hidden just a few more seconds.

Rebecca says, "Whatever," and slips inside the door without making too much noise. The television sounds rise and then fall, but still his sister makes her way slowly across the backyard toward the house in the rain, oblivious.

The boy points the flashlight's beam at the porch ceiling, to test its potency. He clears his throat.

Then he directs the flashlight toward his yard. The spot of light lands right where he wants it to, just ahead of Leanne's feet, and she leaps a little into the air. She begins looking behind her, wondering where the light is coming from, but the boy turns the flashlight off before she can locate him. Leanne puts a hand up to her eyes like she is shielding the sun and stands there in the rain like an idiot.

Then she shrugs her shoulders and starts walking again, and the boy turns the light back on and shines it in the place where her left foot is about to come in contact with the ground. Leanne turns to follow the beam, and the boy snakes the light up over her shoe. She looks down and sees the light illuminating her shoe, and the boy winds the light up her leg, and then her stomach, her chest.

Leanne puts her hands in the air, as if she is in danger of being shot. "Who's out there?" she says. "Is that you, Ledarius?" She tries to laugh but it doesn't come out right.

The boy can tell she is afraid. He moves the light from her chest to her face. She keeps her hands in the air and squints. She turns her face away but only for a second. When the boy flicks his wrist so the light hits his sister again in the chest, she says, "What do you want?"

The boy wants to keep her stuck like this with his light forever. He wants her rained on and helpless and asking questions that will never get answered.

He can feel his heart thumping against the turf floor. His breath is coming fast. He can tell by the face his sister is making, though, that she isn't going to stay there long. She is going to react to this threat in the same way she reacts to most of what the boy's parents tell her—by walking away, ignoring it. She drops her hands to her sides and looks down at the light as if it is something she can brush away with only the tips of her fingers. "I'm going inside," she says. "You can light the way if you'd like."

The boy is worried she'll recognize his voice, he's worried he won't sound intimidating enough, but he tries to make it sound like the gears churning in an enormous machine when he says, "No." When he says, "Stay where you are."

Miraculously, it works. His sister swivels toward him, her hands back in the air. The boy pins the flashlight to her chest again, and he thinks of the butterflies he pinned to a corkboard last year in school. They were so pretty and delicate, so dead and unmoving. Soon, the boy knows, his sister will be inside with his parents, and they'll be hashing things out in one way or another, but right now she is a monarch. She is a swallowtail. She is all his.

His sister looks genuinely worried. She looks afraid. She says in a trembling voice, "What do you want?"

The way she asks this simple question makes the boy falter. The light bucks on her chest. He tries to regain his confidence—he doesn't want to think about how Leanne used to be, how she would make him breakfast on the weekend when his parents slept in, how she'd read him books each night before bed—but his eyes are getting hot. He's worried he's going to cry.

"I want you to stay right there," he says. "I want you to stay right where you are."