There was barely anyone on the highway. Tony felt it was a mixed blessing: he wanted to need to pay attention, to not think about things other than working within the flow of traffic, but he also wanted to get there quickly. He remembered something a teammate, Liam, had once told him: to be good, you have to always consider every possible outcome, but not expect any of them. Tony had thought, at the time, like it sounded like the kind of pseudo-philosophic crap that people spouted when they wanted to sound like they were saying something complex. Years later, though, and Tony had understood it. It was about knowing what could happen, every possibility, but preparing for there to be something, something probably worse, that you’d been unable to imagine.
“What the fuck?” Marissa had been naked, hair still dripping from the shower. “Seriously. What. The. Fuck.”
In his head, Tony ran through all the possibilities that could’ve made her jump out of the shower to yell at him. There weren’t many answers to the equation. “Uh?”
“Your phone. Your fucking phone.” And then he noticed it in her hand, as she jabbed it at him accusingly. He must have left his phone in the bathroom, sitting on the counter, allowing it to do something that turned Marissa into a wet ball of rage.
“My phone did what?”
“No putting the blame on your phone. My phone did it. It wasn’t me.” Marissa shoved the phone at him. Instinctively, he grabbed it. There were seven missed calls. All from Gia.
“Whoa, whoa, Riss. This isn’t what you think,” he began.
Marissa was already turning back to the bathroom. “What am I thinking? Because what I had been thinking was that you told me you talked to her about calling us. About asking for things.”
“I didn’t start this. I didn’t call her,” Tony said. But he could already feel his fingers itching to hit the Call Back button.
“But, you’re going to call her back. You’re going to get her out of whatever shit she’s in. And we’re going to be down…Whatever. Money. Sanity. Time. Whatever she needs.” Marissa’s shoulders slumped, the rage leaving her body. She stepped into the bathroom, quietly shutting the door, before he could answer.
When she was five, Gia saved Tony’s life. He was one, crawling on the floor and popped a button in his mouth. His mother, on the phone, never saw it. Gia did. She was playing with her Barbie and saw him cough, go red. She ran to him and copied something she had seen on a TV show that she probably wasn’t supposed to be watching. The button came out. Tony lived. Their mother swept them both into her arms.
The story was so intrinsic to their family, so trotted out at every gathering, that Tony could picture it even though he had no memory of the event. In his mind, he saw himself on the floor. He saw Gia run to him, acting so quickly that it seemed as if she was possessed. What five-year-old knows to perform the Heimlich? Knows to do it so gently that the baby is unharmed? He saw the button fly, black and shiny with spit, through the air. And Gia held him for a moment longer as he burst into infuriated squalls, as his mother ran to them.
Tony always thought of the button first whenever he thought of Gia. In the hospital, after one of her events, he would think of the button as he talked to the doctors. He would think of the button as he signed papers, agreeing to pay her bills.
His sister was not a healthy woman. Not sound of mind, their mother said. She said that was a kinder phrase than “mentally imbalanced.” When Tony was a teen, he pictured the phrase as someone tapping on Gia’s head with a little drumstick. The sound it made was like a shrieking, like the clattering of a glass falling into a sink.
“Hey, Tony, Tony, Tony,” her voice was high, breathing clipped.
“Gia,” Tony said.
“I called you, you so many times. Ringing and you not picking up,” Gia accused.
“I didn’t have my phone on me, Gia. What’s up?” He kept his voice calm, breathing in and out loudly so that she could hear how breathing was supposed to sound.
“You need to pick me up.” Gia never phrased requests as if they were her own. “I’m at this hotel, no motel, no. Wait. What’s the difference? Which one is ‘h’ and which one is ‘m’?”
“Well, the ‘m” has three curves down and the—” he began.
She laughed. Her laugh was disorienting: like someone screaming but thinking they were having a good time. “Shut up. I’m at the one where you pay by the week and the soap isn’t fancy, it’s just those little white blocks and there isn’t even a name on it. Like it has no brand?”
“I think that’s a motel, Gia.”
“Well, then, I’m at a motel and you need to pick me up.”
“I didn’t even know you were in town. But okay.” It was easy enough. He’d pick her up. He’d take her to their mothers. Then they’d decided whether she needed to be checked in somewhere.
“Okay, good. I’ll wait here.” Her breathing was still rushed.
“Now what’s the name of the motel?”
“It’s called the Ames Inn. Inn! That’s it. It’s not a hotel or a motel. An inn.” So pleased. Her breathing slowed finally.
“Ames?” Tony could already hear Marissa. The way she’d say his name, the mix of sadness and anger. “As in Ames, Iowa?”
“Yeah. Duh. Where’d you think I was?” Gia began to hum.
“I… I thought you were in Madison. Here. Home.”
“Why’d I need to be picked up, then? Sometimes you’re just so dumb, Tony. I hate to say it, you know I love you, but it’s like you don’t have any sense.” Gia sighed. In another life, it would be fun to hear the exasperated older-sister-tone in her voice. In another life.
“It’ll take me a bit to get there. But I’m on my way. Just stay there.” He hung up. He wondered about calling his mother. Then he thought of how drained she had looked over the past few years—the way her strong jawline had been so permanently set into a frown that it now looked more severe than majestic, the white that creeped into her hair. He’d call her once he knew what was what.
The drive was almost five hours and it was already three PM. He thought about just leaving Marissa a letter, letting her come home to him gone and a sweet note. But, he thought there was a good probability that he’d come home to divorce papers, his key no longer opening their front door, even a slight chance of his clothes sitting out in the parking lot. So he left her a voicemail, instead.
He’d been to Ames a few times. Back in college, they’d played against the Cyclones a few times. He never quite got the team mascot: a bird named after a tornado. Shouldn’t it have just been a personified tornado? That would’ve made more sense. In the Sweet 16 the year of the Final Four, he’d even become friend with the Cyclone’s point guard—Marcus. He liked that about basketball; it always seemed less antagonistic than other sports.
Marcus wrote him a long e-mail after the loss, later, said some kind things that he seemed like he meant. Tony had appreciated the thought, the general decency, but had never written back. Not out of choice, but out of Gia. By the time, she’d gotten through the flip-out she’d been working on, it felt weird to write back.
The drive was easy enough: lot of flat, flat, flat, and then some fields. He stopped in Dubuque for gas and a chalupa from Taco Bell. It tasted like salt, grease, and things he’d rather not think about. The sky was already going dark and he still had three hours to go.
He wondered what some of his former teammates were doing with their lives, he’d fallen out of touch with so many people over the years. Marissa had kept in closer contact with some, the other player girlfriend’s she’d been friends with, but she rarely spoke about them—other than an occasional did you hear Lonna Blake had a baby? or have you seen how chunky Gretchen Iles got? She was so fucking skinny. And now look at her!
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the bridge, lit up and filled with a slow progression of rush hour cars. The way the lights bounced down to the water below made him think of gemstones.
Tony was seventeen, the first time that Gia threw herself from something. She’d been acting strange that whole year, even before having graduated from college in the spring. Gia, up to that point, had just been his big sister—sweet, feisty with their mother, gregarious. There’d been signs of trouble that they never really thought to much of: a penchant for strange dreams, screaming nightmares more than occasionally. But nothing that seemed worrisome, nothing that seemed serious.
Later, her college roommate would tell them how she’d found Gia one morning weeping in their kitchen. Her whole body was shaking, and she was pounding on the floor, so hard her hands were leaving bloody marks. I thought she was possessed.
He was practicing his jump shot in the driveway, when his mother came running out. She was a beautiful woman, stately some people called her, but in that moment she looked like she’d been dead a week and had just crawled out of her own grave.
“Mama?” he said. And, even years later, he would remember how soft, squeaky his voice came out.
“We’ve got to go, Tony. Gia…She…” His mother shook it off, went to the car, and he followed her.
They didn’t talk the whole drive. His mother clutched the steering wheel, knuckles so white that they didn’t look like they could belong to the rest of her body. Tony felt his stomach clenching up, worse than the worst gas cramps he’d ever had. He’d get used to the feeling, eventually.
The bridge wasn’t a particularly tall one and the river wasn’t one that rushed and raged. Still. It was a bridge. It was a river. There was a drop from one to the other. Gia was on the railing, standing up, her feet bare, toes curled slightly around the metal bar. People were all around. A cop car had its lights flashing, though the siren was off.
They got out of the car and ran up to the bridge.
“Gia!” His mother yelled. “Gia!”
Gia didn’t turn, she pushed herself upwards, almost on tiptoes. It’d’ve looked almost extraordinarily impressive and athletic if it wasn’t so bottom-of-the-stomach frightening.
“Gia…” Tony meant to shout, but his voice came out a whimper.
Still Gia heard him, she turned. A skillful spin. “Save me,” she said.
And then she leaned backwards and was gone.
Tony’s phone rang. He glanced at the Caller ID: Marissa. Pulling over, he answered. “Hey.”
“Tony.” She said his name like it was an elongated sigh.
“I’m sorry, babe. I can’t not.” They’d had the fight a few times. Marissa had loved his sister at first, during Gia’s good years. Gia would visit and do Marissa’s hair. The two of them like sisters, giggling and gossiping.
The first time there was an episode, Marissa had cried. She’d been so worried. The second time, she’d still cried. By the seventh, when Tony was at another hospital, talking to another doctor about why his sister wouldn’t stay on her medication, Marissa hadn’t even come with him. Tony, she needs to take her pills. To have some goddamn accountability. It’s not just her life. There’s you and your Mom and Gia acts like a child refusing her fucking penicillin.
“You have to stop, Tony.” Marissa’s voice shook. “She’s your sister, but she’s never going to stop ruining your life. She’s like a walking emergency room.”
“She’s my sister, Riss. That should be enough for you,” he said.
“One day, you’re not going to get there fast enough. You know that, right? One day you’re not going to save her and you’re going to feel so guilty and it will break you and she won’t care. She’ll be gone and she won’t care what she’d left behind.” Marissa’s voice cracked, congested sounding, weak.
Tony hung up.
“They make me dream in black and white,” Gia had said. Tony was twenty and it was basketball season and he needed to get out on the court for practice or coach would cut his minutes.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The pills, they take all the color out of my dreams and, sometimes, Tone, I’m walking outside and I think I hear something. It’s like a car beeping, you know, like when you left your keys in the ignition and it’s that beep beep beep? And then I realize that its birds singing and their songs sound mechanical and I know that it’s the pills. That they’re slipping into reality and they’re draining every day, too, and not just my dreams. Do you know what I mean?” Gia’s voice sounded like an empty room: hushed but waiting to be filled with life.
Tony wanted to answer her right. But he saw a teammate, Liam, poking a head into the locker room, eyes worried. Liam motioned with his head, a single jerking movement, for Tony to get out there.
“Gia, I’m going to think about that. I’m going to see if I can figure out what you mean and then I’m going to call you back, okay?”
“Okay, brother. Call me back. Play hard. Win games. Be exceptional.” It used to be a joke between them: who could say the most platitudes at the end of phone calls.
“Love you, sis,” Tony said.
“Love you, love you,” she replied. He didn’t know if she was still playing the game.
It took him awhile to find the Ames Inn. The city was more built up then he remembered and the Inn was tiny, nondescript. He called her to get the room number but she didn’t pick up. The cramping in his stomach almost didn’t hurt anymore.
In the main office, the woman behind the desk looked like she belonged in a movie about stereotype librarians. She even had her glasses on a chain around her neck.
“I’m looking for my sister. She said she was staying here. Gia Carrola?” he said.
“She’s in room eight. She’s your sister?” The woman looked him up and down, not suspicious but something else.
“My big sister, yeah.”
“Is she alright?” the woman asked. Her voice soft, worried, hoping to help.
“Sometimes,” Tony said. He turned and left.
Room Eight was the last one in the first-floor hall. He knocked on the door.
Once, when he was twelve, he’d woken up to find Gia in his bedroom. She was sitting on the corner of his bed. It was before everything. When they were still just a normal family, or as normal as any families ever are.
“What’s up?” he mumbled. He wanted to go back to sleep, go back to dreaming of the NBA team he’d one day play on.
“I had a bad dream. You were turned into a tree and I couldn’t find you. I was in this whole big forest and there were so many trees and I couldn’t find which one was you. Somebody had said you were a you-tree and that didn’t seem helpful at all,” Gia said. Her voice shook, like she was about to cry, but her face was dry.
“No, Gia, a yew tree. Y-E-W. It’s a specific kind of tree. I know what they look like.” He yawned, not covering his mouth.
Gia laughed, the shake gone. “Tony, I needed you in my dream. You could’ve helped me find you!”
He laughed, though he wasn’t sure why. It was just like he needed to be laughing with her. She stood up, punching him once lightly on the shoulder, and then she left. He fell back into his dreams easily.
He knocked on the door. Gia opened it slowly. She looked worse than ever: hair unwashed and everywhere, the sleeves of her shirt were ratted from fretting, the skin around her eyes was so dark it looked like she’d been punched.
“You came,” she said. She stood back, so that he could walk inside the room. It smelled like Gia had been there awhile: sweat and stale grease from leftover fast food. She walked to the bed and sat down on it. He followed her, sitting down on the very edge of the mattress. The blankets were strewn about in tangled heaps. It looked like she fought people in her sleep.
“What do you need Gia?” he asked.
They sat in silence for a few moments. He noticed her fingers playing with something.
“What do you got, Gia?”
She held up a button. It was black and shiny and for some reason, if he had to guess, he’d say that it was the button from a coat.
He reached to take it from her but she shook her head. She opened her mouth and put the button on her tongue, like a flat piece of licorice. “Can you save me?”
He nodded and, so, she swallowed.