The one-floor rental where Shell was born is too close to the tracks—Shell’s the only kid around not allowed to lay pennies for the double-engined CNs to turn into wafers—and even with the add-on studio at the back, Dad and Mum don’t have enough room to do their pottery. Dad gets a pretty good council grant, finally, so they start looking for something else. Farther east, near the lumberyard and the fairgrounds. More east than that and maybe they can even buy.
Halfway down Cashel Street, Dad slows the car, pointing out a two-storey red-brick. The homemade sign pounded into a patch of dry garden plot declares the house for sale by owner.
“Of course there’s no phone number,” says Mum. “I just hate that.”
Dad parks the Dart right in front. Except for the car’s speckled rust, its yellow is the same deep mustard as the boulevard grass, the blades of which break beneath Shell’s sandals as she jumps down from the car and into Mum’s open hands.
Hands on hips, sneakers planted wide, Dad surveys the length of the sloped tarmac drive, at the end of which, beyond chain link and a gnarled lawn, is a wide garage. The double doors are rolled open; the two bright school buses inside are parked facing out. Shell starts kindergarten in September, but Mum promised it will be at a school close enough that they can walk there and back together. Why? Because buses like those don’t have seat belts. So? So they’re not safe. But sometimes Mum doesn’t buckle in either and —
Dad goes up the front steps first, Mum and Shell behind. Rotten wood springs back under their feet and the handrail wiggles.
“Careful,” says Dad. And then: “Don’t say anything about the pottery, okay? ”
All of their living-room furniture could fit on the front porch—couch, chairs, stereo, Dad’s clay sculpture of the giant horse head—and still have space left over. The thick honeysuckle climbing the trellis at the far end hums with yellow jackets, the worst kind of wasps for hiding in rubber gloves and the toes of running shoes.
Dad’s knuckles are sharp on the aluminum door. His hands make goggles around his glasses as he peers inside the screen. Stepping back, he smooths his beard; Mum straightens both her spine and the billow of her blouse. From between the curtains of Mum’s wide trousers, Shell eyes the wasps.
“Don’t you go near that vine, Shell,” Mum says.
Dad raises his hand again but stops when a figure pops up behind the screen. The boy’s face is meshed in shadow. But his bottle of Mountain Dew is visible, as is a pale blue T-shirt, the gaping armholes of which reveal a red pepperoni of nipple each time he drinks. The boy’s eyes shift from Dad to Mum. And then they find Shell amid Mum’s pant legs. Without looking away, he calls for Gare to come: “There’s people want to see the house.” Again and again: “Gare.”
The door moans when the boy opens it, then slams fast, caught in an inward gust. The boy, standing there, is about nine. He hooks his shoulder blades on the edge of the railing and leans back into the pain. A deep scar splits the boy’s top lip in half, pulling it up into his right nostril and pinching it there as if with a safety pin. He must have to really brush and floss, because no matter how hard he tries he cannot hide his top row of blunt teeth and the strip of wet red gum. A snarling skull, he is, like there’s just not enough skin to make a full hood of lip. Somehow, the boy swigs Mountain Dew without a dribble.
“Mmmmm,” he breathes, too loud. The passage of his hand over his cloven lip leaves behind a trail of motor grease.
His eyes flick as the screen door wrenches outward. The thick caramel arm that holds it open belongs to a big man in overalls with a shark fin for a nose. Shark Nose has black nails. A hammer hangs from a loop at his hip. He wipes his free hand on his denim front and shakes with Dad, who asks for a look at the house. Mum’s fingers curl into Shell’s. And she is tugged inside. The boy’s flat grey eyes hold tight to Shell, who squeezes her top lip hard between her fingers.
Shark Nose says there’s hardwood under all the dirty carpet: “Place is solid.”
The main floor is as jumbled as a desk drawer, and the only place to sit is on one of five folding chairs tucked into a card table in the dining room. The orange plastic tablecloth glows like a Creamsicle against the chimney sweep surroundings.
“Everything works,” Shark Nose says to Mum, waving her through to the kitchen. “Nothing fancy.” Uncooked rice speckles the linoleum floor, which is way stickier than when Shell spilled the syrup. Up on the countertop, there’s a coffee urn the size of Mum’s FilterQueen vacuum, and the biggest box of Alpha-Bits.
The stairs to the basement are dark. The air tastes like the mushrooms Dad gathers along the train tracks and sautés for Friday night omelettes. At the bottom Shark Nose pulls on a light. Dad and Mum are not nearly as tall as Shark Nose, yet they too must stoop beneath the ceiling. The grown-ups move like roosters along the crates of empty glass bottles—Sprite, Mountain Dew, Coke, Labatt Blue—that partition off a bedroom. Four rollaway beds are lined up beneath a pair of muddy windows dimmed by uncut grass. Each mattress is wrapped in an unzipped sleeping bag, a crisp white sheet folded over like how some dads have their shirt cuffs.
The ceiling lets out a long, creaky ripple. Mum and Dad’s eyebrows rise above their glasses as they follow the footsteps along the rafters. They look like brother and sister with the same full curls and heavy glasses, and maybe they are, because they don’t hug or kiss or wear matching gold rings. Even in her Egypt sandals, Mum is taller than Dad. The ceiling stops creaking. Next comes growly laughing and snake-sounding words that make Dad frown. Shark Nose grins a bit and points at the beds. “Don’t mind them up there. Just my boys.”
The toilet under the stairs has for a doorknob a diamond that’s baseball big. While Mum and Dad consider the washer and dryer that come with the sale, Shell traces the knob’s jewelled facets.
“But we just can’t fight off the damp,” Shark Nose is saying to Dad but not Mum, “and these foster kids tend to have asthma.” He, Shark Nose, really thought he’d done up the basement okay for them, but still they get sick.
Dad follows Shark Nose through the back to the garage while Shell tugs Mum toward the red swing set in the neighbour’s yard, on the other side of a high fence. Mum, though, is watching the boy. He crouches at the base of a dense black walnut, the empty bottle pressed hard between his knees like he’s trying to burst it. The walnut’s branches ensnare the power lines above, and its fallen balls of hard green fruit stain a patch of concrete that might have once been a patio. Shell follows his eyes, which are on Dad and Shark Nose as they near the garage.
Of the two school buses inside, one has its engine torn out. Silver tools and blackened rags and drink cans litter the concrete floor, and a picture of an orange lady in a bathing suit hangs beside a dull chrome sink. Dad hitches up his jeans and disappears into the brush that grows thick between the garage and the neighbour’s stretch of chain link. A fit of barking erupts. Mum almost breaks Shell’s fingers she squeezes so hard. Ever since a needle-nosed mutt chased them all the way up their street and clamped its jaws on Mum’s bell-bottom, Mum carries a thick wooden chair leg in her bike basket. Shell had been strapped behind Mum in the carrier seat. Mum’s long hair was braided and, like Shell’s, ribboned at the ends. The world was bobbing by: train tracks, Kit Kat store, lace curtains, autumn leaves raked up like bowls and bowls of salad. Then the dog came tearing alongside, nails clipping the ground, orange eyes to match its coat. Mum shouted—screamed—and the bike had careened, nearly skidding out. Then the dog caught Mum’s pants in its teeth. The fabric ripped to the knee. Shell was crying, her head weighing heavy on her neck. But Mum kept on going. She pedalled hard and got three streets over before she stopped and turned around.
Behind the garage, Dad whistles sharp enough to split ice. The dogs go quiet. When Dad comes back out, there are leaves in his beard, and bright beads of garnet squeeze through a scratch along his forearm.
“Imagine the garden I could put in here,” he whispers, holding in his smile.
Dad asks to see the roof. Shark Nose calls to the boy, who shoves the pop bottle into the back pocket of his loose jeans. They carry a ladder from the garage like it’s a coffin. Shell counts the ribs—four—that show through the boy’s gaping armhole. Dad jams the ladder into the ground before he climbs it, ducking low sweeps of walnut branch. Mum and Shark Nose squint up into a bright ball of western sun. The boy seems gone now. Though Shell feels the pull of the swing set through the fence, she stays near Mum.
“Shingles’re new,” Shark Nose calls to Dad, hooking his thumbs into his pockets. “Me and the boys laid them not a year ago.”
Dad lifts his glasses and peers down the tin chimney. He pencils something in his notebook, then crouches down and scans the eavestrough. Behind Shell there is a soft belch and the smell of burned candy. A shadow cools her back.
“There’s all kinds of junk buried back here,” the boy says. It must be his lip that wets his words with slur. “Here in the dirt, under where we’re standing. You’ll see.” The touch of his finger on Shell’s bare shoulder is warm and firm. Just as Shell and Mum turn around, he pulls back his arm and tosses away his pop bottle. It twirls, bottom over top, and lands with a thud in the tall grass, among the fallen walnuts. Shell waits for it to break, yearns for it, but the sound does not come.
Up on the peak of the roof, the sun blanks Dad’s heavy glasses. “Hey, fella,” he hollers. “Pick up that bottle.”
“Huh? ” The boy squints up at Dad.
“Go on.” Dad’s voice is sharp. His beard juts out to point where the bottle landed. “Can’t litter like that.”
Shell mouths the word “litterbug” so only she can hear. In Montessori, they sat in a circle and recited, “Pick it up!” and “Don’t be a litterbug,” while the teacher thumped notes on the wooden piano.
The boy shrugs.
Up above them, Dad widens his stance. Then he makes for the ladder.
“You heard the man,” Shark Nose shouts. “On with it.”
Bowing his head, the boy walks the yard, scanning for the bottle. Red flush crawls up the back of his neck, into the jagged edge of his hairline. His sneakers crunch the dry grass, and then there is a too-long sigh as he bends over.
“Okay? ” he says to Dad, holding up the bottle. But Dad is already stepping down the ladder, his back turned.
Mum walks Shell out to the car. Several steps back, Dad and Shark Nose talk, arms crossed, looking down at each other’s shoes. Leather boots to canvas sneakers. The boy and his bottle are so close behind Shell, she switches to Mum’s other hand, finding it just as wet.
“Hippie,” the boy whispers, tramping the back of Shell’s heel. “Stupidassholehippiedad.”
Shell takes two steps instead of one, stumbling. Mum pulls her back to her feet, wrenching Shell’s arm in its socket.
Mum and Shell stand in the shadow of the locked Dart. The boy sits on the front steps, his elbows propped behind him. His eyes are not really closed—the lids flicker, watching. His teeth must get so dry and dirty, exposed to air and bugs all the time. That’s why his words are so ugly, so mean.
“That garage’ll make a fantastic studio,” Dad says, tucking his notebook in his shirt pocket and getting in the driver’s seat. He leans over and opens Mum’s door from the inside, because the handle is broken. Mum clips Shell’s seat belt; her dark, coarse hair has escaped its elastic, falling over her face. If Shell were to reach up and take off Mum’s heavy glasses, Mum would be someone so much lighter she might just float away from Dad and Shell and the Dodge Dart and get lost in the clouds she sings about when she puts on Joni Mitchell. Dad’s glasses occupy the rear-view mirror. “We can get a couple of kilns in there. Hey? That chimney’s good to ventilate.”
Mum’s going on about getting away from those damn tracks. “Imagine an entire night without being rattled and hooted awake? ”
In Dad’s side mirror, the boy moves across the front lawn. Hidden muscles swell in his arms. The Mountain Dew bottle dangles from a crooked middle finger. When he takes it up, full in his grip, Mum and Dad are busy talking about bank loans and reasonable offers. Dad pulls away from the red-brick house. And slowly the boy in the mirror raises his arm, pop bottle wielded. Shell sinks low in her seat, covering her face so shattered glass won’t poke her eyes or slice her nose when the bottle comes crashing through the rear windshield.
“Faster, Dad!” she bellows, kicking hard at the back of Dad’s seat.
“What the hell? ” Dad shouts. But the car’s already turning the corner, south off Cashel Street.
The day they move in to the new house is bright white with summer. Dad and Kremski get drenched unloading the big truck with the sliding back door that Dad rented at 5:30 a.m. For five whole days, Mum and Shell scrubbed away at the smells and stains of Shark Nose and those boys that weren’t adopted but only fostered, which means Shark Nose’ll be their dad until he decides he’s had enough. Because who wants a son with a hairy lip? No, no: harelip. A birth defect that makes him look like a rabbit. A rabbit? Rabbits are soft and gentle.
“I hate that boy,” Shell told Mum when it was time to bleach the basement. And she told her again and again until it turned into red-hot chanting.
It is too stuffy upstairs for sleeping and though Dad really insists, Shell won’t let anyone sleep in the cool basement.
Dad says Shell is being unreasonable: “It’s our place now.” Shell lies between Mum and Dad on their double mattress in what will be the living room, tossing among the sticky sheets and the silver blue falling through bare windows. A few times Shell wakes, blinking through a night so quiet and still they could be camping. Her eyes adjust to the dark: shadowed walls, claw-foot chair. The pine tree in the corner is just a teetering stack of Sealtest crates. The silence and heat weigh equally heavy; waiting for one or both to break, she falls back to sleep.
Dad gets up first and takes his coffee outside. Mum can’t find the porridge pot or the toaster, so she soaks sliced rye in beaten egg and fries each piece golden. There is jam and syrup on the table Dad and Kremski lugged in yesterday, a slab of cheddar for protein.
“Call your dad in.” Mum bends into the oven with a plate of bread. The dishes are the cornflower ones Mum never uses, because Dad doesn’t like that fancy English stuff. Well, everything else is still packed.
And because Shell’s sandals have likewise disappeared among the boxes and bags, rolls of curtains, piles of cushions, she runs outside barefoot.
“Shell!” Mum’s cry fades with the slam of the screen door.
Down the rough steps, over the sandy patio stones, and onto the coarse lawn, Shell jumps over fallen walnuts and the patches of turned soil where Dad has already started to garden. From up on the garage comes the click-clock of Dad’s hammer. The yard, Mum says, is three or four times as big as the one they left behind. Shell can’t have a swing of her own, so she’s going to make Mum ask if she can play on the one next door, and then Dad can cut a hole in the fence so she doesn’t have to go around to the front every time. Are there kids living there? Mum doesn’t think so. Then why have a swing? Maybe there were kids once, but they’re grown up and gone. Gone where? Where is that place grown-ups go to disappear?
Click-clock. Dad’s hammer echoes. Shell twirls—one loop, two—toward the ladder propped against the garage that Dad already calls “the studio.” Then, there: up ahead in the grass, a sudden sparkle. Mid-stride, the sparkle becomes a glint, then a jagged circle of emerald. It glows, dazzles. And it’s too late: Shell’s right foot lands hard. A sharp spike sinks deep into the meaty ball. She freezes, impaled by a pain beyond pain, like a thousand yellow jacket stings all at once.
The back door seems to slam even before Shell cries out. Mum’s clogs pound down the steps, across the lawn, and then Mum is drawing Shell into her body. She grips Shell’s foot and pulls out the biting. Dad is there. Like a baby Shell is draped in his arms. Below her the ground shakes as Dad races across the yard and into the Dart, where Mum is already waiting with an armful of tea towels with which she wraps Shell’s foot. She holds Shell on her lap. Shell remembers the bread in the hot oven, and she thinks it will be okay if it catches fire and the house burns right down. Then everyone will give them clothes and toys and they can live somewhere really new, maybe an apartment with a pool and no boys or grass.
The oven was on very low, so the house is still there after the hospital hours later. Dad strings the Mexican hammock between two black walnuts, and Mum cocoons Shell inside, propping her bandaged foot up high on a bedroom pillow. A cheese sandwich and a glass of milk teeter on a stool just in reach. Dad, above, rocks the hammock, slow as a breeze.
“Eighteen is a lucky number,” he says of the stitches closing up her foot. “One day you’ll be eighteen.”
When she’s eighteen, Shell knows she’ll remember Dad saying that, like she’ll remember the way the sun above turns the walnut leaves into lace, and how good the bread and cheese tastes, sweet with mayonnaise. The painkiller tablets make it all fuzzy. Inside fuzz, outside fuzz.
When Shell opens her eyes again, Dad is digging up sod along the fence. Fresh washing stretches from porch to studio, above Shell’s backyard bed. One, two, three, four tea towels brown with bloodstains.
“Look.” From a wooden quart basket splotched with strawberry picking, Dad pulls a perfect circle of green glass. The circle is edged in spikes, curving up like mammoth tusks. Above the hammock, bedsheets and pillowcases float past, the rusty line squawking.
Dad says the glass is old. It had been buried in the backyard for a while. His gardening churned it up. Dad says that a long time ago there were no garbage trucks, so if something broke people dug a hole and buried it. “That was it. Forgotten.”
So they live on a dump?
“A midden,” Dad says. Everyone had one. “Many in the world have them still.”
Dad lets Shell run her finger along the glass, the razor jaws of it.
“Mountain Dew,” Shell says. “The same green.”
Now Dad says Shell is being silly: “Green was the colour of glass back when this house was built.” Along with the glass, Dad found a blackened spoon and some long, rusty nails, a few triangles of dinner plates, cornflower like Mum’s. Unlike the clean green glass, each of these other bits is covered in hard dirt. “You just make sure you wear shoes, kiddo.” Dad sets the basket on the wooden bench they brought from their old backyard and then picks up his shovel.
The hammock loses its sway. Behind Shell, someplace she can’t see, Dad’s shovel breaks deep into the dry grass, in search of fertile soil. Lemon soap floats in the air. Down there, on the other side of the basement windows through which Shell can barely see, the harelip boy would have chugged a Mountain Dew and then broken the bottle—smash—on the concrete floor. His foster brothers, atop their rollaways and wheezing for air, would have watched him, learning. Before wrapping the shard in a rag, he would have held it up to the bare bulb at the bottom of the stairs, like Dad when he examines slides. Then, maybe on the very day they packed up the school buses and moved out, he planted the broken end of the bottle in the grass, spikes upright. Maybe if she prays to God for him, the boy will get his rabbit face fixed and be regular enough that a good mum and dad will want him. Then he’ll really feel sorry for hurting Shell and one day come back to Cashel Street to say so.
After supper, when the street lights come on, Dad piggybacks Shell up to the small room in the front that is hers now. The heat has broken. The box fan in Mum and Dad’s window circulates the air, like blood in a body, books in a library. Her bed and dresser are in place, curtains hung. Cars pass, pushing and pulling shadows. And the house’s silence speaks so loud, Shell cannot hear Mum and Dad in the living room below.
By the wedge of hall light spilling across her bed, Shell unwinds the damp bandage from her foot. A gasp of moisture oozes out, along with the smell of peppermint Trident. The stitches along the ball make a long, tight insect: black and hairy and three whole inches long, while the surrounding flesh is harassed and red. And though there is a deep, dark itch inside, the pain is gone. Dad’s going to rig up the wading pool tomorrow. She can dangle her foot over the edge. Oh, and Kremski’s coming to help Dad tear up more of the grass. They’ve got to get the basil in. While Kremski rolls one of his Drums, Shell will tell him about the hospital and show him the piece of glass Dad promised is still in the berry basket.
Somewhere a car horn blares—once, twice—lonesome and long. She wishes for the burly CNs that used to rumble down the railroad tracks, so far now from their new house.
This appeared in the January/February 2014 issue.
Nadia Bozak will release her third book, El Niño, this spring.
Julia Breckenreid is featured in Steven Heller’s 100 Illustrators.