The bodies looked like flattened wheelbarrows in the dark. Marcy crawled as if to touch any would cause her to be detonated. They were mines in a field or nitroglycerin inside of human sacks. Girl sacks. The carpet felt like yellow grass, the kind that wedges between your teeth the same as a popcorn kernel when you chew it. Funny how the girls all slept on top of their bags and blankets with their arms under them as though they had grown into their breasts. There probably wouldn’t be a lot of sleepovers in the future. They were getting too old. Too many girls were already there because leaving anyone out wasn’t worth the drama.
Marcy made her serpentine path. She could see Gail’s eyes. The only girl not on her front. She leaned on her side, head propped up, but Marcy couldn’t see Gail’s arm. She could hypnotize you. Big draw at the sleepover parties but she didn’t do it as much anymore because Jennifer Breakham had an attack of some kind when Gail put her under as they all watched and Gail said Jenny was in a cove. Her teeth chattered, eyes closed. She could swim well but there was a shark. It had already taken a leg and now she had to decide to give up or try to swim but the result would probably be the same.
One of the other girls who went to the hospital with Jenny told Gail that she almost died when her blood pressure spiked and the doctors couldn’t get it down and Gail just said that she knew. She wasn’t even there, but she knew. “Who do you think did it to her,” she said, and no one could tell if she was joking. There were things you didn’t joke about. When Marcy’s father was alive and it got near Christmas he’d say, “Four sleepies to Christmas,” even when she was eight, nine, ten-years-old, which was the last time. She was too old for that kind of talk otherwise but he only talked that way about Christmas and she liked it.
“I hate him,” Marcy said about her stepfather. “You don’t want him to be your stepfather?” her mother asked. Marcy was relieved. Things still sounded in flux. Reversible. Not entirely decided. Glue before it dries when you can still wipe it away. She knew when her mother rubbed her back she was practically rubbing her own back, too.
It had been almost three years. The man was good to Marcy’s mother. He was good to Marcy. “I hate him,” she repeated. “I wish he had died and not dad.” She wanted to ask her mother if she wanted that as well, if she could have stopped time, gone back in time, made a grave decision and those were the terms.
“I am not trying to replace your father,” the man had said. “I am not trying to replace him in your heart. I am asking if you might allow me to have a different place. A smaller place. A place to start. Even if it is simply an open door for now.”
At Christmas she asked the man what he knew about sleepies. He said the holidays could make anyone tired. Was she feeling okay? He wanted to touch her—just her arm—but he didn’t. It was their first Christmas together. He tried to be mindful of traditions without wanting to mimic someone else’s love or place. “It is what my father used to say to count down the days until Christmas when it got close,” she told him. “He said it regardless of age. It was something we said. I said it to him.”
The man looked at Marcy’s mother. He had been trying to get a fire going in the fireplace. He wasn’t handy, he wasn’t outdoorsy. “I could keep saying it,” he said, thinking he might add a unique inflection. Maybe it would work out. Maybe the child would have a sister. But they would be very far apart in age. He couldn’t count on any of that happening, and if there was a sister, it’d take a long time before she could talk, before she might have any pull with this child he did not think hated him but acted like she did.
“I want to do whatever you like best,” he told her, and she told him that she’d like him to go fuck himself. She hadn’t known the expression long. Her mother shouted her name and slapped her across the face. “I’m sorry, Rick,” she said, as Marcy ran out of the room. Normally she’d run up to her own room, but she ran out of the house. They’d have her boxed in in her room, like in those old box canyons in old movies that meant you were trapped. She hadn’t wanted any walls at her back.