The Canal

I never saw my mother cry except once, and that was when I was four years old. The power was out because of the monsoon. We sheltered in the bathtub with the electricity out. The roof leaked gallons and Mama set down her Coors Light and wailed, “Oh God, I can’t swim.” I still remember, down to the green and awful sky, even if it was so many years ago.

Some things in life you do because you have to, and some because you want. But there are things you know you need to do. Who knows if you’ll die or just be unhappy if you don’t, but something calls, pushing you to act.

That night I needed light like I needed air. I worked up the courage to leave behind my mother and stuffed rabbit and returned with matches and tea-lights from the kitchen drawer. We sat in the bathtub with candlelight flickering and watched the paint peel off the walls. Flood insurance never seemed a necessity living in the desert, but the downpour proved otherwise. When the sun broke through the next morning we packed our things and left behind a waterlogged life.

I was six when we first moved into the Apartments at Dell Ridge, and eight before I ever had a friend. The children at school made up stories about my name most days – Hannah Went to hell, Hannah Went insane, and the like. I too made up stories about my name, but they were nice stories, the kind that I could fall into during History or Math and not emerge until days end. Hannah Went to the moon, I’d think, and there she found moon boys and girls to play with in the craters and space-dust. I lived for adventurous tales and myths of grandeur, but most of all I dreamed of a companion to share them with.

I met Seth one cloudy spring morning. He was new to my school and in the third grade too. Being new was one of the worst offenses a person could offer. It was Friday, and that meant dodge ball. Seth was pummeled and got into two fights by lunchtime. We both sat in at recess. Seth wasn’t allowed to go out, and I didn’t care to. I shared my sleeve of half-crushed saltines and Seth contributed a bottle of pop and together we called it a lunch.

When school was out we sat shyly beside each other on the bus ride home. I peeked at his unabashed cowlick and white-blond lashes from behind my heap of books.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at my journal. The bus turned and the book slid off my lap onto Seth’s feet.

“My mermaid,” I answered, setting it straight again. “I cut out the picture from a magazine I found in Mr. Petroli’s trash. I wanted the Little Mermaid journal at McFrugal’s, but my mom said we didn’t have the cash.”

“Oh,” said Seth, still looking at the mermaid. “Why doesn’t she have any clothes on?”

“Real mermaids don’t,” I explained. “That’s why the picture was perfect. I drew the tail on with markers. Mr. Petroli says it’s pretty damn funny, but I think she’s lovely.”

“Yeah, she’s nice,” said Seth.

We pulled up to the bus stop outside my apartment complex. The weeds were nearly taller than me, and the paint had chipped away in most places, showing the molded beams beneath. The corners of the buildings were faded beneath the rain gutters. I thought of it as a happy, tired grandma building, but the kids on the bus made faces out the window called it ugly and old and a “crap-shack.” I felt my face grow hot as I gathered my things and got off the bus. I didn’t want Seth to know I lived there. But when I turned around to watch the bus lurch away, there he stood beside me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, somewhat disgruntled he’d followed me.

“I live here,” he replied.

“No,” I said. I knew everyone in our complex; it was small enough to run from one end to the other in a matter of minutes, and I was the sole child on the property. Our apartments sheltered a varied collection of human detritus, unrivaled by both the Motor Vehicle Division and the nearest Wal-Mart.

Seth didn’t bother arguing with me. We trudged toward building B and he followed me up the creaking steps to my apartment, swinging his arms and imitating the birds that overflowed the giant trees outside the building. They flocked there every evening. By sunset the whole complex roared like a jungle. I liked it, but my mother said it made her nervous.

We reached the landing where my front door stood open, oblivious to the sweltering heat. Not that it mattered. We rarely turned on the AC before the temperature crawled over ninety. My mother leaned against the doorjamb. Her fingers curled around a pack of Camel mild’s, one lit between her teeth. The smoke unfurled round her dirty-blond hair like a halo. She worked the evening shift at a sleazy bar down the street – The Cougar Den, it was called. On the odd weekends she had to work she’d take me along and get me to dance on the stage in my cowgirl boots and bring in a few extra bucks. Lately though I’d taken to begging off and staying with neighbors instead. The phosphorescent lights and fog of smoke made my head spin.

“Mama, this is Seth,” I said, kicking dust clouds out of the carpet on the landing. Our neighbor to the left, Mr. Petroli, lined the shared front porch with carpet remnants he found in the dumpster. He said he liked to feel the carpet between his toes when he went out for a midnight smoke.

“Hi baby,” she responded, waving to Seth with her free hand. “Your daddy’s waiting for you down the hall. Asked me to tell you to get over there as soon as you got home.”

“Thanks,” Seth called over his shoulder as he sprinted off. I turned, bewildered, to my mother.

“He lives here?”

“Moved in with his dad last night,” she replied. “They’re in Curtis’ old place.”

“Oh,” I said. I was surprised she mentioned Curtis. Nobody wanted to talk about a man who hung himself and didn’t leave a note to let others know that the smell working through the building was not his overflowing trashcan. Curtis was the first person at the complex to kick the bucket. People, even the old ones, usually moved away as soon as they could.

“Does Seth have a mom?” I asked my mother, picking a scab on my elbow.

“Everyone has a mom, Hannah,” she answered. She sounded tired.

“Everyone has a dad too, except me,” I responded before hopping into the apartment and closing the door.

We lived in a small unit with a galley kitchen in back. The front porch stretched the length of the building and was shared by all four apartments on the upper level, a circumstance which promoted a good deal of strife between tenants. I slept in the one bedroom and my mother used the futon, where she fell asleep each night chain smoking through reruns of Bay Watch.

I’d never known the presence of a father in my life. My mother didn’t obsess over being both maternal and paternal towards me in her parenting. She ploughed on with her life much the same as she had before I came along, and together we dug ourselves into a rut, out of which she never climbed.

I entered my small bedroom in the back, and threw my schoolbooks onto my bed.  The room was mostly bare. A small daybed sat against one wall and a bookcase that doubled as my dresser stood against another. There my few and finest possessions sat interspersed between t-shirts and piles of socks. I had stacks of chapter books and crayon drawings, a seashell, a porcelain basset hound, and a small silver letter opener – all treasures gifted by Mr. Petroli, who dumpster-dived like a pro. I had formed deep attachments to each of my treasures, and kissed them gravely before climbing into bed each night. I waved greeting to them and grabbed my favorite book off the shelf before rushing back out the door.

“Be back before dinner,” my mother called after me. “I’m serious,” she added, so I waved over my shoulder before continuing on.

I ran down our segment of the patio, but had to carefully make my way through the section by Mr. Petroli’s front door. He was a collector, Mr. Petroli was. Barber chairs with missing legs, a dilapidated weight bench, rolls of carpet, dumbbells, screen doors, pottery, and a rusted sink filled the space between his apartment and the next. Jones, who lived next-door, called it a fire hazard and protested to the mayor and the apartment manager, but neither seemed to care.

Mr. Petroli once told me he collected his “treasures” because it made him happy to know that the forlorn objects were adopted into a new home. He brought back new additions every day and lovingly found a place for each, if not in his own home then in someone else’s. Mr. Petroli was a good-natured scoundrel. He was a Russian with a surname that reminisced of Rome, and his mustached mug could often be seen grinning over one trashy magazine or another. We were friends, though he constantly raged over my tendency to run into his car while roller-skating in the parking lot.

I made it safely through Mr. Petroli’s field of junk and picked up my pace again when I reached Jones’ part of the porch. He leaned over the porch railings, his grizzled chest hair overflowing his V-neck, a pair of binoculars in his hands.

“Hannah, what a pleasant surprise,” he drawled. Jones was originally from Texas and wanted everyone to know it.

“Hello,” I answered. As preoccupied as I was with reaching Seth’s apartment, I was curious to know on whom he was spying.

Jones caught my eyes on the glinting metal of his army-grade binoculars. He had been a sergeant in Vietnam and frequently revived the glory days.

“You like ‘em?” he asked, patting the binoculars in a paternal way.

“Yes,” I breathed, and touched them softly. “Who are you looking at?”

“See for yourself,” he said, and handed me the tool. I obliged.  Through the glass I could see the parking lot magnified. Lantanas overgrew their planters and the pavement baked in the sun. Out through an open ground floor apartment swept a woman, her maroon-dyed hair knotted on top of her head and her arms weighted by two sloshing buckets of water. Madge Durfee, the complex cat-lady. She plowed ahead with a force uncontested, aimed at a parched lantana and tossed the contents of the bucket, drenching the plant as well as the four square feet of surrounding pavement.

“What’s she doing?” I asked, marveling at her strength.

“Lord knows,” Jones responded. “I think she’s trying to save the plants from the heat wave – what a gal.” A smile played on his lips as he leant over the railing and resumed his people watching. I had thought for some time that Jones had taken a liking to bony old Madge, and this interlude confirmed it in every way. I looked back and watched Madge take another heaving swing with the bucket and then return into her apartment to fill it again. Four or five strays followed her pitifully, meowing at her ankles. Jones looked on and tapped the porch with his toes.

I saw that I was no longer wanted and continued on my way to Seth’s apartment without a backward glance. I found the door to Curtis’ one-time home lying on the porch floor. The doorway to the unit gaped open like a lost tooth. Hammering away at the retired door was a man. His bald head gleamed in the afternoon light and his t-shirt was soaked through with sweat on his back and chest. He looked up and wiped his forehead.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

I stared, suddenly shy.

“Dad, this is Hannah, I told you about her, remember?” Seth came out of the unit, chewing on a pop tart. My stomach growled.

“Uh,” grunted Seth’s father, settling back to his hammering. Seth broke off a piece of the pastry and handed it to me.

“Want to go play?” he asked. I nodded, afraid to speak in the bald man’s presence. We turned to go, but his father’s voice stayed our feet.

“Seth,” he barked, “you be back before dinner. I don’t have time to run all over this damn place trying to find you.” He didn’t look up from his work as he spoke. The hammer falls punctuated his words.

“Yes sir,” said Seth, with something like meekness. He seemed cowed in his father’s presence. We walked to the end of the porch, where another staircase led down to the parking lot. He looked and me and grinned.

“Come on,” he said. We ran down the stairs and away towards the pool.

The pool had been empty for two years now – after the pump broke. The repairman said it was plugged with palm fronds and cigarette butts. The plaster cracked and bled water stains in rusted rivulets down the sides. We sat in the shade of a few tall weeds and I opened my book.

“Tales of Robin Hood and His Merry Men,” read Seth. He stroked the bright illustrations. “I like it.”

“It’s my favorite,” I told him. “I got it from the library at school last year.” I had intended to only keep it for a few weeks, but over the summer I fell in love with Sherwood Forrest and when school resumed I was unable to part with it. Consequentially I was no longer allowed to check out books properly, but occasionally I went and read in-house. Seth held one end of the book and I the other. We read together beneath the weeds and sucked the sweetness from blades of grass.

After a time the shadows from the weeds grew taller over us, and the story no longer held our interest.

“I’m bored,” said Seth. He tossed a thick chunk of quartz into the empty pool. It echoed as it rolled about and settled at the bottom.

“Hey!” a voice bellowed nearby. We jumped up. A fat man in a maroon, velvet suit lumbered in our direction. He waved us over. We stayed put.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the man shouted. I cowered beneath his rage.

“It was an accident,” replied Seth brazenly. “We’re sorry.” Seth looked anything but apologetic. The man came closer, heaving. Sweat beaded on his upper lip. He breathed over us, his face a discomforting shade of puce. It was The Manager.

“I see, I see,” he said in a calm voice that intoned he didn’t see at all. “Hannah, dear,” he smiled nastily, “keep away from pool. It’s a danger to children and I wouldn’t want to be – ah – put in a position of turning away families from living here. Whatever would your poor mother do then?” I nodded and stared at the ground. “Young man,” the manager continued, coldly, turning to Seth, “you will kindly refrain from throwing rocks anywhere on this property.” Seth glowered but said nothing.

The Manager pulled a cigar from his breast pocket, clipped it with his teeth and spat out the end. He wiped a bit of tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth daintily and lit the cigar. Thick smoke obscured his face momentarily.

“You children had better run along. I wouldn’t want your parents to worry,” he said, grimacing as the smoke cleared away.

We turned and fled, not stopping to catch our breath until we reached building A. Beneath the staircase we sat in silence. Seth kicked a rock and plunged his fists vehemently into his pockets. I picked at paint peeling from the wall.

“Who does he think he is, anyway?” growled Seth, throwing three stones in succession in the direction of the pool.

“Stop!” I hissed. “That’s The Manager! He’ll kick you out if he wants to.”

“No he won’t,” said Seth. “My dad won’t let him. My dad doesn’t let anyone tell him what to do.”

I decided to change the topic. “Do you have a mom, too?” I asked.  Seth shoved his hands farther into his pockets and hunched his shoulders. “My mom says everyone has a mom, but that means everyone has a dad too, and I don’t,” I said.

“No,” he answered, then added – “I used to, but she died last summer.”

“Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry.” Quiet overwhelmed until I added, “A man in our building just died too. He used to live in your apartment. His name was Curtis. Maybe you’ll see his ghost.”

“Nah,” said Seth. “Ghosts aren’t real except for in cemeteries and haunted houses and stuff. Not in real life.”

“No! Jones said he sees his friends who died in the war and they have whole conversations sometimes,” I replied. “Maybe you’ll get to see your mom sometime.”

Seth brightened. “Yeah, maybe,” he said. That hope seemed to calm him, because he ceased hunting for rocks to throw.

“What should we do now?” he asked. An orange kitten melted out of a dark corner and meowed at our feet. I stroked him.

“I don’t know. We could play hide and seek,” I suggested.

“There’s nowhere to hide,” said Seth. He tickled the cat’s whiskers with a blade of grass. “Why don’t we go exploring!”

I hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“Come on,” wheedled Seth. “Why not?”

“I don’t know if we’re supposed to,” I said.

“We won’t get in any trouble,” Seth asserted. “We’ll be back before they even know we’re gone.” I continued looking glum. “It’ll be fun,” he coaxed.

“Oh all right,” I assented. “Let’s go!”

We ran off behind the building and explored the various nooks and crannies of the small complex. I knew most of them well already, but I followed Seth along anyway. Eventually we exhausted the bounds of the apartments. We leaned against the building wall, bored once more.

Seth searched for a new activity, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun.

“Hey! What’s that?” he exclaimed. I turned to see to what he was referring.

“Oh, that’s the canal,” I explained.

“Why’s it empty?” Seth asked.

“When it doesn’t rain it stays dry. It’s there to catch the rainwater so we don’t get flash floods. My old apartment got flooded one time.”

“Wow,” said Seth, looking impressed. “Let’s go check it out.”

“No way,” I said, and shook my head. “My mom would kill me.”

“Awe, come on,” cried Seth, “she won’t even know. Besides, it’s not like there’s anything else to do.”

It seemed to me Seth was correct on both fronts. He ran towards the wash exuberantly, yipping like a coyote, while I tailed behind trying to stifle my aching conscience.

Soon we reached the canal. It sloped down several yards behind the bounds of the apartment complex. No pathway led into its bowels, but Seth ambled down quickly enough. He held out his hand when I stopped short at the top.

“Here, I’ll help you,” he said, and he did.

The canal seemed to have held more trash and debris than water in its lifetime. Its sides were unevenly spread with concrete, but the bottom was dirt and sand. Several stunted trees climbed out from cracks in the bone-dry earth. Bits of glass and plastic bags littered the ground. I couldn’t have told from above, but the canal appeared to stretch on indefinitely. It was about a football field in width, and deep enough that I would need help to get out. Not a person was in sight, and I imagine Coronado hadn’t felt finer when first sighting the Grand Canyon. Seth and I stood and surveyed our kingdom. Crumbling though it was, it was marvelous in our eyes.

“Wow,” said Seth. His eyes shone. A piece of bone jutted out of the sand and he scampered over to inspect it. He whooped happily as he unearthed it. I followed uncertainly.

“Do you think there’s snakes?” I asked, eyeing a small tunnel in the dust.

“Probably,” answered Seth gleefully. “Though,” he added, seeing my trepidation, “they’re probably all asleep right now. It’s called hyper-mating, or something like that.”

“Oh, good,” I breathed.

“Hey, Hannah, look!” Seth bounded away toward the largest tree in sight. It was a weeping willow, and its fronds brushed the dust delicately, creating a tent within. It loomed over us, shadowy and mysterious. My fear of snakes gave way.

“Wait for me!” I called. Seth held the leaves back with his arm and I entered on hands and knees. The fronds fell back into place and the air glowed green. Inside there was room enough to stand, and the trunk grew up in hunched-backed knots. Though the air outside was humid, it was cooler beneath the shade of the willow.

“This is nice,” I said, feeling the trunk against my back. “Sort of like Sherwood Forest.”

“Yeah,” said Seth. He jumped up and grabbed a nearby stick. “En garde!” he cried, brandishing the branch as a sword.

“You don’t need it to be a sword, stupid. Little John uses a quarter-staff anyway.” I laughed and ducked Seth’s false blows.

“But I’m not Little John,” explained Seth, twirling his stick-sword from one hand to the other. “I’m Robin himself, prince of thieves!”

Not to be outdone, I reached for a different branch and grabbed a rusted beer can lying close by.

“Then I’m Friar Tuck!” I shouted and pretended to slop beer down my shirt. I took staggering, drunken steps while swinging at Seth. He gave up the fight and fell to the ground, howling with laughter.

Our interest was renewed in tales of Sherwood Forest, and we lay on our bellies in the dust and poured over the pages. I basked in the green light and felt like all my life, this was what I had missed.

Soon enough the shadows of the dancing willow leaves drew long across our foreheads. Night beckoned. I started with a gasp. Seth had fallen asleep against the tree trunk and his mouth lolled open. I had been immersed in the book and lost track of the time. My mother would be searching for me.

“Seth, Seth!” I called, shaking his shoulders. He woke and rubbed his eyes.

“I fell asleep,” he said.

“We need to go.” My voice was urgent. “They’ll be looking for us now, and we’re not supposed to be down here.”

“What time is it?” Seth asked, not worried.

“I don’t know, but the sun’s setting. We were supposed to be back by dinner. Didn’t your dad tell you to be home by then?”

For the first time I saw something like fear in Seth’s eyes.

“Let’s go,” he said. We picked up the book and left the willow behind. The sun slept low over the mountains and the air had cooled. Above our heads the breeze carried the voices of a search party. I gulped.

“They’re looking for us,” I said.

We trudged on in the direction we’d come from. There at the top of the cement wall stood a group of adults grimly awaiting our return.

My mother stood at the front, her arms knotted, fingers devoid of a cigarette. Behind her stood Seth’s father, Mr. Petroli, Jones, and Madge. The manager was nowhere to be seen, but I felt his snide presence lingering.

We stood at the bottom of the wall and looked up.

“Hannah Christine Went,” my mother seethed, “you get your sorry ass up here. Now.” I held back tears and allowed Jones to grasp my hands and pull me up. As my feet found the ground I looked up with trembling lip at my mother. She slapped me, hard.

“How many times have I told you not to set foot in that wash?” she yelled. My cheeks burned and she slapped me again and yanked my arm so that I kept pace with her as we whisked back toward the complex. Behind me I could hear Seth being pulled up out of the wash and his father’s voice booming. I cried in shame without a hand free to wipe my tears. I turned back enough to see the shadowy figure of the willow rising out of the wash, the leaves glowing silver in the twilight.

We reached our building and I was dragged up the steps; my mother’s ranting punctuated each step. I bit back a cry as my foot got caught beneath a stair. My mother pulled me free and up the last few steps. Inside the apartment I could still hear Seth’s father shouting. Jones gave me a sorry look as my mother slammed the door.

That night I could not sleep. I lay in bed awake, my face tender from my mother’s sense of justice. She had yelled at me until she was tired and her voice rasped and then sent me to my room without dinner while she recuperated on the futon. At first I had cried and then I fumed, but eventually all the feelings gave way to hunger. I waited for the smoke to cease creeping under my door and then I crept into the kitchen to make a peanut butter sandwich and stole back into my room to eat it.

After eating I pulled out a flashlight and made shadow puppets on the ceiling while trying to ignore my still grumbling stomach. My fingers shaped a goose, a dog, a spider, a tree. But the tree reminded me of the willow, and that was too sad. I buried my head in my pillows. Then there was a rap at my window. I looked up and through the slit screen a thin package slid through. I tore it open. It was a book, wrapped in day-old newspaper on which was scrawled, “Hannah – found this while treasure hunting. Thought of you.” I beamed. One of Mr. Petroli’s treasures. I turned the book over and inspected it in the beam of the flashlight. “The Moon Child and the Coyote,” I read slowly, “A Tale of the Southwest.” The cover was decorated with pictures in jewel-tones of mesas and cacti. A mournful woman stood in the background and a smiling girl stood in front with her arms wrapped around a golden coyote. I touched the coyote’s fur – it looked so soft in the painting. I opened it and began to read.

“Many years ago,” it began, “in the time when the Moon and the Sun stood together both day and night, there lived a girl and her mother. The mother was a child of the moon, and they lived just beneath its silver beams. The mother was content to live near to her moon-mother, never out of reach of her wisdom and guidance. But the girl pined for change. One day she saw the coyote from a distance. The loping grace excited the girl, but she knew her mother had warned her never to leave their moonlit home. Every day she watched the coyote, and every day her heart yearned to leave and follow.”

“One morning the coyote stood golden against the sunrise, and the girl knew it was too much to bear. She forsook her home and joined the coyote in the warmth beneath the sun. Bereaved, her mother called after her child to come back, but alas, the wicked West Wind carried her cries away. It was then that the mother knew the only way to bring her daughter home. She extolled the radiant Sun to hide her face and allow the Moon to shine brightly until the girl came back. At first the Sun was adamant, she would not hide her brilliant beauty. But the Sun was expecting a child of her own, and when she heard the mother’s tale of grief she hid her face and wept.”

“The driving rain and darkness turned the coyote’s golden fur black and shaggy. The girl was miserable in the cold and wet, but she persevered on, certain that her happiness lay elsewhere. For many dark days she traveled, until she was worn and so desperate for light she thought she might die. She turned around and saw in the far distance the silver Moon shining in the night. She looked behind and saw the coyote had gone on without her, deeper into the dark. So she left. The soft moonbeams drew her onward, shivering through the rain until she reached her old home. Her mother’s joy was great at her return, but no sooner had the girl stepped inside, she fell dead in her mother’s embrace. The journey without light had left the girl so cold she could not survive. The Moon grieved and blamed the Sun for hiding her warmth as well as her light. But the Sun replied that she had only done as the mother requested. Angry, neither the Moon nor the Sun could look upon the other’s face. And now they appear in the sky only when the other is gone. The sun for the day and the moon for the night.”

The final picture portrayed the mother weeping over the forlorn body of her daughter. I stared for a while at the image. Would my mother care if I left? Would she entreat the world to stand still if it meant being reunited with me once more? Somehow I didn’t think so. Somehow I felt more of a burden than anything else.

I mulled over this in the night, absently stroking my stuffed rabbit and staring into the darkness until bright dots danced above my eyes. When morning broke I sat much the same. The birds called in the growing sunlight. My hunger reawakened.

I rubbed my eyes and splashed some water on my face. A faint outline of a hand still stood out on my cheek. I blushed to think of it and instead hurried to the kitchen where I quietly loaded handfuls of raisins into a plastic cup and exited the apartment quietly. My mother was curled beneath a heap of blankets on the couch. Only her head was visible, looking ghostly, disembodied on her pillow. She stirred, but I knew she rarely woke before noon on Saturdays. Usually she sent me out as soon as I woke and I never returned before lunchtime.

Outside the air was warm. I threw a few raisins into my mouth and chewed while hopping down the stairs and keeping my eyes on the birds busying from one tree to the next. I was unsurprised to see Seth waiting at the bottom. He held a steaming, over-large thermos in his hand and a long green bruise grew from his eyebrow to his cheekbone. I resisted the urge to gasp and ask questions, knowing well the embarrassment he’d feel.

“What’s in the mug?” I asked instead. Seth seemed grateful for the diversion and smiled.

“Coffee,” he said. “Want some?” I wrinkled my nose. “It’s good,” he promised. “I put lots of sugar in it.”

I sipped cautiously, then exclaimed, “But there’s no milk!” Seth laughed.

“It’s black,” he explained. “Real men don’t use milk.”

“Oh,” I said. I sipped again. It seemed the best thing to do. We watched the birds for a while. Seth caught my eyes on his bruised cheek too many times, so he finally blurted,

“My dad hits harder than your mom.” He rubbed his cheek softly, then added, “I don’t think he meant to.”

I nodded and said nothing, but I saw his gaze rest on the handprint on my cheek, and I knew he understood.

“Where’s your dad now?” I asked.

“Sleeping,” he answered. “He got sad last night and drank too much. He hasn’t done that in a while.”

“You hungry?” I asked. Seth nodded and I handed him a fistful of raisins.

“Do you love your dad?” I asked after a while. Seth thought for a moment and sipped coffee contemplatively.

“Sometimes,” he said. “I used to love him more when my mom was alive.”

“I don’t think my mom loves me,” I said, and tossed raisins at a rooting crow.

We didn’t say anything else for a while, content to witness the waking of the apartment complex. The birds were always the first to rise, but soon came the cats, stretching sleepily and meowing at Madge’s door. Mr. Petroli stomped out to his ancient Buick and saluted us before exiting in a cloud of exhaust fumes for his morning treasure hunt. I smiled my thanks to him for the gift he’d slipped through my window, and he grinned in understanding. Madge finally opened her door and quelled the caterwauling on her porch by setting down an enormous bowl of kitty chow. Her ginger hair was in curlers and she wrapped her pink bathrobe tighter before waving at us. We waved back and snickered. It was all great fun, watching the apartment come to life. We enjoyed greeting the various tenants, but when a broad man wrapped in maroon and wreathed in smoke became visible on the horizon the mood quickly soured.

“Morning, kids,” huffed The Manager.

“Morning,” we replied, subdued beneath his leer. He squeezed up the stairs and left behind green smog. We coughed and shot hateful looks at his gargantuan velvet back.

“Let’s go,” whispered Seth. We sat on the side of the building and exchanged worried glances. The manager visiting the tenants couldn’t mean anything good.

“Does he ever come up to see people?” asked Seth.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “but I’m at school during the day, and on Saturdays my mom makes me go play with the cats or hang out with Mr. Petroli. She doesn’t want to be bothered on her day off.”

“Maybe he always comes up on Saturdays and you just never see him,” speculated Seth. “It might not be anything bad.”

“Yeah,” I replied, unconvinced.

We played I-Spy to pass the time, but before long we were famished.

“He’s got to be gone by now,” said Seth, hugging his growling stomach. “Let’s just go check. We have some bread in my house, I know. Do you have any lunchmeat?”

“No, but we have peanut butter,” I said.

“Is it creamy?” Seth asked hopefully.

“Nah, the food bank only has crunchy most days.”

“Okay,” sighed Seth. We peered around the edge of the building. No manager was in sight.

“Come on,” whispered Seth. We crept up the stairs and dispersed at the landing. I made my way down the porch, maneuvering through Mr. Petroli’s junk pile and taking care not to trip on the mismatched carpet remnants. When I reached my apartment I paused for a moment and caught my breath. I didn’t want to wake my mother, especially after what happened the night before. I also wasn’t sure whether I was grounded or not, and didn’t care to find out. I exhaled and turned the doorknob slowly. A crack of light opened, illuminating the living room as the door creaked open. On the futon the blankets were piled haphazardly, but my mother was nowhere to be seen. Thinking she must be in the bathroom, I skipped through the living room and into the kitchen. I found the jar of peanut butter in a cupboard and began rummaging through drawers to find a butter knife. Upon locating one, I closed the drawer, gathered my things and prepared to leave, but a sound from my bedroom stayed my foot. It was a sound unlike any I’d heard before. A quick gasp, slight like a sigh, followed by a low grunt. It was not my mother. Fear gripped my heart, but dread curiosity prevented me from running. I walked nearer to my bedroom door.

The door sat ajar, and as I crept closer I could see something moving in the shadows. My eyes adjusted to the dim light, and I pushed the door open further. There, in the corner of the room on my bed were two people.

One had his wide back to me, devoid of the characteristic maroon. One had her back up against the wall, her hair in her face, her body as naked and mystical as my mermaid. She licked his neck. He bit her ear.

My mother looked up. Her eyes met mine. I ran.

Down the stairs, three at a time, past the parking lot, past crazy Madge tossing buckets of water on drowning lantanas, to the side of the building I ran. And then I wept.

Seth found me there, ten minutes later, my head in my shaking hands.

“Hannah! Hannah,” he cried, “what’s wrong?”

I struggled to respond, but something was not right with him either. Through bleary eyes I could see welts growing up from his arms and face.

“Oh, Seth,” I sobbed. Seth rubbed his eyes.

“He woke up,” he said. “He woke up and he just screamed at me. He said he wishes it was me.” Seth sank down against the wall and buried his face in his knees. “He wishes it was me that died and not my mom.”

I sat beside him against the warm wall. The sun had left the mountains behind and rose free into the sky, but coming in from the west was a host of clouds, fast and weighted with rain. The birds stopped singing.

“My mom and the manager,” I began, but my voice cracked. I shook and couldn’t speak, but Seth knew.

“Why do we even stay?” he cried, his voice anguished.

The sky grew dark as the storm approached. We heard above us the sounds of tenants preparing for the rain. The wind picked up and all the world was blowing about us. Without plan or hesitation we joined hands and headed to the canal. Propelled or drawn, who could say?

The way down seemed shorter this time. The dust blew fiercely through the air and the clouds flew nearer. The plastic bags and bits of paper were tossed about in the wind, and my hair stood on end. Far away I saw lightening touch the earth. We passed the weeping willow, peaceful despite the storm, and it seemed ages ago that we’d been there. Somehow I was not the same as I was the night before. We walked with purpose, neither fast nor slow. Over bone-bare rivulets and beneath stunted trees, the wash stretched on and on. When the first low rumbles of thunder greeted our ears we were at least a mile away.

There was no need to speak really, and we knew it. But every so often we’d look up and smile to reassure one another. The clouds rolled in, each larger and darker than the last. When the first sticky raindrop wet my face I licked it off my lips and grinned. Seth did too.

At first I worried that the rain would fall too hard and we’d be washed away. Bits of trash floated down in muddy torrents, but soon the rain slowed to a gentle drip, a drumbeat to step to.

It grew dark too early, and we walked on, tired and hungry. The deepening evening brought with it the sound of the wind and a cricket chorus beneath the moon. Coyotes cried in the distance and I heard a rattle close beside us, and for a moment my heart beat fast. Seth squeezed my hand and then I realized that I was not afraid of snakes or coyotes or being washed far and away, but only of losing heart.

When the sun finally stretched its pink and golden rays, we could no longer see the place we’d left behind. Warmth reached over the mountains and onto our faces, lighting up Seth’s hair to a dazzling white.

Neither of us knew how far the wash extended, but it didn’t matter. Sometimes you just do what you need to do. We would have walked it to the end if it stretched on eternally.