Vicious Deep, Page 3Zoraida Cordova
My train of thought is broken when an old lady in a wheelchair harrumphs loudly as she gets in the elevator with us, as if our closeness offends her. She’s got a pink pamphlet in her hand, folded like a little accordion. She’s fanning herself lightly with it. She’s humming a melody that I’ve heard somewhere but can’t remember where. When she looks up at me, she purses her lips and lifts her fan higher to cover everything except her eyes.
I lean back against the elevator wall between my mom and Layla, who hold their flower pots as they stare at the descending numbers lighting up. A phone rings, and Layla reaches into her pocket. I wonder who it is.
The old woman looks back up at me, but this time the face isn’t her own. Her eyes are the color of pearl with dilated irises. Her skin is translucent, like it’s pulled too tightly over bone.
I feel my heart jump in my throat. I stumble backward and hit the wall. I close my eyes hard, the way I used to when I thought something was hiding in my room behind the window curtains. I count to three, just like I did back then, and when I open them, the old woman is the old woman again. My mom and Layla stare at me as if to say, Have you lost your mind?
The doors open and the woman rolls out onto the second floor.
I swallow hard. “Thought I saw a spider by her feet.” And the medal for the manliest man in the hospital goes to…Tristan Hart!
When the doors close, Layla slaps my shoulder. “What is wrong with you? She’s like one hundred.”
“Me? She was just kind of scary-looking—”
“Tristan, that was unkind,” my mom interjects, standing in front of the door. Before I can respond, the door opens and we’re in the lobby. We get out and a group of women holding shiny blue balloons walks in. One of them stares at me so long that she trips on the girl in front of her and a balloons floats up to the hospital ceiling.
“Is it just me, or does it smell like puke?”
Layla rolls her eyes. I can’t remember a time when she found me this irritating. Usually she laughs at my stupid jokes or contributes to them. “It’s a hospital. You’re being weirder than usual,” she says.
How can I tell her that I’m going crazy without her freaking out? Maybe I can drop it into normal dinner conversation. “Say, Mom and Dad and other people present? I think I’m seeing a monstrous woman’s face on the head of an old lady and hearing this incessant humming every now and then. No, nothing to worry about. Just wanted to let you know in case my heart suddenly stops from being scared shitless.”
“Hell-o?” Layla snaps her fingers in front of my face. She adjusts the weight of the bouquet against her chest. One of the flowers keeps falling into her face.
“Sorry.” I grab the vase from her and follow her out. Mom is already stepping through the revolving doors with her chin up like we’re walking through the mall, and she’s glancing at the people around us.
“What are you thinking about?” Layla asks when we step out into the warm, sticky air.
I squint against the bright white-gray sky. “The weather, of course.”
“It’s been like this since—you know. The Brooklyn Star is calling it the Perfect Storm. So original, ugh. I’m pretty sure they have all their reporters scavenging the beach, even though they’ve been told not to.”
I struggle to laugh, but I can’t. Either something really wrong is happening here, or I’m just imagining things. Either way, I’ve decided I’m crazy.
My dad is parked down the block in his 1969 surf-green Mustang. He bought it at the monthly Coney Island Community Auction. It’s the only way to keep the buildings from being bought up by developers who want to make Coney Island like Atlantic City. Dad got the car cheap because so much work needed to be done to it. At that point it was the color of rust, and the interior looked like it was a hostel for runaway possums. With the help of my six-year-old self, Dad restored it. He couldn’t have put this baby together if I hadn’t been his wrench and sandwich gofer. Now it smells like eleven years of worn leather and pine-tree air freshener.
I usually jump over the side of the car and hop into the backseat, but now I have zero energy. I think they notice, but no one says anything as they strap themselves into their seat belts. Maddy is already sitting with the bouquet of daisies on her lap. She’s in the middle seat, even though her legs are too long and she’d be better at either window. I suspect she wants to sit next to me, even though I don’t see how she can stand being in the same room as me. Why do some girls put themselves in such painful situations?
She gives me a tiny smile, and for a second I feel even more miserable because she’s here. It’s kind of pathetic. She means well, she does, but she’s like a stray that won’t take a hint.
“Gave me quite a scare, Finn.” Dad looks at me in the rearview mirror. He hasn’t called me that in a long time.
“I’m fine,” I say, but I’m not starting to feel so fine anymore. Something I don’t say often, if ever. My stomach hurts, and my head is throbbing. “Just starving. Oh, and Mom’s going to get us arrested.”
“Come now, honey. That’s absurd.”
Dad laughs. “I’ve already given them a check for the estimated bill. Good thing you were only there a day.” He pulls into the Brooklyn traffic. With his ash-blond hair and freckly Irish nose, he and I look nothing alike. My hair comes down just to the bottom of my neck in brown waves. It looks curlier when I just get out of water, though. He’s five-foot-eight to my six-foot-two-and-still-growing. Dad wears round glasses under his blue-framed Ray-Bans when he drives in the summer. When he was my age, he was a Long Beach surfer who just happened to be a computer whiz in the early ’80s. But I think I’m like him in the way that matters. We love the beach, old rock, fried food, and driving my mother crazy.
Mom turns in her seat and pulls down the sun visor. Her red hair blows all over her face. Viking red, she calls it, though we’ve never met any of her family, not even her parents, to compare.
“You should know that there are going to be a few people acting strangely around you,” Dad adds.
I think of the old lady in the elevator, the white of her eyes, and try to shake it off by staring at other things. There’s the Real Taj Mahal restaurant and the DVD store that never has any new releases. And the grocery store with all the expired canned food but with the best illegal fireworks China can make.
“I had to unplug the house phone, because somehow every reporter in New York City has our number.”
“Yeah,” I go. “Layla said the Brooklyn Star is all over it. Maybe we should charge them a dollar every time they call.”
“It’s not worth the invasion of privacy,” Dad says.
“Or the government people who’ll want to take you away,” Mom says, which makes everyone laugh. Except I think she’s really serious.
Maddy runs a hand over the length of her braid, something she does when she feels uncomfortable and awkward, which is pretty much all the time. She’s painted her nails black, which is surprising since her mother doesn’t even let her own makeup.
“You got lucky,” she says to me, but keeps her eyes on the road ahead. “I don’t know how you got so lucky, but someone out there is madly in love with you.”
I want to shrink into my seat at that. That was the last thing she said to me the night before the storm. The night of the bonfire at the beach when she saw me kissing another girl right after she said the words, “Tristan, I am madly in love with you.”
“How does pizza sound?” my dad asks.
“Good,” the three of us say in unison.
The sky rumbles, and the staticky radio station has completely gone into white noise. Dad pulls over in front of Dominick’s Pizza on the corner of our street. Lightning crashes in the distance. The streets are uncommonly empty. Layla and Maddy volunteer to get us a table and run inside, even thoug
h it doesn’t look necessary. I walk a little slower behind them as they whisper hand in hand and turn only once to look at me over their shoulders. Girls.
There is only one man sitting in the pizzeria at the counter in front of the window. The man’s skin is sunburn-leather brown, and he wears a blue cap with the words “Save the Whales” stitched in white. There’s something funny about one of his eyes. It’s coated with a yellow film. The other one is perfect. He rests his chin on his knuckles. I push the door and it jingles. The men behind the counter are already showering the girls with attention, getting the booth ready for five as if we’re the only customers they’ve seen all day. With the exception of the “Save the Whales” guy.
When the man sees me, he sets his bad eye in my direction and points out the window.
“Can’t be long now,” he says.
“For what?” I’m born and raised in Brooklyn. I know better than to engage with the crazies. But his craziness makes me feel less so.
He shakes his head, picks up his paper plate, translucent with pizza grease, rolls it into the cylinder shape of a telescope, and puts his good eye to one opening. He points the other end toward the shore. “No, not too long. Must be quick. Vicious they is.” He smacks his lips like he’s still trying to taste the tomato sauce on them.
I’m about to say, “Quicker than who?” but Mom and Dad walk in with a jingle. They hold hands and look from me to the old man. I shrug and stand aside, kind of wanting to hear more of what he has to say but knowing I should really go and sit down.
The man crunches up his telescope into a little ball and throws it over his shoulder onto the floor, the way my mom does with salt. He makes for the exit. There’s a heavy thud on the ground when his wooden leg struggles to hold his weight.
He leans in close to me and whispers, “Don’t go trustin’ them.” He points at his face. “They’ll take your eyes out, they will.”
He looks at my mother as if he’s surprised to see her standing there, like he knows her. He straightens out his cap and smooths his face where pizza crumbs cluster at the corners of his lips. He bows a little. “My Lady,” he says, and then is down the street as fast as anyone with a wooden leg can hobble.
“Gotta love Brooklyn,” Dad says with a smile. He tucks his Ray-Bans into his shirt, and Mom and I follow him to where Maddy and Layla sit.
After we decide on a meat-lover’s pizza and a Hawaiian with extra cheese, Mom takes a sip of her ice water and looks right at me with her mirror turquoise eyes. “I hope you don’t mind. We invited some of the other lifeguards and your coach for a little welcome-home celebration tomorrow.”
I’m not really in the mood for people. I’m just glad I’m breathing. I scratch at my throat where I’m breaking out in a rash.
Layla looks over at me. “You need a real good shower, Finn.”
“You’re not allowed to call me that,” I say. This is good. If I argue with Layla, I’ll feel like something is still normal.
“Oh, you love it,” she says.
“Can’t you be nice to me for one more hour before you start hating me again? Pretty please?” I grab a garlic knot and put the whole thing into my mouth.
“I do not hate you” is her response. I can’t see her face, because Maddy is sitting between us. “Maybe a little, but only because you didn’t listen to me when I was screaming at you not to go into the water.”
Maddy whispers, “I was screaming that too.” But no one addresses that.
“He’s fine,” Mom goes. “That’s what matters.”
Two steaming pies are set in front of us. My stomach is making happy noises, and for three whole slices I sit there eating without saying anything.
When the waiter comes around again, he looks at me and claps his hands together. “Man, you’re that guy!”
People acting weird around me, Take 1.
“Man, can I take a picture with you?” he asks, grabbing his cell phone from his pocket. “I want to show my girlfriend. She thinks you’re like awesome, man.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” I say. He doesn’t hear it, because he shouts toward the kitchen, “’Ey, Dad, it’s the Perfect Storm guy!”
A round man in an apron stained with tomato sauce, giving him the look of an all-too-happy butcher, comes out. His thick, smiling mustache reminds me of Super Mario. “Oh, my boy!” He comes around the table, leans over Maddy, and kisses me on both cheeks. “The pizza is on the house! Brave boy.”
Dad slaps the waiter on the arm like they’re buddies and says, “Mike, no more pictures. You understand.”
“No problem, my man.” Mike puts away his phone, and they return to the kitchen.
“I really hope that’s the last time that happens,” I say, laughing despite myself.
“At least you got kissed by an Italian guy,” Layla says. “How many guys do you know who have that street cred?”
“What about that time you and Angelo—” Maddy starts, but I cut her off.
“Whoa, hey. So anything else I need to know? As in, I don’t have to go to class for the rest of the month?”
“You really must’ve hit your head on something,” Dad says.
“Great. Good, I’m glad we’re laughing at my tragedy so soon.” More garlic knots. It’s not like I’ll be kissing anyone later, I think.
“Listen, you kids can hang out at the house, stay up all night.” Mom fidgets with her necklace. “Just don’t touch my strawberry ice cream.”
“Oh, actually, I have to go home, if that’s okay,” Maddy whispers. For a second I forgot she was there. “Do you care if I bring some friends to your party?” She looks at me with her big blue eyes and sort of reminds me of a lost kitten.
She scoffs. “I have friends.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Yes, you did. You just don’t know it.”
“How can I do something without knowing it?”
She stands up from the table, her chair sliding back and falling with a thud. “You do everything without knowing, don’t you?” She looks at my mom, her lips trembling, and I know she’s going to cry and everyone is going to blame it on me. “I’m sorry,” she says, looking down at her feet because she can’t seem to look at my parents. “Thank you for the pizza.”
“Maddy,” Layla and I call after her. But she’s already out the jingling door.
Dad picks up the chair and sets it straight. “Am I to understand that you two are no longer going out?” He says going out in quotation marks.
“No, we’re not going out anymore.”
My parents trade sly glances.
They shrug together, but they don’t answer. They look at Layla, who makes a zipper motion over her lips.
“If we’d known, we wouldn’t have invited her to the hospital. Poor girl.” Mom folds a napkin into an accordion.
“By we, your mom means she,” Dad says in a whisper that’s meant to be heard.
“Yeah, well, I was kind of lost at sea.” I sit back and leave the piece of crust I was nibbling on alone.
Outside, the thunder breaks through the darkening sky. It starts to rain. I really do hope Maddy gets home safely. She only lives a few blocks away. I picture her answering my mom’s call telling her I was alive. Maybe she was wishing I’d stay gone. I slump lower against my seat, feeling a little bit like the pieces of crust on my greasy plate.
No matter what they say on the news and in the papers, I’m not a hero. I didn’t save the person I meant to save. I’m not even sure anyone was out there.
From the moment that wave crashed over me, I’ve felt different. I smell things differently. I hear differently. I know that there’s something I can’t remember. It’s taking shape in my head, but it’s like looking at a pi
cture that’s out of focus.
I throw the covers off and go to the living room. My mother has owned our apartment since before she met my dad. It is technically two apartments now with a few walls broken down to make one huge place. Two bathrooms, my room, my parents’ room, Dad’s office, a dining room, and a living room with huge windows looking out to the Coney Island shore. The walls are gray blue with white trim, except for the kitchen, which is yellow.
I lie across the chocolate leather sofa, and when I can’t find a soft spot, I lie on the giant, furry sheepskin rug. I remember being little when my mother bought this rug. I thought she’d gone out hunting and killed the abominable snowman. I used to stretch out reading a book, picking out tortilla chips and popcorn from the hairs before my mother noticed.
I push myself up and stand in front of our entertainment center, which my dad built from pieces of an ancient shipwreck. We call it the public library because books cover the whole wall, from floor to ceiling. I run a finger along their spines, leather-bound books older than this apartment building and slick new paperbacks.
I feel like I’m looking for something but I don’t know what. I shut my eyes and stop at a black leather-bound book with a worn spine. Fairy Tales and Other Stories by Hans Christian Andersen. We have everything he ever wrote and everything everyone has written about him. Mom’s always wanted me to read fairy tales. Sometimes I’d tell her she and Dad should’ve tried for a daughter, and then I realized I was telling my parents to keep having sex. That’s why I think she loves Layla so much. She’s like the daughter Mom probably wanted me to be. Even though I never want to think of Layla as my sister, I never want her to go away either.
I flip through the black leather-bound book and notice something I never have before. It’s signed. It says, “Maia, ever drifting, drifting, drifting.” Followed by a signature scrawl I can’t quite make out.
I shut the book and put it back in place.
My head is throbbing. A steady dull pulse at my temples. I drink a cup of water and take it back into Dad’s study, where electronic parts go to die. I step on a little silver rectangle with green wires sticking out and bite my tongue to keep from yelling out. Dad likes taking things apart to see how they work, and then he tries to put them back together. Tries.