The Warding Charm – By Laura Thomas
The day he came back Emily was in the driveway, squatting in a gravel pen she’d built to capture ants. A black line streamed over her bare feet on its way to the nest in the corral’s center. Sometimes she would squeeze a few in the calloused patches between her toes. Abundant ants, restless to reach home. Their single-mindedness made them easy to trap.
He saw her, of course. She was in plain sight and made no move to hide. Under his arm he carried a floppy-eared gray rabbit like a football. His special-for-her gaze rested on her as it always had, although they hadn’t seen each other since. Emily was twelve, a late bloomer, her mother called her. Straight hips, her breasts shallow, hard buds. The training bra itched. Her mother had scolded her to wear it that day, grow up, dress appropriately, but Emily refused. What she wore couldn’t ward off his evil.
He walked past her up the drive, strode up the cement steps to the concrete porch. What was he doing here? He’d promised not to come back if she didn’t tell. Well, she hadn’t, she’d kept her word. He scratched the rabbit between the eyes. She hated that he was still handsome. The pale skin like blank paper. The deep black hair curled at his neck. The mustache trimmed in a neat patch over his red lip like an inkblot. Shouldn’t he be ugly after the ugly thing he did? They did. Maybe that was why he still appeared to the world as handsome. Maybe it wasn’t to be thought of as ugly if she was now a part of him.
A single knock summoned her mother to the door. She opened the screen and parted her lips as if tasting every word he spoke. She always breathed through her mouth. Chronic sinusitis was what Emily had been told was the matter with her mother. Gunk made her breath stinky. Impossible to kiss her, hard even to stand near her when she spoke, yet he stood fast at the threshold. To hide her red, swollen eyes she was wearing her thick shades, the reflective Jackie O discs Emily would one day realize was fashionable back then. She cried all that morning, seized by one of those sudden jags that made Emily talk long and frantic. Her mother had finally kicked her outside. Now he was staring into her pitch-black lenses at his own reflection, commanding her attention.
She couldn’t hear them, but she was convinced he was telling her mother the whole story. Well good. She’d be released from her promise not to tell. Her parents would quit nagging her about her sulking. They’d quit squelching the talky bursts that followed her silence, those hour-long stories she’d weave, one thought rambling to another like mismatched beads Emily was determined to string into something pretty. If he always intended to tell, why hadn’t she gone ahead and done it first? What was the secrecy for? Why attach rules that only she was expected to obey, as if he were nothing to her but just another parent?
The strong line of his shoulders shifted as if he might hug her mother, comfort her over the bad news about her daughter. Emily wanted to run to the porch then, touch some part of him. Some clean part. Like his arm, the one curled around the rabbit. She waited, hopeful and grieving, for her mother to fetch the gun and shoot him dead. Grandpa’s Mauser rifle hung over their mantle, the one he’d taken from a German soldier’s corpse on the field of battle. That’s how her mother always described the trophy, taken from a corpse on the field of battle. Grandpa was a hero. He’d known how to fight a war and what to take from the battlefield after a triumph. Her mother was a hero’s daughter. She would know these things, too.
The sun whitewashed the gravel, frosted the cement porch with a glaring light. Through the sharp gleam the rabbit changed hands. The soft gray ears grazed her mother’s chapped knuckles, red rimmed knobs like her eyes under the shades, like her nose’s rosy bulb.
Emily turned her attention to the ants. She chose a jagged-edged gravel fragment studded with mica. The chunk was big enough to cover the line of ants marching over her foot’s flat table. Still, she was selective. She squished hard enough for the stone to cut her skin. Slow, thick blood trickled over the crushed ant. The line scattered, fell back into order, skirted the dead body like a stream’s current around a boulder. She’d remember this moment in high school biology, and again as a post-doc researcher, as her first glimpse of instinct’s unmerciful march.
The screen door clapped shut. Emily didn’t understand why her mother would take the rabbit except maybe she didn’t want to hurt it when she shot him dead. His shadow joined with hers. They were touching again down here at the gravel. Oil and sweat spoiled the clean air. Emily didn’t look up. With the sun behind, his face would be black. Nothing to see.
Emily shifted her bare feet in a sprinter’s starting crouch. When her mother fired the Mauser, she would have to scoot out of the way fast. Emily had to keep him in the driveway while her mother got the gun. She let the embroidered neckline of her peasant blouse fall open a bit. Bait for the catch, but she wished now she was wearing that bra.
His shoe knocked over one of her gravel walls, on accident or maybe on purpose. The ants scuttled to the break.
“Hello.” His voice special, as if they’d parted just the day before, although since the winter had disintegrated into this warm sticky spring.
Did he want to hear her voice? His was the same. A dip in his tone like the even swoosh of a swing. She shrugged.
“How are you?” He sounded hurt at her silence.
It was good that she could hurt him. When would her mother get out here? She mumbled, fine. From the apple tree in the front yard a bird trilled two notes, hi-lo, probably a chickadee. She was memorizing bird calls that spring, something else to do when her mother sent her outside besides play with the ants. Were the blossoms out by then? Could she also hear bees buzzing at the pink tipped blooms, their faint kazoos piped through the air like wax paper pressed to toothcombs? Beyond the apple tree and a row of lilac bushes the lawn sloped to the dirt road. His rusty old truck was parked on the shoulder’s grass. He hadn’t pulled into the drive, maybe afraid he’d hit her on accident even though she was right there in plain sight.
His shadow shifted. His arm melted into her head. “I brought you a bunny for a present. I remember you said your hamster died.”
Oreo died a long time ago. She was too old now to miss him anymore, too old to want another small creature. Rodents were for kids who didn’t know anything about what made a good pet. What Emily wanted now was a dog, the bigger the better. A cuddly gentle breed but with a huge barrel chest and fangs. Terrifying on the outside, loving on the inside.
Maybe he was remembering only that she’d told him about the hamster, and the telling made the death seem recent. He cleared his throat. “Bunnies are stronger. Not so susceptible to every little thing. They make good pets. I asked your mom if it was ok just now. Do you like bunnies?”
Emily hated bunnies. When she was a kid The Velveteen Rabbit had scared her shitless. Instead of comforting the sick boy, burning up with scarlet fever, the parents took away his favorite stuffed toy and banished him to the seaside. Any normal kid would die outright from such cruelty, but the boy had gotten better, so maybe it was all right. But why burn all of his toys while he was gone? Why not just spray them with bleach like her mother used to?
“I guess I like them,” she said.
He approved of her reply. “Lots of girls do.”
Their shadows drew apart. The ants abandoned the opening he’d kicked, streamed back to the nest.
She glanced up at the porch. The door was still closed. Maybe her mother was having trouble loading Grandpa’s rifle. Keep him here, hold him fast. Still, her hand crept to her blouse and scrunched it closed. Willed the door to open, the same door she’d opened to him when she was home alone and wasn’t supposed to let anyone in but he was there to fix the furnace, her dad had called him to come right away, he said, so Emily wouldn’t freeze to death, and he had a toolbox and she’d flirted with him, she had. Plenty of times when he hung around drinking beer with her father, she’d wandered into the den or onto the deck, pulled her bare legs up to her chin for him to run his gaze over. Met his eyes boldly. She didn’t even blush. Once they’d held hands when her father was in the kitchen fetching more beer. Wasn’t she old enough to know exactly what she as doing? When she showed off her new bikini to her dad last summer, flashed a grin over her shoulder, her dad laughed and said my goodness but a girl was never too young to flirt. He meant to tease her. But Emily took him seriously, trusted his judgment of girls like her.
“Do you want to know what’s special about this bunny? Other than it’s for a special girl?” His voice dropped to the special tone he always used with her. The deep secret music used to thrill her.
She mumbled, “I guess.”
He squatted down to her level. He wanted her to look at him. She searched instead for the ant stragglers. “It’s not a tame one from the store. It’s wild. I caught it.”
How he’d managed that would be another string of terrifying imaginings she’d spend years trying to quash.
He touched her chin, tilted her gaze to his. Friendly eyes, black as sunglasses, why wasn’t it hard to look at him? Maybe she was braver then she thought. “It’s not easy to catch a bunny and not hurt it so it can’t be a pet to anyone.”
“So you can feed it anything. Because it’s used to eating what it can find. You don’t need to go to a special store to get special food.” His long nail nicked her chin when he let her go. He’d cut her in her other places maybe on accident, maybe on purpose. “It was hard to do. To catch her.”
A repetition of a fact she was expected to remember. She was meant to be grateful. “Thank you.” She tried to sound ungrateful.
“I’ll come back sometime. Help you feed her.”
He knew the family had a gun, he’d asked her dad to tell him the whole story once. Why wasn’t he scared to show his face here? A bird’s lithe shadow, maybe a chickadee, flitted over the gravel. Emily selected the ant milling over his toe. The shoe’s leather crown wrinkled under his crouch like ripples of brown water. She rubbed the worn leather with the gravel as if she was polishing the shoe. When the ant was crushed, he wet a finger. Familiar, the sound his tongue made. He used his water to wash away the ant, then dabbed the blood on her foot.
“That’s cruel,” he said.
She dried her foot by wiping the gravel chunk along her cut. “I know.”
“Like tearing the wings off flies. I knew a kid who did that. He was bad news.”
Emily knew a kid who had pulled the wings off a monarch butterfly, and a girl, too, but she didn’t tell him that.
“This is how you get rid of them.” He stood up, nudged the nest’s mound with his shoe. Fine grains cascaded into the hole like sand sliding through an hourglass’s throat. “See? Easier that way. But it won’t keep them away for long.”
She looked up at the black hollow of him, his silhouette cut out from the sunshine like a paper doll. He might have blown her a kiss goodbye, she couldn’t see. He walked down the drive, disappeared into the day’s glare. The motor sounded as rusty as the truck.
Emily went after her mother to tell her she’d missed her chance to shoot him dead. The house was still, as it often was because of her mother’s condition. The day’s glassy brightness made the familiar rooms caverns, or maybe her eyes refused to adjust to the gloom. On the dining room table, the bunny was dumped in the old hamster cage. It filled the space like a fat aunt in a parlor. The water dispenser was empty. The shavings smelled of mold. Emily went to the den. Above the mantle, huddled in the flagstones, the Mauser lay on its pegs. The grainy blond wood stock and barrel gleamed as if her mother had chosen to polish the gun instead of use it. Her mother knew how to shoot this gun. Once she’d pointed it at Emily’s dad during the loud fights they used to have before the sinusitis became chronic. The gun wasn’t loaded, on accident or on purpose. The trigger’s hollow click made her dad laugh, like her mother was playing a joke.
So by the looks of things mother hadn’t disappeared inside the house to prepare to defend her daughter. Doubly bad news, because this time he’d left with a rule change. He planned to come back.
He must mean for them to be lovers.
And since, after what he’d told her, her mother hadn’t shot him dead, she must mean for this to happen.
Down the hallway a light burned. Her mother’s bedroom door was closed. Emily rapped lightly, mom, cracked the door to see a mound of blankets burying her on that bright warm day. The sunglasses stood rickety on uneven earpieces as if she’d bent them on her way to her room. A bottle of pills to treat her sinuses lay empty on its side near the lamp. One of her hard stuff bottles stood next to the pillbox, the cap screwed on neatly. Beer was all her father ever drank. He left the hard stuff to my lovely wife, he always said. Emily could never tell whether he was joking or not. Her mother kept her bottles in her nightstand, some in her sewing cabinet, never in the kitchen. Emily wondered if her dad knew how often her mother replaced those bottles.
Her mother must have gone to sleep to escape the news of her daughter’s defilement, a word Emily had read in a tale. A heaviness in the air, the sour scent of resting up before facing the truth, but whom would she confront upon awakening, him or her daughter?
Anyway her mother wasn’t going to be a hero.
The first order of business was to fill the water dispenser and carry the rabbit to the garage. No animals in the house. After the hamster died that became the new rule. She slid the cage on a low shelf tucked in dust and gloom. When her father pulled into the garage, his fender would graze the bars, hide the animal from view.
Then back to the ants to await her mother’s awakening.
Not only did her mother survive his visit that day, he never even confessed; but the blistering memory of her mother’s deep sleep made hard and fast truth out of childish supposition. Such news would make any mother want to kill herself, Emily reasoned. Sometimes heroes did that, absolved the family dishonor by taking their own life. It was how Emily forgave her mother for not shooting him dead. The real truth was that her mother had already swallowed those pills when he came to the door. He’d interrupted her long slumber, not caused it.
For years Emily thought her father’s desperate attempts to awaken her mother when he found her that evening, his frantic call for an ambulance, her mother’s confinement to her bed for weeks after she came home, proved he’d told. When her father yelled at her, why didn’t you call for help? Emily thought immediately of how hard and sudden he had grabbed her in the furnace room. I couldn’t, she tried to explain, which made her father furious. She understood his rage, shared it, even. Couldn’t she have gotten away somehow before he knocked her to the concrete floor and it was too late? But her father was forgetting that no one had been home, so what difference would her struggle have made? At the time it didn’t occur to her that her father meant, help your mother. Emily assumed that by then her mother had told her father about the defilement, that they were all dancing around the same unspeakable thing.
As the weeks dragged on and her parents never mentioned him, Emily never dreamed of bringing him up. It was about that time that she approached Officer Friendly in school when he was warning the class about drug danger. Officer Friendly called his talk D.A.R.E., which to Emily sounded more like an invitation than deterrence. She didn’t make herself at all clear. She mixed up the telling of him with how he’d then tried to kill her mother. When the officer looked concerned, Emily’s teacher stepped forward. Suicide attempt. Everyone in the class could hear her stage whisper. Officer Friendly patted Emily’s shoulder kindly, embarrassed for her. Not that Officer Friendly’s reaction mattered, not really. What worried her wasn’t justice, but his promise to come back.
One last faith, that if she fed the bunny exactly as he’d instructed, the rabbit’s health would ward him off. During her mother’s hospital stay, when Emily was left alone in the house for him to come for her any time he pleased, she loaded the cage with all of the vegetables she hated. Limp salads pickled in vinegar, mushy cooked carrots, slippery canned green beans. She fed it sweets, too, bits of fudge and cookies. The rabbit’s belly bulged. It forged guarded, knowing black eyes and a sly way of moving as if anxious for the day it would outgrow the cage and return to the wild. Emily never knew if it was male or female. Did she know how to check at her age? Of course she knew. She must have refused to learn the sex, and she’d forgotten he had called it her.
Why didn’t she release the monster in the yard before her father discovered it? When Emily came out to feed it one evening, her father had set the cage on the station wagon’s hood. By then the enormous belly pressed through the bars. The rabbit’s eyes were narrow and short-sighted from the chronic gloom. The orange light from the dusty garage window startled it. It shied from the sun, pressed its flab tight into the cage’s corner. “Where did it come from, Emily?”
Emily told. Waited for his reaction at being reminded of all the trouble. Did Dad blame him or Emily for her mother’s condition? Well, now the rabbit was the charm to find out.
“How thoughtful of him.” Her dad smiled, the first pleasure she’d seen in weeks, months really. Not since her mother had pointed the Mauser at him and he’d laughed. “I didn’t know he’d been by. Too bad we’ve been out of touch. A pet will be a nice plaything for you, won’t it?”
She nodded. Except how was a rabbit supposed to play? But she didn’t say this out loud.
Her father gave her the uneasy look he’d been casting at her lately, like he wished he didn’t have to talk to her at all. “Your mother’s illness is hard, isn’t it, sweetheart.” He said this like a fact, not a question she was expected to answer.
She did anyway. She allowed as how it wasn’t all that hard because her mother slept so much.
Her father disapproved of her attitude. She could tell because he petted the bunny’s floppy belly through the bars instead of petting her. She wanted to scream, don’t give me away, because what else could his pleasure mean at his gift?
“I hope you said thank you.”
She curled her fists at her hips. At least she didn’t have to lie about that.
“I’ll build your bunny a cage out back, honey. Animals need light, a roomy place to live. You shouldn’t have put it in the garage. They’re like us, Em, ok? Animals need what we need. The basics, anyway. Understand?”
She did understand.
Her father scratched the rabbit on the silken crown, rubbed a finger between its dim crafty eyes. “After your mother is all better we’ll give a call, invite him over to dinner. Thank him properly for thinking of you.”
That was how a timeline was established for his return.
The magical notion that keeping the bunny fat was her warding charm vanished with her father’s pledge. Emily stopped feeding the rabbit. The animal’s slimming took longer than she imagined. After a week it was still huge. It drank greedily when Emily filled the water dispenser. It butted its crown against her palm, licked at the sweat and dirt between her fingers. The longer the bunny kept its fat, the more affection Emily came to feel for it. Because it didn’t change appearance, it couldn’t be in pain, she reasoned. Its refusal to suffer was a show of loyalty.
Or a sign that her fear of him would never show.
Her father’s pledge to invite him back meant her parents had decided to restore her honor by giving her away, like a village girl to the bandit who’d defiled her. Would they braid her hair with flowers, dress her in white, parade her through town as if the arrangement were a wedding, not a sacrifice? Her mother’s suicide attempt was a necessary response to the field of battle. No one would blame Emily directly for her mother’s enduring despair. But giving her to him was an atonement that made sense.
That these assumptions were fantastical and irrational, that such cruelty contradicted so completely her parents’ competent, if chronically distant, treatment of her, never crossed Emily’s mind. The imagination she possessed. The fear she carried. The tale she spun of the village girl and the bandit, handsome to all the world, his villainy shown only to her, was a way to cope with impulses she didn’t understand. Crushing the ants. Starving the bunny. Her missing appetite for food, for friendships, for the normal passions other girls her age were pursuing with clumsy single-minded quests for affection. A hero was her last hope, but no way would he show up in time.
One sweltering day, it must have been late June, Emily climbed the attic stairs to rummage through some boxes. What had she been looking for? She couldn’t recall anything being worth enough to her that summer to leak sweat, dizzy and disoriented, in the dismal heat. She must have gone after some long-forgotten obsession, a little-girl doll she suddenly wanted to play with again, a book she wanted to re-read. She found instead a box marked Eagle’s Nest. Inside was a photograph of her grandfather sipping wine on a marble terrace, a lead-gray sky blending with the mountains behind a caramel-brick chalet. Grandpa had bright blue eyes but the black and white photo erased their color, made everything in the photo look like stone. He was squinting at the camera the way he used to squint at Emily before he died. Angry and scared, warding her off as if she’d caused his stroke. Her mother explained Grandpa didn’t mean to look that way, he didn’t even recognize Emily anymore. The wine glass in the photo was still full. She flipped it over. Damn fool Hitler’s damn fool wine 1945 was scrawled on the back.
From a wad of yellowed tissue paper Emily pulled a red marble chunk, dull as old blood. Folded neatly underneath the marble were two satin dresses dimpled with stains. The hems rustled on the pine floor when Emily held them up to her shoulders. In the pale light of the bulb dangling from the ceiling, the crimson and lavender silk shone like wildflowers.
She set the dresses aside and pulled out a thick handkerchief. Wrapped inside she found five cigar-sized torpedoes capped with steel. Maybe they were toys, since real torpedoes were enormous. The close, dusty air was getting to her. Her sweat dripped onto the crimson dress draped over her bare toes. She wiped her neck with the bodice and took out another tissue-wrapped packet. More photos, but the paper was sturdier than photographic paper and the pictures on the cards were larger than Grandpa’s snapshots. One showed Hitler with his head squished between a naked woman’s fat round breasts. In another Hitler’s stern salute collided with the mud-brown saucers ringing a woman’s nipples. The women’s arms were draped around Hitler’s neck. Their wide-mouthed hungry grins leered down on his greasy, tousled hair. Why was Hitler dressed in uniform when the women were naked? But he hadn’t undressed either, with Emily. He’d torn off her sweatpants and unders, scrunched her shirt around her neck to choke her. All he’d done to his own clothes was tear open his belt and unzip his jeans.
More cards, decorated with foreign words. One cartoon was split into two panels. In the left panel a tired soldier hunched behind barbed wire. The bodies of fallen soldiers hung limply from the tented wire fence. In right panel a naked woman in a fancy room brandished a champagne glass and snuggled on a man’s lap. Outside the window behind her nude shoulder the Eiffel Tower’s black skeleton shone starkly on the white paper. On the table next to the armchair was a photo of the tired soldier in ordinary clothes kissing the woman. The man she was snuggling with now wore ordinary clothes. He’d wedged his hand between the woman’s spread legs. The woman’s lips curved around the champagne glass as if she was enjoying her drink and that hand didn’t hurt a bit but Emily thought she saw pain in the woman’s flat inked eyes.
Emily thumbed through the drawings. Soldiers with naked women flung over their shoulders like sacks. Soldiers bumping into naked women from behind, the women bent double to the ground. Black soldiers squeezing fat white breasts. Foreign words unfurled like triumphant banners over the scenes, showy script, fancy exclamation points. Warnings or celebrations? Impossible to tell.
The last card showed a pretty village girl framed by plump blond braids. She was lying on her belly, elbows propped under her chin, dainty slippers crossed at the ankles, a daisy stem tucked in her smiling lips. Behind her stretched a field thick with wildflowers and grass. Above her unfolded a clear, empty sky. The girl’s expression was peaceful, happy in that daydreamy way, maybe because she was the only girl in the bunch with her clothes still on. But what was she dreaming about? The empty sky offered no clue. Emily rubbed at a smudge above the girl’s head. Held the drawing up to the bare light bulb to inspect the dirt. Smack dab in the blank empty sky the ferocious snarl of a soldier grinding on top of the girl jumped out at Emily. His hairy, muscle-roped hands choked the girl’s white neck. Her pretty dress was torn to shreds. The plump braids flopped into her gaping mouth. Her legs wrenched like broken toothpicks under the soldier’s thrusting. The daisy she’d been chewing on lay crushed beneath her arm.
Emily cried out and dropped the card. The soldier and the suffering girl winked out of sight. The village girl was alone again with her happy dreams and the wide empty sky. Her defilement lurked above her, hiding in wait for the next ray of light.
Emily fought back tears. Why did Grandpa have these wicked dirty cartoons? Had he fought the Germans to rescue these poor women?
She laid the cards next to the toy torpedoes. The steel tips gleamed in the dim light. The rafters creaked in the heat. A moldy smell like her mother’s breath seeped from the satin dresses. He’d done some of these things to her, things she thought had never been done to any girl. But if what they’d done could be drawn, they must be common things, nothing special, like that village girl with the daisy.
She picked up a torpedo. Why would Grandpa have toys in this box, toys he’d never given to her?
She glanced back at the cards, picked out one with a grinning soldier ramming into a woman’s behind. His gun was slung over his shoulder. It looked like Grandpa’s Mauser.
She pressed the torpedo’s sharp tip, studied the deep impression it dimpled in her finger. Too small to be real torpedoes, but were they just the right size to be bullets for a big gun?
The field of battle stretched before her as if a magic carpet had flown straight to her feet to take her there. If she dragged a chair to the mantle, she could easily reach the Mauser.
Her sleeping mother wouldn’t hear a thing. The fat mu-mued neighbor lady wasn’t out today on the back deck sipping Tab, settling her hawk’s eye on Emily, poor thing, playing all by herself while that sicko mother neglected her. Their overgrown lawn bounded a stand of oak trees, and the trails through the woods led to abandoned cornfields. She could easily spirit the gun away.
She knew where he lived and could walk there.
Emily piled Grandpa’s treasures back into Eagle’s Nest. Except the dirty photos. Those she tucked in her sundress pocket.
Lugging the gun proved the real chore. Emily could barely lift it over the hooks. A peg caught the trigger guard, almost sent her tumbling to the carpet. She was awkward, boney-weak, as if hammered to life on a worn-out anvil. The gun was almost as long as she was. But Emily managed to get it out of the house and drag it across the yard to the protected path without being discovered. She didn’t dare think about how she would heft the gun once she had him in her sights.
She was tromping through the cornfield, the Mauser bumping along at her heels, when she burst upon a girl smoking in a clearing. The new girl, Dinah, the one who’d pulled the wings off the monarch butterfly. Dinah’s bare toes were buried in the furrows. The cigarette dangled from her hand, ashing on a mound of dried husks.
She shared none of the surprise Emily felt stumbling onto her. Her gaze rested on the barrel poking from Emily’s fist. “That’s not the way you carry it.”
The same calm assurance she’d shown over the butterfly’s torture. At her feet, a filament of smoke unwound from the husks.
“It’s heavy.” Emily drew the gun to her chest.
“Are you shooting with the boys?”
Dinah’s hard curiosity raised a wrinkle of feeling Emily would come to realize was attraction. She thought Dinah had said at the boys until a shot rang out, followed by a metallic plinking on tin. Whoops drifted through the cornrow’s slats. She shook her head.
“Can I watch you shoot?”
“There’s nothing to watch.”
Dinah appraised her skinny arms, her flat, plain body. Sizing up whether Emily was capable of doing anything interesting. She must have liked what she discovered. She pulled on the cigarette, held the cloud in her lungs, an abrasion Emily could almost feel. She dropped the butt, ground the husks with her bare heel. The smoke curl winked out. “No reason I can’t tag along, then.”
She might need help loading the gun, was Emily’s thinking. She allowed Dinah to trail her, said nothing when Dinah lifted the Mauser’s stock as if they were village girls hauling the water bucket home. When Emily wound her way towards the boys, towards the wrong way out, Dinah nudged her east, the rifle her rudder.
His house was isolated on the outskirts of town, a cobblestone plunked down in stark pre-suburban Southeast Michigan fields not yet thought of as real estate. The girls crossed a dirt road to wade through a grassy field scorched from the heat. A flatbed farm truck sped by. Gravelly dust skittered along the road in front of a white concrete apron. A short road divided the opposite field, ended for no good reason in the middle of the corn. She would learn later that the unfinished street was the beginning of a new subdivision, but on that day the nowhere road seemed like an abandoned mistake.
When the truck rattled past, Dinah lowered her end of the rifle to bury the weapon from sight, but out there, back then, no one would question the sight of a gun in a field filled with pheasant, not even if girls were carrying it. Their rustling traipse through the long grass should have raised a bird. By now a flash of green and gold, a glorious pinwheel against the broad white sky, should be casting a shadow on the girls. But the sky stretched empty and clean like a yawn’s void. His house and a clump of oak trees behind, leafy branches woven like an emerald tapestry, were lonely bumps on the horizon.
He was unlikely to be home, Emily realized, too late. In her girlish view of summer’s unmoored routines she hadn’t thought that he’d be at work. Like her father. She’d hauled the Mauser all this way for nothing. Sweat streaked her back and heels. Salt burned her eyes. She’d have to face Dinah now. Admit to poor planning and the narrow vision of the imagination where deeds are foolish descendents of impulse.
But then there he was, behind the cobblestone house, walking across his clipped grass into a wildflower carpet partly shaded by the oaks. Sunny buttercups, royal purple dragoncatchers, white astor parted under his boots. Daisies popped their golden eyes as he passed. Crimson clover tongues brushed his legs. He waded carelessly through the color as if sloshing upstream. He looked ridiculous, padded in a full bodysuit of whitewashed armor. With a helmet hat, black mesh lumped at his neck. Why was he so protected? Had he sensed she was coming for him like those crafty bandits in the tales?
Dinah touched her bare shoulder. “That him?”
Emily nodded. That Dinah would know he was the one Emily was after did not strike her as strange. Already she took for granted Dinah’s divining her heart.
“Don’t hurt the bees.”
“What?” Emily brushed the sweat from her eyes. The sun glanced off the flowers’ bright colors. Thick perfume rolled to her on the humid air.
Dinah pointed. A tall column of stacked boxes rested on pallets in the oak glade. That’s why he was dressed the way he was, it was stupid of her not to realize. That he would be a keeper of bees jarred her, that he coaxed honey from them! He’d been as ruthless with the ants as she had. He’d filled their mound with a casual swipe of his shoe. He’d handled her with cold ferocity too, smothered her without snuffing her out for good. How could he tend bees?
When he reached these hives, would he withdraw a comb, drip the honey on his fingers, smear the sweet on his lips? Of the parts of him she’d known, his mouth had not been one.
“Do you know how to load this thing?” Dinah’s voice floated to her from a distance.
Emily took the handkerchief from her pocket, unwrapped the bullets. The sharp torpedo-tips would rip through that suit, they’d rip through anything. She handed the rounds to Dinah.
Together they figured out how to work the bolt action by removing the pin. The rounds chambered perfectly. Five shots. But after the first he’d run away, or run towards her, snatch the weapon, turn it on her. She had one chance at the upper hand.
“You’re too far away,” Dinah warned.
Emily couldn’t move closer to him. She couldn’t move at all. She hefted the gun, settled the silver guard into her shoulder’s bony cave. The stock lodged smoothly under her arm. Harder to lug the gun than to raise and aim. She felt light, steady. A cold band tightened around her belly like a strap of ice.
Dinah placed a hand on the barrel as he lifted the beehive’s lid and pulled out a frame. “You won’t hit anything from here anyway. Wait until he’s away from the bees.”
Emily pressed the trigger. Dinah’s hand flew from the barrel. The kick knocked Emily backwards into the grass. The gun landed above her head. The silence baffled her, as if the gun’s report had sucked in all the air. Instead of him she faced the sky, fringed by grass, the sun a bright, shimmering bauble.
“Jesus.” Dinah was pulling on her dress strap. “That was really close.”
Emily rolled to a crouch, peeked over the grass. He was facing the field, rooted fast, the bees swarming like sunspots on his white suit and gloves. Emily scrambled for the gun as he turned to replace the frame, dusted, carefully, the bees from his suit as if picking at stray threads. Emily stood up. He started towards the girls. When he reached the wildflower patch she raised the gun. But she hadn’t chambered the next round. Perhaps he knew she wasn’t ready to shoot because his stride was calm, measured.
Dinah tugged her. “Heaven’s sake. Come on.”
Then they were running through the field, the gun bumping behind, the grass slapping at their legs. They flew across the dirt road, hightailed it down the nowhere street, plunged into the tall cornstalks at the concrete’s end. Emily didn’t realize she was crying until Dinah stopped, grabbed her by the shoulders and forced her head to her knees until she caught her breath. The dizziness cleared. The sudden brightness showed Emily she’d been running in darkness, on the verge of passing out.
She looked up. Dinah’s dark hair damp was with sweat. She was grinning at how easy it was to get away with anything. “You ok?”
“What did he do?”
There might come a time, later, not to lie. “He stole something.”
“You must really want it back.” Dinah helped her straighten up. “Did you see how fast he ran? That stupid hat just flew off him.”
Emily frowned. “He wasn’t running away.”
“He sure was. All the way to Detroit.” Dinah picked up the Mauser’s barrel. “Come on.”
“But he was coming after us.”
“Are you kidding? The only way he’ll come around you again is to give your shit back. Let’s go.”
The trek through the cornstalks dimmed the white glare, brought the day back into focus. The dry crumpled stalks, Dinah’s ivory skin against her dark tangled hair. The gunstock’s smooth, soothing grain, the sharp bite of husks scraping her legs. She’d be cut up from this adventure like a regular girl playing an ordinary summer. She tugged on the gun to get Dinah’s attention.
“Hey. What do you care about bees?”
“What’s that mean?”
“How are bees different from butterflies?”
Dinah stopped, planted her feet in the dirt. “Did you bump your head or something?” She stared at Emily a moment and then grinned. “Oh. That. You too?”
“Me too what?”
“Fooled you, that’s what.” She turned on her heel. “That butterfly was already dead.”
“Oh.” A trick. No wonder she’d been so cool. Emily felt disappointment when she should have felt relief. “Why’d you do it, then?”
“Not the first time I’ve been the new girl. I know how not to get hassled. Let them think you’ll do anything. But don’t think I’d ever hurt even a butterfly.” Dinah stopped at the edge of the field and grinned at Emily’s expression. In the clearing beyond the stalks the boys’ whooping rose over a hollow tinny plink. “You’re so provincial, Em. You’ve got guts, though, I’ll say that for you.” She stepped into the clearing.
Emily hung back. “I don’t want to.”
Dinah turned, stretched out her hand. “Come on. This is your alibi.”
Dinah pulled Emily out of the stalks. Under a maple tree on the far side of a grassy clearing, three boys stood in a loose circle around a skinny, wolfish shepherd dog. The dog’s legs shook like wobbling stilts. Light brown fur tufted the dog’s bony ankles. A dented soup can glittered on the summer-singed grass near a rifle propped against the maple’s trunk. The boys were high school age, old enough to be plinking with .22 rifles, anyway. Emily didn’t recognize any of them. She didn’t think Dinah did either, which didn’t stop her from dropping Emily’s hand and walking right up to join their circle. Emily hung back at the cornfield’s edge, clutching the Mauser’s stock.
“Your dog looks sick. What’s wrong with him?” The skinny dog snarled at Dinah. She reached out calmly and scratched behind his ears. Bits of fur rubbed away under her touch. The coarse hairs scattered on the thin breeze. The dog whined and snapped at Dinah’s hand. She snatched her fingers away in time and stood fast, unafraid, or pretending to be.
The tallest boy, a blond with a kinked scowl and bright blue eyes, kicked the dog’s ribs. The dog howled and shrank from Dinah as if she’d been the one to cuff him. “Nothing’s wrong with that dog.” He pushed past Dinah to gape at the Mauser. The other boys followed him. The one with wire-rimmed spectacles had a white capture-the-flag scrap of cloth stuck in his jean’s pocket. The other was bulky in the chest and arms, farmer’s muscle. A farmer’s sun-soaked squint crinkled his eyes. He wore a flannel plaid work shirt. Sweat soaked his collar, except it wasn’t so hot here in the clearing. The maple leaves shielded the sun, and the breeze held a shaving of coolness. Anyway, Emily felt the cold.
“That’s a German rifle.” The blond boy was standing right in front of Emily but didn’t look at her. Her sundress had slipped low, was barely covering her chest. Dinah had broken the strap she’d tugged on to get Emily to run from him. Emily hadn’t noticed her bared skin until the boy failed to.
“It’s not real.” Spectacles reached out to touch the stock. Emily stepped back.
“It’s real, you dodo,” the blond said.
The farmer said, “Bet it doesn’t shoot.”
Dinah stroked the dog’s trembling back. It tolerated her touch, too afraid now, or tired, to snap at her. “I’ll take that bet.”
The boys all looked back at her as if seeing her for the first time. The blond looked twice. Ran his gaze down her dark, wind-tangled hair, tight black tank top, long, pale legs. Dinah tossed a careless sexy look back at him like a casual volley.
“If you’re so eager to bet, you know it shoots.” The blond turned back to Emily. Absorbed the gun with the same hunger he’d absorbed Dinah.
“Bet you my friend can blow away your crummy tin can with one shot.”
Emily flushed, shook her head at Dinah. Dinah gave her the same look she’d lobbed at the blond. A natural flirt, but Dinah knew how to pick the right targets, not become the target.
“No way.” The blond studied Emily, dismissed her pinched, plain face. Too timid to say a word to a pack of boys, let alone shoot a big gun. “She doesn’t even know how to hold it.”
“She knows exactly how to hold it. Wanna bet?”
“What do you wanna bet?”
The farmer noticed Emily’s flush, her nervous, shifting feet. “Leave her alone, Rick.”
“This old dog.” Dinah’s grin was sheer brightness, but Emily, watching her play with the dog’s ears and thinking of the butterfly trick, saw the hard muscular curl along her clenched jaw.
Spectacles curled a fist around the white kerchief in his pocket. “That’s a stupid bet.”
“Whoever owns this dog is too stupid to take care of it right.”
Rick walked over to Dinah, shadowed her with his chest. Dinah’s glassy, teasing smile never wavered.
After a moment, he relaxed. “You got a dog of your own to bet?”
For a moment Emily expected Dinah to offer up the Mauser, but she must have sensed that her command over Emily’s alibi did not include the gun. “I’ve got a pack of my stepdad’s Hav a Tampa Jewels and some Sweet Tarts.”
“I don’t smoke and I’m pronated to cavities.” Rick laid a hand on the dog’s head. The shepherd’s knees locked like tree knots. The farmer and Spectacles joined him to ring Dinah.
Being penned didn’t seem to bother her in the least. “Prone.”
“Prone to cavities.” Dinah slipped her hand into her short’s pocket. Popped a Sweet Tart in her mouth and rolled it on her tongue. “Plenty left for you boys.” Flecks of spittle gleamed on her lips.
Rick stretched a finger to her bare wrist and tickled his way up her arm. Itsy bitsy spider, Emily thought he whispered. She lodged two fingers in her mouth, whistled sharply. From an oak on the other edge of the clearing, a bird trilled back. A sparrow, probably.
Startled, the boys turned to Emily. Dinah and the dog didn’t flinch.
Emily took the wicked dirty cards from her sundress pocket and held the packet out.
Rick mumbled something, fucking sped, and crossed the clearing to take the packet. The boys crowded around as Rick unwrapped the tissue and flipped through the cards. Emily expected them to laugh at Hitler squished between the naked woman’s breasts, or grabbing the woman’s tit on accident, but the boys didn’t so much as crack a smile. Although he drank up the images greedily, a flush crept up Spectacle’s neck. The farmer glanced at Emily uneasily. Rick looked back at Dinah, who teetered on tiptoe behind him to see what Emily had dragged out now. She answered his questioning look with an arched brow, see what I mean about her?
Behind glinting lenses, Spectacles took in Emily’s flat chest, her broken dress strap. He was thinking she wasn’t at all like any of the grown women being defiled in the pictures, but what would he say if he found out that she was exactly like them?
Rick wrapped up the cards and stuck them in his back pocket. “You’re on,” he said.
Emily stepped to the middle of the clearing.
Dinah swiped up the soup can from the grass, looked around for a stump or a rock to place it. “Where do you set this thing up?”
Rick grinned. “Right on this old dog’s back.”
The farmer crossed his arms. “Come on, Rick. Leave them alone.”
Rick cuffed the dog and held out his hand. Dinah handed over the can without a word. A low whine rumbled from the dog’s throat when soup can touched its back. Bleak black eyes fastened on Dinah.
“No way did you shoot that can off this dog’s back.” Dinah glanced at Emily uneasily. So Dinah had nerves after all, she wasn’t always the cool girl. Well good. Emily chambered the round calmly. The bullet’s click rang out like she’d already plinked the tin.
“Guess you’ll have to take my word for it,” Rick said.
Emily knew by the dog’s terrified lockjaw that the boys had shot at it, all right. Controlling that much fear took training. “Take it off,” she said. Too loudly. Her voice echoed off the trees.
Rick grinned. “The mute speaks. Bet’s off, then.”
“I’d watch that mouth, Sport.” Dinah stepped away from the dog, her bright eyes on Emily.
Emily hefted the Mauser. Still a struggle, but it pillowed in her shoulder’s hollow naturally. “Take it the fuck off or I’ll shoot you.”
The farmer made for the oak tree. Spectacles laughed at him. “What the fuck, man. She can’t even hold it up all the way.”
Emily aimed at the empty space beyond Rick’s elbow. The recoil knocked her flat again. This time the rifle’s boom filled her ears. How had silence swallowed this roar when she’d shot at him? The boys yelped and scattered. Shit. If her father was home by now, the noise would bring him on the run. Not for a moment did she think that she’d actually hit anything. In her fantastical view of guns, a wild aim was destined to miss.
Dinah’s loose, tangled hair blotted out the sun. She was grinning. Even with the sun behind her, Emily could see every detail of her wide smile and shining eyes. Dinah admiring, the one joy of that summer. But her hands were shaking as she grabbed the gun and helped Emily to her feet.
The dog was still frozen in place. The light brown rings around its ankles quivered. The can was nowhere in sight, and the boys had fled to the clearing’s edge. Spectacles looked ready to dive head first into the withered cornstalks.
“Jesus Christ.” Rick’s voice wobbled and cracked.
“You’re an asshole,” the farmer said. He was staring at the poor shivering dog, so Emily couldn’t tell if he meant Rick or her. She deserved it. Her own knees were shaking as badly as the dog’s. What if she had hit this dog, or Rick? Or Dinah? What was wrong with her that her impulse to shoot had blocked any thought of harm?
Dinah turned to Rick. “Pay up, Twinkle Toes.”
“Shit.” Rick left the oak tree’s cover, came out into the clearing. “My dad’s gonna go ballistic.”
“What does your dad care?” The farmer’s watchful, wondering gaze never left Emily.
“Socks is his fucking dog.”
“Socks is a fucking cat’s name, man.”
“Fuck you. I didn’t name it.” Rick snapped his fingers. The dog limped over to him. “At least it’s got a name. Fucking farmers never name their shit.” Rick pinched the scruff and hauled Socks over to Dinah. “All yours, Beautiful, but doesn’t your crazy-ass friend here deserve the prize?”
Dinah clapped the Mauser barrel back and forth between her hands. The dog leaned into her leg. “Seeing you shit-scared was her prize, Sport.”
Rick shook his head. He mumbled sped and dug out the wicked dirty postcards to give back to Emily.
“Keep them,” she said and turned on her heel.
“That’s one sick girl.” As Emily slipped into the cornfield, one of them, probably Spectacles, spoke just loudly enough for her to hear. Maybe on accident, maybe on purpose.
Dinah caught up with her a few rows from where Emily would take the path through the trees back home. Emily heard the Mauser bumping along before she saw Dinah burst through the stalks. Socks trotted at her bare feet.
“Well, Em, there’s more to you than meets the eye.” Dinah gave her back the gun. “You’re one hell of a shot. Guess you have your alibi. They’ll never forget that as long as they live. Where’d you get those crazy pictures, anyway?”
Now that she had the Mauser back, Emily’s one thought was to get it back on the pegs before her father came home. The stalk’s shadows splashed the dirt furrows in front of her, the air was dense with pent-up heat, but it could be any time of day. Emily had no sense at all of how long it had been since she stumbled upon Dinah on her way to him.
Socks came up to her and sniffed her hand. Emily touched his bony head. Tears rose to her eyes, the sting so unfamiliar she couldn’t for a moment understand why the dog’s ruff was blurry. Nothing had made her cry since before him. “You shouldn’t have made me do that.”
Dinah grinned. “Now that’s an interesting perspective on the day’s events.”
But you did, Emily wanted to cry. Emily was nothing but a joke to those boys, right up until the moment she fired. They didn’t believe the old war gun would actually fire, or that a girl like Emily could shoot it. But Dinah had known and let her go through with it. She’d even risked her own hide. Emily might have just as easily shot her on accident as Rick or that poor dog.
Dinah was studying Emily with her already familiar appraisal, half-teasing, half sizing up, you’re so provincial, Em. “That asshole’s right. You won this dog fair and square. But you don’t look like you have it in you to take care of him.” Her voice dropped, softened. “Do you, Em? Maybe you need to be taken care of, too.”
Socks shook his head and loped back to Dinah. Emily wiped her eyes. Suddenly she wanted to be rid of this girl. She wished she’d told her to fuck off in the first place. Sharing him with Dinah was dangerous. So was Dinah’s bullshit sympathy, stupid and mean after egging her on to shoot. “I don’t want that scrawny old dog,” she said coldly. “I already have a pet.”
Dinah shrugged. “Good thing I want him, then. See you around, Em. Be careful.”
Dinah slipped through the stalks, Socks at her heel, feathery tail swaying in an almost-wag. She was heading east, back towards him. For the first time Emily wondered where Dinah lived. Perhaps he was her neighbor and Dinah hadn’t said a word about it, which would be her typical sleight of hand, wouldn’t it?
After she’d hefted the Mauser back on the pegs and returned the chair to the dining set, Emily grabbed a fistful of the rabbit food her father had bought. She ran to the pen behind the garage. The bunny was lying on its side. A slow shudder rippled through its slack belly as if it had been popped. Emily had mistaken for fat these empty rolls of fur. How could she have missed this wasting, the dull varnish on the eyes? She bit off a piece from a pellet, held the chip close to the mouth. The rabbit nudged her hand gratefully before nibbling the food.
Did the warding charm turn out to be her superstition about the rabbit’s health or her damn fool’s stunt with the Mauser? Maybe it was fattening that bunny right back up or maybe it was her clumsy potshots after all, but when her father called later that summer as promised, he refused to come to dinner. The way Dinah stuck to her from that summer on, admiring her and teasing her and forever pulling her into clearings made her believe that Dinah could tell her what the charm was if only Emily would ask.
Lecturer and Program Head, Creative Writing and Literature
Facebook is Laura Hulthen Thomas
[…] Residential College. Laura has a MFA degree from Warren Wilson College. ASLI chose Laura’s submission because it was so moving as well as us feeling like that the piece needed to be given a bigger […]