Chapter Excerpt from The Bend in the Arm of the River
That November, Alex's Uncle Billy shot off his leg hunting deer. It seemed at the time like nothing would ever be the same between Alex and me again. We'd been through other accidents together, but this one was different. Everything else was like a preparation for this. This time it was Uncle Billy.
The accident was so quick nobody really knew what happened. That's what the men said anyway, when they talked about it. One minute they saw him standing, looking out towards Feeney's pasture. Then he slipped somehow. He must've lost his footing or tripped over a felled tree -- nobody knew for sure, but they heard the shot and then saw Billy lying on the ground. A deep red pool was spreading over dry twigs and leaves. They brought Billy home from the hospital a few weeks after the accident. I was at Alex's house. A white bandage covered the stub where his leg had been.
"He should've been paying attention," Alex's father had said a few days earlier. "He's too careless. You're always looking out for him." He was talking to Alex's mother who stood at the sink washing dishes. "It's like you think he's still your kid brother and not a grown man. He doesn't even know how to take care of himself. I'm surprised something like this didn't happen sooner."
I wondered about the way Alex's father talked. He made Billy's accident sound like no big deal -- like he'd just had a careless moment and this was the unfortunate result. Or that Alex's mother was somehow to blame. Now Billy would just have to live with the consequences of his carelessness.
We weren't prepared for Billy when he came home from the hospital. We wanted him to walk through the door and ask, "Who wants to go for ice cream?" the way he always did when he came over to Alex's house. Then Alex and I would climb into the truck with him and drive out to the Maple Grove Snack Bar for twisters or sundaes. We wanted him to ask us what we'd been up to since his accident so we could tell him about the duck we'd cleaned for Alex's father a few weekends earlier.
We never minded doing that kind of work because her father paid us and we were always eager for the money; we made it into a game, laughing as the feathers flew up out of our hands and floated beyond our reach as we raced to see who could pluck the fastest. But that last time it felt different. That last time the game felt wrong.
We wanted to tell Billy all about it. We wanted him to listen to us like he always did -- like he really cared about what we said. No other adult ever paid that much attention to us. Billy never had to say anything in response. Just knowing he was actually listening was enough.
Sometimes, at Alex's house, we'd sit around the kitchen table with the men. If one of them started to tell a joke, Billy would nod in our direction as if to remind him that we were there. Then he'd tilt his head back at the man with a "watch yourself" look before it went too far. Even though we really did want to hear the rest of the joke, that made us feel special.
But Billy didn't even look at us that day when he came home from the hospital. He just stared off into space like he wasn't seeing anything at all. Alex's mother led him into the den where she'd set up a cot for him and shooed us away. Alex's father went into the bedroom and slammed the door.
"You girls go outside and play now," she told us. "Billy needs to rest."
"Play?" Alex said, rolling her eyes. "We're twelve, mom."
Alex and I grabbed our coats and headed out the door.
"Let's go out to Clyde's barn," I suggested.
It was our favorite hangout spot. Our bikes were already put away for winter so I knew it would be a long walk, but I didn't care.
Alex nodded in agreement. We walked behind the houses so we could take a shortcut through the Morganson's back yard and across the railroad tracks.
"Cider?" Alex asked as we passed her father's tool shed.
"It's probably not ready yet," I told her.
"There's still some left from last year's batch."
Her father and Billy made hard cider every fall. We'd first discovered it the previous year when Billy had given us a bottle, thinking we wouldn't like the taste. We didn't. It was the way it made us feel that brought us back for more.
We pushed open the creaky door and stumbled through the darkness, waving our hands in front of our faces to break through the cobwebs. Alex felt her way across the shelf against the side wall, then grabbed two bottles. When I bumped up against her, she passed one back to me and told me to hide it in my jacket.
When we were halfway to the barn Alex said she didn't want to go. "I just don't feel like hanging out in there tonight. Let's go down to the river instead."
It was dusk and the air was already crisp and filled with the smells of firewood. Dried leaves crunched beneath our steps. I looked back at the house and watched the shadows moving against the windows and something, some type of loneliness grabbed hold of me and made me want to reach out to Alex and just hang on. Instead, I walked with her down to the river. When we found a good place to sit, I twisted open my bottle of cider.
We were close to the spot where Alex's father had come to shore with the ducks a few weekends before. It was already too dark to see the island but we knew our Statue of Liberty, the one the Boy Scouts had constructed out of Venetian blinds for Ratchett Hollow's bicentennial celebration, was out there rustling in the wind.
"Remember that day when we were out here cleaning the duck?" Alex took a big swallow from her bottle.
I took a small sip then spit it into the grass.
"Just swallow it quickly and it's not so bad," she told me.
I closed my eyes and filled my mouth. I tried to swallow before the stuff had a chance to settle on my tongue.
"Yeah," I said. "I remember the duck."
We'd done that job, cleaning ducks, many times before. Maybe that last time we were distracted because Uncle Billy had just had his accident, and we weren't sure how long he'd be in the hospital or how bad off he was. Maybe that's what had made the experience seem so strange.
"I never want to see another dead duck again," Alex said.
"No," I said. "Me neither."
We'd been talking about Billy that afternoon when we were cleaning the duck. We wanted to visit him in the hospital, but the hospital rules wouldn't allow it. We were too young.
"If you're old enough to pluck a duck," Alex had said, "Then you must be old enough to visit your uncle in the hospital."
I remember we were laughing, and then Alex stopped. She sat, frozen in place, staring at the duck lying on the ground between us. Both our hands were still resting on its body. "I feel a heartbeat," she said. "It's like something's fluttering in there." I sat staring back as if struck dumb. It was the warmth I felt in its body flooding into my hand, spreading up my arm, spilling into my chest. It was just too much.
Now Alex took another swig from her bottle. "It must've been some sort of omen."
"It was just a dead duck, Alex."
I didn't know what else to say.
We lay back against the damp grass and looked into the sky. "I'll race you to Venus," Alex said.
We traced wild patterns into the darkness with our fingers as if searching for that tiny point of light was all that mattered. Neither one of us spoke until after I'd found Venus and we'd identified Polaris, the Big Dipper and as many shapes as we could in the moon.
"I'm glad he's okay," Alex said.
I agreed. "At least he's still alive." Worse things had happened to people. Billy wasn't dead, after all.
I wanted to do something for him. To make sure he was protected. But all those rituals that had worked for us in the past seemed silly now. Holding our breath and walking three times around the oldest gravestone in the cemetery. Sticking pins in our fingers. None of that was going to get us very far. All I could think to do was lie out there under the November sky with Alex. That was the one thing that felt right.
Like all those nights when I stayed over at her house and lay stretched out in her bed, warm against her body, breathing in the outdoor smells still on her skin. I'd close my eyes and imagine reaching over and wrapping my arms around her and I'd feel safe, knowing everything was just fine as long as I was lying there next to her.
"He looked so spaced out," Alex said. "It was like he didn't even recognize us."
"He'll be okay," I said. "He's been spaced out before. Like when he does that rock star thing. He just goes off somewhere else."
Billy used to stay with Alex and the younger kids when Alex's mother had to work nights and her father was gone. He always let me spend the night, too. He'd send the little kids, Janey and Chris, to bed and then let Alex and me cook Jiffy Pop and stay up late so we could watch Wolfman Jack.
If he really liked one of the bands on the show, he'd jump up and play air guitar. The first time I thought he was joking and I started to laugh until Alex reached over and slapped at my arm. I looked at Billy and saw how serious he was focusing on his made-up guitar. I realized he wasn't even aware that he was in Alex's living room with us and not on a stage somewhere, playing for a room full of screaming fans.
Then I felt bad for laughing. I knew it was a dream he had for himself even though he didn't really know how to play guitar. Alex and I just sat there quietly, allowing Billy his dream, the three of us secretly wishing that he really could be a rock star.
In the morning when we woke up Billy was always still there, talking with Alex's mother. One time Alex's father came home before Billy left. Billy was joking around. He was wearing Alex's mother's bathrobe and tossing pancakes into the air from the pan to make Janey and Chris laugh. We were all sitting around the table cheering him on as he flipped the pancakes higher and higher until one slapped up onto the ceiling. Alex's father walked through the door right about that time. He'd been gone three days. It was the longest he'd ever stayed away.
"So this is how it is then," he'd said, staring at Alex's mother like he hated her. "It doesn't even matter that I'm gone. I guess I know who's more important to you." Then he turned around and left again.
And now it had happened again. Alex's father was angry and we weren't sure why and Billy had that spaced out rock star look except this time he didn't look like he was having any sort of fantasy.
When Alex and I went back to the house, her mother was in the living room changing Billy's bandage.
"You might as well not bother with your mother tonight," her father told us on his way out the front door. "She won't even notice you're here."
I tried not to look at the bandage or the horrible stump. I didn't want to see it but I couldn't help looking. I tried to just look at Billy, but it was all wrong. His whole body was wrong somehow, like he wasn't even there inside his skin.
Then he released this sad, slow moan, but it didn't look like he'd opened his mouth. It was more like the sound came from the center of his body, from somewhere deep in his gut and it just kept building until his eyes started to roll back in his head. Then the moaning stopped and Billy started yelling at us.
"What are you looking at? I've got nothing to say to you! Why don't you just leave me alone?"
Alex ran up the stairs to her bedroom. I followed close behind. She wouldn't talk to me so we both sat on the floor in her room, listening to the soft sounds of her mother's voice drifting up from the heat vent. Later we heard Billy crying, big heaving sobs that filled the entire house.
"I wish I'd just shot myself," he yelled and then we heard the soft sounds of Alex's mother's voice again.
When we were getting ready for bed, Alex's mother knocked on the bedroom door and came in to talk to us. She told us it was the painkillers running through Billy's bloodstream that made him look that way and say the things he did.
"Don't take it to heart," she told us. "He doesn't mean what he says. It's just the drugs and the pain talking, not Billy."
She said his body was still recovering from the shock. It would take some time but the old Billy would be back eventually.
I tried to make myself believe her. That night Alex climbed into bed next to me and pulled me close to her body. I was so close that I could feel her eyelashes brushing against my temples. I knew she was crying; I could feel her tears falling onto my cheeks. Her breath was warm against my ear. My whole body felt different that night. Alex felt different. It was as if everything between Alex and me had changed in that moment, but really it had been happening for a while. We'd just never stopped to pay attention. Now that we were forced into it nothing felt right and I didn't know how to put things back in order.
"I'm so mad at him," Alex said when she finally stopped crying.
"My father. He was there. He could've done something."
How did her father have anything to do with what was wrong? He hadn't even seen what had happened. Alex didn't want to say anything more about it, though.
Finally Alex and I fell asleep but when we woke up the next morning everything still felt wrong. We got up and went down to breakfast, the same way we always did when I spent the night.
It was already 9 o'clock but the house was quiet. Chris and Janey were spending the weekend with their grandmother, but Alex's mother should've been up. She always got up early, even on weekends.
"Where is everyone?" Alex asked.
She pushed aside the blanket her mother had hung between the living room and den as a door for Billy. Her mother was lying on the cot with her eyes closed. A narrow line of spit had slid down the side of her mouth and gathered on her chin. Uncle Billy sat in a chair in the corner with a blanket draped over his lap, staring straight ahead, his eyes wide-open. He didn't even turn his head when we walked into the room.
"Everything will be back to normal soon," I heard myself say without really thinking. Already I could feel myself slipping away, my voice echoing against the walls. I thought about all those rituals we'd done to keep ourselves safe and how they hadn't really amounted to anything after all.