I’ll tell you something about Georgie: he’s a super-strong elephant. I’m serious. My aunt crochets her animals with diamond infused yarn. He’s magical. He likes the view of the ocean from high up. He likes to fly.
We’re playing this game on the dunes right now. It’s kind of stupid but still fun. My friend Lacie is holding my legs while do a I handstand. Georgie stands on my feet, facing the ocean. I imagine we’re a circus act. We dazzle a large crowd of people who all hold their breaths and lean forward to see us. But Georgie is wobbly and my skirt’s too loosely tucked between my knees.
“So what? No do-overs,” Lacie says, giggling. Already I have head-burn, and just when I think I’ll faint, she lets go and I’m free.
Handstanding on a sand dune, things are upside-down. For seconds it’s victory. I tuck my head down and keep my feet flat for Georgie. It’s the top of the sky, the bottom of the earth. A ceiling of ocean meets a pool of twilight. Then sand shudders. I tilt. A blaze in the sky seems to flash behind my eyes. A rocket?
Making a last attempt for Georgie, I bend my knees and let him fly. He goes Pacificward through a shadowy sky.
Georgie faceplants at record distance. I’m turning, disoriented. “Did you see a launch? Was it a rocket?” I ask, wanting it to be true. My aunt always said the dunes were the best place on the peninsula to watch launches. But Lacie doesn’t know. She didn’t see. There’s nothing up there now, is there? Handstands are so last year—not even last year—first-grade, she says, getting up, laughing. She turns cartwheels the rest of the way down.
An hour later I pedal my bike into my driveway. There’s a glow behind the curtains so I know I’m home too late.
Mom presses her lips thin. My brother sets rows of G.I.s around the kitchen table. I whisper to him, “Did you see a launch?”
Mom brings us plates. “Better not have been at the storage yard,” she says, walking to her laptop at the kitchen counter. She clicks, then double clicks. “I can always call over to Harm.”
I tell her she doesn’t need to call Harm. Harm of Rocket-town. Mad-hatter Harm. “I wasn’t over there,” I say, and again nudge my brother for info.
“There was no launch, we had a quake,” he says real loud. Mom looks straight at us. She’s clammed up tighter than mussels in a sand-bucket. My brother, clueless, keeps talking: “And Joey doesn’t like you. His brother told me you’re the ugliest girl in school.”
At that, my spaghetti falls off my fork. I can’t swallow what’s in my mouth. Mom’s about to give him something mean, but I did ask my brother to find out from Joey’s brother. Heat burns up my skin. I push my plate away. I pick up my backpack.
“Don’t forget your elephant. You’re such a baby.”
I hate him right now. I really do. I smack his toys into his tomato sauce. G.I.s tangle in pasta. Tomato coats the edge of my hand. I wipe it across my brother’s face.
“Amber, uncalled for, come back.”
But I’ve already bolted. I’ve grabbed Georgie by the hoof and we’re climbing stairs. I miss a step, rug-burn my knee and squash poor Georgie before we reach my room. Now I’m hurt, and sandy. I cry for a long time into Georgie before falling asleep.
When I wake, the light is still on and my nose is stuck in Georgie’s yarn. I’m startled. My face is caught in the webbing of an elephant. The yarn is coarse. I’ve gummed up his cotton. I pull away, but a plug of stuffing comes with me from the gap I’ve made in his belly crochet. No, no, I try to push it back but it won’t go inside, so I twist the cotton until it breaks. It’s only a thimble of cotton, and his yarn is strong, but it’s like I’ve broken him.
I scooch to the edge of the bed with Georgie and look out. My neighbor has already gone to sleep. I can’t see anything outside.
Late at night it’s dark out here on the peninsula. We get a marine layer—it clouds up the sky—and there aren’t many people left to keep their lights on.
When it’s dark outside, windows become mirrors. I think Joey is wrong. I’m not ugly. I don’t know if I’m pretty. I’m just me. I part my hair to the other side. Maybe that’s what’s wrong. It looks right on my face, but now I’m realizing mirrors reflect backwards so I could be going around each day with my hair parted to the wrong side. Now it’s to the left. I look like my aunt. In the window, I mean, I look like her, and I like it.
The next day at school everyone talks about earthquakes. I hear Mr. D say he’s next to evacuate as soon as the school year’s up. Quakes don’t bother me. Our town’s safe. Truthfully, I kind of like the excitement of the shaking, but I also like Mr. D. He’s smart, and nice to me, and a really cool science teacher. I hate when people leave.
I notice Lacie parts her hair at the middle. She has bangs. I don’t remember if I noticed her hair before. It bugs me I was so blind. I tell her, “I like your hair.” She pulls at her shirt, squints like I’m being odd. I feel I should shrink. I have an urge to put my part back to the way it was before last night, but I don’t want to. I want to look like my aunt did, and that’s when I remember her hair was short.
After school I convince Mom to cut my hair. She tells me to sit on the kitchen table. The table is clean, no signs of tomato mess from last night. While Mom trims, she hums a song I’ve heard on TV. Her fingers tug softly. Snip, snip. Mom cuts. My hair falls onto the table, a weave of dark rings.
The rest of the week I feel light. I think it’s due to my short hair, and leaving Georgie at home instead of squeezing him into my backpack. I figure he needs time to recover from his stuffing injury. I completely avoid Joey. In fact, I’ve nearly forgotten about the incident where my brother asked his brother to ask him about me, and he’s probably forgotten too. The days are bright. We haven’t had any quakes. The sun burns through the clouds early every morning.
“Want to ride to Rocket-town?” I ask Lacie after school. She has one leg over her bike. She shakes her bangs to the side and gives me a suspicious look. She thinks I ask because I want to go to my aunt’s storage unit again. Last week it got her into trouble. I made her help me try to break in. I rode my bike into the storage door until it almost fell down, but Mad-hatter Harm caught me before it happened. Lacie didn’t really do anything. She only gave it one whimpy kick, but she got in trouble too, and now she’s still mad about it, I can tell. “I don’t want to do that,” I say. “Let’s see the rockets.”
“What about my piano lesson?”
I know her piano lesson isn’t for two hours. Still, I can’t convince her. She rides away without me. She skirts a parked car, coasting downhill toward home.
At first I don’t know what to do. I think about following, but instead turn my bike. I run and jump on, and try hard to keep my speed up the hill.
The road curves around in big loops that are more fun to ride down than up. Soon there isn’t a sidewalk or bike space. Then the sidewalk starts again, all cracked and uneven where the road flattens off along the bluff. This would be prime land. Rocket-town would never be in a spot like this overlooking the ocean, except nothing up here is worth anything anymore. Mr. D taught us these bluffs would fall into the Pacific sooner or later.
I’m almost there when I see Ed on his porch. I wave. He smiles and calls, “Hey there, kiddo.” Ed’s homeless. He lives in the empty house next to Rocket-town’s chainlink fence. I don’t know, there may be more homeless people in these houses on the bluff but I’ve never seen them. I always see Ed, though. He’s nice. He doesn’t report me sneaking under the fence. I hope he doesn’t fall into the ocean.
When I get to the fence, I stop. Harm’s son is inside the chainlink as close as if he’s on the other side of a soccer field. He paints one of the rockets with a spray gun. He stands on a ladder. His arm moves back and forth along the hull of a large rocket, which is held up on its side by a stand of angled metal bars like the steel some long bridges have. With each stroke the rocket turns from shimmery silver to flat white.
I lace my fingers through the floppy chainlink. I don’t know his name, but I’ve seen him on the high school campus while I’ve walked through to get to my school. I know he lives here with his dad in Rocket-town. He wears a white cut-off shirt that shows his arms. Paint sticks to the skin on his throat. I know I’m staring but I can’t stop. He sees me.
I keep staring. He keeps painting. My stomach is a jumble of unknowns.
Then he’s not looking anymore. It’s weird, I want him to look back at me even though I can’t sneak in while he’s watching, but I wait for a long time and he doesn’t. I’m not sure what to do. I see another rocket has been painted a few yards away. The coat of paint is liquid light. I decide I like that he paints them. This one is beautiful. I wave, hoping he will notice, but he doesn’t. I call, “Bye,” but I don’t think he hears me. Finally, I just wheel my bike around and go home.
When I get home, I don’t do much. I lie on my bed alternately plucking loose stuffing from Georgie’s gap and re-adjusting his yarn to gain equal cover. From my bed I watch the neighbor’s window. At some point I’m forced to go downstairs for dinner but soon I’m back in this spot watching the orange eye of the solar system fall behind the terracotta tiles of my neighbor’s roof. It makes me angry that the man, who moved in next-door weeks after my aunt left, probably doesn’t appreciate terracotta tiles like she did. He uses this particular room to play a blue-yellow flashing video game each night. It annoys me. He doesn’t even have a cat. That room used to be my aunt’s cat room. Stuffed cats, real cats. My aunt used to leave nightlights on so when I’d wake up in the dark I could watch her cats from my window.
Cats go bonkers at night. They spring from carpet trees, attack toys, scratch at everything: the futon, rugs, even glow-in-the-dark starry wallpaper. If you walk into a room of cats at night, they’ll probably climb up your hair to scratch out your eyes. It’s good my aunt crocheted with diamond, or her real cats would have torn the stuffed ones to shreds.
I nod off, then roll onto Georgie by accident. The clock says eleven-thirty. I nearly always wake up in the night. I must be an insomniac. No, a narcoleptic. One of those. Mom’s asleep. She goes to work at four a.m. My neighbor is still playing his game. He’s standing up, animated, half naked now. I creep to the window and inch it up. There’s no screen. Cool air slips in, heavy with ocean-dampness. A string of words, rough and angry, issue from my neighbor’s speaker. The man smashes buttons. He yells back at whomever he battles through the speaker. His fist pumps into the air as his screen turns bright. Light glints off his armpit where a thick tuft of hair catches the glow. I cover my mouth. It’s disgusting, you know, his hairy armpit right outside my window and his loud words just across the short span. Now that he’s moved in, I can’t sleep here, even with Georgie.
I lift the window. “Georgie, I have to drop you,” I whisper. Grass is harder than sand, but I think it’s okay.
I have to scale the fake balcony that runs between my window and my brother’s, then crab climb down the chute between the pipe and stucco. I know every toe and handhold in the wood of the main house that keeps me from sliding down. My fingers ache at the end, and I think I’m going to fall, so I let go and land on my feet in the grass next to Georgie. I look up. My brother’s window is still closed. That’s good. He’s caught me before. I’m not sure if he would tell Mom this time.
Quietly, Georgie and I find our bike and go to Rocket-town.
Now that I’m out of danger, I can think. I know I shouldn’t be going to my aunt’s storage unit again. When we ate tuna sandwiches while sitting on boxes, our tennis-shoes all tapping concrete to the radio, I didn’t know it meant she’d leave. We moved her house inside there. Then she left to… I don’t know where. I imagine I want to be good, but I do wrong things. Like tonight, I’d rather climb onto one of the rockets to look at stars over the ocean, but I won’t because I miss her too much. And Lacie had a piano lesson, Joey thinks I’m un-pretty, and the boy—does he have tufts in his armpits too?—I wanted him to wave good-bye.
When I get to Rocket-town, the chainlink is wired shut. The new closures poke outward and look sharp. Pushing the bike, I search for a new opening with Georgie, whose hoof is smooshed between my palm and the handlebar. We find the front drive and follow a car through the automatic gate.
The storage unit is over a hill, down a long line of falling down buildings in rows. Hers is at the end, facing the rocket field and the ocean. I pedal hard, picking up speed after we top the rise. Salty air sticks to my cheeks. I turn at the last row, and pedaling fast, I know what I am going to do.
The flimsy door to her unit is ahead. I suck in air, brace my arms for impact. Next moment, I hear a screech of metal. My wheel goes up, and then everything comes down.
It hurts so badly. I think I’m bleeding. From where I’m caught under my bike, I see a black triangle of space. The door is now a hazard hanging from one hinge. I untangle Georgie, who’s caught in spokes but still whole. Pressing my palms to the ground, we shake loose of the bike, which is stuck on the storage unit. The door suddenly crashes to the ground. Noise cracks my eardrums.
My heart is thumping hard. Like at my check-up when the doctor listens inside. He asks, Are you nervous? and I shake my head. I’m not nervous but my chest feels full of pounding.
I stare into the dark space, wanting badly to find a clue that will tell me where my aunt has gone. I clutch Georgie and walk in. I don’t think we have much time. I can’t see. It feels empty. Squinting into the corner, a bob of light flashes the wall. I spin and run.
Barefoot, I gallop over concrete downhill. I hold Georgie by an ear. Why can’t we fly? The moon glows huge tonight over the rocket field. I swerve behind a pile of dull pipes. Flashlights swing across the area. It’s Mad-hatter Harm and the boy.
I squeeze my eyelids tight. I don’t want to be found. When I open them, I see the rocket: white under the moon, raised high above the ground. I dart to one metal pile, then another, moving closer. I’m almost there, but when I turn my head, he’s coming after me.
I put Georgie between my teeth and launch onto the bridge of steel, climbing up, not sure of where to go. Vibrations cut against my palms. I’m swaying. Cut into the belly of the rocket is an opening. I toss Georgie in, catch the ledge with my hand. Paint sticks to my palm, which stings my raw open skin. A shiver seems to come from the earth. I cringe, pull, crawl up into the barrel just as I glimpse the boy reaching the rocket from below. I stare down. He’s looking up.
Grit digs into my knees as I crawl with Georgie ahead of me. I hear the boy talking roughly, cursing as he climbs. He’s gotten in. I keep moving away from him, then everything starts shaking. I’m sliding, falling backwards, hugging Georgie. I know it’s a quake. A big one. No desk or doorjamb to run under. My back hits warm skin and my head thumps back. His arms hold me while everything tumbles. We’re falling, wedged inside. Tears cloud my eyes. I see a coffee pot broken on its side, a cardboard box gnawed through by rats, yarn and cotton stuffing, water-stained. His shoulder presses slick against my cheek. Georgie’s coarse yarn tangles in my fingers. We hold everything tight. We see stars hanging underneath the ocean and imagine we will one day ride our own Apollo to someplace further than the moon.
Amy Evans Brown is a Californian transplanted to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a place rich in lake effect snow, corn fields, and microbrew poets. Her fiction can also be found at Front Porch Review.