Fields of Tall Grass

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The sweet, suffocating embrace of nostalgia didn’t really hit Alex until he left the highway behind and eased onto the old dirt road. Nothing about Dallas, Texas, triggered any memories in him—his foster parents had rarely taken him or his current sibs to the big city, even though it was less than half-an-hour from their rural route—but this dirt road had carried his life’s blood for two magnificent years, the very point at which he became a teenager.

There, right there, the mailbox still stood. And in the unseen distance, two miles over the most winding, hilly dirt road in existence, he would soon arrive at the old farm house and its sixty-acre spread. Alex knew intimately every pond, cliff, tree and twig across that two-mile walk, and thousands of other trees and twigs for miles around.

“It’s smaller,” said Dennis, the nineteen-year-old in the passenger’s seat. He looked younger, in his white wife-beater and low-riding baggy jeans. Straight outta Compton, although California was one of the few places they had never visited.

“Yeah, it is,” Alex responded.

Dennis’s iPod was plugged into the car’s tape deck, currently blaring “Rock the House” by Gorillaz, a surreal counterpoint to the antique surroundings. Not that hip-hop had been a foreign idea during those childhood days, just not Gorillaz. Alex remembered walking to the hidden spring with Jenny, often all seven days of the week, listening to the local radio station on Jenny’s Walkman, strolling side-by-side so each of them could have an earbud. Back then they’d shaken booties to the Fugees, Tupac, and sometimes Fiona Apple when Jen was in the mood to hold hands.

Eight houses, six states, two coasts, two knife wounds, one broken wrist and a college degree later, it was still the memory of Jenny’s hand that soothed the savage beast. There, right there, the roadside ditch where all the kids smashed bugs against the big cement boulder, while Alex and Jenny looked on and shook their heads, saying they were too old for such nonsense. They were both 13. The moment was frozen in amber and had been waiting ten years for him to drive by and reclaim it. Even “Devil’s Haircut” by Beck, which had been playing on Jenny’s Walkman at that very hour, was trapped in the amber.

“I gotta pee,” Dennis said.

“Shoulda thought of that two Mountain Dews ago.”

“Pull over.”

“Stop it.”

“Hey, pull over!”

“I’m not pulling over so you can pee on the side of the road. We’ll be there in ninety seconds.”

“Come on, man! You don’t even know if the water’s turned on at the house.”

“If it’s not, then you can go outside and pee.”

“So it’s okay to do there but not here?”

Alex shot Dennis a look. “YES.”

“Shit.”

“You can do that, too.”

Then they arrived at the gate. Only sarcastically could the place be called a farm; nothing had ever grown on this land except weeds, and state-entrusted children who grew like weeds. The grass on either side of the gravel road had once been ragged and neglected, but now it stood as high as the car window, wild like wheat though it was nothing more than rye. Alex had expected no less. He drove through the barbed-wire gate, which was already open.

A touch of panic grabbed hold as he slowly pulled the car over the first hill and saw the farmhouse. He sensed Dennis panicking as well. Good times had been had in these fields, but nights and mornings in the farmhouse were not so pleasant. Mr. and Mrs. Cormick had been, to wear out the cliché, evil. Alex had Mr. Cormick to thank for his second knife wound.

“We cool?” Alex asked Dennis.

“Yeah,” Dennis said softly.

Alex was expecting a brattier response from his foster brother, but for just a moment, all his posturing fell aside, leaving only the eleven-year-old boy who had once been purposely thrown into the barbed-wire fence after he accidentally tipped over a coffee can filled with nails into the tall grass. If Dennis had been standing there, he would have dropped the old man who called himself Dad right onto his ass. But he hadn’t been standing there.

Two cars were parked in front of the old barn, across the yard from the house. Alex parked next to the silver Lexus and got out of his rented Taurus. After Dennis shut his door, Alex locked the car. He laughed at himself for thinking anyone would rip off his car in the middle of such thinly populated prairie land, but he had spent as much time growing up in Detroit, Atlanta and Seattle as he had in dumps like this and would always lock the doors, no matter what, for the rest of his life.

Dennis asked, “We bringing in our stuff?”

“Not yet.” Alex had told Dennis they should plan on sleeping at the farmhouse for the night—neither of them had cash to waste on a hotel room—but a wise voice inside prepared him for the possibility that an extended stay would not be, psychologically speaking, a good idea. Now he was here, he was glad to have a fall-back plan. No building ever felt less inviting, although objectively, gaziantep escortları nothing that happened in the past was the house’s fault.

Walking on uneasy feet, Alex followed the paved path, through the overgrown garden, to the front porch. Despite the ratty conditions of the fields, the house seemed to have been fairly well kept. Had the door frame always been beige? Alex couldn’t remember, but it did seem to have been painted within the last few years. Apparently, Mother Cormick had done what she could to keep the place tidy right up until her demise.

Alex pulled the screen door open. “Hello?” he called through the open front door.

“Alexander Ponti?” said a voice from the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Alex answered. “It’s me and Dennis Hernandez.”

The lawyer, Bill Kayhill, stepped into the hall, wearing a sharp-looking business suit and tie. “Come in, come in,” he said. “After all, it’s your house. Good to finally meet you.” He shook both boys’ hands.

“Thanks,” Alex said. He felt woefully underdressed in jeans, a red t-shirt and sneakers. Dress for the job you want and not the job you have, they told him in college, and apparently he wanted to be a cashier.

“Thank you,” Dennis said.

They moved through the kitchen to the dining room. Two thick stacks of papers, a few folders and other loose sheets were sprawled across the old, smooth table.

“Are you here alone, Mr. Kayhill?” Alex asked, wondering about that second car.

“At the moment, yes. Jennifer and Becky Josephson are walking around the grounds somewhere.”

Dennis snapped his head up. “Becky? She’s here?”

“We didn’t know they were coming today,” Dennis said, finding it hard to swallow.

“Oh, I didn’t mention it? Anyway, yeah, they said they wanted to see you. Jennifer already signed her paperwork, but I had some more questions for her. The junk cars in the southwest corner were left specifically to her.” He grinned. “Is there a problem?”

Dennis could barely contain himself. “Did they say which way they were walking when they left?”

“Afraid not. They should be back shortly. I apologize, Alex, but I’ve got to be in court in south Dallas at 2:30. Can we go over the papers right away?”

“Sure, of course.”

Dennis went to the living room to watch TV, although he had to settle for broadcast channels since the cable had been shut off. Alex allowed Mr. Kayhill, who spoke very slowly, to explain each document and point out where Alex needed to sign. At the end of twenty minutes, most of the papers were back in Mr. Kayhill’s briefcase, with several left as duplicates for Alex’s files. This meant, of course, that Alex would have to start keeping files.

“I still wish I knew why she picked us,” Alex said to himself.

“Not my job to know such things,” Mr. Kayhill said. “Plus… with Mrs. Cormick, I pretty much did as I was told. She wasn’t one for discussion.”

“Got that right.”

Alex asked a few closing questions about real estate holdings—specifically, how to unload the entire place for cash as soon as possible, if, you know, the need should arise. Mr. Kayhill didn’t bat an eye, having already prepared forms for such a line of inquiry. Meanwhile, Dennis stood by the window at the front of the house and watched for signs of the returning girls. Finally, the legal whatever was finished. On the front porch Mr. Kayhill shook hands a final time, then drove off in his Lexus, leaving behind what must have been Jennifer’s car, a dilapidated Pontiac Grand Prix with no hubcaps. Just looking at it made Alex’s heart leap. It was Jenny’s car, it belonged to Jenny.

“What kind of last name is Josephson?” Dennis said from the garden path.

“A white name. Slow down.”

“Let’s go!”

“Denny, we don’t even know where they went.”

“The spring, you dumbass! They’re at the spring!”

Alex laughed. “Alright, alright! Jesus.” He wasn’t concerned by the fact the girls could be anywhere within a five-mile radius, because getting lost on the property was exactly the thing he’d looked forward to ever since the first phone call from that lawyer. He and Dennis would go for a stroll, and if they didn’t find the girls, they’d meet them back here at the house. Then he had an idea. “Dennis, I bet Jenny’s looking at those junk cars right now.”

“No way, bro. They’re at the spring.”

“Well, you go to the spring. I’m going to the cars.”

“Come with me, man!”

“Don’t be an asshole,” Alex said in his least scolding voice. “Whoever finds ’em first, bring ’em back to the house.”

“See ya!” Dennis called cheerily, already sprinting across the grass.

Alex ran trembling hands through his hair. “Jenny,” he whispered, then started southwest.

*****

Dennis took off like a hunted deer across the grass fields, dodging trees and leaping over gulches, feeling very good. His baseball skills had earned him a scholarship to the local junior collage, back in his and Alex’s current hometown of Ithica, New York, but just one year ago it had been track and field competition and training that had kept him the fastest runner on the baseball team. Every single time he put his feet in the blocks, most often for the 200-yard dash, he imagined he was about to outrun Mr. Grissom. That was his foster dad before he came to the farm, and he had been one mean son of a bitch.

He tripped as he ran, because his jeans were too long and loose. The fall didn’t cause any injuries, but he did get his cover his shirt in brown dirt. He dusted himself off as best he could, then kept jogging. Nothing would deter him from the spring.

“Becky!” he shouted when the spring was in view, or rather, the outcropping of trees that surrounded the secluded, almost subterranean spring and adjacent pond. “Becky! Hey, Becky!”

“Who is that?” shouted a voice from beyond the trees.

Dennis kicked back into a sprint. Once he stood at the cliff’s edge above the spring, he looked down and saw a woman wearing a white tank top, black jeans and a few pieces of leather on her right arm. Her curly black hair bounced all around her very pale face. She stood with her jeans rolled up to her knees, ankle-deep at the pond’s edge. When she saw Dennis, her darkly painted lips burst into a smile.

“Jenny!” Dennis shouted. He scrambled around the cliff to the hillside, making his way toward her.

“Dennis!? Is that you?” She stepped out of the water, onto mossy rocks.

Dennis dashed around the pond’s edge and crashed into the girl he once called his big sister. They embraced tightly for several long seconds. “I missed you,” Jenny said in Dennis’s ear.

“I missed you, too.” He broke away. His smiling face beamed.

“You’re taller than I am!”

“I know!” Dennis flexed his arm muscles.

“Oooooh…” Jenny gave them a squeeze. “Basketball?”

“Baseball, chica. All the Hispanics play baseball at my school.”

“Now let’s see… You’re nineteen? But dressed like a gangster.”

“Yup. And you’re twenty-two and dressed like the Grim Reaper.”

Jenny laughed but seemed a bit embarrassed. “Hey, now. I like how I look.”

“I do, too. I think you’re beautiful.”

“You sweetheart.” Jenny flipped a lock of his thick, black hair back from his eyes. “Look at you. Just one year older than Becky.”

“And you’re one year younger than Alex.”

“That’s right.” She smiled that pretty smile again, and for Dennis, a decade melted away in a flash. Jenny appeared caught in a time warp of her own, looking right through Dennis somehow but also seeing him as he was. She put a hand to her mouth to hold back tears. “Well, we survived.”

“Hell yeah,” Dennis said in a muted tone, though he intended to sound tough. He wasn’t feeling very tough, not in this place.

“You came with Alex?”

Dennis wagged his eyebrows. “You wanna see him?”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Well, duh! And you wanna see Becky.”

Dennis nodded. “Yeah.”

“We didn’t know if you were coming with Alex or not. She’ll be surprised.”

“No she won’t. She knew I was coming.” Dennis folded his arms and grinned a secret grin.

“Yeah, she knew.”

“Alex, like, looked for you guys. For years.”

Jenny bit her bottom lip. “I figured.”

“Josephson. No way on earth we would’ve come up with Josephson.”

“Hey, we’re as surprised as you are. They’ll be plenty of time to tell stories.”

Dennis took Jenny’s hand. “Let’s get back to the house!”

“Absolutely.”

*****

Alex’s heart beat faster as he waded through the grass to the Graveyard, which is what the kids used to call the old car collection in this corner of the property, in part because Mr. Cormick had buried an old horse there and placed a marble marker over the grave. The kids used to climb over the cars, and also the grave mound, with absolute disregard for their own safety. It was in the backseat of the windowless Crown Victoria that Alex, age 12, masturbated for the first time. He’d had no idea at the time what he was doing, but he returned to that car many times in his last year to keep doing it. That sexual thrill returned, and coupled with his anticipation at seeing Jenny again, the stress on his brain was almost unbearable.

But the girl he saw sitting on the hood of the rusted old Camero was a redhead, dressed in a dark blue baby-doll and khaki shorts. She wore dark sunglasses and appeared completely at peace with the mid-afternoon sun and the gentle breeze teasing her curly locks. A unwrapped bar of Hershey’s Special Dark sat on the hood beside her.

“Becky,” Alex said when he was almost standing right next to the car.

“Aiii!” Becky screamed. She sat up and gasped. “Alex!” She scrambled off the car, tossed her sunglasses to the ground and barreled into his arms. “Oh my god!”

Alex hugged her fiercely. “Holy crap, Becky, you’re all grown up!” He held her at arm’s length and found he had understated. The gangly, gap-toothed Irish girl from ten years past had been replaced with a magnificent young woman with fashion sense and unholy curves. Even her smile conveyed a depth of intelligence that simply isn’t found in the face of an eight-year-old. Only the freckles on her arms and her bright blue eyes betrayed that this was indeed the little girl who used to call him brother.

“I’m missed you so much,” Becky said. “I missed you so much.”

“I missed you, too, kiddo. I’m sorry.”

“Huh?”

“I’m sorry, kid.”

“Oh, come on. It’s okay.”

But Alex had more to say, and not many words needed to say it. He took Becky’s chin in his hands and lifted her eyes toward his. “I’m sorry,” he said, almost whispering.

Becky burst into tears. She buried her head against Alex’s chest and sobbed until she made his t-shirt wet. All he could do was hold her gently, stroking her hair the way he used to.

In that instant, Alex was transported back to 1996, to the time when he and five other foster kids called this farm home. It was the first time he truly felt like the other kids under his roof were brothers and sisters, after years of pinballing through the Texas DFC system. Those two years were a roller-coaster ride of verbal abuse and neglect, which made them cling harder to one another. Then one day, after flying under the radar of the drunk Cormicks as best he could, Alex was in the hospital and everyone else got shipped off to new homes. The following fall, Alex met Dennis again when they attended the same school, whose foster situation had gone from bad to worse. They realized they really were brothers, not just best friends. Without a word to anyone, the 13-year-old Alex took 9-year-old Dennis in one hand, a suitcase in the other, and headed east. They spend many more years in foster homes, but always together.

Alex never heard from the other farm kids again. The toddlers, Mary and Bailey, would be 14 and 15 today, older than Alex had been when Mr. Cormick attacked him. They might not even remember their time on the farm or the six kids who raised and protected them. As for Jenny and Becky, he missed them every day. Night after countless night, he and Dennis would lie awake at night and talk about life would be if they’d all four stayed together. It was obvious Dennis still crushed on little Becky, and Alex couldn’t blame him. He felt the same way about Jennifer. They’d never been brother and sister, not really, just cellmates.

He never even got to say goodbye. He hoped that the girls had both gone to the same home, and even this very minute, with Becky in his arms, he didn’t know if that had happened.

“Becky,” he said, “did you and Jenny go together to the same family?”

“Yes,” Becky said through sobs. “We got adopted.”

Alex buried his face in Becky’s hair and almost wept himself. “Wonderful,” he said.

This made Becky cry harder. This went on for a few minutes, and then abruptly, Becky wiped her eyes and asked, “Did Dennis come with you? Is he here?”

“Yeah, he’s here. He went to the spring to find you.”

“I knew it!” she laughed. “I guessed wrong.”

“He’s probably back to the house by now. Where’s Jenny?”

“At the spring. I bet they walked back together.”

“Then what are we waiting for?”

Becky squealed and hugged Alex again. She took him by the hand and broke into a run, dragging her big brother behind her.

*****

Becky and Alex were barely within visual range of the house before Dennis and Jenny ran to them full-speed. Dennis arrived first, and he and Becky crashed together so hard they almost fell to the ground. Dennis lifted the girl in his arms and spun around. Becky laughed and squealed, protesting not one bit. They smiled and stepped over one another’s words, but Alex didn’t pay attention. He only had eyes for Jennifer.

Visionary, angelic, exciting in a new way thanks to her new gothic sensibility, the girl possessed him heart and soul from that moment on, for the rest of his life. She ran up him and, slipped into his waiting arms and burst into tears. Alex wrapped himself tightly around her, tighter than any girl he’d ever dated. She meant more to him than all of them combined, than anyone else on earth except maybe the two kids giggling ten yards away in the same field. He let out a deep, cleansing sigh of relief, and Jenny did the same.

“I really thought I’d never see you again,” Jenny said.

“Thank Mrs. Cormick,” Alex said, then instantly regretted it. To bring that horrible woman’s name into this sacred moment was a sin, even if it was technically true. Whatever compelled the old woman to leave this place to both Alex and Jennifer in her will, the truth of it would probably never be known. What mattered was that she had, and that these four were together now.

Dennis and Becky walked and skipped in the direction of the small lake to the west, holding hands and laughing. Jenny, following their cue, took Alex’s hand in hers. The two older “siblings” enjoyed a leisurely pace.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Alex said, in a rare moment of poetry. It was the first thing that came to mind.

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