Caution

It was Mrs. Adams, a woman from their town, who had died. When Nan was a sophomore in high school, as part of her school’s community service program, she’d been assigned to Mrs. Adams as her after-school buddy. Twice a week, she would stop by her house to check in. Sometimes to deliver groceries or prescriptions from the pharmacy, sometimes just to sit with her and play cards or watch game shows or the news on TV. Mrs. Adams was friendly and had the kind, weathered spirit of many of the older residents in her area, but these visits were never very comfortable: she was ill, and every room in the house held an aura of sickness. Every threshold felt veiled with a thin scrim of germs. She spent much of the time wheezing and hacking on the couch, pulling wadded-up tissues from inside her sleeve, a perpetual cough lozenge clicking at the back of her molars. Nan did her best to be helpful and polite to her, but she was always relieved when the visits were over, and she could go outside and breathe the clean air of the yard.

When Nan was a senior in high school, her older brother drowned skating on a frozen river near her house. Though it had been years since she’d seen Mrs. Adams, she showed up at the funeral unexpectedly. By this point, though, she had become sicker—multiple strokes and a brain aneurism had left her with the social propriety of a toddler. During the funeral service, in the otherwise hushed, cold church, she cried out at random, her voice like a wounded animal yelping from the back pew. Eventually, the neighbor who’d brought her took her away. Nan heard the church door open and close, and the screaming fade into silence, but she never stopped staring at the casket in front of her, draped in the frayed blue blanket her brother had carried as a child.

A few weeks later, Nan was accepted to college in New York City. At the time, the thought of leaving Vermont seemed impossible, and worse, fraught with disrespect; her brother, who’d barely made it past his twentieth birthday, had never even gotten the chance to leave New England. But spring came, and, gradually, her parents talked her into accepting her place and the scholarship that accompanied it. She had always loved and trusted her mother and father, and the absence of her brother only made these feelings stronger. So she went. And, though it had not been easy, slowly, over three years, the girl raised at the end of a dirt driveway, by a wide meadow in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, had begun to make a life for herself in the city.

 

Once her exams were over, and the school year was finished, Nan went back to Vermont. She would have to return to the city in a week, however, to resume working at her job at the language lab on campus, and to retain her university apartment, a narrow but comfortable studio off of Riverside Drive. There was also Malcolm, whom she’d met at her internship at the literary magazine on campus. They had begun to date. Could it be called that? It was still very new. He was going to be away, too, for roughly the same amount of time to visit his family in upstate New York, but they’d already made plans for when they both got back: to go biking by the river, to play tennis in the park, to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. Nan had never been athletic in high school, but Malcolm didn’t have to know that. When he suggested these kinds of activities she’d always say, Sure. Great. That sounds like fun. She’d never had a boyfriend in high school, either. Since arriving in New York, she’d gotten good at faking things long enough to learn their basic elements.

Nan’s mother picked her up at the bus station in Montpelier. In her excitement to see her daughter, she hadn’t thought about which route to take on the way home, so she went the normal way, the quickest way, because she knew Nan had limited time and wanted to see her father and the animals. Maybe there would be time for a walk in the meadow before dinner, just as the dragonflies were spiraling through the twilight.

Outside of town, a few miles from their house, Nan noticed something on the road, a cluster of flowers just off the shoulder. Normally, nothing adorned the simple backcountry roads of her area The natural views sufficed: vast fields of corn and wheat and hay, distant houses and sprawling farms with dilapidated barns and tall, stout silos. Hovering above it all, the green mountains rolled like gentle waves against the clouds. Nan saw the roadside flowers, bright red and white carnations, coming from miles away.

“What is that?” she said, pointing ahead at them.

“Oh,” said her mother, hesitantly. “Flowers.”

“Why flowers?”

“It’s a memorial,” said her mother. Nan felt the car accelerate slightly. “There was an accident. Someone was killed there—in that spot.”

“Drunk driving?” asked Nan.

It wasn’t an uncommon thing to assume; she thought of the carloads of kids, from her high school and from others in state, who seemed to die perennially every spring, always before graduation, just when the weather was starting to get warm.

“Yes,” her mother said. “That’s right.”

They passed by the site. There were little paper cups of flowers, too—violets, dandelions, daisies—and a ring of votive candles in glass cups, encircling a section of the pavement that appeared to have been painted.

“There was something painted on the road,” Nan said, turning around to look through the back windshield. “What was it?”

“Maybe a prayer,” said her mother.

“But I don’t think I saw words,” said Nan. “It was lines, a shape.”

She looked out the windows at the landscape as if for the first time. There was nothing for a car to crash into around here, no trees or guardrail or rocks; the telephone poles were on the opposite side of the road as where the flowers had been laid.

“Mom,” she said. “What exactly happened back there?”

“I told you,” said her mother. “Someone got hit. Someone was walking along the road and they were hit.”

“Oh.”

She thought of the various stragglers and hitchhikers who wandered up from New York State or down from Canada. She could see how something like this might happen to one of them. Not that it made the event any less gruesome, but it made it more likely; it made it make sense.

But picturing the flowers, and the candles, and the prayer—if it was a prayer—who would go to all that trouble for an unknown itinerant? No one from town would ever walk on this road, where the cars and logging trucks and farm vehicles flew by, especially after dark, when the police made less frequent patrols.

She peered over at her mother.

“Who was it?”

Her mother was quiet.

“Let’s not talk about it,” she said. “It’s a sad story, and we’re almost home.”

Her mother loved to talk, share, gossip in gentle ways—she called it communicating—no matter the subject. Nan had not inherited this quality, but she admired it; her mother could talk to anyone, and, as a result, she had many friends. Nan was more like her father: quiet and watchful; she had to be pressed to contribute, cajoled to divulge.

“Mom?” said Nan, turning to face her mother. “Was it someone I know, someone I knew?”

“Honey—”

Nan looked behind her. The shrine was out of sight.

“Please turn around,” she said. “Please.”

She didn’t have to say anything else; her mother was already slowing down to make a U-turn in the middle of the road.

 

It hadn’t been a prayer on the ground. It was what she thought she’d seen when they passed by: lines making a shape—white paint marking the pavement in crude, splashy strokes. It was such a strange thing to come upon, like a blueprint of a house, or the outline of jack-knifed train cars, that she had to be told exactly what it was: a body—the outline of a body. And who it was: Mrs. Adams.

Nan stood back, blinking, and tried to imagine how the simple components of a body—legs, feet, arms, hands, head—could come to be arranged in such a terrible configuration. She had the uncontrollable urge to lie down on the road and see how she could fit herself within it, at least to know how that frail old woman, for whom she’d made soup and to whom she’d read the newspaper, whose cough sounded like she had wool in her lungs, and whose wild, plaintive cries in the church still rang in Nan’s ears, could she have ended up as this grim, geometric effigy.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” said her mother. “I thought it might be too—”

“Traumatizing?”

Nan looked down at the flowers, most of which were wilting. The candle jars were half-full of rainwater

“Well,” said her mother. “Yes.”

“More traumatizing than actually seeing it?” she pointed down at the painted thing before her.

Nan’s mother immediately recognized the expression on her daughter’s face: a blank mask of resignation. The question of her response to the news was now answered. She’d seen this exact reaction the winter her son had died, as Nan stood alone, peering into the frozen grave, her expression like the stone cemetery angels that surrounded them: passive, helpless, humbled.

 

The next day, when Nan went to the town cemetery to find Mrs. Adams’ grave, the high iron gates were already locked, and no guard was in the house by the entrance. The sign indicating the hours of operation was faded and illegible. Hours of operation, Nan thought. That made no sense.

She looked through the iron bars at the sprawling expanse of stone. Some were high and glossy, adorned with obelisks or statues or urns; some were polished and flat, flush to the grass like place mats. Her brother’s grave was at the back, by the pond, which by now she knew would be clogged with water lilies, a flower that can suffocate all the life from a pond in a single season. Her brother loved these plants, which is why they put him there, beneath the willow, whose hanging fronds she could see shifting slightly in the wind from where she stood, staring through the locked gate.

On her way back home, she drove by Mrs. Adams’ house and stopped in front of it. What had once been a clean, traditional New England Cape—white clapboards with dark green shutters and a gently sloping yard—had been ruined, reduced to a junk yard: a rusted truck, propped up on cinderblocks, sat dripping oil onto the driveway; wooden spools of industrial wire lay about the lawn where the grass was overgrown and dead where the tarp had flown off the woodpile. The mailbox, still bearing the name Adams, had been bashed in, tilted and crumpled on its splintered, wooden post.

Nan parked on the shoulder of the road and picked her way through the garbage in the driveway to the front porch. She knocked on the front door and waited. There was no answer, but she could hear a radio playing from somewhere inside. She knocked more forcefully and then tried the latch, which gave way beneath her thumb. She pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The tasteful foyer and clean, welcoming living room where she had sat on so many visits was strewn with stacks of newspapers, old pizza boxes, and dirty dishes, some molded over. Take-out containers of food and empty beer bottles clogged the couches and tables and most of the floor space. It looked as if a flood had carried the contents of a landfill into the house and then subsided through the floorboards. Everything she remembered of Mrs. Adams’ belongings—her photographs, her framed needlepoint pieces on the wall, the lacy throws that covered the couch and the side table—was all still there but obscured, buried beneath trash.

 

At home, Nan found her mother sitting in the kitchen with her friend Beverly, drinking tea and eating butter cookies. Beverly worked as a bookkeeper in town, but she was also a regular student in the ceramics classes her mother taught in her studio in the barn. Nan knew all the students. They were all people from the area who loved the plates and bowls and mugs her mother made and sold, and wished to learn to make them too. Beverly, despite being energetic and eager, and having taken the class four times, had yet to graduate from coil pots.

“Here’s my girl!” said Beverly, hopping out of her seat.

“Hi, Beverly,” said Nan, hugging her mother’s friend, a stout, rounded woman who wore boiled-wool overall dresses with scratchy tights and leather-topped clogs.

“How was your visit?” said Nan’s mother.

“I couldn’t get in,” she said. “The gates were locked for some reason.”

“Oh,” said, Beverly, frowning. She put her hand on Nan’s shoulder. “Dear, it was such an awful loss—and really, such an awful way to lose someone.”

Nan could only nod, and think of her mother’s description of the accident, which she’d begrudgingly recounted on their way home after seeing the shrine. Mrs. Adams, confused and overly-medicated, had escaped from her house wearing only a white nightgown and slippers, and walked along the road from her house in the opposite direction of town.

“Around here this kind of thing is a real shock,” Beverly continued. “But maybe you’re used to this kind of thing in the city.”

“It’s still pretty shocking,” said Nan, distractedly, her mind still fixed on the image of the old woman, dressed in white at twilight, staggering along the narrow shoulder, as the headlights approached. “The city is full of strangers,” she said, “and I pretty much know everyone around here.”

Mrs. Adams had been hit by a pick-up truck. A farmhand, driving drunk, had hit her full on, going over eighty miles an hour. When the police found her body, it was more than a hundred yards from where she’d been struck. Her slippers turned up on opposite sides of the road, having flown off her feet like bullets.

“I just went by her house,” Nan said, shaking her head to clear the images from her brain.

“You what?” said her mother. “Why?”

“I wanted to see if anyone was home, to pay my respects,” she said. “But no one was there, and the whole place is completely trashed. What happened? Who lives there now?”

“Oh, Honey,” said her mother. “I really wish you hadn’t gone over there.”

“That is one nasty guy,” said Beverly. “And he’s not exactly—well, there’s definitely something wrong with him.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Mrs. Adams’ son, Carl,” said her mother. “He lives there now. He moved back from out west to take care of her the last time she got out of the hospital.”

“To take care of her!” Beverly laughed. “Right. Find me one person in this town who actually believes that he forgot to lock the front door that evening. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been planning this from the second he came back east.”

Outside, there was the sound of tires on the gravel driveway and then, seconds later, a loud knock at the door. Nan got up and opened it. Standing on the other side was a tall, heavyset man wearing a red and black hunter’s jacket, dungarees, and dirty brown baseball hat.

“You were in my house today!” he said, pointing a grimy, oil-stained finger at her.

Nan stood back, stunned, looking at the man’s face. He had a spray of pockmarks across his cheeks, broken blood vessels along his nose, as if he’d been hit with a scattershot of cranberries.

“You came inside!” he said. “It’s private property, you know. I could call the police on you!”

“Hey!” Beverly said, springing from her chair. “This is private property, too, and we could call the police on you, so I suggest you leave! Now!”

“Wait,” said Nan, holding her hand up to Beverly. She turned back to the man. “I’m sorry for going in your house. But I only wanted to tell you how sorry I am about your mother. It didn’t seem like anyone was home, so I just left. I apologize if I trespassed.”

The man’s face tensed and winced before settling back into a sneer.

“You can be sorry all you want!” he said. “But it’s against the law. It’s my house!”

“Oh, now honestly,” said Nan’s mother, joining them at the door. “Carl, she didn’t do any harm. She was there out of kindness, for God’s sake.”

“Yeah,” said Beverly. “Which is more than you deserve!”

He scrunched his face up at Beverly. Nan thought he might spit at her.

“I knew your mother,” said Nan. “Years ago—we were friends.”

He looked at her, biting the inside of his mouth.

“I’m going to ask around,” he said, stepping back from the door. “If there’s a fine for trespassing, you’re going to have to pay up. I don’t care what your reason was!”

Nan watched him lumber back to his truck, climb in and speed off down the dirt driveway. Across the yard, over in the barn, her father, working in his wood shop, looked up from the cloud of sawdust rising around him.

“He came over here to threaten you!” said Beverly, grabbing Nan’s arm. “That’s ridiculous!”

“That was very strange,” said her mother, peering over at Nan. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “I guess I can’t blame him for being territorial.”

“Oh, Nan!” said Beverly, putting her arms around Nan’s shoulders from behind. “The city has hardened you. You’re barely even disturbed by this!”

Nan gently removed herself from Beverly’s embrace.

“What’s to be disturbed by?” said Nan. “He said what he wanted to say and then he left. It’s not like I’m going to go back there.” She looked across the driveway at the barn. “I’m going to see what Dad’s up to.”

She cut through the back yard, under the large oak tree by the water pump, to the barn where her father was bent over a series of planks set up on sawhorses.

“Who’s truck was that?” he said, putting his safety goggles on the top of his baseball cap. “I didn’t recognize it.”

“It was Carl’s.”

“Carl Adams?” he said. His work apron, pulled tight around his narrow waist, made his shoulders look broad and imposing. Without it, he was a slight man, with sinewy forearms and heavily veined hands. “What did he want?”

Nan turned around and saw her mother and Beverly, still standing in the doorway of the house, talking animatedly. She knew her father would find out sooner or later.

“You shouldn’t have gone inside,” he said, after she told him what had happened. “I know that’s what you’re used to doing here, with people we know. But he’s not from around here. Don’t go back over there, okay?”

“I don’t plan to,” she said, picking up a handful of sawdust and sprinkling it lightly in the air. “Beverly was getting all freaked out about this too, but—”

“I know,” he said. “Given what you’re used to in the city, it probably seems like nothing.”

She looked at her father.

“She said that, too. It’s like everyone thinks I live in this world of violence and danger. It’s not like that. It’s just, ” she looked out over the field where the bright green grasses were shifting peacefully in the wind. “It’s just different than it is here.”

Her father put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

“I know,” he said. “But in general, it never hurts to be careful.”

“Are you serious?” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’m not scared of him. He was just making a point. And I apologized. So it’s over. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “But, just for my sake, mom’s too, why don’t you stick around here before you have to go back to the city? And if you want to go anywhere, tell me. I’ll go with you.”

“Dad, honestly—” She looked into his wood shop, where stacks of half-finished chairs and a farm table sat waiting for his return. “You have enough to do.”

He smiled at her again. In the years since her brother had died, she’d noticed the fan of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes had grown more pronounced, indelible now, his sadness etched forever into his face.

“Okay,” she said, looking at her feet, covered with sawdust. “I will. Sorry.”

 

The next day was hot. Actually hot, which was unusual for early June in Vermont. The sky was clear, save for a few fat clouds, lolling just above the mountains. Nan woke up late and went out to the back yard with the dogs and sat at the outdoor table with her coffee, feeling sleepy and relaxed. Her mother had already left for a board meeting at the town library, and on the other side of the house, she could hear her father’s bandsaw whining in the barn. The dogs, two Lab mutts, lay in the grass beside her in the shifting patches of sun and shade.

After only a few minutes outside, she could feel the sweat gathering under her hair, at the base of her neck. A drop fell down her spine, absorbed by the waistband of her pajamas. She pictured the stream in the woods beyond the field, behind the house—it was early in the summer, but the water might be warm enough to swim. One of her fondest memories from her childhood was of her father taking her and her brother down to the stream, helping them down the steep embankment to the narrow shore studded with large stones and green weeds and small white flowers. They went in naked; it was well before the time in her life when being naked in front of her father or brother would have embarrassed her. The thought of it now struck her as comical, like the old footage she’d seen of Woodstock, with all the naked hippies standing around in the water, casual and unabashed, like they were waiting for the bus.

In the background, the sound of her father hammering away cut across the hush of the wind ruffling the trees over the picnic table. She remembered his request to ask him to accompany her wherever she might want to go in town, but did that include swimming in what could be considered their back yard? They had always been protective of her, particularly when she first moved to New York, but if they only knew about the times in the city where she’d found herself in potentially dangerous situations: finding herself to be the only female in a subway car full of unknown men after midnight; or when the elevator in her building broke down, and she was trapped in the basement in the middle of doing her laundry. In general, she took cabs when it was late and avoided places and situations where she might be caught alone, but sometimes these circumstances seemed to arise from the most harmless of situations, and whenever they did, and she emerged unscathed, safely locking her apartment door behind her, they left her feeling oddly emboldened, enlivened, as if she’d ingested a tiny amount of poison and was slowly building up a resistance to the perils of the world.

 

The dogs followed her out to the field. They were panting; if the water is too cold for me, she thought, as least they can go in. The day was growing hotter, the sun high in the sky. She walked in bare feet. The grass was cool, the hard buds of wildflowers snaked through the spaces between her toes.

At the edge of the meadow, the path through the woods was narrow, almost undetectable in the thick wall of old trees, thorny shrubs crowded at their bases. The dogs led the way into the forest, stopping now and then to sniff around the wide, dew-covered ferns, or the clusters of taut-capped mushrooms, blooming from the soft splintered ruins of toppled stumps. The air was tinged with moisture and the sweet taste of rot; birdsong and the whirr of insects filled her ears. It made her smile, thinking of the city, its sudden rank scents—garbage in the lobby of her building; urine on the stone stairs leading down into Riverside Park. And a constant, dense blanket of sounds—horns and sirens, airplanes tearing across the sky above the buildings

The pool was exactly how she remembered. The sun shone down into the clear water, touching it with sparks of gold and green; the current rushed through the rocks and siphoned off in miniature streams that spiraled in shallow pools by the shore. The dogs didn’t hesitate: they leapt down onto the riverbed and straight into the water up to their chests to dunk their snouts in, snapping at the halos of flies swarming above the surface of the water.

Nan climbed down the embankment, rolled her jeans up to her knees and stepped into the pool. The water was cold, but slowly her feet, toes, ankles and calves grew used to the chill, the cuffs of her jeans dark and dampening.

She tugged at them.

Why not? She thought, smiling to herself, thinking again of the absurd Woodstock footage.

She stepped out of the water, onto a smooth rock and took off her jeans and t-shirt. She stood in the bright sunlight wearing only her underwear. Even in front of the dogs she felt slightly self-conscious, but they were busy, sniffing around the roots of a tree that had fallen across the shore. She looked around one more time. There was no one there. It was ridiculous to think someone might be, and this realization filled her with a familiar gratitude, a reminder of how this landscape had always been her safest retreat, the natural world opening up and giving her a secure place within it. She unclasped her bra, slowly drew off her underwear until she was standing naked on the warm stone, the sunlight dousing her, the minute hairs on her body lifting in the breeze. Slowly, she walked back into the pool. Her calves were used to the chill, but when the water reached her thighs, a ripple of goose bumps shot up though her. She put her hands in and tentatively splashed the water against her chest, which made her gasp, her breasts shuddering against her ribs. She steadied herself, closed her eyes, then, all at once, bent her knees and let herself fall across the surface of the water, and under. It was shocking, freezing, but underwater the sound of the stream was muted and musical, like a chorus of clocks or machines listened to through velvet. She opened her eyes and saw the sunlight on the underwater rocks, her hair flowing weightlessly around her.

And then, from the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow move—a shape, dark and churning, coming quickly toward her. She shot up out of the water, her heart quickening with fear. She smeared the hair from across her face, frantic, but saw that it was only the dogs swimming towards her, whining and worried, their nostrils flexing with concern.

“It’s okay,” she said to them, gently and with relief. “I’m okay.”

They paddled around her, their paws cycling through the water, bumping up against her shoulders and arms like untethered boats. She pushed off the bottom of the pool and sat on a smooth underwater rock close to the shore, so the dogs could stand up beside her and she could loosen their thick winter coats with her fingers, which came away in sodden, oily clots that floated downstream.

“I should bring you back to New York with me,” she said, stroking them. “For protection.”

“I’ll protect you.”

The voice came from directly behind her. She turned around. Leaning against a tree, blocking the path back through the woods was Carl, wearing the same dirty brown baseball hat from the day before, and a pair of stained blue coveralls. He smiled at her; his teeth were uneven, yellow. Her clothes lay in a pile in between where he stood on the embankment and where she sat, shivering now, naked, on the stone at the edge of the pool. She covered her chest with her arms and turned from him, moving deeper toward the swirling current.

“Nice day for a dip,” he said. “I had the same idea.”

She said nothing. She didn’t turn to face him; she clutched herself tightly with her arms.

“I can still see you through the water,” he said. “I can see everything.”

“Please,” she said, turning her face to the side but not looking at him. “Please—will you please go? I want to get out.”

She could sense that the dogs were busy—chewing on something, crunching. From the corner of her eye she could see the crumbs of a dog treat, a biscuit, scattered on the sand. Carl must have brought them with him. She stared into the woods on the opposite side of the stream—thick, impenetrable woods, with stumps and thickets and broken trees.

“At least I’m not trespassing,” he said. “I can be here if I want. This isn’t your property. This is conservation land.”

She moved closer to the larger rocks near the waterfall for more coverage.

“I told you I was sorry I went into your house.”

“You came by my house yesterday to see me,” he said. “I wanted to come over and see you.”

“I didn’t go over to see you.”

“Well, I’m the only one who lives there.”

“I went—”

“To see my mom?” he said. “Well, she doesn’t live there anymore!”

The image of the white shape on the concrete flashed through her mind—complete, enclosed, a trap.

“You getting cold in there?” he said. “There are a lot of fish in there. You feel any of them? Swimming around down there, tickling you?”

Now he laughed. Loudly, more loudly than the sounds of the water and the wind and the birds singing all around her.

“Please,” she said. “I have to get out. I’m freezing. So would you please just leave?”

She could sense him moving closer, and she heard the sound of the metal snaps on his cover-alls coming apart, the zipper descending.

She looked back at the shore. The dogs were lying on the dirt, their eyes closed. They had just eaten, so now they had to sleep; that was how they always were. But she remembered: she’d scared them just moments ago, when she went underwater. If she were to do it again, somehow alert them that she was in trouble, she knew they would respond. She glimpsed backwards. Carl’s cover-alls were gaping open—a swath of dingy, white briefs visible inside.

“You going to stay in there all day?” he said, sitting down on a rock. “You can if you want. Or I could come in and help you out.”

She turned around to face him and let her arms fall at her side.

“There they are!” he said.

All at once, she felt fueled by the rage of helplessness. She stood up tall, and walked out of the water toward him. Seeing this, the dogs woke up, opened their eyes, and hopped to their feet. Once the water was up to her ankles, she made a break for it, lurching toward the embankment and the path. But Carl was quicker than she’d thought, and he cut her off, diving at her and catching her by the shin to pull her back down toward the little muddy beach, as her fingers clawed at the dirt. She looked down at him; he was laughing at her, staring at her twisted naked body, her skin glistening with river water in the sunlight. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer.

The dogs were getting hyped up, jumpy and confused—was it a game? She stared at them hard into their yellow and amber eyes and screamed. She screamed louder and longer than she ever had in her whole life. She didn’t even recognize the sound that came from inside her, louder than any siren or alarm in the city; from somewhere hidden and raw; the cry she had kept quiet, standing at her brother’s grave, peering down at his casket at the bottom of the frozen shaft of soil.

Even Carl was taken aback, as he tried to tighten his grip on her while sloughing off his coveralls. She continued to scream, and, just as she’d hoped, the dogs began to bark and growl, jumping up and against Carl with their teeth bared. Soon they were in a frenzy—all three of them: Nan and the two dogs, kicking, scratching, biting at Carl, who, half-dressed, now flailed his limbs to defend himself. She finally broke free and managed to stand up. Carl struggled up from his knees and grabbed at her again, but she shoved him—hard—and he fell backwards, off balance, and landed against the white river stones at the edge of the stream. The crack of his skull against the stones rang loud and sharp like a gunshot along the streambed. He lay still. She looked down at his body; his face was bleeding, his eyes were fluttering—the dogs continued to pull at his clothes, ripping at the suit, now bunched up around his waist.

“Come on!” she said to them. “Come!”

She quickly gathered her clothes up from the ground, smeared with dirt from where they had been trampled. She ran, naked, with the dogs back up the path through the forest. When she got to the edge of the field she stopped, bent over and heaving. The dogs were panting, still excited, waiting for what was next. She quickly dressed in the shade of a large pine tree, constantly checking behind her to see if he was coming for her. When she was fully clothed, she ran the rest of the way home, up through the field, and into the back yard, her wet hair slapping against her back.

 

She stood at the kitchen window, staring out over the field, waiting to see Carl’s hulking form come staggering up through the grasses, his face bloody, clutching his head. From the corner of her eye she someone in the driveway coming toward the house—her heart stopped, but it only was her father, coming in from the barn, untying his apron.

He opened the kitchen door and smiled at her—he looked happy; he must have been pleased with what he was working on, satisfied that he was making progress. Seeing this look on his face, no matter what had just happened down by the stream, she was glad she hadn’t asked him to come with her.

“Mom’s not home yet?”

“No,” she said, taking another glance out the window. “I don’t think so. Not yet.”

“Did you go somewhere?” he said. “The dogs are all wet. They look like they’ve been swimming. And your hair—”

Her hand flew up and clutched the back of her skull, which was damp, hanging in cold coils.

“I sprayed them with the hose,” she said. “And I got myself, too. It’s so hot out—I don’t remember it being this hot so early in the summer.”

“Global warming,” he said, folding up his apron on the counter. “Rampant corporate and government greed.” He smiled at her. “Well, I could use a swim. Do you want to go down to the stream? Just like old times, right? The sun will be right over the water by now—it should be perfect.”

The field was still empty. She thought of Carl’s body, lying by the water.

“Come on,” said her father. “I’ll get my shorts on and then we’ll go.”

They walked together back through the fields with the dogs. The whole time she pictured what they would soon see: Carl, lying on the wet sand, his limp, half-dressed body, burning in the sun.

But when they reached the pool, the bank was empty—it was as quiet and peaceful as it had been when she’d first arrived with the dogs, an hour or so before. She looked at the spot where Carl had laid; there was only a blurred outline, a vague imprint in the dirt and sand, and only the faintest evidence of their struggle on the embankment. She stared hard at the site, but soon the rocks and grasses and sand blended together, and all the evidence of what had taken place had vanished.

She stood with her father and the dogs in the water, in the sunlight, listening to the birdsong and the wind shifting in the trees above their heads. Her father sat down on a rock and splashed water on his face, looking content. The dogs waded around idly, still damp from their first dip. She kept glancing back at the shore where Carl had been, but there was nothing there to see—no body, no blood—no flowers or shape or prayer to commemorate what had been lost.

“Remember when we used to come down here when you guys were little?” her father said, dipping his long pale feet into the pool. “You used to love this place.”

She looked down at her reflection in the water—her face looked back at her, calmed, but waiting, ready to fight for whatever might be taken from her next.

“I always will,” she said.

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