My last year of high school, when Kaycee Mitchell and her friends got sick, my father had a bunch of theories.
“Those girls are bad news,” he said. “Nothing but trouble.” He took it as a matter of faith that they were being punished. To him, they deserved what they got.
Kaycee was the first. This made sense. She was the first to do everything: lose her virginity, try a cigarette, throw a party.
Kaycee walked in front of her friends, like an alpha wolf leading the pack. In the cafeteria, she decided where to sit and the others followed; if she ate her lunch, the rest did, too; if she pushed her food around on her tray or just ate a bag of Swedish Fish, her friends did the same.
Misha was the meanest and the loudest one.
But Kaycee was the leader.
So when she got sick, we, the senior girls of Barrens High, weren’t horrified or disturbed or worried.
We were jealous.
We all secretly hoped we’d be next.
The first time it happened was in fourth-period debate. Everyone had to participate in mock elections. Kaycee made her way through three rounds of primary elections. She was easy to believe in the role of politician, convincing and quick-witted, a talented liar; I’m not even sure Kaycee knew when she was telling the truth and when she wasn’t.
She was standing at the front of the room delivering a practiced stump speech when suddenly it was as though the tether connecting her voice to her throat was cut. Her mouth kept moving, but the volume had been turned off. No words came out.
For a few seconds, I thought there was something wrong with me.
Then her hands seized the podium and her jaw froze, locked open, as if she were stuck, silently screaming. I was sitting in the first row—no one else ever wanted those seats, so they were mine to take—and she was only a few feet away from me. I’ll never forget how her eyes looked: like they’d transformed suddenly into tunnels.
Derrick Ellis shouted something, but Kaycee ignored him. I could see her tongue behind her teeth, a wad of white gum sitting there. Some people laughed—they must have thought it was a joke—but I didn’t.
I’d been friends with Kaycee, best friends, back when we were young. It was only the second time in my life I’d ever seen her look afraid.
Her hands began to shake, and that’s when all the laughter stopped. Everyone went quiet. For a long time, there was no sound in the room but a silver ring she always wore clacking loudly against the podium.
Then the shaking traveled up her arms. Her eyes rolled back and she fell, taking the podium down with her.
I remember being on my feet. I remember people shouting. I remember Mrs. Cunningham on her knees, lifting Kaycee’s head, and someone screaming about keeping her from swallowing her tongue. Someone ran for the nurse. Someone else was crying; I don’t remember who, just the sound of it, a desperate whimpering. Weirdly, the only thing I could think to do was pick up her notes, which had fallen, and reshuffle them in order, making sure the corners aligned.
Then, all of a sudden, it passed. The spasm apparently left her body, like an ebbing tide. Her eyes opened. She blinked and sat up, looking vaguely confused, but not displeased, to find us all gathered around her. By the time the nurse came, she seemed normal again. She insisted it was just a weak spell, because she hadn’t eaten. The nurse led Kaycee out of the classroom, and the whole time she was glancing back at us over her shoulder as if to be sure we were all watching her go. And we were—of course we were. She was the kind of person you couldn’t help but watch.
We all forgot about it. Or pretended to.
Then, three days later, it happened again.
State Highway 59 becomes Plantation Road two miles after the exit for Barrens. The old wooden sign is easy to miss, even among the colorless surroundings. For years now, on road trips from Chicago to New York, I’ve been able to pass on by without any anxiety. Hold my breath, count to five. Exhale. Leave Barrens safely behind, no old shadows running out of the dark woods to strangle me.
That’s a game I used to play as a kid. Whenever I would get scared or have to go down to the old backyard shed in the dark, as long as I held my breath, no monsters or ax murderers or deformed figures from horror movies would be able to get me. I would hold my breath and run full speed until my lungs were bursting and I was safe in the house with the door closed behind me. I even taught Kaycee this game back when we were kids, before we started hating each other.
It’s embarrassing, but I still do it. And the thing is, it works.
Most of the time.
Alone, locked in a gas station bathroom, I scrub my hands until the skin cracks and a tiny trickle of blood runs down the drain. It’s the third time I’ve washed my hands since I crossed the border into Indiana. In the dinged mirror over the sink, my face looks pale and warped, and the memories of Barrens bloom again like toxic flowers.
This was a bad idea.
I shove open the bathroom door and squint into the early sunlight as I get back into my car.
At the turnoff I pass a deer carcass buzzing with flies, its head still improbably intact and almost pretty-looking, mouth open in a final sigh. Impossible to say whether it was hit by a car or struck by a passing bullet. Typically fresh roadkill gets scooped up by a good ol’ boy, loaded into a smoker, and made into venison jerky. I hit a deer in my old Ford Echo when I was seventeen; it was picked up even before I was. But this deer is, for some reason, undisturbed.
Hunting game is a main activity in Barrens—the main activity, actually. It’s built into the culture. If you can call it that. Hunting season isn’t officially until winter but every year kids sneak out with a six-pack, a spotlight, and their fathers’ guns to scout for a big buck or watch a few fawns and a doe grazing. And after a few beers, they take shots at whatever they can aim for.
My dad used to take me with him to hunt; our father-daughter bonding activities usually involved an outing to the taxidermist. Deer, coyote, and bear heads adorn the walls of our house like trophies. He taught me to step on the bodies of the pheasants he took down while he snapped their necks in one hand. I remember how annoyed he was when I cried over the first deer I watched him kill, how he made me place my hands on its still-warm body and the blood pulsing out of the hole that had ripped its life away. “Death is beautiful,” he said.
My mother was beautiful once, too, until bone cancer did its work. Chewed off her hair, carved her body into a shell of muscle and bone, took her cell by cell. After she died, my father told me it was the ultimate blessing and that we should be thankful, because the Lord had chosen her to be part of his flock in heaven.
I turn from Plantation Road onto Route 205, which eventually becomes Main Street, struck hard by the smell of cow manure in the heat. It’s mid-June, end of the school year, but it feels like high summer. Fields brown beneath the sun. Another mile on, I pass a brand-new sign: Welcome to Barrens, population 5,027. The last time I was here, ten years ago, the population was barely half that. Main Street is in fact the main street, but even on a nine-mile stretch, passing three cars is high traffic.
I count telephone poles. I count crows swaying on the wires. I count silos in the distance, arranged like fists. I turn my life into numbers, into accounting. For ten years I’ve lived in Chicago. I’ve been a lawyer for three. After six months in private practice, I landed a job at CEAW, the Center for Environmental Advocacy Work.
I have a future, a life, a clean and bright condo in Lincoln Park with dozens of bookshelves and not a single Bible. I meet friends in downtown Chicago bars and clubs and speakeasies where the cocktails have ingredients like lilac and egg white. I have friends now, period—and boyfriends, if you can call them that. As many as I want, nameless and indistinguishable, rotating in and out of my bed and life and on my own terms.
Most nights, I don’t even have nightmares anymore.
I swore, many times, that I would never go home. But now I know better. Any self-help book in the world will tell you that you can’t just run your past away.
Barrens has its roots in me. If I want it gone forever, I’ll have to cut them out myself.
Main Street. What used to be the chapel—a one-story concrete building with no windows where we used to go on Sundays, until my dad decided that the pastor was interpreting scripture as he pleased, infuriated particularly that he seemed too lax on “the gays”—is now a White Castle. The library where my mother used to take me to story hour as a kid now touts a sign for Johnny Chow’s Oriental Buffet. When I was growing up, we had practically no sit-down restaurants at all.
But so much is the same: the neon light from the VFW bar still flickers, and Mel’s Pizza, where I would ride my bike sometimes to get a slice after school, is still churning out pies. So much might have tumbled out of memory intact—the Jiffy Lube Pit Stop, Jimmy’s Auto Parts Supply, the run-down porn shop Kaycee Mitchell’s father used to own. Might still own, for all I know. Temptations has a new roof, though, and a new electric sign. So business has been booming.
I spot a crow on a telephone wire and another one nesting farther along. One crow for sorrow, two crows for mirth . . .
Past Main Street nothing looks the same: brand-new condos, a Jennifer Convertibles, a sit-down Italian place advertising a salad bar in the window. Everything is unfamiliar except for the salvage yard and, just beyond it, the drive-in movie theater. Site of many birthday parties with kids from Sunday school and even a depressing Thanksgiving right after my mom was buried. Our claim to fame, prior to the arrival of Optimal Plastics.
More crows perched on a pylon. Three, four, five, six. Seven for a secret, never to be told. A murder of crows.
Being back is giving me that tight-chest, lumpy-throat feeling. I grip the steering wheel tighter. At the first red light—the only red light in Barrens—I hold my breath and close my eyes. I am in control now.
The guy behind me lays on his horn: the light has turned green. I press the gas pedal just a little too hard and shoot forward into the intersection. When a familiar orange sign ashes in my peripheral vision, I signal to turn without thinking and swerve into the parking lot of the Donut Hole—this, like the drive-in movie theater, is totally unchanged.
I turn off the ignition. Sit in silence. After just a few seconds of no air-conditioning, it’s painfully hot. It must be eighty degrees— much warmer than it was in Chicago. The air is chokingly heavy with moisture. I wrestle off my leather jacket and grab my purse from the floor of the passenger seat. I could use a water.
As I’m opening the car door, a blue Subaru pulls up next to me, jamming its brakes at the last second and making me jump. The driver honks twice.
I slide out of the car, annoyed by how close the other driver has parked, and then notice the woman in the car is smiling at me and giving a frenzied, two-handed wave. She motions toward the Donut Hole and I have a split second to decide if I should turn back toward Chicago and forget this whole thing. But suddenly I am paralyzed. Somewhere along the line, my fight-or-flight instinct turned into freeze, turn invisible, wait for it to pass.
Misha Dale. Blonder, heavier, still beautiful, in her small-town way. Smiling. I used to dream of her smile—the way, I imagine, bottom-feeding sh must dream of the long dark funnel of a shark’s throat.
Misha at twelve: getting all her friends to pelt me with stale lunch rolls when I walked through the cafeteria. Misha at fourteen: planting an animal femur in my locker, claiming it was one of my mother’s bones, whispering that I kept body parts in my freezer, a rumor that achieved such aggressive popularity that Sheriff Kahn came over to check. At fifteen, she organized a campaign to raise money for the treatment of my acne. At sixteen, she circulated an online petition to have me suspended from school.
A sadist with a beautiful smile. She, Cora Allen, Annie Baum, and Kaycee Mitchell fed on me for years, grew fat and strong on my misery, ecstatic when junior year I tried to swallow half a bottle of Advil and had to spend a week at Mercy mental hospital— something my father refused to ever acknowledge and of which we have never spoken.
Next time, I’ll help, Misha whispered to me in the hall when I finally got back to school.
Terrible girls. Demonic.
And yet, I’d envied them.
“I don’t believe it. I heard you might be coming back.” Her eyes have softened but her smile is the same—sharp, and slightly crooked. “And your car! Lord knows you’ve done well.” She folds me briefly into a one-armed hug. She smells like cigarettes—menthol—and the heavy perfume used to mask them. “Don’t you remember me? It’s Misha Jennings. Dale,” she corrects herself, shaking her head. “You’d know me as Dale. My Lord, it’s been a long time.”
“I remember you,” I say. Panic flashes in me, quick as the baring of teeth. She heard I was coming back—but how? And from whom? “ You coming in? ” She gestures toward the Donut Hole. “They’ve added about a million varieties in the past year. All thanks to Optimal, I guess. We’ve had something of a population boom around here, at least by Indiana standards.”
The mention of Optimal is bait—it must be. But this time she’s not the one who gets to stand on dry land and cast.
“ Yeah,” I say. “ Yeah, I’m coming in.”
“The jelly is still my favorite.” Her voice has softened, too. She genuinely appears happy to see me. “Do you keep in touch with any of the old group?”
I hesitate, suspecting a trap. But she doesn’t seem to notice my confusion. There is no “old group.” At least not that I was a part of. I just shake my head and follow her inside. I notice that when she yanks open the door, she makes sure to step ahead of me.
The Donut Hole is home to its namesake, the donut, as well as a truly random assortment of drugstore supplies and our historical society “museum,” a corner display with pamphlets for the taking. There’s even a small, unofficial free library in the Donut Hole— you leave one, you take one. The particular odor of artificial air freshener, musty old travel guides, and baked goods is like the barrel of a gun, shooting me into the past.
“Must be fun coming back after so long.” Misha bypasses the donut counter and heads instead for a wall of pharmaceutical products, where a handwritten sign blandly announces No Pharmacist/No Suboxone/No Sudafed Sold.
Misha picks out antacid, baby shampoo, lilac-scented body lotion, a box of Kleenex: all so normal, so domestic, and so at odds with the vicious girl who preyed on me for years.
“Fun isn’t the word I would choose.” Mistake is closer to it, especially now as I’m standing in front of Misha at the Donut Hole. “I’m here for work.”
When she doesn’t ask me what kind, I know for sure she’s heard.
“Well, I think it’s fun to have you back,” she says. Her tone is warm, but I can’t help but feel a current of anxiety. Misha’s fun was always the kind that drew blood. “Your dad must be glad to have you home after all this time. He worked on our fence for us just last summer, after that big tornado came through. Did a great job, too.”
I don’t want to talk about my dad. I definitely don’t want to talk about my dad with Misha. I clear my throat. “So you married Jonah Jennings?” I ask, with a kind of politeness I hope she’ll interpret, correctly, as fake.
Misha only laughs. “His brother, Peter.”
The new Misha is unpredictable. It’s as if the rules to the past have been rewritten, and I’m still learning the game. All I know of Peter Jennings is something I saw in the Tribune, a year or two into college—that he’d been arrested for dealing heroin.
Misha fiddles with the magazine rack. “Held out for as long as I could, but he was persistent.” She hesitates for just a fraction of a second. “We have a baby, too. Kayla’s out in the car. We’ll say hi on the way out.”
Even inside, with the air-conditioning going, it feels like stand- ing inside a closed mouth. “It’s so hot,” I say. Misha’s not my business. Misha’s baby’s not my business. But still, I can’t help it. “You sure she’ll be okay?”
“Oh, she’s just napping. She’ll scream like anything if I try to wake her. God. Listen to me. Can you believe it? I swear, you blink and ten years go by and it looks nothing like you thought it would.” She eyes me as if we’re sharing a secret. “You know I work over at Barrens High School now? I’ve been vice principal for a few years now.”
This shocks me. Misha hated school almost as much as I did, though for different reasons. She found class to be an inconvenience, and the mandatory homework a distraction from getting felt up by random guys on the football team.
“I had no idea,” I say, although what I really want to ask is: How? Then again, Barrens High, a tiny school with a graduating class of about sixty, probably isn’t attracting the best and the brightest in the education system. “Congratulations.”
She waves a hand, but she looks pleased—pleased, and proud. “We make plans and God laughs. Isn’t that what they say?”
I can’t tell if she’s kidding. “I didn’t think you believed in all that religious stuff. In high school, you hated the Jesus freaks.”
But of course she didn’t: she only hated me.
Misha’s smile drops. “I was young then. We all were.” She lowers her chin and looks up at me through lashes thick with mascara. “It’s all water under the bridge now. Besides, you’re our big star around here. The girl who got out.”
Of course it’s bullshit. It has to be. She tortured me, tortured my family, got pleasure out of making me cry. I didn’t make that up. I can’t have made it up. She left a razorblade taped to my homeroom desk with a note saying, “Just do it.” That’s not water under any bridge I know. She spread rumors, humiliated me, and why? I had no friends anyway. I wasn’t a threat. Back then I was barely even a person.
Still, when she takes my arm, I don’t pull away. “I could use an iced coffee. How about you?”
“Nah,” I say. I swing open the cooler door and stare at the rows of bottled water, gripping the handle to steady myself. Six bottles, side by side. Three in each row, except the last, which has only one. That’s the one I grab. “Just this.”
Even though I really want to say, Stop touching me. I’ve always hated you. But maybe this is Misha’s ultimate power, like the witch in The Little Mermaid: she steals your voice.
I watch her fill up an iced coffee. I’m trying to figure out how to excuse myself, how to say, Good-bye, have a very mediocre life, hope I never see you again as long as I live, when she suddenly blurts, “You know, Brent still asks about you sometimes.”
I freeze. “Brent O’Connell?”
“Who else? He’s a big shot at Optimal now. Regional sales manager. Followed in his father’s footsteps and worked his way up.”
Brent was from one of the richest families in town, which for Barrens means a basketball hoop, aboveground pool, and separate bedrooms for Brent, his older sister, and their parents. Brent’s father wore a tie to work, and his mother was like Carol Brady: big smile, blond hair, very clean-looking. Brent was hired at Optimal straight out of high school. Whereas the other guys had after-school jobs pumping gas or stocking shelves at the grocery store or even sweeping stables at one of the local farms, Brent had an internship at Optimal.
“He’s still single. A shame, isn’t it?” She stirs her coffee slowly, like it’s a chemistry experiment and the wrong blend of sugar and cream will make the whole place blow up. One sugar. Stir. Two sugars. Stir. Three. Then, suddenly: “He always had a crush on you, you know.”
“Brent’s with Kaycee,” I say quickly. I have no idea where the present tense came from: five minutes back in town and the past is invading me. “I mean, he was.”
“He was with Kaycee, but he liked you. Everybody knew that.”
Brent O’Connell was one of the most popular guys in Barrens. What she’s saying makes no sense.
Except . . .
Except for the kiss, the one kiss, the night of graduation. A first kiss almost exactly like I’d always dreamed it: an unseasonably warm June day, swimming weather, almost; the smell of smoke turning the air sharp; Brent coming through the trees, lifting a hand to his eyes against the dazzle of my flashlight. How many nights had I walked the woods behind my house to the edge of the reservoir, hoping to run into him just that way, hoping he would notice me?
It was so perfect I could never be sure I hadn’t made it up, like I did Sonya, a dark-skinned colt-legged girl who lived in the attic of our old house when I was a kid and used to play games with me in exchange for leaves, twigs, and branches I brought her from outside; she had once been a fairy, I explained, when my mother found the attic nesting with rotten leaves and beetles. Like the games I made up after my mom died, to bring her back. Skipping over the sidewalk cracks, of course, but other ones, too. If I could hold my breath until five cars had passed . . . if I could swim down to the bottom of the reservoir and plunge a finger in the silt . . . if there were an even number of crows on the telephone pole, any number but ten.
Misha carefully seals a top on her iced coffee, pressing with a thumb around the edges. “Why?” she asks—so casually, so sweetly, I nearly miss it.
“Excuse me?” For a second, I really don’t understand.
Finally, she looks up. Her eyes are the clear blue of the summer sky. “Why do you think Brent liked you so much?”
I clutch my water bottle so hard the plastic takes on the imprint of my fingers. “I—I don’t know,” I stutter. Then: “He didn’t.”
She just keeps smiling. “All that long hair, maybe.”
And then, unexpectedly, she reaches out to tug my ponytail lightly. When I jerk away, Misha laughs as if embarrassed.
“Maybe that’s where all that BS came from, Kaycee wanting us to hurt your feelings,” Misha goes on. “She was cuckoo, that one.”
“She was your best friend,” I point out, struggling to keep up with the conversation, to haul myself out of the muck of memory.
“She was yours, too, for a little while,” she says. “You remember how it was. She scared me to death.”
Could it be true? Whenever I remember that time, it’s usually Misha’s face I picture, her crowded teeth and those big blue eyes, the look of pleasure whenever she saw me cry. Misha was the vicious one, the pit bull, the one who made the decisions. Cora and Annie, the followers: they trailed after Misha and Kaycee like worshipful little sisters.
Kaycee was the prettiest one, the one everyone adored. No one could ever say no to Kaycee. Kaycee was the sun: there was no choice but to swing into orbit around her.
Now, ten years older and ten years free of her best friend, Misha seems to be at ease. “Brent will be so happy you’re back, even if you’re on opposite sides now. Well,” she adds, seeing my face, “it’s true, isn’t it? You’re here to shut Optimal down?”
“We’re here to make sure the water is safe,” I say. “No more, no less. We’re not against Optimal.” But to the people of Barrens, the distinction will make little difference.
“But you are with that agency group, right?”
“The Center for Environmental Advocacy Work, yeah,” I say.
“News travels fast.”
Misha leans a little closer. “Gallagher said they’re going to shut off the water to our taps.”
I shake my head. “Gallagher has his signals crossed. Anything like that would be way down the line. We’re just here to check out the waste disposal systems.” Law school teaches you one thing above all: how to speak while saying absolutely nothing.
She laughs. “And here I was, thinking you were a fancy lawyer. Turns out you’re a plumber instead!” She shakes her head. “I’m glad to hear it, though. Optimal’s been such a blessing, you have no idea. For a while we thought this town was turning to dust.”
“I remember,” I say. “Believe me.”
A look of sudden pain tightens her forehead and pinches her mouth together. And for a long second she appears to be working something out of the back of her throat.
Then she grabs my hand again. I’m surprised when she steps closer to me, so close I can see the constellations of her pores.
“You know we were only kidding, right? All those things we did. All those things we said.”
I guess she takes my silence for assent. She gives my hand a short, quick pulse. “I used to worry sometimes about you coming home. I used to fear it. I thought you might come back looking for—” She breaks off suddenly, and I feel a cold touch on the back of my neck, as if someone has leaned forward to whisper to me.
Kaycee. I’m sure she was about to say Kaycee.
“For what?” I ask her, deliberately trying to sound casual, spinning a rack full of cheap sunglasses and watching the sun get sucked into their polarized lenses.
Now her smile is narrow and tight. “For revenge,” she says simply. This time, she holds the door open and allows me to pass through it first.
Misha’s baby is fussing in the car seat. As soon as she spots Misha, she begins to wail. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding when Misha reaches in to unbuckle her.
“This is Kayla,” she says, as Kayla begins to cry.
“She’s cute,” I say, which is true. She has Misha’s eyes, but her hair, surprisingly thick, is so blond it’s nearly white.
“She is, isn’t she? Thank God she didn’t get Peter’s coloring. The Ginger Ninja, they call him at work.” Misha jogs Kayla in her arms to quiet her. I somehow can’t square an image of Peter Jennings— blunt-jawed and stupid-looking—with this child. But that’s always true of babies, I guess: it’s not until later that they inherit their parents’ ugliness. “You’re helping put us on the map, you know, living all the way out in Chicago with your big job.” It’s half-compliment, half-command. Subtext: Don’t fuck with us.
“ You’ll have to come by the house for supper. Please. You at your dad’s? I still have the number.” She turns and fastens Kayla into the back seat again. “And let me know if you need anything while you get settled in. Anything at all.”
She slips into the car before I can say don’t bother, and there’s no way in hell I’d be staying at the old house anyway. As soon as she’s gone, it’s like a hand has released my vocal cords.
I will never need a thing from you.
I will never ask you for anything.
I’ve always hated you.
But it’s too late. She’s gone, leaving only a veil of exhaust that hangs in the thick summer air, distorting everything before it, too, vanishes.
Senior year, Misha and Kaycee started getting sick. Their hands shook—that was one of the first symptoms. Cora Allen and Annie Baum came next. They would lose their balance even when they were standing still. They forgot where their classrooms were, or how to get to the gym. And it was like the whole town got sick, too, like Barrens spiraled down into the darkness with them.
And all of it? A joke. A prank. All just because they felt like it. Because they wanted attention. Because they could.
For a few months, they were famous, at least in Southern Indiana. Poor, neglected small-town girls. Misha’s and Cora’s moms went on local TV, and just before Kaycee ran away, there was even talk of interviews with big-time media. Someone from the Chicago Tribune was trying to link the sickness to other examples of corporate pollution. When the girls came out as liars, though, the story fizzled quickly, and no one seemed to blame them, at least not for long. They just wanted a little attention. That’s how the newspapers spun it.
But I believed them. And there’s a part of me that never stopped believing the sickness was real—that found myself again and again tugged to questions of environment and conservation, that brought the initial complaint to the agency’s attention, cleaving to it with the small but painful, nagging intensity of a hangnail.
When I moved to Chicago, I tossed all my old clothes as soon as I could afford to replace them. I traded in my style, such as it was, for whatever was draped on the mannequins on Magnificent Mile. I ran my accent over a blade, sharpening out the long Midwest vowels, and told people I came from a suburb of New York. I slept off my hangover on Sundays, and never prayed unless it was to clear the traffic. And I stopped calling home.
I did my best to shake Barrens off.
But the more I tried, the more I felt the subtle tug of some half- dead memory, the insistence of something I’d failed to do or see. A message I’d failed to decipher.
Sometimes, coming home after one glass too many—or maybe too few—I’d return to old memories of Kaycee, back to afternoons spent target-shooting rocks at the huge mushrooms in the woods, back to my dog, Chestnut, and back to the convulsions of a town felled by sickness.
Maybe I wanted to believe there was some answer, some reason, for why she did what she did.
Maybe I just wanted to believe her, because after all this time I couldn’t understand how she had suckered me so badly.
No matter how many times I swore I would stop, I found myself coming back to the same questions. Why? I could shake free of almost everything, but I couldn’t shake free of that question. Why? Kaycee, Misha, the hoax. Why? Sometimes a month or two would go by. Other times, it was every few weeks. I’d lose hours searching Optimal, combing through the pitiful threads of what in Barrens counted for news. Mostly Optimal PR—new housing, a new community center, a new scholarship fund. All that searching over the years, and it never turned up anything of use.
Until, six months ago, it did.
Wyatt Gallagher’s three hundred acres are enclosed entirely by a sagging post-and-beam fence. The drought’s been bad here; the green has gone brown, and dust obscures my windshield. As I turn up the gravel drive, several chained-up hound dogs bark in the distance. I knew the CEAW was renting out temporary space for the legal team, but I had no idea we’d be moving onto Gallagher’s farm—not that it’s surprising, given that Gallagher is the one who first complained about the reservoir.
Considering Gallagher doesn’t have a cell phone, not to mention the spotty Wi-Fi, it’s a miracle the complaint ever made it past town lines.
When I first saw the post, I immediately recalled the minutes from the most recent town hall meeting to read Gallagher’s complaint in detail. It wasn’t just Gallagher: a few other families stood up with him and expressed concern about the water. Poring over the minutes, I felt like Alice down her rabbit hole: I tumbled suddenly into old complaints, buried reports from dozens of Barrens residents, all these old issues and complaints neatly spiraled up and bound to Gallagher’s rage. I made four pages of handwritten notes just by reviewing the minutes.
And for the first time in a decade, for the first time in my whole life, maybe, I felt as if the whole world had settled down. I felt as if everything had quieted to whisper the small promise of an answer.
I put Gallagher in contact with the Indiana chapter of CEAW. There are procedures, protocols, paths meant to take us out of the entanglement of our fears and suspicions. But the Indiana team, still dealing with a tie-up in state legislation about a clean energy bill that should have been passed two years ago, leaned on us for support.
So here I am.
I pull into the grass alongside a newly painted barn, identifiable as our headquarters only by Joseph Carter’s beat-up Camaro with the ubiquitous COEXIST bumper sticker. There are a few other cars I recognize and some I don’t—Estelle Barry, one of the senior partners, told us we’d be getting some interns from Loyola.
I stuff the empty water bottle into two old gas station coffee cups and toss them on the floor of the passenger seat.
“Williams. You’re late,” Joe greets me as I enter the giant, airy barn, where the team has set up folding tables, filing cabinets, and a mess of computers cabled to a single power strip. The floor is a tangle of wires and dirt, warped floorboards, and cheap by-the-foot carpet.
“It’s 9:02, dude.”
Joe and I were hired at the same time in the Illinois office. He’s pretty much my best friend, though I’d chew off my hand before I ever admitted that to his face. We were greenies together. We’ve spent countless nights eating Chinese takeout under the glow of shitty fluorescents, hollow-eyed with exhaustion. We celebrated our first three Christmases as lawyers together. I always had a feeling that, like me, Joe wasn’t close to his family; I remember being stunned and a little jealous when he announced last year that he was taking time off for a family vacation in Florida.
“I like that morning, tousled look. It works on you.” Joe leads me to a long folding table set up in the back of the barn. “Brings me right back to law school.”
“Brings you right back to last weekend,” I say, and Joe makes a who, me? expression. Joe picks up boyfriends the way corners gather dust. It just happens. “You’re in a good mood.”
“Maybe the country air agrees with me,” he says, stretching his arms out as if he’s never seen so much open space before. I wonder why the hell he’s so peppy this early, after a long drive from Indianapolis. Joe refuses to sleep in one of Barrens’s few motels or rentals, claiming that a gay black man belongs in Barrens, Indiana, like a dildo belongs on a dinner table. Instead, he’s chosen to commute.
“Maybe the water does,” I say, which makes him laugh. He’s not the only one buzzing on something more than caffeine. It’s that new-job, new-team energy. These pimply law students still believe we’re going to change the world, one oil spill, one contaminated reservoir, one gas pipeline leak at a time.
“Hey guys,” Joe speaks up. “This is Abby Williams in the flesh. She’s the one who’s been cluttering your inbox for the past two weeks.”
The research team is a modest one: a first-year associate and a few wide-eyed volunteer law students. I swear one of the girls looks as if she’s still in high school. That’s CEAW—law on a shoestring budget. Fighting the good fight is always underpaid.
“I believe the correct term is prepping,” I tell Joe.
He ignores that. “Abby,” he says to the rest of the group, “as you all know, is the other lead on the team besides me. But really she’s the reason we’re here, so when you hate your life in a few days, blame her.” He bats his eyelashes at me when I pull a face.
I can match the team to the little thumbnail images I got from Estelle Barry when she was staffing us. There’s Raj, the first-year associate, fresh out of Harvard. And, already, I’ve given out nicknames to the interns: Flora, a perky California girl in a oral top; Portland, a bearded hipster with a flannel too tailored to be truly authentic. Interns are like one-night stands. You can pretend to listen to a name or two, but the outcome never justifies the effort.
Flora leaps to her feet. Wants to prove she did her homework. “So far we’ve gathered all the town hall meeting notes from the past five years, before they went digital,” she says. “Several families started complaining as early as, um . . .” She glances down at her notes, and her face darkens. “As early as three years ago.” She tucks her hair behind her ears. “We’ll be revisiting those complaints, one by one,” she adds, before sitting back down.
“What about now? Who else do we have besides Gallagher?” Gallagher is one of the largest landowners in or around Barrens— his farm’s been here since long before my time—and he uses the reservoir for irrigation. According to the notes Joe sent, he’s had to rely on it more than ever during the past two years’ drought. When he lost whole fields of corn and soybeans, he began to suspect something was wrong with the water—a suspicion borne out by several neighbors’ complaints of funny odors from the pipes, of skin inflammations and headaches.
“A half dozen people have signed the complaint he brought to the town. A family called Dawes and a Stephen Iocco seem like our best bets.”
“A half dozen complaints? We’ll be laughed out of the judge’s chambers.” Joe is underexaggerating. We’ll be kicked out.
Flora looks uncomfortable. “Optimal’s the biggest employer in Barrens,” she says. “It’s hard to sway people.”
“It’s a company town,” I say, and think uneasily about what Misha said—you’re on opposite sides now. I fear most people in Barrens will be on the other side. “That’s going to be our biggest obstacle.”
Everyone nods, but the whole team has the slick look of a city—or at least suburbia—about them, and can’t possibly understand.
When I was growing up, the morning air was coated in a film of plastic ash; we breathed in Optimal chemicals every time we inhaled, and the chemical smog turned the sun into different shades of pink and orange. Our ears rang with the constant din of Optimal construction: new scaffolds, new warehouses, new storage hangars, new smokestacks. I ate my lunch in a newly added school library built by an Optimal donation and rode home on a bus purchased by Optimal, with parts made by Optimal, and went to Optimal-sponsored dances, bake sales, and cookouts. My dad was right: there was someone bigger than us, someone watching us, someone who even made the colors in the sky and textured the air we were breathing. I remember as a kid when the skeleton of the production plant went up. I used to sneak around the reservoir to play on the construction site and write my name in the rusty ooze along the drainpipes, when the house was full of the smell of sick and seemed as if it might fold in on me.
“A company town,” Joe repeats. “How quaint.”
“When is ETL sending techs?” Raj asks. He even sounds depressed. Environmental Testing Laboratories specializes in clean water supplies, with a focus on heavy metal contamination. Unfortunately, they’re one of the few trustworthy labs in the Midwest, and their backlog runs months deep.
“Next week,” Joe says. “But we shouldn’t expect results on the water to come in before July.”
“If that,” I say. “What else can we look at? What about accelerated rates of cancer?”
“In the past few years? Nope.” Only in our line of business is there reason to be disappointed that cancer doesn’t work faster.
“Optimal moved in twenty years ago,” I point out.
“You expect us to go back that far? We don’t have the manpower. Besides, you know how these hospitals work. It’s easier to get blood out of a quarter, and half of what you do get is restricted.”
“It’s data. Even if it isn’t admissible later, it isn’t a waste. We should do a survey of local doctors at least.” This is how we work: quick back and forth, push and pull. The first time I met Joe, he pointed out that the water bottle I was drinking from was a source of chemical leach, and I pointed out that he was a dick. We’ve been friends ever since.
I decide to push my advantage. “What about the old cases I sent around? Do we think there’s anything there?”
“ You mean the Mitchell case? ” Flora speaks up. Brightly, of course.
“The Mitchells, Dales, Baums, and Allens were the primary plaintiffs,” Portland jumps in. He doesn’t miss the chance to get some Brownie points. I like him. “Apparently their daughters— teenagers, four of them—got really sick. Tremors. Vision disturbances. Episodes of fainting. They led a civil suit when it began to spread—”
“Right. Then dropped it.” Joe tosses the stack of notes back on his desk. “It was a hoax. Just young girls trying to get rich in a corporate payout.” Then, without warning, he rounds on me. “Wasn’t it, Abby?”
Fucking Joe. He’s always litigating.
“That’s what they said.” I think of Kaycee trying and failing to pick up her pencil in art class. I think of her friends, twitching through the halls like insects. “There was a lot of attention on them. One of the girls skipped town afterward. The others withdrew their complaints. I’m originally from Barrens,” I explain into a room of blank stares, taking on the originally as if afterward I hopped around to, who knows, Paris and Rio and Santa Monica. “I was in school with the girls who got sick.”
“But there was an audit.” This is from Raj, our first-year associate. I suspect, from the distant courtesy with which he and Joe treat each other, that maybe they are screwing after hours. “Someone from the EPA came down and spent a month doing tests. Optimal passed. They’ve passed every review since then, too.”
“Still, it’s a pretty big coincidence, don’t you think?” I say, casually, as if the idea never occurred to me before.
“But it wasn’t a coincidence,” chimes perky Flora again. “Before Optimal moved to Barrens they were headquartered in Tennessee for a decade. At the time, they were called Associated Polymer. I guess that’s still the parent company. In the early 2000s a group of plaintiffs brought a case accusing Associated Polymer of illegal dumping. They paid out rather than fight the case, though they always denied wrongdoing.” This girl is really working for her A. You gotta love overachievers.
“If they didn’t do anything wrong, why would they settle?” Portland asks.
“Optimal’s come close to skirting the line a few different times over the past decade,” Joe says, rifling through a stack of papers as if checking his notes. It’s all for show. He has a photographic memory, or close to it. “Labor violations, tax audits, even a discrimination case. But nothing sticks. No one wants to press them too hard, not when they’re bringing in so much cash.”
“That’s small-town politics for you,” I say.
Flora picks up where she left off. “Well, that’s how the girls got the idea to shake them down in the first place. One of the girls— Misha Dole—said so.”
“Misha Dale,” I correct her.
“That wouldn’t help us now unless we can prove continuity,” Joe puts in. “If we want to do a deep dive on Optimal, we’ll need to convince someone there’s a reason we’re even looking. That means sworn testimonies and affidavits from people who are experiencing symptoms now. It also means ruling out other causes. I do not want to put my ass on the line only to find out we got some bedbugs and a crazy old man with a vendetta.”
“You have to understand.” My voice echoes to the old rafters, and something startles. A bird. I can’t see what kind, though. “We’re not the heroes here. We’re the enemy.”
“Oh, good.” Joe smirks. “The villains always get better outfits. Let’s get to work.” When he claps, the bird alights and swoops down over our heads, beating its way out the open door. Flora screeches.
“It’s just a crow,” I say. And then, because I can’t help it, “Crows have amazing memories. They can distinguish between human faces, too. They’re like elephants. They never forget.”
“No wonder they always look so angry,” Joe adds, and when I look up at him he’s lifting an eyebrow at Raj. Yeah, they’re fucking.
I claim the empty desk and busy myself sorting through the notes that Gallagher left us: detailed notations, almost hieroglyphic, of changes to the soil pH, unfamiliar bacterial blight, unexplained crop failure.
One thing leaps out at me right away: Gallagher provided a statement from a woman named Dawes who claims that her kid has been getting rashes. But if they’ve been using a private well, as most families do in Barrens, it’s bad news for us. If the contamination is in the groundwater it will be much harder to tie to a single source. And there’s always the possibility the whole case is uff to begin with, that some locals might be sniffing around for a payout like Kaycee and her friends tried to ten years ago.
For the rest of the team, this is just another case. For me, it’s a chance to finally take on the demons. To root out the ugly secrets. I wish I could say I was here to get justice for the voiceless, for those who have no power, just like I once had no power. I wish I could even say I want the bad guys to suffer.
But I just want to know—for sure, for good, forever. For a decade the same questions have been knocking around, over and over, in my head. Only the truth can shut them up.
At six o’clock I call it: type on the page has begun to collapse before my eyes. Joe packs up when I do, and watching him shove papers into a leather carryall, I wonder what he thinks of this place. I’ve tried to explain to him where I’m from before, in minor detail and broad generalities. Rural, sticks, wide-open spaces, twenty minutes to get a loaf of bread . . . I wonder if he sees me differently now amid the faint smell of manure and hay and the acres and acres of unpopulated land.
Gallagher’s dogs are working overtime, and start up again as soon as Joe and I step outside to lock the place up. Several hundred yards away, the furnace behind the farmhouse feeds the smell of charcoal into the evening air. Gallagher must be home.
“I could use a drink. Any bad sing-along karaoke around here?” Joe gives me a nudge, and I know he’s trying to make up for forcing my little confession that I’m from here earlier. That’s one of the things you have to love about Joe—off the clock, he always feels guilty for being great at his job. “ You can give me the tour of the ol’ stomping grounds.”
“I’m too wiped,” I say, which is half true, and I’ve gotta see my dad, which I don’t even want to get into with Joe. “Besides, don’t you have to drive back to Indianapolis?”
“You’re. No. Fun.” Even his voice changes once he leaves the office, and he told me, when I once pointed that out, that mine does, too.
“Trust me, Carrigan’s isn’t really your scene.”
Joe gives me a wave and gets into his car. I turn away from the dust kicked up by his rental.
I have a headache from puzzling over records old and new. Patterns are like truth. They’ll set you free, but first they’ll give you a bitch of a migraine.
The sky is in that in-between phase, day and night throwing up a confused riot of blues and pinks and oranges to a soundtrack of crickets. At this hour, Barrens looks beautiful: the fields are wrapped in haze. That’s how beauty works in Barrens, by sidling up to you when you least expect it.
Muscle memory takes me straight out to the Barrens Dam. I spent a lot of time here when I was growing up, especially in summer, when the water was low and the current would wrap around my ankles. It was always freezing, but that never seemed to matter. If the weather was nice, it could be pretty lively. Kids catching cray sh, swinging on ropes, floating on tire tubes, fishermen in thighwaders trying their luck with the newly stocked trout.
Today there’s not a soul in sight. The water is high and rough and would surely knock me over. I close my eyes and imagine wading in anyway. I imagine the shock of the cold, the sudden weight of all that water. The pressure of the current like a long line of clutching hands trying to pull me under. I stumble backward, hardly managing to keep my balance.
Then: a distant sound of laugher makes me turn. Two girls, one dark-haired, one corn-silk blond, dart hand in hand into the trees, scattering dust and pebbles with every footstep.
Time wrenches away from the present, and instead it’s me and Kaycee I see, scabby kneed and wild.
The dark-haired girl drops a sandal and twists around to retrieve it, breaking from her friend. When she spots me, suspicion tightens her face. She looks as if she might say something, but her friend grabs her again by the hand and off they go. I exhale before realizing I’d been holding my breath.
I used to see her everywhere. I grabbed a girl on the L only last year, shouldered my way through a holiday-packed train car and barely managed to hook a hand around her purse strap before she plunged onto the platform.
“Kaycee,” I panted out, until she turned and I realized she was far too young—she was the age Kaycee was when she ran, not how old she would have been now.
One time, late senior year, I found her on her knees in the bathroom, the toilet flecked with blood. She kept saying the same thing, over and over, as I stood there wanting to feel vindicated but feeling nothing but panic and a hard dread: if this thing had come for Kaycee, none of us were safe.
She reached out a hand, but not as if she wanted me to take it. As if she was fumbling blind in the dark for something to hang on to. What’s happening to me? A convulsion worked through her and she turned to the toilet to retch.
I remember thinking the blood was far too red.
I remember, later, thinking, How would you fake that?
I know where I’m supposed to be going, but I stall a little longer and end up in the drive-in parking lot of Sunny Jay’s: the seedy general store slash liquor shop where all the high school kids used to buy without ID. Myself included. Across the street, what used to be a patch of scrubby land used informally as a secondary dump has been cleared out, irrigated, and converted into a public playground: a few screaming kids coast down a bright red plastic slide and pump their legs on a spanking-new swing set while their parents wilt in the shade. A big sign on the chain-link fence reads Optimal Cares! Not exactly subtle.
I shift my car into park and practically jog to the door. Inside, I head straight for the meager wine section, scanning the crappy pink zinfandel box wines and the Yellow Tail and the jugs of Carlo Rossi. I’m about to pull a decent-looking albeit dusty Malbec from the shelf—hard to go wrong there—when someone speaks up behind me.
“No, thanks—” I turn and the bottle slips. I barely manage to catch it.
There are a lot of things I’ve never forgotten about Barrens—a lot of things I can’t forget. The smell of chicken farms in summertime. The feeling of being stuck in the wrong place, or in the wrong body, or both. The pitch-black night, the silence.
But I have forgotten this: you can’t go anywhere in this town without running into someone. It’s one of the first things you shed in a city, the feeling of being watched, observed, and noticed; the feeling of racketing like a pinball between familiar people and places, and no way to get out. First Misha, and now . . .
“You need anything, you let me know.” Dave Condor—who always went by his last name—goes back to counting money into a register. His hair half obscures his face. Something about him always set me on edge, even in high school. Maybe because he was always quiet, fluid, like he’d just yawned into being.
I slide the bottle back onto the shelf and take a couple of steps toward the door, already regretting the detour. My dad would probably say this was punishment for wanting a drink in the first place.
Before I can make it outside, he looks up. “Wine’s pretty old. Not in a good way. More of beer and liquor people around here,” he tells me. “Not from here?”
He doesn’t recognize me. It feels like an achievement. I smile. “Why do you say that?” I ask, genuinely curious. Maybe the smalltown stain can be scrubbed away after all.
But he just shrugs and grins. “I know all the girls in Barrens. The pretty ones especially.”
“I’m sure you do,” I say, and he squints at me, as if he’s seeing me through a filter of smoke.
I remember all the stories about Condor in high school. He got in trouble for dealing weed—I remember that—and he dropped out a few months shy of graduation, when I was still a junior. I remember Annie Baum getting in Condor’s face the same year he got his girlfriend, Stephanie, pregnant. So Condor, she said, I hear you like putana? Because Stephanie’s dad came from Ecuador. And Condor had stood up without saying a word, grabbed his bag, and walked out.
Putana was probably the only Spanish word Annie Baum ever learned.
But there was something else—something involving the Game. I never heard exactly. Condor was a slippery kind of person, always sliding through cracks just before you could pin him into place. He wasn’t popular, but he wasn’t unpopular, either. He lived outside the system. Even the stories about him got refracted and rounded off, bounced back to us before they’d had a chance to solidify. Brent O’Connell and his friends supposedly went to Condor’s house and beat the shit out of him. Was it something he did to Kaycee? Or tried to do? It was after Becky Sarinelli died, I know that. And I remember, too, that Condor and Becky Sarinelli were friends.
That’s the thing I remember most of all: that Condor was always in trouble. Or he was always finding trouble.
He stands up. “Want something drinkable?”
He moves out from behind the counter and crosses the room in a few steps. He still has that weird graceful quality, even though he’s built like a farmer, all shoulders and forearms and blunt hands.
“This one’s decent.” When he reaches for a bottle on the top shelf, his T-shirt rides up, and I see a tattoo wrapped around his torso: a pair of wings. “You like Bordeaux?”
“I like wine,” I say. “I’ll take it.” I follow him up to the register. I have no cash on me, so I hand him my card. When I see him puzzling over the name, I blurt out, “We actually know each other. I’m Abby Williams. I was a year behind you and we were in the same Spanish class.”
Unexpectedly, Condor laughs. “I do remember you now,” he says. “So you are from around here.”
“Well, I’m surprised you remember me. I was never in class those days. Skipped out to smoke up in the woods behind the football field, most of the time. Hence, my kingdom.” He opens his arms to indicate the store, the narrow racks filled with cheap liquor, a whole aisle dedicated to the smallest bottles for the alcoholics who can afford only a little at a time. He doesn’t sound bitter, though. “So what are you doing back in this charming little town?”
“I’m working on a case, I’m a lawyer now. Environmental law.”
“Big time, huh? Good for you.” I can’t tell if he means it or not.
“Pretty junior, actually,” I say, not to downplay it, just to clarify.
“Still, you got out. That’s something. That’s a lot.” This time, I know he means it. “Here.” He hands me the bottle without ringing me up. “On me. A welcome-home present.”
“You don’t have to.” I reach for the bag, and as my hand makes contact with his, something passes between us, a quick transfer of chemistry and heat.
That’s the whole problem with instincts: they’re all fucking wrong.
“I want to.”
“Thank you. That’s very . . . nice of you,” I say, taking the bag and walking away, fast.
“And hey, Abby,” he calls, when I’m already almost out the door. “Don’t be a stranger. I never forget a pretty face twice.” Condor’s smile is wide, and maybe, just maybe, genuine.
And I know right then that I’m in trouble.
Less than a mile from my father’s house, the road narrows and becomes a gravel path, so familiar it shrinks a decade into no time at all. Tiny rocks ping against the car while birds—turkey vultures, this time—pick over a carcass in the road. I lean on the horn and they look up with those dull hooded eyes before lifting into the air.
It’s just dinner, I remind myself. Simple. Quick. My father has no power over me. He is just a person, even if he’s a terrible one. There are bad people in the world; sometimes, they are your own parents. But he can’t see into my thoughts. He can’t read my sins, like I once thought he could.
I can’t avoid him, anyway.
Like so many around here, my childhood home is a modest split-level dumped on a plot of land in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing strange about it, no darkness to its gabled roof or clapboard siding, nothing peculiar in the concrete porch or the patch of yard browning in the sun.
Still, the house seems to rush toward me and not the other way around. Like it’s eager to get me inside. Like it’s been waiting.
For the first time in nearly a decade, I’m home.
I kill the engine and fuss with my hair, which is knotted on the top of my head, killing time, buying an extra few seconds. I almost never wear my hair down, and by now it reaches midway down my back. Every few months I take scissors to it myself, trimming away the dead ends. I’ve always wanted to cut it short, always sworn I was going to. Several times I’ve even been in a hairdresser’s chair before panicking at the sight of the scissors. My dad always told me that my hair is my one good quality, and somehow that idea grew into the very hair itself—that, and the memory of my mom running her fingers through it from scalp to end as she braided it so that it would later fall in waves. Somehow I fear that without long hair I’ll be ugly. But even worse, that by cutting my hair I’ll be cutting away this memory, one of my few very good ones. I’ll have to lose her again. But this time, it really will be my fault.
I climb out of the car and stand for a second, staring out at the line of trees in the forest: acres running down to the reservoir, public land, and my private oasis when I was little. I try and remember the last time I saw my father but I get a composite of images: his hand around my throat, the time he rooted out a thong in my underwear drawer and made me wear it around my neck at dinner for a week. The moments of kindness, strange and startling and almost more painful than the abuse: flowers gathered for me in a cup by the bed, a birthday surprise trip to a carnival in Indianapolis, the time he helped me bury Chestnut after I found him stiff and cold in the woods behind the house, his gums crusted over with vomit.
When I left town, four days after my eighteenth birthday, and two days after graduation, I drove west to Chicago with my heart in my throat and two suitcases in the trunk, certain for every second past the city that God would strike me dead. You’re only safe in Barrens. For more than half my life I thought I would be sent to hell if I jumped ship. Like leaving was the end-all sin. But then I realized hell was right here in Barrens, and that made leaving worth the risk.
Gravel crunches under my boots as I make my way up the path. There’s the bird feeder I made when I was eight. There’s a dirt patch where the grass never recovered from the kiddie swimming pool that sat there through many seasons. There’s my mother’s old wind chime clinking softly from the porch—I feel a pang at this—that she made herself out of tin and painted wood. A splintered cross is still tacked to the front door.
The air smells like charred logs, like summer. But behind the familiar smells of grass and dirt and char that I’ve always loved is another odor, thick and pungent. I know that smell. Reeds. Rot.
The smell of drought. The reservoir is less than a half mile from here, concealed from view just beyond the trees.
Inside, I find my father in the squat little living room, washed in bluish TV light that reminds me of being underwater.
My father looks small. Small, and old. The shock of seeing him nearly causes me to stumble. He was always a big guy, not tall but the kind of person who swallowed a room just by walking into it, and muscled from years of working outside: roofing, carpentry, excavating, work on the local farms. The few times a year we speak on the phone, that’s who I imagine on the other end of the line.
Now his muscles seem to have melted into folds of skin, which is gray and thin and draped like a sheet over his bones. He looks like a powdered corpse, and when he turns toward me, it takes his eyes a second to focus.
For a moment, I’m terrified: he doesn’t recognize me, either.
Then he begins to hoist himself up, gripping the arms of his easy chair.
“It’s okay, Dad. Sit.” I lean down and let him hug me. I can’t remember the last time we hugged.
“Sweetheart.” He pats my shoulder and brushes his dry lips against my cheek. His voice is faint, and his greeting—sweetheart—is one he hasn’t used since I was a small child. “I hoped you were still coming.”
“Of course, Dad. I told you I was,” I say.
“It’s been so long . . .” He closes his eyes, leaning back in his chair, as if even the small physical effort has exhausted him.
I resist the urge to apologize. He knows why I haven’t come sooner. Everyone knows—about his temper, about his fits, about his dark moods. For weeks after my mother died, everything I did made him erupt in a fury. And then, just as quickly, he would withdraw into silence, would pretend I didn’t exist at all. But everything he did was okay, because he’d “found the Lord.” In town, he wore his religion like armor, and somehow that kept him untouchable. At home, he wielded it like a weapon.
Everyone knew, and at the same time, no one saw; no one said a thing. In the city, everyone is anonymous; but in a small town where everyone knows everyone, it takes real skill to look the other way when you’re looking at a face you recognize.
Nothing has changed in here, aside from the addition of a single photo—one I sent from college graduation—tacked above the mantel. My mother’s china on display in the hutch. The painting of Jesus on the cross in the corner of the dining room. An old box TV with a VCR— God, a VCR —just opposite my dad’s easy chair. A fine layer of dust on everything. And my dad’s slippers—the same slippers he had ten years ago—nearly worn through. It’s as if time stopped when I left.
I didn’t know what to expect coming here. My aunt Jen— Dad’s sister, older by four years—sent me a note last Christmas after she’d passed through. She was the one who told me about Dad’s decline. Alzheimer’s, she thought, though of course my dad refused to go to the doctor.
It’ s just little things, she’ d said. W here his keys are. Mood swings. He falls down a lot. He still knows who we are, though.
“How was the drive?” His voice sounds old, worn to thinness, and makes an unexpected swell of pity rise inside of me.
“Fine. Traffic stopped up on 83, but only for a half hour or so.” Ten years and we’re talking about traffic. There’s a long, awkward silence and I fumble for something to say. What did we ever talk about? Did we talk?
Instinctually, I count the steps to the front door in my head: twenty-three. Thirteen to the door that leads through the kitchen to the backyard. Seventeen to the stairs, in case I need to flee to my room.
My old room. This isn’t my house anymore. This isn’t my life. “I’ve made dinner,” he says, almost proudly. This time he succeeds in pulling himself out of the chair and, leaning heavily on one hand, fumbles for his cane. “I need this thing now.”
I don’t really know what I’m supposed to say, so I just give him a tight-lipped half smile and follow him into the kitchen. He’s slow, hunched over his cane, and seeing him like this is beyond confusing. That feeling again—sadness, pity, yearning to make it better— ares up in me, unbidden. I’ve prepared, but not for this. Suddenly I feel a new kind of fear—that I will have to learn all over again how to survive in the presence of this man, how to find myself. That he will make me love him again, and then disappoint me, and I will have to learn all over again how to unlove him.
My dad has made lasagna—“from scratch,” he says, “not the frozen ones”—and I feel another pang when I imagine him stumping around the kitchen on his cane, cutting onions one-handed, layering the sauce and cheese. It’s vegetarian, too. Although the signs of his illness are there—he forgets the word for potholders, and mentions my mother once in the present tense—he hasn’t forgotten that I don’t eat meat.
I suddenly wonder if he remembers the night we sat at the table and I asked if he knew what happened to Little Bubsy, the pet rabbit I kept as a kid. I was probably five. My mother stared down at her plate, her eyes milky from drugs and illness.
“You just ate him,” my dad said. I haven’t been able to stomach meat since.
I wash my hands in water so hot it sends billows of steam toward the ceiling.
We have our lasagna mostly in silence. It’s only after dinner, when I’m washing the dishes by hand, that I realize we didn’t say grace over our meal.
Did he forget?
Sweat gathers under my armpits.
He falls asleep in front of the T V while I clean. I grab a quilt—a quilt my mother made—and cover him in the chair. He rouses slightly and grabs my arm so hard I nearly gasp, unreasonably— afraid.
“I’m happy to have you back,” he says. “I’m happy you’re here.”
Suddenly I want to cry. This is the worst trick of all.
“Only for a visit, Dad.” I fight to keep my voice from breaking. After so many years. How dare he? Anger was the only thing I had, the only thing I’ve ever been able to depend on.
How dare he take that from me, too?