Julia Thomas

 

Worms 

 

The evening light was fading and the falling sun behind the house cast a golden scrim over the yard. Rosemarie sat on the top step of the back porch, where she sat every night after dinner, nursing a can of soda until it went warm and listening to the locusts crescendo over and over. Tonight, she watched her husband, Don, and Darren, the seventeen-year-old she feared had become her fourteen-year-old daughter's boyfriend, stretch green garden hoses across the parched yellow yard, looping them around bushes and flowerbeds. Where the garden hoses connected to each other, little sprays erupted and their mist glittered briefly before evaporating into the heat.

"We're going to have to wet the yard good for this to work," Don said.

 When the sun was completely down for the night and the yard was good and wet, Don connected a wire clothes hanger, untwisted, to a large battery with electrical wire. He set the battery on the cement walkway that stretched the length of the yard. After Darren gathered up the last of the garden hoses, Don stuck the end of the clothes hanger into the ground and connected the last wire to the battery. The two men backed up several feet to watch. From Rosemarie's vantage point on the porch, nothing much was happening. No sparks or tiny jagged bolts of lightning. No little puffs of smoke rising up from the ground. 

After about thirty seconds, Don stepped forward and unhooked the battery.

"Rose, are those flashlights up there?"

Rosemarie picked up the long, heavy flashlights and carried them down to the yard. Don and Darren strafed the ground with beams of thin, yellow light.

"Wait." Darren walked to a spot twenty feet away and knelt down. "I see some. Keep the light on."

He picked up several worms and carried them back, where he and Don inspected them in his palm, nudging and rolling them over.

"Well, it brought them up," said Darren. "But they're dead."

"Maybe we left it on too long."

Rosemarie returned to the porch. She watched the flashlights' beams streak about in the darkness, like light sabers, as Don and Darren moved the battery around the yard and experimented with shorter and longer bursts of electricity. As they moved toward the bottom of the yard, the night closed around them and only the occasional expletive burst out of the locust chatter. She wasn't sure what Don had been expecting—perhaps for the yard to start expelling nightcrawlers all over, electrified worms shooting straight up into the air, like a fancy water fountain.

It had been their son's idea to sell worms, shortly after he got tired of waking up at five every morning to deliver newspapers. Don and Jimmy had always caught their own worms for fishing from the yard or from parking lots around town. After a long summer downpour, nightcrawlers lay beached on the steaming black macadam by the hundreds, far more than the two of them needed for a Sunday afternoon of fishing. They began collecting as many as their buckets could hold. Don helped Jimmy place an ad in the classifieds and stake a handpainted sign in the front yard.

Jimmy spent the better part of two summers sitting on the back steps—right where Rosemarie sat now—filling styrofoam cups with dirt and worms, a baker's dozen to a cup. The worms had to be kept cool, so Don bought an ancient refrigerator from the junkyard for twenty dollars and got it running again. Rosemarie had always tolerated a few cups in the kitchen refrigerator, for personal use, but she drew the line at commercial enterprise. The worms sold for a dollar a cup, twenty-five cents less than the convenience store and forty cents less than the bait and tackle shop.

Rosemarie tried to picture Jimmy helping his father shock worms out of the backyard. Jimmy had always been wise beyond his twelve years, so he would have winked and smiled a goofy smile at Rosemarie to say, "I know how ridiculous this is." But he had also always had a weakness for silliness, for physical comedy and pranks, so he would have thrown himself into the venture wholeheartedly.

Of course, if Jimmy were still alive, Don wouldn't be doing this in the first place. Jimmy would simply have shrugged off the lack of rain, the television forecasters calling this the third-driest summer on record, and shut down the worm business until it rained again.

* * *

It had been Rosemarie's thirty-fifth birthday, the day Jimmy drowned at the quarry. He had been swimming with friends on a glorious July day, as nearly everyone in town had done at one time or another. She remembered the weather perfectly because she had taken such a beautiful day as a sign that her thirty-sixth year was going to be a good one.

No one was supposed to swim at the quarry or even be on the property, which was still privately owned although it had been abandoned decades ago. Over the years, the quarry had filled with water and formed a perfect swimming hole with tall shady trees ringing its perimeter and stone outcroppings to dive from. The "No Trespassing" sign had been washed down to a grey plank of wood from years of rain and snow. 

The small birthday dinner that had been planned turned into an evening of mourning, as people stopped by the house to offer condolences and casseroles. Rosemarie's sister showed up with the birthday gift she had already purchased.

"I didn't know whether I should bring it or not," she said.

Rosemarie took the box, wrapped in silver paper, and put it in her bedroom, where it remained for two weeks. It took her that long to muster the energy to unwrap it. As she sliced open the tape with her thumbnail, she knew she would never again open gifts on her birthday.

After the funeral, Rosemarie was more than ready to pull up the "worms for sale" sign and return to a time when there weren't men knocking on the back door at 6 am, their military-green vests dripping lures and bobbers, and their fishing licenses attached to their baseball caps with diaper pins. But by then, all the local fishermen knew who had the cheapest worms in town, and Don had felt obligated to finish out the rest of the summer.

With the battered tacklebox they used for a cash register still sitting just inside the back door and the old refrigerator humming in the basement, it was easy for Rosemarie to imagine that Jimmy was just not at home. She continued to keep the books and fill out the sales tax forms, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of instant decaf and a pocket calculator. Her daughter, Tammy, continued to answer the door, retrieve cups of worms from the basement, and count out change, just as she had when Jimmy had been at the park for the day or hiding in the neighborhood clubhouse, poring over some father's pilfered magazines.

It was not until the air grew cool and falling leaves formed a mottled red and yellow skin on the streams and ponds that the old refrigerator was finally unplugged, the ledger packed away, the remaining money deposited in the bank.

Rosemarie and Don never really discussed ending the worm business. She had simply taken it for granted that they would, with Jimmy gone. So when she heard the stuttering hum of the old refrigerator the following spring, she froze. For several minutes, she simply stood in the kitchen and stared at the shock of flatware standing upright in the dish drainer, trying to remember which drawer it belonged in. Then she carefully picked her way down the cellar stairs, past the brooms and dust bins and bags of onions and potatoes, as if going slowly would give the situation time to resolve itself.

The refrigerator, a squat old thing with fifties-era rounded corners, hummed happily in the outside cellar, gulping in electricity after a winter's hibernation. Rosemarie closed her fingers around its cool metal handle and opened the door. Inside, the shelves were empty, but Rosemarie could see where Don had wiped down the sides with cleaner and left behind faint ghostly swipes. It took her several days to decide what to do.

Don brought the subject up first. "Who's going to be here to sell the worms if you're at work?" he asked. He was sitting in the living room recliner, his body settled into its crushed contours like water filling a lake. He thrust the remote control toward the television as he flipped channels.

"Tammy can do it."

Rosemarie sat on the reupholstered sofa, her legs folded in front of her, the TV Guide open on her lap, a prop to retreat into if necessary.

"Tammy doesn't get home from school until three," Don replied.

"School will be out for the summer soon."

"I don't understand why you want to work. Hell, I'd stay home all day if I could."

Be my guest, she wanted to say. You stay home and clean the house, every room but his. You plan the grocery shopping, remembering that you no longer need to buy Spaghettios or root beer or Cap'n Crunch cereal. You fold the laundry, checking sizes on jeans and socks to see who they belong to, a habit you just can't break. You answer the door and count out change, smoothing out every sweaty, crumpled dollar bill the way he did before putting it in the tacklebox.

* * *

She took the job in Dr. Snider's family practice at the end of April, hired to answer the phone and help with paperwork. Don asked to be switched to night crew at the supermarket so he'd be home during the day and hired Darren, the son of a slo-pitch teammate, to sit on the back porch in the morning, handling sales while Don slept.

One afternoon in May, Rosemarie scooted out the front door of the office and shot her umbrella open as quickly as she could. It was raining, one of those steady spring showers that come to wash away pollen and turn new lawns into soupy mud. She could drive to work, but she preferred to walk the quarter mile between her house and Dr. Snider's office. Walking was soothing to her, even in bad weather, in a way that driving was not. 

Her feet were already soaked and the hem of her pants dark from the water, when a car horn sounded and she heard, "Rosemarie!"

She turned to look and saw Dr. Snider's new pickup truck pulling alongside the curb.

"Let me give you a ride home. You'll get soaked."

She knew it would look stupid, turning down the offer in this kind of weather, so she accepted and hoisted herself up onto the vinyl seat. Raindrops sprayed off her umbrella as she pulled it down and gave it a good shake before closing the door. She laid it and her leather purse carefully on the floor mat.

She sat quietly while Dr. Snider drove up Third Street, through a corridor of small, two-story houses with pale green shingles bleached nearly to white and drops of rain bouncing off corrugated metal awnings. To Rosemarie, the town always looked shabby and defeated in the rain. It needed the sun to hide things in shadow or burnish rough edges with glare.

Country music whispered beneath the beat of the windshield wipers. Rosemarie wracked her brain for something to say, but nothing that came to mind seemed appropriate. She had no idea what doctors talked about outside their offices or the hospital. Maybe nothing different. Their patients, some new medicine, how their wives were spending them out of house and home.

Dr. Snider thumped his hand on the top of the dashboard. "You know, I never knew what I was missing without this truck. I can just fill up the back of this thing with mulch and manure and firewood, damn near anything. Can't do that with a car. Not and live to tell about it." He turned his head and smiled at Rosemarie. She wondered if he was trying to make a connection with her, find something the two of them had in common. Rosemarie didn't much care for pickup trucks, new or otherwise, and she cared even less for the kind of things you could put in the back of one—dirt, newspapers to be shredded into worm food, bulk packages of white styrofoam cups.

His hands were smooth and light on the steering wheel, his nails neatly trimmed. She imagined herself saying, "I can't imagine you doing anything with manure," but her imagination was as far as that remark went. The nurses said he had bought a farm outside town and traded in a Mercedes for the pickup truck. Said his wife nearly had a cow.

At first, some people hadn't believed he was really a doctor. He looked too young, they said. And he dressed well—suspiciously well, for these parts—in pressed pants, light sweaters, polished leather shoes. His dark hair reached the top of his crisp collars; he wore it tucked behind his ears. Even in the dim of the pickup cab, Rosemarie could see the scar on his earlobe, where it had once been pierced.

"How does your wife like living in the country?" she asked.

"Oh, truth be told, I think she's a little bored," he said, eagerly, like a man whose thoughts had been stoppered up for awhile. "I told her she needs to start some committees, get some of the women in town involved. Book clubs or charity work. Would you be interested in something like that, Rosemarie?"

"Maybe." She knew his wife would never be able to get people to join her committees. They would attend the first meeting, just to see the inside of the Sniders' house, and then never come back.

"Do you feel like getting some ice cream?" he asked. They were stopped at the intersection of Third and Maple, where a right turn would take them to Fairview, Rosemarie's street.

"I'm not sure the dairy is open yet," Rosemarie answered carefully, not sure what to make of this. "They were closed for remodeling."

"Do you mind if we go check? Or do you need to get home right away?"

She shrugged. "I don't mind."

The dairy turned out to be open, but just barely. The only things for sale were plain twisty cones, vanilla or chocolate. They took two chocolate. Since then, every other week or so, Dr. Snider would pull up alongside Rosemarie as she walked home and they would spend fifteen or twenty minutes—not long enough for anyone to notice—licking their ice cream into formless mounds and riding up and down empty country roads. Rosemarie would tell him about the people who lived in the houses they drove past, who had had multiple miscarriages, whose mother had died of cancer, whose grandparents had been drinkers or suicides, which families had smart kids and which did not.

Rosemarie wasn't surprised to learn that people weren't exactly forthcoming with their medical histories when they were sitting in Dr. Snider's examination room. But was it okay for him to get the information from her? Was it even legal, she wondered. In the end, she decided it didn't matter as long as no one else learned that she was the source. After all, she wasn't telling him anything that everyone else didn't already know.

In the office, Dr. Snider paid no more attention to Rosemarie than he had before, other than a quick smile here and there, so quick that sometimes she wondered if it was just a tic. The secretiveness of their ice cream runs made it feel like an affair, though he had made no move to touch her. Some days, she wondered whether he was waiting for her to make the first move, and she considered whether she could. He was attractive, certainly, and, being from somewhere else, he was one of the few people in town she hadn't known her entire life. Their drives together reminded her of being a teenager and riding with Don in his pickup, with no place to go, looking for something they knew they weren't going to find.

Other days, though, Rosemarie knew that the idea of an affair with Dr. Snider was ridiculous. She had seen his wife at the pool party he'd thrown for the office. Petite and blonde, with a spiral perm that cinched up her long hair into corkscrew curls, she had worn a black bikini top with a flower print sarong and sandals with tiny, delicate heels. The women from the office had watched their husbands and boyfriends as the men watched her walk back and forth between the house and the buffet table, then glide around the edge of the pool, stopping to rub the small of her husband's back, smiling and offering refills from a pitcher of sugary iced tea.

Rosemarie hadn't worried about Don. He'd stayed home, in case someone stopped by for worms.

 * * *

By July, there was little for Darren to do but smoke, chew grass, and try to push onto a reluctant public the African nightcrawlers Don had begun buying from a Georgia supplier. The long July fourth weekend should have been their best, sales-wise, but there had been no nightcrawlers to sell. Her thirty-sixth birthday passed without much comment. She bought a cake from the grocery store and set it out on the kitchen counter for Don and Tammy to eat when they wanted. Darren seemed to eat most of it.

"Why not close things down?" she asked early one morning as Don slipped into their bed. "The worms have dried up. You can't even afford to pay Darren anymore." 

"The worms haven't dried up," he said, fluffing his pillow then burying his face in it. "They've just gone deeper looking for water. We have to find a way to bring them back up is all." 

Downstairs, Rosemarie sat at the kitchen table nursing a cup of coffee. She had half an hour before she had to leave for work. If the house were empty, this would be her favorite time of day, those few moments when the day lay ahead in all its unblemished potential. But Darren arrived at six, with a sweating can of Coke and a pack of cigarettes. In the not-so-distant past, the first thing she had smelled in the morning was the soft fragrance of Don's sleep-warmed skin and the soap he had showered with the night before, then the thin vapors of her coffee. Now, she awoke to the hard odor of sour milk and bloody beef from the boxes Don unloaded at the store, then the vapors of Darren's cigarettes.

She held a large sip of coffee in her mouth, feeling it warm her gums, before swallowing. Through the screen door she could see Tammy sitting on the edge of the back porch, picking at a heart-shaped applique that was coming loose from her cutoff shorts. Darren stood at the bottom of the steps, his face level with Tammy's waist. He punctuated whatever he was saying by lightly slapping Tammy's bare knees. After a minute or so of this, Tammy reached out and grabbed his hand before it landed and squeezed his fingers hard. Darren laughed and pulled his hand back, shaking it for effect.

Rosemarie knew that as soon as she left, Darren would probably tap another cigarette out of his soft pack, poke it into her daughter's mouth, and wave a lighter flame over the end. Tammy pulled the rubberband from her ponytail to shake her hair loose. As she gathered it back into a new ponytail, a flash of gold caught Rosemarie's eye. When had Tammy gotten her ears pierced? And why hadn't she shown them off to Rosemarie?  She hadn't asked for money to have it done, or asked how they looked or how long she should leave in the starters.

Tammy was going to be pretty, Rosemarie realized, startled by the sudden stab of envy. Her daughter had inherited her father's easy ability to tan—some mornings Rosemarie swore they had tanned in their sleep—his thick half-brown half-blonde hair, and that crinkly look about the eyes that always said delighted to meet you. Jimmy had taken after Rosemarie. By the time he was a year old, he had her wild shock of black hair. By the time he was six, he had the lanky frame of his mother and her sharp nose. At twelve, he had been growing into his looks. At thirty-six, Rosemarie believed she was growing out of hers.

She had made it through two pregnancies without a single stretch mark, but now spattering grease from the stove left a spray of scars on her forearms. Her knees hurt if she sat on the floor too long. Her grey hairs were coming in straight, sticking out of her curls, like bug antennae. When, exactly, had she gone from being an attractive young mother to being the mother of an attractive young woman?

Some mornings lately, she would lean in close over Don's sleeping figure and hold her breath while she looked for the beginnings of crow's feet, furrows on his brow, any sagginess beneath his chin, even a single wiry strand turned silver.

 * * *

After months of answering the phone at Dr. Snider's office, photocopying insurance cards, and watering the waiting room plants, she'd begun learning the medical coding systems so she could help out with the claims that came back from the insurance companies. When one came back, it was usually because an unacceptable combination of codes had been submitted. The office manager had made a cheat sheet listing which diagnosis codes could be used with which procedure codes, but then a patient would come in with something she hadn't included. The office manager hated this stuff, but Rosemarie was fascinated by it. She could lose herself in the thick, heavy code books, marveling at the sheer number of things that could go wrong with the human body—thousands of pages worth—and how many ways humans had devised to fix them. 

"There are codes for everything," she told her sister. "A marble in the nose, getting stuck with a porcupine quill, being run over by a train."

She couldn't help herself. In a slow moment, she looked up the code for drowning. Her son's death could be summed up in a few numbers and a decimal point. For someone, some faceless statistics-keeper, that had been all they needed to know.

  * * *

Light from the kitchen spilled out across the porch. Rosemarie watched her husband staring out into the darkness of the yard, wondering what he was thinking. She'd been joking when she suggested shocking the worms out of the ground. "Just give them a little zap and see if they come up." She hadn't expected him to take it seriously, to actually figure out a way to do it. She had been hoping that the sheer ridiculousness of the idea would make him give up the worm business, let go of it once and for all. Now she was torn between feeling ashamed that she had pointed him toward this moment of failure and feeling embarrassed for him that he was this desperate.

After another minute or two, Don pushed his weight back onto his feet. "I'm going to give it one last try."

What happened next happened in a matter of seconds, though later Rosemarie would remember it as an almost endless stretch of time. After Don staked the hanger in the yard a few feet from the porch, a blue ribbon of light split the darkness, moving in nervous little wiggles, then snapping back and forth like a whip. Rosemarie sat frozen, only her eyes moving, following the shadows being hurled about the yard.

There was a loud noise and the ribbon disappeared, followed by a light drizzle of battery acid. At first, Rosemarie thought it had begun raining—at last—until tiny pinpricks of pain on her arms and thighs started to register.

"Are you all right?" Don ran up to the porch, swatting frantically at his biceps and calves. For a split second, he disappeared into his spastic movements, and Rosemarie saw her son doing the dance he used to do whenever he wanted rain to bring up nightcrawlers or cancel ball practice. It took her another second to realize that she was laughing, and she jumped off the porch to swat at her arms and legs, too. She kicked up her heels and slapped the soles of her feet, then tapped the top of her head.

"Remember the Demented Rain Dance?" she asked. "You look like you're doing the Demented Rain Dance."

 * * *

The hospital was quiet at night. Every once in awhile, she'd hear a pair of rubber soles squeaking down a waxed floor or the loudspeaker hiss and crackle, then go silent again, as if someone had dialed up and then forgotten what they wanted to say. Rosemarie tried to keep her breathing shallow and her eyes focused on the blue curtain surrounding the examination table she was sitting on. She could feel Dr. Snider's warm breath on her jaw as he inspected her face and neck, stopping every so often to dab cool gel on another burn spot.

Dr. Snider hadn't shaved before coming in—not that Rosemarie would have expected it—and his dark whiskers were nearly touching her eyelashes as he tried to inspect her scalp.

He sighed. "You have too much hair for this. We'll be here all night." He leaned back and Rosemarie missed the pressure of his fingers on her head immediately. "Does your head hurt anywhere?"

She longed to say yes, it hurt everywhere, so he would go on touching it, parting her hair strand by strand. But somewhere behind another blue curtain, Don was waiting for her, waiting to drive her home. She shook her head no.

"Is Don okay?" she asked. When Dr. Snider had arrived at the hospital—in jeans and a wrinkled sweatshirt, she noted—she had insisted he take Don first.

"He's fine. Has a few more burns than you do, but nothing serious. After they heal, you can try lots of moisturizer to minimize the scarring but I can't promise that'll help much."

He turned away to check off some boxes on a form. He still hadn't asked Rosemarie how she had gotten burned, and she was certain Don hadn't volunteered the information.

"We were trying to shock worms out of the ground, you know," she said. "And then the battery blew up. That's how we got burned, from the acid."

Dr. Snider didn't look up from her chart. "Is that a widely-used method?"

"No, I don't think it is." She touched a few throbbing spots on her scalp. "Don is desperate to find worms. Our son, Jimmy—he died, you probably heard—used to sell worms. It was his hobby. But it's been so dry this summer and there haven't been any. They go deeper into the ground looking for water."

"I wouldn't have given worms credit for that much intelligence," Dr. Snider said, handing her the form he'd been filling out. "Does this look okay to you? Do I have it filled in properly or will the coders come hunt me down in the middle of the night?"

Rosemarie scanned the form and nodded to him.

 * * *

At four-thirty the next afternoon, Rosemarie tidied up the waiting room, straightening chairs, re-stacking magazines, returning scattered toys to the Rubbermaid bin. At four-forty-five, she washed out the coffee pot and dumped the last grinds into the trash. At five sharp, she slung her leather purse over her shoulder and headed for home.

She'd kept herself busy all day, even pretending to be on the phone when she had nothing else to do, just to avoid any interaction with Dr. Snider. When finally he had touched the sleeve of her dress and leaned in close to her ear to ask, "How are you feeling today? Let me take a look at your arms," it had been like an electric shock burning straight down her spine.

Outside, it was still hot and muggy. She stood on the corner for a moment, breathing in the heavy air and letting it settle over her body like a blanket, before stepping off the curb. When she got to the intersection where normally she hung a right that would take her to her house, the walk sign ahead of her was lit so she crossed. She jogged the last few steps to make it before the light turned, and kept going straight. It had been busy in the office, one sunburned face and swollen bee-stung arm after another. She just needed to walk a few extra blocks, take the long way, to unwind. But she passed intersection after intersection, until the sidewalk ended and the street became a road leading out of town. She stopped in at the dairy and bought an ice cream, peanut butter swirl in a cake cone. It had been a rough day, she told herself. She needed a treat. She'd keep walking until she was finished with the ice cream, then she'd turn around and go home.

By the time she got to the quarry, her fingers were sticky with melted ice cream and she popped the leaking stub of cone into her mouth. A group of teenagers was swimming in the quarry.

"Hey! You're not supposed to be in there," she yelled at them.

They looked up at her for a moment, then resumed their splashing. She thought she heard mutterings of "freak" and "that kid's mom." Rosemarie sat down on a rock, away from the water, and stretched her legs out in front of her. She had walked nearly two miles, and now her leg muscles ached, her smattering of burns pulsing in the sticky heat beneath her dress. She'd rest a few minutes before heading back into town.

In the water, one of the boys grabbed the tie of a girl's bikini top and pulled it loose. She shrieked and swatted at him, and her friends splashed water at the other boys. They were lean and tan, and they climbed over the rocks like a pride of lions, their muscles rippling just beneath their wet, glistening skin. Rosemarie knew her presence was probably thwarting their ultimate plans.

The boys climbed out of the quarry, lines of water falling between their shoulder blades and down their backs, and then turned to extend helping arms to the girls. As they patted and rubbed towels over their taut skin, over their flat bellies and gently curving muscles, the hairs on Rosemarie's arms stood on end.

The kids pulled shorts and tee shirts on over their wet suits, and bicycled off. When their laughter and mock insults had faded, absorbed into the heat, Rosemarie picked her way to the edge of the quarry. The water was too black to see her reflection. She lowered herself onto a rock and swished her fingers through the cold water, remembering what it was like to swim here with eager, unblemished boys. She stood carefully on the rock and pulled her dress over her head, then stepped out of her underwear.

The water was much colder than she had expected and for a moment, she was unable to breathe, her body startled by the sudden change in temperature. When her lungs relaxed and her skin grew a little numb, she pushed away from the rock and let herself glide into the center of the quarry. It felt like yesterday that she and Don had undressed here, trying not to look at each other's bare skin shining in the moonlight. In the water, they had floated around each other at first, until Don dived beneath the surface and came up under Rosemarie. Drowning had been the furthest thing from their minds. That happened to other people.  

The crunch and skitter of gravel warned of an approaching car, and Rosemarie folded her arms across her chest, suddenly conscious of the white, moon-like tops of her breasts bobbing just below the surface. She took a deep breath, then let herself sink. Underwater, she tried to listen for the car, hoping it would drive by quickly and that its occupants wouldn't notice her crumpled clothing on the rock. Seconds passed like hours and the water began to feel good to her, soft and soothing on her burned skin. The water flowed through her hair as though someone were finger-combing it, tugging gently at her scalp. She could stay here, she thought. No more selling worms. No more missing Jimmy until it felt as if her heart would burst. No more anything. Just this cool, soothing water.

She leaned her head back and looked up at the surface. This is how she had felt on the best days of the past year: her arms and legs moving slowly, moving just enough to keep her where she was, wondering whether someone walking past her on the street could even see her anymore, waiting for the time to be right to open her mouth and take another breath.

The pressure was building inside her head when Rosemarie saw the first ripple in the water's surface. Rain, she thought. Maybe at last they were going to get a good old-fashioned summer thunderboomer. That would bring the worms up. She watched as more ripples scarred the surface, then hundreds, churning the water into choppy splashes. It was like being at the bottom of a saucepan, watching the water boil above.

A deep crack of thunder sounded in the distance. She had to get out of the water. The quarry was no place to be in a storm. She pinched her nose shut with her fingers to stifle the urge to breathe and kicked at the water with her feet. She broke the surface, gasping for air, and swam to the edge of the quarry, the rain warm on her face and shoulders as she climbed out. A gnarled finger of lightning pointed out of a cloud too close for comfort. She pulled on her already soaked clothing for the wet walk home.

 

* * *

 

Julia Thomas is a freelance copywriter and 2002 graduate of the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. She was awarded a work-study scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in 1996. She lives in Leesburg, VA, with her husband and son. This is her first published story.