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Still life with tornado, p.12
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.12

           A. S. King
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  It was a clear night but we didn’t recognize any constellations. We were always looking for constellations because stars are individuals in Philadelphia. It’s not like we could look up and see the Big Dipper or Orion or Cassiopeia from anywhere—not even the top of the Liberty Two skyscraper. Not unless there was some sort of blackout, I guess. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen a blackout.

  Bruce learned about constellations when he was young. He said, “That’s the Big Dipper. Or the bear. Ursa. That’s bear in Latin.” He squinted around the sky as if he’d lost his dog. “I can’t find any others that I know.”

  “They’re pretty,” I said.

  We sat in the sand near the water and I looked out and saw lights on far out boats.

  He said, “If you lie back and look at the whole sky at once, you’ll probably see a shooting star. They happen all the time.”

  “People never see shooting stars.”

  “That’s because they aren’t looking,” he said. “I’m serious. You’ll see one if you look.”

  I lay back and tried to look at the sky all at once, like he said. He was already lying down, so now we were just two siblings lying in the sand in Mexico on a cloudless night trying to see the whole sky and not talking about Mom and Dad getting a divorce.

  “Why’s Dad so mad at you?” I asked.

  “I don’t know,” Bruce said.

  “You know and you think I’m too young to talk about it with me,” I said.

  Bruce pointed to the sky and said, “Oh! Look! Did you see that one?”

  “Shit,” I said. “I was looking that way.”

  “See the whole sky,” he said. “Don’t focus.”

  “So why’s Dad so mad at you?”

  “Dad was always mad at me,” he said. “I wasn’t the son he wanted.”

  “What kind of son did he want?”

  “I don’t know.”

  I didn’t know shooting stars flew so far and so fast. It seemed to last forever and then disappear as if I were imagining it. I gasped and both Bruce and I pointed to it as it traveled from the right-hand corner of our view to the left—all the way across the sky.

  Seeing it with Bruce made it real.

  “You didn’t write me any letters,” I said to him. “I liked when you called, but you said you’d write me letters.”

  “Yeah. I didn’t know college was going to be so busy. I’ll write you some next year.”

  Another shooting star.

  Bruce was right. It’s not that hard to see a shooting star. I’d just seen two in under a minute.

  “I’m not coming back next summer,” Bruce said. “I’m transferring to another college. Farther away.”

  “How far away?”

  “All the way,” he said. We both laughed. “Oregon.”

  I was relieved. Oregon wasn’t so far. “There are direct flights from Philadelphia to Portland,” I said.

  “How do you know so much when you’re ten?”

  “I snoop,” I said. “And I listen to you because you’re smart. And Mom and Dad say stuff right in front of me sometimes because they think I’m thinking about My Little Pony, but I don’t really like My Little Pony. And anyway, Salem is the capital of Oregon, not Portland. I’m telling you that so you don’t embarrass yourself.”

  “Don’t be a show-off.”

  I beat Bruce in the capital game every time we played it. He never learned his capitals or his eleven and twelve times tables because his third-grade teacher only believed in states and multiplication up to ten.

  Another shooting star. And another.

  “Are we out here because Mom and Dad are having sex or something?” I asked.

  “I doubt it.”

  “They’re probably fighting or watching TV,” I say.

  “Do you want to go back in?”

  “I’m a little cold.”

  Bruce handed me his sweatshirt. “I worry about you, Sarah.”

  Another shooting star, but I only caught a glimpse because I was putting Bruce’s sweatshirt on.

  “Growing up around Dad,” he said. “I mean, and the stuff that’s on TV. And the Internet. Not all boys are that bad, okay?”

  “Dad’s not bad,” I said.

  “Dad is typical,” he said. “I don’t want you to end up with some typical guy.”

  “I know the state capitals and the twelve times tables,” I said. “I’m ten. I don’t even want to get married.”

  Day Four: over. Day Four: ruined ruins, lied lies, and shooting stars.


  I don’t sleep. I dream while I’m awake, but my eyes are closed. I am Lichtenstein’s sleeping girl. I am a series of dots. I am my own constellation. Sarah—the big question mark.

  I dream about Carmen’s tornadoes. I dream about all the things I’ve ever heard when I stand in random places. I dream about all the things I’ve seen that I wasn’t supposed to see. I dream of nothing and everything all at the same time and they cancel each other out. My dots get all mixed up. I am Lichtenstein’s mixed-up sleeping not-sleeping girl.

  And then suddenly, I wake up, the sun is up, I know I slept, my body aches, my head is fuzzy. My room is not a vanilla milk shake. My room is still the ugliest green ever invented.

  I remember the sky-blue hand I drew in Rittenhouse Square.

  I remember sitting in the hospital parking lot in the middle of the night.

  I remember ten-year-old Sarah walking me home.

  I remember Mexico. Parts of it. Enough of it. I remember what I need to remember.

  I want to call Bruce but I text him instead. I pull out the scrap of paper from my wallet and enter his number into my contacts. I don’t put his name on the contact; just the letter B.

  I want to call you later. Will you be home? This is Sarah.

  I get a reply almost instantly.

  I’m home all day. Please call.

  I’ve never had a more invigorating shower. It feels like I was reborn last night. Like staying up all night changed me. I feel like I am more than I was. I feel like I am less than I was. It’s very hard to explain.

  Everything fell apart a month ago.

  Over silliness and drama. Over something so stupid.

  But who’s to say what’s stupid and what’s not stupid when your life falls apart? Some people fall apart over TV shows. Some people fall apart over a breakup. Some people fall apart over someone eating the last bowl of Apple Jacks. I fell apart because of the annual art show. No one noticed I was falling apart before then.

  I stay in the shower for a long time—enough time to get the week’s dirt off me. I think about asking Mom to find me a therapist or something. I can’t talk to anyone about anything. I can’t talk to Carmen because she’s the weed connection. I can’t talk to Dad because he doesn’t mind the sliver of tissue stuck to the TV. I can’t talk to Mom because she wants us to have fun now. I can’t talk to anyone in school because I don’t go there anymore. I wanted to talk to Alleged Earl, but I lost my chance, and if I would have taken the chance I would have asked him all the wrong questions anyway.


  Maybe I can talk to Bruce.

  I decide it’s best to talk to him outside of the house.

  Dad isn’t around when I go downstairs. Mom is just stirring after her night shift and I hope I didn’t use all the hot water.

  I walk out the door and to Rittenhouse Square. I sit on my bench—the one with the disfigured hand drawn in front of it.

  I watch a bunch of kids who are my age walk the path up the middle of the park. They are a pack. Boyfriends and girlfriends. Holding hands. Giggling. Having fun. Too young to be like the college girl in the park last night. Too old to need supervision. I hear one of them mention a movie. I decide they’ve just gone to see it. I decide they’ve all been friends since primary
school. I decide that they will all be at one another’s funerals. They have something I don’t have.

  It’s not as simple as the art club fissure or the shit Miss Smith did to Vicky. It’s not about the art show even though it is about the art show.

  It’s about lies and trust.

  I’ve never had a boyfriend. I’ve never wanted a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend for that matter. Bruce had it all wrong in Mexico. I won’t end up with a typical guy because I’m not going to end up with anybody. Since I can remember, I wanted to live alone and make art. Selfishly. I wanted to make art and not care about anything or anyone else. I know this is abnormal for a sixteen-year-old human being.

  I’m supposed to be like them.

  I don’t trust anyone. Not even myself.

  I dial Bruce. It doesn’t ring even once.


  “Hi, Bruce.”

  “Oh my God, Sarah,” he says. And then I can hear him crying—not sobbing because Mom and Dad never taught us how to sob. But he’s emotional.

  “Hi,” I say, because I can’t figure out anything else to say.

  He sniffles. “Hi.”

  Sweet Sixteen

  I decide not to dawdle.

  “Did you ever get your degree in psychology?”

  “Not quite,” he says.


  “Are you really a religious freak?” I ask.

  “A what?”

  “Did you get naked in a river and get baptized?”

  “Holy shit,” Bruce says.

  “Did you?”

  “They brainwashed you.”

  “But did you?”

  “To my knowledge, I have never been baptized in a river. Or anywhere.”

  “Huh,” I say. “So I guess the only thing I know about you is that you’re a crappy kayaker.”

  “And an awesome big brother.”

  “You haven’t called me in six years.”

  He sniffles again.

  “Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

  “Let me talk,” he says. So I shut up. But he doesn’t say anything.


  “I should come visit.”

  “You should call Mom and Dad.”

  “Not them. You.”

  “We live in the same house.”

  “I can stay in the B&B.”

  “What B&B?”

  “I always stay in the one on Pine.”

  I’m not computing anything Bruce is saying. When has he stayed at the B&B on Pine? “Why don’t we start over?” I say. “Why don’t I say How are you? and then you tell me how you are?”


  “How are you?”

  “I’m good. Life is good. How are you?”

  “That’s not an answer. Good? Life is good?” Six years have passed and I get Life is good. His voice sounds deeper than it used to. He sounds grown-up. I say, “Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? A job? What are you doing out there?”

  “Not married. I work with kids.”

  “You’re a teacher?”

  “I’m a mentor.”

  This sounds promising. I wait for more, but he doesn’t say more. He asks, “What about you? Tenth grade now? Am I right?”

  “Yeah. But kinda no. It’s a long story.”

  We are vague. Ten-year-old Sarah would be disappointed. Ten-year-old Sarah likes details. Ten-year-old Sarah will probably never come around anymore because I was so rude to her last night.

  “What?” Bruce said. “You’re not in tenth grade?”

  “It’s a long story,” I say again.

  “I have time.”

  “I’m only figuring it out,” I say. “I’m in some sort of . . . transition or something.”

  “In school?”

  I don’t know what to say. Here is a brother I haven’t talked to in six years. Now he wants me to tell him how I’m doing when I don’t know how I’m doing.

  “Do you come back to Philly and not tell us?”

  “Kind of,” he says. “I came back twice.”


  “And the first time I called Mom, but she said Dad didn’t want me in the house,” he says. “The second time was for business. I didn’t tell them I was there.”

  “But I miss you.”

  “I miss you, too.”

  “What kind of kids do you work with?”

  “Mostly at-risk kids. Kids who are messed up.”

  “Like delinquents or what?”

  “All of that. And runaways and kids in the system and orphans and kids who are just bored and don’t have much to do. The whole gamut.”

  “Is that Bruce?” ten-year-old Sarah says. She’s appeared next to me on the bench.

  “Shhh.” I’m elated to see her.

  Bruce says, “Are you talking to someone?”

  How do I explain this?

  I say, “I think I’m an at-risk kid.”


  “I stopped going to school. Now I’m just walking around most days.”

  “Do Mom and Dad know?”


  “Is that Bruce?” ten-year-old Sarah asks again.

  “Who is that?” Bruce asks.

  “My friend from around the corner,” I lie. I turn to ten-year-old Sarah and say, “Yes, now quiet.”

  “Are they freaking out over you not going to school?”

  “Yeah. And no. It’s weird.”

  “Are you failing or something?”


  “How was your birthday?”

  What a strange question. My birthday was in March. It’s May. Maybe Bruce is so far away now that those dates seem closer together to him.

  “It was fine,” I say.

  “Sweet sixteen,” he says.

  “That’s the most unoriginal thing you ever said,” I say.

  This was probably the wrong day to call Bruce.

  The Movies

  I said I’d call him back tomorrow. I nearly told him I was having an existential crisis, but it didn’t seem fair to him. He’s in Oregon and a stranger now. I’m in Philly and a stranger now, too.

  Ten-year-old Sarah asks, “Wanna go find Earl?”

  “I don’t follow Earl anymore.” I don’t tell her that I think I’ve become Earl.


  “I think I need a nap.”

  “You were up all night,” she says.

  “Do you want to come to dinner this week?” I ask.

  “That’s weird.”

  “Mom says we’re having tacos.”

  “I love tacos.”

  “I know. I’m you.”

  “You don’t know who you are,” she says.

  We walk back home and ten-year-old Sarah asks me how Bruce is. I tell her I’ll know more tomorrow. It’s getting near twilight and I feel like last night made me lose a day. Ten-year-old Sarah says she wants to come in and I let her come in because I know Mom will be working and Dad didn’t recognize her last time.

  Mom is there when we walk in. She doesn’t look at first. Just says, “Sarah? Is that you?” Ten-year-old Sarah and I both say yes. “I got the night off—switched with Georgie for Tuesday. Your father got called into work today. Some weekend insurance emergency, I guess. Want to go see a movie or something?” She’s dusting the mantelpiece, her back to us. We stand there, twins but not twins, and she turns around.

  “Hi,” we say.

  She freezes. She puts her fingertips to her chest. She squints. She frowns. She concentrates. She crosses her eyes. She scratches her head. She finds her way to the couch and sits down, still staring. We stand there.

  “Sarah?” she asks.

  We both nod.

I say, “Dad said she could come for dinner this week but I forget which day.”

  “This—this is your—friend? From around the block?”

  “Hi!” ten-year-old Sarah says with a wave. Same wave I have. Same wave we’ve always had. The circular fun wave.

  “He said we were going to have tacos,” I say.

  Ten-year-old Sarah says, “I love tacos!”

  Mom is speechless.

  “And I love movies!” ten-year-old Sarah adds. “Can we go, Sarah?”

  “I need a nap,” I say.

  Mom says, “I need a glass of water.”

  I go to the kitchen and get a glass and get her some water out of the water cooler we have because of trihalomethanes. Philadelphia water has some history with trihalomethanes, and Mom avoids cancer when she’s not in the ER. Who doesn’t?

  As the water glup-glup-glups from the cooler into the glass, I hear ten-year-old Sarah talking to Mom, but I can’t hear what she’s saying. When I come back into the living room, they are both sitting on the couch.

  “We’re going to a movie!” ten-year-old Sarah says. “You can come with us. Or you can take that nap if you want.”

  I look at Mom. “Isn’t that a little weird?” I look at ten-year-old Sarah. “Don’t you have to be home by dark?”

  “I know who she is,” Mom says.

  I don’t answer.

  “How could I not recognize my own daughter?”

  This is all happening too fast. And I’ve stopped thinking about how unoriginal everything is because this is original.

  This is original.

  MEXICO—Day Five I: Kids’ Club

  We stood at the omelet station at the breakfast buffet—me, Dad, and Bruce. Mom preferred the Mexican yogurt and fresh fruit for breakfast. So far, none of us had contracted Montezuma’s Revenge and Mom trusted the fruit even though the guidebooks say to avoid the produce due to it being washed with tap water.

  Dad and I had already ordered our omelets. Dad said, “Bruce, what do you want in yours?”

  The cook stood waiting, but Bruce wouldn’t answer.

  Dad said, “He’ll have the same as I’m having.”

  When we left the omelet station with our plates full, Dad turned to Bruce and said, “What the hell is your problem?”

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