Seedling: Chapter One
It’s a cold morning. The first really icy one of the fall. I pull back my patchwork curtains and see the frost line on the mountains way out. I’m not ready for it yet. The summer has been too good. Humid sunny days, dirty from the forests and swamps. So many blackberries I make myself sick. I listen to Mom making breakfast. The clank of the pans and the water running.
Booker stomps down the hallway and I sit up in bed. It’s a Saturday. I smell something good and meaty. It rousts me.
I go outside after breakfast; the sun is warming up the earth but I can still see my breath. I walk up to Big Rock. There isn’t much notable about it. A big flat surface, room for notebooks and field guides. Booker and I found it when we were just tiny. He would bring his Hot Wheels and we would build ramps off its edge. The bright pieces of metal and plastic would fly into the leaves as Booker made big crashing sounds with his mouth.
Now, I get out my wildflower field guide and a member of the aster, Asteraceae or Compositae, family I found yesterday on the walk home from the bus stop. This little guy is ugly. Its petals are crinkled and odd. It looks like it already bloomed and is desperately holding onto a few white, spindly bits. When I find it in my guide, I realize it’s meant to look that way, all weathered and stubborn. Its name even sounds stubborn, whorled wood aster. Whorled.
I come in just before 6:30, that’s when Mom heads to work. She says, “Now kids, I made a salad and there is a frozen pizza in the oven. Eat the salad, please!” We nod. Booker is playing some game and the sound of gunfire bellows from the tv.
“Mom, can I go out tonight for a bit?” I ask.
“Who are you going with?” She says.
“Just Lynn and some girls.”
“Alright, but you have them drop you at the bar after and I will give you a ride home.”
Mom works at the only watering hole inside city limits. She has for almost ten years now. She serves all the boys their cheap beer and cashes their tickets for the poker machines. I love to watch her flutter around. She is fast and good at her job. She keeps the peace. Anytime people get out of hand, she raises her voice just a tad and says, “Hey!” And they always stop and listen to her. She sends them to different ends of the bar and gives them a beer on the house and by the end of the night they are best buds. Laughing and talking and saying, “Whutna hell were we doin’ carryin’ on like ‘at?!”
I call Lynn and tell her we are good. She pulls in the driveway in her little white pickup truck. Zach and Tuck are in the bed. Tuck has his guitar and Zach has a case of beer. I jump in the passenger seat, some awful song blaring from the cheap speakers. Lynn drives us out Coop Run, the truck bounces the boys around in the bed. The headlights point out ahead of us until we reach the headwaters of the lake.
Someone else is already out here. I see a bonfire out in the distance. “One of us dudn’t know ‘em, I’ll be surprised,” Zach says as he jumps over the railing of the truck. I hop out and grab some folding lawn chairs out from behind the seat. Tuck asks if I need help and I snort, “I think I’ve got it, Big Boy.”
We walk towards the fire. It is quiet. The light flickers through the trees. I see 3 people, their faces glowing orange. I don’t recognize them. They have that worn-down 28-year-old country boy look going on. Leathery skin, tight blue jeans, and hats sticking straight up in the damned air, proud.
Zach walks in front and his body language tells me he knows them. “Whutna hell y’all doin’ down here from Wheeling?” he asks. “Holy shit Zachee-boy, where you been off to?” one of the pairs of jeans asks. They all laugh and Zach pulls Lynn over tight against him and says, “Well, thisuhn’s been keepin’ me busy.” I set up a chair and wrap a blanket around myself. Tuck starts strumming his guitar. I listen to the people laugh and talk and I listen to Tuck’s music. I listen to the water coming down Coop Run and spilling into the lake. I listen.
Another one of the pairs of jeans asks, “You heard about all that mess down south? Blizzard or Lile County, I think?”
Lynn says, “I know, it’s just awful. I can’t imagine. I heard there was one of ‘em that even ate everything his Grandmomma owned.”
The jeans says, “I heard even worsen’ ‘at, one of ‘em was so out of it, he hit a little boy, hit’n run, never even slowed ‘er down, just kept right on goin’.”
Zach says, “How’na hell you explain ‘at?”
Tuck is playing quietly now and we all sit, thinking about how damn close Blizzard and Lile Counties are to us. Just a few hours’ drive.
Lynn changes the subject, “Bet I can shotgun a beer faster’n you can!” She challenges the boys in the jeans. She beats two of them but they are all in love with her now.
We head back and Lynn drops me at the bar. I sit in the corner booth with a coke and some fries. The jukebox is cranking Molly Hatchet’s cover of “Dreams” by The Allman Brothers. Mom sings it loud at the empty bar while she sweeps.
“How were the girls tonight?” she asks with a wink on the car ride home.
“Tuck was fine, Mom.”
We both grin really big.
“Why’d ya fib to me, Little Girl?”
“I don’t know, I thought you wouldn’t let me go.” I say, sheepish and sleepy.
“Give me a little more credit than that, Miss Flora.”
I smile big at her.
The next morning, we all crawl out of bed around eleven. It is forty degrees and drizzles every once in a while. Mom is reading on the couch and Booker and I go to the woods. We walk looking for chanterelles and pawpaw fruit. Booker has always been incredible with mushroom hunting. He has the nose for it. I here a few small rain drops hitting the crusty leaves around us.
He says, “How long you think you and Tuck’ll be at it?”
I walk and smirk. “We aren’t AT anything.”
“Could’a fooled me, Sis.”
“If I stick with him, I’ll be stuck forever.”
“Big Sis has gotta get outa here, right?” Booker says with a half grin.
I stare into the woods and into the future. I wonder what it will be. The rain drops quit and I hear the leaves crunch under our boots. It is a good sound, it reminds you you’re going someplace.
“Lookee there!” Booker says running over to some pretty, yellow-orange ruffles in between all the leaves.
“Gotcha some beauties right there, Book!” I say.
We gather a couple and leave the rest. Let them multiply. We help Mom make dinner. She cuts leeks and Booker cleans the chanterelles. I pinch the tiny leaves off a sprig of thyme and chop them, the scent exploding with each fall of the blade. We throw everything in a pot with some potatoes and chicken stock. Comfort food.
Sitting at the Sunday dinner table we talk about ordinary things. Mom’s work and our school. We are all slurping our soup and Mom tells us a story from work.
“A couple guys in the bar last night were acting strange. One of them kept asking the same question. ‘Any good food ‘round here?’ he would ask. At first I responded and then the third time I just said, ‘Not sure, man.’ He didn’t seem to react to me at all, he would just ask the question and then lose interest. Or maybe he was never interested to start with.”
“Weirdoes.” Book says.
I think about the people down south. I think about those men in the bar eating the glass bottles their beer came in, blood dripping from their lips. The sound of glass breaking against their teeth. I think of them eating the coasters the bottles sat upon and of them tearing bits of the vinyl from the chairs they sit in and chewing them like a swatch of beef jerky. I think of them walking out of the bar and driving their car head-on into another. I think of the pedestrians in town. I wonder if the paper said anything today. We didn’t go into town to pick one up. Mom said they were acting strange.
“Huh.” I say.
It is late. I brush my teeth.
“Goodnight Mom, Book. Love you.”
I wake up early before school and hike to Big Rock on my way to the bus. It’s a crisp and lonely morning. I hear a bird yapping way down the hillside. Through the half-naked trees I see Booker leave the house and walk down the road. I take a deep breath of the cold air and leap off the boulder; my momentum carries me fast down the hillside to Booker. His music is on in his headphones. He doesn’t know I am here.
I run and jump, landing in front of him, “Boo!” He wasn’t fooled.
He smirks at me and says, “You don’t think I can hear you crashing through those woods? What’er you doin’ at Big Rock this early anyways?”
“Contemplating the big problems of the world.” I say with a big dose of sarcasm.
The bus rumbles up the holler to us. We get on, the smell of morning breath and teen cologne is strong. High School. Muffled earbuds and the grumble of the bus engine lull me to sleep. I wake up to the brakes squeaking. Tuck gets on and sits next to me. He grins at me big and hands over a warm home-made muffin his mom certainly baked fresh for him this morning. It smells like comfort and blueberries. I feel warm like the muffin. I want to love him. I lean on his shoulder feeling the ache of hesitation.
The sky is flat and gray in the early morning light as we pull into the parking lot. Tuck stands up out of the seat and lets me out ahead of him.
“See you at lunch?” He asks.
“Yeah, lunch.” I say, already feeling smothered. Too much.
I walk straight to the back hallway and into the lab. I have all sorts of seeds germinating in their little plastic dishes. I spritz them with water and check on the heat lamps; warming each little pod, magic things happening inside.
“How are they doing?” Mr. Wilgood asks.
“The chamomile seems alright but the blackberries don’t show any progress.”
“Why do you think that is, Ms. Black?”
“I did everything they said, keep the seeds cold for 30 days, the plastic wrap, the heat, everything. I don’t know.”
The bell rings and forlorn students stream into the class room. Mr. Wilgood starts a lesson about viruses and bacteria. I read the chapter over the weekend. I re-read my highlighted bits. “Tiny infectious particles…can’t reproduce without a host…although they can both make us sick, bacteria and viruses are very different at the biological level. Because of these differences, bacterial and viral infections are treated very differently…”
I take notes as Mr. Wilgood covers ground quickly. The Black Death-bacteria…..smallpox-virus…..tuberculosis-bacteria….he goes on. One is spread through air, you suck it in from the coughs and sneezes of the infected. One was spread by fleas on rodents. All were devastating to all classes of people. No one was safe.
The bell rings. I walk out of the classroom full of thoughts. I go to my other classes, I go to lunch, Tucker finds me in the line. “Pizza day!” he says. We walk our trays too our table and sit down. Tuck is telling me about a grand prank in the shop this morning. One boy rigged a bucket of paint and one of the guys who was in on it forgot and dumped the bucket on himself, all for the better.
Lynn walks up halfway through the lunch period. “Where have you been all day?” I ask. She looks crazy and exhausted. She sits down and stares at me and tears well up in her eyes. “Zach, he was kissing me and things were getting pretty heated,” Lynn says breathlessly. “And then he started to kiss my neck and he was working his way down my chest,” her tears are dripping down and off her cheeks now. “And he, he bit into my belly so hard, I thought he might rip my skin right off of me.”
I look at her stunned face. “Oh no Lynn, he has it. Zach has it.” I say, not giving her any comfort.
“I know, I know, I know…” she repeats.
I hug her, hating this for her. “Where is he now?” I ask.
“I don’t know, I threw him off me and ran out as fast as I could. I drove my truck to my folk’s house and cleaned the bite marks, I don’t know where he is. I don’t know.”
The bell rings loudly, I walk Lynn to her class and drop her like a mutt in a box at the grocery store into her desk.
Tuck is waiting outside the room when I walk out to go to my class. “How did he get it?” Tuck asks, his eyes wide. “I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. No one does.”