Wendy Oleson’s recent fiction appears in PANK, The MacGuffin, and Smokelong Quarterly: Best of the First Ten Years. She was the recipient of Washington Square Review’s 2013 Fiction Award, and she teaches creative writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
2nd place - 2014 Raymond Carver Contest
1st place - 2015 Million Writers Award
Sarah never said it, but she agreed with the other kids that riding on the bus over Meredith Moore’s skull felt like riding over a big rock. They wouldn’t have known the difference except Meredith’s twin sister, Molly, saw it happen and told the driver. Some kids on the bus laughed because, Sarah’s mother had said, they didn’t know what to do. Sarah, a second-grader and new to town when it happened, played with her coat’s zipper teeth and didn’t try to look. She counted, snapping a sharp fingernail against each cold tooth. Her mother cut her nails on Sunday evenings (there were two more Sundays before Christmas), and by the time the police opened the back of a bus—it just opened up, like the front of a mailbox—Sarah had gone from counting teeth (fifty-six) to counting the number of kids still on the bus (seven) to counting the days until Christmas (eighteen). Eighteen days until steaming eggnog, presents, and iced sugar cookies. Candy canes on every branch of the tree. The smell of evergreen. Sarah couldn’t remember the ride on the second bus, the emergency bus. Only fifteen days until the holiday pageant at school.
But the holiday pageant was no good. A fourth-grader got in trouble for caw-cawing during the partridge song, and the whole thing ended early. It had nearly been cancelled. When the auditorium lights flickered during the second-graders’ dreidel song, kids whispered it was the ghost of Meredith Moore. Maybe it was.
The family Christmas tree looked different in the corner of the new house. Sarah’s favorite decoration, a clay piece with her baby footprint in relief, made a bad shadow on the wall: an angry monkey. When she accidentally stepped on a glass ornament, the instant of full pressure before the pop and shatter made her scream. The jumbo candy cane from her stocking tasted like bone. And no matter how many times she and her brother, David, rebuilt their snowman during winter break, some jerk came in the night to knock off its head. Probably Bud Miller.
By February, the world was quiet and frozen. Sarah found a dead squirrel in the garage between a jug of gasoline and the snow blower. She called for David, poking at the twisted-up thing with the handle of a rake. He kept watch as she went to get salad tongs, but when she returned, other boys had gathered (David made friends fast). “You have to leave,” Bud Miller told her. “We’re in a meeting.”
“I have tongs,” she said. These days she didn’t say much. She wanted to see its eyes.
“She found it,” David said.
It didn’t smell. David let her get in closer than any of the boys, and when they were done looking and poking, he let her carry it to the garbage. She walked slowly down the driveway, whispering to her new friend. How long have you been dead? Its body had jackknifed into a boomerang. The patchy fur on its tail reminded her of Grandma’s cancer treatment before things got better. We have to say good-bye now. The garbage truck had already come that morning, so when Sarah tossed it in, her squirrel hit the trash can’s metal base hard. Sorry. Somewhere between thunk and ping, it sounded like a sixth-grader playing the holiday hand bells.
Because she’d seen the dead one, Sarah chose a squirrel for her school paper-mache project. The teacher paired her with Molly Moore, but Molly hadn’t been to school in a week. Her twin was dead. Molly was still alone, which made Sarah sad and scared for her. Who did she talk to? Did she speak at all? It wasn’t an easy craft project; Mrs. K. said they had to write an essay about the animal and make the sculpture. All outside of class. With Molly gone, Sarah would have to get a library book on squirrels, write the essay, and do the paper-mache herself. She stripped toilet paper and paper towels from their cardboard tubes and emptied the tissue boxes at home: stuff to build the body up. She told her mom to save the newspaper.
But Molly returned to school on Friday and invited Sarah over to work. Sarah could bring the toilet paper rolls and newspaper. Molly had flour and water at home. Sarah didn’t want to see Molly’s street, her parents, or her house. She didn’t want to see Meredith’s old bed. But paper-mache would mean dried chunks of paste on the new kitchen table and chairs, so her mother would want her to go to Molly’s. She shouldn’t have said anything to her mother.
. . .
On Saturday, Sarah pretended to vomit in the upstairs bathroom. She dumped tapioca pudding in the toilet to mimic the splash, but her mom was the wiser.
“How would you feel if no one wanted to play at your house?”
Sarah tried to reason: this wasn’t playing. It was a partner assignment, and she’d been unfairly partnered. Her stomach really did hurt (the sound of tapioca hitting toilet water made her dry heave). The smell of starchy-wet newspaper would send her over the edge.
“Don’t talk about fairness, young lady. Has Molly’s life been fair?”
That was basically the end of it. Sarah marched upstairs to retrieve the empty tapioca Tupperware, then made straight for the van and got buckled. Her mother, of course, remembered to bring the sack of old newspapers and cardboard rolls.
. . .
Molly stood waiting inside the glass door of a house that looked like Sarah’s. Then, they had to step around boxes to reach the kitchen where a small television played Nickelodeon.
“Do you want peanut butter crackers?” Molly pulled a sleeve of the orange ones from a cupboard.
When the TV got quiet, Sarah heard yelling upstairs.
. . .
After a couple of hours, their squirrel had a huge head with a square Kleenex-box brow like Frankenstein’s monster. No parents had come down to help. Sarah sneaked glances at the pair of family holiday photos on the refrigerator: 1986 and ’85. Last year and the year before. Mostly the refrigerator was covered with pizza coupons and menus for take-out food. In the backyard stood a pink play set with a slide and two swings, their seats bowed under small mountains of snow. Without trying, Sarah felt herself on one of the swings gaining momentum, stomach dropping, legs pumping even though she wanted to stop.
Ten minutes before Sarah’s mom would arrive, Molly invited her to sleep over. “The body will dry overnight, and we can paint it brown in the morning.”
Sarah shook her head. “My brother has a baseball game tonight.”
“This is for a school project, so your parents will understand. We have a paint set in the basement. We can paint him brown with the paint in the basement.”
“I have to go to David’s game.”
“We can wear Dad’s old work shirts and paint the squirrel brown.”
Sarah looked at her corduroyed knees. Her fingers stunk like newspaper and paste. She picked off the dried bits and ripped some skin. When her mother pulled into the driveway, Molly grabbed her around the middle. Molly’s body felt clammy and scratchy, like a skinny tree hiding under the snow.
The Moore’s front door was like a sheet of ice, and Sarah firmly pushed it back into the house. Don’t look back—it was a line from a soap opera Sarah’d seen on a sick day. But unlike the blond man from the soap, Molly didn’t scream, Turn around and face me! So Sarah ran hard to her mother’s van.
“You know it’s not polite to cut across the lawn. Now your shoes are full of snow.”
Sarah could have taken the cement driveway, but it seemed closer to the cement street, and the cement spot where Meredith died. Molly had stopped riding the bus, so the new bus driver never came this way; they didn’t have to go down this street anymore. She wouldn’t have had to see it ever again.
Sarah mumbled, “Sorry,” and examined her mother’s face. It made her think of a turtle. “You look different.”
“Oh.” Her mother put her hand to her temple. “These glasses. The lens shop called to say they were ready. I’m not sure the tortoise shell suits me.”
“I liked the old ones.” Sarah felt tears coming, so she softly kicked against the insides of the car. Snow sloughed off her shoe. Warm gusts of air melted it quickly, turning the gray floor mat a splotchy black.
“I hoped they’d make me appear more professional. We’ll see what your father thinks.”
“And David,” Sarah added.
“Stop kicking the car.”
They passed their new church. Sarah felt a pang of fear or guilt, maybe a dirty snowball of both. “Molly invited me to spend the night.”
“When?” Her mom kept glancing at herself in the rearview mirror. Tortoise shell.
“Tonight. I said David had a baseball game.” It was a lie, yes, but it felt very true.
Her mother waited until they reached a red light before turning to Sarah and shaking her head. “I’m disappointed that you lied—a terrible lie at that! Baseball’s not a winter sport.”
“Oh.” Sarah thought of the orange crackers and the angry voices upstairs. “Molly wanted me to wear her Dad’s shirt. Probably the one Meredith wore. What if I had to sleep in Meredith’s bed?” The tears returned, along with rhythmic kicks to the underside of the glove compartment, until her mom pressed her palm against Sarah’s thighs, which felt safe and good.
Her mother was crying now. Driving, crying, and wiping her eyes behind the thick turtle glasses. Sarah hadn’t meant for that to happen, and she didn’t feel safe anymore.
The van stopped in front of a tan house that wasn’t theirs. Her mother took off the glasses.
“You’re my precious girl, your life—”
Even when Grandma was almost dead, before she got better, Sarah’s mom hadn’t cried like this. She had to be strong, especially at work, because she was a woman.
A child in the window of the tan house waved; he thought Sarah was someone else.
“—I understand this has been a difficult year. My God what a year.” Her mother felt around behind the driver’s seat for the box of tissues, but it was part of the squirrel now. “I know you didn’t want to move. I don’t know what to say.”
It was better to keep quiet then. Sarah had kept quiet. Quiet on the bus. Playing with her zipper. Some of the kids laughed. Meredith had dropped her purple lunch bag, was bending down to retrieve it. The driver didn’t see. He spent the night in jail. He begged to be locked up.
“I’m sorry,” Sarah said finally because it hurt so bad to see her mom cry and because she didn’t understand what she’d done wrong.
Her mom squeezed her shoulder. The bucket seats were too far apart for hugging.
. . .
David played Super Mario Bros. at home. In his yellow, waffle-fabric shirt, his body darted and swayed as Mario dodged Koopas and leapt from one toadstool to the next. Sarah’s heart lifted with love for her brother. She took a running start before jumping on top of him.
“What the hell?”
There were hundreds of thousands of reasons, he said, why it was uncool of Sarah to have done that. Millions and billions. David called her a pervert. Her parents cited safety concerns—they both worked for insurance companies—and Sarah was sent to her room. She didn’t want to be alone. She sat on the bed, stared at the wall, and picked bits of dried paste off her stinky fingers. Probably the same thing Molly was doing. Only Molly had to look at the empty bed. Molly had been lucky to have a twin, but now she was unlucky. And Meredith had no luck at all. Molly might have gotten squashed instead of Meredith. Why didn’t it happen like that? Did Mr. and Mrs. Moore yell upstairs before Meredith died? That night, Sarah heard her own parents arguing through the walls. About money, mostly, but it had started off about her.
“That poor child needed a friend,” her mother said. “Why is our daughter so cold?”
. . .
Molly didn’t show up at school on Monday. She didn’t come on Tuesday with their squirrel-monster, even though it was due. Surrounded by polar, panda, and brown bears, three dogs, two cats, a Clydesdale, a dolphin, a green bird, and a goat, Sarah cried so hard Mrs. K. sent her to the nurse’s office. The guidance counselor had retired.
“I’m cold,” she told white-haired Nurse Wallers. She had messed up bad. She didn’t understand what she’d done or why it was wrong, but her bones were cold, and her skin, and her hair and muscles and guts and the air in her lungs. In this part of the country, the weatherman talked about something terrible called wind chill. Sarah felt it on her face. She remembered poking at the frozen squirrel, how it didn’t move or close its eyes. She could hear the sound it made against the bottom of the trash can. Sorry. She was cold. The school nurse couldn’t do anything to fix it. No one could.
. . .
Around school, kids said that Molly had moved. Sarah wanted to ask, but Mrs. K. wouldn’t look her in the eyes. It made story time very lonely. Mrs. K. read the entirety of Charlotte’s Web out loud, and not once did she look Sarah in the eyes. Maybe Sarah was clear, like ice.
She got lost at school twice the next week. That was what the principal called it. No, not lost—she’d spent those afternoons looking out the window in the library, watching snow fall and birds hop on branches. Weren’t birds supposed to fly south for the winter? These didn’t. There were kids outside, too. Sarah ate her bag lunch, crunching her carrots softly to stay hidden. On the second day, the librarian found her. Sarah waved good-bye to the children playing in the snow. She didn’t know where they’d come from, but they wanted her to play with them. Instead, Ms. Cheryl walked Sarah back to Mrs. K.’s room, grabbing her wrist painfully after she fell behind too many steps.
. . .
David laughed that night when their father used the term cutting class. The punishment was chores because, Sarah guessed, she spent so much time in her room already. Her mom suggested kitchen floor duty, but Sarah talked her way into picking up dead tree branches in the yard. It was almost pretty out there, the snow littered with their cross-hatchings. For laughing at their father’s comment and high-fiving his truant sister, David had to help.
“It could have been you,” David said the next afternoon, chucking two wet sticks onto the pile. “I’ve heard them talking. You could have been the dead girl.”
Sarah’s footprints made hearts in the snow. “Molly. I mean Meredith.” Their old backyard had a pool for almost year-round. Barely any trees. “But I wasn’t.”
“I know.” David snapped a thick branch over his knee. “But they can’t stop imagining. Remember how you got scared of sharks from watching Jaws?”
“Sharks are scary,” Sarah said quietly.
“Right, but you thought one would come to the house and eat you.”
Sarah nodded. It had seemed that way. She’d dreamt there was one in the living room but not their swimming pool.
“You were scared, even though it was just your imagination. That’s what happened to Mom and Dad. They heard and talked and read about the dead girl on your bus. She was in your class. They’re scared.”
“I thought the shark could get me in my bed.”
“And Mom and Dad imagine you dying instead of that girl.”
But I’m alive, Sarah thought. Aren’t I?
“Bud almost died last night,” David continued. “He didn’t tell his parents because he didn’t want them to worry.”
Bud had fallen off the roof. David grinned recounting the story. Sarah didn’t really want to know. Though once she did, it kind of made her smile to picture it. Tumbling through the sky, Bud was colorful and oafish, like a clown slipping on a banana peel. She saw it over and over as she picked up sticks. She laughed and David did, too. She couldn’t unsee it. She thought about asking David if he knew who the children were, the ones who played behind the school even when it wasn’t recess, but she didn’t know how to put it into words.
“Be like Bud,” David said. “That’s the way to go.”
. . .
When the replacement guidance counselor arrived, Mrs. K. told Sarah to sign up for a meeting. Sarah needed to know where Molly had gone, so she wrote her name on Counselor Johnson’s office door. The next day, she waited for Mrs. K. to tap her on the shoulder and send her to the lady with the cotton candy hair. It was something to do at least.
Instead of marching straight to the counselor’s office, she slipped through the library, hiding behind a display of Judy Blume novels when the librarian approached. In the clear again, Sarah found the heavy wooden window; it was almost bigger than she was. Outside, most of the children made snow angels, but a few others used their long scarves as whips in a game Sarah had never played. Though she’d only stood there a minute, one of the whippers spotted her and began waving. He pointed at her, yelling something to the others until they all waved. Sarah’s skin lifted with a chill she felt everywhere. She waved back, wondering how it was possible to feel any colder.
. . .
“There are privacy laws, Sarah. I can’t violate the privacy of Molly or her family. You wouldn’t want me to do something wrong, something that could hurt Molly, would you?”
Sarah didn’t bother to nod; Mrs. Johnson was doing it for her.
“I understand you want to see your friend. You must feel very sad.”
Mrs. Johnson’s counseling office had a tiny window. Most of the wall space was taken up by inspirational posters. Not good ones with animals, but photographs of mountains and oceans and fields of flowers.
“I wonder, do you think what happened to Meredith was your fault? Because you must not think that way. It couldn’t be helped.”
But it could have, Sarah thought. If Meredith hadn’t been standing there.
Or if the bus driver had checked more times. Or if Molly had pushed her sister out of the way or screamed, or if the kids on the bus had screamed, or if none of them had ever been born.
“Terrible things happen in this life we are blessed to live.”
If Meredith had eaten a cafeteria lunch instead of bringing it from home, she wouldn’t have dropped her purple lunch bag, stooped to pick it up—
“Talk it out, because it’s the only thing that takes the terrible away.” Mrs. Johnson kept nodding and had taken to using her hands, one of which held an apple-shaped stress ball. With a little green worm peeking out.
“Do you understand what I’m saying, Sarah?” Mrs. Johnson handed her the stress ball.
Did the children know her name? Even through the shadows of the trees, Sarah saw a child approaching the tiny window. She couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, but maybe that didn’t matter, like with the frozen squirrel. It wasn’t a boy or a girl. Just a friend.
. . .
Sarah tried to run to the playing children during lunch. Once, she got as far as the loading dock behind the school before custodian Davis found her. She hated lunchtime; she kept remembering the day she’d eaten with the Moores. They’d been standing in front of her in the hot-lunch line for the hamburger pizza with sliced peaches and a cookie that all tasted exactly the same as it had at Sarah’s old school.
Meredith and Molly both wore sweatshirts for the state college’s football team. Sarah had sized them up: they were two friends for the price of one. Her mother would want her to have two friends, Sarah decided. Sliced peaches slipped under her spoon and looked like wedges cut from the sun. She wanted to ask the twins to come over to swim in her pool. But she didn’t have a pool anymore. Molly ate peaches off Meredith’s plate, but Meredith didn’t care. Meredith laughed a lot. It was sometimes hard to figure out what she was laughing at. What if Meredith laughed at Sarah’s toys or cat posters or the way her father put an extra syllable in words like “snack” (snay-ack) and “back” (bay-ack). She’d wanted to be friends with the curly-haired twins, but with her mouth constantly full of hamburger pizza, she weenied out.
. . .
Since nobody would tell Sarah where Molly had gone, she decided to look for her at the house where they had paper-mached. She tried to go by bus on a day they had yet another substitute driver. Tiny never came back after the accident. Sarah told the new driver Molly’s old address—4907 Cedar Drive—that she had memorized. But an older girl called Clarice shouted out, “That isn’t her stop,” before shooting Sarah a wicked grin.
. . .
And then it snowed one last time. Mid-March, nobody believed it would—not even the weatherman. Sarah’s father spent all his time preparing for their vacation. Her mother said things like, “We all need a vacation,” and “We’ve never needed a vacation more.” She also said, “Do you think Sarah’s going to be okay?” To which her father always replied, “Let’s see how she is once we get back.”
Sarah didn’t want to go to the beach. She’d grown grateful for the snow. It would last forever this year. After school, she sat outside looking for birds and squirrels and children. She didn’t get cold anymore. Not very. The neighbors’ enormous poodles wanted to go inside before she did.
At night, she worked on the map that would help her find Molly. She used her box of markers and a piece of thick, cream-colored paper taken from school. It needed to be finished before the family vacation, so she took to working on it at lunch and during recess. The outside children used sticks to draw Sarah’s path in the snow. If she squinted hard, she could see it from the girls’ bathroom window.
. . .
She waited until her parents and David fell asleep, then slid open the glass doors to the deck. It was all light and darkness, like the black and white photos on her grandma’s wall. The weatherman said it was cold, the wind chill negative ten, but Sarah didn’t feel it. She clutched the map in her mitten-hands, shuffling across the snowy deck and down to the drifting lawn as stars and snowflakes filled the same holes in the sky. Would they drink cocoa together when she found them? Would they paper-mache? They’d probably just play in the snow. The map sailed on a current of wind, away from Sarah’s hands. She didn’t need it anymore: there was the playground clearing with the forest beyond. There was even a house. It was hers, but also the Moores’, she knew, because Meredith waved from the window. The forest and the house were inside and out, warm, sweet, and blanketed with soft snow. Children played, their open hands reaching and touching, mirroring each other in a glittering cascade. Not Sarah, Molly, and Meredith, but every child—all the children—leaping, twirling, made of light.