Skylar didn’t know why Mom was chewing her knuckle like that.
It was her nervous thing. Dad’s: scratching his head so bad that it snowed. Alice’s: pawing at her hair like some kind of cat. The cat’s: hiding from Alice. Mom was on the couch. She took a pillow in her lap, caressed it, babbled to it in barely-there-baby-speak, and Skylar wanted to say, The cat’s just behind you, Mom, perched on the hard backing of the sofa.
If Dad were home, he’d touch the spot on her temple that brought Mom back from automatic. Mom’s skin deflected Skylar’s spindly kid fingers, had that waxy carrot-skin quality that his young hands didn’t have enough ridges to hold onto.
When Mom died, Skylar would want a statue of her. One time they went to the Wax Figure Museum and Skylar had asked if Mom was famous enough to get one.
I don’t want to be wax, Mom had said.
What about when she was dead?
Mom gave him the worst look. She took that week off work.
Dad came into their room that night. Alice was asleep already. You could hear the reedy whistle of her breathing.
That stuff’s not funny, said Dad. Mom takes it hard.
But it wasn’t funny to Skylar. He wanted Mom around always. He vowed to replace the whole family with wax as they went, would start now with air-dry clay and be onto wax before mom’s carrot skin went wrinkly. He would almost certainly be the last to go; Alice was two minutes older.
You’re back, said Skylar. Mom was pulling her computer onto her lap. She looked at him, cyber-bright slices of teal overlaid on her pupils: Just thinking, hon.
It was an old machine, predating either of the twins. Every few years Mom would take it to an electronics person and get its coppery technoguts extracted and replaced with the newest hardware. It was by far the oldest appliance in their house, a shineless and clattering black slab.
Mom’s fingers lashed against the keyboard, her frenzied taps collapsing the peace of the living room like the violent clicks of a wall clock. Skylar watched her cradle the warm thing that wasn’t him. He thought about crushing it against the wall. Take that, older brother.
Skylar’s whole body twitched with guilt.
Mom looked over. Cold, babe?
The city couldn’t snow, so instead it got blue outside, or green, if it was smoky out. The heater was expensive to use, so the blueness soaked through the walls and at a certain time of morning Skylar could see his breath indoors. They shuffled over the hardwood with blankets pinched around their faces. Huddled, conspired over a pot of hot chocolate like a coven of nesting dolls. Mom insisted on real chocolate and fake milk.
Or they went sailing.
The ocean, a half hour west, was getting closer by the year, but the king-sized was just upstairs, and so they dreamed up a flood to fill the master bedroom with perilous green water and cuddled like shivering stowaways. Once Dad had said, But what about provisions?, and Sky had declared the bedroom temporarily unflooded in order to run downstairs for a box of water crackers and the dish of softened butter. Now it was tradition to take Sunday breakfast on the water. It was also customary for Sky to throw himself overboard at least twice, and whoever was least situated (usually Alice, who liked to mirror the cat and twist herself into a skinny coil at the foot of the bed) would thrust a pillow into the sea and pull the writhing boy to safety.
Some of Mom’s friends had thrown their newborn children into backyard swimming pools until they thrashed well enough to float―trial by chlorine― but Mom had chosen the only house in the entire neighborhood without one. Their yard was silt and rock, with gummy green plants like dinosaur spikes. Water-not-fire would be the death of California, Mom insisted. It was swallowing up the world, already having taken finicky bites out of the Everglades and New Orleans that pushed Uncle Cameron more northerly with every new lease. His latest apartment was in Baton Rouge.
Alice could swim; she’d learnt at a friend’s house. She was content to be the rescuer, who missed out on the extremely tickle-forward version of CPR administered to the rescue-ee, but earned a proud look from Dad.
Mom, who should have been great at playing pretend, was dead weight onboard. She would slump against Dad and perpetually reach for things—a pillow, Sky, the crackers—until everything on the boat was gathered into a massive heaving lump against the headboard, except for the cat and Alice, whose bodies were warm knots a comforter’s-length away.
Mom always reached for Alice last.
Alice anticipated her smothering embrace. Like a coal mine, or a factory fire. Dad and Sky ran cold and clammy, but Mom burned hot. Her goodnight kiss left a sizzling welt on Alice’s temple. Years later, when Mom was gone, memories of her would turn the air jelly-thick.
Meow meow, Alice would say, letting her down gently, and Mom would lower the blazing wands of her arms, and Skylar would wriggle through from under her armpit to sit in the throne of her lap. The sizzle of steam.
The computer set aside, Skylar sat on Mom’s legs with skinny arms around her neck. He loved the way their breath would sync. Loved when Mom would turn him around and grab his feet. She would look him in the eyes and ask, What do you think of this idea? Except the idea was a story. He’d sit and listen and then say, That’s good, Mom, or, I don’t love that idea, Mom. The best part of Mom’s books were the acknowledgements.
He imagined himself a rockstar calling out to a crowd. Thanks for coming out, everybody! This one goes out to Mom and Dad! Thanks so much for raising me! This next one is for my sister, Alice! And the last one is for you, cat!
We love you, Sky! Sign our eyeballs! We’re so proud of you! Meow.
Sometimes when Mom put out a book, she let him sign the inside covers of a few in thick black Sharpie. Just last week he’d signatured several dozen presale copies of Mom’s newest.
Dear Reader: This book is really good. Best wishes. (That’s how Dad signed emails.)
Then Skylar’s signature. His name inside a cloud.
Will they be sad it’s not you, he asked. Even better, she said. It’s you.
Skylar imagined doing the same thing years from now for his own work. Did artists sign their work — Obviously. There was a print in the dining room by Chagal, and Skylar knew that somehow, so he had to have read it. He didn’t even know who Chagal was. In Skylar’s mind, he was a bearded man, Dad-aged but also extremely old, with a white horse’s body covered in faint Dalmation-y spots.
That day in art class, Skylar had drawn sunsets. The elementary school campus, built for fifteen hundred, had taken two thousand kids the year Dad graduated. Now there were just over a thousand, and dozens more families were lost each year to migration. Alice’s kindergarten best friend lived in Vancouver now. She sent videos that made Alice miss snow she’d never touched (sand-soft, and probably not half as cold as people said).
Built on the border of two contrasting suburbs, the school followed a rule of halves – demographically split between drastic degrees of wealth and whiteness. Not so, anymore. The southern suburb was hollowing out, leaving spacious turn-of-century homes perpetually For Sale.
Dad had done college in Boston. There, the sun was ice white, setting gold. It set over the skyline, smirking at the Atlantic, who was not yet bold enough to bite back. This, Skylar could not imagine. Here in his native West, the setting sun and the advancing ocean were a unified governing body, and the sun was always fox red. When the sun fell, pink rays bluified the hard brown hills of their neighborhood, and the waxy reptilian plants glowed brown.
Dad came downstairs.
Do you need me to pick up the dry cleaning?
Shit. I need my brown suit.
Skylar covered his ears in protest. He was averse to the vernacular of adulthood, had sworn not to wield those words ever.
Yup. So, dry cleaning?
Why does Mom need her brown suit? asked Skylar.
Sky, Mom sounded pained. My book.
Dad shouted up at Alice. He hated driving alone, and Skylar hated leaving Mom.
Alice kept her eyes on the moon.
Car time with Dad was precious. Between the two of them, Mom and Dad knew everything, but Dad knew all the stuff that Alice actually wanted to know. Mom: myths, calculus, and grammar rules. Jason captained the Argo, and this clause needs commas, and how to solve an integral. Dad: Hebrew, whistling, and movies. Listed in ascending order of interestingness, obviously.
Don’t be stupid, Alice. Interestingness is not a word.
Stop lying! Mom doesn’t sound like that. Mom makes up words all the time.
If Shakespeare did it, then it’s good enough for me! And good use of ascending.
Then hugs, probably. Then a kiss. Obsessed, much? So unlike Dad, who was cool, and touched fists with her to say goodbye, and always knew when she didn’t feel like being kissed on the top of her head. Plus, when he said I love you in Hebrew, it sounded almost ironic from all the hckh-ing in his throat.
Hckh! Loving you? Sick! Don’t make me vomit!
She practiced on the cat. Hckh! Hckh! Don’t run away! Scaredy cat! Xenophobe!
Besides the moon, the sky was blank. Alice could count the number of times she’d seen stars on just one hand, but the memory burned so vivid she could project that ideal cosmos onto the sky wherever she was. Mom knew the constellations, and Alice wondered why she’d learned them if she’d lived her whole life in the polluted desert-city badlands.
Are we gonna move? asked Alice.
Why would we move?
The air’s bad.
It’s just like that.
Homeless people are dying.
He frowned, didn’t say it, but the thought hung there between them: It’s just like that, too.
Stop reading Mom’s emails.
Uncle Cameron wanted them to move, all of them. North. Louisiana was where Mom’s side was buried. Dad’s side was here, on the underside of a giant Jewish cemetery on the sunny slant of a hill that was electric green with illegally-watered grass. Alice thought about water breaking over the headstones until the lawns choked in mud. She pictured the family bones lost to the ocean.
They pulled into the dry cleaners, and Alice waited in the car. When Dad came back, Alice asked to keep the suit in her lap.
Mom needed her brown suit. This was all Alice needed to anchor herself. How could that special suit, lined pink with beautiful calico buttons, coexist with the end times.
And neon signs and men selling flowers at the mouth of the freeway–things she had always known, that she couldn’t leave for fear of fearing the future.
Dad asked if she wanted to stop for ice cream, but Mom’s suit was heavy in Alice’s lap.
Mom wrote books for teenagers. Alice and Sky weren’t allowed to read them. Dad called them heavy, which meant there was death and potentially swears. When Alice thought of Mom her mind split. Mom rocked and creaked and disappeared; she was warm and solid and eternal. When Alice thought of Mom, she always envisioned a golden disc tucked in her hair, and her skin a bit more copper than it really was.
Alice stared down Dad’s cheek.
I don’t want to move.
If they moved, Mom would wither. She was always walking in between raindrops and gray skies made her old. All through winter, she could hardly lift a fork.
We won’t move, Dad assured Alice.
I like our house.
So do I.
She said okay and crossed her arms, like a deal was closed.
When they got home Mom was at the door, putting off heat. Alice stepped into her arms. She let herself get so hot she went cold.