The air around the ditch was thick with the smell of oranges. The sweetness of their blossoms mingled with the rot on the ground, creating the dank aroma of summer in Orange Cove. We stopped our bikes just short of the old city fence, and hopped off, letting them clatter to the dirt. My brother Danny and I walked up to the chain link and looked down into the abyss. Completely overgrown with grass and tall weeds, the reservoir lay before us. There was a thin muddy trail leading down the hill and into a small gap between the green—our destination. We followed it to an opening in the fence just a few feet away from us.
“See? I told you,” Tim said, jabbing my elbow with his, “that’s where she gets in. She pulled it apart with her mind.”
Tim was our cousin. It was his idea that we come out here. We’d been hanging out at his house all afternoon, but Uncle Sidd had come home drunk and angry, shouting about all the fuckin’ noise. Shortly afterward, Tim had told us what he’d heard about the reservoir—it was supposedly Bloody Mary’s home. Younger than Danny by two years, Tim had me beat by only a few months. But of course this meant that he thought he knew worlds more than me.
“Yeah, right. The high school kids probably did that.” Danny said, looking it over.
“Yeah, stupid.” I said.
Tim rolled his eyes. “What do you know, anyway?” He said, “Have you ever hung out with any high school kids?”
That was his favorite thing to say to me, what do you know? No matter what it was. When I told him that tigers all had special stripes, like fingerprints. When I had the right answers for homework and he didn’t. Even when I kept score at H-O-R-S-E, and told him it wasn’t my fault he couldn’t spell. He acted like he knew so much more than me, but we were in the same grade.
“Have you?” I said, “Anyway, why would Bloody Mary need to pull apart a fence? She’s a ghost. Couldn’t she just fly through it?”
Tim narrowed his eyes at me, and I returned the feeling by sticking out my tongue. Danny ignored us. Pushing Tim and me aside, he headed towards the hole. He studied it, pressing against the springy metal with his shoe. Then he squatted, letting one knee touch the ground.
“Look,” he said feeling a few jagged tips, “she’s right. It’s been cut. What kind of a ghost needs wire-cutters to get through a fence?”
Tim walked over to inspect it himself. I followed, curious to have a look at the evidence, and happy to have some backup for once. My brother and I usually didn’t agree on much, even though we hung out all the time. We had a few things in common, like playing video games and marbles. But it was more just because there was no one else to play with, that we stuck together. Apart from Tim, we were the only kids in the neighborhood. Had been for years. We both figured Tim probably hung out with us for pretty much the same reason.
“And how would you know it’s been cut, smart guy?” Tim asked, his voice hitting a nasally pitch. “You a professional fence-cutter or somethin’?”
My brother stood up. “I helped my dad take down the Daughtrys’ chain link last summer.” He said, dusting off his pant leg, “Remember? They had that white one put in after.”
“Oh,” Tim thought a moment, then shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. She could still get in there.”
“Whatever,” Danny said, pulling up on the fence so Tim could slide through. “Let’s get this over with so you can shut up already.”
I started after him, but Danny grabbed my shoulder. “Uh-uh, no way,” he said, “I’m not getting into trouble again if you get hurt.”
“I won’t get hurt!” I said, “It’s just a buncha mud and grass.”
He shook his head. “You’re the lookout.”
“But I wanna see where she lives. Jeeze, it’s not like anybody even comes out here anyway.”
“Someone might. It’s city property.”
“So? Why does it have to be me?” I looked over at Tim, who had an ugly grin on his face.
“Why can’t he do it?” I said, pointing at him. I hated being lookout. Nothing amazing ever happens to the lookout. They’re just the first ones to get caught when something bad happens.
“‘Cause I won’t have Dad yelling at me if he gets hurt.” Danny said. I could tell by his face that he wasn’t going to budge. Besides, his logic was sound. I was forced to give in.
“Fine.” I said.
Tim walked up close to the fence, facing me through it. “Just say it.” He said.
“Say what?” I demanded.
“That you’re afraid to stay up here by yourself.” He was still smiling.
“Whatever,” I said, and helped Danny lift the fence again. He squeezed through easily. Then he turned to face me. “Listen,” he said, “we’re not even gonna be down there five minutes. Just stay here and holler if you see anybody.”
“I know what a lookout does,” I said, “I’m not a dummy.”
“Of course you’re not.” Tim said, leaning into the fence from the other side, “You’re just blonde. You can’t help it.”
I kicked the fence and he jumped back, laughing. Then he spun around and marched down the hill after Danny
“Asshole!” I called after him, as loudly as I could.
I turned and looked out at the road. Even though it was already getting dark, you could see for miles in both directions. I walked a little ways down the road, out toward the country, kicking small pebbles up from the dirt. When I got to the busted old road sign for the reservoir, I decided it was as good a place as any to wait. I sat down hard, thinking of ways to get back at Tim, and a little cloud of dust swirled up around me.
* * *
After they’d been gone a little while, I heard something crack in the orchard to my left. I glanced in that direction, but didn’t see anything. I figured it was probably just an orange falling somewhere close by, and so went back to my current project. Already bored, I’d begun tracing words into the dirt at my feet with a flimsy twig I’d found near the sign. Big bubble and block letters stretched out before me, all saying the same thing: TIM IS STUPID.
I was about to go into the many reasons why, when I heard something else. Something I didn’t recognize. It sorta sounded like someone far away was blowing up a balloon, but more slowly than normal, and more steady. That deep puff of air, back and forth, back and forth. I looked up.
Right in the street, not even a few feet away from me, stood a large coyote. I had never seen one before in real-life, but I could tell what it was because my Mom had a calendar of the Sierra Nevadas that she’d got from the Stop N’ Shop. There was a picture of a family of coyotes near a river above the month of May; I remembered it very clearly, because my birthday was on the 25th. I’d spent almost a whole month staring at that picture, waiting for cake and presents. Still, I’d never expected them to be so big.
Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t move. The coyote was staring at me, breathing in and out, in and out. I wanted to shout, or scream, or cry, but nothing came. So I just sat there, holding that shabby twig and gazing back into its dark eyes.
We stayed like that a long time. I couldn’t remember when the sun had gone down, but it was almost black when the coyote started to crumple. It had begun breathing harder and harder, its body shaking with the force. Then it sunk to the street, its eyes still fixed on mine. The breathing stopped and everything got real quiet.
I waited for what felt like hours. Then, I stood and walked over to it. When I got closer, I saw that the coyote’s hair was all tangled, and it was so thin that its ribs looked like bony hands gripping its sides. It struck me that it must have starved to death, but I couldn’t imagine anything starving with so much rotting fruit around.
I reached out slowly with my twig, and poked at a paw, a shoulder, its neck. When I pushed against its jaw, nothing happened. The coyote’s mouth remained shut tight, even when I pressed harder with the stick. Finally I realized that it must have been broken; that that was the reason why it starved.
Suddenly I felt really sick. I tried to back away from the coyote, to bite back the urge rising within me, but I only ended up throwing up right next to its foot. I stood over it for a while longer, shivering, sad and embarrassed.
* * *
When I heard their voices, I was already walking back to the fence. I didn’t want them to see the coyote, or to know that I’d thrown up. Another girl, a distant cousin of ours, had thrown up in front of them years ago. They’d been spitting in front of her, hawking lugies, and she’d gotten so grossed out that she’d spewed right then and there. They still called her Pukey Penny.
I could see the thin white line of Danny’s flashlight bobbing in the night sky, lighting their path as they made their way back up the hill. Tim was jabbering on and on about something that I couldn’t quite make out, while Danny was laughing.
“What’d you see?” I called out, hurrying back over to the hole to meet them.
“Nothing but a mattress, some beer cans and a couple o’ pornos.” Danny said, shaking his head.
“Pornos?” I said, trying to stop shaking.
“Yeah,” Tim said, “You know, Tittie mag—”
Danny cut him off, looking at me with sudden concern. “Hey, you okay, Case?”
“Oh, fantastic,” Tim said, looking at me more closely now too, “She really got scared!” He began laughing loudly. “God, what a girl. Little Casey coward, afraid of being alone in the dark!”
“You’re the coward.” I said. Then I charged him. Before either of us realized what was happening, I was on top of him, pounding down with my fists. The next thing I knew, Danny was pulling me up by my shoulders. “Hey, whoa, calm down.” He said. “What’s the matter?”
“Just like your dad!” I screamed as he held me back, “A stupid asshole coward!”
“My dad?” Tim snorted as he climbed to his feet, wiping at his face and yanking at his shirt. Once he’d checked for damages, he smirked and walked over to his bike. “My dad fought in the war,” he said, “he’s a hero. What do you know about my dad?”
“I know that he’s a coward,” I said, struggling to free myself from Danny’s grip, “and I know that he hits your mom.”
Before I could even understand what I’d said, Tim spun around to face me. His eyes were wide and there was something about the way his face looked that scared me. He stared at me for a long time. When he finally spoke again, his voice was strangely calm.
“Who told you that?”
“I heard my dad talking to Uncle Jerry. He said that your dad hit your mom, and that anyone who’d hit a woman is a coward.”
“My dad’s not a coward,” he said, “He fought in the war. He. He saw dead people.”
“I don’t care what your dad said.” He interrupted, his voice growing louder, angry. “Has your dad ever been in a war? Has your dad ever seen any dead people?”
“No, but he’s never hit a woman, neither.” I said.
“My dad’s not a coward!” He screamed. Then he was lunging toward me. Danny quickly stepped in between us again, this time grabbing Tim’s arms awkwardly, and holding him back.
“Leave her alone, man.” Danny said. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
“Yes I do.” I said.
“Shut up Case.” Danny grunted, finally pulling Tim backwards. Tim’s face had changed colors. It looked like someone’d smeared a tomato across it. He was breathing heavily and I could see water welling up in his eyes. Suddenly I felt very sorry for him. I didn’t know why, but I wanted to apologize. But before I could say or do anything more, he was on his bike and peddling towards town, down the dirt road into the distance.
* * *
When Danny and I had finally made it home, the moon was already up. Our mom was on the phone with someone, talking really loudly. When she heard us come in, she turned and held up her hand; the type of hand that says I’ll deal with you in a minute. Danny shot me an angry look, then walked over and slumped down on the couch nearest the door. I followed suit.
After she hung up, our mom stomped into the living room, waving her arms like a crazy woman.
“What is the matter with you?” She said, looking at Danny. “Tell me. Did I really raise a child who would do such a thing? A kid who’d kill their own cousin over a goddamn candy bar?”
Danny was quiet. He hadn’t moved since he sat down.
“Candy bar?” I asked.
She shot me a dirty look. “Don’t you try to cover for him.”
“Mom, look, Danny didn’t do anything to Tim.” I said. “It was me.”
She looked suspiciously at Danny, then turned her gaze to me. “Is that so?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I said.
“You gave him a black eye?” Her eyes studied my face. I fought the urge to smile. Although I could barely remember hitting Tim, I was proud. I had never given anyone a black-eye before. I would have been happy even if it was Danny.
“I guess so.” I said. “But he started it. He was saying a buncha stuff about me being a—he acts like I can’t do anything just because I’m a girl.”
My mom thought about this for a minute. I could almost swear I saw the briefest curl to her lips. “Well, it doesn’t matter,” She said, “You may be on target here, but we don’t hit people to prove a point.”
She looked me over, and sighed, pulling a cigarette out of her apron pocket. “Now you’re going over there first thing tomorrow morning to apologize. And you’re gonna make sure Aunt Wendy is around. She needs to hear this.”
“Okay, I will apologize to Tim.” I said, mechanically.
“You’re damn right you will. And it better be good.” She said, lighting her cigarette, “I don’t want to hear parenting advice from that woman ever again. You hear me?”
* * *
The next morning, I walked the four blocks to Tim’s house, rehearsing my apology. It wasn’t anything extraordinary, despite my mom’s warning. I just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Even though the thought of seeing Tim with a black-eye made me smile, I didn’t want to be over at their house for long. Uncle Sidd might be home.
When I got there, I knocked twice, as loudly as I could. No one answered, so I let myself in. Usually there was music on, blaring through the walls; you never knew how long it was going to take until someone heard you out there, pounding away at the screen door.
This time, though, the house was unusually quiet. It felt strange to hear the click as the door shut behind me.
I called out Tim’s name, uncomfortable at the sound of my own voice in such a lonely house. No answer.
“Tim? Aunt Wendy?” I walked through the living room into the kitchen, looking down the hall as I passed it. When I found no one in the laundry room, I headed back to the hall and from there into Tim’s bedroom. “Tim? You in here?” I asked as I opened the door. Silence. The room was empty.
Next, I tried the bathroom. No one. I was about to leave, when I thought of checking his parents’ room, just in case. I didn’t want to have to come back later. Their room had a lock on it, because Uncle Sidd owned a gun. It was almost always locked, so it hardly even registered as another room to me.
I expected the knob to be stiff, that I’d just try it and be on my way. But it turned easily in my hand. Both surprised and anxious to have a look in the forbidden room, I slowly pushed the door open.
“Tim?” I said, my voice almost a whisper, as I entered.
“Oh,” I started, noticing my uncle sitting in an old rocking chair, “Uncle Sidd, hey.”
He didn’t respond. He was facing me, but staring past me, to the wall behind.
I turned to match his gaze, and saw that their TV was on a stand near the window. It was on, but there was no sound coming from it. It was tuned to some religious program, one of those where the preacher pushes people down by touching their heads and sells bibles during every commercial break.
I looked back at him. “Sound go out?” I asked. He just stared at the TV.
“Happens to ours all the time.” I said. “My dad hits it.”
He stayed quiet. Then I noticed that he was wearing his uniform. I had never seen him in it before. He looked amazing. Like those soldiers you see on the news. The perfect ones in the pictures they show when they’re missing or come home dead.
“Uncle Sidd?” I said.
He turned his head slowly to face me. “Casey.” He said. “Casey. You know I saw a little girl over there, looked just like you.”
“In Iraq?” I asked.
“Yeah. She had different colored eyes though. And different hair. But she looked just like you.”
The way he was looking at me made me feel uneasy. Even though his eyes were locked on mine, they were still focused somewhere beyond me. Something about it reminded me of the coyote.
“Is Tim home?” I asked.
“No. They’re gone.” He said, turning back to face the TV.
“Oh, well can you tell him I stopped by?” I said. I didn’t want to be in the room with him anymore.
“Sure.” He said. “Just like you. And a woman, just like Wendy. That was her mom. The girl who looked like you. They both looked so peaceful and still. And it was quiet where they were. Really quiet. As if it all wasn’t happening. As if the space around them was sacred.”
He held up his hand, as though he were reaching out to the TV.
“Uncle Sidd, are you okay?” I asked, reaching again for the knob.
“Of course I am, Wendy.” He said.
“Yes of course, Casey.” He said, still not looking at me, “I’ll tell Tim you came by.”
I watched him as I closed the door. He never moved an inch.
* * *
A few days later, my brother’s class took a field trip to Fresno. They were going to a museum, and all he’d been talking about all week were the giant fake dinosaurs they had. I was so jealous that I pretended to have a stomachache just so I wouldn’t have to be in school, not seeing them.
My mom made me soup and I watched cartoons, wrapped in a blanket on the couch. When I’d almost finished eating, Aunt Wendy called. My mom talked to her for a while, then came and sat down beside me. She told me that Uncle Sidd was in the hospital. She said that he was sick too, but that his sickness was different. That it’d made him hurt himself.
Then she said that Aunt Wendy was coming over with Tim that afternoon. That she wanted to stay with Uncle Sidd, and needed someone to watch him for a few hours. My mom warned that I’d better be on my “best behavior” while Tim was there, which meant no hitting. And she also said that I shouldn’t bug him about his dad. That if he didn’t want to answer certain questions, then I needed to leave him alone about it. I told her I would.
* * *
When Tim showed up, he seemed just fine. He was really quiet, and other than the shiner, he didn’t look sad or sick or anything. Aunt Wendy only stayed for a few minutes, telling Tim to sit down and be good, and talking to Mom outside in whispers. Then she was off to the hospital. Mom came in right after and said she had to make a few phone calls. Then she disappeared into her room with her cell.
Tim and I sat in silence, watching cats and dogs killing each other on the screen. Finally, when I was sure my mom was on the phone and distracted, I spoke to him.
“I heard your dad’s sick.”
“Yeah.” He said.
“And that you blamed Danny for the uh…” I nodded at his left eye. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. Only a little swollen. And it wasn’t even black. It was a light bluish-purple.
I stared at him. “Why?” I asked.
“Why do you think?”
There was a long pause.
“Did he hurt himself bad?” I asked.
He didn’t respond. After a few moments, I looked over and saw that he had his arm over his face. “Tim?” I said, reaching over for it. When I touched him, he jerked away from me. I sat back.
“Is he… crazy?” I asked.
He slung his arm down, and I saw that his face was bright red and his cheeks were wet. “No. No, he’s not crazy.” He said. “He’s just a coward.” A sob shook his body. “Like you said. An asshole coward.”
I didn’t say anything. My mind was back in their house, watching Uncle Sidd stare past me into nothing.
“It wasn’t an accident.” Tim said, his voice scratchy and weak. “He wanted to hurt himself. He wanted to leave us. He wanted to die and leave us. He couldn’t handle it, so he shot himself.” He wiped a sleeve across his eyes. “Like you said. He’s no hero. Just another fuckin’ coward.”
I sat stunned, silent. I thought about the coyote, and what I’d said to Tim that night. And I thought about Uncle Sidd’s face and his empty, far-away eyes. And I realized that Tim was looking at me the same way that Uncle Sidd had. And then I put my hand on Tim’s shoulder.
“No, Tim.” I said, giving it a squeeze, “He’s not. He’s not a coward.”
Tim looked like he was going to say something, but he didn’t. He just put his face back between his hands and let out a sad sorta grunt. Under my own hand, I could feel his shoulder jump and sink every once in a while. And I could hear him whimpering over the sound of the TV. But I didn’t move my hand, not for a long time.
And I didn’t say anything else.