In elementary school, the other kids called Liv’s home that haunted house out on Barnhill Road. Liv herself has never seen a ghost there, but not for want of trying. They called her father lots of things: Freddy Krueger, Charles Manson, David S. Pumpkins. Now that she’s in high school, the other kids call her the spooky girl: to her face, on ugly pieces of paper smashed up small and pushed through the vents of her locker. Stay away from me, spooky girl. Don’t talk to me again in English, spooky girl. I saw you looking at me in the locker room, you spooky fuck.
The house itself is tiny but it huddles at the edge of a big sprawling lot three hours’ drive from the state capital. It’s a field, but not a farm: farms produce living things and sell them. Maybe there’s the ghost of soybeans somewhere deep in the soil but here, now, tractors and furniture and other dead things come to rest. Her father had always meant to fix these things up, salvage and sell the good parts for spare cash. But he never seemed to get around to it. Never stopped him from saying yes to anyone who dropped by with a stack of nail-toothed planks or an antique radiator in their truck bed, though. The field isn’t a junkyard, exactly; but not for want of trying.
When Liv sits in her bed, doing homework, she can see them in the field where they lay. The bones of houses, cars, machines. Sleeping giants.
Liv has never been allowed to play in the field, not even as a little girl. It sits idle, waiting. At night, the wind strokes the wounded edges of the neighbors’ cornfield and screams through old pipes and broken toilets. Liv barely sleeps in the summers, with no AC and the window thrown open to let the night on the backs of skunk-stink and grunting bullfrogs. On those nights, if she sits up against her pillows, she can sometimes see her father’s shadow sliding between the dark motionless hulks. His rifle is a long black bar against the man-shape.
When Liv was smaller, when she looked out of the window on a night the moon was small and shy, or when storm clouds muffled the starlight, she imagined other shapes out there too, bigger than a man, shaking the broken corn.
It’s been years since she’s heard the report of a rifle on a heavy starless night, and the deep keening of a living thing’s soul peeling away from its earthly vessel.
Lots of coyotes out this way. One killed Mrs. Berger’s German shepherd. Another got into the López family’s chickens. Mrs. Berger’s eldest son shot the coyote dead when it came back for her barn cats. His younger brother brought the pelt to school to show it off in Biology 9. Liv stroked the velvety brown fur and put her finger through the hole where the bullet struck true. Her hair was the same color as the leathered underside of the pelt. When she said the pelt smelled like old pee, the class laughed at her, called her Pissy-Pants for a week instead of spooky girl.
Not all monsters hide in closets or lurk under beds.
In the hallway outside the guidance counselor’s office, Liv peels off college application after college application and shoves them into her backpack’s dark, sour-smelling maw. Her breath comes tight and fast and her mouth is dry. This must be what looking at porn feels like: illicit, exciting. A hollow fantasy. The University of Minnesota Morris; UW Stout and River Falls and Eau Claire. Community colleges too, UW Baraboo and Fox Valley Tech and North Hennepin. When she zips her backpack shut and heaves it onto her back, the paper crinkles alarmingly. It complains all the way home, shifting with every bounce of the bus over the great washboarded ribs of the road.
It’s not the money. (It’s not just the money). It’s leaving her father all alone on the huge empty lot with his gun and his shadows. What if he cuts himself again, trying to clear the lawnmower blade? What if, with twenty years of cigarette smoke in him, he doesn’t smell a gas leak? What if he falls off that old aluminum ladder when he’s trying to clear the leaves from the gutter?
She isn’t good but she tries to ape what she thinks good looks like. Goodness is a plastic Halloween mask, it pinches and makes breathing harder than it should be, and behind it, the contours of her face are starting to grow to fit. When the string breaks—the string will break, one day; she can feel it pulling taut, a vise around her head that her veins hammer back against with every heartbeat—when the string breaks, maybe what’s left will still be enough to fool anyone who matters.
She isn’t good, but she wants to be, and can’t that be enough?
When Liv was twelve, a family of whooping cranes settled into the pitted porcelain curve of an old washtub. Beautiful creatures, all white but for a triumphant scarlet crown; they might as well have stepped straight out of a science-class nature video and into her backyard.
If Liv moved slowly, if she didn’t get too close, crawling on her belly, the daddy crane didn’t mob her. Then she could watch the two babies. The new hatchlings lacked the elegance and beauty of their parents, stumbling where the elder cranes strode. Liv ached to hold one, to see if it was as light as the baby quails that her fifth grade class had raised, to see if its heart trembled as quickly against her chest. But the parents never strayed far enough from the nest to let her get close.
This was her home, she thought, as the adult cranes groomed their hatchlings, and so these were, in a way, her pets. She loved the babies fiercely, possessively, their bright round eyes, their dull grassy smell. In guilt-bloodied fantasies, she wondered if the coyotes might drag off the grown cranes and leave the little ones behind.
One day, after flight feathers had begun to peel back the babies’ soft brown fuzz, Liv crouched in the shade of an abandoned pickup bed cover, fixated on her birds, when her father’s truck rattled the windowpanes in the house—earlier than she’d expected.
She shot up from her hiding spot. Gravity and dread pulling the blood away from her head and the world took on a gray, shrilling edge.
The crane turned his neck and fixed her in the perfect black mirror of his eye. He put his beak to the dark featureless sky and wailed his alarm.
Liv ran for the house. Her body moved all out of rhythm, her legs feeling too long, her arms clawed and swinging wildly. Too late to worry about being seen. Too late for distance to matter, either, but the panicking animal at the heart of her drove her breathless and stumbling across the little yard, through the living room, up the tiny staircase. Her bedroom door and the car’s slammed in unison.
She sat with her back against the door, panting, shaking the flimsy hollow-core with every breath. Waiting, without knowing what for. Her fingers curled into claws, peeling up pills from the ancient, never-washed carpet.
The door below opened. Heavy footsteps, the metallic cough of a distressed hinge. The door shut again.
Two shots from the rifle, in quick succession. The concussion from each one struck Liv, up through the floorboards, into the palms of her hands, up through her spine. Silence settled back in, swaddled by the ringing in her ears.
She went down slower than she’d come up, taking the stairs one at a time. At the kitchen door, she held the doorknob before turning it, watching her father’s shape ghost its way back and forth through the cigarette-yellow of the curtains. The brass didn’t warm in her hand, and finally, she twisted her wrist and put her shoulder into the door to open it.
Outside, her father was calf-deep in a shallow pit. His Carhartt jacket had been tossed to one side; a dark cross of sweat stained his t-shirt between his shoulder blades. He drove a spade deep into the ground, flinging shovelful after shovelful of soft summer dirt over his shoulder. Pebbles sang where they struck the side of the abandoned tub. Behind the curve of would-be alabaster lay a twisted heap of red and white. One golden-marble eye fixed her, froze her, at the fence line.
“Daddy,” she said. In her head, he was always her father, but she sensed the importance of Daddy aloud, the magic that those soft syllables held. “They’re endangered.”
The shovel stopped. Her father looked over his shoulder and gauged her placement on the other side of the fence. “Nah. Just a couple of sandhills. Nothing to get worked up about.”
Liv accepted this obvious fiction in stride. “What about the babies?” There had been only two shots.
The shovel twisted in her father’s hands. He bent again, blade breaking ground, deeper this time. When he spoke, the words came out of him with the blow of his heel against the shovel’s step. “These things have a way of working themselves out,” he said, and paused there, leaning into the handle like an old man, staring past the old tub into the empty, darkening field.
The girls’ restroom is crowded when Liv squeezes inside at the end of lunch break. All the stalls are occupied and all the sinks are too, a line of girls crowded up to the mirrors touching up their makeup. Holly Anderson glances sidelong, then whispers something about too many teeth to the friend beside her. Silent giggles shake them and they carefully avoid Liv’s eye as they carve out more flattering liplines in purple and scarlet.
For want of counter space, Holly’s purse is balanced on the edge of the trash can. The fake leather gapes, vomiting up a drugstore-full of lip gloss and mascara and foundation, a rainbow of metallic and matte pinks and purples and peaches. A rounded right angle juts up from the fat cylinders and squat bottles: Holly’s phone.
No one is looking at the purse. No one is looking at Liv.
She throws a used tissue in the garbage and palms the phone.
She takes long quick strides down the hallway: a swirling cloak of purpose wrapped around a hollow core. In her pocket, the phone twitches with ignored text messages, then vibrates with urgency as one of Holly’s friends tries to locate the missing phone by calling it, over and over and over.
Liv ducks into the library, muttering a no thank you to the librarian who asks if she needs help finding something. The farthest corner of the library is the little cubby left over between the end of the fiction authors whose names fall at the end of the alphabet and the shelf of programming languages “for dummies” books that launches the Dewey decimal system.
Liv sits down cross-legged beside J’accuse!, breathing dust and sweet paperback must, and takes the phone out of her pocket. It’s gone silent and still for now. When she lifts it toward her face, the screen lights with an angry string of missed-call notifications. She swipes them away to get the keypad: 030903. Holly’s birthday is only six days before her own, after all. The phone obligingly grants her entry.
She keys in the ten-digit phone number from memory; the numbers are worn into her memory, from overhandling, though she’s never gotten so far as dialing them before. She’s never dared. But the number is a matter of public record. She never changed her name. If she didn’t change her name, she wants to be found.
That’s not the same thing as wanting Liv to find her.
While the other line rings, Liv rehearses what she’ll say. Didn’t you love us? Why did you leave?
Why couldn’t you take me away?
Liv breathes into the phone. The rattling sound comes back to her through the speaker. Words throttle in the tight spot in her chest, bouncing off one another, sticking together.
Liv’s dry lips part. “You couldn’t take me,” she croaks.
Too late. The woman’s voice comes at a distance. “I don’t know. A prank call or something. I didn’t—”
The call terminates.
A flick of Liv’s finger and the number disappears from the Recent Calls list. It never happened. She slides the phone between two yellow, wavy-paged paperbacks and flees.
Her father never kept the coyote hides. On the nights when gunshot thunderclaps rattled the windows in their panes, he would always set a bonfire at the far end of the field, a great glowing ember past the edge of Liv’s sight from her bedroom window.
She’d never forgotten the pelt that David Berger brought to school, the familiar drape of it, the pinch of the bullet-hold in the leather around her finger. One brave night, over hot chocolate, she broached the subject of a coyote-pelt rug as a Christmas gift.
Her dad grunted. “You’re too old to still be writing letters to Santa.” But he swirled the cocoa in his mug, capsizing a constellation of stale mini-marshmallows. “We’ll see.”
On Christmas morning, Liv opened the box with her name on it and pulled out a brown plaid jacket lined with polyester fur at the collar and cuffs.
Liv’s dad is at work when Ricky Goodvillage pulls up in front of the house. He gets out of his pickup, leaving the driver’s side door open and the engine still grumbling, gray smoke dribbling out of the muffler.
“He’s not here.” Liv opens the grade door to talk to him, but the screen door still stands between them. “Do you want to leave a message?”
“Nah. I wanna leave something else.” Ricky’s black hair falls across his eyes. He goes to college in Menomonie during the school year; in the summers, he works the counter at his father’s Kwik Trip. The other girls at school whisper about him in the bathroom: his new haircut, his motorcycle, the exact way he’d handed back $8.01 in change for their gritty pre-mixed cappuccinos. He brushes back his hair. Liv thinks, obscurely, of his cousin Joanna, her too-long bangs obscuring her face as she bends over a drawing, her matching smile. “My mom bought a new toilet.”
He jerks his thumb, and they both look at the stained porcelain commode sitting in the back of his truck. The old, making way for the new. Dylan shrugs. “I can take it out to the field, if that’s cool?”
A flash of inspiration strikes Liv. “No. Just drop it here. In the yard.”
“You sure?” Ricky’s forehead creases, the renowned smile lingering reluctantly.
Having Ricky’s attention feels like the reflection of having Joanna’s. It’s nice enough, but cold and shallow. Liv nods. “Yeah. Right here.”
By the time her father comes home, she’s emerging from the basement, armed with rags and Clorox bleach and a full package of coarse-grit sandpaper sheets. The car keys dangle between his knuckles as his head turns to the toilet huddled beside the front door, then finds Liv framed in the doorway. “The hell is this?”
“Daddy, there’s so much junk out in the field.” She juggles her armful of supplies; an old pillowcase falls on top of her foot. “You remember those welded iron sculptures in Baraboo? And I don’t need to learn to weld yet. Just let me show you what I can do—I can sand and paint this old toilet, turn it into a planter, and I’ll put bulbs in it this fall, this one girl, Joanna, in my art class, she said that it’s easy to—”
Her father brushes past her into the house.
“Daddy!” The sandpaper scrapes the underside of her chin, drawing pinpricks of blood as she catches the door and follows him back in. She paws through what she’s said: nothing given away, that she can see. “What’s so bad about a toilet? What if I got an art scholarship? What if I could go to college in La Crosse, or Milwaukee?”
“You’re not going to the city.” The city. As if it’s just one, an amorphous mishmash of tall buildings laced together by train tracks and buckling sidewalks. A single car-horn honk drawn tight over the unblinking glare of a million street-lights. “I will never let you turn into—into—”
“A faggot?” she spits. “A-a queer?”
It’s past the point where she can give away her secrets anyway. Her father knows where they’re hidden, and he always takes them where he finds them. Her arms drop to her sides, limp, heavy. The bleach bottle spins in a dizzy circle on its rim; it catches itself, landing upright, against the door frame.
“You don’t know a damn thing.” Her father stomps up the stairs. The kitchen light bobbles on its chain. “Not a goddamn thing.”
The rest of the art supplies cascade to the ground, sandpaper sheets fluttering restlessly in the draft under the kitchen door. Liv leaves them where they lie before she stomps upstairs too, the echo of her father’s footfalls, and slams her bedroom door behind her.
She knows this place is supposed to be hers, someday. She doesn’t know much about it, but she knows enough to understand it has to be someone’s. Whatever anchors her father to it will tie her here, too. She’s growing, gaining the height that will soon let her pull the bitter fruit from the lowest branches of the tree of knowledge.
She can’t stay here, in the dark, all alone, forever. Not without opening even the tiniest window to let in some light. Her father has her. Doesn’t he? It’s not fair she should have nothing.
What she can’t get from him, from here, she’ll have to take for herself.
When she was little, she had a sandbox, a plastic green turtle rescued from the roadside in town before the Tuesday garbage pickup. She would waddle down to the drainage ditch with her plastic bucket, fill it with scummy water and carry it back to make mud. The sweet mucky-muck smell fascinated her; she liked to draw in through her nose and hold it on her tongue, delighting in all the flavors of filth and sludge. Afterward, she would have to take a bath, to come out with all other scents hammered flat beneath the monotonous sweetness of Johnson&Johnson. But for those brief sunlit moments: glorious grunge.
One day, a frog hopped out of her bucket when she lifted it, and Liv was instantly smitten. A couple of clumsy gropes in the slime didn’t catch her prize. While her father shoveled algae out of the ditch, farther down, she shuffled along behind the frog, grabbing, failing.
The frog fled the ditch’s scant shelter, and Liv followed. When she wriggled under a pile of rubber tires, holding her breath against the summer-day stink of rubber, a calloused hand seized her ankle and dragged her back.
“Daddy!” she protested, as he flipped her onto her back. “I’m just—”
The sound struck them both silent. A keening, faraway, yet close enough to slide between each vertebrate of Liv’s spine. She didn’t know it then, but years later, she would hear a coyote yip and yowl on an Environmental Science 10 class VHS tape. Coyotes did not sound, have never sounded, like that.
Liv scrambled to her knees, searching for the source of the sound. Her father’s hand stayed closed on her elbow, though, holding her tight. Keeping her close. He spun her around again to face him, his face close to hers; when she breathed, the air was his coffee breath and sweat. “You can hear them too,” he said. He looked sad, Liv thought. Later, she would turn the memory over, looking at it backwards and upside down, searching for what thornier thoughts lay below that thin sheen of sadness. Resignation? Surprise?
“Daddy.” She peeled at his unbending fingers. “The coyotes aren’t going to hurt us.”
He let go so fast that she fell onto her backside. The tears came them, hot damp confusion and frustration and wounded pride, and her father picked her up and carried her, like a baby, back into the house. “Some things,” he said tightly, as he wadded up her dirty jacket and threw it into the hamper, “some things don’t know better than to stay where they ought to.”
Liv huddled at the table with a cup of ginger ale to soothe her hysterical hiccups. The plastic straw lay slack against her lips and she stopped swinging her legs where they dangled not-quite to the linoleum floor. Even then, she sensed what her father was telling her was something important. Almost as important as what he wasn’t.
“It’s not their fault. Being what they are.” He unlocked the rifle cabinet, took down his gun and a box of ammunition. “But if they get out and harm someone else—”
He put his back to Liv. “Stay in the house. Away from the windows.” He considered this, then added a terse amendment. “Stray bullets.”
She stayed in the house, at the kitchen table, so still, with her fingers locked around the hard cool plastic mug. Her father was so strong, she thought, and drowned the acid curl of pride in her throat with a mouthful of Vernor’s. And he was, then: her strength not yet waxing, his at its peak before the inevitable wane.
A casserole is safe. Soft swollen noodle shells, cream-of-whatever soup, cradled in the square white dish with the labyrinth of crazing in the inside corners. The serving spoon, balanced on the edge, slowly slides deeper into the undifferentiated stratum.
Wet chewing noises are punctuated, at intervals, by rote questioning. How was school, how was work? Is the truck still making that noise north of 55 miles per hour? While her father sits back in his chair, loosening his belt against his second serving, Liv clears away his dishes; when she returns to the table she sets a piece of paper in front of him, with a black ballpoint pen clipped to the top.
“What’s this?” He lifts it, holds it closer to his face, squints. His reading glasses are in the end drawer or wedged in the cushions of his favorite armchair. A grease spot, picked up from the unwashed table, opens a small round window of grubby light through the paper.
“It’s a FAFSA form, daddy.” Adult arguments founder in the wake of that childish sobriquet. “I need money. For college.”
He shoves back from the table, plate in hand. The form swoops back and forth through the air, begging to be caught. By the time it settles to the linoleum, her father has deposited his dishes in the sink and put his foot on the first step.
“Daddy,” says Liv. But that isn’t what stops him. A far-off keening cuts through the overwarm kitchen air. The abandoned plates vibrate in the sink. Cold dread or excitement runs its fingers down Liv’s back.
“Stay inside.” He crosses to the gun cabinet, keys already jangling in hand, and takes out a rifle. The chamber is hungry; he feeds it a fresh magazine. “Put away the leftovers and do the washing up. It’s a school night.”
The door bangs shut. The draft catches the edges of the FAFSA form, which makes one last effort to peel itself up from the floor, but a damp gray heel-print has pasted one corner to the tiles.
Liv slides out of her chair but doesn’t bend over to pick the paper up. Her chest is tight, puling her shoulders down and forward. Her mouth feels too small to hold all her teeth.
The spoon loses its hold on the edge of the casserole dish and clanks to the bottom.
Opening the door to follow her father isn’t a choice so much as an instinct. Necessity yanks her by the collar and she stumbles after it. Her stocking feet catch at the dry, over-wintered stubble of the field. There’s a hole in the heel of her sock and a circle of cold spreads upward from there, until Liv’s body feels numb, not her own.
She doesn’t call after him and she’s not wearing orange. She waits for the bullet to find her—and is that what it would take, now, for him to keep her here? If she stays, must it be in the cold ground deeper than the roots can grasp?—but she finds her father first.
“Go inside,” he says. His back is to her as he shelters in the cover of a stack of wood siding. The knees of his jeans are dark with borrowed damp. He sights along the rifle, not looking at her. His Carhartt coat thumps with each breath; he’s panting. “You can’t be out here.”
“You don’t own me.” The words break out of her like thunder, impossibly loud, impossibly shrill. Her fingers claw against her thighs. Even through her jeans, the hot lines of pain well up. Blood drips down the inside of her knee. “I’m not part of your fucking garbage dump!”
She’s never cursed at him before. Maybe that’s what draws his eye: just a sideways cut, just a broken fragment of his periphery. Maybe it’s her anger that slackens his jaw with surprise and draws up the wet terror in his open mouth and the lightless corner of his eye. He looks so small. He smells like copper and ammonia and old tuna. Liv’s legs buckle and drive her, knees and hands, hard against the soil. Her fingers curl deep, too deep, and dry grass roots snap and pop between her fists.
“Go inside,” her father says again. But the power is broken, if it ever was truly whole. The rust of fear has eaten through whatever iron was ever in him.
He has always loved her. He has always been afraid of her. Why couldn’t she see either of those things, until now? Her life reorients around these new axes. No wonder her mother—no wonder his wife—left and never looked back. The field provides its own pillars of salt, in the squatty shapes of old toilets and broken fence-posts. No such outside testament will be required.
She wails, a voice borrowed from another throat, an impossible otherworld keening.
Her father still can’t make eye contact with her, but the rifle can. It swings her way and she sees it, understands it, is wounded by it before it ever fires. She bellows and throws herself at him.
The shot goes wide and it does not matter, has never mattered, if his aim was turned by purpose or panic. Liv goes over him, through him, paints the field with the copper and ammonia smells. The tuna smell is gone, amended into oblivion by that of the butcher’s shop.
The keening seizes Liv again then, regret foundering in the unknown sea of a greater sorrow. He was her father. She was not his daughter. The sound is sharp and it slashes the night open until entrails of moonlight spill through, onto what is left of her family. He has only one eye left now, and it meets hers, given no other choice.
The keening takes on an echo.
A dark hulking shadow strokes Liv’s periphery, coaxing her away from the squalid, ruined soul on the ground. She stills, fight and flight coalescing into freeze. It’s vast and jagged and it’s too much for her to look at straight on. Not yet. If she squints, its ragged edges collapse into something like a human shape.
More formless darkness stirs, past the edges of her sight. She smells the movement without seeing it: the scuff of dry dirt over fresh. The fruity nail-polish tang of hunger.
None of—them—approach. None of them break the circumference of her father’s spattered blood. They offer their own mournful keening, where her own has run dry. Somewhere, at a great distance, a coyote adds its voice to the chorus, then drops away, a silent apology for this intrusion.
She waits, but their waiting is older, more enduring. She is ready to love them; they already love her. They understand her, the gnarled heart of her, but not the sharp edges of the grief that still bristle around her. That’s the only thing she understands. She’ll keep that. It’s hers, more than anything else she’s ever been given in her life.
In the face of that terrible patience, she breaks first, turning to the road, the cold lifeless light of the moon. The ponderous turn of the world. She steps toward it, steps again, moving slowly and heavily with the weight of power, and the uncertainty.
They follow, a flock, a family she still can’t look at. Not in the newness of her. She’ll learn. In their wake, they tear the grass in the ditch down to the soft fleshy mud beneath; they leave long scratches in the dirt of the road. And they leave footprints.
Where will they go? Anywhere. This place is a fixed point and the whole world spins dizzily around it. It doesn’t matter where they go, only that they will never again have to stay.
Only her father remains behind: unburied, unburdened. An exchange, monster for monster. One last broken thing, to account the field’s collection complete.