With her toes in the lake near the wooden cabin she hadn’t seen in twenty years, Courtney begged her father to not go overboard this time. The boy that used to live near the lake drove by in a car designed as a sideways strawberry. Without doing anything but track his gaze to keep the car in his eyesight, Courtney knew her father wanted to hijack the car. He was like an eighteen-year-old who only knew consequences as abstract. Her father turned to face her, and when he opened his mouth, three electronic beeps rang out of it.
She stood for a moment in the in-between, feeling half of her body pull away toward waking up and the other half watching her father, waist-deep in the lake and toeing his way backward toward the drop-off. He looked at her with the lonely look he wore the day she forgot the socks.
The alarm sounded for the fourth time before Courtney’s hand snatched and silenced it. It was 8:53. She was late.
She ran toward the bathroom, pocketed some mouthwash in her cheek, and scurried toward the hamper without dumping the plague-purging, green liquid into the sink. Standing in just her underwear, she curled Tuesday’s tights around her ankles and pulled both sides up simultaneously like jeans, snagged a run in the left leg with the ragged and paint-chipped nail of her big toe, and attempted the process again with Wednesday’s tights. Her mouth burned from the mint dissolving overnight teeth gook. This distracted her temporarily from how the tights either caged the fat by her belly button in a bulging mesh cave or caused the fat near her ribs to buckle over the constraining top of her tights. She could think about that at her desk, Courtney told herself, but right now, she didn’t have time to grab, much less contemplate, control-top pants.
By the time she left her empty house, Courtney had thrown on a knee-length dress in a plaid too wintery for the fall air that pushed the dress against her stomach and pushed against her figure. Her stomach grew more gelatinous over the last three years, wiggling out of her control but constricted against the boundaries of skin. It had a smooth and heavy consistency, like pudding.
She did manage to grab a handful of mini dark chocolates leftover from trick-or-treating two weeks earlier. For energy, she told herself.
She hopped in the backseat of the sleek black car. Looked expensive. Maybe she should drive for Uber, she thought.
“So where are we going?” he asked.
“The address is in there. Isn’t it in there?”
“Yep, just checking. Carney and Son, the local lawyers, right?”
Courtney nodded. She hated the small talk, but her car was in the shop, and she was leaving it there until they gave her a discount on the outrageous price they offered to fix her muffler.
“Lawyer, huh? That’s pretty cool.”
“Oh, I’m not. I’m just a clerk. Mostly fetching medical records from hospitals in Philly or Pittsburgh.”
“The big cities, huh. But nothing beats these smaller Pennsylvania towns.”
Her thoughts drifted back to the dream about her father and the lake house. They might’ve played Clue at some point, and Mr. Carney might’ve stopped by with a tuna casserole. They came back from a birthday at an aquatic center, and she had grown from six to her current age of thirty-five by the time they reached the cabin. She wore the same palm-tree one-piece from her childhood.
“Do you like clowns?” Miguel asked, looking at her from the rear-view mirror.
“Not really.” She wanted to be quiet but thought it’d be rude. “Do you?”
“No, but I feel like they come up all the time, especially in the fall. My one friend has this really bad case – bozophobia – and one time, when he was on a first date with a girl, her lips were too big and painted with red lipstick, you know? Joker-like, he said. And he asked her to take it off in the bathroom.”
“Not really his choice to make about her lipstick.” She laughed half-heartedly to sound like she was joking.
“Yeah, I get more scared about, like, the Illuminati and that shit.” Courtney nodded but looked at how the backseat had a DVD player on the tan, felted ceiling. Was this guy a father, or just really dedicated to the Uber experience? Courtney almost asked Michael.
Michael continued. “Have you heard of the Berenstein Bears effect or whatever?” Courtney nodded once and looked out the window. “Well, it’s the theory that most people in their twenties, like my age, remember that cartoon bear family as Berenstein Bears, but now they’re the Berenstain Bears on the books and TV show and stuff, and the company says it was never Berenstein. So people think it’s like, evidence of a parallel universe overlapping our universe and rewriting our history. It’s a crack in our timelines.”
Courtney wanted to ask if he was high but responded, “Oh, that’s really interesting.”
He hypothesized what historical moment he’d pinpoint as the beginning of the dissonance and then said it was probably a regular day, nothing momentous so no one would notice. Courtney day-dreamed and remembered her dad. The dad in her dream last night didn’t have hollowed caves in his neck from suffocating medical treatments. He had a healthy double chin and a thick and fatty protection around his torso. He smiled.
Courtney wanted to tell him sorry about the socks. The one thing he asked for during the entire hospitalization – through the transfusions and the surgeries and the chemo – was that one pair of fuzzy socks she got him from a drugstore for Christmas. He whispered it, had to repeat it three times for her and her older brother, Timmy, to translate the exact need, and signed “thank you” with his hands as she promised to come back. When she returned to their home, now her split-level, she took a long shower scrubbing each crack of her body. Courtney fell asleep on her bed in her towel as soon as she stepped out of the shower.
She woke up two hours later groggy and confused. In a rush, she forgot to grab her dad his socks. His face masked disappointment with forgiveness. “It was just a thought,” he said in cracked whispers.
Life changed in the little moments when she wasn’t watching.
Michael focused silently on the navigation in the front seat. He probably asked a question and she didn’t respond, she realized. “Left on Roosevelt Drive,” the phone’s high-pitched navigation told him.
“I think that’s a mistake,” Courtney said. “It’s actually right on Roosevelt Drive.”
“Are you sure? This says destination coming up on the left.”
“Well, it’s the right.”
“Like the bear thing I talked about,” he mumbled. She didn’t retaliate. She probably deserved the sass.
Michael pulled the steering wheel to the right, and as the car followed, Courtney thought there was a chance she was wrong. Maybe she was lost in her thoughts.
They both sat stiff and upright to spot who was right first and didn’t release their spines until they saw the little brick building between the vacant barber’s shop and the chain supermarket.
It was on the left.
“Well, Courtney, have a nice day.”
“Thanks, you too.”
As her feet touched down on the sidewalk, something hard like a sugar cube popped in her stomach, right off her belly button. She had a couple hours before she examined it in the single-stall women’s bathroom at work and thought how the mass might mirror her father’s. Between the time she leapt out of Michael’s beautiful car and the lunch break where she would make herself examine her stretch-marked stomach, she alternated Berenstain Bears and bozophobia internet searches.
She almost wished her world would change today, that some life-eclipse would give her back her father or make Timmy less intimidated to come into the house they grew up in or promote her to a job more entertaining and less dismal than going through workman’s comp and car accident paperwork. The smallest change would lead to something bigger, like dipping toes in the lake before submerging yourself completely, she thought.
But Courtney decided not to make the wish.