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Amarillo

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“Would you like to hear a story, little bird?”

It was the first question my grandma would ask me every summer night after we closed up the souvenir shop. Once selling top-of-the-line antiques with entire legacies behind them, my Grandma ChiChi and I went on to stocking the shelves with dream-catchers that fibbed on their plastic wrapping that they were made by local warriors. These chachkis told their battle stories boldly and proudly, even when they were, in truth, strung together on Chinese assembly lines.

Throughout every summer during high school, I got a nightly paycheck in dollars just like any kid unbothered by income taxes. My true pay, however, came in the form of tall glasses of milk, colorful sandwich slices, and a story to cap off my night. 

Didn’t matter how old I was. I always wanted to hear a story from ChiChi.

As I would get ready for bed, which was set up on a futon in a utility closet above the shop, ChiChi would stand in my doorway and tell me about the man with one eye who would steal your toes if you didn’t take your Iron supplements. When I got a little older, the story changed to being about the man with one eye who would hobble into the store with his pet monkey that gave out fortunes. The fortunes came in golden scrolls the size of your index finger, with the fortunes having a thirty percent probability of being accurate.

When I was eighteen, all I wanted was to hear stories from ChiChi until she could no longer tell them. In her final days, telling stories would be all that she would do. Hospice care had no idea what to do with her, and they had even less of an idea of what to do with me. By never leaving that chamber of death, I developed a rolodex of stories to complement ChiChi’s in preparation for all the dead air that would soon set in. The others in my family still get on my case a few times a year for not writing down any of ChiChi’s last words so I would remember them, and each time, I remind them that I never had to.

It only took two months for the souvenir shop to become a Starbucks. It’s where I had my interview to work as a counselor at Camp Amarillo five hours away. 

“Did y’all know you’d one day be a camp counselor?” my future boss asked me from the other side of the table.

“Y-Yes sir.”

“And how?”

I could think of nothing but a story.

“This man with one eye came in with his monkey earlier. The monkey gave me a fortune that said I was definitely getting this job. There’s a seventy-percent chance that he was lying, though.”

I could hear ChiChi’s laughter rattle in my cup as the interviewer sitting across from me howled. I got the job on the spot, and according to my new boss, if I planned on telling stories like those the whole time, I’d have the job for life. 

I’ve grown to be terrified by the idea of Chief's premonitions being accurate any of the time.

***

Here it is, my fifth summer out of a possible lifetime. People here refer to me as “the pro” to go to with any Camp Amarillo-related questions. I guess I’m qualified enough to be that. People also say that I’m “the one with the stories,” and I think that one’s more accurate.

However, first and foremost, I’m “the pro,” and pros like me wait in the infirmary with walking casualties like Amos Fernstein.

“Owwwwwww-uh.”

He’s mad at me because I made him cry earlier, but I’m not pressed to give a shit. I don’t care if he’s nine; I would call anyone an idiot if they’d honest to God let their friend shoot them in the eye in archery to see if or not their glasses would protect them. The glasses certainly did, but the right lens of Amos’ glasses is now lodged into his cornea instead of the tip of the arrow that lodged it in there.

Amos tells me that even though he lost his glasses, at least he’s getting ten bucks out of this. He asks me what he should spend it on. A new Power Ranger? Maybe some Yu-Gi-Oh! cards?

“Maybe I’ll buy, like, ten chocolate bars,” says Amos. I tell him that’s really stretching his dollar.

“Wow,” I say while filling out the incident report and imagining my eyebrows leaving the top of my forehead. “That’s really stretching your dollar.”

He has no idea what this means and kicks my seat and calls me stupid because one dollar isn’t ten.

The sixth question on the report asks me to visually describe the injury, and Christ, I don’t want to. This is the third or fourth incident report we have filed under Amos Fernstein, and this one is by far the most ghastly. The other reports were for things that could be settled with just a small bandage, a bag of ice, and some gauze. But the kid’s got a glass lens in his eye. There’s no blood, but it’s still somehow worse than anything I’ve ever seen in my five years of working here.

I write down all of this for the report.

Nurse Shirley finally comes in to see us after dealing with the kid hacking up undercooked dinosaur chicken nuggets in the next room. 

           Now, Shirley’s really the one who’s seen it all. For forty years, she’s helped campers gulp down their water and tell them that it’s only a scratch, a cramp, or a stomach ache, or that it's nothing that more water and less running can’t fix. When I asked her what the worst thing she ever saw was, she told me without blinking about this one kid who got catapulted off Da Blob in Lake Azul. A rite of passage for any new camper. So this kid, probably as small and sad as Amos, got launched from a giant, oblong mass of inflated latex into the air, expecting to smack perfectly into the crisp, cold water. Todd Boris never touched water that day.

Shirley caps this story the same way every time: “Didn’t land in a tree, poor child. The tree landed in him.”

Judging by how she’s looking at the two of us right now, I can imagine Shirley’s answer changing faster than she can scream, "Holy shit!"

The pitch of her cry nearly shreds the metal screening of the door behind us.

Shirley disappears with Amos into the back room before I can ask her to sign off on the report. I’ll get her signature after she gets off the phone with urgent care. Until then, I have plenty of time to brace myself.

 

***

 

“What a fuckin' idiot.”

“I know, Chief.”

Chief’s what we call him, even though the headmaster of Camp Amarillo, Barry Eugene Crawford, has no shred of Native American in him; I’m more Native than him, and my last name is Kobayashi. That being said, you don’t just go up to a 6’11”, 300 pound guy with “CHIEF” embossed on the leather of his hat, belt, wallet, and holster and not call him Chief.

I sign off on the incident report, and Chief scrawls out his Hancock underneath mine along with today’s date. 

“Is the kid okay at least?”

I shrug.

“Well, Shirley’s currently with him at the E.R. He should be okay,” I surmise like I’m too qualified for this job. “Shirley already called his parents, so they should be on their way now. I’m gonna have Stewey and Darrell help pack his bags after lunch gets out."

“Very good,” he says, even though nothing about this is good at all.

Nothing about the public view of this summer camp is good at all, and it’s been that way long before I was hired. It’s not like Chief doesn’t tend to the place; these Oklahoma grounds hold the only noticeable passion that Chief has in anything aside from making money and getting custom leather embossments. No, it’s because our campers like to shoot each other in the eyes with bows and arrows for ten dollars. There’s some big scandal every year that puts Amarillo in the local spotlight for all the wrong reasons. If it’s not a kitchen fire, it’s one of the horses getting rabies, and if not a horse, it’s a kid who now has to get a glass eye. As we speak, the Fernstein’s are flying all the way from Ontario to get him and, more than likely, lawyer up.

Chief starts packing his mahogany pipe with dried tobacco and offers it to me. I’m asthmatic. It’s on my file. It’s been on my file for five years. I tell Chief none of this and opt to just shake my head. 

He lights it, and I walk out without the incident report. As part of my mental preparation for taking Amos to the airport that night, I rehearse different ways to delicately put to the Fernstein’s that their son is an expletive mean-word.

 

***

 

“Good to see you again.”

She says this as if I don’t see her every night. 

The same greeting drives me batty sometimes. Nonetheless, I assure her that I’m back, and that it’s also good to see her, because it truly is. It’s nice to get a smile from anyone after meeting the two most wrathful people Canada has to offer. My cheek still stings from where Amos’ mother’s hand met my face.

“How are you, Clarabeth?”

Clarabeth’s name changes all the time. When I started working at this camp, the counselor who trained me, Danny Fitz, told me that her name was Clarabeth, so that’s what I call her. She goes by it, so I roll with it.

I begin to walk, while Clarabeth hovers over the grass alongside me. She tries hovering a little higher above the ground to close the head-sized gap between our heights.

“Fine, fine,” she puts her hand to her cheek, musing, “I liked it better when my hair was red, though.”

I turn to her and say with a shrug and a smile, “I guess that’s not the story now. According to Marcy, your hair is made of snakes.”

Clarabeth pets the head of a python currently coiling around her neck. Clarabeth’s skin is a moving marble, like someone is perpetually pouring milk into her spirit. She moans while scratching at the milk in her arms, “But who would say such a thing about a person?”

“Some of these counselors really like to give the younger ones a scare,” I say, failing to give it much thought in the past.

Us counselors have to learn a bunch of stories to tell our campers whenever we have to wait on something. Most counselors these days normally resort to games, but stories, according to the training manual, are “BEYOND encouraged.” If the nurse is taking an extra long time doing her cabin lice checks, it’s best to tell the story of the girl who haunts these woods. The version Danny taught me when I first came to Camp Amarillo goes something like this:

 

Clarabeth Hawthorne was the crimson-headed, doll-like daughter of C.H. Hawthorne, a wealthy aristocrat who got his money curating artwork in New York. Some like to say he was an archaeologist. Others, an actuary. Depends on the campers’ interest, or lack thereof. 

One year, the Hawthorne family came here for holiday vacation. Clarabeth was bored on this vacation, as was her pesky younger brother, who dared her to go into the deepest part of the woods. It was there where he buried her favorite carnation brooch passed down the matriarchs of their bloodline for generations. If she came back with this brooch, the brother declared, not only would she be reunited with her birthright, but he would never steal anything from her again.

This, apparently, was enough cause for the proud sixteen-year-old girl, with no overcoat, nothing, to go into the woods alone and never return after one bad turn too many. Danny, being the sadistic soul he was, liked to tease our campers by saying that the brother never put her brooch in the woods. If he thought his current batch of boys could stomach some more cruelty, Danny would throw in that the brooch was never even stolen.

 

Long before Danny, and much longer after him, the story has changed and changed again. Some counselors didn’t think the story was scary enough for the younger kids to be interested, so they had Clarabeth, black-haired and red-eyed, killing her entire family before running off into the woods. Others, finding this version to be a little too morbid, had Clarabeth be a woodland spirit with the face of a yellow rabbit who guided people to the center of the forest, only to leave them there to die. Many more reiterations of Clarabeth’s origins exist around the campfires and under the cabin roofs.

The only thing that never changes in these stories is the disclaimer that the ghost of Clarabeth Hawthorne is not real, nor was she ever.

“So, how was your day?” Clarabeth asks me. 

“It was fine,” I say, only half-lying. “I had to send one of mine home today. His parents tore me a new one.”

“But was he not the one who---”

“Had that damn Chadley kid shoot him in the eye? Oh no, that’s the one. We're going to figure out what we're supposed to do with him tonight."

My name echoes across the hill lit only by the moon above us and the cabin ahead where Chief’s office resides. I see the silhouette of my counselor-in-training, Ashton, waving frantically for me like Chief’s office is on fire. He starts walking, then trotting towards me. Chief probably told him to trot because he thought that would be funny. It is.

“Speak of the devil, and he shall...” I say. I turn to Clarabeth only to see that she has disappeared.

Then, I remember that I haven’t told Ashton about her yet. I don’t have to. Our campers care far more about Four Square.

***

 

“Enjoying the Goldfish?”

If the bowl of Goldfish wasn’t sitting in front of Chadley, anyone would think that this is a police interrogation. After a sip of his orange juice, Chadley glares up from the other side of Chief’s desk to announce to me, Chief, and my co-counselor Ashton, “I’m not telling anyone shit.”

Ashton gives me a look that gives away how out of his element he is. The last summer camp he worked at was some bougie Jesus one in Connecticut that had polo and figure painting and grape juice and cheese cubes. The most scandalous thing to happen while he worked there was some girl who spilled pomegranate juice on her friend’s Ralph Lauren sweater after she called her a bitch. When asked in his interview what the most difficult situation he ever had to alleviate on his own was, sweet, sweet Ashton, after bouts of hesitation, said it was this.

His blue eyes are practically screaming, "We didn’t go over the section that covers kids shooting out the eyeballs of other kids in the manual!”

My stare back tells him that we’re Chadley’s counselors, and that fact is power, but it was best for him to just watch and learn.

“You don’t have to tell anyone anything,” I say to Chadley. “I was there. So was Ashton. We saw it all.”

I turn to Ashton and pause, waiting for him to nod and say, with more passion than my eyes bargained for, “Yeah! So did four of your fellow Amarilloans, s...so don’t try to lie about it now.”

Chadley would try anyway because that’s what Chadley thinks he’s good at. He changed his first name every single day since he got here, so to nip this after the first week, all the counselors started calling him exclusively by his last name once a camper found it sewn into his underwear. We even got the cooks and Chief in on it. It would get Chadley too flustered to try to come up with a name that sounded less white-bread, so he eventually receded. Tonight, however, would be a much tougher nut for us to crack.

“Well, Mr. Chadley,” Chief leans his potbelly over his desk, trying to be tender towards the kid but still exerting his dominance over the space. “What d’y’all have to say for yourself?”

Chadley, thirteen but acting two, folds his arms and huffs.

“Nothing,” he turns his head, only willing to make eye contact with the taxidermized squirrels Chief had commissioned to fly-fish in squirrel-sized vests and galoshes. “I want a lawyer.”

I also lean over the desk, whispering, “So do the Fernstein’s. Good thing they have one.”

Chadley squints at me like he’s the only asshole I’ve ever had to deal with.

Ashton is quaking. He’s been constantly pulling out his comb to get his front piece to stay down, but all his sweat is making the gel in his hair melt. Still, he sees what Chief and I are doing and also leans his body over the desk.

“You guys have it all wrong anyway," Chadley growls.

“Oh yeah?” I ask.
“Yeah. Yeah, you do.”

“H-How so?” Ashton clears his throat.

“I saw Amos get shot in the eye. I didn’t actually do it.”

“How would you explain what Ashton, myself, and eight other campers saw, then?”

“I don’t know, genius. I can’t explain everything,” Chadley shrugs again. “But I know who actually shot Amos in the eye. I’m the only one who could have actually seen it. I was framed. What you saw was a mirage.”

“Okay, O Genius Chadley,” I get comfortable as I watch him harden his paper-thin exterior with more water. “If it wasn’t you, and if it wasn’t one of the squirrels in the corner you keep wanting to look at fishing for air instead of us three”---he whirled his head back to me---”then who was it? Who ‘framed’ you?”

Chadley’s head spins on its axis. I can see him grinding his mud-caked sneakers into the carpet as though he were digging out a bunker for himself. He’s sinking, and he knows that, and I revel in telling Clarabeth about how this kid really tried to pull a fast one. I think of where in the narrative I should inflect my voice that would have the most impact rather than the possibility of me losing to some kid whose mom sent him here as punishment.

Then, he smiles like he’s won.

“Clarabeth did it. She’s sick of all these chickenshit stories everyone tells about her and won’t rest ‘til she gets revenge. Mark my words.”

Chief’s eyes are beaming.

After Ashton sends Chadley to the solitary camper room in the infirmary and all campers are well off to bed, the staff have an emergency meeting to decide Chadley’s fate decided by an anonymous hand-raise. It’s a unanimous decision. 

Only one person votes for him to stay.

 

***

 

Chadley’s mom picked him up this morning. Everyone who was standing in the parking lot during breakfast learned that Chadley’s real name is, hilariously enough, Chadley. There isn’t much else to laugh at, however, seeing as how Chadley Chadley’s mother is unquestionably now part of the legal fray. 

It’s why Roxanne O. Quintel, Esquire, rolled up in a Toyota Prius in a purple a Toyota Prius doesn’t come in just hours after Chadley’s mother’s silver Prius pulled out.

Me, her, and Chief are now surrounding Chief’s voicemail box. Ashton, meanwhile, is taking the boys to lunch. After Amos’ unceremonious dismissal, five of me should be corralling those beasts, who would love more than anything to get their Hamiltons and their battle scars in even stupider ways.

After we fast-forward Chief’s first two messages about his car’s warranty expiring and a reminder that his jacket was ready for pick-up from the steamers, we get to the most recent message. 

A paraphrase:

“Yes, hello, this is Goldy Fernstein, Amos’ mother. I’m currently home with my ailing Amos, who is now BLIND in one eye all because of your sham of a camp. His prospects in horseback-riding are now ruined,”

I hear the lady on the phone rasp something under her breath to the effect of, “Cry harder.” What follows is gargling that is a pre-recorded, acoustic performance of Amos’ anguish. It’s unmistakable. 

“I am calling you, Mr. Crawford, to inform you that my husband and I plan on suing you and your ‘camp’ (I imagine the quotes) for ten million dollars for your neglect of my son during the ten days he was in your care. He could have died from being shot like that! What is a summer camp doing with a bunch of weapons that could potentially kill children, anyway?!”

And so on, and so on, and so on, and so on. 

Eight minutes and twelve seconds later, Quintel clicks her nail against the “END” button. The next message begins. Another paraphrase:

“You pieces of shit want to turn around and blame this on my boy?”

This man never introduces himself, but he doesn’t have to.

“Maybe your counselors should spend more time watching the goddamn kids instead of brainwashing them into thinking some fucking ghosts are real. I thought you ran a Christian establishment, Barry. What the hell is my son doing in a commune where he makes macaroni hippie shit and hears all these stories? But no, it’s my son at fault! And for what? Don’t y’all know what ‘horsing around’ is? And you’re gonna punish my boy for---”

“Y’all know the rest of this one, I’m sure.”

Quintel clicks the “END” button again. She’s already done her homework based on what she begins pulling out of her suitcase, which is in the same shade of purple as her Prius. She points at the voicemail box and says, “I deal with parents like that all the time. Can’t help the dumb nature of kids and the dumber things they do,” Quintel pushes a platnium curl into place. “But that should never undermine the ability to save y’all’s hide.”

Chief swivels in his chair to glance up at me on his right side.

“Listen,” she says, “Y’all are in deep shit. There’s no denying that. But it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

“Seen a kid get shot in the eye before?” I ask her.

“Picture it: August, 2007,” Quintel holds up her palms to frame the memory into a wallet-sized anecdote. “Boy’s in riflery class. Counselor tells him to set his gun down on the mat with the safety on. What does this kid do? Take up the rifle, hold it up to the counselor, and yell, ‘BANG!’”---Quintel holds her invisible rifle in the air towards Ashton as he walks into the office, making him jolt---”thinking the safety was on. And it wasn’t. Barrel, jammed. Gun, fired backwards on the kid. Half his face”---she quickly swipes her hand across her left cheek---”gone.”

“Then what happened?” Chief asks after a pull from his pipe. I find it rude to cough in the middle of a story.

“He and his family didn’t last ten minutes in court, that’s what happened. They tried to wring twenty million out of this camp in Texas for having guns and kids on the same land. Jury was about as moved as Satan in church.”

“Not at all?” Ashton asks. My eyes are watering so much that I can hardly see him assuming his position next to me.

“Not at all,” Quintel confirms. “Put kids in a world outside their own like summer camp, and they’ll go on thinkin’ it’s a fantasy land with no rules, even if that land’s got weapons. But y’all got the land, so y’all also got the power. If anything, lookin’ at these files, I’m surprised y’all haven’t needed a lawyer ‘til now.”

“Oh, we’ve needed lawyers,” Chief grumbles, “It’s just that it’s never been this messy before.”

That’s true enough.

“Well, I’m here to clean it. Not like anyone’s gonna be pegged for negligence if two of y’all were there with a little troop of witnesses. Jury’ll wonder why a kid shot another kid in the eye for ten bucks before they sit and wonder why counselors would tell ghost stories at a summer camp and the moralities ‘hind that.”

Quintel begins to pack up her suitcase and we all take a turn at shaking her hand. Ashton thanks her eight times and apologizes for cutting in twelve times, while Chief makes some comment about how a girl like her is too young and too pretty for blah-blah-blah. Finally, she gets to me. 

As the plumpness of her peach hand meets the fish-bones of my tan one, I say with a wink, “I’d be careful out there if I were you. Clarabeth’s got a tendency to shoot lawyers at this time of day.”

“Oh-hoh?” smirks Quintel. “And just how often are y’all right?”

“About thirty percent of the time,” I say. She laughs and calls me a keeper.

“What a keeper,” she exclaims to Chief while sliding something in my pocket.

The clack of Quintel’s high heels signal her leave. Hand on the plywood door frame, Quintel tells us with one foot out the door, “I’ll come again Thursday. Rest easy ‘cause it’s now all in my hands. Any angry parents, just send ‘em my way, hear? Y’all take care, now. ”

She gives me a final wink. The second Quintel’s other foot leaves the threshold, an arrow flies directly through the side of her head, tip meeting membrane. Knees, chest, head collapsing to the ground. 

Ashton wails. Cold air enters my lungs. Water finally gushes from my boiled eyes. Chief is swearing under his breath. We all kneel at her side, but it’s too late.

I turn my head to where Quintel’s horrified, glass gaze is pointing to. 

Clarabeth. Bow in hand. Nothing but a flash through the trees.

 

***

 

Chief, after hiding Quintel’s body under his desk, goes on the camp intercom to announce that Camp Amarillo is closed indefinitely. 

“All campers, please start calling home from the mess hall and pool house phones. All counselors,” Chief takes off his ten-gallon hat to reveal his growing bald-spot caked with sweat. “Please stay with your campers at all times and assist them with the moving-out process. I repeat…”

Needless to say that this announcement was met with stampede after stampede of counselors with their troops in tow flooding into Chief’s office to ask what in the hell was going on. Chief told me to make up a story, anything aside from the truth hiding under his desk.

It was Ashton who started spinning the yarn about how Chief’s mother was faring extremely poorly in the hospital, and with all the stress of everything going on, he wanted to be with her for the rest of the summer. It’s Amarillo training manual policy: if Chief’s not here, then neither is camp. Ashton didn’t break a sweat fishing through the manual to point out the single article to his superiors that proved this. It couldn’t be argued, nor could the condition of Chief’s ailing mother. Who would dare to try?

Ashton bats his eyelashes at the exact same moment every time he finishes his explanation:

“I’d close camp, too”---blink---”with all the tragedy that’s been surrounding it lately.”

And the counselors usually come back with a different iteration of the same phrase: “Heavy shit, man. Felt that.”

Nothing stops campers from crying to their parents about how their counselor’s dead and Chief’s dead and everyone’s dying and how soon they’ll be dying too right before an adult can rip the phone from their hand and give it to the next hysterical child in line.

All the campers are out, whether now in an airport or an equally hysterical parent’s sedan, by five. Chief now wants me to gather every last staff member on the grounds and bring them into his office.

Three words are given to the entire congregation: “You’re all fired.”

They pick up their pay envelopes, which compensated and then some for the rest of the summer, on the way out. Ashton, being as tragically wrapped up in all this as he is, is the one who has to hand them out and swallow each piercing glare. Some threaten to Chief that they’ll be hearing from their lawyer, but Chief only nods with his sweaty lips in a solemn line hidden under his drooping moustache. If Chief feels extra guilty, he’ll look down, only to quickly stare back up at the screaming counselor I’d have to help Ashton escort out. 

Every car is out of the parking lot except my PT Cruiser and Chief’s black Dodge Ram within twenty minutes.

Now, Ashton’s trying to nurse a broken finger over Chief’s desk. Chief and I are too occupied to tell him that we’re impressed with him, but I am. I genuinely am. He makes do with wrapping his finger with one of his own socks because, 1. Shirley’s currently cursing her way down I-44, and 2. We used all the gauze in the infirmary for the unbelievable story hiding under Chief’s desk. Despite his injury, Chief gives him his final task as my counselor-in-training:

“I need y’all to do somethin’ with…”

Chief can’t say it.

Ashton looks up from his finger, murmuring, “You want me to---” 

Chief says nothing as Ashton begins to weep.

“Chief, I can’t. I can’t. You want me to lie, and now you want me to lie even more?”

“You had no problem with it earlier!”

“Those were just words to help alleviate the situation,” Ashton wraps his finger even tighter, the tip of it as blue as Lake Azul across the way. “I didn’t mind it then because it helped people calm down.”

“Well, you’d be helping me a mighty l...lot,” Chief began to pull Quintel out from under the desk by her wrists, wiggling her body out with each wheeze from his gut. “If you...just…”

With a final exhale that is probably far louder than needed, Chief now has Quintel laid out on his striped rug that he says he got from a Navajo chief. I’ve never had the cajones to tell anyone that ChiChi sold that same rug in blue, green, and red with purple stripes. Chief, opting for the Amazon exclusive of yellow with orange stripes, tells Ashton to, “Just roll ‘er up in the carpet. Not like it’s salvageable after this. Never liked it, anyway.”

“We should call the police,” says Ashton.

“And you,” Chief turns and points to me with the finger on his left hand with the least amount of rings on it. “Your job’s even more important.”

“My cousin’s a cop and he could help us,” says Ashton, voice wavering. “A-And my dad…”

Chief tells me to, “You handle that crazy ass Katniss in my woods. I’m serious, Mickey.”

“Mitsuki.”

“Take care of it.”

So I do and leave them be.

 

***

 

“Clarabeth? Clarabeth?”

I’ve gone into the woods unarmed, despite Chief’s advice to grab and load a rifle from the Shootin’ Shed. I’m the only one who has the keys to the six rifles in there. The training manual calls this a “seniority privilege,” when really, I’m the only guy in Amarillo aside from Chief who’s a half-decent shot. And even then, I only know Chief’s a half-decent shot from the half-decent stories he tells.

A transcribing of one of several:

 

“It was ‘83. Or was it ‘84? Anyway, the boys and I would line up Coke cans down the mailboxes and bang out one after the other. Whoever got the most got treated to however many he shot in tall, tall cans of beer. Guess who always got the most, Mikey.”

“You did.”

“I did! Eight outta twelve was my average. Sometimes I could get a nine on a good Friday. But you know. Listen, I’d really go out into those woods. Really.”

Chief had his hand on his holster. Ashton had left with the body after several minutes of him protesting to deaf and helpless ears. Neither Chief nor myself could possibly tell how much time had passed since Ashton left.

“I’ll hold things down here. On your way back, make sure Ashton actually did it, alright?” Chief asked. “Kid’s not all there. Not sure if I trust him yet.”

“Got it.”

“Oh, that’s right, it was nine! Nine outta twelve. Got ten on a good day. Can you believe that, Mike?”

“No.”

And I don’t.

The last time Chief told that story, he said his average was ten out of fifteen cans. 

 

I continue to call out for Clarabeth as the sun begins to fall over the trees.

“You’re safe!” I say, like it will help in her case, “There’s no one here to hurt you! It’s only me.”

After five summers, I know these woods like the back of my hand. Despite this, I feel like I’ve turned myself around five times. It’s hard for me to say how long I’ve been trying to look for Clarabeth, but it’s never been this hard for me to find her; I’ve never had to find her before.

I don’t smoke, but I still always keep a lighter in my front pocket. As I pull it out, I feel the butt of the lighter scrape against cardstock.

Flicking the lighter with one hand, I hold the business card to the light in the other.

The front, embossed in gold:

ROXANNE QUINTEL

ATTORNEY-AT-LAW

BUSINESS DISPUTE? CALL: 918-QUINTEL

 

The back, in red pen:

918-716-5151

 

The second I look up from the card, the air starts to crack around me. It’s cold and engulfing and puts out my lighter faster than any of the several times I try to nurse a flame around my palm. The bright yellow work tee I have on clings to my ribs, the wind whistling through every fiber. I hold my hardened chest in my fingers. I try to think of any story ChiChi told me of a chill as bitter as this one. Nothing comes to mind.

There is no moon in the wailing sky above me. My fists flop into my pockets as I fall to my knees. Leaves scratch up my skin like razors.

“You would never hurt anyone, Clarabeth,” I can hardly hear my own words, not even knowing if they’re true. “You never have, you never do, you never will.”

I’m so tired. Overwhelmed, I fall on my back, only able to mouth Clarabeth’s name. 

I feel tears, I’m so helpless. The last time I cried was over ChiChi’s grave, and apparently, I didn’t cry hard enough. As I lay here, unable to lift my arms to wipe the tears away, every droplet feels like a thousand pounds pulling the rest of my body into the soil.

A loud bang in the distance makes a few owls leave their hiding spots in the branches. I look up at their wings crossing and slashing across the stars. I send my final beckons for Clarabeth out on their wings. I want to tell her that there’s nothing to be scared of, and none of this is her fault, even if it is. I don’t know what else to say, how else to tell her that I don’t want her to suffer. I don’t even know if she was ever mine to help, to find, to tell about. 

I don’t know how to help any of it, ChiChi.

“Mitsuki! Mitsuki!”

I never have. I never do. I never will. 

“We need to go right now. I’ll explain in the car, but I messed up. I messed up BIG time, and we just...we need to go. I panicked really bad and I---oh, Jesus, Mitsuki!”

I’m propped up against a tree, my vision of him clouded by one liquid falling into another. I want to tell him the story of what’s overtaken me, but not even I know it. I’d hardly have the air for it if I did.

“Thank God, you’re still breathing. Listen, I just...couldn’t go through with putting that lady in the lake, so I tried bringing her back to Chief’s office, and he started banging his fists on the desks and screaming his head off and said he was gonna kill me and you and burn it all down if he had to, and I saw your keys on the floor, and I ran out to the shed because I couldn’t think of what else to do and...God, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

Ashton pulls out my lighter and the card from the leaves. The blue wrapping of the lighter glistens for a moment before Ashton puts it away.

Soon, I’m flying on Ashton’s shoulders. He’s apologizing to me every second his panting allows for, but I’m too drained to respond to him. My knees bounce around his heart, and I can feel his tears blazing against my cheeks before disappearing forever.

I grip around Ashton’s neck as he freezes before Chief’s office. My toes are touching the ground.

“Where is she?” I croak.

Ashton slightly turns his head, but I can’t see his expression. All he says is, “Back under the desk. Listen, just please let me take care of this, okay? I’ll explain the rest in the car on our way south.”

Ashton doesn’t finish as he pulls out the lighter and the card. There’s no wind. Only fire. 

As Ashton darts away from the cabin now engulfed in flames, I see a silhouette before the fire grow smaller and smaller before disappearing forever. I don’t see Clarabeth.

I don’t see anything.

 

***

“My girl...my girl...don’t lie to me…”

“Oh, thank God. You’re awake.”

It’s pink. I open my eyes a little more, and the sky is filled with it.

“Tell me where...did you sleep...last night…”

Nirvana’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” is currently playing because it’s the only thing that will play in this car. When ChiChi bought this PT Cruiser from the dealership, the salesman failed to mention that not only did the radio not work, but the last owner gave up this car because his ex-girlfriend put in a copy of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged CD and got it stuck in the player. It’s amazing what you can find out from a salesman after stalking his dealership a few times. The car was always filled with ChiChi’s words, so she never needed to play anything. As for me, I can tell you that it takes about four listens of the entire album to get from Tulsa to Camp Amarillo.

“I can turn this off if you want. Sorry if it woke you up,” Ashton turns off the player, his other hand keeping the wheel steady. “ Also sorry for, um...you know. Stealing your car. I panicked, so...”

I slowly turn my head to Ashton. I’m sore all over so it takes me a minute. Ashton’s been crying. He’s still wearing his uniform shirt tucked into his khaki shorts. Both are stained with blood. He only gives me a quick side glance before focusing on the road again. 

I’m too tired to ask where we’re going.
“We’re heading to Mexico. We’re quite a few hours away from camp at this point, so I think we’re ahead of the curve. We should be, anyway. Eat that Uncrustable I gave you.”

My eyes flit downward to see the white morsel with peanut butter and jelly inside sitting on my lap. Ashton adds that he got some milk to go with it like that will entice me to eat.

I turn my head behind me. There’s nothing but a shrinking road, but I also see the sky enveloped in threatening globs of grey and black. I turn back around to see cotton candy and dreams filled in the clouds ahead.

“Here. Take this.”

Ashton puts something small and cold in my lap. I trace the object in my fingers, looking down to see sapphire petals glint against the sunset. The golden stem of the carnation branches out like little veins that could break off and get lost with a single gust of wind.

“It’s, uh...a good luck charm. My sister used to carry it around with her all the time before she ran away. Then I got it from her. It normally goes to all the women in our family, but…” Ashton catches himself. “Claire wanted me to have it.”

I press the brooch in my hands and find myself saying with a small laugh, “I guess some things are never meant to be found.”

I don’t know if Ashton doesn’t hear me, or if he’s decided to ignore me, because he’s already delving into our story if border patrol asks for it. As I begin to drift off to sleep again, I see Quintel swiping her hand across her face, Chief mimicking shooting one can after the other, Chadley getting blue in the face with his lies, Shirley getting red in the face with shock, and ChiChi getting grey in the face with death. I see Ashton’s horrified wail twist into a thin line across his lips relaying the story he had rehearsed for years.

I unfold my hands to see the brooch in one hand and an outline of it pressed into my other palm.

“Say goodbye to America, Mitsuki. This is the last you’ll see of it for a while,” Ashton Hawthorne says. 

“Her husband was...a hard working man. Just about a mile...from here…” Kurt Cobain says.
“Where are we going?” I say, already knowing the answer.

“Wherever will take two dropout stoners from Arkansas,” Ashton answers. “Just looking for some cheap work…”

“...his head was found in a driving wheel…”

 “...and, like, trying to escape from the rest of the world, man.”

“...but his body never was found.”

I nod and accept that there’s nothing else for me to say. With the petrified flower still in my hands and the never-setting sun ahead, I let the putters of my engine lull me back to sleep.

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