By Nora Shychuk

 

Our neighborhood is sandwiched between Fairvale Cemetery and the local middle school filled with about six-hundred students at a time, give or take. We have known our next door neighbors, the Simons, for over ten years, and I can judge the time of morning by Kent Simon's appearance on the front porch. Always with a cup of coffee in hand, he comes out in striped pajamas. Yawns. Stretches. Bends over and picks up the paper. He will stare up at the sky for a moment or two, then head back inside. He does this at seven AM, every single morning, when the pale light itself is just waking up. The darkness still clings to the tips of houses, but the first rays of sun come soon enough-illuminating the fresh cut grass, then the leaves, then the high tree branches.

Fairvale is, almost always, uniquely unsurprising, timed, regular.

Our town's population never reaches over three-thousand residents at a time-and it is mostly made up of folks fifty-plus in age. Old men walk up and down tree-lined streets, kicking acorns as their dogs on leashes trot ahead. Grandmothers meet for coffee at the single cafe on Main Street, cleverly named The Main Perk Coffee House. It's busiest on Saturdays and the entire street smells of Elizabeth Taylor perfume and expensive hand creams, rose or lilac or sweet pea or honey almond. I find myself going there more often lately.

Every once in a while, there will be an empty chair outside The Main Perk Coffee House. Mrs. Sanderson died in her sleep. Mr. McGraw's pneumonia finally got the best of him. I'll find their obituaries in the paper and cut them out. Seventy-four years old. Eighty-eight years old. Ninety-two years old. Full lives, long careers, big families. Every last one of them.

Almost.

Our only daughter, Annette, died on prom night. After the dance, after she broke curfew and got drunk with Jeremy out at Gudgeon Bridge. Trains don't come around there too often anymore, but sometimes they do. Late at night.

Annette and Jeremy were standing too close to the tracks as the train approached from the dark tunnel. She tripped. Jeremy was too wasted to react quickly. Her classmates, her friends, were sitting on the hoods of their cars getting high and laughing. Laughing even as the train came rushing down the tracks like a bat from a cave.

Some of the kids said they saw her head spin all the way around before popping off like a cap on a bottle of soda after you shake it. They didn't say this to us, but we heard the whispers, overheard the low, secretive conversations when we walked by. Fairvale is like that, so small everyone knows everything as soon as it happens. The stories of her final moments varied greatly depending on who was talking, but there was one unwavering detail: she didn't scream. Before it happened, when the train's whistle was shrieking in the dark, the wheels scraping on the rail, the smoke billowing out of the stack, she stayed quiet. Even right before impact. She just lifted her head and watched it charge toward her. Everyone said the same thing.

And then the crunch of bones, the enamel pounded to dust. Her thoughts, her ideas, her soul, dashed and obliterated as her skin tore and blood smeared and her brain popped on the greasy metal. The coroner said it must have been a nasty fall - that it might have knocked her out for a moment or two, leaving her with no time to move out of the way. Later, when we looked at what was left of her, I noticed there was a rip in the fluffy, tulle fabric of her yellow dress. I imagined she snagged it on a rusty nail.

She got a page in the back of the senior class yearbook. A big, blown up picture of her smiling in her cheerleading uniform with Jeremy's Letterman Jacket draped over her shoulders. She sat beneath the football scoreboard, frozen in time, with wild, red hair blowing all over the place. It was windy that day, and cold. R.I.P Annette Hughes, the text beneath the photo said. Only the good die young. And then some quote from a song Kate and I didn't know. Her eyes stared out at us from the page and I told Kate if I looked really hard, I could tell what Annette would have looked like when she got older. She just had one of those faces. Kate started crying and left the room and I ripped the goddamn page out of the book and threw it into the fireplace.

 

"You could go see someone," Kate said, one morning over tea.

"Like who?"

"Dr. Remus."

"Dr. Remus? You're joking."

I brought my hand up to my face and studied my fingernails. I noticed the dirt caked beneath each nail, the deep-set wrinkles in my skin.

"I need a nail file."

"He's the best therapist in town," she said.

"No," I said. "He's the only damn therapist in town."

I glared at her. She flinched at the rising animosity in my tone and brought her cup to her lips with shaking hands. I heard her gulp, watched the skin of her throat rise and fall as she swallowed. I forced a smile then, thought of reaching my arm across the table and taking her hand in mine. But I couldn't, I couldn't because Annette was sitting at the table too. Somehow, she was still there, a constant, invisible presence.

"I'm just worried about you," Kate said.

Her voice shook and her eyes filled with tears and she looked so small and old in that chair that I wanted to comfort her.

"I'm okay, Annette," I finally said.

Kate's expression froze, her breath caught. I only heard a light breeze rattle the kitchen window frame, sending the cream curtain whipping side to side in the wind.

"What did you call me?"

"What?"

"It's me. My name is Kate. Your wife, Kate."

She got up quickly, knocked the wooden table with her knee, and walked out the door. Tea splattered over the rim of her cup and onto the table.

That's how it always went. Stilted, half conversations, followed by heavy silences. 

Kate dropped all the counseling talk after that. She ignored the fact that I was barely sleeping, had stopped eating. Sure, it was worrisome, but Kate couldn't even go into Annette's room, couldn't even wash her sheets, yet I was the one with all the issues. The one unable to adjust. The troubled partner. Kate never wanted to talk about it, but she had nightmares almost every night. At two or three in the morning, she would wake screaming and crying and shaking, gasping for air and curling up into a ball on her side of the bed.

It was around this time when I started going into Annette's room, to escape Kate's screams and her relentless nightmares; I needed peace and quiet-and my wife didn't seem to mind having the bed to herself.

I'd go in and sit on the edge of our daughter's bed and let myself cry. On her dusty, unused desk sat photo albums; I looked at them and fingered through old pictures and opened desk drawers and closet doors-even picked open her diary with my pocket knife. That's how I found out she was sleeping with Jeremy. Deep down I always knew, but this was proof. I saw the way she looked at him, noticed the way he rubbed her back and touched her face before he kissed her. She admitted in the pages that there were condoms under her bed, beneath old magazines and her volleyball gym bag. When I looked I was relieved to see that they were the normal size and not the freakishly extra-large kind.

 

The first thing I noticed about Jeremy was the way he smacked his lips when he ate our food at the dinner table, all teeth and spit and grunts of approval. He never offered to help clean up or give Kate a hand with the dishes. Some evenings I'd pop into Annette's room to say goodnight and find her crying. Phone in hand, bloodshot eyes. He'd forgotten to call again. Probably busy jacking off or blowing off his school work. I knew the type; I knew him like I knew Fairvale. No surprises. He had a low GPA and only got into state college on a sports scholarship. There was a write-up about it in the town newspaper, as if he was some sort of hero. He knew how to throw a ball-good for him.

Jeremy lives twenty-three minutes from our house, walking. In a car, it takes only eight. His family owns a bit of farm land, so their one-level, ranch-style house sits back on a couple acres with the smell of horse and cow shit heavy in the air. We went over for a barbeque one night last summer and had Coronas with his parents, Tim and Shelly, while the kids swam in the pool. Everything smelled of sunscreen and citronella. Tim made ribs even though he knew Kate was a vegetarian and offered her a strawberry salad and a baked potato and I noticed, with disapproval, that he licked his fingers clean after he teethed the soft meat off the bone. It was easy to see where Jeremy's bad habits came from. Skewers sat to the right of the grill and I suddenly felt the urge to take one and shove it down Tim's throat. Shelly at least used a napkin to clean her chubby, red hands.

Shallow woods line the back of Jeremy's house with a place for chopping firewood at the entrance, right in the middle of the gap in the trees. The night of the cookout Tim and I took a walk there and he mentioned how Annette was such a pretty little thing and that Jeremy was just bat-shit crazy for her. He handed me another Corona and the label was sticky from his barbecued fingers.

Annette told me once that deer came out in the evenings and munched on the grass there. She and Jeremy watched from the back window, his bedroom. Shelly brought them cocoa and let them borrow her telescope on clear nights so they could see the deer better-and look up at the stars.

How many times had I dropped Annette off there? How many times had I waited at the end of the long, winding driveway to make sure she got into the house okay? How many times did she turn back and wave at me? Three-hundred? Four? How many times did I drive to pick her up, her cheeks rosy, her face alive with her smile, her lips red from her cherry lip gloss-

Cherry lip gloss. That's how this started.

I went into Annette's room one night and cried into my hands, then fell onto the bed and sobbed into her pillow. After months of going in there, her bed had become the only place in the house I could relax, the only place where I had any chance of catching some sleep, even if it was just an hour or so. This pillow had cradled her head and brought her to her dreams and, unlike Kate, I found comfort in being in her old space, in using her abandoned things. And then I heard it. The lip gloss. Dislodged from somewhere under the bed, knocked loose by my weight on the mattress. I got up and swung my legs over the side of the bed just in time to see the tube roll to a stop underneath my feet. I picked it up, smelled it. Sweet and fruity. She had worn it on prom night. I remembered the scent immediately. Her image came to me easily then, untouched and real. I saw her smile, her reddened lips, her bright eyes, her big, vibrant dress.

I took the lip gloss in my hand and walked to the closet and started rooting through her clothes, attempting to find anything that would keep that image close and clear. I went through her old sweatshirts and winter hats and scarves and nightgowns. I found her grey cotton bathrobe and nuzzled into the fleecy hood. And then, sparkling towards the back of the closet, I found the black shawl she had worn with her dress. We took pictures of her and Jeremy out in our backyard, recorded him giving her a corsage and sliding it onto her wrist, snapped a few of them holding hands and standing by the weeping willow tree. Kate had helped with Annette's hair, zipped up her dress, painted her nails in that shimmery gold shade, I opened the door for her, held her steady as she walked out into the back yard to meet Jeremy. Her heels dug into the side of her feet, she told me. Birds chirped, fireflies blinked off and on, off and on. I could smell the flowers from Kate's garden. We took more pictures, moved Annette and Jeremy around the yard, she hugged us goodbye, kissed me on the cheek. It was all fast-forwarded now. Jumbled. Like film sped-up. And that's the way it went. Her life.

It had been unseasonably warm that night, so Annette left her black shawl at home with us, so Kate hung it back up in her closet where, of course, it would always stay.

The shawl hung in front of me, dead and unused and sagging. I sniffed it and smelled her cotton candy perfume, still clinging, somehow still there. Then I grabbed it and without thinking wrapped it elegantly around my neck. I rubbed my hands on the smooth fabric and tried to imagine Annette's little shoulders, the way her hair had been pinned up glamorously; the way a few fire red strands hung down around her ears and grazed the shawl. I thought about turning the light on, about inspecting the cloth for stray hairs, but I couldn't stomach the thought of actually finding one.

I took the cap off the lip gloss and rubbed the cherry flavor into my lips, spreading the sweetness over every inch of them.

After that night, I hid the lip gloss at the back of the medicine cabinet. When I left the house, I kept it in my pants pocket. Kate never found it-she never saw-and I kept going back into Annette's room night after night. I went through her things and took out the shawl and draped it over my shoulders. The softness reminded me of her and that comforted me more than anything else. For a moment, she was there.

And then I found Jeremy's gold and red Letterman Jacket.

It wasn't hung up; instead, the jacket was folded neatly at the bottom of a big plastic tub, full of old notes and cards and pictures and movie ticket stubs and dead flowers. Their memory box. Their keepsakes. Annette kept every single thing that squinty-eyed shit gave her, including the Letterman Jacket. It was decorated with football pins and soccer clips and little metal baseballs.

It fit almost perfectly. I'm not a big guy, and Letterman Jackets always run a bit large. I wrapped the shawl around my neck and, suddenly, I felt Annette there in the room with me. She leaned into me and I remembered her soft skin and the way she used to nudge me when I embarrassed her. I think she sat next to me then; I think Annette put an arm around me and whispered that it was okay. It was okay I was there, touching and wearing her things, because I just wanted to feel close again. I thanked her and remembered her eyes again and the way she sang when she set the table and how her skinny, awkward legs hung over the porch swing when she read her books. How her favorite time to be out there was when it was raining.

But enough of that. Annette's body was rotting away in Fairvale Cemetery and those eyes were the first things to go, the first things the bugs devoured, the juices falling down her lifeless cheeks, down onto her neck they had to sew back together to support her crushed, detached skull.

The easy thing to do would be to drag Jeremy's lanky, scrawny body to the edges of his family's woods. To put his head on that tree stump and slice it off in one, fast blow the way they cut up their firewood. The easy thing to do would be to yank him down to the tracks, past the recently added WARNING! sign, to where Annette died, and throw him in front of a train.

Jeremy had taken the light from Annette's eyes by fucking her in the Mustang that his parents gave him as an early graduation present; he killed her by giving her drinks and making her laugh and cry and grow up and want and yearn and disobey. He did it. He snuffed her out.

It was not enough to desperately miss my daughter.

 

It was Mrs. Graham at Momma Graham's Bakery who told me that Tim and Shelly were going away for a month-long vacation, a summer trip to Miami, Florida. She handed over my croissants, still warm and soft through the brown bag, and I smiled and thanked her as I left the bakery just a few stores down from the coffee shop and the post office and the library and everything else in Fairvale. The bell overhead chimed at my departure and I left with a plan.

There wasn't much time, only a few weeks, so I studied intensively. I watched the ladies at The Main Perk Coffee House and noticed how they applied their lipsticks and blush and curled their hair. I took down jumbled notes in my phone while I observed their painted nails and inhaled their musty scents and glanced at their lacy bras underneath their flimsy, sheer shirts. Some of them would come up to me and ask how I was doing; they'd offer condolences and comfort and home-cooked meals and I got a better look at the way they applied their concealer and bronzers.

I drove out of town and browsed through magazines in gas stations and convenience shop aisles, committing these printed women to memory. The shape of their bodies, their lips, their eyes, their outfits, even the way they struck their poses. They were so uniquely feminine, so soft and so glamorous. I avoided research in department stores and anywhere semi-respectable. Then, after I studied, I'd buy something else. A bag of blueberry bagels. Laundry detergent. Gum. Butter. Some soda for the house. Chips. Beer. Toilet cleaner and bristle brushes.

I drove up to the flea market over in West Ridge and found a red wig. The wrapping crackled under my fingers as I held it up to the owner of the booth, a thin lady with worry lines around her eyes and forehead. I asked how much and she dragged on a cigarette as she looked me up and down. I asked again and she said five bucks and her voice was gruff and I smelled smoke on her breath. I handed over the bill quickly and stuck the wig inside my jacket. As I walked away, I felt her looking at me, wondering, but she never asked and I never turned back.

Time passed. I waited.

 

The night comes.

I'm in Annette's room and I find more old make-up she will never use, mascara and eyeliner and foundation and powders. I remove the wavy, red wig out of its packaging and take the shawl and the Letterman Jacket from the closet. The cherry lip gloss is clutched in my sweaty palm. I shave my stubble and touch my clean, smooth chin, pleased with my expertise, my close, careful trim. When I apply the liner and rub the grey eye shadow on my left lid to create a smoky-eyed look, I see Annette in the mirror staring back at me. Our eyes are the same. Big and expressive and intense. Like father, like daughter. Then comes the powder to help combat oily, shiny skin, then the hint of bronzer, then some blush. I think back to how she looked that night and do my best with fading memories.

Under the harsh, fluorescent glare of the bathroom light my skin appears sallow, my eyes bloodshot. But the rippled wig works wonders and my transformation startles even me. I take the Letterman Jacket and put it on and drape the shawl over the top, spraying a hint of Annette's old, sticky candy perfume on my pulse points to finish the job.

It is true that we have kept all of Annette's belongings, down to the souring perfume, in case our daughter decides to come back for them. A sadness surges through my heart and I nearly falter, I nearly take off the wig. But I refocus. I remember him. And the train.

Kate sleeps soundly in our bed tonight. I check on her before I leave and her breathing is slow and even. She holds a couple of crumpled, wet tissues in her hand. I hope she will not wake.

I wait until it's late enough and I creep out through the front door and lock it behind me. It is just past eleven thirty and Fairvale has gone to sleep. The air is earthy from some light rain hours before and the grass glimmers with raindrops. When I look up at the sky I am pleased to see the weather report was correct. Cloudy. Intense coverage. Barely a moon tonight. My face feels heavy under the weight of make-up and little horse flies buzz and stick to my cherried lips. Luckily I brought the tube with me for reapplication if needed.

Distant thunder rumbles. It will rain again, soon. I can feel the electricity in the air and know, from the way my hair stands up on my arms and neck, that the temperature will drop and make way for another cool, late summer shower. Then the pitter-patter of rain will fall on our windows, on our old roof. Tapping, tapping. After this is all over, I will fall asleep to the sound.

My feet crunch quietly on the graveled road. I walk off to the side in case of any traffic. Most of the roads in Fairvale are surrounded by trees, bushes, and shrubs to hide behind. I have all I need, even a coat in my backpack in case I have to cover up quickly.

As if on cue, a car turns down the street. I dive behind a rose bush in front of the McConnell's. I wait. The car passes and I watch its fading lights dim on the slick road as the tires spit back water. I rise and stand perfectly, rigidly still next to an old oak tree and try to imagine what would happen if the lights hit me like a spotlight. The driver, maybe even one of my neighbors, would see a woman walking alone in the dark with a glittering shawl, tangled red hair, and  a face plastered in make-up. At first, they might think I'm a prostitute but, if they got closer, they might think that Annette Hughes has come back from the dead.

The porch light is on when I reach Jeremy's, so I drop down and army-crawl around the side of the house, careful not to get my shawl or Letterman Jacket muddy and even more careful not to alert the two dogs.

It really is dark and I can barely see a thing. Everything is shadowed. I feel with my hands, I dig my toes into the dirt and wriggle my way to the back of the house. Jeremy's bedroom light is on and I can see him, through half-opened blinds, as he sits at his desk with his laptop open. Headphones on. I rise and retreat back into the cover of trees and hear the leaves whoosh back and forth in the light, after-rain wind. The chopping block is dusted with wood guts from fresh cuts and I smell sawdust on the air.

The deer pop into my head and maybe, somewhere, they are watching. I wonder if they remember Annette and the way she stared out from that window just ahead. I hear a twig snap and whirl my head around, but nothing and nobody is there.

I watch Jeremy at his desk. He rubs his temples, then along his eyebrows and I feel my heart drop. I reconsider. He looks old and tired-like he's lost weight, his eyes sunken, slit-like.

I nearly turn around and walk away, but then I see it. Jeremy laughs at something on his computer screen, his shoulders shuddering and shaking. My head suddenly throbs and I bite down on my tongue and taste the blood.

I stay calm. I wait until Jeremy stops laughing; I wait until he takes off his headphones. Then, in one, swift movement, I remove a rock the size of my balled fist from the backpack. I bring it up to eye-level, squint, and aim. I breathe, I focus. Then I wind up and let the rock soar.

It crashes through Jeremy's window. He jumps and runs to the broken glass and stares out at nothing. It is too dark to see me now, but still I plant a smile on my polished lips. The dogs bark and run into his room and Jeremy tells them to calm down. They whine and sniff and yelp. He pats their heads and shushes them and looks back out my way towards the window. His eyes dart around and I can hear him kick the glass with his foot, useless and unsure and pathetically small. He reaches for his phone, considers it. Considers calling mommy or daddy or the police, but he puts it back down and puffs out his chest. I know this is an act of fear. Every man knows it. Simple bravado. He is trying to be fearless. He is trying to handle it. In that moment he remembers who he is: Jeremy. Athlete. Team captain. An early decision, college-bound adult. Mustang driver. Annette fucker. So, he leaves the room with his brow creased and fists clenched.

I hear his footsteps and in seconds he appears on the back porch. He turns on the light and I am there, bathed in a golden glow and grinning right at him, front and center.

Jeremy lets out a high screech and jumps backward, covering his eyes. I have startled him. Good.

"Look, I don't know who you are-"

At first, the initial plan was to run off the second he saw me, but grand performances should allow for magic. For spontaneous invention. I decide I want Annette to be seen, so I take another step closer, say nothing, and wait for him. He looks up again and finally sees me-her-and then he sees himself. His Letterman Jacket. The shawl he held in his hands in one of the photos from prom night. I see his eyes scan my hair and it all comes back. Tears in his eyes. His shoulders creep up to his ears.

"Mr. Hughes?" he asks, his voice shaky.

I just stare at him and keep on smiling.

---

 

Nora Shychuk grew up in a tiny town in Pennsylvania and now lives in Ireland. Telling stories is her favorite thing to do and drinking coffee is a close second. Nora's short story, Winter Green Gorge, was published in The Quarryman Literary Journal and she was invited to read another short story, Colors, at K-Fest in Killorglin, Ireland. Nora's writing blog can be found at www.thinkbreathewrite.wordpress.com