In her own words Karly was an outsider to the fabric of family life. Growing up, it was her, her mom, and no one else. Her dad departed before she was born, her grandparents were long dead, and her uncle was cut off when she was eight. Twelve years on, Karly’s university team was competing in Model UN in Oklahoma City, not far from her uncle’s transplanted life. Following a long weekend of delegations, she was thrilled to see him again. Though, it wasn’t until Karly knocked on his door that she realized that there were cardinal, familial threads she hadn’t before considered: namely, awkwardness.
Uncle Tommy opened the front door a smidge and smiled through the crack. “What’s the good news?” he asked. He’d greet her at the door when she was little the same way. “Who's the intruder?” or “What’s the passcode?” he’d ask as he peeked at his niece. Beyond his symmetrically gapped teeth and the spittle bubbling in the crease of his mouth, all Karly could make out was a rugged silhouette in a faded flannel; he still looked twelve years older, twelve years balder, twelve years fatter.
Karly did not have good news. She forced a smile, nodded politely, and responded with a quiet hello. Her embarrassment was first and second-hand because she had grown up and he had plateaued.
She had imagined catching up with Tommy, potentially one day reuniting him, her, and her mom and closing that long-held schism. Or, at the very least, spending the afternoon petting the heads of Tommy’s furry rodents. Her enthusiasm reverberated into nerves once he unlatched the door.
“Come on in, blondie. Where’s your car?” he asked, his voice skittering and boisterous.
Karly had regained some contact with Tommy when she was a teenager, following him across several of his social media profiles. For the better part of a decade Tommy was just an overly confident photo of Albert Camus. Shriveled cigarette between knowing lips. Their interactions were memorized birthdays, virtual cards for graduation, the rare snapshots of baby guinea pigs.
“Make yourself at home," he said, and she winced. His house was scarcely bigger than a nook with a handful of abutting rooms. Too late for an excuse. Charity, she told herself—her visit was now an act of charity. If she could mend what was broken, she would. But, if not, she would move on.
A flat-screen opposite a recliner, a SmartPad glowing on a glass coffee table. The living room was a hazy stench of denim and floral detergent. The streaks from a mop curved inwardly across the wooden floor in a wind-swept pattern. In one hand was Tommy’s phone, a headphone cord trailing into his head, and in the other, a pair of sushi rolls.
“Work call,” he said, pointing at his ears. “Get settled. No need to wear that blazer—let me help you. Too hot for that down here even in the spring.”
Karly tried to move to the side and begin to shake her blazer off her own shoulders. Tommy, shoving one of the rolls in his mouth, got up and stood behind Karly, smothering her in the wingspan of his shadow and plucked her jacket off with the available tips of his fingers
“Ike could’a come in, I hope he knows,” Tommy said.
“He knows.” Ike her 25-year-old boyfriend with a monochromatic wardrobe and a lip piercing, had dropped her off. He flew down with her from Massachusetts to Oklahoma. As she spent the length of her days following procedures and bargaining in unmoderated mock caucuses, he drove the rental around Oklahoma City, coming back to their hotel room the following morning drunk as she was preparing to leave. He would stand in the doorway before her, slinking a wanting hand to her waist and holding it there and begging for several minutes before relenting.
“I meet parents,” Ike had told her as he pulled into Tommy’s driveway, “That I’ll do. I don’t do cousins, I don’t do aunts, and if there is anything I don’t do, it's uncles.”
Tommy shoved the other sushi roll into his mouth, chewed, and sucked debris of seaweed from his lower lip. “I hope your delegation or whatever won,” he said as his cheeks shrunk.
“Not exactly,” Karly said. “It was more of a crisis than a conference.”
“Ha-ha! Wait a sec, sorry, my boss just asked me a direct question. Give me a moment, would ya?” He half-ran to his recliner.
Nothing about Tommy was different; the house even resembled his old Vermont home. Vermont’s green and white pastures felt a kinship with the red and dusty expanse of Oklahoma in the same way that the Sahara and the Arctic follow the same barren logic. The houses too were familiar single-story scars of wood, penned-in green gardens, cozy humidity. The houses both breathed the same scattered breaths, their precious few doorways gasping at stationary air and loosening their grips on stapled hinges.
The house looked smaller on the inside than on the outside, yet the appliances, and indeed Tommy himself, were stumbling blocks, intimidating like shadowy patterns in a corn maze. Worse still, there was no scent or sound of pigs. Tommy hadn’t mentioned or alluded to his pets in his correspondence with Karly recently, but after so many years she couldn’t imagine his life devoid of animals.
“Uh-hum. Uh-hum,” he said as he lit a cigarette before quieting down, only providing interjecting chortles.
When Karly was little, years after they stopped visiting Tommy, her mother said, “Your uncle is an asshole who only cares about himself and his stupid rodents,” recounting how when they were kids he would lick the icing off doughnuts and put them back in the box and how as teenagers, he would open her diaries and dog-ear miscellaneous pages.
Starting as a teenager herself, Karly grew wary of her mother’s molding; her raised nose around girls wearing tight pants, her disapproving clicks of tongue towards women who wore a hijab, her disgust at piercings stuck anywhere that wasn’t an ear. Yet, she had also taught Karly to trust her instincts. If by Tommy’s sheer presence her anxiety coursed, Karly thought, he would be too awkward for a meal. Maybe their reunion needed to conclude as a crack in the door, the flaring ends of a hanging blazer.
She investigated the house on her tiptoes, seeking out a corner of a separate room to change her clothes and call Ike. She didn’t want to be impolite and explore her uncle’s house and leave him, yet she had no idea how long his work would take, how long dinner would go on for, how many polite fake laughs she could tolerate.
Tommy mumbled from his chair. Karly nabbed her bag by the coat rack and measured out furtive steps towards a door tucked beside the washing machine. She handled its knob, turned it slowly. She heard the muffled tangentials of pitter-patter. The door squeaked and she paused. There was the swishing of paper. She pushed further, the squeaks resounding and awakening a choir of chirping rodents. Behind gridded C&C cages lining the walls were numerous discrete colonies of multi-colored guinea pigs perching their paws on black rungs.
Several fans oscillated a necessary breeze. Some pigs had short hair, others, long, Abyssinian bangs, all clean and groomed. They all zoomed in excitement, over inky newspapers and slash-and-burn remnants of hay, under forts of blankets and through groves of cardboard tents.
Tommy had expanded the concentric circle of himself. Karly had to admit that, though nothing with Tommy had really changed, she was still eminently curious. She had never had pets of her own. Growing up, her mom never budged, believing them to be a frivolous expense, and Ike had no interest in the responsibility nor the smell. She was overwhelmed by her own excitement. The guinea pigs’ sonorous cries echoed in all directions. Karly kneeled above the central pen.
“Never trust a single man who gets himself a vasectomy,” Karly’s mother warned about Tommy. She told him to his face that he was the epitome of abrasiveness, that he didn’t understand the first thing about family, that he only cared for his mindless rodents. Karly saw her point now: these cages were pristine while the rest of his home languished.
Forgetting her plan for an Irish goodbye, Karly reached her hand into a nearby bag labeled “Pea Flakes.” The rustling plastic incurred the pigs to chirp louder, bolting to the perimeter of the cage at her feet. Even though she was a stranger, when she reached her hand down into the cage, the fearless rodents ate from her palm. Unlike his older pigs from many years ago, these were not easily spooked. The pigs lining the walls cried sonorously, echoing in all directions. One pig in particular, crowded out from her hand, waddled in circles trying to find a way in, eyes shining and hopeful, glimmers of prey-like empathy.
Twelve years ago, when Karly was eight, she went to visit her uncle in his Vermont home. She had learned days earlier that he had bought young guinea pig triplets from a breeder. When Tommy opened his front door a crack, she shimmied through it, ignoring his greeting of the week, and bolted to the den. Her mom and Tommy spoke in the front room as she greeted the trio.
She had no reference point for handling rodents. She wanted to treat them like her friends’ dogs or cats who were easily approached and tolerated the way children held and cuddled them.
She tried to pick up a brown long-haired pig named Dresden. Tommy had sent her pictures of him. Dresden sprinted into his transparent plastic igloo. She didn’t know that the pack was on edge, seldom leaving their hidey holes. She wasn’t prepared for his cries and fear when she reached her hands in after him.
He kicked up a storm of wood chips as Karly hoisted him by the stomach with one hand and stood up. She tried to stroke him as he thrashed, pushing off her fingers with his nails in convulsions. “It’s okay! Calm down!” she said, attempting to sooth him. He squirmed through her pudgy grip, first falling into her wrist, rolling off and then landing on her other hand. Her hand-eye coordination mixed up its signals and she inadvertently launched him into her waist. From there Dresden tumbled to her knee and spiraled onto the ground, hitting the floor squarely on his back.
Years later, Karly found a diagram of guinea pig anatomy in a library book, learning that guinea pig spines are curved much like how turtles’ spines arc through their shells. The spine’s crack was inaudible and invisible, yet for years Karly dreamed of every muscle tightening, of bone shrapnel, of the unequal snap of a wishbone.
Dresden died an hour later.
In the hot Oklahoma house, bare footsteps, too light to be Tommy’s, resounded. Karly’s hand was emptied of the pea flakes and the guinea pigs scampered away as an unfamiliar woman kneeled beside Karly.
“Cute, right?” she asked. She smelled warm, sugary. Her voice was high, her face a smattering of freckles. Karly couldn’t place her. A pet sitter, maybe? Her tie-dyed shirt blanketed her jean shorts; strawberry blonde hair dried behind her shoulders. She wasn’t much older than Karly, if older at all. The pigs’ chirping had stopped, losing interest in Karly the moment she no longer had food and their memory of crinkling plastic faded. The room quieted to the angling of fans.
“But you shouldn’t be touching them,” the woman said, her voice raised and eyebrows pointed. She wagged her finger Karly’s way. “You know better than that.”
Whoever she was, Tommy had told her about Dresden. He hadn’t moved on. Karly’s insides liquefied. This woman, this child, Karly thought, was shaming her for a twelve-year-old sin. Karly felt eight again, peeking into the living room where Tommy and her mother were arguing.
“She’s a kid! You should’ve been in there with her. You shouldn’t have gotten her so excited.” Her mom was yelling.
“Leave,” Tommy had said, cradling the stiff body in his hands. “Get out of my house.”
Before Karly could respond to the woman’s chastising, the lurching silhouette of Tommy entered the room. The woman stood up. Tommy set the bony prints of his fingers on her petite shoulder. How had Karly missed their gold bands? Her vision tunneled. Tommy’s awkward playfulness now seemed like a ruse.
“Meetings over. Are we hungry?” he asked, gazing between the two girls. “Karly, this is my wife, Emily.”
“What do you think?” Emily asked, offering her hand. “I’m good with picky eaters.”
Karly stood up on her own and tried to resist a minute tremor. Tommy was married to a girl her age, though blonder and maternal. She couldn’t trust him. To what degree was his bumbling even real?
“I should call Ike,” Karly said. She gestured to pass between them.
Tommy’s face contorted sourpuss, eyes soggy with a pitiful droop. “Don’t do this to me,” he said, defiance weak on his lips. He didn’t budge to let Karly through. He stood taller; his chest widened. A grown man, two young women, an audience of caged rodents on all sides. The standoff continued, a bead of sweat perched on Karly’s nose.
“Baby,” Emily said to Tommy. He surrendered. His puffed chest receded and he moved his shoulder aside to allow Karly to pass.
“I told you,” Tommy said. He and Emily followed Karly to the living room. Karly draped her blazer on her arm.
“Didn’t I tell you? Her mother got to her,” Tommy said. “You can’t trust family, not one bit.”
Karly tapped Ike’s name on her phone. She placed her hand on the knob of the front door. This wasn’t right.
“Has he told you everything?” Karly asked Emily. She didn’t know whom she was hurting, but she didn’t care. She made a puncturing guess at the lies that undercut their marriage, scattershot. “Just so you know, your man is snipped.”
Tommy grimaced; Emily clutched the ends of her shirt. Bullseye.
When Karly left, Ike picked her up in their rented silver mini-van and drove them away along a plain road towards the city, the interstate transitioning from farms and copses. Karly explained to Ike why she left so early.
“This is why I don’t meet creepy uncles,” Ike said, tongue adjusting his lip ring. “Why is your family the literal worst?” Karly ignored his question.
“We should adopt a bulldog,” Karly said, ignoring him. Whenever they talked about moving in together, like before they fell asleep or when he stood at her sink doing his skincare routine, his answer was the same: “not a chance,” he said, pulling his hair into a bun before treating the tight stiches of his acne scars.
“Nuh-uh,” Ike said. He tapped his fingers on the wheel, “We’ve talked about this.”
Out the window, a sizzling rise of smoke and a glimpse of a red truck emerged in the shoulder lane.
Karly prodded Ike, her voice swelling with each question.
“A rat? A hamster? A guinea pig?”
“Why are you pressing this?” Ike asked.
The red truck grew closer. Karly could see that a solemn woman was sitting in the passenger seat. A child in the back. And a man, hands on his hips, was standing in front of the open hood of the car. Karly thought about the perturbations of an argument she overheard as she waited for Ike outside Tommy’s house. Nondescript, sparring yells back and forth. Ike didn’t change lanes as he sped by the red truck and the stranded family.
“What about a betta fish? Just one,” Karly asked, watching the rearview mirror. “We could watch it swim in circles.”
“Not even that,” Ike said.
Ike had talked about the two of them getting a lease together. When they drove them past apartments for lease, he said there were possibilities, maybe with roommates, or maybe not, depending; something he’d consider. Karly considered his considerations as the family’s eyes seemed to track them. Deserted echoes that, as far as Karly could tell, would disappear from existence the moment their light could no longer reach the mirror.
The family was temporarily remarkable. They were meager indentations on a carpeted floor. Ike’s eyes remained trained forward, and Karly waited for the final glimmer of red to be obstructed behind the curvature of an under paved road.
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