Lydia Conklin

 What the Kid Does

        Through the night, the Kid holds Big Toe so tight that she almost squeezes his catness out. It nearly puddles on the floor, blonde and whiskery and crying. Even so, when she wakes up, he’s gone. She presses her nose into the flimsy screen on the front door and booms his name.
        “Don’t lean on the screen,” Allen, her father, says, as he builds a cabinet.
        “Whatever,” says the Kid.
        “That cat’s not coming back, you know. The thing’s feral.” He knocks a hammer into plywood, leaving a circular scar in the wood.
        The Kid storms to the family computer. Misaligned on a card table, it’s leashed to the wall with dozens of knitted cords. She clicks out of a rainbow screensaver and logs onto Instant Messenger.  Amy Lee’s screen name is always gray. There’s no real point in even checking anymore. But maybe someday NightGirl17 will sign on and it won’t even be Amy Lee, but someone more available, who lives right in the neighborhood instead of in Shanghai.
        The Kid messages Linny, who lives down the street.

        THE KID 21: U home?
        LinnyLouLou: No
        THE KID 21: Why u online?
        LinnyLouLou: Library
        THE KID 21: Yea right
        LinnyLouLou: For real. I’ll be home later.
        THE KID 21: I need help with a project. I’ll come to your house in an hour, k?

        The Kid signs off. She knows Allen has a firewall, so she always makes sure to refer to everything as “a project” instead of a plan or a scheme, because a project could be for school, but could also be anything, and isn’t suspicious like a five-paragraph essay, which is too obvious a lie, and would confuse Linny besides.
        The Kid opens her sketchbook. Her mother bought it to motivate her because she “showed an interest” in drawing. Which translates to the fact that the Kid once doodled some coffins and a swollen tick on a social studies test. The sketchbook is for idiots. Especially since it says My Scritch Pad in cursive on the cover.
        The Kid has drawn only one sketch in the whole Scritch Pad. The picture is of herself as the Kid, riding Big Toe across the land of New Jersey. The Kid persona is based on Billy the Kid, the notorious outlaw. Like Billy, as a living person the Kid is widely unknown. Plenty of people in New Jersey do know her, and some fear her, but not enough for infamy. That’s why she has Linny writing up her official biography, What the Kid Did. The biography will tell of the Kid’s exploits, pranks and disobedience in the face of grim forces. One day she will be known as the darkest personality ever reared in the state of New Jersey.
        The drawing in My Scritch Pad will be the cover of the book, and other illustrations will follow, beefing up Linny’s sub-par text. There will be the Kid squirting her Super Soaker, its plastic chambers full of urine, at teenagers that drive too fast. There will be a two-page spread of the time she found a Rolling Rock and crushed it against a car. There will be a sketch of her slapping Angelo after he littered sunflower seeds.
        Billy the Kid killed twenty-one men, one for each year of his life. The Kid wants to slap one man for each year of her life. So far she’s slapped eleven, only counting the powerful strikes. She’s screwed if she dies this year, one hit short.
        The opening line of the biography is all the Kid has approved so far. It says: The Kid seemed weird when you met her until the bravery and constitution welled under the surface had the chance to erupt and reveal many adequate features.
        The Kid goes to the living room. Allen is abusing the cabinets again. The house has more built-in storage than items to store. Even the oldest cupboards are still bright and sawdusty, like living arms sewn on a dead body.
        “I’m going to meet Linny.”
        Allen stops the table saw, which has been whirring unused beside him. The table saw is always in the hall, plugged in. Out of all the cabinets grabbing airspace from the family, you’d think he’d find a better place for it.
        “You’re not going anywhere,” he says. “You have to start your schoolwork.”
        “But I have all day tomorrow.”
        “Go to your room,” says Allen. “I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
        The Kid goes downstairs, but she doesn’t go to her room. Instead she unlatches the bulkhead and emerges into the Saturday. She stands in the ratty yard and screams for Big Toe. Allen squints through the bent-up screen, but there’s nothing he can do. She’s twelve years old.
        The Kid walks down her street, a minor highway, casing the tree canopies for Big Toe. Big Toe has the genetic mutation of three extra toes on each of his forepaws. When he tries to climb trees he just ends up just batting the bark and mewing like an idiot. But out of respect to him, she checks anyway.
        Then the Kid passes Tommy and his crew, on the edge of a yellow yard.
        “Hey, funny.” Tommy’s smoking one of his dad’s butts from the driveway. Carl and Peterson skate around like lunatics. They fall each time they try to ollie.
        “You want to smoke?” Tommy asks.
        “Not that crap from the street,” the Kid says.
        “Naw, man. I have pot.”
        “Who cares?”
        “Come on. What are you doing, anyway?”
        Tommy’s hair is noodles wiggling in his eye. The Kid wants to scrape them back so she can see his face, which is roughly carved and exciting.
        “Looking for my cat.”
        “I’ll help you.”
        Carl and Peterson get off their boards and watch as Tommy and the Kid turn down the Lake Terrace cul-de-sac. Maybe Tommy will actually do something today for once in his life. Maybe he’ll actually find Big Toe.
        “So what’s this cat?” he asks, lighting the marijuana. It’s rolled into a baggy joint and looks awful.
        “I don’t know. I found him in the city. He had ear mites, but he cleaned up okay. The vet was too expensive, so I had to sort of pick them out by hand.” The Kid didn’t mind doing that, actually. She actually found the task appealing.
        “When were you in the city? You didn’t invite me.”
        The Kid is in behavioral therapy but doesn’t say so. It’s useless because all they do is try to stop her from acting in ways that will make her more memorable, more the Kid. They tell her to breathe five times before she responds to an emotional question. They tell her to write down a list in the middle of the schoolyard of reasons why she shouldn’t poke someone in the eyes with a forked twig. It’s idiotic. She doesn’t even have a pen when she’s in the schoolyard.
        “I go there a lot,” she says. “To Manhattan.”
        “Times Square rocks,” Tommy says. “Man, I could watch those TV billboards all day. Like when the M&Ms are dancing, and then they make a landscape, and, like, the water is all the blue M&Ms and the meadow is the green ones and there’s like gray M&Ms even though those don’t really exist. And they’re, like, rocks.”
        “Oh yeah,” says the Kid. “That’s so extremely cool.” But she hasn’t been to Times Square, only a neighborhood without a name, full of stray cats standing in chicken bones.
        They get to the edge of the conservation land. A sign says no unsupervised minors and no smoking. Probably no making out either, and probably no cats. They sit on twin piles of straw in the marsh. The Kid scans the area for blonde blurs. Big Toe is the only blonde in a family of mousy-haired half Jews. Allen calls him the Aryan spy.
        Tommy sucks smoke. They only talk in the neighborhood. At school, he’s always with friends. But they’re throwaway types. If Joe-Joe is around, he won’t talk to Carl and Peterson. If Mike B. is around, he won’t bother with Joe-Joe. It’s his shabby character. There will be a whole chapter in What the Kid Did cataloging Tommy’s weaknesses and debilities directly against the Kid’s strengths and abilities. At least the Kid is above Carl and Peterson, who she calls Carol and Penis Son.
        “How are Carol and Penis Son?” she asks.
        “Dumb as fuck,” says Tommy. He has an erection in his BHS sweatpants. It’s nothing new. The Kid wonders if, after all this time, the smell of the marsh alone can do it. That saggy, sweaty smell. Maybe Tommy smells it when he jerks off. Maybe he has a jar of marsh weed on his bedside table with holes poked in the lid.
        “Nice boner,” the Kid says.
        “Shut up.”
        Tommy smokes and the Kid scans for blondes. It’s hard when the cattails and grasses are still so yellow, with only thumbnails of green here and there. If you squint it looks like a sheet of oak tag with pencil lines scribbled in, defining the plants only generally. It’s all the color of that daguerreotype of Billy the Kid, the only photo she’s ever seen of him. His head askew, his lips hanging around big teeth. Allen always said she looked like him. Silly the Kid, he called her, when she was little.
        The Kid looks at her digital watch. A new time clicks into place. She has twenty minutes and six seconds before she has to meet Linny.
        “Let’s get this over with,” she says. She snaps the elastic of Tommy’s sweatpants over the boner, so it bumps his stomach. She spits in her hand and jerks him off. The joint slides into the reeds.
        “You’re so easy, it’s not even funny,” she says when he comes.
        Tommy wipes his boner on a tuft of straw.
        “Doesn’t that scratch you?”
        “I’m durable,” he says.
        “Hey, did you ever have a tick on your peen? From the swamp?”
        Tommy stares. His eyes are pink marbles, shining.
        “Not that I know of,” he says. “But maybe. Just maybe.”
        They go back to Carol and Penis Son. They don’t bother skating while Tommy’s gone. They sit on his driveway like they don’t know each other, like two girls awaiting the same boyfriend.
        “Do an ollie,” Penis Son tells Tommy.
        The Kid walks on.

        She arrives at Linny’s house. She scales the whitewashed concrete steps, which look like stacked sponges but can tear you up if you fall. She rings the bell. Now that Amy Lee is gone, it’s just plain old Linny, day after day. Her mother comes to the door.
        “Linny’s at the library,” she says.
        “I know,” says the Kid. “I thought she’d be back.”
        “Well, I hope not,” says Linny’s mother. “She’s got a lot to do if she doesn’t want to go to summer school.”
        The Kid is definitely going to summer school, so this shuts her up. She goes around back of the house. There’s a play set for Linny’s little brother, who was an accident. The Kid sits on it and the plastic bows. It’s cheap quality.
        The Kid slides down, checks the yard for Big Toe. She’s known him to hide in tall grass, but she crashes through the thicket and he isn’t there. Afterwards she has to take two ticks off her knee. They’re deer ticks, tiny as sand, but she knows how to spot them. It’s a matter of looking for wandering freckles.
        Next the Kid sits on the steps. She starts a rally by saying Linny, Linny first as a whisper and then increasing in volume each round. Usually you would compete with a friend and say the word penis until one friend chickened. She played this many times with Amy Lee, in school and in her basement and once on benches in the Center.
        The window rattles open and Linny’s mom’s head jams out. “Cut it out.”
        The Kid leaves. She turns left on the minor highway, away from her own home.
        “You better not bother Linny at the library, either.”
        The Kid walks halfway to the library before she spots Linny, dragging a duffel of books. The highway has widened to three lanes at this point, and is unsuitable for pedestrians. The Kid runs to Linny, veering into the lane.
        “Hey, Linny. You’re late.”
        “Late for what?” Linny asks.
        Sometimes Linny can be so out of it. “We had a plan.”
        “I told you I was in the library.”
        “You’re not now, are you?”
        “Naw, but I can’t hang out. My mom doesn’t want me at summer school again.”
        The way she says it there’s a real chance Linny won’t go to summer school in the end. The Kid can’t imagine summer school, all the way in Lyons, without Linny. Last summer they played games with passed paper. The Kid liked one where you pass back and forth a cartoon of the teacher, fitting in additional genitals each time, until he was wooded with penises and carved with vaginas.
        “You gotta help me with this new project,” the Kid says.
        “Naw, but I can’t.”
        A minivan with wooden flanks passes them, honking, and Linny pulls the Kid into the shoulder. “Watch out, will you?”
        “Sure, sure,” says the Kid. “Listen, Linny. I need you for this project. I know you have decent eyes.”
        The Kid wants Linny to ask what the project is, but she just won’t. Something is wrong with Linny. The Kid has been realizing it for a while.
        “But your mom thinks you’re still at the library anyway.”
        “She checks my work,” Linny says. “I’m going to study in the preservation now. The library sucks.”
        “I’ll sit with you,” the Kid says. “I can do my project there.” The project is just looking for Big Toe, and the Kid has looked plenty in the marsh already, but she could check again.
        “Naw,” says Linny. “I need to concentrate, or it’ll come out crap.”
        “It’s a free land. I can come and go as I please.”
        “Suit yourself.”
        The Kid thinks then, at least then, Linny will ask what the project is. But she doesn’t.
        “I don’t want to, anyway,” The Kid says. Then she races ahead. She reaches Linny’s house, and jumps on the lawn.
        “Linny left the library,” the Kid bellows, much louder than she screamed Linny’s name earlier, plenty loud enough to get through the wobbly windows.
        Then she runs around back of the house. If you slip through the fence you come out on a quiet hill. It’s a parallel road where there are no teenagers. The Kid convinced Linny long ago, that this part of the neighborhood was actually the Jersey Shore.
        “Why do we drive two hours to get there every year, then?” Linny asked.
        “Because your parents have too much stuff to bring through the fence. And the only way around by road is long.”
        They visited the Jersey Shore many times. Linny never complained for want of sand or trinkets or salty air. They walked up and down the road beaming and noticing everything, like a proper vacation.
        Now the Kid goes alone to the Jersey Shore. She walks by Amy Lee’s house. Amy Lee moved away last year, but before that the Kid and her would discuss emo music and the Twilight series. They went to the movie together when it premiered, both dressed as Edward Cullen, slugs of bright ketchup hanging from their lips. But then Amy Lee moved to Shanghai. They cried the morning of the flight, clasping hands on the border of Bedminster and the Jersey Shore. Linny glared on from her sun porch, wrapped in a threadbare robe. When Amy Lee kissed the Kid, the Kid didn’t expect it. As far as the Kid knew, Amy Lee had never kissed anyone before. The Kid had been the experienced one, even though she has never technically kissed Tommy.
        Amy Lee’s mouth was loose and warm, not fresh at all. Afterwards, her cheeks were full of blood, but her eyes were mean.     The Kid can never discuss the kiss, either, because Amy Lee is never on IM. Maybe IM doesn’t work in China. Maybe the Kid should dig an old-fashioned hole. She could pop out one day and ask Amy Lee what gives.
        The Kid arrives at the top of the hill, where there’s a little boy with a cat. The cat has swollen forepaws. The Kid doesn’t realize until a moment has passed that it’s Big Toe. The boy is letting Big Toe slide in and out of his embrace, holding him around the tips of his fur without squeezing.
        “That’s my cat,” The Kid says.
        The boy looks at her, startled. “No, it’s not.”
        “Oh yeah?” the Kid says, passing her face through what her therapist calls The Comfort Bubble. She can already imagine the dynamic illustration in What the Kid Did. “What’s his name, then?”
        That is the wrong answer. “Where was he last night?”
        “I don’t know,” the boy looks scared. “My mom said we could keep him. We’re taking him to get a shot.”
        Allen said a vet visit wasn’t worth the money. Before she can stop herself the Kid hits the boy, clinking her knuckles so hard against his jaw that his face flaps back. The Kid immediately knows that she’s gone too far. The boy falls on his palms, his cheek the rosy head of an ambulance, flashing her mistake.
        “What’s going on?” comes a voice. The Kid dashes into a hedge, pushing through pointed twigs as a woman steps on the porch.
        The boy doesn’t cry. He sits up.
        The woman strolls into the yard and puts her hand on Big Toe. Big Toe arches his back and his eyelids flicker down. The Kid never knew he had eyelashes before. They’re gold and flossy. The boy finds the Kid’s eyes in the needles. He’s trading her. He won’t tell if she won’t. She won’t get in trouble, but Big Toe’s his.

        The Kid walks home. There’s nothing to do now but start her homework, try not to go to summer school. As the minor highway merges and narrows she sees three deer crossing, mobile tick homes. Their triangle faces rest on soft, dense piles of neck. They hold a pose as stiff as a family portrait. A car jags by, ripples their fur, and they don’t stir. They remain oblivious, unafraid and unyielding.

Lydia Conklin is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the James Merrill House, the Vermont Studio Center, Millay, Jentel, the Astraea Foundation, Caldera, the Sitka Center and Harvard University, among others. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, New Letters, The New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She has drawn comics for Gulf Coast, Salt Hill and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. bio-lydia