Playing Dead

Wasn’t even thirteen, and Charlie had died at least 10,000 times in grandma’s lawn. That’s what B-characters do. That’s their specialty.

And Charlie was special. He died with such grace. But it wasn’t just that. He made you hurt all over about it.

Death rattled in his throat. His eyes, wild and pleading, one second. And then, when you least expected it, he’d flick that switch and his eyelights would go dead.

Remarkable death timing. Charlie, I’m saying. Like you know how some guys are just funnier than you? How a guy can just know how to get you going, waiting for the punchline, and when he hits you with it, it kills you? You know if you practiced that joke a million times in a mirror you’d still never get it just right. Sure, it’d probably still be funny. But it wouldn’t tear your buddies’ guts out. Not the way that other kid can tell it. You can’t beat pure natural talent.

That’s what Charlie had. Pure natural talent. But for dying. Every time made you want to cry. Or go hug a dog. Sometimes it was so … pretty, I guess you’d call it. His brother Joe says that’s soft as hell. But there’s no other word for it. It was pretty. The way sometimes you really couldn’t tell that he was gone — sunlight did the job of eyelights, until you learned that a glint of sunlight in the eye wasn’t even close to the same as life-in-the-eyes.

I didn’t notice this for so long the first time it happened. I thought Charlie was still alive until the bugs started crawling around his pupil, drinking the color part of his blue eyes.

I don’t know how he does it. Honest.

Charlie dies. And he dies pretty. Every time something different.

Charlie’s like that tape that Joe and Dave and the older cousins watch sometimes: Fifty Faces of Death. When I heard about that movie, I thought, Christ Almighty, Charlie’s gone and made himself famous. I thought for sure it was about Charlie, the way he dies in grandma’s yard. But I thought those movie folks ain’t seen nothing if they think Charlie has only fifty faces for dying. I’ve seen at least a thousand, and I wasn’t even there for half of the best ones.

Those I wasn’t there for, I had to hear about hand-me-down from Joe or Dave. By then the stories had already been stretched out, the colors all faded or mixed together. But they were still cool as hell. Like that Howling shirt Dave gave me last year. By the time I got it, that shirt had shapeshifted so many times in the hot and cold cycles, mixed in with Uncle Larry’s mudslopped work shirts and skidmarked undies, it only smelled like a werewolf shirt, the faded wolf picture only visible in moonlight.

I’d never be able to choose if I included those stretched-out, hand-me-down stories in the mix, so I’ll just tell about Charlie’s best death that I saw with my own eyes.

It’s got to be the time he got himself snuffed out by the James Gang. When Charlie got caught looking too hard at the girl that Joe (that’s Frank James to townsfolk), brought from town after robbing the train with Dave, the world’s greatest outlaw, smooth-talking and some-kind-of dangerous. Cousin Dave went by Jesse James when he saddled over to our side of the Red River.

This was just last summer. Hot as hell. We’d just got a gullywasher rain. Air was so thick you could’ve climbed all the way up to heaven and cheated in one more game of cards with grandpa. The culverts were still full of water, swirling at the mouth. Mosquitos by the creek were as big as bats, bats as big as eagles, eagles ready to carry off your old German Shepard. Kids in Minnesota carry bug spray, I heard. Well, kids here in North Dakota, we carry .22s and M-80s. And that’s just for the mosquitos.

Anyways, me and Charlie, we were leave-behinds that day. Dave had come out the night before and whenever that happened, you could bet he and Joe would get the James Gang back together for a trip to town, especially now that Dave had his learner’s permit and could drive that old Chevy Silverado halfway legal.

That left me and Charlie trying to figure out if we were gonna sneak into grandpa’s shop where uncles chewed the fat, turning wrenches on the dozer tracks. If we did that, we could maybe sneak off with a Playboy, read the articles and tell a few lies. That might earn us a few points with the James Gang. Move us up from B-characters to B+, maybe even A-. The other option, it was to head straight out to the secret trails in the woods. Go straight down to the creek to get a jump start on saving the world from the outbreak of monster-sized mosquitos.

We sat on the roof of the straw fort, watching horses swat monster-horseflies, trying to decide.

That’s when the sun caught all the swampy puddles in the pasture, reflected off the sharp angles of smashed-up trucks and scrap metal in the junkyard. It was some-kind-of beautiful. Light and glass cutting you in places you didn’t even know you had. Filling you up with water and the smell of horses. No need to say nothing when you feel something like that. That’s the world telling you to hush up and pay attention.

Must have been two hours we sat there, watching water and metal catch the sun, when we heard Dave and Joe turn off the highway onto gravel, keeping the fishtailing to a minimum. A good outlaw knows to keep the locals on your side. Never know when the law might bring the bloodhounds around to sniff out The James Gang.

Dave pulled the Silverado up to the pasture gate, tore some new mud tracks in the grass, almost left smoking grill marks on our backs. I guess we probably knew they were trying to scare us, but me and Charlie, we were still dumbstruck, lost deep in the warm afterglow of that light bouncing off water and metal. We turned around in slow motion.

The first thing I saw was that where there had been two, there were now three. Sitting right there in the cab, squashed between Joe’s hulking frame and curled under Dave’s ropey arm, was a girl I’d never seen before. Except, when I first saw, she wasn’t a girl, but a shimmer of heat vapors from the engine mixing with the sun’s reflection on the windshield. A mystery made of heat and light.

Her name, I found out later, it was Ashley.

But the James Gang didn’t get around to that part right off. They climbed out of the pickup and you could tell she was in on it with them, at least part way. Her smile shined through the shade of Joe’s shadow, holding back 10,000 dirty secrets. All they’d tell us at first is that they’d found her walking along the train tracks after making off with their biggest heist yet.

“A thing of beauty,” Joe had called it.

The way Joe told it, Dave had strolled up to the old-timer manning the train station. Slick-talked him with a tall-tale about how his old man had a case of whiskey waiting for him in the stockroom. How it’d be everyone’s hide if he had to get Jesse James Sr. involved.

Now, I knew that the “train station” was code for the Cenex Pump House — the real train station was a good time, too, but it’d been abandoned forever, far as we could tell. Barely had a pane of glass left to throw a rock through.

Point is, the train robbing story Dave and Joe had sold us when they headed out had always been bent sideways a little. But I knew a bike could go for miles on a bent frame. And with the right telling, you could ride a bent story a long way.

Well that old-timer sniffed Dave over real good, Joe said, acting it out for us. Being thirteen meant Joe had learned a thing or two about playing the part of old-timers. He wasn’t no Charlie with his face work, but he was good enough to pass for your dad, if your dad was a six-foot-tall thirteen-year-old strong enough to hoist a 4-cylinder engine block with just his back. One that could make up secret trails so secret you had to have the right kind of scars to find the trailheads. A guy that could tell a ghost story so scary, I don’t care how tough you are, you’d piss your pants with nightmares.

Yeah, I’d say Joe could pass for your dad, alright, if you had one. Did an okay job even if you didn’t.

So, Joe tells it, Dave plays cool. So fucking cool. Joe’s eyes go wild when he says fucking. Not that fucking was new or nothing. But Joe is one of those who knows how to get you going before he tears your guts out. Especially when Dave’s there.

Dave’s fourteen that summer and he’s somehow scratched off that one-in-a-million combo of good looks and smooth talking. I mean, it was like all the others in that million got big and ugly and mean — which weren’t the worst things that could happen to you, was going to happen to almost everyone, you live long enough. But it’d probably make you sore to see how Dave took all the good looks and smoothness, and still got enough ugly, big, and mean in the right places to make him some-kind-of dangerous.

Anyways, Joe has us all holding our breath. He’s still playing the part of that old-timer and he looks just like a guy who’s deciding if he’s gonna pull a tire beater from under the counter, teach this smooth young shit a thing or two. It’s so good that even though Dave’s right there with us, playing cool while Joe brags him up, we’re still worried the James Gang isn’t going make it out of this one.

Joe pulls something out from under that counter he’s fashioned out of nothing but story magic, slams it down on the imaginary-Formica with a wallop.

“The keys,” he says, teeth shining like headlights. “The keys to the stockroom.”

The way Joe tells it, you hear the ring of keys jangling in the lock to the stockroom. You can see the purple river of veins in the old-timer’s hands — he’s like forty years older than he was when he slammed those keys on the counter, it’s taking that long to find the right key.

Then Joe asks for a moment of silence. Wants to see if we can hear that old-timer still fumbling with the keys back at the Cenex, the truck horns honking, truckers waiting for full-service at the pumps.

We listen so hard and, I guess some will say it was just grandma’s wind-chimes jangling in the breeze, but we yelp and howl like a pack of coyotes when we hear those keys chiming right on cue.

All except Charlie, who, through the course of Joe’s story, has fallen in some-kind-of love with Ashley, the girl The James Gang brought back from the tracks.

For the first time in history, I’m the first to notice.

I see the sparks between them when Dave empties the pillow sack filled with loot from the robbery, lays it all out on a spare bale by the straw fort.

Joe’s telling Ashley stories inside of stories about other getaways. The secret dirt roads back to grandma’s, the stash of Winstons and top-shelf whiskey, about how we got as many Cokes as she can drink, as many Pop-Tarts and Doritos as she could eat in ten lifetimes.

For the first time in history, Joe’s the last to notice.

Ashley’s smiling, but it’s at Charlie.

She hasn’t even seen him die yet. Doesn’t know what makes him special. From that distance, close range, I’m saying, Charlie looks like one of them halfway-tadpole-halfway-frog creatures. He’s tall for going-on-thirteen. Smart, too, in an odd kind of way. Take ants, for example. Kid knows everything there is to know in the world about ants. But being kind of tall for twelve-going-on-thirteen and halfway smart, in my experience, gets you nowhere with a new fourteen-year-old girl. Especially one who’s never seen you die like an artist. Up close Charlie’s tall enough, but his parts are grown in crooked, bent at odd angles, like there’s another Charlie inside that none of us have seen full on yet, struggling to peel out of this Charlie’s skin. He’s tan as creek mud with the whitest hair you ever saw — match that with his crooked little smile, and he always looks like he just let go of the electric fence.

Goes to show how dumb I was back in July. If I could rewind that scene in the VCR, I’d bet all I got and put the rest on layaway that you’d see Ashley was the first of us to see that other Charlie full on. The one struggling to get out. I’m pretty sure of it.

Hell, maybe it was even simpler. Maybe it was that she saw what he saw in that light and metal and water we were watching before they showed up. Like somehow, looking at each other, they also saw something together, like four eyes become two, two visions become one. When that happens, maybe even a good bent story ain’t enough to snap you out of it. Not sure what is, to be honest.

All I know is Joe was the last to notice, but that don’t mean I’d be telling him something now he don’t already know. In other words, Joe sniffed it out about ten seconds after I did.

And when he found out, he did about the worst thing he could’ve done, if he hoped to sway Ashley back to him that is. He went and killed Charlie.

And what’s the one thing I been telling about old Charlie? What makes him special?

He dies pretty, that’s what.

In a fair fight, I’d put my money on Joe against half the dads in Dark River. He can tell a story that’ll tear your guts out, sure. But, if it had to come to blows, he could tear your guts out with his bare hands, no problem. Worse, he wasn’t known to fight fair. Only kid I know who had an undefeated record from thirteen on, dads included. Dave, he was tough, strong as hell. But it’d take ten Daves to stop Joe, if it ever really came down to it. Us B-characters, me and Charlie, we were nothing but laundry on the line.

Joe swings on Charlie closed-fist, because he wants to hurt him, like the knobs of his knuckles are cutting through that fresh wound Joe can’t reach — the one inside his chest, crawling up his throat, stinging his eyes. But, you can also see he holds something back. Not sure if it’s love for Charlie applying the brake or the voices of aunts and uncles swimming in his skull, reminding him that he don’t know his own strength yet, could really kill someone if he leaned into it, let it all out.

The horses whinny in the pasture at the crack of knuckles against meat and bone. Joe’s fist cut the air fast as a whistler streaking through the sky, explodes with more gunpowder than any ordinary bottle-rocket. Like it was rigged with a fistful of M-80s and cherry-bombs. You can almost trace the streak of smoke, smell it mixed with the blood, trace it all way back to the lit fuse.

Thank Christ for simple graces. Joe’s fist landed cockeyed, not square. Caught Charlie sideways, more cheek than temple. What a mechanic would call cosmetic damage, no real engine trouble.

Still, Charlie folded like laundry. Took the punch soft and beautiful. Like a sheet soaking up sun, drinking summer wind on the line. Crumpled on top of himself in the straw. Eyes halfway closed, still full of light and metal and water and horses.

B-characters aren’t supposed to stir up trouble with the A-listers, gotta stay loyal to the gang, even when you’re playing the enemy. But I was mustering up a puff cloud behind my fingers, clenched in a fist, tight as I could make it. My fingers everyone said were made for piano keys, balled up now, streaking for Joe’s chin.

Sometimes, a punch ain’t for winning, I learned that. Sometimes you gotta die in the straw with your buddies.

Joe doesn’t want to do it, I can tell that, now. He doesn’t knock my lights out because I shined his chin. Laundry on the line can’t hurt Joe, not with a million tries. He turns my lights out because he can’t leave any witnesses.

Before I get my first purply-black eye — a new scar, a new trail — and join Charlie in the afterlight, I see Ashley, leaning over Charlie. It looks like CPR, like we’ve all done before, those of us who’ve seen Charlie die like that in grandma’s yard. But it looks like something else, too. For a second, it looks like the end of all those frog prince stories, where the girl lays one on you. Where you wake up as someone else.

That’s what I see before the world turns to water color, before Joe socks me harder than ever, hoping I won’t remember the tears streaming down his cheek.

Far as he knows, I don’t remember nothing.

• • •

Turns out, Ashley, she had scars, too. But they didn’t work here. Not at first. All her scar trails, they made a map of Ohio. Might as well have been a map of the moon. That’s how far away from home she was.

How she ended up here, walking the tracks? Her mom sent her, that’s how.

Her dad split town when Ashley learned to walk. Guy stayed on the move, always disappearing in the creases of the map. The one she kept tucked away in the back pocket of her Levi’s. Guy never stayed put anyplace long enough for his shadow to stain the sidewalk. That’s how she put it.

The miracle of all miracles? Out of the clear blue sky, Ashley got a postcard from the Badlands out West, a picture of wild horses roaming the buttes. She said it wasn’t even signed, but her mom knew it was her dad turning himself in. Letting Ashley know he was ready to be found, if she wanted to look.

Well North Dakota, it’s a helluva big rectangle. I know a thing or two about that. Grandpa took us to the Badlands once. Packed me and a half-dozen cousins in the old ’69 Suburban School Bus with the sunrise warming our backs. Followed the arc of the sun out West. The whole way, grandpa told us tall tales about riding half-broke horses with Teddy and the Rough Riders.

History teacher looked at me like I was ignorant when I came back and told about my summer trip to the Badlands, where grandpa rode with the Rough Riders. Said the math didn’t work. Said I should read a history book, learn the difference between facts and tall tales. Other kids, townsfolk mostly, giggled and sneered — their mouths still half-full of baby teeth, the tips of grown-up teeth cutting through their gums. Them kids still talk about how baby teeth turn into silver dollars when they’re dreaming.

North Dakota’s a big rectangle, alright. Like a chipped tooth lying sideways under some kid’s pillow. And some kids, they think everything turns to silver dollars if you sleep on it. They never have the guts to tie a string around it, yank it loose with a slamming door, make new maps with the scars and stories hidden underneath.

So Ashley, she comes looking for her dad. Knows he’s somewhere in this big rectangle.

Her mom, she can’t get time off from the library, so it’s Ashley’s aunt who drives her on that long trip from the moon. Ashley says it’s lucky she spent her whole life in libraries, read about every book there is, especially those about dads who disappear. Says there’s a whole section for those books, but she’s read them all, knows all the tricks. Told us that’s how she knew her dad wouldn’t be out West, like in the postcard. Wouldn’t be that close to a straight line. She said he was still playing hide-and-seek. She knew that disappearing dads, they like jagged edges, cracks they could fall into if anyone got too close. That’s why she came to our side of the rectangle, the chipped side of the tooth.

We didn’t have the heart to tell her that disappearing dads, they don’t get found here. That if one ever did turn up, that’d be front-page news.

Charlie, he had the softest heart of all, especially when it came to Ashley. Spent his thirteenth birthday walking secret trails with her, tracking her dad.

Summer was about to slip over the horizon, school bells and townsfolk just around the corner. Charlie didn’t tell her that thirteen meant he was an A-lister now. Didn’t say nothing about how he was always putting off joining Joe and Dave and the others. Nothing about how the world spun at different speeds for him. Joe, he’d been an A-lister since he was twelve. Seemed Charlie always had to go around the sun twice over to make up the ten-month head start Joe had on him into the world.

Since he was still a B-character at heart, Charlie let me tag along.

Charlie and me, we’d tracked a lot of monsters along those secret trails. Bigfoot, for one. And a pack of werewolves that always got out of Dodge before the snow fell. I guess you could say Charlie had a talent for tracking monsters, being part monster himself. He had more dead faces than a horde of zombies. Had come back from the dead more times than Michael and Jason and Leatherface combined.

Me, I’d seen every episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Solved about half of them that the cops couldn’t. Plus, I knew a thing or two about missing dads. Mine didn’t disappear in the creases of a map, though. Couldn’t send postcards where he was.

We all agreed that Ashley was the lead detective. She had the library fines and motel matchbooks to prove it. Me and Charlie, we didn’t want to make the same mistake they always do in the movies, squabbling over whose case it was.

Our biggest problem was the blurry photo, the one Ashley tucked inside that map. A photo as old as me, back from when Ashley learned to walk. Twelve years later, her dad could be anyone.

What we didn’t know, not until the moment we were stuffing the final Coke into the backpack, ziplocking the venison jerky, was that Joe had lifted that photo from Ashley when no one was looking.

He’d been sulking around in the background the last few weeks, turning wrenches on his dirt bike, making like he didn’t care one way or another if Ashley found her dad or not.

Well, just when we were headed out for the secret trails, Joe came over from the dirt bike. He wiped his hands on the flannel tied around his waist, walked into the circle we were standing in by the straw fort. Handed Ashley that blurry old photo and a new hand-drawn picture.

See, Joe and me, we’d watched every episode of Unsolved Mysteries together. And the secret to cracking some of the hardest cases, it was Joe’s sketches. His sketches were always a million times better than the one’s they showed you before the commercials.

He didn’t have much to work with, he’d be the first to admit. But his sketch of Ashley’s dad, fast-forwarded from the blurry photo to what the guy probably looked like today, it was the best I’d seen. A bona fide masterpiece. You could tell he’d stayed up every night, making delicate pencil strokes, darkening the lines, perfecting the shading. His sketch pulled the hairline back so that this guy’s forehead and scalp looked like a riverbank after the flood — smooth and naked, a few twisted trees leaning against each other, still clinging to drowned roots. He cut crow’s feet around the eyes, worry lines like dry rivers split and cracked from the corners of his mouth, under the cheekbones, along the forehead. You could almost see light pouring through the guy in places. It was damn near perfect.

Joe handed it over like it was nothing, went back to turning wrenches on his dirt bike.

With Joe’s police sketch, Charlie, Ashley, and me walked off toward the trail. As we entered, we heard the high-pitched scream of the dirt bike. Sounded like Leatherface’s chainsaw, cutting through the air like an apology, fading off into the distance.

I can’t exactly say where the trailheads are. You have the right scars, you’ll find them yourself, you ever make it up here. That said, there’s a place inside the woods where the trailheads meet and split, like the lines on our palms.

By the time we got there, the sun was already glowing orange in the branches of the Cottonwoods. We stopped to guzzle Cokes, chew jerky, kick ourselves for forgetting the flashlights.

Ashley’s map, it was useless here. Had to rely on scars and signs to find our way.

We had plenty of scars. But signs, they were hard to come by. Most times, you just had to be lucky.

I know you’ll say I’m full of it, need to read more history books, learn the difference between facts and tall tales. But the sign we lucked out on, I saw it with my own two eyes. It was in Ashley’s palm, scarred back in Ohio, should have been totally useless here.

Wouldn’t have noticed except she swatted one of those baby-monster mosquitos buzzing around her neck while she tongued the last drops of Coke from her can. And what do you do after you kill a baby monster? You look at the blood on your hands, that’s what. When Ashley turned her hand over to look at the mosquito she’d greased in her palm, she saw it. That dead mosquito, it was glowing red, like slag from a stick-welder falling into your glove. It died right at the end of a line on her palm. And me and Charlie, standing over her shoulder, we saw it, too. Her palm, at exactly that angle, exactly in that light, matched the trails we’d cut through grandma’s woods.

That’s how we knew there was something waiting for us at the end of the most haunted trail. The one we never go to at night. The trail to Cherry Creek.

Charlie and me, we’d heard the story a million times. Uncle Keith, that’s Joe and Charlie’s dad, he’d told it to us whenever we sat in grandma’s hot tub, our hair wet, half-frozen in December air, watching the Northern Lights.

It was about 1974 prom queen, Cheryl “Cherry” Hill, whose twisted 1960 Studebaker Lark was pulled from the creek near the Dark River Gravel Pit.

Uncle Keith was our age, then, if you can believe it. That morning, Keith watched as grandpa towed Cherry’s car to its final resting place in the junkyard. He thought, even then, that the creekwater dripped from its doors like tears.

That night, Uncle Keith, he snuck out to Cherry’s Lark. The creekwater sloshed on his boots when he opened the driver’s door. Gut-punched by stink of rotting leather.

And then, as if bobbing back to the surface, the scent of Cherry’s youth swam out from the Lark: “Daisy’s Won’t Tell” perfume, Boone’s Farm strawberry wine, faint notes of shampooed hair, soaped skin. Cherry-red lipstick stuck out from the ashtray like a drowned secret, kissed on the end of a single Lucky Strike cigarette.

That night, Uncle Keith rescued Cherry’s yearbook from the back window of the Lark. He dried each waterlogged page with grandma’s hairdryer before she and grandpa returned home from taking the edge off at The Alibi.

Every night that summer, Keith read Cherry’s yearbook by flashlight, listening to the buzz of mosquitos and moths flapping against grandma’s yard lamp. Each night, he kisses his thumb and wipes away the creekwater rot from Cherry’s prom queen picture.

When he does, he says, he can feel the hot blush of Cherry’s skin blooming from the cold mud of the creek bed. Those nights, it was like he was her ghost, the boy “Not Pictured” — two columns over, one row down. With a wet kiss on his thumb he’d enter the picture, feeling his way to the other side — listening for the secrets Cherry left for him at the end of a Lucky Strike.

She’d visit him some nights. Dipping her tiny brush into vials of nail polish, painting her toenails Robin’s Egg Blue, blowing them dry, scratching them off and changing colors. She’d sway in his room, leaving wet footprints, listening to vinyl records spin backward while they got high on nail polish fumes.

Then, on the last night that summer, she slips a Lucky Strike between her lips, Dangerous Red No. 9, hair sopping wet, covering her eyes.

Playing dead,” she whispers, like she’s singing a lyric from those backward-spinning records.

Keith’s room fills with creekwater. Cherry steps barefoot into the mud. Looked like she’d float downstream to Yellowstone, Keith said. Like she wanted to see the geysers and the mood-ring reflections of Firehole Spring. Wanted to see the earth making itself; go someplace where you could remember that nothing could be created or destroyed.

But before she spills out his open window, floating on her back, Keith sees her mouth fill with mud and sticks and dead leaves. Water swirls around her mouth like a plugged culvert. Her eyes go white, shine like headlights, flickering out when they go underwater. In the morning, all that’s left is sunbaked mud and dead leaves. Keith’s room a dry creek bed, thirsty for one more gullywasher rain.

“Love stories were always turning into ghost stories that way,” Uncle Keith said.

Thing is, they never found Cherry’s body. Wasn’t nothing left of her but the smell of spring lilacs and strawberry wine in the Lark. A crushed cigarette and a waterlogged yearbook.

For the past two decades there wasn’t a kid brave enough to stick a toe in that creekwater where Cherry’s car was found. And not even Joe and Dave would sleep the whole night through in Uncle Keith’s old room. Too afraid of drowning in creekwater, feeling Cherry’s hair slipping around their ankles, pulling them under.

Guess that made us the bravest kids in two decades, what we did next. The bravest and the dumbest kids in the whole history of Dark River.

By the time we got to the water’s edge, the creekwater was black, shimmering in the moonlight. Drowned logs spun and floated in the current.

Ashley said we were close. We must be close. Said her palm was burning, like it was infected with poison ivy.

While Ashley thumbed her palm, feeling for signs, Charlie looked my way, his face white as a ghost, a new deathbed stare I hadn’t seen yet.

I wonder if he was thinking what I was thinking. That we should have told Ashley about Cherry Creek. That we should have made her as afraid of that water as we were.

Of all the things I wish I could have back, it’d be those ten seconds.

Before we had the chance to do anything, Ashley, she touched her burning palm to the water.

Headlights flashed underwater. Two giant, shining eyes.

Ashley shrieked, like the water was killing her. Stumbled forward.

Charlie grabbed for her, fast as he could, but all he could manage was to press his palm in the creek mud between her shoeprints.

The creek swallowed her, pulled her under hard and fast. For a second, though, she glowed in the water, like a night-fishing lure. Only a second, and then the headlights flickered out.

I don’t think even Joe could’ve held Charlie back. I know I couldn’t, hard as I tried.

Charlie jumped right in after her. Disappearing into the black water, leaving me on the banks of the creek, shaking all over.

• • •

One thing you learn when you’re in grandma’s canning cellar, it’s that a pickle can’t go back to being a cucumber on the vine.

Grandma, she died on mom’s answering machine on Easter morning. Uncle Keith, he left the message. “Brain aneurism,” he said. “Blood vessel burst in her brain.”

At the funeral, I stood with Uncle Keith, looking into the open casket. I kissed my thumb and pressed it to grandma’s cheek. Her skin was cold, a little rough, like day-old lefse. Her pastel makeup looked like Easter egg coloring washing down the drain of a farm sink.

We buried her next to grandpa. Same row as my dad.

Two columns over, one row down, there’s a grave marker that reads:

Charlie Elling
Beloved Son and Grandson
Aug. 15, 1984-Aug. 15, 1997

But Charlie, he’s not in there. Just a box in a hole, backfilled with grave dirt, holding stale air.

Folks around here, they think I’m crazy. Say I could hide my own Easter eggs.

Joe, he doesn’t sock them when they say it. That’s how I know he thinks it might be true.

Going on ten months now since I came up from Cherry Creek. Carrying nothing but the shakes and a muddy picture of Ashley’s dad. The one Joe sketched.

“How do three kids cross Cherry Creek at midnight? Two of ‘em don’t come back.” That’s the joke townsfolk tell when they think I’m not listening.

Mom and me moved out to grandma’s after Charlie went missing. I got Uncle Keith’s old room.

Guess some might think that was punishment, putting me in the most haunted room in the whole house. But a room filling with creekwater wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to you. I learned that.

After grandma died, I found Charlie’s old bent-frame bike rusting in the canning cellar. Raspberry jam and juneberry pie filling. Green beans soaking in brine. Fat jars of pickled pigs’ feet and pickled beets, stain-your-teeth purple.

I looked at those jars and decided I’d never be an A-lister. Decided I’d never let myself get pickled. Rather rot on the vine, stay a B-character forever, than let myself get preserved in one of those dusty jars. That’s what growing up was — a canning jar full of brine. Locked up in a cool, dry place. Dust carrying specks of light you won’t let touch you. Heart and guts pickling in cold glass.

For a whole week, I kept coming back to that cellar. Spinning the pedals on Charlie’s bike. Spraying W-D 40 on the dry, rusted chain ka-chunking around the gears, knowing that any minute, it could snap.

Had no plans to go no place. But fixing up that bent-frame bike kept me from dreaming about being trapped in stale air, buried alive under a jar lid, mouth full of worms.

The search teams, dripping in their wetsuits, they never found nothing down where Ashley got pulled in the creek, where Charlie jumped in to save her.

That’s how I know that Charlie, he must’ve learned to breathe underwater. One of his tricks for playing dead.

Every night now I sit in grandma’s hot tub, trying to breathe underwater. Trying to wean myself off cheating — too easy when you suction your lips to the jets, breathe in the air bubbles. It needs to be for real. Breathing underwater, it’s gotta be my specialty.

As soon as I learn how, Charlie, he’ll send for me. Leave me a postcard from Yellowstone, a picture of the bluest water cutting through limestone cliffs. I can already see it, the postcard waiting for me in the spokes of that old bent-frame bike, the pedals spinning before I even climb on. As soon as I learn to breathe underwater, that bike will carry me to that jagged edge where Charlie dies pretty, the prettiest death ever. I see it. A death so pretty it cuts you all over. A place filled with afterlight, the smell of half-broke horses.

Light, it moves slower underwater, takes longer for the shine to reach the surface. But I can see it coming. I see it coming with my own two eyes.


Joshua T. Anderson is a writer from rural North Dakota, who teaches literature and writing at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He is currently completing his Ph.D. dissertation in American Indian Literature and writing other stories in the horror, weird, and slipstream genres. The story herein is his first fiction publication.