Mary Louise grew up at an astonishing rate. She was tall, muscular like her father. She liked soccer, but didn’t pursue organized sports after middle school. She went on runs with her mother, but tended to stop early. She dieted with her mother, but tended to cheat. Her mother had a schedule on the wall, an enormous calendar. Which foods when, how far to run, which parts of the body needed attention on which days. Gran Joe was always saying what beautiful, dedicated angels had flown in his life. He was healthy for an old-timer. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. Worked in the yard most of the time. Mary Louise came home from a run and found him moving sticks around in the backyard. He followed her in, poured a glass of water, offered a bite of food. He was waiting for her, for her mother. He didn’t do much else.
On weekdays, Mary Louise studied most of the night. At school, she told her friends she had a photographic memory. She debated. She took the advanced classes, did well in them. She decided she was going to be a poet. She sat under mesquite trees. She watched ticks climb the tall grass, hang from the tip of each blade. She noticed dogs taking naps, and how they sometimes yipped. Everything that came out of her was dark and painful to read. She wrote about blood and burning barns. She imagined miscarriages, leaned heavily on the imagery of the ticks. Women were birthing dead babies in the next town over. There was something in the water. She showed only one friend these early poems. He told her they were all great, each one better than the previous.
“You think so?” she said. It was morning. They met on the back porch, walked to school together. She plucked a dead mosquito from her coffee. “Like book-good?”
“Like anthology-good,” he said. He was always encouraging her to go swimming. “What are you doing today?”
She shrugged. He was ditching, going to the lake.
At the lake Mary Louise spread out a towel like a blanket. She’d brought a bag full of books, and drew them out to her side. She read a little here and there, watched her friend swim, dive forward into the water. He encouraged her to get in, but she shook her head.
“At least get some sun,” he said.
She was in jean shorts and a T-shirt. She removed the T-shirt and he gave her a thumbs-up. She wrote two poems in the margins of two books. She made a point of writing a poem whenever she had the opportunity. She firmly believed she was getting better with each poem. Maybe each poem wasn’t better than the last, as her friend insisted, but she was learning new things, trying things out. Her hand moved more easily. She thought a little less. She was excited for the gap to close between thinking and writing. She was excited for the first poem she wouldn’t have to make herself write, or at least think to write, think her way through. She was excited to channel something. She was excited for the muscle memory. Her friend lay beside her, on the side opposite the books.
“Sunscreen?” he asked.
She turned over, allowed him to press sunscreen into and around the strap of her bathing suit top. He paid special attention to the shoulders, to her sides, curled his fingers around to her abdomen.
“That tickles,” she said.
He returned his hands to her back. With a subtle pinch, he unclipped the top of her suit. The strap split, fell to either side of her. She started to sit up and he ran his thumbs along either side of her spine.
“It’s easier this way,” he said. “Just stay down and it’s all the same anyways. Did you write anything while I was swimming?”
“I started two new poems,” she said. “Will you read them to me?”
“They’re not finished.”
“I’d like to hear them,” he said. He ran his oily hands along her arms, along her side. His fingers curled under, touched her sides, the sides of her breasts.
“Could you get my neck?” she asked.
He did. Her ears too. His hands went back to her sides.
“I’m never going to the lake again,” she said.
“Why?” His hands paused.
“I’m reading,” she said.
His hands resumed.
“Oh,” he said. “Good start.”
“I’m never going to the lake again,” she said, “because sand is a precursor to glass, and glass is a precursor to those tiny cuts, the kind you get on the palms of your hands, the kind you don’t notice until later, when your hands are full of blood. You curve your hands to catch the blood and they only fill faster.”
His hands curled around to the sides of her breasts again. He extended his pointer finger on his right hand, fingered the edge of her nipple.
“Watch it,” she said.
He reached further until he was cupping her breast.
“Watch it,” she said again. She rolled over, exposing her breasts for a brief moment before she lifted her top back into place and held it there with her hand. She dropped the book, pushed him away, and stood.
“Sorry,” he said.
She clipped her top back on.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought . . . ”
She bent and lifted her T-shirt from the ground, slid it back on. Her toes curled and the sand collapsed around them. She felt a tremendous pressure on her chest. She felt angry, uncomfortable. She rolled her shoulders.
“How sorry?” she asked.
“I’m . . . I don’t know, very sorry.” He stood up, folded her towel and held it out to her.
She looked at her feet, the sand, at anything but him. She ignored the towel and he held it out for a moment before hugging it to his chest.
“Sorry enough to eat this?” she asked. She bent and retrieved a handful of sand, held it out to him.
“Yeah,” she said. “Are you willing to eat the sand so I’ll forgive you?”
“You want me to eat the sand?”
She nodded. “Before it falls between my fingers.”
“With your mouth.”
“All of it?”
“As much as you can get down. You have to really try.”
“I’m not going to eat the sand,” he said.
“Then I’m not going to forgive you.”
“But I’m sorry,” he said.
“You’re being mean for no reason,” he said.
“For no reason?”
“A handful of sand because I touched a part of your breast?”
“If you eat the handful of sand, you can touch my entire breast. You can hold it.”
“ . . . ”
“For fifteen seconds.”
There were a few other families on the beach by the lake. Small children played in the shallow water. Parents watched from their towels. The day was still.
“In the car?” he asked.
“Wherever,” she said.
“Do I have to eat that handful or can I get my own?”
“You have to eat this handful.”
He held out his hands, cupped, pressed together. She held her hand over his palms and spread her fingers.
“Hold your hands together tight,” she said. “If any spills, deal’s off, and I’ll hate you forever.”
He was careful to make sure none of the sand spilled. He brought it to his mouth and poured about a quarter of it in. He chewed, swished it around.
“I need water,” he coughed. A cloud of sand leapt out, drifted.
“Careful,” she said. “Swallow.”
He swallowed a little. He tried to swallow again, coughed. More sand escaped the open mouth.
“You’re losing sand,” she said.
“Uh cahn hehp it,” he said.
She put her finger to her lips. She rolled up her sleeves. He swallowed a little bit more. He chewed, grimaced, swallowed. There was still a good amount of sand left.
He tried to swallow again, but erupted into a coughing fit. He curled his fingers to protect the remaining sand, but coughed out cloud after cloud. He choked a little, gargled a little. He bent over, spit into the sand in front of them. He spit clump after clump of sand at his feet.
“I can’t,” he said.
“Fuck you, then,” she said. And she left.
Mary Louise had never hitchhiked before, but didn’t hesitate to raise her thumb once she’d hit the highway. A truck pulled over almost immediately, about fifty feet ahead of her. The driver was middle-aged and shirtless. He spat little squirts into a Dr. Pepper bottle he stored between his legs. Mary Louise climbed in.
“Where do you want to go?” the driver asked.
Mary Louise stared forward. It didn’t matter. Away from the lake. Closer to town. She had a few more hours before it was safe to be seen wandering the streets of downtown.
“A few miles that way,” she said. She pointed out the windshield. The driver pulled the truck into gear, turned back onto the road. Her swimsuit top was moist with sweat and rubbed a vague shadow into the white T-shirt over it.
“Coming from the lake?” he said. “Did you walk?”
She didn’t say anything. Now that she’d had the time to think about it, she didn’t think hitchhiking was the best idea. Accepting a ride from this guy was an even worse one.
“Do you like music?” he asked. She didn’t respond, so he clicked on the radio. He turned the knob until a soft song fell into place. “Do you like country music?”
“That’s okay,” he said. He raised the bottle to his lips, squirted. “I didn’t always like this kind of thing either. But you slow down after a while, can I say that? Can I offer you a bit of wisdom? I think I can. Or I can speak from experience. You slow down, and slower music starts making sense.”
They rode on for another fifteen minutes without speaking. The music played. Song after song, the singers sang about loss and love, how to survive it all or simply that they had.
“You’re very pretty,” he said.
“This is fine,” she said. It was a side of the road much like the one where he’d picked her up. She’d noticed they weren’t exactly headed into town, though. She didn’t know where they were headed, actually. She’d just pointed and he’d driven on. There were woods on either side of the road.
He pulled over, turned to her. “Here?”
“Yup.” She got out, thanked him.
He watched her walk a bit in the direction from which they came. She turned into the woods, listened for the gravel scrape of his leaving. The car faded on its course. She wiped her eyes, walked deeper into the woods. Mosquitoes grew fat on her arms, the backs of her legs. Specks of mud popped as her sandals lifted. She walked deeper into the woods. She felt guilty of something, but she couldn’t say what exactly. The sun was nearly half a day from setting. Skipping school, what had happened between her and her friend, how she’d responded, climbing into car with a stranger, abandoning that car out of a sudden fear, a sudden correction, too little too late maybe. But none of those reasons seemed the cause. She just didn’t feel right. She felt heavy. Each step was a chore. She fought with Gran Joe every so often, over what should be done around the house. The fights didn’t last long, though. She would push him, often by simple refusal, until he was just about to boil over, and he would leave the room, the house, the neighborhood. He’d never once yelled at her. Not once in her entire life. She wanted to see it happen.
She could walk back to the road. She could walk deeper into the woods. She had no sense of which would bring her home. The idea of hitchhiking was suddenly repellent. There were three people she could call, her friend, her mother, her Gran Joe. But it wasn’t emergency enough yet to call any of them, to make the required admissions.
Night began to fall. The woods shrank around her. Trees were shorter and shorter. Their dry branches curved toward the other trees, mingled with them to form a brittle canopy. The earth cracked, flaked, flung dust at her ankles as she walked. She bent over to avoid the branches, as they grew closer to the ground. The branches reached down, nearly to the earth as she moved deeper into them, but on the other side, there was a lighter shade of blue, things seemed to thin out. She thought she heard the roar of a car every so often, coming from that direction. She was on her hands and knees all of a sudden, crawling over the caked earth. The branches snagged her hair, teased it out of the little clips that held it in place. Her sunglasses bounced against her chest. She was on her belly, dragging the lenses in the dust. She remembered the songs she’d heard in the cab of the truck. In one of them, the woman sang, It ain’t no problem, ain’t no problem, no problem, the world is spinning. It ain’t no problem, the world is spinning. The gaps between the branches grew smaller. She was on her belly then, crawling toward where the trees seemed to thin, where she would be able to stand, able to walk, able to brush herself off and let her palms sting the cuts along her arms and chest as she approached the road, with its heat waves and oil slicks, only a few feet away, and where she would be so immensely pleased with herself, as her feet met the asphalt like an old friend, and she would begin to walk in whatever direction felt right, while cars passed, and in the distance, she might discern the two waist-high headlights of an approaching truck.