Stacey Robertson                       Brief Q&A with the author
Holy Crap

Chapter 17 

Odelia resisted the urge to scratch the flea bites as she waited on the padded bench outside the school’s administrative conference room. She didn’t want to be seen hunching over her ankles, scratching until blood gathered under her fingernails. Perception, she was learning, was a matter of control. Posture, painted faces, sidelong smiles, intimidation—it was all a means of control, and she had so little of it.  

All day Odelia had the sense of being exposed, observed, like a zoo animal shaken out of its tree. She’d waited for something to happen, for someone to point at her and laugh, for the whispers behind her back. But the students of Carter High were in their own oblivion, sleepily walking through Friday morning. Only the discrete yellow slip handed off by her math teacher requesting her presence on the second-floor administration office gave the indication that something had, in fact, happened last night. Something consequential. 

The door opened to a stuffy room where the vice principal sat with her chair tucked tightly under the table, her attention steadfast on the papers in front of her. Odelia’s burly guidance counselor stood at the administrator’s side. Odelia was asked to close the door behind her and take a seat, quickly, “quickly dear” the VP’s frantic hand beckoned, her pen clicking against a lipstick-stained coffee mug while Odelia went through the odious motions of sitting. 

Odelia knew what this was, of course. The city commissioner had put in his calls and filed his paperwork and now those problematic papers stared up at the overworked vice-principal, forcing her precious attention to the absurd living arrangements of a mediocre student.

“Hi there!” Odelia's counselor, Mr. Hart, smiled in the friendly way of his, his eyes relaxed like he was genuinely glad to see her. Odelia could see why the kids all liked him. He was young, former military, an outsider with arms and chest muscles visible even through his thick wool sweaters. He represented a category of adults who were still optimistic and alive to possibility, not resigned to misery like so many teachers at the school. And Odelia would have liked him, too, if he weren’t so popular. But to be celebrated by the Carter student body was like winning a contest for attracting the most cockroaches. She glowered back at his charming smile.  

“Odelia’s lived in Carter since she was…” The VP looked to her notes. “Born. Isn’t that right, dear?”

Odelia nodded, wondering if this woman was putting on a show or genuinely didn’t know who she was. The school administrators all knew her father. He’d been banned from school morning drop-offs since freshman year because he had “disrupted the morning activities” when he’d camped out in the school parking lot giving away bikes and clothes from the back of his truck. 

“How are you liking school?”


“And you live with just your dad?”


“And you help him—” The vice-principal looked to the counselor for confirmation. “With his work?”

“Uh-huh.” Odelia knew this flustered, official line of questioning must have something to do with protocol. She knew what Child Protective Services meant. She could sense the tonal shift in natural speech and recognized the forced, uncomfortable words recited from a handbook, officially beating around the bush.

“Can you tell us what you do, when you and your father enter the abandoned houses?” The counselor spoke to her in the serious way of adults attempting a significant confrontation. 

Odelia answered with the appropriate dryness. “Well, the realtor needs us to get the stuff out,” she explained, annoyed by the question. What else would they be doing in there?

Mr. Hart whispered to the vice principal, some explanation of how the jobs were arranged, probably. 

“Do you mind if I ask you some questions about your home?” 

Odelia shrugged. Is minding an option? Could she mind, and be left alone?

“Do you feel safe in your home?” 

There it was. The real question. “Sure.”

Mr. Hart leaned in as if he was bringing her into his confidence. “When we say “safe,” Odelia, what we mean is, do you feel comfortable in your house?” He tilted his head to the side, his youngish face offered to her, chin first, inviting. 

Odelia looked into his trusting eyes and wondered if trust was really available to her. Her senses told her no, but this man, with his chin stubble and clasped hands had her second-guessing. What if? What if she could be honest? What if she told them about the rats she heard at night, squeaking, chewing, their nails scratching the plastic clothes bins in her bedroom? What if she told them how her dad stayed away most nights, and the milk had gone bad and she was afraid of investigating the bad smell in the den for fear of what she might find, the possibility of maggots and entrails living somewhere in the buried mess where she ate her dinner and watched TV?

Odelia didn’t know how much this interview would weigh into the matter of her future. Her palms began to sweat when she considered what might happen if she explained that she wasn’t, as they said, comfortable in her house. Would they find her mom? Could she live a life with her mother, maybe, in a clean little condo in Florida or New Mexico or wherever her mother had gone? She’d seen something like this in a movie, a mother and daughter forging a new life in a sunny town. They could do it—her and her mom. They’d argue like in the movie but would always make up, and there’d be perfect clothes and all the nicest soaps and the apartment would be modern and clean, always clean. Odelia would be the new girl, the desirable unknown, the one who gets the boy. 

“Odelia,” Mr. Hart said, as the vice principal sat back in her chair, arms crossed. “Is there anything about your home life that you would like to change?”

Yes. But her mother was a soulless, selfish woman who would never return. To think of her was to drift in fantasy, and Odelia didn’t do that anymore. Fantasy was a copout. Her dad was her reality. Her loving, fallible, salvaged goods-obsessed father who wrapped her into hugs when she cried. The junk was her life. He was it. 

“I wouldn’t change anything,” Odelia replied. 

The click of the pen voiced the vice principal's discontent. Her thinning hair sprung free of her scalp in a wiry electric pull to the light above as she bowed her head and looked at Odelia in a curious way, as if seeing her for the first time. “Odle, Odelia—God, what a name—do you understand what we’re asking here? We have a city commissioner saying he visited your father’s property and reported unsafe living conditions. If the house isn’t safe, we can help you. We have resources.” She spoke in softer tones but didn’t achieve the tenderness she was probably aiming for. Odelia didn’t feel any kindness coming off this woman.

“My house is safe.” Odelia stated, pushing away the mysterious “resources.”  

The VP slapped the folder shut with the efficiency of someone used to making quick decisions. She handed Odelia’s file to Mr. Hart with a dismissive flick of her wrist. “Fax them back the first page,” she instructed. 

Odelia sighed loudly, her lips fluttering. 

“Get back to class, dear,” the VP said to Odelia, not looking at her, all niceness replaced with the firm authoritative tone the teachers took with the bad kids. 

Classes were still in session when she left the conference room. It occurred to Odelia, as she walked the empty halls, that she had the perfect opportunity to ditch. The heavy metal doors at the south end were unguarded, only needing a push against the wind to let her through. But she had nowhere to go. No boy in a Mustang to rescue her. No dad in a blue truck, offering a warm, safe respite from her life. If she walked through those doors, she’d just be stupidly standing in the snow like a sheep on the wrong side of the fence. 

So she ambled into algebra where her classmates were pecking away at plastic calculators. She unpacked her workbook and calculator and feigned the motions of participation. Pretending to be one of them, acting the part of a typical Carter student was all she’d ever done, she realized, because she was never actually one of them. Odelia was not merely weird. She was unacceptable. She was a file folder of problems. 

As much as she hated the school bus, she knew she was right to avoid her father today. The confusing mix of loyalty and anger would only boil over into something ugly if she were to see him now. The post-it she’d left him this morning likely hurt his feelings, but it was for his own good. 

She boarded the afternoon school bus without incident, a sleepy ride home in the grey March malaise. Odelia’s stop was the last on the route, and she politely thanked the driver as she stepped down the stairs. He tipped his head in acknowledgment and closed the door so quickly that Odelia felt like she’d just been expelled from a water slide. Her house was a short distance beyond the naked crab apple trees but it wasn’t quite visible from this part of the road, thankfully. Odelia could only imagine how the kids would gawk if they could see what lay ahead. 

A little blight of yellow represented the disappearing school bus. The further it ventured, the quieter the road became, until Odelia could hear her breath leaving her body. Dumped on the end of the road, as it were. Just as Ralph did, dropping off cargo before running back to things more important, a life more pressing. Odelia lifted her boot but realized she was planting her foot not in the familiar trail to her familiar house—do you feel comfortable in your home, Odelia? She walked, instead, after the bus, along the road that led back to the people, back to the part of the world that she was so very different from. She walked, instead, to Justin’s house. 

Odelia found his brother Steve outside on his cell phone, speaking to a girl in a low, slow voice like he was beckoning a child to sleep. He looked up with surprise when she entered his view.

Steve was the most attractive member of the Knight family, with a square jaw and symmetrical features. His blue eyes were always alive with excitement, and he liked to wear bright colors—reds, greens, orange and yellow and those colors became a part of his personality, carrying his energy. But Steve had grown up quickly, too quickly, people said. Steve was fast where Odelia and Justin were slow. They still played make-believe at an age when Steve had already been kissing girls. And though it was only a three-year age difference between the brothers, Steve’s hurry to join the adult world was a big part of why Odelia and Justin were so close. Well, until they weren’t.

As he was on the phone, Odelia gave a polite half-smile and headed straight for the kitchen door. She chose to let herself in, feeling too embarrassed to raise her hand and knock with Steve watching. There was no right way to do this, she figured. There was either awkward or awkward. 

She stepped into the Knight’s dark, sparse kitchen. Old cigarette smoke filled the air. She imagined her mother sitting in her usual chair, leaning toward Joanne Knight with a conspiratorial smile. The two of them palming warm drinks while the television prattled on in the corner.

Odelia took delicate steps into the dim room with her hands in the air as if to feel the mood of the house through her fingers. “Hello?” she asked. “Anyone home?”

She heard the floorboards creak and a tall figure emerge from the hallway.

“Oh. Hey,” Justin said dourly. He sighed and she didn’t know if the sigh was because of her or something else. She still didn’t know him yet. She didn’t know this version of him, couldn’t tell if he was still on her side or if he’d gone back to the winning team. 

“Um… hi. Sorry. I—” Odelia let her voice trail off. She didn’t know what she was doing. She considered turning around. 

“Been helping my brother with something,” Justin said as he turned on the kitchen light, explaining the darkness, she guessed. Or perhaps he was trying to make conversation. 

Steve swung open the door on cue. “And here I thought I was doing the helping,” he teased. “Haven’t seen you in a long time,” he said to Odelia, his tone somewhere between an accusation and friendly greeting. 

She looked to the ground, ashamed to have been absent, ashamed for things she couldn’t understand or explain.

“Is that my beautiful Odelia?” Joanne Knight exclaimed from the hallway. “Oh honey look at you, my gorgeous Odelia, come here!” She carried her arms outstretched for a hug, and with her graying hair and drapey kimono robe, she looked like a fortune-teller coming to wrap Odelia in a warm, happy prediction.

Odelia let herself be hugged. She hadn’t been in a woman’s embrace for years, hadn’t smelled the flowery scents or felt the soft fabrics. Tears pooled in her eyes in defiance of all her willpower.

“Oh honey, you don’t know how I’ve missed you.” Joanne rocked Odelia in her embrace, side to side.

 From her position on Joanne’s shoulder, Odelia could see the pile of bills stacked on the kitchen counter, the open cupboards revealing half-empty shelves. Her tears dried on her eyelashes and she remembered Justin was there in that room, watching her be mothered.

“Want something to drink?” Joanne asked, releasing the hug and pulling out a chair for Odelia in the same motion. “Steve, did you drink all the apple juice?”

“No, but Justin might have.” Steve gave a jerking motion with his hand. “Needs the fluid.”

“Shut up,” Justin growled.

“Tell me, how’s your dad?” Joanne asked, ignoring her sons, the juice, the whole kitchen.

Odelia grimaced.

“Oh it can’t be that bad,” Joanne cooed. “What did your father do that was so awful?” 

Odelia searched the room for a starting point. So much to tell. So much had happened since she last sat in this kitchen. The last time might have been right after her mother left, when she and her dad were still making their rounds around town, still trying to put a happy spin on things while looking like a pair of dowdy cast-offs.

“He hasn’t been around much,” Odelia admitted. “And the guys from the city have been at the house.”

Joanne’s eyes lifted and Odelia followed their look to Justin, who nodded his head in confirmation. “The city? Why?”

“I don’t really know,” Odelia lied, her tears still ready to pool in her eyes, only a ragged breath away. This time she was the one who looked to Justin, as if signaling for him to take it from here, a passing of the baton.

“Ralph’s violating a junk ordinance, apparently,” Justin explained.

“A junk ordinance,” Joanne repeated. “Since when were there rules about junk?”

Steve huffed through his nose.

“What?” Joanne asked accusingly. 

“Nothing,” Steve said, resting his hands behind him on the kitchen counter. “It’s just, every time I look over there, he’s got more crap.”

“That man has done more for this family—” Joanne started, getting out of her chair with her finger pointed.

“I know, I know, I know,” Steve conceded, talking his mother back into her seat.

“He’s not wrong.” Odelia said somberly, letting Steve off the hook. It felt like a betrayal, talking about her dad in this way, but the collections were visible to anyone who bothered to look. This wasn’t the kind of secret that stayed hidden.

“Still, I don’t see how that’s the city’s concern.” Joanne shook her head. “So what does he need to do?”

Odelia was silent, flattening her palms on the plastic tablecloth.

“He could pay a fine, and then he’d have to clean it up.” Justin answered, always the smarter student. “Or the city will escalate.” He put this last word in quotation marks and shrugged his shoulders as if to mock the verbiage on the citation.

Steve laughed outright. “Escalate! What are they gonna do, clean the place out for him?”

“Yeah,” Justin said. “And… Well and…”

Joanne looked alarmed. “And?”

Justin looked at Odelia and his blue eyes softened. “Something about CPS,” he muttered, almost a whisper.

Odelia’s stomach twisted. 

Joanne put her hand over Odelia’s. The older skin sagged delicately from the bones. “We won’t let anything like that happen,” she whispered. “Don’t worry, love.”

“I know,” Odelia said without thinking, as if she really did know. She wanted to believe in the power of parenting and trust Joanne, never mind how her own mother’s disappearance disproved the theory of parents, the myth of stability. Ever since the city arrived at her door, Odelia felt like the house was slipping, cracking in the wind, bending to outside forces. The roof, the floor, the heat—none of it was really hers. She was just a visitor, owning nothing, controlling nothing. She was only a social security number inside a manila folder, a collection of pen strokes. 

“I’m glad you two are speaking again.” Joanne squeezed Odelia’s hand and looked up at Justin, silently linking them all together. “There aren’t enough women around here,” she added, as if that would lighten the mood. 

Justin and Odelia locked eyes for a moment before Odelia looked away.

“I need to make a call. Justin, show Odelia what you’ve been working on for your biology class. She might like to see that.” 

“Sure,” Justin replied moodily, leading the way to his bedroom with his head hanging from his neck like a dying flower.

Justin’s room looked the same as it always had, with his boring table of elements chart on the walls, scientific dinosaur dioramas, and brown gingham window curtains. Odelia had been in his room a thousand times. She took up her familiar seat upon the faded blue bedspread and let her legs dangle over the edge.

Justin sighed, forcing the air out of his nose like a horse as he settled into his desk chair. Next, he’d paw the ground with his feet. Odelia sank into the tired bedsprings, glad to be in this room, reliving this pattern of behavior. 

Overflowing bookshelves lined the back wall, with more books and science magazines stacked on the floor. Justin’s intelligence always intimidated Odelia. It was one of the reasons why they stopped spending time together. Justin had always been inquisitive, but by around the 4th grade, his ability to read and process information so much outpaced hers that he grew frustrated with her. She remembered arguments with him yelling, “Why is it taking you so long? Why is this so hard for you to understand?” She hated the way it made her feel, to be the stupid one.

She wondered if this was why he avoided speaking to her now, why he hung his head in despair instead of plunging into his discoveries like he would in the days before the intellectual chasm separated them. 

“What’s the experiment?” Odelia asked, showing that she could put their differences aside. 

“Tardigrades,” he answered. 


“How did your dad react, about yesterday?”

“I, um, haven’t seen him. Yet.” 

Justin looked at her coolly, so stoically that she couldn’t tell if he was pissed or pitying her situation. “You came here instead,” he stated flatly. No sympathy. Just an empirical observation. “You came to me.”

“I—” She started, but felt the conversation was plunging deeper than she could handle. He wanted to go into that empty territory, those years of not speaking. He wanted to take her by the hand and make her walk alongside him into that silence. He wanted to know her thoughts, her deeply private, humiliating thoughts. 

Justin leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his fingers like an evil mastermind. He was making her uncomfortable, and—judging by the grey stillness in his eyes—he knew it. “You haven’t talked to me in like, 4 years, and now…now, here you sit.” 

“I just, I thought…” Odelia stammered, not knowing how to meet his challenge. 

Justin leaned in even more, placing his face a few inches from hers. She couldn’t help but notice his lips, tight like the seal of a Ziplock bag straining to contain the contents inside. 

Odelia wondered if she should get up and leave, returning to her ill-fated, unsteady home. She’d thought last night’s visit from the Carter windbreaker men had been permission to end the silence, her victimization far more important than the broken trail in the friendship. She thought she was forgiven. She thought she’d gotten her friend back. She’d thought she could wrap her arms around his waist and breathe him in, letting him be her home. But Justin’s eyes were so cold. 

“I’m—” She began to say “sorry,” but she didn’t feel sorry. He was as much at fault as she was. “I’m worried,” she offered. 

Justin’s jaw relaxed but his eyes were disbelieving. 

“My dad’s not good about things like this.”

“So why not ask Charlene for help? Why not call a lawyer or something? Why me? You hate me.”

“I don’t hate you!”

“In the halls, every time, like you’re afraid of me—”

“You avoid ME!” Odelia shouted. “You act like I’ve got a, a, disease or something.”

“I’ve never once made a point of avoiding you.”

“Oh please. Everyone does it. And you’re like them, right? Scared I’m going to infest you.”

Justin’s mouth opened but he didn’t speak. He searched her face as if she was a specimen under a microscope. “You really think that, don’t you?” His voice was delicate. “You believe we’re all bad guys.” 

Odelia couldn’t understand why he was acting as if he’d been the one rejected. Everyone knew where they stood. Everyone knew she was the outcast, the dummy, the weirdo. She rubbed her eyes if only to have a chance to close them. She couldn’t agree that Justin was blameless, that every frigid hallway encounter was her own doing, and he was entirely “good.” It wasn’t that simple. Yet, she couldn’t bring herself to pile onto his wounded state with more derision. “I don’t hate you,” she repeated. 

Justin huffed. “You just think I’m a dickhead, then. You think I’m, I’m, like some ET jerkoff. I can’t believe that! I’ve never done anything to hurt you, never put you down.” He leaned back and crossed his arms. 

Odelia was surprised by his anger. “What does it even matter what I think?” she asked. 

Justin looked startled. 

“I don’t matter.” Odelia leaned back on the bed, hoping a casual posture would trick the tears from pooling in her eyes. 

“That’s not true. That’s never been true.” Justin leaned back and swept his gaze around the room, settling on the periodic table. Had it been up to Odelia, this conversation would not be happening. But Justin always went for the more difficult route, always pushed through discomfort no matter how badly he wanted to quit. “You get these things into your head and,” he struggled for the words, “and it’s like you put words in people’s mouths. Things they’ve never said, thoughts they’ve never had. I don’t—” He stopped, raking his fingers through his hair hard enough to tug some strands loose from his scalp. 

Odelia breathed long, slow breaths until she felt she could speak without a wobble in her voice. “This is the only place I could come,” she said, sounding as if she had admitted a great defeat. “Okay?”

“Truck’s running good,” Steve said from the bedroom doorway.

Justin jumped a little in his chair.

“Jesus! Whoo there what a jumper. Got a grasshopper up your ass?” 

“I thought you left,” Justin explained uneasily.

“I was checking on your truck. It’s good. I added some steering wheel fluid. Tightened the wheels. It looked alright.”

Justin nodded a thank you.

Steve still lingered in the doorway, clearly restless about something. “So I got an invite to this party tonight.” He rubbed his chin. “It’s at this chick’s house. You guys should come.”

Justin and Odelia looked to each other with wide eyes, their tension lifting with this new opportunity. A party. Odelia was being invited to a party, the elusive, often-discussed, chaotic scene from every teenage drama. Three years into high school and she’d never been invited to a party. Neither—as it seemed from the way he straightened his back and lifted his eyebrows—had Justin. 

Steve shined in his yellow shirt, jingling keys in his hand. 

“Now?” Justin asked.

“Don’t fart in the truck,” Steve said, the sound of his keys descending down the hallway like the call of a dinner bell. 

Justin lifted and dropped his shoulders, a mischievous smile in his eyes. “Wanna go?”

Odelia met him shrug for shrug. “Sure,” she said as she rose off the bed. Justin grabbed his jacket from the hook on the back of his bedroom door and Odelia became aware of the familiarity of these movements—the car waiting outside to take them somewhere, the anticipation of a new adventure, the two of them traveling down the hall as a pair, as a unit, as “the kids.” 

Chapter 18

The party was quiet from the outside, not the blaring riot Odelia expected. The house likely belonged to an ET. It was two stories and had a long wrapping porch with stone pillars and decorative ground lights shining dimly through the snow. She and her dad had driven through this neighborhood once, back when the homes were still being built. Her dad had commented on the pillars, an ancient architecture on a modern house. Silly-looking, he’d said. At the time, Odelia had been impressed with the rich brown of the wood clippings, the perfect symmetry of the homes, the elegant tiled walkways. But now as they approached the fading, lived-in home, she realized what her dad had meant. The columns were no taller than a basketball pole and they stood uselessly outside the house, as out of place as palm trees in a pine forest. The house—and its matching neighborhood—looked a little trite. 

Justin climbed out of the truck and hung back while Odelia exited. She’d tried to sense Justin’s mood during the ride over, as she sat sandwiched between the brothers while they made off-color jokes about Steve’s many girlfriends. Justin was reserved at first, probably fearful of her and all the heavy, emotional complications she carried with her to the middle seat. But Steve wouldn't allow Justin to sit in a thundercloud all day, channeling dark teenage angst. Steve poked and teased until the cloud finally burst and a smiling, dimpled 16-year-old emerged. The old Justin.  

Steve led them up the porch steps where the necks of a few dozen beers peeked out from a mound of snow piled by the top stair. Music rattled the windows of the house, rushing out the opened door along with waves of heat. Steve walked with a purpose through the many alcoves and tiny rooms with potted plants, Justin and Odelia trailing behind him like baby ducks.

“Steve’s here!” Steve was scooped into the arms of a petite dark-haired girl, whose face and body was in perfect symmetry. She wore only socks while everyone else wore shoes, a good indicator that it was her house being offered up for this event. Other people turned their heads to look at Steve and there were murmured greetings befitting a guy who mattered—not a drifting, fringe party guest—but someone who belonged.

Justin and Odelia stood awkwardly, waiting for direction.

“Guys this is my brother Justin,” Steve said. “And our neighbor.”

The kitchen crowd, an even mix of guys and girls about Steve’s age, returned to their conversations as if Steve hadn’t spoken at all. They were beautiful, like Steve. Perfect in the way of young adults who were past being awkward, but not yet weathered by adulthood. Their skin was clear, hair shiny and full, bodies firm and ready for life. Odelia saw in them the absence of her every physical flaw, from her chubby legs to her acne and tangled hair. They were gods on Mt Olympus, and she was a peasant in the field, looking up at the mountain where immortals clinked glasses.

She took tiny backward steps to the wall where shadows could hide her. A practiced move.

“You’re Steve’s brother, huh? Wanna beer?” A solidly-built guy jerked his chin up at Justin, who was now standing alone. “Let’s get a beer.” He led the way out of the kitchen and Justin followed behind without a glance at Odelia.

She stood holding her arm, wondering if she was meant to follow. Music thudded in the living room and the kitchen crew raised their voices over the sound. Odelia felt weird. She wanted to leave, to escape the awkward feelings, but reminded herself that this is where she always wanted to be. For so long she’d sat outside of social circles, never invited inside. And now here she was, in the house, finally seeing what other people did while she watched TV. 

She pushed outside and breathed in the cold air while Justin and the muscled guy tipped brown bottles to the moonless sky.

“You in high school?” the guy asked, conversationally.

“Yeah.” Justin belched.

Odelia let the door close behind her and almost apologized for the squealing hinge. But no one acknowledged her or the door.

“Yeah hey I’m Todd. My buddy told me ’bout a plow gig so I’m in town for that.”

“You’re lucky to get plow work here,” Justin said.

“Don’t I know it,” Todd agreed. “Help yourself,” he said, gesturing to the beers. “We got more in the garage.”

She could tell Justin knew she was standing there by the way he avoided eye contact. He would look to the ground, fuss with the label on his bottle or pretend to gaze out at the nothingness beyond the wooden railing.

The air was too sharp to be standing out here. Odelia tried to hide her face inside her stained ski jacket, her regard for Justin an equal mix of confusion and contempt. Maybe he wasn’t being rude, she thought, but just acting in the way one does at a party. She wouldn’t know, nobody ever taught her the social art of partying. But the longer she stood there, the more her body ached from the chill. It was time to brave the situation alone.

The living room was overheated and carried the heavy aroma of flowery body spray. Colorful, feminine girls danced to heavy bass beats with their hair loose and heads thrown back like water fairies. The furniture had been pushed against the walls and Odelia sat on a couch to take off her coat and sweater, regretting the oversized t-shirt she wore underneath. Her hair was matted and frizzy as usual, her nails just dirty nubs.

“Here.” A cold beer in a glass bottle was in front of her nose. She looked up to see Steve’s extended arm.

“No, I—”

“You don’t have to drink it.” He popped the top off and set the drink in her hand. “But at least hold it.”

He turned to leave but doubled back. “Might want to put your thumb over the top, so, uh, well just in case.”

Odelia looked at the bottle in confusion. “In case of what?”

“Nothing. Just—” He scratched the back of his neck. “It’s a good place to put your thumb. Trust me.”

Odelia watched him casually walk through the makeshift dance floor, moving his shoulders with the girls as he passed through. These were his people. He was a natural entity here. His playfulness, his inability to stay in one place, the spirit that made him an anomaly in Joanne’s house was what put him in perfect harmony with the tempo here. 

She held the beer between her legs obediently, but didn’t have the faintest desire to drink the substance inside. Neither of her parents drank, as far as she knew, and such was her understanding that drinking was not what Baxters did. In a strange place, she clung to this identity, this suggestion of who she was supposed to be.

Her body sank into the soft white couch. She felt the fabric—expensive, clean. An ET’s couch. She looked around the room at the potted plants and framed artwork in muted tones, tiny lights drilled into the ceiling. She found it a shame to have the room presented in this way, with the couches against the walls, and the coffee table tilted on its side. It was probably a really nice house, like the ones in the Swiffer commercials.

Justin appeared in the living room alcove and just as quickly retreated back into the night. So many of the guys at the party were alternating between the suffocating warmth of the house and the frigid chill on the front porch. They passed in and out of the doors like fish bobbing along with the current. In and out, in and out. The girls danced for them, looking demurely over their shoulders, knowing they were on display. Every so often a guy might get brave enough to step into the sea of women and thrust his crotch toward one of their backsides, carnal as wildlife. 

One of the hairy beasts emerged from the dance cluster and walked lazily toward Odelia. He was a heavy-set guy with long hair and a dense, furry beard. Everything about him was thick. She looked side to side, trying to see if anyone else was around, hoping she wasn’t the only person on this side of the room for him to engage. 

“You gonna drink that?” He leaned over the back of the couch, his face hanging over her right shoulder, his body smelling of smoke and sweat.

She followed his pointed finger to her bottled beer in her lap. He knew she hadn’t been drinking. Had he been watching her? The thought made her shuffle her hips in discomfort. His question was posed as a challenge, one she wanted to pass. So Odelia lifted the bottle to her lips and let the amber liquid, now warm from so much time between her cupped hands, fill her mouth with the taste of bile. 

He laughed at her puckered mouth and squinty eyes. “You look like my nephew when I gave him his first beer.” 

How old was this guy?

“So,” he said, congenially, now that Odelia had passed the test “You a local? You look like a local.” 

“Yeah,” she replied, thumbing the opening of the beer bottle, knowing she had the drab appearance of someone who’d spent most of their life in flannel shirts and galoshes. She didn’t care to ask him the same question. 

“Nice house, huh? Don’t got shit like this in town.” He lifted his eyebrows, willing her to agree. Odelia just looked around the room, as if she hadn’t already noticed how nice it was.

“Those girls are hot,” he continued, openly gaping at the wagging hips. “You should get out there. I’d like to see your moves.” 

Odelia recoiled, unconsciously pulling her shoulder away from him. She couldn’t picture herself bouncing her heels on the soft carpet as this rakish creep looked on, evaluating her. The truth was that Odelia loved to dance. But dancing—her version of dancing—was a happy release of energy, a way of surrendering to the music. He made it sound like a beauty pageant, a bodily display, like all the girls were hot dogs turning in the warmer and he was a hungry customer at 7-Eleven.

“I don’t think so.” Odelia said, forcing a chuckle into her voice so her rejection would sound softer, safer. 

“Oh, c’mon, you’ll feel better once you’re moving. I bet you got some nice—”

“I’m fine.” She cut him off, harsher than intended. Her voice, her tone and her crisp annunciation actually sounded like her mother’s.

“Hey.” He threw up his arms in dramatic surrender. “Excuse the shit out of me for trying to make conversation.” He walked away, shaking his head in disbelief, no doubt crafting a story about the psycho girl on the couch. 

Odelia was grateful, even if a little surprised by herself. She was grateful, in all truth, for her mom. 

Her mom had warned her about this guy (and guys like him) a few years ago. She tried to disabuse her daughter of the notion of fairy tale princes and storybook men, and the memory of this warning rushed back now with complete clarity.

It was one of the few days they had spent together as mother and daughter just before her mom split for good. Odelia had been sitting on the couch watching The Little Mermaid. She never grew tired of it, even though she was supposed to be taken up with things like padded bras and zit cream. She didn’t notice her mother standing in the hallway behind a column of junk, watching her as she mouthed the lines to the movie.

Irene had been doing this with regularity—spying on Ralph and Odelia to see how they interacted without her. “I’m just observing,” she’d said when Ralph asked her why she was creeping in the shadows of the house. 

Her mom finally emerged and stood between her daughter and the television. “I’d like you to join me on an outing.” 

Odelia paused the movie and they both heard the soft rain pattering on the windows.

“We won’t be gone long,” she said, fastening her coat.

Odelia didn’t ask where they were going. She just got into the passenger seat of her mom’s car and did as she was told.  

The car took the familiar roads to town. The line of clouds started just above the traffic lights, a solid block hanging so low in the sky that the taller trees disappeared into the heavy fog.  

“Do you spend much time in the town center?” her mom asked, like she was making polite conversation with a stranger in the grocery store. 

Odelia couldn’t understand the question. Nobody spent time in the town center. Carter didn’t really have a center. There was no downtown. What it had instead was a stupid roundabout that circled around a park bench and a drinking fountain. 

They drove in silence, no music even, until her mom pulled the car into a spot at Ace Hardware.

“We need something from Ace?” Odelia asked. This was her dad’s place. There was no circumstance where her mom should need to come here. It was almost a violation that they should be here without dad.

She didn’t answer and so Odelia asked again, loudly and slightly panicked.

“No, we’re not going to the hardware store. God forbid.” 

Odelia followed close behind as her mom crossed the street to the ridiculous bench that sat in the middle of the traffic circle.

Odelia laughed out loud when she saw her mom take a seat.

Her mother smiled back like a Cheshire cat. “Come sit,” she commanded.

Odelia sat just as someone honked their horn. She turned in the direction of the sound and an older man smiled and waved.

“Don’t wave back,” her mother snapped.

Odelia put her hand back in her pocket.

“No one sits here,” Odelia explained. She always felt compelled to explain things, like her mom was a visitor. It was dad’s treatment, carried over. Her dad always regarded her mother like a foreign celestial being. He accepted Odelia because she was a part of him, but her mother would always be a part of something else, somewhere he would never know or see.

“I know,” her mom retorted. “It’s a stupid place for a bench.”

Another driver honked as he went through the light.

“I want you to just sit here for a minute and see what people are like. Real people. Real men,” she said.

“I know what people are like.”  

“Yes, you’re 13 and you know everything.”

Odelia crossed her arms, cold and scowling.

“You watch a lot of movies.” Odelia had started to defend herself but her mom cut her off. “I’m not blaming you. You’re not in trouble,” she continued, “but I worry that you think the world is a better place than it is. Who’s the prince in The Little Mermaid?”

“Eric,” Odelia answered.


They watched cars roll through the light. Some people just stared back at them, their kids in the back seat also staring.

A young-ish man wearing a baseball cap and driving a pick-up truck pulled up to the light. Her mother looked at him intensely, as if willing him to turn in their direction. Finally he spotted them and smiled, then rolled down the window, spat out his tobacco, and rubbed his genitalia.

Gross, Odelia thought, turning away.

“So,” her mom said to Odelia. “Is he anything like Prince Eric?”

“No” Odelia answered softly. She looked down at the ground, certain she was being punished for watching too many movies.

“How do you know?” 

“Because Eric’s a prince.” 

“Even a prince can be like that guy. You don’t know that Prince Eric is good.”

Odelia sat quietly, still looking at her feet. More cars honked.

“I’m not trying to ruin your movie. But I want you to understand that most people aren’t kind. They’re nice to you because of your dad, but if he’s not around, you need to be aware of what they can be like. Especially men. Most aren’t princes. Most are bad guys.” She tucked her hands into the pockets of her oversized coat. “When you’re standing at your father’s side it may seem like everyone is nice and pleasant.” Her voice had a mocking sing-song rhythm. “And that’s because no one will bother you while your dad’s around. He’s too big, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. But notice, how when you’re here with me —” Another honk and a whistle. “Notice how they are, these people. See how they can be.” 

Odelia knew she should have kept her mouth shut, but she couldn’t help from protesting, “People are acting funny because we’re sitting in the traffic circle, that’s all. They probably think we’re playing a game, like a joke.” 

Her mother was shaking her head even before Odelia could finish. “Doesn’t matter. Pay attention, Odelia. You spend your whole life clutching your father’s pant leg. You think people are good.”

“Not everyone,” Odelia countered, trying to defend herself from her mother’s caustic implication that she knew nothing at all. But in truth, at the time of this park bench outing, Odelia was a bit of a blockhead. She’d believed her world was a safe, happy place. She’d smiled when strangers side-swiped her in the grocery store. She’d laughed when kids called her “smelly delly.” She had genuinely believed that people meant her no harm, and a positive attitude could put a nice twist on any situation. That’s what her dad had taught her, and it was her father’s philosophy of life that had governed her thinking. But her mother plopped her on that bench and ruined everything.

Someone honked and Odelia recoiled from the sound. So quickly had the beep of a horn changed from a friendly greeting to something ugly and rude, like a curse word. 

“Can we just go? I don’t like this.”

“Of course you don’t like it. I don’t like it, either.”

“Then why are we here?”

Her mom shivered. Odelia noticed the raindrops that had collected on her mother’s upper lip. Odelia recognized how her mom’s lip protruded from her face a little, just like her own. 

“Your father’s not going to explain this to you. It’s too…dark, for him. So I’ve got to be the one to do it. And I need you to understand that most guys have the capacity to be bad. They’ve got this meanness that’s a part of them, and sometimes it comes out for no reason.”

They both winced as a boy drove past with his speaker bass rattling the aluminum walls of his truck, a pair of plastic testicles swinging from the tow hitch.

Odelia repeated the phrase in her head, “Most are bad guys. Most are bad guys.” This was the point of the lesson, and she didn’t want to fail. “Most are bad guys.”

Odelia had retreated to her fantasies and fairy tales after that day. She put the drizzling park bench behind her. It was easy to do—she didn’t want to remember it. But somehow her mind clung to the core lesson. This idea of bad and good, the bad that hid inside boys until they got the nerve to use it. And when she got to high school and the guys in her class spat on her shoes and tried to make her watch porn, she recognized their behavior. She’d been waiting for it, in a way. 

And now that whole afternoon with her mother was clicking into place like the final number of her locker combination. Her mom took off a couple years later, and she was right—her dad never could have had that conversation, and Odelia needed to know, needed to see. Because now the memory of those lewd drivers returned in vivid detail. They were here, walking around in this house, this party, showcasing their own carnality just as her mother said they would.  

Someone turned up the music and the loud thumps shook the ground beneath Odelia’s feet. More girls had come to dance, winding their hips and rolling their arms in the air like the inflatable tube men seen outside car dealerships. Odelia felt weird about sitting alone, watching them. She was beginning to think she was meant to join them—none of the girls were sitting. Maybe if she maneuvered to the middle, her body would be hidden from the lascivious male eyes on the room’s perimeter. 

She was negotiating her approach to the dancers when Justin sauntered over, smiling to himself. A few of the girls in the room turned to look at him and Odelia noticed his straightening posture as he passed them by. 

“Having fun?” he asked, gracelessly dropping himself into the available space beside her. 

“Sure.” She smiled, so as not to seem ungrateful to Steve for bringing her here. 

“Whatchya thinking about?” 

“My mom, actually.”

He took a long pull from his drink and she did the same, belatedly remembering the rancid taste as it filled her mouth. 

The pair sat beside each other as they had sat many times before—on living room couches, on each others’ beds, in the back of cars, shuffled around together. “The kids can keep each other company,” their parents always said. She knew how it felt to have Justin by her side, but struggled to understand him, and herself, in their new maturing bodies. Odelia’s knees stopped just short of the cushion’s edge, while his legs extended another five inches before bending. The bones of his hands were now visible through his skin, the tendons of his forearm flexing as he clutched his beer. Odelia’s hands were still pillowy and short, just as they’d always been. Her palms were roughened from so many trash jobs, were callused on the inside and puffy on the outside. Her cheeks were still childishly chubby and thick where his were now angular. And she now had these mounds of her breasts under her sweatshirt where his chest was flat and hard. 

“You miss your mom?” Justin asked, his tone too light for such a dark 

“Yeah,” she answered, surprised at her own response. She didn’t need her mom, and didn’t think she even wanted her mom. But she’d said “yeah” all the same, like a regular kid would respond. 

His body weight caused the couch to crater. Her hips grazed his thighs, leaning into him. She felt the hazy feeling of attraction, a tenseness in her lower belly, pheromones floating in the air with the dust particles. Justin threw his arm up on the back of the couch cushion and Odelia longed to slide in under it, just like she would with Ralph when she was little. 

For a moment she forgot that they had been discussing her mother. She waited for the follow-up questions, but they didn’t come, so she took the offensive. “You miss your dad?” She countered, matching the intrusion. 

“Couldn’t care less.” He took an elaborate swig from his beer in the compensatory response of someone who did in fact care. “But your dad…” He shook his head and smiled his full, roguish grin.

He knew her dad well enough to smile at the situation. He knew her well enough to still be sitting here, next to her, knowing how her dad had gone too far, had slipped beyond social acceptability, was now in the realm of authoritative, legal intervention, criminality even, and still know that he could smile and tease, because she needed him and couldn’t afford to get angry.  

“It’ll be fine.” He winked, an expression that made him look at once attractive and untrustworthy. He sipped his beer as dancers gyrated on the rug before them. Odelia wanted one more gesture, a pat on the knee or some kind of reassuring smirk on his face to let her know he really did care. But he was buzzed, she could tell by the half grin that remained on his face even as he became lost in his own thoughts, Odelia soon becoming as inconsequential as one of the embroidered sofa pillows. 

Knowing he wouldn’t care, Odelia got up off the couch and made her way to the bathroom to pour out her beer. She felt bad about walking on the soft rug in her clunky work boots and for bringing her dirty self this bathroom with its potted plants, recessed lighting and fancy soaps. If this were her house, she’d make everyone wear socks or those blue shoe booties like the investigators on crime shows. 

She looked at her plain features in the mirror. She was the generic brand, the factory default, the perennial “before” photo. The other girls at this party were like a dozen Charlene’s—glossy magazine ads come to life. They were what guys wanted. They got the pheromones and warm smiles; she got the pity. Odelia lifted her t-shirt to look at her stomach and rib flare. Some of those girls wore crop tops that left their whole stomachs on display. Odelia tried to imagine how she’d look in one of those shirts. She sucked in her belly and pulled her hair back and licked her lips, envisioning herself as one of them, the way a child wears a plastic fireman hat and pretends to run through a wall of flames. She felt silly with herself and quickly tucked her shirt back into her jeans.

Water gushed from the faucet and Odelia let it run over her hands. She sniffed each of the little flower-shaped soaps and decided to steal the daintiest bit of rose, so small that her finger smudge on the carved petal wouldn’t be noticed. She held her hands up to her face, satisfied. Her hands belonged here now, even if the rest of her didn’t. 

The music had been turned up even louder, to the point where Odelia’s walk back to the living room was timed to the heavy beat. Justin was gone, leaving only her winter coat slung over the back of the empty couch. But there were more dancers now, more girls and even some boys, enough so that if Odelia remained standing she reckoned she would be, more or less, on the dance floor. She didn’t recognize anyone and there was a liberation in that. No Carter High kids, no sign of Justin or Steve or that hairy guy who’d bothered her earlier. She didn’t know these people and they didn’t know her and so it didn’t matter how her jeans bagged or her armpits sweat. Nobody cared. Perhaps she was a weed among daffodils, but at least she was a weed that went unnoticed. 

Odelia had been to middle school dances in the school’s cafeteria and remembered the awkwardness of leaving her table or the safety of the wall to wade out onto the floor like she expected to put on a show. But this party wasn’t like that. Nobody cared when she started to bend her knees. They didn’t notice when she progressed from standing to swinging her hips. Movement, twirling, had always come naturally to Odelia and the music—something between a rap song and the bongo drum beats of a foreign country—was easy to move with. 

Odelia kept her arms by her sides but let her head swing, her hair free to fall over her face. She locked eyes briefly with a college-age girl with purple-streaked hair and a floor-length dress, and the girl smiled, then mimicked Odelia, rolling her head on her neck until her own hair covered her face like she’d walked into a spiderweb. The songs changed but Odelia kept dancing, even closing her eyes and letting herself be alone while at the same time being with everyone else, their bodies bumping into her to remind her that she was still standing in that hot, beige room. She didn’t recognize any of the songs (they were nothing like what she and her dad listened to on the radio), but she loved them all the more for their unfamiliarity. There was a freedom, on that carpet, from everything. If only it wasn’t so hot, if only she hadn’t been so thirsty, she could have stayed there all night. 

When she stepped back into the hallway, she smelled what she thought was a dead skunk before noticing the small clouds of smoke floating down the hall. Weed, she realized, following the scent, hoping to catch a look at the mysterious foreign substance without being noticed. 

“I didn’t know you smoked?” a voice asked, and Odelia panicked for a moment before realizing that nobody could see her. From where she stood in the shadowed hallway, she was basically invisible to those in the dining room. She could see them, snacking and talking, but they couldn’t see her, propped against the wall like she was waiting to be admitted. 

“Like, how often?” Odelia recognized Chrissy Morgan’s high-pitched, gargled voice from her dad’s snowmobile radio ads. Chrissy was chubby with large breasts and skin a few shades too tan for a Carter winter. Her eyes were coated in shimmery paint and she had glossed her mouth the shade of bubble gum. Odelia couldn’t wait for Chrissy to graduate so that she wouldn’t have to see this girl and her performative existence. 

“At parties.” Justin emerged from under the table holding a pipe in one hand while he delicately pinched a small green nugget with the other. Odelia couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Justin smoked weed? He went to parties?

He put the nugget in the pipe and offered it to Chrissy, whose chemically-colored hair and decorative face glitter shone under the kitchen lights. Odelia could tell that Justin was transfixed, like a cat looking at a disco ball.

“You know anyone here?” Chrissy asked, leaning into him.

“Just my brother. But I’ve met some cool people here.” He replied, unblinking, smiling his boozy smile, entranced. 

Chrissy pressed her fleshy, hairless arm into his chest.

Odelia crept forward into the room, hoping to remind him of her existence and stop whatever was happening, like a human traffic cone. She took one of the bottled waters on the table and greedily gulped it down, expecting from the way she loudly crinkled the plastic that Justin would be jarred back to the familiar things—snacks, trucks, his homely neighbor. The good. 

She moved on to the chip bowl, extracting piles of potato chips at a time and munching on them with her mouth open. But neither noticed that Odelia was in the room. And maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference if they had. Justin would probably still be looking into Chrissy’s face with awe, still be working his hand up and down her skin, still be grazing his long fingers over her breast. 

Chrissy giggled. “You’ve got big hands.”

“Not just my hands,” Justin said, running his tongue over Chrissy’s lips. 

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Stacey Robertson has published short fiction pieces in Spectrum Literary Journal and ProseAxe. She is a member of Jersey City Writers and holds a BA in Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Stacey currently lives in Rio de Janeiro where she continues to manage a healthcare consulting firm. Holy Crap is her first novel.

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