We decide that the squirrels are actually fairies because we want them to be. The afternoons are long and we want magic. They chatter at us from the trees, we talk back in earnest. We’re invaders in their kingdom, two small girls squatting in the dirt, poking sticks into the ground. Both of us in dirty shorts and t-shirts.
Maya and I crane our necks, trying to catch sight of them leaping from branch to branch. There’s a mosquito on her knee but I’m not going to smack it off. She says come down, we won’t hurt you but it isn’t true. We hurt things sometimes. She knows how to fry an ant with a magnifying glass. She doesn’t do it in front of me anymore because I cry like a baby, but I know how to snap a punch towards my little brother if he pushes me too far. We are capable of hurt.
The trees stand straight up around us and the ground is matted with pine needles, the whole world gone brown in the dead heat of late summer.
Magic doesn’t come. The squirrels laugh in squirrel language. We go inside because my parents are packing up the truck to go to the river today. Redwood Creek always runs cold and quick with snowmelt up into July, but Mom says it’s late enough in the season and hot enough in the day to finally brave the water. We get ready and Maya hides behind my closet door to change into her bathing suit. She comes out all bones. There’s a red dot on her leg where the blood sucker landed, white spandex lace brushing the tops of her legs. She says your turn and I can see where she lost her front tooth two weeks ago. She keeps poking her tongue through the hole at me. She says her hair is red, but really it’s a kind of orange that turns gold in the sun.
We swim like we’re made for water. The swimming hole is at the bottom of the valley, where the creek trickles low around the boulders, and then deepens as it runs below the bridge overhead. I sink down and open my eyes to the brackish sting of the current, pretending that I’m looking out from the inside of an emerald. I come back up and see Arlo crouched on the bank, picking through the rocks in the shallows, looking for gold. He’ll put anything that shines in his pockets, but then he’ll throw away each stone through the window of the truck when we go home.
Mom sits cross legged on a towel and watches us, holding my sister on her lap. Juniper’s old enough now to sit up on her own but she cries when sand gets on her, so mom just holds her steady. They eat warm grapes out of a plastic bag. There are peanut butter crackers in there too, but they’re all melted together.
Maya grabs my arm and we tilt over and float on our backs, chests open as wide as they’ll go. Tiny silver fish dart around our legs and taste test our skin. We scream just to scream. Above us, I know there is a wild burst of stars rushing behind the sky, and that things hide behind other things all the time and it’s possible to not even know it.
Maya lives with her grampa just down the road in a gutted out old school bus. He sleeps at one end and she sleeps at the other. He has a long beard and no teeth, and when he smiles the planes of his face fall in where they used to be. Dad says he used to live on a funny farm, but he never says anything funny to me. He smiles like it’s a hard thing for his mouth to do.
I don’t know if Maya has a dad or a mom anymore. I don’t ask. When she comes over we play Barbies and make toast or top ramen, dry noodles for me and the flavor packets for her. She tears them open and pours them into her mouth and chews until orange stuff seeps up through her teeth and we fall over each other laughing.
August comes and we start third grade in the school house down at the other end of the valley. We get up early in the morning and Mom drives down to the highway and then the bus picks us up from there. It takes an hour both ways. Maya and I always sit together, and Arlo sits one seat behind. She’s the only one that knows what that fat kid Tyler said on the bus last winter when dad got busted for growing weed and everybody on the mountain heard the sirens echoing up the ridge from here to Titlow Hill. I only figured it out myself because I came home from school and the brand new yellow generator was gone. I asked mom where it went and she said cops and nothing else.
They smashed in the front door when they came, that’s why it doesn’t hang right on its hinges anymore. Mom ran out the back and down through the woods with Junebug pinched in the vise of her arms. No shoes, just a nightgown and the keys to the truck. Some cop caught up with her and tried to yank her arms down and take my sister, but mom screamed no and ran and got in and drove away. I got her to tell me about it after a while. She didn’t cry but I could tell it was bunching up in her throat. It’s just protocol I guess. Foster care is supposed to be better for kids like us. There are people whose job it is to believe that.
Tyler sneered and said he was going to tell everybody at school what my dad did and I turned away and looked out the window at the seam of the horizon, where the forest met the grey hanging clouds in the distance. My face was dark with heat, eyes shining over bright in the glass reflection. I couldn’t face him until I could get pale and expressionless again. If I turned around I knew I would give us away. I’d seen the look in his eyes before. Teachers and lawyers and landlords all look like that.
His whispered white trash white trash white trash. I had never heard it before, but it didn’t matter, I knew what it meant. Juniper swaddled in a black plastic bag, tossed and bleeding in a dumpster. I turned around and flipped him off and he slid a finger across his throat, grinning wide and yellow.
He’s in the grade below me this year so I don’t have to look at him too much except for when we’re in line for lunch. He throws temper tantrums during PE that scare me. He won’t tag me during red rover red rover because he says I still have lice but I don’t anymore. His uncle’s name is Robbie and they live on the property up the hill. Robbie throws bud light cans out of his truck whenever he drives by, going so fast the dust clouds billow up behind him. Mom tells me to come inside if I see his truck. She says it in a way that means don’t argue. I think it has to do with the weed stuff, probably made worse by my mom’s patchwork skirts, my dad’s long hair and Grateful Dead T shirts. Nobody else out here wears that kind of stuff. There’s an our kind and a their kind.
I hang around bored on a Sunday waiting for Maya to come over to play and there’s the crunching sound of someone walking towards the door over the gravel. I run to the window and look out, but it’s not her, it’s Robbie and he’s got his black hunting rifle hanging across his back. He’s never walked down here like this, and before I can ask mom what’s going on the dogs go crazy and she screams words I’ve never heard before. I won’t forget them but I’ll never use them.
I just stand frozen and wait for her to give me a signal about how to act. Her voice is unhinged like a screen door come apart in a storm, shrill metal banging senselessly against a wall. She’s standing at the front door, right at the little window pane shaped like a star and he’s on the other side looking in. He’s holding his gun across his chest now. His baseball cap casts a shadow so I can’t see his eyes. If I could just see his eyes I might know better what he’s going to do. If I could see them I could tell if there is murder in them. Already I know how to do this, how to watch a man’s eyes for a sign of what kind of violence he might inflict.
My brother isn’t home and I’m glad he isn’t. It should fall to me the bear the brunt of this instead of him. I’m old now, I’m the biggest. Junebug is really still just a baby with her red rumpled face. I worry about her less because she’s too little to remember fear or pain in concrete bursts like we can. I know things they’ll never know. I carry the secrets that our parents are too careless to properly hide from us. I know there’s a yellow bottle that tastes the way gasoline smells in the glove compartment of the truck. I know that behind the laundry soap in the bathroom there’s a binder full of pictures of naked people lying close together. The pictures are cut and pasted onto college rule notebook paper. They look like they’re hurting each other. I think my dad does it but I’m not sure why.
I’m the one that sits up at night and hears everybody crying like they think they’re alone.
Robbie’s yelling is like thunder, so close it must be coming from right overhead. I don’t know what he’s saying but I know the intent. Trash people. People you can throw away. I’m shaking but it’s so far down I think it must be in my blood, maybe even all the way through to my bones, in the perforations, the tiny circles of air in the diagrams of my science book. We’re learning about the organs and the bones. Hearts aren’t shaped like hearts like I thought. They look monstrous, mutated, tubes sticking off the sides like a messed up thing. I count seconds, wait for lightning.
They scream and scream but I’m underwater. I can feel my heart beating. I can feel my blood pooling hot in my stomach. Time doesn’t start up again the way it usually goes until Robbie suddenly turns and walks away, and then it sputters and jerks forward, carrying us along with it. Mom’s crying, hands up to her face trying to brush away each tear before I can see them but they’re coming too fast. I want to cry too, but if I open my mouth I think I’ll start choking up pine needles the color of rusted metal, blood and river water.
I watch him through the curtains over the sink, ready to duck down if he turns his head and catches me staring because then he might come back and come inside and really kill us, really shoot us in the head this time. He stalks back up the road, black metal glinting in the sun across his back. I wonder what his face looks like on the other side where I can’t see. He seems smaller now, walking away, the meadow grasses moving beside him like wind over open water.
The dogs come in, sheepish, looking for reassurance. My mom apologizes for screaming, looking for the same thing. I give it to her. I don’t want her to have to worry about me. I go in my room and close the door and get out my colored pencils. There are fairies in my coloring book but I picked the wrong colors. They’re not pretty like they’re supposed to be.
Magic comes but it doesn’t stay. It looks around our house and leaves fast. September turns into November. Mom drives me and Arlo home from school. Maya told me on the bus that she’s moving to town soon, her dad’s out of jail finally. He got a job at Burger King so she can eat there whenever she wants. She says I can come sleep over if I want but I know it won’t happen. We pull up to the house and Arlo opens the door on his side. I slide over after him, our hands open to the dogs to say hello. They wag their tails and jump around, frantic with happiness that we’ve returned to them.
I run inside and kick off my shoes, toss my purple backpack on the floor with my science book inside. We’re on the circulatory system now, with all the beautiful looping blue branches. I have to draw a diagram of it tonight for homework. Mom bangs pans around in the kitchen, balancing Juniper on her hip. I’m hungry but I don’t want English muffins with margarine. Arlo’s already outside digging holes in the dirt. He’ll do that until it gets dark, and then he’ll start shoveling all the dirt back in so dad won’t yell at him when he stumbles around out there and trips in one like last time.
I go around through the sliding door out back and climb up the path towards the meadow up on the hill behind our place. The dogs follow me. I’m not afraid when I’m with them even though the woods are full of dangerous things, rattlesnakes and mountain lions and men with guns.
The meadow is just up ahead, where the trees thin out and the light is brightest. Dark waxy leaves brush against my legs in a soft whisper as we walk. The hawk circling above us turns his golden eye toward the sun. Pine branches laden with needles drift in the air, and copper winged butterflies flutter and land on the last of the calendula flowers. They take their time because they know they’re beautiful. They’re called Monarchs, queens like in olden times. My teacher says you’re never supposed to touch their wings, it’s killing them but it’s doing it slow and cruel.
There’s a new sharpness in the air, I can feel its brusque touch. Fall is coming, is perhaps already perched on the ridge behind us, ready to tip over and flood this valley with rain and fog and pale lichens. I step out into the last of the light and stretch out my arms like I’m holding the sky up, bare feet in the dirt and the broken stalks of dead grasses.
Time is short before I have to go in. Night will settle soon and bring the eerie shadows cast by the moon and trees. The dogs sit and wait for me to start walking again, panting and rolling their dark eyes. The top of the sunset turns blue and muddy and I’m still standing here, caught in between two seconds. I’m in one place but I can sense another. A thing hiding behind another thing.
I bring my hands back down and stuff them into the arm holes of my t-shirt. In a minute mom will start the new generator and the sound will tear through the forest. The lights will come on and glow orange squares in the dark. I’ve seen it before.
I pull my arms free from my shirt and call the dogs. Their ears flip up and they grin like maniacs, dance toward the path home like stars. I walk away, but I always walk back.
“Anything that Shines” by Ashlee Beals appeared in Issue 38 of Berkeley Fiction Review