Authors: Ivy Pochoda
“Never mind,” the girl says, blowing a bubble.
“What’s your name?”
“Monique isn’t enough?”
“You should stick around in case someone wants to talk to you.”
Monique laughs and says, “Where you think I’m gonna go?”
June Giatto, last seen in Coffey Park by a young woman named Monique and her friends
, Fadi writes.
According to Monique, June seemed agitated
. It’s a scoop. His first.
People arrive with candles, flowers, and photographs of June taped to poster board. Fadi worries that it will appear as if a crime was committed in his store, but he allows the shrine to build. He hands out cookies. The owners of the bodega across the street eye him. They’ve put out lawn chairs and are blasting Latin pop music.
Late afternoon, Fadi begins scanning the radio stations for news of Red Hook. But all the airwaves care about is the heat—grid overloads, possible brownouts, water shortages. In the Ravenswood Houses in Queens, an elderly couple died from heatstroke. A kid in Harlem died when an electric fan fell into his bath. Babies die in cars. There is concern about animals in the Central Park Zoo. Fadi spins the dial and finds a station playing Christmas music.
As the light softens, the crowd thins. Fadi’s not handing out free beer. There’s no reason to hang around. A few women transport the shrine down to the waterfront. Fadi’s left alone in his store with only the occasional customers for company.
The streets are empty. The neighborhood settles down, exhausted from the day. The bar fills. Half the patrons stand outside smoking. Their laughter carries across Van Brunt.
Fadi keeps an eye on Jonathan’s window, hoping to see a light go on.
He orders takeout from the bulletproof Chinese. Fadi expects the delivery boy to say something about the disappearance, but he just holds out his hand for the money and slides off.
Just before closing, a boy comes in. A tall, lanky kid from the Houses Fadi’s never seen before. He circles the aisles. He’s wearing enormous red basketball shorts and a matching jersey. He grabs an iced tea out of the cooler. The stuff’s so sweet just thinking about it makes Fadi’s teeth hurt.
He puts the drink on the counter. “Gimme the rest of the
,” he says, pointing at the papers.
There are over thirty copies left. With all the commotion today, the papers were ignored. The kid slings these onto the counter and Fadi counts them.
“How come you’re interested in yesterday’s news?”
The kid looks up. When he smiles, his lips go jagged. He points at the flying boy on the cover. “That’s me, man.” Then he grabs the papers and swaggers out.
al keeps her eyes closed, her body curled sideways. She stays tucked into herself, feigning sleep, feigning absence.
Three, two, one
, and it will all be over.
Five, four, three, two, one
. The detectives, the doctors, her sister, Rita—everyone will be gone.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one
. June will turn up; she will be installed in the hospital bed next to Val’s. They will talk long after the nurses switch off the lights in the ward. They will camp out as if they are still kids.
Val’s lungs feel scraped and sore. Her eyes are dry. A dull throbbing that seems to originate at the base of her skull rises into her head and crowds her brain like a tight helmet. She is on the tenth floor of Long Island College Hospital in a room that overlooks the river. The walls are beige. The tiles are the color of Listerine. Her pillow and mattress feel like crumpled newspaper. She keeps her eyes closed. She doesn’t want to see anyone or anything.
She tells the detectives that she doesn’t remember what happened after she fell into the river. She doesn’t know where June is.
Five, four, three, two, one
. Val counts backward with her eyes closed as one of the detectives keeps questioning her. The buzzing of the detective’s cell phone will be the news that June has been found. The information whispered from his partner will be the clue that will bring June home.
You don’t remember anything? Anyone?
Val shakes her head, eyes closed.
Nothing? Nothing at all?
It sounds like an accusation.
Val flinches and curls tighter.
Nothing? Nothing? You’re sure, nothing? What knocked you off the raft? You don’t know? You’re sure you don’t know?
“I don’t know,” Val says, her face buried in the crinkly pillow.
And you wound up on shore and June just disappeared? Was she swept away? Did you see her? You didn’t see what happened? Nothing? Nothing at all? Nothing?
Your friend is missing, Valerie. You’re the last person who saw her. You can’t help us? You can’t help at all?
Val shakes her head. The pillow cracks and rustles. She squeezes her eyes tight, so tight that she needs to hold her breath. If she can hold her breath for a minute, the detectives will leave her alone. If she can hold her breath for two minutes, she will rewind back to the raft and June will not slip away.
You can’t help? Do you know something? Something you’re not telling us?
Her stomach turns and plummets. She reaches out to grab June’s hand, but all she catches is the frayed edge of her brown polyester blanket.
Eventually the detectives leave. Her panic subsides to a simmer.
Five, four, three, two, one
. Val counts backward, willing herself to sleep. When she wakes, this will be over.
Her parents arrive from a weekend at the beach cut short, bringing with them the artificial coconut smell Val associates with her uncle’s place on Long Island. Val sits up in bed so she can focus on the view—the million-dollar lookout over South Brooklyn down to Red Hook with its grids of town houses, white and brown and brick. The view reveals a hidden rooftop world—kiddie pools, putting greens, barbecue grills, lawn furniture, beach towels, laundry lines, pigeon coops. A tar beach paradise.
Between the roofs, Val can see the dips that hint at vest pocket parks and community gardens—squares of green and shade. The sunken expressway is clogged with cars, bolts of sunlight bouncing off their chrome and paint. She watches the piers and warehouses, the waterfront world demystified in the daylight. Beyond these lie the tip of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, the industrial port of New Jersey, the suggestion of Staten Island. But most of all there is the water—the river and the bay where she last saw June.
From up here, the water is a startling cornflower blue that darkens as it reaches the piers and waterfront. It’s crosscut with white wakes from tugs and ferries. A stripe of sunlight runs down the middle of the bay, so bright it swallows the boats as they cross it, momentarily hiding them from view.
If the red tug with the “M” on its smokestack crosses the stripe of sunlight before the orange ferry, they will find June this afternoon
Val’s mother wears a beach cover-up over her jeans and jelly sandals. Jo’s a short, round woman and her shapeless terry-cloth top makes her look like a ball of toweling. Her skin is shiny with aloe and suntan lotion. She places a plastic figurine of the Virgin next to the bed.
“You pray for that angel, Val,” she says. “You pray for Juney every minute. Even when you’re sleeping, you pray for her.” She taps the Virgin with a peachy nail. “You talk to her. You tell her to bring Juney back. You tell her.”
“At the church I’m gonna light candles. One from each of us.” Jo shakes her head. “And we’ll have a potluck at VFW. You better pray for June to be back before then. I don’t know what I’m gonna say when I see her grandmother.”
“You want to tell me what happened out there?” Paulie Marino says. He’s a broad man with a tight brush cut. He keeps his forearms crossed over his stomach. A tattoo showing his firehouse shield sneaks out from the sleeve of his T-shirt.
“You’re out on the raft? You banged in the head? And none of these doctors or police can tell me if it’s an accident or an attack.”
“I don’t know,” Val says.
“What don’t you know? Tell me this scheme wasn’t your idea,” Paulie says.
“I had the raft,” Val says.
“And what? Then what? June wanted to go out on the water?”
Although Val had done her best to ignore it, June had grown tired of the adventure. Val had been able to feel her mounting irritation, her restless need to be elsewhere with others. “I guess,” she says, turning away from the window, blocking out the view of the bay and basin.
“You know the kinds of sicknesses you get from that water?” Paulie says. “Not even the homeless wash themselves down there.” He takes a lock of her hair and combs it out with his fingers. “Jesus,” he says. “What if it’d been you?”
“No,” Jo says. “Don’t say that, Paulie. Don’t you say that.”
Jo has her telephone pressed to her ear, keeping tabs on Red Hook. She cups her hand over the phone and says, “They’re building a shrine to June. They’re sweeping the projects.”
Paulie stands by the window, scowling first at the distant shapes of the Red Hook Houses, then focusing his wrath on the river. “No one lies underneath one of the piers unmolested. I know Red Hook. You were out cold for hours,” he says. “Anything could of happened. There’s no reason for you to be down there. No reason for my kid to be creeping around at night. And those drunks from the Dockyard. Who knows what they’re capable of.”
“We weren’t creeping. We were floating.”
“Floating? You just thought you’d float around the waterfront.”
“Leave her alone, Paulie,” Jo says.
“I just want to understand, that’s all. Kid’s in a hospital bed and I have no answers.”
It’s useless to tell her parents about the sunken tugboat. Something glimmering in the wheelhouse. Something else hiding behind the portholes. The skyline reflected in the river, an unreal, melting city. The strange pulse of the water, the river’s heartbeat.
“And then what?” Paulie says. “June decides to swim away from you?”
Val’s breath catches in her throat. She senses her stomach preparing to go into free fall.
“She doesn’t remember,” Rita says. “God.”
“You’re the one who was supposed to be watching her,” Paulie says to Rita.
“She’s fifteen,” Rita says.
“And?” Paulie says. “I don’t seem to remember you being an angel at fifteen. We left you in charge. Which means, you watch her.”
“I can’t help what she does when she goes out.”
“Who said she is allowed to go out?”
Rita goes to the small mirror outside the bathroom and wipes last night’s makeup from the corners of her eyes.
“They’re done with the Houses,” Jo says. “They’re taking out police boats.” She turns to Val. “You better be praying for June every second you’re not talking. You better pray for her in your sleep.”
“I am,” Val says.
Val groans and rolls over. Jo mistakes her daughter’s anxiety for pain. She summons the nurse who shines a flashlight in Val’s eyes and instructs her to sit up. The nurse holds a finger in front of Val’s nose. She moves the finger back and forth, front and back. She asks Val to say her name, her age, what year it is, what year she was born. Val glances at her mother, sitting forward on her chair, mouthing the answers to the nurse’s questions, worried that Val is going to fail this test. The nurse reprimands Val for taking her eyes off her finger. She makes notes on a clipboard and leaves.
Val’s concentration is broken. Although her parents beg her to, she won’t try to piece together the hours after she fell from the raft. Instead she tries to recall all that happened before. To turn it around, examine it from all sides, shake it up like a kaleidoscope then let it fall back into place.
But all she can think of is June falling into the water. Each time she sinks into her memory, lowering herself back onto the raft with June behind her, sliding into the slick water at the edge of the first pier, she sees June slipping away.
Throughout the afternoon Jo’s questioning gaze lingers on Val’s face. “Anything, sweetie?” she says.
“Anything what?” Val says.
“Anything else you want to tell us about Juney?”
Visiting hours end and the Marinos leave. A nurse disconnects Val’s IV. The hospital grows quiet as the sun begins to fall behind the skyline, throwing the buildings into silhouette, making the sky burn four shades of orange and pink. The river goes from blue to black. Only a hemline of sun remains behind Manhattan skyscrapers.
Now the hospital is whirr and whisper. The nurses creep along the halls, poking their heads in from room to room, adjusting machines, checking IVs. Val tries to imagine that she is in June’s bed and that June is next to her. She pretends they are sleeping head to toe—a habit June’s grandmother believed would prevent spreading colds.
She tries listening for the familiar sounds of June’s bedroom—the hiss of Mrs. Giatto’s humidifier, the whine of the neighborhood’s gate, the rumble of the school buses pulling into their parking lot across the street. The girls were forbidden to play in this lot. This hadn’t stopped them. After they’d heard a rumor about a boy who was left overnight in a school bus and died, they sneaked into the lot, trying the doors of all the buses, attempting to see if there were any forgotten children. Back in bed the girls tried to spook each other by tapping on June’s window, pretending to be the school bus ghost. They’d compete to see who could catch the other off guard, at the cusp of sleep. Who could make the other scream.
During the night, the nurses shine flashlights in Val’s eyes so often that she gives up on sleep. She wanders the halls. The hospital is a freestanding building and her ward takes up the tenth floor. It’s laid out like a donut—the nurses’ station and the elevators in the middle, the patients’ rooms on the outer edge. At least the views belong to the sick.
Except for an elderly man with drooping shoulders doing laps with his drip pole, Val is the only patient in the halls. From one end of the floor she looks deeper into landlocked Brooklyn to the fortresses of projects looming over middle-class neighborhoods. From another side, she stares out at the affluent brownstones of the Heights and the outline of the Brooklyn Bridge poised at the neighborhood’s back. Val calls June from a waiting room that overlooks Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the water below alive with their reflections.