Of all the things Sam’s mother had done to her, moving her to Lacuna Valley was definitely one of the hardest for her to understand.
She had tried to tell herself that moving to a town with a western theme was going to be hysterical. She’d go to rodeos, sing that Will Smith song, and make fun of all the people in cowboy hats at the local saloon. The truth was, she hadn’t seen the town. She’d seen no people, and no cowboy hats. She’d seen dead grass, experienced true stillness, and come to understand the meaning of the word surreal.
At one point, when a rare breeze blew through, she witnessed a real tumbleweed blow across the road. She probably would have died laughing if she could have gotten over the shock of that really happening.
The gold colored grass felt foreign. Her skin was dry. The heat was stifling, and she felt like she was drowning in it. How could you drown in a place that was so dry?
She placed the plastic chair under the tree and sat in it, staring at the hole. This was what she had now, a great big hole with dead grass, that she supposed had once grown in it. No television, no swimming pool, no leaving the house because there was nowhere to go—just, a hole—and someday she knew she wouldn’t have that, either.
She sat there for hours. Earlier she sat on the swing and dug the toe of her shoe in the dirt. She moved throughout the day in an attempt to avoid the sun, but as the sun went away the need to move did too.
The clouds didn’t move. The grass didn’t move. She didn’t move. They were all stuck in this together.
It was one of the first things she noticed after the move. The stillness.
She had never seen anywhere as still as Lacuna Valley. If the sun hadn’t continued moving through the sky she’d have thought time had stopped altogether.
Sometimes, despite the sun, she was convinced it had anyway.
Violet tip toed through the tall grass behind her older sister and stifled a giggle. Sam heard her stuffed doll dragging through the dirt, but didn’t let her know that.
“Boo!” Violet screamed.
Sam jumped and gasped. “You shouldn’t do that to people, you could have scared me to death.” Sam gave Vi her best teasing glare before staring back out at the hills in the distance. Trees lined the base of them, and though she never actually saw anything, she always felt like someone was watching her from the woods.
Violet placed Sara at the foot of the apple tree, carefully positioning her legs so she didn’t tip over.
“Would you like to ride bikes? It’s almost time for Sara’s nap.” Violet pulled some of the dead grass out of the ground and tried to twist it together into a bracelet, but it kept cracking. The doll was already slumped over next to the tree.
“I’m good. Thanks. Sara is looking pretty tired—you might want to put her down early.”
Violet looked up at her sister and rolled her eyes. “This place sucks! Penguin and Sara both hate it.”
“I’m sure your rat will adjust, and your doll always has an attitude, doesn’t she?” Sam tried to force a smile, but couldn’t remember how. It had been too long since she’d made the effort. Luckily Violet was too annoyed to notice.
“How would you know?! You don’t spend any time with any of us.” Violet folded her arms and glared at the hole. “Do you want to play Littlest Pet Shop? You can have the turtle.” Violet tilted her head to the side with a small hopeful smile.
Sam cringed and sunk down further in her chair. “Not today, kid.”
“You suck. You’re no fun at all anymore.” Violet kicked the pile of dead grass. “I bet you’d come inside and play if it rained,” she pouted.
“If it started raining I’d probably dance in it.” She sighed with desperate longing. The weight of it was so heavy she was surprised it didn’t push her into the ground. It hadn’t rained all summer, which apparently was normal for Lacuna Valley. Sam missed the rain more than the dying fields around her did.
“Yeah?” Violet smiled and got down on her knees, clasped her hands together, and began to pray for it to rain.
“I don’t think that’s how prayer is supposed to work, Violet,” Sam started to explain but shook it off. Whatever made the kid happy. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.
“It works for me,” Violet argued, barely breaking her concentration.
Sam tried to savor the cool breeze that moved through her hair. Red curls tickled her face, but she didn’t wipe them away. She didn’t want to let anything distract her from the perfect feeling. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end and she recognized the familiar change of pressure, something she never would have consciously noticed before. She never used to pay much attention to the weather, now there wasn’t much else to pay attention to. She opened her jaw wide to pop her ears.
“See!” Violet squealed.
Sam opened her eyes and blinked in disbelief at the dark shade on the hills in front of her. She looked up to see gray clouds rolling through the sky. Violet giggled and jumped up and down next to her.
“After you dance, can we play Littlest Pet Shop, please?!” Violet begged.
“Sure, kid…” Sam stared at the clouds with her jaw hanging open. It had been rare for her to see even a small white puff all summer. Violet was beaming up at the clouds like she’d created them herself. She’d gotten into the habit of claiming credit for impossible things the past few years. At first it was cute, but it was beginning to seem more and more like she needed a therapist. Sam wasn’t sure how she knew exactly when the rain was coming, but figured their mother must have gotten a weather report when she went into Liberty for groceries that morning, and that maybe when it so rarely rained it was easier to pin down exact times on drastic weather changes.
When the first rain drop hit her head she no longer cared how Violet knew, or what was going on with her. When the second drop hit her, and then subsequent drops spilled down, she threw her arms out and spun in circles. She hadn’t spun like that in years. She wondered why she’d ever stopped. Had there ever been anything as beautiful as rain? She took Violet’s hand and they danced, laughing and sliding through the mud until they were soaked and shivering. They played their board game by the window, so Sam could watch the fat drops fall into the mud, and marvel at the wonder of mud coming from something as obnoxious as dust.
* * *
Sam woke up covered in sweat and unable to catch her breath. Her heart was racing, but she wasn’t sure why. Then it came rushing back to her. Her dream. Jumping out of bed, but not sure where to go, she ran to her parent’s room. She stopped in the doorway with one foot still raised to take the next step, but froze in fear. Did she really want to share the bloody details? It wouldn’t make her feel better, they’d just laugh. What else was there to do, though? She carefully placed her foot forward and tried to calm herself down.
Her parents were awake with their coffees already in hand. Her father was reading a book and her mother was staring at the wall. A low growl rumbled in her mother’s throat when Sam crawled onto the foot of her parent’s bed. It was the only acknowledgment that she knew Sam was there. She carefully slid up between her parents, jostling the bed but not enough to spill their coffees. Sam’s mother finally glared down at her.
“Hi,” Sam whispered.
“So, what’s wrong?” Her mother scrunched up her nose, annoyed.
Sam hesitated. “Nothing.” She pulled her mother’s arm up over her head, hiding her face from view. Maybe she could just stay there in silence. She’d be fine as long as she didn’t fall back asleep.
“Did you have a bad dream?” her mother asked.
Sam broke out sobbing before she could think and immediately wished she could take it back. Now she’d have to tell them. She covered her ears so she wouldn’t hear them laugh. She tried to talk as fast as she could to just get it over with.
“We were at the old house and Dad was on a ladder, getting something off the chandelier. I was standing there watching and he fell and his head…” Sam battled for a moment over whether to tell them. It was so morbid, so wrong. “His head split open. And then his brain fell out.” Her sobs stopped her from going on. Her mom patted her back and looked at her father like she was communicating something to him. She wanted to scream at them both to just tell her what it was, to not keep secrets. She wanted to tell them it wasn’t fair, that she could take it, it was her dream—her life. Sadly, she couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to control her face for anger, so she moved on.
In the dream, Sam had then paused for a moment with his brain on the floor. She was terrified and couldn’t move, but didn’t admit this to them. It seemed too cowardly. “I knelt down on the floor and tried to hold his head together, but no one came. Mom was there, Violet was there, but you all went about your business like it didn’t matter, and eventually I realized I wasn’t helping holding it there.” Sam’s parents were still making faces at each other so she buried her face in the bed. In her dream, she had gone into the kitchen where her mother was talking on their old green phone, telling someone that her dad’s brains were on the floor, she’d tried her best, but he’d died. Except she wasn’t saying it like she was sad, she was saying it like it was gossip. Oh, well. The neighbor’s husband left her. I suppose now we can’t play bridge on Thursday. Pity.
Sam kept telling everyone that they could still save him if they got help, but no one would listen to her.
“Okay, Sam, your dream’s over now.” Her mother patted her on the back again and got out of bed. “Have you taken a shower yet? You smell. Pew, pew.” She waved her hand in front of her face and smiled at her joke before leaving the room.
* * *
Sam wrote the dream down in her journal and hid it in her room. Once it was all on paper it was somehow even more morbid to her than when it was just pictures in her head. She let it go though, and went back to her busy days of digging holes in the dirt with the toe of her shoe. It wasn’t much, but it was better than lying in her hot bedroom.
The rain had cleared and the dust returned. It coated her chair, her clothes, her hair. It was like it had never left.
The sun didn’t set until close to ten at night. She only went inside once the pitch black was too much to take. She went straight to the computer in the living room to type up a letter. At the beginning of the summer she’d thought the idea of snail mail was quaint, but a few months without the internet or cell phone reception had changed her opinion. Her mother promised they’d set internet service up within a few weeks, but her mother promised lots of things.
“Whatcha looking at?!” her mother shouted in her ear.
Sam jumped an inch forward in her chair.
“Geez! Why do you do that?!” Sam scowled and tried to catch her breath.
Her mother giggled with delight. “Scared you, heh? Whatcha doing?” She leaned in front of Sam to look at the screen.
“Looking at clip-art. You are in the way, Mother.” Sam tapped her finger on the side of the mouse and pursed her lips to better glare at the back of her mother’s head. She refused to be scared, so she was angry instead.
Her mother laughed, more of a cackle this time, and took a step back. “Well, it’s my computer, so I can do that. Just like it’s my house, and you’re my daughter, missy.”
“Actually it’s not,” Sam mumbled to the wall.
“What was that?”
Sam looked up at her and back at the floor, keeping her lips pursed. “Actually, it’s a rental house, so it’s some guy named Frank’s house, Mother.”
Her mother pursed her lips back at Sam, looking much fiercer than Sam ever managed to. “Well, aren’t you smart. Real smart, heh?” She took a step behind Sam, and Sam stayed very still, waiting. It was only a few moments of tense silence before she heard her mother walking away. Her shoulders relaxed and she let out a sigh of relief before leaning forward to look at more dorky stamped graphics. And then, Sam’s head jerked and crashed into the wall. She immediately tensed her legs up and threw her hands over her head, trying to curl into a ball, but it didn’t help. Nothing ever helped.
“You’ve got a thing or two to learn, Samantha.” Her mother’s hands gripped Sam’s hair tighter, pulling her up from her chair. There was nothing to do but focus on not pulling her head away. The more she tried to yank herself free, the worse it hurt. It was over faster if she could relax and go with the blows. Why could she never relax and go with the blows?
“You’ve got some things to learn about being sixteen. Until you are eighteen-” Sam’s head crashed with the wall again, booming in her ear. The pain made her jerk away, and her mother’s grip tightened on her hair, pulling harder. “-I own you. Do you hear me?” Sam didn’t reply and her head slammed again. Her shoulder ached, but she gritted her teeth so she wouldn’t cry out. “I said, DO-” Slam. “-YOU-” Slam. “-HEAR-” Slam. “-Me?” She smiled at Sam with her eyebrows raised. The eyebrows were a dare. Sam sighed.
“Yes,” she choked out the word. This was always the hardest part, giving her mother what she wanted—unquestioned obedience.
“That’s better.” She released her fingers from Sam’s hair. “Clean up the mess in here before you go to bed.”
Sam stared at the hallway until she was sure her mother was really gone this time, and then crumpled to the floor. She wanted to lay down, to cry, to break something. Instead, she righted the chair that had been knocked over, closed the windows she’d left open on the computer, and stared at the dirty dishes left on the coffee table. Not her problem, she decided. She grudgingly turned off the living room light—knowing that if she left it on it would give her mother cause to get out of bed—and crept down the hall to her room.
She checked her closet and under the bed—a habit she’d gotten into years ago after a few incidents where her mother waited for her there—and crawled under the covers despite the sweltering heat. Staring out the window at the dark night, she concentrated on listening. She tried to make her ears reach further away from herself, but all she heard was the sound of the blood still pounding in her ears, the ringing made her eyes blur. Her mother must have really gone to bed. She was alone now; it was just her and the pain.
She pulled the covers up over her head to act as a shield, put her hand over her mouth to stifle the sound of her sobs, and let herself relax into the agony.
Only two more years, she kept reminding herself. She’d be okay. Only two more years to go, and then she’d be free. Instead of comforting her, the thought made it harder to keep her sobs quiet. She wanted to scream out her pain and beat down the walls, because as much as she tried to tell herself otherwise, she didn’t believe she’d make it to eighteen. The closer she got, the more days went by, the more doomed she felt. Her mother was never going to let her go. And how was she supposed to leave Violet? She’d never be free.
Her crying got louder and she forced herself to take in a deep breath and hold it; she put both hands over her mouth struggling to keep it in. When she let go, the air released slow, quiet, with only a few pathetic squeaks of pain, and when she felt the urge to sob return she braced herself against it with all she had.
“Two more years,” she reminded herself with a whisper so quiet she barely heard it herself. “Two more years, two more years, two more years…” It didn’t matter if she believed it, it was the only life vest around.