Prickly Skin (part 1)

Margot was the first of any of us to react. She covered her ears with her hands and screamed. Dan threw Paul against the hood of the pick-up truck and punched him in the stomach. I dropped to my knees. Casey's limp form was lying in the road, illuminated by the glare of the headlights. I was too devastated to move any closer and confirm what I feared.

In the beginning of June, Casey appeared at the Wildlife Park with a bronze face marked by relief and expectation. He had just graduated from high school, and the joy of his liberation was obvious. All lean-hipped and angular, he moved his long legs in a comfortable stride over to where I was splitting logs. I had been at the park for a full year then, working on a government-sponsored project that relocated elk from semi-urban areas of Wyoming to the preserve that we managed. I was eighteen and in the fall I was going to start college in Boston. My high school guidance counselor had convinced Mom that the year off was a good idea. She said I would become more emotionally mature.

That day, I was so absorbed in hitting the log with a solid strike that I didn't notice Casey until he was six feet away. When you live in Wyoming for a while, you forget about the abrasiveness of city noise. Your ears train themselves to pick up subtle variations within the quiet. But the sound of a pick-up truck, chewing up road and gravel, had not announced Casey's arrival like it had for the others.

He shifted the frame pack on his back to relieve some of the pressure from his shoulders. Cautiously, I rested the axe at my waist, keeping a strong grip with my right hand, when I became self-conscious of the V of sweat on my chest. Pulling on my shirt with one finger, I watched him look past me to the ranger station and the small wooden cabins that were spread along the rising hill.

"No gloves?" he asked.

"Don't really need them," I lied. "My hands are pretty tough."

"I'm sure they are," he smiled, kicking a stone with his boot. "You were really going after that log. I thought it had done something to you." His eyes remained level and calm while he spoke. "I'm Casey," he said softly, holding out a large hand in a formal gesture I had nearly forgotten about. We shook for an instant and I began to relax a bit. Introductions made me nervous; I usually mumbled, I'm Alison, and looked away.

Casey abruptly turned my wrist over and I snapped back to the self-protective body language that I had learned here. I tried to look bigger than I actually was, like some puffed-up owl.

"Your hands are all blistered."

"I'm used to it," I said.

"I have something for you." Casey shrugged the pack off his back and began digging through the top of it, throwing a wool sweater, a paperback book, and a pair of socks onto the ground and then buried both hands into the pack.

I studied the back of his tanned neck and then my gaze trailed over his shoulders, hesitating on the inch of bare skin above his jeans, exposed when he stretched forward. His arms were toned and firm and I found myself watching the rippling movement of his fingers as he sorted through his belongings. His hair was the color of tar and none of the strands could decide where to rest, so the slight breeze brushed them around his face.

"Here," he said. "Take these work gloves. They're broken in. They will help." He thrust them into my hands and grinned again.

"Thanks," I said, looking down at my feet. "I'll introduce you to the others at the station." He reassembled his bag, threw it onto his back, and followed me up the hill.

Dan and Paul were on the porch of the main cabin that had a kitchen and dining room. They were both in their early 20s and the three of us had worked together since last May. Dan was kneeling, replacing the door latch, and had spread every single tool from the toolbox onto the porch. Dan dropped out of Ohio University to be a fisherman in Alaska, but found he wasn't designed for boat life. For one reason, he was chronically seasick, and would turn green at the slightest swell. Dan had an odd high-pitched laugh. It seemed strange to hear a horse's whinny coming from such a big guy.

Paul had a county map spread on the floor and was writing down figures about water sources in a notebook and spitting brown tobacco juice. He knew I thought it was a nasty habit and was constantly complaining about stepping into his slimy, little puddles all over camp, even in the kitchen. Paul could be cruel at times, because he was a heartless mimic and never, under any circumstances, let an argument die. But he could also be funny, so we all put up with him. "I'm going to be a third-generation lawyer," Paul would say. "Being obnoxious is already built into my DNA."

Casey shook hands with both guys. Dan was as startled as I had been with Casey's formality, and switched the screwdriver from his right hand to his left, and finally stuffed it into his back pocket before shaking.

Paul sneered at Casey's outstretched hand and turned his own palm up, pretending to be brushing away some dust with his fingers, then gave a half bow. Wilderness hadn't turned us into savages it had merely sharpened our edges a bit, and given us prickly skin that is suspicious to the touch.

Just then, we heard a squeak and a gasping Mon Dieu! from the kitchen. It was Margot, an environmentalist from France, who I swore could speak English perfectly when she wanted to be taken seriously. "No, you are terribly mistaken, it is your turn to clean the toilet, that is why it has not been done," she would say, surprisingly flawless. She really did squeak. I knew because I had shared a cabin with her since she arrived last September. Many times she would overreact to a small event, enough to startle me so that I would throw back my covers, sleep-faced, to ask, What's wrong? Oh, she had broken the shoelace on her boot, oh, another button had fallen off her sweater, and oh, it was raining. That day it had been, "Oh, Mon Dieu, I have burned the muffins."

She greeted Casey with a beautiful smile, flashing her deep brown chocolate eyes, and then tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. I was tempted to tell her about my dream of the huge black raven that swooped down from a pine tree and scratched her porcelain-smooth complexion. All the guys who came to the park fell in love with Margot for her beauty, and then later changed their minds.

I was the youngest child with three older brothers. When they played tackle football when we were kids, I was the football. I grew up wearing their hand-me-downs: jeans with three layers of patches over the knees and tan mountain boots. Sometimes, as a kid, when I asked the salesman behind the counter at the shopping center where the rest room was, he would end up sending me to the Men's Room. No wonder the guys always let me play on their teams, but wouldn't send me any red-paper hearts on Valentine's Day. "Ally," they'd say, "you're a buddy, not a girlfriend." Even when I stopped being such a tomboy, it was like they could never forget. I graduated high school without ever having a boyfriend. I was afraid I was going to turn into one of those hysterical, Victorian women who would need to be treated with electric shock.

Later that night, after a huge spaghetti dinner, a jug of red wine, and a few hours of storytelling, I had to remind myself that Casey had only just arrived. It already seemed so natural that he should be with us, laughing at Paul's stories.

"So, this idiot ranger, Judson, takes the syringe and he's supposed to test it, right?" Paul scanned our faces and stood to act out the rest. "He has it all loaded up and all you need to do is press it forward a little so it squirts, like this." He made a thrusting motion with his hands. "So Judson asks me to hold it for him for a minute. Then all of a sudden, he backs into me and the needle goes straight into his leg." Paul screamed and contorted his body. "So he tranquilizes himself." Paul prepared his face for a solemn ending. "The sad part, the tragedy of it all, was that Judson was so knocked out that we had to wrap him in the elk stretchers and bring him down the trail like this." Wiping his eyes and laughing, Paul lay down on the cabin floor and stiffly raised his arms and legs in the air. We were all laughing, when Casey interrupted.

"It sounds like it was your fault, Paul. Why didn't you put the needle guard on until he was ready to use it?"

"Pardon me?" Paul said.

"It sounds like you were careless and endangered the ranger unnecessarily," Casey said.

"Oh my God!" Paul said. "They sent us Smokey the Bear."

"Casey, it's just a story. Don't take it wrong," I said. Casey reached for my hand under the table and squeezed it. I hit my knee on the table and the dishes rattled.

Casey worked beautifully with the elk. He spent more time with them than any of us. He acted like a doctor, nervously checking on each of his patients. The first time he tranquilized one he sat with her for two hours, just watching her, until the drug wore off and she scrambled away to explore her new home. He would leave dinner scraps for the raccoons and insisted that we get rid of the mousetraps in the ranger cabin that would snap nightly on some furry visitor. At night, the two of us would sit on the porch with an oil lantern and take turns reading novels out loud to each other. I would close my eyes and listen to his voice.

"Aren't you going to college in the fall?" I asked him.

"I don't need college. Everything I ever learned came from reading," he said.

One night, at the end of June, while Margot was still cleaning up the kitchen, Casey knocked on the door of my cabin.

He moved towards me determinedly. "I'm just curious about something," he said.

"What," I said, biting my lower lip.

"Your hair," he said. "You always wear it in that long braid. It's like you're hiding it, or restraining it, or something. I just wanted to see what it looks like without the braid. All free," he said, smiling at me calmly.

I reached behind me and grasped the elastic and flicked at it with my finger.

"Let me do it," he said. He undid the elastic and wrapped it twice around his little finger. He separated the three thick strands, and unwound them slowly. When my hair was loose and wavy, and hanging to the edge of my jeans, he placed his hand underneath the back of my neck, and drew me towards him.

"You smell like leaves," he whispered. We stayed like that for at least fifteen minutes in silence, and then he kissed me lightly on the mouth and slipped through the screen door. I felt like I was racing down a long and fast slide.

"Paul can really be horrible sometimes," I said to Casey, on a hot June day, as I passed him another shingle. We were both on the roof of the ranger's cabin trying to repair a leak that had flooded the supply room the night before.

"In my mind he falls into the Changer category," he said, pulling several nails out of his shirt pocket. "There is one type of person who continuously tries to adjust to the new surroundings. They're self-conscious about it, you know." He looked sideways at me and put the hammer down. "Like you, you'd fit into the Adapter category. If you were sent to New Guinea or some place, you'd be so worried about offending the natives that you'd completely deny your American upbringing. You wouldn't feel comfortable enforcing your views on someone else."

"Is that such a bad thing?" I asked, handing him some more nails.

"No, it makes you more flexible. See, you can go anywhere you want. But Paul acts like an ass most of the time because he belongs to the Changer category. He's in conflict with his environment. Paul wants to justify his own values and condemn everything else as wrong or insignificant."

"They would probably eat him in New Guinea," I said, lying down on the roof's gentle incline. "Which category do you fit in?"

"I'm not really sure I fit into either."

"Well, that's fairly arrogant. Categorize the entire world's population into two groups and then say you belong to neither one?"

"Hold on," he said. "I'm somewhere in the middle: I adapt easily but have no hesitations about arguing my views with someone who disagrees."

"But I hate it when you let Paul get you going. It's so pointless. You two are always competing." I said. "Paul is always trying to push people to the edge. There's something incredibly twisted about him, but I don't know quite what it is."

"You must be secretly attracted to him," Casey said, kicking my leg and walking past me to pick up more shingles.

About the author:

Jennifer Prado writes for independent film in New York City. She has a degree in Fiction Writing from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and studied Screen Writing at Film and Video Arts in New York City. Her short fiction and essays have appeared (or are forthcoming) in EWG Presents, Fiction Funhouse, Nuvein Magazine, Small Spiral Notebook, and Tower of Babel. She has recently completed her first novel, Love and Sex, and is navigating the perplexing world of New York agents, editors, and publishers. She spent the last year living in a rural community in Brazil, where there are more cows than people.