We never talk about the lie. Once it’s out, I can’t take it back. And why should I? My mother takes good care of us—food is always on the table, our clothes are always clean—but the rest of the time she’s sitting in her room, reading and rereading letters that make her weep. When we come home, she never asks how we are, or how we’ve been, and when I ask about her day, she just says, “You were gone. I was alone.”
It’s better here with Isa. She smiles for me at least, like when she spells my name in ketchup over a basket of fries, or when old ladies call her “Dear” and remark on her beauty and good English. One day Isa tells a customer, “Thank you for coming to Lanes,” and she sounds so pleased and finally fulfilled with our life in Lemoore that I need to hear it again. So I run out into the bowling alley to the pay phone by the bathroom, drop a dime, and call the diner.
Isa picks up. “Thank you for calling Lanes,” she says.
I whisper, “It’s me.” I can see her but she can’t see me, even as I wave. “It’s me,” I say again.
We have never spoken on the phone before—we have never been apart—and now I sound like a stranger. “Hello?” she says, turning side to side, as though the person on the other end is somehow with her in the room.
Before she asks again who I am, I hang up and go back, running.
Bowling-alley days get longer, I keep watching Isa, and nothing happens. So, little by little, I start to leave. At first I stick close by the diner door, watching off-duty sailors bowl, and I cheer their strikes and laugh at their gutter balls. Then I walk my fingers along the racks of bowling balls, looking for ones I can lift. I start to go farther: without coins I go to the arcade and pretend to play pinball, or finish abandoned games of air hockey. I like to push buttons and pull knobs on the vending machines, hoping that gum or a bag of chips will fall for free, and one day a roll of Life Savers actually does. I snatch it, look around to check if anyone saw, then run back to the diner to tell Isa about my incredible luck and share my candy with her. But when I get to the diner, Isa isn’t at the register or standing behind the counter. Instead, she’s in a booth by the jukebox, sitting across from someone, a boy her age with long white arms full of freckles and the reddest hair I have ever seen.
I press my hands and face against the glass door. I watch. They’re just talking, that’s all, but he’s holding a cigarette, and when he reaches to move a strand of hair from Isa’s face, she flinches, just a little. He keeps his hand there, even as the cigarette burns. I haven’t seen anyone touch my sister’s face since my mother, months before, the morning we started school.
His name is Malcolm and he’s always here. He bowls all morning in the very last lane, then visits Isa at noon, stays until we have to leave. He never brings flowers and they never kiss, but, once, they disappear. Returning from the arcade, I find a note taped to the cash register that says BACK IN TEN MINUTES. But I don’t know how long ten minutes is, and despite the clock above the jukebox I still don’t know how to tell time. So I go running out of the diner, to the arcade, the women’s bathroom, then the diner again, and when there is still no sign of Isa, I run out into the parking lot, up and down the rows of cars. The daylight is so bright I can barely see, and every direction I go is wrong. But finally I find her, sitting on the rear bumper of a sky-blue van, right next to Malcolm. A cigarette burns between her fingers.
I point at her to make her understand: You were gone! I couldn’t find you! but I’m crying too hard and can’t catch my breath. She takes my hand and pulls me close, kisses my cheeks, my nose, the top of my head. “Watch,” she says. She takes the cigarette to her lips, closes her eyes like she’s gathering courage, and exhales a wave of smoke. “See?” She opens her eyes. I breathe her smoke through my nose, and when it makes me sneeze, Isa starts laughing, Malcolm too, and now so do I. “More,” I say, and now Isa is making smoke rings, a thing I’ve never seen, and I try to break them with my finger before they float away and vanish.
Who knew a person could form circles from smoke? Or cry and laugh at the same time? This is a day of learning new things: I look at Isa looking at me, and I think we are amazing.
Later, when my father picks us up, I tell him, “Nothing happened today,” then get into the backseat with Isa, put my head on her lap. Driving home, I watch her staring out the window, and when she looks down at me, she smiles and sighs, like her longing has ended, and we have finally arrived in the place we were meant to be.