A Short Story by Katherine Martin
It hasn’t rained in Prairietown since the Indiana State Fair ended. Not since big, capable men arrived in trucks to dismantle the ferris wheel and the livestock tent. Since crickets took the night air back from the clamor of shouts and music played over loudspeakers. Since Megan left for good and Laura stopped talking to her brother.
For three weeks, not a single drop of rain. But now, dark clouds loom low in the sky over the empty fairgrounds. They make the air heavy and quiet, and they smother any sound save for the tufts of grass that crunch beneath Laura’s bare feet. She walks with purpose across the plot of dust and gravel. Chin pointed forward and hands balled into fists in the back pockets of her cutoffs—only stopping to splay her knees in an awkward attempt to peel apart the sticky skin of her inner thighs.
The fairgrounds sit past the outskirts of Prairietown, between a few scraggly acres of woods and the long, flat road that leads west, to other parts of Indiana. Across that road, there is a plain little house with weathered siding. It’s Laura’s house, where she’s lived with Cody and her mother since before she can remember. She and Cody were born in that house, right there on her mother’s bed. Laura came first, mushy and round; and Cody arrived moments later, with jutting bones and long fingers.
Past big, empty barns with steel siding, rusted bleachers encircle the arena where rich girls from the next town over show their horses. Laura climbs to on the highest bench and sits, hot metal nearly burning the backs of her legs.
When Laura passed through the chain link gates of the Indiana State Fair three weeks earlier, things felt different from how they had felt any of the years before. The lights were brighter, in a way that burned her eyes against the comparative dullness of a darkening sky. Megan stood beside her then, eyes glistening with pink and green and yellow. And when she smiled, her teeth flashed too.
“It’s beautiful,” Megan said, and Laura couldn’t help but smile back at her. Laura didn’t remember her own first time seeing the fair; it had always existed for her. But she imagined that—when she did see it for the first time—her baby face had looked something like Megan’s did now. She grabbed Megan’s hand and led her into the pulsating crowd, weaving through people with toddlers roosted on their shoulders and flashing booths—games and prizes and fried food that made Megan’s smile grow even wider.
Megan was new to town. No one in Prairietown seemed to know anything about her; which was curious, because people in Prairietown know everything about everyone. She had arrived on a Greyhound bus nearly a month earlier to work and stay with an old widower. His name was a Mr. Willems—apparently some distant cousin of hers—and he lived alone above the hardware store in town. Just days before the fair began, Megan and Laura met for the first time at that hardware store, when Megan bagged the mouse traps and metallic spray paint that Laura was picking up for her mother. Laura liked her immediately. She liked Megan’s toothy grin and pink nails and the pack of cigarettes that stuck out of the back pocket of her jeans. Most of all, Laura liked talking to someone new. So she took it upon herself to be Megan’s first friend in a new place, and to familiarize her with Prairietown. Since the Indiana State Fair was practically all Prairietown had to show for itself, they started there.
The girls got cotton candy to share, a blue and pink puff shoved into a plastic bag that they tore at with sticky fingers as the sun sunk into the trees, and the fair seemed to grow around them. It wrapped Laura in something specific and familiar that she had been looking forward to all year.
It was growing late when Laura and Megan stood beneath the ferris wheel, watching other girls with tickets clutched in their fists form a queue before a Kissing Booth that was painted with sloppy pink and red stripes. Chuck Tikona was taking his shift on the other side to raise money for the wrestling team, and it seemed to Laura that everyone in Southeast Indiana had shown up to get their turn with him.
“Have you had your first kiss yet?” Megan asked, without taking her eyes off of Chuck as he leaned over and touched his lips to Charlotte Baker’s, tinted purple and pursed too tight.
“No, I haven’t.” Laura said it without thinking, and she immediately felt embarrassment clench around her throat. She didn’t want Megan to think she was lame or prudish, nearly fourteen years old without a single kiss. Megan was looking at her now, and she tried to move the subject away from herself. “What about you?”
Megan smiled, small and almost sad. And, without a word, she leaned across the space between them and kissed Laura right there beneath the colorful, whirring lights.
It was the last thing Laura expected, and she tensed her shoulders at first. But then things seemed to slow—the music warped and her thoughts quieted—and the rapid pace of her heartbeat slowed, too. She closed her eyes and let Megan kiss her, slow and gentle. Megan’s lips were sweet from cotton candy and acrid like the cigarette perched between her fingers.
“Laura?” She pulled away from Megan at the sound of her brother’s voice—snapped back into her own space, hair whipping her cheeks. Cody was there, mere feet from the place where her lips had just touched Megan’s, staring at Laura with wide eyes. Behind him, four of his friends—boys from the cross country team—stood with similarly baffled looks on their faces. Megan threw her cigarette to the ground with a suppressed smile, used the toe of her sneaker to squish it into the ground.
“What are you…doing?” Cody asked. His friends, recovered from their bewilderment, dissolved into smirks and silent laughter that shook their shoulders. Laura stared at her brother, and he stared back.
When Laura ran away from Cody and his big eyes, Megan followed her. They wove through the booths, back the way they came, color flashing past Laura’s vision and running with tears that she hoped no one saw. At the gates, she slowed to a stop, turned to Megan. But she didn’t find her own embarrassment on the other girl’s face.
“That was crazy,” Megan said, a laugh in her voice. Laura couldn’t laugh with her. She kept seeing her brother’s expression—eyebrows bunched together with embarrassment and worry—and the sneers of his friends. Surely the whole town would know about that kiss soon enough. What would her mother say?
“I’m sorry,” Laura said. Quiet, so that she barely heard it herself. “I have to go home.”
“What?” Megan said, but Laura was already gone.
She ran again, this time hoping Megan wouldn’t follow. Through the gravel parking lot, dodging a car or two, lights reflecting off their waxed hoods. Her shoes hit the pavement of the road and then the scraggly grass of the front lawn. She was home, shoving the front door open with her shoulder. She never looked back.
That night, Laura lay in her basement bedroom, and the low ceilings seemed lower than they had before. She stared at the fading glow of the stars she had stuck there. The sounds of the fair across the street crept past the window pane, and she put a pillow over her head. Some time later, Cody knocked at the hollow laminate of the door
“Laura? Are you okay? Laura I know you’re in there. We can talk, if you want.”
Raindrops plinked against the window, and Laura didn’t say anything.
The next day, Megan was gone. She had shoved her things into a backpack in the night, left a note on the coffee table for Mr. Willems. A runaway.
All the people of Prairietown really knew was that one day Megan was there and the next she wasn’t; so they took it upon themselves to fabricate the rest of her story. She’s in the witness protection program. She’s a murderer on the run. She’s a ghost. She’s a prostitute. She’s a Russian spy.
Laura doesn’t believe any of it. Because, no matter how hard she has tried since then, she can't get Megan out of her head. Megan’s kiss comes back in Laura’s dreams, has settled itself in her thoughts, blots out every rumor that she hears. Everything is Megan. But now Megan is gone, and she took the rain with her.
Across the grounds and the quiet ribbon of road, Laura can see her brother’s form take shape on the front porch. Cody closes the door behind him and he starts to run.
Cody is a boy with a body that is made for running. He always runs, like he never learned how to do anything else. His thighs don’t stick together like Laura’s do. When she was running away from him and Megan that night at the fair, she had wished she could run like Cody—like a ship gliding on smooth seas.
Laura watches her brother cross the road and step through the narrow opening in the chain link fence. He tears closer and closer over the dust. He’s coming for her, it’s apparent now, and a heavy pit settles itself in Laura’s stomach. When Cody reaches the foot of the bleachers, he looks up at Laura, his long neck bent backwards in a bird-like way.
“Laura” is all he says. He almost shouts, but not quite. It’s the first word he’s said to her since the night at the fair. Not that he hasn’t tried. The last three weeks have been all pointed looks across the dinner table and knocks on her door late at night that Laura has ignored. She knows that he wants to talk—about her and Megan, and her and him. And she knows that he’ll be kind. Cody is always kind. But she doesn’t know what she would say back to him, so she hasn’t said anything.
Laura regards Cody for a moment before calling down to him. “Yeah?” She has a sense that the word is twisted around in the thickness of the air, becoming muddled before it can reach her brother’s big ears. Cody doesn’t respond, but instead begins to scale the rusted scaffolding that criss-crosses its way up the back of the bleachers.
When Cody shimmies onto the bench at his sister’s side, he and Laura sit in silence together, their legs dangling high over the dust. The quiet weighs on Laura’s shoulders, heavy as the heat.
“Mom said we need to stop coming over here when the grounds are closed. We’re technically trespassing right now,” Cody says finally, like he’s remembered why he came to her in the first place.
“We’ve never gotten in trouble for it before,” Laura responds, nearly under her breath. She watches the storm clouds surge. They are so low that she’s surprised she can’t reach up and touch them. Low like her bedroom ceiling. Sweat beads on her upper lip.
“Well, if you aren’t gonna stop trespassing, we should at least get down from here,” Cody says, matter-of-fact, and he stretches his neck back again in that strange way to look at the sky, “that storm’s gonna let loose any minute and these bleachers aren’t exactly the best place to avoid lightning strikes.”
As if on cue, a single drop of rain falls from above their heads, landing with a metallic clink on the stretch of bench between them.
“Maybe I want to get struck by lightning,” Laura says after a moment, her eyes still locked on the spot where the raindrop fell.
Cody eyes her, waiting for an explanation. When Laura fails to give him one, he says, “Well, don’t expect me to get struck with you.” He scoots back off the bench, onto the scaffolding and begins climbing down towards the dust. Laura waits for a moment, considers staying put as an act of defiance, but she gives up. What does she have to prove to him, anyway?
She follows Cody, carefully picking where to place her bare feet when climbing down. Her dirty toes grip the beams, becoming rusty. A sharp pebble digs hard into her heel when she hits the dust below. The pain takes a moment to hit, so she spends that moment dreading its arrival. When it does, she sucks in a breath through the gaps in her teeth.
“You good?” Cody asks. Laura nods in response, because she is afraid that her voice will crack if she speaks. She just starts walking towards home, and he follows.
As the two cross the fairgrounds, more and more raindrops begin to fall. They hit the sand under the twins’ feet with strange little thumps, almost indistinguishable. Where the drops land, tiny, damp craters form. Until the ground looks like the surface of some strange, minuscule moon. A single raindrop finds its way down the back of Laura’s shirt, and it makes the hairs on her arms stand on end.
A clap of thunder rumbles through their chests, and the sky opens up, showering down on them. Cody begins to run towards the house. And Laura runs too, despite her sticky thighs and her bruised heel and the fact that it’s her brother, not her, who is the runner. She runs just like she did at the fair. But now she’s running with Cody, not away from him. Their feet slam into the ground again and again, creating a syncopated rhythm that sends the dust up into the rain.
When they were seven years old, Cody almost drowned. It was at Chuck Tikona’s eighth birthday party, in a grimy, man-made pond dug out of the dirt in his dad’s backyard. The water was a deep, moss-colored green and the mud below was topped with a thin layer of decaying leaves that softened beneath Laura’s feet when she waded in.
Somewhere between the elated screams of a dozen children, Cody had gotten lost, slipped below the water’s surface. Cody’s body was made for running, not for swimming, and he sank down into the green of the pond without a sound. When they noticed his absence, dove to the bottom and pulled him up, dragged him across the frothing scum that collected where water met scratchy grass, Laura had felt as though her little heart might stop.
“Is he dead?” someone whispered as Chuck’s mother ran for a phone and his brother breathed into Cody’s mouth. He was older, nearly nineteen, and worked as a lifeguard at country club pool two towns over. Dead leaves stuck to Cody’s wet skin in a strange pattern.
Laura watched in a daze, her doughy little girl tummy stretching the fabric of her old Speedo swimsuit. Water spurted from bluish lips with a pound to the chest from Chuck’s older brother. Cody’s fingers clawed at the grass and his eyes flew open, wide and gray like storm clouds.
When Laura and Cody tumble past the front door—all heavy breathing and squelching shoes—Cody looks a lot like he had then, laying in the grass near Chuck’s pond. His mousy hair clings to his forehead and drops of water fall from his lashes. There’s an intensity to the rise and fall of his chest. But this time, he has a goofy smile plastered on his face. And he looks more alive than dead. This time, Laura looks the same way. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror by the front door as they towel off. There’s a gray sort of darkness in the hall, and the reflection is hard to make out. But Laura can see her own mousy, wet hair and flushed cheeks and a soggy striped t-shirt. And gray eyes. The shadow of her round figure looks strange next to the angles of Cody. But still, the two look the same. Because she is the same as her brother. And he is the same as her.
Laura sees him now. He’s the one that understands, he always has been. After Cody almost drowned, Laura sat next to his bed and held his hand, their little fingers braided together like tree roots.
“Hey,” Laura says, and Cody looks up from the floor, where drops from the hem of his t-shirt have pooled on the tile. “I think--I think we should probably talk, you know? I mean, once we dry off.” She feels heat spread across her cheeks.
Cody smiles. It’s a small smile, almost a bit sad. Like the one Megan gave Laura before she kissed her. And he nods.
“Yeah,” he says, his voice nearly lost in another clap of thunder. “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Laura sees herself smile back at him in the mirror. She nods too, and wraps the towel around herself like a cape before crossing the hall to the darkened basement stairs. Down to her room with its low ceilings and its stick-on stars to change into something warm. To piece together the words she’ll say to Cody. To remember that night at the fair, those lights and those sounds and Megan’s kiss. And she knows now that she’ll tell her brother everything that she hadn’t said before. And then, together, her and Cody will find Megan.