Chapter 1

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“And while I’m away,

Dust out the demons inside,

And it won’t be long before you and me run

To the place in our hearts where we hide.”

–Sir Elton John

 

 

 

Dan had always been a fan of zombies. Zombies, Elton John, and strippers, he thought bitterly, these are a few of my favorite things. He liked the classic, slow, lurching, brain-lusting type—never the flashy, running, tongue-in-cheek CGI-styled of the current generation. Crackheads reminded him of the slow zombies, soulless but strong, coming out at night in ill-formed packs, the doors of their dealers opening like gravestones. Heavy-hanging limbs drift from yard to yard of the trailer park, together but not aware of the others. Not interacting. Sedated. Quenched. But as the night wears on, the money runs out, the desperation—the hunger—emerges, and they swarm the bright lights of the gas station like moths. Dan employed the same strategy that he learned from the zombie movies: hide. Sit low behind the register. Stay still and quiet. Don’t catch their attention. Some try to shoplift what they can for a high—booze, Scope, cough medicine, Lysol. Mostly, Dan would let them. Put a few bucks in the till and the end of the shift. Not worth having words, or worse.

But tonight, this one was pointing a gun at his chest.

*

Dan had started his shift that day the way he did every shift for the last ten years—perched on a lopsided swivel-stool, counting out the register. Close enough, eh? A tiny black and white TV sat on top of a plastic milk crate playing Hazel inaudibly. Dan wasn’t sure if the TV had started black and white, or if it had gradually just faded to that over the years. It did have a dial for changing the channels. Sometimes he sat for hours and tried to picture if his thirty-something self watched it in color. He could never really remember. It had been a lot of years since then.

“Pee-yew! Why you smell like douche, Dan?” Mister Bub barged through the door.  “You got to leave them strippers alone. All the vinegar in the world can’t clean them pussies!”

“C’mon, I don’t smell like a stripper—yet. Where’d I put the strawberry urinal cakes? I’ll rub down with one of them,” Dan pulled out a pink disk from behind the counter and huffed it. “Mmm, vinegar and fake berry perfume. I’m getting a hard-on right now.”

“Gross, Dan!” Miss Evie called out from the rear of the store in an I-can-hear-you-back-here kind of way. Miss Evie had been best friends with Dan’s mother for years. Don’t forget I’m listening, her chiding tone seemed to say. “Actually, Dan dropped one of the pickled pigs’ feet when he was filling the jar. Again. Got the pickling all over.”

“And I ain’t cleaning it up,” Miss Evie said under her breath as she dusted the deer head hanging over the cooler of malt liquor. It was the October, but the antlers were still entwined with lights from Christmases past.

At the counter Mister Bub sipped his cup of coffee—too strong, a little tepid—while Dan rang up the few morning customers that trickled in: Miss Diet Coke and Tampax, Mr. Truck-Driver Toenail Clippers and a Red Bull, Mr. Back-to-Office Gas and a Slushie. When the store emptied again, Mister Bub moved to open his pack of generic “General Price Select” cigarettes, but Dan stopped him. Instead, Dan had a pack of name brand smokes at the ready. Mister Bub looked ready to protest—he didn’t want no charity—but his dismissals were half-hearted.

“Man, if you don’t mind my saying, you look rough,” Dan said, as his friend lit up a Camel.

“I am rough,” Mister Bub said, taking a sip of coffee. Mister Bub had been what Dan called one of his “coffee regulars” long as they could remember. The two men were friendly—close as anyone who knew Dan at work, anyways. Except Dan wasn’t sure what Bub’s real name was, and it was way past the time where it would have been okay to ask. Dan had, however, learned the origins of his friend’s nickname. At Bub’s job, folks didn’t know his name, so instead they got in the habit of saying, “Hey, Bub.” His response was always, “That’s Mister Bub to you.” Maybe, Dan thought with an inner chuckle, he didn’t even have a given name.

“Why do women always want to control every last little goddamn piece of our lives?” Mister Bub said.

Here we go again, Dan thought. He was the defacto bartender of the morning, the caffeine therapist. Tell me all your troubles. “Well, if that ain’t the question of the day,” Dan played along, wiping up the remaining pool of pickling that had gathered on the counter. He had to use nearly half the roll of the stiff, under-absorbent paper to sop it up; this sure ain’t Bounty.

“Every ounce of independence, every shred of happiness, they have to capture it, clean it up, embroider it with some fucking inspirational quote by Jesus or Oprah or Winnie the fucking Pooh,” Mister Bub grumbled. He still smelled of last night’s booze.

“I like her embroidery,” Miss Evie called out loudly from the back to no one in particular.

“She ain’t talking to me. None of ‘ems talking to me. Not even my boy,” Mister Bub’s voice trailed off.

“She’ll get over it. They always do, right?” Dan asked.

“Yeah, they do,” Mister Bub said. “Jest to go through it again tomorrow. I don’t know if I can do it anymore.”

“Being pussy whipped done got to ya,” Dan snickered. “Well about time.”

“Well, you’re one to talk,” Bub shot back.

“Ain’t me that pussy whupped,” Dan said, defensive.

“Yeah? Who cooked dinner last night?” Mister Bub asked.

Dan didn’t respond.

“Who woke up and made Sarah’s lunch today?” Mister Bub asked.

“So what if I like to cook?” Dan said, fishing around in his don’t-have-a-cigarette emergency candy drawer for a pack of Sixlets. He broke the seal and rolled a few in his mouth single file. Mister Bub gave him the look: you-know-you-don’t-like-to-cook.

And, in fact, Dan didn’t.

Long days and sleepless nights had piled up on him like the sink of dirty dishes that would be waiting when he got home, and though he wasn’t a talker, this once, Dan unloaded.

“I love those kids,” Dan said.

“I know you do, man,” Mister Bub said.

“I just thought it was time for me to grow the fuck up, you know?  I was tired of being ‘that guy,’ thirty-something in my mom’s basement. When Kathy got knocked up, I thought, This is it. This is what I’m supposed to do,” Dan said.

Dan picked up a framed picture off the top of the TV; two girls in their Easter best were looking for eggs in the back yard between two dead Chevys on cinderblocks. “Sarah and Jennie, they’ve made my life worth living. But sometimes when I lay down next to her in bed I wonder, Man, what were you thinking?

“You thinking about leaving?” Bub asked.

“And what if I did? I don’t make enough here to pay her some damn alimony.  Besides which, she needs me. The kids need me. They all need me. To make them lunch, and tell them not to leave their shoes in the middle of the floor, to wipe their asses, and teach them how to cut an onion. To make sure they didn’t leave the coffee pot on. Or bring home twenty stray dogs. Or have to sleep on the porch because they locked themselves out. They just need me, man. Maybe it’s no good for me… but it’s good for them.

Mister Bub nodded. The ash was gathering length at the end of his cigarette, but he didn’t remove it from his lips. “Sounds like you thought about it a lot. Leaving, I mean.”

“Yeah. Reckon I have. I don’t know if I love Kathy. I’m not sure that I ever did. But she’s manipulative. Conniving. Vengeful. She’s already got a lawyer in her pocket. She’ll use the kids against me. Deep down, no question, I know that.”

A man in dreads came in to pay for his quarter tank. “$7.75,” Dan said, took his twenty and gave him change. Miss Evie knocked something off of a shelf somewhere, and Dan remembered listening ears. “You know I’m just blowing off steam?”

Mister Bub gave a half-hearted chuckle, “We got to, right? Want to hit the strip club tonight? Go to ‘Fine Crystals’?”

“Naw. I’m closing tonight. Maybe Thursday?” Dan said.

“Maybe Thursday,” Bub echoed.

The two men sat drinking the last of the day’s coffee, talking shit about the handful of customers stopping for gas, half-assing a crossword leftover from the morning shift. Miss Evie left before three, hurrying off to watch her “stories,” Guiding Light and The Young & The Restless. Mister Bub didn’t stay much longer, leaving Dan to deal with highway rush hour traffic by himself, and he preferred it that way.

The Kountry Korner was a one-stop-shop of sorts in Tippashaw County. By day, a gas station off of the main two-lane. By evening, a laundry and tanning salon. By late night, the place for chicken on a stick, pizza rolls, Ms. Pac-Man. After the five o’clock rush faded, Dan broke open a few rolls of quarters on the side of the register drawer and prepared to make change. Aging dryers steamed up the glass walls between the store and the launderette as dusk settled in. Dan waited until the old lady doing whites had her back turned, and then he drew a big mouth and wagging tongue, Rolling Stones-style, in the fogged window above her head.

By ten, Dan was thinking seriously about closing early and just facing the consequences with his boss. Someone had taken a dump in one of the tanning beds, and Dan had hurled while trying to clean it up, so then he had to clean that up, too. This is not my night.

It wasn’t like the person had been sick, lost their bowels, and tried to cover it up. For that, Dan would have been pissed, but he could have at least felt some sympathy. And it wasn’t like there wasn’t a vacant, relatively clean restroom less than three feet from the bed. No, someone had made the choice to leave a neat pile of feces spiraled on the bulb cover like soft-serve. People are foul.

As he tied up the double-bagged biohazards, he heard the cowbell over the door chime. Bag in hand, he opened the tanning room door to find a man waiting for him. He looked like your typical trucker: white guy in a plaid, flannel shirt, cutoff sleeves and a hat that said “I LOVE TO FART” next to a curly-cued line drawing of wind. But his face was blanked by the pair of nude pantyhose covering his head, and his pocket showed the outline of a gun. No, Dan thought, this is not my night.

“Give me the money! Drop the bag! Get over here and git me the money!” The man seemed rattled. He was clearly strung out, shaking. Probably hadn’t expected him to be in the back room. Dan ran through scenarios in his head to use this element of surprise to his advantage, but the crackhead was blocking the only exit, and Dan wasn’t sure that he could knock the man out without getting shot.

He pulled the gun from his pocket. “Fuckin’ empty the fuckin’ register man! I ain’t playing with you!”

When Dan dropped the bag a wad of paper towels and turd rolled out. “Oh, you ain’t want to drop your shit bag, did you!” The crackhead let out a strange squeal of glee.  “I like that name! Shit Bag! This way, Shit Bag! Git over here!”

Dan walked calmly, holding his hands out to the side so they would be visible to the man. “No need for the gun, man,” he said quietly.

“Oh, yes siree, there shore is a need for the gun, Shit Bag!” The crackhead smacked his lips. “There shore is!”

Dan tried to open the register, but he couldn’t seem to get it open. Of all times for it to lock up. He sat down, took a breath, and tried the key again; the drawer finally popped free. He pulled out the cash in fistfuls—maybe it was a few hundred in there at best?—and shoved it at the man. The crackhead stuffed the bills into his pants pockets.

“That all, Shit Bag?”

Dan pointed to the empty drawer, and the man nodded. Dan moved his hand to the gun he had hidden beneath the counter, but hesitated. It was only filled with bbs. Wouldn’t it just provoke the man? Dan had been held up before; these guys don’t want cops on them for murder. Surely he will just take the cash and go?

But he did not. “Nighty-night, Shit Bag!” The crackhead, looking pleased, aimed and fired, hitting Dan in the center of the chest. Dan’s balance—already tenuous on the unsteady stool—was lost, and he fell to the floor. With the single shot, the crackhead turned and ran, a twenty from his fist landing on the welcome mat as he skipped through the door.

Later, friends and family would stand over Dan’s casket and console themselves: At least it was fast, they would say. At least he didn’t suffer.  But as Dan lay on the floor, suffocating in his blood and regret, his eyes fell to the photo of his two daughters. The realization ran cold through his veins; he wouldn’t teach them, hold them, protect them. Now that was left to others. It was brief. But he suffered.

Then the light went out behind Dan’s eyes, and the store remained in an eerie quiet broken only by the muffled laugh track of the black and white TV.

Chapter 2

That night Jennie had finally gotten some quiet.

Her sister Sarah was spending the night at a friend’s house, so she wasn’t following her around for once, and her mom was engrossed in the new computer she had just bought at Wal-Mart. They didn’t have a desk, so Kathy set the computer up on the card table they used for eating (when they weren’t eating in front of the TV, which was most times). So Jennie sat in her room reading a magazine, doing nothing, hoping her mom didn’t realize how late it was, appreciating the quiet.

Then the phone rang.

For the rest of her life Jennie would be afraid of the quiet. As if, somehow, The Bad News was because of the quiet. As if The Bad News wouldn’t have happened if she had been paying more attention. Thinking. Worrying.

As her mother talked to her through sobs, Jennie just nodded—numb, dry-eyed, silently cursing herself. She reached a hand out to touch the bib of Dan’s empty overalls hanging over the back of a folding chair, her eight-year-old subconscious swearing to never make the same mistake again.

She stayed up that night listening to her mom’s muffled words behind the core doors, trying to understand. Robbery. Gun shot. Hadn’t caught the killer. She unlocked her windows just to lock them again, and then repeated the process just to make sure they were tight. Sarah was now back and sleeping in her bed in the room the two shared; she was sleepy, so they hadn’t told her anything. Jennie looked at her resting peacefully and was envious, but still was careful not to wake her.

Eventually her mom had gone to bed. She had left the TV in the den on late-night infomercials, and every whirl of the industrial ice-crushing blender or chop of a can-splitting knife sent Jennie diving under her bed.

She still hadn’t slept when morning came. She got ready for school, partly because no one told her not to (and she didn’t want to get in trouble) but partly because she hoped normal would make it all go away. Sarah was tired and threw a fit to wear her purple pants with a pink iCarly shirt. They didn’t go—Jennie knew she’d probably get her butt whipped over it later—but she didn’t feel like arguing so she let her wear them. A substitution of Fruity Pebbles for her usual Cheerios kept Sarah quiet while Jennie packed their lunches: peanut butter and jelly with some stale Cheddar Pufz in a plastic grocery bag. They donned their backpacks, throwing a favorite stuffed animal in Sarah’s for her kindergarten’s weekly “show-and-tell,” and headed for the bus stop. Their dad had won the stuffed animal in the crane machine at work; it was wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt that said “I Y YOU.” When he brought it home he and the girls argued whether it was a dog or a bear; Jennie couldn’t remember which he thought it was, but he had felt strongly about it. It was near impossible to win that crane game (her dad thought the store owners had rigged it), and Jennie thought he’d either spent a hundred dollars on winning it or jimmied it out with a bent coat hanger.

Jennie was thankful to see the bus was already at the stop, so as they ran, backpacks slapping, Sarah would not see her tears.

The day passed in a blur of multiplication tables. She flunked a quiz about Benjamin Franklin because she hadn’t read the material, but she didn’t feel bad. It felt right. She enjoyed the rules of class, the order of bodies in a single file line, hands raising, hall passes. Here’s what you can expect; here’s what you get. If you don’t read your assignment, you get a bad grade. Cause and effect. She took some comfort in that.

Still, Jennie was distracted, worrying about how her sister would handle the news, worrying about what her mom was doing right now, worrying about what would greet her at home. During recess she avoided the other kids except to pick up after them, humming an undefined tune while throwing away a juice box she found lying on a bench. She looks like a little grandmother, her teacher thought, cleaning up after a whirlwind of neighborhood kids. And when the recess bell rang, she was the first in line.

But when Jennie got on the number six bus at the end of the day she felt her heart fall into her shoes. Sarah was already on the bus; the elementary school was loaded before the middle school. Sarah’s eyes were red and puffy, and she was clutching the stuffed animal by the scruff of the neck holding it out accusatorily.

“What happened to Dad?” Sarah said. “Jennie? What happened to Dad? Did something happen to Dad?”

Jennie ran to her sister and held her while she cried.

“What did you hear?” Jennie asked.

“I showed my stuffed animal at show-and-tell, and Mark asked me…” Sarah broke down again before she could finish, “if I brought it because my Dad died.” Sarah looked at her sister pleadingly: Say it’s not true. Please. “’Cause he said his dad said that he did. Died. Said he got shot. With a gun.”

Jennie fumbled with her words, and she could see that Sarah could see in her eyes that it was true.

“You didn’t tell me!” Sarah pushed the stuffed animal into her backpack hard, face first, like she was smothering it there. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said through clenched teeth.

“I’m sorry, Sarah. So sorry. Mom didn’t want to bother you last night.”

“Mom,” Sarah snarled. She began to snort—the sound of an aggravated sinus or wild pig—and was clenching the toy so hard her fingers had gone white. She was bearing her teeth, growling, grunting, guttural.  The innocent five year old who had been there was replaced by something rabid, possessed.

The bus fell silent as the other kids stopped to listen. A boy in the seat across from them had removed a contraband cell phone from his backpack and was trying to disguise his recording. It wasn’t the first time Jennie had seen her sister like this, but she was embarrassed—for her sister, for herself—and she didn’t want others to see.

“Sarah, calm down. Everything is going to be okay,” Jennie tried to reassure, when deep down she felt no reassurance. Jennie turned her back to the other kids to shield her sister from view. Her hand patted Sarah’s forearm, moving toward the stuffed animal to gently remove it from Sarah’s grip. As her grip on the toy released, Sarah lunged at her sister, mouth open, as if to sink teeth into cheek or ear. Jennie was quick and deflected with the dog-bear, teeth meeting fur, mouth locking down, ripping. For a moment, Sarah was still. For a moment she sat, animal held tightly in her mouth, a bit of stuffing falling from the sides, her eyes wide. Suddenly Jennie could see her snap back, aware of her precious toy, destroyed.

“It’s going to be okay, Sarah,” Jennie said one more time, and Sarah nodded, mouth still full of shredded dog-bear. She lay down on the seat in the fetal position, her head in her sister’s lap, sucking on the fabric of the toy remains until they reached the girls’ stop.

“Whoa, what freaks,” Jennie heard the boy with the camera-phone say as the bus doors shut behind them.

Sarah’s snorting hadn’t stopped as the girls walked home; it had just softened, morphing into a something that could have been mistaken for sniffling. In one hand Jennie held Sarah’s, and in her other the guts of the stuffed animal as they made their way home.

Jennie hesitated on the front stoop. A part of her still hoped for comfort to be on the other side of that door, for a mother that would gather them into her arms, understand their hurt, tell them it would all be okay. Sometimes that mother was behind this door: the mother of fresh-baked cookies, Christmas card lists, Sunday School teaching. Other times it was something else. Like that show her dad used to watch, Let’s Make a Deal: “What’s behind Door Number Two?” Sometimes they open the door and it’s a Brand New Car and sometimes just a new stove but other times it’s a goat, looking all mean. Jennie imagined the poor people in weird costumes getting kicked by the mean old goat while it ate their nice furniture and pooped on their floor. That’s the chance you take. Never know what’s behind the door.

“It’s going to be okay,” Jennie said to Sarah once more before she turned the doorknob, but Sarah thought she didn’t look like she meant it.

Kathy was in front of the computer when the door opened. The girls couldn’t see her from the entryway, but they could hear the clacking of her too-long fake nails on the keys. Then the clacking stopped.

“Jennifer Lynn, Sarah Beth! Get your butts in here!”

The girls scurried into the den. Kathy’s face fell when she saw her youngest: red-eyed, mouth matted with wet brown fur. Sarah started snorting again, this time sounding more like she was nasally hyperventilating. Kathy rushed to Sarah, cupping her face between her fingers, rocking her gently in her hands.

“What happened to her? Did you tell her?”

“I didn’t tell her; I swear! Some kid at school did,” Jennie said.

Kathy was quiet for a moment, but she looked into Jennie’s eyes with disappointment. It was a look that left an ache in her belly—the ache of her mother’s rejection. The “I-Wish-I-Never-Had-You” Look.

“What kind of big sister are you? Just look what you’ve done.”

“I’m sorry,” Jennie said, looking at her feet. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s just stupid is what it is,” Kathy continued. “Hauling off to school this morning. What possessed you to go to school today anyway? After your father died? Couldn’t wait to get away from your poor, sad mother, right?”

“No, Mom, I just didn’t want to get in trouble for NOT going,” and Jennie knew she should stop there, but she didn’t. “Besides, you didn’t tell me not to go.”

“Did I have to tell you not to go? Do I have to wipe your ass, too? Don’t you realize that they give you days off that kind of stuff? It’s a tragedy, for Christssakes. And then you drag your poor sister off to school, too, and look what a mess you made.”

“You could’ve come and got us,” Jennie mumbled.

“Like all I had to do was run after you two today. Like I didn’t have to make funeral arrangements, or try to figure out how we are going to live without your father. Jesus, Jennie, it’s like you want us living out on the street, homeless. Is that what you want?” Kathy said.

“No, m’am.” Jennie looked at her feet.

Sarah began snorting faster again, but Kathy was focused on Jennie. Pants around her ankles, Jennie’s took her licks, her behind beaten with bare hand until raw. Then Kathy opened the folding doors to the washer and dryer.

“Noooo, please no,” Jennie cried.

“Don’t back-sass me. Inside,” Kathy opened the dryer and shoved Jennie inside. It was a tight squeeze with Jenny fighting, and Kathy had to punch her in the knees to subdue her.

“Please, Mom, don’t,” Jennie tried, not today, “Think about Dad.” Once she had said the words, Jennie knew that her plea had only angered her mother more.

“Just shut up. I’m so sick of hearing your mouth,” Kathy had peeled an old black sock off her foot and wedged it in between Jennie’s lips, the odor causing the girl to start to gag as Kathy closed the dryer door. Jennie could hear the closet doors fold together. She swallowed the vomit that was pushing its way up, and it tasted sour on her tongue and burned inside her throat. She moved as best she could to get the sock out of her mouth, but even as the sock was freed it still smelled, even stronger than the smell of “rain-fresh” scent mixed with the sour of clothes left to frequently in the washer. It was the overwhelming smell of mold and rotten, like cheese snacks and trash.

“What am I going to do with you two?” Jennie could hear her mom in the other room through the dryer door, washing off her sister’s face. Her mom’s voice wobbled, like she was panicking, crying. “What’s going to happen to us now? I just don’t know what to do. Just don’t know what to do.” She continued to sob, and Jennie was overwhelmed with guilt for not taking care of all of them like her dad would have wanted.

The dryer was still warm from recent use, and Jennie’s tailbone burned, but there wasn’t room to shift to a cooler spot. There wasn’t room. No, there wasn’t room.

The heat and the dirty sock and tight space and sorrow was closing in on her—she was stuck and there was no one to save her this time, no one, not her father, not anyone anymore—her legs were falling asleep in their weird bend and her knees hurt. She tried not to think about it too much; she had been in there before (and at least it was quiet). She tried to go somewhere else in her head, but as the minutes turned to hours and her stomach growled and she couldn’t get out and WHAT IF SHE NEVER GOT OUT and MAYBE SHE WOULD DIE IN HERE and that thought shouldn’t have sounded so bad (at least she could go to her dad) but she was SCARED and she was TRAPPED and she JUST COULDN’T TAKE IT LET ME OUT OF HERE.  She could hear her mom and sister eating right outside the closet, talking, comforting each other, it smelled like pizza—was it pizza? She was so hungry. Her heart was beating so fast she thought it would come through her skin and land inside the dryer drum, and the darkness became more and more dark as Jennie passed out.

Chapter 3

Eight cakes stared at Clara Mae from her kitchen table: one peanut butter, two frosted chocolate, one coconut, a couple with pecans, a pineapple upside-down, and, of course, Angel Food. There was also a pecan pie. Everybody has too many pecans lying around this time of year. They were cakes baked with mourning; Clara Mae wished just one had been a casserole.

The pineapple upside-down cake had been Dan’s favorite. (He didn’t too much care for frosting.) When he was a kid she had to keep an eye out for him on holidays or he’d eat all the maraschino cherries from the center of the pineapple rings. Miss Debbie from the Baptist Center brought this one, but she hadn’t known the significance. Such an ugly cake, Dan had once said, so pretty turned on its head. She looked at her reflection in the mirrored folding door that divided the kitchen from the den. Clara Mae had not fared so well, she thought to herself, her life turned upside-down. Her short curly hair, styled only by hands running through with worry, stood up in a frizzy puff of dull black. Her narrow eyes—that her Mama always told her were “almond”—after days and nights of endless crying were barely there, more slits between swollen lids.

She had buried Dan earlier in the day; took the comforting, company, and cakes by afternoon; was left alone with her thoughts by evening. It was not the first child Clara Mae had buried at Cannon Creek Cemetery. A stillborn—her first—in 1954. Jimmy, sixteen—just got his driver’s license that day—in ’74. And now her Dan.

It wasn’t right for a mother to outlive her child.

And Clara had dragged him back here, too. City work ain’t reliable, Dan. What you gonna do when the paycheck doesn’t come? Got him the job at Kountry Korner. Clara Mae had worked there for years, its under-the-table pay and borderline expired food supported the family where her husband didn’t. She worked the early shift; Dan worked the evenings. He worried from the beginning about her working the store late, even thought she’d closed for years. She told him she was a big girl; she could take care of herself. But Dan had gone back to the boss, and there was no changing the schedules.

Should’ve been me.

Wish it had.

She shook her head, trying to snap herself out of it. Was Dancing with the Stars on yet? She looped two fingers under the wicker handle of her sewing kit and headed down the stairs.

“Hey, grab me another beer, would ya?” her husband Gerald called out as her foot hit the bottom floor landing. Seems like he always waits until I’m at the bottom. So she backtracked up the stairs, grabbed a Miller High Life—bottle, not a can—and went back down to Gerald’s room. Originally she had decorated it as a study, with family photos and Precious Moments figurines bookending shelves of scrapbooks, yearbooks, and Mary Higgins Clark novels. But for years it has been Gerald’s cocoon—littered with empty cans of Nehi Grape, piles of bottle caps, dirty boxers. Endless crusted plates and bowls that Clara Mae was forever picking up. An old gun rack. These days Gerald spent his waking hours in a desk chair he’d found on the side of the road; it was khaki faux-leather with edges that looked like an animal clawed it. He’d long since broken the reclining mechanism in the chair, so it couldn’t offer support; it was in a permanent state of recline.

And so, it seemed, was her husband.

He’d be parked in front of their computer posting on message boards about his father in the Korean War or crappie fishing or deer hunting—that he never does anymore—or looking at dirty pictures or playing some game about WWI where he said dumb things into a headset.

Lately his grieving had been funneled into the computer: chatting on a support site for parents of children who have died, obsessively Googling news stories about Dan’s passing, or posting to Dan’s “Memorial” Facebook Page. Clara Mae didn’t think it was right for people to see all your business, but she’d learned a long time ago to let Gerald alone. And she knew he was hurting. They all were. Clara handed him his beer.

“Aunt Etta says they were sorry they couldn’t make the funeral,” Gerald said, eyes not leaving the screen.

“Mmmhm,” Clara said. She turned quickly, leaving for the living room La-Z-Boy.

“Kathy just changed her status to ‘widowed.’ Sad,” Gerald called from the other room.

Clara Mae winced as she settled into her favorite chair. Was it unfair to think her daughter-in-law seemed a little proud of that? That she enjoyed the attention, the pity?

She removed a D hook from its sleeve. The TV glowed with an unusually slim daughter-of-somebody swinging around in a foxtrot. Her dress appeared conservative, white and floor-length, but was in fact completely backless—revealing everything just above the rump. Clara Mae’s stiff fingers crocheted with mechanical precision, pulling through tiny stitch after tiny stitch on the winter hat she was making for Jennie. The dancer twirled on the arm of her tuxedoed partner, and the audience cheered wildly. Such a nice young lady. Should cover herself up, was her last thought before drifting off into the dreamless sleep of the emotionally exhausted.

*

The next day, Clara was on her way to Brownsville. No rest for the weary. The signs passed her window in a blur as she drove down Highway 11: Jack’s, Hardee’s, a big red diner, Sonic. A handful of strip malls. A Food Lion. An illegible Chinese restaurant. A church for foreigners. Past that church there was nothing for 60 miles, until you reach the Casket Warehouse. So you had better make sure you’ve peed.

It was Thursday, her regular day off, and the day Clara would go to visit Mama in The Home. Mama was staying at “Brownsville Extended Care and Rehabilitation,” but everyone just called it The Home. Mama had not wanted to be in a Home, she had wanted to be in her home. The Extended Care facility was technically a temporary arrangement, originally because they thought temporary was all they would need, later to get Mama to sign the papers, and now more to assuage her own guilt as the months had drifted into multiple years. Likely Mama would never leave the twin bed in room 231.

She wasn’t looking forward to today’s visit. She hadn’t told Mama about Dan.

She wasn’t sure she should. Mama was old and ailing. She rarely spoke coherently or even moved much anymore. When she did speak, she didn’t always remember who Clara was. Telling her the news would probably just bring her sadness without meaning, tears in no particular direction. Many of Clara’s visits ended this way, a word or smell or a simple goodbye triggering flashes of remembrance of tragedies past in her addled mind. As Mama’s slight, thin-robed frame shuttered in soft, chocking sobs, Clara Mae would be ushered away by nearby nurses. And she was always ashamed of the relief she felt when they did.

She pulled up to the side entrance and waited to be buzzed in. It was after 11:30, so Clara Mae headed straight to the cafeteria. As she pushed through the heavy double doors, she saw the familiar sites for a Thursday: a single nurse manning the nurses’ station, a line of wheelchairs five deep in the guest waiting room as residents tried to get a better view of The Price Is Right, a nurse struggling to help another resident to the handicapped bathroom. One of the ones parked at the back of the Price Is Right line reached a hand out for her as she passed, and she tried not to look back.

She could immediately pick out the table for the dementia ward; each woman cradled a baby doll at the table, rocking and feeding and burping, singing or humming or talking to them in soothing tones. “Doll Therapy,” the Center called it. The dolls were realistic enough to fool from a distance, except when some of the residents neglected the baby’s clothes—plastic limbs dangling from soft cloth torsos. To the patients, these were their babies: their flesh and blood, their charge, their responsibility. The women did not eat before their babies were fed, didn’t sleep before the dolls were rocked and laid in their cribs. There’s something about women: as all of the memories flake away, as more of the-person-she-was becomes lost, the more that what remains is the DNA of “caretaker.” Even for those who were childless, the hard-wiring of the women’s brains all faded to the same instinctive routine of mothering.

Secretly, Clara Mae thought it was creepy.

The nurses had chosen the dolls that had realistic-fashioned faces in different expressions; their skin-like molded plastic smelled of baby powder. The table was sea of synchronized faces imitating emotion, frozen in mid-coo or cry or smile.

All of the dolls, that is, except for Mama’s.

Mama had come to the Center with her doll. She had collected dolls, and while growing up Clara Mae had to share a room with two siblings, the dolls had a room all to themselves. Princesses, ballet dancers, rows and rows of Barbies and babies, all original and still in the packaging, lined up on wobbly aluminum shelving so tight you could barely walk through. The collection was all scattered now, broken out amongst the living family by who bought it or remembered it or demanded it, each doll waiting in an attic or basement or closet for the day that she passed to be opened by the family like a morbid Christmas morning.

The doll Mama carried now never had a package. It was a buckskin body with no detailing, two flat khaki cutouts like gingerbread men stuffed and hand-stitched together with thick thread along the edges. But where the body was non-descript, the face was detailed, an intricate modeling of an infant’s face—but small, shriveled.

Like an old man. Or a shrunken head.

Clara Mae thought real babies often looked like old men—with their gummy frowns and lined foreheads—so the doll was unpleasant, but uncanny. Its eyes were squinted closed as its mouth opened to reveal an undulating tongue with no teeth, only lip.

Even as a child, Clara Mae had been afraid of it. Mama’s doll room was padlocked, and this doll—THE doll—was on the very top shelf on the other side of the room, but it seemed to Clara that whenever she tried to sneak a glimpse in the room that it was there, in her line of sight, looking back. At first Clara Mae was resentful of the padlock, thinking it was there just to keep her out, as if she was not grown enough to be careful around her mother’s precious dolls. But as she grew, she got the idea that the padlock was to keep something in. At night the kids heard running behind that door, swift-shuffling tiny foot patters punctuated by clawing. Just squirrels in the attic, Mama had said. Clara wasn’t so sure.

Mama was cradling her doll against the arm of her wheelchair, feeding her from a small plastic bottle that appeared to empty when turned upside-down. In front of her sat an untouched cafeteria tray with chicken and dumplings and Jell-O. Oxygen tubes dangled from her nostrils, and her hair wound around her neck and down her shoulder: thin, French-braided, but as black as when she was fifteen. Her toothless mouth turned to frown as she stroked her baby’s cheek.

“Mama, it’s Clara. Your daughter.” Clara put a hand on her shoulder, but Mama did not move; she stayed focused on the baby.

“Your mother’s not been speaking today,” one of the nurses whispered to Clara, stating a fact more than concerned. “Not eating, either. Just fussing over her baby.”

Mama was bouncing the doll’s backside with her knee in an attempt to rock him, comfort him, as if the inanimate object was actually full-tantrum. She looked like she was trying to get the bottle in his mouth but couldn’t. She wasn’t speaking, but the huff she expressed under her breath was the sound of true frustration, one any new mother would recognize.

Miss Gertrude was sitting next to Mama at the table. She was born Gertrude Van Patten, of the Atlanta Van Pattens, who 50 years ago were some of the richest folks in the South. Gertrude’s daddy, Oscar Van Patten, had owned a string of steel, texile and fabric mills in the Bible Belt. Poor management and a global economy had caused most of the mills to close their doors, and the family was now bankrupt. Gertrude was as unprepared for becoming destitute as she was becoming elderly, ending up at a run-in-the-mill home. Gertrude hadn’t spoken the whole time Mama had shared a room with her, though she did make frequent weird noises with her mouth—clicking of the tongue, tuneless hum. But the two seemed friendly, comforted by one another, connected in some way.

Miss Gertrude was not eating, either. While Mama sat swaying, rocking her baby, Miss Gertrude was rocking herself, staring at Mama, imitating. Miss Gertrude’s doll was dangling half-off the table, her food uneaten.

Clara Mae made an attempt to get her Mama to take some food, but she refused. Her neck was turning red, skin splotchy, a vein in her forehead becoming visible. Clara Mae was about to call for a nurse, but before she could, her mother stood up.

Mama screamed.

So piercing it stopped the room. So piercing all of nurses, who knew they should help, seemed frozen. Tears were streaming down her face, urine down her legs as she screamed; the sound was high-pitched but steady—she didn’t take a breath in. She was holding the doll out as far away from her as possible, but her eyes still locked into his, unblinking as she screamed.

Is she handing it to me? Clara thought, and awkwardly lifted the doll from Mama’s hands.

Once she had, Mama slumped into her wheelchair, drained of color. Her head fell to one side, a bit of foam and drool leaking from her mouth. Her eyes stayed open, but they were void. Then, for the first time in a decade, Miss Gertrude spoke.

“The baby is hungry,” Miss Gertrude said.  “The baby needs to eat again. He done ate his mommy. Now he’s gonna eat you.”

She said it flatly—just a statement of fact. She was looking past Clara, head nodding slightly, humming a little mhmm, yep, uh-huh affirmation, as if she had said, “We’re having meatloaf in the cafeteria tonight. Mhmm, yep, uh-huh, meatloaf.” The nurses had snapped out of their paralysis, taking Mama’s vitals and peering into her irises with a tiny light, but still finding nothing.

Through a chorus of assurances—she’ll be fine and just a temporary setback and back to herself in no time—Clara Mae waited until Mama, vein opened to a drip of clear sedation, was resting in her room before she left the plastic-wrapped slice of pineapple upside-down cake from her purse with the afternoon nurse, in case she turned around.

Clara Mae punched the exit code into the keypad at the side door through a fog of tears. She threw her things in the backseat, slumped over the steering wheel and wept again. As she drove home she had to pull over and cover the old doll with some junk mail. Even then she kept thinking she saw it there in the rearview mirror, looking back at her.

Chapter 4

When Jennie’s eyes opened, she was no longer in the dryer.

Her mother knelt over her cupping a cold, wet washrag to her forehead. Sarah stood behind her mom, screaming. A little cold water was dribbling down the side of her face as her eyes opened. She wiped the water from her ears and then threw up.

This made Sarah scream louder.

“Shut up, Sarah!” Kathy said. “She’s gonna be fine.”

“I got hot,” Jennie said, and threw up a little more. Her stomach was empty, and vomit collected on the tile floor in phlegmy pool of pale yellow.

“I know. It’s okay now,” her mom smoothed a few bangs back to her damp hairline. As if someone else had done it. As if Bad Mother had come and gone. She started to sit up and her mom held her hand, supported her back, repeating easy, easssy.

“Sarah, clean this mess up before she gets sick again!” her mom said, and Sarah scurried off. “We need to get you some food. Want some pizza?”

Jennie nodded and her mother walked her to the table and pulled out a folding chair.

“Let me heat you up a piece,” Kathy pulled a slice from the greasy box. It was topped with hamburger, which Jennie detested—one bite of stray gristle was a bite too much in her mind. But she was hungry, and she knew better than to complain.

The topping didn’t matter anyway; she devoured the pizza with such fervor that the she barely tasted it. The dinner was presented to her on a shiny black plate (a real plate) paired with a stack of generic brand “chock-full-o-chips” chocolate chip cookies from Kathy’s secret underbed stash. An edible apology.

She couldn’t eat all of the cookies, so she slipped one to Sarah after she had finished wiping up the sick and left the rest on the plate, knowing her mom would finish them before making Sarah wash the dish. It was dark out; she didn’t know how late it was, but it must have been pretty late, so she asked to be excused to bed.

She knew she must have finally slept because the next thing she knew it was 3:00am. The witching hour, Mom used to say. The time for hauntings. The time for ghosts. Her bedcovers had been pulled up to her chin; the swatches of pink and green from her quilt were neatly folded back, a crease across her chest revealing hand stitched backing and the words “FOR JENNIE, LOVE GRANDMOM” written in the tiniest of permanent pen.  Her legs stretched against her sheets with delight, still appreciating the space, the freedom. Her knees popped a little as she stretched, and they felt good even through the bruising.

She looked around her room, but there were no ghosts. Not the hint of spirit or flicker of the netherworld. No eerie moon shadows against the wall, no spooky sounds, just the low rumble of a five-year-old’s snore. She got out of bed and ventured to the kitchen, telling herself that it was because she was hoping her mother had forgotten to hide the cookies again, but secretly hoping to see her father (apparition or no) puttering around as he always did this time of night. He was nocturnal even without his night work schedule, and Jennie would go to bed earlier and try to train herself to wake when she heard him come in after his shift. Feigning insomnia, she’d sit while he had his after work brew, venting about the gas pump that stopped working again after Jeff had said he would fix it 800 times, or the air conditioner dying and his spending all night putting the counter chocolates in the cooler in shifts.

She didn’t find her father that night, but she found each of the cookies that she’d left on her plate wrapped in cellophane on the counter. As she took them and unfolded the plastic overlapping corners, mouth-watering, she could hear the sounds of her mother crying in her bedroom.

Jennie felt bad. Bad for making Bad Mother come, bad for not protecting her sister, bad for not realizing how one day Dad could just go away, bad for not getting one last hug before he went. Bad for not being a better kid for her hurting mom.

She rewrapped the cookies without taking one and went back to bed.

*

Saturday morning Jennie awoke the sound of a storm and the smell of bacon. Her dad always made bacon when the weather turned, using an old, hand-me-down iron skillet and somehow—without a press or any fuss—he made the bacon evenly crisp, with no parts limp or fatty.

The last time her dad had made bacon was the day that the tornado came. She had woken up then just as she did this morning—knowing it was day but with the sky still dark as night—and the smell of bacon the only comfort in the eerie air. Jennie remembered that she couldn’t find her father that morning, and she felt a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. The kitchen counter had two paper plates piled with cooked bacon and canned biscuits, both left long enough to have gone cold. Every seven minutes the TV ticker alarm bleated its breaking news: TORNADO WARNING.

Eventually, Jennie had found her father standing outside. She realized that they sky was not the black that it seemed, but a furious, churning grey. “Shouldn’t you go inside?” Jennie had asked her dad.

“You are no more safe hiding out than you are in the open, Jennie,” her dad had answered. “Either way it is not wise to ignore danger. Indoors you wait for things to happen. Outdoors you watch and prepare to take action.” Then Jennie had watched her dad push beer caps filled with milk through the grate by the trailer’s foundation. “There’s a litter of kittens,” he explained. Jennie thought it was funny to see the big, foreboding presence of her dad humbling himself to the infant creatures. She could see a bold one nosing toward the tiny saucers through squinty newborn eyes. “I call that one Elton Dan,” her father had said, and Jennie had laughed, but her dad could still see her fear.

“Don’t worry, little one. I ‘spect it’ll miss us. Hit over yonder. In about ten minutes.”

It had been fifteen.

Jennie sat upright in her bed. Had her dad come back? Had this all been a dream? A mistake? A cruel, cruel joke?

In spite of herself, she went running into the kitchen looking for him.

And there he was.

Standing in a clean wife-beater and overalls. Hairy back and all, dark hair and slightly hungover moan.

It was a bad dream. Or some kind of curse—a curse only broken by cured meat.

“Dad!” Jennie yelled, joyful tears beginning to roll down her cheeks. “Dad! I knew you wouldn’t leave us—” But as the man turned around, he was not her father. The face looking back was somebody else, a stranger.

No, not a stranger. Deacon Willis.

Jennie was mortified. “Oh my God, Deacon Willis!” Then her face turned even redder. “I mean, gosh. Oh my gosh. I don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. And I know you’re not my dad. It’s just that my dad used to make bacon… What are you doing here?”

“I’m so sorry I startled you! Your mom and I are doing some, er, Bible study today. We thought we would start early,” Deacon Willis laughed a little, but Jennie thought he looked a little embarrassed as well. “Would you like some breakfast?”

“Is there enough for Sarah?” Jennie asked.

“Of course!” Deacon Willis said with a grin. His face was kind but harried, and his eyes were bloodshot and droopy.

Still rattled—but happy at the prospect of a breakfast that wasn’t cold pizza—Jennie padded down the hallway and called for her sister. Outside the wind howled, and rain clattered loudly on the roof.

“Sarah! Deacon Willis is here! And he made breakfast!”

The two girls got dressed quickly and cautiously went to the living room. Deacon Willis hadn’t ever been to house before, but all the church folks had been coming around when their father died—piling out of the van, fussing over them, couch-preaching. Their mom didn’t seem to mind. Kind of liked it, maybe.

Where was Mom?

Jennie looked around for her as she pulled up a folding chair to the card table. Deacon Willis had laid out three paper plates that were unintentionally fashioned like faces: two canned biscuits for the eyes and two pieces of bacon crisscrossing into an “X” for the mouth. Not a smiley face. A dead face, Jennie thought, but she nodded and thanked him.

“You’re welcome,” the deacon said, pouring a thick black syrup onto his plate from a can emblazoned with a picture of Alabama and Georgia that said “ALAGA SORGHUM.” Then he took a teaspoon of margarine and mixed it up with the syrup, turning it into a coffee-colored lumpy pool that he used to dip his biscuits. The two girls looked on in awe.

“You girls never ate sorghum before?”

Sarah and Jennie shook their heads.

“Well, here.” Deacon Willis leaned over, poured a little on Jennie’s plate and mixed it up with the oleo. “Try it.”

The girls agreed it was good—thick and syrupy, but dark like molasses, and nice and rich with the butter mixed in.

“My Maw-Maw used to eat her biscuits that way every morning before she went to work at the mill. Said it was healthy for you. I don’t reckon I believe syrup is healthy for you, but it sure do taste good.”

“Honey butter is my favorite,” Jennie said, sopping a bit of the sticky fluid up with her bread, “but this is even better.” She mopped up the rest of the sorghum and needed three more helpings before she finished her biscuits.

When Deacon Willis finished his meal he gathered up the paper plates and washed the forks. Jennie felt kind of special that somebody cooked for her and cleaned up, even if Deacon Willis did make her uneasy, and she was a little antsy about her absent mom. “Go on and watch some Saturday morning cartoons,” the deacon said.

Jennie laughed to herself at “Saturday Morning Cartoons,” That’s something that old people say. Cartoons come on all the time now. Saturday morning is for iCarly. But she had to admit there was still something special about watching cartoons early in the morning on Saturday, when nobody else is awake to kick you off the TV, and you can eat too-sugary cereal if there is any in the cupboard. When their mom got up she would oust her and her sister from the couch for the rest of the day, so Jennie and Sarah were happy to be given a temporary pardon until her mom finished her Bible study. Both girls wondered why she hadn’t come out, and both of them casually tried to peer into her room as they walked by but the door was shut tight. Deacon Willis made a plate for Mom and took it into her room; the deacon was careful only to open the door as far as was necessary for him to slip through it. Then he closed it again behind him, leaving a plume of Newport Menthol smoke reflecting against the early morning sunlight that filtered through the vertical blinds.

They did not see their mother or Deacon Willis for the rest of the day.

Chapter 5

“Gerald, where did you put those groceries?” Clara Mae fanned her copies of Southern Living on the coffee table. It was her last step when she cleaned for company; she liked her home to have a “neat-but-lived-in” feel. Makes people feel more comfortable. Still, the floorboards were spotless, the shelves dusted, and the windows reflected the slight streaks of paper towel.

She always cleaned when she felt nervous. There was just something she liked about bringing her small piece of the world into order, even as everything else is in chaos.

The center had called. Mama was eating again.

“Stable, but not herself,” they’d said.

Clara was not herself, either. She couldn’t shake Gertrude’s words—

He done ate his mommy.

And what had happened to Mama.

Now he’s gonna eat you.

But she hadn’t gone back. She’d kept up by phone, she’d talked about going, but she hadn’t gone. Just couldn’t bring herself.

So she threw herself into cleaning.

“Gerald?” She walked toward her husband’s room. “I need that Febreze.”

Her husband had his headset over his bald pate, and he pretended he didn’t hear. He was clicking the mouse as a massive close-up of a gun on the computer screen fired rapidly. His room smelled strong of booze, and while she would feign deodorizing the couch she planned to get a few covert squirts in his direction.

Gerald held up his index finger and mouthed, “One minute.”

“No, Gerry. Kathy and the girls are gonna be here any minute.”

The screen flashed “GAME OVER” in all caps, and Gerald threw his headset against his keyboard. “See what you did?”

“I didn’t do that, Gerald. Anyway, where are the groceries?”

“What groceries?”

“The ones you went to the store after this morning?”

“I didn’t go after any groceries.”

“Gerald. I gave you a twenty and asked you to pick up some Febreze and some honey. Then we had that conversation about how much Jennie likes honey butter with her yeast rolls… Tell me you went to the store. For God’s sake.”

But Gerald just looked down at the floor.

Clara didn’t have to ask, but she did anyway, knowing what it would bring. “You bought beer instead, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I did. And so what. I’m sick of having to ask you for money like a kid asking for his allowance.” He slurred a bit at the end, and spit splattered the computer, magnifying pixels in a shimmering rainbow-wart on the monitor. He wasn’t looking her in the eye; instead his focus hovered just above her hairline, and the flush of anger was in his cheeks. Clara Mae knew to back down.

“Okay, fine. Look, just stay in here and play your game. It’s no problem. Jennie can have her honey butter next time.”

“Are you trying to say that I can’t see my own grandkids in my own home?”

“Gerald, you’ve been drinking. Maybe it’s not the best time for you to be playing with the kids is all.”

“I am just fine. Jesus, all I had was a couple of beers. Why are you always on my ass?”

“Come on, just calm down, okay? The kids will be here any minute. I don’t want them to see—”

“You don’t want them to see their drunk of a granddad, eh? Don’t want them to see where they came from? Fine.” Gerald stood up and put a jogging jacket over his sweatshirt. “Then I won’t be here.” Her grabbed his mason jar with the last swig of beer in the bottom and stormed out the back door.

Clara watched the door slam shut and wondered if she should follow him. Would he do something that he would regret?  She started toward the back door but hesitated. She only amplified his anger when he was drunk like this. Cooling off a bit in the woods is not a bad idea. He’s a big boy. He’ll be fine.

A moment later she heard Kathy’s minivan pulling up to the house. “Grandmom!” the two girls chorused as they burst through the side door. They rushed her with their embrace, a blur of swinging blonde pigtails, throwing her a little off balance.

“You girls want a Coke?”

“Yeah!” They both said in unison. Clara Mae had a second fridge, an old one tucked in the storage closet next to the den. It was only stocked with drinks: rows and rows of sodas—loaded with sugar, caffeine, aspartame, whatever your pleasure—and the girls thought this was the best thing ever. Jennie picked a Yoo-Hoo, Sarah wanted a Hawaiian Punch “FRUIT JUICY RED.” Clara Mae grabbed a Diet Coke and offered it to Kathy—who was now shoes-off reclined in Clara’s favorite chair. She knows that is my seat.

“Make yourself at home, Kathy.” Clara didn’t mean it as sarcastic as it sounded.

“Thank you for having us over, Clara.” If Kathy noticed Clara’s annoyance she didn’t let on. “Just being here reminds me so much of Dan. I feel like he’s still with us.”

Clara felt the flush of embarrassment rise in her cheeks, hoping her son’s spirit had not been watching over that very moment. “You’re always welcome here, Kathy. Dan loved you and the girls so much. He’s still with all of us, right now.”

Kathy started to cry a bit, and Clara put a hand on her shoulder. “I know it’s hard,” Clara comforted.

“Hard,” Kathy said softly.

Clara Mae saw the girls’ faces turning to frowns, the remembrance of their loss passing over their faces again. She quickly changed the subject. “I got you girls a ‘happy,’” Clara Mae lifted a giant purse from beside her recliner and removed two small packages. For Sarah, some Super Sour candy spray and a Glitter Babies plastic makeup set that didn’t apply any color; for Jennie a rubber ball on a paddle, a bag of Jelly Bellies, and a DE-LUXE set of stickers from a cable cartoon station.

After a round of thank-yous Clara Mae was covered in glitter and assorted big-eyed animals saying things like “Great Job!” and “Nice work!” Once Sarah and Jennie got started laughing—they’d just made her look so silly—they couldn’t stop. Their giggle box got turned over, their dad Dan would have said. Clara could see the girls needed to let it free, laughter so much that a few tears rolled, knowing it wasn’t that funny, but seeing how much it was necessity.  Those two had been through too much to be so young.

“Girls, that’s enough,” Kathy said, putting an end to the laughter, her voice edged with irritation.

“Okay.” Clara Mae felt a little reprimand herself. She stood up, composing herself. “Who wants dinner?”

“I would love some. Just bring me a plate of whatever.” She touched Clara Mae’s arm lightly. “Extra potato salad.”

The girls ran to the kitchen, piling their paper plates so high with macaroni and cheese that the plates started to bend a bit.

“Now, get some green beans, too. They’re good.” Clara Mae said.

“You ain’t getting desert if you don’t eat your vegetables.” They could hear Kathy holler from downstairs. The girls spooned only the smallest servings of roast on their plates, tiny islands of pork slices in pools of brown gravy, and gratuitously garnished the plates with a handful of Cheetos. This time Clara kept her mouth shut.

The yeast rolls were hidden behind the door of a cooled oven. Clara didn’t mention that, either.

Downstairs Kathy was wielding the remote, flipping between an R-rated comedy with “sexual situations” and a Lifetime movie with a murderous wife. A woman bent over an ottoman blurted “FUCK,” and Clara shot a dirty look at Kathy as she handed her plate. I would’ve got whipped for just hearing that word when I was a girl. But Kathy looked nonplused as the girls came down the stairs, and Clara didn’t feel right saying anything.

Kathy inspected the plate in front of her. “Oh, but this is… Never mind, it’s fine.”

“Oh, is something the matter? What can I get you?”

“Well, it’s just that—no really, it’s nothing.”

“Kathy, it’s no trouble, really.”

“Well, it’s just that I don’t ever eat my gravy on my meat. You know. I put it on the side so I can dip it. That way I can watch my figure.” Kathy patted the bit of her stomach spilling over her elastic waistband.

“No problem, Kathy. I’ll eat that one. I’ll just grab another plate for you real quick.”

As she came back down the stairs, new plate (gravy-on-the-side) in hand, she could hear that the girls had begun squabbling.

“Stop pinching me!”

“No, you stop pinching me!”

“Thanks,” Kathy said, taking her plate. “Would you two shut the hell up? Don’t you see we are trying to eat here, for Christsakes?”

They were quiet for a moment until Sarah whispered, “Oooh. You got your shirt dirty!” The girls had big orange streaks of Cheeto-neon on their white sweater sleeves.

“Oh, Jesus, my shirt is dirty! You got my shirt dirty!”

Kathy stopped, put her plate on her knee, and muted the TV as silent breasts danced on screen. “Did I just hear you take the Lord’s name in vain?”

The girls looked at her, but didn’t respond.

“And WHAT did I tell you two before we came here?”

The girls were silent, staring at the floor.

“Answer me!”

“You said don’t get our shirts dirty,” Jennie said. “But she got mine dirty—“

“Shut up, Goddammit! Neither one of you can ever behave! I am so tired of it! And Jennie, you’re older; you’re supposed to be setting a good example! I’m so done with you kids. Go cut a switch.”

“But… we’re sorry…” Sarah started.

“We’re sorry,” Kathy mocked.

Jennie looked up at her grandmother, pleading. Would she say something? Her backside was still sore from her humiliation that morning in Sunday School.

But Kathy caught her looking for a way out. “GO CUT YOUR SWITCH,” Kathy said once more, and the girls, resigned, filed out the back door, fading into the dusk illuminated by the glow of bug zapper and flickering porch light.

Clara Mae waited until the kids were outside. “Kathy, you don’t have to do this.”

Kathy dipped a piece of pork into the gravy and leaned forward. “Oh yes, I do.”

“Haven’t the girls been through enough? Ease up on them a little,” Clara Mae said.

“I most certainly will not. Do you think Dan would want me to ease up on them? No way in hell. I’m left to be both mother and father to these girls, and I’m going to do right by them,” Kathy said.

“Dan wouldn’t want this, Kathy,” Clara said.

“You don’t know a thing about what Dan wanted.” Kathy jabbed the air in Clara’s direction with her fork, sprinkling a bit of dark brown gravy on the floor.  “I’m going to tell you this once and only once. I don’t ever want to hear you question my parenting again. Or you won’t be seeing these kids again. And I mean that.”

Clara felt the heat rise up in her blood, her neck hot, her ears hot.

“You don’t have Dan to protect you anymore, God-rest-his-soul, and I don’t have to take it from you. So I won’t,” Kathy finished. She unmuted the TV and cackled loudly at the screen, turning her gaze away from Clara.

Her head was swimming. Clara walked out to the back porch to see the two girls mulling over bushes by the back fence. A thin branch was a rookie mistake—the light weight making it easy for quicker licks, leaving a burning swatch of fine lines to blister. A branch that was too big was an obvious mistake, especially when underestimating the weight. Too much bend at the tip would blister outer thigh. The best was light weight, solid thickness, but straight, straight, straight. That made Kathy feel she was getting her money’s worth, but left the girls with more bruised ego than behind.

I was whupped as a girl and turned out fine. That’s just how it was. But Clara looked at the little girls who had just lost their daddy, and felt sick.

She knew Kathy was right; she didn’t have rights in the eyes of the law to those babies. She was just the grandmother, and her visits could be taken away at any time by Kathy’s whim. She wanted more than anything to run to them, grab them, hold them and hug them and never let go.

But instead she just watched from a distance.

Kathy called them inside, and the girls walked up the porch steps with their chosen switches, lambs to the slaughter.

“Please don’t let her!” Jennie whispered to her Grandmom. Sarah nudged her forward, knowing the price of delay.

Clara Mae just shook her head and said, hushed, “I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t.” The girls filed through the door to the den. Clara Mae watched them until they were out of her sight, then she plugged her ears to stop from hearing the cries.

She blinked several times, slid her fingertip against under-eyes to remove the smudges of mascara, and tried to look like she hadn’t been crying.

Please don’t let Kathy know.

She was blinking and blinking, her eyes focused and unfocused on the horizon. In the distance she saw her goat eating something. The goat was always eating something. It had been Mama’s goat—a neighbor had given it to her in exchange for something, but Clara couldn’t remember what. Mama had never liked it. She never milked it as she’d probably intended, or cleaned it, or even let it roam beyond its short fence-tether. But she refused to get rid of it, either. So when Mama went to The Home, the goat and its tether made their home in Clara’s backyard. The goat did not seem to know the difference.

The goat was eating something when a male silhouette emerged through the blur. He came out of the thicket between the shriveled, brown remains of vines hanging on bean poles; a thick man wielding a small object over his head—maybe a brick? She rushed into the house, only too happy for a reason to interrupt.

“Kathy, there’s a man back here!” she called out from the open screen door, but as soon as the words left her lips she felt like a fool.

It was her husband.

But, he looked different.

Kathy and the girls had gathered on the porch. “Did Granddad grow hair?” Sarah said.

“Don’t be stupid,” Kathy said, but even she had to admit that was what it looked like. “And what’s he carrying?”

As he got closer, the porch light illuminated a golden amber substance in the Mason jar. “I got your honey, Honey!” Gerald was all teeth, grinning widely. And as he got closer she realized that the new “hair” was bee stingers, hundreds of them, a thicket of stingers rising from his raw, swollen scalp. And yet, he seemed overjoyed.

“I found a hive back yonder in a tree. Those bees didn’t know what was coming! I did it. I got you your honey. Didn’t even need to go to the grocery store.” He held the jar out to his wife like a prize.

“Gerald, I never!” Clara took the jar from his blistered hand, fished a dead bee from the top and flicked it to the ground.  “Get yourself inside.” But a smile had broken through beneath her red-rimmed eyes.

That night they sat watching Kathy’s raunchy TV selections without complaint. Gerald sat at Clara Mae’s feet as she tweezed stinger after stinger, Clara laying each that she removed on a paper towel and swabbing the bump with an iodine-soaked Q-tip.

“Grandpa, what is that?” Jennie asked.

“Monkey’s Blood,” he called the iodine.

“Gross!” they giggled.

Clara watched the girls—they looked hungry—stuffing themselves with the entire pan of yeast rolls, smearing each with generous spoons of honey butter, relieved for some brief moments of peace. But she could feel Kathy’s eyes watching her watch the girls, mouth turning quietly up in a sly smile between sideways glances and smacking mouthfuls of potato salad.

Chapter 6

Clara Mae knew most folks would be surprised to see her back at the Kountry Korner so soon.

Her bosses were not among them.

Bob and Jeff co-owned the Kountry Korner, and they disliked being out of money even more than they disliked being bothered. And Dan’s death, though they liked him well enough, was both a financial drain and a bother. Police, cleaning people, yellow tape, the days of being closed. The day after Dan was shot the town drunk ran down a power line next to the store. It was before the floor-cleaning folks had gotten there, and even though it was November they still needed the air conditioning; the east-facing plate glass magnified the heat, melting the counter-candy and leaving the air with an unmistakable odor of soured blood and Junior Mints.

Quite the bother.

So Bob had brought her flowers (picked from the wife’s garden) and Jeff had given her a week off (unpaid, of course), and by Sunday she gotten the call “just making sure” that she was going to be able to come in Monday. “Because it was okay if she couldn’t” but Clara could tell from his tone that it wasn’t okay, and she already knew (though they didn’t know that she knew) that they were only worried because they were going to Euleton on a fishing trip and were ready to go back to making money and not being bothered.

She went back to her regular routine this morning: awake at 5am, made drop biscuits and fried eggs and too-strong coffee, put on a load of laundry, ate while watching Andy Griffith. Gerald didn’t always wake up with her, but this morning he did, and the two drank their coffee together in sleepy silence. He even dropped her off, and this time she felt like he didn’t just do it because he needed the car.

“Pick me up at three,” she said.

“I’ll be here,” said Gerald.

Clara Mae didn’t reckon she would see too many people in the store today, anyway. It had opened back up a few days earlier, but people were still keeping their distance, out of respect or sorrow or just the natural human avoidance of the reminders of death—collective denial that there is, in fact, an end.

But just because the folks weren’t there didn’t mean they didn’t talk. She and Dan had together been fixtures at the Kountry Korner, local icons, mother and son. The aisles of the local commissary were filled with whispers of how “strong” she was, the lines at the bank abuzz with hushed voices of awe and pity. But turning the key to unlock the store in the morning, Clara Mae didn’t feel strong. She opened the door with a bit of guilt and pleasure—the delight of scratching an itch until bleeding. She stepped inside and inhaled deeply, relishing the prospect of a day of quiet, obsessive wallowing.

No one would deny her this.

Clara Mae turned the sign to “Open.” As a low fog lifted off the poorly paved road a grey hatchback drove by, slowing in front of the station, then speeding up as it passed. Another rubberneck. She was glad to see it pass her by.

She slid onto the swivel-stool like she’d seen Dan do every day and counted out the register. Her eyes scanned the slats of the drawer for missed splatters of blood as she counted, a DNA memento untouched from the cleanup, but found nothing. She closed the drawer.

She ran her hands over the keys, thumbed through coupons, food stamps, receipts. Even the ashtray was unnaturally clean, not even a trace of grey film in its belly as she dragged her finger across.

She wasn’t sure what she was looking for. But she was looking.

She looked through the cigarette packs above her head, looked through the aisles for any fingerprints in the dust, any signs of shifted boxes. She stood in the cooler for a good long time—longer than she liked—feeling the cold, feeling enclosed, peering out from the dark recesses of storage. Through the rows of green Mountain Dew bottles she could see the distant light of the store, blurry but visible, like seeing the sun while deep under water. But there again she found nothing. No evidence he had been there. No precious connection with his last moments. No message from the great beyond. Just normal.

She made sure the parking lot was empty, that no one was looking, and then got down on her knees, crawling at first and then eventually shimmying belly-down through the aisles, looking under.

And then, she saw them.

A dusty scattering of tiny cardboard tubes and wicks, a secret stash of firecrackers intended for pranks Dan had long forgotten. There weren’t many of them; maybe a half dozen “ladyfingers” an inch-and-a-half long scattered under the TV stand. Clara picked them up and wiped each one free of dust before placing them on the counter neatly in a row like birthday candles. As a kid that had been Dan’s favorite joke, trick candles, and he always had a box on hand to swap out with the regular ones. The family could tell their signature peppermint stripe from the plain, solid white that Clara Mae bought, so they all secretly knew to expect them to come back to life, but they played along, gasping in frustration at the relight. Everyone would do anything to hear Dan laugh.

She hadn’t cried all day, busying herself with pseudo-detective work, but at that moment the tears came again. They came at the same time she heard a car cresting the drive, and Clara struggled to quell them: biting her lip, blowing her nose, wiping her eyes, blinking. She fussed over herself in the mirror, but she soon realized she needn’t have—the car was a familiar maroon sedan, belonging to Miss Evie.

Miss Evie was nosy, a busybody, and socially awkward; she was the kind of woman who would settle in on your couch and stay after everyone had gone to bed, never taking the hint that it was time to leave. Clara, of course, was too nice and too Southern to say it outright. Over time Miss Evie’s needy personality grew to fit easily into Clara Mae’s need to be needed, their symbiotic relationship merging to genuine lifelong friendship.

Miss Evie had been working at the Kountry Korner for going on eight years, near as long as Dan. Clara Mae had gotten Dan his job, and she had also gotten Miss Evie hired to clean. Miss Evie needed the work after her husband left her with nothing; she wasn’t particularly good at cleaning at first, but Clara and Dan felt bad for her and covered for her when needed. Eventually she got better at it, more out of coming up with excuses to hang around for hours, but it worked. Dan had a kind of distain for Miss Evie because of her hovering, and Miss Evie had a bit of competitiveness with Dan for Clara’s attention, but despite their love-hate relationship Miss Evie was inconsolable when Dan passed. She hadn’t been back to the Kountry Korner since he died. She hadn’t really left her house to speak of. Clara Mae knew she hadn’t; Miss Evie rented the trailer in her backyard, and she could see her every coming and going. But she knew Clara would need her today, so she here she was.

She came in wearing a t-shirt, purple polyester pants, and oversized Foster Grants; an angelic, doe-eyed Tweety Bird in a halo proclaimed on the shirt in pink scripty letters: “Ain’t I TWEET?” She pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head, making her frizzy light brown hair stand out even more at the temples.

“You had a busy morning?” Miss Evie asked.

Clara Mae shook her head. “Naw. Nobody came in. Not a one.”

“I figured as much. Probably not a thing to clean up, neither,” Evie said.

“No, I guess not.”

“Been hard on you this morning?”

“Yeah, you bet, it’s hard. But makes me feel close to him again in a weird way,” Clara said, her eyes glancing over the firecrackers again.

“How are Kathy and the girls? I’m praying for ‘em.”

“The girls… they’ve had it rough. Hard to tell how much they’ve really processed yet. Kathy is devastated, but—”

“But what?”

“She keeps posting on Facebook, things about being a widow, posting her pictures to his memorial page. I mean, I know she is hurting. But typical Kathy, has to make it all about her. I almost expect her to start taking donations.”

“Oh, I heard that, too.”

“What do you mean? About her Facebook?”

“No. About her donations.”

“Donations?” Clara repeated.

Miss Evie lowered her head. “I heard that she was asking at church for donations. That Dan didn’t leave her anything—”

Clara Mae’s temple started to throb. Didn’t leave her anything! Clara knew Dan didn’t have much, partly because of Kathy—spending, refusing to work—but the little he did have he left entirely to Kathy and the girls. A little insurance money. A small savings account. Their car. Not much, sure, but enough. And Clara had covered the small funeral from her empty pockets. How could she? Her face burned with shame to think about her daughter-in-law begging to Dan’s congregation, as if he had not provided for his own. Clara felt like she was in a fog.

“Maybe she didn’t ask for it. Maybe some of the church elders thought they would help her,” Clara said. “Surely she wouldn’t have—”

“I don’t think so, Clara. I think it came from her. I heard she gave testimony in night church. They said it was moving,” Miss Evie said.

“Who said?”

“Deacon Willis.”

“And people gave her money?”

“He said lots of money,” Miss Evie said. “Hey, maybe she wants to surprise you when she chips in on the funeral.”

“I would never want to take their money! She knows that,” Clara said. “Well, maybe they had more money problems than I knew about. A boy doesn’t always tell his mama everything. I’ll talk to her.”

Miss Evie hung around the Kountry Korner for a few more hours, long enough to share a lunch of cheese sandwiches with plenty of Miracle Whip, but still leaving in plenty of time to catch her soaps. Jeff had hired his nephew to replace Dan’s shift. With the invincible air of the twenty-something, he wasn’t rattled by the fate of his predecessor; his sights were on the beer cooler and its infinite possibilities after the sun set on Tippashaw County. This would end badly—probably Jeff even knew it as well—but for now the sacrifice of some malt liquor was worth it to Jeff to avoid being the man behind the counter this evening.

The nephew was fifteen minutes late, taking his post in a flurry of disingenuous “yes, m’am”s. Gerald was late, too, and she gave him until 3:20 before she walked outside to try him on his cell. No answer.

She tried him again: once, twice, three times. She tried Miss Evie, knowing that she turned her phone off during her stories. Nothing.

She stood under the overhang shivering a bit; the air had finally started turning cold. She knew he had just been drinking, stopped at The Hay Bale for a beer or brought a case home. Maybe he’d lost his phone. Or was ignoring her from the shame of the binge. Or was in a deep drunk slumber on his bed at home. But no matter what she told herself—or how many times she had been through this very situation—her head still pictured the worst: him careening off the road, empty cans in the backseat, car flipping over, blood.

The twenty-something was looking at her through the plate glass like he thought he should say something, so she started off walking toward home. She called him again: four, five, six, seven. Still no answer.

Damn him for making me worry like this!

There was no sidewalk and barely even a shoulder on the side of the road where she walked. It had begun to drizzle a fine icy mist; her teeth chattered even as she tried to clench her jaw. Her joints reliably answered the pending rain with their throbbing chorus, a dull ache that gave her a little limp.

As she passed the kudzu-covered fence by the Elderidge Farm a man leaned from his truck and shouted, “Work it, baby!” before driving on. She laughed, wiping a bit of tear-and-rain streaked mascara from her cheek, and thought, Is the sarcasm really necessary?

By the time she got to Sweetwater Road she was soaked to the bone. Cold. So cold she wasn’t looking around, so cold she nearly missed the car—her car, their car—buried well off the shoulder and into the thick of the wooded area. She couldn’t see much, but she could tell it was their car from the trunk—the distinctive patch of paint peeled off of the lid dark and asymmetrical, like a cancerous mole.

It was still a good walk to the car, and Clara strained to see if her husband was there. Then she could see it—the silhouette of a head against the head rest. And she ran, ankle-deep in the muck of the wet woods, watching the head to see if it moved, but instead there was only stillness.

Chapter 7

By the time Clara Mae opened the driver’s side door, she expected the smell of death.

Instead she was greeted with a loud snore.

“Gerald! Gerald!” Clara Mae took her husband by the shoulders and shook him. “Are you okay? Wake up, Gerald. Talk to me.”

Gerald’s eyes fluttered open, but they were bloodshot and unfocused. He had a bruise on his forehead, but Clara didn’t see any blood, just some drool welling at the corner of his mouth.

The pungent smell of urine-soaked upholstery mixed with the beer on his breath to make the car smelled yeasty and sharp, a scent that would have been unbearably unpleasant to any other olfactory gland, but a combination of familiarity, compassion and adrenaline made it hardly noticeable to Clara as she leaned over him to give him an instinctive, but angry, embrace.

“Oh, shit,” Gerald said, then vomited, spraying the front of Clara’s coat with sick. He rubbed the knot on his head that was turning purple. “I’m so sorry.” Clara wasn’t sure if he was saying it to her, to himself, or about himself.

She thought she should probably call an ambulance, but they would just turn around and call the cops. Pissed though she was, she didn’t want him hauled off to jail.  And with no insurance, ambulance and hospital charges would be rough, and she didn’t want to pay for her husband’s stupidity any more than she already had to.

Still, with that bump on his head, she felt a little guilty draping his arm around her shoulder and pulling him out of the car herself. The car was far enough off the road that it wouldn’t be an easy tow job, and far enough off the road that it wouldn’t arouse attention.

Call for the tow later. Get us home for now.

But before she abandoned their car, she noticed The Doll in the backseat. Her mother’s Doll. Shriveled head looking back at her. He was sitting upright, the only thing in the car not askew, the junk mail she had piled on him now on the floor, ripped, soiled, even singed? Mouth open, the scream/cry face looking more like a cocky laugh to Clara Mae this time. She felt an anger

Irrational

at The Doll, like it He had done this and not her husband, and she picked Him up with the thought to just

Rub his little face in the mud.

But once he was in her hands she felt warmth—

Like he loves me—

and she quickly tucked him inside her coat before she walked off. She felt happy with The Doll so close to her. She could have sworn she felt him breathing there, his belly against her belly, secure in the coat-womb.

Gerald was starting to sober up as the muddy shoulder turned to their gravel drive, and she was relieved to feel him support his own weight and walk a little more steady as they neared their house.

They didn’t fight that night. Clara Mae made excuses to herself about why: tired from working, tired from walking, wanting him to sober up before she yelled at him, just being tired of yelling at him. Tired of him.

But really she was excited to be home, alone with The Doll.

She made hot dogs for dinner (the red kind with the skins that pop against your teeth) and gave him blankets as he settled in on the couch, and Clara Mae knew she might as well have “slipped him a Mickie” or a “roofie” or whatever-you-call-it these days. And sure enough while she washed up she heard him snoring as ESPN 2 went to commercial, and she tiptoed back to her room, lifting The Doll from inside the damp wool swaddling of her coat.

She pulled her sweater off and lay back on the bed, resting the doll on her chest so it could smell her, hear her heartbeat, cradling it like a newborn. She had held Dan this way—advised by a hippie on the art of natural childbirth—his gummy, grey body still tethered by umbilical cord. She stroked the thick age-ashen skin of The Doll’s cheek with the outer edge of her knuckle. Then, once she knew it was time, she lifted her limp fold of a breast, clamping her thumb and index finger against the areola, holding it firm, sliding down with pressure, pinching against dry ducts toward the nipple where she had placed his mouth. She waited to see the white droplets gather there, but when they did not, she felt her cheeks flush with familiar self-humiliation. The baby didn’t latch. Why didn’t the baby latch? She knew it was hungry. And she knew this was what she was supposed to do. What good mothers do. The hippie had said so.

And just like with Dan she tried and tried to draw the milk out, and though it had been at least twenty five years since she nursed she could swear she felt that pins-and-needles tingling behind the skin. She rubbed and rubbed, dragging pads of fingers along sagging flesh, against map-like white lines of faded stretch marks, past the untweezed fine dark hairs rimming her areola, piercing the flat of the nipple, until finally raw and cracked it gave in and droplets of blood began to pool and drip into his awaiting open mouth. When she felt that this had satisfied him, she nestled him against her bosom and they drifted into sleep.

*

She gets up in the middle of the night, to check the baby. It’s what they always tell you before you have your first: you’re always checking to see if they are still breathing. Hand in front of face, feeling for the exhale. Not enough to wake them—not wanting to invoke their ire—but wanting to make sure.

But this night, the crib is empty.

Outside she could hear shuffling, running, like yard animals chasing in the night, wind whipping leaves against the windows, wind that is fast and straight and strong and destructive.

Where is he?

Did someone get him?

Did he crawl off?

She feels like she screamed, but can’t be sure, everything feels muffled by the shifting air. Flashes of looking, first one room, then the next, then the next. Consumed with looking, and then forgetting what is missing, then panicking again in waves: fever and chills. In the distance, whimpering, injury—agony—dimly clawing its way through to her ears, and she tries to get there but she can’t, can’t place the sound, can’t tell where it is coming from.

Then, FLASH, there she is. The dog is looking up at her, her family dog, the one she suddenly remembers has been there for years, through thick and thin, since he was a pup, and this time after being there for her all of these years, unconditionally, it is he that needs something. Wood, the size of an arm—maybe a large branch, maybe a small tree—splintered, slipping between winding curvature of spooling guts and protruding out the other side. The outer rim of the injury pulses, she can see his heartbeat against the impalement, a rhythmic glistening of fluid, and she isn’t sure that the tortured wheezing of the wind isn’t his last labored breaths. The baby is there, too, of course (she’s known that all along), lounging against the dog’s rump, seeming unphased by the force of the weather. He seems to find comfort there—maybe new life comforting old friend in last moments? But maybe not. She slips the baby in through the back door and goes to the dog, takes the other side of the branch to

PUT HIM OUT OF HIS MISERY.

She looks away while she strikes, because she knows he is still looking up at her, still at this moment trusting, and as she looks away, all the time swinging, she moves her gaze to the window of the house where she sees the infant, his eyes behind the pane, tiny smile, toothless mouth curving up and out, rolls of chunky baby arm held up to parting gums as he licks himself, licks and licks, a grooming feline, pleased, content, cleaning the dog blood off of his skin, watching.

*

Clara Mae awoke drenched in sweat, her back clinging to the sheets. Her nipple was covered in fresh, loose scab, and it was SO SORE she noticed as she leaned to turn off the alarm clock.

5:00, 5:00, 5:00, it blinked at her, bleating.

She covered herself with a t-shirt off the floor, ashamed. The doll was thrown in the top of the closet with her QVC boxes and doors closed firmly behind it. Her dream had been so vivid, but it was fading now. Had a baby? She’d heard somewhere that dreaming of having babies was about creating, an idea or a work of art being nurtured deep within subconscious. But this baby—the blood, the death—what did that mean she was nurturing inside?

She was snapped out of her train of thought as the smell of sizzle drifted down the stairs, and she realized Gerald was not asleep. Did he see her? Topless? Crazed?

Her humiliation mixed with anger over the previous day’s incident, compounding in her heart like toxic fumes, freezing her into paralysis. She didn’t want to go up the stairs. She didn’t want his olive branch of omelet. She didn’t want to listen to his promises over coffee at dawn that would dissolve by the crack of noon.

She locked the door and lay back in the bed. She knew he’d heard her. She couldn’t avoid him forever.

But not now. I just can’t do it now.

She heard footsteps across the floor. Stopping at top of the stair: “Clara? I made breakfast for you.”

The footsteps paused, then returned to the kitchen. Pacing. Then back.

“Clara. Are you awake? Time for breakfast.” The footsteps came down the stairs now, one after the other, a slow, shifting, waddling footfall.

The footsteps reach her door, stop. “Clara?” The knob rattled. His realization, She’s pissed. She could hear his face fall behind the door, and the breath went out of him. She knew the defeat would be quickly replaced by fury, but didn’t know how to stop it. Didn’t know how to stop herself, wanting him to suffer, wanting someone to join in her pain, but knowing it would play out like usual, with the both of them feeling more alone.

The footsteps, more of stomps now, back up the stairs, across to the kitchen, then back again.

“I know you’re down there. Come on up to eat already!” Gerald hollered down the stairs.

She told herself she didn’t care for confrontation, but in reality, she was stubborn.

“Clara, Jesus Christ, I’m sorry! Please come eat before you have to go to work!”

Silence.

“Well, if you won’t eat with me, I will find somebody who will!”

Footsteps tracked back to kitchen, opened the back door, and then slammed. What could he mean by that? A drinking buddy? A neighbor?

There was clattering upstairs followed by a few thumps that made the ceiling rattle. Curiosity got the better of her, and she unlocked the door to hear her husband’s voice.

“You’ll eat with me, won’t you goat? Look, I made you breakfast.”

Silence.

“You eat every other goddamn thing under the sun, but you won’t eat my goddamn eggs? EAT MY GODDAMN EGGS, GOAT.”

Goat? Did he have their goat up there?

“Dammit, eat. If you know what’s good for you.”

Clara Mae crested the stairs in time to see the goat, back legs kicking, chairs overturned, trash bin spilled on the floor. The goat was turning his nose up to all of it, enjoying the spite more than the possibility of food. Gerald took a rifle off the wall and pointed it right at the goat’s eye.

“Eat the goddamn eggs. For Christsakes, goat, just eat the eggs,” this time, his voice was pleading. And as the goat stared back at him, the goat parted his lips only to clamp them together again—defiant. The goat started to turn his head away, but before he could, Gerald pulled the trigger.