The Animal Trade

Winner of the 2009 New Ohio Review Prize in Fiction (selected by Peter Ho Davies)

By Christine Nicolai

Featured Art: Paard by Anton Mauve

It was close to midnight when Vic heard a shotgun echoing somewhere nearby. If Sue were still around, he’d have put on his boots and stomped out to the porch in his bathrobe, scanning the front yard and street in the twilight. If she were here, he’d have seen that it was all clear and come back to bed where she’d have been frozen under the blankets, breathing those shallow, rabbitty breaths, like she was flattened in a clump of weeds, waiting for the fox to move on. Without Sue, Vic told himself it wasn’t a shotgun he’d heard, because shots at midnight usually meant someone was doing something they shouldn’t.

This was midsummer, humid and hot. Even though it was long after the fourth, the noise could have been an M-80 or Salute, picked up from the reservation. Every couple of weeks one of the guys at the restaurant complained about kids lobbing cherry bombs into front lawns and tearing off down the street, yelping at the stars. That was an explanation he could almost hold in his hand, except that he knew it was the sharp-edged sound of a shotgun that had crackled through the night. His jeans were on the floor. He put them on in the dark and went to check the doors, sticking his head out the back, trying to make out more than just the outline of the barn against the dark sky. The gate leading to the back pasture appeared to be shut, which meant that Toby, the gelding Sue had left behind, should be all right. He closed the door.

The living room was cooler than the rear of the house where he slept, but he couldn’t hear anything over the rattle of the air conditioner. He shut it off, pulled aside the curtain and cracked one of the front windows to listen. A thick tendril of hot air slipped through the window, leaving a trail of goose bumps where it crossed his arm.

He kept a baseball bat behind the door and somewhere deeper in the house, probably in the bedroom closet, was his dad’s 12-gauge duck hunter. Sue never liked guns. He couldn’t remember where he’d put the shells. Silence. Vic threw the bat over his shoulder and went out to the steps.

A couple frogs called to each other. Vic wondered what they did during the summer months when all the ponds dried up, if the frogs slowly dried up too, or if they burrowed in somewhere until the rain came. He didn’t know how long frogs were supposed to live, or if it’d even be worth it for them to dig in for the summer, but here they were, having a little nighttime conversation. This wasn’t exactly the wilderness, but it was far from suburbia, and people still found deer in their yards at dusk and daybreak. Chicken-hawks and raccoons still made nuisances of themselves. Vic had often seen coyotes slinking through the pasture, and every once in a while, an eagle perched in one of the big, bald trees behind the barn.

There was a house across the street, empty until recently, with a gold Chrysler Sebring in the driveway, sparkling faintly under the moth-dappled glow of the yard light. The car was new and so were the people who occupied the house. They’d moved in about a week ago. He saw a woman driving the car the first day. Blond and slim, somewhere in her forties. Just her and two teenage boys, both with their mother’s pale skin and hair and both dressed in black jeans and t-shirts. All three of them unloading boxes from a U-Haul at the hottest part of the day.

Since then, he had spotted the boys sneaking around the back of the house, the taller one—shaggy-haired and around fourteen—with an air rifle. A big black dog trotted behind the slighter boy, who looked closer to eleven. The mother he’d seen by the mailbox a few days ago, staring down the road, tracing circles in the gravel with the toe of her shoe.

He didn’t have a plan that first time he’d started over there, just thought about talking to her, getting a feeling for her. But after introducing himself, he’d felt her displeasure snake around him like a wave and cleared his throat, pointing to the yellow rambler and the overgrown pasture that flanked it, watching her eyes follow his finger.

“Your neighbor,” he’d said.

“Hello.” She put her hand on the mailbox, looking around him and down the road.

He turned and stared too. “If you’re waiting for the mail, he’s always late on Saturday.”

She glanced up. “Think he’ll have one of those address change cards with him?”on Saturday.”

“Probably not, but I could give you a lift to the post office.”

“I’ve got a car,” she said.

“Yeah, I saw that.” He studied the Chrysler, and a guarded look rose up in her eyes, like she expected him to accuse her of something. Vic thought people weren’t born with that kind of look. It was the sort of thing that happened after years of being accused, and maybe the accusations were warranted and maybe not. Either way, she was staring at him hard.

“Well.” Vic said. “Let me know when you and your husband are settled, and I’ll have you over for dinner.” He was pretty sure there was no husband. He thought it might be better, somehow, if he could hear her confirm it, but she didn’t say anything, which made him hope suddenly that her husband hadn’t died in Afghanistan. That the guy was a real prick who’d gambled and drank before he finally took off and left her with the two boys.

Hey, he wanted to say, I know what it’s like.

Her eyes were on him as he went back to his house. He knew it.

There were a few more small, burpy noises from the frogs and the night went silent again. Vic checked his watch. Fifteen after twelve. His eyes follow the moths as they looped around the yard light, fluttering close to the big, bare bulb, bumping it and backing away.

No lights on at her place. He wondered if she’d heard the shot and was sitting up in bed, or watching from the front window—perhaps thinking about him doing the same. It seemed unlikely, but he balanced the bat across his knees and thought about it for a few minutes anyway before he decided it was all clear and went inside.

He was a tall man and that was good. Sue had told him so. All women wanted tall men.

“It’s terrible, I know, but I think every woman wants a man who can pick her up and carry her off somewhere,” she’d said.

“I think that has more to do with the size of the lady than the man,” Vic said.

She cuffed him on the arm, all smiles. “You know what I mean.”

And he did. It was good to be tall and lean, to have a slightly crooked nose that made people figure you could handle yourself, to grow quietly handsome as you aged, with an honest-carved face. Still, Sue left him.

By the time Vic made it to the restaurant for coffee the next morning, there was already talk going around town about a news crew coming to do a story on Tom Pritchard. How he’d gone out to investigate a shot the previous night and found his bay mare stumbling around the pasture with a hole in her chest. How the mare had swung her head in a boozy arc and buckled right at Tom’s feet, one of her long-muscled legs thrown to the side so Tom could see the black line of blood that snaked down her white ankle.

Everyone at the counter was caught up arguing theories, so Vic fell into one of the empty booths and asked for coffee. One table over, Bob Jenson said that he’d heard about a burro from a petting zoo in Slipshaw County being tied to a tree and beaten to death several months back. Gang initiations, Bob said.

Vic drank his coffee in silence. Usually he’d be at the counter too, shaking dice for the bill. But he was already sick of hearing about Tom Pritchard’s mare and sitting at the counter meant being involved in that conversation.

In Vic’s mind, the regulars were leaving something out, something which was never going to be said at coffee or over dice. Local kids had done it. And he wasn’t the only one who knew it. There was fear circling the room, dipping into empty coffee cups and getting caught up in the ceiling fans. It was so heavy Vic could feel it butting up against his face.

When he was younger, he’d taken aim at crows and chicken hawks. And there were the coyotes he and his brother picked off as they ran the fence line, the raccoon his brother had trapped and shot in the barn.

“I killed it,” his brother had said. “So you take its tail.”

The barn had seemed to shrink tight against Vic then, and the raccoon grew larger and larger until he thought he could climb inside its black eye—no trouble. The wet and ragged breath filled the empty stall, the rustle of claws against hay. They moved back and waited for the raccoon to die.

“Bet it had rabies anyway,” his brother said. He squinted into the sunlight coming through the open door of the barn and rubbed his palm over the stock of the duck hunter.

Vic lifted the tail. “Look at its tiny nuts,” he said. Because he knew something must be said to deflect the shame of what they’d done.

He’d held his share of limp bodies up for pictures and felt their deaths tingling through the bundle of nerves at the back of his neck. But this wasn’t like picking a duck out of the sky. Horses trusted. Horses ran your picture through its head and decided you were safe. There was no figuring it.

Vic finished his coffee and laid a dollar fifty on the table. It was Tuesday and on Tuesday mornings he never stuck around for dice or pull tabs. He set a hand on Tom’s shoulder as he went out, said sorry to hear about the mare, and then paused on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant to let the early sun soak into his face.

It was Senior Day at Lutheran Thrift, which meant that all the oldies had already been over there, dropped their wives and gone back to the restaurant. It would be slow in the store, with no one he knew well enough for conversation. Vic brought out his truck keys and twisted them between his fingers before deciding to walk the three blocks. The morning air held the promise of heat. He had just passed Kinter Drug when the older of the two neighbor boys came rolling around the corner on his skateboard.

“Hi there,” Vic said.

The boy stopped, tipping his skateboard into his hand. “Hey.”

“I think we’re neighbors.”

The boy nodded.

“Where’s your brother?”

“He’s coming.”

They both peered around the corner as wheels tripped over grooves in the sidewalk. The smaller boy appeared, holding the black dog’s leash.

“I met your mom the other day.” Vic leaned in to pet the dog, scanning the street for the Chrysler. “She bring you down here?”

“No.” The older boy took the leash from his brother and reeled the dog in against his leg. “We’ve got to go. Nice to meet you.” He dropped his board and jerked his head at his brother.

Vic watched them ride along the sidewalk until they caught their skateboards outside Kinter Drug and tied up the dog. After they went inside, he crossed the street and ducked into Lutheran Thrift.

Sue used to take him there on Sunday afternoons. She’d navigate the knickknack and houseware aisles, while he rummaged the tool and electronics sections. It was fun then, aimless treasure hunting. Sue always came away with a new bear figurine to add to her collection, and once in a while he’d find a decent military biography or an old, but serviceable Igloo cooler.

Vic tried Sunday afternoons once after Sue left, but a clerk had approached him and asked if he needed help, and glancing down at the coffee-stained carafe that he didn’t remember picking up, he told the guy he was just waiting for his wife. He’d felt trapped and guilty being confronted there alone and couldn’t bring himself to come back until he discovered the relative quiet of Senior Day mornings. He didn’t mind walking the aisles with the old women who scrutinized markings on the bottom of decorative plates and teacups. Vic slipped in among them, dodging their carts and their trembling hands. It was easier that way, milling around and looking things over, acting like he was killing time. He kept an eye out for Sue’s bears more than anything else, and he usually came home with one or two to add to the collection she’d left behind.

That morning he managed to find a brown ceramic bear with a P stamped on the back of its head. It held one half of a sign that read, Yellow. He searched all the shelves, but couldn’t find the matching Stone salt shaker. Finally, he gave up and went to stand in line.

The two women ahead of him were discussing the shooting of Tom Pritchard’s horse. He rubbed his thumb over the bear’s face. It had an almost blissful look and was leaning in toward its absent partner. Maybe Sue had already found the salt shaker bear and it sat at home on her dresser, holding up the missing half of the sign.

He put the bear down on the counter harder than he’d meant to and it rocked a little when he lifted his hand.

“Senior discount?” the cashier asked.

“I’m only fifty-six,” Vic said, his hand on his wallet. “I can show you my license.”

The cashier laughed. “No need for that.” She started to wrap the bear in newsprint, but Vic stopped her, said he didn’t need a bag or a receipt and walked out.

He shoved the bear into the pocket of his jeans and headed back to his truck. The restaurant was still pretty full, and Tom Pritchard, Bob Jenson and a couple others were rolling dice for coffee. Standing there with the sun on his shoulders, Vic considered going back inside. There wasn’t much waiting for him at home, but he didn’t think he could stand to go in there and sit down along the counter with the rest of them, all pitching bullshit theories about the person who’d shot Tom’s mare. He dug the bear out of his pocket and tossed it into the passenger seat.

Twenty-five hours a week Vic worked for the Olson Road Mutual Water Company, reading meters and taking calls at the office. He had a magnetic decal that he slapped on the door of his truck when he was working and a “Call before you dig” bumper sticker. He didn’t need much. The house was paid off and Toby got by on pasture grass most of the year, but Vic liked driving around the county, stepping onto clean lawns and prying open meter covers, wading through ditches and setting out “Water Over the Roadway” signs. The office work was less satisfying. A woman came in a couple days a week to take care of the billing and she brought her kids along. Young, wild kids, tearing through the small office, and every time the bathroom door opened, it bumped the edge of his desk. Vic didn’t think much of the kids or their mother, Kim. Her face was soft and greasy, like deflated custard, and she often made mistakes with bills.

Most of the callers had some complaint for Vic and not just about the startling numbers on their bills. He’d had calls about basements flooding, setting up sprinkler systems, the correct pH for freshwater aquariums. Impatient, exasperating people.

Driving home Vic wondered if people around town noticed that he’d never dropped off a truckload at Lutheran Thrift after Sue went away. He felt ridiculous sometimes, keeping the house the way she left it. There was no chance she’d be back, he knew that. Not to see him and not to collect all the things she’d walked away from. What she’d wanted, she’d taken. He eyed the little ceramic bear and tried to figure out what it was that made him go sneaking into the Lutheran Thrift every Tuesday morning—when sometimes it felt like all her clutter was pressing in and swallowing him up and the place only getting bigger and bigger.

Vic parked the truck out at the barn instead of the driveway. He decided that he’d spend the whole afternoon in the barn and the back pasture with his old projects, tools and mildew-stippled tack. Toby was in the stall, swishing at flies and dozing with his nose in the empty manger. The horse swung his head over the stall door when Vic came in, and he stopped to give Toby a pat. He’d always liked the feel of horses gently bumping against his back, trailing after him through the pasture, watching him with their big, dark eyes. Once in a while he got the urge to jump on Toby and take a spin around the field, but eventually he’d dismiss the notion because it wouldn’t be right to get on the horse after all this time. It’d be like breaking a gentleman’s agreement, something unspoken between him and Toby.

With his palm against Toby’s head, Vic felt they were sharing the same thought. The barn is a good place. He let the horse investigate his arm for a moment, then opened the rear barn door and stepped out into the back pasture. It was early afternoon and hot. The power lines at the far end of the field buzzed. He went around the side of the barn to check the water trough. Toby stood halfway out of the stall, following Vic with his eyes.

Although he could hear the power lines and the flies, they were faint, far away noises. He was aware, more than anything, that it was quiet. The kind of quiet that made him sense he had been missing details—the sound of Toby breathing, of ants rearranging leaves, of grass settling in around his boots. He paused for a moment, sweat beginning to gather at the back of his collar, and waited.

A lawnmower cranked up across the street. From where he stood beside the water trough, he could see the woman angling her mower around the trunk of a cedar tree.

He glanced down at the trough; it needed to be filled. Toby ambled out of the barn and hung on the fence, his long neck bowing the wire so he could reach the grass on the other side. Vic realized that the back pasture had begun to appear sparse, but the front was badly in need of a clearing. Thinking about it made him tired.

It was always Sue’s plan to put goats in the front pasture, because she’d heard goats ate stuff even cows wouldn’t touch. But that was her way of doing things. There was always some plan she came up with. She never liked his suggestions about taking a pickax out there and tearing through the big scotch broom bushes themselves. It was always goats or llamas, some crazy idea she’d pulled off the television.

The woman cut a long path down the center of her yard. She was skinny, and she held onto the mower as if she worried it would take her somewhere against her will. Vic wondered why the boys weren’t doing the mowing.

He didn’t know why exactly he was thinking about putting Toby up front, but the thought was there now and he couldn’t shake it. He filled the tank, then tossed some hay into Toby’s manger and headed across the street.

“Afternoon,” Vic called over the noise.

The mower fell silent. “Hello.”

“I didn’t catch your name last time I saw you.” He thrust out his hand. 

She tucked a limp piece of hair behind her ear before she took his hand. “Lindy.”

He surveyed the swathes she had cut in the lawn. “It’s looking pretty good.”

“Thanks.” Her voice wasn’t entirely friendly, but it wasn’t rude either, and Vic was pleased she’d said anything at all. She plucked at the collar of her shirt with one hand, and when she moved, he saw there were damp rings beneath her arms.

“It’ll get hotter before the day is over,” he said.

“That’s summer for you.” She nudged the bag of grass clippings with her foot.

“I thought maybe those boys of yours would like to earn some money. I’ll give them twenty dollars each to help me clear some of this brush out of my front pasture.”

She swung her head toward the house and scanned the windows.

Vic thought maybe she wouldn’t answer with him looking after her, so he trained his eyes on his field and took a step back. “You can send them over around seven if they’re interested. It should have cooled down by then.”

She pushed a hand through her hair again and the loose piece flopped down onto her forehead.

“It won’t be dark until after nine,” Vic said.

She nodded finally, as if the terms had been settled to her satisfaction. “All right, Vic,” she said and started the mower up again.

Vic turned up the air conditioner and stretched out on the couch. He dozed for a bit and didn’t think he’d been asleep too long, but it was almost six when he woke and realized that he had left the ceramic bear in his truck. It was a stupid thing to remember, but lately, Sue was almost always in his thoughts when he woke. Months and months and months. No divorce, no nothing. His wedding ring was rattling around inside an old Altoids tin in his sock drawer, all powdered with curiously strong white dust.

Things happen, he told himself when Sue left. Yeah, it was over kids. Of course it was. Not that anyone had asked. Most of his friends let Sue’s disappearance go without a word. What would he have said to them anyway? That Sue got up from the breakfast table one morning, said, “OK, that’s it,” and put her dishes in the sink before packing a small suitcase and heading out the door? That they’d talked about kids in an offhand sort of way, but he never thought she was telling him, I want this now. That at night she’d draw his hand onto her soft belly, and he’d think nothing of it, just let his fingers creep beneath the waistband of her panties until she was gasping into her pillow.

Sometimes Vic thought there was nothing better than the merciful silence of his friends.

Things happen and it’s nobody’s fault.

He fixed himself a sandwich and ate it while walking through the front pasture. The fences were all good, but the water trough was covered with brambles and scrub brush had closed off both gates and part of the field. He supposed there was enough grass for Toby to graze a couple weeks without extra feed. At the very least, it would give the back a chance to grow. He finished the sandwich and trudged to the barn, swatting mosquitoes along the way. The weed-eater still had gas, so he made a couple passes in the ditch out front. Once it was clear, he would be able to set up electric fence wire across the top slat of the fence to keep Toby from hanging on it and inviting trouble.

It was a quarter to seven by the time Vic finished the ditch and replaced the weed-eater. He rummaged through the barn for a spool of wire, some pickaxes and shovels. The electric fence box was still attached to a post by the garage. Vic would only have to hook it up. He threw the tools in the back of his truck and drove around front, parking alongside the ditch.

The evening was warmer than he’d expected, and Vic was sweating when he went into the house for bug spray and the cash he’d promised the kids. He heard footsteps on the porch before the bell rang and opened the door to find the two lanky boys and their dog.

“Evening, boys.” Vic shut the door behind him. He didn’t like the idea of the boys getting a look inside the place. He guessed they probably had a notion of what it should be like, and he saw no need to change it. They were dressed in black again, jeans and t-shirts, with faded-to-gray Chuck Taylors. Vic couldn’t recall seeing them in anything else. He tried to imagine Lindy sharing her house with them—all three moving  through a dim and colorless world together—but came up empty.

“So what’re we doing?” the older boy asked.

“Work.” Vic handed him the bug spray. “You’ll probably want to drench yourself in this.” He waited until both kids were covered, then led them out to the front pasture, pointed to the grown-over gates. “We’ll have to duck through the fence.”

The boys went through and Vic followed.

The smaller boy led the dog. “Ok if I let her loose?” he asked.

“Fine by me.” Vic showed them the pile of tools and sketched out his plan. The gates first, then the water trough, and then the rest of the field. The boys had gloves already, and the younger one followed his brother to the back gate, where they both launched into the scotch broom. Vic took the pickax up front and began to cut his way to the second gate. The dog snuffled around the pasture, running back and forth between Vic and the boys. From the back fence, Toby kept an eye on everything.

Vic started feeling pretty good once he got into the rhythm of bringing down the pickax and tearing up scrub roots. Every so often, he could hear the boys talking in rushes of breath. Their pile was growing as fast as his own. There was something satisfying about clearing the pasture with the boys, and Vic was beginning to think he might give the kids a little more than twenty dollars apiece, since they were working so hard.

After both gates were pretty much dug out, Vic called a break and handed each of the boys a Pepsi. He leaned against the fence, while they sprawled on the ground, their dog beside them.

“You boys excited about starting school?”

The older boy took a long drink from his can. “I guess.”

“Know any of the kids around here yet?”

“Some.” He sat up and poked the younger boy, who hadn’t opened his Pepsi yet. “You going to drink that?” The younger boy nodded vigorously, opened the can and drank until a dark line of soda ran down his chin. The older boy laughed and Vic joined in before opening the cooler and tossing the boys each another can.

“What do you call the dog?” Vic asked.

“Sasha.” It was the younger boy who answered this time, nudging the dog until she rolled over on her back. He looked up at Vic. “Do you ride that horse?”

“Not anymore. It belonged to my wife.”

The younger boy nodded, as if he understood enough not to ask about Vic’s wife.

“It seems stupid to keep a horse and feed it, if you’re never going to do anything with it,” said the older boy.

“No more stupid than keeping and feeding a dog,” Vic said.

“They’re two different things,” the older boy replied.

“Well, maybe so.” Vic paused. He felt like the conversation was suddenly rushing into something he hadn’t planned for. “You sure don’t hear of anyone shooting a dog in the chest, do you?”

The older boy shrugged. The younger one glanced across the pasture at Toby.

“Seems pretty cruel to me.” They were quiet. Vic found himself trying to guess what the boys were thinking. He had a feeling they gave Lindy problems, but he couldn’t decide if the problems were the kind he had given his own mother or something worse. The dog got up and sniffed along his leg. “Hey, Sasha,” Vic said, putting his hand to her head and teasing out one of her silky ears between his fingers.

The older boy tore the tab off his can and flicked it into the scrub pile.

Vic finished his Pepsi, crushed the can and tossed it into the cooler. “Either of you boys want another?” While he dug through the slushy ice, he realized that he didn’t know their names. The younger boy accepted another Pepsi,  leaned back on his elbows in the grass and took long, slow drinks.

“I’m sure you’re mom told me your names,” Vic said, “but I can’t seem to—” He stopped and scratched the underside of his jaw. The dog came to him again, butting her head against his thigh.

“Scott,” the older boy said.

“Yeah, Scott. That’s right. And you’re…” He pointed at the younger boy, who sat up, appearing dismayed to find Vic’s hand resting on his dog.

“Kurt,” the boy said, and then, “Come here, Sasha.” And the dog went to him.

Scott stood and picked up a pair of clippers. He snipped at the bushes in the nearest pile. “Christ,” he said. “All this work for a stupid horse.” He rolled his eyes at his brother. Kurt looked away.

Vic knew a question was bubbling up inside him, pressing his tongue hard against his front teeth. “You boys heard about the horse that got shot last night.”

“And?” Scott stopped snipping and swung the closed blade at a clump of roots. Dirt crumbled out and speckled the grass.

Inside Vic, something became very still. “And do you know anything about it?”

On the ground, Kurt went white as milk glass, sagging a little into the dog. His brother turned, holding the clippers at his side. “If you want to say something, just say it.”

“I’m only asking a question.”

“Fuck your question,” Scott said. He threw down the clippers. “We don’t do any of that redneck shit.” He caught his brother by the shoulder and pulled him to his feet. “Come on.”

Vic watched them climb through the fence with the dog at their heels. “I didn’t say you did it,” he said, as they scrambled through the ditch and onto the road.

“Yeah, well, fuck you anyway,” Scott said over his shoulder. “Stay on your side of the road.” He led Kurt and the dog through the newly cut grass and under the cedar tree. The front door slammed and then it was silent.

Vic wasn’t sure what to do. He half expected Lindy to come tearing out of the house after him, but nothing happened. He didn’t know if he’d really suspected that the boys were somehow responsible, and he couldn’t figure why he’d allowed himself to say it. He grabbed the clippers and shovels and chucked the pickax over the fence before climbing through. Toby paced by the barn. When he saw Vic get into the truck, he whinnied.

Vic pulled around back and unloaded the tools and unused fence wire into the barn. He threw some hay down from the loft into Toby’s manger and stood for a moment in the middle of the barn with thoughts circling around in his head, like water going down the drain. He could easily imagine Scott creeping up to Toby with a shotgun wedged against his shoulder. And Kurt, clinging to the roll of skin and fur beneath his dog’s collar, watching wide-eyed from the edge of the road.

He wondered briefly what it would be like to have Lindy smile at him, to have her let him lift the hair from the back of her neck and bury his face in it. There wasn’t much of a difference, he thought, between forty and fifty.

But Sue had been ten years younger, and then she’d reached a point where she started thinking of everything she was about to miss out on. And Vic had known something was brewing. He’d noticed her watching him silently for weeks, but he’d pretended otherwise. Going on with his business—reading the meters, doing his time at the office, putting up hay, sharpening the blade of the lawnmower. He was a man of projects and mental lists. He told himself that he wasn’t about to step blindly into anything.

Vic dropped onto a bale of old straw, raising a dust cloud that sifted back over his head and shoulders and left a chalky taste in his mouth. When he shut his eyes he could almost see Lindy with a smile on her face, but then her image turned into Sue. It was like he had closed his fingers around a hornet and it was stinging him again and again, buzzing around inside his fist. And he was dumbfounded as to why his hand hurt, too shocked to open his fingers and let the hornet fly off.

There were nights when he got up for water and came back into the bedroom expecting to see her beneath the blankets. And he’d put his hand on the bed, drawing in the warmth his body had made, and he’d try to remember her warmth, her body. Sometimes he touched himself a little, but always went cold when he started feeling like something deep within the silence was watching.

Toby came through the open doorway of his stall and shoved his nose in the manger. Vic covered his eyes with one hand working the skin between his temples. It would be getting dark soon. The mosquitoes started to swarm around his head. Toby’s tail slapped his flanks. He still had enough hay to last a while. There was really no need to rush the front pasture, and he couldn’t remember why it had seemed so urgent earlier.

There were things that needed to be done right now. He needed to fix the screen door out back. A gutter was hanging loose on the east side of the house. Hornets had built a nest in the wall of the garage. Those projects wouldn’t keep forever. He needed to find the duck hunter and the shells, get the Crock Pot out, hunt down a recipe for turkey soup, eat some radishes.

Vic stood and dusted the seat of his pants. A slab of straw came loose from the end of the bale and broke open on the ground, revealing a tight-packed whorl where a mouse had nested. He liked that. The little secrets Nature kept, the things unseen. He closed the barn door behind him and surveyed the pasture, the tangled piles of scrub, roots shooting up at the sky.

Across the road, the front door opened and Lindy went down the steps and got into her car. What would he say if they ever spoke again? That his past was rotting away? That he thought between them something could happen, some kind of life? He couldn’t quite decide what he wanted, but he wanted. He watched her rummage around in the front seat, the top of her head and shoulders barely visible through the tinted back window. If she looked up, it would be a sign. If she looked up, he would go from there.

Christine Nicolai received her MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers. She splits her time between the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture and the Visitor Information Center in Spokane, WA. This was her first publication.

Originally published in NOR 6

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