by Kevin Catalano
Finalist : 2010 Fiction Contest
Two baby ducks and their mama bobbed in front of Queenie, and when Queenie quacked at them, the babies quacked back. She tiptoed farther out into the lake to quack more, to touch maybe, warm water on her neck, her chin. When too close, mama duck barked and flapped, and Queenie spun away but couldn’t find the bottom. The bottom was gone.
She grabbed for the sun, but the graygreen lake swallowed it up. Her scream for Mama went inside instead of out. Water stuffed her ears so all her banging insides roared, and the lake got into her mouth the taste of sweaty pennies. She felt the water was growing her, like a balloon, and she would explode. Then her scream went out, and it made a sound like herself but roboty and faraway. Queenie was losing herself, oozing into the water forever gone.
Then, a whoosh of clean air and a flash of squinty sunlight, and the clean noise of things like motor boats and splashes and birds, and Uncle JJ.
He was holding Queenie above the lake with his strong hands in her armpits. Out of his mouth he said, “I got you, Queenie,” and out of his eyes that were brown, not like hers hazel, was something quiet and warm warmer than sunshine that was making her almost sleepy. She smiled and he put his scratchy whisker-lips on her forehead and hugged her, and she wrapped him up the monkey way. Over his painted shoulder, Mama and Nana were running down the backyard toward them.
He said he’d come back at the end of summertime and he came back just as he said. His blue car in Nana’s driveway told it. Queenie got out of her carseat and ran into the house with Mama yelling Slow down and Ethan behind, whiny as always. Nana was messy in the kitchen making something, but Uncle JJ was nowhere.
“Is he here?” Queenie asked.
“He’s sleeping. Hi honey.”
“Aw man, still? He’ll sleep all day.” Queenie climbed up on the chair at the table that was her spot.
“He drove all day and all night to get here so he’s extra tired this morning.” Nana put a big red bowl of something white and delicious in front of Queenie with a wire thing for mixing. “I’m making his birthday cake. Want to help?”
“Can I lick the bowl?”
“First give me a kiss.”
Ethan danced into the house with no shorts or underwear, tugging on his noodie.
“Ethan, stop pulling your noodie,” scolded Queenie.
“But it’s getting dead,” told Ethan.
“Your noodie can’t die stupid.”
“Yuh-huh, look.” He stretched it far out then let it go like a rubber band and it hung purple.
“Queenie, leave Ethan alone,” Mama said coming in with bags tugging all over her. Then, all the bags dropped from her at once. “Ethan, please put your underwear on.”
“If you don’t, you can’t watch cartoons.”
Ethan jumped to Mama and she put his Spiderman underwear on and he ran into the living room and collapsed on the floor as Mama turned on cartoons.
Mama then said to Nana, “I need to step outside,” and she and Nana went to the new glass door to the back porch. Out the window they were smoking cigarettes which Queenie would have known even if she couldn’t see. She must have been a little more grown because they didn’t try to hide it anymore, only from Ethan. Mama and Nana were sitting on chairs breathing smoke and looking at the big forever lake.
She got off the table and walked into the living room and kicked Ethan in the fanny.
“Want to sneak into Uncle JJ’s room?”
“It’s a game okay? We can’t wake him up but we’ll just go in superquiet.”
“Superduperquiet,” Ethan kind of whispered.
They walked to his bedroom door which was his old room when he used to live here. Queenie put her hand on the knob and looked at Ethan with her finger to her lips. Ethan copied her. She pushed open the door oh so slow and saw JJ in bed and smelled his boy sleep smell, which was like farts and made her almost laugh. One arm was out of the blanket and it was covered with the strange tattoos that she liked. They tiptoed in, giggles butterflying her belly. Ethan was being good at the game but Queenie felt she would laugh very soon. Their faces were close to his face, noses almost touching. How round his eyeballs and how long his eyelashes like a girl’s. He should wake up now. His eyes should pop open and see them, but he was still sleeping.
“Rise and shine, Clementine!” Queenie called and Ethan squealed and JJ’s eyes popped open but not seeing, and then he saw and smiled and licked his lips.
“Hey you stinkers,” JJ said with throatful of pebbles.
Queenie climbed in bed on top of him and Ethan did too, but she had a better spot on JJ’s chest. He was hot like an oven and there were sweat-dots on his forehead.
“Are you sick JJ?”
“Are you sick,” he said, “because your ears are melting off your face.”
“No they’re not.” She grabbed her ears and they were in the right place. She got in his face. “You’re a liar. It’s not nice to lie.”
“Liar liar pants of fire,” Ethan said wrong, stuck near the wall.
“It’s time to get up so we can play a game,” Queenie ordered.
“Okay, but you guys have to skedaddle so I can dress,” and he sent them out.
Queenie had the checkers board out on the kitchen floor with the right pieces on the right squares. JJ taught her checkers last time he was here at the beginning of summer when he gave her the game for her five-years-old birthday. Ethan was in the other room watching TV; if he saw the checkers, he would want to play and ruin everything.
When JJ came into the kitchen he looked happy like he might have candy in his mouth. He was wearing what he always wore, dirty jeans with a fat brown belt and a little boy’s T-shirt so you could see all the tattoos on his arms like he dipped his arms in paint.
“Do you remember how to play?” he asked sitting like a boy cross-legged. She was lying on her stomach.
“Yes. But this time can’t you let me win just one game?”
“No.” His chocolate eyes were serious but kind. “If you want to win you have to beat me.”
“Aw man. You stink.”
“You can go first.”
She moved her red piece and he moved a black piece, then she moved the same piece the way he did with one finger, but then he jumped it and took it.
“Hey, no fair.”
“Of course it’s fair. That’s how you play.”
They kept playing and he kept jumping her pieces and taking them so that a pile was next to him and there was none by her. Even though he beat her and would never let her win, she liked just sitting quiet with JJ. But sometimes there were things she wanted to know.
It was something strange stuck in the bendy part of his arm that looked like bubblegum. She saw it last time but didn’t say anything because Mama told her not to, but Mama didn’t say not to this time.
He looked at it. “I fell out of a tree and a branch stuck me and it got worms and pus and tiny eggs in it, so the doctor had to go in with a knife and cut it all out.”
“That’s not what happened. Besides, you’re too big to climb trees.”
“Good use of besides.” JJ put a checker in his mouth and crossed his arms, then spit the piece on the board. “What do you think about that?”
Queenie laughed from her belly, then climbed over the checkers and took his arm in her hands. She wanted to touch the gum scar but was afraid it would be gross.
“Are you better now?” she asked.
JJ put his hand on her fingers. His palm was wet and hot and his finger nails were like rips of paper. He was gentle with her hand petting it, but wasn’t talking. She said something wrong and was sorry.
“Let’s do something else,” she said standing and smiling the cute way that got laughs from grown-ups. “Wait here.”
She ran to the kitchen drawer with the scissors in it and got out a black marker and came back.
“Give me your hand Mister,” she said in an adult voice. He did and she rested it on the floor and crouched down with the marker, its stink biting her nose. “I’m going to give you another tattoo. The best one you ever had.”
He smiled and nodded. JJ always allowed her to dress him up or paint his nails or put lipstick on him, one time even to shave his head with the electric clippers.
She pulled the marker over his hand until there was a puppy dog on it, but it didn’t come out how it looked in her head.
“That’s great, Queenie. I always wanted a puppy tattoo.”
Outside, Ethan squealed in the lake as Mama twirled him doing motorboat, motorboat, go so fast!
“Have you been in since last time?” JJ asked.
“No.” Queenie put the cap back on the marker.
“Daddy said we might get a pool next summer.”
“It won’t happen again.” JJ’s voice was soft.
“I don’t want to.”
“You used to love the lake.”
“I just don’t want to.”
“We could go in together. I’ll hold you.”
Like balloons, her tongue was fattening in her mouth and her hands getting bigger. Faraway things were getting closer and sounds nearer. She cupped her big hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Okay Queenie, okay,” JJ said. He put his eyes on her and kept saying It’s okay until, like magic or God, it was. He then sat her on his lap and hugged her from behind and swayed. She was safe and warm and her heart felt quiet. A spinning coin stopped spinning. She put her hands on his arms and traced the swirlies of his tattoos with her finger.
Later in the afternoon the house was still. Nana was at work and JJ in his room. Ethan and Mama had fallen asleep on the bed while watching TV, and Queenie was on the floor next to them with all her markers and crayons and glitter out making JJ a birthday card. She had even glued a dandelion from the yard on it. Now looking at the card, she didn’t think it was a big enough present. The only thing else to give was her favorite markers, the ones with colors other than the normal ones. JJ could use these to draw pictures of tattoos, so he should have them.
Queenie wrapped the markers in a pillowcase and tied it with a ribbon from one of her dresses. Then she was bored, and wanted to give JJ his present now, or at least tease him with wanting it. Mama would say to leave JJ alone for a while, so she tiptoed out so not to wake her. She went to his room where the door was closed. Thumpy, angry music was coming out. She pushed the door open and called Happy Birthday!
JJ was kneeling over the bed, his face down over a picture frame with cocoa powder stuff on it. The blinds were down, but a bar of light fell across his back. He was in his underwear only, and looked skinny like Ethan except for the tattoos like deep cuts all over. When he saw her he jumped to hide the picture frame. The way he looked at her, like he hated her with his eyes, turned the cocoa powder into something terrible.
“Queenie!” he snapped.
“Sorry,” she said and stepped out.
“Wait.” He seemed sad now. He put his hand out. He was like a little boy.
He was gone after that. Somehow he sneaked out the house and didn’t come back for his birthday dinner. When Nana got home from work, she still put frosting on his cake and all the candles. Pop came home with a bag filled with Burger King cheeseburgers, JJ’s favorite, because there was a bet about how many he could eat. But it was night and he still wasn’t home.
“I think we should call someone,” Nana whispered to Pop.
“It’s too soon. You can’t call someone this soon.”
Nana slammed a cupboard and leaned heavy on the counter. Pop put a hand to her shoulder but she rushed by him saying “Don’t bother,” and smoked a cigarette on the back porch.
Mama asked, “Do you think we should go out looking for him Dad?”
“We could, but he’s probably just out.”
“You never know with Jason.” Mama sighed and Pop got his car keys.
She kept thinking about it all night, but Queenie never told on JJ. She didn’t think he would want her to.
It was two days later on the way home from Queenie’s first day of school. The cell phone rang and Mama looked at it, then pulled the car off the road. Queenie sat up in the carseat to hear. Ethan dropped his Spiderman and wanted Queenie to pick it up, but she told him to hush. Mama kept saying No in different ways until the last ones were bad enough to get her crying. She put the phone down and her head on the steering wheel. There was the taste of green fat on Queenie’s tongue. “What’s wrong?” Queenie asked so careful. But Mama wasn’t talking and Queenie fell back in her seat to cry. Mama turned around, her face scrunched, and put her hand on Queenie, but Queenie almost couldn’t see and almost couldn’t breathe.
“Queenie look at Mama.”
Through the blurry Mama’s eyes were JJ’s big and brown. Ethan put his hand on Queenie’s head and said “Look at Mama” but she looked at Ethan and saw her own eyes, hazel, their daddy’s.
JJ was sick but maybe he would be okay. The order of the words from Mama and Nana on the phone was always the same: the really first told like the truth, the maybe said last like a lie. Queenie wanted to know how he got sick and what happened, but the grown-ups weren’t telling the truth. Something about how the police found JJ’s car somewhere in the city and he was in it, sick. Now he was in the hospital, Nana and Pop with him, and when Queenie asked to talk to JJ, Nana said he was sleeping.
Queenie wanted to go right to the hospital and see JJ, but no one would let her. When they got home, Queenie scrambled up the stairs to her room and jumped on her bed and cried. Ethan came by to give her one of his toys, but she screamed at him to get.
The balloon was coming to her hands and her tongue, and now her eyes. Out the window the farthest away thing, the line of blue mountains after the trees, became the closest thing, right up on her nose. To punish her for not saying what she saw, God from church or from inside her heart was making her see what seeing is like when you die, having heaven eyes that can keep seeing forever and ever, and there’s probably no way to stop it, no way to stop seeing and living forever, even if you want to, even if you tell God that forever’s too long to see and too long to live, it still won’t ever end.
Queenie squeezed her eyes shut and turned away from the window and tried to calm her body down. Bright blue tiptoed into her darkness until it was everywhere. Then hot sun and wet feet, then water sounds. She was standing in the lake, the water black. JJ was there far away but close, staring at her. His tattoos were shiny and then he screamed and his tattoos moved like snakes on him and they were turning liquid, back into the paint they were made of, and the black snake paint was oozing off his body, filling up the lake, moving up his legs his stomach his chest his face, then the lake was up to his eyes watching her, then it went over his head. Queenie moved to rescue but her legs were locked and when she looked down, a piece of the paint lake got on her hand, a tattoo stain the shape of a spider.
Queenie woke sweaty sitting up and shaking. The spider was crawling up her arm and she yelped and shook and smacked at it but it wasn’t there. Queenie ran downstairs afraid of behind her. Ethan was pants-off twirling watching TV.
“Ethan, where’s Mama.”
“Um…,” he pulled his noodie, “she’s at Spiderman’s house.”
“I’m here, Queenie,” Mama said from the kitchen.
“I want to see Uncle JJ.”
“Queenie, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Ethan said, “You can’t see him, he’s dead.”
“Ethan,” Mama said, “don’t say that.”
“But he is. I saw it in the cartoon.”
“Ethan, hush up!” Queenie yelled and then a pop happened and she exploded on Ethan. She screamed fire at him and raked his face bloody and smacked his noodie over and over until Mama pulled her off. Queenie screamed “Let me see JJ!” until she couldn’t see anymore.
The smell and lights and shiny floors of the hospital, and Queenie for the first time remembered when Ethan was born. Daddy carried her through the halls to see Mama and her new brother. Then she was in the hospital bed with Mama and the baby, and she was allowed to touch Ethan’s hand and he grabbed hold her finger. Now walking the halls with Mama and Ethan, Sponge Bob band-aids on his face, she waited for other memories from that day. But once they got to the huge elevator the sick was turning in her tummy like gymnastics and breathing was done in gulps.
“Queenie?” Mama said. “Are you okay?”
“Can you pick me up, Mama?”
Mama grunted as she lifted Queenie. The elevator stopped and they walked down another bright hallway.
“Listen, Queenie,” Mama said puffing, “you know you don’t have to see JJ if it’s too scary.”
Ethan was fiddling with something in his pocket as he walked alongside. He held up his hand to Mama. There were little green pieces of a rubber toy or something. “Here Mama.”
She squinted at it. “What is this?”
“It’s a baby snake.”
“Shit!” Mama jumped back, flopping Queenie down. “Is that a real snake, Ethan?”
Ethan was getting upset. “It was already dead when I found it. I didn’t kill it.”
“It’s okay, but you need to throw those pieces away. Right now.” There was a garbage can near and Ethan went to it and brushed his hands clean of the snake. Mama found a tissue in her purse and rubbed his palm. “Don’t ever do that again, understand?”
He nodded but he didn’t understand.
They saw Pop sleepy in a chair in the hallway, and Mama hugged him. Pop poked his head into a nearby room and said “Gene, they’re here.” Nana came out with messy hair and puffy eyes, but she smiled her nice Nana smile. She went to Queenie first and bent down to hug her so tight and kiss her.
“How are you, darling?”
Queenie shrugged. She trembled at sight of the room.
Nana kissed Ethan, then hugged Mama and rubbed her back. Mama was sniffling. Pop was looking with his hands in his pockets. A nurse walked by and said Hello to Queenie. Mama then knelt down in front of Queenie with sparkling eyes.
“Nana and I are going in to see JJ. Why don’t you and Ethan wait out here with Pop. Then maybe you can come in if you still want to. But you don’t have to, okay?”
Some of the heavy around her heart left, and Queenie nodded. Pop took her hand and led her to the chairs across from the door where Ethan was already jumping his Spiderman from chair to chair.
“Do you want a magazine?” Pop asked Queenie, going through some on the table. He held up one with giraffes on it. She said No. He held up a picture book of dogs that was for kids even smaller than Ethan.
“I just don’t want anything,” she said.
His face was droopy and he came to sit next to her and put his hands on his lap, one hand on each leg. There was a TV on the wall and the news was on. There were soldiers with guns in a desert, and strange people carried into ambulances. She wanted to know if the fighting was close by but was shy to ask Pop because she maybe hurt his feelings about the magazines.
Sobbing came from the dark room that at first sounded like a cat, but then Queenie heard Mama in the crying. Mama came out snotty and hiccuppy with Nana holding her. It didn’t look like Mama, and Queenie got up to hug her waist to try and get her back. But Mama looked down almost like she didn’t know her. And then it was like Mama’s body broke, Queenie could feel it in her hips and saw it too. She crumpled and Nana changed to man, quick and strong, and caught Mama to keep her up. Mama was cat crying again and Nana was moving her away down the hall.
“We’ll be right back,” Nana said. “Stay with Pop.”
“Come on, Queenie,” Pop said softly, patting the chair next to him. “They’ll be right back” he said, and then “How’s school?” but she didn’t want to talk. “They’ll be right back,” Pop said again, then looked up at the TV and was quiet.
Queenie stared into the dark room squinting to try to see inside. She wondered what JJ looked like to get Mama so upset, if he was sleeping or if he was broken-up and gross. Maybe Mama saw the puppy dog tattoo and knew this was all Queenie’s fault. She drew the puppy with a permanent marker, which meant some kind of forever, but she didn’t tell JJ it was permanent. All the things she didn’t tell and all her lies, and now she had to do what was right. She tried so hard not to be scared but couldn’t stop shivering. She kept wanting to say this wasn’t fair.
When Queenie woke almost every night slapping lake from her body, Mama would tell how JJ saved her. She would tell the story just the right way, and it would put her back to sleep. It was Queenie’s birthday and JJ just got there and they were going to have a little beach party. Queenie was supposed to wait on the porch until everyone got their bathing suits on. Mama and Nana were making sandwiches when JJ came into the kitchen asking for Queenie. He was scared and knew something was wrong. He looked out the window and saw the splashes in the lake. He ran to the sliding glass door but couldn’t get it open because it was always stuck, so he just stepped back and put his shoulder down and smashed right through the glass. He leapt over the porch railing and ran so fast down the lawn, like a bullet Mama would say, and dove into the lake and scooped her up, all this before Mama and Nana could even get outside. He was like a superhero, Mama would say.
Now JJ’s lost, screaming robot sounds and oozing out into foreverness.
Pop’s eyes were closed and head against the wall and mouth open. Queenie slipped off the chair still shivering and sneaked to the door.
“Don’t go, it’s too scary,” Ethan whispered.
Queenie ignored him, and leaned on the cold metal doorframe.
“You’ll die if you go in.”
“Hush up, Ethan.”
Queenie stared into the darkness, hearing machine rhythms. Then she felt a sticky hand and it was Ethan holding onto her, his twiggy body on hers.
“It’s not a game this time,” she said, pushing Ethan away. Queenie was surprised that she sounded like an adult without pretending. Ethan bounced back and retook her hand.
“I’ll just go in with you,” he said, “so you don’t die.”
His body rattled and she squeezed his hand. The dark room kept getting darker the more she squinted and the harder her heart bumped in her ears; and there in the bumping, in the dark squinting and ears squinting she could hear JJ, splashing.
Queenie took a step in and Ethan followed.
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