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Authors: Bonnie Jo Campbell

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BOOK: Q Road
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“If you don't know by now why I married him,” she said, “then
it's none of your damn business. You're not out of your medication again, are you?”

As David fumbled with the white plastic tube from his pocket, Rachel looked away and stacked some pumpkin gourds. Her neighbor Milton Taylor had been right about planting these—at a dollar each, the rutabaga-sized pumpkins sold by the dozens—but Rachel found herself annoyed at their smallness this morning. It seemed wrong to raise vegetables that didn't have a chance at growing to normal size. And besides, you couldn't eat them. She'd gutted one and cooked it, just to see, and she found the paltry bit of meat gritty and flavorless.

After David put his inhaler away, Rachel said, “Your ma didn't get any food for breakfast, did she?”

He shrugged.

“No wonder you're running off the road,” Rachel said. “Do you want an apple?”

“I guess I'd take an apple.”

Rachel went to the far end of her tables and tipped up an empty bushel basket. “The damn deer chewed through my chicken wire. Let me get some apples from the barn.”

“I don't want to be late for meeting George.”

“Fine, then get the hell out of here.”

Neither of them moved or said anything until David shrugged again. Some nights when David slipped out of his house on P Road, he trekked the half-mile shortcut trail over here, and tried to sneak up on Rachel in her garden. He liked to study her from as close as he could, to try to understand why George couldn't live without her, and it was a lot easier to look at her when she wasn't looking back. Sitting in the dark she seemed muscular like Martini the pony, but she could also move as stealthily as Gray Cat. The way she shot practically everything that came into her garden, she was no one to complain about other people killing anything. David would creep as quietly as he could those nights, but a hundred feet
away she'd hear his footsteps, his noisy breathing, or his stomach rumbling, and she'd yell, “David, what the hell are you doing out here?” and he'd yell back, “Nothing,” and come out of hiding. Then she'd make him sit still while she waited for an animal or whispered a story about the Indian she called Corn Girl or explained how a skunk would roll a woolly bear on the ground until all its bristles came out before eating it. Other people said Rachel didn't talk much, but she made David listen to advice about growing tomatoes and skinning muskrats and saving money in coffee cans to buy land, even though David had no interest in tomatoes or muskrats. He didn't even want to own land; he just wanted to drive tractors and combines and pull hay balers and cultivators across George's hundreds of acres.

“What happened to the window?” David pointed at the broken pane in the lower left corner of the big window facing the road. He wore a long-sleeved T-shirt, but Rachel thought he probably should have a jacket on, too.

Rachel said, “George's stupid-ass nephew threw a pumpkin at the house in the middle of the night.”

“How do you know it was Todd?”

“I heard his hooligan voice.”

“Are you going to track him down and shoot him?” David figured it must feel great to launch a pumpkin through the air like a missile and to hear the crash that meant you'd struck your target.

“No, I'm not going to shoot him. I don't shoot people.”

“You shot at me.”

She stared at him. The memory of almost killing David three years ago could still make Rachel stop breathing. “You know that was an accident. I thought you were a coyote.” Even in the dark, though, she should have seen those bright eyes, that freckled face. “I can't believe you keep bringing that up.”

David said, “Maybe you'll get mad and think Todd's a coyote.”

“First of all, I don't shoot coyotes anymore,” Rachel said.
“They eat the woodchucks that eat my garden. And anyways, Todd looks more like a giant rat than a coyote.”

David shrugged again. Actually he was glad Rachel had tried to shoot him, because she'd been nice to him ever since. She wasn't nice to anybody else as far as David could tell, not even George. Even now, six weeks after she'd married George, Rachel didn't seem to realize how lucky she was that she'd get to live here with George forever.

“Now, why don't you wait one goddamn minute and I'll get you some apples out of the barn.”

“I've got to go.” David jumped on his bike and pedaled south. This was the first time George had ever asked him to stack hay in the barn, and David needed to do everything right. George's nephew Todd had been working for him over the summer, but he'd become unreliable, not showing up when he said he would, and often doing a lousy job if George wasn't watching him. George'd had a talk with Todd yesterday, which was maybe why that window ended up busted. David stood up on his pedals.

The donkey, the llama, and Martini the spotted pony all stamped their feet and followed the bicycle along the fence line, then returned to the pasture corner to watch Rachel, in anticipation of getting oats.

“Damn stupid kid.” Rachel fought the desire to shout something after him about being careful or coming back to eat later. Even though David's mother, Sally, didn't pay George any rent to live in that house over on P Road, she couldn't be bothered to feed her kid. Rachel thought that woman seriously needed her ass kicked.

Some of the people in Greenland Township figured Rachel herself had had it tough growing up. She didn't see it that way. While her own mother might have been eccentric, while she might have lost her mind in the end, she'd at least taught Rachel how to feed herself. Until Margo Crane disappeared three years ago, the
woman had wrenched a living out of the local farmland by hunting and trapping, and she'd taught her daughter plenty about getting by. Rachel had lived much of her seventeen years out-of-doors, which was why she knew so much about the wild creatures of this place, for instance that these woolly bear caterpillars were the larvae of the dusty white Isabella moths and that they would not spin cocoons to protect themselves during the winter but would instead curl beneath stacked firewood or patches of bark or decaying wooden rowboats to await the winter. Their bodies were somehow able to endure the freeze, and in spring, they survived the thaw. And only after all that miraculous survival did a woolly bear build its cocoon and begin its transformation.

Crazy hermit mother aside, even just growing up with a face like Rachel's might seem to some like tough luck. Such a face might have been too much for a more self-conscious girl to bear, but Rachel refused to take it as a hardship. Most folks would not say she was ugly, exactly, but nobody would honestly call her pretty; the mystery of her face was that while no individual aspect was freakish, the striking sum of her features demanded a person stop and stare, and then, after dragging his eyes away, look back for confirmation. And despite all that looking, the looker would probably be at a loss to describe the face to anyone later. Technically speaking, Rachel's was a broad face with big cheekbones and a small chin, giving, straight on, the illusion of being round, and although her skin was not pale, the illusion of roundness fed into a suggestion of whiteness, especially in contrast to her long, dark hair, which she remembered to brush about once every three days. As with the bald faces of certain cattle breeds, as with the china-doll visage of the white-breasted nuthatch, when you got close, Rachel's face seemed to spill and stretch over its edges, continuing into her neck and hairline. Her close-set eyes were always a little bloodshot, and though she didn't much like talking, she never hesitated to make the kind of steady eye contact people found disconcerting.
Other kids had been confused by her gaze, but Rachel had dropped out of school a year and a half ago, and the only kid she cared anything about now was David.

Rachel watched David's puny figure grow smaller and finally disappear behind roadside walnut trees. She would swear David had scarcely grown in the three years she'd known him. She focused on another woolly bear, a scrappy one, more orange than black, which had ventured out at a good pace from Elaine Shore's asphalt driveway across the road. Rachel told herself that this fast little guy was destined to make it, but when a pickup truck belonging to one of the Whitbys rattled toward her from the north she just had to stop looking. Damn those caterpillars, Rachel thought as she arranged a bushel basket with every variety of gourd showing, damn them for not having a sense of self-preservation. Damn them for their tiny brains, their subservience to nature. Damn their broken bodies strewn about like overripe mulberries. The caterpillars were stupid like a lot of people around here, picking up and leaving without even realizing where they were to start with. Rachel knew exactly where she was, and she planned to stay and occupy George Harland's acres—more land than she could see from any one place on that land—for as long as she lived and breathed. She didn't know about David, but when she died, she intended to be buried right here in this dark, rich soil.

2

A HALF HOUR BEFORE DAVID ARRIVED AT THE FARM STAND
, Elaine Shore sat in the breakfast nook of her custom-made prefabricated house across the street, watching. The black-haired girl had been arranging vegetables in the predawn light, pausing occasionally to cross her arms and glare at the pavement. Elaine watched Mr. Harland drive off in his rattling menace of a truck, and as always Elaine kept an eye on the herd of three animals at the fence, hoping they wouldn't get loose and wander over to use her lawn as a toilet again. Her lawn already seemed treacherous this morning, with the grass outside her nook window crawling with orange-and-black caterpillars that might be able to inch their way into her house through crevices the installation crew hadn't sealed two years ago. When she noticed the black-haired girl staring back at her, Elaine lowered her head and studied the
Weekly World News
center spread, a depiction of aliens descending a spaceship ramp in single file. She found the vision of smooth gray alien bodies without
hair or sexual organs comforting. Elaine's own short hair needed trimming; she could feel it tingling with growth at her scalp, as well as stretching down onto her face.

From her corner perch, Elaine could also see into the south-facing rooms of the standard-model prefabricated home belonging to the young couple next door. The wife was so petite and pretty that Elaine imagined her sometimes as being a heroine from one of the romances she used to read. So far there was no movement over there, but Elaine kept watch. She looked forward to a time when there would be more than two sets of people to observe. Her lawyer assured her that soon there would be plenty of neighbors, just as soon as George Harland started selling off his farmland.

“That woman is staring over here again,” Steve Hoekstra said. He got out of bed and yanked closed the bedroom curtains.

The words pulled Nicole Hoekstra from a dream of driving over her husband's body on the concrete floor of their two-car garage, of then backing up and running over him a second time. In the last month, she'd been entertaining ever more violent thoughts of killing Steve, but this was the first time she'd actually dreamed it. She tried to soothe away the image of his twisted limbs and mashed internal organs by considering the wholesome brilliance of her wedding day, eighteen months ago, a sparkling day to which, surely, no other in her life would ever compare. In the wedding photos, Nicole looked as lovely as a fairy-tale princess, if she had to say so herself. Now she covered her face with blankets and pretended to be asleep, because she didn't like Steve to see her before she'd fixed herself up a bit.

Steve dressed and went to the kitchen where he started coffee. Through the sliding glass door he watched Rachel across the street arranging her yard-long Brussels sprout stalks. She wore a ragged, oversized barn jacket and rolled-up jeans, but even those clothes
couldn't disguise her lush shape. Though he hadn't been able to get anywhere near her in the six months he'd lived in the house, Steve always waved hello, always told himself that eventually she'd return the gesture. Women of all ages liked Steve, and he didn't see why Rachel should be any different. He'd been thinking he might buy a pair of binoculars to get a better look at her—he would tell Nicole they were for bird-watching. Steve was glad to see the woolly bears out in full force this morning. Over the last few days he'd found the caterpillars to be a good conversation starter with folks in the township, a few of whom had purchased thousands of dollars' worth of insulated windows from his company. Each time Steve smiled and said to a new woman, “Where the heck are those little fellows going?” he felt as though he were saying it for the first time.

As Steve watched through the sliding glass door, the curly-haired neighbor boy nearly careened into Rachel and then crashed his bike into the ditch beside her. Steve wondered if that was what it took to get her attention.

BOOK: Q Road
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