When I was seven years old, I shivered by a Wyoming hot spring, wrapped in a towel from my mother. She sat beside me in the western sun. Her hat was off, her chemo-bald head shining as her hands wrangled my wet hair with nothing but a hairbrush. She made small talk with my aunt while I twitched under each tug of the comb. Eventually, she sighed, put down the brush, and said Well, go ahead. I’m not going to fight you anymore. I barely had time to give her a grateful smile before I took off at breakneck speed down the hill to where my cousins stood by the edge of the spring.
The moment I got there, my brother threw his towel down by the side of the water, and my cousins began to tug me toward the wilderness stretching out around us. My younger cousin Jackson yelled something about “going exploring” to my aunt as we walked into the forest. Before we could hear her response, we had dissolved into the trees.
As we walked farther from the spring, the pine trees gave way to a slow-moving river and riverbank. We stayed away from the edge of the water. Our grandmother’s voice rang in our heads, reminding us of that little boy who had been swept away and drowned under the quiet rapids a few years ago. Instead, we tramped our own crooked path through mud and overflowing puddles. Jackson pushed me into one of these puddles and covered my whole right side with slush. After that, I splashed through the mud ferociously, hoping to catch him in the crossfire. As I plunged my foot into a puddle, something hard and sharp knocked against my toes. I stumbled back, my brother grabbed my elbow, and at the same time, all of us looked down at what was sticking up at us. From the mud, rose the fragmented backbone of something dead. My brother leaned down and picked it up. My younger cousin Bella turned around and ran back along the river bank. Jackson let out what sounded like a whoop of triumph, and I stared at it silently. Even covered in muck, the row of vertebrae seemed to glint in the sun.
The three of us raced back to my mother and aunt, yelling at the top of our lungs. My brother carried the bone in his hand. When we skidded back into the field full of our camp chairs, my cousin and brother sprinted up to my aunt who was holding Bella in her arms, still yelling and waving the bone above them.
I ran up to my mom. She was lying stretched out on the grass with her eyes closed. The sunlight was casting shadows on the hollows of her face, and somehow, she looked more tired at three in the afternoon than she did most nights. I stood above her for a moment, trying to make myself wake her up and tell her about what we had found. The words worked in my mouth, but never came out. Suddenly, I didn’t want to talk about the bone or look at it or think about what it really was: a sun-bleached reminder of something that once was and now wasn’t. I lay down beside my mother and turned my eyes up to the blue sky above us. Behind me, my cousin shouted something about being Indiana Jones, and beside me, my mother slept, her asymmetrical chest breathing slower and slower.
The next summer, my brother and I returned to Wyoming. We flew alone. When we arrived at the airport, my aunt wrapped us up in a long hug and didn’t let us go until her shoulders had stopped shaking. Then, she gave us a soft, sad smile and told me and my cousins that we could go anywhere we wanted for dinner.
My cousins and I spent most days that summer racing our bikes through side streets and trying to jump over the creek in their backyard. We stayed away from the hot springs.
Afternoon rain storms gathered in the mountains like clockwork and dumped buckets of rain on us halfway through every afternoon. One day, when the clouds blacked out the sun entirely and the rain lashed us inside, Bella got out the kitchen scissors. Before I knew it, I was crisscrossed in the center of the room, and my younger cousin was carefully snipping away at the ends of my hair. I told her to cut off all the dead split ends, the same way I had tried to cut my hair a few years earlier. When mom had found me then, she had yelled at me, lectured me, and roughly brushed her fingers through my hair with the dismay and care that only a mother could muster. My cousin cut and cut and cut until my hair shrunk just above my jaw and my aunt’s feet came storming downstairs. When my aunt stepped into the kitchen, she stood very still for a moment. Then, she took the scissors from my cousin and my chin in her hand. Why? She asked. I said nothing. Bella began to speak, but before she could say a word, my aunt shook her head and quietly sent us to our room.
I laid on my bed for a long while, staring at the ceiling. Behind me, the rain pattered on the window. In its drumbeat, I tried to drown how quiet my aunt had been when she had sent us out of the kitchen, how she hadn’t yelled at all, how no matter how much she looked like my mom, everything about her was an almost.
We snuck out two weeks later at midnight. Jackson grabbed the sleeping bags from the basement. Jacob got the flashlights. Bella and I stole enough blankets to keep the four of us warm and enough freezy ice-pops to counteract all the good work the blankets were doing. We slipped out onto the back porch, laid our sleeping bags out beneath the open sky, and waited for the meteors to come.
The Wyoming sky held more stars than I had ever seen in my life. Bella kept shouting Shooting star! See! There’s one! when, really, there wasn’t one, and my brother kept telling her to shut up. Eventually, Bella stopped shouting, Jackson stopped naming off constellations that didn’t exist, and we all lapsed into silence.
At three A.M. the back door slid open, and light from the dining room spilled out over the back porch. We turned to look at my aunt’s figure in the doorway. Before any of us could apologize or hide the stolen popsicles under our pillows, she was lying down next to us. My brother passed her a blanket from the pile. Jackson whispered Mom, are you mad? She didn’t say a word, just lay beside us and watched the meteor shower.
After a few minutes of lying and looking, she rested one hand on my head and the other on my brother’s shoulder and said, Your mom used to love doing this. I looked at the curve of her face in the dark. It was softly familiar and lit up by the bone white glow of the moon. Her hand drifted through my shorn hair.
Kate Lacey is a writer and high school student from Arlington, Virginia. She has received a Silver Key in fiction from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and her poetry has been recognized by the New York Times and Princeton University. She is the editor of her school’s literary magazine and loves learning foreign languages and helping students of all ages find stories they can connect with.