Then Cate moves into Dylan's mountain town. Enthusiastic and friendly, Cate seems genuinely interested in Dylan, who begins to reveal a bit about herself. But is Cate all that she seems to be? It's not entirely clear...and it takes the disappearance of Pilar's little sister to finally open Dylan's eyes. In a race against time to save a life, and desperate to focus her abilities so that she herself can survive, Dylan is forced to see more clearly than she ever has before.
Sight is a powerful and haunting story from the author of the highly acclaimed debut novel Skin. It will open the eyes of readers everywhere.
About the Author
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It is a wide-sky darkness, made pale by a full moon rising, the desert sand reflecting its glow. We follow a dirt road, our headlights devouring the tracks we made just hours ago, when there was still daylight, and hope. In every direction the desert and the night sky are following in each other's footsteps, pushing farther and farther into the empty distance until their edges press together at the horizon.
In my troubled half sleep the rocking of the truck makes me dream that we are a bird and the desert plains are our wings. We are soaring, and we are falling. I jerk myself awake before we hit the ground. Deputy Pesquera, in the driver's seat, glances over at me. Her uniform presses, limp and wrinkled, against her large frame; the carefully ironed creases of the uniform sweat loose in the cramped and airless interview room back in Salvation.
"It takes a lot out of you, doesn't it, Dylan?" she asks, straightening her back in a stretch that brushes the top of her head against the truck's roof. Her sheriff department hat lies in the backseat. Mom says Deputy Pesquera is big boned. My friend Frank says she's the best-looking linebacker he's ever seen.
I turn around in my seat and look through the back window, beyond the washed-out red of our taillights and down the road disappearing into the darkness behind us. Far in the distance I see the bare-bulbed lights of the low and wind-worn cement buildings that make up Salvation's town center.
We took the back route off Pine Mountain to get there, slowly winding our way down the little-used road, flanked by slopes of dry dirt and rock, instead of the thick groves of trees that cover the front side of the mountain. Rounding each blind corner, Deputy Pesquera would honk, warning anyone coming the other way to move back to their side of the narrow road. We stopped about halfway down the mountain, in Baker's Creek, the tiny town that's built into the only grove of scraggly trees on the back side of the mountain.
There's no creek. The place is named for an old mountain guy named Baker, who fought with the county to have a water supply put in. I stayed in the truck when the deputy went into Sheboa's new grocery store. They used to have a store up on our side of the mountain, right in the center of the village, but Mr. Sheboa said he got tired of the new Village Business Association making up rules he didn't want to follow, rules that only made things better for the flatlanders that clogged up the mountain on weekends. I kept the hood of my black sweatshirt up while I waited in the truck, even though there was no hint of the late fall chill I'd felt while I waited for the bus this morning. I pulled the strings on either side of the hood and cinched the face opening as small as it would go, until all sound was muffled and only the very edge of daylight could press against my closed eyes.
The thing about visions is, they hurt.
Darkness helps. It keeps the light from slicing behind the whites of my eyes and poking at the sore spot in my brain, the spot where, as I sat sweating outside Sheboa's grocery store, a flicking, pulsing picture showed itself to me again and again and again.
The good thing is, I was already sitting down when the vision first hit. There wasn't a long way to fall. In the vision I was in the desert, and it was dark. There was a hole dug in the sand in front of me, and a blue plastic barrel beside it. I was looking into the barrel. There was a girl inside, maybe ten years old. She looked up at me. There was black dirt caked at the corners of her mouth, and when she reached up for me, I saw her knuckles were bruised and torn. She'd fought.
When I came to, lying on the floor of the girls' bathroom, I saw three pairs of feet standing by the stall door. My friend Pilar, in black Converse high-tops like mine, peeked under the door first, holding her long braid to keep it from touching the floor. "Dude," she said, "did you just fall off the can?" Thea, in the black studded stiletto-heeled boots was next, squatting down and scowling at me. 'You drop a tampon?" MayBe's handmade ankle-length flannel skirt mushroomed out around her when she kneeled down to get a look at me. "You're okay, right? You might want to wash your face, though," she said as I lifted my head, peeling my cheek away from the tile floor. I lied to them. I lied so well that they laughed when I reenacted losing my balance while I reached for the toilet paper. Pilar still insisted on walking me to the nurse's office so I could get an aspirin, but I wouldn't let her wait for me there. I called the deputy from the nurse's office. "I've been expecting your call" she said.
The back side of the mountain slides right into the desert, the slopes of dirt and rock flattening out into an endless plain that made my head ache when I peeked out of my sweatshirt and tried to see its end.
When we got to Salvation, Deputy Pesquera drove slowly through the town, looking to see which of the small cement buildings was the police station. I stared out the window at the rusted metal screen doors and the faded signs marking the post office, grocery store, and restaurant. The restaurant was called The Devil's Chow, and we waited there for the local sheriff, who was "out in the flats," according to the note taped to the door of the police station.
Like the other buildings in town, The Devil's Chow was long and narrow with no windows. The setup of the restaurant gave anyone standing in the doorway a full view of everyone who was inside. And, I realized as we stood there, it gave anyone inside a good look at who was coming in. There was one row of five small plastic tables running parallel to the bar, a glass soda-bottle vase filled with desert wildflowers on each table. The tables were empty, but four of the five wooden stools at the bar were filled by slumping men in cowboy hats, who glanced at us long enough to look us down, up, and down again, their faces shadowed by the brims of their hats. One of them smirked at the badge on the deputy's chest and then looked back up with the others at the TV mounted in the corner.
"Can't we just wait in the truck?" I whispered.
"Sit wherever you'd like," the lady behind the bar said, not turning to look at us from where she was wiping down square bottles half-filled with liquids of various browns. I watched her, and noticed that she wiped the same bottles down over and over again.
I followed the deputy to the table closest to the door and sat down across from her. The men at the bar glanced at us again. The lady behind the bar didn't interrupt her cleaning to bring us menus or water, so I watched her wipe down bottle after already clean bottle. I didn't realize how closely I was watching her until she turned around and caught me looking.
"I forgot you were there!" she said, slapping her forehead so hard it made me flinch. She grabbed a water pitcher and two plastic glasses and walked over to our table. She clacked the glasses down in front of us, pulled two laminated menus out of her apron pocket, and slapped them down on the table. There was a name tag hooked crookedly on the apron, reading SARAH.
"You the ones here for Sheriff Len?" Sarah asked the deputy. "You his friend from up Pine Mountain?"
She overfilled our water glasses with a shaky hand, spilling water onto the table. She didn't clean it up. I caught the drip with the sleeve of my sweatshirt before it could spill into my lap.
"Yep," the deputy said.
"I went up there once, to Pine Mountain. Swam in the lake. Pretty place. Now, what was it I just heard about you all up there?" Sarah drummed her fingers against the water pitcher and looked absently out the door. "Something about..." She nodded slightly with a faint grin. "Paradise, right? You all voted and changed the name of the mountain from Pine to Paradise."
The deputy smiled and nodded her head. I waited for her to say what had really happened, but she didn't. She just picked up the plastic menu.
"That was a flatlander vote," I said, blinking against the pulsing fluorescent lights. Sarah looked at me. "They only let the businesses vote, and most of them are owned by flatlander suck-ups. They're the ones who wanted to change the name. Not us. It's not really changed till January first."
"So basically you locals got screwed?" Sarah said.
"Basically," I answered.
"Well, shit," she said, shaking her head. "That sucks." For a long moment it seemed like she was lost in thought about the injustice of our mountain being renamed out from under us. But then she looked down at me like she'd just noticed I was there. "How about a cheeseburger?"
"Sure," I said. The deputy nodded too. "Cokes and fries, too, please."
"I'm going to make one up for Sheriff Len, too. He's out in the flats, looking for my daughter, Tessa."
I swallowed a gasp and looked at Deputy Pesquera. She ignored me and said, "Is that so?" to Sarah.
"My mom was watching Tess yesterday afternoon." Sarah kept talking, but I couldn't look away from Deputy Pesquera. It felt like my insides had all gone brittle, and if I looked away from the deputy, if I looked at Sarah, my whole body would splinter apart in shame. It was her daughter, Tess, I'd seen in my vision that morning. And I knew that it was only a matter of hours before I broke Sarah's heart. "They live way out, if you can imagine a place more way out than this." The water pitcher sloshed in her shaking hand. "They looked for her last night. Len went out there. He told me to stay here, in case Tessa comes back. She knows where I work. He told me to stay here."
"That's the best thing you can do," the deputy said.
"I think I might be on...what do you call it. Autopilot? I'm going to pour you two your Cokes, tell Billy to make your burgers and fries, but really what I want to do" she said, looking down at me like she couldn't believe it "is scream. Am I screaming?"
I shook my head.
"What are you all doing down here, anyway?" she asked, staring out the door again. "Len said it was some kind of book report you were doing. You should wait though, to interview him, until he finds my..."
A truck with a decal reading SALVATION SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT passed by the restaurant. The tall man in the driver's seat didn't turn to look at us. He kept his head tilted down, the sheriff's hat shading his face. There was no one, no Tessa, in the seat next to him.
"You want, I can bring your order over to you," Sarah said, still staring at the now-empty dirt road. ' T i l bring it over when it's ready. Len said I should stay here, but I can bring it over."
"We'll just wait and take that to go, if you don't mind. It'll give the sheriff a few minutes to get settled," Deputy Pesquera said.
"Suit yourself," Sarah said, already walking away.
I lean my head back against the seat and close my eyes, faking a sleep that soon enough becomes real.
In the dream I'm standing in the wide, dark desert again, looking down into the hole that is deeper than it is wide. The large blue plastic barrel sits upright next to it, the adhesive from a peeled-off white label shining white in the moon's glow. Far in the distance I can see the murky outlines of downtown Salvation.
In the dream I think, I'm not supposed to he here again. I point to the barrel and say to the empty desert, I told you. She's in there. Behind me there is a sound of desert rocks knocking and crunching together. My whole body goes stiff. I stare at the town lights of Salvation in the distance. There is a sound of heavy footsteps coming closer. I am not alone out here.
In my sleep I think of the self-defense classes I took with my friends Pilar, MayBe, and Thea. Poke the eyes. Punch the throat. Twist and pull the gunnysack. Do NOT be polite. I scream when the arm slaps across my chest, and I wake up swaying hard to the right, the seat belt locking against me, my face smacking against the window and staying pressed there. I see my own eye's reflection in the window, and the sickening sight of the desert spinning around us. The crunch of the truck tires locked and scraping on the dirt is deafening. The truck finally jerks to a stop, rocking a little until it settles.
We are skewed sideways, half-on and half-off the road, a cloud of dust and small rocks settling around us, loudly peppering the roof, windshield, and hood. Deputy Pesquera is leaning forward and gripping the steering wheel with one arm. Her other arm is still pressed across me. "Mom-Arm," Pilar and I call this, as in the arm your mom flings in front of you to keep you from flying out the windshield. Deputy Pesquera moves her arm away from me and places it on the steering wheel.
"What did you say?" she asks calmly, still staring straight ahead.
My brain is still stuck in that inky sludge between being awake and being asleep, and it takes me a moment to get my mouth to work. "I was asleep." I push against the door, slowly righting myself in my seat, and look at the reflection of my cheek in the window, the same one I hit the floor with this afternoon. It's already starting to bruise. "Did we hit something?"
"We spun out," the deputy says, and then she laughs uneasily. "You must scare the crap out of your mom, yelling in your sleep like that. You sure scared the crap out of me."
"Screamed like a pissed-off mountain lion is more like it. Sounded like you were about to eat someone's face off."
"Well, you know," she says, absently putting on the voice she uses at school assemblies. "Those mountain lions are not cute little kitty cats. They will tear your face..."
"Is the truck okay?" I ask, looking through the windshield to where the headlights are pointed down a slope, casting a shadow against the brush below.
"Are you okay?" she asks, making me squint by turning on the overhead light. She looks hard into my face. "You look all right. Probably get a bruise, though. How many fingers am I holding up?" she asks, holding up her middle finger.
I laugh, and push her hand away.
"I'll check the truck," she says.
She leaves the door open, the electric ding, ding, ding, sounding lonely in the silence of the dark desert. Her boots crunch on the sand as she walks around the front of the truck into the light of the headlights, and then around to the back.
"Looks okay," the deputy says, getting in and closing the door.
"You should sleep, Dylan/' she says as she backs the truck up and sets it right on the road before driving again.
"No, thanks." I roll down my window, letting the cool wind wake up my skin.
I shake my head. The thing about dreams is, I'm not supposed to have them.
"Do you mind some music?" she asks.
"Whatever keeps you awake," I answer quickly, anxious for this conversation to end, for the chance to think the thoughts thrumming at the back of my mind.
"Oh, I'm awake, but this will keep me happy." She switches on the radio and turns the knob until there's a break in the popping static. "Thank God," she says, hearing the guitar-heavy classic rock song humming through the speakers. "I was afraid it'd be country."
"How far to the mountain?" I ask.
"A few hours. We'll get in way before sunup, especially taking the front way up."
I look out the window, letting my eyes lose their focus so that the dark desert streams by in a muddy blur.
My dreams stopped when my visions started. I was five years old, in kindergarten. This little kid in our class, Clarence, was kidnapped and killed on his way to school. At the very moment it happened, we were all sitting in a horseshoe shape on the cushy green story-time rug, singing "Frosty the Snowman," our shoeless feet stretched out toward the heater so that our socks could dry. When we'd gotten to school, there had already been enough snow to make snow angels on the playground, and as our socks dried, it looked like the snow had woven a thick white curtain outside the classroom windows.
The windows were steaming, making some of the paper snowflakes our teacher had taped there come loose and fall behind the bookshelves. Miss Donna, who was the teacher's helper and who we liked because she had a pretty voice and would sing us songs from the radio, walked around lightly squeezing our toes, to see if our socks were dry. Pilar and I kept lying on our backs and lifting up our feet to get her to squeeze them, so we could loudly whisper, "Oh, no, I'm ticklish!" and then tuck our feet under our bums to hide them.
Then our teacher, Mrs. Fenderson, motioned to Miss Donna like she was pretending to be on the telephone. Miss Donna nodded and stopped squeezing our toes. Something in my belly felt like it was slipping as I watched Miss Donna cross the room and pick up the phone on the wall by the door. The singing voices became a swollen, wordless hum underneath the sound of my own breathing and the terrible sound of the paper snowflakes unpeeling and falling from the windows. I watched Miss Donna's lips, and I saw her say the word "Clarence."
There was a feeling like when my dad would toss me up into the air and catch me again, a feeling like slipping on the wet dock and falling into the lake. My eyes rolled up, looking for darkness, my eyelids closed, and I saw Clarence. He was sleeping but not sleeping lying under a green tarp. I saw that he wasn't wearing his glasses or his favorite smooshy hat that was the same orangeyred color as his hair. There was heavy snow weighing down the branches surrounding him. The tip of one branch bent so low that a cluster of pine needles, frozen into a point, touched his bare ankle where his dark blue jeans had ridden up. He had no boots on, and he had no socks.
I pulled my eyelids open with my fingers, making the white electric light of our classroom and the snow outside wash out the image and dilute it until it was gone. Then I threw up. It felt so wrong, what Fd seen. Like seeing your own guts, or eating someone else's boogers.
I didn't tell my mom what Fd seen, not for days, because I knew that seeing things was worse than anything. Worse than overflowing the sink in the bathroom or going to my neighbor Ben's without permission. Seeing things was so bad, I'd been afraid of it happening my whole life. Before Clarence, and sometimes even after, my mom would walk suddenly into my room when I was playing and ask me who I was talking to. My dolls, I would tell her, holding one up for her to see. Sometimes I would feel her watching me as I ate my lunch or worked on a puzzle or watched a cartoon. She would ask me in a shaky voice, "Dylan, honey, are we alone in this room?" I knew the right answer to that question; I knew to nod my head and say, "Yes, Mommy." Saying yes to that question made my mom smile, made her hug me and tell me she loved me. I don't think I was lying to her. If I try to think back now, I don't remember seeing things, or talking to people that weren't there. But sometimes I think maybe I just wanted to disbelieve so much that I rubbed them out, erased them, like from a picture. Sometimes there are people-shaped holes in my memories.
Three days after Clarence disappeared, when they'd found his body in the woods, my mom and dad sat down on my bed to tell me softly that my friend had gone up to heaven. I'd been sick in bed since he'd disappeared, slipping in and out of a hot and restless sleep where the only dream that came was of Clarence, lying in the snow. After they told me, my dad got up to get my mom a tissue because she was crying. My mom smoothed the hair on my forehead, and the softness of her touch made the lump in my throat crack into a sob. She thought I was crying for Clarence, but I wasn't. I was crying for me. I was going to make my mom stop loving me because I wasn't strong enough to keep this secret anymore. "I'm sorry, Mommy," I said.
Mom held me so tight when she carried me into the police station that the thick beads of her necklace bit into my collarbone. We had fibbed to Daddy and told h im we were going to the doctor. Mom held me close until Sheriff Dean led us into his office, then she sat me on the edge of his desk and backed away from me, fingering the beads around her neck. Eleven years ago, Sheriff Dean was still the one you went to when something bad happened. He was the one who came when Thea's mom ran their Cadillac into a tree, and when someone stole the inflatable Santa Claus from in front of Sheboa's Grocery. Dean's still officially sheriff, but everybody knows he spends all his time in his office with his door closed, napping in his chair. It's Deputy Pesquera who does most of the real work now. But it was Sheriff Dean there when Clarence died, and it was him that M om made me tell what I'd seen. I told him that Clarence's feet were cold from the snow, and that he'd lost his glasses. I said that he was near a big green plastic sheet that was hung between two trees, like when mom let me make a fort in our den by spreading my Hello Kitty comforter between the chair and coffee table. I said that there was a man who was walking away from Clarence, leaning forward against the wind and the snow.
"She's right, isn't she?" my mom asked Sheriff Dean.
My mom didn't stop loving me. But I think now that maybe something in her love changed color, shifted from all bright colors to some shadows and muddy grays. I know what that's like. It happened to me, when my dad left us. My love for him stayed, but it was colored by the darkness of what he'd done.
Before that, though, when Daddy was still with us, when my mom brought me home from the police station that day, she said we shouldn't tell him what I'd seen. She said it was all gone now, and I didn't need to dream it anymore. What I heard was You shouldn't dream anymore. Never again. That's why my dreams come to me when I'm awake.
For months and months and years and years people were waiting for the Drifter to come back. To "strike again," like the newscasters say. But he never came back. And he never showed up anywhere else, either. He never terrorized some other mountain town, or some other city, or some other anything. Sheriff Dean had the Drifter's DNA, and he would have it compared to other DNA found on other kids who had been killed, all over the country. We used to tell one another he kept the DNA in a safe behind his refrigerator, because back then we didn't really know what DNA was. We thought it was a puzzle piece dropped out of the Drifter's body that he'd left behind, and all the police needed to do was find the body the piece fit back into.
Back then I didn't think the Drifter had feet, because drifting seemed like something a ghost would do float a foot above the ground, soundless and cold. I thought he floated off the mountain and into the sky. It made me feel better, to think that. I think that everybody, even the grown-ups, told themselves the same kind of story. It makes it easier to do things like breathe and say hello to your neighbors if you tell yourself he's gone.
The texture under the tires changes, the low rumble of the dirt road jolting into the smooth hum of pavement. Ahead of us the white neon lights of a gas station glow against the night sky. It's the first building weVe seen in over a hundred miles, and I'm guessing from the dark road ahead that there won't be any others until we get to the highway.
While the deputy pumps gas, I go inside the store and walk up and down the aisles, my stomach grumbling but my sleepy brain not able to make sense of the rows and rows of chips and canned ham. I end up at the orange counter that lines the window overlooking the gas pumps, watching the soft-bellied bean burrito I got in the freezer section turn slowly in the microwave's sick-looking yellow light. I can feel someone watching me, and when I can't see anyone to my left or right, I look up to see the counter man's reflection in the rounded security mirror mounted on the ceiling. He has his elbows resting on the counter, and he scowls at me when our eyes meet in the mirror. I look away, and see another reflection, this time of myself in the window. No wonder he scowled. I've got the hood of my black sweatshirt up, and my hands are shoved into its pockets, stretching the sweatshirt down so that my head is tipped back a little against its pull. I look at my tipped-up chin and the yellowing bruise on my cheek in the reflection and think, You talkin' to me? When Pilar and I drive cross-country, we'll be tough girls, glowering our way from truck stop to gas station to roadside diner. We'll smile only at waitresses, and we'll scowl at all the men. Maybe we'll kiss a boy or two before leaving them in the dust, but mostly we'll just strut with such long-legged attitude that everyone will assume we're on the run from the law.
You talkin to me? I think again, imagining myself walking up to the man behind the counter.
The deputy pulls my hair as she yanks down my hood.
"You're too cute to look like a convict," she says. "God, what is that smell? Are you going to eat that?" she asks, pointing to the rotating burrito.
I shrug, and run my fingers through my hair till it's sticking out in all directions. "I'm hungry."
The deputy looks at my hair and gives an exaggerated flinch. "Suit yourself, tough guy."
"That's 'tough lady,' thank you very much," I say as the microwave beeps and the display blinks OPEN, OPEN, OPEN.
"Do you want water?" the deputy asks, walking away.
"Root beer," I answer, trying to pull the burrito out of the microwave without burning myself. I end up wrapping it in paper towels.
The deputy has two large bottles of water and a package of trail mix sitting on the counter when I get there. I set the mummified burrito next to them, and head to the refrigerator to get my root beer.
When I get back to the counter, the deputy sighs. "Well, I guess that will cover up the taste of that dead-dog burrito."
When we're outside, the deputy says, "He wanted to search your pockets."
She opens my door for me. "He thought you were stealing."
"I wasn't stealing/' I say to the slamming door. As soon as she gets in I say it again. "I wasn't stealing."
"You sure?" the deputy asks.
Even though I'm secretly thrilled the guy thought I was badass enough to pocket an extra burrito, I do a furious and very effective emptying of my empty pockets. The only thing that comes out is a school-picture-size photograph that slips through the air and lands next to the stick shift. The deputy picks up the photograph. Tessa had straight hair down to her chin, her bangs cut high and crooked on her forehead. In the picture you can see she's missing her front teeth, and the teeth she does have are all pointing into each other. She looked like her mom.
"She was a cute kid," the deputy says, handing it back to me. I slip it back into my pocket.
I wait till she's pulling out of the gas station driveway before I throw the burrito out the window, making sure I give the finger to the guy who's still watching us from behind the counter when I do.
The deputy slams on the brakes and makes me get out to pick up the burrito which exploded into beany gooeyness when it hit the asphalt and throw it in a trash can. She doesn't make me apologize to the guy, though, and she lets me pick the chocolate out of the trail mix, which I think is decent.
It's only an hour before the mountain is in front of us, jutting up out of the flatlands, the winding road to the top looking from a distance like a snake pulling the mountain back into the ground.
The farther we get up the mountain, the greener the landscape gets, until the desert scrub and cactus have been replaced by thick groves of tall trees that tower over the road. We've kept the windows rolled down, even though the refreshing cool air of the desert has turned chill and damp on the mountain. We turn onto Lakeshore Drive, the main road that circles our town, cutting right through the village.
Mom says people used to joke that the center of town had anything you ever wanted, as long as all you wanted to do was drink a beer and shoot something. That was when it was still called the center of town, before the Village Business Association voted to change the name to "the village" because it made it seem more like a destination, more like "an outdoor shopping plaza," which is how they describe it on the official Pine Mountain website. Now that the gun store is gone and the liquor store's been remodeled to look like a place Santa Claus might live, the village is sort of painfully adorable. There are high wooden arches that curve over Lakeshore at either end of the village, carved with the words WELCOME on one side and THANK YOU FOR VISITING on the other. For the quarter-mile stretch of road between the two arches, it's supposed to feel like you're in an alpine village, especially when it snows. I've never been to an alpine village, so I wouldn't know. From our village, though, I'd guess the alpine ones have cute little brown-shingled stores with white trim and hand-carved signs and tub-gutted flatlander husbands sitting on benches flanked by oversize wooden flowerpots, waiting for their flatlander wives to finish buying pinecone ornaments.
"Roll up your window." The Deputy turns on the windshield wipers, smoothing away heavy drops of rain. "Glad this didn't hit us on our way up-mountain. I bet it freezes before morning. First snow's coming soon."
First snow's coming and he's coming back. We wrote that song about the Drifter together, Pilar, Thea, MayBe, and me. The summer after Clarence died, we spent a lot of time sitting in the shaded dirt under my back porch. Our house is built into the side of the mountain, so the back porch sits on stilts stretching twenty feet down. Even if we stood against the house, where the porch was closest to the ground, there was no way we could jump up high enough to touch the porch's underside.
We were allowed to sit under the porch when M om was sitting in a lawn chair, reading under an umbrella, in the thin strip of grass between the back porch stilts and the chunk of forest that separates our house from our neighbors', the Abbotts. M om would glance up at us before she turned every page. Me and my friends sat in the dirt and made up that song, line by line, and then sang it quietly to ourselves over and over and over again.
It's weird, having happy memories of that song. Not the song so much, but what we'd do when we sang it. We'd sing the song almost absently, while we braided one another's hair, played cat's cradle, or dug holes in the dirt with twigs. The song was a soundtrack to that summer and, less and less, to the years after it. I felt safe, singing it, surrounded by my friends, my mom close by in her lawn chair. Even now, sometimes one of us will sing a snippet of the song in the same absent way.
Just past the village the constant curtain of trees that flank the road is interrupted by a wide and hard-packed dirt road that cuts straight down to the lake. I crane my neck to see the giant flattened patches of dirt that mark where the new houses are going to go up. A bulldozer with its scoop raised sits in the moonlight. Behind it the lake spreads out, houses dotting its shores.
At the top of the dirt road is a giant wooden sign, reading THE WILLOWS: OWN A PIECE OF THE FOREST IN THE SKY and under that, scrawled in still-dripping red spray paint, is You Prick. Deputy Pesquera makes a growling sound in her throat. I look back out the window and see two figures crouched down at the foot of the sign, trying to hide from view behind one of the thick poles. Even with them in the shadows I recognize the square head and hulking figure of my friend Frank, and, next to him, the long-limbed gawkiness of Thea's brother, Cray. I turn away from the window, trying to keep them from seeing me, and trying to keep the deputy's attention away from the sign. I glance at her, but she's still looking straight ahead. At first I think she didn't see anything, but then she says, "You tell your friends they're playing with fire."
I close my eyes.
"You're not asleep, Dylan," she says. "Tell them they're playing with fire and I'm the fire hose that's going to put them out."
I keep my eyes closed. "I'm not going to tell them that."
"Why not?" she asks sharply.
I sigh, and keep my eyelids pressed together. "Because that's stupid. 'You're the fire hose.'"
I shrug and then yawn so hard that I have to open my eyes. I look at her. "I'll tell them they're playing with fire and you're going to piss them right out."
She laughs hard, then points at me. "Watch your mouth!" And then laughs again, slapping the steering wheel and breathing deep. "Jeezum Crow, what a night. Right?"
"Are you all right?" she asks.
"I just need some sleep."
"Tell your mom I'll call her tomorrow and brief her on what happened."
I groan. "You'll brief her?"
"You know the deal," she says. "It's either that or she comes with you next " The deputy interrupts herself by clearing her throat.
I finish the sentence for her. "Next time. And I don't want her to come with me. It's bad enough that you tell her what it's like."
"I don't understand." She sighs.
"No, you don't." The thought of my mom there, watching me, makes my stomach clench.
The headlights do little to puncture the inky darkness of my dead-end street. This slope can feel almost vertical when you're driving up it on a snowy winter day. The only other house on the street is Ben Abbott's house. The Abbotts are downslope from us, so sometimes in the winter we end up just leaving our truck in their driveway and walking the rest of the way home. As we pass by Ben's house, I see the rambling white farmhouse through the trees, and the barn beyond it.
"Ben's a good kid," the deputy says.
I stifle a laugh. What does that even mean, good kid? I know what the deputy thinks it means. That she's never had to come down to the school to arrest him for slashing the tires on a weekender's sports car, that she sees h im at Sheboa's or whatever the hell it's called now, with his mom and little brothers, carrying grocery bags for his mom. Ben is a good kid, even though he seems hellbent on changing that. I'm surprised I didn't see him crouched down with Frank and Cray by the Willows sign. For a while now I've watched as he's gone through a sort of transformation. He's still the same Ben with the crooked smile, flannel shirts, sort of smooshy face, and goofy laugh but it's like he's trying to get himself a starring role on When Good Kids Go Bad, which even though it's not technically a TV show, it could be. It's sort of cringe-making to watch Ben laugh too loud at Frank's stupid blockhead jokes, and to watch the way Ben sort of postures that he's going to be this old mountain tough guy.
Deputy Pesquera pulls in behind Mom's truck. I'm so happy to see our little house with its A-shaped roof that I swallow back tears. I love how the roof slopes almost all the way to the ground to keep the snow from piling too high, and how its triangle shape looks just like the trees I used to draw when I was little.
"That's okay," I say when the deputy starts to open her door. 'You said you'd brief her tomorrow, right?"
"Right. Well, good night, then."
Inside the house I click the dead-bolt lock into place and wave at Deputy Pesquera through the window.
I drag myself up our narrow staircase and stand for a long time in front of the open bathroom door, scowling. There's a slow-motion debate going on in my head. Go pee now, and avoid getting up in the middle of the night and losing sleep. Skip the bathroom and go right to sleep, and get to sleep sooner. I decide to fall down where I am and sleep in the small hallway that connects my room, my mom's room, and the bathroom we share.
"Was it her?"
Mom's been watching my internal battle from her bedroom doorway. Instead of answering, I stand back up and go into the bathroom.
I sit on the toilet, and fall asleep. M om wakes me up by knocking on the bathroom door and whispering, "Was it her?"
I flush, to drown her out, and wash my hands. I don't brush my teeth and I don't wash my face, but I do put in my retainer. Mom has the unique and infuriating ability to tell if my teeth have shifted overnight.
I open the bathroom door and walk past Mom, giving her what I hope is a conversation-ending nod, and go into my room. I flop face-first onto my bed, the wrought-iron bed frame creaking in protest. The covers jump and fall around me, and cover half of one leg. Good enough. I manage to flick off one shoe; the other hangs on to my big toe.
"Was it her?" Mom has ignored my nod.
I keep my eyes closed and groan, hoping she can tell it means yes.
"I'd hoped...it was a false alarm. Where was she?"
I don't answer. I want to sleep. I want to sink down, down, down into a warm dark empty place. She waits till I fall asleep for a moment and asks again, "Where was she?"
My body stiffens. I don't lift my head, but say into my pillow, "Can't you just watch the news like everybody else?"
She makes a clucking sound. She's not happy. She likes to know what I know, what I told the police, and what I saw. I sigh and roll over so I can glare at her. She sits on my bed and takes my hand. Then she starts to untangle my hair with her fingers.
"I want to sleep, Mom."
She works my hair, and hums.
I'm still glaring at her. "Then let me sleep."
She shakes her head and whispers, "Not yet. Where did they find her?"
I clench my jaw and sigh through my nose. Mom and I both highly value communication through sighing. She answers back with a whistler: making the slightest space between her lips and letting the air make a high-pitched exit. I keep my eyes locked with hers as my face reddens, my throat tightens, and tears burn my eyes.
"Where was she?" Mom whispers. She lies down, facing me, on the bed, and takes my hands in hers. I turn and bury my face in the pillow and cry.
She lets me. I finally turn to her, wiping my face on the pillow, and stammer out: "In the desert outside of town. In a barrel that smelled...She thought it smelled like...Her dad had this chemical stuff he used to take the MY CHILD IS AN HONOR STUDENT bumper sticker off of his truck...."
Mom shakes her head and makes an Oh, no noise. She rubs my back, which makes me cry harder.
"That's what it smelled like. It made her throw up and it felt like it was cutting into her head like when you stick your thumbnail in a lima bean and split it in half."
Mom sighs and rolls over onto her back. She wipes her eyes with her robe. I watch more tears well up and roll down her cheeks.
"Mom, he knew. Her father knew. Right then, right when she...He was thinking to her, 'I'm with you, I'm with you, I'm with you.' She heard him, and then she died."
I don't tell her about the dream, about the sound of crunching rocks behind me in the desert.
Mom cries for a little longer. Then she gusts out a cry-ending sigh and, standing up, says, "You did good. Sleep now."
She squeezes my hand and kisses me on the forehead.
She gets up and pulls the covers out from under me, so she can pull them over me. She lingers at the door and looks at me as she turns out the light.
"Good night," she says.
I study the glowing stick-on star constellations on my ceiling. I'm emptied out. A slack balloon. It's what Mom wanted. She knows if I tell her about it, what I saw will leave me, at least for a while. Long enough for me to fall into a dreamless sleep. Mom will carry it into her room, sit in the chair by the window, and see it all for herself while I sleep. Copyright © 2007 by Adrienne Maria Vrettos