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Ann ordered Michael to drop his bag next to a long, skinny door that had an iron lever for a doorknob. “Your room will be upstairs,” she said, although there were no stairs he could see. Michael struggled with the handle, and Ann, impatient, pushed his hand away. “Everything here is old and weird. Here—”
She showed him how it worked, pressing the lever with her thumb and tugging the swollen door from the frame, revealing a staircase unlike any Michael had seen. It was so steep it was almost a wall, with only enough room on each narrow step for the balls of his feet, and the pine risers were riddled with scuff marks. “These are the captain’s stairs,” Ann said.
He lifted his leg to begin his ascent, but Ann pulled him back. “Later. We need to get going.” She swung the door shut with a disheartening thud.
Michael wanted to explore the house, but the girls explained that they’d stay only long enough to change into swimsuits and head straight to the beach. This was a family tradition, the first thing they did after their annual drive halfway across the country from Milwaukee to Wellfleet. But Michael wasn’t ready to leave.
The house had seemed peaceful and dark when they’d first walked in, as if it were sleeping. It wasn’t like any home he’d ever been in. It even smelled different, because it sat closed up all winter long. Now the house was already buzzing with life. Connie pulled the sheets off the furniture. Michael walked to the couch to help her, but his mind was still on those stairs. He wanted to know where he’d sleep—no, he needed to know. He’d spent too many nights not knowing.
Ed walked with purpose to the window and pulled up the heavy wood blind with a hearty yank of the yellowed cord. Dust rose and lingered like confetti in the abrupt sunlight, revealing four playing cards, all aces, nailed to the wall above the door to the sunporch.
“What are those?” Michael asked.
Ed smiled. “Oh, that’s the stuff of legend. My grandfather Cullen, he won this house in a game of poker.”
“He won a whole house in a game?”
“They were gambling out here. The homeowner, Hopkinson, he’d built the newer house next door to be closer to the cove. At the time, this was just the back house—his man cave. Anyway, Cullen was way up. Hopkinson was low on chips but he wanted to stay in for one last game. He had a winning hand, and you know what he did? He bet the house.”
“The house?” Michael couldn’t imagine being so reckless.
“Well, at that time it wasn’t worth a plug nickel. And Hopkinson, you know, he didn’t think he’d lose. He had four kings. But that was Cullen’s hand.” Ed pointed at the playing cards, pinned unevenly to the wall and stained from the long, rusty nails. “He’d tell that story to anyone who would listen.”
Connie playfully swatted Ed on the behind with the dust rag she was holding. “You’ll tell it to anyone who will listen.” She wiped down the top of the bookcase. “The little room next to ours is a birthing room, where women had their babies so they could stay warm near the fire. And this room we’re in, this is called a keeping room.” She was happy to show off the old house, and clearly happy to finally be there. “See these tall, thin doors? They called them courting doors because of the tiny windows above them.” She pointed up. “For spying.”
Poppy opened a cabinet on the side of the large, squat fireplace that dominated the room. “They used to bake bread in here,” she said. “Check this out. This is the best part.” She walked over to a bookcase on the other side of the fireplace and gave it a push, revealing a hidden compartment one or two small people might fit in if they huddled together. “A hiding place.”
“To hide from what?” Michael asked.
“Well, as you can imagine, back in the day the natives weren’t too happy with the colonists.” Ed’s statement was innocent enough, but it hit Michael sideways, heightening his awareness of insiders and outsiders, natives and impostors.
Still, he was happy to be there. More than happy. He found the house, with its leathery smell and unexpected spaces, even more magical than he’d anticipated—as magical as he found the Gordon family with their traditions, games, inside jokes, Sunday dinners, and summer vacations “out East.”
Ann emerged from the bedroom. He looked beyond her and saw her clothing already scattered all over the twin beds in the room she and Poppy shared. She adjusted the shoulder straps of her suit with a snap. “Let’s go. I’m dying to swim.” Ann dabbed some Coppertone on her cheeks. The room smelled suddenly of coconut. He wished he could reach out and smooth out the glob of lotion next to her nose that she’d missed.
“You go ahead,” he said. “I can wait here.”
“Don’t you want to see the back shore?”
He did, he supposed, but he hated the idea of leaving. “I want to unpack.”
Ann walked toward the door. “You’ve got all summer to unpack. Come on, get changed.”
“I’ll just wear my shorts,” Michael said.
He didn’t want to tell her that he didn’t own a swimsuit.
* * *
MICHAEL RACED DOWN THE DUNE behind the girls, so intent on staying steady in the deep, rust-colored sand that he didn’t look up or ahead as he followed their winding tracks around beach blankets, Frisbee players, coolers, sandcastles, and the lifeguard stand. They stopped just short of the surf. Michael stood next to Ann and stared in awe at the limitless expanse of blue sky and churning gray water spread out in front of him. His lungs and legs burned. He’d seen Lake Michigan plenty of times. The lake was just a puddle compared to the Atlantic. The ocean was as frightening as it was beautiful. He felt as if he were standing at the mouth of a massive and hungry living thing.
Poppy squealed with delight when a wave broke against her leg. She was always in her own world, daydreaming and doodling palm trees on her folders and the textbook covers she made out of old grocery bags and Scotch tape. She changed when she got near the water. It was as if he could see her snap into herself, become her own person.
“It’s even colder than I remembered.” Poppy’s smile was broad, her shoulders glistened, and the thick rope of her braid hung over one bare shoulder. He’d always been so preoccupied with Ann that he felt as if he was only now seeing Poppy. Her looks were more rugged and outdoorsy than Ann’s. Poppy didn’t seem like she’d just arrived at the beach; it was as if she’d been there all along. “Put your foot in, Michael.”
The girls watched Michael expectantly as he took in the rise, curl, and crash of waves against the shore. He couldn’t move. He was overwhelmed by both the power of the surf and the girls’ intense focus on him. He began to feel there was something pressingly selfish about their interest, as though they didn’t really care if he connected to Cape Cod; what they wanted was for him to recognize their attachment to the place.
“C’mon,” Poppy said in her dreamy voice, splashing the water like a dancer. “It’s amazing.”
“It’s cold at first,” Ann said, “but you’ll get used to it.”
He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t shake his fear that the Gordons could still change their mind about him. During the drive out, he was convinced they’d leave him stranded at a gas station or rest stop. He couldn’t believe they’d asked him to come along to this place Ed called “the outermost Cape.” “Outermost” was right: it seemed about as different and as far away as he could possibly get from Milwaukee.
He thought he’d known what to expect. Poppy and Ann had shown him their scrapbooks stuffed with pictures of Wellfleet. The photos made the place seem quiet and peaceful, and he looked forward to going there the way his mother had talked about going to heaven. He hadn’t anticipated the wind ripping in his ears, the ocean roaring like a freight train, and the girls staring at him.
“Don’t you want to swim?” Poppy asked. It was as if she thought the ocean could change him, and she was right. It could. The ocean could change him from hot to cold, change the air in his lungs to water, change him from living to dead.
Michael looked down at his feet to anchor himself but got dizzy watching the small pebbles crash against each other, roll forward, skitter back, forward, back. They were powerless, grinding down to nothing against each other.
The air tasted like salt. Gulls swirled overhead and the wind ripped at his hair. Children misbehaved and their parents in plaid swim trunks and polo shirts scolded them in their strange East Coast accents. Daniel, I tooold you not to put sand in your brotha’s eyes and Whea’s your noodle? They were the kind of people who belonged here, people who set summers aside from the rest of the year, people who had money and families, who knew how to swim and thought nothing of it. People who thought this beach was relaxing.
Ann reached for his hand, and her touch sent a familiar shock through him. “Isn’t it amazing, Michael?”
It was amazing and it was theirs—the roaring ocean, the old vacation home, their nice parents, everything. The girls thought they were sharing it with him, but he felt like they were rubbing their perfect lives in his face, saying, This is ours, ours, ours—we know all about it, we come here every year. You have no history, you know nothing, you have nothing, you are nothing.
Ann’s hand was nestled into his own, warm and soft compared to the cool ocean spray, but just as dangerous.
On the drive out, she sat next to him in the cramped backseat and pressed her thigh against his. It made him crazy, and he had a feeling from her faint smile that she knew it would. He’d tried his best to concentrate on the family game they called “Anibitz.” Ann and Poppy said they’d made it up and played it since they were little. Someone would name an animal, like a sea lion, and someone else would name another one, like a tarantula, and whoever was “it” had to draw a combination of the two and come up with a combined name, like “sealantula.” Or they’d draw a creature and everyone else would try to guess what it was made out of—a roach, a monkey, a polar bear: a “romopobear.”
By the time they reached Cleveland they could mash together three, four, five creatures into one, and they added real people into the mix, like Prince and Mrs. LaSpisa, the guidance counselor from school who gave him a beeswax candle when she’d heard his mother had died. Michael thought the game was stupid and funny and charming. He was excited to see Cape Cod, and the ride out there—with all of them close together, playing games like a real family—would have been perfect if he hadn’t been so distrustful of his good fortune to be included, and so skeptical that his luck would last.
After their stop in Syracuse, Ann fell asleep with her head on his shoulder. He couldn’t help it: the feeling of her breath on his neck and the fruity smell of shampoo in her long, straight hair made him hard. Of course she turned him on. She was pretty, but there was more to his attraction to her than that. He’d heard kids at school say she was stuck-up, and he supposed she could be, but he admired her confidence and drive. Plus, she’d allowed him to see a side of her that other people didn’t see. He’d be forever in her debt for taking an interest in him when nobody else did. If it weren’t for Ann, he’d be in some foster home or out on the street.
He could practically taste her, smell her, feel her soft hair in his hands. He studied everything about her: the dimple on her cheek, the bump on her nose, the way she frowned when she did homework and tapped her fingers against her leg when she was bored. He couldn’t explain it; it was as if she’d been imprinting herself on him.
The waves kept smashing against the shore, and the wind whistled in his ears. Couldn’t everything just stop for a minute? Couldn’t there be quiet? He didn’t know what to do; he only knew that Ann’s hand felt like an anchor. He wanted her to keep holding on as much as he knew she should let go. He wasn’t her boyfriend.
“Let’s swim,” Ann said. A strand of her hair had gotten caught in the bubble-gum-scented lip gloss she always used, and it was all he could do not to reach out and pull it away for her. In the sun, her hair looked as golden as the tinsel on a Christmas tree, while Poppy’s hair had a copper cast to it. They were both wearing one-pieces, the kind of modest suits girls wear to swim meets, but it was cold near the water and he couldn’t help but notice Ann’s nipples poking through the fabric. Michael looked away, embarrassed.
Ann stepped closer to the water and tugged on his arm. “Come on. Don’t you want to swim?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t. Go ahead.”
Ann, as usual, caught on quickly. “Oh my God, you don’t know how, do you?” Her reaction might not have been so devastating if she hadn’t dropped his hand when she said it.
Michael had been so anxious about this moment that he didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to swim. He never spent his summers in a place like this. He didn’t know anyone who would have bothered to take him to a pool or Lake Michigan and teach him. Besides, he hated water, because it was his mom’s boyfriend’s favorite form of punishment. When he was little and he got in trouble over what seemed like nothing, Marcus would make him sit in an ice-cold bath, or in water so hot it burned his skin.
“It’s OK,” Poppy said. “I can show you how. But you should learn in the ponds, not here, not with the riptide.”
Michael didn’t know what a riptide was, only that it sounded terrifying: rip.
“I’ve never met anyone our age who couldn’t swim,” Ann said.
Michael’s mother had told him that it’s the people who think before they talk that you should worry about. Because she was so confident, Ann usually just said whatever was on her mind. But that afternoon her words hurt him deeply. He wanted to throw up.
Poppy might have been a space cadet, but she could see the pain in Michael’s face. He couldn’t hide anything from her; she was alert when it came to emotions, a human tuning fork. “God, Ann,” she said. “You didn’t have to say it like that.”
“I just meant that he’ll learn. It’s not hard, nothing to be embarrassed about. Even little kids can swim.” Ann pointed off in the distance at a little boy playing in a pool that had formed between a sandbar and the beach.
“Ann!” Poppy said.
“It’s really not a big deal,” Michael said.
That was a lie. It was a big deal. The stakes never felt higher than they did now. He couldn’t make sense of the recent dizzying turn of events. Six months ago, he was hiding out in the storage locker in the basement of the building near the Marquette campus where he and his mother had an apartment until she’d died. He’d showered at school and slept with his shoes on because he was afraid the rats would bite his toes at night.
That’s when he got to know Ann. They were at a track meet in Wautoma, at one of those hotels with a dome over the pool. Everyone else had a room to sleep in. But Michael couldn’t afford one, so he told his coach he had family in town. He went to sleep in the lounge chair by the pool. Ann found him there. She said she couldn’t sleep because her roommate snored. She sat next to him in the watery green light and they started talking.
Before he knew it, Ann told him about the long history of tensions between her and the girls at school, the false rumors her old boyfriend Nick Maddox had started about her “putting out” when he was upset she wouldn’t sleep with him, the difficulties of attending a school where your father was a teacher, how she thought her mother favored Poppy and her father cared more about his students than he cared about her.
He told her that his dad, a boxer, got hit in the head too hard in a fight and ended up in a home. “He can’t even spread peanut butter on a piece of bread or say his own name,” Michael said. “After my dad, my mom had this boyfriend. Marcus. He worked at the Red Star yeast factory. He smelled like a moldy piece of bread.”
Ann laughed—until Michael lifted up his shirt and showed her a dark brown stripe across his abdomen. “This is from when he hit me with an extension cord. And this?” He pointed at a lump on his shin. “This is from when he kicked me so hard I couldn’t walk for a week.”
“I’m so sorry,” Ann said. “How could anyone hurt you?”
Michael shrugged. “People hurt each other all the time.”
He couldn’t believe that he’d confided in her, and he couldn’t believe that Ann, Miss Popular, was so sincere in her concern. He’d always thought of her as someone who was totally inaccessible. She was confident and pretty. He saw how the boys tried to get her attention and the girls tried to keep up with her. He’d heard girls talk shit about her, like she thought she was all that, but he found her to be sincere and direct in a way other kids weren’t, which was why, that night, he’d told her more than he’d told anyone else when she asked him about his mom.
“She was a partier. But after Marcus left, she swore she would change. She did. She got a job, cleaned up. But then she got sick. She was tired all the time, had these pains in her gut. At first, I was happy. Her being sick meant she was home with me, and I could take care of her. I thought she’d get better, but remember when that bacteria got into the Milwaukee water?”
“Cryptosporidium? Sure. Everyone in the city got it. I threw up for three days.”
“Well, because my mom was already sick, it made her even sicker. I didn’t know what to do. She wouldn’t go to the hospital. She hated doctors. I thought that I could take care of her myself, make her better. But I couldn’t, you know? Turns out she had AIDS.”
“See why I don’t tell anyone? I say cancer and people are sorry for me. I say she had AIDS and they do what you just did. I don’t have it. I’m not sick. Don’t worry.”
Ann put her hand on his arm to demonstrate her concern. “I’m not worried, Michael.” She said his name out loud with particular care and kindness. She reached for his hand and held it.
They fell asleep like that, at three in the morning, with hotel towels covering them instead of blankets. The shimmering, hazy light from the pool reflected on the glassy dome, the atmosphere safe, womblike. That night, he’d had Ann all to himself. It was perfect.
The next day, he ran his fastest 200 meters. She was right there at the finish line, cheering him on. After that, she started bringing sandwiches and snacks to him at school. Soon her parents invited him for dinner. The next thing he knew, he was sleeping on their couch. One day, Ed told him that he’d converted the office upstairs into a bedroom, and he gave him an extra key to their house. Ann became his constant companion. They walked to and from school together, and they ran along the lakeshore in the late afternoons. He wasn’t part of Ann’s social circle, but at home they were inseparable. They watched old movies, folded laundry together, and sat at the kitchen table doing homework until they lost focus and shot rubber bands at each other. Even though Michael didn’t have the best grades, he was a whiz at math, and he helped Poppy with her geometry homework. Connie took Michael to the dentist and bought him some new clothes at Kohl’s. He and Ed played pickup games at Riverside Park, and Ed asked him to join his bowling league at the Polish Falcons.
Michael had been so thrilled by this new arrangement that he hadn’t thought of how strange it must have seemed to other people—that is, until one afternoon when he’d stopped by Ed’s classroom and overheard Mr. Frederickson, the chemistry teacher, warning Ed about him. “He’s staying with you? Kid had a tough ride, I get it. Shit happens to all our students. You take on one Oliver Twist and pretty soon you could have half the high school living in your house. Michael doesn’t have to be your problem.”
“He’s not a problem.”
“Not now. Just be careful. Your girls are only what, a year apart? Irish twins? Beautiful girls in full bloom.”
“He doesn’t think about them like that.”
“Whatever you say. You know, I heard about a couple who woke up from a nap to find their foster kid standing at the foot of their bed with a hunting knife in his hand.”
Mr. Frederickson’s words were always in the back of Michael’s mind, especially when Ed and Connie asked him if he’d like to join them on “the Cod,” as Ed called it. Michael said yes, although the trip filled him with as much anxiety as excitement.
And now here he was.
He turned back and looked at the steep sand dune he’d just run down, and the dark, jagged path the beachgoers had cut into it. The parking lot was up there, and Ed and Connie. Why hadn’t they come down yet?
He had to leave. He needed to escape the girls with their long, knowing looks, and the ocean, and all those strange people dotting the beach who were nothing like him. Nothing.
He made a run for it.
Where are you going? The girls’ high voices were drowned out by the wind and surf. Where was he going? He had no idea. He only knew they couldn’t keep up, not even Ann. She had good endurance and could hold her own against the guys on the team, but Michael was a sprinter. He’d set the school’s record for the 100 meters. He could run fast to a finish line, but he ran even faster when he had something to run away from.
When he got to the top of the dune he was exhausted from his intense burst of effort uphill through the deep sand. He could see the heat hovering over the parking lot as if he were looking through a veil of sheer plastic wrap. The asphalt was hot as molten lava. Aside from the thump of his heartbeat and the sound of his bare feet hitting pavement, it was suddenly quiet, an eerie peacefulness he found both welcome and disconcerting.
He headed straight for Ed, who was pulling beach towels and tattered folding chairs out of the back of the Buick wagon. Ed didn’t look anything like Mr. Gordon the history teacher from Riverside High. At school, Ed wore polyester shirts with wide ties and kept his hair pulled back into a scraggy ponytail. But here he was, a family guy on vacation in his old Marquette Warriors T-shirt and ratty sandals. His curly salt-and-pepper hair, what was left of it, whipped around his head. They’d left Milwaukee two days ago and already his scruffy black beard was beginning to show. He said he never shaved in the summer. Michael thought about giving up shaving for the summer, too, but puberty hadn’t kicked in all the way; it took him weeks to establish anything thicker than peach fuzz.
“Forget something?” Ed asked.
Michael shook his head. His lungs felt the way they did at the end of a race, like they were filled with broken glass, and his spent quads twitched.
Ed looked at him with concern. “Hey man,” he said, doing his best to blunt a crisis with casual talk. “What’s wrong?”
What’s wrong? Michael didn’t know where to start. He was a thousand miles from everything that was familiar to him. He missed his mom. All of the Gordon rituals and inside jokes and easy familiarity made him feel even more alone. The girls didn’t know how good they had it with their two parents and two houses. He was jealous and angry. He didn’t understand how the cosmic scales could get so tipped. What’s wrong? He’d never been good at putting his feelings to words. He wanted to lash out when he felt like this.
“Speak your truth,” Ed said.
His truth? He wanted to be with them and he wanted to leave. He wanted to be them, or rather, he wanted to live the way they did, free of dents. But he couldn’t trust the happiness he felt with the family, couldn’t believe anything good could ever last.
The parking lot was packed full of cars. Michael looked at the little shack in the distance where a teenager in a red tank top checked for beach stickers. Beyond that was the road they’d taken to get here, lined with scrubby pine and oak trees. Michael thought about taking off. The problem was that he had no idea how to get back to their house.
“Michael,” Ed said. “Talk to me.”
“I think I left my Discman in the car,” Michael lied. He loved his Discman, and the KMD, Massive Attack, and Sonic Youth CDs that he listened to constantly. He could tell by the look on Ed’s face that he was suspicious. Teachers had built-in bullshit detectors. Michael opened the passenger-side door so he could pretend to look for his stuff while he thought about his next move. That’s when he saw Connie in the front seat with a burning joint between her fingers. She was startled when she saw him. He heard the pfft of the lit end being snuffed out in her can of Diet Rite.
“Forget something?” she asked, trying hard not to exhale in front of him.
“You guys are getting stoned?”
“Just a little,” Connie said. Smoke trickled out of her nose. “It’s relaxing.”
It seemed to Michael that she should be more embarrassed than she was. Teachers always expected kids to explain themselves, but when they got busted? No big deal.
Ed came over to him. “Did you find it?”
“The joint? No, Connie wasted it. She didn’t even offer to share.”
“Everything’s funny because you’re high too, right Ed? Everything’s a fucking blast.”
A young family walked by toting beach bags and an inflatable-giraffe inner tube. The mother hustled her kids past when she heard Michael swear.
He knew he should drop it, but Michael felt like picking a fight, even if it meant proving Mr. Frederickson right. Ed and Connie weren’t supposed to do this stuff. They were supposed to be perfect, wholesome, clean, boring.
“So, this is what you do. You act like you’re so good, but you’re…”
“We’re just people, Michael,” Ed said. “And this is the first day of our vacation after a long school year and a very long car ride.”
“Look, I can see why you’re upset, but this is purely recreational. We don’t have a problem.”
“You don’t have a problem like my mom? Is that what you mean? You think you’re so different from her, but you’re not. You’re all the same.”
Michael could feel people staring at them, all the perfect families with their beach bags and goggles and coolers full of food.
“I never said we weren’t screwed up in our own way.”
It hadn’t even occurred to Michael until that moment that the Gordon family could have problems or issues of their own. The idea that the Gordons could be screwed up floored Michael. He couldn’t even consider it.
Ed always talked about how important it was for Michael to express himself, face his pain and be real, but it was easy for Ed to say shit like that. Ed hadn’t choked on a bar of soap or heard the fliittt sound of a belt slicing the air, followed by the crack of the metal buckle against his collarbone. Ed hadn’t taken care of his dying mother in a hot apartment with one window and a broken fan, hadn’t been surprised by how much vomit and shit could come out of a person after they drank the city’s bad water, hadn’t seen the purple spots on the insides of her eyelids and the white spots on her tongue, hadn’t put damp washcloths on her clammy skin, felt the ridges of her bones as she shrank like a piece of dehydrated fruit, hadn’t held her bird claw of a hand, hadn’t heard the grating sound of her breath, hadn’t wanted someone, anyone to walk through the door to tell him they could help, they’d take care of her, she’d be fine, everything would be all right. Ed hadn’t pleaded with someone not to die, just don’t die. Stay here.
“Everything is going to be OK.” Ed’s voice was kind, but Ed didn’t know shit. He thought the whole world could get better with one big “Kumbaya”—or one long suck on a joint. What did Ed know about how it felt to have nobody, to be totally, utterly alone? What did Ed know about being real?
Michael wanted to throw a punch at him the way his father had taught him to land a right hook when he was a little boy; he wanted to feel something break inside Ed. He felt his fists ball up at his sides like knots and every muscle in his body grow tight. He wanted Ed to look at him in disbelief and ask, “Why’d you do that?” He wanted Ed to feel betrayed the way Michael had felt betrayed so many times. He wanted to challenge Ed’s supposed devotion and give him a painful, bloody reason to change his mind. He wanted Ed to reject him sooner rather than later.
Connie emerged from the car wearing her vintage cat-eye sunglasses and a yellow polka-dot bathing suit that had lost its elasticity and sagged around her chest, stomach, and waist. Ann and Poppy inherited Ed’s height, high cheekbones, and square chin, but their softness came from Connie. She was still youngish, still pretty in a puffy sort of way, but Connie didn’t care about her looks. She let her long hair turn white and wore it hanging to her waist. She was nice but distracted in the same way Poppy was.
“Jump!” she said.
That’s what Connie told him to do when he got angry: jump up and down, release it, move the energy in a different direction. Connie was super smart, which made it hard for Michael to accept her weird interests and beliefs. He didn’t understand where they came from until Poppy explained that Connie had lived in Nepal when she’d served in the Peace Corps. Poppy told him that Connie had a secret name that had been given to her by a shaman, and she’d witnessed the sacrifice of a black goat in a healing ceremony. She’d had to rub kerosene on the legs of her cot to keep the bedbugs from crawling into it. On her way back, she almost died when the landing gear on her small airplane from Kathmandu to the Delhi airport had failed. The wheels flopped up and down and wouldn’t lock in place. They flew back and forth over the tower for over an hour to lessen the fuel load before the emergency landing. “She’ll never fly again. She says Cape Cod is all the adventure she needs now,” Poppy said. “I wouldn’t let one bad experience in an airplane keep me from traveling. Someday, I’m going to go everywhere.” It was the one point on which mother and daughter differed, Michael noted. Otherwise they were two peas in a pod.
He saw now that her time in the Peace Corps had been formative for Connie, and it was why she believed that everything was about energy. She even wore a string with a crystal on it that hung from her neck. When Poppy and Ann fought over space in the backseat on the ride out, Connie told them they were making her crystal turn cloudy.
Poppy was alarmed, while Ann rolled her eyes and groaned.
“Come on, Michael,” Connie said. “You need to change your energy. Please. I’ll jump with you.”
Jump? He didn’t feel like jumping. That was the bullshit for crystal-wearing ex-hippie teachers. Connie jumped, and her giant breasts rose and collapsed with her. She started laughing, and before Michael could help it, he laughed a little, too, and his anger crashed like a wave.
Suddenly he was deeply sad. It was all too much. “I want to go back,” Michael said, afraid his voice would break and he’d start to cry.
Ed said, “Back where? Milwaukee?”
No, no. That wasn’t what Michael was thinking. He shook his head violently. Milwaukee? He’d be fine if he never went back there, not ever.
Michael was so pent-up he could hardly open his mouth to speak. “The house,” he said. “I want to go back to the house.”
Ann suddenly appeared next to him, followed by Poppy. They came to an abrupt stop, sweaty from the run. The sun glinted off their foreheads and cheeks.
Connie said, “Michael tells us he wants to go home.”
Ed said, “What the hell is going on?”
“Why are you looking at me?” Ann said.
“Oh, Ann,” Connie said, as if she’d been frustrated with Ann a million times before. Mother and daughter were nothing alike—or as Connie would say, their energy was different. Ann liked to stir things up; Connie liked to smooth them over.
“He’s embarrassed because he can’t swim,” Poppy said.
“I told him it was no big deal and it totally isn’t.” Ann spoke about Michael the way the counselors and social workers did, like he wasn’t even standing right there in front of them, covered in sweat.
Ed put his large hand on Michael’s damp back. Michael tried to step away, but Ed pulled him into a tight embrace. This threw Michael off, because Ed rarely touched him; he said he respected his “borders.” Michael could see that holding back was hard for Ed, who was affectionate and open. But now, he couldn’t seem to help himself. “Don’t you know we don’t care that you can’t swim?” Ed’s voice broke.
Michael freed himself and took a few steps back. He was in the center of the circle. All eyes were on him. He felt trapped.
Ann looked at Ed. “Can we tell him, Dad?”
“Now?” Ed said. “I thought we were going to wait.”
“Tell him what?” Poppy asked.
Michael braced himself: they were about to tell him he’d have to turn around and leave. He knew it, he just knew it.
Ed looked straight into Michael’s eyes, serious. “We’re thinking we’d like to adopt you, Michael.”
Poppy put her hand over her mouth and gasped. “Seriously?”
Ann said, “Isn’t it great?”
“But what?” Ann said.
“Nobody ever tells me anything.”
“What’s your problem?” Ann said. “We knew you’d be OK with it. We all love Michael.”
The word “love” threw Michael even more off balance. “You want to what?” Michael asked. He’d once seen a bird fly into a window at school—this was the same kind of shock, of not knowing that plate of glass was right there, right in front of you.
“Only if that’s what you want,” Connie said. “Nobody is forcing you to do anything.”
“We started the paperwork, that’s all,” Ed said. “When we get back to Milwaukee in the fall, if you’re game, we can make it official.”
Connie smiled dreamily. “Don’t you feel we’re already related? The first time you walked through the door I felt we’d been together in a past life.”
Michael didn’t believe them. This couldn’t be real. Past life? They were high.
Ann said, “It was so hard for me not to say anything. It was my idea.”
“Everything is Ann’s idea,” Poppy said. She looked almost as stunned as Michael felt.
“Aren’t I too old to be adopted?”
Ann said, “You’re never too old to need a family.”
“Sixteen is nothing,” Ed said. “You still have two years of high school. Those are two important years. But you have to give consent. The whole thing is totally up to you.”
Poppy brightened. She took his hand. “You’ll be my brother.”
Until that moment, Michael hadn’t realized he already felt like he was Poppy’s brother. But then Ann said, “And I’ll be your sister.”
Ann? His sister?
That was a harder idea to process. It reminded him of that optical illusion his psychology teacher had shown him, the ink drawing where you see either two faces or a vase; you can see it only one way at a time. The faces or the vase.
That entire summer in Wellfleet and all through the next school year, when his adoption was made final, he tried to see and think of Ann that way: just a sister. Only a sister. He tried.
Copyright © 2020 by Christina Clancy.