Green Hills Literary Lantern

Gasworks Park

 

 

 

 

I was thinking about the sea planes, chasing their shadows over the beach, when the gate swung open and a man from the bus stepped into the station.  He had a thick beard and wore a baseball hat with a name scrawled in orange across the front.  He had that tired but happy look that everyone had as they got off, like he’d been traveling for days and was glad to be still.  His gaze ran around the station and then fell on us.  His eyes narrowed and I could tell he had decided something.  In a second he was barreling toward us. 

“Who is he, Johnny?” my sister, Kelly asked. 

He’d been sitting ahead of us on the other side of the aisle, his head against the window, sleeping.  He’d woken up and shuffled to the bathroom, then come back and slid into the seat across from us.  “On your own?” he’d asked, a glance at dozing Kelly.  I’d nodded and then wished I hadn’t.  “A couple of hobos,” he’d said, closing his eyes again.

Now he kept coming toward us, staring hard like he wanted to pick a fight.  I tried to move but couldn’t, as still as a slug on a wet tree.  Then like Mother in the car, I threw my arm out in front of my sister.  Suddenly the man was there.  He lifted Kelly up and put her down so quickly I could tell by the dizzy look in her eyes she didn’t even know she had left the ground.  “Miss me?” he said, patting my head like I was a kid and glancing at two men who stood near the bathrooms.  They were heavy, their chins falling over the collars of their tightly buttoned shirts, like balloons ready to burst.  They ran their hands through their wiffley hair, eyes on the gates.

“Miss me?” I repeated, still feeling his hand in my hair, like all he had to do was tug and I’d be screeching.  I stepped in front of Kelly. 

His hand clamped down on my shoulder.  “Yeah, son,” he said, squeezing my collar bone on the second word, nodding his head at the two crew cuts by the bathrooms.  One of them was waving to the security guard, a blue wallet in his hand.  He flipped it open, and the guard squinted at it.  The other threw back the flaps of his coat, rifling through his pants pockets, a pair of handcuffs hanging from his belt. 

“Miss me?” he asked again.

The man’s grip was iron, but there was a pleady look in his eyes, like I was the one who could hurt him.  For a second it was like looking in a mirror and he seemed like nothing to worry about.  I didn’t want the cops around any more than he did.  Two kids on their own were a question.  With him, we would look normal, a day out with dad.

I nodded my head, my eyes on the floor.

“Then let’s get going,” he said. 

He wouldn’t let go, and my shoulder began to throb.  I tried to twist out of his grasp, but he gripped tighter.  “Going?” I said, glancing back at the cops, still talking to the security guard, going about their business like it was a normal day.

He eased up and wrapped his arm around my shoulders the way Dad had on my sixteenth birthday when he told me I was a man.  Then I felt sick, my skin shrinking over my skeleton. 

“You’re doing good,” the man said. 

Kelly was stepping forward then back, like a skittish deer trying to cross the road.  But when she saw him hook me, she shuffled over and stood between us.  The man gave her a big smile.  Now we were three, a kind of family.  The cops disappeared through the gate, the same one we had used to come in.  Kelly laughed, a high pitched hiccup, as the five o’clock bus to Tacoma was announced.  Seeing her happy made me feel better.  She looked up at the man, her mouth screwed up like she had big thoughts in her head.  “Hey, buttercup,” he said and winked, like they shared a secret.

“Never mind,” I said.  “We’ll stay here.” 

His hard face was bearing down on me, like we were alone in the station.  “Listen, hobo,” he said, nodding at the gate.  “They’re trouble for you too.  We can help each other.” 

I could tell the man had a plan for escaping whatever it was that was trying to catch up with him.  He’d made us part of it, so it was our plan too, and I didn’t know what else to do.  We’d leave the station with him then ditch him as soon as we could.  I looked around one last time as a door swung open and the driver began taking tickets.  He glanced our way and I shrank against the man’s chest.  “Chicken shit,” I cursed myself. 

“How’s that?” the man barked, rubbing Kelly’s hair.

“Nothing,” I muttered as we walked out of the bus station, the three of us in a tight knot. 

It was drizzling outside and the man hurried us along, his body pushing me against the wall of the station.  I was caught in his arm and had to run to keep up with him until we turned the corner and stopped.  I leaned against the wall, panting, the cold rain cutting my face.  Everyone said winter was nothing in Seattle, not like Cape Cod where the wind cut across the open marshes, bringing in the stinging salt from the sea.  But Seattle had the same wet bite, the same way of knifing through my clothes and cutting into my shivery skin.  Like acid on metal, syrup on pancakes, burning and soothing at the same time.  

The man put his bag down, a shiny blue roll, and began searching through his pockets, glancing now and then at the road. 

“I’m hungry,” Kelly said as he lit a cigarette. 

He did what I did, staring at her with his mouth half open, waiting for his head to explode.  Kelly’s smile wilted.  She hardly talked anymore, but she stopped me dead each time she did with comments that left me speechless, questions I couldn’t begin to answer.  It wasn’t any different with this guy.  He’d ripped the smile off her face as fast as I had.  He peered at her over the top of his cupped hands, the match flame turning his thick fingers orange around the edges.  Next to his, my fingers looked like twigs, so thin and bony he could crush them in his fist.  I hid them in my pockets. 

He took a drag on his cigarette and tucked his lighter back into his shirt pocket.  Then his cell phone rang, a song that ran upwards in sickening spirals.  Kelly gave a shiver.  I leaned against the wall, tapping my head against the brick, waiting for him to tell us he had nothing.  He yanked his phone out of his pocket and glanced at the number. 

“Rachael,” Kelly said in a sing-songy voice, hoping it was her big sister. 

“Shut up,” I whispered, pulling her near me.  I’d tried to drill it into her:  nothing about Rachael, home, the sea.  At some point my wish had come true, and the whole broken-up trip from Cape Cod I had lugged her from bus to bus like she was a sack of potatoes, heavy and mute.  But it was better that way.  It’s when the stops got long, a place became familiar that people got ideas, betrayed you

I peered at the man, thoughtfully eyeing his cell phone, and rested my hand on Kelly’s shoulder. 

“Quiet, Kelly,” she whispered.

The man slid the phone back in his pocket.  He zipped his jacket, the sound making my skin itch.  “I guess I owe you one,” he said, glancing back at the bus station.  He sighed and rubbed his eyes, staring out over the blank-eyed buildings.  He took Kelly’s hand.  “Come on,” he said.  “I know where to go,” and they took off down the street, his legs bent out as if he held a pipe between them. 

“Wait,” I called but I watched him run, and for a second it seemed okay, for me to stay and Kelly to go.  The man was on the move again, making decisions.  Rachael wasn’t here, but she liked everyone, believed they could change from bad to good.  Even this man would’ve given her hope.

But Rachael hadn’t felt the thing that was chasing him, maybe as bad as what chased me.  I watched them tumble away.  He was pulling Kelly like she was a toy dog, its wheels spinning too fast.  Kelly tripped but the man kept tugging at her arm as if he wanted to yank it out of its socket.  He didn’t know what he was doing.  He didn’t know you had to watch out for a little girl.  I ran after them and caught Kelly’s free hand and squeezed.  She squeezed back and started to giggle, like it was a game we had to learn how to play, but the rules kept changing and I was afraid we’d lose.

“You’re going to like this place,” the man said, winking at me over Kelly’s head.

“What place?” Kelly asked. 

“Sally’s,” he said. 

She rubbed her eye with the heel of her hand.  “Who’s Sally?”

“Right,” he said, scratching his nose.  He looked at me like he was waiting for me to answer.  “Salvation Army,” he continued when I didn’t offer anything up.  “The old ladies who ring the bells at Christmas, looking for a hand out?”  I shook my head.  He slapped his forehead.  “You said you were hungry, didn’t you?  You’ll get plenty to eat at Sally’s.”  He began to describe the food we would eat—Sloppy Joes, string beans, bread and butter.  It sounded good, but by the time he had gotten to dessert, my stomach was burning and I prayed he would stop.  We came to a bus stop, and the man got quiet and tapped his foot.  “They won’t ask questions there,” he said, looking at the two of us and then at a small group of people gathered nearby, cars shooting by on the busy street.  “Everyone’s the same at Sally’s.” 

Far down the curving road, I could see the Space Needle disappearing into the fog.  On a clear night, it would have been the perfect place for star gazing, something we had done all the time at home.  The sky above Cape Cod was packed at night and Dad would point out the constellations.  Kelly knew the stars better than the alphabet.  She saw animals and hunters where me and Rachael saw bubbles bursting in a pot of boiling water.  I needed her to show me how the scales hung in the balance, where the twins were joined.  Rachael’s favorite was the moon.  Mother thought that was funny though she wouldn’t explain why.  She could be a real know-it-all, something Dad didn’t like, and he would stand over her until their noses touched and she was as still as a lamppost and as quiet. 

The man wandered away as if he didn’t even know we were there.  Kelly trailed after him, following the leader.  I held onto her hand and she pulled until my arm began to hurt.  “Stop,” I hissed.  She’d follow him somewhere she shouldn’t.  We had to stick together. 

He ambled back, concentrating on the ground as if it hurt his eyes to see us.

“What will we eat?” Kelly asked, gabby again.  “Hamburgers and hot dogs?” she began.

He dropped his cigarette at my feet and crushed it with his toe.  “Look,” he sighed.  “You helped me out and I won’t forget it.”  He slipped his phone from his pocket and checked the screen.  “The cops have no imagination.  Someone tells them to look for a guy on his own and that’s it.  With you two I was practically invisible.  But they don’t give up that easy.  They’ll start asking questions and come looking,” he said.  “I can’t just wait here.”

“You’re going?” I asked, hearing my voice shake like a scared girl’s.  I didn’t want him around, I reminded myself.  I wanted to get away from him.  I fisted my hand in my pocket until I could feel my nails biting my palm.  Shut up, shut up, shut up, I prayed, hoping he would leave before I begged him to stay, before that scared knot inside me flew out of my throat.  He squatted down by Kelly.  “Listen, buttercup,” he said.  “It’s easy,” and he began giving her directions to the Salvation Army, telling her what bus to take, where to get off, all the time checking on me to make sure that I was listening.  I nodded, trying to hurry him, hoping he would go, but Kelly had a pile of questions:  “what does the bus look like?” “how will we know which one?”  He was like Dad, always so ready with the answers, it was hard to tell which ones were lies. 

He pulled his hat down, his eyebrows disappearing into the shadows.  “Ask the driver to tell you,” he said, standing up.  He poured a stream of change into my hand and tried to cuff my head.  I jerked away and hit my forehead against the wall of the building.  I wanted to sit down, collapse on the curb, cry like a baby.  My head was pounding, and I wasn’t sure if I could get us to Sally’s. 

“I’ll meet you there,” he said as he picked up his bag.  He was trying to be our friend, but he wasn’t very good at it.  I tried to face him, head on, but my eyes were burning.  “If I don’t make it to Sally’s, you can look for me at the Gasworks,” he said.  I could feel him staring down at me, a tick on a dog.  “I always end up there when I come to this shitty city.  My brother practically lives there.  We can show you the ropes.”

Brother, I thought and wiped my nose.  Two of them.  “We’ll be okay,” I said, looking up at him, my eyes clear again. 

“Suit yourself, kid,” he said, nudging me with his toe.  Then he headed down the street, pulling his coat closed around him.  “See you, buttercup,” he called over his shoulder. 

Kelly waved at his disappearing back.  “Buttercup,” she repeated quietly.

I dragged myself to my feet.  “Stop it,” I whispered, tugging her hand until all that was left of him was the blue of his bag and the pain where his hand had squeezed my shoulder. 

“My hand,” Kelly whined, quiet now, squeezing her legs together as if she had to go to the bathroom.  “Johnny, my hand.”

My fist sprung open.  “Sorry,” I whispered, staring at my hand, strong when I didn’t want it to be. 

She held her fingers and blew on them.  She was standing right beside me but I could tell she was far away, on another planet or one of her stars, with Rachael, without me.  It was better where she was, the light a warm yellow and trees that blossomed lollipops.  Rachael looked down on her from the moon, her face a dusty white beach ball, rolled to a stop. 

“I said I was sorry,” I repeated, and her hands fell to her sides.

 

We’d been bussing it for what seemed like weeks.  I’d cleaned out Mother’s emergency money, a thick role of bills stuffed at the bottom of a smelly hamper Dad wouldn’t go near.  It’d gotten us as far as Seattle before it ran out.  I wasn’t sure that was far enough, but I liked being near the ocean, the long cold stretch of water pulling on my insides until I was empty.  Besides, I was tired of moving, watching the towns fly by, a grainy silent movie.  I wanted to be still, feel the ground push back at me.  If the man was telling the truth, that night we’d be eating at a table, a roof above us, our feet on the ground.  When the bus came, we climbed on. 

Finding Sally’s was as easy as the man had said.  The driver told us where to get off, glancing at us in the rearview mirror and nodding at the door.  I lingered in the stairwell, waiting for him to speak, but he just stared and I jumped off.  I saw the windowless building below the road.  A long line of people wrapped around it and then pulled away, like a belt drawn from its loops.  I backed up into the darkness.  

Kelly’s stomach growled.  “I’ve got a little pig in me,” she sang softly. 

“Shit.”  It came out in a whisper even I could barely hear, but Kelly shook her head, like a school teacher at the far away front of the room.

“Swear, swear, swear,” she breathed.

“Let’s go,” I sighed, and we slid down the embankment and into the parking lot.  We took our place at the end of the line, standing behind two men talking to the family in front of them.  Everyone seemed to know each other, me and Kelly the only strangers, out in the open like two tin cans on a firing range.  I caught a few people looking at us and I saw what they saw—a couple of nobodies in their dark, dirty clothes.  We were like them, as close as you could come to being a shadow, and I knew they wouldn’t say anything. 

“What’s for dinner?” Kelly asked, awake again. 

A man with two kids skidded down the dirt then fell in line behind us.  He looked us over, looked away.

It was a game we had played at home.  “Do you like eggs?” I asked. 

“Do you like hamburgers?” Kelly countered.  She laughed, knowing her reply would be hard to beat.  What could be better than hamburgers?

I growled softly, changing the game, and rubbed my nose in her hair.  “Who’s for dinner?” I asked. 

She screamed “not me.”  I caught her around the waist as she tried to dart off.  “I’ll tell, Johnny,” she said, her stomach tightening with each breath.  “I’ll tell the Bear.”  And then she was very quiet, remembering that Dad wasn’t with us. 

One night last summer, hanging around in the backyard, we nicknamed Dad after his favorite constellation.  He would raise his hands and growl then nod at Mother, her face in the kitchen window.  “See,” he’d say as the steam from the dishwater rose around her face.  “Now, that’s a real bear.”  And when she was looking for something, lifting piles of papers from the table, moving aside laundry, not sure if it was clean or dirty, he called her Artemis, the eagle-eyed huntress.  But Mother said she had to be that way to live with a man who was always laying traps for her.  He was only nice around Rachael, wanting to be good for his darling daughter.  But everyone was on their best behavior around Rachael.  It was something about her, the way she liked you even when you had done something shitty.  But Dad couldn’t always help himself.  Sometimes he was a train and Rachael lay on the track, her skirts spread out like flower petals on the rails. 

Kelly was like a balloon, something he liked to toss around while she giggled, untethered, happy.  She pulled on her lip now, twisting it so I could see the raw side of her skin.  Her lashes trembled under the rain, her pale nose now a wintry pink.  All the air sucked out of her.  I felt sorry for her but knew I had done the right thing, getting her away from home.  Someday she’d understand our long, twisty ride to Seattle, switching buses every few hours, walking around with nowhere to go until everyone had changed—the ticket sellers, the bus drivers, the janitors—and we were just travelers again, not two kids with an exclamation point next to their heads, too young to be on their own.  Kelly was smiling, everybody happy, welcoming us back on board.

It was dark now and I wondered what time it was.  The cold that had started in my hands was spreading up my arms and into my body.  I thought about leaving, just to be moving, but then the door opened and the people at the head of the line began to go inside, their heads bowed as if they were sleeping.  I fell forward, Kelly close behind me, as casual as any of them.  No one would be able to tell we were new. 

We followed the line into the gym, where long tables had been set up beneath the basketball hoops.  The man from the bus station was nowhere to be seen.  Me and Kelly sat beside each other at the end of a table, my arm glued to hers.  People ate without talking, everyone except Kelly.  Surrounded by other people, she had come back to life. 

“Is this a school?” she asked.  “Why are we eating in the gym?  No one’s talking.  Why is everyone so quiet?”  I mumbled back made-up answers, glancing now and then around the room. 

A little girl carrying her tray slipped on the slick wood floor and her hamburger rolled along the foul line.  She laughed and her father, his hair running down his back in two thick braids, picked it up and put it back on her plate.  I kept waiting for him to yell but he never made a peep.  The thin arm of the woman across from us slithered back and forth to the sugar.  Kelly rested her chin on the table, staring across at the grainy stream pouring into the woman’s cup.  “Hurry up,” I whispered.  I was already through with my burger and was gulping down my fruit salad.  Kelly’s roll was too big for her hands and it flopped around like a droopy hat.  She bit into it, the ketchup squirting out the back.  I laughed, a loud bark that came up from my gut, like an animal was running through me.  I felt their eyes on me, a tableful of faces, watchful, waiting, but I couldn’t stop.

“You think I’m funny?” the sugar woman said.

“No,” I said.  “She is,” and I pointed at Kelly. 

The woman softened, sipping her coffee.  “Never mind,” she said.  “Help your sister.”  Before I could do anything, she was in Kelly’s plate, cutting up her bun like Rachael used to do.  The woman’s hands were shaking.  She kept at it until there was a neat mound then sat back and cradled her arms in her lap.  “Where are you staying,” she asked. 

I tightened my fist around my fork.  “Staying?” I repeated.

            She pushed her grey hair back with her wrist, and when she pursed her lips, there were lines, lots of them, around her mouth.  She was old and she wasn’t, her skin pale and papery, her cheeks pimpled and raw.   

“We’re meeting someone,” I said.  “He’s got a place.” 

Her hands stopped shaking and her eyes rested on me.  She listened to me lie with every hair on her arm, every particle of her skin and I felt sick again, my legs liquid and weak.  Then she blinked and like a carnival ride starting up, she jerked into motion again.  “If it doesn’t work out,” she said, her hands trembling as she cut into Kelly’s green beans, “you can try the Gasworks.  No one will bother you there.” 

“The Gasworks,” I repeated and heard the piercing song of the man’s cell phone.  I wanted to cover my ears, but I didn’t.  I was as calm as a cat. 

She put down Kelly’s fork and knife and leaned her chin in her hand.  Then she smiled, her grin full of gaps.

 

By the time we left, the rain had stopped, but I could feel the cold running deep inside me, as if icy branches had been sewn into my body.  It was no good being made of flesh, so I imagined I was made of plastic, something hard and stiff.  I balled myself up inside my clothes and held Kelly’s hand so tight she squealed.  That’s when I told her how to stay warm, to be hard and hunched like me.  But she laughed and said what Mother always said, that I was a big softy.  She bumped against me and I bumped back.  I could tell she loved me and always would though I wasn’t sure why.  Even my baby sister knew I was our father’s chicken shit son, shrinking away from fast balls, relieved not to be picked for the team.  While she was a star, I was a slug sliming over the dirt, bendable, squashable, useless. 

 

On the bus the woman had told us to take, I began to thaw out.  Kelly was kicking her legs, watching her shoes swing.  “Rachael?” she said and then remembered.  “Johnny,” she continued.  “Where’s Rachael?”

I held the rail of the seat in front of me.  It was cold and solid and I squeezed until I thought it would melt, but I was weak and it didn’t budge.  Outside, a red light was flashing, loud and soft, like my heart beating.  I heard the driver call out our stop.  “Forget her,” I snapped. 

The woman in front of us turned around.  “Be nice to your sister,” she said. 

“Yes, Miss,” I said. 

I tumbled off the bus, Kelly in tow, replaying the sugar woman’s instructions in my head.  The buildings fell away as we followed the winding street along the water.  A car ran by, sand churning in the tire treads.  Waves lapped at the pilings.  No one else was around.  We were the last people on earth, waiting for the planets to collide, a bridge to drop out of the sky leading us to the next rest stop. 

At a fork in the road, we turned to the right, passing through a gate.  A hill rose above us, covered in wet grass glowing like silk under a stray spot light.  We followed the path around the hill where it opened onto an empty park unfurling down to the bay.  We both stopped, struck by the huge, hulking shapes huddled at the edge of the water—storage towers, orange with rust, steam pipes winding around like corkscrews before they took off into a maze of machinery.  The Gasworks.  I heard a scuffling sound and then a man emerged from between the towers, walking his dog.  They wandered over the grass then disappeared into the machinery.  It was old but looked like it could rumble to life at any minute.  I wanted to explore, get lost inside the metal turrets, but Kelly, whimpering, hid behind me.  I tried to cheer her up.  “It’s like Chutes & Ladders,” I said, hoping that instead of the rusting metal tubes, she would see the pink and yellow slides of her board game.  She began to skip, her jacket a yellow ball bouncing over the words of a song, so ready to believe me.  Only a week ago, I had lured her on the Greyhound bus in the same way with a game of hide and seek.  It was morning by the time we got to the station, a cold day, the sky a hard blue, no snow in sight, but the buses idled, foggy and warm, leaving in minutes, three-two-one.  We boarded, just the two of us, with the money I had stolen from Mother.  We were going to find Rachael I told her.  The truth was we couldn’t follow her.  The last time I had seen her she was sitting on the floor outside the living room, her face waxy and white.  Later, in the middle of the night, I had looked for her again, peering from the door of my bedroom.  Kelly was asleep in my chair, her breathing solid and rhythmic.  The hall was empty, the faint odor of bleach.  The door to our parents’ room was open but I could tell they were gone.  The house was too quiet, as if all the sound had been sucked out of it.  Then the phone screamed.  It was an old fashioned one, perched on the sparkling white wall, a long cord twisting beside it.  Sweat ran down my back.  I stared at the gleaming white plastic until it was quiet again.  I backed into my room, shook Kelly until her eyes opened and threw her jacket over her.  It didn’t matter where we were going as long as we got away.  Dad and Mother would be home soon, yelling and crying, their voices echoing altogether inside me until I was as quiet as a blinking star in a soft black sky. 

“Kelly,” I said, watching the thin wires swinging between the rusted towers.

“What, John?” she asked, turning a circle around me.

“Rachael’s gone,” I said. 

“On vacation?” she said, her circles slowing, becoming smaller and looser until they trickled away and she swayed from side to side.  The mist had settled in her hair.  Somewhere a dog howled at the moon. 

“We’re never going to find her,” I said, nodding to myself.

“Where did she go?”

I pointed at the sky, just a few stars sparkling through the mist.  “She’s up there,” I said. 

Kelly wiped her forehead on my jacket, then looked up.  “Which one?” she asked.

“Orion,” I told her. 

She frowned at the sky.

“She can see you.”

“Rach?” Kelly croaked.  Her head dropped back as she scanned the constellations.  “Hi,” she called into the dark, her voice echoing off the flaking tanks. 

A shooting star pierced the clouds, a silvery thread over the water.  Kelly clapped her hands.  She looked at me, her face electric.  I clapped as hard as she did.  Who else could it be?

 

I was tired now and tripped down the slope to the bathrooms.  I pushed open the metal door and our footsteps echoed as we stepped inside.  The water from the tap was icy but at least we could wash our faces in the morning.  Rachael would have liked that.  I slid down the wall and onto the cement floor.  It was cold beyond hurting, freezing my legs in a snap.  I was happy numb when Kelly crawled into my lap, and I hugged her shoulders, all of her warmth, thinking about tomorrow, moving again.  We needed a plan but what came to me instead were Kelly’s bedtime stories, fairy tales I read to her until she fell asleep, the dish and the spoon on their nighttime cruise, Kelly cupped in my lap.  I slept and I didn’t, opening my eyes when it was still dark, thinking I was dreaming, dreaming I was awake, staring at the concrete wall, seeing waxy Rachael.  I had tried to save her that last night at home, swinging at Dad, but he had caught my fist and squeezed until I was curled up on the floor like a baby, tears streaming down my face.  He had grinned, his teeth as square and even as if they had come out of a box.  It was always the same.  I never got stronger than him though I knew it had to happen one day.  It always did in books. 

I dozed again and when I opened my eyes, it was morning.  I tried to sit up but Kelly was like a warm rock on my chest.  I hated to but I slipped out from under her, laying her gently on my jacket.  She seemed peaceful, smiling slightly, as if she was dreaming about sailing on a pink ocean, drifting past stars and rainbows.  I kissed her cheek and she let out a sleepy groan.  I stumbled to the door, my legs as stiff as a jointed puppet’s.  I was hoping to find sunshine outside, but it was dark out, like dusk.  From what I had seen, this was normal for Seattle, the sun fighting to rise through the clouds then zippered out of the sky before the afternoon was over.  A few people wandered through the gloom, walking their dogs in the wet grass, letting them run up the sloping hill and around a man who sat on top.  He seemed to belong there, like the wise man of a mountain.  I cupped my hands around my eyes, shifting here and there to get a better look, but in the drizzle, he was a faceless lump.  He leaned back, his nose pointing at the sky, slumped in a stumpy lawn chair.  What did he see?  To me, the sky was a burnt out field.  Kelly would stick out like the only flower that had made it through the flames.  I glanced at the bathrooms then back at him.  He was looking our way, alert, as if he had been waiting for us.  I wondered if he knew the man from the bus station.  I pulled my hat down so it sat on my eyebrows and attacked the hill.  Patches of blue appeared through the cracks in the clouds, but mostly the sky was a thick, grey weight.  I lifted my head in time to see a model plane gliding through the mist and turned to watch it sail toward the metal towers.  I closed my eyes and I was in the Gasworks, wandering through the dark maze.  It was a city inside a city but without the herds of people, a place we could settle into, build a home without a mailbox, a hideout no one could see. 

I continued up the hill, scuffing past the man, a long thin pony tale running down his rounded back.  A dog jogged by, on its way somewhere.  I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what.  I followed the dog onto a smooth circle of tile set into the ground.  I bent over, brushing my hand over the surface.  It was white except for the purple nose of a sundial.  I followed the figures paced evenly around the edge, people and animals I recognized from the constellations—the water bearer, the crab, the hunter—and sat down on top of the sun. 

I was startled by a sound, like the tearing of fabric, and looked behind me.  The man had twisted around in his chair to watch me.  His eyes were a funny color—grey but green, his pupils more long than round, as if he was some kind of lizard. 

“Hey, kid,” he said from his perch. 

“Hey,” I answered.  I wanted to ask him about the man in the station but when he looked at me I couldn’t.  It wasn’t anything he did.  It was the way he looked back at me, like there was nothing and no one else around.

“My plane’s gone down.”

I nodded, plucking at the wet grass.

“I need help,” he said, twisting at the middle so he could get a better look at me.  “It’s just for an hour or so.  I fly the craft, you run down the hill and fetch it.”  He kicked a leg or it kicked itself, half asleep.  “I’ll pay you,” he said, and he rattled the coins in his pocket. 

I scrambled to my feet.  “All right,” I said.   

“Well, go then,” he said, flicking his hand like a handkerchief in the direction the plane had taken. 

I ran down the hill.  Money meant food and food was something to tell Kelly about.  I jogged past the fenced-off towers to the edge of the inlet.  Across the water, the land rose steeply, houses built into the hillside, dull windows watching us.  Beyond, in the faint distance, I could just make out the hazy skyscrapers.  The plane had fallen near the water, looking as unwanted as an empty cigarette box.  Only in the air, drifting, did it seem like more, something I could pilot away, Kelly my only passenger, playing stewardess with her dolls.

I picked it up, a model Cessna, twelve tiny seats.  Perched in my hand, it was a small but perfect copy, right down to the tiny instrument panel painted in the cockpit.  The wood was light and gave when I squeezed.  I could crush it like a Styrofoam cup even with my bony fingers.  I began the climb back up the steep hill.  The man was sitting forward in his chair, his eyes on me or his plane or both, and I cupped it gently.  He leaned his head in his hand.  The damp seeped into my sneakers.  I brought the plane down in a nose dive, making engine noises but then stopped myself when I remembered the man.  He was watching, his head bobbing, following the plane.  I came up to him and held it out.  “Thanks, kid,” he said, taking it.  He made a few adjustments with tools he fished out of his bag, a blue worm in the bright green grass, like the one the man in the bus station had carried.  The two men didn’t look anything like each other.  This one was rounder, even his head, the halo of hair around his bald spot. 

“You make those?” I asked, kicking my foot at the plane.

“I sure do,” he said.  “I sell them mail order and buddy, I am rich.”  He carefully filed one of the wings, squinting his sharp eye at it.  “This is where I come to test them out,” he continued.  “I can see them best from here, soaring over the old Gasworks.  I can imagine them anywhere when I’m here.”

“What is this place?”

He spread his arms like a king.  “Gas for cooking.  Gas for heat.  It was all pumped from here once.  Now it’s just a playground.”

Something about the way he opened his arms made me think he owned it all.  “It’s yours?” I asked.

He laughed.  “I’m not that rich,” he said.  “Not as rich as you.”  He leaned toward me from his plastic chair, staring at me with his dirty grey eyes.  The wind took his hair and lifted it up, like he had received a shock of electricity.  I began to laugh but something about the way he looked at me made my smile melt away.  And when it was gone, he winked as if it was what he had been waiting for.

“Down there,” he said.  He nodded in the direction of the swing set where I could see Kelly flying back and forth.  She waved, her pony tail rising and falling, suspended for a second when she switched directions.  She had come out on her own, a point of light in the gloom.  “See?” he said. 

I stared at the top of his head, the bands of skin between the hair, his skull so soft and spotted.  “She’s my sister,” I said, an eye on her, another on him, my hands sweating.  “Her name’s Kelly.”

“Oh,” he said, his eyes fuzzy and soft.  “She’s lovely, bud.” 

My head was noisy and I couldn’t think.  “Be right back,” I said and stumbled down to the swing set.  Kelly kicked her legs, lost in motion, a dreamy smile on her face.  A pipe rose behind her, stiff like a cactus but dark with rust.  Smaller pipes bent like elbows and then ran off into the quiet machinery. 

She jumped off the swing as I walked up to her and started walking in circles around me.  The man was watching us, and I angled around her to block his view.  He could smile sweetly, and she’d be running up the hill to him.  She didn’t understand what I was doing, but she didn’t get mad.  I wanted to hug her. 

“Hi, Johnny,” she said, coming to a halt as I grabbed the chain of a swing and rattled it.  She looked at the sand and dug her toes into the clumpy grains. 

“You okay?”  I asked.

The man in the chair called down.  The plane had landed somewhere in the Gasworks.

“What’s that man want?” she asked.

“I’m helping him,” I said.  “He’s going to pay me.  Are you hungry?” I asked.

“Yes,” she mouthed, and I knew she was starved. 

“Hurry up,” the man called.

“Be right back,” I said and went to find the plane.  It was just inside the Gasworks, tilted on a wing.  It looked at ease, like a boat on the water, but I had the feeling its passengers were trying to tell me something.  I picked it up, pinching the soft wood.  They were just toothpicks, tufts of cotton on their tips.  I heard my name, Rachael’s voice, but it was only the swing starting up again.

“How’s your little lady doing,” the man asked when I returned. 

“Hungry,” I said, handing him the plane.  “We haven’t eaten today.”

“Well, you’ve got a job,” he said, turning the delicate model with his thick hands.  “You’re a working man, and you’ll be taking home a good working wage.”  He smiled at me then looked at the sky.  Hawks turned in lazy circles above the water and I watched the birds drift like pieces of paper.  The dark seemed to have crept closer to us, and the lights dotted the hill across the inlet.  “Not much longer,” he said.  “We could still get in a few good runs before lunch and then it’s quitting time.” 

            I wondered how often he came here, sitting beneath the clouds.  They hung low to the ground, forcing the air out until I was suffocating.  I wanted to run to the Gasworks, refuel at the storage tanks until I was stronger than the lizard on the hill. 

“You go quiet,” the man said, and I realized he had been watching me.  “Must got a lot on your mind.”

            I turned away and looked out over the water, the houseboats tottering in the bay, quiet and still. 

“Let me tell you about trouble,” he began.  His cell phone rang, cutting him off.  He held up a finger as he flipped it open and grunted in response to some unheard voice.  “See you soon,” he finished and snapped it shut.  “Where was I?” he asked.  His eyes lit up when he remembered.  “Oh, yeah,” he said.  “You want real trouble, get yourself a woman.” 

He inspected the plane the way Dad did his hands, looking for their secret, the place where every hit lay hidden.  Sometimes Mother would hold his hands while they watched TV, squeeze them when the show was funny, then throw them away when he whispered something.  The man snorted, a pig that had swallowed the lizard that was gazing out through his eyes.  “No matter what they ask for, now matter how much they cry, don’t give in.  You’re the one that’s got to be strong.” 

I could have laughed but I didn’t.  When Dad started in on Mother, I covered my ears and ran, his gargley laughter chasing after me.  I wanted to be strong but it came at the wrong times, when I needed it least.

He set the plane off again, and it glided high overhead, circling slowly like a hawk, as patient as the ones I had seen by the water.  I raised my hands.  They were shaking, the way the telephone at home seemed to tremble when it rang. 

“Don’t worry,” he continued.  “No tragic ends for you two.  I can tell.  You’re a working stiff now.  Your problems are over.”  He winked at me with his slit eye and sent the plane down again.  I watched it float away above the bathrooms, a brick box.  I jogged down the slope to find it, tripped on a branch and fell.  I sat on the ground, my face in my hands, ashamed to face Kelly who was waiting for something good to happen.  I missed the Cape, flat sand and grass that went on forever.  Only the sea was uneven but not so much that I couldn’t see the boats on the horizon, the abandoned buckets on the shore.  We would sit on the beach all summer, three crabs digging in the dirt, looking for shelter from the sun.  Dad would come find us, cover us with his shadow before jogging off in search of Mother.  “Wait,” Rachael would call, grabbing his arm, but he would free himself and lope off. 

“Forget it,” I would tell her, but she couldn’t, always getting between them, even that last night, dashing to the phone to stop him.  “Rach,” I had called.  I hadn’t even noticed the stillness in the room, the quiet of Mother shrinking into herself.  Dad had hustled by me, wrenched the phone away, the twisty cord a pig tail behind him.  He had grabbed Rachael’s neck.  “Honey,” he had whispered, still in love with her even as his grip had tightened.  I had felt his cold hand squeezing, her throat constrict, like it was my hand that held her, keeping her quiet.  I didn’t move, not even to save my rose petal sister.  Impatient, he had slammed her against the wall and into the metal hook where the phone had hung.  His hand sprung open, like it was burning, and he released her.  She slid down the wall, leaving behind a wave of something wet, a guilty arrow pointing from the phone to her head. 

Kelly’s hand had been in mine the whole time, and I let it go, her fingers pinched.  “Go to your room,” Dad had told us.  “Get out of here,” and I’d thrown my punch.  After he’d crushed me, we shut ourselves in my room, Kelly as quiet as a blinking star, her face alive, dead, alive.  It was like everything was draining out of her, the pink of her skin, the gleam in her eyes, all of her words. 

I’d wiped my eyes with my hand then looked at it, not sure if it was mine.  I could hear Mother and Dad talking, plotting, arguing, sobbing.  My fingers, pink and slightly sweaty, tingled.  “Sleep,” I’d said, pointing at the chair then buried my hand in my armpit.  I wanted to cut it off, hurl it into the sky, watching it burn as it tried to escape the atmosphere. 

 

            “John,” I heard Kelly calling now.  “Johnny,” and I looked around for her.  She was running along the gravel path, both arms out to her side, humming like the engine of an airplane. 

            “What?”  I yelled.

She retracted her wings and stopped as if she’d hit a wall.

            “Look at the stars,” she said, flapping her arms at the lights in the hill across the inlet. 

            On the busses that took us to Seattle, Kelly had started saying the lights were stars:  Christmas lights were constellations, traffic lights, Orion’s Belt.  She knew better, and what were they to us anyway, the same blinking bulbs in every town.  I was lost without the water, so we headed for the ocean and then we found the Gasworks, a patient wall against the sea.  Here, I thought, at the edge of the world, no one would find Kelly or stick their neck out for me to squeeze.  I ran to her, trapped her arms and pulled her inside, the jagged towers looming over us. 

“Who is that man?” she asked, scowling at me. 

I glanced back his way, an old black crow waiting to swoop down on us.  “I told you,” I said, my voice drifting into the shadows. 

She was quiet and I could feel her arms go limp, not a bird anymore, just my sister.  I took her hand as we wandered through the forest of containers.  I could see how it all might come to life, the rumbling of the machinery as the gas made its way through the pipes.  I leaned against a thick metal wall, a barrier between us and the lizard on the hill. 

“Pretty,” Kelly said when we found the plane, but she wouldn’t touch it.  “Like the sea planes,” she said.  “Remember?” I nodded my head, and even though the day was dark and cold, I heard them again, their engines overhead, chasing each other over the dunes in Wellfleet, the sand burned smooth, like a blanket of snow. 

“Listen,” I said.  “I’m bringing him his plane and getting paid.  Then we can get out of here.”

She clapped her hands.  “Good, Johnny,” she said.

“You stay here until I get back.”

“Why?”

“Just because,” I said.  “Say okay.”

“Okay,” she repeated carefully, like it was a game of Simon Says, but she was somewhere else again.  At first I thought she was on one of her stars but her head was tilted, her eyes thoughtful.  She was listening.  Then I heard it to, music floating into the Gasworks, a song I knew but couldn’t remember. 

I came out into the gloom, the plane tucked under my arm.  “Hello there,” a voice called.  The man from the bus station straddled the edge of the grass, his cell phone stuck to his ear.  He waved to the man on top of the hill who returned his greeting.  Brothers after all.  The man on the hill flung his arm out, pointing a puffy finger.  The other turned, looking through me at Kelly who had followed me out of the Gasworks.  Maybe they’d planned it that way and maybe they hadn’t, but they’d brought us together, and I knew they would take away the only good thing I had left. 

The man set his bag down.  “Hello, buttercup,” he said and an old smile returned to her face, the one she’d wear when the sea planes flew by, dipping their wings at us.  She walked toward him.  “I remember you,” she said. 

“Of course you do, sweetheart.”

“Go back,” I cried then lunged at him, grabbing his phone and beating his arm with it until he took me by the wrist and squeezed so hard I cried, tears that stung like acid on my skin.  I crumpled to the ground. 

“That was mean, Johnny,” Kelly said.  She stood next to the man, hoping he would pick her up again, lift her above the earth as he had at the station, like any good man would even if he was bad. 

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“You can call me Daddy,” he said. 

“Daddy,” she repeated.  She gave him her hand and he took it. 

I lay on the cold earth and watched a plane drift by.  Kelly knelt beside me and shook my arm.  She asked if I saw Rachael in the clouds but I was thinking about the sea planes drifting in synch over the water, disappearing into the soft distance. 

The man was frowning.  His hand had drifted to the back of Kelly’s head.  “What’s the matter with him,” he said. 

“You hurt him,” Kelly said, but she wasn’t scared.  She was happy, safe beside him, a strong man, a man of action.  He would love her to the very end, as hard as Dad had loved Rachael. 

I covered my eyes with my hands, and in the darkness it was Mother and Dad I saw, sitting on the beach in Wellfleet, holding hands, two love birds pecking at each other.  Mother turned away and Dad took her ponytail, tugging on her head, a dog on a leash.  Then they were lying down, as close as Gemini, their limbs twisting together.  Rachael held our hands, mine and Kelly’s, and we chased the shadow of a plane along the water’s edge.  The sky was shiny white, red-rimmed clouds sitting on the horizon.  I ran by and kicked sand on Mother and Dad but they ignored me.  Rachael slowed, clutching her side.  “Go on,” she said.  I reached for her hand and she pulled back, her face hardening like clay at the sight of me.  I did the only thing I could and took Kelly’s hand and ran.  We escaped down the beach until they were so far away they looked like a washed up pile of seaweed, and we had the world to ourselves.

 

 

Jacqueline Keren received her MFA from the Columbia University Writing Program.  Her stories have appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Confrontation, and Orchid, among others.  She was awarded Redivider’s Editor’s Choice Award in 2002.