Falling Rock by Bethany Harvey

2004 SFWP Literary Awards Program
Prizewinner

by Bethany Harvey

Darcy’s been alone long enough to get good at it. She’s the only woman in her family to have passed twenty-five without being married at least once. Men leave her alone. She figures this has to do with her looks. Darcy is six feet tall, broad-shouldered and long-limbed. She has short black hair and black-walnut eyes and a long-strided, arm-swinging walk. She doesn’t smile unless she means it.

She has a good job, delivering mail to the rural routes out of Falling Rock, a job she almost likes even after six years. The mail takes her out on the back roads, into dark hollows where tar-paper shacks crouch ghost-blue in the morning fog. The air cupped in the valleys smells like woodsmoke and sewage and damp red earth. After a rain, the creeks turn swollen and rust-colored. Mist piles up over the water and the clay roads turn to slime.

Half the roads are named after Stonewall Jackson. They’re one-and-a-half cars wide, limerock gravel and red clay. They twist and climb and dive, snake past woods and bottomland farms, churches and trailer parks, between plunging litter-filled ravines and cutaway cliffs with coal veins exposed. Skid marks and scatterings of broken glass mark where people have missed the turns.

Darcy knows these roads the way her hands know a song. She follows them half daydreaming, only noticing when a new obstacle shows up — a landslide, a downed tree, a house trailer being inched over the crest of a hill. She carries tire chains and jumper cables and a come-along and a guitar in the back of her old Blazer.

Songs come to her best when she’s driving, partial songs that she brings to Helen. They’re in a country-rock group with Darcy’s cousin Ray Jo and Helen’s husband Dean. They call themselves the Falling Rock Four until they can think of a real name. Their stage is the barn behind Helen and Dean’s house. They have a field of junk cars where the crowd gathers on Saturday nights: mostly kids down from WVU, who come to Falling Rock with kayaks and rubber rafts strapped to their jeeps.

It’s close to fall now, the radio calling for the first frost with every clear night, and the goldenrod drips over the roadbanks. The college kids have gone back to Morgantown. The Falling Rock Four will keep playing every week until the cold makes their hands too clumsy and stiff to play. Somebody will always show up. There’s nothing else to do.

The fog is clearing away when she reaches the top of Jackson Hill. A seven-foot plywood Jesus staked at the outside of the curve watches over the road with flat blue eyes. He holds a sign: REPENT. In smaller letters: BLACK CREEK CHURCH WELCOMES TRUE CHRISTIANS. SUNDAY SERVICES 10-12. PASTOR GERALD STARKEY. The sign is stuck with dead leaves from the big property-line oak behind it. A peeling red blaze at eye level marks a boundary between farms that have long since gone back to woods.

You trace your path in blood, leave a trail of unmarked graves. “Yes!” Darcy slaps the steering wheel for emphasis. “Shit, yes.” She listens to it again in her mind, turning the words like rounded stones tumbling over each other at the bottom of the river; a low hard voice down among snarling bass notes. She doesn’t know what would come after it, but goddamn, what a line. Helen will love it.

She finishes the route in a new-song trance, that one line repeating itself over and over. But no more words have come by the time she finishes sorting her outgoing mail at the post office and heads for Helen and Dean’s place out past the river.

A car hood propped up against a tree in the rutted yard announces in gray primer: SATURDAY NIGHT CONCERTS $2. KIDS FREE. BRING YOUR OWN BEER. Dean isn’t home, or at least his van isn’t there, but she can see Helen moving around through a window. The house is a bleached-yellow color, streaked with mildew. A little porch juts from under the doorway on railroad-tie legs, green plastic carpet on plywood that bows under Darcy’s feet. She doesn’t have to knock but she does anyway, rocking the guitar on the toe of her sneaker until Helen hollers for her to come in.

Janis Joplin wails from the stereo on the table, coming down through a bent-clotheshanger antenna. Helen is wadding plastic grocery-store bags into a bigger one for the recycle bin at Kroger. “Coffee.” She points with her jaw at the gas stove, where steam rises from hot water and a jar of instant is balanced on the dish rack.

Darcy dumps the pooled water out of a mug and measures out coffee and water and half-sour milk, which dribbles onto her hand. She licks it from the webbing between her thumb and first finger.

“Isaac’s teacher called,” Helen says. “They’re gonna let him in third grade, he passes a test.”

“How hard’s the test?”

Helen punches the last handful of plastic into the softly bulging bag. “Same one the normal kids take.”

“Pretty hard for him.” Darcy sits down so she doesn’t loom over Helen like some awkward giant. Her height doesn’t usually bother her, but around Helen she feels clumsy.

“I don’t think this class could do him any more good,” Helen says. “I think he’s got all he can get from it.” Isaac is eleven and he’s been in the same class for three years. Nobody’s sure exactly what’s wrong with him, but it’s obvious there’s something.

“Where is he?”

“In the crick.” Helen waves at the window, where Darcy can see the top half of Isaac through a screen of goldenrod on the bank. “I give up tryna keep him out of there.”

“We played in it. Wasn’t much cleaner then,” Darcy says. “Or maybe you didn’t.” She can’t picture Helen wallowing in that rust-colored, sewage-smelling water.

Helen sighs, leaning on the stove. “I played in the crick,” she says. “I got in mud fights. I occasionally even stepped in cow shit.”

Darcy laughs and runs her fingers along the web of cracks in the wooden table, barely feeling them through the guitar callouses. Helen’s been her best friend since Darcy forgave her for high school. Even where everybody grows up poor there are still different levels of poor, and Darcy was near the bottom. Sometimes people from a church they never went to would leave bags of food and clothes in the bed of her mother’s truck while her mother was inside mopping morning-after beer and vomit from the Dog Hair Inn floor. Helen was one of the kids who never let Darcy forget that. Darcy remembers being tripped down stairwells, hit with rocks and softballs and books. They always laughed. Sometimes she’d strike out with the fury of a cornered bobcat, kicking and punching wildly at whoever was closest. It didn’t stop anything, but being attacked in revenge was better than being attacked for the usual reasons.

A few years after Darcy finished school, Helen showed up at her trailer with Isaac and said, “I know you got to hate me.”

There were a lot of things Darcy wanted to say. Most of them would have sent Helen back down the road. But she said, “Long time ago. I pretty much forgot about it.”

It took Helen a long time to realize how much of a lie that was, and by then Ray Jo had started taking Darcy to concerts, trying to get her to join the band. The first time she heard Helen sing, Darcy could see the notes: small brown birds rising up from a dark kudzu-tangled forest of sound. It made the muscles in her back shiver, the bottom drop out of her stomach, her arms loosen from her shoulders. When Helen sang, Darcy forgot about high school. She wanted to catch the fluttering birds and hold them cupped in her hands.

Even now, Darcy sometimes gets so lost in Helen’s singing that she forgets to change chords. Sometimes she forgets to play at all, and her right hand lays on the mute strings while Helen and Ray Jo and Dean keep going. When they catch her they joke about it, ask her if she’s stoned or what, spacing out in the middle of a song. Dean, whose cousin has epilepsy, tells her to go to the clinic, and she says she’ll think about it. The truth seems childish and embarrassing.

“I did hate you,” Darcy says now. She has never said this before and, even without seeing Helen’s reaction, she wants to take it back. “Or maybe I just hated in general. You know you can actually spend time hating?”

She thinks she said it joking and held back the edge, but Helen says, “Getting bitter in your old age?”

“Just think when I’m eighty. Be chasing kids out of my yard with a broom. Keep a big nasty dog and never tie it up. Holler at people that walk by holding hands, Y’all gone burn in Hay-ell!

“Be a lonely, mean, righteous old bitch.”

“I’m getting a good start, you think?” When Helen doesn’t answer, she picks up the guitar and thumbs random strings, no tune or pattern, not even listening to the sounds. “Got a piece of a song this morning.” Darcy sets the guitar down and jams her hands in her pockets and stares at where the floor meets the wall. “You trace your path in blood, leave a trail of unmarked graves.” The words sound flat now. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches Helen.

Helen says it to hear it again. She’s just talking but already it sounds more like music than when Darcy said it. Helen can make anything sound good. “And in every one you leave yourself behind,” she says. “Put them together.”

Darcy says the words, adding a little rhythm to them, the song’s power stronger than Helen’s eyes watching her. “Hell yeah,” she says, even though it isn’t quite the feeling she had in mind.

“Dean’ll bitch about it. Not country enough.”

“So we’ll throw a banjo in. Ray Jo’s got one, right?” Darcy adds some quick, glittering banjo notes to the sound-picture in her head, flecks of mica between the smooth black stones. Just a little, not enough to brighten it. The words come in her own voice, a rough alto, sometimes off-key. She doesn’t sing much, occasionally adding harmony, an anchor to drag Helen down on songs that shouldn’t be too pretty.

Isaac comes inside dripping, red mud spiking his hair where he leaned against the bank. His face looks like Helen’s except one side is narrow and the other is rounded. Either half would be okay, but put together all Darcy notices is the unmatchedness. He is pale and expressionless behind the mud. He reminds her of the earthworms washed-up on her driveway after a night rain.

“Whoa,” Helen says. He stops like he’s come to the end of a leash. “You ain’t walking through the house like that. What you think I leave the hose out for?”

“Okay.” His voice is slow and wobbly. “Where’s Daddy?”

“Probably still at the sawmill.” Helen points at the door. “I have to come after you with the wire brush?”

Isaac giggles and retreats back out the door. Helen picks up the song fragment again, playing with the sounds. Darcy does the same with the tune, trying out chords until she finds one that sounds like the river stones – some variation on an E that she doesn’t remember the name of. She tries to match the rhythm to the way the rocks fall over each other in the current. Simple, at first. Later she’ll add smaller stones between the big ones. Helen fits her voice to Darcy’s guitar and they sing it over and over. The two-line song becomes a mantra, growing and carrying them along, the tune building on itself, until Isaac comes back in wearing underwear and nothing else, with most of the mud gone. He tries to climb up on Helen’s lap but she pushes him away. “Cut it out, you’re too big for that.” She catches a clump of his hair between two fingers and lifts it off his face. “You’d squish me,” she says.

“No I won’t.” But he sits by the air-conditioner vent and watches them through strands of wet yellow hair, chewing his knuckles. His fingers are red and scabbed already, but he keeps biting them.

He jumps up at the first sound of a vehicle outside: Dean’s van, with the muffler gone again. The van is always missing parts. Dean works on it weekends and never has time to finish. He just puts enough of it back together to get him to and from the sawmill for the week, and the next weekend starts again.

Outside, gravel crunches under Dean’s feet, and then the porch steps creak. Isaac thrusts the door open on his father.

“What you up to, buddy?” Dean picks Isaac up, swings him around partway, and sets him down again inside. He pries his shoes off and drops them, shedding sawdust, by the door. Sawdust clings to his socks and beard and hair. He looks at Isaac, then Helen. “Can’t you at least make him wear pants?”

“It’s hot.” She takes a cup out of the dish rack, fills it with water from the pan. “Isaac honey, go put some pants on.”

Isaac slips between his parents and leaves the room without protest.

“He’s close to grown,” Dean says when Isaac is gone. “Bout time he stopped running around naked.” He takes off his glasses, blows sawdust off the lenses, then brushes more sawdust out of his thin beard. It occurs to Darcy that the beard looks exactly like pubic hair, and she looks away, holding in the corners of her mouth to keep from laughing.

Helen turns slowly. “He’s a little boy. Will be for a long time yet.” She doesn’t say forever but Darcy can hear her thinking it.

“You keep babying him, he’ll never learn nothing,” Dean says.

“Like baseball?” Helen’s voice is high and brittle.

Dean has been trying to teach Isaac to catch, so he can play in the Sunday games behind the church. He borrowed a baseball and a glove from Helen’s little brother and the first toss hit Isaac in the face. Dean keeps trying, but Isaac just stands there and waits for the ball to hit him and cries when it does. Dean uses a tennis ball now, and never throws it harder than it takes to get it there, but Isaac still cries.

“Up to you, he’d a never learned to talk,” Dean says.

Darcy knows there will be a fight; she’s heard this conversation before. She gets up quietly and picks up the guitar, hand muting the strings, and walks around Dean’s back. “I gotta go.” She already has a hand on the doorknob.

Helen glances over Dean’s shoulder and nods. “Come back tonight, Ray Jo’ll be here. We got to get in some practice,” she calls through the closing door.

Darcy’s trailer is about ten miles out of Falling Rock, on a gravel road like the ones on her mail route. It’s shorter than most of the trailers in the valley, but bigger than she needs. She shares the space only with a gray cat that moved in when she started feeding it. The trailer is white and green; she painted it a year ago, and put on a new silver roof coating to reflect the heat. She has three acres of land, and the trailer sits on the highest part, where it gets some shade from a few old walnut and pine trees. In the back she has a garden that she tends earnestly for a few days every month and lets the weeds grow wild between. The place isn’t what she imagined as a kid, but it’s close enough for now, and she can afford it and still pay her mother’s rent in town.

A White Natural Gas truck is parked in her driveway. She doesn’t recognize it, but then she sees Dean’s brother Caylon standing by her front door, knocking. He turns and looks up at the limerock chunks popping and crunching under her tires, and waits for her to stop before he strolls toward her, loose-limbed and weaving. He leans on the door of her car and speaks into the open window. “There y’are,” he says.

“Yeah.”

“Been a while,” he says. She used to see him a lot, just passing by. He lives next door to Dean, on what’s left of their father’s land. Caylon is younger than Dean; he was in Darcy’s class in high school.

“Yeah. New job?” She points at the company truck.

“Just for now,” he says. “Soon as I save up some money I’ll quit.” He kicks the tire. “What I’m really doing, is I’m starting up a band.”

“Like ours?”

“Nah. None of that hillbilly shit.” He grins. “No offense.”

Darcy considers just backing up and leaving, except that it’s her house. “Got a name?”

“Right now we’re just the Assholes.”

“Sounds about right,” Darcy says.

Caylon moves to let her open the door. “Ain’t got no songs of our own yet,” he says. “So far. Interested?”

“No.”

“Come on. You’re wasting your time with Dean’s group. But if you’re that attached to them, just make us up some songs. You ain’t got to play them.”

“Don’t have time.”

Caylon smirks. “What, you got a boyfriend along the route?”

“Just takes me forever to come up with a good song.”

“Well fuck you too,” Caylon mutters. He goes back to his truck, kicking gravel. “You change your mind, get ahold of me.”

“No thanks,” Darcy tells the cloud of dust spreading out from where his truck was. She nudges the door open with her foot; it’s not locked, or even closed all the way. The only crimes around here are family murders and arson, and her door being locked won’t stop either of those. She spots the cat’s tail disappearing under the couch as the screen door bangs shut behind her.

Darcy has National Geographic photos taped all over her walls: animals and landscapes and people from far-away places, and in the bedroom pictures from a book she found at a yard sale. They’re just line drawings, but she’s filled them in with colored pencil. Women become trees or emerge from them; another’s hair flows into a waterfall; animals become rocks and rocks come alive. A stern-looking Amazon draws a bow, aiming at a man with snakes for fingers. Most of the figures are nude, which is why she doesn’t have them in a room where somebody might see them. Her mother comes by sometimes, and Helen when she’s fighting with Dean more than usual.

She puts food down for the cat, and it slinks from under the couch but stays out of her reach. It’s been here a month, but it still avoids her. She tries not to take it personally.

She takes her notebook from the cabinet over the sink, pulls the pencil out of the coil, and flips to the first blank page. She can read music a little, but she writes in a combination of tab and her own code. The rhythm line is a series of vertical arrows with chord letters over them. Big arrows are emphasized; small ones are softer. She writes down the two lines and sketches out her chord pattern and tries to drag the next line out of wherever the first one came from. It comes when she gets up to let the cat out.

Charred pieces nobody wants to keep.

She writes it down and stares at it a while, and then two more come easily from her:
The best of you underneath their feet.
Yeah, go on and fill up another grave.

She picks up the guitar and experiments until it’s close to what she wants. She plays it louder each time, until the guitar roars. It’s an old electric-acoustic that she bought from one of Ray Jo’s friends, but it works with her kind of music. It gives the song a depth and gritty texture she likes. But it doesn’t draw out any more of the song. She can feel more of it there, where the first came from, but she can’t hear it yet.

She doesn’t get back to Dean and Helen’s place until late. The sun is already behind the hills. When she gets out of the car she hears them, fighting again, or still fighting. She waits by the back porch. Isaac is curled up in the corner, between a coil of extension cord and a bag of empty cans for the scrap-metal place. His hands are wrapped around cans, squeezing them around the middle.

“Cut yourself on them things, you don’t let up,” Darcy says.

He puts his head back against the door, but Darcy can hear more than she wants to from the steps. The house is a double-wide and has thin walls.

“You’re never home anymore. Always leave soon as I get back,” Dean is yelling. “You was out last night weren’t you? You and Darcy.”

“We were talkin about a new song,” Helen says. “Since you got to know.” Darcy’s teeth are clamped together so hard her jaw hurts. She wonders if he will take this any better than the truth – that they rented videos and made mudslides and compared what they’d like to do if they ever got out of Falling Rock.

“What, you can write songs all a sudden? You growing a brain or something?”

“Fuck you,” Helen says.

Isaac wipes at his nose with a scabbed hand. Something crashes inside the house.

“They don’t mean it,” Darcy says.

Isaac suddenly drops the can, whimpers and thrusts his bleeding hand at Darcy. She recoils, almost falling off the step. “What’d I tell you.” She takes a longer look; there isn’t much blood. She’s not afraid of blood – just Isaac’s, as if whatever’s wrong with him might be catching. She knows it’s stupid, but she keeps her distance.

Isaac’s face crumples and he starts bawling. He never cries silently like other kids. Sometimes he beats his head on the ground, but this time he just screams. “Shut up,” Darcy says. She catches herself with her fists clenched at her sides. “Just shut up.”

Isaac ignores her for a while, but he stops crying when it’s clear Darcy isn’t going to offer any comfort. Inside, the fight trails off. They’ll pick it up again before long, but now a car door slams out front and Darcy goes to meet Ray Jo and Isaac goes to play by the road.

Ray Jo teaches first grade at the elementary school. He doesn’t particularly like kids, but it was the only way he could make decent money in Falling Rock. His time at college was all he wanted to see of the outside world, but it’s enough to make his sisters look at him suspiciously over the heads of their husbands and kids. Ray Jo isn’t married and has no children, which they blame on his education. They’re even more resentful towards Darcy; she has no excuse. Ray Jo and Darcy tell each other and anyone who asks that there are already plenty of little nieces and nephews running around. No need to add more.

Helen and Dean come outside separately, Helen first. Dean notices Isaac’s red face and grabs him and tickles him until he goes limp with laughter, grabbing for patches of weeds to escape. Dean lets him go and comes back to where Helen and Ray Jo are discussing the test Isaac’s teacher wants him to take. They drift toward the barn with their instruments. Helen drags the extension cord. Darcy offers to carry it but Dean takes it first.

Isaac trudges along beside his father, mumbling to himself and chewing noisily. Helen catches his arm as he walks past her. “What you got in your mouth?”

“It’s gum.” There are little black gobs on his teeth.

“Spit it out.”

He does. A wet lump of road tar.

Helen slaps him on the back of the head. “How many times I tell you? Huh? It’s poison. It’ll kill you.” She swats him again. “You’re liable to get yourself run over.”

“No need to hit him,” Dean says. “Just tell him. He ain’t some drooling idiot.” He looks at Isaac, who stares back at him blankly. “You don’t put that shit in your mouth. Make you sick.”

Helen shakes her head. “You don’t think I tried that? Gets through to him for about a minute.”

They haul Dean’s drum kit and two amps out of the old horse stall where Dean stores them under a tarp, and set them down in the center of the open floor. Dean rearranges the drums, pushing everything closer together. Darcy and Ray Jo plug in cords. There are plugs from the amps, Helen’s microphone, and three hanging trouble-lights in the power strip, which is plugged into the extension cord. Ray Jo claims that one of these days something will catch fire.

They run through two songs they could play in their sleep. Dead songs, all the power worn out of them. Isaac watches from the hood of a Datsun, bare feet kicking a tire in time to Dean’s drums. He claps wildly at the end of every song. Spit sprays from his mouth when he tries to whistle. They move into newer songs, starting over each time one of them makes a mistake.

It lasts for about an hour before they set down the instruments for a break. Helen leans back on a hay bale, alongside Dean, who puts an arm around her. “You get any more of that song?” she says to Darcy.

“Some.” Darcy wishes Helen hadn’t mentioned it. She doesn’t like Ray Jo and Dean to hear a song until it’s mostly finished. Dean offers suggestions that don’t fit and then gets offended when she doesn’t use them. Ray Jo offers suggestions that fit perfectly and make her feel stupid for not thinking of them herself.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Kept Helen out all night, must be one hell of a song.”

“Maybe. It’s not much yet.” She runs through it slowly, slower than it will be when finished. Her voice is rougher than Helen’s; it gives the song a hard sound. With Helen singing, it will be haunting.

Dean fiddles with his watch. “Jesus Christ, Darcy. What’re you so pissed off about?”

She just shrugs. “Won’t sound like that when Helen does it.”

Ray Jo is staring at the hay-strewn floor, so Darcy knows he likes it. When he doesn’t like a song he speaks up right away.

“I don’t know,” Dean says. “Couldn’t you tone it down some?”

“I was thinking we could throw in a banjo. Kind of a bluegrass thing.”

“Perfect,” Ray Jo says. He doesn’t get to use the banjo often. He can play six different instruments, but usually he sticks to the guitar and bass.

Dean thinks about it. “Yeah, that could be okay.”

They go back to their places. This time they don’t stop until it’s too dark to see without the trouble lights.

The air is always a few degrees cooler at the river. Helen and Dean are there before Darcy, and Ray Jo shows up with a new girlfriend as Helen is digging a small half-empty bottle of tequila out of the van. His truck headlights light up oblongs of dirt. His radio is on Oldies Night. Ray Jo has brought hard cider, and he and Dean and the girl sit on the tailgate. The girl doesn’t talk. She looks like she’d just as soon not be here.

Darcy walks over with the six-pack she’s contributing and sets it in Ray Jo’s cooler. “Who’s your friend?”

“Oh. This’ Iola. She’s subbing fourth grade this year. Iola, my cousin Darcy.”

Iola smiles and shakes hands without ever looking any less bored. Her hand is warm and limp. She has neat brown spirals tattooed in henna or magic marker, trailing from the corners of her eyes back to where her hair starts. They look like they’re supposed to be there, like she should have been born with them.

“Iola’s from Ohio,” Ray Jo says. “Hey, Iola. You seen our water out here, right? Why’s it all red?”

Iola shrugs. “Tell me.”

“It’s full of rust from Ohio cars.”

“Hey, that’s my joke,” Darcy says.

Ray Jo glares at her, red-faced. “Ain’t like you copyrighted it.”

“I don’t get it,” Iola says.

“Ask Darcy, she made it up.”

“Ask Ray Jo, he wants to tell it so bad.”

Ray Jo takes another gulp from his can. “It’s cause people from Ohio can’t drive. Always going off the curves. Up here, you go off a curve you usually go all the way down to the crick.”

Darcy wishes she hadn’t claimed the joke, but Iola lets it go. Iola asks Dean how work is going and listens patiently while he describes all the ways he hates the sawmill. They all stand together until the conversation splits them into groups — Darcy and Helen, Dean and Ray Jo and Iola — and Darcy and Helen move down to the rocks with the tequila and a few bottles of beer. Frogs are singing from the edges of the river; the summer has been dry and they’re multiplying while they can.

Helen twists the cap off her bottle, takes a long swallow, passes it to Darcy. They sit on the bank in silence, watching Ray Jo’s and Dean’s and Iola’s shadows flicker across the grass. A few fireflies, the last of the year, blink raggedly along the treeline.

Ray Jo’s voice seeps down the bank. “Hey, I tell y’all what one of my kids said yesterday? It was so cute.” What the kid said is lost in the frogs’ chirping.

“Shit, that’s all of it,” Helen says after a while.

“Huh?”

Helen shakes the empty tequila bottle. “Dare me to eat the worm?”

“Let’s split it,” Darcy says.

Helen laughs, half-stands to hand Darcy the bottle, leaning on her shoulder. “You get it out.”

Darcy turns the bottle upside down and shakes out the shriveled worm into her palm, looks at it doubtfully, bites off half of it, swallows, and hands the other half to Helen.

“Ew,” Helen says, but she’s smiling, and she takes the halved worm from Darcy’s palm and swallows it like a pill, washing it down with beer. She looks at Darcy and giggles, wiping at her mouth. “We just ate a goddamn worm.”

Darcy grins and pulls Helen to her feet. “Come on.”

They walk along the river. The air is still, just waiting for day. The moon is slightly flattened on the bottom, like a tire needing air. Moonlight sparks off the mica flecks in the sand and turns the world black-and-white. Their shadows are long and black, pools of oil rippling over the stones. Beside them the water runs cold and clear and white-ridged.

Darcy opens her mouth to tell Helen something but doesn’t know what she would say. There is a pressure in her; she wants something but doesn’t know what, and it’s making her restless. Maybe a new song wanting to come out from wherever songs come from.

Helen is staring at the opposite bank, into the black treeline. “I feel old.”

“You’re not old,” Darcy says, laughing, but the laugh is startled and hurt, and she knows Helen notices. Helen’s face in the moonlight is hard, lines barely visible in daylight now deep and shadowed. Darcy wants to reach out and wipe them away with her fingers. All except the ones at the corners of Helen’s eyes. She’d leave those alone.

“I’m only thirty.” Helen shivers and rubs at her arms. “Thirty shouldn’t feel old.”

“No, it shouldn’t.” Darcy is twenty-eight; she doesn’t know what thirty feels like, but Helen should never have to feel old.

Darcy takes off her jacket and drapes it over Helen’s shoulders. “Here.” Helen’s hair tickles the back of her hand, leaving echoes on her skin.

“Thanks.” Helen smiles at her. “You’re gonna freeze, though.”

“No, I’m still buzzed.” She tries not to shiver too obviously.

Helen puts the jacket on the rest of the way and hooks her thumbs through the slits behind the cuffs, so her hands are covered to the first knuckle. She looks small and tired. Darcy shakes her head and tries to think of the song, but she can’t remember the words.

Helen sits down on a flat-topped rock and takes a pack of menthols from her pocket and taps one out. A match flares blue and yellow, and light ripples across her face as she brings the cigarette to the flame between her cupped hands. She shakes out the match and drops it between the rocks. “Don’t ever get married.” The orange end of her cigarette bobs, and flakes of ash drip off in dimly glowing trails.

“Hadn’t planned on it.”

“Husband, kids, life. Just beat you down in the ground.”

A new line itches at Darcy’s mind but she knows it will vanish if she reaches for it. She waits for whatever Helen wants to say.

“Look at me. Best part of my week is singing in my husband’s shitty little band.” Helen stubs the partly-burnt cigarette out on the damp rock. “You work tomorrow?”

“No.” She has every other Thursday off, in an arrangement that makes no sense to her, but which she’s not going to complain about.

“Do me a favor, watch Isaac? Just a couple hours.”

“I guess.” She hates watching Isaac. He reminds her of when she was ten and eleven, when she used to kick dogs and hit her baby cousins for crying. Sometimes she gets the same feeling around him, like she could just hit him and wake him up.

“Thanks, you’ll be saving my life,” Helen says. She looks back upstream to where a few yellow flashes on the water reflect the

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