The Hill and the Valley by Lauren Schenkman
At the end of the summer the three children decided that they were going to drive out of town one night and climb the big hill overlooking Hart Park, the nearly-mountain-sized one that motocross bikers liked to ride down. They knew that older boys filched huge flattened cardboard boxes from grocery store dumpsters and sledded down the packed earth in the middle of the night. It was the Aspen of dirt. But they were female children, and they didn’t bring any cardboard, and it was not the best night for such things—the sky was cloudless but there was no moon.
They had most likely read Lord of the Rings too many times. The books were a big hit in their small California town. All the teenagers were obsessed with them. Because small town children know how it feels to miss the great adventure. They see mysteries glimmering on the cusp of every summer dusk, and when their mothers usher them back into the safe yellow warmth of the house, they always look over their shoulders at the hot street and wonder.
They were tired of the pool. Every day, and almost every night when the air itself was like a body of water, they would launch in, screaming to scare away the junebugs that bobbed on the surface, and wave their hands at each other underwater, doing somersaults, holding their breath till their lungs screamed, their hair streaming, the pool light shining through the chlorine to give their skin a green cast. It didn’t feel like water, so much as oil, or paint, coating their skin smooth. They would swim instead of showering. Their hair became heavy and dry and they bought little tubs of peppermint balm from the bookstore for their cracked lips.
But the pool was girl territory, fodder for mermaid dreams. They wanted to be brave, like boys; they wanted to be Sam and Frodo and Pippin. So one night when they were supposed to be having a sleep over, when they were supposed to be cooking up beauty products out of yogurt and cucumbers using recipes from Teen, they drove out of town.
They wore costumes for the adventure. The pale child with black hair and moth-colored eyes wore her Black Sabbath tank top. The blondest and fattest child wore a crimson shirt that made her look like Little Red Riding Hood. The youngest and most foolish wore a blue and yellow checkered vest and a pair of furry pink rabbit ears she had found in the kid’s section of Wal-Mart for a dollar. They drove out of town in the little red Mustang with the stereo blasting Aerosmith. They knew all the words.
The black-haired one drove well and fast and with feeling, and the blonde one, whose clothes always smelled like her father’s cigarettes, sat in the passenger seat smiling and singing. Dream on, dream on, dream on, as the lights streaked by through the dark. The other two always made the youngest sit in the back, but she didn’t really mind; that way she could make all the faces she wanted, and yell the songs into her fist microphone at the top of her lungs. In the back of the car she could have shaggy brown hair that flew around her face and a body like a whip and thin denim hips that gyrated like crazy, and wear mystical ancient cowboy boots encrusted with the red dust of all the old Western towns through which she had traveled. She could kick up her legs and roll around in the back seat, cradling a cream colored telecaster in her arms. It was invisible but the strings slid like hot butter under her fingers and sang with the ghost-voice of an anguished frontier brothel girl.
Then they got there, and, frankly, it was darker than any of them had expected.
“Where’s the moon?” the blonde one asked.
“Look at those stars!” the black-haired child said.
Theirs wasn’t a city but a booming oil town with a city’s thick smear of dust in its sky. In the little neighborhoods in town, night lamps scattered a soft glow heavenward, hiding the stars behind a fuzzy, slightly orange screen. But out where they’d driven, the Milky Way shone through to them like volcanic sand, like desert water, like the silver settings in a long turquoise-studded belt. The blonde child thought of the flickering votive candles in church. The black-haired child wanted to take off skyward in a pirate ship, like you did in the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland. The youngest child thought of Indian days and the times her family had driven up to Yosemite, listening to the Band sing “Long Black Veil.”
The youngest child made a silent wish.
It got even darker when the black-haired one turned off her car and its brave little beams went out. The vast expanse of hill was as dark and inscrutable as the sea, full of hidden currents and things. They could feel the grass moving all around them in the wind. They could hear the little living noises it made, more alive than voices. The car beeped, locking itself.
The youngest wasn’t afraid. She liked the bigness of the hill. When the two children linked arms and started up the flat dirt path, the youngest liked herself jogging after them, swinging her head from side to side, trying to make her eyes big and dark like a night animal’s. There was nothing but grass to mark their sight as they waited for something, some jagged black shadow like an accidental pool of ink limping toward them. They waited for the thrilling realization that this time they had really gotten in over their heads, that they were no longer safe. Fear hummed beneath the youngest child’s ribs and sternum. She pressed her hand against her pocket to feel for the little knife she kept there.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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