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They dumped Benny by the river, wearing nothing but a green paper gown. Ambulance must’ve pulled over, rear doors fanning open. Bet the driver didn’t even step out to help her. Just kept the engine running when they left Benny by the side of the road, all disoriented, shivering from the cold. No clothes, no shoes, no idea where she was anymore. Started making her way toward the water, all sixty-three years of herself crawling down the craggy rocks, bare feet slipping over the algae. Rested just next to the James for lord knows how long. All numb now.
There’d been rain out west, so it wasn’t long before the river swelled. Couple of hours and the surface probably rose right up to her, currents taking her away. Carrying her downstream for half a mile. Two miles. Maybe more—I don’t know. Depends on where they ditched her in the first place, doesn’t it? Can’t shake this image of her floating over the rocks, half naked, whisked off into the whitewater. The rapids dragging her body along before bringing her back to Belle Isle.
This island had been our home.
After they shut down the Freedom House on Belvidere, you either had to migrate up to Monroe Park or toward the Lee Bridge, where the nearest mission was nestled into this neglected valley on the south side of Chesterfield County, about a mile’s walk beyond the city limits. It had been home to some battlefield long forgotten by now. Perfect for a skirmish during the Civil War—not much else. Only neighbors now were a couple of dilapidated factories, the soil all soaked with arsenic. Just about the only thing you could build on top of that poisoned property was a homeless shelter. And this mission—their doors didn’t open unless it was below thirty-five degrees. Come 6 a.m., you were woken up and tossed right back into the street no matter how cold it was. Locked their doors until the thermometer reached the right temperature again.
Me and Benny tried our hand at it for a couple nights, hefting everything we owned back and forth over the Lee Bridge, just looking for work. Got all of our belongings on our backs, like a couple of ragged privates marching with fifty pounds of provisions slung over our shoulders. Just praying for the mercury to sink below thirty-five. That one degree’s the difference between you and your own cot—even a cup of watered-down coffee—or freezing to death on some park bench.
Can’t call that home. Nobody should.
Richmond’s labeling all this shifting around revitalization—but I’m not buying it. Pushing us out to the periphery. Forcing us to find a new home every night. Their Downtown Plan has nothing to do with me. Never had Benny’s better interests in mind. When I first met her, couple years back, the boys-in-blue had just busted her lip for sleeping out in Monroe Park. She shuffled her way into Freedom House after curfew, an icicle of her own blood hanging off her chin. Weren’t that many cots left at that hour, so she took the one next to mine. Dropped her plastic bags, all her junk spilling over the floor. I leaned over, thinking I’d lend a hand, getting a slap on the wrist for my troubles.
Don’t touch my stuff.
Just trying to help.
Help yourself is more like it.
Asked her what her name was. Her jaw refused to move much because of the cold, just enough to keep her teeth chattering, so when she answered—Bethany—I didn’t hear the tha part. Her tongue missed the middle syllable, like the needle on a record player skipping over a groove.
Sounded like she said Benny.
No funny stuff now, she warned, brandishing her wrinkled finger like it was a blade. I’ll have you know I’m a respectable lady.
There have got to be thirty years between us! The hell are you expecting me to do?
Just better watch it, young man. I’ve got my eye on you.
Most folks made their way to Monroe Park after Freedom House closed its doors—but that was a trap, if you’re asking me. Used to be a training camp for Confederate soldiers. Military hospital after that. Lot of cadets ended up dying on that patch of land. Too many homeless ghosts out there now. People who spend the night there end up disappearing. Some say this city gives you a bus ticket to any town you want, one-way, no questions asked—just hop on board and bon voyage—but I’m betting that’s a rumor the boys-in-blue spread around town so you drop your guard and follow the brass right into the paddy wagon. Act like some mutt trusting the dogcatcher—transfixed by the biscuit in one hand, not even paying attention to the net in the other.
Benny’s vote was Monroe. Mouthing off about the handouts down there. College kids managed a meal plan in the heart of the park, serving up soup on Sundays or something.
Step in there, Benny, I said, and you won’t be walking out ever again.
You’re just being paranoid.
Sure shut down Freedom House fast enough—didn’t they? Sure don’t see the Salvation Army marching into Monroe to save the day. I’m telling you, Benny—the police own that park!
Then where the hell are we gonna go?
That left Belle Isle. You got the Lee Bridge reaching right over the James River. Just another memorial to another dead Confederate general. Connects the south side of the city to the rest, shore to shore, like a stitch suturing a wound. Got the James bleeding up from that gash, no matter how many bridges there are sewing up this city. But nestled in between the concrete legs of Robert E. Lee, there are about fifty-four acres of public park, all wrapped in water. The river splits, rushing down either side of the isle, its converging currents forming a sharp point at the tip. A real diamond of an island. Only way to reach land is to hoof it. Got this footbridge slung under the interstate, a little baby-bridge suspended from its father. You can hear the hum of automobiles passing along the highway just above your head—but down there, once you’ve set foot onto the island, it’s like the city doesn’t exist anymore. Sound of cars just melts away.
We’d be like—like our own Swiss Family Robinson down here.
More like Robinson Crusoe, Benny said, shaking her head.
No one’ll bother us, I promise. As long as we stay on the far side of the island, away from the footpaths, no one’ll even know we’re here.
You’re crazy, you know that?
No more missions, no more shelters, I said. We’ll never have to set foot on the mainland again.
Yeah, yeah—just lead the way, Friday.
There are ruins of an old hydroelectric plant tucked away on the far side of the island. Closed its doors in ’63, the electric company gutting out all the iron, leaving the concrete behind. Nothing but a husk now, all empty. Good for a roof over your head when it gets raining. We set up camp in one of the old water turbine rooms. Have to crawl through this hatch just to get in. The air’s damp down there. Soaks into your bones if you’re not bundled up enough. But the walls keep the cold wind from nipping your nose. Made that room a hell of a lot better than sleeping in some refrigerator box. The generator was long gone, the rotors removed, leaving behind this empty shaft as big as any room in those mansions you see lined up along Plantation Row. We’re talking ballroom here. Perfect fit for all of Benny’s stuff. She hefted a whole landfill’s worth of accumulated junk along with her. A dozen plastic bags busting open at the seams, full of photographs. Toys. Anything she could get her hands on.
Home sweet home, Benny said. Started decorating the place right away, slipping her pictures inside a rusted wicket gate like it was some sort of mantelpiece. All the shorn cylinders were now full of photographs, every severed duct a shelf for her past.
Who’s that? I asked, pointing to this one black-and-white snapshot. Cute little brunette smiling for the camera. She looks familiar to me.
Who do you think?
You’re telling me that’s you?
Damn right I am.
Didn’t recognize you under all that baby fat.
Yeah, well—they fed me better back then.
The island’s supposed to be vacant once the sun sets. Every day, like clockwork, this ranger comes to lock up the footbridge. Not like that ever keeps the kids away. Teenagers always sneak in after dark, building bonfires. Spray-painting the walls.
We had a whole novel’s worth of graffiti wrapped around the place. Couldn’t really read what it said. The words were barely there anymore, losing their shape. Tattoos fading into your skin, reminding you of different times. Times when those tattoos would’ve meant something. An eagle, a globe, and an anchor. Semper Fi. Nothing but blue lines now, wrapping around your arms like ivy overtaking a statue.
First time Benny saw the ink on my forearm, we were trying to keep each other warm while those teenagers broke beer bottles against the other side of our living room wall. Had to keep quiet, holding each other. That’s when she noticed the lower fluke of the anchor, all fuzzy now, diving down deep into my skin. Gave her something to trace her finger along. Watched her run her pinkie over the lower hemisphere of the globe.
Bet it’s cold there right about now, she said, pointing to where Antarctica would’ve been.
Colder than here—that’s for sure.
We were in the thick of December by then, the temperature dropping off into the low thirties. It was only going to get colder the deeper into winter we went. That meant less visitors. Less dog walkers. Less joggers. Less families. Less of everything.
You know this used to be a prison camp?
Sure feels like one.
During the Civil War, I said. Over five hundred thousand Yankee soldiers, right here. Couple thousand at a time, freezing their asses off in the open air.
The more we talked, the more our breath spread over each other. Good way to keep warm. Our mouths were our radiators now.
Since when did you become such a history buff?
They used to march prisoners over the bridge, I said. Corralled them together like cattle. They went through the whole winter out here like that. Freezing. Starving.
Slid in next to her. Nestled my knees into the back of her legs, just where they bent. Had my face pressed against her shoulder, breathing into the bone.
They’d bring a surgeon out to check up on the men in the morning, figuring out which limbs he had to saw off from the frostbite.
Everybody in this city’s a goddamn Civil War aficionado, she said, inching off without me. Figured that was the end of the conversation—up until Benny turned back around, asking, So you gonna hold me, soldier? It’s cold out here.
Fell asleep first. I was always falling asleep before Benny—drifting off to the sound of her cough, these short retorts right at my ear, like some soldier in the trenches, the sound of musket fire just over my head.
Brought my daughter to Belle Isle once. Couldn’t even tell you when anymore. Years ago. A different life. Packed a picnic and everything. Had to get there early, just so we could lay claim to one of the broad rocks resting along the river. We’re talking prime real estate here. You ended up battling the sunbathers for the best spread. The Battle of Belle Isle.
Don’t go out too far, hon, I said. You’ve got to be careful about the currents.
Benny always had to hold me when I woke up. Wrap her arms around me so I didn’t buckle, bring me back to the present tense.
You’re okay, you’re okay, she’d say. Just another bad dream, that’s all.
Everywhere you step on this island, there’s another history lesson under your feet. Signs saying what happened at that very spot, almost two hundred years ago. Nothing but plaques in the ground. Never would’ve realized this place could hold so much pneumonia, so much dysentery. That’s Richmond for you. Too much history for its own good. Whole city’s a graveyard. It’s only when you have no home to call your own that you can see this place for what it really is. You’re standing on the graves of men no matter where you step
Excerpted by permission of Clay McLeod Chapman and Akashic Books