Authors: Corina Vacco
It never even crossed my mind that this bike might’ve been from Charlie. Except now, looking back, it makes sense. I remember him telling me he “lost” his football camp money at the creek that year, and it seemed like a bullshit story. Charlie didn’t
things, especially when it had to do with football.
Every time I feel like I’m moving past his death, I get thrown back into it. I wish we could all find a way to stop ripping off the scab.
After the funeral and long before the chemical blisters had healed, we took Cornpup’s freshly developed Mareno Chem photos to the newspaper. The reporter spilled coffee down the front of his shirt, coughed a little bit, and said, “Are these for real?” He kept looking at a photo of Dan Benecke choking me. Finally he said, “This is front-page stuff. I hope you’re ready, because you boys are about to start a shit storm.” What followed were lawsuits and public outcry. Barbed-wire fences, government inspections, and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Mareno Chem workers lined up outside the unemployment office. Chemical tankers were confiscated, barrels dug
up, soil samples taken. Dan Benecke was arrested, charged with felonies. I wish we could’ve been there to see it. I would’ve stood in front of his mansion and shouted,
Hope they put you away forever, asshole! No more fancy vacations! And you can kiss your stupid Lexus goodbye!
It would’ve felt so good.
No one ever found the Phenzorbiflux, though. It has disappeared. And I’m not searching anymore.
Cornpup runs up my driveway with his shopping cart, but my attention is focused on Valerie and her brother, Matt, who’ve just arrived. Their dad works at a hardware store, and they weren’t kidding when they said they could get their hands on cheap supplies. Val is pulling a wagon full of dented paint cans with no labels. She smiles at me, and I want to kiss her. Matt is carrying a jug of paint thinner, a box of broken glass, and an industrial-sized tub of plaster. His hair is spiked in a short Mohawk. He tells me about this party he’s having next weekend.
“You should stop by,” he says. “I want you to meet everyone before school starts. My friend Michiu is studying to be a filmmaker. He’s really gonna dig your monsters.”
“It’ll be so much fun,” Val says. “You have to come.”
I manage to smile a little bit. It’ll be cool to have some artist friends when school starts, even if they are a full year ahead of me. And it can’t hurt to get in good with Valerie’s brother. High school is still nipping at my heels, and Kevin Thompson is still roaming the neighborhood with his guns, and Charlie is forever gone. I try really hard to focus on the good things in my life. Mom is acting like her old self again, eating less. Cornpup is still here. I am meeting some new people. My girlfriend is unbelievably pretty. And Viper is the greatest dog ever.
We hike along Two Mile Creek with our art supplies, paint cans, and ladders. Cornpup presses the “forward” buttons on his remote controls. The robots follow him, struggling through the mud. Two
Mile Creek is quiet tonight—no bubbling, no sludge. When we reach the edge of the old Mareno Chem property, I swear I can feel Charlie laughing from somewhere deep in the sulfur-smelling sky.
The chemical complex is in ruins. There are melted steel beams, piles of blackened rubble, chemical tanks, smoking and oozing.
Molly touches her fingertips to a towering wall of concrete. “This building looks almost like a skeleton now. It’s so weird how this is the only wall that didn’t burn.”
We start slowly. It takes time to get a feel for the brushes in our hands, to set up our flashlights and lanterns, to figure out what colors are in the unlabeled cans. I paint detailed outlines of my monsters, lifelike in size, terrifying. Valerie adds webs of burnt trees to the background. Cornpup’s robots use rollers to paint a yellow and green chemical sky. With epoxy, Matt attaches broken glass to the monsters’ bodies for texture. Molly stands high on a ladder and paints a ball of flames where the moon should be. Randy sculpts fangs and jagged bones out of plaster. I add tiny details: black blood oozing from the petroleum serpents’ injuries; a two-headed squirrel on the shores of our creek; and the fault line, with Chemical Mountain looming in the distance. Cornpup adds one detail of his own. He covers the uranium monster in hideous purple rashes and white, pus-filled cysts. All of us, we paint with madness, a fire in our guts.
At sunrise, we want to take a break. We want to step away from the wall so we can get a good look at our work. The robots are out of juice, and our flashlights are out of batteries, and we’re as hungry as hell, but still, we keep painting. We only stop once, briefly, to watch what must be a hundred birds circling a nearby landfill. It starts out as just a few seagulls, black silhouettes against the rising sun. Then the sky starts to spin with layers of gulls and vultures and hawks. It feels like the birds are here for us, like they’re putting on a show.
Randy says, “Why do they keep circling that thing? They can’t get to the garbage. It’s buried.”
“They can get to the rats,” Valerie whispers, and I smile because this past summer, me and Charlie and Cornpup were like birds of prey. We brought Mareno Chem to its knees.
We got to the rats.
For another hour, we work. We cannot quit until Charlie’s wall is perfect. We’ve got a rhythm down: telling funny stories, laughing, singing, flinging globs of paint at each other. In some ways, it’s the best night of our lives. We’re declaring victory over Mareno Chem. We’re painting this tribute to Charlie. We are bonded in creativity and insomnia.
When the pink sunrise gives way to real daylight, we pack up our gear. We stare at our wall of monsters for a long time, taking in every detail, every bold brush of color, such terrifying beauty. This monster mural is the most amazing thing any of us has ever been a part of. It looks like it was done by famous artists, not a bunch of regular kids from Poxton. I open up Charlie’s lockbox, and I pull out the horsehair paintbrush he gave me. One by one, quietly, we say our goodbyes. I say goodbye to Charlie. I say goodbye to Dad. I say goodbye to the anger that has been with me for too long. Then we take turns dipping the brush into green paint, signing our names boldly underneath the uranium monster’s webbed feet.
Without a resplendent supporting cast, I’d be a neurotic hermit buried under an avalanche of unfinished manuscripts.
My Chemical Mountain
exists because of the wonderful people in my life:
My wise, generous, patient, handsome, and accomplished husband. Thank you for taking me on adventures, supporting all my dreams, always knowing just what to say, and being the person I rely on most of all. You are the love of my life.
My gentle-hearted grandmother. You always walked me to the library, allowed me to linger, helped me carry home stacks of books, and then read to me tirelessly, even when the Cubs game was on. Thank you for introducing me to the world of literature. I don’t go a minute without missing you.
My lioness mother, who is fearless and beautiful. Thank you for teaching me to view the world through an artist’s eyes, for showing me how to question the status quo, for treating all my creative endeavors like masterpieces, and for loving me no matter what. I’m so lucky to be your daughter.
My little brother (who is much taller than me now). Thank you for diffusing all my nebulous worries, cracking me up when I get too serious, always being available when I need to go out for cupcakes, and letting me dress you up in wacky outfits when we
were kids. You’ve given the gift of joy to everyone who knows you, especially me.
My bright, darling son, the child of my dreams, magnificent in every way. You were with me through the revisions and when I mailed this manuscript off to my publisher. You fill my life with laughter, Matchbox cars, and sweet moments. My love for you is endless. You said it best: “Mom-mom’s happy because she’s with her boy.”
Dad, who saved every drawing, every story. Kathy, who understands all things Pisces and is an excellent confidante. Sandy, who is vigorously supportive. Parry, who rescues animals with tireless compassion. You have each given me love and encouragement in spades, and I am so grateful.
My loyal, fabulous, and beautiful girlfriends, some of whom have been by my side since childhood, and all of whom are strong, fun, intelligent, brave, unique, and kind. Thank you for cheering me on and for being there. You are my sisters. Special thanks to Rhonda Hulpiau, who took me to see the landfills.
My critique group friends who helped me whip this book into shape, especially Robyn Gioia, Elle Thornton, Gregg Golson, Cynthia Enuton, and Janet Walter from the Jax novel group; Shelley Koon for rocking my author photo; Linda Bernfeld for making SCBWI Florida sparkle; Alvina Ling for early insights on character; Katie Burke for turning me on to the Left Coast Writers; and Danielle Morgera for being my first reader.
Françoise Bui, my talented, eloquent, and marvelous editor. I won’t ever forget the shock and excitement of that first phone call. Thank you so much for choosing my manuscript and shaping this book, and for all the behind-the-scenes things you’ve done that I don’t even realize. This book sparkles because of you.
Joyce Sweeney, my mentor, for all the advice, nurturing, and tireless support. Without you, I would’ve been lost. The bean ceremony
was one of the highlights of this whole journey. You are a wonderful teacher and a dear friend. I’m honored to be your number 32.
Tina Wexler, difficult-to-please wielder of the red pen, steadfast nurturer of fragile confidence. You rescued me from the netherworld of slush. You helped me grow as a writer. You are my friend and guiding star. Thanks for challenging me when I needed it most.
All of the extraordinarily talented people at Delacorte Press who’ve played a part in transforming my manuscript pages into this breathtaking book, especially Shane Rebenscheid and Kenny Holcomb for the perfect, amazing cover art and design, and Bara Mac-Neill and Colleen Fellingham for the meticulous copyediting. You are deeply appreciated.
SCBWI for the endless inspiration, enrichment, and professional guidance. There is something magical about being immersed in a culture of writers and illustrators who create works of art for children and teens. A special thank-you to Lin Oliver and Steve Mooser for creating the SCBWI family.
And last but certainly not least, thank you to all the librarians, human rights activists, artists, environmental stewards, musicians, book lovers, and fellow writers out there. You make the world a better place.
Corina Vacco felt compelled to write about toxic towns after reading an article alleging that hundreds of thousands of children and teens throughout the United States attend schools built on or near dangerously polluted sites. She found the inspiration for this book while living in western New York, where she heard teachers speak out against a landfill adjacent to an elementary school.
A city girl, world traveler, and activist, Corina enjoys playing guitar, listening to the blues, and exploring the great outdoors. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, who is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, and their magnificent puddle-splashing, car-loving little boy. They share their home with one slightly neurotic but very lovable Italian greyhound and a growing collection of books.
My Chemical Mountain
is Corina’s first novel. You can share your pollution-inspired stories, poetry, or artwork with her on