by LINDA WOOLFORD
From below the water’s surface, Sammy saw a smear of sky. It was like looking through the glass-top coffee table he hid beneath to get his breath when it felt like war all around him. Here, underwater, breathing was impossible. He couldn’t hold his breath one second longer. Lungs aching, he clawed toward the open air, the gray sky.
Above, the water frothed, the surface shattered as hands plunged toward him and plucked him up. He broke, gasping and spitting, into air. His cousin, Nick, stretching beyond the end of the pier, held him tight under the arms. Sammy heard his belt buckle rasp against the wooden planks as Nick hauled him onto the pier where he shuddered water and flipped like a pike. Nick reached to still his legs and Sammy felt his cousin’s nail press into the flesh of his calf, deeper, until it pierced the skin. He cried out and saw his mother running down the slope onto the pier, hands boarded across her mouth as if she didn’t want her cries to drown out his.
He had gone to the pier to get away from his mother, leaving her at the picnic table with Nick. Her arm had been around Sammy’s shoulders and every time he moved, her grip tightened. Lately, she’d been holding on to him. When she reached into the cooler to get another beer, he escaped, walking down a long slope to the lake, wanting to rest his eyes on the cool water, the mesmerizing electric currents as the noon sun flashed down. He leaned deep over the edge of the pier, trying to follow the blinking zigzag of light, and then he was inside it. He wasn’t sure he remembered being pushed, the sudden shove of hands on his back, but how had Nick arrived so quickly to save him?
Now, after the rescue, his mother bundled Sammy into a towel and returned him to the picnic table. Her features, slick from tears, stretched lopsidedly into relief. She cheered the boys and gave them extra cake, Sammy for having the good manners to not die, and Nick for saving him.
“What the hell’s wrong with you that you don’t know how to swim, an eight-year-old boy.” She tapped his shoulder. “You should get your cousin to show you.”
While she noogied Nick’s head, laughing, he captured Sammy’s neck deep in the crook of his elbow so that he couldn’t swallow. Sammy pinned his eyes on his mother—Mom, see?, he wanted to say, but she was looking into the distance. He followed her gaze and saw his father walking toward them. His mother must have called him on her cell.
Nick ran to meet Sammy’s father. He was almost as tall as his uncle and looked more like him than Sammy did. Their fathers were twins, although Nick’s was dead. He died in Iraq six months earlier, and now Sammy’s father threatened to sign up for the war in Afghanistan. This made his mother furious. See you on the other side, she’d mutter when his father slammed the front door, leaving, after they fought. Then she’d look for Sammy and find him under the coffee table.
“I saved him,” Nick shouted. “I pulled him right up.”
Sammy’s father saluted Nick and clasped his shoulder, then sat heavily at the picnic table. Sammy felt as if his father had come to punish him for needing to be saved. He wanted to tell him it was Nick’s fault, but didn’t think he’d be believed. He hadn’t been before, his father reminding him to always be kind to his cousin. Nick was staying with them until his mother got used to her grief. He’d been with Sammy’s family for three months, entering tenth grade there in March. When the summer was over, Sammy’s mother told him, Nick would go home.
“You should’ve come with us in the first place, Artie,” his wife said. “It wasn’t like you had anywhere else to be.”
He’d been laid off from his job as an EMT months ago, but left home every morning as if he hadn’t. His hand slid across the table’s splintery, gray planks until it covered Sammy’s with warmth and weight. He curled two fingers beneath his son’s wrist to feel his pulse. The flood of comfort Sammy felt bent him over until his forehead met his father’s hand. He started to cry.
“Oh God,” Nick said, “listen to him.”
His father gripped Sammy’s chin, and using thumb and forefinger, opened each of his eyes wide to inspect the pupils. The vein in his father’s forehead was a faint squiggle. “You’re all right,” he said, then whispered in his ear, “stop it now,” and withdrew his touch.
“We’re leaving soon.” His mother stroked Sammy’s shoulder, fingers lingering on his collarbone. “Go play for a minute,” she said, and nudged him. “But don’t go far.” He stood and hovered by her. She tossed a pack of cigarettes onto the table, then shook out a couple. Eyes averted, she and her husband each took one. Sammy longed for the flare of a match to draw them close.
His father lifted his eyes to his wife and said her name. She ignored him. “Elinore,” he said again. She ran her pinky under the cigarette pack’s cellophane until it split.
Nick appeared, bouncing a basketball. “Shoot some?” he asked his uncle, who looked at Nick, then quickly back toward his wife.
“No,” he said, and Sammy was glad he sounded so stern. Nick’s face reddened. “All right, Nick.” His father’s voice was softer, now, and as he reached toward the basketball his wife said, “You got something to say to me?”
As if the flame Sammy imagined were drawing them, his parents leaned toward each other, but anger made his mother’s features flare, his father’s lips turn down. Nick cradled the basketball, shoving it deep under his arm and hooked his fingers into Sammy’s collar, pulling him away. Sammy wanted to shout at his parents, but knew he’d be ignored. His mother slapped her hand to her husband’s chest, her voice rising. His father caught her wrist.
“I believe the dumb fuck’s gone and joined the army,” Nick said.
The night Sammy’s uncle died in Iraq, his father woke, screaming. Sammy heard him in the hallway and then saw his mother going after him. Frightened, he got out of bed and followed them into the bathroom. Leaning against the sink, his father said his insides were on fire, and that he had a feeling something had happened to his brother. Sammy’s mother rummaged through the medicine cabinet, telling him to stop being ridiculous. The burning feeling, she swore, was from the damn tacos they’d had for dinner. She dosed him with antacids, but it did no good. Ashen and shaky the next morning, his father tried to wait but couldn’t. He called his sister-in-law to tell her something was wrong. He knew before she did.
His father had told Sammy about twins, identical, fraternal, conjoined. He’d also told him about vanishing twins, how only one of them got born because the other died really early in the mother’s tummy, and then disintegrated and disappeared, leaving only a trace of itself. He told Sammy what it was like to be a twin, to be identical. He’s you, but he’s not you. You’re so close, it’s the warmth of being wrapped tight in a blanket, until it wraps around your face and you can’t breathe. So you get away, but even then, you feel him, you know what’s going on.
Before Uncle Bernard died, they Skyped him almost every day. Sammy saw more of his uncle in Iraq than he had in America. It seemed odd to him, like seeing his father in a soap opera. He felt tricked somehow, his uncle, a medic, dressed in drab khaki inside the hospital tent lit up like a bathroom, light striking off the white enamel tables in the operating area so that it looked staged; and when his uncle took the computer outside to show off the stunted, olive-tree studded desert, the dust and constant sun, it looked even more fake. Seeing his uncle in this strange, trumped-up setting, he felt a longing for his father, as if his father were over there, unreachable in the small boxy space. He would lean against him, wishing to be the blanket wrapping around him. Although they were touching, his longing didn’t diminish. Even when his father pulled him onto his lap and Sammy could feel his body around him, his father’s attention was on his brother. When Uncle Bernard‘s truck hit the IED, he exploded with such force there was no body to return, no dog tags to give Nick, only a flag for the family, and Sammy’s image of his uncle as the vanished twin.
Down the road from the picnic grounds, the boys headed toward town where Wal-Mart and McDonalds were, the safety of other people. There was no sidewalk, and they walked single file in the slight depression at the side of the road, Nick bouncing the basketball a few steps ahead. Between the hollow smack of ball against pavement, Sammy thought he could hear Nick’s breath force through his nostrils. So much air to go in and out of such small openings, as if the breath had something important to say, if only he could understand it. He didn’t want to be with Nick, but Nick might know something about his father joining the army.
Cars whooshed by, raising the hot stink of exhaust and a spray of grit across their shins. Sammy fixed his eyes on the back of Nick’s head, observing the way two cords moved from his shoulders through his neck, meeting on either side of a slight depression at the base of his skull, like Sammy’s father’s. Sammy looked like his mother—caramel-colored hair with brown eyes and rounded features. When Nick came to stay with them, Sammy wondered if he would take Uncle Bernard’s place. He was so like his father and uncle, dark and angular with blue eyes fringed by black lashes. The contrast of light and dark made their eyes blaze. But grief made them different, turning his father inward, while Nick’s sorrow flared towards the surface, making his skin taut, as if something were trying to push through.
Nick turned suddenly and Sammy almost ran into him. “There’s this girl I know. From my class.” Nick’s finger traced the basketball’s curve. “Let’s go see her.”
Sammy shoved his hands in his pockets. “I want to go back.” His mother had told him not to go far.
“Trust me. They don’t even know we’re gone. I bet she’s whupping his ass right now. Like my mom should of done with my dad. But no, Mom thought it was great. Going to be a big hero and save the world, she said. Now all she does is bitch and moan about not bitching and moaning.” He smacked the ball to the pavement. It bounced above his head, veering towards the street. He captured it with his fingertips. Then he reached out and pinched Sammy’s earlobe, twisting, drawing him forward. He tried to escape, but Nick grabbed his shoulder, fingers biting into his flesh. “You’ll like her,” he said. “Melinda. She’s unusual.”
They crossed a vacant lot with clumps of cement strewn through the weedy grass, white-petaled daisies and black-eyed Susans poking through. Nick relaxed his grip, and Sammy thought about running, but Nick would catch him. They hit Maple Street, the roots of big trees erupting and tilting sidewalk sections. Sammy felt as if he were on a tippy boat. He stumbled and Nick caught him, picked him up into the air and set him straight. Nick pointed across the street. “There,” he said. A pale blue house glowed in the late afternoon sun. The copper mailbox at the curb was shaped like a fancy hen house and across one side, Cooper spilled in spidery scrawl. Beyond the mailbox, croquet mallets, hoops, and orange and red balls jeweled the velvet lawn. The house was ringed with flowering bushes close together and so brightly colored they seemed to be mouthing off. Nick put hands on his hips, appraising the property. “That’s what she’s like—worth having.”
“Do you really think my dad’s going to war?” From behind the house came the off-key screech of a flute.
“Definitely.” Nick’s face turned red and he rapped his knuckles into Sammy’s temple. Sammy turned his head and rubbed, closing his eyes so Nick wouldn’t see the tears.
“Because they came from the same egg.” He pulled Sammy around the side of the house. “I was holding out hope your dad was the smart one.”
Melinda sat on a lawn recliner beside a small in-ground pool, flute pressed to her lips. Her fingernails were blue-tipped as beetle backs and flew up and down the silvery tube with assurance, but the flute squawked and squealed. Nick began to clap. At first Sammy thought it was to drown out the noise, but Nick’s eyes had become brighter, his expression clear of its usual scowl, and he realized Nick was applauding.
Melinda placed the flute along her tanned thigh. Her straight black hair swung against the curve of her jaw and was so shiny it almost made Sammy squint. He thought of the sun on the lake earlier, and shivered.
“As I live and breathe,” she said, sounding like a grown-up, and patted a spot on the recliner near her feet. Something was wrong with her hand. Nick started toward her, and she pushed her palms against the air. “Not you,” she said, “your little brother.” On her left hand, the ring finger was gone. “What’s your name, cutie?”
Mesmerized, Sammy sat beside her. She drew her knees to her chest and ran her hand down a buttered shin. The scar between the middle finger and pinky was white and resolute, as if someone had decided the finger was no longer necessary. Pink skin puckered around the scar, then ebbed into the smooth, tan skin covering the rest of her hand. She stretched the pinky and middle finger away from each other as if to show Sammy the extent of the emptiness. He gaped into it and saw the sun blasting the pool’s still surface. With a flourish, she used the hand to remove her sunglasses and he stared into the violet shock of her eyes. Her voice, again asking his name, sounded far off. She waved her missing finger in front of his face and said, “Hey little man—”
Nick thumped Sammy’s head and Sammy recited his name. “Not my brother,” Nick said, settling into a deck chair opposite Melinda. “A cousin. Distant cousin.” He rested his elbows on his knees. His hands hung in the space between his legs. Melinda pulled a cigarette from a slim pack, and Nick fumbled in his pockets, producing a lighter. He lit her cigarette and Melinda smoked with her left hand, gesturing with abandon while talking to Nick. The hand was something a queen might wield. Don’t be rude, his mother would say to Sammy for staring. He thought Melinda wanted him to be rude.
Melinda and Nick began to talk about what an ignorant asshole their current events teacher was, how the pimply kid from school competing on The Voice didn’t stand a chance, and how Melinda’s fascist parents forced her to sign up for Outward Bound this summer. Their voices droned like bees gathered around the tall hollyhocks growing against a fence on the far side of the pool. A breeze crossed Sammy with a sweet scent. He grew drowsy as the sun worked into the back of his neck, into his shoulders, like his dad’s fingers after Sammy came off the soccer field. On the deck, a picnic table and grill were set up for dinner, and closer, in front of him, Melinda was tanned and sleek, her bikini top so small it cinched like a belt around her chest. He stared at Melinda’s hand and thought of the flute’s screech, and how the cement surrounding the pool could crack your skull, pull the skin from your knees if you fell. Fear opened his ears and he heard her say, “Cat got his tongue?”
“He almost got drowned today,” Nick said. “At the lake. I saved him.”
“No way.” Melinda glanced at Sammy, eyes narrowed.
“He’s a fucked up kid. Accident prone. Lucky I’m staying with them for a while. I’ve had to save his ass more than once. Couple a weeks ago I opened the bathroom door on his nose. Blam!” Nick smacked a fist into his palm. “I think he was spying. Peeping through the keyhole.” He flexed a muscle and Melinda laughed.
Sammy grew hot; sweat prickled the back of his neck. He wasn’t looking through the keyhole that day. He’d started to knock and the door opened in his face. Nick shepherded him down the stairs, Sammy’s eye already swelling, a boom like fireworks in his ears. He cried for his mother, but she’d gone to the grocery. His father laid him on the table in the bright kitchen and made sure his nose wasn’t broken. He turned the bulb of a gooseneck lamp on Sammy’s face as he and Nick studied him. Pain and light pulsed through his blurred vision and Sammy felt he was dreaming: his father and Uncle Bernard tending him in the operating tent. They worked as a team to clean him up. His father looked almost happy. But when he showed his brother where to press an ice pack to reduce the swelling, Sammy saw that Nick held the bag, and twisted away. He did it on purpose, he whispered to his father, and Nick shook his head, said he didn’t know the kid was lurking right outside the door. For a second, Sammy thought his father wavered, a hint of concern tightening the skin around his eyes, then quickly disappearing. Later, when Sammy’s eye had discolored as much as it was going to, and the small gash on his cheek was firmly covered with a Band-Aid, he sat on the couch, his father’s arm around him, eating the chocolate bar given him for being so brave. An accident, his father said, reminding him of Nick’s loss and how that kind of loss could temporarily throw you off course, making you careless.
“Poor kid,” Melinda said, searching Sammy’s face for evidence. Beneath his eye, Sammy touched a faint line along his cheekbone, and Melinda said, “Oh.” Sammy rubbed his finger fast along the scar, trying to keep her attention, not wanting her eyes to leave his face. He wondered about the day she lost her finger, imagining an explosion of blood, but he couldn’t imagine her crying, or what had happened to her finger, where it had gone. Nick shifted his chair so that his thighs reached toward hers, their knees almost touching. As if being drawn by heat, she turned to him.
“Can I come back later?” Nick asked.
She squeezed her arms together so that the top of her bathing suit gaped. “Hell, no,” she said and laughed.
Nick’s eyes darkened. Sammy heard his breath catch. Nick leaned forward and traced a finger along the edge of her big toe.
“Don’t touch,” she said, but didn’t move.
Nick captured her foot in his hands. Sammy remembered the press of Nick’s fingers on his own skin. Laughing, Melinda swatted Nick. A tinkly sound erupted from her cell phone. Nick flinched, as if pebbles rained against him.
Melinda curved over the phone. “Hey you,” she said, and stroked her cheek. She stood, turning her back to the boys, laughing softly. The tips of Nick’s ears reddened. Melinda snapped shut the phone.
“Who was that?” Nick asked.
“No one.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m thirsty. There’s some soda in the fridge. Get me one, would you?”
Nick cracked his knuckles, not moving, then slowly rose and walked towards the house.
The screen door slammed. Melinda stared after it, her eyes narrowing. “He’s kind of cute, but a little bit of a creep, don’t you think?” She smiled as if she’d paid Nick a compliment, her gaze settling on Sammy. “You’re starting to burn. Let me put sunscreen on you.” She picked up a tube and opened her legs, making room for Sammy. He sat in front of her, rigid, as she pulled him toward her. He rested against her. “You’ve got to be more careful,” she said. He twisted around to look at her. The odor of cooked cocoa butter wafted through the air as her hand came toward him, sunscreen spread on her three unharmed fingers. They looked vulnerable, brave, and he closed his eyes, steeling himself, not knowing what her touch might do. “If you don’t protect yourself the sun can do damage,” she said. Then her hand was on him, rubbing in the sunscreen, and he remembered how earlier, his pulse had beat into his father’s fingertips.
“My dad’s going to war,” he said, and she said, “Shhhhhh,” as if she already knew, and worked the sunscreen into his forehead, his cheeks, the back of his neck. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’ll be okay.” Her fingers soothed small circles across his skin and he thought maybe it would be okay.
“Cute,” Nick said. Sammy opened his eyes and Nick loomed above, holding two sodas. “Really cozy. Want to do that for me?”
Melinda ignored him, patting Sammy’s shoulder. Then she kissed his cheek. “Show some respect,” she said, looking defiantly at Nick.
“What, for this crybaby?” He opened a soda and the spray reached Sammy’s face and Melinda’s legs.
“He says his dad’s going to war.” Melinda rubbed her shins. “Afghanistan?”
Nick made a low sound. “At least he’s still got one,” he said, then quickly closed his mouth, running a knuckle over his lips, as if zipping them.
“What do you mean,” Melinda said.
“Nothing.” Nick glanced warningly at Sammy.
“Your dad’s okay?”
Sammy opened his mouth and Nick told him to shut up.
“What?” Melinda looked back and forth between the boys.
Nick shrugged and looked down. Sammy didn’t know why Nick wouldn’t want to tell her about Uncle Bernard. She might touch him then.
“Something happened to him?” She leaned forward and Sammy thought she might touch him after all.
When Nick looked up, his face was blotched and for a moment Sammy thought he might cry.
“Drop it,” he said, his voice low, angry. “You don’t know shit.”
Melinda jerked back. “I’m just trying to be nice.” Although the soda spray had dried, she continued to rub her legs, frowning. Nick’s eyes fixed on the pool, his knees jiggling, arms tight across his chest.
“Well,” she said. “My parents are going to be home soon and I have to get ready.”
“Who, that kid Nate?” Nick’s lips tautened, the corners curling slightly. “He’s a fag.”
“Right,” she said. “Jealous, much?” She smiled the way Sammy’s mother sometimes smiled at his father. There was no warmth in it.
“Yeah, jealous.” Nick yawned and pulled off his shirt. A thin line of dark hair trailed from his chest, along his stomach, disappearing beneath the waistband of his shorts. Melinda held so still, Sammy wasn’t sure she was breathing. Nick picked up the tube of sunscreen and stood in front of her, rubbing a circle on his abdomen. He held out the tube with his other hand. “Right here,” he said, and ran two fingers beneath his waistband.
Melinda laughed. She took the sunscreen and squeezed the tube hard. White cream emptied onto the ground. “You’re the fag,” she said, and dropped the tube.
With his toe, Nick nudged the tube into the pool and looked after it as if waiting for it to hit bottom. Then he turned and grabbed Melinda’s wrist. Her eyes opened wide as he ran his thumb hard over her palm, just beneath the missing finger. She tried to twist away, but Nick gripped her hand and held it high, a trophy. He brought her hand toward him and Sammy thought he was going to kiss it, but Nick’s tongue slid out, pink, stealthy, and he licked her scar.
“Would he ever do this?” Nick asked, and licked her again. Melinda began to whimper. Her scar glistened with his saliva.
“Leave her alone,” Sammy yelled.
“Freak,” Melinda said. She rubbed her hand on her bathing suit bottom as if she could rub away the touch of his tongue. She clambered out of her recliner and strode towards the house. Nick drove his fists into his thighs as Melinda ran up the back stairs. The door slammed. In the sudden, thick silence, Sammy thought he heard an echo of slamming, the sound rippling across the surface of the pool in small, sparkling waves, slapping hollowly against the cement side, and he wanted his father, imagined his head against his father’s chest, riding the slight waves of his breathing. Beside him, the sound of Nick’s ragged breath. Sammy stole a look. Nick was rigid, staring at the slammed door.
“I have to go home now,” Sammy said. Nick continued to stare at the door, as if his focus, his will, could force Melinda to appear. Sammy spoke again, louder.
“Not yet,” Nick said, all his attention now on Sammy.
“Mom’s gonna be really mad.” An image of his mother’s face as she stood on the pier that morning floated across his vision and brought the sting of tears. “And my dad—“
“My dad, my dad,” Nick mocked.
Sammy began to back away, toward the front yard, moving slowly, as if this might keep Nick from realizing he was leaving. But Nick started toward him and Sammy weaved out of his way, trying now for the back porch. If he reached the steps, Melinda would let him in and call his parents. Maybe she was already calling them, but Nick snatched his collar before he could reach the porch, his fingers digging into Sammy’s shoulders.
“Not going yet,” Nick said. His grip tightened as he herded Sammy toward the archway in the fence, on the other side of the pool.
Sammy batted Nick’s hands, but his blows felt encased in cotton. Nick pulled him through the archway and they crashed haphazardly down a wooded slope covered with pine saplings and weedy undergrowth. Prickers snagged their ankles. Nick stumbled and cursed. At the bottom of the hill was a stream with a large tool shed beside it.
Nick dragged Sammy toward the shed and yanked open the door. He pushed him inside. Green light worked anemically through a dusty window, and in the dim light, Sammy could make out paint cans, a ladder, coils of rope, a lawn mower, stacks of newspapers, a gasoline can.
“What are we doing here?”
“Shut up,” Nick said, his eyes darting around the room. He picked up a pile of newspapers, then dropped it. He kicked a can of paint. Then another, harder. It skidded across the floor on its side, and hit the wall. The lid came off and orange paint oozed in a gooey pool. Sammy watched it spread across the floor, transfixed by its slow, sure movement. He held his breath. When the paint reached his toe, he would be released and bolt out the door before Nick could catch him.
Nick pulled out his lighter and tossed it from hand to hand as if weighing possibilities, then pointed it at the coiled rope. He began to turn in a slow circle, pointing now at the ladder, now at the stacked newspapers. “Kaboom,” he said, his voice rising, and Sammy could see each explosion—the ladder splintering, the rope a fiery snake, the shed blown away, the violent space between Melinda’s fingers. The lighter clicked and a little flame burst to life, casting fluttery shadows across Nick’s face. He approached the gasoline and the flame trembled against the can. Sammy opened his mouth to shout, but his throat felt thick, clogged.
Nick snapped shut the lighter and touched it to his temple. “Boom.” His shoulders sagged, his body seeming to collapse. “Couldn’t be saved,” Nick said. “Fucker couldn’t be saved.” He slid to the floor, resting his forehead on the splintery, wooden planks of the wall, and sat there, staring at his hands. Slowly, he began to bang his head against the wall.
Sammy didn’t want to know anything more about his uncle exploding, or his own father vanishing into war. He could escape now, his cousin wouldn’t notice. He could run back to the lake. His father would know what to do. But Nick was hurt and acting crazy. Sammy was afraid to leave him. Dust hovered in smoky shafts of light, and when Nick turned, the dust seemed to settle along his face like stubble. He looked so much like Sammy’s father then that Sammy edged toward him. He crouched before Nick and touched his forehead, sticky with blood. Nick looked up, his face not a man’s but a boy’s in the dusky light. Soon, Sammy’s father would be gone, and for a while, before Nick left in August, it would be just the two boys, like twins. Sammy leaned against Nick, wedging between him and the wall to try keep Nick from hurting himself further. He pressed his face to Nick’s chest. Heat rose all around him, the smell of sunscreen and sweat smothering, and Sammy pressed harder into Nick until he could scarcely breathe, until the beating of Nick’s heart slowed against his own.
Linda Woolford’s fiction is published in Kenyon Review, Florida Review, Puerto del Sol, West Branch, and Cimarron Review, among others, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and anthologized. She lives in Massachusetts.