Careful Negotiations

Natalie Sypolt

Bassett hounds are good for hugging.  They’re the right size and their soulful eyes say that they know how you feel.  Unfortunately, they are not good guard dogs. Your own—Hester and Dimsdale (Dim for short)—bark at new smells, birds, rumbling trucks, each other, but when a strange man comes into your yard (invited, yes, but how could they know?) suddenly the deep woof and the bay are gone.  The tails are wagging.  They are smiling in that tongue lolling doggy way.  Hester, that slut, has flopped over on her back and offered her flabby belly up to him. 

Lesson 1: Understand that your dogs cannot be trusted.

Before the man was in your yard, he was at the Golden Egg, drinking with two of his buddies.  They were all dressed alike, wearing those neon yellow shirts that a lot of the construction or road crew guys wear. You were with Luann and your sister Corrine.  When you saw him, you were so shocked that you almost dropped the bottle you’d been holding.  The heat that welled up in your chest was painful, crushing, and you grabbed at your heart. 

“Hazel, you okay?” Luann asked. 

How can you be okay when a dead man is doing shots in the Golden Egg?

Lesson 2: Dead men drink whiskey straight, no chaser.

Luann followed your gaze and also saw the dead man, who was now moving with his friends to the dart board. 

“Oh, Hazy,” she said, and patted you in that familiar way she’d been doing for months, ever since Walker died. 

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Corrine said. She’d not had much sympathy for your situation and had warned against seeing a married man—a married Crystal especially—because those boys had never been anything but trouble.  And Walker had a history, had spent a little time in jail.  You’d known all that, but you’d remembered the boy he was too, and that had made up for a lot.  You broke it off long before he got sick, but that hadn’t made his death any easier.

“You know who that is, right? You don’t think—” Corrine said and laughed a little, meanly.  Then you heard someone say “Sam” from over near the dart board and realized how stupid you’d just been.  Not a dead man.  A dead man’s twin brother.

Maybe you’d heard someone say that Sam Crystal was back from Afghanistan, back from wherever he’d been living since he’d left Warm after high school, but it hadn’t registered, or you’d stored it away in that part of your head where you put painful things to deal with later.  You could clearly see that this wasn’t Walker.  This man looked healthier, a bit thicker, tanned a golden brown from working outside.  Irony.  You’d just mistaken Sam for Walker; the first time you talked to Walker in the Egg, you’d mistaken him for Sam.

Lesson 3: Dead men don’t play darts.

In high school, you were the chubby girl who wore oversized t-shirts and leggings and sometimes leg warmers.  Your sneakers were knock-off Reeboks; you’d taken out the plain white laces and replaced them with rainbow ones.  You had frizzy red hair and never could get the bang poof exactly right.  You were the girl with the ugly name, the ugly hair, and the ugly clothes.  Luann was your best friend by default because—like you—she had a beautiful sister but was not beautiful herself. She was also on the IQ Squad, and had once ripped her worn-through jeans right down the back seam, but didn’t know it, and went to all her classes with her dingy underwear showing.  

The Crystals were two grades ahead of you and Luanne in school.  Those boys were beautiful with their thick, wavy, honeyed hair and stormy eyes.  One was a little taller than the other, and had a moon shaped scar on his jaw, but other than that, they were identical.  Everybody knew them because they were twins and because they were Crystals.  Some people were scared of them—that family had a reputation that went back past all your grandfathers.  But they were popular, too, and were friends with town kids.  Most holler kids kept to themselves; Walker and Sam seemed the two that could bridge the gap between the have-nots and the have-even-lesses.  That’s about all there was, though your family had it better than most because your mom was a teacher at the elementary school and your dad drove the school bus. 

Corrine would have never officially dated a Crystal, but sometimes she snuck out to meet Walker.  He’d pick her up at the end of your block, driving his daddy’s falling-to-pieces pickup truck.  When you’d hear Corrine creeping out of the bedroom you shared, you’d wait a few minutes, and then sneak out behind her.  Usually, you’d get to the end of your driveway just in time to see the lights of Walker’s truck and hear it rattle away. 

Lesson 4: Sisters keep secrets.

Lesson 5: You can never really get over high school. Don’t try.

You’d been living in the little house on Back Road for a few months when you ran into Walker in the Egg.  You’d only been a county away, first going to college at WVU and then substitute teaching until you got a full-time job at your old elementary school. 

You recognized Walker right away.  You’d seen him maybe a few times over the years when you’d been home to visit or for summers, but you’d never talked.  You knew he’d eventually married Janey Murray, the girl he’d gotten pregnant in high school.

When you saw him look you over, some switch flipped.

He turned a chair around and straddled it, resting his chin on the top as he watched you down another shot.  His eyes were twinkling and you knew that he was drunk, but so were you, and you hardly noticed when Luann got up to leave. 

He liked that you remembered him; he was one of those guys who felt his life had all been downhill after graduation.  So you told him how you’d watched him in the hallways, how jealous you’d always been when he’d come and pick up your sister.  There was a slight glimmer of recognition then—he remembered Corrine—but didn’t even know that she had a sister. 

“Don’t that beat all,” he said, getting closer to you. His face was the north pole of a magnet and yours was the south.  “How come I never knew you before?”      

When you let him into your front door, you were thinking about the high school Walker, not this man who was only two years your senior, but looked so much older. He’d lived hard, isn’t that how your mom would have said it? Smoking, drinking, drugs, and late nights had made twenty-eight look at least ten-years older. 

The dogs didn’t like him.  They barked and grumbled and Hester nipped at the back of his pant leg.  You had to push them into the guest room, feeling guilty because you knew deep down that they were probably right and this was a man to growl at and bite, not one to let into your bed.

You’d almost changed your mind until Walker grabbed you around the waist, pressed his lips to your neck and walked you backwards into the bedroom. He pushed you down.  When Walker reached for the light, you stopped him.  In the moonlight from the window, you watched him pull his shirt over his head and undo his belt. 

High school. That day in the cafeteria someone had dumped a lunch tray down Luann’s back and you’d stood up to defend her, only to slip in the mess on the floor and fall flat on your back.  Everyone in the cafeteria laughed and when you tried to push yourself up, you just slid again, eliciting another round of hoots.  Finally, you felt a hand wrap around your wrist and hoist you to your feet as though you weighed nothing at all.  Wavy hair, stormy eyes, and no laughing mouth.  You loved him from then on, made stupid over that small act of kindness. 

This is what you were thinking about as Walker moved over you, his head thrown back to the ceiling. You watched his face, raised your hands to him.  As you ran your thumb across his chin, over his lips, up his jawline, you stopped at the moon shaped scar that Walker’d had ever since he was a kid.  It was the thing teachers had always used to tell him apart from his brother. You shut your eyes and pictured the cafeteria scene again, like you had so many times over the years.  You had captured every inch of his face like a photograph. There was no scar.

A wave of sick came over you just as Walker let out a howl then collapsed on to the bed.  How could you have been so stupid?  It was Sam Crystal, all those years ago, not Walker.  It was Sam who you’d watched in the hallways, who’d smiled those times he’d caught you looking. 

Walker’s arm was still draped across your chest and he squeezed your breast. 

“You really do got great tits, Holly,” he said, and gave it another squeeze, like he was testing the ripeness. Through the wall, you could hear your dogs, making the saddest, most lonesome sounds you’d ever heard. 

Lesson 6: Memory is a son of a bitch.

Lesson 7: If you’re going to sleep with a married man, first check for facial scars.

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