Seedling: Chapter Two
I sit on the couch, the news blaring at me. I see the malaise under the blasé expression on the pretty blonde newscaster’s face. 26 Cases: Outbreak in WV Continues to Surge sits in bold letters on the screen. National news. Not good. My cereal is mushy in the bowl on my lap. Booker comes down the hallway and I say, “Happy Birthday!”
He nods still sleepy, “Thanks, Sis,” he says with a grin. “What do you have going on today?” he asks.
“Not too much, class, projects, the usual. What about you, any big birthday plans?” I say.
“Nah, not too much.” he says. I know better. Mom has a big party planned for him after school. A cake, the latest gaming system, and all his friends are coming, of course.
We walk to the bus; the autumn wind blows hard against us. It carries little spits of rain and they crash against our faces. I smell the damp leaves in the woods lining both sides of the road. “Pneumonia weather,” says Book. “The temps are all over the place.”
We shiver waiting for the bus, our clothes soaking up the drizzle. “How’s Lynn doing?” He asks.
“Not good, Zach still hasn’t turned up. I called her last night, she barely spoke. All one-word answers.” I say. “Do you think it is contagious, whatever it is?” I ask.
“I don’t know, we will find out soon. If it is, Lynn has it.” Book says to me, his eyes concerned. We hear the bus roar up the hollow. “I don’t want to go today, it’s my birthday, I shouldn’t have to.”
“But think how disappointed Mom would be?” I say with a sideways grin, an attempt at lightening the mood. Mom lets us skip when we want to. We’re both diligent students, and attendance never affects our straight A’s.
Book sits several seats ahead of me on the bus and when Tuck gets on he stops and asks to sit with him. I am puzzled. I see the tops of their heads and I see Tuck fumbling with something. “Man, thank you!” I hear Booker say.
“Don’t you mention it, man. Happy Birthday.” Tuck says as he gets up and walks back to my seat.
“What was that about?” I ask, a curious furrow on my brow.
Tuck says, “I brought an old mushroom identification guide of Momma’s for Book. He’ll get more use outtuh the thing than any of us ’ull.”
“That’s awfully nice of you,” I say surprised.
“Nah, that old thing’s been layin’ ‘round longer’n I can remember.” He pauses. “It’s been weeks, you think Lynn’ll be back today?” he asks.
“I don’t know, she sounded terrible on the phone last night. Hard to say.” I trail off. “I wish we knew what caused this mess in the first place. The epidemiologists and virologists don’t seem to have any idea where it came from, how it is moving from one person to the next, why it isn’t hitting the cities. They don’t have any answers. It doesn’t make sense.”
Tuck looks at me, shaking his head and not knowing what to say. “You coming to my show tomorrow?” he asks after a long pause.
Hesitating, “I’d rather just listen to you practice by myself,” I say.
“You mean that?” he asks.
I look at him a long while, I look at his pretty brown eyes and his sandy blonde hair. “Yes, yes I do.” I say, trying to talk myself into it as it comes out of my mouth.
“Come over this evening, then?” He asks, his eyes bright. His little country grin taking over his whole face.
“Not tonight, Book’s birthday party is tonight. But soon. I promise.”
He slinks down a bit in the seat, “Ok!” he says, nearly giddy.
We file off the bus and into the cafeteria. Book’s friends greet him, teenage boys calling my little brother old man and geezer. Laughing and jovially pushing him around and stealing his beanie, leaving his hat-hair fully exposed to the whole of the high-school dating pool.
I go check on my chamomile and blackberry seeds. I spritz them and head to my seat. Mr. Wilgood goes over another bit of text from our chapter. I stick my hand up and see the boy sitting beside me roll his eyes at my gesture. “Ms. Black, you have a question?”
Ignoring the indignant boy, I ask, “Yes, what do you think about the illness on the news? What do you think is causing it?” The boy sits up in his chair, suddenly interested.
“Well Ms. Black, it seems like a very complex issue to me. The scientists don’t seem to know much yet. I expect it will be very interesting to see what they find. What do you think?” Mr. Wilgood says, like a true teacher.
“I am waiting to see more evidence before I build my hypothesis.” I say, like a true nerd. The boy rolls his eyes again. I’m waiting to see what happens to Lynn. I desperately hope she is ok. But either way, I will know more about whatever it is.
Lynn doesn’t come to school but calls me at lunch. “I feel much better,” Lynn says to me.
“That makes me so happy, Lynn. Do you want to come to Book’s party later?” I ask her, expecting no as her answer but it feels like the kind of thing she would want to know about.
“Maybe,” she says, “I love flaunting it in front of your brother’s friends.” Her voice isn’t as boisterous as it usually is, but her spirit is there. She lets out a small giggle and then goes silent.
“Well just let me know, worst case we can hang out in my room.” I say, feeling like I should humor her. “We can take it easy.”
Her voice still weaker than normal, “I’ve never taken it easy in my life.” She giggles again. “I’ll text you and let you know.”
We hang up. Tuck walks over and I give him the update. “Does she know anything about Zach? Why does she suddenly seem so much better?” he asks.
“We’ll see, if she comes over tonight we will have a better chance to talk.”
One of Book’s friends gives us a ride home. Mom has balloons tied to the porch railing as we pull into the driveway. She comes out the front door and shouts, “Happy Birthday, little boy of mine!”
“Thanks Mom,” Book says, smiling really big. “I knew you were planning something!”
“Of course I was! And your sister helped, she got all your friends to keep it a secret.” Mom’s face is beaming as she gives him a big kiss on the forehead. I walk up the steps behind him and get one too.
Book’s friends start showing up. My phone vibrates, and I open the screen. It is a text from Lynn, “Can I bring Zach?” is all it says.
I think about Lynn’s stomach, not fully healed and I think of Zach and his white t-shirt and tight jeans and his muddy, oversized boots. Hillbilly fashion model. A good-looking boy. I wonder what he looks like right now; is his skin pallid and are his lips chapped, are there cuts on his face, what is it like to talk to him. I wonder where he must have been the last few weeks. Was Lynn with him. Does he have it or was he just being too aggressive with Lynn.
I walk out of my room and down the hallway to the kitchen. The house smells like fried food and cheap teenage cologne. Adolescence. All the boys are outside running around the yard. “Mom, can I talk to you?”
A boy dashes through the kitchen, grabbing a pepperoni roll off the counter and running out the back door.
“What’s up, kiddo?” She asks.
“Well, I invited Lynn to come to Book’s party. And, well, she was wondering if she could bring Zach.” I half mumble.
“Didn’t you say Zach had gotten…” She trails off.
“Well, yes, I thought he had but I haven’t seen or heard anything of it in weeks.”
Mom thinks for a moment, “Well, maybe tonight’s not the night. We don’t want anything bad on your brother’s birthday. Maybe tomorrow they could come meet you at the bar?” She says, rubbing my back.
I text Lynn back. “Could we maybe hang out tomorrow instead? We already have a ton of people here.”
10 minutes go by, nothing. Then an hour, still nothing. 3 hours later, I hear a crazy sound in the front yard. I walk to the window and peak out. The porch light casts out far enough into the dark night for me to make out Lynn’s white pickup, it is slumped over the hill near the driveway. Muddy tire tracks show its wild path from the road to where it sits. I see the dark silhouette of several boys in the headlights, their hands making violent gestures.
One of them lunges forward at another but misses and falls to the ground. The fallen boy rolls around for a moment. Then I see Lynn running to the boy on the ground. Zach. I run out the door and across the yard. I stop at the edge of the crowd that’s gathered. Zach is out of it. Lynn is over top of Zach trying to talk to him and he is just moaning and grumbling, not putting any real words together.
Lynn looks at Book, “Can you help me get him back into the truck?” They lift him, one under each of his arms. Zach flops oddly into the passenger seat as Lynn pushes his legs in. “I swear he wasn’t like this when we left the house. I don’t know what happened. We stopped by the bar for a just a minute. We ate some wings and Zach had one beer. Only one. And then we came here. He was just fine. He was walking and talking just fine. I don’t understand. We were coming down your road and he started swerving all around. He was swerving and kept going in the ditch. I reached for the steering wheel and he saw my arm and he totally let go of the wheel and grabbed my wrist so hard. I thought it would snap in two. Then we were in your yard and he was stumbling around. I don’t know, I don’t why this is happening. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.” Lynn finally quiets down. I can hear her breathing heavy, gasping for air, her perfect face is wet with tears and her pale blonde hair is wild, tufts of it stick up around her head.
After a few minutes she and I both lean against the truck. Booker and his friends have scattered. It is just us two and Zach in the passenger seat not responding to anything. “You need help getting your truck outta here?” I ask.
“I don’t know, I think I can get it.” She pauses for a moment. “Flor, do you think Zach is going to be ok?” She asks.
“Oh Lynn, I have no idea. I just don’t know what could be the cause of it. He bit you and you’re fine. I don’t know how it gets transferred or where it is coming from. What did he do on the way here that he hasn’t done in the time since he first bit you? Is there anything different about tonight? Has he had any other bouts between the first time and now?” I ask too many questions. I overwhelm her.
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” She says, her voice quiet, her shoulders rolled over. She looks meek, it’s not like her.
I watch Lynn back her little truck up the bank. It bounces up over the lip of the driveway and back onto the road. She sends me a weary wave, driving out the road with Zach next to her.
My phone gives several repeated buzzes, Tuck’s name flashes across the screen. It’s past midnight, too late to talk to Tuck. It rings through. No voicemail. I go to bed, tossing and turning. The memory of sound sleep gets further away.
I wake to the sound of the vacuum cleaner. Mom’s already tackling the mess of the party. I look at my phone. Nothing. I help to clean up the soda cans and stray chunks of potato chip. Book gets up around noon, his friends follow. They eat cold off-brand pop tarts for breakfast as I walk out the door towards the tree line. Deer stand on the opposite edge of the yard from me, just past the house.
The gray overcast sky does little for lighting up the woods. I open my book and find an ironweed I pressed last week. I read about the plant. Vernonia amygdalina is well known as a medicinal plant with several uses attributed to it, including for diabetes, fever reduction, and recently a non-pharmaceutical solution to persistent fever, headache, and joint pain associated with AIDS. I think about this thing taking over our people. I think of Zach’s strange eyes in a familiar face. I think of what could be causing it. I think about the questions I asked Lynn and the answers I didn’t get from her.
I stay in the woods a long time. I press more autumn blooms. Some asters and some pretty jewelweed, touch-me-nots. Their seed pods explode sending little green seeds into the world to grow, the sides of the burst pod form odd curly-Qs on the plant. I come home after Mom’s already left for work. Book gives me all kinds of crap about taking off. “You didn’t wanna hang with my friends anymore, Sis?!” he asks.
“It wasn’t so much your friends that wore me out as mine,” I say to back to him.
“What the hell was that last night?” Book asks.
I half-try to explain myself. “Zach definitely has whatever it is. I don’t know what Lynn was thinking Book. I’m sorry she brought him here. I told her not to, she didn’t listen.”
“I know it wasn’t your fault, I just wish we knew what the hell was happening.” He says back to me. I nod in silent, understood agreement. “You goin’ to Tuck’s show tonight?” Book asks. I wish he hadn’t.
“Why, you gonna come with me?” I ask back with a bit of attitude.
“If that’s what it’ll take to get you to give that kid a chance.” He says to me, also with attitude and a bit of sincere good-hearted peer pressure.
I think for a moment. “You think he’s a good egg?” I ask Book, equally sincere.
“Yes, Sis, I do. I think he’s a good one.” He says.
“Shit, I thought you might say that.” I grin back at him with reluctance. “I’ll probably go down for a bit but I’m not staying out too late. I’ve got all kinds of homework to do tomorrow.” I say. “You’ll be my excuse to come home.”
“Alright then, let me get cleaned up,” Book says as he heads to the shower.
I have no intention of getting cleaned up. I kick a bit of the mud off my tall camel-colored boots and smooth down some of the tousle out of my hair from the woods. Ready. Just before we walk out the door I pull out a pressed bunch of lady tresses from up the hollow and tape them carefully onto a piece of recycled brown paper bag. Congratulations on your first show! -Flor I write on the paper in black pen. On the bottom corner I scribble the scientific name, Spiranthes Spiralis.
Book walks into the old place just ahead of me. Cigarette smoke fills the room. I grab us sodas and turn to look for Book at a table. I see him, and I see Tuck. Tuck looks at me and smiles the biggest, widest, crookedest smile I’ve ever seen. He has a flannel shirt on, blue jeans, and some work boots; looking way too good in this honkytonk outside city limits. His guitar is in it’s case leaning up against the table. I walk over to them and realize that Tuck’s mom and dad are sitting one table away. His mom winks at me and grins.
I feel that familiar twinge of hesitation again. I hold the pressed flowers against my hip like a school book and give Tuck a hug. “Welp, might as well get this over with.” He says as he grabs his guitar case and heads for the empty stage. A lonely microphone stands in the spot light. Tuck sets his case down and pulls out his guitar and walks into the bright light. He turns some knobs on the end of the neck of the thing and speaks to the crowd. “Hey y’all, I’m Tucker Vance. I’m gonna play ya a few tunes. This one’s called “Send My Love” by Adele. It’s normally a pop song but I thought I’d country it up a bit. Maybe y’all know it.” The tone on his guitar carries through the room and his voice comes in over top of it. Perfect. He sings out and I watch the people in the room be impressed. Big country boys stop their games of pool and darts and look at this half-scrawny boy on the stage.
He finishes the song and the crowd hoots and hollers. He smiles and looks down, “Thanks Y’all!” He says, humble and flattered. I can tell. He plays a few of his own. Songs about campfires and backroads. They need a little work, but his raw talent saves it. He finishes it with a cover of an old Patsy Cline song.
The crowd is going nuts when he walks off the stage. I grab a few more drinks for everyone and come back to Tuck. He is talking to some folks from the audience. I hand him a soda and the pressed flowers. “That was incredible, Tuck.” I say to him.
“Thanks Darlin,” he says back to me and squeezes me into him. I feel cheesy now. “We’re goin’ to a party after this, you should come.” He says as he brushes the under side of my chin just a bit, a small intimate thing.
I look up at him. “I didn’t hardly get a wink of sleep last night. I’ve got a story for you, but I’m worn out.” I say apologetically to him. I grab my coat from my chair and look at Book, “You ready to go?”
“I’ll walk y’all out,” Tuck says and follows me.
“Y’all go ahead,” Book says, “I’ll catch up.”
Tuck holds the door and I walk out of the smoky place and into the cold autumn night. “Thank you so much for comin’ Flor. It means seh world to me. Really, it does.” He says. We hug for a long time. I hear the bar noise get loud and I know Book is coming. He is talking and laughing with someone at the door. I hurry and kiss Tuck on the cheek. Tuck looks me right in the eye and then kisses me on my lips. We hear Book saying good night to whoever he was talking to. Tuck backs away from me just in time for Book to come around the row of cars.
Tuck and Book shake hands. “That was one helluva performance, man!” Book says to Tuck as we are getting into the car.
“Watch for deer!” Tuck yells as I back out of the parking lot.
I wave as Book already starts with the trash talk. “Y’all looked pretty daggon cozy there.” He says.
“Yeah, yeah. Let me have it.” I say back. We get home and I sleep a deep sleep. Sunday goes by and I don’t hear from Tuck. I go to bed thinking about our kiss. Full-on school girl butterflies are flitting.
Book and I catch the bus. I get excited when we get close to Tuck’s stop, but the bus just keeps on rolling. I feel a twinge of panic. We get off the bus and walk into school.
Lynn finds me at my locker. “I need to talk to you, Flor. It’s not good.” Zach. I had totally forgotten about Zach. “I was at a party on Saturday night and Tuck showed up and he was in a great mood and he, he, well he seemed great. And then an hour or so went by and I found him in the bathroom, Flor. When I got to him, he was ripping off big pieces of a towel and shoving them in his mouth. Everything in the bath tub had been knocked off the edge and the toilet paper was torn into a million pieces.” I feel a tear roll down my cheek. Not Tuck. I think to myself. Not Tuck.