I pressed the camera to my face. The Wichita Mountains stood, old and sleeping, on the other side of the lake, smeared across the right half of the sky. The tops were white, even in August, and melted into patches of red and brown and green that slid down the slopes, into the silence of the lake. My other eye squinted as I pulled them into a place where I could see. They huddled in my camera, and I pressed the shutter.
Tiki was nearby, sniffing his way down a line of walnut trees by the road. He flitted from trunk to trunk, pausing, front paw dangling and nostrils pulsing, before trotting on to the next.
I wound the film and looked down at the window. Six pictures left.
I looked around. Little houses dotted the gravel drive, sleeping beneath wide, rustling trees. I started toward the lake, and a few roads over, I came to the docks that Holly and I used to swim under, when it was warm. We’d bubble up in one of the empty boat shelters and let our toes dangle in the water, and imagine that little fish were listening to our garbled voices talking. But none of them were empty today. I looked down the last road and hurried across.
The grass on the other side kissed my bare feet and ironed out the little gravel-shaped dimples on my soles. The dock groaned as I stepped out onto it, and the top of its wooden body was hot and dry and dusty. I turned right and walked toward water, weaving my way between the uneven nails that jutted up from the beams. At the end of the dock, I stopped.
A small boat, flat and aluminum, bobbed in the shade of the shelter arching over it. I put the camera to my face, but through the lens, it looked dull and colorless. I frowned.
Tiki had followed me and was lying down, panting and watching me. The shadow beneath the awning hugged me as I walked into it. I stepped into the boat, and it shifted under my feet. In the steering wheel was a small web, rocking and recently-fled. I bent down and saw a little brown spider huddled beneath the rim. His shoulders were hunched and angry, waiting with smiling eyes for my departure. I pulled my camera back to my face and took a picture.
When I climbed out of the boat, Tiki was standing next to me, looking down into the water. His reflection panted back at him, then broke apart as he leaned down to paw at a passing pair of fish. I clicked my tongue as I walked back up the dock, and he followed me, out into the sun.
At the road, I studied the walnut trees, the way their leaves grew out over the gravel. Houses ran in uneven rows in either direction. Ms. Beverley’s stood nearest to me. On her porch, a chair lay broken on its side, its body covered in a dry, brown mold. I looked up the road, and back down. The dust kicked up in the quiet wind, coating the roofs and the leaves of the walnut trees. Everything was dirt.
It was louder out back. Cicadas spoke across the trees with angry voices, and beyond the bend in the road, a lawnmower rolled in sharp, roaring circles across a dry stretch of grass. I walked toward a row of sunflowers that blinked and sprouted from the dirt behind her house.
“I wish you wouldn’t sit back there, Elma. Makes me feel like a damn chauffeur.”
“Watch your mouth,” said Grandma, “There’s a little sunflower in the car.” She ran a hand through the hair on the back of my head, which I didn’t think was quite as yellow as sunflowers.
“Just make sure she doesn’t spill any of that on my seats. I swear to God if she spills that again—”
“Why don’t you be quiet,” she snapped. “Let the girl enjoy her pickles.”
I pulled the camera from my pocket, found two days before, next to Christmas ornaments in her attic.
“Do you think it works?” I asked Grandma, who was still glaring at my father in the rearview mirror.
She tore her eyes away and smiled. “What, sweetheart?”
“Do you think it still works?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Let’s see.” She pulled it from my hands and turned it over. She pointed at a window next to the lens and tapped her brittle nail against it. “Says here there are seven pictures left. You’ll have to finish the roll before we can find out.”
She handed it back to me. I set it on the seat next to me and shoved my hand back into the jar wedged between my legs. I pulled a pickle out and watched it slip from my hands onto the floorboards. My father turned around and saw it lying in a shallow puddle of itself. The truck braked hard.
“God dammit, Maggie,” he said as he unbuckled his seatbelt to swat at my face. “What did I just say?”
The sunflowers stared at me. They were just taller than me, and stood in two wide, shallow rows. Black pupils and bright yellow irises that watched me without blinking, like they’d forgotten who I was. I took a picture.
A white truck rolled into the edge of my vision, coming up the road that hugged the west edge of the lake. I clicked my tongue again at Tiki. “Let’s go.” He stood and raced after me, back toward the house.
The white truck was in the driveway when we arrived. A missing tailgate and empty bed. I walked around to the passenger’s side and the window was open. The dashboard was cracking and sun-bleached, and crumpled receipts and little paper straw wrappers lay scattered across the floorboard. Shadows from the branches hanging over the house fell in ripples across a dogeared Bible on the passenger’s seat. It was open to a page with words just big enough to read. I squinted and read the little letters at the top of the page. Proverbs 6:16. I took a picture.
Tiki watched me climb the stairs of the front porch, and paddled off in search of new shade. I pulled open the screen door and went inside.
My father’s voice filled the front room.
“Why don’t you let me do it? Let me take a look.”
“It’s not the accounting, Oliver.” The man was soft-spoken and stood in an apologetic way. His back was facing me. He was three or four steps from the door, and his hands slid into his pockets as he listened to my father’s resurging confusion.
“Well, what the hell is it then?” My father’s shoulders hunched as he spoke.
The man coughed and adjusted his tie. “It’s just that we don’t have any money.” A fist slid out from his pocket, and opened into an insistent palm.
My father scoffed. “I don’t remember the last time anything like this happened. Have people stopped coming? Stopped giving?”
“Well, attendance is down, but that’s only part of it. People just don’t have anything to give.”
My mother walked in from the bedroom beyond the kitchen. “Brother Bryan! I thought I heard someone talking in here!” She tore her eyes from the man and glanced at my father, then back at the man. “Please,” she said after a long moment, “sit a while! Can I get you anything? Coffee?”
“Hello, Laura. It’s good to see you. We missed you Sunday.”
My mother tilted her head to the side and laughed. “Oh, we went up to see some family in Fort Cobb,” she said. “Their youngest was getting baptized. Just a beautiful sermon.” She glanced at the time. After a moment, she added, “Nothing near as good as yours, though. Can I get you some coffee?”
“Thank you, but I’m not staying long.” His smile was gentle and warm, and I watched it float over toward my mother.
She looked at my father and his crossed arms. “Is everything all right?”
“I was just telling Oliver we might have to cancel the pageant next week.”
“Why’s that?” My mother’s voice lilted up.
“The church’s revenue is drying up. I know everyone looks forward to the bazaar and the kids’ choir recital, but all that costs money, and right now we don’t have much of it.” The man looked at his shoes.
I took a few steps forward, out from the hallway and into the living room. I spoke. “Are you going to cancel the choir recital, too?”
The man turned around and noticed me. “Hey, Maggie,” he said. “You’re so tall. You’ll be as big as your sister soon.” His eyes glinted and he forced his face back into a smile. “How are you?”
“Are you going to cancel the recital?” I repeated.
“Well,” he said, running a hand down his cheek that fell back to his side after a moment. It looked like he was holding invisible flowers. “We might have to.”
“Maggie, honey, why don’t you go in your room and play?” My mother was leaning past the man, eyebrows raised.
“It’s okay, Laura.” He squatted in front of me. “Yeah, we might have to cancel it.” He looked at one of my eyes, then the other. “But I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope that doesn’t happen.” He reached out to tuck a piece of my hair behind my ear.
“Really, Bryan, I’m sure if you just let me take a look—”
“I don’t think there’s anything to look at,” said the man, looking at my eyelashes, before standing and turning toward my father. “But if I hear anything else, I’ll give you a call. I just thought I’d tell you while I was in the area. I’m meeting Mae in a little while up in Lawton, though, so I’d better get going.”
My mother pushed herself from the side of the doorway she’d been leaning on. “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do.” She ran a hand across her forehead and then straightened her hair. Her mouth was open, and I saw her tongue lying just behind her crooked teeth. Her breaths seemed spaced out.
The man smiled. “Of course.” He turned to my father and extended his hand, which my father shook, forgetting to smile.“See you Sunday,” they said. My father watched him watch my mother.
The man buttoned his jacket and raise his hand into a still wave. “See you, Laura.” He turned toward the door, reaching for the handle. He pulled it open, and August started to seep in. He caught me staring at him. “Goodbye, Maggie,” he said, without blinking. He stepped out into the loneliness of the sun.
Almost before the door shut, my father spoke. “Jesus, Laura. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
My mother didn’t say anything. She picked up a pack of blue Pall Malls resting on the TV cabinet.
“I don’t know what your problem is,” said my father. “Every damn time he comes here, you’re a little schoolgirl, fawning over him.”
My mother walked to the couch and sat on the end farthest from the door. She pulled a cigarette from the pack, which she tossed on the coffee table, and picked up the orange lighter next to it. My father glared. She flicked the lighter three times and breathed in until the cigarette started to glow. She threw the lighter next to the pack.
“Go ahead, just ignore me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I watched her tongue moving below her brain. As her cigarette hand emoted, her other hand crossed her body and hid under her right arm—her cigarette arm—which stood, crooked at the elbow. She was looking out the window.
“Oh, don’t start with your ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ bullshit. Jesus, it’s like you’re in love with him.”
“He’s just a nice man, is all,” she said, blowing a thin stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth. Her left arm came out and brushed some hair off her forehead before returning to its hiding place. “Which is more than I can say for you.” She looked at him for the first time.
“You can’t get all starry-eyed every time he waltzes in here. Into my house. Jesus Christ.” His hands were shaking, and he was looking at her. “You can’t.”
My mother looked back out the window, at a place I couldn’t see, but I could see the lake in her eyes. Her fingers shifted as they felt the heat creeping toward them. Her hair was still, and she looked very small. I thought of the way she looked when she used to push Holly on the swings at the park, and the way her cigarette danced on the corner of her turned-down mouth, how slowly it burned. I wondered if we kept her from running away. I pointed my camera at her and took a picture.
My father looked at me. “Maggie, go to your room. I don’t know why you even use that damn thing. It’s just a disposable. Film’s all washed out by now. Probably doesn’t even have any.”
I went outside.
When I woke up, I lay in bed for a long while, looking at the ceiling and carving little moons in the back of my hand with my fingernails. A sponged pattern ran in semicircles toward the bedroom door, like waves against the beach. A white-blue light was pouring in from the telephone pole outside. I rolled on my side, then sat, half-up, on my elbow.
“Holly,” I said into the stillness of the room. “Are you awake?” Everything was quiet.
I slid my legs out of bed and walked to the window. A speck of light glinted off Tiki’s collar from the little wooden overhang where he slept. My hands felt empty. I went to the door and pulled it open, slow and careful, and slipped out into the hall.
Grandma’s room was to the right. I pressed an ear to the door and heard a muted snoring that grew as the door swung open. She was sleeping on her back, mouth loud and wide. Her dresser stood against an empty wall and reflected the blue window, scattering it across the floor like sand.
The top drawer creaked as I opened it, but she didn’t move. Inside, a little silver-colored box lay waiting for me, and it sparkled as I pulled it up and turned it over in my hands. Along the edges, engravings wound into each other like vines. I opened the lid, and saw dozens of little jewelries sleeping on top of each other, perfect and unwakeable. I sunk my fingers into them and felt them roll over and hold me.
I pulled each piece out and laid it on the dresser top in neat, even lines. I scanned the rows and looked for something delicate and beautiful. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I took a pair of green and bronze earrings—thin brown chains suspending tiny emeralds that smelled like trees and old metal. I dropped them in my pocket and filled the box up and lowered it back into place. The drawer shut with a soft thud, and I looked at the bed.
Her shadow stood beside her on the wall, holding her in her stillness. After a moment, I went closer, into her shadow, and saw her upper lip crooked into a sort of satisfaction, floating through an unthinking contentment. I could see that she was somewhere else, or almost there, far away from me and Holly and the lake. Far away from her daughter’s cigarette arms, in a place where she didn’t have to worry about hearts that weren’t her own.
I went outside.
The moon was bright and empty. I turned left, then left again, toward the back of the house. Across the yard, I saw the sunflowers shivering, unaware but together in the openness. Their eyes looked up, soaking in the substitute beauty of the moon. I walked toward the woods, toward the little house where Tiki slept. He stood as I got closer, and shook his fur in tight, rapid circles. “Hey, Tiki,” I whispered. He trotted toward me and nuzzled against my leg. I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth, and he followed, sniffing the air as he floated into wakefulness. I watched him blink, several times, slower each than the last. He shook his fur and his collar again.
We went toward Ms. Beverly’s and past it, and walked until the woods were all we could hear. We came to a creek, and I looked back at the way we’d come. Tiki was in front of me. He heard that the leaves weren’t crunching anymore, and stopped to look at me. The moon was coming in harder now, high and bright.
Tiki walked over and sniffed at the cypress tree between us. I looked at my feet and bent down and pushed my fingers into the dirt. It was warm. I pulled up a handful and pressed it to my face and it smelled like rain.
I set the dirt beside me, and started to pull up more handfuls. My shadow held the growing pile until there was a deep hole in the ground, and I heard the earrings stirring in my pocket. They blinked at me as I pulled them out into the openness, fast at first, then slower. The moon came through the tree branches, and fell in broken stripes across the earrings. After a few moments, I tilted my hand and watched them fall, down my palm and across my fingertips, into the earth.
Alone and crumpled up, they looked happy. I scooped some dirt into my hands and poured it on top of them. The heel of my palms pressed the dirt into itself, until it felt firm.
Tiki whined at the darkness. He blinked at me as I stood. We walked with our shadows back toward the house.
Impatient rain woke me up.
I turned on my side and saw Holly crouching on the dresser, her hands gripping an imaginary rifle pointed at my face.
“Bang! You’re dead.” She giggled and jumped down. “Bang bang bang.”
“Hi,” I said, wiping my eyes.
“Hi,” she said. “Wanna play?” She tossed the gun aside and walked toward the boxes of Barbies that lined the shelf by the window. She started on the end and went down the line, enumerating, without waiting for my response. “This one’s Holiday Barbie, and this one’s Groovy Barbie, and this one’s Crystal Barbie.” She didn’t pause. I watched her walking down the shelf, pointing her short fingers at each one with a passing obsession. “…and this one’s Loving You Barbie.” She stared at the last one for a long while, smiling, and didn’t look at me. Still smiling, she took a deep breath and held it. She did that a lot, when we were waiting in the checkout at Taft’s or sitting in the car after church, but I never asked her why.
“How do you play with them if you never take them out of the box?”
“Well, I don’t want to break them!” she said, exhaling and tearing her gaze from the dolls. She smiled. “When they’re in the boxes, they’re safe.” Her voice, which was always a little louder than it should have been, was sunny, and sounded like our mother’s. It was young, too, and I looked at the dust that had settled on top of the boxes.
From the living room came a loud and sudden slamming. I heard my father’s footsteps pounding toward the bedroom beyond the kitchen, before returning to the living room. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know.” Grandma’s voice was small next to his.
“You’re lying to me. She doesn’t work today and her car is gone. Where is she?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
“What did she say when she left?”
“I don’t remember.”
I opened the door and saw Grandma standing, facing him but unmoving. My father yelled more, faster and louder, but I couldn’t understand him. Grandma walked into the kitchen and pulled the phone off the hook. “I’m calling the police,” she said. Her hair was white like the moon.
“You do that. I’ll find her myself.” The front door slammed behind my father. I heard an engine pull out onto the road and speed off.
I went back into my room, where Holly was looking at her boxes and holding her breath. I imagined my mother in someone’s living room. I imagined her smoking, and I saw her tongue dropping her cigarette and her mouth kissing a shadow. I could see the house catching fire and burning for a long time.
The front door slammed again, and I heard Grandma’s car starting up. The gravel cracked under well-worn tires as she backed out and left.
I went into the front room. The rain was louder there, and the house was empty. I went to the kitchen window and looked out into the backyard. The air was thick with rain. My throat felt like hard, like empty mud. I couldn’t see Tiki.
Holly came into the room, skipping, small and unaware. “Maggie, is there any milk?” She stopped in the doorway.
I turned toward her and walked to the fridge. I pulled open the door and peered inside. “No,” I said, “But Momma said she was going to get some more tomorrow.”
The heavy door clanged shut, and the pictures on the fridge fluttered as she nodded and disappeared back into our room, limbs bouncing at her side as she went.
When she was gone, I went back to the window and looked into the rain. I squinted, but I couldn’t see Tiki. I went to the windows in the living room and saw mud streaked out into the road in opposite directions. My camera was lying on the TV cabinet next to my mother’s cigarettes, and I picked it up. There were two pictures left.
I cracked the door open and put my hand in the rain. It was hot. I put my camera in my pocket and walked out into it.
The rain was falling heavy on my shoulders, and the world smelled like trees. I walked to the place where Tiki was sleeping. He didn’t hear me coming, so I said his name once, then again, louder. His tail beat against the dirt and woke him up. He stood and stretched and walked, warm and tired, toward me. We walked farther from the house and turned right, into the trees.
We were loud as we went, stepping through the wet, heavy leaves. Two pictures left. A clearing went past us and dissolved into denser trees. Tiki led the way, and I lost sight of him as he dipped out of view beyond a clump of forest. But I found him, waiting for me near a redbud branch on the ground. It was split by lightning and lay half-clinging to the rest of itself. Tiki hopped across the branch, toward another tree a few yards past it.
I took a necklace and put it here, in May. A turquoise necklace with three little cornstalks on the back of the pendant. Holly used to tell Grandma that it was her favorite, and I put it in the ground, here. I was walking home, but I stopped and went back and dug it up to look at it again. I could remember watching the clumps of dirt fall fast and quiet as my fingers ran down it. I remembered bringing it close to my face, feeling the chain kissing my cheek. It was cold and felt like the moon. I wanted to hold it forever.
In the rain, the tree looked the way I remembered it, except for the branch. I wound my camera and took a picture.
My clothes were sticking to my body now, and I wiped a river of hair clinging to my forehead. My mouth opened to breathe the wet air.
I looked around. Tiki had gone.
I walked toward the redbud, and it stretched up beyond a place that I could see. I looked at the branch. White wood ran, dead, from the trunk into the dirt. I went closer and looked at the ground. A few months. Where was it? I pushed my fingers into my head but I couldn’t remember. Where was it?
The dirt looked at me and didn’t blink, and I started digging. I didn’t know where I was supposed to start. My hands plunged into the ground like the ocean on my ceiling. All there was was nothing, and my hands were wet. Brown-red clung to the underside of my fingernails. Everything smelled like rain.
I stood and walked toward the way that Tiki had gone, up a hill that was steep and wet. I wanted to go home now. I yelled his name, but he didn’t come. I clicked my tongue. All I could hear was the rain. “Tiki?” I yelled.
I ran up the hill. The woods disappeared and turned into wet asphalt that stretched left and right. Wide, shallow yellow lines ran along it. The grass panted beneath my bare feet. “Tiki?”
I saw him in the rainy road, tail up like a flag behind his bouncing body.
I clicked my tongue and yelled his name.
A pair of headlights came rolling through the tree-lined bend, followed close behind by a rain-flecked car, fast and dark and metal. Tiki smelled the pavement. I screamed. The car shook as it went over him, and his fur and his head spun in fast, loose circles.
I ran. Blood poured from a seam in his skull. His breaths were distant and panicked, and his eyes were draining into a place that I couldn’t see. I started to cry.
I tried to remember how he looked when he was little, the night we first found him. The way he looked when we took him inside and when we gave him a bath and when my mother said he could sleep with me if my father didn’t find out. But it wasn’t there. I felt his face falling out of my head. I couldn’t remember, and everything was rain. I looked at him. His blood was running clear against the road.
He couldn’t breathe anymore. I bent down to touch his face. It was wet and hot and I was crying more. I wiped my face and took a picture.
Matthew Everett is a Kentucky native and first-time author that currently resides in Alabama. His unpublished work can be found on his blog.