Posted on: June 23, 2015

Read the rest of the "West" saga: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

“Higher!” Brooklyn squealed, pumping her legs out of rhythm, as if her knees were over-oiled hinges.

“You want to go higher?” Drew asked the toddler, tickling her under the arms as he pushed the swing. She squealed in response, tipping her head back as she swung away from him.

Jennifer watched her brother and her daughter from the edge of the school playground. She liked these quiet moments, watching Brooklyn with someone else. She felt she could see her more clearly. Tell if she was happy.

“Hey! How was work?” Drew called, noticing her.

“It was good,” Jennifer said, crossing the playground and taking the swing next to Brooklyn’s. “The almost-feminists have discovered the shop. How was your day, Brooklyn? Is Uncle Drew pushing you so high?”

“Yes! I’m a Neverbeast, and Drew’s a Tinkerbelle, and we’re FLYING!”

“What the fu--crap--is an almost-feminist?” Drew asked, catching the curse before it escaped into Brooklyn’s ears.

“You know. The women who come in and talk about how much they love Chuck’s shop because male mechanics treat them like they’re stupid and overcharge them for oil changes. The real question is, what the crap is a Neverbeast?”

“Some movie Mom streamed on-demand. Brook’s obsessed,” Drew said. “I still don’t get it. Why ‘almost-feminists’?”

“If they were real feminists, they’d learn how to change the oil themselves.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Drew said, laughing.

Jennifer rotated her swing in circles so that the chain twisted all the way to the top, then let go. The schoolyard blurred around her.

“Whoa, Mommy!”

“Today is totally throwback Thursday,” Jennifer said. “You remember? They used to sell ice cream over by that door.”

“I would pay some serious money for an orange push-pop right now.”

“Sick. Those were so nasty.”

Brooklyn slid out of her swing and wandered towards the monkey bars.

“You remember when Jimmy Pincetti broke his collarbone on that thing?” Drew said.

Jennifer grimaced.

“Honestly, that wasn’t as bad as when Katie McAlister fell and knocked her teeth out,” she said. “Monkey bars are a death trap.”

Brooklyn was squatting in the dirt inspecting a discarded cereal box, probably nicked from the school cafeteria.

“Brooklyn, don’t pick that up!”

“But Mommy, it’s Corn Flakes!”

“It’s trash!”

“You sound like a mom,” Drew said.

“She-ittttt,” Jennifer said, dragging the word into two syllables.

Jennifer’s phone vibrated in her pocket. For a second, her heart leapt into her throat at the flickering thought that it could be a text from Dena. She swiped the screen. An email coupon from Baby Gap. Jennifer rolled her eyes at herself.

“What is it?” Drew asked.

“Nothing. I’m a total mom.”

It wasn’t that she’d wanted anything. Dena was with Chris. Dena didn’t even live here. Dena was totally freaked out by the thought of Jennifer as a mother. Wasn’t she? Everyone else was. Jennifer could predict the rest of her story--people would see her kid as baggage for another ten years, and then half the dating pool would have kids, and it would be no big. She’d end up thirty, dating some goateed guy with two children from a previous marriage. Someone who thought it was sexy she could fix his motorcycle. Fucking basic as hell. She should really go back to college.

“So I’m thinking about quitting Best Buy,” Drew said.

“Uh, that’s stupid,” Jennifer said. “Hello? Money?”

“Kurt keeps making me chase people off the iPads if they’re not going to buy one. I know it’s not the public library, but Jesus. Give people a chance, you know? Not everybody can afford internet. Plus he keeps cutting my hours.”

“Kurt’s a dick. But isn’t that part of having a job? Being managed by dicks?”

It was conversations like this that made Jennifer feel out of place--as if she were the older sibling, not Drew. Drew’s life was on the cusp of getting really great. Sure, he still lived with their mom, but he wasn’t the brunt of her criticism. My son, the college graduate, she was always saying.

“Don’t you want to move out?” she asked, eyeing Brooklyn as she piled pea gravel into little hills by the slide.

“Yeah, but I don’t think Best Buy is the best I can do with a computer science degree. I was thinking I might see what’s up in California. Carl has a friend who works at Google.”

“You are a total fucking cliche, Drew,” Jennifer said.

“Whatttt. Kill me. It’s not like I’m going to turn into a surfer.”

Jennifer felt like trash. Everyone else, even her own brother, could pick up and head out at any point. And here she was, clinging on. First Dena, the only person in forever who had looked at her like she was something special. Now her own brother? Who would help her stay sane around their mom? She itched for a cigarette, but resisted.

“Whatever, it’s cool. I’m sure it’ll be awesome,” she said.

“You could come with me?” Drew said, turning his palms up in a pleading shrug.

Brooklyn’s scream more than answered Drew’s half-assed offer.

“Brooklyn? What’s wrong?” Jennifer ran to her daughter, who was still sitting in the gravel next to the slide. “What happened?”

Brooklyn’s legs, only just starting to lose their rolls of baby fat, were covered in fire ants. Jennifer picked up her daughter, smacking the ants from her legs. Brooklyn shrieked a noise so high it felt supersonic, like it was scraping Jennifer’s eardrums.

“Shh, shh, baby, it’s okay. Those mean bugs bit you, but we got them,” she cooed as Brooklyn wailed.

“Fuck,” Drew said, unfastening Brooklyn’s sandal where her ankle was starting to swell from the bites.

“I’ve got it,” Jennifer snapped, pulling Brooklyn’s foot away.

Drew looked at his sister and noticed what he didn’t understand before--the pain that could weave between one connected body and another.

Jennifer’s phone buzzed in her pocket again. She didn’t bother to check it. She cradled Brooklyn against her as the child’s heaving sobs turned to sniffles. She set off in the direction of her mother’s house, her brother trailing a few paces behind, still holding Brooklyn’s tiny pink sandal.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

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