We like to think of our bodies as amazingly sophisticated eco-systems.
It’s enough to make a rational person blush.
We like to think of our bodies as amazingly sophisticated eco-systems.
It’s enough to make a rational person blush.
Hart spent the night at his house and woke before dawn after a fitful rest. He’d slept in his and Sonia’s bed for the first time since her death and his sleep had been plagued by eerie, disconnected dreams. Now he puttered around the house, coffee in hand, walking from room to room with no apparent direction, a wide-eyed somnambulist. He looked at each room as if seeing it for the first time. After about an hour, he took a nap on the couch.
He awoke in the still early morning with a start, a vivid image of a pregnant Sonia emblazoned in his mind’s eye. He drank two full glasses of water from the kitchen tap then stood exactly over the spot where he had found her. He lay down there, hoping to embrace what remnants of her spirit were still caught in the tiles, but felt no trace of her, only the cold floor, more unsettling than a ghost. He turned over, folded his hands across his stomach and stared at the ceiling. He didn’t move for an hour.
“That’s it.” He stood up and blew his nose. He dialed the number for a cleaning service and asked to speak to the manager. For an exorbitant sum, he arranged for a cleaning team to come that day to scrub and shrink wrap the house. Then he called his father-in-law.
Bicky showed up a few hours later and scanned the place like a realtor performing an appraisal. The cleaning crew was well into it and some of the rooms had already been “sealed off,” vacuumed and dusted from floor to ceiling with the furniture draped as if the occupant would be absent for the season.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“I’m catchin’ a red-eye back to Philly tonight. I got an oil cleanup to close down.”
“I know that. What’s all this?” Bicky’s arm arced out elaborately, a gesture that reminded Hart of float riders during the Thanksgiving Day Parade. “It’s only going to take a couple more weeks, right?”
Half a dozen cleaning people scurried around, dusting and draping. Hart had promised them double pay if they finished in four hours.
“Then what are they doing?”
“Come.” Bicky followed Hart into the kitchen. Hart closed the door behind him.
“Do you want something to drink?” Hart asked. Bicky shook his head and sat down, but a second later changed his mind. He pulled a bottle of Dewar’s out of the cabinet and poured himself two fingers. He made a face, but took another swig.
“How do you drink this stuff?” Bicky walked to the fridge, tossed a couple ice cubes in his drink and poured a swig from the bottle to freshen it. Then he sat down on one of the bar stools around the island. “I’m all ears.”
“I’m not coming back.”
“What do you mean?”
“What word in the sentence didn’t you understand?”
“You have to come back. You have two more years on your contract.”
“So sue me.”
“Now how would that look if I sued you?”
“Is it always about appearances?”
Bicky shook him off and turned to look at the window. “What did you do last night? Catch a ghost or something? You sound like Sonia talking.”
“She’s been talking for a long time. It’s only now that I’ve stopped to listen.” Hart pulled up a stool. “I’ll finish the job and I’ll leave that river clean as technology can get it. But after that, I’m done.”
“Hey, you listen to me. You can’t just…”
Hart raised his hand to silence his father-in-law. “Don’t give me any grief about this, Bicky, and maybe I’ll come back as a consultant. But it’s a six-month sabbatical, at least, or no deal.”
Bicky rolled his head around, stretching the tension out of his neck. “Fine,” he said. He rubbed his temples. “I guess you finally figured out you’re rich. If you sold all the Akanabi stock Sonia left you on the open market, you’d be very rich. Stinkin’ rich.”
“You think that’s why I’m doing this? Because I suddenly have money?”
“Why else? You’re not much of the power-broker type, although you have your moments. You’re more of the ‘how can I serve you?’ mentality. It doesn’t do much for me personally, but I can see the necessity of it. We can’t all be boss, right?”
Hart scoffed: “Your single-mindedness never ceases to amaze me.”
“You’re not going to find whatever it is you’re looking for, you know. Not if you searched for a hundred years.” Bicky drained his glass and rose to go.
“Where can I reach you if I need you?”
“Cell phone,” Hart said.
Bicky sighed and stared at the spotless tile floor. “I still see her there, much as I try not to. I guess you do, too.”
Hart thought he saw Bicky’s eyes begin to water, but the old man turned before he could be certain. “You’re trying to save a world that has no interest in being saved,” Bicky called over his shoulder. “You’ll call me when you realize it.”
Hart watched him walk, stiff but proud, to the front door, an elegant man, even on the verge of defeat. Hart poured himself three fingers. The day was already turning out to be much longer than anticipated.
to be continued. . .
click here to see what came before
The funeral had been a splendid affair as funerals go, and Bicky personally greeted each of the four hundred mourners that had been appearing at the house since mid-morning to pay their respects. Now, twelve hours later, with the mourners gone, the caterers packed up, and the musicians disbanded, the house took on an eerie quiet, punctuated by the occasional clanging dish Mrs. Banes loaded into the dishwasher. Only Bicky, Hart and Jerry Dixon remained.
“Was anyone there when it happened?” Hart asked. They were alone in his study.
Bicky sat brooding in the study where he’d come often during the day to escape the crush of people with their endless outpouring of sympathy. Now, he stared at the fire’s glowing embers, sipping a Chivas on the rocks, the distant look in his eye tipping Hart to the possibility that Bicky might not be home at present.
“When I was young, this was years before we discovered oil on our land, when we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, that is, my father used to take me and my brother, Mason, trout fishing in the back country. I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in West Virginia, but it had some of the most pristine and diverse ecocultures of all our fifty states, California and Florida notwithstanding. We’d fish for two or three days, eating to fill our bellies and stashing the rest in the mountain stream. That water came flowing down just like nectar from Mount Olympus and was colder and clearer than any spring water you’ll find on the market today. The fish stayed better there than in a fridge. We’d bring back what we caught and my Mom would cook it up with some potatoes and kale from her vegetable garden. You can’t buy fish like that today. Not even in the high end food markets. They just don’t exist anymore. So many things don’t exist anymore.” Bicky shuddered.
Hart grabbed a blanket off the couch and made to cover Bicky with it, but stopped short by embarrassment, left the blanket sitting on the arm of the chair and returned to his seat.
“Sonia used to do that all the time when she was a little girl,” Bicky said. “Cover me. But that was before she learned to hate me. Of course, she always liked my money.”
Hart had shot his emotional wad during the course of the day and didn’t want to talk about Sonia now. “Maybe you need to go back to West Virginia for a visit. Some trout fishing might help with the…with all this.” Hart waved his hand toward the study door where the sounds of dishes being stacked sliced through the silent hall.
“The West Virginia of my youth is gone. Just like everything else.” Bicky sighed and took a big swig of whiskey. “Did you know they blow the tops off of mountains there now, just to get at the seams of coal nestled underneath? They smother miles of streams with the rubble, pristine mountain streams, and call it progress. All together, in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, a couple others, the coal companies have buried over seven hundred miles of headwater streams with their little extraction business. Headwaters. That’s where the stream starts. And they say oil kills wildlife.”
Bicky gave a short, jagged laugh, drained his glass and threw it against the back wall of the fireplace where it exploded in a shower of sparks ignited by traces of whiskey. “Oopah,” he said, deadpan, turning to Hart for the first time since they’d be sitting there. “That’s what the Greeks say.”
“What the hell was that?” Jerry Dixon came running into the study, followed by Mrs. Banes. Jerry’s eyes were bloodshot. He was drunk.
“Are you alright, sir?”
“Yes, Mrs. Banes. I’m fine. I regret, however, that I’ve made a mess in the fireplace.”
“Glass is it?” She stepped forward and gazed into the fire. “Shall I clean it out now?”
Bicky shook his head. “Tomorrow’ll be fine. Why don’t you go home now.”
Mrs. Banes nodded in weary gratitude. “If you’re sure you won’t be needing me.”
Bicky nodded. Mrs. Banes had been in the Coleman’s employ for over thirty years and although Kitty had come to treat her like family, Bicky rarely said a word to her unless giving an order. Mrs. Banes was wary of his silences, and his temper, having seen both in action.
“Well then, I’ll take you up on the offer. Thank you, sir.”
“Is anyone else still here?”
“No, sir. Last ones left about half an hour ago.”
“I’ll walk you out then,” Bicky said. Mrs. Banes’ eyebrows shot up, but she covered it over nicely by scratching her forehead.
“Goodnight, Mr. Hart. Mr. Dixon.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Banes,” Hart said. He watched her move stiffly out the door, a baffled look on her face. Jerry sat down opposite Hart.
“How you doing, Jerry?”
“I’ve been better.” Jerry pulled a much-used hankie out of his back pocket and gave a full-throttled blow. Deep circles hung like end-of-the-party streamers under Jerry’s eyes and the creases in his brow appeared etched in stone. Apparently, Bicky wasn’t the only one feeling the pain of Kitty’s sudden demise.
“Of all things to go. Her heart was bigger than anyone I knew.” Jerry blew his nose again, a resounding effort culminating in a silence broken only by the crackling of burning wood.
Hart felt the hollowness of his own muscular organ, its ineffectiveness. That his eyes were dry and his breathing passages open came as no surprise. Given the sheer volume of bodily fluids that had passed through his nasal and ophthalmic cavities in the months following Sonia’s death, he wondered whether he’d ever shed another tear.
There was something now, about Jerry’s body language, about the way he rubbed his eyes, so hard and rough they might pop out of his head, that seemed scary, familiar. They sat in silence, Hart circumspectly watching Jerry, puzzling it out until he was struck with an analogy more solid than any wood iron. He stared at Jerry in disbelief until Jerry wiped his nose, stifled a sob, and confirmed it for him.
“I loved her.” Jerry coughed, covering the words that had escaped. “Too long. And yet not long enough.”
The confession hung in the air like skunk spray, fetid and impossible to ignore. To Hart, Jerry appeared caricature-like, the undeniable look of guilt spread thin across his face. Jerry swallowed hard – Hart watched his Adam’s apple wobbling under the strain – before continuing.
“I’ve been in love with her for over thirty years. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for that woman.” His eyes trailed off after his voice and Hart could almost see time winding backwards to the point that even Jerry’s voice changed, losing the throatiness, the slightly harder edge that comes with years of use.
“We met at a party Akanabi had for all its customers. In those days, they really knew the meaning of customer service. It was this swanky affair and I was handling security. I was pretty new. Only been with the company six months. Kitty gave a little toast to honor all those customers that kept Akanabi in business and then one to honor all its faithful employees. Later we chatted over the hors d’oeuvres. She was just beautiful. I made it my personal goal to find out everything I could about her. Even without digging, you could already see the cracks forming in their relationship.” Jerry took a sip of whiskey and stared at the bottom of the glass straight through to the last few decades. “For over thirty years, I loved her. And I’ll keep on loving her long after that bastard has taken a new wife.”
“So that was when they were first married?” Hart asked. “Before she had Sonia?”
Jerry stiffened. “Go ahead. Ask me,” he said.
“Did you . . . did she love you back?”
“Yes,” Jerry said, his voice smaller than a minute. “But, I didn’t know until it was almost too late.” His face contorted. “God, it feels good to finally tell someone.”
Hart heard footsteps behind him and jerked around to see Bicky walk into the room.
“Tell someone what?”
Jerry stared, wide-eyed at Bicky, but said nothing.
“About his Golden Retriever,” Hart offered. “He was saying how he hasn’t felt this bad since his Golden Retriever died.” Jerry’s look said he would lick Hart’s boots clean with his tongue next opportunity he got.
“That’s just like you, Jerry. Likening my wife to a dog.” Bicky poured himself another Scotch before dissolving in his chair. Hart could almost see Bicky’s energy draining from him, running in rivulets across the hardwood floor.
“Come to think of it, you always did enact a certain aloofness around her. Something I could never quite decipher. Bordered on downright rude, I thought.” Bicky took a big slug of his whiskey without so much as a glance in Jerry’s direction. “You couldn’t say it was justified. Kitty might have been a lot of things, but rude was the least of them.”
“I was never rude to her,” Jerry replied. “I just…. Bicky, I want to tell you something.” Hart looked at Jerry whose face had become an expressionless mask. “I…. It’s just….”
Bicky shot Jerry a withering look. The confession died in Jerry’s throat, leaving a gaseous trail in its wake. He coughed again, emitting a puff of anxiety and guilt as obvious to the casual observer as a passing cloud. But Bicky was staring into the fire, dousing his own sorrow within the prescribed confines of his cerebral cortex and his whiskey glass. He had not a brain cell to spare for observation.
Jerry stood up, wavering. “I’m gonna head out.”
Hart sighed, relieved. The male need to be territorial was pronounced even when the grand prize was six feet underground. The last thing Hart wanted was to watch a pair of middle-aged men go at it on the floor of Bicky’s study.
“I’ll see ya’,” Jerry said. Bicky sat stone-faced without taking his eyes off the fire.
Hart walked with Jerry as he stumbled down the hall to the foyer.
“How about I call you a cab? You don’t look like you’re in any shape to drive.”
“Death might be a welcome change.” Jerry said, managing a weak smile.
Hart gave Jerry’s shoulder a squeeze. “It’s not you I’m worried about.”
“I know. Always the other guy.”
Hart punched numbers into his cell phone, but Jerry grabbed it and disconnected the call. He looked Hart dead in the eye for several moments before handing the phone back.
“You didn’t know, did you?”
“The last time you saw Kitty she had just had a stroke.”
“Jesus. I thought something was strange, but…. Why didn’t anybody tell me?”
“You know, Kitty. Doesn’t want anybody knowing her business.”
Hart noted the usage of the present tense as if Kitty were still alive. Jerry wavered and Hart reached a hand out to steady him. Jerry grabbed the door frame.
“Her right leg was gimpy after that. Little bit of paralysis. Bicky wanted her to fly to Europe – bastard that he is, he still loved her – to see this neurosurgeon. Top guy in the field. She wouldn’t go. She didn’t leave the house much… after Sonia died.” Jerry croaked.
“I saw her everyday and he never knew. Probably the best months of my life.” Jerry pawed at his eyes and studied the toes of his cowboy boots. “Now she’s gone and I’m lost.”
Hart squeezed Jerry’s shoulder and was surprised when Jerry’s arms encircled him and held on for a long, fierce hug.
“I’m really sorry.” Jerry pushed Hart away and called over his shoulder: “For everything.”
He staggered to his car, leaving Hart standing in the open doorway, alone with his questions.
Hart returned to the study, heard Bicky’s stifled sobs and took a reverse step, intent on backing out quietly, but bumped into an end table instead. One of Sonia’s baby pictures rattled and crashed on the hardwood, shattering when it hit. Hart froze.
Bicky started, then rose as if the movement caused him pain. He dragged himself over to survey the damage while sixty years of promises broken and lies lived, of the shadow side of dreams, of futures never realized, now all congealed, weighing down the sleeves and the collar and lining the pockets of Bicky’s rumpled Armani suit. Grief, noticeably absent when his daughter died, now cloaked him in full regalia, aging him exponentially and adding decades to his countenance. In the months following Sonia’s death, Hart had often wondered how Bicky hid his grief so well when Hart himself had been rendered debilitated. Perhaps Bicky hadn’t cared about his daughter, as some had suggested, or perhaps he was just being brave for Kitty. But whatever threads had held him together, they’d all snapped now. Bicky was a wreck.
He stooped, picked up the picture and brushed away the broken glass cutting his finger. He flinched, but didn’t say anything. Instead he rubbed his finger across his baby’s face, caressing her over and over as if the repetitive motion might raise the dead. Hart saw the blood oozing onto the photograph and left the room.
He returned a minute later with a wet towel and a trash can. Bicky knelt, crouched over the blood-stained photograph.
“I just hope that by the time I find the bastard, life hasn’t wrung all the vengeance out of me. I’m getting old, you know.” As if to prove it, Bicky grabbed the table and hoisted himself up, ragged and slow. Hart took the photograph, so stained with blood you could no longer make out the subject, and wrapped his father-in-law’s finger in the wet towel. Bicky nodded once, acknowledging the gesture, and squeezed Hart’s arm before shuffling over to the wet bar.
Bicky picked up a tumbler and filled it. “It’s the least I can do for my favorite son-in-law.” He tried out his famous scowling smile. It still worked.
“Bicky.” Hart picked pieces of glass off the floor and threw them in the trash can. “I’d say vengeance is overrated.”
“Ah, but the momentary relief is as good as anything I’ve ever experienced.” Bicky laughed, a dry brittle cackle. “Besides. Don’t you want to know?”
“I do know,” Hart said. “It was an accident. You saw the body. She slipped and fell. Hard. Hard enough to knock herself out. If I would have been home…” Hart dumped a big piece of glass in the trash can and it shattered. He reached for a couple shards under the table.
“You said yourself you had the feeling that someone else had been there.”
“I said a lot of things. You can’t bank on anything I said then. If you remember, I wasn’t very lucid.” Hart was still smarting over Bicky’s decision to dope him up for the two days following Sonia’s death. The lost days. Hart dumped the last bits of the glass into the trash and stood.
“I’d tell Mrs. Banes to go over this with a vacuum in the morning.” He looked over at Bicky, but the man wasn’t even in the same stratosphere. A profound feeling of fatigue settled over Hart. “Hey, Bicky, unless you need me, I’m gonna get going. I’ve got a bunch of stuff to settle at the house before my flight back to Philadelphia tomorrow night.”
“You don’t think I knew she was having an affair?”
The question startled Hart. “Who?”
“My wife, that’s who.”
“Jesus, Bicky. Ease up, would you?” Hart was not inclined to share the information Jerry had imparted. It wouldn’t do any good. That Kitty chose to share the last months of her life with a man who obviously adored her over a man who rarely gave her the time of day did not come as a shock. What came as a shock was that she waited so long to do it. He was happy that Kitty had found a bit of happiness at the end.
Bicky shook his head in defeat. “I don’t know. But if I find the son-of-a-bitch I’ll kill him, too.”
“Well, that’s two people you’re gonna kill. But hey, the night’s young.”
Bicky grimaced. “That’s why she moved across to the other side of the house, you know. So I wouldn’t catch on to her shenanigans.”
Hart sighed, tired of arguing. “Enough. Kitty loved you, otherwise she would have left your flat ass a long time ago. Cause the way I see it, you had absolutely nothing to offer her.” He smiled with the last words, meaning it as a bit of sarcasm, but immediately wished he could retract them. He searched Bicky’s face to gauge a reaction, but there was none.
“I gotta go.” Hart squeezed Bicky’s shoulder. “Call me if you need me.”
to be continued
click here to read what came before
OIL IN WATER
After checking the perimeter of the house, Matheson and Traecy crossed the backyard to the barn, their flashlights sweeping the yard like spotlights. The barn door was open.
“Hhmphh,” Matheson said.
“What?” Traecy asked.
“Nobody’s here.” Matheson’s raised eyebrow said: “I told you so.”
“And your point is?” Traecy asked.
“These kids are messin’ with us.”
“You know, I think your brain’s fried like those donuts. The house is lit up like the 4 th of July, the barn door’s flapping in the breeze, and you think these kids are messin’ with you?”
“There’s no signs of a struggle, is there? I’ve been out here half a dozen times responding to that alarm. Each time it was a different excuse.”
“Yeah, well, we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least look around.” Traecy flashed his light inside the barn before walking in. Matheson followed. They scanned the empty room.
“What’s that?” Matheson said. He strained to hear something off in the distance. The partners walked outside. A noise from beyond the copse was drawing closer. Matheson and Traecy pulled their guns and crouched down, tigers at the ready.
The ATV burst threw the treeline, groaning and whining with the effort. The frame was bent and only one headlight worked, but it was running.
“Stop,” Matheson yelled. Avery’s eyes were dead-set ahead, and he would have zoomed right past had Matheson not jumped in front of the vehicle. Avery hit the brakes and stopped. The motor wheezed like an emphysema sufferer. Max yelped. Gil’s head lolled on Avery’s arm.
“Cut the engine,” Matheson yelled.
“I can’t. I have to get him to the hospital,” Avery said, his voice gravelly and full of bravado. Matheson reached over and turned off the ignition.
“No! We have to go now!” Avery roared.
Matheson grabbed Avery’s hands and held on tight. “Tell me what happened, son.”
Avery recounted the story as quickly as possible, ending with their escape from the woods on the crippled ATV. When he was finished, Matheson grabbed his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Avery began to shake.
Traecy shined his light at the trees. “He’s long gone by now.”
Matheson agreed. “Do you know what’s wrong with him?” he said, nodding at Gil.
“Concussion, maybe,” Traecy said.
“He’s got epilepsy. He might be on the verge of something.” Avery gave Gil a worried look and touched the lump on the back of his head. “He’s been holed up in the barn most of the week so I’m not sure about his meds.”
“Go get the car,” Matheson said to Traecy who took off running.
“Where’s your sister?” Matheson asked.
Matheson checked his watch. “Kinda late, don’t you think?” he asked, and shook his head. “I got daughters. Let me tell you, I’m not looking forward to these late night vigils.” He looked back at the house. “Maybe you want to leave a note or something in case she comes home. We don’t need another call to the precinct tonight.”
Avery nodded, looked at Gil and then at Matheson. Matheson took Avery’s place behind the wheel, allowing Gil’s head to rest on his shoulder.
“Thanks,” Avery said, and ran off toward the house.
Five minutes later Avery, Gil and Max were speeding to the hospital in the back of the patrol car.
It had been a slow night in the emergency room and the boys were home in less than three hours, stitched up, wrapped up, and already on the mend. They both had several cuts on their faces and arms, but nothing that required stitches. The ER Doc dressed the wounds with salve and put bandages over them with instructions to keep them dry for twenty-four hours. He even treated Max, completely against the rules, but Matheson had intervened, telling the ER Doc that, but for the noble canine, the boys might not be sitting here tonight. Matheson admonished to doctor to report any patient arriving with teeth marks in his leg. The doctor agreed and sent the boys home with packets of Tylenol with codeine for the pain.
Avery sat cocooned in a blanket on the couch. Despite the medication, he couldn’t sleep and decided to wait up for Kori. He had a spectacular view of the sunrise as it gained, then overtook the horizon, the explosion of color seeping into the dozens of smokey vapors dotting the sky, lending its luminescence to their whiteness, and adding to the overall brilliance. When you looked at a sky like this, there could be no questioning the existence of God. Although physically, Avery felt fine, it was the pain in his heart that was causing him grief, and this view, all orange and red and resplendent, was doing its damnedest to alleviate that ache.
As if drawn by the intense beauty, Gil padded down the stairs in his stocking feet, looking reasonably alert under the circumstances. He had a bandage wrapped around his head, looking like the revolutionary war boy who played the flute and marched without proper footwear. Avery stifled a laugh and turned back to the magnet that was pulling all the angst from him.
“You hungry?” he asked Gil. Gil nodded, but Avery didn’t even look. He knew what the answer would be. He began to rise, but Gil put a hand on his arm to stop him.
“Just wait until this is over,” Gil said.
Avery flopped back down and offered Gil part of his blanket.
Gil sighed at the ongoing show out the window. “Did ya’ ever notice how you stare and stare at something and it just blinds you? It’s like you can’t see it at all. But if you look away, even just off to the side a little, then, you can see it clear.”
Avery tucked the blanket up under Gil’s chin. Max jumped up and sat on both of their legs. The last vestige of color wrote its name in the sky.
“Kori should be home soon,” Avery said. Gil nodded.
The sunset faded, reminiscent of life’s impermanence, into a new, blue day while Avery and Gil, stretched out on the couch side-by-side, their heads and shoulders touching, fell fast asleep.
It was early morning when Kori came home to find her brothers sitting up and sound asleep. Max’s massive head was curled up on Gil’s lap, his body on Avery’s. Two things were strange: the T.V. wasn’t on, and Gil had a large white bandage tied around his head. She stood there, appraising the situation when Avery awoke.
“What the heck happened to you?”
“A lot. Where’ve you been?”
“Well, that’s helpful.” Avery yawned and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Kori moved in for a closer examination of Gil’s contusions and abrasions.
“What’s going on?”
Avery drew a breath. “Somebody tried to break into the barn in the middle of the night. Gil chased him down, flipped the ATV and suffered a minor concussion. Max picked up where Gil left off and had him pinned up in a tree until he got shot. I just picked up the pieces until the cops got here and took us to the hospital.” Avery stretched his neck, sore from sleeping sitting up, and sat back matter-of-factly. “How was your night?”
Kori stared at him, silent and agape.
“I said how was your night?”
“Is this some kind of a joke?” Kori asked. Avery shook his head. Gil yawned, wide as Max ever could, and opened his eyes.
“No joke, sister,” Gil said. “This is the stuff movies are made of.”
“Oh yeah?” She studied Gil’s ashen-colored face, touched the bandages to see if they were real. Gil flinched for effect. “What would you give it?”
“Four stars,” Gil said.
“Four? You’re kidding me.”
Gil shook his head, slow and serious. “It was really scary.” He pinched himself on the arm. “And we weren’t even dreaming. We could have died, huh, Avery?” He looked at Avery and then rubbed noses with Max. “If not for Max, we could have.”
Avery shuddered involuntarily.
“Is somebody going to tell me what the hell’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you if you make us breakfast,” Gil said. “A big breakfast. I’m starving.”
to be continued. . .
Avery dropped to his knees beside his brother and looked Gil over, as best he could in the near-black woods, by putting his face within inches of Gil’s head. Because of the darkness, he gave over sight for touch, feeling the contours of Gil’s face, his head, his neck. He noted a lump on the back of Gil’s head that seemed to be growing. He performed a body check next, running his hands over every inch of Gil: torso, arms, legs. All appeared to be intact and at proper angles. He placed two fingers on Gil’s neck. His pulse was strong. Avery finished by putting his ear to Gil’s nose where he heard faint, but steady breathing. Gil was unconscious, but most definitely alive. “That’s good,” he sighed in relief.
Avery opened one of Gil’s eyes; they were rolled back so Avery could only see the whites. He released the lid and it flopped back into place like a dead fish. He had to get Gil back to the house. Avery looked around for something, anything, to do it with, but he couldn’t clear his addled brain; which seemed as dark and cloudy as the night sky.
Avery stood up, ran his hands through his hair and began to pace. Gradually, the world returned to him. He could hear the whir of the ATV’s motor and Max barking maniacally in the background, noises that had been emitting wavelengths of sound all along, but which his mind in its hyper-focused state had blocked out. For a moment Avery had a brief insight into how Gil’s mind worked during periods of intense concentration. He fumbled in the dark for the ATV’s ignition and turned the key. The motor went silent. He sat down, legs crossed, on the ground. What do I do? Tell me what to do. Lie flat. Stabilize the neck. Avery concentrated on slow breathing, in and out the way he was taught in meditation class, trying to focus the mind. How am I going to get him back to the house? He looked over at the ATV sitting on its side….
Max’s barking had reached such a fever pitch that he sounded like two dogs. What the hell is he barking about? The minute the thought crossed his mind, Avery’s blood cooled. He took a few steps in the direction of the barking, but was stopped by the sound of two successive pistol shots. Avery caught his breath. The barking resumed. On instinct, he grabbed the gun and took off running through the woods.
He used Max’s voice as a guide and immediately regretted not taking the trail. Small branches whipped at his face and clothes as he tripped his way through the dense underbrush. A branch broke open his cheek and a bit of blood oozed from the wound. He cursed and smeared it away. Max’s voice was growing hoarse, but he continued unabated. Avery was closer now and he could hear a man’s voice straining with effort, cursing the dog and brandishing the gun as if Max would understand. The man’s voice was muffled, drowned out by the consistency of Max’s barking and growling.
Avery broke through to the clearing to see the man draped over a tree branch, shining a pale green light at the ground and trying to catch Max in the circle of it. Max leapt in complete defiance of the laws of gravity, making contact with the man’s leg. The man yelped in pain and fired at Max. Avery fell, forced sideways and to the ground by shock and the wave of sound. Max yelped, then resumed with a bark so ferocious, wolves would run for cover. Max jumped and snapped again, inches from the man’s jacket, then spun back and forth beneath the tree, a whirling dervish. The man pulled his gun and aimed it.
Avery turned to see Gil’s shadowy figure stumbling toward him, paying little heed to the tree branches slashing at his clothes and face. At the sound of his master’s voice, Max halted, but did not leave his post beneath the bottom of the tree.
“Max! Come! Now!” After a moment’s hesitation, he ran over to Gil who fell to his knees. Max licked Gil’s face and rubbed his nose all over him, leaving a sticky residue. Gil dabbed at the gooey stuff. Blood. His hands flew to Max’s snout, searching, until they fell upon the spot. A bullet had grazed Max’s left ear. Blood dripped from the wound, caught in Max’s fur where it had coagulated.
The boys heard a thud as the man in the tree hit the ground. Max ran, his jaws wide, literally going for the jugular. Avery grabbed him by the collar just as Max tore the man’s ski mask away. Recognition lit on Avery’s face. That driver?! But….
The man fired a wild shot and rolled to his side. Propelled by adrenaline, Avery reached for him. His fingers grazed the man’s coat, but he eluded Avery’s grasp and fled into the woods. Avery raised his gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger. It clicked. He stood that way for several seconds, wheezing and studying the blackness that had consumed the driver. Gil teetered forward, gripping Max’s collar. Avery pushed back a wave of nausea and scooped them both into his arms. Gil’s breath was short and ragged, the life force weak, and he slouched against his brother. Avery corralled his own erratic breath, lassoing the fear singeing his throat. He might have killed a man if the gun had been loaded.
He ran his hands over Gil’s face and the back of his head, feeling for cuts and bruises. There were many.
“Are you alright?” he asked. Gil nodded and then proceeded to pass out. Avery caught him before he hit the ground. He tilted Gil’s head back and checked his eyes.
“He just passed out,” Avery said to Max. He rubbed Max’s head and Max returned the favor by licking his hand. “Thanks.” Avery touched Max’s ear. The dog winced. A scab was forming. “C’mon. We gotta get out of here.”
He draped Gil over his shoulder, his knees buckling under the weight. They headed for the trail with Max leading the way.
to be continued. . .
this is what happened before
The alarm that Robbie and Jack had so meticulously wired tied directly into the police station, and when tripped, notified the dispatcher of the presence of a intruder at the Tirabi residence. The dispatcher put out the call which was received by Officer Matheson and his partner, Officer Traecy, currently on their coffee break at the local diner.
Tony, the owner of the diner was a young man in his late twenty’s taking on his first business endeavor. Looking to keep costs down, he worked the midnight shift alone, alternating between bussing tables, food and coffee prep, and customer service. Right now, he was out front wiping the counters and listening to Matheson’s myriad stories of extended familial allegiances.
“I’m not kidding ya’. Bud is $3.75 a quart at Farrell’s, my uncle’s place,” Matheson said. “He’ll even give you a to-go quart cup if you want. I used to go in a lot with my cousin, Huey. Three Hueys in one family. The dad, the grandfather and my cousin. Talk about branding your kids. All part of the circle of punishing, I guess.” Matheson and Traecy laughed while Tony restocked styrofoam.
“Just like’s Mom’s,” Matheson said, taking a sip of his coffee. His radio crackled to life. The dispatcher relayed the information regarding a potential break-in at the Tirabi’s.
“We’re on it,” Matheson said, signing off. He signaled Tony for a refill which he sipped with apparent satisfaction.
“Shouldn’t we go?” Traecy asked.
“Nah. It’s the Tirabi kids again. They set that alarm off once a month.”
“Yeah, but what if…”
Matheson waved him off. “It’ll be fine. Just let me finish this and we’ll check it out.” He forked down the last bite of an omelet.
“Hey, Tony. One to go, huh?” Matheson said, holding out his styrofoam cup.
Traecy shrugged. Ten minutes after dispatch called, they were en route.
to be continued
start with what happened here
OIL IN WATER
At dinnertime, Avery walked out to the barn, but Gil wouldn’t open the door. After a few minutes, he walked away. He came back with a loaded tray and a bowl of dog food for Max which he left on top of a fifty-five gallon drum next to the door. Back inside the house, he checked the window every few minutes to see if the tray was still there.
“Would you stop. You’re making me nervous,” Kori said.
“Why won’t he come in?”
“Because he’s pissed at me.
“Well, let’s see. I broke up with Jack so he’s blaming me for Jack not coming around. I told Chris he could write the article about the TDU based on his suggestion that getting things out in the open would actually make it safer for us.”
Avery cocked a single eyebrow, a technique he knew annoyed Kori because she couldn’t master it.
“I didn’t think it was bad to do that. I mean, he did have his “revelation” after Aunt Stella read his cards. I’m not making him do anything he doesn’t want to do.”
“Kori, don’t you think we have enough to handle. The minute that article is printed every guy with an engineering degree is going to be calling. And that’s the legit ones. What about the scammers? We’re paving the way for every kind of miscreant to show up.”
“Oh, stop. You’re just pissed because Gil thinks he needs more help than you can give him.”
“That is so not true and you know it,” Avery said. “I want this thing built as much as anyone.” Avery checked the window to find Gil’s tray gone. “ Finalmente .” He loaded his plate from the pan of baked ziti sitting on top of the stove, grabbed a piece of garlic bread and took a bite before he even sat down. “Mmmmm.” He turned and grabbed another piece. “So he’s happy about the article then?”
Kori loaded her own plate and sat down. “No, actually. He’s mad because I gave Chris his school picture for the article.”
“The ultimate geek picture?” Avery asked.
“No wonder he’s pissed. I’d be.”
Kori tossed the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. “I didn’t have another head shot. They specifically needed a head shot.” She ground pepper over the salad.
“Let’s just open up the lame file and plop that little excuse in,” Avery said.
Kori shot him an arsenic-laced stare, but Avery didn’t relent.
“You could have taken another picture. We do have a digital camera, for Godsakes.”
“Alright, I’m sorry. I panicked. Chris needed it right away and Gil was at school.” Kori forked a bit of ziti into her mouth.
“He’ll get over it, I guess.”
“You think so?” she said, mouth full of pasta. “I don’t know. He’s very one-dimensional emotionally.”
Avery shrugged, ground some pepper onto his pasta. “Like you’re deep.”
Kori frowned, but didn’t respond. “What’s he doing out there anyway,” she asked, nodding in the direction of the barn.
“Getting the TDU ready for when “the man” comes.”
“I thought there was only a few hours of work left? He’s been out there for three days.”
“He’s going over the entire machine, every nut and bolt. After Aunt Stella’s reading, he thinks someone’s going to be along any second. Have I mentioned lately what a good cook I am?” Avery took a bite and rolled his eyes dreamily, enthralled by his own culinary talents. “He even gave me the final specs for the patent. I sent it off this morning.”
“Well, somebody might call,” Kori said. She wiped her mouth and put her half-filled plate in the sink. She pulled her coat off the peg and put her shoes on.
“Where you going?”
“Who do you think?”
“You never went out this many nights in a row with Jack. Is it just the idea of dating a journalist that’s appealing?”
“Yes I did go out with Jack this much. In the beginning. Don’t you remember when he and Robbie had that fight?”
A shadow fell across Avery’s face.
“What do you have against him, anyway? Other than he’s not Jack.”
“I don’t know. He’s like a bowl of alphabet soup with all the a’s missing.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kori threw her coat over her arm, grabbed her purse and opened the door.
“It means that he’s not working with a full alphabet, what do you think? And a journalist, no less.”
Kori rolled her eyes. “Now who’s lame?”
Avery shook his head. “So is Jack completely out of the picture?”
Kori smiled big at Avery, raised her eyebrows, shrugged her shoulders and left.
Avery shook his head at the empty space. “Women.”
Avery threw on a light jacket and bolted out the back door, tripping the motion sensor and flooding the deck with light. The night was balmy, unseasonably so for the second half of winter. He inhaled deeply, identifying various scents including the smell of new growth that predates the arrival of spring, as well as wet decaying leaves and cat piss. About a hundred yards from the house, the light from the motion sensor dropped off and with the moonless sky, Avery found himself walking in darkness. Gil worked by oil lamp this evening and the barn threw off only the barest illumination. Avery tripped over a half-exposed tree root and went sprawling to the ground.
“Dammit.” He brushed himself off and blinked several times, willing his rods – or was it his cones? – to become more cat-like, vowing to bring a flashlight next time.
He reached the barn and rapped on the door three times. It was quiet inside and unless Gil had earplugs in, there was no way he didn’t hear the knocking. “Gil. Open up. It’s been like four days already. You’re starting to stink. I can smell you from out here.” Avery thumbed some paint peeling off the barn door. “How much more do you have to go?” He peeled off a few strips waiting for an answer. “Don’t you think it’s time to return to civilization?”
“No,” came the monosyllabic reply. Avery smiled. That he answered the question meant that Gil was probably desperate for a shower.
“It would feel really nice, the water running all through your hair and down your back. Really, really hot water. You could stand in there so long there wouldn’t be a steam-free inch of wall space.” Avery heard some shuffling inside, but the occupants didn’t emerge.
“Hey, The Matrix is on Bravo tonight. You can stay up and watch the whole thing,” Avery said to the door. Nothing. “Well at least come inside and sleep in your own bed. Kori’s out for the night and I want to go to sleep. I’d feel better if you were inside.” He rested his head on the doorjamb and waited. “C’mon, Gil.”
Avery waited so long for an answer that he dozed off, eyes popping wide when his head hit the barn door. He made one last attempt: “Well don’t come running to me if the boogie man comes after you.” The lock clicked open, but not the door. Avery waited, but after a minute, it clicked shut, the moment lost. He rolled his eyes and walked back into the house.
Avery left the kitchen light on in case Gil decided to come in during the night, and closed the door, but didn’t lock it. He also turned the back yard’s motion sensor to the full “on” position so Gil would have a light to follow toward the house. Fixing your eyes on the outside light helped incrementally with the dark parts. He left the front porch lights on for when Kori came home, then cast an uneasy glance around the perimeter of the house, lit up like a stadium for a nighttime game. He wished everyone would come home and go to bed already, then went upstairs to his room.
At 2 o’clock, Avery’s eyes flew open and he jerked up in bed. He touched his arm, still feeling the distinct sensation of someone shaking him awake. “Hello?” He looked around, but saw nothing in the shadows. “Mom?” As soon as he said his mother’s name, a chill ran the length of his spine and his whole body shuddered. He shook his head to clear it, then tentatively stepped out of bed. He peered out the window toward the barn.
A green phosphorescent light, barely visible, swept back and forth across the length of the structure. After several sweeps the light moved around to the other side. “What the…” Another chill ran through him and he found himself pulling on his pants and shoes without any conscious effort. The light stopped, fixated on the door to the barn. Avery grabbed a sweatshirt off the chair and bolted from his bedroom.
He was down two flights of stairs and in the basement in twelve seconds flat, running to the cedar closet. He pushed through the off-season clothes hanging there: summer dresses and shorts, bathing suits, and Robbie’s one-piece surfing suit clanged noisily on their hangers as he shoved them to the side. He lunged to the back of the closet where Robbie stored his gun cabinet. Avery tried the combination lock twice and failed. “Goddamn it!” He banged on the cabinet, took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Please.” Avery tried a third time and the lock clicked open. He grabbed the biggest shotgun without even stopping to load it. He reached the top of the stairs about the same time the roar of Gil’s ATV and sound of Max’s harsh barks flooded the silent night.
He made it outside in time to see the green light of the flashlight flick wildly across the copse and then burrow into the woods, disappearing into the blackness. Gil roared into the same abyss, Max running after him.
“Gil!” Avery ran, his heart pumping wild with fear. Again, no flashlight. “Gil!!” He stumbled and cursed, found the trail and blindly followed the sound of engine, propelled by instinct not eyesight. Until he heard the sounds that made his legs buckle.
He couldn’t distinguish one from the other at the time. It was only in recollection the sounds became clear: the creaking of a tree, the swish of dead leaves, the breaking glass, the crunching metal. Max’s fanatical barking; and the most sickening sound, a dull thud, that of a body hitting the ground. “Gil!!” The tree rebounded, its sleeping branches swatting at the empty air.
The ATV lay on its back, it’s wheels spinning into infinity, the motor grinding on and on, while its tires searched for the missing earth.
to be continued . . .
start here to read more
A few days later, Kori was pulling out in Ruth’s minivan when Jack cruised up the driveway, forcing her to slam on the breaks to avoid a head-on collision. He stepped out of his car, an impish smile on his face, and walked over to the driver’s side. She looked beautiful.
“Better watch where you’re going,” Jack said. “You could hit somebody.”
“Better you than me.”
“Nice to see you, too.” Kori stared straight ahead, ignoring him.
“How come you haven’t returned my calls?”
“Very funny, Kori. What the hell’s going on?”
“Nothing. Why do you ask?”
“I’ve been calling you all week, is why I ask, and I know you haven’t been home because I’ve driven by a dozen times. Then last night one of my buddies says he saw you and some flunky out having dinner.”
“We’re just friends.”
“Oh yeah? When was the last time you lip-locked a friend?”
“Answer me, dammit.”
Kori stared at the woods to the side of the house. Jack yanked open the driver’s side door and pulled her out by the arm.
“Oh, now I have your attention….”
Kori shook loose from his grip and stalked off across the lawn. Jack ran ahead, hampering further progress.
“What in God’s name has gotten into you? Why are you so angry?”
“Because you’re a self-centered bastard. You waste your time watching sports when you could read a book. You prefer a night of drinking with your friends to the movies with me. You have no interest in my work. But most of all, because you wouldn’t go to the Goddamn public meeting with me!” She said the last with such venom that Jack thought she was going to strike him to hammer the point home, but she just turned on her heel and walked back toward the car. He stared after her, dumbfounded, before running to catch up.
“I’m sorry. If I’d have known it meant so much I would’ve gone with you.”
“You did know.”
“I didn’t. I swear. Come here.” Jack pulled Kori in and hugged her to his chest. “I miss you. Please don’t do this.”
Kori raised her face to him.
“Besides. Robbie told me to take care of you.”
Kori grimaced and shoved Jack as hard as she could. He lost his balance and fell backwards.
“And Robbie told me to watch out for you,” she said, “but not the way you think. Anyway, Robbie’s dead. Gone. Just like you. Just like everybody.”
Jack jumped up and grabbed the back of her neck. He pushed her chin up and kissed her gruffly. “It would be a shame to lose what we have.” He wound his arms around her and whispered in her ear. “To walk away just so you can be the first to leave is a horrible waste of time. Sometimes there are things bigger and more satisfying than an indulgence of your pride.”
Jack released his grip and took a step back, putting air between them. “Are you afraid to be happy with me?”
“I was happy with you until I saw what an egotistical prick you are.”
“C’mon, Kori. This is stupid.” He kissed her again and this time she responded with her mouth and her body. After a minute, she released him. He was electrified.
“Alright. You win.” She reached out and gave his dick a little squeeze. He shivered at the touch. “Call me, say, a hundred years from Monday. That should put us squarely in the next lifetime.” She strode to the van, slamming the door after her.
Jack watched as she put the transmission into all wheel drive and drove through the small forested grove to the side of the driveway, pulling out onto the road before he even registered what happened.
Jack walked around to the back of the house and, hearing music, followed it to the barn. He banged on the door, but Gil didn’t hear him over the bass. He peeked in the window and saw Gil holding Max up by his front paws and dancing to the Bacon Brothers, Philadelphia Chickens. Jack knocked on the window and when Gil saw him, he screamed and dropped Max to the ground.
Gil lowered the volume on the stereo and opened the door. “You can’t sneak up on a person.”
Jack laughed. “It’s not like it was hard.”
“Where’ve you been?” Gil demanded.
“Home. At work. Out. You want a list?”
“Why not here?”
“Your sister’s not talking to me.”
“So what? I’m talking to you.”
Jack tilted his head, shrugged his shoulders and gave Gil a lopsided smile. “Gilly.”
Gil looked askance at Jack, set his lips in a grim straight line, and closed the door.
“Gil, come on,” Jack said, knocking again.
Gil locked the door and turned up the music.
to be continued. . .
Kori and Jack lay huddled together, partially-clothed, a single throw covering them. A soft click preceded the quiet, familiar musings of NPR’s Terry Gross. They had failed to draw the curtains before retiring for an hour or so of love and sleep and Jack cracked one eye open and peered out the window into the expectant night air. Snow flurries added to the soft blanket already on the ground and he groaned at the menacing, orange-grey sky. He rolled over and checked the alarm.
“Kor. Wake up.” He nudged her gently, but she didn’t respond. “Kori. It’s time to go.” He bit her shoulder gently and her eyes flew open.
“Huh. What?” Kori sat up on one elbow and blinked, trying to orient herself.
“What day is it?” Kori stared wide-eyed out the window, her unseeing eyes darting to and fro across the night sky. Jack grinned.
“It’s Thursday. You have to bake an apple pie.”
“Apple pie?” Kori turned to look at him, but the darkness hid his features.
“Two of them.” This time he laughed and Kori woke up. She checked the alarm and fell back down on the pillow.
“Oh, the public meeting.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes and coughed. “I really didn’t know where I was for a minute.”
“I could tell.” Jack lay back down and pulled her in close. “And you said you’d bake me two apple pies.” He kissed her then rose to pull on his jeans. In their earlier haste, they had removed only the bottom half of their garments.
“Where you goin’?”
“To work.” He buckled his belt then sat down to put on his boots.
“I thought you were done for the day?”
“Installing home brains, yeah.” Jack nodded toward the window. “But now it’s snowing. People’ll need me to plow them out.”
“It’s barely a flurry.”
“They’re calling for another four to six inches.”
“By tomorrow. Not in the next two hours.”
“Hey. I gotta make money, right?”
“Jack!?!” It’s a side business, for Godsakes. You said you were only going to do it until your other business got off the ground. Well, it’s levitating. You can stop now.”
“Not tonight, I can’t.”
“You’re just doing this to get out of coming to the public meeting!”
Jack laced up his boots, leaned over and kissed her on the head.
“I’ll be back after I’m through.”
“Don’t bother.” She kicked at him, pushing the blanket off herself in the process, and stomped past him, retrieving her clothes as she headed for the door.
“Kori, come on.”
“Bastard,” she said, and slammed the door behind her.
The public meeting wasn’t scheduled to start until seven, but the controversy surrounding the landfill and the effectiveness of the citizens group, helped along by the flurry of Kori’s afternoon calls, brought the crowd out early and in droves, snowy weather notwithstanding.
The high school auditorium had seating capacity for two hundred people. Kori, Avery and Gil stood at the back, scanning the room for seats together, a commodity in short supply.
“Can’t I just go home?” Gil asked.
“Gil, what’s the big deal? It’s a couple hours of your life,” Kori said. She turned to face Avery in an appeal for assistance. He shrugged.
“He wants to watch Star Trek ,” Avery said, at present feeling more inclined toward his brother’s sensibilities himself.
“Star Trek is on fifty times a week on seventeen different channels,” Kori said. She bent down, coming face-to-face with her brother. “But this – this chance to make a difference – this only happens once or twice, and it’s really, really important. So come on.” She dug in her pocket and pulled out a handful of Tootsie Roll Midgets. Gil smiled and reached for the proffered sweet, but Kori snapped her fingers shut.
“I was saving these for later, but I guess we need them now. If you take them, you have to stay and not whine and complain about wanting to leave. Okay?”
Gil nodded and she opened her hand. He grabbed every last one, accepting her gift as a compromise. Avery held out his hand and Gil reluctantly handed over a single Tootsie Roll. So buoyed by chocolate, they followed Kori down the aisle in search of seats.
They found them near the front. Aunt Stella’s coat, scarf and brilliant red hat lay draped in varying states of repose across four seats where Aunt Stella sat as border guard. She waved madly when she saw them, her knitted brow relaxing. Kori glanced around, scanning the auditorium again, looking for something a little farther back – in the event Gil started acting up, she wanted to be able to make an unobtrusive getaway – but the place was packed to overflowing with groups of people lining the walls. She turned to say something to Avery, but the boys had already made their way into the aisle and she had no choice but to follow. Gil took the seat next to Aunt Stella who always traveled with treats in her pockets.
Kori leaned over and gave her a kiss. “Thanks for saving seats.”
Aunt Stella waved it off as if it were no big deal, but given the general mood in the house, Kori knew it was a feat almost Herculean in nature.
“Where’s Jack?” Aunt Stella asked.
Kori shrugged, defeated.
“Excuse me? Is this seat taken?” Kori jerked around to see a handsome young man standing there.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Should I?” Kori asked.
“Chris Kane. We went to high school together.”
“Oh my God.” Kori gave him the once over as surreptitiously as possible. Whatever resemblance this guy had to the Christopher “D, for Dork” Kane that she knew in high school had long since passed. “You look…”
“Different?” He nodded. “That’s what everyone says. Late bloomer, I guess. Plus I started working out.”
“I’ll say. What are you doing now?”
“I’m a correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer, ” he smiled, holding up the notebook in his hand.
Kori gave him a “hmmmmm” and nodded in acknowledgment. She turned to find Aunt Stella’s old crone smile and felt the blush rise in her cheeks. Gil and Avery were too engrossed in Aunt Stella’s candy to notice so she turned back to Chris Kane, a bright, full smile on her face.
Kori spent the next thirty minutes engrossed. Chris proved engaging and a good listener, something Jack was not. Jack always nodded politely, interjecting when he thought appropriate based on Kori’s non-verbal cues, but this guy consumed her words. He even took notes. Kori felt a thrill run through her abdomen. She stole a glance at her brothers: Gil was working a Gameboy while Avery and Aunt Stella, their heads bowed together, spoke in conspiratorial tones.
“So. What’s your take on all this?” Chris asked.
“Do you really want to know?” Kori responded.
There was so much she wanted to tell him, stuff Ruth had weaned them on, always talking to them like they were smaller versions of the adults they would become. Since Kori could talk her mother had held nothing back. Discussions ranging from the world’s political machinations to the nature of life and death were commonplace. Ruth was no artist, but it was her love of it that set Kori on her chosen path. In that instant, Kori was no longer sure where Ruth left off and she began and suddenly realized that was the way of it. We either become our parents, their prides and prejudices, or we run far and fast in the opposite direction. And right now, Kori, like Ruth, was finding it hard to keep her mouth shut.
Apparently everything Kori told Chris Kane was fascinating because he’d recorded all of it in his notebook. She talked about everything from the birth of the landfill and the spread of the deadly plume of noxious chemicals to her own personal tragedies, including the mysterious death of her parents and her current position as head of the house. She concluded with the tragic, but as yet unverified, death of her brother.
Chris wrote at a furious clip. “Whew. Alright, give me a chance to catch up.”
Kori waited for him to pause and when he did, he looked at her with new eyes, ones that said they wanted to stuff her in his pocket and keep her safe.
“Okay,” he said. “Go ahead.”
“It’s these corporations that are the problem. And the government’s in bed with them. They make it cheaper to buy virgin products by giving no incentive to buy used, like we’re never going to run out of the new stuff. It’s a pain to separate the wheat from the chaff of recyclables, I know that, but it could be a lucrative pain with the right incentives. And what about the trees? They recycle all our carbon dioxide? The fewer trees we have, the harder it is to breathe. Is it any wonder asthma in children is at an all-time high?” She bounced her knee up and down involuntarily. “People act like the environment is negotiable. Just wait. Freak weather is only the tippy top of the iceberg. Floods, droughts, water shortages. The collapse of the honey bee. Talk about end of days.” She snorted as her mother’s blood rushed through her body, and folded her hands in her lap, concluding her tirade.
“But the science is contradictory. Maybe they just don’t know,” Chris opined, smiling.
“Bull. If the government really wanted to change the way the world did business, rather than continue to let the few loot the common resources of the many, it could give tax breaks to the high-minded companies, the ones that did business with sustainable development in mind. Don’t even get me started on public lands. The government is selling our public resources at pennies on the dollar to the corporations that curry the most favor, i.e., that donate the most election dollars. Those are our lands, our children’s lands. They shouldn’t be for sale, dammit.”
She felt the truth of her own words and believed them with a force she’d never experienced before this moment. And whether it was this force or the fact that Kori felt woefully inadequate to carrying on Ruth’s legacy, she closed her mouth, because if she said one more word, she would break down and cry.
Lucky for her, the public meeting began as a speaker from EPA stepped to the podium.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. If we could have your attention.” The EPA representative, Stefanie Pierson, stood at the podium as the remaining individuals took their seats. The murmuring of the crowd died out like ripples spreading across a pond. A half dozen agency officials sat on stage with Stefanie, each with a microphone.
“As you know, we’re here tonight to lay out our findings with regard to the Stahl landfill and to draw you a road map as to what you can expect in the future. You, as the public, have a right to be part of these decisions and we would also like to encourage you to exercise that right by expressing your comments either here or in writing.”
“What about our right to clean drinking water?” Andrew Dodd shouted. He was a first cousin to Jim Stahl. He sat way in the back, but his voice carried far and away over the din of the crowd. A general murmur of agreement swept the room like a wave.
Stefanie Pierson didn’t flinch. “You absolutely have every right to clean drinking water, clean air, clean soil, a clean environment. That’s the law. But you’ve got to help us help you.”
“How the hell you gonna help us? That damn aquifer’s so polluted even the fish can’t live in it.” The crowd rumbled in agreement, the din in the auditorium growing louder.
“Sir. First of all, an aquifer is below ground and fish don’t live in it. Microbes, yes. But not fish. I do take your meaning, however. And if you could just give us a minute to run through the chosen alternatives that came out of the ROD. That stands for Record of Decision.”
“A minute?! A minute!” Jim Stahl burst into the room pushing a wheelchair, amidst a cacophony of bottles and tubing. Gasps shot through the room when the audience got a look at what had become of the once healthy and vital Vera Stahl.
“I’ll give you a Goddamn minute. But who’s going to give that minute back to my wife, huh? Is it you? Or you?” Jim pointed an accusatory finger at each of the government representatives. “How about you?” He was only halfway down the aisle, his progress hampered by the many bottles hanging from the wheelchair: salines, antibiotics, and, from the looks of Vera Stahl, morphine. Vera looked one step away from needing a hospice nurse and clearly didn’t know where she was which is probably why Jim got away with displaying her in such a vulgar and obtrusive fashion.
It was at this point in the proceedings that – to use that time tested cliché – all hell broke loose.
The public meeting ended sometime after 11:00 p.m. with both hosts and participants showing signs of exhaustion. Jim Stahl’s tactic of putting his wife on display worked well initially, getting the crowd riled to a fever pitch, but the blame worked its way around again and when neighbors suggested that if Jim’s father would have complied with any one of the missives sent from Pennsylvania DEP the Hickory Hills development might not be sitting atop a despoiled aquifer. Kori was grateful the evening hadn’t been reduced to fisticuffs. In fact, real progress had been made as the EPA and DEP outlined their plan. The water in the aquifer would be pumped out of the ground, run through a carbon filter and returned, clean, to the aquifer, the same theory Marty had used on the family’s in-house filtration system. The downside was that the treatment would likely bring the cost of the remedy up to the forty million dollar range and may take as long as twenty-five years to complete.
EPA told the residents of Hickory Hills that they were to continue drinking and cooking with bottled water while their well water was to be used for the rest. Kori wondered about the wisdom of this – daily bathing would mean daily absorption of contaminants through the skin – and was about to raise the issue when Vera Stahl began a violent coughing fit. When she regained her composure, Jim gave over to the evil glares and took her home.
Gil had fallen asleep during the meeting, a deep REM sleep which followed his inhalation of a handful of Tootsie Rolls, taffy, and half a dozen mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, courtesy of Aunt Stella. Aunt Stella had not plied Gil with that much chocolate. He’d found the mother lode while she was chatting and worked it until her coat pockets sagged, depleted. Aunt Stella turned after a long discussion with a neighbor to see a pile of wrappers in Gil’s lap and him out cold. She flashed Kori a guilty look, collected the trash and covered Gil with her coat.
Gil was in the car with Avery now, wide awake and fidgety. He’d have trouble falling asleep tonight, but Kori would worry about that when she got home. Chris Kane had followed her out to the parking lot and waited while she started the car. They stood in front of Ruth’s minivan, awkward and antsy, trying to say goodbye. Gil honked the horn and Kori jumped. He was showing signs of driving away himself so she turned to Chris Kane.
“It was great seeing you again, Chris. I hope you do our meeting justice.”
“Which meeting would that be?” Chris asked.
Kori blushed, and turned away, embarrassed.
“Would you mind . . . I mean, I was thinking that a story on your brother and his, what did you call it? A TDU? That a story on his machine would make good copy for the business section. What do you think?”
“I’m not sure.” Kori looked back at Gil, jumping around in the back seat more like a monkey than the young man who held keys to the world’s better future. “I told you someone set our porch on fire. We’re don’t know if those two things are related. I don’t want anything else to happen.” For the third or fourth time tonight, Kori intuited that Chris Kane might want to lean over and kiss her, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.
“If you’re worried about it, the best thing you can do is get it out in the open. The more people who know about it, the better chance you have of staying safe.”
“Can I think about it?” Kori asked.
Chris nodded. “I’ll call you in a couple days then.”
“Okay,” Kori said, looking over her shoulder “I gotta go now.”
“Sure,” Chris replied. Kori extended her hand, but instead of shaking it, he kissed it.
to be continued. . .
This is how we got here
Hart and Sonia sat in the kitchen of a large, turn of the century farmhouse. Sonia had lost all the “baby weight,” those amorphous extra pounds that settle around the hips and lower abdomen and stayed on like an unwanted house guest. Hart hadn’t minded. On Sonia, everything looked good. Seeing her now though, in her tight, short-sleeved pullover and Levis, he felt the pull of desire and wanted to do something about it. He squeezed her hand and smiled, but she scowled at something across the room. He followed her gaze.
Bicky! What the hell’s he doing here? Bicky smiled complacently at his daughter. On the table was a small turtle, the kind children put inside a terrarium with a little pond, some dirt, gravel, and a few ferns. Hart watched the turtle walk back and forth between his open hands.
“You can’t let him do this, David. Don’t you see what he’s up to?”
Hart strained to listen, but didn’t understand and didn’t want to confess his ignorance. If she found out he didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, would she leave again? He searched her face for meaning and finding none, returned his attention to the turtle.
“David, he won’t stop here. Don’t you see? He doesn’t care. Not about anyone or anything. Do something. Please.”
Do something about what? Hart’s brain cast about, attempting to divine meaning, but the more he let loose the lure, the more tangled the lines became. So he just sat there while Sonia scowled and Bicky smiled like a Jesus wanna-be. He squeezed Sonia’s hand again, as if he could intuit her meaning through touch. Tears sprung to her eyes, but the scowl remained intact.
Without warning, Bicky reached across the table and plucked the turtle from Hart’s fingerless hold. He jumped up and headed toward the stove. A large pot bubbled away; a gas flame licked the underside of its metal belly and steam wafted up to the ceiling’s wooden beams.
“No!” Sonia shouted, pouncing on her father. He whirled away and held the turtle above her head, dangling it there like a bully would do to a smaller child.
“David, please. He kills everything. Stop him.” Before Hart could move, Sonia was on Bicky, pushing, kicking and punching. He shoved his daughter and she crashed into the kitchen door. The rickety latch gave easily; the door flew open and Sonia out with it.
“Nooo!” Hart screamed and jumped over the table reaching the door just as it banged shut. He flung it open and instead of finding his wife, lying prostrate on the front stoop, he found a large, fast-moving river. He stared after the river’s course dumbfounded, but there was no trace of Sonia.
Hart turned and leaped at Bicky, snatching the turtle from Bicky’s hand and replacing it on the table. He put his hands on either side to guard it and watched his father-in-law through narrowed eyes. Bicky pressed forward, but Hart deflected him, his arms forming a barricade. He was desperate to go after Sonia, but Bicky’s menacing presence loomed large and Hart knew that if he left, the turtle was soup. Bicky mocked him, trying to break him with derision, but Hart wouldn’t blink. Finally, he just stared at the turtle, wide-eyed, babbling something crazy. At first, Hart thought it was a trick, but curiosity beat him down. He looked. The turtle had tripled in size and was still growing.
Bicky ran a tongue over his lips. “Ah, it’s going to be even better now.”
Hart readied himself for another attack, shielding the turtle with his body. There was no assault, just the beep beep of numbers being punched into a cell phone. He looked up, expecting a trick, but Bicky was, in fact, calling someone.
“What are you doing?” Hart asked.
“What else,” Bicky said. “Calling my lawyer.”
The peal of the phone shot Hart right out of bed. He scanned the room, disoriented. Bicky was gone. So was the turtle. “Sonia.” A lament. The phone rang again, jarring him. He loosed it from its cradle.
“This is Hart.”
“It’s… Kitty.” Bicky’s voice was thick and choked sounding.
“Bicky?” Hart’s own voice sounded strangled; trepidation lingered in the ambient air.
“Kitty had an aneurysm. She’s dead.” Hart felt the sickening feeling return.
“Come back to Houston…please?”
“I’ll be there by late afternoon,” Hart said, and started packing.
to be continued. . .
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