“Hey hey, guys,” Mr. Whitlock crowed, and motioned Sam and Trina inside the house with the spatula he held in one fist. Toad’s uncle was a big man with a handlebar mustache and any number of blurred and explicit green tattoos lacing his arms. They looked like they’d been drawn there by a child, quite possibly a drunken one, and Toad had long ago informed him it meant his uncle had done various stretches of county time. “Back before I came into the picture,” Toad said. Mr. Whitlock had, over the years, insisted that Sam call him by his first name, Stacy, but somehow Sam just couldn’t do it. He looked fearsome, even more so than Sam’s dad, and like a man who brooked absolutely no shit. But a Stacy? No.
It was Saturday; Gary had pulled a sixteen-hour day at the gear shed stripping the boat the day before and was at home sleeping. He had left a ten dollar bill on the kitchen counter beneath the phone—the resting place for missives and communiqués in the Finster house—and Sam had taken Trina out to breakfast at the Riptide Diner. They drowned their pancakes in syrup as Trina signed at great length about the possibility of getting a Cabbage Patch Doll for Christmas. He was happy to listen to her; this was how Trina glossed over her anger, how she forgave him. Their mother had been the same way. She was not one to apologize, like, ever, but it was through small deeds, small kindnesses, that what was strained was eventually repaired. Or at least glossed over. Maybe not the best way to do things, but it was what it was. After breakfast, with the sun shining in silvery wands through the scurf of clouds, they had walked to Toad’s place before heading over to the park. Sunlight threw daggers off the wet and glittering streets; if it stayed like this, the conditions would be perfect.
Trina walked beside him with a pair of Barbies jutting from her jacket pockets like little naked torpedoes. At one point she reached up and took his hand in hers, wordlessly, another emissary of apology.
Toad’s house had been orange once, like a shout sent out against the dreariness of the town, but salt and sea and time had done its work, and beneath the cap of roof the house now was the faded, wind-worn color of sherbet. A leaning dollhouse with a few of its shingles lying glittery and broken in the yard, the steps of the front porch furred in green moss. Mr. Whitlock’s Harley sat under a blue tarp in the driveway.
Inside, the house was much like Sam’s own: past the scuffed, bone-yellow linoleum of the covered entranceway, it was a warm place heavy with the odor of cigarette smoke and the whisper of mold. Inside the living room, electrical tape lined a crack in a windowpane. Both Toad and his uncle worked at an auto shop on 101, and boxed car parts sat on the kitchen table amid a scattering of tools resting on newspapers. And yet, for all its coarseness, there were signs of domestic life here that were absent in his own. From the kitchen he heard soft flurries of jazz saxophone from a radio. The air smelled of breakfast, bacon and eggs. A whiff of laundry detergent. The Whitlock’s orange tabby, a turgid stray that both Toad and his uncle called Shitneck for reasons that Sam could never fully surmise, meowed and spooled itself around Trina’s boots, and she smiled as she crouched down to pet the cat.
“You guys want breakfast?” Mr. Whitlock asked. “I got eggs. I got bacon. Does Trina want some juice? Oh wait, shit, we’re out. She want a pop?”
“We’re good, Mr. Whitlock,” Sam said. “We ate down at the diner.” Shitneck purred and kneaded the floor in front of Trina’s rain boots.
“Todd,” Mr. Whitlock called out. “Visitors, bud.”
A reluctant mumble came from Toad’s room beyond the kitchen.
“I’d say you guys can just go ahead and go in, but he’s got a padlock on those doors,” Mr. Whitlock said, flipping an omelet in the pan, his bicep jumping like a baseball under his sleeve. He ashed his cigarette in the rusted bowl of a hubcap that sat next to the radio. He turned to look at Sam and winked. “Between you and me, he’s got himself a bit of the brown bottle sickness this morning.” He turned the burner off and craned his neck. “Todd-o, I’m serious, get your ass up, you got company.”
Toad stepped out of his room and into the kitchen, thumbing sleep from his eyes. He wore boxer shorts and a Misfits shirt and a pair of filthy socks sagged around his ankles. He looked, Sam thought, undefended. Like a giant baby, actually. Trina looked up from the cat and laughed quietly when she saw him. Grinning, she signed something to Sam in a flurry, the three of them watching her.
Toad said, “I didn’t catch that. She’s too fast, dude.”
Sam put his hands in his pockets, casting a glance at Toad’s uncle, smiling and suddenly a little shy. “She said that when our dad looks as bad as you do, it means he drank way too much the night before.”
Tumquala Park could be considered such only in the most generous of terms. It was a park the way a slab of concrete could be considered a playground, or a hole in the earth could be called a swimming pool.
Near a fire hydrant stood a small mounted placard, its metal face long since grown a lustrous and oxidized green, that gave a brief and, in Sam’s opinion, all too blasé account of the Tumquala Massacre of 1858. A remembrance purchased, so the placard said, by the Tumquala Indian Tribe. Judging by the sodden weariness of the park, the tribe had had a budget of about six and a half dollars. Still, in spite of how much it sucked, and how un-parklike it actually was, Sam thought of it as Trina’s place, and liked coming here with her. He’d spent a fair amount of time here as a kid himself, and it was one of the few places where Trina seemed to enjoy herself, to unabashedly act her age.
They had stopped by Selwicky’s on the way and raided its dumpster for flattened cardboard. Both Sam and Toad carried armloads of the stuff while Trina walked between them, her pink rain jacket singing in the gray light of early afternoon.
The park faced Hastings Street and was bracketed by gravel roads on two other sides. To the west, facing the sea, was a deeply arching clay hill with a series of rickety wooden steps inset into one side. At the top of the hill lay massive thickets of blackberry bushes and, beyond that, the cliffs and thin stands of pine that led to the beach near the Wolf Point turnaround. The park was not large. Besides the hill itself there was a pair of swings, their chains so rust-clotted that Melissa would never let Trina swing on them for fear of her fingers getting pinched and the ensuing tetanus shots. “They give you shots in your butt,” Melissa had warned her, and that had been enough for Trina to stay away. The park’s only other structure was a covered circular bench that was probably supposed to look like a rocket ship but instead looked like a grayed wooden bullet standing on its base. The darkened insides were a haven for spiders. In many ways, the bullet encapsulated the whole town: worn down, good-intentioned, but obviously well past its prime.
The part of the park that Trina loved, and why Sam considered it her park, was the hill. The weather had remained cooperative—the rain had rendered the hillside slick, layered in a sheath of mud, but hadn’t started up again. From the top of the steps to its base near the rocket ship, the hill’s height was significant. It even held a slight divot in the center, a shallow trench worn smooth by decades of asses, both children and adult.
Sam and Toad leaned the extra cardboard against the bullet and lit cigarettes as Trina took one of the flats and carefully clambered up the steps.
“Toad!” she cried out, waving, when she got to the top of the hill. “Toad, watch me!” Between the danger of the hill, the spiders hidden in the splintery bullet, the rusty swing set, and of course the requisite filth and mud, Melissa Finster had not been a huge fan of Tumquala Park. But as Trina hopped on the cardboard and rocketed down the hill, a Barbie clutched in each fist as her hood fell back to her shoulders and her hair flowed behind her and she loosed one of her rare, unlovely and joyous screeches, Sam thought his mother was wrong about the park. It was a good place. Trina came to rest in the slurry of mud at the bottom of the hill and Toad laughed smoke from his mouth. “She’s already covered in mud, dude. After one run. That’s hilarious.” Trina ran over to them, shoved a Barbie in each pocket. She smiled at Toad and pointed at the hill.
“I know!” he said. “That was some crazy shit, dude.”
She leaned her cardboard against her legs and signed something with her muddy hands.
“She wants you to go down with her,” Sam said.
Toad squinted and blew smoke from the corner of his mouth. He ran a hand over the stubbled side of his head. “I got to work later, Trina. See, I’m wearing my work clothes.”
“Please?” she asked.
Toad laughed. “You keep going. I might work up to it. I’ll watch you.”
They smoked as Trina slid down the hill again and again. The sky kept teasing them with brief flurries of rain that never lasted more than a minute or two. After a dozen runs, Trina was slathered in mud from head to foot and half of her cardboard sleds were reduced to sodden scraps.
“God, that kid is awesome,” Toad said around his cigarette. “Cracks me up.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, and for a moment was poised to tell Toad that he couldn’t go next summer, that the Trip—the cross country trip they had been planning since they were freshmen—would have to wait. That he couldn’t leave his sister, his dad. That they needed him here. Travel around the country after graduation? Follow the Ramones on tour, like Toad wanted to do? Shit. There was no way. It was just the three of them now; all they had was each other.
And then Trina fell.
One of her Barbies must have fallen from her pocket. The doll lay toward the top of the hill, resting splay-legged in that shallow rut that had been worn down over time. Trina walked up the steps and, as the rain suddenly let loose a downpour so sudden as to make a sound like an animal hissing, like oil in a pan, she gingerly stretched from one of the steps out onto the hillside itself, leaning over with her hand out, reaching for it. Toad took a step forward and said, almost conversationally, “Oh, she’s gonna bust her ass.” Immediately Trina’s feet went out from under her and she fell forward and knocked her chin loud enough for Sam to hear her teeth clack together. She slid down the hill backwards on her stomach, fishtailing, her jacket rucking up around her shoulders.
Sam and Toad bellowed with a mad, terrible laughter—one that Sam would have sworn belonged to fright more than anything—even as they ran out to help her. She lay curled at the base of the hill, rain sizzling around her, a small divot of blood already welling on her chin. Sam picked her up, and she tucked her head into his chest and bawled. Mud had turned her hair into clotted dreadlocks, but the rain was already washing it away.
The three of them ran inside the bullet, Sam carrying Trina, Toad first wildly swinging his arms inside to clear any spider webs.
Sam leaned down on a knee and tilted Trina’s chin up. A dot of blood bright among the mud, a watery thread of it that ran down onto her shirt. She was blubbering and red-eyed.
“It’s okay, Trina,” Toad said. “It’s cool.”
What did you hit your chin on? Sam signed.
I don’t know. I just fell. And I saw you laughing! Her ice-blue eyes were confused and hurt and above the roof of the bullet it roared with rain and his sister had her hands on his shoulders, crying, getting mud all over him, and he hugged her close. She was a slight weight that leaned against him, a weight nearly inconsequential. Christ, like she was mostly jacket. He felt blisteringly ashamed at his earlier resentment—he would take care of her. He would protect her. He would pick up Gary’s slack. She was so little, and she was nine, and afraid, and they had only each other now. He thought, I’ll do anything to make her safe. He could feel the tiny bones of her shoulder blades beneath his hands as she wept against him.
“I’m so sorry I laughed,” he said, and then pulled away from her and signed it.
It’s okay, she signed back. She took a shuddering breath and wiped tears from her eyes with the tips of her middle fingers, a surprisingly adult gesture that set his heart to hurting all over again. I bet it was funny.
But I shouldn’t have laughed. I’m sorry.
It’s okay, Sam. She could sign his name, those three letters, as fast as any word.
“Sam,” Toad called out. “Check this out.”
Toad had stepped from beneath the bullet and was standing, legs braced wide, on the hill where Trina had fallen. He held Trina’s Barbie in one fist.
“Come on up the steps. Check this out.” His voice was strange and compressed beneath the hissing rain. “Be careful.” Toad was getting drenched and seemed entirely unconcerned about it.
Sam hiked Trina’s hood over her head, not that it mattered at this point, and they carefully walked up the steps together holding hands to where Toad was crouched in a three point stance on the hillside. The world was suddenly flash-bright with lightning and then a handful of seconds later a booming crack of thunder that made Trina’s eyes go wide. Even with the blood still welling on her chin, she looked around the park with a dazed, gleeful smile on her face: she’d felt the vibration.
“Dude,” Toad called out, “I think she whacked her chin on this.” Rain fell in a string from his hand where he pointed.
“Don’t fall,” Sam said.
“I’m not going to fall,” Toad said. He pointed to a small, gnarled bump in the clay.
“What is that?” Sam peered over, not wanting to risk stepping off the stairs.
Raindrops jumped silver on Toad’s back. He dug his thumb into the earth and pushed a plug of loose mud away. He used the Barbie as a tool, jamming her legs into the crease and flinging more away. Trina watched, frowning.
“I’ll get you a new Barbie, Trina,” Toad said absently, still digging. “This one’s about shit the bed anyways, I’d say. Pneumonia, for sure. Nude. Covered in mud. Boobs hanging out everywhere. Totally unrealistic-looking body type. Super shitty haircut.” He wasn’t even listening to himself, and Sam had to hope that Trina wasn’t trying to lip-read.
“Seriously, what is that?”
Toad had sheared a sizeable clot of mud away, and leaned over and handed Trina the doll. On the hill where he crouched there was a dull yellow amid the red clay, and even from Sam’s vantage point he could see that it was smooth, minutely ridged. Toad crouched over it with his mud-clotted hands resting on his knees.
Sam was covered in mud, soaked through. They were standing in a downpour. Trina was bloodied, still crying a little bit.
“That’s not a . . .” Sam said. “Holy shit, man, what am I looking at?”
“You know what you’re looking at, Sam.”
“I know. Exactly.”
It was a bone.
The yellowed length of an arm bone, a leg bone. Something.
Toad scooped more earth with his free hand.
Next to the first one, this one unmistakable: the dark, curved hollow of an eye socket. Yellowed as newsprint and filling with rain.
Trina had found a skeleton buried in the hill.
KEITH ROSSON is the author of the novels THE MERCY OF THE TIDE (2017, Meerkat) and SMOKE CITY (2018, Meerkat). His short fiction has appeared in Cream City Review, PANK, Redivider, December, and more. An advocate of both public libraries and non-ironic adulation of the cassette tape, he can be found at keithrosson.com.
Adapted from The Mercy of the Tide, by Keith Rosson, Copyright © 2017 by Keith Rosson. With the permission of the publisher, Meerkat Press.