THE EXPLODING GIRL • by Julia Gilmour

A heart lands softly on the ground below the monkey bars, a left arm sways back and forth on the swing set, and at the foot of the slide, a human head balances topside down.

She blinks.

Not again.

Delia told herself she would control her emotions this time, but here she is, dispersed around the playground like Firecracker Barbie.

She hears footsteps approaching. Somewhere, her stomach drops.

“Wow, Delia,” a familiar voice says.

“Ava?” Delia could cry with relief.

“I was hoping it wasn’t you,” Ava says.

Out of the corner of her eye, Delia sees the black and red plaid sneakers that littered their shared bedroom all last year. “You’re back from school,” Delia says. “Mom didn’t say you were coming.”

“She probably forgot.” Ava says. She picks up her little sister’s head and kisses her between the eyes. “Good to see you too, sis. Well, parts of you.”

“Can you put me back together?”

They spend the next hour finding her body parts and popping them back into place, like children restructuring a Mrs. Potato Head. When her last toe has been twisted back on, the two relax together on the swings in silence, letting the sunshine and light breeze wash away the morning. The wooziness in her head and the numbness in her body wears off and Delia starts to feel like her whole self again.

“What happened this time?” Ava asks.

“Same old,” Delia says.

Ava looks her up and down. “Let me guess,” she says. “The shorts.”

“Lipstick, actually. But I left before she could mention the shorts.”

“I’m assuming she didn’t come chasing after you, which means…”

“You haven’t seen her yet?”

“Not yet. I was driving around, working up the strength. Then I saw the explosion. You haven’t done this in ages. We all thought you grew out of it.”

Delia feels hot behind her ears. “I’ve been doing it a lot lately. I can’t control it. All the old techniques that Dr. Jay taught me don’t work anymore. Counting to ten. Breathing deep. Leaving the room. I’ve tried everything.” Delia kicks her feet and swings high, high, higher.

Ava realizes her sister doesn’t plan to come down, so she kicks her feet, too, and meets her in the sky. “Delia,” she says in the air. They swing low. “I know how you feel.” She digs her heels into the ground as her sister swings up.

Delia brings herself to a stop, the rubber burning the soles of her shoes. “How could you know how I feel? You never exploded.” Delia’s crying now.

“No, I never exploded,” Ava says. “But, don’t forget we grew up in the same house.”

“What do you mean?” Delia asks.

“You know how mom is missing her right pinky finger?”

“Yeah, in the sewing accident,” Delia says, wiping her eyes.

Ava grins. “Is that what she told you?”

Delia nods.

“No. One night, when you were staying at Dad’s, she found my stash of birth control pills. She started screaming at me and then she exploded. Right in front of me. It was the only time I’ve ever seen it happen to her. She went everywhere. I didn’t know what to do so I left. I spent the weekend at a friend’s house and when I came back Sunday night she was right where I had left her. Everywhere.”

“What did you do?”

“I felt guilty. I left my own mother shattered on the carpet for days. Here she was, the woman who was trying to raise me. She wasn’t going to get any Mom-of-the-Year awards, but she wasn’t exactly the worst either. So I put her back together, which was not easy. I didn’t know a thing about anatomy. We finished as the sun was coming up.”

“Did she ground you?”

“Of course.” Ava says. “But, she wasn’t angry anymore. It was like she just needed those days to reflect, time outside of herself to think, be still. I learned that giving her that time was the best thing I could have done.”

“And then she was okay with you taking the pill?”

“Our mother? No. But she didn’t stop me either.”

Delia looks at her hands and wiggles her fingers, newly thankful that they are all where they should be. “So you never found her pinky?” she asks.

“Oh, I found it.” Ava reaches into her purse and pulls out a small, clear jar, a wrinkled finger corked tightly inside. “I keep it on me as a reminder to stay calm and patient. And I guess it also makes me feel, in the tiniest of ways, that I won something. A reminder of my own dignity.”

Delia looks at the pinky, in awe of her sister’s secret. But she also aches for her mother’s pain. “I lost a mole once when I was seven,” Delia tells Ava. “I haven’t really felt like myself since.”

Ava places the jar in the palm of Delia’s hand. “Should we return it, then?” she asks.

The walk home from the park is too short, and soon the sisters are standing at the front door, bracing for what’s to come. The two step inside and are greeted by a mess of scattered body parts; sitting lopsided on the dining room table, her mother’s head.

“Delia, Ava, I’m so happy to see you girls,” her mother says. “Can you put your old mother back together?”

The pain of their fight this morning, inheriting this ailment, the embarrassment, it all comes flooding back to Delia. She holds the jar in her palm, feels her heart rate slow, listens to her breathing, clears her mind.

She feels calm.

Delia looks at Ava, who’s waiting for her to make a decision. Slowly, Delia drops the jar back into her sister’s purse.

Ava winks.

Delia’s hand glides over an earlobe stuck to the living room lamp, and in one smooth motion, she slips it into her back pocket.

“Sure, mom,” Delia says.

Julia Gilmour is a writer residing in Las Vegas. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.

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