I have one beer by the lake near my aunt’s, and the water becomes dazzling: moving points of light in soft black current. My little sister and I lure fish with broken blue corn chips as my stoned cousin swims the length of the water.
We drop in cherry pits and watch as the fish swallow the stones and spit them out with their well-defined lips.
“Do you burn easily?” asks my aunt’s friend, as I re-apply sunscreen on the dock. “I do.”
“Why aren’t you fireproof,” says my little sister, smiling, mostly to herself.
When it gets dark, my father and I walk with a flashlight down to a meadow to see the fireflies. Reliably, there are dozens to hundreds—flashing points of light, like the lights of the lake have migrated. The bugs keep mainly inside the surrounding brush, rather than venturing to the open space.
“They’re liminal, like deer,” my father says. “So the birds can’t get them.” “But they’re so inconspicuous out in the open,” I say, and he laughs.
On and off, on and off, goes the silent spray of pointillist flash bulbs in the darkness—our tiny paparazzi on the carpet of his field.
“On the Fourth of July,” my father says, “When the fireworks go off across the river, they all look up and say . . . I want to mate with that. That big blue thing. That’s my mate.”
Now my father and my sister are playing Battleship, a Sunday afternoon. “E2,” she says.
“Miss,” he says. “Miss-issippi. B12.” “Miss,” she says. “Miss-ouri. C4.”
“Miss,” he says. “Miss America. Miss-an-thropic.” “Who’s Miss Ann Thropic?”
“Your sister,” my father says.
“Ha ha,” I say, from the other room.
Doing the dishes, I talk to my father about the news. I tell him Aaron, the man I’m seeing, pays for live sports on Hulu, which comes with the 24-hour-news networks.
“So, more live sports,” my father says. He glances out the window and sighs, tells me mint has taken over a large corner of his garden.
“Maybe I’ll take a cutting,” I say.
“Plant it in your mom’s backyard,” he says, all innocence. “Then, in the fall, the whole thing will be mint.”
Another day he calls Lily of the Valley a “thug.” “She dominates,” he mutters, weeding. “Merciless.”
We’re in the car, playing “I Spy.”
“I spy with my little eye something dead.” “Roadkill,” says my little brother.
“The meat we’re bringing back from the store,” my father says. “No.”
“The dry grass,” says my sister. “Yes.”
“Parts of that are still alive,” says my brother. “The dead parts.”
“I spy with my little eye something white,” says my sister. “Clouds,” says my father.
“The lines on the road,” says my brother. “Yes.”
“I spy with my little eye something black,” says my brother. “The road,” I say.
“The shadows,” says my father. “Yes.”
We go cherry picking.
“What happens if I swallow too many cherry pits?” my sister asks. “Cherries will grow out of your nose,” my father says.
“It depends how many you ate.”
“I ate four.” “Eighty-five.”
“Voila,” says my sister, filling the basket.
The trees are festooned with fruit, sours and sweets in different rows in every direction. “Festive,” I say.
“They look like a holiday,” she agrees.
My father and stepmother have purchased a trampoline for the backyard. I bounce with my sister.
“I’m a flying . . . squirrel,” I say, starfishing my body. “I’m a flying flying . . . fish,” she says, guppy-ing her mouth.
When one gets off a trampoline, the ground is a rude surface. One’s step should still be springing. The jolt of ice skating to blades on rubber mats, ski boots on level snow.
“Land legs,” my father names it, when I describe the sensation.
One day I come back with my father from an errand and my sister is waiting for me at the kitchen table, somber.
“I have to apologize to you,” she says. She’s formal, practiced. “Okay,” I say, sitting down.
My stepmother hovers in the background.
“I have to apologize to you because -” the rest comes out in a rush - “while-you-were-gone-I-found-your-makeup-and-tried-some-of-it-on.”
“How did you find my make-up?” I say. “Did you snoop in my room and look through my things?”
“Yes,” she says. “Well, not really. The makeup was sticking out.” “It’s okay,” I say. “It’s okay, I forgive you.”
I ask my sister about school, in the car. There’s a unit on the big hand and the little hand. “I was really clueless in second grade,” she says. “I was hopeless. But in third grade I got the hang of time.”
The Hudson Valley light is rich in light this hour in the car windows, gold against the farms in need of rain.
“It’s incandescent,” I say, conscious of using a word she may not know. After a moment: “I love worms,” my sister says.
“Worms are cool.”
“The other day, in my Explore class, I found a really nice worm,” she says, staring out the window casually. “It was iridescent.”
Her pride is audible, and I act nonchalant in the other direction.
Today she found a toad, its back patterned like lichen, gray with dark speckles and stripes. Then it was peeing on her hand, crawling on her shirt, peeing on her shirt, hopping in her hair, peeing on her hair. She laughed the whole while and was unhurt, despite yelling in mortal fear of a spider the day before. We made the toad an enclosure and she went looking for live bugs to feed it. When the amphibian showed disinterest in a dead ant, she gave up. I asked whether she couldn’t find any living creepy-crawlers.
“No,” she said. “Must be their day off.”
My father has made toast points with soft boiled eggs, while the day is still cool, sun low over the Catskills.
“Important to get your protein early,” he says, salt-and-pepper-ing the yolk. “Why is that,” I say, barely awake.
“So you don’t get hungry and pick a fight with your brother at 10 a.m.,” he says. My sister had been pinching.
“Why is your brain in your skull?” she asks now, forking her sausage without taking a bite.
“So it’s near your sensory equipment, your eyes and nose and mouth, up high, with a good view,” my father says.
“Grasshoppers have their ears by their feet,” she says, skeptical.
Next: “How hot is it in Texas?”
“Hot,” he says, losing steam, downing the eggs. “Though it’s earlier in the day there, so it’s less hot.”
“Have they covered time zones in the unit on time?” I ask. She shakes her head.
On the deck, my sister assembles a crown for herself out of Brain Flakes, a puzzle-like toy of colored pieces that notch together. She admires herself.
“It looks futuristic,” I say.
“It looks ancient,” she replies.
Now I walk with my little sister to feed the old, out-to-pasture horses some houses down.
I offer a purple carrot, but the patchy-coated mares come only so close. Stretching my arm farther, I suddenly bolt back, horse-like myself, as a bright crack travels from my hand through my body.
Snatching my sister up in my arms, I hold her away from the barbed-wire fence I now know is electrified. It’s why the horses wouldn’t stretch their snouts to take the bribe. We angle so that no one is anymore at risk. We watch their black-gummed teeth make quick work of the roots.
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