Selah stands on the edge of the cliff near the blueberry patch. Years from now, when she’s grown, Selah won’t remember the particulars of how she and her older sister Tommi spent the afternoon crawling through the dirt on their hands and knees, pretending to scavenge berries for the zombie apocalypse. She won’t remember the bruise on her arm from where Tommi hit her midway through the game (their games often get too rough). She won’t remember the specific feeling that she has right now: the feeling of being seven and breathing salt air and holding worries no larger than a blueberry in her hand.
What she will remember is that she and Tommi are not on speaking terms. She will remember that Tommi, like most everyone she cared about at seven, is lost to her.
But not right now. Right now she stands on the edge of the cliff. The berries in her hand make a satisfying squelch as she tightens her fist for no reason, an action that has no deeper meaning than the curiosity of what it would feel like. She wipes her sticky palm on the grass and breaks into a run back towards the yellow house, with Tommi close behind her.
The lobster pot on the stovetop has not begun to boil yet. Selah and Tommi are in the kitchen choreographing a lobster dance. Neither of them has eaten a lobster before, but they watched from a distance as their father unloaded the cooler full of red crabby creatures from the car this morning. Sometimes it’s best to watch him from a distance, and today is one of those days. Selah is getting frustrated; she feels strongly that the dance should start with a twirl, but Tommi disagrees, which means the dance will not be starting with a twirl. These small indignities don’t feel small to Selah. They feel like contributions to the growing file of evidence that she, Selah, is not good at being a person. Or maybe just that she’s not as good at being a person as Tommi is, which is basically the same thing.
Tommi isn’t listening, so Selah issues a plaintive appeal to their mother: make her do the twirl! They’re underfoot and in the way and their mother is trying to prep the side dishes. Selah doesn’t know this, but it’s crucial that the side dishes get prepped smoothly. It’s crucial that everything goes smoothly because, though Selah doesn’t know it, her family lives on the knife’s edge of catastrophe at all times. Their mother shoos them out of the kitchen and the dance is quickly forgotten but not the feeling of impotence that accompanied it.
Selah and Tommi are in the attic playing Jobs. It’s one of their favorite games, and the premise is simple: they are grown ups who have jobs. Sometimes Selah is the manager of a grocery store. Sometimes she owns a bookshop. Many years later, in a town far away from the yellow house on the cliffside, the memory of this game will resurface out of nowhere while she is seated at an uncomfortable office desk, and she’ll feel a lump rise in her throat at the irony of everything—how it all works out, and how it doesn’t.
Today, Selah is a painter. Not an artist but a house painter, like the man in dirty overalls who came last year and turned their house from gray to yellow. Tommi is a stay-at-home mother, and her baby is a tattered elephant plushie—but no, she’d rather be a zookeeper. Selah tells her it’s too late; once you’ve picked your job you cannot change it. Even as she says this she knows it isn’t true, but she wants Tommi to feel the same frustration and resentment she felt while they were choreographing the lobster dance. Tommi throws the elephant plushie at Selah, who smirks triumphantly and says she is a bad mother and a bad zookeeper.
Downstairs, the lobster pot begins to boil.
Their mother is a good person who makes bad choices. At least, that’s what many people will say about her afterwards. That’s what Tommi will say years from now in their adulthood, which will instigate the fight that will lead to Selah telling Tommi she never wants to hear from her again. Often, all the time, Selah will wonder why it was that sentiment that became her final straw. Often, all the time, Selah will doubt herself.
Today, their mother’s bad choice is a bottle of red wine. She pulls it out of the cabinet and sets it on the table as the lobster pot begins to boil. She wants things to be nice; it’s all she’s ever wanted. A nice family. A nice dinner. Because nice means peaceful, and peaceful means non-violent. But red wine doesn’t go with lobster; she should have taken out the white. Doesn’t she know that? How does she not know that? Is she a fucking idiot?
Selah and Tommi don’t hear these questions from their father’s mouth as he walks into the kitchen; they are playing Jobs. They don’t hear the fighting escalate, the lobster pot boil over, or the water sizzle as it hits the stovetop.
They do hear the first gunshot. And the one that follows.
Selah is a house painter, and Tommi is a stay-at-home zookeeper. These careers were chosen poorly. One of them should have been a doctor, the other a magic wizard with healing powers. It’s all Selah can think about as she and Tommi peer into the kitchen and see the blood. Why can’t she ever just choose right?
Tommi was right about the twirl. The dance was better off without it.
Later, when years have passed without a word between her and Tommi, when enough time and therapy has elapsed that she can sometimes bring herself to briefly visit her father’s grave, Selah will be at an office Christmas party. She will unwrap the White Elephant gift she chose at random from the pile while her coworkers make small talk over paper plates of Costco cookies, and she will look down at the box in her lap to see a stainless-steel lobster pot. She will smile in thanks, then vomit in the bathroom and “forget” to take it home.