When I crooked my neck to check on my six-year-old daughter Maggie, I found her standing in the aisle near a tidy swim trunk display. She peered up through curls of overgrown bangs at a young male mannequin. His fiberglass face reflected the overhead fluorescent lights, and he smiled down at her while she held his hand.
She wasn’t reaching out, as one might expect, holding the hand just past the teal striped beach towel draped over his arm. That hand was missing. Missing because Maggie held his boy-sized hand, disembodied, in her own.
Eyes wide, I whipped my head around, dropped an armload of swimsuits, and, panicking, spun full circle to see who saw us. But we were alone in the children’s section.
The reprimands on my tongue slid down my throat. I couldn’t really blame her. She wasn’t the only one who wanted something to hold on to.
I swallowed hard and knelt beside her. “If you don’t want to go to the lake party, we can skip it,” I said, secretly pleading. She didn’t respond, and I didn’t know if that was because she didn’t want to go or because she did want to go but didn’t have anything to wear since I couldn’t find a mermaid swimsuit in her size. We hadn’t been back to the lake since her brother Jake fell overboard, and she’d grown so much she needed a new one.
She didn’t say anything, but she tugged a solid one-piece from the pile I had dropped to the tile floor when I noticed the hand, nearly his size. She held the suit out toward me and I took it. I reached for the hand in hers, which we should have returned because it wasn’t ours. But she squeezed it tight to her chest. Looking at me, she nodded to the figure, a silent cue: You can do this, too. When I hesitated, she reached for the mannequin’s wrist and showed me how to turn, turn, turn, keep turning. Before long, we walked side-by-side, each holding a hand, an invisible boy between us.
Jen Ippensen was a Mari Sandoz Emerging Writer in 2018. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic, Collective Unrest, and The Flat Water Rises. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. You can find her on Twitter @jippensen and at www.jenippensen.com.