The Soft No

by Kimberly King Parsons

Second Place, Open Border Fiction Prize 2017

Days this hot belong to us. See us run both sides of this street, every lawn our lawn. We are sprinkler kids, shoeless and soaked through, blistered and noisy, playing Duck, Duck, Brick while some window mother—not ours—yells for us to not get concussed. It is boys versus girls, and my brother Chip and I are the leaders. Our teams are pink and peeling, kids willing to do whatever it is we say. The rules: no crying, no aiming for eyes. Base is that stop sign, safe is both hands wrapped around any part of it.

Our chow-chow Shasta is going berserk along our fence, barking and snuffling through the knotholes Chip and I pushed out so she can watch over us. She runs as fast as we do, stops when we stop, pushes first one eye and then the other out to see the world. Shasta keeps track of us because our mother is a couch mother who doesn’t leave our house, not ever, because she’s afraid of the wrong things—Satanists and wide-open spaces, the white trails that spew out behind airplanes. She stays away from the windows and makes Chip and me walk all over God’s Creation instead of driving us, afraid that some feeling in her foot will give her the urge to ram a crosswalk person with the car.

Where we live is all cul-de-sacs and flat nothing, shimmery heat coming up from the sidewalks. Our dumb town is known for two things only: the Buddy Holly statue by the strip mall and the big, big sky. I hate that stupid statue—just seeing it sticks the whiniest songs in your head, makes you think of creepy, old-timey ghosts: poodle skirt girls and guys with goop in their hair, all of them dancing the most embarrassing dances. The sky is all right, I guess, streaked pink and orange, but it’s more like a lid than a promise. We’re nowhere. If you wanted to leave you’d be driving for days and days, not toward anything, just away.

Duck, Duck, Brick is just a big name. We mostly throw dirt, pebbles, stuff we like to lob at the lower half of people where it can’t do too much damage. But today our stash is real bricks, small hunks of them that come from DeeAnn Pith’s busted up mailbox, which was baseballed all to hell by midnight high schoolers. Her house gets toilet paper in the bushes and shaving cream on the lawn, once a whole two-liter of Coke sprayed at the screen door, so it was no surprise to any of us, DeeAnn included, to wake up to junk mail and bricks and stuff exploded all over. DeeAnn is from a fat, hateable family. What’s worse, her dad is everybody’s dentist. If you were feeling mean and had a metal bat and a fast car, it’s the Pith house you’d target.

But DeAnn’s bricks, they’re perfect—they’re the reason I shouted her name from the street and made all the other girls promise not to scratch her or anything, not today. We’ve wheelbarrowed our supply, hidden it behind a wingwall. There is no time to really look at DeeAnn’s wide face, or be annoyed by how grateful she seems, running with our pack through the mist, ducking from whatever the boys are throwing.

The boys’ fire is endless—who knows where they keep their stash? I’ve been working on my psychic powers. I’d like to be the one the police call in to find missing kids—to solve the tough crimes, like when somebody finds a box of chopped-off pinkie toes or a blanket wet with blood. So far, I can only read my brother’s useless thoughts. I swear it’s true. I can dip in and scan boring stuff off him all day—what sandwich he wants to eat next or which bathroom at school is the best for number two. Sometimes I can even cut right in and say my piece to him, brain to brain. I do this when I have to, when we’re at home and Mom is wearing a fitted sheet tight over her head and shoulders like a shroud, naked underneath. Or when she’s got her tackle box of makeup open on the coffee table and she’s taking herself from day to evening for no reason, fake eyelashes and all.

Sometimes I break into Chip even when I don’t have to, when I want to say something in two ways at the exact same time, like when I am digging half-moons into his forearms, fighting him for the remote control.

Mine! I roar, right through his stupid skull.

Don’t you be commandeering me, he’ll say with his mind, annoyed when I cut through his thoughts like that just because I can.

It is not calm enough or still enough for my dark magic now, everybody screaming in the street, plus I am sure, without cheating even, that this game is a dead heat, boy and girl lineups perfectly paired, all of us giving it our all. We are glorious, every one. Even DeeAnn Pith is pulling her weight, of which there is a lot. My brother’s boys hut-hut and hailmary, get good spirals out of their throws. We girls dodge and tumble, take running starts for our cartwheels, our handsprings and punch fronts.

That mom who isn’t ours, she is still going on, yelling from her window about SPFs and antbeds. Her voice is a kind of thrum in your head that makes you meaner. I spin a chunk shotput style and catch slackjawed Wesley Ellis in the crotch. My sunblind brother upholds his best friend’s honor, fires an underhander at my heart. Fat chance! I am so, so quick. Baked clay buckshots the sidewalk where we’re standing and slivers into our girl feet.

Wesley Ellis wears wind shorts and no underwear and when he sits you can see everything about him stuck to his sweaty thigh. He smells like pee and when he comes to sleepovers at our house he leaves before bedtime. “I need my beauty rest,” is what Wesley Ellis says, his mother looking down at her feet on our front porch.

The heat has all of us riled and screaming, the arching water from the hoses gone warm. A new kid’s glasses go flying, then he skids out. “Man down!” Chip says. Our street—it slopes. A misstep and you go rolling. Chip makes a T with his hands and says the word that makes us stop and watch from slick grass. Little clots of new hair sop out under his arms. My ponytailed team looks to me to see if I am still slinging. I make like a heap has already left my hand, brotherbound. Chip takes it hard in the shoulder and doesn’t flinch. There are times when I don’t hate him all that much.

I see that Glasses is hunched up and sweaty with hands feeling his empty face. His eyes are watering like he’s working himself up to break a rule. Wendy Popov, one of my best girls, snakes her foot into a flower bed and comes out with specs clenched in her toes. She brushes off her anty leg, tries to make good.

“They’re not cracked,” she says. “Just weedy.” Wendy puts the glasses on Glasses’s face, parts his sweaty hair one way, then the other. She gives his back a pat.

Too little too late—Glasses spits a tiny blob of blood into his palm and holds it out for us to see, a little red streak that ruins everything. He wails and it is a serious sound, the kind that means the game is over. Where does my brother find these donkeys?

But the game was incredible! The game was amazing! Brain to brain, I shout, Victory! Victory, for the girls! to my brother. He shoots me a black look.

Then it’s time to put our teams into high-five lines. “Get up,” Chip tells Glasses, who is snotty and drippy, squatting on the grass. Glasses looks at my brother but doesn’t move. Chip says, “Get. Up.” His voice is scary calm like when a psycho in a movie is about to lose it on somebody. Glasses whimpers and takes his place at the end of the boy’s line.

When Chip gives us the signal, we rush our teams past each other and all of us say, “Good game, good game,” when we slap hands. You have to look your opponent right in the eye or else the line starts over. You have to mean it. Satisfied, Chip and I tell our teams to go on home. DeeAnn Pith lags behind me, asks what I’m doing next. I swat her away like a big, slow fly.

“I thought I was coming to y’all’s house to play,” DeeAnn Pith says. I tell her there have been plenty of times I thought I was going somewhere that I wasn’t.

“Get used to it, sister.” I say.

Wesley Ellis wants to come over too, and I hear my brother putting him off.

“My spirit is swinging,” is what Mom said when she sent us out this morning. Maybe it is swinging way up high or maybe not but Chip and me need to get a feel for things before we start bringing people inside. When the spirit is soaring, our mom is a yes mom or a soft no mom, the kind who lets us get away with anything. We’ll have a dozen kids over, sliding down the stairs on a piece of cardboard like a sled. Spirits up, Mom lets us dig through her purse and order a whole pizza for everyone, even one for Shasta—pineapple and pepperoni, her favorite. Down is something else.

If it were my decision, Wesley Ellis would be banned for life, no matter the swing. He thinks he’s so smart. He says that in some countries, Shasta would be a meat dog, sliced up in a bowl of rice. When he and Chip play video games, when Mom gets dressed up for no reason and limps around the living room, asking which shoe we like better, Wesley Ellis smirks and says, “Well, Donna, I guess that depends on where you’re headed tonight.” He teaches my brother awful stuff like Cat Brains.

“C’mere and see these cat brains,” they say to me and the other girls, but we know better than to look by now. “Wanna see some bubblegum?” they try, cupped hands low in front of their crotches. I don’t know how boys can walk around being so disgusting, doing nutsack tricks all day.

Shasta is yelping and clawing at the fence because she knows the game is over and she can’t see where we’re standing. I wish sometimes I could use my magic on her, read her dog thoughts, tell her she’s got a treat coming or ask her why she thinks she can lick the sparkle off the sidewalk.

My scalp aches where earlier Chip forced me to the ground, his knee on my ponytail. My feet are starting to sting too, all the hurt catching up at once. It’s my one chore to turn off the water hoses and reel them in but I can’t be bothered today. Let our grass get soggy, see if I care. Chip says it’s not fair, then threatens me with the bucket of bagworms he has picked off the juniper bushes. Bagworms is his one chore.

“I got my work done,” he says. “I’m accountable.” He talks this way but Chip only does exactly whatever he wants.

To show Chip I am not afraid of him and his gross bucket I snatch it from him and put it on the grass in front of me, then stomp my bare foot right into it. The bagworms split apart and their juice spews out. I kick my drippy foot up at DeeAnn Pith, who is horrified, still standing with one hand on base. Chip says I am looney tunes but he is laughing. He is proud of anyone who stands up to everyone.

Chip and I turn away from DeAnn and Wesley and we go up our lawn, limping and hungry for lunch. Mom might be waiting by the door to blink her phony lashes at us, open her eyes wide and ask us which one looks weird. And they’ll both look weird, in different ways, one with a black line swooping crooked and thick, the other swiped with too much shimmery blue, like the side of a fast fish. Maybe she’ll say she has a new palette she wants to try on me. I hate the way the makeup chokes my skin but I’ll break into Chip and ask Do I have to? and Chip will say back with his brain Please, please I’ll owe you. Mom will start smearing me with greasy colors. “We’ll do Ultramarine all over and Scuba in the crease,” she’ll say. “I can’t wear these hues myself. You’re a spring. Your daddy was a spring. Chip and me are falls.”

Then it will be all yeses and I’ll invite Dee Ann Pith and Wendy Popov over to say “Peggy Sue” ten times with me in my dark bathroom mirror. If you make your voice gravely enough and do the devil horns just so, you get to see your own dead face all covered with blood. And Chip and Wesley Ellis will play Mexican Shrimp Hunt which is just this game where they run around screaming “Camarón! trying to poke up everyone’s butts with their shrimpy thumbs.

Or else Mom will be locked into her lighted mirror, spreading pastel colors on her face, dead to the world. Or worse, she won’t be able to make her hands move, and she’ll just be sitting on the couch looking stunned, watching TV people kiss and hold each other’s faces.

Shasta is gone from our fence now, waiting for us to let her in the back door or else she’s down in our drained swimming pool where there’s shade, scraping her blue tongue at the concrete. Inside the front hall, Chip punches for bad guys who might be hiding behind the long burgundy drapes and I throw open the coat closet to check for psychos. We can’t hear Mom, not yet, but the house is cold, AC blasting. It feels so good. Chip and I look at each other and then we go into the living room together, waiting to see what kind of a house we’ve walked into.

Illustration by Carolyn Tripp