The brisk air smells of rain. Backlit clouds swirl behind pine and kudzu, sheltering the field of wildflowers. Pastel purples, muted greens, and soft yellows grow beneath heavy bundles of fiery red chokeberries. Bees drone gently in the bluish, waist-high grasses. Above, the stark outlines of the giant telephone poles slice messily through the burning blueness of the heavens, crude and slanted.
Flattened weeds are splayed out on either side of perfectly straight twin tracks, stamped deep into the mud at my toes. Patches of mud-encased weeds form waterfalls and rivulets frozen in time.
Yesterday, a titan-like tank passed through this place. It came to clear the taller saplings, keeping the area around the power lines bare. Thundering wheels crashed through, leaving broken baby trees upon the ground.
Little lakes, pooling like beads of a rosary, dot the newly hacked path. I walk alongside them, my dog-chewed rainboots leaving fresh prints in the mud. Abruptly, a thousand shades of wild grasses give way to a bleak monotone of violently green, crew cut blades. I breathe in the tang of cut grass; each inhale sharp and wet, each exhale, a warm plume.
Behind me, my chocolate lab crashes through the wildflowers and grasses, springing above the sea of seeding plants like a breaching dolphin. Plumes of fuzzy seeds explode in her wake, sparkling in the golden sunlight like sea spray.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mom grin. In an excited, reverent nature-whisper, she calls to me, her hand beckoning in a brisk, controlled manner, like a hummingbird’s wing. Her red corkscrew curls bob in a ponytail. She points, and I look.
In the pale mud lay a pair of delicate, orange slice imprints. Deer tracks. A little weathered, and hidden behind tufts of trampled grass, but there. A strange, electric thrill beats in my chest as I am held captive by the ghost of the deer.
I breathe deeply, trying to capture the magic of this instant and hold it in my body.
An excited chocolate blur flies nose to the ground, crashes in between me and my mother, into a dead blackberry bush. Our dog yelps, dry branches cracking beneath her weight as she is caught in the massive, thorny husks of vine. The moment is not broken, though. Just shifted.
The prints, deer, dog, human, and tank sit together, pressed into the warm earth alongside the patches of wildflowers and grass. Already, seeds embed themselves in the soft, new mud. And it fits. Like the right melody played on the seemingly wrong instrument.
The lights are wrapped in thick, off-white plastic cocoons to shield the student’s eyes from their glare. Dust, dead bugs, and other debris have collected over the years in their waxen bellies. The square tiles of the plaque-colored floor and walls reflect the unearthly light from under their sticky, caked-on wax, which has preserved dirt and dust and hair and generations of fingerprints, a mural of the ages. The halls carry the acrid stench of toxic blue cleaning supplies and boiled broccoli.
Two coils of glassy-eyed students flow next to each other through the dim hallway. One side coming, the other going, neither staying. Each side moves like they’re driving in the middle of nowhere Texas. Like people who don’t look out windows. Like people who have just driven through so many identical miles of gorgeous farmland that the same landscape they once found beautiful becomes bleak and unworthy of their interest.
Each student’s face is wrapped in colored cloth, their shields in this no-man’s-land. What little I can see of their faces is soon forgotten, my half-recognized peers fading into the background of this new reality.
These twin lines of students shuffling, blank-eyed with their heads down reminds me of that moment in some cheesy horror drama– when there’s eerie music and something’s not quite right, and you know the jump scare is about to happen. It’s that moment that hangs for just one second too long. That moment just before the screams.
It’s because there are no sounds of voices in this normally rowdy mob. It’s because there is no acknowledgement between friends, no passing recognition in the half-covered faces of acquaintances. It’s a silent world, except for the swish of bleach-stained sweatpants, the sad-wheeled clank of the security guard kicking the gray cafeteria trash cans out of the way, and then the fabric-y rustle as he rests his hands on his somewhat generous blue-clothed girth.
He stands guard all day long beside those trash cans and that modified cleaning cart serving as a hand sanitizing station. He just watches the dust swirl noiselessly under those blue flyers demanding that students “BE SMART, STAY 6 FT APART.” Even when there’s nobody there, he’s paid to just stand, and stare.
I have just now realized I can’t picture his face. I certainly don’t know his name. In my mind he just exists, a vague outline, mostly unnoticed, watching as the blank, student-shaped specters file past, But then, an anomaly. A voice.
“Pull your mask up!” the cop drawls in a mostly convincing angry bark. I imagine his cheeks red, his eyes angry and small, hidden behind what I imagine his eyebrows would look like. Bushy, graying at the edges. Yet I do not know, for I cannot truly picture him.
The girl whose mask slipped to her lip saunters past, touching the cloth peak, eyes bleak and heavily made up. The peak is a little beakish mountain on an island of careless impertinence, hanging to her face by a thin cord. The mask shifts, but is not properly replaced, and the girl melts back into the stream of students like a salmon slapping gracelessly back into a bubbling waterfall after a missed jump.
I now see that most people at school wear their masks on their lips, pimply noses stuck in the air like contestants in a dog show. Oily noses shiny as those dirty white tiles, and from them dozens more reflections of electric glare bounce back at me. This I noticed, yet I cannot remember the face of the cop.