FROM THE GLOVEBOX
BY ALISON LIU
Rice University, '18
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors' List
You know that Katy is on the other end of the line because the yarn is dancing impatiently. It’s the same blue as late afternoon, so when neighbors walking on the sidewalk happen to look up, they won’t see the string hanging between two jungle-gym electrical towers. You climb to the nook just below the crackling of the currents, and press the metal can at the end of the dancing yarn to your ear.
Finally, Katy says. Her voice is blurry, like she’s yelling underwater.
What took you so long? she says, Meet me at the lake.
You want to ask What’s the hurry, but you can already see her silhouette against the sunset, climbing down into her own backyard. The summer birds turn together to watch her from their perches on the line as she is swallowed between roofs symmetrical like jaws.
On the dock, Katy is waiting with a jar of green glowing. Fireflies, protesting in spurts of exclamations and imperatives.
To send a message to the mermaid at the bottom of the lake, Katy says.
What mermaid, you say.
She says, And then she’ll send them back up in a bubble.
She says, And maybe she’ll tell us how to go down there, and we can become mermaids too.
How’ll she know what they’re saying?
Dummy, Katy says, can’t you read Morse code?
She holds the jar between your face and hers, and you can see her eyes through the blinking and cloudiness and maybe you just understand what they’re saying, a little.
Okay, she says, see you soon, little guys. She kisses the jar, and you kiss the jar, and then she is on her stomach placing them on the water, and they are a jar of stars sinking, sinking, sinking into a reflection of the sky.
Cigarette smoke from his lips drifts over a line of black ants disappearing into a crack in the red dirt, as loud as a cloud.
There is a sign on the metal gate that says NO TRESPASSING / PRIVATE PROPERTY.
Underneath the sign, there is another, rotting sign that says Gandini’s Circus in peeling white paint.
You know, Edmond says, these are called kissing gates.
Oh yeah? you say, leaning in a little.
He blows smoke into your mouth, and jumps the gate.
Fucker, you spit after him.
When you catch up to him, he is sitting on top of a mangled cage with red-rust bars. He puts out his cigarette on the rust. I bet, he says, swinging his legs, that this is where they kept the tigers. And I bet, he continues, showing you a piece of reflective metal in his palm, that this is where the House of Mirrors was, and that it was all shattered by that.
There is a pile of train carnage in front of his pointing finger, boxcars piled like broken toys on top of each other. They are rusted also. You can see the scene: the derailed train, a line of a hundred empty cars, falling into the mirrors like a corpse into water, triggering kaleidoscope ripples of stained glass into the grass.
You follow him further into the trees. There is a blue bus without wheels tangled in the trees, white branches weaving into its glass-less windows and out through the holes in the roof. It has a kitchen and rotting bed frames and a rusted steering wheel. This is where the trapeze artists lived, Edmond says, Them and the tightrope walkers. They were egotistical fucks.
He says, Hey.
Okay, you say, walking into the clearing in front of the bus, This is where everyone rehearsed their acts. See, the guy in the cannon shot himself over those trees there.
Yeah, Edmond says, and this is where the horses were fitted for those little hats they always wore.
And this is where the fire-eaters ate uncooked food. And this is where the elephants cooled off in the water.
And this is where the leftover clowns haunt the grounds, killing teenage trespassers with fire extinguishers and cutting them up into little little pieces to fit in their little little cars.
That’s not funny.
Edmond grins. This is where the freak shows were, he continues.
The flash flood lights up the streets with the reflection of lightning.
You imagine the snakes weaving between your ankles, being swept into the gutters by the currents up to your knees. The road is a loop that carousels around the college campus, twenty minutes a round.
You say, If a streetlight falls into the water on the other side of campus, we’ll electrocute right here.
The engine of a Honda to your left floods.
Let’s go, Houston says, squeezing your hand. A truck—a big one, cleansed from its red-mud lamination—glides past you like a boat.
Lying on the trampoline, you press your face against the mesh to watch water flood under you into the street. The rain has let up a little. It weighs down on the tree branches hanging over you—on one hand, this slows the rain sprinkling on your back; on the other, the drops have time to collect like saliva under a tongue and they fall in thick beads like cravings.
We’ll never break up, he says, I’ll never fight with her, so we’ll never break up.
You don’t want to break up, you tell him, sitting up.
He says, I could be with anyone, you know. It’s circumstantial.
The city outside the hedges pollutes the night sky with light. The red of stoplights and hospitals reflect back from the night; you can only see the brightest stars through the silhouettes of branches and red clouds clearing.
You say, Don’t you think that there is someone out there, on a planet orbiting the star we’re looking at, who is looking at our sun? And don’t you think that we’ll line up with them occasionally, so that sometimes we’re making eye contact with someone so far away, and we’ll never know it?
Houston says, Sure, maybe.
He trails his fingers lightly, between your thighs, drawing circles with his nails on your skin; even when you ask him what he’s doing—he just pushes your knees apart again gently, like a suggestion, and says, It feels good, doesn’t it? and it does, so let him.
Phil wants you to stop seeing your college friends. He says they’re a bad influence, tells you to start hanging around better people. He tells you to stop going out every weekend, to stop smoking and drinking. He tells you to start acting like you want to be a doctor in two years, tells you your immaturity is demeaning.
Your friends take you out to dinner. You all order martinis, and forget to order dinner. Charlotte, NC says, He was boring anyway.
Outside the restaurant, a woman stands on the other side of the street under a flickering streetlight. You can see a spider weaving her web between the pole and the light bulb. The spider pulls at the web, and the woman, like a marionette at the end of spider-silk strands, raises her hand.
Your friends call an Uber. They look away from her because they are afraid of sad people. You can’t stop looking, because you are afraid of sad people, too. She winks.
Go ahead, you tell your friends. Left my jacket in the restaurant. I’ll catch up.
When you cross the street, the woman gives you a sad smile full of tape-recorder teeth. Hey, sweetie, she says, and her voice sounds like a recording too.
You tell her that you want to talk, but you take it back. It sounds too much as when Phil would say, We need to talk, and you would hate everything that followed. You tell her that you want to have a conversation with her, but you take that back too—it’s too ceremonial. You say you want to chat, but that’s not quite right either (too affectionate).
There are no words for what you want to do with her. There are a thousand words for what you’re supposed to want to do with her, and they’re all ugly and loud.
Do you want to get a room to do all that, she says.
No, you say, Never mind.
You give her all the money in your pocket anyway, and kiss her lightly, and her lips leave an aftertaste like disinfectant.
You take off your shoes to walk back. When you arrive at your apartment, there are a dozen roses on the doorstep. You swallow them all, and puke potpourri through the night.
The cuckoo clock behind you is ticking like a bomb. Across the table stacked with eggs and coffee, she lights her cigarette and sets her white BIC lighter by the sugar packets.
I don’t think you can smoke here, you tell her.
She takes a drag. She says, I’ve sucked too many of these. My lungs are turning to ash.
Ma’am, you can’t smoke in here, the waitress says from across the room.
She puts the cigarette out beside her plate, leaving a stain on the fake lace of the tablecloth. You should call your mother, she says, She’s probably waiting for you to call.
Mom, you say.
Your phone rings; it’s a patient you’re supposed to see tomorrow. Are you ready to go back to the home? you say when the ringing stops.
I want to drive, she says.
Okay, Mom. You wrap her fingers around the keys, holding the metal and her hand suspended like that, for a moment. You can feel her palm wrinkling in yours.
Please, she says sweetly, call me Helen.
In the car, she lights another cigarette. She turns the key in the ignition and looks to you. The mountain behind the windshield rises with the sun and holds itself there, like a breath. Here’s my advice to you, in this moment: if you don’t know where to go, and she doesn’t know where to go, and you feel like you’ve been sitting there, still and shotgun, for your whole life, give her these directions—to the tips of your fingers, to the soft spot in your skull, to the space under the rib that you grew from in the dust of her womb.
Alison Liu is a sophomore at Rice University, majoring in English and minoring in neuroscience. She is from Edmond, Oklahoma, and is managing editor of R2: The Rice Review. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Gone Lawn, The Best Teen Writing of 2013, Bop Dead City, and other journals.