The grass around your face was beginning to itch.
Lying amidst the coarse, yellow-brown blades, you realized with an almost startling clarity that, in this moment, you were acutely aware of every inch of yourself.
Swollen with the heavy heat of early afternoon, you had no choice but to acknowledge the unrelenting rhythm of your own blood as it pushed through your cheeks, your neck, your fingertips, your calves and the bare tops of your feet.
That was always the problem with midsummer; the inability to escape the surfacing of one’s own physical existence. Heat, you were learning, did nothing but amplify.
You were twelve the year your mother signed you up for the Blandon summer soccer league and Veronica insisted you play sweeper because it ‘sounded the coolest’.
Sweeper, you soon discovered, turned out to be another way of saying ‘goalie without pads’ and you spent eight sticky Saturday mornings pelted with unforgiving black and white canvas, with gummy clumps of thick, pungent mud that clung, wet and insistent, to your bare skin, with broad strokes of foreign sweat and, most frequently, with runaway solid, determined muscle and bone.
(Had you known, of course, you would have done the same thing. You always did what she told you to do. Always. Then. Now. Always.)
Once the games were over, you all but completely forgot them – not just the score, but that there even was a score. The basic elements of the sport – the running, kicking, defending, the resulting goals and points and saves and assists – dropped away as if they had never happened, and you were left, pulsing the combination of stale perspiration and dirt, and branded with angry, lopsided spheres that raised red and immediately faded to a more permanent pink, stark against the pale of your skin.
You emerged, stained and weary, from a battle you found you could never recall.
What you remembered instead was walking home.
Your mother signed you up for the soccer league, but it was Veronica who walked with you there and back, who stood along the haphazard sidelines, awkward and out-of-place among the fathers wearing jerseys and the mothers who brought perfectly sliced oranges in Tupperware containers for after the games, who slung her arm over your shoulder and told you, every time, that you “kicked ass out there, Babe-o.”
“Really?” After all, you couldn’t remember.
“Hell yeah,” she would reply, steering you out of the park and onto the sidewalk. Home was exactly six and a half blocks away. You knew that the house with the red and green shutters (“Whoever painted those deserves to be shot,” Veronica declared first few times you passed it) followed the house with the lawn that had, to your knowledge, never been cut, and that once you got closer than two blocks from home, Veronica would roll her eyes, turn to you and mutter, “Ten bucks says Mr. Deal is home.”
On the ninth Saturday of that summer, after a game that left you covered with significantly more pink-red spheres and streaks of mud than usual (you thought you had caught the word ‘playoff’ in your coach’s pre-game speech, but you weren’t sure), you and Veronica were approaching the last half-block of your walk home when she grabbed your arm and pulled you to a stop.
This startled you. It was always Babe-o. Your actual name sounded foreign and cumbersome in the quick, brassy timbre of Veronica’s voice. Her face had paled under a thin layer of sweat, and, following her agitated gaze down the empty street, you saw a red and white For Sale sign planted in the middle of your lawn.
It was as though the process of moving from recognition to perception to understanding had been coated with molasses. When, what felt like hours later, you could finally raise your face to Veronica’s again, she was already pulling at your arm, spewing furious obscenities as she dragged you down the block.
“That fucking cocksucker, I swear to God, I’ll cut his balls off.” At this, she looked at you for approval. “I’ll cut them off and he can eat them. For dinner. Jesus fucking Christ, Avery, I’m not even kidding. He’s dead.”
“That wasn’t there this morning,” was all you could think to offer, around the uncomfortable sensation of your heart pounding through your throat. There was often no point in trying to compete with your sister’s lightning-fast, dirty mouth.
The house was exactly as you remembered it, save for the sign sitting squarely in the middle of the lawn. It seemed to you that something predicting change with as large a magnitude as a For Sale sign should also alter, even slightly, everything it had the potential to affect.
You had expected, perhaps, the house to be tilted on its side, or the windows flipped upside down. Anything but the disconcerting normalcy of the slightly-overgrown grass, the drooping tomato plants in your mother’s failed and forgotten garden, the dent, just large enough to be noticeable, in the wooden mailbox post, from the time Veronica backed the car into it…
“Robert’s not home. Of course,” Veronica was saying as she pulled you across the too-normal driveway and through the front door.
“Mom! What the fuck is a For Sale sign doing on our goddamn-- ”
Veronica angry or agitated was just Veronica augmented – she seemed to you to actually physically grow as she continued to swear, faster, louder, and more creative each time, and you almost didn’t need to touch the ground to progress through the narrow hallway – her ardor swallowed you in rolls, and you had no choice – you moved forward simply because she wanted you to.
In the kitchen, she came to a screeching halt, and you stopped just short of running up her back.
Veronica dwarfed everyone around her – not in physical size, although she would never have been described as small – but in overall presence and her sheer ability to command the attention of whoever came into contact with her.
This was never more apparent, or more fascinating, than when she collided with your mother.
For a moment, the For Sale sign disappeared from your conscious thought and you watched them as though they were two strangers in some unfamiliar photograph – once distanced, you found you could isolate.
Your mother was taller than Veronica, though not by much, and her slight frame (inherited by you, a cousin had pointed out once, her voice tinged with the bitter hint of jealousy), which could usually pass for willowy, always appeared nearly gaunt when she stood next to her curvilinear oldest daughter.
It was the way she stood, though, that diminished her – bent slightly forward, as if she were always leaning away – and her delicate hands were forever flitting to her face, her hair, her neck or her blouse; she was in a perpetual state of nervous, uneasy perfection.
Veronica, on the other hand, channeled any iota of anxious energy into a firm expletive or something more firmly corporal – right now, suspended behind your eyes, her broad hands were balled into tight fists at her sides.
Despite all of this, your mother could bleed the rage right out of Veronica, reducing her as effectively as if she had been physically deflated, and she did so now, shattering your fragile visage simply by lifting her head, wearily, from the newspapers she had spread across the table, and meeting Veronica’s boiling gaze.
“Mom…” It was more of a sigh than a word, and you dared to move closer, more fully into the kitchen, slipping in alongside your sister.
Her hands went to her hair, grabbing a fistful and then letting it fall.
“He put the house up for sale,” your mother explained in a strange, tight voice. “I walked outside to get the paper this morning, and saw the sign…” she trailed off, and her eyes, distant and unfocused, frightened you for the briefest of instants before they cleared and sharpened, drilling into both you and Veronica.
“We’re leaving. Now. As soon as we can. I just spoke to your Aunt Cait. We can stay with her for as long as we need.” With every short, clipped sentence, your mother folded up a section of newspaper until she had cleared them all off the table.
“Veronica, take Avery upstairs. Pack everything you can. We’ve got to get out of here before that fucking bastard…” around ‘bastard’, her face collapsed, and she drew in a long breath of air before continuing, “gets home.”
Veronica stood for a long moment, still except for the clenching and unclenching of her fists. You knew enough to realize she was struggling between blindly obeying and demanding a further, more satisfactory explanation.
Your mother, leaning forward on the table, held her eyes steady. No words passed between them, but suddenly (and not, you realized with a start, for the first time), you felt as though you were trespassing on an intimate conversation. Veronica and your mother were often the strangers in your own personal collection of photographs. You held them and watched them and dissected them, but you were, ultimately, the outsider.
Veronica’s shoulders fell in assent, and she turned to you almost in surprise, as if realizing for the first time that you, too, had entered the kitchen.
“Okay, Babe-o,” she said, and you felt an almost strangled relief that, this time, she hadn’t called you Avery. If Babe-o was back, things were approaching normal. Things would have to be all right. “Robert’s a cocksucker, Mom’s lost her goddamn mind, and I think we’re going on a trip.