December 12, 2016
She was nudged from slumber by a hollow thump—followed by another.
The half-blind shepherd had the unfortunate habit of thwacking her tail in her sleep until she woke herself—sniffing the air, whimpering at imaginary predators, seeking out a comforting scratch behind the ears.
She dropped a drowsy arm over the edge of her bed.
Murmured, “Hush, girl.”
Wondered, what did the dog dream about? Meadows? Squirrels?
Burying her head into the crease of her damp pillow, she thought perhaps Rosie dreamt of Ben.
A tiny thought. A seed. She pushed it away, submerging herself in rumpled sheets. But the synapse of connections spread into an invasive tangle of memory—like a cancer.
Her dangling fingers, stiff with cold, were first to remember. Finding that odd pebble beneath Rosie’s coat. Followed by weeks of driving across town to the vet, watching helplessly as the tumors spread, a terminal game of marbles.
The dog had been put down last spring.
She blinked her eyes open, rubbing away useless tears of old grief. Light from the street filtered through the curtains, casting the familiar shapes of her bedroom in purple shadow. The digital on the nightstand blinked 12, 12, 12, as it had for months. She’d been meaning to re-set it. Like so many things, it kept slipping her mind.
The thumping sound, if there had been an actual thumping sound, had vanished. There was nothing but the faint ticking of the thermostat, the soft thrum of her own pulse.
Still, she saw no point in remaining in bed; staring at the ceiling while the bad thoughts collected and swarmed like crows. As of late, insomnia had become a nightly misery. Her days thick and blurry, her thoughts stuck together like newspapers left out in the rain. Forever forgetting names and numbers and why she’d opened the refrigerator.
At her last visit to the gynecologist she’d inquired about hormone therapy. For her trouble she’d been forced to listen, trussed in the stirrups like an animal for slaughter, to the sing-song cadence of her girl-doctor droning on about risk-to-benefit ratios and lifestyle choices and healthy diet, all the while fumbling around inside her pelvic cavity like a woman searching her handbag for keys.
“One of your ovaries is hiding,” the girl-doctor had finally said, a single worry line bifurcating her shiny brow.
“Hiding?” She’d imagined a tiny closet in her womb that the organ had shyly retreated into.
“It can happen when they’ve shrunk.”
Once as lush as plums, the organs were shriveling, just like the rest of her. In the darkness of her bedroom, she pressed a hand to her abdomen as if to protect them, before switching on the bedside lamp.
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she was greeted by the familiar ache in her lower back, the rust in her knees. The rag of a T-shirt she slept in clung to her damply. It was the only thing she could tolerate against her skin at night; ironic, since she could never say the same of the long-gone husband who’d left it behind.
At the closet she pulled on her robe, a souvenir from some fancy hotel she no longer remembered visiting—it’s raveling hem brushing against a bottle she’d left on the floor, toppling it with a clank.
As if in response the thumping started up again. She listened, simultaneously unnerved by the noise, and relieved that she hadn’t imagined it after all. The sound was coming from the north end of the house. She pictured all the things it could be; a tree, a trashcan, a gate, a killer.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
For a brief moment, she considered calling the police, but she’d look foolish when it turned out to be a raccoon, or a loose screen. And it would be pointless to phone Ben.
But what if it was a prowler? Her pulse quickened at the thought. Righting the bottle—half-full and neatly corked—she noted the sloshy heft of it. She felt a little silly, wielding it like a club. Still, you never knew.
In her mind she constructed the message she’d leave her son. I don’t want to bother you, Ben, but the police insisted I call a family member. I assured them I’m fine…really…
Maybe that would get him to call back.
She headed toward the noise, shuffling the greasy path worn into the center of the hallway carpet. “Phantom stains,” the Stanley Steamer man had called them, shaking his wooly head. “They always come back. Nothing you can do.” At the time there’d been solace in that; irrevocable evidence of the carefree, happy years her son had spent beneath this roof.
Pathetic, taking comfort in stains.
She’d have to get down on her hands and knees and scrub them out herself, she thought, or replace the carpet entirely.
It’s not like she didn’t have plenty of time for household tasks now that she’d stopped going out, weary of bumping into neighbors who always asked after Ben. After months of countering with stock phrases—He’s doing great and You know Ben—she’d been cornered by the mother of one of his high school pals at the supermarket. The frowsy woman breathlessly inquiring how she was dealing with Ben leaving school, and wasn’t it just like him to volunteer as an aid worker in Nicaragua?
Blindsided, she’d stared into the foggy case of the frozen food section, trying to picture her skinny, sandy-haired son, a boy who couldn’t make his own breakfast, digging wells in the sweltering jungle for dark-eyed orphans.
That day, she’d left him a hundred messages. They remained unanswered.
Fortunately the grocer delivered. Every morning she made herself a soft-boiled egg and a pot of coffee and read the entire newspaper and, if she found grammatical errors, which she often did, emailed a pointed letter to the editor. But mostly she drifted in and out of Ben’s room, examining the dusty trophies and certificates of achievement for clues; her heart a pebble rattling in a jar.
Arriving in her kitchen, the mundane odors of stale coffee and bananas freckling on the countertop made it slightly less troubling that the source of the relentless pounding was, in fact, human. Through the beveled amber glass of the kitchen door, she made out the shape of a person, tall and broad shouldered.
She tightened her grip on the wine bottle. “Go away,” she said.
The pounding stopped.
She switched on the porch light, but the blurry figure did not go away. She could tell it was a man, pale, with dark hair and a red shirt.
“I’m calling the cops,” she said.
The man garbled some words she couldn’t understand.
Some drunken bum, she thought.
As if he’d read her mind, the man waved what must’ve been a cell phone, the blue light from the screen dancing across the beveled glass like a firefly. Raising his voice he slurred, “I’m supposed to be here.”
It was childish posturing. Probably a lost partygoer. In recent years, her neighborhood of suburban families had deteriorated into a more transient population of renters, clusters of young people and immigrants. This wasn’t the first time someone had mistakenly come to her door.
Although, never this late.
“This is my property,” she said. “I’m dialing the police right now.”
She was lying. She had no intention of calling the police. By the time they arrived, this fool would be long gone—having figured out his blunder—and she’d be stuck answering a bunch of stupid questions. The thought of which made her very tired.
“No, please…” said the man. It came out like “pleesh.” On the other side of the glass, the figure backed away, fading from view. Almost immediately there was a series of muffled thuds, like someone beating a rug with a bat, followed by a long, low moan.
She waited a moment; the bottle heavy in her hand. Placing it on the kitchen counter, she turned the deadbolt and cracked the door. Overhead, an insect pinged inside the cobwebby porch light. At the bottom of the four cement steps that led down to the alley, a young man lay crumpled beside her trashcans.
“Oh shit, oh shit,” he muttered, rocking slightly side-to-side.
The night breeze tugged at the opening of her robe. She bunched the ragged collar closed in her fist.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Phone,” he groaned. The black rectangle lay a few feet away from him on the bottom step, its cracked screen dark. He reached for it, but stopped short, retching up a string of yellow bile, rolling onto his side, coughing.
“For heaven’s sake,” she said, descending the stairs, cold and gritty beneath her bare feet. She scooped up the phone, thrusting it toward him gingerly, as if offering a bone to a stray dog. He turned his face to her. A trickle of blood threaded from his hairline; his expression bewildered, like a boy in a crowd who has lost hold of his mother’s hand.
She couldn’t just leave him there.
Helping the young man to his feet, she steered him into the house. He didn’t pull away or resist as she pressed him into one of the ladder back chairs that framed the kitchen table.
Thick, dark hair cowlicked like rough water on his head and his pale face was sparsely smattered with whiskers and acne. His red flannel shirt, rolled at the sleeves, smelled of beer and sour sweat.
“You’re bleeding,” she said, tearing a paper towel from the spindle, holding it out to him. He lifted a hand to his head, coming away with crimson fingertips, rubbing them against his thumb as if to determine whether the blood was real.
“You’ll need ice,” she said.
The busted icemaker contained one massive, cloudy blob the size of a small ham, but behind a stack of frozen dinners she found a forgotten bag of niblet corn. After slamming it against the kitchen counter to loosen it up, she placed it on the young man’s wound. She took his wrist, shrinking from the bristle of body hair and the smeary tattoo stamped on the fishy underside of his forearm, pressing his hand atop the bag as a sort of paperweight to keep it in place.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
The young man blinked. He had a lazy eye that drifted a little. “Alex,” he said. “I was supposed to meet some guys here.”
The eye was troubling. She hoped it had been that way before his fall.
Pulling a glass from the jumble of dishes in the sink, she rinsed and filled it from the tap. “Seems you got the wrong house,” she said. Placing the water next to his free hand.
“Thanks,” he said, taking a small sip.
His ‘thanks’ sounded phony. Like the way Ben said ‘thanks’ when she’d edited his last essay, a paper she later found balled-up in the trash, crawling with her corrections like so many red ants.
The young man’s wobbly gaze seemed to be looking over her shoulder. Following it she spied the bottle she’d carried from her room.
“Would you prefer some wine, Alex?” she asked.
He nodded. “It really hurts.”
She dumped the water into the sink, pouring two inches of Cabernet into the same glass; watching as he drank, his Adam’s apple wriggling beneath the stubbled flesh of his throat like a mouse inside a snake.
He brought the empty tumbler down onto the table with a slam that made her flinch.
“Got any more?” he said. A fresh rivulet of blood dribbling down his temple, disappearing into the collar of his shirt.
“Maybe I should take a closer look at your head,” she said, filling his glass with the last dregs of the Cabernet.
“Whatever,” he said.
She rinsed out a dishrag, and peeled the bag of corn—sweaty with condensation and smeared with blood—away from the young man’s skull.
“You live here alone?” he said. Something in his tone, in the animal heat rolling off of him in the tiny kitchen, made her uneasy.
“Just me and Ben,” she said, “my son.”
“Is he the artist?” He gestured with the wine-streaked tumbler toward a lopsided coil pot on the counter near the stove. Six inches tall, glazed buttercup yellow, it was filled with the junk that collects in households, and old roll of duct tape, spare change and lost screws.
The little joke broke the tension. “Ben made that in sixth grade,” she said.
“Me too,” he said. “Ceramics class with Miss Sugimoto. She was a nut. Walked around with a live bird on her shoulder.”
She squinted at the pulpy wound clotted with dark hair. “I seem to recall Ben’s art teacher kept a bird—a parakeet, I think. Maybe you knew him? Ben Watters?”
“Is he here?” Alex asked, surveying the kitchen, one eye playing catch-up behind the other.
“He’s away at school,” she said, “Columbia. In New York.”
“Sure…I remember now…he was a real smart guy, that…” he’d already lost the name.
“Ben,” she prompted, dabbing the area around the wound with the dishrag.
“Right…Ben,” he said.
Wiping sticky webs of blood from the young man’s neck, she said,
“Do you attend college around here?”
“Nope,” he snorted, as if the idea was ridiculous. “Up till last week I was working.”
“Doing what?” she said. She wondered if there was any antiseptic in the house, and where it might be.
“Cashier over at Pet World.”
“Better keep this on a little while longer,” she said, flopping the bag of thawing corn back onto his head, “Can I make you something to eat?”
“They fired me,” he said. “I was gonna quit anyway. The pay is shit. I’m thinking of joining the army.”
The contents of the fridge were not promising; half a dozen eggs, two containers of yogurt, and a bruised apple. “How about some home-style turkey and mashed potatoes?” she said, reaching into the freezer.
“Sure,” he said.
She set the oven to 350; opening the box with its glossy photo of turkey slices oozing with gravy. “The military is one option,” she said, “But have you considered going back to school? Maybe community college?”
“My grades were crap.” He fidgeted in the chair. “Those things cook faster in the microwave.” he said.
“It’s broken,” she said.
The wads of duct tape she’d used to repair the microwave’s cracked handle did not affect the machine’s functionality, but along with the blinking 12, 12, 12 on the clock display, it looked convincing. And she needed a little more time with this boy.
Army indeed. He didn’t belong in the army.
“Grades are important, But they aren’t everything,” she said, twisting the timer knob.
“Howzzat?” Alex slurred.
“Lots of kids with poor grades get into college. You just need to know how to navigate the system.”
“Really,” he said, tapping his empty glass on the table.
That bottle of Cabernet had been her last.
“Let me see about getting you another drink,” she said.
She rushed back to her bedroom, ignoring the phantom stains. With a marksman’s focus she spotted an old Merlot on the dresser tucked behind a framed photograph of Ben on a pony. Wincing, she got down on her knees, searching beneath the bed for strays. She wasn’t an alcoholic. She never drank an entire bottle, just enough to quiet her noisy mind, so she could sleep. After a couple glasses, or a few, she’d recork, and lately, often, forget where she’d left it.
“Take Ben for example,” she yelled, “I wrote most of his college applications, including the essays.” She counted four bottles, each with a scant inch or two of dark liquid in the bottom. “Some kids hire special tutors,” she said, returning to the kitchen—which was now fragrant with roasting turkey—the noisy bundle clanking in her arms. “There’s no shame in getting a little help.”
Alex brightened when he saw the wine, and was only slightly less enthused as she emptied partial bottle after bottle. Altogether, they didn’t quite fill his glass.
“For example, if your grades are subpar, then you should highlight your extra-curriculars,” she said.
“Like your job. You worked at Pet World—you must like animals.”
“Sure,” he shrugged, his lips stained a garish purple.
“We can use that,” she said. “Admissions directors just want to see that you have a passion for something.”
“Is the turkey done?” he said, his eyelids at half-mast.
“Smells great doesn’t it?” she said, checking the timer. “Just a few more minutes.”
She crouched in front of the grimy oven window, watching the brown gravy bubble in the aluminum container. She could help this young man. She knew it. It would be like Ben’s first semester at Columbia, back when he emailed all his papers to her for revision—grateful for her tweak and polish.
They’d made the Dean’s list.
So imagine her shock when he began rejecting her help, spouting nonsense about being his own man. She tried to be supportive of his independence, but after devoting her life to his success was she just supposed to sit idly by as his grades went down the tubes?
When Ben came home that final weekend, he’d brought up the idea of taking some time off from school, figuring things out, he’d called it, as if they hadn’t already mapped out his future together at that same kitchen table where Alex was now enjoying his bit of wine.
They’d argued bitterly.
That night, unable to sleep, she’d stood in his doorway, comforted by the familiar rasp of his adenoidal breathing. But when she drew closer, the man splayed across her son’s mattress was a stranger; muscled where Ben had been soft, hairy where he’d been smooth.
She’d crept to his bedside and gently tugged down the elastic waistband of his boxers. There, beside his right hipbone, three inches long and silvery as a minnow, was a relic of the worst day of her life. A day when she’d known something was very wrong, but no one paid her any heed; the quack doctor diagnosing indigestion, her idiot husband calling Ben a crybaby, both insisting she was blowing things out of proportion. She’d almost lost her son that day, but she didn’t, and she’d sworn she never would.
Tenderly she’d traced the scar that branded him forever as her own, the hard bubble of keloid against her fingertip.
Had there been a moment in the darkness when Ben’s breath snagged? When his muscles flinched? She couldn’t be sure.
The next morning he was gone.
The timer buzzed. She pulled the turkey dinner from the oven, took a cleanish fork from the sink, and carried both to the table.
Alex’s body lay slumped forward at the waist; folded arms cradling his head on the table, his empty glass on its side, the bag of corn puddled on the floor beside him. The crown of his head was spiky with dried blood, the collar of his shirt sopped with it.
She thought about concussion. Shook his shoulder, but he didn’t stir. It was probably better to let him sleep.
His jutting hips revealed a wallet, which she plucked from the rear pocket of his pants. The name on his driver’s license was Anton Svoboda; the photo mug-shot sullen. He was only nineteen.
Stabbing a forkful of turkey, she chewed it, gazing at his prostrate form. It was very late, and she was tired. She could not be expected to wait up watching him all night long, not if they were going to tackle his college applications in the morning.
It took her twenty minutes, winding the duct tape round and round, tearing the ends in her teeth, binding the young man’s spindly legs to the chair legs, his sinewy arms to each other, her face so close to his that she could feel the heat of his shallow, sour breath. Securing him to the table with the silver strips, all the way around and under and through, making sure he was safe. Making sure he would not fall.
She covered the leftover turkey with foil. Anton could enjoy it in the morning.
EILEEN SHIELDS received her MFA from UCR’s low rez program. Recent publications include: The Los Angeles Review, Rumpus, Alimentum, The Toast, Slice, XOJane and Word Riot. She lives in Los Angeles, where she writes an occasional food column for her local paper, The Beach Reporter. Her first novel is currently being ignored by publishers all over New York. Links to her work can be found on her website.