Robert is Here
Cassie hooked her fingers through the chain-link fence and the petting zoo transformed into a scene from Jurassic Park. The goat looking up at her with blank eyes was Dr. Sattler who stupidly believed she’d escaped the raptors by slamming a few metal gates. Cassie’s fingers were claws. Her nostrils flared, picking up the smell of warm animals and fruit smoothies. If she wanted to, she could rip through the fence and get at that poor, helpless goat. Shred him to bits. She wouldn’t, though. The goat looked like he might be sick with something, crust around his eyes and a crooked knee. The ostriches were kind of pathetic too with their bald patches and long eyelashes, necks wobbly like a rubber hose. She snarled at them anyway, increasing the volume of her growl until the goat backed away.
A man and a woman – they weren’t that old but she didn’t know what else to call them – peered at the sad animals. Cassie hissed and spit flew from her braces. She clicked her tongue, drew her elbows in to her sides, and popped her knees like she was stalking them. The woman eyed her and put both hands on the man’s arm. He turned and laughed. ‘What are you supposed to be?’
She snapped her jaws. Her teeth made that dense bone sound and the woman actually jumped.
‘Come on, let’s go back inside,’ the woman said. She steered the man between the wooden shelves of fruits and vegetables. Cassie snorted. Good riddance.
‘I’m hot,’ Dylan said. He wasn’t looking at her, but of course he wanted her to respond. He shuffled over the chalky dirt, his shoes powered in orange. They’d only been there ten minutes.
‘Take your shirt off,’ she said. ‘Here, I’ll hold it.’ She reached for the edges of Dylan’s T-shirt to lift it over his head but he pushed her hands away.
‘No!’ he said. She attempted the maneuver again, but he wriggled free.
‘Fine, wear the dumb thing,’ she said.
He looked down at the hand stitched lettering that spelled his name across a pickle. ‘Dylan,’ he said, tracing the letters.
‘Anyone with half a brain can read that.’ She shoved him away from her.
Mid stumble, his hands flailing, he began to laugh, like it was all a game. He found his balance and began licking the melted chocolate hardening on the side of his hand. She was sorry for him. He didn’t get it. He didn’t understand why Mom had dropped them off at Robert is Here, the whack-a-doodle farm stand slash smoothie joint slash petting zoo surrounded by sugar cane fields on the border of Everglades National Park. Who the heck was Robert? Cassie wanted to know. Mom liked the place because it was tacky, it was typical Florida, but Cassie knew she also secretly loved complaining about the abuse of the sad little animals in cages and the ridiculously overpriced smoothies. Mom was a snob. She’d said so herself.
Poor Dill. He had his head in the clouds, picking boogers out of his nose and eating them while strangers gawked. Dad said he was too old for that kind of monkey business. Where did Mom stand on the debate? She sided with the little goober, of course. He was his own precious little pumpkin filled with sunshine, which meant that Mom let him do whatever he wanted. He’d learn eventually, Mom said. Cassie knew, and secretly revelled in the fact, that when the sky came crashing down it would fall hard. Wait until you get to elementary school, she thought as she watched him take off his shoes and tap his socks in the dirt, giggling at the puffs of dust he made. The kids would out him for the weirdo that he was and he’d either wise up or become a loner.
He’d definitely picked that up from Mom. She was a loon in her own way. She’d read somewhere that it was a good idea to speak to Cassie and Dylan like they were adults, which was fine. But sometimes she wanted a mom, and not a mom-friend.
‘Hey Dill, you want to look for roly-polys?’ Cassie reached out and caught the back of his shirt before he ran smack into a man carrying a box of mangos.
‘No,’ Dylan said, the defiance in his voice more of a whine. ‘I want Mommy.’
‘She’s never coming back,’ she said. It was a total big sister clobber move, but he was such a complainer. Plus, it was kind of true. Mom had dropped them off at the fruit stand for the afternoon because she and Dad needed to work some things out. And Cassie was the babysitter again, which was fine, she could handle it. Dylan went into pre-melt down mode, shivering and sniffling. She put an arm around him and said, ‘I’m kidding, jeeze kid.’
Mom and Dad really needed to grow up. She wished she had said that to them. She wished she could make them understand that the angry feelings would eventually go away, that one day they’d feel jazzed about life again.
Dylan slammed into her leg and kissed her shorts with gooey lips, leaving a trail of spit. Sick, the kid was sick. She rubbed at the mark he’d left and as he smiled with his baby teeth she realized that she’d never decided to love him. It just happened – because what else was she supposed to do?
They’d left the house that morning as a family, Dad driving and Mom in the passenger seat reading one of her books from school, a fat brick that rested on her lap. They were supposed to be on vacation. They were supposed to go to the Keys and snorkel and eat shrimp and explore Hemingway’s house. Mom’s professor at night school had introduced her to Ernest Hemingway, made her read his books, and for a month she Googled black and white pictures of him and drooled on the keyboard. It was pathetic. He was the complete flip side of Dad. Big shoulders and a thick white beard standing next to a dead marlin he’d caught. Dad was skinny, wore glasses, and had tattoos covering both of his arms. He used to sing in a punk band called WhaleFace, but the guys were old now and had families.
Somewhere along the highway, Mom and Dad started going at it. It was clear by the speed at which the conversation escalated that it had started before that moment, on the previous day, or in the weeks leading up to the trip. Cassie tried her best to tune it out, put on her headphones and blast her sappy acoustic music.
It began simply.
‘I wish you’d use your turn signal,’ Mom said as Dad changed lanes on 95.
‘I know how to drive!’ Dad said.
Mom went into a list of Dad’s faults: too angry, too distant, never helped with the kids, drank too much. And Dad, on the defensive, had a series of angry excuses padded with expletives. That morning, it reached a new pitch.
‘Fuck this vacation. I hate the Keys.’ He said it flatly, in his regular voice without emphasis. The nastiness in it far worse for his lack of drama. He swerved into the fast lane and pressed hard on the gas.
Mom turned so paper white that Cassie almost took off her headphones and put a hand to Mom’s shoulder.
Mom said slowly, talking way down her nose, ‘Not in front of the kids, Lee.’
Dad got out at a gas station and went inside. Probably to buy beer, Mom said. She slid into the driver’s seat. That was when she dropped Cassie and Dylan off at Robert is Here. The corners of her mouth pulled tight, but she couldn’t hide the wobble of her lip. She was trying unbelievably hard not to cry in front of them.
‘I’m just worried about you guys,’ she said. She sat up straighter in the driver’s seat and wiped her nose on the back of her hand.
Dylan asked if she was coming with them, if she would lift him up so he could lean over the fence to pet the animals.
‘No, honey – no. Cassie will watch you.’ She flipped down the rearview mirror and wiped at her eyes, reapplied her lipgloss.
Mom texted: Everything okay?
Cassie replied: Yes…
Mom didn’t write back.
She had done this before, dropped Cassie and Dylan at Target for a few hours, left them with enough money for popcorn and a slushy while she ran errands. If time got away from her, she’d call Cassie on the old flip phone that was handed out for emergencies and tell her to buy Dylan some more Legos.
Cassie hated the idea of sitting there all day, the boredom driving her bananas. ‘Hey Dill, want to feed the animals?’ she said.
His head bounced up and down like a loose bobble head.
She pulled two dollars from the bundle of bills her mother had handed her. The girl behind the counter gave her a paper bag filled with corn kernels. She asked if all the animals ate the corn and the girl indicated that they would eat whatever you fed them, but please don’t feed them trash. Cassie handed the bag to Dylan and as soon as it left her fingers he dumped half of the bag on the ground. Together they scooped it back up, Cassie’s hand swiping fistfuls of corn and Dylan picking the kernels up one by one.
When they approached the fence, Dylan hesitated, cradled the corn in the crook of his arm and wouldn’t let her have any. She spit on a rock and held it out, her palm flat so the goats wouldn’t take a finger. A white and brown goat stuck its nose through the fence and gobbled the rock, rolled it around on his tongue before dropping it and staring at it in the dust, looking like he might want to say, I thought you were bread? Then he turned his freaky eyes up to her and said MEH.
An old woman walked up to the fence. Cassie saw the goats notice the woman and somewhere inside she had that feeling of knowing what was about to happen, not like she had a vision or anything, but she sensed that whatever went down, she wouldn’t be surprised. It would happen exactly as it was supposed to, and that meant the old woman was in some sort of danger.
The goats looked like they might scale the fence, their front hooves bracing against the links and their back ends hopping up and down, and they might have succeeded if they weren’t so fat and sickly. The old woman had soft semi-sweet chocolate eyes, and bluish grey hair that she’d magically tucked into a scarf. She really did resemble a witch – a witch that lulled you with a motherly coo and then stabbed you with her chicken bone. Offering a small pile of corn with a shaking hand, the goats came down on her. The corn dropped from her hand as she tried to back away but the smartest goat went for the bag in her other hand and tried to pull the whole thing through the fence. Eventually the bag burst, spreading corn for the goats to slurp up. The one with the bag chewed the brown paper, swallowing it whole. He seemed to grin at the goats scrounging for corn, like the bag was the best treat of all.
Dylan was crying and pulling at Cassie’s shorts. At first she thought the goats had scared him and took his hand to lead him away, but he refused to walk and pointed at the old woman. ‘She’s so old,’ he wailed. ‘She broke all her bones.’
Cassie had to admit it looked that way. The woman had fallen backwards and remained in a puddle of herself, her purse somewhere beneath her, her stockinged legs splayed out. It didn’t look comfortable.
‘You want me to ask her if she’s okay?’ Cassie said.
‘I don’t like the goats. They have mean eyes,’ Dylan said. Snot was running from the bottom of one nostril over the top of his lip and into his mouth. He licked at it.
‘Do you want me to beat them up?’ she said. This time he nodded vigorously, shaking himself off balance.
She’d watched Mom’s kickboxing videos dozens of times, sometimes with Mom and sometimes when Mom was doing her homework at the kitchen table.
Jab. Jab-cross. Uppercut-hook! Knee. Knee. Sidekick!
The fence reverberated with the force of her awesome kick and the goats leapt away, scattering across the pen. A few even climbed the small barn and looked at her cautiously. Was she a threat? Hell yeah she was. She rocked back and forth in the proper boxing stance, ready to launch the next attack. Dylan was pulling on her shorts again.
‘When’s Mom coming back?’ he said. ‘I’m hungry.’
The old woman had righted herself and was brushing dirt from her skirt. She looked at Cassie and clicked her tongue; she looked at Dylan and smiled, reaching into her purse. She handed him a peppermint and he gave her the biggest, doofiest grin he’d ever given anyone. Cassie jerked the mint from his hand and shoved it in her pocket.
‘He can’t have candy,’ she said to the woman.
They stood at the smoothie counter and the girl asked them what they wanted. Cassie ordered the jackfruit special. Dylan said he wanted a smoothie with everything in it, the biggest one they had. The girl’s pen hovered over the pad while she considered whether or not his request was possible.
‘Just order one thing,’ Cassie said.
‘I want to try them all,’ he said.
‘You can’t have them all.’ She gave the girl a look of sympathy, a look of sheesh, can you believe this guy? But the girl gave her nothing. A total void. Cassie said he’d have strawberry banana. Dylan began a chant of no-no-no and when she stood her ground he grew more upset. She handed him the peppermint and he shoved it in his mouth and forgot his tears.
They took their smoothies to the front yard and sat on the bench of a picnic table facing the road and the sugar cane fields and the food trucks. It was early afternoon with a clear, stock-still sky but not many people milled around the parking lot. It was Sunday. They were probably at church.
Mom texted: Be there soon. How’s Dill?
Adults were pros at lying. Withholding information, only revealing enough to keep the peace. Mom lied like a balloon. Poke her enough and she popped and the real story came sputtering out. Dad was more of a sneak about it. Subtle, withholding, he sloth-climbed by her questions, gave her wide-ranging answers like, ‘Well, your mom and I have our differences,’ or ‘Ask me about it tomorrow.’
She couldn’t remember the details of the First Fight, the one that said no, everything is not all right. It was a few months back. Mom looked like she was in a horror movie, her hand bloody from the vegetable slicer, and Dad swigging a bottle of Michelob on the back porch. Who were these people yelling at each other? She’d caught Dylan’s waist, brought him into her arms, and carried him through the kitchen and down the stairs to the basement. On the couch, he laid in to his wailing, still not sure what he was crying about, something outside of him, something he couldn’t verbalise. Cassie switched on Looney Toons. Upstairs the yelling continued, crashed around like it had its own body. She immediately thought divorce. She thought if things weren’t perfect, everything fell apart. She launched herself into the cartoon, a world where the bad guy and his strength didn’t have an effect, not a real one anyway, and her body retreated into the crevices of the sunken couch.
Cassie put her phone back in her pocket. The generator for the taco truck hummed over the sound of passing cars. A man who probably owned the truck was rewriting that day’s specials on a white board. Once he’d written a few things, he held the board away from him, then, unhappy with something, erased it all with his sleeve. He called inside the truck and a boy, maybe his own kid, came down from the kitchen. The man gave the boy the marker and the boy began to write. When the sign was finished, the man gave the boy some money.
The boy trotted across the street to the fruit stand. He wandered first to the display of lemons, limes, and grapefruits. He grasped several of the fruits and inspected them closely, aware he was being watched, but she wasn’t sure if it was her eyes he felt, or his father’s, or the eyes of the strangers wandering the aisles. When he came to the kiwis he stroked them like they were living things, little mammals curled in tight balls on top of each other. If he stroked them right, their heads might pop out and startle him and he’d jump back, but then the whole store would laugh and say, oh man you had us. We really thought those were fruit. The boy paid for a bag of limes and began to walk back, but he noticed Cassie, unaware that she was still staring at him, and he came over.
He said hi like a kid eager for a playmate, but too cool to admit it up front in case she didn’t return his enthusiasm. He had a mole above his left eye, small and dark, and his eyes seemed to get bigger the longer she stared. She found him attractive, like Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park with his black shirt, black pants combo and his dark floppy hair. His boldness in approaching her.
‘You go to school around here?’
She told him they’d come from Cocoa Beach, she was in the 6th grade at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and her class was studying the Civil War. She’d been a Union soldier in the reenactment, and could he believe that some kids didn’t know the North had won?
‘Where are your parents?’ the boy said. He might have been a little younger than her.
‘I don’t know, talking somewhere,’ she said.
‘Maybe they’re at a bar,’ he said.
‘Maybe.’ She leaned back against the picnic table and sipped at her smoothie, looking not at him but off into the fields. Like the cool kid, which she wasn’t, not according to her classmates, but he didn’t know that.
‘My mom left us,’ the boy said. He had a crooked front tooth that overlapped the one next to it. It was yellowy brown, a corn tooth.
She said she was sorry – that’s what adults always said when they heard bad news. But what was there to be sorry for? It wasn’t her fault his mom had left.
‘It’s okay, she was pretty mean,’ he said.
‘I think my mom’s too stubborn to leave,’ Cassie said.
He looked her up and down and complimented her outfit. Said he’d never seen a girl pull off board shorts.
‘Mom’s leaving?’ Dylan said.
‘Shut up,’ Cassie said. She grabbed his fat head and messed up his hair.
The boy asked if she wanted to hang out. When she was young it had been, can Sarah come out to play? but now everyone was hanging out. Playing was for babies. He asked for a sip of her smoothie and she handed him the Styrofoam cup, watched him put his thick lips around the straw and suck chunks of fruit into his mouth. He passed it back and she stared at the straw, tiny teeth marks embedded in the plastic. He was a biter.
‘Dylan,’ she said. He had pried the lid off his smoothie and was sticking his hand inside the cup, removing globs of pink frozen goop and shoveling it into his mouth, smacking his lips. His tongue was red. ‘Stay right here,’ she said. ‘Don’t move.’
‘Where are you going?’ He swung his chubby legs.
‘Can I come?’
‘No, you have to stay here in case Mom comes.’ It wasn’t true, Mom wasn’t coming – not for a while – but any mention of Mom and she had his attention. Now that he had a mission she was pretty sure he’d stay put. ‘If you move an inch, I’ll give you a round house kick to the butt,’ she said.
She and the boy – he told her his name was Julian – wove between the aisles of fruit to the back lot where the animals were penned in by the chain link fence, and came around the side of the building where they kept the big ice coolers and soda machines. Julian reached into the coin return slot of each machine and came up with nothing. He kicked the dusty front of the Coca Cola logo and a can rattled down the tubes inside and rolled out into the tray. He beamed at her and she thought, God those teeth are nasty, keep your mouth shut. He was handsome with his mouth shut.
They shared the Coke. It was flat and warm and syrupy sweet. She marvelled at how easy it was to get along with him, how minutes before they had been strangers and now they were sharing a coke.
‘Do your braces hurt?’ he said.
‘Nah, I’m used to it.’ She opened her mouth and tapped on the metal brackets.
‘My dad says it’s expensive.’ He drained the last of the soda.
‘I guess so,’ she said. She thought of her orthodontist, how he’d told her she should become one too because it paid well. She wondered what kind of house Julian lived in, if it was anything like hers, and whether or not he had a TV, or if he shared a room with his siblings.
They roamed to the other side of the parking lot where two huge dumpsters made an L shaped hideout and the employees sat and smoked. Julian teased her about her hair, how it was short like a boy’s, and her hairy legs, also like a boy’s. But his attention felt good, it was playful and harmless and she knew it was his way of vetting her, making sure she was tough enough to take it.
‘I’m bored,’ he said. ‘Want to play a game?’
She asked him what kind and he said if she followed him she’d find out. The decision was easy, attention from a boy or an afternoon with Dylan, which was a constant reminder of Mom and Dad and their annoying problems, which weren’t her problems, not at all. She was detached from their bickering. She wouldn’t be like the other kids whose parents got divorced: crying and broken and pathetic. Mom and Dad were not a unit; they were two individuals poisoning each other.
She followed Julian behind the dumpsters. A herd of feral cats scattered as they approached the bare patch of dirt that was hidden from the street, the parking lot, and the food truck. A field of sugar cane, tall and close to harvest off to the left, and hundreds of cigarettes butts crushed into the black dirt.
‘What’s the game?’ she said, looking around the sorry place.
‘So you’re a girl,’ he said.
‘Uh, yeah?’ she said. He was either a complete idiot or playing a joke on her.
She understood his meaning though the question still formed in her mouth. How? He pointed to her shorts, to the area between her legs. She offered to show him her boobs, but he shook his head, said that wasn’t what he was asking. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours – that’s what he wanted. And she had to go first. She’d be a coward if she didn’t.
She untied the drawstring and slid down her shorts, then her underwear. It was like the doctor’s office, or going to the bathroom at school. She wondered why it was so shocking to be naked. Wondered why more people didn’t walk around their houses in the nude, leaving windows open so others could see in, see them. She felt brave, inspired.
‘I can’t see much,’ he said.
‘Your turn,’ she said and pulled up her pants.
He hesitated, looking around them as if someone might be watching. As if anyone was concerned about them. He reached for the button of his jeans but stopped there.
‘Are you gonna do it, or not?’ she said. She was more daring than him and it felt good to recognise that; he knew it, too.
For a flash, he looked much, much younger than her, his face blotchy and purple like he was about to cry. He kept looking over his shoulder. Then he rotated his head back to her, locked on her eyes, and peeled back his upper lip. His teeth glared at her.
‘Slut,’ he said. He stuck his tongue between two fingers and wiggled it at her. Then he bolted around the dumpster and crossed the street and climbed back into the food truck.
He’d said it in a moment of weakness. She was smart enough to recognise the difference between nasty remarks that were self-serving and those that actually struck a nerve of truth. But it stung – it stung all the same. And she was sorry she’d shared a Coke with him, even if he did remind her of Jeff Goldblum. She didn’t buy that he’d been faking the whole time, that they hadn’t had fun together for a few hours. He was a liar like everyone else, and she knew she was better than that. Better than her parents. Good grief – the world was all screwed up. And people hurt each other for no good reason.
She stuck her palms together and rubbed the sweat. It was clear that Julian was not coming back, so she returned to the picnic tables to keep Dylan company. Only Dylan wasn’t there.
Her throat closed after her inhalation and she held that breath while her eyes darted around the yard. She said his name—one, two, three times, each one more of a screech. She ran between the aisles of fruits, looking under the boxes, between potted plants, in the back yard where the petting zoo was. She felt her claws emerge again, her steps light and quick, a predator on the hunt. She pushed past people, asked if they’d seen her brother but they couldn’t understand her, they didn’t speak velociraptor. They backed away from her like she was dangerous, crazy, mad. She had failed, let her eggs be trampled by an awkward Stegosaurus.
Except she couldn’t blame it on pretend circumstances. This was real. Dylan was gone and she didn’t know what to do and Mom and Dad weren’t there to help. She was mad at the boy for distracting her, for convincing her that time spent with him, a complete stranger, was more worthwhile than hanging with her stupid little brother. God, she hoped a car hadn’t hit him.
She came back to the picnic table. She wanted him to be there, prayed for him to be sitting with a goofy look on his face, licking sticky fruit from his fingers. The bench was empty.
She plucked a stem of milkweed and chewed the stalk. If she was such a loser, it seemed right to demote herself to a wimpy vegetarian like the Gallimimus. But in fact, she didn’t want to be a dinosaur. Or a kick boxer. Or a lead singer in a band. Nothing so stupid and selfish.
The teenager from the smoothie counter approached her and said she remembered seeing Dylan on the bench, but didn’t know where he’d wandered off to, which wasn’t helpful. Of course he’d been on the bench, Cassie had seen him there herself. Together they checked in the bathrooms, in the storeroom beyond the double doors.
Then the girl pointed across the street. A farm worker waved his hat at them. Cassie sprinted over the pavement and into the field of sugar cane. When she reached the farmer, there was Dylan, sitting on the ground with a stick lodged in his shin. He wasn’t crying. His face was grey and frozen. No sound came from his blue lips. She hugged him into her chest, clung to his clammy shirt, pressed her face into his sweaty, sweet smelling hair. There was no anger in her, only regret. I’m sorry, she said, over and over. The farm worker spoke to her in Spanish. Dylan remained mute.
She carried him to the fruit stand and called Dad. The girl behind the smoothie counter brought her rubbing alcohol and Band-Aids. She offered Dylan cold water, but he was still in his far off place, not speaking, not reacting, simply going along with it. Cassie pulled the stick as gently and kindly as she could from his leg. Blood poured out in one big spurt and she held paper napkins over the wound while time expanded and drew itself out. Dad was taking forever to get there. Dylan still didn’t cry.
The bleeding had stopped by the time their minivan pulled into the parking lot. She carried Dylan to the sliding door and Dad pushed the button for it to open automatically. ‘What happened?’ he said, but she didn’t have an answer that could fulfill such a simple question. She arranged Dylan in his car seat, buckled him in, and climbed into her seat.
‘Laney’s resting,’ Dad said. Cassie spun around to find Mom stretched out across the backseat, her feet propped on the built-in cup holders, her head curled into the crook of her arm.
‘Are we going home?’ Cassie said. Her father didn’t hear, or pretended not to.
She faced the empty passenger seat, the pile of Mom’s belongings, her purse and her car bag and her magazines, still positioned there even though it was clear she wouldn’t be sitting beside Dad for the rest of the trip. Dylan whimpered and Dad turned on the radio.
‘It was only an email,’ Mom said.
‘Right, from your dreamy professor who thinks you’re ‘so talented.’’
‘He was being nice. It’s a perfectly normal thing to say.’
‘Tell that to the jury.’
Mom shoved McDonald’s French fries into her mouth and stared out the window. Cassie couldn’t imagine what they’d said to each other all day, but she did know that French fries equalled Mom is sad.
‘Goddammit. Goddamn it all,’ Dad said.
Dylan was bravely silent. He sucked on his two favourite fingers, remaining in his neutral zone.
‘Fifteen fucking years,’ Dad said.
‘Lee, stop that,’ Mom said, her voice flat, no umph to it.
‘You should know things. You’re old enough,’ he said to Cassie.
Cassie chewed on the side of her thumb.
‘A baby doesn’t fix anything,’ Dad said. ‘Remember that.’ And he looked at Cassie instead of the road and she watched the car drift toward the bumpy things along the shoulder. He turned back and righted the car, applying a grip of death to the steering wheel. In his eyes was the presence of a rage so big, so awful that its existence had taken over his body and was slowly replacing it with a red, pulsing lava, hot to the touch and capable of melting her skin off. She was afraid of him, afraid for him – and what he might do. She sank lower in her seat and looked out the window.
The cars in the other lane flew by and she forced her eyes to follow them, even when it hurt. Her eyes zigzagged back and forth until the muscles behind them ached and the ache went up into her brain. The headache set in and she closed her eyes to contain it, to feel the throb and turn down what was going on outside. She didn’t understand what was so wrong, how the accusations flung back and forth had added up to something as final as Mom stretched out across the back seat eating French fries and pretty much allowing Dad to curse and be a jerk. Why did they want to ruin the vacation, drag Cassie and Dylan into their childish feud? She looked at Dad’s arm of snakes and music notes and alligators and wolves and owls. It was stupid to have so many different species occupying the same space. Those animals would never get along in real life. She caught her tongue to keep from blurting that she hated his tattoos. She hated his music too. And Mom, she had already given up. She was in her corner, waving her white flag and sucking on greasy fries.
It killed her, like literally killed her, to admit that she was powerless in this situation. The best she could do was curl around Dylan like a porcupine and protect him from all the hurtful people out there. She reached for his clammy hand and he attached on to her with all of his strength. She squeezed his palm and he pressed on her fingers. They pumped hands, back and forth, telegraphing love and resolve.
‘Dad, remember Jurassic Park?’ she said. ‘When the dinosaurs get loose and everyone is freaking out and there’s no place to hide? And Dr. Sattler goes to turn the power back on and gets chased by all the raptors? They’re chasing her through that building and she thinks she’s safe because she finds another survivor, but the hand on her shoulder turns out to be a severed arm.’
‘You remember the movie better than me,’ he said. He sipped at his coffee, left over from the morning and probably cold.
‘I hate that part,’ she said.
She imagined the shape of the boy’s mouth as he called her a slut. But as she pictured it, the memory washed over with a grown-up version of the boy and he was ugly. She clenched her legs, making her thighs tremble. Maybe her dad had been that boy. Maybe her mom had been her. She tightened the muscles in her arms, her stomach, her butt. Her whole body constricted, coiled in on its self and she took up the energy and stored it, and stored it.
‘Fifteen fucking years,’ she said, and loved hearing the words come from her mouth. Let them break apart, stagger in different directions. She didn’t care.
Her father was silent for a beat. Then he laughed. A deliberate, swelling laugh that broke through the bizarre silence of Dill and Mom and became so loud it was uncomfortable. Cassie laughed too, as if to say, hey Dad, I get it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christine Utz has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She currently teaches Creative Writing at The University of Iowa. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Saw Palm, The Black & Gold Review, MARY, Joyland, BorderSenses and Fiction Fix. She is also a contributing author to Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America.