written by Nadine Darling | illustrated by Kim Herbst
Grandma died, you know. No surprises there. She was an old broad. Soon the family will divvy up her things, grabbing at scarves and candleholders and picture frames like it’s the last round in some Japanese game-show. There’s going to be some big shindig in Idaho, sure. Everyone will be there, with their hams, their stories, their Jell-O with fruit. And all of this is fine, fine — the old bloated snatch-and-grab buffet of matriarchal death. But what to do with Jane?
“I’ll stay by myself,” says Jane. “I’m sixteen.”
Mother packs in the bedroom, a cigarette dangling, hair slanted over one eye like a vamp or a pony.
“Three days of Hot Pockets and barely scrambled porn?” she says. “God forgive us, you’ll stay with the Sparks.”
The Sparks live at 665. They call themselves “the neighbors of the beast.”
They’re artists. Mrs. Sparks writes; Mr. Sparks makes huge convoluted collages out of garbage, fire engines out of Monopoly money and cigarette butts, churches out of milk crates and orange peels. Once he set fire to a trailer in the center of town and danced around it with his shirt off screaming, “You can learn to love me!” and “You’ll never take me alive, Mr. Trump!”
“I don’t want to stay with the Sparks,” says Jane. “I’ll go with you.”
“You’ve missed enough school,” says Mother. “And, it’s just going to be boring, adult things.”
She closes her suitcase and takes Jane by the arm.
“Remember,” she says, “we’re Catholic. Don’t let those Sparks give you any crazy religion. And only drink from the tap. And keep your eye out for funny-smelling plants.”
“Well,” says Mother, “hippies.”
The Sparks’ home smells of nicotine and Hawaiian Tropic oil and newsprint and lacy, lemony bundt cake. And something gone over, something souring gently at the edges. The lights are never on.
Mrs. Sparks is delighted to have Jane; she is a clapper, things delight her frequently. She covers her mouth with her hand when she laughs, like an anime schoolgirl or a
raccoon washing its food.
“Do you like video games?” she asks. “Do you like Beck?”
“It’s not a slumber party, dear heart,” says Mr. Sparks.
He’s small and stoic. He carries a drink like a prop, and his cigarette points out, all Liza Minnelli. To Jane, he says, “So, what do you do?”
“Sorry?” says Jane.
“For a living. What do you do?”
“I’m a kid.”
“When I was your age I had two jobs and one of them was the mayor.”
“Don’t lie to her,” says Mrs. Sparks.
The Sparks insist upon walking Jane to school. In costume. Mrs. Sparks is a zombie social worker; Mr. Sparks is a sea captain.
“Mother hasn’t walked me to school since kindergarten,” says Jane, who is dressed as Jane.
“That’s insane!” says Mrs. Sparks. “You could be killed by marauding ninjas or rabid squirrels.”
“Life’ll kill you,” says Mr. Sparks. “I learned that at sea. Stick that in the front of one of your high-fallutin’ novels, right beneath the Johnny Cash quote and the praise to Allah.”
“Duly noted, my love.”
She holds Jane’s hand as they walk, and tightly.
“What do you write?” asks Jane.
“Oh, lies,” says Mrs. Sparks. “Lies in a lovely font.”
Very late on her final night with the Sparks, Jane gets out of bed and goes into the living room. Mrs. Sparks is already there, on the sofa in her white nightgown, watching an infomercial about a big chicken that spins in a remarkable rotisserie. She smiles when she sees Jane, and mutes the television.
“Would you like to talk about your grandmother?” she asks.
“No,” says Jane, and then, “I’m not supposed to talk about religion with you.”
“Oh,” says Mrs. Sparks.
“Where’s Mr. Sparks?” Jane asks.
Mrs. Sparks mimes chugging a beer. Then she mimes chugging another.
“Oh,” says Jane. She watches Mrs. Sparks there, long and pale in the mosaic TV light and she misses her home, her bed.
“You know what I would say to God if He were right here, right this minute?” says Mrs. Sparks.
“I’m not supposed to talk about religion with you,” says Jane. She tilts her head against Mrs. Sparks’ arm. Mrs. Sparks smells like coconut and peroxide. Her hair is wet.
“Tell me,” says Jane.
“I’d say — I’d look right into His face — and I’d say, ‘what, are you kidding me?’”
Jane nods. “I would say, ‘how are you doing?’”
“Yeah?” says Mrs. Sparks.
“Sure,” says Jane. “Because, I’ll bet no one ever thinks to ask.”
On the television, that chicken, man. It just spins and spins.
About the artists:
Kim Herbst is a half-Chinese freelance illustrator who spent time in Taipei, Tokyo, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Brooklyn before heading out to reside in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in newspapers, magazines, children’s educational materials, and gallery shows.
Nadine Darling lives in Boston, MA with her husband and family. Her debut novel SHE CAME FROM BEYOND! was released in 2015 on The Overlook Press.