January 23rd, 1989
⚀ ⚂ ⚄ ⚁ ⚅
Two dice tumbled from the bed of their father’s palm: ⚀ ⚀ “Snake eyes,”
he whispered, drumming his calloused fingertips against the maple
tabletop. Cigarette smoke twisted in a coil up to the ceiling fan, the
thinly sliced redolence of Menthol blanketing down across the black and
white tiled kitchen.
Popcorn kernels cracked, bouncing off the plastic roof of the family’s
Butter Up maker as the sun and moon coalesced. Signaling to each
other, the planets pressed the blank January sky in each uncurtained
window at opposite ends of the ivy-covered Tudor.
Their mother stared down at the popping corn and said nothing as her two
sons slipped from the house.
Outside, rivulets had formed within the layers of ice over the driveway.
The boys followed these melting cracks in the permafrost.
Their neighbor’s red-bricked colonial had tugged at them since they’d
watched red and blue lights skimming their bedroom like a handful of
tinsel tossed across their tidy space. Mr. Wolfe had been gone for two
hours, and the lights had tested them. Closer, they’d said, bleating
out a dare from within their silent rotation—no sirens announcing
their neighbor’s departure from Watercrest Drive.
12-year-old Tom’s patience had been tested since watching this ambulance
recess into the sinking afternoon sunlight. Now, he held a chrome
Eveready flashlight, his hand lightly shaking as he opened the house’s
glossy-red, unlocked door. 9-year-old Kevin waded after his brother
through the cascading ripples of light thrown back. They both took their
steps carefully up the staircase they’d never climbed. Crystalline dust
settled down from the railing as their small hands coasted up.
Music, shattered by static, spilled out from underneath a door, which
moved back and forth just slightly, the room—exhaling. Tom pushed the
door open. The brothers stepped into a bedroom lit by the blue glow of a
radio dial; a man’s voice crackled, singing about life beside the sea,
beneath a boardwalk.
The front door slammed, a wave of sound crashing against the stairs.
They listened to the rhythmic thumping of footsteps coming closer as a
smell neither knew washed into the air.
Tom put his hand over his brother’s mouth. Kevin breathed deeply through
his nose, inhaling the wafting odor. As though an animal may make its
way into the room, Tom stood with his legs and hands in a catcher’s
position, prepared to protect his brother from a skunk or a bear. He
The steps grew closer until the door swung open, and like a butterfly,
hands fluttering—a girl in an orange sweatsuit stood before them. Her
mouth open, she exhaled smoke in a way that reminded Tom of the
caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.
“What the fuck are you two doing here?” she looked down at them,
waiting. She had auburn hair, matted into thick cables and frayed around
the edges. Kevin thought that if he were to reach out and touch a coil
of it, he’d surely be electrocuted.
“What are your names?” she asked. “I think I’ve seen you around before.”
Receiving only frozen stares from the boys, she answered for them:
“You’re the Hardy Boys, out to solve a mystery, huh.” She brought her
cigarette-like thing to her mouth, “It’s called marijuana,” she said,
“and these are dreadlocks.” She shook her head back and forth, her hair
swinging tassel-like. “You knew my father?” she asked, not looking at
them now but standing in the window, moving her fingers over the white,
pleated drapes, parting them. Twilight cast over the space between them.
The boys shook their heads ‘no.’
“But you were afraid of him?”
The boys shook their heads ‘yes,’ neither knowing if they had seen the
girl before. And if they had, knowing she hadn’t looked like this
“Shit,” she wrapped a finger around a dreadlock, twirled it back and
forth. I didn’t live with him. But I know everyone was . . .” her words
wilted as quickly as her sentence bloomed, “afraid of him.”
Kevin asked what happened to Mr. Wolfe.
“The same kind of shit that happens to everyone,” she said.
“Heaven,” Kevin swallowed, the smoke hanging in the air between them.
“Heart attack,” the girl inhaled, holding in her breath. “How’d you hear
about heaven?” she exhaled.
“I’ve been there,” Kevin answered, “in a dream I had.”
She nodded. Tom took a step closer, picking up a deck of cards from a
bookshelf stacked with Popular Mechanics magazines. He slid the cards
from their box and let them blend into each other. Two currents rushing
against each other, the deck flooding into itself in a flash between his
“You shuffle well,” she said, inhaling again.
“I know,” he answered, “my name is Tom. This is Kevin.”
“Kevin, who’s been to Heaven.”
“Yep,” Kevin smiled.
“I’m Maribel,” she sat on the floor, crossed her legs over each other,
and said, “You know all of life is loss, right?”
“If that’s true,” Kevin sat, pulling his legs up into a full lotus
position, “then the best winners are the greatest losers.”
Tom wrinkled his brow, “You’re saying those who lose the best, who get
the best at loss, they win?”
“Yeah,” Maribel felt her heartbeat inside her wrist, “maybe like . . .
the better you let go, the better you understand how to hold on.”
“That . . . I don’t get,” Kevin sighed.
“Someday,” she turned, exhaling, “someday you will.”
“Our father loses at solitaire all the time.”
“How can you lose in a game against yourself?” she said. “That . . . I
don’t get it.”
Tom could feel the vines of bravery growing up around him, working over
him in this haze of dusk and dust, smoke, and the astonishing words from
the electric-haired girl. He set the deck down, and she picked it up.
“Stop smoking,” he said to her.
“Fine,” she said, plunging her wobbly looking cigarette out into the
waxy finish of a card, burning it only slightly. “Do you have happy
childhoods?” she asked, rearranging the deck.
The brothers looked at each other, opening their mouths but neither
speaking, neither knowing the answer. Or was it that they didn’t
understand the question?
“Happy,” Tom repeated.
Kevin shrugged, picking up the cards, blowing off the ash and doling out
five cards to each of them: “The game is ‘Go Fish,’” he announced.
“Yeah, happy, well,” she slapped a ♠ down, “it’s all overrated. A happy
The radio buzzed into a song by Elvis, a deep cut called “Rubberneckin’”
about people stopping to look and listen and that being alright with
Elvis. Maribel moved her head side to side with the music. “Overrated,”
she repeated. “I saw on TV once that Jack Nicholson grew up thinking his
grandmother was his mother, and his mother was his sister,” she said.
“And now look at where he is.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Kevin said. “Look where he is.”
“Well . . .” Tom heaved out a sigh, “I heard that Ted Bundy . . . he
grew up thinking his grandmother was his mother too and then found out
his sister was his mother . . . and that his father wasn’t actually his
“Luck of the draw, who you’re born to . . . into what . . . where. It’s
a roll of the dice. It’s all so fucking random . . . so stochastic,”
Maribel said, then asked Kevin for a ♣.
“Bundy gets the chair tomorrow—saw it on the TV news,” Kevin
proclaimed. “Go fish.”
The game wound down to Tom winning all thirteen cards he needed, and
Maribel saying one more, just one more game.
“OK, deal,” Tom told her.
“All of life is dealing or being dealt with,” tears soaked her sharp
“Then just deal,” Kevin said.
But now it was her that froze, tilting her head back and letting the
tears sink back in.
“Deal,” Tom told her as she brought her head down, looking at each
juvenile trespasser directly.
And then she did. Maribel began to deal.