by Morgan Pile
There was only one package store in that town. To get there, you had to drive past the old mill to the baseball fields, then out to the far side of the main drag. Then there was the parking. Sadie didn't know yet how to parallel park. She had to drive almost half a mile to where they had slotted spaces on the far side of the town and walk back all that way. It had cost her a few crucial minutes, that walk, and set her in line behind a couple dozen aggravated fishermen, fresh from another useless day trawling cod.
These were grown men, some her father’s age. They were hooting and hollering out on the street, first about catch limits, then about the wait for liquor. They wouldn't have known her father but they would have known the law for minor-in-possession. Sadie, young looking as she was, kept her head down. The wait was substantial. There was no denying. On a regular night customers were in and out. Got what they needed and were on the way. It was not a place for surveying the merchandise, for making decisions.
Issue #63 soundtrack: Swaying Wires "Blinding Nights"
Only when the line moved enough to let Sadie in the door did she see the problem. There was a new kid behind the counter, a boy, fresh faced and earnest, unfamiliar with the ropes. This was bad news for Sadie. Ray Stevenson, the old kid, didn't ask any questions. After a while, he memorized her order. He stopped charging her, stopped saying a thing. She kept a shoe box of the cash he hadn't taken from her deep in her closet, hidden away. But he was a bad seed, Ray, always getting suspended or arrested, always missing from school. This new one looked like he might be the kind to turn her away, or call the cops in himself.
Poor kid, though. The fishermen were doing their part to break him in. They ordered up cases of Narragansett and Heineken from the cellar. Magnums of cheap wine from the floor. Liters of vodka, scotch, gin from the shelves. He was chopping up and down the stairs to keep up, dumping one case and turning right back around. For the liquor, he used a ladder, listening to the old men shout orders as he hung there, shepherding down a single bottle, climbing up again for another. They got what they wanted, the men. And they paid and they left. And by the time Sadie stepped up to order, the boy’s face had grown pale, his thin arms were shaking. He looked at her an extra moment, perhaps, making an imperceptible decision behind his eyes but he didn’t utter a word. He went back to the ladder.
Sadie returned to the car and before long was on the road heading in the direction of home. Then about a quarter mile past the creek she was no longer alone. What she saw were two metallic strips reflecting off her high beams from the side of the road. They grew bigger until she was close enough to understand what they were, and when she did, she pulled off slowly and parked in front of them. The light from her headlights blinded Ray. When he got into the passenger seat, he looked right at Sadie, but didn’t see her right away because his eyes were adjusting. Sadie smiled quickly, waiting for him, and after a moment, he jumped in his seat. Then he looked at his hands and the both of them laughed.
"I thought you were a stranger,'" he said.
He reached over and grabbed her arm and held onto it for a moment. He smelled like smoke and gasoline.
"Where you trying to go?" Sadie asked.
"North Woods," he told her. “Far east entry.”
“Out past the graveyard?”
“If it’s too far, walking was fine, really. I was gonna walk.”
But by then Sadie had already looked in both directions, pulled out onto the empty road and was working up to speed.
“Just let me stop quick by the house,” she told him, and Ray nodded several times for an answer, tapping flattened hands on his knees.
“So, that’s a delivery,” he said. “I figured.” He was referring to the bottle, peeking out of brown paper in the holder. “What is Woodford, Old Crow?” He twisted it around to the label.
“Just gotta be corn these days,” Sadie told him. “Doesn’t matter the make.”
They were quiet again until they pulled up to the house.
“I’m gonna get to meet him?” Ray said. He was excited.
He looked at her.
“No one comes in,” she told him and she took the bottle and shut the door behind her. She didn’t know what to expect when she entered the house. She never did. That was the main thing about it. This time she found nothing there but a dinner plate full of ashes, and a human-shaped cavity on the family room sofa. She called it the family room sofa but it was her father’s sofa; he was always just sitting there, even when he wasn’t.
She stood in the entryway, waiting for something, a sound or movement, a hint of life. It finally came with a single tear of her father’s earthshaking, lumberman snore. Rarely did her father make it up the stairs—that was one thing Sadie could count on. But there he was, tearing through the floorboards. It was almost like he was giving some kind of permission. Almost like he was saying, Go out in the world. Do something, for once, with the night. She returned to the car with a new, if dubious, optimism, and the whiskey.
“He didn’t want it after all that?”
Sadie shrugged and handed him the bottle, which he opened immediately and poured vertically into his mouth like a water bottle. Then he handed it to Sadie. She took a small sip and handed it back. They traded it back and forth that way, Sadie taking shy sips, barely stinging her tongue, Ray swallowing whole mouthfuls at a time. They headed the opposite way out the driveway and down the main road, then far out past the baseball fields, past the old mill, past the abandoned factory, past the corn fields, and then finally, towards the Indian graveyard.
“Anyone know where you are?” Sadie said when they were halfway out. “Your parents?” She concentrated on the road, listening for his answer, regretting the question immediately. Ray let out a heavy laugh.
“There was a new kid at the store today,” she said. She was trying to recover her confidence. “A young kid. Isn't that your shift?”
He didn't say anything. When Sadie looked over he had his lips wrapped around the bottle.
When she looked again he let the bottle drop to the passenger floor. He let the last of it spill out around his feet. He didn't reach for it. Sadie tried to see his face but he had his forehead planted against the window and seemed to be shielding his eyes. What was he shielding them from? There was no brightness. Sadie pulled over to the roadside. They had been traveling east along the border of the forest.
“What is it?” she said.
Ray grabbed the handle and opened the door. He fell out first on his knees then his hands, then stayed that way. From a distance he could have been an injured animal run off from the road. He emptied his stomach there, sometimes helping himself with a finger, sometimes letting it come on its own. It went on for longer than Sadie expected, though she was no stranger to it. And during that time she tried to imagine herself somewhere else. She tried to remember pictures of the tropics or great cities. But she had no emotion for those places and quickly understood the only place she wanted to be was actually where she was. Where she was, but moments before the retching had begun and perhaps moments after when it stopped. There is no underestimating what this did to her, this realization.
Finally, Ray had collected himself. He had used clean grass to wipe his face and was looking at her now, smiling with all his teeth as if to show her they were clean. Sadie smiled back. She didn't have to fake it. Again she turned the key in the ignition and they were on their way. “That’s good stuff,” he said when they were on the road. Sadie laughed. Ray laughed, too. Sadie shook her head. There was nothing that could happen now that would make her stop feeling how she had begun to feel. It had suddenly occurred to her what this was. This was an adventure. It was an adventure with Ray. She looked over at him and he was already looking at her as if he read her thoughts and was agreeing. This is great, isn't it? he was saying. It didn't matter where they were going. For Ray, too. It didn't matter. She was sure of it.
She decided right then that, as long as he said nothing, the plan—the real plan-- was to keep driving, past the graveyard and the woods and straight on past the state line. And she would do it, too. She would drive until they ran out of money for gas, and then they would figure out a way and keep going. She was ecstatic with the possibility. She was ecstatic for a full quarter of an hour, until Ray grabbed her, in the same spot on her arm as he had before, but with a tighter grip, much tighter. He began to say something. It was the same thing over and over. Sadie knew that, only she couldn't make out what it was, not with his hand like that on her arm. She had to look at his lips to understand. “Here,” he was saying. “Here. Here.”
She pulled over to the side of the road and Ray got out immediately. He was walking, almost running towards a metal gate about a hundred yards from where they’d parked. Sadie got out and called after. He turned around where he was, smiling like someone had told a joke. But she knew very plainly he was happy about something else.
"I found a place," he yelled.
She waited. She was registering everything late now. "What kind of place--a house?" she said.
"No. But just as good,” he told her. “Better."
He had a wild look about him, a look she had seen before, and it scared her. But he was waiting for her so she followed. She followed after him straight over the fence and into the backwoods. He led a path through the laid-down branches and bramble bushes. Several times the bushes cut little triangles out of her legs and always when she stopped to push them aside she could hear Ray’s heavy breathing. But he never faltered and he never looked back. And they kept on like that for an impossibly long time. Several times a small fear lit up in the center of Sadie’s chest. But she pressed forward, trying the best she could to avoid the brambles, to place her feet where Ray’s had landed.
When Ray finally stopped Sadie wondered if he had forgotten she was trailing behind. But then he moved a branch aside for her and walked beside her a few feet, before crouching. Sadie bent down next to him and saw what he was looking at: a patch of earth, cleared out into perfect circle. She put her hands on the dirt and felt it in her fingers. Something beneath it was hard and smooth.
"I know what this is," she said aloud. By then Ray had been bent over his backpack, searching for something. “How did you find it?”
"I was hunting back here, following a deer,” he said.
“I recognize it from that picture.”
“In the Gazette. I did, too.”
From his backpack Ray had extracted a crowbar. He shoved the pointed end beneath an edge with the heel of his foot. Sadie closed her eyes for a long time and when she opened them, Ray was yelling from inside the hole. She walked over to the edge and peered down and saw only the top of his head, lit up in the circle of light from the stars and moon.
"There’s a ladder," he said. And as she lowered herself his hand slid up her back and guided it down. The last rung was a few feet off the ground, so she jumped. She stood up next to him. He was looking at where his flashlight was shining and then went straight left as if he saw something move. Sadie grabbed a handful of his shirt and let him pull her slowly deeper into the dark. His light made a narrow beam of dust and Sadie tried to find the walls at the end of it, but it just ended in midair, like it had given up.
"This is like scuba diving," Sadie whispered.
"Like you’ve been scuba diving," Ray said.
"But it’s what it would be like, right? Down looking really deep in the ocean?"
He didn’t say anything. His shirt slipped out of Sadie’s hands, and he walked away with his light facing down on the floor. Then everything went white with a light that might as well have been the sun itself, how it blinded her. She had to squint for a good thirty seconds before she could make out Ray standing right in front of her, next to a lamp. She saw that he had followed the cord from the center of the room, where she was standing, inches away from a power strip. Streaming out of the strip were cords in every direction, leading to a desk lamp in the far corner, a television in the middle of the far wall, and a refrigerator and a wash basin beyond that. Built around the appliances were earthen walls enforced by wooden beams, just like the kind you’d see in any other apartment—any other she had imagined.
Sadie walked over to the couch, sat down and dust rose up around her. Ray was kneeling in front of the bookshelf.
"Birds of Southern Maine," he was saying. "Winter Hunting Survival Guide. A Bridge to Terabithia."
He pulled out the last one and held it open. Sadie scanned the room once more. Bookshelf, desk kitchen, TV, couch, table. She wondered aloud where he slept. Ray put the book back and was quiet. Then he found a crack on the wall, walked over and traced his fingers all around it. It made a large rectangle. Inside, the shape was not earth and not wood. It was something else—something metal. Ray burst into laughter. He stepped back in amazement.
When he asked for the crowbar, now nestled between his shoulders, sticking out from his bag, she steadied her hand against her nerves and retrieved it with one quick jerk, narrowly avoiding the back of his skull. Ray took it, slipped into the crack and angled it like he had the manhole cover, but unlike with the manhole cover, he could not find a proper lip and the crowbar slid out quickly, marking the wall.
"Damnit," he said loudly, before trying again. His knuckles were whitened with the strain. He did it a third time, then a fourth. Then he gave up and looked at Sadie as if he was surprised to see her, or if he didn’t know her at all. A terrible, familiar expression.
"We'll come back tomorrow,” she said, fearful now. “You can sleep at my house."
Ray looked at her again. He looked miserable. For several seconds she thought he might cry. Nothing about him suggested that that he would take her by hand across the room, lift her up the ladder, lead her through the thick bush forest and accompany her on the long ride home. But that’s what he did.
And by the time they reached the car, her fear had all but vanished. They drove with the windows rolled down and the volume up high and she sang to herself each lyric she knew and she knew them all. When they got to her house, entering through the basement door, Sadie went immediately to check on the couch. It was just as she left it. And with that realization, a hopefulness came over her. She joined Ray in the kitchen and told him to wait.
She went up to her room, pulled the quilt off her bed and then the sheets. Then she folded the sheets on top of the quilt and laid two pillows on top. Then she carried the stack down the stairs the back way into the living room. Then she stopped. It was the snoring that stopped her. How had she not heard it when she first walked in? It was louder, more terrifying than before.
It was then that it hit her, sharp in the stomach, like she already knew. She put the bedding down slowly, perfectly and walked back into the kitchen. She walked around the empty room several times, glancing into all the dark corners as if he would suddenly appear once again, just like he had on the road, just when she was most alone. Then she went into the basement, and over to the basement door. Then she was outside in the walkway. Then she walked out into the woods and that’s where she stood, looking towards the driveway, looking towards the trees, looking towards the road for a flashlight, for a headlight, for a clue.
Morgan Pile is an MFA student of Fiction at the New School in New York. She lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Tumblr.
Ted Adrien Closson grew up in Maine and now works out of Kenmore, WA. He holds an MFA in painting from the University of Houston, School of Art. His visual and written works address the interplay between culture and narrative and the capacity for leverage they express upon each other. His work has been featured at the Kate Chappell Center for Book Arts in Maine, The Joanna in Houston, Texas, as well as curated online at IllustrationServed.com. His most recent project is a graphic novel titled The Lorica. For more, visit him online at cleopatragraphics.com.
Swaying Wires is an unsigned band from Turku, Finland. It started as a one woman-project of Tina Kärkinen but developed into a full-grown band in 2010, with members Sami Lehtonen, Nicklas Hägen, and Jussi Virkkumaa. The band is currently recording songs for its first full-length album. For more, visit swayingwiresband.com.