One night, when I was in grade school, my parents hosted a party. Other families came, co-workers. There were drinks. A man in a yellow tie had a margarita and then another and another. He said his ex-wife was a tramp. He stumbled as he passed from the living room into the den, where we kids were playing, entered the room looking unsure of why he walked into it.


“A bitch,” he said. “Total bitch.”


That night, I swore to my mom I’d never drink. She laughed, asked me why. I said I hated that man, that there was no need to drink, that I was happy without it. I was seven or maybe eight. She said I’d understand when I was older. I lay in bed, unable to sleep, knowing I’d prove my mom wrong.


The first time I got drunk was at Vlad’s, the summer after my freshman year of high school. We bought a handle of vodka so cheap, we thought, that the homeless man we’d given a twenty to buy it had given us seventeen dollars change. We passed the bottle with a shot glass and a chaser of store-brand cola. Around my fourth shot, everything started spinning. It felt good, wholesome, the ritual. Later, trying to sleep on Vlad’s floor, head resting on my bunched-up hoodie, I thought about what I swore to my mom, her laughter, and I felt an unmooring. Who knew what I’d believe in ten years? Twenty? Who would I be?


I was friends with Vlad because he and I rode the city bus together after school. By that point, my mom and dad had divorced, and on days at my dad’s house I’d ride one bus out from the suburbs into the core of downtown Seattle, where I’d walk up Stewart to wait by a garbage can on the backside of the convention center for the number 18, which then took me to school, just a stone’s throw from my mom’s. Vlad and I took advantage of our afternoons downtown, hitting the market for donuts or piroshkies or hum bao, drinking dollar tallboys of Arizona Iced Tea from minimarts where homeless people moved around in parallel to our thin reality, buying hot dogs or imitation crab sold on Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane.


Vlad had a knack for finding free food. At GameWorks we strolled the arcade, swiping a chicken leg off an abandoned plate, a slice of pizza at the bar. In the shampoo-scented hallways of downtown hotels, we found room service carts with scraps of porterhouse and baked potato, or the browned edges of a salmon frittata, the last bits of flesh out of the carcass of a Dungeness crab. We’d walk to the ballpark and talk down a scalper, or head up to the Starbucks on the forty-fourth floor of the Columbia Center to take in the view. Eventually, we’d split. I’d catch the 511 out way north, the ride quiet, still with the sodden air of evening commuters.


Vlad dropped out before the end of the school year. It made me wish I could drive. I’d sit alone in the back of the number 18, my biology textbook open on my lap, my gaze elsewhere, following the sequence of teriyaki joints and coffee shops, rain puddling at the curb.


My senior year, I saw Vlad in the parking lot at Leilani Lanes. I heard he’d been stealing cars. I’d tried to avoid him, but he caught up to me, put his hand on my shoulder. He asked if I wanted to buy some greeting cards and produced from under his jacket a small binder of samples. He told me I could make a good buck in the greeting-card game and invited me over to see how it was done.


His house, his parents’ house, smelled like chicken and mildew. None of his family was home but his friend was there, a guy with a gentle, fragile smile that made me anxious. He was seated in the parlor, where they’d spread a table with patterned cardstock, scissors, bottles of glue. Vlad asked if I was hungry and retrieved a roast chicken from the fridge, submerged in its own congealed juice. We ate it cold, with our hands, our fingers glistening.


We smoked a joint in the woods. His friend talked about how it easy it was to crib a Toyota. I got the sense he was trying to impress me. Vlad asked if I wanted to steal a car with them.


“Nah,” I said, and wondered why I hadn’t just said no.


We wandered the neighborhood in the wash of streetlight, going nowhere in particular. I kept smelling my hand, thinking about if my mom would smell the weed.


When I’d come home the morning after getting drunk for the first time, I’d been worried she would smell alcohol on my breath. I could feel booze in my mouth and lungs, in my pores, in my sweat. I stood in the entryway telling her we mostly played Xbox.


“Are you okay?” she said. I felt like I’d been emptied out and then filled with vapor. But from her tone and expression I knew that she knew what I’d done and also that she didn’t mind. It was like I’d crashed through some invisible barrier from one reality into another more like hers. She had known my whole life this feeling that felt so new, this hollowness and also the night’s strange spinning joy.


My hand didn’t smell like weed, but it did smell like chicken cartilage. Those days I thought a lot about the smell of food because I was working part-time washing dishes at a burger joint. I was terrible at it. Each day I’d come home soaked, my shirt thick with grease, ketchup, tartar.


“You going to college?” Vlad asked.




“Where?” his friend said.


“California,” I said. “Got a scholarship.”


Vlad said, “What are you gonna study?”


I’d been telling people business with a minor in art history but that was a lie. My mom had a fantasy of my future where I ran a restaurant and painted on the side, but all I knew was the certainty of a looming void stretching out before me. I still felt like a child, no direction, no idea what was next. And here was Vlad. Whatever next was, he was already living it.


We turned a corner and another, began to run out of small talk. I didn’t know it would be the last time I saw Vlad, but I didn’t not know it either. There was a damp gust, and I zipped my baggy raincoat shut. It was cold but not too cold, wet but not really raining.


Silence Is a Language I Cannot Reset

The Mycelium of Memory

The announcement comes over the intercom as I am spelling out words at my desk. Or it is a math quiz. Or it is a blank paper. I am in the front row of the classroom and when the principal’s voice comes pinging into the room I stare up at the bright yellow and royal blue borders that adorn the bulletin boards. Her name is Mrs. Jones. I put my pencil down because everyone must pay attention when the principal speaks.


“There has been an attack against the United States,” Mrs. Jones says.


The pencil on my desk has absurd ridges, and I feel them with my fingertips. Metal and rubber and wood are all tastes my tongue knows. I put the pencil in my mouth.


The teacher rolls in a boxy TV on a tall metal cart and we watch the towers smoking. This does not happen, but the images of the towers smoking, of the planes crashing into the buildings, of the towers falling inundate the media for the weeks to follow. It drenches the surrounding time and leaves imposing stains. Many of my memories hold metal shrapnel and ash.


My memories of that time also contain Tyler. We are friends when the towers fall. He is the boy who lives down the street. Friends well before; for as long as I can remember. In the spring he plays baseball; I played soccer once in kindergarten but was too shy to take the field. We play whiffle ball in the gas line easement across the street from my house or in an imagined triangle in his backyard. I am a year older, but I happily do whatever he says. There is a hierarchy to our friendship, and my role is the slavish sidekick, servile, always with a yes on my tongue. I am a mother doting on my child, attending, supporting, yielding. He is spoiled and easily riled. I do everything I can to keep him appeased.


We play videogames together in his basement and mine. We have Nintendo 64s and we play Diddy Kong Racing and Mario Cart 64, blast each other with egg-shooting birds on Banjo-Tooie. We ride bikes through the neighborhood, pass through the forested short-cut, and buy sodas from the Wal-Mart vending machines.  A friendship large like skyscrapers, encompassing my childhood; monolith never expecting crash.


Introduction to Life Simulation

In 2002, I live with a purple Nintendo Gamecube controller in my hand. Nine years old and one year into the post-9/11 world my mom buys my brothers and me a copy of Animal Crossing. It comes out just four days after 9/11 in Japan, but it doesn’t hit US shelves until the next year.


On the front of the box, there is a two-story house: animals lean out of each window waving, and a human pops out of the front door. A sign above the house reads: Welcome to Animal Crossing. Inside, there is the small Gamecube disk and a limited-edition memory card with a sweater-clad cat.


Animal Crossing is a life simulation game. You are a human who moves to a new village populated by humanoid animals. You buy a house on loan and pay it back slowly. You can chat with your neighbors and do favors for them. You can collect shells, furniture, fossils, fish, bugs, paintings. There are special visitors who come every week. The seasons change: it rains, it snows, the trees bloom pink in spring. There are things to do—almost an infinity of them.


It is a single-player game, so my brothers and I have to split our playtime. One person plays while the others watch with varying degrees of impatience. Our mom bequeaths her stove timer for the purpose of resolving any disputes.


In the town I share with my twin brother Jared, I make a male character named Justin and choose the house with the yellow roof for him. The male characters wear round hats with horns coming out the sides. The hats change color and design to match the shirt you wear. Justin likes to collect fossils and display them in his house. He also likes the Spooky Series (a matching, pumpkin-themed furniture set, carpet, and wall paper), the Blue Series, and fruit-shaped furniture.


The first memory card I own for myself, I make another Animal Crossing town and populate it with all female characters: Hannah, Lily, and Anne. The women’s hats are conical like a princess’s costume prop. They have round brown eyes with long lower lashes or sparkly black eyes with wingtip lashes. They love the Citrus Set, tulip chairs, fish from dainty pop-eyed goldfish to giant coelacanths, and the Green Series with its cute check patterns. For all the characters I restart the facial feature selection process until their eyes and faces are just right. I want them to perfectly embody me. I love being all of them, though Hannah is my favorite.


Tyler also has Animal Crossing and my brother, Jared, and I go to his house and play in rotating shifts. There are some in-game NES consoles that can be played with two players, and we switch between the three of us. Or, sometimes, it is just me and him and we switch on and off. I like to be helpful. I clean his room once while he fishes in the large, river-fed pond, imagining that I am cleaning up an Animal Crossing house.


His mom comes downstairs and sees the cleaned room and gives me a complimenting smile. “Wow, what a good friend!” she says. She is always friendly, and I want her approval. “I could sure use your help around here.”


I want to be her perfect son. Her perfect daughter. The perfect child.


We plant flowers. We swap fruit. We sail to a tropical island on the dingy of a crusty sea turtle.


I am so excited for life. There are no ash clouds. There are no towers falling. I spend summers playing how I want to live.


Animal Years

I tell myself I am a red snapper aficionado. Jared rolls his eyes. I fish five of the seven fish out of the ocean against the algorithms’ odds. They are worth 3000 bells a piece. I collect gyroids, K.K. Slider songs, fossils I have dug from the star-shaped marks in the ground. My most prized possessions are my collection of turkey-themed furniture with matching wallpaper and carpet.


I spend hours a day during the summer playing Animal Crossing. There are bugs to catch, rare clothes and art to fill wardrobes. The kitchen timer goes by the wayside. I spend three hours hounding the neighbors for favors to do, I clean out the town dump, check the lost and found at the police station, sell fruit and shells. I walk around and around with nothing to do. My eyes ache from the brightness of the screen. The timer’s beeped three times, but I refuse to forfeit my controller.


The September 11 attacks change things before I know any different. A disparity between the life simulated in Animal Crossing and the life represented on TV begins to open. Years pass and the United States begins undeclared wars against countries in the Middle East. My oldest brother starts locking his things away behind a closed bedroom door. He is diagnosed in the 99th percentile for anxiety, something my parents say I must never speak of. We are all uncertain. I begin to quiet. There are mechanisms in my life that are moving beyond my comprehension and control. But, being a simple, quiet cog is manageable, expected. It is easier for everyone.


Around this time, Animal Crossing codes begin appearing in issues of Nintendo Power which my oldest brother has a subscription to. The codes unlock exclusive Mario-themed furniture décor. But neither Jared nor I is allowed to bother him in the slightest. And we are definitely not allowed to go in his room.


The call of the codes is too alluring. From reconnaissance I know he keeps his Nintendo Power magazines in the bottom of his closet. I wait until he is playing videogames downstairs and my parents are not lurking about to sneak into his room and prowl through the pages.


His room is dark with the blinds drawn during the afternoon. On the walls is a constellation wallpaper. I creep across the dark wood floorboards, halting when one creaks. The closet doors open like theatre curtains. On the floor, there are a few magazine organizers. I sift through the magazines with a constant eye on the door. The codes section is toward the back and I look for the familiar yellow text box. The first magazine is one I have already harvested the code from. The next one, too. I fumble through them, heartbeat racing, the breath caught in my throat. I find the latest magazine with a brand new code. I print the letters and numbers plainly on yellow, lined paper. With the secrets in hand, I sneak out and close the door behind me.


Later Jared and I take turns unlocking items from Tom Nook.


Tom Nook says: “Then tell me the password.”


I whisper the tedious codes to Nook, twenty-eight characters each.


“I see, I see,” he says.


Out of his pocket he pulls wrapped presents and passes them to me. The small boxes contain impossible wonders: huge flagpoles, glowing stars, fire flowers, coin blocks, bullet bill cannons.


After we claim our prizes we destroy the codes, tearing them into tiny pieces.


The US declares war in Iraq. I wonder if it will still be going on when I am old enough to be drafted, if I will have to kill people, if I will be killed. I am not aware enough to wonder about the people who have already been killed by military action so far away from the stability of Kentucky. Thousands of civilians killed in countries that, in my ignorance, I can’t even find on a map as life carries on here just the same.


The Infinity Pocket

Your pockets store a ridiculous quantity of items in Animal Crossing. You can carry thirty six-foot long living coelacanths or thirty ebony grand pianos or thirty four-poster beds. The pocket is a mysterious place. You walk around with tons of items without any sign of distress. When you put anything in your pocket it transfigures into a green leaf.


You can mail impractical items in envelopes, too. If you want you can slide a fishing rod or a pink kitchenette into a standard envelope and mail it to your neighbor.


The media reports that the United States is at war, but not officially. It is Afghanistan. It is Iraq. It is whatever country, whatever group we are fighting. It is a fierce debate what we are fighting for. In the eighth grade, our parents have to sign a permission slip so that we can watch a documentary on 9/11. We sit in the classroom, gathered around a TV on a metal cart.


I remember clearly the pixilated blobs tumbling out of the building, down and down. I see the hovering bodies stuck mid-plunge, their faces obscured, choked with smoke, flushed suddenly with all of that fresh, breathtaking air. The Falling Man appears, their human body signing a four or a nine. The body has a mouth with a voice lost in vacuity of falling.


Tyler has a friend who lives at the end of his street named Hussain who we play with sometimes and ride bikes with on his street. His family is the only Muslim family I know living in our neighborhood. On Halloweens, they have their front porch light on, but on their door they have a sign explaining that they are a Muslim family and that they do not celebrate Halloween. The Halloweens after 9/11 their front porch light is never on. Hussain never comes to play at Tyler’s house. Their entire family retreats as if into the infinity pocket. I imagine now the fear they must have felt in the sea of white faces. And I, a white child, fail to ask a single question. I recognize now the privilege and racism holding my tongue. Silence is a complex, intersectional language that reflects dynamics of power. Already I knew the weight of silence, but to the detriment of those around me I hadn’t realized how I too could wield absences of sound.


Tyler and I never talk about Hussain. We never speak about 9/11 or the war or what the United States is doing to countries in the Middle East. In Animal Crossing, I start a campaign against Dotty, a rabbit who wears a blue check dress. She is programmed to have a peppy attitude, and I have tired of her constant positive vibes. I wield an axe and approach Dotty. Tyler is there, next to me, watching. I go up to her and press the A button, hoping to swing. The game initiates a conversation instead. I try again and again. I just keep talking to Dotty, hearing her inane catchphrase: wee one. “I’ve seen you a lot today, wee one!”


I try other implements. The fishing rod, the shovel. Finally, I try the net. I sprint toward Dotty and fire the A button. The net falls, clunking Dotty in the face. Her eyes widen as if she has been caught off guard. Tyler laughs at the ingenuity of this tactic. The approval invigorates me. I do it again and again. After the third time, Dotty becomes sad and dark clouds crowd her skull. I want her to move out, I want her to be sad. But I am also scared. Who am I trying to imitate? Tyler’s approval in this act unnerves me.


This is a life simulation. The worst you can do is bonk your neighbors on the head with a net, but in real life there are no limitations to suffering.


There are things concealed in my pockets I do not want to touch. I do not want to contemplate the edges of the dark leaves lurking; I do not want to uncover profane items I cannot display in my house or sell to Tom Nook.


What is a human capable of carrying within them without someone noticing? Our pockets are deep. Our feelings are a torrent of green leaves. All of this baggage is so inexplicably light.


The Cost of Wishes

The waters of the Animal Crossing Wishing Well reflect my face. I am sitting on the cool flagstones in the town square, peering into the water. The face floating on the surface of the water is mine, but from when I do not know. It is shifting from me at twenty-three recovering from years of awful buzz cuts to me at eight clutching my stuffed pikachu to me at twelve with a mouth sewn shut with a bitter thread. The great tree behind the Well rustles quietly in a dark breeze. It is night, a full moon.


I am here to apologize to the Well and to ask it for forgiveness. I do not have an undeliverable item as is required by the program. I am here to apologize to the twelve-year-old me for delivering a story I promised never to tell.


In the Well is my reflection. The water obliterates the face. Always it appears an unrecognizable smear. I remember what they wanted. They wanted to be a masculine little boy—they feel the safety of it now. They know inherently it will protect them.


The moon hangs in the Well alongside spent-coin wishes and an old reflection with bubbles streaming from deep below the water and a living body staring up with wobbling, wide eyes.


Placing my hands in the Well, I reach down to you, Justin. At the bottom of the Well, you hope the darkness of the night and the water will protect your story. You have yet to learn that even silence has a language to tell its story.



Animal Crossing is a life simulation game where there is always something to do. But after playing for three hours straight, seven days a week for a year and a half, the neighbors repeat their programmed lines. The fruit and the fish are sold. My house is redecorated and all the items in Tom Nook’s store are bought. There is nothing to do.


I have a vision of an Animal Crossing avatar standing in the middle of an acre with nothing to do, nothing to say. Every task and chore has been resolved. The avatar stands there, holding its breath. There is no need to breathe in a life simulation.


I start playing other games with Tyler. We fall heavily into Phantasy Star Online: Episodes 1 & 2. It is a completely customizable RPG with different classes of humans and androids in which you can select clothing, facial features, hair, and more. We replay the levels again and again, playing through Hard Mode, Very Hard Mode, and eventually, our crowning achievement, Ultimate Mode. I have two characters: Zelda, a FOmarl female wizard with a blue dress and long brown hair I eventually dye blonde, and Robot Version 2.0, a HUcaseal who is a tiny female android with a mighty purple body. She wields scythes and blades twice her size. Zelda is the perfect support unit who also has well-rounded weapons. Robot Version 2.0 is of the Hunter class and, being a robot, she cannot cast spells to help her team out. She dives singularly into the fray, dealing massive damage, taking devastating hits.


Something begins to shift in the dynamic between Tyler and Jared and me. He has hit us before, has yelled at us in anger. It has been our responsibility not to make him mad, not to win too many times in video games, to accept whatever he says to us without response or critique, to acquiesce. We are older; we have to be more mature. We are part of this world of anxiety, paranoia, war, and rhetoric of violence and we seek understanding for Tyler’s behavior. His tempestuousness must fit somewhere in this unrest. And if we just stay silent, the violence will stay far-off.


The eggshells we’d been tip-toeing around are all broken. Our bodies are beginning to change. Tyler demands more attention from Jared and me, but he plays Runescape and Maple Story for hours while we stare mechanically at a board game spread on the floor of his family’s computer room with sparse rotations.


Tyler’s brother is throwing balls at us while we ride bikes in my driveway, and we are throwing them back at him and at each other. We pedal away to go to Tyler’s house. I drop a ball that I’m holding, and Tyler runs over it on his bike. When I turn around, he is on the ground crying. His arm is broken. “Maybe it’s not broken,” he says through the tears. But it is swelling, and I know it is. He gets a blue cast put on it and says time and time again that we broke his arm and when he and I are alone that I broke his arm.


Tyler’s mom brings him takeout for dinner while we are playing in his basement. He thrusts his food into my hands to hold while he fishes in the paper bag for napkins. I am hungry. His dog, who I thought was outside, is too. She jumps up into the air from behind and gulps down a portion of the quesadilla. He punches me hard in the side of the head, demanding to know how I could have let that happen. I want to cry, but I can’t in front of Tyler, so I turn my head down and mutter some apology.


We are playing whiffle ball in Tyler’s backyard. His brother pitches hard and beans Jared in the eye with the ball. Jared drops the bat and begins to run home, crying. Tyler tells him to come back, that it’s not that big a deal, that it doesn’t hurt that bad, that he shouldn’t be a baby, a pansy. I run home after Jared, and Tyler and his brother follow and stand in our front yard saying they’re sorry, saying it won’t happen again, saying it was an accident, saying that it wasn’t that bad, saying we just need to come back. I hide in the house and don’t answer the door.


You Cannot Reset

Tyler moves his bedroom into the basement of his house so that he and his brother can have separate rooms. We are all getting older now and need privacy. I have to share a room with Jared so I am jealous. There is nowhere else in our house for us to sleep. Tyler has his own light wood furniture and a TV of his own. We play video games sitting on his bed.


Sometime after Jared and I have harvested all the Super Mario codes, I bring my memory card over to Tyler’s house and we sit in the basement, and I show him my Animal Crossing treasures.


He loves them. He wants them, too. He asks how I got them.


“I got the codes from my brother’s Nintendo Power magazines. I had to steal them.”


“Hey, I want them, too.”


I don’t want to upset him. But the codes are gone. Shredded up. My oldest brother has stepped up security. The last time he found me in his room, he chased me out and kicked me senseless on the floor.


“I don’t have them anymore. Jared and I got rid of them.”


“C’mon, I know you’ve still got them,” Tyler says. “Give me the codes.”


I am speechless. What else can I say? The codes are twenty-eight characters long: I don’t remember any of them let alone more than a dozen. I spent hours stealing them from my brother. I am not about to repeat that process.


Tyler views this silence as insubordination. “What do you want for them? Huh? What do you want?”


He is too physically near, so I shift away.


He punches me in the arm, grabs at my shoulder. I stand up to leave, and he pushes me. I turn in the air and land on my back. The back of my head hits the ground. I try to stand.


He pushes me to the ground again. “Is this what you want, huh? Is this what you want?”


He pulls down the front of his pants by the waistband, exposing himself repeatedly. The shorts are blue or red or white. I am scared. I do not know anything about my body. I have brought this upon myself. My head hurts from the impact with the ground.


“Huh? Is this what you want?”


If you reset without saving in Animal Crossing, you are punished the next time you play. Mr. Resetti, the vitriolic mole, springs from the ground as soon as you exit your house and berates you for irresponsibly resetting without saving. If you reset too often, he takes away your money and later he strips away your eyes and mouth leaving gaping holes where your features used to be.


I am begging for him to stop. To let me go. The wood paneling on the basement walls is dark. The carpet is white and thin. “You’re hurting me,” I say. “You’re hurting me.” The back of my head vibrates. He steps back for a moment, and I am up and scrambling, darting past his grasp, up the stairs. His mom is in the kitchen preparing a snack. I shove my shoes onto my feet, huddled by the backdoor. She says something to me, but how can I respond? I run all the way home and say nothing.


I do not think about this event. The blank space of my mind is where I place every failure I feel I made in our friendship. Every issue I have instigated.


I am his friend, silently, for two more years. Then I stop trying all together, and I let the phone calls ring when I see his number on the caller ID.


In the weeks after, before I blot the event out completely, I wonder if he would have done this to anyone else. Members of his baseball team? His brother? I am not certain. Did he recognize the subtle dissonance in my presentation way back before even I knew? Something he could comfortably victimize?


I try to reset that afternoon for a decade in my head. But Animal Crossing is a life simulation. You are conditioned not to reset. There are things that cannot be undone. Navigating the immutable programming of the past, you must adhere to the limitations of the coding.


Mr. Resetti is always there, wating, face red, ready to yell. Ready to take away my mouth.


Credits Roll

I go to school. I sit at my desk I take notes. I study. I don’t study. I smile. I deserved it. I am quiet. I am loud. I eat quietly at dinner. I am changing. I get detention and conduct referrals. I forget, I say. I deserved it. I feel my parents cannot handle what has happened—they have so many other things to worry about. I am something they do not understand now. I must be their normal child. Their child without problems. The one they confide in. I deserved it. I start running track and cross-country at school. The miles wear down my mind. My body. I deserved it, but it is forgotten, I say. I forget.


How could I be so silent?


It is strength.


It is shame.


It is incredible, incredible naivety.


Time-Travel to the Beyond

In Animal Crossing, it is 31 December 2030. I have started time-traveling, passing through multiple days in a matter of hours, mining them for their valuable interactions. Check out the furniture in Nook’s shop, scour the land and seas for fish and bugs, fossils. Track the special visitors. And then I move on to the next day. It is life in fast-forward. Days and weeks passing by in the span of an afternoon.


In this scope, life is full, teeming, hectic, demanding. The town is overrun by weeds. The villagers count the days since I last spoke to them, yellow waves of shock springing from their heads when I speak to them. It is easy to brush past them.


Peaceful, busy day after peaceful, busy day.


If life is boring, skip forward. If you need money, skip forward to summer when the bugs and fish are plentiful. If you start to think too much, skip forward and chase the next exciting thing. If you want special furniture, skip to holidays. If you want to celebrate your birthday, skip to your birthday. Celebrate decades of your birthdays. Celebrate the same birthday time and time again.


If you want a neighbor to disappear, skip forward years without speaking to them until they move out.


Open up their goodbye letter.


Do not read it.


Shred it quietly between your fingers.


Animal Crossing is a life simulation, but it is not. Under such pressure, the game falls apart, becomes tedious. I skip to 31 December 2030 because it is the last day Animal Crossing is programmed to simulate. I watch the game clock tick toward the New Year, closer and closer to the great mystery of the beyond.


What will happen on the last day when the fireworks go off? I survived Y2K. I have lived in the post-9/11 United States of America. I am paranoid. The animal neighbors are all gathered together, singing, smiling. They are either unfazed by their impending doom or unware of it. Life, even in simulation, can be cruel.


The bell rings, the announcement is made, the fireworks boom. The clock shockingly reads: 1 January 2031. Is this an unprogrammed continuation? I am amazed that something exists after.


The air is full of smoke. Tiny embers and ash flutter down. The fireworks cease. The game becomes a wintered quiet. I shrug and save the file. I open it up again. The clock reads 1 January 2030. A reset. This is the farthest extent I can run. There is no more time.


I will have to live this year again and again and again.


My Father’s Monsters

1. Here’s how it started: my father, for reasons unknown to me at the time, would periodically come home, loudly insisting, Jeremiah, I saw a monster, and although he was never drunk, and it never seemed malicious—I never thought he was making fun of me—I never believed him, even at a young age, when he would crow about monsters that were very much in my orbit (he pivoted early on from Frankensteins or Mummies or Creatures from Various-Colored Lagoons and started conjuring up hair-raising encounters with beasts from Gremlins or An American Werewolf in London, stopping thankfully short of meeting Freddy Krueger or anything from Alien or The Thing).[note]The strange thing was, he wasn’t even a huge monster movie fan; he eschewed normal ‘dad’ taste, had no patience for Westerns or war movies, and oddly enough preferred staid dramas like Gentleman’s Agreement, and in the 1980s he acquired a low-grade obsession with My Dinner with Andre.[/note]


2. This continued unabated until it became a source of concern, and then, more powerfully, more keenly, embarrassment, as an assortment of friends would come by to pretend to do homework, only to find themselves in the inquisitorial hands of Alec Sutton, who would casually ask, as one would the weather, which frightful creation of George A. Romero or John Carpenter or Wes Craven or Roger Corman or Rick Baker or Stan Winston or Ray Harryhausen or Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft or Horace Walpole (as if any of us had read Walpole!) or Clive Barker or Ray Bradbury (now he was reaching) or Edgar Allan Poe really gave my friend the heebie-jeebies, the screaming mimis, the willies, and whatever answer my father received from his poor subject would (almost) invariably produce a reaction somewhere along the lines of Well, funny you should say that, because the other night at a stop sign and off he would go, in an admittedly impressive display of extemporizing the chilling proximity in which he had found himself to something from an altogether more ghoulish version of our own world.[note]My father didn’t do this more than once, and most of my friends found it either endearing or just the cost of hanging out with me, but poor Freddy Mackenzie told my father that the car in Christine had given him nightmares, and after hearing that my father had seen a ’58 Plymouth Fury driving by our school with no one behind the wheel, Freddy turned as white as if he’d been blood-let, and both Sutton men got a stern dressing-down from Freddy’s mother.[/note]


3. Once I found my father casually flipping through an issue of Fangoria—on the cover was a Sasquatch, which I never found frightening and therefore never made it into my father’s bestiary—and this I took to be his admission that the jig was up, that he knew that I knew the monsters weren’t real; he didn’t try to hide the magazine, just continued flipping through pages of creature features while asking me in a disinterested tone how my day was going, and it’s not until writing this that I realized reading Fangoria and Eerie and For Monsters Only was his way of centering himself.[note]I’d like to tell you that my father died and willed me a box of musty, dog-eared penny dreadfuls, but like I said, the man was never one for horror, and I’m fairly certain that most of those magazines wound up in the trash.[/note]


4. One time, when I was nine or ten, my father roped his friend Lee in on the act, and Lee told me: “You know, Jem”—he was the only one who called me that, and I always hated it, but it wasn’t for many years that I realized I hated it because I am not and was not a character from Flannery O’Connor or Harper Lee—”all that stuff your dad says, well, it’s not bullshit”—and here my father winced, for he did not swear around me back then, but he did not interrupt—”it’s all true; why, once he and I were on our way to the b—to church”—I knew he was going to say “bar,” but he felt the need to cover himself after his bullshit gaffe, and my suspicions were confirmed when I saw his furtive glance at my father, as if for approval and permission, and in that glance I saw just how much my father meant to Lee Hayward—”and we saw an honest-to-goodness vampire, with the cape, the fangs, the amulet, the whole nine yards”—and here he just kind of trailed off, and while his effort was a weak one, I could see that it meant a lot to my father that Lee had made an effort at all, and I understood then, or at least I thought I understood, the strange nature of male friendship, which sometimes requires you to lie to your friend’s son.[note]One of the only truly nice things I ever did (everyone thinks of themselves as nice, I believe, but few people take the time to quantify it) was to visit Lee Hayward in the hospital after he had nearly blinded himself at work; he couldn’t see very well and was muted by painkillers and therefore couldn’t recognize my voice, so I told him, “It’s Jem Sutton.”[/note]


5. When I was in college, my father told me that he had seen the Headless Horseman—which I think was meant to appeal to my newfound sensibilities (I had recently declared myself a Classics major[note]I know, I know, shut up.[/note]), but instead of meeting him halfway and asking about the Jack-o’-lantern head, I tore into him, telling him that first of all, Irving wasn’t what anyone would exactly call a Classics author, I was reading shit like Virgil and Sophocles and Euripides and Chaucer, and I didn’t appreciate being made fun of . . . okay, yes, this was probably the meanest thing I ever said to Alec Sutton, but I never told him I didn’t believe him, that he never saw the Headless Horseman and I was sick of the bullshit with the monsters (my father and I swore around each other by now), so, mean though I was, I never, even then, broke his heart.


6. When Shea and I had kids—Murphy and Connor—they were a little more circumspect around Grampy Alec, not as believing of his tall tales, a trait for which I blame their mother, who was always analytical and practical in a way that, for some reason, deeply turned me on (in hindsight, Grampy Alec might have blown his cover early on when he insisted that he saw “a few Pokémons”[note]The conversation afterwards, in which I explained the taxonomy of Pokémon to my father, is and was the most uncomfortable experience of my life, but I had to admire the nearly anthropological curiosity with which he approached the subject.[/note] by the corner store; the eye-rolls produced, in unison, by Murph and Con are still the greatest insults I’ve ever seen).


7. This put me in a bit of a bind: you don’t want your kids to think that their old man’s old man is a liar, but you also don’t want to lie to the kids, so you go along with it, much to your wife’s consternation (which later, to her credit, becomes bemusement), but everyone has fun with it, and no one gets too scared.[note]Con was spared the sight of Pennywise the Clown, thanks to his mother’s intervention; she (correctly) pointed out that it would “scare the everloving shit out of him.”[/note]


8. I should clarify the word scared: my father’s intention was never to scare me (I never found any rubber snakes or spiders in my bed), and I never was scared (okay, maybe a few times when I was very young, but what child wouldn’t be frightened by the most trustworthy person in their life saying that he had just come from a meeting with the Swamp Thing?)—I think, ultimately, he was just trying to be my friend, to swap stories, to bullshit the way he must have done with Lee Hayward.[note]I should clarify further, because I feel like I’m digging myself a hole: these stories never made me distrust my father.[/note]


9. Only once did an actual monster make an appearance, and here’s how it happened: my mother asked if I wanted to take a walk (Red Flag #1: my mother, although a fit woman, never spontaneously took walks) while my father was conspicuously absent (Red Flag #2: my father was never one to leave the house after he had returned to it), so out we went, down Larkspur Court, to the east, and out from the alleyway, why, look what it is, some Monster from Planet X, plainly a hazmat suit from a costume shop accompanied by a latex alien mask (most likely purchased from the selfsame costume shop [Red Flag #3: my father worked around the corner from Herb Crowne’s year-round costume shop]), replete with bulging, purple eyes and mottled gray skin.[note]My father never liked sci-fi, so I’m not sure why he went with this particular outfit as his first; there must have been a sale.[/note]


10. My mother mock-screamed and ran away at a pace quick enough for me to catch up to her, which I did as well, once I realized that it was what I was expected to do; I don’t remember my own reaction beyond that, but I really, really hope I played along.[note]My father would never break character and address it, nor would I bring it up, so all I have in this instance is hope that I made him happy.[/note]


11. Later, my father’s monsters became upsettingly real, and they announced their presence with beeps and hoarse exhales and the rasp of my mother’s voice, like sandpaper grinding a pearl to dust.[note]Rachel Holcomb Sutton died at the age of 51, and it hurts like a motherfucker to this day.[/note]


12. Monsters stopped seeking my father out after that.[note]Truthfully, I started to miss the monsters, and a few weeks after the funeral, I tried telling him I’d seen Pinhead in the frozen food aisle of Kroger’s, but he must have not have heard me because he said nothing.[/note]


13. Kids are harder to scare these days, or maybe just harder to impress. Shea and I—she’s gotten in on the act too—have taken to watching DIY tutorials on YouTube, in an attempt to make our own prostheses, or makeup convincing enough to make Murph and Con think that one of us is the real deal.[note]Shea and I never got great at fabricating masks, but I turned out to be something of a wunderkind with the makeup brush, and turned her into a pretty eerie facsimile of the Babadook.[/note] They’re too old to believe us, if they ever did, but that never stopped my father. He came to help us once and was almost immediately flummoxed. He dropped some mask-making impedimenta and looked at me, saying plainly, “Jesus, Jeremiah, I just told you stories.” He shook his head and laughed.


Indiana, Tennessee

“You’re my stars,” she used to say. “My Indiana and Tennessee.”


She named us after the places we were born. Once, I asked her why she didn’t name us after more exotic places, like California, Kenya. I would have liked to be named California—then when people said my name they’d think of hot sand between their toes and palm trees shimmering in the heat. They could call me Cali for short. But my mom said she named us the way she did because she wanted us to remember our roots.


“You’re a mountain girl, Indi,” she said, “And don’t you forget it.” As far as I knew, there were no mountains in Indiana, but I didn’t bother to mention it. It’s not like I remember Indiana. We moved to California soon after I was born, because my mom wanted to “try her hand in the music biz out West.” But I don’t really remember California, either, at least not the parts I want to remember, like the beach. I remember this blue couch we had in our apartment that had bed bugs. They covered me with so many bites that my mom thought I had chicken pox. I got chicken pox, too, but that was later.


When I was still small, some music producer told my mom her voice would be perfect for country music, so we hightailed it back in the direction we’d come from, but we stopped in Texas for a few weeks that turned into a few years. Some of my first real memories are of Texas, of the high electric whine of the cicadas and the way our porch sloped down to the right.


In Texas, it was just the two of us. Mom had a gig performing at this little bar every night except Friday and Saturday. Because there was no one else to look after me, I went along. Some nights I slept in the car, but some nights I sat on a stool just behind the stage, smelling the old cigarette smoke that had gotten trapped in the curtains and watching Mom. I remember her wearing a red sequined dress and sandals that had bows on the straps. I’m sure she didn’t always wear this outfit, but in my memory it’s the only one she ever wears. She’s singing “Ring of Fire,” my favorite song, making her voice go all deep like Johnny Cash’s because she knows that, behind the curtains, I’m laughing quietly into my small fist.


We left Texas after Mom got into a fight with the manager of the bar. He said she was late to work too much, and she said she didn’t know why the hell she was wasting her time in that Podunk town anyways when she should be making it big in Nashville. I loved that word, Podunk. I said it all the way to Nashville, every time we hit a pothole in the road. “Po-dunk, Po-dunk, Po-dunk,” I said, and Mom laughed and laughed. I later learned from a library book that the word “Podunk” was originally the name of an Algonquin tribe that lived in Connecticut. Like just about everything else, we took it from the Native Americans and made it our own. Typical. I told Mom this fact when I read it, and she said “Hmm, interesting,” in a way that told me she wasn’t listening.


When we got to Nashville, two things happened: one, I got really good at telling time, and I set our kitchen clock an hour early so Mom wouldn’t be late to work. Two—well, you guessed it. Tennessee was born. I was six by that point. Mom complained a lot when she was pregnant with him that he was preventing her singer-songwriter career getting off the ground, but when he was born, we were both equally enthralled with him. When Ten was awake, he was red-faced and squalling most of the time, but when he slept, he looked like an angel. Mom and I used to both stand over his crib and watch him sleep, saying things like “Look at his tiny nails” (me) and “Do you think he has dreams yet?” (Mom).


Ten’s dad was around for a while, before he wound up in jail for the first time. Mom later told me incredulously that she really did, yes, she really had, believed that he made all his money selling handmade ukuleles, but I’m sure she must have known he was selling drugs. After he went to prison, Mom stopped using his given name and started calling him Sonofabitch Lee. At least Sonofabitch was a real person, though, a person I had met and known for a short while before Ten was born. I remember his mustache and the snake tattoo coiled around his lower right arm. That was more than I could say of my own father. But on the other hand, at least I knew that my own father didn’t come looking for me because he didn’t know I existed. That was better than Sonofabitch, who didn’t seem to care at all about Ten because he never came to visit even when he wasn’t in prison, and he never paid his child support payments on time, and even when he did pay them it was probably with the money from stolen car radios or something.


In Nashville, Mom got another job at a bar because she said it would help her connect with music business types. She also got to sing at the open mic nights every Friday, which she said was “a good way to get exposure.” Mostly, Mom’s job meant that she stayed out late at night and slept most of the day while we were at school. This in turn meant that I was in charge of getting us up and fed and out the door in the mornings, which meant we were almost always late to school. We brought home stacks of pink slips, piled them on the kitchen counter. Mom didn’t care, though. She sat on the couch in her pajamas, strumming a ukulele. She said, “Listen, you two. School is just a way to brainwash you and keep you out of trouble during the day. The public school system wrings the creativity right out of kids like you! If I didn’t have to work so blasted much, I’d homeschool you and y’all could finally learn three-part harmony.” We lamented this right along with her. Like a lot of Mom’s plans, it seemed really great and also far out of reach.


This one time when I was ten or twelve, Mom came home late from her shift at the bar and wedged herself next to me in bed, waking me up. I rolled over and mumbled, “What?”


She leaned in and kissed me on the forehead and I said, “You smell like beer,” and she said, “That’s what happens when you work in a bar,” and I said, “No, your breath smells like beer.”


“Scrunch over, Indi,” she said. “My bed is lonely tonight.” I moved over, but I rolled to face the wall. After she fell asleep with one arm draped over my back, I stayed awake glaring at the wall. I have to remind myself, now, that she didn’t always come home with beer on her breath, because that one memory stuck so insistently.


The year he was six, Ten decided he really wanted a dog. I mean, really wanted one. Of course, we weren’t allowed to have pets in our apartment. He kept checking out this book on dog breeds from the public library, and he’d lie on the dirt-colored carpet in the living room and study the big color pictures, debating aloud the advantages and disadvantages of various breeds, as if the only reason we couldn’t get a dog was because he couldn’t decide which breed he wanted. He’d spend hours sketching, mostly Briards, the breed he loved best. They’re these enormous French dogs that look like a cross between a German shepherd and an Afghan hound.


Mom would lean over the table, curlers still in her hair, and say, “Wow, Ten-nes-see! Amazing!” She didn’t ask if he had any homework. Not like she could have helped him with it. She was a terrible speller, and anytime she spelled his name she had to say aloud, “Two n’s, two s’s, one-two-three-four e’s. Tennessee.” I was the one who helped with spelling and fractions and the state capitals of Louisiana and Arkansas. I was the one who made mac and cheese or tuna salad for dinner, because Mom left for work right around dinnertime.


Anyway, instead of a dog, Ten had this red rubber frog that he treated like a real, alive pet. He called her Strawberry, because we figured out from another library book that she was probably a strawberry dart frog. She had black spots on her back, and in order to make her look more realistic, Ten colored her legs with black Sharpie. We read in the book that some of these frogs have what’s called a “blue jean color morph,” which means that their legs are blue instead of black. But we didn’t have a blue Sharpie, so Strawberry wore black pants always, like Johnny Cash. Strawberry fit perfectly in Ten’s palm or in the pocket of his jeans. She went to school with him every day, and no one knew about it. In the evenings, he fed her baby carrots, because Mom had banned him from bringing ants into the apartment. Strawberry swam in the tub when he took a bath. She slept on his pillow next to his head, although she usually fell off during the night, and then we had to frantically search the sheets for her in the mornings.


I worried that what Ten needed was not a dog, or a frog, but a friend. Neither of us hung out much with kids from school. Parents weren’t too keen on letting their children come over when there were no adults in the apartment, which was often the case. Sometimes Ten went to play at other kids’ houses, but I didn’t hang out with people my age because I was always watching Ten. I didn’t really mind. Most of the time it felt like a relief to be able to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to watch my brother.” Watching Ten meant playing hours of Monopoly with our own made-up rules (Strawberry guarded the jail, and you had to pay her to get past, and we added liberally to the pile of free parking money, like whenever anyone rolled a six or a three). It meant reading aloud Peter Pan, doing a voice for Hook that always made Ten laugh. It meant dragging the sandbag weight of his body off the couch and into his room when he fell asleep, so he wouldn’t be woken up when Mom stumbled in late and turned all the lights on.


Of course, we fought sometimes, and of course sometimes I resented him. Sometimes he got in the way, like the summer I was fourteen, when this girl in my class, Maggie, got a job at a retro drive-in movie theater. I desperately wanted to work there with her, to carry the trays of popcorn and wear roller skates and these cute short dresses with frilly aprons attached. But Mom said I couldn’t. I had to watch Ten.


Ten also got in the way the year I turned sixteen, when I fell in love with a boy named Dallas Leland. The infatuation began, of course, with the fact that he, too, was named after a place, and a place I’d actually been, at that. But I wasn’t the only one fascinated with him. Dallas Leland was one of those people who got popular in high school not by any particular effort or because he had any particular charm. People were drawn to him for two reasons: first, his spectacular hair, and second, the fact that he didn’t talk. I mean never talked. He sat right in the front row of our U.S. history class and never once raised his hand. None of the rest of us could imagine being that bold, so we spent more time watching him than watching the teacher, Mr. Francis. We wanted to see what Dallas Leland would do if Mr. Francis got the guts to call on him. That, and we loved looking at Dallas’s hair, the red-gold color of it, and the way it swooped out from a point toward the middle of his skull, just a little left of dead center. His hair was the color of sunlight, and if Dallas’s head had been the sun, I would have willingly blinded myself to look at it every fifth period. Luckily, I didn’t have to pay much attention in that class. Ten was learning a lot of the same things in fourth-grade history, so I knew everything I needed to know from studying with him.


Our final project that spring was to be done in pairs. We were to write the story of an American tragedy from two perspectives. The project instructions didn’t really say “tragedy.” I added that part. The instructions said “significant and controversial event.” But events that are controversial are always a tragedy for somebody, I think.


In the interest of fairness, Mr. Francis had us write our names on slips of paper and drop them into Eric Poleski’s cowboy hat. Then Eric, who in cowboy boots was a solid five-foot-five, swaggered around the classroom and let us pluck the pieces of paper out of his hat. While I waited for my turn, I sat with my hands wedged between my legs, all eight of my non-thumb fingers twisted around each other in pairs for luck. Apparently, it worked. When Eric held that hat out to me, I snatched up the piece of paper with a D on it scratched in blue ink. Dallas in messy boy handwriting shone up at me from the crumpled sheet. I looked across at him in triumph. He was looking out the window, apparently uninterested in the project proceedings. He probably had more important things to think about. I thought he must be writing a novel in his head or coming up with the next equivalent of the Theory of Relativity. He was glorious. He was going to be mine.


After school, Dallas stood at the center of a group of people, all of whom were always talking. Dallas didn’t talk. He smoked. The chances of getting him alone were slim to none, so I approached this group, clinging to the straps of my backpack. I can see myself now, my hair falling out of my braid, my shins spattered with bruises in shades from purple to green from playing with Ten, not realizing I was breaking every social rule there was to break by approaching him in this way. What did I know of social rules? My life took place outside of them.


The group parted as I approached, standing aside to look at me. A couple of the boys hid smirks behind their hands, and in my presence the girls grew interested in pulling at the ends of their hair or adjusting the pleats of their cheerleading skirts. I saw all this. I realized what it meant. But it was too late to let it deter me.


“Hi, Dallas,” I said. He looked at me through a cloud of smoke.


“We should talk about a time to work on our history project,” I said.


“Yeah, Dallas,” said one of the boys. “Our history project.”


I held my ground; I didn’t blush. My heart was clattering around, ricocheting off my ribs like a bowling ball off bumpers, but they couldn’t see that.


Dallas nodded. He let his cigarette fall to the ground and smashed it with the toe of his shoe. He walked a little way away from the rest of the group. I was so surprised by this that it took me a moment to follow. I could hear their murmurings behind me, not the words themselves, but the hostile, jealous tone of them.


We stood facing each other under a tree. I realized I’d never faced Dallas before. He had a tall, reedy body that drooped forward a little. His eyes were brown with flecks of gold in them. They were a little unnerving in their intensity. I dropped my gaze to the ground.


“So,” I said to the grass, “Maybe we should go to the library after school one day?” I thought of the library, sadly, because I knew that Ten would have to come along, and the library was a place he could stay occupied for hours. Dallas might not even know Ten was there with me. Dallas and I could work side by side, leaning over the same book, reading about the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears, breathing the same air, until Dallas had fallen in love with me (it seemed to me that simple). Then I could retrieve Ten.


I waited for Dallas to say something. What would his voice sound like? For a moment I thought, Is he actually mute?


“Hate the library,” he said finally. His voice sounded like any other voice, like a regular boy’s voice. “How ’bout by the river? Over by the bridge? Saturday afternoon?”


“Oh, umm, okay,” I said. “I’ll check some books out.”


I wanted him to say, “Don’t bring the books. It’s a date.” But he didn’t say anything. Just nodded.


“I’ll bring some sandwiches, too,” I said. Food meant it was a date, didn’t it? I just had to find a way to get Mom to watch Ten.


That afternoon when I got home, Ten was sitting on the kitchen counter eating ice cream out of the container, and Mom was dancing around the kitchen in her underwear. The silk kimono that she wore as a bathrobe was fluttering around her as she spun in circles, though there was no music on.


“What’s going on?” I said, dropping my backpack on top of the jumble of shoes by the front door.


“Indi!” cried Mom, rushing over and grabbing my hands, dragging me into her frenzied dance. “Great news! I’m headlining!”


“Where?” I gasped. I saw it all changing, finally, all of it actually happening, everything she’d always talked about. We’d go on the road with her; we’d have private tutors instead of school. We could travel all over, go all the way to California again. We’d sit in the front row at her shows. We could afford a real house, out in the country. We could grow sunflowers and have a vegetable garden, and Ten could get a dog.


“Open mi nigh,” Ten said, around a mouthful of ice cream. I pulled away from Mom.


“Open mic night?” I said. “How do you headline at open mic night?”


“I’m not headlining at open mic night,” she said. “I’m headlining before open mic night. I get to do my own show—well, with Frankie.” Frankie was Mom’s music partner of the moment, a guy with a thinning ponytail and a perpetually doleful look.


Mom was still talking. “…Amazing! You guys are going to come! Get dressed, everybody, because we’re going shopping!”


“You’re the only one who’s not dressed, Mom,” I said. This made her laugh, and she disappeared into the bedroom, still chattering.


“You have homework?” I asked Ten.


“Did it in class,” he said.


“Can I have a bite?” I asked. He proffered his spoon, but I dug in the silverware drawer for one that was less spitty. I felt suddenly tired, not like I wanted to take a nap, but like I needed to lie in a dark, quiet room for about ten years and not move. I didn’t realize at the time that that feeling was sadness. All I knew was how it would go at the shops, how Mom would flirt with all the shopkeepers, men and women alike, how she’d tell everyone she met to come to her show, how she’d pull armfuls of things off the racks and shove them at us through the curtains of the dressing rooms, how she’d make us come out and turn around in circles for everyone in the store to see, how she’d buy more than we needed and more than we could afford, and that when I tried to draw her aside at the checkout and tell her not to do this, she’d laugh loudly and say, “That’s my Indiana!” and she’d strangle me in a hug and buy everything anyway.


Friday night came, and I found myself wearing a black dress, the first one I’d ever owned, and a pair of new boots that pinched at the ankles. My skin was a sleek golden tan, my hair about four shades darker, and Mom had carefully lined my eyes for me. I looked good and I knew it, and I wished that Dallas Leland were there to see it. I imagined him sitting there, looking at me across the table, his eyes flicking up and down with a question to which the answer was YES. But even imagining it was spoiled by the thought of my mom up on the stage. Even if we did date, I could never invite him to watch my mom perform. I had at least enough concept of social etiquette to know it would be humiliating for everyone involved. Except, of course, my mom.


The first thing she did when she got on stage was wave to us and point us out to the audience and say that she was dedicating her performance to us.


“Those are my stars,” she said, “My Indiana and Tennessee.” People who didn’t know her probably thought that was some kind of strange metaphor, not our actual names. Those are my stars, my Indiana and Tennessee.


We weren’t really supposed to be in the bar, of course, so the owner, Larry, put us at a little table in the corner where he could keep an eye on us and keep us well supplied with Shirley Temples. I didn’t like maraschino cherries, but Ten did, so every time Larry brought me a new drink I pulled them out and gave them to Ten. He left one sitting on a napkin for Strawberry, who he’d placed on the table. He wanted her to be able to see the show. Just that afternoon he’d carefully recolored her legs, which had begun to wear off after all their baths together, despite the supposed permanence of Sharpie. She was all spiffed up for the occasion. Ten was wearing a short-sleeved button-up shirt with small green cacti on it, and a blue bow tie that Mom had insisted on even though he said he felt like it was choking him. He kept tugging at the tie, but whenever I looked over at him he gave me a big smile, showing the quarter-sized gap in his front teeth that would never be fixed because we couldn’t afford braces.


Mom was up there on stage with Frankie, who was the real headliner, because the sign out front said “Frankie Ray with Lilah Archer.” Mom’s real name was Debra Moore. It was lucky for Mom that Frankie was a pretty laconic guy, because she liked to talk a lot in between songs. After they did a few songs of Frankie’s, dragging ballads about lost loves, she looked over at us.


“Now we’re going to speed it up a little,” she said, winking at me, “And play an old favorite by Mr. Johnny Cash.” She said Cash with an affected drawl. Mom didn’t naturally have a drawl. She was from Idaho. (Thank goodness she didn’t name one of us that.) They played “Ring of Fire,” of course. Mom’s voice sounded okay. Sometimes she tried too hard to make it sound twangy and it went flat. The muscles in the back of my neck tightened when she leaned in too close to the microphone and it made a staticky humming sound. She looked at Frankie a lot when they were singing and went over to sing into his mic with him. It occurred to me that there was something going on between them. Did he come over to our apartment while we were gone during the day? Was he the source of the cigarette smell that I’d noticed a couple of weeks before, the time Mom said she didn’t know what I was talking about? She could have lied better than that. She could have just said Frankie came over to work on some music.


Mom’s hair glowed in the stage lights. It was long and red and curly, like Reba’s. It wasn’t naturally like that. Naturally it was straight and light brown, like mine. But Mom’s hair was part of what she called her “presence.” That and her sparkly eye shadow and the big gold earrings she wore. When I was a kid, I’d thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, like a real fairy. That night, I saw that the sparkles over her eyes did nothing to conceal the bags beneath them. When she bent her head down to lean into the mic, you could see her brown and grey roots like a sad river down the center of her scalp. In her rhinestone cowboy boots and her long lavender dress, in the haze of cigarette smoke and the glare of the stage lights, Mom looked like something not quite real. She wasn’t quite real. She was something of her own creation.


That night, I saw through her caked-on makeup. She looked old. I realize now that she wasn’t that old. She was only thirty-seven the year I was sixteen. Not that old at all. But too old to start a singing career. Too old to be wearing sparkly eye makeup on a stage when her half-grown kids were in the audience. I looked at the people around us. Most of the audience was middle-aged, too, a mix of married couples trying to rekindle their dying love, divorcées on first dates trying to kindle new love, and alcoholics who were there not for the performance, but because they were there every other night of the week, too. This wasn’t where the music business people came to scout for talent on Friday nights. I looked at Ten, at his bright round face. He saw me looking and smiled. He still thought she was beautiful. He still believed in the magic. I tried to smile back at him, but my face felt like silly putty, all rubbery and stretched-out. It was ten o’clock when they’d started their set, already past the time he should be in bed.


The next morning (by which I mean noon) found Mom and me whisper-yelling in the kitchen, trying not to wake Ten up.


“Do you even know this boy at all?” she hissed.


“It’s a school project, Mom!” I said. “It’s worth twenty percent of my grade!”


“If you get pregnant,” she said, “Your life will be over.” She made a sweeping gesture in the air that I thought perhaps referred to her own life.


“MOM!” I said. “It’s not a date!”


“Well, I can’t watch Ten,” she said. “Frankie and I are re-recording some tracks over at Wild Oats.”


“Reschedule it!” I said. “Take Ten with you! He’ll be quiet.”


“Why don’t you reschedule, Indiana?” she said, in a scarily quiet voice. “You can do your project after school one day. This is my career we’re talking about.”


“Oh, Jesus Christ, your career!” I yelled. “What number demo is this, Mom?” I didn’t even get a chance to say anything about how I knew she was sleeping with Frankie. Ten came in with sleep-mussed hair and round eyes and said, “What’s going on?” and we both said, “Nothing.”


Mom went back to her bedroom and I could tell she was starting to cry, which made me even angrier, so I pulled five dollars out of her wallet and said to Ten, “Wanna go get ice cream and then go down by the river?”


When Dallas arrived, Ten was playing with Strawberry in the reeds on the edge of the river. He’d been delighted to go. He wanted to look for real frogs to be her friends.


“Do you think the river frogs will like her even though she’s a tree frog?” he’d asked. She’s not even a real frog, I thought, but my mouth was full of ice cream, so I had a good excuse not to say anything. I’d watched him kneeling there for some time, paddling her around in the ripples of the shallow water. The river was wide and green and fast. It was a warm day and people were out kayaking and the tourist cruise boats were full.


But then Dallas’s stoop-shouldered form appeared, and I was suddenly only aware of the way my sweaty palms were sticking to the plastic cover of the library book on my lap. I’d completely forgotten about sandwiches. I hoped he wouldn’t be mad.


Dallas raised a hand in greeting as he approached. He sat down on the opposite end of the bench I was sitting on. He pulled out a packet of cigarettes and shook one out, held it out to me. I shook my head.


“I forgot the sandwiches,” I said. “I’m sorry. We could go get some—after.” Dallas lit his cigarette and nodded once.


“That’s my brother down there,” I said, gesturing toward Ten, who was peering into the reeds a little way down the bank. “I couldn’t get out of watching him.” Dallas nodded again, leaned back on the bench, and blew smoke toward the sky. I suddenly realized that I couldn’t think of a single other thing to say to him. It was as if my mind had been wiped blank. If you’d asked me my name at that moment, I don’t know if I could have told you.


“So,” I said, after a long moment. “The Trail of Tears. You wanna do the side of the Native Americans or the side of the Jackson administration?” We were supposed to each pick a side.

Dallas had been looking out at the river. He looked at me with his gold-flecked eyes. “Trail of Tears, I guess,” he said. “Sounds cool.”


I stared at him, waiting to see if he was joking. He stared right back at me. Apparently not. The sunlight reflecting off his hair sure was beautiful, though.


“It’s all the Trail of Tears,” I said, trying not to sound impatient. “You have to pick a perspective to tell the story from. Andrew Jackson or the Cherokees.”


“Jackson,” said Dallas dreamily. “Stonewallllllll Jackson.” I stared at him. Was it possible that he’d paid no attention in history all year? Still, Albert Einstein hadn’t done well in school. I decided to take a different tack.


“So, Dallas,” I said. “What are you into, outside of school?”


“Nintendo. Basketball. Def Leppard.”


I glanced over at Ten, leaning over the reeds, looking for frogs. I was going to tell him to come a little closer, but then Dallas said, “So, are we gonna make out, or what are we doing here?”


“What?” I said. I think I was as shocked hearing that many words from him as I was by the content of them.


“Isn’t that what you wanted?” he asked. I thought the vein in my neck might explode, my pulse was suddenly pumping so hard.


“I—” I started to say.


“STRAWBERRY!” Ten’s shriek is something I cannot forget. The pitch of it, the raw, searing terror and grief. Before I could scream NO, before I even really had time to think it, my brother had thrown his small body into the river after his plastic frog.


He didn’t think; I know that. He thought only of the thing he loved most, the thing he couldn’t bear to lose. He did what he felt he had to do not to lose her.


I saw Ten’s head, an arm; I thought I saw his eyes looking wildly toward the sky, but who knows if that’s something real or something I imagined. The current was swift; his head, bobbing, was dark like a log drifting downriver.


“TEN!” I screamed. “TEN!” If you didn’t know, you’d think I was yelling out a score, a perfect score for diving, not for drowning in the river. People in boats looked at me at first like I was crazy, then they followed the line of my arm as I pointed at the water, at where I’d last seen his head, though I couldn’t see it anymore. I leaned out over the edge, my feet slipping and scrambling on the muddy bank. I wasn’t as sure as he was; I didn’t immediately fling myself into the water for the one I loved.


Dallas interpreted my flailing as preparation for a jump. He jumped in front of me and heaved me backward with a push of my shoulders, and I yelped as I felt my feet leave the ground. I thought I was falling in. We landed hard on the grass, Dallas on top of me, pinning me down. It knocked the wind out of me, so for a second all I could do was lie there, breathing frantically up at him. We were as close as we’d ever been and would ever be, but I barely even saw him. His hair, glowing in the sun, blinded me, and his dense odor of cigarette smoke burned my throat. As soon as I was able to get a breath, I shoved him off me and was back on my feet.


I searched the river for Ten, but I couldn’t see his head. There was a tourist boat in the process of trying to turn around to go after him, but it was too slow, clumsy in its bulk. On the deck, people were shouting, waving at me, but I just stood there and stared at them, my body rigid and motionless. What good did they think they could do? For those people, this was a story they’d be able to tell about their vacation, about that one day, oh, what a calamity, that poor little boy. For me, it was—“Oh, god, I see him!” I slapped at Dallas’s arm as I saw my brother’s round, pale face struggling to stay above water.


It was a crew team that got him. I watched them strain against the current, pulling hard on their paddles just to hold the boat in one place. The coxswain made an elegant little dive off the front of the boat, barely making a splash. He didn’t surface, and for a moment I thought he’d drowned, too. I couldn’t see that he’d come up on the other side of the boat, that he held my brother tight in his arms against the pull of the river. When the crew team leaned in and dragged a person into the boat, I thought it was the coxswain. He was small, too, though not as small as Ten. It was only when they heaved a second person into the boat that I realized the first body had been my brother’s. It wasn’t until I saw the oarsmen propping him up against their knees, his small body shaking and alive, that I began to cry.


When the crew team came to shore with Ten, when the ambulance came, I couldn’t even look at Dallas. I should have thanked him for anchoring me on the shore, so someone didn’t have to rescue me, too. But I felt that by wanting him, I had caused this to happen. If I hadn’t wanted him so badly, we would have stayed home; I would have kept my brother safe, far from the water. I watched two paramedics hold Ten upright while he coughed and coughed. I saw his small body heaving, his lips the deep blue-purple of a fresh bruise. I thought, If he lives I will never want anything again that is not for him. I will never ask for anything for myself. When I turn eighteen I will buy us a trailer out in the country. I will buy him a dog.


Dallas didn’t come in the ambulance. We left him there on the riverbank. When we met up the following week (for the second and last time), all he said about the incident was, “That was wild, huh? Hope the little guy’s okay.” The day of the presentation, I spoke for the Cherokees while he held up the poster I’d made, and then he said a few sentences (which I’d written for him) from Andrew Jackson’s point of view. We got a collective grade, a B minus, which dragged down my average for the whole year, but I didn’t care.


Before that, we sat in the blue light of the hospital, Mom and me, on either side of Ten, holding his hands while he slept. I moved my arm, and it rustled the papery sheets. I looked at him in apprehension to see if it would wake him, but it didn’t. They’d drugged him pretty good. The half-moons of his eyes, fringed by lashes, stayed closed. I looked across at Mom. Slow tears were sliding down her face, creating muddy mascara tracks on her cheeks.


“You have to give it up, Mom,” I whispered. “We need you at home. You’re supposed to take care of us.”


“What do you mean?” she asked.


“You know what I mean,” I said.


“I can’t,” she said. She shook her head vigorously, her red curls bouncing. They seemed so garish, so out of place, in that otherworldly light.


“Mom,” I said.


“You’re my stars,” she said. “I wanted it all for you.”


“You didn’t want it all for us,” I whispered. “You wanted it all for yourself.”


Two Poems


No one’s drowned in the boarded up well out back in a century. When I pry up the nails to let in some sky, the voices the moss maintained rise like a cloud of bats from the mouth of a cave. Hungry to be heard, as any static thing, I say to the dead you are lucky to be so permanent, so practiced at loneliness, so close, so goddamn close to journey’s end. Maybe they’ve had enough of this living forever. Maybe the mystery has never been the where or how, but why this need to be forgotten. There are many ways to scream so no one hears, and each sounds just like a child alone again in a night-heavy farmhouse, making monsters of his shadow and friends with his dead, running wild out into the dark with only a hammer and his silence;  a door he can’t remember opening slamming shut behind him.

The Animal

All the cruelties are different, but there’s something familiar in carrying our children safely through the world by our teeth. In pressing an empty mouth up to the only part of us that nourishes. Sometimes, with winter at its deadest, in eating our young and starting over again in spring. It’s spring, thank god, and all we have is an open pasture of half-broken foals. A rusty cage for the chronic wild. A spindle-legged wire fence wrapped in teeth separating one neighbor from the next. When it comes down to it, son, I don’t think I’ll ever eat you. But here I am, telling you things you already know about love.