Mary shuddered and slipped fully out of sleep and into sullen heat.
She lay naked beneath a heap of filthy blankets, seeking ease while
she turned things over in her mind. Sleep was an easy road, but
it made waking hard. Not that sleep was always a castle of pleasure.
Sleep meant dreams and sometimes dreams were hot roads with signs
that read, Hades, ten thousand kilometres, or shopping carts that
rattled down four-lane highways. Or dreams were her mother, red
hair streaming and skirt hoisted like a sail to the wind, skimming
along back roads with her naked privates warmed by a hot Chinook
A male finch trilled just beyond the plastic that covered Mary’s
bedroom window. The bird bobbed on a sunflower head visible through
a hole where the plastic had once shown Death hitching a hell-bound
ride. The mother Liza James had made her cut Death from the thick
plastic with the hair-trimming scissors.
Mary reached to scratch her foot. She felt the telltale prick of
bone. Bits of bone floated like so many toothpicks under the skin
of both feet. Every day Liza applied herbal poultices, unaware of
the splinters that broke through the skin, splinters that Mary pulled
from her feet in the privacy of her temporary room and then hid
like talismans between the musty mattresses of the bed.
The James family had found Mary discarded by a violent ride like
a Big Mac wrapper on the side of the road. Despite Liza’s lipsticked
pouting, the father Devon James had pulled their dusty truck to
a stop. He scratched at his salt-and-pepper beard as he leant across
his wife in the passenger seat. “Need a ride somewhere, kid?” he
“Nope.” Mary took another step on her bleeding feet.
Devon James turned the truck towards the shoulder to head her off.
“We can’t just leave you like this. You have to let us help.”
“Devon!” Liza scolded. Two kids, blonde and petite like their mother,
huddled in the backseat.
Mary caught the youngest child’s eye. “He can feed me,” she said.
On the James’ isolated mountain, Mary spent her days keeping the
peace and avoiding the looming eye of god. She felt the eye upon
her now as she slipped on an old tee shirt and a wrap-around skirt.
Hers were ugly things, not like the Liza’s summer clothing. Liza
owned pretty flower-print dresses, jeans too and little tank tops
to go with them.
Mary buckled on her sandals before she crossed the room. She called
the boy’s name into the empty hallway. “Benny!” The effort hurt
her parched throat. He should be in the kitchen learning his alphabet
or listening to his sister, Isa, read aloud. With no schools on
the mountain, the children did their lessons every morning year-round.
An aluminium bucket sat on the kitchen’s black and white linoleum
floor. Though the water was brackish and warm to the touch, Mary
crouched on the floor and scooped up a handful to drink.
“Benny,” she repeated. Stronger now, her voice carried through
the hot screen door as she pushed on its rusted frame. Black firs
rimmed an open yard where insects baked to their deaths. The perky
Wyandotte chickens were nowhere to be seen.
Each step Mary took lifted dust that swirled around her feet and
ankles. The dense blue sky pressed down like a hand upon her brain.
A lifeless frog lay flattened in a tire track made by the family’s
Mary made for a stand of birch that shielded the creek. She rounded
the trees and entered the river where the children often found refuge
from the sapping heat. So cold! How could they stand it? Every day,
with their arms and legs pressed together, the siblings searched
the riverbed for rocks. Water gave the rocks colour, tuned them
into the gold and rubies and opals that would make the James family
rich and get them off the mountain. Isa, the serious child-mother,
worked hard while Benny chased the golden tips of her floating hair.
Isa kept Benny close, kept him away from Mary.
Shadow chilled the air. Cold shocked her hot skin as she waded
deeper. The clouds passed and heat returned as she hobbled along.
A vibration in the air grew into a hum. Mary shut her eyes and inched
forward over the silky bottom. Water splashed her legs and arms,
weighed down her skirt. She slipped and stumbled. Beneath the surface
of the water, her head struck a rock, forcing her eyes open.
Horizontal bars of light rippled along the river’s bottom. Something
drifted through the shadow cast by Mary’s head. It sparkled green-gold
where the sun poked through. When her own black locks joined it,
she reached out and touched where dark and light intertwined. Her
searching fingers felt the silky texture.
Lifting her head, she sucked in metallic tasting air. Blood stained
the water that ran down her face. The mollycoddled Labrador lay
in the water. Around the dog’s bloated, waxy throat, an insect cloud
hovered. Hair-trimming scissors glittered nearby.
Voices sounded in the distance, cheerful voices and a child’s laughter.
Mary dragged the dog into deeper water. She propelled the animal’s
body mid-stream. One paw caught on the reedy bottom before it floated
The forest banked both sides of the river and hemmed in the sky.
The sky was another kind of road and so was the river. Mary knew
that the river churned and twisted until it spilled down the side
of the mountain. She knew the water’s speed and strength. She knew
about the falls, how they tumbled. She knew that in the valley it
widened and slowed, becoming a wide brown ribbon.
“Mary!” Benny called.
As the rocky bottom cut her feet, Mary let the dog slip into the