Asphalt. Pumpernickel. Iron

Fiction by Andrew Siegrist

The boy’s hands smelled like asphalt and the girl held them tight like she was afraid if the world kept spinning she’d lose her balance.

He’d hung their shoes from a trestle bridge and left them dangling above the water. They both walked slow in the dew-wet grass beside a road neither of them had ever been on before.

The boy took coins and acorn caps from his pockets and flicked them into the ditch, because you can’t take nothing for the journey, he’d said. When he wasn’t looking, the girl picked up a mercury dime and closed it tight in her fist.

She didn’t know his name. He had green eyes the color a memory she couldn’t place, and blonde hair cut short and uneven, like he’d done it himself in a room without mirrors. He spoke slow and smiled shy when he looked at her. She worried if he knew anything about her at all that the smile would turn. That brightness in his eyes would dull and he’d see her the same way everyone else did.

So when he asked questions, she lied. Told him her skin was dark from Indian blood.

Told him when she was in high school she ran away from home and lived with her grandmother on a reservation in the mountains of North Carolina. Said she could braid bird feathers into patterns that would show the future, and that her grandmother gave her nicknames like Smooth Stone, Little Mouse and Bone.

They ate breakfast in a diner before the sun came up. She had the word of the Lord tattooed across the back of her neck, and the boy traced each letter with his pinky finger and swore her skin was warmer there somehow. The girl scooted close to him and rested her head against his chest so she could feel the vibrations of his voice.

Tell me one true thing, she said. One thing you never told anyone, so it’ll be just me and you that know it.

The boy’s first pet was an imaginary friend named Pumpernickel. Pumpernickel was a sheep dog, had eyes two different colors, and would bark out small sentences the boy could understand when he was alone.

Pumpernickel was hit by a car on the boy’s fifth birthday and was buried in the shade of a hemlock tree.

Never told anyone that? she said. Promise, he said.

Cross your heart, she said. Hope to die.

He kissed her on the top of her head. It was summer and in summer her hair always smelled like rain. She put her head in his lap and stretched her legs across the vinyl booth. There was a scar running up her ankle and he asked for the story.

The truth? she said.

And he waited.

She’d been pregnant the first time she saw lightning and snow at the same time. Her dad called it Coldthunder and she walked out into it and listened to so much quiet be broken by the crack of strange electric blue light. The snow was thick on the ground and she climbed a tree to the high branches to see above it all. Didn’t realize her hands had gone numb until she tried to climb down and lost her grip. Her dad laid her in the back of the car and drove to the hospital with her crooked leg raised on a stack of pillows. And that’s where they learned about the baby. The doctors said if it had survived, she wouldn’t have started showing for a couple weeks. Her dad said it was for the best, that she was only a child herself. On the drive home the lightning had stopped and all around was a covering of white beneath dark sky.

The boy wasn’t smiling, but that brightness was still in his eyes and, for a moment, the girl let herself believe he’d never looked at anyone like that before.

Does it still hurt? the boy said.

She covered the scar on her ankle with a napkin.

When bone breaks, she said, it grows stronger where it heals. Strong as iron. The check came. She unfastened her necklace and laid it on the table.

He followed her outside and across the street to the bus station. He didn’t ask where she was going.

She stepped into the bus, squeezed down the aisle and into a seat by the window. He stood outside and tossed parking lot gravel at the bus until she looked at him. Your name, he said. Your name.

When she spoke, her breath fogged the glass and he couldn’t read her lips. She waited until the bus was far away. She traced her name through the cloud her breath had left against the window. A child stood on the seat in front of her and rested his chin on the seatback. She felt in her pocket for the mercury dime she’d saved that morning, the only thing she’d brought with her. She handed the child the coin. The child put it in his mouth and raised a finger to his lips. She smiled and wiped the cloud of fog from the window. Nothing for the journey. Not even her own name.

Years later, when the boy dreamed, she’d be there walking the dewy grass or sitting in a diner with her head against his chest. He would call her Smooth Stone or Little Mouse, and she would scatter bird feathers on the table, arranging them so that the future was something they didn’t have to fear. And when he was awake, he’d watch for her, imagining her in front of him in line at the checkout counter in a grocery store somewhere. Or moving outside his kitchen window tapping the glass, as if meeting that way was something they had planned. Her hair would be longer, but still the smell of rain. And he would know to call her Bone. Bone, broken then healed. Bone so much stronger than iron.

Andrew Siegrist is a graduate of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. His work has been named an honorable mention for the 2017 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition, and has appeared in The Greensboro Review, Fiction Southeast, Bat City Review, Pembroke Magazine, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. He lives on the Cumberland River outside of Nashville, Tennessee.