★ ★ ★ ★


By Joseph Mills

As soon as they got there, Claire had found a friend—Ella Grace, Ella Mae, Ella something—the sister of one of the boys, sweet-faced and forgettable, and the two girls wandered off. Remember she’s here, she told herself. Remember she’s here. Because she knew what would happen. They would circle the field, circle and circle, they would be there, be there and then they would be gone. It happened all the time. It was such a talent of Claire’s, the ability to disappear, that they had nicknamed her Houdina when she was a toddler. They would be shopping or talking and suddenly realize she had vanished. It was never in an obvious or a rebellious way. She wouldn’t take off running or try to sneak away. You would just kind of forget about her. She was there, she was there, she was gone. She’d be following a butterfly, a breeze, a smell, a thought. Who knows. You thought she was right next to you, assumed she was, and she wasn’t. Once Claire had disappeared from a bouncy castle. She still didn’t know how it happened. She had been standing, waiting, holding her daughter’s shoes, and then she realized Claire wasn’t inside. How was that possible? Where did she go? She had turned and turned and begun to panic when her daughter had wandered up from the drinking fountains and climbed back inside.

Claire was the opposite of her brother. You always knew where he was. The constant banging and stomping. His waking life seemed to be dedicated to announcing, “HERE I AM!.” He came out of the womb with his hands in fists, not to punch, but to bang, and he had started right away. They should have named him Bam Bam instead of Kevin. He was the boy, out there on the field, hitting his chest and legs, the goal posts, banging out rhythms and noises, or singing to himself, not words or songs, but an eerie constant vocalization or beat-boxing, as if he had sounds in his head that he had to let out otherwise the pressure would build up. His teammates were used to it, but the families of other teams would stare sometimes, and she could sense the whispering, or imagined she could.

He was also the boy with bandages. Many of the kids had scrapes, but not like him. Jeff liked to say, “If you have boys, you better be ready for blood.” And, as soon as Kevin began to walk, the days had turned bloody. Cuts, friction burns, stubbed toes, fat lips, knocked-out teeth, bloody noses. His knees and elbows were crisscrossed with scabs and scars. This is my body, this is my blood. This is your body, this is your blood. One day he would be too broken to get up. She imagined him in the street, hit by a car. She imagined the fall. People talked about imagination like it was a positive thing, but hers made life hell. All she saw was blood. The blood of the son, and the blood of the daughter. It was all blood. A slick layer of blood everywhere. Over everyone.

On the bench, Kevin had space on both sides of him to drum. He… wait, where was Claire now? Over there on the bleachers? Was that her? Yes. No. How could she not recognize her own daughter? It looked like her. It probably was. Almost all the girls had pony tails, but she had been wearing a red shirt, hadn’t she. Or blue. Did this girl have braces? Claire had braces. She had hated taking her to the orthodontist, but Claire had been so excited. She loved everything she had hated. Buying a bra. Getting breasts. She couldn’t wait for her period. For blood. She had hated seeing her daughter in the chair, wires erupting from her mouth. It reminded her of Grandpa Joe tying flies on the vice in his workshop. Her daughter was a fish. One that had been caught. One that she had driven into the net. This is what was difficult. To see her bound down, bit by bit. She needed to be set loose. Who gave a damn about the straight teeth? Was she healthy? It had been like some science fiction horror film. A line of young girls on their backs vomiting up wires. Getting wired up for puberty. Paedophiles should hang out around orthodontist offices. All those young ones, transforming, all those Lolitas and pre-Lolitas.

She had had to wear a crash helmet. Her brothers had teased her mercilessly. She had been a freak, a Frankenstein, supposedly to look normal, to look like all those white-toothed, straight-toothed, clean and branded students, the ones who looked like they bathed in money. You had to become a monster to be normal. But Claire had been excited. Eager. She had thought it made her look older. More mature. And now there were colored bands and designer bands, and it was supposed to be fun, even cool. Once, she had yelled at an awards ceremony or some school function, “Bite someone, baby. Let’s get our money’s worth.” Claire had been furious.

But this girl was alone. Hadn’t Claire been with someone? Maybe she had left. Maybe she had been left. What if she wasn’t here? Where was she? What if she was slipping away to do drugs, going into the woods to smoke or make-out or…? That was ridiculous. Claire was too young. Wasn’t she? How old were kids nowadays when they did stuff like that? How old had she been? Jesus, she had been young. She had been young. She had been so young. Of course Claire was going to do that. It was in the genes. She moved towards the paths along the trees. They would have gone there. Into the woods.

Where was she? She felt a familiar rising panic. Yes, this again. Houdina was gone again. Someone passed her, some native whose accent marked her like a tattoo or a brand, walking her dog, talking on her phone about what a great morning it was. The dog came towards her, and she recoiled. She didn’t mind that people brought their dogs to the park. What she didn’t like was their assumption that other people were as into dogs as they were and wanted to pet them and didn’t mind them coming up and humping you. Every dog owner she’d ever known at one point had said “Oh, he’s never done that before” when the dog had snapped or bitten or lunged. Dog owners seemed to have an infinite capacity for surprise when their dogs acted like dogs. At least this one was leashed. It drove her crazy when they let the dogs off leash. The signs forbade it. Common sense forbade it. There was a dog park nearby, but, no these owners were special. Well, so was she. If they were going to ignore the law and let their dog run free, then she was going to bring a gun, and when it came up to sniff her crotch, she was going to shoot it in the fucking head then say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve never done that before.”

A great morning. It would be a great morning if she was somewhere else. She shouldn’t be here. Not in this park, this town, this state, this life. A few years here, that was all it was going to be. Then it was five, then he had left. Disappeared like Houdini himself. She turned around, and he was gone. Unlike his daughter, he didn’t come back.

In college, they had been drinking one night and her roommate Stella was talking about Adam waking up to find Eve next to him, “That must have been one of the original what-the-fuck moments. What’s this and how did it get here?” That had become their catch phrase. “What’s this and how did it get here?” It always puzzled the hungover hook-ups they brought home. Stella even used it on herself once, waking up in some apartment, and when the guy’s roommate found her in the kitchen, she said, “I know just what you’re thinking. What’s this and how did it get here?” Years later, she would repeat it to herself. As a joke. Looking at her daughter. Looking at her son. What’s this and how did it get here? But when he left, just left, that was the one true what-the-fuck moment she had had in her life. No joke. She had felt numb ever since, going through the motions of parenting, of working, feeling like she wasn’t quite there. Did people even see her? What if she just walked onto the field and started cursing, or doing what Kevin did, singing nonsense. She should take off her clothes and walk onto the field, making noise. Jesus Christ, maybe she was crazy like Brad always said. Maybe he had left her because she was insane. She shouldn’t be here. Still here. She had moved with him, and he had left.

“Don’t follow the ball! Go to space! Go to space!”

She could hear the coach yelling. Maybe that was a key requirement for being a coach. Maybe the only one. A loud voice. Following the ball. That was the mistake she had made. Instead of running to the open space. Bunching up. It was impossible not to see it all as a big fucking metaphor.

“How much time coach?” some boy was asking. Was that Kevin? No, he wasn’t hers. Kevin was on a different field. She wasn’t at the right field. It was hard when they all wore the same type of uniforms and were the same age and looked so similar. They all looked the same. They all looked like the other boys. They all looked like someone else’s children, children she had seen before. They all looked like strangers. Why couldn’t she see her own family clearly?

How much time? Isn’t that the question that everyone wants to ask. How much time? What can we still get in? Wasn’t that the only question? Wasn’t that what her teachers had said books and poetry were about? Time. Carpe fucking diem. She should ask the coach if he wanted to fuck. If he had the time. She didn’t want to have sex with him, she wanted him to want to have sex with her. She wanted someone to find her fuckable again. Two children made her invisible. People saw right through her. At the team meeting, when he had asked, “Any questions?” she should have said, “Fuck me coach?” Yes, clearly she was crazy. Her daughter wandered away whenever she could because she was crazy. Had she been this way before Brad left? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t see clearly. She didn’t see anything clearly. Where was Houdina? Getting sawed in half by some boy? The myth was that you walked away fine. That never happened. A smoke would calm her down. While she was away from the soccer field, she should have a quick one. She kept a small halfpack in her purse, zippered in a back pouch. Why had she locked it in the car? She should go and get it. She walked back towards the bleachers to get her keys from her coat, and Claire was there, sitting on the bottom of the bleachers with two of her friends. Ella something and Ella something. Were they both named Ella? Could that be so? Before she could say anything, her daughter said, “I was wondering where you went. You disappeared again. I was getting worried.”

A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills has published six collections of poetry with Press 53, most recently Exit, pursued by a bear. His collection, This Miraculous Turning, was awarded the North Carolina Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry for its examination of family and race. More information about his work is available at www.josephrobertmills.com.

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