At home, Darcy takes off her shoes and socks and empties her pockets of keys and knife and guitar pick and driver’s license in a pile on the floor. The smells of stale smoke and alcohol cling to her clothes and hair. She opens the window, letting in a cold, unsteady breeze. The river goddess on the door arches away from the wood, brown arms straining against the milky tape strips. Darcy turns the lights off and falls asleep fast. If she dreams, she doesn’t remember it when the sun hits her eyelids and the cat’s claws pierce the skin on her left breast. When she gets up, the cat’s already vanished again. She decides to call it Ghost.
Helen brings Isaac over at noon with purple crescents under her eyes. “I’m getting too old for this,” she says, squinting at the sunlight, and Darcy invites her into the shade of her trailer. Helen doesn’t stay long. She leaves Isaac sitting on a floor vent even though there’s no cool air coming from it.
Darcy puts a tape in the VCR to keep him occupied and goes out to weed the garden for the first time in five or six weeks. She glances back at the big window once in a while to make sure he hasn’t gone anywhere. After a while he comes out to see her. She lets him stay in the garden and follow her along the rows, chewing his hands. He talks to himself quietly, kneeling in the packed clay path between the beds and picking his nose. Darcy goes on weeding. The clay is warm under her bare feet. The moon is waning; the weeds will be slow to come back. She rips out handfuls of grass, shakes the clumped dirt off the roots, throws them down to die in the path. Isaac picks up two bunches, one in each hand, and makes them talk to each other.
“Hi,” one of the grass-dolls says. “I’m Darcy. I brung your mail.”
“Thank you,” the other bunch says. “I’m Miss Iola.”
She stops and watches him, but the dolls become Ray Jo and somebody named Sarah, and she goes back to weeding. After a while he gets up and goes back to the trailer. She tries not to be too glad he’s gone.
When she gets to the end of a row and looks for him, Isaac is on the roof, standing near the front edge and staring at the hillside across the road. Darcy remembers the stepladder she left out to pick apples. He must have dragged it over to the trailer. For a moment she’s almost proud of him; it seems like such a normal-kid thing to do. But she’s supposed to be watching him. “Isaac!”
He turns too quickly, wobbles for a second. He tries to lean forward, grabbing at the air, and then drops out of sight. It seems like a long time before she hears him hit the ground.
Isaac is curled up on his side in the dirt, screaming. Blood beads from a scraped knee. Darcy is sure something is broken, some important bone or organ — his skull, maybe. Then Isaac starts to get up. When Darcy reaches out to help him, he twists away and trips over a loose shoelace and ends up on the ground again, clutching at his knee and wailing. Blood oozes between his fingers.
“Calm down,” she says, but she doubts he can even hear her above his own noise. “You’re not hurt.” When she tries to look at the wound he curls away from her, covering it with his hands. “Don’t be such a baby,” Darcy says. She tries to pry his hands away, without touching the blood, but his forearms feel so thin and brittle that she thinks she could break them.
“No,” he whines.
Darcy lets him go. “Fine. You get done fooling around, you let me know.” She waits on the front steps and watches him out of the corner of her eye, wondering what she’s going to tell Helen. After a while Isaac gets up, clumps up the steps past her, and goes inside to watch the rest of the movie.
When Helen comes back, he’s trying to drag Ghost out from under the couch. She calls him, and he runs to her. She stops him at arm’s length where she can look at him. The scrape on his leg has dried blackish, caked with dirt.
“What’d you do to yourself?”
“He fell,” Darcy says. “Wouldn’t let me clean the dirt out or anything.”
Helen nods. “He does that. You just have to wait until he calms down.” She pulls Isaac toward the door. “Come on, Uncle James wants his car back by four.”
Isaac waves at Darcy and heads for the car. Helen stops at the door. “Thanks for watching him.”
Darcy feels like she just killed something. She wonders if Isaac will tell Helen the truth, and isn’t sure if she wants him to or not.
As soon as Helen’s brother’s car is gone around the hill, Darcy gets in the Blazer. She doesn’t know where she’s going. She just wants to be moving.
She drives for an hour on the back roads, the Blazer kicking up a plume of dust on the gravel. Even the trees by the road are dulled with gray lime. She meets only three cars. She pulls over to let each of them pass. The drivers greet her with two fingers raised from the steering wheel, and she returns the gesture. She doesn’t know any of them.
On the way home, the gas needle is on the bottom corner of the E, and she uses up most of her cash at the station in Falling Rock. As she hands the bills to the boy behind the counter, she hears her name. Iola waves from behind the racks of comics and postcards.
“Hey,” Darcy says.
“Hi.” Iola tucks a postcard of a waterfall back into the wire slot. She’s smiling; the coiled lines near her eyes crinkle.
“How are things?” Darcy says, then realizes she’s just used up the only thing she could think of to say.
Iola tells her about the summer class she’s subbing for. Ray Jo is being too friendly. Darcy listens, grateful that Iola doesn’t seem to expect answers.
“Here, let me give you my number,” Iola says.
Something jumps in Darcy’s chest. “Why?”
“I like talking to you.”
Darcy is surprised; she didn’t know people said things like that. At least not to her. “I like talking to you, too,” she says, hoping that’s okay. She watches the fan in the window over Iola’s head.
Iola digs a wadded paper out of her pocket, flattens it out into a store receipt, and grabs a souvenir pen from the counter to scribble her name and number. When Darcy takes it, she feels like she’s stepping off a cliff, the ground dropping from under her feet. She smiles at Iola, manages even to look her in the eye, but, outside, she almost runs to the car. The paper is still in her hand.
She takes the long way home instead of driving past Helen’s house.
When she empties out her pockets at night, she places her keys on the receipt with Iola’s number to keep it from going anywhere. She realizes that she never gave Iola her own number. She tries to think of an excuse to call tomorrow, but knows she won’t.
Darcy loves the silence of foggy mornings. Through gaps in the woods she can see only white space where there should be blue hills. Everything is damp and muted, but she can hear the creek roaring by in the valley. It must have rained hard last night: the trees are still dripping, and Jackson Hill is slippery, the thick, sloppy mud pulling her wheels in strange directions. She can hear the mud spraying the bottom of the floorboards. The stack of mail she sorted and rubber-banded has already spread itself out over the seat and onto the floor.
At the top, the Blazer slips on a patch of clay. She wrenches the steering wheel to the left, aiming for a patch of gravel where it can get some traction. The tires on the left catch solid ground. Then the world spins and the plywood Jesus, with the boundary tree behind it, looms up in front of her. She stands on the brake but she already knows it won’t stop in time, and Jesus doesn’t stop it either, just folds under the front of the Blazer without slowing it down. Then the tree trunk fills half the windshield, the red blaze like a sign, and she watches it calmly as it comes into the car with her. The solid crunch it makes is almost satisfying.
Cicadas are whining and her eyelids are stuck together. She rubs at them until they open, gritty and stinging. Light filters down yellow-green through the leaves, and white steam hisses upward from the radiator. A tree limb fills the passenger side, stabbed in through the windshield. Her hands are sticky; all of her is sticky. It takes her a second to see that the sticky stuff is her own blood, already drying. She doesn’t see anywhere she could have bled from that much, although there are small cuts all over her forearms and she can feel more stinging her face. She spits out what feels like a tooth but turns out to be only a bloody crumb of windshield glass like the ones sprayed across the seat and dashboard and her thighs. Her head drums dully and when she puts her hand there she brings back a palmful of clotting blood.
She fumbles with the seatbelt latch, gets it open, slides off the seat and feels her legs folding as soon as she puts weight on them. Glass crumbs drizzle out of folds in her clothes. She catches herself on the door and is almost pulled with it out over the bank. She vomits into the ravine, clutching the side mirror when her knees melt. The ground darkens, then lightens again. From here, the tree seems to be growing up through the front of her car.
She hauls herself back onto the seat and leans away from the door, forehead resting on the steering wheel. She listens to herself breathing, understands that she’s lucky to be able to do this, but doesn’t feel any particular way about it. It’s a long time before she looks up. The world through the smashed windshield wobbles and blurs, then settles.
She tries to start the engine, but she’s surprised when it works, and even more surprised when she shifts the Blazer into reverse and it backs up, tree limbs springing back into place in front of her. The branches in the truck tear back out through the hole in the windshield, shedding leaves and sticks and a bird’s nest. The plywood Jesus detaches from under the bumper with a splintering sound and falls in three big pieces and some smaller debris into the red mud. For a moment she expects the pieces to grow three new Jesuses, like amoebas. She backs out onto the road and wrenches the shift back over to get the car moving forward.
The Blazer stalls a few miles on, but it starts again, and then stalls three more times. The last two are within a half-mile of each other and she knows it won’t get much further, but she gets it started again and makes it all the way to Dean and Helen’s, where it stalls as she’s turning into the yard and stops with the back tires still on the road. It doesn’t start again. She puts her shoulder to the door and tries to push it open before she remembers to pull the handle first, slides out, hangs on the door a second, and staggers to the front porch, leaning on the rail to climb the steps.
She waits, knocks, waits again, but doesn’t notice the door opening or Helen standing there until Helen takes her by the arm and steers her to the couch, where she drifts in and out while Helen gets the first-aid kit from on top of the refrigerator.
The drying blood has stuck the front of her shirt to her skin. Darcy pushes Helen’s hand away. “It’s all from my head.”
“God. You scared me, looked like you been stabbed in the chest too.” Helen stands, pushes Darcy’s head down so she can look at the wound. “You pass out?”
“Yeah. Might again.” All she has to do is close her eyes.
“No, stay awake.” Helen stops poking at the cut and reaches for the roll of tape. “You should be in the goddamn emergency room.”
“You were the first place I thought to come.”
Helen tears off little strips of tape and Darcy feels them tugging at the edges of the split skin on her head.
“Why do you take care of me?” Darcy says.
“Because you need it.” Helen sets a bottle of iodine down in front of her.
“I couldn’t do the same for you. I’d want to, but I couldn’t.” It all of a sudden seems important for Helen to know this.
Helen sits down across from her. Her eyes have green flecks through the gray, like spokes in a bicycle wheel. “Could probably use some stitches.”
Darcy studies the sunlight coming through a brown glass bottle on the coffee table. It’s the same bronze color as Helen’s hair. “Wet clay, loose gravel.”
“No other cars?”
“Just me and that big oak tree top of Jackson Hill.” She’s speaking in a funny rhythm, every syllable emphatic; seems like she’s forgotten how to talk. “And Jesus.”
“Shit. Lucky you didn’t go clear down to the river.”
“Little more red in the water.” She wants to say something else; she wants Helen to know something, but she doesn’t know what.
“I always hated that joke,” Helen says.
“You made it up.”
“I hate a lot of things I say.” Darcy peels the label off the bottle in shreds and throws them at the ashtray. She keeps missing.
“I want you to stay here tonight,” Helen says.
Darcy picks up the label shreds scattered around the ashtray and drops them in one at a time until the gleam of sun on a window crack catches her eye: a streak of silver metal, a long, thin blade embedded in the glass. It looks like the shriek of oak branches on a car hood. The crack turns to white fire, then flickers as the apple tree outside stirs to block the light. She watches the dots of shadow and sun mix on the dusty window until it’s all shadow again.
She doesn’t know until she wakes up that she was even asleep. Voices in the kitchen: Helen and Dean’s house. Table lamp on, dim and yellow: it’s night outside. She squints at the light to make it into shivery gold arcs and streaks. For a second she doesn’t remember why she’s here, but the throb in her head when she stands reminds her. When she walks into the kitchen, Dean and Helen both look up and she’s suddenly embarrassed.
“Wondered if you planned on moving today,” Helen says. “I called the post office since it didn’t look like you’d think to. Mike’ll get the mail out of your truck tomorrow.”
Dean’s tobacco-yellowed teeth split his beard. “What’s that sign over the door down there? Neither rain, nor snow, nor something?”
She gives him the right answer: “Yeah, but trees can really fuck us up.” She takes a cup from the rack and fills it with water. Isaac turns the TV on in the living room. The flickering blue light and staticky music hurt, and she tries to ignore them.
“What year’s that piece a junk you got?” Dean is asking.
She has to think about it. “Eighty-nine?”
“I got a dead S-10 out back. Radiator’s probably okay. Wouldn’t charge you nothing.”
“I’d just as soon pay,” Darcy says.
Helen shrugs. “We’ll work something out.”
Darcy watches Helen move from the blue-lit living room down the yellow-lit hallway. Helen brushes past Dean on the way back, carrying a blanket. They both stop.
“What, she moving in now?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“Oh, go to bed. I’ll be there in a minute.” Helen tosses the blanket to Darcy. “You still wanna do the concert tomorrow?”
“Cool,” Helen says. “Just thought you might want to skip it.”
“No, I’m alright,” Darcy says, and Helen retreats back down the hallway after Dean.
Now that Darcy wants to sleep, she can’t. She studies the water stains on the ceiling, naming the shapes they make. She listens to crickets and frogs outside the window. For a while the bed creaks steadily from down the hall, and she tries not to hear their breathless sounds. Dean’s groans crowd the trailer. Darcy listens for Helen and barely hears her: “What’s got into you?” Sex sounds a lot like fighting. It sounds rushed, like they want to get it over with. If she were in Dean’s place she’d want to make it last.
She listens to the air-conditioner and the frogs in the ditch out back. She’s trying to pick out the individual frog-chirps when she realizes the moans have stopped. She hears the back bedroom door open and footsteps in the hallway, the floor creaking softly. Helen. She closes her eyes and breathes slowly, as if sleeping. She feels Helen coming closer and standing over her. Then Helen’s fingers brush the back of Darcy’s hand, stop, and her hand settles on Darcy’s, warm and sweaty. Darcy is afraid to move. After a while Helen’s hand lifts away. The footsteps creak back to the bedroom. Darcy waits for the sound of the door closing before she can move again. Her hand tingles where Helen touched it.
Isaac is staring at her from a foot away. With her eyes still barely slitted open, she says, “Boo.”
He backs away to the opposite wall. They watch each other uneasily. Darcy picks up a rubber-banded deck of cards from the coffee table and calls Isaac over and tries to remember the card tricks one of her mother’s boyfriends taught her when she was a kid, but she fumbles shuffling the deck. Her hands feel enormous and clumsy. She keeps trying; Isaac is easily impressed.
“Magic tricks?” Helen stands just inside the hallway. She’s been there for a while. A livid purple hickey smears the side of her neck.
Darcy drops half the cards, including the one meant for Isaac to pick. He gathers them up and hands them to her, some face up, some face down. She gives him the rest of the deck to play with. “I used to want to be a magician when I was a kid. Till I found out they couldn’t really fly.”
“Remember Louis, eighth grade?”
“The one you got caught in the woods with?”
“Yeah, Louis. He wanted to be a magician. Never told anybody but me. Guess he thought it wasn’t cool. I always thought it was the coolest thing about him.” Helen picks up one of Isaac’s shoes and throws it across the room to the pile by the door. “He died a couple years back, working on the towers.”
Darcy nods. “I heard.” Louis and his uncle fell together from a cellphone tower, one trying to catch the other. The family sued the tower company for not using harnesses, won seventy thousand dollars, and moved to Florida.
Helen talks about other boyfriends, one or two every year from eighth grade until she met Dean twelve years ago. Darcy knew most of them — big, quiet boys who played in the school band and were too grateful that Helen liked them to argue with her. “I guess I have a thing for musicians,” Helen says. “Tall musicians with brown eyes.” Her voice is fake-dreamy. Darcy laughs and looks away.
The valley glows on Saturday nights. A bonfire flickers in the field, in a blackened space barren of cars. Two of Helen’s brothers are out there with a kerosene can and a stack of old tires. Strings of blue Christmas lights and red plastic lanterns stretch from the back porch to the first row of junked cars. Mosquito torches are planted around the yard. Conversation floats on the smoke, an eye-stinging mix of kerosene, citronella, marijuana, sweat.
Helen’s youngest brother, Sam, is taking money in a coffee can. Isaac is with him. They are the same age, and both of them look like Helen. Their eyes are huge and colorless and shiny in the strange light.
Dean and Ray Jo are setting up in the barn, with the big doors mostly closed, as much as they ever close. People lounge on car hoods, talk about work and family and neighborhood gossip. Punchlines to dirty jokes, spat out between gasps of laughter, drift across the bottomland. Kids chase each other and the dog through the high weeds along the creek.
Darcy swallows a few more aspirins from the bottle Helen gave her before entering the barn. Trouble lights at each corner illuminate the stage floor and moths flicker around the wire bulb cages. Ray Jo is tuning his bass; the sounds rumble through the floor and walls of the barn.
Her guitar stands against a post. She was surprised to find it unbroken in the Blazer, with only a new chip in the sunburst finish. She picks it up, tuning it without the amp until the aspirin starts to work and her head stops pounding. Helen and Dean have finished setting up outside by the time she’s done. Dean waits for her to plug in before he and Ray Jo drag the doors open. Scattered cheers come from the car field. They have a good crowd tonight, maybe fifty people, most of them local, plus a few college kids getting in a last few days on the river.
They go into the first set, playing songs people know. A few sing along. Helen and Ray Jo talk to the audience between songs. Darcy is barely paying attention. Then Helen is saying, “We got a new song we want to play you.” And Ray Jo opens with a flowing, tumbling bass line. They’re doing without the banjo this time, keeping it simple. Darcy grins at him, then freezes as she forgets her own part, before she stops thinking about it and lets her hands remember the chords. Dean’s right, she thinks. It does sound angry. Lonely and mean and angry. The bass hums in the floorboards and into her bones. Then Helen’s voice rises up from within the current of music, up over the hovering smoke, clear and strong and out of reach. You trace your path in blood. The birds soar out over the valley. Darcy listens, hypnotized by the music and the fire and the dark and the light, but careful to keep playing. The music feels different now. She’s not just listening to it and trying to back Helen up. She’s inside the music. Sound runs over her like electric current. She’s one of the tumbling rocks in the river, and Helen is the river carrying her down. The best of you under their feet. Something inside Darcy’s chest feels like it will explode, or expand like a balloon, out to contain the whole valley.
She’s jarred out of the music when Ray Jo hits a bad note. She half-turns to see what’s wrong, and he starts playing again, staring at something on the edge of the field of cars. Darcy follows his gaze. Iola is there.
Darcy’s hands stop.
“You’re fucking up the song,” Dean hisses from behind his drums. Darcy tries to find her way back into the music. You burn yourself down. Her hand fumbles back to the strings. She waits for a good point to join in and follows Helen, half a beat late. She catches up, but by the time she starts to see and feel the music again, they’re moving into a different song. She doesn’t look at Iola for the rest of the show, keeps her eyes toward the back row of cars where Helen’s brothers hold their lighters in the air. Sam hands one to Isaac, holding the button down for him so the flame doesn’t die.
When it’s over she sneaks off to the field while the others are packing up, but she can’t see Iola among the people and cars. She thinks about going to look for Iola’s car, but she doesn’t know what kind, and talking to Iola suddenly seems like too much work, anyway. She goes back to the barn, where Helen and Ray Jo and Dean are pulling the doors closed.
She stays in the barn after they’ve left, telling Helen she’ll be along in a few minutes. The side door squeaks closed behind her. The lights on the power strips glow red. After a few minutes they go out – someone unplugging the extension cord from the house – and the barn is dark. She breathes in hay dust, moldy and sweet. She can feel vibrations from years of Saturday nights, running through the timbers. A streak of sky marks the gap between the big double doors. Darcy feels her way to the bales stacked along the back wall. She finds a pile of loose hay beside the bales and sinks into it. The hay pricks her back through her shirt.
She has things to consider, but her mind won’t settle into it them. It’s hard to concentrate on something she can’t name. She thinks about the song, which was good even with the mistakes. It’s Helen’s song. They all are.
She hopes that maybe Helen will come back out and want to talk. They could sit here in the dark and talk about something that has nothing to do with Isaac or Dean or Iola or real life. But nobody comes.
The Blazer runs well enough. The new radiator leaks and she has a jug of water to refill it, and the engine makes some sounds she doesn’t think it should make, but it will run until she can get a new vehicle. Dean has done a pretty good job patching it back together. He’s forgone his van tinkering for the weekend to work on it, and Darcy still doesn’t know how to pay him back. She knows he won’t take money, even though he needs it more than she does. She suspects she’ll be watching Isaac more often.
At the top of the hill, she can’t help stopping to look. Glass crumbs glitter in the mud, and a set of sliding tire tracks are carved into the shoulder. A scar marks the tree trunk, and the lowest branch dangles by a strip of bark. The plywood Jesus is back in its place, standing wired and duct-taped together amid splintered twigs and leaves and bits of windshield glass. Three long, crinkly rattlesnake skins are draped over the shoulders.
At the turn to Jackson Run Road, she glances at the hollow and thinks she sees the pointed tops of Iola’s poplar trees. She drives past without looking again. A new song is itching at the back of her mind, and she waits for it to give itself words. When it does, she’ll take it to Helen.