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by Stephanie French-Mischo
Brigid’s shoes were white when she left home that morning. By the time Indigo was ready to leave her in Olde Towne that afternoon, they were as gray as the column of smoke that rose mid-block. “Looks like your mom’s at it again,” Indigo said.
“Linda’s a pyro.”
Indigo bumped her side against Brigid. The contact was approval, but the embroidered satchel that held her books hit harder than she probably knew. “You good from here?”
“Don’t forget to use strong soap and not some tear-free junk for kids,” Indigo said. “We wouldn’t want Linda catching on.”
Brigid ignored the stepping stones as she crossed the backyard. She didn’t care if she left tracks in the lush lawn or if she got grass stains on her already ruined shoes. In fact, the rougher she looked, the more likely she would be able to wheedle new sneakers. Of course, Linda would have to notice her first.
Her mom’s attention remained on the fire that consumed another handful of wilted weeds. Smoke billowed up past the rim of the barrel and the brim of her tattered baseball cap. The sleeves of her grunge-era flannel rolled up past her elbows, exposing a strip of strong forearms between them and a set of hazard orange gardening gloves. A hose was ready nearby. Residents of the subdivision built up on the back lot line, Hillcrest, looked for any excuse to hassle Olde Towners. They’d already petitioned to ban the burning of yard waste. Best not to give them a rogue fire.
“Hell-o?” Brigid called after a brief wait. Her tone sounded like she wanted to tap a few knocks on Linda’s head to test its solidity.
“Stay back,” Linda cautioned as though her daughter wasn’t old enough to know that the fire and smoke could hurt her, as if Brigid was the one who was irresponsible.
“What’s up with your phone?” Brigid asked, dropping her bag onto the grass.
“It’s in the kitchen, charging.” Linda didn’t take her eyes off of the flames even to tell Brigid to stop crushing the lawn.
Brigid raised her voice. “I had to walk home from school today.”
Linda glanced at the sky to estimate the time, which was late for Brigid to be getting home. She used a stick to stoke and redistribute the burn as she stared into it. “How’d you manage to miss the bus?” she asked.
Brigid couldn’t whine that it wasn’t her fault—not if she wanted to capitalize on the afternoon’s events. And, to do that, she needed to be at the height of sixth-grade fashion, which started with pristine sneakers. She had to play this right.
Mom didn’t seem guilty for leaving Brigid, rather she was accusing. So, guilt would not work. Brigid decided to try for sympathy. “It was a prank.” Saying so caused the hurt of being the target to flare over the center of her chest again. “A kid told the driver that I went home sick, or maybe that I had detention—I don’t know.”
“You were late getting out front?”
“Ms. Kapanadze invited me to join Chorus.” Any other day Brigid might have led with that news, maybe saved it to share over dinner.
“She shouldn’t have kept you,” Linda said. She stacked her orange gloved hands on the top of the stick as she leaned on it and finally turned towards Brigid. In lieu of congratulations about Chorus, Linda returned to Brigid having missed the bus. “Drivers have a list.”
“The kids wait for substitute drivers to do it,” Brigid said. Indigo had explained the mechanics. She tried to echo Indigo’s exact way of talking, a tone that had shrunk Brigid where she stood. “It’s not like I got left on purpose.”
“You’re not supposed to walk home.” Linda shook her head like doing so might erase it already having happened. “You’re too young.”
“It was an emergency. I walked with someone older, a girl—someone you know.”
Linda stared until Brigid coughed up the name.
“I don’t know an Indigo,” Linda said.
Brigid motioned for her mom to get up to speed as she said, “Annie Jenkins? She goes by Indigo now.”
“Oh. Right. The hair.”
Brigid turned away. She plucked up her bag.
“Go on inside,” Linda told Brigid, like she was directing things. “We’ll talk later. Your legs are so cold that they’re turning red.”
Brigid continued up to the house. Of course, her mom had to comment on the shorts.
If sparkling sneakers were the minimum of good dressing in Brigid’s sixth-grade class, wearing shorts when it got above fifty degrees was up a rung. A lot of kids couldn’t get away with it. They were too soft to take the chill, or their parents still told them what to wear. Not Brigid. She’d gotten on the bus that morning and made an impression. Of course, that was probably why Hillcrest hotshot Prentiss Giannino had felt he had to punk her with the whole bus thing—to stop her getting above herself.
Brigid grabbed the dishsoap on her way through the kitchen. In the one bathroom of the house, she handled the contaminated items as Indigo had instructed. The suds and force of the shower found raw spots and scrapes Brigid didn’t even know that she had. When she got out, her skin was redder than when her mom thought her legs were cold. She hoped her extra flush was due to the hot water.
For a few hours, Brigid was able to tell herself that the itching on her legs was no worse than the itching on her arms. Her skin was sensitive. She wasn’t supposed to use fragranced soap, like the dish liquid. That’s all it was. When the urge to scratch got bad enough, she broke her silent treatment on a frantically messaging Em by bragging about how she’d walked home with Indigo. As Em alternately apologized for letting the bus leave without her and dug for details on Brigid’s adventure, Brigid consulted Dr. Google about poison ivy.
The anti-itch cream they had came in a tube and Brigid squeezed thick lines of it along her shins and forearms. She created hazy swirls that made her legs look like her neighbor’s prized F150 before buffing. She let the backs of her legs rest on the cool tile, but warmth quickly built in her lower legs.
A few tissues wiped her skin clear of any excess cream that was trapping the heat. The swipes revealed that her skin not only remained radiant red but had also swollen to a tight sheen beneath the haze.
Yelling for her mommy would lead to where she’d come into contact with the noxious plant. Brigid could not divulge where she had been. Indigo would never forgive her, and that was only one of the serious consequences if she talked about The Tangle. She would be much better off to keep her mouth shut and to show up to school itching, burning, and in scruffy footwear. She could counter such disgrace with her time with Indigo. Down went a dose of antihistamine syrup, the taste like eating a grape Jolly Rancher after swishing with Listerine.
Blisters appeared by the next morning. Being up most of the night had the advantage of being able to plan. Brigid sneaked from bed, dressed in her softest, lightest pair of pants and even those were torture. The shoes she had laundered weren’t entirely clean and they weren’t dry and they had shrunk. She stuffed her feet into them anyway, having no other pair half as stylish. Brigid slipped from the house while the sunlight was dim. Linda probably wouldn’t notice that Brigid had left, but, if she did, there wasn’t much else Linda could do. Brigid was already grounded because Prentiss made her miss the bus.
Punishment had been the entirety of their “talk” the night before. Linda had laid out the punishment of grounding and phone confiscation. No apology or promise from Linda to keep her own phone handy—that would be admitting a mistake. No empathy over how it hurt to be pranked or how panicked Brigid had to have been when left behind and unable to reach help. No worry whatsoever over how Brigid might respond to another emergency when stripped of her phone.
It wasn’t like Brigid didn’t know that she’d be in trouble if she walked home. She had been brave enough to approach Indigo because she thought a chaperone would be a buffer against Linda’s objections and that maybe Indigo would agree to be seen with her because of that stupid pair of shorts. She’d thought she looked so great, but Indigo hadn’t even noticed them until Brigid was deep into the poison ivy. Indigo’s symmetric face had stretched long at the sight then winched up into something reminiscent of Linda. “Haven’t you ever been in the woods before?” The memory of that tone, that look bristled as much as any rash.
The drugstore was on the way to school for a lot of students. Kids stopped in to get sodas and junk food or, on a dare, tried to buy the occasional pack of cigarettes or use a five-finger discount. Brigid had never tried stealing and didn’t plan to start that morning. She had a little over ten dollars in cash saved from completing her chores, and she was going to have to spend it on medication.
The pharmacy had a big section for cold and allergy. Different active ingredients and brands, including generics, aligned along the shelves in bottles and boxes. Formulas for children and adults and maximum strength populated most lines. Cost simplified her options. Brigid only had her cash, and she needed caffeine after finishing the night she’d had. Additionally, she had to reserve something for tax. She wanted to have some money left. She made her choice.
Indigo was up by the registers. Two other girls were with her, so Brigid looked for a cue that it was okay to say hello. She had almost passed them by, hurt, if not surprised, at being ignored, when Indigo stopped her friends by saying “Hey, Bridge.”
Brigid echoed the Hey with tamped-down enthusiasm. She wanted to stay and chat as much as she hoped to be released unharmed.
“Got a rash?” Indigo indicated the box Brigid held and the energy drink in her other hand.
“I should’ve been watching you closer.” Indigo’s friends grinned at the implied babysitting. While Brigid had been boasting to Em about her walk with Indigo, Indigo had likely been complaining to her group. Indigo grabbed a box of mints and a chocolate bar and placed them on top of Brigid’s medicine box. “Buy these, too. I’ll show you why outside.”
A who’s who of upperclassmen gathered in the lot. Brigid hadn’t known about this hangout the way she’d known of The Tangle. Power rushed through her at the thought of telling Em about it. She searched for Indigo as the older students eyed her, threat in their various poses. Jacob Hewson spoke first. “Nice shoes,” he said. Brigid braced to endure further teasing with a smile. She could see why Indigo liked him. His mid-brown hair glinted in the sun as it flopped around, he was tall and he was athletic without being gawky. The biggest thing to like about him, though, was that he wasn’t messing with her. He stuck out his own grungy sneaker as if to say Welcome to the club.
“There you are.” Indigo took the candy bar and passed it Jacob, who gave Brigid a nod of acknowledgement. She was still blushing as he asked his group of friends who thought they could cram the whole thing into their mouth at once. Indigo showed her back to the boys then held out a palm to Brigid. “Let me see those mints.”
Brigid passed the mints over, and as Indigo separated the plastic dispenser with dark-painted nails, Brigid was told to pull apart the medication box. Indigo tucked the mints into a pocket of her denim jacket, which was covered in tattoo-style drawings by herself and several others. She then poured the pills into the mints box. The lid snapped tight. “It’s a three-day suspension just for having Advil to treat cramps,” Indigo said.
All medications were supposed to go through the front office. Brigid had known that, had planned to slip into a stall for privacy, but she saw where this setup was better. Even if someone spotted her with the pills, it looked like she was just concerned about her breath. Indigo threw out the packaging that Brigid would have recycled. She didn’t return the mints. “It’s getting time,” Indigo said, watching as other students started streaming towards school. Brigid calculated when to leave so she would be perfectly between groups and decrease her chances at trouble, but Indigo said, “You can walk with us.”
The sixth grade entered through the West doors and the eighth grade through the East. Because of this, Brigid’s whole class got to see her walk up with not only Indigo and her friends, but with Jacob’s group as well. The message that Brigid was with them rippled through the class. The knot of kids that had formed around Prentiss loosened. He pretended not to see that—or Brigid’s new friends—but he’d noticed.
She felt exposed peeling off from those eighth graders. If Brigid wasn’t careful with Prentiss, he’d retaliate with something worse than leaving her behind. It helped more than Brigid wanted to admit that Em jogged to meet her. Brigid was glad she’d mostly dropped her grudge. “Again, I’m so sorry about yesterday,” Em said, pulling a pout to underscore the words. “I didn’t know what Prentiss was doing until it was too late.”
Brigid nodded once. She couldn’t trust herself to talk about it yet. Prentiss wasn’t subtle; Em was a wuss. But Em could also be off in la-la land a lot of the time. Maybe it happened how Em said. Maybe it happened where Em was just too scared to say anything. Maybe she even laughed with everyone else. Whatever the case, Brigid needed allies, especially when Ashley Lawrence was rolling up with her coterie.
Em touched Brigid’s arm and spoke into her ear. “I told everyone that you walked home with Indigo. Some were all: Whatever. But then I said that you’d been to The Tangle and everyone freaked.”
Brigid prepared for Ashley to insult her shoes, but she was given an invitation to Ashley’s birthday sleepover instead. The glittery ink on her name was still wet, and she’d still be grounded over the weekend and unable to go, but there was victory in getting the invite, especially when Em had been left empty-handed. The bell rang. All students alphabetically aligned into homerooms.
Prentiss was the one who sneered, “Like your shoes, Towner.”
He was, as always, pressed and pristine. He got a few chuckles, and the heat in Brigid’s legs transferred to her face. But the usual panic didn’t manifest. She had a strange distance from the situation. The allergy medicine may have helped her there, or maybe spending time with older kids had flown her high above the politics of sixth graders. She told Prentiss, “You obviously don’t know how dirty it gets at The Tangle.”
It was a good burn. It had others in the class sucking in breaths and looking down at their own clean pairs with fresh eyes. Any other day, Prentiss would’ve had them. But Brigid had Indigo’s backing and, when the class looked at the shoes of a few older kids sprinting towards the far doors to avoid being late, they realized that all of their shoes were dirty. Like that, clean shoes were out and filth was in.
Brigid fell asleep in her first class. Two-column proofs did it. One moment Brigid was sneaking scratches through her pant legs, and the next her teacher had startled her awake by dropping a textbook to the floor beside her desk. The students gave a nervous laugh as Brigid looked around, bleary and confused in a class that usually gave her nothing but A's. One look at how happy Prentiss was told her that she was in trouble. The referral slip was confirmation.
The school secretary, Mrs. Refferdon, always wore pink. Cerise half readers occupied the end of her nose. Her bulky, cowl-neck sweater was of a tone that made it seem as though Refferdon was coming out of a birth canal. The gelled-down pixie cut wasn’t helping clear that image. “You’re not a frequent flyer,” she said, giving Brigid an oddly amused look over her glasses frames. Brigid passed the referral slip over the high part of the desk. Refferdon said, “Take a seat while I call your contact.”
Brigid muttered a Good luck, but, of course, for the school, Linda picked up immediately. Her voice came from the landline handset sounding like an old-time radio in a war movie. Brigid couldn’t hear details—just a droning recognizable as Linda. After introductions, Mrs. Refferdon said, “Her homeroom passed along a note that she was scratching at her legs. We’ve had more than a few students with poison ivy.” Refferdon paused, the magenta-lined smile slipping. “The grounds have been checked multiple times by our contracted maintenance crew, Ms. Chambers. Anyway, you may consider taking her to a doctor.” Another pause. The pink smile slid upwards. “Okay, see you shortly.”
The phone was down and Brigid slumped in her chair more for effect than out of disappointment. Despite the danger of more punishment, she wouldn’t mind some prescription-strength help and an afternoon nap. The vice-principal, one of few men at the school and even fewer people in a suit, showed up holding Brigid’s bag by the top loop like it was the catch of the day. Brigid immediately worried that the medication would be found, but either he hadn’t searched her bag or Indigo’s ruse had done the trick. Brigid chose to believe that Indigo had helped her get away with it.
The indignity of being collected from the school office was compounded by being shuttled—with her mother—into the kids’ room at the doctor’s office. Murals of various animals in boots, heavy coats, and fire helmets decorated the walls. Brigid wished they’d open the hydrant and give her flaming legs a good blast with the hose.
The nurse left Brigid to change into a gown. Brigid put the fire-engine exam table between herself and Linda for some privacy. She pushed her elastic-waist pants past her knees and had to stop. From the kneecaps down, the pants were glued to her skin. Fluid had wept from the coral-like arrangements of blisters, been absorbed into the knit of her pants, and then had dried hard. Trying to separate the fabric from her skin was much worse than pulling off a bandage. Add in the gag factor of how the dried ooze flaked like dandruff and Brigid lost it. She started to cry, all the cartoon animals grinning at her in a way eerily reminiscent of Prentiss.
“What’s the hold up?” Linda asked.
Linda huffed, walked over, and crouched down for a look. She didn’t quite cover her revulsion as she asked, “How come you didn’t get me when it was this bad?”
“It wasn’t this bad.” Brigid’s voice was quiet. She had her secrets. And she wasn’t confident that Linda would’ve helped if asked. Criticized her and made Brigid feel like a problem, yes. Provided actual assistance was debatable.
Linda blew a stream of air upward. Her bangs took flight in one hairsprayed wing. She kneeled to untie Brigid’s mangled sneakers. “Aren’t these the pair we got you at the start of the semester?”
“Since when are they so beat up?”
“Since I had to walk home yesterday.” It was nice for Brigid to be authentic and be snotty about it instead of worrying that by snapping she wouldn’t get a new set. The eighth graders were definitely on to something with the dirty shoes.
Mom pulled off the one shoe and went to work on the other. “You should’ve been able to take sidewalks from school to home—unless Annie took you through some shortcut. Is that what happened? Is that how you ran across poison ivy?”
“I don’t know anyone named Annie.” Brigid cut in front of her mom’s reach to remove her own socks. She balled them and pitched them toward where Linda had sat.
Linda shifted to rest on her heels. “What does she go by again?”
“Right.” Linda stood, looming. “Well, did Annie-Indigo take you through a shortcut or something on the way home?”
“No,” Brigid said.
“Other kids are having this same problem, Brigid. They’re suffering, same as you.”
Brigid stared down at her scaly legs and seriously doubted that anyone was having the trouble that she was. All a freak like her needed was to tell her mother about The Tangle. She’d lose all that she’d gained and then some. Forget suffering, that was death. “Indigo’s older and popular,” Brigid said, slowly, for the benefit of clueless Linda. “She didn’t exactly want to take me around.”
“I guess I’ll just have to get in touch with some of the other moms and scour the school grounds as well as your route home.”
“Be my guest,” Brigid bluffed. She was ecstatic when the doctor entered. Even if she tore the pants from Brigid’s blisters it beat talking to Linda.
Brigid readied as soon as Linda left for work on Friday. She had overheard Linda calling around to other parents while she’d soaked her blighted limbs in a mucky bath of colloidal oatmeal the doctor recommended. The poison ivy had to be out of The Tangle by the weekend. A garbage bag, rubber gloves, shears, a hand rake, and a spray bottle of weed killer that she hoped would work on the ivy stuffed into her pack. She started walking like she didn’t mind being noticed, that there was nothing wrong about a kid her age being out of school. If anyone asked, she’d had a stomachache in the morning and felt better, so was on her way to classes.
Brigid’s route ended at a copse of mixed trees past the school’s maintenance drive and sheds, AKA The Tangle. It didn’t look like much from the outside, and that was the point. Kids went there to do the things they weren’t allowed to do elsewhere.
There were rules to the place. People—especially sixth graders—couldn’t just walk in on their own. She’d been initiated by Indigo taking her inside, but there hadn’t been witnesses. Jacob probably knew that she’d gone in, and others from the lot that morning might have put things together, but otherwise the evidence was mostly Em saying that Brigid had been on the inside with Indigo.
Going in during school hours improved her odds of finding the place unoccupied, but it was no guarantee. She listened for anyone else as she lifted the limb of a sap-secreting evergreen to gain entrance. No voices reached her as Brigid pushed through the corridor of bent branches toward the clearing. It was empty save for the few logs, stones, and scraggly lawn chairs that served as seats. The rest of the décor consisted of liberated garden ornaments and street signs with a littering of butts, roaches, emptied vape cartridges and nitrous canisters, junk food wrappers, as well as soda and beer bottles or cans. To disturb these things was sacrilege, but Brigid kicked that debris into the growth at the edges, figuring it was just as tell-tale as the ivy. The amount of dust her shoes accumulated in the process was impressive.
Brigid hoped that her memory had inflated the breadth of the ivy patch, but it did indeed span from the edge of the clearing to the tree line, past which was a hidden, high, chain-link fence where Indigo had added her padlock among the others. The secrecy Brigid was sworn to, noticing Indigo’s initials and those of Jacob Hewson’s, and the hearts drawn on other locks gave Brigid a clue. An internet search filled in the rest. Brigid had felt honored that Indigo had trusted her to see what was apparently more of a wish than a done deal. She had to keep that safe as well as The Tangle.
Channeling her mom’s gardening abilities, Brigid kneeled in the dirt. She wore long sleeves and her lower legs were covered in pants and tall socks this time. She shook out the trash bag and gloved up before strangling vines together and ripping them out of the dirt. Some vines were particularly tenacious. She attacked them with the rake and any woody stalks with the clippers. The bag was filled and compressed and topped off in cycles until the stretch in the plastic became worrisome. Ivy remained.
Brigid redistributed the contents of her backpack to various pockets and refilled it with ivy. She knew she’d have to wash it later. She applied the herbicide to what was left of the ivy. In all, it took over an hour of frantic work, which was great since the longer she was out, the more likely she was to be busted.
Brigid shouldered the stuffed trash bag over her puffed backpack. She had to hold the clippers and hand rake as she walked home. She pitched the empty herbicide container into some growth at the edge of the neighborhood built behind the school and fabricated a story about being a garden volunteer to replace the stomachache cover and explain the tools she held on the way back.
The drugstore dumpsters were her next stop. She heaved the plastic bag up and over and into the bin. She re-gloved to empty her backpack but stopped unzipping midway. Putting bare ivy into the dumpster wouldn’t look like normal waste for a drugstore. Someone as short as she was would never notice since they wouldn’t be able to see inside, but she was sure everyone employed by the drugstore would be tall enough to spot a bunch of plants in there. Good thing her mom had a burn barrel right in the back yard.
Brigid burrowed into the weeds already in the barrel. She dropped handfuls of Tangle ivy into the hollow she created and then covered the ivy with the displaced yard litter. Linda would never notice. The thought of reducing that nasty ivy to nothing satisfied Brigid in a way tossing it into the dumpster hadn’t. She soap-cleaned and dried the tools. She returned them to the garage. The missing herbicide was a potential problem, but she couldn’t have carried it and why it was empty would have required explanation anyway.
Inside, Brigid toed off shoes coated with a fresh layer of Tangle dust. As wild and junk-filled as that place was, she preferred it to the preened beds outside. She opened a can of chicken noodle and pulled the saltines from the pantry. They didn’t have ginger ale to complete the sick-from-school classic meal, so Brigid dipped into her mom’s stash of diet Pepsi. It wasn’t that good, but it had caffeine and fizz and she could sneak it in front of the TV if she was careful not to spill. Then she’d clean up and go to bed if only to avoid Linda.
Linda went ivy hunting with other moms on Saturday afternoon. Brigid used the time to plug in her confiscated, nearly dead phone and check her messages. Ashley and Indigo had posted hellos that she studiously returned with alerts that she was grounded and wasn’t supposed to have her phone for another week. She gave her school handle, but everything was monitored and blocked to the point that hardly anyone used their school accounts for socializing.
Linda returned at her usual time and started making dinner as soon as she’d washed her hands. “You managed to make yourself some soup, I see.” What she meant was that Brigid hadn’t put her bowl into the dishwasher. No acknowledgment that she had washed the pan, put away the crackers, and cleared the counter of their crumbs. “Did you take your medications?”
Brigid nodded, though she felt like flipping the finger.
“I don’t know how you managed to get that rash,” Linda said, drying her hands in a tea towel. “We found one tendril by the maintenance drive, but it wasn’t attached to anything.”
“That’s the wrong way from the house,” Brigid pointed out as she climbed onto a stool.
“It was strange to find it laying out like that.”
“Refferdon said maintenance had been looking,” Brigid said, accepting a sandwich and side of sliced apples. “Maybe they found some, and it fell off their golf cart?”
“That’s a good explanation,” Linda said. She bit her sandwich, chewed, and swallowed. She studied Brigid the whole time. “There were some withered plants near some trees at the back of the lot. Well, that, garbage, and Jenny Liu found some of her missing gnomes.”
Brigid blanked her expression. No certain mention of ivy or of padlocks was good, but finding the gnomes wasn’t great. “The steroids helped the swelling a lot.” She showed a leg as distraction.
“Any idea where my weed spray walked off to?”
Brigid scrunched up her face and tried to look puzzled. “No.”
“It’s not nice stuff,” Linda said.
“Like I garden.”
Linda diced celery. “Do you think someone purposefully exposed you to poison ivy?”
“What?” Brigid chomped on a stalk she’d lifted from the clean pile. It tasted better with peanut butter, but she didn’t feel like she could turn her back on Linda to go to the pantry right then.
“You said someone engineered your missing the bus. Are you being bullied?”
Brigid laughed. “I’m in Chorus. I was invited to Ashley’s birthday party.”
“Meaning I’m not some loser kid who gets bullied.”
Linda waited a beat, like she was thinking over a response or two that she didn’t deliver. “Did you finish your chores?”
“I still have to do the bathroom, but I didn’t see much point until after I do my oatmeal bath.”
“That does make a mess.” Linda put her plate in the dishwasher and finished her glass of water. “Other than making up your schoolwork, I want you to take it easy this weekend. You should be back at school on Monday.”
“Does that mean that you’ll clean the bathroom?”
Brigid saluted with the half-eaten celery.
The tepid water of her colloidal oatmeal bath was scummy. It did not feel or smell any better than it looked. The only saving grace was that the brackish water made it difficult to see the state of her legs. Brigid heard Linda outside and took comfort that the ivy soon would disappear.
Since the water started cool—Linda had supervised—it was not long until Brigid stood, oatmeal crusting over her scaly blisters and making her look even more monstrous. She let the gunk gargle down the drain before turning the shower on to rinse herself and the tub. Hardened oatmeal was a substance unto itself, and she didn’t wish to spend hours scouring even if she wasn’t going to Ashley’s sleepover.
The smoke smell hit her as she stepped out onto the folded towel they used as a bathmat. Brigid conjured the flames glowing at the edges of the ivy leaves, wicking over the vines that connected the bunches and welled up a bit. No body, no crime. The Tangle was safe. She was safe.
But her tears kept coming—they were not relief. The smoke held an unusual topnote. A familiar burn tingled in her nostrils, down the back of her throat, and into her lungs. She had a fit of sneezing. Everything went still.
It couldn’t be possible. Brigid was imagining things. There was no way that burning the poison ivy wouldn’t kill it. The ivy was a plant. It was not a zombie, and yet Brigid recognized its foul work as her eyes continued to water and the snot began to run like she’d eaten a very hot pepper. Her legs flared with pain.
She forced her robe over skin that was too wet for the fabric to glide. When she finally got her arms through the sleeves, she was at the back door, tying the belt and dashing out onto the grass, barefoot.
Linda had the neck of her shirt pulled up over her nose, eyes squinted against the smoke as she aimed the hose at the barrel. Licks of fire sprouted here and there, and Linda shot them with water. Greyed sludge spilled out of the barrel’s mesh, creating a mud river. She turned toward the motion of Brigid running and shouted, “Get back inside!”
It sounded to Brigid like there should’ve been a you idiot! appended to that. She skidded to a stop in the grass, elbow held to her mouth and nose.
“Turn off the H-Vac and stay inside!”
Linda doubled over with coughs. Her face was a frightening, inflamed red. Heat from the fire, stress, or upset with Brigid were possible explanations, but Brigid was sure it wasn’t. She spoke through a thick-feeling throat, “I put some ivy in there.”
“Poison ivy?” Linda coughed more. Tears ran from her eyes, leaving tracks.
Linda advanced on the barrel, really soaking the remains of the burn. Sirens approached as Brigid came and took the hose from Linda’s ballooning hand. “It’s out,” Brigid said. Linda’s eyes were swollen to slits and clouded with tearing. She couldn’t see. Brigid pulled her mom away from the barrel. “The firefighters will have EMTs. They’ll have oxygen.” Brigid didn’t say They’ll know what to do.
“It’s probably cops,” Linda rasped. She swiped at her eyes and shot a nasty look toward the houses in Hillcrest.
Brigid said, “Let’s keep moving.”
Linda wheezed at each sip of air. She was still breathing at least. “I didn’t know it was bad to put the ivy in there,” Brigid said. “I thought it would just burn. I’m sorry.”
Linda rested her palms on her knees and spasmed with coughs more violent than dry heaves as firefighters rounded the corner of the house. The one with the medical bag escorted Linda and Brigid out to the trucks as the others coated the barrel with foam.
Police cars pulled in behind the fire truck and the fire station’s ambulance. They parked at diagonals to the curb like they were on a fast-paced TV show. Brigid sucked harder on her mask of oxygen as an officer walked towards her. Only juvy could be worse than Greensville Junior High.
One of the EMTs, Olde Towne by the look of him, said, “Guess Hillcrest will manage to get their city-wide burn ban.”
The other EMT, the one with Brigid, told the officer, “They both need to go in. Their airways could close.”
“Do we need to worry about other people in the area?” asked the officer.
“We might want to set up a tent for treatment and have you canvass.”
The officer turned away after a nod and began to speak into the radio.
Linda asked if they could ride together. The EMT paused to think about it to let them know that it wasn’t standard, that she was doing them a favor, before she gave the okay and whisked them inside.
“I really didn’t know,” Brigid said to Linda as they left their street and got hooked into IVs.
“You’re just a kid,” Linda said, patting Brigid’s arm with one raw hand.
Linda stared down a moment, almost like she regretted the contact, the understanding. “You’re not wearing any shoes,” she said.
“I was in the bath.”
“And you rushed out to save me?” Linda said this like it was a joke, so mocking that the EMT turned to make sure that it had been okay to keep the two together.
Dizziness tipped the horizon to one side, but Brigid pulled a deep, plastic-scented breath and regained her balance. “Was I supposed to leave you out there?”
Brigid had the sense that Linda was thinking about Brigid waiting for the bus, just as Brigid was at that moment. That wasn’t what Brigid had meant—was it?
Linda said, “I’ll talk to the cops, okay?”
“It’s my fault.”
Linda scoffed at that, a big breath fogging over the mask. Brigid assumed that Linda was agreeing while also negating Brigid’s involvement in the incident. She was a child.
“I’ll get into less trouble than you would.”
Linda coughed. She fought to breathe. Brigid raked her fingers through her mom’s hair, the way Linda did when Brigid needed soothing. They sat that way for a while as the canned air expanded and cooled their faces, filling their environs with white noise as the EMT monitored them and radioed ahead.
After a while, a clunky, green clog nudged Brigid’s bare foot. They neared the same size. “We’ll have to get you some new shoes for those big feet,” Linda said. “You’re growing.”
“No rush,” Brigid said.