“Floodwaters washed out sections of Route 100 — the main road through town — and rolled through the cemetery…”
— Huffington Post, August 31, 2011
Black Hawk helicopters touch down in the horse pasture behind Gram’s house, thwap-thwap-thwap, whipping the grass flat. Normal is just what we get used to, right? Like half of West Hill Bridge lying busted in the river. Who knows where the other half sailed off to. No one’s gotten in or out of this place by car for two days, and people are sheltering in the high school.
National Guards in camo scramble from the helicopters and toss water bottles and boxes and boxes of MREs, which if I have to eat another of, I’m going to turn into a plastic spork. Like, if you weren’t depressed enough already by your natural disaster, here is some food to make you truly miserable.
People straggle down the trail from the Bread Loaf Wilderness with ginormous backpacks bursting with stuff they’ve decided we need. Two college guys, piled up like mules with packages of Pampers and boxes of Spam, slogged over the mountain because they heard the flood cut us off from the rest of Vermont. No question they needed showers, but with no power, we couldn’t exactly help them with that. Plus the town well got totally polluted by wastewater. How cute is that?
My older cousin, Ashley, who just moved back home to Gram’s, said, Do you think those adorable boys thought up the Spam and diapers combination themselves, or what?
We sent them down to town over the footbridge that Win and his brother just built across the river in, like, two hours. I don’t get why Ashley couldn’t see how adorable Win was, working so fast and hard, bare-chested under the summer sun. It would be amazing to have a guy so totally gonzo. But Ashley bolted Gram’s door when he got down on his knees in the walkway. They had some kind of fight before the hurricane hit. Gram told me to quit asking. Her lips locked, like: Shut the window in your head, Sierra, and slow the breezes blowing through.
Gram said Win built the footbridge because someone had to. Otherwise, how was anyone on this side of the river going to get to town? But it looks to me like my cousin’s husband built a frappin’ bridge so she would come back to him, and so far, that’s not happening.
My best friends, Rhea and Chelsea, waited for me on the other side of the bridge. Rhea — looking pretty hot in that little summer dress I want — was easy to see in the crowd. She’s tall and glam. Everybody wants to be Rhea. Chelsea not so much. Chelsea is going to be a poet so she’s always in black, which goes with her dark hair. She turns sideways, she disappears.
People waited to cross on both sides, carrying everything you can imagine. One man had a bass viol. It stood next to him like just another guy in line. Everyone looked like they’d crawled out from under a rock, sort of rumpled and stupid, blinking at the blinding new wood and the climate’s dandy re-arrangement of the riverbed. Another kid from school was taking her cats up to her dad’s, one carrier in each hand, because her mother’s house wasn’t structurally sound. I would really like saying that, “structurally sound,” except since Sunday, not much is.
Rhea, Chelsea, and me hugged and we all talked at once the way we do, and I was just like, this is the way life’s supposed to be, friends forever. We wanted to see if we could get to the Dickinson Farm because Rhea was on a mission to check on Tyler Stevens, that kid who works there. She said we had to make sure he came through the flood all right. I’ve seen him dropping off some genuinely preggo girl at the bar in town so I don’t know why Rhea lets her heart burn so hot in that direction, but what do I know? Tyler’s got that brawny blond thing going on. Anyway, my cousin Ashley says his pail isn’t quite full.
So we’re walking down Route 100, which is not itself. It is a mud-washed, rubble-strewn, broken mess in some places and in others it’s all innocent and smooth with the only hint of anything wrong being zero traffic and the completely bent over and twisted yellow road signs that say MOOSE CROSSING or DIP, like the one we stole last spring to hang on Chelsea’s brother’s bedroom door. Then we saw a dead deer wrapped around a telephone pole, and some corn stalks with it. I grabbed my eyes away from it really fast, because I know what happens when you see something like that. When I close my eyes — and sometimes even when I don’t — I see all sorts of bad shit from when I still lived with my parents.
Rhea goes, Did you see its tongue!
Chelsea goes, If my brother were here, he’d want to sauté it with onions.
Anyway, Rhea says how another girl in our class had her house tip over in a heap in the flooded brook that used to be just a trickle in the side yard. Rhea says that girl is a crying mess, and her house is a pile of tinder. Her glasses make her look like a housefly, and we hate the way she talks, all know-it-all-y, but I feel sorry for her anyway. Kids should not have to say goodbye to the house they grew up in even if it is in ruins. I still think of this one cupboard in the upstairs hallway where I hid when my parents hadn’t slept for a week and had color-coded the closets or rearranged the kitchen shelves by expiration date, or when they were throwing up and picking imaginary cockroaches off their arms so wildly it seemed like even a six-year-old should do something to help them. So then I tell Rhea and Chelsea how one of the helicopters lifted Gram’s friend, Irene, same name as the hurricane — isn’t that hilarious? — to the hospital for dialysis. Chelsea says her mother is liaising with the hospital about all the sick people trapped in Brewster. Chelsea uses words like that. Her mother is head of the town select board. Gram pushes her nose up with one finger whenever I say I’m going to Chelsea’s house.
We discover that the bridge to Dickinson Farm is gone even worse than West Hill’s. Just nothing there but a big wadge of broken concrete. Isn’t that crazy? I don’t even know how water can do that.
Don’t ask me how those people got over there, but stuff is happening across the river at the farm. We hear voices and equipment, and maybe it’s Tyler Stevens inside the cab of a green tractor going back and forth in front of the barn. I go, Come on, Rhea, WAVE, and I start waving my arms madly, jumping up and down on our side of the river, but she gives one of those tiny screams of hers, covering her face like the emo she is, and turns away in a hurry.
So Chelsea and I do our usual, and follow along. We’re dying to see what the flood did to the town, and there’s nothing to do down there by the farm. All along the river, the cow corn lies flat and gray in the fields, poisoned with sludge.
I say, Do you smell that? It smells like snow.
Chelsea goes, Or maybe like a wet swimsuit left in a plastic bag?
Rhea settles it. She says it smells like metal, like it should be cold out.
But it’s a beautiful day, the kind where you’re supposed to hang with friends, feeling sad and excited about the start of school. Yeah, feeling way mature and remembering how your Gramp, who’s dead now, used to drive you to Montpelier to buy a new outfit for the first day of school. And now who knows when sophomore year will ever be able to get on with it.
Now Rhea says we should see if anything’s open in town so we follow the road where it curves around rock ledge, and there is a guy sitting sort of on the edge of the road, but kind of in it? Like where, on a normal day, no one should sit. He is talking out loud to no one. We can’t hear the words, but he sounds scared and sad. No question it is Harrison Lenk, the guy who used to be Win’s best friend, who went to Afghanistan and got messed up in the head.
The three of us slink back around the bend where he can’t see us. Except by climbing rock face, what other way is there to get to town except the road? I saved for six months of babysitting to buy these Uggs. We aren’t about to wade through the flood-slime in the fields.
I go, Where’s Tyler Stevens when you need him? Rhea just looks at me. A little breeze lifts a wisp of her hair. It is strawberry blonde without her even coloring it, and I am totes jelly.
Rhea says, We just walk by like nothing’s different, and if he talks to us, we say hello and keep walking.
So we do that, all three of us in our summer clothes and new boots. Who are we kidding? He is going to notice us.
He’s wearing camo pants and a black bitch-beater. And his hair is long like the opposite of Army. He is the kind of good looking that makes you need a little air, and he’s saying No, no, no, not you, buddy. I can’t. I tried. You know I can’t. No, no, no. His voice is so sad. He’s rocking one of his legs in his arms like he’s rocking a baby, and talking to his foot.
My belly flips and my hands pop sweat. I am kicked into high alert, that feeling where the edges of everything I see suddenly go extra hi-def on me — it used to happen a lot when my meth-head parents were high.
He sees us, scrambles up, and snaps to.
Rhea says, Hi.
He takes a position in the middle of the road, as if he might be thinking about blocking our way. He has brown eyes with lashes to die for and a no-bullshit jawline to go with his biceps.
He says, with his voice all official, You girls do not have clearance to pass this checkpoint.
What does that even mean? I look at Rhea.
She keeps walking and says, We are just going to meet our parents. We’re late.
But he puts his arms out and says, I can’t let you through here. He must be stuck in the Afghanistan of his mind like Ashley said, is what I’m thinking.
Harrison has been crying. He still has tears on his cheeks. You ever feel really sorry for someone who scares the bejesus out of you? It’s a nasty feeling. I wouldn’t recommend it.
The entrance to Wildwood Cemetery is like 100 feet away across a bridge that looks just fine, like no problem being a bridge here. I know for sure you can see the cemetery sign from town, which means if we could just move our little drama along to the cemetery entrance, then maybe someone would see Harrison Lenk wigging out on us in the road. Rhea’s just standing there doing nothing but turn red. So I say, Why don’t you come with us, Harrison? And Chelsea jabs her chicken wing elbow into my back, but I go, Your friend Win could use some company. That morning Win looked as busted up as Harrison, but Ashley didn’t give a rip. I felt so bad for him. She shouted from the back room, We are so done, asshole. Win looked wasted and sleep starved, kind of scooped out.
I don’t care what kind of fight they had; I would’ve taken him back.
Harrison says, I would never forgive myself if you had to see what I saw. He’s all earnest and sweet. He’s maybe trying to keep us from knowing about whatever happened to him over there on the other side of the world.
Rhea’s got this dumb frozen look on her face, like a doll on a shelf. I can’t take it, so I start walking past him matter-of-factly. I hear Rhea’s and Chelsea’s boots shuffling behind me on the pavement. My scalp prickles, but what’s he going to do? Three of us is a good crowd, right? He rocks a little on his toes, and the sun zings off his dog tags.
His voice is different now. No, really, I can’t let this happen.
We keep on. I’m thinking we’ll just saunter until we get past him and then we can take off swift as Katniss Everdeen. I am out front and almost in the clear.
He says, I have orders. He lunges and grabs Chelsea’s arm. She’s the smallest, and easiest to catch, and she whimpers and freezes, and that is exactly when I see death and zombies and bones and stuff lying in the ditch between the road and the cemetery. There are three coffins and they are muddy. Only one is still whole. The flood demolished the cemetery wall. It looks like the earth vomited and coffins came up with the mud. I shut my eyes, but what I see then is my mind’s snapshot of that deer wrapped around the utility pole with its pale pointy tongue hanging out. So, quick, I open my eyes and Rhea hasn’t come along far enough to see the coffins. Harrison Lenk’s got Chelsea by her arms. She is holding really still like a little glittery-eyed black bird in a cat’s teeth, so I say — zipping back and throwing my arm around Rhea to turn her away from the gruesomeness in the ditch ahead — Harrison Lenk, no jest. You are right. We should not have to see that sort of thing as we pass through here.
I am forcing down the thought of how my gramps is buried in that cemetery — holding it down with about the same muscle you use to keep from throwing up.
Rhea tries to spin away from me, but I hold her as tight as Harrison has Chelsea, and the idea clicks into place that we can do this. It is possible we can get away from him and into town without my best friends having to see desiccated bodies every time they close their eyes for the rest of their lives. I just have to get into cahoots with Harrison’s batshit brain the way I used to do with my dad.
Rhea is usually in charge of us, but I fake a bossy voice like my cousin Ashley’s: Here is what we’re going to do. Harrison wants us to stay safe here in a difficult situation, right? And the best way to do that is Rhea and Chelsea and me, we walk over the bridge keeping our eyes shut tight, because that’s where the danger is, right Harrison? I give Rhea and Chelsea my very best trust-me look, and say in a deadly voice, Believe me you don’t want to see what he’s seen.
I’m thinking if you’re as confused as Harrison because of what you’ve had to look at in a war, those coffins would be the cherry on top. I’ve got this, Sir, I say to Harrison. Thank you for letting us know what needed to be done.
Rhea is looking at me like, WTF?
I try to take Chelsea from him. But he won’t give. I’m thinking, holy moly, what am I doing? But I go, We can’t fool around here, Private. Then I think, Shit, what if he was an officer?
The skin around his eyes smooths out. He says, I am not fooling around. Fucking shut your eyes.
But we can’t keep our eyes shut, can we. And who could blame us?
He skins out of his bitch-beater, one-handed, and yanks Chelsea around so he’s got her in an arm lock from behind. She makes a gerbil noise. Her hair is against his bare chest. Win said Harrison was exceptional with a chain saw, but right then that thought isn’t precisely helpful.
Harrison throws his shirt at me and says, Rip it into strips. I don’t see this going anywhere good, but he yells it again and spit flies out of his mouth.
I use my teeth to get the shirt going. It’s tangy with sweat. Luckily, or not, it tears easily. Rhea’s got a sudden sunburn, and her eyes are leaking, and I can see the gears in her see-through skull whirring toward making a ditz move. It hurts to dwell on what he might do to Chelsea if Rhea tries to bolt. I say, Rhea. I say, Really, there is something Harrison doesn’t want us looking at.
And he says, YOU, meaning me. Keeping my distance, I hand him the shreds of shirt, and say, You’re scaring her — meaning all three of us.
Chelsea is humming on one note. He shifts her into a one-armed headlock and blindfolds her with a piece of his shirt, using his teeth and his other hand. Then he lets her neck go, and holds her wrist. I am nearly shimmying with hope that this means he isn’t going to tie us up.
Rhea looks at me, and it’s maybe the first time in our fifteen years that she has ever asked me for advice. Quietly, I sing, Three blind mice, in a ridiculous quavery voice and signal for her to do what I do. I blindfold myself. The idea is to cooperate until you see your chance.
These blindfolds are pretty see-through. I want to shout: See how they run! so we’ll all take off together, but Harrison’s grip on Chelsea seems like his only hold on anything at all. Rhea’s hand is as slippery and cold — like dead fish — as mine, even though it’s August.
My mind has turned to gum and can’t think of what’s next. There’s no cupboard to crawl into here.
Harrison grabs my other hand and says, I’m taking you across. His hand is just as sweaty and cold as ours are. He leads us past the coffins toward town.
I hear one of the Black Hawks rumbling up the valley, and then I see it through the haze of my blindfold, following the riverbed, swerving like a june bug headed for Gram’s horse pasture. It’s going to pass right over us on the road. Harrison starts to sprint, pulling us across the bridge.
You just can’t run fast all together holding hands without it ending up like a three-legged race. I let go of Rhea, knowing we’ve passed the coffins, and no matter what happens next, at least my friends’ eyes aren’t going to burn forever with a view of zombies and dead grandpas.
Harrison hightails it faster than we can, so Chelsea goes down. He drops my hand to scoop her up. He hunches away with her under cover of the trees, away from the helicopter noise.
I whisk off my blindfold and charge after him. He tosses her down in a mossy place between some birches and throws himself on top of her and she screams and he puts his hand over her mouth.
I’m catching up and who knows what I’m about to do, but when he looks back toward the Black Hawk, his face twists up and I have never seen anyone so scared. He lowers his head next to Chelsea’s for a second, and then he looks at her like she’s special and lifts his hand slowly from her mouth. Her teeth are chattering. He slips off her blindfold.
I stop where I am. He looks like a guy who’s risking his life. Who knows what team he thinks he’s on, but maybe he’s keeping us from the bad stuff that happened to those bodies in the ditch.
Beyond the birch trees — I’m looking out through intense green leaves — Rhea jumps up and down in the road, waving at the helicopter, just the way she would not for Tyler Stevens.
The Black Hawk sidles in for a closer look. Who wouldn’t? Telephone poles and utility wires keep it from landing on the road. There isn’t any place else but the silted cornfield, so it hangs in the air.
By then, I’ve got a complicated thing going on. The air is beating against my ears: chunk-a-chunk-a-chunk-a-chunk. Yes, sure as shit, I want them to rescue us. At the same time Harrison is so scared, and his naked back is so beautiful, arching over Chelsea, and someone who doesn’t know could read this picture very wrong. I close my eyes hurting to see, in my mind, those guys in their camo jumping out of the choppers behind Gram’s. I’m trying really hard to remember, Do they carry guns? Do they have holsters? Is there a belt around that uniform? Some have helmets, some have those dorky little brimmed hats that no one should wear without a buzz cut, but I can’t picture what I need to. Who knows how National Guards are armed.
The too-muchness of it all floods me. I am not up to this. I am like sleepwalking. Zombified. I am like that gray corn flattened in the field. Harrison’s sickness is nothing I can do anything about. I know this the hard way. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.
Down in the road, Rhea falls to her knees and prays to the helicopter. Just the way Win did to Ashley this morning, down on his knees. The helicopter sways side to side and settles down in the muddy field like a hen on a nest.
When your brain feels as sloshy as the blood pumping through it, can you call what you think, thoughts?
Like this is all totally normal, I crawl over the moss toward Harrison and Chelsea whispering, You guys, wait for me.
Harrison’s eyes vibrate with the work it takes to look at me. Maybe he sees that in my pink tee shirt and short shorts, I am not armed.
I brush leaves and twigs out of my way. A tear runs down into Chelsea’s ear. I wipe it away. By staring hard at her, I try to hotwire it into her that I am still here, but she might not be seeing anything she looks at. I slide my arm under her neck. I lie on my side next to them, between them and the National Guards. I wrap my other arm around Private Harrison Lenk’s smooth warm bare back.about the author