In the Kelp Forest
by Rosemary Harp
Tess Chen is in high demand as a pet sitter around Arriba Circle. She can be trusted with feeding schedules and keys. She does not snoop or help herself to popsicles. Since summer vacation began, she has looked after a middle-aged cat, a clutch of frantic and incestuous hamsters, and Jorie Wexler’s black and yellow ball python. The python job was the easiest and the hardest: the snake only needed to be fed once a week but it ate frozen mice the Wexlers kept in a Ziploc bag in the spare freezer in their garage. One week Tess dropped a frozen mouse and the tail broke off the rigid body when the corpse bounced on the concrete floor. Tess didn’t mind picking up the mouse so much—after all, she’d just plucked it from the freezer bag—but touching the lone, fleshy tail filled her with dread, as if the tail might somehow reanimate and begin wriggling between her thumb and forefinger.
Her current job watching Cricket, the arthritic spaniel across the street, is her best yet. At ten dollars a day for three days it’s the most lucrative, and she really needs the money: if she earns $100 by August, she can enroll in the junior scuba course at Sacramento State. She has $60 so far. Tess is going to be a marine biologist. Underwater everything is softly muffled and diffuse; on land, under the pitiless sun, life feels to Tess jarring and amped up. When she can’t sleep at night, she imagines herself swimming through a kelp forest. Scuba lessons are the first step to a refuge among the gently waving kelp and glimmering schools of yellowtail.
Plus, taking care of Cricket gives Tess a legitimate reason to walk past Sven Ragnarsson’s house three times a day. Three times a day she crosses the tarry asphalt in an agony of wondering. Will Sven be standing in his front yard swinging a tennis racquet at nothing? Swimming quiet laps in the backyard? Practicing? When she hears the reedy strains of his oboe seeping out his closed bedroom window over the diligent hum of a hundred neighborhood air conditioners, she knows she will not see him and goes about her business with Cricket more quickly, while still being careful to follow Mrs. Kipps’ instructions.
Stacey Kipps, in Tess’ class at Sutter Middle School, is a cheerleader, but not the kind who shakes a couple perky pompoms and chants, “Be aggressive! Be, be aggressive!” in the direction of a twelve-year-old quarterback. Stacey competes throughout California doing harrowing routines where she tops human pyramids and gets tossed skyward by other tiny but startlingly powerful girls. Tess has seen the cheer team perform on the local public access cable channel.
For years Tess and Stacey scrambled across Arriba Circle, drank lemonade from each other’s refrigerators without asking, whispered urgent secrets into each other’s ears, and once whipped each other into such a fit of hilarity Stacey peed her pants and they were asked to leave the public library, which they did without a trace of shame, still laughing and clutching each other, a faintly swampy scent coming from Stacey’s damp Guess jeans.
Stacey doesn’t invite Tess over anymore. There was no falling out, just a slow attrition Tess had no control over that lasted all of sixth grade. Stacey declined most, then all, invitations from Tess, but for a while returned about half of Tess’s phone calls—a maddening pattern Tess could not decode. After each of these infrequent conversations, Tess lay on the floor in her bedroom trying to identify what she’d said that was stupid or objectionable. When she finally worked up the courage to ask Stacey if she’d done something wrong, Stacey replied in a bright, hard voice that, no, she’d just been really, really busy. Then came the day in seventh grade when the two girls passed each other in the halls of Sutter Middle and Stacey looked away. It was around that time Tess started thinking about the kelp forests with their dappled light.
Stacey cried when she said goodbye to Cricket: apparently this parting was hard on her. She did not acknowledge Tess’s presence in her kitchen.
“You be good while I’m gone, Crickety-crick,” Stacey said and buried her face in the old dog’s liver colored neck while Tess reviewed the details of Cricket’s care one last time with Mrs. Kipps.
Tess wants to be the kind of girl who likes dogs, but she isn’t. Girls who like dogs, Tess believes, hug their friends whenever they meet, even when they just saw each other a couple hours ago. They make colorful bracelets of complexly knotted string, exchange them with each other, and wear them on their bare ankles. They play soccer and have matching shin guards. Tess does not make or exchange—she can hardly bear to call them by name—friendship bracelets. Tess likes making odd little sculptures out of feathers and glue and glossy hard candies. She likes Trivial Pursuit. Tess reads the game cards to herself at the kitchen counter. She is careful to slide the cards she has read into the back of the box so they will not appear during a real game, which would pose an ethical problem.
The air shimmers above Arriba Circle’s asphalt surface. Tess can feel the heat through the thin rubber soles of her sneakers. No Sven. She keys into the Kipps’s house, which is an exact copy of her own and Sven’s and every other house on Arriba Circle: three bedrooms, a combined kitchen-dining room, and a living room, all one on floor. And every house has its own small pool. If you were to fly high above the neighborhood, it would look like that monster from Greek mythology, the one with a hundred watery blue eyes.
Cricket lifts herself one shuddering leg at a time to a standing position, trembles with pleasure, and limps over to Tess. When Cricket approaches Tess with her eager tail and dripping smile, Tess’s limbs go stiff, but not with fear. In the syncopated rhythm of panting and wagging, she hears, “I want, I want, I want.” It is for this open, exposed wanting that Tess cannot forgive dogs.
Tess refills Cricket’s water, places four ice cubes in the bowl, and portions out exactly half a cup of dry food. The dog eats and drinks gratefully. Tess removes Cricket’s leash from the hook by the kitchen door, but does not take Cricket out right away. Instead she walks through the Kipps’s living room and down the long, thickly carpeted hallway to Stacey’s room.
Stacey’s room is pristine. Tess’s room, though architecturally identical to Stacey’s, is always a disaster of shifting piles of books and half-filled diaries to which she has lost the key. Stacey’s Cabbage Patch Dolls and stuffed Care Bears are gone, Tess sees. So is Stacey’s rainbow bedspread, which has been replaced by a grown-up looking mauve one. Lying on the bedspread is one of Stacey’s green and gold cheer team uniforms. Tess holds up the sleeveless pleated dress and for an instant has a wild, un-Tess-like urge to try it on in front of Stacy’s gold-framed full-length mirror. But no, the dress will be far too small. Not for the first time Tess feels the genetic injustice here: she is Asian (half), but it is Stacey (“we might be Irish, maybe?”) who is tiny and lithe.
As she lays the dress back on the bed, Tess sees a matching mauve telephone on the nightstand. A roaring whirlpool of white noise fills her head as she wonders if the telephone has its own line. The idea that Stacey has her own phone number, one she has never shared with Tess, provokes her to a rage that gets its power from grief. She lifts the receiver and dials the Kipps family’s number, which she knows as well as her own. She can hear her breath amplified back to her. Sure enough, all the other telephones in the empty house cry out. Tess places the telephone back on its cradle slowly. The urge to destroy something, maybe the phone itself, rolls over her in waves, but as always she swallows her rage, forces it down, down, down until it sits like a sick animal in her stomach.
But then the Ragnarssons’ back door swings open and Sven stalks outside barefoot, wearing white shorts and a t-shirt that says FILA. For the moment, Tess forgets the private phone. Half-hidden behind gauzy curtains, she watches Sven sit on the edge of the pool with his legs dangling in the shallow end. His back is rounded over something. When he shifts position slightly, what Tess sees makes her breath trip in her lungs: the telltale, oblong blue box of Trivial Pursuit game cards. Sven pulls one. Reads. Flips the card. Reads. Flips it back. Here is method—ritual, even. Clearly he has done this before. The sickly weight in Tess’s stomach eases then morphs into a mad flutter.
“Cricket!” Tess calls. “Cricket, come!” She runs down the hall and back into the kitchen where Cricket snores raggedly on the tile.
“Let’s go out!” Tess jerks open the drawer under the microwave and there is Cricket’s supply of chewed-up tennis balls, same as ever. She shows Cricket a greenish-gray specimen.
“Look! Ball!” she says. “Do you want to play?”
Cricket gazes up at the ball, and at Tess, with a love that is limitless. She thumps her tail twice then stands.
“Good girl!” she trills. She sounds a bit crazed even to herself.
The Kipps’s back yard is shadeless and mostly devoted to cement pool deck, but a strip of grass runs alongside the chain-link fence that borders the Ragnarssons’ yard.
Tess tosses the ball. Cricket hobbles after it and plops it at Tess’s feet. After a few runs, Cricket warms up and moves more nimbly, like she’s tapping into reserves of youthful zest. When she drops the ball at Tess’s feet, Cricket tosses her head to request another round of the game. Tess looks over at Sven with each toss. He cannot ignore her forever. Or maybe he can. He reads and flips more Trivial Pursuit cards.
After fifteen tosses she calls, “That’s cheating, you know.”
Because Tess Chen is innately unable to flirt these words come out sounding less like cute teasing than the scolding of a disappointed librarian.
Sven looks up. He is not a kind boy, exactly, or a warm one, but he is honorable, and any questioning of his honor angers him.
“It is not. I put the cards in the back after I test myself. It’s no different than playing a real game.”
Tess tosses; Cricket runs.
“It is different,” she says. “In a real game you only see one question per card. You’re seeing all of them.” This has just occurred to her and she knows she’s in pot-kettle territory.
Toss. Retrieve. Cricket pants harder.
Sven stands. He crosses his arms over his chest and his legs drip on the patio. The water evaporates so fast it’s as if the dark circles on the pale cement were never there. Almost everything makes him mad, Tess thinks. It’s fascinating to her that such a quiet person should also be so stormy.
“Come play me, then, if you’re such an expert,” he says.
“Ok,” she says, as though this isn’t the single most amazing thing she could conceive of. She walks around to the gate.
Here are the things Tess loves about Sven Ragnarsson: everything. To be more specific, she loves his blonde curls. When they loop down around his ears he will get them shorn off and start all over again. She can predict within thirty-six hours when the haircut will happen. She loves that he wears shorts even on the coldest days in January. She loves that he is descended from Vikings. She loves that he can build or fix absolutely anything. She loves his oboe. She even loves, or maybe she especially loves, that he isn’t very nice to her. Although, and she treasures this memory, when Trevor Dixon called her “half-breed,” Sven clenched his fists and said, “shut up!” with a fury that surprised everyone on the school bus—Tess most of all.
Sven’s parents are a matched set of large, blonde, NPR-listening Minnesotan transplants, the only other people in the neighborhood, besides the Chens, who compost. Her parents privately poke fun at the Ragnarssons for being such square, solid, Midwestern-type citizens. The Chens pride themselves on being old Berkeley hippies. Like her parents, the Ragnarssons are Democrats, rare in their Sacramento exurb, and this gives Tess a safe feeling of solidarity in this Orwellian election year. Whenever Tess sees Mrs. Ragnarsson she feels a shy, semi-hysterical compulsion to confess: I love your son, have loved him my whole life.
Sven sets up the board on the table by the pool.
“What color do you want to be?”
“Blue,” she says. Sven pauses like he’s about to object, like he wants to be blue or maybe just wants to fight her for it on principle, but then closes his lips over his braces. He selects yellow for himself and they begin.
“What is the capital of Yugoslavia?”
“Who sang ‘My Way’?”
“Who was executed by burning on May 30, 1431?”
“Who created the character Tom Sawyer?”
They move their little pie pan-shaped game pieces around the board. When Sven thinks a question is too easy, an affront to them both, he clutches his stomach and rocks forward groaning. Tess is so charmed by this gesture she considers making up questions like “what color do you get when you mix yellow and blue?” or “what country fought in the American Civil War?” so he’ll do it again.
Sven pushes play on a portable cassette deck and Tess recognizes one of her favorite albums. Tess believes only obscure bands from England with gloomy young frontmen and a heavy dependency on synthesizers are valid. It’s interesting to think that maybe Sven shares this view.
“You’re dogsitting Cricket?” he asks.
“Yeah, they’re away at one of Stacey’s cheer competitions.”
Tess realizes as the words leave her mouth that it was a tactical error to put Sven in mind of Stacey and cheerleaders.
But with a noise like “Mhhh” Sven dismisses all cheer-related activities, rolls the die, and counts out spaces.
“Ha, I can get the green wedge,” he says. But he doesn’t know the name of Jacques Cousteau’s boat and the game goes on. When Tess rests her forearms on the surface of the table, she has to pull them away quickly because the metal is so hot. The needle on the Ragnarssons’ big, round-faced thermometer claims it’s 137 degrees, but the thermometer sits in the direct sunlight and can’t be correct.
“Hang on. My brain is overheating. Ozone layer depletion,” Sven says. He slides out from the table, kneels by the pool, and dunks his head. He rises and gives his curls a doggish shake, intentionally spraying needles of water at Tess, who does not give him the satisfaction of squealing.
She decides to dunk her head, too. She sets her glasses by the pool’s edge and submerges her entire head into that womb-warm, chlorine-blue world. She used to swim here with Sven when they both needed inflatable water wings and he still had an older brother. Tess remembers Mats Ragnarsson only hazily: a bigger, darker, sweeter version of Sven. In her memory, he stands on his hands underwater and his long, upturned legs wave in the harsh sun.
“Let’s go,” Sven calls. Tess hears him above the soothing hum of the filter and yanks herself back into the blinding world. In the Kipps’ backyard, Cricket wheezes. Tess sticks her head over the fence. Cricket lifts her head then lets it sink again. Her ribcage rises and falls.
“Come on,” says Sven. Tess turns from Cricket back to Sven.
Three to three, they play on.
In her newfound ease, Tess sings along with Sven’s music, which is also, amazingly, her music.
“You like Echo and the Bunnymen?” he asks her. She detects an incredulous note in his voice. Maybe some grudging respect, too.
“Most people only know their one hit,” He says.
Tess rolls her eyes to signal her disdain for hits and the people who like them. She is not a habitual eye roller and the operation makes the tricksy little muscles around her eyes ache briefly.
“Who directed the classic thriller ‘The Birds’?”
“What is the chief export of Nicaragua?”
“Who is known as The Belle of Amherst?”
With the Emily Dickinson question, on which Tess doesn’t skip the merest beat, she earns the brown wedge and pulls into the lead.
“Ugh!” Sven says.
In frustration real or playful—he is not a gracious loser—Sven reaches over and yanks her ponytail as he often did five years ago or more. First there is pain and then her body lights up with a million pricks of electricity that surge from her scalp down her spine then fizz like a Fourth of July sparkler in her toes. The pain is like the sudden, flooding memory of an old dream.
Hurting her, she somehow understands, has always been his excuse to touch her. To touch her gently would be against unnamable rules, but to pinch her, pull her hair, shove her is allowed. And to be touched by him is to know why she has skin.
“You have a lot of general knowledge,” he says.
“How old are you now?”
“Twelve,” she says. “but my birthday is in three weeks.”
He should know this, she thinks, because his birthday is exactly two years and ten days before hers and he attended her first eight birthday parties. Sven was born the day of the first moon landing, which seems to Tess cosmically apt—his birth a starry phenomenon, a giant leap for mankind. She wonders why he is asking her age and wonders if maybe he is doing the math on how soon they can get married. If they got married, they could play Trivial Pursuit every day.
“What are you going to do with the money? From all your pet sitting?” he asks.
So he has noticed her, she realizes, going around the neighborhood, unlocking doors, punching in alarm codes, steeling herself for frozen mice. She wants to tell him about the scuba course, maybe even the kelp forest, but also wants to keep it safe and private in case it’s contemptible. But Sven shrugged at the mention of cheerleading, said Tess knew a lot, and asked her age for mysterious reasons of his own. She has known him her entire life. So she goes ahead and tells him.
He rearranges the colored wedges in his game piece.
“Wait, but, are you good at math?”
Tess is not.
“I thought you were more like, I don’t know, creative,” he continues. “You need to be really excellent at math to be any kind of scientist.”
Tess is sinking now; the roaring white noise from Stacy’s bedroom is whirlpooling back into her head. Marine biologists are biologists. She knows that, of course, but at some point the image of herself suspended in the perfect peace of the kelp forest overrode the reality of science, with its calculations and data. Would she really want to study kelp? Or even marine animals? She’s not that interested in animals.
Then she thinks: Cricket.
She runs to the gate in the side yard that adjoins the Kipps’s yard, where Cricket is lying on the cement a foot from the pool. Tess recognizes the heaviness of Cricket, the way gravity is working on her, and knows the truth. Panic hits, then guilt, then more panic. She wants to call for Sven, but to address him by name, urgently and in need, is impossible.
Without being called, he comes over the fence. A hand flies up to cover the lower half of his face exactly the way her hand is covering the lower half of her face. They stand side by side.
“It’s not your fault. Cricket’s older than me, even. That’s almost a hundred in dog years,” he says.
But Tess is thinking about Cricket’s position by the pool and knows Sven sees what she sees: Cricket died trying to get to water.
“When do they get home?” he asks.
“We have to move her.”
Cricket is not heavy between the two of them, but there is the problem of limbs, the problem of tail. They find their stride. Cricket’s fur is warm against Tess’s bare arms. She remembers the pallbearers at Mats Ragnarsson’s funeral.
“We’ll go through the garage,” Sven says. But the garage door is locked. They shift Cricket’s weight and start again, this time for the back door. Tess slides an arm out from under Cricket’s midsection and tries the knob. It too is locked. In her excitement to get outside to Sven earlier, Tess locked herself and Cricket out of the Kipps’ house.
Sven swears. Tess has never heard him curse before and it’s a terrible and violent thing, a man’s anger rather than a boy’s. They set Cricket down.
“I can break in through the laundry room window,” Sven says. “I do it at home when I lock myself out. These houses are all the same.” He says the last part in disgust, like the sameness of their houses is a moral and aesthetic insult to him personally. Tess finds that sameness comforting.
He goes to the laundry room’s exterior wall and Tess follows. Sven rattles the window in a series of small, swift jerks until they hear a click. Sven slides the window open horizontally and pops out the screen.
“Cup your hands and boost me.”
Tess does. The weight of him, concentrated in one calloused and dusty bare foot, tugs at her hard. Then the weight disappears; Sven is up and through. He replaces and locks the breached window and reemerges from the kitchen door. They take Cricket once again.
“She usually stays in the kitchen, right?”
They lay Cricket on the cool tile by the refrigerator and survey. There is a crime scene grimness to the whole scenario.
“Maybe you should put some food in her bowl so it doesn’t look like you forgot to feed her,” Sven suggests. “No, don’t. It should look like she ate well. Stacey will freak out if she thinks Cricket died hungry.”
The mention of Stacey sends all of Tess’s blood to her feet. Dizzy, she plays out the scene where the Kipps family returns home, sleepy but happy, balancing multiple cheer trophies, to find Cricket inert on the kitchen floor. Stacey will gasp then sob. Blame will be promptly assigned. Stacey will never, ever phone her from the private line.
“I won’t tell,” he says.
She does know. That is the sort of boy he is. But she also knows that they won’t ever play Trivial Pursuit again.
“If they don’t pay you I can loan you money for your scuba course.”
“Thanks, but that’s ok,” Tess says. She is genuinely moved by this offer, but the scuba plan feels like something a stranger, or a much younger child, dreamed up.
Sven stares down at Cricket with his fists clenched.
“It’s their own fault for leaving the dog with a little girl,” he says to no one.
Tess wants only to get out of that kitchen, out of that house, but at the same time she knows that once she leaves there is no going back, ever. Sven goes first and Tess locks the door behind them. By the time she pockets the key, Sven is beyond the fence, in his own yard. He disappears through the door, identical to the open door Tess is standing in, identical to the back door to her own house. It’s like he was never there.
Rosemary Harp is a Chicago-based writer of fiction and essays. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from The University of Michigan and an M.A. in English Lit from the University of Virginia. Her writing has appeared in Mid-American Review, Motherwell, and other journals. She is working on her first novel.