Slow Children Playing


My name is Krista. I might be the most interesting kid in this neighborhood, or maybe I’m only a know-it-all. I heard my mom say so to my dad, talking secretly about me one night after supper. I’m twelve, which is the age I most wanted to be, but now I want to be thirteen. Even if it ends up being the same as twelve, I can’t wait anyway.

Every house in this neighborhood has at least two kids, except maybe three houses with only old people. There were four houses of old people, but right before Christmas Mr. Martin’s grown-up daughter-mom showed up with a kid, Holly, who’s my exact same age, which slid Mr. Martin’s house into the house-with-kids tally.

I’m the one starting things with Holly because I always do, saying, “Let’s all…. ” Talking first makes me in charge. So, in January — still Christmas vacation — when it seemed Holly and her mom weren’t leaving after they showed up on Christmas Eve day in a car with Illinois plates — I say, “Let’s all see if that new girl Holly wants to ice skate.” Why’d I have that idea right then? Partly because I got new skates for Christmas. Mostly because Holly didn’t know anyone here in Iowa City so I could show off what a good friend I am.

I’m with Suzanne and Tracy and Donna. Suzanne and Tracy are sisters in a family of five girls, and Donna has three brothers; the “stooges,” she calls them. These girls are my favorite people alive. If I started a club, I’d show them the special handshake and whisper the password in their ears. They’d never spill any secret, even if Donna’s brothers were tickle-torturing them into tears, even if a mom was threatening to ground them for thousands of years. People think because we four are always together that we’re alike, but we’re not: Suzanne draws things how they look exactly in real life. Tracy knows everything about animals, and even mean dogs and cats just love her. Donna remembers all the tiny things you say, including what you forgot, and she runs fast, and she doesn’t lie. I’m the only kid in the neighborhood with no sisters or brothers or pets, not even a hamster. My parents got me and I’m enough, says my dad, and maybe even more than enough, says my mom.

We go knock on Mr. Martin’s door, then ding-dong the bell twice. Finally come the thunks of a lock unsnapping and a chain unsliding, and he’s staring pop-eyed and pop-mouthed at us. Like he’s a fish. When Donna says, “Can Holly come out to play?” his eyes pop bigger, like we’re ghosts straight out of the funeral home on Muscatine Avenue.

“How do you girls know Holly?” he asks.

I take over because that’s something people like about me: “Hey, Mr. Martin. Holly came to my house across the street” — I point, in case he’s deaf — “because her mom needed to borrow three eggs.” Which is a lot of eggs, I’m realizing, not like one egg for a recipe but like scrambled eggs for supper, which explains why my mom said, “Such crust,” after she shut the door.

“What’s that about?” Mr. Martin says. A question with no answer; for adults, not us.

We stand quietly, breathing warm dampness through our scarves. Poor Holly. We’d never seen her visit her grandfather before, who’s such a weirdo, which is why I said let’s all rescue her, proving how unselfish and kind I am. I feel so good about my unselfishness and my kindness that I smile under my scarf and maybe smiling shows up in my eyes because he says, “I’ll find her.”

He closes the door — sliding the chain and snapping the lock — and we’re all standing on the porch, wondering if he’s lying about getting her or if he’s keeping cold air out of the house, like regular dads do.

Suzanne says, “What if she doesn’t have skates?”

Well, I hadn’t thought about that but I fake that I did: “I’ve got extras,” which I do, if her feet can squeeze into size six.

Donna says, “What if she’s weird like him?”

I had thought about that: “She’s only here for Christmas vacation.”

“Where’d she even come from?” Tracy wants to know.

Donna says, “Let’s go. I’m already feeling she’s weird.”

The chain rattles, the lock thunks, and the door flings open. There’s Holly, in black tights and a red corduroy skirt with a line of straight pins bunching up folds at the bottom, as if we interrupted her mother marking a hem. The yardstick in her hand is printed with IOWA LUMBER, which is the exact yardstick everyone has. The Hawkeyes sweatshirt she’s wearing is three sizes too big, or else she’s three sizes too small, like she’s an elf or a pixie. No one would believe she’s twelve if you didn’t already know, like me.

Holly says, “I’ll quick change clothes,” and instead of opening the door so we can come in, she slams it, and there’s that unfriendly chain so we don’t break in like evil maniacs.

“That chain’s weird,” Donna says.

“Maybe they’re careful people,” I say.

There’s chilly silence as we all think. I could say, Let’s all run. Or, Hmm, rescuing Holly isn’t as simple as I thought.

Tracy says, “I’m going to the park,” and she glances at Suzanne, her younger Irish Twin sister, their identical melted-chocolate brown eyes meeting across the tops of their scarves, and Suzanne says, “We’ll meet you there.” Their voices are muffled. Sometimes I look at them and forget they’re separate girls thinking separate thoughts.

Donna’s my most favorite, so I send a message with my mind not to leave me here alone, which she gets, because she slowly says, “Okay, we’ll meet you,” and Suzanne and Tracy tramp down the shoveled driveway. They single-file down the skinny path on the sidewalk, because whoever shoveled did the exact shovel’s width, “the lazy man’s way,” says my dad. Once they reach the wider, normally shoveled sidewalk of the Yoders next door they’re side-by-side again, legs jinxing as they walk.

Donna pulls her thumbs out of the thumb sleeve and into the big part of the mitten, and I copy. She gnaws the empty thumb of one red mitten, that way she does, looking thoughtful and so smart. I can’t copy that. I don’t want to interrupt her, so I send an apology with my mind. My mother tells me every day to be a nicer person, not to be a spoiled and selfish girl my whole entire life. I make lists of good deeds to follow — like, don’t step on ants on purpose — and one I can do in winter is, Rescue Holly.

“I don’t know,” Donna says.

It makes sense to say right back, I don’t know either, but I say, “Everything will be fine,” like teachers say. My plan when I grow up is to be a teacher writing beautiful cursive on a chalkboard.

Donna stamps her feet, exaggerating being cold, because I know for a fact she’s first jumping in the pool in the summer, shouting, “It’s not cold at all, you big babies.” That’s how well I know Donna. I stamp my feet to keep her company. I plan for us to be friends our whole lives.

The curtains are closed, and it’s an unfriendly front door with only a tiny window high up. Even though he’s weird, Mr. Martin has a Christmas party every year with no kids allowed. My parents go, and Donna’s too, because our dads teach at the university like Mr. Martin. On party night, I slept over at Donna’s house to save money on a babysitter, because the oldest brother Mike could watch us. The next day at home I asked how the party was, and my dad said, “Idiot assholes arguing politics and not enough pig-in-the-blankets,” and my mother said to him, “You got your share.” When I asked if they brought anything for me, my mother pulled out of her purse a green napkin wrapped around two star-shaped cookies layered with white frosting and glittery sugar. My father said, “For Pete’s sake. You stole cookies?” They stared me down, waiting for me to pick a side: eat the cookies or not. I did because — duh — that frosting, so my dad ignored me the rest of the day.

Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking about as I’m stomping my feet, staring at the perfect red-green-red-green pattern of Christmas lights on the bushes along the front of the porch. They probably blink perfectly, too. I unscrew one green bulb and stick it in my coat pocket. Donna laughs, so I unscrew a red bulb that I drop into the mailbox. Donna only sort of laughs, so I can tell that’s enough.

At Donna’s house that night of the party, the two of us were allowed a giant bag of Lay’s potato chips all to ourselves, and we tried hard to see if we could eat just one, but the commercial’s right: you can’t. It was like Mike wasn’t there except for angry guitar music hammering behind his door. “I hate him,” Donna whispered.

I’m certain Donna’s about to say, “Let’s go,” when the chain moves, the door opens, and there’s Holly, in jeans and boots and a navy parka big enough to fit two of her. Her stocking cap hangs to her butt, and she tugs at the gray tassel at the tip with gloved fingers and says, “Don’t worry, I’m yanking this off PDQ.” She’s got ratty black hockey skates, not normal white figure skates. Oh well. I’m secretly happy I don’t have to share my old skates, meaning I’m the terrible person everyone thinks I am. I should offer anyway, to be nice. Maybe she doesn’t want to look weird.

“This is Donna,” I say, “and you remember me, right? I’m Krista, and Suzanne and Tracy are meeting us at the park.”

“Krista has figure skates you could borrow,” Donna says. “Extras, because she got a new pair for Christmas.”

Holly raises one arm where she’s got the ugly, thick skate laces wrapped around her fingers. She says, “My mom’s got a rule against used stuff.”

“Those are yours?” Donna asks. “You play hockey?”

She shrugs. “My slap shot’s ninety miles an hour.”

I’m not giving her the satisfaction of asking what’s that exactly, and I’m not saying anything about how man-size those skates are. Donna’s no help, going, “Oh,” and we stand there, maybe all of us worried about what this day’s going to be, so I real quick say, “Let’s go. Everyone’s there already,” though Tracy and Suzanne are such slowpokes we’ll probably catch up to them.

We single-file along the skinny sidewalk, and the minute we’re on the wide path Mr. Yoder shoveled, Holly yanks the hat off her head and tosses it into a tree, where it dangles off a branch. Bet I never once thought about not wearing a hat in the winter, Donna either. Mine’s fluffy white with a pretty, powder puff pom-pom on top, and Donna’s is red and blue striped, crocheted by the good grandmother who lives in Cedar Rapids. Holly says, “I can’t stand things touching my head, but no one cares.”

Donna nods and says, “I know exactly what you mean,” which is a surprise because I don’t know at all what Holly means.

The park’s fifteen minutes away walking, which means we’ll cross Muscatine Avenue. We skate on a flooded, frozen parking lot in front of the pool. There’s also a hill nearby that’s good for sledding, but who wants to lug a sled or saucer fifteen minutes walking? We sled down Suzanne and Tracy’s backyard hill unless someone’s dad drives us to the park in a station wagon. What’s best, though, is when thick snow’s falling, and a couple of dads walk with us to the park, pulling sleds jammed with little kids, and we’re criss-crossing footprints in the blank snow in the street before the plows go by. Maybe it’s night. Or school’s canceled. That’s the best, and I’m trying to explain this to Holly, how maybe that’ll happen if it snows again before she goes back, and she says, “I don’t have a dad. And now this stupid town’s home. My mom says the only way she’s going back to Chicago is if she’s a ghost haunting that creep she worked for. We only took what fit in the car, and I had to give away my cat because my grandpa’s allergic. Chicago’s where I was born.”

Donna stops and stands still as a cemetery statue, and me too, but Holly walks on like everything she said is one hundred percent normal. We wait a sec for her to notice we’re not with her, but on she goes, faster, so we race to catch up and once we do, she says, “Don’t say something stupid.”

“Well,” I start, and she interrupts: “That sounds like something that’s going to be stupid.”

“No,” I say. “All it is is, I was born in Iowa City. At Mercy Hospital. At noon, on the dot.”

Donna should say she was born here too, just like me, but she doesn’t, which makes me think I’m losing a tug-of-war, I’m an inch away from the mud pit. I’ve known Donna since I moved into my house in first grade. I couldn’t be madder at myself for that brilliant idea of knocking on Holly’s door. Holly’s mean and confusing, like an angry, chained-up dog you want to feel sorry for, and I’m very worried she’s more interesting than me. Pretty girls don’t need to be interesting, my mother told my father when he complained that she doesn’t know the capital of Oregon.

Guess I’ll take charge again. “What’d you do with those eggs anyway?” I ask Holly. “Remember that night at my house when you borrowed three eggs from my mom?”

Holly turns to show a grim smile that I see because she’s not wearing a scarf. Her cheeks glow pink, like outside air scrapes hard on her skin.

I say, “I’m just saying, three’s a lot.”

“A thousand is a lot,” she says. “A million is really a lot. Three is pretty much nothing in comparison.”

“We had frozen waffles the next day,” I say. “Because my mom was out of eggs and couldn’t make real waffles like every Sunday. Because you took all our eggs.”

Donna yanks at my arm. She knows I love frozen waffles.

Holly says, “Okay, nosy. I ate your eggs for dinner because all I know how to cook is eggs or cereal, and the only cereal was Grape Nuts.”

Donna says, “Oh, Krista,” which isn’t fair! I didn’t know. Okay, I’m the awful person my mother thinks I am. I know I should apologize, but I clamp my lips together tight. I’m not in charge, I’m not anything. If only we would catch up with Suzanne and Tracy and sort of start over. I’d be different. I’d be nice.

Donna, who’s the nicest person on planet Earth, says, “If you’re moving here, maybe we’ll be in the same class at Robert Lucas.”

“I’m pretty smart,” Holly says. “I bet I’ll jump up a grade in these Iowa schools.”

Donna’s turn to shut up. But Holly doesn’t look very happy inside this crusty bubble of silence she made herself.

We walk quietly. Donna stares at her feet, trying not to step on the cracks showing through the shoveled sidewalks. She claims she doesn’t believe that old saying, Step on a crack and break your mother’s back, but she’d never want to look like that mean person who doesn’t love her mother. I try to walk normal, but once I’m watching Donna, I’m worrying about cracks, too.

A minute later we’re at Muscatine Avenue, the busy, four-lane street we’re always promising our moms we’ll be so careful to cross. We stop and watch cars whip by. The speed limit is forty, which seems faster when you’re standing on the side of the road. But we have to cross because they only bothered putting sidewalk on one side. This is the edge of our neighborhood, where the “slow children playing” signs stop, where instead of houses lining the street, it’s churches and stores and apartment buildings and doctors’ offices and a funeral home. Technically there’s a crosswalk with a light that takes forever, but only if you go around the long way which we don’t. Muscatine Avenue cuts between us and Drug Fair, where we ride bikes to buy candy; between us and Mercer Park, where the pool and ice skating are; between us and Southeast Junior High, where we’ll walk to school next year unless we beg pity-rides from someone’s parent or brother or sister with a license. Donna’s brother who’s closest in age to her goes to Southeast now and says the classrooms smell like baked beans scorching in the pan. All her brothers went there. Like doing time in prison, they say, which makes them laugh, then laugh harder when I ask, “Like prison how?” “You’re so dumb,” they chorus.

I know I’ll remember this corner my whole life because when I’m here with my friends, getting ready to cross, my heart knocks loud into my ears every time, and not because I’m afraid of cars running me down. Being here is the most complicated feeling I have. The houses in the neighborhood across Muscatine are lumpy and squashed close together, like someone rushed to stack boards up the sides and forgot some windows. The streets are named for different trees, but what’s sad is that the trees in the yards are skinny, basically sticks stuck in a dirt circle. “Oh, Krista, they’ll grow,” my mother said last August when I tried to explain why I was crying after she picked us up at the park because we weren’t supposed to walk home when the pool closed for lightning. It’ll be forever before those sticks are trees. That’s what patience is, trapped in life being a tree. My father’s always telling my mother that she should learn to be a lot more patient, that her life would look “pretty goddamn good” if she was more patient. Lots of the trees in our neighborhood are giants, with wide trunks and branches to climb or hold up rope swings. Not that my dad thought to put up a swing. These are just the thoughts filling my head when I’m on that other side of Muscatine.

Donna says, “Hold up. This is the big street.”

Holly says, “This? There’s way bigger streets than this in Chicago.”

“No one said Muscatine Avenue is the biggest street in the world,” I say. “I was in Chicago once, and the only good thing about it was walking inside a heart at a museum.” Which is also the only thing I remember because I was five. I wait for Holly to announce that she walked through fifty hearts, or that walking through the brain is better, but she says, “Isn’t that the best museum? My school takes us there every spring. You must’ve also rode the train through the coal mine, right? What’s anything, even one thing, like that museum around here?”

I e.s.p. Donna a message that whatever we say will sound stupid — fossil-hunting at the piled-up rocks at the Reservoir dam, or the spooky tickle of walking through rooms of stuffed elephants and zebras and flamingoes at McBride Hall — but, sadly, Donna mentions both things. Holly doesn’t bother digging up scorn, just gazes at the traffic and hunches her shoulders deep inside her hulking parka.

I say, “Come on, you guys.”

Holly says, “How do you stand it here?” She flings both arms wide, purposely knocking into Donna, who stumbles into me, the notch of her skate blades banging my shin.

“Hey!” I shout, the word coming out loud, like slamming a door. I clutch my leg, being dramatic.

Donna mumbles, “Sorry,” but we one hundred percent know nothing’s her fault. And nothing’s wrong about being here, living here, being us.

“I didn’t even touch you,” Holly says. “She did,” pointing at Donna with a gloved hand so stiff and straight that I want to slap it down.

“I like living here,” I say. When Donna doesn’t chime in, Me too, I say, “We like living here.”

Holly says, “Why? Is it boys? Any good kissers around here?” She snorts. “How would you know? You never kissed anyone.” Then she laughs meanly, like my mother laughing on the phone, late at night, when she thinks I’m asleep.

My body flares hot though it’s 25 degrees plus wind chill.

“Have you?” Holly says. “How many boys have you kissed?”

“Ten,” I say.

She does a wolfy whistle, that way boys do when they hang outside Drug Fair. “Well, well,” she says fakely, showing she doesn’t believe me for one second. “I’ve kissed three,” she says. “Only one was any good at it. Jeremy Goldblum.” I’m startled because when Donna and I play Barbies, Jeremy is the name of my imaginary husband, off at work. But it’s a name that’s real, I guess.

“How do you tell what’s a good kiss?” Donna’s voice abruptly trembles out through her scarf. She looks down, matches up both feet to be exactly even.

I shout, “Tracy! Suzanne!” I want echoes bouncing, I want noise. How’d they get so far ahead that we don’t see them?

“You just know,” Holly says. “If you have to ask, for sure you’re not being kissed right. Jeremy was fifteen, my friend’s brother, and knew what he was doing.”

“I have three brothers,” Donna says.

“The stooges.” I’m ignored. Not even, Oh, Krista.

Holly’s back to watching cars. One honks, and there’s her grim smile again. She says, “Maybe one of your brothers is the perfect kisser. Maybe I’ll find out.”

“Are we crossing the street or what?” I ask. My stomach flip-flops like it did yesterday when I saw the suitcase opened wide on my mom and dad’s bed. “I’m airing it out,” my mom said, then slammed shut the door. I say, “After that blue car, let’s go.”

But Donna says it, she says it. She really says it: “My brother kisses me. And other things. But I don’t like it.”

So now here’s her secret going to this stranger. Because she likes Holly more than me? I don’t know. I don’t know anything, like why it’s worse hearing these words coming out of Donna’s mouth into normal wintery daylight instead of that night when I slept over, when she whispered these exact words from her pink canopy bed, when those words drifted through the darkness to reach me on the floor in my sleeping bag. Maybe she thought I was asleep, is what I thought then. I thought, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say, and now I still don’t know. I hold my breath. At the pool, my father can hold his breath and frog-swim underwater across the entire pool without coming up for air. “I was a lifeguard,” he says, “back in another life.” I look at Holly. My breath gusts out, a pale puff.

Holly knows exactly what to say: “So gross.”

Immediately, I copycat: “Yeah, so gross.” Because it is, right? But I need Holly saying so first? I cross my arms over my chest and hug myself hard. Sometimes I do this when I can’t sleep. Now, I’m careful not to bang myself with my skates.

Then Holly says, “Same with my mom’s boyfriend. He’s cute, but jeez Louise, he’s the worst kisser ever. What a creep. That’s really why we left Chicago, because of me.”

“So gross,” I say.

Donna stares at her mitten, at the tip of the thumb where she’s chewed out a round, wet hole, like she does in all mitten thumbs, as if that part of the mitten is especially tasty. The same grandmother knitted these mittens, matching the hat and scarf. I want to hurry us up, keep us moving. I want to be at the park already, lacing up my skates and pulling so tight both feet go numb. I want to swan-glide across shiny parking lot ice, weave through the bodies out there like they’re shadows, and then crack-the-whip: join a really long line of dads and boys, spinning and snaking across the rink fast and faster and so furiously that boys and dads fly off and crash. But not me, and not Donna, because I’m holding her hand in its mitten so tight that we’re the last ones standing, dizzy and breathless and laughing so hard that the white clouds rising out of our mouths make us look like powerful dragons. This is the year I want to learn to power skate backwards like hockey players. I’m always finally getting the hang of it when the ice melts.

Donna says, “Don’t lie about that.”

“Who’s lying?” Holly asks, her voice prickling like cat fur before a fight. “You’re lying.”

“I never lie,” Donna says, and she looks straight at me. “Everyone knows that, right, Krista?” I nod dutifully, but my tongue’s too heavy to move. If she’s not lying, then is she telling the truth?

“I don’t know,” Holly says. “You look to me exactly like a liar. In Chicago, you learn to know when someone’s lying. Like now,” and she spins to face me and says, “Ten boys. Both of you are big fat liars.” Now it’s not just my tongue that’s frozen, but my whole face and body, because I can’t believe she can tell who’s lying and who isn’t. That’s a lie too. Everyone’s lying right now, even Donna, and she was lying that night, too. That’s how to explain everything.

“I can’t believe I live here,” Holly huffs, the words streaming into a breathy white cloud that hangs in the air. “I can’t believe I’m trapped here. I can’t believe — .”

“My dad kisses me,” I interrupt. “On the lips. French and everything.” Hearing the words in my voice makes me want to unsay them. Not true, not true at all. I’m terrible. Also, I’m the only one who’s never been kissed.

“What?” Holly says, a snap like scissors make.

Donna’s watching me like I’m a snake that could slither off in any direction, or both directions at once, something so unpredictable that you can’t even be afraid of it. It’s how my mother watches me sometimes, like she doesn’t know who I am or why she should care about me, like I’m invisible, a blank space of nothing to see, not even when I’m standing right in front of her, not even when I say, Mom. “I’m kidding,” I say.

“Your own father?” Holly says. “Are you… bragging? Like, you’re so dumb you think what we’re talking about is good?”

“I said I was kidding!” I’m about to cry. “It’s a joke.” My voice screeches high and brittle in the cold air, something broken or breaking. The wind’s picking up. It’s too cold to skate. This whole idea, from knocking on Holly’s door to walking to the park, all of it, is stupid. I imagine Suzanne and Tracy going the long way to the crosswalk at Muscatine but turning back home. They’re cozy and warm right now — Suzanne sketching mares and fillies, and Tracy writing out stories where horses talk — their mother heating hot chocolate on the stove, finding mini-marshmallows.

Holly says, “You really are dumb. Aren’t you, Krista?”

I look at Donna. The thumb of her mitten is in her mouth again, and she’s gnawing away. Something about her makes me so angry, like those stick-trees. She started it all. I hate her right now, though she’s my friend, or because she’s my friend. Nothing makes sense. That suitcase my mother got out yesterday: wide-open on the bed, her closet door wide-open, too.

“I’m airing it out,” she said, when she noticed me in the doorway. “That’s what you do to keep things smelling fresh.” She talked like her voice was a pencil drawing a single, straight, even line: “You air them out from time to time.” If that’s true, why did she instantly shut the suitcase? Why were there sweaters already in it? Why did she slam the door?

Suddenly Donna shouts, “You’re both dumb. You both think you’re so smart, and you don’t know anything. ANYTHING!” The last word is a howling shriek, and in our neighborhood, people would rush immediately to open their front doors to see what’s going on and how to help.

Donna runs across Muscatine as car horns blare and someone’s brakes screech, leaving black streaks on the pavement. I shout, “Donna!” but she’s on the other side, slowing to climb a ridge of gray-black ice chunks and refrozen slush the plows churned up. She looks tall, up there all alone on that mound, and I think she’s waiting for me, but she clambers down the other side, onto the sidewalk. She turns to cup her hands around her mouth to make sure we hear her shout, “You guys don’t know anything about anything.” She runs on the sidewalk, stomping cracks it looks like, passing where we’d turn left on Elm Street to get to the park. She’s beyond the doctor’s office, past the funeral home, toward the shopping area where Drug Fair and Hy-Vee are. She’s the fastest girl in our grade, and faster than lots of boys. She’ll call her mom from the pay phone at Drug Fair, and her mom will come get her without complaining tons about being interrupted in the middle of something important that’s only cooking dumb dinner. Probably Donna will pick out candy while she waits. She loves Atomic Fireballs. We both love our tongues burning pure red after eating the whole box.

When Donna isn’t even a tiny dot anymore, I remember Holly, who’s turned away from me, her hair blowing in her face. “See what you did?” I say.

“You did it,” she says, still not looking at me. “Anyway, let her go. Something’s really wrong with that girl.”

Is there? Is there? What surprises me is how easy it is watching Donna go, to feel warm relief at seeing emptiness where she once was. “Can you skate backwards?” I ask Holly.

Then a lot of things happen.

After Christmas break, Holly gets into the next higher grade, landing in Southeast Junior High though she’s my age, and she doesn’t want to talk to me anymore, though sometimes I catch her face in the window, watching my house. I practice skating backwards, carving slow D’s into the ice with my blades the way she showed me that day.

We don’t really know what we want to do anymore because anything with Barbies is so dumb and making potholders on looms is boring — plus potholders overflow kitchen drawers of everyone’s moms and grandmas and aunts — and Monopoly never really ends, and checkers is the exact same moves over and over, and no one remembers what rooks do in chess, and I can’t draw or sew or cross-stitch, and this winter snows only bad, powdery snow. My mom moves away all by herself leaving me alone with my dad, but that barely feels real, so I don’t tell anyone, but they find out anyway.

I have so many bad dreams that when my mother disappears, I’m barely surprised because it already happened in my dream. My father cooks spaghetti or eggs every night. He buys a TV for my bedroom so I can hear voices talk whenever I want. My mom left zero notes. I shred into confetti the mail addressed to her. I find a cardigan she left behind that I wear to school, even though it’s baggy and smells like perfume.

The biggest thing that happens is that no one sees Donna after the day we knocked on Holly’s door. Someone at Drug Fair saw a silver car and a man with a mustache talking to a girl holding skates, and there was a red mitten with a chewed thumb in a trash can in the parking lot, but that’s all anyone knows or ever will know. That’s an enormous thing. The biggest thing in my life will always be that I’m the last person who saw her.

Holly’s wrong, right? This is still a good place to live, isn’t it? Because probably someone needs to stay here until everyone who left finds their way back. Probably someone is me.


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Image: “Liminal” by Joanne Curtis, licensed under CC 2.0.

Leslie Pietrzyk:
I’m fascinated by the challenges of writing in the first person, and lately I’ve also been drawn to the immediacy of writing in the present tense. I thought it would be especially interesting to tackle a present tense story that takes place fifty years in the past — a slightly startling juxtaposition — so as I found my way through the story, I pondered, why must this story be written in the present tense? As is often the case with the inter-connectedness of puzzling out first drafts, my answers came as I thought about the concurrent question, why must this story be told in the first person? I knew from Krista’s opening paragraph — the initial spark for this piece — that this was going to be a voice-driven story, that Krista was one of those confused and confusing kids who overflow with emotion and enthusiasm and errors, a kid so eager to fit in that she expends a great deal of energy wedging herself in anywhere and anyhow she can. As an adult, thinking back on those sorts of kids (I was not one; I was shy and reserved), I’m intrigued at their hyper self-awareness, at how performative the interior subculture of children/young girls can be. I felt that Krista was working hard to invent herself, to prove she’s an important part of this insular little world — and that single-minded focus meant she perpetually overlooks and misses the undercurrents of secrets surrounding her. Given this nature, it seemed clear to me that she couldn’t be bothered with thoughts of a past or a future; she was treading water to keep herself afloat in the present. Once I could justify to myself the POV choice and the tense, writing the story itself was gravy, and I had fun channeling some of my remembered details of snowy Iowa winters. I would love having a stocking cap that hangs down to my butt once again!

Leslie Pietrzyk
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