by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill
I’m already excited from meeting Dog-Boy, Alien-Man, and the fortune-teller who promises I’ll get my first kiss from a boy next year. But the last surprise is going to Martha’s house on the carnival grounds, walking through her parents’ dingy trailer and discovering her bright yellow bedroom, with Hawaii Five-O posters, mood rings, and a real aquarium. Wow!
It has a bubbling treasure chest, opening and clapping shut like a mouth. Sparkly blue marbles. But empty. No fish.
“There’s ghost crabs at the bottom,” she says. “Real ones, ‘cause they’re ghosts.”
Martha has a beaky bird nose and long neck. Her skinny, scabby legs look stork-like. There’s something wrong with her mouth but I can understand her alright. Outside, the tilt-a-whirl rumbles.
“Look!” She throws on a feathered cape, pointing to a poster of her as “Heron Girl!”
Snappy-Gator Land is off I-45. Grass grows through its parking lot but it still snags tourists off the boring Houston to Galveston drive. It has Bianca, an albino gator. She’s “an ambassador for her species.” I can run through my backyard, down a palmetto swamp, and I’m there.
Mom was thrilled when a girl my age moved next door, giving me her blessing to go play. “I wouldn’t let you if it was a traveling show,” she said. “You can’t trust those families. But this is a community exhibit.”
She explained that Dog-Boy’s fur is hypertrichosis. Alien-Man’s toothy second head on his shoulder is a teratoma tumor. Martha’s horrible overbite is mandible retrognathism.
“In the old days people would make fun of them,” she said. “But now it’s empowering. The money they earn can go to medical funds to help them, right?”
My mom’s optimist voice clicked like her typewriter at her secretary job. My father works nights at the petrochemical plant and sleeps during the day. They’re happy I’m out of the house.
I’m happy because Martha’s nice, and her aquarium perfect for my Malibu Barbie.
Our favorite game is to cover Malibu with an ugly handkerchief. We line the other toys up, just like the boys against lockers and the girls in school bleachers, and “Ug, she’s so ugly, bla-bla.”
Then Malibu leaps off the aquarium’s edge, does a jack-knife flip, zoom! The handkerchief flings off and she’s long, lean legs and big boobs under her aqua-blue swimsuit. Her blond hair flies like gold behind her and everyone goes “oooh!”
Martha warned me the aquarium’s ghosts crabs could grab Malibu if I swim her too deep. One day I find her plastic toes bitten off.
Dog-Boy and Alien-Man dress up like KISS to sing. Martha and I look for money-fairies. She says they push the rings off the bottle games so her family can make a profit. She’s funny.
Her mom is fat-fat with a club foot, smoking Winstons and watching As the World Turns. Sometimes when her husband is off getting raw chicken for gator Bianca, she blows smoke and points at Martha. “Her real daddy was a heron. A great blue one. They got a wing span of six goddamn feet. She came outta me as an egg.”
Her mom scares me, but Martha plays along. “It’s true.”
I still haven’t been kissed. My chest hurts. Martha’s must too, because we hug sideways now. We still play Barbies, but with Pink Floyd playing.
“Did Malibu’s hurt when they grew in?” I ask.
“They’re plastic, dummy.”
Her dad watches her. His hand’s in his pocket and feeling around for something, always rubbing and moving.
“He’s not my real father,” she whispers.
“We’re too old for dolls,” I say. The summer heat brought rain so we wade in tea-brown waters for craw-daddies. Martha can stand stock-still and wait, sharp eyes looking this way and that. She says they’re good food for ghost crabs.
Her legs are even stork-ier. Her nose longer, and her cheeks pinched in. Her underbite looks worse, and we’re both getting pimples. Acne splotches her back in red, angry spots.
“My feathers are coming in.”
She’s so funny.
“Can you come to school with me this year? Please?” I ask.
“No, they’ll make fun of me again.”
Martha’s home-schooled now, but I never see any books.
Tropical Storm Delia hit us hard. Dad tells me Snappy-Gator Land’s shut down. They didn’t have the right permits, or insurance, or something. No rebuilding. Everyone’s gone! They even left Bianca hungry, toothy, and tied up.
At school there’s a rumor that a man raped his step-daughter then killed her, burying her in storm mud just like a gator covers its eggs.
I walk through the wreckage, dazed. Why wouldn’t she tell me goodbye?
The game bottles’ rings are too small; I see that now. There were no money-fairies. Even Bianca isn’t an albino; someone discovers white paint. Martha’s wrecked trailer is tilted more sideways than the broken tilt-a-whirl. I crawl in through a window. Under broken aquarium glass I hear invisible scuttling.
I take some marbles and later, I get a real fish of my own. She’s beautiful and fin-flashy, just like a high school girl. She swims circles and bumps against the glass. I feel sorry for her.
I did get my first kiss, but it wasn’t how I imagined. He pushed me against the lockers and forced my lips apart with his tongue. It was wet and awful. Then he laughed. I wondered if Martha was somewhere in a school and okay. She had to be.
Mom changed her tune about Gator-Land. “Shameful. There’s a reason places like that don’t last.”
Like Christmas, I think.
Like being kids.
When I got my first period, I woke up with messed sheets and insides feeling like pulled knots. I saw her through my window. Martha. Heron Girl. Standing in the glowing dawn, under the mossy oaks and pasture reeds. Long-legged and still. She raised her arms but they were wings. She lifted up and then was gone, flying over a flat horizon bound by blue.