Melissa and Greg emerged from the wind with their clothes dusted with sand. Melissa used her hands to shake the sand from her hair and Greg picked sand from the corners of his eyes.
“Holy shit! What the hell was that,” Greg asked and he spat onto the ground. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and spat again.
“You shouldn’t swear.”
“Sorry. I guess I shouldn’t.” They continued brushing themselves clean.
“You didn’t tell me where your home is. Did you get kicked out?”
“I left on my own.”
“Why?” Melissa did not look at Greg. She continued to shake sand from her hair.
“‘Cause my dad. He w-w-w-was pretty mean.”
“Did he hit you?”
“He hit all of us. He’d make fun of the way I talk, too.”
“Oh. Ya, that is mean.” Melissa waved her hand in front of her face to move the air. “You really do stink!” The two of them laughed.
They walked up the dirt trail that wound back into the trees and then out again along the ridgeline, and along the rusty fence that ran to the cell tower above it all. They turned the corner through the trees when Melissa stopped and grabbed Greg’s arm and held him at her side.
Greg looked at her and jerked his arm away, out of her grip. “Don’t ever do that again.”
“There’s a snake,” whispered Melissa.
A large coppered rattlesnake was winding across the path, an intricate green and grey mottling of skin, armored. Dangerous and beautiful. Greg stepped back and the snake stopped as it sensed the motion. It flicked a forked tongue into the air but remained motionless. Melissa moved in front of Greg with her staff out front of her. She tapped it softly onto the ground between her and the snake. The snake coiled into a striking mass with its head held high and its tail rattling behind. Melissa stopped tapping the ground and the snake stopped rattling its tail. She waited and the snake relaxed but remained coiled.
“What are you doing? Get away from it,” Greg whispered.
“ You have to relax. They don’t want to hurt us. We need to show them we don’t want to hurt them too. I just want it to move, that’s all. Bad people would hurt it, but we aren’t.”
She took her branch and moved it slowly toward the snake again, pushed it through the surface of the sand and the snake raised its head higher and started again to rattle it’s tail. She held the stick, moved it deliberately and slightly, back and forth through the dirt, slowly closer. The snake dropped it’s head and tail and slithered to the side of the trail, stopped at the edge, and then slithered a little farther into the grasses. The boy and girl watched it go, and they watched the patchwork mottled skin stop at a small distance almost hidden in the weeds.
“We can go by now. It’s safe. My brother said this is the time of day they come out of the weeds to lie in the sand. They get warm that way.”
“I’ve never seen a rattlesnake before.”
“They’re everywhere here. Our dog died last summer after it got bit. We buried him in the yard. I guess you’re not from here at all then?”
“No. No, I’m not. You’re not going to tell your brother I was looking through his truck, are you?”
“I won’t say anything. Do you think you’ll stay around here then? Especially if Jim can help you get a job?”
“I suppose I might. But I don’t really know.”
“It’s really nice here. You’d like it I think. Everybody does.”
“Even w-w-w-with the rattlesnakes?” He smiled.
“Yep. Even with the snakes.” And Melissa smiled back.
As they approached the cell tower they could see Billy and Jim and Mike and Shelley sitting in the grasses, talking and waiting for the jump. The wind had softened and Billy held a length of grass between his teeth, Shelly’s hair draped down her back, and Jim was pointing toward the valley where the others were looking.
“Hey,” Melissa yelled. The group turned and Shelly waved and smiled. The boys were quiet and furrowed their brows.
“Who are you?” Jim rose to his feet. Billy rocked forward and sat on his haunches with a knee in the sand. He threw the grass to the ground and spat the flavor from his mouth. He held his chin out and rested an elbow on his raised knee.
“This is Greg. He’s my new friend. He’s not from around here,” said Melissa happily.
“Well I goddamned know that much. What are you doing here Greg?”
“He’s looking for work,” Melissa answered.
“Shut up Melissa. I asked what you’re doing here.” Jim took a step closer to Greg.
“Take it easy Jim.”
“Shelly, stay out of it.” Mike began to stir but Shelly grabbed his arm and held him sitting in the grass.
“What the fuck are you doing here Greg? You the trash that’s been ripping everybody off?” Jim stepped forward again. Billy stood up. Shelly held onto Mike’s arm and squeezed her fingers into his skin and Melissa wrapped her two hands tightly around her staff and planted it into the earth in front of her. Greg’s eyes narrowed and his left hand crossed the wrist of his right arm and his fingers began to scratch furiously.
The corners of Jim’s mouth curled upward. His eyes narrowed into a sneer.
Billy stood and laughed, “No shit! He’s an idiot!” Greg pursed his lips, his hands clenched as mallets at his side.
“I’m calling the cops.” Mike had his phone in the palm of his hand.
“You better get lost, idiot.” Jim stepped forward again, face to face with Greg and in a quick motion pushed him with both hands. Greg stumbled backward and landed on the ground, quickly pushed himself up onto his feet but Jim was on him again. His fist landed on Greg’s chin and a second punch on his chest as he fell backwards again.
Greg stood and dusted his hands on his pants. He looked around, down to the race track where music played and bounced between the walls of the valley, and from where the fetid smell of burnt gasoline wafted. He looked across the other side of the hill down the deep arid trench of the Marron Valley, at his feet in cracked leather boots, a map or a maze of use and decay, of miles of trodden and patchworked land and of clandestine encampments in roadside culverts, in alleyways and riverbanks sheltered by willow and dogwood and mosquitoes and blackflies. He looked down across the sagebrush covered hillside, at a dove roosting in a lone ponderosa midway down the hill to the road.
“Stop it!” Melissa stepped between the boys and swung her staff over her shoulder with both hands around it tightly. “Stop it!”
“Put that thing down, Melissa. Get the hell out of the way.” Jim had his hands wrapped into fists. Melissa stayed her ground and braced her feet with the branch cocked over her shoulder.
“You are not good, Jim Addison! You are not good!” Her anger washed in tears down her cheeks, brown, dusty rivulets that dripped from her chin. “I swear I’ll kill you.”
Greg reached out from behind her and pulled the branch from her hands and she winced and cried and looked around from face to face.
“It’s okay, Melissa,” Greg said softly. He dropped the branch to the ground where a small pillow of dust rose around it.
“You hurt my sister, you goddamned bastard.”
“It’s okay.” Greg stepped back once and then again. And again.
“The cops are on their way.” Mike held his phone in the air as testament.
“You better get out of here you dirty idiot.” Jim lunged forward and punched Greg again on the chin.
Melissa yelled and silenced the chatter filling the air. Standing so low to the ground it was nothing for her to sweep her hand down across the dirt and hurriedly pick up a small, sharp rock that she could clasp in her small palm. She charged her brother with her head down and wrapped her arms low around his waist and carried him collapsing into the dirt, a cloud of sand and broken twigs, of branches cracking under the force. The scent of wild sage filled the air with her fists that wailed and hammered, one innocently of childhood force and the other weaponized with the stone. Blood speckled leaves, balls of it hit sprayed in the sand and gathered a coating of earth on their surface, rolling until bursting and dotting the ground about. Billy ran into it and grabbed the girl’s thin wrists flailing in the air and wrapped his and her arms around her chest. She writhed under confinement, acquiescing finally in tears and her body fell limp and helpless and the rock she dropped to the ground.
“You,” she sputtered, “Are no good!” There was a flow of blood running from Jim’s face. His arm twitched twice and the lids of his eyes fluttered but remained shut and blood pooled in the dimples of the shallow sockets beside his nose, and the shallow sockets filled and blood ran out of them down over his high cheekbones and onto the earth. “He’s my friend!” Melissa was sobbing now.
Greg was gone and away down the trail and down the hill, a cloud of dust chased him away, passed the truck and down the drive to the road, across the road into a thick stand of quivering aspen trees where he crouched low as a car approached slowly along the road, a police car that left the dirt drive where a thin hint of his trailing dust floated above the ground. He crawled in the dirt to the back of the trees, through a damp creekbed and around a fenced pen where dogs rushed and barked and howled and bared the whites of their teeth. He took a chance and ran across the highway to the dairy pastures, through the lush and green grasses and around the cattle that watched with lazy and wild eyes as this strange thing that passed in a blur. He climbed the layered flank of Lookout Mountain, wound his way up an overgrown logging road as it rose above the valley and sidecut through the face of a high quartzite cliff.
Out of breath and safely distanced, he stopped and sat with his legs curled underneath himself, and then he moved to the edge of the cliff, unknotted the laces of his boots and removed them and removed his damp socks too. Dangled his feet in the evening air and flexed the muscles of his feet and spread his toes, and he looked over the valley, and really saw the valley. He looked to the west, the setting sun blazing the land in all manner of singeing yellows, hues of orange and red. Hayfields awash at the end of days in flame, pretending to burn. He warmed in the remaining heat of the setting sun. A dove settled in for the night cooing high in the branches of a towering spruce tree.
Greg stood and planted his bare feet on the cool earth with the white crystals of stone against his soles, grains of sand in small billows from between his toes. Stood on the leaves of dandelions wilted by the falling days of summer. He picked up his boots and turned and walked deep into the forest.