In November I went to French Lick and drank the water and waited for it to fix the dark, slow churning of my mind, and for a few hours I actually felt better, but that might have been because I was so hydrated. I spent the night in Little B*****d, and when I woke the next morning, dull and dead feeling, I found one of the guys who worked there and said to him, “Maybe I drank the wrong water.”
He looked over his right shoulder, then his left, like someone in a movie, and then he leaned in and said, “Where you want to go is Mudlavia.”
At first I thought he was high. I mean, Mudlavia? But then he said, “That up there’s the real deal. Al Capone and the Dillinger gang always went there after some sort of heist. Nothing much left of it now except ruins—it burned down in 1920—but them waters flow strong as ever. Whenever I get an ache in my joints, that’s where I go.”
I didn’t go then, because by the time I returned from French Lick, I was tapped out and that was it, and there was no more traveling anywhere for a long while. But Mudlavia is where I’m headed now. Since this is serious personal business and not a wandering, I don’t bring Violet.
It takes about two and a half hours to get to Kramer, Indiana, population thirty. The terrain is prettier here than in Bartlett—hills and valleys and miles of trees, everything snow covered, like something out of Norman Rockwell.
For the actual resort, I’m picturing a place along the lines of Middle Earth, but what I find is acres of thin brown trees and ruins. It’s all crumbling buildings and graffiti-covered walls overgrown with weeds and ivy. Even in winter, you can tell nature is on a mission to take it back.
I pick my way through what used to be the hotel—the kitchen, hallways, guest rooms. The place is grim and creepy, and it leaves me sad. The walls still standing are tagged with paint.
Protect the p***s.
F**k all you who may see this.
This does not feel like a healing place. Back outside, I tramp through leaves and dirt and snow to find the springs. I’m not sure exactly where they are, and it takes standing still and listening before I go in the right direction.
I prepare to be disappointed. Instead, I break through the trees to find myself on the banks of a rushing stream. The water is alive and not frozen over, the trees here fuller than the others, as if the water is feeding them. I follow the creek bed until the embankment grows into rock walls, and then I wade right into the middle, feeling the water push past my ankles. I crouch down and form a cup with my palms. I drink. It’s cold and fresh and tastes faintly of mud. When it doesn’t kill me, I drink again. I fill the water bottle I brought with me and then wedge it into the muddy bottom so it doesn’t float away. I lie down flat on my back in the middle of the stream and let the water cover me.
As I walk into the house, Kate is on her way out, already lighting a cigarette. As direct as Kate is, she doesn’t want either of my parents to know she smokes. Usually she waits till she’s safely in her car and down the street.
She says, “Were you with that girl of yours?”
“How do you know there’s a girl?”
“I can read the signs. Name?”
“Do we get to meet her?”
“Smart.” She takes a long drag on the cigarette. “Decca’s upset. Sometimes I think this Josh Raymond situation is hardest on her since they’re practically the same age.” She blows three perfect smoke rings. “Do you ever wonder?”
“If he’s Dad’s?”
“Yeah, except he’s so small.”
“You were small till ninth grade and look at you now, beanstalk.”
Kate heads down the walk and I head in, and as I’m shutting the door, she calls, “Hey, Theo?” I turn and she’s standing beside her car, nothing but an outline against the night. “Just be careful with that heart of yours.”
Once again: Just be careful.
Upstairs, I brave Decca’s chamber of horrors to make sure she’s okay. Her room is enormous, and covered with her clothes and books and all the strange things she collects—lizards and beetles and flowers and bottle caps and stacks and stacks of candy wrappers and American Girl dolls, left over from when she was six and went through a phase. All the dolls have stitches on their chins, like the ones Decca got at the hospital after a playground accident. Her artwork covers every inch of wall space, along with a single poster of Boy Parade.
I find her on her floor, cutting words out of books she’s collected from around the house, including some of Mom’s romance novels. I ask if she has another pair of scissors, and without looking up, she points at her desk. There are about eighteen pairs of scissors there, ones that have gone missing over the years from the drawer in the kitchen. I choose a pair with purple handles and sit down opposite her, our knees bumping.
“Tell me the rules.”
She hands me a book—His Dark, Forbidden Love—and says, “Take out the mean parts and the bad words.”
We do this for half an hour or so, not talking, just cutting, and then I start giving her a big-brother pep talk about how life will get better, and it isn’t only hard times and hard people, that there are bright spots too.
“Less talking,” she says.
We work away silently, until I ask, “What about things that aren’t categorically mean but just unpleasant?”
She stops cutting long enough to deliberate. She sucks in a stray chunk of hair and then blows it out. “Unpleasant works too.”
I focus on the words. Here’s one, and another. Here’s a sentence. Here’s a paragraph. Here’s an entire page. Soon I have a pile of mean words and unpleasantness beside my shoe. Dec grabs them and adds them to her own pile. When she’s finished with a book, she tosses it aside, and it’s then I get it: it’s the mean parts she wants. She is collecting all the unhappy, mad, bad, unpleasant words and keeping them for herself.
“Why are we doing this, Dec?”
“Because they shouldn’t be in there mixed with the good. They like to trick you.”
And somehow I know what she means. I think of the Bartlett Dirt and all its mean words, not just about me but about every student who’s strange or different. Better to keep the unhappy, mad, bad, unpleasant words separate, where you can watch them and make sure they don’t surprise you when you’re not expecting them.