Rewind, by Charlotte Ayres
I’m spinning. Spinning the way I learned in dance class, the way that’s been drilled into me since I was too small to keep my balance, my head whipping around, ponytail snapping as I go, spotting there-there-there. I’m spinning because when I was five, maybe six, Gabby told me that the world is always turning—whirling, swirling—and even though she’s also always telling me to be logical, be reasonable, I still believe a little in unbelievable, magical things. I believe enough so that the memory of her teeny kindergarten know-it-all voice is forever combined with Remy’s telling me that once The Flash ran backwards around the turning-tilting world so fast that he made time reverse. So maybe, maybe if I spin opposite the world long enough, fast enough, I can turn the clock back too. Maybe I can undo things so that, when I’m standing still, standing right, the world will be fixed.
Or maybe, if I can stop my head from going faster than my body, spotting each pirouette, I’ll get so dizzy that I’ll fall out my window and off the world. Then I won’t ever have to deal with the look that was on Gabby’s face when I ran from the library and down the block an hour ago because I’ll be gone, gone instead, floating blue in space.
Except when I do stop, the clock still reads 5:11. Maybe if I squint my eyes hard, the shadows in the room look different, something about the redwood outside not darkening things as much as usual. But pretty soon I catch my breath and come to the realization that while I might still believe in the unbelievable, belief does not equal reality. If this was one of Gabby’s experiments, it would be chalked up to an intolerable failure, and she deals with failures by leaving the room in a huff, a tiny figure hugging books and notebooks and electronics to her chest and blinking back tears behind too-thick glasses because Gabriella Nova does not fail—doesn’t know how to fail.
But Dana Blue does, so I sit on the edge of my bed and come up with a list of things I’ve managed not to fuck up tonight:
My head jerks up. The “what” sticks in my throat. I would know my mom’s voice anywhere.
My mom died three years ago, just days before my thirteenth birthday. Cancer’s a bitch.
I pause to make sure the impossible voice doesn’t sound again. Nothing. I take a breath and begin listing my fuckups of the day:
The lists are even. I flop across the bed and throw my arm over my eyes and try to focus on breathing because somewhere between stopping the spins and hearing my mom, my heart rate went from “feeling exertion” to “panic attack.” Just as the thump-thump-thump is almost slowing to normal, I hear the call again and bolt out of bed, two feet on the floor before I realize I’m getting up.
“Dana!” She sounds impatient now, that edge to her voice that I know is her Boston accent, trying to sneak out from the years of flat California-cover, and I don’t think that even a really good hallucination could recreate that, seeing as I never could, not even in my head. I’d tried, of course, because when you miss someone that much, you miss even them upset.
I’m standing at the door, hand on the doorknob, and I can hear the blood rushing in my ears. But as I creak open the door, wondering if Remy is playing some kind of godawful trick on me, I hear pounding footsteps, too close together to be an adult’s.
I jerk open the door fully to watch a child run by, responding to my name in a squeaky voice: “Coming, coming!”
From the back, I can tell that she is maybe-five and has dark hair, tied back in a braid rope. Even at barely-not-toddler age, she has my family’s broad shoulders, which would be fine if I wasn’t the youngest and she wasn’t running along, breakneck, as though “Dana” belonged to her.
Behind her, trudging and holding a book almost to her nose, though, is a girl I’d know anywhere, even though she’s two feet shorter than she should be. Gabby looked much the same at five as she does at sixteen: height-challenged but still somehow all limb, small brown eyes framing a big nose (though both, now, are hidden behind glasses), and thick almost-black hair in a sensible ponytail that does its best to reject her attempts at management by frizzing along after her with a mind of its own. When she was little, her mom always put her in dresses. She wouldn’t be caught dead in them now. Even at five, she moves awkwardly in the skirt, like her legs are trying to escape the fabric, stretch out as far as they can go and be free.
Funny how she never liked running.
As she passes me, I reach out, wondering if hallucinations can be touched. The answer appears to be no, though instead of her going through me, I go through her, my hand formless, her firmly solid. She looks up, squinting as if she felt something, only she doesn’t see me. Her nose returns to its book and her feet carry her down the stairs, the thumps of the other girl long since quieted.
I realize I’m shaking. But, shaking or not, I too head down the stairs, pausing at the very bottom and peering into the kitchen. My eyes skip over the two girls—Gabby and Not-Dana—and past the curly-haired, freckled form of an eight-year-old Remy, bent over what must be homework from the tenseness around his eyes, to where my mother stands in front of the stove, sweat along her graying hairline, her whole face red as she completes the difficult production of boiling Easy Mac. She turns her head and I know she’s looking at little-(Not)-Dana, but it feels like she’s looking at me. Her eyes are as fog-gray as I remember them, piercing and ever-angry.
Not-Dana doesn’t sense the danger, but I remember this day. I step around the corner and make a motion like I’m going to sweep the bright-eyed child out of the way, but Mom’s lips are pressed thin and her hands are on her hips, so it’s too late. While Not-Dana remains oblivious, Gabby pokes her head over the edge of her book, then slides into the chair next to Remy, out of the way, only the way she’s chewing on her cheek a giveaway to the worry stewing. That was how she looked today, I think, before the shock set in. Remy glances up too, sees Not-Dana, rolls his eyes, and looks down. I glance over his shoulder, but the paper he’s focusing on is blank.
“Mac ’n cheese?” Not-Dana’s voice is child-high and hopeful. She’s standing on her toes, trying—failing—to see onto the stove.
“Dana.” It’s the third time Mom has said my name, and, for the third time, I startle. Her arms are crossed now, fingers drumming her elbows. She never could keep them still, the one thing I know I got from her. “Those aren’t your clothes.”
Not-Dana (Maybe-Dana, I guess) looks down at herself, and I don’t have to see her front to remember the too-old Teen Titans shirt, hanging off her frame, and the basketball shorts, almost falling down. She hooks her fingers behind her back, knotting them together, and I recall thinking then, just as I do now: why that would matter, they’re just clothes, Remy never wore them anyway.
“No, but they’re cool.” Maybe-Dana turns her head, and her golden-brown eyes and too-pointy nose are impossibly, horribly mine, mine, mine. She’s not looking at me but at Remy and Gabby, the big brother always there to rescue her from the castle, the best friend always there to remind her that there never was one.
They don’t look up, pretending as though they hadn’t been watching Mom’s anger as it engulfed the room like a wave. I feel five-year-old betrayal as though it’s my own. It is my own. But Five-Dana didn’t know, couldn’t know, could never understand what was going on between her parents, the years and years of almosts almost shattering the family over and over until cancer showed up, because illness might be a bitch but it fixed her parents until it broke her family.
I watch the scene unfold, my mother-who’s-dead clutching at control and her hurricane-daughter wearing her big brother’s clothes and not caring that the short-sleeves go down to her elbows, that the shorts are nearly pants. Not caring that she has a wardrobe of feminine frills up in her closet.
Mom’s lips stretch tighter. “I think it’s time for Gabby to go home,” she forces out. “I’ll call Mrs. Nova.”
Five-Dana whips around, her mouth open in protest, but Gabby is already sliding off her chair, book left on the table because it wasn’t hers. “It’s okay, Mrs. Blue.” Even at five, she can speak to adults like it’s natural while I still stumble over words and can’t meet their eyes. “It’s just down the street.”
Mom just nods. “Remy will walk you home.” Five-Dana’s mouth is still open, ready to argue this newest slight, but Mom’s look cuts her off. “Go up and change, Dana.”
I watch Five-Dana turn and run up the stairs. She passes through me as I run, and I feel a lurch in my stomach, coupled with the need to follow her, to stop her, because I remember what the frustration caused next: an entire closet of pinks and ruffles pulled out, strewn on the floor, attacked with scissors. I remember the mantra: I can’t wear it if it’s ruined I can’t wear it if it’s ruined I can’t wear it if it’s ruined. And I remember how Mom reacted when she saw the mauled dresses. Not with anger. Not at first. She sat on my bed and cried and I didn’t know then that we didn’t have the money for all new clothes, not with Dad sleeping at hotels when they really couldn’t stand each other.
But I can’t follow her because the room is spinning around me and I feel dizzy. I put my hand out to steady myself and, luckily, it doesn’t go through the wall, but holds me up. I turn away from the disaster of Five-Dana careening back up the stairs to see Mom staring after her with a shattered look I’d never seen before. That I couldn’t make up. And then she shudders out of view, fading away, and I can’t stop the cry from escaping my throat. Just before she vanishes, her eyes fall on me like she hears me, like she sees me, but before I know for sure, she’s gone.
The room rights. Two girls, maybe twelve, sit at the kitchen table as though they’ve been there the whole time. This time it doesn’t come as a shock to see myself, hair chin-length and purple, legs tucked under me on my chair because I never could sit right. I wince at the reminder of my gawky phase: I’m stuck somewhere between adult and not. Next to Twelve-Dana is a Gabby who looks much less misshapen. Something about being so small saved her from my particular style of odd.
Maybe that’s just bias talking.
Gabby fidgets with her pen, the end of her hair sucked in past her teeth. She’s contemplating something, but not something to do with our homework. Gabby never needs any fidget-aides when thinking about math or science, like I do. She was (and is) only ever nervous-anxious-jittery when thinking about more personal things.
Gabby gets numbers and theories and experiments. She doesn’t really get people.
Come to think of it, neither do I. Who does, really?
Twelve-Dana doesn’t notice and I could slap her. Her lips are drawn together and her forehead is puckered. That’s my math face. Suddenly, she shoves the paper away and drops her head to the table with a satisfying clunk, arms stretched out in front like Superman, if Superman ever looked so defeated. I watch the paper curl in on itself as it lifts off the table. Gabby watches it too, the end of her ponytail no longer in her mouth but hanging limp-wet on her shirt.
Her eyes flick to Twelve-Dana and she sighs. She reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder, but it hovers just above instead before dropping back to her lap.
“You’ll get it, Dana. You’re giving up too fast.”
“I won’t get it. I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I’m too stupid.” Twelve-Dana’s voice is strained with years and years of math never making sense while her genius brother whizzed by two grades ahead and her genius best friend somehow managed even better. Remy, at least, has the decency not to expect brilliance from his little sister. But I always felt that Gabby was disappointed in me.
She looks disappointed now, watching Twelve-Dana refuse to raise her head and pick up the paper and try again, again, again. After waiting a beat, Gabby rolls her eyes and slides off the chair, picking up the paper. She looks it over, chewing on her lip, no longer anxious, but thoughtful. Here, she’s in control. She stands by Twelve-Dana for a silent, too-long moment before sitting again, nudging Twelve-Dana’s arm until she grudgingly picks up her head, then pointing to a math problem.
“Here. You’ve started right. You’re just having problems with negatives again.” “How can there be something that’s less than nothing?” Twelve-Dana whines.
Gabby wrinkles up her nose. It crinkles under her glasses, pushing them up higher and further obscuring her eyes. She’s annoyed the same way a teacher is when some know-it-all student announces that what they’re learning is pointless because it’s not like they’ll ever use it. She’s annoyed like a math genius who doesn’t understand how she has a best friend who can’t get the simplest concepts.
Twelve-Dana stares, fascinated, at that wrinkle so long that Gabby turns her head. She taps the paper one more time. “Draw a number line. You’ll get it.” She slinks back to her seat while Twelve-Dana gazes dazed across the room.
The front door opens and slams shut before Twelve-Dana even has time to put pencil to paper. Remy stomps in, fifteen and gangly, his curls a little too grown out. Haircuts aren’t high on Mom’s list of to-dos when she’s dealing with chemo. His whole face is red, like he’s been running.
Neither Twelve-Dana nor I spend too much time looking at him, though. We both get distracted by Gabby, who is flushing dark, gripping her pencil a little too tight. I remember what Twelve-Dana doesn’t know yet: Gabby’s birthday party in the dead of January, just the two of us in a pillow fort under her loft bed, her eyes lighting up as she spills all about how much she likes my brother. He was always sweet and sensitive and would hold the door open for her when most boys didn’t even notice she was there, she said. He was smart and could keep up with her. Such a low bar when he was fifteen and she was newly-thirteen.
I didn’t have the heart then to tell her about this day, when he came in flushed and out of breath, the fingers of one hand twitching like mine do when I’m anxious and don’t have a fidget. Remy and I tell each other everything. I was probably the only person he told about why his friendship with guitar-playing Jason with the green hair ended so abruptly. Remy had kissed him and it hadn’t gone over well. To this day, with Remy off in college, flamingly out, he says that he never would’ve gone back to high school if Jason hadn’t attended a different one.
Maybe it’s because of the twisted-pain look on Twelve-Dana’s face. Maybe it’s because of the trapped one on Remy’s. But after the day I’ve had and the hurt I’m feeling toward Sixteen-Gabby, I can’t help the words bubbling up inside me, hysterical: “Gabby, he’s so fucking gay!”
Twelve-Dana doesn’t react, but Remy and Gabby’s heads both jerk toward me, mouths open in shock. Then they squint, almost simultaneously. Gabby shakes her head as though she’s clearing water from her ears—ever the logical one, if she can’t see it, it’s not there, and the outburst is quickly set aside, forgotten. But Remy squints harder, his mouth now a thin line, and I can’t escape the twisting in my stomach because even though I know Nineteen-Remy has been out for two years, I just betrayed the trust of Fifteen-Remy without him even knowing how.
I find my feet carrying me forward, heading for the door. As I pass Remy, I reach out a hand and almost touch his cheek, but I stop myself just in case he could feel me try to touch him. He must not have hit his last growth spurt yet because he’s barely taller than me and his eyes are closer to mine than I’ve seen in a long time. They’re gray and framed with long lashes. Just like Mom’s, but more sad than angry. Younger and beardless, he looks shockingly like her.
Delicate-boned in the face. Strong shoulders, though. We get them from our dad.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, and he blinks a couple times, confusion draining the pink from his cheeks. But then I’m gone, something pulling me forward from my toes, stumbling out the door and down the street, and I can only hope he forgives me.
My movement is caught somewhere between compulsory and intentional. I can’t tell if there is some outside force pushing me along or if I intend to go down the street, toward the library that I ran from earlier that afternoon. Squinting, I look up, and the sky’s brighter than it should be, as though all the clouds that had been gathering into a storm since school ended had vanished.
I shove my hands in my pockets and square my shoulders, forcing myself not to look up as I pass Gabby’s house. I’m proud of myself when my head stays pointed down.
Once I’m past her house, I peek back, though. It’s is dark and my stomach heaves. Gabby might not be home yet.
My feet keep marching to the library. I don’t try to stop them.
The neighborhood library is a portable next to the park, a temporary building made semi-permanent because the promise for a new one has been forgotten, waiting on promised funds that never came. When I was younger, there was an actual building, but then an earthquake shook our little town and managed to damage only the library—something about it being so old, a strong gust of wind might have toppled it. The portable isn’t big enough for the books stuffed inside, so the shelves are overfull and too close together. I always thought that made it cozy. Gabby always thought that made it a fire hazard.
I pause at the door and wonder if I’m still moving through the world invisible. Then a kid and her mom get a little too close and I figure I must be.
I duck in after them, not wanting to open the door alone and seem like a specter of some sort. I don’t want to make that little girl think there’s a ghost.
I hope I’m not a ghost. I don’t think I am.
Paulina’s at the desk. She’s this tall college student who’s still learning to be a librarian, and she works the front desk right after school on Mondays and Wednesdays. She has the straightest black hair and bright purple glasses and was the first person I ever felt confused about, wondering if I wanted to be her or be with her. I’m still not sure, but I think it’s the former. Something about her confidence; even just sitting at a desk, she seems like she owns the world. Or the front of the library, at least.
My stomach flip-flops, seeing her still here. Her shift should be over already.
My feet carry me past the packed shelves, heavy with the weight of reliving what I had been spinning, spinning to forget.
There I am, faced with the unsettling feeling of looking into a mirror, one that doesn’t match the right motions. Before-Dana is sitting at my usual table, twirling her pencil between her fingers, staring at her math homework. I wonder if my hair really stuck up in the back like that all day, or if I messed it up since coming to the library.
Across the table is Angelina Ngo, the new girl who’s a capital-A Artist in the same way that Gabby is a capital-G Genius. From the day she arrived at our school she attached herself to us, inexplicably, constantly there. She comforts me because math isn’t easy for her either, even though her mother’s an engineer who’s always pushing her to find her mathematical brilliance. Angie has the best imagination out of anyone I know, which I think should be good enough for her mom. She lives in dreams.
She’s drawing, like she normally is, avoiding the homework that Before-Dana is diligently completing. We’re both silent, waiting for Gabby to round us out—Gabby would resent that word, round, because she’s always loved triangles and here we are, three potential points, but I avoid the connotation of its sharp edges. Angie’s drawing me, though. I know that now, even as Before-Dana is unaware. I caught sight of it as I ran after Gabby earlier, the soft lines almost like a photograph of me, only far better looking than I appear in photos.
Angie always jokes that she sees the world through rose-colored glasses, but it isn’t actually a joke. Her glasses really are pink—just not the lenses.
“She’s taking a while,” Angie says, her pencil not pausing as she speaks. Her voice is soft, and not only because we’re in the library. She has the type of voice you have to lean toward to hear, but somehow that makes all her words seem that much more important.
“Huh?” Before-Dana looks up. She has pen marks on her hands. I look down at my own and the marks are still there, but faded from sweat and time. “Oh. She’s probably busy. She’ll be here.” Angie doesn’t know it’s the anniversary of Mr. Nova’s car crash. Before-Dana knew it wasn’t her place to tell her.
“Still.” Angie moves from the seat across from Before-Dana, slipping next to her instead. She leaves the sketchbook where she had been, but sticks the pencil behind her ear. I notice the dried paint on her jeans, splotches in the shape of her hands. Her nails are painted too, each nail a different, vibrant color. I know I was thinking then that Angie herself might as well have walked out of a painting; she has this otherworldly effect that is impossible not to be enchanted by.
“Still?” Before-Dana crosses one leg over the other. I can feel her nerves as though they are my own, and they are, singing through my veins. I wonder what happened to Five-Dana and her loud voice, taking up as much space as possible, filling the room with her personality. Before-Dana is in dark jeans, a black hoodie, and a light blue shirt, the same outfit I’m wearing now. She’s lost the purple hair that gawky Twelve-Dana loved so much. If Angie is a painting, Dana is—I am—line art.
“We’re always waiting on her. Don’t you get tired of waiting?”
I watch confusion flash across Before-Dana’s face. Get tired of waiting for Gabby? Get tired of anything to do with Gabby? The very idea is repulsive. Gabriella Nova is a constant, unfailing figure. She is my math helper and shoulder to cry on and voice of reason. She is imperfect and sometimes selfish and she never comes to my rescue but she’s still in every single one of my dreams. And waiting on her? That’s just a fact of life. But, really, she’s waiting on me. I will always be five steps behind her. I will always be grateful she doesn’t leave me behind.
“I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s always, but—” Before-Dana manages to get out before it happens. I want to avert my eyes because there is something strange about seeing yourself kissing someone—getting kissed, rather—but I can’t look away. Angie has her eyes closed but Before-Dana looks startled, frozen, a deer-in-the-headlights, Dana Blue.
I hear the footsteps.
I turn my head.
Gabby rounds the corner of books and textbook she’s carrying falls to the floor with a loud thump. Before-Dana jerks away from Angie, eyes wide. She looks like a kid who has been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
Gabby’s face is a frozen look of horror. Then she turns on her heel, not picking up the physics book, and runs out the way she came.
“Gabs, wait!” Before-Dana gasps, on her feet faster than I had even remembered moving. Angie grabs at her, stuttering out apologies, but Before-Dana just mutters something about getting the book for Gabby, running out through the library after her, ignoring Paulina’s demand to stop being so damn noisy. She doesn’t pick up the book.
I look at Angie, who has her face buried in her hands.
I think back to the moment before Gabby’s face fell into horror, to the look I hadn’t seen before. The one where her world split apart.
I follow Before-Dana outside and watch her grab for Gabby. Gabby wrenches her hand away and on her face is a look of disgust, the kind where you’ve smelled something rancid. That’s when Before-Dana recoils, freezes for a moment, turns and sprints back home.
But I watch Gabby. I watch her sag against the building and stare after Before-Dana and I wonder if the need in her eyes is actually there, or if all of this is a figment of my desperate imagination.
It takes her a couple minutes, but then she heads for the park.
I don’t follow. I stand on the steps of the library and watch the world spin, twirl, whirl. The dizziness overtakes me and I sit down, sliding my pen-marked hands into my too-long hair. The universe has hit the fast-forward button. People pass me quicker than they should be able to go, rush rush rushing through their lives. Angie passes, eventually, her shoulders slumped. I almost call out to her, but I hold myself back. I’ll fix Angie and me later.
The world rights itself. I look up. Gabby walks down the street, away from the park, holding her physics textbook. I suppose Angie must have brought it to her. I suppose they must have talked.
I stand up. She doesn’t see me.
I take a step toward her. She’s focused on her feet.
I reach out—
Charlotte Ayres is a writer, English teacher, and voracious YA reader who lives in the Bay Area with her spouse and their two cats.