“This is Aja, the new album from Steely Dan,” Miss Shelton said, as if speaking of gods. “I’m going to put this on, and we’re going to talk about what you feel when you hear the music.”
Miss Shelton dropped the needle on the record, and the record player’s ancient speakers crackled and popped. The song sounded slightly Chinese and floaty, and it reminded Leta of when she and her brother Stevie were kids bobbing down the river in giant inner tubes. She closed her eyes and saw Stevie in her mind as he was then, his head lolling back against the black rubber. He was singing some stupid novelty song about not liking spiders and snakes, giving it an exaggerated country twang, making her laugh. Sometimes, if she thought really hard, she could still see Stevie the way he was before the accident. But it never seemed to last long.
Miss Shelton passed between the rows of desks. “What does this music make you feel? Remember, there are no wrong answers. Anyone?”
“Horny,” Jack Jessup whispered, and the back of the class erupted in laughter.
“Besides horny,” Miss Shelton said, giving him a playful swat.
“It makes me think of flying through clouds.” It was Cawley Franklin. He and Leta had drama after school together.
“Good, Cawley! Anyone else?” Miss Shelton stopped at Leta’s desk. “Leta, how about you? What does this song make you feel?”
Leta’s mind was flooded with images. Roger driving Agnes around the neighborhood on his motorcycle. Stevie propped up on his navy bedspread in his room, watching afternoon TV, babbling words that made no sense, his useless left arm and hand curled against his side like a sea creature forced from its shell. Her dad packing his shoehorn and shaving cream into a small case that fit into a larger suitcase that fit into the trunk of the car that drove him to a job in another state.
“Nothing,” Leta said. “Sorry.”
Cawley Franklin caught up to Leta in the hall after class. He was tall and rangy, with the hunched, loping walk of someone who hadn’t completely moved into every part of his body yet. His long, blond hair hung like two curtains on either side of his freckled face. Cawley had transferred to Crocker Junior High last year, and now he lived with his grandmother out past the mobile home park near the Happy Trails Drive-In where you could watch old horror movies for a buck.
“Whad’ja think of AAAA-ja?” he sang, imitating Donald Fagen’s nasally tone.
“I don’t know. Kind of weird. I like Pink Floyd a lot better. What did you think?”
“Dunno. Mostly I couldn’t stop looking at Miss Shelton’s boobs.”
Leta rolled her eyes. “Nice. You going to the Popcorn tomorrow?”
“Indeed,” he said, twirling a fake mustache.
“You’re weird,” Leta said, but she was laughing.
OVER AT THE FRANKENSTEIN PLACE
After school, Leta let herself into the house. She could hear her mother talking on the phone, so she slipped down the hall to Stevie’s room and knocked. He wouldn’t answer, she knew that, so she pushed it open. Her brother sat on his bed watching the small black-and-white TV in the corner.
Leta took a spot on the floor beside the bed. She’d learned not to sit too close to Stevie. Sometimes he spazzed out, his arms making uncontrolled movements. Once he’d accidentally smacked Leta in the face, busting her lip. The seizures were the scariest, though. He’d had four since he’d come home from the hospital. Each one seemed to be worse than the last.
“Hey,” Leta said. “What’s happening on Lost in Space? Dr. Smith up to his old tricks?”
Stevie’s left hand twitched, and Leta automatically moved back. His hair had grown back straight and brown over the indent in his left temple where the bullet had gone in. On a clear, cold day in October, Stevie and his best friend Miguel had been down at the lake shooting at snapping turtles. They were just packing up to come home when the gun discharged by accident. In an instant, the bullet pierced Stevie’s temple and did its damage, taking a detour down into his lung where it lived still, a bud of metal that might bloom at any moment and kill him. Sometimes it felt like that bullet had traveled further, though. Like it had flown right through their family, splitting them into a before-and-after that couldn’t be put back together.
The TV hiccupped with static.
“Adjust,” Stevie rasped.
Sighing, Leta trudged to the gigantic Magnavox that was so old it still had rabbit ears. She moved the antennae back and forth, stealing glances at the snowy TV, trying to see if the picture had sharpened.
“Better?” Leta asked, her hands still on the antennae. Her brother’s hand twitched. “Stevie,” Leta said slowly and firmly. “Is the picture better now?” Sometimes she had to repeat things two or three times until Stevie understood them completely, and even then, he might answer with the wrong words, a sentence frustratingly out of order that you had to decipher like a secret code.
Leta gave up. “You need anything else?”
“Yes,” Stevie said, shaking his head no. “I’m the robot.”
“Great. You’re the robot. Just what we need in this family.”
“Robots in the house!” Stevie insisted.
Leta’s stomach flared with a familiar, burning pain, and she took a deep breath. “Okay, then. Don’t watch too much. It’s bad for your eyes.”
“You adjust, adjust,” she heard him say as she walked away.
In the kitchen, Leta’s mom was putting the finishing touches on a casserole. It seemed to Leta that her mom had gotten older just since Stevie’s accident. Like someone had let a little of the air out of her, and now her features didn’t have enough to puff them up anymore.
“I’m putting this in the freezer because it’s not for us,” her mother announced as if she were answering some urgent question on Leta’s part, which she wasn’t. “It’s for the progressive dinner at church on Friday night.”
“I’ll call the papers.”
Her mother turned, hands on her hips. “Was that necessary?”
Yes, it was, Leta wanted to say. She couldn’t say why it felt so very necessary to be angry with her mother all the time, but it did. She would walk into a room where her mother sat reading or grading papers and be consumed with a sudden need to wound that would be followed moments later by a terrible guilt and an equally ferocious longing to be forgiven and comforted.
Leta opened the fridge door and waited for something to announce itself. “Friday night is Rocky Horror night. It’s your turn to drive.”
“Well, I can’t take you. Get Agnes’s dad to do it. And close the refrigerator door!”
Leta closed it hard and her mother glared. “Mr. Tatum is going to some convention.”
“Ask her sister. Ask Diana.”
“They’re going to camp out for concert tickets.”
“Well, that’s just too bad,” her mother snapped.
“Cry me a river, young lady. You’ll just have to skip it this week.”
Leta thought of Jennifer Pomhultz in her sequined baton twirler’s outfit dancing her Six Flags routine onstage, silhouetted by the eight-foot-tall reflection of Columbia as Tom Van Dyke stood clapping in the back, a look of love in his eyes.
“This is important to me! Why can’t you just understand me for once?”
Her mother slammed a bag of frozen peas onto the counter, turning it over and over to break apart the icy scar tissue connecting them inside. “Oh, yeah? Well, why is it always my job to do everything? When did I sign up to be mother of the world? That’s what I want to know.”
“I didn’t ask for a kidney,” Leta mumbled, fighting back tears. She reached into the fridge and quickly grabbed a Coke.
“I heard that. And you know you can’t have Coke with your ulcer. If you think I’m going to pay for another barium swallow, you’ve got another think coming, young lady.”
Leta slammed the Coke onto the refrigerator’s top shelf. Her mother whipped around, pointing the bag of peas at her. It sagged like one of those melting guns in a cartoon. “Break that refrigerator and just see what happens.”
Leta rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to break the stupid refrigerator.”
“You bet you won’t,” her mother said. “It’s five o’clock. Drink your Maalox.”
“Fine!” Leta took the Maalox bottle out of the cabinet above the sink. She swallowed down the white, chalky spoonful of medicine, trying not to gag. Three times a day, she had to drink the stuff, letting it coat her insides with a protective film.
In the back of the house, Stevie was shouting at the TV. Leta’s mom flinched. “Go see what he needs, please.”
“You do it. He’s not my kid,” Leta shouted, running for the front yard where she stood panting, trapped on all sides. Next door, their neighbor Mrs. Jaworski clipped at her roses with short, hard snips. Mrs. Jaworski was seventy-five and wore a flowered housedress and frosted orange lipstick outside the lines of her lips like a clown. She hated kids in general, teenagers specifically, and Leta in particular. As Leta tried to sneak back in without being noticed, she was caught by the tinny sound of Mrs. Jaworski’s voice. “You kids better stop throwing your Coke cans in my yard, young lady.”
“Sorry?” Leta answered.
“You’d better be sorry. I found three of them in my yard just this morning. Look!” With her snippers, she pointed to the grass where three crushed soda cans had been carefully laid out like the dead. She’d actually posed them. It was unreal.
“Those aren’t mine,” Leta said.
“I’ll tell your father!”
“My dad’s not here,” Leta answered back, but Mrs. Jaworski wasn’t listening.
Leta crept around the house to the back bedroom, which had been her father’s old study, and let herself in quietly through the window. She never came in here, really, and now, her mom’s decoupage supplies took up half of the room. Leta’s dad had moved to Hartford, Connecticut, four months ago when his company relocated, but they’d stayed behind because her parents said the housing market was in a slump. “No sense selling until we know for sure whether this job is going to be permanent,” her dad had explained as they sat at a table in Luby’s Cafeteria in the mall while her mother ignored her beef Stroganoff and kept a hand pressed to her mouth like a dam. When she finally spoke, she only said, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, Leta,” but she looked at Leta’s dad when she said it, and the next week, he was living in Hartford, and Leta was helping her mom with Stevie.