Authors: Joel Arnold
About twenty feet into the woods, he looked back. The trail wound itself this way and that, parts of it missing from his line of vision, parts that lay hidden behind the trees and the brush. The view of Mae’s house was obscured from here. Splotches of its orange exterior peeked through the tangle of branches. The orange turned to gray as the sun disappeared below the horizon.
Andy continued to follow the trail and soon couldn’t see Mae’s house at all, only a thick mess of trees. The grayness of twilight was replaced by the dark black-blue of night.
Andy shook his head. Bird watching in the dark…
He hoped he hadn’t offended Mae by leaving on this walk. When he told her his plans, she responded by smiling and saying, “Of course. I’ve got plenty to keep myself busy with.”
“I really appreciate your hospitality, Mae.”
She looked at his mouth, as if she were trying to see past his teeth into his throat. Then she looked past him out the living room window.
“Sometimes,” she said, “hospitality is a disguise for curiosity.”
Andy didn’t respond.
Mae shook her head. She looked him in the eye. “I’m sorry, Andy. I didn’t mean it like that. I just - “
“Hey, no,” Andy said. “That’s okay. No explanation necessary.”
She reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I would like to get to know you better. I really would. But I’m afraid once we get started on catching up on each other’s lives, we won’t know when to stop.”
It was almost too dark to see. Andy was about to turn back, when a hole was punched in the dark, skeletal ceiling of treetops. A clearing appeared. Stars glared starkly above, surrounded by a dark halo of branches.
Andy stumbled on a rock.
While regaining his balance, he took a step backward and tripped on another rock. The momentum of his left foot flying out from under him was enough to send him crashing down hard on his butt. His right hand got stuck between the seat of his pants and a hard, flat surface. He winced, the wind knocked out of him, the stars above spinning in a slow, nauseating circle.
As he waited for the pain to subside, he pulled his hand out from beneath him and flexed it, making sure nothing was broken. It seemed to be fine.
He squinted in the darkness. Several more rocks surrounded him.
No - not rocks, he realized.
Gravestones. They were gravestones.
He'd stumbled into a graveyard.
The gravestones loomed in front of him like giant gray teeth. They varied in size from simple cement slabs embedded in the earth, to large ones with the marble still shiny and highlighted with reflections of the overhead stars.
He slowly stood, his eyes straining to see the names on the stones. The lettering on many of them had worn down to slight indentations. The lack of light didn’t help, either.
His eyes, however, were drawn to a large granite statue of Apollo.
Maybe it was the combination of shadow and starlight that made the figure of Apollo look ominous and foreboding, or maybe it was the lettering, bold and black, etched deeply into the stone as if it were more of a warning than a memorial.
It read simply:
MAY 29, 1918 - May 13, 1949
DIED FROM GRIEF
Andy blinked and looked away. The pain in his tailbone subsided to a slow, dull throb. He spotted a wrought iron gate on the opposite side of the cemetery that served as the entrance. Instead of surrounding the cemetery, it acted as a symbolic entryway, a deep, dull black silhouette at night, standing watch over the tombstones. Its shape was stark and rigid in contrast to the random jumble of tree trunks and branches. Beyond it was a dirt road.
Time to head back, Andy thought. Just take it easy. Try not to trip over anything else and break an arm.
He looked up at the clear sky, amazed at how bright the stars were, thousands of blazing pinpoints in the blackness above. They weren’t shrouded in a haze of pollutants, weren't diminished by the glow of city lights. Here, the Milky Way stood out brighter than any photograph he’d ever seen of it, its band of stars arching across the sky, an astral river of milk.
He lifted the binoculars to his face. The stars exploded, tripling, quadrupling in quantity, and blinding him with their ancient light. He stood transfixed and fascinated, until his body stiffened and his legs tingled with sleep. He stretched, joints popping, muscles complaining, until the soreness gave way.
The noise of crickets stopped as he took a step forward. But only for a moment.
“Let’s get a move on,” he said, his voice sounding extra loud out here.
Which way do I go?
He saw a soft light emanating through the trees and walked towards it. It came from a window in the distance.
Was he that close to Mae’s house? Did the trail wind that much?
But it wasn’t Mae’s house. It was the red brick house he'd seen from Mae’s yard.
The window was on the second floor of the house, the rest of the house in darkness. The window was all that glowed through the bare tree branches.
Andy lifted the binoculars and focused.
No shade was drawn, nor were any curtains blocking his view. A dark brown dresser stood at the back of the room, with a large mirror positioned on top. The mirror was angled in such a way as to permit Andy to see the reflection of two rows of shelved filled with paperback books.
The reflection was interrupted by a flash of red. The redness crossed the window. Hair, orange-red hair, like fire, and it belonged to a woman. She crossed the window again.
She looked to be in her mid-thirties, her face freckled, her complexion pale.
She stopped at the window, her back towards Andy. Her arms lifted up, over her head, taking off the pink blouse she wore. Andy’s heart skipped a few beats. But as she moved towards the mirror in her room, the angle of the window caused Andy to lose sight of anything below her shoulders.
Andy held his breath, waiting.
She turned around and walked towards the window as if the night air called to her. Her figure became visible.
Andy let out his breath in a slow backwards gasp.
She slid the window up, out of the way. The light created a corona around the curly tresses of her hair as she leaned out. Her breasts were full round shadows cascading over the windowsill. She took in a deep breath of air.
A tired breath of air, Andy noticed. She looked wearily into the darkness, her eyes morose and heavy, her lips unsmiling, as if burdened at the corners by some heavy weight.
She backed into the lit room and pulled the glass into place, turned and walked from the window. The light went black.
Andy lowered his binoculars. Stood there a moment, staring. He shook his head. Took a deep breath and began to step carefully over the trail.
Mae pulled the old, frayed patchwork quilt up to her chin. She turned on her side, her eyes wandering across the wooden floor of her bedroom. “Holden,” she whispered.
,” she said, a little louder this time.
Last night she hadn’t noticed the absence of her cat curled in the hollow of her armpit. Not with all the excitement. Not with Andy here. There had been too many thoughts racing through her mind. The gin had only inflamed them, not dulled them as she had hoped. She should have had a few more slugs.
Ha, she thought. Don’t want the boy to think I’m an alcoholic.
“Holden, where are you?” she whispered into the darkness. Tonight, the second night since Andrew Byrd’s arrival, she had realized something was missing. She realized that her cat hadn’t come to bed with her. Mae had grown accustomed to Holden falling asleep in the crook of her armpit, his engine humming gently, pleasantly sending heat and calm through her body in overlapping waves.
She wondered if Andy had come back yet. What was he doing? She sat up and called out loudly, “Holden!” the word seeming to silence the regular creaks and groans of the house.
She swung her legs out of bed, her feet finding the yellow slippers waiting on the cold floor. She stood and walked to her bedroom door. Paused a moment, listening. She listened for signs of Andy, listened for the meows of her cat.
There was nothing.
She was worried. Worried that the same kids who had broken in and lit the cat on fire might have gotten in again.
But did she really believe it was kids? That’s what she told the sheriff.
“Probably some kids from town.”
The sheriff readily agreed.
Much easier to believe that than to let the other deeper suspicions surface.
Mae walked across the hall. Stood at the closed door to Edna’s old room. The room where Andy was staying. She leaned her head against the door. Listened. Slowly turned the doorknob and pushed the door in a few inches.
No matter how slowly she pushed it, the door still creaked.
She cringed, her jaw tingling, electricity shooting up her spine.
There was no one inside. Nothing inside but old memories.
She shut the door, the squeak of its hinges like a cry from the past.
She forced those thoughts from her mind.
The cat’s afraid of Andy, she thought. That’s all.
There was so much to catch up on. But how much did he already know? Did he know anything at all?
She was afraid that if she started talking about it, about the past, she might not be able to stop. Talking about it was like holding a match to a can of gasoline.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had guests in the house. Not counting the -
- the kids.
...some kids from town
,” she had lied, more to herself than the sheriff, as he rocked back and forth on his heels, nodding.)
She called out again - “Holden!”
The house seemed to absorb the word. Swallow it whole.
She walked quickly to the door at the end of the hall. It led up to the attic, and she couldn’t remember going up there for quite a while, but she yanked the door open just in case. It gave way grudgingly.
She called up the steps, “Holden!”
There was no answer.
The door was warped with moisture, so she shut it forcefully. She turned and walked to the stairs, her slippers padding quietly and quickly, her pink terry cloth robe swishing against her ankles.
“Holden!” she called out at the top of the stairs, then muttered, “Damn it,” before descending. She went through room after room flicking on the lights, calling out the cat’s name like a desperate mantra.
She went through the kitchen, opened the door that led to the basement. It was like looking down into a black, hollow throat.
“Holden?” she called.
She pulled her robe tightly around her neck. Shut the door. Turned and jogged to the front of the house, opened the door to the outside and stepped onto the rubber Welcome mat.
She felt desperate. Frightened. On the verge of tears.
“Holden!” she cried. “Holden!” Not caring if Andy heard her, if the neighbors heard her, if the whole damn world heard her.
“Holden!” One last time.
Her voice quickly faded into the unrelenting night. She waited a moment. Listening.
She turned quickly and went inside, letting the screen door slam shut behind her.
The windbreaker Andy wore didn’t help much against the cold. His teeth chattered and his skin crawled, his blood trying in vain to surge through and warm his limbs. He rubbed his hands together vigorously and looked for the trail that led back to Mae’s, the trail now hidden from the moonlight by shadows thrown from trees.
He cupped his hands and blew into them. Stomped his feet and tried to ignore the pressure building up against his bladder.
He turned in the direction of the neighbor’s house. The thought of those breasts and warm red hair warmed his soul for a little while, but soon faded.
Okay, concentrate. Where was Mae’s house in comparison to the neighbors’?
He formed a mental picture of the two houses separated by the grassy field. About half a football field apart. He squinted, making out the outline of two gravestones looking like symmetrical phantoms in the dark. If he headed straight between them, he could continue on a straight path through the woods and hopefully run into Mae’s place. Maybe get poked at by branches, maybe trip a few times, but at least he’d get to where it was warm.
Leaving the clearing, he walked slowly, the light from the stars dimmed by the treetops. His vision was good for only a few feet ahead at a time. He took a few steps, and waited for his eyes to re-adjust. He took a few more steps. He held his arm a short distance in front of his head, shielding off the lingering branches. His other hand fended off the low branches and brush that made a beeline for his crotch. Walking was difficult, picking up his feet in slow, exaggerated steps to avoid tripping. His eyes strained to make out the solid shape of Mae’s house, but they only focused on more branches.
A flashlight would be useful at this point, he thought.
He trudged on.
A strange smell began filling the air around him. At first, it came in separate whiffs, but as he continued his tedious walk forward, high stepping, knocking away branches, it grew stronger. Rancid.
Andy wrinkled his nose. His stomach churned. It smelled like the dumpsters outside of a restaurant he'd worked at in Milwaukee. Rancid, like when the leftover steak and chicken had been thrown out on a hot day, the sun turning it rotten, infested with maggots. The bums even stayed clear of that.
He tried not to breath too deeply.
Must be some animal, he thought. A squirrel or rabbit crawled over here to die.
Then he heard a voice cry out in the distance.
And again –
It was Mae.
He continued groping his way forward, reaching out into the darkness, following the direction of Mae’s voice, hoping the black canopy above would dissipate into the panorama of stars he'd seen in the graveyard. Dissipate into the open air, the fresh, sweet smelling open air.