The four of them lay on the rug in a circle. They could not be still. They could not shut the hell up. They played blackjack, betting for fistfuls of jerky their dad kept stashed on a kitchen shelf. Only rarely did the girl beat the boys, though she was next to oldest. There were three of them to her one, an equation of quantity and logic, she’d always understood, but also of weight and matter. Ace and face, she threw down her cards, three lucky wins in a row. She whooped and lifted up from the floor, prepared to wrestle an accord, star-flung limbs and static-flared hair bound in constellation. Instead, this late afternoon, the oldest brother detonated the cards in a rush of edges. Red and black diamonds, spades, hearts, and clubs.
“Fifty-two pickup.” He was on his feet.
With a smack of screen door, her brothers were gone. She lay still alone, feeling her heart slip slowly back to steady, noticing how the stain-resistant carpet had imprinted an interlocking weave on her elbows, the rise and fall of her skin as she passed her hand over this pattern. Out the window, the sun balanced on the lake’s horizon. Couldn’t have been more than two hours since their father had shouted from the couch, “Shut the hell up,” and they hadn’t. He’d then shouted for their mother, in earshot in another room: “We’re going out.”
The girl liked it when her parents left for the night, to Casey’s, usually. They drank beer served from cloudy plastic pitchers her father ordered—another round—and she felt light in the dark rooms. Like a bird. A sparrow. A jay. A raven. A loon.
“Where are you going?” she’d asked all the same.
“Out.” Her dad slipped a ring of keys from a curled hook by the kitchen door.
“Casey’s,” her mother said, letting her hand rest on top of her daughter’s head, just a beat skip, they both felt it, before she’d walked out, too.
On a bookshelf beside her, a stack of Popular Mechanics sat in a deck. Take your pick, the archive, organized by date by the cabin’s owner, an old friend of their father’s, seemed to call. This one, 1957, on the cover a faceless man wearing a gas mask and jetpack, flying at the speed of a locomotive.
The girl folded a pillow under her head and reclined on the couch, its dry wicker frame crackling. She thumbed the cover open and scanned the first page: H. H. Windsor (founder), Roderick M. Grant, Wayne Whittaker, James R. Ward, Clifford B. Hicks, Arthur R. Railton, Wayne C. Leckey, W. Clyde Lammey, William D. Perkins, Lothar Stern, Earl Wobeck, Douglas W. Wedderspoon, Allan Carpenter… She flipped the page. There was a photograph of a man, a “submarine lumberman,” who was underwater logging, she read. There were two men simultaneously hunting for lead, zinc, and copper using a portable electromagnetometer, powered by everyday flashlight batteries. “They can cover up to a five-mile line per day.” Twice the distance across the lake. Another man thawed frozen rail switches with a handmade flamethrower. She turned the page. Men were conducting ejection studies “concerned with escape from aircraft traveling 1,000 mph or faster,” catapulting test dummies, made in the shapes of men, from sled rockets. A woman in a nurse’s dress, down on one knee, smiled up at a girl smiling down from her wheelchair. A woman in curls and a dress opened mail. Another answered calls at a switchboard. A man dressed in white manned the controls of a Push-Button Bakery, which, “in much the same manner that Detroit manufactures automobiles,” had the capacity to produce ten thousand loaves per hour. “Anyone who has watched a housewife struggle through the chore of baking half a dozen loaves of bread will marvel.” She turned the pages. A woman pressed a Christmas tree mold into sugar cookie dough, her dress fitted and tied with a bow.
The girl rested the magazine on her stomach, conscious that before she had breasts she’d laid her books on her chest, her soft palate tightening in what she thinks she’ll call compression, the muscles of her heart not beating but knocking against her ribs, her sternum. Shut the hell up. She sounded just like her father in her mind. God damn it to hell. She counted the years in tens: 1957. 1967. 1977. 1987, 1997, 2007, 2017, 2027…
She swung her legs off the couch, stepped over the cards and through the kitchen. She walked up the stairs that led to the attic room where the kids slept at night, the walls of the stairwell lined with exposed fiberglass insulation and plywood shelves, packed with bottles and jars. The thought lit like a spark, and in it her imagined hand lifted, fisted, and ran along the shelves until she heard crashing. Pickled beets, waxed paper and waxed beans, diced tomatoes, scouring pads, vinegar, and bleach. And then, with no memory of the climb, she was at the top of the stairs, and the ceiling pushed up and out and the smell of unfinished pine beams resweetened the air.
She lay on the thin cotton bedspread, wet at the foot where she’d earlier dropped her swimsuit, a navy blue one-piece trimmed with white piping. “Precious,” the saleslady had said when she’d tried it. “Aren’t you filling out nicely.”
From a pile on the floor, she reached for something to read. She’d read them all before—Archie, Batman, Superman, National Geographic—so she studied the pictures, simple color-saturated girls and boys. Veronica always wore lipstick, her black hair was always shiny, inked blocks of white and ice blue standing in for reflection. And was it hot curlers or care that made it so reliably lustrous, even when she rode in the convertible with Archie to the seashore, even after she swam in her red polka-dot bikini? Maybe she didn’t truly swim. Maybe that’s how she did it.
Through the open window between her bed and the bunk where the boys slept, she could hear her brothers’ staccato steps on the dock, and then the paddles smacking the gunwales of the aluminum canoe. She climbed onto the steamer trunk under the window. Knees hard-pressed between the trunk’s oak ribs, she watched the canoe leave the cove. Through the screen, the air smelled like rust. Strange, she felt, quite near the edge of thought, how freely smell turns to taste. The air was still, and she could hear her brothers laughing. They had pushed out the door, shoulders knocking, no word of where they were going—a silent shift, knuckle hard. Come on, they used to shout to her. Race you. They’d pulled each other’s bony wrists, belt loops, stained shirts. Trip-lining each other to the ground, to roots and slick pine needles, pinwheeling into the water, scraping hips on raw edges of the unfinished dock on the way down, holding heads under until they all had breathed in the lake water. She had tasted minnows and sunlight and the forest floor, life dissolving.
Above her, from a splintery ceiling beam and penny nails, hung spare paddles, fishing rods, and Creamsicle-colored life jackets. Her brothers never wore theirs, so when they paddled, their bare chests split the wind. When they swam, the waves hit their skin. She stood up on the trunk, reached, and grabbed one of the vests at the neck. Like placing match to flint, she pressed the sun-worn fabric against one of the nails. She pulled down with a jerk and watched the jacket’s curdled insides push out and onto the floor. From glossy covers, Archie grinned up at her, and a cheetah, boxed in the ever-present sun-yellow frame, was sprinting. Then, with a second jacket, she did the same. The batting rocked in the breeze that pushed through the screen, landing scattered on the floor, her chore. She picked up a magazine.
She was reading about the natural habitat and ground speed of cheetahs when the first firecracker exploded. She sat up, listening in the falling light for her brothers. She let her legs hang over the side of the bed, then stood up and walked to the window. Her brothers were out of sight. The sun just about.
If she hurried, she could reach them before they blew the whole stash. She pulled off her shirt and shorts. The suit, still wet, rolled up at the top, and because she was rushing, the seam at the neck ripped when she pushed her arms through. She grabbed her shirt and ran down the narrow stairs, landing each step with birdlike precision, outstretching her fingers and waving them as she would a wand over the plywood shelves of bottles and jars. Through the kitchen, past a memory of her mother kneeling on the rug, collecting the pieces of a broken bottle, her hands slowly reaching, as if underwater, as if she ever truly swam, ever closed her eyes, submerged her pretty head under water and swam. She let the screen door slam, and she’d later recall how the disturbance of night air broke the clot of mosquitoes at the porch light. The water, copper at noon, would be sepia now and ghosted with catfish who’d been cut off the line, hooks pulled from perfect throats, because it was bass and perch the fishermen preferred to catch. She stood in the yellow porch light and looked out at the lake, rubbing the dirty sole of left foot over right, a memory of her father behind her, eyes scanning the horizon, asking, again, Where are the boys? A flame, not far beyond the buoys, flickered, followed three breaths later by an explosion. Then laughter again, sparking off and into the sky. She shouted their names.
She knew her brothers could hear her. She shouted again. She knew they could hear her, because she could hear them.
Mosquitoes ganged at her ankles and neck. Wind curled in from the lake, carrying the breath of her brothers, the water and the fish, shooting stars and black holes, the warmth of the sun’s remains. In this air between them, the girl listened to her brothers as they laughed and struck the matches.
She called again. Thready wings stuck in the back of her throat, and she spit into the night. It was far to swim, and dark. She spit again. Across the lake, a loon sang, and she stepped off the porch, one, two, three painted stairs, a carpet of pine needling her feet when she took off, past the white pine, down the stone stairs, sharp-edged and still warm, to the dock, wood cool and slick. She was running, pulling off her shirt and pulling air into her lungs, knowing the water would take her breath away when she hit.
Catherine Buni’s writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, Orion, Outside, The Verge, and elsewhere. She is a former Logan Nonfiction Fellow and an editor-at-large at Appalachia Journal, and is currently reporting on online content moderation for Type Investigations.