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The fire crackled at Nathan’s boots as he plucked his banjo. A cigarette or a joint, I couldn’t tell which, hung from his lips as his head bobbed to the beat. Beside him, Tommy fingered a guitar, moving his head from side to side, eyes fixed on the fire. I sat beneath the wool blanket with Daisy in my lap and Amber sitting with her shoulder pressed to mine. Though the mountains were unusually warm for the time of year, nighttime was still frigid. Despite the combined warmth of Amber and Daisy’s body heat by the fire, I felt that if I moved too quickly, the cold air would scoop me up in its embrace. Amber passed me the bottle. The glass was the kind of cold that cut down to the bone. I took a gulp, and its burning flooded my sinuses and made its way down into my belly. It tasted faintly of watermelon and raspberries behind the wall of alcohol.
“Is this from Johnny Barwick’s brew?” I asked.
Amber nodded and grabbed it back from me. “Yeah, I let it set in the cooler for a few days with the berries so it would be real sweet,” she took a sip and shivered.
Her nose scrunched up from the taste. The moonshine had stained her lips purple and her cheeks were flushed pink. From the cold or buzz, I couldn’t be sure. Small, curly hairs escaped her braid and were illuminated in the firelight. She leaned her head on my shoulder and reached down under the blanket to pet Daisy. Daisy didn’t stir, only nuzzled her head deeper into my lap. I nodded my head to the music, my eyes fixed on Nathan’s fingers moving effortlessly over the banjo strings. The light of the fire was reflected in his dark eyes and he looked up and caught my gaze. He gave me a small smile and a wink that made my heart flutter.
The darkness around our little clearing was close, with shadows bouncing around the wall of green from the flicker of the flames. Sometimes magnolia leaves caught the light and threw it back with the fierceness of a newly shined boot. Each chord from the boys seemed to stretch out into the tree line, then up into the sky. I felt conspicuous with so much light and noise, and around us such heavy darkness.
“Shame it’s so cloudy out tonight,” I said to no one in particular.
Amber hummed and the boys played as if no one had said anything. The soft breathing of Daisy and Amber soothed my soul. I grabbed the bottle from her hanging hand and took another drink. My head was swimming with a pleasant laziness. I closed my eyes and let the music and liquor take me. Then it took my bladder as well. I opened my eyes back up and gently shook Amber off my shoulder.
“I gotta pee,” I said, handing her Daisy.
She laughed and took the dog from me. Daisy flopped her paws as she was transferred into Amber’s lap. Her head bobbled like it was too heavy for her neck before she set it down on Amber’s leg. I took a deep breath before taking the blanket off my shoulders. The cold air grabbed me and squeezed as hard as it could. A shiver passed through my body and I caught my breath before walking past the boys.
“Be careful,” Nathan said, looking up at me.
I assured him I would be, placing my hand on his shoulder as I walked by. The tree line was hard to push past normally, let alone through a curtain of darkness and booze. My feet didn’t feel like my own through the thermal socks and boots. Boots Nathan had gotten me after I graduated from high school. Amber called them ugly, but I loved them. I practiced my branding on the smooth leather of it, leaving first a mule’s face with a dunce cap on the outer facing side and then a banjo on the other.
“What’s that for?” Nathan had asked when he saw it.
“What?” he asked with a grin, “really?”
He bent down to get a better look at it. He ran a rough finger along the darkened hide. The smoke from his cigarette drifted up into my face and I swatted it away.
“You’re gettin’ real good at that, Leah,” he said, standing back up straight to look at me, “I’m gon’ have to let you brand me one of these days.”
And he did. He let me put that same banjo on the back of his left calf. I had forgotten to shave him first and the stench of scorched hair made us both gag and wretch.
A thick tree root sticking out from the ground may as well have kicked my toe, and I let out a scream as I fell to the ground. My body hit dirt like the Devil hits his wife. The music in the distance stopped and the space it left was taken up by a high-pitched ring.
“You okay?” someone asked from the fire.
Lights danced in front of my eyes. My chest constricted and I struggled to take in a full breath. Flashes of white bounced between the ferns and roots and my stomach churned.
“Yeah,” I called back.
After a moment, I heard the banjo and guitar start up again, slowly, then with gumption, as if they had never known stillness. I rose to my feet and held my hands outstretched into the darkness. My eyes were slow to adjust; there was still a flaming spot of green in the middle of my vision from the fire. The ground was uneven and the forest was unstill as I moved past the occasional rustle and shift from the underbrush around me. I couldn’t be sure how far would be far enough for my friends to not hear. The sky was black-gray and void of any light. Not a star nor any hint of the moon to be found. I pushed onward. I gauged my distance with the dimming sound of music. I felt okay once I could just barely make out the two instruments, but the liquor made me brave and more self-conscious all at once and I went even further. When I stopped, I paused to listen. I could barely make out the music, so I went a few yards further.
I reached down to undo my pants. My fingers were numb from the cold, but after a bit I was able to pinch the zipper. I squatted down and stared ahead, trying to not pee on my shoes. A raindrop hit my thigh. I looked up and another one got me right on the forehead. I jumped, tugging my pants up quick as I could. Another drop hit me on the top of my head. Right then, lightning danced across the sky. The trees above me lit up magnificently in the sudden flash. Moments later, my chest was shaken by the boom of thunder and the sky opened up above. Rain poured down before I could even zip my jeans back up. I thought about trying to jog back to the campsite, but I wasn’t confident with my sight impaired and the ground was already turning to mud. The lightning strike had put my eyes back to square one.
Icy raindrops hit me harder and harder as if there were angry kids in the trees aiming spitballs at me. The ground was a moving conveyor belt beneath my feet. What figures I could make out shifted and trailed in and out of my peripheral. My boots snagged on the foliage that crawled along the forest floor and I caught myself on a tree trunk. My stomach burned and nausea knocked against my throat.
“Nathan!” I called out.
The rain was coming down with the wrath of God. All I could hear was the storm.
“Amber!” I shouted, “Tommy!”
I stood still for a moment, shivering in frigid rain that was coming down harder by the moment. I gagged and held my stomach. I prayed. My grandma always said not to pray only when you needed help, but I never remembered to pray otherwise. I closed my eyes and prayed to God I wouldn’t get sick, that I would find my way back, and that Daisy would stay safe and not run away. I gagged again and all the purple Jesus I had drunk lurched from my stomach. The liquor burned worse coming back up. I coughed and heaved, letting my stomach empty itself. The ground beneath me shifted left and right. All I could smell was bile and raspberries. Raindrops beat against the back of my neck and my hair was plastered to my face.
I took a slow, deep breath in through my nose, fixed my eyes on the ground, and let it out through my mouth. I dug my fingers into the crevices of the tree trunk, trying to ground myself from the constant movement. My stomach burned and ached. I shouldn’t have drunk so much. I should’ve known better. I took another slow breath, pleaded with my stomach to relax. It didn’t. Another wave of nausea slammed into me, bringing me to my knees. I tried to avoid my hands hitting vomit. I heaved and cried as my stomach made me reckon with my choices. Even after I felt emptied and sore, I stayed still for a moment. I coughed and spit out what I could, though I could still taste the sickness. I stood slowly, holding onto the tree for stability. The rain hit me on the face and washed me of my sins.
The earth lolled back and forth beneath me. Without anything solid to focus on, my head spun. I reached into my jacket pocket, fishing for my phone. Maybe I could use that for a light, or if I had signal, call someone. I patted around and dug through each pocket. Maybe it was in my jeans. Each empty pocket only heightened my anxiety. I took another breath and double checked my jacket pockets, including the ones lining the interior. Empty. All of them empty save for a book of matches and a balled-up piece of paper.
I kicked the tree and immediately regretted it. I stumbled backwards from the sudden jerk and my toes exploded with pain. I screamed again, cursing and reviling God. I looked around. My eyes were finally adjusting to the dark at least. I couldn’t recognize any of it though. In the density of it all, nothing distinguished itself. No beaten path stood out. The ground was a mottled mess of greenery and the trees were barely visible through the thick downpour. I feared exploring further. What if I went the wrong direction? What if I couldn’t find my way back? How far would be too far for my friends to find me? I shivered and opened and closed my hands. They were going numb. They hurt with each raindrop that hit them. I couldn’t afford to stay still much longer.
I began walking back the way I thought I had come. The tall loblollies seemed familiar, but so did everything. I touched each tree to the right of me on my way past, partly for comfort, partly to guide me. I ducked and dodged branches in a way I didn’t recall having to on my way there. On a newly empty stomach, I felt clearer but weaker. I still felt the drunkenness on turns, or moving my head too quickly, as if everything sloshed around inside my skull a little too hard.
“Nathan!” I called out again, “Amber! Tommy! Help!”
The storm was deafening. The forest floor lit up as lightning struck in the distance. In the moment of light, I could make out a large magnolia in the distance. Its bright, waxy leaves shimmered in the storm. As darkness draped the forest again, I tried to remember everything that had stood between me and the magnolia. A fair number of pines stretching into the sky, a few other trees I didn’t know by name, and some tall ferns. I held out my arms as my eyes re-adjusted. Everything snapped and swayed around me, branches reached out to smack and scorn me. I pushed forward until I could see the leaves against the darkness. The greenery around it was thick, but I held my breath and shoved through. I sagged in its density, suspended for a moment by the foliage. My thighs were burning and my chest constricted. Breathing was hard, like sucking in air through an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. My hands stung and stiffened as I pushed aside leaves and thin trunks of fledgling trees. When I finally felt reprieve from it, I scrambled to pull the last of myself from the forest’s grip, tugging my boot free from the hands of some unseen vines or roots.
It was too dark to make out what was in the clearing. My heart soared and I called out again. I strained my voice in an attempt to be heard over the storm that had settled over the mountains. I stumbled forward, giddy and terrified. Another strike of lightning illuminated a grand fixture before me. It stretched into the sky, covered in colorful fragments of glass. It was a giant pinwheel, but it didn’t seem to spin despite the wind. I walked towards it and put my hands to it. The metal was smooth and slick. What was this? Thunder came crashing not too long after. I walked past it to see another fixture, the same type of metal covered in a layer of stained glass. When lightning struck again, I saw that the clearing was full of them. I stood beneath one in a spot where one of its blades blocked most of the rain.
This wasn’t it. This was far from it. I tried to remember seeing something about this on the map Nathan had handed me when we left Boone. He had told me to keep a good hold of it in case anything happened. I had rolled my eyes but looked it over anyway. Nathan let me lean against him in the backseat of the car on the last stretch of the car ride with Tommy and Amber up front. I remembered feeling the steady rise and fall of his chest, his strong heartbeat, and the way his chest rumbled when he spoke. He had smelled of cloves and cigarette smoke. He never said anything about it, but when he put his hand on my waist, his heartbeat had quickened. Mine did too. I didn’t say anything about it either.
“What’s this place?” I asked him, pointing at an attraction site.
“You never heard of Acid Park?” he asked.
I shook my head. I don’t remember what he said it was exactly, but that some man from Boone had made it for his daughter when she died in a DUI accident in the mountains. Nathan described the park like someone describes a grocery trip but when he got to the family’s history, he got real excited. I could hear it in the uptick of his voice and the way his words ran into each other. He passed me his half-smoked cigarette to finish and told me the story of a heartbroken father and a genius welder. As he talked, I looked over the rivers and other camping sites we wouldn’t be going to on the map, not fully paying attention to anything but his hand on my waist.
Lightning struck again, this time close. The storm was getting angrier and I feared what would happen if I stayed much longer, but I felt paralyzed by fear and exhaustion. I wrapped my arms around myself and sobbed. My chest heaved and I cried harder. For the first time since I was a child, I prayed aloud.
It felt that God had condemned me—condemned me for all the times I’d said he wasn’t there, all the times I had been disrespectful and down-right mean to my grandma, all the times I swore we were all damned and that no gospel nor truth existed to save us, and tonight was the night I would have to answer for all of it. I closed my eyes and prayed harder. Yet when I tried to pray, my mind drifted back to Nathan. Drifted to the way he sometimes lingered on the porch when saying goodbye, hands in his pockets, the way his accent got thicker the drunker he got, but what I liked about the best was how I never had to explain my family to him. He just got it.
The wind picked up with a vengeance, like it had been personally wronged and was looking for retribution. The sudden force of it through the trees and into the clearing created a howl that filled the air. The metal giants above me groaned from the strain of staying upright. My jacket whipped in the gust, smacking its wet weight against me. The rain came down slanted, beating into my chest. I turned my back to it and covered my face. I was afraid to get too close to the pinwheel, afraid of the lightning it could summon. I backed away from it, hands covering my head for protection until I bumped into something cold and hard behind me. I screamed and spun around before a giant billboard, low to the ground but still towering over me. The metal looked dark and rusted, but it had writing bedazzled in broken glass like the other fixtures in the clearing.
“No Creation is Greater than its Creator – Now You Have Gone Home to Yours. Will Miss You.”
Lightning struck one of the metal towers behind me, shattering some of the glass atop it, and glittering pieces rained down. The sound was splitting and some pieces hit me in the back and some flung against the sign. In the sudden visibility, the sign was glorious. The reds, blue, greens, and yellows of its mosaic sparkled through the veil of rain. I marveled at the sign until the clap of thunder reminded me to move. I ducked and ran under it, behind it. The clearing didn’t spread much further beyond that. I couldn’t remember on the map how far apart the symbol for this place was from where we had decided to stay. I should’ve asked, I should’ve held onto the map and my phone and not drank so much. I thought back, tried to envision it. The bright blue star that marked Acid Park. On one side of it was a cliff and on the other a road. A road, of course! I couldn’t remember which side, but I had to try. I decided to go left of the clearing in what I hoped was south. It couldn’t be more than a mile or so out. I pushed through the underbrush again and walked as fast as my legs could carry me. I kept my hands outstretched and felt my way between trees and bushes.
The storm waxed and waned but never halted. A few times I had to stop and rest. I almost vomited again from trying to move so quickly, but thankfully was able to keep sickness at bay. There must not have been any more to come back up. My hands were entirely numb and I feared I had chosen the wrong direction. Was I going to wander off of a cliff? The ground turned to a downhill slope and I tried to take it slow, but lost my footing in the mud. I screamed as I fell with alarming speed down the hill, my back dragging through the mud. I reached up and to the side to try and grab a tree or anything really, but my fingers were barely cooperating. Then I came to an abrupt stop in a ditch. I took a deep breath and wiped tears I didn’t know I had shed. I was okay.
At the sound of tires on the wet road, I scrambled to my feet and up the other side of the steep ditch. It must’ve been at least five feet deep to keep the roads from flooding. I scaled the slope up to the road. I waved and ran after the car that had passed, my boots slipping on the wet asphalt. I stood in the lane, crying and screaming, waving my arms hoping desperately they would stop. How far had I gone?
The rear lights turned bright red as the car screeched to a halt. The door flung open and a figure ran towards me. He was a man, tall, and when he got close, he put two large hands on my shoulders. I couldn’t stop crying and my whole body trembled. I looked up at him and recognized his dark eyes and the hair that was slick against his forehead.
“Leah?” Nathan asked, his voice like a safety blanket in that moment. “Oh my God, Leah, Jesus. I’m so glad we found you.”
He pulled me into his arms and then lifted me off the ground. Raindrops pelted my forehead and I didn’t care. He laid me on the backseat of the car before getting in, putting my legs over his lap. He was shouting and I could hear Amber in the front seat. She sounded hysterical. I could hear the hiccups in her breath. Tommy was delegating something to Amber, his deep voice calm in the dense cloud of panic that filled the car.
“Jesus Christ, Leah,” Nathan said, holding my hand in his.
It was hard to see him in the dark, but when we passed under a streetlight, I could see his dark brows furrowed and his jaw clenched. The window was down and he was smoking one Marlboro after another. I turned my head to the side, trying to ease the nausea that still swam around inside me. Daisy was sitting on the floor between the driver’s seat and where my head lay, whining. I reached out my free hand to touch her soft ear.
“Hey, baby girl,” I whispered.
The first person I spoke to in the hospital was a nurse who informed me I had narrowly missed hypothermia, but that I didn’t manage to avoid alcohol poisoning and severe dehydration. The second was Nathan. When he walked in, he was in his Sunday best: a red button up and clean ironed black pants. He had sat next to me without saying a word. He eventually reached out and took my hand into his. We sat in the thick silence of the hospital room for a while and it felt okay.
“I ‘bout thought God took you from us,” he said.
On a shelf behind him rested my boots, a mule wearing a dunce cap branded into the leather staring back at me.
“I don’t think he’d want me if I begged,” I said.
Tyra Lechner is from North Carolina and a University of New Mexico alum. She is currently a high school teacher in New Mexico and has had work published in Conceptions Southwest, HuffPost, and Havik Literary Magazine. Outside of work she can be found knitting and bird watching.