An Excerpt From “The Dream of Doctor Bantam”

Jeanne Thornton’s novel The Dream of Doctor Bantam will be released next month by O/R Books. We are pleased to present an excerpt from it here.

When Tabitha Thatch argued, her little sister Julie always thought about cats. It was rare that Tabitha argued, much more common that she agreed to rules or demands her mother or the world imposed on her, then did the opposite of what she’d agreed to, but when she did argue her jaw relaxed open and her voice, high-pitched and ragged, folded in on itself in a hundred tissue paper layers of connotation, implication, meaning, all of her yowling protest in way you couldn’t ignore. You could listen to Tabitha arguing like a cat for hours; Julie—her own voice like a dog’s, she thought, short and hoarse and barky—had listened to Tabitha for hours. You could listen and you would be struck by how raw and vibrant that voice was, but then you’d realize that Tabitha was just saying she was going to go to the mall and buy Adderall swallow it with beer, then hang around the food court talking about the Misfits with some college kid. In a raw and vibrant and catlike way she’d tell you that and you would believe in her.

Linda, Tabitha and Julie’s mother, had never been vulnerable to Tabitha’s voice, and Julie had always hated Linda a little for that.

They were fighting now, Tabs and Linda; their voices came through the walls of Julie’s bedroom like foreign talk radio on the AM dial. Julie sat up on the edge of her bed, recently stripped of its alphabet-patterned case and replaced with a more grown-up deep green color that reminded her of rainforests; she felt her long hair sticking up in crazy roller-coaster loops at the back of her head. The air of the room was somehow just wrong; like Lucy in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, she’d slipped into another dimension, one in which she wasn’t able to get any sleep before her algebra test the next day, one in which the red digital clock was blinking midnight at her in some sick parody of “good morning.”

She went into the hallway, still in her white Apple Records T-shirt and boxers, sat on the floor outside Linda’s bedroom, curled her legs up to her body, and listened to them.

Everything has to have a reeeason, that’s your problem, Tabitha was saying. What if my reason is just that I want to spend all day lying in a field or something? And writing long letters to ex-boyfriends? What if that’s my reason?

I don’t give a shit what your reason is, Linda said. I don’t care how boring or irrelevant you think your classes are, either. You think I don’t spend eight or nine hours a day doing boring and irrelevant stuff?

I think you’re spending right now doing boring and irrelevant stuff, said Tabitha. Now count toward that eight or nine hours?

It’s called survival, said Linda. You do what you have to in order to survive. It’s not called fun, or quit school so I can go out with boys and work at a fucking video arcade and smoke pot in the house all day. At least smoke in the garage.

I’m an adult, mewled Tabitha. I can, you know, possibly make decisions without subjecting them to some neurotic process of analysis about, you know, what might possibly go wrong or—

You’re seventeen, said Linda.

And the video arcade is a good job, said Tabitha, mother.

Linda laughed. Julie buried her cheeks deeper into her bare bony knees.

There are no good jobs, she said. Just lucrative jobs that you hate. Your job is neither lucrative, nor do you hate it.

I’ll move out, said Tabitha. I’ll move out, and maybe Julie will come with me, and you won’t have us hanging around all the time making your life miserable.

You’re stoned, said Linda. I’m not going to argue with you while you’re stoned.

Ewwww, you’re stoooooooooned, said Tabitha; she must have been pinching her nostrils shut.

Get out of my room! said Linda. Go to bed. And you’re going back to that school in the morning, you’re telling them that you changed your mind—

Ewwww, get out of my rooooom, said Tabitha, and this time she giggled.

The TV came on immediately, some infomercial. There was a snort, then a stomp, and then Julie’s eyes were blinded by the lamplight. Tabitha stormed into the hallway and slammed the door behind her. She turned and her eyes fell to the ball of Julie at her feet. She stopped before her sister.

What the fuck are you doing in the hallway? she asked. Were you spying on us?

Yes, Julie said.

Tabitha stared down at her; Julie stared back up. When Tabitha got like this you couldn’t be reasonable; you had to just match her, crazy for crazy. Even in the dark hallway Julie thought her older sister was beautiful: her hair, hay-blonde like Julie’s, bleached and highlighted in pink like celery stalks in red water. Her skirt torn, her stockings striped, her shirt full of rhinestones like the constellations Julie liked to memorize from books and try to see through the fluorescent haze of Austin streetlights. The rhinestones spelled out NO FUTURE. Tabitha put her hands on her hips and pursed her mouth. Her lips were painted in red and outlined in black. The epaulets of her leather jacket rose and fell as she breathed.

Come on, Tabitha said. Let’s get out of here.

Where are we going? Julie asked.

Anywhere but here, said Tabitha. I don’t know. We’ll get pancakes. Come on.

Julie got up; the shoulders of her T-shirt were nearly even with Tabitha’s epaulets. Somehow, at thirteen, she’d become as tall as her sister when she wasn’t paying attention.

Let me go get dressed, she asked.

You’ll take forever, said Tabitha. Come on, trust me; let’s just go. It’s the millennium.

Julie’s flip-flops were stacked under the coat rack by the door; she put them on and followed Tabitha out into the front yard, crossed the lawn in her Apple Records T-shirt and boxers. Her legs shivered in the spring night and every window in every neighbor’s house could have been an eyeball. She got into the car next to her sister. Tabitha lit a cigarette, a tulip of fire surrounded by the black petals of her painted nails. Against the light her eyes were red at the edges. She turned the key.

They didn’t talk as they drove down 2222 and merged onto the highway bearing south. One of Tabitha’s Smashing Pumpkins CDs was blaring quietly.

All your seven dreams

Are closer than you believe

Tabitha tossed her filter out the window, licked her lips, then looked over at Julie.

Shit, she said. I can’t take you to get pancakes in your boxers. I must be losing my mind.

She giggled again, and she veered off of the highway, throwing Julie’s shoulders against the seatbelt.

Be careful, Julie hissed.

They fishtailed under the overpass; the CD played on. Tabitha flicked her blinkers off and on in time with it while Julie stared at her and dug her nails into the seat. They pulled into the parking lot of an all-night Wal-Mart. Tabitha opened the door and swung her legs out.

What are we doing here, Julie said.

What dress size are you? asked Tabitha.

I have no idea, said Julie. Can we just go home?

No, said Tabitha happily. Come on, guess. You have to know your dress size.

Four, Julie guessed.

Four, nodded Tabitha. She took the keys out of the ignition, tossed them to Julie, and shut the door.

You can listen to the CD if you want, she said. Just, if you do, leave the window rolled down a little. Otherwise gases and stuff will come in from the engine and kill you.

She gave a two-fingered Cub Scout salute and jogged off toward the store.

Julie sat alone in the car for a minute, listening to the engine creak and settle and needing to pee, then picked up the keys and turned on the CD player. There was a new song, quiet and creepy: window paine, shadows streak. A black man was pushing a shopping cart filled with bulky trash bags near the curb by the dark part at the edge of the store, a gray hood bunched up around his skull. She looked at the window, half-rolled down, wondered if you could smell the gas from the engine killing you and if the sleepiness she felt in her temples meant that it was already too late. She turned off the CD, but that only made it worse, and she couldn’t figure out how to turn it back on.

You took forever, she said to Tabitha when her sister hustled back into the car and handed a fat white shopping bag to her.

Size four, said Tabitha. Put ’em on.

There was a pair of jeans in the bag.

Where am I supposed to put them on? asked Julie.

Jesus, said Tabitha. The back seat. Where else do you change clothes in a car?

Julie tapped her fingers on the bag, then clambered between the seats. The leather in the back reeked of pot and incense. She stretched her legs out over the piles of forgotten school papers that filled up Tabitha’s car. A skeleton keychain, long abandoned, dug into her behind.

The windows are open, she said.

Right, said Tabitha. People only notice parked cars if the windows get all fogged up. So even though it may seem like the exact wrong thing to do, if you’re ever getting, like, physical with a boy, you’ll want to leave the windows open. Remember that.

You’re stupid and stoned, said Julie. I’m never getting physical with a boy.

With a girl, then, Tabitha shrugged. Whatever. It’s the millennium.

Julie flushed in the dark.

You’re stoned, she repeated.

Then she closed her eyes, pretended she wasn’t sitting in a parked car with her sister, and shrugged off her boxers. She hurried the new jeans on, arched her back to struggle with the last two inches of hip and the snaps.

They’re too tight, she breathed.

Size four my ass, said Tabitha. Come on, squeeze ’em in there.

She just managed it, snapped, zipped, tried to breathe and succeeded. She sat up: still okay. She opened the door and started circling the car, walking the pants on. The jeans were boot cut, screenprinted neon flames rising from the cuffs. She winced as her bare soles pushed against the cracked-glass asphalt; she was walking commando through a parking lot at night in tight jeans she’d just gone out and bought with her sister, why not, snap, like that, and Tabitha was behind the wheel, stoned and fiddling with the CD player, giving her a thumbs up and nodding in time with “Cherub Rock” out of the speakers; she looked at her sister and she loved her.

You like ’em? asked Tabitha. They’re not like cutting off circulation in your legs?

They’re the best pants ever, Julie said.

You make them work, said Tabitha. Come on, let’s get pancakes.

They pulled out of the parking lot and onto the highway like a jet screaming in takeoff—a jet that sounded like Billy Corgan and stank like an ashtray at a renaissance fair—and Julie decided that there would never be a better moment than this in her life.

Mom would never do that for you, Tabitha said minutes later. Mom would never go out in the middle of the night and buy new pants for you.

Fuck mom, said Julie.

Tabitha winced.

Do you think I’m doing the right thing? she asked. I hate yelling at her like that. I don’t know what to do.

I guess, Julie said. Only you can decide what to do, or something.

She wished her sister wouldn’t talk like this—be weak, like this, be anyone other than the person who bought cool pants at two in the morning—and luckily Tabitha stopped. She fished in her leather jacket and took out the pack of Camels, offered one to Julie.

Smoke? she asked.

Julie shook her head.

Come on, we’re driving, Tabitha sang. Best time to smoke is when you’re driving.

Smoking is stupid, Julie said. If you never start, you never have to quit.

If you never have to quit, what’s the point in doing anything? Tabitha asked.

Julie closed her eyes and trailed her arm out the open window and let the wind bend her fingers back, dipped her arm like a dolphin’s nose through the headwind, like she was a mermaid, swimming in a dream.

They got to the IHOP—the only place in town you could legally smoke indoors anymore, said Tabitha—and they let the host show them to a table. Julie was barefoot, looked like a 1960s refugee in her Apple Records shirt and flame pants, and the host didn’t seem to care at all; she felt gleefully fucked up, like she was a real teenager. She didn’t even care when she went to the bathroom and felt her feet against the revolting linoleum. When she got back to the table, Tabitha was smoking and talking on her cell.

My sister’s back, she said. I have to go. Just leave the door unlocked, all right? And tell your fuckhead roomies not to fucking lock it this time, okay? Okay, yeah, you too.

She hung up, put the phone in her jacket pocket, propped her chin in her hands and smiled dreamily and red-eyed at her sister.

Eat up, she said. Order a lot. We’ll make a size twelve of you yet.

Grooooss, laughed Julie. Who were you talking to?

Ira, said Tabitha. You know Ira. I wanted to ask if I could crash there tonight. I’m not going home to that bitch’s house. Eat up, okay?

Julie frowned. She picked up the menu and made herself study it.

Are you going together with Ira or something? she asked.

No, said Tabitha. Just sleeping together.

Oh, said Julie, biting her lip and looking closer at the menu. Tabitha sat up and put her hands flat on the table, serious all of a sudden, like some board member.

You can ask me about it if you want to, she said. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know about sex, or about anything.

Julie set the menu down.

All of this looks bad, she said. I don’t want anything.

Oh, you lie, said Tabitha. She picked up the menu. You want the lingonberry pancakes.

She whistled to the waiter and fluttered her eyes; Julie watched her. The waiter—an old guy, like twenty-three—cruised over.

My little sister wants lingonberry pancakes, Tabitha said. I don’t want anything. Just water.

The waiter wrote it down, smiled at Tabitha and looked somewhere below her neck, and left.

I’ll help you eat them, Tabitha said.

Julie slumped back in her chair.

What were you and Mom fighting about? she said.

Tabitha sighed and held her cigarette next to her face. Smoke misted over her eyes.

Dumb stuff, she said. She’s kind of a bitch, our mom. She works too hard. I don’t ever want to work that hard. She doesn’t come down on you so much because you’re the baby. She will.

She dragged on her cigarette and Julie squinted at her.

If I told you I was dropping out of school, Tabitha asked, would you try to talk me out of it?

Julie shrugged. It seemed too remote to take seriously.

I guess, it’s fine, she said. I mean I guess it’s your decision.

But would you want to make it, you know, your decision? Tabitha asked. Be honest with me.

I am honest, said Julie. Fuck you. And it’s your decision.

Tabitha frowned, stubbed out her cigarette, frowned again, re-lit it.

It’s what I need to do, she said. School isn’t going to do anything more for me. I’m not a school kind of person. I don’t know what kind of person I am.

So figure it out, Julie snapped.

Tabitha laughed, but only for a second before the wistful, weak expression Julie hated seeing came back over her. The lingonberry pancakes arrived, butter and pink sauce pooling at their volcanic center. Tabitha looked at them, let her sad smile droop even more.

Sure, said Julie. Quit school.

Do you ever think, asked Tabitha, about what it would be like to get outside of time?

Julie blinked at her.

Like a non-Einsteinian universe? she asked.

I don’t know what that means, said Tabitha. No, I mean more like: you’re a kid now. Anything you do at all, like literally anything, is great. You’re just figuring out how to be alive and be happy. But the older you get the more the bar rises for you. People just expect you to know how to be alive already. Now they start to care more about how you’re living, if you’re living in a good way or not.

She yawned, stretched her arms over her head.

And maybe you don’t even know how to be alive and happy in the first place, she said. God, I don’t know what I’m saying. It’d just be nice to be outside of time for a little while. Just to stop and look around and notice things. Just to figure out where to go. Just not to exist for a little while.

She looked down at the lingonberries, smiled again, and started to eat the butter and fruit off of the top.

I mean, do you ever think like that? she asked.

Julie remembered all of a sudden when she had been seven, and Tabitha had been ten, and they’d gotten lost on the way home from the park, and Tabitha had carried her on her shoulders as they walked along the frontage road of the highway home: the cars came roaring at them like trumpets greeting kings, and Julie held on tighter and tighter, her sister’s scent rising from the back of her tiny neck.

No, she said. I think that’s a pretty twisted way to think, actually.

Tabitha closed her eyes, chewed a lingonberry, violently shook her head.

Don’t give me that, she said, and suddenly her eyes opened right on Julie, the eyeliner dark and storming. You’re closer to me than anyone in the world. You have to know what I’m thinking. You have to.

She took a bite of the pancakes, her cigarette burning away to ash in her hand.

Don’t pretend that you don’t know what I’m thinking, she said.

Julie watched Tabitha eat. She waited six bites, then reached out for the pack of Camels on the table. Tabitha stabbed down at her hand with a buttery fork; Julie yelped and pulled her hand away.

Don’t you dare, Tabitha said.

I just wanted to hold one, Julie said. God.

If you don’t start something, said Tabitha, you don’t have to quit something. I really believe that.

Julie sulked in her chair.

Earlier you said there was no point in doing anything that you didn’t have to quit eventually, she said.

I really believe that too, Tabitha said, licking lingonberry sauce off of her lips.

Julie kept quiet as Tabitha ate all of the pancakes and drank three glasses of water, then started to talk about Ira, how they’d met and how he was always talking about publishing this terrible zine and how he was a huge board game geek and everything. She stayed quiet as Tabitha paid and drove her home, quiet as Tabitha dropped her off in front of the house and waved to her over the steering wheel, Pumpkins blaring, then drove off, Julie guessed to Ira’s house, where hopefully the door was unlocked and the bed was half empty, or half full. Julie watched her sister’s taillights fade, then walked back across the lawn, dew from the approaching morning collecting on the fires at her cuffs. Linda was snoring down the hallway. The blue light of the TV mixed with the blue light of the coming dawn.

She wore the pants three times to school after that until she tore a huge hole in the knee and had to retire them. On the day after her seventeenth birthday—her long hair long gone, cropped and tortured into a Wendy O. Williams cut—the police told her that they’d confirmed it, that Tabitha was really dead, and so she wore the pants one last time. Then she cut them into pieces with scissors and shoved the scraps to the bottom of the trash can in the kitchen.

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