The Farmhouse

February 11, 2019

 

The Farmhouse

 

In the time since Jackie’s death, Laura has learned the truth of existing alone. It isn’t so hard. It means keeping busy. The farmhouse is much too large for one person. Daily, there is water to collect and boil; there are tools to clean, greens to forage, rugs to be hung over the rail and swatted with an old badminton racket. 

 

But now it’s cold—November in northeastern Canada. Too cold to stray far from the house. In her state of aloneness, Laura draws inward. She had expected this, welcomed the creep of solitude as it slipped around her. Every few weeks, she finds herself so lost it is like a shock, return from a blackout, as she is drawn out of the trance of a task—scrubbing the counter, scrubbing clothes in a basin, scrubbing dirt from under her nails.

 

On this day, she is taking inventory of the batteries. She is hunched over the stove counting C cells. Out of nowhere, it’s there again. The question she cannot escape from the game her firm, Merkl Associates, played each summer at the team-building picnic. If you had to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, and bring only one item that fits in a suitcase, what would you bring? At the company picnics, when led by astute human resources professionals, employee responses tended to fall in two camps: purpose or pleasure. Purposeful answers were items like matches, shovels, first aid kits, water desalinators, solar-powered grills. All valid answers, of course, and more often than not contributed from employees in more pragmatic professions—risk management, legal. Pleasure dealt with what you would do to stay sane, to fill the silent hours. These were the answers from the communications department, the staff education department, and by most women: a pack of cards, a TV, a journal, a family photo album. At the final picnic, Laura said she’d bring the collected works of Faulkner. Not what she has since learned is the truth. What she would bring is an inflatable rubber raft. That way, when she’d had enough of the island, she could leave it behind.

Laura and Jackie hadn’t known each other. That was the strange part. Seven months after the attack, rumors that the border would close first began. Laura crossed the border three days before it closed permanently. Jackie already lived on the other side. They met at the northernmost stop of the train, back when the train ran. That was when it was Jackie and Laura and Amanda and Rob and Francis. And they all came together to form the original group because they were the only people around to find the little cottage at Royal Station at the end of the Montreal-Jonquiere line. The cottage was safe, but soon they had to leave. They moved north and grew fewer. It was worst with Amanda because she was first, but after that it got easier, and in a horrible way it was more manageable when it was only Jackie and Laura, only two to feed.

Laura dug Jackie as deep a grave as she could muster in the cold. Staring at the grave, she decided she wouldn’t dwell on what she could never get back. Since then, the farmhouse has become her companion more each day. Its noises, its life. Rasping pine floors, cupboards that close with a thwap. Jackie used to talk of the energy of the farmhouse, good vibes, happy souls. No city near. No neighbors. Safety in numbers no longer felt wise. Laura’s farmhouse, or the farmhouse she and Jackie found, sits at the base of the mountain in a low flat stretch of ground. It is remote ground in harsh country.

 

The house is large. The owners must have left right away because the place wasn’t ravaged or stripped clean as most places were. By the time Jackie and Laura got far enough north and happened to cut through a stretch of forest and see the farmhouse, the others had gone. It was only the two of them—Jackie and Laura. The farmhouse was tidy, well stocked with firewood, blankets, candles. There were chickens when they found the house, half-starved and rangy in a small wire coop. The chickens hadn’t lasted long.

 

The farmhouse was far enough north anyway, even before the war, that the owners would need to have a stockpile simply to survive the winter when the place was snowed in. Wood was chopped and stacked in the cellar. Laura scavenged the untended garden and saved the dry seeds. There were shelves of goods, green beans and vegetable medley, but also food they hadn’t seen for years like canned tortellini and corned beef hash. And there were jars and jars of homemade jam, which Jackie had eaten right from the jar with a spoon.

 

The house sits outside the pine forest, miles from the border, miles from the lake, and from the remains of the old country. Beyond that? She will likely never know. The point, as Jackie saw it, as Laura sees it, is isolation. Survival is an act of aloneness nowadays. Laura is used to it. Glad for it. When Laura hears pounding on the front door of the farmhouse, she is too surprised to be alarmed.

That first night in the farmhouse, Laura and Jackie slept upstairs in a child’s room on twin beds with matching patchwork quilts. The beds were stacked with little pillows and plush toys. There was a basket of stuffed animals in the room and a train set, and Laura wanted to wonder about the kids who lived in the house, wanted to wonder where they went, but she wouldn’t let herself do that. She had learned, since the war began, that sanity consisted of not allowing herself to think too much. Especially of loved ones or children. In the passing weeks, it grew much cooler and Jackie and Laura could no longer sleep without the fire, and so they slept in the leather, brass-buttoned armchairs in the sitting room.

 

Soon, it was late autumn, not yet freezing during the day. They had some hope still. Laura worried that the owner of the house might come back, but this never happened. They had not yet adjusted to their new life and they were irresponsible, gluttonous. They ate canned Alfredo sauce that they heated in the fireplace and poured over powdered mashed potatoes, they drank bottles of wine from the cellar, gulped bottled water, and burned through batteries to play old CDs on the portable stereo. There was dried meat in the cellar, which they ate along with pasta and rice and quinoa and lentils. Whoever stocked the house had planned to stay for a long while. There was some lettuce that had gone to seed in the garden, but they ate it anyway. The best part of those first weeks was the night they found one ancient bottle of champagne tucked high on a cellar shelf. The bottle was cocooned in cellophane, the neck wrapped in teal ribbon as though it had been saved for a special occasion. Halfway through the bottle, Jackie and Laura were rosy cheeked and almost relaxed as they huddled in the sitting room by the fire.

The knock comes again. Laura presses her ear to the door, feels a knot in her lungs. She is supposed to be alone, safe. Another knock, then a voice.

 

“Anybody here?” It is a man’s voice accompanied by a rumple of fabrics swishing against one another and the sound of shifting feet on the wood planks of the farmhouse porch. It has been over four years since Laura has heard a man’s voice. She finds the sound unsettling. She thinks of Rob. She and Jackie talked about this. What they would do. They had decided what to do. Laura bends, places her hand on the floorboard in the corner behind the door where the rifle is hidden.

 

“Hello?” His voice is louder.

 

Laura hesitates. “Go away.”

 

“Just need something to eat.”

 

“What’re you doing up here?”

 

“Same as you. Same as everybody. Please,” he pauses, coughs, “I saw the house.”

 

“How many others?”

 

“Just me.”

 

She leaves the rifle hidden, opens the door, but keeps the chain latched. He wears a black parka and a knit cap. He’s not much taller than her, but he is thinner. His skull bones are prominent beneath the layers of dirt on his face. “My friend’ll be home from hunting soon,” Laura says.

 

“I’ll leave when you tell me.”

 

She opens the door.

 

“I’m Pat,” he says.

 

She tells him she’s Laura, then locks the door once Pat is inside, in case he isn’t alone. Pat stomps the ice off his boots and bends to untie them, but Laura tells him to leave them on. It is not much warmer inside. It is nearly dark and she has the candles lit, but it is still difficult to see well inside the farmhouse. She leads him through the dining room and kitchen and into the sitting room where she has a fire going under the brick mantle. Pat, she now sees, is unsteady. She helps him into one of the armchairs and wraps a quilt around him, tucking it over his legs and down between the armrest and the cushion.

 

The TV hangs on the wall in the sitting room, which Laura finds comforting. She feels comforted by lots of useless items in the house. The toaster, the cupboard with Blu-rays, the Wi-Fi router on the kitchen counter. She uses the laptop as a tray to eat lunch or as a portable table for writing, the weight pleasant on her lap. Normal life. Jackie had hated everything obsolete, and it was a constant battle for Laura to keep these items, but in the end Laura had gotten her way.

 

Laura leaves the door between the sitting room and the kitchen open. This is something she doesn’t do often because the heat from the fire escapes so quickly. It’s nice, though, to have warmth in the kitchen. She pretends to scrounge, looking for something to feed him. Really, she doesn’t want to show him where she keeps the rest of the food, doesn’t want him to see how much she has and not just the food but the batteries, wine, bullets, clothes and blankets, and shelves lined with tools. Every item a good choice for the deserted island game. As she moves about the kitchen, she keeps her gaze on the armchair. Jackie would never have let this get so far. Jackie had been tough about this sort of thing long before Laura realized there wasn’t much of a choice.

Jackie had been the one to shoot Rob. It was the humane thing to do, Jackie said afterward, and Laura supposed it was. Rob died while they were still camping, still wanderers. There’d been an accident with an axe. The handle splintered, the blade flung off as Rob swung. The result was a nasty slice in his upper thigh. The cut wasn’t deep. The infection was the problem. Days after, the cut oozed. His jeans would stick to the pus and blood and with each step rub and rub and make the thing worse. Finally, they had to stop. Rob couldn’t walk, couldn’t wear his pants. There was only water from the river to clean the wound. It festered. A fever took over his body. He hallucinated, went in and out of consciousness. First, he begged them to kill him, then he began talking to people who weren’t there, begging spirit people to take him. Jackie and Laura watched streaks of red meander from the wound up and down his muscular, pale thigh. Nothing left to do, but watch him die. Laura hunkered down for the long run, talking softly and singing to him, making him comfortable. He was unconscious for two days. On the third, Jackie stripped off his coat, his shoes, pulled him out of the tent by his feet. Laura heard the shot.

Pat looks so small under the quilt. From a plastic tub in the pantry, Laura fills a pot of well water that she carries to the fireplace and boils. She cracks the dried noodles and places them in the water. She pours the spice packet. She stirs. She listens to Pat’s breathing, steady now, and knows he is asleep. A perfect time to take care of things, Jackie would say. But to Laura, Pat’s presence is not unwelcome, though she recognizes the danger. She moves closer to the chair. He stirs slightly, snoring. He is not a bad-looking man, she thinks, and a small part of her wishes to climb onto his lap. His cap is gone, and she notices his hair is black, but his beard is gray and short enough to have been trimmed recently. He is not an old man, as she first thought. She leans closer. She places her index finger on his cheek. He opens his eyes.

“Food.” She ladles soup into a ceramic bowl then pulls the quilt down far enough to free his arms and places the bowl in his hands. Pat gulps at the soup, drinking it all without chewing the noodles.

 

“Where are you from?” she asks.

 

He holds the bowl out and she fills it again. “Where am I from? Or where did I just come from?”

 

“Both I guess.”

 

“From Indiana. But, I just came from the west.”

 

“Where?”

 

“Past the lake. We had a little place. Ran out of food though.”

 

“I thought you were alone.”

 

“Do you see anyone with me?”

 

She straightens her back, the heat of the fire now prickling through her sweatshirt.

 

“It’s just me,” he says. “When’s your friend coming back?”

 

“Anytime now.”

 

“Bit dark out there to be hunting.”

 

“No,” she says as she stands and moves to the doorway, her back to the kitchen. Laura thinks of the lake, and of Jackie. No, Jackie would not have allowed it to get to this point. Pat leans in the chair, nestling his head into the cushion, but Laura knows he watches her as she steps farther into the dark kitchen.

The day Laura met Jackie it rained. They’d both had the idea to follow the train all the way north. Back then, they still wore their own clothes, still had the choice to style themselves. The luxury of choice. Jackie wore jeans, knee-high riding boots, a camel trench coat tied at the waist with a leopard print scarf. Her hair was still dyed blond, not the dirty gray-blond it ended up, and she wore it pulled back in a way that made it impossible to judge the length or to know that, when out of the bun, it fell past her nipples. She had a decorative type of Manhattan backpack, chic-looking, but no good for holding anything more than a spare pair of shoes. And she wore makeup, a retro sixties orange lipstick. Laura had long forgone makeup, hair dye, non-utilitarian accessories. She carried a sleeping bag, a legit hiking pack she stole from REI, boots, wool socks, layers of functional clothing, an anorak. Jackie was gorgeous. Even at the farmhouse, makeup and hair dye gone, she looked like a sailor, the preppy, New England kind, with water-shine eyes and wind-smacked cheeks that made her look wise somehow. Maybe it was her fierceness that made her beautiful, her propensity for living in the wild.

The fire snaps in the sitting room of the farmhouse.

 

“What’s your story?” Pat asks.

 

“I don’t really have one.”

 

“Who were you before?”

 

“An accountant,” Laura says.

 

“Good for you.” He uses his thumbnail to pick at his teeth.

 

“And you were a soldier?” Laura motions to the emblem on the shoulder of his parka.

 

“No,” Pat rubs his hands together. “Found the jacket.”

 

Laura nods. She stares at the parka and she knows he is not alone. Or, at least, it is unlikely. She and Jackie had seen the groups of soldiers, deserters. So many heading north just like them and always in groups, in trucks usually in the early days filled with loud men in body armor. Jackie, especially, didn’t like the soldiers. If they came across a stretch of road with the black parkas, she and Laura hastened their pace or slipped quietly off the road.

Several months after they’d found the farmhouse, Laura and Jackie began to develop certain plans of protection. It had been long enough that they knew no one was returning to the house, and they didn’t intend to leave, as long as they could manage and until supplies ran out. They took the logical precautions, didn’t store the food in one place, always had extra mason jars of water in the cupboards. At night the shades were drawn, doors bolted. They also planned for unlikely, but possible scenarios. What to do in the case of a trespasser, for instance.

Laura stands at the cold stove which is piled with the batteries she was sorting and counting before Pat arrived. She hears Pat coughing from the sitting room on the other side of the kitchen wall. In the center of the stove is one of the candles she made from string and melted Crayons and pieces of leftover wax drippings. It had been Laura’s idea to take inventory. Every Sunday, she and Jackie counted, tracked, planned. How many cans of olives or raviolis or creamed corn divided by how many potential days, months, years? How many ounces of wine could be drunk a day to last what amount of time? How many bullets, batteries, matches could be used? There was no room for foolishness, impulsive spells, or wasted anything. They were aware of all possessions once they decided they would not leave the farmhouse. Aware of the dwindling supply and the reality that most of it could never be replaced. At the stove, Laura runs her hands over the batteries lined around the burners. As subtly as she can, she pushes the batteries together close enough to hide them beneath a dish towel which she places over top.

“Have you heard anything? Any news? What about New York?” Laura asks Pat as she stands a comfortable distance from the armchair in the doorway connecting the sitting room and kitchen. The back kitchen door is close enough if she has to run.

 

Pat laughs, ruffles his shaggy hair. “I take it you haven’t left this place in a while.”

 

“No.”

 

He runs his hand across his head, and in the firelight his eyes are black. “It’s bad out there. That’s all the news I know.”

 

Flashes of her escape six years ago fill her mind. The news the bomb would come. The empty places. The war shelters no one returned from. She pushes the thoughts away. She steps closer to Pat while he speaks though she doesn’t leave the kitchen, doesn’t pass through the sitting room doorway. Standing by the back door of the kitchen in the flicker of the candle, she studies Pat. He is so thin, so weak. Maybe he is telling the truth. And yet, in all these years, four years, not a single person has come to the farmhouse. It is too far from the city, too remote, too difficult to survive here without a decent shelter. She pulls back the blue flowered curtain that covers the window on the top half of the door and scans the flats through the darkness. She sees no distant fire, hears no human voice. Through the glass is nothing but snow and the tops of jagged grasses and in the distance, the dark line of pines.

 

“Where’ve you been sleeping?” she asks.

 

“I have a bag in my pack. Got a tent too.” He tips his head toward the pack. The pack matches his parka.

 

“Military gear?”

 

“Lucky find.” He pulls the quilt high around his shoulders. “You got the right idea coming out here, nice and quiet. Almost feels safe.”

 

“I haven’t had any trouble.”

 

“You and your friend you mean.”

 

“Right.”

 

“What’s his name?”

 

“Tom.”

Jackie had been a psychiatrist before, and this was why Laura found her presence calming. Jackie tended not to want to burden anyone with concerns other than the practical. Except when it came to Tom. They’d both had boyfriends they’d lost touch with in the chaos. Laura hardly ever talked about Charlie, but Jackie wouldn’t shut up about Tom. Tom Ward from Provincetown, a dentist. Laura had an image of him in her mind, though she’d never seen his picture. Jackie refused to consider that Tom was probably dead. Maybe it’s okay back there, she would say, and Laura would reply, Yes, maybe it is. They never talked about their families. That was too much for both of them.

Pat is asleep again. Laura pulls a chair from the dining room and sits in the kitchen by the back door and watches him. Outside, it is snowing. She wraps a wool blanket around her own shoulders. She is uncomfortable in the chair. She is tired, also, but doesn’t sleep. How could she prove he is alone? It is only his word she has to go on, and she doesn’t hold much stake in people’s word. Jackie would have done it before he stepped over the threshold.

Laura wakes in the chair in the kitchen. It is morning. The snow falls and the plains are deeply buried. Through the curtain, she scans for anything unusual. Visibility is limited in the storm. Cold in the kitchen, she pulls the blanket back around her shoulders and moves into the sitting room. She sits in the second armchair beside Pat, who is still asleep. In this room, it is warm. It’s almost as if she can detect the extra heat from Pat, the heat from another being, after so much time alone.

 

His arm rests on the arm of the chair. His hand is strong, worn. She places her hand in his for no reason other than because she wants to touch another person. As if by reflex, he squeezes his hand around hers. She stares at Pat. The stranger. The human. She wonders about this man. Should she be trusting? Jackie would say no. Jackie is dead. Pat may be the last person she sees in a long while. Possibly the last person she sees ever.

When Jackie got sick, they both knew it was bad. For a week, she didn’t move, couldn’t move, from the armchair. Cancer? Food poisoning? Appendicitis? Laura worked through an old encyclopedia in the evenings piecing together Jackie’s symptoms. It was just beginning to get cold. Jackie shook and whimpered. Sweat saturated her clothes. She vomited. Laura helped her change. It was worse those first days because Jackie knew whatever was happening to her body was very wrong, much worse than a flu. Laura spent so much time telling her she was ok. But soon, Jackie only slept and the house was terrible and quiet. Laura was glad Jackie hadn’t asked to be shot like Rob. Laura wouldn’t have been able to do it.

Light begins to inch through the spaces around the curtains. Laura pulls her hand away from Pat’s as he wakes. They share a tin of albacore, something precious, though Laura is willing to sacrifice one tin considering Pat’s gaunt features. She can’t trust him, perhaps. But she knows protein will do him good. He is a human. He deserves to be fed. She boils water in the fireplace. They drink the hot water with a quarter teaspoon each of instant coffee, which is stale and earthy-tasting, but satisfies the ritual.

 

Pat looks somewhat refreshed after a night of sleep indoors, warm and sheltered. Laura offers to wash his clothes. He stays seated while she helps him with his parka, his sweater, the moisture wicking base layer of long underwear which she recognizes as the same brand she used to wear to spin class. He is weak, and it seems a struggle for him to move his body just enough for her to tug and pull and nudge his clothes away. She tries not to look at his body, though her gaze is drawn to the lines of his ribs, his hip bones, he is so thin, sickly thin. Even so, his skin is warm and soft and the feel of it awakens something in her she had long accepted was gone. 

 

The previous owners of the farmhouse had left clothing, though when Laura hands Pat a red flannel shirt and fleece sweatpants, she tells him they are some of her only clothes. She helps him to dress, bundles him beneath the blanket. Today is her wash day anyway. As she is accustomed to no one else, she lives her life rigidly by habits and schedules. She still tracks the days and months roughly, as well as she can, though she sometimes wonders if she might be a few days off. In her world, it is now Monday morning, wash day.

 

She unbolts the kitchen door, scoops the large saucepan full of snow. She melts the snow and boils the water in the fireplace. Once the water is boiling, she lifts the saucepan, carries it to the mudroom behind the kitchen, and pours the water into a plastic storage bin. She adds Pat’s clothes, except the parka. Then, she adds some select items of her own, not wanting to let Pat see how much she has. She stays with the basics, some underwear, a sweatshirt, a couple shirts. To the bin, she adds three drops of dish soap and uses the handle of a broken mop to stir the clothes. The water soils brown.

The summer before Jackie died, they really got the garden going. Spending so much time outside the house had been anxiety provoking in the early days. Laura had worried they might be seen. Jackie had said reward outweighed this risk. They would sacrifice for real food. What they didn’t eat fresh, they dried or boiled and poured into mason jars to store. They hadn’t been able to salvage too many seeds from the old garden, but they were able to grow potatoes, peas, squash. There was lettuce, spinach, some other green they didn’t know, but which tasted spicy, pungent. One tomato plant produced fruit. It was an heirloom variety with misshapen yellow and orange and red bulbs that they ate sliced with salt and the last of the olive oil.

 

Nights were most difficult. They’d exhausted the standard board games and had taken to inventing challenges to pass the evenings. From an oversized atlas, Jackie began memorizing countries. Laura would quiz her, though she didn’t see the point. Laura asked Jackie about this once. Jackie said she couldn’t explain it, just something she’d always wanted to do.

According to Laura's count, two weeks have passed since Pat arrived. The farmhouse has taken on a new air, lighter, cheerful. Pat is stronger. He is able to work, to help. He hums and laughs. He curses when he hits his thumb hammering or pokes himself with a needle as he sews. The farmhouse is more alive. With someone else to clean and care for it, it feels bright, crisp. Pat has washed the windows, fixed a broken board on the front porch. He looks much younger now. Even so, Laura is surprised when he tells her he is only twenty-eight, fifteen years younger than her.

 

By now, her guard is down. She relaxes around him. He has seen the cache of goods the farmhouse offers. He knows about the food, the wine, everything. They have indulged each other in every way one would imagine of two people all alone.

 

Laura is calm, noticeably content. She wonders how she could have gone so long without Pat. She invites him to stay for the winter. Maybe, she thinks, if she is still happy, she will let him stay longer, forever. She thinks he is happy too. He has a boyish energy that ignites the feeling of the house, brings out the good vibes as Jackie would say. He was able to bring a queen bed from upstairs and set it up in the sitting room behind the leather armchairs by the fire. It is wonderful to sleep in a bed again. To sleep beside a man again.

 

At the last snowfall, having completed a satisfying amount of housework, they strap the snowshoes from the shed onto their feet and stumble outside to the icy plains. It is difficult work. Laura sweats and strips off her fleece pullover, ties it around her waist. They walk a loop around the clearing, returning to the farmhouse in the twilight. Laura flops onto the snow, burning with heat and exhaustion. Pat pulls her to her feet, kisses the space below her ear.

Jackie was a swimmer in college. A competitive diver. She felt connected to the water, she said. Relished the silence below the surface. Said she felt a hit in her soul at the farmhouse, landlocked, knowing the lake was somewhere close, but much too dangerous to visit again. The only time Laura saw Jackie cry it was because she said she couldn’t imagine never seeing the sea again. Laura thought of a deserted island. The rubber raft she would have brought. Laura wished they could go to the lake, but people are drawn to water. And, in a time when Jackie and Laura needed to practice avoidance for survival, a body of water was not the prudent place to be.

Pat doesn't like to talk about the past. That's what he says when Laura asks. Fine, she thinks, knowing those details won't change anything now. Instead of talking, he takes her chin gently in the space of the circle of his thumb and index finger. He doesn't talk much, and his presence feels more powerful in silence. She feels like she is underwater with Pat. Below the surface in a good way. There is only the two of them and silence.

One afternoon a month after Jackie died, Laura dug through the magazine pile they’d been using to get the fire going. She found two magazines—Vanity Fair—old even at that time. Flipping through the glossy pages was rough. But it was a cathartic sort of pain. From the pages, she cut out the people with the kitchen scissors from the wood knife block. Laura taped them to the television, the jewel-toned silhouettes set off by the dust-covered black screen. She sat in the armchair. She drank straight from a bottle of rosé. She watched the cutout people.

Laura wakes. It is late, snowing. The fire dwindles beneath the mantle. She has fallen asleep in one of the armchairs. Her blanket is heaped on the tile at her feet. She is so cold. Pat isn’t in the armchair where he was. She sits up, turns around. He is not in bed. She rises, slides her socked feet across the floor to the kitchen, presses her back to the door which feels freezing through her clothes. The candle on the stove has gone out.

 

“Pat,” she whispers. She is uneasy, aware.

 

No reply.

 

She pushes herself off the door with her fingertips and makes her way, slowly, through the dark kitchen and into the front room of the farmhouse. The wood floor pops as she walks, but she is used to this sound. How stupid to let it get this far. She feels along the wall and up around the corner of the front room and into the long hallway that leads both upstairs and down.

They'd gone to the lake once, she and Jackie, the only time they went so far from the house. They knew of the lake because they’d seen it shortly before they found the farmhouse. Laura didn't believe in leaving the farmhouse, not that much distance at least. It was such a risk, the house open for someone else to claim. It was the first summer when the heat was all encompassing. Jackie said she was going to swim and if Laura didn't want to come that was her choice. Laura followed. They weren’t sure how far the lake was, since it had been so long since they’d passed it, and when they’d seen the lake for the first time, they didn't know they were headed in the direction of the farmhouse. They knew the path though, the old highway, and they followed it with towels and water and wine packed in a reusable grocery tote.

There he is, Pat, standing outside the cellar door and he sees her too. He turns, but there is nowhere to go because she blocks the hall and she sees what he carries. He is dressed to leave in his boots, parka, hat. In his gloved hands he holds a case of bullets, and looped around his arm, the pack he came in with is now bulging.

 

“What’re you doing?” she says, though she knows what’s happening. As she speaks, she edges closer to him, reaches toward his pack. Before she can grasp it, he drops the case of bullets which spill over the floor, and he grabs her, clasps her wrist.

 

“Little bitch,” Laura says as she tries to pull her arm away, but he is stronger. He squeezes tighter for an instant, then drops her arm.

 

He pushes past Laura, still holding his pack. He bends to scoop a handful of bullets. Behind him, she grasps at the pack, but he moves too fast and thrashes his elbow at her. She curses him. “I saved your life,” she screams, but he doesn’t turn around. The door is thrust open and the knob thuds, leaves a dent in the drywall. He steps onto the porch. He pulls the hood of his parka over top his wool cap. He turns, walks down the front steps, down the stone path, leaving deep tracks in the snow. She knows that if he is alone, he would not dare leave tonight, not in the dark and the snow. She cannot let him lead them, soldier or anyone, to the farmhouse. If they are watching, crouching beyond somewhere in the darkness, she must send a message. Laura watches until his silhouette begins to blend with the dark pines. She reaches behind the door for the only item she’d kept secret from Pat.

 

While his body is still close enough, she rips the loose floorboard from the hidden compartment. She raises the rifle. She steps onto the snow-covered porch. The screen door shutters closed behind her. Pat continues into the darkness. Jackie would have done it weeks ago. Laura is not Jackie. She stands on the porch until Pat’s outline disappears in the trees. Perhaps he will return. Perhaps not alone, to take it all. To take the house. Laura stands on the porch. Jackie would stay. Laura knows it is time to move on.

Jackie and Laura had walked for hours down the hot, asphalt highway before they’d seen an edge of silver through the pine forest. After so long in the farmhouse, so long on the road, after so much concentration on living and dying, the lake appeared before them as relief. So large was the lake that, standing on the incline of the road above the water, it reminded Laura of the sea. She watched Jackie in front, hands on hips, wind blowing enough that Jackie’s hair whipped about. Jackie would have been a good sailor, Laura thought. Maybe in another lifetime. She could face the depths, the evil, the power of the tide, the crush of it, the weight of the water. They threw their bundles on the stones of the shore. Stripped away their layers, clothing, shoes, ball caps. The scent was of dust and pine and of the heat rising from dry rocks in the afternoon sun. The water was cold, glacial. Laura felt as though her body was wrapped in water. As if she were safe.  

 

 

Power Morton is an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University where she reads fiction for Willow Springs. She lives and writes in Spokane, Washington. 

 

 

 

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