[I'm in the middle of revising a novel draft regarding another native daughter of Bastian Creek. In that story, several people fall victim to The Ladies Upstairs and their belief in the efficacy of stealing Fate to make the world that is more like the Will Have Been and, of course, to give themselves more of the good things that add savor to the everyday. Since that draft has stalled, shifted course, and generally behaved like a creek unaware of its proper banks, I've discovered some pieces of the initial draft, like the rocket slide, that no longer fit into Slay Me a Love Song. The rocket slide, in particular, I was sorry to lose. It appears here in a story fragment set somewhat before the events of SMLS , when Bastian Creek is threatened by Hurricane Beverly and a denizen of the Will Have Been rediscovers a childhood friend.
"Jenny, Jenny, moss is soft and pineapple sweet...NOT! It (Spanish moss) is related to pineapples." Here there was a drawing of a grinning pineapple. "According to Mrs. Lyle. Missed you at lunch. You are most definitely pineapple sweet!" Rhonda pressed her feet further along the curve of the metal capsule and twisted herself around so that more light fell on the page. Which Jenny? There were a million back in junior high. Cheerleaders and student council the entire blonde lot of them. It was just possible that she had known this Jenny; Rhonda remembered Mrs. Lyle's class and the pineapple/Spanish moss thing, something about flowers, maybe? Back when crawling up inside the rocket slide wouldn't make her feel like Alice outgrowing herself. She took another sip from her water bottle. She didn't shrink.
A breeze lifted the air around her and shifted the thin metal rocket skin. Four porthole windows quartered the upper capsule of the slide and let in just enough light to make out the various steps and rails leading down to the slide opening from this upper section. Rhonda's tennis shoes were wedged in between the wall and the railing and, as she waited out the rocket's slight shift, she noticed that her knees were pressed against that same railing, shadows patterning her skin. With her waist twisted in a curve to keep her balanced and able to hold the book up to the light, her lower body was losing sensation, becoming chill against the metal. A slight creak alerted her to another shift. She could see a bit of the ring of caution tape that had surrounded the slide. It's just a boundary marker for the fake rubber shavings. They didn't cordon off the slide or the ladder. Hurricane Beverly would probably push the slide all the way into the ditch.
Thick morning air wrapped book musk and the taste of stale cookie close to her nose, as if her breath were part of the salt and water sighing of the Texas coast, defacing memories and metals with every whisper. Light flickered with another breeze and more clouds. The frozen coffee she'd had for breakfast was burning its way back up her throat. Her stomach clenched. A memory surfaced; one of the Jennies had drowned in Bastian Creek. Just before graduation. Rhonda tried to crane her neck so that she could see the ditch. There was already water in it, even though the rain bands weren't yet moving along the coast. Had it been in this park?
The breeze and creaking stilled, leaving Rhonda's skin flushed. Sunlight returned and Rhonda settled back into the book. Her had brushed the pocket of her shorts, but her phone was locked in the car so that she couldn't be reached while she was reading. She'd rescued the book from the clearance shelves at the last remaining bookstore in Bastian Creek, certain that the old hardcover stamped with "Property of Bastian Creek Intermediate" was lost without its library brethren. Rocket Summer told the story of a group of high school students--a science genius, his two best friends and his blonde girlfriend--who discovered that actual aliens were landing in his town's playground, possibly because it contained a brand new, silver rocket slide. The picture on the title page had brought Rhonda here instead of to the lines at Wal-Mart. There might not be any water or plastic containers left at this point. Her parents, her brother Tim, and his fiancé Beth would just have to use the suitcases and boxes they'd all had for decades. The story wasn't holding her attention, it was just reminding her of growing up with Tim and previous evacuations. She put one hand against her stomach, feeling the chill settle against her stomach.
"Hurricanes cause cheap nostalgia," Rhonda said to the squirrels on the ground below. "I'm trying to grab just one memory before the storm, something to wrap all the other ones in." Immediately, she felt sorry for the squirrels. Previous flood memories of little drowned bodies and floating mats of red ants flickered into an image of a little blonde girl standing by the water at the edge of the creek, holding her arms out to mark "base" at the bottom of the yard. Run to the water for safety. "Run, anyway."
The breezes had stirred up leaves and dust from outside and rust and spiderwebs inside the capsule. Rhonda had cleared most of the webs up here with a stick. There weren't enough to worry her. People had been up here before her. The spider had hidden in beside a streak of rust. As another cloud blotted the light, it climbed down Rhonda's ponytail and rested several legs on her neck.
Rhonda slammed the water bottle into her neck, elbowing the metal enclosure. Her book slide over the treads and flopped down to the slide opening. The floor beneath her groaned and popped as Rhonda kicked the wall and yelled. She leaned over and tugged at her t-shirt until the body of the spider, legs folded, landed on a metal stair beneath her. She closed her eyes and shuddered. It was time to climb down.
She reached down, scooping up the book. Taking a few breaths, Rhonda ran her fingers along the velvet edges of the pages and then flipped the book open, looking for illustrations. A scrawl on one of the pages caught her attention. The blue ink was pressed deep into the margin, "Jenny, Jenny, green and growing, catch my hand and pull me free." Rhonda read the words aloud and traced the impression they left on that page and the ones below it. The words stood out from the back of the page like spines.
A low rumble shook the slide. Thunder? Construction equipment? Imminent containment failure? Rhonda looked outside. The squirrels had stopped moving.
Rhonda didn't want to become one of Beth's pre-wedding horror stories. A thud sounded against the metal.
"Hey, there's someone in here!" Rhonda pounded against the wall. There was another thump. She couldn't unwind herself fast enough. It had taken some maneuvering to draw herself up. She didn't think she could fit through the opening of the slide, but she was twisting around to try when the entire rocket lurched.
Rhonda pressed her face to the window and kept yelling. "Hey! I'm in here! Stop!" She could feel the entire structure twist and tilt. The sky lit up. She grabbed the railing and pulled her legs away from the stairs. The upper capsule fell, hitting against metal. Rhonda closed her eyes as the world dropped away. The capsule raced down.
There was a slight bump and the entire capsule rolled and then Rhonda felt it drop again. She bent tight against the railing, then a shock to her knees and her ribs opened her eyes. She groaned and let go. She sat down in a shallow puddle of water.
The capsule had landed in the ditch, one window facing up to the sky, one pressed into the mud, and the other two showing Rhonda the sides of the ditch. Her ears were ringing and her body ached. Pushing herself up, she saw that dark clouds had rolled in. Lightning flashed and a loud crack split the air above her. The slide had been hit by lightning.
She panicked. There was metal all around her and she was crouching in water with no way to get out.
[End of Section One]