We’d been settled at the camp only a year, though Momma said it may as well have been forever. She missed having walls between us, a roof over her head, a rug beneath her feet. She missed her hair dryer and her washing machine, her flowerbeds and her blue-and-white collection of country dishes, handpicked piece by piece over a decade’s worth of fleas and fairs and online bids—missed it right down to the gravy ladle. She even missed the way I stood in front of the open fridge, complaining we had nothing good to eat, when we did—we had grapes and yogurt and string cheese, plus a tub of whipped topping and a bottle of chocolate syrup to go with the vanilla ice cream in the freezer.
“Dill pickles, gherkins, bread and butter. Black olives, green, stuffed with garlic and blue cheese,” she said, wiping the sweat off her forehead with a sigh. “To think we used to pour the brine out down the sink.”
I handed her another set of Daddy’s boxers, dripping wet, to hang up on the line that stretched between our tent and the neighbors’. She’d work herself up like this, listing it all, the mythical contents of some frosty fridge, until the pain that gnawed constant in our bellies yawned so wide in hers it came unhinged. Then it was my job to say the lentils and rice weren’t so bad and we were lucky to have them. And because on that morning’s hike out to our plot on the outskirts of the camp we’d seen that our plants had sprouted up, I was now able to say, “And your garden, it’s small, but it’s going to be blowing up with veggies.”
She clenched her teeth around a clothespin and reached for the next wet underthing. I was glad she didn’t fight me, because I would’ve had to add that we were lucky too for the sun that made her sweat, the rain that when it fell too hard flooded our platform tent and soaked the mats we slept on, since otherwise we couldn’t spare our rations for watering. The spring before, her garden gave so many peas that when the zucchini came up with summer I was relieved—at first. Then I didn’t mind when the patrol she shared with other growers lapsed overnight and we were raided, the squash showing up the next day at market and Daddy refusing to buy.
I didn’t realize at the time—when, before the snows were set to fall, we packed what we could into the car and headed south, leaving everything else, our foreclosed house, our inground pool, her hair dryer, behind—how hopeful she must have been to have brought the seeds at all. Those tiny packets were one thing that fit easily in her dress pockets next to her jewelry, when more than halfway down the length of I-75, the gas stations ran out of gas and we had to leave the car behind too. I had just figured, after weeks of walking with the caravan with whom we’d fallen in had finally ended at the camp, that this was what she had been picturing all along, what she and Daddy had been pointing us toward from the start. Later they let out that it’d been Grandma’s, the retirement community clear down where orange groves once had been, though she had told us not to come. Her friends had turned against each other for the strain their families were putting on their meager resources and space.
“I suppose it has nothing to do with the fact I can no longer pay my part,” Daddy had grumbled. “I suppose Patty would be welcome for her steady twenty percent—of course she’s still got her house.”
Patty was Daddy’s older sister who lived modestly in a small desert city off a tenured teacher’s salary. Grandma now mostly paid for herself, from Grandpa’s pension and insurance. It was terrible to rely on her having another stroke before she could go broke.
All her life Aunt Patty had scrimped and saved, never investing in the market, never going on a trip, never putting in a lawn or pool—never even giving her body up to a husband and making kids, as Momma always pointed out. I was sad not to have cousins on top of no sister, and until the year past, it had seemed odd to live a life of deprivation when it was so easy to have one of plenty. Now I wondered why we hadn’t been aiming the car west. I wondered if we would have then been stuck on the plains—or, if we had made it, whether Aunt Patty, after all the black sheep status she’d endured, would have answered the door. For my birthday, she used to send ten-dollar bills in one-dollar cards (the price printed right on back). Before that card even arrived in the mail, I’d have already charged to Momma’s credit cards that much and more, in early presents to myself.
I remember tracing along the pattern of green, uttering the incantation In God We Trust. It seemed a relic both holy and base. Momma would snatch the ten away to hold it to the light, shaking her head. She’d thought cash was dirty, hated how it smelled.
Now in the patch that served as yard, where we sat the heat out and cooked meals on our handmade stove, Momma held herself in a wilting ghost of that proud posture: clipping up to the line the last of the wrung-out clothes we’d scrubbed clean in the basin. Once, her fingers had been manicured, had worn rings. Her hair, once smooth and blonde, was wound into a wiry bun, sparkled through with grays. When he didn’t mind a swat on the backside, Daddy said when they first met he could never say no to her needs, for fear of hearing no back. Now he was just in the habit. Everything I’d once thought beautiful in her I’d realized was fake, and what was left, with her features stripped bare, just looked like me, only older.
She turned and brushed her hands against her shorts, cutoff khakis cuffed and soiled by blowing dirt. “I guess it’s time you run off.”
She said it wryly, sick of my company, but reluctant for me to leave. When chores were done, it left her little to do. She rarely sat with our neighbors, though she helped patrol their pot. Its scent drifted from their lean-to and stuck to our camp-issued sheets.
“You sure?” I asked. She waved me on, squatting down on the crate under the shade of the makeshift awning.
I slowly slinked out past our tent, rustling the plastic tarp, as if I were also reluctant to look for any joy. What I could never admit to her, what I could never squeeze in amidst complaints, was that I was happier here, with everything we had been worried over out of sight. The bills, I guess, were still coming, but we had no Internet access by which to view them, and the same went for our empty stock and bank accounts. The collectors, with our cell phones discarded, couldn’t reach us. My last fall of school, the seventh grade, I’d started with no friends. Here I ran with a group of both girls and boys, barefoot, like we were still kids, not the pretend preening adults we’d been forced to become inside the halls of junior highs. I’d soon be graduating to ninth, had I access to a school realer than the one-room that Momma rarely bade me attend, since Daddy gave me lessons at night.
And then there was the stupid hope, the one I thought I held alone: when we’d first come over the rise and looked down on the camp—the shanties and the blue tarp tents that stretched for miles, the market block, the clinic and the school, the barbed wire all around—I’d blurted out in an awed whisper, “Do you think Sammie’s here?”
Momma kept staring on ahead, her eyes so wide they watered, and Daddy answered, abrupt, “Highly unlikely.” Meaning, despite its size, this could not be—considering what was happening in our country—the only camp of its kind, and probably also wanting not to get my or anyone’s hopes up.
None of us had seen Sammie in over seven years, a span of time in which she’d undoubtedly grown into a different person. Momma had long since deleted and destroyed all her pictures, but I was sure I’d recognize the woman Sammie had become. She was the crucial step between us: shorter than Momma, taller than me, she’d have the same slim hips we had, the same flat chest, the set-back eyes, the narrow nose, the thin long lips—an overbite, since she’d refused braces, calling them, Momma said, prison bars, a racket. My own big sister, unlike Daddy’s, who ran on lesson plans and ticking clocks, was transient, a runaway: a hopper of trains, turner of tricks—I’d pieced all this together from TV reports of other teenage runaways, as she had never sent an email or a postcard, and had left her cell phone behind.
Daddy said it was chronic, her urge to bolt, something chemical in her blood sure as insanity. He’d seen it before in his family, his own dad, who left when Daddy was four. That’s why Momma, when they met, liked him at once: he was used to women and their cloudy communication, their many needs.
Sammie ran twice, once at seven, before I was walking, and again at nine, when I was always throwing fits: first for an afternoon, and then three days and nights. They’d found her in the woods, up a tree, eating nuts and berries. Now at fourteen, I was older than she’d been the third and final time she’d got away, but I felt nowhere near as old inside as she must’ve really been—technically not yet twelve years old—to leave and not return. How my parents knew she was alive was not explained, but somehow I knew it too. No body surfaced from the river, after all, and a tip or two got passed on to us from the Bureau—she was out there, an adult newly minted, and I had the feeling my whole life I’d never get caught up to her.
I didn’t say it then, looking out at the camp that first time from the rise, I just thought it inside: now, finally, we had something in common. Now, we too, all four of us, were runaways.
* * * *
I found my gang in a circle out back at the clinic. Hilary had just gotten out, cleared of her strep but still lightheaded. She stepped back so I could join and Mauricio kicked the sack to me. Darius, from the coast, had taught us hacky, a comeback sport that hadn’t yet shown up in our landlocked towns. Daddy remembered it, and laughed when I’d had Momma sew a fist of beans into a canvas ball. “Hang ten,” he said, “Totally gnarly.” I had no idea what he was talking about.
Momma didn’t like my friends or how, she said, I was when I was with them. She meant behind her back, for the only evidence she had of my rising rebellion was how we all had made a style of our confines, showered in the camp showers less than we were allowed, let our hair go matted and gnarled, didn’t let our mothers mend our clothes. It felt cool and easy not to care.
“We almost had to roll over to school without you,” said Darius, catching the sack on his toes. But there seemed to be no rush; he thwacked it into the center.
“I had to help my ma.” They all knew what she didn’t, that I was her little girl even when she was out of sight, even in my oily, tangled hair, my loose dress with the tear across the stomach. I glanced over the sky. “What’s up? It’s after three.”
“There’s some new guru,” Mauricio said disgustedly. “Fatima wants to go.”
Fatima shrugged, talking around a candy disc held on her tongue. Her mother rarely traded wisely at market, and that was the way Fatima, who manned their budget, preferred it. “I heard he’s cute. He’s not even old. He’s practically the same age as us.”
Already my face was hot. Hilary caught my eye but looked away. I couldn’t stand this kind of talk, because it was a reminder that beneath our games, Mauricio liked Fatima, and Hilary, Mauricio. Darius was gay, and maybe, or so I pretended, so was I. Hilary assumed this was a cover for my own crush on Mauricio. He wasn’t even that cute, just had a broad chest and the beginnings of a moustache. If I’d had the choice, I’d rather Darius, with his smooth skin and gentle eyes, be into girls, but I knew that was a copout. He never would, and really, I just wanted us to keep these longings tamped, because I saw how their eruption could mean our collapse.
Of course, that was before I saw the guru for myself.
* * * *
The schoolroom always opened wide its windows and doors, which never helped the heat. The space was tight with tidy rows of little desks with seats attached, but by now the other kids had all gone home to see to chores. A sprinkling of adults, elder and middle-aged, sat in back or to the sides, noncommittal. Fatima wanted to sit up front, so Hilary followed after Mauricio. Darius and I sat behind, seeing how softly we could blow their necks before they noticed.
We saw no reason to be serious. Gurus mostly went from camp to camp and some arose within our own, the conditions giving rise to a strange hope or premonitions, and people mostly heard them out out of politeness or a sense of hospitality. If the sermons persisted, too long for one sitting or too often in the week, their audiences petered off, and the guru took the hint, moving on to spread the gospel to another camp. Everyone else who felt a hole and sought to fill it with spirituality attended an allotted slot on Sundays: Muslims at dawn, Christians at noon, and Jews at sundown, with nondenominational meditation in between. And at the camp, that was most everyone, even those with only the vaguest of religious leanings. Sometimes Daddy and I went to meditation. Momma preferred to, in Daddy’s words, luxuriate in her boredom.
Darius leaned in, grasping my wrist, so we could sync our blows to go at once. Finally, Fatima snapped, whirling around to screech, “Would you suckers please act more legit?” and that was when the guru entered, a guitar slung on his back. He was slim and had long hair, eyes more beautiful than a woman’s, and a man’s strong jaw. He smiled at Fatima, and my face got hotter and hotter.
“Greetings, suckers,” he said, and the adults politely laughed. He could’ve been anywhere between eighteen and thirty-three. He had an ageless voice, confident and calm. Darius dropped my wrist, staring. We were both of us, plus Hilary and Fatima too, feeling the same thing. Crossing his arms, Mauricio slumped in his seat.
He said his name was Steven and went immediately into a song, sitting cross-legged atop the teacher’s desk and strumming the strings with his fingers. His singing voice was like his speaking one. It compelled you to listen. The chords led his range high and low, sounding now rough and graveled, now pure and nearly female. His eyelids relaxed so that it seemed he’d forgotten about us, had only to convince himself.
At first we were all embarrassed, it was so intimate to hear him play, especially with his eyes closed, but then we relaxed under his spell. There was a group of kids in camp who banged on buckets, and lots of people sang, while they worked, while they walked, while they sat around, but it wasn’t often that we heard real music. And this wasn’t a hymn or a hypnotic chant, as another guru might have done, but a melancholy original I could’ve heard on the radio, on one of Daddy’s satellite stations he used to voice-command in the car. The lyrics told a story of an Old West woman in love, packing linens and clothes in her trousseau. These were stolen on the trail, her husband shot and their ox drowned. There seemed to be no moral. He ended with a slap to stop the strings. I hadn’t realized, but I’d closed my eyes too. He set his guitar to the side, and his sermon began.
All the gurus I’d ever heard strode and swept their gaze around as they spoke of how what was lost to us was going to be returned. In the afterlife, right here in our new post-society, if we loved enough, prayed enough, worshipped him or her, lifted up our kin and ourselves. We could earn it back, build it again. This guru, Steven, lit on each of us in turn from his spot on the desk and said where we were was good for us. Desire bred desire, and if we kept chasing it, trying to hold what could not be held, we’d never be satisfied. We would build back up only to fail and fall again. We’d keep feeling alone.
“Do you truly feel you have nothing? Do you truly feel you no longer know yourself? Or do you know yourself better. Do you know your neighbors better. Do you have more than you can touch.”
He met my eyes and I tingled, as with a fever, hot and cold. I felt infected, but my body wasn’t treating the virus like a germ. Its spreading lifted me upright in my chair, while my face fell, shy and ashamed. Mauricio turned and scowled, as from the blows of my breath. Darius, who never tried to draw attention, raised his hand to volunteer himself, to say yes.
Even the adults perked up, nodding and murmuring. When it was done, the oldest woman and the youngest man, the hardest of any room to impress, each went to shake his hand. Hilary tried to hide it, but she was crying. Her family had had two pools, one outside and one in, a jacuzzi.
* * * *
All through the market, Fatima wouldn’t stop gushing. “You see those lashes? I would kill for those eyebrows. And his nose, I wanted to lick it.”
Her unabashed desire made mine smaller and smaller, until it was almost lost, then Hilary took our hands and quietly held them, sweaty and swinging, to stop us separating in the crowd. Darius nudged alongside, pressing me for an opinion.
“He’s cute,” I said simply, tamping the tingly warmth, and Hilary smiled at me.
“For a guy, you mean!” Fatima screeched. “Bet he could even turn Mauricio!”
We laughed, his face flaming from her attention as much as in defense.
With dinner on the horizon, the street was thick and close with the pushing and yelling of people buying-selling-trading. The accents were coastal, Northeastern, and like mine, Middle West, with very few sounding Appalachian or of the South. We’d been displaced. We were in it—this camp, our titillation from this guru—together. The sun was high with no sense of waning, flies buzzing, dirt kicking up to coat our bare feet. A skinny dog darted between our legs, his tail brushing against me. I felt already that Momma had to meet Steven.
Nobody noticed Mauricio had fallen behind, but when he caught back up, he was holding a cup of ice he’d purchased from a vendor. “Ladies?” he offered.
Darius scowled. “Boy, we don’t want that shit. We’re suffering.” He always did that, made light of what he sincerely believed.
Mauricio lunged as though to dump the cup out on his head, but Fatima, shrieking, held him back. She plucked out a melting cube and dotted it to her temples, drew it over her lips. Mauricio watched, Hilary watching him. We sucked ice all the way back to our sector and parted with a group hug for our tents. I was nervous to go home. I felt I was no longer the same self inside as I had been. It wasn’t just the way the guru looked but how he’d been and what he’d said that, like foreign cells or oxygen, were coursing through my body.
Out back Momma was still sitting on her crate, Daddy hunched at the stove, stirring the lentils and rice. He seemed in good humor. She must’ve told him of the garden sprouting up, as he was saying, “How long before we see some greens?”
“You tell me,” Momma said sullenly, squeezing the tension from her neck, her constant self-massage. All day Daddy scoured the countryside for work. Sometimes he came home with dollar bills, a jug of milk, an aching back. Today, I saw, he’d brought nothing. I hugged him from behind.
“Munchkin!” He turned with a grin from my embrace. “What sort of mischief have you been up to?”
I didn’t know how to convince Momma about Steven.
I had to be sly to not suggest it outright. That always shut her down. She liked to have her own ideas. As Daddy dished out dinner from the pot, I rambled on. “He seems so familiar. He’s just that kind of person. Like you’ve seen him before on TV.”
“He sounds like a regular Jesus,” Daddy said. “Does he practice what he preaches? What makes his message different from any other old-time religion?”
Daddy was always pressing me to think things through logically and to build arguments through evidence. Yet I found Steven difficult to explain. “I don’t know,” I said. “You didn’t raise me with anything.”
“It sounds to me like the oldest story ever told,” Momma finally said with disdain. “You like him.”
“Like like?” Daddy teased. He used to tickle me but now the only way he touched me first was to poke me in the side. I squirmed and felt my face, my ears, my tongue, even my toes, hot with the rush of blood.
“Well,” Momma said. “This I have to see.”
* * * *
He was set to speak again the next morning, early, before school. I wanted to go, but Momma said somebody needed to hike out to the garden.
“Aren’t they on patrol?” I motioned to the empty leanto next door.
“Yes, but they’re going to be high as kites. Just sit with it, pull out the weeds. We can’t be taking chances at this crucial stage.” I understood. She wanted to keep me from him until she could gauge the threat. But in my mind, I was already gone. I was packing my trousseau.
I brought with me the little hand fork for the weeds, but when I arrived—the sun high and scorching, muscles burning in my legs—I was listless. I sat beside the beds of dirt dotted in green with my back to the camp and stared out past the barbed wire off at the rise we had first summited a year before, the rise Daddy crossed over every morning, and back again every night. Beyond it was the highway he hitchhiked, the farms he begged for work. Beyond that was the city, whose downtown streets, we knew from friends of Mauricio’s older brother, were filled with prostitutes and men who’d rob your body blind.
Outside the camp, a wanderer would meet women worldly and worse. And even inside, I couldn’t compete with a Fatima—girls with hips and breasts who knew how to prop them up to cut through ration lines and get away with giving nothing extra in return. Fatima had full, pillowy lips and knew how to suck a candy or a cube of ice. And she was smart, so smart she took over for the teacher whenever math was more than long division. With her around, anyone like her, Steven would never even see me.
Excerpted from “Refugees” the first story in Man and Wife by Katie Chase. Copyright © Katie Chase, published by A Strange Object in 2016 as a paperback original. Used with permission from the author and publisher.