Secret Sun Place
I’d dreamed I was mauled by a bear, my face buried in rotten fur. I smelled nicotine on my fingers and realized it was me that was rank, no shower for days, same damp blouse stuck to my skin, armpits like tomato soup. If I’d been home I would have slept another four hours easy, but I had no home. I cracked my eyes to shag carpet, cheap paneling, and moldy curtains filtering light. I slid my hand from my face—the carpet stank, too, like an old person’s closet—and checked my jeans. Buttoned and zipped. Bra still hooked. I shivered and hugged myself tight. Felt my purse in my fleece and found my cash gone but my license and credit card safe. No bars on my phone. Limbs weak, mouth dry, stomach tight as Manny’s snake squeezing my arm.
In short, methed up.
I stared at an ugly brown water stain on the ceiling. Then I felt someone watching.
I pushed myself up to a sit, stiff like a towel dried all wrong. Alone in the living room of a single-wide, ratty green couch and wooden coffee table crowded with Bud Light cans and empty cigarette packs. Back bedroom dark as a cave. Lawn furniture made a dining room just short of the kitchen—two folding chairs and a plastic table—where two eyes peeked through frayed, crisscrossing straps of a chair. A small child, white, maybe three or four, with a tangled burst of dirty-blonde hair. Cartoony red pajama top, uncircumcised penis, and little white socks.
“Hi,” I tried to say, my throat so raw it came out as a croak.
He pulled in tighter behind the chair.
I worked to clear my voice. “What’s your name?”
It took a few seconds, but he poked his head out, runny nose and streaks of old snot across his cheeks. “Peanut,” he said in a voice as quiet as mine.
I think I smiled. The ice had inflated me like a balloon until I popped, there were holes in my memory from the last few days—I didn’t even know how many days—I didn’t even know if I had slept half a night or a day and a half—but at least my climb out of the crash was starting with a half-naked kid named Peanut.
“What’s your real name?” I asked.
He stared at me. “Peanut,” he said.
I had more questions—about his parents, my friends, how I had gotten there—but I had to pee and I needed water, so I hauled myself up and swayed on my feet until the room came into focus.
“What’s your name?” Peanut asked.
Good question. Birth name—Willow Morningstar, from my Warm Springs Tribe. Earth name—Dancing Mountain Deer, from White Ocean Storm, the staffer at OWL, the wilderness program for fucked-up teenagers.
“I’ll get back to you,” I told Peanut.
I peeked out through the curtains at a muddy front yard, mid-day maybe. A torn patio umbrella rose from the muck like the sail of a sinking ship, plastic toys strewn like wreckage.
“Can I use your bathroom?” I asked.
Before going in, I poked into the darkness of the back bedroom. Cold and empty. I was just as creeped to look in the bathroom mirror, ready to see me five years older with sores all over my face like those mug shots from the meth ads. But I just looked tired. My hair was a mess, tangled as Peanut’s but a lot more of it. I flashed on Summer braiding it at OWL and telling me how beautiful I was, how cool it must be to be Native American, and Summer blonde and blue eyed, the American Dream. I moved to drink from the faucet and felt the floor go soft, so much give under the cracked vinyl I could have broken through with one stomp. The water smelled like rotten eggs, like drinking something sucked from the bowels of the earth. I gagged and forced it down. Tongued the film on my unbrushed teeth. Sat on the cold toilet seat and checked my underwear, foul from constant wear but otherwise unsoiled.
I sat for a while with my head in my hands, staring between my legs until I noticed the folded papers in the back pocket of my crumpled jeans. My sketches, and the page I opened to dominated by the deer, her eyes black and disproportionately bulbous, like the eyes of an alien. Methed up.
The head of the deer was mounted on a wood-paneled wall in the den of a house we partied in. It was a buck but I didn’t draw the antlers. At one point Manny and Silas threw darts at it until they stuck, one in the neck and one in the cheek, but I didn’t sketch the darts either. I drew the mountain from the Busch mirror on the wall, the steelhead mounted on another wall, and the baseball player from a dusty trophy. The little batter didn’t fit the scene, but I liked how he was done with his swing, legs spread and bat behind him, not just standing there waiting for the pitch. I liked how you assumed he just hit one over the fence but maybe he totally whiffed. I fooled around with some baseball players at Madras High, all hoping to be the next Jacoby Ellsbury, the guy who went from Madras to Oregon State to the Boston Red Sox, but most of those jocks were full of shit and couldn’t even get it up.
I sketched while Tala danced and Manny and Silas threw darts all over the den. People from the party filtered through, Tala dancing with them, Manny and Silas messing with them, me not drawing them. I only sketched things sitting still, and nobody was sitting still. I think that was somewhere in the middle of the binge, or maybe toward the end. I think we were out near Veneta—there was talk of creeping around out where they have the Country Fair—but I don’t know whose den it was or whose party either.
A light knocking on the bathroom door.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“I gotta poop,” Peanut said.
I pulled up my pants, folded the sketches back into my pocket, and let him in. I had to eat something. I didn’t want to eat something, but all I could remember putting into my mouth the last few days, other than cigarettes and the glass pipe and Silas, was candy bars and Cokes. Maybe some chips. And gum.
Dirty dishes filled the sink and small kitchen counter. Through the window, twisted dead branches crowded the glass. I shut my eyes against a wave of claustrophobia and retreated back to my old kitchen, the ranch house I grew up in, the wide picture window looking out over the high desert to the peak of Mount Jefferson.
I checked a box of generic fruit loops on the counter, but there wasn’t much left for Peanut, who was still in the bathroom. I plucked a few and opened the fridge, bulb out and just a couple things sitting in the darkness, smelling of mildew. I found a package of Ramen in the cupboards, salt and water just what I needed, but the rotten egg smell from the tap made me gag again. I knew from OWL that a good boil would kill most anything. I poked around old newspapers on the plastic table and found a skin magazine. Peanut flushed the toilet. There was only a naked woman on the cover, nothing graphic, but it made me wonder what waited in the back bedroom. The snake stirred in my stomach, squeezing the bits of cereal.
“Sun’s out,” Peanut said, still without pants.
I turned to the drawn curtains with no idea whether it was morning or afternoon. Noticed the silence, no rain tapping the roof.
“Wanna see?” Peanut asked.
“Where are your parents?”
“See what?” I asked.
“The sun,” he said. “The secret sun place.”
I did miss the sun. Hadn’t seen it since before leaving the reservation. Light flurries falling when I pulled out of the Greyhound station in Bend, heavier snow going over Willamette Pass, then down into the green Douglas fir where the snow turned to rain. The gray clouds had been so heavy with it, pressing close. Even if we hadn’t been hunkered down for days, getting spun from place to place, I doubt I would have gone outside much anyway.
I looked at Peanut. “You have pants?”
At one of the first places, I sketched the sun. There was a yellow clock on the wall with sunrays spiraling out like octopus arms. I think that was where Manny’s snake showed up. Someone brought it, maybe his roommate, and Manny’s face finally softened when the boa started sliding around his neck, under his armpits and over his shoulders. He closed his eyes and smiled like it was some kind of sex. Tala was talking to someone and not watching, maybe on purpose. The snake was as thick as Manny’s wrist and long enough to extend across both of his arms. It was just slow enough for me to sketch it stretching beneath the sun I’d drawn on my paper, the black diamonds strung along its length, from its tail to the last diamond like a smaller snake striking its little black eye.
Silas had a tattoo of a snake in the same spot. The ink head rested just off his right shoulder, forked black tongue flicking down over his muscle. The work was high quality, stretching behind Silas’s neck, across his back, and under his arm to where the snake’s tail narrowed to a curving point beneath his pierced left nipple. He’d taken off his shirt when he saw me sketching. He had a sleek, cut body that sent a jolt through my own body, and I wasn’t sure which was cooler, Silas’s tattoo or Manny’s snake. The snake thing must have been how they became friends. Tala winked at me from across the room.
At some point I let them run the snake along my arms. I grew up in rattlesnake country, heard them and saw them right on our property, and by comparison a boa is a poodle. Able to crush a poodle, sure, but nothing to freak about, and when I took off my fleece and let the cold scales slide across my skin, I saw where the guys were coming from. It was a powerful animal, its grip around my biceps like a blood pressure pump. I wouldn’t want to be alone in the dark with one, but with Silas up against me, growing hard against me as he handled either end of the snake, I closed my eyes and let the boa’s slow wandering amp up the tingle already coursing through my system. My arms started to feel like snakes. Like they could wrap around Silas and squeeze him into me.
I cleaned two bowls and split the Ramen with Peanut, left his on the table while he got changed and took mine outside, the daylight blinding me. It wasn’t even sunny right there, but my eyes were still methed up, everything sparkly like some kind of fairyland. A dog growled at me, a rickety old mutt lying on the rotting porch. It was cold, mid-forties, but the fresh air was a relief. That and two quick spoonfuls of hot Ramen eased the snake’s grip on my belly. My eyes slowly adjusted.
The sun only hit the south-facing hills. Peanut’s trailer sat on the north slope of a hill that probably never got direct light. The trees and bushes dripped, yellow and orange leaves turning brown. Moss hung from limbs like green ghost arms. A darker mildew crawled over everything—the trailer that had once been white, the toys and cooler and summertime crap that never got taken out of the rain. The only car was a rusty sedan overrun with blackberry bramble, the only neighbor another trailer just down a gravel lane cratered with pothole puddles. Utility poles leaned in all directions, ready to fall with the next big wind. In short, some backwoods shit, probably the Coast Range. Not the best place for an Indian alone.
Peanut came out carrying a thermos and wearing an oversized orange rain jacket, dirty blue jeans, green rubber boots with alligator faces. Smiling through cheeks shiny with soup.
“You don’t know where your parents are?” I asked. I was in no shape to take care of a kid, had never babysat and probably couldn’t pull it off on my best day.
He sneezed and made no effort to cover it. A film of snot hung from his nose and he wiped it away with the back of his hand, which he wiped on his jeans. He shook his head.
“You live here with your mommy and daddy?”
“Daddy,” he said.
The snake wiggled in my belly. My mother wasn’t perfect, but I couldn’t imagine what would have happened without her.
“Do you know how I got here?” I asked.
Peanut shook his head.
“Did you see another girl like me?”
He shook his head.
“A guy with a shaved head, snake tattoo on the back of his neck?”
He shook his head. “Can we go now?”
“How about the police? Did you hear any sirens or see any lights?”
Peanut shook his head.
The bender started innocently enough, the four of us hitting a Tech N9ne show at the WOW Hall the night before Thanksgiving. Tala was a year older and Warm Springs like me, grew up on the edge of town on the dirt road that snaked out to our ranch. Most kids who left the reservation hit Bend or Portland, but Tala liked Eugene. College boys, she wrote me on Facebook. Good bud and parties. I settled up with my father the day I turned eighteen—he signed over my trust fund and I went away quietly—took that bus over the pass, showed up at Tala’s apartment, and gave her fifty bucks for party supplies. She’d put on weight and Manny was no college boy. He went on a beer run and Tala and I caught up, her telling me about her job at a drive-through coffee stand and me telling her about my time at OWL. She turned to family and her older brother getting his finger cut off in a mill accident. I changed the subject and told her how stoked I was to be eighteen. Manny came back with a twelve pack of Henry’s, an eighth of bud, and Silas.
Manny was Latino but with Silas you couldn’t tell. His skin was brown like ours but his eyes were soft hazel. Probably mixed, one parent black, which excited me because there weren’t many black people where I came from. His head was shaved, fingers dirty from his Jiffy Lube job. He smelled like oil, which also got me going. It was obvious we’d make a hot couple, and I think all four of us wanted to go out and prove it. We hit Tala’s bong and slammed beers, and I bought all four tickets at the WOW Hall. I got my first real sense of Silas’s body when we started grinding halfway through the show. We were kissing by the end of it.
I think it was Manny’s idea to score the ice. No one had to work the next day, all of America just waiting to get its gluttony on. I knew it was bad news and made a smart-ass comment—“What is this, 2005?”—but Manny said it was really good stuff, totally clean and trusted. I could hear Ocean warning me about peer pressure, the dangers of slipping back into the lifestyle. The time she secretly offered me a Snickers bar and said no one would have to know, then how disappointed she was when I took it. But I was an adult now and I didn’t have to listen to anybody, not even to myself.
Peanut was more prepared than me, and I was tempted to go back inside, curl up on the couch and sleep, though that could mean waking up to his father. The sunlight on the hills darkened, and a shadow passed through me, too, a cloud of despair that I knew was out of proportion and part of the crash. The blue sky was blotchy with fast-moving clouds, mostly white with a vague smell of ocean. I imagined the clouds gathering rain and re-soaking my clothes, my sneakers. I opened my mouth to break it to Peanut but he looked so eager, eyes wider than they’d been earlier, dying to show me his secret sun place.
“How far is it?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Not far.”
“How old are you?”
“Three?” I asked, holding up three fingers. “Four?”
“You mind if I finish your cereal?” I asked. “And bring that Pepsi in your fridge?”
He shook his head. I went back in and lifted the box to my mouth, noticed the connect-the-dots activity on the back and pulled out my sketches, hoping for more on how I had gotten there. The drawings and doodles filled most of two sheets of typing paper: the alien-eyed deer, the sun and the snake, warriors and weapons from video games, random crap on coffee tables, but nothing after the van. I took a swig of Pepsi. Sugar and caffeine the last things I needed, but they got me going and the boa in my belly didn’t complain. I looked around hoping to find a pair of sunglasses, considered looking in the back bedroom but didn’t. I found a phone outlet but no phone.
Peanut squatted in the gravel lane, poking a puddle with a stick, and the old mutt sitting beside him growled at me. Peanut slapped its head and waved for me to follow him toward the hill. I hadn’t realized the lane kept going. The mutt stopped before reaching another trailer, made a show of sniffing the air but let Peanut and me keep walking. A muddy Chevy pickup sat where the gravel ended, rifle in the rack. A tattered Don’t Tread on Me flag hung from the wood shed. I stared at the flag’s coiled rattlesnake until barking erupted, the clank of a chain where a Doberman had been waiting. Peanut barked back, which startled me more. My own pack mind sent me running after him when he dashed beside the truck and into the forest. His barking turned joyful, yips and howls through the trees, and I answered him, good to get some breath out and yell at the world a little.
It was a game trail, no wider than a foot of packed earth, brown and moist from the rain. Wet ferns and bushes slapped at my jeans like car wash brushes. The hill rose quickly and I lost more breath. My jeans were soaked by the time Peanut stopped to check on me, humming a little song, his jeans somehow dry. I bent double, blood pounding my ears, and saw tracks on the ground. Light but unmistakable.
“Look,” I said. “You know what made those?”
Peanut came back to look. “Deer,” he said.
I nodded and felt calm for the first time in days.
We hit an ATM and I gave Manny $250 for an 8-ball of ice. He said he’d pay me back for what we didn’t use. The crystals glittered like tiny shards of glass. We took turns at the pipe and soon all four of us were talking a mile a minute, ideas and observations bouncing off each other like playground balls on a four square court. At one point I said, “That’s methed up,” and I’m not even sure if I meant to say “messed up” but we couldn’t stop laughing. It became our inside joke.
Silas and Manny broke off to play video games, killing and maiming each other over and over. Tala went on a cleaning spree: vacuuming, sweeping, organizing, sterilizing. I paced around for something to do, stared into a Salvador Dali print on the wall, and remembered a girl from OWL talking about doing artwork on crank, how those pieces got her an A in art class while failing everything else. I found paper and a pencil, looked around for something to draw, settled on the video game boxes. Spent a long time arranging and rearranging them on the floor before I let my own game develop on paper. The soldier from Halo aimed his space gun at Sonic the Hedgehog, who was about to punch the quarterback on Madden NFL 11, who was about to throw the football to one of the hoes from Grand Theft Auto. Probably the best artwork I’d ever done.
At some point the guys switched from video games to porn, a group of young Europeans in an old-fashioned orgy. At first we laughed and cracked jokes about their dorky haircuts and expressions, but we got sucked in until the only other sounds were Manny and Tala feeling each other up under their clothes. Silas started rubbing my shoulders and I was getting hot but nervous. Not ready for a foursome. Tala led Manny back to her room, leaving me alone with Silas for the first time. We didn’t waste time, but we took our time. We turned up the volume on the porn and picked up our grind from the show, shedding our clothes, skin pressed to skin. When I told him I didn’t want to go all the way, Silas grimaced and groaned but didn’t push it. I got him off first, out of my mouth and all over my chest, and then he went down on me. The dawn was just filtering in through the curtains. We realized we were coming down. So we took more.
I unzipped my fleece and stopped thinking of Peanut’s hill as a hill. It was the Coast Range after all, and the burn in my calves was proof enough. Not to mention the burn in my lungs, the breath I could barely keep in there with all the cigarette tar. I wasn’t used to mountains being so overgrown, so confining. The bare branches of the oaks and maples were a grey-brown blur, and the firs were packed so tight they blocked the sky. The little patches of light up there were like stars, what you might get if you dipped a brush into light-blue paint and swung it overhead. All summer at OWL we’d hiked high onto the western slopes of the Cascades, big views as far as this Coast Range on a clear day, maybe sixty or seventy miles. The Cascades were like a young guy with a clean-cut face; the Coast Range was an old hermit hiding behind his beard. Luckily Peanut knew where he was going, the game trails always climbing and curving south.
My legs felt like noodles, but it was good to walk and turn off my head, let my body take over and put one soggy foot in front of the other. I didn’t want to deal with crash-tainted thoughts, like how even if Peanut’s secret place was sunny and sweet, we still had to walk back down through dreary woods and face the sad little trailer and whatever or whoever might or might not be waiting for us. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to walk. Ocean called it trail therapy.
We came to a muddy road where ATV tracks had filled with puddles. More deer tracks. Peanut hopped across and continued up the game trail. I took a swig of Pepsi and upped his age to four or five. We were climbing higher, the air cooler, trees still pressing close but thinning up ahead. I craned my neck to see the tops of the Douglas firs swaying in sunlight. Ocean’s trail therapy must have been working because I imagined a meadow, an open space of green grass and wildflowers. As we got closer, I thought there might be a sudden drop, a cliff overlooking a canyon, maybe a view stretching east to the Cascades or west to the Pacific. Peanut smiled back and started running, humming, and I was ready to run myself. Then I saw the stumps. I stopped short.
The snake in my belly surrounded me. It squeezed my whole body until I was thin as a snake. I just wanted to fall on the game trail and slither into the bushes, burrow into a dark place and disappear. But Peanut was calling for me to come, whooping it up as he climbed one of the big grey stumps. I stepped forward through the last of the trees and stopped at the boundary line dividing life and death, a straight line running at least a mile in either direction. The clear-cut extended as far as the sloping horizon, which framed a checkerboard mountain to the south, ugly brown squares on a broad quilt of green. I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sun. Tried to be grateful for that at least.
Peanut started peeing off his stump and I waited until he finished before picking my way down through fallen limbs and blackberry bramble. The old berries had shriveled like balled up spiders, dead branches splayed like a bone yard. Weeds thrived in the absence of trees. I found Peanut back on the ground, stripped to his alligator boots.
“You gonna get naked?” he asked. “I bet you got some nice titties.” He skipped away and started humming.
Things were pretty slippery by the time we got in the van. It was a cargo van with no windows or seats in the back. I think the people were Manny’s friends, but Manny had left after a fight with Tala, took his snake and said he was going back to his construction job—“Good luck with that!”—never mind that it was the middle of the night. So we were down to three, punchy from lack of sleep and bumping our buzz more often to keep it going, not to mention being out of ice. Tala and Manny’s fight started after we hit the crystal his friends had, which wasn’t as good, and I was done. My eyes burned, my brain was mush, and I felt my first little meth bug crawling under my skin. Silas wanted to have sex and wouldn’t leave it alone. I had promised myself after the last guy, unnamed and unprotected, that I wouldn’t have sex with any more strangers, and in my mind, Silas was a stranger until we said goodbye and saw each other again, no matter that we hadn’t left each other’s side for days. He seemed okay, and I wanted him, but the way he was obsessing on it really pissed me off.
Manny’s friends were anarchist types in black hoodies and combat boots, three guys and two girls, one of each dark skinned and the other three white. Their chains and piercings jingled when they climbed into the van. They smelled like beer and body odor. The driver was a skinny white guy with a patchy beard and angry eyes, a lean face like a wolf. I think this was when we were out near Veneta. One of them knew where a key was for a vacant beach house, and I started fantasizing about sleep, imagined a cozy loft all to myself with waves washing over my dreams. The van coughed to life, someone’s lighter flared in the darkness, and the pipe passed as we rolled west for the coast. I let it go by.
I wanted to sketch but all I could see was the green glow from the dashboard, red cigarette butts, and the flickering lighter over the pipe. I held a cigarette in one hand and tapped my pencil against my knee with the other. Silas was talking and everyone was talking, disembodied voices colliding with each other, talking about the ocean and how we would swim in it or at least jump in it and maybe there was a hot tub but what would we do when we ran out of crystal? SLEEP! I thought. Someone said their best high ever was on mushrooms swimming in Hawaii. Someone else said mushrooms were the closest she ever came to God.
“Came to God?” a girl snickered.
“Fuck God,” a guy said. “Fucking priest molested my ass.”
“Really?” another guy asked. “Molested your ass?”
“Fuck you,” the first guy said.
“I got fingered by my neighbor,” a girl said, lighting the pipe. A white girl with dreads, piercings on her face reflecting the light.
Silence again in the darkness. Rain tapping the roof of the van.
“I gave hand jobs to my—to someone in my family,” I said.
Another silence. Silas shifted beside me. Tala no doubt wondering who from my family. I’d seen counselors and a shaman, sat around OWL fires listening to girls open their souls. But I’d kept it to myself until now, in the pitch black of a van loaded with tweakers.
“Hand jobs?” another girl said. “That’s it? You lucky.”
Lucky? I wanted to say. Fuck you. But she probably had been fucked, and I didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be asleep. Someone said something about hand jobs being so old fashioned, and someone said they needed to make a comeback—“Get it, come back?”—and I waited for Silas to do something, lay a hand on my knee or take my hand so I didn’t have to keep tapping my knee with my pencil, but he just sat there, and I thought, Fuck you, too.
I’m not sure how the ride to the beach would have gone, whether I would have bottled it up or blown up, because before we made it over the Coast Range we ran out of gas. I doubted the genius behind the wheel even saw it coming. “Fucking motherfucking piece of shit,” he said. Like it was the van’s fault.
Someone said there might be a gas station up ahead. The cargo door opened and Silas jumped out. Tala got in my face. “Who?” she whispered.
“Forget it,” I said.
“It is your father!”
I pushed away from her and jumped out into the cold drizzle. The driver stomped up the highway, cursing. His friends followed, and Silas followed them. I caught up with him. “What, you don’t want to fuck me anymore?” Like he thought I’d never gotten anyone else off before?
“I’m tired,” he said. “Let’s just walk.”
No one was talking now, just our sneakers and boots slapping wet pavement, long stretches of quiet broken by a lone car or truck. I pulled out my phone—three-something in the morning—and let myself fall behind while finding and dialing a taxi in Eugene. I offered a hundred dollars above the fare to help us out and then take me to the coast, to a hotel room where I could sleep it off, but the guy said he doubted they could do it. Silas had drifted back, curious.
“What if we throw in a hand job?” I said.
There was a pause before the guy hung up.
“What the fuck?” Silas said.
I passed him, kept my distance from Tala, and threw out my thumb with the others whenever headlights came flying down the mountain. Only someone as methed up as us would have pulled over. We didn’t even have a gas can.
The road eventually leveled off and lights appeared in the trees. A dog barked at us, a few signs, then a closed general store with a gas pump. We huddled out of the rain and lit cigarettes under a buzzing light, talked about all the things we wanted in there: beer, gum, Coke, candy. “Sleeping pills,” I said, and before anyone saw it coming, the skinny driver lurched out of the night with a cement block that he hurled at the glass window on the door. It shattered like a thousand little cymbals.
“What the fuck?”
The dog we’d passed started barking, one of us started laughing, and then we all started laughing. The driver burrowed into his hoodie and reached in to open the door. Everyone else with a hood threw it up, another guy followed the driver in, and Silas—hoodless like me—brushed against my arm as he entered. Stupid, I thought, but I walked right up to the threshold, felt the crunch of glass under my sneakers. I looked around for cameras. Then heard the double click of a shotgun cock.
“Who’s there?” a man demanded from the darkness.
Someone grabbed my arm—Tala—and we ran. Someone else was with us—the white girl with dreads. We reached the highway and kept running west. Tala started sucking breath inside a hundred yards. I could have kept running, could have let my body carry me until it collapsed, but the white girl ducked into a dark lot, a repair shop where we hid between parked cars. We caught our breath and heard footsteps, someone running, and not just passing on the highway but coming toward us. We stayed low, and there was Silas, handing me a little box. My eyes were so tired they were crossing. I had to hold a hand over one eye just to read the label: Nytol. Sleeping pills. I ripped the box open and got maybe six tablets down before Silas wrestled them away and asked what the fuck I was doing. I knew I was losing my mind—literally felt fissures opening in my brain—but I just wanted to sleep. Tala said the warning label said only take two. I wavered in the blackness coming on quick, the fissures like fault lines. The white girl said she might have a plan.
As Peanut ran off in his alligator boots, his little white butt so vulnerable in the sunlight, I sat on a stump and tried to swallow what he’d said about my titties. The snake had me good, squeezing so tight nothing could get in, but this one I had to force down. Peanut was obviously neglected, but maybe I’d looked the other way on that because of how capable he seemed. Abuse was another story, and even if he hadn’t been abused, if his comment about my titties was just parroting his pervert father, how long before something did happen, before he was left alone with some porned-out tweaker? I couldn’t bear the thought, didn’t even want to consider it. But enough settled inside me that I suddenly felt responsible for him, for this little kid I didn’t even know, and somehow that new burden actually made me feel lighter.
He was rooting around in the bushes down the slope. I hoped there wasn’t any poison oak. The grey stumps were ten or twenty feet apart and as wide across as my arm was long, some wider, and there hadn’t been any reseeding except for what happened naturally, a scattering of baby trees about as tall as me, all green needles and thin little branches reaching up for the sky.
“Got one!” Peanut called, and he popped up with an old aluminum can that he set on a stump. The can was riddled with holes, and he went back to looking for more.
The sun felt good. I took off my fleece and opened the Pepsi, which fizzed over onto my hand. I felt eyes on me. I looked around but didn’t see anyone. I imagined guys with shotguns up at the edge of the clear-cut, maybe where that muddy road ended, and I wondered if Peanut had found any spent shells yet. The exposed trunks along the treeline were lighter than those deeper in the forest, bleached by the sun. I closed my eyes to enjoy the sunshine, but there was too much in my head.
I could report Peanut’s father, make sure Peanut was on somebody’s radar, but I’d heard horror stories of kids getting screwed by the system. Literally. I could take him with me, find our way back to the highway and get to the coast, find a little motel on the beach and make sandcastles until we figured out what to do. But that would be felony kidnapping.
Peanut rustled in the bushes below. Two loud cracks like a shotgun cock above.
I spun, ready to shout, and saw the deer. A young buck high-stepping through a tangle at the edge of the clear-cut, branches snapping as it crossed from one shady zone to another. Once in the shade, it stared down at me. I turned to tell Peanut, but he was watching, his little face lit with excitement as he bounced behind a stump. Something in his features seemed familiar. I struggled to place it and remembered the white girl with dreads. Underneath the piercings there might be a resemblance, maybe his sister or cousin. Maybe his mother, though she was no older than me.
The buck bent to nibble, and Peanut returned, humming, to his hunt for cans. I pulled out my sketches to study the deer I’d drawn, and the buck head mounted on the wall became the doe I encountered when I was Peanut’s age.
Our family had been camping at our secret spot on Mount Jefferson. After dinner, I’d wandered off along the stream with my aunt’s little dog. Suddenly he started yapping. And there was a doe with her fawn drinking from the stream. But instead of bounding off, she stepped closer, then closer. She was close enough for me to see her eyes and how they weren’t like human eyes or even dog eyes. Just solid black, seeing in all directions. The dog still yapping, I realized the doe had placed herself between her fawn and us. Then she raised her hoof like a fist. Pee trickled down my leg as I stood there in shock. I finally turned and ran back to camp, crying when I told my family. My brother charged out of his tent with his brass knuckles. My father pointed up to where the doe had taken her fawn to higher ground. She was still watching us. I stayed close to my mother the rest of the trip.
“Got another one!” Peanut yelled.
I smiled and nodded. Dancing Mountain Deer. Willow Morningstar. My earth name and my birth name were kind of opposites. A willow bends but doesn’t break. A mountain sits there and doesn’t change, except over long, long periods of time.
“Ouch!” Something got Peanut, probably thorns, and I considered how fragile a peanut is. How one easy crunch between thumb and forefinger shatters the shell and exposes the prize.
“You okay?” I called.
The kid was tough. People probably thought the same about me, but I knew my shell wasn’t far from shattering. I knew I didn’t have much time to get my shit straight.
“You asked my name?” I called. “It’s Willow! Willow Mountain Deer!”
Peanut popped up and smiled before ducking back down for more cans.
Every inch of my paper was covered with sketches. I took out my pencil and started erasing the snake that stretched beneath the spiraling sun. In its place I drew unbroken treeline, no stumps in the foreground. Though the buck had faded into the forest, I knew I could draw him from memory.
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