/

The shop door clicks to a wooden close behind, and a young woman in an oversized men’s raincoat hunches there, rubbing her face. Ella Fitzgerald croons “Ain’t Misbehavin'” from a boxy speaker surrounded by power tools. The lighting is dim and deep yellow like old coffee, but eventually her eyes focus on the nearest glass showcases, and then on the impressive ranks of shotguns and rifles lining the walls. These are black and greased, catching the light murkily enough to be mistaken for hanging eels. The air is the cool, still air of a basement. Heads of animals spout from plaques on the walls, and she does not recognize some of them.

A shirtless man, the clerk, stands behind one of the glass cases. A maroon and bronze cash register looms in front of him, and to a customer he may appear to be naked. The clerk watches the woman and does not say anything. Her eyes adjust and she glances at him and then steps over to the glass countertop, surveying the items on grey felt underneath. The music hums.

“What you need?” the clerk lifts his chin and hollers. “We don’t buy no jewelry. Usually.”

The woman continues to hold the coat around her shoulders, and with the way she is leaning over the glass, the weapons arranged below might have been inlaid with rare gems.

“Hey,” the clerk hollers again. She does not answer and he starts to wander over in her direction.

“I can hardly see these. Too dark.” The woman’s voice is quiet but perturbed; she takes off a hat and her hair is chopped nearly back to her scalp in some places, like she cut it herself, quickly, and with no mirror.

“I like it this way, I guess,” the clerk says distantly. The woman drifts up to him and passes him, scanning the items and occasionally wiping little circles in the glass with the sleeve of her coat. Her left hand is holding the coat closed at her waist, and her arm is pressed, hard enough to whiten the knuckles, against her lower belly. She moves delicately and doubled over, perhaps overly conscious of keeping the coat around her, or perhaps stepping the way a person sometimes does around a sharp pain.

The woman points to something below one panel of glass.

“What you got there?” the clerk says, shuffling over, “buying something for your husband?” He steps up and looks. Her fingertip remains pressed against the glass and she raises her head. She is hard and tight under the skin of her calm face, her eyes large and filled with reflection.

“I can’t let you hold that,” the clerk says.

The woman shakes her head and closes her eyes. “Not hold. I want to buy it.”

The clerk decides something and shakes his head and laughs. “That bad, sugar? Look, these are tasers on the rack up here, and these guys pack a load of wattage, could drop a gorilla. And they got these stylish handles.” She ignores him and taps the glass impatiently, staring through the grime at what she wants.

“Or if you need something, you know, a little more ‘don’t tread on me,’ you got these .22s over here. Now that little guy’s got nickel plating and he’ll fit right in your purse.” She is not carrying one.

“No. I don’t want that. I want this.”

“You didn’t even look at it.” The clerk stares her down, but she is still bent over, pointing and waiting. “Well, I guess you could look at these .38s. You know, cops use ‘em, so you know they’re dependab — “

The glass pane jangles loudly when the woman’s palm pounds against it, and the white knuckles of her left hand claw into her belly a bit. “I do not,” she says in a wavering tone that suggests she would not like to discuss it twice, “know how to use a gun. I promised someone a long time ago that I would never touch one. And if I wanted one, I wouldn’t need you. This,” she thumps the glass again and breathes a calm wind of composure over her body’s tremble, “is what my husband wants.”

When she gets home, she hides it in the bottom of the crisper, then thinks better of it and seals it away in a can of flour. It probably does not matter. He is too far decayed; things like flour are gone to him now.

 

//

Her husband’s shifts have grown longer and more erratic. Sometimes he does not even come home in his uniform, says that he is on assignment. She wonders, as always since the accident, if he knows he is lying.

For the past three mornings, after her husband is gone again, she has found a small yellow slip of paper curled up in the dusty mason jar on the porch. The notes are coldly, incoherently journalistic; they are in her husband’s jagged script and seem confessional of some unmanageable horror just below the surface. She does not know if these letters are intended for her or indeed if her husband is even aware of writing them. This morning’s note began with what seemed to be yesterday’s date:

friday morning june 3hird––4ourteen minutes after 2econd hour––emergency vehicle en route to redruth on hawkins drive rounds bend on west bank of river––unit answering anonymous call for elderly man in insulin shock––unnoticed obstruction shears front axle instantly––vehicle tumbles shredding––occupants shriek over sound of fire

He has not spoken that many words to her in over a year. Tonight, she is holding this letter as she sits quietly buoyed in the kitchen rocker by the open window. It is deep night; light wind pushes through the cornflower blue curtains into the dark room. She has lived here only a year, but already she knows the form of the avenue as it lolls by the house; it is always in her periphery. Only a year. It was not a special house, or even a pretty house. A square, brown thing with a porch and dead blue paint at its eyes. She was not really sure how much of the surrounding forest they owned, but their nearest neighbor was miles away. At first she had been in awe of the woods, been simply content to live quietly outside the city. And now she knows the shape of the tree line, no longer confuses the sound of an oncoming car with the haunted vowels of forest wind.

A filmy sheen cools on her forehead and over the bridge of her nose. The pain has subsided to a dull red bulb; she could probably sleep now, but she will not. There are two crocheted pillows in the seat beneath her, and she delicately adds another.

She knows that the city is killing some suffering thing inside her husband. She has seen him rawing over and becoming something else, and it frightens her. He does not like anything on the walls anymore. He has stormed through their unlit rooms, slapping and hurling the frames to the floor. Paintings, photographs, calendars, diplomas. He uses his thick fingers and pinches the nails out of the drywall. Each day he finds more nails hidden in the pattern of the wallpaper, and she gathers them out of the carpet the next morning and throws them away.

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.

There was a bronze plate and a bronze star fastened into the face of the wood. It was an Officer of the Month plaque. As she ran her hand over it, the stain and metal were cold and clung lightly to her fingertips like the surface tension of standing water.

The name on the plaque was not her husband’s. She replaced the block of wood exactly as it was.

Spending the afternoon behind dragged-out photo albums or old shaky home videos is a useless endeavor; she cannot face that alien earlier happiness, and she knows there is nothing to be gained from wayside memory.

 

////

It came down to one moment, all stacked together and weighed. There had been the moment before it, such a nondescript moment in the ranks of moments, and then just after, there was the moment, and she had known then in all finality that her husband had nothing left for her in his heart.

The crib in the garage. There were only two sides to it, and the sanded pine had turned grey. Something had always come up, there was always something to do, and now it would always remain unfinished. He had bought the tools the day she told him that the baby was a boy, back in Nevada, and he came home and the sounds of building had echoed out over the neighborhood. He had bought stencils of posing lions and juggling clowns to etch into the headboard on either side of a beaming sun. Five weeks later, the car flipped end over end, and they lost what they were meant to lose.

For some reason, they had brought the unfinished crib when they moved; she had seen him in his heavy bandages packing it into the back of the van and did not have it in her to say anything. They kept the crib in the new garage, and she was beginning to think it would always be there, in the garage of every house she ever tried to escape to.

The moment happened this morning:

It was early enough for the world to be a different color as she eased the garage door up along its track, and a steady needling of rain blew in from the East. From its corner the grey wood of the unfinished crib glimmered in a dank blue light. Wednesday, and the trash truck would be by very soon.

She dragged the grey wooden frame squeaking on its two wheels all the way to the curb. The rain had a mean cut to it, and it was a cold rain for June, so she ran back to the house. But she did not reach the cave of the garage before she saw her husband standing weightily just inside, watching her. She stopped just a few feet short of shelter.

The mood of his face was lost through morning shadows and a curtain of rain, but he was not coming toward her. She had been too flushed to speak; he raised his arm and pointed out to the curb. Then he turned back toward the interior doorway.

It was the first and only time that she had ever brought herself to yell at him. A curse flew from her mouth, and then her husband’s name.

As he spun to face her, it ended between them. She saw the crooked, ruddy burn of his eyes flash through a gap in the rain, his shoulders square away from hers while the bones of his arm jerked, she saw the hand brush the denim at his right hip, saw the hand discover no holster, no gun, saw the hand lightly lower back down. The whole motion might have meant nothing at all had he been anyone but her husband. Had he been anything but a policeman. He left her in the rain and went inside.

 

//// /

Oh God Oh God Oh God, she writes on a scrim of yellow legal paper, because she does not have a diary. Mutilated, Em, you are being mutilated

She throws the scrawling pen across the kitchen. It spins on the linoleum and disappears underneath the refrigerator. Eventually, she crumples the scrap of paper around the burner and lights the gas stove.

 

//// //

She feels as though she must be metal; she is cold and electric with these decisions. He is away, but will be back soon. Blood sogs dark stains through the crotch of her sweatpants. The pain is an asp in her body. Her vision comes in snapshots:

The design of wrinkles in the tarp she has spread out in the hall. The specific contour of the gouged gape she tears into the drywall with the claw of a hammer. The vertical bodies of studs, the bones of her house behind that wound. The easy plastic of the ammo shop bag dusted in flour, the static bulge of the weapon. The serious weight of the weapon.

Plastering up the hole is difficult work, but at the end her eyes are dry and cold and she lets herself blink a few times. The paint is old and has gotten a little darker in the can, and it doesn’t exactly blend with the wall, but it will have to do. Gathering up the tarp and tools, she then opens the east and west windows of the house, hoping that her project will dry before her husband returns.

The car does come. It is just after three in the morning, and she hears the patrol car coast in from the top of the hill, and the headlights shine over the trees in her view. She steps into the other room and turns off a table lamp and starts opening the rest of the windows. Then the wheels crunch slowly over the gravel in the driveway. The car rolls to a stop and remains there, idling. Through the blowing curtains, she can detect the foul smell that the car seems to drag with it, the harbor smell of the river and docks of the city. And soon the engine is killed and his feet grind the gravel as he steps out. The sound, like the crunch of seashells, as he walks to the front steps. She stands in the dark living room and watches the door open; he wanders through and it almost closes behind him.

He is not in his uniform, though he wore it when he left, fourteen hours prior. His hands are raised and appear ready to catch something if it were suddenly thrown at him.

Then her husband sees her standing in the other room. His posture sets and she can feel the brass rings of his shipwreck eyes lock with hers even through the dark. His face is shadow. He is all a standing shadow.

“Hello, Ben,” she says, as softly as she can and still be heard. The walls lean in more closely, the air humid and still.

Ben does not answer.

“I’ve missed you, Ben. Welcome home.”

The sound of skin stretching over itself rasps through the enclosed walls as his silhouette clenches and relaxes its fists again and again. She can hear nasal breathing out of rhythm with her own.

“Yes, baby, it’s me,” she answers an unspoken question. “It’s your Em. Welcome home, Ben. Can I fix you something to eat?”

The silhouette rasps its fists tight again and after a long moment nods its head.

In the kitchen he sits at the table with his arms slapped in front of him while he chews. Only the light above the stove is allowed to be turned on, and this only during cooking. He doesn’t let her have any other lights on anymore.

Two more pork chops sear across the pan, and she refills his coffee cup for the third time. She decided months ago that he didn’t need caffeine, and did away with the regular stuff. He always used five scoops of sugar, and never noticed.

His face had been scarred deeply by the accident, but it had still been young when they transferred here. Now the city is taking from him what Nevada left. From the yellow mat in front of the stove, she can see where his head ridges in on the left side, just above the center of the ear and level to the eye; his cheekbone caves halfway in, and the top of his head is positioned at a notable angle. The aluminum roof of the car had collapsed like a starched sheet.

It seemed to her that his mind had functioned well enough in the weeks just after the accident. Of course, there had been the loss, the purgatorial rage and isolation for both of them, and they didn’t talk much. An hour after Dr. Skalter unwound the bandage, Ben was back in the black-and-white, and transferred them out here shortly after. And then entire chunks of her husband began to disappear, leaving no vestige.

After the rest of the meat is served, she reaches up and clicks off the stove light; she stands in the shadow of the refrigerator and breathes as he finishes the meal in the dark.

Soon there is the scraping of a fork and fingernails against the empty plate, followed by the smacking of saliva. She takes a half-step forward and says, “I think I need to go to the doctor. Ben. Ben, do you hear me?”

The sound of him swallowing, and quietly, “No more doctors. I’m fine.”

“No, Ben, for me. I’m hurt. Bad, I think.” Her hands rub cautious circles over her abdomen. The chair squeals across the floor as he rises to his feet, and she continues. “Ben, I need to go to the doctor, baby, I have to go to the doctor, ok? I have to.”

“No doctors,” and he steps over to her and grasps her by the upper arm. His hands are knotty, firm, unnaturally warm. “Time for bed.” With mounting force, his hands drag her to him; he smells like kelp and salt.

“No, baby, I hurt real bad, something’s wrong, Ben, Ben, please listen — “

“Time for bed.” She is jerked forward into the long hall that terminates at the bedroom door.

And the hall is long, straight, and dark, but not too dark to make out the blotch of muddier paint, and certainly not too dark to see the glint of metal imbedded there in the bare wall. But they pass it, and he doesn’t look up. His hand is as firm on her wrist as though it had grown from there, and it hauls her, tripping and banging, staring at the back of his head, at the scarred cleft in the hair, the unnatural way his skull has settled.

An hour later, she slips outside to the dark porch and the hovering choir of tree frogs. There is blood on her hands, but it is her own and she tries very hard not to look at it. Blood, new and old, has stiffened the crotch and thighs of her sweatpants, and she walks like a person straddling a live rail or a gutter. The wind pushes branches into sway and it is easy for her to imagine the trees as secret witnesses. She rushes down the steps onto the gravel driveway, negotiating the sharp stones with the most that pain, speed, and silence will allow. One of them curls deeply through the fleshy pad of her heel, and she barely notices. When she reaches the patrol car and finds the door unlocked, she lets out a tremor of breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding.

For a moment she considers the shotgun in its cradle, but it is only for a moment. Instead, she grabs the radio at the end of its coiled wire, cups the receiver in both palms and presses the transmitter.

“Help,” she croaks, “please help. I’m hurt.” And she scrambles. “There’s been an accident. Man down.” It is something she has heard her husband say, from before, when his mind was not ruined and he had been a man that she was proud to love. “Oh my god, please help.”

The screen door yawns open, slapping the side of the house, and the shape of her husband lumbers out, his hands curling at his sides. He steps down into the driveway. Her other hand sweeps the driver-side door, groping for a lock.

A battery of cracks and squeaks from the radio, and a woman’s voice coughs through.

” — to calm down, miss, okay? Who and where are you? Over.”

“I’m Emma Gunn. My husband — Oh god, please send help. Six Treasure Avenue. Six Treasure Avenue. Man down.” Maybe it will make them hurry. He stomps across the rocks, his expression lost in night-shadow. No lock, there must be a lock. The car smells of scales and brine. “Please, please, hurry, god, please.”

And then he is there, his hand like pliers around her arm, yanking her from the car. His other arm plows a fist against her jaw, and then her world is gravel.

The sibilant whir of the tree frogs, the rich, dead smell of earth.

The CB bleats faintly, “Ma’am? Are you there? What is the nature of your emergency? Over.”

In that distant, unmeaning spin, she clings to these real details that fight against shocked sleep. She half-watches as he kills the radio, as he pulls some dark, heavy thing from the trunk. It is as big as a wagon, a long, vertically curved tongue of black metal with a wide base, and he hauls it out of sight, to the road.

She is momentarily aware that he is dragging her into the house. Her heels rap against the steps, the wooden runner of the threshold. His hands are hooks in the pits of her arms. She is unsure of everything: how long it has been or how she got here, the burning pull of so much of her body. His skin is slick and rank from exertion. He is only muscle and hair against the foggy, weak resistance of her fingers. The denim and flannel, his musk, she cannot break free. His breath and pulse prove he is a living person, but it is difficult, frightening for her to believe.

She is drawn through the rooms of their house. She sees the end table they picked out from the antique dealer in Haughton, the vase his mother had given them at their wedding, the bookshelf he built when he was still in the Academy. And then through the mouth of the unlit hallway. And the wall with the freshly dried paint.

The lighthouses and the dinghies and buoys of the wallpaper border just below the ceiling.

She sees the splintered door of their bedroom sliding closer through blue shadow over her shoulder. She hears a siren already wailing through the forest. They come upon the yellowed, gummy paint in the hallway, and when he drops her to the floor, she still has enough in her to start scrambling away.

Through the living room window, she sees the flashing glare of the ambulance lights before it rounds the bend of the road. And suddenly it is there, all white and red, and it launches over a curved, black-steel tongue in the asphalt and hangs in the air. In that moment it blares its lights tragically against the trunks of trees, suspended over its awkward weight before gouging into earth, tumbling, shredding across the lawn, turning, rolling, burning. Lit gasoline fans out and stripes, spattering the pines, porch, and eaves, aglow.

This is as regular as rain to her husband, and the wall is all that occupies his attention. He has noticed the aluminum ring in its weird new bed and he plinks it out of the drywall. Her fingernails begin to splinter; she pulls her body down the hallway. Hidden behind the wall, loosed now, the rolling weapon clunks down between the spars and load-bearing studs. She hears it rattle and thud between the boards, a fat-bodied rat, slave to its weight, finding its grave.

And then there is the bright flash, the scream of the blast, and he is caught up in it, and she is surrounded by the lick and wash of a fire that takes the rest of it from her.

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