fiction by Carli Moses

Sissy discovered the bookworm first. Back then, no one visited the library more often. But I guess I was there too. At six years old, I didn’t really offer much help in the sleuthing department— too young to give any advice, but wild enough to make her life more difficult. As the little brother, that was just the way I liked it.  

Our parents went out cruising on the weekends, so Sissy took over all child rearing duties. Every Saturday morning, we marched from our house to the library. She refused to get a late fee just because of a hanger-on like me.   

Her sharp eyes spotted him long before mine. A topiary clipped into the shape of a worm. The new inhabitant of our library lawn. He stood about as tall as a truck. A pair of glasses somehow rested on his face, suspended without the support of a nose or even ears. Still, the worm looked through those glasses, staring down at a green paperback beneath him. Like The Very Hungry Caterpillar had chewed his way through storybook pages and out into our world. 

He wore a mean expression, which undercut his whimsical air. If you’d asked him, he wouldn’t have admitted that he was clipped from a bush. He’d have told you that he existed from the dawn of time. That which is, was, and forever will be. An East Tennessee Ozymandias. 

For a while, Sissy and I just looked up at the hedge. His green leaves fluttered in the morning breeze. Creeping forward, I reached out and plucked one off, prompting a hiss of disapproval from my sister.    

“Don’t touch him, Jamie! We don’t know who he belongs to!” 

I nodded, rubbing the leaf’s waxy surface between my fingers. 

“Put that down! Here comes Mrs. Atwater. She might not want us to mess with him.” 

The old librarian hobbled across the street to meet us. She stared down at her feet, carefully measuring each step. Sissy and I loved Mrs. Atwater to pieces. We’d come to a decision on the matter long ago. Her hair puffed up like snowy cotton candy. Her voice sounded like the warbling of a dove. 

“Good morning! I see you two beat me again! I’ll have to start getting up earlier if I wanna catch you guys . . .” 

“Well, we probably don’t have as much to do as you. I’ve just gotta drag Jamie out of bed and then we can leave.” 

Sissy pointed at my pajama-pants. We got in a fight every time she tried to wash them. Sonic the Hedgehog raced across the fabric in a blue blur. I didn’t like to imagine him getting drenched in the soapy water. 

“I wish I could work in my pajamas, but I don’t think the folks at City Hall would like that too much. Granted, they never come by, so they might not even notice that — my goodness!” 

Mrs. Atwater had seen the worm. A hand flew to the necklaces that hung over her liver-spotted chest. Sissy stuck out an arm, prepared to steady the shriveled lady if necessary. I kicked a pebble across the sidewalk. 

When she regained her breath, Mrs. Atwater jumped into accusation mode. 

“Did you kids bring that thing here? What on earth would I want with something like —”

“No, m’am. We didn’t bring him. I thought you bought him or something.” 

“Why, I didn’t buy him. It must be something from the city. A new art initiative, maybe. No one tells me anything anymore.”  

“I’d make sure to tell you everything if I ran City Hall.”  

For a moment, Sissy went on reassuring Mrs. Atwater, mustering up all the emotional intelligence available to her twelve year old self. She could be a real suck up sometimes. In our family, all the people pleasing fell to her. I guess I got off kinda lucky. People just assumed that I wasn’t built to please. So big sister was left on her own, most of the time. 

“You guys? Hey! Hey, you guys?” 

Sissy and Mrs. Atwater looked down at me.

“What’s his name?” 

Mrs. Atwater blinked a few times. Her eyelids strained under the weight of lashes too dark to be her own. She placed a single hand to her forehead, like an Old Hollywood actress about to swoon.     

“Why, I don’t know, child. I don’t guess he has one, unless the person who dumped him here gave him one.” 

“Can I name him?”  

“Well, I don’t see why not. If you want to name him then I guess he’s yours to name.” 

The weight of a newfound responsibility settled on my shoulders. I squinted up at the worm again, knowing all at once that his name wouldn’t come easily. Sissy must have sensed my struggle, or guessed by the pinched look on my face.     

“C’mon, Jamie. Let’s go inside. You can think on his name while I look for more books.”

I nodded and took her outstretched palm. A gentle grip enveloped my hand as we followed Mrs. Atwater inside. As soon as we walked in the door, I lost Sissy to the books. She disappeared behind the cherry wood shelves. I could hear her every once in a while, whispering the title of an unread novel before sliding it out from its spot. Meanwhile, I sat upfront with Mrs. Atwater. The old woman busied herself with library business, typing at a keyboard with a noticeable lack of expertise. She’d lift one finger, painted red like her lips, and press a key like someone trying to poke a black bear. Or maybe brown, since those are really the ones to keep an eye out for.   

A table covered with little books sat near the door. The visitor’s section, designed for the benefit of tourists who might wander into the library on a whim. I made my way to this spot. After grabbing a fistfull of pamphlets, the sound of Mrs. Atwater clearing her throat stopped me in my tracks. 

“Only one brochure per visitor, sweetie! That’s library policy.” 

She aimed a wrinkly finger at the list of rules taped to the wall. I couldn’t read yet, so only a few letters on the sign stood out to me. A few days before, I’d practiced my capital “N’s” at the kitchen table, making all the corners extra pointy for good measure. Sissy had seemed pleased with my progress.  

I knew there wasn’t really a brochure limit. Most kids can spot a made-up rule. The smaller the ear, the more likely it will prick up at the sound of a white lie. I still loved Mrs. Atwood, though. She didn’t mean any harm, even if she was trying to ration my brochure intake. With a sigh, I slid the papers back across the table.  

“Thank you, dearie. Now, you can pick one to take home with you, but wouldn’t you rather find a book? Or maybe a video to watch?” 

I shook my head, offering up a silent “no” before turning my sights back to the brochures. As far as subject matter went, the table was mostly boring stuff. Local attractions like The Lost Sea Adventure and Southern Craft Barbecue, offering half-priced tours or two briskets for the price of one.   

I didn’t have any use for discounts. But one smaller pamphlet caught my attention. A lizard gazed from the front cover, looking out at me with the slightest hint of a smile. His eyes smiled too— dark ones, all pupils, with no whites to break up the depth. His skin looked wet and shiny, like someone dipped him in vegetable oil beforehand. 

“Jamie! Are you ready to go?” 

Sissy’s voice shook me from the lizard reverie. She was trudging to the checkout table, arms weighed down by hardbacks. For most people, Mrs. Atwood had a “three-books-at-a-time” policy, but Sissy transcended that rule. The old librarian knew that, no matter how many books she took home, all would return the day before their due date, tucked through the slotted door early that morning. 

“Yeah, I’m ready.” 

The beeps of the barcode scanner echoed behind me. I reached up and snatched the lizard brochure, feeling the slick paper between my fingers and thumbs. Sissy slouched over the checkout table. Her spine looked like the letter S— the result of a bad case of scoliosis, back locked in a perpetual squiggle of some sort. 

“You know, sweetie,” Mrs. Atwood said, sliding one book after another under the red light and into a bag, “I’ve heard that wearing a corset can help young people with posture problems.” 

She reached over and held up a paperback from behind the desk. On the cover, a man with a big, naked chest was ripping the clothes off some lady, revealing a white garment underneath. 

“See, this is what they look like. You could have your Momma tie it from the back in the morning.” 

“Thanks, Mrs. Atwater. I-I’ll think about getting one, I guess. Come on, Jamie. We’d better get home before it gets too late.” 

Sissy grabbed my hand with an unusual sort of urgency. I could feel the heat from her palms as she pulled me towards the door, a bag full of books slung over one shoulder. 

“And that was just an example, my dear! Don’t you be lettin’ any men take your clothes off, now!” 

She erupted in a witchy cackle. Tickled to death by something I couldn’t put a name to back then. We could still hear her crowing, even from outside the building. My sister towed me across the lawn with all the force she could muster, wanting to put as much distance between herself and that conversation as possible.            

“Sissy! Sissy, wait!” 

I shook my hand from her grasp and held up the brochure. 

“What does this say?” 

Sissy squinted at the brochure and then squirmed under the weight of her tote. 

“It says, ‘The Salamanders of East Tennessee.’”

“What’s a salamander?” 

“It’s a lizard that lives under rocks in the woods.”      

“In our woods?” 

“Yep. And others, too.” 


I thought “salamander” was a very beautiful word. It rose and fell like the hills that covered our hometown. But it also offered a hint of the exotic—an intellectual air that made me feel like a scientist.  

“Why do they hide under rocks?”

“Well, that’s just where lizards like to stay. Makes things real cold and dark for ‘em.” 

“But why do they have all those different colors if they’re just gonna live under rocks?”

Sissy thought about this for a minute. 

“Well, they probably make things safer. That way, nobody’ll come and try to pluck ‘em up cause they’re so neat.” 


The bookworm still sunbathed in front of the library. Much too big for anybody to pluck up. Not quite normalized to his presence yet, Sissy and I stopped to look at him once more before heading home. He hadn’t changed since we’d last seen him. He read his book with the same quiet dignity as before. But he wasn’t nearly as pretty as my salamander.  

When all the pink faded from Sissy’s cheeks, we turned and began our walk home. Roads were empty most days, but two busy seasons rolled around each year. The mountain brought about these seasons. It had sort of beauty too heavy for one person to take, so they had to settle for driving up to it. Standing at the crosswalk, Sissy and I watched as tourists hauled campers behind their trucks, pulling supplies through Main Street and up to the blue peaks ahead.  

Bear hunters followed the first cool breezes of Autumn. We could spot them by their gray beards and brown, tobacco-stained mouths. I always preferred these men to the suburban families of the warmer months. Hunters never hesitated to sit down for a spell and shoot the breeze. I knew that Sissy would've liked to get their two cents on the worm. But he’d come too early in the year. And the visiting families wouldn’t have been much help. They never did anything but clog grocery store lines and worry that we’d give them lice. Which was absurd, because Sissy shaved my head bald every summer.  

“I hope Mrs. Atwood finds out where that worm came from. I’d really like to know who made him.” 

It was hard to imagine him ever being made. To me, he looked as ageless as the hills in the distance. Just as old, and just as immovable. But still, whenever Sissy wondered out loud, I tried my best to answer. Around her, I wanted to speak my smartest, most beautiful thoughts. 

“Maybe it was those people Mrs. Atwood was talking about.” 

“City Hall? Yeah, maybe so…” 

A quiet disappointment underpinned her words. As reasonable as she was, Sissy had a soft spot for the outlandish. She wanted to believe aliens left the worm, trying out a reverse crop circle of sorts. Giving humans new grass where none existed before. 

We walked in silence to the outskirts of town. Stray shingles littered the ground around our house. An April tornado had ripped them from the roof, flinging pieces into the yard and even as far as the gas station down the road. But Sissy always said that our home was perfect. We were close enough to walk to town, but still bordered the wilderness. Woods sprawled out behind our backyard, trees growing across a gentle upward slope that became a mountain after a while. No trees sprouted in the front yard, though— a fact that plagued our father. On his days off, he stared out the window and sighed, imagining a grand oak or willow out front. 

In an effort to cheer him up, Sissy once planted some bushes she’d dug up from in front of the old pharmacy. I watched her shovel dirt from the front window, picking at holes in our bug screen, listening to how the stiff fabric twanged when I pulled back and let it fly. She came back inside later, claiming to have finally “zhuzhed up the place.” But if we did have any zhuzh, it sure didn’t last very long. We woke up a few days later to an empty yard. Lawn speckled with empty holes. After a while, Sissy decided that it must’ve been a dog of some kind. A dog bred for kidnapping bushes.    

If you’d asked me, I’d have said that we had plenty of plants. What we really needed were better groceries. After walking inside, Sissy tossed her book bag down on our couch, heading off to reheat leftovers. I ambled in behind her and popped my shoes off at the door. A rookie mistake. My bare feet unearthed a needle buried in carpet fibers. The silver devil drew a pinprick of blood from my big toe. I sat down and rubbed at the cut until red stopped coming. Then, I put my shoes back on. 

Newly injured, I decided to rest in the kitchen. I wandered in after Sissy and plopped down at the table. My brochure was burning a hole in my pocket. I pulled it out and looked at the front cover lizard again. A black color coated the top part of his body, with a milky underbelly peeking out from underneath. All together, he reminded me of a domino, or maybe of the keys on a piano. A rosy color tinted the skin around his snout, making him look red-cheeked, as if embarrassed by something. Maybe that’s why he stayed hid under rocks.  

A protest rose in my throat, but it was instantly quieted by the look on her face. My sister was pretty frail, but that didn’t stop her from being scary sometimes. She could channel a quiet sort of severity that dredged up all kinds of shame in me. It was like she’d been a nun in another life. And I was the schoolboy who had to sneak past her.  

Sissy lowered a plate down in front of me. A pile of sauerkraut and hot dog pieces formed a lump on the flimsy Styrofoam. Around here, people called it kraut and weiners. A name that only made it more unappetizing. The cabbage had been boiled so long that it was almost translucent. Under the light, I could see strings running through it, like veins within the palest skin imaginable. Sissy sat down with her own plate across the table.   

“There’s no sense in making that face, Jamie. It’s left over from last night. Let’s just eat it now so we won’t have to have it again for dinner.” 

A protest rose in my throat, but it was instantly quieted by the look on her face. My sister was pretty frail, but that didn’t stop her from being scary sometimes. She could channel a quiet sort of severity that dredged up all kinds of shame in me. It was like she’d been a nun in another life. And I was the schoolboy who had to sneak past her.  

“Can I have a paper towel? So I can wipe my mouth?” 

Her eyes narrowed.   

“I can’t eat without a paper towel. It would be rude.”

“I can look and see if we have any. You might just have to use your sleeve.” 

I nodded, watching as she crossed the kitchen. She ripped a sheet from the paper towel roll and handed it to me. With exaggerated delicacy, I plucked it from her hand and placed it in my lap. Sissy watched every move, still skeptical of my intentions. I gave her my most winsome smile. She sighed and began eating her own sauerkraut. 

“I’m gonna eat and read at the same time.” 

Sissy went on chewing in silence, indifferent to this announcement. 

I propped the brochure up in front of my plate. A privacy screen, blocking me from her view. From inside the pamphlet, rows of salamanders watched a plan unfold. Blank, amphibian faces stared as my fork scooped up a heap of sauerkraut. I let the pile of mush plop onto the paper towel in my lap. In this manner, slowly but steadily, I moved the contents of the plate, stifling gags along the way. After finishing the delicate transfer, I lifted up the corners and wrapped them around the crud, creating a soggy sort of bundle.  

“I’ve gotta pee.” 

“Well then go. You don’t have to tell me about it.” 

I nodded and jumped up, all the time holding the sauerkraut under my shirt. Near the belly button area. Breaking into a wide-legged stroll, I made my way to the bathroom. After locking the door, I pulled out the damp wad and lifted the toilet lid. Sissy’s chair scraped loudly against the kitchen floor. She’d connected the dots. 

“Jamie! Jamie open this door before I kick it down!”  

For a moment, the yelling went on, reaching a pitch that only screech owls should access. But after a while, Sissy opted to stop and listen. And that was when I let the bundle drop into the toilet bowl. It made a loud “plop” in the water below.  

“Don’t you think I’m gonna make you anything else, Jamie!”

I reached over and flushed the toilet. The sudden gush of water freed the cabbage pieces from the paper towel. They swirled around in the bowl before sinking down out of sight. Our pipes gurgled, like they didn’t like the sauerkraut anymore than me. But it all stayed down. When I was sure of this, I turned and opened the door. Sissy stood there, arms crossed. An invisible hand seemed to push her forward, causing her body to curve inward, like an oversized shrimp. 

“Well, we don’t have any other food, Jamie. You’ll just have to starve, I guess.” 

She turned on her heel and began walking away. I didn’t much like the thought of starving, and flew at her in a fit of rage, arms beating wildly against her back. When that failed, I latched onto her waist and went boneless, letting my feet drag against the carpet. After towing me a little ways, with my howls of despair filling the hallway, her strength gave out and we fell in a heap on the floor.  

Sisters aren’t supposed to be Mommas. I think we both understood that, lying on the carpet, sobs heaving in the back of our throats. Chaos descended on the house when our parents left us alone. I might have had something to do with that. But Sissy lacked any real power. She was the puppet king— a regent without troops to back up her orders. 

“Get off of me, Jamie. Get off and go away!” 

I rolled off of her and laid on my back. Tears made our popcorn ceiling look blurry. I couldn’t make out the tiny bumps anymore. For once, the surface looked nice and smooth, like frosting on a white birthday cake. But I didn’t want to look at it. I wanted to find a rock to crawl under. Someplace dark and cool, where the needles couldn’t get me and sauerkraut was never eaten. My stomach growled. Anger welled up in my chest again. I scrambled to my feet and began stomping down the hallway. 

“Jamie… Jamie, where are you going?” 

I ignored her and continued stomping.

“Jamie, c’mon. Please. I’ll find you something else to eat.”    

I let the backdoor slam behind me on my way out. 


I thought I was stomping into something I knew. For children in rural worlds, some woods are familiar, and others are foreign. Remnants of old forts. Dirt-covered popsicle wrappers. Action figures buried in the dirt, for safekeeping. All signs that children have made a place their own. All signs that they know the woods, and that the woods have some memory of them. Sissy and I explored the backyard grove all through the summertime, naming the trees and poking our heads into foxholes beneath them. My sister’s favorite tree, a good-sized yellow birch, hosted some moss that grew in the shape of Japan. I slowed to a walk and stroked the scattered, fuzzy clumps.  

As time went on, I found myself ducking under more branches. I got hung on briars that stuck to my pajama pants. Still, I never felt uneasy. I trekked along, going farther than I’d ever been before. Overhead limbs blocked out more and more light. The wide trails grew narrower. After a while, only animals could slip through them with ease, coasting along the underbelly of the woods. 

A break in the thicket came without any warning. I stepped into a clearing—a strange, circle-shaped absence of any trees. The light was still dim, given the ceiling of branches. In this part of the woods, midday looked like early evening. But still, even with the faint light, I could make out something odd. 

A large pontoon boat sat in the center of the clearing. Run-aground in the middle of the Appalachians. It was a double-decker, with a thin ladder connecting the two stories. A slide hung off the side, waiting to dump someone into the bed of pine needles below. 

Wire sculptures scattered the ground around the boat. I could make out shapes if I looked hard enough. One frame looked like a centipede, complete with a million wire legs splayed out in all directions. Suspended on a metal pole, swimming through the air. The narrow face of a fox peered up at the bug. Frozen in the act of sniffing for danger. To my left, a giant mole tunneled up out of the ground. Metal claws groping up towards the light, wires bent and twisted into a star on the end of its snout. A yard full of chicken wire creatures, with greenery creeping up their bodies.  

“Whatchu think you’re doing out here, boy?”

I screamed. Crows in the trees above us cawed and flapped away. Startled by the shrill noise. The man in front of me winced. A pair of large, dirty hands flew up in front of his face, like he was trying to catch the sound between his fingers. 

“Augh, stop that! Stop that now! What reason you got to be screaming like that?”

His confusion surprised me enough to stop the sound in my throat.

“Well, I’m littler than you!” 

The man squinted down at me and nodded, like he was just now noticing this fact.

“When I was your age, I took down boys twice my size, all before getting on the school bus in the morning. They’d see young Mister Ahab comin’ and head for the hills.”  

It was hard to imagine this man ever being young. A wispy, white mustache fell from his mouth, trying hard to make up for the lack of hair on his head. On his shirt, a cartoon fish flopped on a line. The ratty cotton hung down around a thin frame. He looked like a skinnier, more disheveled version of Hulk Hogan. 

“Do you get into fights, young man?” 

I shook my head, suddenly feeling mournful about the lack of manly brawls in my life.   

“Well, why not?” 

“My sister probably wouldn’t let me.” 

“And you listen to her?” 

I started to nod, but then just shrugged.   


“Well, I guess that’s alright too. Come on inside and I’ll get ya something to eat.” 

For him, “inside” meant the lower deck of the pontoon boat. I climbed onto the vessel and paused to take in the sights. A large wheel was planted towards the back of the boat. Spider webs covered its wooden surface. I itched to give it a good spin and send the silk flying in the wind. From behind the wheel, I could look out onto the entire lower deck. A captain, surveying his mighty vessel. 

On the top deck, Mister Ahab clattered around, looking for something. His heavy work boots made the deck wobble, like it could collapse on my head at any moment. And the half-grown topiary creatures still surrounded the boat. From the deck, they almost looked like buoys, set adrift in the sea of pine needles surrounding our ship.    


“Yessir? What’s on your mind?” 

“Did you make all of these animals?” 

“Sure did. I’ve been making these guys for twenty some-odd years.” 


I could tell that he was thinking pretty hard, even though I couldn’t see his face. He sighed a little, setting off a noise in his chest that sounded like a car engine stalling. 

“Well, it’s something I know how to do, so I might as well do it, you know?”  

Yeah, I knew what he was talking about. I slipped a hand in my pocket and realized all at once that I’d left my brochure at home. At home with Sissy, who cleaned house in her fits of rage. Tossing out all my precious things that looked an awful lot like trash to her. Strictly speaking, I didn’t have to look at salamanders. When the rabbit-eared antennae worked, I could always watch TV. But it didn’t matter. I wanted to look at those little guys, just the same. 

“Did you make the bookworm? In front of the library?” 

The clattering above my head stopped. Like he’d frozen, midaction. Not a moment later, I heard his feet flying down the ladder. When he reached the bottom, Mister Ahab just stood and stared at me through the metal rungs. Eyes yellowed and bloodshot all at once. 

“You mean you seen it?!”

Given the look on his face, I wasn’t sure about owning up to having seen it. My silence wasn’t well-received. He darted out from behind the ladder, grabbed me by the shoulders, and shook until I could practically feel teeth rattling around in my head. Loosened by the violent motion. 

“What did she think of it?” 

“Wha…Who? Who are you talking about?”  

He stopped shaking me. 


Back then, kids didn’t know anyone’s first name. Especially not in the South. Even my parents would’ve tanned my hide if they’d ever caught wind of me calling somebody “Sheila” or “Margaret.” Children using an adult’s real name was a crime akin to blasphemy in most people’s minds. 

“Priscilla! Priscilla the librarian! You go to the library and you don’t know the goddamn librarian’s name?” 

“Ohhh, you mean Mrs. Atwood.” 

He smiled like he’d just caught a really big fish.  

“Yes! Mrs. Atwood. She still works there, right?” 

“Mhmmm. She’s worked there forever. My sister and I go see her nearly every Saturday. Sometimes we go to her house and she makes me eat tomato sandwiches, but Sissy likes them okay so she’ll eat mine for me while she’s not looking.” 

The hermit wasn’t paying attention. I was probably the first person he’d seen in months, and he’d still gone and lost interest all of a sudden. Blue eyes trained on something in the distance. Like he was trying to look straight through the overhead limbs and right up to God.  

“I was always pretty keen on Priscilla. Of course, she never wanted much to do with me back then, given who my people were and everything.” 

Mister Ahab looked back and forth, like he needed to make sure no one was coming. 

“My Daddy and Uncle took to making moonshine in the hills for a while. Figured they could bypass the taxes and make a killing selling it to the tourists. Of course, avoiding the law turned out to be harder than they figured.”        

I thought about my own parents. Having us scrub the house right before DCS visits. A good bout of panic-cleaning usually kept them off our backs. We could mimic respectability with enough tropical Febreze. But Sissy said it wasn’t good to breathe that stuff in for too long.   

“And that Priscilla… Boy, she was always pretty highfalutin.” 

He said this like it was something that only made her better.

“Oof, I almost forgot our supper. I’ll be back in a second, good buddy.” 

He strolled over to the ladder and climbed up real fast, like a monkey.

“I don’t got a stove out here, so I guess we’ll just have to make do with what we got. You don’t mind eatin’ stuff cold, do ya?” 

I told him I didn’t mind at all. 

“Thatta boy. What use do we mountain men have for stoves anyway?” 

The hermit climbed down with a white cooler in hand. A Styrofoam cooler, not like the fancy plastic ones I’d seen at Walmart. A poor man’s cooler, meant for fishing and snacks during fishing trips. Dark brown dirt rested in the cracks of the Styrofoam. He ambled over and lifted up the cover with a magician’s flair. Like he was pulling rabbits out of a hat.  

“Wanna see what’s on the menu for tonight?” 

A whole mess of salamanders squirmed around on the inside. Black and white, with scattered white spots. The same pink blush around their lizard cheeks. All trying to climb up the foam walls. Even the dim forest light seemed to blind them.   
At first, I just looked down at them, grinning from ear to ear. Mind wiped by the sheer joy of seeing those little guys. But then, Mister Ahab lowered a large hand into the box. He scooped the biggest one up, lifted it high above his mouth, and swallowed it live in one loud gulp.        

The pontoon boat swam around in my vision. Like we were actually on a sea of some sort. I dropped the cooler. All the salamanders bolted. They darted to and fro, out of their prison and into the dark crevices of the deck. Looking for more rocks to hide under. Pretty enough to see the light of day, but smart enough to not want to.   

“Goddammit, kid. What’d you go and do that for?” 

Ahab hunched over and started scanning the boat for the little lizards. The old man squatted way down and lifted his palms, like he was playing defense on a basketball team. But the salamanders made a formidable offense. One by one, they’d all slithered out of sight. Into safer territory. I decided to follow suit and sprang over the side of the boat. Jumping off the ship and back onto mountain soil once again.  

“Where you going, kid?  

My light-headed walk turned into a mad dash for the woods. I ran through the clearing, dodging one wire animal after another. Hopping over the small ones, like a Super Mario game. Ahab laughed behind me. 

“Did I spook ya, boy? Come on back now! You don’t have to eat ‘em!” 

Needless to say, I never turned back. I abandoned the clearing for the brush and ran until the woods grew familiar again. When the backyard finally came into view, a small army of briars clung to the soft fuzz of my pajama pants. From the door, I could see Sissy peering out at some commotion that I’d later realize was me. Tearing out of the woods like a madman. 

She threw open the back door and stomped out, hands on her hips.  

“What’s the matter with you? Did you see a bear or something? You shouldn’t be running around back here. You could step on a snake, and then we’d have to fly you out in a helicopter. And look, you’ve got crap all over your pants!”   

I told her my story while she picked the thorns off my clothes. Delicately, with two pinched fingers, being careful to avoid the pointy part of the weed. Placing each one onto a white paper plate that she would later dump into the trash. She wasn’t quite sure if she could believe me or not. But that didn’t stop her from enjoying the action. Or from being my friend again after I’d finished talking. She pulled me close and rubbed the fuzz on my shorn head. It was all done and over with now. 

As the summer dragged on, I grew more and more unsure about what happened. The whole ordeal looked sort of hazy in my mind’s eye, like one of those grainy old films that Mrs. Atwater loved so much. By the time classes rolled back around, I wasn’t sure if Mister Ahab was real or not. Kindergarten seemed like a grand responsibility. Looming in the distance like our mountains. Towering like the bookworm, that smart aleck, who eventually shriveled to a burnt brown color. Kindergarten made me want to abandon childish things, like lizards and strange old men in the woods. 

On that last Saturday morning before school, Sissy waved me over to the front window. Our parents were still in bed. A strict “no talking” policy was in place until they woke up. Sissy clutched a steaming cup of coffee and, wrapped in her oversized bathrobe, looked more grown up than most people do at thirty. Like a suburban housewife about to greet the morning. 

“Are we still gonna go to the library?” 

She nodded and pressed a finger to her lips. A reverential sort of look rested on her face. She tapped the glass in front of us, silently telling me to look outside. I figured she’d seen some deer or something. On cooler mornings, they always came to graze in front of our house. I stood on my tiptoes and peered over the windowsill.     

At the top, dew drops hung from exposed strands of metal. Obviously not quite finished yet. But four stubby legs wore what looked like green socks. After a while, Sissy told me they’d creep up over the rounded belly, before stretching back to cover the tail. His wire smile would come last. Leaves would climb the oval-shaped head, looking like a receding hairline at first. Not forever, though. If we gave him enough time, he’d grow into a full-fledged lizard. A mighty yard salamander. Chin tilted, eyes happy, looking up at the mountain.    

Carli Moses is currently a graduate student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She completed her undergraduate studies in Creative Writing at Union University. Her work has been published in Salvation South and Litbreak Magazine. 

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