These girls are on FIRE 🔥🔥🔥 . LITTLE WRECKS is the explosive tale of three girls who refuse to be stuck leading fake lives like all the people around them. Ruth, Magda, and Isabel are on the precipice of something. They might finally escape their small town of Highbone, Long Island. They might finally be seen for who they really are—not just young, pretty things up for the taking. Or they might just set Highbone and all its lying, numb residents on fire. Each girl reaches a breaking point—one last unwelcome touch, one last blind eye turned, one last lie told. It sparks a fire within each of them. But these girls can’t save each other. They might not even be able to save themselves.
Meet Ruth, Magda, and Isabel by reading this excerpt from LITTLE WRECKS!
People get frogs in their pools. The frogs think the pools are ponds, jump in, and can’t get out again. Invisible chlorine seeps through their skin and kills them. On spring mornings, the more fortunate citizens of Highbone wake up to find their swimming pools full of dead or struggling frogs. They stand in their bathrobes with pool nets, fishing them out while their coffee gets cold.
Only Isabel and the frog-fishers are awake now. She walks barefoot through the empty streets around Harbor Ridge, spreading her toes and pushing off the ground with every step, trying to feel everything at once. It’s early and the grass is still wet. The sun slants along the ground and the drops on the spiderwebs are glinting in the bushes. She’s wearing her blue cotton skirt, the flouncy one that shows her thighs and reminds her of the sky. Over that, she has on a secondhand Navy sweater that’s almost as long as the skirt. One of the frog-fishers stands there with her pool net dripping and stares at Isabel’s sweater and her bare feet. Isabel just laughs.
Doesn’t the lady realize how she looks, doing ridiculous frog maintenance on her perfect life that looks exactly like the perfect life next door? Factory-made and totally meaningless, pretending to be paradise and full of road kill.
Everyone pretends the water is clear. Those pools might as well be full of girls instead of frogs. Bleeding, barefoot girls, floating facedown with the soles of their feet staring up at the sky. The collateral damage of all that pretending.
She turns her back on the frog-fishers and heads towards the heavier air down the hill. The onshore breeze is full of salt and the smell of ocean green blowing over Highbone Harbor. The pavement is gathering heat from the early sun and sending it up through the soles of Isabel’s feet. She breathes. It could always be like this. If everyone would just take their shoes off and breathe in, the day could stay like this. But already the traffic is starting up. Slamming car doors echo down Main Street. She has to move out of the way so a Highbone cop can drive past her. He turns his siren on, drives through the red light at the bottom of the hill, then turns it off again.
Mariner’s Maps and Books isn’t open yet. Mr. Lipsky is never too worried about being on time. When he shows up, she can get the copy of Under a Glass Bell he ordered for her. One day, Isabel is going to live on a houseboat like Anaïs Nin. Right now, she can hear the shackles on the sails in the harbor, ringing like bells against aluminum masts. She can feel the shelves of poetry behind the window at her back, the thousands of miles there are to travel in every direction. She knows how beautiful it all is, and that’s what makes her different than everyone else in Highbone. She’ll never understand why people trade in their souls for pool nets and sprinkler systems.
The cop parks between Isabel and the sun, then gets out and stands looking down at her legs.
“Waiting for someone, young lady?” he says to her thighs.
“Yep.” She stands up and pulls her skirt down. “Is that a problem?”
The cop jerks his head away from her sixteen-year-old legs like suddenly they offend him.
“Where are your shoes?” he says, as if her bare feet are what he was staring at.
“Don’t have any. Pawned ’em for a train ticket out of this hole.”
The cop just stands there for a while, looking at the harbor and doing his cop silence.
Whatever. Isabel is going to get out. They’re all going to get out, her and Magdalene and Ruth. None of them are supposed to be here. They all know it, and that’s why they get each other; that’s why they’re friends.
Isabel has a plan. As soon as she’s eighteen, she’ll get a job working at the Lagoon. They have bouncers, and the girls wear cutoff shorts, so it’s just topless. They rake it in; that’s what Vicky says. Vicky works at Dunkin’ Donuts now, because they won’t let her work at the Lagoon anymore. She won’t say why, but she did say when she was there she brought home a hundred bucks after six hours, on a good night. A year of that kind of money and Isabel could live for ages on a houseboat.
The cop is inside the diner now, sitting at the counter drinking free coffee and eating free pie. He’s so arrogant he left the car window open with a wallet sitting right on the passenger seat. Isabel looks both ways before she reaches in and grabs the wallet. She puts it under her skirt and sits back down in the doorway. Then she laughs.
After her heart stops pounding she scoots farther into the doorway, pulls the wallet out, and opens it. Inside there are two five-dollar bills and a picture of some boring kids with braces. That’s it. What was she hoping for? Something to make her feel better about being leered at and then made invisible by a cop, whatever that might be. There isn’t even a badge, which would have been cool.
The door of Mariner’s Maps and Books opens at Isabel’s back and the little bell tinkles.
“You coming in, or what?” Mr. Lipsky says.
When Mr. Lipsky turns his back to head inside, she pulls out the ten bucks and throws the cop’s wallet over the curb. It falls right between the grating of a storm drain and down into the deep dark underneath Main Street.
Inside, Mr. Lipsky looks down at Isabel’s sweater like it worries him. Well, it has a couple of holes where she ripped the Navy patches off, and it is much too big. So obviously he doesn’t get it. The Navy sweater is like armor, or maybe like wearing your bed all day. It makes her feel safe, anyway. Besides, Mr. Lipsky can’t really look at her like that, since his khaki pants are always too big for him and his shirts hang out at the back. He dresses like he can’t quite handle being a grown-up, which is nice.
“Come on in. I’ll make coffee.” He disappears into the back.
Isabel climbs all the way into the bay window and pushes up one sleeve so she can pet Gaius Pollio, the cat. She just robbed a cop; maybe Saturday morning isn’t so bad after all. You get one life; it’s full of things that taste and smell and make people feel. Your mission, obviously, is to taste and smell and feel as much of that as you can. Daydreaming should be a job. People should be paid to do it for the good of society.
It takes a lot of daydreaming to counteract Highbone, though. Stay here long enough and you’re certifiable, that’s for sure. Isabel’s mother is living proof of that. One day, Isabel will have a mooring on a river somewhere, maybe in France, maybe in Mexico. The boat will have a musty cabin and a single bed and a typewriter. Little waves will rock her and sound will do comforting things at night, traveling over the surface of different water.
When Mr. Lipsky comes back out with two mugs in one hand and a half-pint milk carton in the other, Isabel is sitting with Gaius Pollio in her lap. He hands her the coffee and puts Under a Glass Bell down in the bay next to her, then pulls up the captain’s chair from behind the counter for himself.
“Tell me again about the kinds of hell,” Isabel says.
“Let’s see . . . for the flatterers, there’s this pit where they’re all plunged up to their necks in excrement. What do you think?”
“For saying something nice to someone when it isn’t true, you spend eternity swimming in shit? That’s a little much.”
“I think Dante was worried about people who fawn over politicians and corrupt people with lots of power. Why don’t you let me order you a copy and you can read it yourself?”
“I like listening to you tell it. Also, the coffee is good. My dad’s coffee sucks.”
“Any time, kiddo. But you should read Dante before you go to college.”
“I don’t know about college. And anyway, I need to get through these first.” She holds up her new book. “Anaïs Nin and those people weren’t all caught up by money and jobs. They just lived. They paid attention to everything.”
“They had trust funds.”
“That’s why I need to go straight to work, Mr. Lipsky. I need money.”
“You need to read everything you can. Trust me. How’s your mother?”
“My mother is the same. You know, fine. She just sits around all day in Castle Gloom, eating cheese and crackers and reading about some fat guy named Nero Wolf.”
“Castle Gloom?” He raises his eyebrows. “Your mother is a very smart lady, Isabel. I learned more from her in high school than I learned from some of my teachers.”
“My house is kind of dark and depressing. My friends named it Castle Gloom. Magda and Ruth seem to think it has fairy-tale potential. They don’t have to live there, obviously. And yeah, my mom knows lots of stuff. Sometimes she tells me it, but mostly she doesn’t say anything.”
“All right, well. I just know it’d make her happy if you read the important stuff.”
“Okay, okay, but it’s not gonna be today, Mr. Lipsky. I need to meet Magda.”
“Magda is Magdalene Warren, right? Your friend? My dad knew her grandparents.”
“We’re going up to the mall. Fucking mall named after a poet!” He doesn’t even blink when she curses. That’s one reason why Isabel decided to be friends with Mr. Lipsky.
“Don’t worry, Isabel. There is an extra special hell for town planners who build shopping malls and name them after poets.”
“I already decided. I’m voting for the one where they’re buried upside down in the rock with their feet on fire.”
People out on the sidewalk are looking twice at the front window of Mariner’s Maps and Books, wondering why there’s a teenager dressed like a homeless person sitting in it with a cat and a cup of coffee. Mr. Lipsky stares straight back through the glass and smiles.
Coming down the hill on Seaview Road, Ruth can see everything stretched out below her, the water shining in the Sound and the traffic on 25A, cutting the village off from everywhere else. You can see the dividing lines, the different worlds of Highbone. Ruth lives on the other side, away from the beach and the bluffs and the old arts and crafts houses. When she looks down on Highbone from here, everything seems clear and inevitable. The divisions between herself and everyone else are just part of the pattern of the world. In the fading light, it all looks as fixed and distant as the end of time.
Sometimes lately, the veil over everything falls away and the meaning is suddenly obvious. Ruth’s stomach lurches; she loses her breath and the world comes into a new kind of focus. For the first time, she doesn’t need anyone else to see things for her. Turning onto Main Street, she comes up behind Isabel and Magda, heading towards Highbone Harbor in the almost dark.
“My space goes two ways together, twilight’s forever,” Ruth sings out behind them, and Isabel joins in without turning around. Ruth falls into her usual place, three steps behind.
They’re all way too old and way too cynical for jump rope songs, but this one is special. Isabel says it’s actual poetry, whatever actual means. What about the girl who first made up that rhyme though, maybe a hundred years ago? It’s like she was describing them. Was her life just like theirs, if you leave out the details? Can’t be denied; those words fit the situation.
The three of them pass by the weird mix of preppies and homeless people sprinkled around outside Flannagan’s Bar, and walk, singing, past the floating docks by the playground. They pass all the broken men returned from Vietnam, twitching and hallucinating on the benches at the bottom of Main Street. It’s four years since the war really ended, but the human wreckage is still lying around everywhere. It doesn’t match with the Rhode Island types in their sailboats, moored in the harbor, the picture-postcard park and the Victorian shop fronts.
Ruth watches from behind, dragging her old lace dress on the sidewalk while Magda and Isabel move right through it all without paying attention. None of it is new. They see it most days, but to Ruth it’s impossible to ignore, impossible not to feel it all the time. Two ways together, twilight’s forever.
She waves at Lefty, on a bench reciting poetry into the air while his friend Robert looks for cigarette butts along the curb. Lefty waves back with his one whole arm, and Ruth follows Magda and Isabel behind the bushes at the back of the park.
“This is the worst possible spot. We are so gonna get caught,” Magda says. But even as she says it, she throws down her Army Navy Store backpack and sits on the grass.
“The cops are too lazy to check back here,” Isabel says. “Anyway, it’s time for a bonfire; we all agreed. Safety valve. Escaping steam. Not exploding, that’s the plan. You know that as well as I do, so what did you bring, Magda?”
Magdalene reaches into her backpack, takes out a book, and hands it over to Isabel.
“The New Eden: Mythopoesis and Westward Expansion? Cool title.” Isabel turns the book over. “And this book deeply offends you why? I’m not sure how I feel about book burning.”
Magdalene jabs a finger at the cover. “Read it.”
“John W— Oh! I kind of knew your dad wrote books, but I didn’t know they were cool books. Mythopoesis, I love that word.”
“Fuck you, Isabel.”
“Okay, your dad’s an asshole, I get it. No reason to be nasty. Remember our first bonfire?”
“Yep,” Magda says. “It was at Fiddler’s Cove. We made a fire at the beach, like normal people. That must have been before you turned into a crazy person and convinced us to start a fire in the park.”
“That was only about two months after we met.” Isabel lights a match for no reason, holding it up until it burns her fingers.
“After we met you, Isabel. I met Magda before I could talk.”
Ruth checks behind her and then lies down, closing her eyes so all she has to deal with is the sound of them. It’s enough.
“I’m just saying, we weren’t even halfway through ninth grade. Ruth was still in middle school. This is bonfire number six. Six, in not even two years. I think they’re getting more frequent. Does that mean things are getting worse?”
“No,” Magda says. “It means we notice more, we’re fighting back more. We’re not as oblivious. Especially you, Isabel. If it weren’t for us, you’d still be floating around two inches off the ground thinking the whole world is wonderful and all made just for you.”
“And that would be a bad thing why? You’re bragging because you made me mad at everything? You jaded me?”
“I’m not bragging,” Magda says. “I’m just pointing out that because of us you started noticing what really goes on in this place and why we need to get the hell out.”
“Ruth, where’d you get the cool dress?” Isabel tugs on the hem. She can’t stand anyone not looking at her. Ruth opens one eye.
“Stole it from Attic Antiques.”
“You went without me? No fair! Anyway, you guys liked me, admit it. You liked me right away.”
“It’s true,” Magda says. “You have some excellent qualities. You just needed a push in the right direction.”
“Yeah, also, I have resources.”
Isabel pulls a half pint of blackberry brandy out from under her sweater and waves it at them.
“See?” Magda says. “Always prepared, that’s an excellent quality. Girl Scouts’ve got nothing on you.”
“I was thinking more cowgirl than Girl Scout. Fire, flask of moonshine. We could be cattle rustling.”
“Does moonshine taste like cough syrup?” Ruth grabs the bottle, leans on her elbow, and screws off the cap.
“Cowgirls in the wilds of Highbone.” Isabel draws a pretend six-shooter and aims at Ruth, straight between the eyes. “The Highbone Gang, thieves and guns for hire.”
“Westerns never have chicks in them,” Ruth says.
“Yeah, also”—Magda reaches for the bottle, but Isabel grabs it first—“the Indians are always white guys with terrible makeup and a three-word vocabulary.”
“So, we need to make a new kind of western.” Isabel blows the smoke off the tip of her invisible gun, then pours some brandy down her throat.
“Slow down there, Stagecoach Mary.” Magda takes the bottle. “So the heroine of our movie will start out all demure and proper, then her parents die and she turns into a bank-robbing saloon singer.”
“Dibs on the title,” Ruth says. “It’s gonna be Tulip. That’ll be the main chick’s name.”
“That’ll have to be you, Miss Blonde-with-Tits,” Isabel says. “I’ll be a dime novelist, touring the West to soak up the atmosphere. Then I fall in with you and get drawn into the life of sin I’ve always written about. What about Magda?”
“Well.” Ruth squints her eyes at Magda. “I guess you grew up in a Lakota camp on the move with twelve brothers, so you never learned to be domestic in the first place.”
“As long as I can shoot and cure snakebite, I’m good.”
The three of them lean forward with their elbows on their knees, imagining themselves in painted deserts and badlands, sitting on bedrolls under the stars. It’s like there’s a fire they’re all staring into together, even though they haven’t actually lit one yet.
“So, Ruth,” Isabel says, “what did you bring?”
Ruth reaches into her back pocket and pulls out a heavy, embossed piece of paper. It still smells like the cabinet she lifted it from, like chamomile and her mother’s patchouli. Magda grabs her hand and leans over to look at it.
“You can’t burn your birth certificate, Ruth! You’re gonna need it when we get driver’s licenses. I’m not driving all the way to California myself while you lie back in the passenger seat spacing out.”
“I don’t know,” Isabel says. “I kind of get it. I mean, why let them make you get a piece of paper to prove you were born? We’re here, aren’t we? What difference do the details make? They just want to keep pieces of us in filing cabinets.”
“Read it,” Ruth says. “There are no details. In the place where there might be some useful information, it’s just blank. I mean, everyone already knows who my mother is and that I’m from Long Island. Those are both kind of annoyingly inescapable facts. The rest is blank space.”
“You’re not the only one with a blank space where your father is supposed to be,” Isabel laughs. “I live in a house with my father. Trust me, it doesn’t make a difference.”
“I don’t want to come from anywhere,” Ruth says. “I don’t want to be a collection of facts. I’m burning it. Deal. Your turn, Isabel.”
“I’m burning this, but I’m not opening it.” Isabel holds some papers, folded and folded again, six or seven pages’ worth. “You just have to trust me.”
“This is exactly why people don’t trust you,” Magdalene says. “Come on, ante up, O’Sullivan.”
“We’re all pouring out our deepest shit here, Isabel. You’re supposed to throw in with us; otherwise it isn’t fair.”
The imaginary fire has gone, leaving Ruth feeling naked and chilly. Alone again in a world full of people who don’t see what she sees.
“I don’t care if it’s fair,” Isabel says. “Fair is not the point. Catharsis is the point. It’s like Mr. Driscoll said about Antigone.”
“I think what Mr. Driscoll said was that telling the story together is what makes all the people better.” Magdalene reaches for the papers and Isabel rolls away onto the ground, clutching them underneath her.
“Do you want me to stay or not?” she says. “If you want me in, I’m burning these without opening them. End of the story.”
Ruth has never seen that look on Isabel’s face before. She shrugs and holds out her birth certificate.
“Well, got a match, Magda?” she says.
They all laugh because that is the magic incantation. They can say it whenever they need to, in school or at the beach with a bunch of ridiculous cheerleaders, or in the street when some construction worker offers them five bucks for a blow job. Got a match? And the thought of everything catching and burning will take whatever it is away. Fire makes them feel clean again, takes the wrongness of everything and the blindness of everyone around them away.
The heavy paper of Ruth’s birth certificate makes a green-and-yellow flame. They use that to light the unknown papers, burning Isabel’s secrets in their folds. Over those, Magdalene holds open her father’s book, pages down so they will catch, until the flames come up and nearly light her sleeves. The cover takes ages to burn, and they have to use more matches and some paper bags from the garbage pail behind the bandstand.
Turns out they don’t get caught. Either no one sees the fire behind the bushes at the back of the park, or no one cares. When they’re done, they climb the bank at the side, up through the bushes onto Baywater Avenue.
Ruth leaves Isabel and Magdalene at the top of Seaview Road by the elementary school. The wind kicks up last year’s leaves along with the bottom of her lace dress and a lot of dust from around the goalposts. She turns her back to the water, and the wind blows her hair forward in front of her eyes. They all squint against the grit blowing off the football field, and Ruth shouts good-bye to the world and her friends flickering in and out of view. Magda and Isabel disappear into the dark. As soon as she’s alone it all comes back. The green-and-yellow flames of the bonfire are burning in her head, and the world drops away from under her feet. Minus the birth certificate, she feels lighter, cleaner, like someone’s cut her anchor and she might just lift up and away any minute, flying out over the houses and the sea.
She turns down the hill towards the highway where Highbone divides, leaving behind the boats and the harbor and Baywater Avenue, where the man whose name is missing from her birth certificate lives. Over 25A and down into South Highbone, Ruth’s house sits in a dusty yard in front of a patch of trees. On a good day, it’s just her mother and herself in the little ranch house. On bad days, it could be anyone. There might be a dozen people getting stoned in the living room, excited that she’s home and acting desperate to hear what she thinks about everything. For Ruth’s mother and her friends, the secret to life is never thinking like an adult. They act like Ruth is some kind of guru, possessing the secret of anti-wisdom.
Or there might be a boyfriend. They usually arrive without warning, or without warning Ruth, anyway. The first one was pretty harmless. He mowed lawns and played drums and thought being with Ruth’s mom was like winning the lottery. She dumped him. Then Stevie showed up. He started by slapping her mother’s ass and saying, “Who’s that?” in a stern voice whenever someone called on the phone. At the end, there was a lot of yelling and throwing things. For the last few weeks he was around, Ruth spent Saturday nights awake in her room, listening to things hit the walls. Then one Sunday morning, her mother was alone at the table wearing too much makeup, and Stevie was gone. He never came back and they didn’t talk about it. For a few weeks her mother’s friends came around a lot, checking on her. There were no boyfriends for so long after that, Ruth started to relax. They watched movies on Saturday nights, or went out to the beach together with her mother’s friends. The house went back to its good smell, like dust and patchouli and whatever it is they pack the bedspreads in when they ship them from India.
When Danny Pavlich showed up, it took Ruth a few weeks to realize he was staying. Him and her mother laughed a lot in the stupid way people do right before they start sleeping together, and after a while he was there in the morning, smiling his goofy smile and offering Ruth tea in her own kitchen. But why? Her mother knows about what happened to Mrs. Warren, Magda’s mom. Jesus, she knows what it’s like to crouch in the corner trying to protect your face with your hands. She can pretend she doesn’t, but Ruth was there. Even after all that, does she really have some kind of fairy-tale blindness that makes her think things will stay like this, that Danny will stay like this? Didn’t she learn anything?
The sudden sick clarity comes back while Ruth is heading down the hill into South Highbone. Looking down at the landscape of their lives, she knows everything in one sharp second. It all fits together, her and Isabel and Magdalene, her mother and Danny and the whole shape of the land around them. Like a saint from the middle ages, she can see fire and flood and angels descending.
Worlds are grinding together tonight, ripping into each other. Separate circles, meshing and turning like gears. Maybe like a riptide. Ruth feels dizzy and clairvoyant. There is a change washing over everything, and only she can feel it. The sea wind blows something into her, a shiny new soul that was meant for her all along. She is a vengeful spirit, a protector, burning with a halo of green-and-yellow flame.
Danny’s white Dodge is shining out of the dark in Ruth’s front yard when she gets home. Her mother will be in her room with him, music playing, and their voices underneath it, just a constant, rhythmic murmur without meaning, all night long.
Somebody has to save her.
Ruth goes through the house and into the kitchen to find one of the steak knives her grandmother gave them for Christmas. She doesn’t need to turn on any lights. Her body knows the house like it’s inside her own head, like inside and outside her head are no different anymore. Sometimes in the middle of the night, she goes out to smoke in the trees behind the brake repair shop, half-asleep. In between asleep and awake, she tries to walk into the world without her own body, feeling her way in the dark, trying to stay in her dreams and move through the world at the same time. It feels like that now.
When she goes out the kitchen door into the backyard, the security lights from the brake repair shop shine through the trees, and she sidesteps them, staying in the shadow. She walks around the house to Danny Pavlich’s car and sticks the knife into a front tire. It’s harder than she thought it would be, but satisfying. She leans into it, and then falls suddenly forward as the air hisses out. The other three tires are easier. When she steps back, Danny’s Dodge slumps down onto its rims, first on one side and then the other. Ruth crumples down on the grass next to it.
The air goes out of her, too, all at once. She settles back into her body and starts to feel a little sick. There is the earth again, solid underneath her. The sky has emptied out, leaving her sitting by herself in a world without visions or sense.
Magda leaves Isabel and walks on up the hill to her house. It sits back on Sycamore Avenue behind two oak trees and a gravel driveway with a carriage house at the end of it. The porch light is broken, and the front windows all stare back at the night, reflecting nothing. In the yard, light shines onto the lawn from her father’s study. Magda comes through the back door and stops to take off her shoes so she doesn’t make noise on the kitchen tiles. She hangs her Swiss Army trench coat on the newel post. The coat is much bigger than Magda and has all kinds of inside pockets, in which she keeps paperback books and silver cigarette cases and bird feathers and things made of metal. She doesn’t go anywhere without the coat until the full heat of summer forces her to.
Magda crosses the hall into the den, but she doesn’t turn the lamp on. She knows the order of all the books by heart, even though she can’t read the titles in the streetlight coming through the window. Mostly they’re New Modern Library editions that her parents collected in college, translations of French stuff and editions of James Joyce. But there are other books too, mystery novels and Tolkien, because everyone has those.
Magda smiles with satisfaction at the hole where her father’s great opus used to be. She didn’t tell Ruth and Isabel that she can remember him throwing that very book at her mother. He was yelling at her while Magda stood in the doorway, thinking she was old enough now, maybe she should try to get in between them. He swung his arm with the book in it and her mother’s head snapped sideways. He went quiet then, and Magda’s mother opened the kitchen door and puked off the back porch. By the time Magda went to bed there was a lump on her mother’s forehead and the whole house had that sickening after-a-fight hush.
Three days later Magda woke up with her little brother, Henry, standing over her. He was hungry, and Magda’s mother was gone.
It’s been two years since Irene Warren left Magdalene alone in the house on Sycamore Avenue with her brother Henry and her father and the New Modern Library. People say she went to Mexico, but Magda never heard that from her father. He doesn’t talk about it. Since running off to the border like a fugitive cowgirl is obviously the most interesting thing anyone’s mother has done, it isn’t easy for Magdalene to hold it against her.
She takes down a Dashiell Hammett and lifts it to her nose while she climbs the stairs, wondering if it smells like anyone or just like time and dust.
“Hi, Dad,” she says to the top of the stairs without turning around.
“Where were you? Henry had to go to bed by himself.”
Well, no, he didn’t, did he? But she doesn’t say it out loud.
“I was at Isabel’s. We have a math test on Monday.”
“Next time, do it here.” He slams the door to the study and her body flinches without checking with her first. What’s the point of flinching? Whatever is coming comes anyway.
On her bed there is a pile of paperbacks she got at a yard sale, some Asimov classics and a manual for a two-way radio. Magdalene doesn’t have a two-way radio and doesn’t plan on getting one. She has a lot of manuals for machines she’s never owned. There’s usually one in the pockets of her coat. There is a book for everything, and Magda likes to make things with moving parts. On her desk there’s something that’s kind of a cross between a reel-to-reel tape deck and a set of balance scales. Her dad thinks it’s art, but really she just likes little closed systems that do the same thing every time. They don’t need to have a purpose to make sense.
In Henry’s room, everything is almost in the right place. He tried to pick up before he went to bed. She leans over to breathe in the smell of his six-year-old hair and then bends down to turn the nightlight off.
It’s been over a year since Henry woke up in the night and said Mommy.
“Hey, man.” Magda comes back to sit on the bed. “Having a dream?”
“No. Sorry, Magda.”
“It’s okay, little guy. You’ll have dreams someday. I promise. It’ll be good for you. Dreams clean your brain out.”
Henry keeps all his little fears on the outside. Even though he’s only six, and Magda and Isabel and Ruth all look out for him, he still casts his eyes sideways in both directions whenever he walks into a room. You can see how jumpy he is all the time.
The difference is at night when they’re both in bed. Magda spends lots of time staring wide-eyed at the dark, but whenever she looks in on Henry he’s curled up on his side with his eyes shut and his mouth open, his whole face relaxed. He never dreams. She asks him every morning while she makes his breakfast. Nada. He needs to dream. Buffer dumping, that’s what they call it. She read about it; it’s how you process and store away everything that happens all day. If anybody who’s six needs that shit, it’s Henry.
“Will you stay till I’m asleep, Magda? Please?”
“Lemme get my book, big guy. If you don’t care about the light, I can stay and read.”
By the time Magdalene settles in under the blanket with Red Harvest, Henry is breathing happily into his hand, lost in his comfortable darkness, dreaming of nothing.
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