It was Thursday, the week after Thanksgiving, and she was driving to work in the dark because a half-steer was waiting to be butchered before the store opened. Her hands gripping the wheel were bare, and numb from the bitter cold. In her rush from the house, Jody had left behind her winter gloves, and as she drove in the darkness, the eye of her mind could see them, lying side by side on the kitchen counter, flat and empty, their thumbs lightly touching. She was the only one out on the county road at this hour, or just about any hour for that matter. The county no longer even bothered to power the lights. Beyond the road’s berm, mist silvered the predawn fields of dead corn, and in the near distance stretched the black grove of trees that led back to her cabin.
She was not usually aware of her breathing. But now, in the freezing car, she was thinking about how strange and fleeting breath was—how the faint clouds coming out from her mouth vanished as soon as they formed—when something shock-white, mane and hooves flashing, bolted through her high beams. She slammed on the brakes and the car fishtailed to a stop. The darkness went still again except for the thick pounding that flooded her ears. Inside the twin pools of light, frost glistened on the blacktop. Her hands pressed down hard to slow her thudding heart, while out on the edge of the field something muscular and pale slipped deeper into the woods. She stared into the grove’s blackness, but nothing moved. The trees, bony and tall, looked as if they were reaching for something the sky was withholding.
She was still shaking when she got to work a half-hour later. In the back room, she put on an extra sweater and tied her white butcher apron tight around her waist. The bleached strap chafed the back of her neck. Last month, she’d been promoted to meat manager, a job usually given to a man and she knew it. She tried to concentrate on prepping the deli, but the horse she’d nearly hit would not leave her mind. These days, her neighbors had been known to shoot the animals they could no longer afford to feed—cats, dogs, even horses. No one talked about it. Those who couldn’t bear to use the gun instead turned the animal loose, sometimes driving to the next county before opening the trailer or the car door. They tried to fool themselves into the comfort of thinking that the animal would somehow survive. It was now common to see these creatures astray in the fields, starving and lost, but always on the move, as if the desperate momentum of their bodies could lead them home again. Though she knew better, Jody tried to convince herself the horse was one of these. She relived the horse’s muscular flash in front of her bumper. It took up wandering the dark of her mind, and when she turned to put the egg salad in the deli case, the stainless bowl slipped from her arms and clanged violently to the floor, splattering egg salad over the tile and her shoes. The sound rang in her head until the bowl finally settled and the tiled room became quiet again.
When her son, Tom, came in for his shift, she was on her hands and knees wiping up the mess with a rag, slopping the gunk into the bowl, the yellow globs and the rubbery egg whites. He said nothing, but she was embarrassed. Without her asking, he took a mop to clean up what was left. He was tall like his daddy had been, and this morning his face was haggard. She tried to get him to look her in the eye, but he turned away. He kept clearing his throat as if something was stuck there. For weeks, she’d been worried about him, ever since he moved in with that girl, a McAllister, a family every decent person in town knew to avoid. The girl’s brother had just been released from the state prison where their daddy had done time. Meth-cooking. Assault. They said the brother supplied her, and lately he expected her to deal for him too, but now there was talk that Tom was getting in the way.
“Have you thought about what I said?”
“About washing your hands of it.”
His eye caught hers for an instant before he leaned down to wring out the mop. A chunk of egg white floated on the water’s gray surface before sinking from view. “She’s not an it.”
“You know what I mean.”
He dried his hands on the front of his jeans. His fingers were long and thick-knuckled, and he seemed to be studying them. “I just need a little more time.” He punched the clock and put on his white coat. The sleeves were too short and his gray sweatshirt puffed out from the cuffs. He pulled up his hood and opened the walk-in freezer. He disappeared in the frosted air before the stainless-steel door sealed shut between them. The sound was unsettling and final. To distract herself, she turned and ladled heaps of sweet yellow corn relish into a bowl until the smell of vinegar choked her. She was still coughing when Tom finally swung open the door again, his cheeks flushed. She saw him as he was in those winter afternoons when he came in from sledding, back when he was small and his face was softer. He went to a side table and arranged three frozen salmon in a row on a tray. The fishes’ crisp scales glistened, and their frozen eyes stared blankly. Those heads would come off soon. Tom’s wild hair was covered by a clear puckered cap, and she could see the hair mashed down inside and trapped.
“Help me with that steer,” she said.
The buzzing fluorescent tubes gave his face and the hanging cuts of meat the same sick, purplish cast. The half-steer hung quietly on its hook.
Deep inside the cold storage, a familiar ache settled into the joints of her hands. It was getting hard for her to hold on to things without a great deal of pain. Tom moved past her and she squinted; the buzzing fluorescent tubes gave his face and the hanging cuts of meat the same sick, purplish cast. The half-steer hung quietly on its hook. The corrugated ribs curved around hollows where the organs had once rested, but now they had nothing left to protect. Tom hugged the steer, and when he lifted it free, the hook swung over their heads.
When Tom had been in 4-H, she had not allowed him to name the animals he raised: the calf, the one pig, the rabbits. She’d wanted to protect him, but she suspected he’d secretly named the animals anyway. He was that kind of child.The carcass was cumbersome for the two of them to maneuver through the doors. Once they’d loaded it onto the long cutting table, Tom laid out the knives and saws. While he ran each knife through the sharpener, she adjusted her latex gloves and listened to the blades sing. On the table, the half-steer lay on its flat side. Its flesh was a deep marbled red. Nothing else smelled quite like cold, raw meat. She ran her hands over the ribs until she realized she was petting it. The steer had come from a local farmer. She had likely seen this steer out in the fields during the summer, munching on grass, when it was still whole and covered with hide and could feel the warm sun on its face. This is what it all comes to—the thought had risen uninvited and it bothered her.
“Your hair’s getting long.”
Tom picked up a carving knife and tried to smile. “I’m Samson, Ma. I can’t afford to have it cut.” She shook her head and moved to his side of the table. It felt good to be close. They began to work in tandem, his gestures precise, just as she had trained him. Their hands sunk the knife blades into thick flesh, sliced muscle from pink-tinged bone, but in her mind the horse returned, a phantom moving out there among the bare trees. Now they were elbow to elbow, and she suddenly felt small next to this man who was her son. She made herself focus on carving out the short loin while he finished separating the rib with a saw, but she winced at the sound of the saw grinding through bone, the hot smell of pulverized marrow.
When they were done, Tom turned to clean the knives in the sink. On the table lay the steer’s broken spine. She tilted the shallow bowl of pelvis toward her; it looked like a bone mask, staring.
Back home, Jody dropped her keys on the kitchen counter next to the forgotten winter gloves. While a pot of barley soup warmed on the stove, she listened to the police scanner. She still was not accustomed to being alone in the house. Later, at the table, she wondered what Tom was up to as she spooned soup slowly between her lips while the scratchy voices of strangers filled the rooms of the cabin.
Before bed, she drew back the curtain. Her eyes searched deep into the grove. Black tree branches traced a chalky sky that said big snow was coming, and just the thought of it made her tired. Once in bed, she slipped under a leaden blackness that might have been sleep, until a rustling at the window startled her awake. On the other side of the glass, something slowly and methodically snuffled the window sash. Then there was silence, followed by impatient hooves stamping and pawing the frozen grass. A shadow glided over the curtain, and she slid out of bed, reaching for the Winchester she kept propped nearby. The crunch of heavy hooves moved steadily away.
In the frigid night, a trail of depressions led out to the woods. Farther out, half-hidden among the black trunks, the pale horse—the animal she now, without question, recognized—gazed back at her.
Jody had hoped never to see that horse again.
Not long after she’d become a wife, when Tom was a newborn, her husband had built the cabin she still lived in. The pregnancy had been difficult, the marriage rushed, and when the baby came, she thought the labor would kill her. It nearly did. Her husband, who would end up leaving them the next winter, worked long hours at the lumber mill in town, and once the cabin was finished she rarely saw him other than to drop his warmed supper plate on the table late at night before she fell into bed. Even with her child, she felt alone. Though she loved him, the baby was no kind of company.
That first brutal summer, the air inside the cabin went still and dead, and the closed-in walls began to suffocate her until she thought she would lose her mind. In her waking hours, as she scrubbed floors and nursed the baby, her nipples salty with perspiration, she prayed for night to come, but even the nights sweltered. Once, long after midnight, she lay awake, stewing in her own sweat, one hand limp on the cradle next to the bed. Gas-blue moonlight spilled through the open window and illuminated the sleeping face of her baby, a creature she did not yet really know. She contemplated the child’s soft face, the eerie blueness of his skin, until a shadow dropped over him. She sensed the animal presence before she saw it. The horse’s long blue head hung heavily over the windowsill, its glittering knob eyes staring in at her son. A singular breathy sound chuffed from its nostrils. Its lower lip quivered. The horse took its gaze from the baby and angled its head to stare directly at her with one large unblinking eye. She could not read its purpose. Locked in the focus of that eye, she felt exposed. The horse began to weave its head slowly back and forth, soundlessly, until it shuddered violently. The weaving began again, and as it did, the baby stirred in his cradle. His face pinched into a frown as his head lolled back and forth. Something was happening between them, something she did not understand, and she wanted it to stop. She lurched out of bed, and when her bare feet hit the floorboards, the horse withdrew. Moonlight poured into the room once again. She gripped the empty windowsill and leaned out into the humid night, but there was no trace of the horse.
Of course she did not tell her husband. But the next several nights, she lay awake, one hand on the cradle, staring at that open window, waiting.
Not long after, she was toiling again on an unbearably muggy afternoon. The humidity heated the stink of fouled diapers and kitchen slop she could never stay ahead of until the whole place disgusted her, until she felt she was being swallowed up by her own family’s filth.
And the baby was crying again, though he had just been changed and fed. The squalling child was heavy and hot in her arms as she paced the house. The diaper-pail stench that permeated every room stuck in her throat. The baby’s mouth screamed directly into her ear and the sound pierced her heat-swollen brain. Her breasts were swollen too, and leaking. Her nipples ached where the child pressed hard against her. Still he wailed.
She gave up and laid him back in his crib. His face was mottled and raw, his mouth a rubbery wet hole, and coming out of it an unearthly screech that would not stop.
Her head charged with hot lightning.
She leaned over the crib and watched her hands come down. Both clamped over the baby’s reddened face; her fingers sank into the fleshy cheeks. The baby kicked and clawed her wrists, and his muffled yowling escalated into a series of stark shrieks heaved from small lungs. Under her palms, the little nose, the open mouth, were damp and fevered. The baby’s head wriggled furiously under her hands but she pressed down, longing only for some peace, please, peace, because otherwise her own head was about to explode.
The baby’s blue eyes opened wide at her.
She yanked back her hands. The child gulped for air, his eyes fixed on her. The eyes said he recognized her for who she was. Then he began to bawl again, louder, fists tight and angry against his squinched red face.
She covered her own face, her palms wet with the child’s drool, and howled.
Then she twisted from the crib and ran, as if running could erase what she’d done, out the cabin door, through the yard, long summer grass scraping her calves, and she kept running toward the trees, her bare feet pounding until she could no longer hear the baby.
When the world was quiet again, she found herself deep inside the woods. Under the green canopy the air was silent and mossy. She leaned against an oak and felt her breath catch painfully in her lungs. Around her, the shade began to buzz. The buzzing intensified and her body trembled. She held her hands in front of her and watched them shake like the hands of a palsied sinner, and she wrung them over and over but they would not stop.
She turned to face the oak. The trunk was wide and rough-barked. She flung out one hand to bash it against the tree, then the other. The toothy bark tore at her skin but the pain was insufficient. She took a step back and began to swing her arms, hands smacking against the immovable tree, flogging them till they cracked and swelled.
High overhead, something shuddered in the leaves and took flight. When she paused to catch her breath, she could hear a faint chuffing. The horse stood in a nearby clearing, watching her. Filtered sunlight flecked its body and the leafy shade gave its hide a greenish cast.
The horse lifted one hoof and began to walk toward her, twigs snapping under each step. Its long head nodded as it walked, and she had the impression it was confirming something: yes yes yes. The horse seemed calm and inevitable.
The velvet muzzle was soft gray, and as it moved to sniff her, long wiry hairs scratched her cheek.
Sweat streamed down her back and chest. Her swollen breasts ached, and she was embarrassed to feel her milk leaking through the front of her thin cotton dress. Her bare feet sank into the spongy moss as the horse drew near and she pulled herself upright, but it stopped, too close, and stood over her, and she could feel its breath puff on her face. The loose skin around the nostrils quivered. The velvet muzzle was soft gray, and as it moved to sniff her, long wiry hairs scratched her cheek. The horse’s heated breath smelled musty and green.
The horse’s ears swiveled, listening to something she could not hear. Then the animal leaned forward until the flat of its forehead pressed hard against her chest. It drew back its head and began to steadily pummel her, the head rocking and pounding, punching her breath out in sharp little puffs, each blow unhurried, relentless, pinning her shoulders against the rough tree. She groaned and struggled to push the horse back but her hands were sore swollen bags, the fractured bones inside powerless. Her palms pushed back against the horse’s warm velvet throat and there she felt the hard pulse of blood coursing hidden veins.The horse turned to fix her with one glossy eye. The lashes fanned, surprisingly long and delicate, like her son’s lashes, so feathery she never failed to notice, and as the horse’s eye locked on her, she felt a cold spreading fear. Inside the dark globe of that eye lurked something fateful, and what she saw reflected back at her was the door of her cabin open wide, and inside, the soft naked body of her son lying alone in his crib.
The horse stopped. Sunlight flickered on its shaded face. She gasped at the hot pain echoing through her chest, and then she heard it: her son’s distant cry, a cry meant for her alone. She shouldered her way out and ran toward it.
Jody carried a log of salami to the deli case and gently laid it inside. She pricked the tough casing with the price-per-pound sign, and went back to the walk-in for a string of fat brats, which she arranged in a circle on the shaved ice in the case. She kept rearranging them so they would not look so much like intestines.
As she closed the case, white balls of mozzarella bobbed in their tub of water. The creamy orbs were pliant and glistening. She was watching them bump softly into each other when Tom came in. He was late. She was about to say something, but when he clocked in, she flinched to see his left eye purpled and swollen nearly shut. He turned and ducked his head as he passed her, and she touched his arm, but he pulled away. A deep gash split the skin of his brow. A thin line of dried blood crusted around the opening. She wondered what other welts and abrasions he was hiding beneath his layers of flannel and denim.
Mrs. Bledsoe rang the counter buzzer even though Jody was standing right in front of her. She wore a plaid wool coat and under that a kelly-green sweatshirt imprinted with a puffy goggle-eyed penguin. Mrs. Bledsoe always pretended to forget that Jody was in charge now, and had been ever since Pinkerton was fired.
Jody greeted her, though she couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder at Tom.
In her high, thin voice, Mrs. Bledsoe asked for a half pound of lean ground beef. The case at her belly was stacked with fresh packages of lean ground beef, which she could plainly see. But Jody went to the walk-in, got the meat, and turned on the grinder. Tom passed her and disappeared into the cooler.
“Lean,” the woman called out to be heard over the grinding machine. “Please.”
“It’s lean, Mrs. Bledsoe,” she said. “Couldn’t get any leaner.”
“I like the fat. But it doesn’t like me.”
Jody felt sorry for her. She wrapped the meat in white butcher paper, the way Mrs. Bledsoe liked.
“And one pork chop.”
She pulled out a tray and arranged three choice cuts on it. The pork chops looked like flat meaty islands with curved shores, none of them touching, but all so close they could fit into one another.
Mrs. Bledsoe took her time inspecting the meat. Eventually, she pointed to a rosy pink chop with a nice layer of fat along the rim.
“It isn’t for me,” she said. “It’s for my son. When he comes for Sunday dinner.”
Mrs. Bledsoe’s son was long dead. A mill accident everyone still remembered. Large saw and a bad belt. The mill had closed down for three weeks, which was unheard of. Those workers who witnessed the accident never came back.
She folded the white butcher paper carefully over the lone pork chop. The paper crackled softly as she secured it with butcher tape. With both hands she passed the white triangle over the open case. The old woman stared down at the package in her hands for a long time. The meat case hummed between them.
Behind Mrs. Bledsoe stood an impatient girl in a huge ratty parka. It took Jody a moment to recognize her. The hood was pulled up around the girl’s face and she scowled from inside it. She jammed her hands deep into the pockets and kept punching into them.
Jody could practically hear the girl’s teeth grinding.
When Mrs. Bledsoe pushed her cart away, the girl took one big step forward and leaned her pelvis into the case. She didn’t look at Jody. She looked down into the case of cold meat.
“He’s not here,” she said before the girl could speak.
“That’s a lie.” The girl’s voice was rough. She smelled of stale cigarettes. “Tell him to come out. I gotta talk to him.”
Jody didn’t move. She studied the girl’s twitching face, pallid inside the hood, and marred by messy dark blemishes. The girl’s right hand escaped its pocket and jerked upward to pick at a scab on her cheek. The dirty fingernail kept picking. She knew the girl couldn’t help how she’d been raised, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t trouble.
The girl finally looked directly at Jody, her eyes sunken. But Jody was thrown off by how pretty they were, a scary pretty blue, ringed by smudged black makeup. She had expected to see inside those eyes defiance, or maybe fury. Instead she saw fear.
“I don’t mean no disrespect.” The girl looked down again. She began to softly kick at the meat case, like a child, and kept kicking. “But I really gotta talk to him. Please.”
She sighed. Other customers were heading their way. The store manager was coming up the aisle.
“Well, you aren’t doing it here. Go on out back. I’ll tell him you’re here. Whether he shows up or not is up to him, but don’t come back here bothering me. Or him.” She turned back around. “And stop picking at your face. You’ll scar.”
It was getting close to the evening rush and she hadn’t seen Tom for going on an hour. She’d been watching the clock ever since that girl showed up and now she was worried. It was Friday and snow was coming. She was waiting on three people at a time with more standing by, and she couldn’t afford to have frustrated customers going to the store manager. When a short lull gave her a chance, she went out the back door to the alley. It was already night, the sky blanched and heavy with impending snow, the air frigid. Over by the dumpsters she saw them, two silhouettes, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. The girl was pacing and smoking. Tom stood calmly. His hair was loosed from the plastic cap and full around his head. He reached out for the girl, then withdrew his hand when she walked past him. The girl crossed her arms tight over her parka as she moved; now and then an arm would flail out nervously before she jerked it back in. The girl was walking around and around in a tight little circle, scuffling her boots over the gravel until Tom finally pulled her toward him and held her tight and rocked her. Jody left them there.
Winter storm warnings had been issued. Now the aisles were crowded with panicked shoppers in parkas, army jackets, and peacoats. They moved stiffly as they pulled down cans and jars and boxes and dropped them into carts already crammed with T V dinners and towers of toilet paper and cases of beer. Along the low refrigerated case, Jody watched neighbors elbow and push against each other to grab at packages of meat.
Tom finally came in from the alley. His swollen eye, wet-looking and stringed with blood, struggled to focus, and behind it stirred a righteous anger. “Don’t ask.” Someone pressed a heavy finger to the service-counter buzzer until the staccato buzzes turned into one long irritating sound. The mass of bruise around his eye was still hot purple but had begun to yellow around the edges. It looked gruesomely pretty. She searched to find him inside of it.
She reached for him, barely stifling the cry she felt crawling up her throat. “What’s happening to you?”
He pulled away and yanked the plastic cap down over his hair; his fingers forced the unruly strands back under the elastic.
An hour later, the store was nearly abandoned except for a few stragglers scavenging whatever was left on the shelves. The long meat case was ransacked, its emptiness amplified by the cold humming that could now be plainly heard. Tom was sanitizing trays at the deep sink, and she began end-of-day cleanup, though there was little left to throw out or store. Her body was wedged half inside the deli case, stretching for a hard-to-reach piece of wilted garnish, when she heard a thin, prolonged whine. The shaved ice beneath her hand turned wet as she strained to listen. She looked out from behind the glass. A child stopped in front of the case. He pulled off his toboggan and stared in at her. The glass between them fogged with her breath. The boy lifted a finger and tried to write on the glass but the fog was all on her side. His face was sweet in its concentration. She felt the ice against her belly as she watched his fingertip drag up and down over the glass, and she followed it closely but could not make out the words before he finally gave up.
By the time she went to the storeroom for the mop, Tom was gone. He had left without saying good night. His bloodstained apron had been thrown at the hamper and had missed. Now it lay in a heap on the floor.
Next to the hamper was a narrow stainless-steel table, and on it sat the large wood block that held the carving tools. She paused in front of it and felt something sick stir in her gut. The knives were all where they belonged, except for one. The thin whine she’d heard earlier echoed in her head as she stared down into the dark empty slot where the boning knife should have been.
In the apartment window, a dark figure kept pulling back the curtain and glancing out before retreating.
Snow was coming down in earnest now, and the steady thump of the windshield wipers did little to help her see clearly. She knew she ought to get home before the roads closed. On an unfamiliar street, she made several passes before finally pulling to the curb and turning off the engine. The house she had come to see was dark behind its chain-link fence. The roof under which the daddy and brother lived was sagging. The girl stayed in the boxy little apartment above the detached cinderblock garage. Lights were on up there. Once the heater was off it got cold inside the car. Tom’s truck was parked on the other side of the street. She tried to imagine what it was like for her son, climbing those buckled steps to the landing and letting himself into those low-ceilinged rooms, which she’d always imagined as stained and cluttered. From the apartment’s front window, a stuffed unicorn looked down on a yard littered with various abandoned metal parts—cams and flywheels and cogs and gears—parts with no machine to be part of anymore. On the walk lay chunks of a jack-o’-lantern, its grin smashed, frozen pumpkin guts strewn over the concrete.
In the apartment window, a dark figure kept pulling back the curtain and glancing out before retreating. The third time it happened, she recognized the shadow as her son.
On the windshield, fat flakes became hard crystals that pelted the glass. A lanky figure stepped out of the apartment and jogged down the steps, hands bouncing. Even in the dark, she recognized his hair. He opened the chain-link gate and came toward her in long strides, stepping into the pool of light from the streetlamp. It was too late for her to hide or drive away, and she fumbled for what she might say. He pounded the window harder than he needed to and she reluctantly rolled it down. Sharp snow stung her face. He wasn’t wearing his coat and his flannel shirt hung on him. All this time he’d been losing weight.
He leaned down. His voice was harsh. “What in Christ’s name do you think you’re doing?” The streetlamp caught his bruised face and it frightened her.
“Just. Just don’t.” She felt stupid. Her brain and mouth couldn’t seem to work right. Whatever was happening, she was helpless to stop it. “Come home. Please.”
Tom flailed his arms in frustration. She was sorry for coming but what else could she do? He was her only boy. She watched him pace back and forth beside the car. He banged the roof with the flat of his hand and she jumped.
He leaned in to the window, so close she could smell the spearmint gum on his breath. He was so angry he chewed while he spoke. “Listen to me. You’re only making this worse.” He straightened up and looked down at her. “Go on. Get on home.”
She gripped the wheel and her eyes went hot and blurry. The windshield had begun to frost over, a lacy pattern spreading across the glass. She wiped her wet face with her gloves and again took the useless wheel in both of her hands. At some point, she knew she would have to reach down and turn the key.
“I’ll be fine,” she heard him say from somewhere high above her. His voice was gentler now, but raw. “I’m fine, Ma. Please. Just go on home.”
In the rearview, streetlights faded behind her, and before long she was surrounded by a pale kind of darkness, snow flurrying across the county road and laying itself down in thick white blankets over the asphalt and the fields, silent and whirling. She drove so slowly she could feel snow crunch beneath the tires. The drive seemed like an eternity, as if she were suspended in time, until finally, up ahead behind a white scrim, she could finally see the outline of her empty cabin waiting.
She tried to eat some warmed-up barley soup but swallowing was difficult. The barley gummed up in her mouth and lay in a heavy paste over her tongue. On the police scanner, the female dispatcher’s voice was confident and steady. Over the course of the evening, the voice calmly directed officers to an abandoned factory, a culvert, the pool hall parking lot. Gunfire. Drug overdose. Domestic assault. Attempted suicide. The dispatcher used codes that Jody had, over time, learned to decipher, the secret language of crime and misery. As she rinsed her dishes in the sink, she heard the address she recognized. She turned off the faucet. She could not be sure if the address referred to the house itself or to the apartment over the garage. She had missed the code. The dispatcher sounded terse, as if dispatching to the McAllister place yet again had become tiresome. She hurriedly dried her hands and turned up the scanner and listened for any sign of urgency, but the voice resumed its dispassionate tone and moved on to an overturned vehicle. The roads were becoming impassable. She turned off the scanner. Silence filled the house. She tried calling Tom’s cell but there was no answer. She listened to his recorded voice, so calm and steady, and not knowing what to say without sounding crazed, she hung up at the beep. She tried calling three more times in quick succession. Outside, the snowstorm whined and rattled the cabin windows.
She was pacing the kitchen in her nightgown when someone banged on the front door. She picked up the rifle from where it leaned against the wall and unlatched the safety. At the door, she turned on the outside light and, on tiptoe, peered through the small square window. She recognized the ratty parka at once.
Pings of snow blew into her face when she opened the door. The girl was sniffling and wiping the back of her hand over her nose and mouth. The hand came down smeared with blood.
Jody spoke first: “Where’s Tom?”
“It wasn’t him,” the girl said.
“I know that. Get in here.” She stepped aside and peered outdoors. It was hard to see very far in the snowstorm. There was no car in the gravel drive but her own. “Wipe your feet.” The girl did as she was told. She stood in the entryway looking unsure what to do next.
“How did you get here?”
Jody shook her head and turned on a lamp. She set the rifle near the door. “Let me have a look at you.”
The girl pulled back her hood. Her mouth was a bloody mess. She spat and stared into her palm and began to laugh. It was a crazy laugh. Between two fingers, she held up a bloody tooth.
Jody took the girl into the kitchen and sat her at the table. She turned the police scanner back on. The girl stared off into space, one hand gripping the dislodged tooth.
“It’s all right. It’ll be all right.” Jody didn’t believe it even as she said it.
“No.” The girl struggled to form words with her swollen mouth. “No it won’t.”
The female dispatcher’s voice crackled over the scanner with calm authority.
The girl’s clothing stank. Jody handed her a dishtowel for her mouth and offered her a glass of water, which the girl glugged down as if her very organs were parched.
The girl made a face. Her words slurred. “Taste like blood.” She set the empty tumbler on the table and stared into her hands. Red streaked the rim of the glass.
“Where’s Tom?” She wished the girl would look at her. “Answer me.”
The girl mumbled.
“Honey, I can’t understand you.”
The girl pushed her lips away from her teeth. She looked like a fish. “I don’t wanna do this anymore.” She threw the dishtowel to the floor.
“Anything. I don’t wanna do it.”
The girl began jerking her head faster and harder as if trying to shake something out of her skull.
“Look at me. Where is Tom?”
The girl spat a wad of bloody mucus into her hands and smeared it onto her parka. Then she began to sob.
“Good Lord, you’re a mess,” she said. “Wait here.” She hurried down the hall to the bathroom with her phone and tried calling Tom again but there was still no answer. Hands shaking, she searched the medicine cabinet until she found a butterfly bandage. She’d try and close up that ugly split in the girl’s lip and then go find him, before—she pushed away the word bad—before anything happened.
When she came back, the girl was gone. Cold air blew through the wide-open front door. The rifle was missing.
She grabbed her car keys and pulled her wool coat over her nightgown, moving forward even as she shoved her bare feet into her boots. She pushed out into a night paled by slanting, wind-driven snow, and headed for the car, but before she could get the door unlocked, she saw in the distance the girl, blurred by white streaks, and small, small and determined, trudging through snowdrifts, heading into the woods with the rifle.
She looked down at the car key in her hand and felt sick. Lord, have mercy, she thought.
By the time she pushed through the drifts to the edge of the woods, the wind had quieted, though snow continued to fall. Her body felt sweaty with effort beneath her coat. She looked down and squinted to make out the girl’s tracks entering the grove.
Up ahead, the girl was a dark silhouette, now seated with her back against a tree. Jody’s progress was slowed by heavy snow and deep banks that hid fallen logs, and she was still too far away when she saw the girl struggling to pull off one of her boots.
Jody tried wading faster as snow spilled into her boots and packed around her bare ankles. She gulped cold air and found a path where the going was easier, pushing headlong to reach the girl, who had turned the rifle so that the barrel was between her lips. The girl was struggling to fit her big toe inside the curve of the trigger, and she now could see that the girl’s striped sock had a hole in it, that one big toe poking through, and that ragged striped sock was the saddest sock she had ever laid eyes on. She waded forward as the girl removed the barrel from her mouth and tried again to fit her awkward toe into the trigger, tried and failed, always failing, this pathetic girl, this girl her son loved.
Snowflakes drifted onto her face. She could hear wet branches creak and rub against one another.
She lurched forward and knocked the barrel away from the girl’s mouth but the girl scrambled up and fired wildly. The blast echoed. From somewhere nearby Jody heard a groan she took for human. “Tom?” Something heavy stumbled and crashed in the holly bushes, then went still. “Tom!” She tried to wade toward the shrubs, but the crazed girl swung the flat of the walnut stock into her temple, and the blow brought stars that floated before her eyes as she slid down into the soft cold snow. From behind a hot, coppery veil, she watched the girl grab her boot and hobble out of the woods, the rifle tucked under one arm. Her thin, high voice cried over her shoulder. “He ain’t here. And he ain’t coming back!” Jody managed to crawl to a tree and pull herself to standing, but her feet slipped out from under her and she fell again hard onto her tailbone before she dropped flat.
She blinked upward. Dead branches laid black fingers over the pale sky. A profound chill seeped against her back and around her hair. Snow cooled the fever raging inside her skull, but the girl’s words rang in her head. She struggled to sort out their meaning. The girl was a goner, had been a goner from the day she was born, but not her Tom. Her sweet boy. She willed herself to get up and go to him but her body would not listen to her brain. Instead her mind drifted. It led her into a dim room and in this room stood a gang of stupid, brutal men, and facing them down was Tom. Her Tom. With his stoic heart and his purpled eye. And that boning knife.
Something warm trickled into her ear. She struggled to push herself up, but her coat was so heavy. Her legs felt thin under her nightgown and she tried to get her boots under her but they kept sliding, her feet moving and going nowhere.
She blinked. A snowdrift at her shoulder began to surge. She knew right away it was not the wind, no trick of the light. The drift swelled and inside it an animal’s head formed, followed by strong white shoulders and a long sinewy neck, and the horse staggered to its formidable height, shaking off bright snow dust that lifted and hung in the air.
Oh, my boy, she whispered. What’s happened to you?
The horse, panting, looked down at her. Its chest was a sticky mess. On the left side of the chest was a dark hole. A sound was coming out of it, a muscular pulse, wet and hot and red.