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From The Prettiest Star

Excerpted from The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels, to be published by Hub City Press on May 19, 2020.




he killer whales are the most misunderstood of the whales. To begin with, although everyone calls them whales, they’re actually dolphins. For hundreds of years, people believed killer whales were man-eaters. It’s not true. They don’t attack humans. Killer whales travel in pods, and hunt, play, and rest together. In the wild, the females can live up to a hundred years. A mother’s offspring stays with her for life. They mourn their dead. 

My mother fakes interest. Something is wrong. She hardly ever comes downstairs except to do laundry, and she’s not much of a TV watcher. 

“Would you look at that?” she says, eyes on the screen. “How can that be real?”

The show has moved on to blue whales, the biggest mammal on earth. One parts the ocean like a giant submarine. A close-up shows its enormous battle-scarred body, all the nicks and healed-over cuts and scrapes, cement-colored barnacles clinging to it like clusters of dead flowers. Bigger than any of the dinosaurs, the man says in his calm voice. Its heart is the size of a Volkswagen Bug. Facts I already know. When I was little, I poured over the pictures in The Sea, part of a collection of books from the Life Nature Library my grandmother gave me and my brother one Christmas. We also had Early Man, The Mammals, The Universe. I saw my first episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau when I was four or five, and after that, I was hooked. I want to be a marine biologist, but I live in Ohio. I’ve never even been to the ocean. 

I reach into the box of Cheez-Its. 

“You’re going to ruin your supper,” my mother says.  

My mother doesn’t eat junk food and she’s always on a diet, even though she isn’t fat, not like my aunts. I’m not either, but I’m plump—that was what one of my Sunday school teachers said about me. Plump is a horrible word. Like chunky. My mother is pretty, everyone thinks so. She looks like a movie star in one of those old black-and-white movies that run on Saturday afternoons, when nothing else is on except baseball or kung-fu.

“Jess, honey, there’s something I need to tell you.”

This was what she sounded like the day she told me about sex. When a man and woman love each other, when they’re married, she’d started, using the same teacher-voice she’s using now, and I wanted to die, hearing my mother say the word penis. 

“What?” I ask. The orange crackers are the size of postage stamps and I drop them one at a time in my mouth, splintering and crushing them with my teeth. 

The corners of her lips lift, but they are pressed too tightly to turn into a smile. She’s still wearing her work clothes—ironed tan slacks, a navy blouse with a scooped neck—and her makeup is soft around the eyes. Unlike my grandmother, my mother believes makeup shouldn’t call attention to itself, but only be used to “enhance” natural beauty. When I turned fourteen, she told me I was allowed to wear blush and lip gloss, but I hardly ever put it on—I don’t look right in it, not like the girls at school. 

“It’s about your brother,” she says.

“Brian?” I ask stupidly, as if I have more than one.

“He’s coming home.”

My mother’s eyes, a light brown like watered-down Pepsi, the same color as mine, glisten, but no tears fall. She tells me he’ll be here this weekend. 

“To visit?” I ask. “To stay?”

A little sigh escapes, her shoulders sink. “We don’t know yet.” 

I have a million questions and she says we’ll talk more during supper, after my father gets home. She needs to check on the meatloaf, she says. She kisses me on the forehead, and the fruity, soapy scent of Charlie, her work perfume, lingers after she’s gone. 

The invisible man on TV, in his trusting, all-knowing voice, explains they still don’t know where the blue whales go to breed, somewhere deep in the ocean that scientists can’t pinpoint. As a marine biologist, I will work for National Geographic or NOVA. I’ll go out on a boat in the middle of the ocean, no sign of land for miles. Blue, more blue. Brian and I used to watch Jacques Cousteau together. One time he brought home the record Songs of the Humpback Whale, and we listened to it stretched out on our backs across the carpet, pretending we were floating in the sea. 

I dust off my hands. My mouth tastes salty and dry. A sperm whale lifts its gigantic, wrinkled head out of the dark water, and then the screen goes to static. The tape ran out before the show ended. I curl my knees up to my chest, wrap my arms around them. Suddenly, I feel very small. I haven’t seen my brother since I was eight years old. 

Sometimes Brian would let me come in his room and we’d listen to records and play Go Fish. Candles dripping wax. David Bowie singing about moonage daydreams and outer space and a starman. Thick, flowery scent of incense. Brian blew cigarette smoke out the cracked windows, talked about California, New York. Dream states, he said, where people went to be free.

After he left, my parents told me he was away at college. I didn’t know anyone who’d gone to college, and I believed them for a couple years—until my grandmother told me the truth: he’d gone to New York, which to most people in Chester made about as much sense as saying you were going to live on Mars. If you left, you’d meet the same fate as Major Tom in his tin can. There are other stories about him too. 

When I was younger, I told kids at school about the movie stars and rock singers he hung out with, the parties, the money. I never knew any of this. I made up a life for him. I had to. Because he just disappeared. Like those missing kids on milk cartons. But nobody kidnapped him. He just went. My parents, except for those early lies about college, don’t talk about him. Nobody does except for my grandmother. She tells me stories about my brother and has never doubted one day he’d come back home. 



I walk home the long way, listening to a mix tape on my Walkman, old and new stuff. “Live to Tell,” “Hold Me Now,” “What Have You Done Me Lately,” “I Would Die 4 U.” When I’m wearing the soft foam headphones over my ears, the voices carry me outside of dinky, dead-end Chester, outside of myself to some better place that’s big and goes on forever, like the ocean.

On the bridge I stop and look over. Five feet below Buckeye Creek cuts a jagged line through Chester, but it’s easy to forget it’s even here—it’s like a country road or the train tracks, the same old thing you see every day. Nothing ever happens in Chester. The dark greenish water sweeps twigs and a dented Pepsi can downstream. 

“What are you doing?”

Brandy White and two girls who never talk to me cross the street. I press pause.

“Nothing,” I say, hoping they didn’t see me spit over the ledge like a boy. I feel self-conscious in my gray sweatpants. “I just had softball practice,” I explain. 

The only reason I joined the team was to make my father happy. I used to do okay when I played summer league—nobody hit very well, and it didn’t matter if we won or not, the coaches always took us out for ice cream after. But in high school the girls play fast-pitch and they’re scary-serious. I rarely even swing, and if I do, I usually just smack air.  

“Oh, that,” Brandy says.

Brandy is a cheerleader, not a jock. She wears tight icy-blue jeans, a turquoise shirt with the collar popped, ankle-high black boots. She’s with Steph Patterson and Angie Ray, juniors, who looked totally bored, like if I were to fall over the side into the creek they wouldn’t bat an eye. Brandy White and I used to be friends. She’s a couple years older than me, but that never mattered until high school. 

Brandy isn’t pretty—pug nose, thin lips—but she’s skinny and has big boobs and a loud, teasing laugh that calls the boys to her. Her hair is big too, reddish-blond, like a lion’s mane. She paints her nails dark cherry, and wears hoops the size of shower curtain rings in her ears. Her purple purse, with a bow tie on the front, looks new. I know it holds cigarettes and cinnamon gum and teal-colored mascara and tampons and notes from friends and notes from boys. 

“We’re going to Rudy’s,” Brandy says. Then she surprises me. “Want to come?”

I should say yes, grateful she’s inviting me, but I know they are not going to Rudy’s to eat pizza—they’re going to meet up with boys, and they’ll joke and flirt in some language I don’t know how to speak.

“I can’t,” I say.

A horn beeps and we all turn, them with eager, flirty smiles, expecting a carload of boys. But it just happens to be my grandmother in her butterscotch Crown Victoria. The Queen’s Ship, my father calls it.

“Hey, girls.” She leans out the open window, cracking her gum. Her puffy, hard black hair sparkles in the sunlight. “How are you, Miss Brandy?” 

“Good,” Brandy says, her face turning up in a big smile that might be real, or maybe not. Brandy’s aunt used to live next door to my grandmother, and whenever Brandy’s mother went on a tear—going out to a bar to look for a man, according to Mamaw—then Brandy would stay at her aunt’s, and come over to my grandmother’s to play. We’d read supermarket tabloids and try on Avon eye shadow and lipstick samples. Brandy wanted to be a model. The next Christy Brinkley.

“You girls want a ride?”

Brandy says no thanks, they’ll walk. She catches up to her friends, and I toss my duffle bag in the backseat and dust off the bottoms of my tennis shoes before I get in. My grandmother does not allow eating or drinking in the Ship, but she does allow herself to smoke. The inside smells just like her, cigarettes and hairspray and whatever Avon perfume she is wearing. They all have different names—Timeless, Candid, Here’s My Heart, Moonwind, Sweet Honesty—but smell about the same, so strong that if you stand too close when she sprays her neck, your eyes will water. 

She’s wearing slacks and a pleated blouse, and clip-ons that look like big teardrops. I glance down at the navy one-inch heels, her going-out shoes. 

“Why are you all dressed up?” 

“Oh, I drove Helen over to Madison for her doctor appointment, and then we had lunch at this new Mexican place. Helen had never had Mexican before and she didn’t know what in the world to make of it. But she ate every bite. We had ourselves a big time.”

My grandmother is always chauffeuring somebody around, one of her church or bingo friends. She has never lacked for friends. I wonder if she was popular in high school, like Brandy White. Or like my mother, who was also a cheerleader. 

“Honey, you could have gone with those girls,” she says. 

“We’re not really friends.”

She clucks her tongue. “Why, I thought you was.”

“No, not really. Not anymore.”

I only have a few friends. They’re benchwarmers, same as me. We aren’t popular but we don’t get picked on either—nobody notices us, thank God. We eat lunch together and sometimes hang out after school, but we don’t trust each other with secrets the way best friends do. Today, I almost made the mistake of telling Molly Williams about my brother coming back, but then Coach Feldon hit a fly ball that went sailing over my head and that broke the spell.

“Well, it’s probably better you’re not friends. That Brandy always has been wild. Gets it from her mother.” Wrapped over the steering wheel, Mamaw’s fingers glitter, a rainbow of gems and stones. She says she feels naked without her rings, like going out without her face on. “Why don’t you come over to my house? I made coffee cake.”

I’m nervous I’ll spill the secret, but I can’t think of a good excuse. Plus, once my grandmother gets her mind set on something, there’s no changing it.     

We sit in front of the TV with squares of coffee cake. My grandmother watches more TV than any grownup I know. She was one of the first in Chester to get a satellite dish, and the first in the family to own a VCR. 

As she flips channels, I look through her most recent National Enquirer. She’s been buying these for years. Brian used to read them aloud to me in a dramatic storytelling voice, weaving tales of plastic surgery, drug addiction, and divorce. 

“Oh, goody, it’s almost time for Naomi,” my grandmother says, and turns to channel 7.

On Location With Naomi is one of our favorite shows. It’s a talk show, like Sally Jessie Rafael or Phil Donahue, except that Naomi Cook travels to different places around Ohio to talk to people with a good tear-jerker story to tell, like women who finally broke free of abusive husbands, kids with brain tumors, or criminals who turned their lives around. My grandmother says one day the show will go national. “She’s going to be big,” she says. “Just you wait.”

Naomi, who my grandmother says must use good moisturizer because she is almost fifty and doesn’t have any wrinkles, always begins the show at the studio. She stands in the center of a stage wearing a milk-white double-breasted jacket with square shoulders, and matching pleated pants with a wide wrap belt. Her red hair lifts a few inches off her head and frames her face like a fluffy cat. 

“Today, we talk to a mother of three who lost practically everything. She was a Girl Scout troop leader, a PTA member. And she was addicted to barbiturates.” Naomi raises her eyebrows. “What happened? Where will she go from here?” 

“Ooh, this makes me think of that Rutherford woman up in Clark County. Naomi ought to do that story. I’m going to tell her about it.” Mamaw calls Naomi’s “Do You Have a Story to Tell” line regularly, but Naomi so far hasn’t taken any of her tips.  

“Jess, did you hear a word I just said?”

“What? Yeah.”

“You’re acting funny.”

I can’t stop thinking about Brian. His picture on the mantle looks right at me, like he’s trying to tell me something. Mamaw has family pictures all over—my aunts and uncles, and tons of cousins and second cousins, and old people I can’t tell apart. But this one of Brian, stuck in a fussy gold frame, is front and center. Mamaw has never said Brian is her favorite grandchild, but we all knew. Here, he looks like a movie star from the ’70s. Jean jacket, big-collar shirt with the top three buttons undone, and long feathered hair that he and my dad used to fight about. Brian inherited our parents’ good traits—our father’s blue eyes, our mother’s high cheekbones. A thin silver chain hits his bare chest where his shirt opens in a V. I wonder what he looks like now. 

Friends of the drug-addicted PTA mother tell Naomi they never would have expected this of her. “She’s a good woman,” they say. When Naomi interviews her, the woman dissolves into a crying mess. People always cry on her show. 

As the credits roll, Mamaw suggests we sit on the porch to watch the world go by. There isn’t much to see. Two shirtless guys bend over the hood of a red Trans Am, a cluster of empty beer cans at their feet, and a little boy with a dirty face rides a girl’s bike up and down the sidewalk. Across the street, stooped, balding Betty Russell, in a housedress and slippers, sweeps her porch with a straw broom. 

“How are you doing, Betty?” Mamaw calls.

“Can’t complain,” she hollers back. “What about you?”

“No worse for the wear,” she says. My grandmother wouldn’t ever go out in public if she were to go bald. Not without a wig or a scarf. 

“There was one of them NOVA programs on the other night, did you see it?” she asks.

I tell her I taped it. She lights a cigarette. She doesn’t know what to make of me, wanting to be a marine biologist. “Why in the world would you want to be down there with them sharks and such?” she says. “They’ll eat you alive.” She doesn’t understand, but says she’s proud. “You’re smart, like your brother.” 

I used to think I’d get a job at SeaWorld, so I could train killer whales. There is a SeaWorld, if you can believe it, in Ohio—it’s up north, near Cleveland. My parents and grandmother took me for my twelfth birthday. We sat three rows from the front, and when Shamu, a 5,300-pound killer whale, leapt out the water, Mamaw screamed. Water splashed all over us. I’d never seen anything so perfect. But something about it bothered me too—a whale confined to a pool, taught to do tricks. Mamaw tried to make feel better about it. She said the whales were well cared for. 

“A whale needs to be in the ocean,” I said. “There is no ocean in Ohio.” 

“Well, maybe no ocean,” Mamaw said. “But they’s Lake Erie.”

We’re not out here long before Edna Davis, my grandmother’s next-door neighbor, comes over to gossip. My grandmother always has a story—so-and-so’s husband is messing around, so-and-so’s pregnant, so-and-so’s lost his job—and the women in town flock to her for the latest information. 

“Lotto’s up to three million today,” Edna says. “You better get you a ticket.” Edna is wide and tall, and looks like she’d make a good wrestler on WWF. She has curly gray hair she fluffs with a pick, and wears velour jogging suits most of the time. She used to be one of my grandmother’s most devoted Avon customers, and is still partial to shimmering electric blue eye shadow. 

“I played the numbers this afternoon,” Mamaw says. “Woo-wee, wouldn’t that be something.”

Edna’s a better audience than I am, and Mamaw tells her the story about the woman in Clark County selling drugs. 

I interrupt. “What kind of drugs?” In school we watch films about teenagers smoking angel dust, which makes them scratch their eyes out and leap from windows. Apparently, drugs are everywhere. I have never even been offered a joint. 

Mamaw narrows her eyes. “Well, Jess, for land’s sake, I don’t know what all kinds of drugs. Probably marijuana.”

“Cocaine,” Edna says. “I heard tell it’s spreading into small towns.” 

Car doors slam, screen doors rattle. People are getting home from work. They fuss in their yards or sit on their front steps with a cigarette and a beer. Tomorrow, my brother will be here. I look over at my grandmother, the secret like a grain of sugar on the tip of my tongue. She taps her cigarette against the green glass ashtray, sprinkling feathers of ash on the 7UP decal in the center, and shakes her head, still thinking about the drugs. 

“I’ll tell you what, sometimes I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

Join Carter Sickels and OA Executive Editor Sara A. Lewis for a live webchat about this story on Friday, April 3rd at 1pm (CDT) via Zoom! 

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Carter Sickels

Carter Sickels is the author of the novel The Prettiest Star (Hub City Press), winner of the 2021 Southern Book Prize and the Weatherford Award for Appalachian fiction. His debut novel The Evening Hour was adapted into a feature film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and is now streaming. His writing appears in the Atlantic, Poets & Writers, BuzzFeed, Guernica, Joyland, and Catapult. Carter teaches at Eastern Kentucky University.