A Pheasant in the Brush
It’s 6:18 p.m. on Thursday evening when Tess drags into the house. The bend to her shoulders looks like something pushes into her chest; her body, formed into a shape that will hold it there. I know there’s something more that needs to be said, or done, but all I can do is watch as she flips the dirty sandals from her feet. She stands by the mahogany coat rack, fashioned and stained to match the woodwork in our house, a gift made in shop class during her sophomore year in high school. In the breakfast nook, on the table there, she plunks an oversized hemp satchel. She shuffles toward the front room, away from me, without a word.
Dinner is finished, but I put the baked spaghetti and garlic bread in the oven to keep warm, the salad into the fridge. My husband is due back from the road any minute, and I want us to eat together like families used to do.
This is not the first time Tess has gone missing only to show up like nothing’s out of sync just as Craig pulls into the drive. Craig, Tess’s father and my husband, is a regional manager for Harvest House Cafés and works out of town for weeks at a time. With him gone, bent rules have thinned to nonexistent for Tess, and what started with two hours of dead time has crept into regular overnight unknowns. I’m beside-myself anxious to set her straight, but I’m waiting for Craig before I do anything, don’t trust my own judgment with these kinds of things. And while I wait for him to solve it, the bottom line to be drawn, a certain tension will build between us like ants in sand when we’re in the same room.
During the summer, Tess began talking of Rastafarian things, Bob Marley and the rejection of Babylon. She’s enrolled in summer classes at the regional campus of Ohio University not far from home. But she is just seventeen, and I worry that this new interest is a symptom of exposure to older kids, troubled kids. I worry about sex, drugs, depression, or the influence of a perverted teacher who’s alienating her in order to gain ultimate control. My thoughts keep me on the edge of paranoid, but that’s nothing new. Still, I asked no questions when she decorated her room in green, gold, red, and black. Masked my disappointment when she donned a net hat woven in all the same hues. But in my quiet moments, the times when I’m alone and honest with myself, I know that I have a need to gloss over hard things, even when they’re staring me straight in the face and screaming at me.
I hear the television turn on in the other room. It’s a plasma T.V. with all the gadgets and too many channels to count. I’m treated to the back of Tess’s head as she sits on the leather couch. Roxie, our pet pug, wags her stub of a tail. The bouncing light of the screen dances on the glass of the French doors leading out back. A cloud moves across the deck to shroud the bright sunlight in an ominous shadow. The room is darkened for an instant, the heavy weight of another moment gone forever. Tess flips the remote and ignores everything.
She mangled her long red hair into dreads last week. Tess’s hair, silky soft before the dreads, now scrunches close to her scalp and hangs ratted with fuzz and lint from cylinder stalks. But I still think the color goes well with her skin tone, and full lips hover under her pert little nose and quizzical green eyes.
“Hungry?” I ask.
“How long until dinner?” She turns away.
“As soon as Dad gets home,” I say.
I realize that I’m already out of focus, too old and outdated to be any concern to her. I’m thinking that I was once interesting; I’ve lived life on the edge. I’ve just come around to enjoy a life the same shade as oatmeal; I’m thinking that I’ve grown wise through the years curled up with a book. I rummage around in the kitchen making noise, eager to find something between us, but I don’t find anything in there.
“Do you mind?” Tess says. Her voice is too loud for the room. She pulls her arms across her chest, an indication that she’s already blocked me out. I study the lines scored into the back of her scalp by the parts in her hair. I’m thinking that I should say something but bite my tongue instead.
Our house is located on a quiet residential street on the outskirts of Heath, Ohio. The lot is small but filled with hardwoods planted when the house was built in the mid-eighties. It’s a comfortable place, calm and nice, the tiny windows designed for energy efficiency. But the trees in our lot enclose the house from all sides and are fierce and lovely to watch during a thunder storm. The cool shadows provide comfort during the hot and humid summer months. We grow ferns and hostas, long-legged daylilies, and thin coneflowers that keep the birds coming back. Craig built a path of gravel in the back yard and covered it in mulch. I think it gives the place a peaceful presence, like a state park, or at least a scenic turn-about. Our street has no sidewalk; the interruption of lawn would smack too loud of suburbia. I like to pretend that we are the only family living here.
I move to the dining room and sip a glass of red wine while I listen to Tess. In the cupboard now, she crumples bags of chips, cracker boxes, and cookies. I warn her to wait, that she’ll ruin her dinner.
“Quit bossing me,” she says.
“I’m just saying,” I say, too eager to smooth things out. I want a nice evening for Craig’s sake, and pour another glass of red wine to drink while I wait.
The dining room window needs to be cleaned, the shades wiped down. I pull out a chair and sit anyway, my feet propped into the seat adjacent. I wrap my hand around my glass and drink. Relief spreads through my head like aloe on a burn.
Outside, the day grows long in weakened sunshine as dusk creeps through the trees and bathes the yard in unnatural light. The sky is vanilla and casts a dreamy florescence that snaps the back deck to deep brown against the yellow lilies growing in the bed. A red-bellied woodpecker visits the feeder and scatters the inferior birds to the ground. I watch his red head swivel as the long beak pecks at the seeds, a ferocious bird. He spreads his wings to fly to a branch in the red maple. The lesser birds return to the feeder with caution. I walk through the living room, past Tess, to go out on the deck. I light a cigarette and blow smoke rings in the quiet.
A yellow finch visits with his muted mate at his side. I wonder why the males are so vivid; I’m thinking this should be the other way around. A satin green hummingbird hovers by the fuchsia baskets dripping heavy with purple and white blooms. The bird is so fragile, wings beating as fast, or faster, than its small heart.
“I need to talk to you,” Tess says.
I start with the sound of her voice at my back. She stands at the split screen I purchased to allow the dog and cat free reign. I feel guilty for daydreaming with so much at hand. She’s ready to talk, and I feel close to her. I take a sip of my wine and hold it in my mouth, saturate my tongue before I swallow.
“What is it,” I say.
The hummingbird whirs. I sit on the edge of my seat and lean in.
She takes the chair across from me, hands folded on the glass table. Her nails are bitten to the quick, her chipped black polish a jagged stain on each finger. I notice that she’s stopped shaving her legs, and under her arms there’s a soft ruddy shadow. She struggles; her words garble; tears puddle on the lower rims of her eyes, a sea of green about to spill over. She’s all cheeks and drooping eyes, a sad sweet thing.
“Take your time,” I say.
She’s rubbing her forehead. I’m thinking that at this very moment, in this light, with that look, she seems five years old again, so small and helpless. I sip my wine. I’m waiting to hear what could be so terribly wrong.
I’ve lived a different life than the one we gave to Tess. My childhood was more difficult than anything she’s ever known.
When I was five years old, I slept in my eldest sister’s bed. Lacey, nine years older and twice as big, was impatient when I couldn’t sleep or hogged the little space we had in the full-sized bed. One night, I woke up and she was missing, cool sheets turned back without a rumple on her side. My throat felt parched, but I was afraid of the dark, didn’t want to get up and get grabbed by something under the bed. I lay there and listened, watching the thin white curtains dance in the light from the lamppost outside, my stomach twisting. The open window worried me, made me think that Lacey might have gone through it like Sugar Oney did. Sugar was a girl in town, and some kids had found her down by the railroad tracks, dead and naked, two days after her brother found her empty bedroom.
The night Lacey went missing, I heard the television in the living room. John Wayne’s strong slur belched orders while I waited for her in the dark. Fresh cigarette smoke seeped in through a crack in the door, and then I knew my father was home.
Moments passed, and I held my breath waiting, my heartbeat a slow thrum in my ears. Waning moments seemed like hours in the dark. I heard the television station going off the air, the National Anthem, and knew the flag waved across the screen. And still, no Lacey. I eyed the window through the dark and thought about waking my mother.
There, in the dim light by the doorway: a specter in a flowing baby blue nightgown and long blonde hair. Lacey slipped into the room without a sound and climbed into our bed, her skin damp and sticky like she’d been on a long run.
“I’m thirsty,” I said. She jumped; the hollow sound of my voice smacked against the bare walls in the room.
“Go to sleep, you little turd,” she said. She punched me down into the bed with her hand across my chest.
“But I’m thirsty.” I wriggled to get up. She held me fast there, so tight and shaky that I thought she must be frightened, too.
“If you don’t settle in, I’m going have to spank you,” she said.
But she sounded like she’d been crying, her nose stuffed and her voice thick. I hugged her neck and stayed put, welcomed the affection even if it was only spurred by fear. I fell asleep with her hands curled around my white cotton nightgown. I didn’t tell my mother, pretended that it wasn’t real, like it never happened.
But now Tess wants to tell me something.
I go to her and work to get the kinks out of the small, bunched muscles hiding under her skin along her neck and shoulders. The knotted masses slide through the sweat under my fingertips, and I feel awkward doing this. What I want more than anything is to encircle her tiny body in my arms, but I’m thinking that she’ll pull away; I’m thinking that she’s finished with the petting I used to give her when she was small. Her silence feels like a great gulf between us, and I wish Craig were home.
“What is it?” I say.
The muscles and tendons in her neck work like stiff chords under soft cloth. She’s shaking her head, shutting me out. I squeeze her shoulder. She’s looking up at me with round eyes.
“You can tell me,” I say.
Her nose drips water, and she wipes this away with the back of her hand.
“I’m pregnant,” Tess says. She turns away.
“Oh, Tess.” It’s all I can do to push the words from my mouth.
She’s crying now. I know I should comfort her; it’s the right thing to do. I feel inept, stunned, and unable to do what a mother should. I circle her chair and lift her chin in my hand; grief and fear bundle raw in her face. I cradle her head to my body, hold her tight there.
“How far along?”
A breeze lifts the tree leaves and turns the undersides up. I focus on the sweat drying on the back of my neck and close my eyes.
“Three months.” I repeat it, my voice far away.
I’m thinking of her hiding this secret, the fear she must have felt. I feel her breath, warm and wet, on the skin under my shirt. A gust of cool wind moves across my neck, a moment swollen with colliding emotions, a seething mass of chaos which threatens to take me under. I’m grasping for order; I’m thinking that three months isn’t too far along. She lifts her head and wipes her tears with the palms of her hands, a movement which reminds me of the day she slipped down the front steps and scraped her knee when she was ten. Back then, a kiss and antibiotic cream could fix most things.
“I want to keep it.” Her words are lead-filled and final.
I feel her eyes on me. I focus on Katie, the neighbor’s Collie. The dog sniffs the fence as if it knows something’s wrong.
“I need some time, Tess,” I manage to say.
Her body stiffens as she cuts her eyes to me. I can see all of what I’m feeling pressed into the mirrors there; the anger, humiliation, and accusation I see in them are a surprise to me. I need some time to think.
“You should eat something,” I say.
“I’m not hungry.” Her head lowers, and she fingers a hole in the bottom of her shirt.
“Please, Tess,” I say, but I think she’s slipping away, withdrawing into herself, regretting that she came to me for help. I’m watching her go, and I know that I need to say something, anything, to keep her with me now.
“I’ll talk to your father.” My voice is barely a whisper. I lift her face toward me and meet her halfway. “We’ll be okay.”
I feel as if my feet lift from the boards in the deck, and I’m floating like a dead leaf caught in the autumn wind. I remind myself that I need to breathe and close my eyes. I’m so afraid for her; I’m so afraid for her to know the real me.
Tess rests on the couch while I feed Roxie dinner. She sleeps just as dusk moves in and closes around the house. I sit in the dining room in the fading light and let my mind drift along the memories rising to the surface like bubbles in boiling water. I’m thinking about my twisted life, the hidden turns that I’ve buried so deep that I can almost believe it all to be a dream, like it never really happened, or happened to someone I once knew. I’m lost in a pool brimming with the fetid images of my childhood, images that never really leave me. I’ve been an observer of the human condition for a long time now, and I know in my core, as well as I’ve ever known anything, that people can’t hide their real selves for long.
But my real self is made up of things no person should know about.
Virginia. The name of the place feels heavy and solid when I say it out loud. It was there that my father had taken me hunting for the first time; it was there that I fully understood what it meant to be his daughter.
We’d hiked far that morning, spent hours roaming the rocky terrain before spotting a fat pheasant in the brush. He let me take the shot, and I felt just like Annie Oakley.
Dad and I sat just off the path leading toward the back pasture. Squirrels rattled the trees and scuffled among the dead and dying things on the ground, collecting acorns for the winter. The leaves had lost much of their color and were falling from branches in great clumps. A dreary dirty kind of dust mucked over most of them lying on the ground, but I collected the ones with some color left and stuffed them under my shirt for safe keeping. I wanted to press them between sheets of wax paper with my grandmother’s heavy iron, the old fashioned kind that needed heating on the black coal stove in the parlor.
I wore a jean jacket for warmth, blue jeans, and boots laced tight against the coming chill. My father wore a leather coat, black trousers, and a red ball-cap pulled tight onto his ears. Everything was damp, and moisture soaked through my jeans as I sat on the ground.
“Sit with your back toward me.”
His voice was tight in his throat. The air shifted. The distance between that place and the house seemed long and rough. I turned.
“Give me your hand.”
I held out my hand and he guided it to the place that he wanted massaged hard. I couldn’t look at him and buried my face into the collar of my jacket. Red-faced and stupid, I hunched forward and rubbed the loamy fullness beneath his thin trouser.
Damp moss thickened the smell of the air. I felt it cool on my skin and heard birds calling in the trees as the space closed around us. My nose ran, and I wiped it away with my sleeve before I looked to the canopy, stark and naked above me, and climbed there inside, my shame distant from where I went in my head before it was over.
We prepared the bird when we got back to the house. My grandmother dipped it into scalding water to process it. The bird was all feathers, barely enough meat to feed one person. I felt for the leaves under my shirt, and my heart sank when I realized that I’d lost them somewhere between that path and the house.
My mother watched me like an insect from her post by the kitchen door. Silent, a stiff statue, she crossed her arms and accused me with her eyes. Shame filled me up, silenced me, my way out blocked with her stony expression.
And now I think that Tess’s pregnancy is somehow my fault, too.
The night closes in and squeezes my lungs like I’m breathing through wet cloth while I’m forcing my mind through it. I’m thinking that my mutated genes destined her to this, that my childhood and my parenting have tainted her in some way. I freeze as I see my mother’s face as it was after I’d gone to the clinic. It’s suddenly right here with me slicing through the dark like a glowing specter with inky hair and darker eyes. I press my hands to my lips to keep it inside. I remind myself that Tess isn’t me.
I go to my room and wait for Craig to come and find me. I want some time to myself before everything changes. I’m ashamed of my failure but not of Tess, never of Tess. I shouldn’t have sent her out there without teaching her more of what a woman needs to know, the differences in the way girls think, the differences in what we want and need. I’d had it all figured out, the reason for my failures categorized and filed, the blame placed where it belonged a long time ago. Everyone knows that an abused kid can never get things right in her head on her own. Am I right?
When I was thirteen, I met an older boy, Peter, at the public swimming pool. Shaggy black hair, bowed legs, and a puckish grin proved irresistible. He told me that he was adopted but didn’t want to search for his birth parents, said he didn’t have a need to know anything about his life before. I caught a lie, his eyes too sad to cover it. Black lights, air hockey, Aerosmith, and Peter were my life that summer.
We met in the graveyard one night by a marker shaped like a tree stump, and drank crème de menthe that he’d stolen from home. The drink turned our lips and tongues green, and we laughed.
“What would you say if I told you I want you,” he’d said.
“I’d tell you that I already know that.”
I flipped the end of his nose with the tip of my finger. He caught my hand in the air then slipped his lips across my knuckles, the soft hair on his lip tickling before the warmth of his breath soaked into my skin.
“Then kiss me, and make love to me.”
His velvet pleading eyes melted the distance between us.
“You can have the kiss.”
He threw the bottle against the stone across from us. The green liquid splashed against white, a child’s grave-stone with a little lamb engraved on the front. I felt his frustration boiling hot to the surface. I tried to stand.
“Maybe you’re not as grown up as I thought,” he said.
His words wounded me, a shard of metal sticking into my heart. I’d show him, I thought, what grownup meant. I placed my hand on his neck and drew him to me, and that night, reckless, foot-loose and fancy-free, it didn’t hurt when he entered me.
Peter hid me for weeks in the apartment of his father’s girlfriend, a small, dusty two bedroom that stank of old liquor and stove grease. I felt uneasy around the girlfriend, but I stayed there and babysat her three-year-old girl, Josie.
Josie’s dark hair and darker eyes were black holes against skin as perfect and creamy white as the porcelain-faced dolls that storekeepers lock behind glass. She was deaf, and I don’t know why, but it was a different kind of quiet than I knew. We spent long hours talking to each other by pointing, smiling, and shaking our heads. I liked Josie, and she seemed to like me. I missed her and worried about her when I left that place.
We shared a room with a mattress on the floor, and slept together under a thread-bare brown comforter at night. I felt dirty all the time and worked hard to scrub the place down a little. All the while, a soft nut grew inside my skinny body. I passed the time worrying whether my child would be deaf, or blind, whether he would have hair as dark as Josie’s, whether her skin would be so white and perfect.
My second molars were just coming in, and as days turned to weeks my jaw thumped in rhythm with my heartbeat whenever I tried to lie flat. I couldn’t keep any food down and hadn’t seen Peter since he dropped me there. I stayed in that place until I thought that it must be too late to end it. Hopelessly sick and frightened out of my mind, I decided to go home to my mother.
Dad drove me to the clinic, a silent thirty-minute car ride. Mom stayed in her room with the shades drawn tight that day and into the next. And after that day, I couldn’t look into her eyes and see anything but disgust, didn’t feel like anything but the nasty girl she labeled as such.
I became someone else, someone destructive. I lashed out, drugged up, and drank anything I could get my hands on. My father died long before I was finished with it. Heart failure, they said, and I was only surprised that he had one to begin with. I had nowhere to put it, the black rage that gnawed a hole in my soul like a rat through cardboard. I felt alone, and knowing this licked behind my every step when I gave up and into it.
Craig finds me upstairs sitting on the edge of the bed twisting a yellow decorative pillow. My back is toward him, and I stare into the thin light cast by the sun through the window. The air seems to tick, and time slips by in the rhythm of it. I hold my breath, fearing that I’ll lose all control right in front of him like the weak little nothing that I am. I draw in some clean air before allowing the two words to slide out.
“She’s pregnant,” I say.
Craig stops, midstride. His mouth hangs loose from his jaw. “Who’s pregnant?”
“Tess,” I say, and I’m crying again.
Craig crosses the room in three strides to lift me with both arms wrapped around my waist. He’s holding me together, and I close my eyes to soak in the glue.
We find Tess in the living room. I sit beside her on the couch. Craig wants to get rid of it; he wants to push agreement right now. It’s my fault and I know it; I’ve made him into a Mr. Fix It; he became a Mr. Fix Me by necessity. I know that it’s time that I help him, but I don’t have a clue. My heart feels like it’s caught in a vacuum. I am paralyzed in this.
I need to make Craig understand what could happen to Tess if we travel this road, the trauma, the shame, the regret that could sink into her and hold her there. She could be haunted by it, controlled by it, devoured by the very thing we do to help her. I’m thinking that Craig needs to know things, to know me, in order to steer our family through to the other side of it. This thought, this particular final thought, terrifies me.
“Mom, help. Don’t let him do this.”
I wrap my arms around myself to hold in this moment. I’m thirteen again, frightened, confused, alone. I look to Craig then back to Tess. My daughter needs me. Craig needs me. I want to take this from her, from him. I hold Tess’s hand. I’m thinking that we all need to stay calm.
“I need some time,” I say, but I’m thinking that I’ve already taken enough of it.
Craig wants to know how long this has been going on.
“Please, Craig, let’s wait to do this.”
Tess rocks in her seat.
The leather squeaks when she leans forward and back. Our future cracks and falls in front of the couch.
“We need to be on the same page,” I say.
I give Craig what I think is my fiercest face, lips pressed tight and brow furrowed. I shake my head, but he doesn’t heed me. He wants to confirm Levi, Tess’s latest boyfriend, as the culprit. Craig wants to know dates and times.
Tess is wilting, dissolving like chalk in water right here while I’m watching.
“I said, ‘We need to talk alone first.’”
My voice smacks hard in the room. Craig’s muzzled for now, bewildered. Tess buries her face in her hands.
Craig marches into the kitchen to snatch a beer from the fridge. The motor on the offended appliance hums, a cold sound echoing against the tile floor. I can hear him swallow as he gulps the beverage down fast.
“Come with me upstairs, Craig.”
Tess clutches my arm. I pet her shoulder and soothe her back onto the couch. My heart swells against my chest, my throat, my skull. I look into her eyes, such pleading, like a sick little cat caught in a downpour.
I can’t stand what this does to Craig. We gave Tess all we had, thought we’d protected her from all the bad things in this world. She is to be the person I couldn’t be; she is to do all the things that I never could do. I thought the past dead and buried, cut down to size before time covered it over. I don’t want Tess to know these things, these terrifying choices now in front of her. I don’t want anyone to know these. I’m crying again, and it hurts when I swallow.
I follow Craig up the stairs to our bedroom. I feel his frame vibrate when I take his face in my hands. He’s taut muscle and nerve hardened against this thing. I need his strength; I give him the little I have left. He lingers with his chin on my shoulder, calmer now. I feel him relax against my neck.
“Maybe I can raise it as mine,” I say.
He shakes his head, body tenses. “I can’t do this.”
We sit together. Silence on the bed.
“It will change her life forever,” he says.
I think about this a long time. It could be some sick kind of cycle we can’t break, a beginning to the same story that a lady in the beauty shop tells about an un-wed mother: three kids from different fathers in five years. Taking care of a baby is a heavy load. But I could help Tess do it, fill in while she finishes school. I remember the cat Tess loved but wouldn’t feed.
“It will change all our lives,” he says.
A tired ache is in my chest, behind my eyes.
“It already has,” I say.
A vein throbs in his forehead, a quivering bundle of angry frustration. He doesn’t say anything.
“Then you think we should end it?” I say.
I think about this, still can’t make myself say the word. This is the same path that led me to Craig, I reason. If I hadn’t done what I did, he wouldn’t have wanted me; he wouldn’t have wanted us back then. But I’m thinking that this isn’t fair. I know him, and I don’t really believe this thought true. I want to trust him.
I skip questions across the surface of my brain. Is it really a soul yet? Does it even matter if it’s not? All I can think about is what this would do to Tess, the doors closing, the whispered rumors, the ticking tongues. Is this wrong? At least Craig’s questions had logic behind them, something concrete. A veil drops over my eyes to block what I know. I can’t see the end of this road even though I’ve lived it.
I hear Tess in the kitchen getting some food. I’ve forgotten to turn off the oven, and I’m glad she’s eating. I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling. Craig studies the ornamental rug and taps the tasseled end with the toe of his shoe.
“I’ll make some calls in the morning,” he says.
I want to go back to that night in the graveyard with Peter and choose a better path this time.
I must fix this and tell myself this one’s on me. I am her mother, and the choice is mine to make. I will assign all blame to myself, all condemnation. There is a chance that she’ll believe me. She can rise above this someday.
I watch Tess’s spirit break as Craig delivers this news. He will arrange it, he says. He will take her there and wait while it’s handled. I already know that I will be alone in my bed with the shades drawn that day. I’ll pretend it’s not real, that it didn’t happen. I’m still a shadow in a dark room.
I heard somewhere that wisdom is born of hard circumstance, and I wonder why anyone would want to be wise. Wisdom knows that we are all selfish things that strive to control. I know we are trees in a storm and small bullied birds. We are dead leaves buried in muck, the muted mates of brilliantly colored males. Fat pheasants hunker helpless in the brush and wait for their time in this world to be over; everything is a different shade of the same hue.
It’s measured that way, in degrees, my mother would say. The overview will count more than any single part, she would say. But where is the guilt in that? Mom can’t bend the rules just because it’s convenient. I’m thinking that each one of us should try to do a little better than the last. Am I right?
The image of my grandchild suddenly shakes me, pink soft flesh waiting for sunshine and air, all smiles and sweet heartache behind a bubbling mouth and new eyes.
“No, I won’t do this,” I hear myself say.
Craig’s eyebrows shoot up, the movement a carbon copy of that which breaks across Tess’s small face. I’ve shocked both of them, and myself.
“And that’s it,” I say. “Final.”
Tess is coming toward me, and when we touch I can feel something between us mending, stitched together as each careful word comes out of my mouth. She holds tight to my arm.
Craig’s eyes are great lost pools.
“Not this time,” I say.
“What do you mean?” Craig says.
I can feel Tess’s eyes burn into the side of my face.
“Tess,” I say. “Let’s go up to your room for awhile.”
I spend the evening trying to unravel the dreads in her hair. She trusts me, and when she finally sleeps, she’s huddled in the heavy blanket like the fetus that once nestled inside my womb.
I don’t want to face Craig and buy myself a little time gathering old pop cans and dishes from the shelves and headboard in Tess’s room. He drinks beer on the deck in the dark, and I can hear the empty bottles hit the glass table. One by one he slaps them down, and I’m counting to seven as I watch him through the open window. The ache in my chest feels as if I’ve betrayed him. I pour myself another glass of wine before I join him outside.
“What are you thinking?” he says.
“I’m thinking that she’s almost eighteen, almost an adult,” I say. “I’m thinking that we need to do the right thing for Tess. I’m thinking that easy isn’t always so easy and may haunt her forever, change her in ways that I don’t want to know.”
He stands leaning against the rails of the deck, legs crossed. The quiet is a heavy blanket thrown onto a fire.
“It is going to be rough,” he says.
My heart jumps.
“I know this,” I say. My words are thick and heavy in my mouth. “But, I’ve been through rougher.” I finger the paint chipping along the top of the deck railing. “I think she’s made her choice, Craig. And it’s her choice to make.” I cut my eyes to him.
Craig looks at me through the dim light, his head cocked, a question asked without words. An owl calls from the trees in the back of the lot.
“Just tell me,” he says.
I drop my eyes. I lose my taste for the wine and pour the red liquid from my glass into the bed of yellow lilies that weave around and through the spindles of the deck railing.
Craig wraps his arms around me, sighs heavily, and pulls me into him. Lightning bugs blink in the thick black night. The air is heavy with rain, a thundercloud closing in around us. Cicadas sing in tandem, a rich buzzing song that fills my trembling soul with the hope that we can endure the approaching storm. A dog is barking somewhere far away. A train whistles goodbye and hello in the same instant. Craig leans in and pets my hair, my neck. He folds me against him, and I bury my face in his chest to rest.
“It’ll be okay,” he says.
And I think this is true. Maybe we’ve turned it around, weeded this thing out in our time. Maybe we’ve straightened a crooked path in our world. I smile to think that this could be the truth. I breathe in Craig’s scent and melt into him, become part of him in this moment. I’m thinking that maybe I’m not so alone.
“I need to tell you some things,” I say.
Lora Hilty is completing her MFA at Spalding University’s low residency program in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Literal Translations, The Battered Suitcase, and other journals. She lives a quiet life with her husband, Greg, near Columbus, Ohio.