Exerpt from Virga

The day was as humid as the Amazon rainforest. Maine folks are accustomed to frozen rivers and two feet of snow during one storm, not Bermuda Highs and ninety-eight-degree heat waves. I was already in a foul mood, exhausted and slick with sweat and wrapped in wet, restless sheets, when Grammie knocked on my door before my alarm had the chance to rouse me. With angry eyes, I glanced at the clock, and then bolted up in bed, nearly smashing my head on the low, slanted ceiling under which I slept. As it turned out, my old alarm clock hadn’t done its job and I was already late for work.

This wasn’t the first morning I had to collect my brother from the river with only minutes to spare before work, but I swore under my breath in frustration anyway. Racing down the steep stairs to the bathroom we shared with our grandparents, I literally jumped into the cool shower water and ran the soap over as much of me as I could cover in split seconds. I left my hair in a dry bun since there wasn’t any time to wash it. Barely taking the time to dry off, I brushed my teeth and I threw on my clean cut-off jean shorts and white tank top. Sighing, I unwound my hair from the knot and dragged a brush through the snarls. It was hopeless.

On my way through the kitchen, I grabbed an apple and slung my backpack, which contained a change of shorts, my favorite purple espadrilles, and my birth control pills, over my shoulder and swore again as I glanced at the wall clock. This time Grammie heard and starting yelling, but I was out the old, slamming screen door before she could finish her half-hearted rant.

It was only seven in the morning and already the humidity assaulted my body, creating a sheen over my skin sufficient to plaster my dark hair to my neck. August was always warm in Maine, but this year had been a blockbuster so far, reaching beyond ninety-degrees and eighty percent humidity, and the month was only a few days old. I knew better than to complain about the heat—we would be plunged into a tundra wonderland in no time at all—but hiking down the hill to the town landing to retrieve my brother before I went to work in such heat was enough to kill me. My mood didn’t improve as I slogged, in slow motion, daydreaming that I was just about anywhere but where I was.

The air hung pregnant over the pavement, making me wish for a car, or a fan, or a normal brother. I intentionally directed my eyes away from Thibodeau’s Variety, the small corner store where I now worked full-time, since I had graduated high school. It was embarrassing enough to get to work late again; I didn’t need to see my coworkers watching me as I puddled in the heat. Many people passed through our end of town on their way to jobs and shopping, but no one stopped here for more than coffee, lunch, or snacks. Our neighborhood was a stop on the way to somewhere, anywhere, else.

Looking at my watch with the thin, black strap, I saw I had only five minutes, and picked up my pace. When I reached River Road, I looked for traffic and then bolted to the river side of the street. I peered between the long warehouses built in the fifties, but now abandoned to river rats and skateboarders, and saw the swollen river. It was high tide. I would have been able to see that from my home if it weren’t for the confounded old warehouses, which now served only to obscure the local residents’ view of the river.

The entrance to the landing on River Road was across the street from Thibodeau’s Variety and marked with a small wooden sign set into the craggy grass near the street. Nature grew up and took over every unpaved place in Maine. And in summer, nature transformed the typically barren winter landscape into a flourishing forest filled with critters, Maple and evergreen trees, and more bugs than one might imagine, or be able to tolerate. At the landing, nature hid the small dirt parking lot from the road. I was grateful.

I trudged down the dirt road to the two-foot long boardwalk off which the dilapidated boat ramp launched into the moody river. The proper Gardiner landing was in town three miles down the road, but we lived over the proverbial tracks and had our own pathetic excuse for a boat landing. Gardiner claimed literal railroad tracks, too. The tracks ran along the river through all the towns up the coast, but an actual train hadn’t come up this far in over twenty years; it had no reason to. The landing was almost as pitiful as our bathroom-sized post office, complete with grumpy postmaster and separate zip code. Most towns needed two zip codes because they were too big for just one. Not Gardiner. Gardiner didn’t want to claim this side of town as part of its own.

At the end of the landing, I found my brother, Cai, floating in the murky edge-water, arms outstretched next to him, his eyes staring up at the sky, and a huge smile on his face, oblivious to the rest of the normal world. There was no wind and the river was a glassy, muddy green. The surface mirrored the woods along the opposite bank.

I sighed heavily. “Cai, what are you doing?” I didn’t really need to ask. I knew what my little brother was doing, but it still annoyed me. He didn’t hear me. “Cai!” I had to yell and splash water on his face to get his attention. I put my hand on my hip and struck the older sister pose.
Cai glanced at me and recognition fluttered into his unnaturally wise, pale blue eyes, as if he had been lost in a different world and the very sight of me had brought him home. I knew that was entirely possible. His light eyes against his silky, caramel skin were haunting and magnetic. My eyes were just boring old hazel, really just brown. Cai struggled to right himself in the water and then shuffled onto the muddy riverbank.

“What are you doing?” I snapped.

“Sinkeliminicky.” Cai spoke his own language. For a split second, I saw red. I took a deep breath. Cai had been using this indecipherable gibberish since he first opened his mouth to speak. My grandmother hadn’t tried to correct him, only God knows why, and he had developed an entire language. Don’t get me wrong; he spoke English too, but sometimes he spoke only gibberish.

“Speak English,” I demanded. My patience with Cai wasn’t stellar on a good day and I was hot as hell and in no mood for his capriciousness, as Grammie called it. It was my opinion that she thought that word meant something different. She thought Cai was just a dreamer. My thoughts were something else entirely. I knew his problems weren’t of his own making though, so I tried to be as kind as I could muster. Today I could muster precious little.

Cai regarded me with confusion and then he smiled his sweet Cai-smile at me and repeated himself, only in English this time. “I was talking to the seals, Callie!”

He was too excited about something that was so ridiculous. The Kennebec River was tidal at Gardiner, so technically a seal could have made its way up the river, but there was no way I was going to encourage him to think that he could hear the seals out in the open ocean twenty miles away. “No you weren’t.”

Cai looked at me expectantly.

I struggled to soften my attitude toward him. “Well, the giant sturgeons are going to eat you up one of these days.” The river was home to an ancient fish who had roamed the waterways of earth since the time of the dinosaurs. Cai loved the fish. I had never seen one.

The thick brush behind us rustled, distracting me. I looked over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of a black jacket and jeans disappearing into the trees and shrubs. I figured it was Jack. He was the only other person I ever saw down by the landing. Jack was an adult and odd in that way that makes you not quite look away, but also never fully engage. He scared most folks, but he seemed harmless to me. Besides, his mother was my boss and the nicest person I knew, so I figured he was all right, even if he did watch me from the woods a little too often for my comfort.

“Yes,” Cai assured me. “I was talking to the seals. They told me that my father is looking for me. He is going to come and visit. And besides, Callie,” Cai corrected me, “those fishes like me; they let me stay.” Cai curled his chilly, bony fingers into my hand.

I glanced down at him as we headed back toward home. “Are you cold?” Even though it was a million degrees out, the river water was always cool, especially when one simply floated in it.

“Nope,” Cai skipped along next to me.

“You need to stop running off in the morning. It makes a pain out of you.”

“Smitiwentelobelow,” Cai answered me.

I rolled my eyes. “What?”

“Smitiwent…”

“English!” I hollered and Cai flinched.

“I like listening to the river and the fishes, Callie.” The corner of his lip trembled and I cursed myself.

I stopped in my tracks and grabbed Cai by the shoulders, squatting in front of him. “Listen to me,” I pleaded, “you have to go easier on Grammie. She needs to know that you’re okay and when you take off first thing in the stinking morning like this, it scares her. Okay?” I studied his wide eyes.

“’Kay, Callie. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. Just don’t run off anymore.” I stood up, grabbed his hand again, and picked up the pace. I only had seconds. I couldn’t be late for work again.

“Similanckulane,” Cai assured me.

I sighed. “Okay, Cai. Okay.” Cai’s gibberish always started with an “s” sound. The last time I had asked him about it, he had grown solemn. He couldn’t explain why to me, so I just stopped asking. My grandmother never questioned him, and my grandfather mostly just wrinkled his nose at Cai, or ignored him completely. I mostly found Cai’s weirdness humiliating.

Cai’s full name was Cairo, as in Egypt. Our flake of a mother swore up and down (for the three days she stuck around after Cai’s birth) that she conceived Cai in the great pyramid of Giza. I knew damned well that Patty had never set foot in Egypt or in any other country, for that matter. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t even be eligible for a passport, if she knew enough to apply for one.

But, Cai was half black. I was as white as a baby’s butt. I think claiming that he was conceived in some exotic locale, like Egypt, was my mother’s ignorant way of explaining her repeat and ever increasingly scandalous, reproductive oops.

Cai’s private language and his darker skin color weren’t my eleven-year-old brother’s most noteworthy characteristics, regardless of Maine’s notorious lack of diversity. Not only did Cai charm and persuade everyone like a pint-sized incubus, but he also knew things he shouldn’t. He knew things about people he couldn’t truly know, and he told them about it at inappropriate and sometimes unfortunate times. And to make matters worse, he was usually right as rain. None of us really liked to talk about it, but Cai sometimes knew the future, and could often tell you what was in your heart before you could.

I secretly liked that part of my odd little brother. My heart had stopped speaking to me before I knew enough to be upset by that fact. Cai would sometimes remind me that my heart was out there, trying to get my attention, even if I didn’t, or wouldn’t, hear it. It was a sad state of affairs to recognize, at almost eighteen, that your little brother was more perceptive than you were, but that’s where I was at for the moment.

Cai knew more about people than anyone I had ever encountered, even the scary gypsy woman at the Fryeburg Fair, who had astutely noted my lack of paternal involvement and my teen angst involving a late period and jerk boyfriend, two years ago. Hence, the birth control pills. I’m a quick study…and my mother’s daughter. Cai was just as uncanny as that gypsy woman, only sweeter. Much sweeter.

Cai always paid attention to every single minute detail around him and never took anything at face value. For example, he didn’t hate our mother. In fact, he loved her. We never saw Patty, but he always talked about her as is if he spoke to her on some regular basis. He was always saying things like, “Mommy wants to come for Christmas, but she’s stuck with the car…” or, “Did I tell you that Mommy bought a new dress?”

The truth was, Patty called occasionally, and she was even sober during some of the calls, but I couldn’t actually recall the last time she called to see how Cai was doing. She called for money or in tears because she had no one else to call. I didn’t even expect her to remember I existed, but I needed her to check on Cai. Patty remembering Cai mattered more to me than if she ever thought of me. Worrying after Cai made more sense than her wondering about me at this point.

Patty had me at sixteen. She was one of those girls who managed to hide it from the whole world until the day she needed to go to the hospital. I don’t know what my life was like when I was an infant, but when I was about two, Grammie filed with child services to have me forcibly removed from Patty’s care. It had to have been pretty bad, because Patty still had custody of Cai, and I’ve seen the crap she’s pulled with him over the years. God only knows what Patty was, or wasn’t, doing with me to force Grammie to take me away from her.

My full name is Calendar. That’s right, Callie’s short for Calendar. At sweet sixteen, all Patty could do for nine months was watch that damned calendar, waiting until her burden of proof was out of her. I guess, she thought it was funny to name me Calendar. I think it says a lot about a person, how they name their children. You name someone Nick, for example, and you set him up to be strong, masculine, maybe a cop or a football player. If you name a baby girl Sarah, she might be feminine, pretty, and grow up to be a self-possessed, successful woman. But, name a child Calendar because you are so self-absorbed that all you can think of is your own misery, and she will grow up to be…well, me. The fact that she named me Calendar was one of the main reasons I hated her. There were many, many other reasons.

Should I be thankful she didn’t just get rid of me when she found out she was pregnant? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve often wondered why she bothered to keep me, once her sentence was over. From what I knew of her, all Patty wanted to do was to get back to being a kid. That never truly happened though; Patty was never a kid again.

Neither Cai, nor I, had a clue who sired us. I was so disappointed with Patty that I held no delusion that my father had been anything other than a misguided teenager, and was now as award winning in the human department as Patty. Cai, on the other hand, spoke about his father, almost as familiarly as he spoke of Patty. On the days he said he was off communicating with the seals about his father’s impending visit, I wondered what Patty had been smoking when she was pregnant with Cai.

The moment Cai came out of her, Patty looked into his odd eyes and swore she would be sober from that moment on. There was something about Cai that made everyone want to be better. Patty brought him back to Grammie when he was only three months old. Patty developed a habit of coming and going, sometimes taking Cai with her, bringing him back weeks or months later. Those times when she planned to leave without Cai, she would hold him and cry for hours. Cai was a beautiful, unexpected enigma who always smiled, never fussed, and had the power to make everyone, even the likes of our wasted mother, believe in miracles.

Cai and I reached the end of Cannard Street, the dead-end road that led to Snow Street, off of which we lived in our deteriorating 1800s farmhouse. Every side street in our neighborhood was a dead-end street, up a great steep hill. It made a lot of sense that we lived there, actually—nothing was easy in this town, in life. Message received.

I nervously eyed my watch. “Can you get home on your own, Cai? I’m going to be late for work if I don’t get going.”

Cai pulled me down to kiss my cheek and then sprinted up the street. I watched Cai’s wiry body race up the hill toward our house, then I turned and broke into a run to make it to work on time.

“Just by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin,” Miss Thib called as I slammed through the door of her convenience store, rattling the welcome bell over the door. “You’re almost late.”

I had worked for Miss Thib for two years stocking shelves, slicing deli meat, and making pizzas for all the other people who lived on this end of town, and for those who traveled through. I scanned the store. There wasn’t a soul in the small, impeccably clean variety store-slash-deli. At that time of day, there should have been half a dozen regulars milling around, self-serving coffee, and ordering egg and cheese sandwiches on English muffins.

“Seems like announcing my tardiness is moot, if I am truly not late, Miss Thib,” I playfully pointed out as I ran behind the register counter to stow my backpack. I raced to the backroom and punched the clock, looking at my time card. “Thirty seconds to spare,” I declared. “Note my use of the SAT word. Where is everyone?”

“It’s the damned heat. No one wants to eat when it’s this hot. How’s your brother?” Miss Thib didn’t miss a thing. She had probably seen me walking by the store on our way home.

“Fine,” I answered, lowering my gaze and returning to the front of the store to begin my morning routine of stocking candy and gum on the shelves that decorated the front of the register counter. Miss Thib knew how weird Cai was, but she seemed to enjoy his oddity rather than turn her nose up at it. Regardless, it still wasn’t something I felt like talking about.

No one called Miss Thib by her full surname. I didn’t even know what her first name was, however I certainly didn’t call her Miss Thibodeau. I couldn’t tell you how old she was, but a lot of our male customers hit on her, which she seemed to sidestep with relative levity. Her flaming red hair, graying as if she were born with blazes on her head that were now just turning to embers, her stylish-but-messy look, and trim figure did make a striking appearance. I looked at her, wondering how Jack had gotten his dark features from her lighter traits.

“I saw Jack just now, down by the river,” I offered. I always tried to tell her when I saw him, just in case he was supposed to be somewhere else.

Miss Thib paused without looking at me and then went back to work. “Oh?”

“Seemed fine.”

“Good.” She failed at her attempt to hide her concern.

I let her think otherwise, and picked up the to-do list that she always left for us by the register. She employed mostly teens, and while most of us were responsible enough to keep busy, I liked to know what my boss’s expectations were.