On the morning of her 13th birthday, Yésica eats her Os in front of the television, where she also sleeps. If there is no soy milk, she uses orange juice, and if there is no orange juice, she uses water. The morning news is a house fire, a school board vote split five to four, killed soldiers from Fort Bragg, lead in the water, a cat that can count to 12, a recipe for persimmons, the forgotten fruit, a pill that helps people who fart a lot, the weather, and sports.
Five to four makes Yésica feel itchy. With it, she makes nine, then divides by three, which makes her feel smooth. Farters eat too much gluten, as is commonly known. “I am allergic to gluten,” Yésica tells the screen.
Her Os are made of brown rice and that is something viewers might be interested in knowing. The weather will be mild, with a 60 percent chance of rain in the viewing area this afternoon, the weatherman tells her.
The weatherman reminds her of Mrs. Pfeffelman, her Science teacher. Except the weatherman uses Maps, not Books. His black hair is flat and shiny as her mother’s painted fingernails. When Mrs. Pfeffelman talks about numbers or the winds or the way heat rises from the ground to make a thunderstorm, she makes the things she is talking about seem small, like a ball or a box of jacks. On her desk, Mrs. Pfeffelman has metal clothes hanger arms holding the planets and a yellow Styrofoam sun. When her finger pushes the Earth, around it goes until the arm squeaks to a stop.
Books have things Yésica can see, not truth. Books with a big B, like Benson, places people go just as easy as getting in a car. But truth has a small t, everywhere and nowhere, smeared on her skin like her mother’s lotion. A capital T in truth would be spiky and too green. The small t is sleek, a handle that fits like her hand on a hairbrush. Perhaps there will be rain, but it won’t fall exactly when or exactly where the weatherman says on his Map.
Yésica likes sports, but she can never wait for it. She has to leave for school at 7:55 a.m., the color of daffodils. Otherwise, everything turns grey and prickly.
After rinsing her bowl and spoon, Yésica picks clothes from her clean pile. She has five white Henleys and five pairs of black Bermuda shorts, with black cotton crew socks rolled in balls and her Converses, black, with black laces that she ties in a double bunny, tight as she can. Before she will wear clothes, her mother washes out the sizing, 10 cycles minimum. Otherwise, the fabric pokes her like puppy teeth.
If there are no clean socks or the power goes out or if the Os box is empty, Yésica screams. This is the way of things. The screams wake her mother, who comes in to brush Yésica’s arms and shoulders with a nail brush. When Yésica stops, her mother uses the lotion. Then the day can start fresh no matter what number is on the clock.
Outside, the sun is hot. Her bicycle has long handlebars and a skinny, black banana seat. Yésica’s mother bought the bike for 55 cents. 5 + 5 is 10, a blue number. The rubber handles have silver streamers, which Yésica trimmed into nubs. She calls the bike Torpedo, because that is what is written on the frame: “TORPEDO.”
Every school day, she pedals to the end of Megan Faye Lane, then makes a right onto Blossom Falls. Megan Faye is a dead girl. Mr. Hobson Goode found her in the woods where he planned to lay cement pads for new trailers. The name is his way of honoring her, he told Yésica’s mother once, and to make sure the sick son of a bitch who did it goes to the death chamber, where he will be pumped full of rat poison. Megan Faye died when she was four, which is 1 + 3.
Today, Yésica’s mother will bring confetti cupcakes and cranberry juice for a birthday party in class. But Yésica never gets to class. As she pumps the pedals, she sees something on the side of the road that wasn’t there yesterday: a shoe. The shoe is muddy and kid-sized. Over it, the bushes are green and dense, cut straight as walls with Mr. Hobson Goode’s brush hog. Her mother tells her, “Go straight to school on that bike or you won’t have it any more. En serio.” But her mother never talked about seeing a shoe.
Yésica lays Torpedo on the roadside gravel. Carrying her backpack, she sees a dim path that leads into a brush tunnel. Further in is another shoe: the right foot. Kid-sized prints lead away from the shoe. The mud is so wet that she can count toes: 5. 4 + 1 = 5. 5 + 5 equals 10. Clear as the blue sky, she hears an invitation.
She knows this path. It is the path to where Megan Faye died.
A squirrel chucks at her: chuck, chuck, chuck. She wants to throw a stone, but there is only mud and rotting leaves. The path leads in, then turns to the right. She finds a Jolly Rancher wrapper that is pink and twisted. Pink makes her sneeze. Against her thigh, Yésica flattens the wrapper, then folds it into a triangle so that only the white inner side shows. Three points, worth keeping. She puts the wrapper in her pocket.
Sometimes, boys fight in the woods. They build forts and smoke. Yésica doesn’t hear any boys, only her own breath and squirrels and the trail with its signs, whispering like a television turned down very, very low.
Yésica reaches the pond Mr. Hobson Goode dug out to get the dirt he uses to flatten lots before he puts in cement pads. The edges of the pond are red clay. Pine trees, their roots sliced through and matted, angle over the brown water. Once, a boy whose name she does not know fell in. He had to be rescued with a ladder. Yésica saw him climb out with his clothes coated in thick, green scum. Water rolled down his brown legs and she thought of ducks on TV, when they tip their butts in the air then come up again, shaking the water off. His shorts hung heavy with water and low, and she wanted to run her finger down his bared stomach, following the curve that started at the sharp points of his hips.
She didn’t. Yésica doesn’t like people touching her without asking. Even then, it hurts. Sometimes, she wraps her mother’s arms around her waist, just for a second, then flings them away again. If Mrs. Pfeffelman touches her, she bites.
Yésica hears spoons clatter in a metal bowl. A red bird with a pointed head perches on a branch. Looking straight at her, the bird squawks: 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 times. Seven. Seven tastes like hamburger-flavored tofu, moist and meaty. Her cousin Brittany is allergic to soy and breaks out in welts if she eats it. Seven makes Yésica hungry, but since she isn’t in the school cafeteria, she can’t eat her lunch.
She keeps walking.
By now, she can feel Mrs. Pfeffelman wondering where she is. Science is first period. Soon, Mrs. Pfeffelman will call her mother. Her mother will say to Mrs. Pfeffelman, “What on earth are you doing waking me up from mi descanso?” and Mrs. Pfeffelman will say, “Yésica is not here. Where is Yésica, is she ill?” And her mother will call the police.
This happened before. But before, Yésica did not see a shoe or a Jolly Rancher wrapper or a bird speaking to her in 1s. She had never had a thirteenth birthday before. 1 + 3, she thinks, equals 4. 4 is mysterious, a house with no door. On the other side of the pond are more woods and more brush and the place Mr. Hobson Goode said he would never ever go again.
Yésica is going. The red bird flits over her head
Yésica sees a gleam of metal, then a grey curl of window screen. Propped against a tree is a doll, its arm pointing toward a small trailer. Again, spoons clatter. Spoon is an especially nice word. Spoon is the thing it means. Round and hard and cold. The n is the handle end, which she likes to press into the soft pad on her thumb. Yésica eats with the same spoon every day. Her tongue knows it as well as the insides of her own mouth. Her mother says she has her grandfather’s mouth, with a broad lower lip and a deep bow. Pucker-mouth, her mother says. Pucker up, when she wants a kiss. Pucker makes Yésica laugh. Yésica kisses the air, and with her hand her mother catches the kiss, slow as a moth, and swallows it whole.
The doll warns her: be careful. The doll’s eyes hurt her to look at, so Yésica follows where the arm points, at a stump with an axe sunk in it and wood chips sprayed over the wet ground. Next to the stump is a bucket with a hole. She counts 8 crushed cigarette butts. She hates the number 8, with its rotting, twisted smell. The year she was eight, she did not say a word, for fear the stink would crawl right up her words, down her throat and into her soul, which is absorbent as paper towel.
The day before her 9th birthday, Yésica wrote a note to her mother: “What time was I born?”
Her mother stroked Yésica’s plush snake, since she knew better than to touch Yésica without an invitation. “9:33,” she said.
“AM or PM?” Yésica wrote.
“AM. They swaddled you during the morning traffic report. Like a red sausage. Screaming you were as they took you away. Maybe that is why you can’t get enough noticias.” Her mother wore her Hardee’s shirt, deep blue, and her red nametag: Moni. The snake was named Moni, too. Yésica loved the color blue so much that she had to close her eyes and dig the spoon into her hand.
“Ha,” Yésica wrote. The next day, Yésica spoke at exactly 9:33 a.m.: a rounded, pleasing number, like the hood of a car.
Now she hears voices: a man and a muffled voice that could be a man or a woman. Neither voice fits a kid-sized shoe. The trailer is not like the one she lives in with her mother. Theirs is long and white, with a wood porch in front that Uncle Toño built and metal awnings painted bright blue. Her plastic blue pool is in front, too, with two white plastic chairs. The mailbox has nine plastic daisies at its base, yellow and white and blue, 3 + 3 + 3. This trailer is splotched with grey and sags, the hitch propped on cinder blocks. The rubber tires are sunk in mud. Yésica can see the tracks from where the trailer was dragged in. A black pipe pokes from one window. The screen door hangs off the frame. To one side is a metal barrel next to a pile of something smoldering. Old clothes and empty cans are scattered everywhere.
The voices come and go. The trailer creaks when the people talking move inside. Then Megan Faye is at her side.
“I knew you would come,” Megan Faye says. Her voice is thick, like Yésica’s mother’s when she wakes up.
“It stinks,” says Yésica.
“Stinks,” repeats Megan Faye.
Megan Faye wears a nightgown with a lace collar. The fabric is worn flannel, pink, so Yésica sneezes. Her ghost face looks as if someone has dragged an eraser over a pencil drawing. Megan Faye doesn’t smell like anything. The trailer smells like sick.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Eat nothing,” the ghost answers, “or you will never be able to go home.”
“I ate my Os.” Yésica remembers her backpack, heavy on her shoulder. “My lunch is in my backpack. Can I eat my lunch?”
“No,” counsels Megan Faye. “They cannot see me, but they can see you. There is a boy here who needs your help. His name is Brad Connor.”
Megan Faye vanishes.
Yésica doesn’t know any Brad Connor. Does Megan Faye want her to knock on the screen door and ask for Brad Connor? Why should she do anything for Brad Connor? She doesn’t want to touch the lopsided door, since it makes her skin feel like a rash. Yésica wishes that her mother were there. Yésica thinks carefully about what her mother might say. Here are things her mother says: keep the television sound low so I can sleep por diós. Go straight to school and come straight back again. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Be polite. Remember to say please and thank you. It’s like the 3 that comes after the 2, her mother says, or the square root of 16. It is one thing that follows another thing, something tú tienes que hacer.
√16. How beautiful, a number in its own tidy trailer, with a hitch. She has to say thank you, Mrs. Pfeffelman, or please, Mrs. Pfeffelman, may I use the bathroom. Then she has to wait, wait, wait! for the person to say yes. Mother says that people talk to people and wait for them to talk back. At work, her mother says please and thank you until she is blue in the face, she tells Yésica. This is what people expect. This is how people get along.
“Blue in the face,” Yésica repeated.
“Not really,” her mother answered. “An expression. Like green with jealousy or red with rage.”
Other times, her mother says things like Don’t talk to that man! or Get away! Once, a man stopped in front of the trailer while Yésica was in the pool. He rubbed his pants over his wiener. Yésica wondered if this was some sort of exercise. Then her mother, who had been hanging laundry, grabbed her arm and pulled her into the trailer. Yésica screamed, but her mother didn’t let go. Her mother got a blanket and Moni, the plush snake, and wrapped the two of them tight as presents. Eventually, Yésica stopped and her mother got the lotion.
As she is wondering about Brad Connor and what her mother would say, a man leaves the trailer. His hair is long and grey. He wears a black t-shirt under a flannel shirt. She sees the ridge of his jaw bone and how his collar bone juts out and how the bones of his knuckles are swollen and creased in dirt. He lights a cigarette. Then he takes a long drink from a can of beer. Yésica smells the beer along with sweat and something else, like the chemicals under the kitchen sink at home. The man squints at the sky, then looks straight at her, crouched in the bushes. But he doesn’t see her.
He is 11, sharp as sticks: Stick Man. But Yésica thinks, no, that can’t be, there is no 9 or 10. There’s no order, and tú tienes que hacer. Then she remembers: Megan Faye has 9 letters in her name. Brad Connor has 10. Stick Man is 11. Twelve is tricky, since it separates the single digits and what she thinks of as true teens, where numbers get tastier, but also more dangerous. Of course, she is 13. Then she thinks: truth and its handle. Thirteen. The letter t. Torpedo. The truth is inside the numbers and the words like cream in a cream-filled doughnut. Something is about to happen and she is at the center of it, waiting.
A chain clanks. From behind the trailer comes a creature. Yellow eyes dig straight into her and she shudders. A low growl seeps from its mouth. The black and brown fur over its ribs form the number 12.
The hairs on Yésica’s neck rise and she stops breathing.
“Shut up, Brutus,” Stick Man says.
“You must find a way to distract it,” whispers Megan Faye. The ghost stands next to her, cradling the doll.
Megan Faye is gone again. This must be the way with ghosts, Yésica thinks. Just as people need her to look them in the eye and say words back, even if the words are stupid and obvious, like “Good morning” on a sunny morning or “Have a nice day!” when there is no way to change the kind of day a person will have, ghosts come and go as they please. Tricky as 12s. Her mother would tell her to be polite. So she must find Brad Connor and at least say hello.
“Get in here,” a voice from inside the trailer shouts.
Stick Man drops the can and crushes it beneath his boot. He goes back inside the trailer.
Brutus growls again. Yésica starts breathing and Brutus’s eyes narrow, needles on her skin. Stick Man and the other person are shouting. Yésica’s stomach rumbles. She has it: lunch. Yésica pulls her lunch bag from her backpack. The lunch bag has Velcro tabs, padding to keep food cool and a compartment for her sandwich, spelt bread with barbecue tofu and shredded carrots. There is an Ambrosia apple, chocolate-covered cranberries and a box of chocolate soy milk. Yésica pulls off a piece of tofu and throws it at Brutus. The dog’s jaws snap in the air. She throws another and another. Brutus does not look at her anymore, only at the flying tofu. So Yésica throws the whole lunch bag as hard as she can. Brutus catches it and drags it beneath the trailer.
For the first time, Yésica notices a pile of rocks under some low bushes near where Brutus had been growling. A stone is wedged over a gap. When she rolls the stone away, she sees steps cut out of the red clay. In the blackness is a bare foot, pale as a mushroom.
“Brad Connor,” she says.
The foot twitches.
“Hello, Brad Connor. Good morning, Brad Connor. How are you today?”
Yésica picks up a twig to touch the sole of the foot. It twitches again. “My name is Yésica Fernández. Today is my birthday. I am 13. I have come to get you.”
The foot disappears. In its place is a face. A boy’s face, streaked in green and brown and some wet red. “I can’t,” the face says. “I’m tied.” The boy crawls out. She sees that a rope is wound around an ankle. The rope is tied to the same stake as Brutus.
Yésica is excellent at knots, patient and strong-fingered. She is careful not to touch his skin as she works off the rope. Still, the boy does not get up.
“Brad Connor?” she says, looking off his shoulder so as not to get trapped in his swirling eyes. He holds out his hand. Her skin crawls but she can’t look away. His eyes are blue. “Help me up. I can’t stand alone. I’ve been in there three days. I’ve pissed myself,” he finishes, licking his filthy lips.
He stinks. He cannot stand without her. She puts her left thumb pad in her mouth and bites. As she does, she reaches out with her right hand. He grasps it and she pulls. His fingers are like worms and as shivery. Brad Connor has no clothes. She bites her hand harder, until she tastes her own flesh. Then he is beside her, still hunched but standing, his arm on her shoulder.
Megan Faye claps. “Hooray!”
“Who in Hell are you?” Stick Man is standing at the trailer door, his mouth hanging open. Instead of teeth, he has glistening nubs. “Marsha, get the fuck out here.”
From the trailer, a thing emerges. It has the body of a woman, but the face is a machine, with a black box where the mouth should be and goggles for eyes. Red patches crawl up her arms and down her bony legs. “What the fuck,” Yésica hears, as if from far away.
“What the fuck,” repeats Stick Man. “Boy, you get back in there.”
“No,” says Brad Connor. Yésica is whimpering with the weight of his arm, and her tongue tastes her own blood. She sees his wiener and the curve of his belly. He is not the boy from the pond. She has never seen Brad Connor before. She knows her mother would want her to hold Brad Connor up, no matter how much it hurts. No one has ever written that in a Book.
“Let’s go,” Brad Connor says to her.
“You’re not going nowheres.” Stick Man grinds his cigarette into the mud. “You are going to take your punishment.”
“Cocksucker,” says Brad Connor. “You are not my Dad.”
Stick Man steps up to wallop the boy with his fist. Brad Connor ducks, and his arm whips from Yésica’s shoulder. Yésica can finally take her hand out of her mouth just as Megan Faye spreads her tiny, razor-sharp wings. The ghost lifts up and thrusts a tree branch at Stick Man, who jumps back. Brad Connor runs.
“This bitch.” Yésica sees the woman’s face now and knows that she should say something. But the woman doesn’t wait for her. “I’ve a mind to … ”
Now truth is too big and tricky as a tornado. Yésica doesn’t know what comes next or what her mother would say or even where she should put her hands, so she whirls them. She wants to count washing machine quarters and stack them in piles or roll in the fall grass when it is toasted and sweet, like Crackerjack, or draw the blanket tight around her shoulders and listen to the weatherman talk about the high-pressure system just off the coast. There are some truths that have no words or numbers at all. Here is one: boys are not to be buried in the ground.
“Hello, Brad Connor!” she yells. The squirrels chuck madly, as if agreeing with her, and the red birds squawk in perfect 7s, surrounding her with invisible thorns.
The woman runs at Yésica, and Megan Faye’s eyes grow circular and vicious. Without warning, the ghost slices her wings at the woman’s scrawny neck. At first, the woman ignores her, as if the wings are just flies or Yésica’s own screams. Her hand closes around Yésica’s arms and Yésica screams even louder. Just as the woman starts to shake her, Yésica hears the woman gasp. The woman’s hands fly to her own neck and claws. She gurgles. Megan Faye batters her from behind, and Yésica learns another truth: there is no escaping a ghost’s fury. Yésica sees no blood, only the effects of a slow spread of nothingness in the woman’s lungs. Yésica takes her two hands and pushes the woman away.
“Lord have mercy,” the woman gasps. She bends, then topples over.
The squirrels chuck-chuck-chuck as Megan Faye swallows every bit of air around the woman. Brad Connor lifts a pair of filthy shorts from the ground and pulls them on.
“Water!” Stick Man cries. He kneels beside the woman. “Marsha, what the fuck? Where’s your inhaler? Girl, get you water for her!”
Yésica always does as she is told. She enters the trailer and sees a sink and a cupboard. The woman had been cooking something, but it is not food. The stink makes her eyes water. Beside the sink is a chipped and cracked glass. She can’t bear to touch it. Instead, she grabs a paper cup with “Hardees,” like the ones on her mother’s name tag. Yésica fills the cup and brings it to Stick Man.
“Here,“ Yésica says to him. “Here,” she repeats. Still he doesn’t respond. “Tú tienes que hacer,” she says. But she might as well be a ghost. He pays her no attention. She sets the water down, and it tips over. He doesn’t seem to care.
Brad Connor is gone.
Megan Faye is back to her original size. She sits on the stump where the chain holding Brutus is attached to a metal ring. Brutus is still under the trailer, ripping Yésica’s lunch bag to shreds. Megan Faye sucks her thumb.
“Why did you hurt her?” Yésica asks.
Megan Faye doesn’t answer.
Stick Man weeps. The woman curls on the ground as if asleep. “She never hurt no one,” Stick Man is saying. “That boy is bad to the bone. Stole. Hit her. Little cocksucker. Now she’s dead and all because of him.”
“Brad Connor was tied up in the ground,” Yésica is saying, more to herself than to him. “He was dirty. He had no clothes. He pissed himself.”
From the place where she left Torpedo, Yésica hears her name. Hobson Goode is the first to enter the camp. After him come three policemen. They talk into the black radios they wear on their shoulders. One of the policemen comes up to Stick Man, who is slumped beside the woman’s body. Megan Faye is gone. The doll sits against the tree, its arm is in its lap.
Then her mother appears, still in her PJs and barefoot. Yésica tells her mother about Brad Connor. She shows her the cave. He had no clothes, she says, and his legs were shiny with pee. She doesn’t tell her mother that she saw his wiener because her mother has gone white as Brad Connor’s mushroom foot. She wishes her mother would explain, but then she remembers that she threw her lunch bag to the dog and the dog has eaten it. Maybe her mother is angry about the lunch bag. Yésica is always losing them and if it’s not one thing it’s another, her mother says, and she should be more careful and money doesn’t grow on trees goddammit.
Yésica says she is sorry about the lunch bag. She will buy a new one with her allowance. Her mother shakes her head, shakes and shakes. Then her mother says, well, let’s go home, you are probably hungry. And she is.
Yésica walks behind her mother, placing her feet inside her mother’s footprints. Torpedo is just where she left it. She rides it home, then sits at the kitchen table to wait for her mother to arrive. Her mother makes her soup and gives her a confetti cupcake. Yésica hears her mother call in sick.
Truth is exhausting. Yésica has had enough for one day. Yésica rinses her bowl and spoon, then curls up in front of the television and falls asleep in her usual spot. A tap tap tap on the roof announces rain.
Brad Connor is on the news that night, boy rescued by local girl. “What a story!” the weatherman says before he talks about the high-pressure front approaching the viewing area. They show a picture of the boy, clean-faced and smiling. Yésica wouldn’t know him except for his eyes, which still hurt to look at.
The next day, while Yésica is at school, Hobson Goode hauls the grey trailer away. Although her mother forbids her to go to the pond, Yésica starts to sneak away when her mother is at work. She is careful to hide Torpedo in the bushes, so no one will bother her and her mother will not take the bicycle away.
They continue to meet. Megan Faye rarely speaks. She doesn’t have to. She and Yésica understand what happens in the woods. One thing follows another and tú tienes que hacer. The squirrels chuck and the birds speak in sevens as they hop from branch to branch. Even when it rains, the animals take the bits of bread and tofu Yésica throws, always hungry for more.
How do I tell Chris he can’t be friends with Kevin?
“I’m not driving you to Kevin’s anymore.”
“Because I jumped off his barn?”
How do I tell him without him thinking it’s his fault?
“Because I fell in the gravel pit?”
Maybe I could call the school? Have them do something? Kevin’s unclean. He has bug bites. He lives out on the edge of the district.
“He lives way out of town. Chris, I don’t have time. Kevin’s welcome at our house.”
I pull past the lilacs into our driveway. I’m chewing a gob of Trident to quit smoking. Black walnuts pop under the tires. Chris runs inside and the storm door bangs shut behind him. The splatted walnuts smell bitter, like fall is bitter. It snowed last night. The sky’s pink behind the city where I have to drive for work tomorrow, and where I have to take Chris for counseling again after.
Our farmhouse has character the way an old dog has character. We don’t farm but Chris’s grandfather farmed. I remember Chris in the field picking strawberries, filling his little basket, covered in red. I remember brown grocery bags filled with corn shucks, and mashed potato craters filled with gravy. But my parents-in-law died, and my husband divorced me, and I don’t think Kevin Herendeen is a good influence for Chris.
* * *
When Kevin told me he had a pond on his land, I believed him.
“Let’s catch frogs,” I said. “Caught one with red spots last summer.”
“Watch out for snappers,” Kevin said.
We crossed the county road into a field and walked for a while.
“I can’t find it,” Kevin said. In the sun his blue eyes shone transparently. He wore a dusty tan shirt all the time, and his arms were darker than the shirt, not muscled but ready for them. He could lift a hay bale. His golden retriever plowed a path through dead corn stalks. “She’s flushing turkeys,” Kevin said. “Zelda’s a hunting dog. Watch out if she gets one.” The stalks tore like paper. Her fur matched the color of Kevin’s buzzed hair. I wore a mullet. Mom said it looked good. Years later I discovered a brown birthmark on the back of my neck.
The back of Kevin’s neck was red.
I pointed at a dimple in the land. “I bet there’s a pond down there.”
“That’s the gravel pit.”
The pit’s dull yellow walls had been scraped out by excavators. Sliding down we trailed ocher streaks in the sand while Zelda strafed the rim. At the floor we chased each other up crane-dropped conical piles of dirt and gravel. Pretending to ski I bounded down collecting pebbles in my shoes and sand in my socks. Rocks clacked under my feet. I tripped headlong, scraping over aggregate. Sitting in a pile at the bottom I examined my palms, the little flakes of curled skin. My left ear burned.
“Am I bleeding?” I asked, pointing to it.
“Yeah,” Kevin said.
“I gotta go home.”
We came through the neglected corn rows toward Kevin’s house — insulated around the exterior with hay bales, an empty silo towering behind. Mom circled her Astro Van in the driveway — a dirt-worn track in the yard between the house and the barn. I was late. Following Zelda I ran through the field and across the street to her. When I saw her scowling face I cried.
* * *
Chris showered. I’ll have to wait on the water heater before I can do a load. I set our meatloaf and lima beans on the counter. He likes my meatloaf but takes a small portion — he never eats enough — and joins me in the den. Chris used my Pantene. I see his ear is healed. He heals like he’s impervious. I remember gravel in the wound, fingers curled into claws, mouth opening like a dark doorway crying Why Mom? Why did you bring me here to suffer? We’re watching Urkel. I want him to smile with the laugh track, but he doesn’t. How could I have let him play at Kevin’s? His father’s a farmer. He’s always out on the back forty. I can never get him on the phone.
* * *
Sleeping over at Kevin’s wasn’t like other sleepovers. We had the house to ourselves because his dad made a bonfire out back and we weren’t invited. I never saw Kevin’s Mom. I think the school psychologist recommended all the kids of divorce play together, and that’s why Mom let me go there. We sat on the floor close to the TV. The braided rug smelled like dog piss and piss cleaner. Rough wood floors, walls sticky with cigarette resin. Things were left out at Kevin’s: toys, dishes, tools whose use I could never guess. At our house everything had a place. Alone with room-temp pizza and a two-liter, we watched The Leprechaun — rated R. The worst part is when the leprechaun puts holes in a guy’s chest jumping on him with a pogo stick. The leprechaun giggles the whole time. I’d never seen Kevin’s dad up close. He’d be riding a tractor or four-wheeler kicking up a dust wake, dog in chase.
Zelda barked behind the house.
“Let’s spy on the bonfire,” I said. I was sure we’d stay up all night.
Kevin stretched, yawned with his eyes open. “I’m tired.”
“Don’t you wanna sneak out?”
Kevin pressed a game into his Nintendo. The screen went blue, silhouetting his face. “We’ll get caught,” he said. He blew into the cartridge.
“But I’m the guest.”
Kevin glanced from the TV to the dark window. Cold air leaked through the pane. He went up and turned on his bedroom light, then clicked off the downstairs light. He opened the screen door very slowly. I was sneaky, too. Once, I followed my dad to our barn and caught him smoking after he’d said he quit. He flicked his cigarette into an oil drum full of butts.
Kevin avoided the tractor ruts and disappeared in high grass. I followed. The hazy sky glowed above the far city. Smelling sweet smoke and florid air left me half alert and half dreaming. Kevin crouched, pulled my shoulder down. “No talking,” he whispered. I flinched at popping sap. Kevin’s dad heaved on a pallet, and sparks swarmed the sky. We elbowed forward and Zelda barked. Kevin lay flat as though listening to the earth. I gripped clumps of grass as though the earth shook.
“I can’t see anything,” I whispered.
“Don’t!” Kevin said.
I inched forward. Darkness hid me beyond the fire’s circle. Zelda lay behind the fire, tail sweeping up dust. Hunched on a round, Kevin’s dad sat beside her. Through flame tips I studied him: ponytailed, bearing the same tight-tendon arms as Kevin, unshaven with imperceptibly blonde stubble. His glazed pottery eyes pierced the fire heart. Fueled by a clear bottle, his lips muttered. Zelda absorbed it. Melted glass shards glinted upon the ash bed. I listened over the rushing fire to strings of curses and nonsense. I’d never known anyone could get so drunk, so beyond words. I guessed at the bottle’s fullness, wondered how long until it would be thrown in the fire, shards tinkling like wind chimes. Zelda’s ghostly orbs roved, searching for me.
I backed away. Following his bedroom light I sprinted to Kevin’s and found him in bed sleeping or pretending to. I couldn’t sleep until after dawn, when the bottle broke.
* * *
We share a bathroom and Chris sprayed the toilet seat again. I can’t call him in to wipe it up because I’m worried. I rinse my face wishing sun damage washed out. I’ll run the dryer before work tomorrow. It shakes the house and I don’t want to hear it tonight. I only kept the old farmhouse for the district; I didn’t want to uproot Chris. That was maybe a bad idea. His father was handy. Chris used to have nightmares and come to our bed; when his father said no, Chris would sleep in the laundry basket.
I poke into his room to say goodnight. He has a galaxy of stick-on stars on his ceiling. “You okay?” I ask, settling on the bed. He’s under the blanket facing the wall. “That was reckless today. Do you know what reckless is?” He won’t shift to face me. Reckless is being suicidal without knowing what suicidal is.
“Kevin did it first,” he mutters into his pillow. I rub his back and he cries. Thank god he’s crying. “He dared me.”
“But you’re okay?”
“I didn’t want to. For ski season.”
Chris wants to go to the Olympics. I stroke his back until his tremors settle, then I rise and say, “Sleep tight,” but it feels sarcastic.
Before I shut the door he says, “Mom?”
“It’s fine. I don’t want to go to Kevin’s anymore.”
I shut the door and walk past the laundry basket. Later I dream of packing him inside it, like luggage, but his arms and legs keep growing.
* * *
The snow blinded until sun melted the dusting. I guess Kevin’s dad was excited to use the plow because he piled dirty snow against the barn. The barn was my favorite part of Kevin’s property. It had a hay loft.
“Wanna see a deer brain?” Kevin asked. It was hunting season.
I followed him behind the barn where his dad had strung up and flayed a deer. The gutted deer made an impression. It was just hanging there like an unzipped tent. Kevin stepped to a workbench where a brain like a small human brain rested on newspaper, as out of place as anything else at Kevin’s.
“Why’d your dad take its brain out?”
“Dare you to touch it,” he said.
I poked it. It felt solid — not mushy — and cold.
“Dare you to lick it,” I said.
Kevin grabbed it and raised it to his face. He sneered and threw it hitting me in the chest. I reached down and whipped it back, missing by a mile. The smashed brain rolled into sawdust. Kevin carefully wiped it off and placed it on its paper. Our hands were sticky as if from frog catching. We wiped them on our jeans and went inside the barn where nail pegs hung shovels, pitchforks and scythes. The ceiling was high to fit machinery. All the heavy wood beams reminded me of church. I followed Kevin up a ladder of 2x4s nailed to the wall behind a combine with unbelievable tires. We came through a square hole in the ceiling to the hayloft where it smelled less like oil and more sour like straw. Bluish sunlight entered through barn side chinks. Bales stacked to different heights resembled Kuwait City — squarely built here, bombed to jigsaw there. I’d seen it on TV. Kevin mounted the stacks and disappeared. Climbing on top I saw that bales had been removed from against the loft’s back wall, making a stairway down. Kevin rustled somewhere beneath my feet. “Come on!” he yelled. “Down here.”
Straw scraped my back as I crawled. The tunnel wound left and right, up and down, arriving at a chamber. He’d removed bales and set down plywood and replaced the bales. It might have taken years. “It’s booby trapped,” he said. I didn’t believe him. Kevin sat on a bale examining a Hustler. In dim light I saw a pile of them. They showed penetration. “I stole them from my dad,” he said. “He doesn’t know.” His eyes flashed. I think he meant the fort. Loose straw and blankets covered the floor, a couch pillow, a bag of tobacco with an Indian on it. Once, Kevin came to school with straw in his hair. “You want one?” he asked, lifting his chin at the reading pile.
“I’ll get caught,” I said. I sat beside him. I smelled my hands.
“You’re the guest.”
I knew I couldn’t lift even one bale; imagining the weight of twenty above my head, the plywood ceiling seemed to sag.
Kevin pushed past me and crawled out.
As I emerged, a stack of hay bales wobbled and fell clogging the entrance like a dynamited mine shaft.
“Told you it was booby trapped.”
I opened my mouth to swear but someone did it for me.
“Somanabitch!” The voice came from outside. We peeked through the slats. Kevin’s dad was at the workbench with the sawdust brain, mumbling, beyond words.
“Escape route,” Kevin whispered.
He tugged me and I followed him to the loft window. We climbed onto the old stable’s roof, which gave access to the upper barn roof. Our footsteps rattled the aluminum sheeting. We stood facing the driveway. My fingertips were numb, my nose wet in the cold sun. I thought Kevin wanted to show me the roof, show me that he could climb out here or anywhere he wanted on his thousand acres. I could see very far up there, to the city, but I couldn’t imagine a thousand acres.
Kevin jumped off. I crouched to keep my balance, as if the barn itself had suddenly thrust upward. Sliding my feet to the edge, I leaned out. Kevin wiggled out of two thigh-deep post holes in the snow pile. “Come on,” he urged. I considered lowering my body below the eave first. Would I tear my shirt? Kevin squinted at me, focusing the glint in his eyes. “Don’t wait too long or you’ll never jump,” he said.
He was right.
“I’m climbing down,” I said.
I slunk back from his view and went to the lower roof and from there to a fence. Walking in the silo’s frigid shadow, I passed the doghouse. I crouched and peaked in. She was balled up tight. I reached in to pet her. She was frozen to the ground.
Kevin stood behind me now, his jeans wet from snow.
“Your dog’s dead,” I told him.
He tilted his head. That was all. Sometimes death has to process. Or maybe Kevin already knew.
“Let me jump,” I said. “It doesn’t look high now, from here.”
Kevin stood below in his dusty tan shirt with his arms crossed. I tried to judge my landing so I wouldn’t hit his post holes. Mom’s Astro Van turned up the driveway.
“Better hurry,” Kevin said.
“Okay,” I said. I stepped off the roof, wind rushing in my ears.
Kevin acted funny whenever I left his house, like there was more to show me — something better than a frog pond or a secret fort. I lifted the van’s door handle prepared to see Mom’s scowl again when Kevin’s dad came from behind the barn holding a farm tool I didn’t understand. He shifted his trucker hat high on his head and smiled at my Mom (who still lives there in my memory, who still throws my ski boots, wrapped a month before Christmas, down the stairs at me, who still shoves me when I’m much too big to shove and I shove her back). I wish I could possess my child-self then, right there in the Astro Van, and tell her it’s fine, I grow up fine. I don’t become my father.
We left Kevin and his dad standing in the driveway.
Featured image: West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division