Dead Beach

Jessy pulled herself up over the fence and cursed her sister. Veena was gone again, run off ahead into the sun and across the cracked land that led to the creek bed they called Dead Beach. Maybe she was gone for good. Maybe she would turn up the next week, body bloated beside a hole, ankle broken, snake bite on her purpled arm. Jessy’s heart beat faster. She licked dirt from between her lips. But the little girl was there in the distance, alive after all: dark against the horizon, matted braid brushing the top of her jeans, bent over a pure point of light.

It was a dog collar. Veena closed it around her neck and barked. The tag was heavy and silver and shaped like a bone. It read: suzanne, 42 noon road. The bitch must have been big, Jessy reasoned, judging from the way the metal hung low in the hollow of her little sister’s chest. They plodded on toward the creek.

If Mama would let them get a dog, maybe it would kill Veena. Veena was always pushing animals, baiting them, twisting their fur, and when they lunged she laughed. Jessy imagined a sand-colored Pit, wary of everyone but her, tearing out her sister’s throat. But then they’d have to shoot the dog.

She climbed up on a barrel and sat on her backpack to guard against the heat. Before the river got dammed up, the creek had been high, with a hiking trail near the bank. Now freaks and junkies shed their debris on Dead Beach. Once she found an Adidas bag full of carefully labeled Maxell cassettes. A German tourist had recorded her diet, each bite, from JFK to Bakersfield. Veena’s prized stuffie, Rabbit, was pulled from a grimy gallon milk jug. Medium-level finds included colored shoelaces, a hoop earring, an adult-content Polaroid. At the very least they collected cans for the deposit, and Jessy got a half-hour to think. She opened her binder and stared at the Social Studies assignment. The Taj Mahal was a tomb.

She could see Veena’s guts spilling out onto the dirt and cans, her ribs breaking and turning to dust, her hair stuffed into her mouth, choking her screams, her eyes bursting and bleeding black yolk down her cheeks. And she could see Veena hopping along Dead Beach, inspecting shards of green glass, depositing the choicest bits into a flowered pillowcase. Two Veenas at one time. Jessy couldn’t tell Mama about the first, though Veena was the reason Gran left, and the reason they had moved out of the good apartment to the two rooms on Clifton, the reason for so much of their trouble. Veena, Mama said, was a gift.

As she approached, Veena was walking different, more slouchy, and there was something in her mouth. It was a stick, poking out six inches on either side of her smile. She dropped the stick on Jessy’s binder, and panted.

The dog game started like that. Veena dropped the stick on the binder, Jessy knocked it off, and Veena brought it back. Fed up, Jessy hurled it as far as she could, and Veena chased after it. When Veena caught the stick in the air, Jessy found a jelly bean in her backpack and tossed it in the dirt, and Veena ate it. Finally tired in the sun, her sister curled up at the base of the barrel and sorted through her green glass while Jessy wrote a paragraph about Shah Jahan.

At three-thirty her Timex beeped.

Jessy clambered down and nudged Veena with her toe, noting with pleasure the burned stripes on her sister’s forehead and nose. The little girl looked dead, belly up like a dried-out turtle. Sunstroke could cause death. But then Veena swatted at her leg, opened an eye, and closed it again. Jessy gave her another kick. “We’re gonna be late. Veena!”

“That’s not my name,” Veena whispered, covering her eyes with her braid.

“Go rot.” Jessy packed up her school stuff and the brittle-paged Mushrooming Without Fear she’d found in one of the few trash cans on Dead Beach. “You know there’s rattlers here.” She made for the fence.

Mama had said sixth grade would mean respect. But sixth grade meant nothing. Or at least nothing to Veena. Her sister was still on the ground. “Veena!” Jessy screamed. “Please!”

Veena barked and shook her head. The dog collar tinkled.

Jessy scowled and cussed like Gran. “I swear to God’s own baby.”

There was a length of twine in the creek bed. Jessy threaded the rope underneath the flaking leather collar and tied it tight. She tugged it, jerking Veena’s neck, and it held. It felt good to pull on her sister like that. She jerked it again and read the collar. “That what you want, Suzanne?” The little girl yipped and scrambled to her feet.

“Heel,” Jessy called. Veena fell back with a growl. They went the long way to the gap in the fence, and wriggled through. There was a little ways to the road still, through heavy woods, calm and cool after the dust of Dead Beach. A line of quail scurried across the path ahead, and Veena scattered them with a howl. Jessy quieted her with a yank on the twine, and they waited, frozen, until the birds regrouped. The girls followed them to a resting place at the base of a big rock. “Sic!” yelled Jessy, and Veena pounced. The birds fluttered and flapped, and the girls laughed together.

Just before the road Veena unbuttoned her pants. “Like a dog,” Jessy ordered, and Veena obeyed, lifting a leg. Half the pee ended up on her jeans.

At first Jessy was nervous, leading her slouched-over little sister by a rope. A man in a track suit grinned through his candy bar and gave them a thumbs-up. An SUV with tinted windows slowed and rolled along with them for a block. Farrah Dutro, sixth grade secretary, stepped out of the laundromat and licked her lips, eyes scanning frantic for someone to corroborate the scene. A dog in a truck bed tensed, looking back and forth between the girls.

Veena was lost in the dog game, sniffing the air, ears pricked at the beating of pigeon wings. She took no note of the attention, though it followed no matter how or where she went.

Jessy was part of the spectacle by choice, for once. Usually the stares came from Veena being too loud, knocking down a display or potted plant, falling and cutting her forehead, saying, “How fat is that cashier!” Or just from Veena existing, looking as she did. Her neck was striped with dirt where she wouldn’t let Mama wash. Debris speckled her yellow braid, which ended in a wet point where she sucked it. And she was too skinny and small for eight-years old, skinny and small like a stray come in from the outside, which was true. Gran had known right away she wasn’t Daddy’s.

Jessy sometimes imagined a dark center within herself, a void that could draw everything inward and gone. She knew she could not fade away, could not become a black hole in the Safeway as Veena howled. But when she imagined herself as the drain at the middle of the world, sucking it down and leaving it blank, her brain felt soft and fuzzy and hushed. She tried not to use the image too much because each time its power was less. She saved it for the worst moments and also for the best, when she felt alone and warm in her bed in the darkness, pillows around her and blankets tented above, the only proof of her sister the wet gasps of sleep.

Now Jessy had Veena by the neck, and everyone could see.

On the corner in front of the Spanish grocery, the Newspaper Man pontificated: “People say you watch your money. Your money’s watching you!” His coat consisted of headlines and tape, full-length like a king’s robe, reinforced weekly. His cart was full of boxes and food cans, paperbacks, and a full-size mop. As the girls pushed into the grocery, he clucked, “Ah, ah, ah!” and pointed to a sign on the door. No Dogs.

Veena laughed, then corrected herself with a bark. She sat down cross-legged by the bike rack.

Jessy looked into the eyes of the Newspaper Man. “Well, ain’t she a dog?” he asked. She had to agree and tied the twine to the rack.

She bought two fruit punches and a pack of peanut butter cookies, and saved a quarter for the Newspaper Man. When she came out he was squirting water from a sport-top bottle, Veena lapping it up in the air. There was an open can of Alpo on the ground and brown on Veena’s chin. The Newspaper Man murmured, “There, pet. There, pet.”

“No!” Jessy shrieked, and grabbed Veena by the collar, wrenching her to her feet. “Bad dog! Bad Suzanne!” She hit Veena with an open hand on the side of the head. The Newspaper Man backed up against the wall.

“Don’t you feed my dog!” Jessy pointed at him. “Did I tell you to feed my dog?”

He shook his head. “No, little miss.”

Veena wiped her face and licked Jessy’s arm. The Newspaper Man bowed in submission, and stayed down until the girls rounded the end of the block.

“Don’t you feed my dog,” Jessy said again, low. They were on Clifton, a half-block from their unit, and her hand still throbbed from the smack. She wondered if anyone else had seen.

She let the twine out, and Veena ran to a patch of grass and flopped on her back, rolling and scratching among the little white flower weeds that popped at summer’s end. When they got inside, Mama would kiss them both. “My big and my little,” she’d say, and then turn to Veena and inspect her for bites and scratches, and Jessy would bandage her own scraped knee in the bathroom.

But Mama wasn’t home. Dark windows meant a second shift at the hospital. A second shift at the hospital meant Veena burning hamburger in the toaster oven, cartoons with no headphones. Jessy twisted the twine around her thumb. Veena met her gaze, eyes black and round and wet, and Jessy saw them burst. The address on the collar: 42 Noon. That really wasn’t far. They left their backpacks and the pillowcase of glass on the porch.

To get there they had to cross California Street. It was two-way traffic, no stoplight. Jessy choked up on the leash, giving Veena eight inches so she couldn’t dart out. A Bounty paper towel truck honked its horn. “You’re gonna get fucking killed!” screamed a pizza delivery driver as they hovered on the median. A police car slowed and waved them across. The cops, women both, looked at each other as the girls crossed the street, and drove on.

 

42 Noon was a low brick house with a dirt yard and boards on the windows, the street number spray-painted on the cement stairs. On a barbecue grill out front there was an open can of beans. A plastic horse on springs stood still under a dead tree, a tire swing beside it on the ground, rope in a dirty coil. In the back corner of the lot sat a hot-pink dog house with a carved wooden sign: suzanne.

Jessy felt cold. She wasn’t sure what she had expected. Not a real house. Not a real dog.

Veena squatted by the crooked fence and nosed a red rubber ball, partially deflated. Jessy pulled at the leash. “Let’s go, Vee. Game’s up now.” The little girl stood, ball in her mouth, and before Jessy knew what was happening she felt a stripe burn across her palm, a faint breath of air in the pucker of her fist. Veena had dragged the twine from her grip and was unlatching the fence.“Damn it, Veena. Mama’s gonna wreck you!” They both knew it wasn’t true.

She followed her sister into the yard. There weren’t any cars, no bikes or mail on the stoop. Maybe the owners were dead, gone the way of Suzanne. Jessy didn’t want to go closer. Veena bounded up the steps, twine trailing.

From behind the house came a thump. Jessy froze. She heard a squishy sucking sound followed by a pop! She walked backward until she saw a spindly man in a camouflage jumpsuit shooting suction arrows from a crossbow at a plastic trash can. He wore his cap pulled low over his brow, camouflage too, and his beard, flecked with gray, twisted into two long spirals. Orange earplugs stuck out of his ears. He pulled an arrow from his quiver made from a fertilizer bag.

Jessy watched him cock and load the crossbow. He looked up to the road, right through her, and back to the garbage can target. Thump.

“Veena,” Jessy called, so quiet she herself couldn’t hear. She snapped her fingers, slapped the side of her leg. The leash was too far away, dangling down the steps. Veena knelt on the front porch. At the base of the door, a blue vinyl flap hung in front of a sawed-out hole. “No!” Jessy whispered. Veena stuck in her head.

For a moment she knelt there, decapitated. Then the little girl’s body stiffened, and Jessy knew the game was over for good.

The front door opened. Veena drew back. The red ball bounced down the front porch steps. A hand emerged and grabbed the collar, and then, Veena was inside.

 

When Veena was born, Gran dressed in black and drove Jessy to the hospital. It had been six months since Daddy was run over by an off-duty cab, walking home alone from the bar with no flashlight, but Gran still rinsed out her dark underthings in the bathroom at night. They got pulled over for doing forty by the school, and Gran smiled big and didn’t lie: They were going to the hospital to meet her new granddaughter. But her expression was false, and they got the ticket. That was Jessy’s first hint that Veena was all wrong.

The second was when Jessy poked her hand through a rubber tunnel toward the baby, encased in a plastic box. There were tubes sticking out of her, a little mask on her face. She was hairy and small. Her fingers were bony, not round. Jessy touched her arm. “Here,” the nurse said, and reached for Gran’s camera to take a picture of the three. But Gran declined.

Mama gave the baby her own last name. Gran stayed until Veena spoke. “Mine” was her first word. When she could get down the front steps herself, Veena went straight to the landlady’s flower box and pulled the heads from all the mums. Mama lost her bank job missing shifts (teacher meetings, psychologists, social workers, a psychic). Jessy lobbied to live with Gran in Oregon. She could take the train from Fresno to Eugene for $139, and there was a twin bed there, Daddy’s old bed, with a pillow that said “Sweet Dreams” in French.

“But you’re my California girl,” Mama said, smiling and smoothing Jessy’s hair on the pillow. “I need my California girl.”

 

Jessy stared at the door to 42 Noon.

“Tim!” someone screamed from inside the house. “Tim!”

The man shot another arrow.

Jessy skittered behind the tree and crouched. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her breath, gulping and gasping.

She heard the whiz of a sliding door open and peeked out from around the tree. Tim yanked the plugs from his ears and dropped them to the ground. A hoarse voice rose and fell from the house, too low for Jessy to make out the words.

Tim crushed the ear plugs with his boot, and scratched his neck with the tip of the crossbow. “What do you mean Suzanne’s back?”

He lumbered inside, and the door slid shut again.

Three choices, Jessy figured. Knock on the front door. Explain the whole thing, Veena, Dead Beach, the dog game. But give fake names, of course, and a bad phone number.

Or try to find a way to sneak Veena out. She could get in through the back, out through the dog door in front.

Third, leave.

Gran had said, “Learn more.” She’d said this in many situations: school, church, the dollar-off day at the dollar store. So, not yet sure of the correct course, Jessy snuck around to the back of the house.

Through the sliding screen door, Jessy saw the man, Tim, cap off now, bent over Veena, the curled strands of his beard brushing his legs. Her sister knelt on the floor with her jaw set firm and her black eyes like slits. This was what Mama called “getting stuck,” where you couldn’t change what you were doing even if you knew you should—especially if you knew you should. Veena got stuck a lot. For a moment, Jessy pitied Tim.

“Where’d you get that collar?” he yelled. “Just tell me.”

“Don’t shout at her!” The shriek was raspy and high, frantic. But Jessy couldn’t see the speaker. She spied an open window above a pile of cement cinder blocks. She dashed for it, climbed up, and peered in.

Just a few feet away from Jessy, a small woman in a flannel Christmas nightgown grabbed at Tim’s arm, Veena still kneeling between them. Her white hair was closely cropped, short like a crew cut but the buzz wasn’t even. It stuck out in shingled lumps. She was barefoot, her toenails long and tinged blue. When she spoke it still sounded like she was very far away. “Don’t shout at her,” she said. “Now look here, at the eyes.” She bent, with some difficulty, to Veena’s level, and ran her fingers across the little girl’s brow, and thumbed a half-moon under her lashes. “You can see it’s Suzanne. Right here.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Tim asked Veena. “Where did you come from?”

The house was a mess, littered with socks and squashed Coors cans and coupon shards. All the mail was inside, heaps of it, unopened in a series of what looked like litter boxes. Metal shelving stretched across the length of the back wall, listing under the weight of canned meat and beans, bulk vitamins, bulk toothpaste, bulk seeds. Facing a television, a hospital bed was made up with crumpled, holly-covered sheets. On the bureau by the bed, surrounded by candles in various states of collapse, sat a framed photo of a black Labrador.

The old woman tugged the twine. Veena looked up, and locked eyes with Jessy. Jessy shook her head. “No!” she mouthed. But on her hands and knees, Veena followed her new master to the bed, and hopped up among the covers.

“Did Otto put you up to this?” Tim bellowed.

“Don’t listen to him, baby,” the old woman cooed. “He ruins things.” She kneed her way onto the bed, blocking Veena from Jessy’s view. Her nightgown hitched up, exposing heavy calves, striated with purple veins. Jessy stood, as quiet as she could be, and rose up on tiptoe.

Tim poked his finger at Veena’s chest. “How much is he paying? Come on, little guy. Squat?” He slung the crossbow over his shoulder, knelt, and rooted around under the mattress.

Jessy raised her hands above her head, and waved in a slow arc. “Veena!” she mouthed, over and again, biting the Vee hard into her lower lip, as if her body could speak without a sound. But Veena ignored her.

“Get out of there!” The old woman shrieked. From under the mattress, Tim pulled out smushed Peeps packages by the handful and cans of Coke. “Get out of there!”

Tim yelled, “I don’t care about the sugar, Ma!” He unrolled a crumpled poster and held it up for Veena. Jessy strained to see. It showed a bald man in a red tuxedo, a large phone pressed to his ear. Transparent household pets hovered around his shoulders. Jessy squinted. OTTO VAN ARVAN: DEPARTED MAMMAL CORRESPONDENT was written in the stars above him and a triple-eight phone number floated below. Tim held the poster up close to Veena. Her chin twitched. “Did he mention the hex?”

The old woman moaned. “I haven’t called Otto for months!”

“You owe him money, Mom!” Tim dropped Otto’s poster on the floor and ripped into a package of Peeps. “Suzanne is gone, and this bitch is playing you!”

“Oh, let the grace of God shine down.” The old woman took Veena’s chin, and turned her face back to meet her. “Look at me, baby. Let’s just tune him out.” She began to stroke Veena—to pet her—in long swipes, running from her brow down her braid to her tush. “I prayed for this, Suzanne. I prayed I would see your eyes open again. I’ve been wanting it so bad I thought I would go crazy. I thought I was going to have to wait ’til heaven to see you again! All I wanted was to see you again, Suzanne. Merciful Jesus.”

Finally, Veena looked up.

“Come on!” Jessy mouthed. “Now!”

For a moment, Jessy thought her sister would come. Then the little girl’s eyes flashed, and she snapped. The click of Veena’s teeth just missed the old woman’s fingers.

Jessy yelped, and started back, almost crashing off the cinder blocks to the ground.

The old woman shrieked “No!” and fell out of bed, landing on her rear, her wrist folding under her with a crunch. Veena howled, her high-pitched song mingling with the old woman’s sobs.

“Why did you do that?” pleaded the old woman. “Why would you hurt me?”

Tim grabbed Veena by the neck. “Now look what you’ve done.” His knuckles dug into Veena’s throat. He yanked her off the bed. “Where’d you get that collar?”

Jessy watched, frozen, as Veena’s head bounced back and forth, her skull nearly whacking her shoulders, her braid lashing at Tim’s shins and getting mixed up in his beard. “Speak!” he shouted. “Are you dumb?” Veena’s legs were bent beneath her, feet dragging at the ground. Why wasn’t she standing?

“Boy are you in trouble,” Tim said, and twisted the collar. Veena gagged. “Now you tell me your dad’s name or I’m gonna squeeze it from you.” A tingling feeling at the base of Jessy’s spine spread upwards, circling around her ears and into her teeth. Bile rose in the back of her throat, burning her tongue. She had imagined Veena’s eyes bulging like this before. And now those stuck-out eyes were looking at her, perched at the window like a bird on a sill, like a dirty peeper, like someone who liked what they saw. This was the moment to run around the house and throw the door wide open. The shock would make Tim drop the collar. Jessy would rush in, maybe give the old woman a kick if she tried to grab at her feet, and pull Veena out the door by her braid.

But Jessy didn’t move.

“Who are you?” whimpered the old woman, cheek on the floor.

Tim twisted the collar again. “Speak!” He leaned down and picked Veena up.

As he carried Veena toward a chair, Jessy heard a rush in her ears. She jumped off the cinder blocks and ran out of the yard. Her shirt caught and ripped on the latch of the fence, and she stumbled as her feet hit the sidewalk, sending dull shocks up through her shins to her knees. When she reached California Street, she didn’t wait for a break in the cars; she ran straight across and she didn’t die. She kept going. She kept going past the grocery, past the school, past Dead Beach, going until she was inside the house on Clifton, alone.

 

In the back corner of the front room was a gap between the half-fridge and wall where they leaned the Swiffer and the broom. The space looked sloppy and collected crumbs and fluff, but Jessy loved sitting there with her legs pulled up. She was hidden from the couch, where Veena planted herself like a fungus, and she was also technically in compliance with Mama’s “same room” rule.

Jessy wedged herself in and cupped her hands over her nose and mouth. First only screams came out. Her lungs burned and she coughed up thick stuff, smearing it on her shorts and the sticky tile. Every moment moved her further away from 42 Noon, but her thoughts moved slower than time; her mind was still running from the house, down the steps, through the cars. Finally she let her head drop, sucking in long draws of air. Her skin felt cold and prickly. She pushed wet bangs from her brow. The house was quiet.

Mama’s cell rang seven times before the message came on. Jessy counted them out loud each time she called, speaking the number six like a prayer. After five tries she dialed the hospital, but the nurse called Mama “Kathleen,” which was wrong, and put her on hold, and the scratchy music turned to silence so she hung up. Then she tried Gran, who answered, but Jessy couldn’t speak. Veena’s throat was twisted up in a leather strap. “You think I’m playing!” Gran screamed at Jessy’s heaving breaths. “Next time you call here you’re gonna feel me reach through the wire!” So she dialed a nine and a one, but she felt her skin go cold again and set the receiver down. She went to her room and took off her school clothes.

She tried to think of what might be happening to Veena, but her thoughts were like words she read in her mind: no pictures, no color. To go back to 42 Noon seemed impossible, like calling up Daddy or speaking French. She clutched at her underpants, digging the dull curves of her nails into her thighs. She was a murderer, doing her murdering by doing nothing at all. Her dreams of killing Veena had involved weapons, sharp things, and traps. It seemed now that her true wickedness, what she’d been hiding, was something else. It was something in the part of her that hatched plans and did none, that had run away and was staying there.

The sun was still out but she put on her pajamas, the nice-looking ones Gran had sent in the winter. Veena’s pair lay wadded up at the bottom of the drawer. The soft clean flannel felt strange against her unwashed skin. She wanted so badly now to love Veena, to realize that she loved her. But all she could find was a terrible, throbbing need for this waiting to end, for Mama to come home and to find Veena gone. Mama thought she knew the sadness of her life already, but she was wrong. The house was too quiet.

Jessy knelt before the chest at the foot of Veena’s bed, where they kept their Dead Beach loot. The Adidas bag of cassettes was on top. She chose her favorite, “October 1994,” a calm period before the German’s voice turned hollow with long gaps between the meals. She turned up the volume on the tape deck, and a tremulous accent filled the room. “Chicago. Monday the seventeenth, 8:30 A.M. Two cups coffee, black. One slice of wheat toast, with butter. A plum.”

Her eyes fell on Veena’s Rabbit, a grungy, pilled creature, seared pink on one side from the heater. His ears were like ropes, his black plastic eyes buried in clumps of fur. Each night Veena curled into a ball and sucked Rabbit’s ear until she slept. Jessy remembered last night’s plot: a straight razor in the animal’s seam, slashing her little sister across the mouth. She picked the animal up, drew the curtains shut, and brought Rabbit into her own bed. The German woman was on a pre-dinner snack of one hard boiled egg and five corn chips.

Jessy turned her face to the wall and drew her knees to her chest. She was shivering, and she felt tears wet on her cheeks. If darkness would come, it would be easier. The void behind her eyelids was not enough. She summoned the black hole, but its power seemed finally used up. “Chocolate pudding,” said the tape. “Cold tea and a mint.” She imagined taking it back, not leaving Veena there in the collar with the psycho freaks. But she had a sick feeling that the taking back would’ve had to start much sooner. Maybe with her whole self.

From the living room, the hinges of the front door whined. Jessy hugged Rabbit tighter. Soon two thumps would sound, Mama’s work shoes hitting the floor, and then a smell like a garden would fill the room. The bad thing has happened already, Jessy thought. All that’s left is the pain. The bedroom door hissed open, scraping across the rag rug. Mama would be seeing her now, a hump under the blankets, in bed two hours early. She’d turn and see Veena’s bed, unmade and empty. She’d open her cigarette pack and close it, reaching deep into herself for the energy to unscramble today’s trouble, walking to the tape deck to switch it off. She would be worried. But she wouldn’t know yet. Jessy wanted to see Mama before she found out, to feel Mama look on her one last time with her bad self still hidden. Jessy sat up, fisted the tears from her eyes, and saw Veena.

Jessy screamed.

She’d have been no less stunned to see her father walk into the room and say, “Good evening, my Jessamyn, yes, the cab ran me down, but I rose back up.” Standing before her then, Veena looked not just alive but like life itself, all that was lost gathered up and returned, the pages of time turned back and fixed.

The collar was gone and Veena’s braid was cut short. Her eyes were open wide, naked and jittering. She clutched her pillowcase of green glass from Dead Beach, grabbed up from the porch. Light from the living room drew a sharp line around her. “Chicago, bus to Denver,” said the tape. “Tuesday the eighteenth. Applesauce cup and two melba toasts.”

“You left me!” Veena screamed. She lifted the pillowcase and swung. It hit the blue angel figurine on Jessy’s bedside table, swept the Uno cards to the floor, and whacked into the gooseneck lamp, knocking the framed air show poster from the wall.

Veena had broken free. She had come home. She had saved herself, and Jessy too. Where pictures had been shut off in Jessy’s brain now they flashed through like flipping channels, like electric shocks, like all the appliances coming on at once after a storm. Maybe Veena had played dead and snuck off on her belly while the nutsos fought. Or found a cell phone or a knife, or started speaking real dog language and scared them stupid. Maybe she got one of Tim’s steel-tip arrows and held it to her own throat hostage-like and threatened to cut.

The pillowcase flew up and over Veena’s head, whirling like a propeller. It crashed into the ceiling fan and made a groaning sound. Every bit of Jessy’s being was hot and coiled, shot through with pure stupefaction and awe and what she would say later was love. There was a way out of the black. For where some mistakes were permanent, it seemed that today’s, by some grace, was not. Veena: a gift. The pillowcase hit the bookshelf and exploded the row of soda bottles. The bulletin board came loose and the potted fern fell to the floor.

And then the flowered pillowcase with glass at the bottom was coming for Jessy’s face, and she lifted her arms up to block it, bracing for the pain.

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