The Temple Of Air
By Patricia Ann McNair
“Stunning Debut Collection”
2012 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award
Society of Midland Author Finalist
From the teenagers who witness a tragedy at a carnival to the twins who run the local ice cream parlor, each of the eleven linked stories in Patricia Ann McNair’s debut collection gives you a glimpse of life in the small town of New Hope.
The town’s residents navigate the world around them through faith and redemption, dreams and disappointments. Christy worries over her missing-in-action brother while baby-sitting a developmentally disabled teenager in “When Is A Door Not A Door?” After discovering a lump under his arm, Jim has to give the news to his wrongly-suspecting wife in “The Way It Really Went.” “Deer Story” considers two couples and the things that bring them together and those that push them apart. And throughout the collection, Nova, Sky, and Michael, the teen-aged witnesses in the opening story, “Something Like Faith,” move in and out of the lives of their fellow townspeople.
Patricia Ann McNair
Patricia Ann McNair has lived 98 percent of her life in the Midwest. She’s managed a gas station, sold pots and pans door-to-door, tended bar and breaded mushrooms, worked on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and taught aerobics. Today she is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, and divides her time between city and small town with her husband, the visual artist Philip Hartigan.
And even as it happened, Nova could not believe it. “Jim,” the wife said, Nova heard her. Like
“Jim, pass the salt,” or something. But he turned then from where he stood in the center of the
gondola, just a little shift, a slight release of all that attention he was giving his tiny, tiny girl—
wheeing her like that, in and out, in and out, his arms a hammock, one two three whee. Nova’d
been watching, scrunched in there between the boys, on their own side of the ride. She hadn’t
wanted to go anyway, she was fucked up and scared of heights and it was a stupid shit ride: “The
Gondolier”, big swinging cages, all that air. “Don’t,” someone must have said, but then the dad
turned that slight, small shift, away from that last out swing toward those ridiculous, wide-spaced
bars that are somehow supposed to keep everyone safe but clearly can’t when the dad turns his
head, his attention, just a bit away but enough so the little girl (a baby, really, all tiny and tickly,
all screaming and squirming) tilts somehow and slips from Dad’s arms, his hands. His fingers
open up and his grip unfolds and gives way beneath the weight of her rolling off and apart from
him and through the bars and over over over the side and down down down through the sky.
And then it all runs together. The moments before and after become one absolutely single
moment, a knot of time and activity that moves in a slow circle with the big carnival wheel. The
dad goes down, just like that, sinks to his knees and his arms raise up, light as helium without the
weight of his daughter to hold them, and it’s like he’s genuflecting. But no, Nova knows it’s
worthless, this gesture. She knows there’s nothing out there past the clouds he’s tilted his face
up to. How the fuck can there be? How the fuck can there be a god to drop to your knees in
front of in a world—in a moment—that lets you dump your little girl over the side of some dumb
fucking carnival ride? But he’s down there, low. Low like Nova’s insides. A heaviness in her
gut, a force greater than gravity keeps her pressed in on her side of the cage, pressed in tight
between the bony shoulders of Michael, the broad ones of Sky, pressed against the back of their
seat, against vinyl against metal. And the ride keeps turning, and maybe it’s that centrifugal
stuff, you know, like water in a swinging bucket, because Nova can’t budge, she’s held in solid
and sure (and high, so very, very high) in the cage, in the air, in this tight, tight moment. Did it
really happen? And for just a split of second, Nova thinks—no hopes, almost prays (but of
course she won’t) that it didn’t really happen. It smells so good up here, after all. Like corndogs
and cotton candy and fresh mowed lawns. Smells too good for anything bad. Smells safe, see?
And they’re high, after all, she and Michael and Sky; and they’re kids. You know. Kids who are
prone to imagining things. Only there’s the wife, the mother, up in an instant and gaping, eyes
and mouth wide, wide circles, lips moving. But no sound, no sound. And Nova can’t help but
marvel at how deeply silent the world is, all empty, safe-smelling air and sudden stillness. And
the sky past the useless bars is so blue it hurts to look at it in the silence. But it’s just that one
silent instant before they hear it as the baby bounces off of the other cages, off of the solid,
unforgiving spokes of the stupid ride—a big old Ferris wheel type thing, too big for the small
town, for the little carnival, for the dinky midway and especially too, too big for that tiny, tiny
girl who makes (not with her mouth but with her body) the same exact sound after sound all the
way down. A sound too horrific to be replicated, but a sound that splat and smacked its way into
the souls of them all left behind on the still moving ride, a sound that played itself over and over
in the dreams of Nova that night and, she would swear to it, each and every night forever after.
And then the screams come. From below at first, from those riders under them getting it
finally, seeing that hurtling thing for what it is, not the doll that some of them must have thought,
but a little girl at first, reaching and grabbing at the air and catching nothing except maybe some
eyes here and there, some bright panicked eyes locked with hers. And then, mercifully, the little
girl becomes just a body, dead and all, long (long, long seconds) before she hits the ground.
When Nova opens her own eyes—she hadn’t known she’d closed them—she stares at her
hands in her lap, the good one with all five nails polished deep purple and pointy, and the other
one. And then she sees the mom drop to her knees beside the dad (arms still raised) and then
onto her belly so she can stretch her hands out through the bottom of the bars, reach for what she
can no longer have, and Nova feels her own hands clutch, feels her one strong fist and feels the
other one, stunted from birth, its tiny pink thumb all by itself tightening and holding on. And
when the mom knows what’s true, knows that’s the end of it, she writhes on the floor and howls
and the dad does, too, and they’re both down there, together, all they have left, and they braid
into one another, one long rope of two bodies and a single, twining, rattling wail rising from
“Holy fuck.” It’s Sky who talks first. They are all squeezed in so tight together there, the
three of them (brother, sister, friend) that Nova feels the words rumbling up from his body, feels
the hollow breath of them on her shoulder. And she nods. And then the ride stops, a sudden,
screeching jolt of movement halted. They rock forward and back in their seat and it’s Michael,
the friend, who finally acts. He’s down there, too, on the floor between the seats at Nova’s, at
Sky’s feet, all coos and rubbing and holding, and it’s like he’s left them, Nova and Sky, deserted
them for these strangers. Like he has become one of the shattered family. And when he pulls
these parents to him he’s much more than a kid, more than fourteen; he’s like some grownup
now or something, some large being, bigger than Nova has ever seen him, and the three of them
rock there together, holding and crying and shushing and patting, and the mother reaches for the
dad and Michael is there in the middle and he kisses them, one then the other, on their heads, on
their arms. And they cling to him.
“Damn, Mike, what the fuck,” Sky says, and Nova wants to slug him. Not like she
usually does, not like the way all sisters want to slug their brothers, but she wants to hit him in
such a way as to really hurt him. She wants to make him ache throughout. She wants him to feel
some pain, some deep, numbing pain. Like the one she feels filling her chest, pushing at her
throat. But Sky’s snickering now, and nudging her in the ribs with an elbow, whispering,
“Copping a little feel there, you ask me.” And it’s too much for Nova. All way, way, way too
much. So she slides as far from him as she can across the scarred vinyl of the bench (impossibly
wide now with just Nova, small Nova, little for her thirteen years and big, thick, golden-haired
Sky on it) and she turns and presses her forehead against the ice-cold bars and something lifts
from the murkiness of her gut, from that low, heavy feeling that keeps her down, keeps her
seated. Something rises up and through her and she gives into its rise, and she opens her mouth
and lets it come. And first it’s a sound, something deep and unrecognizable. Wild. And then
it’s something else. Something thicker. And she works to throw it up, this thickness. But even
as she pukes and pukes and pukes, she can’t get rid of it. And she knows that. Even as she
continues to try to free herself, moaning and crying and purging, Nova knows that this is
something that will always, always be there inside of her. Something raw and hot and
overwhelming. Something like faith.
The story was built at the kitchen table. Nova tried to listen as Sky recreated the scene for their
mother, but it was as though she were underwater. His words, muffled by a rush in her ears,
sounded round somehow, and empty as bubbles.
“They were going crazy, the mom and dad,” he said. And he took a large bite of his tuna
fish sandwich. How could he eat, Nova wondered. How could anyone, anywhere, ever keep
anything down again?
Their mother tsked, wrung her hands.
Sky talked through his mouthful. “I couldn’t just watch it, you know. I had to do
Nova’s head swam. She crossed her hands, the good over the bad, on the table, and
rested a cheek on her knuckles. The tablecloth smelled of cooking smoke and mayonnaise. Her
stomach roiled. Her mouth filled with saliva, the sting of bile. She wished she were still high.
“So what did you do?” Their mother asked. Like it was the first time she heard the story.
Sky was making his way through it for what, the third?, fourth? time, the encores encouraged by
their mom. She lived for this stuff, this crisis and courage, death and transcendence. She nodded
her son on. And Nova couldn’t help but notice, and not for the first time, how much mother and
son resembled one another. And Nova, small and bleached near to invisible in the light of the
big, golden-haired couple, looked like the outsider. Their mother fingered a small metal cross in
the hollow above her heart.
The story had become Sky’s own. He took the part of Michael, his friend, made himself
a hero. He sat up tall in his seat, put his sandwich on the paper plate in front of him, wiped at his
mouth with the back of his hand. “Well,” he said. He cleared his throat, gave a quick glance in
Nova’s direction. Her hair fell in platinum sheets before her face, made a curtain between
herself and her family. She knew he couldn’t see her eyes. “I didn’t want to tell you this at first,
Mom. Just in case you might get mad.”
The older woman leaned forward in her seat, her hands flat on the table, nailbitten
fingertips reaching toward her son.
“Go on,” she said.
“The mom was hysterical—as you can imagine. Crying. Screaming. So I—” Sky
paused, Nova tried hard to hear through the rush in her ears. “I slapped her, Mom.”
Their mother fell back in her seat like she was pushed, like those people on the
televangelist shows do when the preacher releases his grip on their foreheads. Nova stood up.
“Enough,” she said—or thought she did, she couldn’t be sure the word actually came out
of the wetness that was her mouth. Sky went on talking.
“And then the ambulance came,” he said. “And of course I rode with them.” Sky’s story
faltered here since it was Michael who had actually gone off in the ambulance. It was Michael
who had helped the weeping parents off the floor and back onto their seat on the other side of the
wide-barred cage, Michael who held them in place as the ride made its full circle and they were
finally allowed to stand on pavement. Michael who clutched their hands and patted their backs
as they fell to their knees next to the broken little body while Nova and Sky lost themselves in
the crowd so when the cops got there they wouldn’t be pointed out and wouldn’t have to explain
what happened or how it happened (like anyone could explain that) and why their eyes were red
and their hair reeking. And they wouldn’t be asked to empty their pockets: “just a formality.”
And since they weren’t around when the ambulance came and Michael left them, that was all of
the story Sky knew for sure. He’d need some time to figure out his own ending, a better one than
he’d come up with so far.
“It was just so horrible after that. And sad,” he looked at his mother again, and then at
Nova like he’d just noticed her standing there. He shook his head, and made a slight wink in her
direction. Nova flinched. “I just can’t talk about it,” Sky said.
“Enough,” Nova said for real this time. Mother and brother turned up to her, and Nova
swooned, her whole body a wave. She gripped the edge of the table and looked down into the
wide, blue-eyed, upturned faces of her family. “Enough,” she said again when she felt herself
steady, and she turned from the pair and left the house. The screen door banged against its jamb
and Nova stepped under the porch light and into a sea of tiny flying things, and then she was
running into the dark and away from her home, from the lies, from her brother calling “Wait!
Wait!” trapped by his own story in his own kitchen in the audience of his (and her) own mother.
The blacktopped road back to town was spongy from the heat, even though an hour had passed
since the sun set. Nova breathed in the summer night. She wanted the waterlogged feeling in
her head to go away, she wanted to think of something other than what happened, other than Sky
making the story even more horrible (could it possibly be?) to impress their mother. The thing
was, though, Nova’s mother believed this stuff. She believed most anything that had to do with
heroes and faith, with saviors and those in need of salvation. But Nova couldn’t stomach this
kind of blind devotion, the unwillingness to question, the absolute submission. At least not
anymore. Not since she’d been duped that one time, long ago, into letting God enter her life.
Sky and his dad (her dad) were newly back in town then. Up until that time, Nova had
come to believe she didn’t have a father. Her mother was cryptic and prayerful in her answer to
Nova’s questions (“the Lord works in mysterious ways,”) so Nova couldn’t help but imagine an
immaculate conception of sorts. When, at ten years old, Nova found out that she actually did
have a dad, a real, flesh and blood one, and she had a twelve-year-old brother, too, it was like
remembering the words to a song whose tune had been playing over and over in her head so long
she barely even noticed it anymore. The two of them, father and son, had come full of apologies
and ripe with stories, and at the heart of each of those was the word of God. Nova supposed
that’s why her mother let them in, probably why she’d said yes when her father proposed.
(“Finally,” she whispered to Nova when they stood at the back of the tiny church on the day of
Sky could talk the word of God better than anyone; back then, he even believed it
himself. He had the gift, their father said, a direct connection to the absolute truth. Pretty soon
Sky started having bible study meetings in their living room, the place filled with kids from the
elementary and middle schools, a few from the high school. Nova sat at the feet of her new big
brother and listened to him tell stories of the places he’d been all over the Midwest. From
Clinton to Mount Vernon, Milwaukee to Normal. He told of sick children on the road to
recovery, of families pulled apart and brought back together. Here he’d always look down into
Nova’s eyes, and smile a smile that made her face burn.
“All you need to do is ask,” Sky would say. “Ask God into your life. Ask him to protect
you, to save you. He’ll come, you’ll see. The Father always comes when the children need him.
When they are ready to receive him. Let your Father know that you are ready.” And of course,
Nova couldn’t help but think of the return of her own father, there suddenly in her life just when
she needed him, there to protect her from the unrelenting boredom of the small town, the dumb,
undirected faith of her mother. Like some sort of hero he’d swept in and carried her off in his
dusty pickup, just the three of them, Nova, Sky, Father, and they’d driven the gravel roads of
New Hope to the lake where he held her hands, both of them, and walked her out into the water
and dunked her head and pronounced her newly born—now of the Father. And before then,
Nova might have believed in God, but it was similar to riding a bicycle, her belief: something
everyone did without thinking about it. Simple and unremarkable. But this child and Father
reunion thing, Nova knew was something else. Something better. Like riding a bike without
using your hands. Or feet, maybe. Like riding on air.
So she tried it. That night after the lake she laid still and silent in her twin bed, squeezed
her eyes closed so tightly her forehead hurt. In her mind, and in her heart, too, she prayed. Not
the usual stuff: Now I lay me down to sleep; The Lord is my shepherd; Bless us, O Lord… This
time Nova spoke, she was pretty sure, directly to God. “Save me,” she said. “I’m ready. I’m
finally ready.” She stretched herself long and taut and steadied herself as if preparing for a blow.
She listened to her breath in the dark, she squinted into the darkness so hard it began to swirl.
And then he came. She felt it. A bright whooshing sensation ran over her and through her, a
wash of something cold and hot at the very same time. A feeling like panic and excitement, like
joy and terror. She shuddered under the sweep of it. She nearly screamed. But she kept quiet
and held tight to her sheets and rode it out under the blanket for the seconds (minutes?) it lasted.
And when it passed, Nova’s whole body tingled. And then she was asleep.
Later that night, something woke her. A noise, perhaps. The quiet bleat of a car horn, a
door closing. And in that moment of blurred awareness, Nova felt a fat lump in her throat, a
hollow pain in her chest. She thought it must be God still, working her over, having his way.
But in the morning she was fevered and sore throughout, stricken with the flu. And at the
breakfast table her mother was crying and Sky wouldn’t look up from his cornflakes and Nova
knew that the father was gone.
Headlights came around the bend in the road ahead of her. Nova stuck tight to the shoulder, as
close to the weeds as she could get without stepping into the opening of the ditch. A white sedan
slowed as it passed, a four-door family car, and Nova nodded when the old guy lifted a small
finger in a wave and drove on. She wondered if maybe she were dreaming. It felt like it. Not
the whole day, she knew what happened on the Gondolier was real, she could still hear that body
against machine sound in her ears. But maybe this was a dream. This walking in the dark like
she walked through water. It felt like it does in dreams, legs and arms moving in slow, slow
motion. She lifted her hands up in front of her face and studied them in the light of the full
moon. She wasn’t dreaming. In her dreams she always had two perfectly formed hands.
She passed the occasional farm or trailer set back from the road. Some shone in the
bright spot of an outdoor security light. Others, dark on the outside, had wide open windows that
flashed with the pulse of nighttime TV. Evidence of life. The night sounded around Nova,
crickets and frogs in the ditch mixed it up with the far away plastic noise of laugh tracks and
The smell of skunk filled the air, and Nova breathed deeply. She loved the smell of
skunk. Ahead in the road there was a dark lump with its unmistakable stripe glowing white in
the moonlight. Nova looked both ways down the long, flat plane of road before she stepped onto
the pavement and up to the body. Right over the thing like this, the smell was almost unpleasant.
Too much of a good thing. But as she breathed the sharp odor, Nova felt the rushing behind her
eyes ease, felt her limbs pull out from the weight of whatever it was that had held her. She knelt
on the road next to the body and pressed her tiny hand against a spot on its tail where there was
more fur than open flesh and blood. After a minute, she lifted her hand to her face. There it was,
the thick, sharp, wonderful smell on her small, pink palm, on her perfect, miniature thumb.
Satisfied and clear-headed, Nova stood up and continued her walk into town.
“Mmm, skunk.” The words came from the rear of the HiLo Foods parking lot, and even before
she saw him there in their usual spot, Nova knew it was Michael, the only other person she’d
ever known to like the smell. She made her way to him and held out her hand so he could get a
whiff. “Mm-mm,” he said and breathed deeply.
Above them, the neon HiLo sign made its quiet hum; its light bathed the lot in a watery
blue. Nova sat down on the blacktop where Michael crouched low and tight against the wall. He
didn’t look good. His eyes were red and shiny, his face blotchy and streaked with grime. He
sniffled, wiped his nose with the cuff of his flannel shirt. He was shaking.
“Cold, man, don’t you think?” Nova nodded even though it was at least eighty out still,
and her neck and back were slick with sweat.
“How are you?” She asked. It wasn’t what she meant to say, but it was all she could
come up with.
Michael nodded. He lifted a bottle in a brown paper sack from between his knees,
swallowed hard, then shook it in her direction. “Some?”
Nova took the bottle and swigged. She had to fight down the wet burn of the booze, had
to give her throat and stomach and head time to get used to it, to recognize this feeling as
something different, something better than the boiling that had filled her before. With the second
swallow, she felt a knot in the back of her neck loosen.
“Where’s Sky?” Michael asked. He wouldn’t look at Nova, instead he stared at a dark
spot of something on the back of his hand. Blood, maybe.
“Not sure. Home? Probably not, though. My mom must’ve let him loose by now.”
“He in trouble?”
“You kidding? Sky? The golden boy?” Nova slugged on the bottle again. She passed it
back to Michael who, instead of drinking, held the bottle, his fingers working its neck, wringing
- “Nah, Sky’s not in trouble. He’s never in trouble. You know how he is. Too slick for
getting into trouble.” She laughed a little. “Nah, Mom’s just all over him cause of what
happened.” Nova paused, she wondered if she should tell Michael that Sky had taken his story
away. He was always doing things like that, taking things from Michael—his silver lighter, his
ten-speed, his leather jacket. Nova thought maybe that’s why Sky let Michael, a skinny, loner of
a kid a year behind him in school, hang around. She leaned back against the bricks of the
grocery store. Inside they had started the baking for the next day. The warm, full smell of fresh
bread came out of the exhaust vent above their heads. “Skunk and bread,” Nova said and inhaled
with her whole body. “This must be heaven.”
“Or hell,” Michael said. He drank from the bottle again, swiped his nose, rubbed his
palms over his eyes. “Fuck it, man.” He looked her dead on, blue eyes gleaming. “Got any
“Matter of fact,” Nova reached into the breast pocket of her tee shirt, pulled out a skinny
little joint, the one she’d been saving for when they got off the carnival wheel that afternoon.
The one she’d hoped would help her get her landlegs back.
Michael struck a match against the wall, and they huddled around the glow of it. Nova
sucked deeply and watched how Michael’s eyes flecked gold with the match light. She held the
smoke in, her chest full, her shoulders lifted, and passed the joint.
“Thanks,” he said, and leaned his head back. He smoked towards the moon.
It went like that for a while. Drag and pass, drag and pass. Joint, bottle, joint, bottle.
Nova waited. Something should be happening soon. She should feel fucked up. Michael should
say something. Something, something, something. A car moved quietly down the street in front
of the store. A dog barked a block away, another one answered. Nova stayed painfully sober.
“Want this?” Michael held the stub of roach out towards Nova. She shook her head so
he popped it into his mouth and swallowed. “Lemme smell that hand,” he said. His breath felt
hot and damp on her shrunken palm. When he’d got enough of the skunk, Michael held her hand
in his lap. For as far back as Nova could remember, no one else had ever held her bad hand like
that. Like it was just a hand. Like it was meant to be held. She thought then, and wasn’t
entirely surprised by the thought, that maybe she loved Michael.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hmm?” He stroked his thumb up and down her tiny one. His face looked white and
blue in the moonlight and neon. Luminescent, she thought. He blinked heavily.
“You’re fucked up.”
Nova let that pass.
A couple strolled along the sidewalk at the front of the grocery store’s parking lot. They
each had a hand pushed into the back pocket of the other’s jeans.
“Pretty late for a walk,” Nova said. It was probably not yet midnight, but in the small
town nothing was open past ten-thirty.
“Gawkers,” Michael said. “Rubber necks.”
“You know, like when you slow down on the road ‘cause there’s a cop there with his
lights on. Like how we watch that war stuff on the news. Want to see the villains, the dead. In
this case, the scene of the crime.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Been going on all night. People going down to the midway on Main. Checking out
where the kid fell. The big wheel. Putting their hands on the yellow police tape.”
“There’s police tape?”
Nova let the TV-ness of the whole thing sink in. Yellow tape, gawkers—she looked at
the dark spot on Michael’s hand—blood.
“How’d you know what to do, Michael?” Nova asked.
“You know, up there.” She lifted her chin as though she were pointing to the top of the
wheel. “How’d you know how to do the right thing?”
“I was there, Michael, remember? Yes, you did. You knew exactly what to do.”
“Don’t make me out a hero here, Nova.” He looked at her, pushed a fine strand of her
hair behind one of her ears. “I mean it.” His lips drew into a tight line.
“Sky’s the hero at home,” she said. “He’s telling my mom he did all those things you
did. It’s his story now.”
“Good. Let him have it.”
“But you should be proud, Michael—”
“Look!” Michael said and let go of Nova’s hand. He pushed himself up from the
ground, kicked the empty bottle across the lot. It shattered against a parking curb. “I didn’t do
anything, see? I didn’t do anything!” He turned away from Nova, and she saw his shoulders
shake. She waited a second before she stood up next to him and put her good hand on the small
of his back. She could feel the knobs of his spine. “Don’t you get it?” He said, his voice
wobbly and wet. “That’s why I had to do what I did when I did. I didn’t do anything earlier.”
Michael swabbed at his face with the back of his hand then hugged himself with both arms
crossed over his chest. “I saw it coming, don’t you see? I saw it coming.” He cried hard now,
his whole body pummeled by the sobs. “I should have said something. I mean, what was I
thinking? It made me sick to my stomach to watch it, the guy letting his little girl fly around the
place like that. It was just waiting to happen. I should have said something. But I didn’t. I was
afraid, I guess. Tried to mind my own fucking business. Shit, I don’t know. Maybe I was too
embarrassed to say anything. I mean, who was I to tell a grownup what to do? Just a kid. A
fucked up fucking kid. So I just turned my head. I ignored it.”
Nova didn’t want to hear this. She’d watched the guy, too, swinging his little girl and all.
Only to her, it looked nice how the baby laid there stretched out in the cradle of his arms.
Innocent. Something she wanted to watch, to be part of. How could Michael see the same, exact
thing and see something so entirely different?
“Damnit, how could I ignore it? I mean, I’m sure the guy must’ve thought he had a good
grip there, but let’s face it, if a kid wants to get loose from its father, how hard is that? I must
have done it a million times when I was little. You must have done it.” The more Michael
talked, the more Nova wanted to stop him, to yell at him to shut up, to close his goddamn mouth.
“Son of a bitch! Stupid, worthless, mother fucker!” He was yelling now, and he punched
the wall once, twice. Then, almost too quiet to hear, “Damnit, why didn’t I say something? I
should have said something.” He rested his forehead against the building and bent at the knees
and slid down to the ground again. His head scraped and bumped over the bricks. He looked up
at Nova. There was blood in his bangs, purple in the blue light, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“So I had to do what I did, because I didn’t do what I should. Now do you get it? I’m no
fucking hero, Nova. Sky wants to be one, fine. Me, I’m just trying to survive it.”
Why did he have to tell her this? Couldn’t he see he was spoiling everything? Why
couldn’t he just be a hero and be happy? Why couldn’t he let her be happy? Why did he have to
ruin it all?
“You need to go back there,” she heard herself say.
“What? No fucking way.”
“No really,” and it was like things were spinning out of her mouth, advice and shit that
she’d heard somewhere, on television or something, or maybe one of Sky’s meetings. “Like
when those people all got killed in that plane crash, remember?” She didn’t have any particular
plane crash in mind, there was a new one every year or so, but Michael nodded at her like he
knew just what she was talking about. “Or that restaurant where all those people got killed when
the roof fell in. Or those guys in the war.” He nodded again. “Remember how all those
people—the survivors—went back to those places where those terrible things happened? And
when they went back, then—” and here she reached both hands out to him to help him stand—
“and only then, did those people really get past it.” A load of crap, she knew. But something
made her want to take Michael back to where the thing had happened. She wanted him to see the
place again. She wanted him to feel it all again. She wanted him to pay for what he’d done to
her by telling her his story.
At the foot of the ramp to The Gondolier, the couple they’d seen on the street hugged one
another. The woman had her face buried in the shirtfront of the man; he stared over her head and
into the center of the big wheel. On the ground all around the ride were small placements of
flowers and stuffed animals. A three-foot cross made from tinfoil and cardboard leaned against
the ticket booth. “$1.00” a sign above the booth’s window read. And another one misspelled in
marker: “Plese Hold Onto You’re Valubles.” The flowers had begun to bake in the hot night air,
and the place was ripe with the rotting smell of garbage. Street lamps along Main Street threw
uneven pools of light on the dark carnival attractions. Nova stopped Michael in the shadows of
the ring toss tent.
“Wait,” she said. “When they go.” She could feel Michael shaking next to her, his teeth
chattered. “You’ll be fine,” she said, and when she heard a certain edge in her voice, she reached
out for his hand, made herself raise his scraped knuckles to her lips. “You’ll be fine,” she said
again softly against his fingers.
It seemed as though the couple had no intention of ever leaving their spot. Nova watched
them pressed together, the gigantic, unmoving wheel behind them, and pushed against the
flooded feeling that rose again inside her. “Why don’t they go?” She whispered sharply and
looked at Michael. His face streamed with tears, his chest heaved under his flannel shirt. Nova
could hear the quiet hiccup of his sobs. Something softened in her, and she was just about to say
that maybe they’d had enough for one day when the couple moved on and was replaced by a
dark figure. A slow, stumbling man walked with an unsteady purpose to the spot that was
wound round and round with the yellow police tape. A spot Nova just then recognized as where
the body—or most of it at least, wouldn’t it have split apart on impact?—must have landed. The
man went down on all fours and crawled beneath the plastic barriers. He rested a cheek on the
ground and didn’t move. It was like he was listening to the workings of the world.
“Fucking drunk,” Nova said. “What nerve.” She started out from under the shadows, but
Michael held fast to her hand.
“No,” he said.
She shook him off and headed for the man.
“Hey! Asshole!” Nova yelled.
The man looked up, and as she got closer, Nova began to make out his face, began to
sense a familiarity.
“You,” the man said, but it was like he was in a daze, the word came out soft as a prayer.
He looked not at Nova, but over her shoulder, beyond her.
“Holy shit,” she said when she put the man, the place, and the dead girl together. She
spun around and found Michael trotting towards her. “It’s the guy,” she said. “It’s the father.”
“Yes,” Michael said and tried to grab Nova’s arm. “Let’s give him some privacy.”
She shrugged out from Michael’s reach and looked back at the man. “No,” she said.
And then again, “No.”
And then, without premeditation, Nova felt herself launch into a full-out charge. Michael
moved behind her, but she was way ahead of him. She broke through the police tape and felt
herself land on the man, felt him fall back with the weight of her, felt his skin under her fists as
she pounded on his face, on his neck. And again, it was as if she were dreaming, only this was
like that dream she had where she would be beating someone, her mother maybe, or Sky, or
someone else, and no matter how hard she hit, she couldn’t make them feel it. The man’s face
came into focus beneath her hands. His eyes flashed with surprise, but behind that was
something else. Something muddy and impenetrable.
Hands circled her ankles, and Nova knew that Michael had caught up. She tried to kick
him away, but he held fast. The funny thing was, the man lay still while she hit him for what like
forever to Nova. When Michael had a good enough grip to pull her down the length of the man’s
body, it was as though he slowly came to. He blinked and blinked, and with a jerky momentum,
the man tried to catch Nova’s fists. He latched onto the bad hand, the smelly one, and when he
held it in front of his face, Nova saw all that she hated to see. First his lips pulled back and he
bared his teeth against the odor of the skunk, and then she saw him flinch when he recognized
that he held only part of a hand. And, worst of all, his eyes widened with that look that Nova
long ago (about the time of her father’s departure) decided was pity. He opened up his mouth as
though he were going to say something, and in that moment Nova planned to break his fucking
teeth in if he dared to tell her he was sorry.
“Goddamnit, Nova!” Michael had her by the waist now and swung her up and over his
shoulder. She hated being such a little girl. “Leave the guy alone.”
Nova slugged at Michael’s back, flailed her legs as hard as she could against his chest.
“Put me down, you dickhead! Put me the fuck down!” She was screaming now, the
words scraped her throat, rattled her chest. Michael bobbled under her. “Shh, shh,” he was
saying, a loud spray of sound. “Let me go!” She could see from where she hung over Michael’s
back the man stand up and brush himself off, she saw him move in their direction. Her head
rushed with heat and blood and her body seethed.
“Stay away from me!” She yelled at the father. “I’ll kill you, you mother fucker!” It
was a wonder Michael could hang onto her. “I’ll kill you, you mother fucker! I’ll kill you!
Mother fucker! Fucker! Mother fucker!”
And then she felt Michael fold beneath her and felt herself pushed from him. When she
scrambled to her knees, Nova recognized Sky’s broad shoulders and golden curls. She saw the
pulling back of his arm, the release and swing repeated again and again. Michael’s face rolled
side to side, more bloodied with each of punch from Sky. Nova crawled toward them. Michael
looked at Nova through swollen eyes, his lips moved, his mouth opened. “Gaaahhhh,” he said.
Crimson muck spilled over his teeth. “Gaahhh.” It was like he was speaking right to her; Nova
strained to hear. “Gaahh…” or maybe it was “God.” Or maybe: “Good.”
“He hurt you?” Sky asked. His voice was calm. He kept his eyes on Michael’s face. A
white smudge of mayonnaise marked his cheek and Nova felt a stinging desire to wipe it away,
to hold her brother’s head in her hands. Her protector, her hero, the only one she had. But Nova
couldn’t make herself move and Sky continued to beat his friend, his hands, raw and bloodcovered,
traveling from the head to the chest and back up to the face. He had Michael’s arms
pinned under his knees even though Michael wasn’t struggling. “You okay, Novie?” Sky asked
in that calm voice. Nova nodded. It was like Michael was letting this happen to himself, like he
wasn’t even trying to stop it. And Sky kept at it with a controlled rhythm: beat, beat, beat. Nova
believed her brother was doing this for her; she had to. This had nothing to do with Michael,
what he’d done, what Sky had not. This, Nova told herself, was about Sky and Nova. Of course
Michael’s head lolled back and forth, each blow the sound of meat slammed against
meat. He spit blood and something else, broken tooth maybe, then coughed and gurgled. Nova
wasn’t able to look away from her brother’s heroics, even as she heard the man come up behind
“Holy Mother of God,” the man said. “That’s enough now, don’t you think? You should
stop now.” Even still, the man stayed back, watched the beating alongside Nova. “Stop it now,
son. You’re killing him, son.”
“Yes,” Nova said and looked away from the hero and up at the man. She saw under his
eye a small patch the size of the nail on her miniature thumb. She smiled up at the father.
“Yes,” she said again, her chest thick and aching with pride. “He is.”