Tonight, before they cross the street to their neighbors’ house, Tommy and Margo wrap their seven-year-old boy, Caleb, in his winter coat and mittens and hat until he is not their son but a bundle of clothes in the shape of a boy. The wind carries the snow across the yard, thin, powdery curls snapping in the air, an angry cold. “It’s just a short walk,” Margo tells her son, who squirms inside the clothes, embarrassed that this much fuss is being made over him. “And it’ll be worth it,” his father says, patting the boy’s coat to reassure himself that his son is inside. “We’re gonna have fun.”
The families have started getting together once a week to play cards and watch Hee-Haw, to drink beer and unwind. They are the youngest couples in the subdivision on Fawn Drive, each with a child, in houses nearly identical. Though Tommy and Margo have moved here less than six months ago, they can imagine themselves always living in this town, and they are happy to have other people to spend that time with, playing cards, watching Hee-Haw. It is a good enough life.
They walk though the snow with a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a dip made with guacamole and beans and cheese and black olives covered in aluminum foil. Tommy carries the six pack under one arm and holds Caleb in the other, holstered on his hip. They move through the snow and wind and cold fifty yards to the Kimball house, where they know they will be happy for a few hours at least.
Caleb wraps his arms tightly around his father’s neck and watches through the slit of open space between his hat and scarf as they approach the house. He can see activity through the big window in the Kimballs’ living room, the parents setting chairs around the card table, a fire already going. Kammi, the Kimballs’ daughter who is one year younger than him, is waving to them, inviting them closer and closer. “There’s your girlfriend,” Tommy says to his son, though the wind obscures his words. “I think she wants a kiss.”
Though they mention it only in jest, to tease their children, both couples would be happy if Caleb and Kammi became sweethearts, got married, lived in a house close to them and carried on much the same way they have. It would suit everyone just fine and when they watch their children playing, bobbing up and down on the hobbyhorse and whooping like Indians, they look at each other and smile. They collectively think how nice it would be, how simple and perfect, which most simple things seem to be.
It is Margo especially who would like to see this happen, sooner rather than later. She is weighed down with vague flashes of her son and why he sometimes seems like a foreign object in her house. She has caught Caleb over the past year, crouched in the corner of his room, pants down at his ankles. She will open the door and find him positioned like that in the far corner of the room, touching himself in those places that she would rather not have to think about. Sometimes she closes the door softly and walks back into the living room and reads biographies of American presidents. She is up to Franklin Pierce, who was neither mediocre nor capable, merely a caretaker, which many of these men seemed to be.
Other times however, when the moment seems to fill up her lungs and flush her face, she grabs Caleb and spanks him, his pants already down and therefore convenient. She never tells him why she is doing this, only ever slaps at his legs and rear with a fierce silence. Her son never asks either, what it is that he has done wrong, because he has some vague idea, a notion, or else he wouldn’t be in the far corner of his room.
It is what he reads that frightens Margo, his comic books always opened and spread on the floor around him while he sits there in the corner. After she has sent him out to the back yard to pull weeds or swing or just go away for a while, she gathers up the comics, looking at the pictures that makes Caleb do the things he does. He always has the comic book of the Sub Mariner opened, a muscular, pointy-eared man who lives underwater. He wears nothing but green, scaly swimming trunks and on his ankles are a pair of tiny wings, small like the wings of the tooth fairy. It is disconcerting to Margo in ways she cannot explain, obscene. There is something she does not understand about her son and these pictures of men in capes, bursting with muscles. Those tiny wings. Her son is mysterious to her, something she had not expected to happen for many years.
When they get inside, Sammy Kimball takes the beer and his wife, Tammi, takes the dip, while Margo and Tommy get Caleb out of his snow gear. The process is more time-intensive than any of them believe is necessary for a fifty-yard walk across the street.
After he has struggled out of his jacket and snow pants, Caleb sits at the counter with Kammi while the adults talk about the week, their jobs, and sit down for cards. The house is warm and smells of wood smoke and fried bologna. There is a George Jones song on the record player, singing something about not taking your love to town. Margo lays out the dip with some corn chips and Tammi sets out a plate of cold fried chicken and fried bologna sandwiches. Everyone opens a beer and the night seems easily understandable, something that can be held in the palm of their hand.
Once they’ve eaten their sandwiches, Kammi takes Caleb into her room, the scent of eucalyptus and rosemary, and dumps a bucket of crayons onto the carpet. She shuts the door behind them and Caleb reaches underneath the bed for the flashlights. They crawl into the closet, a walk-in that is filled with Kammi’s clothes and stacks of old magazines and newspapers that won’t fit anywhere else. They take a handful of crayons and begin to draw on the walls, hidden behind the row of clothes hanging like a curtain.
This is something they have been doing for weeks, a secret they know will be discovered, which somehow makes it even more necessary.
After a few awkward weeks of playing, Kammi quickly losing interest and then yanking him into another game whether he wanted to or not, Caleb had shown Kammi a book his mother had given him, with Indians and these strange, simplistic figures drawn on the walls of caves. Actually the book was about some young brave who loses his favorite bow, but that didn’t interest Caleb as much as the drawings. He and Kammi stared at the images, charcoal scribbles of stick figures riding lines that somehow suggested the form of a horse. It seemed like something manageable, a simple form of art. It was made all the more desirable by the fact that these pictures were drawn on walls, forbidden by parents. Kammi then walked into her closet and took a black crayon and drew a person walking over water, the waves of the ocean like a dozen shark fins. Caleb took a color that was called Ochre, which seemed Indian enough, and drew flaming arrows being shot over mountains, the peaks again looking much like the ocean waves Kammi had drawn, a school of sharks.
Now they have filled nearly the entire wall, simple strokes, lines of dark colors, bends and curves suggesting so much movement the wall seems to vibrate. Caleb draws a cloud, heavy with rain, spitting tiny dots of rain onto a group of grazing cows, heads bowed to the earth. Next to him, Kammi quickly scratches a quiver’s worth of arrows into the body of a man, cowboy hat atop his head. She then reaches for the red crayon, worn down to a nub, to bring the blood flowing out of his body, pooling at his feet. Kammi’s drawings sometimes scare Caleb, Indians falling off cliffs, dogs tearing a sheep apart, things spilling their insides. She holds the red crayon tight between her fingers and digs into the wall, laughing softly with delight.
The children hidden away, the couples switch partners. Margo stares across the table at Sammy, who is smiling at her, shuffling the cards. Tommy returns to the table with a beer for Margo and kisses her on her forehead, which makes Sammy smile even harder. The cards circle around the table, scooped up in hands and quickly arranged. Tommy bids four and Margo bids two; she could perhaps get four but she prefers to play it safe, to slowly accumulate points while the other team jumps up and down. Tammi bids three and now Sammy, looking at his cards and then at Margo, back and forth, until finally he says, “Margo, I’m going nil.” Margo frowns. “I can only get two, Sammy. You can’t go nil.” Sammy places his cards down on the table and points to Margo. “You gotta be more adventurous, sweetie. Tell her Tommy.” Tommy is concentrating on the cards in his left hand and biting into the chicken leg held in his right. “Be more adventurous, sweetie,” Tommy says. Margo looks up at Sammy and he winks at her. Margo shivers and, unsure of what else to do, she starts rearranging the cards in her hand.
A month ago, nearly two in the morning, Margo sat on the couch in the living room and read another presidential biography. They had gone out for pizza and then taken Caleb to the comic book store for the newly released books he’d been saving his allowance for. He and Tommy walked around the store, flipping through the comics, while Margo waited in the car. Caleb came back with another Sub-Mariner, a Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man and Captain America, and something called Ka-Zar, a blonde, nearly naked, muscle-bound caveman of some sorts, riding a saber-tooth tiger on the cover. Tommy pulled the car onto the main drag and said, “The boy loves his comic books, no doubt about that.”
Now, still awake in the middle of the night, both of the men in her house fast asleep, Margo went into the kitchen for a glass of milk. She drank it in big gulps, standing over the sink, staring out the window into the darkness outside. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone, standing in front of their bedroom window, a man standing on his toes, face pressed against the screen of the window. Before she could think better of it, to yell for her husband, lights going on all over the house, she opened the window and whispered into the night, “Hello?” The figure spun around, something in his hands, and stumbled away from the house. “Yeah?” he said, and Margo realized it was her neighbor. “Sammy?” she asked and there was a brief pause before she heard him reply, “Oh, Margo? That you?” Sammy took off his cap to further prove his identity, to calm her, but Margo still wasn’t sure what was happening. “Are you okay, Sammy?” she asked, and she could barely make out the smile break across his face. “Couldn’t sleep,” he said.
Sammy was now standing in front of the kitchen window, Margo feeling the cold on her bare legs, one of Tommy’s t-shirts hanging down to her knees. She saw that Sammy was holding a plastic ring of beer cans, only three left. “Are you drunk, Sammy?” she asked. He shook his head. “Not even close,” he said. “I just couldn’t sleep, nothing on TV, and I thought Tommy might want to have a few. He’s asleep though, isn’t he?” Margo nodded. “Sleeping like a baby,” Sammy said, shuffling his feet. He pulled a beer from the plastic and held it up to the window. “You wouldn’t want one, would you?” he asked. “It’s late, Sammy,” she said. “I’m going back to bed.” Sammy popped the top on the beer and took a heavy sip. “You won’t tell Tommy about this, will you?” he asked. Margo laughed, and then frowned at having done so. “I don’t know what I’d tell him,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on.” Sammy smiled and finished the rest of the beer. “Let’s just pretend it was a dream,” he said. He crumpled the can in his hand and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “Go back to sleep,” he said and walked across the street to his house. Margo slid the window shut, but she couldn’t walk away from the sink, gazing at the spot where Sammy had just been. She stayed awake for another hour, waiting for Sammy’s face to reappear at the window, and she could not understand, or even acknowledge, the disappointment that she felt when he did not return.
Two go-rounds into the hand, Sammy throws down a king of clubs that Margo can’t cover, losing the nil. Margo slaps the table. “Damn it, Sammy,” she says, which makes everyone else laugh. Sammy holds his hands up in surrender. “We’ll do it your way now,” he says. “I’ll behave.”
Birds are falling out of the sky onto spikes jutting out of the ground, but Caleb tries to stay focused on the project as Kammi scribbles furiously beside him. Underneath the waves of the ocean, he draws a small figure swimming, arms outstretched, bubbles rising from his mouth. Caleb takes the Gunmetal crayon and draws two pairs of wings on the figure’s ankles. Kammi notices the picture and draws an octopus near the Sub-Mariner, one tentacle moving closer and closer to Caleb’s drawing. “Let’s leave him alone,” Caleb asks and Kammi stops drawing. She nods her agreement and it makes Caleb smile to have saved his drawing.
They crawl out of the closet, into the light of the room, and lay on their stomachs, sorting through the pile of crayons. The air is heavy with steam from the vaporizer, which the Kimball’s keep on every evening during the winter because Kammi is always congested and slow with colds. They watch the machine’s steady exhalations of steam, like a dragon crouched in the corner of the room. Caleb and Kammi line up the crayons according to shade, from dark to light, and then they select what they want to take back into the closet.
Before they go back, Kammi puts her crayons down and touches Caleb’s face, strokes his cheek. Last week, Kammi pressed her lips against Caleb’s and hummed, the thrumming of her voice tickling his teeth. Kammi likes to touch him, running her finger down the back of his neck, pulling off his shoes and socks and counting his toes. Caleb doesn’t know how to respond when this happens, stands very still and counts to ten. “I don’t want to draw anymore,” Kammi says, and Caleb asks her what she wants to do instead. “Let’s play house,” she offers and he agrees, unsure of what to do next. “You lie down,” she says, “and I’ll get on top of you.” They lie together in silence like this, their breathing not quite in rhythm. “Close your eyes,” Kammi says, and Caleb does. He feels her pulling on his shirt, baring his stomach, and then she lies down on him again, the skin of their stomachs touching. After a few seconds of silence, the weight of Kammi pressing into him, he opens his eyes and finds her face less than an inch from his, her eyes wide open. “We’re still playing,” she says. “Keep your eyes closed.”
Tommy and Tammi have won the last two hands and so they switch partners again, the men against the women. As they trade chairs, refilling their plates and opening fresh beers, Tammi asks if anyone wants to smoke some pot. “It’s pretty good, Tommy,” Sammy says, “This guy, some roofer who hangs out at the bowling alley on Wednesdays, gets it from Florida. And they get it from some island further south.” Tommy looks at Margo who doesn’t want to say no in front of Sammy and Tammi, but won’t allow herself to say yes. Tommy nods in her direction, his eyes asking for her approval. “Maybe a small one,” she finally says and Tommy pulls her close to him. “I only know how to roll big ones,” Sammy says, “so I guess we’ll only smoke half.”
The door to the garage open, the four adults pass the joint around, inhaling deeply and then directing the smoke out the door and into the garage, a cloud sitting heavy beside the Kimballs’ car. “Let’s hurry in case the kids come by,” Margo says, and everyone laughs again. Margo wonders why she’s so damn funny, but the pot is starting to calm her, relaxing the muscles in her face. She takes a solid hit from the joint and then hands it to Sammy, who licks his fingers and tends to the burning tip. “It’s worth the money,” Tammi says and everyone nods in agreement. They smoke it down to the end and then wander back to the card table, fresh beers in hand. Tommy deals the cards and everyone starts to sort their hands, focusing hard on the diamonds and clubs and spades and hearts, counting and recounting the numbers. “I don’t know if I can get anything,” Tammi says, “I can hardly read the cards.” Margo notices Sammy catch Tommy’s attention, motioning towards the two women. “Are you two cheating?” Margo asks, and Sammy and Tommy laugh yet again, but this time Margo admits that something about what she said, what exactly she can’t say, is kind of funny.
“I was thinking, Tommy,” Sammy says, “that maybe we could try that game I told you about.” Tommy smiles and shakes his head, shuffling the cards in his hands. “I don’t think that’d be such a good idea,” Tommy says, avoiding Margo’s gaze. “Is this that kissing game, Sammy?” Tammi asks. “Every time we get high, you have to think of some new game.” The last time they smoked pot, burning a pan of Jiffy Pop on purpose in order to cover up the smell so the children wouldn’t notice, it wasn’t too long before they were all arm wrestling, Tommy and Sammy shirtless, flexing their biceps. Tommy had beaten everyone, round after round after round of hands clasped together, straining against each other, and the next morning none of them could raise their right arms without grimacing, their heads aching, nothing quite making sense.
Margo didn’t like being the only one who didn’t know about this game. “Kissing?” she said. “Who kisses who?” Sammy and Tommy looked at each other, giggling, and Sammy said, “You kiss everybody, if the cards say so.”
Kammi kisses Caleb, flicking her tongue against his teeth when he opens his mouth wide enough, when he needs to catch his breath. His stomach is cramping and he shifts from side to side to try and slide out from under Kammi, but she is holding him down. “I wanna get up,” Caleb says, opening his eyes, pulling away from her kisses. Kammi looks annoyed but she rolls off of him and lets him sit up. He stares at Kammi, her face bright red in patches, her nose starting to run. “I don’t want to play anymore,” he says, and she shrugs her shoulders. “It’s fun,” she says. “It gets fun.” She kicks her leg out at the crayons, scattering them in several directions and Caleb is immediately grateful for something to do, gathering them up and sorting them again, making sure each one is lined up perfectly.
Sammy explains the rules quickly, already dealing the cards as he speaks. At the same time, everyone turns over a single card and if any of the numbers match, those people have to kiss. “What if all four of us put down matching cards?” Tammi asks. “Then it’ll be our lucky night,” Sammy says and Margo feels her face burn red. “I’m not sure if I want to play,” she says, but Tommy leans over and rubs her arm. “We’ll only play until our show starts,” he says, “Just a few hands.”
Everyone flips over a card, a seven of hearts, a jack of clubs, a three of hearts, and a nine of diamonds. Margo sighs, relieved. “Huh,” Tammi says. “This isn’t as fun as you said it would be.” They flip over four more cards, no matches. “Give it time,” Sammy says. “We’ll work out the kinks as we go along.”
On the fourth hand, there is a match. Tommy has a five of clubs and Margo has a five of diamonds. They stand and lean over the corner of the table, their lips meeting. Tommy holds the kiss a little longer than Margo would like, Tammi and Sammy chuckling beside them. “Well,” Tommy says, “this isn’t so bad.”
The very next hand, Tammi and Tommy match up, both aces. “Here we go,” says Sammy. Tommy scratches the back of his neck and looks over at Margo, who nods. “It’s the rules, I guess,” she says. Tommy and Tammi turn in their chairs to face each other, knees touching. Tammi kisses him, placing both of her hands on his shoulders, turning her head just slightly to the left, and then they pull away. Tommy touches the top of his index finger against his bottom lip, holds it there, and then places his hand back on his stack of cards. Sammy slowly claps his hands together in congratulations, pop, pop, pop, pop. “Now we’re having fun,” Sammy says and Tommy turns quickly to him. “It’s just a game,” he says and then looks over at Margo, who nods, her chin almost hitting her chest.
Caleb wants to go back into the closet, a fistful of crayons in his hand like a bouquet of flowers. Kammi shakes her head, her arms crossed against her chest. “It’s my room,” she says, “so I decide.” Caleb ignores her, afraid of the games she will want to play instead, and so he crawls beneath the hung clothes and starts to draw a flock of birds, the letter M over and over in the sky. Behind him, the door clicks shut, the closet suddenly pitch black. He leans his shoulder against the door but Kammi will not let him out, has slid a chair under the doorknob. “Kammi?” he says. “Okay, I’m ready to come out.” There is silence on the other side of the door, a faint wisp of light seeping under the doorframe like smoke. “Not yet,” she says. “I’m thinking.”
“It’s dark,” Caleb says, starting to whimper. He can hear the hiss of the vaporizer and then the click of Kammi’s fingernails against the door, tapping a message he cannot understand. “You can come out,” she says, “but you have to do whatever I say.” He nods and then realizes that she can’t see him so he whispers, “Okay.” He hears the chair slide away from the door and then light spills into the closet and there is Kammi’s smiling face, her arms outstretched, ready to hug him.
Two kisses later, a tentative, open-mouthed kiss between Margo and Tammi, both of them surprised by the softness of the other’s lips, and another, quicker, kiss between Tammi and Tommy, Sammy is the only person who hasn’t kissed anyone. “I thought up the damn game,” he said. “I should get to kiss whoever I want.” Margo touches the tips of her fingers on her final playing card, the dread seeping into her stomach at the prospect of a match with Sammy, the taste of his mouth. They turn over their last cards, and there is a match, a pair of tens, Sammy and Tommy. Everyone laughs at the pairing, the game over, nothing broken or disrupted.
“Pucker up,” Tommy says and Sammy kills the rest of his beer, smashes the can against his head, crumpling the aluminum as if it was paper. Tammi starts to sweep all the cards into one pile, but Sammy claps his hand on the table. “Well,” he says, “let’s do it.” Tommy raises both hands in surrender. “I forfeit,” he says. “Game over.” Sammy is no longer smiling, a bright red ring forming on his forehead from the beer can. “Rules is rules, Tommy.” Tommy looks at Margo, who looks at Tammi, who looks at the cards on the table. “It’s just a game,” Tommy says. “Right,” Sammy says, “It’s just a game. So let’s go.” Tommy laughs, his voice breaking. “Sammy?” he says.
Margo watches Sammy’s face, the tiny beads of perspiration on his upper lip. He doesn’t blink, doesn’t flinch. She looks over at the clock, five minutes past Hee-Haw and she points to the time. “Hee-Haw’s on,” she says. “That’s nice,” Sammy answers, still looking at Tommy. “We’ll watch it in just a second.” Tommy, unsure of how to proceed or what to say to put an end to all of this, leans toward Sammy, his left eye twitching.
“Let’s just go watch Hee-Haw, Sammy,” Tammi says, her voice exasperated. A beat, silence, and then Sammy smiles, punches Tommy in the shoulder, hard, which makes Tommy wince. “You heard the ladies,” Sammy says, “Hee-Haw’s on,” and then he pushes away from the table and opens the fridge for another beer.
Caleb hands his pants to Kammi, who carefully folds them and places them on the bed, next to his sweater. He is standing beside her, clothed only in his underwear and socks and he thinks, for the first time, how strange it would be for the Sub-Mariner on land, walking into a store or on a crowded sidewalk, wearing nothing but a tiny pair of swimming trunks. Things are better underwater, he imagines.
Kammi dumps the loose pieces of a puzzle onto the floor. She takes off her own clothes and sits with Caleb while they start sorting pieces by color, looking for the border of the picture. Caleb keeps thinking that he hears his mother coming to the door, the sound of footsteps in the hallway, but no one comes and he cannot decide if he is relieved or distressed by this. While Kammi hums to herself, running her hands through the pieces of the puzzle, Caleb finds it hard to stop glancing over at her, the lines of her body so similar to his, the sameness almost reassuring him. He connects two pieces, locking one into the other, and Kammi claps her hands, excited, and kisses him on the cheek, rubbing the tip of her nose against his face. He pulls away from her, but she curls her finger, commanding him to come closer. He leans forward and she kisses him again, on the lips. She tugs on his ear and then runs a finger along his right eyebrow, as if she is fascinated by each part of him. She throws her arms around his neck, squeezing him, and he pretends that he is drowning, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and that the Sub-Mariner has swept him up in his arms, pulling him closer and closer to the surface, holding him so tightly that he cannot move. Kammi drags her fingers through his hair and he closes his eyes.
Kammi takes his hand and places it against her cheek, softly stroking the skin. Caleb tries to bend his mouth into a smile, afraid, and Kammi lets go of his hand. “Take off your underwear,” she says and tugs at the elastic at his waist.
Caleb starts to shake, tears welling up and falling down his face. He squeezes the muscles of his face, trying to stop himself, but the tears keep coming. “I can’t,” he says and Kammi purses her lips as if she’s tasted something sour, the sight of Caleb’s tears, a little baby. He starts to take in gulps of air, sputtering, and she backs away from him, crawls under the bed so that all he can see are her fingers and her eyes, shining, unblinking, waiting for what’s next.
“Buck Owens is a handsome man,” Sammy says, gesturing towards the man on the screen, who is strumming a guitar and smiling. Once the song is over, the cameras switch to a couple of men in overalls, crouched behind a patch of corn. “You’re drunk, Sammy,” Tammi says. “You shouldn’t talk when you get drunk.”
Margo waits impatiently for the end of the show so that they can gather up their son and go home, the evening making her more and more tired. She doesn’t know what to say anymore, has exhausted the words necessary to say what she is thinking, and so she sits quietly while the show goes through the motions, knee-slapping, banjo-playing, joke-telling fun.
Before they sat down to watch Hee-Haw, she nudged Tommy and told him they should leave soon but Tommy didn’t seem to hear her, his eyes glassy, his face pink and splotchy. Sammy had been sitting sullenly beside her on the sofa, unnaturally quiet, until this comment about Buck Owens, and Margo again doesn’t know what to say. She does not find Buck Owens particularly handsome, the garishness of his clothes, the unflattering haircut, but Sammy, now leaning forward, points again at the TV. “If I was gonna go queer, I’d go queer for Buck Owens,” he says, and there is silence in the room, no response that anyone can think of. Sammy leans back on the sofa and tries to take a sip from his empty can of beer. “Out of beer,” he says, but makes no motion to get more, simply holds the can in his hand. “Buck Owens,” he says, softly, almost a whisper.
When Caleb, shivering from the cold, starts to put on his clothes, Kammi, still under the bed, says nothing. He buckles his pants and feels safe again, protected. He hides in the corner of the room, away from the bed so Kammi cannot see him, and crouches beside the vaporizer, the machine softly rattling and hissing, changing water into air like a magic trick.
“Come under the bed,” Kammi says, but Caleb doesn’t move. “One,” she says, waiting a beat before she keeps going, “two…three…” but Caleb leans against the vaporizer as if to hide, the warmth radiating from the machine, the hissing in his ear like someone whispering, someone with a secret to tell. He will not go to her, and his mind flips through the possibilities of escape, of gaining the upper hand. “You better come right now,” she says, and Caleb presses his hand against the open mouth of the vaporizer, the steam moving so quickly from the machine that it seems to pass through the skin and out the other side of his hand.
Pain travels up his arm, all the way to his teeth, which chatter violently. He thinks he hears someone calling his name but his head is buzzing. “What?” he says, “What?” and his hand is numb, and there is the smell of burning, and when he pulls his hand away, the skin slides off the palm of his hand like it was a wet sheet of paper. There are ragged pieces of flesh hanging off his hand and he frantically tears at them, trying to make the skin smooth again, uniform. Kammi comes out from under the bed and sees his hand, what is left of it, and screams, the sound so high it chokes itself out while her mouth is still open. Caleb stares at her mouth, the perfect O her lips make, and he holds his hand out to her, the mess he has made, and she screams again, even louder.
When Margo reaches the door of Kammi’s room, she finds the two children, Kammi nearly naked, her chest bare, and her son, standing quietly in the corner of the room, holding his hand out as if waiting for his palm to be read. Before she can ask what is going on, she smells burning flesh, the sharp scent making her flinch, and she finally notices Caleb’s hand, the top layer of skin evaporated, burned away. “He touched the steam,” Kammi says. “I didn’t tell him to do it.”
Tommy, who is now standing behind Margo and has sobered up just from contact with the situation at hand, pushes past his wife, who cannot move, and scoops up Caleb, running back into the hallway with his son in his arms. “Do we call the ambulance?” Tammi asks. “What do we do?” Tommy grabs the keys off the counter and yells for Margo, who is still standing in the room, staring at Kammi, shirtless, her nose running. “Dammit, Margo,” Tommy shouts. “C’mon.” Sammy is still sitting on the sofa, drunk, oblivious to the activity. “You want us to come with?” he asks, but Tommy is already running across the street, towards the car in the driveway.
Tammi stands beside Margo and places her hand on her shoulder. “You should go, honey,” she says. “Tommy’s leaving.” Margo, her hands clenching and unclenching like spasms, a rush of anger burning her ears, steps towards Kammi. “What happened, Kammi? What happened to Caleb?” Kammi backs away from her and whimpers, “It wasn’t my fault.” Tammi kneels beside her daughter and pulls a shirt over her head. “You should probably go now, Margo,” Tammi says. Margo turns without a word and walks into the living room. Sammy raises his hand as she opens the front door. “See you next week?” he asks.
Standing in the doorway, her anger undiffused and expanding, Margo listens to the sound of the car horn, frantic and irregular. She wants to punch Sammy in the face, to set the entire house on fire, but then she remembers her son, the hand open and trembling. She steps outside, the shock of cold on her skin, and feels her anger harden, turning from a gas into a solid, heavy in her chest. She can feel it as she breathes, but she keeps running towards the car, the engine idling and then revving, the hi-beams blinding her, illuminating the snow as it falls.
The car moves slowly, the roads slick with snow, just starting to freeze. In the backseat, Caleb lays his head on his mother’s lap. She holds his burned hand away from him to keep him from touching it, something he wants to do very badly. He can’t feel anything. He stares at his hand, the skin glistening and wet, and he knows it is a part of him, but he cannot locate it. It is his hand and no one else’s, right in front of his face, and yet hidden from him. The car bumps along the road, his mother holding him, the snow whipping against the windows, and Caleb falls asleep before he can feel the part of him that is damaged.