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Mostly Sunny (with a Slight Chance of Rain) by Chelsea Catherine

Chelsea Catherine has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Tampa and a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, where she graduated summa cum laude. Currently she serves as the secretary for the Key West Writer’s Guild and lives in Sugarloaf Key, Florida.

Editor's Choice (Anna), 2016 Raymond Carver Contest

 

Everyone thinks my thirteen-year-old sister can predict the weather. But she’s told me, hours after standing in the wheat fields with arms outstretched, face tilted to the sky, that she has no idea what she’s doing. She just likes the routine of it and happens to predict right most times.

Local reporters flock to her weather readings. They wear colorful dress shirts that appear out of place in the sea of gold and brown, ready to trek acres deep into the Nebraska crop farms, cameras and notepads at the ready. Hallie’s been in the news a dozen times in the six months since she started predicting.

So far, all the days she forecasted rain, it came.

Recently I drove her all the way out to the soybean farm outside of Central City and predicted a massive storm cell would appear on Sunday in the afternoon, even though no weather stations reported precipitation.

The storm came closer to the evening but the crops got decently watered and that’s all anyone really talks about.

.  .  .

When Hallie gets home from school, I always have a plate of cornbread waiting for her. Bread products are some of the only things she’ll eat after three p.m. and many of the baked goods I give her are made from the wheat her predictions have saved from drought.

“The teachers at school are talking about the soybean farm,” she says. “Do you think Ms. Greene’ll give me a pass on that final paper? I hate to hell to read Shakespeare.”

I light a cigarette. The sliding glass doors leading to the backyard are open and my smoke dances out with the breeze. I scattered our mother’s ashes out there, under a Japanese magnolia tree. It’s the only one for miles — here all that breaks the stretch of vast, golden land are the cornstalks and dry wheat reeds. “Maybe you should do your paper just like everybody else in the class.”

She sips her milk. A cornbread crumb lingers in the corner of her mouth, so I lean forward to wipe it away. She wrinkles her nose and swats my hand to the side, discharging the errant crumb herself. “Reese Clanahan said he’d love to date a girl who knows the weather.”

Reese is the smartest boy in the eighth grade, also very good-looking. His mother works where I bank and whenever I go to cash my paychecks, she tells me the grade he received on his most recent science exam. “He said that?”

She swallows. “Yup.”

“If he tries anything, tell him you’re gonna kick him right in that piddly sack between his legs.”

Hallie laughs and milk mist plumes in the air. Her laugh is light, not at all like mine. Her auburn hair is just long enough to put in a ponytail and she still sometimes allows me to put ribbons in it. Her arms and legs are long and lean like the rest of her body, speckled with tannish freckles.

I remember what it was like being her age. I traveled back and forth to Lincoln to compete in spelling bees. In the eighth grade, I won nationals. My face was plastered across the state newspapers every year for a while. Then I moved away to college in California, and when I came back, no one called. No one wanted to interview me anymore.

Now, sometimes for fun, Hallie will look up a word in the dictionary in my home office where I work as a graphic designer, and ask me how it’s spelled.

I always get it right.

.  .  .

Nebraska is flat. From a low-flying plane, it looks like a land of polka dots, green and golden farm crops spinning concentric circles, one after another for miles. In the early summers, the weather lingers in the eighties with winds that run screaming over the unbroken land and clouds that appear like tornado funnels, hanging suspended, gray and feathered.

Most of us don’t rely on the weather reports. They’re not always right and they never predict rain, hardly ever, which is why I think so many people are now turning to Hallie.

For my sister’s reading today, I’m left waiting next to a farm shed. The sound of crickets hissing mingles with the smell of smoke and starch. A persistent wind nips at the back of my neck as I watch Hallie slip amongst the yellowing potato buds. We are twenty miles south of our house, in a potato and corn farm in the southeastern corner of the state near Lincoln.

Hallie lifts her hands in the air, palms up. She tilts her head to the sky. Normally the “rain goddesses” refuse to speak to her this close to a barn or other human establishment. But she had an upset stomach last night and was particularly grouchy on the car ride over. The ghosts of her fitful sleep show themselves in the darkened skin below her eyes.

I stand on the perimeter, watching. A young male journalist, one of two that’s shown up today, stands next to me. He smells of tart city stink, of young professionals. His body is narrow and angular, coiled tight with trim muscle. He’s taller than me but only by an inch or two and instinctually I stand taller.

“You’re her aunt?” he asks.

I lick my lips. “Older sister.”

“Your name?”

I turn away from where Hallie is conversing with the farmer. Her voice has that soft, steady lilt she only uses during predictions. In truth, that is Hallie’s real talent — making herself open to people so they feel like they know her, so they trust her. She is blessed in that way like I never was.

“Samara,” I tell the reporter. “You?”

He wipes his hand on his jeans and offers it to me. I ignore it. He is cute in a slicked, sleazy way, and I like the way he’s looking at me. Most of the reporters skip over me. “Wyatt,” he says. “Weren’t you a national spelling bee champ a while back?”

“Fifteen years ago.”

“You’re in the hall of fame at the news station down in Grand Isle.”

“I’m aware.”

He smiles in a practiced, charismatic way that makes me think he went to a state school. He was probably in a fraternity and had a tally on his wall of girls he fucked. “So what the hell are you still doing here in Nebraska?”

The wind skitters. Around us, Hallie’s voice and the brush of the tall stalk resounds. “What the hell do you think I’m doing out here?”

After regionals, I went to nationals, and two years later, Hallie was born. I was sixteen then. By all natural rights, I should’ve been an only child. That’s about the same time the media stopped fooling with me. They didn’t care that I graduated early from Berkeley or studied for six months in Russia.

“Oh,” he says.

I light a cigarette, blow the smoke to the side. “Yeah.”

The farmer screeches at me to put out the cigarette so I turn away from him. Breathe in deep. Embers glow, then wane. I watch Wyatt’s face, the way the clouds cast shadows across his smooth skin. His eyes have that predatory look of an early careerists.

After a while, he says, “So your sister’s great and everything, but I’m wondering if maybe I could get your number?”

.  .  .

Hallie predicts rain on a Tuesday evening, even though the weather station forecasts solid sun that day, with highs near eighty-seven. Still, when Tuesday rolls around, the crops receive a hearty dusting of misted summer rain. Two articles appear in the state newspaper, one on page nine and another on page sixteen.

.  .  .

A week later, I pick Hallie up late from school because I was busy fucking Wyatt in his office in Grand Island. When I pull up to the curb, I see the ribbon I put in her hair is gone and she’s sitting on the steps of the middle school next to Reese Clanahan. They’re leaning into each other, knees propped up on the brick steps. Reese gazes at her with a ferocity that churns my stomach. He is a boxy looking boy. The kind that will grow into a thickset farm boy or maybe a state school footballer.

I honk.

When she gets in the car, I smell a powdery makeup scent. She waves at Reese after buckling.

“So help me God,” I tell her, “if you’re screwing around with that boy, I will kick your ass to Sunday.”

“I was just talking to him, Sammy.” She rolls down the window and throws her gum to the side of the road as we take off. Dust scented wind filters in. It rustles her loose hair. “Why don’t you like him? Everyone likes him. He’s smart.”

“Smart boys,” I tell her, “they’re dangerous.”

I can feel her stare more than see it — the way she tilts her body, angling toward me. She glances over my bare legs, my skirt, my top. “Ew,” she finally says. She reaches over and buttons the top two buttons on my blouse. “Nobody wants to see your boobies.”

.  .  .

“I want to interview you and Hallie,” Wyatt says. It’s the middle of the day and he’s standing in my kitchen, leaning against the wall. He wears a crisp white dress shirt that’s tucked into a pair of svelte slacks with cuffs that hover over polished loafers.

My bare feet feel sticky against the tile. I have the fan on but no air conditioner in this room. The electricity bills are too much. A small one puffs intermittently in Hallie’s room and another, much smaller, in my own.

“I have nothing to do with what Hallie does.”

“You take care of her, don’t you? It would be more about your lives, really. About your mom and all that.”

A prickle of tension nips at my neck. I twist, roll my shoulders and press the spatula harder into the bacon strips I’m frying. Grease sizzles beneath me. The smell inundates the air in the kitchen. “Fine,” I tell him. “Don’t ask me about it, though. Her experience with Mom was different from mine.”

“You think you’ll sway her answers?”

I shrug.

“So she looks up to you, then?”

The bacon is cooked a light brown. I haven’t made it in years because Hallie dislikes the consistency. I fork a strip and bring it to my lips, steaming hot. “Not really,” I say. “Sometimes she doesn’t like me much at all. But she does look to me for social cues.”

Wyatt grabs a plate from the table and holds it out. “What about you?”

“What do you mean?”

He grins. I give him three pieces of bacon, lining them up along the yellow plaster of the plate next to the mess of scrambled eggs I’ve assembled, doused in paprika. We have only four nice plaster plates like this. Two for me and two for Hallie. It’s been just us for so long now, almost ten years.

Wyatt sits and a piece of his hair curls at the base of his neck. His face still looks very young in some ways, even though he is already two years out of college. He told me that he went to Omaha, a populated party school. There he was only in the top twenty percent of his journalism class. He said he had trouble landing a job in the city after graduation, so he moved out here.

“What’s it like for you raising a teenager?”

I turn off the stove. The bacon burns my tongue and I set the mangled piece on a separate plate to the side, my hunger quelled. The pan looks like pavement smeared by ejected oil. I sit down next to Wyatt and he puts his hand on my thigh, his thumb rubbing circles.

When I was near Hallie’s age, I was on top of the world. National champ, only child, semi-famous status. I got good grades in school and was geared up for all the big scholarships in the east: Yale, Princeton, Harvard. But the media didn’t like me as much as they like Hallie. People said I was cold, mean-looking. Difficult to read.

I was a national champion, I wrote in my admissions essay for Princeton. Five years ago.

“Hmm?” Wyatt asks, mouth full. I look up, catch his gaze. He chews twice and then swallows and his Adam’s apple bobs robotically. “On a good day, how much do you feel like tearing your hair out?”

I think of saying something about how the difficult years are likely ahead of us, about how that’s what it was like with me and Mom. But it wouldn’t be true. My relationship with Mom was always bad.

Maybe Hallie’s good luck will push her into a scholarship somewhere in the East, into a big business job somewhere, or maybe as a forecaster for some channel in New York. She’ll major in something important — maybe political science or engineering. Do something that matters. Unlike me.

My throat tightens. I swallow a few times.

“Raising Hallie has been my sincerest pleasure.”

.  .  .

School ends and Hallie starts camp down the road at a circus-themed summer program. She swings over a giant net in the Nebraska fields, her trapeze secured by thick white rope attached to a rickety set of metal spires. Back taut, lean legs flailing, she whirls through the air with her flat feet jutting into the precipice of the sky.

Hallie is not very good at trapezing, but she likes the camp and insists on going.

On a Monday evening after she’s finished camp and I've finalized a project, two reporters from Texas come up to visit us. The temperatures are close to ninety degrees, even though the sun is almost down, and I have little patience to deal with their questions.

“Do you ever feel excluded at school?” one of the reporters asks. He is an older man who smells lightly of cat litter. “Do you ever feel like the kids are making fun of you?”

Hallie grins. She has a soft, reassuring grin, so much different from my own. Mom used to say that when I grinned, it was like I was tasting the air, opening my mouth just wide enough to devour whoever was in front of me. “Nobody ever makes fun,” Hallie tells the reporter. “It’s a talent. People are nice to me for it.”

.  .  .

Hallie’s presence is requested at a berry farm in the north corner of the state near the end of July. It is the farthest we’ve ever driven for a prediction. We speed through grasslands that burn red, a dense smattering of forest pines dwarfed by rounded, bouldered hills that appear like giant molehills.

Via speakerphone, Wyatt tells Hallie, “Don’t be scared, but there’s been some dragon sightings up there.”

Hallie rolls her eyes. “There’s no dragons up here, Wyatt.”

“How can you know for sure?” he asks. I can hear his grin through the phone, the same one he used last week to cajole her into eating green beans with dinner. Wyatt consistently surprises me. “You’ve never been up there before, have you?”

The berry farm is tidy and flat. The rows run as far as the eye can see, flat pockets of dirt between the greening leaves. It smells of dust and dirt. It is much cooler here and when we step forward into the greens, a mass of grasshoppers leaps into the air around us. Their wings hum, hardened shells shaving our backs, our elbows.

“We haven’t had rain in about two weeks,” says the farmer. Her long black hair strikes at her chest in the strong wind.

Numerous reporters are here for this prediction. Some of them are dressed in jeans and cowboy boots with dirt stained shirts and pens in hand; others wear pressed pants and loafers like Wyatt. One woman has a voice recorder and speaks into it sporadically, her lipsticked mouth moving slowly, like she’s practicing an oration.

After walking the rows for close to half an hour, Hallie tells her, “You’ll have rain. Tomorrow. Just wait and see.”

.  .  .

Because of the length of the drive, we hunker down that evening in a rental cabin near the South Dakota border. Up here, hills jut into the expanse of flatness and ravines gorge land colored like burned skin, flecked scarlet and mustard yellow. The cabin deck stares out over a ravine like this, and we watch the sun slowly dim into darkness.

A day passes but the rain doesn’t.

By the afternoon of the following day, it still doesn’t show. Hallie gets jittery like I’ve never seen her. She eats all the marshmallows in the bag we brought for making s’mores, then throws up in the bathroom. She sits outside on the porch of the cabin and looks out into the endless expanse of green and gold.

When I sit down beside her, she smells of sickly sweetness.

“It’s okay,” I say. “Be patient.”

“I was already wrong.”

She kicks at the dirt in front of us. Sweat clings to her hairline; wisps of auburn plaster her damp skin. I brush them out of her face and she leans into me. Her body feels overheated. I try to think of something comforting to say, but a small part of me feels, in some weird way, relieved.

.  .  .

“Maybe she lost the talent,” Wyatt says. “Or the timing was off or something.”

It is August and we lie on my bed while I take a break from work. Cigarette smoke hangs low in the room. I have the air conditioning on and cool wind pours in, swirling the smoke cloud and drying the slick sweat on my skin into a paste. Wyatt plays with the necklace that hangs between my breasts. His hands are cool, despite the heat of the day.

“Statistics,” I tell him. “She was bound to start getting some wrong.”

His eyes are an opaque blue. When I look into them, it’s hard to focus. In Hallie’s eyes there are fragments of orange, green. She appears fractured while Wyatt is frighteningly solid. “What do you mean?” he asks.

I look away. “Nothing. Let’s not talk about it.”

The berry farmer was upset with Hallie. “You promised,” she said, as if Hallie were a vender delivering goods. The farmer and reporters were so pesky about it that I took Hallie to the Badlands for a while to wait out all the fuss. There we camped in a cabin built by the conservation corps in the forties. We watched the sun rise over the pocketed land, the spotted leopard looking hills.

“What the hell do I do?” Hallie asked me. “I like pretending to predict the weather.”

“It was one mistake,” I told her, all the while remembering how one mistake could’ve led me to the end of my spelling championship. But it didn’t because I never made mistakes, not back then at least. “They’ll be back for more.”

Light branched over tawny colored soil, canyons that ran vast and dark and deep.

.  .  .

After two weeks, I get Hallie to do another prediction, this time at a farm nearby that grows corn and wheat. We only have to drive twenty minutes. The sun is at its peak in the sky. I wear sunglasses with the air conditioning on blast and Hallie sits huddled in the front seat, one of Reese’s lacrosse sweaters slouching over her small shoulders.

“Here,” I say, and hand her a candy cane stick. “Mom used to give me these before I’d spell. It’ll help your stomach.”

Hallie stares. Gently she takes it from my hand. The wrapping crinkles as she pulls the plastic off and sticks the corner of it in her mouth. Red mixes with white in a messy swirl. “Sammy, do you think it’s bad I can’t predict anymore?”

“Don’t worry about the press. They’re forgiving, especially in your case.”

Hallie says, “I wasn’t asking about the press.”

“What, then?”

She stares out the window and sighs dramatically. “I don’t know.”

The last six miles of the drive are on a dusty side road. Dirt plumes around the car as I push forward. On either side of us, gold fields percolate in the summer wind. Some of the cornstalks are brown looking, like they’re too dry, but it seems the ears have survived.

Once there, Hallie peruses the fields for close to an hour. Her loose hair flares out in the wind before she disappears into the stalks. I wonder if this is what it’ll be like when she graduates from high school. I’ll watch her walk to accept her diploma and then she’ll be gone, all quick like I won’t even know what happened.

Fifteen minutes later, she resurfaces near the southern edge of the farm. Her shoes are off. Dirt cakes her toes, the lines of her nails. Her hair has tangled in the strong wind.

“This Saturday,” she says. “In the morning.”

The words sound soothing, like a short hum, although I can see the difference between them and the way she spoke before her first wrong prediction. There is a subtle flare missing; something short but explosive. Hallie squints at the farmer through the sun, and he squints back. His skin is a ruddy red color and he smells like tractor gasoline. “This Saturday,” the farmer repeats. He looks at her and I can feel him begging her for reassurance.  

.  .  .

Saturday there is nothing but sun. Hallie wakes up in the morning and prepares her own snack. I find her sitting at the table in the kitchen with a lump of cornbread resting on a paper plate, strawberry cream cheese smeared into it. She eats silently.

“Hey.”

She looks up, nods at me. “I fucked it up.”

I wander over to the table. Today is not as hot as the rest of the summer days. The fan feels just enough to keep me from sweating too much. “Don’t say fuck.”

“It’s over.”

“It’s not over until you want it to be.”

She shakes her head. “I was thinking about trying something different at camp today. I suck at being a trapeze lady.”

I lean back on my feet and snatch a bit of cornbread off her plate. Her eyes meet mine in acknowledgement but she doesn’t appear mad, even though she should be. I’m the one who dragged her back to the farm. I’m the one that made her predict again when she shouldn’t have. “What about being a clown? You’ve got a good personality for that.”

“I can’t juggle.”

“So learn.”

She chews. Outside I can hear the wind tapping at the glass door. Beyond that, I think of the fields, and beyond that the wheat hills, the stone mountains.

“I couldn’t spell forever,” I tell her. “That’s why I studied graphic design. That’s why I got good at it.”

“But do you like it?”

I look at her. Sometimes it seems like we are the same person and other times I wonder how we are even related at all. After a while, I tell her, “It doesn’t matter if I like it. I’m a grown-up. People respect me now because I’m good at my job.”

Her eyes flutter up to mine, suddenly sad. “You think people will respect me for being a good clown?”

“I bet on it.”

She plasters a cartoon frown on her face and pokes my stomach, but her eyes maintain their cast. That slight sadness. “What about you?”

I get that warm feeling in my gut — the same feeling I got when she graduated from kindergarten and came running at me though the crowd of parents, flying into my arms like I was the only person for miles and miles. Nobody else in the world has ever looked at me like that. Not Mom, not the reporters, not the judges at the spelling competitions.

I turn away from her, reaching in the cabinets to make a pot of coffee.

“You’re my blood,” I say. “You know the answer to that.”

.  .  .

In the paper the following evening is a front page news article about Hallie. “Weather Predictions Fraud!” The article details my affinity for smoking, Hallie’s affinity for cursing. Our strange and sometimes “dysfunctional” relationship. How we don’t even pay remembrance on Mom’s death date anymore.

The author of the article is Wyatt Knox of Grand Island.

.  .  .

Over the next two weeks, Hallie begins practicing a clown routine. She does the makeup once first, then eases into the other stuff. The summer slowly ends. I can tell by the lean days. It’s only seven p.m. and already the sky etches dark along the horizon. Almost time to send Hallie back to classes. Her last year at the middle school.

“Do you think Wyatt is sad that we don’t answer any of his calls?”

Inside, leaning against the kitchen countertop, I touch Hallie’s shoulder. She flits away. A small collection of diamond shaped hives dot her chin and throat; this always happens when she thinks too much on something and gets upset. Right now the hives are an angry purple color and her cheeks are pale. They look dimpled with sweat.

I light a cigarette. My stomach churns. “Who cares if Wyatt’s sad? He’s a dingbat.”

To me, the words sound insincere, but Hallie seems to believes them. She’s like that with me — she embraces much of what I give her and pushes forward, even if what I give occasionally is halfhearted. Her face lightens, but the hives remain. She picks at a fingernail. Her hair is loose again today and I smell perfume on her — an old scent that I bought once and didn’t like. “Reese says he still likes me, even though I can’t predict anymore.”

I inhale deeply. The smoke does nothing to calm the animal inside my chest.

“Do you think he’d like me if he knew I could never really predict and I was just pretending all along?”

I set the cigarette down on the edge of the sink. Smoke curls upward, toward the open window. The heat has started to abate already; the air now hovers in the mid-eighties. I clasp my hands around her skinny wrists. Her flesh feels cool, her bones still childishly light. Was I like this at thirteen? No. I was heartier. My boobs had already grown in. I bought tampons at the convenience store and wore mascara on my upper eyelashes, seeking reactions from the teenaged boys who drove by my school after class.

“You weren’t pretending,” I tell her. “You’re special. You have a weather talent, but the time for it is over now.”

She tilts her head up to look at me. “Do you think I could have a talent as a clown too? Hell, I like that a lot, Sammy. Even if no one will see me but you.”

She blinks a couple times, her eyes a lovely broken blue. Then she exhales and, leaning into me, presses her forehead into my shoulder.

That’s the difference between us, I think. Mom was good to me, but she worked too much and spent a lot of nights in the bar. I’ve seen Hallie’s every prediction, her every last day of school. I know her eating habits. I know her allergies and sensitivities.

“You’ll be great,” I say. “Bet you a million bucks.”

.  .  .

The last few days at circus camp, I finish work early and head over to watch Hallie’s clown act. She’s fabulous at the funny faces, and from her trainer, I find out she learned how to juggle in one day. I watch her from a few feet away as she balances a bowling pin on her forehead, mouth open in dramatic fashion as she scrambles around to keep it balanced.

The last afternoon before school starts, she comes home and her cheeks are red with excitement. She has that shiny, sweaty look that she got sometimes while predicting.

“I really like it,” she says. “You were right. Finally.”

.  .  .

On the very last day of summer, the circus program puts on a show for the parents and friends of the participants. Apparently it has been advertised because the mayor shows up along with many of the teachers from the high school. I sit at the top of a row of movable bleachers. The heat has really died down and now I feel comfortable sitting in a cotton dress, my hair loose and clutching my shoulders.

Below me, the children perform acrobatic tricks and hover over tightropes, Hallie among them. Her face is sheathed white with dramatically flared and blackened eyebrows painted at the bottom edges of her forehead. Her lips are red, her eyes shaded purple, teeth bared wide. She is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.

“So she’s clowning now, huh?”

The voice makes me flinch. I force myself to stare ahead and ignore the feeling of pressure that edges into my chest. In my periphery, I can see his muscular lean frame. “She’s good,” I tell Wyatt. “Why don’t you do a story on that?”

“I miss you guys.”

“That’s nice.”

“Sammy, please. That was just for work.”

I turn to look at him finally. His hair sticks to his forehead, moist with sweat. He seems uncomfortable, like he is trying too hard to look good. I see my young self in him even though I’d prefer not to admit it.

His leg bumps mine. “We were good,” he says. “It was good.”

“I’ve had better.”

Below, Hallie mounts a unicycle and careens around on it, juggling three multicolored handkerchiefs. She tilts, twists, and rides into a white sheet that’s been hung as a backdrop. The audience roars. Wyatt claps. “Don’t take it so personal, okay?”

The others clap.

“Come get a drink with me for happy hour at Bronze Top tomorrow.”

They are clapping for Hallie, I realize. She bows deep, a curtsy that trembles the loose edges of the clown costume. She is effortless. Although she is still small and scrawny, there is a practiced grace to her movements. Something innate and steady that I have never possessed.

When she looks out into the audience, her eyes search for me. I raise my hand in the air and something tugs at my stomach. It’s like the feeling I got last week when I was drying the dishes and a glass slipped out from between my damp fingers. That moment of grasping.

“You go,” I tell Wyatt. “Make like a bee and find your next honey.”

Wyatt is silent for a moment before letting out a forced chuckle. He leans forward and kisses my cheek. “I’ll be there,” he says, standing. “If you change your mind…”

Hallie finally finds me and waves back, beaming.

I feel that tug again but tell myself at least it’s not Hallie sitting up here. She will never be the type of woman who associates with people like Wyatt and that counts for something.

.  .  .

The next day, Hallie runs off to Reese’s house for dinner. I don’t go to happy hour. The time for me to be messing around with boys like Wyatt has passed. I’m not that girl anymore. I’m not a speller; I’m not in the newspapers.

I’m just a kid raising another kid, and I’ve done a pretty damn good job.

Outside the heat springs sound, buzzing from the crickets and the summer cicadas. The sun has already reached its peak and now slides into the horizon. It bleeds yellow in a messy, misted circle.

I wonder if Reese Clanahan is the right boy for Hallie. She is certainly smarter than him, as much as his fat mother blabs about his grades, and she’s also slightly taller than him. I picture her looking down at him and smiling, but it’s more of a sneer.

No. That’s not something Hallie would do. That’s me. I’m the one who picks the wrong boys and worked a talent just to feel loved.

As the heat of the afternoon starts to dissipate, I head outside and sit down under Mom’s magnolia.

It’s funny, I don’t even remember the exact date of Mom’s death. I just remember it was winter, the year I graduated from college. I caught a plane out from California in December, landing near five p.m., and Lincoln was dark already. I drove to the sheriff’s house where Hallie had been staying, and when I knocked on the front door, the sky was pitch-black save for the faint light of the moon and some mist clouded stars. It seemed funny to me, seeing her for the first time since she was a toddler really, when I could barely make out the ridges in her face.

I lie down on the grass next to the magnolia tree and look off into the sky. It seems large, vast. I roll my head from side to side, mushing the dirt into my hair, and it is all that I can see. While Hallie is out with her boy, here I am. Just me. No people, no cars. Only Mom’s tree, the scatter of black soil and pebbles.

For a reason I cannot fathom, this both pleases and saddens me immensely.

I take out a cigarette and light it, watching the embers soak up the flame. “Pick a word, Mom,” I say. “A really difficult one. I bet I can still spell it if I try.”