The three of us would have liked to leave, but the house held us there as captives, as guardians of the square corner of dirt in the backyard, which turned with the seasons from muddied snow to green and yellow specked with dandelions to blistered red and eventually an even brown of burnt grass.
For Nelson and me, it was easier and perhaps even comfortable to be here. After drunkenly smashing a window and breaking into town council member Riley Memphis' house, and becoming thence a felon, Nelson didn't feel like he had many choices left. A certified pilot, he was now stuck busing tables at restaurants, groaning at the meager tips from Armani-suited men and diamond-adorned ladies. Nobody believed he'd been intoxicated enough to confuse the councilman's freshly painted picket-fenced house for his own oxidized iron-gated rental.
And I was waiting. For what I wasn't sure—an opportunity to be braver, more honest, and more afraid than I'd been.
Danny was the only one with any real motivation to get away. I had caught it in his eyes, a gleam of stifled hope and forgetting. Night after night in front of the computer, he'd search for work or internships at hospitals out of state, sometimes out of the country. And I would reheat a slice of pizza, make black coffee for us, and silently, without words remind him that he couldn't submit that application, couldn't shrug off the weight he had brought to Nelson and I and had asked us to bury for him.
In November two years ago, I'd moved from the musky, electrically lit sky reflected in each raindrop of the city. Sitting at the crammed Greyhound bus station, I'd had to avoid eye contact for fear that if even one person I knew recognized me, I would be stuck there in the uncomfortable plastic waiting chair, forever transitioning, forever unmoving. I headed to the first small town with a familiar name—Ashwick, a name I might have overheard in conversation at the supermarket checkout stand or seen in one of the real estate flyers that always lined the damp pavement, sticky with rain and chewing gum.
I bought a used sedan on my first night in Ashwick. As I drove down the main street, I saw a large peacock casually cross the road and disappear behind a fence of grass. Though I stomped on the car's break once I saw him, I was cheerful to find such unexpected colors amidst curtains of darkness.
As three men living together, it seemed, we were more aware than we should be of the spaces of we occupied. Each was overly cautious of intruding on the others' spaces. At the house, Nelson was perpetually standing on the back porch smoking, American Spirits sometimes, Marlboro at others. He was one of the few people I knew who didn't stick to only one brand. When I asked him, he said simply that he didn't have a preference or any statement to make, that ‘Cigs are cigs.’ Even at home he'd wear his waiter uniform, except his shirt was untucked and the black tie hung loosely on his neck. Our neighbor Nelly, a thirty something museum curator, had a crush on Nelson. Over the fence dividing our houses, she'd call to him in a tone of measured sweetness soured with desperation. I liked to stand with him back there, not because he needed company or because I smoked, but to leave enough space and quiet for Danny to study. For someone without a job or future prospects, I wasn't envious but more proud of Danny, as if his accomplishments would somehow extend to me too.
Perhaps we couldn't have been more different, but each was our own tunnel that was inaccessible by the outside world, and that knowledge already bound us beyond the typical and polite roommate friendship. Nelson knew almost everyone in town, but I'd never heard him refer to someone as a friend, except for a girl from his hometown in South Carolina. Danny was often busy either studying at the college or interning at Ashwick Hospital. One time, I saw him with a group of nursing students at the Creek Bar downtown. I'd had three beers and was more forthcoming than I should have been. I came up and insisted he introduce everyone to me. He looked slightly embarrassed for me, but also for himself, that I'd found him there with his own crowd.
"They're just classmates," he explained.
I nodded but didn't immediately understand his flustered manner, bordering on hostility. Later, he joined me at the river, flicking the ash of his cigarette onto the boulder where we rested our feet.
"I can't smoke—" Danny said abruptly, taking one last drag then crushing the cigarette on the stone between us. "I mean—can't do much around them. At first it wasn't like that. We were all different. Then someone started this idea that since our work revolves around saving others, it would be hypocritical to damage our own healthy body.”
"Well," I started.
"You agree with them. It sounds like common sense. Humanitarian, we all are. But it gets tiring." He stopped as if he was finished, then continued. "To tell you the truth, I don't believe in saving anyone."
About a month after our encounter at the bar, Danny came home looking flushed and animated. His cheeks perspired but his forehead and lips were pale. Nelson was shaving in the bathroom and the sound of the electric razor droned on in the background. My mouth was stuffed full of saltine crackers and I could barely make out Danny's whispers.
"Help me, Kayl. You've got to help me." The words seemed to come from a deeper place inside him, somewhere frantic and yet determined. He looked surprise at the sound of his own voice.
He crossed the living room to the back door and I followed him. He was still in his scrubs. Sweat dotted around his shoulder. I couldn't help but notice the smell of whiskey
leaking from his pores.
"Your mysteriousness is not sexy—no matter what girls may tell you." I joked and heard my nervous laughter succumb to the darkness.
The back porch was dimly lit and a strange yellow hue wrapped around the hood of Danny's sedan. I puzzled over the chipped paint and the scratches on the headlights. Danny opened the back passenger door and said meekly, "I have to get her out of here." I gasped as I looked inside. A girl, young, I judged from her outfit—short skirt, pink suede Uggs, and an oversized winter jacket with a fur rim on the hood. She lay awkwardly on her side, her strawberry blonde hair caked with a dark liquid falling like a curtain over her face. Though I felt the surge of my dinner pushing upward, I suppressed the urge to vomit.
"You need to take her to a hospital!" I shouted as quietly as I could. Danny cracked his knuckles and with his right wrist repeatedly hit his forehead. I watched him, full of dread and pity, and understood what he needed from me. I cursed him in my mind—angry at his stupidity but at the same time startled by the trust he’d placed in me. Without asking any questions, I helped Danny pull the flaccid body from the backseats. With the after warmth of the girl still lingering in my hand, we laid her down on her back on the grass.
"I'm sorry to involve you, Kayl. I just can't think—” Danny began to weep. "She died as soon as—there was no time. I couldn't just leave her on the road. I couldn't." He sat down on the grass next to her, his hands interlacing with her loose fingers. Together, they looked beautiful and almost familiar, as if they'd known each other for a long time.
"Who is she?" I asked dumbly.
Danny shook his head. "I don't know. But this is a small town." He looked straight at my eyes for the first and last time that night, perhaps to confirm that I wasn't in too much shock, that I understood our situation. I nodded to reassure myself.
I looked up to find Nelson smoking on the porch, his eyes gazing at us, void of any discernible emotion except for curiosity.
Like Danny, I too had believed in my own helplessness in waiting for death to slip in quietly and claim my sick father. During those last few months before Ashwick, I'd convinced my girlfriend at the time, Jenny, to move back home with me. "It won't take long," I foundmyself trying to persuade her. But I didn't need to—Jenny was more selfless than I'd anticipated. She packed our belongings in a hurry, taking care to include framed photographs of my buddies and me from college, competing in Battle of the Bands. In her subtle way, she tried to show me that she'd be there as long as I needed. It didn't matter whether it was only a few months or a year.
When he was lucid, my father prized Jenny's company. I had just been promoted to floor manager at Best Buy and worked longer hours. To compensate for my inability to be home with my father, Jenny quit her job as a Lancôme cosmetics sales associate. I thought I had found the best partner I could ask for.
It was our three-year anniversary that day. I'd come home late after spending an hour too long at Tiffany's. I'd felt like a cop-out with the expensive jewelry in my hand and still hoped that the earrings were beautiful enough to make her forget we hadn't spent much time together lately. When we did, our conversation revolved around my father: the new medicine the doctor prescribed to decrease nausea and help him eat better, the amount of times he'd asked where my mother was. Jenny updated me on the most minute details of their routine, but grew quiet when I asked if he was getting better or worse. "Better. Better, I think." She nodded to herself. "Sometimes, he thinks I'm your mother. But—it's fine." She reassured me.
I'd gotten into the habit of tiptoeing around the house to not disturb my father. With the earrings rattling in my hand, I clicked the door closed soundlessly behind me. Jenny was by my father's side. Neither of them noticed me. I saw his eyes wrinkle like a smile, and he squeezed her hand while putting it against his hollow cheek. I watched her back, trying to decipher what she felt but heard only her unintelligible whisper to my father. "My dear Jenny," he reached up and pulled her face down to his lips.
Jenny stood up to leave and did not look surprised to find me already home.
"Happy anniversary," I said without taking my eyes off the blank screen of the TV, as if I'd never seen it off before.
"Happy anniversary, Kayl." She smiled with a frazzled expression and immediately my confusion about what I'd just seen dissipated.
"Here," I moved forward to give her the gift. As I looked at the diamond petals, I no longer felt guilty—this was the right present after all. I lifted her hair and watched Jenny pull on her thin earlobe to put the earrings on. I suddenly felt more love for her in that moment than in the last three months we'd been at my father's house.
"Wait here," Jenny disappeared into the guest bedroom, where we now stayed, and returned in an emerald green dress that touched the floor but was slit open in the back, revealing her defined calves. I kissed her then, first her toes, then her inner thighs. We made love on the couch that night with my father snoring softly in the background.
"Danny. Danny." I called and turned his head away from the sticky puddle of pink vomit. Lying on the grass had made little indents on his face and aside from the stench of sweat, alcohol, and vomit; he reminded me of a small child who had fallen asleep under the sun. From the front porch, we looked like college students after a typical night. In her shrill voice, our neighbor Nelly offered to give Nelson and me a hand. I scoffed under my breath; and Nelson politely thanked and refused her.
“You'll kill yourself if you keep this up, Dan.” Nelson threw a towel at Danny. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. We only did what we needed to do. Kayl agrees.” Nelson stared at me and I nodded.
"This is bullshit. I wouldn't have helped you if I knew you were going to act like this." Nelson yanked on Danny's arm and pulled him upright.
I ripped off the missing person flyer that was taped on our mailbox. Andrea Lane. Sixteen years old. Last seen—I balled up the paper and tossed it in the corner of our neighbor's yard. It was an accident, I repeated to myself as if I were the sole perpetrator of her death.
Danny stood up without making eye contact with Nelson or me. He wobbled from the yard, past the living room, into the bathroom. We heard him turn on the faucet, and among the sounds of running water were sobs so knotted at the throat they came out raspy and thunderous like laughter.
I told Nelson about my father—not of the last few months before he died but of how I remembered him my whole life. Death seemed to take all the variegated, broken pieces of my memory of him and consolidate them into one single, polished frame. Though when he was alive my father was a mystery to me, death had made him accessible, even likeable.
"One time, he was stationed in the Philippines. He fell in love with a woman there." I recollected. "They had a kid."
"Before or after he met your mother?" Nelson asked.
Consumed by a train of thoughts, I was startled by his interest in my story. "I was already five or six." I stopped talking and Nelson didn't inquire further. I'd been obsessed with my father's story and nagged him whenever there was an opportunity to tell me about the Filipino woman and her daughter—my sister. I pictured them as alien and beautiful as an age-old relic. Even as an adult, I always saw her in my mind as a little girl and her mother an inexperienced girl of eighteen. Next to them, my own mother lacked luster. Her pale, blondish bun of hair became an irritation to me and, it seemed, to my father too. I listened to my father's unapologetic tone when he told my mother about the Filipino woman. I watched a rupture of pure hatred flare up in my mother's eyes and diminish slowly into resentment, and then one day, nothing at all. The day she finally left my father and walked out the front door, taking our Pomeranian with her, is the most beautiful moment I remember of her.
In his explosive and yet fleeting anger, Nelson reminded me of my mother. I walked behind him as he cursed the spoiled high-schoolers with six-figure cars, his mindless co-workers, and his grandmother in South Carolina who had remarried after her husband died at seventy. "Can you fucking believe it?" He was indignant for his grandfather, and as someone who found it so easy to be alone, he couldn't understand his grandmother's need to find someone late in life.
We walked behind the art studios and were shielded from the powerful blast of the spring wind. The streets were empty then except for a few diligent dog walkers. We entered an alley. Nelson walked in long strides; his steps stressed and irregular. He stopped in front of a lime painted house and turned the knob. I looked around at the overgrown grass on either side of the lawn and at the gnome with an annoyed expression, his arms stretched out as if holding something, but whatever it was had been broken off. Inside, the living room was empty of furniture except for a few trinkets, miniature cars and baby cribs that looked as if they were picked at random from an antique shop.
"What's this?" I asked Nelson, suddenly irritated at the mystery of it all. I walked through the house, opening door after door, sneezing when puffs of dust escaped and whirled up my nostrils. The bedroom, too, was empty, the sheet flattened without a single wrinkle and tucked under the mattress similar to my father's bed after they removed all the equipment and took his body away.
"My house. Or used to be." Nelson crushed his cigarette with the sole of his shoe. He left the bud on the granite counter in the kitchen. I thought I saw the cigarette's orange glow still burning and wisp of smoke wheezing through, though weakly.I fiddled with a miniature perfume bottle. "This probably smells like shit," I felt the need to make a perfunctory comment.
"Stop resenting your father, Kayl. He's dead. Just like this house." He announced in his usual severe and yet inoffensive tone. "This place is my memory box. I'll sell it soon. That's all your father is, all tucked and cozy inside a memory box. Sell him to me, I'll take it from you."
I looked at Nelson, indignant and at the same time perplexed at how much he knew. I squeezed my brain and searched through the memory of those nights when I first came to Ashwick and met Nelson at the bar. After the few drinks he generously bought me, what did I ramble to him? As if he had read my mind, Nelson filled the gap. He looked around the room and his intense blue eyes seemed many hues lighter. He looked happy.
"Have you ever made a sacrifice for somebody, Kayl? That's what you've got to see it as—an honor. I've never had the chance to give a thing to anyone." He pointed at the strange paraphernalia lying around the room. "I stole all these things from neighbors, friends. I was trying to put together a home with meaning, out of other people's precious memories.Somebody cared about these things!" He was more excited now. “It didn't work though. They've taken on a new meaning—stolen things. That's all they are now."
I knew what he was referring to. I wanted to defend myself and tell him Jenny was not just a stolen thing, that she meant more to me. But I couldn't; the truth was that Jenny's value was augmented the moment she slipped from me.
My father seemed to know that his time was coming. On his deathbed, he didn’t have anymore to tell me than when I was a boy. Jenny sat behind me, detaching herself from both my father and me, as if the sight of us together was somehow too corrupt for her. She pinched the hem of her dress and then her knees, apparently impatient.
“I'm leaving all my real estate to Jenny: our vacation home in Canada, the apartment in California, and this house.” My father pointed at the folder on the bedside table. "It's all there in my will." He gasped for breath, apparently exhausted by all his efforts.
I nodded, unaware that my fists were balling up. Before me, my father no longer looked like a dying man with drool stinking up the collar of his shirt, but a man capable of hurt after hurt.
"Fine," I managed. "Anything else?"
He raised a hand to scratch his chin and I suddenly felt a mixture of deep anguish and hilarity. He shook his head and gazed at Jenny, who was now shaking with tears behind me. I left the two of them alone and closed the door quietly. I had hoped for my politeness to strike them just as my father's professional instructions had me. Three hours and some minutes later, Jenny came out of the room.I looked at her then, void of pity or compassion to offer. The skin on her face was raw, possibly from repeatedly weeping and wiping the tears away.
"Kayl—," her voice cracked.
Hearing her say my name made me snap, "Don't. Stop." I swallowed but wanted
scream, to charge at her. Instead, I asked in the softest voice I could muster, "Did you ever care about me?" She nodded, her ears bright red. "Did you love him?" She nodded again. Her expression this time was calmer, more serene.
"Then you can bury him."
I left that night, full of rage and indignity. In the car, I talked to, shouted at, and mocked my father as if he hadn't died. After I'd exhausted my anger, I told him about my memory of the cabin in Canada. My parents had bought it with the hope of starting a family tradition, to go there every summer, but we only stayed once. My mother left the year after. I admit that I always took his side even after he betrayed my mother. The night before she left, I yelled at her to go away when she tried to put me to bed. Gripping the steering wheel, I asked my father how he acted so cool, how he'd lived like he owed nothing to anybody. I asked him whether he was disappointed that I'd turned out just like him.
"The dead don't take anything with them," Nelson said.
As if in a trance, the three of us had dug and dug that night without exchange of looks or words. We kept our exhales quiet and our grunting minimal, Nelson spitting over his shoulder, Danny mumbling confused prayers in his throat. Perhaps Danny had seen the cross pendant on the girl's flat chest, though I somehow doubted the prayers were for her. Shielded by the raised wooden fence and the ash tree, it seemed we were brought together just for this moment, to show how little we cared to resist tragedy, how willingly we embraced circumstance.
Our three pairs of eyes shifted skyward then down to the dark hole we'd created. The grave was a little too short for the girl to lie straight on her back, so we positioned her fetal-like, her hands tucked between her knees. I pictured Jenny then, a stranger to my father's life and even more so to his death. She would be lost flipping through the yellowed pages of his address book, looking for people to invite. Perhaps she buried him alone, clawing dirt with her fingernails, licking tears off her chapped lips. Or maybe she hired a team of professionals and paid for a cherry wood coffin. Amongst his family members, she would have to explain where Edward's son was, why the nurse was the one to arrange the funeral. I didn't know, of course; I'd walked away before I could watch myself be the darkness that crept up and invaded the look in her eyes.
This stranger, Andrea Lane, was luckier than my father in this way. And for our own selfish reasons, we were all grieving for her.
"Everyone dies, Dan. It doesn't mean you can't have a future. The dead are happy. The dead are lucky. She can't take anything from you if you don't let her." Nelson bent down to push the bangs out of Andrea Lane's face and tuck the loose strands behind her ears. A final touch.
I realized that unlike me, Nelson had a conviction. He didn't believe in ruins, or in a life ruined by a single act. He poured a cup of black coffee and handed it to Danny. "You'll be fine, bud. You'll see." Danny slumped back on the couch and sipped the dark brew with startling submission. Everything felt normal, the light bulb above us still dead, the sink still overflowing with dishes, Nelson smoking American Spirits. It was easy to believe nothing would change.
The police didn't try to dispute Nelson's confession. A hit-and-run was not past a convicted felon. It didn't matter that the car was Danny's. Nelson simply explained that he'd borrowed it that night. They took him in and verified the body buried in the back yard of the old house Nelson was putting up for sale. Somehow, he'd moved the girl without Danny or me finding out. Or perhaps we'd simply looked away, convinced that Nelson always had his reasons. By then, we'd practiced so much detachment from the incident that it didn't feel like it was our business at all, but Nelson's entirely. A yellow tape marking crime scene and warning against trespassing wrapped around the lime painted house. The police were disgusted by Nelson's sardonic plan: to merely sell the house and rid himself of all responsibility.
Danny graduated from college with the shining, golden honor cord around his neck. Except for a few instances when I caught him trembling and mumbling incoherently under his breath, a new habit of his, he seemed alright, just as Nelson had predicted. Danny would go on to save lives, whether he wanted to or not.
I had nowhere to go but south again, to retrace my steps. When the yellow traffic light turned red, I thought about Nelson and his memory box. I wondered if in his own way, he was successful at purging himself from it. Perhaps that was all our lives were—stolen things—cloaks taken from another and tried on to see how they fit us. For a while, I didn't understand my own paralyzing silence, why it was preferable to the truth.
"Thanks, Kayl." Nelson said the last time I visited him in prison.
"What for?" I wanted to ask, but didn't need to. Taking Danny's fate, wearing his cloak, was better for Nelson, better than to face the vast emptiness beneath. And I thought too, about the nature of sacrifice, how it frightened us, wrapped its cord around our neck and choked us, a mouthful of our cowardice, when it was meant to free us.
ABBIGAIL ROSEWOOD has been featured in many journals including Columbia Catch and Release, Greenhills Literary Lantern, BlazeVox, and Women's Art Quarterly.