I used to make a living out of being a good listener. Then, two years ago I lost a child; we agreed it was my fault, Avery and I, and though we never filed for divorce, I haven’t spoken to her in just as long. Tiny Thaya, when she went, was like a collapsed star, tearing a hole into the fabric of who we’d been. We spun apart quickly after and got tossed into new worlds, me in Onyx, her who-knows-where.
God used to live deep in this forest, they told me early on. She was the very first tree to reach up out of the silt and when she found the sky, she whispered through her roots and told all the other trees where to look. Whether we were jealous or thirsty for fire, who knows, but we cut her down, strapped her to the bed of a fifth wheel and brought her here to this very mill to be processed. “Why else you think your house groans at night?” said the saw man who’d trained me, edges of a bitter smile disappearing under the red foliage of his beard.
I didn’t believe him but I found myself, each night, lingering on the edge of a sleep into which I would not fall, listening for her.
I took a walk today during my lunch break to make a call, the one that would mend things between Avery and I. Such a call deserved the perfect place. I pictured a clearing with grand light and the kind of air that made breathing easy. I gripped the phone in my pocket. What was it I’d wanted to say? I couldn’t remember. Something to stitch warmth over an absence. I thought and thought and so kept looking and looking.
It must have been a while later when I found myself on a road arched by trees so thick that the sound of my boots crunching in the chipped stone echoed. The sun came down in spires and speckled the ground and caught shape in the tufts of dust I kicked up as I walked. That road seemed to stretch on and on, seemed longer and straighter than any road had a right to be, but then again maybe roads liked to run free in these parts. It felt good to float. Maybe it was better to call her later in the day, anyway.
I came to a crossing and found it was marked by a dilapidated house, huddling back from the road in the shadows. It had once been white but was now faded and cracked as if the vines that grew up its sides were trying to pull it into the ground. The air surrounding the place was so thick that I slowed. As my eyes adjusted, I took in the crooked mouth of a garage. Rusted tin signs hung on the walls inside and caught a yellow marrow lamplight. A man the color of grease and tree moss was bent over the engine block of a banged up blue two-door. I heard faintly the sound of metal ratchet and smokers lung.
“You been walkin’ a while?” came a voice from the porch as a shape I thought part of the home slid a shotgun off his lap, unfolded and stood. I grew rooted to the spot.
“Probably, yeah.” I said. “This your place?”
“Sure is. Me and my brother lived here all our lives.” The man stepped to the bannister and laid his shotgun flat on the weathered wood. His knuckles were raw, torn.
Dry leaves crunched and I turned my head to see this brother walking toward us from the garage. From one of his arms dangled an ugly metal tool, like a monkey wrench with a barbed bike gear for a tail. It clinked as he drew closer and the back of my neck tingled when I saw his face. It was gray and hairless, indistinct as if moulded by fists. Below the nose was a gash, from the corner of which hung a smoldering cigarette. When he spoke, the mouth hardly moved.
“Got any matches?” He asked.
“I’m- no. Sorry, I don’t smoke.” I said.
“Well, what you got then?” The man on the porch sauntered down the steps to join his brother. He had a greasy mane and carried himself with a certain propriety, as if he saw kings in the roots of his family tree.
“See this crossing? Any piece of road touchin’ it is our property, our charge. And in return for that stewardship, we receive a toll from any and all passersby.” Said the man.
“Gonna need somethin’ from you, boy.” Said the brother.
I wanted to turn and run but instead I patted my pockets and realized I’d left my wallet in a locker at the mill. “All’s I have is a phone, but I need that.”
“Whatchu’ need a phone for all the way out here?” the brother said, smoke curling out of his nostrils. He lit a fresh cigarette off the one in the crook of his mouth.
“I’ll just turn around and head back,” I said, ”it’s no problem.”
“Now, what makes you think we’re gonna let our road take you where you wanna go when you ain’t paid for the service?” The man let pass the wisp of a smile and set his jaw.
I knew better than to believe him, but still I looked down the length of that impossibly straight road. In all those hours of walking, why hadn’t the angle of the light changed? I pulled the phone out of my pocket.
The brother reached out a hand stained by grease and tobacco and what was either rust or blood. He’d be the reason she didn’t hear my voice, I thought, and felt my face get hot. I tossed the phone at his feet and when I looked at him I felt an electric hum in the air, throbbing as if it came from my inner ear. His gear arm flinched and the gash in his face curled yet higher. Then he did something that shook my footing. He opened wide that maw of his and with a flick of his neck popped the cigarette into his mouth and began to chew. Before the ember extinguished, I saw inside his mouth not rows of teeth but two stone gears, one on each side. A single spark escaped and floated to the ground.
The man put a hand on the brother’s shoulder before bending at the knee and scooping up the phone from where it rested in a bed of dead leaves. He turned it over in his hands and held it up to a strand of light.
“Ain’t got no use for one of these. My brother here may get a kick outta’ taking it apart, though. He likes that, taking things apart.”
“It’s the only thing I have, so,” I stuttered, unable to wipe away the image of the gears. “So, if we’re done here, I’d like to go.”
When the brother spoke his lips moved, just barely. “You got plenty to give, just can’t see it yet. Why don’t I pop the hood, take a look at the engine?”
“Tell you what,” said the man as he stepped between us. “We have a job needs doing. See, our boy, he’s run off in these woods somewhere. He’s a red boy, a youngster, and he’s very likely a little sore at us.”
“Tried to take the car.” The brother lit another cigarette.
“This here’s where he belongs. Maybe you’d be inclined to help find the boy, bring the boy back, then go along your lovely way.” Said the man.
All I wanted was to turn and walk away from the man who chewed live cigarettes with the gears in his head. “Okay,” I nodded, “I’ll find him.”
“Glad to hear you say so. Word of warnin’, now. I wouldn’t tread too far off this road. There’s things in them woods.”
With that, the man turned back to the porch. The brother didn’t move, just stretched his mouth into a smile so big the corners of his mouth touched his eyes.
I walked for a while before I could see anything but that face. Eventually, I realized I was still on the dirt road, with its tunnel of trees, the orphaned spires of light, the tufts of dust. I began to feel as though I could once more float when suddenly I heard from up ahead a thwacking sound. I kept walking toward it. No fiber in me would consent to turning back, though the sound came from somewhere deeper in the woods. I stepped over a ditch where the carcass of a young doe lie, picked clean from the neck up.
Among the trees, the air felt clean and unburdened. Sunlight billowed down in great curtains through a canopy of birdsong as the sharp musk of newness and decay flooded my nostrils. I picked a careful path and crouched low as I drew nearer the thudding noise.
As I rounded one of the thick trunks, I saw the boy. He had freckles and red hair, looked small wearing a filthy, oversized tee shirt. He held in one hand a rough hewn branch and stood swinging it like a sword into a tree’s midriff. As soon as he saw me, he turned, coiled.
“It’s okay.” I showed the boy my hands and stepped slowly forward.
Dirt, dried blood and old tears tears mingled on his cheeks. A purple welt popped out beneath his left eye like he’d shoved a grape downward through the socket. His lips were split and a cut above his eye looked infected.
We stood there for a moment as his breathing slowed.
“Who are you?” the boy then said, evenly.
“Archie. What’s your name?”
“You ain’t supposed to be here. Even I know that.”
“It okay if I sit?”
The boy nodded and as I sat he lowered his weapon.
“What you fighting?” I asked, nodding toward the tree.
“Wasn’t fighting. I’m practicing.”
I could tell his jaw hurt by the way he chewed his words, like they were shards of glass. His left arm hung limply at his side.
“Those men beat you?”
“They ain’t no men.” Said the boy.
“No, I guess not.”
I flinched as a blackbird erupted from the branches above us. The boy stood still.
“They want me to bring you back.” I said.
“You should know, I’m dangerous.”
“I see that.”
The boy stepped closer and leaned into his stick as he lowered himself painfully onto the ground next to me.
“Good to meet you.” I said. “Heard you tried to steal a car.”
“Well, yeah.” Barney picked at a scab on his knee.
“No offense, little man, but that doesn’t sound all that smart.”
He looked up at me. “You ever been in love?”
“Sure.” I said.
“Well, my love’s name is Jolene,” Barney said, “and she’s got it worse than I do. Gotta get her outta there.”
“Where’s there?” I asked.
“Damp place where there ain’t no light. Jolene’s mama and her auntie don’t even let her out to play no more.” He rubbed his chest.
“Any chance they have a phone?”
“Probably. You don’t wanna go at ‘em, though. Trust me.”
“How bad can they be?”
Barney shook his head. “They’ll eat you.”
“And you still gave it a shot.” I said.
“They’re too fast for feet. S’why I took the car.”
He told me that if I hadn’t yet heard of the sisters, it’d be best to let them lie. He stood and turned back to the tree. With his good arm he resumed his thwacking and I could feel the force of his swing in my feet as I stood and dusted off my pants. I supposed I’d keep walking.
“Can you drive?” Barney asked.
“Sure, I can drive.”
“Help me take the car?”
An answer jumped out of me before I could grab its ankle and for the first time since meeting him, Barney grinned. Three of his teeth were shattered but it was a beautiful sight.
“You should find a good stick, just in case.” Barney said and it was my turn to smile.
As the sun found its hiding spot, he led us carefully through the forest, stopping at times to listen. Insects buzzed in little storm systems and crept along the trees and forest floor.
When we reached the house, with those idle vines pulling it into oblivion, the man with sheen of destitute nobility sat upon his rocking chair. From our thicket I could not see his eyes, but the shotgun still lay across his lap. The brother with the gears in his head was no longer in the garage, but the beat up blue two-door loomed there like a storm.
As we crouched there in the underbrush, waiting for moonrise, I thought of Thaya. Thaya had been three months old when she died. I could still see the cool purple of her skin, how the vomit clung to those little round cheeks. Avery had been out with her friends for the first time in so long and I thought I’d just shut my eyes for a moment or two. What bothered me most was that no fatherly instinct had woken me. Had she cried out before she choked? Instead it was Avery’s key in the lock that roused me. She’d crept toward the couch, kissed me. There was beer on her breath and she was warm. Both of us felt the silence at the same time.
The man had gone inside and a sharp blue hue ebbed out from behind the curtains in the porch windows. I picked up my stick and without a word we both stood and started across the chipped, dusty road. I tried to run and keep my boots from touching the ground. We stopped behind a tree in the yard and listened. The night sounds of the forest, the crickets, the flicker of leaves in a breeze, all of it was silenced.
When Barney looked at me, the moonlight caught his eyes. I saw no fear there in that welted, bloody face and felt embarrassed that it was all I felt. Then a sharp thought lunged at the stillness. It would be fair for the brothers to split me open.
“You have keys?” I asked.
The boy shoved two fingers into one of his shoes. I hadn’t before noticed how old they looked, all oiled leather and polished brass. He pressed a shard of wood into my palm.
“I carved this. Be careful when you start it. That breaks, we’re two goners for sure.”
I squeezed the key tightly. It was still warm.
Before I could say anything else, he started toward the dark garage. He crouched low, both arms now dangling near the ground as he stepped carefully through the dead leaves and weeds. An odd smile crept across my face as I followed and stole a glance at the flickering blue hue in the windows. They were more likely administering shock therapy to the innocents of the forest than watching television. It went away as soon as I neared the blackened garage and saw the crinkled coke can of a car that made me think of nothing but the brother with the gears in his head who liked to take things apart.
The boy approached the passenger side of the car and as he did, an electric hum came as if from inside my own head and the marrow yellow lights of the garage flickered up. After that, things happened very quickly.
I sprinted around to the driver’s side and the boy tried wrenching open the passenger door with his good arm. It wouldn’t budge. My door opened and I sat in the driver’s seat as the boy swung his stick into the window. It bounced off and I somehow managed to find both the clutch and the gas and turn the wooden key without breaking it. With the boy’s third stroke the window spidered and he knocked out the glass with his stick and squirmed inside. I was concentrating hard on releasing the clutch and pressing the gas when out of the corner of my eye I saw a terrible kind of movement. It was the brother, bounding in wide, inhuman strides toward the car, swinging his gear wrench like a mace.
The car stalled. I turned the key again. The engine fired up but this time the key snapped off in my hand. The brother closed in on us and I swear I could hear grinding stone as he swung his ugly whip at the tires. The boy jutted his stick out of the window and caught the thing in its chest. The wood snapped on impact but changed the swing’s path, flinging metal into garage floor, shattering the cement.
I jammed the car into reverse. As we passed the brother, his second swing came down in an arc across the windshield. Glass exploded into the cab and sliced into my eye. I kept my foot on the gas and swung onto the road.
As we got moving along the moonlit single track, I could feel warm blood running down my cheek. I tried the rearview, saw glistening black on my face and a dark figure in the roadway behind us. When I looked to the boy, a blankness in his face told me I’d lost the eye. I felt myself getting lightheaded, could taste pain on the tip of my tongue as the road shuddered beneath us. Our headlights caught dust and trees and everything began to blur and wobble for me.
“Here.” the boy had taken off his shirt. He tore off a long piece and wrapped it around my head. I looked forward and tried to keep us out of the ditch. “Next right you see, take it.”
I felt the cloth go from dry to wet but the pressure felt good and soon enough a small clearing in the trees appeared and I turned the wheel.
The road grew narrow, winding. Around the second or third switchback, I began to lose consciousness. I couldn’t tell if the moon disappeared or if the darkness was simply the back of an eyelid, but the car continued to rumble down the rocky lane and my arms continued to turn the wheel until we stopped.
My view flickered then, cutting in and out like a film projector losing speed. I could see flashlights, two of them. Thick beams cut into the inky night, grazed the tree trunks and spilled onto the crooked shadows that held them. The images and impressions of the world around me then began to spin away into darkness.
I remember the boy climbing over me to get out of the car, remember his knee digging into my thigh; how bad it hurt and how I didn’t move.
Time dripped away.
“Come on, let’s get outta here. Jolene’s gone and run away already. Archie wake up! Archie!” The boy’s voice came as if from the other end of a long hallway. “Thank you.”
I woke sometime later to a ragged ceiling and the smell of fresh kindling. Wartime crooning came with clicks and pops from a record player somewhere deeper in the house. I reached up to my blind eye and felt a fresh, thick bandage.
“Look, he’s up-up!” a burp punctured the woman’s words.
“Excuse you, May!”
“At least it wasn’t comin’ outta the South!” May said.
I turned my head in time to see two women with coke-bottle glasses and silver perms lean into each other and laugh. They sat on a floral couch against a floral wall and each gripped a can of domestic.
“Like that makes a difference,” the woman who wasn’t May looked at me, eyes big as kiddie pools. “Darlin’, you can be honest with her if her breath smells like a horse’s ass.”
“Oh, fuck you, June.”
“Now why would I do a dumb thing like that when there’s a handsome man sittin’ right here?”
They both laughed again and leaned into each other and swigged their beer.
May wiped the tears from her eyes. “Sorry for the ruckus. I’m sure you’re dead tired but it’s just we haven’t had a visitor around these parts for some time.”
I tried to speak but the words got stuck in my throat.
“Guess it makes sense why she left, huh?” said June. “Oh, let’s not talk about Jolene.” May seemed to finish her beer more out of punctuation than thirst.
“What’s your name, darlin’?” Asked June.
“Archie. Thanks for…” I tried to sit up but the pain in my head screamed and sent me back to the pillow.
“Easy, now. No need to get ambitious.” May stood and left the room.
“Can I have some water?” I asked.
“May, get ‘im one too!” June looked at me again with those dinner plate eyes and winked. “It’s a light so it counts as a hydratin’ substance.”
May came back into the room. One of the beers had a long plastic straw sticking out.
“Oughta help with the head.” Said May.
“And her looks.” June quipped and curled up, braced for a smack.
“This one likes to play but she knows who used to eat ‘em up alive back in the day,” May said to the room more than its occupants.
I held the beer and looked at it with my good eye as the record spun away in another room. A woman sang in a voice of tin and velvet, said she’d be okay walking alone, until she found her darling.
“You know, I’m actually feeling pretty good. Think I could drive that old wreck outta here.”
“Oh that thing? She’s plumb outta gas.”
The song ended. Suds popped in my can. “I hate to ask- and thank you, for all the care, but if you have a car, could you give me a ride up the road?”
“What’s so important you gotta give up this good rest and company?” May asked.
I told them I needed to get my phone back from the man and his brother.
“They’re not the giving back type.” said June.
“You know them?” I asked.
“Forest ain’t that small. Who else you think took away all our light?” said May.
“Don’t you worry, darlin’. We got a phone here you can use. You know the number?”
I looked at June and felt the quiet in the eye of a storm. I nodded slowly.
When she came back into the room and handed me an old, pink rotary phone, I spun the number I’d never forget and waited for the dial to spin back each time. It had been a long time since I called Avery.
In the space between rings, sea sucked back across a reef. I held you, my hungry little monster, burning in my arms. Your mother never did pick up new numbers so I sang to you, our song, the one we’d sing as you drifted into dreams. It was time to let you go.
I don’t know when the woman took the phone from me but my face was wet. Seven hundred nights of sleep crashed in on me at once. I floated there amongst the gauze and floral print, smelling beer and the first smoke of a fresh fire. The wood crackled and I opened my good eye.
“Rest now, darling. It’s alright to rest.” June looked down at me with her giant, boozy orbs and smiled sweetly. I let my eye slip closed and again felt the sea inside swell around me. As I drifted then into starless sleep, no tiny voice screamed out. I thought of daybreak. A young boy and young girl, finding one another in a field.