Once, when she was a little nothing, a little girly whirl who weighed no more than a few bursting sacks of flour, Ama got stuck on an overpass. She needed to, without help from man or bird, crawl across a steel bar that connected the bridge and road. The people in town heard about it: the child stuck up there (in a particularly icy February when the town was tucked under a colossal snow duvet) and they came to watch what could be an ending so sweet it’d give you a toothache—or a tragedy.
Bets were placed. Tents were pitched. Women sold mini casseroles for $5 a pop.
There hadn’t been this much excitement since the boys came home from war with their uniforms and their little triangular hats. They’d been shipped off again. Way out there in some desert where even sadness evaporates, but nobody was thinking about that now.
It was getting dark. The sun hurried and the town did, too. A particular eagerness blew over things, like getting licked by a flame. They needed to get a good seat for the fall. Or the crossing. Either way, if you didn’t get there soon you were going to miss it. Ama’s mother and father were given the best seat, which was only right. They were short for adults and round as circles, a glimpse into Ama’s future; if she survived. But for now, she was lithe (a help in this predicament) and underweight (this could hurt her chances). One strong gust could tip her over, send her hurtling into the river below.
A note about the river: its pace was measured. It moved like a man after a thimble of whiskey. In the summer you could swim in its shallow wake without getting swept up and carried to some other town, further south, where the faces aren’t familiar and the air has a texture you can’t describe. But while this river sounds peaceful, welcoming even, it would be unwise to jump into it from a great height. There were rocks, invisible and jagged beneath the slow current. The depth was no more impressive than a bathtub. Birds chose stabler perches. Even the squirrels with their chestnut brains didn’t attempt it.
How did she get stuck up there? people asked, word spreading from their salivating mouths. That day Ama’s parents decided to work. Usually one stayed home to watch their teensy daughter, draw her a bath, brush the hair from her eyes, pour her a glass of milk, white and frothy, leaving a half moon above her scarlet lip. But Ama was getting older. Not quite old enough, but on the cusp to stay home alone. They decided to test it, to see if she could be there for a few hours while her mother bagged groceries and her father swept floors at the steel factory. If this proved successful, they could bring in another $100 a month for food, bills, riding lessons for Ama. You love horses, right? They asked her that morning. Well, be good. Be really good and one day soon. Ama’s heart ballooned in expectation.
She would be good. It was the easiest promise in the world.
They left with care, setting the breakfast table for Ama. Two glossy eggs on a paper plate, their yolk the same orange as her juice. She tucked her spindly body into a seat, folded a napkin in her lap, and took it in: the first meal she’d eaten alone. Everything looked different when it was quiet. The floors were shinier. The faucet more arched. Sun diagonaled through the kitchen window with a near audible intensity. She heard her own wheezing breath. Did the kids at school hear it like this? She shook away the thought, pierced an egg and watched it lava into a halo of white. Even the taste was different (chemical, spoiled) without her parents there to offer a twist of pepper, a refill of juice. Because she could do anything she wanted, she slid the eggs into the trash, climbed the step ladder, and reached for a bar of chocolate. She snapped off a square, placed it on her tongue, and waited for it to melt; for the cocoa to seep into tongue and teeth. Sweets. And the sun was up. It was nothing short of electric.
When the sugar buzz tapered and the day arced long in front of her, Ama noticed the voices in her head. At first they were a snicker. They tugged at her, snagged on the wax in her ears. She checked under the table and inside the pantry behind a few dusty tins of soup just to be sure she was, in fact, alone. Then the voices grew louder. They cricketed around, threatened to spill over top her brain. She wasn’t sure if they were hers or some junked version of the things her parents said. Dessert before dinner makes a stomach combust. That right there will set you back another mile from heaven’s gate. Bad thoughts inside good girls start the rotting. She fizzed. Without her parents there she lost trust in her movements, her puppet hands. She wiped the chocolate smears from her mouth. Smacked her own cheek. She laid herself on the couch, sandwiched her head between pillows to quiet the racket, but all that did was hold it in place: a bottled typhoon.
Desperate for relief, she moved outside. At first to the porch, which slanted violently, and then to the yard that pricked her heels like overripe peaches. It was all too much. The sky was an abyss that contained nothing and everything at once. Gravity became a question. At any moment, the trees could unroot. She grabbed a stick as big as her leg and pressed it to her chest: a makeshift boundary. Whatever it took to keep from unzipping.
These attempts at reconstruction failed. She liquified, moving through the streets, translucent as vapor. As she walk-floated towards an invisible destination, the people in town started to notice. It was hard to miss her, dizzy and shoeless, no hat to cover her rose petal ears. They knew Ama. Everyone knew everyone. It was the kind of town where you could describe: a person’s precise constellation of pimples, the degree to which their feet pointed when they walked. But on this day, the town saw Ama walking through the streets, shot through with lighting, and picked up the phone to tell So-and-so and Nosy-who what they’d seen. Eyes wandered to windows, to peepholes, hungry for a glimpse. You’d think someone would stop her, say, You’d better get home now. Offer her a ride in the back of a warm pick-up. But they were frothing. Gorging themselves on the abnormality of it. And anyway, her parents had to know she’d gone for a walk without the proper clothes. Look! She was turning around now. She must be going home to a fire (lit by her father) and a cup of tea (steeped by her mother).
Only she wasn’t heading home.
She was moving toward the river. Fluid seeks fluidity. On the overpass, cars slowed. Kids in backseats pressed their chubby faces into windows. It’s little Ama from school, they said. Their parents frowned, said, Not long before the frostbite gets ya. And, Now there’s a parenting style. They shook their heads so hard that drool rained from their mouths. Ama was blinded by their brake lights. The rumbling engines made her head quake. She saw their eyes and the way their thoughts tore at her: pigeons snatching at bread. They erupted from their skulls. With each passing car, she crawled further into herself, only she wasn’t just crawling inside, she was crawling outside, too. Soon, the steel bar was beneath her and so was the river. This new terror—being way up there in a siren of wind, a cage of air—snapped her to consciousness, tipped her into reality. It was frightening in its own way, and she couldn’t decide what she preferred: being trapped in the monstrous coop of her mind or being stuck here, in the truth of it. She called for help. People were appearing now on the side of the road with blankets, fold-out chairs. Their insulated mugs steamed. Someone smiled at her, waved. Another said, You can do it! Then Ama saw her parents. Her mother, grey-faced and calcified, held a tiny wool coat in her hands. Her father, who was blank as paper most days, ground his teeth. His mind flitted with locusts. Ama reached for them, for a callow version of herself when life was steady and intact. She wished to be swaddled, to feel the rubber of a pacifier between teeth. Return, return, return.
Ahead of her: an imaginary fork. She split in two, and her parts pulled in opposite directions. There was the Ama who could tuck herself under her father’s thumb, large and warm, and weave a shawl from her mother’s sweet breath. Then there was the Ama who knew it was fleeting. Comfort was a sly, ephemeral thing. The second it leaves, you pixelate; you rip and rip until you’re ribbons of skin. People caught on to her dilemma. How she was looking down now—taking in the slow current, the craggy rocks—without paralysis. She’s gonna jump! someone yelled. But she wouldn’t jump.
The decision was hardly physical. All it took was a blink, a surrender at the right moment, when the air gives its swift kick. She closed her eyes and released. Someone screamed (or yipped). You can’t know the particular shade of black, how it capes itself around a body, leaving the eyes for last. On the way down, the town had already called it: an accident. A mistake. Cash exchanged hands before her body hit the water. A teenager cheered; he’d bet on a neighbor’s car and won. This was the most excitement they’d seen since the boys came home from war. They’d been shipped off again. Way out there in some desert where even sadness evaporates, but nobody was thinking about that now.