Morning. The slow roll of flattened clouds against a barely blue sky, mostly white. A patchwork within the easy moving stir, interchangeable. No mountains, no hills, only a miles wide plate of landscape dropped out into the morning. This is Indiana. Deb told herself this last week and yesterday and again today, the worn down voice inside her head less than a whisper. A private whimpering. This is Indiana.
There is no movement inside the house. Pete and Van are still asleep, Pete curled along his side of the bed, half an inch from Deb’s thrown back covers, and Van on the pull-out couch in the living room. She listened for Van’s breathing and flinted a second cigarette, pulled a small drag then another and tossed it over the banister. Both of them should already be awake for work. If they don’t wake soon, she’ll go to Van and offer a cup of coffee and lay with him, listening for Pete upstairs, laying until she hears movement. Like always, Van will work quietly.
“Call in today,” Deb said to Van when all of them were awake. Pete rattled through the kitchen for snack cakes, filling his thermos with the last of the coffee.
Van shook his head, folded the bed back into the couch and replaced the cushions. He put a finger to his lips. “Hush,” he said.
Deb ran her hand under his shirt, pressed her palm against the solid muscles across his ribs. Van moved like a shadow from cast light away from her touch and joined Pete in the kitchen. He leaned against the sink, leaving Deb standing at the couch. She watched him with long eyes even when Pete crossed her gaze on his way from the kitchen and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
“Let’s run, Hoss,” Pete said and tumbled out the screen door. He fired up the Grenada and the engine grinded into a coughing, low rumbling.
The tomb that was morning, broken only briefly by the sound of Pete and Van sliding sideways from the driveway in the Grenada, gave way to a low-lying buzz from the treeline and surrounding woods, the dark pond behind the house. Birds flapped into one another through the overgrowth of the outlying tangles, startled by a nearby deer navigating the trunks of trees, its frothy breath pushing out ahead of flared nostrils and wide eyes. A twisting wind, a body of its own, soon picked up, chasing the deer or pushing the birds, making its way to the pond to form ripples like musical notes for the listening eye.
Deb took in the buzz, the yawning day, from a metal chair on the porch, her bare feet lopped over the railing, Pete’s shirt pulled up and over the flexed muscles of her thighs, twitching in the cold of morning. The long liquid quality of her legs were now capped at the knees with jutting bones, rocky, out of place capstones along the sleek marble of a chipped statue, a once-perfect, ponytailed vessel made now into the childless Madonna in slumped repose. She ran her fingers softly across her high cheekbones, the mantel of her forehead and then her tongue across her lips. She felt the crusted teeth behind the lost smile and let the cold move over her, a brute lover, emotionless and silent, the ghost of the Irish and Scottish and Indian warriors, her historical husbands and brothers and fathers.
She sat until the floating dust from Van’s shuffled footsteps settled back into various places along the flat earth, pieces of him scattered out of sight, then pulled herself up slowly and went inside.
For a little while longer she stayed on the couch, forgetting what it might have been she was going to do instead of porch-gazing. A faint smell of her own body and Van’s musky scent drifted up from beneath the cushions, still living within the starved stomach of the mattress, and she pulled the cushions out fast as baby teeth and retracted the bed. The sheets were still bunched at the foot of the mattress, the single pillow dented and dirty.
She reclined onto her side and ran a violet fingernail along the outline pressed in a watery circle into the small body of the pillow. Soon she fell into sleep and dreamed of worn-down foot paths running like collapsed veins across the ridge above her old house back home. That place of her dreams was not like a dream at all. The railroad tracks and the smell of fall clinging like an old man to leaves more bright than the sooty rooftop sky above and the way that smell always mixed with the earthy scent of the coal spilled at the sides of the road and the tar seeping like tears from the train tunnels was more than a dream. It was another life, lived within the subtle half-conscious jerks of her arms and legs, her sleeping body moving along the dream ridge of the hilltop and stretching path, bent always forward toward home.
It was midday when she woke. The sunlight spat brightly through the windows, and the phone rang once, twice, three times before she moved from the pull-out bed. She took the phone from the wall and stretched the cord to make room to move around the kitchen.
“Hello?” She pulled drawers open and shuffled through old mail on the table, pulled cabinets open until she found the pill bottle, a orange-brown holy relic stuck behind a box of salt.
“Deborah, this is Dad. This is your Daddy, honey.”
Deb didn’t answer right away. She cradled the phone between her shoulder and chin and pried the top from the bottle, rolled three pills out and dry-swallowed them.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said and threw back her head, closing her eyes, and said again, “Hi, Daddy.”
“Come home,” he said. “We want you to come on home, now. Me and your mother.”
The words floated motionless in the room but still electric from the receiver. Spilling through the kitchen, the sound of her father’s voice was washed away for the shortest moment by the cold light from the Indiana window. Deb fell into a chair, wishing now she had chewed the pills.
“We’ve already sent Kent up for you, Deb,” her father said.
Kent. Kent Williams. She had hurt this boy terribly once, long ago, when finishing her high school biology notebook before the end of the semester was the biggest dilemma one could imagine. Now Kent Williams was on his way here to bring her home.
“Kent Williams?” she asked and thought of the bottle of pills again back behind the box of salt, orange-brown oblivion.
“You’re coming home, Deborah. It’s what your mother wants,” was all her father said, then a shuffling of sound and her mother come on the line.
“Deb, baby. Come home with Kent. He’s been gone since early this morning and he’ll be there today. Just pack your things and come with Kent. He’s a good man, Deb. He’s coming to get you just because we asked. Your father couldn’t make the trip.”
Before she could say a word, the line went dead, a droning flatline against her ear.
Kent Williams. Coming here, to Indiana to get her. Kent Williams, of Low Pen Road, who sat beside her at graduation and made odd small-talk while their class filed up to receive diplomas one summer three million years ago. Kent Williams, the guy who changed the course of everything and backed down from Pete at Three-Mile Lake and then disappeared forever into the distance. Until now, three million years later.
Her body moved without her mind, retreating to the crumpled mattress and now she carefully placed her head into the outline in the pillow. Asleep again, she dreamed of nothing. Her sleep was black and deep and endless and only the sound of the Grenada in the driveway brought her awake.
Pete’s voice was high with excitement from the front porch. He was already out of his coat and standing above Deb when Van came in behind him. Deb eased herself to a sitting position on the side of the pull-out bed. She wiggled her toes and shielded her eyes from the chilled afternoon sun lining Pete’s shoulders, a newly discovered aura, the triumphant stranger, the man of action grown old and dim except in the white light of that blasting aura.
“Jesus, Deb. You been asleep this whole time?”
Van didn’t speak. From over Pete’s shoulder he raised his eyebrows briefly, carefully, and started up the stairs.
“Get up,” Pete said. “We left work early, as you can easily tell. Van’s idea. He harped all morning to Culpepper about feeling bad and needing to go home. Turns out, it was the flu and contagious. We both have it.” He laughed then, loud and hard, and leaned over the railing of the stairs. “We’re sick as dogs. Right, Van?”
After she had replaced the pull-out again, Deb went with Pete upstairs and dressed, listening for Van who had been in the bathroom since they returned. Pete was quiet now, settled in a ratty chair at the room’s only window. It looked out on the pond at the back of the house, where the ripples still sang in the wind. He pulled his boots off and let them fall roughly to the floor then leaned closer to the window.
“Robbie from just up the road says he has a German Shepherd to give away,” he said and propped his elbows on the window sill. “Says it was in the Indiana State Police K-9 unit, retired a year ago, but still sharp as hell.”
Deb stretched onto the bed and thought of how her whole time here seemed to revolve around beds lately. Crowded onto her side with Van in the morning. Curling with Pete in the afternoons when they could. Fighting with her dreams of home during the nights. And long naps all the times in between. She nodded and grunted in the right places when she heard Pete stop talking and caught herself wishing he’d take a shower or at least wash his feet. She scooted across the bed and hooked his boots with her fingertips and slid them under the bed. Pete didn’t look away from the window.
“Told me this dog, Ozzie is his name, could retrieve a marked rock from water more than ten feet deep,” Pete said. “You know what I’m saying? Said you could take a rock and cut a mark in it and throw it out, say in that pond out there, and this dog would take off and dive in. Stay there until he came back with the exact rock, the very one.”
“Do you want to take the dog?” Deb asked.
“Do you want to?”
“Sure. I don’t care,” she said, and tuned her ears to the hallway and the bathroom door. “Is Van really sick?”
“No. Robbie says it’s still pretty mean,” Van said. “Says you have to be careful about saying the word kill around it. Kill, Ozzie! You know, like that. It was part of his training or something.”
Deb didn’t answer. She put her hands behind her head and wondered what kind of car Kent Williams drove. Wondered if it made a loud sound, a sound that she could hear from upstairs.
Pete scooted the chair across the floor and fished his boots from under the bed. He pulled them on, leaving the strings tapping the hardwood as he made his way to the door.
“Where you going?” Deb asked from the bed.
“Up the road to Robbie’s. Get the dog. I’ll be back.”
Up the road. Down the road. On his way. Kent Williams might be here when you get back, she wanted to say, but didn’t. She might tell Van. Then she might not.
She could still feel the scratched out path of the pills at the back of her throat. The pills — some blue so maybe Valium and some orange so maybe Xanax — were taking her away, pushing her down into the bed. Before long, she had stopped listening for the bathroom door to open at all, and when Van shook her awake she opened her eyes, thought him part of one of her many dreams of the day, and rolled onto her side. Van shook her again.
“Deb,” he said and shook her hard and then again: “Deb.”
She rolled slowly across the mattress, the nowadays permanent parts of her very skin, linen and flesh all the same and peeling away like a flaked sunburn. She turned her head sideways, feeling the pounding heaviness between her ears slamming blood across all of her skull. Van was a melting oval shape before her with wide, dripping eyes.
“Are you okay?” Van asked.
Are you okay, she started to ask but didn’t. Instead she mumbled without trying to make words, unable.
“What?” Van said.
The melting Van wavered a moment longer then left the room. He could have said something. He may have. Deb went to the window and felt the pond reflect in her eyes, felt its whispering ripples calling to her from across the field.
The wind skitted across the pond, moved in circles to the base of the window and slid beneath the cracked sill. A spirit breeze spiked with pine needles and some nameless earthy scent circled the bedroom and gently took hold of her ribbed-crowned waist. She would go to the pond and wait, wait for Pete to return with his hound from hell and Van to join her and for Kent to arrive to the place of his redemption or rest where rooftop clouds would collide, where, like always, not a single drop of rain would touch the cracked marble of her skin.
Van placed his hand around Deb’s shoulder when they were situated beside the pond. The afternoon sun had pushed the cold out across the flat land and now there was only the orphaned chill drifting in from the water. She let Van’s hand rest there, just pressure and weight.
Time suspended at the edge of the water, calm and as lethargic as the approaching evening. Deb found it nice there in the browning razor weed with Van, quiet and good Van, the adulterer to a friend who was never his friend anyway, who he never liked anyway. The quiet boy, her Van, who was caught like all the rest in the same terrible storm they all called Pete.
“You came to Indiana for me, didn’t you?” Deb asked. Her voice was soft and it did nothing at all to disrupt the suspended water and wind and time. Her voice blended with the flatness of the land, even and sure.
Van didn’t answer and it seemed he didn’t need to answer. He stared off across the water and Deb realized he knew it wasn’t a question, just a simple statement as true as the lapping water of the pond at the bank or the lifelines across their palms or the spirals of their fingertips, each of them as unique as the lines across their faces, separate but similar in their shared experiences, connected. Deb moved her hand to Van’s and cupped his knuckles, letting all the common life etched into their bodies mix.
“I’m leaving today,” she said.
Van turned to her and in that second Deb craved him, all of him. His thoughts and kindness and weakness. His face was placid but hurt, the wide set eyes fluttering beneath his thin brow. She moved a curl of stray hair back away from his forehead and smiled. When she did this, Van let his arm slip away from her shoulder.
“Thanks for telling me,” he said and parted through the razor weed toward the house. He stopped when he’d made it halfway, his titled head a silhouetted afterthought on the horizon. “Pete’s coming.”
It was true. The Grenada’s low rumble moved ahead of its mouthy grill, bursting through the treeline. Birds scattered again, fleeing the predatory sound. Soon Pete crunched into the gravel driveway and killed the engine. The clipped off silence was replaced with a sharp and endless barking.
Pete’s voice came over the barking. Half screams punctuated by the tight and fast voice of the dog, bounding now from the driveway and inspecting the field behind the house, its shoulders thick and braced at attention.
“Three seconds, you sonofabitch!”
Van jogged the rest of the way to the front porch then turned and waved to Deb.
“Somebody’s here,” he called out and then waved again, an exaggerated motion, his stickly arm swinging high above his head with the rest of his body guarded against the German Shepherd.
“Get out of the car,” Pete yelled. He yelled the command again from out of sight and then appeared from the side of the house. “What the hell’s going on, Deb. Huh? Who’s this?” He was a flaming thumbnail of a figure at the edge of the field.
Kent Williams dressed in a knit sweater with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans stood just behind Pete. The dog turned his attention from Pete to Van then to Kent and then back to Pete — ears, snout and fixed powerful jaw all aimed and unwavering on his target.
Kill, Ozzie, she thought.
She left the edge of the pond. As she did, she could feel the structure of her bones pulling toward the water, parting blood, pushing against skin to stay only a short time longer beside the peaceful deep that mirrored the ceiling of heaven. Above her, the frightened birds were aligning in unison to fly upwards to an empty throne of clouds. Closing her eyes, she turned and exacted her own command, a damning thing, ugly even in this deformed place.