The following is excerpted from Rachel Swearingen’s debut story collection, How to Walk on Water. Her stories and essays fiction have appeared in VICE, Agni, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. A recipient of the 2018 New American Fiction Prize, Swearingen has also won the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction and the 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
How could my sister, crazy as they come, still coerce me into doing things that could come to no good? She had her two-year-old grandson, Wendell, in her arms, and he was wearing a baptismal gown, and she was saying, “Just this once, Harlan. I got it all worked out. No one will ever know, except me and you and the good Lord. You won’t have to do a darn thing except drive.”
Lynette had lost her driver’s license years ago, and one of her Narconon friends had dropped her and the kid off at my house in the country. There I was trying to install her borrowed car seat in my pickup, so I could take her back home. She was like the wild mint in the garden I couldn’t eradicate. It kept coming up, sucking the nourishment from everything I planted. Then she was handing me Wendell, installing that seat as if she were born to such things.
We got into the truck and she said, “Can’t you just feel it? Them birds out there and that breeze? That’s God, Harlan. That’s God on our side.”
I pulled away as she stuck her head out the open window and let her newly dyed hair blow. In the backseat, Wendell laughed, and I had to look away from the rearview. In that lacy gown with his fine hair slicked to one side, his eyes set too close together, I had to agree with Lynette that his name was a tragedy in the making. She refused to call him Wendell, preferring Scotty Boy instead.
“How do you like me as a brunette, Harlan? You didn’t even say nothing.”
For once her face wasn’t made up with three layers of paint. She wore a blue dress buttoned primly over her tattoos, not the usual tight shirt and shorts, and I remembered her at seventeen, pregnant and leaving home with nothing but a pillowcase stuffed with clothes. I was fourteen then, and now here we were again, both of us, forty-six years later back in our hometown in Wisconsin.
We passed a highway patrolman clocking traffic from his car and she ducked out of sight.
God had set the whole thing in motion, she had said. Ross’s wife had called her in a moment of desperation, needing a sitter. We’d have just enough time to get the kid up to a chapel in the woods for a christening she had just that morning arranged, if only I would take her.
“How’d you get the kid, Lynette?”
She sat up and pretended to notice the Watsons’ hobby farm. Just last week, they’d purchased two emus. “Holy crap,” she said. “What is that? Is that an ostrich?”
I stopped in the middle of the road, and she braced her hands on the dashboard and looked behind us.
“I asked you how you got him?”
“From his daycare, what’d you think? That I kidnapped him?” She made her voice high and whiny and mimicked Wendell’s daycare teacher. “You aren’t on our list of approved caretakers. As a matter of fact, you are on our list of people who are not allowed to see Wendell. Me. His own grandmother. Can you believe it? I sacrificed, Harlan. I gave Ross up so he could live in that big house and never even think of me.”
We were just two miles from town. I started driving again, slowly, and strained my ears. I thought I heard sirens, and I pulled onto a tractor path that led into a cornfield so I could think. Wendell was strangely quiet, and Lynette noticed me watching him in the rearview.
“I just gave him a little Benadryl,” she said. “Just to relax him. He won’t be any trouble and we’ll have him back in a jiffy.”
“Don’t say another word, Lynette. I don’t want to know anything else.”
By now the daycare had called Ross, and Ross had called the cops. Soon someone would put two and two together, and they’d be looking for me too.
“Someday they’re gonna write about me, Harlan. You could be part of history too, part of the underground baptism railroad. They’re everywhere, people just like me. Only I’ll be like the Mother of the Railroad.”
“You kidnapped him, Lynette. That’s a felony.”
“Stupid daycare people. I would of never put Ross or Caleb there. I left them with people I knew.”
Ross had told me about some of the people Lynette left them with—biker chicks high on speed, a senile neighbor, men she’d known for a few days. She had lived on a commune near Nashville. She had helped run a bar out in Wyoming. She had hitchhiked with her kids across the country, losing her youngest in an apartment fire in Eugene, Oregon, while she was out partying, then giving her son Ross to an aunt to raise back home.
“I don’t need this now, Lynette. Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re making for me?”
Lynette turned in her seat and gave me a hard stare. “I ain’t doing this for you, Harlan. I’m doing this for Scotty Boy.” Her voice lowered and she shuddered as she talked about how the world was dying of spiritual decay because of our generation, and how it was time for us to stick out our necks and take a stand.
Let me tell you about our generation, I wanted to say. While you were swallowing tabs of acid and letting your hair grow past your poncho, I was nineteen and on a gunboat dodging sniper fire from the banks of Song Cau Lon. She went on and on about birds that fell from the sky and dead fish that washed to shore, how we’d polluted and destroyed everything all for the love of money. “Kids like Scotty are in for a world of hurt,” she said. “Because of us, Harlan.”
All that was left of her lipstick was an orange outline. Her mouth wouldn’t stop moving, her hair glowed in the sunlight, the wind blew the tall and browning corn. A flock of crows rose from the field. The weather, the scenery, everything was just a bit too sharp. I knew it from my time in the service and from years of trucking—days like these were specially crafted for the worst kind of trouble.
“I didn’t kidnap him, Harlan. Scotty was outside with his little friends and he came right to me, just slipped right through the fence. I didn’t do a thing except ask if he wanted to meet our good Lord and be beloved and safe. And he said, ‘OK, Gamma. OK.’ So I took him and we ran.”
“He’s two years old.”
“Pardon me, Harlan, but I happen to know a thing or two about two-year-olds.”
I had a son once too, but his heart shut down and he only lived for a day. I was just twenty-five, already divorced and remarried, living in Baltimore and starting college.
My new wife and I came home from the hospital and one of the neighbors had hung a big, blue Welcome, Baby sign above our front door. For a long time no one except my wife’s parents came to see us. My mother just sent a card, saying it was God’s will.
Lynette, if she ever knew, never called or wrote. She had problems of her own by then. I quit school and started trucking, and before long my wife met someone else. I wish I could say that this had been the beginning of the bad streak, but as far back as I could remember it had been there, persistent and unpredictable, just like Lynette.
I backed down the path and was almost to the road when two squad cars roared by. Lynette clutched the fabric of her dress and looked out the back window. “They’ll ruin everything,” she said. She reminded me of our mother then, her hands clenched, always looking up at the sky as if it were full of locusts.
“You just can’t leave anyone alone,” I said. “You messed up Ross’s life. Now you want to fuck up Wendell’s and mine too.”
“Harlan, you better watch your language.” She looked upward like God was listening. “You can’t see right no more. It ain’t your fault. You got everything you need now. You got that house Carla just give to you, clean out of the blue, though you never did nothing for her. You got that plot out back to grow things in and a truck and a tractor too. You got everything, and I ain’t never said a bad thing about it to you. The least you can do is help me with this one last thing. Then I’ll leave you alone. I won’t tell nobody anymore I’m your sister. I won’t ever ask you for nothing, not ever again.”
I should have known she’d use my moving into my first wife’s house against me. I married Carla right out of high school and divorced her as soon as I was out of the service. She never remarried, grew old like the rest of us, lost all her family over the years, and lived in the same ranch house her father bought for us on the other side of town. I stopped once to see her on a route west, and we talked over coffee. She still kept our wedding picture in her china hutch. As I was leaving she hugged me and told me she was glad I was getting to see the country. “You did good, Harlan. Maybe you’ll send me pictures of your babies when you have them,” she said, and I broke down and cried and told her about my son, about his tiny fingernails, about his ears shaped just like mine, and she led me to the bedroom and I slept through the night and I lost my job because of it.
Then years later she willed me the house, out of the blue, as Lynette would say. And Lynette, too, found her way home.
By now every officer in town was looking for us. There was probably an Amber Alert. I couldn’t bear to look at Wendell. We’d had him for less than an hour and he was groggy and his hair was slick with sweat. He mumbled the beginning of the alphabet song, ABDC, over and over, reversing the letters, making strange motions with his hands. Something was wrong with him, and I knew, despite what Lynette said, that his parents were right in taking him to therapy twice a week.
“Well,” Lynette said. “Are you going to help us or not?”
She reminded me how she carted me everywhere in a wagon when I was young.
“I wasn’t no bigger than you,” she said. “Mom had left again. You don’t remember that, but I do. You took a can of tar from the shed and poured it all over the kitchen. I had to cut it out of your hair. I told Dad I did it.”
I considered driving straight into the corn or dropping her and the kid at a farmhouse, leaving town, never coming back. I could still see her just as she was back then, the police car parked in front of our house, her lying to our father, telling him she had been the one to make me steal the candy, the comic books, the records, and all the other things I couldn’t keep my hands from taking and stuffing into my mouth or under my shirt. I stole, and she slept with every boy in town. All through childhood she had stood before our father, telling me with her eyes to let her do the talking.
I hesitated too long. She put her hand on my arm. “Can’t you just do this one little thing? We’ll take the side roads. They’ll never find us. It’s not like we’re going to murder him or something.”
I told myself it didn’t matter if we turned back now or later, as long as she didn’t implicate me. “I had nothing to do with this,” I said. “I know nothing about a baptism, nothing about the daycare. As far as I know, we’re just going for a drive.”
I pulled onto the highway and headed out of town, and Lynette threw her arms around me and kissed my cheek. “It ain’t far,” she said. “I got the directions right here,” and she pointed to her head.