Fiction · 06/09/2010

Jolt

It was a game, is all. That summer we needed something to distract us. Because all that stuff we’d hoped for wasn’t going to happen. None of it. Different reasons for each of us, but they all came down to the same thing: at least another year stuck. Right here.

Jen started it. She tears out of her house as usual one night, dashing to the car before we can even text her. We see her father framed in their living room window, watching her; we hear him still yelling at her. “Full moon,” Jen says as she slides into the backseat. “Oh yeah, it’s time I told you. He’s a werewolf.”

Werewolves are big then, and her father really does have this little anger management problem (also the hairiest back you never want to see by mistake), so it’s perfect. This time Jen actually laughs as she talks about him, looking like her old self, not the deflated kid who’ll be taking the bus to City College instead of moving down to UCLA, all because the rageaholic wouldn’t fill out the financial aid forms. She can do that, Jen, cheer herself up. Of all of us, she’s the best at pretending.

Izzy keeps glancing at the rear view mirror, checking on her. Sometimes I think Izzy is more upset than Jen about the whole UCLA thing. But they trade smiles in the mirror, and Izzy relaxes and jumps right in talking about how her house has a poltergeist. Good way to explain how the upstairs bathroom got painted a checkerboard pattern of black on darker black. A lot less embarrassing than talking about her older brother. That’s her Audi we’re riding around in, another consolation prize for sticking close to home one more year. She checks that we like her joke; says, “Is that a good one?” as if she’s showing off a new haircut. “I was gonna say my mother is a vampire.”

In the front seat, Parker hugs the oversized sweatshirt around herself and stares straight ahead. She hasn’t said anything for weeks about that plan of moving away somewhere with her father, and nobody’s going to ask her. We’re all tuned in to her silence, especially Izzy. Izzy, it’s like she’s got antennas for that kind of thing. She takes the curves slow on the way up to Inspiration Point, like Parker is a baby carrier full of eggs strapped in next to her.

But Jen kicks the back of Parker’s seat and says, “What about you?” And, “Hey, do your mom.” I can’t see Parker’s face, but Izzy looks alarmed. “I know, she’s a succubus,” Jen crows.

The car crunches over gravel as Izzy stops on the shoulder. Parker whips around, her hair flying, and glares at us. “Suck? Suck-you-what?”

“Let her make it up,” Izzy says. I want to tell them what must be rule number one of the game: You can say whatever you want about your family, but nobody else can. Parker has told us plenty of times about her mother sleeping around, about her father’s vows to leave. Besides, we’re not blind. We remember that guy who built their deck. And the skinny scientist who sublet the place next door. Parker’s eighth-grade gym teacher, even.

Parker slumps down in her seat but turns up the music, a good sign. She fishes a joint out of her pocket and says, “O.K., O.K. She’s a demon. My mother is a demon. There.”

It feels like it’s my turn, so I lean towards the front seat and say, “My mother can control electricity.”

Izzy scrunches up her face. “Random, much?”

“Yeah, that’s too — ”

“Too obscure,” Jen says. “Where’s the archetype? Where’s the metaphor?” Izzy and Parker look at her with blank stares.

I say, “But it’s true. Like one time? She had this fight with my father, back when they were first married and living in San Francisco, I mean. After he ignored her at this party. And she ran out of the apartment and jumped on the first streetcar that came by. And she just sat there inside, really mad, just leaning against the window. And the cable overhead started sparking and smoking until the whole thing caught on fire.”

“San Francisco,” Izzy says with a sigh.

Parker squints at me. “I can’t picture your parents living there.”

“That’s not the point,” I try to say, but Jen holds up her hands. “Wait, wait,” she says. “It won’t work with you. Your family’s too Norman Rockwell.”

Parker passes her the joint. “Norman who?”

Izzy sits up on her knees. “She’s right.” They all look at me with disappointment. Rule number two. You can’t play unless your family’s messed up. But it has to be in the regular sort of ways.

A few weeks later, we’re holed up in Izzy’s basement. The Audi is out of commission, sitting in the driveway with the whole left side smashed in. Nobody talks about it. Well, Jen asks about the poltergeist, but Izzy wags her head, hard.

So Jen tells us about her father going nuts the night before, shredding his own shirt and raking his claws down the kitchen wallpaper.

“Like the Incredible Hulk,” Parker says.

“No, a werewolf. A werewolf. Keep up.”

We’re sprawled across the matching couch and loveseat Izzy’s parents gave her when they let her fix up the basement into her own private den. It doesn’t seem like anybody has anything else to say for the game, so I start telling them about the light bulb thing.

“Every time she’s upset?” Izzy asks.

“Not every time. But it’s happened lots. Like if she stomps out of the kitchen and goes into her bedroom, yeah, the light will blow out as soon as she flips it on.” I wait.

“It’s not very interesting,” Parker says. Then tell us about the demon, I want to say.

“And it’s not even real, right?” Izzy asks, her eyes darting around. Like your poltergeist is real?

Jen pulls the popcorn bowl closer. “Well, there are documented cases of spontaneous human combustion,” she says. “You know, people bursting into flame. Just like that.” She snaps her fingers. I’m not even going to try telling them about the garage door opener or the microwave.

Parker says to her, “You’re so full of shit. That’s not true.”

Izzy jumps up. “None of it is, right?”

Parker says, “Just because you got a 650 on the SAT Reading doesn’t make you an expert on every damn thing, you know.”

“Anyway. I wouldn’t feel too bad about having a dull family,” Jen continues. “This way you don’t have to worry about inheriting anything crazy. You know. Like mother, like daughter.” She’s still talking to me, she’s looking at me, how much does she see? But she flicks a piece of popcorn in Parker’s face.

Parker grabs the bowl, and popcorn slides over the side and onto the rug. “I’m nothing like her,” she says. “But you, sometimes you’re as bad as your maniac father. Better watch out, maybe you’re going to turn into a werewolf yourself.”

Izzy is down on her hands and knees gathering up popcorn. I’m watching the whole thing like a movie, like I’m not even there. Like always.

Jen says, “That’s not how it works, airhead. You’ve got to get bitten.” She shoves Parker, who sticks her arm out to block her and knocks over the lamp instead. It’s too heavy to break, but the lampshade crumples.

“I don’t think we should play this anymore,” Izzy says, and her voice sounds like a whimper.

“You’re so pissy these days,” Parker says to Jen. “So you’re not getting to do exactly what you wanted, big deal. Who is? Am I getting to move to Portland with my dad, like he promised a million times? What about Izzy? Is she getting to even apply to any colleges?”

“Nope, not as long as there’s a damn poltergeist the whole family has to cater to.”

“I’m sick of this game!” Izzy shrieks. She slams the bowl back on the coffee table, and we all hear the crack. Now there’s a jagged line through the glass top.

While they’re still yelling and throwing stuff around, I slip out of the room. I walk upstairs, right out the front door, and nobody notices. It’s another damp, misty night, so there’s a kind of fuzzy halo around each of the streetlights lining Izzy’s block. Ridiculous streetlights with lots of ornate iron swirls, as if we’re in Victorian England instead of this suburban neighborhood. As I pass under the first one, it starts to sputter and snap. By the time I reach the corner, I’m stepping over shards of glass and my mouth tastes like metal.

+++

Susan Miller Silva has worked as an editor, internet project manager, trainer, and interviewer, despite having been told once that the best job she could get was proofreading tuna fish labels. Her fiction has also appeared in Dark Sky, Word Riot, and decomP. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter.