Laura Dzubay

Homecoming

You wouldn’t have seen the girl in the ditch unless you’d been looking for her, but John Carter was looking for her. She was right where she was supposed to be, down in the crook where the grassy slope off of 24 dropped away into trees, mostly hidden at this hour of the night in darkness and weeds. He parked on the shoulder and waited for the only other car around to go by, then jogged down toward her through the dew-wet grass.

She was lying on her back with her eyes closed and one arm bent awkwardly back beneath her. Long brown hair, milky almost in its smoothness, shampooed and brushed. She wore no makeup but her skin was still clear, well cared for, and she wore tight jeans and a creamy soft sweater that was crunchy in places now where the mud had dried. He bent down into the cold prickly grass and when he scooped her up, her legs dangled and her head fell back over his right elbow and he felt the weight of her against his arms. He moved quickly up the ditch again and loaded her into the waiting back of his truck.

His truck was full already from the hardware store – he hadn’t planned to come here today, he’d wanted to do repairs on his house – but he managed to fit her in. Lying there among the paint and plywood, her hair no longer covering her face, she looked a little like Allie, which made him shudder a little without meaning to and turn away from the truck. He skidded back down into the ditch and scanned the quiet misty woods, the grass. A few drops of blood flecked here and there, which he smeared around in the dirt with his shoe until they disappeared, and, caked beneath some of the mud, an embroidered purple coin purse with a metal clasp, which he took up and checked inside for coins – it was empty – and slipped inside his jacket pocket.

He climbed back up to his truck and looked down again where he had put the girl. One of the stacks of plywood had shifted when he’d set her down and some of the boards were now pressing against her leg, so he moved them gently over to the side. The girl’s sweater was too big for her, and as a consequence the blood had spread strangely, skipping some of the places where the fabric folded over. He hadn’t noticed it before, but he noticed it now, the way the blood came and went in messy smears and stripes across the girl’s chest, where Lonny had shot her.

He pulled the back cover over her and decided to get to where he was going quickly, since the back of the truck was probably cold under the removable cover and he didn’t want to leave her there too long.

Fog had gathered on the windshield in the time he’d been parked. He turned on the windshield wipers and the radio – a crackly folk station, almost out of range, was playing Townes Van Zandt – and pulled out onto the empty highway.

He’d gotten the call from Lonny about an hour earlier. Lonny had been out of prison now for eight or nine months, and John didn’t know why Lonny had been in in the first place or whether this was the first time he’d ever killed anyone, but even back when they were both inside, he’d known better than to ask. Besides, he already knew Lonny was crazy, and past a certain point, that was all he needed to know.

“John Carter! John Carter!” Lonny called him by his full name, even though John told him not to.

“I’m up. I’m up.”

“John Carter, man. Guess who.”

John was lying in a sleeping bag on his couch because his bed was crawling with stinkbugs. He’d gone straight to the bed three nights previously, his first night back, and noticed the little brown creatures with their shielded backs, just one or two at first, then eight, nine, twelve, flitting against the wall, moving between the sheets, nesting in the pillow on what had been his side of the bed. The living room was littered with trash and dust, but so far as he could tell, the couch was clear of them.

“Lonny,” he said. His back hurt as soon as he was awake. He was a tall man and fit, with broad shoulders and long full arms and legs, and the couch felt small beneath him.

“I’m glad you picked up,” said Lonny. Lonny was a dope with a brain like a frying egg, and you could hear it in his voice. “You’re a real lifesaver, John Carter. A real ace.”

“How’d you get my number?” asked John.

“Jean – Jean Louise. I called Farrow first ’cause he lives over in Fayetteville, and Jean Louise was the one who picked up, I don’t know if you know her, but she’s his wife and she said no way is Eddie receiving any kinda calls from me at three in the morning and that if I’m so desperate I should just call you up instead.”

John wasn’t surprised. Ed Farrow wouldn’t have had a thing to say to Lonny, it was a wonder Lonny had even been able to contact him. Ed was one of those guys who should never have been in prison in the first place. He’d just made a wrong turn a while back and helped out a friend when he shouldn’t have, and now that he was out, he was doing everything he could to counter the fact that he’d ever been in at all. In the interest of doing something good he’d been managing John’s finances and making his house payments on his behalf for about the last year, ever since John’s wife had stopped.

In the few days since getting out John had met up with Farrow only once, at a burger joint, though more out of formality than anything else. Ed had updated John regarding his bank account and given him all the necessary papers back. Neither of them wanted to talk about prison, and outside of prison there was nothing much to say, nothing to catch up on. No interest in Jean Louise, and no wife for John himself, anymore. No child. They had sat facing each other across the sticky wooden table, leaning back in the violet pleather seats and looking at the floor, looking at the framed news articles on the walls, each man equally wanting to leave behind the part of his life in which he was associated with the other.

“So I, uh, I fucked up,” said Lonny over the phone, “a little.” He sniffled.

“Okay,” said John.

“Could you – could you help me?”

“No,” said John.

“Please, man. There was this hitchhiker. This girl, I don’t…It happened so fast.”

John’s eyes were fixed to a dark patch of mold in the corner of his ceiling, even darker than the rest of the ceiling, which was swabbed with shadows. “You killed a girl?”

John had never killed a girl. He’d never even seen a girl dead, or a boy dead, or anyone. As far as he knew, neither had Lonny. John was a bank robber, and not even an armed bank robber, not even a more-than-one-time bank robber. He wasn’t equipped for this.

“I didn’t mean to.” Lonny sounded like he was about to start crying.

“Where?”

“Near Carthage, in Moore County. Off of twenty-four.”

“I’m not helping you with that, Lonny.”

“John Carter. Please. I freaked out a little, man, I did. I left her there.” A pause on the other line, a sniffle. “I can’t go back, man. I can’t go back, but I can’t just leave her there, either. You know I can’t just leave her there.”

John sat up and brought his feet around to the floor. There he sat with the phone by his ear, the house quiet all around him. Allie had been a hitchhiker, once, his own daughter, less than a year before he’d decided to try a bank robbery. Maybe, if all had not gone gruesomely wrong, she still was.

“I’ll bring her to the woods near my house,” said John finally. “You can meet me there.”

“Where do you live?”

John gave him the address. It wouldn’t occur to him until later that this meant that Lonny now knew where his home was, that Lonny could someday come back.

“Thanks, man. I mean, thank you,” said Lonny. “You’re a lifesaver. You know? You really come through.”

John didn’t answer. He hung up.

On the road back toward town, he passed a couple of supply trucks and cars, but these were few and far between. Headlights blurring toward him, flashing past, gone. A couple of times he heard things shifting around in the back of the truck. The plywood. He had some other things back there, too, all from the hardware store – boxes of nails, a hammer, cans of paint and a new electric drill.

 

He had waited in his infested house for three days before getting the hardware supplies. In the kitchen the floor that he’d tiled himself was now rotting with mold in the corners. In the rooms the walls that he’d painted with Debra were peeling. On the third day he’d walked through all the rooms in the house to see if anything at all of importance had been left behind, and finding nothing, he’d decided to rebuild. He knew construction and he knew this house, every weak and strong spot, every measurement. It would be easy.

Around four in the morning he noticed the police car. Blue and red came alive at a distance behind him, turning in silence, mingling. He felt the weight of the coin purse in his pocket and pulled, slowly, over to the side of the road.

He waited. The radio station had crackled out of range altogether, Townes Van Zandt eaten up by static, so he thumbed the dials briefly before landing on commercial country. He recognized the song but not the version – it was new, overproduced. And I’m a-hopin’ for Raleigh I can see my baby tonight…

As the cop came into view, he rolled down the window using the manual crank on the door and said, “Hi, officer.”

“Hi there,” said the cop.

“Was I speeding?”

“Expired plates,” said the cop with an apologetic little smile. He was young, with big thick glasses and mousy hair. His look said he didn’t really want to write John up, didn’t want any trouble.

“Oh,” said John. He shook his head. “I’m pretty bad about that sort of thing.”

“They’re – they’re really expired,” the cop elaborated. “You been pulled over for them before, ever?”

“No, sir. But I guess I don’t use this truck a whole lot.”

“Why’re ya using it now?”

“Pardon?”

“I mean it’s real…” The cop gestured up and down the road, as if John hadn’t noticed how empty it was. “It’s real late to be out. What’re you doing driving out this late?”

Burying a kid, John wanted to say. So badly. Instead he said, “Clearing my mind.”

“Oh yeah? You know, sleep clears your mind.”

John said, “I ain’t been sleeping,” which was true.

“That makes two of us,” said the cop uneasily, leaning a little against the side of the pickup truck for support. The poor guy, thought John, he didn’t know what kinds of questions to ask, what to say. He was brand new to this job, going off things he’d seen on the television set.

“They always make you work this late?” asked John.

The cop nodded. “Lately. I’m new.”

“Are you? I couldn’t tell,” said John almost sincerely. He put his hands in his jacket pockets to warm them from the morning chill creeping into the truck. In his right one he felt the coin purse, sequins and embroidery hardened with dirt. Focus on this.

The cop brightened a little. “Really?”

“I mean, you seem like you know what you’re doing. I’m no expert.”

“That’s nice of you. Even if you are only saying it to get out of a ticket.”

“Hey now,” said John, and laughed.

“Really,” said the cop, “what’s keeping you from sleeping? I’m curious, now.”

John looked up at him through the open car window. He could see now that the cop had bags under his eyes, but the cop was still grinning, a little stupidly. “What’s your name?” John asked.

“Charles Everett Cox,” said the cop. “The third.”

The third, thought John. Of course, you are. “Charles Everett Cox the third, how about that,” he said. “I’m John Carter, and I guess I haven’t been sleeping too much ’cause I got out of prison a couple of days ago.”

The cop went pale and his eyes widened. “Oh – oh?” he said.

“Yeah. I came home and I couldn’t sleep on the first night ’cause there were bugs all in my bed and under my sheets.” He paused and looked out across his dashboard for a minute and then added, “And ’cause my daughter’s gone.” He turned back up to face the cop. “On the second night I couldn’t sleep either. This now is the third night.”

“Where’s your daughter?” asked Charles Everett Cox.

“Gone,” John said again. “She was gone before, too. She didn’t trust me, or her mother.” He kept looking out across the dashboard, toward the darkened road. A navy blue billboard was lit up a ways down, but he couldn’t read what it said. He didn’t want to look at the cop. “She thought we cared too much about money,” he said.

“Well. Don’t we all,” said Charles Everett Cox. He said it quickly, as though he had come into this conversation accidentally and was trying to back his way out of it.

“I worked in construction. I mean, wouldn’t you be worried about money if you worked in construction?”

The cop was looking at him like he was about to be sick. “I don’t…”

“She left us,” said John. “A few days after her seventeenth birthday, real early in the morning. We knew she was done with us by then, we’d known for a while. She always wore the prettiest clothes and talked to the prettiest people. It’s hard to describe…but if you’d seen her, you would’ve known. Smart. You know kids these days, they all want to be the perfect person, all want to change the world. She thought she had everything figured out, didn’t need us anymore. She left us early in the morning and we never saw her again, no one ever found her. She could be dead out there somewhere,” he added. “Dead way out somewhere and not even buried, maybe. Can you imagine?” His voice had started wavering a little, near the end. He hadn’t meant it to.

“Oh.” Charles Everett Cox was staring at him with confusion, but nothing really besides that. Probably he was still thinking about John having just gotten out of prison.

“You know the sick part, too?”

“I don’t–”

“I heard her,” John said. This was the first time he had told anyone this, and he felt confident he would never tell anyone again. “Allie. That day she left, five or six in the morning. I woke up ’cause I guess I heard her walking down the hall, and I was half asleep but the door was cracked and I saw her pass by our room. Her hair, you know. Brown.” The coin purse in his pocket. “Just for a second,” he said, “and then I heard the front door close.”

The cop had stopped leaning on John’s truck and was standing back a little now, one hand on the rearview mirror to keep his balance. “What about your wife?” he asked.

John didn’t think about Debra anymore, not nearly as much as he thought about Allie. Her things were all gone from the house. “She didn’t hear,” he said. “Didn’t wake up or anything. I never told her.”

“Is she still–”

“No, she left. Debra left a year ago.” He took his hands out of his pockets at last and brought them up to the steering wheel, drumming his fingers against it. “She was so young, Allie,” he said. “You’re young, too. You’ve got the same hope she had and everything. I can see it.”

The cop looked as if he wasn’t sure how to respond. His lips twitched a little toward a frown.

“You’re new, right? I bet you became a cop to make the world a better place or something. Right?”

Poor Charles Everett Cox blinked largely behind his glasses. It was true.

John didn’t blame him. Even the officers back at the penitentiary, he didn’t blame them either. You had to fit in somewhere, and anyone knew it was better to be standing outside of the box than in it.

“Good luck to you, Mr. Cox,” he said. “I admire that. Really and truly.”

Charles Everett Cox nodded, slowly at first, then quickly. He seemed to be waking up a little. “You see to those plates, all right, mister?”

“All right.”

John watched the cop walk back over toward the flashing lights in the darkness, until the red and blue had swallowed him whole. Then he pulled back onto the road.

A regular snake charmer, Debra would have said, a little proudly, a little hatefully. He would have agreed.

 

Coming back from prison, he had pretty much known already what the house would look like when he arrived. No part of him had been holding out hope that Debra had been paying gardeners and exterminators to keep coming out this whole time, no part expecting Ed Farrow to have gone by and cleaned it up a little as a sort of welcome-home present. Debra had taken away all of her own things and Allie’s things, too, everything that had been left. All of Debra’s old books, many handed down to her from her own father’s collection and many more given to her by John over the years, the porcelain dish set from their wedding and the silverware, Allie’s old swimsuits and trophies – Allie had been a terrific swimmer, as a kid. Some of the windows in the house had been left open, accidentally or otherwise, leaving the floors to gather dirt and dead leaves and the walls to be eaten by wind and rain. There were corners and rooms where John could tell people had been squatting – some of them had even left blankets and food and things lying around, doubting, probably, that anybody still owned the house at all. Windows fogging with grime, shingles blistering. Crickets and roaches in the floorboards. In the woods outside of Raleigh, John had built the house in the year leading up to Allie’s birth with his own two hands, and now it looked deceased.

That was why he’d gone to the lumberyard, the day before, and the hardware store. Because he’d decided: he was going to take a few trips, use all that was left of his money. He’d get hammers and nails and four by fours, screws and bolts and screwdrivers. Drills and chainsaws and regular saws and rulers. Even if it took him all week, he’d buy everything he needed. He hadn’t worked construction in years, but he would ease back into it, he’d reacquaint his hands with the work they were meant to do.

 

When he got to his property now, he rolled up the long gravel drive and parked in front of the house, out of sight of the road. Lonny was crouching by the front door, running his hands again and again and again through his matted ginger hair.

John got out and walked around to the back of the truck, and Lonny jumped up and joined him.

“Thanks, man.” Lonny breathed into his hands and rubbed them together for warmth. It wasn’t winter yet, was hardly even cold yet, but he was wearing a threadbare sweatshirt and shivering. “Thanks,” he said again.

John didn’t answer. Opening the back of the truck and picking up the girl, he slung her over his shoulder and started into the woods.

“It’s the f-first time this has happened,” Lonny was saying, following along at his elbow. Sniffling, teeth chattering. “Anything like this, I mean. John Carter. I was doing well, when I first got out. I really was.”

“I bet you were.” It had been less than a year.

“They had me down at the clinic for rehab and everything. My f-family paid for it. They’re really good to me, man.”

“I know they are.”

“I c-couldn’t…” He trailed off, started again. John hadn’t asked for any explanation or justification, but Lonny seemed to feel the need to give it to him. “No one would hire me, man. I mean nobody. That little box on applications that says I’m a felon? No one would – I didn’t have a choice. It’s been hard, John Carter. I mean I ain’t had any place to live for two months now.” He hesitated and then said, “Hey, d’you think if I helped you fix up your house a little–”

“Shut up,” said John, tiredly.

“I know what it sounds like, but–”

“What’s this girl got to do with any of that?” John asked. “The clinic, not having a job, not having a home. What’s any of that stuff got to do with her?”

Lonny couldn’t stop sniffling. He sounded like he was about to cry. “It just happened so fast,” he said.

“No, it didn’t. It’s been happening, slow motion, your whole life.”

“John Carter,” Lonny said, his voice breaking.

“You’ve been out less than a year, Lonny.” John stopped walking, not because he’d reached a clearing but because he didn’t want to walk any further. The girl’s weight on his shoulder. He felt angry and he couldn’t figure out why. “And I’ve been out less than a week and you’re calling me up at my house, dragging me into this. And now I gotta bury this girl on my own fucking land. My own house, Lonny.”

“I know.” Lonny was crying. “I know.”

“You’re a fucking spaz, Lonny. A dope.”

“But I didn’t have a choice,” Lonny said desperately. “You get locked up in a box like that for years and years, and then you get out and it’s like the box is still around you. Your family, your friends. You can’t move around, can’t stay where you are. Can’t make any money, but you can’t commit any more crimes either. It’s like you can’t hardly move in any direction. You know my brain’s all tangled up in the wires, John Carter, even the doctors at rehab said so themselves. You know how I get all strung up sometimes. She was trying to get out of the car – maybe it was something I said, I don’t know, but she didn’t want the ride anymore and I didn’t know why, she was freaking out, and I – it happened so fast, I couldn’t help it.”

It didn’t matter. Lonny had had the gun on him, that was enough – maybe the gun hadn’t been meant for that girl, but it hadn’t been meant for nothing, either. John didn’t know what kind of people Lonny was back to hanging around with these days, and he didn’t want to know. So much for Lonny’s parents. So much for rehab.

John felt dizzy in the head and angry and he couldn’t figure out why, but then he did figure out why. The girl was breathing, somehow, was breathing shallowly against his body.

He bent down into the dirt and set her back against a tree. There was a little blood coming out of her mouth. Her eyes were fluttering open. Brown.

“Aww…” Lonny’s mouth was frozen open like the mouth of someone too grief-stricken to cry. They both knew: the girl could not be allowed to survive, they would have no chance at living free lives if the girl survived. Lonny covered his mouth with his hand and stumbled away a couple of feet, then looked back. “Aww, Jesus…”

“Please,” the girl whispered. “Please, my father…”

“If she lives,” Lonny said, and then stopped — he seemed unable to talk without stopping. “I’ll go back for life this time, John Carter.”

The girl’s gaze was locked with John’s, her chest moving slightly. He said, “I know.”

“She can’t—”

“I know.”

He was still standing directly in front of the girl, looking down at her. He shifted for just a moment, moving toward her without knowing what he was about to do. “If,” he started, but he never got to finish, because just then Lonny fired the gun.

John stumbled back and for a moment was aware of nothing. He hadn’t been shot, but he didn’t know that at first. He wasn’t used to guns, hadn’t even thought about how Lonny might still have his on him, hadn’t known to be listening for it. His ears drummed, and beyond that it took him a moment to register the sight of the girl slumped completely motionless now against the tree, a fresh flower of red starting up in the soft cloth under her left shoulder. Off to the side, Lonny was trembling.

John’s body acted before his mind did. His knees bent into the grass, and his eyes met the girl’s. He wanted to touch her, to let her know he was there with her, but he couldn’t move. Her gaze flitted around his face, casting for his eyes, his cheeks, his mouth, and a small sound escaped the back of her throat. He was reminded for an instant of a newborn in his arms, one small arm reaching up with tiny fingers and tiny fingernails, brushing his chin, his eyelashes, and in that instant he inhaled sharply and looked away, through the trees and toward his house, his house. When he looked back again a moment later, the girl’s eyes were closed, and her red chest was still.

He stood up. The woods around him were pale as the light came up through the trees.

“Go get a shovel from the garage and start digging,” he told Lonny. He was surprised at how firm his own voice sounded. “I’ll get the plywood out of my truck and start working on a box.”

“A box? For–” Lonny’s gaze shifted around, landed on the girl, the body. The gun was still a little jittery in his right hand, so he used his other hand try to steady it. “I don’t think you need to build a–”

“The shovel, Lonny.” He didn’t have the energy to speak sharply, but Lonny apparently got the message. He nodded and headed back through the woods toward the house, moving like an old man who’d forgotten how to walk.

John Carter waited with the girl for a minute. Her brown hair, her jeans and sweater, her eyes. Only now did he remember the empty coin purse in his pocket, and he took it out and stared at the mud-crusted thing for a moment, feeling what would have been softness, looking at what would have been a gleam. Then he laid the purse on the girl’s chest and straightened up and started back toward his car, where the hammers and nails and plywood were all there waiting for him.

Late the previous evening, he’d made a list. He already knew what he needed to buy: clippers and wire cutters and an axe, plaster and primer and caulk. The list was of things he needed to do. He was going to rip out all the old fiberglass and reinsulate the walls. Then he was going to rewire the electricity and replace every light bulb, even the ones that might still work. Anything that was true about the house currently was going to be gone. He’d repaint the walls and caulk everything himself, every window ledge, every doorframe, carefully. He’d tear up the rotting floors and lay down new ones for him to walk on, every day of his life. He’d go out one morning into the world and find new people he cared about, friends to confide in and a woman to love and a child to raise up and to teach about the world, and they’d fill up the empty shelves here with their own books, and he’d take pictures of all of them together, and over the years those pictures would be framed and would fill up these empty walls, one by one. And someday soon after he’d fixed everything up, he would clean up the tangled yard out front, he’d cut away the weeds that had been throttling the ground, he would free the grass at last and allow it to breathe. He’d buy seeds and grow vegetables here to season and to add to meals he would make from scratch himself. He had always wanted to learn how to cook, how to season things. He’d plant lavender and sunflowers to give to the people he loved, and tulips, and hibiscuses, and other plants and flowers he hadn’t even heard of yet. And the garden would die away in the winter, and he would be here, year after year after year, to wake it up again gently like a child in the morning and bring it back to life in the spring.

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