Emma was in the boat with Dante Harding when she saw the first of the birds, small, and dark with oil, floating on the surface of the lake.
“There’s one of ‘em,” Dante said. He pointed to an oily patch near the brush. Emma was a senior, the same year as Dante, but as he steered the boat, Emma thought he seemed older than she did, wise in a way she didn’t understand. Surely he didn’t feel this same lack, this empty space she felt inside her? It was a thing that, before she’d met Dante, she had never imagined telling anyone about.
The boat settled to a slow rock, and Emma slid over to sit near Dante. She glanced back at him as she reached for the quivering, dark-eyed bird. The tanker had gotten into trouble at the edge of the water, and they had been going out with the other volunteers every day since the cleanup had started. From Dante, Emma had learned not to hold the birds too tightly. To keep them just close enough that they felt safe with you. You had to reach up under the wings, to be sure you were gentle when you got the feathers. It was easy to snap the delicate, hollow bones, the ones that enabled flight. If those were broken, the bird would be doomed no matter how clean you got him. Broken bones would mean a lakefront full of dead birds when the first freeze of winter came.
They scrubbed down their twin, oil-streaked birds, and a summer breeze stirred the water. Emma looked up, watching Dante slip his finger across the bird’s wings in gentle rhythm.
People had told her Dante had a hard way about him. Even his name, which his dead mother had chosen from the brand name on a cracker box, was crisp and brittle sounding. Still, Emma understood that beneath the harshness was a kind of softening. Something you could only see if you got up close, like she was trying to do now.
He had lost most of his teeth somewhere, in a bar fight he’d told her, though from the way his voice darkened when he said it, Emma doubted it was true. He wore a retainer with false teeth built by an orthodontist from Chicago, some kind of favor to the family, a debt from way back when. When Dante laughed or hung his mouth open in concentration, you could see the sharp edge where the false teeth ended and the darkness that led to his stomach began.
Days before, Emma had sat in the pew at the public meeting, listening to her father explain the risks of the spill, the importance of the cleanup effort. Lucky for him, Emma thought. To have a disaster like this, all this publicity around the tanker. More than half the town had stumbled in to listen to his speech.
Emma and her father had lived in eight towns in as many years. Nine, if you counted the two small ones next to each other, the stripped down places in rural Texas where they’d gone when things in Dallas hadn’t worked out.
She had figured her father’s schemes out slowly. He’d told her about the little things. Petty cash stolen from the city council in Albuquerque. Pocketed campaign funds in Des Moines. In Texas, things got bigger, the place and the houses and the local elections. That was when he started hatching plans too big to tell her about. Like the one that had brought them up here, made him a small-time local official. Unimportant enough to be overlooked, and just close enough to get at the heart of things.
Emma guessed her father had an angle on the cleanup. Siphoning off donation money, maybe. Or something else, something she was too bland and honest to think of.
“What does a mean kid like Dante Harding want with a bunch of birds?” her father asked that afternoon when they were sitting on the dock, eating the egg salad sandwiches the Rotary Club provided each morning. Wrapped in greasy wax paper, their twin sandwiches glistened in the sun.
“Dante isn’t mean,” Emma said, “He’s just trying to be helpful.”
“Maybe so, maybe so. But there are other boats you could ride in. Most people would be glad to have their representative’s daughter along.”
“Oh, I’m certain. Of course,” he said with a forced smile, “I wouldn’t tell you what to do.”
Emma swallowed a mouthful of egg salad. The tang of mustard was sharp against her tongue. “I’m okay with Dante.”
“Oh, I’m certain.”
“Alright, I guess. But you seem to to be the only one.”
When Dante laughed or hung his mouth open in concentration, you could see the sharp edge where the false teeth ended and the darkness that led to his stomach began.
When she was finished, she stood to leave, wishing she could feel something other than anger toward her father. Wasn’t she supposed to have a sense of—she didn’t know what—gratitude at the very least, something more abiding? It had been like this though, the moving around, the growing burn in her chest and throat that was now so constant, she was beginning to think anger and disappointment might be the only two things she was capable of feeling. That and a creeping dissatisfaction. It had been like this the whole six years since her mother died.
On the dock, Emma raised a hand over her eyes in a visor, squinting into the sun at a big skiff she didn’t recognize. She felt warm, full of egg salad, drowsy from lunch and from the sunlight. Her eyes slid slowly over the three figures in the skiff as it drew nearer. They would be from some college or civic group, she knew, staying at a local hotel—the only hotel, her father had proudly told the few reporters who’d called him.
Her father waved to the strangers in the skiff and one of them, a woman in gray shorts and a red kerchief, waved back and smiled. She was young, Emma guessed maybe twenty-one or twenty. At the dock, the skiff sputtered, stopped, and the strangers climbed out.
The woman in the kerchief introduced herself as “Callie.” She had bright blonde hair that she wore tied at the nape of her neck. From handling the birds all day, the skin around her nails was dark and grimy. Definitely not much older than I am, Emma thought and held out her own dirty hand while her father introduced them.
Callie said, “I brought friends today, to help with the cleanup.”
“Today?” Emma said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“Oh, well. That. Your dad’s done a good job of keeping us a secret.” When she saw Emma’s face, Callie said, “I mean, about the study. He’s really never mentioned me to you before?”
“We’re tagging birds. Unauthorized research. There is a lot of money in that kind of thing. Big oil pays for big data. What, exactly, does oil do to wildlife, to these birds? Maybe it’s not so bad as the news makes it out to be. It’s an experiment no oil company could never get the green light to run.”
“Coating animals in oil and waiting to see if it kills them?”
Callie laughed uncomfortably and took a step back from Emma. “Like I said, it’s lucrative. If the company is big enough.”
Emma could feel Callie’s uneasiness, the opening of a foothold Emma could grab onto. A place where, just maybe, she could dig in.
“That’s risky, right?” Emma said. “You’re breaking a bunch of rules?”
“Weren’t rules made to be broken?” Callie said and gave another half-hearted smile.
“Your dad has arranged it all,” Callie said, “He wouldn’t allow us to get caught. I mean, he’d protect me.”
“Good for you,” Emma said. “If it were me, I wouldn’t be so sure.”
Emma glanced at her father, busy posing for a picture with one of the Rotary Club women. She thought of all the towns, the big ones and the smaller ones, and then, finally, this desolate and place up near the lake. Why had he done it? In the name of what? Emma looked at Callie, who was twisting a thread of blonde hair around her finger. What it was her father wanted now, Emma tried not to think.
Finished with his photo op, Emma’s father returned to them. “Callie,” he said, “you have to ignore my daughter. She’s good in school, but young. She doesn’t understand the world.”
He turned to talk privately with Callie. Emma glared at his shoulders and neck. He’s wrong, she thought, as Callie laughed again. I know. I know exactly. I know exactly how this works.
The weather turned cooler overnight. When Emma got to the lake in the morning, fog was hanging in a shrouds across the water. The gauzy air trilled in patterns, making foamy swirls on the surface of the lake.
When Dante got there, he said, “Careful today. It’s drowning weather.”
It made her uneasy, what he’d said, the way the water sat high in the basin. In the dinghy, Dante revved the engine, and the boat wavered beneath them. It was almost as if, now that Callie had appeared, the boat, the lake, even Dante—everything felt off-balance, slightly overfilled.
They stopped close to lake’s edge, and Emma took a bird from Dante. She soaped it down and looked up to see Callie in her skiff, laughing and touching the seam of her blood colored kerchief.
“You know,” Dante said, “she’s not dating your father.”
“You should try that on somebody gullible,” Emma said and turned away. She was surprised that she had spoken to Dante like that. There was a sting in her words and in the tone beneath them.
“Sorry,” she said, “I guess I’m in a mood today.”
“Look,” Dante said, “I wouldn’t try to fool you. You’re a regular Harvard. I’m just saying you shouldn’t worry. Not about that.”
Emma sucked in a mouthful of air. It was cold and she swallowed against the ache.
She wanted to tell Dante how she saw things. She had the strongest grades of any senior. There had been talk of her going to one of the fancy schools back east before she’d realized she had no way to pay for it. There were state schools though, here in Michigan and in Texas. Even if she had to take loans to pay, she was going somewhere. A bigger city, a bigger life. Something honest. What that meant to Emma was something Dante wouldn’t, couldn’t understand. Even if she could find a way to explain it, he wouldn’t see how it all related. How her grades proved her powers of intuition. How the ability to notice details and follow directions supported everything solid, everything she thought she knew.
Dante scooped up a bird. “Listen, Harvard. It’s alright. I know she’s breaking rules. She’s not supposed to be here.”
The sun had started to cut the fog and a glint of cold light hung over the water. Emma squinted at Dante through the silver mist.
“Where did you hear that?”
“People talk, I guess. I heard it from my dad.”
Emma had heard rumors about Dante’s father. That he was a shut in, a drunk, a recluse. That he’d driven away Dante’s mother away. That he was violent and hardly ever went out. Emma wondered if there were other rumors, about Callie, about her father. Not for the first time, she pushed the thought back, tried to block out what she was almost sure she knew.
Callie started showing up at the house after the change in the weather. The first morning, she lingered outside the gate, waiting for Emma’s father. The next day, she came closer, onto the steps and then into the front hallway. Then, finally, on the third day, Emma came home to find Callie in the kitchen, sitting at the table, drinking tea.
What would my mother think? Emma wondered, watching Callie sip tea from her parents’ wedding china where she sat hunched over an open Marie Claire.
“Tea?” Callie smiled at Emma. A brilliant flash of white in her mouth’s obscene pink slot. “You know what I was thinking?” Callie said, “I was thinking it might be fun to go shopping, the two of us. I could help you choose something—nicer—to wear.”
Emma looked down at her mud-striped jeans and high top Converse. “I’m very happy in this,” she said.
Emma wanted to be anywhere else, anywhere other than in that kitchen, sitting across from Callie, watching her drinking tea as though she belonged. In a whisper that she had to force from her throat, Emma said, “You know, I forgot something. Dockside.”
She didn’t wait for a response or a follow-up question. She just threw the front door open and started running. When she passed the gate she turned, not toward the dock, but toward the town. She had no destination, just the urge to run, to get away. It felt good to be moving. Cool air on her face. Muscles working as her legs carried her over the slopes and valleys of the road.
He’s wrong, she thought, as Callie laughed again. I know. I know exactly. I know exactly how this works.
In town, she caught her breath and walked. From an apartment above the antique shop, an open window filled the street with jazz. She didn’t have any money. It was almost dinnertime and she paused outside the drug store, looking in at the bins where the owners, a white-haired couple in their seventies, kept brightly colored candy in barrel-shaped bins.
Dante would know what to say to calm her down, but it was already evening. Too late to appear unannounced at his house. She didn’t even know his phone number. What would she say anyway? They had never talked on the phone.
That night, Emma heard creaking sounds coming from her father’s bedroom. They were trying to be quiet, but Emma knew what was happening. She’d never done the thing herself, but she’d girls at school talk about it. From the other girls, she’d learned that sex was about power, a way for women to take ownership of men. Although, in some of the places where she’d gone to school, people seemed to think it worked the other way around.
Who was trying to own whom, she wondered as she lay in her narrow bed and listened. Was it possible, desirable even, to ever own another person? It seemed too big a responsibility, too much to handle. Even if it was only for the few minutes it took to make them come.
She had been too young to remember much about her mother, and she wondered what life might be like—what sorts of things she might know—if it were her mother instead of Callie in the creaking dark next door. Callie. Almost the same age as Emma. Emma pulled her pillow over her head to block out the sound.
Dante was in the boat early the next morning, already waiting when she arrived.
He held out a little plastic bag of red and black licorice. “Saw you looking in the window. Didn’t know which color, so I got both kinds.”
That night, and every night after that, Callie appeared at the dinner table. To avoid her, Emma stopped coming home at the regular hour. She spent her evenings wandering into town and past it, up to where the shabby houses were, near the flats that bled into the woods.
Every afternoon, Emma would finish her shift on the lake and, if there was one, take a leftover sandwich from the cooler. She’d walk and walk and, if she had a sandwich, she’d eat it in the thick of evening, leaning up against a stranger’s fence before heading home. In the mornings, she’ get up early, fix herself toast and black coffee, and slip out to meet Dante, who’d be in the boat twenty minutes before the first shift, always with a blue and white striped bag of licorice in his hand.
“You’re getting skinny,” Dante said one morning.
Emma blushed and explained about the walking, the extra lunches, how most days there weren’t any, how she didn’t have much money of her own.
That afternoon, a black car Emma had never seen before cruised the road just above the dockside. Emma looked up and wondered who was behind the tinted glass, peering out from its leather throne.
After she told Dante about her walks, he started bringing real food in the mornings. Sometimes it was sliced of ham, wrapped up in wax paper. Other times, whole dinners, paper bags from the grocery store filled to brimming with boxed lasagna and, once, a dozen chocolate scones.
It was around that time that his bruises started showing.
“An accident,” he’d said, when she asked.
“You know you shouldn’t hang around with that Harding kid,” Callie said one afternoon when Emma was standing on the dock, looking for an extra sandwich in the cooler. Already, the high, gold light of summer was fading. The air was brightening with autumn’s cool. Soon it would be fall, the end of the cleanup. Emma turned and saw, for the first time, that there were fewer birds on the lake.
“There’s nothing wrong with Dante,” Emma said.
“Mmmm…I don’t think so. People talk, and he looks like trash to me.”
“I didn’t realize you were oh so perceptive.”
“I’m just telling you what people say.”
Though she didn’t want to, that afternoon Emma stopped at home to pick up a sweater. It was the first really cool day and the light was cut with sharp, breezy air.
Emma was in her room, standing over her top drawer, its stacks of folded sweaters, when the black car pulled into the drive. Its tires made a scraping sound that brought Emma to the window.
“Callie here?” the man who rang the bell asked Emma.
“Not yet, thank God, but soon. Why?”
He was tall, with autumn leaf colored hair that had a texture like tree bark. Long pants and dark shirt suggested allegiance to a much bigger city. Someplace many miles and ideas away from there.
Emma said she hadn’t seen Callie or her father since she’d left the lake.
“You’re sure?” The man leaned against the doorframe, as though he expected Emma to confide a secret or invite him in.
“I’ve seen you around town, walking,” he told her, “You seem like the type to notice things.”
Between her hands, Emma clutched the green fabric of her still folded sweater.
“I don’t know,” Emma said, feeling uncertain. “As you can see, they’re not home.”
“You don’t know anything about some research they might be involved in?”
“Research?” Emma held her breath and loosened her hands around the sweater. She stood very still, trying not to make the man suspect what she knew.
“Someone, I can’t say exactly who, has been tagging birds. Illegally. A wildlife violation. Actually quite serious. A federal crime.”
“Tagging birds?” Emma told herself it was better if she held her face very still and didn’t move her feet or fingers.
“Look,” the man said. “You don’t have to say if you’re not ready.” He pressed a business card into Emma’s palm. “There’s money for information.” He glanced into the hallway and then gestured at the house and yard around him. “Money that could take you places. That could really help.”
Emma slid the card into her pocket. “For wildlife crime? How much money?”
“For this? Twenty thousand dollars’ reward.”
Twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money. Enough to take someone away from this place, out of Michigan even. Enough to pay for a whole new life, a giant move. It was time again, thought Emma. Time to shut down, time to head to the next place.
“Okay,” she said in a voice that she hoped didn’t sound uncertain. “I don’t know anything, but if that changes, I’ll call.”
As soon as the sedan had pulled into the road, Emma started out for Dante’s. She knew it was late and that Dante would be surprised by the visit, but her father wasn’t home. Twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money, and she needed to stop thinking about it. She needed someone to tell. About the ideas that had crept into her head while she was politely nodding, about the way money like meant she could go and live anywhere. About how good it had felt to think that as she’d stood and watched the black car skid out onto the road.
As she walked, night rose around her. By the time she reached the Harding place, the streets were heavy with bruising darkness. Dante would be surprised, but as she walked, she felt certain he was the only person she could tell.
Only the lights at the back of the house were on. Emma had to squint to pick her way past the empty pails, scattered car parts, and other trash that sat rusting in the yard. The siding was falling off one part of the house and, even in the darkness, Emma could see where time and termites were breaking the structure down.
Everything comes apart eventually, she thought as she inched closer.
When she reached the porch, no lights snapped on, and she had to strain to see the doorframe. She heard voices, shouting, then something heavy falling. A sickening sound like sack of flour or a body striking the floor.
“Fuck you, ya’ mean drunk!” The voice belonged to Dante.
She held her breath and told herself this was a bad idea. How was Dante going to help? Why was it his job to listen, talk things over? She shivered in the cold and thought of the bluish circle that, just yesterday, had appeared below his left eye.
She stood very still, holding her breath and trying to listen. There was another sound, a whimpering, the sharp, low cry of an animal being struck. Then footsteps, uneven, as Dante limped out from behind the house.
She knew that, in the darkness, he would need a moment to see her.
“Dante,” she whispered.
He looked up and stopped moving. Then his eyes adjusted and he saw her.
“Harvard,” he said. “Fuck. Emma, you can’t be here.”
Emma took a step forward and swallowed against the tightness that threatened to close her throat.
“You can’t be here,” Dante said again. “You have to leave now.”
She touched the business card where it sat in her front pocket. The man in the sedan, the study, her father. All of it seemed far away now, less urgent. Dante’s eyes were wild in the darkness. She looked at him and had a single, clear thought.
“Come on,” she whispered. “I can help you back.”
“Anywhere but here.”
“There’s nowhere else, Harvard. There’s nowhere else to go.”
“Come on.” She put an arm around Dante’s waist and felt the pressure of his body against hers. Limping, they moved toward the road and down it, past the set back houses, past the beginning of the woods. Dante winced as they walked, but he kept moving.
Limping, it took half-an-hour to get there. When they reached the dock, the lake reflected the moonlight’s pale chill. In the alabaster gleam, his face looked cut up and bloody. One of his eyes was swollen closed.
The man in the sedan, the study, her father. All of it seemed far away now, less urgent. Dante’s eyes were wild in the darkness.
“Don’t feel bad for me,” Dante said.
“Some people need someone else to hurt.”
“Dante,” she said softly, “I had no idea.”
She squeezed his hand so hard she worried she might hurt him, but when she loosened her grip, he wrapped his fingers around hers.
They stood and looked across the lake. The water shone pale, still and glassy.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I wish I could go. Pack my things and leave here.”
Dante touched a bruise, big as an apple and the color of a cherry, that, in the moonlight, Emma could see brightening across his cheek.
“Why don’t you then? It wouldn’t be so hard, right? To just go? If you had a little money? That would make it easier, right? Easier to leave.”
Dante stared past the mercury liquid of the lake and across it.
“Going…I’m not sure. It’s not that simple. He’s my father. My father. I can’t just up and leave.”
Emma thought about all the towns she’d lived in before this one. About Callie and all the Callies that had come before.
Sophomore year, in Texas, she’d been elected Homecoming Princess. It had meant she would wear a formal dress and be driven around the football field in a convertible owned by somebody else’s father. She had loved the idea. Not the dress and the car so much, but the symbolism of it. The way those things suggested she belonged.
But they had moved again a week before the homecoming game, and she’d never had a chance to wear the dress she’d purchased. She had kept it—slinky and silver, tags still attached—worth a little more than fifteen weekends of babysitting money, dangling from a hanger in the back of her closet. She had put it away last and unpacked it first in every place they had lived since then.
The lake trilled with a night breeze, the last, late breath of summer. Around them, the crickets chanted their lonely, one-note song. This was the way it had to be, Emma thought. The way it was when your flight bones were broken. She reached into her pocket, crumpled the strip of the business card, and let it slide from between her fingers. It landed with shushing sound in the white bowl of the lake.
There were still slicks where oil sat in pools, making silver cradles. They formed welts, like tiny cups, along the lake’s surface.
Dante was right. It wasn’t so simple. She saw, just then, how it all worked, and she knew that she would stay there, in that miserable, tiny town, until her father said it was time to move on. Then she would leave with him for the next place, the next crime, the next lonely secret. Her heart would shred itself into filaments and she would leave a lighted trail, pieces of herself strewn behind her. But she would go when he said it was time to do, do what she had to do to remain with him. Because there wasn’t anyplace in between staying and running, in between being somebody’s child and being all alone.
It was weakness, this hunger inside herself, inside Dante. Animal loyalty, to make up for an animal lack. She felt the familiar hollowness pit its way through her, opening in her stomach and chest. What was it, this love she needed but could never quite get to? She wasn’t sure, but knew she could hold onto the promise of it and keep that promise close.
Author’s Commentary: The inspiration for this story came from a real life event. A close friend of mine participated in an oil spill cleanup (much like this one) many years ago and later learned that there were some questionable goings-on behind the scenes. She told me the story as a passing anecdote, but I became fascinated by it. The idea of a spill in a small town captivated me. I wanted to get at the feeling of it. How would an event like this bring people together or push them apart? Would people be changed by it? Would a crisis make people more likely to access or reveal the things that were always in their hearts? I hope the story goes some way toward answering at least one or two of those questions, and that it also reminds readers that there are complex and beautiful inner lives unfolding all the time in the midst of our most vulnerable, beautiful, and essential American spaces.
Corie Rosen is a Colorado writer whose work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Crab Creek Review, and Juked, among many other places. Her writing has been anthologized, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and featured on NPR.