by Krista Mann
Casey lay on the wet grass desperately trying to make herself as flat as possible. As thunder growled over her head, she knew lightning would come, and she imagined the electric pulse of it scratching at her bones, burning lines up her freckled white skin, tensing the small muscles in her calves and thighs and arms. Pain that would be worse than anything she had experienced in the ten years of her life.
She had never been struck by lightning, but she had seen it on the Discovery Channel. She heard survivors tell about the pulse that went through them; she saw the places that the lightning had entered and exited like bullets. And now, in a flat, wide, open soccer field she knew she could be next. She learned that in flat places the tallest things were struck, and on this field she was one of the tallest girls on her team.
But the referee blew his whistle; the game was canceled. Casey’s coach and parents picked up water bottles and the girls’ bags and ran for the parking lot a few hundred yards away. Casey didn’t move. Her head was tilted to the side, her cheek pressed against the crinkled blades of grass. Her mother called her name, unable for a moment to find her lying on the ground across the field. Angie Pepperfield, the team’s goalie, saw Casey and laughed.
“Freak, what’re you doing?” she yelled, half at Casey and half in the direction of the other girls. “Get up, you weirdo,” she yelled again. Casey didn’t move and didn’t answer. She quietly hoped that the lightning would get Angie, strike her down for her words, like in the Bible.
Angie was a regular problem. She taunted Casey when she found out that she still watched cartoons, made fun of her headbands, and even the way her mom dressed. She whispered a quick prayer to God, “Go ahead and get her if you don’t mind.” Then amended it a little, “But you know, don’t kill her or anything. Just shake her up.” Another wave of thunder barked across the sky. “Forget it, God, just don’t get me,” she mumbled.
And then, suddenly, her mother pulled her up by the arm. “Get up. We need to go. Come on.” She said nothing about why Casey was sprawled out on the grass, just dragged her to her feet and ran with her to the minivan.
“Casey,” her mother said in the car. “What’s the deal?” Her mother shot quick glances in the rearview mirror as she peeled off her cleats, soccer socks, shin guards, and regular socks. She knew if she told her mother the truth it would result in a deep sigh followed by, “We’ve talked about this. You can’t go around afraid of everything because of what you see on TV. I told you to stop watching the Discovery Channel so much.” And then, finally another sigh, “Have you been watching it at night again?” There was no way for Casey to answer this question without getting in trouble.
A few weeks ago, she had refused to allow her mother to drive more than forty-five miles an hour because she had watched Smashed Lab and saw how much worse a car crash was at high speeds. She had spent almost three days leaning over her mother’s shoulder yelling, “Slow down slow down,” any time the needle neared forty-six. “Do you want us to die?” It had ended when her mother pulled over at BP and told her if she didn’t sit down and let her drive, at the legal speed limit, that Casey would never be allowed to watch the Discovery Channel again. It was a terrifying possibility. So she quietly chanted, only loud enough that she could hear, “Under forty-five to stay alive.”
Her mother was still glancing in the rearview mirror at her waiting for an answer.
“Angie Pepperfield tripped me then pushed me down.” It sounded like a reasonable enough lie.
“What? Has she been bullying you again?”
“Yes. No.” Casey didn’t want this to turn into her mother calling Mrs. Pepperfield and yelling at her to get a handle on her daughter, or worse suggesting that Mrs. Pepperfield take Angie to church. Her mother’s solution for everything. You have a cold, go to church. You got a bad grade, go to church. You are being bullied, pray harder.
“I can handle it,” Casey said.
* * *
Casey’s mother told her and her brothers to wash their hands and come to dinner at ten to seven. All Casey wanted was for it to be eight, time for Dirty Jobs, her favorite show of the week. But she knew that she must maneuver carefully to be allowed to watch it.
“Yo yo yo, little amoeba,” Josh, her oldest brother said, as Casey pulled her napkin out and laid it across her lap. Josh was fifteen, and Casey was sure that he was not as cool as he pretended to be. Even with his long dark shaggy hair and bright red sneakers and funny nicknames, he must sit in the cafeteria alone at lunch like she did.
“I’m not a one-celled organism.”
“You need to watch more normal TV. No wonder Angie likes to kick your ass,” Kris, her other brother, said.
“Language,” their father said as he walked into the dining room. “Don’t let your mother hear you talking like that.” All three went quiet and Casey wondered why her father didn’t yell more. Why he always threatened them with their mother.
Her mother came into the dining room with a long dish that was hot and steaming like aerial views of lava. Lasagna. Pasta and Dirty Jobs. Saturdays didn’t get much better.
“It’s time for the blessing,” said her mother. “Casey, would you like to lead tonight?” Casey hated thinking up all the things she should be thankful for, and she hated even more when her mother would add in things like “You forgot to be thankful for Mrs. White’s help last week with your reading assignment, remember?” As if she did not remember being humiliated in front of the class when Mrs. White called her out into the hallway to discuss why her reading assignment only addressed the scientific facts associated with dolphins rather than the story.
“Mom, please don’t make me,” she said.
“Make you? This is not a punishment. This is your chance to lead the family.”
“I’ll do it,” said Josh, smiling at Casey. “I got your back, Abu.” Casey sighed. At least she had one good brother.
“Thanks, God, for this heap of pasta and sauce that has been most righteously cooked up for us. Thanks for getting me through that algebra test on Monday, I owe you one. And major props to you, God, for being you. Amen.”
* * *
Casey was in front of the TV ready to go at five minutes to eight. She had it on the right channel, an afghan pulled up around her like an Amazon ant hill, and a glass of milk and double fudge brownie balancing on the couch cushion next to her. It was perfect. Mike Rowe, the host and star, would be coming on any minute to amaze and disgust her. The phone was ringing, but Casey didn’t move for it; she didn’t care who it might be.
Mike was going to become a mosquito control officer. Casey could only imagine what he was going to experience in the next sixty minutes. She imagined bug-head nets draped over green or khaki colored explorer helmets and swarms of mosquitoes attacking any exposed flesh. Clouds of insects would whirl and dip around his face and his hands, like dirt kicked up by truck tires in the summer.
“Casey.” It was her mother, moving across the living room toward the TV. “We need to talk.” Her hand pressed the off button on the bottom of the screen. Mike’s smiling face was there, and then gone, empty black space. “Casey, it’s Mrs. White.” She should have known that her teacher would keep calling her mother until Casey either morphed into Ann Pickles, the smartest most obedient student in her class and possibly the world, or until Casey gave up and did what Mrs. White secretly wanted to do to her.
“Casey, sweetie, Mrs. White, she, well, she…she passed away yesterday afternoon. There was a car accident. She wasn’t in pain, it was quick.” Casey could feel the thick syrup of her mother’s dark eyes moving back and forth across her face. She was waiting for something, but Casey didn’t know what that something was.
“Oh,” she said.
“Oh…honey, what does that mean?” her mother asked.
“It means okay. I guess. Can I watch Mike now?”
“I think we should talk. This is a big change in your life. Okay?” Okay as a question sounded funny. She just wanted to watch Dirty Jobs to see swimming clouds of insects.
“Can we talk about it later?” Casey had heard her father say this before except he did not ask, he said, “We’ll talk about this later,” and Casey wanted to use the same authority but couldn’t.
“Sure. Take a little time. Think about it. I’m here, your father’s here, your brothers are here, whatever you need. Okay?” The okay question again.
Her mother got up and walked out but did not turn the TV back on. Casey watched her leaving. At the doorway her mother turned around, hands on the door frame looking back over her shoulder and smiled.
Before Casey even had a chance to turn back toward the TV, Josh came in. He appeared in the place her mother had just left, skinny and lanky and awkward compared to the thick curved image of her mother.
“Hey little home-fry, how you feeling?”
“You sure you’re okay? You know, you can talk to me, right?”
“Yeah, I know.” Casey wondered if she would continue to get this much attention for the rest of the weekend, if this would be the time to ask for the Blue Planet DVD set she had been wanting from the Discovery Channel, if she should ask them to go out for ice cream tonight, if she could get two scoops instead of one.
“Well, I’ll be upstairs in my room if you need me. You know, even if you just want to hang.” Josh left the same way her mother had, and Casey wondered who would be next. She ate her brownie with the TV off, munching into the tiny chocolate chips secreted away inside the gooey middle. Mrs. White was dead.
She began to think about Smashed Lab, the crushing of metal on metal and the way dummies bounced and banged in every direction when cars hit the wall. She imagined Mrs. White’s hair on the dummy, streaks of dusty brown and tin foil silver, and then she added her red rectangular glasses that would slip down to the bridge of her nose when she leaned over Casey’s desk. She added her least favorite outfit, the one Mrs. White wore on Halloween. A black sweater with three big orange pumpkins, grinning toothy grins. And a long black skirt that ruffled at her ankles. The faceless crash dummy was beginning to look like Mrs. White, and when the car hit the wall her glasses flew off and the skirt whipped up above her knees and the pumpkins got punched in the face by the airbags. But it was the way that the dummy’s head snapped back and forth that scared her.
On Saturday night she asked if she could skip church, and to her surprise her mother said yes. She had never been allowed to skip church. The world seemed to be spinning backwards. Last night she had watched back to back episodes of Dirty Jobs and eaten three brownies. Her father and her mother and Josh had all come to tuck her in and say good-night. They pulled the covers up high and tucked the blankets so close to her face it was hard to breathe. In the dark after they left she kicked until her covers melted over the edge of the bed to the floor. She lay looking up at the plastic stars glowing on her ceiling, searching for the two bunches of stars that she had tried to form into the Big and Little Dipper, but they looked more like frying pans. She spread herself out flat, still facing up, and imagined what it would be like to float without gravity, lifting off her bed and hovering, kicking out into nothing but air. And then she saw Mrs. White. She floated out past the moon, toward the sun, arms and legs gliding as if she had been turned into water, as if she were liquid. Casey could not fall asleep.
On Sunday morning, she waited for the sound of the garage door closing, then pulled the blue and green comforter off the bed, wrapping it around her body, mummy style, with only her bare feet shooting out the bottom. She headed downstairs to the couch. She could hear her dad in the kitchen, left behind to watch her. Casey oozed into the corner of the couch tucking her feet up underneath her, looking for the clicker. She had never watched TV at this time before. Light and sound fizzed to life, a rerun of Myth Busters about the Titanic. She had seen it, something about the likelihood of passengers being sucked down as the boat sank. She clicked off the TV, the black screen shiny and empty.
“Good morning. I didn’t hear you come down,” her father said, carrying coffee in the mug that they had gotten him last year for Father’s Day. It said “Super Dad” on it and had a man wearing red underwear. A yellow cape flapped in an imaginary breeze behind him. Casey had picked it out.
Her father sat beside her now. He crossed his feet at the ankles and patted her leg in the middle of the thigh. “Did you sleep okay?”
“Do you want breakfast?”
“Do you want to watch TV?”
Casey shook her head no. She really wanted to ask him if it was cold when you died, if you would be naked on the other side, or if you were stuck wearing whatever it was that you died in.
Instead she asked, “Will I have school tomorrow?”
“Yes. Does that worry you?” Casey traced the familiar lines on his forehead, a deep set of three horizontal wrinkles. She wanted the soft rounded look of father, of Josh.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should talk about it when your mother gets home.” He half smiled, his lips pulled toward his teeth.
But her father did not bring it up when the rest of the family got home from church. Instead, he patted her on the head and said, “Good chat.” Casey watched him ease across the room to kiss her mother on the cheek, his slippers smacking at his heels.
* * *
She did not take the bus on Monday morning; her mother drove her. It was the first time she had ever pulled up in front of the school with the kids whose parents drove them back and forth, and she wasn’t sure exactly what to do. Her mother found a spot at the far end of the parking lot and turned the key off, hushing the engine.
“Ready?” her mother asked.
“You’re coming with me?”
“Yes, just for today. All the parents are coming, or at least most. Anyone who doesn’t have to work.”
“Oh,” she said. “Are we still going to have the timed math facts test? It’s Monday. Usually, on Monday, that’s what we do.”
“I don’t think you will today, sweetie. But we might get out early. Then you and I can talk a little before everyone else gets home.” Her mother smiled and pulled on the handle of her purse, overflowing with a hair brush and an umbrella and a small bag of Teddy Grahams. She opened the car door and looked back at Casey. “Come on, it’s time.”
Casey clutched her safari lunch box to her stomach. Her mother opened her door and pulled out her purple backpack, littered with patches and pins: a rainbow pin, a save-the-manatees patch, a safety pin decorated in yellow and green beads. She snatched the pack out of her mother’s hands and walked toward the school. Her mother shut the door and hurried after her.
Her fourth grade room was crowded. Parents sat in the small chairs, knees bumping the bottoms of the desks, legs stretched out into the aisle. More parents and students stood against the walls and up and down the aisles. Casey’s seat was occupied by Mark Lyndel’s father. Her principal, Mr. Cole, was up front talking to a group of parents, their children in a ring behind them. Her mother pushed her gently from behind. “It looks like there is room in the back corner.” Casey weaved between backpacks and lunch boxes and purses and briefcases. Angie Pepperfield and her mother sat on the far side of the room. Casey wrinkled her nose as she glanced away, thinking about the lie she had told her mother, and the truth hidden under the surface. Beth, another girl on her soccer team, wiggled her fingers in a low wave from her lap.
Casey and her mother found a spot where they could lean their backs up against the wall, and they plopped their things down around their feet like loose stones. The final morning bell rang but the parents kept talking. Finally, Mr. Cole waved his hands in the air. “Good Morning. Good Morning.” Casey looked at his blue and white checked tie and tried to decide how the squares fit together and where exactly they crossed over from one color to another. He was short and round and soft looking.
He said something about how this had never happened at the school before. He said something about a long-term substitute. Parents broke in between his sentences and asked about testing and lunch and counseling. Casey looked out the window. The sky was clear and wide and bright. She could see half the black top and one corner of the field used for soccer. She imagined it was recess. Casey was a forward and liked dribbling in long strides up the sidelines. She was fast and could usually outrun other kids. She was an okay shot from straight-on. She loved the way the net tensed and relaxed when the ball went in, the soft snap it made on impact, the whoosh of release as the ball fell to the grass.
Last week at lunch they had played soccer. Girls versus boys. The girls had killed them, eight to zero. In the final fifteen minutes of recess Casey made a run down the side of the field and, wide open, shot hard at the goalie. She hit him in the face. He started bleeding, a stream of chunky red-black blood down the front of his face, over his lips, and onto the white of his t-shirt. “Oh my God,” one girl had yelled. “Get Mrs. White.” Someone else yelled, “Geez, Casey.” Someone else said, “Idiot.”
Mrs. White had taken her and the boy to the office. The nurse cleaned him up, and Mrs. White sat down with her in the lobby.
“Did you mean to do that?”
“Did you tell him you’re sorry?”
“The other kids were yelling,” Casey said. “It happened so fast…I just, I didn’t.” Casey was hot and still sweating from running outside, and the office felt stuffy and dusty and small. She wanted to run out of the room, out of the building, and not look back.
“Why don’t you sit here a minute and think about this. When they’re finished cleaning him up I think there is something you might want to say to him.” Mrs. White looked down at her with big grey-green eyes. For a moment, Casey hated her.
* * *
In the classroom Mr. Cole was now answering questions and her mother had folded her arm around Casey’s shoulders, tucking her into the side of her body. Casey’s cheek rested on the soft pink cotton of her mother’s shirt. She could smell meatloaf from last night’s dinner. It was embarrassing, but she didn’t pull away.
Casey noticed for the first time the empty chair at Mrs. White’s desk. It was old and wooden, a faded red cushion tied on with thin strings. It was pushed out and angled towards the door, like Mrs. White had left in a hurry. On her desk there were still papers, a stack that Casey knew must be their spelling tests from Friday. Casey wondered what would happen to the three framed photographs on Mrs. White’s desk, her kids, husband, and Pretzel, her dog. She had shown the class each picture on the first day of school. Casey wondered what would now happen to the people and the pictures.
Casey could not picture Mrs. White dead. She had only been to one funeral, for their neighbor, Mr. Butler. He was old when he died, a cane and a walker and a wheelchair in his house. Her mother made her go up and say good-bye. She had not wanted to see a dead body. He looked younger dead. His skin was less wrinkled, not gross like Casey imagined with liquid oozing from his eyes. Her mother told her, “Say good-bye and a prayer.” Casey had bowed her head silently thinking, Bye Mr. Butler. Hope you can walk in heaven. I’m sure you would like that. Amen.
Her mother elbowed her as they stood in the back of the classroom. “Are you listening?”
“Yes,” Casey whispered back.
Mr. Cole invited the parents to have lunch with their children in the cafeteria, or they were free to go home for lunch. There would be an optional session with the counselor in the afternoon, and school would resume as normal with a substitute on Tuesday. What would normal feel like?
Her mother gathered up her purse and Casey’s lunchbox. “We’ll eat at home. Get your backpack.” In the parking lot Casey jerked with the pressure of her mother’s foot on the brake and the gas. As the man on the radio talked about the weather, Casey thought about Storm Chasers. She liked the show, not because of the danger or the science but because of the swirling images of the tornado cones. The spinning clouds looked like crests of waves hovering mid-air.
“Do you want to talk now?”
Casey did not want to talk.
Her mother continued. “I agree with Mr. Cole. I think it would be a good idea if we all went to the funeral on Tuesday.”
Casey did not remember that he had suggested this or that the funeral was Tuesday, but she did not want to go.
“We can all go, as a family. You and me and Josh and Dad and Kris. Maybe we can even order in pizza that night.”
It was a bribe of sorts, pizza on a Tuesday.
“I have soccer practice.”
“Only until four-thirty. It starts at six.”
Casey watched the clouds moving in slow gray drifts. Partly cloudy.
* * *
On Tuesday Casey took the bus to school. The windows of the bus were streaked with dirt and water. She sat alone in seat six. Getting off the bus she saw Beth, and they half smiled, no teeth, at one another and walked down the hall to their room together.
The classroom lights were too bright for the gray of the day. At the front of the room was Mr. Zimmerman, the substitute. He was young and wore dark pants and a light blue shirt. His voice was runny like thin vegetable soup. The room had changed, Mrs. White’s chair was pushed in and a black briefcase sat on the floor behind it.
After lunch they had science, one of Casey’s favorite subjects. She loved the unit they just finished on endangered animals. She had done her project on ocelots and had traced a picture of one of these small tropical cats for the cover. She had shown it to Josh, and he told her it was the coolest report he had ever seen. When he pulled her into a soft headlock she had let him without protest. Mrs. White had not turned back these projects yet. Casey wondered what had happened to them.
Mr. Zimmerman started a new section on matter. He talked slowly and did not use visuals. Casey found herself drawing ocelots across the page, some jumping, some crouching, two playing together. They weren’t good drawings. The feet were too big and the whiskers extended out like antennas, but she was good at drawing their huge liquid eyes.
When they lined up for their buses, Mr. Zimmerman handed each student a packet in a large sealed envelope. He said they were to open it with their parents at home, not before. Beth left with the walkers and she waved. “See you tonight at practice.” Casey waved back.
By the time Casey was in her seat on the bus she had already broken the seal. Inside she smelled Mrs. White, rich and nutty. Casey found a letter to parents from the guidance counselor, times and directions and other logistics for the funeral, and the face of her ocelot. It was her report. Casey opened it and in the margins she saw the soft wide cursive of Mrs. White. On the last page Mrs. White wrote, “I can tell you will be our little scientist someday. Great Job, Casey!” The dead were talking.
* * *
Casey arrived at soccer practice, and she stood at the edge of the field. In her mind she could still hear the echoes of thunder that had rolled across the field. Mr. Ben was setting up cones, and her teammates were milling around the closest goal talking and putting on their cleats. Angie was at the center waving her arms as if telling a story about a giant bird. Casey walked over and joined at the edge of the group.
“Can you believe she died? My teacher is dead, just like that. Bam. My mom says it just goes to show you have to live every day to the fullest. We drove by the crash site this morning on the way to school. It’s still blocked off with caution tape and the grass is all torn up and two trees have all the bark ripped off. It was crazy.” Everyone was looking at Angie.
The team was made up of all the fourth-grade girls in the area who wanted to play traveling soccer. Angie, Beth, and Casey were the only girls from her school on the team; the rest of the girls had never met Mrs. White. Beth was on the other side of the group, and she picked at the grass, pulling it up one blade at a time and tossing it out in front of her.
“Are you going to the funeral?” Carrie, one of the midfielders, asked.
“Yeah. It’s tonight. My mom says she doesn’t think there will be a body, though, because the accident was so bad. I guess it would be too messed up to show people.”
Casey tried to act busy, adjusting her socks and cleaning out the mud between her spikes. But Angie swiveled towards her. “I bet you’re going to cry, aren’t you? Big crocodile tears.”
Casey didn’t look up but mumbled, “No.”
Before Angie could respond Mr. Ben was in front of them calling practice to order with his whistle, the warm-up lap, and stretches. Casey breathed heavily as they rounded the corners of the field. She watched Angie’s thick calves flex and relax in front of her. She wanted to throw a shoe at her, spikes up, in the back of the head.
When her mother arrived to pick her up early, she was lost in the pull of her muscles, the quick cuts and sharp angled shots of an inner squad scrimmage. She had forgotten about Angie and Mrs. White. Mr. Ben blew his whistle, the girls got water, and Angie and Beth and Casey picked up their things and headed for their respective minivans.
Josh was in the van too, and he leaned out the window as Casey got closer. “A little ham-ster in the making.”
Casey smiled, knowing he referred to Mia Hamm, her only hero not on the Discovery Channel. Her mother searched in her purse, and various items spilled out onto the floor of the van, pennies and ChapStick and sunglasses.
“Shoot. I can’t find my cell phone…. Hurry up. You have to clean up, change, eat, and be ready in thirty minutes.” Casey wanted to stay with Mr. Ben and work on corner kicks. But she got in the van.
As her mother turned back to the wheel and shifted into drive, Casey imagined saying, “I’m not going,” but she knew her mother would turn and say, “Oh yes you are, young lady,” and then Casey’s words would spill everywhere—how she hated Mrs. White and how ocelots hunt in the dark and wanting Angie Pepperfield to get hit by lightning and vegetable soup voices and her father saying “good chat” and about wanting her, her mother, to love her when there was no reason to love her. But she didn’t. She took off her shoes and her soccer socks and her regular socks, and asked about pizza.
* * *
The parking lot at the church was packed. They had to park on the street. Casey sat in the far back of the van worried about the hole in the knee of her tights. It was growing; she could feel it. She caught it on the corner of the van getting in and didn’t tell her mother.
They filed in by gender, her father, her brothers, her mother, and her. Flowers were everywhere. The back of her throat itched. A dog on a red leash sat next to the front pew. Casey knew it was Pretzel.
They found seats near the back. Quiet music played and people talked in hushed tones. Across the aisle she saw Angie and her mother and father and two older sisters. They all wore shades of black and grey and looked solemn. Casey wondered if their mother threatened them in the car to be good like her mother had.
The service began. Casey rolled and unrolled the program until the black letters were so creased and wrinkled it was hard to make out the words. Her fingertips and palms were gray from the ink. Casey tried to pray but nothing came. Her mouth was empty.
As they left the church, the line to get out was stalled. Suddenly, Casey and Angie were side by side, both right behind their mothers. Music still played in the background. Casey pictured Mrs. White humming to the music in a movie at indoor recess while thin sheets of needle-fine rain came down.
The line began to move again and Casey leaned over, right next to Angie, so close she could see the tiny blond baby hairs that covered her ear lobe, and said, “I wish it had been you.”
Before she had time to see a reaction or realize what she had said out loud, the line was moving again, and Casey was pushed outside behind her mother. Rain splashed up from the puddles onto her tights leaving dark polka dots. Her mother hurried them into the van, Josh and Kris, and finally Casey. As she was getting into the van her mother held her arm and said, “What happened to your tights?”
Casey looked down, half in and half out of the van. The hole had torn and crawled from the top of her knee down to the buckle of her shoe, like a scar.
Krista Mann recently finished her first short story collection, Floating Away from the Moon. Her work has appeared in Paper Street Press.