The sun rises like an egg yolk on a frying pan, and the air hisses and spits around me. Dad’s passed out on his chair. Mom’s passed out in bed. Arnold’s snoring like he’s got all the time in the world left to dream.
I slip out the door. Barefoot, ketchup-stained stained t-shirt and shorts, hair knotted and tied up in a rubber band. stuck in my head, running in an endless loop. The air’s electric. Summer electric. I look left, right, and run as fast as my legs will carry.
Turtle pond. I jump in, clothes still on, and stay beneath the water as long as my lungs will stand it. I kick up to the surface. Lift my face to the sky. The rez is eerily quiet--too early for hangovers to kick in, too Saturday for kids to be getting dressed for school--and it makes me want to scream. Or sing. I do neither.
I float on my back. Time loses track of me.
There’s a stack of books hidden in my school things; covers ripped off, but I can picture the art anyway: shirtless Indian, white schoolmarm with her hair down and too much cleavage. I need to move them. Hide them where no one will find them.
I swim. Slow, lazy, underwater and above. The sun’s fat and yellow in the middle of the sky, the rare cloudless day. The rest of the rez is waking up. My stomach grumbles.
“Be quiet,” I whisper. But it’s too late; the spell is broken. A radio crackles to life, and a baby’s hungry wailing cuts through the quiet. I can hear the Scott boys running full-tilt toward the pond.
I head for shore. Pull myself out of the water and shake off like Oscar after a bath.
Her hair fans out behind her, the sunlight creating little rainbows in the drops of water spreading around her. He stops, mesmerized and overwhelmed, and watches. Her beauty makes it difficult for him to breathe.
Josiah is the youngest son in a family of eight boys. His hair is long, loose like a man’s, and the sunlight reflects off of it like light reflected through a diamond. He is tall, muscular, and his well-worn Poison t-shirt fits tightly around his shoulders.
They stand still, staring at each other and unable to move.
A bird sings nearby, a beautiful spring song, and the wind whistles gently through the trees. Her voice is caught in her throat. His tongue is tied. Her clothes, cool and damp, cling to her body enticingly.
His brother runs into Josiah’s back. “Oof,” Josiah says, breathlessly.
“Hey,” his brother exclaims. His voice cracks, and he blushes. He waves, awkwardly, and adds, “I’m just going to go. Swimming. Over there.” He runs away, tripping over a stick and yelling, “I’m okay!” as he catches himself.
Marie steps forward, trembling with nervousness.
“Hello,” Josiah smiles. His voice is a deep baritone. “I am Josiah of the Spokane tribe. My brother and I swim here most mornings in the summer.”
Marie grins. She whispers, “My name is Marie St. Esprit.”
I run home. Faster than most of the boys my age, fleet and careless about it. My feet know this route, and I hop between rocks and shards of glass and the occasional stinging plant.
“Mary,” Arnold says. He looks up from his ever-present notebook. Pencil in mid-air.
“Arnold,” I say.
He squints. “You’re wet,” he says. Back to drawing.
There’s a half-eaten bag of Lay’s in my book bag; I run to my room, grab the potato chips and bring them with me into Arnold’s room. I hold up the bag as I walk inside. Close the door behind me. I put it down next to his notebook, careful not to drip on his drawings. Arnold looks at the chips dubiously. Like he’s not sure what to make of them.
I tell him, “Eat your breakfast.”
“But,” he says.
“Most important meal of the day,” I say. Arnold’s a smart kid, smarter than I am maybe: he eats quickly, bag tucked close to his body. He licks his fingers clean. Crumples the bag into a ball and hands it back to me.
I put it in my pocket. I’ll throw it out at school; Mom and Dad don’t need to see it. “So,” I say, “What’re you drawing? Superheros? Rowdy? Chickens?” I have a comic of his hidden in the back of my underwear drawer: drumsticks wearing masks and Kentucky Fried Chicken capes.
He smiles: slow, small, like he’s waiting for someone to punch it off his face.
“Rowdy,” he says. His best friend in all the world; Arnold thinks Rowdy hung the moon, then sprinkled stars around just to prove he could. Arnold would follow Rowdy into a burning building. Into battle against Bad Mind.
Rowdy’s bigger than Arnold. Stronger. Sometimes I’ll catch a glance of him out of the corner of my eye, and his father’s shadow will be following him around. One day, he’ll break my brother’s arm. Or his heart.
“C’mon,” I say. “I want to see. Can I?”
I tuck my legs beneath me and turn so I’m sitting next to him. My toenail scrapes against the floor. From this angle, Arnold’s all head and feet. A tiny human scarecrow. I want to put him in my bag and keep him safe until he’s big enough to withstand a strong gust of wind.
“Okay,” he says. He looks doubtful. Ready for mocking. I pull him close--two years ago, I’d’ve pulled him into my lap, kissed the top of his head and ruffled his hair--and rest my chin on his shoulder.
“Love you,” I say. He opens his notebook. I look down.
Mom and Dad can fight about anything, everything: sleep, fry bread, socks, money, the color of the sky. Arnold says he’s taking Oscar for a walk. They don’t even break stride--”it tastes like piss, don’t go too far Oscar won’t make it back, but it’s better than”--and Arnold’s out the door and practically flying.
I concentrate on my book. There’s the unmistakable crash of a frying pan in the kitchen, a glass shattering against a wall. Screaming that’s almost a song; words that melt into random sounds if you focus hard enough.
Arnold slips back inside during a lull in the hostilities. A well-honed survival tactic. Dad’s boozy voice telling Mom he loves her; her voice echoing the sentiment. “Oscar done with his business?” Dad asks.
“Yes,” Arnold says.
“Love you,” Mom says. Oscar barks. “Shut that dog up, will you.”
There’s silence for a while after that. Me reading, Mom and Dad deep enough into the alcohol that even fighting seems like too much effort. Arnold either drawing or I don’t know what.
I look into Arnold’s room as I pass. He’s sitting in his closet, body partially slumped over, and snoring to wake the dead. He doesn’t sound like a chainsaw, like every book describes snoring, but like a wet cough, a sneeze, a howling cat.
I walk inside. Planning on waking him up, telling him to stop sleeping in the closet. That it’s weird. That he’s weird enough to begin with. His whole body shakes, and he sounds like he’s choking. I panic. Move toward him. But then he settles, drooling.
I let him sleep. I can tell him later.
I practically tiptoe to the kitchen--when I was a kid, five or six or so, I used to pretend I was out on a mission, spying on the white soldiers sent to kill us all--to get a glass of water. Mom’s sitting at the table, though, eyes glassy but focused.
“You planning on going to college, then,” she says.
I don’t jump. She sounds like she’s accusing me of murder. Blaming me for everything that’s gone wrong in her life. “Maybe,” I say. I pour myself some water from the tap. Start heading back to bed. “Too early to say for sure, innit.”
Joseph’s watching me from across the lot outside the school. I’m playing H.O.R.S.E. with some of my friends. Kicking ass, if truth be told. Taking names. I glance over at him, and he tilts his head. I toss the ball far and wide of the hoop. It hits Mr. P’s car.
Everyone runs. Scattering like the wind.
Joseph yells, “Go,” and I take off. His footsteps echoing behind me.
I ignore everything but getting away--the light rain soaking through my t-shirt, the blister on my toe--but i still end up tripping and hopping most of the way. An engine I don’t notice until I have to jump it like a hurdle. A felled tree branch that bends my ankle.
Looking behind me to see if anyone other than Joseph is following allows a rock to leap onto my path. The ground is damp. I’m running from, not to.
“C’mon,” Joseph says. He catches up to me as I slow to get my bearings. Grabs my hand and leads me to my right. Maybe west, possibly north: I can’t see the sun.
They watch each other from across a flower-filled field, and time literally stops.
Josiah sighs, “Marie, I can’t believe I’ve found you again.”
“Josiah,” Marie trills, her voice filling with tears, “I thought you were dead. Caught by the General and hanged.”
“I escaped,” Josiah replies, “And I have spent the past few weeks searching for you everywhere.”
Marie wipes away delicate tears. Josiah approaches her, his dark skin shiny with sweat in the sunlight. Marie trembles. Josiah grabs her in his arms and holds her tight, swinging her around in a circle with joy.
I collapse on the grass on the side of the road. Lungs burning, muscles shaking. I feel like I’m going to puke. A car speeds past. I cough, turn my head to the side and wait for the nausea to pass.
Joseph’s wheezing next to me. Trying to pretend he’s not just as winded as I am.
“So,” he says. He drops his arm, and his fingers brush against my hair.
My brother dies at least once a week. He’s a freak of a kid: too big head, too big mouth, electricity coursing through him like a lightening storm. He has seizures. He dies.
The whole rez calls him a retard and a freak. Sometimes I have to sit on my hands to stop myself from fighting for him; he’s tiny, but he needs to learn to protect himself. Can’t trust anyone else to do that for him.
He’s sitting on his bed. Reading a beat-up old book about monkeys.
“Close your mouth,” I say. “Don’t move your lips.”
He closes his mouth. Licks his lips and shuts his book. “Why?”
“Well.” The right words keep fluttering out of my reach. I sit down next to him. Run my fingers through his hair until he bats my hand away. “Not everyone cares about what monkeys do for fun,” I say.
“They eat bugs,” Arnold says.
“They do?” I say. He nods, reopens his book and holds it so we both can see. There’s a line drawing of some sort of monkey, nothing Arnold couldn’t draw himself. The book’s probably way out of date, like everything else in the school library. I try not to think about that too hard. “Bugs, innit? Bet they’re all crunchy like potato chips.”
Arnold wrinkles his nose. He looks for me for a second, then looks down at his book. Grinning a little. Trying not to giggle. “Rowdy says they taste like crispy boogers,” he says.
“Rowdy says, does he?” I say. “You ever try them to find out?”
He pushes me, and I pretend to fall over. He laughs.
“They’re your favorite, huh?” I say. “I’ll have to remember to pick you up some ants the next time you want dinner and Mom and Dad are too busy fighting over the last beer to notice there’s nothing to eat.”
Arnold’s laughing so hard he starts to hiccup. He wipes his nose on his sleeve.
“‘s okay,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that hungry.”
“I don’t know,” I say, “I remember you whining about starving to death the other day. You probably would’ve killed for some nice boiled flies then.”
“Gross,” he says. But he’s grinning his stupid Arnold smile.
We do it in the cab of his father’s rusty old truck, the one that hasn’t driven anywhere in at least ten years. It smells like alcohol and smoke. We pass a can of beer stolen from under my father’s snoring nose; it’s warm, yeasty, almost stale tasting. Slightly fizzy on my tongue.
Joseph pulls a half-smoked cigarette out of his pocket. Lights it, inhales. When he exhales, the smoke makes my eyes water. He offers me a drag even though there isn’t much left, and that’s how I decide that I’m going to go all the way with him.
Just like that, a weight off my shoulders. I shake my head, no, and let him finish his smoke. I drink as much beer as I can in one swallow. “So,” he says, “Nice night, innit.”
“Oh, yeah,” I say. It isn’t raining, anyway, though it’s been threatening to all day.
He banks his cigarette on the steering wheel and moves his arm to the top of the seats. His fingers barely brushing against my neck. I’m not sure what to do, what to say; I want--I want so much, and I want it now, and I don’t know how to start.
I don’t know what to do with my hands. My palms are damp, and I try to wipe them on my skirt without being too obvious. I make a fist with my right hand. Tap my left against the car seat.
Joseph starts tracing his fingers along the line of my ear. Inching closer across the bench seat. So slowly I can reach out and touch it. Pull him to me with an invisible string.
I turn. Facing him--his hand jerks down, touches my breast--and then I’m climbing across the seat and into his lap. “Like this, innit,” I say. I lean forward and kiss him.
Josiah’s smoldering dark eyes are distinctive even in the grey of dusk. Marie’s nerves threaten to get the best of her, and she forgets to light the candles in her small schoolteacher’s cabin.
Their passion fills the air. “I,” Josiah starts, voice caring and strong, “I do not want to hurt you,” he tells her. “You will likely bleed,” he explains. “Do not be afraid,” he hisses, as she throws herself into his arms.
“Hey,” Joseph says. He pulls himself back, looks me in the eyes.
“I want,” I say. I trace his eyebrows with my fingers, follow the path to his cheeks. Mouth. I kiss him again, barely touching. “Okay?”
“-my line,” he says.
He fumbles with the zipper of his jeans. Pulls my shirt over my head with little regard for my nose. I bump my head against the roof of the truck as I pull my underwear off.
The last bell rings, and Joseph’s waiting for me in the hallway. He stopped going to school two years ago, hasn’t stepped foot inside since he walked out mid-exam. He’s twirling an unlit cigarette in his right hand.
The low-grade buzz of every student in the school running for the doors at once reverberates under my skin. “Nice day, innit,” I say.
Joseph looks up. Smiles. “Is now,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.”
I take his hand, and he grabs my math book. My book bag split in two last week. Mr. P calls me into his classroom, catching my eye as we walk past his door. I consider making a run for it, but it’s not worth the shin splints. Or the effort. I tell Joseph to meet me outside. Follow Mr. P.
“You used to raise your hand,” Mr. P says. I shrug.
“You used to do your homework,” he says. He sits down on the edge of his desk; his feet barely touch the ground, and he keeps kicking his heels against the metal. “You used to get the highest grades in the class. You used to-”
“Used to,” I say. I know what he’s trying to do.
“Ms. Spirit,” he says. He stands up again. Starts pacing back and forth across the classroom, rapping a ruler lightly against his thigh. “That isn’t. It’s not at all-”
“Funny, innit,” I say. He puffs up, red-faced and full of himself, and then implodes. A balloon with a small pinprick leack, slowly leaking air. I start to head back toward the door.
“You could still get into college,” he says.
“I,” I say. I don’t tell him that I applied to every school willing to waive my application fee: Native American, check here. I almost threw up after dropping the last one in the mail. “I don’t.”
“Your SAT scores were good enough,” he says. He’s completely oblivious. “Your GPA’s still decent. I’ll write you a recommendation, explain your family sit-”
“Is that all?” I say. It isn’t a question. I walk past him, careful not to run. I drop Embrace the Wind in my rush to leave, but I don’t stop to pick it up.
“Mary!” Mr. P yells once, twice, and then there’s a loud crash. Books and what sounds like a chair, a temper tantrum by a man old enough and white enough to know better.
I don’t look back. The classroom goes silent. I imagine Mr. P slumping to the ground. In my head, he’s the Union soldier carrying blankets full of smallpox, and I’m the Spokane warrior.
I shoot, and he dies, We all lose.
Joseph’s leaning against the outside wall of the school. Smoking a cigarette, knee bent like he’s been practicing looking cool. He’s listening to the old walkman he carries with him; tinny guitar riffs and heavy drums follow him around everywhere.
I shake my head. Watch him standing there, like maybe that’s where he’s going to be for the rest of his life. What he’s going to do. Stand, stand, wait. Before I even think about it, I’m walking past him.
I’m pretty sure he doesn’t notice I was there. But, hey, maybe he does.
“KFC,” Arnold says, “Original Recipe.” He looks like the Tasmanian Devil as he runs past my room and back toward the kitchen. Hair everywhere. Dirt-stained t-shirt and jeans.
I tuck Homeward Hearts under my mattress. Get up slowly and head for the kitchen. Mom and Dad are already sitting, and there’s a bucket of the Colonel’s best next to a pile of napkins and sporks.
“C’mon,” Arnold says. He’s hovering around the room, Oscar barking at his feet.
“Sit down, both of you, before your mother and I eat this whole chicken.” Dad says. He spits a bite of chicken across the table when he speaks, then reaches out and picks it up. Puts it back into his mouth.
I pull out a chair and sit down. Arnold does the same, and Oscar settles at his feet.
I let Arnold take what he wants first, then grab a drumstick and a thigh. No one talks; we all concentrate on our food, picking as much meat off the bone as we can.
Neither Mom nor Dad is drinking beer; they’re both perfectly sober. Arnold’s shoulders relax, and he slips a tiny piece of chicken under his chair for Oscar.
“Knock, knock,” Dad says.
“Who’s there?” Arnold answers.
Mom turns to me, looks at me with squinty eyes. “School okay?” she asks.
I nod. Take a bite of mashed potatoes. Concentrate on chewing.
“Boys okay?” she asks.
I swallow. “Okay,” I say.
“Okay,” she says. She rips a piece off her biscuit and pops it in her mouth. Arnold and Dad are laughing hysterically. Oscar runs into the other room, barking like he needs to go out.
Mom and Dad are singing Christmas carols in the middle of April, drunk enough that a broken headlight made them think of Christmas lights. I sent Arnold to bed early. When it looked like it was going to be a bad night.
I’m staring at a blank sheet of paper. Pen in hand, waiting for inspiration to strike.
Not even Arnold knows I’m doing this. Writing a romance novel. A book.
I feel stupid, almost, sitting here in my room with a notebook and a pen. I write down a character list. Draw a circle in the upper right hand corner; draw circles inside circles inside circles.
I start with Marie and Josiah’s meeting: a pond, early spring, birds. Write a note on the top: “ANY SIMILARITIES TO CHARACTERS LIVING OR DEAD IS MERELY COINCIDENTAL.” All capital letters. Also: “DO NOT READ ARNOLD THIS MEANS YOU.” My parents don’t even bother to snoop.
I’m halfway through the scene, trying to think of another word for “says.” My head won’t shut up; I can’t concentrate. I grab my jeans out of my closet, pull them on and slip on my sandals. I climb out the window. Crossing my fingers that Arnold doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night.
I head out to where Joseph and his friends drink. Careful and slow; there’s barely any moon. Just a small sliver of white, cutting between the clouds the clouds. I shiver, chilled. One step in front of the other.
I hear them before I see them. Laughing, singing, shouting, fighting: just a bunch of Indians out for a good time. I lean against a tree. Neither moving forward nor back, just standing.
“-the retard’s sister, innit,” one of them says. I don’t recognize his voice, but he’s definitely from the rez. Not Joseph, then, but one of his friends. “All scar-faced and shit, isn’t she. Bet she’s killer in bed though.”
“Oh yeah,” Joseph says.
They laugh. They look like ghosts from where I’m standing; shadows carrying bits of red glowing light, dancing between here and the end of time. I step forward. Ready to fight.
Joseph turns just as I move, like he can see me in the darkness. He smiles, big and stupid, and says, “Oh, hey, Mary. C’mon and have a beer with us.” He reaches out his hand, open and welcoming.
I unclench my fists. I’ll wait until he’s sober to punch him.
There’s a thick envelope addressed to me, return address CWU. I turn it over in my hands, slip it between the pages of my history textbook. I walk all the way to school before deciding I don’t feel like going.
Turtle pond’s empty on rainy Tuesday mornings. I sit on the ground, staring at nothing, until the rain peters away. My jeans are damp. My t-shirt soaked. My books, at least, are dry inside the garbage bag I put them in this morning.
Marie lifts her tear-stained face toward the sun, blinking at its brightness.
“But,” Josiah asks, “Why are you leaving?”
“I must,” she cries, sobbing uncontrollably in her grief. “I must return to my family’s land, to help with my brothers and sisters during my mother’s infirmary.”
“But Marie,” Josiah wails, “I love you.”
“And I you,” Marie sobs, “But my family is important to me, and you do not respect them. I heard you speaking of them mockingly with your fellow warriors.”
“Marie, Marie, Marie!” Josiah exclaims. His heart breaks into a million pieces.
“Josiah,” Marie whispers, as her heart also shatters, “I will never forget you, or this place. I have learned much from it. But now I must return home, to where I belong.”
I pull the envelope out. Study it from every angle.
I could go to college. Do what my mother never could; exceed my father’s expectations of me. Come back with a white woman’s accent, in first-hand clothes.
Arnold could draw comics of me: Mary Spirit, college graduate!
I don’t open the envelope. I wade knee-deep into the water, light the return address with a yellow plastic lighter. Let the ashes drop along the surface as I walk. Watch the light of the flames dance until my fingers start to burn. Drop the paper with a “fuck, shit” just under my breath.
I shake my hand. Dip my fingers under the surface of the water.
I count to ten, and take the long way home.