It was a cloudy day— the duvet of stratus clouds was so dark and so low that it was like a beast gliding, slow as molasses, over a little town in Iowa. There was a ravine at the edge of it. It stretched and twisted as if groaning with its endless silence, pulling taut whenever a wanderer pulled close enough to see the bottom. And each time, they stumbled back, as if they had seen something beyond ordinary life, beyond the reaches of God.
There were no wanderers today. If there were, they might have seen something different than wretched, looming shadows. They might have seen something gleaming where it was free of the mud; a flat nail that led to a stiff finger that led to an outstretched palm. Their eyes would have crawled down the arm over the smears of dirt and blood, right to a gaze whitened over, staring up at her arched hand. But there were no wanderers to stare at her between her fingers that strained towards the heavens. So there she lay, alone in the unnatural gallows of the Ravine.
John held his head out and stretched his fingers as if he could touch the low clouds, and he thought that it would feel like the time he and his Ma stuck their hands in the wet concrete outside their house to leave their handprints: thick, gritty, and sun-warm, if he could reach it.
John turned back to watch his friends crouched around a big, cone-shaped ant hill. They poked at it with a branch they had torn from a bald cypress, waiting for a lone fire ant to appear. Then, they lead it to the grooved sidewalk, letting it stop long enough so they could crush it. John watched their little red bodies, the silent, desperate way their limbs worked towards the sky. He frowned as the legs slowed, then stopped. Something John had never felt before roiled in his gut, like when he reached into the bucket of worms his Pa dragged out to fish, grabbing for one to bait his hook. It weaved in his stomach, oily and sharp, dragged wretch tendrils in his organs. He didn’t like it, not one bit.
“Let’s go do something else,” He said. The boys all shrugged and stood, wiping their hands and knees. They all turned towards the road, but a car came screeching down the asphalt. The blaring siren followed it down the street: a police car. John had never seen a car go so fast, rushing in a chaotic tremor. One of the lights didn’t shine, and the other encased the street in a red gleam that soaked them, pressing against the clouds and dripping back down. The boys’ heads turned to watch it go.
“Whatcha think that’s about?”
“Dunno, but I ain’t never seen a car in such a rush.”
“They’re headed for the Ravine,” John said. And the wailing returned, bouncing against metal mail-boxes, slamming into houses, weaving in the yellow grass. Another police car came, and another, and another.
“‘S like a parade,” One of the boys said. John shook his head. People appeared on porches as the ensemble roared on, trailed close behind one another, gleaming bumper against oxidized trunk clasp.
John watched the cars and knew that something was happening. Everything in the world was teetering on this sidewalk, this town. The crickets and the blue jays and the people and John were all holding their breath, waiting for the blow to land. He worked his hands in his pockets as he looked around. Well, what was it? Everyone was staring after the cars, their dreary faces gleaming red and blue. He looked to the sky again, the clouds. Something was waiting for them. He looked and looked and looked, even closed his eyes to try to hear it over the sirens, but for the life of him couldn’t find it. Show yourself! He thought, Stop hiding! But nothing emerged.
A woman stumbled down the street toward them. John recognized her as Mrs. Monroe, the woman at the bank who always gave him her homemade cookies when he went in with his Ma. She looked nothing like the warm, plump woman sitting behind a cedar desk. Her eyes were wild, and he knew she felt the same as him; he could see it in her glassy eyes.
“Mrs. Monroe, what is it?” He asked, and all the boys turned to look at her too.
“Have you seen my daughter, Betty? Any of you?” Betty; a pretty girl with black tendrils of hair that hung like the thick tendrils of a weeping willow, a voice like a midnight breeze, dark and smooth. She was older than them, a freshman at the high school, but they always took notice of her with the way her face looked like wild daffodils.
“No, ma’am,” They chorused. She steeled herself, but John could see her hands shaking even as she balled them into firsts. “Thank you, boys. You best be getting home; don’t need your mamas worrying.”
They all nodded. John’s Ma appeared where Mrs. Monroe had, and he took off into a sprint. He could see the relief slacken her face, and her arms darted out as soon as he was near enough, running hands through his hair and down his neck before settling there, protective and warm. She pulled him tight to her side and pressed a kiss behind his ear before letting him go to turn to Mrs. Monroe.
“None,” Mrs. Monroe shuddered. The last remains of her composure heaved before splintering, and the tears began to fall, diamond drops that slid down her cheeks. “I can’t find Betty. What if—”
His Ma darted forward, encasing the woman in a tight embrace. “Hush, hun. I’m sure Betty is fine. Sometimes the boys at the station get all worked up over something that ain’t anything.” She runs a steady palm down the woman’s back. “I’m sure Betty is fine,” She repeats, and with that, Mrs. Monroe’s tears stopped. She sniffed and nodded, then wiped them away with the back of her hand.
“I’m gonna keep looking,” She said, and if John hadn’t seen her crying moments ago, he would have never guessed she had been anything other than drenched in brave resolve.
“I’ll help,” his Ma says. She turns to John. “Run home. Your Pa and brother are there already.” He doesn’t move. She waves her hand, the motion sharp. “Go on, now.”
I can help, too, he wants to say. I want to help. But his Ma looks fierce, with her hands on her hips, her eyes are spitting sparks, so he wilts with a nod. His Ma turns, arm laced with Mrs. Monroe’s, and together they move across the yard, following the police cars. He watches them go. The last police car leaves with them, and the silence is thin and chalky in his mouth. He watches the boys dart around, going to their mamas, who uncross their arms to catch their sons in their embrace. He watches the ants work down the trail of the anthill onto the concrete, working in pairs to retrieve their departed before carrying them back home.
The knowledge is there, right behind him. He turns and sees nothing, turning again, until he is spinning around, looking for it. It’s about to happen. Something is about to happen, and it’s right there, but John can’t reach it, can’t see it, can’t hold it and turn it over in his hands and examine it like he wants to, can’t run from it because it’s all around him, and it’s reaching into him, breathing as the rest of them crane their necks up to the sky. Frustrated, he turns, running all the way home.
Found dead, the news says. John and his younger brother hide in the hallway, out of sight, as his father watches. The light from the television reveals the deep crevices of his wrinkles. Body discovered, is another thing they say that makes John’s head spin. Found dead, body discovered, gruesome death, Ravine claims another young life. . .
His brother’s confusion steeps in the shadows, the sun long gone and the night taking over in its wake, and he steps out into the living room. “Who died, Pa?”
Pa looks different, like nothing more than a man, one who runs his hands through his hair so much that it begins to stay like that. John stands in the hallway, moving into sight but staying out of reach as his brother runs over.
“Told you to stay in your rooms,” He grunts. He runs his fingers through his hair again.
“Who, Pa? Who?”
Pa shakes his head. His brother senses it, finally. Tears take over his eyes; he begins to shake. Pa pulls him into his strong arms, cradling his little form and pressing his little head into his neck, but his brother won’t stop hiccupping and wailing.
“Where’s Ma?” John asks, and Pa’s eyes slide to him.
“Out with Mrs. Monroe,” He says.
“When she gonna be back?”
“Dunno, son.” There’s a desperate tint to his drawl that makes John’s skin tighten with worry.
Ma could make his brother stop crying, John thought. Pa’s thinking the same thing. John knows he is, running a timid hand down his brother’s back, up and down. He needs Ma. He needs Ma to tell him everything is going to be okay.
“‘S not Betty, is it, Pa?” John asks. His father stares at the television, his jaw clenching, the tendon punching out of the skin, and John clenches his hands. He needs to bring Ma home.
He runs to his room, leaving his Pa and brother in the armchair to dart into his bedroom. He digs around in the chest at the edge of the bed, grabbing a flashlight before wrenching the window open and wriggling out, sneakers hitting the grass. He takes a deep breath and sets out towards the Ravine.
John remembers Great Grandmama’s funeral. Her wrinkled eyelids hung over her eyes in the oak coffin, her thin hands clasped over a bouquet of white roses. She had been still in a way she never was; she was always moving, working the ashes off a cigarette, tapping her foot to an imaginary tune, nodding her head whenever anyone spoke, swaying to the choir in church, yelling Hallelujah! when the preacher ended his sentence. But then, she was still.
Death is a part of life, Johnny. His father’s voice had surrounded him like wrought iron bars. He had held him up so he could see Grandmama and rubbed his back when he had looked away. Without death, there ain’t no life. An’ she lived a good life. Makes it easier. John had nodded even though he hadn’t understood what that meant.
John tried to imagine Betty like that as he walked. He tried to pair the girl twirling her hair at a boy in the drugstore to the stillness of a coffin. He couldn’t. His flashlight bounces on either side of the street. Betty didn’t live a long life. Betty had her fifteenth birthday two weeks ago, and that wasn’t old at all. Gruesome death, the television had said, and John didn’t know what that word meant, but he knew the shuddering tone the reporter used.
Then, an image pushed into his head—instead of his Grandmama or Betty in the coffin, it was his Ma, pale-faced and eyes open with fear.
The thought makes him grind to a halt.
The feeling slams into him in full force. The night presses closer and closer until it’s inside his clothes, crawling fingers against his skin, and now that it’s there, the image of his Ma won’t go away. He takes off running towards the Ravine, desperation pushing his feet like pedals in a great, heaving machine. The air soaks into his throat, tracing bloody lines until he’s coughing thick and warm saliva. Some people see his light and call out for him, but he can’t stop. Ma, he thinks, please don’t leave us, Ma, Ma! He’s almost to the Ravine now, and he can remember her hand on his shoulder, telling him to never go near it, the stern twist of her words hiding her fear. Ma, Ma, Ma, we can’t live without you, where are you? He’s yelling the words now; they’re sliding out of his lips. Ma! He screamed, Ma!
A twig snaps to his right. He yells, falling. The rocks scratch his knees raw. He scrambles to get up, and he’s right by the edge of the Ravine, looking into its wicked grin.
“Ma?” He whispers. He shines the light on his knees, startling at the feeling of something tracing down his calf, and stares at the blood as it works down to his ankle, bright red and warm and sticky, soaking into the edge of his white sock. Another bead follows, and he looks at his knee, grimacing at the torn skin. His Ma would be furious that he got blood on his socks. He needs her to be here. He needs her to tell him how foolish he was to go out alone, how the socks will have to go in the garbage. He needs her—
Another twig breaks, and he jerks towards the sound, flashlight gleaming; nothing. He hears a scuffle behind him and turns again. He imagines what Betty’s face looks like in death. He wonders if she was as afraid as he is.
“Ma!” He yells, his ribcage shuddering with the effort. A crow squawks and leaps from its hiding spot, tracing a black shadow against the night sky. “Ma!” He screams, and his voice cracks, and there’s a step, much closer to him now. He takes off, stumbling down the steep edge of the Ravine, finding a path down under looming branches that block out any light, moving faster than he’s ever run, slamming loud into the ground; he keeps screaming for his Ma, for his Pa too, now, and fear is tingling with the saliva as John gasps, and he thinks that he knows now—his Pa said that his Grandmama’s passing had been easy, and he knew now his Pa was right because Betty’s death hadn’t been easy if it had been like this, it had been terrible: gruesome. And John knew his would be the same, chasing him into the depth of the Ravine. He wondered about things that he had never thought about before—wondered if he would have begun to like green beans like his Ma said he would, or if he would have stopped liking sweet things like his Pa claimed he himself had; if responsibility would have ever latched hands with him and led him to adulthood. He wondered what it would be like to be a teenager and then a grown-up. But he would never know, and his little brother would live without him, would tack on years as John stayed the same age, would grow older than his big brother who would be stuck down here, his soul ensnared down in this Ravine, tangling with Betty’s, going on to claim boys and girls like themselves and drag them to their deaths.
Death, he realized now, beginning to cry. That was what had been hanging over them, following the entourage of police cars, casting shadows on Mrs. Monroe’s face. It had heard him as he came looking for Ma and wanted to claim him too. And now it was closer than ever, and John fell to his knees, heaving heavy sobs as arms wrapped around his shaking chest, too strong to fight even as he writhed and screamed, begging in his head, Please, Lord, let me live, please, please, please!
“John!” A voice yelled, terrified. “John, calm down!” The arms around him that held him so tight began to feel less like the tendrils of the Ravine, softened into something familiar. Ma, he thought, it’s Ma. He twisted into her shoulder and cried, and not even she could soothe him as relief tore into his chest and left nothing in its wake other than burrows of fear that he knew would never leave. Someone stumbled towards them; a police officer. He didn’t look shocked by the sight of them.
“Take your boy home,” He said, “We’ll handle Mrs. Monroe.”
He can feel his mother nod, her arms shaking around him as she carries him down towards gleaming police cars. She tries to press his head into her neck as they pass the crumpled body of Betty, but he still sees, and she looks how he thought she would, and all he can feel is grateful that it wasn’t him. Then his eyes latched on the writhing form of Mrs. Monroe, weeping and moaning on the ground, and he knew from the way his Ma’s arms tightened around him she was grateful, too. They left the Ravine, and not even the lights from the dozens of flashlights working could chase away the darkness that had almost gotten him.