Introduction to December 2015 Issue
Quinn vaults over the sill of his bedroom window onto the patio roof. His feet trigger a heart-stopping cascade of pebbles. He crouches, scuttles, lowers himself from the roof’s lip into empty air. His arms shake and a sour scum of fear coats his tongue. Below him in the brilliant rays of late sun, the neighbors gather groceries from a minivan, freeing a golden retriever. Quinn pushes off. His landing below is solid, like a sofa dropped to the floor from one end.
This is the beginning of him.
Pulse chugging, ears perked for the rumble of a sliding glass door or a dog’s woof, he lurches along the paving stones of the courtyard. Stupidface! a voice cries out. He ducks, a mulberry leaf crackling maddeningly under his sneaker. Uglybutt! With his eye pressed to the gate latch, he spies two kindergarteners—girls, naturally—hurling landscaping rocks at each other. The violence is somehow reassuring. He slips to the other side of the gate.
This morning, Quinn woke abruptly in the muffled dark of his room with the understanding that he had transformed. He is eighteen today. He’s been upgraded like software. Qualified to vote, forced to register for Selective Service. He laughs at the prospect of curfew. He cares nothing for mowed lawns and made beds. He will enter this frontier and leave all the stupid parts of his life behind him, and if his father were to say to him, Well, son, why don’t we go out to dinner?—even if dinner had been the birthday routine since some point approaching the dawn of time, Mom and Dad and the little sister and the sister who was his twin loading into the four-by-four and hauling out to the steakhouse, except there would be no mother this time, now would there? Even if that was the way it was always done, he could say no. He pictures himself standing nose to nose with the Old Man—or almost nose to nose, because it was clear now he was always going to be a couple of inches shorter—saying, Sorry, Pops. Not this year.
Or he could just disappear for a while. It wouldn’t be hard. He knows how soft his voice is, how skinny and slumpy he looks when viewed sideways. It’s been a long day already. He crunched his first bowl of cereal alone in the lamplight of the family room—he’s always up early now, can’t sleep a full night any more, has to lie down and wake up in darkness—until finally Jordan, his little sister, stomped downstairs at first light and fixed him another bowl, which was cute, so he ate that one, too. Before school, Skyler gave him an unwrapped pirated CD of some decent electronica instead of her usual hippie shit. The kit he’d wrapped for her in Snoopy-patterned paper contained a squat glazed pot; a shriveled, sprouting potato; and an instruction booklet. Potato Bonsai. What a stupid present, she said, grinning with the wrapping shredded in her lap. And that was all. Just a clean exchange, no expectations, not even for the words “happy birthday,” because that would be like saying it to yourself, and beyond that, what more was there? Only the things that neither of them particularly wanted to say.
He pads past two-story houses of stucco and brick, half-circle driveways, yucca and blunted swords of agave bristling beside curbside mailboxes. The sun, squatting now near the horizon, warms the back of his neck. He veers off the sidewalk where the street dead-ends against the brown haunch of the mountain, skips up a driveway, squeezes along a cement-and-rock wall. Window pane. Tap-tap.
Adam shoves open the window. “S’up, gabacho?”
Quinn shrugs. They saw each other at lunch. Adam spotted him a shaved roast beef sandwich, curly fries, a strawberry milkshake. “Think you can come out?”
Adam picks at the ring in his brow. “Doubt it. But you can come in and we can watch cable or something.”
“Come on, mojado. You can come out.”
“They’ll kick my ass. My mom will kick my ass.”
“We’re going out,” Quinn insists, but he allows Adam to lead him through the cool hallway, to the den.
In the light that bleeds out through the still-open shades, Adam’s dad watches a nature show, something about lizards.
“Hey, kid.” Dr. Gonzales leans back from his TV tray, stacked with stapled papers and grade book. “What’s new?”
“Hey, Dr. G. Not much.”
“It’s his birthday.” Adam eyes the remote control hopefully. Onscreen, a clutch of Gila monsters hatch from their eggs.
“Is that right? What’s the damage?”
Quinn slips his hands to his pockets. “I think the damage is mostly to my brain.”
Dr. G snorts. “Congratulations.” He taps the end of a red pen as though dislodging a cigar ash. The baby Gila monsters are chewing bugs with their mouths open. “So. Aren’t you doing anything with your family tonight?”
“You must have plans with them this weekend.”
Dr. G checks him out. One chocolate eye narrows. The dark frond of his mustache twitches once, producing a hint of jowl, and falls still.
On TV, the lizards have been replaced by George Foreman mashing hamburger patties into his electric grill. If Quinn had stayed home this evening, eventually he would have had to say to his twin, “So. No card or anything from Mom. Guess it slipped her mind.” And maybe Skyler would push the greasy ropes of her hair out of her eyes to give him the look that means, You’re an idiot, which would be true. Nobody needs any stupid steak tonight. Skyler, no doubt, would rather hang out with her boyfriend. Jordan would rather read a book. Most likely the Old Man would prefer not to sit in a restaurant bugging his eyes at the kids, considering how the woman who had given birth to a couple of them on this day was screwing around on him and had packed up, shipped out, whereabouts unknown.
For now, however, there are the probing eyes of Dr. G, so Quinn rocks heel to toe, examining the caulking between the saltillo floor tiles, the nubby beige wall, the Nambe-ware candle on the Mexican-style trunk with iron handles. Whenever Mrs. Gonzales gives him the once-over, with her folded arms and the bearing of someone who hasn’t figured out which kid is the bad influence on the other, but is Going to Figure It Out, Mark My Words, it’s all he can do not to crack up.
Dr. G rises from the loveseat. The top of his head reaches just to Quinn’s shoulder, and he is shaped like a mango. “Well, then. I guess it’s going to be boys’ night in.”
“Right.” Adam snatches up the remote and tips onto the sofa. “You still watching this, Dad?”
Dr. G swats the air and disappears into the kitchen. Quinn relaxes the clench of his hands in his pockets and lowers himself onto the sofa’s arm. He slides the rest of the way down.
Two minutes into a sixties-era Aquaman cartoon, Dr. G glides past the screen with a bottle tucked under his armpit and a trio of shot glasses bulging from one hand.
“Gentlemen.” Dr. G pauses halfway up the stairs, allowing them to gawk with craned necks. “Is there some reason you’re not following me?”
Adam pulls back his head. “Are you serious?”
“I am serious.”
“At your grandmother’s, until late. Now get up here.”
Quinn catches Adam’s eye and stifles a laugh. Their mouths are both shaped like O’s.
Outside on the deck, before the panorama of El Paso’s west side—bright grid of streets that crowd up to the mountain, the long, leaning shadows of the copper smelter’s twin smokestacks—Quinn sucks at the salty fold above his thumb. The highway fades into desert below. At its shoulder, the Rio Grande in its concrete bed, Mexico so close you could throw an empty soda can into it. A flaming blossom unfolds in his gut. Is this the coolest thing that has happened to him all year? In more than one year? He wonders how much enthusiasm he should show. Did anyone notice him gagging? When he drank Southern Comfort out of the shampoo bottle this guy Todd brought to school, that skate punk girl he sort of used to like told him he fluttered his eyelashes. Is he fluttering? He forces his eyes open, though he realizes it probably makes him look like Bambi.
Adam’s shot glass meets the tabletop with a thump.
“You two took that like a couple of pros.” Dr. G’s gaze is cool and arch.
Quinn casts a sly glance at Adam. “Dr. G, let me assure you that your son here is strictly an amateur.”
“Oh yes,” Adam says, offering Quinn a gratifying look that means you asshole.
Dr. G narrows an eye at each of them, like a pirate. He salts his hand. “Personally, I only drink this stuff on special occasions. I hardly even bother to crack open a beer these days.” He tips the bottle to the glasses again. “Should you choose to disclose the events of this evening to your father, please inform him as such. Then tell him I left town. Until then, here’s to attaining the age of reason.” He raises his shot glass. “Salúd!”
“Salúd!” says Adam. He nudges his glass emphatically in Quinn’s direction.
“Salúd!” Quinn retorts. Then—gut braced—down the hatch.
When Dr. G plucks a deck of cards from his shirt pocket, Quinn flushes with the sudden sense that things are as they should be, that there is order and rightness in certain secret corners of the world, just as he’s always suspected.
In fact, Quinn thinks, as Dr. G deals for five-card stud, the Old Man probably wouldn’t begrudge him a stiff drink or two on this occasion. On the Old Man’s poker nights—which Quinn inevitably spends in his room, in meaningful discourse with his computer—the Old Man’s whiskey-drinking, cigarette-sucking associates converge on the dining room, smacking their palms on the tabletop when they laugh. At the steakhouse, the Old Man was given to well-meaning but humiliating acts of excess, insisting on large cuts of cow for the birthday twins, tipping waiters frequently, refusing to acknowledge the inevitable lasers of his wife’s eyes willing him into stillness and silence.
“Wait a minute.” Dr. G stops to probe the remaining stack of cards with his thumbs. He passes a sour look to Adam. “We are not playing with a full deck here.”
Adam offers a wide smile, without teeth. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“This from the kid who plays solitaire in the bathroom.”
“How else am I supposed to pass the time?”
Dr. G rolls his eyes. “Go. Return with some other form of entertainment.”
With a titter, Adam disappears into the house.
A heavy calm descends in his absence. The palm and the mulberry trees in the yard creak and rattle their leaves. Dr. G settles in, hands folded on gut, serene as a Buddha.
The important thing, Quinn thinks as the breeze chisels goosebumps into his arms, is not to squirm.
“You know, it’s very cool of you to do this,” he blurts.
Dr. G gazes out over his head. Little pinprick stars have begun to poke into the sky. “My own father did something like this for me when I turned eighteen.” A breath of silence. Then another. Dr. G lifts an eyebrow in his direction. “How do you get your hair to stand up like that?”
Quinn rubs a finger over one of the cones of his hair. “Knox Gelatin. And hairspray.”
Dr. G grunts. “Nice scar.”
Quinn touches this too, the thick pinkish snake lapping his hairline and disappearing behind his left ear. “My sister whacked me with the barn from the Fisher Price farm set when we were little.”
“The whole barn?”
Adam barges back onto the deck with a cardboard box.
“I think there were even a couple of sheep rattling around inside of it.”
Dr. G responds with what Quinn can only describe as a guffaw. He leans toward his son on an elbow. “I once found this one and his brother rolling end over end down the stairs. Seems Number Two Son here had applied ketchup to his brother’s open mouth while he was sleeping.”
Quinn guffaws. “Classic.”
“He’s been using pancake syrup and model airplane glue on his head ever since.”
Adam drops into his seat and pushes the box to the center of the table. “At least I’m not using spray-on hair.”
Dr. G pushes at his head like a beauty queen. “I’ll have you know that every bit of this is mine.”
“What’s left of it.”
“There’s not going to be much left of yours when they shave your head at military school.”
“Hah!” Quinn says, his palm slamming the tabletop. Adam is going to UCLA on a scholarship. Quinn is staying for community college without a major. “Nice going, mojado!” His laughter sputters from him, the corners of his eyes moistening, until he sees that both father and son are peering at him silently over the elegant hooks of their noses.
A flush of heat, prickly and nauseating, travels from the top of Quinn’s head to his navel. You know what I meant, he wants to say to Adam, who gives him a look that means, you dumbshit. Dr. G pins him with a cool, narrow gaze of appraisal. The hot prickles engulf him. He swallows and looks down at the tabletop.
“So anyway,” Adam says by way of rescue, “here’s a game.”
Dr. G offers Quinn another sharp glance before turning his attention to the box before him.
“What’s this nonsense?”
Adam drops into his seat. “It’s kind of all we had.”
“Oh, come now. We have to have something more dignified than this. Risk. Monopoly. Scrabble, even.”
“I happen to know the Monopoly set is missing several mortgage cards. And also the racecar and the shoe.”
“You can’t drink and play ‘Life’!”
But Adam, to Quinn’s immense relief, is already unfolding the board. In fact, the familiar rainbow-hued dial, the white plastic buildings—church, mansion, hospital, the bridges encased in plastic green shrubbery that stand out in miniature relief—these are all a comfort to Quinn. He pinches a game token shaped like a white plastic car between his thumb and forefinger. Yes, yes—on the topside of the car, the little round holes, where you plug in the tiny pink people and blue people. How old was he the last time he played this game? Ten, maybe? Nine.
Three spins and he’s rocketing up the Career Path. Adam screams up behind him, moves ahead, lags and pulls into his square. Dr. G, having been forced to attend college first, straggles behind.
“I’m fired and have to start a new career,” Dr. G informs them gravely during his next turn. He pours a splash of tequila into his glass, downs most of it, and chooses his career card. It seems to fill him with optimism. “I’m going to be a salesperson!” When Adam comes home from the hospital with a baby girl, Dr. G mutters, “Madre de Dios,” and reaches for the rest of his drink. Quinn wins a dance contest, which pays for an African safari.
Taxes. Car accidents. Pay Day. Pay Day. Pay Day. Quinn discovers the sheaves of paper money at his elbow—pink, yellow, minty green and blue. He ruffles them with his thumb in their sectioned tray.
“Who’s the banker here?” he asks dreamily.
“You are! You are the banker!”
“Are these glued on?” Adam reaches for the Countryside Acres Retirement Home and pops it free of its slot.
Suddenly, Quinn’s laughing again. He doesn’t know what’s so funny, but here it comes. Then he’s past the point of stopping, of caring, and maybe that’s why this time they join him. They hoot together. They slap the tabletop. They throttle their armrests and guffaw until they cough and go limp in their chairs.
“So, kid.” Dr. G’s final chuckle sounds like a sigh. “How’s your father these days?”
A few linty clouds smear the sky. One of them looks like an eel, Quinn thinks. The metal chair cools the back of his neck. If he doesn’t move, maybe the question will go away. The only question worse than this is how he himself is, as asked by adults who look strained and earnest and like their sympathy isn’t offensive. They do it because they can’t ask about his mother. How she is. Whether he’s heard from her. They ask around her. Dr. G’s question hangs in the air, as palpable as dust.
“He’s okay, I guess.”
Nobody has to know how his father mopes. How he looks too much like a kicked dog.
“They say time heals all wounds.” Dr. G lifts up his shot glass to the light in the window at their backs. “But in my estimation, whoever said that didn’t get it quite right.”
Quinn slumps further and scrapes at the tiled tabletop with his thumbnail.
“There’s a saying I learned when I was young.” Dr. G lowers his glass, tips the bottle.
“Uh oh,” Adam says.
Dr. G gives him a sharp look. “Listen. I’m trying to tell you two something important. Someday, you’re going to change.”
Quinn puts his mind somewhere else, somewhere far out of reach. What had he and Skyler been fighting over when she attacked? He did something to one of her Barbies. Dunked its head in the toilet, maybe. Which had been done, in turn, to avenge some other wrong he can’t even remotely remember.
“When you were a boy,” Adam croaks, “you had holes in your shoes the size of corn tortillas and had to walk uphill to school on your hands. In hundred-degree weather. So you had to wear oven mitts. Am I right?”
“I’m not done.”
“Listen.” Dr. G leans forward onto one arm, jabbing two hooked fingers in Quinn’s direction. “This is what I wish I’d known when I was your age. Someday, you won’t want that war paint in your hair any more, and you’ll find that all those rings and bolts in your face are more of a nuisance than anything, and you’ll discover that different things are important to you than once were. And you’ll figure out that the answers to all the questions you’ve been seeking are irrelevant because you were asking the wrong questions. There’s this saying I grew up with…”
He recites something in Spanish. A little poem, maybe. Adam’s eyeballs jerk to catch Quinn’s before he points them directly at the sky.
“ ‘From time, I ask time,’” Dr. G translates. He leans back in his chair. “ ‘To time, I give time. Time is a good friend. Time will undeceive us.’ That’s the key, boys. Time doesn’t heal us. It just enlightens.”
“We have been here,” Dr. G continues, and there’s something deliberate in his tone, a way he is looking but not looking at Quinn, “for nine generations. Nine. Our family has been in Texas that long. And we’ve learned a few things in that time. Thus, you should remember—”
“You know what?” It’s a moment before Quinn realizes he’s blurted this, another before he registers the hard set of his jaw, the way his eyeballs throb with the bass drumbeat of his pulse. His nostrils expand. Can he explain it? Does he even know why? Dr. G’s eyes glint in the low light. Adam tenses in his seat. One or two words. That’s all it would take to collapse this summit. The possibility shudders through Quinn thrillingly.
He jerks up his shot glass instead.
“Have a drink with me, Dr. G. Whaddaya say?”
Dr. G leans on an elbow, jowl tucked. The considerations roll across his eyeballs.
“Salúd!” Dr. G stabs his glass into the air.
“Salúd!” The rims of the three glasses chime.
Quinn excuses himself before anyone can spin again. He teeters toward the deck railing when he stands, heat spreading through his stomach.
“Whoa, there, easy does it.” Dr. G reaches out to steady him. “I think this is where the experiment ends. You need to build up your endurance with this stuff.”
“Yo.” Adam grins enormously. “You’re totally wasted.”
“Shut up. It’s my birthday.” Quinn’s ears pop, and this gives him the sensation of having burst from a huge, slick bubble. The evening’s first cricket grinds. He startles and looks for it between his feet.
Dr. G, looking much like the Mona Lisa, shakes his head.
In the can, Quinn holds himself up with a hand pressed to the wall. Mrs. Gonzales’s little translucent soaps and lotions line the base of the mirror and her peach-colored towels hang on either side. The wallpaper is an ever-deepening optical illusion of cross-hatched miniature conch shells. He breathes. In. Out. In. He wonders what everyone at home is doing. Are they worried? Pissed off? Are they watching TV? How long until his father calls over here? Will he call at all? I mean, what’s his dad going to do? Yell at him over the phone? Get home and have your birthday party! Right now!
His mother would. If she knew.
Until recently, his mother attended parent-teacher conferences with notepads and subscribed to gourmet cooking magazines and wore linen pantsuits to football games. She was punctual but maintained arriving early was in bad taste, insisted they sign their own names on Christmas cards, tolerated the occasional taking of her Lord’s name in vain, and if she demanded something of him such as attending his own eighteenth birthday party he would probably laugh, and if she yelled it would sound like someone falling off a balcony, which would be even more hilarious, and she had run off—like a waitress with big dreams working in a cheap diner—with some Mystery Man.
He doesn’t know why he thinks of the day of the lost piano lesson.
He’d been alone in the car’s back seat. Eight years old.
“I’m not going to piano.”
The idea had come to him unbidden, as though an envelope had been dropped through a slot into his head.
“What’s that?” his mother said.
They idled at a stop light, a tumbleweed somersaulting over the median beside them. Minutes before, he’d watched indifferently as Skyler, in a pale blue leotard, had vanished into the entrance of her ballet school. Now his hands and forehead seemed to vibrate. He tugged at the shoulder strap of his seatbelt. In the window beside him, his reflected expression was grave, his hair shiny blonde and combed down neatly with water. He liked piano. He understood, from overheard whispers, that he was showing some considerable talent.
He faced front. “I don’t want to go. I’m definitely not going.”
His mother clacked her nails against the steering wheel, studying him with narrowed eyes in the rear view mirror.
“Yes. Definitely.” He sunk his weight into his sticky vinyl seat, steeling himself for the necessary crying and clawing of door handles that would follow.
Had she planned her next move beforehand, or was it just a stroke of genius? This is what he wonders now.
“All right, then.” Her voice was level, buttered at the edges with the Dallas drawl she’d never gotten rid of. She revved the engine generously when the light turned green and passed the turnoff to his teacher’s house. No, wait, he wanted to shout. His lungs deflated with panic as the street corner receded. He didn’t know why he wanted to be stopped.
But she didn’t, not until she opened his door in an unfamiliar parking lot at the university and led him, through an ominous, echoing series of hallways, to a silent room filled with rocks.
Oh, rocks. Gleaming, beautiful rocks, nestled on velveteen perches cased in glass. Frosty popsicles of amethyst, gumdrops of iolite, fools’ gold like the glint of a man’s watch. Split-open geodes and smoky quartz spikes and hematite in quicksilver lobes, and his mother rested her chin on his shoulder, a flip of her frosted hair tickling him under the chin as they read the names aloud. He could smell her rose-scented soap. Somewhere out in the bright world, Skyler—without them—was bending her knobby knees, pointing her toe. He felt greedy and good. In a room behind a heavy black curtain, it was dark as outer space until you punched a button so that the darkness bloomed with black light. A case of phosphorescent rocks that were gray in the ordinary dark shone like hunks of the moon. Everything white glowed purple—his tennis shoes, the crescents of his nails, his mother’s teeth as she laughed.
“Hot stuff. Am I right?”
He grinned and leaned over the glass and was pierced by an arrow of surprise. It was the welling up of an almost unbearable sadness, an absence that tingled—he’d read about this—the way a missing limb could. That tingling was Skyler, of course. And then he whirled away from the purple spots before his eyes and couldn’t see his mother. “Mom?” he asked. Was he going to cry? He backed up against her in the dark and gasped, and she laughed and touched him lightly on the shoulders and said, “boo.”
In the peach-and-conch bathroom, Quinn flushes. He double-checks the necessary zippers, leaning over the sink toward the mirror. A pale, longish face meets him there, the left ear ringed with hoops, a pointy chin fuzzed with blonde stubble. The black cones of hair droop. A zit rises up in a red dome to the side of his nose. Is there anything distinguished about this face? Anything interesting or even remotely good-looking? He splashes water on his eyes, blinks through the dripping with irritation, makes a puddle on the counter top that he doesn’t wipe up. Most people he knows, their parents are divorced already. It’s not like he’s a kid any more. He’ll be moving out soon. He puts his nose up close to the mirror, shutting one eye. Except for one giant grayblue eyeball, he’s a blur. He stumbles sideways against the towels. Time will enlighten us. Thanks, doctor, for that newsflash.
Out. Back to the deck, to the air.
“My turn,” Dr. G says, heaving up out of his chair and none too steady himself. “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen.”
Quinn falls into the seat beside Adam’s, tracking the bright white of Dr. G’s shirt as it disappears into the house.
“Check out the moon.” Adam tips his chin toward the sliver poking up like a cat’s claw from behind the mountain.
Quinn reaches idly for the rainbow dial. He spins and lands on Buy a house! “Yeah. Cool.”
“We should go hiking up there. Before I leave for L.A.”
Quinn’s new home, according to the card he draws from the House Deeds deck, is the farmhouse. Located on fifty rolling acres, with garbanzo bean crops, prize-winning pigs and dairy cows, and a spacious barn with silo.
Adam shifts in his seat. “So, do you want to?”
Quinn snorts at the card in his hand, sets it down. “Yeah. Sure.” Butthead, his sister had called him with her little six-year-old lisp, but he had turned away, didn’t see her as she raised the barn over her head. That stupid barn. Candy-apple siding and a white spring-loaded door that made a “moo” sound when it opened. The sudden crack as it mooed against his skull. Then the blood and the shriek and the pounding approach of their parents’ feet. And he and his twin had locked eyes and flung themselves at each other. It’s okay, don’t cry, she said, patting his back as though she had found him locked in a closet. I know, he said with his head on her shoulder. Don’t be scared.
“Hey. Gabacho. Are you trashed or what?”
Quinn blinks. His shoulders clench, then release. He unlaces his hands from the back of his neck. “No.”
“Having a good birthday?”
“What do you want to do now?”
Quinn leans back in his chair. The hills make a purplish, almost-invisible silhouette against the navy horizon. He reaches for his empty shot glass and suctions it to his eye socket like a monocle. All he sees through the glass is a round haze of city light. On the Mexican side, it’s darker.
Welcome, the Old Man announced in the car just last week, to the United Kingdom of El Paso-Juárez. As though they had just arrived in some new world. Quinn gave him a sideways look. They were downtown. Billboard after billboard in Spanish. At every stoplight, a nearby car vibrating with the sound of Mexican radio, a mob of guys surrounding them to brandish wet rags and watered down bottles of Windex. Business as usual. A place, his father continued, that belongs to no country but its own. Not that anyone else wants it. He made a dry chuckle in his throat. Sounds like the two of us, dontcha think?
Quinn didn’t answer. He watched the driver beside them as she shooed away a Windex-wiper with the back of her hand.
On the hills in the distance, the tin roofs wink and gleam.
“I bet you and your dad had a serious party on your birthday,” he answers.
Adam snorts. “No.”
“What do you mean, ‘No’?”
Adam shrugs. “We went out to eat. There was cake.” He shifts in his chair. “But we didn’t do this.”
A ripple passes through Quinn, something that opens and opens and burns. He tells himself to look away, back out to the pinpricked sky. He can’t. The black sideburn against Adam’s jaw, the peacock bangs, the familiar ringed brow—each of these parts seem suddenly strange to Quinn. It’s as though he’s looking at someone who reminds him of someone else he can’t remember.
“Why don’t you just say it,” he says. His voice is low.
Adam raises an eyebrow.
The burning inside of Quinn grows in volume, in strength. “Say it.”
Quinn plants his knees wide. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Quinn grips his armrests. He can see everything. He can see all the way through Adam now, into his center, to the chamber where he keeps both pity and contempt because they are actually the same thing, and he sees how this trove has been reserved just for him.
“Come on. Spit it out, mojado,” Quinn barks. “You know you want to.”
Adam’s face hardens. “Don’t tell me what I want.”
They sit unmoving in the silence that follows. The fat palm tree at the side of the house rustles gently, incessantly. A haze blooms in Quinn’s brain. It numbs the clench in his jaw. His hands look heavy and strange in his lap, like gloves filled with sand.
A heave rends the air.
Adam twists, raking his eyes through the dark. “No way.”
Then again, from inside the house—a retching. Heave-ho.
Adam squeezes his eyes shut. “Oh, shit.”
Quinn hiccups one note of a laugh. He means this as apology. But it trips into a giggle. It grows. It pitches upward into a high, crazy cackle, he can’t help it, and when Adam’s eyes fly back open he gives Quinn a look of outrage, a look that means, You crazy fucking white boy, except that a snort also escapes his lips. Then a titter. He pushes up the sides of his face and shakes his head, slowly at first, then like a dog shaking off water, and Quinn knows this mannerism, he is familiar with the groan that follows. Everything’s fine. The face before him is lit by two brilliant crescents. Somewhere below them, an engine rattles and falls still.
“Crap!” Adam coils. “Is that my mom?”
Quinn cackles. “Beats me.”
“You asshole, shut up. Was that in my driveway?” Adam’s chair screeches against the cement and then clatters backwards. Somewhere below, the metallic, heavy creak of a door. “Is she home? Oh, crap!”
“Adam, man, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
A door slams. When Quinn looks to Adam again, he understands from his face all that is necessary. Their feet leave the ground at the same moment; together they are leaping, flying, crashing against each other outside the peach-colored bathroom, where Quinn finds himself pounding the door.
“Dad! Dad, get out of there!” Adam throttles the doorknob. He presses the door with his shoulder until it pops open. “Mom’s home!”
Dr. G smiles up at them from the floor, pale and peaceful, his back against the wall beside the toilet.
“Save yourselves, boys,” he says. He flushes pink. Then pomegranate. His face crumples and he clutches at the air with one hand. “Abandon ship! It’s too late for me. Now go. Go!”
They go. Toppling down the back steps, out the gate, into the street, they run. The street is empty and still, and they understand that this stillness should be filled with their voices, without sense, without words. Adam plucks up a rock from the curb and hurls it at a street light and misses. Quinn stumbles into a parked car. The alarm shrieks to life, and he jerks away, imagining his father rising in solitary outrage from his recliner to whip aside the living room curtains. They go, scrabbling around the corner at the end of the block, and somewhere behind them is Dr. G, left to his fate by the toilet. His face had made such a joke of it all. Had Quinn only imagined something desperate in his eyes? They should have helped him. Should have hefted him up with his arms around their shoulders like a wounded soldier and evacuated him to the back yard, but there was that look on his face and Quinn couldn’t touch him, turned away.
There’s no one in Adam’s driveway. That’s the stupid thing. The stupid thing is that Quinn dreams of his mother, has dreamt of her since the first broken days after she left. He would tell Skyler this if he could. Their mother comes into his room while he drifts in the zone between sleep and wakefulness. His eyes are shut but the lids are transparent like a frog’s, so he can see her—rising, floating at the side of his bed, and she looks furious but also like she’s about to shatter into thousands of tiny pieces that he knows he will never be able to fit back together. And he wants to wake up completely, but he can’t; he can’t move until morning, when he wakes in the dark, choking on something. A question. What if. What if she’s dead? How would any of them ever know?
Adam raises a fist to the sky. “She’ll never take us alive!”
Quinn’s sneakers skid and then stop. A porch light pops on nearby. Then another.
“Come on!” Adam calls. “Come on, hurry up! Jesus, what’s the matter with you?”
Quinn sways in the street. The darkness pools around him in ripples that spread for years in all directions. Here’s what he really needs to know: What he will see in his sister’s face when he comes back to say, Yes, I left you behind. What if he said I’m sorry, what if he cried like a stupid baby, would that change anything, would that make him any better than what he is. He wobbles, bends, sinks to the ground. The asphalt’s loose pebbles cut into his hands. Someone once told him he had the hands of a pianist, someone who didn’t know how many years it had been since he quit playing. How long ago had that been? Who had he hoped he would be?
The sharp smack of a rock stings his arm.
“Come on, gabacho.” Adam is already skipping away.
Quinn shuts his eyes. Before he rises, before he follows or walks ahead, he’d like to know what it will feel like at the moment when finally his life tumbles out of some shelf and flops open to the page titled What Now. He’d like to believe that the last thing that matters is when. But Adam is receding, and his knees ache on the pavement, and it’s already past midnight. He closes his hand on the pebbles beneath him and rears back and flings them as hard as he can. The mountain looms beside him; the dark hills beyond the river break the horizon like waves. Here you are, they seem to say in the silence they cup between them. You are here. He rests, breathless, looking up. Around. Across the distance.
Alma García's short fiction has been published as an award-winner in Narrative Magazine, Enizagam, Passages North, and Boulevard; has most recently appeared in Duende and Bluestem; and appears in the anthology, Roadside Curiosities: Short Stories on American Pop Culture. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and is also a past recipient of a fellowship from the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Raised in west Texas and northern New Mexico, she now makes her home in Seattle, where she teaches fiction writing and is a private editing consultant as well as a violin instructor. She is currently in the final stages of revising her first novel.