There was a child Beatrice knew, Laura, who slept in an attic. Although that part of Laura's existence seemed extremely exotic to Beatrice not much else about her life struck her as being particularly pleasant. Laura was eight and a half; Beatrice was seven. Since Laura had been held back at school, they would both be entering first grade in the fall. When Laura's mother heard the news she slapped her back with a belt eight times: one for each year of her life. She was a short heavy-set woman who was fond of wearing midriff shirts and dark glasses. Her husband barely moved his lips when he spoke and looked like he was trying to hide something. His hands were constantly feeling his pockets for cigarettes, his eyes averting every glance. As quiet as the father was the mother was loud. On weekends Beatrice could hear her talking in a flat raised voice from various vantage points in the neighborhood, a trail of smoke floating with the stream of words. She had short dark hair which she gelled and combed straight back. She would wait for the bus that took women to factories outside of town, chewing her nails and spitting them out with disgust. She'd disappear for a few days at a time and Beatrice would hear people whispering about it but she never learned what they actually said.
Laura's fourteen-year-old brother Ricky had greasy lank blonde hair, which was carefully parted and combed. He liked to whip it out of his eyes with a quick flick of his head. He was tall and thin with stooped shoulders and a shy expression. When Beatrice was four he had told her to look up at the clouds and then proceeded to throw a handful of pebbles into the sky. A minute grain of sand lodged in Beatrice's left eye leaving a pin-sized hole. It hadn't been terribly painful. It had been more of a shock than anything. It still amazed her that someone could have the nerve to do something like that. "Look up at the clouds...."
Once, Ricky 'accidentally' lanced a dart into his cousin's cheek, the same day as he had broken his sister's small attic window. By the time Beatrice was six she had become aware of rumors that Ricky was involved in some illegal something or other. Like his parents he smoked incessantly, walking through town alone, hands deep in his pockets, laughing for seemingly no reason. He frightened Beatrice, and yet she wanted to know more about him. When playing at Laura's she became aware of a racing in her heart if he was around. She had fits of uncontrollable giggling, scrunching her fingers into tight little fists and leaning her head into her chest. Ricky didn't talk much. Mostly he watched them. They'd be playing in the attic and she would happen to glance at the opening of the small space and there he'd be, several toothpicks hanging out of his teeth and an inside-joke-like expression on his face. She loved pretty dresses and fancy lace panties and got the feeling he did too.
One day he suggested they all play hide and seek. He told Laura to go outside and hide and they'd count then come and try to find her. After Laura left he told Beatrice to go over to the wall and press her face against it and start counting. She walked to the wall with Ricky following right behind her. He stood so closely to her that she could feel his breath on her neck. She almost imagined his fingertips nearing the small of her back. She reached fifty and he said, "Okay, that's enough." Her face was burning as she rushed passed him and outside. The over-grown grass whirled before her. Ricky raced after her.
"Follow me," he yelled. "I know where she always hides."
He walked towards a dilapidated wooden shed which his father had tried to keep from falling down by leaning 2x4s up on one side of it. The shed was threatening to collapse against the fence which ran most of the distance of the yard before ending in a row of pine trees. Beyond the pines a large meadow stretched beneath the sun. The sky was sharp and surreal after having been up in the attic. That hot dry space which had filled with his breath. She was following him now. He crept through tall weeds around the back of the shed and stopped. Beatrice noticed a granddaddy long legged spider on one of the rough faded boards.
Ricky looked at Beatrice. He raised his hand and placed one of his fingers on her lips. On the other side of the fence laundry blew. Gently waving through the sky, so languidly, as if it had nothing better to do. As she watched it for a moment time seemed to stop. She ran her tongue across her lips.
There was a sudden burst of shrill laughter. Beatrice looked down and noticed Laura curled up inside the chicken wire confines of a rabbit cage. Ricky kicked at it and opened and Laura climbed out. She gave her brother a jab in his chest. Beatrice was suddenly somehow disappointed. The sense that something was happening which she could neither understand nor explain, melted away. Ricky looked into her eyes.
"Told you I knew where she was," he spat out before turning and walking away.
His long legs weaved through pale weeds as he reached in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He flicked back his hair and laughed. And then he was gone.
"I can't stand him," Laura said.
"Yeah," said Beatrice.
They went back inside the sparsely furnished house. There was an ashtray-ridden wooden coffee table with white stains on it. It seemed to be coated with something, grease or some other type of film. A jump rope sat coiled on the bare floor. There was a gold and brown plaid sofa with half-eaten bowls of cereal next to it. A fist-sized hole was in the middle of one wall and the door was covered with scratch marks. An ottoman lay on its side. On a shelf were elf figurines covered with dust. When Beatrice entered she had the distinct feeling that a bunch of people had just rushed out through another door, even though she knew that was not in fact the case. It seemed as though when she crossed the street to Laura's house she entered another world, where things stayed where you left them and nobody cared. How different from her mother's almost military-like style of housekeeping. Mornings, Beatrice wasn't allowed to go to friend's house until she had removed every dandelion from their property. She thanked God they lived near town and not further out on one of the farms.
Beatrice coughed lightly. There was a staleness to the living room. The smell of many years of cigarette smoke had permeated the entire place. It puzzled her to find herself there again. She didn't particularly even like Laura. She didn't talk much and had no interest in playing pretend games which were Beatrice's favorites.
"You want something to drink?" Laura asked.
Beatrice watched Laura from the doorway to the kitchen. She wondered at her short dark uncombed hair-- cut in layers which stuck out in different directions, it was so unlike Ricky's. Her skin was sallow and it seemed to Beatrice that she was yawning all of the time. Laura looked in the refrigerator for a long time then closed the door. She filled two glasses with water, then began rifling through a drawer.
"Want some of this?" she asked holding up a packet of Tom Collins mix.
"All right. You can have a taste of mine if you want. Let's go back outside."
They took their glasses and sat on top of a round redwood table. Beatrice glanced at the laundry in the yard next door. it sat motionless now, dead without the breeze. She looked at the pines. White light streaked through their floppy branches and spread across the ground which was littered with dry needles. Beatrice suddenly felt like crying. Laura drank her Tom Collins quietly and birdsong filled the yard.
Beatrice wondered what Laura was thinking.
"It's nice today," she offered.
"You know you're pretty. Don't you?" Laura asked. "All pretty girls know it."
Beatrice felt her cheeks growing hot again.
"My brother talks about you sometimes. He says weird things."
Laura waved her hand across Beatrice's hair and watched it wave back and forth then settle. Although Beatrice had always been fond of her long golden hair right then she wished it was short. She wanted to hear everything Ricky had said about her but was reluctant to ask. She noticed several scars on Laura's knuckles.
"I think they're going to send him away," Laura said.
"You can't send children away."
"Ha! If they don’t send him away he'll probably be PUT away. Somewhere worse. I'm going to get another drink. You want one?"
"No thanks, Laura."
Beatrice sat alone looking through the trees to the meadow beyond. She imagined herself making her way through the high grass, as if it would lead her someplace very distant and unrecognizable rather than to just some other person's home. She realized she had begun to pray. "Angel of God my guardian dear..."
She had learned the prayer when she was two and whenever she was nervous she found herself repeating it.
"To whom God's love commits me here..."
She had a peculiar longing inside of her. She wanted to do something to make Laura's life more right. Maybe that was why she kept coming back. "Ever this day be at my side..." She swayed her legs back and forth and closed her eyes. She wanted to be little again. Seven just felt too old. Three would be good. Or maybe even a baby... She wondered what it had been like inside of her mother's womb. Sometimes she wanted to be so close to her mother that she wished she could go back inside of her.
"Did you feel me moving around when I was in your tummy?" she'd ask.
"Yes, and sometimes you even kicked."
"Oooh, I hope I didn't hurt you. Did you know I was a girl?"
"No. No I didn't."
"I hope you didn't want a boy."
"I wanted you. Exactly who you are is what I wanted."
"Wasn't I so sweet when I was a baby?"
"Yes. And you are sweet right now and always will be, to me. I love you. I love you with al my heart and soul."
Soul. That was something she'd been working on understanding for a long time.
"It's who you are inside. Your spiritual self. And it's what remains even when your body is gone."
"Please don't ever have another baby. I don't want a brother or a sister. Just you and Daddy." She had pleaded her mother for as long as she could remember, only right now she wasn't so sure.
When she opened her eyes she saw Ricky leaning up against the house, smoking and watching her.
"...to light and guide... to rule and guard. Amen."
Instead of being startled by his presence she felt an unusual calmness pass through her. Her eyes held his for a moment, then she shifted her focus to her swaying feet. Laura came out and grunted at her brother then sat on the picnic table next to Beatrice.
"What are you looking at, Ricky?" Laura asked.
"Well why don't you go look at nothing someplace else."
Ricky flicked his cigarette into the air.
"Want to play a game?" he asked.
"What?" Laura asked.
"How about hide the penny?"
"No way. You're not putting any of your dirty money inside of me ever again, you psycho."
"But Beatrice has never played and maybe---"
He was interrupted by the sound of loud music and a car screeching to a stop. They
all craned their heads to see where it was coming from. The music died as quickly as it had started. Hank, a young man with thick wavy black hair to his shoulders, and lovely bronze-
colored skin appeared in the yard. He wore an old sleeveless flannel shirt and faded cut-offs. He was tossing a handball from palm to palm.
"Just you and the girls, Ricky?" he asked.
"Yep. That's a fact, Hank."
Beatrice was mesmerized by Hank's extremely white, straight teeth. As she stared at his teeth every other part of him disappeared.
"Boy is this one gonna do a little damage someday," Hank said. "What a looker."
"I think she could do a little damage right now. I been trying to get them to play hide the penny."
"You pervert," Hank laughed.
"Just something to do," Ricky said.
He walked behind Laura and grabbed her around the waist.
"Loser. Leave me alone you disgusting ass," Laura yelled.
She tried to worm herself from his hold but he was already taking his belt off and tying her hands behind her back.
"If I'm the loser why are you the one with a belt around your wrists? Huh? Should just make you eat a handful of pennies," Ricky said. "How would you like that?"
Laura grew very quiet and still. Beatrice had scooted off the picnic table but could not get herself to move any further. She leaned against the table, feeling weak.
"Ah, come on, Ricky. Leave these girls alone. Let's go for a ride. I've got some good shit in the car," Hank said.
"Maybe we should just take the girls with us. Maybe they'd like to join us. Huh, girls?" Ricky laughed.
Huge white clouds floated through the sky behind him. Beatrice longed to be very far away from him but could not bring herself to walk or run. She felt frozen. He moved his hand across her hair in the same manner as Laura had.
"Don't touch her like that," Laura said. "She's not your friend! You have your own friends. Leave mine alone. Leave me alone!" she cried.
"I say we all go for a little ride," Ricky said. He looked utterly relaxed. "Why not all be friends? It's not like we actually have a fucking family. So let's have friends. We'll share and have lots and lots of friends. Right, Laura?"
Beatrice caught herself praying again.
"Angel of God my guardian dear..."
She watched Ricky pull Laura by the elbow. Then Beatrice felt fingers wrap around her wrist, softly but firmly. She moved as if sleepwalking. A moment later she was in the backseat of Hank's dilapidated black Cadillac convertible.
The boys swigged from a bottle and sang along to the music blaring from the cassette deck as they raced out past town and on to the hilly dirt roads which wound and curved through the countryside like dried-out riverbeds. Laura worked her hands out of the belt and threw it from the car. "I hate belts," she said.
The girls sat closely, veering left and right as Hank turned the wheel. The air was rough on Beatrice's skin. She reached for Laura's hand and squeezed it. And Laura began to cry, a soft muffled cry. Beatrice could feel her hand shaking against her own. Laura kept clearing her throat, and finally blurted out to her brother, "Where the hell are we going?" But the boys kept singing, shouting to the Steppenwolf tape, as though if they could just sing loudly enough they would actually become the song. Beatrice had never been in a convertible before. She thought it seemed more like being in a boat than a car. She caught sight of Hank's teeth in the rearview mirror and for a second everything else disappeared. Then she blinked and saw Laura's face, shriveled, suddenly grown haggard and old. As though all of the best of life had already passed, had seeped out of her, and whatever was coming wasn't worth staying for.
Beatrice knew she would never go back to Laura's house again. But for now, for the remaining time that they would be stuck together in the back of that convertible she wanted to take care of her. She put her arm around her and patted her friend's shoulder, and shuddered with her as they braced themselves against the wind.
"When I'm afraid I pray," Beatrice said.
"I don't know how to pray."
Beatrice thought of all the times she had been nervous or frightened by something and said her prayer to calm herself.
"Then what do you do?" she asked.
"I light matches and burn my knuckles. Only I don't have any matches right now."
"Looking for an adventure in whatever comes our way," the boys were singing.
A trail of dust blew behind them, rising, swirling like a tornado. Hank and Ricky ignored the girls. Now that they were on the road, it was as if they only wanted them there to bare witness to their actions, their reckless joy.
"Are you scared?" Laura asked.
"Very," Beatrice answered. But at the same time there was something almost incredible to her that she was in that very car, swerving down dirt roads, cornstalks bright and high on either side of her. She felt like a bullet being propelled through a gun. And there was something about that feeling which she liked.
She had never been any further than the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Mostly she had spent her life at home in Central Pennsylvania in the middle of nowhere with nothing very out of the ordinary to see. Even though she knew these roads, had traveled along through the desolate dirt hundreds of times, now, everything was being transformed before her. They zoomed passed Amish farms, the deep blue and purple shirts and dresses, white aprons and stiff black pants blowing from clotheslines against a brilliant sky.
A large dog ran from a porch and chased after the cadillac but gave up after a few futile leaps and yaps. Ricky opened his car door and tried to hit him but missed. The dog stood in the middle of the road staring after him as the dust settled around his feet. A steep hill became a roller coaster ride with Ricky standing and cheering, his arms up, fingers stretched to the heavy.
"He's going to kill himself," Laura said.
Beatrice could barely hear her. Her brain was racing with the car. She was a bullet moving through space, slicing a path before reaching the target.
"Remember the time we brought those hookers to Jacob and Samuel's?" Hank asked.
"Shit. Seeing those Amish boys drinking and dancing made it almost worth it to be living around here," Ricky said as he sat back down. "We got serious blackmail material on them now. Their parents off at a funeral in Nippenose and they're drinking in the barn with hookers!"
"Not to mention us," Hanl laughed.
"Play that again, my man," Ricky said.
He took a long draft from the bottle as Hank rewound the tape then started it once again.
"What you say we go pay Lance a visit?" Hank asked.
"Yeah, I think he owes us a little something."
Where Beatrice got the feeling that Laura had seen all of this too many times-- that everything was behind her, Beatrice was thinking that a new kind of world was just opening up. She wasn't sure ezactly what it was-- better or worse, she only knew it was very different. Like playing a record at the wrong speed. Slowed down or speeded up past true recognition. Clarity.
The car stopped at the entrance to a winding gravel drive, overgrown with brush. There were wooden signs posted with messages: "Stay out or pay with yur life", "My bite's wiurs'n my bark", "Come on bay lite my fire",and "Satan's waiten". There was a fifth sign which said: "Shitake mushrooms sold here".
Hank pulled down the narrow path to a red and white striped trailer home.
"Lance is such a goober. Like if someone wants to get him a couple of these fuckers are gonna scare 'em off, " he roared.
"If he doesn't watch his butt the that'll get him will be the cops. They can't see weed from the road but if they're out in a helicopter..." Ricky said.
"Still, it's classic growing it in with the corn."
Weeping willow branches hugged the car, and waved through Beatrice's hair. She wondered how old Hank was. Much older than Ricky, she guessed. On closer inspection his beautiful bronzed skin was deeply lined, the teeth a little too perfect. There was an unreal quality about him. The wind had blown Ricky's hair straight back. His eyes were glassy and livid and beatrice thought he looked handsome like that. Hank honked the horn, making two short beeps and one long one. Beatrice and Laura scrunched low in the seat. A man appeared at the door of the trailer holding a shotgun. He squinted at the car for a moment.
"Well, if it ain't shitass and shithole," he said. "Ahh, the messengers."
He dropped his gun inside the door and stepped onto a cement porch. The trailer sat beside a large cornfield whhich stretched down a hillside and faded from sight. A type of plant Beatrice had never seen before grew between long rows of corn. Hank parked under a white Ash tree near the field.
Ricky lit a cigarette. "Stay here," he said as he and Hank got out of the car.
The large man on the porch gave Ricky and Hank each a hug, then he opened the door and escorted them inside. The trailer had rust patches and black tape covered several holes in the alluminum. Beatrice heard bellows of laughter coming from inside. Laura turned to her and said, "Let's get out of here."
"We're too far away from home," Beatrice said.
"It doesn’t matter where we are. It's no good. I know. Come on! We can hitch-hike."
"Are you crazy? I'm not allowed to hitch-hike. Besides, there's almost never anyone on the road except the Amish in their buggies."
"We just need one car to see us. That's all we need. Come on!"
She opened the door and pulled Beatrice's arm, her nails clawing into her skin. There was something absolute about Laura's expression which let Beatrice be led back down the gravel path the car had snaked through moments before.
"Faster!" Laura called.
They ran to the end of the drive and turned right onto the road.
"I hate this place. I hate this world. I hate this life," Laura yelled. "It's all... I don't know."
She stopped running and fell into Beatrice's arms, sobbing deeply, gutturally.
"I'm sorry," Beatrice whispered. "I'm sorry."
After a moment Laura stopped crying, and they headed down the road.
"No one cares about me," Laura said. "I could be a million miles away and nobody would care. My brother's a psycho just like my mother. I know how people talk about us. Sometimes she does bad things to herself with knives. Then she has to go away. Someday she may not come back... God, it's a pretty day."
The girls arrived at a fork in the road and stop ped.
"Did we go over a bridge? Do you remember, Beatrice?"
"Everything is kind of blurry in my head."
A young couple in a horse and buggy rode by, nodding quickly but barely looking at Laura and Beatrice.
"I wonder what time it is. I was supposed to go home and help my mother clean floors after lunch. Maybe we should go back to Ricky and his friend."
"I think we went over the bridge," Laura said. "Come on."
Beatrice followed along. "Okay," she said. She felt like making up something really bad about her mother and father. She so utterly loved her parents that she found it a very peculiar thing for herself to be wanting to do.
"Someone's gotta drive by," Laura said. "A milk truck even. Someone."
Beatrice was thinking she owed it to Laura to say something terrible that her parents had done. She had to make something up. Think think think...
"You know, my parents didn't want me. They tried to give me away but nobody would take me. I think it almost killed my mother to have me so they hate me."
"That's insane," Laura said.
"Yeah, I know that."
"Why are people so mean?"
Laura stopped in the middle of the bridge. It was a tiny bridge with a sign warning against heavy loads. Laura leaned over the rail and spat into the stream. Several small fish bit at it, then swam away. Cows grazed in the grass along the water.
"They're like that because the devil gets inside of them," Beatrice said.
"Do you think he's inside of me?"
"I keep looking for something good at home but I never find it."
"You have to love people even if they're bad because then God will feel sorry for them and make the devil get out of their hearts."
A car was coming up behind them, shrouded by thick road dust, and finally appearing as if through fog. For a moment Beatrice's heart pounded with hope. Maybe it was a neighbor and they could take them home and finish this whole thing. But it was only Hank and Ricky.
"Get in the car, you idiots," Ricky yelled.
"Run!" Laura cried.
But Beatrice froze. She gripped the cool iron rail as her head began to spin. Laura was running uphill towards an Amish farm in the distance. A large white hose stood near the road. A young girl was raking pebbles in the driveway. On the lawn, above an apiary, beautiful trellised grapevines grew. Laura glanced back as Ricky hopped out of the car and went after her. Beatrice recalled the house as the one the dog had chased them from.
"Why don't you just get in the car? I'm not gonna hurt you. If I was that kinda a person I wouild have done that a long time ago," Hank said.
He leaned over and opened the door, holding his hand out to her.
"All right," she said.
She got in the back and sat silently.
"If Laura'd just ignore Ricky he'd leave her alone. But she's a wise ass. Like she's Like she's always trying to up him one. Out do him."
He drove slowly up the hill glancing at Beatrice in his rearview mirror.
"... to whom God's love commits me here..."
Laura was at the top of the hill now with Ricky gaining on her. She ran across the lawn towards the back of the house, then came around the other side and raced into an alfalfa field. The young Amish girl stared after her but continued raking. Ricky ran through the front lawn, passed the porch. The pounding of his feet and litany of curses flying from his mouth awakened the dog. It ran after him, its swift back haunches propelling him forward and up before Ricky could even make it to the alfalfa field. The dog lept up, slapping his front paws against Ricky's chest. His nose was wet on Ricky's stomach. He growled very slowly and steadily. The young girl said something in German and after staring at Ricky for a second, the dog backed down. He stood next to Ricky breathing heavily.
"What's the matter with you people?" Ricky yelled. "You stupid fuckinmg inbred backward people!"
He kicked the dog and started to run. After a short yelp the dog bolted and caught Ricky's pant leg, shaking it violently before biting into his thigh. Ricky screamed in pain. Two Amish boys came running from a field on the other side of the dirt road.
"Get him off! Jesus, get him off!"
But the dog wouldn't let go and finally Ricky was forced to pull his leg from the dog's clenched teeth. Laura had stopped running and was staring back at Ricky. One of the Amish boys had grabbed the dog and brought him into the house. The other boy spoke with the girl in German then rushed into the house. Ricky stood there holding his thigh. The blood stained his jeans black and dripped through his fingers.
"Let me help you," one of the Amish boys said.
"Help me? Help me? Fuck you."
The young girl came out with bandages but Ricky ignored her. He limped over to the road as Hank waved from the car. Laura was standing at the edge of the alfalfa field, the mass of lush green plants blowing around her calves like clouds. Ricky was screaming, "Jesus Christ! Move it. Jesus fucking Christ!"
"Man, we gotta get you fixed up! Man. Shit!" Hank yelled.
Beatrice put her hands to her ears. She didn't want to hear or see another thing. Her brain was past processing one more thing. For the first time in her life she could not remember her prayer. She felt stranded, between this world and her own; and she feared there was no way of going all the way back. Like being told a secret you wished you hadn't heard. She watched as a breeze blew tufts of hair from Laura's face. The sun was behind her and her silhouette was dark and strangely lovely as she leaped in front of the car.