You are 14 years old, the only daughter of your mother and father, spending the two defining teenage years of your life in the middle of nowhere. Of course, the middle of nowhere has a name; one hour and 53 minutes outside of Roswell—of UFO crash site fame—is Good, New Mexico, a small town off I-285 with a population of 4,206 people. It is exactly 11 miles from the Texas border if you were to draw a straight line, and the host of what you consider to be the smallest military base in the United States.
You live in a concrete duplex with a green tin roof built for shift workers, with the bedrooms at the front of the house and the living room at the back, like all the other military families. It is in a cul-de-sac of a neighborhood of identical duplexes next to a playground made of green plastic. This neighborhood is backed up to the place where an arroyo winds its way below the Cherish Range, which is really nothing more than rocky hills above the flat land that look artificial, like a billboard cutout against the blue, cloudless sky.
You go to Good High School, the only high school in the town, with seven other military teenagers in ninth grade. The middle and elementary schools are located on the same campus, comprised of single-story buildings capped with white tin awnings and a carefully manicured lawn for recess. You sit next to Brian on the bus home.
Your school bus is driven by a woman named Shirley, who drinks from an extra-large cup of soda every afternoon and never looks in the rear-view mirror as long as everyone is quiet enough. At the back of the bus, students crowd into the aisle next to each other and bus surf, all trying to maintain their balance without gripping onto the seat backs as the bus moves and sways and stops. The bus stops for you down the road from the casino, a restaurant called the Nice Slice, and the convention center where there was once a Def Leppard concert, so that you can cross the street to your uniform neighborhood and walk down the road to your uniform cul-de-sac.
You meet the Wilson family for the first time at Nora Park for the Good Talent Showcase. They are with Brian’s family, new arrivals that only flew into Eddy County two weeks ago. They are baffled and amused by the idea of a town talent show in a park. You are not paying attention to the show. Brian’s mother, Ms. Heather, introduces you to the wife, Mrs. Wilson, as Ms. Colleen. They are sitting on two picnic blankets pulled together to make one big blanket. You sit next to Brian.
The Wilsons have two blonde daughters, Emily and Corinna, who are respectively in fourth grade and second grade at Good Elementary School. They sit next to their mother while their father stands at one of the park grills. Their mother takes out PB and Js from a picnic cooler for them.
When they finish their sandwiches, the girls want to explore. You and Brian offer to go with them. The four of you cross the grass field littered with families on blankets, down to the sandy, dry bed of the river, and back up the other side to a seemingly never-ending chain of hills. You clamber up the boulders, testing some unsturdy ones with your foot before trusting them with your weight, and look behind you to see Emily and Corinna following. Brian is behind them, ready to catch them if they slip.
You make it to the top and see the park across the river, now below you. Behind, the chain of hills springs up from the dirt and shrubs and cacti as far as you can see. The August air is dry, and the sun is hot on your back and you take off your green windbreaker from this morning and tie it around your waist. These hills make you feel like a wanderer, like you could walk out into the desert forever, never stopping, searching always. Up here, you can pretend to be purposeful, to be serving something other than yourself, or to be filling the footsteps of ancestors that are not truly your own.
“Let’s play frontier,” Emily says when she catches up to you. Corinna and Brian agree when she asks them to play as well. So, under a short and slightly dead looking wattle tree, you build your house by arranging a circle of small stones to mark the walls. You untie your windbreaker from your waist and hang it on a branch of the ceiling-tree as a flag.
Emily insists it is now time to find food, so the four of you head out of your rock and tree house in search of it. You stay close to the front of the hill, keeping the line of cottonwood trees that mark the border of the park in sight. You come around the edge on the other side of the hill, and below you is the sheer face of a massive boulder. You could slide down the gray and brown stone right into the riverbed. Another tree, this one much greener, is growing in a crevice between this boulder and another right beside it. Corinna peers over the edge of the crack and announces that it would make a much better home. She scrambles down into the crack, and you follow her. The boulders make a skinny hallway, and at the end you can still make out the grass across the river, but you have the exhilarating feeling that no one over there would be able to see you. There are ants, though. Big, fat red ants that crawl over your sandal-clad feet when you stand still for too long and give you the heebie-jeebies.
You climb back out and pull Corinna up after you, declaring the place uninhabitable. You continue to navigate along the edge, collecting leaves and rocks and twigs as you go, until you reach what you estimate to be the middle of your hill, and you lead the group back to the very center, to your wattle house. There, Emily finds a large, flat rock not too far away that looks like it could be a table where she dumps her gatherings and declares it the kitchen.
Corinna actually gets hungry at this point, and Brian says he needs to drink some water, so the four of you abandon your newly forged home and return to the field of people for orange slices.
It is not until much later, on the drive home, that you remember you have left your windbreaker on the wattle tree, no longer a jacket but a flag.
The people in Good have legends, stories of people who came and went, but the things they did in the desert remain, talked about, shared with the people who come even long after them. Warnings. Gossip. These people broke the mold, the story tellers say, they went crazy out here, and I’m gonna tell you about them so you don’t go crazy too and turn into your own legend.
You have heard these stories, sitting at dining tables long after the meals are over. One, a woman who caught her husband cheating, drove out of town on the straight and empty highway heading to Roswell. She drifted on the road and was struck and killed by an oncoming semi. That is the worst one, though they are all mostly about adultery.
The first time you babysit for the Wilsons is a month after the talent show. Mr. Wilson and Ms. Colleen want to go to the casino with a group of military adults, including Brian’s parents and your own. Your parents walk with you down the street of identical concrete duplexes with green, corrugated roofs to the Wilsons’. In the dark, a chaste tree stands short and purple by the carport in front of the house.
The Wilsons leave with your parents, walking to the casino to meet up with other couples, and you take up your watch of Emily and Corinna. They are easy to occupy, playing a three-way game of Mario Kart on your Nintendo DSs, and then putting on the Boomerang channel until their bedtime. When they go to sleep, you take out your phone, a heavy, gray brick that you can’t use to call anyone because you can’t hear anything and can’t figure out how to change the volume, but that you can use to text. You text Nate, a local boy in your class who gave you his phone number a week ago. You have texted with him every night since, but nothing has changed in class between you. He still sits across the room with his friends, and you still sit with Brian and a local girl named Jessica who invited you to her birthday party a few weeks ago.
Before Nate responds, Emily comes out of her bedroom again.
“I can’t sleep,” she says and curls up next to you. You pull a blanket off the back of the couch, which is red and patterned with orange triangles that make you think of Doritos, and wrap the both of you up, letting her lean into you, her blonde head against your side, and fall asleep watching Scooby Doo. She seems so much younger than nine in that moment, but you don’t say anything.
Your mother hosts a small party on the fourth day of October. When it is over, and most of the guests have gone home, you sit at the dining table with your mother, Ms. Heather, and two other military wives, Cathy and Julie. They drink wine and you nibble on the left-over platter of cheese and crackers. You listen as they talk.
Ms. Cathy asks your mother if she knows Mark. You do not, but your mother says she does. Ms. Cathy says he is having a hard time. His father is sick, probably dying. He has put in an emergency request to go back to Colorado for a few weeks. Ms. Heather says that is so awful. Ms. Julie wonders if there is anything she can do for him. You stay quiet, scared that you will be dismissed from the table, thrilled that you have not been. Being here makes you feel like an adult, included amongst the women. Like you know things.
The conversation shifts. Ms. Heather asks why Ms. Colleen didn’t come today. Ms. Cathy echoes the question. She doesn’t socialize very much, does she. Your mother smiles. The Wilsons have a family member, Colleen’s sister, visiting right now. They went to Living Desert State Park. Oh, I almost forgot about that, says Ms. Heather. We were talking about that a few weeks ago. She’s having a hard time too, right Heather, asks Julie. Yes, Heather answers. She’s having a hard time being this far away from home.
On Halloween, you take Emily and Corinna trick-or-treating for twenty dollars so Mr. Wilson and Ms. Colleen can go to a costume party. Mr. Wilson has re-pierced his ear for the night with a safety pin to complete his 1980s hair band look. Ms. Colleen has already left when you arrive.
You are wearing a make-shift Dorothy costume, a blue dress, red converse, and your hair in two braids, because Emily insists that you two match. Her costume is store-bought, well-put together. Corinna is dressed as a pirate, and she has to keep pushing the hat back up because it is too big for her head and falling into her face, knocking her glasses down her nose.
You take them down your own cul-de-sac, then the street with the townhouses, then across the road and past the Super 8 Motel to a larger neighborhood where there are more people. Emily and Corinna tire out, shivering in the chilly desert night and their pillowcases becoming too laden to carry. You take them home, and their duplex neighbors take over for you, Emily and Corinna joining their children to sort the candy and bargain out trades.
On your walk home, you get texts from Nate and Brian at the same time. They are both at the golf course with a small group of kids from Good High School. You go, hopping the low-lying wall that surrounds the course down the street and crossing the dark green until you see flashlights wavering in the distance.
Nate pulls you down on the ground next to him when you reach the circle of kids, and you throw a wave to Brian and Jessica across from you. They all seem to be in the middle of a game of truth or dare, but you aren’t paying attention because Nate tugs on one of your braids and whispers that he likes them in your ear, and you think you might die at just that.
Then the circle gets back around to Nate, and you’re paying attention now, and he picks dare. Carly dares him to kiss Jessica and he does, and you feel like you might just actually die this time. Your legs are itchy from the wet grass and you’re cold and you want to go home, and Brian seems to notice that you’re upset, but he doesn’t say anything. He catches your eyes, and you just shake your head.
It’s your turn now, and you pick truth. Corey asks if you have a crush on anyone in the circle, and you hesitate before saying no, so everyone laughs at you because they can tell that you’re lying. You’re wondering how everything went so sour in a matter of seconds, and Nate tugs gently on your braid again, and now you hate that feeling in your stomach because if you had been dared to kiss someone else you wouldn’t have done it.
The circle carries on a few more rounds before you spot security riding down the green in a golf cart, floodlight mounted on the front, searching for your group. The six of you extinguish your own lights and split. Nate grabs your hand and pulls you in one direction as the rest of the group scatters. The two of you get soaked under the water of a massive sprinkler as you sprint. You can’t help the shocked squeal that escapes you, and Nate shushes you, but he is laughing.
He leads the two of you to a low point in the wall where the course is backed up to a neighborhood full of single-family homes and locals, and he helps you vault over before following behind you. The two of you keep running still, knowing you’re out of range for the security officers, but still filled with adrenaline. He slows down finally and pulls you to a stop at the end of the road where it is unlit and the trees grow more densely together. You are both winded, bent over with your hands on your knees trying to catch your breath, but when you both look up at each other, you start laughing too hard and have to sit on the curb to calm down.
When the two of you can finally breathe, Nate looks at you more seriously and apologizes. You ask him for what, because you want to hear him actually say it, and he says he is sorry for kissing Jessica, but that it really was only for the dare. Then you forgive him, and he says he wished it was you, and you tell him he can kiss you now if he wants. He does.
When you get out of the shower later that night, having washed the sprinkler water out of your hair, you put it back in two braids.
There is a New Year’s party at the base. When you drive in, in the distance, on a hill, you can see huge, white domes sticking out of the rocks. They remind you of Spaceship Earth in Epcot, and your dad tells you they are antennas.
When you find Brian, he is with Mary, another military teenager. They are heading to the pool. You didn’t bring your bathing suit with you, but your parents are occupied with their friends, so you walk with them across the parking lot to the rec center. On your way, you run into Mr. Wilson, Emily, and Corinna. Ms. Colleen is not here. She did not come.
Emily asks to go with you, and Mr. Wilson lets her, telling you there is free soda in the kitchen of the rec center as he heads off to the main building where your parents are. Brian and Mary go to the pool, and you and Emily go to the kitchen. She wants to play hide and seek, and a few other kids who are with you in the kitchen join. On the third round, Emily hides next to you behind the couch, covering her mouth with one hand to quiet her breathing, holding your fingers with the other.
March is the first time you hear about the affair. You’re sitting at the dining table again with your mother and a few other military wives after a small house party your parents threw for St Patrick’s Day. The husbands and some of the wives have all left to put their kids to bed, and only your mother’s close friends, Andrea, Jane, and Cathy, are left. They are talking, and you are only half paying attention, your phone angled under the table so your mother can’t see the text messages Nate is sending you. He just had a moment of clarity that you will be moving to Washington in a year, and he wants to break up now so it doesn’t hurt so much later.
Next to you, your mother is saying something Andrea said can’t possibly be true. Jane is saying that it is, that John told her himself. You look up at the light, trying to keep a few tears inside your eyes, and your mother turns to ask you if you’ve noticed anything weird at the Wilson house when you go over to babysit. You are confused by the question but say no. You are paying full attention now. Jane insists again that John figured out his wife’s email password and read them. That is how he found out. Cathy says she isn’t surprised, that Colleen came onto her in the bathroom at the ball on the base in February. You want to ask what they are talking about, but you’re still afraid that if you say anything they will realize you are a child and will expel you from the circle of women, and you really want to hear what’s happening with Emily and Corinna’s parents. Nate has stopped responding.
Your mother says that is disgusting, how could Colleen do that? Of course she is not gay, she has two children. Andrea says that gay people have children all the time to cover up their behavior. How could she lie to her husband about this, Jane asks, how could she expose her children to this? Disgusting, your mother says again. Cathy asks how Colleen could break up another family? She seduced an unsuspecting woman. A devil, Andrea agrees.
You feel guilty, sitting there at the table, waiting for Nate to text you back and listening to this conversation. Had they not all been friends with Ms. Colleen two days ago? Is this what Mr. Wilson could have possibly wanted when he told Jane about those emails? But you stay, wondering if they will reveal the name of the woman Ms. Colleen is supposedly cheating on her husband with. When they finally do, Heather, you feel even more guilty, and you wonder if Brian already knows. Your mother tells you that you won’t be babysitting for the Wilsons anymore, and you leave the table to go to bed.
The next time you see Emily is at the convention center in April. They have opened a temporary ice skating rink, and you go with Brian. You have not asked him about what you heard at the table. If he knows, if he wants to tell you, he will.
You step out onto the ice, clutching his arm for balance. You haven’t skated since you were eight, and it takes a minute for you to find your legs again. Across the rink, you see Emily and Corinna gliding on the scratched ice. Emily does a spin, bringing her arms in tight to her chest to make herself go faster, and you wonder if she took figure skating lessons in some town with a permanent rink. Corinna does a hop and gets stuck in a track when she lands, falling. She laughs, unhurt, and Emily helps her up. You want to wave, but you’re unsure if that would be considered “picking sides.”
Brian takes you around the rink, and when you are done, you have a new bruise on your knee from stopping yourself with the wall too often. Emily and Corinna have left with their father. You are unlacing your skates and putting your sneakers back on when Brian finally asks if you know. You tell him you do. Your mother won’t let you babysit at their house anymore. He nods, looking at his own fingers unlacing his skates. His parents were fighting last night, he says. It’s messing with his head. You ask if he wants to take a walk instead of going home right away. He says yes.
The hot sun is a shock after the cold air in the convention center, and you walk down to the riverbed behind your neighborhood, under the range. You stop to watch a lizard scurry up the trunk of a cottonwood and out of sight. She’s my mom, Brian says, you know?
At the beginning of May, barely four weeks before the end of the school year, Emily and Corinna start riding the bus home. Corinna, round eyes magnified behind her glasses, tells you it is because their mom wants them to be more responsible. Brian whispers to you that his mom and Ms. Colleen are using this time, when Ms. Colleen used to drive them home from school, to see each other before their husbands get home from work. He sounds angry when he says it, and you’re not sure if it is entirely true. You put your hand in his, and he squeezes yours back before he stands up from the seat and teaches Emily and Corinna how to bus surf.
The four of you get off the bus together, and you and Brian watch Emily and Corinna cross the street before the two of you turn away and walk to the playground in your uniform cul-de-sac. You climb on the roof of the play tower, perching on two of the four plastic outcroppings like weird, casual gargoyles, and you give him one ear bud, sticking the other in your own ear, and hit play on your iPod. The sun is on your face and in your hair, and the dark green plastic is hot on your thighs under your skirt. You lean back against the fake plastic shingles, your head resting against the pole of the plastic flag forever blowing in a fake breeze.
Brian tells you his mother is thinking of going back to North Carolina alone for the rest of his father’s tour. Your roll your head to look at him, but he’s facing straight ahead, looking at the corrugated roof of one of the concrete duplexes, his dark hair shining in the sun. You ask if he wants to go with her, and, selfishly, you hope he will say no because he’s your best friend. Jessica doesn’t really count. He doesn’t give you a straight answer, saying his dad would never let him. He thinks they might actually hate each other now. You let that hang in the air, unsure of how to respond. You try to imagine yourself in his place. Your parents’ marriage broken, hearing terrible things about your mother, and terrible things about the woman your mother has risked everything for. Your own mother’s words ring in your ears again. Disgusting. Disgusting. Is it? Which part?
Brian asks you if you’ve ever thought about how temporary Good is. Even the locals don’t stay that long. You think about Chloe, the girl who was in your class before she moved to Amarillo with her mother a month ago, and Courtney, who moved to Albuquerque two weeks before. You think about Nate. You shrug. Brian tells you that none of this feels real to him, like when the two years are up, his family will move back to the same house in Fayetteville, North Carolina and everything will go back to normal.
You think about Emily. You wonder if she knows what’s happening. Corinna is too young, but Emily is ten now. If she doesn’t know, she can probably tell something is not right. Does it affect her the same way it affects Brian? Does she think about it all the time? Is she sad and angry when she goes home?
You think this story will not be so temporary. That the people here will be talking about Brian and Emily’s moms long after you leave.
The Wilsons do not come to the Fourth of July party on the base. Emily told you at the playground, the only place you get to talk while school is out for the summer, a few days before that they were going to see the Grand Canyon. On the couch in the rec room, in a group of teenagers sharing ghost stories, you think about Mr. Wilson and Ms. Colleen. Maybe they know that they are being talked about. That they are becoming a story that will be shared. That if they came to this party, they would be observed and those observations would be talked about tonight around tables, and they would become entertainment.
It is the day of the Good Talent Showcase again, and Nora Park is speckled with picnic blankets. You and Brian find Emily and Corinna up one of the cottonwood trees hanging over the arroyo. You don’t know where their parents are this time. They are not sitting near Brian’s parents.
You place your hand on the veiny, brown bark and call up to the girls. You’re going to the hills and ask if they want to come with you. They scramble down to the lowest branch and jump the rest of the way to the ground, running across the sand before they’ve even given you an answer. When you make it back to your old wattle tree and rock house, your windbreaker flag is still hanging on its branch, now sun bleached and covered in a thin layer of dust. It looks like it belongs there now, one permanent thing in the desert.
Brian and Corinna are trying to scale one of the boulders to see how high they can get, and Emily sits next to you under the shade of the tree.
“Can I tell you a secret?” she asks. You say of course she can. “I heard my mom and dad fighting outside in the car port last night,” she says. “She didn’t come home, and dad went out to find her, and when they got back, they were yelling at each other. I heard it outside my window.” You ask if she could hear what they were saying, and she shakes her head no, scratching her pointer finger into the dirt. You place your hand on her back, feel the warmth of her skin through her cotton tee shirt, and tell her that everything will be okay, even though you don’t know when that will be true.
Corinna and Brian come back then, and Corinna wants to pretend that you guys have superpowers. You and Emily stand up and decide what each of your super powers will be, and when it is decided that Emily can fly, and you can be invisible, and Brian has super sight, and Corinna has super hearing, you set off through the hills.
You lose track of time and lose count of how many hills back you are. Somewhere around five, most likely. Ahead of you, Emily is flapping her arms and galloping, pretending she is airborne. Behind you, you think you can hear the faintest yell. Emily looks back at you, and she hasn’t heard what you have heard. She smiles and waves her arm forward, telling you to keep up, to keep going. Your heart is twisting in your chest, and you feel guilty again. She doesn’t really know or understand what is happening. She doesn’t know what your mother said about her mother at the table.
To your left, Brian is looking back. He has heard the yell too. Someone has shouted his name.
You keep moving forward into the desert, following Emily. She is purposeful, flying. You want to shout to her, to say I see you.
You think you hear your father’s voice call your name.
What good would it do to say it? You are moving to Washington with your family in less than a year, and then you won’t know her anymore.
Mr. Wilson’s voice calls out for Emily and Corinna. Your parents are searching for you. You keep following Emily.
In less than a year, you won’t see Emily anymore. But right now, in this moment, yes, you see her.
Brian calls out to them, to tell them you are here.
I see you, I see you, I see you.
College of Arts & Sciences
Class of 2021, English Area Program of Literary Prose (APLP)
Smith wrote this fictional short story to address the real children of LGBTQ+ parents who may feel invisible, confused, and hurt in communities where homophobia complicates already messy stories of the discovery of one’s sexuality and coming out.