By: Mikaela Shea
The moment the dorks in the van started singing “This Little Light of Mine,” I shoved my earphones in and blasted 50 Cent’s newest single. I watched the vodka slosh around in the Mountain Dew bottle in my bag. I’d brought it with me, even though it was the reason my parents sent me on this mission trip to Kentucky in the first place. I contemplated drinking it right then, but I knew I’d probably need the vodka various times during the week.
I pretended to sleep most of the 17-hour drive, but when I closed my eyes, I remembered the men in jail I’d walked past, pounding on the glass, cupping breasts they didn’t have, putting their tongues between two fingers. The prison-issued neon yellow granny panties I left balled up in the corner of the dressing room and refused to wear, the sound of my mom’s broken voice when I made my one phone call. Leaning against the cool wall for hours instead of laying on the paper-thin, stained mattress.
I awoke to someone tapping on my shoulder and Bethany’s giant eyes in my face, magnified by her thick glasses. “Rashelle. We’re here, in Kentucky! Praise the Lord!” We piled out of the van and it seemed everyone was overjoyed to be there but me. They whipped out their Bibles and did a dramatic reading from a chapter unknown to me.
I wore crappy Wal-Mart jeans my mom had bought me and my dad’s old t-shirt. Nothing like my red miniskirt and lacy black cami I’d worn to the club (and in the back of the cop car) two nights before, but better than the orange jumpsuit. To top it off, I found out we would be working under some woman’s trailer, rebuilding the foundation that a mudslide had shifted.
At least there were three states separating me from my angry parents.
That first day under the trailer, it was cool and we dug six-foot holes into the unyielding red clay. After about thirty minutes of spider web hell, a brown, slimy millipede hustled over my Nikes. I screamed and flailed my leg, then ran out from under the trailer, dragging my shoe along the ground. After getting my heartbeat under control, I stood in front of the small opening and spoke into the darkness underneath the trailer. “I…I can’t come back under there. I’m sorry…” But they understood. That’s the thing about church kids; they’d forgive you for running over their cat the second after it happened. “A phobia’s a phobia,” said Max, our overweight group leader who had a sharp body odor.
I stood outside mixing powdery concrete mix and water with a giant stick. Metallic wasps flew at my head and in circles around me. Orange, blue, purple, and green. As if regular wasps weren’t bad enough in Iowa. I swatted one with the empty bag of concrete mix. It landed in the chunky mixture, flailed a bit before I pushed it under with the stick, and kept stirring.
I looked out at the rolling hills and mountaintops, a dumpy trailer perched on each one, surrounded by walls of flowered trees. I was so far from Iowa, yet I’d seen towns just like this one. The only difference was that Iowa is flat.
“Are you okay?” I turned to see a boy named Bradley. Besides his bowl cut with a part down the middle and his constellation of freckles, he seemed all right. The temperature climbed to 85 that day, yet he still wore an army green zip up hoodie. “You seemed pretty spooked in there.”
“Yeah, fine. Just hate bugs. Anything with more than four legs, really. Like these goddamn wasps.” I managed to bury another one in the concrete mix.
Bradley flinched. “God made everything for a reason, Rashelle. You seemed to have forgotten that.” He dug the wasp out, and held the lifeless, cement-covered pest in his hand before disappearing under the trailer. I changed my mind about him being all right.
When I finished mixing, I sat on a bench that wrapped around the inside of the porch. In the trailer, a parrot squawked, “Space ship. Pew! Pew! Pew!”
The woman living there must have heard me laugh. She opened her door wide enough to let her puppy out. I looked at her and faked a smile.
In a very southern drawl she said, “Just a minute, sweetheart. I’m gonna come out and talk to you.”
Great. I watched the cream-colored Chihuahua puppy wobble toward me, his tiny feet falling through the gaps in the wood. His head, too large for his body, caused him to stumble in the direction in which his head tilted. I picked him up and held his soft body against my cheek, the new puppy smell filling my nose.
The woman came out with a big smile on her face. She looked about forty, short and kind of muscular, with curly blonde hair and gentle brown eyes. She wore a Tweety Bird shirt with light blue straight-legged jeans. Wow, snazzy outfit, I thought.
“Hi, sweetheart, I’m Sharleen.”
I stood up with the puppy still in my hand. “I’m Rashelle.”
Instead of shaking my hand, she wrapped her arms around me and I kind of yelped. People think Iowans are nice, but I’ve never met one who hugged strangers. I pulled away and began petting the puppy again.
“That there’s Tiny. Isn’t he just a darlin’?” She pet his head with her finger.
She shook her head. “I could use some company. Ain’t nobody up here to talk to sometimes in these mountains.”
I glanced over at her. Finally, someone on this trip said something relatable, although I didn’t see what this 40 year-old southern woman could possibly have in common with me. “It’s like that where it’s flat sometimes too,” I said.
After our first day of work, we pitched our tents near Sharleen’s trailer, so that in the event that a black bear lurked nearby, we could take shelter inside. I hated camping and didn’t know the first step in tent pitching, so I sat on a tree stump and watched Bethany do it. That night, we crammed our things into the tent and unrolled our sleeping bags, which were so close they touched. I lay down as far from Bethany as possible and faced the side of the tent, my earphones jammed into my ears. I heard Bethany say something.
“What?” I looked at her.
“Pray with me?” she said, holding her hand out.
“I’m going to pass.” I put my earphone back in.
I heard her mumbling prayers and crying for a long time before I fell asleep.
On the second night, Sharleen started up a bonfire and we sat around in the tall grass. Aside from Bethany and our group leader, there were three sophomore boys who played on the chess and bowling teams, a freshman girl that didn’t talk, and a senior girl on the volleyball team who refused to wear the spandex shorts because they were too revealing. We always laughed at her in the stands at games because she was the only girl on the court in knee-length basketball shorts.
“Let’s play charades!” Bethany squealed.
Everyone else happily agreed.
“I’ll pass,” I said, imagining us acting out Bible characters.
“Everyone needs to participate,” Max said, looking at me sternly from across the fire, the flames reflecting in his glasses.
“Fine, but I’m going to get a Mountain Dew from my bag.” I went to the tent and dug inside for the bottle of vodka. I took a few sips and carried it back to the bonfire with me. By the time my turn came, the liquor flowed through me, making my brain feel slow and heavy and the summer air suffocating. I drew a slip of paper out of Max’s sweaty hat: tornado. I spun around with my arms out, faster and faster, knocking over chairs and almost falling over the mute freshman. I felt flames lick my fingertips before I stopped spinning and threw up at the edge of the bonfire.
Someone gathered my hair. “Are you okay, Rashelle?” It was Sharleen.
I nodded, wiping my mouth. “Guess I spun too fast,” I said, my throat raw and raspy. My head wouldn’t stop spinning. Too much vodka, too fast. I always did this to myself.
“Why don’t you sleep in my spare room tonight? You’ll get a better rest.”
I nodded and she led me inside, brought me a glass of cold water while I lay in bed trying not to throw up again. “You need to rehydrate. You smell like straight rubbing alcohol, honey.”
I saw double, but looked at the one I thought was her. “You got a good nose on you.”
Sharleen stood at the doorframe. “My son had a drinking problem.”
I closed one eye so I’d only see one of her. “I don’t have a problem. It’s for fun. Where is your son now? He’s probably in college or a banker or something. I’m going to go to college too, you know.”
“Nobody can afford college ‘round here. He was a coal miner. It’s what you do here in Chavies when you’re old enough. He developed a cough within a couple months. He was miserable.”
“Does he still mine? It’s not too late for him to—“
Before I could see her face, she shut off the light and closed the door.
I lay in the dark wondering all the ways he might have died. Maybe he committed suicide because he couldn’t handle one more day in the dark mines. Maybe he got shot by a group of rednecks hunting in the dark. Maybe he drank himself to death.
That night, I dreamt I sat on a boulder in the trees behind Sharleen’s trailer, smoking and looking up at all the trees poking out of the side of the steep hill. The smoke drifted upward toward the treetops and stars. My lips tasted like strawberries. A bush rustled and I assumed it to be a bear and readied myself to bolt. Instead, a stocky blond, who I knew instinctually to be Sharleen’s son, limped out into the clearing. I immediately put the cigarette out on the rock.
“You didn’t have to do that,” he said.
When I looked down at my hand, the cigarette was lit again. I squinted my eyes to really see him. His eye was bruised black, his clothes torn. He had a baseball-sized lump on his head and a mangled arm. Blood matted his clothes.
“What happened to you?” I asked, getting up to try to help him. He didn’t answer. I glanced back at Sharleen’s trailer but the windows remained dark. When I turned around, her son was gone and my cigarette was no longer in my hand, but glowing on a pile of dead leaves.
I walked into the clearing where the bushes had rustled before and it was darker, the canopy of trees blocking out the moonlight. “Hello?” I whispered. I tripped and when I turned to see what it was, the moon brightened and I saw Sharleen’s son on the ground in a disfigured, rigid heap, eyes open toward the sky.
When I awoke in the morning, feeling unrested, I wandered into the living room. “Hewwo!” the parrot squawked.
“Um, hi,” I said. “I’ve never actually had a conversation with a bird before.”
“Hewwo!” he said again.
The living room had an outdated homey feel, wood-paneled walls and deep orange furniture. The walls were covered in pictures. A baby with Down Syndrome, Sharleen’s animals, a woman that looked just like Sharleen, and then a stocky blond on a red and black motorcycle. It had to be her son. He looked the same as he had in my dream. I looked at his blue eyes and giant smile, and couldn’t fathom that he no longer existed. It made me feel sick. Death scared the hell out of me.
Outside, Max and the others were eating breakfast. “Feel better?” he asked.
“No. I’m going for a walk.” I headed toward the gravel road.
Sharleen’s nearest neighbor had two horses that stood by the fence, flicking their black tails. A truck drove by, showering me with dust. Further down the road a German shepherd stared me down until I crouched and put out my hand. He ran over to me and let me pet him, licking my face. I saw two young children running through a sprinkler without shirts on, giggling, playing on their rusty swing set.
I probably went half a mile before I came to a T intersection. The sign pointed right for “Devil’s Curve.” To the left was Hollyhock Lane. I chose right. My dad would have said Satan was tempting me again.
The further I walked, the narrower the road became. The grass on the edges of the road gave way to steep, rocky drop-offs. I peered over, my legs wobbling. Weeds grew from between the jagged rocks. Rusted, crumpled cars lay on different ledges, even more at the bottom of the deep gorge.
I stood on the ledge, shaking as I thought about the people who probably died there. I spotted a car seat and felt dizzy.
A red and black motorcycle, almost folded in half, lay on a ledge near the bottom. Sharleen’s son’s motorcycle. The one from the picture.
I envisioned the accident in my head: her son feeling invincible, going too fast around the corner, his tires sliding from beneath him, shattering his balance. He grabbed at the air, rocks slicing and embedding themselves in his arms and legs. Maybe he grasped at the ledge, hoping to pull himself up. But the weight of the motorcycle, the laws of gravity won. I saw his blue eyes fixed in horror, his mouth open, all before falling, flailing, landing in an impossible position— unrecognizable.
I dropped to my hands and knees, and vomited.
When I returned to Sharleen’s house, she didn’t ask why I was crying, why I could barely breathe. She wrapped her arms around me. This time it was exactly what I wanted.
After she told me about her son’s accident, I realized that I’d left one detail out in my imagination. The invincible feeling he had was caused by his .15 blood-alcohol level.
Later, I asked Sharleen to drive me to the post office 15 miles away. We passed a coal mine. Men with smudged faces and blackened clothes sat outside eating their lunches with dirty hands. Smoke curled from smokestacks. The mounds of black coal piled high as a mountain. “That’s where Josh mined,” she said, turning away.
The post office didn’t have postcards with menacing drop-offs, littered with rusted cars or dried blood. No postcards with rundown trailers or impoverished coal mining communities. I chose a postcard with two horses standing on the top of a lush, green hillside. I wrote:
I am so sorry.
Mikaela Shea is in her thesis hours of her MFA at Columbia College Chicago and was recently a writer-in-residence at Ragdale Foundation. She has published stories in Midwestern Gothic, Copperfield Review, Vagina: The Zine, Foliate Oak, Hypertext Magazine, Paragraph Planet, Columbia College’s annual Story Week Reader, as well as a children’s book at the State Historical Society of Iowa. Mikaela is currently writing a novel and is Editor-in-Chief of 3Elements Review.