fiction by Michael Henson
When school started in the fall, Lily Markham set her alarm, slept dreamless and hard, then woke with the jangle and rose in the dark. She dressed herself, helped her grandmother dress, made their breakfast, set out her grandmother’s morning pills and made sure that she took them, and fixed lunch for herself and lunch for her grandmother. She left her grandmother’s sandwiches in her grandfather’s old lunch pail from the mines to keep them from the mice and set out to the highway to wait in the dark for the bus.
Wilson tap-tap-tapped the pointer once again. He had learned the knack of making the pointer vibrate and hum when he rapped it on a desk.
The doctors set up Lily’s grandmother with pills, lots of pills; it was part of Lily’s responsibility to keep track of them, to renew them when she ran out, to make sure her grandmother took them on time and in order. She set up a shelf in the kitchen cabinet just for the pills and she ranked them –morning pills to the left, evening pills to the right, pills for both morning and evening in the middle.
The friend who sat behind her asked, after school on the bus, “What does Wilson have against you?”
The girl’s name was Rose. Lily had known her all her life, but she had not become her friend until just this year. Once her grandmother had her stroke and had to quit teaching, Lily started taking the bus back and forth to school. They were among the first two to be picked up in the morning and among the last two to be dropped off in the afternoon. So she and Rose became bus buddies. “We got that flower thing going on. You’re Lily; I’m Rose. So we’re buds. Get it?” They were friends at school and on the bus back and forth to school, but they never saw one another at any other times, not even at lunch when Rose sat at the rich kids table. Lily sat with the nerds.
“It’s these ruts,” he called back. “Damn County . . .”
Rose was right about the other sleepers in class. Lily looked around as soon as Wilson called roll. Two boys in the corner closed their eyes as soon as Wilson closed his attendance book. Another pair fell soon after on the other side of the room. Lily looked back at Rose. She shrugged, as if to say, See! What did I tell you?
“Just you try me. I could use a little peace and quiet on this bus for a change.”
In Science, Wilson droned again about electrons. Rose whispered, “How does he find so much to say about electrons? Who cares about electrons?” Wilson clearly cared. And he cared about who slept while he lectured about electrons, and when the pointer thrummed on Lily’s desk once again, she sat upright, looked around the room, saw the boys raise their bleary heads from their desks, and said to him, “It’s not fair.”
As Lily and Rose lined up for the bus after school and the boys of the football team trotted off to the practice field, the girls of the cheerleading squad lined up along the back wall of the school gym. They stood with their heads erect, hands on hips, eyes forward, alert to the squad leader’s command. They looked proud, eager, happy to be where they were.
“What would you say,” Rose said the next morning, “if I told you that I could get Wilson off your back?”
Two little white pills, one bigger, the other smaller. Lily gazed at them
as they rested in her palm. Rose reached over and closed Lily’s fingers
on the pills. “Don’t let anybody see you with them,” she said.
All through fourth bell, Lily watched the clock. At thirty minutes into the class, Ms. Bain called her to the blackboard to write a sentence with a relative clause, which she struggled through, not because she did not know how to create a sentence with a relative clause, but because, with sixteen minutes to go before the bell rang for the end of class and eight minutes before she was due to take the first pill she had stored in the watch pocket of her jeans, the gears of her brain ran down. Ms. Bain let her go back to her seat. Embarrassed, Lily forgot all about the pill until the bell rang for the end of class.
“You can’t tell anybody where you got these,” Rose told her. “Ever.”
Lily and Rose had by now established themselves as permanent owners of the back seat of the bus, where they could put their heads together and talk–though Rose did most of the talking and most of what she talked about was her endless complaints, about her absent mother and her new boyfriend in the city, about her stupefied father. She complained about the ninth-grade boys who thought they were the best, and she complained about the girls at the rich kids table where she still ate lunch every day.
Years later, Lily would recognize that moment when the pill ignited, that smack-in-the-head moment in Science class, as the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. In one moment, she was a child, struggling as a child against adult demands. And in the next — she did not know what to call what came next, nor what she had become, for she was neither adult nor child. She had become something unclassifiably other, something out of the normal stages where others moved from infant to toddler to child to adolescent to adult and the various stages of adulthood which were incomprehensible to her, a process in which all the markers had moved and all the measurements had been distorted.
One morning in January, Lily woke to see a dazzle of snow across the mountains. She had fallen asleep the night before to the pit pit pitter of snow hitting her window. By morning, the drifts were so deep she had to sweep piled snow away from the henhouse door and she had to slog to the road in her grandfather’s heavy boots.
In their backseat corner of the bus, Rose and Lily would be insulated from the bickering, insults, rough-housing, and play of the rest of the bus. Mornings were no problem. Lily was the first passenger to be picked up. Rose was the second. So they could get to their place in the back of the bus and not be much bothered. But after school, they had to dominate. If ever one of the fifth or sixth grade boys—and it was always the boys—took over their corner, Rose wasted no time on him. She pinched his ear and twisted. That brought him up, screaming Ow ow ow ow ow!
Mister Pete yelled out, “Is there a problem back there?”
Sometimes, at night, Lily could hear the sounds of sirens up and down the mountain. That night, the lights of an emergency ambulance ran past her window.
“Before I go, I’m gonna set you up,” Rose told her. “I’m not gonna leave you hanging.”
Two nights before Rose was scheduled to leave, a fierce rain came through the mountains. The winds lashed at the trees and strained the rafters of the house. Lily stood at the window and watched as lightning crackled up the sky and illuminated the yard, the trees of the yard, and the highway beyond. The rains drummed against the house and guttered into the yard. Beyond the house, she heard rainwash in the run beyond the yard and in the ditches of the highway.
Michael Henson has been involved in the Appalachian literary and social justice movement for nearly fifty years. He is author of five books of fiction and four collections of poetry. Maggie Boylan, a collection of linked stories published by Ohio University Press in 2018, won recognition for its depiction of a woman struggling with poverty and addiction in rural Ohio. Secure the Shadow, a novel, was released by OUP in October, 2022. Carter Bridge, a Bluegrass band he started with his wife, is producing its first album.