Five minutes into the drive home from her twin cousins’ seventh birthday party, Annie closed her eyes and tried to go to sleep. She was alone in the backseat, and though she had just spent a full day playing in the snow with the twins and their friends and their very cute, two-year-old collie, Bruno, she didn’t feel tired. She was more hungry than anything else, her muscles drained of fuel, the backs of her legs alight with the cold fire of overuse, her empty stomach bubbling beneath the dingy pink material of her swishy winter coat. As she leaned her head against the chilly glass of the window, her nose starting to itch from the vibration of the moving car, her brain kept replaying a mind-movie of something that had happened earlier in the day. In it she saw the twins sneaking up behind Bruno, tackling him to the ground, and drumming hard on his ribs with the fat black pancakes of their oversized snow gloves. The first time she saw them do this she didn’t like it; it seemed cruel and hurtful to Bruno. But once she watched it from another angle and saw how fast Bruno’s tail started to wag, and how his bites and growls were nothing more than harmless playacting, she found herself laughing and clapping along with the other kids.
Minutes later, after Annie had been still and quiet for a while, her parents started whispering to each other. Now Annie’s mind shifted its focus from the movies in her head to the voices in the car.
“Did you see how fat Marge has gotten?” Annie’s Mom said to her Dad.
“She’s been gaining weight for years,” Annie’s Dad said, his hands at ten and two, a very responsible driver, the Palisades and their Hyundai curling through the tunnel of leafless trees before them.
“Yeah, but this is worse. She must’ve gained ten pounds since we saw her in September,” Annie’s Mom said, looking over at her Dad, searching his face for evidence of agreement. Their voices were low, hushed, and sticky in that way whispers usually are, but Annie had no trouble hearing them over the droning whirr of the Hyundai’s tires against the road.
Annie’s Dad shook his head. “She’s not getting thinner.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you do nothing but sit around the house all day.”
“What else can she do? With Tony out of the picture, it’s not like she has anybody. Who does she have out here by her in Englewood?”
“That’s the thing,” Annie’s Dad said, glancing into the backseat, his blue eyes behind square glasses hovering in the rearview, checking on his little girl, his little girl who was not that little anymore, what with her already halfway finished with the fourth grade. Satisfied that Annie was sound asleep, he looked back to the road. “But I’ll tell you, I’ve never been crazy about Tony. He’s not the best guy around.”
Annie’s Mom scoffed and shook her head.
“Those twins are the ones I feel bad for.”
Now it was her Dad’s turn to scoff.
“Not me. Those two are already well on their way to being proper little thugs. Did you see the way they treat that dog?”
“They just turned seven! How can they be thugs?” Annie’s Mom said, with a little high-pitched squeal of surprise and amusement.
“I know. There are some people you look at and you just know.”
From here Annie opened her mouth to ask her dad why he would say that about the twins when he was the one who had forced the family to go to their party in the first place, but a sudden clench and tingle in her gut stopped her. At first she thought the feeling was a reaction to what her dad had said, but then she remembered her empty-but-not-hungry stomach, and she realized it had probably come from there. Still, something felt different. Following this Annie’s parents continued talking in the front seat, but she stopped listening. Now Annie opened her eyes, looked out the window, and watched the trees flick by. At this speed they were nothing more than thick spikes of naked wood cutting the landscape apart, slicing it to narrow strips, little slivers of white and brown, incompatible pieces that would never fit together again.