Weeks flew by like windblown papers – a flurry of stories about friends and movies, dinners and theatre, and it wasn’t until October that we headed back to the country. The roads out of the city were crowded – it was a holiday weekend, and peak leaf season too. Nature’s last stand before winter stormed in.  Already darkness came earlier.  Halfway to the house, it was thick around us.  There were fewer cars on the country roads, and the occasional pair of headlights blinded us with their hi-beams.


Our house was in the woods, three or four miles from the ocean.  We got north winds so strong they snapped pine trees in half and we also got fog.  It was odd weather, a bit of the shore and some of the forest too.  Expect the unexpected, that’s what the locals said.  We tried to be like that.  Returning to the house after having been away, we tried to be prepared for what nature had wrought.  Snow blanketing the house, or a carpet of ants across the yellow pine floors.  Frozen pipes, nests of wasps.  Bats and black snakes.  A tree splintered atop the porch.


“Is that the electrical line?” Steven asked.  He backed up the car so the headlights hit the roof.


“Great.  So we don’t have power?”


“Not if the tree knocked it out.  I’ll go check,” he said, heading up the lawn.


I got out of the car and peed on the grass.  It was quiet, so quiet in the country. I stared at the sky, at the stars I could never find in the city.  We could use candles if we needed.  There were some in the basement or—   The porch light flashed on.


Omaha cried to get out, her voice honking like a goose.  “Just a minute,” I said, pulling the cage from the car.  The girls knew where they were.  They loved the country house. The cool yellow pine floors and grass they could eat and the birds at the feeder each morning.


I trudged up the lawn.  The front door swung open and Steven stood there in the porch light.  “Everything okay?” I asked.


“You’re not gonna believe this,” he said.


“Oh God.  What is it?”  I stopped where I was.


“Just kidding,” Steven said.  “Everything’s fine.”


“Asshole,” I said.  “Get the bags.”


We made the house ours again.  We turned up the heat and put on some music. We fed the girls and watered the plants.  And then we made ourselves a cocktail and sat outside on the porch.  We didn’t say much.  I liked that about the country house, the way both of us relaxed into silence.  We were a happy couple but sometimes the city made us tense.  And where we might’ve turned on the t.v., in the country we took a walk.


We cut across the lawn and leaves crackled underfoot.  Tomorrow we’d have to do the gutters.  We made our way through the pine trees which bordered our yard, and then walked along a dirt road.  A road no longer used, it followed the railroad tracks, narrowing to a path.  Cool air brushed my face, a hint of winter ahead, tapping on our door.


I  glanced back at our house which was barely visible through the trees.  “You leave the light on upstairs?” I asked.  We had a thing about lights.  He left them on.


“I did not.  You took the bags up,” Steven said.  “You want to keep going or should we head back?”


Actually, I hadn’t even been upstairs, not since we’d arrived.  I turned from the house and stared in front of us.  It was dark, but not so dark that we couldn’t see.  “All right, let’s keep going,” I said, taking Steven’s hand.


We walked above the railroad tracks, on an embankment flanked by a barbed-wire fence.  Years before, in the summers with my cousins, I used to walk the railroad tracks which cut through my grandmother’s farm.  One year I’d taken Steven there and the two of us had fished in the pond.  Maybe when we’d bought this house, I’d imagined days like that.  We’d lost so many friends in the city, maybe I’d been hoping this house would remind us of simpler times.  A house with screen doors and a yard and a big front porch.  We left the windows open all summer.  And there were chipmunks and birds, rabbits and squirrels. And blocks of morning sun on the walls, and at night, we stood in the yard and stared at the stars.


Of course there was also the maintenance.  Painting and mowing and planting and raking, and rarely had we ventured beyond our own property.


The barbed-wire fence belonged to our nearest neighbors.  Their chicken wasn’t the only animal which had wandered into our yard.  One time their pigs had gotten loose.  A whole pack of pigs.  I’d seen them coming toward me in the chaise and I’d bolted for the porch—


“What?” Steven asked.  “What are you laughing at?”


“Those pigs,” I said, grinning.  “Remember—”


“Yeah.  You and Will sitting naked in the yard.  That’s what scared them.”


Yes, Will had been there too.  Not that we’d been doing anything. Just sunbathing nude.  Something you couldn’t do in the city.  Something Steven didn’t think we should do in the country either.

“It’s weird we never see them,” I said.  Apart from the boy, we hadn’t met our neighbors.  We didn’t know his parents, or his siblings if he had any.  “I mean, when my parents bought a farm—”


“Your parents bought a farm in a place much different from this,” Steven said.


He did have a point.  We’d bought our house because we couldn’t afford waterfront. We’d imagined biking to the shore; it wasn’t that far.  And so we’d ended up in a place where people drove pick-up trucks.  And not as a metaphor for a simpler life.  And the pick-ups weren’t very new and most of them had gun racks.  Once, coming in for the weekend, we’d passed three kids on our road.  Three barefoot kids, they could’ve stepped out of a WPA photograph.  They’d stared at us as we drove by, and one of them had yelled something I couldn’t hear.  But the boy wasn’t one of them.  He wasn’t one of those three kids.  I would’ve remembered him.


“What’s that?” Steven asked, pointing toward a small brick shed.


“A smokehouse, I think,” I said.  The shed was low to the ground, too low for an outhouse, and there was a padlock on the door.  It reminded me of the smokehouse at my grandmother’s farm.


“For pigs?” Steven asked, slipping between the barbed wire.


“Probably,” I said, seeing hams in moldy muslin hanging from a smokehouse ceiling.  “What’re you doing?”


“I just want to have a look,” he said.


“It’s locked,” I said.  “You can’t go in there.”


“It’s hot,” Steven said, his hands on the brick.


I tried to remember when hogs were butchered.  Did you fatten them all summer and then kill them in the fall?


“Come here a minute,” Steven said from the other side of the smokehouse.


“No thanks,” I said.  “I’m quite happy here.”


“No, really, I want you to see this.”


I looked behind me, and then slipped between the fence and onto our neighbors’ property.  “I’m ready to go back,” I said.  “How about you?”


“Check this out,” Steven said.


I stared at the pile of bones.  A cairn of bones.  White bones in the dark night.  Enough bones to sate a pack of wild dogs.  “Bones,” I said.


“What are they doing here?”


“I don’t know.  It’s a smokehouse.  Come on, I’m going back.  Are you coming?”


Steven crouched by the bones and poked them with a stick.


“That’s enough,” I said, grabbing his arm.  “Let’s go.”


Steven jerked his arm away from me, but he followed me to the fence.  “What’s wrong with you?” he said.  “They’re just bones.  They might look good on the sun porch.”


“Are you crazy?” I said.  “You don’t know where those bones have been.”  I held the barbed wires apart for him.  “Don’t you remember that murder where they killed that guy in the smokehouse?  They handcuffed him and covered his head with a leather mask and then they fucked him and shot him, point blank.”


Steven stared at me.  “Jesus,” he said.  “How do you remember stuff like that?”


“I don’t know.  I just do.”


“Was that really in a smokehouse?”


“Absolutely,” I said.  I could still see the photographs from the newspapers.  The leather mask, the hands bound behind the victim’s back.


“No shit,” Steven said.  “Slow down a little, would you?”


I was half a length in front of him.  Walking faster than before.  I stopped and stared back at the smokehouse but there was nothing to see.  “Sorry,” I said, taking his hand. “I’m just tired.”


But even with a book, I couldn’t fall asleep.  It was only me.  Steven was snoring, heading toward a roar.  The drive had exhausted him, and of course he’d worked all day at his office while I—  Well, I’d done a little reading, graded some student essays, and then cleaned the apartment and packed us up.  And now we were here, once again in the country, and I was more awake than I’d been all day.


I slipped out of bed.  I cupped my hands to the window and peered out.  I couldn’t see anything, but again I heard the scratching.  At first I’d thought it was Toledo.  She scratched at closed doors, cried to get in.  But this noise was from outside, I knew it now. There was something on the porch roof.


I got the flashlight from the nightstand and opened the window, quietly.  And then I flashed on the light.  There were two or three crows pecking at the tree and they squawked as the light hit them and flew into the air, and one headed toward me, and I jumped and dropped the light which crashed to the floor.


“What’s wrong?  What is it?”  Steven shouted, sitting up.


“Nothing.  I just dropped the light.”


“What’re you doing?”


“There were birds— Crows,” I said, shutting off the light.  “A bunch of crows,” I said.  “They were on that tree on the roof.”


“Yeah, so?” Steven said, getting out of bed.  “We’re in the country, remember?”


I followed him into the bathroom.  “I know, but they were on the roof.”


Steven stared at me as he peed.  “How about we sleep tonight and deal with the roof in the morning, huh?”


I grinned and shrugged, and that’s what we did the next morning.  Right after breakfast, we got out the ladder and climbed up onto the porch roof.  The splintered pine tree was caught between two thick strands of electrical wire.


“Watch it,” Steven said.  “Don’t pull it like that.  You’re gonna—  Watch the wires.”


I broke off a dead branch, and pine cones scattered across the roof.  “Are you sure we should be doing this?  I mean, I don’t want to get electrocuted.”


“You’re not, not if you’re careful,” Steven said, squatting down by the eaves.  “Just hold that end up, would you?  I’m gonna try and—”


“What is it?”


“There’s a nest here and—”


“I’m gonna set this down, okay?”


“No, wait, hold it there.  I’ve almost got it free.  Wait a sec— There, now wait, just hold on—”


And then the tree was free from the wires and too heavy for me to hold and I dropped my end and the tree jerked away from Steven.


“What the fuck are you doing?” Steven yelled.


“I couldn’t hold it,” I said.


Steven shook his head.  “What would I do without you?” he asked.  “Come on, help me roll this off the roof.”


We pushed the splintered tree to the edge and then kicked it over.


“Hey, watch it.”


I glanced at Steven and then over the edge of the roof.  The boy leaned out from the porch, gazing up at us.  “You need some help?” he asked.


“What’re you doing down there?” Steven asked.  “You could’ve been hurt.”


The boy hopped off the porch and kicked the dead tree with his toe.


“Money,” I mouthed to Steven, rubbing my thumb across my fingers.


“All right, hold the ladder for us.  We’re coming down, ” Steven said.  He turned to me.  “Go ahead.”


I didn’t think to not trust the boy until I was on the ground.  Until I met his eyes again, eyes which were merely cornflower blue.


“So?  You need some help?” he asked.


“Maybe,” I said.  “Hold the ladder for Steven.”  I sat on the porch and emptied out my gloves.


Steven came down cradling something in his hand.  “Look at this nest,” he said, showing the boy.


The boy nodded without saying anything.


“Were there eggs?” I asked.


Steven shook his head.  “No, just the remains.”


“Of the eggs?”


“The birds,” Steven said.  “You up for doing the gutters?” he asked the boy.


“Whatever you guys want.”


I could think of a lot of things I wanted, but Steven said, “Okay, let’s drag this tree over to the woods first.”


The boy knelt at the tree’s middle and Steven and I took the ends.  We jerked our way across the lawn — it was such a cumbersome tree — and then waded into the underbrush.  On the count of three, we heaved the tree but the tree didn’t land more than a few feet from us.  The boy and I looked at Steven.


“Well, we’ll leave it there for now,” Steven said.  “You guys do the gutters while I rake the back.”


The boy and I nodded, suddenly partners.  I carried the ladder to the far end of the house.   “Want me to go up?” the boy asked.


“Sure, if you want,” I said.  “Here, take my gloves.”


“I don’t need them,” he said, climbing the ladder.  I could smell him, his boy-scent, even in the cool air.  Autumn leaves and  week-old sheets, a hint of sweat without bite.  I stared at his ass as his fingers combed the gutters.  He hurled down pine needles and dirt, acorns and pebbles.  When he finished what he could reach, we moved the ladder and he climbed up again.


I couldn’t think what to say to him.  He seemed different from the boys I used to teach in secondary school.  The boys in the city, they used to talk so much and clamor for my attention.  They used to give me a headache and that was why I was now grateful for the complacency of college students.  This boy was quiet.  What did he think of people like us?  People from the city, we stole into the country at night and stayed through the weekend and then left again in the dark. We were the strangers in the landscape.  “Hey,” I said, glancing at a clump of dirt and feathers.  “You ever find that chicken?”


He looked down over his shoulder.  “What chicken?” he asked.


“You know, the black one.  Remember when we called you?  A couple months—”


“That one got away.”


“Really?  What do you mean?”


“Just disappeared.”  He narrowed his eyes.  “You didn’t see it again, did you?”


“Me?  No, of course not.” I couldn’t stop myself from blushing.  It felt like he was accusing me.  “Never saw it again,” I said, shaking my head.  “Really, we never did.”


The boy turned back to the gutter.


“I mean, we live in the city,” I said.  “There aren’t any chickens in the city, you know.”  I tried to smile but I felt stupid trying to make him believe me.


We moved the ladder around to the front.  “I’ll do it for a while,” I said.  “You hold the ladder.  Just don’t jiggle it.”


He jiggled it, and almost smiled.


“Very funny,” I said.  I climbed to the top step and surveyed the gutter.  There was less debris on this side of the house.  I looked at the bedroom windows.  The one from which I’d shone the light the night before.  I squinted at the corner under the eaves, where the tree had been tangled with the wires.  There was something on the shingles. Something mashed or half-eaten.  One time on the drive home, there was a seagull feeding in the middle of the road and it had lifted too late, and both of us, even before it hit the windshield, had tried to shield our faces.  I started down the ladder.


“You guys live in the city, right?”


“When we’re not here,” I said, stepping off the ladder, looking for the rake.  Over there, against the—


“You got a doorman?”


“A doorman?” I repeated.  I stared at the boy who was leaning against the porch, his arms folded across his chest.  The doorman, I thought.  I stared at his eyes.  Blue eyes fixed on mine.  Brighter now, unwavering, they wouldn’t let me go.  “No doorman,” I said, backing away, reaching for the rake.  I held the rake out in front of me, and then quickly I turned and started around the house.  But then I stopped, for the boy was doubled over, clutching his knees.  Vomiting.


“You okay?” I asked.


He raised his head and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.  “Something I ate,” he said, flinging spittle from his fingers.  He looked at me then, with eyes that were merely blue.  “I’ll clean it up,” he said.


“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  “Sit down.  I’ll get you some water.  And some money, too.  I want to pay you for your help.”  I dropped the rake and hurried around the house.


In the back yard, Steven was stuffing leaves into a black trash bag.  I came up behind him and said, “That boy just got sick.”




“Yeah, and you know what else, he knows where we live.”


“We’re neighbors, remember?  What do you mean he got sick?”


“Not here.  I mean in the city.  He knows where we live in the city.”


“I doubt it,” Steven said, standing and tossing the bag over his shoulder.  “He’s probably never even been to the city.”


“He vomited on the grass,” I said.


“Yeah?  Must’ve had a rough night.”


I looked around the lawn at the neat piles of leaves.  Steven Cornell kept the books for a well-known charity.  His figures always balanced.  He was a man of reason.  “I think he might be really sick,” I said.


“He’s adolescent,” Steven said, starting for the woods.  “He probably drank too much last night.  Did you pay him?”


“You think ten’s enough?”


“Here, give him this,” Steven said, pulling a twenty from his pocket.  “And tell him to come back next time we’re here.”


I walked back to the front of the house, the twenty in my hand.  But the boy was nowhere to be seen.

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