Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award (MCP 2017). Her work has recently appeared in Cream City Review, The Forge, Monkeybicycle, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. "Counterbalances" is a collaborative work with Kim Magowan.
Stories People Tell
Kate waited for Finlay to invite her to sit on his crummy sofa, and then he did. He patted the cushion next to him. “Com’ere,” he said. He flipped on the television, to a program called Real-Life Horror Stories. The “f” was a dagger dripping blood. “You ever watch this? People talk about some fucked-up shit. The kind of stuff that happens in movies, the kind of stuff you forget happens in real life,” he said.
He placed his arm around Kate’s shoulder and kissed her neck. No question in his mind why she’d come over. She, on the other hand, hadn’t been sure what to expect. The first few times she’d hung out with Tommy Tucker, he hadn’t laid a hand on her.
The woman on the television recounted how she’d barely escaped death on a shopping mall escalator. Kate laughed at first. They both did. Death and disaster on a shopping mall escalator? It was ridiculous.
But the woman’s eyes became wide and haunted as she recalled how the escalator started moving so fast that people fell as they were trying to step off and so in no time at all, people were piled on top of one another. “Like pieces flying off an assembly line,” she said. People became trapped. A baby was smothered under its own mother’s weight. Body parts were shredded in the escalator’s teeth, including the storyteller’s arm. If she normally wore a prosthetic, she did not for the show. Her left arm ended in a stump at about the height of her breast.
“My friend Stacy has a prosthetic leg,” Kate whispered. “From a horse-riding accident.”
“Oh yeah? How high up does it go?” He tugged at her nipple with his teeth, right through her shirt and her bra. She shrieked.
“Just above her knee.”
“Too bad.” Finlay grinned at her, and though she didn’t quite understand, she knew it had something to do with sex. She grinned back.
Kate had taken her mother’s car to Finlay’s trailer. She had her driver’s permit. Technically, she wasn’t supposed to drive without a licensed driver accompanying her, but her parents were visiting her little brother in juvie and weren’t expected back for four hours or so. If they beat her home, she’d deal with the consequences later.
When Finlay had opened the door, Kate had been confused, then disappointed. At the club the weekend before, she’d thought he’d had a certain astral quality, as though he’d materialized out of one of the mirrored disco globes reflecting the club lights in every direction. When she’d thought about him, which had pretty much been every second of the past six and a half days, she’d pictured him in a moonlit clearing in a forest, the wind mussing his hair.
Still, he wasn’t ugly exactly. He was trim, and his lips weren’t chapped the way Tommy Tucker’s lips had been when she’d made out with him. Like kissing a scab.
The important thing was that Finlay was a man, the real deal. Twenty-two, or so he’d said. Now she wondered if he’d shaved a few years off. Not too many years. He was wearing a surf t-shirt and ragged jeans, after all. His hair fell to his earlobes, in which were embedded gold-brown buttons the size of ibuprofen tablets. Tiger’s eye. But there was a pile of mail on the table with his name on it. He groaned about needing to oil the front door of the trailer to fix the squeak.
She couldn’t fault him for lying, not when she’d claimed to be eighteen. It made them kind of even.
The woman on the television said she’d thought she would never step onto an escalator again and that for a couple of years she didn’t. “But then I was running through the airport, desperate not to miss my flight, and I did it. I think I held my breath the whole way up. But it wasn’t so scary after that. Now I take them all the time. The nightmares haven’t gone away, but you have to live your life, I guess.”
By the time Finlay unzipped Kate’s jeans, the escalator story had run its course, and a second woman began telling a story, about being held at gunpoint in the middle of the day in a sales office she’d worked in. The guys with the guns bound her and her coworkers’ wrists and ankles with duct tape. They shot one guy in the kneecap when he tried to overtake them. They shot and killed a dog. The woman’s boss had brought the animal to work. She remembered being relieved when they shot the dog. “The darn thing wouldn’t stop barking. Seemed like it was either going to be the dog or it was going to be the rest of us. Better the dog.”
After it was all over, the woman didn’t leave her house for two weeks. She didn’t want her boyfriend to leave the house either. She didn’t want to be alone. Her mother had to bring them groceries. But then, as was the case with the woman who told the escalator story, she eventually moved on with her life. She went back outside. She returned to work.
Finlay’s mouth on her underwear, Kate closed her eyes. She froze for only a moment. Then her body went limp in submission. She’d felt something like this with Tommy, but she’d known with him that she would let it go only so far. For starters, that was before she’d begun taking the pill, and she’d been so dumb as to believe that oral sex offered protection from STDs as much as from pregnancy, that it was safe to let him put his mouth anywhere he wanted and for her to put her mouth on him as long as they didn’t put their genitals together. So, so stupid. She saw that now, and she blushed to think of it. But also she didn’t want her first time having intercourse (real sex she had called it) to be with some clumsy, overly eager boy who came before she’d even felt anything.
“God, I want you,” Finlay whispered into her thigh. She moaned then, and the sound startled her. It was authentic, spontaneous, not a sound she’d manufactured for a laugh. She could hardly believe it had come from her body.
On the television, a man told about the time he and his younger brother hitchhiked home from a carnival. The driver didn’t speak a word to them, wouldn’t answer their questions, wouldn’t stop when they pointed out various locations they’d like to be dropped off at. He just kept driving. The man sounded scared as he spoke. He sounded old too. Sixty? He was remembering something that had happened to him longer ago than Kate’s mother had been alive, but still he was shaken. Of course, the show’s producers had told him to play up the drama, to make the story scary. But his fear didn’t seem fabricated. And this was his story he was telling. It really happened to him.
Finlay pulled away from Kate, and she waited, her eyes still closed, for him to return. But he announced he was out of beer.
“That’s okay,” she said.
“That’s so not okay.”
When she opened her eyes, he was standing by the door, jiggling his keys.
“I thought,” she started to say, but stopped.
He grinned. “For after. I don’t want to have to get dressed and go out for it. It’ll just take a few minutes. There’s a store real close.”
Outside, she noticed the dumpster, from which protruded three lumpy bags of garbage. They looked like the rumps of ducks fishing under water. Next to the dumpster sat a green sofa and on it lay a gray cat.
“Look, it’s napping,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure it’s dead. It hasn’t moved in three days.”
They drove to a convenience store that had two gas pumps, both with orange poster board signs taped over them reading, “$ Only. Pay First.”
Inside, Kate lingered by the candy as Finlay picked out beer. She worried that if she stood with him, the clerk might not want to sell to him on account of her being underage. She didn’t want to cause trouble for him. She didn’t want to have to drive to another store.
A girl a little bit older than her entered the store and asked the clerk for a pack of cigarettes. She wore short shorts and a little black camisole. Her blonde hair was pulled up to expose half her back. Kate was relieved she couldn’t see Finlay’s face as he stood in line behind the girl.
The girl gave Kate a dismissive look as she left the store as if to say, What are you looking at, Fuckface? Kate quickly turned away.
“Ready?” Finlay said after he paid.
The girl with the cigarettes was long gone, and Kate was relieved to be alone with Finlay again. When they climbed into the truck, she leaped toward him and kissed him full on the mouth.
He grinned. “Oh, yeah?”
He used his left hand to steer the truck, while he devoted his right hand to trying to unbutton Kate’s jeans. As they entered the trailer park, he cursed at the difficulty of the task. He looked down at his fingers, and Kate looked too. She watched the delicate bones moving beneath his skin, thought about how they looked like piano keys. She’d taken lessons up until the age of thirteen.
Neither of them saw the little girl on the purple bicycle. She was five or six maybe, and she and the bicycle were lying on their sides on the asphalt on Kate’s side of the truck when Finlay slammed his brakes and yanked back his hand.
Kate gasped. She buttoned her jeans.
When Kate climbed out of the truck, the slow spinning of the bicycle’s front tire came to a stop.
The girl was breathing, the only visible injuries a scraped knee and palm, but the look in her eyes was wild. The kind of look that made you want to turn around and check behind you, the kind of look that gave you the shivers even though you were just sitting on a sofa watching television and there was no reason to think you were in danger. Kate thought the girl must have hit her head, that when she lifted it, there would be blood, brains maybe. What if she fell onto a nail?
“Oh, God! Are you okay!?” Kate said.
The little girl wasn’t looking at Kate, though. Her eyes were on Finlay, who was now standing in front of the truck. He looked incredibly calm.
The little girl hoisted herself up slowly. Then she said, “You hit me! You hit me!”
If there was any damage to her head, it wasn’t obvious, but brain damage wasn’t always obvious. Kate had read a short story for English class in which a boy was hit by a car, got up and walked home like everything was fine, and then a few days later, the boy died.
“Don’t you know you should look both ways before crossing the street?” Finlay said, a little too callously in Kate’s opinion. After all, this was a very little girl, and she’d been riding her bicycle in a trailer park, not on the street, and holy shit, she could have died, might die still.
Only a few lousy streamers hung from the bicycle’s handlebars. Most of them were nubs. They’d been lost long ago, probably by a previous owner. The bike looked like it had been dug out of a dumpster. Why these details should make Kate sad when there were far worse things to think about right then, she didn’t know.
The girl said, “You’re supposed to stop for people in the road!” Then she started crying, wailing actually, as though her intent were to draw attention.
Kate pictured herself and Finlay cuffed in the back seat of a squad car. She didn’t know anything about him.
He had a good chin, though, sharp like a razor’s edge. And his fingers, well, she had never noticed anyone’s fingers before, but she noticed his, their exquisite shape, as though they’d been carved from wood, the most beautiful fingers she’d ever seen.
And he had made her feel something she’d never felt before. The way that moan had escaped from her body without her knowing it was going to happen.
Kate helped the girl to her feet and walked her a few steps away from the truck. Finlay picked up the bicycle and followed.
“You’re okay,” Kate said. “Just a few small scrapes.”
“He almost killed me.”
“Now, wait a minute here,” Finlay said.
“Shh,” Kate said to both of them. She patted the girl’s hair. She pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed the girl’s cheeks and eyes. “You’re fine. You’re going to be fine.” In all likelihood, it was true.
A figure came running from several trailers over—a woman, about the same age as Finlay maybe. When the girl saw, she ran to meet her.
“Qué pasó? Qué pasó?” The woman looked back and forth among all three of them.
“He hit me with his truck!” the girl said. She wrapped her arms around the woman’s plump thighs.
“Look,” Finlay said. “It was an accident. She looked like she was waiting for me to pass. I had slowed down, you see, and was about to stop, but she was stock still, waiting, and so I went, but then just as I did, she pulled out into the street all of a sudden. I slammed on my brakes. I did all I could given the circumstances. She’s lucky I only barely clipped her front tire. She should be more careful.”
Kate was shocked to hear him lie with such ease. He could have stopped with “It was an accident.” He could have simply said, “I didn’t see her,” and he wouldn’t have been lying at all.
At the same time, she was impressed by his steadiness. He was handling the situation, cleaning up the mess, like her parents had when someone broke into their home when they were away on vacation a few years back. Kate and her little brother had been afraid to sleep in their own beds after that. But her parents had been so cool. They’d swept up the broken glass, filed an insurance claim, allowed Kate and her brother to sleep with them for two nights only, just until the security door was installed, then insisted that they be brave.
“April!” the woman said. “You could be hurt, mija! You don’t go into road when there’s car.”
“He wasn’t watching!” the girl said. “He was looking at her!” She pointed to Kate.
The woman looked at them for a moment, then back at the girl. “It doesn’t matter what they do. You pretend cars don’t see you!”
“Imagine,” the girl said. “Imagine, not pretend.”
Finlay looked to Kate. He set his hand gently, but firmly, onto her shoulder. She felt his warmth, heard his words in her head, God, I want you.
“Tell her,” he said to Kate. “Tell her what happened.”
Kate looked back and forth between Finlay and the girl. Then she said, “April, you gave mixed signals when you stopped like you did, like you were waiting for us to go. You really do have to be much more careful.”
The girl’s eyes widened again. For some reason, she hadn’t seemed surprised by Finlay’s lie, but she was by Kate’s. Kate could see this plainly.
But the woman was right. April should have assumed they didn’t see her. She should have waited. You never trust a driver is going to stop for you. Never.
On some level, Kate hadn’t needed to add anything more, except she’d needed to demonstrate her allegiance to Finlay, of course. But it wasn’t just that. She’d needed to distinguish herself from the girl, to show what side of the line she stood on.
Now the woman would take the girl home and wash and bandage her knee and hand. Maybe she’d give her some ice cream or a snack cake. She’d run her fingers through the girl’s hair and tell her she was going to be just fine, and for a little while at least, the girl probably would be.
Kate would return to Finlay’s trailer. They’d resume their places in front of the television, on which the old man’s face was frozen in mid-speech, his mouth open, black inside there. She’d find out what happens next.