Taryn started twirling because she had nothing better to do. Twirling made her hair stick out straight like she’d plunged her finger into the socket and stolen the electricity meant to keep the universe on its toes. She twirled until her legs got mixed up and she fell to the ground in a tangled mess, the earth spinning around her head. For a moment she became the axis around which it revolved.
Taryn lived with her mother, Cynthia, and Cynthia’s boyfriend, Aron. They had a baby together and they said “love you” all the time like some people say “hello” or “good bye” or “how are you.” When they fought Cynthia slammed cupboards and lunged at the knives. Aron grabbed her wrists and she mewed like a kitten who’d just been born. Meanwhile, Taryn twirled, their voices a trifling backdrop.
They didn’t stop fighting until the baby started wailing from his cage as he inevitably did. When Aron came to get him he’d see Taryn and crumple his brow and say: “awe, Christ. She’s doing it again.” He thought Taryn’s twirling to be strange. But Cynthia did not. Sometimes she joined. They looked like twin tornados. Cynthia could spin for a long time without falling but when she did, she crumbled into a spasm of vomit, seizing, and laughing until she cried. Taryn laughed and cried along with her, not because she was happy or sad, but because she wanted to feel what her mother was feeling.
When Taryn twirled into the big flat TV, it toppled over with more force than her mother. Aron turned white then red. He squeezed his hands into thick balls and his eyes swung back and forth like slow pendulums. He spoke in a rumble and Taryn took asylum in her fort, legs folded into her chest, fingers jamming eardrums--the same position she took when the clouds crashed into each other. He didn’t need to tell her the new rule. She would never twirl in the brown living room again.
Lucky for Taryn, she still had the grass.
* * *
The baby’s name was Francis and he’d just learned to walk. He toddled around with the agenda of a businessman and the precision of a drunk. He had black corkscrew hair and pale green eyes and Taryn loved him more than all of her Barbies combined. Maybe more than she loved her mother, too, though Taryn’s love for Cynthia was harder to quantify.
Taryn could paint it on her face with the old make up Cynthia discarded on the bathroom floor. Blushes tinted blue and lipsticks in every iteration of crimson. Mascara that glued her eyelashes together with congealed ink. Taryn could smell the love in her mother’s perfume that came in a bottle shaped like a woman. Taryn could feel the love between her fingers as she played with the Barbie clothes that once belonged to Cynthia, both the love and the outfits coming loose at the seams because things ripped apart when she stopped paying attention.
Barbie’s errant finger tore a hole in the wedding dress or she spilled a gallon of milk and Cynthia’s hand lashed her cheek. Taryn heard the love growl from her stomach when her mother slept through lunch and Taryn couldn’t find any food for her and Francis, and Francis cried out in hunger until their mother woke up.
Taryn especially felt the love when Cynthia trusted her to take care of Francis while she staggered off to the convenience store.
Cynthia said, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
So Taryn pretended to be the mommy. She gave Francis a bubble bath, dressed him in clean clothes, and fed him applesauce. She read him a book even though she couldn’t read.
Her mother returned without saying hi. Then she pressed a folded dollar bill into her daughter’s palm. “Don’t tell Aron,” she said with a wink. “This is between me and my girl.”
Taryn’s heart got too big for her chest when her mother looked at her like that.
* * *
Aron came home one day while Cynthia was at the store. At first he moved through the house like a breeze, using the bathroom and scooping up Francis and cracking open a beer. In her sweaty armpit, Taryn held her favorite Barbie. The one with pink hair. She tried to watch cartoons but she couldn’t understand the button-eyed characters. They spoke in sounds that didn’t make words.
Aron appeared between her and the TV. His voice was short.
“Where’s your mother?”
Taryn couldn’t focus on anything but his nostrils which flared outward like the wings of a dragon.
“Answer me, girl.”
Tears spilled, messy as the puddles of milk. She could feel Cynthia’s hand hard against her cheek.
“She’s not here, is she?”
He held Francis with one arm. The tiny boy looked at Taryn with wide open eyes, suckling his pacifier and rubbing his father’s earlobe between his thumb and index fingers. He did the same to Taryn when she laid down with him for his nap.
Taryn ran into her bedroom and crawled into her fort which she’d built by draping a sheet between her bed and the wall and covering the ground with a long broken pillow that filled the air with feathers like snowflakes. She liked to practice magic in her fort with a special wand made from a cardboard star and long purple ribbons glued to a spindly stick. Her neighbor, Mrs. June, gave her the ribbons. They were made of magic.
She had yet to fix the Barbie with a broken neck or make Francis say her name, but she’d used the magic to make him walk: “Francis Leopold Wood, I hereby give you the power of walking! Boppity! Boppity! Boo!” He took his first steps in the backyard toward a gray cat who hung around sometimes, licking her paws like she knew things that they didn’t. Francis took five whole steps before falling backwards onto his diapered bottom. It was another week, and a whole lot of magic spells later, that he repeated the performance, wobbling across the living room to greet Cynthia.
Francis came to her then as she wished herself into the ground for telling her mother’s secret. Francis lifted the sheet, perplexed by his big sister crying like a baby. Neither of them moved for a moment. The pacifier fell from his mouth and Taryn captured a sob between her tongue and teeth. It leaked out slowly but surely.
“Come here,” she said, tucking him beneath her arm, keeping one eye on her wand because it was not within reaching distance.
* * *
He took Francis and the TV with him. He packed a suitcase full of toys and DVDs, including Thomas the Train and the pink bear that Santa Claus gave Taryn. She didn’t stop him from taking her bear. Or her brother. She didn’t ask where they were going because knowing would be worse than not knowing.
Once they were gone, Cynthia broke the rules by smoking cigarettes inside. Coffee cups filled with ash; smoke settled into the carpet. Cynthia took longer trips to the store and invited friends to spend the night. They sat on the brown couch and smoked pipes that smelled like a burning forest.
When Taryn asked about Aron and Francis, Cynthia said, “Who?”
* * *
Sometimes, Cynthia would take Taryn along on errands for the company, leaving her in the car at most stops. Taryn was old enough that she could let herself out for fresh air. But on one sultry day she’d already melted into the seat by the time this idea occurred to her. Languor caressed her behind the eyelids. She became buoyant. A mystical aura blunted her edges, sedating her spells.
It felt like hours later when she awoke to an angry-looking man looming over her. For a moment she thought he was Aron and she smiled. “Where’s Francis?” she asked. Light blanched the details, metal flashing and banging, the sounds frantic like bad guys who’d always get caught by the end.
Taryn told the doctors and nurses that she had a mother named Cynthia who was looking for her. Most of them didn’t listen and the ones who did responded with stories that didn’t make sense; they talked like those button-eyed cartoons. She cried and they thought she was crying for their stories but she wasn’t. She cried because she’d fallen asleep in the car and gotten herself kidnapped by magic.
A woman with long legs took her to a big old house, the front porch crowded with children and a miasma of grief, old cheese, and baby powder. The kids were skinny like her with long filthy fingernails they used to scratch at their scalps. They ate everything on their plates without anyone telling them to. Pools of mashed potatoes, pale peas, chicken bones and skin and feet. Taryn knew who these children were, though no one said it aloud. She told the grown-ups she didn’t belong there because she had a mother who lived in another world. She needed only a car to sit in and the hot spell to take her there.
* * *
The orphans spent a lot of time in bed. Taryn shared a small room with three other girls. From seven to seven the lights went out, no talking allowed, one group bathroom break every three hours if they needed it, no exceptions. She didn’t sleep much. Instead she contemplated things. What did it mean to fall asleep and why did her mind falling feel so different than her body falling? Where was Francis and did he remember her? What happened to her mother? The questions hurt her chest but she couldn’t stop her head from asking them.
One night the girl in the bunk above her pooped on the sheets. Taryn tried to retch the way her mother did after twirling, squeezing the vomit out with her throat and a series of convulsions. Someone called for help. Nothing came out of Taryn’s mouth but a bit of drool. Aron would have called her a good actress and sent her back to bed, but the nurse gave her a juice box and a packet of saltine crackers, breaking the rules of no food after dinner. The next morning they let Taryn lie down in the sick room instead of participating in morning chores. That was when she learned the value of pretending.
* * *
Taryn knew she was running out of time because her shoes were chewing up her toes. Should her feet grow entirely too big she would end up shoeless like some of them and trapped forever. Hot pavement had taken her away from home; she needed hot pavement to get back to it. Bare feet were as good as handcuffs.
Taryn watched with laser-beam focus when a house parent punched in the code to take them to the park, learning a new number each day, putting the sequence away in her brain like her mother’s face. She could access her brain any time. She could leave any time. But she needed a hot day.
* * *
At the park Taryn pumped her legs on the swing until someone demanded a turn. She never liked to climb the jungle gym or cross the monkey bars; she didn’t trust herself not to let go just to see what it was like to crash into the ground from all the way up there. She found the slide anticlimactic. What was the point of dropping to the earth if the fall didn’t knock her off her feet?
Meanwhile, the grass sparkled like a solitary bicycle begging for her to take a spin. She resisted. She knew they’d point and whisper. She circled the perimeter of the playground with her imagination. She was a tightrope walker suspended in thin air. She was an Indian princess walking the plank. She was Jesus walking on water.
She lost her balance and fell from the wood piling onto her knees. A short but thrilling spill. She no longer cared if they pointed, she’d taken the first bite by accident and it tasted better than she remembered. She threw out her arms and spun into a frenzy. The motion tickled her brain, filling it with images of Francis and Cynthia, the coffee cups of ash and snowflake feathers. When she remembered her magic wand, she fell again, the weight of her body balanced on her right thumb for a small but significant moment until the rest of her collapsed onto it. Her thumb turned a royal shade of purple. She didn’t mind the throb, but she knew without knowing why that she’d better take advantage of the injury. She started to cry. She could cry as easily as some people could sing. The nurse gave her chewable pills and more whenever she asked. She saved them in her pocket. Little pink treasures.
* * *
She stood near the gate at all hours so she could be the first in line when they announced a trip to the park; only from the front of the line could she compare the escape route against her memory of it. The other kids evicted her from the swing set whenever they wanted to, but no one could stop her from spinning upon the grass. She became a vortex, threatening to sweep away anyone who crossed her path. The orphans knew just as well as Dorothy that there’s no place like home even if home doesn’t look or feel or smell like it should.
Taryn didn’t realize she minded her solitude until Ralphie came along. Ralphie watched Taryn for many afternoons before asking if he could join her. He took both of her hands in his own and they jumped into mutual rhapsody as they spun their minds loose from suffering like unraveling a spool of thread. Ralphie never grew weary of twirling; he loved it just as much as Taryn did. And Taryn loved Ralphie, but not as much as she loved Francis.
If it weren’t for the memories she had of her family, she might have been happy at the orphanage, sleeping and eating and twirling without the limits of her previous life where Francis woke her up before the sun and her mother never bought enough food and she had no one to hold hands with when she twirled. Cynthia never held Taryn’s hands. Maybe she didn’t know that twirling was better with a partner. You could go faster and longer and fall harder, stretching that moment where you lose all control over the body and anything good or bad can happen.
But you can’t forget your family, not even with magic.
* * *
One day Ralphie wasn’t at the park. Someone told Taryn that he’d moved out. She didn’t spin that day.
She would never spin again.
* * *
Shortly thereafter the California heat returned, cast from a wildfire that was close enough to feel but too far to see. The orphans ate blue popsicles in long plastic sleeves and drank lemonade made from a can. No one played outside in the meager yard. No one lined up to go to the park. They took turns in front of the fans and they watched The Little Mermaid while the grown-ups listened to the radio, shoes on (another rule broken), ready to evacuate at any moment.
Meanwhile, Taryn flushed an entire roll of toilet paper down the toilet. She flushed until it flooded. She did this without thinking about it. Like she’d done it before.
On the other side of the gate she ran as fast as she could. But her shoes were much too small and part of her toenail fell off. She stopped to rest in a park, an open field of juicy green grass; she cried a little bit, wiping the tears away before they could make trails down her cheeks. At the orphanage, without Francis or Aron or Cynthia, she’d been stripped down to the barest of skins, her bones contained by a layer of gauze that protected nothing. Her insides were on the outside. But she wasn’t alone. She wasn’t the only kid no one kissed good night.
Now, she was alone. She was so alone she might as well be invisible.
Until a yellow dog with a ridiculous smile and offensive breath and strings of drool coming from his mouth like the tears from Taryn’s eyes accosted her with a chewed-up tennis ball in his mouth, more brown than neon green. He dropped the ball at Taryn’s feet. She threw it for him. He fetched it then he ran in circles. He ran like mad, without going anywhere. He ran like she twirled. Then he disappeared toward a distant whistle.
He belonged to someone. Taryn belonged to no one.
She pointed her chin skywards. The sun became existence, blotting out the superfluous and leaving nothing but light. She blinked. A little girl the size of Francis appeared, toddling across the grass, running at nothing but air. The mother followed. She wore bug-eye sunglasses, piles of necklaces, pretty red lipstick, and the suggestion of a smile. She walked quite a ways behind the baby as if to remove herself from the frame. Like how we watch TV or how God watches us.
Taryn left, walking away from the direction she came. At every corner she chose the busier road until she came upon the way back home. Rows upon rows of flickering glass and painted metal, the air tinted with rubber and gasoline, full of dense matter but void of life. Her lungs tightened as she scanned the cars. A woman carrying so much flesh between her legs that she struggled to walk grabbed Taryn’s shoulder and asked, “are you lost?”
“No. My mommy’s in the car.”
“You shouldn’t be walking in a parking lot alone. Where is she? I’ll take you.”
Taryn had the advantage, though. Taryn could run.
The woman called after her. “I can help you! Little girl!”
The parking lot stretched on and on. The Pacific Ocean of vehicles. Taryn would run until the end of it before she’d let that woman take her. Eventually she stopped to rest, crouching behind cars to stay away from the pedestrians laden with parcels. Sweat oozed down her back like an egg cracked upon her skull. The heat tinged her eyeballs and rendered her mind bare, her heart lost in a profound desert where every direction looks the same.
No way in, no way out.
She wandered through the maze. The sun played tricks upon the paved earth, its heat rising in waves, undulations of wasted light, the air thick with stagnant energy.
An old man almost hit her with his long blue sedan. He shook his fist out the window, too distracted by his own displacement to notice a lost little girl.
A teenage boy with a backwards baseball hat and baggy pants examined her before he continued on his way toward the buildings where cool air smelled of perfume and cinnamon rolls and mothers were shopping for their daughters.
The anger took its sweet time, starting in Taryn’s head and trickling through all the branches of her body. The anger pooled in her feet. She kicked the wheel of a car with her broken toe nail. She crumpled against the pain and the anger and the black top, clamping her eyelids shut and practicing magic.
Of course, it might never work without the wand. And the wand was exactly where she wanted to be: back in that moment after Aron got mad but before he left. She’d been huddled with Francis in her fort, neither of them speaking or knowing how their lives would soon fall apart.
She unfurled, more determined than ever to get home, this time not to find her mother but to go after her brother. If magic had brought her this far from him, there was nothing it couldn’t do. Hope fluttered around her ribcage, more potent than twirling or falling. As she stood she finally saw the car she’d kicked. The same shape and color as her mother’s but not filled with food wrappers and empty bottles and broken toys.
She pulled on the handle to the backseat.
It was locked.
She shut her eyes for a second, imagining the wand. The curly ribbon. The crooked star.
She pulled on the handle to the driver’s door.
The door creaked wide open and Taryn climbed into the back. She buckled up and leaned against the sweltering car. She closed her eyes but her heart kept running in circles like that goofy yellow dog, her mind’s eye conjuring images of her homecoming. She saw her mother’s face, a cigarette between her fingers, her eyes cracked red. She wouldn’t get close to Taryn because Taryn smelled of the orphanage and strange smells repulsed Cynthia.
They would resume life as if nothing had happened. Taryn would twirl in the brown living room and Cynthia would smoke inside. They would eat Frosted Flakes for breakfast and potato chips for lunch and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. Cynthia would hide in the bathroom, her sobs sneaking under the door like sugar ants coming inside. Cynthia usually cried about people leaving.
Taryn would be the first to come back.
Cynthia would emerge from the bathroom wearing fresh lipstick and shadows of tears. She would smile at Taryn, who would be waiting, and she would say, “I’m glad you came back.” Then, Taryn would go after Francis.
Settling into her reverie, Taryn kicked off her shoes along with the rest of her toenail. The sight of her naked toe, raw and red, infused her hungry belly with a wretched nausea. The emptiness in her core mingled with the pain pulsing in her foot and the thirst tugging at her throat. The sun shone with fierce intention, but Taryn couldn’t eat sunshine the way trees could. Taryn needed something to chew and swallow. She looked in vain for stray nuts and cheerios. She dug into her pocket. It was empty but for the little pink tablets. She nibbled through one and then the whole handful.
She closed her eyes.