Where Drowned Children Go
Under the new moon, drowned children come out of Hollis’ river. I don't know how long it's been this way. The notes from sheriffs before me go back almost 100 years. They're called "foundlings" in those notes. My momma and grammy called them "water-children." I suppose we should wonder more about what makes Hollis so special. But part of the magic is you don't think about it too much. The world spins on to new and better and faster and we gather drowned children from the river to raise as our own. It was easy to believe this was all too precious to lose.
It was seventeen years ago that I brought Clara home from the river, the only child I'd ever gotten. I had visions of her and my natural daughter, Sam, growing up together. Sam pulled along by Clara's water-child current up and out. The foundlings always left town when they grew up. They forgot us. Another part of that magic. I thought Sam would go with her, share in that long, sun-glittered road the water-children followed. I thought Clara had to be a sign of better things. That was the winter I'd kicked Boone out after six years of marriage. The winter an accident at the mine brought back memories of my brother's death. The union made noise. The company laid people off. A meanness tensed through Hollis like we could feel the blow of mine's closing already rushing down on us. As a deputy, I saw that ugliness up close: fights at Old Mag's more about pain than pride; more ODs; more domestic calls. Seemed half of everyone was walking around with black eyes and bruised knuckles.
I hadn't been to the river in the five years since having Sam and needed that long breath of quiet when the magic takes hold. The river was so different in the winter, fragile and unbreakable at the same time. The silence was thick, like that magic was always half-happening. The night was clear, stars so sharp I wanted to reach up and feel the edges where they'd been punched through the night. The sky was wide then, the forest across the river still only shrubs and loose rock, Rosie's wind turbines still years away.
I heard ice crisp away from the bank as the water moved and shut my eyes in a hurry. Until they took a hand, the drowned children were skittish as deer. Any flash of eyes and they'd vanish in a splash of water. Little footsteps crackled through the skirt of ice, then disappeared in soft snow. I felt heaviness in that silence like loss that hadn't quite hit yet, almost suffocating. Sometimes that's all it was: heaviness and time passing, then the wind starts lowing in the trees and we go home. I heard a sound, hard and fluttering, coming closer. Chattering teeth, I realized the second before ice wrapped tight around my leg. Shit, she was cold. I guess some kind of training took over. Don't know if it was motherhood or deputy-hood, but I had my jacket off, hat, gloves, and bundled around her, all with my eyes closed. She was so skinny, I could have folded her up like an umbrella. I rushed the tiny, shivering thing to my Bronco, wrapped her in dusty blankets I kept in the back, and drove hard for home.
I ran a bath and poured hot broth into the blue girl. Her frozen vacancy started to thaw and my panic settled down into a stunned awe. Sam had woken with all the noise and stood watching us with her fingers in her mouth. She got pajamas for the foundling and offered her own bed without my even asking.
"You get to sleep with Momma tonight for being such a good sister," I told Sam.
"She's my sister?" Samantha asked.
"Yes, she is," I said.
"What's her name?"
"She doesn't have one yet."
"Um... we could call her Little! Because she's so little!"
"That's a silly name for a girl," I said and tried to think of something but my mind was swimming in the let-down after excitement. I thought about waking Boone to ask him, then remembered he was sleeping at his brother's place now.
"Clara!" Sam shouted.
I shushed her, smiling, warmed by that first thought that she could float away on this water-child's movement to school and a job elsewhere. Not that Hollis was a bad place, or West Virginia. They just felt so full of holes. That deep hole that'd killed my brother and suffocated my papa in his bed. Or that hole Boone dug to the bottom of bottle after bottle, after some imagined deposit of happiness his soul just wouldn't bear. A hole that Sam would find for herself.
* * *
When we were young, we used to tell stories about the Beast, some toothy, shadowy thing that haunted the woods. You'd come across a squirrel flattened in the road and say the Beast got it and sucked out all its insides. We'd blame the Beast when a dog went missing or a father didn't come home. We used to whisper that the foundlings didn't really move away, but that the Beast ate them, that there were trees in the deep woods hung with their empty skins. Those stories died for me when I realized that, if there was anything feeding out there, it only fed on us locals and it looked like accidents and bad luck. So it was a shock, seventeen years after getting Clara, to feel all the horror of those stories grip me again as I stood next to Sam's body and saw the empty clothes flagging from the low branches of a tree.
Someone called for the sheriff. I ignored them. I'd been the sheriff when we'd gotten the call about a body near the highway overpass. I'd been the sheriff when we'd pulled him out then worked our way upstream to figure out where he'd come from. I'd been the sheriff up until I spotted Sam's body against a dead tree, crumpled and twisted by the current. Now, I was just a mother standing next to her dead daughter, shivering from the cold. The firefighters and deputy gave me a wide berth as they dealt with a third body. I should call Clara, I thought. They had been practically sisters, at least for a while there. Clara had been carried up and out to college in Pittsburgh by her current. Sam, though, had only made it as far as this snag.
I knelt next to her and plucked a few leaves from her hair. I could see the soft inside of her arm. No obvious needle tracks, just some faint bruises that would never heal. God, she looked so young, like the sweet girl she was when I'd taken her to the river for her first new moon. I looked up and spotted Rosie's windmills, white and shining downstream. An eyesore, sure, but a symbol of something that would carry over to tomorrow. And between, that water still moving away. I couldn't stand seeing it move. I couldn't wrap my brain around the calm certainty of it. How was all this here? How could it all be here?
Unsteady footsteps behind me. I turned, wiping tears from my eyes. "Shit," Boone said, looking pale and overwhelmed, staring past me at our daughter. I stood, felt like I should collapse into him, but then like I shouldn't. We all understood that life took hard turns, a sheriff better than most. I put a hand on his shoulder. He gripped my arm, hard. I couldn't watch the loss work his face over; it was too much like my own. So I looked up again to watch the great, swinging blades of the turbines beating toward a future that my little girl would never see.
Boone helped me lay Sam into my Bronco. To hell with protocols, I'd drive her myself. Boone rode with me, both of us held down by too much shock to say anything. Coming into Hollis, I could see pieces of Sam's death scattered all over. A piece in the gas station where Sam had worked, advertising BEER like it was the only service that mattered. I could see it in the windows of all those closed-up businesses on Main, vacant windows like the scabby stares of junkies. Sam's stare.
Old Mag's bar was still there and the sheriff's office; the undertakers' somber at the far end of town. In the middle, yellow awning bright, sat Rosie Day's cafe. It played a strange attraction on the people around Hollis. The Day family had always had money that seemed to be endless and come from nowhere. That was a strong mark against them around people who worked hard for barely enough. Rumors had it coming from bootlegging or drug trafficking or investment banking depending on which generation you asked. Rosie herself was too damn friendly. She was like summertime pavement: fine to cross quick but makes you squirm after a time. But her food was good and her prices low, so people complained about her and went to her place every day.
I put my windows down despite the chill, a bad smell starting to roll my stomach. Maybe it was coming from the river mud we'd had to drag Sam through. Maybe it was just Boone, reeking of skunked beer and wasted strength. He left me alone with Sam in the back and went to keep away the gawkers and well-wishers. In private, I could fold myself over with grief, take samples for toxicology, try to clean the leaves from her hair.
My daughter was buried on a warm, sunny day when the buds were just starting to pop. Everyone tried to look somber but I could tell the nice weather made them impatient for something happier than a young woman's funeral. Rosie hosted the luncheon after and I accepted mostly because, well, I couldn't stand making one more damned decision. People said the same things over and over in a way that was irritating and exhausting and comforting. Boone slid away from the sobriety he'd held on to since we'd found Sam. It was sad to watch him slip away, but I didn't have the energy to hold him up.
In the end, it was just me and Rosie left at her place. I wanted to go but couldn't, everything too heavy to move. A lonely drive to a house huge with Sam's absence.
Rosie locked the door and pulled bourbon out from under the counter.
"Hope you won't arrest me for this, Sheriff," she said with a smile. I felt too drained to even shake my head. She poured a little into a couple of coffee mugs and we took a sip together. She didn't say anything but busied herself with the thousand little actions of tidying.
"You remember Clara, right?" I asked her when I got to the bottom of my first mug.
"She was your river adoptee?" Rosie asked.
"That's a way of putting it. My momma would've said 'water-child.'" I stopped talking suddenly remembering the rumors that Rosie was a water child herself. The only one that'd ever stayed. Some said her whole family was from the river. Like invasive fish from some larger, exotic place bullying off the smaller natives.
"That does sound prettier," she said.
"You ever think about leaving?" I asked her.
"Sure, I've thought about it." She drained her mug, winced at the liquor after-burn, and poured out another. "But I have my giant wind-flowers to watch after now. You can always find a reason to stay."
Spring was tipping over into those first, sweaty days of summer. After all the rains that had swollen the river for Sam, we'd gone dry in a hurry, clay going from slick to dust, roadsides going to whispering tan. On a whim, I look lunch out to visit Boone at the mine. It was one of those days where it feels like everything is coated in old jam.
I chirped my siren at the mine's gate until Boone shuffled out from behind a building where he'd been sleeping one off in the shade.
I held up a six-pack. "Official business." He grunted and leaned into the gate to open it for me. We'd been separated for 15 years but I still found him good company so long as I didn't expect anything from him.
We settled ourselves on an old mound of waste sparked with drying fire pink and columbine. We drank in silence overlooking rail lines drowning in an overgrowth of weeds, the crumbling, broken wall of the mountain greening up in front of us. Something about the desolation of old mine equipment, the collapsing tipple, the rusted chutes, gave me a peaceful feeling. It was like watching an old dog fall asleep.
"How's the house?" he asked.
"Quiet," I said then took a hard swallow of beer to force the lump back down. I'd meant it to be a joke but it just reminded me of all the fights with Sam. Her trying to slam her door in my face but only getting that unsatisfying whump of cheap construction. I used to describe my home life like 'Nam: all ambushes and napalm. And now just silence.
"Spend a lot of time over at Rosie’s," I added.
"Yeah, I seen you. You two are thick."
"Talking about how to make some jobs."
"Don't know we need some rich, college girl telling us how to live," he said.
I felt a chill feather across my ankle from those miles of dark below us. Growing up, my papa told me the only man-eating Beast in these hills was the one we made ourselves. He meant the unmarked wildcat mines, hand-dug bell pits, narrow at the top and widening underground, worked fast until the walls looked like they were starting to collapse, then abandoned. Some held up just enough for raspberries and mountain laurels to patch a trap of dead leaves over the top. Then there was the main mine swallowing men and spitting them back black with coal dust. Sometimes it kept a few. The accident that killed my brother and five others wasn't even covered on the news. News goes for frantic, suspenseful work to pull men out after weeks of no food or water. Miracle shit. Ours were just dead. My papa died, too, though in his bed. Black lung. Killed by that mine sure as my brother was.
Boone was only here because of that hole's knack for killing. The Dawson kid had found his way into the sealed tunnels and died there. Had taken us a week to find his body. As part of the settlement, the mining company agreed to hire a guard to keep off curious kids. I'd only just fired Boone for wrapping his patrol car around a utility pole. So, I dug hard for him to get this job.
"It's a shame it only takes one person to watch it," I said.
"Could do something else with it," Boone said, finishing his second beer.
"Like what?" I liked this side of Boone: the researcher, curious almost to the point of obsession sometimes.
"They'll store hazardous materials down there." He crushed the can and threw it, flashing in an arc, to rasp into the spiny brush. "They'll use them for farms."
I laughed. "Bullshit."
"Sure. Mushrooms. These special ones they use to make medicine."
"Or computers. They'll put a big bank-vault door on the front and rent space to banks and hospitals."
"You've looked into this," I said, handing him another beer. Boone shrugged. Maybe having some mystery to work on would have kept Boone away from his drinking. But there was only the river. That couldn't be solved, not that he didn't try. He found those drowned kids that came out of our river, matching gender and ages with reports from around the country. Why some came here and not others, he could never figure out. But I know he had a list of names, the birth names that every foundling had before coming to our river. He used to stay up reading that list. Maybe he still did. I stopped looking at it when I got Clara. I wondered now if he knew her original name, a family somewhere still mourning the loss of their little girl.
* * *
Rosie took hard to Boone's idea for the mine. Well, I told her it was Sam's idea. I liked thinking that Sam had some vision for a future here, some dreaming more than just her late nights by the river with booze and drugs. Maybe Rosie liked it too. There was a kind of heroic tragedy to it. So she "made some calls," "sent out some feelers," "made a few connections," and suddenly I was here, sitting on my porch past midnight waiting for her to drive back from Pittsburgh.
The summer had rolled on, trading out lightning bugs and tree frogs for cicadas and storms. I sat watching a storm roll in now, the flash and flicker lighting up the whole sky at once. Thunder rolled vague and long, bouldering down hollows, echoes drawn out and tripping over themselves. My deputy would be out there, eyes for downed trees and power-lines. Normally, I'd be out there with him but I was tangled up in this thing with Rosie.
I sipped my beer, my fourth. I could lie that I was drinking to stay awake, but sleep had become a wild thing. I'd bolt awake in the middle of the night, heart pounding, feeling like the whole house had been lifted and pulled downstream. I'd get up and turn on lights, trying to get away from the breathlessness like a child was coming out of the river or like I'd been held under water.
The wind thrashed hard through the trees. The gust knocked my empties over and clattered them against the house. A few drops thrown ahead of the storm splattered like insects ahead of the swarm. I tipped back the last mouthful in my can and fisted it into a light fold of aluminum, then threw it at the gusting wind. The wind threw it back. Truth was that an anger had settled in me with all this uncomfortable strangeness. An anger at this whole goddamn plan, at the mine. The world was too big. Unseen, it'd put us here. Unseen, it'll starve us out, water-children or no. I'd learned that Rosie's family owned that mountain where her windmills spun. A whole mountain. They'd leased it for mining, the blasting and dumping breaking our river into runnels and gravely streams, filling in the slow bend where the water-children came out. I can remember the whole town working to open that pool again. They moved boulders by hand and gravel by the bucket full, some of them the same who'd thrown the rocks down there in the first place. Rosie's family, rich enough to break magic, weren't rich enough to save Hollis. She could only hope to bait the truly rich. All I wanted was a future here, some kind of road for Sam to follow.
The rain came down through the woods with a slow rip, whipping a hanging curtain of spray against my face. She was gone. She'd reached the end of her road. I sat there, dampening, while the loss churned me over and split me against rocks. Headlights flashed blind across me and Rosie's jeep tipped down my drive, license plate shining its RSYDAY. I picked up my empties, only finding three of them. My nose stung with tears and the heavy, clay smell of the rain. I held my door open for Rosie as she scampered from her car, hoping the rain would hide my crying.
"I found someone!" she said. "I found someone to save the mine!"
I smiled at her, but whatever joy I might have found in that had drowned out in that rain.
Sleeplessness kept on through fall. I started driving the winding, empty roads, usually ending up at those windmills. I'd sit close below them, listening for the blades rushing the air. Or, if the moon was new, I'd drive to the river and sit in my car watching people climb over the guard rail. I'd see Boone there, too, his arm hung out the open window of his truck. We never acknowledged each other, but I assume he saw me same as I did him.
Over all those nights, I started to believe I stole Sam from her future long before her accident. That sweet girl so close to her water-sister, seeming half water-child herself. A minor legend at county swim meets, beating the water like a marlin, powerful and violent. Then I took her to her first new moon by the river. She wore a long dress with little flowers like she was going to Easter service and I didn't think anything of it. She'd always been an over-achiever. Clara woke up with all our bustle and stood watching us, twisting her fingers in her hair. Seeing her, half-asleep in her pjs, it struck me for the first time that Clara was part of a different world. Sam must have noticed, too.
It was high summer and the fireflies were in swarm near the river, flashing in these big, interwoven groups. Those are pretty days in West Virginia, the woods dense and rich with green. And the tree frogs so loud you couldn't even hear trains mourning their whistles down the valley. Looking up through the trees, we could see stars and the slow flash of warning lights on Rosie's turbines. Everyone stood a little apart from each other, quiet. We closed our eyes when the frogs and crickets and everything else started quieting. It wasn't a hard stop like something'd startled them, just a distancing like we were drifting into some separate place. Sam shook a little next to me. I hadn't remembered it that way, but supposed the silent, moonless dark could be frightening to a fifteen-year-old.
"Remember to keep your eyes closed," I whispered as the magic settled down around us, heavy and dense.
"Mom, I'm scared," Sam whispered to me. Something splashed in the water. I gave her hand a squeeze. We could hear little, bare feet on the loose rock, on the grass. The water-child hesitated, looking around at all us strangers standing with our eyes closed. I usually stood with my hand out and open, showing my willingness to accept a new child. But that night I couldn't stop seeing Clara's estrangement as we left without her. So, I kept my hand shoved in my pocket. I waited, my heart hammering in my throat as those feet stumbled closer, as if drawn by my reluctance. I braced myself, remembering Clara's frozen limbs around my leg.
Then Sam gasped and jerked her hand out of my own. She bolted back up towards the road.
"Sam!" I called after her, then turned back for the drowned child but it was gone. The river roiled like something had hit the water hard.
Sam wouldn't speak on the way home. Clara was waiting up, looking nervous and small in my old robe. Sam blew past her and shut herself in her room. Clara and I searched each other for some meaning to what happened maybe already understanding how our little family had splintered. After that, Sam watched Clara like you would a snake. She would leave the room when Clara came in, started keeping her door closed, stopped talking to me in anything but monosyllable. I told myself it was just a phase. She was just hitting those teenage years when you start throwing elbows to make space for yourself in the world. I told myself that she would find her way back to being my sweet girl again.
Evictions are always hard. Some harder than others. Some people'll yell and scream, or they'll redden like they're going to burst. Some will just sit in a pile, weeping. Jeb, the glorious bastard, greeted me with a set jaw and a shotgun bored big enough to fire a chestnut.
"You ain't takin' my house," Jeb mumbled. He talked in that old-timer way of not ever quite opening his mouth.
"'fraid I'm going to have to, Jeb."
"I worked with your daddy."
"I know that."
"I walked with the Local Miners' at your brother's funeral."
"Jeb, why don't you come down from there. I know you don't want to hurt anyone."
"You ain't takin' my home!"
"Now Jeb, you know me. You've known me since I was littler than that gun and only knew one cuss word. You think I would be out here if I didn't think it was the best thing for you?"
"How th'fuck is this best?"
"Cause these bank people say you owe them and if it wasn't me out here, you'd get some state trooper out here who'd love to tell his buddies he roughed up some miner with a hand cannon. Whitey's is a better place than the state pen."
"Whitey's? I'm not movin' in with some fuckin' roommate. I ain't a baby."
"It'll be a roommate one way or the other," the bank kid said. I guess feeling bold because Jeb had lowered his shotgun a little.
"Shut-up," I told him.
"Might as well be for blasting your shit-ass!" Jeb said, shouldering his gun. I stepped between them.
"Alright, enough of that. I called Boone and he's bringin’ out some friends to help you get the stuff out of your house."
"I'm not some fuckin' baby that you can stick in with a roommate!" There was a crack to his voice now, a glitter in his eye. Something in me curled up a little, scared. Not of that gun. I was pretty sure he wasn't going to use it. It was something about seeing one of my daddy's generation crumple and fold.
"C'mon, now. It's a nice place he has there," I said, walking toward him. Slowly. I was more worried about that thing going off accidentally, seeing the tremble in his hands. "Only a few doors from ol' Mags. That's not too bad."
"Fuck," he said, tears slipping down his cheeks. I got my hand around the barrel and guided it down and away. I held my hand out and with a last, weak hesitation, he handed me the stock. You wouldn't know it looking at him, those thin arms and swollen knuckles, but Jeb still had a lot of that old mountain strength in him. I almost staggered when I took the weight of that gun. I broke the breech and pulled out the shell. It looked like a goddamn mortar.
"Jesus. You pack these things yourself?" I'd always been a sucker for guns. One of the things I inherited from Daddy. He had a dozen rifles and shotguns and never managed to go hunting once in his life.
"For retirement," he'd say about those guns, not knowing he'd be sick then dead before he ever got the time. I wonder what he imagined retirement looked like. Probably some cabin like Jeb's filled with woodsmoke and antlers, something given over to a comfortable kind of decay except for the fireplace, the stove, and a recliner.
"Alright, Jeb, let's get you down from there." I set the gun against his house, mostly because I wasn't sure I could carry it with one hand, and took him by the elbow. And just like that, he went, frail and shuffling.
"All my things," he said.
"It'll be alright, we'll get them for you," I said as I led him to the back of my Bronco and helped him in. "You just sit here and take it easy."
"Jesus," the bank kid said. "He was gonna kill us!"
"Post your goddamned notice," I told him and leaned back against my truck. When I was a kid, we used to dare each other to touch this porch. Jeb was known as the meanest man in Hollis. We'd tell stories about the kids he'd buried in the woods behind his house. I tipped my head back, swimming suddenly in the loss. Sam's death was somehow part of this proud bastard being reduced to a homeless old man.
Boone showed up soon after. He stood beside me as his brother and a friend pulled stuff out of the house and piled it in the back of his truck. The accident that had ended Boone's career as deputy had left his back splintered and unreliable. While he had a weakness for alcohol, it was to his credit that he didn't just ride on disability like so many others.
"You and Rosie been spending a lot of time together," Boone said.
"Yeah, she found someone who might want to use our mine."
"Some kind of research or data storage? I'm not really sure."
The guys came out of the house with a parade of chairs piled with clothes. "Saw you down at the river last Monday," I said.
"Saw you, too," he said, taking a cigarette from behind his ear and sticking it in his mouth. I smiled. Back when all his friends started smoking, he found they just made him sick. So, he started carrying one around, unlit in his mouth. It was one of the things I loved about the idiot.
"I keep hoping she'll come out of the water some night," I admitted.
"It doesn't work that way," he answered real quick. Quick enough that I knew he'd been thinking same. It was just another way to say that we missed her. Maybe that's all grieving really is: finding all the different ways to miss someone. I wanted to believe it, though, that she could come out of some other river, be someone else's water-child, forward-moving and forgetful, untroubled by any hard things that'd trip her. One of the rules of our river is that no one ever comes back who drowned here. They had to be from some elsewhere. Another was that only children ever came out of the water. Children young enough to not be fully formed. Oldest ever was maybe ten, twelve? Sam had already picked her shape in those late nights, keeping a thick scum of alcohol and drugs between her and the world. I looked up and there were those windmills, or just the tips of them, flashing over the tree line, looking as clean as the day they went up.
Fall slid into winter with the dullness of routine. Boone started coming by my place, sometimes to share a few drinks, sometimes for dinner, sometimes to spend the night. Rosie kept up her back and forth to Pittsburgh. By the time spring began to break, people had been out to look at the mine and Rosie stopped talking about "if" and started talking about "when."
"They want this to be a model of how to re-purpose these old mines," Rosie explained. Of course, it was Clara's university that was making all the plans. She hadn't been home in more than a year, hadn't even remembered to send a Christmas card, far into the forgetting part of the magic. I called her anyway.
"Oh yeah," she said after I explained the plan. "I've heard all about that. I didn't realize that you lived in Hollow!"
"Hollis," I corrected. Part of the magic was that you didn't question it, that it always slid away from your thinking. But I couldn't let this go, Clara's forgetting. I found myself repeating, "Hollis, Hollis," as I drove around at night like I had to keep the town from disappearing.
The anniversary of Sam's death came around with a cold dampness that clung to the windows, winter-chill with a spring dampness. The way seasons climb over each other in the mountains can make a person impatient. They get all tangled up in these switchbacks and hollows. I followed my headlights through the turns, the road gritty damp, fluttered with drifting ghosts of fog. I was thinking about the Beast again. Not that hunting thing from my childhood, but my papa's many-mouthed holes. Jeb had died. He'd fallen after we moved him in with Whitey and it was like the life just leaked straight out of him. Doctor I talked to said there was no real reason, some people just don't want to live. Fog rippled pale across the road, curtaining off everything. "Hollis," I muttered and the woods and the road came back. Maybe those holes weren't in the rocks, I thought. That's why the Beast only fed on us locals. Those holes were in us, dug by all those foundlings who moved on elsewhere and forgot, each carrying off pieces of us like ants working on a pile of sugar.
Another curtain of fog, then eyes shone wide at me, hungry and low on the road. I stomped the breaks. The deer flopped its head back down. It was still alive but its back half was mangled. I cussed, grabbed my revolver, and got out of my Bronco.
Up close, I could see it was fat with fawn. I hoped the baby'd been killed by the impact. "Shit," I breathed, my breath thick. The deer brayed its own ghost up in the air.
I did it quick before I could think: knelt, barrel to the head, clap of the shot echoing and echoing through the trees. Goddamn, I hated shooting without ear protection. I knelt next to deer and pressed its swollen belly for any sign of the fawn but it felt like a balloon filled with warm water. That was when I heard those little sounds of a cooling engine. Even without my flashlight I could see her RSYDAY plate shining from the trees. Rosie, eyes wide, was crumpled over the wheel, face a mess of blood. Her airbag never deployed. I checked for a pulse, tried not to notice the fine, dark flecks of blood sprayed over the papers spilled across the other seat.
I gathered those papers up after the ambulance took her away, the boys putting on a good show of CPR. A few gusts had scooped pages out of her jeep and squelched them in the mud. I couldn't tell what half of them meant. But there were a lot of those little colored tabs. I put them back in their busted box and drove them to the station.
* * *
The whole town came out for Rosie's funeral in the gray damp. I said my bit and a few others did, too. There were a couple people in nice suits down from Pittsburgh. Her lawyer explained where all her money was going, standing under his black umbrella while I stood in the mud in my dress and duty jacket. Some to the high school, some to preserve the acres of woods around her family's house, all the rest to charities and foundations. He didn't need to tell me that the whole deal with the mine had died with her. It'd never quite been official and, without her backing, it would fall back into smoke.
The next new moon came a week later. I left Boone asleep and drove down to the river. This time, I climbed over the railing and down to the water to wait with the rest. Standing there, looking up at the turbines blinking against the night sky, I wondered how soon Rosie would be forgotten. Like that magic working in reverse. Her cafe had closed a week after she'd passed. For Sale signs went up on all her buildings downtown. There wouldn't be any buyers. Nothing would fill those empty spaces.
By the river, spring hadn't quite brought the woods all the way back to life, so the magic was more feel than sound. I closed my eyes as it pulled down around us same as always. As if Boone and I weren't the last people to remember Sam as a happy girl. As if Hollis' best chance for a tomorrow hadn't died on a road just outside town.
I could hear the water moving, the splashing sound of a child coming up. Here would be another child coming into our town who would never know Rosie or my Sam, who had no idea what had changed and would forget about us all in a few years. I opened my eyes to let that surge of sorrow flow free. I watched the water ripple itself to back stillness in the starlight and, right then, decided I'd never close my eyes again.
James S. Kendall’s fiction has appeared in The Antioch Review and West Branch and has won a Loft Mentorship Award. He was born in New York City and grew up in Florida, Indiana, rural Pennsylvania, and all the roads between. He now lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.