I. THE UPWARD SPIRAL
Greenville, South Carolina
That year the mortuaries stayed packed as birdseed in a feeder. Caskets disappeared into the red earth like acorns. The whole city a mud river of whiskey and obituary ink for friends and strangers alike. Rosaries brighter than street lights, embraces more tangled than kudzu. All of us falling like leaves from the tree of the city, waiting for the Valkyries to descend.
We were seventeen the summer our sister Alison Jiménez died. After Ali’s funeral, we rode through the city, watching the rain fall, watching it seal the world in a singular pattern of disintegration. The three of us sat in the dinged-up, rusty gold 1970 Camaro, silently passing a cigarette around. Smoke spiraled out of Klonopin-powdered lips. Thinking of our lost sister, we rode through the wet Appalachian countryside, through the elemental abstract. Visions of Ali convulsing on the kitchen floor before she went silent. Her aorta torn as easily as tracing paper. Her open heart pulpy like a blood orange, bright as a ripe guava fruit.
II. EQUINE CONSTELLATIONS
Jesse Gosnell drove the Camaro through the streets of San Souci, pulling in and out of several driveways, leaving the car running for us while she ran to check if any of her weed hookups were home. Valerie Nova sat in the back, her bleached afrohawk tumbling into her eyes as she leaned up between the seats, tapping ash into the ashtray. Exhaled smoke curled back, and cast a veil over the jagged epilepsy surgery scar that cut down the shaved part of her head. A silhouette of rain flickered on her mahogany skin. The damp embedded in my joints and left my surgery areas in tantrum.
I sat up front, numb, wearing Ali’s Natural Born Killers sunglasses, the ones with the cipher-shaped red lenses, watching the rainfall delete the world. My eyes avoided the mirror’s reflection, with its images of interlocking tile pieces of pale skin, bruises, and medical tape; my body, a shipyard snowstorm jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled.
My fingers picked anxiously at the plastic medical bracelet with sun-exposed letters of my name, Agatha Silk. But no one called me Agatha except doctors or government officials. Ever since I was little, everyone has just called me Agony. Aggie for short.
Thoughts on Ali, I shifted in my seat. Among our diagnoses, she and I shared Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue — though mine manifests in my joints, and hers in how her internal organs threaded together. As rain gave rhythm to thought, memories fell through me. Thoughts of her final moments, thoughts of how vibrant she seemed after her last hospital stint. All the surgery stitches and scars, lining her brown skin like routes on a pirate’s map, leading to the treasure of her smile. Looking like James Dean, with her short hair slicked back, and her white shirt and blue jeans. Surgeries on her intestines, on her lungs, all collapsing like wet papier-mâché, but she always found ways of reforming herself, of creating new painting techniques out of broken brushes, finding new melodies out of warped violin strings. I thought she’d make art out of obstacle forever, even when we got the call that her aorta had ruptured, thought that with her defiance and the love magic of our sisterhood she’d rise from her hospital bed, groggy, and reach for paper and pen and draw a new world for her to enter into, but the pen never moved.
Water tremored down my window; lightning scratched the sky. My fingers flicked the tiny burn craters my brother Bobby stippled down the seat upholstery while he was on the nod. Even though I didn’t drive, Bobby left me his Camaro to take care of while he was locked up in Wateree. Valerie passed me the cig for one last hit; the smoke danced across my finger splints. I inhaled then dashed it out.
We picked Valerie up at her momma’s house this morning. She was in a teen psych ward in Georgia when Ali passed. They were supposed to have released her two weeks ago, but her fucktard of a psychiatrist had decided to go on vacation and forgot to sign her release before he left.
A shadow flickered across the windshield. Rain sprayed my side as Jesse opened the door and slid back into the car. Jesse’s black funeral dress was soaked. Her wet, dark brown hair heavily hung to the sides as her frustrated face softened. She reached over and gently patted my knee. “Agony, you hangin’ in there, Honey? I’ll get us hooked up soon.”
That was our Jesse. She was our den mother, our wolf pack leader. Though she was seventeen, like us, her stoicism made strangers think she was older. Her grounded clarity stemmed partly from her going through the hospital system before us, and partly because she had lost most of her family before we met. Even though I said nothing she knew how much I hated the pain meds, how sick they made me. She understood how EDS left me fragile as a defectively glued model plane kit, that an ill-placed bump slipped bones from their sockets like Jenga pieces. And she understood that because of this, I needed to exist as more than just a delicate museum piece displayed behind glass; I needed my life to be more than hospital gowns, IVs, and waiting room Princess Diana People magazine covers with the addresses redacted. I needed to be free to fly and crash, and know I’d be resuscitated in the hospital of our friendship, wrapped in the gauze of my sisters’ embrace.
Unlike Jesse, both my family and Valerie’s were still alive; my dad, a truck driver, was always on the road, and my mom was always working or at church with my stepfather. Valerie was the youngest of seven, her momma a nurse, her pops somewhere on the streets after the mental hospital that held him captive closed. Each of us incarcerated in someone’s best intention, each of us torn from the soil by gardeners determined to cease our species’ spread. All of us the Rats of NIMH fleeing the laboratory.
When you’re sick, that’s the only narrative you’re allotted, and I wanted more. Whenever I wasn’t in a doctor’s office, or in my bed recovering, I was out the door or out the window on an adventure with my sisters.
Before the four of us were friends we were vague conversation tidbits disconnected from the endless stream of waiting room faces, just a sequence of medical bracelets and disembodied features, names thought to be attached to one person, only to discover they belonged to another. As we cycled through the hospital system, our friendship, like our faces, faded into view.
One face, one name, one friend at a time, until we were whole. We, the daughters of speculation, sisters of the surgeon’s knife, mountain goddess psilocybin psychonauts.
Some people deal with death by breaking down; others, like Valerie, go inwards; those like myself just go blank; while some, like Jesse, keep moving, trying to take care of everyone. “How are you on pills, got extra to spare?” Jesse asked as she tightened her leather-gloved hands around the wheel.
I lifted up my bag, and shook it. “I’m good. Teddy’s?”
She punched in the car lighter. “Teddy’s it is.”
Teddy Pruitt was a sweet Vietnam vet on disability who refused to sell weed, but would trade it for pills. He was a dainty, fragile man who was always rescuing some animal or helping out some runaway or someone down on their luck, like my brother, who often crashed on Teddy’s couch. We had been meeting at his pad and smoking up with Teddy since we were fifteen. He was quite proud of his crystal figurine collection and his garden, and would talk for hours about them before getting down to business, much to Jesse’s irritation. He never left his house and didn’t have a phone. Everyone came to him. Ali always loved visiting Teddy and brought him shoplifted figurines as gifts. As far as I knew no one had told Teddy that she had passed away.
With trembling hands I pinned my damp Technicolor hair back with Ali’s sunglasses; the rain amplified the blue and red streaks through my natural blonde. Leaning forward with raindrops beading down my arms, I adjusted the Ace bandages around my swollen knees, then fished out some pills and a Turkish Gold from the pack. I lit the cig on the car lighter’s glowing orange rings, loose tobacco embers singeing my bandaged-wrapped hands, turned and passed it to Valerie along with a Lortab and a Klonopin. Valerie took the cigarette and pills but continued to stare out the window. Perhaps at a solitary demon sitting in the storm-drenched Sycamore tree, or a fleet of angels battling Cthulhu-like creatures in the rain. Or perhaps God was revealing something to her about Ali. Whether the source of the visions was schizophrenia or epilepsy as the doctors believed, or God, as she did, the opiates and smoke helped when they became too intense.
Whatever it was she seldom said, unless she was on speed, but silence was when the visions were strongest. She could go days without saying a word. Always wearing her cassette headphones, blaring the music to drown out the voices.
Strangely enough, though Ali only saw Valerie’s visions as her unconscious archeology made conscious, dismissing any spiritual source to it, it was Ali who Valerie felt most comfortable talking to about the visions. Ali had that way about her.
In the visor mirror I watched smoke haloes ripple from Valerie’s lips as she wrote Ali’s name in the fogged-up window.
We left San Souci and made our way toward the Dark Corner, a region deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains with a history of bootleggers and Confederate deserters, now occupied by meth cooks and millionaires playing golf. Stopping in Travelers Rest, we changed out of our funeral clothes and Jesse bought some booze for us and Teddy at her uncle’s liquor store.
The Dark Corner is where my bloodline flows from, where my great-grandfather patrolled as a revenue agent. Where my ancestors hid out and ran moonshine. It’s where everything beautiful, dark, and holy in me arises. In the distance the sky over Greenville churned black, strobing with encoded light.
As we headed through the storm we played Ali’s favorite tape, Patti Smith’s Horses, flipping it over when stuck. I wound the cassette delicately so as not to dislocate my finger. Out of silence Valerie softly sang, her contralto voice soon soaring along with Patti’s. By “Redondo Beach” all of us were singing the Rimbaud-haunted lines as we passed the brown-bagged pint around, all of us sisters in submission to the rhythm of song and drink, to rain and memory.
The submission that lightning has to the Earth when it strikes.
III. INSECTS IN THE STRAW, SCARECROW’S UTERUS
By the time we arrived at Teddy’s, the rain had stopped and the atmosphere was a boiling nectar of sunrays and arthropods. I went to pass the smoke to Valerie, but her attention was fixed on a lone scarecrow in a distant field. A black cloud of flies haloed it. While I slipped on my hoody — AC makes my EDS agonizing — Jesse finished the last of the smoke and put the bottles of liquor in her backpack.
As we exited the Camaro and walked the gravel path to Teddy’s mobile home, the heat hummed with wings. Sunlight dense with insects poured through the dogwood trees. To our right, the red mud parking lot lagoons had evaporated into swirling Martian soil. Jesse and Valerie suspiciously eyed the clay tire tracks that ripped through the yard, tearing through Teddy’s prized petunia garden.
Without hesitation Jesse handed me the knife in her pocket, seized a wood surveyor’s stake out of the mud, and bombarded up the steps while Valerie lurked back, praying and blessing the area, and communicating with the angels we could not see. The Lortab and liquor in my stomach and the bandage wraps around my joints were keeping my body together, but the combined effect with the heat made movement a slow, nauseating endeavor.
My eyes studied the tire tracks as I slowly made my way up the steps behind Jesse. Trash spilled out from a departed vehicle clustered in a deep boot track in the clay: empty dip canisters, a tobacco-encrusted soda can used for spitting, and a clump of chicken-scratch scrawled race schedules from the Greenville-Pickens Speedway. As I leaned in, sweat pulsing down my forehead, I recognized the handwriting from prison letters sent to my brother. It was Jackie Howard’s handwriting. They were never friends, just cellmates. My eyes traced the trajectory of the tire tracks, a truck, most likely the Howard brothers’ Datsun. Both muscle and dealers in the Blue Ridge outlaw world.
While Jesse banged on the door calling out Teddy’s name, I lurched against the banister. My sweaty palms cooled against the shade-soft ivy that wrapped around the metal. I then wretched a Horsehead Nebula of gummy bears and powdered pills in mid-dissolve over the side. Wiping my mouth I could feel a cool chemical breeze against my cheek, and turned to see that Jesse had pushed open Teddy’s door and entered the darkness, Valerie following after. With knife clutched, I noticed a single bloody handprint smeared down the frame and stepped through the doorway.
IV. GHOST IN THE BONG
My shoes crunched glass as I tepidly followed the sound of Jesse’s voice. “Teddy,” she called, “Teddy!” Shivering, I awkwardly shuffled through the scrambled Feng Shui, my feet bumping geometric shapes in the dark. I could hear the AC unit whirring on high. With each step the cold cracked my tendons, muscles locked into bone, goosebumps rose against the interior sleeves of my hoodie. Teeth chattered. Joints unhinged beneath the gauze. The sound of my jaw popping was muffled by the creak of something heavy before it crashed. A furious brightness burst through the window. Daylight annihilated darkness, and dust clouds seized the emancipated space. Illumination.
Jesse and Valerie were lifting back another massive bookshelf that had fallen against the now-busted window, unblocking the narrow path between the living room and kitchen. A single black butterfly floated through the cracked window. The floor was a sea of videos, shattered ceramic, and bong glass. “Teddy,” we cawed like crows. My jaw popped with each syllable, and knuckles cracked as my grip tightened around the knife. Jesse, wood stake in hand, nimbly jettisoned over kitchen archipelagos of broken plates with a fluidity I would never know.
Down the dark hallway we heard what sounded like scurrying possums coming from his bedroom. With one swift kick, Jesse busted the bedroom door open.
V. FAIT ACCOMPLI
There we found Teddy, hunched in the corner, bloody and trembling. His favorite thrift store lamp, the one with the plastic flower bouquet in the glass center, lay on the ground beside him, illuminating his bruised face. His hands were cupped together as if protecting a baby bird.
“It’s okay, Teddy, it’s me, Jesse. Val and Agony are here, too.” His face shifted from horror, to tenderness, back to horror. Jesse stepped forward, then kneeled close to examine Teddy. “Val, honey, could you get me a wet washcloth? An’ make sure it ain’t too hot.” Adding, “Oh, and a glass of water. Please.” Jesse reached her hand towards Teddy and gently touched his cupped hands. Teddy jerked back.
“They mays still be ’round,” Teddy whispered. His right eye darting, perhaps his obscured left eye, too, but the surrounding tissue had swollen into dense, meaty folds.
“No one else’s here, Teddy, just us,” Jesse soothed. Valerie returned with cloth in hand, placed the glass of water and frozen peas on the floor. Jesse took the washcloth from Valerie, pressed its wet warmth against Teddy’s cheek, and slowly began wiping away the blood. “So who did this?”
“I can’ts say.” Jesse flipped the washcloth over, folded it, and began wiping the blood from his mouth. Red creeks streaked down his neck. “Theys kill me if I says.” His hands tremored. I fished a few Darvocets out of my pocket and motioned Jesse over to me.
I slid the pills into her hand like an illusionist, and whispered into her ear, “Tell him we saw the Howard brothers leaving.” It was a lie, of course, Jesse knew this, but she also knew to trust me. Jesse extended her open palm of pills to Teddy. “Here, take these.”
Normally, Teddy was quite fastidious about what pills he took, always armed with his medical books and pill dictionary, but now he extended his left hand and grasped the pills. Jesse raised the glass of water to his lips and helped him take the drugs. As he swallowed, Teddy’s hand returned to cupping the object to his chest.
“Was it the Howard brothers? We saws ‘em leavin’.” Jesse picked up the lamp, and set it on the nightstand, then the glass next to it. Teddy let out a sad moan, but I wasn’t sure if it was out of pain or the sound of their names. “Let’s getcha in bed. Val, help me out.” I stepped back into the opposite corner next to the laundry basket. Even with my joints wrapped and Teddy being as light as he was, it wouldn’t take much exertion to dislocate my shoulder and arms lifting him up.
Jesse stepped over Teddy and positioned herself behind him, grasping his armpits lightly. Valerie gripped his calves and together they lifted him up on the bed. Teddy made muffled, agonized groans as they positioned him. With his shirt scrunched, I could see a boot-strike bruise storm swirling down his side. Jesse, noticing the wounds, pulled his shirt down, and she and Valerie pulled the covers up over him. Teddy groggily sputtered, “I ain’t mean to be no trouble.”
“You nevah trouble, Teddy,” Jesse said, fixing his pillow.
“They dones got whole fields of it,” Teddy’s voice trailed, “acres and acres. I wasn’t being no problem. I was only selling neh-kels … dimes. Just enough to pay the bills.” His eyes flickered, then closed, before he jolted forward. “Where’s Ali?”
Valerie stared at a vacant bird feeder hanging outside the window; Jesse went silent, bending down and tightening the blanket. I stepped forward. “Shh, lay back, Teddy. Ali couldn’t make it, she’s still at school. They gave her detention.”
“Oh, what dat girl gone done now? She’s too smart for them teachers to handle.” His eyes closed, a proud smirk on his face. “They needs to leave her be.” A goofy giggle escaped his lips, and his hand relaxed open. A small crystal butterfly, the one Ali brought him last winter when he was in the hospital, was poised mid-flap in his palm.
Valerie turned from the window, hands steady, and removed the figurine. Placing it on the stand next to the water, her eyes burned fiercer than I had ever seen.
While Teddy slept, Jesse called her uncle, then she and Valerie swept the glass up, and cooked some Hamburger Helper for Teddy to eat later. Happy to be free of the air conditioning, I rummaged through the tool shed, allowing the warmth to soak back into my joints. By the time I found the pistol and box of matches my brother had stashed in a dusty, Confederate-flag-covered crate, I heard the Camaro revving up and Valerie calling my name.
VI. SYNTHETIC APOLLO
As the sun descended into the red earth, Jesse drove down a tall, grass-encrypted dirt road, toward the back end of the Howard brothers’ property, and parked in a secluded alcove of elm trees and honeysuckle. The cigarette in Valerie’s hand had burned to the filter, an inch of ash falling as she rubbed her temple. Her migraines were sequencing back. With eyelids drooping I popped open the Adderall bottle, and passed out a few orange 30 mg pills. Some synthetic sunshine for our long night. Valerie cracked a pill in half, then split it with Jesse. Normally it was a ritual reserved for long nights at Caesar’s Head or Table Rock, where we’d drop acid or spark a spliff with Ali and talk about philosophy and music, before washing off the amphetamine summer sweat skinny dipping in the lake.
Jesse stared intensely at a circuiting flock of blackbirds as she chugged a jug of water. I changed the wraps on my hands and knees, and picked at the dirt that kept finding its way back under my nails. Nothing stayed clean in the South. Jesse adjusted her gloves, turned toward us, and broke the silence. “I knows they check on their houses, but from what I gander from my uncle, they ain’t living in this one. Just farmin’ it. He says they gots some cameras, but they ain’t plugged in, they’re just for show. There might be a dog or two, and some razor wire, but that’s ’bout it.” Her face glowed in the crimson light of the collapsing sun. “So you still wanna do this?”
Valerie and I nodded, a Möbius strip of smoke writhed in cycles. Valerie brushed her afrohawk back and crushed the cigarette butt out. “Jesse, baby, you know you ain’t even gotta ask that.”
Jesse’s eyes shifted to me. “Let’s do this,” I said, sliding a flashlight from the glove compartment into my bag.
We stepped out into the fading light and left the Camaro concealed in the overgrown gold grass. Jesse popped the trunk, removed a camo duffle bag and machete, and began chopping a path through the brush. With my heart flashing like ball lightning, I adjusted the straps on my backpack and followed behind Jesse. Valerie trailed after us. I could hear the distant rush of creek water scything across algaed rocks, insects chittering like razored violin notes. My skin felt electric.
Through the woods our thoughts interred in our private earths. The vanishing sun stretched the shadows awake, pulling the darkness from the base of every tree trunk across the wooded hills. The sentient evening bubbled into a sweltering tar of crickets and constellations. Mosquitos burglarized our blood. We crossed through moonlit-hallowed cornfields and the pastures where we would pick psilocybin mushrooms towards a region of the woods neither Valerie nor I had ever been.
All around us the bioluminescent lampyridaes shimmered amongst the celestial zodiac. Constellations of pulsating light telling our story, the way the stars told Aquila, the eagle’s story.
“This way, we’re close,” Jesse said softly, pointing her machete towards a starlight-drenched kudzu patch. Valerie came up behind me and gently brushed my hip. As she passed me on the trail I turned to see a sly smile on her face, her pupils like harvest-ready black cherries.
Jesse stopped and motioned to us. Her voice rose. “There it is. Reckon with this moon, we’ll have a good view of their house and crop.” Further up the hill, built into the top of a sprawling oak tree, the camo-skinned hunters’ blind was suspended. All visible routes were swallowed by kudzu. Jesse gripped the machete tighter and began sizing up the overgrowth.
“When I was a young’un before I got sick, my daddy and uncle use to take me up here.” Jesse’s accent always slid back to a slight country patois when she was in the woods, or speaking about her family. Or when she was on amphetamines.
“Ain’t been here since the accident, though.” With a single blow, she splintered a fallen log into halves.
Valerie approached Jesse, slid her arm around her waist, and said something I could not hear before taking the machete from her to begin chopping.
As much as Jesse worried about us, we worried about her even more.
Jesse, like the rest of us, grew up in the hospital system. At eleven her cancer had returned after a brief remission, and on a rainy summer day like today her parents and older sister, on their way to visit her in the hospital, were struck by a hydroplaning motorist.
As I took a final swig of whiskey from the Coca-Cola bottle, I heard Jesse’s honeyed voice as she tapped me on the shoulder. “How you feelin’, Aggie?” As much as she inquired how we were, she hated when we did the same.
“I’m good. It’s beautiful out here,” I said, handing her the whiskey. My eyes fixed upwards at the celestial tapestry of deities from dead civilizations.
“It is.” She grasped the bottle and took a swallow. “You brought the smokes?” I nodded, and slid one from the pack. Three days ago, waiting outside the hospital for news on Ali, Jesse smoked her first cigarette.
The strength of our sisterhood was our love for each other, and part of that love was letting each other live our lives, to do as we wished. When you spend your whole life being touched, injected, cut into, and forced into surgeries and treatment, freedom is a powerful thing, and that was our gift to each other.
A month ago, after four healthy years, Jesse’s cancer returned.
“God, I wish Ali was here,” Jesse said, handing me back the bottle.
I lit the cigarette, inhaled, and handed it to her. “So do I.”
VII. THE ENGINEERING OF SHADOWS
After fifteen minutes of Jesse sitting up in the hunters’ blind, alone, staring into the distant darkness, she climbed down and motioned to Valerie and me. “This way.” We extinguished our cigarettes and began our stealth descension. The leaves of the black trees moved like squid across my arms. I could hear nocturnal things inspecting our scents and snakes winding through fallen leaves. Jesse knew the path, and Valerie followed the angels. Both advanced rapidly, leaving me stumbling behind.
But that’s how I preferred it. I liked stepping back and observing, seeing the patterns in the action. As I followed their bobbing silhouettes, I felt the weight of my brother’s pistol in my bag steadying my movement. I think of my great-grandfather and the pistol he carried as he skulked these mountains. I could always feel his spirit within me when studying medical conditions, or when on the hunt like tonight.
The black forest undulated like computer code. My teeth were grinding; sweat splotched my clothes. Jesse stood in the center of the warping vortex of foliage, waving me over to a cluster of trees where she and Valerie were rifling through the duffle bag. “We’re here,” Jesse whispered as she handed out gear from the bag. The aroma of marijuana clotted the air like river fog. “When we get in I’m gonna hit the crop quick and grab what I can. So, Agony, you stay by Val so we can bounce fast.”
All around us the tumorous kudzu rose from the dark earth, engulfing fleeing trees and rust-crippled vehicles. The landscape looked like Pompeii with vines instead of ash. I nodded in agreement and slipped the pistol out of my pack. My skin shivered with sweat. The property had the haunted feel of ghosts too ancient to remember who they were. Ghosts that had grown too thin to wail, “Was I once like you?” Too thin to even hold the weight of the answer.
Cloaked in the shrubbery, we slipped on our bandanas and baseball caps and studied the perimeter. At the entrance of the property, cameras perched on tree branches like blind crows. A leviathan network of fans and motors hummed unseen, drowning out the frogs and insects. Jesse surveyed the razored fence separating us from the grow house and barn.
“How about there?” I spoke softly, pointing at a vaulting elm tree that extended over a corner of the fence.
Jesse rose up and shadowed over to the base of the elm. Valerie and I followed behind. “Do y’all hear that?” Jesse asked, the sound of chains dragging against dirt faint through the industrial humming. I lowered down, knees popping, and gazed through the hole in the boarded-up, razored fence. Framed in the lacuna was a single skeletal pit bull flipping around an empty bowl. It looked up, eyes connecting to mine, but made no movement or noise.
“There’s a dog in there. Looks like the pit your uncle was talking about.”
“What’s it doing?”
“Nothing, just staring at me. It looks really sick.”
Jesse handed me her duffle bag. “I’m gonna get a betta look.” She cracked her knuckles, and began climbing up the thirty-foot elm tree. Valerie removed the ham hock from the duffle bag and squatted down at the hole in the fence.
“That dog’s just rags.”
I looked up and Jesse was suspended twenty feet above the dog on the edge of the extended limb. Valerie was removing chunks from the ham hock and systematically tossing them over. At first the pit, with its head in the dirt, just shook its jowls, snorting at the site of the meat catapulting over the fence. Belly on the ground, it shuffled forward then back, sniffing at the meat, then scooting back as it looked up at Jesse. Hope can be more crippling than fear.
I adjusted the medical bracelet around my wrist. The weighted metal of the pistol in that hand made me feel closer to complete. It felt balanced with the titanium fused to my spine, and the metal in my jaw and knees. It made my arm feel less ghostly, less separate from me. It held me together. I lifted my shirt and wiped the cascading sweat from my face. I could hear roots scratching songs against the bellies of worms and ants.
I looked back from my bracelet and the first ham chunk was gone. The pit had retreated into the shadows. Five more pieces remained in the trail of meat. As the pit, all bones and greased skin, made its way back to the trail, Jesse shimmied down from one branch to the next before hopping onto the aluminum roof of the shed.
Through the hole I saw spasms of dust, but the dog didn’t move from the meat. It ate feverously, submitting to whatever consequences came from its hunger. I heard the shuffle of chains, and the creek of the fence opening. Jesse’s gloved hand extended out and waved us in.
VIII. THORAZINE CRUCIFIX
As Valerie and I cautiously entered the dusty arena, there was no sign of Jesse, just her muffled declaration of, “I found it,” followed by the sound of rummaging. We moved slowly, our attention frozen on the tremulous skeleton before us. The right side of the pit bull’s face looked carved out or gnawed off. She was missing an eye. Her body was colonized by lacerations and ticks. The dog’s attention flickered towards us then rapidly back to the memory of meat before her. She let out a sound barely tepid enough to call a growl, but it rumbled her chest enough that the thin membrane of skin around her sternum looked like it could tear.
“Fuck!” Valerie shouted out, startling me and causing the pit to bolt as far into the shadows as its chain would let it. “No, sweetie, I wasn’t yelling at you.” Valerie moved slow, reaching for the meat in the duffle bag. “Agony, unhook the chain.”
“Are you sure?”
“It ain’t even a request.”
I undid the chain from the spike. Valerie removed her hat and bandana, and handed the pit a chunk of the ham hock. “You’re coming with us, sweetie.”
Valerie knelt down whispering to the pit, and slowly stretched her arms out towards her, softly clutching the dog. I gripped tightly to my brother’s pistol, afraid that Valerie might get bit, afraid that I might have to hurt the dog. But the pit didn’t attack, or run. It shivered and whined, then licked Valerie’s hand. “We’re taking you home.” She slipped her another chunk and poured some bottled water into the dried dog bowl.
I heard Jesse yell, “Score!” but as Valerie rose, she began pacing and seemed oblivious to the triumphant call.
“Fuck,” Valerie cursed softly, gathering up the dog’s lengthy chain. “How could they do this to her?” Bit by bit she wrapped the chain around her arm.
“I should have been there for Ali. Fuck, I’m fucking tired of this shit, Agony. I’m done fed up, I’m done past fed up.” The chains corkscrewed around her wrist, shortening the space between her and the petrified pit. “The pastor telling my momma that I got the devil in me when God ain’t never said a word to him, and my momma giving him all of our money and we ain’t have nothing. He ain’t never heard God, never seen an angel. And he’s taking everyone’s money. And I’m crazy?”
Valerie knotted the chain around her fist.
“What sense does that make, Agony? All these preachers and leaders telling us to go war, in God’s name, and God never said nothing to them, ever. But the moment someone sees an angel, or hears God’s voice, they call them crazy, call them schizophrenic, and lock ‘em up, needle and drug ‘em and fuck ‘em and forget ‘em. I should have been there for Ali.”
Valerie’s fingers quaked across her skull scar, her bleached afrohawk simmering white in the moonlight. The coiled chain draped loose in her other hand began to slip. I stepped towards her, and without her noticing, took the chain from her.
“You know what I saw in the hospital, Agony? God’s children, being drugged, being abused, being molested because we crazy and nothing we say is real and no one will believe us. Orderlies doing whatever they want to us, ‘cause my word don’t mean shit, ‘cause I am a crazy little country Negro that don’t mean nothing to no one.” Tears trembled free. “But I am someone. God came to me. God spoke to me.” Valerie clutched a loose brick on an unfinished garden wall, then swung around and smashed the living room window open. “Fuck them!”
I heard Jesse’s frantic voice, and turned to see her letting go of a wheelbarrow full of marijuana plants, rushing toward us and pulling out the machete hooked to her belt. “What happened?”
I stuck my arm out, an empty gesture of restraint. “She’s okay, Jesse.”
Valerie bent down grasping at whatever was close to throw. Her eyes locked on Jesse. “Teddy didn’t do nothing. Ali didn’t do nothing. Fuck, we didn’t do anything.” A cinder block hurled from her hands, galaxies of glass bursting on impact.
I felt the chain loosen, and looked down to see the scared pit had hunched up against the back of my legs, darting her eyes toward Valerie and then to the meat zipped in the duffle bag at my feet. I crouched down, removed another portion of the ham and gave it to our new friend. Valerie, looking for something to throw, eyed a tank of gas, and undid the top. “People think they can just prey on those they think are weak without consequences. Fuck these hillbilly gangsters,” she said, splashing gasoline into the living room through the shattered window. Then she paused, her demeanor shifting as she turned and saw the pit cowering behind me. “I’m sorry, girl. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
As Valerie knelt down toward the pit, Jesse slid the gas tank from her hand. Valerie took the chain back, and with her knees on the ground, looking eye-to-eye with the pit, she whispered, “They won’t break us.”
Jesse knelt down and hugged Valerie, holding her for moment, and then lifted her up. The pit shook, both grateful for the food and bewildered. Her attention shifted between the three of us as her tail thrashed. She let out sharp, staccato whimpers. In the distance I could hear the faint sound of gravel under tires. All three of us turned our heads toward the sound.
“Val, take the dog and head into the forest now,” Jesse said, gripping the weighted wheelbarrow.
“Come on, girl,” Valerie called, leading the frazzled pit out of the gate. I slipped my brother’s gun into my front hoodie pocket, turned, and instinctively grasped the gasoline can. Following after Jesse, I connected the window Valerie had soaked to the fresh wheelbarrow tracks with measured splashes. The motion threatening to unhinge my wrist from my hand.
We burst out the gate, Jesse swiveling the wheelbarrow through the clay. Hot breath stabbed night air, onyx leaves and vines spun towards us. Our bodies were brailed with scratches and insect bites. Our lunar-sweat chain links dragged the moon and stars with us every step. Deeper and deeper the path grew tumultuous with engorged tree roots. Jesse slowed, the wheels thudded rock and root.
Behind I called out, “Just leave it, Jesse.”
Jesse’s grip tightened, her moon-ghost forearm muscles knotted. “I can’t. This is what we came for. Y’all need it.”
“It’s not worth it!” I screamed at her, splashing gasoline as I stumbled. My breath fractured. Jesse wedged the barrel over the obstruction, soil spilling as she muscled it forward.
“Just take one for Teddy then!”
The sound of four-wheel drive retching through graveled mud was guttural as wolves crunching on bones. Jesse scooped two plants into her arms, and kicked the barrow off the path. A half-dozen plants and dirt spilled over. She lunged down the wooded haunt, slowing to turn and look back at me. “Keep going, Jesse, I’m right behind you.” She bolted, crashing after Valerie. In a few strides she had vaulted into the shadows.
Hearing the truck doors slam I stopped in the long black foliage and poured out the last of the gasoline. As voices rose into curdled yells, I struck the match, held it against the fuel-soaked path, and watched the spreading flames rewrite all of our futures. The light rose brighter and brighter till the whole property shone white enough that I could see Ali laughing and dancing in the center of the radiance. Her smile lighting our escape down the dark mountain, all of us crying, and laughing, and cursing, and stumbling down, down, down: our eyes bright as quasars, our scalps refusing haloes or horns, only the breeze of freedom flicked with ash adorned our crowns as we vanished into the forest, as we vanished into forever.
Dedicated to the memory of Charles Walter “Charlie” Bellinger (January 21, 1979 - May 22, 1993)about the author