by Rachel Furey
Magnolia branches don’t cut easily, but Riley has a machete. She realizes there are times when a bow saw or shovel or loppers would be better suited for clearing trail, but she uses the machete for almost everything. She especially loves days like today when she can hold the machete after it has been sitting under the hot Mississippi sun. When she squeezes it into her hand, it seems as if the handle might meld right to her skin and the machete would become permanently affixed to her palm. She strikes the branch of a magnolia, hitting it once, and then again, the bark peeling away to reveal yellowish sapwood inside, before the limb finally obeys her and drops to the muddy ground. Each cut branch means a break for Riley and she stops to wipe sweat from her glasses and to breathe in the humid air that fills her lungs like a liquid.
Beside her, Billy Stewart is bent over, working his ax into the base of a magnolia marked off by orange flags that hang from its branches. Chips of wood sputter from the base of the tree, and with each swing Billy grunts the way a tennis player does. Riley should look at his thin biceps that finally bulge a little in mid-swing, at the intense stare in that one eye of his that is real, at the way the sunlight really shines off his glass eye (she swears he could start a fire with that thing), and at the way he grits his teeth, as if clenching his jaw will add to the blow. But she can’t not look at his ass, at the way this humid weather has caused him to sweat all the way through his Carhartts, leaving behind messy dark ovals that by the end of the afternoon will all meet; some of them are even meeting up now, getting closer with each swing of the ax. It’s almost like tracking rain down the side of a windowpane.
Riley strikes away at the flagged bushes, admiring the sharpness of the blade and the way the sun glints off it. She spent two hours sharpening the machete this morning and her project leader, Mrs. Mullins, didn’t say a word because she remembered the trouble Riley caused out on the trail, the subterranean beehive Riley uncovered when digging with the shovel, the way the bees tore out and stung her seven times before she could get her feet to move. Billy Stewart was her hero then. While Mrs. Mullins worried about things like EpiPens and ice, Billy handed her a stick of Fruit Stripe gum and because it had been in his back pocket all day, the tattoo on the inside of the wrapper was already a blur of colors adhered to the gum. She chewed the gum until her jaw went sore; it was almost like chewing on a part of Billy.
“I love the way you swing,” Riley tells him now, his strikes so strong the hardhat atop his head wobbles with each blow.
But he doesn’t hear her. The tree cracks and begins to groan and he lets out a shout, holding the ax up in the air, where it catches the sun and glows. “Coming down,” he says.
From the parking lot of the library they work beside, Mrs. Mullins shouts something out. She is five months pregnant and because of this she knows not to get too close to any of them—teenagers willing to spend two weeks of their summer volunteering in Mississippi just to hold tools in their hands. Mrs. Mullins gathered this high school group together with the intent they would help to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. But the day they arrived at Camp Coastal Outpost in Kiln, Mississippi, the place they called “The Kill,” the director gave them a look over and knew they weren’t the sort of people who could be depended on to build buildings that would withstand further storms. “I got a fitness trail for you to build,” the director told them. He said it’d be the first fitness trail the town ever had. Riley bit her tongue to keep from laughing. Folks in Mississippi, folks who loved their fried catfish and thick macaroni and cheese, didn’t seem like the sort of people who would use a fitness trail. Riley hadn’t planned on making this trip at all, but the afternoon Mrs. Mullins handed out the fliers was also the afternoon Riley’s father brought home a brochure for librarian camp, assuming she would follow in his footsteps. Putting states between them seemed like the best way to stick it to him. He thought carpentry skills were a good thing to have. But if he knew Riley was breaking trail with a machete, he would have come for her by now.
Mrs. Mullins’ shout is inaudible in the fall of the grand magnolia, its leaves waving as it drops, its limbs crunching into the mud. An anole scatters from its leaves and darts into the mud and Billy grabs it by the tail, holding it up in front of his face, smiling while he watches it wiggle, its small limbs scrambling in the air.
“I wonder what it would taste like,” he says to Riley.
Riley wonders about the sharpness of the blade of her machete, wonders if she got it just right if she could thrust its very tip into Billy’s glass eye and pull his eye out, gripping her fingers around its still warm surface and then putting the eye in her mouth the way she might a grape. She could cradle it in her tongue and threaten to swallow it until Billy let go of the lizard.
“It’d just be leathery,” she tells him. “You’d have to keep chewing for a while.”
“It’d probably be like eating clams,” he says. “I’d have to eat a whole shitload until I got full.”
Billy drops the anole. Mrs. Mullins is coming and she has her hands on her hips, a tight-lipped grimace on her face. “You’re not supposed to fell the trees,” she says.
Riley and Billy both know this. An adult crew comes in after their own motley crew of high schoolers is done for the day. The adult crew has a chainsaw and scabbards and cuts trees the professional way.
“I guess I forgot,” Billy says. He takes the trunk of the tree in his gloved hands and tugs it toward the parking lot, dragging the tree over crayfish mounds and pitcher plants, leaving behind deep boot prints in the thick mud.
“I think I need to sharpen my machete again,” Riley says. She wants to go to the parking lot, wants to watch Billy drag the tree over to the pile of other cut magnolias, their leaves going brown and drifting to the blacktop of the parking lot. She wants to watch the sweat ovals on his pants grow closer to meeting until his Carhartts consist of only one color.
That afternoon, Mrs. Mullins gathers the crew at the back of the library. The air conditioning makes goose bumps rise across Riley’s limbs and her sweaty clothes sit cold and heavy against her skin. Mrs. Mullins places one hand on her stomach and then another, as if to protect the baby from them, as if to cover its eyes so that it cannot see the high school misfits who have made this journey. Sarah has been to juvie once for reasons everyone rumors about (carjacker, murderer, meth lab owner) but no one can say for sure. Samson got suspended for trapping rabbits on school grounds. Henry brought along a cigar he stole from his father, a cigar Mrs. Mullins doesn’t know about. He has a ruler and each night he marks off a centimeter and smokes to the line and then quits. Riley knows because one night when she slipped out of her bunkhouse and over to the outhouse, she caught the cigar smoke in the wind and her lungs cramped and she kept herself huddled in the outhouse, her hands atop her head, breathing in the smell of sewer until her wheezing slowed.
“I’ve got someone here to talk to you today,” Mrs. Mullins says, still rubbing at her stomach. She looks toward the front of the library and then waves to a woman in cut-off jeans and an old t-shirt bleached by sun and time. Her hair falls down her back in one single braid. She is a thin and tanned woman and when she sits in the chair Mrs. Mullins motions toward, it seems like she should fill more of it than she does.
“This is Mrs. Jolians,” Mrs. Mullins says.
“Just call me Stacy,” the woman says.
“Stacy has some story.”
Stacy folds her hands in her lap and looks at her fingernails like she’s deciding which one to chew.
“It’s really a great story,” Mrs. Mullins says, sitting down beside Stacy and giving her a tap on the shoulder. “You saw the book—the pictures,” she says looking out at Riley and the others. “Stacy lived through the hurricane.”
Mrs. Mullins is fascinated by Hurricane Katrina, by the marks it left behind, by the before and after pictures. Her favorite book in the library is the one that contains the 911 calls that came in after the water was rising and it was too late to evacuate and emergency personnel could only take addresses to go looking after the storm. Her favorite caller is the one who said: I know there’s nothing you can do, but I’m going to die and I had to tell someone. Sometimes when Riley and the rest of the crew aren’t working fast enough or hard enough, Mrs. Mullins gathers them in a circle and repeats the caller’s words. It’s almost like she’s waiting for a hurricane. Sometimes Riley is. Sometimes she wonders if it could just lift her up to another land the way Dorothy was once taken away.
“I was here when the hurricane hit,” Stacy says. She fingers the frayed edges of her cut-off jeans. “My husband and I were looking through our front window, watching the water come up in waves. It pounded the front door and eventually broke in and I could hear dishes cracking, cupboard doors banging while we headed for the attic. I thought about leaving then, but it was too late. My grandfather knew about these things, had been here for 80 years and said he could tell about these things and how bad they’re going to get and he said this one wouldn’t get bad. He said Hurricane Camille didn’t touch us and none of us thought it’d get any worse than Camille.”
“That’s in one of the books,” Mrs. Mullins says. She gives Stacy a pat on the back. “Sorry, dear. Keep going. Tell them everything. They need to know.”
Stacy stares at the floor while she talks and Riley does too, as if together they could find answers there.
“I got up into my attic and pretty soon the water was up there too and it was rising, twisting itself around my ankles, coming up my shins. And I thought we were both goners and my husband goes down under the water, feeling for something and he comes up again with a baseball bat in his hand and he looks at me, his face all wet and red and says, ‘We ain’t dying. Not now. Not like this.’ And he just went to swinging away at the attic roof. It was like each swing gave him more power because he just kept swinging and swinging, the insulation and drywall falling to the floor in pieces. I never told him how much the wind was already helping him, that it had already started to tear that roof up for us. ‘Cause he had this look on his face when he finally broke through, this look like he knew we were saved. He picked me up and pulled me out through that roof and up onto it. It was still raining and he hugged me because he has this body four times the size of mine and when he’s hugging it’s like he’s almost covering all of me. I would have flown right away if it weren’t for him squeezing me so hard. The water just kept coming and when it looked like it was going to take over the roof altogether, my husband eyed the red maple growing beside our house and said we better climb it and hang on. There were animals on the roof with us—muskrats and snakes and squirrels—and at that point they were coming closer to us with the water rising and all and the roof becoming smaller. There was this awful smell like we were already starting to die.”
Stacy runs an old sneaker across the carpeted floor.
“So you climbed the tree?” Sarah asks. She has her knees pulled up to her chest, squeezing them like she could milk the life right out of them.
“We climbed the tree.”
“Go on,” Mrs. Mullins says. “Tell ‘em the part you told me.”
Stacy pushes her hands into her pockets. “We got to holding on to the tree. We sat in the crook of it for a while, until the waters came higher and we had to go about climbing again. One way or another, we ended up squeezing a branch beside each other and Jim was pretty tired by then from busting through the roof and all. He looks over at me and starts whispering in my ear and I remind him it’s raining and there’s wind and he better talk with the voice God gave him. And he says, ‘I think I gotta let go. I don’t think I can hang on any longer.’ I gave him a bump with my hips and said, ‘If you ain’t hanging on, I ain’t either. You drop into the water and I drop too.’ And he gives me this look like I’m crazy. But we both held on. Held on long enough for a boat to come by and pick us up.”
Stacy stares at the floor and Mrs. Mullins claps, slapping her hands together so that the claps echo across the library. Riley and the others clap a little too because they understand that this is what is expected of them.
“Questions?” Mrs. Mullins says.
Stacy shifts in the chair, tugs at her braid.
Riley knows she has told her story, pieced together the pieces she wants to tell, and hasn’t planned on an open question session. Samson asks if there are any rabbits around. Sarah wants to know what the worst thing Stacy ever did was. Billy asks Stacy if she wants to see his glass eye. When she agrees, he asks for a dollar. Mrs. Mullins makes him show Stacy for free and Stacy doesn’t even squirm when he just reaches up into his eye and pulls it out. Billy puts it back in and takes it out again, this time more quickly, pulling it at such a speed that the pop of the eyeball coming out can really be heard. Still, Stacy only nods. Riley wonders if everyone in town is that unshakeable. The question she wants to ask is the one no one asks: Why didn’t you just let go? Why didn’t you go while you had the chance and no one could blame you for giving up? Sometimes, when Riley gets bored, she thinks of the ways she could kill herself if the world got bad enough and she needed an out. She likes to think of especially creative ways, like swallowing magnets.
At night, Riley doesn’t sleep. She lies on the bottom bunk with her arms crossed over her chest. At the beginning of this trip, Mrs. Mullins granted her a bottom bunk space because Riley feared rolling off the top. The bottom bunk was a prize, so much cooler than the top bunk. She now has a fear of the top bunk falling to squish her in between the boards. She imagines her father having to come and peel her body from that thin surplus mattress donated to the camp by the local prison. Across from her, Mrs. Mullins snores and Riley imagines the child inside her whispering lullabies that keep her sleeping, imagines the child lying flat, holding Mrs. Mullins in bed. Mrs. Mullins sleeps through everything. Through Henry’s cigar smokes, through Sarah slipping in and out each night to do God knows what.
And she sleeps through this light knock on the girl’s bunk now, through Billy sticking his head in, shining a flashlight Riley’s way and saying, “Hey, come on, it’s Saturday night. No one sleeps on that night. Not even God. He’s too busy getting ready for Sunday.”
Riley slips out of bed and into the night air, which is refreshingly cool and filled with the chorus of crickets and tree frogs.
Outside the boy’s bunkhouse, Henry puffs away at his cigar. “It’s Saturday night, you think I can smoke two centimeters worth?”
“Sure,” Billy says. “Hell, we’re heading home in a couple days. You better finish her up.”
“Come on,” Billy says to Riley and he tugs her toward the outer stretches of camp. “You ever had a beer? Scotch? Whiskey?”
Riley shakes her head. She could tell him the average alcohol content of each. Her father has quizzed her on it. She could also tell him what percentage of vehicle-related deaths has alcohol involved: 40 percent.
“This is the place to try it. I’ve been getting some at the gas station. No one asks questions there.” Billy leads her across the street and points to a picnic table behind the gas station. “Just sit there. Can’t have you going in with me. Some people know how to act older and some people just don’t. I’ll give you a little lesson on it tonight. I’ll give you a little initiation.” He smiles and his teeth glow in the red light falling from a Red Bull sign hanging in the window.
Riley sits at the picnic table, running her fingers over the splintering wood and wondering if this picnic table has been through the hurricane. She finds herself wondering that a lot. What survived the hurricane? What’s old and what had to be brought in new? Billy comes back with a bottle of whiskey, pops its top and then tips it and swallows until his face goes red. When he pulls the bottle down, he squeezes his eyes shut and rolls his head from side to side like he’s trying to settle the liquor in his belly. The smell of the whiskey burns in Riley’s nose and she scoots a few inches away from him.
“Your turn,” Billy says.
Riley shakes her head.
“This ain’t a silly game,” he says. “It’s grown-up stuff and there’s only so many places you can do grown-up stuff. This is one of them.”
Riley pushes her hands into her pockets and shakes her head again. “Nah,” she says. “I’m fine.”
“Shit. Really?” Billy stares at Riley for a moment, his hands around that bottle. He dips his head to read the back label. “No one’s ever said no before. I could have brought Sarah. But she woulda drank more than her fair share.” Billy sets the bottle in front of Riley. “You gotta drink. Everyone drinks.”
Riley looks away from him and up at the sky, but she can’t find any stars tonight. She wonders if it has something to do with the thick humidity in Mississippi, if the whole state is made of air so thick you can’t ever see up into the sky. She starts looking for the moon, but she’s barely turned her head when Billy has a hand on the back of her head. It’s large and hot and pushing hard. With the other hand, he brings the bottle to her lips and presses it up against them so tightly she swears there will still be grooves there in the morning.
“You better fucking open up,” he says. “You better drink or I’ll just hold you here all night.”
The smell of the whiskey is stronger now and it burns in her nose the same way the bottle burns against her lips. Billy has one hell of a hold on her. She couldn’t move her lips to scream even if she wanted to. She dares to look at his eyes and the real one is bright and wide, like this is the moment he’s been waiting for the entire trip. Riley wonders if he drank anything before he knocked on her door, if this is the real version of Billy or just the drunken version of Billy. He squeezes both hands harder and Riley’s lips flatten against her teeth. The ring on Billy’s back hand presses into her scalp. Tears burn at the corners of her eyes.
“Don’t fucking cry,” Billy says.
Riley makes a move to stand up, but he slaps a leg over her lap and holds her there. She should have known that a man who could fell trees could probably fell her too.
“Just drink,” he says. “It’s that damn easy.”
Riley parts her lips and Billy pushes the neck of the bottle inside her mouth, the bottom of it colliding with her tongue. Whiskey pours into her mouth like lava and it burns all the way down. She goes into gagging reflex, but Billy still has his hand on the back of her head and the bottle still pressed inside her mouth. Most of what she coughs only makes its way toward the tip of her tongue before rolling back to her throat again. She coughs harder and gets some of the whiskey to roll down her chin and neck.
“Stop doing that,” Billy says. “Stop it or I’ll make you drink the whole bottle.”
Riley relaxes and tries not to swallow until that swallowing reflex sets in the way it does at the dentist when her mouth is open and plaque is being scraped from her teeth. She looks at the dark sky and decides remaining as still as possible gives her the best chance of Billy stopping soon. He likes fighting and the struggling just encourages him. When he finally pulls the bottle away, Riley turns and spits the whiskey still in her mouth onto the ground. She keeps spitting, like maybe she could get all of it out of her again.
“You’re acting like some lame baseball player,” Billy says. He pulls the bottle to his lips and drinks slow and long before setting the bottle back on the picnic table again. “My dad once said whiskey taught him more than any teacher. You gotta learn how to drink the stuff that burns.”
On the way back to camp, Billy takes Riley by a bar. “You gotta chase whiskey with a beer,” he says before slipping inside.
Riley stands in the parking lot and crosses her arms over her chest. She wishes she could remember the way back to camp, wishes she hadn’t trusted Billy so completely that she didn’t even bother to remember which street they turned on and which way they turned. If she took off now, who knows where she would end up. The bar glows with neon lights and laughter roars from inside.
Riley stares at the blacktop until the bar door opens, allowing a rush of shouts and laughter to pour out. A thin woman stumbles her way out of the bar in a short skirt and black high heels. One thick braid runs down the back of her white blouse.
“Stacy,” Riley says, loud enough that she hopes Stacy might hear her. But Stacy takes off down the sidewalk in a crooked gait, her heels clacking against the concrete. She clutches her purse at her side and Riley jogs after her, wanting to ask her if she knows the way back to camp, wanting to ask her if she might walk Riley there, wanting to ask her what made her hold onto the tree and if she ever regretted it. Riley approaches Stacy and gives her a tap on the shoulder. Stacy’s blouse is thin and damp, and she turns around, her mouth agape. “Leave me alone,” Stacy says, the smell of wine pouring out from between her red lips.
“It’s me,” Riley says. “I heard your story at the library.”
Stacy begins to head back down the sidewalk, but Riley slips her hand into Stacy’s and squeezes. It’s smooth and damp—doesn’t feel like a tree holding hand. Stacy slides her hand out of Riley’s grasp and tugs at the top of her partially unbuttoned blouse. She licks her lips before speaking. “Here’s the part your teacher wouldn’t let me tell you. Here’s the part of the story no one wants to hear. My husband left. He’s gone. Like he just gone and jumped into the water or something. He said he couldn’t see another hurricane. He moved away to California, even though they got earthquakes there. So you know what I tell him now? I say, fuck him. Fuck him. He shoulda let go of that branch. That woulda been a better ending. Fuck him.” She squeezes her purse and takes off down the sidewalk before Riley even gets a chance to tell her how much she loves her, to ask if Stacy would become her surrogate mother.
In the morning, Mrs. Mullins frets over Riley’s swollen lip. She knows the bugs that live in these parts are large and merciless and she has seen the purple splotches and lumps that line Riley’s limbs. “Maybe a spider this time,” she says while holding Riley’s cheeks in her hands to get a good look at the swollen lip. Mrs. Mullins’ rounded stomach rubs against Riley’s. “You didn’t feel it? It didn’t wake you up?”
“No,” Riley says, squeezing out the word between Mrs. Mullins’ hands.
“We’ll get you some ice.”
“I’m fine.” It reminds her of the envelope her father sent her, the postage-paid postcard inside that asked How are you doing? and then followed with four options: a) I’m fine. b) I’m not fine, but I will be. c) I’m not fine, but I’m going to lie and say I’m fine. d) Come get me now. Riley wrote out option e: None of your damn business. Then she decided not to send it all and instead leave her father in a complete state of limbo as to her wellbeing.
“Maybe we should get that one checked out,” Mrs. Mullins says.
“It’ll be alright,” Riley says. Today is their last day out on the trail. Riley wants to hold the machete in her hand again. The trail is still lined with bushes that she wants to make fall away.
Out on the trail, Riley has her machete halfway through the base of an alder bush, its upper body beginning to crack and tip, when leaves rustle above her and she gazes up to find a tree falling her way. It’s a sweetbay magnolia and its rubbery leaves gleam in the sun. Its branches wave to her as it falls toward her. Riley can’t move quickly enough and the trunk plunges into her calves, pinning her to the ground. She squeezes her machete as if she could sink all of her pain into it. While the trunk pushes her legs into the warm mud and her lungs begin to cramp and wheeze, she thinks of Mrs. Mullins’ favorite 911 caller and how fortunate that woman was to have the privilege of knowing her end was upon her before it came, to have the chance to tell someone she was going to die. The mud is strangely kind to Riley’s body. It’s warm and has a special give to it, like it’s trying to claim her as its own. Her lungs sputter for air, but the rest of her calmly sinks into the mud.
“Stop looking so pathetic,” Billy tells Riley while he lifts the trunk from her legs. “It’s not even that large of a tree. It didn’t even hurt you.” His pants are one color, have been that way since noon, and he pulls a stick of Fruit Stripe gum from his pocket and hands it to her, but Riley doesn’t have enough air to properly chew.
She ends up under the library overhang sitting beside Mrs. Mullins, the mud dried against her limbs like an extra layer of skin, and the Albuterol from her inhaler racing through her lungs, its metallic taste still lingering on her tongue. Something about the drug makes her brave and for the first time she mentions one of the library books that Mrs. Mullins never talks about, one of the books outside of the Hurricane section. “You know this place is all going to go under water some day,” Riley says. “It’s only fifteen feet above sea level. And we’re not helping any. We’re breaking trail on a wetland—the place where the extra water goes.”
“Shhh, honey. That’s just the shock talking.” Mrs. Mullins begins to run a hand over Riley’s forehead and then pulls it away when she touches the sticky sweat. Instead, she places her hands over her stomach. Riley places a hand there too and when the child kicks, Mrs. Mullins says it’s the baby’s way of rooting them all on.
The night before they leave, it rains. Hard. Riley tugs her sleeping bag around her while listening to the rain pelt their bunkhouse roof. After dinner they had to go about bringing everything inside, all the lawn chairs and plastic tables they ate from, so that if the wind picked up they wouldn’t become projectiles. Then they had to bolt down those plywood bunkhouses with metal poles they drove deep into the ground. Still, Riley isn’t so sure a hurricane won’t come and sweep them away. She remembers the dead fish Mrs. Mullins said the residents had to pull from their trees after they returned. She said it like it was so awful for the people, but Riley kept thinking about the fish, about the excitement they must have felt when the surf was coming in and their territory was expanding, like finally the whole world might be theirs, only for it to be taken back again. She wonders if some day the fish might swim their trail.
Mrs. Mullins is sleeping now. Snoring actually. Sarah snuck out about an hour ago and Riley won’t be surprised if she doesn’t come back until morning. She likes to hang out at the bunkhouse of older guys, guys from a school in California somewhere.
Billy knocks again and he’s dripping wet, his jeans making puddles on the plywood floor. This time he doesn’t bother to try to speak softly. He has to talk over the rain. “It’s the last night here. You gonna make it worth it?”
“You’re a jerk,” Riley tells him.
“You can’t blame me. You can’t say that coming down here with the rest of us you didn’t want to really learn something.”
“I wanted to learn about Mississippi.” She pulls her sleeping bag up to her chin, the rain still pelting the roof.
“Bullshit. You wanted to learn something about being bad. Let’s go out.”
“I’ll show you something cool with my eye.”
“Just come on.” He opens the door all the way so that the wind starts blowing the rain in. It sprays against the plywood floor.
“You’ll wake her up,” Riley says, nodding toward Mrs. Mullins.
Billy just stands with the door open.
Riley climbs out of bed, grabs her raincoat out from her under her bunk and pulls it on.
At the door, Billy gives her a small one-armed hug. It’s a weak hug, like he’s not even trying. “I knew there was more to you,” he says. He squeezes her hand and leads her outside into an open expanse of grass. Tree frogs hop through the wet blades of grass, their chirps rivaling the pound of the rain. The wind is strong enough that the raincoat doesn’t do a whole lot. The cold drops splatter across Riley’s face, across her glasses, and seep down into her coat.
“Watch this,” Billy says. He tips back his head like he’s looking up at the stars. “When I was little, I used to like to see what the weather could do with my eye. If it was windy enough, the wind would move my eye. If it rained hard enough, I could feel it behind my eye. In rain as hard as this, sometimes I can get the sucker to pop right out. That happens in the pool sometimes. If I forget to keep my eyes closed and get swimming too fast, it can just pop out.” He opens his eyes wide.
“You might lose it,” Riley tells him. She imagines it popping out, rolling down his back and being lost in the grass and frogs and rain and mud. She isn’t sure she wants to travel all the way home tomorrow with him sitting beside her missing an eye.
Billy opens his mouth and drinks the rain. Water pours down his cheeks and drips off the back of his head. The wind picks up, pelting rain against Riley, and she moves her feet further apart to remain standing. Billy laughs. “You know,” he says. “That story Stacy told. Well, you never would have been able to hold on. I mean look at you, so tiny, so thin. The hurricane woulda ate you right up. You’re barely hanging on right now.”
“At least I have both my eyes,” Riley says. It occurs to her that she’s standing on the wrong side of Billy: the side of his good eye. She fights through the wind to stand on the other side of him.
“You just want a better look when it comes out,” he says.
“Yeah,” Riley says.
He kicks his head back a notch further. Water rushes over the eye and within a few seconds it pops its way out, rolling down his cheek. Billy kicks his head up again and reaches out for the eye. Riley goes for it too, wanting to catch it in a way she’s never wanted to catch anything in her entire life. She bends her knees, stretches out her hand, and rain spills into it. The eye hits the tips of her middle fingers and then rolls down into her palm. She squeezes her fingers around the eye so she won’t lose it in the rush of rain. The front of the eye is smooth and there’s some sort of stiff rod in the back.
“Good catch,” Billy says. He reaches out his palm and waits for the eye.
Riley stares at the hole where his eye should be but can’t really see much through the rain and darkness. Her glasses are spotted with rain and beginning to fog. She grips the eye and takes off running toward the outhouse. Her legs stretch out in front of her and her heart drums along in her chest. She swears she runs faster than she ever did in physical education class, faster than those fire escape time trials her father used to make her run as a child. She practically floats through the rain, the wind deciding her direction, pushing against her back to keep her going. It crawls up into the back of her raincoat and causes it to billow with air.
Billy breaks that bubble of air with a hard tackle that drives Riley to the muddy ground, her knees first and then her shoulders and chin, because he has hold of her wrists and she can’t put her hands out to help break her fall. The smell of earth, of wet grass and worms, races in Riley’s nostrils. Billy pulls his eye from the grip of her fingers and he keeps a knee on her spine, pushing her stomach into the ground. Rain pours over Riley’s head and sinks into the collar of her raincoat. He keeps hold of her wrists even after he has the eye back. His hands are large and rough—tree felling hands.
“You see that tackle,” Billy says. “I just took you right out. And I’m not even a hurricane. I didn’t take you for a girl who would steal my eye. I don’t know what you were going for, but it’s not funny or cute.” He squeezes her wrists together so that he can hold both of them with one hand. With the other hand, he reaches down to Riley’s face and pulls off her glasses. Her already blurred world becomes even hazier. Billy chucks the glasses into the night. “Now that wasn’t the sort of thing I’d be cruel enough to do on my own,” he says. “But you earned it.” He gives her one last push into the mud, pressing her shoulders with his knees and pressing her head with the back of his hand the way he did that night outside the gas station. Mud slips under Riley’s swollen lip and into her mouth. Her nostrils begin to fill with it. Tears burn at the back of her throat, but she doesn’t cry. A couple years back, she learned how to swallow and bite her tongue to keep from crying, and a couple years from now, she will wish she had the ability to cry freely again.
“I thought you had more fight in you that that,” Billy says. And then he lets her go, disappearing into the darkness and rain.
Riley reaches out her hands and crawls over the ground, finding blades of slick wet grass, a candy wrapper, a snail, and even a rusty nail, but not her glasses. Her clothes are soaked and goose bumps rise across her skin. She stands and looks for the light that marks her bunkhouse. A soft glow hovers in the distance and she walks toward it, the rain still driving against her coat, finding the openings where it can tease itself inside. She sloshes her way through growing puddles that sometimes crest her ankles.
At the stairs of her bunkhouse, she tips her head back and lets the rain clean the mud from her face. Inside, she remembers their tools stored in the box at the back of their bunkhouse and finds the machete. While she curls her fingers around its handle, her heart begins to slow and her limbs relax. Sarah is still gone and Riley places the machete on Sarah’s top bunk and then peels off her wet clothes and pulls on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. She climbs into Sarah’s bed and stashes the machete under the mattress, the handle within easy reach, so that should the waters begin to rise, Riley would have a weapon to tear away at the ceiling with. She practices grabbing the machete out from under the mattress, crouching and striking away into the air. She practices until she is tired and sweating and her arms begin to ache. She stows the machete under the mattress once more and sleeps with her fingers around the tip of the handle. When Sarah returns in the early morning, she gives Riley a sharp elbow in the ribs that makes her slip out of Sarah’s bed and back to her own.
“Sarah Jean Miller!” Mrs. Mullins’ words stir Riley out of sleep. Mrs. Mullins and her rounded stomach are just a blur to Riley, though she can make out her hands on her hips. “What is that machete doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah says. “I really don’t know.” She wipes sleep out of her eyes and stares at the machete Mrs. Mullins now has in her hands.
Mrs. Mullins lets out a long sigh that is filled with so much life it probably comes partially from her child too. It is the sort of sigh that says more than words ever could, the sort of sigh that means Sarah Jean Miller hasn’t heard the end of it yet. Mrs. Mullins heads outside with the machete and closes the door hard behind her. Sarah doesn’t say a word to Riley while she begins to pack and Riley has enough trouble locating all of her belongings in the blur her world has become that she doesn’t find any words either. It’s only after Sarah has zipped shut her suitcase that she begins to cry, real soft, but the sort of thing Riley can still hear because it’s the way she has learned to cry too.
“What?” Riley says. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Sarah says. “I’ve just got a lot of strikes against me. And I can’t remember last night. I just don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen. My parents—“
“But nothing happened. You didn’t do anything with the machete. It’ll be okay.”
Mrs. Mullins comes back through the door and tells them it’s time to head out. She looks Riley over. “Where are your glasses?”
“I don’t know,” Riley says.
Mrs. Mullins puts a hand on Riley’s chin and tries to give her face a look over, but Riley pulls away, dragging her suitcase out to the van.
Inside the van, Mrs. Mullins hands Riley an envelope containing the pieces of her glasses. “Someone turned these in,” she says. Something is written across the top of the envelope and Riley has to pull it up close to her face in order to read it. She finds her full name written in careful cursive: Riley Eliza Burns. The inclusion of her middle name is unexpected and makes her feel special in a way she wouldn’t have guessed. The hairs on the back of her neck prickle up and she wonders if this handwriting is Mrs. Mullins’ or Billy’s, wonders if he actually thought enough of her to retrieve what was left of her glasses. Mrs. Mullins must know, but Riley doesn’t ask.
While Mrs. Mullins drives, Riley squeezes her thumb against that envelope and her name, the world passing by in a blur. She can’t even make out the sign perched on the state line that begs them to come back, though Mrs. Mullins tells her this much, narrating the surroundings to her as if she is a child on a school bus route for the first time. Mrs. Mullins tells Riley about the magnolias they pass, about the broken buildings that haven’t yet been fixed, and about the brand new houses other volunteers have helped to erect. Giggles come from the back of the van, but Mrs. Mullins keeps going on. “Someday I’m going to be able to tell my child she was here with me when we helped to make this town a better place,” she says, giving her stomach another rub.
When it begins to rain and the drops grow large enough that even Riley can see them pounding the windshield in between the swipes of the wipers, she thinks about Stacy again, about what the waves must have looked like the day they beat in her front door—about the way death reached its hand out to her and she refused its grip—still not able to figure out why in the world Stacy didn’t let go while she had the chance.
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