I am eleven the spring Demonman comes, first to the alley behind the Kroger, where the dumpsters reek like fermented orange juice, then to the train tracks by the boarded-up video store, then to the Harding mansion, still for sale, then to a snot-colored van with flattened tires. He comes to our nightmares, our whispered worries, to newspapers and televisions and notices in the post office. He’s called something else, a different name, although, of course, he is still Demonman. Since the shootings upstate, the police struggle with the race riots, but they claim to be searching for him, following the leads.
“We are confident,” police say on the news. “We are narrowing in.” But everyone has seen cell phone videos of crazy police shootings. They are as afraid and angry as we are.
“The world is ending,” my mother says. She hangs raspberry leaves for drying, and looks to my father who dreams of robots.
“I’m wondering,” he says, “whether self-driving cars let you sit in the driver’s seat.” He spins a micro-screwdriver around his thumb.
Then Demonman comes to our bike path and our forest, to the white pines with the biggest pinecones, between the first bridge and the second one. He comes to the place where my sister, Laura, and I learned to rollerblade, where our mother gathers red clover for sunspot salve, and where our father pretends to go with his recumbent on Saturdays. Demonman comes when Laura is running, practicing for cross-country, when the sun is out and the glint of other people’s windows shines through the trees. The laughter at the duck pond is loud enough she can hear it, and she screams and claws and throws up on her shirt. Demonman wins. Of course he wins.
“Were you wearing headphones?” the policewoman asks her. “Were you by yourself?”
Laura goes into the room with the metal door. She gives them her sports bra and her fingernails. Then she doesn’t speak again. Demonman keeps her voice, and my parents buy me a phone.
“At all times,” my mother says. “I want it with you at all times.”
All the girls have phones like mine, now, sudden gifts from our parents. We have two kinds of hearts: fire hearts and water hearts. The water girls stay inside with their computers and magazines. They write in their journals and read us their poems. They want to walk us home, want to whisper in suffocating groups. They get flooded up and take turns crying. The fire girls cannot sit still. We wriggle at our desks. We fingernail our pencil erasers into scraps of rubber. We break bottles and rip paper, spend satisfying hours demolishing bubble wrap. Our bicycles call to us. Surely our meadows and pastures would not turn against us. We feel Demonman watching in the late spring thunderstorms. His eyes flicker and flash with the lightning. He doesn’t care what’s inside our hearts.
“Laura,” I text on my new phone, which is pink like raw salmon. “Dad’s making cupcakes!” She gets to finish junior year from her bedroom. Marla Finney brings homework and talks enough for both of them. She has poems, Marla Finney, poems and poems.
“Laura!” I text, “I ran an eight-minute mile!” I offer her exclamation points, like ladders to the surface.
“Laura! Mom’s taking me to Fury Road!”
“Laura! If we were in the Hunger Games, you would beat everyone!”
Laura has even stopped texting. They’ve been calling her “the fifth Jane Doe,” as if they were a herd of deer. Our town is small enough, though, that anonymity is only a pretense. My phone has an emoji of Demonman, with a round red face and eyes like pink fried eggs. His smile glints like a zipper, and beside him, the robot pretends he is fine. The first time I find Demonman, I put three in a text and send it to Laura. It’s fire girl rashness, but there is no undo button. I send her three frog faces and the crying face, so she knows I am sorry.
Laura used to sing, all the time, like an annoying bird, but now I never know if she’s home when I call her. She could be huddled under the blanket watching reality shows. She could be curled up in the window seat, staring at the neighbor’s driveway. Of course she is home. Where would she go?
“Laura!” I say at dinner. “I made you a bracelet!” It’s made of cedar bark, and it took me two hours.
“Put it by her plate,” my mother says.
My father has roasted rhubarb and sliced raw red peppers because Laura will only eat red things: tomatoes, strawberries, cinnamon bears. We’re all drinking cranberry juice, eating pickled beets and pomegranate seeds.
“I grilled your steak rare,” My father tells Laura, and she does eat the pink. We watch her, now, like a weather forecast.
The edges of the meat turn gray on Laura’s plate, and my father squirrels them away for that place he goes when he tells us he’s going somewhere else. There’s a dog there, I think. Or maybe a wolf.
“Spaghetti tomorrow?” I say to him while I’m swabbing the dishes, but I’m wondering, a Chihuahua or a Doberman? “With red sauce? Sundried tomatoes?”
“I’m waiting for the day when the good drones are affordable,” my father says. He stares through the window at the moon that’s risen. He’s thinking of the place where he goes. He’s wishing he had a baseball bat and a rifle, that he’d followed Laura on every single run.
Upstairs, Laura is breathing. I would eat Demonman if I could.
In my room, I glue the spiked brown balls from the sweet gum tree into hedgehog shapes. I text Laura the water drop emoji, three drops, like rain, but going sideways. I text the fire emoji with the red sparks shooting upward. I text her a question mark, as in, what will help you? Outside, the big dipper scoops the neighbors’ roof, and Arcturus gleams like Demonman’s teeth. It’s late when my phone buzzes. She’s texted the volcano, texted the roaring wave, texted a night sky with stars so cold I shiver as if their loneliness were my loneliness, too.
* * *
After school the next day, my feet burn on my bike pedals, and I speed past our house, speed past the corner where the water girls trade paperbacks. The meadow blurs with aching greens, yellow bursts of wood sorrel, spatters of violet. The horse chestnuts wave gaudy pink tassels, and then I’m among white pines, on that straight stretch of path where Laura was running. Signs sprout from the grass like porcupine quills. “Our Hearts are With You.” “One Rape is Too Many.” The police have tried, too. “Anyone with Information Regarding.” The signs are wet from the rain and the ink is running.
There’s a vase of plastic flowers, a soggy teddy bear, a cross of gold plastic, as if Laura had died here. The path is empty, but fire and water are everywhere. “When We Catch You We Will Castrate You.” I text Laura six roses, one for each plastic flower. I text the bear face and, accidentally, the camel. I can’t find a cross, so I leave it out, but I take a photo of the signs and send it. She may never come to our forest again.
She texts back immediately: two white shoes and one soccer ball. She sends it twice. The white old-man shoes stand on tiptoe, worn by ghosts. The soccer ball sits there, expecting to be kicked.
The old Laura would be joking, so I reply with the flamenco dancer, the man in the bathtub, the riderless skis. But she sends them again: a shoe, a soccer ball, a shoe. Something skitters, and I spin to look behind me. A golden retriever sniffs the dandelions. The man holding the leash has a Rams jersey and a look that says, “You should know better.” He opens his mouth to say it out loud, but I’m already pedaling, down the hill, across the footbridge, past the duck pond with the fluffy new geese. I don’t want to hear what I already know.
At dinner, I stir my borscht, then dip the bread, which is the only thing edible. The old Laura would never stand for it, would never stand for my father’s new acrylic sweater, which is a strange whitish blue. My mother fingers the weave of the cardigan knitted from wool she spun herself and tries not to look at him. The new Laura drinks her strawberry-flavored milk. I consider the shoes and the soccer ball. My mother considers the tiny screws scattered around my father’s plate. My father considers the television, where muted newscasters discuss riot gear and pepper spray. Protestors scream at officers with the blank, black faces of machines. We blend the sour cream.
“I’ve been wondering about Roombas,” my father says. “Think I’ll stop by the mall after I drive Laura to choir practice.” Laura doesn’t sing at practice, but the counselors say it’s good for healing. The old Laura would tell him, “At least be straight with us,” and we consider, all of us, the space where her words would be. This Laura eats borscht like it’s her favorite thing.
“Think I could build a housecleaning robot?” my father asks me.
I’m supposed to step up, maybe, to be Laura, but I can’t. I eat the bread.
* * *
That night, kicking the bed sheets, I remember Laura was barefoot when they found her.
“He knew she was fast, and he took them,” my mother told me at the police station.
Had they found the shoes? I watch cirrus clouds scroll around the first quarter moon. Last summer, we drove to Saint Louis to see the women’s team, and Abby Wambach signed Laura’s running shoes. They were her lucky shoes, the ones she wore last fall when the team swept the Warrensville Invitational. She was top seven every time she wore them.
The clouds swirl and I make a plan for tomorrow, but my fire heart flickers and won’t let me sleep. Asking Laura to go another day without the Abby shoes is worse than expecting her to eat the awful mashed potatoes. In the movies, people sneak out by climbing trellises and drain pipes, but my mother is sleeping, and my father has gone to that place that he goes. I leave through the front door.
The bike trail seethes with human-made light, milky yellow streetlights and murky gold lanterns. The grass is black carpet, the dandelions glowing. It’s bright enough to read signs, to see that someone has left another animal for Laura, a greenish duck with a purple bill. From the sphere of light, the forest is ashen, silver leaves and glistening trunks.
Dead leaves scrape my ankles as I turn the phone into a flashlight. I slip through the dogwoods, wind around alders. Every few minutes, the phone light dims, and for a few seconds the forest shifts into shadow shapes, waving and rustling. The ground slants, a long hill to the river, and I slide, grabbing at leaves and the soft, damp soil. Lazy thunder rumbles far away. Demonman knows, and he’s watching.
At the bottom of the hill, the phone is no match for the darkness. In daylight, I would know the names, could tell indigobush from honeysuckle, but in the dark, the leaves are only textures, glossy, stubbled, serrated. What would Demonman do with shoes?
I pause by alligator bark that might be a cottonwood and text Laura a white shoe, two trees, and a magnifying glass. Lightning embroiders the canopy while I wait, and the nameless leaves shake and toss. At the top of the hill, the trees sway above the path in anxious silhouette. Laura is sleeping, or she has nothing to say. I can’t see the Sangamon, but I hear the gentle drift and lap of the water. When I move, the mud slicks and slides under my shoes. Lightning flickers, and a strange distant rushing moves through the undergrowth, regular and plodding. It rustles the bushes, approaching steadily. Maybe he buried them. The phone battery icon flashes red.
I type the sad cat face in a message to Laura, and rain taps the leaves by the time I hit “send.” In the pause between the lightning and the thunder, the rushing grows to crashing, a large dark shape among all the darkness. The fire in my heart urges speed and adrenalin, but the rain streaking my cheeks reminds me to tiptoe. It’s hard to be sneaky when you can’t see the ground, but the wind and the thunder have chosen no sides. I creep up the hill, and in the spaces between roaring and growling, I hear the gust of ragged breathing. Tiny branches break and snap, and I smell something animal, thick and rank, a massive shape prowling the undergrowth. By the time I reach the path, rain falls thick as tinsel. The stuffed duck looks up, like, please don’t leave me. I grab it and pedal hard for home.
By the time I’m in the living room, everything is sopping. I leave the drenched duck next to Laura’s bed. In my room, thunder sways the curtains. Try that again, Demonman says in his wind voice. Just try that again. I lie awake for the long angry storm, and then a long time after.
* * *
In the morning, at breakfast, my father and I have matching eye hollows, jittering hands that stir flax seeds into our oatmeal.
“You’re a pair,” my mother says, offering me alfalfa honey. “Trouble sleeping, Amelia?” She brews me her homemade nightmare tea: hibiscus, lemon rind, and chamomile, but she forgets my father’s raisins on purpose, leaves him to rummage the pantry on his own. Upstairs, Laura is at least playing music, listening to the choir playlist as if she were practicing for her upcoming concert. Normally, I’d be glad she wasn’t singing, too, but my father stays in the kitchen to sketch circuits on a napkin. He goes into his study, leaves the breakfast untouched. On the front of the newspaper a pharmacy burns, a woman cries, a police officer folds his stony arms. My mother bows her head and gathers the coffee things.
“What is wrong?” I ask, though it will be useless.
“Nothing,” she says. “Why would anything be wrong?”
* * *
At school, at recess, the field is off-limits now, the whole swath of bluestem, sedge, and rye, all the way to the cottonwoods along the back.
“Another girl,” Emeline says. “By the bus depot.”
“Yesterday,” Charity says.
They glance to see if I can handle the details. I stand in the huddle and hold their eyes. I love how they say everything.
“My mom won’t let me go anywhere,” Jenny says, spinning her heels on the concrete. She’s a fire girl, but she swallows without meaning to.
The boys take turns jumping off of a picnic table. The field is off-limits for them, too. Their shoes smack and smack the pavement.
“She was only fourteen,” Emeline says. “Up at the middle school.”
“Olivia,” Jenny says. “Olivia Traynor. We have hockey together.”
We look out at the field, at the clusters of red pine, the lone white oak. If the teachers think Demonman is out there, maybe he is.
After lunch, Officer Rand comes to talk to us. He sits on the edge of Ms. Gillman’s desk, the same way he sat last year when he came to explain about saying no to drugs.
“It’s a serious time,” Rand says. “I need all of you to be very careful.”
We have two black boys in our class, and I see them in the front row as they look at Rand’s gun, holstered right there on his hip. George looks at Vincent and makes a certain kind of face. Last year, we laughed at Rand’s jokes and jostled for extra crime hound stickers, but now it’s hard to think about that gun. George puts his head down on his arms, not looking at Rand, not looking away. Vincent holds his pencil so hard his fingernails turn white. Ms. Gillman sees them, and she lets them be angry. She lets us all be angry.
We pack up our things, and Laura’s texted me a duck and a question mark. Rand waits by the door for Ms. Gillman. When I stand next to him, the holstered gun sits just below my chin.
“How can I help you?” he asks, and his smile is difficult to look at.
“The forest,” I say, thinking of the crashing, of the dark shape and the sour smell. “My sister’s shoes—”
“No,” Rand says, before I can finish. “Stay out of the forest. That’s what I’ve been telling you. Out of the meadows, away from the river. You need to look out for yourselves. We can’t be everywhere, as much as we want to be.” He looks out at the classroom. “All of you, stay out of the forest. Keep to populated areas. Just until we get this settled.”
Vincent shakes his head, just barely, and I remember the fort where the boys play by the river. I’ve seen them laughing, waving things, have wished, too, for a place like that. I think of the cell phone videos, the boy with the toy gun at the playground, the boy buying candy too late at night. Rand’s boots do not belong in our woods. They do not belong anywhere near us.
“Of course,” I say, and then I’m pounding the pedals, snarling the air. If I could go fast enough, the wind would turn icy, cold enough even to quiet my heart.
When I finally stop by the side of the path, toss my bike among the tilting signs and sodden flowers, I see all the leaves I kicked up in the dark, see trampled plants too big for my trampling. I pick up sticks and hack at the tree trunks until they splinter, machete the bushes as I skid down the hill into puddles and muck.
Was Laura here? Did he really bring her all the way down here? Laura is beautiful the way a knife is beautiful, with thin sharpness and fierce edges. We’re too old now for wrestling, but I remember trying to hold her, fighting that muscle, losing to her strength. The old Laura would bite and twist forever. At what point in the forest did the old Laura become the new one? I search the rhododendrons for dark strands of her hair. From the bottom of the hill, I can’t see the houses, can’t hear the duck pond. I touch bark until my breathing softens: elm, alder, silver maple. The water in my socks reminds me how I should have been patient. By daylight, one purple Abby shoe hangs like an ornament, strung at the top of a knobby ash tree.
Demonman may be tall enough to reach it, but I have to dig my knees into bark. The mud makes my shoes too slippery, and I kick them off, climb in my socks. A grackle calls a grinding song; the branches sway; a cardinal flashes. I sit midair and look out at the forest, let the leaves sweep the anger out of my hair. It feels like hours before I reach the shoe, unhooking its laces and throwing it to the ground. I’m grateful for the way the bark burns my hands, for the scrapes on my knees where I pushed against the trunk. The sap on my fingers won’t wash off easily. Later, when I’m stuck inside with the television, the forest will still be on my skin. I’ve thrown the sneaker into my backpack and am looking for the other, when I see a glimmer in the trees.
Flashes of brightness dance among the birch and alder, and a faint, fragile sound hovers, like the tine of a fork brushing a plate. Bottles float high among the leaves, colored glass: white, green, gray. He’s suspended them, and they hover with Demonman magic. I creep close before I notice the cord, looped around necks, lashing the branches. The leaves brush the glass with a soft ringing, and I count six bottles, one for each girl. They hang in the trees, like decorations for a party. Which one is Laura’s? Only one has the soft green of the first willow leaves.
On my phone, there are no emoji bottles, but I text her the milk jug with its little white cup. I send her six milk jugs, interspersed by trees. Did she see them? Did she know?
I’m considering the elm tree that holds them, its massive branches, its straight, smooth trunk, when I notice smoke drifting through the undergrowth. A thin wisp weaves among the trees, thicker smokes billows by the river among the rocks and the boulders. I can almost hear the popping wood, the snap of flames. It’s a comforting smell, full of camping memories, but the shadows near the boulders are deep and oily. The forest rustles with heavy sounds. There’s never been a fire that I have turned away from, but I slip up the hill and pedal for home.
My mother has taken Laura to a counseling appointment, so I leave the Abby shoe by her bed. At least it is the one with the signature. White shoe! I text her. White shoe and sun! The exclamation points bristle with false optimism, but other punctuations feel like a betrayal.
I look for my father in the empty house. His Volvo still sits in the driveway. Has he gone to look for me? My stomach twists, and I check his workroom with its heaps of metal, wander the hives in my mother’s garden. Then, I stand on the porch and squint down the sidewalk. This is why I am outside when the van pulls up.
It’s a white van with pink flower stickers stuck to its windows, insisting on happiness, relentlessly, and with vigor. My father sits in the front seat, and he is talking. She has hair as blonde as a camera flash, and she laughs as he talks. He talks and talks. It must be minutes. He’s never ever talked this long. The woman sees me, and a look comes into her eye, but she smiles so lines spin from the corners of her eyes. After a while, the door clunks open, and my father steps out. He has a smile like a flower, too, bright and blossoming, almost colorful.
“I built a drone,” he says, climbing the porch. He waves to the flower van as it drives away. “What have you been up to?”
I show him my phone, and we consider the emojis, I show him the white van and all the other ways of leaving: the rocket ship, the cable cars, the cruise ship on its placid sea. I show him the game controller that looks like our game controller, the orange cat that resembles our cat.
“Sake.” My father points at the milk jug with its white cup. “There’s an emoji for everything.”
There is no gold plastic cross. There is no chain of strung glass bottles. I show him the white shoes and the soccer ball, show him the volcano and the roaring wave. I show him the clocks like the clock in our kitchen, plain white clocks with lots of different times.
“Such an interesting language,” he says, as if he were an anthropologist. “These universal, Jungian symbols.”
My mother and Laura come home, and Laura holds a pink t-shirt and a bag of puffy fabric paint.
“I want to show you what I built,” my father says to my mother. “It’s in the study.”
Laura should ask “What? What kind of thing?” But they leave us together in the kitchen.
“Something is happening,” I tell her. What I mean is, we need you, we need you, we need you.
She’s arranging the fabric paint, looking it over. I text her the white van, text her a smiling yellow man, a pink flower, exuding rigorous happiness. If she won’t speak, I wish she would at least touch my arm, would brush the hair out of my eyes. She does text the dancing girls, after a moment, two girls in black dresses and rabbit ears, perfectly matching.
* * *
Dinner is quiet, even though it’s Friday and we’re allowed to drink one soda. Friday night, and no one goes anywhere. My mother jots a list of supplies for canning. My father considers the silent television where angry people brandish signs telling what they think. Laura eats the red skins from her potatoes, eats her barbequed pork without any bun. None of our phones even ring.
“What’s on TV tonight?” I ask just to hear a voice. I think about Officer Rand and the shoes and the hanging glass bottles. My words feel imprisoned, hemmed by perilous subjects.
“I’m thinking about trying to build a computer,” my father says.
“Why not a generator,” my mother says. “Why not something useful.” She puts down her fork and gets up from the table.
We wait a few moments, but she doesn’t come back. Laura drifts up to her room. My mother drifts to the basement, to her jugs of water and rows of cans. My father drifts to the workroom, to his sketches and circuits. There’s extra news on the television, some kind of judge arrested, but my eyes drift to the sycamore leaves and the hanging birdfeeder. What will be left when we all drift away?
Upstairs, Laura is cutting up the Abby shoe, hacking its sole with our mother’s loppers. Scraps of sneaker cover the floor, purple laces, blue stripes, chunks of textured purple rubber. Even Abby’s signature is chopped to bits.
“Laura,” I say, because I climbed for that shoe.
She keeps cutting, the sound of the blades like a bone popping into socket.
I search through the scraps for Abby’s blue Sharpie, puzzle the pieces into a semblance of her name. Then I rummage the sewing room for a carpet needle and the thickest thread I can find. Laura rustles a garbage bag, runs the vacuum. By the time I’m done sewing, the only light in the house comes from my father’s workroom. It glows under the door like a quiet lantern.
Before bed, I see Laura’s texted me lines of images: leaves and ants, leaves and ants.
It’s not until morning that I understand what she means, when I wake up certain the fire in my heart is erupting from my legs. My shins bloom with poison ivy. The skin cracks and oozes, blisters and seethes, a natural disaster and I can’t look away.
“I thought we’d pulled all that up from the yard. That stuff never, ever dies.” My mother shakes her head as she goes for the Tecnu. “Forest urchin, I thought you knew better.”
I do know better, and I’m angry. The itch is so fierce it trembles my hands. Laura looks up from her strawberries at the counter, then texts me the woman with her arms in an X. Whatever you’re doing, she means, stop it. I remember how her hand ballooned with it, so swollen it seemed alien, the most terrible thing in a terrible series. She would have known she was in it, would’ve recognized the leaves. The ants are a new detail, and I wonder how many, how big they were. I wonder where they crawled and how.
“It was for you,” I say, but I text Laura a snake and a question mark, text her the knife and the bomb because maybe there were other things. Who knows what other things there were? She responds with another line of ants and leaves. She sends Demonman in case I’ve forgotten.
When my mother comes back with the bottle, my father is with her. Laura considers the red the strawberries have left on her fingers, and I scratch my arm and pretend it’s my leg. Someone should say something, but no one says anything.
He opens the garage door. We hear him start the car.
“Maybe you want to make your shirt?” my mother looks at Laura. “Amelia can go with you to the gym.” She sticks her twisted handkerchief in the green pocket of her apron, then goes to the dishwasher to retrieve the sterile Mason jars.
In my pocket I have Abby Wambach’s signature, stitched together on light purple leather. I thought I would keep it, would wait for the day when old Laura comes back and wants it. Wherever old Laura is, though, she may stay there forever.
* * *
At the YMCA, Laura runs like an explosion on the treadmill. Her feet pound the belt, and she mashes the button to turn up the speed: 7.0, 7.5, 8.0, 8.5. I’m right next to her, on my own treadmill, but there’s no keeping up with her. I finish my two miles and wait on the bench between the water fountain and the shelves of towels. Old Laura would have said how many miles she was going, but new Laura is a mystery and doesn’t care who is waiting.
Running-Laura is the only Laura that looks the same as she did before Demonman. She’s got good form, strong arms, a steady stride. As I’m watching, though, something twitches in her side, and she hitches, grabs the rails for support. She heaves her feet off of the moving belt and stands on the edges of the treadmill, knuckles white, shoulders throbbing. She might look like someone who has pushed herself too far, and I wait for a gym attendant to come over, to press a hand to her shaking arm. The cyclist keeps cycling. The elliptical people move their legs in the air. A man does decline crunches with a medicine ball.
I text Laura the girls with their matching bunny ears, as in, come back. Come back to me. I watch her pick up her phone, and I wait for her to turn around, but after a few minutes, she hoists herself back onto the belt, and then she runs for a long, long time.
* * *
At home, my mother is dying wool, using homemade dye, verdant and unctuous. “Stop scratching,” she says, eyeing my legs. “Everyone is waiting for you to do the bathroom and dust the bookshelves.”
It’s a lie because no one is waiting for anything. My father isn’t even home. The irises are blooming, indigo and orange like splatters of paint. The cumulous clouds tremble like cottonwood fluff, and I look at the newly canned strawberry jam on the counter and think of the second Abby shoe, think of those glass bottles, suspended in the trees. Maybe that’s what happened with Laura’s voice, with everyone’s voice. Maybe all of our voices are stopped up inside bottles.
It’s hot enough that the dust sticks to my arms, and the shade of the forest is as cool as the river. At the bottom of the hill, poison ivy creeps and slithers. The leaves wave in the wind, pleased I’ve returned. I try to avoid it as I wind through birch trees, searching for a purple shoe overhead in the canopy, but I’m in a hurry, and the edges of the leaves trace my ankles in the way my mother used to rub my neck at bedtime. I tell myself there is a point where poison ivy has done so much it can’t do anything more, but I know this is only a story.
Eventually, I see sunlight glinting glass, high up, higher than I’d remembered. I’ve always loved the way elm trees cathedral their branches, arcing solid and sturdy, like timbers in a cabin. The trunks, though, don’t encourage climbing. They’re too straight, too determined. Climbing an elm tree is a battle of wills. I dig in with fingers and knees, press my cheek against the trunk, wrap my legs so the rasp of the bark against my rash is harsh, but also soothing. Paper-thin seedpods, raspy samaras, spiral down from the canopy and catch in my hair. Once I reach the lowest branches, the climbing is easier. I rest for a moment and squint at the boulders along the river. The hollows are dark, and it’s quiet and still, without fire, without anything.
The bottles are still higher, but from my perch, they look strange, too small somehow, an unusual shape. By the time I climb to them, I realize my mistake. They’re not bottles at all, but a strand of white Christmas lights, the old kind, with thick glass bulbs and a frayed yellow cord. What I’d taken for colored glass is actually green mildew and gray mold, overrunning the glass, reclaiming it. The tree bristles with pieces of rotting, moss-covered wood hammered to its limbs with rusted nails. This was something once, a tree house or a deer stand, and I imagine how the lights must have gleamed in the forest. There are at least twenty lights, not six, and when I tug at the cord, it’s stuck to the tree, embedded in the bark, which bulges around it. These lights and this tree have grown together, remnants of an old story with faded specifics, and there is nothing I can do to part them. I use the perch to scan the trees for the second shoe, but the forest is only greens and browns, flickering light and stippled darkness.
Climbing down is quicker than going up, but by the time I’m at the bottom, it is mid-afternoon. Sunlight snakes through the canopy, dappling the mud, speckling the gnats, which swarm and cluster. A robin calls by the river, cheerful enough that I circle the boulders, peering into the shadowed hollows. I’m not sure what I expect: the remains of a campfire, a cardboard pallet, dented cans of expired soup, a hole so deep, I can’t see the bottom. Instead, I find nothing, not yellowed plastic bags or broken beer bottles, not sulfurous bones or a battered purple shoe. Last year’s leaves lie brown and flat and dry. They’re dead and fibrous and crumbling, but they are sycamore and beech, maple and oak. I could pick them up and name every one.
I hear a whoop and a splash, and across the river, on the opposite bank, boys play in the tree fort. One has a yellow bucket, another a baseball bat. A third swings off of the knotted rope and into the river. His head goes under and he pops up, shivering, making a show of the cold.
My phone vibrates in my pocket, and Laura’s sent me a bowl of pink ice cream and a slice of cake topped with a strawberry. I wonder if she means a celebration. There were no bottles, no shoes, but I wonder if I’ve succeeded somehow, if she’s speaking again, singing too loudly and grabbing our father’s arm to remind him. When I get home, though, I realize Laura’s message referred to actual cake, red velvet with pink cream cheese frosting, homemade ice cream, too, strawberry with flecks of chocolate.
“Dessert for dinner,” my mother says after she’s fussed over my muddy shoes and untangled the seeds from my hair. My father is missing. The table stretches flat and empty, no screws or springs or tiny awls. The three of us sit with our red juice and pink napkins and clink our spoons against the china. A siren wails distantly, then fades away.
* * *
In the morning, I’m up early, but Laura is up even earlier. Her choir is singing at the park, and she stands in the hallway in her blue choir shirt and black pants. She taps her music folder against the doorframe, but I take my time unsnarling my hair and matching my shoes. If she wants us to hurry, she could speak.
“Where’s Dad?” I say, but no one knows.
Flags sprout around the park, furling red and white. Confetti from the parade clumps in the streets. The grass is trampled and muddy from last week’s demonstrations, and my eyes burn, although the wind must have taken the pepper spray long ago. The police stand massive and fierce on every street corner, their faces dark under the brims of their hats. The band tunes up, but even with the ribbons, the park is ominous. People are watching, but we don’t know why. Laura hangs the t-shirt she’s made, pins it up on the clothesline near the gazebo. Her pink shirt has flaming sneakers and needling rain drawn in puffy paint. It has ants and leaves and waving trees. The other shirts are green and black, blue and white with angels and hearts and ribbons and faces. They say things like “I used to trust,” and “We are fierce.” A sign explains the colors of the shirts and what they stand for, but people are too distracted to read.
Men in leather vests with strange fabric patches stand among motorcycles and whipping flags. “The Lost,” one flag says. Another, “Legacy.” Across the lawn, a dog sits tall on the grass, its head cocked, listening to something. The pastor begins with a moment of silence, and then the band plays so loudly the speakers squeal. The dog stays seated and motionless, its head cocked in the same position. I realize he is stuffed.
The choir stands up to sing, and my mother and I sit straight in our lawn chairs. Laura opens her mouth at the same time as the others. She watches the director and turns the pages of her music. The caissons go rolling, and the truth is marching, and our flag’s unfurled to every breeze, but it’s impossible to tell if Laura is singing or if she is just moving her mouth. Next to Laura, a woman with red hair sings when Laura does. I squint at her eyes and try to determine if she’s hearing Laura’s voice next to her or hearing nothing.
There’s a table on the stage, and the pastor explains it. “An empty chair and an inverted glass, the sour lemon, the scattered salt.” She looks out at us, out at all the flags.
Down in my lap, I see Laura’s sent a text, the sideways dog with pointy ears and a black nose. It looks just like the stuffed dog, which once was a real dog. I turn to look, and I see my father, at the edge of the park, beyond the fountain. He’s holding a box, with joysticks and levers, looking down at his hands during “glory, halleluiah.”
The pastor’s head is bowed and we’re supposed to be praying, but I look up, search the sky until I find it. It’s dark and lopsided, a patchwork of metals from broken appliances and outdated cell phones. Twin propellers whirl in a gray haze among ranks of windrow clouds. The camera lens reflects the sunlight, shines it back in a searing pinprick.
I imagine the camera recording us. From above, the browns and blondes and blacks of our bent heads must look like florets, like seedpods or samaras. We’re reduced to our icons, to sneakers and forests, bees and robots. How high must the camera be before we make a picture, become something clear and readable? For now, we sing along with the words printed on our programs, as if they were our words. As if they could be enough to save us.
Julialicia Case’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Crazyhorse, The Writer’s Chronicle, Willow Springs, Witness, Water-Stone Review, The Pinch, and other journals. She has received a Fulbright Fellowship to Germany, a University of New Orleans Writing Award for Study Abroad, and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She graduated from the master’s program in creative writing at the University of California, Davis, and is currently studying in the PhD program in fiction at the University of Cincinnati. You can learn more about her work at www.julialiciacase.com.