The box was hot and rusted. I turned it over in my hands, the iron hinges squealing, the fragile flakes of rust chipping off and spiraling to the soil. I looked inside, and, nesting cozy with folds of preserved silk and linen, lay the most hideous thing I had ever seen. I shut the box violently, snapping the lid down on escaping fabric and caustic malodor, red silk pinched tight while I refastened the clasp. I tucked the box under my arm like a football and sprinted down the trail through haunting pines and cedar trees, rain falling hard through gaps in the canopy and streaming down my shoulders and back. The trail was littered with roots, vines, and dead fall, but I hurdled and side-stepped, spun and twisted, and fast as a spooked deer, made the road into town.
During the school year I lived in Mobile, Alabama, a bustling coastal town, but in the summers I took a bus two hours north to stay at Grandpa’s farm in Big Bend. One of the main reasons I looked forward to those summer months was March Florentine. March was just a year older than me, the daughter of Mario and Celia Florentine, who ran the farm down the road from Grandpa’s place. She knew all the best swimming holes, the fastest shortcuts, and could easily knock a coke can off a log with a slingshot at fifty feet. I always looked for March through the tinted Plexiglas of the bus when I finally arrived, scooting up to the edge of my seat, my breath fogging up the glass, my hands nervous and squirming like caterpillars on newly exposed, white thighs. Inevitably she would appear, blonde hair whitening and green eyes squinting in the Alabama sun, cut off jeans, and a striped tank top exposing thin freckled shoulders. On afternoons after chores, March and I would jump and run from burly pirates, our secret mission to retrieve the treasure chest, ripe with gold and silver bullion, and return it safely to our invisible hideout. We would dive headfirst into Stripling Lake and throw water balloons at cars from red clay bluffs. And eventually, as the drowsy sun lay down at the edge of corn and cotton fields and the mosquitoes began to bite at our sunburned and dirty skin, we would migrate home, parting ways at rusting mailboxes, fingers untangling as our feet patted barefoot to separate paths.
The summer before, when I was twelve and March thirteen, our relationship had taken a slightly awkward turn. It wasn’t that our friendship was flagging; it was just that March was acting different, brushing her hair different. She wasn’t wearing makeup yet, thank God, but wearing her clothes different, sitting different, and worst of all, wearing a bra.
“Over the shoulder boulder holder,” I rhymed. “Only you don’t have any boulders.”
“You wait until next year,” March said. “then you’ll see.”
“See what?” I picked up a rock and skipped it across the surface of the lake, ripples colliding between hops.
“Go to hell,” March said, crossing her arms and walking away.
When the bus pulled into A&P this year, I searched the parking lot feverishly for March. Usually I could spot her even before the bus made the wide turn off the main road, but this year I only saw my grandfather, hands locked behind his back, standing as erect as in his Navy years–chest out, stomach in.
“Where’s March?” I shouted at Grandpa as I jumped around through assorted suitcases and trunks looking for my bag.
“Throw your bag in the back and get in Tripper,” my grandfather and March were the only two in town who still called me that. “Hurry up now, I’ll tell you on the way.”
March Florentine ran away five days ago, I found out. My grandfather chewed out the story slowly, carefully. He was smoking a cigarette with his window cracked open, air conditioning blowing hard on my knees, and I wanted to ask a lot of questions, but I felt nauseous and kept staring vacantly out the window of the Ford pickup. We passed over the Tombigbee River on an old metal spanning bridge, the cool water making its lazy curve, and I spotted an alligator climbing out onto the bank and disappearing into the high grass and weeds. The ashtray, garbled with butts, jumped and shifted as we made the transition from bridge to pavement.
Grandpa told me about Celia crying in his kitchen, desperate for answers, and I imagined her trembling, holding vigil for her lost daughter in a blue nightgown, tears furrowing through cakey makeup, hands wrapped around a short glass with nothing but ice rattling inside. He also told me about her father Mario grinding up the roads day and night with Sheriff Glanson, searching for anything, and I could see them in my mind, spotlighting through sweet gum and drive of Grandpa’s farm. I blinked, caught a smoke-filled breath, and all I could see was my pale refection hanging there in the dirty glass.
First thing in the morning, I remembered something. I leapt from the top bunk, threw on shorts, and bolted past Grandpa at the stove where bacon snapped and popped in the black iron skillet. I ran outside barefoot and shirtless across the lawn, hurdled Skinner’s creek, and veered down the trail. Sharp rocks cut into my tender, wintered feet, but the thing I remembered urged me on. At the bottom of the hill, I turned off into thick underbrush at a hollow, moss covered stump. Now, new spring vines snaked between ferns and newborn sapling shoots and cut at my ankles and shins as I ran. The distinctly thick smell of virile soil, rich with decay, was overwhelming in the humid, morning air. Just before the land dropped again and became swamp, I scrambled up on a fallen swamp cedar, out of habit mostly, having grown tall enough to reach the lowest branch from the ground, and quickly climbed up to unbolt the bottom hatch of our invisible hideout.
Every year, the hideout looked a little smaller, a little closer to the ground. Inside, the plywood floor was covered with blankets and sheets, and a hand-sewn crimson quilt my grandmother had made–given to March the year she was born– wound in a spiral at the center, as if by a visitant dog turning circles before bedding down. Radiating out from the quilt, the fort was littered with trash: coke cans, snack wrappers, magazines, empty cans of Raid, paper plates, plastic utensils, and dirty clothes. Our pirates’ gold, a handful of leftover Mardi Gras coins, shined dully in loose constellations. A dark knot of towels sopped in the corner. Above the mess on the floor, a square hole had been cut into the sturdiest wall, and a cros-shaped frame of cotton gum branches was glued to the center. White linen napkins draped from thumbtacks completed the picture window, pink ribbons pulling them aside in soft, fluttering curves. The window gave view to the swamp, water elms, and cypress trees wading quietly in murk and rot.
On top of a rotten milk crate, a yellow envelope sat pressed between the blade and handle of our folding trowel. My name was etched neatly across it in black ink, my full name: George M. Bedford III. I snatched up the envelope, ran my finger through the gummy seal, and unfolded the single sheet of thin yellow paper.
Sorry I missed you this year, but lots of stuff happened since you been gone. I have gone to hide out at the beach. You can’t tell NO ONE!!!! I ain’t coming back for a long time. If I see your house down there, I will put a letter in the mailbox. I have only seen it in pictures, so I might not know which one it is.
Ps. I borrowed the treasure chest. Don’t be mad.
I shoved the letter into my pocket and squeezed out of our hideout, ferreted down to the swamp cedar and leapt off, my legs twisting in the air even before touching the ground. I sprinted the trail and pounded numb feet back to the farm.
When I returned, Grandpa was sitting with Sheriff Glanson sipping coffee and smoking. Glanson was an old friend of Grandpa’s from their Navy days. His graying hair and moustache bristled like a grooming brushand his heavy frame spilled out from the white pine kitchen chair. “Grandpa, I think I know where March is,” I announced, breaking up their conversation.
“So do we,” Glanson said.
“You missed breakfast, Tripper.” Grandpa said.
“We picked her up last night,” Glanson continued, grinding out a cigarette. “She was clear down to Minnow Bay, trying to hitch a ride further south.”
“She’s alright now, Tripper.” Grandpa reached out a twitching hand to my shoulder. “She’s home safe with her mamma and pop.” I could smell moonshine through the coffee on Grandpa’s breath. I put my hand in my pocket with the letter, rubbing the thin, smooth paper with my fingers.
“Now wash up and get your breakfast.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said.
“I made breakfast and you’re gonna eat it! Now you wash yer hands and eat that goddamned breakfast you little…”
I didn’t hear the rest. When the swinging door shut behind me, the words became muffled and distorted. I went out the front door and skirted that edge of the yard, darting out of sight onto the path to the Florentine farm.
After Glanson found her, March wouldn’t come out of her house for days. I went over and knocked on the door every afternoon after chores, but Celia would only say that she was resting and that I should give her time. So I began going back out to our hideout. I went back and began cleaning. I collected all of the trash, scooped it into a bag, and hiked it out to the dumpster behind our A&P grocery. I slung all the blankets over my shoulder and took them home while Grandpa was out, washing them in the claw-footed bathtub, returning the crimson quilt Grandma had made to Celia. I swept out the floor with clumps of olive pine needles, and I stole a combination lock from our trunk in the attic for the bottom hatch. The only thing left, the thing I had been avoiding everyday, was to get rid of the dark stained towels. I knew it was blood, I had known right away, but something inside me was unwilling to think about what that meant. I buried the towels at the edge of the swamp, scattering leaves and branches over the disturbed earth, and then clicked the lock shut, one hand clutching the lock itself, the other spinning the memory of the combination away.
The weeks of summer crawled on, and March remained holed up in her room. A drought was steadily burning up the crops, zero precipitation for the month and two inches behind, but worse, six inches behind for the year. No rain was forecast. Grandpa and Mario never had the money to put in the elaborate watering system that some of the other farms relied on, and they watched helplessly as their investment began to wither and brown. In early mornings they had begun channeling water from Skinner’s creek into the fields, but it wasn’t enough. The temperature rising with the sun was incapacitating, a hundred and ten degrees, and by midday we all huddled in the kitchen with box fans, glasses of coke, and damp rags. In late afternoon, when the air would become heavy and thunder would throw teasing rumbles across the fields, I started heading back to the woods.
Smoking cigarettes I had slipped from Grandpa’s carton, I retraced all of the paths March and I had worn through the trees. I went to Skinner’s Creek, Stripling Lake, and the red clay bluffs and rotting swamp. I walked the dusty gravel roads and the dirt paths, sputtering my breaths when trying to inhale. I even caught myself playing one of our old childhood games, running and jumping from pirates, searching for our lost gold. But this time I decided to become a pirate myself, squinting to look tough, lighting a stolen cigarette, and mapping out possible burial sites for the bullion. I threw rocks and dirt clods at the invisible hideout, yelling threats and obscenities through the shroud of leaves, proclaiming my evil plans.
There were several places that March and I had buried the treasure chest. Some of them we had used frequently, but most were just random clearings in the woods, magical patches of soft earth and sunlight. I went through the common ones right off, digging a few inches down and deciding by the feel of the soil that no one had been there recently. Then I fanned out to more obscure spots, but found only worms and roots, rusty cans and roly polys, centipedes and slugs. For a few days I abandoned the search to go swimming, the lake water so warm from the heat.
But one afternoon, with a darkening sky overhead, I left Grandpa sitting expectantly on the porch, eyes turned up to the pregnant clouds, and I went back to the trails. The air hung rippled with electricity. As I walked, I thought about March. I had been thinking about her every day, wondering if she would ever, ever come out, but today I thought about years past, about the times we’d played together, and about the times we’d held hands. And of course, I thought about the end of last summer, when we’d started to watch each other change after swimming, and for the first time I wanted to kiss her, her white blonde hair pulled back behind her ears and her tan freckled shoulders and her breasts beginning to show. And then that night just before I went home, the first and only time March and I spent an entire night together in the hideout, when we tried out all sorts of things. I wondered if my freewheeling sense of exploration that night had something to do with this nightmare we were now in.
I ended up at the hideout as the thunder began in earnest, rolling out in the distance like a train. I knew I couldn’t open the lock I had attached to the hatch, so I climbed out limb over limb, making my way above the hideout walls. From there I shimmied out over the skylight, a gap between boards we used as a roof, and from there, I lowered myself in. Everything inside was as I had left it, and I sat down next to March’s makeshift window, staring out. The edge of the swamp had receded fifty yards in the drought and a skeletal root system was left exposed. Raindrops began to patter on the roots and dry ground, sucked up and swallowed as they hit. And then I saw it. Pushing my face into a corner of the window, I could see the top half of our treasure chest, wedged into a clutch of cypress roots.
Knowing how much harder it was to climb out of the skylight than to climb in, I started kicking at the bottom hatch with my heels. The wood was bruising and needling splinters into my bare feet. Thunder rumbled closer now and rain began to come through the skylight on my back, head, and shoulders. One heavy kick with my weight behind it and the hatch popped open, the lock and hinge dangling useless from the also dangling hatch, blood smeared across the pine, and me, born helpless through the hole and crying out as I crashed from cedar to dirt. And the dirt stuck to my body, wet with sweat, blood, and rain, while I gasped and wheezed, trying to regain my breath. Pulling myself up, I stood dazed, wiped off my eyes with the back of my hand, and walked through the strengthening rain to the box, our treasure chest.
I was halfway to town when I stopped running, my heart and lungs shuddering and heaving, the rain steady and lighting crackling across the sky. I walked a few minutes, catching my breath and passing the silver guardrail, until I came to the middle of the bridge and stopped. Pulling the box from under my arm, I placed it on the wet, metal railing and looked out at the water elm and cypress trees, the possum oak and pine, with limbs gently reaching out over the river like outstretched hands. Looking down at my own hands, I realized they had grown. They were as large and strong as any man’s. The quiet clay banks guided the amber water, beginning to swell and quicken with rain, along the curving course of the Tombigbee. I watched a lone alligator, seeming to guard the river itself, and took the chest back into my hands. It seemed that the chest suddenly weighed a hundred pounds for all it contained. Rain hung heavy in my bangs. And as I threw the chest over the rail and into the river, I could hear my grandfather’s songs, deftly picked melodies in my head. I stood erect, chest out, stomach in, on a metal spanning bridge with rippled water pulsing beneath, and allowed those songs to radiate across my body. The notes were pure and true.
Murray Dunlap’s work has appeared in about fifty magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, as well as to Best New American Voices once, and his first book, -an early draft of “Bastard Blue” (then called “Alabama”) was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction. His first collection of short stories, “Bastard Blue,” was published on June 7th, 2011 (the three year anniversary of a car wreck that very nearly killed him…). The extraordinary individuals Pam Houston, Laura Dave, Michael Knight, and Fred Ashe taught him the art of writing. His web site is www.murraydunlap.com.