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In the pebbled driveway of her late father’s North Carolina cabin, Nadia hobbles out of her Civic. Her legs are tight from the drive, but mostly she’s babying her right foot which is thickly bandaged inside a loosely laced New Balance sneaker. Nadia nearly cruise-controlled the whole way from Orlando. Two nights ago, Nadia’s wife, Jenn, dropped a wine glass in the shower and did a poor job cleaning up—close enough to a last straw.
      Nadia unbuckles PJ from his booster, helps him shoulder a shiny Justice League backpack, hooks Walmart grocery bags on her left forearm, and drags the suitcase toward the cabin and the sagging wraparound deck. Dirt cakes the cracked steps. Warped railing. Worn clapboards. Flaking red paint. Let’s see. Not since PJ was a baby, a newborn, has Nadia been up here. The timber frame, that’ll stay sturdy. The front door always jams so they go around back. Hornets fighter-plane near an old hummingbird feeder hung from a gutter. But the Appalachian view is the same, rolling out in bristling green and, in the distance, hazed in blue.
      Nadia tousles PJ’s hair. “Last time you were here, you were in Momsa’s belly.”  Jenn was the one who carried PJ.
      Knowing only Florida flatness, PJ speechlessly gazes at the round mountains. Four-year-old PJ hadn’t uttered a single word during the entire nine-hour drive. Of course, he hadn’t talked. But he hadn’t even sung in that made-up language of his. Though Nadia’s little entomologist did play with a broken-winged dragonfly at the rest stop north of Macon. Honest to God, all PJ does is play with bugs: roaches, ants, even red ones (he swells grotesquely), tiny flowerpot-lurking scorpions at Lowe’s.
      Inside lingers the smell of Nadia’s father, cabbage and Barbasol, but musty now, as if something with bad breath has been asleep for too long. His retired badge, framed in a shield-shaped shadow box along with some ribbons and coins, hangs in the front entryway. Above the fireplace is a slice of tree trunk painted with a howling wolf. Cushioning the couch are blankets with stripes of diamonds and zigzags bought in some Cherokee-themed shop downtown, the kind that sells gift-shop knives and plastic headdresses.
      He was hiding here, in a way. Her father,  the detective,  hiding in Murphy, all those years. The stories he shared—God, that one in particular. Drunk, the good-natured man could turn into a blathering menace. But if he were here now, he’d grip Nadia where shoulder meets neck, squeeze hard twice, and pull her in.
      Nadia lays out the groceries, helps PJ with his shoes, and opens the windows. PJ unpacks his backpack, laying out on the living room rug Hot Wheels and a beetle, a praying mantis, and a centipede from that pack of seventy-six plastic bugs Jenn bought off Amazon. They still creep Nadia out.
      Nadia turns on the power and water. In the hallway, a water stain blooms on the ceiling above warped floorboards. That’s new. But they won’t stay here long. Just the weekend. Nadia needs only the briefest break from Jenn to show she’s serious. And to get her father’s affairs in order. She plugs in the fridge, puts the milk and eggs in the freezer, and digs through the cabinets for cookware. Andrew, her brother, must’ve looted anything good—cast iron skillets, heavy pots, that copper wok—after the funeral. Now there’re only frying pans, the kind that would tear an egg to bits if fried without overwhelming globs of butter.
      She sets water to boil and pours Prego into a dinged sauté pan. The liquids ripple. She dials Andrew about the water damage, but he doesn’t pick up. Nadia doesn’t leave a message. Drew really should’ve followed through. Atlanta is only a few hours away. Sometimes she just can’t tell with her brother. But things are okay because PJ is here. Nadia will take family healing, even without Jenn, over properly straightening up assets any day.
Out on the deck, with the spaghetti eaten, Nadia kicks her bandaged foot up on the window ledge and breathes. PJ stands, gaze fixed to clouds heavy over distant mountains.
      “Come here, bud.” She tries to sit him on her lap, but he pulls away and squats to look through the deck railing. He presses his face between slats almost wide apart enough for him to fall through. After a moment, he steps down the stairs to a path made from football-sized rocks pickaxed from the clay.
      Nadia stands at the top of the stairs. “What are you up to?” But PJ is walking off like a robot programmed to sneak up on people.
      In the woods ahead is a young buck with decent antlers. Not wanting to disturb the deer, Nadia whisper-shouts for PJ to stop. It’ll be nice to watch the animal with him, to explain the velvet on the antlers, how the deer will rub them on tiny trees, trees small enough that PJ could fit his hands around. She steps down the stairs sideways. Still, they creak. “Just wait, PJ.”
      PJ is at the woodline, the buck coming toward him. He extends his tiny hand.
      Nadia is nearly hopping over.
      Slowly, the buck turns its head toward Nadia. The face is strangely human. From hind leg to ear, giant black warts like overripe avocados slather the far side of the animal.
      Nadia plants her hurt right foot on a gnarly branch hidden in all the pine needles. She grunts, “Christ,” her voice souring into a squeal.
      The buck trots off. PJ continues to the woodline, grabs a branch above him, and leans into it like he’s watching a friend depart on a train.
      “You’ve got to listen,” Nadia says, her foot aching. The thought of the deer’s tumors makes her queasy. She grabs her knees and spits before eyeing the trees. Would PJ have done the same thing if a bear wandered onto the property? The image of a black bear clamping down on her son’s skull, dragging him into the woods like a dog with an oversized bone.
With PJ put to sleep in the spare bedroom, Nadia goes into her father’s room with a glass and a dusty bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. In the closet, beneath a couple suit jackets is a rusty-edged filing cabinet. Every drawer is locked. She stares into the tiny keyhole then spends half an hour looking through dressers and cabinets for the key until grabbing a hammer from the laundry room.
      There are tax returns, years of utility bills, Republican Party donation letters, old IRA documents, Ameritrade papers, stuff from New York Life, a letter about his pension. On the carpet with her foot (which had started bleeding again) stuck out, Nadia spreads the papers all around as if they, in sight of one another, will make a chorus of answers. She texts Andrew: Call me. To Jenn: Dad’s stuff is a mess. No instructions or passwords. Nothing. PJ is doing well!
A read receipt accompanied with blinking ellipses. Then, from Jenn: He talk?
      Not as of now
      No response. Just like when Nadia told Jenn she was bringing PJ up here. They were in the kitchen. Jenn eyed Nadia with that same look PJ gives, as if Nadia is see-through. It’s like their marriage is mild traffic; Jenn has nearly no opinion about it.
      A change of setting might be good, Nadia had explained. “What’s going to happen when he starts school?”
      “He’ll probably talk there,” Jenn said, picking at a pinky nail. “Just how he talked to the doctors.”
      Maybe Jenn was right. But what use is PJ talking to teachers if he doesn’t talk to his mothers?
In the morning, PJ is singing while playing in his room. Nadia is in the hall, her foot freshly re-bandaged, creeping toward the door. He smacks the die-cast Hot Wheels together—Clack, clack, clack—enhancing the drama of a particularly violent crash on his set with crisscrossing tracks. It’s almost as if he’s striking sparks with flint and steel. Clack. With PJ’s head tilted back, that made-up language spilling from his mouth, Nadia imagines he’s on a hunt—a five-year old boy alone in the woods, chanting to drown out slavering wolves. “Mazeeka patoo.” Clack, Clack. “Tobair budat ohde...” The image is almost believable.
      Sometimes, Nadia swears, English comes from PJ’s mouth. When that happens, she’ll replay the sound of his voice in her head, deciphering what he said, until her memory tangles. Jenn, on the other hand, never hears anything but the gibberish, as she calls it. “Shinola, what is he saying now?” she’ll say.
      Already three months like this.
      Nadia closes her eyes, truly hears, How could you fix this? You might as well chew all Momsa’s fingers off.
PJ goes silent as if he knows Nadia is listening. She returns to the kitchen, sits at the counter. Outside, past the deck, overgrown thimbleweed explodes with white flowers. The backyard pines slope down the mountain. The kitchen window looks like a pretty painting of North Carolina. 
      The day her father died, lightning singed Nadia’s front-yard oak and a crown popped from her mouth. There was no pain, no crack on hard food. Her tooth just shed like an animal done with its shell. It felt intended. When did she stop having ordinary experiences? Nadia remembers being normal, happy, then not. No gradual change, more like a switch flipped by someone in a dark room with a one-way mirror who wants her family to become entirely disparate. Nadia knows the change happened before PJ stopped speaking. She’s certain. Some silence settled over her and Jenn before it inhabited their son. The silence, itis tangible—like a thick smoke rising. The incredible weight of everything.
      Nadia limps back to PJ. His Hot Wheels are abandoned on the other side of the room. He’s cross-legged, facing the wall below a painting of a cowboy lassoing a bull.
      “PJ,” she says, peeking from above.
      He’s still singing. Wine gut and fingerless, nothing to love with anymore. And you? His palms are upturned to his face like he’s receiving Communion. He’s cupping a spider. The thing covers more than half his hand. At first Nadia thinks it’s a toy, but there’s hair, a thick leg probing. PJ holds the bug close to his mouth like he’s trying to sing in its ear. The spider climbs onto his cheek. Nadia swipes the thing from PJ’s forehead, inadvertently smacking him. Only now, only after she’s struck her son, has he stopped singing. He looks at Nadia then squirms to the bed, crawling under the hanging comforter in an attempt, Nadia thinks, to find the spider.
      “Stop it,” she says. “Don’t. Why would you?” She grabs PJ’s legs. He’s going all the way under the bed. She releases. What else is Nadia to do, drag her son by his ankles?
      The soles of his feet snake from sight.
      Nadia sits on the carpet with her knees to her chest not knowing what to do but knowing she must do something.
Like some dismissive government employee, Andrew, over the phone, says, “I told you yesterday morning I couldn’t make it. I don’t know why you went.”
      “You’re two hours away,” Nadia says.
      “You’re the executor.”
      “It needs to get done.”
      A sigh. “I can get there,” he says, “Tuesday.”
      It’s Saturday. Nadia could work from a hotspot, but she told Jenn they’d be back tomorrow. “I’ll keep you posted,” she says. Then, “Remember the Atlanta convention shooting?”
      “No,” Andrew says, sarcastically. “Which one?”
      “Did I tell you that the last conversation me and Dad had, all he did was ramble about it.”
      “Wish I could remember our last conversation.”
PJ is watching a Ghostbusters DVD dug out from between John Wayne movies and a 40th anniversary James Bond collection in the TV console.
      “How about we go down to the lake?” Nadia says.
      PJ looks over his shoulder, then to the window. Black clouds.
      “Movies it is,” Nadia says, plopping on the couch.

She wakes to PJ singing. Mom-Mom doesn’t love a thing and Momsa’s got no fingers. There’s a smell of rotting oranges and retched gastric juice. Nadia sits up. PJ isn’t in the room. But at the foot of the bed, in the gray-black midnight, she sees Jenn, naked, dripping with purple wine. Jenn’s matted hair just covers the vertebrae at the top of her back. She’s pressing a blue, umbilical-corded baby to her breast with fingerless hands.
      Nadia flips on the light. She’s alone. There’s no singing. But she’s convinced the blankets are soaked and pats them until proving they’re simply cold. Sometimes she gets delirious like this, haunted by those things her father shared, by life.
      Nadia gently massages her bandaged foot, puts her sock back on, and leaves the bedroom.
      Rain is pelting the house sideways. The windowsill in the kitchen drips. In the hallway, water beads from the center of the ceiling stain. Then it comes through, a thin stream like a sword. Nadia positions a Tupperware bin from the closet underneath and pads towels around.
      PJ sleeps soundly.

In the morning, Nadia changes her bandage and inspects the house. Black mold polkadots the attic walls. The wood beams are gnarly and braced with rusty brackets. She can’t keep her son here.
      In the half-finished basement, beside a brown corduroy couch, a wobbly beer-stained pool table kisses a cinder-block wall. Nadia accesses a cobwebbed closet and withdraws her old rucksack with the digital camouflage print. Her father occasionally camped. A year after he bought the cabin, Nadia brought the rucksack full of Army gear, a token of her National Guard days, to store with the camping supplies here in the basement closet. She never did use any of it.
      Two side bags with canteens and gloves and wet-weather gear clip to the main rucksack compartment. Nadia empties the rucksack, releasing a sour bacterial tang. She stretches out a couple ponchos. One has that same digital camo, the other an even older woodland print. The sleeping bag is good. She takes the bivvy cover and ponchos to the washing machine, then checks her father’s tent.

PJ won’t get out of bed for breakfast. He’s like a dead body. Nadia cradles him then stands him in the bathroom. He gets like this. Nadia gets scared someone could come into their house and take PJ without him making a sound. He’d be like some useless Golden Retriever—wagging his tail at a burglar.
      When he’s at the table with a fork in hand, PJ settles a blank gaze away from his plate of eggs.
      “Not hungry?”
      He shakes his head like he’s trying to fling crud from his ears. A small bruise sits above his brow like a third eye.
      “We’re going camping.”
      With the gear in the trunk, PJ in his booster, and a text to Andrew sent (you better be here Tuesday, we’ve got to sell the place before it collapses), Nadia drives down the mountain.
      The night before Nadia left with PJ, Jenn drunkenly said PJ wouldn’t start talking by being dragged to North Carolina. So far, Jenn is right. But Nadia isn’t ready to throw in the towel. And she feels good getting PJ out of that cabin, away from the rot, the spiders, the diseased deer. Some true healthy outdoors will be good for him.
      Cruise-controlling again, Nadia crosses a two-lane bridge over a tendril of the Hiwassee River into downtown Murphy. “Look at the town, bud,” she says, gesturing to a strip of brick buildings before a big columned courthouse with a domed clock tower. Murphy is a podunk Appalachian Valley town that started as a trading post who-knows-when. They funneled Cherokee here through a blockhouse onto the Trail of Tears. Now, the town sports a guiltless Cherokee branding obsession: Cherokee Guns, Cherokee Package, Medicine Man Craft Chop, and on and on. Surrounding the town are just dulled mountains and a Walmart. It seems the whole populace lives there, at the Walmart.
      They hit a McDonald’s within sight of another thin river, the Valley River, to the north. Inside, the people are thickset, yet wilted, in a way. Anyone thin is razor-featured, almost drug-induced skinny. The feeling Nadia gets is that they have some dormant viciousness, like an ant hill ready to eat up a boot print. She’d be worried about queer appearances if Jenn was here. It’s more than the red-country obesity, camouflage, blue jeans, and beards. The people seem traumatized from lack of opportunity, like they cower at night from something that crawls out of the hills. You can’t help but wonder where the country is headed.
      Nadia orders at the self-serve kiosk. An old man wearing a tucked-in polo and dirty boots pats PJ’s head. Nadia pulls PJ to her side and drags him toward the soda machine. Deer, spiders, now a man going for her boy. She should’ve used the drive-through.

They pull into a place called Hartford’s Campsite. Nadia pays eleven dollars for a primitive site of her choosing and parks in an empty lot overlooking a riverwalk. To eat with a nice view, they walk toward picnic tables facing the lake — still, greenish brown water of the Valley River. Nadia favors the heel of her bum foot on the shifting gravel. Before they sit, PJ points at a yellow sign: Please Enjoy Trail At Your Own Risk.
      “Want to eat first?” Nadia asks.
      PJ eyes her before starting toward the trail. Nadia follows, the sweet-almondy smell of warm fries in a greasy paper bag watering her mouth.
      The dirt path curls into a woodline of poplar and pine. Nadia hobbles to PJ’s side. The clay ridge bordering the trail morphs into a wall of smooth granite with little yellow flowers peeking from depressions of mossy sediment. The trail becomes a bridge of worn planks creaking underfoot. The water is beneath them.
      The whole walk, maybe ten minutes, PJ doesn’t look up at Nadia or at the river or the granite. Was he this brash before he stopped speaking? All Nadia remembers is an ordinary and healthy boy. He had a curious determination, but not like this.“Are you wondering where we’re going?” she asks.
      PJ’s marching slightly in front.
      “We have lunch.” Nadia shakes the McDonald’s bag.
      Ahead, there’s a rusty strut-webbed railroad bridge. To the right, in a clearing just above the red clay riverbank, is a big plaque beside a bench. PJ stops at the plaque.
      “Want to know what it says?” Nadia asks, stretching her ankle.
      PJ gives a look that says, I can read it myself.
      Nadia reads, “Here where the Valley River converges with the Hiwassee River, look carefully into the water to see a rock ledge just beneath the surface. Used by the Cherokee as a footbridge, it was there the legendary Great Leech of Tlanusi'yï was said to be.” She stops reading to look at the river. “You see the bridge? The rock?” she asks, pointing at the ledge—a ford of pigeon-colored stone a foot or so beneath the surface.
      The plaque goes on to tell the story of two women (one a mother with her baby on her back) who, tired of fatty meat, insisted they fish from the bridge. The water was low, so the mother sat her baby on the rock ledge as she prepared her line. The water bubbled, and as the mother readied to cast, the water streamed over the ledge in a white column, taking the baby. The friend lunged for the child and was sucked in. When the mother gained her footing, she saw a great leech with red and white stripes squirming below, its jaws grinding. The bodies were found on the riverbank with noses and ears eaten off.
      Nadia thinks of her nightmare. Nausea burns her gut. Why is she so haunted by her father’s last conversation? PJ looks at her like a cat. She feigns a smile and yanks her ears, pretending to ensure they’re still there, then cups her nose. “My nose is missing!”
      PJ’s gaze settles at Nadia’s foot. “You’ve still got your nose,” he says.
      For a moment, Nadia thinks she imagined his voice. Or he’s just singing.
      “And,” he says, “your ears.
      His mouth forms the words. He’s talking. Christ, PJ is talking.
      “Yes,” Nadia says. “You’re right, I do.” She laughs. “And you’ve got yours.” She gently pinches his nose, tugs his left earlobe.
      PJ gives the slightest nod and walks closer to the water to eye the rock ledge.
      “Let’s eat,” Nadia says. “The food’s going to be ice.” She finds a bench and pats the wood slats.
      PJ climbs up. Nadia tears the McDonald’s bag down the center to make a plate, lays it between them, and pours the fries, which are cold. She drapes her arm around his shoulders and pulls him close so that their hips hug. PJ bites his burger, and Nadia imagines a Cherokee family happily crossing the rock ledge—three of them.

At the car, Nadia shoulders the rucksack with the tent strapped on top. PJ’s backpack has snacks and a couple changes of clothes. The trail to the campsites crawls up a smooth slope. Still, with her foot burning, the walk is tiring. PJ stays a little ahead the entire time, the same determined march. They walk for half an hour until Nadia calls it. From avoiding her bad foot for so long, there’s a feeling in her good leg, a hard nodule lodged just below her hamstring.
      “How’s this look?” she asks, flexing her foot in front of a campsite clearing.
      PJ looks over his shoulder. “I want to go higher,” he says.“Higher. I want to go higher.”
      “Okay, let’s go higher.” Nadia swings the rucksack back on. “Higher!” She presses her foot into the ground to test the pain.
      After another uphill mile, Nadia is breathing heavy. Her foot feels ready to burst. PJ seems unfazed. A campsite clearing is just ahead. Nadia tells him they must stop.
      “Higher,” PJ says.
      She laughs. “No. This will do.”
      He listens and sits on a dead log. Nadia lays out their supplies and sets up the tent beside an ashy fire pit.
      “We’re going to make a fire,” she says. “Want to help get wood?”
      PJ nods.
      A few feet into the woods, Nadia finds a couple twigs and shows them to PJ, explaining she wants him to gather a handful just like this for kindling. “If there are dry leaves, that’s even better,” she says. “But we don’t need anything wet.”
      Among moldy windfall, she finds a few dry-enough branches. She inspects the wood for insects and PJ wanders deeper into the forest. She follows with a log held like a club. PJ disappears behind a shrub.
      “Not too far,” she says. Leaves crunch underfoot. “PJ.” Where is he? “PJ!”
      Back in sight, PJ is crouching. He straightens, faces Nadia with something held. A log? No, he’s dug some hive out of the ground. He presents a shard of comb with both hands. White larvae peek from the cells. Bees or wasps or hornets orbit him.
      Nadia swats the hive out of his hand. Bullets in her hand, her neck. She lifts PJ and sprints to the tent. His face is already red and puffy. He looks like he’s been bludgeoned. She rips off his shirt and empties a bottle of water on him and sweeps his torso with her hands. There are no bugs on him, but his face. His face is inflating. Has he been stung before? Only ant bites. No serious allergy then. He’s so young. She has no clue what hurts him.
      Everything. Everything can hurt a child.
      His lips are sausages. His right eye closes. But the way he looks at Nadia, it’s like he hasn’t been stung at all. He begins to sing, “Mazeeka Mazoo…”
      Nadia tells him he needs to get on her back, but he just gargles lyrics. She crouches and forcibly drapes him over her shoulders fireman-style and rushes down the trail full speed. The pain in her knee and foot is nothing but a remembered tingle. Her lungs are fire. PJ’s head hangs over her shoulder. Spit bubbles between his lips.
      Nadia tumbles on that mangled foot of hers. PJ hits the ground first. She hears a crack and lands with her elbow in his stomach. A burst of stars. She stands, gets over him and lifts but falls again. Her foot looks poorly attached. A maggot of bone slides out her ankle. She tries to stand but collapses. PJ is on his back. He’s humming now, unable to move his mouth. Red ballooned flesh buries his nose.
      Nadia clutches her shoe and angles her toes correctly, but her foot plops goofy. She wraps her shirt around her ankle and pulls. She can’t get the foot right. The bones grind. She screams.
      PJ’s standing now. His open eye has that look.
      Nadia unwraps the shirt and tries again, this time tighter. When she stands, PJ has left her. She hops one-footed in his wake. He’s stepping off the path, entering the woods. She topples. She can crawl quicker than she can hobble, but PJ is too fast.

Nadia’s scream is all throat. Her fingers are black from dirt or blood. Her knees are skinless and numb. How far has she dragged her son? She releases PJ’s collar with her right hand—just opening hurts—and readjusts to secure him with her left. Why is no one around? She slips, thuds her face into a path-worn stone. For the moment, Nadia can’t raise herself. She hears her father’s voice telling that fucking story. Of the man on all fours, just like her. The man on all fours under the stainless-steel sink of the Galleria’s lobby bar.
      A dripping soda gun roped above him. His hands planted in a pool of broken glass and sticky alcohol. Gunk filled the honeycombs of the anti-fatigue mat. Bits of maraschino cherry, lime peel, toothpick pieces. A pregnant woman pressed so close to the man that her perfume, which reminded him of his grandmother, nearly masked the gun’s sulfur. The woman’s belly was so big. The man believed the baby was kicking his back.
      Over the bartop was a dead girl and one purple heel and a nightmare of overturned chairs and abandoned luggage and more dead by the elevators and outside the sliding double doors to the parking garage. He’d seen the bullet pass through the girl’s throat out the back of her neck leaving flappy flesh like the peeling skin of a boiled tomato. That’s exactly how the man described it to Nadia’s father.
      The gun shots were finally away, maybe coming from the hotel’s restaurant, but the man’s ears still rang, and the pregnant woman cupped his face, pushing him farther down.
      He heard a troop of footsteps (Nadia’s father among them).
      We’re here,” he shouted. “We’re here. Come get us.”
“Here,” Nadia says.
      Her voice is so hoarse. Barely a voice at all.
      “Here. Someone. Please. My son.”  

   © Tom Sokolowski 2024


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