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He is still inside there, but he fades, and the rest is becoming hollowed and sharp. It all happens while he is away. He is no longer mentally equipped to protect and serve, but the department, uncharacteristically sensitive in this single regard, will not evaluate him. And no amount of her coaxing or prying can bring him to tell her about what he has seen on duty; except the cryptic notes he has started leaving in the jar, she has no idea what abscesses rot into him during those periods. But she sees their result every time he reappears in the doorway; his eyes spear her with the startled and sullen greed of a shipwreck finally returning home.
And the city, through her husband, is doing something to her. She knows it, can sense it falling out of her. The things that are happening to her body, constant bleeding, beyond any normal menstruation, the urgent need for medical help, all of it alarms her, and she knows that something must be done soon.
She stares in random directions for half-hours at a time, rocking the chair very gently. Eventually she notices the note in her hand, but can not bring herself to read it again. She catches a glimpse of the scratchy lettering as she reaches behind her and stuffs the slip of paper in a book.
Across the unlit kitchen, her eyes seek out the faint cylindrical suggestion of the flour can. Motes of flour remain on the counter where she has unscrewed the lid again and again over the past few days, checking to see if the plastic bag with the ammo shop logo is actually in there. Now she is not so sure what to do with it, and at times like these, when he is away, it seems almost ridiculous and she is tempted to get rid of it. That is, it seems ridiculous when she considers how to explain to anyone how much her circumstances have changed, but she knows that if anyone could know the brutal and soulless place his bed has become, if anyone could read the notes he leaves or just see the way his eyes have died, no one would think it ridiculous.
Tears well up when she applies pressure to her pelvis with her hands, and she stops and lets out a tight breath. Uncurling her fists, she rests her palms gently on the arms of the chair. Eventually she rises, swaying an unwitting pantomime of the birch just through the open window. He has thrown out the couch, so she cannot sleep anywhere but the waterbed. A few uncertain steps bring her to the counter and she wipes away the specks of flour, and then, unable to decide where she needs to go, she just stands in the kitchen, teetering back and forth and trying to straighten her back and stand against the ache. The curtains move absently.
The accident happened over a year ago, and in two months they had transferred north to the woods outside Colony Mill. She escaped with only a mild concussion and bruising.
It was seven months into her pregnancy; they had just learned it was a boy, had just named him: Nathan James Gunn. They were on their way to the beach and the car rolled end over end and landed on an island of dying grass, and the paramedics found her husband’s body near a line of dogwoods. They shuffled over him like buzzards’ angels — white- and navy-clad, quiet, soft-handed and capable — squatting in the smear of grit and grass and glass and rock and blood. She watched as the scrubbed, sudden strangers stooped in the viscera and heaved life back into the flat bags of her husband’s lungs and secured his neck and rutted skull with braces. They found bone fragments in a patch of milkweed and were able to suture them back onto her husband’s head; they forced some other person’s blood through his heart as he sprawled on the gravel; but there was nothing they could do to save the child inside her.
The sun is already high into the day, and the house is again settled in his absence. The steam on the bathroom mirror has long since cooled as she shuts off the water to the shower and eases out of the tub. Sprinkled across the carpet in the living room, she finds a fresh handful of nails and thumbtacks that he must have spotted jutting from the molding, caught in a rogue plane of morning sunlight.
It would be impossible to make it the twelve miles into town on foot. There is a general store and a diner three miles away in the valley. If she had to, she could call a taxi from the payphone there; she has done it before to get necessities from town. Checking underneath the contact paper in the silverware drawer, she discovers that she only has seventeen dollars. The trip to the ammo shop almost exhausted her private finances.
Even a few days ago, she may still have been strong enough to walk into the city, but now she can barely walk across the house. She fights away regrets that she should have taken the cab past the ammo shop and just kept going. It had been her chance to escape. But she had nowhere to go, and though his mind is gone, somehow she knows he would find her. Leaving him behind is impossible; she still has something like love or need or hope for him, and one does not leave a sick dog to its own devices.
Gnats and black flies ebb in a cloud just outside the screen door and they disperse as she steps out onto the front porch. The sun cuts shapes over green. She stoops and lifts the jar and pulls out the yellow slip of paper inside; it shakes in her hand as she drifts to the railing and sets her weight against it.
saturday june 4ourth––still no ship no plane––found cave deep forest away from shore––herded small stock of goats to abandoned pen nearby––constant fear––this place was used for someones sacrifices maybe they will return
Something distant inside her collapses. When she was thirteen, the barn in the field across from her grandmother’s house was obliterated in the dusty sweep of a funnel cloud. It had been anciently abandoned — even her grandmother couldn’t remember who built it — it was grey and tired and it leaned and moaned in every wind. As a young girl she had always imagined that the place was haunted, had given it a wide berth daily when coming from or going to school. Still, as she had peeked from the slats of the cellar doors, her grandmother pulling desperately at her sleeves, she had seen the barn twist and splinter up into the air — like perhaps it had prayed through decades of mute dementia for this very agent of ruin to absolve it, to fling its pieces into the sky and scatter them incoordinately for miles across the blond plain — and she had been sad then, for no better reason than that the barn had always been there and no artifact of it would now remain. There is an awe that overwhelms completely without surprise.
She also found the square block of stained wood he brought in. When he had stood in the dark hall, she had seen the shape in his hand and thought it was a book. This morning it was face down on their bedside table. Before she picked it up, she memorized the position it was in, just in case he paid attention to such things.