by Kristen N. Arnett
The cousins gathered acorns beneath the wide canopy of oak trees, filling up the pockets of their shirts and pants until they bulged open. Though there were hundreds carpeting the ground behind their grandparents’ house, they kept only the unblemished ones, tossing out any that were punctured or hollow. They pried off the acorn’s caps and rubbed their thumbs across the smooth surfaces. Sometimes they broke them open and poked at the swollen orange kernels, imagining what it would be like to eat them. The kids did this every summer, and their parents had done it before them. The grandparents had owned the house for over thirty years. It sat in the middle of a large suburban neighborhood, but before the other houses had sprouted up, there’d been orange groves bordered by patchy dirt roads and fields full of wild grasses.
The youngest cousin, Charlie, would sometimes roll whole acorns around in his mouth. He sucked on them like peppermints. Brandy was the oldest, and when she saw Charlie do it, she smacked him on the back.
“Don’t be gross,” she said. “What if a dog peed on that?”
Charlie spat the acorn out in his palm. It was glistening and fat, shiny with spit, and the shell was dented from the sharp bite of his molars. He dropped it on the ground where one day it would grow into a tree that dumped out more acorns for the kids, or maybe it would just be eaten by a squirrel.
How it worked with the cousins was like this: the eldest held the responsibility of looking after all of the younger kids, but they also chose what games they played and made up all the rules. Brandy was the undeclared leader of their group. She wasn’t really the oldest cousin; there were two teenaged girls, who lived in Atlanta, but she was the oldest in the yard, and that’s what mattered. Brandy had just turned eleven, which gave her a three month advantage over Austin and Shelby, the ten-year-old twins from upstate. There was also six-year-old Charlie. Brandy didn’t want to play with a cousin half her age, especially one as obnoxious as Charlie, but her mother had told her to be nice in a voice that meant be nice or else, so Brandy kept her mouth shut.
That weekend most of the relatives were down visiting from different parts of the state. Aunts and uncles put out the folding tables and dragged dining room chairs into the yard. Brandy’s father barbequed, grilling burgers and hot dogs alongside pork tenderloin and porterhouse steaks swirled with marbled rings of fat. The air was thick with the scent of smoked meat and trampled grass. While the adults finished up their potato salad, they drank pulpy lemonade and sweet tea that Brandy’s grandmother had made with real cane sugar. They digested their food and talked about previous summers, back when they’d run around without any supervision and had swum naked in the lake and Brandy’s mother had said remember that time Uncle Jimmy stepped on a rusty nail in the shed and his foot swelled up three times its normal size?
Brandy couldn’t sit still for these stories. She’d heard them over and over again, the emphasis always placed on the same words: Great Aunt Vivian with the blue hair and the Pomeranian she’d pushed around in a baby carriage, or the arm that Uncle Wilbur had lost in the war that was replaced with a hook. They were ghost people who only showed up in old family photos, relatives whose voices she imagined all sounded like her grandparents. When she got antsy enough to start playing with a leftover hamburger bun, her mother let her leave the table, but told her to stay in the yard. Brandy gathered up the rest of the kids and huddled with them in the old doghouse at the edge of the property.
Inside the doghouse smelled like sweaty skin and mildew, but there was also the scent of something tart and metallic, like a ring of keys held in a sweaty fist. It came from a rusty tea set that was kept in an old metal potato chip can. The set was very old. Brandy’s mother had used to play with them when she was a little girl, and so had Brandy’s grandmother. All the cups were rough around the lip, chewed up, and pitted. If you drank from them you might cut yourself or wind up with a beard of orange-red dust.
The kids had stolen two beers from the cooler; a big white igloo that her grandparent’s kept especially for family picnics. The cooler sat in the side yard, in the shade, near where the uncles always parked their trucks. Those trucks had big wheels that you could climb on and the beds were always full of things to pick up, like small chunks of scrap metal and empty shell casings from the uncles’ hunting rifles. Brandy was very interested in guns and in all kinds of weapons. Her grandfather kept a collection of knives on his dresser among stacks of loose change, and Brandy loved to click them open and closed. Her favorite was a mother-of-pearl handle that shone blue-green when you tilted it in the light. Last year, she’d been looking at it and heard her mother calling for her from the other room. She’d sliced a neat line down her palm when she’d tried to close it back up again in a hurry. It had hurt, but she’d hid her blood from her mother by clutching a fistful of paper towels behind her back.
The beers left rings on the wood in the center of their circle, two wet eyes goggling at the cousins from the warped floorboards. Brandy knew all about beer. Her father and uncles drank it with their shirts off while they did yard work or when they got together with friends and watched NASCAR. The smell was yeasty and fuzzy and almost happy, like warm breath in her face when her father got home from long days outside.
“I’m gonna open one.”
“Don’t do it.” Shelby said. “Bad idea.”
“I’m gonna.” Brandy rubbed her finger in the condensation and then tasted it. “I’m gonna do it.”
The can hissed when she jammed her fingernail beneath the tab. She didn’t open it all the way at first, just a sliver, enough to release the smell. The kids all huddled around her and stared down into the opening, the liquid clear and bubbly as soda.
“Looks like ginger ale,” Austin said, reaching for the can. “Cool.”
Brandy pulled it out of his reach. “We’re gonna try some.”
“Not me,” Shelby said. “You guys do it.”
“Yes, you. All of us.”
Condensation slipped between Brandy’s fingers and fell down onto her legs in cold splashes. She held the can up to her face and licked the rim. A watery chunk of ice caught on her front tooth and gave her a chill. Then she tipped her head back and let some of the beer slip into her mouth. The carbonation was high and the fizz burned her throat, and the flavor was like moldy bread. She feigned a large, exaggerated swallow and passed the can to Austin. Then she wiped at her mouth and smiled.
“It’s good. Now you.”
Austin took a swallow, and then Shelby, who complained that the bubbles hurt her nose and that it tasted like something died, and then Charlie held the can and looked to Brandy for reassurance. He was small for his age, everyone said so, but he’d been born two months premature. Brandy remembered visiting him in the hospital. He’d been sleeping in a clear plastic incubator, swaddled in a white flannel blanket and wearing a blue hat that her Grandma had knitted. She’d been expecting something cute, like a puppy or a kitten, but Charlie had looked wrinkled and pink and ugly. Her mother said one day he’d catch up with everybody else, but for now his limbs were thin and pale, and he got tired whenever he rode his bike too far out into the neighborhood. The only thing that really grew on Charlie was his hair. It was white-blonde and thick and it curled up in pretty ringlets around his ears. Brandy’s own hair was thin and tangled and brown, and nobody ever wanted to play with it, not like how they did Charlie’s, and he was a boy.
He held up the can, then frowned and set it back down in his lap.
“I don’t wanna do it.”
“Do you want stay in here with us? Or do you want to go back out and sit with your momma?”
Brandy didn’t like how Charlie’s eyes were blue and sparkly, even in the dark. Hers were just plain brown. Her grandmother doted over Charlie; even the aunts thought he was precious, and the uncles gave him rides in their trucks because he was a boy. She knew it was because he was the youngest, but he was also the prettiest, and that didn’t feel fair. It didn’t matter as much that Shelby had such nice clothes and long hair – the twins lived out of town, so it was fun when they came to visit, like a pretty friend she could play with and borrow things from who would go away after the long weekend and not be back for a while. Charlie lived right nearby in a big house with a swimming pool. His nails were always clean and he had a brand new bike with a bell on it.
“Don’t make him,” Shelby said. She threw an arm around his thin shoulders and Charlie huddled into her side. “He’s too little.”
“It’s no big deal.” Austin took another sip. “It tastes fine.”
Brandy noticed that he held his lips in a tight line and when he swallowed he looked uncomfortable, like he had a sore throat.
“It smells bad.” Charlie’s small nose wrinkled. It was what Brandy’s mother called a pug nose, and it had tiny freckles sprinkled across it.
“Of course it smells bad, don’t be dumb.”
Brandy took the can from Austin and pretended to take another sip. More slipped into her mouth and soured her tongue. Spit pooled until she was forced to swallow it down, too. Brandy thought it was like drinking someone’s backwash. It tasted coppery like blood.
She pushed the can back into Charlie’s hand. Brandy smiled at him, her teeth crowded in her mouth from where the new ones were coming in over the old ones. Her sharp baby canines hadn’t rocked loose yet, even though she constantly worked at them, and the bigger adult ones were pushing out over the top of them. One had already burst through her gums like a vampire’s fang. The kids at school always made fun of her teeth; they called her snaggletooth and said she was too poor to go to the dentist. Brandy saw Charlie looking at that tooth and it made her want to bite him.
“Is it ‘cause your daddy won’t drink it?” she asked. “Is that why?”
“No, I just don’t like it.”
“You haven’t even tried it yet.”
Charlie’s daddy didn’t drink beer. He was the only uncle who chose cans of Coke from the big cooler when all the other uncles drank from silver Coors cans and sweaty brown bottles with labels peeling off in strips. Brandy’s mother had told her that Uncle Davey liked beer a little too much when he was younger, so much that he’d drank up all his portion and now he had to save the rest for everyone else.
“It’s cause of your daddy,” Austin said, smiling. “He’s a drunk, that’s why.”
“Stop it.” Shelby shifted on her knees, ready to bolt. “You’re gonna make him cry and then we’ll get in trouble.”
Brandy didn’t want to get in trouble either, but something about the way Charlie acted always made her angry. How he cried at almost everything and how the uncles and aunts all coddled him and picked him up. How all he had to do was smile or sing “Amazing Grace” – even finishing his dinner got him praised like a baby genius. Charlie’s eyes were already filling up and his face looked puffy and red.
“Listen, it’s fine.” Brandy wiped at the snot under Charlie’s nose and scrubbed it off on the cuff of her jean shorts. “You want to stay in here with us, don’t you?”
“Then just take a little sip.” Brandy rubbed small circles on Charlie’s back, just like her momma did whenever she got bad hiccups. “It won’t hurt you. You’ll probably like it, I bet.”
Charlie’s ribs poked through his t-shirt like piano keys and her fingers pressed down between the bones. She smoothed her hands up and down to keep from squeezing too hard. His shirt rose up and down off his back; it was close in the doghouse and her hands were sweaty and so was the skin of his back.
She guided the can up to his mouth and Charlie took a taste. Brandy smoothed her hand up and down again and smiled over Charlie’s head at Austin and Shelby. The two looked relieved and huddled into each other. Brandy didn’t know what they were so worried about. As far as she knew, her cousins never got in trouble for anything. They always had new clothes and their mom never yelled at them in front of company, not anything like Brandy’s parents. Charlie took another sip.
“Not so bad, huh?”
Charlie shook his head. The can was still icy cold and Brandy thought it looked just like it always did in the commercials, those ones with the people running around smiling under a big yellow butterball of sunshine. They ran around on the beach, kicking up sand, their hair long and pretty as their throats worked like boa constrictors to drink down all the beer. Brandy opened the other can and took a small sip, just to feel the cold on her tongue. It didn’t taste as bad as it did before. She took another sip and then another. The fizz licked at the roof of her mouth, easing the tickle at the back of her tongue.
She passed the can to Austin and he took a long gulp. Shelby just sat there and looked grumpy. Brandy thought she didn’t look as pretty with her curly hair all sweaty and frizzed from the humidity. There was a big dirt smudge across the front of her white shirt, and Brandy knew that the dirt was probably mixed with rust, and that meant the stain wouldn’t come out. The shirt had ruffled sleeves and pearly buttons at the neck. She wondered if maybe Shelby’s mom would give Brandy’s mom that shirt and maybe some other clothes too, like how she sometimes did when they came to visit. They’d bring a big plastic garbage bag full of clothes that Shelby didn’t want anymore, or that had stains, or that maybe didn’t fit right or had scratchy lace on them. Brandy would wear those clothes to school and it didn’t matter that the pants would be too short by a few inches, because they were the nicest clothes she’d ever owned. Not like stuff that her mother bought her from Kmart that always fit wrong.
“Not too much,” Brandy said. She took the can from Charlie and set it back down on the floor.
Charlie’s eyes were glassy and wide. Brandy felt sleepy and leaned back against the wooden wall of the doghouse, the splinters digging into her back and poking through her t-shirt. The feel of it rough against her back combined with a buildup of sweat made her feel itchy.
“Let’s get another one.” Austin drained the last few sips. The empty can made a flat, hollow sound when he set it back down on the wood. It tipped over sideways and rolled into Brandy’s leg. She let it lie there, against her skin, feeling the warmed up condensation.
“No, I don’t wanna get caught.”
Shelby was sitting half out of the doghouse with the heels of her white sneakers dragging through the dirt. They were brand new. When she picked one up to dust it off, the color stayed a pale dove gray.
“I’m gonna get a Coke,” Austin said. “This is boring.”
Shelby trailed Austin across the yard and Brandy leaned out to watch them go, thinking that she might like a Coke, but she was pretty tired. Then she leaned back inside the doghouse and sat down across from Charlie. It was more comfortable now that it was just the two of them; Brandy could stretch her legs out a little bit. Charlie looked comfortable, too. His eyes were sleepy slits and his cheeks were bright pink. Every few seconds his tongue slipped out and wet his lips, as if he could still taste the beer. Brandy picked up the remaining can and took another swallow. It wasn’t as cold as before. The heat had made it go flat, and now it tasted like she was sucking water from a bath sponge. Charlie reached for the can and she let him take it, watched his eyes close up as he took long, slow swallows. A little of the beer dribbled from the corner of his mouth and landed on the front of his shirt – a button up oxford with rolled sleeves that looked limp and deflated, not as nice and crisp and ironed as it had for the church service earlier that morning.
“I hate these plates.” Brandy took a stack of them from the potato chip can. “They’re so ugly.”
They had pictures of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy on the front of them, though most of the faces had scrubbed off until all you could see was their red yarn hair. Brandy took the beer and poured the rest of it into one of the rusty cups. Dirt pooled up across the top of the yellow liquid, looking like when dogs peed yellow streams in the grass. She handed it to Charlie and he took sips from it until he’d drained about half the cup.
“It’s so hot out here, I can’t stand it,” she said. “It feels like I’m being smothered.”
A strand of hair was across her throat and the sweat made it cling like a necklace. Charlie was pulling acorns from his pants pockets and rubbed them between his fingers. Brandy took hers out too, and then they piled them in one of the saucers that went with the play set. The acorns rolled around in a big pile, dark marbles that shifted smoothly across the plate. When Brandy squinted they looked like chocolate drops, or maybe like bugs.
“Locusts,” she said. “They look like locusts.”
They’d talked about the plagues of Egypt in Sunday school that morning. The plagues were all terrible – the rivers of coppery blood, the dead livestock with their throats dried up from thirst, the firstborn children struck down by an awful angel of death – but to Brandy, nothing could compare to an infestation of bugs. Mrs. Madison had asked her to imagine finding them in your cereal when you overturned the box, to think about them crawling inside your mouth when you were trying to sleep. That’s what had happened in ancient Egypt. She’d said the locust babies had hatched in the Egyptians’ ears, nested inside their shoes, had eaten big holes in their clothes and camped out inside their bed sheets. The Egyptians had to deal with all of those locusts just because the pharaoh wouldn’t let the people go, but Brandy thought that meant that the Israelites had to deal with all those things, too. Fulfilling God’s promises always meant sacrifices. That’s what Brandy’s mother said when she made Brandy tithe ten percent of her allowance every Sunday. Her quarters falling in the collection plate for mission trips to countries she’d never even heard of.
Brandy didn’t actually know what locusts looked like, but she thought maybe they were like roaches.
“I’m hungry,” Charlie said. “And thirsty.”
“Why didn’t you finish your lunch?”
“Didn’t like it. Don’t like hot dogs.”
“You don’t like anything.”
Charlie was a really picky eater. He would poke at his dinner and lunches, and the grownups never made him finish anything. Not like Brandy, whose father made her sit at the table long after everyone else had gone off to do other things. He’d set the timer on the oven for fifteen minutes, and if Brandy didn’t finish everything on her plate she got a swat on the leg that usually left a red mark. Then she was embarrassed and upset and she still had to eat whatever was left.
“Hungry.” He rubbed his stomach and flapped his arms to try and get comfortable. Brandy thought he looked like a baby bird.
“Close your eyes,” she said. “And open wide.”
Brandy chose an acorn from the dish on Charlie’s lap and pushed it into his mouth. His eyes opened wide as his throat worked and he swallowed the whole thing down in one gulp.
Brandy smiled. “Want another?”
Charlie opened his mouth and she pushed the second inside. She laughed and he grinned hugely at her. His mouth was wet and red, and there was a small patch of dirt stuck to one of his front teeth. She hugged him to her as he sipped from the teacup, sucking down more floating dirt and lukewarm beer.
“Good job, buddy. Again?”
He nodded and put one in his mouth. When he swallowed it, she rubbed his back and then ran her fingers through his sweaty hair. It stuck up in electric white peaks and she giggled and thought he looked sweet. Her very own pet bird with his small nose and his sweet fat cheeks. Baby birds ate bugs. Baby birds could eat locusts. Brandy thought that maybe if Moses had brought out a flight of birds, the locusts would have all been eaten up. Maybe that’s what God had done to get rid of them, maybe that’s how he’d protected the Israelites. Flights of hungry birds perched all around their slave quarters, scavenging for prey.
“You’re like a cute little baby,” Brandy said. “Like a pretty doll.”
His eyes were heavily lashed and his round cheeks were flushed and sticky from the heat. When his mouth dropped open, Brandy could see a little bit of drool leak out and wet his chin. She wondered if he’d let her dress him up in some of the old baby clothes in the attic – there were bonnets and old christening dresses, stuff turning yellow and crunchy that nobody would miss.
“How many can you eat?” Brandy asked. “One more?”
Charlie shoved a fistful of acorns into his mouth and swallowed hard. Then he sat straight up, scrambling around and knocking into Brandy as he tried to climb over her and out of the doghouse.
“Charlie, you’re hurting me.” Brandy pushed him away, but he lashed out with his right arm and it hit her in the face. Pain burned in her cheek and chin, and she tasted blood from where her teeth had sliced into her lower lip. She yelled and shoved him through the doorway until he was laid out flat on his back in the yard. He writhed around, his head pushed back into the soft ground until his bright hair was crowned with leaves and dirt.
“Stop it!” Brandy yelled. “I’m going to tell your momma you hit me and you’re gonna get in trouble.”
He thrashed and clawed at his throat, his sneakers kicking up dirt that launched onto her clothes. Brandy kneeled down next to him and took both of his wrists in her hands and tried to pin them to the ground, but his body was surprisingly strong and wiry. He struggled violently beneath her and when his lips parted, she saw an acorn perched at the back of his throat. It disappeared with the next swallow.
Brandy dug down into his mouth to try and reach it, rooting around at the back of his throat, but there was only his tongue and slick, spitty skin. His molars clamped down onto her fingers and his jaw locked into place. There wasn’t pain at first, just hard pressure cracking down on her knuckle, and immediate anxiety that he’d try to swallow her finger along with the acorn. When his mouth opened again and she saw blood coating her hand, she was the one who screamed.
She screamed until her throat felt raw. Then their family surrounded them, a mass of uncles and aunts, and one them picked her up off of Charlie and shoved her across the grass until she fell down onto her knees. Brandy’s mother caught her hand and yanked her up to her feet.
“What is it, what happened?”
“I don’t know!” Brandy’s fingers throbbed and she shook them.
“What’s wrong with him?” She grabbed Brandy’s hand and examined the blood. “Is he hurt?”
She couldn’t see Charlie. Her mother peered down at her and Brandy blinked and tried to look away, and then her mother shook her, hard, until her teeth clacked together. Her mother’s eyes were brown, like Brandy’s, but the whites swam with red squiggles and there was a yellow crust in one of the corners, as if she’d just woken up from a nap.
“Did you hurt him?”
She couldn’t speak. Her mother saw all of her at once, like when she was six years old and took the chocolate syrup out of the cabinet and smeared it across the rug in the middle of the living room – and she hadn’t needed to tell on herself, because the dark streaks of her fingerprints told the story for her. When her uncle picked up Charlie’s body, his legs dangled limp and pale white across the skin of her uncle’s tanned forearms, and Brandy’s blood painted his cheek.
Charlie’s mother was making a high, keening noise that made Brandy want to start screaming again, but her throat had closed up and she could barely pull in air. Then everyone was running around the side of the house to the cars except for Brandy and her mother, whose nails dug down into the muscle of her arm. Someone shouted something, words Brandy couldn’t make out, and her mother loosened her grip. Brandy broke free and ran.
She bolted through the fence at the back gate. She didn’t stop running until she was three blocks away, until she’d reached the chain-link fence by the house with the Japanese plum tree that hung low over the sidewalk, the tree with the fruit that the kids liked to eat when it got perfectly ripe and dark orange. She didn’t take any, but she still kept walking; kept propelling herself forward down the streets behind her grandparent’s neighborhood. There were people in driveways and sitting on their porches, and a man washing his car with a big red bucket full of soap, and sometimes they waved at her and sometimes they didn’t, but Brandy just kept walking. It seemed like if she stopped that everything would just start hurting again.
The lake at the end of the long block was reedy and full of weeds. Once, her grandma had walked all the grandkids down there as a group and they’d seen a coral snake. It had been tangled up in the cattails at the edge of the water where the mud started to suck at Brandy’s shoes. Perched high and swaying in the breeze, it was the one bright thing in a kingdom of garbage. Her grandma said that the lake was a place where teenagers hung out at night and drank, even though the sign said no loitering after sundown, and that they liked to throw their trash in the lake. The whole time her grandma had talked about the teenagers and the garbage and the drinking, the snake hadn’t moved. It had just hung immobile around one of the fuzzy tops where the down had started to fly free. She’d wanted to touch it so badly; the jeweled skin shiny and slick. She’d imagined the heft of it would feel like a warmed-over sequined evening bag, like the kind her mother wore out for special occasions. The snake had perched there, motionless, and she’d stared at its black eyes and wanted to know what it felt like to live life in a skin that was constantly shedding.
There was a picnic table half-sunk in the muck next to the water from where the summer rain had slopped it into the dirt and weeds. Brandy sat on top of it and looked at her fingers. The skin around her knuckles was rubbed raw, and there was an open dent on the side, as if the flesh had simply vanished. When she squeezed her hand into a fist, blood oozed out and she rubbed it off on the table. It left a dark brown streak in the shape of a crescent.
A car horn sounded down the street and Brandy crawled underneath the table and curled up beside one of the benches. She prayed for Charlie to be okay again, hoped that when he woke up he wouldn’t tell on her. She kept thinking of his throat, how when he swallowed the acorns she’d seen them hanging black at the back of his tongue – how it had looked like the locusts were choking him. Brandy wrapped her arms around her legs and hid her face in her knees. She rubbed her forehead against the fuzz of dark incoming hair that her mother wouldn’t let her shave yet, and she felt the air get cooler and knew that it was sundown.
Noise came and went from the street. There was a dog howling and a man yelled for him to shut up in an angry voice, but the dog just kept on yelping. Brandy shrank down further beneath the bench, worried about the teenagers that her grandma had talked about, but no one came down to where she squatted beneath the picnic table. Aside from the sound of cars driving past, there was the low sound of frogs and animals scurrying in the water. There were mosquitoes out this time of year, thick swarms of them, and Brandy quickly grew tired of slapping at them and just let them grow fat off her blood.
There was a paper bag beneath the table. Brandy opened it and saw there was a big glass beer bottle inside it; the kind that Brandy’s dad bought sometimes after finishing up a double shift down at the construction site. The smell made Brandy feel queasy. She’d left the beer cans sitting inside the doghouse, the empty cans that they’d finished – maybe they were still there and no one had looked yet? Maybe she could throw them away without anyone knowing what she’d done?
Brandy burrowed down inside the neck of her t-shirt and pulled in her arms and legs, stretching it out until her knees were poking out like giant bony breasts. The fabric was musty and sweaty, but she felt more comfortable in her self-made cocoon. She was so tired from the beer and the heat, but she didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to get in trouble with her parents over what had happened with Charlie. She slowly lay down in the piled dirt beneath the table, curling an arm beneath her head as fish splashed out in the dark water and the cicadas rattled overhead.
When she finally slept, Brandy dreamed of the coral snake. The stripes coiled and uncoiled, lighting up the sky with warning blinks of red and yellow, red and yellow, like dry lightning. When the flashes hit, they illuminated the pale skin of a tree trunk – except when the light flashed again, it wasn’t a tree at all. It was Charlie’s neck, and the snake was wrapped tight around it, writhing and pulsing and hissing, constricting deep into the flesh. The sly flick of the snake’s tongue brushed against his cheek as Charlie’s eyes bulged into unseeing nothing.
In the dream she couldn’t move, but when Charlie’s mouth finally opened, Brandy could see the locusts. Out of the darkness, a plague boiled out and over his lips until they flew at her. They covered her, climbing into her clothes and shoes, crawling in her hair, turning her limbs into a roiling mass of their dark, thick bodies. She couldn’t shake them off. When she opened her own mouth to scream, one of the locusts crawled inside and sat on her tongue.
Morning sunlight sliced into the skin of the lake. It burned through the cracks in the picnic table and shone into her eyes, waking her with a jolt. Her fist was lodged at the base of her neck. When she unclenched her fingers they felt cramped, as if she’d been holding onto loose change for too long and the bones in her hand remembered the shape. Brandy’s head hurt from where she’d lain on top of a broken stick. Dirt had crusted in her nostrils from where she’d breathed in silt. Her fingers drew tracks along her face when she dug the crust from her eyes.
Brandy’s stomach swam. When she crawled from beneath the picnic table, there was garbage scattered along the ground near where she’d slept, and she tripped over the empty bottle of beer. It sat broken on the ground, and when she stepped on it with her sneaker it cracked underneath her shoe. There was a snapping turtle sitting at the edge of the reeds, and when Brandy stretched her arms up over her head, it skittered backwards into the water and disappeared with a flat splash. Her shorts were twisted and there was a raw zipper burn from where it had pressed a deep groove into her hip while she was sleeping.
Her neck hurt. She remembered her dream about Charlie and wondered if it meant he was dead. Her eyes burned with tears and she stared out unblinking at the water until the lake turned into a flat pool of shiny glitter. She sat on top of the picnic table as the sun slowly moved up through the clouds coming on fat with rain, running her fingernail along the dark place where her blood had dried. Her nail came back caked with dirt and gunk, and she walked down to the water to wash her hands in the lake. There were small minnows circling in the water, zipping silver over empty glass bottles and cloudy hunks of algae. While she rinsed, a car pulled up at the edge of the street. Her mother climbed out and ran to her, slipping awkwardly in the damp grass. Brandy thought she’d never seen her mother look so wild or unsure before; her hair frizzy and haloing her head, face red and splotchy from crying.
When her mother caught her in her arms, Brandy felt suffocated and whole and she felt her throat close up. There were acorns all around the wooden picnic table and they rolled under her sneakers as she was led toward the car, her mother’s arms wrapped tight around her ribcage. They did not speak. She climbed into the passenger seat and buckled her seatbelt, and her mother did the same. Then her mother took a stack of fast food napkins from the glove box and used her spit to rub the dried blood from Brandy’s face. Brandy held the dirty napkins in her lap as her mother started the car and drove the opposite direction, away from her grandparents’ house, toward home.
Kristen Arnett is a fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Kenyon Review, Tin House, and Lambda Literary Foundation. She was an honorable mention for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers as well as a finalist for the 2014 William Richey short fiction contest at Yemassee Journal. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Superstition Review, Timber Journal, The Rumpus, The Toast, and Burrow Press Review. She is currently finishing up her first short fiction collection.