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[Fiction] I Think So, Fred

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

by Toni Kochensparger

They stopped at Kat’s on the way home. It was where they’d stopped on their way home from the funeral, too. It was brand new at the time. Carly’s dad wanted a place where they wouldn’t be recognized. Going there quickly became a routine.


“There it is,” her dad said as they turned into the parking lot. “The place where nothing tragic ever happened.”

Kat was originally born in Chicago, although she’d gone to school in Arizona. She worked for her boyfriend in Cleveland for about a decade before she secured the loan to open up the diner and made her way to Dayton (“A fresh start,” she had told them, which they soon learned was code for “We broke up.”) She had two cats (Roger and Oops) and a crippling tendency to begin excitedly telling you about a movie she’d seen the night before, then realizing she couldn’t really remember any of the details of what happened.


They knew everything about Kat.


Kat had both of their drink orders in hand before they got to the door. “Well, hi, you two,” Kat said as they took their seats.


“Thanks, Kat,” Carly said, sliding into the booth.


“How’s your uncle?” her dad asked.


They knew everything about Kat.

“Better, thanks,” she said. “How are you three? All ready for vacation?”

It was easy to avoid at first—questions about Carly’s mom. It got trickier, the more they started going back, the better they got to know each other. Kat wasn’t the kind of person who was uncurious in conversation. The supposed vacation—a family trip to an island in the Bahamas Carly’s father had invented a week or so ago—was bullshit. A lie, just like everything else.


“Oh, we’re fine,” Carly’s dad said. “Carly here is one of the leads in the fall play.”


“It’s not one of the leads, Dad,” Carly said. “It doesn’t really have any leads. It’s not that kind of play.”


“She’s highlighted so many lines in that little book that I’m not entirely convinced it’s not a one-woman show,” her dad said to Kat.


“Oh my gosh,” Kat said. “Joyce must be thrilled.”


Carly’s dad almost choked on his coffee. Carly’s mom had been heavily involved in the community theater scene, a detail that, apparently, hadn’t slipped Kat’s attention.


Carly shot her dad a look.


“Pleased and proud,” he said, finally.


Carly looked back down at her script.


#


“So, what’s this party?” Carly’s dad asked. He had waited until she had a mouth full of waffles.


“It’s at Khaya’s,” Carly said, still chewing. “It’s just a bunch of people from the play.” Carly sucked a bubble of syrup stuck to her thumb. “Her parents have a pool.”


“It’s October.”


“It’s a heated pool.”


“So…what?”


“What?”


“I mean… Are there going to be boys there, or—”


“Dad—”


“It is literally my job to ask.”


Yes, there are going to be boys there. There are like ten of them in the cast. And they all have great big giant dicks.”


“Carly.”


“All of them just ran out of condoms.”


“Okay, I get it.”


“It’s just a party, Dad,” Carly said. “People talking and swimming.”


“Right,” Carly’s dad said.


“So can I go?”


Carly’s dad looked from his plate to his hands, to Kat, to the ceiling, then back to Kat, to his hands, and to his plate again before his eyes finally landed on Carly’s open playscript, practically painted yellow with highlighter.

“Fine,” he said, finally. He turned and signaled Kat for the check.


#


“We’ve gotta be there by six so we can get a good spot,” Carly’s dad said. They were back in the car and headed home. He was talking about the following Monday.


“Dad, that’s so early.”


“It’s not that early.”


“It starts at seven.” Every year since Carly was little, her family had taken a trip to Gratis to see Hocus Pocus on the big screen at one of the last drive-in movie theaters still left standing. Carly loved it. The place exploded with sensory memory: the tin sound of car-side speakers, the straw-covered mud beneath feet pounding toward the concession stand, the cold October, caustic in your nose.


“I’ll have to meet you there, anyway,” Carly said.


“What do you mean?”


“I’ve got yearbook on Monday.”


“Until when?”


“Five thirty.”


“Well.” Carly could feel her dad’s mood sink like a thermostat. “Fine, then. Okay, so then let’s plan to meet there at six thirty.”


“Dad—”


“If you leave right after yearbook, you should be able to make it in plenty of time,” he said. “I’ll bring one of the cones from the garage.”


“No, don’t, please. I hate that.”


“That way I can save your spot.”


“I’ll just park somewhere and come find you,” Carly said. “It’s not like we were going to watch it from different cars or something.”


“Right,” her dad said. Then he opened his mouth again. Then he closed it.


#


“We’re not on the same page at all,” Carly said when they got home. “Dad, you really have to keep going as I go, or it isn’t even helpful.”

They had been running lines for an hour that easily felt like seventeen. Part of the issue was Carly’s dad’s insistence on correcting small mistakes, like when she would say “the” instead of “a,” or “Sprite” instead of “Coke,” which interrupted the flow like a bear trap. The other part of the issue was Carly still didn’t know all her lines.

“Well, you’ve only got a few more days, and I know how important it is to get it—”


“Dad!” He had already forgotten not to remind her about opening night.


“I swear to God,” he told Carly later, over dinner, “you act so much like your mother sometimes that it’s eerie.”


“Did you correct her over everything, too?”


“Oh, yes.”


“And did she make you pay for it?”


“That she did.”


“Well, there we have it,” Carly said. She smiled at him. “But I’m not Mom.”


“No, I know that,” her dad said, standing and gathering dishes. “I know.”


“I don’t mean it like a bad thing,” she said, turning in her chair to face the kitchen, arms draped over the back.


“I only mean you get a lot of you from her,” he said.


“Except for my looks, of course,” Carly said.


“Right. All of that’s from me.”


“Did you run lines with Mom when you guys were dating?”


“All the time. It was the most common thing we ever fought about. She’d get worked up, like you. Always waited to learn her lines until the last minute. But that nose?” he said, nodding toward his daughter. “That Greek statue of a perfect nose you’ve got? That was all me. And it was enough to keep your mom coming back for more.”


“Even though you never learned your lesson.”


“That’s love, baby.” He laughed and stopped washing dishes for a second. Then he started up again. “That’s your mom.”


#


“So,are you gonna fuck that Jason kid or what?” Khaya had been Carly’s best friend since freshman year. Her parents had a heated pool and plans to be very, very out-of-town for the weekend.


“Why do I have to fuck anyone?” Carly asked.


“You don’t have to, but you’re definitely, like… I mean, you’ve got that poor boy in your crosshairs.”


“He is a little like a baby calf or something,” Carly said. “I’m worried if I fuck him, I’ll break him.”


“Okay, you won’t, but that reminds me: You know Cassie, right?”


“Tall Cassie or Cat Scratch Cassie?”


“Tall Cassie.”


“Sure.”


“And you know her boyfriend, Thomas?”


“Maybe. Is he—”


“The loud idiot who sits in the back in Spanish?”


“Then yeah.”


“Okay, apparently—and you did not hear this from me—she was, like, jerking him off—”


Horrendous—”


“And I guess. I don’t know if she’s got a death grip or if Tall’s just genuinely very dumb, but apparently, she was giving him a hand job like a week ago, and she tore his foreskin.”


“That’s not real.”


“It’s definitely real.”

“That’s a lie.”


“I swear to God. Anyway, don’t do that to Jason.”


“Don’t rip his penis? Noted. Thanks.”


“Don’t rip anything.”


“Jesus,” Carly said, an eye on Jason’s many visible bones poking through his costume. “Can it really tear?”


“He looks like a bag of old doorknobs,” Khaya said.

They both just watched. Jason was one of the many non-leads in the play. He played on the basketball team, less out of a love of the game and more because of the school’s coach, who spent freshman year leering at Jason’s towering skeleton like a stranger with a van full of candy.

He wasn’t actually any good, if you paid attention to the game, but his height was an asset, meaning he’d accidentally landed the status of athlete despite possessing no real skill. So he had all the nerdy qualities that made a person approachable in the first place, while also possessing a VIP card that granted him access to the popular kids’ lunch table. He was like a unicorn.

“God, he’s so bad at this,” Carly whispered to Khaya. Jason wasn’t particularly adept at acting, either. As far as the girls were concerned, the boy was practically useless except, of course…


“He’s just got those lips,” Carly whispered in a little daze.


“Carly!” the play’s director, Mr. Vincent, shouted from the audience.


“Oh, shit!” Carly said, jumping to her feet and scrambling toward the stage. As she made her way into the light, Jason was exiting, and in the dark, for just a second, their shoulders touched.


“Okay, Carly,” an impatient Mr. Vincent called out from the ink pool of black consuming the audience. He waited until a look of recognition erupted on her face. “Okay, Carly,” he said again. “This is the part where you cry.”


#


“Don’t put too much mascara,” Khaya said. They were in Khaya’s bedroom, getting ready for the party, applying each other’s makeup. “I’m gonna suck Tyler McCullough’s dick like it’s a straw bursting out an iced coffee, and I fucking do not want streaks.


Tyler? Why Tyler?”


“He’s funny.”


“That’s not enough.”


“Shelly Connor says he has a really big dick. Also, I guess he was really, like, respectful, or whatever.”


“God willing,” Carly said, readjusting her plans for Khaya’s face in real time. “And you’re sure Jason’s coming?”


“That was your job.”


“Khaya!”


“He’ll be here. He’s getting a ride with Danny and Kim.”


“Jason doesn’t have a car?”


“No. He. Does. Not,” Khaya said.


“The boy can’t act.”


“He can’t shoot a basketball.”


“He’s awful at math,” Carly said. “I had him in my algebra class, like two years ago.” Every time he tried to do a problem on the board, she wanted to jump off a cliff.


“But he does have nice lips,” Khaya said.


“This is true.” Carly paused and stepped back to look at Khaya. “Okay, how about that?”


Khaya turned to look in the mirror.


“Well, well, well,” Khaya said, spinning back around to face Carly. “Let’s go jump some bones.”


#


Khaya’s house was the kind of suburban brand-new that made you look for as-of-yet-unpeeled cling film everywhere you went. It was one of several cookie-cutter McMansions newly added to the area—all, so far, occupied by their high school’s most lip-glossed and Abercrombied of peers, none of whom would hang out with Khaya (“Money doesn’t buy class,” she told Carly the first time Carly came over to her house for dinner). Compared to Khaya’s house, Carly’s was basically an abandoned Long John Silver’s (“I love it,” she told Carly the first time she went to Carly’s house. “It’s not like where I live. It’s not cold.” She meant it. Like really meant it. “It’s a real home.”)


Because Khaya’s parents were frequently traveling for some combination of pleasure and work (and because of her dad’s almost militant insistence on keeping the house fully stocked at all times), it was next to impossible to determine who was drinking what alcohol when. This meant Khaya threw good parties.


The girls filled an Igloo cooler, which one of Jason’s teammates had brought over, with two bottles of tequila they took from an open case in the garage. They added ice, then margarita mix. Then Khaya made several jokes about the physical capabilities of the boy called Tyler until he agreed to shake the five-gallon barrel none of the kids thought to simply stir.


“Nothing after 2001,” Khaya called to Carly, who was setting up the music.


The house was half-full before it got dark, an uneven blend of popular kids and “Real Human People,” as Khaya called them. She was fairly proud of the mix.


“My mom goes to New York all the time,” she told Carly as they surveyed the crowd. “She says, in New York everything’s about mixing high and low culture.”


Carly watched as two football players she recognized as friends of Jason’s took turns punching each other in their flexed abdomens. Behind them, Brittany Wagner, who looked like every prom queen ever, was allowing a small line of people to drink vodka from her freshly pierced navel.


“I’m pretty sure this is what Jesus was talking about when he said all that stuff about the meek,” Carly said.


“If you see Brittany take anyone upstairs, come get me,” Khaya said.


“What about everybody else?”


“As long as they don’t have sex in my bedroom, I don’t care,” Khaya said. “And mine’s locked, so no worries there.”


“Just Brittany?”


“Just Brittany.”


“Because of eighth grade?”


“Because of eighth grade.”


Outside, Khaya’s pool had quickly filled with the chaos of their classmates and several spilled gulps of margarita. In one corner of the pool, a girl called Tamara and her friends sang loudly. At the other end, the boy called Tyler took his turn on the diving board.


“Don’t fuck up!” Khaya yelled at him, just as his toes were about to leave the board. Tyler turned to look and landed in the water with a smack.


“Oh, shit!” Khaya whispered. She rushed over to the side of the pool Tyler had retreated to.


“I feel like you wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with half these folks,” said a voice next to Carly. She turned to see Jason standing there, peering out at the crowd. He didn’t have a drink in his hand.


“I like to watch from a distance,” Carly said. “Like it’s anthropology.”


“Like it’s what?”


Carly pretended not to hear him. “Do you want a drink?”


“No,” Jason said.


They stood in silence for two thousand years. Carly watched as Khaya turned performative concern for the boy called Tyler into a let’s-go-get-you-patched-up routine that involved Khaya leading Tyler directly from the party to her bedroom.


“Well, do you want to—” Carly started to say.


“I want to go somewhere we can be alone,” Jason said, eyes still not on Carly—eyes straight ahead, locked on the middle distance of the party.


“We can do that,” Carly said, quietly.


Khaya’s parents’ bedroom was like something from a doctor’s office magazine. The furniture was styled but unimaginative. All of the things you’d expect and nothing that would surprise you. Carly sat down on the too-big bed.


Jason remained standing.


“So how are you?” he asked her, finally.


“Well, right now I cry every day,” Carly said.


Jason laughed. “It doesn’t help that I keep leaving the train station before you get there.” He paused. “Do you, um. Do you like acting?”


“No,” Carly said, flat and without thinking. She answered so quickly, she was almost surprised by the sound of her voice.


“Why are you in the play, then?”


Carly’s eyes were trained on a small collection of perfume bottles on Khaya’s mom’s vanity. She turned to Jason again. “I don’t know, actually.”


Jason adjusted his stance. “It’s kind of a bad play, isn’t it?”


“It’s terrible.”


“I mean, I don’t really like, know this world, but—”


“No, you’re right,” Carly said, smiling at him. “There are lots of bad plays.”


“Right.”


“And then there’s our play.”


Jason laughed. Slowly, he made his way to the bed and sat down next to Carly.


“I always wanted to try acting,” he said.


“And?”


“Now I’ve tried it,” he said.


“Now you can move on?”


“Exactly.”


“Huh,” Carly said. Her eyes were stuck, unfocused, on a single lightbulb in the corner of the room. Her skin all gooseflesh.


“Honestly, I don’t have any clue what I really want to do at all,” Jason said. “Like in life, I mean.”


“What do your parents say?”


“They’re…you know? They want me to be happy. I think they’ll be glad when the play’s over.”


“Why?”


“Well, Dad had to kind of reorganize his schedule so Mom would have the car at five o’clock, instead of the bell,” he said. “Everybody’ll go back to normal, like routines and stuff. Plus, right now that means days we don’t have rehearsal, I’m just stuck at school until five, anyway.”


“What do you do?


“I’m supposed to do homework and stuff.”


“Yeah, but what do you actually do?” Carly asked.


“Listen to music. If I’m really bored, I’ll go to the cafeteria bathroom and masturbate.”


“You masturbate in school?”


“I have a penis, don’t I?”


“You all masturbate in school?”


“Not together, like all at the same time or something.”


“But basically every guy does?”


“The science is still out on the side effects of not doing it,” he said. “So, until then.”


“So, like, during class?”


Especially during class. That’s like the best time to do it.”


“Whose class have you—”


“You remember Ms. Kincaid?”


“Yeah.”


“I’d say I probably left that class, like, four times a week.”


“Didn’t you have to take algebra twice?”


“See, that’s what we might call a side effect.”


“But that’s a side effect of doing it, not from not.”


“Clinical trials are still in their early stages.”


“How long have you been participating in the trials?”


Jason thought about it for a second. “At least like three and a half years.” He paused. “Girls don’t masturbate at school?”


“I don’t think so, Fred,” Carly said without thinking. Some heat in her chest.


“Excuse me?”


“Nothing,” she said.


“No. I just told you, like, my dick’s itinerary.”


“You volunteered!”


“So did you!”


Carly paused. Her chin tilted toward her chest in a slow cascade of embarrassment. “It’s just something my mom used to say. We all used to say. My family.”


“Who’s Fred?”


“Fred’s nobody. I don’t know where the Fred part came from. For a while, when I was little, Dad tried to make Fred, like, my nickname, too, or something, but it never stuck.”


“So Fred’s not a person.”


“Fred’s just the name that we use for the game.”


“Gotcha. Okay, so no Fred. But it’s a game.”


“Not like a game game,” Carly said. “Like a fake game. A…fake…like when you fake fight. Argue.”


“Well. I mean. Okay, so…”


“Basically we, like, do it whenever someone’s being ornery or something. Like, um… Okay, so say if you, like… Say you wanted to, uh…” Carly tightened her death grip on the comforter. “Say you wanted…to…asked if you could kiss me.”


Jason’s face turned cartoon-blood red. “Right.”


“So, like… I’ll show you, so… Or no, no,” she said, releasing the fabric and turning to face him. “It’ll work better if I ask you.”


“So what do—”


“You just. Like. Okay I’ll ask, and that’s all you say is, ‘I don’t think so, Fred.’”


“I don’t think so, Fred,” Jason said with some effort.


“Exactly. Okay, then okay, so,” she said, guiding Jason’s shoulders with her hands so that he was fully turned toward her. “Let’s practice.”


“Okay.”


“So I’ll go. I’ll say…” She closed her eyes for half a second and then opened them. “Jason, I would please like to kiss you on the lips.”


Jason sat, frozen, like a deer in a monster truck’s headlights.


Carly waited a beat. “Okay, so then you say…”


“Um,” Jason said, blinking. “I don’t think so, Fred.”


Carly, whose left hand was still affixed to the boy’s obtuse, knobby shoulder, let her fingers fall until they just barely grazed the outline of his elbow. She whispered it at first:


“I think so, Fred.”


Jason looked down at her hand on his arm.


“And then you say…” Carly prompted.


He looked up at her. A brief lightbulb. “I don’t think so, Fred.”


“Oh,” Carly said, her right hand making slow-motion contact with his knee. “I think so, Fred.”


Jason stirred in his seat. His eyes caught a sliver of stomach skin shining beneath her breasts. Now it was his turn to whisper.


“I don’t think so, Fred.”


Carly’s hand skipped Jason’s thigh for his waist. She moved her face close to his.


“I think so, Fred.”


“I don’t think so, Fred.”


“I…think so,” Carly said. And a struck nail shattered the universe.


#


Sunday’s hangover flew under Carly’s dad’s radar, but only because he was distracted by Kat. Sometimes Carly wondered if there was a parallel universe to hers where Kat was her mother, or at least one where Kat knew the truth if for no other reason than that it would mean her dad could pursue his funny little crush. Kat could pursue hers.


In the car after breakfast, Carly checked her eyes in the visor mirror for bags while her dad did the same thing he always did when they left the diner—she’d long stopped paying attention, but if you watched him settle into the car, you could see the reality fall right back into place on his shoulders.


“All right,” he said, turning the key in the ignition, “back at it.” And he pulled out of the parking lot and away from the diner. The place where nothing bad had ever happened.


“You’ll call before you leave for Gratis?” He was talking about Monday.


I’ll call,” Carly said.


“Okay, good,” her dad said, watching a flock of birds overhead before turning his eyes back to the road. “Good.”


#


“Do you think we’ll remember any of these people?” Carly asked as she slowly added each junior’s photograph to the page with a loud and satisfying click.


“Honestly, I would pay not to remember,” Carly’s friend Maggie said.


This year’s yearbook theme was Horizons, which was somehow different than last year’s theme of New Beginnings. Carly glanced at the time in the corner of her screen, a clock she suspected was somehow stopped, even though it was on her computer and could, presumably, be trusted. “Any time the horizon feels like showing up, that’d be great,” she said.


The girls continued working in silence. Carly quietly cropped Brittany Wagner’s photograph so that it cut off the top of her head.


“Do people really look at these?” Carly asked.


“The photos?”


“No, I mean like the whole yearbook like, after the first week, when everybody gets it.”


“Mine’s honestly mostly for my mom,” Maggie said.


“It just seems like such… I don’t know. Abrupt nostalgia.”


Maggie leaned forward to add the phrase abrupt nostalgia to their ongoing list of potential band names, taped to the wall between their computers.


Carly continued. “I just mean it’s a little early to already be, like, remembering. Like. I read something in, I think, Mrs. Caufield’s class about how a photograph replaces our memory. Like when we think about something that happened, our imagination stops at the 2-D image, or whatever.”


“Do you think that’s true?”


“I mean…” Carly’s eyes flickered past Maggie for a moment. Jason was standing in the hallway, giving a small wave.


“I guess it’s like Myspace,” Maggie said, absentmindedly dragging and dropping file after file. In the hallway, Jason leaned back against one of the lockers like he knew he was beautiful. “Like sometimes when I look at people’s, like, icons…avatars or whatever. Sometimes that picture is just how I think of them.”


In the hallway, Jason’s torso was like a grass field for running.


“Like. Okay. Have you seen Andy’s profile pic?”


“Um…maybe?” Carly said. Wet dew on a grass field. Perfume bottles on the vanity, like the pipes on a church organ.


“Okay, the one with Andy is of him in the band room getting ready for homecoming, right? So it’s all these kids in their, like, military uniforms. Their marching band clothes.”


The small pink circles of lace grazing the wire of Carly’s favorite bra.


“Anyway, it’s a bunch of them posing together and looking all official, and there’s Andy, in the middle.”


In the hallway, Jason made a gesture, nodding his head toward the other end of the hall, where the bathrooms were.


“He’s got the boots, the coat, the gloves, that dumbass hat and…no pants.”


Jason jerked his head to the left again.


“That’s all I see now. When I think of Andy. I mean, that’s all I see.”


“Right,” Carly said, not looking at Maggie at all. “I’ll be right back.”


#


The cold bathroom air seemed to undress them before their hands could steer fabric. The locked stall door like the entrance to a lion’s den. Carly’s fingers found a zipper.


#


“Sometimes I think that all high school is, is our bodies falling through a fever of the obvious,” Carly said. They’d left the school and were following the path behind the building to the land lab.


Jason ducked to avoid a large tree branch. “What is a fever of the obvious?”


“I mean, like, okay, so we grow up basically, like, surrounded by images of high school, right?”


“You mean like TV?”


Exactly. But like most of it’s about the mythology of high school itself. Not about high schoolers, like actual human beings capable of complexity and nuance. Instead it’s just about all the tropes that a person could fall through. Like a map of an average experience. And not just the obvious stuff like a school dance or whatever, but, like, the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling. The social decisions.”


She continued. “It’s like they inject all these expectations into your brain. How life’s supposed to be.”


“Sometimes I think that my life is a movie,” Jason said. “I mean like a real movie. Like I’m only a character.” He paused. “I guess it scares me because if nothing is real, then nothing I do really matters. Or it makes me feel uncomplicated. Easy to write.”


Carly looked up at him, then turned back to the trees. She grabbed his hand as they walked.


“I don’t think you’re uncomplicated,” she said. “I just think the first part—childhood—I guess this is all childhood. I think it’s like a tornado none of us can grab onto. Too fast to touch. And we’re all changing so fast, becoming new people.” She paused. “I guess what I mean about the obvious is that I feel like everything I’ve ever done is already expected of me. Like there’s someone, somewhere, just waiting to see that I do it.”


#


“Hey, Carly, it’s Dad. I just got here—well, you know me. Even I’ll admit this is embarrassingly early, however. Wait. Until. You see. Our spot. All right. I love you. Drive safe. I’ll see you soon.”


#


“Me again. I forgot to say what section. I’m right under the pole with the big B. As in battleship. Okay. Love you.”


#


“Hey, hon, I just wanted to check in—I figure you’re probably on the road already. I just hadn’t heard, but… Well, I’ll see you real soon. Love you, kiddo.”


#


“Carly, please give me a call when you get this.”


#


“Hey, Carly. It’s your dad. I’m gonna… I guess I’ll be at home. When you’re done.”


#


By the time Carly got home, all of the lights in the house were out, and her dad was asleep.


#


Carly’s dad smiled from ear to ear.


“Thanks, Kat,” he said as Kat made her way to the kitchen with their order. Carly’s dad was already on his way to work by the time she woke up on Tuesday. He had texted her at school to meet him afterward.


His smile faded like it had never been there. Carly didn’t say a word.


“You understand it’s an issue of your safety,” he said, finally.


Carly gave him a blank look.


“I’m not. I mean you know I’m not some helicopter kind of parent. I let you go to that party.”


Carly looked down at her lap. Like she could feel his body heat from across the table.


“I mean, if I don’t. If I don’t have—not tabs but at least an idea of where you are. I mean, I would feel—”


“I’m seventeen, Dad.”


“Right. So for the next six months, you’re still a child.”


“I’m. Ugh. Carly ran her hands through her hair and pulled.


“If something happens—”


“Nothing’s going to happen—”


“Well you don’t know that!” Her dad’s face turned red. He wasn’t the type to raise his voice in public, or in private, really.


“I can literally monitor my own physical safety,” Carly said as Kat set down their drinks.


“Thanks, Kat,” Carly’s dad said.


He waited until Kat was back in the kitchen to continue. “I mean, was it a boy?”


Dad!


“You think I don’t have a right to even ask? I mean, Jesus, Carly. I was terrified—”


“Yeah, well grow up, then.”


Her dad sat back in his seat. “Excuse me?”


“You were terrified? Terrified of what? That I’m off somewhere, getting pregnant?”


“That’s not—”


“Are you terrified that I’m…what? Smoking cigarettes? Stealing things? I mean what in the fuck are you—”


“I’m terrified that I’ll lose you, too.”


Carly sat back in her seat and looked at him. She frowned. “Yeah, well you’re going to have to figure that out.”


“Carly—”


“I can’t be everywhere you want me to be all the time, Dad.”


“Yeah, well that doesn’t mean you get to bail on me,” he said.


Carly paused. She could see something briefly, some flash of something dressed up as his anger.


“We have,” he said. “We still have family things that we do. Together. As a family.”


“What, like lie?”


Her dad winced. “Look. All I want…and I’m…I’m not telling…is…what I’m asking for…” He looked down at his hands. “I just want a little bit of, I guess, normalcy.”


Carly looked around the diner, the place where nothing tragic ever happened.


“Dad, I don’t think this is normal.”


“Says who? Says…I mean, it isn’t any different than it was. You know, with your mom.” Carly shot him a look. “It’s still…I mean that’s what we do as a family. That’s the kind of family we are. The kind we’ve always been.” He paused. “We’ve always played games.”


“Yeah, well maybe it’s time we stopped fucking around,” Carly said, looking at her hands.


“What’s that supposed to mean?”


“Dad, this isn’t grieving.”


“Grieving what?” Kat asked. She set down a tray with their meals.


Carly’s dad attempted a halfhearted smile. “Thanks, Kat.”


“What’s wrong, Rick?”


“Nothing. It’s really. Everything’s fine,” Carly’s dad said.


“Are you sure? Because, outside of my own familiarity with you both, all context clues point in a very different direction.”


“Dad?” Carly said. She was frozen in her seat.


“Really, Kat. It’s okay—”


Dad.”


“It’s just—”


“My mom’s dead, Kat.” The words were out of Carly’s mouth before she even realized she was speaking.


Carly burst into tears.


“Oh,” Kat said. “Oh, oh I’m so—”


“I’m sorry, Kat,” Carly’s dad said, quietly. Carly thought that he looked like a child.


Kat looked concerned and then confused. “Did it—I mean, when did—”


“The whole time,” Carly said, coldly, eyes like daggers cutting her dad’s eyelids to ribbons.


Kat’s face flushed with red. “I see. I see, so—”


“She’s dead!” Carly shouted at her dad, slapping the palm of her hand on the table so abruptly, she startled herself.


“I’m sorry, Kat,” Carly’s dad whispered. Kat disappeared into the back.


#


They hardly spoke to one another all week. When they passed each other in the kitchen or in the living room or in the hallway, Carly’s dad could barely look her in the eyes. He went to bed early every night that week, leaving Carly to memorize her lines on her own, something that was admittedly tough to focus on in the house’s new, unusual quiet. She found herself giving up early and going to bed long before she was tired. It felt like the whole house was already asleep.


#


Opening night of the play saw the women’s dressing room explode in excited cacophony.


“Jesus, will they shut up?” Carly asked Khaya. They had picked mirrors on the far side of the dressing room. Carly was trying to study her lines.


“So, what? Your dad’s just not coming?” Khaya asked.


“I don’t know if he’s coming or not,” Carly said. “He didn’t say anything this morning. Like not even ‘break a leg.’”


“So you really did fight.”


“I told you.” They finished their makeup and put on their wigs.


“You look like a prostitute,” Carly told Khaya as they left the dressing room.


“Okay, Miss Give-It-Away-For-Free-In-The-Bathroom. You know I’m the one who had to clean my parents’ sheets, right?”


“I thought your parents had a maid.”


Khaya rolled her eyes. “They do. But the maid doesn’t do, like, laundry and stuff like that—like we still have to do that stuff every time. Like Mom makes us clean before she comes, which, don’t even get me started—


The girls stopped in their tracks. Ahead of them, tucked in the shadows behind the stairs leading up to the catwalk, were Jason and a girl, Tracy, who worked on the props team, making out.


Carly felt a knot in her stomach, like bad medicine.


Jason slid his hand beneath Tracy’s shirt. She bit his neck. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back.


#


This is the part where you cry.


#


“And what will you do, now that he’s gone?” David asked.


Carly looked up. For a second, she had forgotten where she was.


“Mama’s got me a job downtown,” she said. She tried to take in her surroundings.


“You figure that’ll keep those fidgety hands busy?”


Carly looked out at the audience—the void beyond the wash of white-hot light. She wasn’t sure if she could see him.


“I said, do you figure that’ll keep your hands busy?” David asked again.


Carly turned to look at him.


“I said,” David started again. She used to always know. Even when the lights were blinding, she could tell which two seats her parents were in.


“How about it? Dinah.” David rapped his knuckles on the table as if to startle Carly awake.


“I don’t know,” Carly said to her lap.


“What?”


“I don’t know,” she said.


And then Carly sat there, frozen, for twenty seconds, which felt like minutes or months, maybe, a few tears slowly rolling down her face.


“That should keep them busy just fine,” David said, confused. “That should keep them busy just—”


#


Carly splashed water on her face in the dressing room. Her eyes were bloodshot in the overlit mirror.


She was in four more scenes.


Carly grabbed her things, waited to make sure no one was looking, and slipped out the backstage door.


#


There was a gentle knock on Carly’s bedroom door. She wiped her eyes.


“Come in,” she said. Her voice was hoarse from crying.


Carly’s dad opened the door to find his daughter sitting on the floor in the dark. She was still wearing her costume.


“Hey, kiddo.”


He sat down on the floor with his back against the wall, across from Carly. He let out a small sigh.


“I’m a little relieved. I mean, I know I’m not supposed to worry about you, but you weren’t in the lobby with the other kids. And then I didn’t see your car.” He paused. “It’s a little bit of a strange play, isn’t it?”


Carly’s eyes made new tears.


“Oh, hey. No, see, it’s o—”


“I ruined it.”


“So what?”


“It’s all. I mean, everybody saw me.”


“So, who cares what those people think?”


Carly sniffed. She eyed her dad cautiously. “You care.”


“I don’t care.”


“Yes, you do.”


“I don’t. I swear to God.”


“Then why am I even doing this?” Carly’s tears turned into tremors. Her dad moved across the room and took the seat next to her.


They sat in silence. Carly’s tears stopped and started up all over again, until her body heat became unbalanced and she started to shiver and sweat.


Eventually, she made her way into her dad’s arms. She wiped her eyes, but they just became wet again—slow tears bubbling up like blips to the surface.


“I’m tired of pretending,” she whispered.


“Okay,” her dad said. And then he held his daughter for decades, until she had cried it all out—until, eventually, it was time to stand up again.


“Did you eat?” he asked.


“Khaya and I got McDonald’s.”


“Okay, but are you hungry?”


By the time she’d changed out of her costume and into pajamas, a bowl of macaroni was waiting for her. Carly sat down across from her dad at the dinner table. They were both quiet. He watched the color slowly return to her face.


“You know, up until that last scene, I thought you were really good,” her dad said after a while.


“You don’t have to say that.”


“No, I mean it. It reminded me a lot of your mom.”


Dad.”


“I’m not kidding!”


Carly’s eyes were in her lap. She glanced up at her dad, then back down. She buried a small grin.


“I don’t think so, Fred,” she whispered. Then she reached out her hand and squeezed his until all the oceans of the planet evaporated. Then they both opened up their eyes. They went on living. They didn’t sail to the Bahamas. They took their time. It was going to take time.



Toni Kochensparger was born in Kettering, Ohio, and now lives in Queens. Their street writing can be found on Instagram @gothphiliproth.




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