I shower in my clothes sometimes. I don’t know why. I just do.
My wife, Janet, pounds on the door and yells, “What are you doing in there?”
The doorknob rattles. It’s locked so she can’t come in. Water drips down my face, steam creeps up from the tub and I stand there, my combat boots soaking wet, watching the horrors of some war I never fought play out on the porcelain wall of the shower. There’s blood coiling tighter and tighter around the drain like a snake. I put the toe of my boot on it and it just squiggles away.
Janet stomps down the hall and the stream of water shivers with each step. She’s gained a little weight lately.
I wake in the recliner to the tickle of glass breaking in the basement. A muted TV shuffles scenes and the room is dark. Footsteps thump step by step up the stairway and I sit there, palm sweating around the plastic handle of my forty-five, waiting for the door to open. The doorknob jingles and I’m calm enough to think maybe this is Janet looking for a book to read because she can’t sleep. I think, maybe it doesn’t matter who it is.
I wait until the door slips open a crack, a sliver of darkness. My heart beats faster as it stares at me. If it were Janet or someone I knew they would have already come in. They would be here, in the living room, asking me why the hell I’m pointing a loaded forty-five at them.
But the door shrinks backwards, like I’m not ready for it, and I sit there, watching the handle turn so that the latch makes no noise and the door soundlessly meets the frame. I wonder if the door ever opened. I’m left feeling…powerless.
“Are you coming to bed?” Janet asks.
“Maybe,” I say.
“Not working tomorrow?” she says, and there’s something in her voice like a hair trigger.
I wonder if I should count her pills. She gets cranky when she doesn’t take them.
I come around the corner of my house, beer in hand, happy sun shining, and see two boys crouched beside my motorcycle. I’m so shocked by the yellow fluid in the white siphon tube, the small gas tank on the ground, that I drop the beer. It spits as the can rolls away from me. They drop the gas cap and run off across the lawn, gas can swishing, and enter the woods, getting smaller and smaller until I have no idea what age they really were.
I try to shout but my mouth is dry and I have no words. Beer pumps out of the can until it doesn’t anymore.
The motorcycle’s tear-drop tank only holds five gallons. Three, if you don’t count the reserve. What kind of a kid needs to steal twelve dollars of gas?
I pick up the beer, drink the last swig, replace the gas cap and grab the last of the six pack and sit outside on the steps next to the bike, eyeing it like it did something wrong. Like a girl that stepped out you’re not ready to get rid of.
I think of what to do until I run out of beer.
There’s a child should be shot, somewhere. Maybe two, but I’m sure it was the older one’s idea.
I go over to the bike, sit down on her hard and stand her up, flip the kickstand and turn her over. I rev the engine, feel it squirm between my legs, and back her out.
I know every kid in the neighborhood, most of them Janet’s cousins or family of some kind. Her grandfather had near a hundred acres, left over from her great, great, great someone or other fighting in the civil war when they awarded every volunteer a hundred and sixty. The land made him. Made the family.
I’m the outsider they tolerate because of Janet.
If I know anything about a parent, they generally know where their child is using gasoline, either burning it up in a four-wheeler or using it as an accelerant.
It’s nice to be the accuser for a change.
I pass the for sale sign at the end of my driveway and think we’ll be better off somewhere else, somewhere alone, on a street without her family always sticking their noses in, stirring things up. Without them around, Janet and I will get along again. Maybe I can sleep in bed.
I cruise slowly down the street, watching the neighbor’s houses slide by, ticking off who has children and how long they’ve been in the neighborhood. The further I get from my home, the more question marks I have; the more empty check boxes. I try to remember the boys’ hair, what color it was, what they were wearing, but all I can recall is two stole my gas.
The neighbors hate my motorcycle, hate that Janet chose me, hate me. I turn around, crawl back down the road, the engine loping, needle on empty. I’ll have to put gas in it when I get home.
I pull into Frank’s driveway, blipping the throttle as I coast down the hill toward his garage. The house is tall, three stories, and has two gables sticking out of the top of it like reverse fangs. Lots of landscaping. The local rednecks come by once a week and give the lawn a manicure. I’ve seen them take a weed-whacker to hedges, do things that people should only do to a stump with a chainsaw, molding and changing it into something else, some weird art that only exists by cutting up something alive to make it look dead.
He’s at the door before the kickstand is down. I tell myself I’m just being neighborly.
Frank is a dentist. His teeth are white, perfectly aligned, thin lips shaped to showcase them and after years of grinning deep, elliptical creases circle his mouth.
“Well hello there, Ira,” he says quickly. “What brings you around?”
I nod and shake his hand.
“It’s good to see you, too,” I say.
“Hey I hope you didn’t hear too much noise the other night.”
“Nah. I heard it but it didn’t bother me.”
A couple nights ago, maybe half a month, his driveway was lined with cars. Music late into the night. Fireworks in the sky. I watched the lights sift through the branches while sitting on my roof, rolling dead cigarettes and beer cans down the shingles, the voices from his yard washing over me.
“Good, good,” he says. “You got my invitation, right?”
“No,” I say.
“Oh you didn’t? Well, I mailed it. At least I told the old lady to,” he laughs. “It’s not like she doesn’t have a full plate though. She’s going back to school, going to be a dental assistant. That’s something.”
He looks at me, for half a second I think he’s going to bite his lower lip. “But listen, anytime you see us out here, stop by. We’d love to have you. Considering everything…”
“A couple kids were siphoning gas out of my motorcycle this afternoon. Ran off before I could catch them,” I say.
The pout puts his mouth in brackets.
“I’m not saying it’s your kids, Frank. I’d have recognized them.”
“Oh, of course,” he says, his smile returning.
“But your two boys and Zoe talk to others in the neighborhood. Maybe you could ask them if, you know.”
“Sure, sure.” He looks back at the house. “That makes sense,” he says, as if he’s falling over. “Hey, Zoe!” Frank yells.
Frank is my dentist when I go. He told me I have strong teeth, made of pure bone. He always comes in for half a second and tells me the same thing: great teeth. Strong teeth. Like bone.
“She’s upstairs probably,” Frank says. “Zoe!”
Frank smiles. “Hey, haven’t seen you in the office for a while.”
“No,” I say.
“Wasn’t there a filling that had popped loose? A cavity?”
“Not that I recall.”
Zoe appears at the door. She’s got long brown curly locks, the blue eyes of her mother and Frank’s fading smile.
“Hey, Zoe, do you know anything about kids riding motorcycles or dirtbikes, some kind of ATV?”
“Maybe. The boys across the road have a snowmobile. Why?” Blue eyes squint at me.
“Zoe, Ira had some gas stolen from him. Do you know why anyone would want to steal gas?”
She looks up at the sky, then smiles. “Maybe they had to go somewhere?”
“Always half a step ahead,” Frank says. “Across the road, then?”
I want to punch him in the head.
I look at his daughter and say “Zoe,” as if I had a hat to crumple in my hands, and head for my bike.
“Did I get someone in trouble?” Zoe asks.
“Not if they didn’t do anything,” Frank says.
The bike starts on the second try, and the engine runs until I get to the end of the driveway. It stalls. In the silence that follows embarrassment, I hear the front door slam. I don’t even look back, just get off the bike and start pushing.
When I bought the bike it was listed as five hundred and seventy-five pounds dry. It hasn’t gotten any lighter. By the time I’m up the hill at the end of Frank’s driveway, I’m ready to push it into the ditch and walk home.
Something taps me on the shoulder and I almost drop it.
“Wouldn’t come to my house with a half-baked story. Not you. Listen,” Frank says, motioning for me to step back. I drop the kickstand and step away.
“If this is your way of asking for money, you need to swallow your pride and just ask. We saw the for sale sign out front of your house. We know that means something.”
“I don’t need your money,” I say.
Frank unscrews the gas cap and shoves the nozzle of a red five gallon tank in. Fumes swirl in the air and I wonder if that was the tank the boys had, but I can’t remember colors.
“And drinking? Mid-day? Come on, man, I know with everything. It’s hard. But come on.”
I want to use the circle around his smile as a bull’s eye, but the gas is still going sing-song into the tank.
I say, “Thought your sons—”
“They’ve been away at college for two years.” Spittle flies from his mouth, lands on my seat.
“You know what,” he says ripping the gas can out, “this’ll get you home.”
He bites his bottom lip, unhappy with himself. “We all know what happened. And we’ve all made exceptions. You want to talk, I’m here. But don’t come to my house and ask me to pull my family into it. Okay?”
He sticks his hand out to me, as if he’s done me some sort of favor.
I get on the bike.
“How long has it been?” he says. “How long has it been? How many times have we invited you over? It’s not like we haven’t tried. And no one’s giving up here. No one. Not me, not you. Or maybe you are, selling the house. Running away.”
I drive home and crack a bottle of whiskey. The wife isn’t home. It’s Thursday and she won’t be home for a while. She’s got meetings that run late. Lots of meetings. From the porch I watch the sun drain the color of the world and work on melting ice cubes in my glass. When that’s all but gone I stare at the fountain I put in the front yard a few years back, listen to bullfrogs and the trickle of water running over Zen stones.
A car pulls into my driveway and my hand goes to my belt, where my knife is, before I see the light rack on top of it.
A man gets out, puts on a smoky bear hat, sunglasses despite the twilight. His head oscillates, looking up at the purple black sky, then down, at me.
“Is it safe?” he calls.
I think, he wasn’t eyeing the trees or the sky, he was eyeing me, the property; it was misdirection.
I wave him up. His uniform is dark blue or black, has a few shiny spots on it; his shield, a strip of ribbon for some sort of training. He moves slowly, taking his time like they all do, letting all the memories of everyone you ever had of someone in that uniform bubble to the surface to make you nervous.
“Frank called,” he says when he gets close. “Said you had a complaint, thought you might need to talk to someone about it.”
“That was mighty nice of Frank,” I say.
He stops at the stairs. He’s part of Janet’s clan. A cousin. I can’t remember his name. It doesn’t matter.
“Well, we got an obligation to serve everybody,” the officer says. He stops, rests his weight on one leg so it’s convenient to casually place a hand on his gun. “And he is my brother. What’s this complaint?”
“Couple youths siphoned the gas out of my bike, right over there,” I say.
His chin dips in my direction. Even behind the glasses, I can tell he squints at me. “Kids, stealing gas? That’s,” he runs a tongue over his lips. “Unusual.”
“Petty, I know, but it’s concerning, right?”
I shake a cigarette from a pack, offer one to the officer. He takes one and thanks me.
“So, got any ideas?” I ask.
“Oh, I’ve got ideas. None related to this particular case.”
“Hmm…” I say. We smoke half our cigarettes, looking at anything but each other.
He takes his glasses off and his eyes are dark coal. Had I known I was going to have company, I’d have turned on the lights so I could study him. I tell myself he’s having a hard time studying me, too, and feel no better.
“How is everything else, these days?” he asks.
“Okay,” I say, nodding at the trees.
“Got a can?” he says, holding up his cigarette.
“Just grind it out.”
He drops the cigarette on the pavement next to twenty others. Cherry sparks disappear under his boot.
“You gonna make a big deal out of this?” he asks. “Sell the house?”
“Should probably just let it go,” I say.
Something reaches out from the charcoal depth of the officer’s eyes. “Should probably let it go.”
“I appreciate you stopping by,” I say. We shake hands, and he goes back to his cruiser. The headlights sweep across the lawn, bathing everything in silver. Crimson taillights descend down the hill into darkness.
I refill my drink, straight whiskey and ice to the top, and head down to the basement, organize some of my tools.
I fall asleep in a chair, wake in total darkness. Blink a few times. It’s so dark I can’t tell if I’m awake. I feel my cheeks, my eyelids.
Something bangs on the outside of the house, the kind of thud dragging something upstairs makes. It’s slow at first, then faster, and I think it’s the heel of someone’s hand, banging on the outside wall.
Metal clangs outside, a lazy sound like a carabineer striking a flagpole in a light breeze. I feel for the knife at my hip, but it’s gone.
I think about going out the bulkhead, but that would for sure scare them off before I ever got the hatch open. I creep up the stairs, not wanting to wake anyone, not wanting Janet to see me like this, half-drunk and wild-eyed, clawing at shadows.
I take the Ziploc bag out of the flour box, dust it off, and take out the forty-five inside. Even though Janet likes sweets, she doesn’t cook, so it’s safe there. I switch off the safety, wait at the door, peering out. Clouds cover the stars.
I hit the exterior light switch and burst out the door.
Glossy light reflects off the car windshield, the bulk of the motorcycle a shadow behind it. The car doors are closed, so no one is inside it. Last year, there was a string of car burglaries. Addicts from the city looking for pocket change, they suspected. No one ever caught them.
The metal clanging is louder, sharper, atonal. I hate myself for stutter stepping down the steps into the driveway and nearly falling.
The sound comes from the trees at the edge of my lawn. Something sparkles in the branches, shines the porch light back at me, hovering just below the leaves.
“What are you doing out there?” Janet yells.
I wheel around. She’s a shadow behind the screen door. “Get in the house,” I hiss.
“I am in the house, dummy,” she says, and I hear her mumble.
I edge closer, my attention fixed on the stars winking in the woods, and almost step in the fountain. I get angry at myself; I know this is just a diversion. Whoever was here is leaving and it’s because I’m distracted by sparkly things. I’m staring at the mirrors of my motorcycle strung up from tree branches. I run over to my bike, start to, before I lose the power in my feet and come to a stop.
The long chrome exhaust pipes are gone. The seat is missing. Wires are pulled out and the battery is gone. The tires are flat.
“Fuck you!” I shout, for all the neighborhood to hear. “Fuck you!”
My words are swallowed by the clouds and the still tree limbs.
In the woods, a branch snaps. I turn, aim the gun, wait for a shadow to twitch, then hear more branches snap, further and deeper into the woods, a whole chorus of twisting, popping shoots and twigs. I start to run, feet answering what my mouth cannot, charge into the woods through fallen branches, chasing after the sounds of people who destroyed my motorcycle and they are—
I stop and listen. The woods are silent except for my breathing. Something cracks behind me and I turn, quickly, level the gun and squeeze a round off. A cone of light illuminates shadows, the leaves and trunks, and the silhouettes of people wearing black standing just behind them. I swing the gun at one of them but a hand grabs my arms, forces the gun up toward the sky. I squeeze off another round before something hits my head.
* * *
I open my eyes and spikes of light drive straight into the back of my skull.
“Took him long enough to wake up,” someone says.
I struggle, can’t stand up. My hands are tied behind my back. Guts work their way into my mouth. I cough, swallow the vomit, force myself to breathe.
Frank stands there, his lower jaw split out to one side as if he doesn’t like the taste of something but can’t spit it out. The officer, his brother, has his arms folded. He takes a heavy breath. The sunglasses are off; his eyes are deep and dark as empty barrels.
Someone coughs behind me, but I can’t see them no matter how I turn my neck.
The furnace kicks on, like it always does during the summer, and it sounds like we’re in a waterfall.
“I don’t know what you want, so you might as well tell me,” I say, forcing my head to stay level even though it hurts like hell to do so.
“Where is she?” Frank says.
“Janet, dumb ass,” the officer says.
“Don’t you touch her,” I say.
They look from one to another. The officer steps forward, kneels down and looks me in the eye. “Where is she?”
I breathe a few times, fighting the urge to spit in his face, tell myself that they’re family, that they wouldn’t hurt her. My eyes go to the spot on the ceiling where my bedroom is.
The officer follows my gaze, twisting on his feet, sees where I’m looking at, then slaps me in the face so hard he knocks me and the chair over. “We looked in your room two years ago, asshole.”
“Pick him up,” Frank says.
I taste blood and something cuts at my tongue. I spit out a tooth.
“I can fix that,” Frank says. He squats in front of me. “We want to believe you. We want to believe you don’t know where she went. We want to believe she ran away from your crazy ass, but we know better. No one disappears like that.”
Frank looks at my mouth, says he could fix all my teeth if I let him.
I spit at him. He walks over to the workbench I just organized, grabs a pair of pliers.
“I don’t have any anesthetic, or the will to use it,” Frank says. The pliers snap like a lobster claw. “Where is she?”
The officer, his name is Jim, I remember that now, stares hard at Frank, and I think he’s trying to tell him to back off before it gets out of hand. My arm is already numb enough from laying on it that it may never work again.
“You’re not ready to start pulling teeth,” I say to Frank.
“I do it every day,” Frank says, and comes at me. It’s his boys that pick up the chair, right it by grabbing my shoulders. They are home from college and they’re strong hands pinch my nose and push my shoulders down so hard it hurts.
The pliers snap snap snap in front of me and I fight to keep my mouth closed.
“Work his jaw,” Frank says, and they dig their fingers in front of my ears, the pain a series of blue sparks.
The pliers come at me, hit against my teeth, then nothing.
Jim takes the pliers and squats in front of me, looks into my eyes like he’s trying to see through a grimy window.
“Gas,” he says.
The boys come around me, smiling. I cheered for them in the state finals. One of them was a wide receiver and the other was tight end. They caught all kinds of balls but it still wasn’t enough. One of them got popped helmet to helmet and their nose broke. After that, the team couldn’t keep up and lost. The nose is still crooked, the bone a white ridge of skin that forms a curve to one side.
“Father can’t fix that nose?” I say.
He laughs and grabs a lighter fluid bottle and squeezes it all over me. Gas runs down my face, into my eyes, burning. The smell makes me nauseous. I shake my head, trying to fling off the drops, but it’s oily and just clings harder. My head gets wobbly and the world starts skipping left to right like when I drink too much.
Frank hits me, the world tilts. The boys right it again and I don’t feel the pain in my arm anymore.
Frank pulls out a lighter, flips it open. “You got thirty seconds,” he says.
Jim nods approvingly. The flame jumps to life.
“She’s upstairs, asleep,” I say.
The door to the cellar opens. Footsteps rush down the stairs. Janet falls to her knees next to me. She wipes at the gas in my eyes but can’t get it out.
“Janet, tell them to stop,” I say.
“I’m so sorry,” Janet says. She holds my head. “I didn’t mean to. When it came, I didn’t know.”
Frank and Jim exchange nervous glances, knowing they made a mistake.
“Let him go!” Janet shrieks.
The men take half a step back. Frank nods to his boys, and they cut my hands free.
Janet holds me, and I wrap my arms around her big, soft body.
She says, “I didn’t mean to. It just sorta just happened and I didn’t—”
“Don’t say anything,” I say, not wanting to hear it. Not wanting to know.
I feel just a little tap against my shoulder, and the world is consumed by flames. At first it’s not hot. Then it’s only warm, then my scalp is on fire and it sounds like hell can’t catch its breath.
I hear the screams, know they’re mine, and can’t stop. I run, bounce off Frank, knowing I’ve got seconds to get somewhere, to stop the water from screaming. I’m up the stairs, running through the house to the front door, trying to outrun the flames down the steps and across the lawn my skin. Is on fire.
I trip into the fountain, curl into it, and every muscle contracts. For a moment, I think I’m going to drown in inches because I cannot stand. Then a hand grabs me and pulls me out onto the ground and holds me up and the fire is still burning on the surface of the pond and sort of on my legs but I can’t feel it. I wonder if this is how a fish flopped into a boat feels.
“Tell me, Ira,” they say. “Where is she?”
I can’t see him. Can’t see anything. The world is blurry with water from the fountain and that’s when I see it. All of the memories I buried underneath it.
I say, “I found pills.”
I picked up a couch cushion and what felt like beans shifted inside. I unzipped it and released a shower of blue pills.
“Don’t you tell them,” Janet says.
Even though she’s blurry she looks skinnier, like she’s lost weight. Like there’s less of her.
“If you tell them, I’ll leave,” Janet says.
“Call the fire department,” Jim says. “Tell them you pulled him out,”
There’s a blurry orange light behind him, and I know it’s the house that’s burning.
So much for selling.
“Don’t tell them,” Janet says.
“The fountain saved my life,” I say, though my voice doesn’t sound like me. My lips can’t make shape.
I cough and the pain is colorful, a deep blue with red veins, wrapped in purple cord like the tiny face of a still born infant that’s drowned.
“She had a baby,” I say.
“Don’t, Ira,” Janet says.
“In a bloody towel…”
“What?” Frank says, on his knees, next to me.
“She was so big,” I say, remembering how she held the towel, both arms bent, red fingers twitching in the air.
“A baby?” Jim says.
“I tried to take it,” I say, and it feels like I’m floating down a river toward the ocean, draining. “But it was already blue,” especially in the folds above his eyes. It was a boy.
“Ira, stop, please,” Janet says.
I remember how fat she got, how she just kept gaining weight and feeling sick and how I should have known. How everyone should have known, but she was always heavy and her stomach. It just hid the child.
I say, “It’s here. Under the fountain.”
“Ira,” Janet says.
“With her,” I say.
The hand that held me up releases, and I fall back.
“Jesus Christ he buried her under the fountain,” he says.
The moon shifts, smearing itself across the sky. Cold air brushes my skin, and the stars mingle with tree limbs.
Eric M. Bosarge earned an MFA from Stonecoast and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Voluted Tales, Buzzy Magazine, and Pithy Pages. When not writing he teaches English at Central Maine Community College.