Marylou Fusco's work has appeared in Rumble, The Best of Philadelphia Stories anthology and recently won So to Speak's fiction contest. She lives and teaches in Philadelphia where she is finishing her first novel.
You were the girl with the good head on her shoulders, the good sport, the good pal. You spent entire classes chewing the ends of your hair, tasting styling gel while recalling chorus practice, the quaver in your voice on that final high note.
Then during U.S. History, in the midst of Mr. Weller’s drone about Andrew Jackson, you looked out the window and watched Meredith Durmont dash through the south parking lot during a hailstorm. Meredith’s hair whipping against her face, the side of her neck. If you didn’t know any better, you would have said that Meredith was responsible for the atmospheric drafts that froze the droplets of water and turned them into hail. She blanked out the entire sky with the tilt of her head and announced her arrival (late! late again!) to first period.
Funny how certain images looped through your brain over and over. Meredith holding a flimsy blue folder over her head while hail the size of golf balls dented the upperclassmen’s cars. The rush of blood under Meredith’s skin that colored her cheeks and neck. Her book bag pulling down her blouse to reveal the polished rise of her shoulder.
But then the sun broke through the skim of gray clouds and the hail stopped all at once. No matter. The damage was already done.
The insurance people call these things Acts of God.
It was no act of God that caused the high school’s north annex to nearly burn down last spring. It was Meredith’s carelessness over a pot of marinara during cooking class that started a grease fire. The sauce bubbling then blazing with a keen heart of flames and basil. After everyone was evacuated from the building, Meredith sat on the curb with the cooking teacher and watched the tendrils of smoke escape from the windows. The teacher said something to Meredith who just shrugged and scratched her knee.
None of this was Meredith’s fault. Certain people, certain places attract disasters. Remember when you were eight years old? A small commercial plane got caught in a bad thunderstorm and had to make an emergency landing in the fields by the old Wagner’s dairy barn. The pilot was badly injured; the six or seven other people in the plane were dazed and scared but okay. Then the plane caught fire and one of the passengers, a young man, started pulling people from their seats and leading them outside. He went back inside the burning plane again and again to make sure everyone was out, and he carried the injured pilot to safety.
Your father said it was a low-pressure system that hovered over the town, bursts of freak air currents that attracted severe weather. He pulled out a yellowed map and pointed out the inactive fault line that cut through the center of town. There was your house right in the middle of a flood zone, a scooped out basin ripe for eventual disaster.
“What should we do?” you asked.
“Do? We can’t do anything,” he said. “We just have to be ready.”
So on weekends, after school, you began pulling on your hiking boots and staking out the town. You went through the woods and hills searching for high ground in case you got caught in a flash flood. When it rained, the creek in your backyard swelled and slid belly up towards the house. You tracked the rise of the water along the side of the shed. After the water receded, you crouched on your heels and examined the dirty marks the water left, each mark higher than the last time.
You were just a baby the last time your family had to be evacuated from your home. All you have are your mother’s reconstructed memories of frantically throwing formula and diapers into a bag and of the rescuers. The rescuers arriving in boats, jolly in their bright orange life jackets. Your mother said you screamed the whole time in the boat. You screamed all the way to safety.
Some girls dream of disaster and rescue. But you don’t want to be the girl who gets rescued. You want to be the brave one who does the rescuing, and it is the weight of another in your arms that you imagine.
Do you remember reading about fourteen-year-old Anne Kent? How she saved twenty children after they all got trapped in their one-room school house during a 1897 blizzard? On the second day, the teacher went to search for help and died of exposure. Anne had enough sense to stay put and kept the younger children calm. She entertained them by singing hymns and kept them alive for the next two days by helping them drink melted snow.
And remember sixteen-year-old Lucille Danek? In 1732, her family’s boat got caught in a storm and they were all shipwrecked on a tiny island off the coast of Mexico. You read how it was only Lucille who was rescued three-and-a-half years later. Her parents and brothers were all buried on the beach although Lucille never told anyone how or when they had died. She moved to London, got married, and gave birth to eight children. The children must have inherited their mother’s hardy genes and highly developed survival instincts because they all lived well into adulthood. Lucille outlived her husband by twenty years and died at the age of ninety-four.
The unpredictability of weather. That’s what captures and terrifies you. You wanted to go to college and study to be a meteorologist, a scientist, not some glossy TV weather girl. You excelled at Chemistry and Earth Science. Anything that required a lab coat and goggles. Anything that required you to sit tight and take notes. You wanted to be able to chart storms, hurricanes, blizzards and to predict their patterns and the damage they might bring. You wanted to be a sort of human early warning system. Stand on an observation deck, a mountain top, the edge of a volcanic crater and feel the worst of nature splitting your skin.
. . .
One morning at breakfast, your mother looked at you, blinked, looked away, and then looked back at you again. Your father peered at you over the rim of his glasses. “What’s that?” he said as if someone asked a question. The morning paper rustled in his hands. “You’re growing up.”
You poured yourself some more orange juice and remembered how you and your friend Tina had found his stack of old Playboys hidden in the basement last year.
“Gross,” Tina muttered as you flipped through the pages.
“Yeah, gross,” you said but that night when everyone was asleep, you snuck back down to the basement. There was a woman in an older March issue that you wanted to see again. She was shaved and powdered like the rest of them and she carried an umbrella and wore rubber boots.
You found her picture and touched your fingertips to your own lips before touching her red mouth. And you knew there was no way, no way to inhale her essence through paper and ink but in the dim basement with the dampness sinking through your fuzzy bedroom slippers, but you tried. You really tried. Then the page was all wrinkled and creased so you carefully tore it out of the magazine and brought it upstairs with you. You tucked that page, that picture under your pillow, and you tossed and sweated all that night from dreams where you dragged Miss March through thunderstorms and blizzards. Miss March was nothing in your arms. She was a wisp of bones and lace garters.
When you grew up, sometime in the middle of sophomore year, you turned out to be beautiful. No Miss March, but still, a goddamn fairy princess. At school, they still didn’t know what to make of you. The kids stared at you with eyes knocked loose from their heads and swung in a wide circle to avoid touching you, although sometimes you caught the boys leaning in close as if your transformation had left some scent in its wake.
The boys started to tease you more, not the mean teasing they saved for the fat girls. Not the teasing they reserved specifically for Meredith who almost got caught smoking pot under the bleachers in the auditorium. Meredith was reckless in the face of this danger, tripping on the beauty and intricacies of spider webs and dust motes. No, their teasing was a sunny, half-hearted teasing that felt like a gentle touching up and down your arms. In the hallways, they called out your name in soft tones and threw wadded paper at you during class.
“Hey,” you said. “Cut it out.”
The boys slouched in their seats. They smirked and punched each other on the shoulder.
“It wasn’t me, Christine!” Joe Nelson said and put on a fake pitiful face.
“Nelson, you waste!” Mark said and tried to snatch his baseball cap.
The popular girls started to notice the boys noticing you so they started to invite you to their parties. You made fun of the teachers and other students. You did Mr. Hansen at the blackboard with his phlegm-y voice and wildly gesturing hands. You mimicked Mrs. Cortez’s prissy manner and nervous habit of blinking all the time. The girls shrieked and laughed.
“God, Christine! We didn’t know you were this funny.”
They were a single beautiful unit that breathed and moved in golden light oblivious to the fault line shivering beneath their very feet. And still your chest expanded with tentative joy. You would’ve liked to have been that innocent, that unaware.
You went to the movies with the boys and shared greasy boxes of popcorn. Sometimes you went to late night diners where you cradled mugs of black coffee and talked about school. You tore open the sugar packets and made designs with the tiny, white crystals. The boys drove you home and you tracked the seasons through their windshields. Rain spitting against the glass, lace of snow, specks of insects. Nature was everywhere.
“I gotta go,” you always said and dashed across the lawn to your front door before they tried to kiss you. And inside, with your heart hammering in your chest, you had the distinct sense of disaster averted.
So it was hard to relax with the boys. You could relax a little bit with your classmate RJ. He had three sisters so there was something easy about him. Everyone liked him, not just the popular kids. He was clownish and left sticks of gum in your locker with silly notes. It was within this sweetness, this safety, that you allowed him touch you in his car. “Christine,” he whispered. His hands skimmed the outline of your body, the uncovered parts of you. He traced your neck, your earlobes, the insides of your forearms.
You allowed this touching because in a disaster, RJ would emerge as a natural leader. He would speak in quiet, reasonable tones and people would stop and listen. But RJ would also probably die. He would do something brave and selfless and die because he was too good, too stupid to think of saving himself.
. . .
You were at a party with RJ, his arms slung low around your waist. He was popping corn chips one by one into your mouth. “Hey,” someone said. “Let’s play spin the bottle.” A throwback because everyone has done everything so there was nothing left to do but go backwards now. Someone found an empty wine bottle and set it on the table. When it was your turn, the circle shivered and tightened. The boys leaned in closer. You closed your eyes and gave the bottle a good hard spin. When you opened your eyes, you saw that bottle was pointing right at Meredith Durmont who had slipped into the party almost unnoticed. Hoots and laughter. “Do it, do it,” someone shouted and the others joined in.
Meredith looked at you, smiled a little, and shrugged. What could you have done? Her lips were slightly chapped and you felt their roughness against your own freshly glossed ones. She smelled of laundry detergent and beer. After you pulled away, everyone laughed but you could still taste the salt from Meredith’s upper lip. She tasted secret and deep, like some unfathomable ocean.
You felt it in all those wrong places, a heat that struck outwards to your limbs, even to your toes. You felt the way you don’t feel at all when you are with RJ, in his car, in your empty house. And it would be nothing like it is with him, all tenderness pushed aside. Sometimes you wondered why you don’t, why you can’t feel anything unless you’ve conjured up the image of Miss March with her pout and knowing eyes and rubber boots. And that is nothing really, just a twitch, something to pull you through while you think, how much longer? How much longer? How much longer?
When you see Meredith again, it’s unexpected. You run into her one night while with RJ at Scoops, an ice-cream shop on Chestnut Street. Meredith is working behind the counter, an array of pastel colors and sugar cones running alongside her.
“Hey, guys,” she says and rubs her nose with the back of her hand. Meredith’s eyes hold no specific recognition or memory. Her green stare is dull and flat.
“Hey, Meredith,” RJ says but you can’t say anything, can’t do anything. She has her hair pulled back and wears dangly silver earrings.
You leave just as Meredith goes on break, and you look back over your shoulder when you cross the street. Meredith with her white apron thrown over her shoulder, slouching on a bench in front of the shop. She takes a drag from her cigarette and stares at the sky edged in red and orange. You want to tell her that the colors are just the result of pollution mixed with ozone. Nothing more, nothing less.
Meredith has no idea of the complexities in preparing for disasters. When you sneak downtown to watch her from across the street, you see exactly what you suspect: Meredith is a sweet slacker who takes too many smoke breaks and scoops out ice cream with a practiced but supremely bored hand. At closing time, she and her co-workers turn the music up loud and make a mess of mopping the floors.
Meredith does not know that the field behind the high school is the highest point in town. You’ve calculated and measured this. This is where both of you should head in case of disaster. She does not have your stockpile of provisions: bottled water, batteries, flashlights, waterproof matches, dehydrated meals. Carbohydrates like pasta are the best. They supply the necessary energy in case you need to drop everything and run.
You want a sinkhole to open up and swallow the high school, a mudslide to bury the upperclassmen’s cars. Just drop everything and run. Put a piece of cloth across your nose and mouth and climb over burning metal to make sure everyone gets out. You go into this danger again and again. Meredith is shivering in the Wagner’s field, while the two of you watch as the blaze of the airplane settles into ashes. You want the bond that survivors of disasters share, something that brands the skin and extends into forever.
“There, there,” you say and run a washcloth along Meredith’s forehead. “You’re burning up.” You hold a cup of melted snow to her lips. A taste like metal and iron. On the beach, you bury the dead in their sea-salt clothes and watch the stars. You name the constellations for Meredith and make up names for the ones you don’t know. Rescue is coming, you tell her. But later, after she is asleep, you think: Rescue us. Rescue us not. Rescue us. Rescue us not.
Meredith wasn’t the natural disaster you could study and chart but something else entirely. Ninety-eight point six degrees, low atmospheric pressure, and hail all around. Because Meredith was inevitable, wasn’t she? The natural disaster, the Act of God you’d been waiting for.