Woke up today, like so many other days, aching on a riverbank, hair sticky with mud, arcane patterns fading from my skin.
This time, I really thought I was gonna make it.
It’s a cool, wet morning, and I’m sprawled on my back, my field of vision filled by the uniform grey of the sky, a frame of wet black reeds. A cloud of gnats circles overhead, curious, growing bolder. “Ain’t dead yet,” I tell them. It only comes out a little slurred.
I put my energy into the task of sitting up, fighting against the mud suctioning my limbs and the uncomfortable awareness of my own fragility. I always feel like shit after, bruised and swollen and tender to the touch. I’m used to it by now, but that doesn’t make it any less unpleasant.
I’m not too far from the highway—I can hear, faintly, the rumble of passing cars—but I’m shielded from view, tucked down into a little gully. This is part good luck, part practice. I don’t always manage to make it somewhere so convenient, but my hit rate is better than it used to be. My clothes, too, are in a crumpled, hastily shed pile only a few feet away: another hard-won skill.
I manage to get myself over to my clothes, wet clay blooming up between my fingers as I crawl. I’m caked in mud. I try to use my hoodie to scrape off the worst of it, but mostly just smear it around. Fuck it, I decide, and stuff my filthy self into jeans and a t-shirt that are damp and stiff with morning dew.
Before I set off to find my car, I jam my hand into my back pocket to double check: Psalm 91, still there, crinkling protection.
For all the good it’s ever done me.
I find my car tilting on the shoulder of the highway. It’s still unlocked, the keys in the passenger seat right next to my cellphone. The car and the phone are both pieces of shit, but it’s pretty good luck nobody took off with them on sheer principle. My phone starts buzzing as soon as my ass hits the seat. “Told you she’d pick up for me,” I hear Junebug’s voice say, once I’ve gotten the phone flipped open. Then, “Where are you? Jack’s here to pick you up for practice. He’s been calling you for fifteen minutes.”
Fuck. “What time is it?” I ask. It’s freezing in the car. I fumble to get the keys into the ignition.
“Five ’til seven. He’s gonna be late, now.”
The engine coughs reluctantly to life. “Shit,” I say. “I’m sorry. I’m not going to make it today, okay? Tell Jack sorry I didn’t tell him ahead of time. And sorry I made him late.” I chew on my thumbnail. “Get him to make an excuse to Coach for me if he’s not too pissed.”
“Lanny,” Junebug says. “Where are you?”
“Uh.” I’m surrounded by scrubby trees and little else, indistinguishable from thousands of miles of highway that snake through southern Appalachia. “Not . . . sure? Somewhere near Barwood, I think.” That’s the last town I remember passing, anyway. About sixty miles west of home.
“Lanny Boykin.” I wince. There’s the sound of a door slamming, and the background noise changes timbre. “You really don’t know where you are?” Junebug asks, quieter. “Are you alright? Do you need me to come find you?”
God, I love Junebug. She would, too. She’d steal Jack’s truck and start driving, even with no real idea where to go. She is and always will be my best friend in the whole world, and probably the only thing I’ll really regret leaving behind.
“I’m fine,” I tell her around the tightness in my throat. “I’ve got my car and my phone. Ain’t even nekkid.” I put on a little extra redneck twang to try and make her laugh. She doesn’t. I let my hands slip down curled onto my thighs. I’ve got big hands, for a girl, oversize knobby knuckles and chewed cuticles. If I squint, I think I can see the outline of scales near the webbing of my right thumb and forefinger, but it’s hard to tell with the flaking mud. “I think I’m still on the highway,” I say. “I’ll call you if I can’t get my bearings.”
I hear Junebug exhale, harsh. “You’re an asshole,” she says.
The line goes dead: Junebug hanging up on me. Which I probably deserve.
I crank the heat and wait for a big enough gap in the traffic to pull a u-turn and point myself back facing east. The western stretch of road now behind me is tempting as always, but my skin throbs and prickles, warning me against it.
A road sign pops up: Now Leaving Haycombe. Something warm flares in my chest. Haycombe County, at least twenty miles farther west than I thought.
This is good.
This is really good.
If trying to escape ends up killing me, at least I’m getting a little farther every time.
Junebug’s waiting for me when I get home. We’ve been next-door neighbors our entire lives, double-wides shoulder to shoulder, front lawns spilling weeds into one another. Junebug’s parked in the metal frame porch swing her folks keep in the front yard, bare toes knuckling into the grass as she pushes herself in a gentle arc. She’s a little thing at the best of times, and right now she’s all but swallowed up by the enormous hoodie she’s wearing. Probably one of Jack’s. She peers out of the dark cavern of the hood, calm as a monk.
My car crunches to a stop on the gravel, and I climb out. “You been waiting for me all morning?” I ask.
Junebug gives me a disparaging look. “I’m enjoying the beauty of nature,” she says. “You can go fuck yourself.”
I eye our surroundings in disbelief. Actually, it’s not so bad. There are plenty of trees, anyway, the forest that surrounds our neighborhood always waiting to take over again. But the effect is kind of ruined by the neighbors: cars on blocks, weeds growing up through busted plastic toys, the smell of someone frying something.
Junebug gives me a hard look over. “You smell like old fish,” she says finally, hopping off the porch swing. “Go take a shower. Come over when you’re done. I’ll make coffee.”
I do as I’m told, let myself into my empty house and head for the bathroom, shedding muddy clothes as I go. I stand in the shower, kneading suds into the short bristles of my hair. There’s a little square of window set into the side of the shower, the sill a grimy shelf where deflated bottles of store-brand soap vie for space. The patch of backyard visible through the window is brutally overgrown, a riot of wet green weeds. Farther out, in the distance, Callaway Mountain rises, tall and ponderous. I turn away from it while I let the water sluice the soap away, finish scrubbing myself soft and clean.
I should go straight to Junebug’s after I finish my shower, but I make the mistake of going into my bedroom first, and am all of a sudden swimmy with exhaustion. The unmade tangle of my bedclothes is the most inviting thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Just for a minute, I think. I climb into bed and wind myself into a cocoon of wrinkled sheets.
I dream of water.
The first time, I was thirteen, and my mother had just left me.
My body was a foreign territory then. I’d grown ten inches but hadn’t filled out yet, limbs long and stick-scrawny, all awkward angles like I’d sprouted extra joints and hadn’t learned how to control them. I ached all the time. I’d wake up nights, twisted in damp sheets, chewing the insides of my cheeks ragged.
It was hot that night, air like wet gauze, and I woke up choking on it, hurting and too disoriented to figure out why. I remember the whole thing like I was sleepwalking through it, swinging my legs over the side of the bed, the bright sparkle of pain when my feet hit the floor, like I was stepping onto broken glass instead of the flattened pile of my carpet. I remember hauling open the sliding glass door, heavy as the slab of a tomb. I remember stumbling into the night, the shrieks of cicadas assaulting me from all sides.
I remember heading for the river.
Crooked River used to be a narrow, wild thing, once upon a time. It got dammed up back in the forties, by the power of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Now there’s a reservoir there, wide and placid, and that’s where I headed, pulled by something inexorable. I stood there on the bank, momentarily lucid enough to wonder what the hell I was doing, and why I hadn’t put on shoes before doing it.
And then I was in the water.
I don’t know what happens exactly, when I change. Something in my head changes, too, something that makes reality feel warped and liquid. I get bigger, and strong, monstrously so, almost too much for the river to contain me. My skin ripples outward, armoring itself with scales. Ridged back and pale underbelly, fins and fangs and gills.
The rest I might be making up, but I’m pretty sure about the gills. Once I go under, I don’t come back up until it’s over.
I wake up to the radio blasting static and morning sun lighting up my windows.
I slap my alarm reflexively, but it takes me a moment to figure out where I am and what’s going on. Home, I’m home, and I must have slept all day Saturday and on through the night. My alarm is going off because it’s Sunday, and I need to get ready for church.
I roll over and press my face into my pillow. I feel sleep-sticky, could happily spend another eight hours in bed. But I never miss Sunday service, so up I get, scrounge for clean enough pants and an unwrinkled button-down. I could probably use another shower, since I feel sour from being wrapped in my bedsheets for twenty solid hours. But it isn’t like I’m going to make the folks at church think any worse of me than they already do.
I head for the kitchen. The door to my dad’s bedroom is shut, and I try to move quietly so as not to wake him. I’m scarfing down a granola bar and trying to shove my shirt tail into my pants when I hear Junebug’s knuckles rattling the front door.
“Coming,” I whisper-yell, stomp into my dress shoes and tumble out onto the front porch.
Junebug, predictably, looks sweet as a picture, blonde curls and a floral print dress, guitar case hugged up against her chest. “You get some rest?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry. Passed out.”
“S’okay. You got crumbs on you.”
I try to brush granola dust from myself as we head for my car.
Our church is one of those classic down-in-the-holler affairs, smallish, white shingles, steeple sitting slightly lopsided. Never enough parking. I manage to find an empty space and get out to help Junebug wrangle her guitar. The flow of parishioners into the church is like water through a pebbled stream, splitting and branching to get around cars, whirling into small groups that babble with gossip. I struggle to dislodge my gym bag from where it’s trapping Junebug’s guitar, hunch my shoulders and feel like a stone, awkward and immovable.
“Got it,” says Junebug, as her guitar pops free. She reaches over to squeeze my wrist. “Gonna go set up. Find me after?”
I wave her off as she ambles away to join the rest of the choir.
Used to be, I’d come to church with Junebug and her Gran. It was Junebug’s Gran who dragged me along in the first place, Junebug’s Gran who gave me the slick printed sheet torn out of her own psalter. Psalm 91, an invocation of protection: I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. “You’ll need this, I think,” she’d said. She wasn’t wrong, though whether it’s helped any is a different story.
You’d think by now I’d be used to sitting alone at church, but I can’t get the hang of it. It just feels like such a familial time, is all, and I stand out like a sore thumb. I park myself in one of the last pews as usual, and try to look unobtrusive.
Pastor Chris is a short, round fellow with a red face and bristly walrus mustache. Climbing the steps up to the pulpit winds him a little, but even so he manages to look . . . calm. Content, somehow. Grace, I guess you call it.
“I’m so grateful,” Pastor Chris says, in his deep mountain twang, once everyone has settled themselves, “that you all are here today with me on this beautiful morning to share in God’s love, and His message. And I’m even more grateful than usual, because I know, no matter how you feel about what’s going on around town, that with so much uncertainty in the future, these are trying times for us all.”
I manage not to slide down in my seat and groan. I am so sick of hearing about the damn mountain.
“Today, continuing our discussion of the seven churches of Asia, I’d like to talk to you about Smyrna, a little church that was purified by suffering. I think there’s a lot we all can learn from Smyrna, here today. But first, let’s sing together. Please turn to page thirty-four, and join me in ‘How Great Thou Art’.”
There’s a general rustling of hymnals. Up in the choir box, I catch Junebug’s eye, briefly. She gives me a little grin before tilting her bright head down over her guitar and strumming the opening chords, accented by the chiming of the piano beside her. Oh lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, comes the swelling murmur of song from the congregation. Consider all the works thy hands have made. I close my eyes, and do my best to let it wash over me.
“So the meeting starts at seven,” Jack says, bracing his hands against a post to stretch his skinny brown calves. “The city council and then a representative from the mining company will talk for a while, and then they’ll open the floor to comments. I’m going to go over a little early to put my name down to speak, but I can pick you up if you want to come with. Junebug is gonna come, unless she ends up having to babysit.”
It’s Monday morning, and Jack and I, along with the rest of the cross country team, are crowded under the stingy shade of a pavilion, warming up. Which feels a bit redundant: it’s eight AM and the temperature’s already crawling toward ninety, the sun blazing clear and unfettered in a washed-out blue sky. I reach for my toes, and rivulets of sweat reverse direction, trickling back down my scalp.
“Sorry, man,” I say into my knees. “I got work. Otherwise I would totally come.”
I would totally not come. Jack is great, but his do-gooder tendencies can get a bit wearing. Even Junebug thinks so, and she generally thinks Jack can do no wrong. I would put money on her tragically ending up having to babysit her little brother tonight, even though I know for a fact her mom’s off work, and it’s not like her dad ever has plans.
Jack’s face falls, and I contemplate feeling guilty for about a second. “Oh,” he says. “Well, that sucks. I’ll tell you sooner next time, so you can be sure not to miss it.”
I fake a smile. “Awesome.”
“All right, circle up,” Coach hollers. “Five mile loop today. Manning Street down through Pleasant Hills. I’ll be at the halfway point with Gatorade. Take it easy, stay hydrated. It’s already hot and we’ve got hill loops tomorrow.” We all groan in unison. “Yeah, yeah. Let’s get a move on, everyone, chop chop. Oh—Lanny.”
“Yes ma’am?” I ask, pausing as the rest of the team drifts away.
“You get your long run in this weekend?”
“Uh,” I say.
Coach points a stern finger at me. “Twice around the loop for you, young lady.”
“Yes ma’am,” I agree, and head off to catch up with everyone else.
I tend to vie for the top spot on the girls’ team with two of the other juniors, Alicia and Caitie. Since we’re close in speed we end up running together, which always feels like a game of “one of these things is not like the other”. They’re both several inches shorter than me, pretty, whip-thin. When they run together, their ponytails swing in time like entrained pendulums.
“AP Lit for sure,” Caitie is saying as we lope down Manning Street, blowing past the Burger King and a now-defunct scrapbooking shop. “And I’m signed up for AP Calc, but I think I might switch out. It was way too much work last year.”
“For real? Oh man, wait until I tell Tyson. He’s gonna be devastated. He was telling Luke just the other night that he couldn’t wait to have a class with you. That boy is smitten.”
“Ugh, nooo,” Caitie protests, giggling, then seems to catch herself, sliding a concerned glance my way. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. Tyson is a total sweetheart. He’s just not my type, is all.”
I manage not to roll my eyes. Tyson is not Caitie’s type because he’s black, and it’s basically unheard of for a white girl, especially a popular one, to date a black guy at our school. But then Junebug’s dating a black guy, so people assume I must be all progressive by some sort of transitive property.
I’m not. I just don’t give a shit what Junebug does, as long as it makes her happy.
Caitie and Alicia are both looking at me like I might break into a lecture—I’m pretty sure I’ve never broken into a lecture in my life—so to cut the tension I say, “Yeah, I hate smart football players with perfect bodies too.” This sends Caitie and Alicia into a gale of giggles seriously disproportionate to the quality of the joke. I slow my pace so they can keep up while they catch their breath.
“Oh my god, Lanny, you’re so funny. That’s what I like about you, how funny you are.”
We turn off Manning Street and into Pleasant Hills. Pleasant Hills is one of the nicer neighborhoods in town, two-story brick houses with big lawns and careful landscaping. If I were by myself I’d probably hop the curb and kick up somebody’s grass—just a little.
“So,” begins Alicia, sly, as we pick up speed again. “What about you, Lanny? Any summer love so far?”
I have spent the first two weeks of summer break alternating between getting drunk with Junebug and waking up in ditches after attempting to run away from home. “Not yet,” I say. “But the summer is still young.”
“That’s the spirit,” says Caitie, leans over to bump her shoulder against mine, our biceps sweat-sliding against each other. “Hey, Luke’s parents are gonna be out of town in a couple of weeks. He was talking about having a party. You in?”
“Sure,” I say, before I can think better of it.
“For real? Awesome!” says Caitie, grinning. She sounds surprised, which I think is unfair. I mean, I’m a little on the antisocial side, but I try to get out sometimes.
“We should all get together before,” decides Alicia, “to get ready.” She turns to look at me, pursing her lips. “Lanny, you should really let me pluck your eyebrows for you. We should probably do it a day ahead of time, actually, so all the redness and swelling has time to go down.”
Jesus. “Great,” I say. “That sounds just great.”
Even though sometimes it feels like Caitie and Alicia are speaking some weird secret language, the second loop of my run is way more of a slog without them. Usually I prefer running alone, but I tend to pick more scenic routes. The last mile stretch brings me uphill on a highway, sandwiched between the rush of cars and baking strip mall parking lots. By the time I make it back I am sunburned, sweat-drenched, and raw-lunged from car exhaust. I want nothing more than to take a cold shower and maybe inhale a plate of pancakes.
Pancakes turn out to be a little outside the range of things I feel capable of. I’m home and shoveling my second bowl of cornflakes into my face when my dad comes in.
The thing about my dad—okay. I know he doesn’t have the easiest time of it. His job at the paper mill sucks, and he can never get enough hours so we’re always broke, and when my mom ran off he got stuck with me, which I’m sure was and is no picnic. And I am grateful, I am.
None of that changes the fact that he’s kind of an asshole. Case in point, today, him, opening the fridge: “You drank all the milk.”
I swallow a half-chewed bite of cereal. “Yeah. Sorry. I’ll pick more up this afternoon.”
He stares at me as if I’ve just told him I killed his dog. “You think I got money for another grocery run this week?”
I bite the tip of my tongue, hard. “I get paid today,” I tell him. I work as a waitress at a diner down the road, which pays enough to buy the occasional extra gallon of milk, anyhow. “I can get it.”
No arguing with that, I guess, so he changes tactics, turning a baleful eye on my running clothes. “Seems like if that school of yours is gonna make it so you need to eat enough for three girls your size, they could at least feed you.”
With me working we’re not actually broke enough anymore to qualify for shit like the free lunch program, and even when we were, Dad was way too much of a hardass to think about applying. I know better than to bring any of this up, though. Instead I force a tight little smile, like he’s made a joke. “Yeah,” I say.
He stares at me for another minute, then slams the fridge closed and disappears into his bedroom, slamming that door too. I’ve got half a bowl of mushy cornflakes left, and I want nothing more than to dump it in the trash. I force it down anyway.
Work is a place called the Boatyard Cafe, which is, I shit you not, a combination diner and bait store. Eccentric, as far as business models go, but they’ve been open for like thirty years, so I guess it’s working okay. I’ve been working there long enough to have graduated from scooping night-crawlers to waitressing full time, even though I’m pretty sure I’m too surly to really be cut out for the service industry. Waitressing pays better, but sometimes I miss the night-crawlers.
What I lack in charm I make up for in efficiency. So on Monday afternoon I’m doing my thing, maneuvering between tables at top speed, two hot plates balanced on each arm, when Mick fucking Cain snags a finger into my apron pocket and stops me short.
Mick Cain is a doctor, which puts him well above the median income in our little town. What’s worse, he’s a city councilman, and thus one of those fuckers you just cannot escape from. I’m pretty sure his business cards say “Mick Cain, pillar of the community”.
“Lanny!” says Mick, smiling in a way designed to show off his prize-pony teeth. “Slow down, sweetheart. I haven’t seen you in ages. Enjoying the break?”
I manage a polite smile. “Been good so far, Mr. Cain. Hey, looks like you’re running a little low on your coffee. Let me set these plates down and I’ll get you a refill.”
I try to step away but he refuses to take the hint, keeping his finger tucked firmly in my pocket. My arms ache under the weight of the plates, and I bite down on the urge to tip them all into his lap.
“You’re gonna be a senior, right, sweetheart?” he asks. “Where are you thinking about for college?”
I have to imagine Mick Cain is perfectly aware that I’ve never had any chance or intention of going to college. “Haven’t given it much thought, Mr. Cain. Probably just going to stay close to home.”
A lie, hopefully. Mr. Cain adopts a thoughtful expression.
“That so? I always kind of took you for the sort to run off to California once you graduated. But it’s probably for the best. Lotta weirdos out there. Dykes, y’know. Girl like you oughta stay home and take care of her daddy.” With that and a wink, he releases my apron and turns back to his meatloaf.
I take a deep breath, exhale slow, try to envision tension draining from my shoulders, and go to deliver my plates.
Six months after the first time I changed, my dad tried to take me on a trip to Nashville. He’d bought some equipment off someone there, and he needed to go down to pick it up. I was just shy of fourteen, certainly old enough to be left alone for a night, particularly with Junebug’s family right next door in case of emergencies. But I think he was worried about me.
I’d been morose, twitchy, a real pain in the ass to be around. He probably figured it was angst over my mom ditching us, which certainly didn’t help. But really, I was worried I was going crazy. I’d managed to convince myself the first time I’d turned had been a hallucination, which is not half so comforting as you might think. It hadn’t happened again, but I was certain that I was on the verge of a psychotic break.
Either way, my dad decided we were going to Nashville.
We made it about three miles outside town before the change started to hit.
It doesn’t start with anything visible. Lucky, I guess, otherwise someone probably would’ve put a bullet in my head by now, the way folks are around here. But what happens first is I get a desperate compulsion to get to the water.
My dad must have thought I was possessed. One minute we’re riding along in our traditional silence, the next I’m bent over double, shaking like a leaf and begging him to pull over, God, please, please, pull over now.
Actually, what he probably thought was that I was about to be sick all over his upholstery, because he did pull over, and good thing too, because in another ten seconds I would have yanked the door open and tucked and rolled anyway.
I remember him asking if I was alright, but I was too far gone to answer. The second my feet hit the ground, I was off running.
My dad was furious when I stumbled home the next morning, barefoot and filthy and draped in a stolen XL men’s t-shirt. He was terrified someone would find out, that they’d decide he couldn’t take care of me without my mom, that I’d get taken away. To me, all that was a background buzz compared to the horrifying suspicion thudding in my skull: oh my God, what if I’m stuck here.
The house is dark and quiet when I get home, which is good luck. I never have any idea when Dad is going to be around these days. I’ve got a thick roll of bills in my back pocket from cashing my paycheck and a half gallon of milk dangling from my fingers. The fridge is empty except for some expired hot dogs, a withered head of lettuce, and a few beers. I toss the hot dogs and the lettuce in the garbage, shove the beers in my backpack, and replace them with the milk. It looks pathetic, sitting there in the fridge all alone. Good. Seems like an appropriate goodbye fuck-you, on the off chance I make it out of here this time.
I throw in some granola bars and cans of soup along with the beer, then swing by my room to grab a couple handfuls of clean socks and underwear. I am slamming the lid of the trunk when the driveway floods with light.
I startle, momentarily blinded by the washed out brightness of Junebug’s porch light. Junebug herself is a black silhouette against a bright halo, surrounded by the weird effervescence of insects making suicide runs at the lamp. I blink until her face resolves from a dark muddle.
“Hey,” I say, not at all sheepish.
Junebug’s mouth is doing that thing where she can’t decide if she’s angry or just tired. “Again?” she asks. “Jesus, Lanny, what’s it been, four days? Can’t you give it a couple of weeks, at least?”
I open my mouth to respond, then snap it closed again, hit by the sudden certainty that I am going to cry.
I have no idea where this is coming from. I’m really not a crier, usually. The palms of my hands prickle with heat, and I clench them into fists, sit down hard on the bumper of my car and try to get my jaw to unfreeze.
“Aw, Lanny, Jesus.” Junebug is beside me in an instant, finding my hands and sliding her fingers in between mine. “Fuck, I’m sorry, okay? What’s wrong, what happened?”
“Oh my God, nothing, it’s not—” I cut myself off, take a couple of gulping breaths in an attempt to get hold of myself. “Sorry,” I say, “it’s nothing, it really— I just had kind of a shitty day, is all, it didn’t— nothing even happened, I just—” I make a frustrated, abortive gesture, flinging my hand out to try and encompass—everything, our stupid shitty overgrown lawns, the fridge with its lonely half gallon of milk, the cut of the mountains in the distance, hemming us in. The way my skin, dry and brittle and stretched too tight over my bones, threatens to split and burst under the pressure of whatever this thing is I have trapped inside me, weighing me down, tethering me here.
God, God, I hate this place.
“Hey, hey. Come on, Lanny. It’s okay.” Junebug keeps my hand trapped in hers as she comes around to sit next to me, tucking herself up right next to my side. She squeezes my fingers tight and ducks her head, peering up at my face, forcing me to look at her. “It’s gonna be okay, you know? You don’t—you don’t have to do this, running off half cocked in the middle of the night.” She reaches up to brush a finger along my cheekbone. “Shit. I mean, I’m pretty sure you’ve still got some scales from last time.”
That surprises a laugh out of me, even it if comes out kind of wet sounding. I run a hand over my wet cheeks and dripping nose. “Pretty sure that’s just a zit.”
Junebug digs an elbow into my side. “Come on. Fuck this shit for tonight, okay? You wanna come in, watch a movie or something?”
“Can we go somewhere else?” I ask. “I’ve got a backpack full of beer, if that helps.”
“Definitely,” says Junebug. “You wanna go down to the bridge and get drunk?”
“Yeah, good idea.” I scrub thoughtful fingertips against my scalp. “You wanna call Jack? You know his feelings will be hurt if we go without him.” This is true—Jack loves climbing the bridge—but also Jack’s presence will keep Junebug from drilling me too hard about my feelings. From the narrow look she gives me, Junebug knows exactly what’s up, but she just says, “You sure you don’t mind?”
“Call him,” I say, and go unload everything from my backpack that isn’t beer.
The Crooked River Bridge crosses the river at its narrowest bend, about a mile’s walk from my house. It’s an arch support bridge, the top of it—the road portion—spanning the water about a hundred feet above its surface. Below that, the arch plants one fat concrete foot on the northern riverbank, swoops up to kiss the bottom of the bridge in the middle, then angles back down towards the southern bank.
The arch is the part that you climb.
The tricky part is swinging yourself up, a dangerous moment’s work of being suspended out above the sharp tumble of rocks and rushing water, but once you’ve gotten your footing on solid concrete you’re home free. You can edge yourself past the pillars holding the bridge up above you, past the shitty graffiti and discarded beer cans, until you reach the apex, tucked up tight below the bottom of the bridge, cars rushing thunderously over your head, and a hundred foot drop to the water below.
To the east, you can watch the river disappearing away into the forest, a bright silver ribbon wound through heavy green darkness. To the west, the dam curves against the water in the reservoir, swollen and shining with artificial light. And beyond that . . . well, for now, Callaway Mountain rises up, slow and stately, the distance blurring the covering treetops into something homogeneous, a soft ruched blanket holding the mountain safe.
It can be beautiful here. But I don’t think I’ll miss it.
Junebug goes first, hopping across the gap light and sure, then braces herself outstretched at a dangerous angle to grab her guitar as I pass it up to her. I go next, the bottles in my bag clanking as I fling myself through empty space.
The concrete is cool and gritty under me as I crawl up to meet Junebug near the apex. This late at night there isn’t much traffic, just water below, the quiet susurration of wind through the trees.
“Beer please,” says Junebug, so I unzip my bag and pass her a bottle before retrieving my own and doing my best to get comfortable, scooting around so I’m lying on my back, knees drawn up and head pillowed on the unforgiving concrete.
“So what was—” Junebug begins, before she’s cut off by the rumble of a truck passing overhead. It’s hard to make out her expression, but I’m sure she’s scowling.
I grin at her, can’t help myself, and by the time the truck has passed Jack’s showed up, scaling the arch with the ease of long practice, a grin lighting up his face, too.
“I brought a blanket,” he says, “and more beer,” and all thought of continuing to discuss my shitty day dissipates into the night.
We spread out the comforter and arrange ourselves on it in a haphazard pile, Jack pillowing his head on my thigh, me using Junebug’s shoulder as a backrest. We sit there in companionable silence for a few minutes, slurping our beers, listening to the occasional car roaring overhead.
“Did you see,” Jack asks, apropos of nothing, “that they started setting up camp and bringing in mining equipment, down below the dam? Earthmovers and shit.”
“Seriously?” asks Junebug. We both sit up, craning our necks to look where Jack’s pointing. Sure enough, there’s a little base of operations set up there, backhoes and office trailers glinting in floodlights.
“I mean, what the hell,” continues Jack. “There are still two more hearings, and I know for a fact they haven’t filed all their permitting yet. Just—the nerve.”
“We should blow up the mining camp,” I say.
“We really, really should,” says Jack, a little too enthusiastic.
Junebug pings a bottle cap off Jack’s temple. “No plotting eco-terrorism tonight,” she says. “Too depressing.”
Jack raises a hand in surrender. “Fine,” he says. “But then you gotta sing for us.”
Junebug doesn’t ever need too much encouragement. She cradles the guitar in her lap and plucks a few disconnected notes, fiddling with the tuning. She pauses, thoughtful, then a grin curls the corner of her mouth, and she starts to sing. “He’s had more bad luck than most men could stand, the mine was his first love, but never his friend . . . .”
Jack groan-laughs, and Junebug’s grin widens. It’s a dumb idea to be making so much noise up here, but Jack and I can’t help ourselves from joining in on the chorus. “Black lung, black lung, you’re just biding your time. Soon all of this suffering I’ll leave behind, but I can’t help but wonder what God had in mind to send such a devil to claim this soul of mine.”
Our voices echo together across the water, sweet and out of tune.
The sun’s long up by the time we stumble home, loopy from sleep deprivation and prolonged drunkenness. We trudge the mile back to my place in good cheer, me and Jack bracketing Junebug on either side, arms looped around each other’s waists to help keep ourselves upright, Junebug’s guitar case thumping hollowly with each step. I’ve kicked off my shoes to feel the asphalt warm and silky underneath my toes, and the sun is hot on the back of my neck when we turn into the driveway and are confronted with twin blank stares: Junebug’s mom and my dad.
The three of us exchange confused looks. It’s not inconceivable that Junebug’s mom would be waiting up to scold us for spending the whole night out drinking. It is inconceivable that my dad would care enough to join her.
“Mom?” Junebug asks carefully, extracting herself from my and Jack’s arms. “What’s going on?”
Junebug’s mom’s face is schooled into something like gentle concern. “Oh, sugar,” she says. “It’s nothing, sweetheart, it’s just . . . .” she flaps a hand. “We got letters about buyouts from the mining company this morning. Called it a good-faith effort. Looks like if they get their permitting pushed through there’s a good chance we’re gonna be right in the middle of a runoff zone.” I realize she and my dad are both holding torn-open envelopes, clutching them like nervous kids with a report card.
“Seriously?” Junebug demands. “Mom. What are you going to do?”
Junebug’s mom shakes her head. “I still think this whole thing is going to fall through. And if not, well, hell. I’m sure not going to make it any easier on them than necessary.”
My dad’s been silent this whole time. I feel something cold settling in. “Dad,” I say.
My dad frowns. “I got to get ready for work,” he mutters, turning to head into the house.
“Dad,” I say again, rush to follow him as he shoves his way through the front door.
He ignores me, tosses the envelope onto the table, yanks open the cupboards to pull out coffee and filters and lets the doors slam shut in his wake.
I wrap my fingers around the edge of the counter and try to keep calm. “You’re not thinking of selling the house, are you?”
“You got any particular attachment to this place?”
“No,” I say, “I just—” I stop, shaking my head. “I mean, what are we going to do? Where are we going to live?”
“Nashville,” he says.
My stomach drops out of me. “Nashville?”
Dad dumps coffee grounds into the machine and flips the thing on. It gurgles to life, exhaling the warm aroma of coffee. “Right outside of, anyway. I got a buddy said he can get me a job lined up there, if I want it. Full time at a machine shop.”
I feel light all over, like I’m watching this conversation from far away. “Dad,” I say. “I can’t move to Nashville.”
The coffee isn’t done percolating yet, but Dad yanks the pot out anyway to pour himself a cup, a thin stream of liquid spattering down to hiss and evaporate on the hot plate. “And why the hell not?”
Eldritch horrors, mostly, I manage not to say aloud, and wonder dimly if I’m becoming hysterical. “I’ve got—school, cross country. Work. I mean, I’m about to graduate.”
“Lanny,” he says. I’m expecting him to be angry; instead, he just looks tired, scrubs a hand over his forehead and looks up to the ceiling as if asking for strength. “It’s over for this town, you got that? Shit, there hasn’t been enough work around here for years. You think it’s gonna get better once they start dynamiting? You think anyone’s gonna want to live where the water’s all full of coal ash? You think the mill is still gonna be open in another five years?”
I pull my shoulders in, stare at the tabletop. “They still might not get the permitting,” I mutter.
I see my dad’s knuckles whiten around the handle of his mug, and for a second I think I’m gonna get hit. But he just exhales. “God dammit, Lanny,” he says. “This isn’t up for discussion. You understand me?”
I nod, once.
He shakes his head. “I gotta get to work.”
“Yeah,” I say.
He pauses, as if he’s trying to figure out something else to say, and then pushes his way out the door.
I bury my face in my hands and try to figure out what in the hell I am going to do.
How to run the trails at Callaway Mountain:
Hike or jog up the access road to avoid the parking fee. The attendant in her little booth will roll her eyes but wave you on through. Worn wooden signs mark trail heads like gameshow mystery doors, each beckoning you their way. Lake Loop, short and flat, overpopulated by little kids out on an adventure and young couples stopping for pictures. Fire Tower Path, the steepest and most difficult, full of serious hikers looking to cut another notch in their belts. Pick something in between: today, Hollybush Loop, where the path is narrow, overgrown in spots, where you’ve got a chance of finishing the loop without encountering another human soul.
I pause at the trailhead to take stock of myself, my surroundings. The sun is just sinking past the tree line, a warm glow bursting through the gaps between leaves. I’ll make it back before it sets properly, and I’ve got a headlamp tucked into my pocket in case anything goes wrong. Water in a bottle, strapped to my belt, leaving my hands free in case I take a fall. Muscles in my legs warm and loose from the hike up and the late afternoon sun. The thud of my own heart, the pulse in my veins, strong but steady, hard to believe any part of me can be so stable, so sure, I’m ready, I’m ready.
I take a deep breath and start running.
Hollybush starts with a hard uphill. I like that, gets straight to the point, no fucking around. Downhill feels easier but is more treacherous, gravity giving you speed you didn’t earn, exacts its toll when you miss your footing and go careening into emptiness. Uphill is harder but simpler, nothing to do but tuck your head and keep pushing. Push even harder when your legs start to feel like lead weights, take bigger leaps, make it to that rock this time, that root over there, farther than seems possible with each step. The woods around you, silent and golden, the churning engine of your heart, sweat that stings like absolution.
Every time I run this trail, I think I’m not going to make it, and then I burst into the clearing that means I’ve reached the trail’s summit, and the world spreads out in front of me: small white homes nestled safe into the green valley, stripes of asphalt carving between the trees, the sun, fat and low, gilding everything with copper.
There are so few good things in this godforsaken town. I don’t understand why they want to tear apart this one, too.
That night, home, sprawled on the couch and halfway to sleep, I can hear Junebug practicing her guitar. She’s working on “How Great Thou Art” again, and even though I can’t hear her singing, my mind supplies the same verse over and over: when through the woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
“He’s saying August,” I tell Junebug, resting my temple against the metal arm of the porch swing, watching the branches overhead dip in and out of view. It’s a hot afternoon, the sky bleached pale, the grass underneath our bare toes crunchy and dry. “That’s when they want him to start. We need to be out of the house anyway, so.”
Junebug’s doing all the work of keeping us moving, one slow leg tilting us back and forth, back and forth. Creeeeak, goes the porch swing. “Hell, Lanny,” she says.
I make a noise that isn’t quite a laugh. “Yeah.”
Junebug’s leg keeps working, moving us in a gentle arc. “You could come live with us,” she says.
I bite down on a smile. “I suggested that to him, actually. Or that if I dropped out, I might be able to make enough at the diner to get a shitty apartment somewhere.”
“He threw a bottle at my head.”
“Yeah.” I blow out a long breath. “In his defense, I don’t think he gets why I’m being such a pain in the ass about this. I mean, I’m pretty sure he knows how much I want to get out of this place. I think he thinks I’m just fucking with him to be difficult.” I shrug. “Worst case scenario I figure I’ll just get as far away as I can, hide out in Haycombe or something for a few weeks until he’s gone. It’s not like I haven’t been planning to run away for years, right? And I turn eighteen in like four months. I don’t think he’s gonna call the cops to come drag me off to Nashville.” I frown, digging at a tuft of grass with my big toe. “I figure he’ll be at least a little relieved to be rid of me.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” says Junebug, unconvincing.
The cicadas are loud today, their droning chatter punctuated by the whine of the porch swing.
“We’ll figure something out,” Junebug says at length. “We’ll figure out a way for you to stay. Don’t worry.”
I don’t point out that the idea of staying is exactly what’s worrying me. It’s not like Junebug doesn’t know.
If I’d thought before that people in this town couldn’t talk about anything but Callaway Mountain, nothing could have prepared me for the relentless tide of gossip once the mining company begins to move in earnest. “Coal’s got to come from somewhere,” a constant refrain, like setting a spark to black powder, sure to send up any room. At cross country practice Caitie and Alicia get into a screaming fight over Superfund sites and acid mine water, Caitie: “do you want my dad to be out of a job,” Alicia: “I want to maybe one day have a baby that isn’t born with flippers,” and the two of them don’t speak for days.
“I went over to Farwood Mountain a while ago,” Mrs. April tells me at the diner, sipping at a cup of coffee with pursed lips and pinkie extended. “They’ve reclaimed the top of it now. Looks real pretty. It’s a real sweet little park. Nicer than before, if you ask me. They’ve got a little pond up there and everything. You never hear the environmentalists talk about that.”
In my head I hear Jack talking about grassland monocultures and invasive species. “You never do,” I agree, smiling sweetly and aggressively not giving a shit. I’m going to find a way out of here. It’s not going to be my problem for much longer.
A few nights later, me and Junebug are at her place, lazing all over the floor of her living room, shoveling corn chips in our faces and half-watching old cartoons when Junebug shoves herself reluctantly upright. “I should probably get to bed,” she says. “I told Jack I’d go over to Pearson County with him in the morning.”
I blink. “The fuck for?”
Junebug grimaces. “Protest. They topped Black Mountain a couple years ago, haven’t kept up on the reclamation work.”
“Oh, Junebug,” I say, reaching out a hand to feel her forehead. “They got you, too.”
Junebug bats my hand away irritably. “Shut up,” she grumbles. “I’d make you go, too, if it weren’t for.” She pauses. “You know.” She makes a ‘monster’ face, wrinkling her nose and screwing up her fingers into claws.
I throw a pillow at her. It nails her square in the temple. “Trust me,” I say. “Ain’t no way in hell I’d go, even if it weren’t for—” I mimic her expression.
Junebug lobs the pillow back at me. “You wanna stay here tonight?”
“Was already planning on it.”
Sleeping at Junebug’s is as familiar as sleeping in my own bed. We strip down to our underwear and squeeze into her narrow twin bed, cocoon ourselves in the blankets. Junebug sprawls on her back, flings a leg over mine. I bury my face in the pillows and drift instantly to sleep.
I wake up to the smell of coffee and the sight of Junebug hovering. “Out of bed, lazy,” she says, shoving a steaming mug at me. I wrap my hands around it out of reflex. “You’re gonna be late for practice, and Jack and I gotta get going.”
“Urgh,” I say, taking a mincing sip of too-hot coffee. “If you come back smelling like patchouli, it’s over between us.”
Jack, of course, isn’t at practice. Alicia is conspicuously missing as well, and I wonder if she’s at the demonstration, or if it’s just coincidence.
Coach has us running the reservoir today, a seven mile loop past the dam, flat and easy on a shaded packed-dirt footpath. Caitie and I take it at a gentle pace, both of us still a little sleep-sluggish, quiet in the dappled early morning light. I revel in the feeling of my limbs warming and loosening up, slow spreading heat.
On my hands, scales flicker into view, then disappear.
I stumble to a halt, staring down at my arms in horror. Caitie pulls up short a few steps ahead, wheels back around towards me. “Everything okay?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. No, definitely no. Something is roiling under my skin, itching to burst free. “Just—cramps,” I say, wrapping my arms around my waist in an effort to hold myself together. “I’m gonna sit here a second. You oughta go on.”
Caitie chews her bottom lip. “You sure?” she asks. “You need me to call Coach or something?”
“Be fine in a minute.” My voice is tight. “Got my phone if I need it. I’ll catch up with you.”
“Are you—” Caitie begins.
“I’m sure,” I snap, meaner than I intended. Caitie shrugs and turns tail, disappearing down the path. I sag in relief, stumble off the path and collapse against the base of an enormous maple. I pull my legs up to my chest and rest my forehead on my knees, sucking in long shaking breaths. This is severely not right. I haven’t changed for no good reason for over a year.
A long spasm pulls through me, and I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to fight against changing. The water of the reservoir glitters in front of me, smooth and inviting. I’m not going to last much longer, I’m panicking, I don’t know what to do.
So I call Junebug.
I clutch the phone to the side of my head like an anchor, listening to the sound of ringing with increasing desperation. Come on, I plead silently.
“Hello?” says Junebug’s voice.
“Junebug. Junebug, something’s wrong, it’s happening, I’m not—I’m here, I’m right by the dam, I don’t know—”
“Okay,” says Junebug. “Okay, we’re coming back right now. Just sit tight, okay? Jack’s turning the truck around.”
“Okay,” I manage. I don’t know why I’m so relieved. It’s not like she’s going to be able to do anything for me, it just—it helps, to know she’s coming for me.
Junebug stays on the line with me while I sit there curled in the leaves, white-knuckling the phone against my ear. I can hear the muffled sound of her giving instructions to Jack. “Doing okay?” asks Junebug, sudden and clear. “You still with me?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Still with you.” I flex my legs and am surprised to find that I do feel better, a loosening in my muscles, a quieting of my heart. “I—I think maybe it’s getting better?”
A pause. “Really?”
“Ye-es?” I’m almost scared to say it, like doing so will make everything come surging back. It’s like trying to identify whether a headache is lessening, hard to pinpoint in the absence of it.
“Gimme a sec,” says Junebug. I hear her telling Jack to pull over, the sound of a door slamming.
“So what the hell did you tell Jack?” I ask, trying to make it a joke, but my voice comes out shaky and weird. I swallow it back down.
“That you were feeling really sick and we needed to come get you.” I can almost see her shrugging. “He’s used to you being a total freak. Don’t worry about it. You’re really feeling better?”
I unwind myself carefully, stretch out my legs in the dirt, wiggle the toes of my sneakers back and forth. “Yeah,” I say. “I mean, I still feel shitty, but not—not at all like I’m going to change any more.”
Junebug exhales into the phone. “This is really weird.”
“Tell me about it.” I push myself to my feet, take a few steps. I feel perfectly normal. I laugh shakily. “What the hell? I mean, I’m by the water, but not really near where it happened the first time. Do you think it’s just some weird fluke?”
“I hope you don’t expect me to have an answer for that,” says Junebug. “Okay. I’m headed back to the truck now. We’ll be back in like an hour, okay?”
“Yeah. Wait, no.” I shake my head. “No, that’s stupid. I mean, it was a false alarm, right? I don’t wanna fuck up your whole day. You guys should go on.”
I can practically hear Junebug chewing on her lip. “You sure?”
“I mean, unless you want to use this as an excuse to escape from the hippies.”
Junebug makes a little noise of amusement. “I don’t wanna leave you all alone. What if it happens again?”
“Then I’ll call you again.” I scrub the heel of my hand over my forehead, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “Look, you oughta go. You’ll break Jack’s heart if you bail.”
“Yeah,” says Junebug. “Yeah, okay, fine.” Then, forceful: “You call me.”
“Cross my heart,” I say. “Have fun with the treehuggers.”
“Asshole,” she says, and hangs up.
I give myself another few minutes, let my heart rate come down a little further. I’d think almost turning into a horrifying lake beast would warrant skipping the day’s workout, but I’ve got to get back to my car somehow, and so with a minimum of mental whining I set off again at a jog.
I make it about a half mile before it hits me again, and I go to my knees in the middle of the trail.
“God fucking damn it,” I say aloud, twisting my fists into the weeds that line the path, bringing them up by their roots as I grit my teeth and try to ride it out. It passed last time, I remind myself. Breathe through it. It will get better.
I drag myself over to the side of the trail, clawing my phone out of my pocket as I go, sit there with it wrapped in sweaty fingers. I don’t wanna call Junebug unless I absolutely have to. I feel stupid enough for bothering her in the first place, wanna let her and Jack get on without always fucking things up for them, but I keep waiting for it to peak and recede like it did before, keep waiting and it’s just getting worse, and I can’t help but picture Junebug, sitting there in the car next to Jack, laughing at something he’s said, sweet and carefree, and all the while getting farther and farther away—
Junebug picks up right away this time. “Lanny?” she says. “Is it happening again? Is everything okay?”
“Where are you?” I bite out.
“Where are you?”
“Um,” says Junebug, flustered. “Just shy of Haycombe. About ten miles. Why?”
Out of nowhere, the skin on my arms ripples, bursts into muddy green scales. “Turn around,” I say. “I need you to come back. Please. Turn around right now.”
“Jack, turn around. Turn around!” I hear a squealing of tires. “Okay. Okay, we’re on our way back. We’re coming as fast as we can. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Give me a minute.” I close my eyes, picture Junebug barreling back down the road towards me, picture the tight knot in my stomach unravelling, loosening. A shiver runs down my spine. When I open my eyes, my forearms are once again smooth.
“Oh my God,” I say, half laugh, half sob.
“What? Lanny, what is it?” comes Junebug’s voice, half hysterical.
“It’s you,” I say. “What I’m tethered to. It’s not the town. It’s you.”
“What—” Junebug says, the beginning of a sentence, not a question. “What?”
My insides are spun glass. If I move too much, if I fall into hysterics, as I am on the verge of doing, I’ll shatter into a million pieces. “Think about it,” I say. I sound so much calmer than I feel. “Every time you turn around and head back, I start to get better. But as soon as you get too far away, I start to change. Every time you get too close to Haycombe.” I press a hand to my forehead, close my eyes. “That makes sense, doesn’t it? Tell me I’m not going crazy. Crazier.”
“It makes sense,” Junebug says, slow. “Fuck, Lanny, I—”
“Yeah. Look, can you—is there any way you can get Jack to turn around again? To head west for just a couple miles, so we can test it, be sure?”
A beat of silence, then Junebug sighs. “Jack,” I hear her say, “you’re gonna think I’m nuts, but . . . .”
It’s worse, sitting there waiting for it to happen, like opening yourself to a punch and trying not to flinch. At least I’m not waiting long. Less than two minutes later and I feel it, that tightness, that sick pull beneath my sternum. “Yep, yes,” I say, strained. “That’s definitely a thing that’s happening. Feel free to turn around at any time.”
“Fuck,” says Junebug, as the ache begins to recede.
I laugh humorlessly, taking stock of myself, sweat-grimy limbs and trembling hands. “Yeah,” I say. “Pretty much.”
Junebug meets me a couple hours later, up on the arch of Crooked River bridge. I’ve been lying there for thirty minutes, still rank and sticky in my running clothes, having been unable to handle the rest of the trek back to my car. Lying on my back, letting the rumble of traffic vibrate my bones, I’ve basically achieved a sort of Zen oneness with the underside of the bridge, so I don’t notice Junebug climbing up until she drops a backpack square on my chest, knocking the wind out of me.
“Oof,” I say.
Junebug rolls her eyes. “Brought you something.”
In the backpack is most of a handle of cheap vodka, sloshing around in its plastic bottle. “You have the best ideas,” I say, unscrewing the cap and taking a healthy swallow, grimacing against the taste.
“I figured we were gonna need it,” says Junebug, taking a swallow herself and doing her own little grossed-out shiver dance.
We sit like that for a while, passing the handle back and forth, until we’re warm-bellied and fuzzy-headed enough to want to start talking.
“So,” Junebug says, breaking the silence. “What do you think? Magic? Like we’re under some kind of curse?”
I blink, slow. “I mean, that’s what I always kind of figured anyway.”
“What else would it be?”
Junebug waves a hand. “I always figured it was something more sci-fi. You know, the Incredible Hulk or something.”
“I don’t remember injecting myself with any super serum recently.”
“Something in the water, whatever. Come on, don’t be a pain in the ass. Like it’s any fucking weirder than magic.”
I loll my head back and forth, letting the world go blurry at the edges. The vodka works, apparently. “I still think it’s a curse.”
Junebug makes a humming noise. “You know,” she says, “my gran always used to tell me that my great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess.”
I snort. “You and every other lily-white asshole in this town.”
“It could be true,” says Junebug airily. “Your family has been around here a long time, too. Maybe my great-great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were star-crossed lovers. Maybe your great-great-grandfather broke my great-great-grandmother’s heart, and she put an Indian curse on him.”
“Even unto the third and fourth generations?” I pause, counting in my head. “If we’re talking great-great-grandparents, that makes me the fifth generation. Shouldn’t that shit be timing out soon?”
“So gamma rays are better.”
“Maybe.” There’s a thread coming loose from the bottom of my t-shirt; I pull on it to watch it unspool from the fabric. “I actually always kind of thought it had something to do with the reservoir.”
“How do you figure?” asks Junebug.
I have never voiced this theory aloud, and I feel stupid doing so now, though I’m just drunk enough to get through it. “My grandpa—my mom’s dad—he worked for the TVA. Back when they first put the dam in. He managed the whole project, actually.”
Junebug frowns. “So?”
I shrug, supremely uncomfortable. “So he flooded out half the town to form a giant lake, and I turn into a giant lake monster.”
“So it’s some kind of vengeance wreaked by Mother Nature kind of thing?”
My cheeks flame. “Well it isn’t any fucking stupider than gamma rays.”
There’s a long pause. “If you think it’s because of something your mom’s dad did, do you think that this . . . whatever it is . . . did something to your mom, too?”
I hunch my shoulders. “I don’t know. It would make sense, I guess.”
Another silence. “Do you think that’s why she left?” Junebug’s voice is gentle, and I can hear in it all the ways that thinking these things makes me a stupid, desperate child.
“No,” I say. “I don’t think it has anything to do with that at all.”
We set out to test our magical new link the following morning.
“This is kind of a dumb idea,” says Junebug, not for the first time. “At the very least we should be waiting another day or two. Until you stop looking like you got run over by a truck.”
“I’m letting you drive, aren’t I?” I ask, fiddling with the lever that adjusts the passenger’s seat. It’s set to fit Junebug, far too close to the dash to suit my much longer legs. “Don’t you want to get this over with?”
“Sure,” says Junebug. “I’d just prefer for you to not pass out while we’re doing it.”
I get where she’s coming from. I look and feel like shit, an exacerbated version of what usually happens when I change, presumably due to being played like a freaking yo-yo the day before. The hangover isn’t helping. If this doesn’t work—if I end up changing the second we hit Haycombe, as I half-expect—I am going to be completely wrecked.
But if we put it off any longer, the nerves might actually kill me. So: “I’m fine,” I say. “Drive, will you?”
I’ve daydreamed before about taking a road trip with Junebug, a fantasy constructed from movies and TV shows: me driving, Junebug sprawled next to me, smiling out the window while we squabble over radio stations and whether or not it’s time to stop for snacks. The destination never seemed important. The beach, maybe? I’ve never been to the beach. It sounds nice.
This drive, we’re mostly quiet. I watch the landmarks tick by as we make our way out of town. I don’t realize I’m bouncing my leg at a frenzied pace until Junebug reaches over to cup her hand over my knee, steadying me. “Stop, okay?” She says. “You’re fine. It’s gonna be fine.”
“Yeah,” I say, putting a concentrated effort into keeping my leg still. It takes me another five miles before I realize I’m chewing my thumbnail bloody instead.
“I’m gonna turn on the radio,” Junebug says.
Junebug twists the knob to some country station, Dolly Parton warbling at us. I wrinkle my nose in token protest but don’t have the energy for anything else.
We crest a ridge, and the “Welcome to Haycombe” signs looms up into view.
Junebug cuts a look my way. “You okay?” she asks. “Is it happening? Do you need me to pull over?”
I shake my head. “No. No, I’m fine. Keep going.”
Junebug nods and bears down on the accelerator. Familiar sights slip past us, a Burger King, a row of churches, a strip mall parking lot. I try to remember to breathe. A nursing home, another string of fast food joints, and my ribcage is going to crack under the pressure of my heartbeat. “Now Leaving Haycombe,” the sign says, and we are surrounded by woods once again.
All the air rushes out of my lungs at once.
Junebug is still driving like we’re being chased, but she risks a glance over at me. “Did we make it?”
“Um.” I stop to swallow, blink prickly heat away from the corners of my eyes. “I think so? I mean. This is farther than I’ve ever gotten, for sure.”
Junebug eases off the gas pedal, just a little. “Seriously? And you don’t feel at all . . . .”
I shake my head. “No. Not at all.”
Junebug exhales. “Wow. Well, okay. That’s . . . wow.”
There’s a pause, me thrumming with relief and adrenalin, unsure what to say into the silence. Junebug shakes her head and flicks on the turn signal, aiming the car for a little patch of sandy soil off the side of the road.
I blink. “What are you doing?”
“Turning around,” she says. “I mean. We figured out what we came out here for, right? Is there something else?”
Dolly has been replaced by the quiet jangling of a mandolin, played low and sweet. The woods around us are dense and silent, changing light filtering through the leaves, mottling everything green and gold. I look at my hands, the shifting pattern of shadows on them, then the highway in front of us, disappearing in a dark tunnel of foliage off to the west.
“What if,” I begin. My mouth is dry. “What if we didn’t go back?”
“Lanny,” Junebug says. “This isn’t us running away together.”
I nod, reflexive, I know, but, “We could. I mean. I know it’s not perfect, but we—we’d figure something out.”
Junebug presses a hand to her forehead. “Like what, Lanny?” she asks. “Honestly, what? Two high school dropouts with a trunk full of dirty clothes and fifty bucks between them? What the hell would we do?”
“Anything is better than back there,” I say.
“Lanny,” Junebug says, “I’ve never wanted to leave. You know that, right? That was always just you.”
“Don’t make me go back,” I say. There’s something like panic rising in my stomach. I slide a hand into my pocket and crumple the psalm in my fist, trying to get a handle on myself. “Junebug, come on. I’ve never made it this far before. Don’t go back. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” Junebug says. “I’m sorry.”
“So,” says Jack, Friday morning while we’re stretching at cross country practice, “are you and Junebug like . . . fighting?”
Hot again, muggy and overcast, but with a tantalizing undercurrent of cool air that leaves me aching for fall. A thunderstorm brewing, maybe.
“Not so far as I know,” I say.
“Hm,” says Jack. “Seems like you guys haven’t been hanging out much the past couple days, is all.”
It’s been four days, which I’m pretty sure is some kind of a record for both of us. “I’ve been busy. Junebug and I are allowed to have other friends, you know.” Jack’s eyebrows are disbelieving. “What? I have other friends.”
Caitie, bless her heart, chooses that exact moment to scoot over next to us. “Hey,” she says. I shoot Jack a triumphant look. “Party at Luke’s tomorrow night is definitely on. You guys coming? I can give you a ride if you want.”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” I say.
“Awesome,” says Caitie, nudges my calf with the toe of her sneaker, and scoots away again.
“See?” I tell Jack. “Packed social calendar, is all. Junebug and I are fine.”
“If you say so,” says Jack. I reach for my toes and ignore the worry in his voice.
I’m waiting on the porch swing when Caitie shows up, the old pickup she drives crunching on the gravel of the driveway. She looks incongruous behind the wheel of the truck, perfect arched eyebrows and pink painted lips, hair piled in a complicated curly structure atop her head. She grins at me as I haul myself into the seat next to her.
“No Junebug and Jack?”
“I’m pretty sure they bailed to go bang somewhere,” I say.
“Predictable,” Caitie says. “You look nice.”
I’m wearing ripped jeans and a too-large t-shirt with some bank logo peeling off it. My eyebrows have decidedly not been plucked. “Fuck off,” I say. Caitie laughs and throws the truck into gear.
Luke’s place is a shabby two story suburban, one of those houses that feels crowded and maze-like in spite of its impressive square footage. I’ve been here once before, for a party a lot like this one. I mostly remember losing badly at beer pong and then waking up in the backyard. With any luck, tonight will be a repeat performance.
The party is well on its way when we arrive, cars crowding the curb in front of the house, the thud of a bass line audible from the front yard. A cheer of acknowledgement goes up when Caitie and I enter, largely from a subsection of the boys’ cross country team playing flip cup on Luke’s parents’ dining room table. “Lanny’s on my team,” someone hollers, pressing a solo cup full of cheap beer into my hand, and I am happy to oblige.
“It’s fucking bullshit,” slurs Kevin, peering miserably into the depths of his solo cup. Kevin is a dimply, curly haired kid who tends to bring up the rear of the JV team. He and Caitie and I are sprawled in a circle on the back porch, flip cup game abandoned, the party beginning to quiet down around us. “I don’t—I don’t wanna fucking leave, you know? This place fucking sucks, but at least let us make it to college, am I right? Fuck!” He shakes his head as if he’s just delivered a great truth and takes a long swig of beer.
I’m flat on my back, planks of wood cool and rough beneath me, watching stars swim in and out of visibility. It’s possible I’m very, very drunk.
“I just don’t get why everyone’s so sure the mill is gonna shut down,” says Caitie. She’s sitting upright, more or less, though she’s rolling her head back and forth against a fence post as if she can’t help but find the movement fascinating. Still, she sounds more sober than I am.
“Mine’s gonna buy it,” says Kevin. “Buy it and shut it down. That’s what my mom says. Figure she knows.” I have the booze-clouded recollection that his mom is a pretty senior executive over at the mill. He tilts his cup up, frowning into it comically. “Out of beer,” he declares, pushing himself to his feet. “Be right back. You girls,” he points a stern finger in our direction. “Be good.”
“Asshole,” I mumble.
“Seriously,” agrees Caitie, sighs and flops down so she’s lying next to me, our heads inches from each other. “Fuck, Lanny, I can’t believe you’re moving to Nashville.”
I blink, surprised. I honestly can’t remember telling her, although considering the bent of our conversation with Kevin I suppose it makes sense that I must have said something. Fuck, I must be drunker than I thought. “It’ll be okay,” I assure her. “Don’ worry. Gonna figure something out.”
“Yeah?” says Caitie, levering herself up on her elbows and looming over me, peering down at my face. Her hair has come loose from its bun-thing, and it spills down in long dark curls, the ends of it just brushing my nose, ticklish.
“For sure,” I agree.
“Good,” says Caitie, and then she’s kissing me.
I freeze, too shocked to do anything else, going stiff and still beneath her. She tastes like cheap beer, her mouth slick and wet with it, hints of cinnamon gum. Her lips are really, really soft. When she realizes I’m not moving, she pulls away, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
“What—” I fail at swallowing. “What are you doing?”
The frown deepens. “Kissing you,” she says, like it’s obvious.
“Don’t,” I say.
Caitie stutters backwards at that, falling back ungracefully to sit on her haunches, staring at me, mouth a thin line of confusion. I push myself up onto my elbows, stare back. “Sorry,” she says, “I didn’t . . . .”
“I’m not,” I say, when she trails off. “I mean, I know . . . .” I know what people around here think, because of how I dress, the way I cut my hair off. But I’m not.
I’m expecting her to apologize, or try to laugh it off, but instead her shoulders are closing in, drawing up near her chin. “You don’t have to lie to me,” she says. “I mean. Everyone knows you’re in love with Junebug.”
Everything I’d been thinking of saying rushes out of my head. “What?”
“And I get it, I do,” Caitie says. “But Lanny, she’s with Jack, she isn’t—there’s no reason you shouldn’t, is what I’m saying.” She looks shy now, head ducked, curls tumbling over her forehead. Even in the low porch light I can see her face is flushed with color. “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
My head starts hurting, something insistent thudding hard right at my temples. “I need to go home,” I say.
“Now?” Caitie actually looks concerned. “Lanny, it’s four a.m. I’m wasted, I can’t drive you anywhere.” She shakes her head. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? Let’s drop it. Forget I said anything.”
The hammering in my head has moved directly behind my eyes. “I know,” I say, “it’s not . . . it’s just that I need to get home. Sorry,” I say, scrambling to my feet. “I’m sorry.”
The sun is coming up by the time I trudge up my driveway. The urge to crawl into bed is almost overwhelming, but if I do I’ll never wake up in time for church. I force myself to shower instead, stand under the stream of water until it gets cold. Dress, stumble to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee, and hover there pouring myself cup after cup until I realize that church starts in ten minutes, and Junebug hasn’t come to bang on my door.
I make my way over to Junebug’s in a daze. Junebug’s mom answers when I knock, wearing a bathrobe and a puzzled expression. “Lanny?”
“Hi Mrs. Clark,” I say. “I was gonna pick up Junebug for church . . . ?”
The puzzled expression deepens. “She’s with Jack,” Junebug’s mom says. “Down by the mining camp. There’s a demonstration today.”
“Oh,” I say. “Okay.” I turn to head for my car.
“Honey?” Junebug’s mom calls after me. I ignore her, climb into the driver’s seat and pull the door closed.
I mean to head to church. Instead I find myself pointed toward the dam.
There’s a bigger crowd than I expected, probably a hundred people clustered around the mining company’s base of operations, ringed by a maze of parked cars. I pull in next to a shiny new SUV and slide down in my seat, trying to take stock of the situation without being seen.
It looks like it’s mostly protesters, waving signs and chanting something I can’t make out. A few men wearing hard hats and button downs, looking sour; a bulldozer, trying to inch forward toward the mountain, but thwarted by the press of people. Five or six cops hovering around and looking nervous and unhappy.
In the middle of it all, Jack and Junebug, clutching each other’s hands and staring down the encroaching bulldozer with twin expressions of resolution and fury.
Something happens that I can’t see, but which sparks a roar from the crowd. The chanting picks up volume, loud enough now that I can hear it: Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
I can’t take it. I twist the engine back to life, slide out of my space next to the shiny new SUV, and turn back onto the road.
I head west.
Driving this stretch of highway is like trying to get past a video game level you just can’t kick, the scenery, the motions of it déjà-vu familiar and tooth-grindingly repetitive. I know how the game ends and still my adrenaline keeps kicking up with each landmark, the pitted green highway signs and their well-rehearsed litany, seventy miles, seventy-five, eighty.
I fling myself with all my might against the invisible barrier that separates me from the western edge of Haycombe County.
I come awake to darkness.
I’m lying on something hard, ridged, swaddled in a heavy wool blanket that smells like wet dog. Everything hurts in a general, ill-defined way, the scratchy fibers of the blanket rasping painfully against my over-sensitive bare skin. Ah, I’m naked. Good. This is looking real good.
I sit up, even though I know I’m going to regret it, bite my tongue against the way the weight of my skull seems too much for the fragile stem of my neck. “Shit,” I croak. God, I’m thirsty.
Warm hands close around my left arm, and I jerk in surprise. “Stop,” says a voice, choked sounding. “You’re gonna hurt yourself.”
I blink, eyes finally adjusting enough to resolve shapes in the darkness. “Junebug?”
Junebug’s face, a pale smudge in the gloom, eyes huge and dark. “Hey,” she says, smiling a wavering smile.
I finally realize where we are: the bed of a truck, pulled off the side of the road into a little copse of trees. “Did you steal Jack’s pickup?” I ask, then wince. My voice sounds like I’ve been gargling broken glass.
“Here, wait.” Junebug roots around the tangle of blankets and pulls out a thermos, twists off the top and hands it to me. I take a careful sip: tap water, room temperature. It’s fucking delicious. I take another tiny swallow, restraining myself from chugging. “Better?” Junebug asks.
I nod, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “Junebug,” I ask, “what are you doing here?”
“What am I doing—Jesus, Lanny.” Junebug’s lips pinch into a bloodless line, her gaze turning skywards. “You were gone for three fucking days. Phone off, nobody with any idea where you’d gone— I spent twelve hours traipsing around the backwoods of Haycombe searching for you, I find you face down in a ditch—” her voice goes high, cracks, and she ducks her head and covers her eyes with her hand.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, my throat hot and tight. I’ve never been able to watch Junebug cry.
She shakes her head, then sniffs, sits up. “I brought something for you,” she says, fishing around in the back pocket of her jeans. She pulls out a folded piece of paper, wrinkly from being sat on, and hands it to me, not meeting my eyes. “It’s probably stupid,” she says. “I can’t—I’m not going to leave with you, but I just, I thought—maybe this might help.”
The ink’s a little smudged, but I can still read Junebug’s careful, curling handwriting just fine: “fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity . . . .”
My eyes well up, blurring my vision, and I choke on a hiccuping laugh. Psalm 37, for uncrossing—for the removal of curses. It’s a joke, almost, except for how it’s not.
“I lost the old one, I think,” I say. I don’t have any pockets, so I just fold the psalm back up and clutch it tight between my fingers. “I dunno where my jeans ended up. Probably at the bottom of the river.”
Junebug smiles a little. “Do you think it will work?”
I take a deep breath, not sure how to confess this. “I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m going to need it.”
Junebug’s gaze snaps to mine, brow furrowing as she tries to decide whether to be elated or worried. She must see the answer in my expression, because her face crumples, just a little, before smoothing again. “You need me to drive you home?”
“Please?” I say. “I think there’s something I need to do.”
The reservoir is quiet at night, protesters and mine workers alike gone home to bed. Junebug and I stand near the edge of the dam, watching the moon sparking off the surface of the water. Down below, the mining company’s base of operations, silent and empty, millions of dollars of equipment, all built for destruction, huddled near the edge of the narrow post-dam river.
Sixty years ago, it would have all been underwater.
There must be some sort of justice in restoring the natural order of things.
I’m still wrapped in the heavy, scratchy blanket; Junebug helps me unwind myself from it until I stand there naked as the day I was born. We stare at each other for a minute, burnished in the pale glow of the moonlight.
“You should probably go,” I say.
“Yeah,” says Junebug. “You know I love you, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I love you, too.”
Junebug nods, blinks a couple of times, hasty. Then she turns, picks her way back down the path to the car, and disappears from sight.
I wait a few minutes, until I’m sure she’s well out of the way, then I slip into the water.
It’s warmer than it ought to be, comfortable against my bare skin. I float effortlessly, motionless and alone in the middle of the silent expanse. When I tilt my head back I can see the Milky Way spilled out above me, so vast and glittering that I can almost forget there is anything else in the world at all.
I close my eyes and let the change overtake me.
It’s easy, this time, doing it deliberately. A natural slide between two states, like it’s never been pulled out of me unwilling and cruel. I feel myself growing, shifting, water sloughing away in great waves as I displace more and more of the reservoir. My fingers curl, become claws. I kick what used to be my legs and move through the water like I was born to it. I know exactly what I am, this time. I know what I can do.
I dig my claws into the concrete foundation of the dam, and twist until it begins to crack.