Friday, February 19, 1982. Berdan Daily Tribune. The Ninnescah County Sheriff’s Department reported a Roads and Bridges employee discovered a partially nude female body near a ditch seven miles from Berdan. Her name has been withheld pending investigation. The preliminary report stated the cause of death as hypothermia.
Two days after Walter T. Andrews received his prognosis, he sat with his second wife, Shirley, and detailed for the first time both his lymphatic cancer and the extent of his estate.
“Here’s what I set-up for you,” he said, then listed her imminent ownership of his large four-bedroom house with its three-car garage, surrounded by an expansive open area, grassed pastures with healthy oak and cottonwood trees. It exuded the feel of a gentleman’s farm on the outskirts of Berdan, a town named after a Civil War Colonel all but forgotten except for reenactors. His remote lakeside cabin, several life insurance policies, proceeds from a healthy buy-out agreement from his business partners, and a fully paid life insurance policy on her life accompanied the house and land she would inherit. As did a new 1982 Pontiac Trans Am. She sat with her hands in her lap and uttered not a word.
Three weeks after their dinner, Shirley, twenty-six years of age, tall, erect, well-coiffed, her lithe body sheathed in custom-tailored clothing, walked into the mortuary and the mourners saw precisely why Walter T. Andrews, dead at age fifty-seven, divorced his wife of more than a quarter of a century to marry Shirley.
She walked behind Walter’s coffin as it was carried from the wood-framed church Walter’s grandfather helped build. The dust from the wheat fields hit her face, and worked into her nose and throat. She coughed, and the smell of wool mixed with funeral incense merged with the stale hay in the fields and clung to her hair and clothes.
At graveside, Shirley knelt to kiss Walter’s coffin. When she stood, she looked into the freshly dug six-foot hole with its deep parallel walls, and recoiled as if punched in the chest.
She lived as a widow a few months, then without notice, married Seán Tyler, a five-foot, eight-inch seasonal carpenter whose youth, eyes, and strong hands attracted her.
“Why do you do it then?” She asked one evening, after he was laid-off from his seasonal carpentry job.
“It’s what I know,” Seán said.
“You need a better job. I could get you a job at Walter’s factory,” she said, referring to her deceased husband’s old company.
Before her father had died, Shirley was taken on shopping trips to the largest city in the state; she received royal attention from the dressmakers of Henry’s Clothing Store with its polished brass elevators and raised marbled fitting rooms set amid multi-mirrored alcoves, which enhanced her sense of being a princess. After shopping, Shirley and her mother crossed the street to the Innes Tea Room – for ladies only – and ladies with shopping bags from Henry’s were especially welcome.
Seán was from a more diminished world with days of macaroni and cheese, followed by days of goulash, followed by days of spaghetti. His clothing came from south of town at Farmers Service and Supply with bare cement floors and dusty parking lot. The walls of his family home displayed no photos or prized drawings from school, whereas Shirley’s family home resembled a shrine to her development.
Their arguments continued. About his taste in clothes, “I could get you an appointment with Walter’s tailor.” About his table manners, “Here’s what Walter showed me.” His diet, “Don’t eat that. It’s full of saturated fat.” His truck, “I could buy you a new one.” His family, “Why don’t we skip going over there this Christmas. Maybe next time.”
Seán never counterpunched. When her jabs continued, he only glared; and in that glare, she recognized another person gradually emerge.
Within months of the marriage, her emotions slid from cleaving intensity deep into intense resentment.
After two years of marriage and six weeks of separation, Shirley awoke alone to a Saturday morning wind that did not blow so much as gasp, and when it gasped, sounded as if the world had been sucked through a straw, then, like a shotgun blast, scattered the detritus against the double-paned bedroom windows. She turned her head to the right toward the gray-tinted sunlight so common in that part of the state.
Drenched in perspiration, Shirley remained in bed, her eyes alert, her mind raced. The day stretched before her like a gauntlet. She reached for the clock – 7:30 a.m., almost dropped it when the alarm sounded, followed by the announcer’s shouted weather report. “The temperature will drop to twenty degrees below zero this evening due to a mass of arctic air sweeping down from Canada,” then slid into his local sports voice to read the Friday night scores.
She calculated the hours until dinner and smiled. A little cold never hurt anybody with a heavy coat and a warm car; besides that, she had a mission.
By ten that morning, Shirley was in her Pontiac Trans Am driving west. She arrived early for her appointment with Walter’s attorney. Seán watched from his truck as she walked into the building.
Shirley’s notebook pages detailed incidents of Seán secreting himself in the bedroom closet, and his attempts to tape record her activities. One evening as Shirley and her friend – whom she consistently described both in gender-free and fiction-laden terms - sat immersed in her warm bathtub among bubbles, candles, and shadows.
She heard the garage door open, pulled back, sat erect, grabbed a towel, and rushed into the hallway. Seán was at the top of the stairs. He brushed past her toward the bedroom, and shoved the wet, naked man against the wall.
“Seán, come here.” Her voice like a command.
He backed from the bedroom into the hallway.
“You and I are separated, Seán.” Her voice was precise. “You have to go.”
“I am not leaving you with him,” his right arm extended accusingly toward the bedroom. “You can’t be sleeping with other men.”
“You need to leave, or I’ll have to call the police.”
“They’ll arrest you. You can’t just walk into this house at midnight.”
“You can’t be sleeping with other men.”
“I can, and I will,” she turned, reached for the phone, and walked away.
Escorted from the house by the police, Seán’s words, physical feints, revengeful stares meant nothing to Shirley. She repeated to herself, “Poor guy – hallucinating – some sad male fantasy.” She no longer cared. She was young, financially independent, and bored as hell.
It was twilight when Shirley applied make-up and selected a dress. As she backed the car from the driveway, snow was on her front lawn.
The field next to the restaurant was flat - so flat and level Shirley felt that she could scan past the horizon to the corner of the earth. On her right was the remaining wheat stubble that had turned from green to gold, then to dirt gray. The wind burned as it shot past her bare legs. She sneezed, then sneezed three more times.
The restaurant’s fame rested on dinners of fried chicken served family style – meaning that the waitress placed bowls of food on the table and the customers served themselves while seated inside one of the multiple smaller rooms at one of the tables of pine or oak veneer, on chairs as varied as cane back, ladder back, or plastic Windsor. On walls of blue and white flowered wallpaper hung cast iron skillets and decorated ladles, which reminded Shirley of the chipped cup that rested beside the pump handle next to the horse trough near the windmill at her aunt and uncle’s farm.
She walked around the bar to avoid the smokers, and said to herself, “Why don’t I let the Sheriff’s Office do this? They can serve these papers. I don’t need to do this by myself.”
Then she saw Seán, so she pasted on a smile, patted her purse with the documents the lawyer prepared, and glided to the table. She noticed a light blue box with a bow rested in front of Seán. She intentionally ignored it. “This is not going to be a celebration,” she repeated silently.
Under the restaurant’s bright lights, she felt as though she could wrap herself in waves of warm air, then summoned, what Walter called, intestinal fortitude.
During dinner, Shirley aligned the serving bowls, rearranged the corn and the chicken on her plate, finally gave up, turned her fork upside down and placed it on the upper edge of the dinner plate.
She watched Seán eat while she ruminated over her prepared lines, watched as his eyes did what they always did when he had a plan. It was as if his eyes belonged to another person. She saw his jaw muscles contract, and knew his danger – early on had been attracted to it.
Seán set his fork on the plate and reached for the blue box. Shirley slapped a tri-folded sheet of paper on top of the box.
“Read it,” said Shirley.
Seán pointed to the top of the page. “It says it’s a waiver of service for a divorce.”
Shirley remained silent.
“Well,” he said.
She watched his eyes.
“Well,” he said once more.
“You know very well why. I’m not going over it again.”
He stared at the empty plate, then turned toward the window, “Good Lord, look at that snow. It looks like it’s rolling toward us.”
She inhaled deeply, cleared her throat, and began, “Seán, this is going to happen. I can’t live with-” She inhaled as if for courage. “-with you hiding in the closet and tape recording me in my own bedroom.”
“No. My bedroom,” she said, noticed his eyes, then his clenched fist.
“We’ll be okay if you just stop sleeping with other men.”
“You are in no position to tell me how to live my life.” She stressed the first word with a slow emphasis on the ones that followed.
“The hell I’m not,” he said in a voice that combined a growl and a whisper.
“The hell you are,” she said, then resumed her original position, “I refuse to do this. Here are the papers. Either do it, or don’t. It doesn’t matter. There will be a divorce.”
“And I’ll get alimony,” he said.
Shirley did not bother to respond; instead, she placed her hands on her lap, and said, “I need to go,” picked up her purse and scooted her chair back.
“Let’s take a ride before we say goodbye,” Seán said,
“Just tell me what you want.” She heard the exasperation in her voice.
Seán smiled, “Let me go home with you tonight. I can drive. We’ll pick up your car after breakfast tomorrow.”
She looked at him, “I’ll be right back,” and walked toward the restroom. She had decided.
“Alright,” she said when she returned, then paused for effect, “I’m leaving.”
Seán gripped the arms of his chair, started to push himself up, stopped, placed the blue box in his coat pocket, and slowly turned his head toward the windows.
Shirley walked around piles of snow toward the Trans Am. She started the engine, pushed the heater far into the red, and within moments felt the warmth.
She needed to be alone. On Highway 54, she abruptly turned onto county road 64, and then stopped at a turnoff north of the river about one-hundred yards from Walter’s hidden cabin. She had walked this path many times, and, despite the drifting piles of snow, needed the time to get rid of her anger. Inside the car, she heard the crunching sound of gravel. A hand slapped the top of the car door, then pulled it open. Another hand clenched her left shoulder and pulled her.
“Out,” was all she heard, and felt a sharp sensation against her back.
“That way,” he said, and shoved her toward a ditch near the small grove of trees, sparse remnants of a 1930’s W.P.A. windbreak.
She had grabbed the top of the door with her bare hands, and her flesh stung. Within a few seconds, the capillaries of her hands constricted and sent blood deep to warm her vital organs. The palms of her hands were a painful 60 degrees.
Suddenly she was pushed, pulled, and then punched. She heard what she thought were gunshots. Quickly realized the sounds were familiar – as if from an old truck. Distracted by the scratchy snow packed down her blouse, she failed to notice a thin line of blood.
She fell on her back, felt a harsh pain in her spine, followed by complete numbness in her legs. Moisture trickled, then poured down her face. She heard a voice come from a shadow, “Happy now?” She attempted to kick, but could not.
In about ten minutes, blood seeped back into her fingers, her body temperature rose; sweat trickled down her sternum, cold air bit at her. She heard the sound of leaves crackle. The brittle crunch was trailed by the fading sound of a car driving over a gravel road.
Frigid air pressed against her body and sweat-soaked clothes. The wet clothing dispelled heat into the night. As the cold crept toward her warm blood, her temperature plummeted below 98.6. Another ten minutes passed. Her hands and feet ached with cold. She tried to ignore the pain. A clammy chill started around her skin and descended deep into her body. She was unable to stop shivering, and trembled so violently her muscles contracted.
Too weary to feel any urgency, she decided to rest. “Just for a moment. Only a moment.” Her head dropped back. The snow crunched softly in her ear. Forgetfulness nibbled at her. An hour passed. Her body heat leached into the enveloping snow; her temperature fell about one degree every 30 minutes.
Her body abandoned the urge to warm itself by shivering. Her blood was now as thick as cold crankcase oil. She watched helplessly as the snow covered her. At least she had her coat. If only she had worn lined slacks instead of a dress. If only she had worn boots instead of heels. If only she had gone home. If only.
Her breath rolled out in short frosted puffs. Within minutes her heart, hammered by chilled nerve tissues, became arrhythmic, and pumped less than two-thirds its normal amount. She thought only of a warm car filled with furry animals and a fireplace that awaited her – she could not remember where. Then she thought of saunas, warm food and wine.
When her initial hypothermic hallucination ended, there was dead silence, broken only by the pumping of blood in her ears. Her body drained, she sank into the snow. The pain of the cold pierced her ears so sharply she rooted into the snow in search of warmth and comfort. Even that little activity exhausted her.
She slept and dreamed of sun and sunflowers carrying warm, furry animals to snuggle close to her. Her night did not last long. She lifted her face from her soft, warm snow pillow, and heard the telephone ring from inside the cabin. She heard it again, but this time it sounded like sleigh bells. Gradually, she realized these were not sleigh bells, but welcoming bells hanging from the door of Walter’s cabin just through the trees. The jingling was the sound of the cabin door as it opened. She attempted to stand, collapsed. She knew could crawl. It was so close.
Hours later, or maybe minutes, the cabin still sat beyond the grove of trees. She has not crawled an inch. Exhausted, she decided to rest her head for a moment.
When she lifted her head again, she was inside the cabin in front of the woodstove. Walter held her while he spoon-fed her warm soup. Secure and safe, they watched the fire throw a red glow. Walter caressed her face and carried her closer to the fireplace. She felt warm, then warmer, then hot. She was unable to see flames, but knew her clothes were on fire. The flames seared her flesh. Her blood vessels dilated and produced a sensation of extreme heat against her skin. In an attempt to save herself, she ripped off her blouse.
The winter storm continued for many days. When the wind subsided, and the temperature rose, the crews were able to clear the roads. Motels emptied of stranded travelers, eighteen-wheelers resumed their western treks, and a county maintenance worker discovered a partially nude female body near a ditch seven miles from Berdan.
Sheryl walked in from the garage and ignored the odor of cat piss emanating from the pile of clothes on the floor. She tossed her purse down on the washing machine and picked up a lone purple fleece mitten forgotten in the morning rush. It had to be Lonnie’s. She closed her eyes and tried to breath in her daughter’s smell as she rubbed the fuzzy palm against her cheek. She stuck the mitten in her pocket. Doing a quick survey, she confirmed that both lunch boxes were gone.
Even though she hadn’t gotten the job, she had an hour to herself before getting the kids. No one said as much, but by now she could recognize the limp goodbye handshakes without eye contact that meant “no deal.” Sheryl poured herself a coffee mug of white wine from a two-liter jug sitting on the kitchen counter. As a rule, she didn’t drink before five, but today she deserved it. What a hassle it’d been leaving the kids early, the commute to the botched interview, running out of gas, and the machine refusing her debit card. The diesel fumes on the bus home had made her sick. She ought to dig out her emergency cash, get gas, and bring the car home. But it had already been a long day. The car would still be there tomorrow. She put her feet up on a kitchen chair.
The wine put a soft edge on what Sheryl considered an unfairly hard day. It made it easy to postpone dealing with the car and the next move in her job search. She wanted something to feel easy for a change. An hour was nice, but what she wouldn’t give for a few days escape from the kids and their needs: the meal planning, the early mornings, the bickering. By the time she left the house to meet the school bus, she’d refilled her mug two more times.
She expected to find Lonnie and Blaine heading toward her as she rounded the corner to the bus stop, but the street was empty. An easterly wind blew dried leaves from the woods across the street to where they landed on a pile of grey snow near the curb. Shivering, she zipped up the collar of her down jacket, the sleeve duct-taped over a tear she wasn’t sure how she’d gotten. She was only a couple minutes late. Brake lights of a vehicle flashed at the far end of the block, but Sheryl couldn’t tell if it was the school bus or a big truck.
Ten minutes later, still no bus and no kids. The wind picked up and it was starting to snow in small, persistent flakes. She should have put on a hat. A story her uncle told came to mind. He had worked on the Alaskan pipeline and loved to recount how they lost a survey crew to the cold. The chief surveyor was in their trailer, looking out through the leveling scope at two men who pulled a chain between them to mark the fixed points, but a flash blizzard blew in. Despite their layers of wool and wolf hair-trimmed parkas, despite the metal cord linking them, and despite the crew chief holding them in his sights, the two men froze before anyone could bring them back to safety.
“You see,” her uncle would say, taking a long draught on his beer before concluding his story, “Sometime it don’t’ matter what you do or what you want. Bad shit happens.”
Sheryl shivered and fingered the mitten in her pocket. Her hands were turning red from cold. Despite her good intentions, bad shit sure seemed to happen to her. The kids must have missed the bus. Her phone was still in the kitchen. She turned and headed back up the deserted street to the house. No messages. She took a swig from her mug, to warm up, and dialed the school.
“Thank you for calling King Elementary. We are currently in our weekly staff meeting. Press one to hear a directory of voice mail boxes…”
Sheryl hung up. She would have to go get them. Shit. First she had to get the car. No, first gas, then the car. Shit. She took another sip of wine. What the hell were the kids doing today?
It had been a rough morning. Though, in truth, most mornings were rough in the past year since Shane had left. Today she had slept through her alarm. When she eventually pulled herself out of bed, she found the kids on the couch eating plain hot dog buns and watching Scooby-Doo.
Blaine, eight years old, was holding his bread out of reach of Lonnie. Sheryl hated when Blaine teased Lonnie, who was so easily frustrated. Unlike her first grade classmates, at six Lonnie wasn’t yet reading, and she had such a hard time following instructions. Sheryl figured she ought to get Lonnie tested. The child was so distractible, maybe ADD, or something worse. Often Lonnie seemed lost in her own world, and Sheryl didn’t know how to get through to her. Blaine could read way above grade level. He did math in his head that Sheryl couldn’t. Twice she had scheduled meetings to discuss Lonnie with the school, but she’d missed both appointments.
Suddenly panicking, she dialed the school again but got the same voice message. Shit.
Sheryl shook her head and chewed on a stray lock of hair. She had yelled at Blaine for not sharing the hot dog bun. She had turned it around, like it was their fault she had to leave them alone. But of course they couldn’t help that her interview was early and far, forcing her to leave the house before them, or the absence of real breakfast food, or that Shane had quit sending them checks. She sighed. Tonight she would make muffins. They loved muffins.
Before dashing out, she had said to Blaine, “You be a good big brother and take Lonnie to the bus. Make sure you leave at 8:10. When the big hand is on the two. Don’t forget your lunch boxes.”
“I know how to read the clock, mom!” Though his response was sarcastic, he was biting his cuticles. He had been disappointed, and probably scared. At least there were two Lunchables left in the fridge. They could get hot lunch at school, but Sheryl felt like a better mother sending them with something from home. Blaine was a responsible kid. He’d watch out for Lonnie. Certainly, they had made it to school today.
Sheryl looked around. Hadn’t they? She moved to the living room where the TV was off and the couch empty, save crumbs. The empty bag of hot dog buns lay in the middle of the floor near a wobbly Lego structure and a pink plastic car. In the kids’ bedroom, Sheryl pulled up the covers from the unmade bunk beds, expecting, irrationally she knew, to find the two freckled faces smiling up from their crouching bodies and big cry of “surprise!” But underneath the tangle of blankets were just gritty sheets that should have been changed a week ago. The closets were stuffed with junk, but no children.
In her room, the bed was also unmade. The wedding picture of her and Shane smiling at each other and embracing was turned down. She picked it up, revealing broken glass. Sheryl recalled the sensation of a coffee mug in her hand cracking against the surface, though not when. Goddamn Shane! A contract in Iraq, big money, he had said. She had trusted him. Now what? Jack shit. No calls, no emails, no money, in over six months. Nothing but her trying to figure out how to survive alone with the kids.
The kids asked for Daddy less often now. When Blaine crawled into bed with her in the middle of the night, she no longer sent him back to his room. She pulled him against her, listened to his soft breathing, smelled his sweet child scent, and felt her head pounding in achy rhythm with her heart against his back, unable to sleep. In these pre-dawn moments, she believed her love for them would be enough. She would promise herself tomorrow would be better, that she wouldn’t drink. Today was different, though. She had it under control. She just needed to find the kids. It must be a misunderstanding, or a joke they were playing on her.
The only place left to look was the basement. Still unfinished, Shane had planned to turn it into a workshop and a playroom. But he hadn’t gotten farther than the vision. The bare concrete room was piled with boxes and gear. She didn’t normally let the kids go down there. Sheryl took a swig of wine as she passed through the kitchen. She held the rail of the steep narrow steps to avoid teetering off or slipping in her socks. Her vision felt hazy and the bare bulbs cast shadows in the space behind the furnace and Shane’s gun safe.
The heavy metal cabinet loomed in a corner, about the height of a school child. She tried the safe door but it was locked, as it should be. One night a few weeks ago, Blaine and Lonnie had awoken from bad dreams and found her standing down here, mug in hand, contemplating the guns. She had closed up the safe and taken the kids back to bed with her. Sheryl’s chest tightened. She banged on the door and fumbled with the lock, but the proper sequence evaded her. She couldn’t open the cabinet and she began to cry.
“Blaine! Lonnie! Where are you?”
The basement dampness made her sneeze. She wiped her dripping nose and eyes on the sleeve of her sweater and sneezed again. Stumbling back up the stairs to the kitchen she checked her phone. Still no messages. She downed the rest of her mug and pulled on her boots. They must be at school. She would find them there. Outside the window above the washer the snow fell heavier now. She could walk the distance to school in less time than it would take to get gas and go retrieve the car. Safer too. She shouldn’t be driving, what with the wine, and her nerves in this state.
She inhaled deeply, attempting to compose herself. Though she fumbled with the buttons on her sweater, her mind was clearing. She had a plan. Walk to school. Get the kids. Make muffins. Everything will be OK.
She repeated this mantra to herself as she put on her hat and gloves, and as she walked down the street, back toward the bus stop. School. Kids. Muffins. OK. The snow was starting to stick, the sidewalk slick from the first wet layer. Sheryl shuffled along to the rhythm of her mantra and then stretched out her arms to glide and maintain her balance. “O-kaaaay!” As she skated down the street, the words lost their meaning in the rhythm of her chant, and she smiled, almost having fun, until she teetered precariously, her arms flapping, and nearly crashed off the curb. Regaining her balance and composure, she rounded the corner to the bus stop, hoping that Blaine and Lonnie would be standing there waiting for her. That she would discover it was all a silly game of hide-and-seek.
The streetlights came on as Sheryl paused. She looked around again where the bus normally dropped off. The bare limbs of the trees in the forest were silhouetted against the darkening sky of the early winter sunset. A bright purple splotch drew her attention to the curb on the other side.
Sheryl crossed to the pool of light at the edge of the woods. A single fleece mitten lay on the ground dusted with snow. The woods! They had wandered into the woods! The land was private property, acres and acres backing to a former private estate. A developer was in litigation over the area because environmentalists had identified an endangered tree frog, native to this small patch of Midwestern forest, and temporarily blocked construction.
Why anyone would want to preserve these woods was beyond her. With the right wind an odor would drift out and stink up the whole neighborhood. Rumors held that the smell came from illegal dumping or a meth lab. A token barbed wire fence wrapped most of the property, but the place was unwelcoming enough and the underbrush so thick that most people wouldn’t enter anyway. Sheryl forbid the children to ever play there.
Forgetting her original plan, she stomped through the bramble calling out “Blaine! Lonnie!” The snow dampened her voice and the wind carried it away. Please, let them hear me, she prayed to no one in particular. She pushed down on the barbed wire to cross the fence, using the purple mitten to protect her own gloves, and ripped a hole in her leggings as she swung her leg over. A small dip in the forest floor suggested the possibility of a path heading into the thick trees, so she headed that way. There was no sign of passage of two small children, but as she clutched the purple mitten tighter, her conviction that they were lost in here somewhere grew stronger. They would freeze if she didn’t find them soon.
Sheryl ducked through branches and pushed through thickets for what seemed like forever. When she turned around however, the blue glow of the street lamps was still visible not far beyond the leafless trees. Her nostrils stuck together from the cold air, and she had to breathe through her mouth to catch her breath.
She should get help. If only Shane were here. Of course, if he were here she never would have lost the kids in the first place. Should she call the police? She pulled her phone out of her pocket but stopped herself from dialing. She couldn’t say she had left them alone this morning. Who knew what that admission would bring down on her? Plus, they might notice she had been drinking. She wished for a breath mint. Her phone read 4:20 pm. Assuming they had made it to school, they had been missing for barely an hour. No, it was better that she find them. Back to plan A. Go to the school. If they weren’t there, then maybe she could get help to search the woods.
She started to follow her footsteps back to the street, but feeling she had travelled in an arc, she cut a new path instead. She inhaled the smell of snow and rotting leaves, as she trudged toward the bus stop. The temperature dropped and the trees creaked in the wind. Sheryl glanced behind her at the deepening shadows and quickened her pace. Shit. She cursed autumn and the end of daylight savings time. She cursed Shane. She cursed the kids, and her whole damn miserable life.
The soles of her boots slid on the icy layer of dead leaves and Sheryl went down without warning. A nauseating thud struck her head, and something hot filled her nose. A wet stickiness glued her hat to her head on one side. She blinked and stared up at the dark branches above, unable to rise. She closed her eyes and felt the frozen crystals on her lashes. A thin coat of icy dampness covered her face. The metallic taste of blood in her throat made her gag, but still she didn’t rise. She gave in to the reassuring firmness of the earth beneath her body, almost a comfort. She marveled at the peaceful silence of the snow. Sharp pains in her face competed with a pounding in her head. She wanted to let go, to fall asleep in the solid embrace of the forest, to never wake up. Blain and Lonnie would be better off without her anyway. She was shit for a mom.
But after a few minutes, cold crept from the ground through her jacket. Her tailbone throbbed, and something hard wedged into her shoulder blade. She rolled to her side and spit out a small clot of blood. Even if she died here, Shane wouldn’t come back. She couldn’t leave the kids alone. She winced and touched her fingertips to her sticky temple. Trying not to slide again, she pushed herself back to standing. She dabbed her nose with the purple mitten and tried to stay steady and upright. The bramble grew darker. A torn plastic bag caught in a tree branch and waved like a ghost. She had to get to school, find the kids.
Advancing with wobbly but deliberate steps, she continued toward the aura of the streetlights, dotting the snow with a trail of blood. It couldn’t be that far. She tried to fix her eyes on the streetlamp, but her vision wavered. Stay upright and keep moving. Negotiating the barbed wire fence was even trickier the second time, but she managed to avoid further holes in her leggings. She needed to find Lonnie and Blaine.
The sound of a heavy vehicle and then the sigh of bus brakes caught her attention. A dirty yellow form pulled up across the street beyond the trees. The bus emitted another hermetic exhale and grumbled off. In its wake, a high voice, “Mommy’s late again. I told you!”
Sheryl sucked in her breath, blotted her face with the damp purple mitten she was still clutching and began to run. This time her footing held as she tore through the brush toward the two small bundles of parka and backpack standing on the curb. The kids were tugging a scarf back and forth between them, two fixed points that she held her in sights as she ran out of the forest and across the street.
“Mommy, you’re bleeding! What happened?”
“Why were you in the woods?”
“We almost missed the late bus because Mrs. D. kept the choir past 4:15.”
Sheryl pulled the children to her chest. It was Tuesday. Of course, after-school chorale, and the late bus, just like every Tuesday.
She squeezed them harder, reassuring herself that she really was holding the bodies of her two live, lovely children. “I love you. I love you. I love you. Are you frozen?”
“I’m hungry, what’s for snack?”
“Can we go play in the woods too?”
“Why are you crying?”
“Mommy, you’re dripping blood on my head.”
Releasing the embrace, she offered the purple, now bloodstained, mitten to Lonnie. “Did you forget this, honey?” Lonnie held up two puffy, day-glow orange mitts, far oversized for her first-grade hands, a pair of Shane’s hunting gloves.
“I wore these today, Mommy. I couldn’t find my purple one.”
Sheryl grimaced in an attempt to smile, which made her temple sting. A cutting jolt jarred her whole body, but was the source her tailbone, her nose, or some other, deeper injury? She took the children by the hand. Linked together they walked back up the street toward the ranch house, the muffin tins, and an almost empty two-liter jug of wine.
When they reached the driveway, Sheryl let go of the kids to get the mail. Among the usual bills and ads was a letter from the school district stamped “Confidential” in red on both sides. The kids ran into the garage and Sheryl peeled open the envelope. Notification of Child Protective Services Referral.
Her body began to tremble and she bit down hard on her lower lip. Blaine and Lonnie were all she had. Didn’t they understand how much she loved her children? She crushed the envelope in her hand and wrapped her arms around her body. Her gloves and the rest of the mail dropped onto the drive. She rocked back and forth, hugging herself and crying silently as the last of the afternoon light disappeared. Who was going to protect her? Didn’t they know how hard she tried? She rocked and the tears and blood ran down her chin. At last, when her nose and cheeks had gone numb, car headlights coming up the street startled her back into the moment. She crouched and scooped up the soggy papers, her knuckles scraping raw against the wet pavement.
Sheryl gazed up into the dark sky where snowflakes whirled and caught the light of the street lamps. Standing, as if pulled by the white vortex above, she wiped her bloody nose again with the purple mitten. She gulped in the sharp scent of winter. Snow hid their scraggly front lawn. Her sobs slowed. The clean whiteness and the night air calmed her. She stared down at the crumpled envelope, the corners wrinkling from the dampness, and then back up at the sky. She drew in another breath of icy air. No more self-pity. She would stop drinking. She would find a job, even if she didn’t find Shane. CPS could come. She had nothing to hide.
Her resolution buoyed her into the house. She followed the kids’ miniature footprints up the driveway. She would hold their little bodies tight against her and let them know it was all going to be OK. But when she walked in they didn’t even look up from their Legos. Feeling her wounds, Sheryl went to the bathroom to inspect the damage instead. Her nose was swollen, but still straight. The gash by her temple just a scrape, though a purple ring was forming around her right eye. The bleeding stopped. She took a bag of peas out of the freezer and pressed it over her nose and forehead. The cool pressure numbed the pain.
She remembered her plan, and pulled out the mixing bowl. Kids. Muffins. Okay. She rummaged through the cabinets, but they were out of flour. No muffins after all. She opened the fridge and found little beyond a sour odor. Canned soup for dinner again. What treat could she give the kids? They all needed a treat.
As she listened to them playing, the cheerful noises took on a familiar note.
“Maaa-meee! Blain’s not sharing!”
“Mommy! Lonnie is breaking my Lego fort!”
The kids shrieked from the living room. Their squeaky tone evoked not sympathy as intended, but the desire to smack them. Sheryl never hit them, but she yelled back more sharply than intended, “Stop fighting! Shut up!” This brought tears, but the noisy scrap continued.
As if caught in a gust of winter wind, the tenderness from the bus stop evaporated. Her brief feeling of hope deflated. Sheryl reached instinctively for her mug, but it was empty. The envelope marked “Confidential” sat next to the cup on the counter. She picked up the wine jug, looked at the envelope, and back at the jug. She moved toward the sink. Before she could dump it however, the volume on the TV blared above the crying. Her head and face throbbed again. She weighed the bottle in one hand and swished the remaining wine around in the bottom. She eyed her mug, the sink, the letter, and the rest of the kitchen mess. As the cry of “Mommy!” rose, she stopped swirling and poured herself another drink.
After waiting at the curb for a couple of inked teenagers from the neighborhood to pass by, D’Shandra walked up to the house at 85 Beal Street and shuddered. The decaying gray clapboard had fallen away from its foundation, leaving the spine of the house bared like a cat without its fur. She took a deep breath. You can do this.
She eyed the rickety porch steps taking a moment to decide whether or not to use them. She scolded herself for wearing high heels, and expensive ones at that.
Christa was right; she had forgotten where she’d come from. The house was a stark reminder of her childhood. She climbed the rickety screen porch steps and found something she hadn’t expected, the corner where her father used to take his belt to her when she made mistakes. It was never anything serious, just kids’ stuff, spilling milk, leaving a smear of jelly on the kitchen counter, or tracking mud through the living room. But he was brutal. It was just as well that he had died in a bar fight. She tried the screen door. It was unlocked and swung to the left, its hinges gone at the top. She grabbed the cold metal doorknob of the front door and tried to open it. The worn pine door resisted.
D’Shandra hesitated. She wondered if she should force it open. But a breaking and entering conviction probably wouldn’t impress the judge the next time she tried a case in court. Wasn’t this the very thing she warned her clients about? Young kids from the hood often acted first and worried about the consequences later.
She put her weight behind it this time. “Give it your all, D’Shandra,” D’Wayne used to say. Her eyes blurred. She missed her brother. He’d be 49 now, two years older than D’Shandra. With a bit more pushing, the weak latch finally gave. She stepped into the living room of the shotgun style house and looked around. There were remnants of a fire in the fireplace. Empty cans of beef stew and old wine bottles were scattered across the oak floor. The smell of rancid meat and spilled wine drifted to her nose. During her childhood, the floor had gleamed. Her mother kept it waxed and scrubbed. Mom had also been proud of the red oval braided rug that lay in the middle of the room. D’Shandra walked gingerly across the floor, afraid it would give in places like the front porch, but it seemed solid. Light streamed into dirt-streaked windows that should have been boarded up.
The kitchen was bare save the kitchen sink and a hookup for the stove. A dirty square outline encrusted with grime lay next to the far wall where an apartment size refrigerator had once stood. She peeked beneath the sink—even the copper pipes were missing—most likely sold for cash.
Through the kitchen window, she saw mature maple and oak trees. D’Shandra remembered summer days, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and climbing onto a strong tree limb halfway up to the sky and hiding away from the world. The tree had been her buddy and eventually her protector. “Hello old friend,” she whispered. “I’ve missed you.” Dirt and weeds replaced what had once been a lush lawn and productive vegetable garden. She wondered if the tree limb still bore indentations from her tire swing.
Should she inspect the second floor? D’Shandra walked around the corner to the stairway and wondered if the steps would hold her, but she needn’t have worried; the steps were as sturdy as they’d been a hundred years ago. The second level of the house held four bedrooms and a large bathroom with an old-fashioned porcelain clawfoot tub. It was a wonder the tub still stood, but then, again, it was extremely heavy. The toilet was broken and dirty. Phew! White subway tile lined the floor and walls. It would clean up with a good scrubbing.
D’Shandra walked into each of the bedrooms, first her mom’s room—she refused to think of it as her mom and stepfather’s. A double-sized iron bed had once stood in the center of the room. On the far wall, a mirrored mahogany bureau Mom had inherited from her grandmother held a comb and brush, makeup, and Evening in Paris cologne that her father always bought at the last minute as a Christmas gift. Oh, how she loved to sit on the floor and watch Mom get all dolled up for church and special occasions.
D’Wayne’s bedroom was next. There were still outlines of baseball pennants all about the room. D’Wayne had plastered them over the yellow flowered wallpaper in an attempt to hide it. “Don’t tell Mom, but that stuff is ugly,” he once confided to D’Shandra. She had adored her big brother and pestered and followed him around as all little sisters do.
The guest bedroom still bore its lavender and white wallpaper. It was crumbling and peeling, but she noticed no holes in the walls or ceiling. The room once held a double bed with a pink and white chenille bedspread and white chintz lamps that Mom had scored at a yard sale. They hadn’t had much company after Mom’s remarriage.
She walked to the bedroom at the far end of the hall, took a deep breath, and forced herself to walk into the room. Aging pink rose wallpaper still dotted the walls. She had chosen this room when her parents purchased the house. It gave a good view of the backyard, her trees, and privacy. Too much privacy as it later turned out.
She gripped her purse and started to sway as a flashback threatened to overcome her. D’Shandra bent slightly forcing herself to take deep steadying breaths. The incident had been 37 years ago. D’Shandra wasn’t the naive little girl anymore that her junkie stepfather had abused. She was a successful prosecutor now and put scum like him in jail. It was because of her stepfather that her brother was dead—introduced into a life of crime and drugs.
“Hello, is anyone there?” a man’s voice called.
D’Shandra panicked. What should she say? “I’m here,” she said. D’Shandra scrambled down the stairs. “The door was practically open.”
The man nodded. “I saw your car, but not you.” A middle-aged man with milk chocolate skin and a big smile assessed her and then stuck out his hand. “I’m Marcus Barrett. Sorry, Christa couldn’t make it.”
“I’m D’Shandra Travers,” she said, shaking his hand.
“Yes, I know. The lawyer.”
“Prosecutor now.” She started. “Have we met?”
“No, but everyone knows the girl--lady--that made it big.”
D’Shandra grimaced and gave him a wary look.
Marcus held up a hand. “Don’t get the wrong impression. You’re an inspiration to a lot of these kids.”
“Obviously not all of them. I’m still putting some of them in juvie.”
“Did you have a chance to look around?”
“Yes, not as bad as I thought.”
Marcus looked over the living room and said, “Should we go through it a second time? I think it’s going to need a lot of work, time, and money.”
D’Shandra smiled. “Sure.”
“And it’s a bad neighborhood.”
She pursed her lips. “I used to live here.”
“I know. Christa mentioned that, but the neighborhood has fallen on tough times since you were here.”
“Aren’t real estate people supposed to convince a client about potential sales?” D’Shandra laughed at her attempted humor.
“I want to be honest and tell you what you’re getting into.”
“I’m aware, but I’m still interested. If the price is right, it’s the perfect location.”
“I’m sure the owner will be agreeable. After all, no one’s doing anything with it except for a few homeless folks,” he said, laughing.
“There’s just one catch. My name can’t appear on the offer or closing paperwork.”
“Okay. Is there a reason?”
“It’s personal. Christa has agreed to be the intermediary.”
“Can I ask what you’ll do with it?”
“Sure. But I don’t want it publicized just yet. It’s going to be the Travers Halfway House, for teenagers. In memory of my mother and brother.”
She walked through the house a second time with Marcus at her side, listening as he pointed out potential problems.
When they reached the front door again she turned and gave him a smile. It was the lawyerly one she used with clients. “Please give me a call after you draw up the paperwork. I’m anxious to get started.”
“I will, and it sounds like a good project. I’m pretty good with a paint brush, maybe we could work on it together, for the neighborhood.”
She stared into his burnished brown eyes and said, “I might do that.” This time, D’Shandra gave him a sincere smile.
D’Shandra watched as Marcus locked up the house.
“Need to get a better lock. I’ll help you to your car,” he said, holding out an arm.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to visit a couple of trees in the backyard. I’ll be okay,” she said at his concerned look.
“Talk to you later then,” he said, striding toward his car.
D’Shandra walked toward the backyard glancing down at her feet. The heck with the shoes, that would teach her to wear something more appropriate the next time. She thought she heard a noise and reached a hand into her jacket pocket all the while striding forward. Before she rounded the corner, D’Shandra was ready.
When she reached her destination, the two inked teenagers she’d seen earlier stood with a menacing air between her and the trees. “Can I help you, boys?”
The taller of the two with dirty blonde hair took a step toward her. “We’re not boys,” he said with a leer.
The shorter one with furry black eyebrows and a shaved head said, “Yeah. Damn right.”
Be calm D’Shandra. “I don’t think so,” she said, moving the mace around in her pocket.
The two teenagers glanced at her moving hand and took a step back. “Shit, lady, we were just kidding.
“Well, I’m not. Go about your business, or I’ll call the police and tell them you tried to assault me.”
They stood, frozen by her practiced stare. It was a look that hardened criminals shrank from in the courtroom.
Emboldened, the smaller boy spoke up. “We overheard you and that guy. This ain’t ever going to be a halfway house. We can guarantee the spilling of Damu over it. That means . . .”
She interrupted his boasting. “I know what it means.” Damu meant blood. D’Shandra glanced at the gang tattoo on his inner arm and hardened her jaw.
The boy narrowed his eyes and attempted a stare down, but she’d had more practice over the years. “I said, go! Now.”
Almost as one, the boys turned and ran from the property calling over their shoulders, “This ain’t over lady. You’ll see.”
After they’d left, D’Shandra walked to her red maple tree and tried to spot the limb where her tire swing had been, but it was gone. Another limb that could be used for the same purpose had taken its place on the opposite side of the trunk. She studied the muddy yard filled with weeds and envisioned a brick walkway, a flower garden, and clipped green grass. She felt good about buying the house, but she knew her fight to reclaim a piece of her past in order to help young people was, as the Crip gang member had pointed out, far from over.
On her way to the car, she made a mental note to order security lights, cameras, and a stun gun. She would also need to make an appointment to meet the local beat cops.
My name is Harold Haines and I am not a writer. My experience with literature has been very limited. The normal scholastic endeavors promoted in American schools. Boring, I was convinced throughout, and the only thing I seem to have retained is the memory of reading a very odd book called Animal Farm. Maybe if I had gone to college I would have a better appreciation.
But I believe I have it in me to write. At least this, my story. Undoubtedly my effort will fall short of my expectations in regards to style and artistic value, but I am determined to create a meaningful composition. At least something readable.
In preparation, for the past few months I have examined various books at the public library. Literary masterpieces by Camus, Joyce, Poe, the Wolves, and a dozen others; they all sound very contrived to me. But I believe I have gleaned some awareness of what they were trying to do when they wrote those pedantic monstrosities. And yes, admittedly, they all knew how to tell a story. They simply had too much time on their hands and far too much paper.
Along with this rather tedious perusal of classic literature, I have also slapped open and stared with frustrated eyes at textbooks and grammar books and of course, (as I'm sure you've guessed), those ridiculous Word Power paperbacks designed to enrich one's vocabulary. An odd fact: although my ability to elucidate my thoughts has increased by magnitudes, it is only on paper that I seem to do this. I am sure I could never talk this way. At least I haven't begun yet.
So you can see that perhaps I am not am ignorant, but self-educated, at least to the extent that I could functionally stomach all those books and books and books! This method of approaching a problem or task is an extension of my personality, by the way. I rarely begin anything without some reasonable chance of success. This research of books, hopefully, will ensure that you as a reader will be treated with the proper respect and entertained. For I not only want to write my story but I want you to read it as well.
It may have occurred to you that I might not have much of a story at all. Good stories are wrought of tears and deeds and conflicting personalities, blood and pain and desperation. That oaf that I describe, who pours over material too sophisticated for him to ever appreciate, that rather comical fellow doesn't appear to have much of a story in him from what I've told you thus far. I dare say, unless I fall in love with the librarian we don't have a story in sight yet. Or perhaps I may fruitlessly waste my evenings at the back of the library for years, eventually living in the alley behind the stone building in a cardboard box. Hoarding discarded books I found in the dumpster. That might make a good story. Not one that I could write and certainly not one that I would ever read, but I wouldn't mind seeing the made-for-television version. Imagine the first scene as this: Dirty old man, unshaven and emaciated, found dead in the alley. By a small, scared child perhaps. And clutched in his wizened hands is a worn, dog-eared thesaurus. It's snowing. The snow is tinted gray with the weight of societies stain, just like the old man's scraggly goatee. Hm? I don't know, really. But that first possibility, especially if the librarian is estranged from her jealous husband, there is a good story there somewhere.
Unfortunately nothing like that has happened. The woman at the library most nights is obtuse and obese. I have finished my self-imposed crash course on literature and I hope I never have to set foot in that mausoleum again. It stinks in libraries, have you ever noticed? The quietude is suffocating and nearly everyone there is a simpering intellectual, and that book stink is as nauseating as maggots on dead meat. After six months of going into that place I abhor it there. A small scared child might wander into an alley and kick something in the snow that turns out to be my frozen corpse years from now, but that alley will undoubtedly be behind a bar or a restaurant. And the paper object clutched in my frozen claw will most likely be a racing form.
No, I am not apt to become involved in any sort of lurid situation and the possibility of my general state of misery blossoming into a dogmatic quest is laughable. The only conflict I generally experience from life is more of the wash-a-grimy-shirt-or-make-rags variety. I live an extremely pedestrian life, rarely varying an iota from acquired habits.
But yet, I am convinced I have a story to tell you.
There are characters in fiction whose obsessions and nothing else provide the grist for the story. I can't tell you their names or what books they appear in, nor do I care, but I have seen them and know that they are there. Perhaps this is my story. A semi-itinerant carpenter whose inherent pathos and antipathy force him further and further into his shell over years. He commits no atrocities, nor is he ever embroiled in torrid romance. He is simply a miserable human being, without passion, excitement, or the slightest interest in anything except his grimy shirts that might best be used as rags and his own supper. The people he meets are uncomfortable reminders of a world he tries so desperately to avoid. No blood or even tears spot the pages of his tale, and certainly no emotion. Is this a story? It is mine.
There is a word I've learned recently: catharsis. I believe it means emotional culmination. Good stories have it and great stories imbue it onto the reader. Great characters in stories are created with this in mind. I cannot not offer you this in my story, I am afraid. With the exception of this project, this story, I live a terribly banal life without opportunity for fundamental emotional growth, another aspect of catharsis. And my personality is quite wooden to the core. For example: when I was eight my dog Snoopy died; I did not cry nor did I want to. The dog, which I would miss, was dead. There was nothing to cry about.
Nothing's changed for me. As an adult my apathy toward nearly everything in my universe has only increased. No intensity there for a reader. So I suppose I probably don't have a very good story for you after all. Unless the act of conjuring this dribble is unusual enough to comprise a limited plot. Can one write a story about writing a story? I could tell you about the length and size and echo of all those yawns I bellowed in that corner at the back of the library, but I think you would then be yawning too.
But enough! I am not them, authors who regale you with lofty ideals and talented creation. I am rather a pristine fount of what is real in my own little world. If a man's hidden loathing for himself and all around him contains enough of Man to make my story worthwhile, it is for you to decide and not me.
And I would tell you that story. I would thrust you into the crushing heat and stale air clogged with sawdust in the dark cubby where I doggedly produce either twenty-one large or thirty-six small window frames each day I am constrained to that sweaty pit. I would introduce you to Reba, a plain woman with once-pretty brown eyes and frizzy black hair. This slightly overweight mother of two very irritating children generally satisfies my physical needs twice each month. And I would drag you into the back door of Barney’s on the corner, where unattractive women in immodest dress hang in corners like vampire bats. You would meet Irish Sandy too, of course. Be careful to keep your distance though. This self-proclaimed burglar of homes has the infamous habit of spitting in your beer if you let him get too close. And Joe, possibly the last Vietnam vet left alive. You'd have to spend a minute staring at the florid gray mustache and the motionless pockmarked cheeks and those eyes. I can't remember their color they are so frightening. All Joe needs is a ten gallon hat to become the archetype western villain. That face is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to test your backbone. Admittedly I have never spoken to this man.
And then we would run from that hellhole with our hearts banging. Leaving our spitty beers and those deadly colorless eyes in the shadow where they belong. That red-nosed crowd is more animal than anything else and their alcohol fumes will poison anyone around. The ugly drunks who live in Barney’s are the sort that you hear about a year after they are dead and then you realize that third or fourth stool from the end has been empty for some while.
I would tell you of these people and these things and I would also let you huddle with me in my studio apartment. Bigger than a large dumpster but not nearly as clean. Outside my window you would see the dirty back of a city.
Together we would stare listlessly at the first flurries of winter that collect in the rocky back yard outside my dusty window. They seem gray amongst the cracked, jagged rocks. You would see me become gray too as the thin sun hurries away to abandon me and I tell you the pitiful story of my life.
I would tell you of all these things and I would pound with my callused fists at your heart, wrapping my pathetic life around your neck, choking until your sanity is pale and the inimical flame trapped within me burns bright in your eyes as it consumes me particle by particle. I would do this to you.
But I can't. I'm not a writer.
I have, unfortunately, run out of space. This may be the biggest thing which prevents people like you and I from writing. Professional writers must be so organized, don't you think, to be able to plan their stories that way. Space-organization. Funny, I don't remember seeing that in any of those books I told you about.
All errors are a part of the author's characterization and are intentional. - N.K.
Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with neither safe person nor safe net to catch them. His short stories have appeared, inter alia, in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Literary Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The 3288 Review, Perceptions Magazine, and A New Ulster.