Fiction • Kelly Link
“Dorothy Gale,” she said.
“I guess so.” He said it grudgingly. Maybe he wished that he’d thought of it first. Maybe he didn’t think going home again was all that heroic.
They were sitting on the side of a mountain. Above them, visitors to the Land of Oz theme park had once sailed, in molded plastic gondola balloons, over the Yellow Brick Road. Some of the support pylons tilted or tipped back against scrawny little opportunistic pines. There was something majestic about the felled pylons now that their work was done. They looked like fallen giants. Moth-eaten blue ferns grew over the peeling yellow bricks.
The house of Dorothy Gale’s aunt and uncle had been cunningly designed. You came up the path, went into the front parlor and looked around. You were led through the kitchen. There were dishes in the kitchen cabinets. Daisies in a vase. Pictures on the wall. Follow your Dorothy down into the cellar with the other families, watch the tornado swirl around on the dirty dark wall, and when everyone tramped up the other, identical set of steps through the other, identical cellar door, it was the same house, same rooms, but tornado-tipped. The parlor floor now slanted and when you went out through the (back) front door, there was a pair of stockinged plaster legs sticking out from under the house. A pair of ruby slippers. A yellow brick road. You weren’t in North Carolina anymore.
The whole house was a ruin now. None of the pictures hung straight. There were salamanders in the walls, and poison ivy coming up in the kitchen sink. Mushrooms in the cellar, and an old mattress that someone had dragged down the stairs. You had to hope Dorothy Gale had moved on.
It was four in the afternoon and they were both slightly drunk. Her name was Bunnatine Powderfinger. She called him Biscuit.
She said, “Come on, of course she is. The ruby slippers, those are like her special power. It’s all about how she was a superhero the whole time, only she didn’t know it. And she comes to Oz from another world. Like Superman in reverse. And she has lots of sidekicks.” She pictured them skipping down the road, arm in arm. Facing down evil. Dropping houses on it, throwing buckets of water at it. Singing stupid songs and not even caring if anyone was listening.
He grunted. She knew what he thought. Sidekicks were for people who were too lazy to write personal ads. “The Wizard of Oz. He even has a secret identity. And he wants everything to be green, all of his stuff is green, just like Green Lantern.”
The thing about green was true, but so beside the point that she could hardly stand it. The Wizard of Oz was a humbug. She said, “But he’s not great and powerful. He just pretends to be great and powerful. The Wicked Witch of the West is greater and more powerfuller. She’s got flying monkeys. She’s like a mad scientist. She even has a secret weakness. Water is like kryptonite to her.” She’d always thought the actress Margaret Hamilton was damn sexy. The way she rode that bicycle and the wind that picked her up and carried her off like an invisible lover; that funny, mocking, shrill little piece of music coming out of nowhere. That nose.
When she looked over, she saw that he’d put his silly outfit back on inside out. How often did that happen? She decided not to say anything. There was an ant in her underwear. She made the decision to find this erotic, and then realized it might be a tick. No, it was an ant. “Margaret Hamilton, baby,” she said. “I’d do her.”
He was watching her wriggle, of course. Too drunk at the moment to do anything. That was fine with her. And she was too drunk to feel embarrassed about having ants in her pants. Just like that Ella Fitzgerald song. Finis, finis.
The big lunk, her old chum, said, “I’d watch. But what do you think about her turning into a big witchy puddle when she gets a bucketful of water in the face? When it rains does she say, Oops, sorry, can’t fight crime today? Interesting sexual subtext here, by the way. Very girl on girl. Girl meets nemesis, gets her wet, she just melts. Screeches orgasmically while she does it, too.”
How could he be drunk and talk like that? There were more ants. Had she been lying on an antpile while they did it? Poor ants. Poor Bunnatine. She stood up and took her dress and her underwear off—no silly outfits for her—and shook them vigorously. Come out with your little legs up, you ants. She pretended she was shaking some sense into him. Or maybe what she wanted was to shake some sense out of him. Who knew? Not her.
She said, “Margaret Hamilton wouldn’t fight crime, baby. She’d try to conquer the world. She just needs a wetsuit. A sexy wetsuit.” She put her clothes back on again. Maybe that’s what she needed. A wetsuit. A prophylactic to keep her from melting. The booze didn’t work at all. What did they call it? A social lubricant. And it helped her not to care so much. Anesthetic. It helped hold her together afterward, when he left town again. Super Glue.
She’d like to throw a bucket of kryptonite at him. Except that kryptonite was expensive, even the no-brand stuff. And it didn’t really work on him. Just made him sneeze. She could throw the rest of her beer, but he would just look at her and say, Why did you do that, Bunnatine? It would hurt his feelings. The big lump.
He said, “Why are you looking at me like that, Bunnatine?”
“Here. Have another Little-Boy Wide Mouth,” she said, giving up. Yes, she was sitting on an anthill. It was definitely an anthill. Tiny superheroic ants were swarming out to defend their hill, chase off the enormous and evil although infinitely desirable doom of Bunnatine’s ass. “It’ll put radioactive hair on your chest and then make it fall out again.”
• • •
“Enjoy the parade?” Every year, the same thing. Balloons going up and up like they couldn’t wait to leave town and pudding-faced cloggers on pickup trucks and on the curbs teenage girls holding signs. We Love You. I Love You More. I Want To Have Your Super Baby. Teenage girls not wearing bras. Poor little sluts. The big lump never even noticed and too bad for them if he did. She could tell them stories.
He said, “Yeah. It was great. Best parade ever.”
Anyone else would’ve thought he was being one hundred percent sincere. Nobody else knew him like she did. He looked like a sweetheart, but even when he tried to be gentle, he left bruises.
She said, “I liked when they read all the poetry. Big bouncy guy / way up in the lonely sky.”
“Yeah. So whose idea was that?”
She said, “The Daily Catastrophe sponsored it. Mrs. Dooley over at the high school got all her students to write the poems. I saved a copy of the paper. I figured you’d want it for your scrapbook.”
“That’s the best part about saving the world. The poetry. That’s why I do it.” He was throwing rocks at an owl that was hanging out on a tree branch for some reason. It was probably sick. Owls didn’t usually do that. A rock knocked off some leaves. Blam! Took off some bark. Pow! The owl just sat there.
She said, “Don’t be a jerk.”
• • •
She said, “You look tired.”
“Still not sleeping great?”
• • •
“Little Red Riding Hood.”
“No way.” His tone was dismissive. As if, Bunnatine, you dumb bunny. “Sure, she’s got a costume, but she gets eaten. She doesn’t have any superpowers. Baked goods don’t count as superpowers.”
“Sleeping Beauty?” She thought of a girl in a moldy old tower, asleep for a hundred years. Ants crawling over her. Mice. Some guy’s lips. That girl must have had the world’s worst morning breath. Amazing to think that someone would kiss her. And kissing people when they’re asleep? She didn’t approve. “Or does she not count, because some guy had to come along and save her?”
He had a faraway look in his eyes. As if he were thinking of someone, some girl he’d watched sleeping. She knew he slept around. Grateful women saved from evildoers or their obnoxious blind dates. Models and movie stars and transit workers and trapeze artists, too, probably. She read about it in the tabloids. Or maybe he was thinking about being able to sleep in for a hundred years. Even when they were kids, he’d always been too jumpy to sleep through the night. Always coming over to her house and throwing rocks at the window. His face at her window. Wake up, Bunnatine. Wake up. Let’s go fight crime. You can be my sidekick, Bunnatine. Let’s go fight crime.
He said, “Her superpower is the ability to sleep through anything. Lazy bitch. Her origin story: she tragically pricks her finger on a spinning wheel. What’s with the fairy tales and kids’ books, Bunnatine? Rapunzel’s got lots of hair that she can turn into a hairy ladder. Not so hot. Who else? The girl in Rumplestiltskin who can spin straw into gold.”
She missed these conversations when he wasn’t around. Nobody else in town talked like this. The mutants were sweet, but they were more into music. They didn’t talk much. It wasn’t like talking with him. He always had a comeback, a wisecrack, a double entendre, some cheesy sleazy pickup line that cracked her up, that she fell for every time. It was probably all that witty banter during the big fights. She’d probably get confused. Banter when she was supposed to POW! POW! when she was meant to banter.
She said, “Wrong. Rumpelstiltskin spins the straw into gold. She just uses the poor freak and then she hires somebody else to go spy on him to find out his name.“
She said, “No, it’s not cool. She cheats.”
“So what? Was she supposed to give up her kid to some little guy who spins gold?”
“Why not? I mean, she probably wasn’t the world’s best parent or anything. Her kid didn’t grow up to be anyone special. There aren’t any fairy tales about Rapunzel II.”
She said, “What?”
“Your mom! C’mon, Bunnatine. She was a superhero.”
“My mom? Ha ha.”
He said, “I’m not joking. I’ve been thinking about this for a few years. Being a waitress? Just her disguise.”
She made a face and then unmade it. It was what she’d always thought: he’d had a crush on her mom. “So what’s her superpower?”
He gnawed on a fingernail with those big square teeth. “I don’t know. I don’t know her secret identity. It’s secret. So you don’t pry. It’s bad form, even if you’re arch-enemies. But I was at the restaurant once when we were in high school and she was carrying eight plates at once. One was a bowl of soup, I think. Three on each arm, one between her teeth, and one on top of her head. Because somebody at the restaurant bet her she couldn’t.”
“Yeah, I remember that. She dropped everything. And she chipped a tooth.”
“Only because that fuckhead Robert Potter tripped her,” he pointed out.
“He didn’t mean to.”
He picked up her hand. Was he going to bite her fingernail now? No, he was studying the palm. Like he was going to read it or something. It wasn’t hard reading a waitress’s palm. You’ll spend the rest of your life getting into hot water. He said gently, “No, he did. I saw the whole thing. He knew what he was doing.”
It embarrassed her to see how small her hand was in his. As if he’d grown up and she just hadn’t bothered. She still remembered when she’d been taller. “Really?”
“Really. Robert Potter is your mother’s nemesis.”
She took her hand back. Slapped a beer in his. “Stop making fun of my mom. She doesn’t have a nemesis. And why does that word always sound like someone’s got a disease? Robert Potter’s just a fuckhead.”
• • •
“Once Potter said he’d pay me ten dollars if I gave him a pair of Mom’s underwear. It was when Mom and I weren’t getting along. I was like fourteen. We were at the grocery store and she slapped me for some reason. So I guess he thought I’d do it. Everybody saw her slap me. I think it was because I told her Rice Krispies were full of sugar and she should stop trying to poison me. So he came up to me afterward in the parking lot.”
Beer made you talk too much. Add that to the list. It wasn’t her favorite thing about beer. Next thing she knew, she’d be crying about some dumb thing or begging him to stay.
He was grinning. “Did you do it?”
“No. I told him I’d do it for twenty bucks. So he gave me twenty bucks and I just kept it. I mean, it wasn’t like he was going to tell anyone.”
“Yeah. Then I made him give me twenty more dollars. I said if he didn’t, I’d tell my mom the whole story.”
That wasn’t the whole story either, of course. She didn’t imagine she’d ever tell him the whole story. But the result of the story was that she had enough money for beer and some weed. She paid some guy to buy beer for her. That was the night she’d brought Biscuit up here.
They’d done it on the mattress in the basement of the wrecked farmhouse, and later on they’d done it in the theater, on the pokey little stage where girls in blue dresses and flammable wigs used to sing and tap dance. Leaves everywhere. The smell of smoke, someone further up on the mountain, checking on their still, maybe, chain-smoking. Reading girly magazines. Biscuit saying, Did I hurt you? Is this okay? Do you want another beer? She’d wanted to kick him, make him stop trying to take care of her, and also to go on kissing him. She always felt that way around Biscuit. Or maybe she always felt that way and Biscuit had nothing to do with it.
He said, “So did you ever tell her?”
“No. I was afraid that she’d go after him with a ballpeen hammer and end up in jail.”
When she got home that night. Her mother looking at Bunnatine like she knew everything, but she didn’t, she didn’t. She’d said: “I know what you’ve been up to, Bunnatine. Your body is a temple and you treat it like dirt.”
So Bunnatine said: “I don’t care.” She’d meant it too.
• • •
“I always liked your mom.”
“She always liked you.” Liked Biscuit better than she liked Bunnatine. Well, they both liked him better. Thank God her mother had never slept with Biscuit. She imagined a parallel universe in which her mother fell in love with Biscuit. They went off together to fight crime. Invited Bunnatine up to their secret hideaway/love nest for Thanksgiving. She showed up and wrecked the place. They went on Oprah. While they were in the studio some supervillain—sure, okay, that fuckhead Robert Potter—implemented his dreadful, unstoppable, terrible plan. That parallel universe was his to loot, pillage and discard like a half-eaten grapefruit, and it was all her fault.
The thing was, there were parallel universes. She pictured poor parallel Bunnatine, sent a warning through the mystic veil that separates the universes. Go on Oprah or save the world? Do whatever you have to do, baby.
The Biscuit in this universe said, “Is she at the restaurant tonight?”
“Her night off,” Bunnatine said. “She’s got a poker night with some friends. She’ll come home with more money than she makes in tips and lecture me about the evils of gambling.”
“I’m pretty pooped anyway,” he said. “All that poetry wore me out.”
“So where are you staying?”
He didn’t say anything. She hated when he did this.
She said, “You don’t trust me, baby?”
• • •
“Remember Volan Crowe?”
“What? That kid from high school?”
“Yeah. He used to draw comics about this superhero he came up with. Mann Man. A superhero with all the powers of Thomas Mann.”
“You can’t go home again.”
“That’s the other Thomas. Thomas Wolfe.”
“Thomas Wolfman. A hairy superhero who gets lost driving home.”
“Thomas Thomas Virginia Woolfman Woman.”
“Now with extra extra superpowers.”
“Whatever happened to him?”
“Didn’t he die of tuberculosis?”
“Not him. I mean that kid.”
“Didn’t he turn out to have a superpower?”
“Yeah. He could hang pictures perfectly straight on any wall. He never needed a level.”
“I thought he tried to destroy the world.”
“Yeah, that’s right. He was calling himself something weird. Fast Kid with Secret Money. Something like that. Got kidnapped by a nemesis. The nemesis used these alien brain-washing techniques to convince him he had to destroy the world in order to save the world.”
“That’s really lame. I wouldn’t fall for that.”
She said, “Shut up. I hear you fall for it every time.”
• • •
“What about you?”
She said, “Me?”
Keeping an eye on this place. They don’t pay much, but it’s easy money. I had another job, but it didn’t work out. A place down off I-40. They had a stage, put on shows. Nothing too gross. So me and Kath, remember how she could make herself glow, we were making some extra cash two nights a week. They’d turn down the lights and she’d come out on stage with no clothes on and she’d be all lit up from inside. It was real pretty. And when it was my turn, guys could pay extra money to come and lie on the stage. Do you remember that hat, my favorite hat? The oatmeal-colored one with the pompoms and the knitted ears?”
“Well, they kept it cold in there. I think so that we’d have perky tits when we came out on stage. So we’d move around with a bit more rah-rah. But I wore the hat. I got management to let me wear the hat, because I don’t float real well when I’m real cold.”
“I gave you that hat,” he said.
“Yeah. At Christmas. I loved that hat. So I’d be wearing the hat and this dress—nothing really revealing or cheap-looking—and come out on stage and hover a foot above their faces. So they could see I wasn’t wearing any underwear.”
He was smiling. “Saving the world by taking off your underwear, Bunnatine?”
“Shut up. I’d look down and see them lying there on the stage like I’d frozen them. Zap. They weren’t supposed to touch me. Just look. I always felt a million miles above them. Like I was a bird.” A plane. “All I had to do was scissor my legs, kick a little, just lift up my hem a little. Do twirls. Smile. They’d just lie there and breathe hard like they were doing all the work. And when the music stopped, I’d float offstage again. But then Kath left for Atlantic City, to go sing in a cabaret show. And then some asshole got frisky. Some college kid. He grabbed my ankle and I kicked him in the head. So now I’m back at the restaurant with Mom.”
He said, “How come you never did that for me, Bunnatine? Float like that?”
She shrugged. “It’s different with you,” she said, as if it were. But of course it wasn’t. Why should it be?
“Come on, Bunnatine,” he said. “Show me your stuff.”
She stood up, shimmied her underwear down to her ankles with an expert wriggle. All part of the show. “Close your eyes for a sec.”
“Close your eyes. I’ll tell you when to open them.”
He closed his eyes and she took a breath, let herself float up. She could only get about two feet off the ground before that old invisible hand yanked her down again, held her tethered just above the ground. She used to cry about that. Now she just thought it was funny. She let her underwear dangle off her big toe. Dropped it on his face. “Okay, baby. You can open your eyes.”
His eyes were open. She ignored him, hummed a bit. Why oh why oh why can’t I. Held out her dress at the hem so that she could look down the neckline and see the ground, see him looking back up.
“Shit, Bunnatine,” he said. “Wish I’d brought a camera.”
She thought of all those girls on the sidewalks. “No touching,” she said, and touched herself.
He grabbed her ankle and yanked. Yanked her all the way down. Stuck his head up inside her dress, and his other hand. Grabbed a breast and then her shoulder so that she fell down on top of him, knocked the wind out of her. His mouth propping her up, her knees just above the ground, cheek banged down on the bone of his hip. It was like a game of Twister, there was something Parker Brothers about his new outfit. There was a gusset in his outfit, so he could stop and use the bathroom, she guessed, when he was out fighting crime. Not get caught with his pants down. His busy, busy hand was down there, undoing the Velcro. The other hand was still wrapped around her ankle. His face was scratchy. Bam, pow. Her toes curled. He’s got you now, Bunnatine.
He said up into her dress, “Bunnatine. Bunnatine.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Biscuit,” she said.
• • •
She said, “There was a tabloid reporter around today, wanting to hear stories.”
He said, “If I ever read about you and me, Bunnatine, I’ll come back and make you sorry. I’m saying that for your own good. Do something like that, and they’ll come after you. They’ll use you against me.”
“So how do you know they don’t know already? Whoever they are?”
“I’d know,” he said. “I can smell those creeps from a mile away.”
She got up to pee. She said, “I wouldn’t do anything like that anyway.” She thought about his parents and felt bad. She shouldn’t have said anything about the reporter. Weasely guy. Staring at her tits when she brought him coffee.
She was squatting behind a tree when she saw the pair of yearlings. They were trying so hard to be invisible. Just dappled spots hanging in the air. They were watching her like they’d never seen anything so fucked up. Like the end of the world. They took off when she stood up. “That’s right,” she said. “Get the hell away. Tell anybody about this and I’ll kick your sorry Bambi asses.”
• • •
She said, “Okay. So I’ve been wondering about this whole costume thing. Your new outfit. I wasn’t going to say anything, but it’s driving me crazy. What’s with all these crazy stripes and the embroidery?”
“You don’t like it?”
“I like the lightning bolt. And the tower. And the frogs. It’s psychedelic, Biscuit. Can you please explain why y’all wear such stupid outfits? I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
“They aren’t stupid.”
“Yes they are. Tights are stupid. It’s like you’re showing off. Look how big my dick is.”
“Tights are comfortable. They allow freedom of movement. They’re machine washable.” He began to say something else, then stopped. Grinned. Said, almost reluctantly, “Sometimes you hear stories about some asshole stuffing his tights.”
She started to giggle. Giggling gave her the hiccups. He whacked her on the back.
She said, “Ever forget to run a load of laundry? Have to fight crime when you ought to be doing your laundry instead?”
He said, “Better than a suit and tie, Bunnatine. You can get a sewing machine and go to town, dee eye why, but who has the time? It’s all about advertising. Looking big and bold. But you don’t want to be too designer. Too Nike or Adidas. So last year I needed a new outfit, asked around, and found this women’s cooperative down on a remote beach in Costa Rica. They’ve got an arrangement with a charity here in the states. They’ve got collection points in forty major cities where you drop off bathing suits and leotards and bike shorts, and then everything goes down to Costa Rica. They’ve got this beach house that some big-shot rock star donated to them. It’s this big glass and concrete slab and the tide goes in and out right under the glass floor. I went for a personal fitting. These women are real artists, talented people, super creative, and they’re all unwed mothers, too. They bring their kids to work and the kids are running around everywhere and the kids are all wearing these really great superhero costumes. They do work for anybody. Even pro wrestlers. Villains. Crime lords, politicians. Good guys and bad guys. Sometimes you’ll be fighting somebody, this real asshole, and you’ll both be getting winded, and then you start noticing his outfit and he’s looking too and then you’re both wondering if you got your outfits at this same place. And you feel like you ought to stop and say something nice about what they’re wearing. How you both think it’s so great that these women can support their families like this.”
“I still think tights look stupid.” She thought of those kids wearing their superhero outfits. Probably grew up and became drug dealers and maids and organ donors.
• • •
“What? What’s so funny?”
He said, “I can’t stop thinking about Robert Potter and your mother. Did he want clean underwear? Or did he want dirty underwear?”
She said, “What do you think?”
“I think twenty bucks wasn’t enough money.”
“He’s a creep.”
“So you think he’s been in love with her for a long time?”
She said, “What?”
“Like maybe they had an affair once a long time ago.”
“No way!” It made her want to puke.
“No, seriously, what if he was your father or something?”
“Well, come on. Haven’t you wondered? I mean, he could be your father. It’s always been obvious that he and your mom have unfinished business. And he’s always trying to talk to you.”
“Stop talking! Right now!”
“Or what, you’ll kick my ass? I’d like to see you try.” He sounded amused.
She wrapped her arms around herself. Ignore him, Bunnatine. Wait until he’s had more to drink. Then kick his ass.
He said, “Come on. You used to wait until your mom got home from work and fell asleep. You said you’d sneak into her bedroom and ask her questions while she was sleeping. Just to see if she would tell you who your dad was.”
“I haven’t done that for a while. She finally woke up and caught me. She was really pissed off. I’ve never seen her get mad like that. I never told you about it. I was too embarrassed.”
He didn’t say anything.
“So I kept begging and finally she made up some story about this guy from another planet. Some tourist. Some tourist with wings and stuff. She said that he’s going to come back someday. That’s why she never shacked up or got married. She’s still waiting for him to come back.”
• • •
“Don’t look at me like that. I know it’s bullshit. I mean, if he had wings, why don’t I have wings? That would be so cool. To fly. Really fly. Even when I used to practice every day, I never got more than two feet off the ground. Two fucking feet. What is it good for? Waiting tables. I float sometimes, so I don’t get varicose veins like Mom.”
“You could probably go a little higher if you really tried.”
“You want to see me try? Here, hold this. Okay. One, two, three. Up, up, and a little bit more up. Impressed?”
He frowned, looked off into the trees as if he were thinking about it. Trying not to laugh.
“What? Are you impressed or not?”
“Can I be honest? Yes and no. You could work on your technique. You’re a bit wobbly. And I don’t understand why all your hair went straight up and started waving around. Do you know that it’s doing that?”
“Static electricity?” she said. “Why are you so mean?”
“Hey,” he said. “I’m just trying to be honest. I’m just wondering why you never told me any of that stuff about your dad. I could ask around, see if anybody knows him.”
“It’s not any of your business,” she said. “But thanks.”
“I thought we were better friends than this, Bunnatine.”
He was looking hurt.
“You’re still my best friend in the whole world,” she said. “I promise.”
• • •
“I love this place,” he said.
“Yeah. Me too.” Only if he loved it so much, then why didn’t he ever stay? So busy saving the world, he couldn’t save The Land of Oz. Those poor Munchkins. Poor Bunnatine. They were almost out of beer.
He said, “So what are they up to? The developers? What are they plotting?”
“The usual. Tear everything down. Build condos.”
“And you don’t mind?”
“Of course I mind!” she said.
He said, “I always think it looks a lot more real now. The way it’s falling all to pieces. The way the Yellow Brick Road is disappearing. It makes it feel like Oz was a real place. Being abandoned makes you more real, you know?”
Beer turned him into Biscuit the philosopher-king. Another thing about beer. She had another beer to help with the philosophy. He had one too.
She said, “Sometimes there are coyotes up here. Bears, too. The mutants. Once I saw a Sasquatch and two tiny Sasquatch babies.”
“And lots and lots of deer. Guys come up here in hunting season. When I catch ’em, they always make jokes about hunting Munchkins. I think they’re idiots to come up here with guns. Mutants don’t like guns.”
“Who does?” he said.
She said, “Remember Tweetsie Railroad? That rickety roller coaster? Looked like a bunch of Weebelows built it out of Tinker Toys? Remember how people dressed like toy-store Indians used to come onto the train? I was always hoping I was gonna see them scalp someone this time.”
He said, “Fudge. Your mom would buy us fudge. Remember how we sat in the front row and there was that one showgirl? The one with the three-inch ruff of pubic hair sticking out the legs of her underwear? During the cancan?”
She said, “I don’t remember that!”
He leaned over her, nibbled on her neck. People were going to think she’d been attacked by squids. Little red sucker marks everywhere. She yawned.
He said, “Oh, come on! You remember! Your mom started laughing and couldn’t stop. There was a guy sitting right next to us and he kept taking pictures.”
She said, “Why do you remember all this stuff? I kept a diary all through school, and I still don’t remember everything that you remember. Like, what I remember is how you wouldn’t speak to me for a week because I said I thought Atlas Shrugged was boring. How you told me the ending of The Empire Strikes Back before I saw it. ‘Hey, guess what? Darth Vader is Luke’s father!’ When I had the flu and you went without me?”
He said, “You didn’t believe me.”
“That’s not the point!”
“Yeah. I guess not. Sorry about that.”
• • •
“I miss that hat. The one with the pompoms. Some drunk stole it out of my car.”
“I’ll buy you another one.”
“Don’t bother. It’s just I could fly better when I was wearing it.”
He said, “It’s not really flying. It’s more like hovering.”
“What, like leaping around like a pogo stick makes you special? Okay, so apparently it does. But you look like an idiot. Those enormous legs. That outfit. Anyone ever tell you that?”
“Why are you such a pain in the ass?”
“Why are you so mean? Why do you have to win every fight?”
“Why do you, Bunnatine? I have to win because I have to. I have to win. That’s my job. Everybody always wants me to be a nice guy. But I’m a good guy.”
“What’s the difference again?”
“A nice guy wouldn’t do this, Bunnatine. Or this.”
• • •
“Say you’re trapped in an apartment building. It’s on fire. You’re on the sixth floor. No, the tenth floor.”
She was still kind of stupid from the first demonstration. She said, “Hey! Put me down! You asshole! Come back! Where are you going? Are you going to leave me up here?”
“Hold on, Bunnatine. I’m coming back. I’m coming to save you. There. You can let go now.”
She held onto the branch like anything. The view was so beautiful she couldn’t stand it. You could almost ignore him, pretend that you’d gotten up here all by yourself.
He kept jumping up. “Bunnatine. Let go.” He grabbed her wrist and yanked her off. She made herself as heavy and still as possible. The ground rushed up at them and she twisted, hard. Fell out of his arms.
“Bunnatine!” he said.
She caught herself a foot before she smacked into the ruins of the Yellow Brick Road.
“I’m fine,” she said, hovering. But she was better than fine! How beautiful it was from down here, too. She felt like Kath on that stage, like she was glowing all over. Holy Yellow Brick Road, Bunnatine!
He looked so anxious. “God, Bunnatine, I’m sorry.” It made her want to laugh to see him so worried. She put her feet down gently. The whole world was made of glass, and the glass was full of champagne, and Bunnatine was a bubble, just flicking up and up and up.
She said, “Stop apologizing, okay? It was great! The look on your face. Being in the air like that. Come on, Biscuit, again! Do it again! I’ll let you do whatever you want this time.”
“You want me to do it again?” he said.
She felt just like a little kid. She said, “Do it again! Do it again!”
• • •
She shouldn’t have gotten in the car with him, of course. But he was just old pervy Potter and she had the upper hand. She explained how he was going to give her more money. He just sat there listening. He said they’d have to go to the bank. He drove her right through town, parked the car behind Food Lion.
She wasn’t worried. She had the upper hand. She said, “What’s up, pervert? Gonna do a little dumpster diving?”
He was looking at her. He said, “How old are you?”
She said, “Fourteen.”
He said, “Old enough.”
• • •
“How come you left after high school? How come you always leave?”
He said, “How come you broke up with me in eleventh grade?”
“Don’t answer a question with a question. No one likes it when you do that.”
“Well maybe that’s why I left. Because you’re always yelling at me.”
“You ignored me in high school. Like you were ashamed of me. I’ll see you later, Bunnatine. Quit it, Bunnatine. I’m busy. Didn’t you think I was cute? There were plenty of guys at school who thought I was cute.”
“They were all idiots.”
• • •
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that they were really idiots. Come on, you know you thought so too.”
“Can we change the subject?”
• • •
“It wasn’t that I was ashamed of you, Bunnatine. You were distracting. I was trying to keep my average up. Trying to learn something. Remember that time we were studying and you tore up all my notes and ate them?”
• • •
“I saw they still haven’t found that guy. That nutcase. The one who killed your parents.”
“No. They won’t.” He threw rocks at where the owl had been. Nailed that sorry, invisible, absent owl.
“Yeah?” she said, “Why not?”
“I took care of it. He wanted me to find him, you know? He just wanted to get my attention. That’s why you gotta be careful, Bunnatine. There are people out there who really don’t like me.”
“Your dad was a sweetheart. Always tipped twenty percent. A whole dollar if he was just getting coffee.”
“Yeah. I don’t want to talk about him, Bunnatine. Still hurts. You know?”
“Yeah. Sorry. So how’s your sister doing?”
“Okay. Still in Chicago. They’ve got a kid now. A little girl.”
“Yeah. I thought I heard that. Cute kid?”
“She looks like me, can you imagine? She seems okay, though. Normal.”
• • •
“Are we sitting in poison ivy?”
“No. Look. There’s a deer over there. Watching us.”
• • •
“When do you have to be at work?”
“Not until 6 a.m. I just need to go home first and take a shower.”
“Cool. Is there any beer left?”
“No. Sorry,” she said. “Should’ve brought more.”
“That’s okay. I’ve got this. Want some?”
• • •
“I need a new job.”
“You’ve already got like a hundred jobs, Bunnatine.”
“Ski instructor, Sugar Mountain. Security guard, Beech Mountain. Lifeguard at the beach on Grandfather Mountain. Just applied for She-Devil of Mountain Mountain. Do you think that pays well? Lifeguarding was okay. I saved this eight-year-old’s life last summer. His sister was trying to drown him. But I always end up back at the restaurant. Waitressing. Waitressing is my destiny.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
“Why go wait tables in some other place? I like it here. This is where I grew up. It was a good place to grow up. I like all the trees. I like the people. I even like how the tourists drive real slow between here and Boone. I just need to find a new job or Mom and I are going to end up killing each other.”
“I thought you were getting along.”
“Yeah. As long as I do exactly what she says.”
“I saw your mom at the parade. With some little kid.”
“Yeah. She’s been babysitting for a friend at the restaurant. Mom’s into it. She’s been reading the kid all these fairy tales. She can’t stand the Disney stuff, which is all the kid wants. Now they’re reading The Wizard of Oz. I’m supposed to get your autograph, by the way. For the kid.”
“Sure thing! You got a pen?”
“Oh shit. It doesn’t matter. Maybe next time.”
• • •
It got dark slow and then real fast at the end, the way it always did, even in the summer, like daylight realized it had to be somewhere right away. Somewhere else. On weekends she came up here and read mystery novels in her car. Moths beating at the windows. Got out every once in a while to take a walk and look for kids getting into trouble. She knew all the places they liked to go. Sometimes the mutants were down where the stage used to be, practicing. They’d started a band. They were always asking if she was sure she couldn’t sing. She really, really couldn’t sing. That’s okay, the mutants always said. You can just howl. Scream. We’re into that. They traded her ’shine for cigarettes. Told her long, meandering mutant jokes with lots of hand gestures and incomprehensible punchlines. Dark was her favorite time. In the dark she could imagine that this really was the Land of Oz, that when the sun couldn’t stay away any longer, when the sun finally came back up, she’d still be there. In Oz. Not here. Click your heels, Bunnatine. There’s no home like a summer place.
She said, “Still having nightmares?”
“The ones about the end of the world.”
“Yeah, you nosy bitch. Those ones.”
“Still ends in the big fire?”
“No. A flood.”
• • •
“You keep yawning.”
He smiled at her. Such a nice smile. Drove girls of all ages crazy. He said, “I’m just tired.”
“Parades can really take it out of you.”
She said, “Go on. Take a nap. I’ll stay awake and keep lookout out for mutants and nemesissies and autograph hounds.”
“Maybe just for a minute or two. You’d really like him.”
“The nemesis I’m seeing right now. He’s got a great sense of humor. Sent me a piano crate full of albino kittens last week. Some project he’s working on. They pissed everywhere. Had to find homes for them all. Of course first we checked to make sure that they weren’t little bombs or possessed by demons or programmed to hypnotize small children with their swirly red kitten eyes. Give them bad dreams. That would have been a real PR nightmare.”
“So what’s up with this one? Why does he want to destroy the world?”
“He won’t say. I don’t think his heart’s really in it. He keeps doing all these crazy stunts, like with the kittens. There was a thing with a machine to turn everything into tomato juice. But somebody who used to hang out with him says he doesn’t even like tomato juice. If he ever tries to kidnap you, Bunnatine, whatever you do, don’t say yes if he offers you a game of chess. Try to stay off the subject of chess. He’s one of those guys who think all master criminals ought to be chess players, but he’s terrible. He gets sulky.”
“I’ll try to remember that. Are you comfortable? Put your head here. Are you cold? That outfit doesn’t look very warm. Do you want my jacket?”
“Stop fussing, Bunnatine. Am I too heavy?”
“Go to sleep, Biscuit.”
• • •
His head was so heavy she couldn’t figure out how he carried it around on his neck all day. He wasn’t asleep. She could hear him thinking.
He said, “You know, some day I’m going to fuck up. Some day I’ll fuck up and the world won’t get saved.”
“Yeah. I know. A big flood. That’s okay. You just take care of yourself, okay? And I’ll take care of myself and the world will take care of itself, too.”
Her leg felt wet. Gross. He was drooling on her leg. He said, “I dream about you, Bunnatine. I dream that you’re drowning too. And I can’t do anything about it. I can’t save you.”
She said, “You don’t have to save me, baby. Remember? I float. Let everything turn into water. Just turn into water. Let it turn into beer. Clam chowder. Let the Land of Oz become an exciting new investment opportunity in underwater attractions. Little happy mutant Dorothy mermaids. Let all those mountain houses and ski condos sink down into the water, and the deer and the bricks and the high school girls and the people who never tip. It isn’t all that great a world anyway, you know? Biscuit? Maybe it doesn’t want to be saved. So stop worrying so much. I’ll float like a bar of Ivory soap. Even better. Won’t even get my toes wet until you come and find me.”
“Oh good, Bunnatine,” he said, drooling, “that’s a weight off my mind—” and fell asleep. She sat beneath his heavy head and listened to the air rushing around up there in the invisible leaves. It sounded like water moving fast. Waterfalls and lakes of water rushing up the side of the mountain. Biscuit’s flood. But that was some other parallel universe. Here it was only night and wind and trees and the stars were coming out. Hey, Dad, you fuckhead.
Her legs fell asleep and she needed to pee again, but she didn’t want to wake Biscuit up. She bent over and kissed him on the top of his head. He didn’t wake up. He just mumbled, Quit it, Bunnatine. Love me alone. Or something like that.
• • •
She remembered being a kid. Nine or ten. Sneaking back into the house at four in the morning. Her best friend Biscuit has gone home too, to lie in his bed and not sleep. She had to beg him to let her go home. They have school tomorrow. She’s tired and she’s so hungry. Fighting crime is hard work. Her mother is in the kitchen, making pancakes. There’s something about the way she looks that tells Bunnatine she’s been out all night, too. Maybe she’s been out fighting crime, too. Bunnatine knows her mother is a superhero. She isn’t just a waitress. That’s just her cover story.
She stands in the door of the kitchen and watches her mother. She practices her hovering. She practices all the time.
Her mother says, “Want some pancakes, Bunnatine?”
• • •
She waited as long as she could, and then she heaved his head up and put it down on the ground. She covered his shoulders with her jacket. Like setting a table with a handkerchief. Look at the big guy, lying there so peacefully. Maybe he’ll sleep for a hundred years. But more likely the mutants will wake him, eventually, with their barbaric yawps. They’re into kazoos right now, and heavy-metal hooting. She can hear them warming up. Biscuit hung out with some of the mutants at school, years and years ago. They’ll get a real kick out of his new outfit. There’s a ten-year high-school reunion coming up, and Biscuit will come home for that. He gets all sentimental and soft about things. Mutants, on the other hand, don’t do things like parades or reunions. They were good at keeping secrets, though. They made great babysitters when her mom couldn’t take care of the kid.
• • •
She keeps her headlights off, all the way down the mountain. Turns the engine off too. Just sails down the mountain like a black wing.
• • •
When she gets home, she’s mostly sober and of course the kid is still asleep. Her mom doesn’t say anything, although Bunnatine knows she doesn’t approve. She thinks Bunnatine ought to tell Biscuit about the kid. But it’s a little late for that, and who knows? Maybe she isn’t his kid anyway.
The kid has fudge smeared all over her face and her pillow. Leftover fudge from the parade, probably. Bunnatine’s mom has a real sweet tooth. Kid probably sat up eating it in the dark, after Bunnatine’s mom put her to bed. Bunnatine kisses the kid on the forehead. Goes and gets a washcloth, comes back and wipes off some of the fudge. Kid still doesn’t wake up. She’s going to be real disappointed about the autograph. Maybe Bunnatine will just forge Biscuit’s handwriting. Write something real nice. It’s not like Biscuit will care. Bunnatine would like to crawl into the kid’s bed, just curl up around the kid and get warm again, but she’s already missed two shifts this week. So she takes a hot shower and goes to sit with her mom in the kitchen until she has to leave for to work. Neither of them have much to say to each other, which is normal, but her mom makes Bunnatine some eggs and toast. If Biscuit were here, she’d make him breakfast, too, and Bunnatine imagines that, eating breakfast with Biscuit and her mom, waiting for the sun to come up so that the day can start all over again. Then the kid comes in the kitchen, crying and holding out her arms for Bunnatine. “Mommy,” she says. “Mommy, I had a really bad dream.”
Bunnatine picks her up. Such a heavy little kid. Her nose is running and she still smells like fudge. No wonder she had a bad dream. Bunnatine says, “Shhh. It’s okay, baby. It was just a bad dream. Just a dream. Tell me about the dream.”
Kelly Link is the author of the story collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners (both Small Beer Press), Pretty Monsters (Viking Juvenile), and Get in Trouble, which includes the story in this issue and is out now from Random House. She lives with her husband and daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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