"Bull Shark" by Kate Kostelnik

Kate Kostelnik

Kate Kostelnik

Kate Kostelnik is working on a PhD in English Literature at The University of Nebraska, Lincoln where she also teaches composition and creative writing. She did her undergraduate work at Colgate University and earned her MFA from the University of Montana in 2005. Her short stories, which earned her a 2007 New Jersey State Arts Council Fellowship, have appeared in 42 Opus, Invisible Insurrection, and, most recently, Hayden's Ferry Review. She has taught at the University of Montana and JP Stevens High School in New Jersey. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.

Bull Shark

Emily Bell watches iceboats through Alexis Green's wall of windows. Emily's house is on the other side of the frozen River, but she can't see it. The boats slide fast enough to be falling.

“I plan to major in Economics and minor in Chinese.”

“Yes.” Alexis says and stops to rub more lotion into her polished hands. She's propped on pillows and replaces gold rings before continuing, “that would a productive use of your time at Forrester.”

Alexis Green serves as a satellite admissions officer for Forrester University. She invites young hopefuls to her home and asks them to talk about trade embargos, Toni Morrison, congressional sanctions, Bosnia, the Elgin Marbles, Oklahoma City. If Emily gets into Forrester, she will need a full ride.

These interview questions are difficult, but Emily is seventeen and finds them simple.

“I guess that sometimes I worry that you kids are more prepared for Jeopardy than for actual problem solving,” Alexis says.

Emily doesn't disagree.

The central heating works hard to fill the glass sunroom off the kitchen. The rooms of the Green home are all very hot. Emily thinks she can smell pot below the notes of scented candles.

“I read your lab report about the white fruit flies.”

“Drosophila,” Emily corrects her. “It was a study on genetic mutation in albino Drosophila melanogaster.”

“Yes, I remember.” Alexis rises and walks towards a row of framed photos. “My son, Daniel,” she says holding up a school portrait of a freckled boy. Chrome braces encircle a forced smile.

Alexis's stark body seems sterile and too small for childbirth.

“He's had some difficulty in school. Behavioral issues. I blame unnecessary vaccinations.”


“It's unfortunate what young boys have to overcome these days.”

“I could help, sit for him, maybe,” Emily offers.

At thirteen, Dan Green doesn't need a babysitter, but Alexis clasps her hands above her chest and smiles. Emily wonders which breast, both small under her silk blouse, is real.

“I think that everything is going to work out for everyone. My husband will be pleased.”

Emily Bell is compliant. She, however, has no interest in admission to Forrester.


At seven, Danny Green needed a babysitter. He ate his father's shaving cream, flushed car keys, cut the cat's whiskers, and colored furniture with his mother's makeup.

Karen walked up the drive wearing a jacket embroidered with a soccer ball and her jersey number. Her face had broken-out, and she wore too much lipstick. Proud and pretty, like all the girls. She removed her sneakers in the mudroom.

“You're looking well,” she told her employer.

Alexis Green's left breast had just been removed—her skin yellow and thin, wax poured over bones.

“I'm feeling better.” Alexis smiled. “My literature group meets tonight. I'll be here, but I'm not to be bothered. My husband will drive you home later. He has a late meeting but will take the ferry back from the city.”

“No, thank you Mrs. Green. I'd rather walk.”

“Nonsense, it's frigid.”

“No, I'll walk.”

“I insist. He likes to drive you. I do hope that you've got your application in the mail.”

Before Karen could answer, Alexis warns that “Danny has a slight cold” and ends the conversation.

Danny and Karen built a fort with bed sheets, chairs, and clothespins in the playroom. He jumped on the cotton roof with the girl inside. They played Nintendo until Danny got bored and grabbed the girl's breast.

“What's that?”

“You know what that is,” she said and removed his sticky hand.

She used toy chests as soccer goals and finally tired him out. Before falling asleep he told her that, “daddy doesn't sleep in mommy's room anymore, not since she got sick.”

“Did someone tell you to say that?”

Headlights lit the marble eyes of stuffed bunnies seated on the far windowsill. Karen heard the garage door open then found her jacket but lost her gloves, which fell onto the marble floor as she crossed through the foyer. Nervous, but not sure that she should be. It was just a kiss, hardly even that. The real problem was that she hadn't minded.

“Goodnight Mrs. Green,” she yelled toward the sunroom.

She made it to the end of the driveway and then walked quickly down Laurel St, warming her hands in her pockets. The trees were glazed and the pavement around the gutters shined onyx under the streetlights. Karen's white breath trailed behind her. The headlights, close behind her, caught her as she slid and then collapsed over a slick, black puddle. The car skidded towards her, close enough for her to see the tread of the front tire. The stink of hot rubber and oil was above her, but he smelled good. She took his offered hand and got into the car.


“Your sister never had a problem approximating her derivatives,” Gerry Osterling says. His longish nails click on the screen of his graphing calculator.

Emily shrugs.

“She was such a lovely girl.”

It wasn't Mr. Osterling's eye for beauty that had gotten him fired from his position at Ridgewood High School but Mrs. Anderson, the Spanish teacher, who'd caught him jerking off Thomas Milstein, one of his pre-calc students, in the textbook closet on the third floor. Emily and a few of her classmates, deficient in college level calculus, weren't disturbed by the nature of Osterling's preferences but by what his termination meant to their grade-point averages. They'd known about Tommy and two other underclassmen. Their grades were based on silence.

She'd gone to his house for cash a few months earlier and wound up smoking cigarettes and drinking red wine in front of a fireplace. She told Gerry Osterling about how she'd tripped a teammate with her field hockey stick, causing the girl (who drove a red cabriolet and was a legacy at Dartmouth) to cut her lip open on the goal post. She'd cheated on an AP History test and had sex with her best friend's boyfriend one night at party. Osterling understood loneliness.

Emily's mother has put out Pepsis for them. Osterling is Emily's tutor at ten dollars an hour. Emily had done so well in his class that her mother hired him despite the scandal, calling it all fabrication. Osterling's replacement at school, a man named Mr. Jeffers, gave Emily the C's she'd earned.

“I'm getting into the house again on Monday night.” She tugs her dry ponytail across her cheek and puts the end in her mouth.

“Youthful optimism is so pathetic,” Osterling says. He puts his calculator into his shoulder bag to signify the end of the session. Despite the cover of confidence and fine clothes, he's ugly, simian-like, petite, and pale. Being unattractive can make someone lonely, but somehow it made him perverse. Emily is a junior; people are comprehensible.

“I need to pass Jeffers's test. Am I ready?”

“It baffles me how difficult math is for someone like you.”

“What am I like, Gerry?” She follows him out the front door. On the porch he lights a cigarette for them both.

“You're nothing like your sister.”

“Karen is only my half-sister.”


Before he was nothing, Karen's father was Dr. Robert Hawley, a dermatologist. He was good to five-year-old Karen even after his wife divorced him. He gave Karen an Apple IIGS, a chemistry set with delicate test tubes, and a model 109-L microscope when she was ten. He injected cortisone into his thirteen-year-old daughter's cystic pimples and promised tuition if she got into Forrester University. When Karen was fourteen she found him in his office, dead in the reclining aesthetician's chair. A nitrous oxide overdose; the mask still covered his mouth and nose. He was broke.

Shortly after her divorce from the doctor, Karen's mother married John Bell and had Emily. John was a landscaper before he was nothing. Not dead, just gone away somewhere with a massage therapist.

Karen, at seventeen, was not good to her half-sister, Emily.

“You have to take me with you,” Emily begged. She'd followed Karen to the canoe at the end of their dock. Their mother was never home; she worked three jobs to save for her gifted daughters' educations. Emily didn't like to be left.

“Fine, take the back and don't bitch if you get splashed.”

This was the summer before Karen's senior year. She'd stopped wearing lipstick, babysitting, studying, and practicing soccer drills in the backyard. She was always on the river.

“Are you a virgin?” Emily asked. Karen didn't answer and sent back a splash with her paddle. The brackish water stung Emily's open mosquito bites. She didn't bitch and stretched her legs out in the sun. Sail boats with blue sails, motorboats towing water-skiers, and buzzing wave-riders crossed in front of them. Water sports were for rich people; Karen's was the only canoe on the river.

“Do you miss your father?” Emily asked as Karen steered them into the shallower waters surrounded by reeds.

“In 1915 two boys died in this river. Did you know that?”

“They drown?” Emily looked at the brown water, too murky to see the bottom. Blue-black gasoline rainbows slid across the surface.

“Shark ate them.” Karen faced Emily, her movement made the boat pitch. Karen's face was already sun-burnt.

“Shut up zit face. Sharks don't swim in rivers.”

“They don't mind brackish water.” Karen used her body weight again to tilt the canoe toward the left. She tapped Emily with her paddle and the little girl was in the water. Emily could stand on the slimy bottom but didn't like how it felt under her toes. Karen paddled away from her sister, out toward the ocean.

A man on a jet ski heard Emily screaming and picked her up. He tried to calm her, saying it was like a television show, a rescue she could tell all her friends at school. Emily liked that idea and was quiet.


He's much shorter than Emily had imagined. She knew he'd be handsome but she didn't predict that she would return his smile when he opened the front door. He has black and gray hair and blue eyes. Skin like a department store mannequin.

“Emily, I presume, the newest sycophant?” He holds out his hand for her coat.

“Whatever it takes.” She's sweating.

“Danny's at his Playstation. My wife and I will be back around nine. I'll drive you home then.”

“Thank you, but no, I have my mother's car.”

Alexis holds the banister as she comes down toward them; Emily thinks she can hear her bones, or maybe the stairs are old. She wears a silk scarf around her throat in a loopy bow. It's translucent and the tendons in her neck are cables.

“Pete Dawkins supports the No Early Release Act for convicted criminals and he has a pool shaped like New Jersey in his yard,” she says. How does she expect Emily to respond?

“I married a democrat and continue to pay for it. We're spending thousands to eat shitty brie.” Mr. Green wraps his wife in a bulky fur.

Emily finds Danny Green drunk on Baileys in the play room. It's advantageous, but would have been genius if she'd thought of it.

“No lock on the liquor cabinet?”

“It's just under the wet bar,” he says hitting reset on the Playstation. He's awkward with blackheads, but not enough to scar. His eyes are blue like his father's and he'll turn out at least as handsome.

“When you put it back, don't add water to this one,” Emily says examining the Baileys bottle, a Christmas edition with a red bow on the label. “That only works with vodka and gin.”

“They never check anyway.” A character's digital head on the screen bursts. “Fuck!” He throws his controller at the television. It lands on the carpet in two pieces.

“Careful.” Emily takes a seat on the couch in front of a row of stuffed rabbits. She counts; seven out of ten are pink. She looks at Danny and laughs.

“They aren't mine.” He stands in front of a yellow dollhouse in the corner of the room as if he could hide it. The miniature house is wired for electricity, and someone has turned on the porch lights.

“Really?” Emily looks into the windows. Inside she can see tiny paintings with gilded frames and a chandelier.

“It's nicer than my house.”

“All this shit is for my sister.”

“You don't have a sister.”

“I was supposed to, but then mom got sick.”

Emily opens her book. The numbers spread out on the page as if they'd been spilled. She can feel Danny wanting her attention.

“Why are you letting me drink?”

“You're old enough to take care of yourself.”

“You're a bitch,” he says, but she doesn't look up from the derivative she's working on.

An hour later Danny demands a pizza with extra pepperoni. When it arrives he sits close to Emily on the couch.

“I don't feel good. Can I put my head on your lap?”

“No. Eat your pizza and then throw up; you'll feel better.”

“Do you want a beer?” he asks. His pupils are huge.

“No. Be quiet; I'm studying.”

“You're one of those dorky girls that kiss my mom's ass to get into Forrester.”

“I drink all the time. Why the hell would I want to get drunk with you?”

He puts his left palm on her breast and leaves it there.

“How old are you?” she demands slapping it away.

“I've done it before, to a different babysitter.”

“Don't be a shit.” Emily leaves him in the playroom.

The house has walk-in closets, bidets, laundry shoots, and a centralized vacuum system. There's marble on the floor in the foyer, walls of the master bathroom, and countertops in the kitchen. Alexis's vanity holds rows of pink lipsticks, a dozen different bottles of lanolin lotions, prescription painkillers, and a dime bag of pot. A collection of crystal perfume decanters encircle her sink.

Mr. Green's closet has a motorized tie rack, a leather box filled with watches and cuff links, and two rows of tasseled shoes, all occupied with cedar stretchers. She taps on the back walls of closets and looks for false bottoms in drawers, but finds nothing. Their stuff tells a dull story; they seem common.

Emily sits in their dry whirlpool and smokes half a bowl of Alexis's stash. It's weak, seedy shit. The fixtures on the tub are shinier than the pile of watches and necklaces on her lap. She could pawn them or fling it all out onto the frozen river. They would just buy more—if they even noticed.

She'd imagined poisoning his bourbon or hiding his heart medication. There aren't any crystal carafes of brown liquor and he doesn't have any prescription drugs in his bathroom cabinet.

With her textbook on her lap in the sunroom, she drinks her third beer. Alcohol makes calculus a little less frustrating and dulls her hearing.

The Greens are already through the door when she wakes up. Mr. Green supports his wife by her waist. Alexis thanks Emily and tells her goodnight before stumbling from the sunroom.“Is she alright?” Emily asks tucking her book under her arm.

“She's probably in better shape to drive than you are,” he says smiling. The empty cans are on the coffee table.

“It was Danny.”

“Danny only drinks the Baileys. He hasn't developed the taste for beer.”

“I have to get home, my parents are expecting me.”

“Don't leave just yet.”

“Why not?”

“I haven't paid you.”

“Okay,” she says and pulls her keys from her coat pocket.

“Forrester doesn't look too kindly on applicants with DUIs,” he tells her smiling. She can't keep from blushing.

He returns from the kitchen with another beer and a fifty, which Emily takes and then leaves through the side door.

Once on the road, black ice grabs her tires. She spins out but then gets the car back in gear and drives home.


The Bull Shark attacked two local boys in 1916, not in 1915 like Karen had said. Emily found the article on microfilm.

“You got the date wrong,” Emily told her. They sunbathed at the end of the dock. Karen had a spot of blood on her thigh where she'd smacked a bloated mosquito.

“So? It still happened. Maybe it wasn't even a Bull shark. It might have been a White or a Tiger. They come in these waters a lot,” Karen said before jumping off the dock.

Karen pushed off a piling, and began the backstroke. Emily watched until she couldn't see her sister anymore.


“No, Mr. Green, I will not need a ride later. A friend is coming for me.” This isn't a lie. Emily looks past him at the river. A week later, the ice is thicker. The Greens will attend another fundraiser, but this one is farther north; they leave while it is still light out.

Emily makes a white russian with ice cream. Danny has three and then decides that he wants to play hockey. She fits into a pair of his old skates. Emily can out skate him while smoking a cigarette.

“You're good,” he says, after she's pushed him down twice. A muted yellow sun moves closer to the white horizon. The houses and trees encircling the river look gray. The richest color in Danny's cheeks.

“My sister played soccer, but hockey's my thing, ice and field. Do you remember my sister, Karen? She sat for you.”

“Did she have big tits like you?”

“Bigger. She got into Forrester but didn't want to go for some reason. Do you have any idea why?”

“I've had lots of babysitters.”

They race, skates scraping. She's beaten him for the fourth time when Gerry Osterling waves from the end of the dock. He's wrapped a long orange scarf twice around his neck and the wind takes it like a flag. He watches Danny Green carve a flawed figure eight.

“That's my calculus tutor, he's here to teach us things.” Emily motions Danny in toward the house.

“You're not supposed to have boyfriends over,” Danny says but follows her.

She helps him unlace his skates on the edge of the dock. His lips are blue and he's starting to have a hard time keeping his eyes open.

“Get inside before you freeze,” she says.

Gerry mixes a gimlet with his index finger. Danny drinks his fourth white russian before putting his head down on the sunroom couch.

“What is it that you expect me to do?” Osterling asks.

“It's a gift. Thank you for tutoring me.”

“You're fucked-up.”

“Takes one to know one.”

They look at the family portrait on the far wall. Alexis's face painted full and pretty.

When Danny's eyes close she tells Gerry she'll be studying in the playroom. Before she leaves Osterling asks Emily,

“Does she know?”

“Does it matter?”

She has another beer and turns on the television to drown out any noise from the sunroom. The stuffed rabbits look on as she studies.

“I guess you aren't worried about getting caught,” she says on the ride home. Osterling is too quiet.

Emily had left a note on the Green's kitchen counter saying that she'd thought she was coming down with the flu and had left in order not to contaminate Danny. Of course, he'd play sick too the next morning.

“What?” he yells. They smoke cigarettes with the windows rolled down. His scarf is wrapped tighter.

“I asked, aren't you worried?”

“How do you know I have anything to be worried about?”

He drops her home on the other side of the river, but she doesn't go in right away.

She looks across for Alexis' lights, but she isn't sure which house is hers. She'd seen Karen walking across this ice at night. It didn't make sense until Emily learned how a girl who hadn't managed to break the 1400 mark on the SAT could still get into Forrester.

Karen doesn't greet Emily when she gets home. She folds laundry and looks so much older than she should despite the weight she's put on in her face.

“Where were you?” she asks.

“Out with friends.”

“Sure you were.”

“Is mom still at work?” Emily asks. Karen finishes pairing socks before she answers.

“Of course she is. So many sacrifices for your education.”

“It's not too late for you, Karen.” Emily knows it's the wrong thing. Her sister is the only person she can't figure out.

“Does Bob Green still pay babysitters with hundred dollar bills?”

“I wouldn't know.”

She looks out the small window into the black night. What could she see?

It was never part of the deal. How could Karen not have known that? Why did she have to act like all the other weepy, heart-broken girls who cut their arms? Their mother had pulled Emily aside too many times to tell her that this would never happen to Emily, that this sort of thing could never happen to a smart, strong girl.