Wherever Abigail went, I followed. When I was four and toddling along the sunbaked patio of my family’s restaurant, Abigail blocked the sun with her superior height as she led me away. Two years older, strong and squashed a bit like a tree stump that survived after its trunk had fallen – Abigail knew what she was doing. It was military blood, that’s what my mom always called it.
The provider of this blood was her father. He was a mean man, like a dog in a crate. He chewed tobacco. Yelled at Abigail all the time, but she just stood tall as her stump-self could, and blocked the sun from him too.
He’d come into my family’s restaurant with this heavy dark cloth over his bad eye. It looked like a hole sometimes, jagged in his head. He and Abigail never came together, always by themselves – one or the other. He’d come on Sundays, when the protests against the Vietnam war singed the air so hot I thought they could crisp bacon with their words. My mom didn’t let those people in. He’d sit at the back table when he needed some peace and quiet. Once, he came in stooped real low. My mom hurried over and helped him to his usual back table.
“Ma’am, no, I’ll ruin the chair,” he’d said and took off the coat he wore even in the heat of summer. There was red paint splattered on the back and seeping into its pockets.
“Jesus Christ,” my mom had said. She’d ripped the jacket from his shoulders and balled it up before shoving it at me. “You go wash this right away Linn.” But I didn’t know how to wash anything yet. I dumped the jacket in the sudsy sink with the dishes. Over the course of him drinking his coffee, the red paint set deep into the coat and never came out.
When I delivered the coat to him the next day, its threads scrubbed raw but still shadowed with paint, my hands red and itchy, he howled and slammed the door so close that the tip of my nose bruised. The next Sunday he walked into the restaurant wearing the coat – stain and all.
I helped my mom hang the washing in our side yard. Hardly a strip of wind wound its way back there and it left the sheets smelling dusky and molded – but we didn’t have a dryer.
“Washing is women’s work,” Abigail said. She hauled herself over the back fence, graceful as a duck. “My pa made me do the washing.” She jumped down. Her knees were dirty. They were always dirty. “So I mixed the colors up all the time, said I can’t tell the difference.” She cackled and twanged the drying line. “Now all his socks are red and he does the washing himself.”
“That’s smart,” I said.
“You should try it.”
“But I don’t do the washing,” I said and heaved another sheet over the line. “I do the drying.”
“No you don’t. The wind does the drying.” Abigail paused and she took a toothpick from her pocket. Sometimes it was the soggy end of a sucker, other times a crunchy end of a grass blade. “You do the hanging, that’s what you do. You’re a hanger Linn.” I nodded and pretended to understand.
“Now come on, you’re taking forever. I found some old eggs by the Juliks – that cat with the bent tail needs some payback.”
“I don’t wanna throw eggs at a cat,” I said.
“You won’t be throwing anything, just holding,” she said.
“We’ll get caught, it’s Ms. McCannin’s cat right?”
“Well… if we get caught you won’t be in too much trouble. I’ll tell them it was all me.”
“How’d you figure that?” I asked. She spun around and tucked herself half behind a sheet so I could only see one eye. Dark as Carolina mud.
“It’s like with crooks – the guy who’s following the crook doesn’t get as much jail time as the real crook,” she said. I held up my mother’s skirt, pretending to check for spots from the cleaner. Abigail made a good point. Holding eggs was far more innocent than throwing eggs.
“That cat really scratched you?”
“Course she did. I’m not doing these scratches to myself.” She held up her wrists, bangled with red burn-like scratches. They had already scabbed over.
“My ma used it say it’s against the law to hurt little girls. That dumb cat knows better.” I set down the skirt. I’d get an earful for leaving it to wrinkle in the basket, but justice was more important.
“You remember where the eggs are?” I asked.
Her shadow cooled my air just a few blissful degrees.
The eggs sat on the back door of the Johnson’s corner store, where trucks came in for deliveries. Sometimes Abigail and I would get up early and wait for the trucks since they only delivered ice cream when the mornings were nighttime cool. The driver would wink and leave one of the mashed-up boxes for us to devour before Mrs. Johnson came out with her broom.
In the middle of the day, the back door lay baking in the sun. The rotting eggs lay baking too. When Abigail opened the carton I shoved my nose into my shirt.
“They’ve gotta be boiled by now,” I said.
“Not yet. They’re hot for sure, but runny. This’ll gunk up that pussy’s fur.”
We found the cat prowling around the dirt dams. The town had built them on top of dry river beds to keep the rare flash flood from destroying roads and sidewalks. The dams were even with the road but quickly dropped off into deep ravines. Down there, water just sat, steaming.
“Cats like to hide here because of the grass,” she said. She plucked one of the tall blades and chewed on its sweet stem. “The mice hide here I think.”
“Why’s it dumb? The Vietnamese hide in the grass too. My pa used to crawl around, waved his gun like this,” she said. She stuck her arm out straight and angled low with the egg carton as a barrel. Her palm brushed the grass tips like the muzzle of a riffle.
“No – that the mice would hide where the cats hide. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Fine, don’t believe me.” She took an egg from the carton and hurled it into the ravine. The shell cracked like a skull and rolled a bit, half cooked. “Doesn’t matter. The cat isn’t here anyway.” But she was wrong. I saw the cat, crooked tail and cut ear. She had wedged herself among the grasses, watching. She was missing an eye.
Abigail never saw the cat. She just threw the eggs into the mud and watched them crack one by one, until a whole skeleton of shells lay leaking yellow puss.
As the noon sun rose we started loitering near any door with a mechanical breeze. All the shop owners knew we didn’t have any money. They shooed kids like us away with sweet-smelling air conditioned hands. It was a hot day like that, my hands still smelled like the dark corner of a basement from doing the hanging.
“I found something you know,” she said.
“No you didn’t.” I kicked a rock to her and she kicked it back.
“No really. I was following my pa’s footprints, cuz I know he’s smoking again even though he said he’d stop. I was following his boot prints and they went this way I’ve never been before.” She kicked the rock again and it skipped and hit a light pole. “It’s up near the highway. There’s this little trail, kind of muddy you know, guess the rain pools there from the road. But I followed all the way through and I got to this bit of woods –”
“There are no woods in South Carolina Aby.” The heat had boiled me just like those eggs. Heat that soaks your socks, makes your head hurt from squinting.
“Well there were here,” she said. She took out the bit of old phone cord she’d been chewing through and glared. “I saw ‘em and you know what I was gonna say next? It was cold in those woods! So dark I could hardly see my own hand.” She threw up her hands against the sky and blocked the sun from my eyes for one glorious moment. “It felt so nice I dropped right there in the mud and took a nap. Best sleep I’ve had in months.”
“I don’t know… I thought I heard the Sanders boys saying something about ice pops.”
“This is better than ice pops! Maybe this place has never been discovered ever. We could claim it like the English did here.”
A sagging window for one of the second-floor shop houses above us struggled open and Mrs. McCannin peered out. She looked like a used paper bag.
“Quiet down girls,” Mrs. McCannin shouted from her window. “You’re drowning out the radio.”
“Sorry Mrs. McCannin,” we called in unison. Neither of us could hear the radio. No one ever could.
“What are you girls doing bickering in the street anyway? People are working hard to help our boys. Do something productive, go and help your poor father Abigail. His eye must be hurting something terrible in this heat.” Mrs. McCannin said.
I was happy Abigail kept her mouth shut right then. Mrs. McCannin was what my mom called a war bitty. A woman who had nothing better to do but bake cookies for the men getting shipped off to ‘nam. She’d surely make us do something useless, like knit socks for men who were too hot to want ‘em in the first place.
“Shut the fuck up Gloria,” another window creaked open from across the street. It was Ms. Jane, the young wife. All three of her boys were gone. She wore their school jacket uniforms even in this heat. From our place on the street I couldn’t tell if Ms. Jane’s eyes were red from crying or from the smoke that she always wreaked whenever she came for her sunday brunch at the restaurant.
Before Mrs. McCannin could argue, a young student studying on her balcony threw down her books. It echoed through the street.
“Both of you have no idea what –” her voice broke. “We shouldn’t give anything to those baby killers. McCannin you should be ashamed –" the girl started gathering her books to make her way back into her room.
“She’s wrong right-- your dad didn’t do that, did he?” I asked. Abigail didn’t answer. She just grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the road.
We could hear their shouting echoing off the shop buildings even as we turned our last corner, huffing behind the BBQ place’s dumpster. Heat and trash don’t go together. Everyone knew that and stayed well enough away. But that’s what made them great places for kids to hide. I sank down and tried to convince myself that the sun had moved a bit, that it wasn’t still beating down right atop my head.
“What a bitch –”
“Well I’m right! My pa’s got metal all loose in his head because of that stupid war. Even Mrs. McCannin can’t make us something to help.”
“She try to get you guys too?” a boy said. We turned. He looked as scrappy as any other of the boys. Dark hair and a Polish chin. He spoke with that accent most of us had, long A’s and short E’s, nothing like the people on TV.“Mrs. McCannin got my little brother Ben in her house right now. Told him he was gonna shell peanuts all day for the soldiers.”
“That’s dumb,” Abigail said. “Do soldiers not have hands now?” she asked. He laughed.
“You’re one of the Sanders kids right?” I asked. He nodded but didn’t give me his name. I wouldn’t remember it anyway. There were about nine or ten Sanders boys in town, all running around in different directions. “Weren’t you the ones bragging about ice pops?”
“My mom made a whole bunch this morning, selling them for a quarter.”
“That’s criminal – we can hardly wear clothes in this heat, let alone carry around coins,” Abigail said. I kept the dollar in quarters a secret in my front pocket.
“That’s what I told her. Shows what I know since she sold out by ten this morning,” he said. Abigail heaved and kicked the dumpster. Her skinny legs didn’t even leave a mark. And then she paused like a cat who’d just heard the sneeze of a cricket.
“So there’s no ice pops,” she said.
“You need your ears cleaned out? That’s what I just –” but Abigail just held up her hand and turned to me. This was my favorite thing Abigail did whenever I followed her. She’d turn to me and a wall was built that kept only us right next to each other. There was she, the washer of words and me who hung them up – a pair.
“Since there’s no ice pops, you wanna go to the shaded place?” It’s difficult being a kid I think. There’s something about certain words, images, that stick to you like bug catching paper all smeared with resin. Things stick in your mind like being called the hanger, like mysterious lands called the shaded place. As the sweat slipped down my back and behind my knees, turning the skin there red and itchy, the shaded place sent the right kind of shiver along the top of my skin. The first of its kind since the sun refused to move from right above our heads, dangling there all summer long.
I followed Abigail past the general store and squeezed between two buildings. We had to walk ankle over ankle to get through there. Heat in a tiny space like that, it felt like all my breath came and left through the hole of a hot straw.
“My pa goes here to hide his smoking from me.”
“You said that.”
“He knows if I see his smokes I’ll stomp ‘em down real good. They make everything smell like shit.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Or what?” Abigail turned her head, peeking over her shoulder and rimmed in soft light, “You gonna hang me?”
“Like an old dish rag. My mom says those words are bad.”
“Well your ma’s not here and you’re following me. So that makes me the leader. And the leader says shit.” We found ourselves on a narrow dirt path out behind the old gas station. It was the sort of place where the older kids went to drink and paint their faces with mud. The air above the path waved with heat but the packed earth quickly stuck to our shoes, mud.
“My pa says he smokes so he won’t drink. So I asked him why he’d drink. He says the metal in his head makes his sight messed up. It’s why he keeps it covered.” Her father’s eye was always patched up with a black cloth. The light would pierce the white bandage the nurse gave him, so he always put this stinking black rag over it instead. But once, when I was over at Abigail’s, playing on the living room floor, I saw it. Her dad had walked in. He’d just walked right in, the socket all mashed and twisted like the end of a sausage. But there was something else there, bits of shiny reflective somethings – it wouldn’t be till I went to bed that night that I’d realize that the bullet was still swimming around in there. They’d never removed the shot. And one eye, in the right light, became ten insect eyes winking.
“I ask him what he sees with his gross alien eye. Then he says I’m too little to kno. But I’m not so little I can’t do his washing! He deserves nothing but pink socks.” Abigail raised her dirty fists in the air. “You’re lucky you don’t have a pa Linn. All mine wants to do is sit around and – wait here, right here.” She ducked down real low near a bush that bristled like a feral cat. She pushed nothing aside, just dove in and of course, I followed.
The mud stuck to my hands and knees. The bush caught my shirt as if to tug me back. Everything about that short tunnel seemed to urge me not to come in, to go home.
After the bush, I knew without Abigail telling me that this was the shaded place. It felt like fever chills, when your insides are hot but your outside is nothing but an aching sort of sweat. I felt it deep. It hung like wet laundry over my bones.
“Isn’t it so nice! I can finally breathe deeply.” Abigail’s voice was very close, but I couldn’t see anything. All the light in the world had been swallowed up and it was in this place where light was digested. “My pa kept this place a secret. He’s terrible –” she gave a deep sigh. I stood. The mud was deeper here. I sunk nearly to my ankles.
“I gotta take off my shoes.”
“I took mine off ages ago.” Her voice had gotten further away, like the ice-cream truck song when it turned a corner.
“The mud, the mud is deep,” I said.
“Yeah. My pa’s shoes, they’re always so muddy when he gets home. Tracks mud all over the carpet. He gets so mad in the morning when he sees. He cries and cries you know, like he’s a little boy.”
“Does his bad eye cry?”
“Course it does. Doctor says it still works alright. It’s just the metal, it got all the way into his brain. Guess that’s why the light bothers him.” Something moved towards me. The voice got real quiet, low. “The real reason he makes me do the washing, gets mad about the mud on his shoes, is cuz he can’t stand the dirt you know. The doctor told me what happened, how he lost his eye. When he went to Vietnam he followed the others down into a ravine. They had to crawl around like bugs.”
Then I saw, in that gaping blackness, the shine of insect eyes. A tiny knot of metallic light. I couldn’t tell where the light was coming from. The lights moved a bit, tittering around one another.
“The ravine was deeper than they thought, and dark. But my pa was a good solider, he followed like he was told. He sank deeper and deeper into the muddy waters. He couldn’t breathe. He kept rising up trying to find some air but it wasn’t there. All he could do was reach out, hands shaking from the cold water. He found something, he pulled. The gun went off right into his eye.” And something fluttered around my own eye, the tap of a beetle’s leg around my eye lashes. Something curled around my neck like a spider web had fallen over me. “The doctor said the gun shouldn’t be able to fire like that, that my pa was lying and had done it on purpose so I should watch ‘em and keep him safe.” Abigail scoffed and the sound was swallowed by the darkness. “But he’s no liar. He’s my pa.”
The darkness had settled over me. I understood then, how snow might be frightening to someone when alone, the whole world one solid color, taking in sound and heat and giving nothing back. The need to hold Abigail’s hand came over me and I reached out.
I reached, my breath coming too hot and fast in my lungs. Nothing, just space, just tiny lights twinkling like noon day fireflies.
There. I found something. I pulled. What was I holding, a hand? A neck? I tightened my grip. A hand, it was a hand. But it wasn’t Abigail’s. I brushed my thumb over the knuckles to be sure. A man’s hand. A grown up’s hand. I froze.
All I could see was that ever-focusing collection of little lights. Like a camera lens trying to find its focus, a glint of an eye seeing me. But where was the light coming from? How can something glint in the dark? Abigail kept speaking but it wasn’t her voice. Her voice had been swallowed right up by the shaded place. All I heard was the smoke rapt voice of a man.
“You know how heavy army gear is? You don’t realize it looking at it – but it sinks into its seams. The boots fill with water no matter how tight you tie ‘em. I couldn’t get dry. I crawled all the way back to camp and I just kept shaking. They sat me by the fire while the medic looked me over. Said I was lucky to be alive. But I just wanted to get warm. I just wanted to get dry. Living had nothing to do with it.”
“Then –” I shuddered. “Why are you here, in the shade?”
“Why’d Abigail bring you to the shade? Because the sun can shine all summer and it’s never gonna work. My eye’s too wet to ever get that river water out. Those sheets you hang for your poor tired ma, you put them on your bed but they’re still wet. They grow little creases of mold and you can smell it can’t you. You can smell it right now. It’s all over your hands.”
The lights moved and I followed quickly, not caring that I was slipping in the mud. When my foot caught a root I didn’t care. If I could just get closer to those lights, maybe I could see. I could find Abigail.
“Aby, where are you?” I called.
“She’s gone kiddo,” the man said. The lights focused like water pouring through a drain. A single bright light, like the sun. Abigail’s dad loomed over me, my hand still in his. His bad eye cast his face in shadow.
“Let me go. Please. Where’s Aby. Where’s --” I yanked my arm free. I heard a snap. Something roared in my ears. The light fell away
“Linn come on, we gotta go. Linn,” it was Abigail. She was shaking me. I blinked away the dark spots. The light was dim here. Everything turned a faded navy blue under the leaves. My eyes had finally adjusted after so long in the hot sun. “Linn come on,” she said. She pulled my hand and I slipped a bit in the mud, unable to tear my eyes away.
Abigail’s dad, her pa, I could only see the outline. I’d always thought things got quiet when you died. But I could still hear the cars on the highway nearby, rolling around on rubber wheels. No one was quiet for Abigail’s dad when he died, just us I think. We watched him for a moment, swinging just a bit from a breeze slicking off the traffic. His neck was slumped forward like he’d fallen asleep. The jolt of the rope must have loosened his eye patch because it stood out staring, lifeless at us. One of my hands was still reaching towards him, as if to help him down from the tree.
“Come on Linn,” Abigail said. She turned. I watched the hung man for a moment longer. I willed the smell of mildew to banish itself from this memory. It refused. I turned and followed Abigail through the bushes and back into town.
The sun baked the streets to cracking. I imagined Aby’s dad looking down with his bad eye, how he must see us with all those metal bits in heaven. We must look like egg shells. A million broken egg shells all smelling like shit.
Gillian Herrin has a BA from the University of Iowa and can often be found traveling the globe. Her writing tends to focus on family, communication, and the surrealism that manifests when those spheres collide. She is a winner of the Iowa Chapbook Prize (2019) and has been published in Iowa’s Emerging Writers (2018).