Before you meet him, you are already getting into cars with strangers and hoping you come out the other side. You are smoking cigarettes down to your thumbs and chewing spearmint gum you’ve bummed from men you met at Pins & Needles Bowling Alley, the VFW bar. “Man of my dreams,” you say to Amber Ringer each time you see a roughneck at the carwash, at the county fair, but you never go further than that. Amber still works at the Burger King after school, still shovels fries and glides six nuggets into each box. Her ribs look like Saturn’s rings. Her hair is an orange-and-brown crown of fire. The Just Say No campaign that riveted your childhood has been downgraded to a pipe dream, a molted shell, but you have not yet learned exactly how to say yes. At a party, Carla Stout tries to summon your dead mother in a séance. “Do. The. Dishes!” you say, eyes wide, pretending to be possessed. “What do I look like, your chauffeur?” It’s easier to laugh than cry. But when the laughter runs out, it’s like a roller coaster car that’s detached at the very top of the hill, and no one’s sure which way it’ll fall. There are weeks when no one touches you at all. At the animal shelter, you spend a lot of time walking, bathing, feeding dogs. You give them names like Boo or Penelope, Kris Kringle, Will Smith. Your coworker, Carol, gossips about divorces, arrests, mines opening and closing, buildings collapsing. You listen to Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, pay little attention to the news. Pop music is your best friend, your deepest ally, your counselor at-large. In your room alone, you read books about space, time travel, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. At times you feel on the cusp of an event horizon—the place light will try to escape for all eternity, and fail.

* * *

Your sister, who is older, prettier than you, has moods that fluctuate like bells on a bangle, like clouds in a derecho, until you simply duck and cover, tuck and roll, disappear through whatever door is open. She still lives at home, has tanning-bed boyfriends, nail salon BFFs. In the afternoon, when you unpeel your towel, jump into the pool where she is head lifeguard, she shouts, “Big White!” and people snicker. She calls you Old Yeller, calls you Porker. You are not good with your words, stumble about for a moment before saying, “I’d rather be pale than a bitch.” You couldn’t fire a comeback if you were armed with an AK-47. At home, she measures her cereal, her milk, counts calories, keeps a chart on the fridge, and sometimes, when you’re feeling particularly vindictive, you add zeros to the ends of numbers, change fours into eights, ones into sevens. At work, you sit with the dogs long after everything closes for the evening, take the flat-coat retriever for a second walk, kiss its rough black nose. On the bulletin board, a flyer for a lost Great Dane, kittens for sale. Sometimes your sister steals your clothes, stuffs them into a red duffel bag, returns them wrinkled and smelling like Virginia Slims and freesia lotion. A year since your mother died, the flamingo-colored Gatorade still sits in the basement pantry untouched, the saline drip bags and plastic tubes take siesta in the fruit cellar. When your father comes home early enough, he brings takeout, says, “Want a pizza pizza?” as though nothing bad has ever happened. He finds the funnies for you, drinks straight from the Pepsi two-liter. Life accumulates this way. The sun sags. The creeks foam at the mouth. When you meet Mack, who is much older, wears a leather jacket, eyes dark as black coffee, is a businessman, a gambler, a smooth talker, he puts one hand on your neck and whispers, “I choose you.” It’s easy to sneak out, to momentarily escape. When he kisses you, you see the cosmos, the universe, some blank space suddenly filled with particles of light, with waves so far into the horizon it is impossible to know what they take the shape of.

* * *

School is a haven of microwaved hamburgers, empty paper towel dispensers, smoky bathrooms with no doors on the stalls. “This is our year,” you hear a popular girl say to someone in the next stall over. The walls are decorated with etched hieroglyphics: fuck you slut, and I’m rubber, you’re glue—let’s have sex, and your favorite: abandon hope all ye who enter. In school, you fold notes about your latest escapades into tiny origami doves, eat cafeteria oranges and ice cream sandwiches, undress for gym in a locker room stall so that no one will see your razor burn. At home, your clothes, books, makeup continue to disappear at random, like the universe is unstable, like antimatter has finally met matter and that’s the end of it. You still daydream, of being cinematic, of suddenly turning into someone you’re not. Potential hangs in the air like street lamps, like live wires. At home, your sister tells you about the gossip at the pool, who’s crushing on her, who nearly drowned in the deep end. Other times, she’ll snap your CDs like Eucharist without thinking twice. There are punishments with no rhyme or reason, no adult supervision. You call her a stupid skank, and she says she can’t even call you a whore, because you’re such a virgin loser, an unlovable nasty little rat-face. “Don’t be so sure,” you say, deliver flimsy, rubbery comebacks. Nothing you say holds any weight. At the shelter, a woman calls to report a stray dog on the side of Route 21 dodging traffic. You ride with Carol to the site, but find nothing but a dead groundhog and some buzzards. “People see what they want to see,” Carol says, turning up the radio. When Mack takes you to a restaurant in the city, he says, “Tell me a secret, something personal.” Everything he tells you sounds like it’s straight from a fairytale: his mother is a princess stripped of her royalty, his father is a troll beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. He was born in a test tube, the product of mad scientists devising the world’s first robotic man. He says, “I’m just looking for someone I can share all of my thoughts with. Someone who will understand.” His arm, looped around your shoulder feels like a balloon full of glitter, pricked. “Tell me something important,” he insists, and you confess, the mass of the universe is probably enough that it will continue to expand forever, but if not, at some point in history, the universe will collapse upon itself, destroying everything you know and love like a trash compactor. He blinks, nods, says, “I meant something about you.” It only takes a second for everything to come tumbling out.

* * *

The worst thing about your job is the euthanasia. Each Friday, you lift unadoptable dogs onto a tall metal table, hold their collars, soothe them while the vet administers two separate injections. This week, it’s the old poodle with no teeth, an aggressive chow, an old black lab. You think about how these dogs, once alive and loved, are now simply discarded, dismantled, flushed. How the last thing they see is the basement of a shelter that reeks of bleach and feces and dirty blankets and mold. And yet they trust you. The first injection makes them fall asleep—the second stops their breathing. Then you and the vet slip the bodies into doubled plastic trash bags, tie tag them, wheel everything to the dumpster using a donated child-sized red wagon. You think about your mother toward the end, how she clutched at you, cried, pleaded for her own mother, who’d been dead for a decade. “She’s loopy from the meds,” your father explained, ushered you out of the room into the pink lobby. She’d looked like a Halloween costume of your mother, like an imposter. In the bathroom of the animal shelter, you sit at the edge of the tub and cry. All around you is black fur. When you arrive home several hours later, the fur still clings to you like light refusing to leave at dusk. Still, you do your homework, watch TV, eat a PBJ without the J. Mack knows nothing about your life. He asks about your parents and you tell him that you were raised by wolves. “You seem more like prey to me,” he says, kissing you on the mouth. “Like a tiny rabbit alone in the forest, searching for a carrot.” He lies beside you on his stacked mattresses. He brushes a hand through your hair, hair that is many shades lighter than your mother’s. You want to be like Mack: calm, logical, charming, unafraid. And sometimes, when you’re around him for long enough, you even start to feel like him—your whole constitution shudders and eclipses.

* * *

“What we have here is a communication problem,” Carol says to the noisy dogs on good days, throws them a treat, a bone, a chew toy shaped like a human hand. Other days, she’s already muddy and scratched, already fed up, yells, “You quit barking or I’ll put you to sleep!” You spray down the cages, scoop the feces, lay down last week’s newspaper for bedding, scan headlines about Enron, the DC sniper, miners rescued after seventy-seven hours in the pitch dark, read the self-help section, which never seems helpful enough. “You’ll never save them all,” your sister says at dinner, shrugging, measuring the frozen green beans in a red Pyrex cup, weighing cheese on a scale. But you haven’t lived long enough to believe her. Alone, you read Cosmo, Seventeen, daydream about Mack and when you’ll finally have sex with him, if you’ll have an orgasm and whether you’ll feel different afterwards. Most evenings, your father phones to check on you, calls you Hel’s Bells, calls you kiddo. “What’s in Alaska?” you ask your father when he tells you he’s leaving for another business trip. “I don’t know, but I’ll Ask-A,” he repeats back, seems bewildered when you begin to cry. Before your mother went back to the hospital for the last time, she was cruel, snappy, refused to take her medicine. Your father called it “chemo-brain.” He explained that your mother really meant the insults in a nice way. Even now, you pass a woman on the street with auburn hair, and your heart races. You do a double take, trick yourself into thinking that there could have been a mix-up at the hospital, and your mother is out there, somewhere, memory wiped, stumbling about like a survivor of some terrible war, horrifically wounded, but alive. There are days you simply put on one of your mother’s wigs and stare into the mirror.

* * *

Mack takes you into the city, feeds you pork tacos with radicchio, foie gras, pecorino romano, foods you cannot even pronounce. He says, “How’s my girl?” He says, “I have to confess, you make me all fluttery,” touches his chest. You ask him when you will meet his friends, and he always says, “Soon,” he always says, “They’ll love you, Helen.” In the mirrored interior of a restaurant, he whispers, “We’re the most interesting couple here,” kisses your forehead, asks about you, what you like to do. You shift in the black lacey dress you stole from your sister’s closet, finally say, “I like what you like.” Back at his apartment, he kisses you hard against the couch, makes you feel like a tiny tadpole inside the belly of a fish, like the internal organ of a whale. Like a bonafide Thumbelina. CDs are scattered on the buffet: Joni Mitchell, The Clash, Miles Davis. A cup of cold chai tea, an ID badge on the countertop. You are on your knees; you reach for his belt. He says, “I didn’t say you could use your hands.” You have never given a blowjob, have no idea what that feels like. He reaches for your dress, drags it off of you, kisses your pale thighs. “We’re not having sex,” you insist, scared now. “We’re not having sex,” he repeats, high-pitched with a snarl. Rips your underwear in half. But nothing really happens after that. You study his face until he softens, kisses you. Whispers, “Were you scared just then?” Touches your neck gently. Says, “Do you know how much I like you?” You wonder if you have a mental disorder, or Stockholm Syndrome. But that’s the thing about sunlight—for eight minutes after the sun stops, you’re still filled with light.

* * *

You write your senior project essay about black holes, about what would happen if an astronaut stumbled into one, how he would be crushed and smothered and redistributed, and your advisor writes a single comment: This is a bit morbid. Why not focus on the stars? You are a C student. It takes all your courage just to buy tampons at the Revco. You pile a wreath of junk food around them so the cashier won’t think too hard about your leaking parts. You still eat too much candy: Airheads, Blowpops, anything to give you that sudden, illuminating rush. At work, you fantasize about unchaining the dogs all at once, straight into fields, into woods. “But what then?” Amber says when you tell her, flicking a fry into the wastebasket at the Burger King, mopping the countertop. You have no plans for anyone’s future, no idea what comes next. “The way to be different,” Amber says, “is to tell everyone you’re already different. Then you have to live up to your lies.” She slips you a Trojan, for when something finally happens with Mack. In the city, men catcall, cackle like seagulls on a rock, say, “Smile for me,” and you avert your eyes. Walk faster. Mack is a different species altogether. He looks the hostess straight in the face, the bartender, the ragged, jabbering men in alleys late at night. He is a wolf in wolf’s clothing, a place in the universe that absorbs all light so that traveling toward it, you don’t even know what you are looking at. But he is kind to you, only you. At his apartment in the city he runs a bath, undresses you, kisses your shoulder, wraps his arms around you until you feel safe and small as a toy tugboat. He says, “I really like you. I’m sorry about all the crap you’ve gone through. Life is not fair, kid.” Later, he bites your lip too hard, is on top of you, kissing, rubbing against you. “Stop!” you finally say, too loud, and he backs away like a cougar interrupted by a set of headlights. “You’re like an adorable starfish, a tiny immoveable sea creature,” he finally says. The clock is stuck on 12 a.m. The window is open, but there is no wind, no moon, just the constant flare of streetlights. “Well,” he finally says, “I hear starfish are very handy.” He moves your palm to his pants. His moans are like a jet engine, like a diesel truck easing forward. On the ride home, you stare out the window at the fields, mapped with driveways, corrals, barns, the universe tangled in its clump of stars too far away to count. At night, when you sit in the shower, see what you think is a single red hair stuck in the drain, you start to cry.

* * *

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