Aunt May wanted a cigarette, so I sighed myself up and rolled her oxygen tank away. I knocked it against the door frame on purpose. Then I fell back onto the couch, where I watched the smoke float upward, toward the ceiling fan. I could see the top of our fir tree drying out by the front door—Christmas was over—and I wondered what would happen if May got too close to it, if there’d be a slow burn or if it’d all go up at once or what.
Mom came in with a tray of cheese and crackers. “Still smoking in front of my daughter? Seriously?” she said.
“Well, I’m still addicted, so.” May ashed into her plastic cup. She drew on her cigarette and turned, exhaling into the corner, kicking at her wheelchair’s foot pedal.
Mom set the tray on the coffee table and picked at a piece of lint on her scrubs. “The same conversation every day. Are we rehearsing for a play, I wonder?”
“She’s been like that all her life,” May said once Mom was gone. I was piling cracker on top of cheese on top of cracker. “All rules, no calibrating for the situation.”
It had been three months since she’d first called from the hospital, broke and buried in prescriptions. It was only after Aunt May had moved in that I’d started to notice a burnt smell, dry as thirst, on the curtains and on the carpet. It spread while Mom and I slept—pretty soon, I could even smell smoke on my pillow. And then, suddenly, even though her doctor had told her that her lungs had no more to give, that they were in full mutiny mode, May was her old self, puffing away.
She was technically my great aunt, but our family was so small that the distinction hardly mattered. My grandmas had died young; my mom was an only child. My dad lived in Denver and we were in Des Moines, and I hadn’t seen him in two years. I wasn’t yet fifteen, but even so, I knew not to wait for what wasn’t coming. Our family, my mom told me when we first found out that May would die, had always been more into departures than arrivals.
“Gina Marie,” May said now. “How many crackers have you had?” May dropped her cigarette into the cup, where it hissed against the water inside. “I used to eat whatever, and look at me now.” She smiled in her way that said this is playful, let’s have a moment. I looked at my stomach, still flat but just because I was lucky. I had a boy’s body—no hips, small chest.
“Thirty-four,” I said. And then I went into the kitchen to make my lemon cupcakes.
Once upon a time, I’d liked May’s smell. It reminded me of her old apartment, its orange recliner, back when she was still married. It was all mixed up with the feeling of floating on a raft when I sat on her lap, with the doughnuts she used to bring us on Sundays. I tried to remember that illness made May pure so that every embarrassing thing she did was written in chalk, erased in the rain.
This was balanced against a desire not to think about May at all, because there was so much of her in our lives already. Mom and I scooped lasagna onto her plate. We scraped food crust off her fork. We rubbed her shoulders and helped her into the bathtub, where I squinted to blind myself to the folds in her skin, her hairless arms. Mom liked to tell me that I was the one thing she didn’t have to worry about, but there was nowhere to go after she said those things, nothing else to be but helpful and quiet. I wouldn’t, I swore, become one more test the world had thrown at her, and mostly, this made me good until Harry.
* * *
It was winter break, so we didn’t have school. Harry came over most afternoons then, and it always had to be my house, because the people who lived at his were unsavory, or so he liked to say.
After Mom left for her shift at the hospital, I answered the back door, and there he was, no coat or hat, just jeans and a t-shirt. Harry was older than me, driving age, and on this day he had a new haircut. One half of his head was shaved; on the other side, his hair nearly touched his chin.
“Nice asymmetry,” I said, leading him by the hand into the kitchen, to the lemon cupcakes I’d made him. “Do you feel naked?”
He grinned at that, wicked and sweet. “Is that something you’d want to see? Me naked?” he asked, moving in for a kiss, which I drank up. He put his hands on my hips, and I felt that in this position he could steer me in any direction. We’d never had sex, but the talk was there. Harry was what my mom would have called a dangerous boy, which was why he only came over while she was at work.
“Where’s the lady of the manor?” he asked.
“Stop,” I said. He was always on me about this, where was May or what was May doing. One time I asked him why he cared about her at all, and he told me that she reminded him of someone he knew. I thought, although I didn’t know, that it had something to do with his family.
Here is where Harry and I stood then: at school, we barely saw each other. He had friends who smoked under the bleachers outside and my one friend, Kelli, still drew rabbits that looked like clouds in her notebooks. She and I had been in the bookmakers’ club long after everyone our age had dropped out, and I gave her fishtail braids during study hall. We played duets on her family’s piano. We had an innocence gap, or the appearance of one, and Kelli thought Harry had targeted more than he’d chosen me. “Like a conquest?” I asked her once, hugging her pillow tight, and she said yes, exactly like that, which was one reason she and I didn’t talk much anymore. But when Harry was over, it hardly mattered. It felt like a gift that he’d seen me at all.
Mostly, me being shy resulted in a lot of sadness from my mother, a lot of waiting at the kitchen table with a snack after school. She offered to make party pizzas if I wanted to have a slumber party, and she knew I’d never tell her anything unless she asked, unless she loved and worried a conversation out of me.
Sometimes, back when Kelli would come over, she and Mom talked about me like two adults with a kid in the next room. “How’s Gina doing in English class?” Mom would ask, handing Kelli a glass of orange juice, and Kelli would say, “Oh, you know, she’s so smart but should probably start reading for the book report that’s due next week.” I hated it, but I basked in it, too, pinned under their loving gaze.
But Mom had gotten busy, and Kelli had called me a conquest, so now there was Harry.
The first time he’d talked to me a month earlier, he was wearing headphones and holding an MP3 player and mouthing the words to a song. I was walking toward the bus, and when he started talking the only thing that kept me from running away was knowing that he could only be half-listening to anything I said. The sun reflected off the snowbanks in a way that made it hard to see, finally a thing for light to play with amid the flat expanse around us.
“Need a ride, girl from geometry?” he said. He’d put himself between me and the bus and began walking backwards, his footsteps crunching in the snow-crusted grass. The air stung with cold.
“I ride the bus,” I said, trying to get around him, my head instantly filled with stupid stupid stupid. All I could think of was the two us riding in silence, me picking at my hangnails while he fiddled with the heater. On the bus, I could disappear.
“Right,” he said, still bobbing to the beat of his song. “So in other words, you need a ride.”
I couldn’t call forth the no he required, so I went with him. Harry’s car was missing a muffler and seemed made entirely of cold metal; his heater didn’t work. I could see that his knuckles were chapped as he steered, and I counted houses as we drove. They went by in a blur, though every now and then I could see a figure through a window, alone. I envied them all, huddled in my winter coat and trying not to think about how I was wearing every piece of winter clothing I had, about how I looked like a patchwork person. Blue coat, red hat, cheap gloves, wool scarf—things I’d gotten on separate Christmases.
“I’m finding out where the hot girls live,” Harry had said. He tossed a paper cup to the backseat, where wrappers and old folders covered the upholstery. There were more surprising things, too, sweatshirts and underwear and a tube of toothpaste. The car smelled of old fries.
“I’m not hot,” I said.
“How do you know I’m talking about you?” he said. “Maybe you’re not a part of this particular project.”
He laughed. “Or maybe you are. Maybe I’m still deciding. But here’s another thing: you’re mean.”
“Yes. I’ve been watching you.”
“I’m not.” In my mind, I unbuckled my seat belt and opened the car door and did a side roll out into the street, into the dirty snow, right next to the Lutheran church and the place where you could wash both your car and your dog.
But Harry just laughed again. “Ok. Let’s hope you get mean, then. A girl like you could disappear.” I could tell that he thought he had the whole of me in that line. But still, I knew even then that I wanted him to believe I was one of the hot girls, that I wanted to convince him.
Now, in the kitchen, he ignored my cupcakes and took a fudge bar from the freezer and sauntered into the living room. “Hi, Aunt May,” he said, throwing himself onto the couch while still holding onto the fudge bar. He licked it along the side in a way that wasn’t sexual, exactly, but awkward all the same. It made me think too much about where that tongue had been, of what it might do. “How’s the cough?”
And May did cough then, the rattle in her chest like a snake’s.
“Come on, let’s go to another room,” I said, reaching for his hand.
“No closed doors and no bedrooms,” May said.
“I know.” The peach comforter on my bed, the stuffed hedgehog on my dresser. I wouldn’t have taken Harry to my room even if it had been allowed.
But the house was small, and there weren’t many places to go, so we went to the basement even though it was mostly unfinished. We swiveled on a couple of old bar stools until Harry caught me, dizzy, and made a big show of easing me down onto the braided rug that covered the concrete floor. He brushed his lips along my jawline on the way to my mouth, and when he put his tongue inside I tried to dance with it by spelling out his name, letter by letter, with my own tongue. I tried to keep it interesting, but kissing Harry was a playground game. It was thumb wrestling, and he tasted like chips. If I could just relax, this would be something, I thought, but the rug’s braids dug into my back and my calves rested on ice, the concrete far too cold. I wanted him to like me so much that I got in my own way; I couldn’t take charge of myself.
“You’re bored,” Harry said, pushing himself up and onto his side.
“That’s not true.” So much of us was him telling me how I was and me saying he was wrong whether he was or he wasn’t.
“It’s okay. I’m bored, too.” He rolled into a sit-up and said, “Let’s play with May.”
I didn’t want to do that, but I didn’t want Harry to leave, and I knew that it’d be one or the other.
“What should we do?” I asked. Playing with May was mostly Harry’s thing, and I’d started to think that it was the real reason he kept coming over at all. We’d spit in her soup bowl and rubbed her toothbrush on the toilet seat and stolen some of her painkillers. We’d taken pictures of her while she slept, her face like a caved-in cake, and passed them out to all of Harry’s friends. I’d let it all happen just as May had let her illness happen because it was thrilling in its way, being bad, and because I wanted Harry’s attention more than I wanted to be good. He’d coaxed my meanness out of me; he’d been right all along.
“The mouse thing,” he said.
I groaned. Our basement had mice. The traps were in the laundry room, and I made a point of not looking whenever I took our clothes to the washing machine. I tried not to think what would happen if there was ever a mouse in the machine, or in the dryer. I’d had some dreams about them, bad ones, and I’d made the mistake of telling Harry.
We walked over, Harry first, and I had this sense that he’d like it if I clutched his arm, so I did. His muscles were dense and complex under his t-shirt, skin like a snare drum. He was warm, and I started to put my chin on his shoulder, but I couldn’t pull it off while we were walking, so I pressed my nose into his shirt instead. He was cotton and conifers, no smoke at all. All the while, I spun a mental wheel of what I wanted and what Harry wanted and tried to decide which one I was hoping for. Black and red, mouse and no mouse. I flicked on the light, just one bare bulb hanging over an old sink in the corner.
And there was a mouse, dead, with a little bit of bloody drool coming out of its mouth, like someone had painted a tiny line on its cheek.
“Jackpot,” Harry said. He squatted, but just when I thought he was going to grab the mouse he stood back up. “You get it.”
“No.” I shook my head. “No.”
“Your sweatshirt has a big pocket,” he said. He pointed to his own jeans, helpless. “Come on, don’t be that girl.”
“The boring one.”
Kelli was there then, an imagined Kelli that I conjured sometimes when the real one felt farthest away. She was wearing a thick sweater with a bee on it, a high ponytail, desperately uncool. “What on earth are you doing?” she asked, the words my mother’s. “You don’t have to do what he says.” But she wasn’t really there, so what could I do but wave her away?
The last time she’d been over, we’d taught May how to play Sorry! It was shocking to Kelli and me that she hadn’t known what it was or how to play it, and she and Kelli formed an alliance early on that was sweet on its surface but frustrating in practice. We sat around the coffee table with our mugs of cocoa, and Kelli showed May how to slide her blue piece into my green one, knocking it off the board.
“This is where I say sorry?” May had said as I put my piece back at Start.
“Apology not accepted,” I’d said, and Kelli had put her arm around me then.
“We’re only targeting you because you’re the best,” she said, her tone apologetic, and that was how she’d always been, nice even through her meanness, her competition in service of lifting another up. I missed her, and soon enough I’d be missing May, too.
I’d never touched a dead thing before. I had to stand there for a minute before bending down and unhooking the trap, and when I picked it up the mouse’s head flopped back like a rag. Broken neck.
“That’s kind of hot, what you’re doing,” Harry said, standing over me. “It’s dark. I like it.” I shoved the mouse into my sweatshirt pocket, trying not to notice how loose it was, how pliable. And then we went upstairs.
“Give me the mouse,” he said when we got to the top. “I’ll do it.”
I wanted to ask why he’d made me touch it at all if he was just going to take the mouse back anyway, but instead I reached into my pocket, and my fingers brushed a skinny tail. I handed him the mouse.
I was having second thoughts. “Maybe this is too much,” I whispered behind him. “Maybe we could spill some pop on her instead.”
He turned. “Gina, this,” he said, shaking the mouse, “is funny.” That’s all he said, as if that was all that was needed, and I didn’t say anything more.
The plan was to wait until she was asleep. We sat on the couch, Harry and me, across from May, and the room was full of daytime television and candied lemon. I’d taken a cupcake, my second, just to have something to focus on. I picked at its top and chewed little bits so thoroughly they almost dissolved on my tongue. I was thirsty.
Harry broke the silence. “Do you sleep in a bed?” he asked May during a commercial, when it became clear she wasn’t going to sleep. “Or are you always here, in the living room?” I coughed. His was a cruel curiosity—I knew it even then.
May shifted in her wheelchair, her eyes on the television. “Whatever the day calls for. That’s what I do.”
“Got it,” Harry said. “But does someone roll you into the bedroom?”
“I can walk when I have to.” I could sense through some unspoken family language that May was waiting for me to say something, to step in. “But here’s the thing. I’m under water all the time, and you’re a kid. You wouldn’t know what it’s like.”
I held my breath while she talked, trying to see if what she said was true.
She kept going. “I climb a mountain every day,” she said. “That’s what this is, with the lungs I have now. Who knows?” She inhaled slowly. “Maybe someday you’ll see for yourself.”
It was too far away from me, what was happening to May. “I’ve never been to the mountains,” I said, and I wondered if that was something my dad did a lot, climbing mountains, way out in Denver. I bit into my cupcake.
Harry didn’t hear me. Instead, he said, “So I forget, are you on a mountain right now, or are you under water?” and then May turned his way.
“Where do you sleep?” she asked, and I couldn’t help it, I stopped chewing and looked right at Harry because he’d never once talked about his house and I, too, wanted to know, although what could he say but that he slept in a bed? It was a basic question flung back his way, and I couldn’t understand it, but a sudden color bloomed on Harry’s cheeks, splotchy and born from what could only be anger or perhaps a deep embarrassment. I wondered what May could have known about Harry to get him here with a single question, if there was something about him and his family that she knew but that I didn’t.
“That’s a good one,” he said. Everything about him seemed rigid. He had the mouse in his palm, I knew, and I was afraid that he might crush it, that he might wipe its pulp on Mom’s couch. “You don’t get to know where I sleep.”
“Hey,” I said then. I offered him the rest of my cupcake, but he brushed my hand away. “I don’t think she means anything.”
May shrugged. Her hair was nearly white and framed her big face in limp strands. She was due for a shower. “I thought we were friends,” she said. “I thought we were talking.”
I stood up, wadding the rest of my cupcake in its paper towel. “Can we go get french fries?” I asked. I didn’t want to do the mouse thing anymore. I never had, but especially not now, and I pulled on Harry’s arm then, like a toddler, the room now full of dead air.
“Here,” he said as we walked past May toward the door. “Gina got you something.” And he tossed the mouse, casual, onto her lap. I had the sense to close my eyes just before it landed, but it was so small and light that I didn’t hear anything, not even from May.
Over fries we talked about what we would be someday, not about May at all. Something was still burning in Harry that I didn’t want to stoke—he’d been silent the whole way over. A girl I knew from Spanish class was working the counter at the fast food place, and her face had a greasy sheen. She shook a basket of fries over a vat of oil and wiped at her forehead under the bill of her hat, and although my time to get a job was coming up fast I was glad not to have one just then. Harry leaned on the counter and wheedled the girl into sneaking us a box of cookies, and we paid for the fries with freezing coins we’d collected from the console of his car.
Eventually, Harry began talking. He told me he planned to be a pilot, and I thought, out of nowhere, that’s not going to happen for you. It was the dream a little boy might have, and it was both endearing and embarrassing to me that he thought he had that kind of a shot at staying interesting. At that time, I was all about radiology, the science of reading bones, but he didn’t ask what I hoped to be one day, and so I didn’t tell him.
We dipped our fries in packets of mayo we’d squeezed out onto our tray. There weren’t any other customers in the restaurant, just us and all the plastic and the vinyl and the girl from Spanish class who waved a rag limply over the counter next to her cash register.
As we drove home, I wondered, were we bad together now, bad kids doing bad things? Would people know me now, would they see us drive by, and would they stop their dusting or their TV watching and think, there they go? I couldn’t reconcile this with the fact that I was scared to go home, scared to face May, and so I figured the answer was no.
“Do you want to come in?” I asked when Harry dropped me off. Darkness came early— already, the street was cast in dusk, the Iowa sky sprawled out above us, taking up its space. School would start up again soon, and I’d have to see Kelli at our shared locker, not knowing what she’d gotten for Christmas or how it had been to see her brother and his new wife just returned from the Peace Corps, from Moldova, Kelli’s being a house of arrivals.
I didn’t want to ask Harry in, but I didn’t know how to get out of the car without offering something. I didn’t know how May would be if he came inside, or even how Harry would be. It was like wondering what happens when a spider meets a wasp, who does what to the other, how that works.
But he waved me off anyway. “Some people are meeting up at Westroads,” he said, and I could tell that he liked how mysterious that must have sounded to me as someone who hadn’t been invited.
I got out of the car, but before I shut the door, I said, “They’re mean to you, aren’t they?” I asked. I was feeling stung and trying something out. “Like, really awful. Your family.”
He looked me up and down and said, “Mean enough.” He smirked as if to say that I wouldn’t know anything about it, not really, and that I never would.
And then I had one of those strange and rare moments where I drew a lot of conclusions at once: that Harry was very sad, that he hated me, that I’d let him keep coming over anyway because I wanted his attention in whatever form he was willing to give it and that I hated me for that, too.
That night, Mom worked a double at the hospital and I had to give May her pills. I was still thinking about Harry, about how he once told me he wanted to take back the world. Maybe he said that because of something his family had done; maybe he never expected that the world would be otherwise for him. Maybe that was how my dad felt, too, way out in Denver, taking what he wanted and leaving what he didn’t. Maybe that was how things went.
We watched a movie, and I offered to make May some tea. I didn’t think she would tell Mom about Harry and the mouse, but I didn’t know for sure.
When I’d first gotten home, I’d expected May to shout, but she’d kept her eyes on the television screen. And that was my punishment, I saw, the knowledge that I’d left her in this state. Her pale eyes were ringed and swollen; her disappointment had aged her further when aging was a luxury she didn’t have left. She showed herself as the dying woman I’d hurt, and she hadn’t even moved the mouse from her lap.
I’d gone and gotten a paper towel, and I’d walked over to May. I kneeled in front of her chair. Without speaking, I wrapped my fingers around the mouse. I thought it might be like my cupcakes, soft, like the mouse itself had been, but it had begun to grow stiff. Under it, May’s lap was hot, almost feverish. I muttered something about being sorry, to May and to the mouse and to all of us, I suppose, but she didn’t care about that.
“People try to knock you off balance,” she said as I started off toward the kitchen trash. “I’m surprised you haven’t learned that by now.” It was the only real advice she’d ever give me, though it wasn’t so much advice as a statement about the world, and even so, I couldn’t hear it then. I wouldn’t hear it until she was gone, until after she’d died, long after we’d returned her wheelchair to the medical supply store and Mom stopped offering to make party pizzas, too late to stop some things from happening but still in time to prevent others. Too late to have my friend Kelli back—by the time I tried, she’d befriended a bunch of artists, kids who didn’t laugh at animals drawn to look like clouds. Each spring, I looked her up in the index of our yearbook, tracking all the groups she’d joined, show choir and theater crew and Greenpeace, how she’d breathed new life into the bookmakers’ club just as I’d dropped it for good.
After Harry stopped coming over, he moved on to a girl named Andie who wore silky braids and big, complicated earrings and complained that doing the pacer test in gym class messed up her mascara. She’d always seemed bold to me, someone who would slap your books out of your hand for fun, but Harry must have seen something different, because for months there were rumors that she’d let him do things to her, things with objects, things that couldn’t have brought any pleasure without something else, something humiliating, bound up in it. There were other rumors that Harry had moved into his car, that he’d been practically living there for a year anyway, but maybe none of these rumors were true.
“You’re a nice girl,” May said as I took away her teacup, “underneath it all.” Good and mean and then nice again—people were always deciding who I was and who I’d be. May searched around for her lighter, and for once this didn’t make my face burn, because I was learning, and how could I judge her addiction?
Once May was asleep, I snuck back into the living room and sat down on the floor next to her. Her breathing was fast and shallow, and her lip quivered each time she exhaled. I saw her cigarettes on the coffee table, and I took one from the pack and held it in my hand. It was light, almost delicate, and I admired how neatly it was rolled, a little bit of extra paper sticking out at the end, a tight cylinder.
I moved to the other side of the room, far from the oxygen, not too close to our dark husk of a tree. I picked up May’s matches and lit the cigarette as she slept. I didn’t like how the smoke caught in my throat, but I did get the buzz, my nerve endings singing, and I saw how one cigarette could lead to another. I took it in, the poison. I blew out thick and toxic clouds from the bottom of my lungs, and soon I’d filled the room, the house, and the world with my smoke.
Nicole VanderLinden’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review—where Lauren Groff selected her story as the winner of the 2020 NOR Fiction Prize—Crazyhorse, Shenandoah,