by Loren Eaton
Before Theresa even opened her eyes, she knew the rain had stopped. The air hung still and silent, devoid of the near-ceaseless pattering that skittered over her roof in the cold months. She knew that the gray dawn sky would soon be filled with gaggles of geese. She knew squirrels would stir from their winter nests.
She also knew that it wouldn’t let Richard lie still.
Theresa pushed an arm over to his side of the bed, felt the rumpled sheets, cold but still smelling faintly of Ivory soap, baby shampoo, a trace of male musk—his scent. He was scheduled to work today, but not this early. She threw back the covers, hoping against hope to find him enjoying another cup of coffee, running an iron over his Bochsler True Value polo, polishing a pair of loafers rather than lacing up those scarred old work boots …
But no. The door to the hall closet hung open, the Ruger .22 rifle and orange hunting vest that were normally inside were now missing. Glancing out the front window, she confirmed that the Chevy was gone too.
Later, as she scraped her plate clean of scraps of her bean-sprout omelet, she discovered an empty break-and-bake biscuit container in the trash, 8.4 grams of fat per serving. Disgusting.
“I know he’d never raise a hand against me,” Theresa told the sink, which held dirty dishes haphazardly stacked against a greasy cookie sheet. Yes, but he would also never allow prior obligations to come between himself and a romp through the woods on a clear day, even when it wasn’t hunting season, would he? She sighed. But honestly, why bother getting angry at his habits? She was certainly used to them.
The tins of loose chamomile and rooibos were almost empty, but the back of the cupboard yielded some Darjeeling. Theresa typically drank herbal, but tea of any kind was her constant comfort, and the caffeine boost wouldn’t hurt considering all she had to do around their almost-working farm today. The ducks needed to be let out of the hutch, the compost turned, and the pasture’s wire fence checked for breaks, all of it done completely on her own.
The work coat hung loosely about her narrow shoulders as she shrugged into it. The air that swirled around her when she shoved open the service porch’s swinging door held the promise of frost if only the mercury would fall a few more degrees. Winter in Marion County was something she couldn’t have imagined growing up in Tennessee, a season of fits and starts, always teasing with snow and only putting out sun-shrouding rain. But she’d gotten used to it. Fourteen years could do that.
Theresa trudged around the side of their two-story colonial, noting in her mind the wan, yellow paint peeling in patches, the grass, nearly gray in the gloom, and the distant evergreens cutting a dark line across the horizon. The chain-link gate by the back field shrieked as she pushed it open, hanging crooked on its hinges. Another chore.
Then, down where the blackberry bushes surrendered to sheep-cropped grass, she saw the bright splashes of blood on the turf.
“Dunno what did it. Dog, maybe wolf.” Collins shook his head at the mangled forms lying before him in the pasture.
“The llama normally keeps things like that away. That why we got it.” Theresa looked at the collar of Collins’s frayed flannel shirt, the other sheep frisking in the field, and the layers of clouds pushed about by high-altitude winds, anywhere but the remains of dark organ meat spilling from the dead ewe or the pink nub of spine protruding from the lamb’s headless neck.
Collins harrumphed. “Whatever it was, it ate the Hell out of them both.”
“I don’t think they belonged to each other.” She pointed a few yards off to where a ewe was aiming a kick at a lamb nuzzling her udders. “See? That’s why I called. Richard once said that you know everything about sheep. If she won’t let it nurse, she’ll get … I can’t remember what it’s called.”
“Mastitis,” Collins said. “Don’t worry, we’ll have her fostering that lamb right quick.”
Collins patted his belt, and Theresa noticed for the first time the knife sheathed there.
“You, uh, may not want to watch this,” he said, bending over the lamb’s corpse.
Speckled legs pistoned in Theresa’s grasp.
“Easy,” Collins said. “Lemme finish with the twine and—there!”
With a spastic twitch, the lamb thrust itself away and trotted off a dozen yards.
Collins wiped his hands on stained Carhartts. “It’s all in the smell. Give it 24 hours and that ewe’ll think she birthed him. Good for both of them.” He pointed at the lamb. “Know what we call what he’s wearing? A dinner jacket.”
The sheath of hide covered the lamb from forelimbs to neck and around its back, a coverlet rimmed with ghastly pink and cinched tight by cord sewn up the front, as neat as any surgeon’s stitching.
“Why?” Theresa asked.
Laughter roared out of Collins. “He won’t get any dinner without it! And that—” He pointed at the two loops of twine about the lamb’s throat. “—that’s his bow tie!”
Theresa lifted her lips in approximation of a smile.
When Theresa tried to press the bills into Collins’s hand, he pushed them away. “I live half a mile away, and I’m a bachelor,” he said. “No trouble at all. Call whenever.”
Not long after he left, the rain began again.
She steeped the rest of the chamomile and settled into the living-room couch, its ancient springs sagging under her 95 pounds. She was secretly glad Collins had refused the money. They needed it. She tracked every cent, because who knew? Maybe one day they could afford a trip someplace sunny, to Santa Barbara or Scottsdale or even Cancun. But the farm barely provided enough revenue to cover its expenses and some part of the house always needed fixing and Richard was hardly on the fast track for a promotion.
She reached for the newspaper she’d laid out on the coffee table to dry. She wasn’t scheduled to work at the library for almost a week, couldn’t keep working outside, and didn’t want to walk a mile and a half in the damp to the bus stop. Mulling over money wouldn’t make the day pass any faster, but at least the rain would bring Richard home quicker. Maybe.
She clicked on a table lamp and began to read the op-eds. When she finished with the business section, she picked up a three-week-old copy of People. When she finished with that, she started the Betty Neels novel she’d salvaged from a rummage sale and never got around to starting.
These days were always quiet. Richard refused to carry a cell phone, said they’d rot your brain. She’d gotten used to it. But when the sky began to darken, worry wormed its way into her gut.
Theresa was wondering for the umpteenth time whether or not to call the police when the front door jolted against its deadbolt. Her feet beat a fast tattoo on the floor as she raced to it, and her fingers slipped on the lock’s tab twice before the bolt thudded back.
“Richard, where have you been? My goodness, you’re soaked.”
“I got lost. In the woods.”
“You’re dripping everywhere. Get in the shower and I’ll heat up some soup.”
“Not hungry. Just want to sleep.”
A pause. “Yes?”
“That’s the service porch. Bathroom’s over here.”
“Right. I’m just tired.”
“Go on, then.”
As she mopped the watery mess of the floor, Theresa noticed the smell, a marshy dampness, a mustiness mixed with sweet decay.
The next morning, Richard begged off breakfast. He only wanted a glass of water and to go to work.
“It’s Sunday,” Theresa explained. “The hardware store’s closed.”
He stared at her, puzzled. “Then what am I supposed to do?”
What was he supposed to do? Normally, Theresa would’ve had a hundred replies ready and waiting. She’d gotten used to mentally cataloguing an endless list of unfinished tasks. But the question caught her so off-guard that she stammered the first thing that popped into her mind.
“Uh, well, the duck pen has a few loose boards that need nailing. I, um, could hold an umbrella while you work.”
“Okay,” Richard said, and he actually smiled.
It was good the task turned out to be simple, because it took Richard twice as long as it ought to. He mashed this thumb, used twice as many nails as needed and sent the ducks into a frenzy with his haphazard hammering. They cowered in the corner farthest from him even after he’d finished.
One task down, who knows how many more to go, thought Theresa. Still, it was something.
Then Richard said, “What next?”
Theresa was steadying a loose banister on the front porch steps when a bright wink of light from the front of the Chevy caught her eye.
“Oh, that,” Richard said, noticing her gaze. “Brushed a tree trunk last night. I’ll get it fixed.”
“I see,” she replied, noting the truck’s pristine paint, the unblemished sweep of its bumper and a pocked hole no bigger than the tip of a pinky in the middle of what was once a headlight.
The screech of a starter jerked Theresa from her sleep. She staggered to the front door where she saw the Chevy rattle its way down the gravel path that served as their driveway, stall once just past the gate, and finally lurch onto Route 213. A note in Richard’s messier-than-usual chicken scratch hung from the refrigerator. It told her that he loved her and he’d left early for work and he hoped she’d have a good day. The clock above the stove read 6:47.
Theresa made her second cup of Darjeeling that week and, yawning, settled at the kitchen table, which no longer rocked. Through the kitchen window, she peered at a gap in the blackberry bushes and saw a pair of sheep down in the pasture, the small one snatching a moment at the udder before the large one moved off. Even at a distance, the hide sheath was visible. Some progress, then.
She boiled a bowlful of quinoa, adding cinnamon and a little milk. She hadn’t gone to the grocery store in days, but the refrigerator seemed almost full. Odd. The rain had slackened to a drizzle, nothing a poncho couldn’t keep out. She’d never gotten around to checking the fence, had she?
Down by the back gate, she found the ducks snapping in the grass for slugs, their feathers sodden. The door to the pen gaped, even though the latch was sound. Theresa counted the ducks as she corralled them, tallied them a second time and then a third. She couldn’t make the numbers add up. Then she circled the overhanging oak by the edge of the garden where she discovered a spray of feathers and a filigree of crimson dappling the brown bark.
The phone rang 17 times before a breathless voice answered, “It’s a great day at Bochsler True Value.”
“Craig, it’s Theresa. I need to speak with Richard.”
“He can’t talk with you, of all people, right now.”
“I’m not joking, it’ll only take a—”
“I’m not joking either; it’s insane here. What’d you do to him this weekend? His can-do attitude’s great, but he barely seems to know the difference between a screwdriver and a circle saw. The boss has been smiling and screaming all morning. He’s got him in the back office; I don’t know what they’ve been talking about all this time.”
“Fine. When he goes on break, tell him to give me a call, would you?”
Craig said he would, but a customer had just come in, gottogobye.
Not 30 seconds later, the phone jangled. It was the library, saying that Marianne had come down with stomach flu, and they knew it was short notice, but could Theresa take over her shifts for the next couple of days? Theresa said she could. Income was always welcome, and somewhere between scribbling down the specifics and finding the chronically misfiled bus schedule, she forgot entirely about the ducks.
When they had both finished, Richard sighed, long and low. Theresa could feel herself smiling even after his breathing settled into a slow, steady rhythm. His willingness to please had been nice. Maybe her mother was wrong, maybe she hadn’t married a child in man’s clothing. She breathed in the scent of his sweat, musky and strangely sour.
She stared at the ceiling, listening to Richard’s inhalations and exhalations. She counted the beats of her own heart. Then, realizing sleep wouldn’t come anytime soon, she sat up and felt in the dark for her slippers.
Not a scrap of anything herbal remained in the tins, so Theresa made do with hot water and a squeeze of lemon, pacing as she sipped. Tomorrow she’d have to go into town for more tea. And maybe tomorrow they could finish planing the wood floor in the guest room so it didn’t look like a set piece from The Grapes of Wrath. Maybe punctuality would mean a raise for Richard, and then they could then let the farm lie fallow or rent out the fields. Maybe—
Her foot turned sharply, painfully on something hard—one of Richard’s loafers abandoned on the transition strip between the kitchen and living room. She cursed, reached to right it, and froze.
A splotch of red marred the edge of its heel, and a crushed bit of down was clinging to it.
When she eventually went back in bed, each hour slid by like tar. She was still awake when, sometime between midnight and dawn, the bed creaked and Richard’s shadowy form rose from it.
Dawn came, gray as a charcoal drawing. The poncho Theresa wore did a decent job of keeping out the rain, but she could feel dampness creeping around the cuffs of her jeans and at the collar of her sweatshirt. In the gloom, the llama’s excavated abdomen looked like a piece of baroque architecture, its exposed ribs rising out of the curves of stomach and liver, the coils of intestine.
She had just finished shaking out the poncho in the service porch when Richard cracked the door. He was already dressed, his khakis sharply creased, the Bochsler polo with nary a wrinkle.
“Morning,” he said. “How’d you sleep?”
“Bad. Something got the llama.”
Richard’s brow furrowed. “Got it?”
“Killed it. Ate a lot of it.”
“Won’t be much fun burying something that size.”
“I’ll do it. Hey, don’t you open the library today?”
She’d forgotten. “Ugh. What time is it?”
Richard told her. “Look,” he said, “you’ll be late if you take the bus. I’ll drive you.”
“But you’ll have to skip breakfast. Don’t wait, it would make me feel … uncomfortable.”
“I want to. Plus I’m not really hungry.”
He leaned in to kiss her. An odor of iron and salt washed over her.
She ducked her head, brushing by him. “Get the truck warmed up, then. I’ll be right there.”
Theresa hurried, she really did. Still, as she snagged her coat from the hall closet on the way out, she paused long enough to fumble for the Ruger, to eject its stubby, square magazine—and to count the seven shells it held, three shy of full capacity.
Outside, the Chevy’s horn squawked.
Theresa’s punctuality ended up mattering little. For the first three hours, the only sounds that broke the silence were the tread of her shoes as she shelved books, the overhead fluorescents’ humming, and her coworker Charlotte’s congested snuffling.
Around 10:30, Mr. Bimsley hobbled in, clutching a history of Constantinople, a biography of Rita Hayworth, and a tattered paperback copy of Westward the Tide. Billy Cooper slunk over to the public computers at 11:47 to “check his email,” and Theresa’s administrator station tallied 23 attempts to circumvent the content filter before he logged off. At 1:03, Mrs. Hagglesmith deposited 17 overdue Harlequin romances on the checkout desk and chatted about her husband’s colitis while she counted out the fine in pennies.
After that, the quiet returned.
“Hey, Char,” Theresa said as the clock rounded two. “This place is dead and I’ve got some errands I really need to run. Will you cover for me?”
Charlotte’s gaze played over the empty stacks, the deserted reading area, and the row of computer monitors all lit with the same floating, four-color square. She blew her nose and crumpled the tissue, adding it to the rising pyramid on the reference desk.
“Okay,” she sniffed, “but you owe me.”
The rain still fell as steadily as sand in an hourglass.
Theresa took the bus to the Roth’s Fresh Market, where she bought tea, sausage, cheddar, eggs, a tube of ready-bake biscuits and a gallon of antifreeze. She double-knotted the plastic bags before trudging to the bus stop.
Back home, she dried off and made tea. The fostered lamb frolicked in the back field, its adoptive mother unperturbed when it ducked its head to nurse. Its dinner jacket had begun to pull free of the twine, the interior gray with decay. It would need to come off soon.
She watched the pair for a long time. Then she drained her tea, picked up the antifreeze and went to find the shovel.
When he got home, Richard didn’t ask about dinner; he simply slunk into the shower. Theresa waited for the pipes to stop ticking and heard a muffled groan from the bedframe as it received his weight.
Then she started cooking.
Around midnight, the bedroom door eased open.
“Hello, honey,” Theresa said.
Richard stared at the table laden with biscuits, sausage, and orange juice as though looking down the barrel of a gun.
“I made all your favorite junk foods,” Theresa continued. “I thought you might be hungry, since you missed dinner. You are hungry, aren’t you?”
He inclined his head up and down by the barest inch.
“Then pull up a chair. I’m just finishing up with the eggs.”
He didn’t move.
Theresa deposited a quivering mound of scrambled eggs on a plate and placed it by his spot at the table. “Is there a problem, sweetie?”
Richard cleared his throat. “There’s, well, there’s something I need to take care of.”
“What would need attention this time of night? Certainly not the car. You shouldn’t be embarrassed about that, sweetie. Hunting accidents happen, and a bullet through a headlight is easier to fix than a busted bumper.”
The flatness in Richard’s face made his smile ghastly. “Oh. That’s good. Still, I’m going to step outside for a second—”
“In your underwear? By the way, I took care of the llama.” She nodded toward the service porch. The empty bottle of antifreeze lay on its threshold. “Anything that digs it up will be sorry. So please, sit. Eat.”
He didn’t respond.
“It’s what my husband would do,” she said softly.
Richard opened his mouth to scream.
At least, that was what Theresa expected, but he gaped wider and wider, his mouth stretching beyond any dimension that could even vaguely be called human, his jaw popping as it unhinged. His hands curled in on themselves, suddenly boneless, his forearms dimpling as spines rose beneath the skin, his neck bulged, something maggot-white thrashed in the hole of his throat, and the kitchen flooded with the stench of methane and sour meat and old rot, freshly stirred—
“Stop.” Theresa strived to keep the shaking out of her voice, to hold her ground. “I only … I need us to come to an understanding.”
The thing that wore her husband’s flesh hesitated.
Theresa swallowed and pressed on: “I understand this food isn’t … isn’t to your liking. You can’t have our livestock, though. This has always been a working farm. People would notice.” She hurried on. “But you keep doing well by me, and I’ll do well by you. Listen.”
Crossing the kitchen felt like slogging through quicksand. The phone’s receiver seemed to weigh 50 pounds.
“Mr. Collins? I know it’s late, but we lost more sheep, and Richard went out to check. He hasn’t come back, and I’m scared. Oh, would you? In 15 minutes? That would mean so much.”
The receiver rattled back into its cradle.
“Thank you.” Her Richard stood before her again, flexing his fingers, working his jaw, his form restored once more. “You’re different. From the others, I mean. I can see why he cared about you. He certainly fought like it.”
The kitchen blurred behind a hot veil of tears. “Just … just go. And don’t leave any—” She had to stop and swallow a sudden lump in her throat. “—any remains this time.”
Rain hammered on the roof. The smell lingered in the kitchen, so Theresa had scorched some tea leaves after making a cup for herself, hoping the burning would cover the stink. They’d have to do something about that. She’d have so much to adjust to. Finding him food, for one thing.
She already knew Collins and poor Billy Tindale, who lived near the dairy, but she should meet widow Johnson at some point and Robert Nordhaus, who did odd carpentry jobs out of his garage and maybe some of the residents at the Hopeview Mental Health Center. How long could they go without attracting notice? Six months? Nine months? A year, at most?
But if Richard’s industriousness continued—and she had little doubt that it would—they could build a nest egg that might take them to Santa Barbara or Scottsdale or even Cancun. They could leave the farm behind, and she would never face filthy dishes stacked in stagnant sink water or endless menial chores or a firmament forever swaddled in gray. And surely Richard would never raise a hand against her. Not if she kept doing well. Not if she worked hard for him.
Headlights flashed against the front windows.
Theresa put down her still full, stone-cold cup of tea and sniffed the air one last time, testing it. The smell had mostly dissipated, and anyway, it didn’t seem that bad now. She could get used to it.
She stood and went to let Collins in.
Copyright © 2015 Loren Eaton