“Give it back!” Caroline instantly recognized her younger sister’s shrill voice coming from half a dozen rows ahead. Last period band class had let out a bit late, so a few of Jade’s classmates had accompanied her to the bus stop, where they sat together in a cluster. Now they gaped up from their seats, as Elsie, an obnoxious brute of a girl on the school softball team, taunted Jade.
“Come on, jump a little higher!” said Elsie. Caroline recognized her from the eighth grade wing, where her cackle of a laugh reverberated throughout the halls. At nearly six feet tall, she towered over her seat back as she jiggled Jade’s trumpet case in the air — a bully’s trophy. Her robust arms jerked the case up higher each time that Jade made a reach for it. She reminded Caroline of a frantic bird as she hopped around in the aisle.
“Give it!” said Jade. Her frizzy blond curls jolted with each leap, her dainty armsstretching higher. Elsie was unrelenting and had gathered an audience, the other kids glad it wasn’t them this time.
Up until this point, Caroline had been lulled into a trance by the swaying wheat field outside their window, its hearty emerald blades at a sharp slant, steeling themselves against the breeze. This same hot and persistent wind forced its way into the open windows of the bus — the dense, balmy kind of wind that belonged only to the central plains of Oklahoma. It lifted her auburn waves and exhaled a weighty breath over her face. She had been in the middle of contemplating what exactly it was about this place…
In the small town of Okemah Valley, something about the terrain and the people was just a bit more rugged, more tough, more mean. Caroline thought of the dusty armadillos crossing the road that her mother had stopped for on the way back from the paint store a few days before. They had screeched and lunged toward the car, flaunting their plated shells, while Caroline really knew that their armor served only to distract from their vulnerable underbellies.
It had long been their parents’ dream to buy a place with land for the kids to run around and explore, to have the space to become themselves. They had purchased the property in Okemah Valley for a bargain, as it was a place neither growing nor shrinking, but was thriving as a predominantly agrarian community. Stretches of wheat and canola fields were stitched together by the historic Main Street, still boasting some of its original Western false front buildings with intricate brick patterns and storefront windows glittering like jewel boxes.
This was the end of their second week at the new school, Caroline in eighth grade and her sister, Jade, in sixth. Their two older siblings, Michael and Judith, had been inducted into the mysterious world of high school, their lives becoming more intertwined as they bonded over cross-state road trips for grunge concerts and the passing of clandestine cigarettes. Chase, the baby of the family, had started first grade, leaving Caroline and Jade to navigate together the purgatory that was junior high in a new town. The idea of its strange, awkward, and scary in-betweenness made Caroline quiver. The thought had barely sifted through her mind when she heard the yelling.
Caroline froze, shocked by the scene — her brain couldn’t process that the distraught little figure bobbing up and down was her younger sister. Jade was fierce and mercurial, and had never been subject to bullying. Though small, she was a natural leader, and would effortlessly corral the neighborhood kids for hide-and-seek in their safe cul-de-sac back in the suburbs.
Jade, accepting her physical disadvantage, whirled around, her eyes frantically searching for Caroline. Their gazes met, and Jade’s pleading, liquid amber eyes paralyzed Caroline even more. It felt like one of those dreams where she was on a quest trying to reach her destination, yet she kept getting delayed by a slew of impossible roadblocks. The ferry wouldn’t depart. The car broke down. The muddy river turned thick like molasses. Time itself slowed to a crawl. She opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t will her voice to call out to Jade.
Right at that moment, the boisterous laughter of the kids watching and Elsie’s continued jabs caught the driver’s attention.
“Hey! What’s going on? Back in your seat, now!” he said as he slowed the bus and glared in the rearview mirror at Jade’s reflection, which stared frozen and defeated from the aisle.
Jade collapsed into her seat, arms crossed, and began to tremble. They were coming up on their stop, about halfway through the route, so Caroline quietly began moving toward the front of the bus. Her stomach hollowed, holding only deep despair as Jade slipped from her seat, head down while she made her way to the door. As Caroline passed Elsie’s seat, the girl smirked and thrust the trumpet case into the aisle, nearly tripping her. Caroline scowled back and grabbed the case as she made her way off the bus behind Jade.
Flooded with shame, she said, “Jade, I — “
“I hate you!” said Jade through hot, angry tears. She wrenched the trumpet case from Caroline’s grip and took off in a defiant run, bolting up the gravel drive toward the house. Caroline crumbled inside at the stinging words. Even in their most heated arguments, they had never said this to one another. It was an unspoken agreement that the two of them, navigating this median of adolescence together — not yet women, but having crossed over the threshold of girlhood — would remain a team. Always. This hurt with a pain that she hadn’t known before.
The next morning, Caroline entered the kitchen to find Michael and Judith eating cereal at the breakfast table, the two of them laughing at a photo in the latest edition of Thrasher.
“Zoo York. I don’t ever get these ads,” said Michael, shaking his head. The two-page spread featured a monarch butterfly layered cryptically over the map to an
unnamed city. The veins in its wings morphed into streets, a couple of the lines
transforming into the tributaries of a river snaking along one border of the town. Caroline studied the image for a moment, thinking about the reaches of Okemah Valley. She wondered if it would ever become so familiar that she could draw the streets with her mind, trace the curves of the river from memory.
“Hey, squirt,” said Judith as Jade passed through the kitchen and scooped up her backpack next to the door. Jade turned to face the three of them as they huddled around the table. Her gaze landed first on Judith, then Michael, and finally shifted down to the magazine. Caroline looked up and felt a softness in her throat, knowing that in this moment, Jade had all the power to dissolve the wall of glass that still divided them. She could see her mouthing a response back to Judith, but the volume had been turned off. Caroline’s hope hung in midair as she longed for their eyes to meet, but then she watched on like a distant spectator as Jade turned on one heel, swinging her nest of curls toward the door to catch the early bus to school.
During English period, Caroline grappled with the in-class writing exercise for their assigned novel, The Outsiders. Mrs. Simon had written on the chalkboard in her slanted script, “Compare and contrast two characters from the novel. How do their roles contribute to the story?”
Caroline contemplated Dally’s tough exterior and how he shielded his emotional wounds by living a life of violence and anger. She thought about the interesting tension in his relationship with Johnny, who was more capable of expressing his pain to the world through his vulnerability and sensitivity. The characters were drawn to one another like magnets, for each had qualities that the other sought out. To her, both characters had valuable strengths that contributed to the story. Which was better? To guard oneself and adopt a thorny exterior which, in Dally’s case, had become synonymous with “resilience” or, to bear your pain openly for others to see and understand? This, for Caroline, also meant that you were resilient. It was more difficult to show weakness than to cling tightly to your emotional armor, she thought. She smiled and handed in her assignment to Mrs. Simon, chewing on these questions as she headed home for the day.
She had memorized the bus route by now and decided to try walking home,
navigating by the yellow-tagged stops along the way. After over an hour of walking and a couple of recalculated turns, she finally saw the house set back off the road, beckoning to her like a beacon. The golden hour sky had deepened to a burnt ochre and the lights of the house beamed out against it, reminding Caroline of a jack-o-lantern.
After making it inside the refuge of the property fenceline, she noticed for the first time a faint footpath that veered off one side of the gravel drive and sloped down into the sweeping field that ran alongside the house. This was the first time she had ventured away from the flat, grassy table that held the sprawling gray farmhouse and main yard. The heat of the Indian summer had burned well into the day, making it pleasantly warm, the breeze now tempered by the stillness of late afternoon. The footpath divided the recesses of the land, leading Caroline to a spot where she could see nothing but the landscape in all directions from a slight ridge balanced over two bowl-shaped fields.
Peering down into one of the sweeping dishes, she stood in awe of the tiny sparks of light all around, yellow orbs pulsing like a nebula suspended just above the ground. The fireflies seemed to move in unison, their blanket of light dipping every so often to dance atop the blades of the swaying Johnson grass. The sky had now turned to a molten crimson with swirls of copper clouds hanging right above the earth, heavy as if they were the force pushing the sun ever lower toward the horizon.
Caroline turned in a slow circle and took in the rest of the scene before her with a dreamy gaze. The ten acres were glossed with golden mounds that gave way to low thickets of green brush clumped along one side, all cradled by a white pipe fence. Hackberry trees leaned from the banks of the creek and dipped low over the water, their branches forming snaking tunnels along its path. Coral and fuchsia wildflowers dotted the rolling landscape, growing more unruly near the water’s edge.
Caroline straightened, snapping out of her trance and swerving around to look up toward the house for anyone else who had witnessed the magic of the fireflies’ dance. As quickly as they’d emerged above the grass to hover in their silent glow, they continued their ascent up into the sky, perhaps to float among the stars.
Caroline felt an instant urge to find Jade and recount the scene, as they often would do in these moments — they were always the first to tell one another about a new hide-and-seek spot or a secret crush. She began retracing every detail with her mind, and then noticed a small tug aching beneath her breast. She felt betrayed and duped, a stone landing in her gut as she remembered their argument.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, replaying Jade’s hurtful words for the hundredth time. She turned back along the ridge, following the path up to the house, the moon now rising to quench the warmth of the afternoon. Now she moved along the walkway leading to the front steps, hearing the voices of Michael and Judith as she neared the screened porch.
“Should we scare the shit out of them?” she heard Judith ask. “This place can be pretty spooky at night.” They were conspiring over cans of beer on the front porch swing, gazing through the open front door at Chase coloring on a large pad of paper while Jade flicked through TV channels. With their parents spending their first night out since the move, they saw a perfect opportunity to antagonize “the three little ones,” as they still called them.
“Nah, I think they would blackmail us,” Michael said, nodding toward the two Bud Lights already crushed against the table, as if making them smaller were any less obvious. “I’m trying to talk Mom into letting me take my bike out to the lake trails this weekend.” Caroline startled them as her head popped up from the darkness of the front steps.
“Jeez, Care, where have you been?” asked Judith. “We were worried about you.”
“Just exploring,” answered Caroline. Her eyes were beginning to feel heavy from the long journey home.
“Ooh, little pioneer girl”, Michael teased, jabbing her lightly in the arm.
“Something like that,” said Caroline, smiling.
“Mom and Dad went out with the Smiths after work,” said Judith. “Come inside and have some pizza.”
Caroline followed them into the living room, where the pizza box still lay open on the coffee table. Looking around, she realized that for the first time, they were all together in this new place, surrounded by the vastness of the land. Somehow, they were still penned in in a peculiar way that felt comforting, rather than isolating. There were layers to the spaces around them. The great expanse of the town of Okemah Valley, its fields with rows of crops stretching out seemingly to infinity, the sweeping pasture of their property, a boxed stronghold with its unwavering fence line, the charming front yard glittering with dandelions where they were already planning family picnics, the porch a cozy retreat for cooler nights. And finally, this room, where the sturdy white beams of the vaulted ceiling stretched around them like the ribcage of a warm, gentle beast, embracing them as the new pulse living within.
Caroline was shaken again from her thoughts as Chase let out a terrified yelp and scrambled onto the sofa into a panic, his drawings left scattered to one side.
Jade followed, her legs quaking as she climbed to the arm of the sofa for a better look. “Oh, my God, get away from it, I think they sting!” she said.
“What the fuck is that?” said Judith, backing away toward the wall by the kitchen.
Marching in a straight path along the base of the coffee table, its erect tail waving like a scepter, was a sand scorpion the size of a teaspoon making its way through the center of the room. The elusive creatures had only ever appeared on TV and in the occasional nightmare. It seemed to have materialized out of nowhere in the living room. Michael, who had pronounced arachnophobia, had already bolted for the front door, his chest heaving with deep, panicked breaths.
The scorpion now challenged them from the middle of the living room floor, raising up slightly on his legs, pincers swaying in a side-to-side rhythm, as if commanding his subjects from the throne. His glassy amber shell glistened under the light of the TV. Careful not to startle the self-appointed chieftain, and frankly, not knowing how to handle the intrusion, the four of them shuffled their way along the wall past the kitchen until they were out on the front porch.
Judith tucked her legs up next to Michael on the porch swing, stroking his back to help slow his breathing. Chase joined them there, nestling his small frame into the space that remained in the corner of the swing. Caroline took a spot on the adjacent bench next to the three of them, pulling one of the porch blankets out of its box. Then, she felt a warm body next to hers and recognized the sweet scent of Jade’s apple shampoo. She wrapped the blanket around the two of them, cradling her under one arm. There, they all sat in silence until they saw the sweeping of headlights as their parents pulled into the drive.