Junebug

From the kitchen window I can see two little girls lying in my yard like small sacks of brightly-dressed potatoes. My daughter June is walking among them, followed by another girl struggling with my wheelbarrow. June is draping one prone girl with a sheet, my good sheets, given to us by Daniel’s mother when we married, the ones June’s been told not to touch. The ones I don’t touch either.

“We’re playing ‘Black Plague,’” June explains to me when I go outside, as if it should be obvious. “Hailey has died, so I have to cover her with a sheet and then we put her in the wheelbarrow and dump her by the fence because we don’t have time to bury her before Madison dies. In the plague everyone died at the same time.”

Madison, still lying in her spot on the ground, blinks up at me like an owl. She and Hailey and Anna—pushing the wheelbarrow—have large black circles drawn all over their neck and arms, and I’m betting that is permanent magic marker, and I don’t know how to get it off and I should catch hell from their mothers.

“I didn’t know how to make real boils,” June says.

I should catch hell, but I won’t. Their mothers won’t say a word because it’s only been three months since Daniel died, and so they’ll look at their spotted, markered children and shake their heads. “Poor woman,” they’ll think. And they won’t say a word, not to me, but they’ll call each other. They’ll let their daughters play with Poor June, and when they come to pick them up they’ll ask how I’m doing but they only want me to say I’m holding up. And they’ll go back to their living husbands and thank God that it wasn’t them whose husband drove into a truck on a curvy road.

“Bless her heart, how awful for her, I thought I might take her a casserole,” they say. “How lucky we are,” they think. As if Dead Husband is catching.

Today it’s the Black Plague. Before that it was death by volcano. It’s that History Channel Daniel let her watch. We should have never gotten the satellite dish.

“Did you know about Herculaneum?” June asked. “It was beside Pompeii. Pompeii got covered by a volcano, and it’s in all the books, but Herculaneum was right next door and it had a thermal blast. That means the air was 900 degrees, and it hit the people, and it boils your brains and vaporizes your skin and you die in a second, because it’s so hot.” June is excited by this. “I would think that having your brain boiled would hurt, even for that tiny little second, and that if your skin would vaporize so would your eyeballs, probably, and that would hurt too. They say it would only take you less than a second to die, but surely you’d feel it, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you know? Even for that split-second? How hot is our oven?”

She waited a moment, and looked at me, and I could see that Daniel would have said, “That’s really cool,” or maybe even “Let’s go look at the oven and see,” and I had failed a test here. I was supposed to be excited, to join in the game, speculate on how long it takes to die, suggest we go to the Internet and look up more information together.

She wants to talk about horrible ways to die and I can see this is something psychological and that it’s about Daniel but I just cannot deal with it.

Lord only knows. Daniel let her read grownup books, watch all kinds of TV, and showed her stuff on the Internet. I tried to steer her toward cartoons and girly shows but it was two to one. Daniel and June in their own little world of science and history and God knows what. And now he’s gone and I’m left with her and all the weird stuff stored up in her brain and cached in our browser.

Daniel didn’t get beheaded, or die of a plague, or have his brains boiled by volcanic air. It was nothing exciting at all. He drove into a truck—twisty mountain roads, poor line of sight, so sad but so ordinary. He was probably thinking of something like whether our house is really riddled with miniscule parasites like the news said. He’d have been disappointed his own death was so boring.

He was always that way, wondering how the world worked, a tinkerer. “Airy-fairy,” my mother said, his head in the clouds, but she liked him even so. I brought him home from college and his favorite part of the visit was when I showed him how to tie a string to the leg of a junebug and watch it fly in circles over your head. You’ve got to tie the knot at the knee, if that’s what it is, just right or the leg will come off. It’ll come off eventually anyway, and the junebug will fly away free and its leg will grow back. That fascinated Daniel. “I wish we could regenerate like that,” he said. That’s how we named June.

I know that what June really wants to know is how does it feel to be hit by a truck? How long does it take to die afterwards? Did her dad lie in the road, looking at the sky and wondering who would come tell us? I won’t tell her that Daniel was lucky if he was killed instantly.

I only once saw June cry over Daniel. When I told her he was gone she threw the biggest fit you ever saw. She was a wild thing, clawing and screaming and calling me a liar. She cried herself to sleep, and then it was over. She never said another word about him. She just got obsessed with violent death.

So I’m trying to keep an eye on June. I told her the oven won’t go even halfway to 900 degrees, and that if I catch her near it I’ll show her what a slow and painful death is really like. And then I cried, because it reminded me of Daniel, and I could see in her face that it reminded her too, and I try to remember she’s a little girl who lost her daddy, not some stranger bound to blow us both up with an ill-advised experiment.

Yet. Today. Today we’re not blowing us both up. Today it’s plague and thermal blasts. I don’t know what tomorrow is. With June tomorrow might be tsunamis or Viking raids or waterboarding, for God’s sake Daniel let her watch CNN so who knows. I had better hide the garden hose.

I know what it will not be. It will not be pink dresses and Barbie dolls (unless they get beheaded, or boiled, or locked in a tower) or ponies or teddy bears or any of the little-girl stuff that I had, that I understand. When we found out she was coming that’s what I thought I was getting, a little me, and my mother and I decorated the baby’s room in pink paper and yellow ducks. Daniel laughed and said it clashed but he didn’t care, he was over the moon about her since the first time we went to the doctor and heard her heartbeat. “I wish we could record this and let her hear it later,” he said. Little did he know then but she’d have loved that. “Listen to the blood,” she’d have said.

I carried her in my belly for nine months and I gave up wine for her and I nursed her and I changed her diapers, but she still reached for Daniel first. I bought her first dolls but when she could choose she wanted a stuffed dinosaur. And then it couldn’t stay in the same toybox as her dolls because “dinosaurs and humans didn’t live at the same time, Mommy.”

It was summer when Daniel died and the grief felt strange, almost inappropriate in the season of heat and life and pool parties and barbecues. It seemed wrong to think about death and about sunscreen at the same time. Now it’s October and finally the grief feels more comfortable, like it fits better. Now everything’s dying, everyone’s mourning, I don’t stand out as much. It’s like I put on a heavy winter coat before everyone else and it took this long for it to be the right season for it.

Fall has always made me think of the past, of dead times. My childhood was the seventies, preserved forever in the amber of earth-toned Polaroids, in which everything had a brownish, warm-looking tint to it. Harvest Gold in the leaves and on our Fridgidaire, peeking out from behind my drawings stuck on with alphabet magnets.

Out in the present fall, Hailey has been disposed of, sitting quietly by the fence with my good sheet trailing into the onion grass, and Madison is in the wheelbarrow. June is pointing at something bossily. Perhaps she’s lecturing on how it really felt to die of the plague. Maybe the other girls aren’t suffering realistically enough.

I wish I could fly away like a junebug, I’d sacrifice a leg for it, for the freedom to not be here for a while, not be always all wrapped up in missing Daniel and worrying about June. Missing, worrying, missing, worrying, circling around my head like a bug on a string. I wish I could regenerate what’s missing.

I hear car engines and doors closing. The mothers are here to fetch their daughters. I’ll see their eyebrows fly up at sight of magic-marker boils, before they’re wrestled back down into a neutral expression. They’ll pack up their daughters and give me fake hugs and go, because they don’t know what to say to me. And June and I will stay here, looking at each other, strangers alone together.

Chelyen Davis formerly worked as a journalist for several Virginia newspapers. Her fiction work has previously appeared in Appalachian Heritage and in the Still: The Journal 2014 Fiction Writing Contest. Her essays on aspects of Appalachian culture have appeared in several media outlets. A native of southwest Virginia, she currently lives in Richmond.

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