The first thing I noticed was the pink house with white columns. Bonsai trees lined the second-floor balcony like potted, disembodied limbs, and outside the front door flew the biggest American flag I’d ever seen. In contrast, the windows were all black, an air of abandonment. The car drove past, and my neck craned backwards. The fact that I would find a house like this, and to find it here of all places! I knew this wouldn’t be our neighborhood; ours would be much smaller. The fences would be chain link, not that nice wooden type, and the neighbors would have lots and lots of children. I pointed out the bonsai house to my mom. “Mom,” I said.
“We aren’t there yet, Bailey, I thought I just told you,” she said. I thought of saying something mean in return, but instead I just sat quietly in the front seat. Dad would understand about the house, anyway.
It was a pretty town, just as I’d been told. Forests fringed the roads — my mom had told me there were little paths that we could walk on. She emphasized we. Above cul-de-sacs and tidy lawns loomed a great hill, almost a real mountain, with a blinking antenna on top.
I was right about our neighborhood; there were no pink houses anywhere as far as I could tell. They mostly were this morose shade of dark blue, like water after the sun has set. Our neighbors did not bring over any welcome brownies, which my mom fumed about loudly. I could tell she was glad to have fodder to complain. I watched my dad to see if he had the same complaints. He said nothing, only smoothed his hair and gave one of his laugh-sighs. His hair seemed grayer than it had last month. I knew this because I could remember the way he looked exactly six weeks ago, specifically when I saw him climb out of the mini-van and rush to hug me. I remember how his stomach felt, bulging a little on the sides, but not in an uncomfortable way.
For the next few weeks, when I’d lie awake at night and try not to dream, that’s what I would think about. The way his stomach felt, his Oxford shirt untucked; the way I had hugged him, too. My face in his chest. My eyes clenched shut against the strobing ambulances. The sobs around me fading, until all I could hear was my breathing against the thud of his heart.
I had to take the bus to school in this neighborhood; not a normal school bus, but one of the city busses. The people wore scrubs and polo shirts and played games on their phones. I listened to my music and stared out the window. My phone was so old that it could only hold one album at a time. Currently, it was an album called “Ethiopian Jazz” my dad had given me. Something about the saxophone paired the right way with the neighborhoods and strip malls that passed by. This was important to me, that stuff paired the right way.
At school, everyone wanted to know things. They asked stupid questions like “do you like it here? How is it different from your last neighborhood? Your last school?” They wanted to know if it could happen here. It made me angry that they had to dance around the point.
I wouldn’t have been able to answer their real questions, anyway. What I said was that the stoplights here stayed yellow for a little longer, and the coffee shops didn’t have the hazelnut coffee that I liked, and the neighbors were all younger than my parents. I said that the sunsets were blue, like my house; I said that the teachers here smoked between class, on the other end of the parking lot. This confused all of them, especially the last bit, which I had made up. The other kids were baffled; the teachers were even more so. Which is what I wanted.
At the same time, some nights I imagined meeting a someone, maybe another girl, who listened with wide eyes while I told her about the coffee and the neighbors and the street lights. In this fantasy, Ethiopian Jazz was playing on speakers somewhere, and I was standing next to those stunted pine trees near the school entrance. As I told her all of the things I’d noticed, more students gathered around with confused looks. But she ignored them, right until I was finished.
My mom would ask me who my new friends were at school. Specifically, she would say “when are we going to meet some of your friends?” Which meant “have you made friends yet?” which meant “why haven’t you made friends yet?” And that meant “didn’t Dr. Green say it was important to make friends at the new school?”
I learned how to be quiet in the face of these questions, which was more effective than my old method of shouting and arguing. My mom was good at arguing but terrible at silence. This was something I’d learned from my dad; how to use your silence to shut someone down in that chilling sort of way. Sometimes, this feeling made me want to smile, but I’d keep my face totally still.
Then there were all the things I couldn’t properly say, so I stayed quiet, lest they collapse under the weight of the words. I kept a mental list of those times — one would be that day in the parking lot; another would be the day this summer when we left the old home, our ranch at the end of the block. I’d found my dad standing in his bedroom, and it was small and sad without any furniture. If I had to classify that feeling, it would go something like “look at how quickly we made this place not a place anymore! Look at how permanently we can disappear!” But instead of saying that, we were just quiet, and that was better.
I never got a chance to ask my dad about the Bonsai house, which looked just like His house. I mean, just like it. Decorative shutters, pediment above the entrance, the single dormer window in the attic, like a third eye. The overall impression of a decorative box, garish and sinister.
That’s what I dreamed about, if I wasn’t careful: that house, with its huge American flag. It was like an awful omen of something. I guess, in those dreams, I thought I could still stop what had already happened. Like if I could explain what it was about that house that was so troubling, then I could make it go away. You could say that was how I felt about everything then; if only I could find the exact words for what I thought and felt, then my thoughts and feelings wouldn’t bother me. Instead, they flit around namelessly; the woosh of wings in the dark.
After a few months of school, my mom got concerned about my grades and stuff. She made me see the counselor, Mrs. Beale, a sleek woman who reminded me of a thoroughbred horse, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. She just had this powerful, lean look to her. When she asked me questions, she would stare intermittently out the window, as if she missed the wind and sun. That’s not to say she was bad at her job — she was actually very good. When she looked at me, she put the entirety of her gaze in her eyes. When I told her about the hazelnut coffee and the stoplights, I would almost believe that she understood. But then she would glance out the window, and I’d know that she didn’t quite get it. For her to get it, she would have to feel the same way that I did when I looked out the window.
How did I feel when I looked out the window? Like I’d left my body, like I was drifting up and away in a balloon. I’d watch the town dwindle, and I’d feel a little sad, but I’d also feel like this was the natural course of things. Some people were meant to run on the playground and hang out with friends at the Sonic and be happy nearly all the time. I was just meant to float in this balloon, and one day I’d be out of sight of the town. Up and up I’d go, like smoke from a chimney.
Around this time, I started having all sorts of opinions. Specifically, I found myself hating a lot of things. Like this town. It was supposed to be better than our old town, safer, but everyone who said that had to be nutso. This place was a shit stain! The bushes that grew shaggy over each sidewalk; the tornado sirens that ran test drills on Saturday mornings; the way the air felt saturated with something sour and rotten that gagged me. It was nothing like the dry summers we’d left behind, the sky stretching elastically to cover the horizon. The dusty toads that would sit in the roads, ready for a car to come by with a sick squeeeelch that made me shiver.
I hated the way my hair looked, flat and plain, like a stick figure drawing. I hated my name, which my mom would say over and over and over; “Bailey! Bailey! Bailey!” It sounded like a farm tool. I wanted an old-fashioned name, something hideous like “Gertrude.” I wanted a buzz cut. I wanted tacky nails to click on deli counters while I chewed Bazooka Joe bubblegum. I wanted these thing with such a ferocity, it scared me. Like I’d spent the whole day starving and only noticed it when my stomach rumbled like a thunderclap.
I still thought about the hypothetical girl at school. In these fantasies, I would stand and confess everything on my mind. Now, though, she looked just like I wanted to, tall, with a beautiful bald head and elaborate finger nails. She wore a pair of combat boots. “Do I have to spell it out for you?” she would yell at the gaping onlookers, “or do I need to kick your face in?” And she would kick the air menacingly. The thought made me crinkle my eyes tight, blushing in the dark.
At the same time, I had dreams again, my first real ones in months. I’d dreamt I was in my old classroom at school. Everyone else was asleep, even Mrs. Chatfield, who dozed on the projector. I sat bolt upright. I scanned the room, memorizing the order in which everyone sat. I don’t know why — in these dreams I just knew, knew, that my only chance to save them was to remember the precise order of the desks. So I’d start — Melissa, Terry, Liam, Jessica — those four I knew for sure. But who sat behind Joey? Was that Becca in the corner, or Talia? I was running out of time, and I couldn’t turn my neck. The taste of Sulphur made my tongue thick and immobile; loud footsteps grew closer in the hallway. When I’d wake, I’d hear the odd crickets that made such a racket in my neighborhood, taste the air’s weight. I guess this was the only time I didn’t mind these things. They’d clean me of all doubt.
Kids at school had stopped asking dumb questions. Mostly they just ignored me. In our sessions, Mrs. Beale spent more time staring out the window, gazing at the hill over town. I bet she ran up that hill, thick legs pounding the mud, strong lungs panting for air in a thrill as she crested, the whole town unfurling below.
I had graduated from Ethiopian Jazz to old Country songs. “Ring of Fire” went perfectly with the hard-back bus seats, the gray and used people who sat across from me. A few times, I tried death metal, but it caused me to cringe and I’d turn down the volume. I wanted to like it because it seemed like the kind of thing she would like – the girl in my day dreams, that is. I figured that if I kept listening, eventually it would open up to me. With Ethiopian Jazz, the saxophone would croon in that crooked, spiky sort of way, and when I listened it coursed from my headphones to the base of my spine like an electric current. When I tried to explain it, the words seemed flimsy and insubstantial. Ethiopian Jazz sounded like all the secret corners of my brain, and the sounds proved that I wasn’t alone. That there was someone else I didn’t have to spell it out for.
Sometimes, I felt like screaming, but I knew that it would come out wrong. I would scream as loud as I could, if only it were the correct sound, primal and savage that everyone would understand.
Eventually, I did shave my head. It happened one afternoon when my dad left his electric razor out in the bathroom. The idea was suddenly so deliciously possible. I tingled as I felt its buzz over my head. At first, it was uneven, and panic crept in. I worked at it, though, fingers tracing a new terrain of stubble, my mouth half open in astonishment. It was incredible, I thought, how a head doesn’t quite look like a head without hair. At the same time, all other heads with hair seemed bashful and ashamed at their own head-ness. Mine was naked, proud.
I was trembling when I faced my mother. Her horror washed over me in waves of pleasure. For the first time, I thought I was getting somewhere. I jettisoned the fingernails and bubblegum. When I found them at the cosmetics counter at the drug store, they just didn’t look right. What I needed was another girl, I thought, who would give me her old ones, having moved on to a more exotic color.
For a while, things were better at school. Most people gawked at me like a zoo animal, but a couple weren’t phased. Jared, in social studies, grinned and gave me a thumbs up. We had never spoken, but I winked at him. My Spanish teacher, a tall woman with lustrous gray hair, glanced at me while we did our worksheet. Her mouth twitched like she was suppressing a smile, and it seemed like she was in on it, too. And when the cool girls confronted me at lunch, saying “cool head, Bailey,” I just looked at them and said “bite me.”
It seemed like things were going to be OK after all, if it weren’t for that day in February. So far, February had been the worst month, objectively speaking. The rains had a sick sort of damp to them. Everything felt flu-like and rotten. My bundle of scarves and hats made me look like a cancer patient. On the public bus, I’d stare at the other passengers, mulling whether I should just skip school, take the bus to the terminal at the end of town.
Social studies was about halfway through; I was practically drooling on my desk in boredom. The alarms, when they sounded, stung my ears. Reeeeh Reeeeeh Rip. The after-shock rippled my ear drums. Everyone else seemed dazed, more or less like they weren’t getting it yet. I felt mad, really angry, that they couldn’t tell that the noise in their ears meant fire, meant poison, meant drowning and disemboweling and a horrible chill in the pit of your stomach. I clamped my ears shut, but I wanted to smack someone — wake up!
We climbed under our desks. Mauve, one of the cool girls, finished sending a text before she crouched on the carpet. I hugged my knees, forcing myself into a tight ball, the sort of thing that nothing could get into or out of it. Then we heard a gunshot. Mauve made a little “O” with her mouth.
The next part in my memory is just this — the breath one takes when it’s very important to inhale, then the breath out, which rushes too fast. A numbness everywhere else, my limbs faint and light like those of a songbird. The dun colored ones that used to sit in our window box at our old home, spearing seeds and flapping away with a look simultaneously dumb and clever.
I stayed that way, balled up, light and blank, until a pungent smell brought me back. There had only been the one distant shot. The excitement in the room died down. It was replaced by loud sniffs, then stifled giggles, then an awful whispering. It was only when I smelled the odor that I returned to my body. I felt the heat in my jeans, wet and sticky on my thighs and butt. When I glanced down, the denim was almost black with saturation. Mauve had retrieved her phone, taking a picture. She wasn’t the only one. I remember Mr. Williams, always late to the joke, giving a little grunt and saying to himself, “what’s that smell?”
The drill went on for six more minutes. And it was a drill, ultimately. The gunshot I had heard was just a car backfiring. I ran straight to the nurse, my face wet and flushed. My dad picked me up, and neither of us spoke the way home. These drills were very common, I learned later, especially after what happened at my old school.
I let my hair grow past a true buzz. At night, I could no longer conjure the other girl, the one who’d defended me from all the onlookers. I forgot what she looked like. They ignored me again at school, but I knew that they called me “piss girl.” I punched Jaime N. in the face one day at lunch. I got suspended, and for three days I had to listen to my mother. “Bailey, Bailey, Bailey” — the sound of a tractor that wouldn’t start.
The hunger had vanished. It was as if that sense of wanting and knowing were sealed within a glass display case. I could look on those sensations, but I couldn’t touch them anymore. I couldn’t become absorbed in notion that the things around me were wrong. I still knew it, but I had lost the right to really feel it in my gut. Lost the right because now I was piss girl.
When it was warmer outside, I took long walks across town. I’d walk all the way to the Bonsai house, the one with the pink façade and big white columns. Beneath tree canopies the color drained. Instead of a house, a tomb; instead of pillars, excavated bones. Not once did I see a paunchy dad mowing the lawn. Nor did I see little girls playing badminton on the lawn, or even a house keeper taking tidy steps up the side door. The Bonsais didn’t move in the breeze. The flag hung limp, like a wet rag. The windows remained dark. It was, altogether, a black place, symbolizing nothing.
I thought about his house, the identical one. Such a strange house to produce a killer. The thought would have bothered me once, but now I let it echo across my thoughts. Strange, strange, strange. The word emanated from the house, which might be breeding a killer just like the boy I once knew. But it kept reverberating across the street. Strange; the elm tree right behind me. Strange; the stoplight down the road, which stayed yellow too long. Strange; the whole town, with its hill like a burial mound, with its gawking people, with its allergy to any idea of home, comfort, safety. Strangest; Piss Girl, the one who still woke up in blind terror at night, who now had to check her crotch to make sure she hadn’t pissed herself again. That was what I thought about on those walks, which sometimes lasted until the cold sunsets of early spring.
It was around then that my dad appeared in the carpool line at school. “Hey bud, need a lift?”
The front seat of his old Saturn was upholstered in peeling leather. I picked at it as we drove in silence. We listened to the one radio station the car could get; the knob had long since fallen off. In our old town, it was a Classical channel. Now, it was Christian Rock. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! the radio insisted, right as we missed a turn.
He tapped a finger on the wheel unrhythmically. “I figured we might get a bite to eat.” He didn’t quite make eye contact.
We drove to the end of town, where the road become a two-lane highway. They played that Jesus song on the radio again, and I felt antsy. Eventually, we eased into the parking lot of a big chain restaurant, the kind with huge laminated menus and sassy waitresses. I was bugged out by the whole thing. For one, we never went out of town. Let alone right after school, and let alone to a random restaurant. Plus, I’d been spending so much time walking around, it felt weird to be on this highway, half way out of our town and into another. As we walked across the parking lot, a bubble of dread swelled in my stomach.
Mom was waiting for us at a table near the entrance. My dad seemed sheepish, and I shot him a look that went something like why-did-you-drag-me-here-what-the-f-is-going-on. The Jesus song was playing again, though in that moment (pivoting back and forth between parents) I realized that they could all be different songs that just sounded the same. The waitress bustled over, and my dad said I could order anything on the menu. The whole thing was like 20 pages long, so I ordered the crab cake sandwich because it was the first thing I saw and it was expensive. But once she was gone, the dread bubble only enlarged. Because I’d never had crab cake before. Because what if I hated it? What if my mom wanted to order me something else? What if the waitress tried to get the chef to make it again?
I realized that there didn’t seem to be any windows in this restaurant. I realized that all I really wanted was to be outside and alone. Not just for an hour or two, but maybe a week. A week seemed like the right amount of time.
I waited for my dad to say something, but of course my mom spoke first.
“Bailey, sweetie, I know it’s a little odd for us to all come here.”
She paused like she wanted me to confirm that everything about this situation was weird as shit.
“Well, really we wanted to ask you something, and it just felt like the sort of thing maybe we could talk about while having a nice meal.”
Did they kill the crab here? What part of the crab do you eat? I imagined a fat chef, vying with a pinching claw, cleaving it from its rightful owner, the last electrical impulse going dead.
“Bailey.” My dad now. I looked at him, a sadness sparkled in his eyes. I squirmed in my seat. “Your mother and I were talking, and if you’d rather move somewhere else, we would be OK if that. If that’s what you want.”
“Where would we go?”
“Anywhere, well, almost anywhere,” my mom said, “our old home if you want.”
“We just want you to be comfortable. We want you to be happy.”
A cool hand touched my arm. I swung around. My mom’s face was still. I noticed a new set of wrinkles. Parentheses around her lips, and a furrow between her eyes. And that expert way she touched me — my mind leaped to a day in Kindergarten when she walked me home, the sun blinding, her touch just like this.
These things didn’t make me feel good. They made me want to vomit or cry or both.
So often reasons are not reasons at all, but a crab cake sandwich, or Jesus on the radio, or an incinerating feeling that makes you want to jump out of your skin. Nevertheless, once you’ve decided something, you become that decision. When my parents asked me if I wanted to leave, I wasn’t thinking about reasons. I was thinking that maybe a month would be a better amount of time to be alone.
Years later, when my mom suddenly turned to me on a car ride home and asked me about that day, I didn’t have an answer. I just reached out and touched her arm.
Toward May, I’d inched closer to a pixie cut. I missed the baldness, but it was nice to feel the light down on my scalp, almost like feathers. Only a few kids still called me piss girl and I didn’t mind quite as much.
In March, another girl had transferred from a school in Idaho. It sounded so exotic, like something scribbled on a postcard. I caught myself staring at her in Math. She had sandy hair and chewed her pencil. She always wore a jean jacket, and each day after school her older brother picked her up in a Pontiac GTO he’d rebuilt. She wore round sunglasses in the car, just like John Lennon. Her name was Dot.
One day, I was eating my lunch at my normal spot under a spruce tree, out of sight from the rest of them. Dot approached me, cutting a straight line across the grass. She’d tucked a Ticonderoga behind her ear. I tried to see the teeth marks.
“You’re Bailey,” she said.
I nodded. “You’re Dot.”
“Why are you always out here eating by yourself?”
I brushed my hand through my hair, feeling its soft spring. “The other kids call me piss girl, so I don’t talk to them anymore.”
“Is that because you pissed yourself?”
I shrugged. A half-grin flickered across her face. In the future, I would remember that smile, which always precipitated something forbidden, something the two of us would steal with sudden hunger. “Fuck them,” she said.
On the last day of school, I decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. Clouds filled the sky like huge cargo ships. I passed beneath them on a sidewalk busted by tree roots and spiky weeds. My steps seemed easy and insignificant. The flowering trees were about to lose their blooms, and every so often a breeze would grab fistfuls of white and pink petals and disperse them in wild swirls. I caught a thin bough. It was quiet on the suburban street. The leaves on the branch were oily, and I started to pluck them from their joints. Everything seemed right at the tip of my tongue. It was the kind of moment when you realize you can’t just go home. Or, more accurately, you realize that your home isn’t in the house you are walking to — it’s somewhere else. Something was waiting for me, beyond the horizon of everything I had lost.
Flinging the door open, I rushed into my gym shorts and tennis shoes. I left the house and set out at a trot, heading for the hill that rose over town. Soon, I was out of breath. But the day was cool and fresh, unusual for May, and I had nowhere to be. The path was empty, just like I had hoped. I walked. I halted to catch my breath. I started running again. I can’t quite explain that feeling, both having somewhere I desperately wanted to be, but also not minding the waiting. What would you call that? My hair puffed out with each step. If it made a noise it would have been metallic. The clatter of pans, startling the birds in the trees, scaring those further up the trail. It would rebound and double, and for miles would be heard this brilliant clanging, the dumb noise of my hair.
Robert Herbst’s fiction has been published at Scoundrel Time and twice received the Thompson Award for Best Short Fiction from the Center of the American West. His story, ‘A Standing Offer,’ was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2016 he graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College, where he won the Erskine-Caldwell Prize for Best Short Story and the Grimes Award for Best Creative Work from a Senior. In 2019, Robert received his Master’s in Violin Performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In his professional life, Robert is a violinist, playing in orchestras in the Boulder area and teaching privately. When neither writing nor making music, Robert enjoys running, climbing, and reading in all the beautiful places Colorado has to offer.