UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 08/2012
SOMEWHERE AMONGST THE ASHES
Graham watched as the gray sky passed kidney stones, small compressions of snow and ice the size of a baby’s fist. Out in the pasture his sole Guernsey trudged toward the barn to escape the beating, and Graham hoped his daughter, Beth, had enough sense to do the same. He shook his coffee cup, brought it to his lips. It had been two weeks since he heard from her. On the day she left, she stomped from the house, her brown hair a mess, her fragile bones carrying a blue duffle. He now resented giving her an ultimatum: to live with him until she could get off the dope and find a job or to pack and get out. He no longer wanted to witness another slow death—the second woman to spiral into a heap of rotting, drug induced flesh under his roof.
“I ain’t ever coming back,” Beth said that morning. “You don’t understand me.”
“Beth,” he said. “What’s there to not understand? You ain’t but a year from high school and already you’re killing yourself. I’m trying to help. Why can’t you get that?”
Beth turned and lifted a middle finger as she marched toward the highway, and he waited there, half expecting some change of heart, until her thin frame blurred along the asphalt.
Graham got up from the table. His dog, Breaker, came off the couch and moseyed over, nudging Graham’s hand with a cold nose.
“Should we find her, buddy? Bring her home, try one last time?” The dog looked out the window and wagged its tail.
Graham went to the closet, tugged his wool hunting jacket from a hanger, and dug around on the top shelf for twelve gauge shells. He knew Beth hung with a long-haired fella out in Skandia, the one who stunk like cat piss and had sores around his mouth. He figured if she wasn’t there that fella might at least know where she was.
When he got out to his Chevy pickup the hail weakened; only a few chunks struck him, stinging the back of his neck. He checked to make sure his shotgun was behind the seat, and he got Breaker into the truck. At one time, Breaker was the best damn bird dog he’d ever seen. Even as a pup he’d never been afraid of gunshots and could sniff and flush the birds out. Now, Graham hoped he could at least sniff and flush Beth out if she was in one of these places.
Graham cut onto Michigan 35 and passed a mining dump. Small mountains of black soot skirted both sides of the highway, and large chunks of its blue belly had split and pooled within the ditches. He veered right off M-35 toward Abraham Lake. He knew the fella had a place not far from here. About a month back, Beth called after the lowlife had tossed her out. She was cold and wet, tired and in the process of walking home. He never said a word, at first, only went and got her. Like now, he didn’t know if she would recognize that he was trying to help, that he was trying to save her from the ruination.
The morning hail had turned to snow, and a thin layer blanketed the gravel road. The truck bucked and rattled as he passed a mobile home where a teenage boy stood in the yard. The boy cut his eyes toward Graham as he leaned against a rusted station wagon without a jacket on, fingering hotdogs straight from the package and into his mouth. Graham shook his head. When he reached the end of the seasonal road, it gave way to a two-track that snaked up a hill; he killed the engine and listened to it tick.
Graham placed his arms on top of the steering wheel, looked off at the trees. It had been a rough go since Mary died four years ago. He’d done the best he could since then, or so he believed, with trying to raise Beth. After Mary fell in the barn and the doctor prescribed those damn people killers she never was quite the same. Then one morning, after he’d fed the Guernsey, he came in to see how Mary was doing with getting Beth ready for school. He found Beth sitting on the edge of their bed, humming, as she brushed Mary’s long, gray hair. Mary had spit a reddish fluid at some point onto the pillow and she was stiff already.
Around the truck a bunch of tire tracks split the earth and trash bags filled the ditches. Graham pulled the shotgun from behind the seat, and Breaker leapt off the road and began sniffing at pseudoephedrine boxes and old refrigerators that were charred black and rusted. Christ, he thought, walking along the road and looking down the ravine at paint thinner cans and car tires partially covered with snow, who’s going to clean this mess up? He slipped two shells into the breach, snapped it shut, and continued to hike up the hill.
Breaker had moved away from the debris to looking for birds with his nose down, locking onto scents that weaved between trees and bushes. About halfway up he could see a cabin, and no hint of wood smoke hung in the air. He stepped from the two-track and bent down, rubbed his fingers together to get Breaker’s attention. He pulled a leash from his pocket and thought about tying him up, but he didn’t want Breaker to bark as he made his way closer.
He let Breaker run, and he would just say he was hunting birds and was lost, if need be. At the edge of the clearing he stopped. The shack’s windows were painted black. He bent down on his haunches and listened. Water trickled off the eaves, a slow blip, blip, blip, as Chickadees jumped from branch to branch and chirped above him. A ratty camping trailer with an orange stripe and flat tires rested a few feet from the cabin, and a pile of firewood was heaped next to the trailer. He lifted his gun and moved toward the trailer, to make sure Beth wasn’t frozen to death inside under some thin blanket.
He grabbed the trailer door and pulled it open, steadied the tip of the gun at the entrance. The trailer was dark inside; a strong mixture of ammonia and paint thinner poured from it like the mouth of a factory stack. He reached into his pocket for a handkerchief, placed it over his nose and mouth, and stepped inside.
The trailer had been gutted. Make shift tables of sawhorses and plywood lined the far wall. One table had a rusted propane tank with a green garden hose connected to the nozzle that ran over to a plastic jug. How the trailer hadn’t exploded and rocketed into space yet was beyond him. Once, when he was reading one of Mary’s gossip magazines, he saw a picture of a trailer like this. It was engulfed in flame and some dark-haired, male celebrity stood in the door, looking out, as it shot over a playground where a handful of kids played. When Graham looked closer, the kids looked like the celebrity.
He stepped on a discarded light bulb and it broke. He leaned against a table that held Mason jars, lighter fluid, and coffee filters with red stains. The chemicals burned through the handkerchief, stinging his throat and eyes, and he gagged, staggered outside.
When he regained focus, he tried to locate Breaker. He whistled in light, short bursts, but nothing stirred. The shack still remained lifeless, vacant, so he inched toward the door. An opening in the clouds allowed the sun to cast its glow over a corner of the shack, the foundation split and broken. He stepped onto the concrete blocks and knocked. If someone or that same fella answered the door, he probably wouldn’t remember Graham anyway. He wondered what would happen if he did? Would he have to shoot him? He hoped not. Graham didn’t notice any movement, and he knocked again, harder. Still nothing. He reached down and turned the handle, forced the door with his shoulder.
He held the gun stock against his hip and entered. No pictures hung from the walls, no clocks, no shelves. Wiring had been pulled from the walls and formed uneven squares that reminded him of plot lines seen from an airplane. Food wrappers and empty beer bottles covered the counter top, were lined around the missing sink. He touched a half eaten sandwich, the bread rock hard. He sighed and his breath exploded around his face. When he got into the main room, a mattress was spread across the floor with a heap of blankets piled on top. He moved closer and nudged the pile with the tip of the gun. After a couple of pokes he hit something soft. He stabbed at the pile again and a face emerged. It was a girl; she looked about Beth’s age. She had blonde hair, dark rings under her eyes, and penny-like scabs on her face.
“Who are you?” she asked, and delicately ran a finger around a scab at the corner of her mouth.
Graham looked her over, then the room. “I’m just trying to find someone,” he said.
“Who?” the girl asked.
The girl sat up and squinted. Maybe she thought that Graham was her own father at first and decided against it, or maybe she thought he was a cop. He couldn’t tell.
“I’m the only girl here,” she said with a giggle. “Say, why the gun? You wouldn’t have a smoke would you?” She twitched a couple of times; a quick spasm shot up her neck and lifted her head upward. When the spasm ended she smiled, revealing a fence of chipped teeth. Graham found a milk crate and plopped down. He looked at the adjacent room, the closed door. “You alone?”
The girl picked at a scab again, unfocused; she remained still except for the picking.
“You,” she said, still staring off, “don’t want to be here if you don’t know him. He doesn’t like people.”
“Don’t worry, I know him,” Graham said, and leaned the gun against the wall. “He’s friends with my daughter, Beth. Do you know her?”
The girl got up. She wore tiny shorts that barely covered her waist and PINK was written across the buttocks in rainbow colors. Her legs were as thin as a frog’s, lean on fat and muscle. She scratched her side through a stained white tank top and walked over to a wooden stand and grabbed a glass pipe. She pulled a small clear baggy from her waistline and pinched it above the pipe.
Graham could see small chunks of crystals falling in, and he readjusted himself on the crate. “I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I won’t be able to help you if something bad happens, God forbid.”
She let out a laugh, shook again, and plopped down on the mattress, cross-legged. She flicked a lighter and brought the flame under the pipe’s glass belly, and she moved the flame around until the head of it glowed. Then her eyes rolled and she blew a thick cloud toward Graham.
Graham coughed and fanned the smoke away. It smelled like a burnt shower curtain. He wanted to yank the pipe from her hand, tell her she best get her shit together before she ended up dead. Instead, he sat there in awe over how the world seemed so far away to her, on how it floated around somewhere, lost, in the emptiness inside her head. It reminded him of the past, of home and his deceased wife, of how Beth acted afterward.
Then out of nowhere she said, “Oh daddy, please, just take me,” and she leaned back with her arms spread out.
Graham grabbed the shotgun and racked a shell. “Get up,” he said.
She didn’t move. She just laid there and looked at the ceiling with her arms spread out. She clutched the pipe in her right hand, and with her left she touched her stomach. She slipped a hand under her tank top and revealed a cage of rib bones. “Why be that way? Don’t you want me?” She ran her index finger higher, circled around a small breast, and tugged at a nipple.
Graham reached down and grabbed her arm. He lifted her up and pushed her toward the bedroom. She tried dragging her feet, but he kept moving her forward.
“You’re going to put some clothes on,” he said. “We’re taking a little ride.”
He thought about waiting in the hall to give her some privacy. Instead, he followed her in. She fell to the ground and crawled toward a chair. A naked man sat in it. He had a rubber strap tied around his right arm. Graham raised the gun. The man was blue and purple. His head was tilted back; the skin stretched around his sunken cheek bones, his penis limp within a dark mass like some kind of slug.
The girl crawled to the man; she held his leg and ran the other hand through his pubic hair to his belly.
“Get up, Johnny. Get up,” she said, and shook him. “Please, wake up.”
Graham wasn’t prepared for this. All he wanted to do was find Beth. Now he had to do something, but he didn’t know what. Would this send him to prison, the being here and seeing this? Where was Beth?
The girl had now slipped up onto the man’s lap. Her hips rocked back and forth and she wrapped her arms around his neck, hugged and kissed him.
“Get off him,” he said, pulling at her arm. “For Christ’s sake he’s dead. Get off him already.”
“Don’t touch me you sumbitch,” she said. “Let us alone.” She turned back and tried to rock the man alive again with her hips, and the wooden chair creaked under them.
“Listen,” he said, “I only want to know where my daughter is. If you tell me where she’s at I will leave you two alone. I will be good as gone.”
“Go away. Get the fuck out of here,” she said. “I ain’t telling you nothing.” She smacked the dead man on the face. “Johnny.”
He gritted his teeth. The girl at that moment was as helpless and acted similar to how his wife, Mary, had acted just before her death on pain pills. Oblivious. How people could become so dependent and fall so low was beyond him. All it took for Mary was an injured back. As far as Beth was concerned he didn’t know.
“Listen, either you tell me what you know or I am taking you to the police,” he said. “The choice is yours.”
The girl leapt off the man. When she did the man fell to the floor. He was still bent like the chair, and a dark, crusted paste the shape of a half moon stuck to the back of his thighs.
Then she lunged at Graham, swinging her arms in long arcs.
Graham took a few slaps and then pushed her down. “Don’t make me tell you again,” he said. “Put some clothes on and let’s go.”
She got up, breathing heavy. She slipped on a green coat with burn holes down the front, some sweat pants and socks, along with a pair of red galoshes. She dropped the pipe into her jacket pocket and stepped outside. The sky had grown darker; the snow that fell was as thick as ash.
“Come on. My truck is down the hill,” and he touched her at the elbow to guide her along.
Breaker crawled from under the trailer. He had a frozen rabbit in his mouth, and when he came closer the girl shrieked.
“It’s alright.” He scratched Breaker behind the ears, and Breaker laid the gray rabbit at Graham’s feet.
“I don’t like ‘em,” she said. “Once, I knew this girl—”
“Save it. We have other things to worry about.”
They continued to make their way down the hill, and the snow had filled Graham and Breaker’s tracks from earlier. The girl slipped into a rut and fell. She rocked a few times on her knees before she found the strength to get up. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the pipe, and she struggled to get her fingers to work the lighter. She kept stoking on the unlit pipe. Finally she got the flame going, and he reached down and snatched it from her mouth and chucked it into the woods.
“Why the fuck did you do that?” she asked, and dropped to her knees again. “Now I got to find it. I have to. I ain’t going anywhere without it.” She crawled into the ditch and dug her fingers around in the snow.
Graham tugged on the hood of her jacket, but she wouldn’t budge.
“Get up,” he said.
“No, I don’t have to.”
Graham didn’t want to hurt her. He planned to help her if nothing else, so he reached down and took hold of one of her ankles and dragged her toward the truck. She kicked a little before giving up. He turned a couple of times and her eyes remained fixed on the sky, on the snow falling. A few times her head bobbled over a snowy bump, and she didn’t seem to pay it any attention. He wasn’t sure if he should take her to the police or the hospital. He figured the law would know best what to do because he sure as hell didn’t.
Snow had covered the pickup. He opened the passenger side door and lifted her into the cab. He stuck the gun behind the seat and told her this would all be over soon. She began to shiver, and Graham cranked the heater when he started the truck.
“It’ll be warm before you know it.” He handed her a blanket that covered the seat. “Put this over your legs.”
The girl just faced the windshield as he covered her. Breaker had placed his head on her lap, but she still wouldn’t touch him. For a while they bumped along the gravel road, with only the engine hum and the mud slapping against the wheel wells cutting between them.
“Your daughter,” she said, “is a brunette.”
Graham slipped onto the other side of the dirt road. He straightened the truck and turned back to her. “When did you see her last?”
“A few weeks ago she came by for Johnny. Said she was going to Florida.”
“Florida? What the hell is in Florida?”
“The ocean,” she said. “The beach.”
Graham wondered if she knew what she was talking about. A few minutes ago she tried rocking a dead guy to life; now, she had enough sense to talk oceans and beaches.
“Do you know how she planned to get there?”
The girl shook her head. She curled her hands with the bottom of her coat and turned toward the window.
Graham had many questions, like who was she with? Was she taking the bus or getting a ride? Did she get drugs from Johnny before she left? But he figured those answers might come after he got her some help.
The truck hobbled from the seasonal road onto the highway. The heater puffed warm air into their faces, yet the girl still shook. Every few minutes a moan would escape her, in between the clatter of teeth and the licking of lips.
“What is your name?” he asked.
The girl said nothing, only rocked front to back. She dug in her pockets, pulling out pieces of paper and lint before trying again. She panicked.
“I have to go back,” she said.
“We ain’t going back.”
“I have to,” she said. “I must.”
Graham shook his head and looked off at the houses along the highway. One had a nativity scene in the front yard, and Joseph had fallen over. “You know, maybe after—”
The girl pulled on the door lever and pushed it open. The wind rushed in and blew her greasy hair around, and she dangled her legs over the moving asphalt. He tried to reach over Breaker and take hold of her arm, but she jerked away.
“I’m going,” she said, and jumped.
Through the rearview Graham watched as her body bounced and skipped along the shoulder of the road like a stone across water.
Graham pumped the brakes, swung off the highway, hit the hazards. He left Breaker in the truck and ran to where the girl lay in the ditch. Her body was bent, the arms and legs twisted in unforeseen directions, as if in another life she had been a contortionist; her eyes seemed a soft blue, and her thin, cracked lips were stretched into a partial smile. Before he could try to help her a van stopped. Then another car. Within minutes the police arrived, an ambulance. More people converged onto the scene, to give advice, to lend a hand in case the officers or paramedics didn’t already know enough.
Graham couldn’t take his eyes from the white sheet slung over the girl. A few times the wind lifted the sheet as if she was moving, and an officer would reach down and pull the sheet over her again. Still, the outline of her body, the bent neck, showed beneath it. One officer motioned for the people to move back, another joked about one less addict and asked Graham to take a seat in his car, and Graham did. As he waited a potbellied paramedic slipped onto his ass in the icy ditch. The man stood and brushed himself off; he tucked part of his loose shirt back in and helped another man load the girl onto a gurney. One of the girl’s red galoshes had slipped off and was left there. After they had slid her into the ambulance and pulled onto the highway, with no lights flashing and headed north toward town, Graham studied the white line that went south. He wondered how long it might take to reach Florida and whether or not Beth would be found along a highway somewhere, abandoned, ready to come home.Keith Rebec resides in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s a graduate student, working on a M.A. in Writing, at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Molotov Cocktail and The Rusty Nail.
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