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Blaire Hanvey, MS2, Pediatrics

The line of headlights snake through the yellow oaks and black pines — pushing west, slicing sky. Red-clay hills cradle a swollen sun, and dusky moon creeps above the treetops. In the ditches by the roadside, ten-thousand crickets hum a lullaby and rock the world to sleep.

But lullabies and fireflies can’t chase away the ghosts – neither can the tears hot with salt and questions. Some will sleep with pills tonight; others with glass bottles wrapped in paper bags and memories they pray will go away. Old women – strong as whalebone and oak – will clutch Bibles older than these hills, and babies younger than tomorrow will lean on mothers’ breasts. And Evan’s mom, well, she will learn to sleep alone.

Ten feet ahead, Ms. Hattie’s pick-up truck blows smoke and rattles like a screen door in summer. The 1969 Ford has a cracked window and a peeling inspection sticker – dated 1994. Ms. Hattie usually takes the backroads; tonight, she will take the highway.

We inch onward, rubber tires chewing broken chunks of asphalt, choking on gravel and dust. We pass Mr. Freestones’ vegetable stand and the Johnson’s Stop n’ Go. The lights are off; the parking lot is empty.

Up ahead in the oncoming lane, a station wagon pulls off the road and squats in the untamed weeds. Briars scrape the bottom of the car, and a mother -with two kids strapped in the backseat- climbs out, closes her eyes, and prays. I roll down my window and drink the November sunset. Reds, yellows, oranges – they rain down and warm me – just before colliding into soil. The colors escape between dry cracks in the clay and run off to the riverbed—just like all the other leaky dreams that wash and leave this place.

August, 5 years earlier

They all look the same… double-wide trailers crouched in clay that grow weeds and cans and cigarette butts. But, I need to see them – all of them. My kindergarten students lay down to sleep in these spaces – some in beds, others on the floor. To understand my students’ stories – the nightmares and the dreams – I have to shuffle in their homes.

I sit on the lip of a blue plaid couch. Old cheerios peek between the cushions; a broken crayon juts from a ripped corner. Giggles and thuds roll down the hall from a back bedroom.

Across the living room, Evan’s mother pries her child’s fingers from her cotton dress and makes a hundredth plea. “Evan, Mama’s tired. Please, now, you go and play.” Evan clings a little tighter, slipping behind his mama’s thick, broad back. Evan’s eyes, glassy like marbles, peer around a hip. I can’t help but notice the messy hair, the delicate freckles, and the space that marks a missing tooth.

“He’s been like this for months,” his Mama says. “I ain’t seen nothin’ like it.” She sighs, slaps her knees, and then offers me sweet tea and Coke. In this land, by the riverbank, a glass of “something” is a prerequisite to telling truths and lies. With liquid sugar on our palates, we amble outside, past the broken screen door, and bury ourselves in a concrete stoop. Evan follows and stuffs a thumb into his mouth.

The August heat is suffocating; it takes a steady paycheck to pay for cool “bought air.” A few stiff breezes slap our cheeks, but our faces still sweat and drip like the sides of our tea glasses. Mrs. Jones chatters about the new job she just started and the deer she hit last Saturday, but I don’t hear her. I’m watching Evan. He strikes me as a fragile thing – this sack of skin and bones and untied shoelaces. I close my eyes and think of that last long note stretched over fiddle bow and string, the one that quivers in fog and moonlight before escaping into clay. I tighten my eyes and try to hear it, but alas, all is quiet.

Today, I’m trawling for stuff you cannot find in a mother’s frazzled words. No, I’m digging for reaction, gesture, emotion, and tone – all the things a child leaves unsaid -the stuff that gives their wispy bodies real weight and voice.

But Evan, who stares into the horizon, is empty.

Three weeks later, school starts, and I tell Evan I like his taste in shoes: blue leather high-top paired with yellow SpongeBob sneaker. He nods, and one corner of his mouth curls into a smile. I ask him where he found such shoes –maybe they have my size. He tells me he doesn’t know, but if I’m interested, there’s a pair in his book bag just like them.

On the playground, Evan slips into pretend spacesuits and jumps into invisible rockets. He chases lions, scales the mountains, and swims to California – all alone. Tucked inside the book corner, Evan hums. Occasionally, he murmurs the vroom of a racecar or the whinny of a horse in his fort. But mostly, he just hums.

In October, when the clay hills shake and the leaves rain down, Evan’s house burns down. My phone rings and Ms. Jones cries, but she tells me they didn’t lose much. “After all, chile’, there wasn’t much to lose.” Cards and casseroles flood the classroom. Anna’s mom brings a sack of old clothes; Carlos donates the bouncy ball he won last week at the fair. Someone calls a prayer meeting.

On Tuesday, Ms. Jones tells me she drove out to the site where her home once stood. She was searching for papers and photos, but all she found was clay, and ashes, and a cast iron pan. That pan is over a hundred years old – her grandmother gave it to me, you know and “it still cooks the best cornbread you ever ate.” She laughs and invites me over for dinner. There’s a paper-thin slice of silence, and then she finishes, “when we get ourselves a home.”

At school, Evan is still the same. He loves SpongeBob and big books and the messy PB&Js in the school cafeteria. Music is his favorite elective, but Art runs an awfully close second. Today, he’s painted a self-portrait; his arms and legs are sticks, but his jet-black eyes rest inside a head as large as Memphis. I notice he’s drawn a tiny smile just above his chin line. He tells me he’s not finished. Evan’s fingers dive through a shoebox full of crayons; he sifts them like women picking through tomatoes, and pulls out a fat black one. Back and forth, Evan’s fingers sweep across the page, leaking black and gray all over his colorful crayon body. Five minutes later, thick dark lines bury the crayon boy with coal eyes and a secret smile.

“Tell me about your picture,” I press.

Evan nods. “It’s me.” He points to two sneakers that poke beneath thick black lines.

“Hmmm…” I offer.

Evan gives me a little more. “Sometimes I see black. You know, when you get all mad and real hot. People like me see black.” I have so many more questions, but the alarm I set starts buzzing. The kids close up their journals; they know it’s lunch time.

One week later, Evan has a secret for me. He grabs my hand on the playground and pulls me to the edge, where mulch and weeds collide. He does not ask for a “pinky square;” he just tells me it’s “kinda important.” I lean in to hear his whispers. “I think Mama’s mad at me,” he starts. “I kept getting out of bed last night. I needed water, you know. And to pee. And so, mama put my head in the toilet. And flushed it.”

Steam rises up like Alabama heat on pavement. For a moment, I see black. “Tell me more,” I whisper. But Evan assures me, there’s nothing more to tell.

It will be my first call to the Department of Social Services, and the words stick to the back of my throat like wet leaves. I punch out the numbers two –no, three- times before I ever let the phone ring. A young woman answers. My voice – scratchy like ground glass – stumbles through the story.

Two weeks later, Evan’s mama shows up at my classroom door. Her hair, strewn with silvery grit, rides down her neck in one thick braid. She is wrapped in coat, and scarf, and deep thought, as she stands in the doorframe, watching me.

Fighting fists are futile. For a moment, I have the urge to tiptoe and retreat. I sense her space and thoughts and silence are sacred ground, and I am the meddling tourist that demands some answers.

I motion for her to join me at the back table. She eases into a plastic chair – made for smaller bodies – and shakes my hand. I notice her fingernails are red. They drum awkwardly on the weathered tabletop, a contrast to the wrinkled skin, sagging cheeks, and tired eyes of this woman whose fingers burn with polish.

“Ms. Hanvey…” she starts. “I just wanted to say thanks for making that phone call. When I was thirteen, no one cared about my bruises.” Ice curdles in my stomach and telegraphs up my spine.

In February, when snow dusts the meadows and the Johnson grass, Evan moves in with his MeeMaw. They drink hot chocolate and tell stories and make snow angels – Evan’s arms and legs rake up just as much gravel as snow. At school, Evan talks about his new room and his new bed – he’s never had a bed before.

In March, when the weeds and daises explode across the hilltops, two boys from Evan’s trailer park chase him through the woods. The biggest boy throws him to the ground and sits heavy on his arms. The other thrusts a penis down his mouth. The neighborhood kids tell their mamas, but Evan tunnels into silence.

In the classroom, I reach out to a million specialists and vow to fix it all. I hoist his buckled body from the dark corner that offers escape; I catch him when he slumps to the floor in another tantrum. I give him safety, and smiles, and attention, and another promise to make it better. But, when the child with coal-like eyes walks out my doors in June, he’s just walking wounded.

The line of cars crawls up the highway and rolls into a gravel lot. I pull in and squeeze between two oak trees, because there’s hardly room to park. In the cemetery, gray headstones throw their bony backs up towards the moon. In the corner, there’s fresh dirt.

Gravel grinds beneath high heel shoes and workmen’s boots as the crowd pours into the church. In the foyer, an old man slumps against his walking stick — head down, eyes closed. What else can anyone do tonight but break a stick and lean?

The sanctuary is scattered with familiar faces — a co-worker, a school principle, a student from years ago. Other faces are less familiar — a young mother who tucks her infant around her flannel dress, an old man who walks behind his wife as she takes tiny, halting steps down the aisle.

Sweaty, pulsing bodies press into every pew. In the corner, the town drunk crouches in yellowed shadows. The nail heads in the weathered pine floors push up; the child beside me tries to drum them back down.

I can’t help but notice the roses. Some stand up in vases; others rest on windowsills. Some are tucked in Coke cans taped with cards that read, “We love you.” Others sleep against the soft yellow pine of casket.

The pastor lights his candle – a cigarette lighter will do – and passes on the flame. Candle wick touches candle wick, and the bulbous glow of candle and chaos light up the stained glass windows. The light keeps walking -candle tip touching candle tip – and the whole place blazes like ten-thousand fireflies. Some old woman in the back – with a voice that crackles like dry leaves – throws her head back and sings, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years.” An old man joins her – voice weathered like sandstone and gravel – “bright shining as the sun.” Other voices – some soft as cotton and others sharp as paring knives – wrestle the stones in their throats and sing. Hot tears weld themselves in the cracks between my eyelids. Perhaps, I think, the shadows aren’t so scary.

I close my eyes and remember the phone call from a few days before. It was a late night call –after 11, when it’s never good news – from the parent of a former student. “Ms. Hanvey, this is Melissa. Something bad- real bad-has happened.”

He was found resting in the grass, she tells me -white body lying in the moonlight, slow breath on pallid lips. And his mama’s heart pills – they sat opened on the sink.

I see Melissa now, just across the aisle from me. She’s holding a sleeping toddler in the cranny of her breasts, soft baby skin against throbbing heartbeat. Outside the window, someone flicks the flaming nub of a Marlboro across the parking lot. I’m immediately reminded of the frozen night and the ghosts that wait for me at home. This candlelight is just a fleeting thing – it can’t chase the ghosts forever. So, tonight, I, like the rest of the world, will lock my doors and sleep with open eyes.

In a lonely church on the west side of clay hills, 200 people confess over hot tears and candlelight. Tonight there is no blame. Tonight there is no crime. We hug and squeeze, and trade melted memories. For a few seconds, we laugh and find release, but tomorrow, we know that we will grieve. We will shake fists at our defected plans and curse the fibers that broke “our” child.

I slip out into the cold, thin night. In the ditches by the roadside, ten-thousand crickets hum a lullaby and beg the world to sleep. But the hills, they are too broken, for melodies and moonlight. “Lock your doors tonight, Ms. Hanvey,” croons a broken, lonesome voice. In the shadows, I can see her tucked between two pine trees – cigarette twisted between thick fingers. A spark flies into the night. It’s Evan’s mama, and her voice drops an octave. “Now, you be safe, you hear? Those ghosts, tonight, are prowling.”