Short Story


by Vergil Coberly

First published in Atlanta Magazine, ©Coberly 2004

“What you’ve got to do is pick a spot straight overhead,” Suzie said, looking up at clouds catching the last light of the day. “You’ve got to stand up straight and tilt your head way back, like this,” she demonstrated with arms raised to shoulder height. She didn’t stop talking because she wanted to drown out the voices from the living room. “You start moving around in a circle, and you find something directly overhead, something that doesn’t wobble as you spin. It can be a cloud or a hole in a cloud or even the moon if it’s really cold outside.” She looked down at her smaller imaginary friend, Number Three, and continued,” Did you know the moon is out in the day sometimes? I didn’t believe it either until Ronnie pointed it out.”

She started talking to Number Three around when her real mom lost her baby sister. That would’ve been their third baby. Her real mom said she didn’t know what it was going to be, but Suzie knew it was going to be a girl. It was. Her real mom died a little after the baby and everyone was very sad, especially her father.

Her father started working more after her real mom died and she and her big brother Ronnie took care of each other. On Saturdays when her father was gone, they made eggs together. She would break the eggs and Ronnie would scramble them. At night she missed her mom the most and Ronnie would sit on her bed and tell her stories about what it was going to be like to graduate from high school.

Her father had a new wife now. Suzie didn’t want to call her mom, “she’s not my mom,” she said, but Ronnie explained that she was their step mom, which was better. “She’s the mom you choose,” he told her, but she didn’t remember choosing.

Her father still traveled a lot, and at first Suzie thought it was going to be great to have a new mom, but when her father was gone Step Mom seemed to like the same things as Ronnie, and she couldn’t cook or read like her real mom could.

Spinning took all of her attention so while she was spinning she couldn’t think about anything else. Spinning made her feel free, like she could fly. She felt like she could just take off if she could spin fast enough. Number Three had watched her spin before, but Suzie had never explained the details.

A few minutes ago, from the kitchen table where she was drinking purple grape juice and doing her math worksheets for Miss Amy’s class, Suzie saw a big, dark car with writing on the door pull up and a man and a woman with the same funny clothes got out, stiff. They were like Ronnie’s special war clothes, in his picture, but they looked different when you saw them in real life. When they got to the door, she ran into the living room because she thought they might be friends of Ronnie from the war, but when Step Mom saw them through the screen she just stopped right in the middle of the room and stood there with her hands together. Suzie stopped beside her and when the man started to talk Suzie didn’t like his voice so she ran into the side yard. She could still hear their voices, quiet talking, explanations, and then quiet, waiting for Step Mom to ask something, then quiet talking. It sounded like they were right in Ronnie’s room. That’s when Suzie started explaining spinning to Number Three.

“Okay, today you should focus on a cloud,” she stopped moving and tilted her head back. You stand completely still with feet apart and hands at your sides. I use fists when there is a war and when we don’t have a war anymore I’ll keep my hands open.” She started spinning slowly, hands clinched, and talked a little louder, “You tilt your head back until you are looking straight up at a cloud like that one,” she pointed a fist to a small, red-tinted cloud. “It needs to be directly away from the ground.” She talked fast, “It’s like there’s a pole that goes from the center of the earth right between your legs and through your brain and past the clouds and on into space, and that’s your spinning pole.” She glanced down and then added, “Oh, it’s not a real pole, you have to make believe you’re spinning around a pole or you’ll fall down.” She moved slowly, stepping in circles. She spun faster and faster, flattening blades of grass in a circle half as wide as the spread of her fists.

She tried to talk over the voices, but finally she had to cover her ears with her fists to block out them out. She spun and spun, but she could not get the picture of those people, stiff in their green clothes, stiff in their faces, out of her mind. She spun until she was breathing hard and she still spun.

Ronnie told her astronauts had to spin as part of their training. She thought she was probably close to nine Gs – Ronnie said that’s what the astronauts needed to spin to pass. But a lady at the drug store told her astronauts didn’t have to spin anymore. Now they got to ride in the belly of a big airplane. She got so dizzy her brain seemed to be spinning inside of her head. She was so dizzy she fell down, for only the second time ever from spinning, and when she was trying to get up she threw up the grape juice and it was still cold. The vomit comet – that was the name of the airplane the astronauts fly in. Now she knew the lady at the drug store must be right. It was surprising that Ronnie was wrong about something like that and she couldn’t wait to tell him about it. “This doesn’t usually happen,” she said to Number Three, trying to wipe the purple stain from her shoulder and chest. She heard the doors of the car shut and then the car drove away with the war people, but she couldn’t get up to watch them go.

The first time she spun was half a year ago. She hadn’t spun much in the beginning because she didn’t really need to, but lately she spun all the time. Her father married Step Mom a couple of years ago and it was all downhill since then. Anyway, the day she started spinning she was looking for four leaf clovers in a patch in the side yard and she heard a whisper, “Bring it here, I’ll put it on you.” The voice was familiar, feminine, but not one she recognized right away. She stepped closer to the window and the crush of grass under her bare feet sounded deafening. “What are you waiting for?” the whisper sounded like a swimmer coming up for air.

The window was high enough that Suzie could not accidentally look in. It was open to pull in the first cool air of fall. Suzie wanted to be close to that voice, wanted to be that voice, wanted to be close to her father and she felt jealousy burning behind her eyes.

Step Mom was younger than her father, more like Ronnie’s age sometimes. Her father would look at Step Mom with his head low, and he rest his hand on her shoulder the way he used to rest his hand on Suzie’s shoulder – sort of the same way. Even Ronnie touched Step Mom. Suzie watched one day when they were all in the kitchen. Ronnie put his hand close to her while she was stirring lemonade and then he touched her arm and said, “that looks like good lemonade,” but that was stupid because he drank everything so fast he could never taste anything. But Step Mom didn’t notice that, she just smiled.

Suzie moved close to the window and reached up to the brick sill and pulled herself up. She could feel her fingers grinding into the bricks and was careful not to make a rubbing sound. It was Step Mom and her brother. They were naked. He sat with his back to the window and Step Mom was holding something in front of him – her arms moving a little. Then Step Mom lay down on the bed and spread her legs wide and Ronnie lay down on top of her and started bouncing.

Suzie’s foot slipped and scraped down the brick wall and her knee hit the wall and while she was still hanging there Step Mom looked up with her eyes wide and Suzie jumped to the ground, but when her feet hit they didn’t know which way to run, so she started spinning. Like that was what she was doing outside the window beside the juniper. She squeezed her eyes shut and spread her arms wide and she spun and spun, and she forgot about everything but the spinning. She lost her balance and tumbled into the juniper, its blue-green branches with cocoons hanging floating low over the ground and sheltering spiders. The world was spinning and the spiky branches held her and for the first time she did not think about spiders running out of their hiding places and biting her. She lay still on the pitching bush with hands clutching prickly branches to keep from being thrown off.

“Suzie? Are you okay?” Step Mom asked walking with quick movements of her knees. From the juniper, her dark blue shorts seemed to be on sideways and Suzie could see her bosom where her shirt wasn’t buttoned all the way. Step Mom bent over and lifted her out of the bush. “Get out of that bush, it’s full of spiders,” she said. She pulled Suzie to her feet.

Unable to stand, Suzie fell against Step Mom. “Are you alright?” Step Mom asked hugging Suzie against her chest, crushing her head and sniffing at her like a dog. Suzie inhaled and Step Mom smelled like a ripe melon, a day later.

A few days after their father got back in town, Ronnie announced at the dinner table that he was joining the war. Her father was a little surprised, but since he had been in a war he thought maybe a war would be good for Ronnie. Step Mom just held her napkin in her lap. Nobody talked very much, which was normal because everybody was usually too busy eating to talk, but Step Mom didn’t eat anything.

Last night, when the strangers in the car with words on the door came to the house, her father was out of town and when he called, Suzie answered the phone. She started to tell him about the strangers, but Step Mom took the phone and told her to go to bed. Then Step Mom talked for about 10 seconds and hung up and went to bed and closed the door and made sounds like a sick person.

Summer was just starting to make the mornings hot and the birds got up early so it was hard to sleep late. This morning Step Mom cooked the scrambled eggs with a lot of muscle, breaking them into the hot, oiled pan and working them with her fork churning like a propeller. Ronnie used to put ketchup on his eggs and push them around with a triangle of buttered toast. Suzie wondered if they had ketchup at the war.

A bird outside the window sang the same 12 notes over and over until she noticed it. She’d been hearing it and as soon as she noticed, the bird went for three more loud notes. She put some ketchup on the edge of her scrambled eggs and Step Mom’s eye, always scanning, stopped on her and Suzie waited for her to say something about the ketchup, but she didn’t. Her eye just moved on and spotted a glass and she put it into the dishwasher. Then she put the flat griddle pan in the sink and swished a few times and rinsed it and set it in the drain pan.

This morning was not so unusual. She was sure she’d heard the bird before or one just like it – there were so many it was hard to be sure. So many calls. She wanted to know them all, but how could you?

“Your brother is not coming back,” Step Mom said interrupting the bird and leaning over the sink, holding herself up with one hand on the edge of the sink and the other on her hip. She was looking into the sink, her nose pointed to the middle of the sink.

“Is he moving somewhere else?” Suzie asked.

“No.” Step Mom studied the sink.

“He said he was moving when he finished with the war. Is the war over?”

Step Mom turned from the sink toward her and her face was squeezed up like a sponge. She was sure Step Mom was wrong about this family matter; after all, Ronnie was wrong about the astronauts. But Step Mom was crying – that was a big clue. “He’s not coming back dumpling, he was shot.” She said shot with three syllables and she didn’t normally talk like that at all. She started coming over to Suzie with arms wide open and she kept talking through sobs and the words were bouncing off like toy bullets and Suzie pushed her arm away and ran out the back door and across the yard and up the alley. She ran until she fell down. She wanted to spin, but she couldn’t catch her breath. She was crying and the tears got in the way of the air. She felt like she was going to die. She got on her knees and put her hands on the ground and tears streamed down her face and everything was completely quiet. Her chest heaved but no air was moving in and out. Things started to get black and she heard her brother’s voice, something he said just before he left. ‘There’s evil in this world, Suzie, and somebody’s got to do something about it. Dad and I talked. I’m going to stop this evil so the world will be safe for you. It’s dangerous, but I’ll be okay. I’ll be fighting evil so I can’t really get hurt all that bad.’

Suzie started to breathe again. The air was going in and back out slower than her chest was heaving, but she no longer felt like she would die.

‘I love you,’ he’d said. He’d never said that before and she thought war must be very serious, but it must be okay if it made Ronnie say that.

“Friendly fire.” That’s what Step Mom had said. Suzie breathed now, in and out the way God intended. She stopped sobbing. She threw up her eggs and the ketchup was there, a streak of red.

She stood and tried to spin with her fists closed, but she was too dizzy, so she started again, slowly, with her hands open. “This is how we spin now,” she sobbed, but for the first time she felt silly talking to Number Three. She didn’t want to spin anymore. She curled up on the ground and cried.


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