The truck was fucked, but Richard worked on it anyway. Sleeves rolled, oil up to his elbows, he cranked a wrench in the rusted engine block and swore at the part’s stubbornness to come out. The open hood shielded him from the sun’s glare, but it baked him from the waist up, and that didn’t help his mood any. He always kept his overalls done up, though. As much a fuck you to Frank as anything. The garage was small, with room for only one vehicle at a time inside, and that was where Frank worked, where it was cool. Richard worked the ones waiting in the lot where it was bright and hot.
“Hey, Richie! How long you gonna be on that one?”
“Days,” he yelled back. “Weeks, maybe.”
He stepped out from the engine and straightened his back. Vertebrae didn’t pop so much as grind.
Frank took off his cap and rubbed a hand over his scratchy head stubble. He turned to spit. “Say again?”
“Best to junk it,” Richard said. “The old girl’s done.”
Frank let that hang between them for a moment. There was a radio on inside. Patsy Cline, singing about strange dreams with a voice like tin.
“You want me to tell Warren he needs a new truck?”
Richard didn’t care enough to even shrug. “He’s got us fixing something can’t be fixed.”
Frank was nodding, but he didn’t mean it. “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” he said. “But look. Right there, see what it says? It says repairs. So repair it.”
Richard shook his head, muttered something not for Frank’s hearing, and bent back into the engine. Damn thing was only held together with dirt, dust, rust, and promises.
“It’ll get done quicker if you don’t keep interrupting me.”
“Yeah, and quicker than that if you didn’t have visitors taking up working hours.”
Again, Richard re-emerged from the truck’s guts into bright light. This time when Frank took off his hat to spit, he didn’t just turn his head but moved aside. There was a woman behind him in the shade of the shop.
She stepped out of the shadows and said, “Hey, Dick.”
Richard wiped sweat from his brow, thinking maybe the heat had got to him, but when he put his arm back down she was still there.
“Never did like that nickname,” he said.
“Okay,” said Frank, sweeping his arms to usher the woman along, “there he is.” To Richard he said, “Make it quick, Dick.”
Richard acknowledged the command with a look but no nod. He started wiping his hands and arms with the rag from his back pocket, saw how it cleaned up his scars, and stopped. He limped towards her. She met him halfway to save him the bother.
“You look good,” she said.
“You too, Sal.”
“Then I guess that makes the both of us liars.” She smiled, and the scar that slashed down across her lips made them pucker. She had another one running the length of her cheekbone. She wore her hair down despite the heat, but you could still see the scars on her neck and shoulders if you knew to look for them, and Richard looked.
Sally did the same. Richard had a scar that pulled his right eyelid down, and another striped his cheek, but it was his arm she checked when he offered his hand. She saw the lines across his forearm, the ones across his palm, but nothing new. Had he offered the left, she’d have seen different. Aborted wounds he lacked the courage to finish.
She took his hand and shook with, “A fucking handshake?” then pulled him in for a tight hug that surprised tears from him in being so fierce and so familiar. For a moment, dry cornfields burned around them, ashes floating high into the night sky.
He stepped back when she let go and took another look at her.
“My eyes are up here, Dick.”
It was an old joke between them but carried new meaning now. Dust clung to where she’d sweat through a tank top flat on her chest.
“Double mastectomy,” she said.
She shrugged. “I’m alive.”
Behind them, in the garage, Frank cleared his throat and spat something heavy. The radio’s song was gone, replaced by the rise and fall of a preacher’s voice suggesting they weren’t in the panhandle of a Bible Belt state or even the pan but burning already in the fire.
“It’s good to see you,” Sally said.
He wondered if that also made them liars.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
Sally leaned on the truck though it must’ve been hot, even through denim. She pulled a packet of cigarettes from a pocket of her jeans and offered him one.
She shrugged again and put one to her mouth. She cupped a flame to it and exhaled her first breath of smoke saying, “Shit, Richard, you going to make me say it?”
She bumped herself away from the truck with her behind and faced him again. She inhaled deeply from the cigarette and expelled the smoke as if it made her angry. “I’m going back,” she said.
He didn’t need to ask where, only why.
“Because I need to finish it. Properly, this time. Don’t you want to finish it?”
Richard shook his head. She was asking more than one question. “I can’t,” he told her. “I’m sorry, Sal. I can’t.”
Sally nodded. She knew that already. “That’s all right.” She took a final hit from the cigarette and twisted it dead beneath her shoe. She still liked to wear sneakers, he noticed. Laces loose and tucked in beneath her feet.
“You wanna get a coffee or something?”
“That’s all right,” she said again. Before she turned to go she said, “It really was good to see you.”
Richard nodded it back.
Sally slapped the truck beside them as she left. “Don’t give up on her,” she said, and, “You’ve always been good at fixing things.”
Richard watched her go.
Frank watched her, too. “Okay, Dick, you heard the lady,” he said when she was gone. He pointed at the truck. “Get it fixed.”
The microwave hummed and Richard scraped old plates into the trash. Most nights he ate at Robsons but Frank had pissed him off even more than usual so he’d skipped the convenience of the diner to put some miles between them. Used to be he lived right above the shop, but when Bill passed, Frank moved himself in before the old man was even in the ground. Richard didn’t mind all that much. He missed the cheap rent, but he missed the old grease-monkey more. How the man ended up with a son like Frank was something Richard never figured out.
You reap what you sow. What a load of horseshit.
His dinner pinged and he grabbed a clean fork. He tipped molten mac cheese from the tray to his plate and took it to a ratty armchair he’d moved to the window so he could watch the street below. It wasn’t all that interesting, but neither was the TV.
He pushed his pasta around with a slice of bread, soaking up pretend cheese, and he ate.
Things had been different once. With Sally, way back when, living in the city. They’d shared a place above a bowling alley, their evenings punctuated by the muted smash of pins and the noise a rowdy crowd, but they’d been good enough years. As good as they could be. His dreams of playing football died right along with his knee and he forced himself to know engines instead. Sally found work in bar where nobody cared about her scars. They did all right. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t work out. Too much shared trauma meant it never went away for either of them. You could avoid mirrors all day long, but each was the other’s echo. Sometimes there was comfort in that. The nights could be bad sometimes, but they had each other when the dark was too deep and the scythe came reaping.
I’m going back.
Richard forked more food to his mouth. It was still too hot, but the beer helped with that. He usually limited himself to one on a workday, but he knew with the first swallow he’d be drinking the rest of them tonight. Maybe even go get more.
I need to finish it.
He put his plate on the floor and finished his beer and set the empty bottle next to his plate. Sitting in his chair, he watched the people come and go on the street below and tried not to think about what his life had become.
You reap what you sow.
He was sitting with his hands upturned in his lap. He looked down at the palms where scars cut his lifelines into before and after.
Don’t you want to finish it?
There was a shoebox in his wardrobe. He went to get it, and on the way back he grabbed another beer. He drank it and he opened the box.
Where someone else might keep a gun, Richard kept photographs. They did own a gun once, but Sally had come home one night to find him looking at it in a way she didn’t like. Said it was a look she’d seen before. Richard didn’t need to ask when. He gave her the gun, and never asked what she’d done with it.
He sifted through the photos with both hands like he was looking through a record store. Here was Sally at the bar, Sally squinting in the sun, Sally with her first car (and you bet he made sure that fucker always run). Time slipped through his shuffling fingers, all the way back to–
It was an old photo. There were pinholes in the corners and a crease down the middle where the gloss had broken along a fold so that the photo carried its own kind of scars. It was the last picture of all of them together. They were leaning against the side of Ricky’s RV.
And what does RV mean? It means Ricky’s Vehicle, that’s what it means, okay? Which means only Ricky drives said vehicle, okay? Just me. Capisce?
They’d all been more than happy to let him drive. It freed them up to goof around in the back, though they took turns sitting up front to keep Ricky company.
In the photo, Ricky was pushing his tongue into his bottom lip and he’d crossed his eyes, goofing around himself. He was wearing shorts he’d cut from an old pair of jeans, a button shirt with short sleeves, and a tie. Always a damn tie. He had his arm around Lauren.
Lauren’s shorts were very short because she had great legs and there’s nothing wrong with knowing that. She wore her bell-sleeved top tied high because she had a great midriff, too, and she knew. Sunglasses kept her hair back. Her hands were up making double peace signs.
Peace, too, from Debs, but only with one hand. The other held a lollipop in her mouth. She wore a flowered blouse like it was a dress and cowgirl boots she’d bought new.
Richard looked away from the photo, but he could still see it. He was next in line. Socks pulled high from hiking boots. Sport shorts. A football tee with the sleeves cut free, his arms crossed tense on his chest. That stupid grin on his stupid face.
And Sally, the reason for the grin. Both her arms around him.
He dropped the photo and Sally smiled up from what was left of his dinner. He rescued her from congealing mac cheese and wiped the photograph clean.
He looked again and saw three dead friends.
Richard rubbed a fist across the picture, trying to smudge away what memory had made of them. He saw each of them posed in a bloody tableau and turned the picture and wiped it over the leg of his jeans like the blood was on the picture. He didn’t turn it back. He put it in the box and closed the lid over it. He shoved the box away.
He closed his eyes and finished his beer to the sound of crows erupting from rows of corn. Pieces of night on fire. When he slept, he ran through burning fields, ashes spiralling into the sky like feathers, and from somewhere behind came a whistling scythe to cut him down.
“When did you become such a lady’s man, Dick?”
Richard was on a creeper under the same truck as the day before. He didn’t bother to roll himself out. He shouted, “What?” into the vehicle’s chassis.
Frank kicked Richard’s feet.
“I’m busy, Frank.”
“Just get your ass out here.”
Richard pushed off from the frame. He slid out from under the truck saying, “Stub axle’s fucked as well.” He sat up and winced into the bright sunlight.
Frank said, “Did I start a social club or something?”
Frank pointed with a wrench. Richard looked, still squinting.
She stepped closer as he stood. It was Sally in her twenties, young and scar-free. Except, of course, it wasn’t.
“No,” she said. “Do you know where she is? She come out here to talk to you?”
She looked just like her. Stood like her, too. Defiant. Her eyes were different, though.
“You know who I am?” she asked.
“I think so.”
“Did you know about me before?”
Richard shook his head.
“Look,” said Frank, “You can talk it all out on your own time. In case you haven’t noticed, Richie, we got a lot of work to do around here.”
Richard enjoyed how the woman looked at Frank. She did it with eyes like his, but the look was Sally’s all the way through. Frank even took a step back.
Richard wiped his hands and tossed the rag. “I’m taking the rest of the day.”
“You’re what, now?”
For the first time in a long while, Richard straightened to his full height and Frank took another one of those backwards steps. He was used to seeing Richard bending over an engine or lying down beneath one, and he wasn’t doing that anymore today.
“I’ll be at Robsons,” Richard said, jabbing a thumb like he was hitching to the diner across the yard. “I’m getting something to eat with my daughter and then maybe I’ll come back, but maybe I won’t. It depends on why she’s here.”
Richard looked at her and she nodded confirmation.
The diner was empty. That was true almost any time of day, with just enough drop-ins trickling through to keep from closing down. Ginny always worked the diner’s lunch shift. She said hello without prying into Richard’s business, and Richard ordered his usual.
“And you, honey?”
Richard said, “You should eat something.”
Ginny said, “We can do that.”
They took a booth at the window. Richard dragged a tin circle ashtray to his side of the table and took a cigarette from the packet crushed in his shirt, all of it habit. He offered his daughter one and made to push the ashtray back, but she waved them away.
“I promised to quit.”
Richard nodded, and put the cigarette to his mouth before realising who she’d likely promised and why. He put the cigarette back.
“She never told me,” he said. “About you, I mean.”
“It’s all right. I’m not here for any of that. I had a dad for a while when it mattered, and he was pretty good.”
“She never married him or nothing.”
They looked at each other. Richard wondered what she saw.
“What about you?” she asked. “You married?”
There’d never been anybody else, not after Sally.
Richard turned the question back, rather than talk about that.
“What about you? Boyfriend?”
She shrugged. “To me. Hopefully to her, but you never really know, do you?”
Their coffee arrived. Richard drank some of his. He looked out the window and saw Frank go to a car pulling in, out of state plates, steam misting from beneath the hood.
“She talked about you sometimes. When things were bad.”
He faced his daughter again.
“She said she wouldn’t be here if not for you. I guess that’s true for me, too.”
She was leaving lipstick on her coffee cup. Sally used to do the same, but then so did a lot of women.
“She went back there, didn’t she? To the farm.”
Richard gave a nod. “That’s what she said.”
“Why didn’t you go with her?”
“She didn’t ask.”
“What if she did ask?”
Richard shook his head. “Sally doesn’t need someone like me.”
“She used to. So what if she’d asked?”
Showing up to see him, though. That had been her asking.
“She tell you about the cancer?”
He nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s cool, she beat it. She’s tough.”
“It was after the doctor told her, and through the . . . the treatments, she talked a lot about what happened to you. To both of you, and your friends. She never talked about all that before.”
Richard’s food arrived. They were both quiet while Ginny set the plate down and topped up their coffee.
“She used to make up all these stories about her scars when I was a kid, these far out stories, so when she told me about the farm I thought she was doing something like that again, but she wasn’t.”
“A fucking scythe?”
“That’s fucked up.”
She pointed to his face. “And those scars?”
“And the limp?”
He mimed a reaping motion. “Hooked in under the kneecap. Nearly pulled it out.”
She pointed at one of his arms. “What about those?”
He held both arms up, not just the left, and turned his palms to her, shielding himself. “Defence wounds.” He rested them on the table again. He didn’t need to explain the scars across his wrist. They were defence wounds, too.
She looked away and Richard watched her watch Frank fixing the car just come in. Eventually, she said, “Is that why you became a mechanic?”
“Is what why I became a mechanic?”
“It’s something Mom said, once. She thinks you became a mechanic so neither of you would ever break down again.”
“We broke down plenty.”
She looked back at him. “She also said you moved out here because this strip of road is close enough to where it all happened without being too close. You can keep an eye on things. Make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Richard stared at his food. He wasn’t going to eat it. He knew as he ordered he wouldn’t eat.
“Where is she? Where’s the farm? Mom never told me.”
When Richard said nothing, she leaned across the table.
“You don’t have to come with me,” she said. “Just tell me where it is or draw me a map or something.”
“It was sold on.”
“Maybe, but it’s still there. Mom thought so, anyway, and I want to find her and I’m pretty sure she’s there, so you need to tell me.”
Richard watched Frank working the overheated car.
“She wanted to burn it all down to the ground,” he said.
“Why didn’t she?”
“Too busy saving me.”
She nodded like she understood. “Well she doesn’t need to do that now,” she said.
“Then look for the smoke,” Richard said. “Or follow the fire truck when it comes.” He drank the last of his coffee as she collapsed back into her seat, hands at the table like she would shove it away if it wasn’t attached to the floor.
“I’ll find it anyway,” she said.
“I just wanted to save some time.”
Richard looked out of another window, this one facing the road. He rubbed at his cheeks but didn’t like the rasping sound his stubble made, so he stopped.
“Here,” he said, and pushed his plate of food to her. “I need to pick up a few things, but then I’ll take you.”
He nodded at the plate as if eating was part of the deal, so she pulled it closer.
Richard stood. “I’ll be right back.” He left money on the table and limped out of the diner.
“Where are you going now?” Frank asked as Richard went to his truck.
Richard looked back and saw his daughter watching. She was eating.
“I have to go fix something,” he said.
He gunned the engine over anything else Frank might say and drove away.
He’d never gone back but he knew the way.
At the side of the road, where Ricky’s RV had died all those years ago, a wreath of fresh flowers wilted in the sun. They looked the same as the ones Debs used to wear in her hair sometimes. Richard slowed as he drove past, not wanting to drag the flowers after him in the wind he pulled behind.
The fucking radiator. Just the fucking radiator hose, that was all. An easy fix if you knew how, but they were just kids. They didn’t know anything yet.
Richard checked the mirror. The road was long and empty behind him. Just his trail of dust, taking its time to resettle.
Out here, people either killed cattle or grew crops. He didn’t need to see the corn coming to know he was close, though. He could already see the crows, circling. Dark fragments of a slow tornado, forming over where the farm would be.
Maybe someone there can help us.
The fence he’d been following fell away at his left. In the dirt of a turning was a faded sign. NO TRESPASSING. The chain that had blocked that way lay coiled beside it like a rusting snake.
Richard took the left turn and lurched onto uneven ground, bumping towards the house he knew waited at the end. Land they’d burnt down to stubble had been replanted and stalks of corn pressed in on either side. Richard remembered how it felt, running through the crops. How the plants lashed at him, whipped him, snagged his feet. He remembered the heat they’d held as they burned. He remembered the burst of crows like darkness exploding. The way he had screamed like he wouldn’t stop.
He emerged from the crops to find the farm buildings sitting dark as tumours, house and barn both, but there was a car sitting in front and Richard shifted his focus to that. Sally was driving a Dodge these days. A Challenger. That was okay, the Challenger was reliable. Simple engine and transmission, sturdy running gear. Fast. She’d have problems with rust, but so did everyone.
He parked next to the Dodge. He looked inside and imagined Sally behind the wheel. He imagined himself beside her, too, and tried to imagine them laughing but there was something manic in the way he saw it. Hysterical. He closed his eyes on that.
He looked at the house.
It had swollen with age and grime and slumped under the combined shadows of the grain bin and barn. The roof had sunk in the middle as if too heavy. The porch leaned, sloping to the ground at one tumbled corner. It looked like the ground had once swallowed the place and was spitting it all back up. He’d expected to find the buildings bulldozed flat and the land absorbed into neighbouring farms. Instead, they lingered, rotten timbers black with damp and spores. The paint was peeling. The windows were boarded over.
Richard got out of the truck. He put his hand on the hood of the Dodge as if the heat might tell him how long it had been there. He limped to the steps of the porch. There was another NO TRESPASSING sign, this one nailed to the front door.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
He looked around, like there might be someone watching. Someone waiting for him to go inside. He wasn’t going to, though. She wouldn’t be in the house.
She’d be in the barn.
Please! You don’t have to do this!
Memory’s echo, coming back for a different audience.
He wouldn’t listen.
Richard went back to the truck. Most of his good tools he kept at the shop, but he had plenty of older ones with him and those he needed for his own vehicle. He took a tire iron. He hefted it. He swung it a couple of times.
He headed for the barn.
Like the house, the barn had fallen into a foul state of disrepair. It loomed over him as he approached, either a trick of light and shadow or a lean caused by the shifting weight of many years. There was another NO TRESPASSING sign on one of the doors. On the other one, DANGER.
Yeah, no shit, Richard thought. Where were you all those years ago?
One of the large doors had a smaller one set into it, slightly open. He pushed at it with his foot and it swung inward.
There had been screams in that darkness. He still heard them sometimes, nightmare-fresh, but here he could feel them, like vibrations trapped in the stale air. Seeds buried deep and sprouting into bigger horrors. The open door sent a wedge of light inside from behind him to fall on a section of earth floor. Death had soured the ground. The dirt looked almost as black as the dark around it. As if oil had been spilled here instead of blood.
He held the tire iron like it was a baseball bat and stepped over the threshold, into the gloom.
It smelled of hot dust inside. Dry soil. He could still smell the birds and their shit and their feathers, feathers that had once thickened the air and smothered the floor. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw there were still a few scattered feathers. Some had been trodden into broken shapes. The smaller ones had curled upon themselves like the desiccated bodies of dried flies.
Richard had run from this place, taking with him more scars than you could see on the outside. That reaping man had broken more than his bones and teeth, and what he’d done to Richard’s friends had scraped him hollow. Bled him of all that was good and left him empty as a shucked husk.
“You reap what you sow.”
He said it quietly, barely louder than his breathing, but the darkness took it and carried it and sent a scythe at him in reply. It came sweeping at Richard from the dark beside him. Memory or not, he leapt aside and stumbled and he swung the tire iron, wild and one-handed.
Sally stood poised to swing again, scythe high to one side.
Richard hobbled a few steps more away from her. He had one arm raised across his face, but he lowered it.
“Jesus, Dick. I thought you were him.”
Richard said, “It’s me.”
“Your overalls look like dungarees and . . . I heard him.”
“Me,” he said again. “Reap what you sow.”
Sally lowered the scythe. She held it across her body like cloakless Death.
“You came back.”
“I knew you would. I waited for you.”
Behind Sally was a wall for farming tools. A lot of them were gone now, but the hooks and pegs where they used to be remained. A wall of dots and outlines, constellations in the dark to mark the ways he and his friends had been hurt on the table below. The last time Richard had been here, Ricky had been laid out on that table, his eyes gone, and blood pooled in the sockets. His mouth a bloody cavity, broken open and stuffed with feathers. His hands, bound at the wrists with his own tie, gripping a cob of corn positioned to replace the flesh of his sex.
The table was bare, but Richard still saw Ricky lying there. A phantom on the bloodstained woodgrain.
“Do you feel them?” Sally asked.
Lauren’s legs had been cut from her torso, sawn off across the waist so she was two pieces. A grisly tableau: her stomach gaped open, and a nest made of her entrails was a home for dead crows. Another emerged from between her legs in a gruesome birth of blood and feathers.
Sally said, “I feel them all the time.”
Debbie had been slumped in the wooden chair against the wall, her eyes as gone as Ricky’s. A crow had been shoved down her throat and her hands bound at her mouth to keep it there, like she was trying to stop from spilling dark secrets.
“I see them,” Richard said. He turned away from Debbie to face Sally instead. “Not as they were, but as he made them.”
Sally’s eyes were almost black, her pupils full in the dusky light. His would be the same. Like the darkness they’d seen was forever stuck there. It was like looking into twin eclipses and waiting for the brightness to come back, knowing it never could.
“Look,” said Sally. “I want to show you something.”
She put the scythe down and took his hand and led him deeper into the barn. There’d been a harvester in here before, making the large space small. Cadavers had been sprawled over the tines of the header reel, strangers reshaped and bound together by more than twine. Richard kept waiting for birds to burst from the dark, ready to duck as they swept at him before ascending to lofty corners in the rafters, but nothing came. There were still cages hanging from the beams up there, and broken ones on the floor. Cages made from bones and bent hanger wire, too small for their captives to do anything but fluster and caw. They were empty now. The crows that screamed and beat their wings were gone.
“Look,” she said. “I brought him back.”
He wanted to step back from what he saw but Sally kept a grip on his hand. For a moment it looked like a real man standing in the corner, but it was only clothes buttoned up and stuffed full over crossed poles. A baseball cap was tipped low over a faceless space that was a slack-hanging sack and shadow. Overalls fat with ears of corn, sleeves of a denim shirt rolled up from tool-handle arms markered REAP and SOW where tattoos would show. The curve of sickle blades where his hands should go.
“You didn’t see the others,” she said. “The ones in the field. Wasted things. Bones in clothes strung up like scarecrows, but the crows weren’t scared. They’d fattened themselves on what he’d left them, feasting on the flesh he left to rot and drop in the sun.”
“Sal . . . ”
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. I know.”
She put both hands to her face and ran them down like she was wiping herself clean of what she’d seen. At her chin, her hands came together as if to pray, but only briefly.
“The dreams came back,” Sally said. “Fields on fire. Birds the colour of cancer chasing me into the flames. My friends, our friends . . . ” She didn’t need to say because he knew.
“Screaming in the dark.”
Sally nodded. “They’re always screaming when I remember them because that’s how I remember them most. It’s like being haunted, only I’m doing it to them as well. They keep screaming because of me.”
“Because of him,” Richard said. He nodded at the effigy she’d made. A killer made from corn.
“Do you think he’s waiting for us?”
“Joseph Tillerman. Scarecrow Joe. Do you think he’s waiting for us? In the long dark that comes after?”
She nodded. “Good,” she said. “Good. Then I’m ready to go.”
“All right,” Richard said. “Then let’s go.”
But Sally’s hand slipped from his because only Richard moved to leave.
“No,” she said. “Not like that.”
Richard reached for her again, but she only looked at the offered hand. At his wrist.
“I used to think it a weakness,” she said.
Richard glanced at his scars, but he didn’t hide them. He kept reaching for Sally.
“Now I see it as a strength,” she said. “Choosing when to go. Choosing how.”
“You know, between them both, they got me. In the end. I never really escaped this place. I thought I did, for a while, with you, and even for a while after, but then – BAM! – cancer. And I’m telling you, Dick, there’s no meaner killer. I thought I cut it out but it never went or it came back. Either way, I’m done. But I can’t let it eat me, Richard. I’ve seen what that looks like. People looking like food for crows, pecked down to their bones.”
“They might be able to–”
“No. Not this time. I can feel it. Like we both could feel it, remember?”
“I don’t feel it anymore,” he said. He lowered his hand and turned the scars away.
“No. I realise that now.” She nodded. “That’s good. You beat it.”
“You can, too, Sal. You’re a survivor.”
She smiled at him, briefly, and for that moment it was like everything dark in that barn just beat its wings and left. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m a survivor. But it’s defined me my whole life and I’m more than that, aren’t I? More than my traumas?”
“You’ve always been more than that to me.”
“And you’re a mom, too.”
She cried, then, suddenly and without warning. An eruption of tears like something had finally burst and she near collapsed with the force of it except Richard was there to hold her up. As she had him, for so many years.
“She came looking for you.”
“She’s going to need you so much when I’m gone. She’ll act like she doesn’t, and that’s my fault, but she will.”
“I wanted to protect her, to prepare her, but now she hates the world and trusts no one in it, and that’s my fault.”
“She’s tough, though. I mean, she’s hard. I made her that way. You reap what you sow, I suppose.”
“She’s your daughter, that’s all.”
She nodded against him, then stepped away, wiping at her eyes. She said, “Fuck,” to herself, and to Richard said, “Yeah. She’s my daughter. Now make her yours, at least for a while. Try to fix what I broke, okay. Like you did for me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to burn it all down.”
“Let me help you.”
She nodded. She smiled again. They doused the barn together, and when they were done Sally offered him a cigarette and he took one.
“You better smoke it outside,” she said.
“You not having one?”
She shook her head and threw the pack to the scarecrow’s lap.
From the back of her jeans she drew a gun he recognised.
Whatever was left for them to say, they’d said already in different ways, including goodbye. They said it again, anyway.
Outside, in the light, Richard struck a flame to his cigarette and flinched when the gunshot came. A new scar for him to carry, to echo over and over in all the dark dreams to come. The cigarette fell from his mouth with his first sob, and he turned his back on the barn before he could see it burn.
Beyond the corn, a line of dust was rising from the unseen road. Richard waited, watching. He saw the corn stalks tremble, their tops waving with the movement of a vehicle passing through.
Richard went back to his truck and waited for her there.
She stared at him as she pulled up behind the vehicles. She was driving a Ford Maverick. The hood had been replaced with one she hadn’t repainted to match, but it sounded like she kept good care of what was running beneath. She shut off the engine and slammed the door behind her when she exited.
“You forgot something,” she said.
“Ginny give you directions?”
“Didn’t ask. I waited and followed your dust from a way back.” She nodded at the Dodge. “You speak to her? She all right?”
Richard couldn’t answer.
“She in there?”
She started to walk towards the barn but then she saw the smoke and she asked again, “She in there?” and made as if to run in after her.
Richard stepped into her path. “No,” he said. “She’s gone.”
She shoved him back, and he stumbled on his fucked-up leg, and she pushed him again as she said, “No she’s not. She’s not. Where is she?”
She drew a gun and pointed it at him.
He opened his arms to what she held and what she said. Admitting defeat was a crow he’d eaten long ago. So he stood like a scarecrow with his arms up, a strawman with no argument to make because life wasn’t fair. You don’t reap what you sow. People don’t get what they deserve.
The barn was ablaze now, flames high and hot. He felt the heat of it as his back, as he always had.
“You left her.”
He closed his eyes against the flash of a scythe he knew would come and waited for the crows to come calling.
Instead, he heard his daughter, sobbing as he had done. When he opened his eyes to look into hers he saw his own.
“She left me.”
He walked to her with his arms still open and he held her, a loaded gun between them, and he asked, “What’s your name?” but all she could do was cry. “What’s your name?” he asked, in awe of all that Sally had given him and wondering if either of them deserved the other. “What’s your name?”
Until eventually, she told him.
Originally published in All That’s Lost (collection).