THE NEWS OF NASTASIA PETROVA’S ACCIDENT came to us just after nightfall. She had been staying in Wildwood, like us, and was on her way to meet her cousins at a bar in Lipstick. As she was approaching the Wight Road Bridge, something streaked downwards through the air, and she swerved and crashed her tan Volkswagen Jetta against the cruel, hard slope of the underpass. Two cars in the lane behind her, a gray Nissan and a dark green Audi, also skidded out and collided. She was taken to the hospital, where she lay in a coma; the other drivers had minor injuries.
The television screen flashed a picture of Nastasia on the boardwalk, smiling, her arms around her two young daughters. She was about my mother’s age, a blonde woman with teased bangs, and she wore a blue dress with a fringe hem, a style my mother liked. Over this picture, the journalist’s brisk voice urged any eyewitnesses to call the hotline. The number flashed three times under the photo of the injured woman.
Our parents were getting ready to drive to Lipstick too. I was twelve that summer and my cousin, Little Ty, was sixteen. We were both sitting with our great-aunt and great-uncle in front of the giant, rabbit-eared television in the vacation rental we shared every July. Aunt Halina turned and said something to Uncle Jurek in Polish. Then she yelled, in English, over the laughter in the back bedrooms: “You don’t take the 50 to Lipstick. There’s been an accident.”
My mother appeared in the hallway, a brush in her hand, wearing a new floral sundress from one of the boardwalk boutiques.
“An accident?” she said. “How bad?”
“Three-car pileup,” said my aunt. “One woman in a coma. Russian woman.”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” my mother said politely, and receded back into her room. The neon petals on her dress trailed off into the dark.
“What is it?” said a deeper voice that belonged to my Uncle Tytus, Little Ty’s father. We all called them Big Ty and Little Ty.
“Accident,” we heard my mother say, “on the road to Lipstick!”
“Lipstick!” echoed Big Ty.
“Lipstick!” called my mother.
They had been drinking since dinner. Aunt Halina pursed her lips in disapproval and made the little sound she always made, blowing her breath through her front teeth in three hissing plosives, as if she were forcibly whispering shoe shoe shoe. Uncle Jurek smiled blandly and dialed up his hearing aid. On the television, the news reporter said that the police had taken witness statements from two teenage girls who had seen Nastasia Petrova’s Jetta moments before it crashed. There had been a boy, a tall boy, they said, standing on the bridge over the highway, a split second before the accident, and he had thrown something. Maybe there was someone else too, but there had been a boy, they were sure of that. The camera panned over the smashed Jetta and Nissan and Audi, all of them garishly lit by the pulsing flashes of the ambulance lights.
Big Ty appeared in the living room, adjusting his collar. He was the largest and burliest of all my uncles, easily over six-foot-two, with a trimmed beard and round, wire-rimmed glasses.
“Bye Lena,” he said to me. He turned to Little Ty. “You gonna be good for your Aunt Halina and Uncle Jurek when I’m gone? Or you gonna be an asshole?”
Little Ty was silent. Big Ty cuffed him, lightly, on the side of his head, and he jerked away.
“Keep your eye on him,” Big Ty said, to me. “Make sure he stays out of trouble.”
He went out. My mother followed, gathering her things, trailing through the door in a mist of Marlboros and hairspray. When they were safely gone I tugged on the hem of his shirt.
“Was it your rock?” I mouthed.
He shook his head.
“It was yours,” he said.
THEY WERE BIG TY AND LITTLE TY, but I was always, simply, Lena. Neither big nor little, not distinguishable by size or appearance. In family pictures from Wildwood Little Ty stands next to his father, tall and outrageous, sometimes smoking, sometimes sulking over a cigarette he has just been told to throw away, always in a Nirvana or Metallica T-shirt and flannel, even on the beach, always with his floppy, unbrushed hair. Always looking boldly at the camera, as if daring it to photograph him.
In these pictures I stand by my mother’s side, slouching with our family’s genetic thinness, a thinness that makes Little Ty stand out while it makes me disappear. I wear my own bones too cautiously, think too hard about how to smile. In one picture I am in a wide-brimmed white hat and one-piece bathing suit and I am grinning, not a real grin. With my slumped shoulders, with my small frame, I look like I could vanish at any second into my mother’s body, a drop of liquid seeping harmlessly into fabric.
By contrast, my mother, a former catalogue model, is beaming and vibrant, a tan, strong-shouldered brunette in a green shift dress. She is bursting toward the camera, open-mouthed and laughing. Personality!
Sometimes, during these Wildwood vacations, Big Ty would turn to me at the dinner table while my mother was loudly telling a story, and bend his big, bearded face down to mine.
“Are you even related?” He would gesture from her to me, comically. “Did you come out of her?”
I shrugged, meekly, at these accusations of illegitimacy.
Then my mother would tell the story of how I had only thrown one tantrum in my life. This story always delighted everyone because of how premeditated the tantrum was. It happened when I was four or five. Already I could write a little, and I had come into my mother’s bedroom, early one morning, with a list of demands. When she laughed, and tried to soothe me, I crouched down on the floor and started to scream.
So when it was my turn to drop a rock over Wight Road Bridge it did not feel like something I was doing. I did not feel like myself, I mean. Some other body picked it up; someone else’s arm stretched back, suspended, the small grey weight in its palm, the ocean air blowing, in that still, quiet moment before the tires screeched. I could not even see over the railing, but Little Ty towered above me, his head bent down, his eyes squinting as he calculated the Jetta’s speed.
“Now,” Little Ty said, and I threw.
• • •
TO READ MORE OF THIS STORY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 54.3
BARBARA BARROW’s first novel, The Quelling (Lanternfish Press, 2018), was selected as a Gold Winner for Literary Fiction in the Foreword Reviews awards. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Raleigh Review, Cimarron Review, Folio, and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh and her Twitter handle is