Though it was almost October, the air was muggy and thick, not the normal crisp prelude to autumn. I could feel the hot, wet air in my lungs as I rode behind Rene on my bike, following the tracks out of the train yard toward the river. In the woods, the scent of apples was thick, nauseating. Apples had ripened with the first signs of fall and then rotted in the heat, their small suicides leaving only sad remains, pulp and empty brown skin littering the ground beneath our feet. I dodged them like land mines while Rene plodded and plundered through the rotten mess. Rene, who had to have weighed close to two-hundred fifty pounds, had to stop several times to catch his breath. I waited as he bent at the waist, clutching his chest.
“You okay?” I asked.
Too winded to speak, he nodded. But despite Rene’s obvious exhaustion, we kept traveling further along the river’s edge, early morning sunlight struggling through the thick foliage.
Teacups. The first thing that I saw were about a dozen perfect china teacups floating along in the current, bobbing and dipping downstream: some with rims lipstick-kissed, some still filled with tea now mixing with river water, all of them disengaged from their saucers. In the hazy sun, it was almost beautiful, only a floating tea party. Before I saw the wreckage, I saw this.
Then, with a gesture that struck me as almost grand, Rene motioned toward the place where the woods opened up, where the train had jumped the tracks. It had derailed just after the bridge, and one of the rear cars had fallen into the river. The early morning sun glinted in the silver metal of the train, in the broken glass, and in the water. The other cars were tipped on their sides, bloodied people crawling out of the broken windows and doors. Some passengers sat stunned and silent on the bank of the river, while others screamed.
“My baby,” a woman wailed, futile in her attempt to climb the embankment where a child lay motionless on the grass. Her feet kept slipping, her fingers clawing at the earth. She looked up at us and screamed, “Why?” Rene reached for her hand and, bracing himself, helped her up the hill. She staggered across the grass and then collapsed on top of her child, her whole body shaking.
I turned toward the river, paralyzed. I could feel my pulse beating in my neck, in my temples. I willed the other thoughts out of my head, the other disasters.
“Dere’s people stuck inside,” Rene said to me, grabbing hold of my arm, as if to wake me from sleep, “You got to go in dere.”
Rene went to a woman who was beating her fists on the window of a wrecked car, and I rushed blindly down the riverbank to the car that had tumbled into the river. The water was cold and smelled swampy. It soaked my work clothes, the weight of water like the weight of deep sleep. Remarkably, the car was still upright. I shielded my eyes against the sun and scanned the row of windows looking to see if anyone was trying to get out. I fought against the current, holding onto a fallen tree so as not to get swept away. There were several shattered windows; I made my way to the closest one and hoisted myself up into it. I swung my leg over the edge and lowered myself into the car, where I was waist-deep in the water again. Inside, I saw more teacups as well as white tablecloths floating in the water. Plates and soup bowls, water and wine glasses. I pushed through the water using the dining tables for leverage.
“Hello?” I hollered, but my ears were filled with the sound of the river. “Is anybody in here?” I made my way from one end of the dinette car to the next, my legs shaking with the effort and the cold. I could see the narrow serving area and the entrance to Le Pub, the lounge car. “Hello?” I said again, louder this time.
I fought my way to the far end of the car and looked for another open window. My hand throbbed with the beat of my heart. There was no one here. But just as I was about to hoist myself out of the water, I saw something through the window into the next car. I pried the doors open, and stepped through into the lounge. An upright piano was floating in the water, bobbing and dipping in the current as the river rushed through the windows. Relieved, I turned to go back. And then out of the corner of my eye, I saw something else.
The porter’s black and white uniform was fanned out like a nun’s habit; his head was immersed in water, his arms outstretched. The dead man’s float. Shelly had learned how to play dead at the public pool that summer. I’d watched all of the children in her swim class floating like toys in the water. It had given me a sick feeling in my stomach then. Now, my stomach turned again. I was shaking badly. It felt like the river was inside of me, cold and wet. Unforgiving. I went to the man as quickly as the river would allow, and gently rolled him over.
His face was bloated, pale blue and swollen. At the sight of his face, I turned away, feeling bile rising in my throat, and I vomited into the river water. I turned back to the man and felt the shivering turning into something more like a small convulsion. I had the momentary impulse to give in to the current. I was so full of the river by then I could have just let it carry me away. But something inside of me pulled me out of the wreckage, back into the water, and slowly, slowly, up onto the muddy shore where I could barely feel my legs.
The police and the town’s only ambulance had finally arrived. The emergency vehicles were parked cockeyed and tilted on the grassy shore. The red and blue lights swirling and humming reminded me of a carnival. Of a mid-way. Of some terrible ride.
There were other drowned people. Their bodies lay along the river’s edge, a morbid picnic. There was so much blood; the grass beneath my feet was slick with it. Children cried in their parents’ and strangers’ arms; the air was loud with the sound of sirens and screaming. I recognized faces but could not connect the faces with names. I concentrated instead on teacups, a hundred bobbing teacups, and I made my way out of the river. I climbed the bank, my boots and eyes filled with water, walking and walking until I couldn’t hear the sirens or see the train. About a hundred yards from the accident, I sat down under a great willow tree, exhausted, and put my face in my hands. I was fatigued, delirious. I blinked hard against the exhaustion and all of the pictures on the backs of my palms and on the backs of my eyes. But no matter how hard I tried, all I saw was the dead man’s face, and every breath reminded me of the other man I’d left for dead in this river.
I could have been there minutes or hours. The lack of sleep seemed to make time mutable. I could barely keep track of it anymore. Entire days went by sometimes without my noticing. Months could have passed while I sat at the river’s edge. Seasons changed.
I lifted my head only when I sensed someone standing in front of me. The sun was bright behind her, but I could make out the silhouette of a young girl, maybe sixteen, seventeen years old, her belly swollen like an egg. An apparition. A cruel trick of my mind, intent on its return, as always, to Betsy. Her name found its way to my throat but not through my lips. I squinted against the sun, and quickly realized that this was not a ghost, not Betsy, but a real girl. A girl with skin the color of blackberries, holding a suitcase, her hair dripping river water onto my legs.
“What’s your name?” she asked, her accent jarring me, clearly placing her far away from home.
“Harper,” I answered, standing up awkwardly, as if I were only going to shake her hand.
“Harper,” she said. And then she pressed her tiny hand against her swollen stomach, a gesture I could never forget. “Please,” she said. “You gotta help me, sir. My mama’s dead. I got nowhere to go.”
What happened after this (the moments that followed, the months that followed) I can only explain as the acts of a man so full of sorrow he’d do just about anything to get free of it. Here I was at the river again, with only a moment to decide. Forgiveness. For twelve years, I’d only wanted to say I was sorry, but before this there was no one left alive to offer my apologies to.
“Please,” she said again.
And this time, I didn’t turn away.
The neighborhood in Two Rivers where Betsy and I grew up was made up of row after row of crooked Victorians --- crumbling monstrosities sinking in upon themselves. Each house on Charles Street had its own peculiar tendencies. The one next door to ours had a widow’s walk whose railing had, unprovoked by either natural or unnatural disaster, collapsed into a pile of pick-up sticks on the lawn below one afternoon. The family who lived at the end of the street had the misfortune of owning a house that wouldn’t stay painted. No matter what pastel color they chose each summer, by the following spring it would have shrugged off the pink or yellow or lavender, the paint peeling and curling like old skin. My own family’s house was tilted at a noticeable angle; if you put a ball on the kitchen floor and let go, it would roll straight into the dining room (through the legs of the heavy wooden table), past my mother’s study, and finally into the living room where the pile of my father’s failed inventions inevitably stopped the ball’s trajectory. Most of the homeowners in our neighborhood had at some point given up, resigning themselves to sinking foundations and roofs. To the inevitable decay. There simply wasn’t the time or the money or the love required to keep the places up. This was a street of sad houses. Except for the Parker’s place.
Though it was one of the oldest homes in the neighborhood, the Parker’s house was meticulously maintained. Its paint was fresh: white with green shutters and trim. Its chimney was straight. The cupola sat like an elaborate cake decoration on top of the house. A clean white fence enclosed the front yard, which looked exactly as the town barber’s yard should. Rosebushes bordered the uncracked walkway, and other flowers littered the periphery of the yard in meditated disarray. A swing hung still and straight on the front porch, and the porch light came on without fail or flicker each night at dusk. On a street of forlorn houses, the Parker’s made the other houses look like neglected children.
Of course, I knew Betsy Parker long before I loved her. We had lived on the same street since we were born. Our fathers nodded at each other as they went off to work each morning. Our mothers made polite small talk when they saw each other at the market. Betsy and I had knocked heads once during a game of street hockey, the result of which were two identical blue goose eggs on our respective foreheads. In the sixth grade, we had been the last two standing in a spelling bee (though I’d ultimately won with the word lucid). But in the summer of 1958, when we were twelve, our relationship changed from one necessitated by mere proximity into a full-blown crush -- on my part anyway; she didn’t love me then. In fact, she didn’t love me for a long, long time. But that summer the seed was planted, and my unrequited passion, like all the other untamed weeds in our yard, grew to epic and tangled proportions by summer’s end.
When school let out in June, I’d taken up fishing, drawn by a local legend that, on a good day, the spot where the two rivers meet was teaming with rainbow trout. But by July I’d spent entire days with my line in the water, and I still had yet to catch a single trout (or any other kind of fish for that matter). The day I found myself smitten by Betsy, I’d also spent fishing, and, once again, I hadn’t caught anything but a cold. I’d meant to go home. I thought I might take a snooze in the hammock in our backyard. But instead of walking down the shady side of Depot Street to the tracks and then heading up the hill toward home, I crossed the street, into the sun. Once there, I stood in front of her, rendered mute.
Orange Crush and skinned knees. This was Betsy at twelve. I’d walked past Betsy Parker a thousand times before. A thousand bottles of Orange Crush. A thousand Band-aids. But that day, as I strolled past her daddy’s barbershop, there she was, with fresh scabs on both golden knees, and it felt like I was seeing her for the very first time. I’m not sure which made me dizzier --- the twirling red, white, and blue barber pole or Betsy. Can I remember the way I saw her then? You’d think it would be hard after all these years, but it isn’t. Perhaps I was memorizing her before I even knew I should. Here’s the way she looked to me in June when we were twelve: her fingers were long, her legs longer, stretched out on the steps of her daddy’s shop where she sipped her soda through a straw. Her tongue was stained orange, and her hair was like syrup running down her back. (I remember touching my tongue to my lips when I saw her.)
Betsy sipped long and thoughtfully. Then she leaned toward me and looked into my empty bucket. “Whadja catch?”
I felt heat rising to my ears. “Not much today.”
“Not much yesterday either.”
“Why do you bother?” she asked. “If you don’t ever catch anything?”
“You’re probably the kind who sees the glass half full,” she sighed and sipped the last of her soda pop loudly. “Not me, I’m a half empty kind of girl.”
I didn’t know what she meant, only that she thought we were somehow fundamentally different, and this made my heart ache.
“You live on my street,” I said stupidly.
“You live on my street,” she smiled, setting the amber-colored bottle on the pavement between us. She stuck one bare foot out in front of her and spun the bottle with her toe. It clanked and spun and stopped, its neck pointing right at me.
I didn’t know what to say, so I bent over and picked the bottle up. The glass was still cold. I dropped it into my empty bucket, as if that could make up somehow for my failure as a fisherman. “That’s worth two cents.”
“Coulda been worth a lot more than that,” she said, smiling.
I walked home that day with Betsy Parker’s Orange Crush bottle clanging against the inside of my bucket. From my bedroom window I could see the pristine facade of the Parker’s house, their immaculate lawn. I felt like an idiot. First, because I’d missed what I quickly realized was a chance at kissing Betsy. And second, because twelve whole years had already passed before I realized that she’d been there all along. Right across the street. I took the bottle out and held it to my lips. The glass was sticky, sweet. I tipped the empty bottle, leaning my head back, waiting for the last sweet drops to fall into my throat.
After that day, I gave up my fishing trips in favor of a new futile endeavor, one that would last longer than most boys my age would have had patience for. But Betsy was right, I was a “half-full” kind of person, and I had high hopes. I knew I’d get a second chance; it was just a matter of time.
I gave Maggie my room. It didn’t seem right to make Shelly share the first bedroom she’d ever had to herself, and I was sleeping so little, I figured I hardly needed my bed anyway. She arranged the few things she’d brought with her on the top of my dresser (which I emptied for her): a photo of herself and two other girls, leaning against a red Chevy Monte Carlo. There was a giant willow tree in the background, a gray house. A clothesline with white sheets. The girls were all wearing short shorts and halter tops, posing, puckering their lips. There was a small painted wooden box with a gold clasp and tiny padlock, a bleached sand dollar, and a pack of matches from some place called Joe’s. I didn’t look inside the box, but I did strike one match. Just one, and held it until the flame tickled the tip of my thumb.
All week, I tried my best to pretend that none of this was out of the ordinary, secretly hoping the problem would somehow take care of itself. I kept waiting for her father to show up at my doorstep and just take her home. At work when Henry said that Stan told him I’d hired some help for Shelly, I stuttered but stuck to my story about my mother’s college roommate’s daughter. And each night as I fought my futile battle against insomnia, I vowed that I would contact Maggie’s father. When dawn broke each morning, I rolled off the couch, resolute in my decision to send her home, and then I’d make my way to the kitchen where she had already fixed bacon and eggs, ironed my clothes, and packed Shelly’s lunch. The smell of starch and freshly-squeezed orange juice worked like some sort of magic antidote to my resolve, making all of my late night ruminations seem somehow ludicrous. It also didn’t help that Shelly had fallen head over heels for Maggie. Several times I had to shoo her out of Maggie’s room at night where she sat cross-legged at the edge of the bed, chattering on and on as Maggie painted her nails or braided her hair. This was the true rub. Just when I felt confident in my decision to turn her in, to throw her back into the water so to speak, I’d see the joy in Shelly’s face. This child-woman with confused eyes, this stranger, had something to offer Shelly that I simply didn’t.
“Can I go to the fall dance at school on Friday?” Shelly asked.
We were eating dinner. Maggie had made homemade macaroni and cheese, fried chicken. Biscuits that melted buttery on my tongue. My fingers were slick with grease, my stomach grateful.
“Aren’t you a little young for dances? We didn’t have dances in school when I was a kid.”
Shelly rolled her eyes and speared a pile of macaroni with her fork.
“In my town, we started having dances in the fifth grade,” Maggie offered.
I had to bite my tongue to keep something mean-spirited from coming out, willing myself to look away from her belly, which seemed to be growing exponentially each day.
“Do you have a date?” I asked, chuckling a little without intending to.
“Yes,” Shelly said, exasperated.
I lost my grasp on the piece of chicken I was holding, and it flew onto the table. “I’m sorry, that’s out of the question. You’re twelve years old.”
“Exactly,” she said. “I’m not a baby.”
“I didn’t say you were a baby. I said you were twelve. How old is your ‘date’?”
“He’s thirteen,” she said softly. “In the eighth grade.”
“Yep. Sorry. Forget it. Out of the question.”
“What if she goes to the dance without a date?” Maggie asked, spooning another helping of macaroni and cheese on my plate.
I glared at her.
“Please, please?” Shelly asked. “I’ll call him right now, and tell him I can’t go with him. I’ll let you listen. You can tell him yourself.”
“What’s his number?” Maggie asked excitedly. She stood up and went to the phone.
I felt duped. I hadn’t wanted Shelly to go to the dance at all. Now here I was, backed into a corner.
“Sit down, Maggie. And Shelly, you listen,” I said, realizing that I had never ever talked like this to her before. Like somebody with rules to enforce. Like the father of a twelve year old girl. “I don’t like this, but I suppose I don’t have much of a choice. I trust you. That’s all I’m going to say. Please don’t disappoint me.” I felt like a fraud.
Maggie told me that she and Shelly would clean up, sent me to the living room to watch the news with a bowl of hot bowl of peach cobbler in one hand and a cold glass of milk in the other. In the kitchen, their whispers and giggles mixed with the tinkling of dishes and water, and I knew I’d only been politely dismissed.
The wreck had created all sorts of havoc not only in my personal life but at my job as well. In addition to my normal workload, I’d had to take act as a human shield protecting Lenny from the media, the railroad, and the victim’s families --- fielding calls from newsmen and TV stations, negotiating my way through the literal mountains of legal paperwork from the railroad, and intercepting angry phone calls from grieving family members. I spent most of each day convinced that Maggie’s father would be the next voice I heard on the other end of the line. I figured that by now someone from her family must have gathered that she didn’t make it to Canada. The train wreck had been on the national news. I knew that somebody would be looking for her. Soon. And that I’d better be prepared to explain how a fifteen-year-old girl wound up living in my house, pressing my clothes and taking care of a child only a few years younger than herself. It wouldn’t look good. I was sure of that.
As I rode my bike home the night of Shelly’s dance, I formulated exactly how I would broach the subject of Maggie’s impending departure (first with Maggie and then with Shelly). I was exhausted, starving, my legs shaking from the ride as I climbed the steps two at a time to our apartment. Inside, Maggie was not in the kitchen as she had been every other night since the wreck. I could hear laughter coming from down the hall though, and after setting down my stuff and kicking off my work shoes, I went down the hallway and knocked softly on my own bedroom door.
“Who is it?” Maggie asked.
“It’s me,” I said, mildly annoyed.
“Just a minute.”
It was time. This was ridiculous. I’d made a huge mistake.
The door creaked open slowly, and Maggie emerged, shutting the door quickly behind her.
“What’s going on in there?” I asked.
“She’s almost ready,” Maggie said, pushing me gently back down the hallway. “I made some chicken and dumplings tonight. My auntie’s recipe.” She ushered me to the kitchen table. I sat down, rubbing my temples.
“Listen, Maggie,” I said. “About your staying here... it’s time we talk about...” I started.
“What do you think?” Shelly asked. She stood in the doorway, her hands hanging awkwardly at her sides. In the pale blue dress, she looked like a child again. A child playing dress-up. The dress was short, barely covering the tops of her skinny legs. She was wearing makeup, her eyes lined in the same blue as the dress. Her cheeks were flushed pink with rouge “Maggie found this in your closet. She hemmed it up for me, cause it’s not so much in style anymore. But it’s pretty, don’t you think?”
The dull pain in my temples became the sharp, blinding pain of a migraine. I was angry, furious, and before I could think about what I was doing, I was holding onto Maggie’s shoulders, shaking her hard. “What makes you think you had any right to touch that dress? Did you cut it? Did you?”
Underneath my fingers, Maggie’s shoulders trembled violently.
Shelly screamed, “Stop, Daddy! What are you doing? You’ll hurt her!”
And then everything went numb. The searing pain behind my eyes was replaced by a thick and familiar humming. I shook my head, as if I could shake that awful droning from my ears. I stepped back, still gripping her small shoulders tightly, and forced myself to look into her mismatched eyes, which, despite their differences in hue, were both filled with terror.
“Please don’t hurt me,” she cried.
And shaking, I let go.
Excerpted from TWO RIVERS © Copyright 2011 by T. Greenwood. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 373 pages
- Publisher: Kensington
- ISBN-10: 0758228775
- ISBN-13: 9780758228772