Jess & JainCandra Kolodziej
Jain came from the field, long stray hairs blowing eastward across his eyes, same as the bent heads on the dead stalks of corn. The shovel swung from his hand, in pace with his step, the blade closing in on his leg and then sweeping away again.
I sat on the gravel driveway in a small patch of hard, dust-dry dirt. I’d tossed away a stone for each minute Jain had been gone, and after two hours I’d cleared enough space to sit. I’d been counting as I tossed, but lost track when a car, spewing dust and exhaust, came speeding down the old dirt road. When it crested the hill to the east I heard it and ran for the house. The door was unlocked, I knew, so I busted in through a snare of light-beams and dust, slammed the door behind me, pressed my back against it, and listened. I looked into the house, but could only see the space right around me. The air was rank with the smell of shit and piss and thick with the sound of nothing but me. All the windows in the kitchen and living room had been boarded. Jain had done that.
Dodger crept out of the dark crevice of the stairway. He didn’t recognize me at first and gave a low growl, so I whispered, “Dodger, good boy, easy Dodger, it’s just me.” I was so relieved he was alive, even though it’d only been a couple of days, and Jain had left him plenty of food. When he recognized me I could hardly keep him quiet. He barked once, and I grabbed him by the scruff and pulled him to me, muzzling his snout with my hand. He tried to squirm away, but I held on. When he stopped resisting I let go, and he sat beside me and watched while I listened. The sound of the engine was gone, but I wasn’t sure if it had passed or pulled into the driveway and been cut. I hoped Jain had heard it too. I waited a long time in the dusty silence with Dodger whimpering at my hip until I told myself I was being an ass and rallied the courage to look. Through the single square pane on the front door, the only window that Jain hadn’t covered with garbage bags or wood, I saw that the driveway was empty. Nothing moved except the skeletons of the two tall Ashes across the lawn. Their limbs bobbed up and down like they thought it was all pretty funny.
They hadn’t come yet, but they would be coming. Jain said so. He said it was all there in the instructions and notes Dad left. I never read any of the notes because Jain had gone through the house and taken them all down, collecting them in piles that matched up with the rooms he’d found them in, and putting them in clean manila envelopes he’d taken from Dad’s desk. Jain said that the only things missing from the house, so far as he could tell, were the fireproof safe and the hard drive from the desktop computer. I looked for other things that might be missing. He hadn’t taken any photographs, or extra clothes. He’d left his favorite pair of boots, and Jain said there’d been a note on them, said that they’d been left for me because my boots were worn down, and I wouldn’t have a chance to get a new pair for a while. They fit, but they were broken into the shape of Dad’s feet, not mine, so wearing them felt like being half Dad and half me.
I felt bad leaving Dodger in the dark house, especially now that he knew I was right outside, but Jain said I wasn’t to let him out. I wasn’t even supposed to go inside the house, and I probably should have run around back, or hidden in the shed when I heard the car coming, but I’d panicked. I couldn’t go into the shed. I couldn’t even think about the shed. And Jain would have thought that was foolish. So, I left Dodger inside and checked to make sure there weren’t any obvious signs that I’d gone in. Then I went back to my patch of dirt and sat. I counted stones, starting over again at one, until I saw Jain come out of the woods slinging the shovel.
Jain stopped a few hundred feet away and leaned the shovel against his leg. He pulled his hair back into a pony tail and looked from me to the house. It was the same way he’d looked at me when I’d come home three nights ago and caught him filling the staple gun. His eyes had moved from me to the table, to all those piles of envelopes, but his head didn’t move. He faced me, and eyeballed the envelopes, and said, “Dad’s gone, Jess. Go pack a bag.”
I could see he’d probably been crying, but he wasn’t now. His face was blotchy and smudged with dirt, and his eyes were swollen and sunken. Maybe it was just exhaustion; we hadn’t slept in days. Jain looked to the house, then to the shed, then to me and the pile of gravel stones next to me. His attention stalled on the stones, and I could see him thinking. His face didn’t change, but his head tilted left. It was stupid, but I was certain he knew I’d been in the house. He thrust the shovel out, handle first. “I’m dead Jess, will you take this back to the shed for me?” I didn’t want to go to the shed, but Jain had done everything else. He hadn’t asked me to do a single thing since Dad left, so I got up and took the shovel.
We had come back three days after leaving because Jain said it was the last thing on Dad’s list of instructions. “Come back in three days and clean out the shed.” Jain had told me this because I hadn’t wanted to come back. I’d screamed and thrown Dad’s boots at the river and said I’d rather walk barefoot than wear that devil’s shoes. Jain had assessed me calmly. He’d always said Dad was an asshole, a selfish prick who couldn’t give a damn about anything but his schemes. He’d always claimed to know about the schemes, but I didn’t know, and so I had no idea how he could. There had been a couple of incidents. The cops had arrested him once, somewhere south of the state line, and Jain had been the one who’d had to go post his bail, drive him home. But I never knew what any of it was about, and to me Dad was a fine man, even if sometimes he wasn’t around. I mean, he was never angry, never broke anything. But Jain said he knew there were schemes, plans to make money even though we never seemed to have any, and that because the schemes were working, sooner or later, Dad was bound to get caught. There was no need to explain my anger. But I wanted to. I wanted to list every injury I felt he’d inflicted on me, on us, even though I didn’t know what they were, even though I’d only be using Jain’s words. So I said, “If I see that bastard again, I’ll kill him.” Jain had said that once, and when I said it I watched his face closely to see if he’d remember. I don’t know why, exactly, but I wanted to see him remember. But Jain just pulled the folded note out of his pocket, opened it, blank faced, and read, “Come back in three days, and clean out the shed.” Then he said, “Jess, it’s the last thing.”
As I walked, I let the shovel drag in the gravel and dirt, and then in the lawn. Not to seem unwilling, but because it felt too heavy to heave over my shoulder. Its weight felt dead, my fingers felt numb around the handle, my body felt more tired than ever before, like I’d been running for days. When I opened the shed door it groaned and exhaled decay. My eyes adjusted, and I saw that Jain hadn’t cleaned up. There was a patch of wooden floor darkened into the shape of a wing by what I wanted to believe was dried engine oil. There were old tools, and a cord of wood, and the lawn mower that hadn’t worked in years, and there were gas cans, and cobwebs, and droppings from squirrels and field mice. There was a work bench with glass jars full of nuts and screws and nails, and a musty Dodger’s baseball cap that Dad had given Jain because everyone always joked that Jain was Dodger’s bitch. The gun rack was empty. And there was a pile of manila envelopes resting on top of the garbage can Dad used for collecting leaves. It didn’t occur to me that Jain might have left the envelopes there by accident. That wasn’t the way things were done in our family. Nothing was accidental. Everything was plotted down to the smallest detail. Plans were elaborate; notes were left with mysterious but specific directions. So I just assumed he’d left them there on purpose, for me, so I would finally look at them.
I set the shovel against the wall and opened the top envelope. It was labeled “Kitchen.” I pulled out all of its contents at once, and it fell to the floor. The top paper was filled with Dad’s scratchy handwriting. Skimming it, I realized that it was about the stove. How to work it, how to fix it, and a reminder that it cooked about thirty-five degrees lower than whatever temperature it was set for. The next page was similar, but written about the microwave. The next was about the toaster, and the next about the fridge. They went on and on, each one painstakingly written, grotesquely detailed. Information about defrosting, and cleaning, and maintenance. Nothing else. I threw the papers to the ground and tore into the second envelope. This one was for the living room, and was the same as the first. Pieces of lined paper with a folded piece of scotch tape attached to the top. How to clean the sofa. Warrantee information for the big-screen. What company would clean the carpet well, for a decent price. I didn’t bother reading anymore. I opened the rest of the envelopes and dumped the papers across the floor. I knelt down and fanned them out. There wasn’t one that was different. Wasn’t one sheet that said anything. No warnings, no paranoid, half-crocked explanations. Nothing about anybody coming back.
I knelt for a long time before I realized it was getting dark. Outside the wind had died, and the noise of trees and brittle corn stalks had died with it. I grabbed the shovel, and with its handle, swung the shed door open wider. Everything was grey blue in the dusk, and there were long clouds stretched against the sky. I walked out across the yard. Jain wasn’t where I’d left him, and he wasn’t in the corn. I rounded the house, using the shovel as a cane and stepped onto the gravel. It crunched under my old boots. The Ash trees were still. I thought I heard movement in the house, but it was Dodger. He was whining, and Jain was nowhere. I walked toward the road, but stopped before I got there. My pile of gravel was smoothed over. The spot where I’d been sitting was replaced by hundreds of tiny rocks. And I realized then, that I was there alone.
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